The 2019 Best New Chef harvests local seaweed to use in his kelp stock, sea lettuce salt, kelp vinegar, and more.
Slender and agile in knee-high boots, Matthew Kammerer scrambled over slippery green mounds, sloshing his way toward surf line pools. It was July—peak seaweed season in Mendocino, California—and this beach in the tiny town of Elk was full of the stuff: ribbons of nori, mop-head sea palms, fanned fucus branches, pom-poms of purple dulse. Feather boa kelp lay as if dropped from mermaids’ shoulders. Kombu stalks waved with the tide.
Kammerer, 30, is the chef at Elk’s Harbor House Inn. (In April, he was announced as a 2019 F&W Best New Chef.) With his harvesting license, he can take 10 pounds of seaweed a day, pruning above the plants’ rootlike holdfasts so that they can regenerate. He steeps kombu in purified water for his universal kelp stock, used in everything from grilled abalone to garden vegetables—“it makes everything taste more like what it is,” he says. He sun-dries sea lettuce and grinds it with salt. He bakes seaweed-and-seed bars for a sweet, crunchy welcome for overnight guests. And he oftentimes braises this morning’s quarry, wakame, to make a leafy green staple with a noodle-like bite that bolsters stews and salads.
The ocean’s “weeds” are the most elemental of the elemental ingredients in the kaiseki-influenced cooking that Kammerer, former executive sous chef of San Francisco’s Saison, executes at the destination inn. Summertime yields the cove’s vermilion rockfish, kelp-cured and tucked amid a kelp-vinegar gelée with wild radish flowers; grilled Swiss chard stems in bonito, local olive oil, and chard leaf broth; Muscovy duck and wild rice, both raised nearby. All of it is presented on neighboring potters’ ceramics and with knives forged down the street.
Autumn will bring beef from the cattle grazing across the street and mushrooms Kammerer forages from forests that meet the sea. His is a hyper-local endeavor, an exquisitely wrought, edible paean to a coastline that has seen its share of man-made disasters—wildfires, invasive species, rising seas—but whose natural beauty is so keen that you hunger for it long after your visit.
Where to Stay:
An elegantly restored Arts and Crafts beauty, Harbor House Inn has rooms and cottages that face hummingbird-filled gardens spilling down the cliffside from the patio to a private cove. (Rooms from $355, dinner from $150; theharborhouseinn.com)