For most, our experiences often shape who we are as people, and our background becomes the building blocks for who we become.
For chefs, it’s often those experiences and that background that inspire their cuisine.
Whether it be comfort food, Cuban or French, many chefs in the Santa Clarita Valley can tell you firsthand they’ve seen this firsthand.
Bringing South Beach to the SoCal
While Santa Clarita resident and chef Leo Gomez was born in L.A., he grew up in Miami under the influence of his Cuban family.
“I’m incredibly passionate about my culture,” Gomez said. “I grew up in a very, very Cuban household where culture was at the forefront.”
Gomez often found himself gravitating towards the older generation, whether it was listening to their stories or learning their cooking.
“I picked up some recipes along the way growing up with my grandma, who was an amazing cook,” Gomez added.
So when Gomez moved back to L.A. at 17, it was immediately the culture, food and spirit of Miami he missed most.
“It’s not so much Cuban food, but Miami Cuban food, which is the comfort food that we usually get from these takeout windows called ‘ventanitas’ that are everywhere,” Gomez said, adding that it’s those Cuban sandwiches, pastries and coffees he craved.
Gomez used the unique opportunity he was given last year when he was laid off due to the pandemic to go back to his roots and give the business plan he’d been dreaming of his full attention.
“For the last couple of years, I’ve been working on the recipes and building out the menu,” Gomez said. “I took that entire year to really work together with my wife on building this concept.”
Due to the pandemic, Gomez has focused on catering, but hopes to open a storefront in Santa Clarita soon — Miami Café, a 1980s-inspired Cuban eatery to bring “South Beach to the Southland,” he said.
“We really want to serve this community and be a part of this community,” he said. “We’re just waiting for the right opportunity. It’s a really hard industry, and it’s really sad what’s happened (to restaurants through the pandemic), but I feel confident that there’s going to be a bounce back and the restaurant industry is going to really launch itself once the pandemic is really over.”
In the meantime, Gomez entered Favorite Chef, a national voting competition where the winner gets a cash prize.
While Gomez placed fifth in the quarterfinals, it was the community support he received fueled him to continue pursuing his passion.
“The response that we’ve gotten from the local community, the Cuban American community, family and friends has been so overwhelming,” he said. “It’s been a humbling experience to know that total strangers online are truly rooting for you.”
For more information, visit TheMiaCafe.com.
From French apprenticeship to Le Chène
Behind the food and wine at Le Chène French Cuisine is owner and head chef Juan Alonso.
Born in Spain, Alonso immigrated to France when he was 10 years old, and soon, he found himself wondering what he should do with his life.
At 14, he decided that being a cook would allow him to travel anywhere in the world, which appealed to him, so he quit school and went to work.
“I was an apprentice for three years at a one-star Michelin restaurant,” Alonso said.
When Alonso moved to Los Angeles in 1973, he was able to use his experiences there to dive head first into the restaurant industry.
Alonso opened Le Chène “by accident” in 1980, when the property’s owner offered it to him, without realizing that the Agua Dulce restaurant and vineyard that he built from the ground up would become his legacy.
Now nearly 41 years later, Alonso jokingly compared Le Chène to a jealous wife.
“It has been great to me, but at the same time, it’s very demanding,” he added with a chuckle.
While Alosno said he’s considered changing the restaurant’s cuisine over the years, it was his experience with French cuisine that won out.
“The cuisine we do here is a French cuisine of yesterday, but it’s a wonderful cuisine,” he said. “It’s French cuisine the way I learned it.”
Le Chène is located at 12625 Sierra Highway in Agua Dulce and can be reached by calling 661-251-4315.
Putting a spin on comfort food
At Old Town Junction, co-owner and executive chef Daniel Otto has built his restaurant around the comforts he remembers from his childhood.
Born in Hawaii, Otto recalls his mother always cooking, even as his family moved from place to place due to his father’s military career.
“I was always used to that really good comfort food that my mom would always make, and I kind of fell in love with that,” Otto said.
At 19, Otto went to San Francisco to pursue cooking and begin his formal education.
Otto then spent some time bouncing around the hospitality industry before he had the opportunity to open Old Town Junction with the goal of putting his own spin on comfort food and making customers feel at home.
“I feel like our restaurant’s really unique out here, and I think it shows … through from the first person you meet, with that warm, gatekeeper of a hostess, all the way from the server … and all the way to the heart of the house with our culinary team,” Otto said. “I believe the food speaks for itself and that’s how it should be.”
Otto designed the restaurant to be very culinary and food driven, hoping to create a scratch kitchen and something unique that exemplified his love of food.
“I’ve lived here for a good 20 years now, and it’s my home that I started with my family, and I want them to have … a place where you can come and feel that vibe,” Otto added. “We put a lot of love into it.”
Old Town Junction is located at 24275 Main St. in Newhall and can be reached by calling 661-702-4888.