Art You Can Eat
Cast & Plow’s Umit Kaygusuz creates dishes fit for a gallery
By Jessica Koslow
“Cooking is an art, but you eat it too,” Italian cookbook writer Marcella Hazan once said.
That’s what makes it, perhaps, the finest art of all.
Nestled in the curves of Admiralty Way, it can be easy to miss Cast & Plow at The Ritz-Carlton, Marina del Rey. But there, around the grand winding driveway and straight back through the front doors of the luxury hotel, executive chef Umit Kaygusuz cooks and plates dishes so artistic they could be on display at a museum or hanging in a gallery. His culinary masterpieces are colorful and emphasize seasonal flavors: spice-rubbed duck with plum salad, for example, or an avocado toast with grilled corn, cotija cheese and pea tendrils.
The son of architects, Kaygusuz was bred with a flair for presentation and even studied architecture for two years before shifting into the culinary arts.
“I grew up in a family always looking at things from a different perspective — not seeing a building as a building, or a yacht as a yacht, or a lawn as a lawn,” he says. “Whatever you do — the way you dress, the way you put pots and pans together in your home, how you arrange your office — affects the way you look at things.
Kaygusuz draws from international influences in equal measure. His father is Turkish, his mother is Dutch South African, and he’s worked in kitchens around the world: Dubai, Singapore, London, New York City and Cape Town, to name a few.
From street food in Asia to spices from Africa to whatever’s fresh at Santa Monica’s Wednesday farmers market, Kaygusuz mixes it all up to create dishes that make jaws drop and mouths drool.
What inspires you?
I am inspired by the colors of the different seasons. I focus on the fresh and what is around us: water, the beautiful colors when the sun sets here on our patio. … You get nice tones of cantaloupe, with red, blue and tones of yellow. It affects the way you look at the food. We’re always surrounded by this beauty.
Wherever I go, I’m influenced by my surroundings, the local culture, their habits. I was in New York, and it’s fast-moving, hip, the eclectic cuisine from Brooklyn. When I was in Singapore, there was a different look of the city. Here we are very lucky to have beautiful weather. There are not many seasons, so we get beautiful tomatoes all year. It’s a gift. You can’t get that anywhere else.
With cooking, is it possible to run out of ideas?
How many different ethnic groups, cultures are there? Pick a tiny little influence from any culture and you get into learning that thing, and that adds flavors and cooking methods into your dishes. The possibilities are endless. It’s more about catching up — constantly updating yourself and getting new ideas, and traveling and seeing the world and what is happening out there.
What dishes are so popular that you keep bringing them back?
We put a different version of the avocado toast on the menu every summer. This season we have wheat sourdough buttered toast with lime avocado puree, and we finish it with a North African spice — hazelnuts, coconut, coriander and cumin — sea salt, grilled corn, cotija cheese and pea tendrils.
Quinoa is very trendy at the moment … an interesting seed that’s very difficult to cook. It doesn’t have much flavor, but it’s rich in vitamins and beneficial for the human body. But you need to make it tasty. We cook it with several vinegars, oil and garlic. The seeds soak in the flavors. We sauté it with those ingredients and with spinach and whatever’s at the market — cauliflower, baby carrots, turnip, radish — and top it with Spanish Marcona almonds from Northern California and some sprouts from the farmers market.
Are the chefs you work with influenced by you?
When it comes to other chefs, they naturally pick up your sense of seeing things. I’m not a typical fine-dining chef. I’m more of a chef who believes in natural cooking, natural ingredients, not much chemicals, natural flavors, seasonal flavors: How can we get that natural look on plate without using artificial garnishes?
Do you love nature and being outside, like hiking?
When it comes to outside, I’m more of a traveler — me and my wife. We like to go and discover new places. We go overseas six to seven times a year. We enjoy the little markets in Europe, undiscovered spots in New York, places in Asia with indigenous flavors where people rarely go.
When you eat out, do you find yourself judging the presentation of the food?
When I eat out, I don’t look at the artistic part. I don’t expect everyone to be artistic. It’s something that I do. I look for the texture of the dish, the flavor combinations and seasonality.
When I travel, I would rather eat where the locals eat. I want to eat what the restaurant is good at — like one simple lobster dish they’ve been doing for the last 50 years, and it’s perfect. I prefer, especially when I go to Asia, to eat street food. You get the best food from the street.
Is Cast & Plow your favorite among the places you’ve worked so far?
Every single place is different, and a different way of looking at things adds to your career. Here, the combination of lifestyle and work is very well-balanced. I have enjoyed it here more than any other place I’ve been. That’s why I’m here longer than any other place I’ve lived: six years.
Cast & Plow 4375 Admiralty Way, Marina del Rey (310) 574-4333 ritzcarlton.com