READY TO SHINE:  After being hired at Pico just before the pandemic, Chef John Wayne Formica is ready to share his skills on such dishes as “classy” clam chowder and seasonal rhubarb tart. | Credit: Courtesy
Credit: Courtesy

Think of Pico’s “Explore the Central Coast Winemaker Series” as Chef John Wayne Formica’s coming-out party. Formica officially became chef of the restaurant, which lives inside the Los Alamos General Store, on March 3, 2020, but then COVID cruelly crashed his party two weeks later. The restaurant, as he puts it, “bobbed and weaved” through the pandemic’s tiers and openings and closings over the next year — Zoom cooking classes for 70, takeout trials, and supporting the Feed the Valley project led by Bell’s down the road. But now, as the vaccines improve our outlook, Pico finally gets to shine under Formica’s vision.

And that’s an international shine. While Formica is classically trained in French and Italian cuisine, his heritage is half-Italian, half-Lebanese, with chefs on both sides. “I’m always trying to diversify my influences,” explained Formica, who’s constantly looking for connections and backstories, tracing the interwoven connections of Spanish influences in the Philippines, for example. As Pico’s co-owner Will Henry put it, “Chef’s passion is to work with local farmers and ranchers in order to create an interesting and eclectic menu based on his culinary travels.”

That outlook is underlined during the monthly winemaker dinner series dinners, which kicked off on April 29, pairing Angela Osborne’s elegant wines from A Tribute to Grace with Mangalitsa pork from Winfield Farm in Buellton. That gorgeous pork chop sat upon some polenta that Winfield Farm owner Bruce Steele grew and ground himself just for the dinner. Now that’s local, and it was as corny a polenta as I’ve ever tasted.

But often the food can be as hyperlocal as tableside. “We’re offering lots of dining in the garden,” Formica pointed out, “and the garden is edible.” Just ask the gopher a few feet away from our table, poking his toothy mouth out, trying to take a mighty broccoli stalk down — we joked the evening could have been billed “Gophers and Grenache.” “We’re focusing on seasons,” Formica said. “You can sit by our persimmon trees and then have a dish from them when they’re in season. It adds to the story.” 

The wine dinner story setting doesn’t get much more appropriate than Pico, as Henry co-owns Lumen Wines with Lane Tanner, the store is also a retail wine shop, and the restaurant is surrounded by wine country. But as occasionally stodgy wine dinners go, these affairs are pretty informal — you sit only with your party, you pick the time you want to dine, and the winemaker and food purveyor wander from table to table, dropping tasting notes, travel tidbits, and gossip. What’s more, Formica explained, “The menu items are curated specifically for the event and aren’t on the regular menu.”

Formica couldn’t be happier to be working in “Little L.A.” after his most recent time living in the real Los Angeles, working with nationally known hospitality groups. “It wasn’t for us,” admitted Formica readily.

Luckily, he and his wife, Liz Formica — who now works the front-of-house and helps organize the wine program at Pico — knew Clark Staub from Full of Life Flatbread and had told him, “If you know of anybody looking for a chef, give me a holler.” The holler came when Pico was going through a revamp, and Formica held what he calls “a nine-hour conversation while I made a few dishes” with Will Henry and his wife, Pico co-owner Kali Kopley.

Now the U.S. Army veteran and alumnus of The Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, an affiliate of Le Cordon Bleu, is ensconced in the Pico kitchen as our collective COVID fears slowly ease. Of his goal in the months to come, Formica explained, “We’re really pushing the bar on globally inspired cuisine and fresh ingredients.”

458 Bell St., Los Alamos; (805) 344-1122;

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