Palm Desert Food&Wine™ 2017

2016 Chefs


Cat CoraCat Cora

Chef, TV personality, cook book author, Food Network Iron Chef

For more than 10 years Cat Cora has graced America's food scene, thanks to her appearance on the Food Network's Iron Chef America in 2005. Her contributions to the series range from recipes (of course!) to descriptions of what makes her happy (a rare New York strip steak — of course!) to descriptions of her kitchen renovation at her home in Santa Barbara (makeover from the 1950s).

But Cora's more than a renowned chef — she's a restaurateur, author, philanthropist, and mother of four. An engaging speaker whose Mississippi roots are betrayed at her every appearance, Cora grew up within an intimate Greek community whose Mediterranean influences spiced up her region's Southern flavors.

When, Julia Child steered her toward becoming a chef, she left the South to study at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. From there, she honed her craft in Europe, an interlude that included apprenticeships with two of France's three-star Michelin chefs.

She returned to New York, then moved to the Napa Valley, the San Francisco Bay Area, finally settling in Southern California. But her empire spans the continent, and beyond — her restaurant resume includes Cat Cora's Kitchen in airports in San Francisco, Houston, Salt Lake City, and another to open any minute in Atlanta. Ocean Restaurant by Cat Cora is found on Sentosa Island in Singapore.

Cora spreads the savory word through her food lines and regular appearances not only on the Food Network, but NBC and Bravo, as well as in print, with cookbooks, and an autobiography published last year, Cooking as Fast as I Can: A Chef's Story of Family, Food, and Forgiveness.

In 2004, Cora founded Chefs for Humanity, a nonprofit that addresses global hunger and promotes nutrition education. In 2012, she was inducted into the American Academy of Chefs Culinary Hall of Fame.


Chef Gale GanGale Gand

Spritz Burger Restaurant & Tru (Chicago, IL), and James Beard Award-winning Pastry Chef

Here's all you need to know about Gale Gand. When one of her customers was desperate to give her cancer-surviving husband a chocolate blackout cake for his 70th birthday, she couldn't find a recipe or anyone who knew how to bake one. She turned to Gand.

The nationally acclaimed pastry chef had never made or tasted such a creature, but she hit the books, tapped her network, created a few prototypes, refined them and, finally, found the chocolate pot at the end of the birthday rainbow.

As reported in Food & Wine, Gand said that adventure resulted in "all these calls — it's like a drug deal — and people say, ‘I hear you do blackout cake.' I say, ‘Where'd you hear that? How do you know that?'"
Chef, restaurateur, TV personality, teacher, author, entrepreneur, mother … and food detective, Gand is a woman with boundless energy and the curiosity to sustain it.

Recognized by the James Beard Foundation, Bon Appetit magazine, and the Chicago Chefs Hall of Fame, Gand devotes much of her time these days to SpritzBurger, a restaurant on Chicago's North Side that's a collaboration with Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh ("The Hearty Boys"), winners of the Food Network's reality competition Food Network Star in 2005.

Desserts are well represented on the SpritzBurger menu, but so are other interesting creations, including vintage seltzer cocktails and house-made sodas.

Gand's restaurant bona fides are impressive: She was the founding pastry chef and partner in Chicago's vanguard establishment Tru, which collected more accolades than France has baguettes, including recognition from the Michelin, Mobil, and AAA guides; Relais Gourmand; and Wine Spectator magazine. Before Tru, Gand and her partners served superior fare at Trio and Brasserie T in Chicago, and at Stapleford Park in Leicestershire, England, where, in 1991, she was one of the first two American chefs to earn a Michelin Red M.

Gand spreads the culinary gospel as far as technology will allow. For eight years she was host of the Food Network series Sweet Dreams, an all-dessert national broadcast. She has talked turkey, so to speak, with Martha Stewart, Oprah, and Rachael Ray on their eponymous TV shows, and appeared on Baking With Julia (Child), Good Morning America, and Today. She was a competitor on Iron Chef America, and she judged the work of other chefs on Food Network Challenge, Last Cake Standing, Top Chef, and Top Chef Just Desserts.

For a couple of years, Gand was chef in residence at Elawa Farm in Lake Forest, Illinois, a restored, early 20th century "gentleman's farm" that's now home to an organic community garden and ecological learning center. Gand taught cooking classes in the farm kitchen.

Teaching is an ongoing element of the Gand experience: She frequently holds cooking classes at Eataly Chicago, Blackberry Farm in Tennessee, King Arthur Flour in Vermont, and Zingerman's in Michigan, and when she's on a public speaking gig, you want to be in the audience.

She tells stories about the quirky stuff that happens in the restaurant business; about her time in the kitchen with Julia Child; about how the artistic process of a chef is similar to the architectural process of Frank Lloyd Wright. After hearing all this dish, she wrote in an email, people in the audience "laugh, they cry, they kiss their ten bucks goodbye ..."

She cooks, she juries, she teaches, she writes. She's the author and co-author of eight cookbooks, one of which — Gale Gand's Brunch — is in its fifth printing.

Sweets are fun, and Gand works this trait like a master — her artisanal Gale's Root Beer is available nationally. But a meal is more than sugar and spice, and Gand steps up in a big way for nutritional balance. She and her son, Gio, supply local restaurants with wild ramps (members of the onion family) foraged from wooded areas near their suburban Chicago home.

And, as one Chicagoan to another, Gand was a mentor in first lady Michelle Obama's Chefs Move to Schools initiative, which helps fight childhood obesity through nutritional education.

Gand holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Rochester Institute of Technology, majoring in silver and gold smithing. Realizing that feeding people made her happier than accessorizing them, she attended culinary school at Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris. She lives in Riverwoods, Illinois with her husband, Jimmy Seidita, Gio, and daughters Ella and Ruby.


Chef Suzanne TrachtSuzanne Tracht

Appeared on Bravo's Top Chef, The Today Show and was recognized by Food and Wine Magazine; Chef/Owner of the critically-acclaimed Jar restaurant (Los Angeles, CA)

Suzanne Tracht, chef and owner of the critically-acclaimed Jar Restaurant, was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona. In 1992, she became chef de cuisine at Nancy Silverton and Mark Peel's Campanile. Four years later, she embarked on her first solo venture at executive chef at the Cal-Asian restaurant, Jozu. In its debut year, Jozu ranked number two for "L.A.'s Best New Restaurants" in Los Angeles Magazine's restaurant issue.

In 2001, she opened her modern chophouse, Jar, with her longtime chef de cuisine Preech Narkthong. Tracht and Narkthong built a reputation for cooking cozily familiar American retro food – pot roast, steaks, pork chops, braised lamb shanks — with a modern twist. In 2002 she was named one of Food and Wine magazine's Best New Chefs. Tracht has made numerous national appearances on the Today Show, Food Network and Extra and was was inducted into the Fine Dining Hall of Fame by Restaurant News in May 2007. She participated in Fortune magazine's Most Powerful Women Summit in 2003, 2005, and 2009. Tracht was honored at the 2009 Women in Food James Beard Foundation Awards gala, was a featured chef at the 2010 World Equestrian Games. To this day, fans of Top Chef Masters remember Tracht's inventively winning dish of Fried Shallot Rings with Microgreen Salad and Dr. Pepper Aioli.

Jar regularly wins praise from the press, from inclusion in Pulitzer Prize winning food critic Jonathan Gold's "Best 101 LA Restaurants" to Eater LA's "The Best Lobster Dishes To Eat in LA Right Now."Los Angeles Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila wrote, "Tracht's attention to detail sets Jar apart. It's not only good, it's absolutely reliable." Los Angeles Magazine said Tracht might have "the most finely tuned and modern sensibility of any cook working in L.A." For years Jar has been among Los Angeles Magazine's top 75 restaurants named in the magazine.

Tracht donates to SOVA, a community food and resources program of Jewish Family Service of LA. She also donates her time to Cedars-Sinai Women's Heart Center, Inner-city Arts, Mazon, No Kid Hungry, and Saban Clinic.

Suzanne has two children, Max and Ida.


Chef Valerie GordonValerie Gordon

Chef/Owner of Valerie Confections (Los Angeles, CA), Award-Winning Chocolatier, Author, has appeared on The Food Network, The Cooking Channel, and as a guest judge on BRAVO's Top Chef: Just Desserts.

Valerie Gordon spreads her gospel like honey on warm toast, and anybody with a sweet tooth can only respond, "amen, sister!"

As a kid, when her friends were flipping through the Sears catalog lusting over the toys, Gordon was more enamored of the petits fours offered in the pages of The Swiss Colony, whose tagline is "America's Largest Handcrafting Bakery." Gordon was a good student, and today Valerie Confections in the trendy Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles serves up its own petit fours, as well as other lip-smacking treats, including preserves, cakes, pastries, and a chocolate-dipped toffee one food critic called "a revelation."

Gordon's reach extends beyond her flagship shop to Valerie Echo Park (a French brasserie in another hot L.A. ‘hood), and Valerie at Grand Central Market (coffee shop fare in downtown L.A.), where she offers savory dishes including cauliflower & couscous salad and a grilled cheese sandwich that is to Velveeta as Shakespeare is Jacqueline Susann. She's also culinary director for several Southern California American Tea Room outlets and their tea-infused menu. Her catering business fills the before-and-after meal requirements with hors d'ouevres and dessert tables created to the customer's specifications and in collaboration with local farmers responsible for supplying the produce.

The artisanal chocolatier's products have assumed starring roles on Cooking Channel's Unique Eats, Food Network's The Best Thing I Ever Ate, and on Bravo's Top Chef Just Desserts. People cannot survive on sweets alone. But when Valerie Gordon is doing the cooking, you might want to try.


Chef Zack BruelleZack Bruell

Chef/Restaurateur, Parallax, Table 45, L'albatros, Chinato, Cowell & Hubbard, Dynomite

Except for the Coachella Valley, on the whole, we'd rather be in Cleveland. At dinnertime, anyway. Because that's where Zack Bruell cooks. Bruell, more than anyone else, has brought the culinary backwater into prominence over a 30+-year career, turning his hometown into a Midwestern dining destination.

We are obliged to point out that Bruell's skill was honed by his youthful experience working at the seminal Southern California restaurant Michael's, whose nouvelle cuisine still influences how America eats

Today, Bruell has nine successful restaurants in Cleveland, each with its own identity and signature site. They range from Cowell & Hubbard, a modern French restaurant in a former jewelry store in the theater district of PlayhouseSquare, to newer members of the Bruell club: Alley Cat Oyster Bar, overlooking the Cuyahoga River, and Exploration, a casual venue at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where Bruell also caters special events.

The depth and breadth of Bruell's ambition is a matter of record: As he once told Cleveland Magazine, "There is something instilled in me, either fortunately or unfortunately, that I'm never satisfied with what I've got. There's this internal clock inside of me that tells me I'm supposed to be doing better, doing more."

That hard wiring led him to finish his business degree, get another from the Restaurant School at Center City (Philadelphia), then announce to his father that his life would be about restaurants. To which, according to Cleveland Magazine, his father replied, "You'd make more money as a garbage man."

Foodies would beg to differ.


The Hearty BoysRicardo Zarate

Founding Chef/Owner of Picca , Mo Chica and Paiche (Los Angeles, CA); Author of The Fire of Peru: Recipes and Stories from my Peruvian Kitchen.

Clara Bow was the original "it" girl. The English novelist Elinor Glyn is credited with coining the term, and once said "With 'It,' you win all men if you are a woman and all women if you are a man. 'It' can be a quality of the mind as well as a physical attraction."

"It" can also signify culinary excitement, as applied to Ricardo Zarate. The Lima, Peru native's cookbook, The Fire of Peru captures the essence of the current "it" cuisine — the indigenous foods of South America. Zarate's "it" for the way he fuses his native tastes with those of Japan, China, and Europe.

Zarate opened Picca, a Peruvian cantina on the west side of Los Angeles in 2011, a couple of years after his Mo Chica opened in a downtown L.A. cultural center designed to promote local creativity. In 2013, Zarate's Paiche, featuring Peruvian-cum-Japanese seafood, debuted in Marina del Rey, as did Blue Tavern in Santa Barbara. The food critics responsible for much of Zarate's acclaim eagerly anticipate this summer's opening of his newest venture, a restaurant combining classic Peruvian dishes with California "street food."

If The Fire of Peru is the sum of his creative cooking, Zarate is clear about its early ingredients: As the second youngest of 13 siblings, he was a constant presence in his family's kitchen, learning technique from his mother and grandmother, whom he credits as his biggest creative influences.

Although he eventually enrolled in his hometown culinary academy, the Institute de las Americas, and pursued his craft in London before heading for North America, Zarate says it's the "Peruvian home cooks who we should all be thankful for."


Chef Aarti SequeiraAarti Sequeira

Host of Food Network’s Aarti Party, Season 6 winner of 2010 Food Network Star

Aarti Sequeira’s appetite began in the womb — and shows no sign of abating! The host of Food Network’s Aarti Party, Sequeira competed on and won Season 6 of Food Network Star in 2010 with her trademark food signature: American favorites with an Indian soul. Her show grew out of the popular blog and YouTube cooking-variety show Aarti Paarti, a joint venture with her husband, actor-writer Brendan McNamara, that started in their tiny Los Angeles home kitchen. Food Network then became her broadcast home. On FN & Cooking Channel, she has hosted Taste in Translation,Hidden Eats, co-hosted Drop 5 Lbs and an episode of Guy’s Big Bite and made numerous talking-head appearances on Best Thing I Ever Ate, Best Thing I Ever Made and Unique Eats. She also competed on — and WON — Chopped All-Stars. Most recently, she appeared as judge on a multitude of episodes of Guy’s Grocery Games and competed on Cutthroat Kitchen All-Stars. Off-network, she has been a colorful, memorable guest on Dr. Oz on ABC, The Talk on CBS, and The Nate Berkus Show on NBC.

Born in India, brought up in the Middle East (Dubai, UAE), and educated in a British school, Sequeira grew up against a varied tapestry of food cultures, from the homemade pastas of her Italian best friend to the spit-roasted shawarmas her family would enjoy every Friday. It was during the first Gulf War that Sequeira decided to pursue a career in journalism, eventually earning her bachelors degree at Northwestern’s prestigious Medill School of Journalism. She went on to work for CNN straight out of school, covering everything from economic reports to the plight of firefighters after 9/11. She also produced Sand and Sorrow, the HBO documentary about the genocide in Darfur, narrated by George Clooney and directed by Peabody Award-winner Paul Freedman. But she began to feel like something was still missing; her husband gave her a gift certificate to a local cooking program, and it was there that her passion for cooking sparked into a great roaring fire. After working in the kitchen at Chef Suzanne Goin’s Lucques (Top 3 Restaurant in LA – LA Weekly and LA Times), she took to blogging about the food she was creating in her own kitchen, which led to the YouTube show, which led to Food Network, which led to the publishing of her very first cookbook, Aarti Paarti: An American Kitchen with an Indian Soul, by Grand Central in 2014. The writing of that book coincided with her first successful pregnancy. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and her daughter, Eliyah, who promises to have an equally large appetite.


Kelly Childs and Erinn WeatherbieKelly Childs and
Erinn Weatherbie

Plant-Based Chef, Restauranteur, Author of Made with Love, Owner of Kelly's Bake Shoppe (Burlington, ON, Canada)

Quick, free associate: gluten-free. Plant-based. Vegan.

For a lot of people, those food descriptors translate to: bland, blander, and blandest. Gluten-free is to delicious, they believe, as a three-toed sloth is to a cheetah. Plant-based is to a sumptuous repast as Twitter is to the Great American Novel. Vegan is to … oh, never mind. You get the point.

And that point is decidedly off-base, if you ask Kelly Childs. And if you taste her recipes, you'll forget the cynical question forming on your lips. As co-owner of Kelly's Bake Shoppe and Lettuce Love Café in Burlington, Ontario, Childs' mission and her passion are to show skeptics how wrong they are to assume that if something is healthful and nutritious, it can't taste good. The deeper message of her medium (food) is that the more healthful your diet, the better your life. And a good, better, best life leaves more time and interest to indulge in yummy meals.

Childs co-owns the bakery and the affiliated restaurant with her daughter, Erinn Weatherbie. The Canadian entrepreneurs spread the good word via their website, and on TV. For one Canada AMsegment, mom and daughter brought an array of lip-smacking baked goods and explained that all were vegan, gluten-free, and that they satisfy the sweet tooth of people who have food allergies without compromising their health.

Their book Made with Love, from Random House, is available in bookstores and will be available at Palm Desert Food&Wine™. It's chockfull of more than 100 recipes, savory and sweet. The new offering can only enhance Kelly's Bake Shoppe status as BuzzFeed's No. 3 on its list of "25 Sweet Cupcake Shops Around The World To Eat At Before You Die."

Whoever said the cupcake thing was over has never been on the business end of Kelly Childs' tasting spoon.


Chef Sean LeSean Le

2014 Contestant Masterchef Junior, Season 2

Most 12-year-olds would be happy to subsist on Big Macs and fries. Sean Le isn't like most 12-year-olds. He prefers tangy duck tacos, fish sauce chicken wings, and lavender buttercream dark chocolate honeycomb cake that he makes himself. The pre-teen's skill in the kitchen might be annoyingly precocious if he didn't feed people so well and with such charm.

As a competitor on Season 2 of MasterChef Junior on Fox TV, on which the always intimidating Gordon Ramsay serves as a judge, Sean seemed oblivious to the pressure. He won the first elimination challenge, then, after his victory in the pancake challenge, poured syrup on the head of judge Joe Bastianich. He racked up six consecutive wins on the show, and we're guessing his middle-school mates at home In Santa Ana were hoping he would bring leftovers to class.

Waging the cupcake wars is just another extracurricular activity for Sean, who has participated with adults at the Orange County Fair's pastry decorating competition with such boffo presentations as duck confit cupcakes with fig compote and marscapone frosting, and wisteria bonsai cake. His sophisticated aesthetic in the table-decorating competition belies his years as well; he wowed the OC judges with entries inspired by The Great Gatsby and The Hundred Foot Journey.

Sean's creations often reflect his Asian heritage, but if he has a single, overriding trait, it's an abiding sense of fun. Wouldn't you hope that a kid as accomplished as he would still turn out smile-worthy fare such as pumpkin spice churro ice cream sandwiches and cookies invoking Dr. Seuss'Green Eggs and Ham?


The Hearty BoysThe Hearty Boys

Food Network Stars, Restaurateur, Hearty Boys Catering, Spritz Burger (Chicago, IL )

For nascent musicians, studio space often is the garage, where no one has to share their painful mistakes. For emerging chefs, however, nothing will do but an actual kitchen. For rookie foodies Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh, it was an 8-by-8-foot apartment kitchen where, in 1999, they started a catering business. Today, that "garage" is a distant memory, and their career as The Hearty Boys has grown into a veritable culinary empire.

Although neither had gone to culinary school (they met in New York as struggling actors who paid the bills working in the food business), by the early 1990s, they opened their first restaurant, Skidders, in Bethel, Maine. By 1998, both had moved to Chicago and its tiny kitchen quarters with the catering phone line in the bedroom. In 2000, they opened a gourmet takeaway operation in that Boystown neighborhood, a space that morphed into a coffee shop, then HB: A Hearty Boys Spot, in 2005 after they had won the first season of the Food Network's Food Network Star.

They segued into a regular series on that network, Party Line with the Hearty Boys, as well as serial openings of additional restaurants as the catering business thrived. In 2007 they launched HBTV from a Chicago TV studio. Dubbed "cooking karaoke," at the time, there was nothing like the interactive cooking class anywhere in the country. That space is now filled by their newest enterprise, SpritzBurger, a restaurant on which they collaborate with acclaimed Chicago pastry chef Gale Gand and where they serve artisanal soda cocktails.

All kinds of media have found the twosome compelling copy, including Life magazine, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Chicago Magazine, Glamour and Women's Day.

Read all about Hearty food and drink in the twosome's cookbooks, Talk With Your Mouth Full: The Hearty Boys Cookbook and The New Old Bar: Classic Cocktails and Salty Snacks.

Smith and McDonagh's guiding philosophical light is that entertaining should be fun for both the creators and the consumers. An anxious cook makes for an anxious guest, which can lead to heartache (and heartburn). Share what you know, they believe, successes and failures, and a party, a meal, becomes a community.


Chef Drew DavisDrew Davis

Chef/Owner Catalan Mediterranean Restaurant (Rancho Mirage CA)

We love all things Mediterranean. The sea. The climate. The many Euro languages that collectively speak so authoritatively about food.

We like Catalan Mediterranean Restaurant because its chef, Drew Davis, is a local boy (sort of; he was born in Los Angeles) who celebrates and elevates that regional fare primarily from raw materials produced here. Try Catalan's house-marinated olives, its trout wrapped in Serrano ham, its Spanish classic paella … Davis feeds people who savor the whole experience of what it means to make a meal, from the farm to the table.

Although you can take the boy out of Southern California, you can't take Southern California out of the boy. Drew attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York. He worked at a couple of restaurants in Kansas City, several in Miami, and at Nick and Toni's in East Hampton, N.Y. Finally, after about a dozen years, he came home to render private chef services to Steven Spielberg in Los Angeles.

His entrepreneurial ambitions were fully realized in 2012, when he and his father, Mark, opened Catalan. All the seafood, meat, and vegetables are locally sourced, but they assume the delicious lingua franca accents of the Mediterranean with specialty items and spices imported from Europe. Face it, foodies, you just can't grow good saffron in Coachella.


Chef Daniel VillanuevaDaniel Villanueva

Executive Chef/Owner Balisage Bistro

Everything's bigger in Texas, but San Antonio native Daniel Villanueva found the allure of Southern California irresistible when it came to establishing a career in the culinary arts. The owner and executive chef of Balisage Bistro in Palm Springs credits his Texas grandmother for inspiring his interest in cooking ("I was the only grandchild she allowed in her kitchen" he claims), and a military brat background for introducing him to the variety of European cuisines that influence his cooking today.

After more than 20 years catering in Hollywood for the film industry, Villanueva came to the desert to establish the bistro, where the Mediterranean flavors and convivial atmosphere animate a menu Villanueva describes simply: "I only service what I eat … fresh ingredients, fresh-baked breads, and fresh pastries."

An engaging character who loves to write about what he eats, Villanueva's blog covers topics ranging from why he makes his own ketchup to how he pairs wine with certain dishes to ruminations on what he finds at local farmers markets.

Clearly, Villanueva has fun with food, and the people who understand how a well-crafted meal comes together. But, really, all you need to know about Daniel Villanueva, lies within the definition of "balisage:" it's a military term denoting the use of dim land lights to enable vehicles traveling at high speeds to navigate in blackout conditions.

It's a fitting metaphor for the adventures in dining Villanueva loves to take, and to share.


Chef Engin OnuralEngin Onural

Executive Sushi Chef/Owner, The Venue Sushi & Sake Lounge (Palm Desert CA)

At the end of 2015, Best Chefs in America tabbed Engin Onural as its newest "best chef." It might well have named him "smartest cookie" as well.

Before Onural enrolled in the Sushi Chef Institute in L.A., he had earned a bachelor's degree in business information management from Bilkent University in Turkey. It was a plan forged before he left elementary school, when he determined to be a chef and a restaurateur. Today, he owns The Venue Sushi Bar & Sake Lounge in Palm Desert.

Onural has come a long way from Buffalo, New York, where he was born, and Anakara, Turkey, where he was raised. Although he comes from a creative family, this apple couldn't have fallen much farther from the tree — his engineer father helped develop 3-D TV, his engineer mother makes jewelry and fine art, while the son creates sushi rolls that could have come from the mind of a Disney imagineer.

The menu at The Venue, Onural says on his website, "is my art. Each plate is a painting, but I use fish instead of paint."

In 2013 Engin received the Sushi Proficiency Certificate from the All Japanese Sushi Association; as described by BestChefsAmerica.com, "He walked into the classroom …, the only English speaker present, and walked out the only Turkish man alive to hold the certificate."

Onural, a certified sake sommelier, also invents exotic specialty drinks, and has been quenching the desert's thirst for fine cuisine for several years. He was a sushi chef at the J.W. Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa in Palm Desert and at the Renaissance Esmeralda in Indian Wells before opening The Venue in 2011.

And he's only 31.


Chef Bruno LopezBruno Lopez

Executive Chef, The Ritz-Carlton (Rancho Mirage, CA)

In at least one way, chefs are like ballet dancers: They know at an early age what they want to do. By the time he was 14, Bruno Lopez knew he wanted to cook. It didn't hurt, of course, that he grew up in Paris, where good food is a birthright and the people who provide it are demigods.

Lopez's mother was his kitchen goddess, and he learned at her elbow how to make family meals that included watercress soup, roasts and apple tarts. It was excellent preparation for his academic career at the Ferrandi School in Paris, which was and is dedicated to the cultivation of French cuisine. From there, Lopez apprenticed at L'Espadon, a Michelin-starred restaurant described by one culinary guide as "one of the temples of the Parisian gastronomy since its opening in 1898 and Auguste Escoffier's presence in its kitchen."

That's pretty heavy cred, but it, too, served only to advance Lopez's career: He expanded his culinary horizons in South America, and eventually landed in San Francisco at Le Meridien Hotel, then at that city's Ritz-Carlton. After a succession of executive chef positions within the Ritz-Carlton chain, Lopez secured his current position as executive chef at the Ritz-Carlton Rancho Mirage, overseeing the property's menu development and cuisine preparation for all of its restaurants.

Among other prestigious entities, the French government recognizes Lopez as meritorious in his field, as do L'Académie Culinaire, the Maîtres Cuisiniers de France, and the James Beard Foundation. For sure, sa mere would be proud.


Chef Mike MilliganMike Milligan

Executive Chef, The Steakhouse, Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa, (Rancho Mirage, CA)

Some people choose a career in the hospitality industry because they want to see the world. Mike Milligan's career began with Hyatt Hotels, which sent him to places as far-flung as Maui, Lake Tahoe, Las Vegas, Miami, the Colorado Rockies, and Indian Wells.

But we can't say how much time he spent plying the waves in Hawaii or snowboarding down slopes in the Sierra because, as a chef, Milligan's work was performed, his worldview was forged, from the inside of a kitchen. Today, as the longtime Executive Chef at Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa, his culinary sights have been focused on the six diverse dining options within his Rancho Mirage purview: The Steakhouse, Waters Café, Grand Palms Buffet, Poker Deli, Java Caliente, and the poolside Wetbar.

He first donned an apron as a teenager, spending summers at his native Jersey shore, before graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in New York. "I … started dishwashing in restaurants early," he says, "where I quickly developed my love for food, hard work, and the science and lore of the kitchen."

All good cooks know that science more than kismet is what makes kitchen magic, but Milligan also credits his travels for refining his culinary sensibility. They enabled him to "develop a strong understanding of multiunit culinary operations involving large, on- and off-property catering departments, three-meal restaurants, and high-end dining."

Here's a guy who can whip up a pineapple lemon drop martini for happy hour, then happily surprise 500 hungry conventioneers otherwise resigned to another bland rubber chicken dinner.

They say travel is broadening. For Mike Milligan, no matter where you go, the best souvenirs are what you bring back to serve on the plate.


Chef Matt LevertyMatt Leverty

Executive Chef WP Kitchen + Bar, Palm Desert

Anyone who has ever worked in a Wolfgang Puck kitchen has instant food cred. Matt Leverty has 10 years of Puck practice, starting as a lowly line cook to become chef de cuisine at Puck's newest venture in the Coachella Valley, WP Kitchen + Bar.

Leverty's affair de cuisine began before his took his first job with Puck at 20.21, the former Asian fusion restaurant in Minneapolis. At the University of Minnesota, Duluth, Leverty took a series of back-of-the-house restaurant jobs to finance his studies in Actuarial Science. That field is all about math, and statistics, and stuff like figuring out how risky it is to write somebody's insurance policy. It's a long way from a preparing a spread sheet to preparing roasted squash and walnut pesto pizza, but customers of WP are glad Leverty made the journey.

Leverty spent quality time at Puck's long list of Las Vegas eateries, topping out as director of culinary operations for Wolfgang Puck Worldwide. As a newbie Californian, he marries Puck's global culinary interests with the casual ambiance we desert dwellers demand, with lots of dishes stamped Made in California (smoked salmon bruschetta with pumpkin seeds, chopped salad with crunchy quinoa); big-boy protein players (braised beef short ribs); and save-room meal-enders (salted caramel pudding).

Leverty's new workspace is the old Wolfgang Puck Pizza Bar, whose moody, dark environs have been reinvented with light, wood, and patio banquettes accessorized by desert flora that thrives in its native realm.

It has a new neighbor, who'd love to see you for dinner.


Chef Thomas HornerThomas Horner

Executive Chef JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa

Most little kids are thrilled when grandma gives them a tricycle; 5-year-old Thomas Horner was over the moon when his grandma gave him a frying pan. She wanted him to start cooking the eggs he routinely collected in the rural western Pennsylvania area where he grew up. Today, the executive chef at the JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa in Palm Desert continues to raise chickens and collect eggs at his Coachella Valley home, and his lifelong love of cooking has taken him east, south, north, and west, and well into the food sustainability movement.

Horner's childhood fascination led him to study at the International Culinary Academy in Pittsburgh. After graduating, he began his career with Marriott in New Orleans, and has climbed the corporate culinary ladder at stops in Florida and Seattle, as well as the California desert. Along the way, he's collected the Golden Scepter Award from the Southern California Restaurant Writers Association, and has twice been guest chef at the James Beard Foundation in New York.

By the time Horner returned in 2014 for his second stint at the Marriott in Palm Desert, he had developed an interest in cultivating sustainable, local fare, as both a farmer and a food purveyor.

That's a challenge for the career resort chef, who must appeal to both visitors and residents, whose dining desires aren't always complementary. It's a mission Horner relishes: "The unique thing about being a hotel chef is the diversity; one day you're feeding 500 people in a restaurant, and the next day it's 1,500 at a banquet. There's never a boring time. … [R]unning hotels is like running a city … making sure people have all the things they need to conduct business, to enjoy themselves."


Chef Herve GlinHerve Glin

Executive Chef, Mister Parker’s, Parker Palm Springs

Things for which Brittany, France, is famous: cider and artisanal beers; certain pastries, including sweet crepes and salty galettes; Herve Glin.

Many global fans of fine food are familiar with the first two Breton culinary calling cards, but residents of the Coachella Valley are among the privileged to know the third. Glin, executive chef of the Parker Palm Springs, is a native of Brittany, and as a youth trained there as a baker. But he wanted to explore the wider world of food, so he apprenticed as a cook in Paris before sailing across the pond to make his home in Montreal and work for the Four Seasons and Hilton hotel chains. As he perfected his culinary and English skills, he migrated west, to Texas and California.

By 2007, Glin was executive chef of the prestigious Cork Tree restaurant in Palm Desert, and in 2013, joined the Parker with that title and the responsibility of overseeing not only the tony inn’s two restaurants, but pretty much any comestible a guest is likely to swallow. It’s a large assignment, and Glin is a deft portfolio manager at a place known for pushing the culinary envelope.

But unlike a lot of chefs whose view beyond the kitchen is limited, Glin is a man of and for the world. He’s co-founder of the Pendleton Foundation, which offers financial assistance to Coachella Valley families confronting cancer diagnoses. Glin created a Chef’s Auction event to raise funds for treatment people struggle to afford.

He’s one person who understands how to feed souls as well as stomachs.