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A Visit with Chef Marc Dym

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Chef Marc Dym on a sunlit Monday afternoon at the Little River Inn Chef Marc Dym on a sunlit Monday afternoon at the Little River Inn

 By Michael Eady

Marc Dym (pronounced “dim”) is the chef at the Little River Inn. Last week we told readers about the Little River Inn itself.

Today we turn out focus on one of the outstanding features of the Little River Inn, the noteworthy cuisine and more importantly how it got that way. The short answer to the second part is the aforementioned Marc Dym, who has been heading up the kitchen the past 11 years. Chef Dym is a burly, ebullient man with a close-cropped haircut and pronounced goatee. Taste California Travel had the opportunity to sit down with Chef Dym during our recent stay and get a taste of his remarkable story.

Cynics may note that Chef Dym is married to the boss’ daughter so naturally it follows that he is the head chef. It actually happened the other way around with the job coming ahead of the marriage. In fact, although Chef Dym possesses all the necessary bona fides of his own, it was pure serendipity that he wound up with the job.

But let’s start at the beginning. Marc Dym attended the Culinary Institute of America (the one in New York above the Hudson River) and graduated with honors in 1991. He graduated a bit late due to an extended apprenticeship in San Antonio, Texas that he particularly enjoyed. The decision to attend CIA came when he was working for a catering company in high school and was “frustrated at not knowing how to make the food I was serving.” Upon graduating, he led a vagabond chef’s life working spots from Tel Aviv to Antigua to Pennsylvania and points between. This allowed him to be exposed to a panoply of cultures and cuisines, adding breadth to his cooking portfolio. The last stop before Mendocino was Newport Beach, Ca. at the Ritz Hotel. He had tired of the antic metropolitan life of Los Angeles and longed for a simpler, slower-paced life—much like the one he found in Mendocino. One would have a hard time finding a place more opposite of Los Angeles than Mendocino. His first job there ended with an ownership change at the restaurant where he was cooking. Meanwhile, the long-time chef at the Little River Inn was leaving and a serendipitous opportunity arose. As the say in the food biz, Viola! Dym has been there ever since.

Since his tenure began in 2006, his focus has been on execution and consistency. In keeping with that philosophy, the restaurant menu is not expansive but instead, rather concise. Even so, it offers difficult choices. The execution and consistency evidence themselves in the esteem and popularity of the restaurant.

In a rare moment of quiet before the bar crowd arrived, I had a chance to sit down with Chef Dym on Monday afternoon at Ole’s Whale Watch. I felt guilty interrupting what was surely his day off but he appeared adorned in his chef jacket, clearly putting in a day’s work. I had assumed Monday would be his day off as it would likely be slack business (many restaurants are closed on Mondays). As we later discovered, there are no slack nights at the Little River Inn dining room. Or mornings, for that matter.

Our conversation covered a wide range of contemporaneous topics, one of which is the now-popular local sourcing of food. Chef Dym, like most of his contemporaries, tries to acquire food for the restaurant from within Mendocino County as much as possible. That can prove problematic, he noted, because Mendocino County is small and lightly populated, so local fisheries and produce growers cannot provide a sufficient amount on a year-round basis. One item that is not difficult to locally source is wine. With the Anderson Valley on the back doorstep and Sonoma and Napa counties just beyond, there is a rich source of high quality wine from which to choose. The Little River Inn features an extensive wine list that is dominated by these North Coast growing regions. The well-known Anderson Valley Brewing Company is also nearby. Incidentally, in addition to being an acclaimed chef, Dym is an accomplished brewer who collaborated with Anderson Valley Brewing to produce Saison 75, celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Inn and available exclusively at the Inn.

Despite the limitations, Chef Dym is convinced the local sourcing movement is where we need to be. He cites overproduction, pollution and depletion of resources as the basic drivers that will ultimately make local sourcing the dominant paradigm. He does the best he can with the tools Mendocino County provides but finds he often has to expand the scope of what “local” means.

Since the Little River Inn is so iconic, I asked him if he found the reputation confining in menu construction. He replied that, no, it did not. “The menu is a reflection of who and what we are: a Victorian Inn.” It also goes back to his main focus, which is execution and consistency. “It took two years to bring the staff up to speed,” he said. And, he noted, the consistency extends to his kitchen staff, all of whom have been with for over five years.

The menu is not large in proportion to the extensive wine list. Still, it offers good variety of dishes that include gluten-free and vegan items. There are two or three daily specials offered along with the regular menu.

Chef Dym, along with his normal duties, participates in many benefit and charity functions that are centered around food and wine. This is his way of giving back to the community. He described a recent event which was held for the benefit of a medical clinic in nearby Ft. Bragg. “We have many people here who use that clinic as their primary source of medical care. If they didn’t have that clinic they would have to go to Santa Rosa. It is important to the community,” he told me.

As a prelude to dinner that night, I enjoyed a drink at the busy bar (which also serves food from the dining room). I enjoyed a pint of Chef Dym’s smooth, well-balanced Saison 75 and a glass of the Scharfenberger sparkling rose, which I later recommended to my wife to accompany her salmon filet. While the clam chowder was highly acclaimed by a couple at the bar, I opted instead for the abalone fritters. The Northern California coast in the Mendocino area is a prime abalone hunting ground but is an uncommon menu item elsewhere. I paired the fritters with a Monte Volpe Pinot Grigio, which also was a fine accompaniment to the calamari my wife ordered.

Our entrees diverged to opposite ends of the culinary spectrum. I had osso buco, while my wife went with the salmon filet. Local seafood is tempting but again my selection was based on the rarity of seeing osso buco on a menu. My wife accepted my suggestion for the sparkling rose for her salmon while I backed up my pork osso buco with a Meyer Family Syrah. The braised pork shank was served over soft polenta with marinara sauce and was falling off the bone tender. The sturdy Syrah stood up well to this hearty dish. The salmon was buttery and sumptuous and served over a tantalizing spinach puree which had a hint of sesame oil.

As noted before, the dining room was bustling indeed on a Monday evening. I asked Chef Dym if this was always the case. He estimated a Saturday night might typically serve 130 dinners, as well as 70 in the bar. They employ 53 staff for the kitchen, bar and serving staff. When combined with the other Inn staff (gardeners, front desk, maid services, et al) the Little River Inn is one of the largest single-site employers in the area.

It would seem that all the foregoing would take up all of one’s time. Nevertheless, Chef Dym finds time to tool around on a vintage motorcycle, take his six-year old son to school and do some carpentry on his farm outside of town. (Triviata: The picnic tables at Anderson Valley Brewing are made from trees at Dym’s ranch).

At the end of the day, Chef Dym sums up the Little River Inn succinctly: “It is a family business, not corporate. Our job is to make customers happy. We have 75 years of tradition and good food. I’ll be here for another 20 years.”


Editor's note: Recently Taste California Travel visited the Little River Inn. Chef Marc Dym was kind enough to share one of his favorite recipes with us.

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