Chef Michael Avila, of farm-to-table restaurant Novo, is salt of the San Luis Obispo County earth.
He was raised on its ranchland, began his profession in its coastal towns, and raises his three kids on its shores. He shares his surname, Avila, with a local beach and co-owns a sandwich shop, Surfside Deli, with his wife Hannah in Grover Beach. He's such a local, he's known some of the producers and harvesters that supply the produce and protein for his restaurants since childhood.
But while the chef spent his early years living near Lopez Lake in Arroyo Grande, weekends and summers revolved around his grandmother's ranch in the Central Valley.
"She bred and trained horses for rodeo and had cattle, sheep, pigs and an absurd amount of chickens running around," Avila explains. "Any time I was at the ranch, we were riding and training and exercising the horses." But while his cousins all ended up bitten by the rodeo bug, Avila was more inspired by his grandmother's kitchen than her stables.
She "had seven kids so she was always in the kitchen. I grew up really lucky having really good home cooked meals all the time," says Avila. "Same thing with my mom, she was always cooking all of our meals." He was so spoiled by their cooking prowess that, when he began exploring restaurants, Avila found himself disappointed by the food they offered. "So this is what food is, huh?" he remembers asking himself.
It was, nevertheless, a restaurant—Rosa's in Pismo Beach—where Avila landed his first high school job. And though he bounced around between different types of work in his teens and 20s, including a stint as a commercial fisherman, he always found his way back to the kitchen. Eventually, the profession stuck.
Meanwhile, as Avila worked to find his footing in the local restaurant industry, Novo was blossoming in a defunct cigar factory on the banks of San Luis Creek in downtown San Luis Obispo. Owners Robin Covey and then-wife Shanny Covey already helmed the successful Robin's Restaurant in Cambria, one of the first in the country to embrace locally produced, organically grown food. Their second venture, which opened in 2003, had the same commitment to fresh, local, seasonal food.
Although they didn't use the terminology back on his grandmother's ranch, Avila knew local and he knew farm-to-table. He'd lived them both his entire life. So when Novo began its search for a new head chef, Avila was a natural fit. He took over the kitchen in 2019.
"When I stepped in, it was absolutely an ideal situation because everything was already on point with what I wanted to do," he says. Not only were the connections to local farmers already robust and thriving, Avila was able to build some new networks between the restaurant and the guys he fished with back in the day. "It's a really exciting thing for me to be able to talk to a customer and say, yeah, that halibut was swimming around in Port San Luis this morning," he says.
In addition to creative daily fish specials, Avila's globally influenced menu makes the most of what SLO has to offer. The chow mein is composed of farmers market veggies; the pork carnitas sopes and Korean short ribs with locally ranched meats. The calamari is made from fresh, whole squid cleaned in house.
Avila's pan-seared duck breast with roasted baby carrots, shaved pecans, and Penang curry over forbidden rice has bright, intense flavors and seasonal produce. The Southeast Asian–inspired curry pairs beautifully with a crisp, refreshing riesling or a rich, jammy malbec. Get the recipe below.
While you're in SLO…
The Central Coast is well loved for its beaches. Don't miss Chef Michael's favorite stretch of sand, the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes, near the town of Oceano.
San Luis Obispo is the fourth stop on our California Culinary Road Trip, a collaboration between 7x7 and The Spice Hunter. While you're in SLO County, visit the restaurants, beaches, and sights recommended by 7x7 and Novo's Michael Avila.
Explore the region's best restaurants. Avila's go-to local restaurants include Luna Red (1023 Chorro St, SLO), Robin's Restaurant (4095 Burton Dr, Cambria), and Ember (1200 E Grand Ave, Arroyo Grande). Surfside Deli, which the chef and his wife Hannah own and operate, serves artisan sandwiches and salads made with super fresh produce and carefully sourced meats in Grover Beach (191 South Oak Park Blvd).
Soak up the sun, sand and surf. "We love to get out in the ocean as much as possible," says Avila. "My kids are all water dogs and love to be out there playing in the salt and the sand." Some of the county's best include Moonstone Beach in Cambria and Avila's favorite, Oceano Dunes.
Go on a foraging adventure. Harvest wakame, kombu, and nori right from the ocean on a tour with Marley Family Seaweeds; search for chanterelles and morels in Montaña de Oro State Park; or dig for clams at Pismo Beach.
See how the other half lives on a tour of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst's famous estate. Although Hearst Castle is temporarily closed, it is expected to reopen in summer 2021. In the meantime, explore its history and some of its most interesting rooms, gardens, and artworks online.
See humpbacks and gray whales migrating off the coast. Hop on a boat with Avila Beach Whale Watching or Morro Bay Whale Watching to get an up-close look at the massive mammals. The latter also offers tours in a semi-submersible vessel with windows for watching sea life frolic beneath the water's surface.
Recipe: Make Michael Avila's pan-seared duck breast with Penang curry
At Novo restaurant in San Luis Obispo, chef Michael Avila serves this dish with roasted baby carrots and shaved pecan over forbidden rice.
4 duck breasts, scored skin and trimmed
1 bunch baby carrots, cut in half lengthwise
2 pecans, toasted
12 cipollini onions, peeled
1 cup forbidden black rice
2 cups water
Penang Curry Sauce
2 cans coconut milk
1 tbsp ground peanuts
1 cup chicken or vegetable stock
1 tsp coriander lime rub (The Spice Hunter)
2 tbsps curry seasoning blend (The Spice Hunter)
1/2 tsp sweet paprika (The Spice Hunter)
1/4 tsp ground clove (The Spice Hunter)
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg (The Spice Hunter)
1 oz palm sugar
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Meanwhile, cook the black rice with 2 cups of water then set aside.
In a small pot, combine the ingredients for the Penang curry sauce. Simmer over medium-low heat until the liquid is reduced by half.
While the sauce is reducing, bring a small pot of water to a boil and blanch the baby carrots and onions. Place the veggies in the water for no more than 90 seconds then remove, pat dry and set aside.
Season duck breast with salt and pepper. Warm an oil coated pan over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, carefully add the duck breasts skin side down and reduce the heat to medium. Monitor the duck until the skin is a deep golden brown then flip it over. Add carrots and onions and place the pan in the oven for 6-8 minutes.
Remove the pan from the oven and let the duck rest for 1 minute then thinly slice it and place the pieces over the black rice. Scatter carrots and onions on each plate and top with curry (or serve curry on the side).
Shave pecans over the dish. Garnish with carrot tops (optional).
// Novo is open for indoor and outdoor seating, takeout and delivery; 726 Higuera St (San Luis Obispo), novorestaurant.com.
Thank you to our partners at The Spice Hunter.
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Look for the fifth and final stop on our California Culinary Road Trip this summer: On July 5th, we're catching up with chef Jeremy Fox, of the acclaimed Los Angeles restaurant Birdie G's.
Did you miss our earlier stops? Find recipes from Healdsburg's SingleThread Farms, Oakland's Brown Sugar Kitchen, and Monterey's Alta Bakery & Cafe at 7x7.com/culinary-road-trip.