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Our Perception of Chefs That Depart 

Anne Marie Panoringan

Voice of OC’s food columnist — reporting on industry news, current events and trends. Panoringan’s prior work includes writing about food for 8 years at the OC Weekly in which she interviewed more than 330 chefs, restauranteurs and industry professionals for her weekly “On the Line” column. She has been recognized by the Orange County Press Club and she also is a recurring guest on AM 830’s SoCal Restaurant Show.

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Restaurant chefs come and go, but when a popular one leaves the establishment that he or she opened, how much do we as diners care? That is a thought I’ve often wondered. 

Pop culture has heightened the love of cooking competitions and chefs as celebrities. Nowadays, local chefs linked to newer, independent restaurants are touted as engaging personalities, sometimes coming out to visit guests when requested. It’s always a sharable moment to have a photo taken with one. Some regard them like athletes and musicians, and in many ways chefs are – their line of work requires skill, stamina and creativity. 

If a new place places a great deal of attention on its chef, I want to know where the chef has worked previously because that’s an indicator of the kind of culinary experience he or she has been exposed to and how qualified he or she is.

People choose to dine out for reasons including convenience, invitation and curiosity. When someone chooses to eat at a fast food brand, that person doesn’t usually care as much about who is in the kitchen, but more about the consistency of the meal. 

If a diner is ordering entrees at a non-chain establishment that creep beyond a casual price range, chances are the diner would prefer the chef (as higher-end, privately owned restaurants often link reputations on) being present in the kitchen – especially if it’s that chef’s only location. 

Foodies – the collective term for people who obsess over eating in general – are probably the toughest critics but also the most loyal patrons. They’ll keep tabs, following a preferred chef or bartender in a fashion similar to when a pro athlete is traded. If dining is more of a necessity and less of an experience, then one will care more about the restaurant. 

In a relatively small dining room, it is common for the chef to do the bulk of the cooking. Within larger and/or more upscale environments, there’s normally a team of cooks sharing the workload and the head chef would be expediting the dishes – having the final say about the doneness and appearance of a plate – before calling on a server to deliver it.

In spring of this year, Irvine’s Porch & Swing dealt with the departure of chef Justin Werner. Has anybody noticed? Returning guests who have previously met Werner and maybe ones searching the restaurant website for more info may sense something different. Review metrics on sites like Yelp have not changed much when judging food quality. Industry insiders haven’t discussed it. Right now, customers are more concerned about returning to normalcy. 

One way to gauge a restaurant’s long-term success is whether the quality of cuisine changes for the worse when a chef departs. If the kitchen team was taught well, consistency should not suffer. Yet a chef also brings leadership, camaraderie and other variables besides cooking talent to his or her role. When those attributes are lacking, kitchens and dining rooms will feel the effects down the line.

An example of a kitchen embracing change is Newport Beach’s Lido Bottle Works. While the first and second executive chefs departed for other opportunities, Joel Gutierrez has been in the kitchen since the beginning, having been mentored and trained by both his predecessors, Joel Harrington and Amy Lebrun. Feeling no pressure, Gutierrez remarks, “I want my work here to still have the feel of Lido Bottle Works. You can’t turn the entire concept on its head because of one person. We’re taking the core principles of LBW and putting my spin on them.”

Corn agnolotti, a seasonal dish by chef Joel Gutierrez of Lido Bottle Works. Credit: Photo courtesy of Niyaz Pirani

Under Harrington, the chef who opened the restaurant, Gutierrez expanded his knowledge of Asian cuisine and artistic plating. Lebrun helped him discover his voice – the way he wanted to express himself through food: “Especially because I’ve been in this kitchen for so long, it’s less about pressure and more about progression.”

Is a person more loyal to the restaurant or the chef? Ultimately, the person is loyal to his or her personal feelings about dining out. If it’s about dining for the sake of eating, then the restaurant matters. When a person thinks of eating as an experience (ambiance, service and so forth), then there’s a more vested interest in the person running the kitchen.

Ongoing Labor Shortage

Back in April of this year, owners and chefs were struggling to staff their restaurants in preparation for a return to full capacity. With additional federal unemployment benefits of $300 lasting through September, the struggle to locate and retain both servers and people to operate the back of the house is at its worst. 

I’ve been told stories of teams consistently working double shifts. Chefs who normally divvy up work duties among line cooks are working the line themselves. When California reopened on June 15, the post that kept popping up in my social media feed was reminding diners to be kind to understaffed restaurants trying to meet the demands of unsympathetic clientele.

Michael Rooney, beverage director for The Hall Global Eatery at South Coast Plaza, Vaca and Broadway by Amar Santana, can attest to the issue of staffing and the pressure felt by existing employees. “We are working with our team every day to keep them focused and engaged so that the stress of heavier workloads does not create intractable mental health issues,” Rooney said. 

He is a firm believer of meditation and stretching as underrated tools for the modern bartender,  stating that 60-plus hours a week of repetitive, physical movement breaks down the body. “If you’re not meditating to counteract the diet of human energy you’re responsible to consume daily, your customer issues are going to start to become your issues.”

Those newly entering the hospitality workforce have little experience in the fast-paced environment of a kitchen or dining room. Executive chef Steve Kling of StillWater Food, Wine, Spirits & Sounds in Dana Point has been more fortunate than most, not losing anyone during both COVID closures. “I’d say I’m still short a dishwasher and perhaps one line cook, as we have increased capacity now, but I’ve always worked the line and will continue to do so to fill in when necessary.”

Looking back to pre-COVID, Kling recalls turning away a couple of people a week inquiring about job openings. In the last year, his serving staff has been the hardest hit in terms of locating qualified individuals. “That, coupled with the fact that some people just don’t work out, or choose not to show up for work after they get hired, makes the FOH (front of house = dining room) schedule something we have to piece together almost on a daily basis.”

When the demand to dine out is so high, how do businesses keep up with the hiring process? The city of Newport Beach’s response is by hosting a job fair. In collaboration with the local restaurant association and chamber of commerce, the event will be held on Thursday, July 1 from noon-4 p.m. at the Newport Beach Civic Center. Participation for businesses and attendees is free. This event’s main focus is hiring for, but not limited to, various positions in grocery stores, restaurants, retail and hotels. 

Regardless of the packed dining areas and crowds waiting for tables, making up for 15 months of closures, to-go options and lost sales is a long-term goal. Staffing is one critical component, per Rooney. “We have asked so much of them to this point and we are forthcoming with them about the realities of re-opening to full capacity.”  

In return, Kling requests of customers: “Just be glad that they’re there for you and you for them.” 

Crunch-tastic Snack Review: Summertime Potato Chips

Craving something crunchy, I wandered the local snack aisles for inspiration. After doing damage on a few bags of crisps, doing a write-up made me less guilty about the impending indigestion. Consider grabbing the following for that next picnic or grill session.

Patio Potato Chips by Trader Joe’s are a seasonal find. First off, if you are not a fan of ridges, stop reading. Ringing up as $2.29 for six ounces, this is a grab bag of flavor. Like Chex Mix with four distinct tastes: ketchup, barbecue, dill and salt & vinegar. I heard it’s a knock-off of the Ruffles Canadian best-seller, All-Dressed. The primary difference being while every All-Dressed bite packs in all the flavors simultaneously on a single chip, each Trader Joe’s chip is a single flavor with all flavors mixed into a single bag – it’s a surprise every time, and a practical way to try multiple TJ’s chip varieties without committing to four separate bags.

Whole Foods has two limited edition tastes from its 365 house brand: Pastrami on Rye and Cubano Press. Priced at $3.50 for a 10-ounce bag, this is probably one of the most affordable buys in the Whole supermarket. Pro tip: Having trouble locating them? Check the end caps near the snack aisle instead of the actual aisle; that’s where I found mine. Both contain coriander (i.e. a hard pass for cilantro-haters) and mustard, but the similarities end there.

A duo of chip flavors from Whole Foods Market’s 365 brand. Credit: ANNE MARIE PANORINGAN/Voice of OC

Pastrami on Rye was super savory with hints of beef stock, caraway seed, garlic and onion. For a bit of kick, the ingredient listing also includes black pepper, chile pepper and horseradish powder. Of the two 365 brand tastes, I leaned towards this one. However, the clear favorite from my co-workers was Cubano Press, with its non-traditional flavors of cumin and oregano.

Lastly, I purchased the new Kettle brand Ranch flavor from Target. It’s $3.19 for 8.5-ounces of satisfying crunch. It was creamy with a mild tang, thanks to whey, cream and nonfat milk. Yeast extract offered umami notes, with a bit of parsley for herbaceousness. Texture is as important as taste when talking chips, so Kettle’s contribution won me over. While ranch isn’t a wild choice, the winning taste was all that and a bag of, well, you know.

Amuse Bouches

Preview Review: Mah Jong’s by Chef Mike

Previously reported in November 2020, the former Charlie Palmer space is being transformed into Collage Culinary Experience – a food hall with a primarily Asian focus. The first project to reach completion is Mah Jong’s, an upscale concept from Mike Doctulero found on the lower level. Doctulero is best known for his work at Scott’s Seafood. Still in a soft opening stage, MJ’s is offering limited reservations a few nights a week until further notice.

Clam chowder poutine from Mah Jong’s by Chef Mike. Credit: ANNE MARIE PANORINGAN/Voice of OC

Of the nine menu listings available, we ordered five, including homemade chicken soup, Fuji apple arugula salad, a signature burger and our two favorites: clam chowder and ribeye. Described as a New England-style poutine ($18), the chowder packed a sizable amount of shellfish in an attractive presentation that left us craving more. A marbled, eight-ounce block of beef ($52) was grilled to medium-rare, then accented with chimichurri sauce and roasted cauliflower. Beer and wine options were available, but from the looks of the bar, we sensed a cocktail menu in the works.

It should be noted that the rest of Collage is still in various forms of construction. The completion of CCE as a whole is slated for fall. 

Inspire Artistic Minds (IAM) Scholarship Program

If you’ve worked, or know someone working in the restaurant industry, then you’re well aware that hourly wages aren’t desirable (especially for tipped employees) and scholarship opportunities are few. Through July 15, Inspire Artistic Minds is accepting applications from bartenders and distillers planning to pursue continued education in their respective fields. IAM is a nonprofit focused on the local hospitality industry supporting those attending seminars, completing certification programs and additional experiences with scholarships up to $1,000. Individuals may apply here.

Pride Month at Strut

Costa Mesa’s Strut Bar & Club, a gay club that opened in September 2019, had to close its doors after only a few months due to the pandemic.  After being closed for over a year, Strut reopened in May with a modified entertainment lineup. My favorite offering is the nontraditional Sunday brunch featuring the Mimosa Girls. A cocktail show sans formal food service, dining and bottle service is completely a la carte allowing for a customizable afternoon of partying. Relaxed bites such as taters adorned with sesame and hemp seeds or caprese salad served kabob-style means utensil-free hands for imbibing more drinks.

If that’s too early, then book Strut’s Saturday night drag dinner and show known as Les Girls. With happy hour Thursday through Saturday evenings from 6-9 p.m., there’s always a reason to drop by as Pride Month comes to a close.

Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at ampanoringan@voiceofoc.org.

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