Chef Gunnar Planter’s cooking experience goes back to childhood — when he’d make breakfast in bed for his parents — and moved to restaurants soon after, starting at the Rancho Santa Fe fine-dining hotspot Mille Fleurs when he was just 16. Sixteen years later, Planter is in charge of the kitchens at the Mar Monte Hotel on the Santa Barbara waterfront, preparing Italian-leaning cuisine at Costa Kitchen & Bar in the evenings and all-day dishes for poolside enjoyment at Café Lido. He tells us more below.
Mentor respect: Planter trained under Mille Fleurs’ longtime leader Martin Woesle, once recognized as the region’s best chef by the James Beard Foundation. “He taught me the French techniques that are the basis of most modern-day cuisine,” said Planter. “He’s still a good mentor and friend of mine. He comes to visit every single restaurant I work at.”
Away from home: This is Planter’s first time living outside of San Diego County. “I lived all over San Diego, from Ocean Beach to Oceanside, but I’m 32 years old, and it’s the first time I’ve moved out of the county,” said Planter. After seven years at Mille Fleurs — during which time he earned a degree in culinary arts and business management from the Art Institute — he learned about international cuisine and “giving guests what they want” at the private University Club in downtown San Diego and then practiced the restaurant-in-hotel game at the Inn at Rancho Santa Fe, working right across the street from Woesle. Most recently, he opened Viewpoint Brewing in Del Mar and Ebullition Brew Works in Carlsbad, a steakhouse-meets-brewery concept where he remains a minor partner.
Fast fish: Planter loves how easy it is to get fresh fish in Santa Barbara. “Even though we had a lot of fish in San Diego, it’s a lot bigger,” he said of that market. “If you didn’t order the night before, the chances of getting something the next day were pretty slim. Whereas up here, they actually prefer you to call them in the morning.”
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Small-town respect: “Everything is like five or 10 minutes away,” said Planter, who lives near De la Guerra and Garden, close to both the State Street scene and his job. “I truly didn’t understand how small this town is until I moved here.”
Menu highlights: Planter took over in January from Chef Nathan Lingle, who opened Costa as an Italian restaurant with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences and then stayed about a year. (He appears to be roasting coffee in Ventura now.) “I was able to make my mark on the menu pretty quick,” said Planter. He’s looking to launch an extensive dry-aged steak program — there’s a 30-day New York with bone marrow right now — but is equally proud of dishes like squid ink linguine and clams with uni butter and snow peas.
Lido, too: He’s spreading his wings at Lido, where anyone can dine on crispy masala shrimp, harissa-crusted lamb chops, or salmon niçoise salad. “We really focus on Costa,” said Planter, “but Lido is our little surprise.”
Overcoming invisibility: “If you’re not staying at our hotel, it’s hard to really know we’re there because we’re tucked away — we don’t have a huge sign saying we’re a restaurant,” said Planter. “But once people do find out, we get a lot of repeat business from locals. Once they come, they come back. We’re trying to get that perception changed from being a hotel to being an awesome restaurant as well.”
1111 E. Cabrillo Blvd.; (805) 882-1234; marmontehotel.com