You’d never guess from the incredible dishes he turns out at FIG, but Chef Ray Garcia once had his sights set on a career with the FBI. Having earned a degree in poli sci and econ at UCLA, he was about to enter law school when he made the life-changing decision to enroll at the California School of Culinary Arts instead. After working with Thomas Keller (The French Laundry) and Douglas Keane (Cyrus), he’s become a rising star in the culinary world. Now his eyes peer at bushels of fresh produce as he surveys this season’s bounty and calculates how to incorporate organic gems into ­­­­­­ever-changing dishes. We caught up with him at LA Times’ The Taste to ask about sustainable practices, comfort food and what any guy can make for a date…

If you’re feeling a little adventurous, you can get a BBQ and make some lamb ribs. They’re very versatile and you can show off by being a little gourmet but still have an easy finger food.

You were originally going to school to become a lawyer. What made you decide to become a chef instead?
That was the original plan. I went to UCLA to get a couple of degrees. My goal was to be in the FBI. All through school I worked in restaurants to pay the bills and it was flexible. They just sucked me in. I started with the front of the house and realized that I was loving food more and more. So, I took a year off before going to law school and took a culinary course. I fell in love with it and never looked back.

No more FBI agent dreams?
Nope, no more FBI. I get my adrenaline in other ways.

At your restaurant, FIG, the emphasis is on fresh, seasonal ingredients, organically grown and locally sourced. What are your favorite fall ingredients?
I start thinking about the holidays and using ingredients, like cranberries, that are usually stripped down to nothing and only served with turkey. That’s a fun thing you get in the fall; a nice acidic, bitter pop in a cranberry. I like chestnuts too, which are under utilized. You see them roasted by an open fire, but that’s about it. Try shaving them over salads—they add texture and a nice nutty flavor.

If only this salad were more colorful. Photo: John Sellars

We know you’ve been very involved in the local community. What inspired you to start gardening with kids?
I grew up in an area that wasn’t the most accessible for healthy food. Someone at the Farmer’s Market asked me to come talk to the teachers at a local school where they wanted to add a garden. I started the conversation about having healthier food options in schools. One of the biggest successes we had was that we were able to upload the message to their family. They’d take a couple of tomatoes home and their mom or brother would taste it too. I remember one 17-year-old who had never tasted a tomato and said he hated it. Then he tried one and loved it. Just that one thing… if I can get a kid to eat a tomato… then I’m happy. I think the big goal we accomplished was talking to the district and shedding some light on the topic. Now they’ve invested in some master gardeners to run the program as opposed to just a stubborn chef who isn’t very good at growing vegetables.

What dish do you recommend for a tailgating party?
If you’re feeling a little adventurous, you can get a BBQ and make some lamb ribs. They’re very versatile and you can show off by being a little gourmet but still have an easy finger food.

What’s a simple dish a guy can make for his date if he doesn’t have much culinary experience?
Roasted chicken. Add some salt, pepper and herbs. Roast until it’s done (about an hour and a half), but it depends on your oven and how big your chicken is.

Garcia stirs up some (presumably sustainable) magic at The Taste. Photo: John Sellars

What is your favorite comfort food?
Tamales. I like them more in the fall and winter when I want something hot and steaming. Tamales signal Christmas and family for me. I like the pork and green chile ones.