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Picture your fantasy beach getaway: A sandy shoreline dotted with palms, dolphins playing in the surf and an orange-glow sunset framed by the Channel Islands.

That vision isn’t a vacation for Damien Giliberti. It’s his workplace. Giliberti is the executive chef at Ox & Ocean, the restaurant at Zachari Dunes on Mandalay Beach, a Curio Collection by Hilton hotel.

Located in Oxnard, midway between Malibu and Santa Barbara, the oceanfront resort and its restaurant are ideally situated for sunset watching, he says.

“We’re in the perfect spot. Oxnard is a west-facing city, and our property and beach face west. Right in front of our hotel is an epic place to watch the sun drop into the ocean behind the Channel Islands. I often watch the sun set from our restaurant, and holy moly, it’s so beautiful.”

The hub of a rich agricultural area, Oxnard may be better known for strawberry fields than sunsets, but the secret is getting out—especially since Zachari Dunes opened in October after a multi-million-dollar renovation. The Spanish hacienda-style resort features 250 suites, each with a full-sized living room and two full baths, plus tennis courts, a cabana-lined swimming pool, and delicious dining.

Giliberti, 39, created Ox & Ocean’s menu, which emphasizes locally harvested seafood, prime meats and produce grown in the fertile soil of the Oxnard Plain.

“We have amazing produce growing all around us, and there is so much we can do with it,” he says. “When I’m asked to describe my menu, I use the word ‘fun.’ I could also use the word ‘local,’ but that’s just part of the fun.”

Fun-focused food is a good match for Zachari Dunes, which is separated from the Pacific Ocean by a broad strip of sand. Guests at the resort spend their days boarding, surfing, swimming, and frolicking on the beach.

Ox & Ocean’s menu reflects that coastal-casual vibe, Giliberti says. “I want people to come as they are, and I want them to have a shared experience with their meal. Part of my concept is based on shared plates—people sharing food and sharing a social experience. That’s really special.

“I love watching people eat their meals and say, ‘Wow, that's so delicious. This is the best pork chop I ever had,’ or ‘This is the best milkshake I ever had.’ I love being creative and touching people's lives through my food.”

Giliberti’s love for cooking began at an early age. “When I was four-years-old, my family bought an Italian restaurant, and our apartment was attached to it. I basically lived in this Italian pizza place in New Jersey,” he says. “I started washing dishes at 12 and cooking on the line at 13, so I've always felt at home in the kitchen.”

In between shifts at Ox & Ocean, Giliberti indulges his secondary passion: surfing. He got hooked on the sport after moving to the California coast in 2012. “I needed something to do outside of work, so I tried surfing. I love it so much that I can't believe it took me so long to find it,” he says.

He won’t reveal his favorite surf breaks, but he’s happy to discuss Oxnard’s beaches. “I'm a big fan of the beaches from Rincon all the way down to Oxnard Shores. Oxnard’s coastline is still pristine and undiscovered. People don't know that Ventura County has an awesome coastline with a ton of sand, lots of dunes, and huge, practically empty beaches.”

If visitors grow weary of sand between their toes, Giliberti suggests they explore Channel Islands Harbor, which has sailboat charters, whale-watching tours, parasailing, and kayak and paddleboard rentals. It’s also home to the Channel Islands Maritime Museum. Exhibits include historic seascape paintings, scrimshaw, sailors’ tools and tiny, handcrafted ship models by master modeler Edward Marple.

Giliberti often visits downtown Ventura for its Saturday morning farmers’ market. “It’s a fantastic market right in front of the mission,” he says. “Downtown is always fun. It’s a really friendly area that has a lot for people to do.”

Between the San Buenaventura Mission and Plaza Park, visitors can stop by a half-dozen breweries and wander through shops selling apparel, antiques, and beachy home decor. Treasure-hunters can browse Copperfield’scollection of vintage typewriters and whimsical tchotchkes from yesteryear, or scan the shelves of Calico Cat Bookshop and Bank of Books.

“Almost everything in Ventura County is a hidden gem,” Giliberti says. “Oxnard has a lot to offer, and it’s an easy, awesome place to visit. If you’re in L.A., you can just drive-up Highway 1 through Malibu and take a little trip to Oxnard to watch an amazing sunset.”

FIVE MORE FAVORITES

Giliberti offers these recommendations for Oxnard and Ventura County visitors:

Bike trails: I’m a cyclist, and I’m a part of Chefs Cycle for No Kid Hungry, a nonprofit fundraising group that’s working to alleviate childhood hunger. My girlfriend and I like to ride together, and Ventura County has great bike paths. We’ll ride from Ventura to Ojai on the Ventura River Trail and the Ojai Valley Trail, or we’ll just ride the Ventura Beach Bike Path (the official name is Omer Rains Coastal Bike Trail). It goes along the coast at San Buenaventura State Beach, past the Ventura Pier and Surfers’ Point.

Pizza: I'm going to get in a lot of trouble for this because my dad owns a pizza place in New Jersey, where it's sacrilegious to put pineapple on your pizza. But I love getting a Hawaiian pizza at Tony’s Pizzaria in Ventura. There’s something about the combination of savory and sweet that is so well balanced. Their Hawaiian pizza comes with pineapple and ham, and I always add salami and pepperoni so it has all kinds of pork on it. I love to throw all the pork on there.

Tacos: There’s a delicious carniciera in East Oxnard called Hermanos Garcia. I'm a sucker for tacos or burritos made with chicharron verde or chicharron rojo (pork rinds in green or red sauce). This little grocery store makes it so well. My girlfriend and I also like Spencer Makenzie's. Their fried calamari tacos are pretty delicious, and their Caribbean Blaze is my go-to hot sauce. I have bottles of it at home.

Coffee: In Oxnard, I like to get coffee at Ragamuffin, which is a great local coffee roaster. My go-to drink is a cortado with almond milk or oat milk. It's basically a short latte, so it’s not drowning in milk. Some places call it a Gibraltar. Ventura has a lot of cool coffee shops too, like Beacon Coffee, Prospect Coffee, and Palermo Coffee. Palermo has great coffee and a gift shop in the back with cool knick-knacks and baby gifts.

Shopping: My girlfriend and I shop at The Collection at RiverPark in Oxnard. It’s great for an outdoor-mall-type experience. The Collection has a lot of cool brands like REI and Whole Foods. If people want to go outlet shopping, the Camarillo Premium Outlets are close by.

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