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An Insider’s Guide to California Culinary Hotspots and Foraging Delights

Chef Kevin O’Connor shares his favourite spots for foraging and eating across the Golden State

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No matter the venture, Chef Kevin O’Connor strives to find a real connection between the food he cooks and its source. O’Connor spent his childhood foraging in the Sierra Foothills, something that has strongly influenced his cuisine. An adventurist, O’Connor prefers an open fire to a stove and cooks from the heart showing respect for the ingredients and keeping flavours simple, clean and delicious.

O’Connor is hosting a unique dining experience in London on Jan. 28 as part of The Telegraph’s Supper Club Series, hosted by William Sitwell. Click here for more information or to secure your ticket to this event.

Read on to discover O’Connor’s favourite destinations and his recommendations for a 2020 culinary-focused adventure to the Golden State.

If you had to describe California in three words what would they be?

Opportunistic–California has the opportunity to lead the world in the realms of ideas in food, sustainability and preservation of our natural resources and attractions.

Bubbly–Upbeat personalities, life giving waters and of course, those bubbly craft beers and wines, what’s not to fall in love with?

Delicious–Some of the most delicious products on the planet are grown or produced here in California, from artisan cheese, sourdough bread and extra virgin olive oil to wine, beer, honey and year-round fresh produce.

Why do you think the state has such a thriving culinary scene and culture?

My initial thought is the close connection to the agricultural community. I can’t think of a chef, cook or foodie who doesn’t have some sort of connection to a farming experience, farmer or agriculture in their family. The general understanding of where food comes from has built this foundation. As a whole, Californians get excited by new ideas in food (and other arenas) and that mix of excitement has nurtured the growth of California’s culinary culture. There are so many forward-thinking farmers, ranchers, crafters and artisans in California so there really is no better showpiece for us to feed in to than a flourishing and established culinary scene.

We know you're a big fan of sourcing locally and love to forage and fish around the High Sierra. What kind of stuff do you find? Is this something visitors to the state can also get involved with?

The love of gathering stemmed from a love of being outside and all the bounty the outdoors had to offer as a kid. It started with basics like blackberries, watercress and stores of acorns for slingshot ammunition (which I later learned how to turn into flour). Getting involved is as easy as a bit of education before a hike. You’d be surprised how much delicious, nutrient rich stuff is growing right at our feet. In my neck of the woods there’s so much popping up year-round like nettles, a variety of berries, wild walnuts, elderberries and elderflowers, cress, greens, dandelion, radish, mustard, fennel and seaweeds etc. Once you learn how to recognise the basics, you’ll see them popping up all over the place in spots you once thought of as weed patches. Tapping into the world of wild mushrooms is a bit trickier, as it can be a bit dangerous; I’d suggest joining a class or guided walk, reading books, and a lot of practice. Taking a stroll with a group like Forage SF is a great start.

You've done some pretty cool road trips around California. Tell us about your favourite one—where did you go and how did you plan the route?

I’ve been up and down the entire state and I still keep discovering hidden gems and finding myself wanting to go to new areas I’ve yet to explore. One of my favourites was a road trip up the coast from Malibu to Sacramento, with stops in Big Sur and Sonoma County. I had the pleasure of hosting a Tasmanian chef and friend and had a really hard time fitting in all the spots I felt passionate about her seeing. I met my friend in Malibu to kick off with a post-surf beach breakfast which led to a happy hour back on the beach in Big Sur that evening. Picking out fresh shellfish, artisan cheeses and wines, we cooked our way up the coast and brought it all inland to finish with a dinner in the Cobram Estate olive groves in Central Valley. The next road trip I’m planning is from Sacramento, through wine country due north to the Redwoods, then cutting over to the coast to meander back down, stopping by some creameries before landing back in Sacramento.

Top 3 songs that have to be on your road trip playlist?

I’m a huge music geek and listen to a lot of genres, so this may be the hardest question to answer! If I’m driving the coast or in the Redwoods there’s a good chance there’s vintage reggae or surf rock playing. If I’m driving at night, it’s high-energy house music or punk rock. The rolling hills and farmland beg for some jazz, classic rock or soul. Top tracks include Don Carlos' "I’m Not Crazy," Queens of the Stone Age's "Make it Wit Chu," and Allah La’s "Catamaran."

Where do you recommend people eat when it's their first time in California? Tough question I know, given how big the state is, but maybe you can narrow it to your top five?

It’s nearly impossible for me to narrow it down to a handful of places to eat, as I have a hard time narrowing it down to a handful of eateries in my neighbourhood alone! So instead, I’ll offer a range of some of my favourite experiences instead.

Freestone Artisan Cheese / Wild Flour Bread—Practically a stone’s throw from each other, Freestone Artisan Cheese and Wild Flour Bread in Freestone are a must when I’m taking the long way home from the coast. At Freestone Artisan Cheese, you can taste a range of cheeses, local olive oils and vinegars, pack an epic picnic pack, and maybe even have a fresh crepe made for you by the passionate and hospitable shop owner. Just down the road is Wild Flour Bread, which is a bit of a hippie bakery offering amazing loaves and baked goods. A lot of what goes in to the baked goods is sourced from the garden on the property, which is also worth a self-guided tour. Don’t worry, it’s encouraged.

Hog Island Oyster Company—In Tomales Bay just north of San Francisco an oyster farm recently opened its doors to the public offering fresh oysters by the dozen and a small menu of locally sourced, coastal inspired food. Grab a bottle of some local grog, reserve a picnic bench and slow down for a bit.

Single Thread—In my eyes, this restaurant located in Healdsburg in Sonoma County best encompasses California’s vibe through an ambitious tasting menu and outstanding hospitality.

Sacramento—Of course, my home town makes the list. Known as the "Farm-to-Fork" Capital of the U.S, this city is often overlooked as a dining destination, but seasonal, close-to-the-earth cooking is in the blood of every cook in this area. Out of all the places I’ve cooked in the world, I’ve never experienced greater access to amazingly fresh product.

Guisados Tacos—You’d be hard pressed to find a bad taco in LA, but Guisados is one of my favourite bites on this planet. No frills, tortillas made to order and traditional, flavour packed meats, it’s a total win—especially with a cold Corona!

And what about those who have been a few times, any insiders’ tips?

I always encourage folks to visit our different wine regions. I grew up spending time in the wineries of the Sierra Foothills, which are actually home to some of California’s oldest vines. Amador Vintner’s 'Behind the Cellar Door' is a great event and well worth the trip. In addition to the foothills, I’m particularly fond of the North Coast wineries, from Sonoma County to Mendocino, and also the stunning beauty and variety that the Santa Lucia Highlands wineries offer.

One of my favourite day trips is a hike of Bodega Head, which just about anyone can do. There are sprawling views of the ocean, and I’ll often spot whales and dolphins. After Bodega Head I always head to Spud Point Crab Company for a chowder and fresh Dungeness crab. I’ve found myself encouraging everyone to head north and check out the northern coast – where redwoods meet the ocean. If you’re headed to the coast, there’s a chance you’ll be able to stop at Ernie’s Tin Bar, a very special place where I could spend a lot of time. One of the oldest bars in California, Ernie’s has a ‘no cell phone’ rule, an amazingly vast and cold selection of local brews, an eclectic crowd and sometimes you can score some fresh crab on a paper plate.

Wherever you end up in California, make sure you hit a local farmers’ market. You may be surprised with how many options you have given the city you’re visiting.

I nearly forgot to add The Barlow, located in the quaint town of Sebastopol in Sonoma County. The Barlow is 12 acres of foodie heaven housing restaurants, bakeries, wineries, breweries, coffee roasters, markets, and a distillery all within converted warehouse buildings that are walking distance from each other.

What is your favourite thing to do in your downtime?

I draw a lot of inspiration from the outdoors, so when I do have free time it’s generally an outdoor activity. Lately, kayaking has become one of my favourite pastimes. I’ll do anything from an hour-long session on the river near my house, all the way up to a few days of kayak camping on Tomales Bay—which involves a lot of beachcombing and cooking. I love tasting, exploring and expanding my palate with new wines, cheeses and spirits. Sensory analysis is something I geek out on and there’s never a shortage of new things to smell, taste and enjoy.

You've been to the UK a few times; how does the food scene compare? What do you like to do when you're in London?

Like California, the UK food landscape isn’t something that’s set in stone or being discovered, dusted off and re-fashioned—it’s continually evolving. Sure, the UK has deeper roots in its cuisine but there’s so much influence being woven into the scene and finding its place on the UK’s plate. Dipping into this melting pot is just as exciting to me as visiting the very old, very British establishments. One of my favourite days in London so far started with brunch at Black Axe Mangal, continuing to Borough market for oysters, cheese and pints before finishing up at The Quality Chop House. Apart from food, I’m a bit of an audiophile and really excited about London’s music scene. My perfect night would probably be two dinners followed by an amazing show. I think London is one of the best places to make that happen.

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