To the Root of It

Tuccio’s chef Gavin Humes elevates Italian fare by putting veggies center stage.

 

WRITTEN BY JOSHUA LURIE


Pull into Warner Center Towers in Woodland Hills and you’ll see legs churning on exercise bikes in Equinox’s windows. Delve deeper into the complex, and until recently, your next most exciting option has either been a parking garage or a bank. Office towers aren’t typically culinary destinations, but Tuccio’s is changing the rules.

Gina Shields and husband, Damien, run the restaurant, which honors her grandfather Raymond Tuccio’s Italian heritage by making everything from pasta to ricotta in-house. For executive chef/wine director Gavin Humes, Italy is merely a starting point. He takes their menu to a whole new stratosphere with an adventurous, multilayered antipasti, starring seasonal farmers market vegetables.

Gavin grew up in nearby Moorpark and worked at well-regarded restaurants like Inn of the Seventh Ray in Topanga Canyon, Raphael in Studio City and Cliff’s Edge in Silver Lake.

The Lake Balboa resident recognizes that, “Woodland Hills is the home of steakhouses and chain restaurants.” Consider his menu counterprogramming.

With veg-friendly chefs like Adam Horton (now at Saddle Peak Lodge) and Stephen Barkulis (formerly at Raphael) as mentors, it’s no surprise Gavin’s menu places heavy emphasis on vegetables. He’s also always found inspiration from the “diversity and top-notch quality” of farmers market produce.

Gavin keeps the menu fluid, based upon market finds and constant sparks of creativity. He says, “In general my philosophy with vegetables and vegetarian dishes is not to make them taste like meat or ‘pretend’ to be meat.” Instead, he builds dishes “satisfying and substantial so that the guest doesn’t miss the meat.”

His “study of sunflowers” elevates the humble sunchoke, the root of a sunflower species that also goes by the name Jerusalem artichoke. He cleverly highlights the vegetable’s nutty sweetness, plating crispy sunchokes on puree with thin-sliced pickled sunflowers, crunchy sunflower sprouts and fresh herb gremolata made with sunflower seeds.

Request an order of broccoli and you’ll get Gavin’s broccoli “steak.” He skips basic steaming, instead searing twin slabs, basting in butter, and plating over broccoli puree with shaved stems, punchy pickled mustard seeds, Meyer lemon, olive oil and lemon ash. This dish has become a mainstay, for good reason.

The Tutti Frutti Farms stall at the Santa Monica Farmers Market inspired his carrot confit. He slow cooks fat orange carrots that would make Bugs Bunny blush, in olive oil and aromatics, plating with spice-roasted Thumbelina carrots, pickled carrots, tangy blood orange gastrique, lacto-fermented garlic and crumbled hazelnut. Gavin doesn’t broadcast that this dish is vegan, a stunning realization given such bold flavors.

The chef generally plays with market finds for a couple weeks and gives dishes test whirls on Tuccio’s chef-tasting menus to see if diners respond positively. This fall, he’ll offer an acorn squash dish that got rave reviews last year, and highlight celery root and parsnips. He’ll also spotlight a root vegetable known as “oyster plant.” Expect culinary preparations with all. Bonus: none of these dishes require extra time on the bike.

21550 Oxnard St., Woodland Hills, 818-888-4514