Go behind the kitchen door to meet some of the area’s top chefs and their dedicated sidekicks.
By Ryan Ritchie | Photos by Dhrumil Desai
In 1967, the Beatles released “With a Little Help From My Friends,” a tune about the importance of relying on strong relationships to get us through the good times and the bad. While the track relays a valuable lesson about positive personal affairs, the message of the song also applies to work associates, and nowhere is this concept of maintaining healthy business relations more significant than the inside of a kitchen.
Head chefs get the acclaim. Their names may be written on the menus and in headlines, but no successful restaurant is a one-person operation. Diners often don’t think of the staff when they’re enjoying an exquisite meal, but they should because the overall quality of a restaurant isn’t simply dependent on the head chef’s talent.
Powerful connections between head chefs and their staffs are especially apparent at five local eateries. Though these bonds may differ in terms of specifics, they’re all based on the same cornerstones of mutual respect and understanding. Here are just a handful of Laguna’s most powerful pairs that make some serious culinary magic together.
As head chef at three restaurants, including K’ya Bistro Bar, Craig Connole has many responsibilities that extend beyond cooking. The 49-year-old says the public often doesn’t consider that there are “so many things that need to be done” when operating a restaurant. These duties include preparation work, taking inventories, placing orders for the next day and sorting ingredients. Such a hectic schedule sees many chefs putting in 18-hour workdays; consider that Craig has three restaurants to run, and it’s easy to understand why he does “very little cooking” at K’ya. Thankfully, he has sous chef Zefferino Hernandez for assistance.
“He runs the restaurant,” Craig says. “I make the menus and the recipes. I create all the dishes and then I show him how to do it. … He’s basically the chef.”
Craig is in charge of all creative decisions, which include developing recipes and menus. In addition, part of his job, he says, is to show Zefferino how to execute the dishes and inspect the finished products for consistency. The head chef likens this managerial role and Zefferino’s job to the relationship between a coach and a player.
“I show him how to make it and how I want it to look on the plate,” Craig says of the pair’s system. “They run with that, and I watch what everybody’s doing.”
K’ya shares a kitchen with The Rooftop Lounge, where all meals—including spreads for on-site banquets—originate. The kitchen was built to accommodate approximately 80 seats at any given time, but with food for The Rooftop Lounge and banquets being prepared concurrently, Craig’s staff typically prepares meals for nearly 220 guests. Because of this frenzied pace, Craig often asks Zefferino for advice with everything from service setup to making things move more quickly in the kitchen, a place the head chef describes as “a crazy spot.”
Lest anyone think Craig is unappreciative of Zefferino, the head chef emphasizes that he’s thankful to have a sous chef who can execute his menus to his liking. The result, he admits, isn’t always fair to Zefferino.
“He makes it easy for me to look at the big picture,” Craig says. “I get the glory and he does all the work.”
Starting a new job is rarely easy, especially when that job puts you in a position of authority over people who have worked for the company for years. David Fuñe realized this when in April he became executive chef at Splashes at Surf & Sand Resort; to help ease the transition, the 42-year-old relied on Chef de Cuisine Julio Aguilar. The result, David says, has been “a dream come true.”
David adds that he knew that he was in a positive working atmosphere from the very beginning when Julio went out of his way to help the executive chef however he could. Julio was working seven days a week at the time, but made sure not to saddle David with additional responsibilites.
“He didn’t shovel a bunch of stuff on my plate because he was overworked,” David says. “He was really solid.”
Before David’s arrival, Splashes served Mediterranean and California cuisine, but the new head chef chose to refocus the menu primarily on California-style dishes. The change meant a shift to cooking with more fresh, local ingredients and seafood. Julio, who had previously worked at Splashes for six years, easily could’ve put up a fight against the transition, but instead he adjusted to David’s direction—a reaction that has benefitted both men.
“He’s literally my right-hand man, if not the point man in Splashes,” David says. “He’s taken off and done stuff on his own that I [didn’t] have to ask him to do. He focuses on keeping natural flavors predominant.”
David adds that he took off three days during the winter—an extended leave for a chef—leaving Julio alone with a “sizable prep list” that could’ve been cause for concern. Throw in the fact that the dishes were holiday meals not found on Splashes’ regular menu, and the restaurant easily might have descended into chaos. David didn’t have the time to explain everything to Julio before leaving, but when the head chef returned he discovered that Julio had handled the kitchen without a hitch.
“It was phenomenal,” he adds. “There’s no way I could have done that three to five months ago. Right now we’re seeing eye to eye on everything. It’s been really good.”
As Nirvana Grille enters into its sixth year of operation in Laguna, Executive Chef Lindsay Smith-Rosales feels a sense of contentment with the business she shares with her husband, Luis. That satisfaction is due in large part to her sous chef, Jimmy Corona. As friends for more than 10 years (Jimmy once worked as a chef with Luis at The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel), it seemed like a natural move for him to join the husband-wife team a few years after they opened Nirvana Grille in 2008. Now a cornerstone of the restaurant for nearly a year, Jimmy says he’s finally in “his happy place.”
The trio’s strong foundation of friendship ultimately gave Lindsay the confidence she needed to let someone come in and take the reins in the kitchen. “I naturally have an instilled trust in him,” she says. “I know whatever happens in our day is not going to stop us from tomorrow coming together again. … And now my day is really spent running the day-to-day operations, … and I never had the time or the trust to really let go that much before in the kitchen.”
For Lindsay, Luis brought a sense of accountability and commitment to the team at Nirvana Grille, in addition to helping things run more smoothly in the back of the house so that she can focus on the larger picture. “… He’s basically my work husband,” Lindsay jokes. “I can get mad at him and the next day we’ve made up.”
Jimmy adds, “We have our moments … but I want them to succeed.”
It’s this same sense of mutual respect that has brought Nirvana Grille the success it enjoys today. But like partners in any other relationship, Lindsay and Jimmy admit that they don’t always agree with each other. When it comes to experimenting with new menu items, Jimmy isn’t afraid to tell Lindsay what he thinks or if he doesn’t like something. But the couple always come up with a compromise, as good friends do. An example of this is with their new menu, which debuts this March.
Most importantly, at the end of the day, the two know that they can count on each other. “We are family,” Lindsay says. “ … He’s like a brother to me, so it’s an important relationship in my life.” —A.T.
Tim Garner, general manager
director of operations
230 Forest Avenue
Executive Chef Marc Cohen doesn’t have a person to help him run 230 Forest Avenue; he has people.
The chef holds weekly meetings with Tim Garner, the restaurant’s general manager, and Joe Guillena, its director of operations, to discuss topics like potential wine specials, wine pairings and culinary events happening across Laguna. Marc has the final say in all aspects of operating his business, but no decision is made without the agreement of all three men.
“All decisions are the decisions we feel are the right way going forward,” he says. “Once we make a decision and we are in agreement, we follow it through. Once we agree that’s the path we’re going to take, we back it until it’s over.”
Marc jokingly describes his relationship with Tim and Joe as a three-headed monster, but the 43-year-old is quick to point out the different functions the men serve at 230 Forest Avenue. Joe’s role involves working with Marc to determine how to get the best deals for customers, what the servers are capable of selling and which dishes the customers will enjoy most. With Tim, Marc collaborates on developing the dishes and selecting wines that are best for both the customers and servers.
“Tim knows my food, and he understands what I’m trying to accomplish,” Marc says. “He also knows the customers and understands what he thinks they want. Then it’s my job and Joe’s job to secure prices that are affordable to the customer.”
Marc notes that he’s “absolutely open” to suggestions from Tim and Joe, which often become topics of discussion during their weekly meetings. The head chef trusts his employees’ opinions because he believes they are just as invested in the business as he is. That level of trust directly contributes to the success of 230 Forest Avenue, Marc says.
“You’re only as good as the people you work with and for,” he muses. “They have respect for me and what I do, and I have respect for them and what they do. It’s a very healthy relationship.”
Devin Wells is chef de cuisine at Sapphire Laguna, but he didn’t start that way.
The 33-year-old was a student at the Culinary Institute of America when in 2005 he met Azmin Ghahreman, who at the time was the executive chef at The St. Regis Monarch Beach. When Azmin left that position to open Sapphire Laguna, Devin joined him as a junior sous chef. From there he was promoted to sous chef, eventually landing his current position as chef de cuisine. According to Azmin, Devin’s climb up the culinary ladder is a result of one thing: his work ethic.
“He’s always hungry for more,” Azmin says. “He can go anywhere and open his own restaurant, and I have no doubt he’ll be successful. But he wants to learn more.”
Azmin and Devin share similar philosophies in the kitchen, which makes the head chef’s job easier. Rather than having to explain which spice to add to a certain dish, Azmin knows his chef de cuisine has the instincts and knowledge to create delicious meals without having to be told how to do so. Their like-minded attitudes toward cooking are products of years spent together in kitchens, Azmin says.
“We’re like two police officer partners—‘You cover the left side and I’ll cover the right side,’ ” he jokes of the pair’s relationship. “Same with us. He understands what this business is all about.”
One might assume that the two men have had disagreements that led to tense moments in the kitchen; after all, they’ve worked together for nearly a decade. Azmin, however, is quick to ensure that he and Devin have “never had a bad day together” because the two men understand how to deal with potential issues before they escalate.
“If I know he’s mad about something, I either talk with him or stay away until he comes down,” Azmin continues. “He’s always respectful and once you respect someone or someone gains your respect, then no matter what you say or do, business is business.”
The Loft at Montage Laguna Beach, one of the area’s most critically acclaimed restaurants, offers not only breakfast, lunch and dinner but also bistro menus, making the planning process “nearly impossible to run by yourself,” according to Chef de Cuisine Casey Overton.
That’s where 30-year-old sous chef Benjamin Martinek comes in.
“Having Ben as my right-hand man is such a relief,” Casey says. “I rely on his added creativity along with my direction to help drive the restaurant. He is the ‘boots on the ground’ representation of me.”
The two men have worked together for roughly three years, beginning when Benjamin was cooking for another Montage restaurant, Studio.
The Loft is known for simple dishes that typically highlight three to four seasonal ingredients—an uncomplicated approach that mirrors the nature of Casey’s relationship with Benjamin. The 31-year-old chef de cuisine describes his partnership with his sous chef as a “great balance of creativity and hard work” that sets the foundation for the restaurant’s future.
“There is a shared spirit of where we see The Loft going,” Casey says. “We have a great time working together. He is a great trainer and really understands cuisine.”
Having two creative people in a kitchen can cause differences in opinions, but Casey explains that he and Benjamin share a mutual respect for each other that often settles any disputes. And when respect isn’t the answer, there’s always food.
“We are able to resolve [conflicts] with a shared mutual respect and open communication,” Casey muses of the partnership. “Or, just a dish made with thoughtfulness is always a great equalizer.” LBM