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Executive Chef Pedro Contreras Serves Up Culture

Flavors for the Ritz: seafood-centric with a Latin and Asian flair

By Teresa Gordon
Published on LatinoLA: November 18, 2013

Executive Chef Pedro Contreras Serves Up Culture

As Executive Chef Pedro Contreras of the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel breezes into his hotel's Raya restaurant to share lunch, he looks as calm as the azure Pacific beyond the dining room's wide expanse of windows. From his cool demeanor, it would be hard to guess the swirl of activities for his day. First, there's an intricate four-course feast planned for that evening's Diamond Ball, an inaugural event drawing the well heeled of Orange County and benefiting the Wounded Veterans Initiative of Canine Companions for Independence and Friends of Orange County's Homeless Pets.

And that's on top of two weddings scheduled for the same evening. Not to mention the usual running of a team of 120, from cooks to dishwashers, that serves up 50,000 meals a month.

And, as we are seated and unfolding our napkins, Contreras casually lets drop another bombshell. He just got married last night.

"It was a last-minute decision for us," he smiles. "We called our families back in Venezuela to share the news."

No doubt that cool has served the chef well. With 11 promotions in 11 years after moving to the U.S., Contreras began his culinary career as kitchen supervisor at the JW Marriott Desert Ridge in Phoenix, Arizona, working his way up to Executive Chef at the Ritz-Carlton Phoenix and Ritz-Carlton Marina del Rey. Growing up in Venezuela, he studied at the University of Los Andes in Merida, and received Cordon Bleu training in Arizona. The chef credits weekly cooking sessions back home with his father, perfecting such dishes as paella, for sparking his passion for food.

"In Latin America, you learn to make do with what is available," Contreras observes. "For example, sometimes you can wait in line three or four hours for a chicken. Here, with access to so much seafood and abundant produce, how can you not be successful?"

"Our lunch arrives at Raya, one of acclaimed chef Richard Sandoval's signature restaurants." Set before us are small plates of sea bass ceviche with crunchy corn nuts, tiny lobster tacos held together with specially made clothespins, and what looks like small pizzas, but are actually corn meal arepas glossed with a black bean puree and topped with cheese. Contreras motions towards the ceviche.

"You scoop," he says, deftly swooping up the seafood with a crispy plantain chip. I'm not nearly as graceful, splashing hunks of the coconut-juiced fish on the tablecloth. The chef points out the tiniest red peppers in the dish. "I recently discovered these sweet Peruvian peppers, and I am experimenting with them in different dishes."

It all comes back to what Contreras calls the "concept" for his menu at the Ritz, seafood-centric with a Latin and Asian flair. Contreras takes pride in using common ingredients from Latin America, such as black beans and cornmeal, and giving them a twist. He notes that one particular dish, using white cornmeal, white cheddar, saut?®ed mushrooms and truffles, wowed a visiting brother, and is still on the menu at kitchens he's led.

Contreras strives to encourage and develop his kitchen team as well. Beginning chefs are often bogged down with hours of paperwork, Contreras notes, so to keep the focus on the food, he's brought in assistance in that area. To further expand his team's food savvy, the chef schedules regular field trips to try different dishes, once even venturing to Ensenada, Mexico for taco truck tastings. He hopes to serve as example to others seeking to climb the kitchen ranks.

"I didn't speak English when I first came to this country," says Contreras. "I want others to see that you can rise beyond a certain level in the food industry."

Desert is offered, but with the Diamond Ball banquet just hours away, featuring such mouthwatering menu items as beef tenderloin with truffle bearnaise, and an estate-grown chocolate tart, I decline with a sigh. The ball is an important milestone for the hotel, the first extension of General Manager Bruce Brainerd's successful monthly Yappy Hour events, which invites area dogs to a lawn picnic to benefit local shelters. I wonder, given the hotel's passion for animal-related causes, has the chef ever owned a dog?

"Yes, a Yorkshire terrier," Contreras answers, with a smile. "His name was Truffles."

A tasty choice, indeed!

About Teresa Gordon:
Teresa Gordon is a Southern California-based freelance writer who has written for Sabor, Latin Beat and Hispanic Magazine and the Daily Breeze newspapers.

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