Soul Foodies: 10 Top Chefs
In the pages that follow, we introduce you to the people behind the local plates and restaurants you love—each with a story as colorful as their culinary creations. Dig in and learn something new!
Zest Vegan Kitchen, 2620 Sunset Boulevard, Suite 1, Rocklin, 916-824-1688, zestvegankitchen.com
Plant-based kitchen virtuoso Angelique Miller traveled for work when she was young, studying food every new place that she went. In 1995, she began a vegetarian diet, and further honed her produce-transforming chops after going vegan in 2008. Now she’s devoted to demonstrating how delicious food can be without meat.
First memory of food: My dad, who is Croatian, would make palacinkas, which are like a thick crêpe. I used to smother them in jam and roll them up.
Food philosophy: I love to celebrate plants in all their beautiful glory. Delicious colors, flavors, and textures can happen with the simplest ingredients. I strive for food being not only delicious and beautiful, but nourishing and joyful.
If I wasn’t a chef, I’d be: I’d love to spend more time being creative and innovative while other trusted individuals handled the daily business aspects of running a restaurant.
Top cooking tip: Use whatever tools you can find to make cooking fun and easy, and get in there and play.
The best thing I ever ate: I’m still haunted by the memory of a breathtaking chile relleno I had as a kid in Arizona at a tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant. So uniquely and freshly prepared, it inspires me to this day. I also once had a cherimoya fruit that was so perfectly sun-ripened and flavorful that it was bliss beyond belief, eliciting audible moans and head-to-toe tingles. I’m still chasing that experience each time I buy a cherimoya.
One food I’ll never get behind: Animals.
Guilty pleasure food: So Delicious cashew ice cream (salted caramel and snickerdoodle).
Favorite ingredient to work with: Besan (a smooth yellow chickpea flour found in Indian grocery stores). It’s shockingly gross when tasted raw, but borderline magical after it’s freshly cooked.
For dinner last night, I ate: Veggie enchiladas, green cilantro rice, chips, and salsa
Favorite food pairing: Fruit and herbs, like blackberries and sage or watermelon and mint.
Favorite restaurant and dish: The vegan OMFG roll from Lou’s Sushi in Sacramento.
You’d never know it, but: My kids were born in Haiti, and I have a deep appreciation and love for Haitian culture and food, which is mainly Caribbean with a French influence. I offer Haitian dishes sometimes at Zest and am thrilled when people try them.
Milestone, 4359 Town Center Boulevard, Suite 116, El Dorado Hills, 916-934-0790, milestonerestaurantedh.com
Nick Dedier has traveled leaps and bounds from his college days of working as a casual server and even as a dishwasher at Strings Italian Café. From attending the Culinary Institute of America in New York and holding varying positions at numerous Michelin star restaurants—Daniel Boulud Brasserie, Gary Danko, Thomas Keller Restaurant Group—to working with Auberge Resorts, it’s safe to say this superstar has an impressive résumé—and some serious culinary chops. Decorative background aside, however, his true joy lies in supporting small businesses by cooking solid, locally sourced, seasonal food for the community.
First memory of food: Making scrambled eggs with my mom and Aunt Jan. I learned on my own that the more cream I added the better they were.
Food philosophy: Always cook like you're cooking for family and friends, not customers or the bottom line. Keep it classic, not trendy; rich and valuable, not precious and pricey.
If I wasn’t a chef, I’d be: A fishing guide.
Top cooking tip: Chefs only become better by using better quality ingredients with diligently practiced techniques.
The best thing I ever ate: Oysters and Pearls at The French Laundry in Yountville.
One food I'll never get behind: Vegan food made to look like meat.
Guilty pleasure food: Any hot dog from Ruffhaus Hot Dog Co.
Favorite ingredient to work with: Great food is loaded with love; considering I’m my own boss working with my fiancé in a New American restaurant, I get to work with that ingredient every day and am proud to say it shows. Also, salt. Developing a method and a madness to salt usage really makes food sing. The famous chef Jean-Louis Palladin made the inference that people don't go to restaurants because [chefs] know how to cook, they go out because [they] know how to use salt.
For dinner last night I ate: Leftover Chinese food in the only fashion acceptable—the dregs from every box, in a bowl, with white rice heated up and devoured.
Favorite food pairing: Sparkling wine and anything; or pork and fruit.
Favorite restaurant and dish: “Chip and Dip” at State Bird Provisions in San Francisco.
You'd never know it, but: I grew up absolutely loathing onions.
Karen’s Bakery and Café, 705 Gold Lake Drive, Folsom, 916-985-2665, karensbakery.com
At 12 years old, Karen Holmes was preparing three-course meals—that included the ambitious Baked Alaska—for her parents. Given her Danish lineage—where she says that baking is part of your life regardless of age or gender—perhaps it’s no surprise that she’s the accomplished chef she is today. (More proof that it runs in the family? Her son, Duncan, recently received a nod from Bon Appétit for his restaurant Call in Denver.)
First memory of food: Plum-flavored baby food.
Food philosophy: Food should be adventurous, but also personal. I love trying new things, but I also like food that people would just come over to your house to eat; the whole micro-tweezer food movement isn’t for me.
If I wasn’t a chef, I’d be: A culinary travel guide.
Top cooking tip: Be adventurous, and don’t be afraid to try something new. We all burn stuff—you can always try it again.
The best thing I ever ate: It was a dish in a very complex broth with fresh peas, lots of dill, and a sous-vide egg. The peas were raw and the warm yolk flooded the whole thing—it was the sexiest, most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten.
One food I’ll never get behind: I just can’t deal with eggplant.
Guilty pleasure food: Chips and salty things—I love the salt and pepper kettle chips.
Favorite ingredient to work with: If you took everything away from me, I’d be the most bummed if you took away produce. Produce is a miracle.
For dinner last night, I ate: I went to eat dinner at the house of some friends. They’re really good cooks and made Cornish game hen with Cuban seasoning.
Favorite food pairing: A lot of people like charcuterie and cheese, but I love charcuterie and dried fruit.
Favorite restaurant and dish: Anything at Manfreds & Din in Denmark—they’re constantly changing the menu.
You’d never know it, but: I race Porsches.
Taste Restaurant, 9402 Main Street, Plymouth, 209-245-3463, restauranttaste.com
Mark Berkner serves as the department chair for the San Joaquin Delta College of Culinary Arts, a tasty full circle from when he was a student studying culinary arts at Contra Costa College. The chef and educator believes that all chefs are artists, and after a bite of his foie gras or seared scallops, we’re inclined to agree.
Food philosophy: Food should be prepared and consumed at its most optimal freshness and ripeness while showcasing the natural flavors of the ingredients. It shouldn’t be intimidating, but it should be a nourishing experience that makes your taste buds happy.
If I wasn’t a chef, I’d be: Test driving dirt bikes.
Guilty pleasure food: Reuben sandwiches.
Favorite ingredient to work with: Wild mushrooms that I’ve foraged.
For dinner last night, I ate: Liverwurst on crackers at 10 p.m.
Favorite food pairing: Toast paired with anything!
Favorite restaurant and dish: The Waterboy, and anything on the menu.
You’d never know it, but: I’m a professor.
Thai Paradise, 2770 East Bidwell Street, Suite 100, Folsom, 916-984-8988, thaiparadisefolsom.com
If you look far enough down Jarunee Fleming’s résumé, you’ll find the time she honed her cooking skills in Bangkok, Thailand, which explains why her Thai curries are so popular—and one of her favorite things to cook. Her focus today? Bringing the authentic flavors of Thailand to Folsom. Yes, please.
First memory of food: Being six years old and eating rice.
Food philosophy: I just love making people happy and healthy.
If I wasn’t a chef, I’d be: Growing flowers and vegetables.
Top cooking tip: Taste what you cook before you serve it!
The best thing I ever ate: Cioppino at Sotto Mare in San Francisco.
One food I’ll never get behind: Beef.
Guilty pleasure food: Ice cream.
Favorite ingredient to work with: Chiles.
For dinner last night, I ate: Veggie soup!
Favorite food pairing: Shrimp and greens.
Favorite restaurant and dish: Cioppino at Sea Chest in Cambria.
You’d never know it, but: I’m a great singer.
Farmer’s Delicatessen and Bakery, 3952 Cambridge Road, Cameron Park, 530-672-6800, farmersdeli.net
Christine Ondrus-Lykos thought she might attend the Culinary Institute of America some 20 years ago, but instead, the self-taught chef blazed a trail all on her own by traveling through Europe and gaining an immense appreciation of what other countries and cultures bring to the American palate—and plate. Now the native New Yorker is doing the same at her beloved bakery and deli in Cameron Park.
First memory of food: I visited Hungary and Romania when I was four. I remember playing with pigs and chickens on a remote farm, and I vividly recall seeing a whole animal being cooked on top of a spit in an open field.
Food philosophy: Keep it simple, take your time, and mind your energy in the kitchen—energy is an ingredient!
If I wasn’t a chef, I’d be: A rally sports car driver.
The best thing I ever ate: Crème caramel in Barcelona.
One food I’ll never get behind: Escargot.
Guilty pleasure food: Pizza.
Favorite ingredient to work with: Garlic—yum!
For dinner last night, I ate: Chicken salad with avocado.
Favorite food pairing: Clarified butter and garlic.
Favorite restaurant and dish: The Cashew Chicken at Thai House.
You’d never know it, but: When I was younger, I wanted to be a dancer.
The Farm Table, 311 Main Street, Placerville, 530-295-8140, ourfarmtable.com
Kara Taylor started working in coffee and donut shops when she was 13, followed by a pie-making stint at an apple orchard. By 15, she was cooking on the line at a fine dining Italian restaurant. Today? You can find her slinging some of the best duck confit in Northern California, among other things.
First memory of food: Eating lobster at a birthday party when I was four. Growing up in coastal New England, it was a family tradition to eat lobster on our birthdays.
Food philosophy: Less is more.
If I wasn’t a chef, I’d be: Doing community development work in the nonprofit or public sector.
Top cooking tip: Don’t rush it. Dishes cooked “low and slow” like confits and braises are my specialty.
The best thing I ever ate: Lobster in butter, lobster bisque, lobster roll—I really love lobster.
One food I’ll never get behind: I can’t think of anything I’ll never like!
Guilty pleasure food: Fried chicken, but I don’t really feel guilty about it.
Favorite ingredient to work with: Pork.
For dinner last night, I ate: A sausage sandwich with grilled peppers and onions.
Favorite food pairing: During fall, butternut squash and chipotle chili.
Favorite restaurant and dish: Chile Relleno and Blood Sausage Tacos from Santa Maria Taqueria.
You’d never know it, but: I spent a year working as a tool librarian, lending out tools and fixing small engines on lawn mowers.
Mikuni Japanese Restaurant & Sushi Bar, various locations, mikunisushi.com
The self-proclaimed happiest chef ever, Taro Arai learned how to cook from watching his mother and reading books. When the raw fish aficionado and hailed “Lord of Rice” isn’t rolling delicious concoctions from the sea, you can probably find him doing charity work—or devouring his mother’s homemade dashi.
First memory of food: I grew up eating my mom’s home-cooked meals, so maybe a bowl of rice with a raw egg, from one of our own chickens, or furikake, which is dried fish and vegetables.
Food philosophy: I follow the three “F”s: fresh, freestyle, and freaky!
If I wasn’t a chef, I’d be: Working for a charitable organization, which I already do part-time at the Mikuni Charitable Foundation.
Top cooking tip: There are no rules, so just cook from your heart.
The best thing I ever ate: Tai (sea bream) sashimi in my hometown of Amakusa, Japan.
One food I’ll never get behind: I’ve traveled all over the world looking for one thing that I didn’t like, but I haven’t found it yet—I like everything!
Guilty pleasure food: I never feel guilty.
Favorite ingredient to work with: Fresh fish.
For dinner last night, I ate: Sōmen noodles from Nagasaki, Japan, with my mom’s homemade dashi.
Favorite food pairing: Nigiri and sake.
Favorite restaurant and dish: I have too many friends in this field—I like all of the restaurants!
You’d never know it, but: I used to be very short-tempered, but now I’m full of joy.
Hisui Sushi, 25004 Blue Ravine Road, Suite 107, Folsom, 916-985-7778, hisuisushi.com
Michael Liu was born into the restaurant industry. His parents owned Chinese restaurants in the Bay Area, and he often helped out. At 16, he got his first official job as a dishwasher at a Japanese restaurant and—after learning and honing his skills from some of the eatery’s amazing chefs—went on to become the successful owner and chef at Folsom favorite Hisui.
First memory of food: My grandma’s cooking. Since my parents were busy with the restaurant business, most of the time my grandma would prepare homemade meals for my brothers and me. I loved her beef noodle soup and rice porridge. I still don’t know how she makes them, but I know no one can make them as perfectly as her.
Food philosophy: Combining traditional cuisine with a creative and contemporary flair using only the freshest, healthiest ingredients.
If I wasn’t a chef, I’d be: An engineer. I went to school for it and got a degree but found my passion in food. I love what I do and ended up being really good at it!
Top cooking tip: Good food is actually pretty simple. It always starts with the origin of your ingredients; fresh, natural ingredients make just about everything taste way better.
The best thing I ever ate: When my wife and I visited South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan, we had the most amazing food experiences. The street markets during the day, the vibrant night markets, fish markets, and the food festivals—there’s such a diversity to the food they offer, and it was a true food paradise.
One food I’ll never get behind: Overcooked cabbage. The smell is disgusting!
Guilty pleasure food: Ice cream.
Favorite ingredient to work with: Fish sauce. It’s an umami bomb that gives depth and richness to sauces and main dishes.
For dinner last night, I ate: A perfectly seasoned homemade pork chop with potatoes and veggies—and, of course, ice cream for dessert.
Favorite food pairing: Sake with sushi. Sake is very versatile and complements many cuisines.
Favorite restaurant and dish: Alexander’s Steakhouse in Cupertino. It’s an American steakhouse with a Japanese flair. I love their dry-aged tomahawk chop, truffle mac & cheese, and complimentary cotton candy.
You’d never know it, but: I love playing video games.
Julian’s Pâtisserie & Café, 6610 Folsom-Auburn Road, Suite 7, Folsom, 916-936-4735, julianscafe.com
Julian Perrigo-Jimenez of Food Network fame (he just finished filming a Cake Wars episode to air next October) is all about pushing himself and staying innovative. The California Culinary Academy of San Francisco graduate specialized in baking and pastry arts, and returned from Las Vegas—after having worked alongside world-renowned pastry chefs with stints at the Bellagio and Caesars Palace—to bring the baked goods home to Folsom.
First memory of food: Buttermilk pancakes that my grandma used to make from scratch. She’d brush each one with melted butter, and they were the best pancakes I’ve ever had.
Food philosophy: Food is an art and a form of creative expression.
If I wasn’t a chef, I’d be: A teacher. I love helping young people achieve their goals.
Top cooking tip: Don’t be afraid to make anything—everybody has to start somewhere.
The best thing I ever ate: My first crêpe in the streets of Paris.
One food I’ll never get behind: Mushrooms.
Guilty pleasure food: Ice cream.
Favorite ingredient to work with: Chocolate.
For dinner last night, I ate: A bacon, egg, and cheese croissant.
Favorite food pairing: Ice cream and bread pudding.
Favorite restaurant and dish: Lasagna at The Place.
You’d never know it, but: I used to be really into skateboarding.
Visconti’s Ristorante, 2700 East Bidwell Street, Suite 700, Folsom, 916-983-5181, viscontisristorante.com
He’s twirled pies in the Bay Area and sharpened his Italian culinary skills in Chicago, but one thing Frank Visconti hasn’t done is perhaps a blessing: He’s never deviated from cooking Italian food—having done it now for 33 years. He’s just as committed to the love behind the plate as he is to what’s on it, which may be why his restaurant has become such a staple in Folsom.
First memory of food: Thinking I was a chef by playing with my mom’s pots and pans when I was around five years old.
Food philosophy: To pass on the tradition of homemade food made with love and passion for not only the meal itself, but also what that entails—the meaning of family. Italians are known for growing our own fruits and vegetables while making all of our meals from scratch with the family, and it’s a way for us to get together and bond.
If I wasn’t a chef, I’d be: A Ferrari mechanic.
Top cooking tip: Cook with pride and fashion.
The best thing I ever ate: My grandmother’s veal rollatini.
One food I’ll never get behind: Liver.
Favorite ingredient to work with: Garlic and white wine.
For dinner last night, I ate: A ribeye steak.
Favorite food pairing: Eggplant alla mama and gnocchi alla vodka.
Favorite restaurant and dish: The King Arthur cut at House of Prime Rib in San Francsico.
You’d never know it, but: Other than cooking, I’m passionate about cars and construction.
Old Town Grill, 444 Main Street, Placerville, 530-622-2631, otgplacerville.com
John Sanders always knew he wanted his own restaurant. He’s clocked 41 years as a chef (18 at the grill) and while food will always be his first passion, his other passion is helping folks develop a solid work foundation right in his own kitchen.
First memory of food: Coming from a family of nine children—yes, nine—my dear mother would prepare a meal for the family and we’d all share the day and enjoy it together.
Food philosophy: Take advantage of the local resources and bounty that our area has to offer.
If I wasn’t a chef, I’d be: I’m living my dream job.
Top cooking tip: The three “T”s ensure a finished product—time, temperature, and taste.
The best thing I ever ate: A perfectly seared and seasoned chuck-end, bone-in ribeye.
One food I’ll never get behind: Mushrooms—I like the earthy profile, but I can’t handle the texture.
Guilty pleasure food: My 10 p.m. snack!
Favorite ingredient to work with: Walking through our farmers’ markets and utilizing whatever came out of the farms that day.
For dinner last night, I ate: Shrimp fajitas in a cast iron skillet cooked on an open fire alongside zucchini stuffed with crab, salmon, scallops, and lobster.
Favorite food pairing: Wild game with a deep, earthy sauce and fresh herbs.
Favorite restaurant and dish: Cioppino with sourdough bread at Scoma’s in San Francisco.
You’d never know it, but: I have more than 30 years being clean and sober, and my passion through food is to help others who just need a break or a chance.