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Fall Seminar - The Informed Home Gardener
Shop Our Garden Marketplace at The Informed Gardener Fall Seminar
Meet the Marine Room's Ron Oliver

2011 Master Gardener Calendar - Coming in October
The Cool-Season Vegetable Garden: Peas
Plant tests bring "Arboretum All-Stars" to Home Gardeners
An "All-Stars" Experience: Learning about Natives by Trial-and-Error
The Bagrada bug: A new pest in San Diego County
Easy-care scented geraniums fill the garden with fragrance and beauty

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Meet the Marine Room's Ron Oliver

By Kathy Jones

Ron Oliver Ron Oliver is well known for his achievements in the culinary world. As the chef de cuisine at La Jolla’s acclaimed Marine Room restaurant, Oliver creates memorable meals, drawing inspiration from his world travels and the finest fresh, locally grown ingredients. Says Oliver, “My goal is to either give people a new experience or a new variation on something already familiar, but still keep the dishes approachable enough to be enjoyed often.” That approach has propelled the Marine Room to eight wins as Best Restaurant in San Diego.

Last year Oliver added author to his list of accomplishments, with the publication of the cookbook “Flying Pans,” written with Marine Room Chef Bernard Guillas. It has been honored as Cookbook of the Year by the San Diego Book Awards Association and was a finalist at Book Expo America in Manhattan. (It can be purchased at www.twochefsoneworld.com.)

Attendees at the Master Gardener Fall Seminar, “The Informed Home Gardener,” have the opportunity to learn from Oliver as he shows how to turn home-grown produce into simple but sophisticated fare for family and friends. For more information, on his class and the seminar, click here.

What is not as well known is Oliver’s passion for food and nutrition literacy among school children. He has been active in fostering school gardening programs in Chula Vista, where he lives with his wife Isabelle and their two daughters. “I try to teach today’s children that the Earth will take care of us so long as we take care of it,” he says.

I was lucky enough to get a few minutes of this busy chef’s time after Chef Ron made a presentation to educators and parents at the 11th Annual Gardening with Class School Garden & Nutrition Conference sponsored by the San Diego Master Gardeners in April.

Q: Tell us a little about you, your interest in home-grown food, and how you connected with MGs.
A: I connected with the MGs after I got a school garden going at my daughter’s school. After my daughter won a school raffle where the prize was a big basket of junk food, I wrote a letter to the school principal, asking what we could do to have better choices there. It took 6 years to build a school garden, and now the MGs are involved. It has finally been planted this year.

Q: How did you get into cooking?
A: Everything in my family revolved around the kitchen. As a small child, all activity was there, so that’s where I wanted to be. It engaged all my senses. At 13, I was preparing seven course dinners for my parents’ friends. I started traveling after high school, discovering new cuisines, and have enjoyed using them in the restaurant.

Q: What did you stress in your school gardens presentation?
A: How to utilize ingredients that you grow in your own school garden. I also talked about planting the garden strategically for cooking, like putting marigolds with tomatoes to help keep the bugs away.

Q: Are you advocating growing your own veggies or how to purchase good nutrition?
A: Both. Be self-reliant; be able to determine yourself what is good nutrition. If you don’t grow food, you’re at the mercy of the grocery store. This is very important for kids, and a good school lesson. You produce food through trial and error; it’s not an automatic given that it shows up on the plate.

Q: What role do professional chefs play in nutrition?
A: The customer has a big influence on what is sold in the restaurant in terms of menu choices, but the chef can decide to buy goods that are sustainable, good for the environment. There is definitely encouragement to offer healthier food. Chefs need to understand that we have buying power just because of the volume of food that we buy as a group across the nation. If we demand organic and sustainable goods, then that is what the farmers will need to provide. Then with the volume of these goods increasing, the prices will come down, making them more accessible for every day use. Sustainable means locally grown, using agricultural processes that don’t ruin the environment or deplete the soil. We need to eat organic for the health and repletion of the earth itself. Legislation plays a role too; banned transfats, for example.

Q: How about you personally at home?
A: We grow a lot of veggies and fruits. It’s important to grow them and use them. Preserve the abundance. I’ll be talking about how to preserve food at the Fall Seminar, and using items that you grow in the garden to make creative dishes, like rose hip jam and pickled nasturtium pods. We send our kids out in the garden to pick herbs, and they are learning composting.

Q: Your new cookbook co-authored with Bernard Guillas seems to reflect your interest and respect for the Earth.
A: We wanted to feature cultural food, and rediscover rural values in terms of producing food. In the U.S. we’ve gotten away from this for convenience’s sake. Our zoning laws offer no mix of commercial and residential, so you don’t really have agriculture and shopping within a residential area, unlike in other countries, where it’s all together.

In Europe, people walk to the market. We could improve things by developing with mixed uses in urban settings. We’ve gotten away from food production and supply integrated into daily life. In other places, most people are thinking about getting, planning food all day long. With us, we’re so busy with work and other things that it becomes an afterthought, and something that needs to be provided quickly.

Media brainwashes us to believe that the kitchen is somewhere you don’t want to be, with “meals in 30 minutes, etc.” My cause is to counteract that. The kitchen is the best place to be.

Q: How do you see that happening with families where everyone works?
A: We should want to spend the hour in the kitchen. On the weekend, plan things around the kitchen with your kids. Cook as a family. Don’t buy into the idea that we don’t want to be in the kitchen. Here is my personal website, with recipes that families can use and share, www.chefronoliver.com

I’d also like to say how much I appreciate what the Master Gardeners do—they are ambassadors for all the things that I care about in terms of nutrition. Everyone talks about what a disaster cafeteria food is, but what students are bringing from home for lunch is sometimes even worse. Anyone helping to educate the public on good food and gardening practices is making a difference.

Bernard Guillas & Ron Oliver

- Kathy Jones, Ph.D., is a retired professor in exercise and wellness. A San Diego Master Gardener for 7 years, she is also a graphic artist and copy writer for local clubs and businesses. She is past president of the Mission Hills Garden Club and the Mission Hills Town Council. She has spent the last six years renovating her own 100-year-old garden to incorporate more drought-tolerant plants.