Photograph by Jenn Ireland
season's eatings: Tom Vinolus with an Heirloom Tomato Margarita and a fresh Black Mission fig appetizer.
Bittersweet's Tom Vinolus on the changing local food scene and the importance of teamwork in the kitchen.
By Traci Hukill
TOM VINOLUS always loved cooking, but he wanted to be a concert promoter--until he realized he wouldn't be able to work for himself. Two and a half years at the Hilton in Irvine, a degree at the Culinary Institute of America and a coveted job at Charlie Palmer's Aureole in New York set him up with the skills to match his imagination and ambition. He headed back to California, and after a stint as pastry chef at Casanova in Carmel, Vinolus bought Zanzibar, several doors down from O'Mei. The bistro concept carried over to Bittersweet, his popular Aptos restaurant, which has gained a loyal following for its consistent quality and spectacular desserts.
SANTA CRUZ WEEKLY: What's changed about the culinary scene in Santa Cruz since you started?
TOM VINOLUS: The availability of fresh organic ingredients. I was going to farmers before there was a relationship with farmers. It was extremely adversarial. We had a screaming match with one of farmers. He didn't bring romaine one night. He just didn't understand.
What else has changed?
The quality of the restaurants has come up drastically in the last 17 years. There were places using doing clam sauce using canned clams instead of fresh. Everyone's picked up their game.
How was it different being a pastry chef?
Pastries were kind of a fluke for me. When I moved to Monterey, if you were an aspiring chef you had to work under people who were not as talented or driven to put out good food. But the pastry chef they didn't mess with. When I worked at Casanova, Didier [Dutertre] told me, "You can't do this, this and this," and in four months I was doing everything he'd told me not to do!
What's the ingredient you can't live without?
I would say extra virgin olive oil. There are so many things it does and can be used for to cook. Salad dressings, everything.
What words of wisdom do you have for young chefs entering the game?
It's just like team sports. If someone drops the ball in a football game, it doesn't matter. Everyone has to work together. The ultimate game for us is to keep customer happy. The front staff has to be in tune with what you're doing. The back staff has to be in tune. Everyone from dishwasher cleaning plates--because if the plate's dirty, the customer won't be happy--to the hostess, because if the customer doesn't get a warm greeting they're not going to be happy.
SANTA CRUZ RESTAURANT WEEK is Oct. 1-8 at participating restaurants. Visit www.santacruzrestaurantweek .com for more info.
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