Restaurant News & Reviews

3 questions for 3 celebrity chefs who will appear at Sunset Savor the Central Coast

Louis Maldonado, executive chef at spoonbar, Healdsburg.
Louis Maldonado, executive chef at spoonbar, Healdsburg.

Other talented celebrity chefs will also be sharing their knowledge and skills during Savor. The Tribune asked three of them — Louis Maldonado, Frank Pellegrino Jr. and James Siao — a few questions about their craft and careers.

Louis Maldonado, executive chef, spoonbar, Healdsburg

(He will demonstrate how to chop, dice and filet top quality ingredients from local farmers markets and use them in dishes, from 2 to 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the California Grown Pavilion at The Main Event at Santa Margarita Ranch.)

Seeking a changeup from his family’s karate school, Louis Maldonado decided to attend the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. After graduating, he quickly earned his chops in some of the Bay Area’s most notable kitchens such as One Market, Aziza and Thomas Keller’s famed French Laundry and Café Majestic.

In 2012, Maldonado became executive chef for spoonbar, where his menus revolve around seasonal, local and sustainable ingredients. He also oversees the menu development at spoonbar’s sister restaurant, Pizzando.

Fans of Bravo’s “Top Chef” TV show may remember Maldonado from season 11 in New Orleans. He made eight straight victories in Last Chance Kitchen to return to the main competition, but alas, didn’t snag the top prize.

Frank Pellegrino Jr., co-owner, Rao’s Restaurant Group

(He will demonstrate Italian cooking from 11:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. Sunday at the Main Event, Santa Margarita Ranch.)

Frank Pellegrino Jr. is co-owner of the original Rao’s in Harlem, where he grew up helping his father and family at the restaurant. He has since expanded the concept to Rao’s at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and Rao’s Hollywood.

Pellegrino studied graphic design at Connecticut State University and opened his own advertising agency in New York. He continued to work at the restaurant at night, however, and eventually returned there full-time. Pellegrino opened the Las Vegas location in 2006, the Hollywood Rao’s in 2013 and in 2012, he released a cookbook called “Rao’s On the Grill” (St. Martin’s Press).

James Siao, executive chef, Finch & Fork, Kimpton’s Canary Hotel, Santa Barbara

(His duck confit and smoked trout deviled eggs will be featured at Savor’s kickoff event, Strings at Sunset, on Thursday at Vina Robles Amphitheatre.)

Originally from Ohio, James Siao worked at his father’s Chinese restaurant before attending culinary school in Pittsburgh. His first executive chef position was in 2002, and he ultimately moved to Arizona, where he became chef de cuisine at Taggia restaurant at Kimpton’s Firesky Resort in Scottsdale.

In 2012, Siao became executive chef of Santa Barbara’s Coast restaurant, which became Finch & Fork in 2013. The modern American bar and grill menu focuses on local ingredients, and features both shareable plates and full-sized entrées.

Q. What is your overall culinary philosophy and what dish/technique exemplifies your approach?

Maldonado: My philosophy is to let the produce dictate my menus. I also take flavor inspiration from my personal travels. Whatever is in season and at peak flavor is generally what I’ll cook with and incorporate into my dishes. For example, following a recent trip to Tulum (on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula), I was inspired this summer to make roasted snapper with mole, plantains, capers, cabbage, a summer squash beef bouillon and brassicas (plants in the mustard family such as broccoli and cabbages) roasted on the plancha (a type of griddle, usually cast iron).

Pellegrino Jr.: Using the best ingredients, letting them speak and represent themselves and the dish. A pork chop with sweet and hot cherry peppers illustrates that for me.

Siao: I believe in simple but creative food that complements the guest’s overall experience. More rustic than modern, but still refined and detailed — using quality ingredients that all complement each other to enhance the dish. For example, we now have on the menu panseared sea scallops with fresh avocado, sweet corn relish, ruby red grapefruit, and chorizo vinaigrette. The dish is an experience with contrasting flavors that develop with each bite to enhance and showcase simple, fresh and approachable ingredients.

Q. What ingredient(s) would you like to see on more menus and/or to have people cooking with more at home?

Maldonado: Vegetables. I’m not vegetarian but enjoy eating them and I think it always shows a more creative side of a chef, whether they are professionals or home cooks.

Pellegrino Jr.: I believe that pastas made with fresh sauces are the best dish to cook at home. You can never go wrong with pasta! It’s a great price-to-value ratio that can feed a lot of people and it’s hard to mess up.

Siao: I really enjoy the diversity of spices — from chiles to seeds — and also vinegars as used in most pickling or dressings of all sorts. Those two elements can really enhance taste and flavor to a new level.

Q. What’s the one kitchen gadget you couldn’t do without and/or is a total extravagance?

Maldonado: My Bradley smoker, which is an essential and an extravagance. It’s the best $200 I’ve ever spent and allows me to hot and cold smoke with accuracy. I love slow smoking meats and seafood to use as a base of many of my dishes.

Pellegrino Jr.: A chef’s knife!

Siao: They’re similar machines, but we use our robot coupe (food processor) or Vitamix (blender) every day. They allow us great efficiency and consistency.