The ocean has always been a big part of Bernard Ibarra's life.
"I grew up in Basque Country on the border of Spain and France. My uncles were professional fishermen, and they would go for months at sea and come back with a boat full of catches from Africa. For me, it was always a delight to wait for them on the harbor and really be in tune with the sea."
These days, he is the executive chef at the oceanfront Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, where he oversees the hotel's eight dining venues, including its flagship mar'sel, a name which combines the Spanish word for "sea" and the French word for "salt." Even though Ibarra is far from Basque Country these days, he's still at home: Terranea's 102 acres feature ragged cliffs overlooking the aqua-blue Pacific Ocean.
Executive Chef Bernard Ibarra | Photo: Courtesy of Terranea Resort
"The setting of Terranea is very similar to where I grew up," Ibarra says. Being raised close to the ocean, as well as near orchards, farms and cows made Ibarra sensitive to growing cycles and conscious of nature. He often spent time in the kitchen with his parents, both seasoned cooks. "My upbringing really is responsible for me being a chef. The first 12 years of my life really had a big impact on the way I look at food," he explains.
Throughout his career, at places like the Four Seasons Vancouver, Shangri-La in Singapore, Arnaud's in New Orleans and the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong, Ibarra has always used fresh, seasonal and local ingredients.
It's been no different at Terranea. Ibarra started a garden and makes an effort to use produce grown locally, like fresh olives for olive oil or curing. He even uses wild plants found on Terranea's property in his cooking: saltbush, whose leaves absorb the salty air; lemonade seeds, which have a distinct citrusy flavor; and wild sage.
A couple months after arriving at Terranea in 2013, Ibarra sat looking out at the ocean, and a memory came to him: "I remembered that my mom would take seawater in the summer and make salt so we would have salt for the winter." So he decided to make a batch of his own sea salt (get the recipe below) by collecting water from the ocean and letting it evaporate under lamps in the kitchen, and shared it with Terri Haack, the president of Terranea. She loved it.
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This eventually led to last year's construction of the sea salt conservatory, a small greenhouse-like structure with different-sized evaporating trays, where Ibarra and his staff produce up to 50 pounds of salt in a month. They smoke some of the salt, as well as make infusions with local ingredients like Meyer lemons and rosemary). Terranea's spa uses the salt in its scrub treatments; the salt is also for sale in the resort's coffee shop and market.
Most importantly Ibarra incorporates it in many of the dishes at the resort's restaurants. Ibarra's favorite use is as a finishing salt on grilled meats, allowing the salt to shine. He also uses it as seasoning for many vegetable dishes like the fingerling potatoes served with Jerez vinegar. The salt is even featured in several pastries and desserts, like the tiramisu and the salted caramel ganache that tops the pumpkin crémeux.
Photo: Courtesy of Terranea Resort
So what makes this salt so special, aside from its freshness? Ibarra and his staff collect the seawater from kelp beds, which Ibarra believes impart a special flavor, about 20 yards from the shore. According to the lab that analyzes their salt, it's very rich in minerals like potassium, iron and magnesium, while being very low in sodium.
"Our salt really has a clean taste, yet it has those minerals," Ibarra says. "It has a backbone of flavor that you don't find in other salt."
Recipe: How to Make Sea Salt
At Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, executive chef Bernard Ibarra produces sea salt from ocean water he collects off the shore of the Pacific Ocean, which Terranea overlooks. If you find yourself near a clean beach, making your own sea salt is just a few steps away. Make sure to choose an unpolluted beach; Abalone Cove at Terranea has a 97-point grade (equivalent to an A+) from Heal the Bay, which focuses on making Southern California's water safe and clean.
Yield: 1½ pounds of salt
1. Collect clean ocean water from the seashore in a 5-gallon bucket.
2. Pour the seawater into sanitized ceramic containers.
3. Place the containers over a light heat source where they can remain undisturbed for the entire evaporation process.
4. Allow all the water to evaporate, about 3 to 4 weeks, depending on weather conditions.
5. Once the water has evaporated, collect the salt flakes from the containers and place them on a tray in a thin layer.
6. Let sit until perfectly dry, about 2 days.
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