Twelve culinary artists leaving their mark on the Utah food scene
We all need to eat. Along with that basic need comes a more modern craving for food prepared by a chef, even if we know we could cook something similar at home. Hungry humans seek instant gratification.
There is, in fact, a growing obsession with food, as witnessed by the explosion of TV food networks and competitions, online restaurant reviews, cooking classes, magazines such as this one, food blogs and festivals. This food awakening both in the U.S. and Utah means that diners expect better-than-average restaurant fare. Food criticism is now instant and viral if diners are disappointed. But if chefs do their job well, they are respected and honored—in some cases to the point of celebrity—having their own TV shows and restaurant chains.
So, how is a chef so different from just any ol’ cook?
For starters, a chef has undergone training. They attend cooking institutes and colleges, but they also learn by apprenticing with an experienced chef. A chef masters all aspects of food preparation and, like a doctor, can specialize. They not only master cooking skills but create menus, oversee food preparation and direct the meal’s presentation.
A chef depends on a system of organization to get food orders out promptly and cohesively. That’s why, in large kitchens such as those in hotels and large restaurants, you’ll find cooks with French-sounding titles. They’re using the French brigade system that relegates authority to the chef and his or her second in command, the sous-chef.
Reporting to the sous-chef are cooks in charge of sauces, meats, fish, salads, soups and fried foods. Often, there’s also a pastry chef in charge of desserts. The success of a restaurant depends on the chef leading a unified and skilled team.
Still, many of our favorite eateries in Utah tend to be Mom & Pops. The chef is often the owner who wears many hats and hires cooks who follow set recipes. The food-service industry remains a place where dedicated and talented cooks can rise to the top without a degree.
What follows are 12 local chefs who’ve intrigued the Devour staff for one reason or another. Some have unique jobs while others are new to the scene, new to their restaurants or working in a new role for their organization. Their stories help us appreciate the creative imaginations and deft skill sets behind the unforgettable cuisine we enjoy at their tables.
A traditional chef’s uniform includes a hat (called a toque), neckerchief, double-breasted jacket, apron and a protective pair of clogs (let’s face it: sharp/hot/heavy objects have been known to fall on the floor).
The toque, in a style dating back to the 16th century, is designed to keep hair from falling into the food while cooking. The height of the hat often showed one’s rank in the kitchen.
Toques in formal kitchens typically are tall, white, starched and pleated. The hat’s pleats are said to signify a chef’s experience and/or mastery of a technique or recipe. A hundred pleats could mean the chef knows a hundred ways to cook an egg.
Types of Chefs from French Brigade System
The hierarchy of the kitchen brigade system is used in restaurants and hotels that employ a large staff
Chef de cuisine (executive chef, head chef, master chef): Creates menu, manages kitchen staff and operation, oversees inventory.
Sous-chef: Schedules the kitchen staff, substitutes for head chef and fills in as a line cook as needed. Teaches and maintains standards in the kitchen.
Chef de partie: a line cook. In charge of an area in the kitchen.
Commis chef: a basic (or apprentice) chef working under the chef de partie.
Saucier (sauté chef): In charge of sautéed items and their sauces. Kind of the top dog.
Poissonnier (fish chef): Prepares fish dishes, butchers the fish and makes fish sauces.
Rôtisseur (roast chef): Cooks roasted and braised meats and appropriate sauces.
Grillardin (grill chef): Grills foods.
Friturier (fry chef): Prepares foods cooked in oils or other animal fats.
Entremetier (entrée preparer): Cooks hot appetizers (and sometimes soups, vegetables, pastas and starches).
Potager (soup chef): Soup maker.
Légumier (vegetable chef): Prepares vegetables.
Garde manger (pantry chef): In charge of salads, cold appetizers, pâtés and charcuterie.
Boucher (butcher): Cuts meats, fowl and sometimes fish.
Pâtissier (pastry chef): Bakes pastries, cakes, breads and desserts.
Have a Passion
Manoli Katsanevas & Katrina Cutrubus Chef/Pastry Chef/Owners
by Mikey Saltas
In three years’ time, partners Manoli Katsanevas and Katrina Cutrubus have taken Manoli’s Restaurant from a shared vision to a robust dining scene. Katsanevas and Cutrubus are known for infusing traditional Greek recipes with their own flair and style.
“Greek culture is all about hospitality,” Katsanevas says, “and that’s what we’re going for.”
Katsanevas also strives to foster a creative environment because they relish the challenge of transforming old favorites. “Sometimes, we’ll look in a Greek recipe book and say, ‘I haven’t tried that in awhile. How can we change it and elevate it?’” he says.
Trained in the culinary arts at Salt Lake Community College, Katsanevas grew up in the industry, working at Crown Burgers, his family’s business, starting at age 13. “I loved it,” he says, “and from there, I knew I wanted to do fine dining—something with more cooking involved.”
Cutrubus, who serves as a pastry chef and wine expert for Manoli’s, recalls her first date with Katsanevas. “He told me he wanted to start a restaurant,” Cutrubus says.
For this couple, it’s always been about the food. “You never open up a restaurant to be rich,” Katsanevas says, noting that, for him, there were three other factors: “One, you have a passion for it. Two, you want to pay the bills. Three, you want to give back.”
Cutrubus says their goal is to tap into their customers’ comfort zones and sense of nostalgia. They want their dishes to make someone think, “‘Oh, that flavor reminds me of my time in Greece or in Spain or my parents’ house,’” she says.
For those who haven’t yet tasted Manoli’s cuisine, “You gotta go meze [small-plate] style,” Katsanevas says. “We have entrées, but I think our best dishes are our octopus, lamb riblets and our yemista [stuffed peppers]. Our seafood is something what we’re really good at, too.”
Cutrubus notes Manoli’s is one of few local eateries featuring specialty Greek wines, such as Kir-Yianni or the Boutari. As for dessert, she says “try the mestika (housemade ice cream) or loukoumades (Greek scones) and a Greek coffee.”
402 E. 900 South, SLC
On The Cutting-Edge
Katie Weinner Chef/Owner
by Darby Doyle
Katie Weinner has built a career around her two great loves: creating out-of-the-box molecular gastronomy and spending as much time as she can in the great outdoors. She attended the Northwest Culinary Academy in Canada’s British Columbia, drawn by its reputation as a chef-run school where she immersed herself in Vancouver’s legendarily diverse food scene.
“I tried more varieties of international cuisine in that city than I’d ever experienced before,” Weinner says.
After working at Tahoe’s famed Plumpjack Café, Weinner joined the coast-to-coast guerrilla pop-up Mist Project as head development chef.
In 2012, this experience inspired SLC Pop and Nata Gallery, where at each event she plated 10-plus courses, each with cutting-edge elements. Her envelope-pushing style garnered an invitation to compete in Season 12 of Top Chef in Boston.
Since 2014, Weinner has split her time between Montana (she’s a chef for a fly-fishing lodge) and Utah, where the Red Moose Café in Sugar House has become her go-to spot for monthly experimental multi-course pop-up dinners and seasonal Red Moose After Dark: her no-reservations dine-in (or take-out) spins on international comfort food—like Sri Lankan curries, poutine “nachos,” or hearty vegan mushroom miso ramen–all priced under $15.
“It’s the stuff I want to eat,” Weinner says. Her website features her current schedule and locations.
SLC Pop and Red Moose After Dark
Peter Hodgson Executive Chef
by Carolyn Campbell
Peter Hodgson, certified executive chef (CEC), is one of the city’s most decorated chefs. In 2011, he was one of 20 chefs in the nation inducted in to the American Academy of Chefs (AAC), the honor society of the American Culinary Federation. He was further honored in 2017 with the ACF’s Cutting Edge Award.
A kitchen veteran since 1966, Hodgson says it was his first chef employer who inspired him. “He could transform any food into a ‘wow effect.’” The oldest of nine children, Hodgson also admired his mom’s kitchen know-how. “She was a little Irish lady who could really cook—she made big casseroles and bread,” he says.
Now, as executive chef for the University of Utah’s Chartwells Dining Services, he’s responsible for all university catering as well as feeding students and athletes.
He’s also a chef mentor for ProStart, a nationally accredited program providing high schoolers with a food-service education. “They learn basic cooking techniques, food safety and recipe development. Any student who completes the program will be fast-tracked to any culinary program in the country,” Hodgson says. He accompanied students from two Utah high schools who won local competitions to ProStart’s national invitational in April. He views his participation as a way of giving back.
Hodgson served on a team that spent six weeks planning a buffet in honor of Queen Elizabeth’s visit to his native Canberra, Australia, for the 1988 opening of Parliament House.
In 2016, after suffering six blood clots in his lungs, he began making the switch to a more vegan diet. “I have a new love of vegetables and plant-based foods,” he says.
He suggests reversing the ratio of 70 percent protein and 30 percent vegetables served by most restaurants. Hodgson also recommends applying meat-cooking methods to vegetables—such as grilling, poaching and sautéing. “Take a whole beet and put it in the rotisserie for a charbroiled effect,” he says. “Roast a lemon and squeeze it over vegetables—and meat.”
University of Utah Chartwells Dining Services
200 Central Campus Drive, No. 30, SLC
Joey Ferran Head Chef
by Heather L. King
Talking to chef Joey Ferran tells you a lot about the man behind the dynamic small-plates dinner menu at Cucina Wine Bar. Just a few bites of his dishes tells you more. Ferran is both passionate and studious about layered textures and tastes that celebrate individual ingredients.
He credits much of his skills to the teachings of Log Haven executive chef Dave Jones, whom he worked under as a sous-chef for nearly a decade. “I learned the most about building flavors and how to create recipes from Dave, so a lot of my recipes come from his standard,” Ferran says. You can see a lot of what he taught me in my food.”
Yet, in just two short years, Ferran has made a name for himself at Cucina with inventive interpretations of Pacific Rim flavors—whether it be the 30-ingredient mole rojo paired with braised and charred Spanish octopus, or the use of raw cacao to add depth to the fruity flavors at work in his tandoori-spiced Australian lamb chops.
But the ever-changing housemade pasta is the one dish that most represents Ferran’s talents. He discovered an Imperia pasta roller at Cucina on his first day and fresh pasta has been on the menu ever since. “The pasta gets the most attention because that’s what my staff and I work on to highlight the best and freshest ingredients,” he explains. Changing once or twice a week, diners can enjoy robust offerings like the earthy guajillo tagliatelle with plump shrimp, freeze-dried corn, foraged wild mustard greens and a delicate sake and ginger beurre blanc sauce.
In short, he concludes, “We love our food here! Half the fun is making it.” —Heather L. King
Cucina Wine Bar
1026 E. Second Ave., SLC
Keeping It Simple
Justin Soelberg Executive Chef/Owner
by Levi Rogers
Chef Justin Soelberg finally has a home.
The chef who originally hails from Boise, Idaho, and spent several nomadic years bouncing between SLC, Chicago, Provo, Boise and Manhattan (attending the French Culinary Institute), finally has an abode and restaurant to call his own—named, appropriately, Nomad Eatery, which opened in late 2017.
Soelberg’s worked at some of Utah’s top restaurants including Communal, Pago, Café Niche, and HSL, and he also helped open Avenues Proper, Proper Burger and Pizza Nono.
The last two, in particular, helped showcase Soelberg’s philosophy of cooking and the culture of Nomad. “Simple,” he says. “Four or five ingredients. I like stuff that’s in my face. If I’m gonna eat celery, I want to know that I’m eating celery. I want something with a punch. … I have 20 things on my menu, and I’m happy with all of them.”
Nomad is, in many ways, modeled after chefs Soelberg looks up to, like David Chang and Danny Meyer, and is similar to SLC’s latest fast-casual hot chicken restaurant, Pretty Bird. Soelberg’s simple and casual ethos is a very welcome addition to Salt Lake and Utah’s growing food scene (which can often get quite pricey). Look for his impression on the scene with his signature zucchini pickles, beet salad or his popular spicy chicken sandwich at Nomad.
“Everywhere I’ve been in town, I’ve left a little bit of myself,” Soelberg says, “And now, I’ve gathered it all here.”
2110 W. North Temple, SLC
Works of Edible Art
Amber Billingsley, Pastry Chef at Stanza Italian Bistro & Wine Bar and Current Fish & Oyster
by Heather L. King
Award-winning pastry chef Amber Billingsley’s life is richly layered with sweet surprises.
Originally a journalist by trade, Billingsley began working in the restaurant industry at Oasis Café, where she eventually learned to make commercial-quality pastries under Jared Young—a man she considers one of her greatest mentors in the culinary world. It was also there that she met her husband, chef Robert Angelilli, who, in turn, introduced her to the professional Carpigiani gelato machine that’s brought her fame and acclaim in Utah.
Renowned for her sweet and savory gelato creations beginning at Vinto and continuing on at 3 Cups and Amour Café, Billingsley fell in love with the medium because it’s “so receptive to immediate gratification as far as flavor and experimentation,” she says. “If I get inspiration for a new recipe, I can just spin that into gelato and 20 minutes later, it’s there—that’s when I get excited.”
Now, 18 years after her culinary career began in the kitchen at Oasis, she’s returned to The LaSalle Group as the master of desserts at both Stanza Italian Bistro & Wine Bar and Current Fish & Oyster. Further honing her magical touch with flour, sugar, butter and cream, Billingsley is focusing full time on her true love—desserts—as she continues to transform mere ingredients into delicious works of edible art for everyone to enjoy.
Stanza Italian Bistro & Wine Bar
454 E. 300 South
Current Fish & Oyster
279 E. 300 South
France Meats Italy
Sebastian Lowrey Executive Chef
by Aimee L. Cook
Sebastian Lowrey joined Spencer’s for Steak and Chops as executive chef in May 2017. Before moving to Utah, he spent four years as executive chef at Piatti Restaurant in Mill Valley, Calif.
Lowrey studied at The Culinary School of the Rockies in Boulder, Colo., which is a classical French-based school. During school and immediately after, he apprenticed under a French chef who owned a restaurant in downtown Boulder. There, he says, he learned early on to handle criticism and learn from it.
Chef Lowrey prides himself on creating timeless meals, ones that do not necessarily follow a trend, but which sustain cravings. Passionate about aging, curing and smoking meats, he’s an expert butcher, excited to add his signature dry-aged steaks and house-cured meats to the restaurant’s charcuterie boards.
While Lowrey creates dishes with a French flare, his roots are Italian, having learned to cook from his mother who is originally from the Campobasso Mountains of southern Italy. After spending time at Green Gulch Farm, the oldest organic farm on the coast of California, Lowrey has a passion for cooking from scratch and creating flavors and unique dishes using local ingredients.
At any given time, you’ll find something quite imaginative on the menu, such as slab bacon with peanut butter, blackberry jam and spiced almond brittle.
He aspires to be known for giving an identity to the place he works. He finds inspiration from chefs Tim Raue and Gabrielle Hamilton and strives to leave a legacy sharing what he’s learned by passing it on to others.
Spencer’s for Steaks and Chops
255 S. West Temple, SLC
We Are the Revolution
Michael Richey Head Chef/Owner
by Brian Fryer
Trained in the northern California ethos of farm-to-table dining, chef Michael Richey keeps it real on Regent Street.
At a time when buzzwords like “sustainable” and “local” are thrown around the restaurant world sometimes very loosely, Richey and his team at Fireside on Regent, tucked behind the Eccles Theater in downtown Salt Lake City, walk the talk right down to the fruit wood from Santaquin they burn in their pizza oven.
Working with local producers like Frog Bench, Sand Hill and M&M Farms, and hand-crafting pastas, sausages and hand-pulled mozzarella cheese, Richey’s sleek but cozy bistro stands in stark contrast to downtown food-factory chains.
“I want the produce to speak for itself,” Richey says, and later boldly texts, “We make everything in house. We are the revolution. We sustain the sustainability!”
Originally from Buffalo, N.Y., Richey graduated from college but is among numerous chefs who bypassed culinary school. He was passionate about food, went to work in restaurants and learned from great teachers. Richey was chef de cuisine at the Tree Room at Sundance in the late 1990s before moving to San Francisco where he was immersed in the locally produced, sustainable food philosophy of the area cultivated by chef icons such as Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower.
Among his stints in the Bay Area, Richey was sous-chef at the renowned Foreign Cinema in the Mission District, and he opened Pico Pizzeria in Larkspur across the bay in the Marin County town of Larkspur. “I was very lucky to find the people I did and work where I worked,” he says. Upon returning to Utah, he opened Pago with Scott Evans and helmed the kitchen there for three years before lighting his fire on Regent Street.
Fireside on Regent
126 S. Regent St., SLC
Spice Kitchen Hatchlings
Kamal & Geeta Niroula Owner/Chefs
by Jen Hill
Kamal and Geeta Niroula’s story originates Bhutan, a tiny country nestled among the towering Himalayas between two powerful neighbors. Bhutan pioneered the concept of gross national happiness and is known as the world’s most “carbon-negative” country, meaning it sucks up three times the CO2 emissions that its population of 700,000 produces.
Their scene then shifts to Nepal, where the couple endured a 20-year layover in a refugee camp. Seven years later, they miraculously arrived in a mountainous region on different continent, a place called Utah, which they now call home.
Once in the United States, Kamal and Geeta acted on a vision for their family and took the opportunity to sign up with the Spice Kitchen Incubator program, where they became “foodpreneurs” in the truest sense.
Self-taught and wanting the best for their family, their persistence and dedication led them to highlight the remarkable culinary influences of Bhutan, Nepal and India as the owners of Bhutan House Restaurant. From their ema datshi—a chile and cheese stew considered the national dish of Bhutan—to their freshly made cheese paneer and yogurt, the menu reflects their own personal Himalayan journey. Their curries, momos, steamed dumplings, chow chow noodles, tandoori naan, traditional chutneys and cucumber yogurt-based raita deliver all the right notes with beautifully crafted spice blends.
After establishing a catering business, the Niroulas opened their Sandy restaurant in September 2017. Greatly influenced by her parents, Geeta always had a natural affinity for cooking and continually challenged herself to master traditional methods and recipes. With Geeta’s guidance, Kamal was able to learn from his wife and has himself stepped into the kitchen. He additionally gained restaurant smarts from working at Bombay House. Their two daughters, Kiki and Srijana, work as hosts and managing the business. Most days, the Niroula family works tirelessly from dawn until late evening.
Kamal and Geeta have a young son as well, but he prefers to kick around on his scooter in the strip-mall parking lot, not yet fully mindful of his family’s incredible journey to get here.
Bhutan House Restaurant
1241 E. 8600 South, Sandy
Jeanie Wilcox Jensen & Jennie Jensen Christensen Ranch Chefs /Dude Food Wranglers
by Darby Doyle
“We can’t just run to town if we are out of something,” Jeanie Wilcox Jensen (above, right) says of her careful meal planning at remote Tavaputs Ranch. Even with ideal road conditions, the closest store to her family-owned 10,000-acre cattle ranching operation in southeast Utah is almost two hours away, and the nearest hospital 45 minutes—by helicopter. But these considerations are second nature to mother-daughter cooking team Jensen and Jennie Jensen Christensen, who, during the June-September season, serve three delicious buffet-style meals a day for up to 35 guests, a dozen ranch cowboys and—when fires scorched the plateau in recent years—300-plus wildland firefighters.
They also pack up countless lunches to-go daily for guests who venture out on guided activities at the ranch, from wildlife sightseeing to archaeological tours led in collaboration with the Natural History Museum of Utah. Christensen bakes treats from-scratch daily in the ranch kitchen, producing a decadent bounty of serve-yourself brownies, cakes and cookies to accompany a steaming cup of ranch coffee on a chilly afternoon.
Not surprisingly, beef is often the star of the menu, from steaks and roasts to the occasional Rocky Mountain Oyster breakfast fry-up.
Jensen’s ancestors started ranching in the area in 1887, and Christensen’s young sons represent the seventh generation of cattle ranchers to work this isolated plateau perched thousands of feet above Desolation Canyon. A haven for hunters and recreationists since the 1950s, Tavaputs is one of the oldest guest ranches in the state.
Over the years, guests requested recipes from Jensen’s mother, Jeanette Wilcox, so often that Jensen helped her assemble a collection of favorite recipes. This Dude Food recipe book has now gone through two publishing runs with a third edition in the works.
P.O. Box 1736, Price
Landing In New Spaces
Jen Gilroy Chef/Owner
by Levi Rogers
Originally hailing from Vernal, Utah, Meditrina’s Jen Gilroy cut her teeth in the Nashville food scene while learning, as she calls it, at “the school of hard knocks.” Gilroy, a self-taught chef, moved back to Utah and worked at Red Rock Brewing Co. for a couple of years. She then opened Meditrina (named for the Greek goddess of wine and healing)—one of Utah’s original small-plates restaurants—and eventually opened Porch in the South Jordan/Daybreak area.
Gilroy says she was inspired to open Meditrina—situated initially on West Temple and now in a new location on 900 South near Blue Copper and Water Witch—as a neighborhood restaurant that serves small plates because “that’s what I like to eat.” As for her new location in the Central Ninth neighborhood, “It honestly hasn’t been the easiest transition,” she says, but “I love moving into up- and-coming areas.”
Gilroy says her style of cooking is “bold, Southern comfort food,” but the entire menu exemplifies her approach to fresh comfortable cooking, like with the Korean barbecue pork belly, mushrooms & Brie, and shrimp & grits.
Her weekly specials—such as Tapas Tuesday, Wine Wednesday, weekend brunch with $3 mimosas as well as lunch specials and a Utah Happy Hour featuring three dishes for $10—attract a loyal following. Porch offers similar Southern comfort fare but with more traditional entrées in an upscale, comfortable setting.
165 W. 900 South, SLC
11274 Kestrel Rise Road South Jordan
Chefs & Brothers
Danny & Adolfo Nunez
by Eleni Saltas
Danny Nunez (below, left) and his younger brother, Adolfo, grew up in a farm town outside of Zacatecas City, located in north-central Mexico. Dining out was rare for the Nunez family, so they learned to cook using fresh farm ingredients in their mother’s kitchen.
The two are now chefs at Layton’s Café Sabor, a Mexican restaurant with six locations in Utah and Idaho. Chef Carlos Villpulta originally developed recipes for Cafe Sabor in Logan 16 years ago. Reflecting the cuisine of several regions—such as Durango, Veracruz and Northern Calisto—the offerings are not what you’d expect to find at traditional Mexican-American restaurants.
Danny was hired at Café Sabor’s Bear Lake location in 2002, first as a dishwasher and then as a server. He worked his way up the kitchen lines to became sous chef under Villpulta and also under chef Jose Martinez, eventually becoming Bear Lake’s head chef. Danny’s outgoing personality meant he could teach others while helping with community outreach.
Brother Adolfo followed, training under Danny and becoming a head chef himself in 2012. Working side by side in the Layton restaurant, the brothers have learned to adapt to the pressures of working with fresh produce, meats and spices. All the sauces are made each morning, the meats are cooked onsite each day.
They acknowledge that with six restaurants, consistency is a challenge, not only in maintaining the flavorful cuisine Café Sabor is known for but also because certain communities have strong food preferences, and that means chefs need to adjust. “We love to make people muy happy!” the brothers say in unison.
In the meantime, two other Nunez brothers now work for Café Sabor, making it a true family affair.
200 S. Main, Layton