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The 2024 Spring Chef Shuffle

Updated: May 29

Our culinary columnist catches up with a few chefs who have moved on to new restaurants.

Chef Peter Lai is currently cooking at Michael Mina's Bourbon Steak at the Waldorf Astoria in Monarch Beach. He previously worked at The Iron Press, The Blind Rabbit and The Water Grill. Photo courtesy of Bourbon Steak Orange County
 

For every handshake or hug with an industry professional, my circle of contacts grows. I graduated with a degree in hotel and restaurant management, so my respect for hospitality is strong. Thanks to the relationships I built, sometimes I’m privy to changes in staff. If you’ve ever wondered where your favorite chef has disappeared to, the below list will provide insight on some of them.


Chef Peter Lai

The first time I formally met Chef Peter Lai, he was associated with dual concepts inside Anaheim’s Packing House: The Iron Press for waffle sandwiches and The Blind Rabbit speakeasy. I rarely saw him but he’d occasionally step outside of the kitchen to say hello or explain a dish. 


When Lai relocated to South Coast Plaza’s Water Grill, I was excited because it was a restaurant I dined at more frequently. However if you’ve ever had a meal there you’ll recall just how intense its kitchen was. I could spot him through the glass, but he was perpetually busy most of the time. Lai was the literal definition of hustle, and WG had already turned over a number of chefs. 


Earlier this year, Lai made the move to Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak inside the Waldorf Astoria Monarch Beach. He was genuinely happy to step out of the kitchen (albeit briefly) to greet our table. “The innovative kitchen at Bourbon Steak Orange County showcases a mix of specialties from land and sea, alongside an impressive beverage program,” Lai said. “As I take on this new role as executive chef, I am looking forward to leading our team to continually create memorable culinary experiences for our guests.” 


Lobster pot pie plated tableside is an interactive dish always ordered. An abundance of steak sauces, seasonal sides and accompaniments means I don’t have the exact same dish each time, so long as my Angus beef is prepared medium-rare. I tend to order Bourbon Steak’s chimichurri condiment plus some herb-buttered mushrooms. If you’re having trouble deciding, start with some glorious bacon or ahi tuna tartare while you ruminate.


Chef Zach Scherer, currently works at Chrysalis. Photo courtesy of Jill Cook
Chef Zach Scherer

The Country Club in Costa Mesa was the first dining room where I met Chef Zach Scherer. Or maybe it was Helmsman Ale House where he was also opening chef? Either way, Scherer was skilled at launching new concepts (Note: Chef actually helped open both Helmsman and Country Club). When he began working at Bello by Sandro Nardone, Scherer was allowed to do an additional concept in a “chef’s counter” fashion. Progressive and creative, Scherer’s cuisine could only be rivaled by his taste in music. Scherer left Bello last year.


According to Scherer, “We have been roaming through the county doing pop-ups as Chrysalis, curating a signature style of modern Californian cuisine.” Dinners are themed after the location where they are hosted. “Menus reflect back to the host or offer a unique perspective of that time of the growing season,” Scherer said.


Scherer plans to open his brick-and-mortar in Costa Mesa near The Observatory music venue by late summer/early fall and is actively getting his hands dirty at the future site to make that deadline. A dual concept property, it will also include a wine bar named Darkroom.

Chef Alan Sanz, currently leading the team at Maizano, the upscale dining room attached the Mercado González food hall. Photo courtesy of Maizano

Chef Alan Sanz 

Long before Chef Alan Sanz arrived in O.C., he already had a considerable amount of work experience from restaurants in destinations including Chile, Spain, France and Mexico. I remember him from Gracias Madre, Sueños plus Porch and Swing. Now his dining room is the upscale Maizano, a revolving door away from the bustle inside Mercado González.


When asked about his current concept, Sanz is full of excitement: “At Maizano, we proudly showcase the diverse flavors and traditions of regional Mexican cuisine. Our dishes tell the stories of the culinary landscapes of Yucatán, Puebla and Oaxaca and serve as a tribute to the rich tapestry of Mexican gastronomy. I want our guests to experience the traditional flavors of Mexican cuisine through our contemporary interpretations."



Dishes served by Dee Nguyen as a part of dinner service by The Nest. From left, sweet potato gnocchi, cashew milk chawanmushi and fennel cured salmon. Photos courtesy of Dee Nguyen


Chef Dee Nguyen


The first time I crossed paths with Dee Nguyen, his restaurant Break of Dawn was just starting out and I was meeting a dozen or so food bloggers for brunch. I didn’t dine there consistently, but I would ultimately eat there with most of my friends and colleagues at some point. The food was consistently solid and there was some form of pork in nearly every dish.


I last met up with the BoD chef/owner during the pandemic when I picked up an apple pie he got from the city of Julian. His existing restaurant pad was converted to a different concept by one of his former chefs who (at the time) received permission from Nguyen to keep a handful of Break of Dawn classics on his menu. 


A colleague researched his whereabouts and learned that Nguyen had been doing pop-ups at a Lake Forest residence. The dinner service is called The Nest and it’s a blind, 10-course menu offered a few times a month based on demand and availability. Inquiries are made via The Nest by BoD’s Facebook page.


A selection of cocktails by Steven Hayden at Mulberry Street Ristorante. Photo courtesy of Steven Hayden
Bartender Steven Hayden

Journeyman’s was an upscale restaurant inside Hotel Fullerton where Steven Hayden introduced me to zero-proof cocktails. Courteous and knowledgeable, Hayden made patrons feel at ease about ordering from the bar. He disappeared for a while due to an injury, but resurfaced at Old Brea Chop House. I do not make it out to this part of Orange County as often, but we kept in touch. 


Nowadays, Mulberry Street Ristorante is his place of employment, which makes sense because Hayden grew up in Fullerton. “It really gives me a feeling of being a part of the community working in the downtown area,” he said. Thursday through Saturday customers can find him running the stick (working behind the bar) and upgrading Mulberry’s beverage program. Family-owned for over 35 years, Mulberry is the best Italian joint in North O.C., per Hayden.


“A lot of what I took for granted as a younger person seems to become clearer and more respected with age,” Hayden said.


Bonus: Can You Guess Who Else has Moved Around?

If you’ve made it this far, I can dish about two more chefs. However, since getting into either of their dining rooms isn’t as easy as making a call, neither chef promotes where they work. Email me at AnneMarie@CultureOC.org with your guesses, or if you’d like to know who they are and where they work.


  • Chef No. 1 worked in three Laguna Beach restaurants (two attached to hotels) before settling in a Newport Beach kitchen.

  • Chef No. 2 worked in downtown Santa Ana, then Irvine before returning to the same Santa Ana kitchen. He also did some kitchen time in Newport Beach before his current place of employment in Santa Ana.

Need more clues? Both chefs have worked in hotels. Both chefs worked together (their crossover was for less than a year) in Newport Beach. Both chefs opened food-related businesses on the side.


Who are the chefs?



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