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ALL ABOUT FOOD:Organic commitment

Scott and Janet Cortellessa were scared. They were losing sleep, and when they did manage to doze off, La Sirena nightmares danced in their heads.

This heroic young couple are the owners of La Sirena and they had just made an enormous commitment to the use of sustainable agricultural products in their two Laguna Beach restaurants and the two new ones they will be opening in Irvine and Manhattan Beach.

Their involvement in environmental sustainability and organic food in their personal lives began with the birth of their three children. Making the world a healthier and better place for their kids became an important part of their lives.

When they opened the first La Sirena, they were already focused on quality and freshness; everything was made from scratch, and they used no trans fats or lard.

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They took another step in this direction about a year ago by changing over to biodegradable and recyclable paper products and packaging. But what they really wanted to do was switch over to sustainable foodstuffs, organic and natural, from independent family farms.

They began to go to natural foods expos and shows and explored options with their regular suppliers. At first, they were shell-shocked by the prices, which were two and three times higher; but they were swept up by the excitement and enthusiasm of the people in the industry.

They were in the process of developing a full service restaurant in Manhattan Beach where they felt they could charge a little more without making a noticeable impact. At the same time, they were working on opening another branch of La Sirena in Irvine.

After much deliberation and a lot of uncertainty, they decided to back up their beliefs with action and make all of their restaurants “green.”

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Janet says that at that point they thought, “If anybody takes the risk, it might as well be us.”

Once they had made this decision, however, they found it was not so easy to find distributors for the products they wanted. Now that they were going to be buying for four restaurants, a small boutique farm couldn’t consistently supply the quantity that they would need.

It has taken them nearly a year to put all the pieces together and they are still looking for sustainably raised shrimp and other fish as well as organic cabbage.

A couple of months ago they took the plunge. They raised their prices about 10% or so and the food is better than ever. They are getting Rocky free-range chicken breasts and organic thighs from Petaluma poultry. These chickens are fed a vegetarian diet without the use of antibiotics or hormones, but best of all: the product is only two days old when delivered to La Sirena. That’s as fresh as chicken gets!

Their beef comes from Niman Ranch and its independent family farms that use traditional humane, sustainable methods to raise their livestock. They also preserve the integrity of the land and the water around it. These animals are never given growth-promoting hormones or antibiotics and they are fed the finest of natural feeds.

So fine, in fact, that when Janet and Scott went for a tour of the ranch, Bill Niman took a handful of the feed and ate it himself, saying, “I would never feed my animals anything I wouldn’t eat myself.”

They have taken shrimp and albacore off their menu and are using only sustainable seafood as recommended by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program. They have switched to wild salmon and will be offering different varieties of fish, depending on quality and availability.

Even with the hike in prices, Janet says, “Where else in town can you get wild salmon for less than $12 a portion?”

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They are also using natural pork, organic mixed greens and organic milk.

Janet and Scott are very excited about the fact that they have just recently found a distributor who will provide them with organic cheese and sour cream from Organic Valley Family of Farms, which they expect to be serving in the restaurants next month.

It is too soon to evaluate the results of these changes. They have had some resistance from customers about the new prices, especially from the high school kids who frequent the downtown location; but they have also gotten a lot of support. Many customers are enthusiastic about this adventurous new program. Janet says that the locals have been great.

“If it can work anywhere, it would be Laguna. We can make a difference and our customers can make a difference.”

What does all this mean for the customers? Besides feeling good about eating healthier food and doing something beneficial for the environment, we will also be enjoying the best food La Sirena has ever made.

Their cuisine has always been fresh and tasty, in our opinion the best Mexican food in Laguna, but it’s even better now. We recently had our favorite chicken salad for lunch and the chicken was plumper and juicier and the portion more generous than any chicken salad in town.

The same is true for the carne asada tacos. Rather than filling you up with double tortillas and a little bit of meat, theirs are mostly meat. They do cost a little more but you get more for your money in every way.

The Cortellessas have been sleeping better these days but they still have a lot on their plate. The Irvine location is about to open and the Manhattan Beach restaurant will be ready for business at the end of the summer.

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We applaud their commitment and courage and hope this will turn out to be a win-win situation for everyone. Wouldn’t it be great if it started a trend?


  • ELLE HARROW AND TERRY MARKOWITZ owned A La Carte for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at themarkos755@yahoo.com

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