Chicks with Knives

These chefs rock to  their own beat in some of O.C’s best kitchens.

chloe-tran-printChloe Tran
Owner-chef, East Borough, Costa Mesa and Culver City
Last two culinary gigs: My mother’s kitchen and her food truck. She sold burgers and dogs to the workers at machine shops up in Hayward. I worked there when I was 9 until I was out of high school.
Training: Mother’s kitchen. Even after long hours on the food truck, she’d come home and cook us a proper dinner. She would force me to help so I would learn—where the food comes from, about not wasting it; if you’re going to cook a whole chicken you have to use every part of it.
Years in professional kitchens: Five
Best advice: If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not learning.
Worst advice: You should open a spot in Westminster.
In the kitchen, you listen to: Interpol
Kitchen talent I shine at: Identifying what does and—more importantly—doesn’t work in a dish
Most underrated ingredient: Fish sauce. It has the power to be very subtle or very strong, background flavor or dipping sauce.
I wish I could: Visit the Motherland (Vietnam) with no hard return date
Food gift I love to give: Pickled vegetables
Food gift I love to get: Coolhaus ice cream cookie sandwiches
I’m crazy about: Fresh, fresh herbs
Cocktail crush: Gin and tonic (double the gin!)
Chef crush: Suzanne Goin of Lucques in L.A.
When I travel, I bring home: Menus, for keepsakes and inspiration

Niki Starr Weyler
Executive chef, Mesa, Costa Mesa
niki-starr-weyler-printLast two culinary gigs: Broadway by Amar Santana, Charlie Palmer at Bloomingdale’s
Training: San Diego Culinary Institute
Best advice: You’re only as good as your guests’ perception.
Worst advice: That to be a great female chef you can’t socialize, joke, and hang with the boys because then they won’t respect you. This is the opposite of truth. You have to be able to hang with the boys and develop a thick skin in order to make it, especially as a female—but really for everyone in this industry.
In the kitchen, you listen to: Mixes by different DJs I love: Claptone, Chromeo, Hayden James, Claude VonStroke, Wolf Player, Maceo Plex, Hot Since 82, etc.
Most inspirational chef: Alice Waters. As a 9-year-old, I’d visit my aunt in the San Francisco area. She would always take me to Chez Panisse. I remember getting pizza with stinging nettles on it, and it kind of blew my mind. I was super drawn to that California way of cooking where you use really good ingredients and let the food speak for itself. And of course it wasn’t lost on me—later—that she was a woman in a male-dominated field.
Biggest influence: Amar Santana. He really raised me in his kitchens throughout the years and I owe so much to him. I truly love him and
I am so appreciative.
Kitchen talent I shine at: Plating and butchery
I wish I could: Travel the world and cook in different kitchens along the way
I’m not afraid of: High-risk situations and being under pressure
Food gift I love to give: Jams and preserves. We make them at the restaurant, to go on our charcuterie boards.
Food gift I love to get: Wine (wine = grapes = food, right?)
Ingredient that excites me most and why: Aged steaks and fresh fish because they’re what I love to eat—and breaking down proteins is
one of my favorite tasks in the kitchen.
Food trend I’m totally over: Truffle oil, because it’s synthetic. I put it on a few things because people love it, but it’s overused and some restaurants charge too much for it.
Trend I want to see more of: Women in professional kitchens
Cocktail crush: Fitzgerald (a classic gin cocktail with lemon juice, soda, and simple syrup)
Most underrated ingredient: Acid (citrus or vinegar)
A food I could eat every day: Cheese and foie gras
Chef crush: “Top Chef” winner Kristen Kish, not just because she’s gorgeous, but because she’s such a bad-ass in the kitchen.
The person I most want to cook for: My husband (I have yet to meet him).

Rosa Tong
Owner-Executive chef, Fusion Bites, Fountain Valley
rosa-tong-printFormer culinary gig: Drago Centro, Los Angeles, the pasta station
Training: Laguna Culinary Arts, and the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners, Costigliole d’Asti, Italy. It’s
this little town in Piedmont. You walk through the grape vines and fields to this castle. It was like Hogwarts!
But your restaurant does modern Asian cuisine, right? Yes, we take from Asian cuisines and fuse it with French and Italian influences. We do a pho slider, Brussels sprouts with a Thai chile vinaigrette that is super tasty. We also do a Peking duck tart. We confit the duck and do a red onion jam at the bottom of a puff pastry, with fresh cucumbers, savoy cabbage, chives, and our own duck fat aioli.
Kitchen talent I shine at: This might sound simple to some, but I feel my talent would be the ability to season my dishes well. You can have the best dish, but if you don’t use the right amount of salt, it’s just not going to fly.
Food gift I’d love to get: Imported cheeses and a whole leg of prosciutto. Yes, a whole leg. Fresh sliced is the best, and those are my two favorite things to eat. At the restaurant, we do a prosciutto margarita flatbread pizza.
Ingredient that excites me most and why: Kimchi. It makes my mouth water thinking about it. We make ours in-house. You can have
it the first day or 30 days from now, and the flavors change each day. It takes on new life and makes the dish just a bit more interesting.
A new restaurant I can’t wait to try: I recently watched Amar Santana on “Top Chef.” I would love to try his new restaurant, Vaca.
Most inspirational chef: Thomas Keller and Eric Ripert, both amazing chefs who really have put their stamp on the culinary world.
Person I most want to cook for: I would love to cook for a president one day, a bit intimidating, but interesting. I’d like them to say, “Make me up something on the fly.”

Linda Johnsen
Owner-executive chef, Filomena’s Italian Kitchen, Costa Mesa, and Filomena’s Cafe and Wine Bar, Laguna Niguel
linda-johnsen-printCulinary training: Self‑taught
Years in professional kitchens: 35
Worst advice: Open a restaurant…
Best advice: Don’t be afraid to take that leap of faith and become a chef. The local chef community is extremely welcoming and supportive.
Most inspirational chef: Biba Caggiano. She had a show on PBS and owns a restaurant in Sacramento. I cried the first time I met her. She has the same passion I do about the food we create.
Biggest influence: My grandmother, Filomena. She taught me to have respect for my heritage and to create comfort in the food I provide for family and friends.
Kitchen talent I shine at: We’ve recently started a monthly wine dinner at our Laguna Niguel location. I’ve found I have a great talent for creating new, flavorful dishes that pair well with the wines picked for these events.
 I wish I could: Add more seating to my Costa Mesa location. Instead, I’m opening Filomena’s Italian Market in an adjacent storefront,  scheduled to open in July.
New restaurant I can’t wait to try: Boathouse Collective. I’ve heard so many great comments regarding the food.
Ingredient that excites me most and why: Tomatoes—so many different varieties. I love a great heirloom caprese salad with fresh burrata or caramelized oven-roasted San Marzano tomatoes and arugula salad.
Most underrated ingredient: Salt. It can make a dish when used properly or break a dish if overused.
At home I like to cook: Hearty, long-lasting dishes like pot roast, roasted pork, soups

Saifon Plewtong
Owner-Chef, True Seasons Organic Kitchen, Anaheim
saifon-plewtong-printBiggest culinary influence: My Thai upbringing. I was born and raised in Thailand on a fruit and vegetable farm. Thirteen years ago, I started cooking organic meals for the homeless here in Costa Mesa. I never dreamed of opening
a restaurant or being a chef. It’s something God had planned for me.
Worst advice: Don’t work too hard!
New restaurant I can’t wait to try: Chef Rich Mead’s Farmhouse, at Roger’s Gardens [scheduled to open later this year]
My hidden superpower: Healing with food. I had migraines all my life, and it wasn’t until I turned to organic and GMO-free foods that I went off all my medications. Now I cook that way in my restaurant, too.
Ingredient that excites me most and why: Lemongrass because it is used rarely and has such a pleasant flavor and aroma. It elevates a dish.
Trend I want to see more of: 100 percent organic and non-GMO ingredients in restaurants
A food I could eat every day: Chips and salsa—Mexican food is my favorite.

Kristin Nguyen
Owner-Executive chef, Garlic & Chives, Garden Grove
kristin-nguyen-printCulinary training: The Art Institute of California in Santa Ana and various other professional culinary training in Hong Kong, Vietnam, Thailand, and Korea.
Years in professional kitchens: I was a private caterer for 20 years while a stay-at-home mom.
In the kitchen, you listen to: Customer feedback via my staff
Biggest influence: Coming from a big family with little resources, we found great joy in cooking with each other. My sister Thuy is always honest about my food. She has inspired and helped me develop the flavors of the most popular dishes on our menu, including the chicken wings.
Kitchen talent I shine at: Making sauces. Almost every one of my dishes has a sauce.
My hidden superpower: That I am able to re-create what I’ve tasted
Food gift I love to give: Gourmet appetizers and Asian salads called goi
Food gift I love to get: Exotic tropical fruits
Ingredient that excites me most and why: Garlic. It’s so healthy for you and every cuisine uses it. I’ve recently learned about the health benefits and flavors of black garlic.
Most underrated ingredient: Fried shallots. I love that they add both texture and flavor.
Kitchen tool I can’t be without: My ladle. It’s the one thing that lets me taste everything I’m making.
Most inspirational chef: Emeril Lagasse. He puts a lot of love into his cooking, and he always makes sure his food is satisfying.
Person I most want to cook for: The pope. He inspires me to care for others using my gifts and talents of cooking. I would make him some of our traditional Vietnamese dishes and the Holy Crunchy Chicken Wings on my menu.

kristin nguyen of garlic & chives could eat spring rolls every day. “I love the sauces that go with them,” she says.
Debra Sims
Executive chef and pastry chef, Maro Wood Grill, Laguna Beach
debra-sims-printLast two culinary gigs: Firefly, Studio City, and Ritual Supper Club, Hollywood
Training: Valedictorian Class of 2008, Le Cordon Bleu, Hollywood
Years in professional kitchens: Eight
Best advice: Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice. It’s easy to give a lot of advice, but hard to be a good listener.
In the kitchen, you listen to: My gut, and not because I’m hungry.
I wish I could: Travel the world—then become a food critic.
My hidden superpower: Perseverance
Biggest influence: Argentine chef Francis Mallmann. The way he makes the fire work for him—so amazing, I am in awe.
Ingredient that excites me most and why: Citrus. Oranges, buddha’s hand, lemons, limes, grapefruit, tangerines, yuzu, Key limes, Meyer lemons. Sweet and savory, I love them all.
Trend I want to see more of: Fermented foods. I’m doing kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi. … Cultures have lived for centuries on them, and fermenting creates probiotics that are good for you.
Cocktail crush: I like a nice, aged Scotch. Beer. Sometimes Fernet and Coke.
A food I could eat every day: For sure Thai food. I live for papaya salad.
A typical breakfast: I usually don’t eat breakfast, but I love a perfectly done fried-egg sandwich.
I’m obsessed with: Vinyl records. I have a lot of Beatles on the Parlophone label, a couple of really good Led Zeppelin, Ziggy Marley, Bob Marley, old jazz.

shaschi-mehra-printShachi Mehra
Owner-Executive chef, Adya, Anaheim

Culinary training: It’s ongoing. I learn something new every day.
Years in professional kitchens: 17
Worst advice: Maybe this is the wrong profession for you. The first chef I worked for said that to me. He later asked me to come back to work for him.
Food gift I love to get: Condiments! Hot sauces, chutneys, pickles. I love condiments!
I’m crazy about: Denim. I live in jeans, and I recently got a denim chef coat.
Ingredient that excites me most and why: Chiles. I just bought marash, a dried Turkish chile; also urfa and aleppo. Not every chile is really spicy. Some add smokiness, some a bright flavor. I like to find the right combination for a dish, then make them the star.
Food trend I’m totally over: Bacon
Trend I want to see more of: Vegetables as stars of the plate
Cocktain crush: Negroni
A food I could eat every day: Cheese. Any kind of cheese.
Chef crush: Carlos Salgado at Taco Maria
A typical breakfast is: Blueberries, blackberries, and coffee. I’m a huge fan of berries. I grew up in New Jersey, and every time
my mom went to the bank there was a mulberry tree, and my sister and I would pick the berries and eat them.
I’m obsessed with: Mustard. I told you, I love condiments

Shachi Mehra in her Adya kitchen. A second location at irvine’s university center is scheduled to open late this summer.



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