Dining Out with Executive Chef of Oak, Chris Mahler

Rustic, modern, California comfort.” These are the words that best describe Executive Chef Chris Mahler’s award winning restaurant, Oak, in Laguna Beach. For several years, Oak has been serving up the freshest and most innovative farm (and sea) to fork creations in the area, establishing itself as one of the preeminent “locals” establishments. With a diverse, seasonal menu, as well as an array of imaginative craft cocktails, and a deep, yet accessible wine list, Chris and his team at Oak pride themselves on bringing the local artistic, coastal, and laid-back beach vibes synonymous with Laguna directly to the table.
Located just north of downtown Laguna Beach, this buzz-worthy, ocean-view eatery serves up culinary adventures that are bound to keep your belly and your soul wanting another go-round. Elevated was excited to talk to Chris and gain some insight on the inspiration behind Oak, as well as the Laguna Beach scene. Oak has generated quite a reputation for its amazing food and
atmosphere—especially with the locals. Tell us, what is the inspiration behind Oak?
I think the inspiration behind Oak can be summed up with one word—“family.” What sets us apart from everyone else is the experience we give our guest. From the moment they walk in the door until the time they leave, we try to make everyone feel like they our part of our family. We decorate tables for birthdays and anniversaries, pride ourselves in getting to know our locals, and do whatever we can to make everyone’s night memorable.
Laguna Beach is a very sensual region—it has a distinct feeling, vibe, look, and scene.
How does Laguna motivate your menu? When I think of Laguna Beach, I think California Costal Cuisine. Seafood has a huge influence in my perspective to our cuisine.
I’m big on outsourcing local sustainable ingredients because they are literally at out fingertips. This style of cuisine also has such vast diversity and influences, that it gives us the opportunity to put a little of everything on the menu.
What makes the Laguna Beach culinary scene so exciting to you?
Laguna Beach has a unique, small-town vibe—which reminds me of where I grew up in the Midwest. Since I’ve been here, I’ve met so many amazing people in our community that support each other and help in anyway they can. To me, that’s special, and not seen in other surrounding cities.
What inspires you to create?
I’m a huge advocate of seasonal cooking, so the number one thing for me is seasons. Market driven, local ingredients. I also gather inspiration from various trends and dishes I see and experience when I dine out.
Your cocktail program is significant. When you’re creating a new cocktail menu, do you have food pairings in mind?
Catlin Robbins is our mixologist and has an immense passion for her craft. Her thought process behind her cocktails are similar to my inspiration for our food. Her cocktail menus flow with the
season. Having those same flavor profiles, the pairing between food and drinks comes naturally.
You have a wonderfully diverse wine list. What do you think the best wine pairing is right now on your menu?
Hands down, our Chilean Seabass paired with our 2018 Rombauer Chardonnay.
Coronavirus has had a major impact on the restaurant industry.
What adjustments have you made to continue serving your amazing food to both on-sight and to-go patrons?
During the initial shut down we’ve definitely made major adjustments to our menu. To support out local patrons we lowered our pricing, and also offered affordable family meal options for take out. We also cooked for various local shelters and local Laguna Beach authorities to do what we could for the community.
If you could open a restaurant anywhere on planet earth, where would it be and what would be the flagship menu item? I’d love to open something small on the coast of Spain that serves homemade charcuterie, jamon, paella, fresh oysters, and any local seafood I can get my hands on. You’re a culinary artist who obviously owns some impeccable taste buds when it comes to seafood.
Where can you find the best sushi in O.C. right now?
Best Sushi in OC hands down is Bluefin Tuna in Crystal Cove. Chef Abe is amazing. The first dish and most memorable wasn’t even sushi. It was a Chilean Seabass served with foie gras and truffle oil butter sauce. Amazing!
What are a few chef-inspired items that you can’t live without in your home kitchen?
I used to make a dish for my family all the time—bacon wrapped, cornbread stuffed pork loin grilled with an apricot glaze. It’s a simple dish, but has a lot of memories tied to it.
Our readers are very much into real estate. What does your dream home kitchen look like? It has a Hestan French top with convection oven, a small grill, and a huge center island to enjoy dining with my family.