Almost as far back as he can remember, Ben Spungin's life has revolved around food. He has no sweet story about cooking with his grandmother or growing up on a farm. In those early days, there was no romance, just chores.
"My father owned a sandwich shop in downtown Durham, North Carolina," he explains. "From like six on, I was taking out trash and wiping down the tables." And with all that work at the shop, meals for the family were often an afterthought. "There were a lot of opening cans for dinner when I was young," he says.
So it's ironic that the kid who grew up on convenience foods not only became a professional chef but chose to focus his talents on some of the most challenging things to master in the kitchen: breads, pastries and desserts.
"I saw that baking could be a more artistic approach to cooking," Spungin recalls. "Learning how to make cakes and pies and those down-home cooking items was something that I fell in love with."
After a stint at The French Laundry in the late 1990s, Spungin landed a job as the pastry chef at Big Sur's famed Post Ranch Inn. And even though he's since moved on to his own baked goods operation, Alta Bakery and Cafe in downtown Monterey, he and his wife still live on that iconic strip of California coast. "Big Sur is our community," he says, and the region has a major impact on his cooking.
"This area is just so amazing in regards to the farmers you meet and the produce that's available," explains Spungin. The same artichokes and strawberries that get trucked up to the best restaurants in San Francisco and Wine Country are right at Alta's doorstep. And that doorstep? It's one of the oldest in town: the Cooper Molera Adobe.
When Cooper Molera's complex was completed in 1827, it contained within its walls two homes, a store, a warehouse, a barn, and tranquil gardens planted across its two-and-a-half acres. Today it is a National Historic Landmark with a museum and public garden.
When Spungin found that the property was looking to fill some of its structures with new businesses, he did a little research and made a serendipitous discovery: More than 100 years ago, a bakery called the Pioneer once stood on site. From there, everything kind of fell into place.
What exactly the Pioneer Bakery was like isn't well known, but its modern successor is bright and lofty with displays piled high with salmon croissants, ginger scones, and loaves of freshly baked sourdough and seeded rye. The cafe takes its coffee seriously and the garden herb mimosas even more so. Out back there are tables surrounded by bright flowers and native plants.
On the other side of the back patio, a new Spungin vehicle, Cella, will open in July inside what used to be an artichoke warehouse for a member of the Cooper Molera family.
"We want it to be the neighborhood restaurant," says the chef. "It's going to have a nice bar, a mahogany wood kind of look with copper top tables." The menu will include both comforting dishes like roasted chicken and burgers, as well as a raw section and lots of apps and sides.
Until then, Alta has its own version of comfort food: homemade pizzas that emerge from the oven around lunchtime alongside sandwiches, cookies and cakes. One of Spungin's spring favorites is made with braised lamb and nasturtium flower chimichurri.
"The lamb, you basically sear it in a pan until it caramelizes...then wrap it in aluminum foil and put it in the oven for two-and-a-half to three hours," Spungin explains. He then tops a pizza crust with shredded braised lamb, fresh pea tendrils and burrata, drizzles it with the nasturtium chimichurri, and pops it in the oven (regular chimichurri or fresh oregano or parsley can be substituted for the nasturtium version).
"The pea tendrils, when they come out of the oven, smell so amazing with the lamb," he gushes. "It's one of the most beautiful flavors and smells I've ever experienced."
If pizza isn't your bag, the braised lamb can be used in any number of other ways, says Spungin. "You could put it in pasta, you could make a tartine, or you could put it on a sandwich."
There are plenty of options for pairing, too. "I like pinot noir with the lamb but you could have a rose with this as well." If you're going the pizza route, a Scrimshaw pilsner, which is on tap at Alta, will really hit the spot.
While you're in Monterey...
While you're on the Monterey Peninsula, don't miss an excursion to Big Sur, the small coastal community that Alta Bakery chef Ben Spungin calls home. No matter how many times we traverse the iconic Bixby Bridge, the views (and the thrills!) never get old.
(Photo by Freddy Marschall on Unsplash)
The Monterey Peninsula is the third stop on our California Culinary Road Trip, a collaboration between 7x7 and The Spice Hunter. While you're in Monterey, visit the restaurants, museums, and sights recommended by 7x7 and Alta Bakery and Cafe's Ben Spungin.
Taste the best of the Monterey Peninsula. One of Spungin's favorite local spots is Stationaery in Carmel (San Carlos St, 3 NE of 6th Ave). "They have this really adorable spot and their food is just really amazing," he says. For small-batch cocktails, he recommends Pearl Hour (214 Lighthouse, Monterey). "There isn't anything like it around!" For fresh, sustainable seafood, Pacific Grove's Wild Fish (545 Lighthouse Ave, Pacific Grove) is an excellent option. You can't beat an Italian home-style meal at Monterey's Fish House (2114 Del Monte Ave, Monterey), which earned Michelin Plate recognition in 2019.
Get an underwater view at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. One of the most important ocean conservation institutions in North America, this world-class aquarium has more than 200 exhibits featuring everything from kelp forests to giant octopi to sea otters. After your visit, head to neighboring Pacific Grove and The Great Tidepool at Asilomar State Beach to get a look at sea stars, urchins, and anemones in their native habitat.
Ride the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail, which follows the route of the now defunct Southern Pacific Railroad line from Pacific Grove to Castroville. You can bring your own bike but renting an e-bike from Big Sur Adventures near the aquarium makes the ride all the more enjoyable, says Spungin. Iconic 17-mile Drive is another epic biking option just a couple miles from Monterey.
Visit Big Sur. "I always tell everyone they have to go down to Big Sur," says Spungin, who's lived in the coastal community since 2000. It doesn't matter how many times you've visited, a drive over the Bixby Creek Bridge or a visit to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is always worth the trip.
Embrace the kitsch at Cannery Row and Fisherman's Monterey Wharf. There's always fun to be had in Monterey's carnival-like bayside boardwalk and old wooden pier. Afterwards, grab a beer at the Dust Bowl Brewing Company's beer garden across from the wharf.
Recipe: Make Ben Spungin's Braised Lamb Shoulder at Home
Alta Bakery's braised lamb shoulder makes for a versatile protein. Use it in a sandwich or tartine, as a topping on pizza, or enjoy it alone as a meaty entree.
1 boneless lamb shoulder
1 onion, sliced
2 fennel bulbs, sliced
8 carrots, sliced into 2" rounds
1/2 bunch celery, cut into 2" pieces
1/2 bunch fresh thyme
1 tbsp ground coriander (The Spice Hunter)
2 tbsp ground cumin (The Spice Hunter)
2 tbsp chili flakes (The Spice Hunter)
1 bottle red table wine
1 quart chicken stock
3 cups veal stack or dark beef stock
Salt and pepper to taste
Season lamb liberally with salt and fresh ground pepper. In a large rondeau, sear the lamb shoulder on high heat until deeply caramelized, 6-8 mins on either side. Don't be timid!
Remove lamb and some of the rendered fat and set aside. Lower heat to medium. Sweat aromatic vegetables, herbs, and spices until onions are translucent.
Add both stocks. Bring to a boil then turn off heat. Return lamb to the pan then carefully cover with aluminum foil and place into a 300 degree oven for 2.5 hours.
Remove and cool to room temperature. Shred the lamb into bite-sized pieces.
To try your hand at Alta's lamb and pea tendril pizza, top a store-bought or homemade pizza crust with shredded lamb, burrata, and fresh pea tendrils then drizzle with chimichurri or sprinkle with fresh oregano or parsley.
// Alta Bakery and Cafe is open daily or indoor and outdoor dining plus takeout; 502 Munras Ave (Monterey), altamonterey.com.
Thank you to our partners at The Spice Hunter.
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Look for the fourth stop on our California Culinary Road Trip this summer: On June 14th, we're sitting down with chef Michael Avila at Novo, easily the most iconic restaurant in San Luis Obispo.
Did you miss the first two stops? Catch up, and get recipes from Healdsburg's SingleThread Farms and Oakland's Brown Sugar Kitchen at 7x7.com/culinary-road-trip.