Fishing for Karma

When it comes to locavorism, Ventura chef Tim Kilcoyne is the county’s chief advocate, with one surprising exception—seafood from the oil-tarnished South.

By Sally Ogle Davis

Chef Tim Kilcoyne is known for celebrating local ingredients at his SideCar Restaurant, located inside an antique train car on Main Street, Ventura.


eafood is making a comeback after the catastrophic BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico all but destroyed that region’s once-thriving seafood industry. Thousands of miles from those polluted waters, Ventura chef Tim Kilcoyne, of the SideCar Restaurant, has been recruited to join the growing army of top-flight chefs who are doing what they can to help make Gulf seafood welcome once again in the hearts, minds, and stomachs of millions of seafood lovers.

Take the recent Sunset Magazine “Savor The Central Coast” event, attended by some 7,000 foodies from California and other states. Kilcoyne, 32, the only Ventura County chef invited to take part in the mammoth party, drove up to the Santa Margarita Ranch just north of San Luis Obispo, and over one weekend—surrounded by some of the greatest wineries, restaurateurs, and farmers of Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo counties—served Gulf shrimp combined with produce from Ventura County to delighted participants. Tim poached the shrimp in a citrus bath of local lemons, limes, and oranges, and served the delicacy with a spicy tomato marmalade and cucumber sauce.

In spite of BP’s environmental debacle, though, quality seafood is still being harvested, as Kilcoyne proved at a recent culinary event where he opted to showcase Gulf shrimp.

Sponsored by the prestigious Monterey Aquarium (and aided and abetted by his fiancée, Lisa McCune), Kilcoyne did his bit to allay seafood fans’ fear of the post-BP product. “It was an honor to be asked to do this by the internationally known aquarium, which publishes a West Coast sustainable seafood guide,” says Kilcoyne.

The aquarium’s Seafood Watch guides divide the seafood of U.S. coastal regions into color-coded sections: green for best choices, orange for good alternatives, and red for products to avoid. “There’s certain shrimp coming out of the Gulf that’s on the green list,” noted Kilcoyne, “and we felt it was important to support those fisherman.”

“Savor the Central Coast” attracted some 7,000 foodies and, for one weekend in October, drew the eyes of the food world to California.

The irony here is that Kilcoyne has built a reputation as a promoter of locally grown produce, meat, and seafood. A member of the Slow Food movement, he believes passionately that local is best. But he’s made an exception for the Gulf because he feels strongly that the region needs support.

But Kilcoyne makes it clear his primary mission is to promote the truly wonderful things grown in his hometown. “At the Sunset event, it was amazing,” he notes. “Many of those tasting at our food stand said they were surprised that Ventura has such an abundance.”

Shrimp boats have taken on a secondary role as oil cleanup vessels in the Gulf of Mexico.

Kilcoyne says that not long ago Ventura was a meat and potatoes place. “But there’s been a dramatic change in our eating habits. We now provide a wonderful assortment of food that is every bit as good as that provided in some of the best eating places in Los Angeles or Santa Barbara. We’re blessed by having fresh farm food, and now a growing local wine industry.” Top-grade producers who supply food to his SideCar restaurant include farms such as Underwood, McGrath Family Farms, Petty Ranch, Weiser, Rio Gozo, Watkins Cattle Ranch, Fife’s Family Farm, Ha’s Apple Farm, and Limoneira. A recent visit to the restaurant saw us quaffing a killer blackberry mojito, which Tim pointed out was made possible by Ojai’s Old Creek Winery dropping off 800 pounds of berries on his doorstep. “He won’t charge me for them,” Tim explains, “but I then turn them into jams, pancake syrup, cocktails, and lots of other things. He’ll then take half the jars of jam and syrups and I’ll sell the rest.”

Local growers find Tim a natural ally. He grew up on a farm in the Antelope Valley and knew from an early age that food was his thing. “We had one local French/American restaurant in town, and I went in at 14 and asked them to put me to work. I bussed tables, washed dishes, and peeled the veggies.”

Kilcoyne sticks to sustainable seafood such as wild salmon, seen here (with fiddlehead ferns) atop creamed morel mushrooms and English peas from McGrath Family Farms.

That early training led to an internship at the Playboy Mansion in Beverly Hills. (“It was the perfect place for a young chef,“ he says with a straight face.) From there Tim went to Melisse, a three-Michelin-star French restaurant in Santa Monica, where he began his romance with farmers markets and the idea that food should be fresh and local.

He brought that passion to his own restaurant after his parents, who had retired to Ventura to live on a boat, gave up their idea of a hot dog stand in favor of reviving an old train car located on Main Street. “They brought me to see it,” Tim says of the property, which had been boarded up for two years, “and that was it.”

Locally grown baby carrots and English peas work into a risotto, which serves as a base for seared scallops.

One thing he was determined to do with his new venture was to take the intimidation factor out of fine dining. “I didn’t want anyone to feel frightened by rolling in off the beach and straight into dinner,” he explains. “We have white tablecloths but we serve cheese sandwiches and jazz on Tuesday nights, burgers with martinis on Thursdays.”

And now Tim has a new venture in Ventura. The Local Café at 1751 Main Street, once home to Cooke’s Smokehouse, will serve sandwiches on fresh baked bread, pizzas baked on local citrus and avocado wood, fresh salads, and mouthwatering desserts, not to mention his own fresh preserves, ketchup, and other homemade condiments. The new café will open in November—and the best part is that everything on the menu will be under 10 dollars.


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