PENINSULA DINING – The passion of Bernard Ibarra
How Terranea’s executive chef quietly transformed the resort’s farm-to-table approach to food and in so doing found his own roots
by Mark McDermott
Chef Bernard Ibarra arrived at Terranea three years ago knowing a few things about the sprawling cliffside resort where he’d just been appointed executive chef.
He knew Terranea Resort was going to be a more hands-on experience than what he’d become accustomed to. His nearly 30-year career spanned the globe. He’d spent more than a decade with the Four Seasons Hotel group, opening and operating locations in Calgary, Toronto, Vancouver, Seattle, Houston, Tokyo, and Singapore. He’d served as executive chef at the world-renowned Mandarin Oriental hotel, where he’d overseen the handover dinner between Hong Kong and China. Most recently, Ibarra had been the chef behind one of the most ambitious launches in the history of Las Vegas — the Aria Resort & Casino, which included 4,004 rooms,16 restaurants, and 300,000 sq. ft. of banquet space. He’d managed 800 employees and oversaw a $260 million budget at Aria.
Terranea, at 560 rooms, was intimate by comparison. Perched above the Pacific Ocean on 102 acres that had formerly been the Marineland oceanarium and park, Terranea was a small world unto itself — a departure from the dense urban landscapes of Los Angeles County, stunning both in its unexpectedness and sheer physical beauty.
What Ibarra did not know when he first stepped foot on Terranea was that after three decades wandering the world he was coming home.
He was looking out at the ocean one day not long after he began working at the resort when his mind drifted back to his childhood and to his mother Helene.
“I looked at the sea, and at first I was just enjoying it,” Ibarra said. “Then I remembered. Years ago, we would go to the beach and my mom used to take some water from the ocean. … And then we would have salt. I had forgotten about the salt.”
Ibarra grew up in Bayonne, an ancient port town in the Basque Country, the proud nation-without-a-nation on the borders of France and Spain that has somehow survived centuries of invasions. The Basque are some of the greatest seafarers the world has ever known. For 1,000 years, they sailed from the Bay of Biscay to hunt whales and fish for cod in the North Atlantic. Some historians believe the Basque are among the original tribes of Europe, and the first to reach the New World, hundreds of years before Columbus.
Remembering his mother, Ibarra found his way down to the shore beneath Terranea. He filled a container with water and brought it back to his kitchen. He let the water evaporate, and for the first time, Terranea produced its own salt.
“I felt like a kid again,” Ibarra recalled.
Three years later, Terranea has launched its Sea Salt Conservancy, utilizing an evaporation greenhouse to harvest and produce its own signature sea salt, which is used at the resort’s eight restaurants and in its spa. The resort has become “sea salt-sustainable” and produces beyond its own needs — enabling it to also sell infused sea salts at the resort gift shop. Chef Ibarra plans to begin making soap from the salt later this year.
Other “sustainability” practices have grown from Ibarra’s initiatives. Most significantly, the resort has expanded its partnership with Jim York and his nearby Catalina View Gardens to minimize distance in its “farm-to-table” offerings. York, who is one of Terranea’s original investors, had previously supplied the resort with organic Hass avocados and Meyer lemons. Since Ibarra’s arrival, York has dedicated a larger section of his farm to Terranea and with the help of Ibarra and some of his fellow chefs from the resort has added crops, including heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, watermelon, corn, eggplants, strawberries, chili peppers, bell peppers, and various citrus. Additionally, Ibarra introduced beekeeping to the farm in 2014 and helps tend to the bees himself.
Lemons and various herbs are also grown at Terranea. Ibarra can sometimes be found foraging around the property’s undeveloped edges for berries, salt grass, and bay leaves.
“When you come to this area, or at least when I did, it struck me there was so much bounty here — both from the land and the sea,” Ibarra said. “The place had such a rich history. Growing, harvesting and learning about this area made me realize, ‘Hey, maybe I could bring something.’ And I thought it was exactly what I aspired to be. All these years working in cities, in hotel restaurants…there was never such a thing as these immediate resources.”
After all his travels since leaving home as a teenager to become a chef, Terranea felt he’d come full circle. He’d returned to a close-to-the-earth rhythm similar to his Basque childhood, where the notion of “farm-to-table” wasn’t some highbrow culinary trend but a way of life that has continued, unnamed and uninterrupted, for centuries. Some of Ibarra’s fondest memories are the three hour walks his mother made almost daily to the small markets — the cheesemongers, several different green grocers, the fishmongers on the docks — as she planned out the day’s meals for his family and exchanged news with the community of Bayonne.
None of this was something Ibarra expected when he moved. In his mind, he was essentially moving to Los Angeles.
“I didn’t come here to grow things. I came here to be a chef,” Ibarra said. “I didn’t know there would be this closure. Not only memories of my childhood, but the energy, and the willingness…I just wanted to make a difference, not only with the hotel, but with my life. And I just wanted to be connected. I just looked around me and felt whole with what I saw. I looked at everything we had around us and I felt totally fulfilled. Then I had this picture of the cliffs back home and my mother taking water and giving it to me.”
He paused, filled with emotion at the memory. Ibarra is a soft-spoken, gentle man, but even in his understatedness, his passionate nature is evident. Terranea president Terri Haack said it’s a quality that has made him an almost heroic figure among the ranks at the resort.
“He is so compassionate and so humble, he does not allow it to be about him,” Haack said. “It’s about nature and about sustainability and about teaching people how fragile our land is. He taught us that honeybees are almost extinct. It’s really amazing — now we have our young chefs taking shifts and going up to the farm and learning how to work the land. Many of them grew up in an urban setting and had no sense of what working the land might be.”
“Bernard really believes part of his role is to transmit his knowledge to others. And that takes time. It’s a lot easier to do things yourself, rather than teach someone to do it. He’s very patient.”
It’s also made him a quiet but very influential leader, beyond even the culinary realm he is responsible for. He serves on the resort’s eight-person strategic board.
“He’s engaged in every conversation about our business,” Haack said. “He adds great color to our conversation. He’s not a stand up and shout the answer kind of guy. He’s very thoughtful, but he listens and he’ll say, ‘What about…’ And I’ll just look at him and go, ‘Wow.’ Remarkable, really creative, really observant.”
He’s also at the center of the most vital aspect of Terranea’s business. While Haack couldn’t reveal the exact numbers, she did say that food and beverage outpace hotel rooms in revenue produced for the resort. She said that banquets alone generate more revenue than all of Terranea’s restaurants and Ibarra is equally attentive to each facet of dining operations at the resort.
Ibarra was educated La Citadelle College of Culinary Arts in San Jean Pied de Port, France, where he also studied under Chef Firmin Arrambide at the Michelin-starred Hotel Les Pyrenees. But Ibarra, Haack said, gives equal attention to the gastropub fare at Nelson’s as he does to Terranea’s most ambitious restaurant, mar’sel.
“He’s an incredibly talented businessman as well as a culinarian,” Haack said. “It takes a very disciplined chef to drive initiatives that are completely different in each area. There are many chefs who can only function at one level of food or service and can’t be creative and really fresh and relevant in many different venues, including in-room dining and banquets. Bernard plays a large role in all our properties. He is really the keeper of an extraordinary amount of our revenue.”
He is also, York said, extraordinary on a plate-by-plate, meal-by-meal basis.
“He takes what we grow so he can then create incredible dishes, but he also has a vision for what people want. And even though he is quiet, he has a tremendously engaging personality. It’s something. When you come to one of his restaurants, you feel like you are coming to his home and you are very welcome in his home,” York said.
His wife Jessica Lo Ibarra said that it’s difficult to adequately convey how much Bernard cares about every level of his work.
“He cares about how you feel about every single bite — every single person, every single bite,” she said. “The rest of us would have just written it off a long time ago. And he cares about making the business right, not just the pure artistry.”
He often works from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. or beyond.
“He still shakes the bees out of the bee house,” Jessica said. “I’ll be like, ‘Why are you going up there for four hours on a Sunday?’ And he’ll say, ‘Oh, I have to check on the bees.’ Whether it’s a VIP guest, or one of thousands of bees, he cares about that bee.”
The word that keeps coming up among those who know Ibarra best is passion.
“I’ve thought about this before: how would I describe Bernard?” said Jun Sur, the resort’s director of food and beverages. “I’ve been able to learn from him. And in 20 years in this industry, I have to say, hands down, Bernard is the most passionate culinarian I’ve had the privilege to work with. He’s a visionary. And his physical commitment to success is remarkable.”
In the age of the celebrity chef, Ibarra stays fastidiously out of the limelight. You won’t see him on TV, though he has the pedigree and track record to garner such attention. He’s more likely to be found at the water’s edge, collecting seawater for salt, or out among the bees, or deep in the trenches at Catalina View Gardens. Or you might see a somewhat burly, almost always smiling man, walking into the entrance at Terranea early in the morning, his muddied boots a bit out of place among the well-heeled arrivals at the resort.
But Ibarra is a man who has truly found his place.
“A lot of people are happy to go to work,” Ibarra said. “But for me, it’s like the fountain of youth. I get so much out of it and also give a lot. When I go to the farm, it means feeling good, and breathing fresh air and looking at the Pacific and seeing Terranea nearby and smelling the soil and losing my shovel in the mud. And then coming back to the hotel. … I’ve got to wash outside on the dock and people don’t know. ‘Where did he go? He has a chef’s uniform.’ It is, I guess, a very humble and natural picture.”
“After all those years on the road, so to speak, I think it is just the best place. Everything we do is done with care and we mean it. We think it is good for us and for the community. I have never known that feeling before. I never worked for a place where it is just so black and white — I am still looking for the fine print. But it is what it is: it’s amazing.” PEN