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The Chef Behind the "C"

Locally grown chef Nic Manocchio puts Ventura County's culinary resources to work.

By Maxine Hurt

Chef Nic Manocchio trains the next generation, his son, Braden. Photo by Julia Varga.

 

t the entrance to C-Street restaurant in Ventura, there's a banner announcing executive chef Nic Manocchio as the county's "other" top chef. Nic's friends like to rib him about the comparison to Moorpark's Fabio Viviani, whose appearance on the hit TV show Top Chef made him something of a celebrity. But when it comes to food, there isn't much to joke about. C-Street, with its farm-fresh California cuisine and oceanfront location (inside the Crowne Plaza Ventura Beach hotel), has quietly become one of Ventura County's best places to eat. Anywhere else in the state, you'd have to line up to get a table at a locally inspired seaside restaurant like this.

We caught up with the Camarillo-born chef between shopping trips to Ojai for lavender, Santa Paula for avocadoes, and Ventura for honey.

When did you realize that cooking would be a central part of your life?

When I was fifteen, I got a job as a dishwasher—I thought I was getting a job as a busboy, but they threw me in the kitchen to wash dishes for about a year. As I was washing pots and pans, I'd watch the cooks and think, 'That is something I'd like to do.' Also, growing up with my grandmother's and mother's cooking. My grandmother was Italian, and part of my mother's family was from San Jose, Costa Rica. Her arroz con pollo was one of my favorites. I would help in the kitchen a little, peeling green beans and corn. My grandmother, who lived with us, had a garden in the back. I remember her fresh sauces and pastas.

What do you enjoy most about being a chef?

I think it's the creativity. And there is never a dull moment. It's like no other industry I can think of. I like the day-to-day. It doesn't get boring, that's for sure. ... You never know what's going to happen: deliveries could be late, you could forget to order something, a steamer could go down, your oven could go down. It's stressful, but pretty much any profession would be stressful. I feel that if you don't love what you do, it'll eat you up.

How does growing up and living in Ventura County affect your cooking style?

Growing up with the freshness of the produce here inspires me to make fresh salsas, cold soups, melon soups, and other items that aren't coming from Mexico, being cooked early, or gassed. I think the freshness of the ingredients has really affected my cooking.

How does the current menu reflect Ventura County?

I use ingredients like Ojai Olive Oil and Rincon Tuna, and buy from local farms including Scarborough and Underwood. We have Limoneira-Calavo down in Santa Paula. I mean, you could throw a rock and hit a farm. I work with a couple of different produce companies that consolidated, and I now direct buy from Santa Barbara Chocolate Company.

You've been known to reel in your own seafood a stone's throw from the restaurant.

I actually fish off the pier right here [outside the restaurant]. Growing up, my buddies and I used to come here around midnight and go fishing. We'd also fish out at the Channel Islands with Cisco's Sportfishing.

What do you usually catch in this area?

Sea bass, halibut ... and you can always catch rockfish. You just drop your line in and reel up in five minutes and you have a fish. They are good eats, though. Fry it up with some tartar sauce and you can't go wrong. ... My wife always outfishes me. I say it must be Asian luck.

Tell us about the program you are doing with the Salvation Army.

About a month ago I talked with Captain Bill at the Salvation Army. I went in there and looked at their facilities. I spent about an hour, and he gave me a tour. Then we came up with this experimental project: [Until July 31] you can come into C-Street, Sunday through Thursday from 5 p.m. to close, and buy any entrée—and we will donate a meal to the Salvation Army. I believe they house ten families, and then they have nine extra rooms strictly for women. They also have pick-up lunches for the homeless. One interesting thing Captain Bill said was that with the recession, they are seeing more whole families coming there. It used to be battered women and kids from broken homes; now they are seeing the mom, the dad, and the kids.

What's cooking at C-Street this summer?

We are doing summer barbecues out here on the lanai from 1-3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, depending on the weather. Then we do a monthly special, usually a three-course meal paired with wine. ... And maybe a luau and Limoncello dinner in the future.

Locals can go to C-Street on a postcard-perfect weekend afternoon—oceanfront, great food—and there's almost never a wait. Why do you think this is? (And do we really want it to change?)

I think we are still finding our niche; the restaurant has been open for a little over two years. A lot of people still don't know we are here. But when they come, they come back. It's also the fact that it's a hotel restaurant. We are trying to reposition ourselves as a stand-alone restaurant within a hotel. We have our main entrance off the promenade, across from Aloha Steakhouse. People don't realize how easy it is to come in and out.

What's your vision for C-Street?

It's kind of a Catch-22: I want to have the reservations; I want to have the waiting list. But then again, I want people who eat here to come in at their leisure. This is my baby. It's the first restaurant I've opened—I want to see it boom. I'll take the hour-long wait and the reservations every night. Truthfully, that's what I'd like to see.

07-01-2009

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