The Coachella Valley is a magnet for those who seek luxurious accommodations in the winter months. Snowbirds, hipsters and devotees of all things Midcentury Modern flock to sleek new hotels and second homes in pursuit of sun, spas and sports. Fine dining, however, is rarely at the top of anyone's checklist.
Bruno Lopez is the latest in a long line of chefs and restaurateurs who have attempted to change that. The towering former French marine from Paris is the force behind the dining venues at the Ritz-Carlton, Rancho Mirage, a solitary crop of low-lying contemporary buildings perched 650 feet above the valley. Opened in May, the luxury resort features the farm-to-table State Fare Bar & Kitchen and is expected to open the Edge this month. The restaurant's name is meant to be a double-entendre: It's located on the edge of the cliff, and it is culinarily edgy, serving appetizers such as charred sous-vide octopus and steaks dry-aged for up to 60 days.
The contemporary steakhouse, a glass-walled, 93-seat facility, opened in November with its own dry-aging room in the middle of the restaurant. The servers wear full-length aprons and silky cream-colored ties, and the airy, desert-taupe interior features white-on-white stacked tiles and shimmering handmade tablecloths.
Lopez, who has worked all over the world, talked to us about how a master French chef found himself in the Southern California desert, serving Akaushi Wagyu beef from Mt. Aso in the Japanese prefecture of Kumamoto to a crowd of diners that includes finicky locals and worldly travelers.
So how did you wind up in the middle of the Coachella desert?
I was born in a suburb of Paris and was an army brat. My dad was from Navarrenx near Bayonne close to the Basque [country], very famous for poule au pot [chicken in a pot] stuffed with chicken livers and Bayonne ham and Jurancon wine, and my mom is from Vierzon, close to Sancerre. I trained in Paris and Versailles, and spent military time in French Guiana. My first job in the U.S. was at Le Méridien hotel in San Francisco. I opened the Ritz-Carlton, Marina del Rey, moved to Dubai for a few years, then Half Moon Bay in Northern California, back to Los Angeles, then Toronto. I always wanted to be in California, so when the Rancho Mirage project was on the map and they asked me if I was interested, I didn't hesitate.
Rancho Mirage by way of San Francisco, L.A., Dubai and Toronto. How does the desert compare to, say, Toronto and Dubai?
I think we can compare Dubai and Toronto as both being great food cities, and Dubai and Rancho Mirage have very similar climates. Really, from what I've seen so far in Rancho Mirage and the Coachella Valley, it is a fun place to eat with great ingredients.
I used to come here from Los Angeles; I'd spend weekends here. Its dynamic has changed a lot. It used to be an old-timers' place. But it has developed and now attracts a younger generation. There are new types of businesses, new types of restaurants. It's very exciting to come back. There is a lot of new interest in food.
Who will be filling the seats at the Edge, and what do they expect?
There is the local customer, and there is the hotel guest who has an idea about the Ritz and is looking for an outstanding experience. It will be a destination for travelers, customers from L.A. and San Francisco here on pleasure travel. But also for the traveler from the East Coast, Midwest or Canada.
Here's the thing about a hotel restaurant. At other restaurants, if you don't like it, you don't come back. At a hotel you have to be able to please everyone because, guess what, they're staying here. If, in the middle of dinner, a guest wants an omelet, then you just have to do it.
At the Edge, there will be both creative, interesting dishes — veal tongue pastrami, maybe sweetbreads — but [also] a great, great steak with potato purée.
How do you create a "wow" experience?
By being able to create a new and memorable experience. Every dish has to have a story, a raison d'être. It could be a family recipe or a special product. Like the burger at State Fare — it's all about the beef [prime], the type of cheese [Fiscalini Hopscotch cheddar], the type of bun [pretzel bread]. Plus avocado fries.... It is its own story.
How are the local ingredients?
California is now at a stage very, very close to what I grew up with in France. The fresh cheese is similar to what we have in France. French chefs are actually always amazed by our produce and by our beef. California is the garden of all the states with vegetables all year. The Coachella Valley has lots of farms. The tomatoes remind me of what I had in my grandfather's home — tomato salad every day.
We're also using a raw wheat grown in California for the bread we're serving all day long in different shapes: a traditional baguette at breakfast, dinner rolls for lunch, sliced boule at dinner. It was a lot of experimenting, and we ended up cutting it with regular flour for the right texture.
What is the dry-aging room for, and why is it in the middle of the dining room?
It's basically going to keep our 21-day dry-aged cuts of steak as well as 35-day cuts and our 60-day Wagyu steak. It's there so that it's the main focus, because it is very, very unique to be able to showcase the meat. It tells our customers that we're very serious about dry age. It's not something just for show, but it will start conversations.
When I was in Toronto many, many restaurants had some cured meat room. You go to the restaurant and the dry-aging meat is hanging, the prosciutto is hanging, it's part of the story, just like the wine room in the dining room. I think we're not scared anymore to showcase our kitchen and showcase our product as well. It's OK to show a wonderful room of cheese or curing meat. In a small beautiful steakhouse we have a chance to explain unique cuts.
What unique cuts?
Bone-in petite filet mignon, the rib cap — one of the most flavorful. We'll be dry-aging, and there's wet-aged as well. A couple of cuts of [Akaushi] Wagyu. And the 60-day dry-aged cowboy steak.
What's planned for the holidays? And what will you be doing?
Lots of turkey, goose, duck, venison. And I will be working! For Christmas Eve and Christmas in the hotel, we're going to be extremely busy. That's typical. When I chose the profession, it's not a profession to make your family happy. But it's a very big deal to take care of guests and their families to make sure they're having a great time.