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Baptism of Fire

Aspiring chefs might not know they face years or chopping vegetables or scrubbing grills.

Roy's, 453 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach. (949) 640-7697.


A young woman I know, Megan Schuler, called me the other day. She was heading back to college soon, but before she went, she wanted to talk to me about restaurants.

"I think I'd like to be a chef," she said. "Maybe even open my own place. I'm not sure yet, but I think it sounds like fun."

"Does your mother know you're crazy?" I didn't say this, but I probably should have.

I also should have told her something a writing instructor said to a classroom full of aspiring Hemingways, myself included, when I was Megan's age. The first day of class, the teacher, whose name I have forgotten, read us a J.D. Salinger story, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." When he was finished he slowly stood up, looked around the room, and asked how many of us wanted to learn how to write a story that well.

Naive as newborn calves, we all raised our hands. The teacher nodded. "Now how many of you would like to be a trapeze artist in the circus?" he asked.

The room was silent. "I don't want to discourage you," said the middle-aged poet, "but it would be much easier for everyone in this class to end up walking the high-wire under the big top than for even one of you to ever write a short story this good. It is much more difficult than it looks. So think hard about whether you really want to do this or not."

About half the class failed to show up for our next meeting.

I don't think I'd ever say anything like that to Megan, but I might repeat that last line: Think hard before you do this. Then maybe I'd tell her about a recent dinner I had at Roy's of Newport Beach. I dined with Justin Baldwin, who owns a winery and restaurant in Paso Robles, and Randy Schoch, a businessman whose Scottsdale-based company runs three of the 15 Roy's, including the one in Fashion Island.

The food was extraordinary, and Justin, whom I first met six or seven years ago when he and his wife, Deborah, invited me to spend a couple of days at their little winery tucked away in the oak-studded hills near the Central coast, and I were very impressed by the creativity of the chef, Chris Garnier.

During dinner, I asked Justin how his wife and kids were doing and he said, "Great. We're building a house so we can finally move out of the caretaker's unit. I think the kids are tired of sleeping in the laundry room."

Now, I don't want to suggest that the Baldwins have it rough. Their 160-acre winery is gorgeous, as is the adjoining three-room Justin Inn where I spent a couple of nights in the sumptuous settings of the Tuscany room with frescoes on the walls and wood-burning fireplace. They've also recently opened a small restaurant on the property, Deborah's Room, where they serve a prix fixe menu designed around their wines and regional ingredients such as fresh fish from nearby Port San Luis and olallieberries from Cambria.

But the Baldwins, who were bankers once upon a time, invest every dime they make back into their vineyards and restaurant. Thus their two kids have grown up sleeping in a converted laundry room.

But I think Megan would have been more interested in meeting Roy's chef, Chris Garnier. Chris is only 28 but he's already been in the restaurant business for almost a decade.

"He was a busboy at the first Roy's in Honolulu," Randy Schoch told us, "but the kid really wanted to learn to cook, so Roy brought him into the kitchen and gave him a job cleaning grill hoods and washing dishes. That's how he started. He'd watch Roy and Gordon [Hopkins, Roy's corporate executive chef], and he'd ask a ton of questions, and finally Roy gave him a job chopping up vegetables for $6.75 an hour."

According to Randy, Chris was studying accounting at a community college in Honolulu at this time, but he was also working six days a week, so he began sleeping in his car to save time commuting.

"Roy would go out in the parking lot and wake Chris up, tell him it was time to go to school." Then Chris went to Guam to work as a line chef for Roy before being promoted to the chain's Seattle restaurant. That, according to Randy, was the first time Chris Garnier had ever been on the mainland.

"He's going to be a star chef someday," Schoch told us as we sampled one of Garnier's latest creations, a risotto of herb-seared calamari with squid ink and lobster butter. It was an audacious dish and reminded me of something else Schoch told me: That Chris, who plays the guitar, likes to think of himself as an up-and-coming culinary rock star.

"The other cooks in the kitchen are members of his band and the diners are his fans," Schoch said. He held up a forkful of the inky risotto. "And this is his music," he said.

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