Commanders in Chef

Posted September 6, 2012 in Feature Story
A quest for excellent dining experiences must always recognize the men and women behind the culinary curtain: the innovative and creative chefs entrusted with elevating food preparation into an art form—as well as a delight to diners. This year’s Restaurant Guide gathers together an all-star cast to showcase the magic going on inside the IE’s best and brightest kitchens . . .



Leonesse Cellars (Executive Chef), Art Institute Culinary School (Instructor), Matheson Sauces (Owner)

Background: 22 years of culinary experience that include an LCG Culinary Arts at Dublin Institute of Technology, Ireland (1987-1989); The Wharf Restaurant in Hickson Bay, Australia cooking under Anders Ousback (2 years); Michelin-named “Whites on the Green,” The Commons and Famed Dublin Restaurateur, Ireland (15 years); Chef, High Limit Lounge at Pechanga Resort & Casino, Temecula (2 years); Executive Chef, Highland Springs Resort, Palm Springs (2 years); Executive Chef, Delytes Catering.

Location: Temecula.

Signature Style: Italian and French provincial artisanal cuisine, emphasizing fresh ingredients and principles of umami, the fifth taste.

“Food is psychological,” says Chef Matheson, and a big part of his success stems from his desire to take apart a dish and understand its components down to minutest atomic detail; call it the “x-factor,” the one twist that allows him to turbo charge and reinvent the dish. Some call it molecular gastronomy, a term that his influences Thomas Keller (The French Laundry) and Heston Blumenthal (The Fat Duck) like to discourage since it complicates food. Instead, Daragh likens his approach to “intelligent design,” a risky proposition for sure since it motivates creativity versus profit, but it’s a skill that has paid immense rewards for patrons who have dined at Leonesse, where all aspects of the food complement the wine.

Daragh’s secret ingredient is ketchup and fish sauce, both Asian-created products whose powers of umami elevate and give the dish its “OMG” factor, the yin and yang, the balance of sweet, sour, salty and bitter, all of whose wonderful elements and aromas stem from hours-long labor that crosses days: an amazingly rich, five-day veal stock; $10 fries will have evolved over three days, where eight cases of cut potatoes are cooked on Tuesday, blanched in duck fat and canola on Wednesday and ready to eat by Thursday, with an additional dusting of parmesan, bacon and green onions; 8-hour beef ragout in a complex sauce that unites caramelized onions and star anise, milk to provide additional texture, and fish sauce, tomatoes, sherry and ketchup for umami effect.

“We don’t just accept that a dish is good,” says Daragh. “If a dish is good, why is it good?” (Nancy Powell)


Ra Pour Restaurant

Background: Attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

Location: Rancho Cucamonga.

Signature Style: Studied various methods, created the random-item tasting menu at Ra Pour.

Back in high school, everyone was excited to leave class midday. Greg Stillman may have felt the same way at the time when he joined a culinary arts class but little did he know that it was only the beginning.

He began an educational career at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, stayed in the area for a fellowship or two and returned to study a specialization in pastry and baking (who could resist that?). Even if his home was on the East Coast, the lack of snow and plethora of career paths in California were welcoming when Chef Thomas Keller (a famous chef behind The French Laundry Restaurant located in Napa Valley) told Stillman to look him up when he was in the area.

Stillman soon packed his bags and drove cross-country to apply for a position. Working with the renowned French Laundry gave him experience and future opportunities with other restaurants such as the Patina Restaurant Group (including Naples Ristorante e Pizzeria and Leatherby’s Café Rouge), the local Temecula Ponte Family Estate Winery (just to name a few) and eventually Ra Pour in 2011. There, Chef Stillman likes throwing the curve balls once in a while. Going off the beaten path of tradition is the tasting menu. If you choose the 5-course tasting menu, Chef Stillman makes sure you know that it’s a sort of culinary roulette. “You’re at the mercy of whatever I want to send you,” says Stillman. (Ashley Bennett)



Phood on Main

Background: Chef Cohen is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, having graduated from the campus in Hyde Park, N.Y.

Location: Riverside.

Signature Style: Chef Cohen considers her cuisine modern American, but she and Phood on Main—which attracts a diverse audience—also specialize in vegan fare and bakery items, including specialty cakes.

Phood on Main has grown to be a notable Riverside standby and is a culmination of Chef Cohen’s unique background and travels. From dabbling in chocolate sculptures in Indianapolis to catering to the whims of private club clientele in Florida, Cohen crafted her “adventurous gourmet” style when she began owning and operating her own catering business out of a basement in Riverside five years ago. Subway ovens and 1800-watt induction burners gave way to the upscale bistro that has housed Phood for the past three years.

Inspired by a former mentor’s obsession with consistent spice mixtures—that he likened to “making love”—Chef Cohen’s “Supershit” spices are a variety of concoctions (such as “bull” and “hot”) that have been bottled and are currently sold in 23 states and Canada.

Chef Cohen and co-owner Lyn Cloninger’s philosophy of “yes we can and thank you for asking” garners crowds from judges having business lunches to on-the-go nibblers. Not saying no and responding to customer’s needs—such as learning to bake a vegan cake—has earned chef Cohen local recognition and allows Phood’s customers to be the beneficiaries of flexibility and the feeling that every meal is a personalized, catered experience. (John Bergano)



The Mission Inn

Background: California Culinary Academy.

Location: Riverside.

Signature Style: Modern twists on classic dishes.

Chef Loren Lawe is currently the executive chef of the restaurants at the Mission Inn, which means he runs five very different restaurants (if you count the Wine bar) with five very different menus. Sounds stressful, right? Chef Lawe says he actually feels comfortable and confident in the position he’s held for seven months. It sure beats having chairs occasionally thrown at him, something he experienced as an aspiring chef in the 80s, when master chefs were allowed to express their disappointment in a more hands-on style than now.

Then there were his stints at the Ritz Carlton working alongside the like of Michael Voltaggio of Top Chef fame and the Langham Hotel in Pasadena, where he wore a variety of hats, including acting executive sous chef. At the Langham, Lawe helped to change a French Bistro menu that some considered staid into one that became innovative and exciting.

That might be due to his willingness to experiment. As Lawe puts it, “I rarely make the same dish twice,” going on to say he refines each recipe until it’s a true reflection of who he is as a chef. And yet somewhat paradoxically Lawe believes in the simple things in life, including food. His favorite meal is pizza and beer, and he often prefers a relaxed restaurant with his family to more elaborate ones.

Chef Lawe’s plans for the Mission Inn are not simple, however. He’s trying to update several restaurants, while still retaining the qualities that have kept patrons coming there in the first place. Part of this plan includes a renewed emphasis on using fresh seasonal ingredients and what Lawe describes as “next generation flavors.” Perhaps the coolest aspect of Lawe becoming executive chef is his chance to bring his passion for food to five restaurants in Riverside—local palates are grateful. (Bill Gerdes)



Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar

Background: Seven Years with the Fleming’s chain.

Location: Rancho Cucamonga.

Signature Style: Fresh twists on classic meats.

Neil Smith looks younger than his 32 years. As I ask him a few questions before his photo shoot for our chef-centric “Restaurant Guide,” he taps his fingers, and bounces perceptibly in his seat. Chef Smith is an energetic guy, with a palpable excitement for what he does—namely innovative cooking of all types, with an emphasis right now on beef.

That’s mainly due to the fact he’s been a chef for the Fleming’s steakhouse chain for the last seven years, in Arizona first and now in the Inland Empire. And before you sniff your nose at the word “chain,” realize that Fleming’s is not some upscale Sizzler; this is fine dining, with a special flair for doing meat creatively. Smith is executive chef at the Fleming’s in Rancho Cucamonga—to get precise, it’s located in Victoria Gardens, where he’s taking the restaurant to inspired new heights.

Smith first got interested in the culinary world in college, when he mentored under Chef Mark Murphy and fell in love with cooking. Being a chef, he realized, would enable him to earn a living doing something he loved, instead of being a mere job. He also learned a sense of respect for cooking. Smith says a chef must have, “respect for the ingredients, fresh, in season,” as well as for all aspects of the cooking process. And he also believes if he puts that passion into his food he’ll be rewarded. The favorite part of being a chef for Neil Smith’s is when a diner bites into something they’ve never tried before—perhaps even been afraid to—and then they smile with the happiness of finding a new (and delicious) discovery. Catch Neil Smith at Fleming’s—discoveries happening nightly. (Bill Gerdes)



Tinto and El Jefe at The Saguaro

Background: Studied different cuisines in Spain and New York City after graduating from Chicago’s Kendall College of Culinary Arts. Also credits his years in the kitchen with his paternal grandmother Mamita Amado, learning to prepare family recipes.

Location: Philadelphia.

Signature Style: Chef Garces features his Basque-region inspired foods at Tinto and his the local cuisine of Mexico City known as “Distrito Federal” at El Jefe.

Currently, Chef Jose Garces owns and operates 15 restaurants in five cities including Tinto, a wine bar inspired by the Basque region between Northern Spain and Southern France, and El Jefe, a margarita bar that captures the spirit and aesthetic of the Old West, both at The Saguaro in Palm Springs. Chef Garces is also a winner of the James Beard Foundation’s “Best Chef Mid-Atlantic” award and probably best known as one of the eight Iron Chefs appearing regularly on Iron Chef America.

“I first appeared on Iron Chef America as a challenger and defeated Bobby Flay in ‘Battle: Melon’ during Food Network’s Brain Freeze Week—so each dish, in addition to containing melon, also included a frozen component. I loved that challenge, and I’ll be honest: I loved winning, too!” says Chef Garces. “When Food Network began casting for The Next Iron Chef, they reached out to me, and I was pleased and proud to be considered for the show. I stuck it out through every episode, from winning the first challenge in week one to finally besting my final competitor on the last episode and earning the title of Iron Chef America. Since then, I appear frequently on the show.”

It was through his ventures that Chef Garces came to Palm Springs. “I was initially approached by both The Sydell Group and Joie de Vivre, the owners and managers of The Saguaro, about possibly partnering with them to manage a restaurant on-site at the original location in Scottsdale. We enjoyed working together so much that we agreed to partner on a second project, here in Palm Springs,” he says. “For each location, we’ve worked to bring in restaurants that capitalize on the ingredients of the region but also bring something fresh and new to the hotel.” (Lynn Lieu)



Morgan’s in the Desert at the La Quinta Resort

Background: Professionally trained in France and Boston under Madeleine Kamman author of Making of a Cook masterpiece. Earned a culinary degree from Luberon College and the French Institut Technique du Vin diploma from Maison du Vin in Avignon.

Location: Grosse Pointe, Mich.

Signature Style: Contemporary seasonal American food.

Over the last 30 years of his career, Chef Jimmy Schmidt has received a number of awards from the James Beard Award for “Best Chef Midwest” and the Wine Spectator’s “Award of Excellence” to Gourmet Magazine’s “America’s Top Tables” and “America’s Best Restaurant,” and has garnered national acclaim for his Denver and Detroit Rattlesnake Club restaurants. But for Chef Schmidt, food wasn’t always the main course. “My background is electrical engineering but was diverted into food while studying in France,” says Schmidt, who is now renowned as a pioneer in America’s culinary movement towards sustainable cooking and farm-to-table dining—Schmidt even holds patents for protein and fiber bonding to create great-tasting nutritious foods.

In 1991, Chef Schmidt founded the Chefs Collaborative, a nonprofit organization devoted to fostering a sustainable food system. When asked about his culinary influences, the chef says, “. . . For the last 30 years, [I’ve] pursued the bounty of seasonal American ingredients with modern techniques that develop flavor along with nutrition in my dishes. Great tasting food should be good for you as well.” And Schmidt brings it all to Morgan’s in the Desert. “We are expanding our culinary gardens on site, our farmer, forager and fisherman network and pursuing great flavors with nutrition,” he says. (Lynn Lieu)


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