If there’s one thing that chef Fernando Darin is most excited about right now, it’s pizza. Since recently taking over the kitchen at Ray’s restaurant at LACMA, the chef admits he’s been a bit preoccupied with its wood-burning oven. “I’ve been working the pizza station in the restaurant for months already, and everyday, I’m learning a new things about the wood fire, about the dough, and the humidity in the kitchen, and how the dough rises,” he says with audible enthusiasm.
Perhaps there’s a bit of nostalgia at play here, since Darin, who grew up in the country side of Southern Brazil (which has a diverse population that includes German, Portuguese, and other European-descended enclaves) has vivid childhood memories of watching his Italian grandmother working culinary magic in her own wood-burning oven. “I don’t recall my grandma being outside of the kitchen ever,” he says. And while at first he resented the hours he was forced to spend assisting her, stirring polenta or tending to other tedious kitchen tasks, eventually he began to appreciate the work and the simplicity of his grandmother’s approach to cooking.
“She always had access to very, very fresh ingredients, and she had this little garden in her backyard where we got all the salads, all the herbs. You know, the chickens were right there,” says Darin.
Darin comes to Ray’s after a long run as executive chef at Hollywood Bowl’s Wine Bar. Since moving to L.A. to attend culinary school in 2007, he’s worked under some of the city’s most respected culinary stars, including Eric Greenspan and Michael Voltaggio. “I was really lucky to work with the chefs I’ve worked with,” he says, citing Voltaggio’s “amazing discipline” and Greenspan’s “high standards.” He describes Patina founder Joachim Splichal as “an absolute idol and badass chef.”
Now that he’s at the helm at Ray’s, he aims to meld the techniques he’s learned in esteemed professional kitchens with the core culinary instincts he developed as a kid. Like his grandmother, the restaurant also has its own on-site garden where Darin is able to source many of the fresh ingredients he’s working with for dishes like his Black Kale Grapefuit Salad and Black Sea Bass served with spinach vichyssoise and asparagus. “I’ve been eating like this for awhile, so I try to bring that approach to Ray’s,” he says. He’s also enjoyed adding his own spin to Ray’s signature items, like the pizza dough that he’s been experimenting with.
The restaurant’s setting, smack dab in the middle of an art museum, has also been an inspiration for Darin. His artful plating utilizes flowers and color to keep things interesting. “We have all these amazing artists that come and eat at Ray’s, like everyday we have painters and musicians, so the food has to be interesting enough for them to come back,” he says, adding that he plates the way he feels.
And what are the challenges of coming into an established kitchen, like Ray’s, which has been operating for five years? Darin says that building a team to bring his vision to the plate has been a major part of the transition, and he feels really lucky to have a diverse staff that he can bounce his ideas off of and rely on to help bring the cuisine to its full potential. “We have this multi-cultural kitchen right now. We have so many people talking in different languages—we have Italian, we have Filipino, we have Brazilian, Spanish, Mexican,” says Darin. “Oh my god, there’s so many, and the result that’s coming out is very, very good. I couldn’t be happier.”
Following in the footsteps of the chefs before him is definitely daunting, too, but he’s relishing the opportunity. “Kris Morningstar did a great job here. He made this restaurant exciting and famous,” Darin says, adding that he hopes to make the restaurant as great and continue to build on the legacy. And as much as he is enthused about the pizzas, if there’s one thing that he hopes will flourish under his tenor at Ray’s, it’s the vegetable dishes, which he regards as “the future” of the culinary world and his own cuisine.
“I think something really special is about to happen at Ray’s,” he says.