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Month: December 2018

Chef Brian Okada: Water Grill – 5 Questions, 5 Minutes

This is your first year at OC Chef’s Table, yes?
Chef Brian Okada: Absolutely! Water Grill was there last year and afterwards, the chefs kept talking about how elaborate and amazing it was. They were totally hooked. So, this year I thought I’d step in and experience firsthand what all the talk is about. We’ve already started talking concepts over here – this is an important night for us.

So, what does a Culinary Director do vs. an Executive Chef of a restaurant?
It just means I oversee all of the restaurants from the top down, and get to design more about the overall dining experience, which is a pretty great job.

I started working with King Seafood Company 10 years ago as their Culinary Director, so I’ve helped create several new brands for the company – Fish Camp, Pier Burger, 555 East, etc. And I got to be involved in the remodels and updates for our Water Grill and steakhouse restaurants, too.

Now we have 21 restaurants – five Water Grills, three steakhouses that include 555 East in Long Beach, Lou & Mickey’s in the Gaslamp District and Meat on Ocean in Santa Monica. Then, we have fast casual too with Fish Camp and Pier Burger. It’s never a dull moment.

There’s a lot of R&D involved. We sit down in a room and start hammering it all out – plateware, everything that touches the table, equipment in the kitchen, then the menu concepts and cuisine design. Now the NEW project is the OC Chef’s Table!

Did you have any early influencers that got you interested in cooking?
Well, my grandmothers definitely got me interested in EATING. They both loved to cook, and they were on opposite ends of the spectrum. My Japanese grandmother was an amazing cook; she’d always do a huge table devoted to traditional Japanese food.

On the other extreme … my grandmother from the hills of West Virginia. She was the queen of comfort food. My grandfather would come home from work every day and, even well into his 60s, she would be sure that a glass of buttermilk and a piece of white bread for soaking would be there to greet him.

It’s pretty hysterical looking back at how these two women would load up a shared table – the huge bowl of steamy comfort food with this delicate, precise Japanese food. As it turned out, my Dad was a great cook (the West Virgina side) and my Mom somehow missed the cooking gene altogether.

When did YOU start cooking?
I had to get a job after high school, and luckily landed a restaurant job. No idea what I would have done had I gotten a job as a framer – I think this cooking thing is what I was meant to do. It was fun and came easy to me, and I couldn’t believe you could get paid for something that was all that. Then, they asked me to help them train people for restaurants they were opening so I spent a few years moving from place to place. There’s really no better experience.

So, when did you decide this would be a career for you?
Even after the restaurant opening and training I did, I don’t think I was truly committed until I worked for an executive chef at a private club in my mid 20s … and then my eyes were opened. I finally realized then that food could be art, and from that moment forward, there was no looking back.

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The top chefs in Orange County (along with a few surprise visiting chefs) are getting together again for the renowned OC Chef’s Table at Disneyland® Resort on March 3, 2019.
In it 6th year, OC Chef’s Table continues to help Illumination Foundation raise funds to provide permanent housing and services for homeless adults and children. With OC’s most imaginative chefs creating one-of-a-kind magical menus, it’s no wonder OC Chef’s Table is one of the most coveted gala tickets of the year.
See all 40+ chefs participating and secure your ticket at OCChefsTable.com. And, get to know this year’s phenomenal chefs as Diane Armitage sits down with each, asking 5 questions in just 5 minutes … 

 

A night of belonging

Editor’s note: Our own Chef John Park of Toast Kitchen Bakery & Bar presided over this special dinner for homeless people. Read what the OC Register has to say!

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By Theresa Walker

thwalker@scng.com @TellTheresa on Twitter 

Monday, Dec. 17, 2018 – On a night designed to make her feel like royalty, Donna Sallee compared herself to something far less glamorous: a human piece of trash.

Those were the words used by the 62-year-old recovering meth addict to describe the self-loathing caused by her personal failings and the disparaging treatment she has endured over nearly two decades of being on the streets.

The disdain made her wonder where she fits in.

The answer came back from many voices: “Right here!”

Sallee heard those words from the other homeless people she lives with at the Courtyard shelter in the Santa Ana Civic Center. They were the 20 guests of honor Tuesday night at a special gathering called Kings Table.

And just as vigorously, Sallee was embraced by the hosts of the evening, employees of the ad agency Amusement Park, whose offices in the old city hall on Main Street aren’t far from the shelter.

That message of acceptance spread to all the homeless women and men treated to a four-course dinner made by executive chef John Park of Toast Kitchen Bakery & Bar in Costa Mesa.

Their servers were Amusement Park staff. Other employees sat among their guests for the meal, including Amusement Park Chief Executive Officer Mike Weisman, who ended the night with a standing invitation.

“These doors are always, always open to each one of you,” he said. “You’re very precious.”

Kings Table is an outreach started by Santa Ana native Lambert Lo, a surf instructor to celebrities and billionaires around the world, who dedicates much of his free time as an advocate for the poor and downtrodden.

Lo, 43, has put on a Kings Table gathering monthly the past three years, finding hosts at various venues in Santa Ana. In February, he took the concept to Switzerland, where refugees who have fled violence in the Middle East were the honored guests.

Last month, a dinner was held at a church in Bangkok’s red light district for women forced from a young age into the sex trade.

“We hope to continue to have prostitutes as our guests but also invite refugees, those living in the nearby slums and on the streets — our neighbors,” Kaija Leo, a friend of Lo’s who does church work in Bangkok, wrote in an email.

To Lo, as he intends it to be for all who attend, Kings Table is more than a meal. It’s a night of belonging and friendship.

“It’s a different experience from most homeless meals,” said Lo, who likes to call himself Lamberto for his roots in the Spanish- speaking neighborhoods of Santa Ana. “Dignit y, interaction, story and hope are the top priorities.”

The guests and the hosts, as was the case with the Amusement Park staff, share the meal and personal stories as the evening unfolds. On Tuesday night, Park created appetizers that included bacon-wrapped dates, a first course with white bean toast and crispy brussels sprouts, a second course with sous vide short rib and two desserts.

The setting resembled a fancy banquet with table linens, soft candlelight, seasonal decorations and live music inside the spacious staff lounge at Amusement Park.

Employees call the area where they go to relax the “love room” for a sign on the back wall that spells out L-O-V-E in small light bulbs. The nickname fit perfectly with the mood and meaning of Kings Table.

“Did you guys taste the love in the food tonight?” Lo asked as he gave a shout-out to Park, who arranged the food on the plates in an area next to the employee lounge.

That love has crossed borders.

Stéphane Rapin runs a golf course in the Swiss town of Payerne. He has family in Santa Ana and, with Lo’s assistance, presented a Kings Table. It has become a monthly event. A friend in England has started one at her home, inviting refugees.

Rapin tells the story of a Syrian man whose restaurant in Aleppo was destroyed by ISIS. The man saw his sons beheaded and escaped with his daughter. He enjoyed the Kings Table meal so much he asked to come cook for the next one. He’s been back twice.

“We realized he was alive again when he was preparing food and serving people,” Rapin said in an email. “So we are now trying to find a way to give him a tool again, to give him a restaurant in Switzerland.”

During what Lo calls his favorite part of Kings Table, he invites people to come up and speak whatever is on their minds, as Sallee and others did in talking about the way society often perceives homeless people. It’s a testimonial of sorts.

Kimberly Sandoval, 50, said she’s spent the past two months at the Courtyard, after years of living “right out there,” pointing in the vicinity of the Civic Center.

Her rough life included drug abuse, giving up her son and being disowned by her family. But she said she is finding another family among the homeless people at the Courtyard and the advocates who encourage them to change their lives.

“Lambert was right when he was saying it’s not us and them,” Sandoval said. “It’s a we — a we.”

One man, Clarence Williams, 52, got an interview with Park for the next day, to perhaps wash dishes at Toast. He ended the evening on a note of excitement: “I hope I get this job!”

Prayer is also a part of what gets shared, along with joy and tears. More often than not, Lo is the first to cry.

His voice wavered as he told everyone that God watches out for them.

“He looks at you right now, and he sees your heart of gold. You are all kings.”

 

Guests of Kings Table, a once-a-month multicourse meal served to homeless people, gather for a group hug during Tuesday’s dinner at the ad agency Amusement Park in Santa Ana.

 

Servers at Tuesday’s Kings Table dinner were staff of the ad agency Amusement Park, which hosted the event. Other employees sat among their guests for the meal. Above, Zach Weisman serves some of the guests.

Chef Ernie Alvarado: Urbana – 5 Questions, 5 Minutes

How many years have you participated in OC Chef’s Table?
Chef Ernie Alvarado:
This one in March 2020 will be our fourth year. It means a lot to me to be able to help these people, especially the kids. It just wrenches my heart when I hear what they’ve been through.

What got you interested in being a Chef?
I had always been in the industry from high school – server, busser, food runner, you name it. I just loved the energy of the restaurant business. One day it was like I suddenly noticed the FOOD in the kitchen, how they were preparing it … and I realized I really loved THIS. I loved everything about the food. All my life, I had been picking it up from my Mom – she was the best culinary school right there … but it finally just clicked for me. From that point, I only wanted to work in the kitchen. So, I found great chefs to learn from, and worked my way up.

What do you like most about cooking?
I love the seasonings and layers of flavors. You might have a traditional dish with three ingredients, but I like infusing and experimenting, adding in 2 or 3 more to just give it that whole flavor experience.

What’s your favorite dish in Urbana right now?
Everything! I like making everything. I think just being a part of the Anaheim Packing District gives our food a special kind of energy, too.

We have a menu of favorites that people come back for on a regular basis, so my team and I focus on keeping those items fresh and consistent. But every week, I do specials, all of which are usually pretty spontaneous. I might go to the store or farmer’s market and see something that turns my head – and I find a way to put the ingredients together to make it special.

Recently, I’ve really liked the Filet Mignon Taco – we created it for our 3-year anniversary here at Urbana and haven’t removed it from the menu since. It might sound a little normal, but it’s my job to make it anything but normal. I really love the process.

Any plans yet for our OC Chef’s Table menu?
Oh, I’ve already started thinking about it. The key is to be very different from last year. I think that’s what all of us try to do, and that’s what makes it such an amazing evening.

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The top chefs in Orange County (along with a few surprise visiting chefs) are getting together again for the renowned OC Chef’s Table at Disneyland® Resort on March 1, 2020 to provide permanent housing and services for homeless adults and children. With OC’s most imaginative chefs creating one-of-a-kind magical menus, it’s no wonder OC Chef’s Table is one of the most coveted gala tickets of the year.
See all 40+ chefs participating and secure your ticket at OCChefsTable.com. And, get to know this year’s phenomenal chefs as Diane Armitage sits down with each, asking 5 questions in just 5 minutes … 

 

Chef Anthony Berganza: Red O – 5 Questions, 5 Minutes

What made you choose a career as a chef?
My parents migrated from El Salvador and I was born in East L.A. I grew up in Baldwin Park and really struggled. I didn’t even think I was going to graduate high school. One day, the career counselor called me into his office and I thought I was in for a bad meeting. But, turns out he was a former chef and he thought I was a fit for it. He’s the one who inspired me to pursue this field. It’s been nothing but amazing!

What was your most memorable restaurant job?
Every day at the Red O is awesome, really. But I did have the opportunity to work for Chef John Burton Race at the 2-star Michelin restaurant, New Angel, in Dartmouth, England. I had a 3-month scholarship and it was definitely the biggest 90 days of my life.

The whole life and culture over there for a chef is different there – it carries such prestige. At the same time, it carries a heavy weight of expectation. There’s a sense of urgency in the European kitchen – there’s no down time when you’re working over there.

The restaurant was so well known that people traveled from all over the world to eat there. The ability to get to know different cultures in the culinary world was so eye-opening. Food crosses boundaries in extraordinary ways, and I guess that’s the biggest lesson I came back to the States with. I was on a mission to do the same thing.

How did you get involved with Red O?
When I came back to the States, I started opening restaurants for Nordstrom’s all over the country. Corporate life had its benefits, but I wanted to be able to experiment more with food. I heard about Rick Bayless’ Red O concept, and already thought so highly of him that I really wanted to find a way in. They let me do a tasting for them, and it just worked out.

What did you prepare for the tasting?
I did a gnocchi with chimichurri and charred octopus, a deconstructed short rib with a corn soufflé and a toasted goat cheese watermelon salad with chili lime dressing. It all worked! (You never know if it’s going to go your way.) I don’t play with my food, but I DO like to be playful when it comes to food. It needs to be a fun experience for everyone.

What’s your favorite menu item now?
Probably the black ceviche – Ceviche Negro. It has this great charred octopus flavor with broth and onions and habaneros. We cook ancho chiles in a slow oven overnight and add those in for color. Then, it’s just the Vitamix with lime juice, garlic and a few more spices, which flavors the broth. It just has all this depth of flavor – it’s like tasting a really great wine.

Last year was your first at OC Chef’s Table, yes?
Yes – last year I was there with Mark, our regional chef. This coming March, I’m on my own! I really can’t wait – any part we can contribute to raise money for these kids and their families that are struggling  … we’re all in.

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The top chefs in Orange County (along with a few surprise visiting chefs) are getting together again for the renowned OC Chef’s Table at Disneyland® Resort on March 3, 2019.
In it 6th year, OC Chef’s Table continues to help Illumination Foundation raise funds to provide permanent housing and services for homeless adults and children. With OC’s most imaginative chefs creating one-of-a-kind magical menus, it’s no wonder OC Chef’s Table is one of the most coveted gala tickets of the year.
See all 40+ chefs participating and secure your ticket at OCChefsTable.com. And, get to know this year’s phenomenal chefs as Diane Armitage sits down with each, asking 5 questions in just 5 minutes … 

 

Chef Randy Gruspe: Duke’s – 5 Questions, 5 Minutes

How in the world did a guy who grew up in Hawaii end up at the Duke’s extension in Huntington Beach?!
Right! The Duke’s first two restaurants were in Kauai and Waikiki but I had to move to SoCal to cook Hawaiian food! I love it, though. I truly grew up in the culture of Hawaiian cooking, so I really feel like I’m sharing my home with people here.

When did you first decide you wanted to cook?
When I was about 8 year old and cooking outside with all the men from my family and village. Passing down “recipes” and ways of cooking is prominently woven into the island culture, and the whole experience of it had me hooked. I used to race home from school to watch Japanese subtitled “Iron Chef” shows … that was about 1994. I was enthralled.

Did you ever think you were going to be something besides a chef?
I played rugby from about junior high on up. I eventually played pro in New Zealand … not for the All Blacks because they still don’t accept overseas players into the team … but for the Canterbury Crusaders. It was a great run and a lot of fun travel but, in the end, my heart wanted to be in the kitchen.

What’s your favorite food to cook at Duke’s?
I like the Banana Leaf Fish entrée because it resonates with being home in the islands and cooking your protein in a banana leaf over the open fires there. It creates such a beautiful steamed fish. We finish it simply with a hot sesame oil and topped with micro-cilantro. It’s simple but so, so good.

And what’s your favorite food to cook, period?
Spam fried rice. No question. It makes me happy.

What do you think of participating in your first OC Chef’s Table?
It’s crazy to be in company with so many amazing chefs! I just feel honored to be in the room with these people. I’ve heard such great things about OC Chef’s Table for the last few years, but never suspected I’d be invited to participate. I’m really looking forward to the experience. Time to bring it!

The top chefs in Orange County (along with a few surprise visiting chefs) are getting together again for the renowned OC Chef’s Table at Disneyland® Resort on March 3, 2019.
In it 6th year, OC Chef’s Table continues to help Illumination Foundation raise funds to provide permanent housing and services for homeless adults and children. With OC’s most imaginative chefs creating one-of-a-kind magical menus, it’s no wonder OC Chef’s Table is one of the most coveted gala tickets of the year.
See all 40+ chefs participating and secure your ticket at OCChefsTable.com. And, get to know this year’s phenomenal chefs as Diane Armitage sits down with each, asking 5 questions in just 5 minutes …