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Category: Get To Know Our Chefs

Illumination Foundation’s OC Chef’s Table To Honor Anaheim Emergency Shelter’s Leadership

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – ORANGE, CA. – Feb 19, 2019 – The 6th annual Illumination Foundation OC Chef’s Table returns this year on Sunday, March 3rd, 2019. Presented once again by the Disneyland® Resort, the event will be Illumination Foundation’s largest yet with 41 of the most acclaimed chefs from Orange County and L.A. eateries participating.

As the OC Chef’s Table gala seeks to raise funds for more emergency housing for homeless individuals and families, the event is also honoring the four gentlemen behind the rapid completion of the temporary Anaheim Emergency Shelter, which opened on Dec. 21st and will be closing shortly when the nearby permanent shelter opens its doors.

OC Chef’s Table special honorees include:
Bill Taormina, CEO & Founder of Clean City
Dan Young, CEO & Founder of Camino Enterprises
Todd Ament, CEO of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce
Mayor Harry Sidhu, who insisted on this enterprise even before being sworn in as Anaheim’s new Mayor

From a vast, empty warehouse, the 200-bed Emergency homeless shelter was constructed in less than three weeks with kitchen and restroom facilities and semi-private rooms offering new beds and nightstands.  It provided the county’s first around-the-clock shelter with Illumination Foundation’s personnel providing wrap-around services that included three daily meals, healthcare assistance, mental and substance abuse assistance, work force counseling and more.

“What these gentlemen did as a team literally changed the whole culture of Orange County and how it deals with homelessness,” said Illumination Foundation Co-Founder Paul Leon.

“This was an undertaking that just about everyone said would be impossible to do in such a short timeframe,” Leon continued. “In the end, it proved that public and private interests can work together and, as a collective community, we can make miracles happen.”

Stephen LaFountain: Mastro’s Steakhouse – 5 Questions, 5 Minutes

Q: This will be your 4th year at OC Chef’s Table. Why do you keep returning?
Chef Stephen LaFountain: There are other charities focused on homelessness, but Illumination

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Foundation has done such a great job focusing on families … children especially. I have three children myself, and the thought of anything happening to my children if I was never around propels me to continue to support what Illumination is doing. Your life can change in a moment, and many of the people out there have ended up on the wrong side of that kind of moment.
And, Disneyland® brings its own magic to the event. They’re obviously so supportive of children and families, and that’s a big factor for me, too. It’s just an all-around spectacular and memorable evening.

Q: What made you decide to become a chef?
Chef Stephen: I was that introverted kid who got picked on a lot at school, but I was fortunate to find a great crowd of friends in high school, and I started to come out of my shell. When I got my first job at a restaurant, I realized it was a sort of fresh start – I could be anyone I wanted to be. So, the outgoing part of me that had always been there finally started to show up. I loved the community in the kitchen and the community that arrived as clientele at the front door, and I found I had a knack for cooking. It was a perfect fit for the “new” me.

Q: What were you doing prior to Mastro’s?
Chef Stephen: Once I started in restaurants, I never left. But, when I was 21, I broke my back in a car accident, and I laid in bed for a year until I learned how to walk again. Initially, they told me that I’d never walk again … and then they updated the diagnosis, telling me that I’d end up in a wheelchair by age 40. That plan definitely did not work for me. So, I just kept working at it every day, and working on recipes, too. I had so much more gratitude for my life as a chef when I was finally able to return to that life.

I started working with the Cameron Mitchell group in Ohio and worked my way up from line to executive chef in about a year and a half. I ran all the stations and closed for all the chefs because I was determined to get a sous chef position. The executive chef position a few months later was a surprise, and I helped them open restaurants everywhere. They were a great group to work for.

They sold all their fish markets and steak houses in 2006, so in 2008 I moved out here to California to work for the LeMeridean Delfina in Santa Monica. It was quite a culture change! I worked for a couple other large entities, and found my way to Mastro’s. In that timeframe, I met my wife and had three kids, so it’s been a fast moving timeline.

Q: What lessons from your year on your back did you take into your kitchen?  
Chef Stephen: Patience! When you’re an impatient person … who’s now flat on your back for a year… you have no choice but to learn patience. It’s helped me enormously with my kitchen staff, my patrons, even my kids.

And, I learned to listen more.

And, I think I finally learned the meaning of “teamwork” from that situation. One thing I’ve noticed … if you have a really defeating injury, once it gets you laying down, atrophy sets in – in both your body and your mind, which just makes everything worse. I think I’m better now at recognizing when my team members might be struggling. You want to help them before they’re feeling like they’re flat on their backs.

It’s probably why I feel an empathy for people who are experiencing homelessness – it might just be about getting to a point where you don’t think you can get up again. The people at Illumination Foundation stop the atrophy and help these people turn it around, get back on their feet. Because I have an inkling of how that physical and mental atrophy can eat away at your life, I’ll do anything I can to support what Illumination Foundation is doing.

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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 … 

Rocco Carbonaro: Rocco’s – 5 Questions, 5 Minutes

Q: When did you decide you liked cooking?
Chef Rocco Carbonara: It started with my Grandma. My brother and I were in her kitchen all the time. She was an old school cook, like cooking a pile of fava beans in old crates, that sort of thing. Both my brother and I got the bug – he went to culinary school first and has traveled all over the world as a chef. And, I’ve pretty much followed the same path.

Q: Where have you worked prior to the good ol’ O.C.?
Chef Rocco: I went to culinary school in southern Italy, so I started there, but I really wanted to learn how to cook international cuisine. So, I went to South America first, and I’d spend two months working in someplace like Columbia or Brazil, and then I’d take two months’ vacation there so I’d get to know the culture around the culinary. I had a great time traveling the world and cooking as I’d go.

When I landed in the states about eight years ago, I came to Orange County first because I had family here. I helped a friend open her restaurant in Telluride, Colorado, but for the most part, I’ve stayed here – meeting my wife was a big part of that decision!

Q: When did Rocco’s (the restaurant) come into play?
Chef Rocco: I was opening and operating restaurants for my family, but after I got married, my wife and I decided to branch out and that’s when Rocco’s was born. At one point just a couple years ago, I was operating three restaurants (including my Uncle’s restaurant, Carbonara’s after he passed away) and our family’s catering business, but I was never home. So, now it’s Rocco’s and the catering side, and it’s perfect for us.

Q: So, Rocco’s isn’t just Italian food …
Chef Rocco: No, I couldn’t let all that good travel and training go to waste! So, the menu is a real mix of international flavors. Although we loosely call it “latin cuisine,” it’s all over the board, from French to Venezuelan to Spanish to Mexican and Italian. We have a lot of fun in the kitchen.

Q: This is your second year at OC Chef’s Table. Why did you decide to return after your novice year last year?
Chef Rocco: It’s such a great experience! It’s by far the most emotional event I’ve ever cooked in – all these stories of redemption and lives saved – really amazing. Last year, they awarded two sisters scholarships – they had been homeless for years with their Mom. It was really touching. As a chef, you just can’t walk away from that and say it didn’t change you. That’s why we’re 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 … 

 

 

 

 

 

Popular Restaurateur and Chef Maro Molteni to Operate Royal Hawaiian

Popular Restaurateur and Chef Mariano (“Maro”) Molteni has announced plans to operate the iconic Laguna Beach-based restaurant, Royal Hawaiian at 331 N. Coast Highway.

The restaurant closed temporarily on Tuesday, Jan. 22nd, with plans to re-open shortly after Maro and his brother, Martin, participate in March 3rd’s renowned OC Chef’s Table for the Illumination Foundation. The two are joining 40 other top-ranked Orange County and L.A. chefs to raise funding to help the non-profit break the cycle of homelessness.

Royal Hawaiian’s storied history
An iconic landmark since 1947, Royal Hawaiian most recently changed ownership in 2015 when Mo Honarkar purchased the commercial block that includes the restaurant. A management team within the Honarkar ranks re-opened the restaurant at that time, and has since been operating the well-known “tiki bar” concept.

In the new agreement, Honarkar’s company will act as landlord while Molteni owns and operates the restaurant’s business.

“When we acquired the famed tiki bar and restaurant in 2015, we worked hard to restore its status as a beloved local hangout,” said Hasty Honarkar, Vice President of Concept Creation for Laguna Creative Ventures.

“Over the last three years we’ve made a lot of wonderful memories with our Laguna and Tiki ‘ohana,” she continued. “We look forward to having a Lapu Lapu when the Royal Hawaiian reopens soon!”

A long road and a short drive from Maro Wood Grill
After years of success and accolades at his Laguna Beach restaurant, Maro Wood Grill, Chef Maro Molteni sold his restaurant in July 2017, allowing the new owners to keep his moniker. He and his family returned to Argentina, where he worked with older chef brother, Martin, on completing and debuting a number of large culinary projects.

Upon returning to Laguna Beach a year later, Molteni was determined to find a larger restaurant space in Laguna. In late October he connected with Honarkar, whose own Laguna commercial properties house a few ideal restaurant spaces. After waiting through the busy holiday season, the two entities made it official.

Four week countdown to re-opening begins
While Maro Molteni has already begun work on interviews, hiring, and  interior and kitchen changes, his older brother, Chef Martin Molteni, is helping with kitchen management decisions and the revised Polynesian menu.

Martin Molteni, officially deemed “The Best Chef of Argentina,” will be joining his brother in the new venture. The two brothers have independently collected a host of awards and accolades regionally and internationally, but have decided to devote “the next decade ahead” to collaborating and creating successful concepts together.

Chef Martin will return in February for an extended stay. Over the next year, he plans to travel regularly between Laguna Beach and the culinary empire he has created in Argentina.

A return of more than just vintage drinks
Born and raised in Argentina, the Molteni brothers will continue to pay homage to Royal Hawaiian’s Polynesian culture, particularly as wood-grilled beef, chicken, pork and seafood is so much a part of that world. For centuries, Hawaiians have crafted their meals over open wood fires in the great outdoors, a culinary skill that syncs beautifully with similar Argentinian heritage. “

“After the Royal Hawaiian opened in 1947, it enjoyed decades as the “go-to” place for the greatest steak and freshest fish around,” said Chef Maro.

“Of course, the Lapu Lapu drink is never going to go away, but the real ‘nostalgia’ we’re interested in has to do with creating that amazing Polynesian steakhouse again,” he said.

 

Chef Fabio Ugoletti: N10 – Five Questions, Five Minutes

Q: So how did someone from Tuscany end up in the heart of L. A. at one of its top restaurants?
Chef Fabio Ugoletti: After years of being a chef, I began consulting and training chefs all over Italy, and I used to teach at culinary schools, too, as a guest speaker. When I was in Florence, one of my students asked if I could travel to the U.S. to take a look at an Italian restaurant they had recently taken over that wasn’t really Italian. So, I went for 10 days … and at the end of 10 days they asked me to come over and open another restaurant for them. At first I said “no,” but my wife and kids were all for it. so six months later, we were all in Redondo Beach. And, yes. It was QUITE a change!

Q: When did you move over to the West Hollywood location? 
Chef Fabio: After we got the restaurant up and running in Redondo, we decided to open N10 in West Hollywood, and we got that open in March 2015.

Q: What do you think made N10 so successful from the start? 
Chef Fabio: Definitely the choice of ingredients we use. Of course we’re using authentic Italian recipes, and we’re preparing them exactly the same way we do in Italy, but the key is making everything from scratch with the very best ingredients. We don’t skimp on anything. We buy our oils and fish from Italy and buy our calamari fresh each morning before it’s even had a chance to be frozen. It doesn’t matter how simple it is. When you use the best ingredients, it’s going to be amazing.

Q: This is your first year at OC Chef’s Table. Why did your L. A. based restaurant decide to participate in a mostly-O.C. event? 
Chef Fabio: Well, these chefs are amazing. These are the chefs you read about, even up in L.A. I’ve never had the opportunity to work with so many top chefs in one room before, and I’m looking forward to getting to know them on the evening of our event. When you’re a chef, you live in your kitchen; there’s not a lot of time to visit other chefs, let alone in the O.C. I think it’s going to be a very fun event.

Q: Had you heard of Illumination Foundation before?
Chef Fabio: No, it was introduced to me when we were asked to participate. At our Chef’s Breakfast, when the Co-Founder Paul Leon got up to speak about what they do, it really hit home then and there. These people are doing really great things for our neighbors, people who are struggling. There’s really no better magic than bringing your culinary skill to your table while they bring their talent and skill to helping so many thousands of people.

 

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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 John Park – Toast – 5 Questions, 5 Minutes

Q: Last year was your first year with OC Chef’s Table and you didn’t even have a restaurant at the time …

Chef John Park: Yeah, that was a little crazy. I was prepping all of the food for the dinner out my little apartment with our two boys running around. It was kind of hysterical. I was so honored that Illumination Foundation asked me to be a part of it, even sans restaurant, that I couldn’t turn it down.

We finally got Toast open on July 24th last year.

Q: For a guy who never expected to be a chef, you have quite the interesting business partner.
It’s funny how things work sometimes. I never even expected to be a chef, much less have Ed Lee from Wahoo’s as my business partner. When I was 20, I had never cooked before in my life. I’d never even held a knife in my hand. Up until that time, I was a math major. I was going to be an engineer, maybe coach water polo at a high school somewhere. But certain events happened in my life and I felt called to be a chef.

I tried culinary school, but it wasn’t moving along fast enough. I dropped out so that I could get a job in the industry. That was 18 years ago. I trained as a pastry chef and then worked every station in every kitchen. I just had this sense that this path would lead to the real work I wanted to do – that is, seeking out and helping and hiring vets and homeless individuals and kids who’ve grown up in foster care.

As a restaurant, you can do so much more … you can build this whole aspect of community into your business, of breaking bread together and nourishing people and giving them hope. Owning a restaurant was my means to this end.

Q: Why make the move from L.A. to the O.C.?
I kind of asked the same question, but it was just something I felt led to do. My wife and I had three businesses in L.A. and we were doing well – but I just knew it was time to sell the businesses and move to the O.C. We didn’t have any friends or family down here, and I spent 16 months unemployed, just trying to find the right restaurant. But in that timeframe, I got to know all the issues around homelessness, especially in the nearby riverbed in Santa Ana.

So many residents here don’t know about all the issues that are rampant for thousands of people who are struggling on the streets. When we took over the old Golden Truffle space, we knew we were moving into an iconic space in the O.C. But on our first day of construction, we realized we were right in the middle of the worst part of the entire city for homelessness. And, I think that’s exactly why we landed here.

Q: When did you first learn about Illumination Foundation?
I used to see the Illumination Foundation representatives out on the trails and in the parks, working with the homeless, so I started doing my research. It didn’t take long to realize we were both working to the same end. At the restaurant, we give 10% of our profits to helping the under-served, and most of our staff is made up of vets and foster kids we’ve employed and helped get back on their feet.

We believe that, as restaurant owners and chefs, we have a day-to-day opportunity to be there for people when everyone else has turned away. Beyond feeding them and providing nourishment, we should be the leader and create a welcome environment that opens the doors to vets and homeless adults and kids.

My wife and I are committed to eradicating homelessness because no one deserves that kind of life … and Illumination Foundation is clearly the leader – in the country – that’s devoted to the very same cause.

So, our commitment is this: Anything we can do to help Illumination Foundation we’ll do.

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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 Ben LeFleche: Waterfront Beach Resort – 5 Questions, 5 Minutes

Q – This is your second year at OC Chef’s Table, yes?
Chef BenLeFleche: Yes. Last year was our first year. We’ve been wanting to participate for awhile, but since we’ve been undergoing heavy construction these last 3 years, last year was the first year we felt we could really pull it off. It was awesome! The scope of what Illumination Foundation puts together is simply incredible.

Q – How long have you been at the Hilton Waterfront Beach Resort?
Sixteen very fast moving years.

Q – So, all this construction dust … has it been worth it?
Absolutely! Before the expansion we were stuck with just one restaurant space, so it had to cater to a mixed crowd of tastes and ages. Now we’ll have three restaurants – the Boardwalk for three meals a day, the Off Shore Nine club on the upper deck, and finer dining at Henry’s, which will be in the space that our one restaurant – Shades – has been all this time. Henry’s is set to open in March – hopefully – right after the OC Chef’s Table event.

Q – Is Henry’s your baby?
You might say that. I oversee all of the food and beverage here, but Henry’s is a dream we’ve finally made a reality. I’ve always wanted to do something more upscale and creative and, fortunately, our management lets us do what we know.

Henry’s will be an all-scratch kitchen serving just breakfast and dinner. I don’t know if many chefs do this in an entire menu, from butter to jams, jellies, in-house cured bacon, sausage … everything that touches the plate will be scratch.

We’ve spent the last few years developing relationships with small purveyors and farmers who don’t normally do commercial work because they’re just too small and specific. So, for instance, we’re working with a lamb farmer at a ranch up north who can pretty much tell you which blade of grass the lamb eats on any given day. Another farmer we work with raises Campeche Tarpon. We’re also bringing in high-quality meats like Wagyu.

Henry’s is about people who care about their food … on both sides of the table. We’ll be doing simple dishes that really showcase the flavors.

Q – Give me an idea or two of menu items you’ll be featuring
Well, I love our braised octopus dish with pomegranate jelly and black salt. That, however, is an item on the winter menu I was hoping I would be able to cook with an earlier open date … it might have to wait until next fall.

Q – Why the Henry’s name?
The restaurant is named after Henry Huntington who created his own railroad and trolley system out this way. It all started as a friendly competition with his uncle, who owned Southern Pacific. He purchased a defunct hotel here in Huntington Beach in 1911 and renamed it the Huntington Hotel – it was a big success. He created quite a legacy.

Will any of your new menus be on OC Chef’s Table menu?
Oh yes! The menu is already written as a compilation of dishes from all three of our new restaurants. The Offshore Nine is usually where people start their meal while watching the sunset, so that’s the opening course. And … we go from there!

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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 Riley Huddleston – Lido House – 5 Questions, 5 Minutes

Q – When did you first figure out you liked cooking? 
Chef Riley Huddleston: When I was about 13 or 14 I figured out that instead of spending MY hard-earned money for gifts for my Mom on various occasions, I could offer to cook for her and use HER hard-earned money to go grocery shopping. I would cook dinner, convinced I was outsmarting her. But it got to be pretty interesting to me pretty quickly – we would eat dinner out somewhere and I’d go home and replicate it. I loved the challenge.

Q – When did you decide to make a business out of it?
It took awhile. After high school, I thought I’d be a professional beach bum but my Dad wasn’t keen on the idea. He offered to pay for college there, and I did two semesters in oceanography before moving to a smaller island in the Caribbean. At this point, I was much more interested in cooking, so I decided to go to culinary school there at the New England Culinary Institute. I sold it to my Mom first, and then tried it on my Dad – he grudgingly agreed to it, but I was on my own this time on the expense side. He just didn’t see how I could make a decent living out of it.

At 18, I decided to open my first restaurant in Boise – the Boise Fry Company. I grew it to six locations and sold it last year. My Dad was so pleased I had finally found a way to the business side!

Q – Did you move here from Boise?
No, after I got the Fry Company up and running, I began creating concepts everywhere. I ended up in Chicago and worked on concepts at The Godfrey Hotel and London House. I ended up here about three years ago, initially working on the Hive & Honey Rooftop Bar and Heirloom concepts. Then, we started working on the Lido House and I got involved as the Executive Chef Partner.

Q – When did the Lido House actually open?
April 18, 2018. We haven’t made it to the year mark quite yet. Although we were hopping with tourists in the summer season, this is really a hotel that’s made for locals. We’re a 130-room hotel but our Mayor’s Table alone seats 142, and we’ve got our Top Side bar a well as our Crew Coffee & Creamery … so we’re all about being a local offering to our Newport Beach audience. Our pricing isn’t like typical hotel pricing and the menus are entirely different.

Q – So, give me an idea of what Mayor’s Table has going on.
Well, we primarily focus on seafood and vegetables, but our bar menu has items like lobster rolls and spicy tuna, while our breakfast menu offers items like the Dungeness Crab Benedict that’s piled with fresh crab and served with a lemon beurre blanc sauce.

One of my favorite items on our lunch menu is roasted chicken, but it’s first marinated in fenugreek, citrus and spices. We plate it with a nice, light Thai curry and charred vegetables – sunchokes that we toss with parsnip and Romanesco – and then place the roasted chicken on that. It’s a very warm dish that’s light and clean.

Dinner is more elevated. One of my favorites lately is our Turbot – it’s gently poached and served with beurre blanc with crab, caviar and crispy potatoes piled on top.

Q – Given that you could have ended up just about anywhere, why choose Newport Beach?
I think the O.C. is right on the brink of true food greatness. As a rule, SoCal has never been recognized as a food mecca like Chicago or San Francisco. There are a number of chefs in L.A. that are stepping into that space – for the first time ever, really – and there are a number of great chefs here in the O.C. that are taking it to the next level, too. I like being a part of that movement. I like employing modernist techniques, like shattering berries with nitrogen and smoking salmon tartar tableside. The Orange County audience is ready for that fun and innovation, and this is right where I want to be.

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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 Jayro Martinez: Social – 5 Questions, 5 Minutes

When was the first time you thought you might like to cook?
Chef Jayro Martinez: In high school. I remember passing the Home Economics room and smelling all these great smells. I figured any class that smelled like that was one I needed to be in. The teacher was great, and as I learned baking fundamentals, I realized I was excited about something besides sports. All the different textures and the science behind this baking empire … who knew? It was just awesome!

When I was a senior, I found out that there were culinary school scholarships for under-served kids. I was lucky to be selected. So, I started directly out of high school and, in my free time, worked in restaurant kitchens.

Where did you first start?
I started with a company called Grace Catering, and also worked in the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel. I started there as a prep cook and worked my way through all the stations to become the lead line cook.

It wasn’t my only restaurant, though. In fact, it wasn’t the only catering company I worked for, either. I would volunteer my time to work at restaurants. I wanted to study how every single one operated. Through it all, I gained a very broad knowledge of cooking styles, from Mediterranean to Spanish to Japanese. And then I ended up opening my friend’s Israeli restaurant, Mh Zh.

Not a bad reputation to earn as the first restaurant kitchen under your command. Didn’t Mh Zh make Best Restaurant of the Year with Thrillist?
It surprised all of us! It helps that it was a tiny restaurant – we only had 500 square feet. Within two weeks of opening, we were doing 200 covers a night with people waiting nearly 3 hours to be seated. It was absolutely crazy.

I worked there the first few months, and then continued to consult while I went over to help another friend open their catering company, Sqirl. I love the mix of all of it.

What made you decide to make the leap from L.A. to the O.C.?
My girlfriend was going to school at UCI, so I thought I’d give O.C. a try. Social had caught my attention as they had such great reviews, so I went to work with Chef José last June. We were able to launch a new menu before he moved to help at another of our restaurants. He created a fun, dynamic atmosphere here, so that’s the kind of energy I’m committed to maintaining.

So, now that you’re at Social in the O.C., what do you see as the biggest difference between the clientele?
Everything in the O.C. is so clean and fresh and calm! It doesn’t feel hectic like L.A. The restaurants here are more traditional and classically driven – you don’t necessarily see the melting pot of cuisines like you do L.A., but the food is so classically great. I was exposed to a lot more farmer’s markets, and I think there’s more vegetarian cuisine, as a rule, in L.A.

So, I’ve enjoyed discovering the markets out here and bringing in more of that “urban” exposure to our Social menu. I really love coming to work every day.

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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 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 … 

 

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