by Emily Inwood
photos by Brendan McGuigan
Does being “local” mean having been born and raised in a place, or at least having spent the majority of one’s life there? How does that sort of sometimes-taken-for-granted intimacy compare with the feelings of connection that newer residents feel to this area, especially when it is the very novelty of the place that inspires newcomers to discover and create within their new environs in ways that immediately entwine them with the location’s rhythms and wildness? These questions come to mind when speaking with the new chef at Harbor House Inn in Elk. Here is a man, in fact a team of people, who have embraced what it means to be local by throwing themselves into a lifestyle dedicated to not only learning about their environment and how to reap its bounty, but to sharing their worldly knowledge about products, technique, timing, precision, and sustainability as they relate to our raw and wild surroundings on the rural coast of California.
In January of 2018, chef Matthew Kammerer and a small team including his partner, Amanda Nemec, who serves as the general manager, moved to Elk from the San Francisco Bay Area. They spent the next four months building the landscape of the garden—including raised beds, gravel paths, and terracing—as well as refining the interior appointments of the newly renovated inn perched on the bluffs, in preparation for what has quickly become a celebrated and successful chapter for the historic establishment. Right away, both the pleasures (stunning beauty, wild bounty, slow pace) and the challenges (gophers, deer, erosion) became a part of life for the crew, but their commitment to living close to the elements of nature keeps them flexible, creative, and in communion with the location itself.
Though relatively new to California, Matthew has always been drawn to the ocean. As a child on the New Jersey shore, he went to the beach every day, rain or shine, and at a young age was eating wild seafood like raw clams on the half shell, oysters, steamers, and sushi. One of his earliest memories was having a lobster cookout at his house, where they spread newspaper out on the table and just cracked away. As he grew older, he realized that lobster was a delicacy to most and appreciated having been able to get the shellfish from The Lusty Lobster for “dirt cheap.”
Matthew chose to attend culinary school at Johnson and Wales after having worked in a restaurant for only four months. “I never thought about being a chef until I was 17 or 18, but I always had this weird curiosity in food that I’d never addressed.” Address it he did, gaining experience in restaurants in Boston, Australia, Japan, Belgium, and, most recently, for three years at Saison in San Francisco, where he eventually became executive sous chef. Notably, his experiences in Australia taught him about small scale, local sourcing, and sustainability; and his experience in Japan taught him about precision, delicate treatment of seafood, and highlighting simplicity—values and skills that easily translate to life in Mendocino County.
Matthew’s team is dedicated to acquiring exceptional products, mostly from the immediacy of the three-acre property which includes a private cove—a “second garden” —where daily buckets of seawater are gathered to make sea salt and weekly harvests of seaweed are collected and processed. The upper gardens are a sprawling and ever-evolving delight of pineapple sage, chard, chamomile, fava beans, potatoes, pink pearl apples, fennel, kiwi, artichokes, horseradish, lettuces, lemons, and kumquats, to name a few. An apple tree with grafts of seven varieties, strawberry spinach, pink lemonade blueberries, and a Szechuan peppercorn tree are among the more unusual plants growing there. They serve as a botanical example, as does the eucalyptus grove on the southern boundary, of successfully introducing newcomers to the established locale.
Matthew’s team also gleans from small farms, fishermen, apiaries, and mushroom hunters, all from within the Westport-Ukiah-Gualala triangle. Local residents work at the inn and restaurant, and an array of ceramics in coastal hues, shapes, and textures are supplied by local artists. Always wanting to support the community and develop relationships, Matthew offers, “If you’re doing something unique and you’re local and you have a great product, we want to know about it. We want the weird stuff.”
Locals, who make up about twenty percent of the clientele, have been impressed and inspired by what Matthew does with the familiar products they’ve seen for years. For example, albacore tuna from Princess Seafood is aged for four or five days in a cedar box, then smoked over aromatic dried calendula flowers from their garden and served with salted plums from one of the server’s backyard trees. The reaction is often, “I can identify this as albacore tuna, but I’ve never had it like this. I usually just can it.” He is introducing new treatments, processes, and pairings to products around which people who have lived here for years have developed predictable habits.
Matthew believes one of his biggest challenges is to show modern society how to change their notion of luxury. “What is luxury? Is luxury caviar? Or is luxury eating a tomato that’s been picked off the vine a minute or two before you eat it?” In order to offer guests fresh sea salt, mushrooms from local ridges, or fish that were swimming in the ocean this very morning, his team are working around the clock. Matthew thinks true luxury is being able to enjoy something that you can’t easily get anywhere else, which is inextricable with the notion of locality. Visitors from urban areas who compare their experience at Harbor House Inn, the first restaurant in Mendocino County to receive a Michelin star, to other restaurants of equal caliber, comment about what a value it is to experience such fine and simple elegance.
Mendocino has long been a haven for artists and crafts-people who are drawn to the muse-like nature of the area, and it seems Matthew has been inspired by it as well. Dining at the Harbor House is like being immersed in fine art. Each course is a brush stroke of sensual surprise and delight framed by well-timed and careful attention from the staff; a view of the gardens, craggy bluffs, and ocean beyond; appealing soul music in the background; and the classic grace of the building itself. The tasting menu, offered in a flat seating on Thursdays through Mondays, is composed of 8-13 courses, with an optional beverage-pairing.
Sea essences abound, as with translucent and shimmering halibut, cured on kelp, joined by a small knob of horseradish and espelette—an alluringly piquant appetizer—or with equally enticing Spot prawns served with perfectly ripe sungold tomatoes in their basil and sea-salted bouillon, with cress to accentuate the brightness. The nuanced flavors of smoke from different varieties of trees in the area impart many of the dishes, such as grilled zucchini custard topped with trout roe, charred leek, egg yolk, and chive blossoms—a deep treasure of a dish with intense richness and texture.
Flavors and textures aside, each element is precisely executed with intuitive timing, which leaves the diner wanting for nothing. The serving staff includes the chefs at times: as courses ebb and flow, so does the remarkable choreography of service, accentuated by such details as hot towels offered to warm the hands and the presentation of a choice of sake vessels from a handsome wooden box. Each dish is described articulately and simply, as the serving utensils and dishes for each course are arranged or removed. With the crusty, chewy seaweed sourdough, two varieties of cultured butter are offered atop a smooth river stone. The lamb leg smoked over cypress is accompanied by steak knives forged by a local craftsman. The fragrant yerba buena, pine, and marigold tea includes an evergreen sprig dipper for the grilled honey, which tastes of caramelized sunlight.
Desserts tend to be only lightly sweet, with unusual flavors such as hedgehog mushroom cookies and wakame ice cream. French wines, which tend to be high in minerality and acid, work well with the flavors and textures of Harbor House, but several local wines appear on the menu as well as beer, sake, and cider. Thoughtfully paired, the beverages are beautiful on their own, but they burst, expand, and deepen when accompanied by the flavors of the food. It is the willingness to introduce flavors from foreign yet similar climes—to tap into all that the world has to offer while still honoring the spirit and style of the community and environment—that adds a pioneering spirit to Matthew’s version of locality and broadens our belief systems about what it means to belong to a place.
The dining experience is intended to make guests feel “good and satiated; nourished, but not overly full,” reminiscent of the Okinawan phrase hara hachi bu, which teaches people to stop eating before they are completely full through a practice of eating slowly, using small vessels, and focusing on the food. Indeed, though there are many courses, the food is light, the pace is luxurious, and each serving is just enough to fully savor without over-indulgence. It is just that sort of experience that Matthew wants to share with the world, enlightening people with the wonder and simplicity that nature has to offer, while making minimal impact. Of sustainability, one of the pillars of his ethical vision, Matthew says, “We try not to waste anything at all.” When he speaks of the offal dipping sauce, made of abalone innards mixed with seaweed and served alongside the rest of the abalone; or of the pleasing flavor of chard blossoms when prepared with curious attention; or of the fish heads buried under the tomato plants; or of the chickens, who will eventually provide fertilizer for the gardens in addition to the fresh eggs they already offer daily, Matthew illustrates a way of living with nature in which we don’t take more than we can use, and we use what we take—an important concept for our world today, regardless of locale.
Harbor House Inn
5600 Highway 1, Elk | (707) 877-3203 | theharborhouseinn.com
Emily has called the Mendocino coast home since 1983. She loves to hunt for mushrooms, make pies, and run around outside.