Chef Drew Davis is the first to admit he has little time to throw dinner parties.
“Honestly, I don’t really have time to do anything, owning my own restaurant,” the 39-year-old says, referring to Catalan Mediterranean Cuisine, the Spanish-influenced Mediterranean eatery he owns in Rancho Mirage with his wife, Cynthia, and parents, Mark and Lecie Davis.
So when he and Cynthia, who manages Catalan’s front of house, are actually able to pull off a meal for friends during a rare snippet of downtime, they don’t want their guests just sipping a requisite pre-dinner cocktail, sitting down to eat, and then promptly taking off.
“Relaxed dinners are what I grew up with in Ecuador,” Cynthia explains. “Sundays you would spend at your grandmother’s or aunt and uncle’s. It was a whole-day event.”
And the one they’re throwing on a spring Monday will be just that, kicking off when the sun is high in the cloudless sky, simmering until well after dark.
Though Drew is charged with the lion’s share of preparing what will amount to 10 different dishes by the end of the night, the blowout meal indeed takes a village.
Sous-chef Reese Murakami is on hand to help in the kitchen; Drew’s dad has come armed with wines; and Cynthia is mixing margaritas and stirring up a batch of Catalan’s signature sangria, cut with a bit of brandy. She’s also constructed a rustic-yet-elegant setting at the long communal dinner table with a burlap runner, vase of wildflowers, and azure-colored water glasses.
Guests trickle in throughout the afternoon, greeted by an energetic two-dog welcoming crew made up of Beacon the border collie and Sparky, a water-loving yellow Lab.
Catalan chef Drew Davis (center) serves his father, Mark Davis; dinner guest Joceline Cervantes; and the rest of his eager — and hungry! — crowd.
Today’s venue, an Italian farmhouse–style estate in Rancho Mirage’s Clancy Lane enclave, actually belongs to the Davises’ close friends: wealth manager Larry Cohen and his wife, Sue Eberle, a real estate broker who owns the boutique firm Prime Desert Properties. The home is centered around a sprawling yard of manicured grass, puffy tea-rose bushes, deep green lawns, fruit trees, and a sparkling swimming pool, but it’s the shaded, stone-walled patio with its cushioned couch and rocking chairs in front of a low-slung (usually food-and-drink-filled) glass table to which everyone gravitates. “That’s what it’s for,” says Eberle. “We use our patio more than we use the main house. It’s like our living room.”
A bowl of glossy Greek and Spanish olives flecked with chili flakes, garlic, oregano, and thyme arrives at the table, followed by a plate of shucked Kusshi oysters garnished with just a little lemon. It’s this kind of unpretentious, ingredient-driven preparation that defines Drew’s cooking style.
Garlic–olive oil piglet basting liquid.
Joceline Cervantes ready to toast.
Walla Walla Sleight of Hand was one of a variety of wines on offer for Davis’ dinner guests.
Sue Eberle strikes a pose.
Santa Barbara spot prawns on ice.
“It all comes back to simplicity. If you can cook good food without covering it with so many sauces and things, then you’re doing something right,” he explains. “You can have really great food if you use really great ingredients.”
In addition to Drew’s parents, most of today’s attendees are also in the restaurant industry, where Mondays off aren’t all that unusual and everyone seems perfectly comfortable serving themselves or strolling the property with a drink. Cynthia’s friend Kimberleigh Funkey — who manages her family’s Smoke Tree BBQ locations — has arrived before her boyfriend, artist Alex Pesante, and springs from her seat to join a game of lawn croquet after Cohen pulls out the mallets. Gilbert Amaton, a Catalan staffer since day one (“He’s the glue that holds the place together,” Mark Davis confides), has brought girlfriend Joceline Cervantes, a restaurant hostess, and marches out to the patio gripping a copper tray scattered with lime wedges and squat glasses of tequila, ready to lead a group round of shots.
Santa Barbara spot prawns and heirloom tomato salad with Spanish blue cheese, microgreens, and slivered onions.
Proud papa Mark Davis.
Sue Eberle and Alex Pesante tend to Sparky as Gilbert Amaton and Cervantes chat in the background.
“The food industry, we are a beast of our own,” says Cynthia. “Sharing a meal with people in this industry, it truly is like family. It makes it more special.”
Nearly every inch of granite counter space inside the massive kitchen is spoken for thanks to chef Davis’ bounty — a plate of yellow corn cobs, some fat heirloom tomatoes, a container of naked garlic cloves. And in the sink rests a pile of pink Santa Barbara spot prawns, the fabled shellfish only available a few weeks a year, still wriggling in a vat of ice. Drew is intently chopping deep purple potatoes that he’ll pair with soon-to-be-charred Spanish octopus, one of Catalan’s most popular dishes and one of the few that never leave the menu.
“I’m not the type of chef to cook asparagus in the middle of winter. I try to cook seasonal as much as possible,” he explains. “But we’re in California, so lucky for me, a lot of things are grown year-round.”
He transforms the tomatoes into a salad layered with microgreens, slivered red onion, and Spanish blue cheese and serves the dish alongside skewered cubes of watermelon topped with crumbled feta, fresh mint, and a balsamic-like syrup called Saba. Funkey volunteers to make Pesante a plate after he arrives and settles in, since he can’t move from the couch. Sparky, it seems, has fallen fast asleep on his lap.
“I’m not the type of chef to cook asparagus in the middle of winter. I try to cook seasonal as much as possible. But we’re in California, so lucky for me, a lot of things are grown year-round.” Drew Davis
The meal’s most dramatic dish has been on display for hours: a whole 14-pound suckling pig roasting on a metal spit above a burning mix of wood and charcoal. Davis pops out to the yard periodically, basting the pig with a garlic–olive oil blend he brushes on with a stem of fragrant rosemary, all the while holding a bottle of Spanish lager, Estrella Damm.
“If you’re cooking outside, you always need to have a beer in your hand,” instructs Chef Davis. “That’s kind of the rule.”
Drew began offering a suckling pig roast at Catalan a couple years ago. “We want you to come with your family and you need a minimum of six people to do the pig dinner, so it’s a nice family meal,” he says. After some experimentation, he’s now mastered cooking his piglets in a 300-degree convection oven for about eight hours. But in the spirit of the outdoor feast (not to mention the size of a home oven), he’s gone with the more traditional method of spit-roasting today. The preparation, however, remains the same
Dinner is served! Tender cuts of pork, a few seconds before being devoured.
“No marinating. Salt, oil, and that’s it,” he insists, adding that he punctures the pig a good 50 times to release steam during the cooking process. “Otherwise the skin won’t get crispy.” Once done, he lets the pig cool, then pulls off the skin and breaks it into chip-like pieces, sprinkling them with a handful of flaky Maldon sea salt. “It’s probably one of the best things you’ll ever taste,” he adds matter-of-factly.
Catalan regulars have Steven Spielberg to thank for bringing the Davises to the West Coast six years ago. Drew, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, had spent a decade working at East Hampton hot spot Nick and Toni’s, where he eventually became chef de cuisine. It was there he learned about the homey, farm-to-table cooking that he focuses on now, using go-to proteins like pork and line-caught fish amped up with spices and herbs. Through that job he met Billy Joel, who hired him as a personal chef at his winter home in Florida. When Spielberg eventually asked, Drew jumped at the chance, but soon realized he was growing bored with the job. “I’m not really stimulated by that pace,” he admits. “What feeds my soul is the action of a restaurant, the controlled chaos.” Not long after a family trip to Spain solidified his love of Spanish cuisine, he had an epiphany during a visit to his parents’ Indian Wells home
Catalan sous-chef Reese Murakami slices into the 14-pound spit-roasted star of the show.
Corn on the cob and plenty of queso.
Happy wife Cynthia Davis.
Kusshi oysters garnished with lemon.
Lecie Davis, mother of the chef.
“I just woke up one day and told my dad, ‘I think I want to live here and buy a restaurant,’ ” he recalls. “A few weeks later, I found the place and put in an offer to buy it, and the rest was history.”
By the time the sun is low in the sky, Davis has managed to grill the prawns, the corn, and the octopus; roast a sheet of colorful spring carrots; bake a creamy scallop gratin, bubbling in a covered casserole dish; and cut up the pig, piling the meat (and skin, of course) into a perfect mess on a big old platter. “It’s kind of like pulled pork,” he says. “In Italian cooking, they say, ‘How the food falls on the plate is how it should be,’ and I believe that.”
It’s nearly dark now and guests are in their seats at the long candlelit table, passing plates, pouring grenache, and taking turns gushing about what’s in front of them.
“The octopus is amazing,” Funkey says, taking a bit more.
Catalan sous-chef Reese Murakam enjoying a day off.
“This is wonderful!” Eberle exclaims of the scallops as she stands to help shuttle dishes from one end of the table to the other, shimmying a little to the music.
“That skin is so good,” Amaton hollers. It seems he shares his boss’s opinion about the pig’s preeminent part. “I think that’s the favorite of the night.”
Drew makes a toast to Lecie, whose birthday is a few days away, and everyone raises their glasses while letting out a hearty yay or woohoo. The day seems to be exactly what the Davises imagined. “It’s such a social thing, being able to spend time eating like this,” says Drew. “It’s an incredible feeling.”
“No marinating. Salt, oil, and that’s it,” Drew Davis insists, adding that he punctures the pig a good 50 times to release steam during the cooking process. “Otherwise the skin won’t get crispy.”
The fabled Santa Barbara spot prawn.
Greek and Spanish olives with chili flakes, garlic, oregano, and thyme complement the charcuterie platter.
“I just woke up one day and told my dad, ‘I think I want to live here and buy a restaurant.’ ”A few weeks later, I found the place and put in an offer to buy it, and the rest was history.”Drew Davis on starting Catalan Restaurant
Roasted Heirloom Carrots with Smoked Bacon, Leeks, and Roasted Garlic
1 pound baby spring colored carrots, peeled
2 stalks of leeks, diced
8 ounces smoked bacon, chopped
2 whole garlic bulbs, cut in half
¼ pound unsalted butter
1 tablespoon chopped thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 475 degrees.
Remove roots, outer leaves, and tops from leeks. Cut leeks in half lengthwise. Rinse thoroughly with cold water, and cut into ¼-inch dice. Melt butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add leeks to pan; cook 4 minutes or until slightly wilted, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and keep warm.
Dice bacon into ½-inch pieces and render bacon in cast-iron skillet until about 80 percent cooked. Remove bacon from skillet, leaving the bacon fat. Add carrots to cast-iron skillet with fat and roast in the oven for 5 to 7 minutes, cooking until about 75 percent done. Add garlic, bacon, thyme, and leeks and roast for another 5 to 7 minutes.
Remove from oven and serve.
If you thought all carrots were orange, well, you were wrong. Meet the heirloom.
Spanish octopus meets its inky match in purple potatoes.
Roasted Spanish Octopus with Purple Potatoes, Roasted Garlic, Herbs, and Fresno Chile
1 large Spanish octopus, 4 to 6 pounds
(must be FAO 34 Spanish octopus)
5 garlic cloves, chopped
(use 8 if you prefer a stronger garlic flavor)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 Fresno chiles, chopped
1 pound purple potatoes
Salt and pepper to taste
In a large stockpot simmer whole octopus in water for 1 hour. Remove from water, let cool, and cut into 1-inch pieces. Dice potatoes in ½-inch cubes, place in pot, and cover with cold water; add 1 tablespoon salt and bring to a boil. Remove pot from heat and let cool.
Preheat oven to 475 degrees. Heat olive oil in a large cast-iron skillet, add potatoes, octopus, garlic, herbs, and salt and pepper to taste. Place in the oven and cook for 12 minutes, stirring every 3 minutes.
Remove from heat and serve.