Alex Castillo is known widely as The Restaurant Sitter. Known to be associated with numerous restaurants throughout town, his Midas touch is the much sought after ingredient to a recipe for successful restaurants. He is the man behind the remodeling at Jo’s, the homey comfort of El Cazador del Mar and the ambiance at Lucky’s. Walk into a restaurant and ask any employee if they know Castillo and the chances are they will. A third generation restaurateur, his affable demeanor is one of hospitality and warmth which conveys a certainty of knowledge that can only come with experience. After spending the better part of seven years as Executive Chef of the Wine Cask, Gene Montesano asked him to oversee the development of his various restaurants including Tre Lune, in Montecito, Bucattini, D’Angelo’s Bakery and café. Mr. Castillo attributes his good will and standing to a strong desire to see and make people happy and hopes to continue to do so for years to come.
Deep inside Opal Restaurant and bar, Executive Chef Filipe Barajas works painstakingly to achieve culinary perfection. From the Grilled Chicken Scallopini to the Dark Chocolate Callebout filled with Dark and White Chocolate Mousse on Fresh Raspberry Coulis, everything on the Opal menu is made fresh and in-house, sauces and bread included. Due to this unique approach, food is fresher and prices are lower at Opal. The kitchen works as a team, but as proprietor Tina Takaya put it, “Filipe has it in here,” pointing to her heart. Filipe enjoys working with his two brothers in the kitchen and takes pride in his work, saying he doesn’t let egos interfere with what is going on in the kitchen and when they see something that needs to be done, they simply do it. Filipe, who was trained by Chef Robert Schultz, says he’s happy at Opal due to the fact that they treat the employees really well. “It makes a big difference.” And it shows.
Fresco has been a Santa Barbara tradition for twelve years now. Known for its high quality Italian food, this Santa Barbara hot spot has earned a reputation for being good food at a good price. Marco Antonio is one of the many men and women that make this happen. Open six days a week, Antonio works five of those, four of them being double shifts. But the work load doesn’t daunt him. “I love Fresco,” he says. “It’s like home.” He attributes his admiration for the restaurant to the good managerial staff and the family-like environment and the freedom to cook as he chooses. “I particularly like the difficult items. I take pride in my work and it feels rewarding when I make, say, a Brown Butter and Sage Ravioli dish that comes-out just excellent.”
That sizzling New York with perfect grill lines is the epitome of classic American cuisine. Lucky’s is known far and wide for having some of the best steaks around, and Rene Gonzalez is the man behind the scenes making it happen. Rene attributes his desire to be an outstanding chef to his grandmother, who owns a small restaurant in Puebla, Mexico. After coming to Santa Barbara in 1997, Rene studied the culinary program at Santa Barbara City College and has since then cooked at El Cazador and Lucky’s. His goal is to own his own fine dining restaurant someday and if his steaks are any indication of his future success, he’ll do just fine.
To look at Roberto Lopez is to see a man well-groomed, athletic, handsome and confident, yet humble. To speak with him, is to speak with someone who is surprisingly eloquent for not being a native English speaker. And to dine in his restaurant, is to have an experience unlike any other.
Roberto is a warm and welcoming man, who, eighteen months ago was asked to take over the reins as executive chef of El Cazador Restaurant and Bar as Executive Chef. His place of work is locally known as a hot spot for delicious, authentic, fresh Mexican food at a fair price, and a tequila menu like no other. Currently boasting over 129 types of tequila alongside four Mescal’s (tequila’s oft forgotten step-brother), El Cazador has its niche well cut-out. The restaurant may not be the best known spot in town, but Roberto wouldn’t have it any other way. “We want to be a local spot,” he said. “There are a lot of Mexican restaurants here, so it’s really challenging to be different. Mexican food by nature is very simple so we don’t dress it up much. We focus, instead, on the flavor.”
After sampling the guacamole and noting that it is sure to become locally famous (as outstanding as it is), I took Roberto aside and asked him simply, “What makes El Cazador special?” What he related was this: “When I was first asked to work here, I saw our prep cooks making things – traditional Mexican dishes, just like many other restaurants out there. When I asked them, ‘Is this how you make this at home?’ they replied that ‘No, this is how I was told to make it here.’ I put an end to that. I told them, ‘make it like you’re making it at home. Make it like you’re making it for family.’ And they do. And when you’re there, it shows.
Seraphin Ruiz, Blue Agave’s Executive Chef, works hand-in-hand with owner and proprietor, Neal Crosby to invent wildly original cuisine which they call “California Eclectic with Mexican flare.” Ruiz, after a brief two years cooking in downtown Manhattan, came to Santa Barbara in 1992 and immediately began working at the Wine Cask as assistant souse chef. In 1995, when the incipient Blue Agave was in need of a chef, Crosby knighted Mr. Ruiz as Executive Chef, and there he has been ever since. Ruiz works closely with his two brothers, Javier and Ramiro in the kitchen to produce dishes that have routinely been described by patrons as “best in the land.” Ruiz now contributes roughly fifty percent of new menu ideas which can be found weekly on Blue Agave’s Specials Menu. From the seafood crepes to fresh ahi spring rolls, this menu is not to be missed.