When it’s time for another StarChefs panel discussion, where else but Los Angeles could have the right combination of unique perspectives and delicious discoveries? 

At the latest StarChefs Los Angeles, Flavors Unknown host Emmanuel Laroche joined L.A.-based mixologists, chefs, and pastry chefs for a lively ride through the ins and outs of local dining, growing-up goals, and watching the food magic unfold. 

Each StarChefs event features local rising stars across the culinary scene, and StarChefs LA 2024 was no different. Emmanuel’s latest Flavors Unknown podcast featured Chef Sandra Cordero of Xuntos and Gasolina, pastry chef Sherry Yard, beverage director Ramsey Musk of Accomplice Bar and Little Fatty, Executive Chef Matt Shaler of Bertie G’s, and Chef/owner Diego Argoti of Poltergeist. 

 

Family Traditions and Personal Goals

Not all chefs and mixologists on the panel are from L.A. In fact, most aren’t, with diverse upbringings influencing their perspectives and childhood memories. Chef Sandra started things off, reflecting on her Dutch-Spanish heritage, family cooking, and summers in Spain. 

Sandra said, “My Spanish aunt and grandma and stuff, they cooked a lot, so I think that really inspired me, and I loved it. I loved that there was always food on the stove, in the kitchen, every time you'd walk in there.” She mentioned her restaurant Xuntos, adding, “This is really my love letter to my summers in Spain — of the way we ate when I would visit, and how family gathers, and how people come together in the little tapas bars.” 

Beverage director Ramsey spoke of his Italian-American heritage, having grown up in Cape Cod, Boston, and nearby Stoneham, where his Italian grandparents infused in him a love of hospitality. Ramsey rebelled against summers catering to tourists but then realized he was a natural. He said, “Looking back, spending holidays, especially with my gigantic Italian family, it just prepares you to fall in love every night with setting a table or setting the bar, whatever it is.”

 

Related: StarChefs Philadelphia Panel Discussion 2024: A chat with chefs and mixologists

 

Reaching for Success

Other panel chefs had diverse experiences and roads to success. Chef Sherry, in particular, spoke of her Brooklyn upbringing and the knish and ice cream trucks that brought treats to the masses. She adored the idea of serving others from anywhere — even high in the sky at the Rainbow Room as a coat check girl and cocktail waitress. 

Later, she jumped at the chance to work under pastry chef Albert Kuman. Here, she marveled at his skill and worked hard to keep up. Sherry noted, “It's a little miracle when a wedding cake takes architectural artistry and science, and you put it all together. Being a curious person, I wanted to know how, when, where, why.” Sherry continued her experiences with bakers at the Culinary Institute of America and time in Vienna and Austria, studying how to make the desserts and sweeter pastries found in Viennoiserie shops. 

Chef Sandra had a more direct career route. She got her first restaurant job as a server at age 15 and felt like she belonged. Sandra’s teenage years instilled an equal love of dining out, where she experienced firsthand what it takes to serve the finest hospitality. She added, “We didn't go out for dinner a lot back home in Holland, so when I would go to Spain, we'd eat out all the time. I just really loved it. So, yes, I think by the time I was 18, I decided that one day I would have my own place.”

The road to success isn’t always so straightforward, something Chef Diego experienced growing up with Ecuadorian heritage in Burbank, California. He took a culinary class but noted, “It wasn't about being a chef. It was about making something look cool. Then I started getting attention from our culinary teacher and she signed me up for this competition.” 

The result? Third place, something his dad had predicted. Diego said, “He told me, ‘I knew that if you actually tried and got rest and wasn't with your friends all night that you would have gotten first, but if you just do the bare minimum, you'll still be [in] third place,’ which I think is a really nice compliment in there somewhere.”

Chef Matt’s journey took a different course, mainly because he grew up in restaurants. When he was a teenager in Daytona Beach, choosing to become a chef was becoming more widespread and accepted. Matt also loved the idea of making something with his hands, how he could visualize something and make it work.

He struck a deal with his parents to get a bachelor’s degree first, but it was in culinary school that his true passions came out. Chef Matt noted, “Every time I hit a milestone in my career, for me personally, I was like, 'Wow.' Now that they can see my face on Instagram with the star chefs and all that, they're like, ‘Oh, you finally did it. We're proud of you.’”

 

Los Angeles’ Culinary Magic 

Traveling can bring new perspectives. For Chef Sherry, it meant moving from Northern California’s calmer scene to Southern California’s excitement and diversity. It also meant Wolfgang Puck. Sherry received an invitation to join his restaurant, Spago, where she started as a joke and ended up working for 20 years. 

Chef Matt was living in Asheville, North Carolina, at the time, and he moved in search of culinary schooling. He noted, “I moved here and the produce was better. There was a ton of opportunity. The scene was exploding again. Now I'm like, if I can't get tomatoes nine months out of the year, I don't want to be there, so I won't move out of L.A.”

Burbank-raised Diego left Los Angeles after the food trucks took over, feeling the pull of New York. But he returned. As he put it, “I think just being from here and trying to represent where you're from became more important to me. Being like, even if I'm going to make a name for myself or for the restaurant and for the team or whatever I do, you always come back to your roots. I feel like it reflects who you are, even if you want to or not want to do it. Now, I love the city more than ever.”

 

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Culinary Inspirations and What the Future Holds

It’s no secret that the pandemic closed many restaurants, something some of the panel chefs experienced. However, they could also see the light at the end of the tunnel.

According to beverage director Ramsey, people are getting more comfortable with taking risks if they know they can get a bigger reward. He said, “Maybe you're open and operating for two to five years, but if it's the most fun, tenacious two to five years of your life, then I'll try and do it again.” 

Chef Sandra preferred the longer approach, stating, “My intention is not to be a two- to five-year restaurant. Gasolina, we just turned nine and I'm a neighborhood place. We know everybody by their first name. I used to make a joke that we're the daytime episode of Cheers.”

As for seeking out inspiration for future creations, all of the panel chefs know that it’s never far away. Ramsey said, “You can go to any neighborhood and find a new pop-up or a spot that's been there for 30-plus years that you've never been to. It's just like a never-ending little carnival and scavenger hunt of inspiration in the city, which is, I think, the most exciting thing.” He discussed experimenting with ingredients for cocktails, whether from his childhood or a random idea. For Ramsey, working from farm to glass with seasonal ingredients can be as exciting as creating innovative themes for a drinks menu.

Chef Sherry said it all when she noted, “I think creativity is endless, boundless. I'm a real big believer in sharing as much as you can because as soon as it's out of your head, you can leave room for more.”

By the end of the discussion, the five panelists made it clear that inspiration and creativity can be as close as the next corner. In Los Angeles, restaurants come and restaurants go, but what stays is the creative drive to stake your claim and show the world what and who you are. 

To hear more insights about StarChefs discussions and the burgeoning L.A. food scene, contact the Symrise team

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