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Recipe for Success

Local chefs cook their way to the top at Casa Pacifica food festival.

By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

Photo by T Christian Gapen

CAKE WALK: Chef Julia San Bartolome’s award-winning Mexican Hot Leche Cake, infused with tequila and served with a jalapeno and lime cream and cinnamon-sugar crunch, all drenched with a rich milk sauce.

 

he Casa Pacifica Angles Wine, Food and Brew Festival, which just celebrated its 26th anniversary on June 2, is one of the biggest events of the year in Ventura County — for good reason. First and foremost, it is a major fundraiser for the Casa Pacifica Centers for Children and Families, which serve the abused and neglected in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. And delightfully, the focus is on one of Ventura County’s greatest assets: it’s incredible culinary offerings, made possible (in part) by the bounty produced by local farms. Every year, the festival features dozens of food and beverage offerings — wines, beers, ciders, spirits and other liquid refreshment; alluring appetizers; hearty sandwiches and entrees; and decadent desserts. It’s an all-day feast, complete with music and dancing, and hundreds of people turn out every year — in recent years, to the campus of California State University, Channel Islands — to see, be seen, gnosh in style and make merry.

Participating in the Casa Pacifica food fest is a badge of honor for local chefs. Some put their creativity and talents to the test by competing in the Yummie Culinary Competition. Over a dozen chefs compete to be named Top Chef in the Sweet and Savory categories, and this month, we are proud to feature the 2019 Yummie Top Chefs whose culinary excellence put them over the top.

 

 

GOING COCONUTS
Chef Abdu Romero, Slate Bistro

The pig and the octopus put up a fight, but it was the coconut that won the day. Chef Abdu Romero, Slate Bistro’s executive chef since it opened in October 2018, got creative with his Hawaiian-influenced entree to win the Yummies Savory competition. Coconut shrimp was served over purple Okinawan potato mashed with ginger and coconut cream, with pineapple (for a touch of acid), Thai chilies (for a little heat) and scallions (for freshness). The dish was finished off with a coconut water coulis, and served to judges in a coconut shell. 

“I wanted people to see that I used the whole ingredient,” Romero says. “Just use everything. Use it and transform it.”

Second place went to a Mediterranean octopus dish, rich with garlic, Kalamata olives and feta cheese, courtesy of Chef Jeff Downey from The Saticoy Club. Twenty88 Chef Alex Castillo’s third-place entry featured plantain cake, chicharron and fruit-glazed pork belly. But the freshness of the coconut, and the myriad ways in which Romero put it to use, impressed the judges, propelling the first-time Casa Pacifica competitor to the top spot.

Romero, however, is not one to rest on his laurels . . . or at all: He went straight to Slate after the festival, and started working the line. “They needed my help,” he says matter-of-factly. “You jump in there, even if it’s your day off.”

That energy and work ethic seem to be family traits. His parents, now living in Oxnard, are originally from Michoacan, and were “chasing the American dream” all over the West Coast as migrant farmworkers, who picked everything from Oxnard strawberries to Washington cherries and apples. Romero often lived with his grandparents while his parents traveled for work. 

As a student at Pacifica High School in Oxnard, he first thought he’d become a mechanic. But after running the kitchen at the local Chuck E. Cheese as well as the line at Red Lobster, Romero realized that “being in the kitchen comes naturally to me.” So he shifted course.

“I went to culinary school and never looked back.”

He trained at the Kitchen Academy in Los Angeles (later purchased by Le Cordon Bleu and then closed in 2017) while working at the Tower Club in Oxnard under Chef Karl Holst (now at North Ranch Country Club).

“I did whatever the chef told me. I was just ambitious — and very cocky,” Romero recalls with a laugh. “I’d wake up at 3 a.m. [to go to school], I’d get off by noon and have to get to the Tower Club at 3 p.m. and worked until 10 p.m. It builds character.”

As an up-and-coming chef, Romero worked a number of jobs, some simultaneously: North Ranch and Spanish Hills country clubs, Bistro 33, catering for Google and even as a personal chef — notably for Will Smith for about two years. 

In early 2017, he took a break from Ventura County . . . but not the kitchen. He spent a three-month sabbatical cooking his way across Central and South America. The experience was transformative.

“I came back more inspired than when I left,” he recalls. “I needed that cultural aspect. It opened my eyes to the food in Guatemala. Peruvian food —some of the best ceviche I’ve ever had! I found a love of plantains I never had before. It was a blessing.”

Romero remembers one chef in particular, Señora Pu, owner/chef of La Cocina de la Señora Pu in Guatemala City, who taught him about Mayan cuisine. A rabbit dish he had there inspired him to create a special dish at Slate, Pollo Pepian, made with pumpkin seed mole, squash, roasted chilies and tomatoes. “Every note is just very, very delicious,” he explains. “So simple, but so, so good.”

Romero’s time at Slate has been rewarding and educational. He’s learned about running a restaurant, the front of house, staffing, finances, even developing the skills of other young chefs. “You’re a chef, you’re a psychologist, you’re a mentor,” he says of the restaurant industry. But eventually, Romero intends to open his own establishment, and his vision for it is clear.

“Encanto,” he says of the name. “It’s a pleasure, an enchantment. Small, simple, tapas-style plates. Nothing elaborate. Simple food that people love to eat.”

In the meantime, he’ll continue to enchant customers at Slate.

Slate Bistro and Craft Bar
4850 Santa Rosa Road, Camarillo
805.388.9888
www.theslatebistro.com

 

 

SWEET HEAT
Chef Julia San Bartolome, Sweet Arleen’s
Chef Julia San Bartolome beat out Anastashia Chavez of 2686 Kitchen and Alex Montoya of Fluid State Beer Garden to take home top honors in the dessert category. Her winning entry: a Mexican Hot Leche Cake, infused with tequila and served with a jalapeno and lime cream and cinnamon-sugar crunch, all drenched with a rich milk sauce. It was a wonderful combination of heat and sweet, soft and crispy, complex and yet accessible. It proved a solid adversary, despite stiff competition from a luscious Lemon Verbena Cheesecake (Chavez) and a chocolate-dipped Bourbon Butterscotch Oolong Frozen Custard (Montoya).

“My passion . . . is to design and do R&D on desserts,” San Bartolome says. “There are things I look for as building blocks. Something familiar, texture, tongue-in-cheek and a sweet-savory thing — jalapenos make it ‘hot.’ ”

Her cake hit all of these elements, with a big plus: It involved audience participation, as judges got to drizzle the hot leche over their own cake samples. 

“At Casa Pacifica, I wanted to give the judges a chance to do something interactive,” she explains. “When you have a captive audience, it’s an opportunity to be playful — give them something to remember.”

This year was San Bartolome’s second time competing at the Yummies; she placed second in 2018. She’s maintained Sweet Arleen’s reputation for excellence since taking over the beloved Westlake institution in 2017. It’s also where she got her start.

“In 2009, when Sweet Arleen’s was built, I was the first person hired,” she recalls. 

As executive pastry chef, San Bartolome helped bring the shop fame through the Food Network hit Cupcake Wars, where Sweet Arleen’s (founded by Arleen Scavone) took home first place three times.

San Bartolome is as local as it comes: She was born and raised in Oxnard, and attended school in Ventura (she went to high school at St. Bonaventure). She’s the family’s first professional baker, but says that, “Our family is very food-focused. Food is the center of our gatherings. Everyone cooks a lot.” Her grandmother used to make wedding cakes for friends and family, and San Bartolome recalls helping her decorate. 

Santa Barbara City College was her first stop after high school, where she did a two-year culinary program that included fine dining, pastries and wine tasting. Then it was off to San Francisco’s California Culinary Academy, where San Bartolome specialized in baking and pastries. After whipping up some solid experience at Sweet Arleen’s, she took a break from baking for a few years (“I felt like there wasn’t the sort of diversity I craved in my day to day work”) to study other aspects of the food industry. For a while, she worked at Chef’s Warehouse, an international specialty food distributor with a location in the City of Industry. 

When Scavone decided to put Sweet Arleen’s on the market to move to the East Coast, her former star baker was the first person she called. It was serendipitous timing: San Bartolome was recovering from a broken sternum, which made dealing with L.A.’s commuter culture especially unpleasant. Moving back to Ventura, to be closer to family, raise her two young daughters and spend less time on the road, sounded like an excellent plan. San Bartolome, with the help of her parents, took over ownership of Sweet Arleen’s in 2017.

“I relearned things with a very different perspective,” the pastry chef says. “I’ve been able to make adjustments and updates. We’ve expanded our menu — it’s now a mix of things. And sometimes I’ll take on cake orders; I can pick and choose where to put my creativity.”

Owning a bakery is not an easy job, by any means, but it’s a fulfilling one, and San Bartolome has enjoyed being close to her roots, and getting rewoven back into the fabric of her community. She’s found friendship and camaraderie with other local pastry chefs, including Ali Kenis (nee Davis) of Sugar Lab Bake Shop, Deb Dawson of Desserts to Die For, Antastashia Chavez of 2686 Kitchen (who took second place in this year’s Yummies), and Alex Montoya of Fluid State (third place). The chefs frequently work together on other local events, including the From Field to Fork fundraisers, and came together in late 2017 to bring homebaked pastries to Thomas Fire evacuees at the Ventura County Fairgrounds.

“We are genuinely close and happy for each other,” San Bartolome says of her friendly competitors. “We’re really rooting for each other.”

Sweet Arleen’s
960 S. Westlake Blvd., Westlake Village
805.373.7373
www.sweetarleens.com

07/01/2019

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