Roy Harland: Culinary Artist
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Roy Harland: Culinary Artist
by Faith Sidlow
Standing over the stove in the small kitchen of his condo, Roy Harland is about to create something out of nothing.
“Oh, I was supposed to prepare a pasta dish, wasn’t I?” he asks with a sheepish grin. He opens the refrigerator door and begins pulling out ingredients. “We have some Chinese noodles. This will work.”
Within minutes, the 72-year-old chef who has made a name for himself as one of the most gifted culinary artists in Fresno, has whipped up something that looks and tastes like one of his signature dishes: Angel Hair Pasta with Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Goat Cheese.
“What I like about food is not what a test kitchen guy would like about food,” Harland says. “I like the art of food. I like the art of music. I like the phrasing. I like jazz. Improvised music.”
Many of Harland’s creations are improvised—from cooking, to playing his trumpet, to his latest artistic passion: making visual art.
Good food was part of his upbringing. “We were poor,” Harland says. “But there was always plenty of food and it was always delicious.”
He was born in Oklahoma shortly after the Dust Bowl. His family moved to the Central Valley in 1944. As a child, he enjoyed drawing but didn’t take it seriously until high school. His art teacher tried to convince him to attend the California College of the Arts in Berkeley, but Harland joined the U.S. Air Force instead.
In the military, he honed his skills as a musician, playing concerts with the U.S. Navy band. He got his start in the kitchen as a volunteer prep cook for French-trained chefs in the Officers Club, where he says the military brass “ate like kings.”
When he returned to California, he took a job as a busboy in Yosemite and fell in love—with the beauty of the mountains and the woman who would become his wife, Joanne.
The Harlands lived in Yosemite for 12 years. He managed the Yosemite Lodge Cafeteria and Mountain Room Broiler under Chef Fred Pearson. He went on to the Ahwahnee and Wawona hotels, two restaurants in Palo Alto and a resort restaurant in the Tehachapi Mountains. He attended Wolfgang Puck’s Ma Cuisine Cooking School in Los Angeles in the early ‘70s, training under leading gourmet chefs Jonathan Waxman, Patrick Touraille and Ken Frank.
Harland moved back to the Valley in the late ‘70s and began working for the Depot in Visalia and Vallis in Kingsburg. When Chef Rudy Liebl opened the Ripe Tomato in Fresno in 1977, he recruited Harland, who worked for the upscale restaurant until investors convinced him to open his own place—a 10-table restaurant on Maroa and Shields.
“We got discovered there by Ruth Reichel, the food writer for The New York Times,” Harland says. “She was on her way to San Francisco to do a radio show, and she spent the whole time talking about our restaurant. ‘Finally, there’s a place to eat in Fresno.’ We started getting calls from all over the place and it just took off.”
New investors wanted Harland to open a “real restaurant.” Harland’s in Fig Garden Village was born.
“We got into Gourmet Magazine,” Harland says. “Designers West Magazine did a seven-page spread with a centerfold and we won all the awards. It almost killed me. It was 12 years before I was ready to throw in the towel.”
Harland decided to get away from the business end of restaurants, but he didn’t want to stop creating innovative dishes. He continued to cook for other restaurant owners at Upstairs Downtown, Max’s, Slates and Bentley’s. He has spent the past four years as corporate chef at the Elbow Room.
Recently, Harland has begun to create a different type of art. During a trip to the coast, he stopped at a Target, bought some colored pencils and paper and began drawing. His friends were impressed with his sketches, and he got the bug. He subscribed to ArtTutor.com, started taking tutorials and began turning out a painting a week. But he’s not ready to give up cooking, yet.
“I’m fascinated with art at this point,” he says. “But food is so much art after so many years. That’s one I have confidence in. Art never wears out. Food I can kind of step back and know it’s always there. Painting is a new discovery, so that has a new excitement. But food still has that, too.”
Surprisingly, Harland doesn't care to paint pictures of food— “to paint food, you’re missing the taste and the smell,” he says—although one of his first pieces was a still life of tomatoes and figs in colored pencil.
His artwork is whatever moves him. Animals, people, landscapes, musical instruments. He uses colored pencil, charcoal, watercolor and acrylic. He tries to paint every day.
In addition to his duties as corporate chef at the Elbow Room, Harland continues to create art with food during his monthly wine dinners at the restaurant. The dinners have become so popular that, on request, Harland will create special meals for private groups of 15 to 20 people.
“That’s my thrill,” he says. “It’s my chance to do a piece of art. Because that’s what it is.
“It’s the same thing as the painting—to put together something that’s balanced and beautiful. And of course you can eat it,” Harland chuckles.
Harland says he and Elbow Room owner Mike Shirinian have worked hard for four years to keep the menu and restaurant fresh and updated. “I’m proud of the crew that we’ve put together,” Harland says. “They’re so capable, consistently preparing high quality food. We’ve brought in excellent chefs and improved the ingredients.”
At age 72, Harland says he has no plans to slow down. His wife of 42 years won’t let him.
“If I’m working, he’s working!” Joanne Harland shouts from the kitchen. “It keeps the brain going.”
“If I reach the day that I can’t produce,” Harland says. “I don’t want to be there hanging on to get my paycheck.”
Until that day comes, Harland plans to stay in the kitchen. “One of the biggest joys is working with all the young people,” he says. “The young servers and the kitchen staff. They have things going on, and it keeps me younger. It really does.”
Roy Harland will be showing his work along with artists Brenda Allison and David Howard Martin at the KJWL Gallery during ArtHop on the first Thursday of August. He was recently honored by the Foundation for Fresno County Public Library for lifetime achievement.
Angel Hair Pasta with Goat Cheese and Sun-Dried Tomatoes
Makes 6 servings
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tbsp minced fresh garlic
½ cup sundried tomatoes packed in olive oil, roughly chopped
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
12 oz Laura Chanel Goat Cheese (to garnish finished pasta)
1 lb dried Cappellini pasta
Fresh basil leaves and Parmigiano-Reggiano for garnish
Bring 1 gal water to a boil and add 4 tbsp Kosher salt.
Meanwhile, heat oil in sauté pan over medium heat. Add garlic and cook briefly, about 1 minute, DON’T BROWN THE GARLIC. Add the sun-dried tomatoes and 2 tbsp of the pasta water and simmer for 1 minute. Remove from heat and season with a little salt and pepper. This can be done ahead of time.
To finish, cook the pasta in the boiling salted water or until just tender. Don’t overcook. Drain pasta and add to pan with garlic-tomato mixture over low heat. Toss pasta to coat well with the oil. Use tongs to pull out the pasta onto warmed plates. Spoon remaining tomatoes, garlic and oil onto the pasta and top with crumbled goat cheese. Top with a few shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Tear a few basil leaves and add as a garnish.
Recipe courtesy: Chef Roy Harland, the Elbow Room
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