Creative License

By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

Photo by T Christian Gapen


e’ve got it so good here. Miles of coastline, acres of rich farmland, hillside vineyards and a mass of human talent ready to spin the fat of the land (and the sea) into edible gold. Ventura County’s culinary excellence is lauded far and wide, as much a part of our cultural identity as surfboards and the San Buenaventura Mission.

The challenge here isn’t in finding good food or talented people to prepare it — we’ve got all that in spades. The trick for professionals catering to local foodies is finding something with which to distinguish themselves. Indeed, food trends are often about standing out from the herd. Think about what molecular gastronomy did for chefs like Wylie Dufresne and Grant Achatz, or how Magnus Nilsson and Marcus Samuelsson made Nordic cuisine all the rage a few years ago.

Farm-to-fork is pretty much the standard here in Ventura County, and (thankfully) that’s not going away any time soon. But clever chefs, vintners, brewers and other food industry professionals are still branching out, finding creative ways to express themselves and bring something original to the table.

Case in point: Topa Mountain Winery. Alongside the Syrah, grenache and “Super-Tuscan” varietals (cabernet, merlot, sangiovese) that have become de rigueur for today’s winemakers, there are some outliers. You’d be hard pressed to find picpoul, carménère and touriga nacional outside of Topa Mountain’s vineyards, but vintner Lauro Guerra has discovered that these varietals are uniquely suited to Ojai’s particular soil and climate, taking on its terroir in new and interesting ways. Topa Mountain is staking its reputation on these unfamiliar grapes, and helping the local wine industry evolve in the process.

Another set of innovators are Shawn and Candace Orr of Tifa Chocolate and Gelato. This dynamic sibling duo came back from Europe full of inspiration and a pioneering spirit, and launched Tifa with little more than a do-it-yourself attitude and a dream. Their handmade gourmet chocolates walk on the wild side: Blue cheese, beer, wasabi and herbs are just some of the more unusual ingredients the Orrs add to the mix. It’s still chocolate, of course (an easy sell on any day), but their unconventional flavor profiles are changing the idea of what sweets can and should be.

These folks aren’t reinventing the wheel; they’re just tweaking the design a little bit, and taking some creative license with what’s already available. The results are often surprising and delicious. Our parents always told us it was impolite to play with our food. Lucky for us, some enterprising epicures outgrew that notion. 


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