Three young culinary stars make their mark in Sonoma County
It’s getting harder and harder to make a living as a chef or a line cook in Wine Country, where entry-level salaries are flatter than a blini and the cost of living has risen like a soufflé in a 400-degree oven.
And yet, a new generation is out there pushing the industry forward with their youthful energy, drive and passion. With grit and perseverance, they are determined to make a career in the food services industry, despite all the sacrifices it takes.
We spoke to three of these fledgling talents, all under 30 but already ripe with kitchen experience as they deepen their knowledge in the vibrant food-and-wine industry of the North Bay.
One has his own restaurant. One is the hospitality director at a winery. One has just been promoted to chef de cuisine at one of the restaurants in a successful restaurant empire.
Despite their different paths and ages, this trio of toques all share an intellectual curiosity about food and wine, a tendency toward order and perfectionism and a penchant for nurturing conversations, connections and community at the table.
“In a way, it’s a young person’s game to play,” said Nick Newcomb, the 25-year-old chef de cuisine at The Bird & the Bottle in Santa Rosa. “That’s why I immerse myself in it ... I always want to be growing and pushing and learning. I’m not searching for anything. I’m on the journey.”
‘An investment in learning’
At 28 years of age, Carlos Mojica Jr. has already achieved his dream: owning his own restaurant - Guiso’s Latin Fusion - where everyone can be proud of the food and the service.
“We wanted to showcase what being Latino is about,” said the chef, who grew up in Santa Rosa and now lives in Guerneville. “We want you to become part of our family and enjoy good food and wine,.”
Although he was hoping to buy a food truck in 2015, Mojica ended up creating a 24-seat restaurant in the former Ravenette space, a tiny corner in the food-and-wine mecca that is Healdsburg. It opened in October 2015, when he was just 24.
“I’m the youngest chef in Healdsburg,” Mojica said. “We put on a big hat opening in Healdsburg ... there are so many good chefs here.”
Despite the competition, Mojica has tried to carve his own niche by doing something unique: giving a high-end twist to the authentic foods of Central America, the Caribbean and South America.
“We share a lot of spices,” he said. “The food is a little bit modern and a little bit rustic. It goes back to the Mayans and the Aztecs.”
Born in El Salvador, Mojica was drawn to the kitchen from an early age, absorbing a deep passion for food from his mother and grandmother.
“Latina women don’t like to give away recipes, but I would be in the kitchen watching them,” he said. “I fell in love with food by growing up eating it.”
While studying the culinary arts at Piner High, he served on the opening team of Jackson’s Bar & Oven in Santa Rosa, starting out as a dishwasher and working his way up to line cook over the course of three years.
“It was a fast-paced kitchen,” he said. “They are busy all the time.”
After high school, he went to work with the R & D team at La Tortilla Factory in Santa Rosa, where he helped develop the handmade-style and low-carb tortillas. Meanwhile, he went to school at night at the Santa Rosa Junior College Culinary Arts program.
“As soon as I put the chef’s coat on, I loved it,” he said. “I like everything super organized and clean ... when it comes to food, I’m the same way.”
A few years ago, his mother and father, Carlos Mojica Sr., asked him what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. They recognized his passion for cooking and pooled their resources to help him open his own restaurant.
“It’s so interesting to watch him grow in a fast-paced way,” Carlos Mojica Sr. said. “That’s the best investment, watching him succeed and become a professional.”
The dinner-only restaurant, open Tuesday through Sunday, runs smoothly thanks to a small, close-knit team made up of family, extended family and friends.
“My dad does the finances and gives me trouble when I go over budget,” Mojica said. “And my mom plays a big role. She makes the pupusas every day. It’s the most traditional dish in El Salvador.”
His 22-year-old sister and his 22-year-old fiancée provide front-of-the-house service, while his sous chef - a good friend who went to Le Cordon Bleu in San Francisco - offers culinary support and a sounding board for his ideas.
“It’s a family feud in a good way,” Mojica joked.
The menu offers about a dozen items on any given day, allowing the young chef to pay close attention to each dish.