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Sea to surface: the Californian chef bringing algae to fine dining

Justin Cogley likes to go on coastal runs near his home in Carmel. Not only do they keep him fit, but also give him the chance to forage for some rather unusual ingredients

Words Josh Sims

On the surface, Justin Cogley – head chef at Aubergine, the restaurant at L’Auberge Carmel in Carmel-By-The-Sea – might strike European ears as a preachy Californian type, always keen to talk fitness. For sure, his fitness level is impressive: Iron Man-impressive; a gentle 16 mile run or leisurely 100-mile cycle punctuates his weekends.

“I wasn’t fit at all and I just got this pass to enter the Big Sur marathon just a few weeks later,” says Cogley. “Everybody told me I couldn’t do it, but of course, if someone says that… After all, historically chefs haven’t been very healthy people.”

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Cogley came to his career in the kitchen relatively late, in his mid-20s, after four years touring the globe as a professional ice dancer. Had you been in the right place and time to admire that balletic prince in a Disney On Ice show, you’d have also been looking at the future double nominee for the James Beard Foundation Best Chef and Outstanding Service awards. Not to mention a recipient of the Forbes Travel Guide’s highest, five-star rating.

“I think starting late with cooking helped,” says Cogley, 39, who deferred a place at a culinary school to take to the ice. Upon graduation he worked his way up to become chef de cuisine at Charlie Trotter’s Elysian Hotel in Chicago for four years, before relocating to Carmel in 2010.

“I travelled a lot when I was an ice skater and got to experience various culinary scenes around the world. I ate all I could, spending my money on Michelin-starred lunches rather than going to clubs. And when I couldn’t eat out I just sat in hotel lobbies and watched the service. Besides, if I’d have started cooking at 16 I don’t think I’d been able to take in all of those 18-hour days. In figure skating, you get used to being on your feet all day.”

JC 2018 Gfest
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Still, out of the heat of the kitchen, Cogley’s own lifestyle seems idyllic. Aside from all that outdoorsy activity, he forages locally, especially for whatever the sea can offer. He’s big on crab, salmon and squid, but also sea-grapes, sea lettuce, mermaid’s hair, seaweeds and other algae: a potentially transformative foodstuff in which he’s something of a pioneer.

“Guests really enjoy it as it’s something they most likely haven’t had before,” says the man who launched Rediscovering Coastal Cuisine, an event for which he invites chefs to collaborate on a 12-course tasting menu that explores California’s coastal biodiversity. “But I think, with the way the world is going [in terms of food pressures and growing populations], seaweed and algae will now always have a place on menus.”

He says he likes the discipline of working with seafood, despite the care it needs. “You can cook meat a little over or a little under and it doesn’t really matter, but do that with seafood and it’s ruined: that can be tricky to work with.”

‘Guests really enjoy it as it’s something they most likely have not had before’

JC GF

However, there is one problem: persuading customers to sample the more out-there fruits of the sea. But if anyone can persuade them it’s Cogley. As his marathon running testifies, he’s not one to give up easily.