The first in a series celebrating Orange County chefs as they garden, grill, and entertain in their own backyards
| Photos by Brett Hillyard
Most of us are cooking, grilling, and eating at home much more than we were a year ago, with admittedly mixed results. Those with the requisite palate, skill, and experience post magazine-quality photos of delicious homemade gourmet dishes daily (we see you Moira, Adrienne, Jamie, and others). The rest of us are Insta-envious.
Oh, to have such a chef at home. For aesthetic and culinary inspiration, Blue Door Magazine is paying socially-distanced and masked visits to Orange County chefs and restaurateurs at their homes and in their yards.
This issue, photographer Brett Hillyard stopped by the North Tustin backyard of Max Schlutz and Mona Shah, as Max prepared a feast of grilled vegetables and delicious appetizers for Mona, her twins Lara and Lennon, and their son, Asher.
MAX’S GRILLING TIP #1
Always start with the best ingredients you can afford/find/source. If you start with seasonal produce, you know that it is going to be at its peak freshness, and that means you don’t have to do too much for it to be flavorful. Look to your local farmers market—and that way you’re also supporting your local economy! Oftentimes, farmers markets will also offer naturally- and humanely-raised meats. Free-range, antibiotic-free, hormone-free will always taste better.
Max is the affable chef-partner of Sessions West Coast Deli. With locations in Newport Beach (the peninsula and Fashion Island, Irvine, and Huntington Beach), Sessions offers cutting-edge sandwiches, salads, and sauces, along with breakfast, craft beer, and other delicious treats.
Mona is the founder and owner of Moxxe PR. She specializes in promoting independent, chef-driven restaurants in Orange County, and has been doing so for more than two decades.
MAX’S GRILLING TIP #2
Never underestimate the power of salt and pepper! If you are spending the time and money to source local and highly marbled and delicious ingredients, let their true flavors shine. Often, intense sauces and rubs can confuse your palate. I’m a big fan of intensifying your product’s natural flavors with salt and pepper. Some nice finishing salts really do go a long way…
Here are some pro tricks, tips and insider advice to rocking the backyard life, chef-style, courtesy of Mona and Max:
“We recently downsized to a house with half the indoor space—and with three kids it could make things difficult. An outdoor area that is comfortable and usable has been the key to our family’s happiness!”
“This year, when we were faced with the mandate to stay at home, we discovered outdoor dining and now, it is vital to our daily life! We never knew how significant outdoor dining would be—it allows us to feel like we’re getting out of the house and being able to breathe in fresh air and soak in Vitamin D is good for our souls.”
MAX’S GRILLING TIP #3
Too often, cooks like to fuss with their various proteins on the grill; as if to say, “If I’m not constantly moving and flipping the meats, then I’m not barbecuing.” The opposite is where the magic happens. Let your product cook through. Let the grates sear and intensify the natural flavors and impart even more complexity into your steaks, chickens, etc. Those grill marks mean flavor, but you can’t achieve them if you are constantly fussing with the product.
MAX’S GRILLING TIP #4
Don’t worry about “burning” your vegetables—many veggies can be intentionally charred to bring out a new depth of flavor that’s smoky and savory. Onions, tomatoes, and chilies, when charred, can be combined or blended to create a wonderful salsa!
“Over the past few months, we’ve really made our space our own. We usually sit grill-side on a concrete counter that has a nice fire pit feature. When we have a special meal, we sit at a low-to-the-ground dining table that we made out of an old door. The kids have a decent- sized grass area to run around on so they don’t feel confined for the entire meal—and we are ok with that!”
“The thing about outdoor dining is that there’s always this sense of adventure as we experience new foods and cuisines. Everyone in the family has unique palates, but the one thing we have in common is that we are adventurous! The kids will try anything that Max makes when they are outdoors, including dishes they wouldn’t touch if served to them in the house.”
Sessions West Coast Deli has been fortunate to have been better prepared than many restaurants at the onset of the pandemic, and in the months since. The restaurants were already focused on take-out business with to-go packaging, and had arrangements with all the major delivery services. All Sessons beach locations have a large grab & go-to-the-beach clientele, and the inland locations feature mostly outdoor seating.