Irvine native Katy Smith thought she wanted to be an actress when she starred in “Singing in the Rain” at University High. Now the executive creative chef for Puesto restaurants is back in Orange County and enjoying every aspect of being home.
In the kitchen, Katy Smith’s focus is unbroken. It’s hard to believe that in the early days of her culinary career, an employer didn’t recognize her potential, suggesting she might be happier working the front of the house. “I was given jobs as a prep cook because I didn’t look like I was as tough as I would need to be. But I moved up quickly because I have a strong work ethic.”
While attending University High School in Irvine, Smith played the lead in “Singing in the Rain,” joyously jumping out of a giant cake and tap dancing over a couch. Now she has returned to O.C., living in a 1940s cottage in Laguna Beach that she and her wife, Tanya Velazquez, a wedding photographer, describe as their treehouse.
“We’re really good at prioritizing time together. When we have a day off, we don’t turn on the TV. We cook together, we sit outside, talk, and listen to music.”
Smith splits her time among Puesto locations, including two in Irvine. “Orange County is great. The cooking scene is very welcoming. It’s really special to be back in the place where I grew up and to get to do what I love.”
Rick Bayless—much-respected expert on Mexican cuisine, chef-restaurateur, and PBS star—played a role in honing her knowledge. “I worked with him in his test kitchen in Chicago, and I was culinary director for two seasons of his ‘Mexico–One Plate at a Time’ show. We filmed half the show in different regions of Mexico and the other half at his home in Chicago. I respect him very much.”
The connection between her and Puesto’s ownership team was immediate. “I got the contact for the job through a recruiter. We had a Skype interview, then we talked over the phone. We realized that night that we were all meant for each other.”
Throwing around ideas with her Puesto team, known for creative tacos, she wanted to come up with something like tostadas—bright, light, and delicious—but way less awkward to eat. Her solution, designed for the location at Los Olivos Marketplace in Irvine, was crepas de elote, corn crepes made with the masa used for tamales.
“I love getting to educate people about Mexican food, whether it’s our guests who come into our restaurant and think they have an idea about what authentic Mexican food is, or whether it’s our staff. I get excited to get to share that knowledge with people here.”
See Katy Smith and Cathy Thomas preparing Pescado Veracruzana here.