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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.

His Quesadillita con Helado dessert, for example, is a traditional rice and cheese bread served with vanilla ice cream that is finished with torched coconut, strawberry-zinfandel sauce and dehydrated strawberry powder.

“It has everything - the sponginess and warmth of the bread, the coldness of the ice cream, the sweetness of the sauce, the pungent powder and the coconut to round it off,” he said. “To me a dessert has to be interesting as well. That’s true of every single dish - every bite needs to be something interesting.”

Having worked in the industry for more than a dozen years now, Mojica acknowledges that cooking as a career is not easy, even for a 20-something.

“Kitchen work is no joke,” he said. “You stand all day long, it’s hot, you burn yourself and it’s stressful. And, you don’t make money until you’re about 35. Before that, it’s all in investment in learning.”

In the future, Mojita hopes to open a more casual version of Guiso’s Latin Fusion. But for the moment, he is happy to keep learning as much as he can and to keep making food with love and purpose.

“You can taste the passion in his food - that’s what I look for,” said Heidi Finney, hospitality director at Sbragia Family Vineyards. “He understands what it’s all about, and what it’s all about is food, wine, life and people.”

‘My passion for wine’

Finney, who is also under 30, has built an impressive resume herself since she graduated from the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park at age 21. From line cook to server to cellar rat to winery chef, she’s been on a hypersonic learning journey.

After being hired by Sbragia four years ago for the tasting room, Finney gradually consumed the tasks of estate chef, events manager, tasting room manager and hospitality manager. She was appointed hospitality director in January.

“I’m 28, but I feel far older,” said Finney, who lives in Windsor with her husband and two kids Colton, 1, and “bonus daughter” Charlotte, 4. “I believe you take from a situation as much as you put into it, and I’ve put in a hell of a lot.”

Since she looks younger than she is, Finney said she occasionally runs into difficulty with people who can’t believe she has enough experience to be where she is. On the other hand, her youthfulness helps her survive the occasional long days and absorb and retain information at an accelerated rate.

“I have a lot of energy,” she said. “It still amazes me that I can go-go-go all day and then mop the floors at night.”

While growing in upstate New York, Finney first fell head-over-heels in love with the sweet kitchen.

“The pastry arts come so natural to me,” she said. “It’s so calming ... I love that early morning time, rolling out the dough and working with your hands.”

But because she loved baking so much and didn’t want to ruin that love, she decided to concentrate on savory cooking in culinary school.

As a chef, Finney’s favorite way to serve food is family style, where guests can share plates, wine and conversation in a relaxed manner.

“I’m more into the rustic, easy-going style,” she said. “It’s going back to the European way.”

Her husband, Spencer James, said he admires the way Finney’s passion runs deep, not only for food but for the entire experience.

“From the first impression after walking through the door to the beauty of how the dish is plated and the last bite being as good as the first,” he said. “She not only looks for these when we are out to eat but strives to make each person’s experience ... perfect.”

A native of Highland, New York, located about 25 miles from the culinar institute at Hyde Park, Finney launched her career working for three restaurants in Boston, starting with Toro, a stylish, Spanish tapas restaurant where she did her externship.

“It wasn’t about being pretentious,” she said. “It’s really good food, made and eaten in the authentic style.”

Next she got a job with Toro’s sister restaurant, Coppa, a hip Italian enoteca, where she worked as the lunch cook by day and trained as the hostess by night.

“I really wanted to try serving because my passion for wine was starting to spike,” she said.

Then she honed her front-of-the-house skills at West Bridge restaurant in Cambridge, a French-New England restaurant.

On a whim, she decided to move West in August 2013 with a friend who got a gig working the harvest at Thomas George Estate in Healdsburg.

“I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” she said. “But I’m from an area like this - the Hudson Valley, only it has apple orchards - and I felt like I was coming home.”

After observing the harvest, she landed a job at Kendall-Jackson’s Partake restaurant in Healdsburg, then deepened her wine education with the food-and-wine pairing program at the Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate.

“The team came up with the pairings, and I learned so much,” she said. “A lot of the theoretical ways are not always the right way - you need to use your own senses and taste.”

Ready to dig deeper into wine, she worked the harvest at Williams Selyem in 2014, sinking her hands into everything from sampling to crushing.

“I like to know everything about a subject before I dive in,” said Finney, who has a Level 3 certificate from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET). “It makes you better at what you do, and you have the understanding from every angle.”

She joined Sbragia in 2015, then took the position of estate chef in 2017 in order to launch and build its food program, which began simply with plated pairings and box lunches. A few months later, she helped launch Foodie Fridays at the winery, a pop-up Friday lunch that features fun, comfort foods from around the world, paired with a wine.

“It was popular right out of the gate,” Finney said. “If we’re going to ask people to come all the way out here, we have to offer something extra.”

Last year, she hired a sous chef, Yuri Cruz, and together, the women plan all the Foodie Friday menus with dishes ranging from Philly cheesesteaks and clam chowder to Hawaiian barbecue and Tuscan Tortellini. The program has allowed Finney to dip her toe back into one of her first loves, the restaurant world.

“It’s like the most beautiful ballet you’re ever going to watch, “ she said. “Some people have a restaurant eye - it’s a blessing and a curse. You walk in and see everything ... that water glass has to be filled. It relates to the whole experience, and it’s everything you take away.”

‘When I feel uncomfortable’

Since he was 8 years old, Nick Newcomb knew he was going to be a chef. He learned to cook mostly out of self-preservation - his parents both worked long days in the medical profession - and eventually, he got tired of making chicken breast, frozen peas and instant potatoes.

“In high school, I would have friends over and cook for them and throw big clambakes by the beach,” he said. “I’m a naturally giving person. For me, it was about getting people together and sharing experiences.”

Now 25, the native of Whidbey Island near Seattle brings people together at The Bird & the Bottle in Santa Rosa, where he joined the opening team in the fall of 2015. Despite his youth, he was promoted to chef de cuisine - the top toque - in January.

“For a 25-year-old, he’s very mature,” said Mark Stark, chef/owner of Stark Reality Restaurants. “You could see that he had the stuff to be successful with us ... he can hit the ball, and he can throw the ball. We just needed to teach him how to play our game.”

Since his high school was too small to offer culinary training, Newcomb worked for a small, French bistro, The Oystercatcher, run by a husband-and-wife team.

“I started as a dishwasher at age 15,” he said. “After a couple of months, I asked to do an internship, and they took me under their wing.”

Deciding it was time to get serious, Newcomb applied to the culinary institute at Hyde Park after falling in love with the school during a visit.

“It felt like home,” he said. “ But I was one of the youngest in my class, and a lot of my classmates were already in the industry for many years ... I was intimated, so it lit a fire under my butt.”

A self-motivator, Newcomb went out of his way to find an externship at another Washington state restaurant that was not pre-approved but that fit him better - The Willow Inn on Lummi Island, a hyperlocal restaurant run by Blaine Wetzel, a young chef who worked at the acclaimed Noma restaurant in Copenhagen.

“That place pushed me - five or six days a week, 13 plus hours a day,” he said. “A lot of the chefs were in their 20s, super driven ... and in it for the right reasons.”

The restaurant presents the quintessential Northwest ingredients - smoked salmon, Dungeness crab, berries, edible flowers - in a way that keeps the focus on the farmer, not the chef.

“It’s a more holistic way of approaching food,” he said. “The ingredients have to shine.”

After graduating in 2014 with a two-year associate’s degree, he was offered a job as the chef de partie at The Willows Inn but decided to continue his education at the institute instead, pursuing his bachelor’s degree in restaurant management.

“They gave us the tools to run our own restaurant,” he said. “During that time, we took a culinary trip to China and spent a month in the Szechuan region ... that opened my eyes. It was culture shock in the best possible way.”

A few days after graduating with his BA in July 2015, Newcomb headed to San Francisco in search of a kitchen culture that would test his mettle. He applied to the Michelin-starred Benu and Saison and ended up at Saison.

However, after a few months of living and working in the high-cost city, he decided to move up to the Wine Country for a new challenge.

“I wanted to be beat down and to cook fast and difficult things rather than learn how to make things look pretty,” he said. “Two days after moving to Santa Rosa, I got a tip that a new restaurant was opening - The Bird & the Bottle.”

Appealing to young people like himself, the hip restaurant churns out small plates that reflect Mark and Terri Stark’s personal history - a melding of Jewish roots, Southern culture and the East Coast.

“It’s a place where people can go, relax, unwind and just have honest food,” Newcomb said. “We get a lot of locals coming in the door, but a heavy amount of tourists, too.”

An introvert who thinks before he speaks, Newcomb leads by example while stressing teamwork and common goals in the kitchen.

“He’s very even-keeled, so he can relate to staff and staff can relate to him,” Stark said. “As a chef, there’s got to be an ego in there, but he has it pointed in the right direction.”

Newcomb knows from experience what it feels like to be yelled at, so he avoids throwing pots or temper tantrums.

“In our kitchen, we don’t have as much turnover because people feel they’re part of something,” he said. “They’re respected, and they know they will be heard. It’s about ‘we.’?”

In the short term, Newcomb plans to develop his skills not only as a chef but as a manager. He is being mentored by the restaurant’s former chef de cuisine, Eric Foster, who now oversees both The Bird & the Bottle and the newly opened Willi’s Wine Bar.

In the long term, he’d like to open his own restaurant, preferably one with an open-fire kitchen, where people can “share and have an honest conversation over food.”

Meanwhile, he readily admits that young chefs like him are kind of a strange breed, so obsessed with food that they can’t stop cooking and thinking of food, even on their days off.

“We’ve been doing this for most of our lives, even though it’s been a short life,” he said. “A lot of us are pushing and striving and wanting to succeed, ... we work long hours, not the 9 to 5 or weekends off. But I wouldn’t want that. I thrive when I feel uncomfortable.”

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

Diane Peterson

Features, The Press Democrat

I’m interested in the home kitchen, from sheet-pan suppers to the latest food trends. Food encompasses the world, its many cultures, languages and history. It is both essential and sensual. I also have my fingers on the pulse of classical music in Sonoma County, from student mariachi bands to jazz crossover and symphonic sounds. It’s all a rich gumbo, redolent of the many cultures that make up our country and the world.

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