13 Secret Weapons in LA's Top Restaurants

The unsung heroes of some of the busiest hot spots
March 16, 2015
by Lesley Balla

In the food world, the executive chefs, head bartenders and owners and managers are always in the spotlight. But what about everyone else that makes the restaurant tick? Every team player plays an important role in a restaurant's success, and the unsung are finally getting their due. We're talking about the behind-the-scenes masters, the passionate prep cooks, longtime kitchen workers, ice shapers, oyster shuckers, pasta makers and even gardeners. Here are just a few of the fantastic heroes from top restaurants in town, along with their stories and secrets to success.

Name: Courtney Guerra

Title: Head farmer and forager for Alma Restaurant

Stats: Chef Ari Taymor has garnered many accolades for the seasonal dishes he creates for his tasting menus at the Downtown LA restaurant. Know that when you see things like fava beans, red Malabar spinach and white Tokyo turnips on the menu, they're most likely grown exclusively for him by Guerra in her Venice garden. Twenty percent of the menu is sourced form the garden, which she harvests five days a week. Guerra also goes on foraging excursions to Santa Barbara to find unique ingredients for Taymor. Additionally, she teaches farm-to-table workshops at local schools with the Alma team, and helps with school garden programs.

Secrets to success: “No secrets,” Guerra says. “Just a commitment to a craft and working with people that inspire and stretch me every day.”

Future plans: She’s in the process of starting a larger soil farm — a “farm lab,” she says — in Santa Barbara County.

Name: Raymundo Moreno

Title: AM sous-chef at Animal

Stats: Moreno has been working with Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo since the duo opened Animal in 2008. He was their first prep cook, showing up at their back door after getting fired from Mozza for punching a guy in the face for taking his family meal, the free meal that the restaurant staff eats together before service. "Now he's the one who actually makes all of our family meals," says Shook. Some of his dishes have actually become dishes for catering and for Animal, like chilaquiles. 

​Secrets to success: Moreno's secret to success is his family. They are his support to everything that he does and everything he does is for them.

Future plans: His future plans are to help Jon and Vinny open up Jon & Vinny’s. He will be doing handmade pastas, all the sauces for the pastas and the pizzas. "Raymundo can basically make any shape or size pasta," says Dotolo. "He has previous experience working for Mario Batali and Mark Ladner in New York and has some of the best pasta-making skills I’ve seen. And he loves it! He genuinely loves making pasta and finds it thoroughly enjoyable. We are so excited to move him up and over to Jon & Vinny’s."

Name: Hector Lopez Flores

Title: Ice house foreman for Penny Pound Ice

Stats: The growth of LA’s cocktail culture means high-quality ice is in high demand, especially for the Cedd Moses crew at 213 Hospitality bars like The Varnish, Seven Grand, Cana Rum Bar and Honeycut. That’s where Flores comes in — he’s the guy behind all those beautiful ice diamonds you find in your old fashioned and other drinks. After a Clinebell CB300X2D ice machine slowly freezes two 300-pound blocks of ice, Flores rips them down to various shapes for the cocktails, about 720 cubes per day.

Secrets to success: Strong arms and a tolerance for the cold.

Future plans: Penny Pound Ice not only supplies all the 213 bars, but also a dozen other clients around Los Angeles. The goal is to get more factory space, machines and make more ice for the masses.

Name: Rick Wright

Title: Head butcher at Salt’s Cure

Stats: As Salt's Cure does all of their butchery in-house, chefs and co-owners Chris Phelps and Zak Walters really rely on Wright to source the animals directly from local farms, break them down (about 500 pounds of meat a week) and help create a menu using the whole animal. In addition to butchery, he's the one to thank for those breakfast sausages, charcuterie like the pâté, terrines and liver mousse, and dry-aging the steaks. "Rick does what he does because he's passionate about it," says Walters. "And he excels at perfecting the basics," adds Phelps. "We have all set a very high standard for quality and he consistently strives for and attains that level."

Secrets to success: "No shortcuts," says Wright. "You have to do all the little things correctly and meticulously. When you start to lose attention to detail, your product that you've spent so much time on suffers as a result."

Future plans: To continue to develop skills and techniques at Salt's Cure. "We're doing some pretty cool things these days, and we are always looking for ways we can expand our program," says Wright. "Down the road, the possibilities are endless."

Name: Maria Mendoza

Title: Pasta maker at Faith & Flower

Stats: Mendoza does all of the pasta production at the Downtown LA restaurant, from making the fillings to rolling and forming the pastas, plus makes pizza dough among other things. "She has an incredible work ethic, great sense of teamwork, and helps out wherever she can in her very sparse downtime," says executive chef Michael Hung. She doesn't have much downtime, however, making over 1,100 orders of hand-shaped pasta per week. 

Secrets to success: Hard work and dedication to the craft. "Her real value is how much she loves her work," Hung says.

Future plans: Right now she is teaching another cook how to make pastas, but she will soon be training with pastry chef Josh Graves in bread baking.

Name: Manuel Joaquin

Title: Expeditor/runner at Cliff’s Edge

Stats: Joaquin is one of those workers that touches just about every station. In the kitchen, he'll prep up to 35 different garnishes for chef Vartan Abgaryan, which range from sauces, seasonings, pickles, herbs and purées. He expedites service when Abgaryan isn't in the kitchen. Out of the kitchen, he'll run food to tables, some days as much as three courses for more than 250 guests at a time. He'll even bus when necessary. And then he mans the oyster station on the busy Thursday-night oyster power hours, shucking as many as 900 oysters in one hour.

Secrets to success: According to Abgaryan, it's Joaquin's dedication, care, sense of urgency and all-around talent that makes him so invaluable to the team.

Future plans: He loves to work in a kitchen and learn, and he eventually wants to become a part of management.

Name: Azarias Jiminez

​Title: Bread baker at Republique

Stats: Jiminez was originally a dishwasher at the restaurant and started baking bread after Margarita Manzke taught him everything he needed to know. He makes about 300 to 400 loaves a bread a day, including baguettes, demi-baguettes, pain lavin, fruit breads, burger buns and ciabatta. "Few restaurants give away free bread anymore, and our bread has become one of things that people say is their favorite," says Walter Manzke. (Seriously, if you haven't had the baguette with French butter, you're missing out.) "It's definitely one of the most important things we prepare in the restaurant, and we couldn't do it without Azarias."

Secrets to success: Learn fast, be fast.

Future plans: Not only does he bake bread daily, he's a DJ and hopes to become an international DJ.

Name: David Flores

Title: Oyster shucker/garde manger/line cook at Fishing With Dynamite

Stats: If you’ve ever been to David LeFevre’s little Manhattan Beach seafood spot, you know it does big volume on the bivalves. Flores is one of the guys making sure they get to you clean and cold, shucking hundreds and hundreds a night. “Plus, he’s very versatile and rocks it on all stations,” says LeFevre.

Secrets to success: "David is a humble achiever,” says LeFevre. “He lets his work do all the talking."

Future Plans: To keep learning.

Name: Jose Elias Garcia

Title: Prep cook at Patina

Stats: Garcia has been with Patina since 2000, nearly 15 years at the 25-year-old restaurant. He gets there as early as 6:30 AM to execute the mise en place that takes hours to produce, including the various stocks and sauces, perfectly peeled and formed vegetables, and proteins like crates and crates of lobsters. 

Secrets to success: Being quick and efficient so he can get it done before the kitchen gets too busy and he's done in a regular eight-hour shift.

Future plans: Continuing his work with the Patina Restaurant Group team.

Name: Anna Gálvez

​Title: Pastry sous-chef at Terrine

Stats: She worked her way up from dishwasher to prep cook to line cook to pastry sous-chef, despite English being her second language. After working with Morningstar at his previous restaurants, she now can do anything from breaking down fish and meats to doing pastry, and she bounces around station to station as needed. "She keeps our ship running," says executive chef Kris Morningstar. "All the cooks call her 'mama.' She is amazing. Without her I don't know how we could have our five-person prep staff running the way it does. She commands their respect."

Secrets to success: "She is reliable, loyal to no end, hard-working and has incredible quality control," says Morningstar.

Future plans: To continue learning.

Names: Armida Moreno​ (pictured left of Nancy Silverton) and Paulina Techachal (right)

Title: Prep cooks at Osteria Mozza

Stats: These two women work more than 100 hours a week between them making fresh pastas for Osteria Mozza — up to 200 orders of raviolo, garganelli and others daily. They make more than 3,000 pieces of orecchiette by hand per week alone! (And we are all the better for it.)

Secrets to success: This is a specialized job suited to dainty hands; the delicacy of the different pasta doughs require a finesse that only certain cooks are suited for. And for not being Italian nor having ever been to Italy, they've been able to excel at one of the most important roles for Silverton, Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich's bustling restaurant. 

Future plans: They're working on making multiple fresh gluten-free pastas for the restaurants.

Name: Erik Maynez

​Title: Cook at Scratch|Bar and Gadarene Swine

Stats: 30 Under 30 honoree Phillip Frankland Lee, owner of both the Beverly Hills bistro and Studio City vegetarian-focused restaurant, counts on Maynez for many things. Since being promoted out of the dish pit, Maynez makes all the cheese, charcuterie, bread, butter, pickles, jerkys, ice creams and more at the restaurant, this on top of working the garde manger station six nights a week. "Our motto at Scratch|Bar used to be 'we don't serve anything we don't make from scratch.' Now it's 'we don't serve anything Erik doesn't make from scratch.'"

Secrets to success: From Lee: "He works his ass off and is down for the cause at all costs!"

Future plans: He may have a promotion to kitchen manager by the time this publishes. 

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