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 eight 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.

I was finishing a glass of wine at Leatherby’s Cafe Rouge across from Segerstrom Hall in the fall of 2016 when chef Ross Pangilinan stepped out of the kitchen to say hello. It was almost showtime, and the dining room was deserted except for the staff and myself. After a few minutes chatting about work, he wished me a good evening and I settled my check. 

We crossed paths while leaving, and as I continued in the opposite direction the last thing Pangilinan said to me as I waved goodbye was, “What do you think of Santa Ana?” It was at that moment when I realized he was hinting at his impending departure from Leatherby’s and South Coast Plaza. He would open Mix Mix Kitchen Bar later that year, then return to South Coast Plaza with his second restaurant, Terrace by Mix Mix, in 2018. ReMix Kitchen Bar opened in Long Beach in 2020.

Fast forward to the present day and I’m drinking iced tea across from him and business partner Nick Weber at Populaire, the first of two restaurants they are collaborating on. Verdant, the second concept, is scheduled to debut across the street within the Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA) on its opening day, Oct. 8, offering coffee, cocktails and California fare such as roasted sweet potato with watermelon radish, chicory salad in pomegranate vinaigrette and housemade potato chips alongside vegan onion dip. It’ll also be the exclusive caterer for the museum. I’m visiting them to better understand how they’ve come full circle since their early days of working together.

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Verdant wasn’t a part of OCMA’s original schematic. Allocating a dining option that factored in a standard kitchen wasn’t planned for the museum at all – Patina Restaurant Group was originally responsible for the space. Working without a formal kitchen, all food would have been prepared next door at Leatherby’s and brought over to OCMA to be plated. Due to the limited prep space on the dining room level, Verdant will rely on its full kitchen on level one of OCMA for much of the preparation. 

When OCMA hired CEO and director Heidi Zuckerman, halfway through the planning process she wanted to carve out space for a dedicated restaurant with a fully equipped kitchen. Anton Segerstrom, a major donor for the new museum, threw Pangilinan’s name in the proverbial hat as a potential chef to lead. They gave Pangilinan three days to submit a plan. 

At the time of the offer, Weber and Pangilinan were still in negotiations for Populaire. “If we get one (of the restaurants approved), we could make it work,” Pangilinan said. “And we got two,” laughed Weber. 

ANNE MARIE PANORINGAN: Verdant plans to serve lunch only with a primarily plant-forward, Californian menu incorporating local and organic ingredients. For diners unfamiliar with the other two South Coast Plaza concepts you’re linked to, Terrace by Mix Mix and Populaire (which opened in June), please elaborate on the concepts.

ROSS PANGILINAN: Both Terrance and Populaire serve brunch. Terrace has an outdoor ambiance. It’s casual with Filipino, French and Italian fusion including the pizza oven. 

Populaire is a little more elevated. It’s Nick’s version of a modern bistro.

NICK WEBER: Populaire is Orange County French food. We have Vietnamese cuisine. We have Japanese cuisine. We have all these great communities where we get great food from. I’m just adding those ingredients to a French technique. I want the food to be fun, to reflect my sense of humor and personality. This is where I spend most of my time, so I want it to reflect me and people to understand me. 

And we have a smart wine list with some cool, fun things that are price reasonable and go really well with the food. There’s no corkage. 

AMP: When your kids come to visit, what are they eating? Will Verdant have kid-friendly options?

NW: My kids like Terrace more than they like here (Populaire) because there’s pizza. My youngest kid will get the burger here with no sauce. He’s into trying new things; the other day I had him try caviar. He wants to be a cook. My youngest and Ross’ both work the pop-ups and we have them in the kitchen. The first week we opened I was like, “You’re on the crostini station,” and he was pounding out crostini. And my oldest likes to work the host stand and watch the girls walk by.

RP: My kids like pizza also. We’ll have kid items for sure at Verdant. We don’t have a stove in Verdant’s upstairs kitchen, so we have to be smart about what we put on the menu. Everything that requires cooking has to be finished using a combi oven (a kitchen appliance that provides convection, steam and a combination of both methods of cooking). 

AMP: I spent some time with your Populaire team while attending the OCMA preview – Alyssa McDiarmid this morning and Phil Tangonan at lunch. How will their roles evolve with Verdant opening?

RP: I worked with Alyssa at Pinot Provence. Nick reconnected with her at Cannery Seafood of the Pacific. They worked together there with Phil; he’s going to be the main person at Verdant. Alyssa will be based out of there, too. It’ll be a lot more than a restaurant because of the catering component and we needed a good front-of-the-house person. She’s a partner now.

Nick is the face at Populaire; I’m the face at Terrace. However, we’ll be floating around between Populaire and Verdant, making sure the restaurants are rocking and rolling.

Food and drinks from Verdant will be served from the bar inside OCMA on the top floor. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

AMP: Ross, from Leatherby’s to today (and all your restaurants in between), what are the lessons learned?

RP: Never burn a bridge. I’ve learned a lot of what not to do; a lot of hard lessons. I think partnering with Nick is a great opportunity for him, but for me too. I don’t grow with these two other places without a good partner. 

AMP: Nick, prior to Populaire I interviewed you while you were at 24 Carrots. How has the additional catering experience changed the way you think about events?

NW: I did that for five years. I know I don’t want to do the same volume again. The volume we were putting out was off the charts. My brain every night when I went home was just fried. They’re doing 15 parties a day, and then 50 corporate orders. 

RP: It’s a different type of scale that they’re doing. And then you have no contact with the guest; you don’t know who you’re cooking for. 

AMP: Tell me a story about the other that contributes as to why you decided to team up on these projects. Or, tell me a funny story about your partner.

RP:  I’ve known Nick for almost 20 years now. I met him in 2003 when I started as a line cook at Pinot Provence and he was chef de cuisine. I had just gotten back from France and I didn’t have a lot of experience working in a restaurant. I worked at Big Canyon for a couple of years, in France for a few months and I worked at a sushi restaurant for a few months. 

Nick and Florent (Marneau, the executive chef) took me under their wing and I started as a cook. And after a few months they made me sous chef … probably because I was down to work those hours. They would say: “You want to be a sous chef? All right, great. It’s 7 o’clock. I’m outta here.” It was the first high volume restaurant I worked in. 

We did a charity event one time and we were drinking and having fun afterwards with all the chefs. I don’t know where this goldfish came from (Weber interjects that it was someone’s tablescape). Someone had a goldfish in a cup and Nick grabbed it, put it in his drink and shot it. That was pretty funny. Then we went back to Pinot and made giant lobster sandwiches with ciabatta bread and sat at the bar and ate them. Lulu (De Rouen, another member of the kitchen team) put lobster on the menu as a special in the morning, not knowing that we ate them. And when tickets started coming in for lobster there was no lobster. We came in later to work and she was freaking out. 

NW: When we used to cook at Provence together it was always super stressful because Florent was always yelling at me, and so I was yelling. It happened during all the years we were both executive chefs, and we were working on the same fundraiser circuit. We’d always run back toward each other’s tables to see what the other was cooking. We’d hang out and drink together after.

We started vacationing together. It was a lot of us cooking together – maybe four or five years ago. My wife’s family has a ranch above Bakersfield that used to be a private water skiing camp/training center. Her uncle bought it and we’d just water ski all day. And the kids would go nuts on the lake on the giant waterslide. We were always cooking breakfast together for everybody, drinking wine and beer with our friend who was a wine rep. It was the best four days. And that’s where I think cooking as friends really came together; we really bonded over that. 

I learned during the course of my interview with the duo that the Mix Mix Kitchen Bar location in Santa Ana was recently sold and closing escrow. The Michelin Bib Gourmand establishment that shifted Pangilinan’s trajectory within Orange County’s dining scene had run its course. He would now be able to focus more energy on his remaining concepts. 

“Mix Mix was amazing for what it accomplished. Where it brought me today,” Pangilinan said. The next chapter of his restaurant empire officially begins Saturday.

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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