F&W Best New Chefs 2019: Matthew Kammerer of Harbor House Inn in Elk, California
It’s the salt you need to know about first. A taste so big and briny that to let a few flakes melt on your tongue is to feel sucked under a wave, tumbled about in the tide. Matt Kammerer makes it himself, hauling gallons of seawater up craggy Mendocino cliffs, letting it slowly evaporate until the stuff shatters like crystal. This salt is the foundation of everything at Harbor House Inn; it sets the stage not just in flavor but in ideology—each detail here, no matter how minute, shores up the sense of place. You are right here, in Elk, California, 150 miles up the North Coast from San Francisco through the redwoods, within earshot of the churning waters of Greenwood Cove, eating a meal that you will never forget.
Kammerer put in time at In De Wulf in Belgium and RyuGin in Tokyo (“They let me weigh the rice,” he remembers) before landing at Saison in San Francisco. He spent three years there under Joshua Skenes, keeping those three Michelin stars shining bright. But the opportunity to take over Harbor House Inn, a 1916 loggers’ retreat, eventually drew him north. Amanda, his partner, came with him, along with a few chefs similarly weary of city life. “This is a pristine landscape, with grasslands and streams everywhere,” says Kammerer as a cook walks by with a crate of yellowfoot mushrooms. “It’s our job to give people an experience that they can’t have anywhere else. I could order the same ingredients that everyone gets in San Francisco, but I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.” Instead, Kammerer and his crew built raised beds and made the land bloom with vegetables naturally seasoned with sea mist. They learned the rhythms of the cove, wading through tidal pools, gathering seaweed to be baked into bread, folded into butter. They took foggy hikes, found the best places to turn up those yellowfoots. And of course, they cooked.
Kammerer’s tasting menu is an astonishing testament to the collision of the finest product and the finest skill. Sweet sea urchin, cleaved from rocks a few hundred feet from where you sit, is perched over Harbor House hen egg custard, a chawanmushi by any another name. Albacore is smoked over chrysanthemum and seasoned with salted plum. Abalone is stewed with local wild rice—between bites, rest your chopsticks on a fragment of its own glittering shell.
Until the rest of the world finds out about Harbor House Inn, a meal here will likely be a quiet affair. You might end your night like we did, dancing in the dim light of the fire, the taste of salt and marigold petals on our lips, no one around to judge this display of pure, guileless pleasure.
This here is magic. Now you know.