Features & Columns

Silicon Valley Chefs Tell All

John Ambrosio

CELEBRITY CHEFS like Emeril Lagasse, Paula Deen and Rachael Ray are celebrities. But are they chefs? They were at one time, but because they now spend most of their time before a TV camera or at booksignings, it's hard to make the case that they're working chefs any more. They are entertainers.

The six chefs profiled in this issue of SV Dining aren't celebrity chefs, but they are definitely chefs. They are craftsmen and -women. They work long hours on their feet in hot places of fire and boiling oil with sharp blades in their hands. They boast burns and scars. On weekends and holidays when most of us have the day off, they are toiling over their stoves and cutting boards.

These chefs represent the hardworking middle tier of Silicon Valley restaurants, neither the high-end fancy restaurants nor the fast, casual counter-service places. These restaurants are nice enough for a weekend night out but are really dependable midweek dining spots that one can enjoy again and again. And these chefs are doing something right. The restaurants remain some of the most perennially popular dining spots in Silicon Valley.

We wanted to get personal with them. Where do they eat on their days off? What do they stock in the refrigerators at home? Who are their culinary heroes? What was their biggest menu flop? So turn off the Food Network and meet some real chefs right here in Silicon Valley.

John D'Ambrosio

Frankie, Johnnie and Luigi, Too

939 W. El Camino Real, Mountain View; 650.967.5384

D'Ambrosio has been cooking for more than 50 years, but says he never received any formal training. He learned at home with his parents and grandparents. D'Ambrosio started in restaurants washing dishes at 9 and worked the saute and other line positions by the age of 15.

Without the Internet, cooking shows or the resources chefs have today, D'Ambrosio said that creativity for new menu items had to come from the chefs themselves. "You were on your own, you had to be a natural at it," said D'Ambrosio. Frankie, Johnnie and Luigi's is a Silicon Valley institution. The restaurant opened in 1956 and in 1972, D'Ambrosio and his brothers purchased the restaurant. He acts as head of operations for the restaurant's three locations.

Where do you eat on your day off?

I eat at home a lot but when I do go out, I favor Vietnamese food. [Khanh's Restaurant is his favorite.] I love their fresh rolls, appetizers. It's not overly greasy. It's very healthy, and I love the husband and wife that own it.

If you could have only five things in your refrigerator at home what would they be?

A jar of Christopher Ranch crushed garlic; I always need fresh basil and fresh parsley. I always like to keep some bread in the fridge and some fresh pasta or raviolis.

What five things do you have in the fridge now?

I'm leaving town, and I'm going home to make sauce tonight. I have a container of shredded cabbage, I got some diced onions, some diced fresh tomatoes, diced parsley and some sausage. [He plans to make sausage and cabbage sauce with oil and a little bit of tomato sauce to eat with fresh pasta.]

If you had to eat fast food, where would you eat?

I don't like hamburgers that much, but I'd have to say Mexican. I'd probably go for a real healthy burrito or fish tacos. You don't need all the beans and the cheese and rice. I tell them to keep it out, just a little bit of beans and some meat, lettuce, tomatoes and you're eating fresh.

What is the most illicit act you've ever witnessed in a restaurant?

I will never forget, on the busiest night of the year, a guy was taking his girlfriend out to dinner, and his wife shows up and they had a big thing right on the floor. She was throwing everything all over him and everywhere. It was kind of strange.

What are your favorite dishes/foods for wooing a love interest?

I would probably do several small courses; a butter leaf salad with tomato, fresh mozzarella, a little shrimp or prawn and some crumbled blue cheese and an Italian vinaigrette. And then a pasta course, something very delicate like pappardelle with a very nice ground meat sauce topped with reggiano cheese.

For the entree, probably a bacon-wrapped filet mignon is always safe, a real good quality asparagus with butter garlic and lemon, and probably something interesting with the potato like twice-baked.

For dessert, hopefully it would be me, but I would pull out the Fringelike and Grand Marnier. If I was trying to impress I would make a Marsala poached pear with ice cream.

What are your most enduring childhood food memories?

Every Sunday that I can remember, there would be about 14 of us at my grandmother's for dinner. She cooked simply, but it was always delicious.

Where do you go for late-night eats?

I don't usually eat late anymore because I don't sleep well. For a late snack, I always like to find a place that will make will make me a thin slice of pizza, plain with a little slice of anchovy.

What was your biggest menu flop?

Every place is different; what worked at one place may not work at another. My favorite dish that flopped miserably broke my heart. I love chicken cacciatore on the bone. I had it on the menu, and it flopped miserably. I don't know why, maybe people figure they can make it at home.

Who are your greatest culinary heroes?

I gotta say Ted Faravelli of Michaels Restaurant. Back in the '70s and '80s, that wažs the place. I would have to say Ted Faravelli is definitely a mentor of mine. On TV, I do like Lidia Bastianich and Jacques Pepin. Pound for pound, mechanically they are the best cooks.

What is your favorite locally sourced ingredient?

I gotta call this my secret weapon, is the New York Style Italian sausage. I use it in a lot of dishes. On my menu you will see it in at least six places.

Andrew Welch

Andrew Welch

The Basin

14572 Big Basin Way, Saratoga; 408.867.1906

Working with his crew of talented chefs at The Basin and the excellent Casa de Cobre next door, Andrew Welch oversees one of Silicon Valley's real success stories. The Basin is downtown Saratoga's go-to restaurant for a casual, but refined meal and a drink. The restaurant serves a mix of American and MediterraneanĐinspired food in big portions with a generous, good-times vibe on the side. The patio under a giant, 200-year-old oak tree makes for great outdoor dining. It's a romantic spot. Maybe overly so. Read on.

Where do you eat on your day off?

I try to go into San Francisco as often as possible. I also really enjoy Fish in Sausalito.

If you could have only five things in your refrigerator at home what would they be?

Definitely Parmigiano Reggiano. Good quality oil-cured anchovies. San Marzano tomatoes. Some jamon Iberico de bellota. And Paisano olive oil.

What five things do you have in the fridge now?

Parmigiano. White anchovies. Salted butter. Fresh thyme. And I have some great trout fillets that we're featuring at the restaurant.

If you had to eat fast food, where would you eat?

That's a tough one for me. Wow. Put a gun to my head. In-N-Out Burger.

What is the most illicit act you've ever witnessed in a restaurant?

Oh goodness. Can I say this? I had a couple out on our patio who thought that everyone had left and they started to make love. We didn't interrupt them.

What are your favorite dishes/foods for wooing a love interest?

Well presented and cured raw fish. Oysters. On the half shell. And well-presented finger foods.

What are your most enduring childhood food memories?

Definite growing up in San Diego and working as a deck hand as a young teen on a fishing boat and constantly eating fresh fish. And fresh cioppino. My mom's cioppino.

Where do you go for late-night eats?

Nopa in San Francisco.

What's your favorite item on the menu?

Right now it's the McFarland trout. It's amazing.

What was your biggest menu flop?

I tried to do a fresh-roasted turkey Italian piccata style. It didn't work. At the end of the day who wants to have turkey?

Who are your greatest culinary heroes?

There's so many—Julia Child. I'll have to go with her.

What is your favorite locally sourced ingredient?

They're not in season right now but my favorite local ingredients are definitely sardines. And believe it or not, here in October, we're still getting amazing local albacore.

Howard Bulka

Howard Bulka

Howie's Artisan Pizza

Town & Country Village, 855 El Camino Real, Palo Alto; 650.32-PIZZA

Earlier in his career, Bulka traveled with his wife in France and worked with some of the country's most celebrated chefs, such as Alain Chapel and Paul Bocuse. He was the executive chef at Menlo Park's great Marche for years before opening Howie's Artisan Pizza. The Palo Alto restaurant takes pizza very seriously but not itself. Bulka has been perfecting his dough for two years and he says it's just about perfect. "It's a really great crust."

Where do you eat on your day off?

My last day off, I had dim [sum] at the Hong Kong Flower Lounge with my young son. And we try to get to San Francisco when we can.

If you could have only five things in your refrigerator at home what would they be?

Soy sauce. I have to have a roast chicken. I'd have to have some cut fruit. That's always there. Milk. And cheese.

Name five things you have in the refrigerator now?

As of this morning, I had roast chicken, soy sauce, tomatoes, cut pineapple and beer, wine and Champagne.

If you had to eat fast food, where would you eat?

In-N-Out Burger. That's one we do.

What is the most illicit act you've ever witnessed in a restaurant?

Cocaine consumption. That's going back a few years. I used to work in L.A. Enough said.

What are your favorite dishes/foods for wooing a love interest?

It's been a while. I still have a love interest, I just don't have to woo her as much. I'd say a whole roasted chicken and onion rings.

What are your most enduring childhood food memories?

Sunday brunch at my mother's house. She'd make lox and bagels. She would also make blintzes with hoop cheese and farmer's cheese. Hoop cheese is a drier version of cottage cheese. Also Chinese food on Sunday nights.

Where do you go for late-night eats?

On the peninsula? There is nowhere else to go. This place closes up at 8pm.

What's your favorite item on the menu right now?

Chinese chicken salad. I eat it almost every day. After two years of eating pizza every day, I think I'm almost done.

What was your biggest menu flop?

I think it was the turkey-leg osso bucco. All through the process, it looked just like a veal shank, and we were thinking we had a winner on our hand. But braised turkey was not a good thing. Oh well, what are you going to do?

Who are your greatest culinary heroes?

Paul Bocuse. Alain Chapel. Way back when I was a puppy, I worked for those guys. They were enormously kind to let me come into their kitchens. It was a mindblower. ... For better or worse those guys influenced me enormously. They gave me the skill set I wouldn't have had.

What is your favorite locally sourced ingredient?

What pops in my head is the McEvoy olive oil. Very grassy, very green and very acidic olive oil. It's great drizzled over anything. It cuts through the richness of whatever. Also Sparrow Lane vinegars. Mushrooms from Todd [Spanier] and strawberries from the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Antonio Lopez

Antonio Flores Lopez

Cascal

400 Castro St., Mountain View; 650. 940.9500

Mountain View's Cascal restaurant mixes flavors of Spain, Mexico and Latin America to create more than 25 different tapas and Latin-inspired dishes. Florez began as a dishwasher and worked through the ranks in the kitchen.

Where do you eat on your day off?

Sometimes I cook for my family at home. We eat fish, chicken, cheese. I go to eat at a lot of tapas restaurants in the area.

If you could have only five things in your refrigerator at home what would they be?

Rice and beans, tortillas, chiles and cheese.

What five things do you have in the fridge now?

Right now, all of those ingredients, rice and beans, tortillas, chiles and cheese.

If you had to eat fast food, where would you eat?

I like to go to In-N-Out. It's close by, and I usually have a double cheeseburger.

What is the most illicit act you've ever witnessed in a restaurant?

One day, one of my guys dropped a whole pan of vegetables, and he was kind of scared. He tried to pick it up right away. He was kind of confused and asked, "Should I wash it or throw away?" It was fine that accidents happen, but it was like "Oh, my God, what am I going to do now?"

What are your favorite dishes/foods for wooing a love interest?

I would make some kind of hearty fish, with chorizo, garbanzo beans and smoked paprika sauce with pumpkin cheesecake for dessert.

What are your most enduring childhood food memories?

I was about 14 cooking at my house and noticed I could cook. I remember making pasta for myself and thinking "Wow, not bad."

Where do you go for late-night eats?

There's this taqueria on El Camino. They have awesome tacos there.

What was your biggest menu flop?

None.

Who are your greatest culinary heroes?

I always had a lot of respect for [Cascal owner] Don Durante. I also have a lot of friends who work in kitchens as chefs or line cooks.

What is your favorite locally sourced ingredient?

Local garlic!

Steve Suzuki

Steve Suzuki

Blowfish Sushi

355 Santana Row, San Jose; 408.345.3848

Suzuki graduated from culinary school in Yokohama, Japan, where he learned the art of making sushi. He worked in Japan for two years and was schooled in traditional-style sushi, but when he came to Blowfish he learned to mix it up and cater to Americans' more eclectic tastes, blending western and eastern ingredients.

Where do you eat on your day off?

I usually eat at home, making very simple food.

If you could have only five things in your refrigerator at home what would they be?

Tofu, miso paste, green onion, some Japanese vegetables and a chicken.

What five things do you have in the fridge now?

The same things I would always have in the fridge, plus some noodles and frozen stuff.

If you had to eat fast food, where would you eat?

I usually go to Carl's Jr., just a basic hamburger.

What is the most illicit act you've ever witnessed in a restaurant?

Some people just grab some edamame and eat it but keep cooking. I see that and say, "Hey! Wash your hands."

What are your favorite dishes/foods for wooing a love interest?

I am married, and usually she cooks.

What are your most enduring childhood food memories?

For New Year's, my family always prepares food for three days, usually a stew we keep outside overnight.

Where do you go for late-night eats?

Usually I go to Denny's, just to have some dessert.

What was your biggest menu flop?

No comment.

Who are your greatest culinary heroes?

I never met him, but I like Masaharu Morimoto.

What is your favorite locally sourced ingredient?

Daikon radish.

Nancy Reineking

Nancy Reineking

Willow Street Wood-Fired Pizza

1072 Willow St., Willow Glen; 408.971.7080

20 S. Santa Cruz Ave., No. 218, Los Gatos; 408.354.5566

Westgate, 1554 Saratoga Ave., San Jose; 408.871.0400

Willow Street Pizza has become a Silicon Valley classic. The restaurant has grown from one store in Willow Glen to three. The company also owns Main Street Burgers in Los Gatos. Nancy Reineking has been with Willow Street for 15 years, creating dishes and overseeing the staff every step of the way.

Where do you eat on your day off?

I like Thai food, and we have a local place in Los Gatos that we go to. Thai Spice. I like barbecue so we go to Armadillo Willie's. I go to San Francisco a lot, too.

If you could have only five things in your refrigerator at home what would they be?

I always have to have butter and cream because I do a lot of baking. And cheese. Wine. And bacon.

What five things do you have in the refrigerator now?

Right now I have all kinds of sauce because we're doing research. Things like Key Lime raspberry. Romesco sauce and bacon-onion jam.

If you had to eat fast food, where would you eat?

In-N-Out Burger. If I'm on the road, that's the one place I'd stop.

What is the most illicit act you've ever witnessed in a restaurant?

Someone making out.

What are or were your favorite dishes for wooing a love interest?

Something creamy with seafood. A seafood pasta. And some kind of decadent chocolate cake.

What are your most enduring childhood food memories?

We have a big extended family and my grandfather was a good cook, and we used to watch Julia Child together. We cooked big feasts at my grandparents for 25 people for more.

Where do you go for late-night eats?

There isn't anywhere in the South Bay. And I don't stay up late anymore.

What's your favorite item on the menu right now?

Probably the romaine gorgonzola salad. I eat it five times a week.

What was your biggest menu flop?

I'm sure there's something. I think we tried to do a meat dish that didn't work. ... We haven't had very many. A potato pizza. That didn't work.

Who are your greatest culinary heroes?

Julia Child for sure. I love her. And Emeril Lagasse.

What is your favorite locally sourced ingredient?

Artichokes are one of my favorites. And avocado.