A consummate culinary professional, Chef Craig Strong turned heads when he parted ways with Montage in favor of a dining room to call his own. Relocating to downtown Laguna, I was excited to check out his new concept, Ocean at Main. Steps from the city’s main beach, Strong took time out of his schedule to catch us up on (almost) all things restaurant related.
Transitioning from a resort restaurant to one that operates independently, What has been the biggest change in responsibility?
The initial hiring process was a big hurdle. When interviewing potential team members, Dylan Cloughen (our general manager) and I looked for one important quality: nice. We looked for people who were inherently kind, with a welcoming spirit and excitement for life– Luckily, we found them. Passionate and nice is how I describe the team of Ocean at Main.
You value customer service as much as (probably more so) than I do. What is your definition of excellent customer service?
To anticipate the needs of our guests so much that it delights all the senses.
Intermezzo is not only a fun word to say, but it’s something Ocean at Main offers. For those not familiar, could you elaborate when that is and what’s offered during that timeframe?
Intermezzo is offered daily from 3-5 p.m. and caters to the bustling Laguna Beach lifestyle where people walk around town all throughout the day. During this time, they can pop in for a drink at our bar or enjoy light bites and wood-fired pizzas.
The first time I dined there, you mentioned an area of the property you were excited to allocate for your staff. Could you please tell me more?
I have a place called the Ally Cafe with tables, blue umbrellas, and rope hanging herbs for my team to take a break. It is where a restaurant becomes a family.
When did brunch service start, and what are some of the specialties of the house?
We started brunch at the end of November. Our sunlit patio is covered by huge Tucci umbrellas, making it the perfect al fresco experience. The menu features brunch classics like five-spice pancakes, chilaquiles, steak & eggs, and Grand Marnier french toast, each presented with a twist through bold flavors and ingredients.
Tell me more about the patio. Can we book it for events?
With a peekaboo look at Main Beach and the sparking Pacific Ocean, coupled with the sounds of water trickling from the historic fountain, our patio is the perfect place to enjoy a canopy-covered, California lunch. The patio has 41 seats, and we’ve already hosted several private events in the space– including a lively New Year’s Eve celebration.
At your previous workplace, the garden was a valued resource. My colleagues wanted to know if you have a similar setup, and/or if you also garden at home?
While I don’t have the luxury of a garden here at Ocean at Main, I do at my home here in Laguna Beach. My wife and I tend to it (Honestly, it’s tended to mostly by her.), but I do enjoy the benefits of home-grown fruits, vegetables and herbs.
I was informed that you make a mean hot sauce. Tell me about it. What’s in it? And is it featured anywhere on your menu?
I have had a hot sauce that I love for years. What began as a hot sauce for family meal tacos has become the key ingredient of our chilaquiles at brunch– which are our #1 seller. It’s made with Habanero chiles, which give it an invigorating, yet balanced kick. It’s more about the flavor than heat.
Do you eat breakfast? If so, what’s your favorite to have/make?
I always have something for breakfast, and it changes from day to day with the exception of Saturday, which is when I make pancakes for my daughter. If it were up to her, she would have them every day. But my wife and I decided to make pancakes a Saturday morning special occasion.
How does a typical day (Let’s say Friday) play out for you?
At 6:30 a.m., I get up and get my daughter ready for kindergarten. I make her breakfast and pack a lunch before taking her to school at Top of the World Elementary. By 8 a.m., I’m heading to the gym for an hour. I head home and shower and breakfast (either a smoothie or egg sandwich/burrito).
By 10 a.m., I’m at the restaurant answering emails, prepping for lunch service, and reviewing the day’s agenda with my team. Every day, we serve family meal at 4 p.m.. By 4:30 p.m., we have our front-of-house lineup meeting to go over the dinner agenda. Dinner service begins at 5 p.m.. Once it does, I’m balancing my time between cooking and connecting with guests in the dining room until 11 p.m..
After dinner service, I head home to relax over a glass of wine or beer and 30 minutes of Sports Center before bed. The next day, I’m back at the restaurant for Saturday brunch at 10 a.m.
I heard that you like to go cycling. Where are some of your favorite places to bike?
I ride my mountain bike mostly in the Aliso Woods Canyon. I live in Arch Beach Heights, so the trails are right behind our home. Laguna Beach is a beautiful place with wonderful trails for riders of all levels.
Ocean at Main is located at 222 Ocean Ave., (949) 715-3870; www.oceanatmain.com.
A contributing writer for OC Weekly, Anne Marie freelances for multiple online and print publications, and guest judges for culinary competitions. A Bay Area transplant, she graduated with a degree in Hospitality Management from Cal Poly Pomona. Find her on Instagram as brekkiefan.