Who are Orange County's Super Chefs?
A handful of veterans rise head and shoulders above the rest
Among local culinary wizards, a handful of veterans rise head and shoulders above the rest. Brimming with creativity and proven leadership ability, each has the physical stamina and strength of character to put out fires — sometimes literally — and leave it all behind the kitchen door when he walks into the dining room to graciously greet guests. Here are the five seasoned pros whom we’d bet on in an “Iron Chef” battle against Mario Batali, Bobby Flay or Morimoto.
Chef Amar Santana - Broadway by Amar Santana
A 10-year-old sneaks into a backyard in the Dominican Republic. He steals an empty bottle and throws it to his brother, Vicente. Catch made! They race to a store where they exchange it for money. Shopping list: one tablespoon tomato paste, garlic, one half-pound dried spaghetti. At home, Amar whips up a pasta dish, finishing it with a bit of butter. Living with their aunt, because their parents have emigrated ahead to New York, Amar and Vicente have almost nothing. But with Amar’s street wiles and instinctive ability to cook, they survive another day.
Three years later, Amar has settled in Queens, living in a one-bedroom apartment with Vicente, his parents, and a couple of step-siblings. Still struggling to perfect his English, Amar avoids attending the toughest high school in town by enrolling in C-CAP (Careers through Culinary Arts Program). But on the first day of class he’s shocked to find out that “culinary” means cooking instruction. He gets home and tells his mother he isn’t going back.
He returns to ESL classes, and as his English improves he makes a few friends. But he hungrily watches students carrying chicken, chocolate mousse, and cookies from their cooking classes. He takes another stab at it. He dislikes studies but he’s a rock star in the kitchen. Preparing to enter a competition, he knocks on the door at Chanterelle, chef David Waltuck’s fine-dining bastion in Manhattan that closed in 2009 after a 30-year run. “I want to be a chef,” said 17-year-old Santana. “Do you have a jacket? Knives?,” they asked. “I got nothing,” he said, explaining he was a student. They took him anyway.
Contest day at C-CAP’s New York competition for scholarships at the New York Restaurant School. Knife skills: “I sliced the onion without even looking, tatatatatatatatata. And then I made a French omelet on one try ... and gave it to the judges. They said, ‘Wait, you did that very fast. Are you sure?’ And I said, ‘I cannot make it any better.’ ”
He won his first scholarship that year: two weeks at Le Cordon Bleu in London. By the time he entered his second C-CAP scholarship competition, he was at New York’s Butterfield 81 working with former ballerina Patricia Williams, who helmed the now-defunct neighborhooder with legions of fans. “She was an amazing mentor,” Santana said.
To find out whether he’d won, he and his mother waited through a long ceremony at Windows on the World. Why weren’t they calling his name? Was it his grades? “My mom looks at me and I’m worried. But I was the best. My stuff was good, I finished first. Mom said, ‘It’s OK, mijo (my son). I love you. You’ll be fine. Not a big deal.’ ” When the announcement came, he was moved to tears: A scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America.
An externship at another New York institution, Charlie Palmer’s Aureole, followed, and then a job offer when chef Palmer found him washing dishes at midnight after his regular shift ended. “Hire that guy!” yelled the man whom Santana had only seen in a documentary. He was mesmerized by Palmer’s rags-to-riches story.
“The last part was him in Vegas driving a convertible down the strip wearing a chef’s jacket and smoking a cigar. I’m looking at the screen. I’m 17. I told my brother, ‘I wanna be that guy.’ ”
The boy who had nothing
Bio: Age 33. Born in the Dominican Republic, emigrated to the U.S. at 13.
Resume: Sous chef at Aureole by 21, executive sous chef by the time he was 23. At 26, opened Charlie Palmer at Bloomingdale’s at South Coast Plaza. Started Broadway by Amar Santana in Laguna Beach in 2011. His second restaurant, Vaca, a Spanish steakhouse in Costa Mesa, opens this fall.
Languages: Native Spanish speaker.
Awards: Guest chef at James Beard House, 2013. Winner of Esquire network’s “Knife Fight,” 2013. Finalist on NBC’s “America’s Next Great Restaurant,” 2012.
No wife, no kids: But he bought a house in Irvine last year. “It’s a 2,000-square-foot condo. Very New York. It’s my bachelor pad.”
Tattoo: “I have a piggy on my back. I love pork.”
Iron Chef he’d like to challenge: Bobby Flay.
Fave celeb chefs: Tom Colicchio. And, yes, Gordon Ramsay. “It is an act. I know people who worked for him. He’s actually very talented.”
Chef pals: Eric Samaniego (Little Sparrow), Michael Puglisi (Electric City Butcher), Carlos Salgado (Taco Maria). Santana is also part of a chefs lunch club. They’re taking a break now but used to hit favorite Chinese joints, Costco for hot dogs or Popeyes for fried chicken.
Where he dines: Studio at Montage, Hamamori, Din Tai Fung and Chong Qing Mei Wei Szechuan Restaurant in Irvine.
Be it ever so humble: “At home I eat a lot of Top Ramen.”
Chef Andrew Sutton - Napa Rose
How in tarnation did a young boy growing up in macho football land – Dallas – put on an apron and decide to spend his life in the kitchen?
Andrew Sutton, executive chef of signature restaurants at Disneyland Resort, said it started when his parents let a different sibling make dinner each night. “I loved to cook and we had a lot of support from the folks. What we enjoyed most was the joy around the table. That was our centerpiece: four boys and two parents. We would talk about everything. Nothing was sacred and there was always good humor. That was my parents’ lifestyle; they enjoyed cooking and sharing.”
Sutton concentrated on competitive swimming in high school and during freshman year on the varsity traveling swim team at Texas Christian University, but a summer job in Longview rocked his world. “I fell in love with the idea of being a professional chef, the athleticism and artistry of it.” Who wouldn’t? He worked on a team for Universal Restaurants headed by Jean LaFont, a master of French cuisine, with a staff of French chefs who mentored Sutton.
The oil boom fueled more joy around the table for his diners. “We would make lobster Thermidor and they would be rolling out this big-screen TV to watch the Dallas Cowboys, and I thought, ‘This is ridiculous!’ But they loved it. They were drinking great French wines and having a ball.”
Mom and dad advised him to dabble in cooking and they supported his decision to take some time off college. By 24, he was all in, dumping TCU for the Culinary Institute of America in New York.
After graduation, he returned to Dallas and worked at the Hotel Crescent Court with Henri Boubee and American regional chef Steve Singer, then honed his skills in Southwest cuisine with Dean Fearing at The Mansion on Turtle Creek. In 1993 he was recruited to Auberge du Soleil in Napa Valley where he fell for the California lifestyle and wine country cuisine. He was a natural fit to open Disney’s new upscale dining room, Napa Rose, which is dedicated to the marriage of food and wine. “I always tell the guest, ‘Taste the wine first with a clean palate and then see if we can give you a one-plus-one-equals-three pairing.’ ” Throughout his career, Sutton layered skill upon skill, tackling pastry, butchering, banquet menus and more, even earning a sommelier’s certificate. “I wanted to be a true executive chef of a resort hotel and not have any weaknesses. I hated the idea that there might be an area I wasn’t good at.”
The Secret Somm
Bio: Age 52. Born in San Diego, hometown Dallas.
Resume: Executive chef of Signature Restaurants at Disneyland Resort and executive chef at Napa Rose in the Grand Californian Hotel & Spa since it opened in 2000. At 32 took his first chef’s position at Auberge du Soleil, Napa Valley.
Awards: Multiple invitations to cook at the James Beard House. Antonin Carême Medal awarded by the American Culinary Federation, San Francisco chapter. During his tenure, Auberge du Soleil earned “Top 3 Resorts in the U.S.” and “Top 9 Resorts in the World” from Condé Nast Traveler.
Family: Married 21 years to chef Katie Sutton. They live in Santa Ana with daughters Grace and Sarah, students at Orange County School of the Arts.
Fitness routine: He’s participated in La Jolla’s open-water three-mile Gatorman and other races as well as Senior Nationals.
X Factor: A certified sommelier, one of 35 at Napa Rose, with 35 at Carthay Circle Restaurant and Lounge and 25 at Club 33.
Iron Chef he’d like to challenge: “Whoever the top guy is ... I’m very competitive.”
Chef pals: Michael Rossi, Rob Wilson. And he spends time with his Disneyland crew – he leads a team of 100.
Words to live by: “Cook to the wine.”
Signature dish: His scallops with lobster, lemon and vanilla sauce – he pairs them with a California chardonnay – was a sensation from the beginning, according to his then-sous chef Michael Rossi. “He can never change that.”
Chef Craig Strong - Studio at Montage
Individual gray-green eggs of caviar sit meticulously placed, suspended on a transparent Champagne gel. A tidy filet of raw hamachi perches in the center, crowned with a tangle of julienned cucumber and an edible saffron yellow blossom. So pure. So delicate. So beautifully designed that if Kate Spade spied it she would wish with all her heart to be a chef.
But she could never catch up to Craig Strong, a culinary talent steeped in tradition and trends, his mastery of molecular gastronomy and farm-to-table freshness at the center of his success at Studio at Montage. “The average consumer is well-educated; they travel a lot and see a lot on TV. We need to stay ahead of the curve.”
Garden to table? He was born into it. Dad was president of a drip irrigation company and took him on trips to Castroville and other farming areas. Mom grew zucchini and tomatoes. He went to high school in Utah but grew up in Southern California. In Camarillo there were Meyer lemons in the backyard and an orange orchard across the street. In San Diego there were plums and loquats. Now he lives in Laguna Beach. “I have a fig tree, two kumquats, a Meyer lemon, grapefruit, naval orange and a lime. We have a vegetable garden with African basil, Swiss chard, broccoli and lettuce.”
Strong champions the Mediterranean diet. “Embrace olive oil,” is what he learned in Spain, cooking at the Hotel Arts Barcelona. “Spain was at its zenith, the most cutting-edge food, and El Bulli was the No. 1 restaurant in the world.” He had planned to cook in France, inspired by working with Joël Antunes at the Ritz-Carlton in Atlanta. He proudly shows off a snapshot of himself with Antunes and renowned French chef Paul Bocuse. “Three generations of chefs,” he says of his culinary family photo.
But a French visa was hard to come by and Spain beckoned. “In lots of ways it was humbling. I lived there for two years and it changed my life.” He returned to the U.S. ready for new challenges, which led him to The Langham Huntington’s dining room in Pasadena, where he earned a one-star Michelin rating in 2008.
Soon after, he traded the spotlight of LA County for the good life in OC. “It’s an hour and a half away but you feel you’ve gone a million miles. You can detach from LA down here. It’s beautiful and reminds me a little bit of San Diego.”
Between his home garden, another at work, and a forager who gathers from the Santa Monica Farmers Market and farms all over California, he’s well-stocked. The resulting treasures make Studio one of the most costly reservations in Southern California.
“The secret is, if it’s going to be expensive, that there’s value. The quality of ingredients has to be extraordinary: prime meats, fantastic caviar, truffles, foie gras and super-fresh incredible produce presented in a way that’s artistic and detailed.”
Right down to placing each bit of caviar on a dish with the tip of a tiny fork. How long does that take, chef? “A while,” he says with a laugh.
The constant gardener
Bio: Age 44. Born in Wilmington, Del., one of eight children. Began cooking classes in the sixth grade. At 19, attended L’Academie de Cuisine near Washington, D.C., where he studied with chefs Françoise and Pascal Dionot.
Resume: Worked with chefs Guenter Seeger and Joël Antunes at The Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead in Atlanta. Sous chef for the Newport Room at the Hotel Arts Barcelona. Chef de cuisine at The Langham Huntington’s dining room in Pasadena for eight years. Became executive chef of Studio in 2009.
Awards: During Strong’s tenure, The Langham Huntington received Michelin one-star ratings in 2007 and 2008 and praise in Gourmet magazine’s “60 World’s Best Hotel Dining Rooms.” Studio has received a Forbes Travel Guide five-star rating, and was named in Gayot.com as “One of the Top 40 Restaurants in the U.S.” in 2015, as well as in Food & Wine magazine’s “Top 50 Hotel Restaurants.”
Family: Lives in Laguna Beach with his wife, actress Lissa Pallo Strong, and their two-year-old daughter, Scarlet.
Behind the kitchen door: Staff nicknames for the various shapes of Limoges and Bernardaud china: the flying saucer, the egg, the eyeball and the skateboard.
Where he takes his wife on date nights: Broadway by Amar Santana and Stonehill Tavern at the St. Regis.
Chef Michael Rossi - The Ranch
Thousands of miles from his hometown of Orange, Michael Rossi found himself in the Italian countryside, scrubbing black squid ink stains from his white chef’s jacket. Washing his clothes in a bucket probably wasn’t what he expected in 1995 when he enrolled in culinary school at 23.
Three years later he was working in Bologna at Locanda Solarola, a 15-table restaurant with then-up-and-coming chef Bruno Barbieri, now a judge on “MasterChef Italy.” Rossi already cooked Italian, often helping out at his grandma’s Sunday dinners, sometimes serving 50 or more extended family members. But he was driven to learn more.
So he immersed himself in the old country, working without pay for an entire year. “I would lay in my bed at night and say, ‘I’m here for a reason.’ ” Of course he was. During his tenure, the restaurant earned its second Michelin star.
Throughout his career, Rossi systematically mastered every facet of California cuisine, knocking on the door at Santa Monica’s Border Grill when he was 25 to learn about Mexican food. “I made 15 gallons of guacamole my first day.”
He took an externship at Roy’s on Maui to study Asian and Hawaiian fusion and seafood dishes. “It would be 3 o’clock and the guy at the fish station wouldn’t have any fish yet and we open at 5. Finally it would come in, mahi-mahi, beautiful loins of tuna, just pulled out of the ocean.”
He rounded out his repertoire with a sous chef job under Andrew Sutton at Napa Rose, making a study of wine country cuisine. He passed two levels of sommelier training, inspired by Sutton, whom he considers a mentor and friend. “I have this thing with Andy. We could sit in a room and close the door, and things would fly back and forth, and we would come up with these dishes.”
His quest for knowledge isn’t over. Now he’s growing fruits and vegetables on a mini farm at a piece of property in Orange that belongs to his boss, Extron Electronics founder Andrew Edwards. “We have 600 tomato plants, in more than 90 varieties, Swiss chard, corn and seven kinds of chili peppers.”
He still studies “The Flavor Bible” by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg every day. “It’s the best book ever written for a chef,” he says.
At times, Yelpers school him, but the most important lessons come from his diners, even when they send back a properly cooked steak. “Maybe their brain is telling them something different or maybe they don’t know what medium rare is.
That’s OK. We don’t take it personally. I tell my kitchen, ‘Just make them happy. Don’t let our egos get in the way.’ ”
The native son
Bio: Age 44. Grew up in Orange. Attended California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. Graduated top of his class. Graduate of Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners, Costigliole d’Asti, Italy 1998.
Resume: Worked at Brentwood’s Vincenti Ristorante with chef Gino Angelini. Executive sous chef at Roy’s in Newport Beach. Sous chef for Andrew Sutton at Disneyland Resort’s Napa Rose. Executive sous chef in charge of Angel Stadium’s upscale dining, including the Diamond Club. Executive chef at Ambrosia Restaurant in Santa Ana. Executive chef at The Ranch Restaurant & Saloon, Anaheim.
Awards: James Beard Foundation scholarship. James Beard House collaborative chef dinner, 2013. Golden Chef Award, Golden Foodie Awards 2014. Three-time Golden Foodie Award winner for best steak in Orange County.
Family: Met his wife, Dolly, when she was a hostess at Napa Rose. They have two sons, Maddox, 6, and Luca, 5. They live in Anaheim Hills but are moving to Orange.
Chef David Rossi, his brother, works at The Ranch.
Signature dishes: Rossi has a reputation for cooking Italian, French and California cuisine equally well. At The Ranch, his extravagant steaks continue to garner stellar reviews.
X Factor: Has a gift for working with demanding bosses.
Chef pals: Dean Nguyen (Break of Dawn), Dean Kim (OC Baking Company) and Ryan Adams (The North Left and Three Seventy Common) .
Favorite ethnic food: “My stomach thinks it’s Mexican.”
Chef Florent Marneau - Marché Modern
“You need a job? I know a French guy who has a restaurant.” And that’s how the baton got passed from Orange County’s then-top French chef – Pascal Olhats – to the next generation, Florent Marneau, chef-owner of Marché Moderne in South Coast Plaza. In 1990, Marneau was on his way to find a hotel gig in Tahiti but never made it after visiting his brother in Laguna Beach and talking to his friend, a regular diner at Tradition by Pascal. Introductions were made and Olhats hired his 20-year-old countryman as a line cook that July.
Why not? Marneau had just finished working a year in Paris for Gaston Lenôtre’s culinary machine, and he had years of classical training. He enrolled in cooking school at 13 and had earned a certificate by 16. At 18 he was serving officers during his mandatory military service. “We took the jeep to the market at Versailles and when we came back with the baguettes and the veal racks and mushrooms, the other guys would look at us like we were the sissies of the Army. It was funny.”
Dead serious was his pursuit of perfection. From Olhats he says he learned discipline, working his way up to chef in four years and acquiring a green card along the way. The restaurant scene was heating up. “We went from serving one pound to five pounds of foie gras a week.” So was Marneau’s career. He opened Aubergine in Newport Beach with Tim and Liza Goodell, an experience he calls the American dream. “They were great entrepreneurs. We went to Paris on a field trip and bought all the equipment. They had money to start, and I’d never seen that before. It was one of the best restaurants with really high-end tasting menus. At that time, Aubergine was very avant-garde for O.C.”
Its precocious young pastry chef, Amelia, would later become Marneau’s wife. “We hired her in 1996 when she came back from a fancy restaurant in Paris where there were some French hard-asses, it was Hôtel de Crillon, a three-star Michelin restaurant [Les Ambassadeurs]. She worked two years there in pastry, and we knew, she’s gotta be good.” But the dream team didn’t last. When the Goodells eventually closed Aubergine to open Troquet, Marneau decided not to come along. Instead he took a job with the Patina Restaurant Group at exactly the right time. Eventually he helmed Pinot Provence, a jewel in mega-chef Joachim Splichal’s expanding Southern California empire. There Marneau learned to micro-manage a budget.
After 10 years, he had made up his mind to start his own restaurant with his talented wife by his side. “You don’t want to fail the first time. For us it was scary, but it was very calculated. It was all or nothing.” He told himself he could make it if he had only 50 customers a day. But it was busy right away with nights of 200-400 diners.
“I tell the guys on the line, ‘Treat everyone well who comes through that door. They’re spending $100 or $200 and they came here.’ I feel humbled by that.”