Chef fusion in Rancho Palos Verdes
Terranea’s signature restaurant, Mar’Sel, and the resort complex itself, have new chefs. The two newcomers are very different people, doing very different jobs
Many people who have visited Terranea have never thought about the logistics of having a hotel, golf course, and eight restaurants at the far end of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Guests arrive at all hours, and employees are ready to greet, feed, house, and pamper them. Multiple restaurants and bars present the largest challenge, where the resort has just had changes at the top level.
Chef Andrew Vaughan, who previously ran the kitchen at Terrana’s flagship restaurant, Mar’Sel, is now executive chef for the whole property, while Fabio Ugoletti took the job Vaughan had previously held. They’re very different people: one loves to focus on creating a fantastic experience in great detail. The other is a multitasker who relishes running an operation with hundreds of employees. Interviews with both men revealed a lot about the temperament needed to succeed at the highest levels of the culinary world.
The man at the top
Andrew Vaughan has worked at revered fine dining restaurants, and a small New Orleans coffee shop, an odd career path since he did it in that order. When that coffee shop was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina he headed for Los Angeles. After several other jobs he found a berth at Nelson’s, the family restaurant at Terranea. There he raised the quality of the ingredients and cooking, and in 2015 was elevated to Chef de Cuisine at Mar’Sel, Terranea’s’s fine dining restaurant. When Executive Chef Bernard Ibarra departed, Vaughan ascended to that position . To get a sense of what he does, I asked how many kitchens he is in charge of, and whether he gets his hands dirty in any of them.
“I oversee eight restaurants, the banquet kitchen and a main kitchen that supports all the facilities, so 10 in all. Those serve about 2,500 meals a day, not counting catering, which can be breakfast, lunch and dinner. I help develop all of the menus. And at times, when there’s need for staff and support, and for special events I am in the battle with everyone. So yeah, I spend a fair amount of time actually cooking.”
Each restaurant has its own Chef de Cuisine. Andrew oversees both the nuts and bolts of the operation, and the elements of style that differentiate each one. Asked whether there is an overarching theme to all the restaurants, he replied, “Absolutely. We want to always create food that is approachable, comforting, and that tells a story.” When asked what that story is, he responded, “We in California have the best products, and wonderful produce, some of which is grown within sight of the resort. It changes with the seasons, and so does what we do with it.”
Since each restaurant chef has some autonomy in their kitchens, could they order some ingredients on their own, perhaps a cheese they had particularly enjoyed? Yes, Andrew said, but there’s a process.
“We look at the product, we taste it together and then begin the conversation of how much we need, and if it’s a seasonal item, how long we can have it. Then we come to the different ways to utilize it. If there’s one item in particular that a chef loves, we share that product in other areas. We look at the versatility of the product, and how we can create those stories and enhance that experience.”
Collaborative thinking is not usual in the culinary world, though some renowned chefs are notorious for being control freaks, and even bullies. It seems likely that Vaughan’s even temperament and relationship building probably had something to do with getting his current job. He didn’t say that in as many words, but his account of how he rose through the ranks makes it appear likely.
“I developed a strong relationship with Chef Bernard while working under his leadership, which led me to Mar’Sel. I developed relationships while I was there with the chefs at the other restaurants, the sales team, the guests, and the other management and leaders. Terranea has over 900 employees, and I see 600 to 700 of those employees daily, whether we have a close working relationship or just in the hallways. Seeing what everyone does enabled me to run a successful restaurant. It was a gratifying step when I was invited to lead the entire culinary program when Chef Bernard decided to leave. He was an extraordinary mentor for me. I was always by his side, learning from him and sharing what the mission of Terranea is, providing an exceptional experience on a culinary level for all the restaurants.”
Vaughan regards himself as “exceptionally good at multitasking,” which is an asset in his position. He credits his time at Mar’Sel with preparing him for this job.
“In this post I work with all of the restaurants at the same time to achieve our mission. Understanding the minutiae of working in one restaurant is a great classroom for running them all. From the moment I wake up, it’s what are we going to do today, what are we going to create? And how can we do it? It involves a lot of forward thinking. I’m by nature very creative; I’m inspired by everyone and everything that is around me.”
Even someone so dedicated needs a respite from work. For Vaughan it’s tennis.
“I try to play once a week. Even so, I truly love what I do, so I feel like there’s not much of a disconnect needed from the job. I make sure I’m mindful of that balance, and take care of myself, make sure to stay healthy, because if I’m not healthy, my team is not healthy. I know when to end my day, and am very conscious of listening to myself and what my needs are.”
has plenty of time to think about those needs, because he commutes from Pasadena. This sounds appalling to those who abhor the freeways, but he prefers it.
“That’s another piece of my why — I love driving. The 45-minute drive to work and a 45-minute drive home are both therapy. It’s how I prepare for my day and reflect on my day.”
The long hours and long commutes might wreak havoc with most relationships, but Vaughan says his is just fine.
“My wife works from home with our two cats. We have clear communication, we’re supportive of one another and our careers. One of the first things I said to her when we were dating was, “You have to understand what I do, the amount of hours that I put into it. It’s an important piece of me and will always be that.” Luckily, she was from the restaurant business as well. To this day, 10 years later, she’s been an incredible team player with me in making that mission possible for both of us. I don’t get many weekend days off, but a Monday or a Tuesday could be just as special as a Saturday. It’s what you do with that time and how you enable that.”
Vaughan is happy with the way the resort’s food service is running, but always looking for ways to make it better.
“I’ve taken over a well-oiled machine, but we’re always looking for new experiences for our guests, how to give them a sense of excitement and delight, but a peaceful escape at the same time. I want them to walk in and be transported to something that’s unique but true to its individual place. We’ll do that through strong customer service, strong ethics of how we’re taking care of people and the food that we’re creating, and making sure everything tastes good.
The Master of Mar’Sel
Fabio Ugoletti is different from Andrew Vaughan in many ways besides his strong Italian accent, and exuberant storytelling. Unlike Vaughan, who worked his way up through the ranks, Fabio hadn’t ever dined at Mar’Sel before he was hired to manage it. He also revels in the fact that he has a short commute, as he can walk to work from his Palos Verdes home.
Fabio was born in Parma, a city near Milan famous for Parmesan cheese, but he spent most of his life in Florence. He learned Italian, and French cooking, and worked at restaurants there, teaching cooking on the side. It was one of his students who started him on a path toward life in America.
“Someone from a South Bay restaurant family, Vince Giuliano, was my student in Italy. He contacted me and said, “I have a restaurant in Southern California. Why don’t you come over and help me to build better things”? I started at their restaurant, Gaetano’s, in Torrance, but everything really worked well so there was nothing to do. I said, “The business works, so leave the business to run.” They opened a new restaurant, Bettolino Kitchen, and I moved here with my family in 2014. We chose to live in Palos Verdes for the school, because my daughters didn’t speak a word of English so we needed a place where the schools are good. I opened Bettolino Kitchen and stayed there for three years.”
Cooking for Americans is different from catering to Italian tastes, as Fabio was to find out.
“Americans have a salad and a main course, that’s it. In Italy, we usually have three, four courses so you have more opportunity to impress people. Maybe the first is not your favorite, but the second one, or third one is going to be great. When you have just one opportunity, if you do wrong, that is difficult to recover from. Also, there are some things that Italians love that Americans don’t have as much of a taste for. Anchovies, for instance, and tripe. It’s hard to sell, but I cook tripe for myself at times.”
There were compensations, such as the inexhaustible supply of good produce.
“The quality of the vegetables in Southern California, it’s great. In California, there is nothing to complain about. You can find the best all year so it is a paradise. When I leave here, I miss avocados – in Italy they’re impossible to find. There is no day since I’m here that I don’t eat an avocado.”
After opening Bettolino Kitchen, Fabio cooked at several places, including Cecconi’s in West Hollywood, where he chafed at the inflexible tastes of their clientele.
“It was very difficult to change anything because their customers want to find the same plates all the time. People think West Hollywood is more eclectic or dynamic, but when I tried to change anything, people complained. I could improve the quality and the consistency, but I only added one or two plates on the menu in five years.”
When he arrived at Mar’Sel this spring, he was delighted at the creative freedom.
“We are free to change whatever we want; at least that was the communication when I arrived here. Even so, there are things we keep on the menu, for example, the beef filet that is the best seller. I could not remove that item, but I changed it a little. We are using meat from mature animals, which has more flavor, and for the ribeye I changed from dry aged meat to American Wagyu. We have made many little changes, creating more balance on the plates, adding more fish, and also lamb that has received a good reaction.”
When asked if there are challenges to cooking for a resort restaurant with a global clientele, Fabio waxed philosophical.
“Anyone has a culinary culture that shapes your tastes. I grew up with my family, my school, my city, my experiences. You have some comfort foods sometimes when you feel down, or you have a kind of nostalgia. But in general, there is good food everywhere. When you travel, as many people do who dine here, you have to find not the food that you know you like, but what you like in the food they serve. I think most of our customers know this.”
I wondered if Fabio had put food from Parma on the menu, and he admitted that there might be a few childhood influences.
“Almost every dish from Parma involves Parmesan and prosciutto. We serve a filet stuffed with Parmesan cheese, and prosciutto, and this is very old style, very classic. But the most iconic plate in Parma is the tortelli, the big ravioli with spinach and parmesan cheese and butter. In Parma there are three versions, one savory with ricotta, and spinach, one with butternut squash. The third is called tortelli dolci, made with a mixture of plums. It’s less common, but it’s a very old style from the days when there was no distinction between sweet and savory courses in a meal. The idea to put the sweet food at the end of a meal is modern, but in the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, there was no difference.”
All the same, Fabio said he couldn’t disconnect his cooking style from his heritage, nor would he want to.
“I’m Italian, I can’t deny this. And you can probably see that on my menu and on my approach to food, because Italians give priority to the ingredients. When you have a good product, the less you touch it or change it, sometimes it’s better. That’s the Italian way to think, but Mar’Sel is not an Italian restaurant. It’s something more open, and I like that. An Italian restaurant can become kind of a cage because you always have to stay with the same ingredients, the same menu. You have to have fried calamari, veal Milanese or veal parmigiana, but here we keep the topic open.”
Fabio’s tastes may be Italian, with all the obsession with food that comes with it, but his daughters have not inherited it.
“I have two daughters, 14 and 10, and my younger one is going to Lunada Bay in fifth grade and my other one’s starting eighth grade at Peninsula. Neither has any interest in cooking. They don’t give any importance to eating, it’s just something that you have to do, they don’t really have a passion for food. In Italy, we say that the sons of the cobblers go around with holes in their shoes. And this is what happened here.
Also, my wife Francesca has nothing to do with this business. She’s a teacher of language, mainly Italian, French, and Russian. I’m happy to have a family that is not so connected with restaurants so when I’m finished work, I go home and nobody talks about food. This is kind of useful because you have to be able to disconnect from your work, from your problems, from everything that’s connected to business. Francesca and I are together for over 20 years, and that is rare for a chef. And to work in a place like this, gives me an opportunity, gives her the opportunity. We are only open at night, so during the morning, I can take care of our daughters. She can do something different than just stay home with children and take care of family. And this was one of my priorities. I need time at home with my family, with daughters, and she needs to come out for a professional life. I think it’s part of the balance.” Pen