July/August 2012 by Chef Katie Averill
Walking into Lucca Cafe in Irvine is a breath of fresh air. The big spread of cheeses and authentic Italian meats that appear on first sight let you know that this place is the real deal. This is Irvine’s top spot for deli takeout when you do not have time to dine. This is not spaghetti and lasagna Italian; it is wild Branzino and Burrata Italian. A business lunch crowd packs Lucca; after seven years in operation, the community knows the food is exceptional.
Chef/owner Cathy is incredibly passionate about cooking. In a profession packed with the jaded, there is nothing but creativity, enthusiasm and a keen sense of humor emanating from her.
She has a unique style of managing the kitchen (I will borrow this) in that she makes her cooks responsible for their dishes from start to finish. You will not find a prep cook chopping onions for eight hours a day who dreads getting out of bed in the morning, but a staff inspired to create the next dish better than the last and better than the one the cook beside him (or her) made. Cathy has a 50/50 split of females to males in the kitchen which is very rare; she appreciates a feminine touch.
This chef has made two restaurants out of one at Lucca. While lunch is bright and bustling with local business traffic, dinner is a romantic destination perfect for “date night”. The menu changes radically as well, from casual Bistro during the day to fine dining at night. Asking Cathy to pick her favorite dish is like asking her to pick her favorite child. At first, it is the butternut squash with spinach and a touch of chili heat, and then it is raviolini aperti, an open faced ravioli with a full breast of chicken and pesto.
How do you decide between the two? I don’t know; I had both!
Chef Cathy still uses her grandma’s recipes that she “had every Sunday of her life”. Chef speaks lovingly of her grandmother who came to America in 1929. In true chef style, Grandma would cook Sunday dinner with whatever ingredients she was given by the attending family members. Luckily, some were farmers and others imported fish at San Pedro. Carrying on the tradition, Cathy does “Sunday Supper” two times a month an early family style dinner made with extra love. It usually has a theme and is paired with wines. Recently she had WWJD (What Would Julia Do?). You can’t beat that.
This is Cathy’s second career. She was an architect for over twenty years. Many of the skills she used as an architect she now applies literally to cooking even the terminology which makes her staff laugh. As she sees it, architectural design is very similar to plate design. While she designed buildings she would consider the opposing or surrounding structures and ponder, “Do they talk to each other?” Chef Cathy does the same with each dish, asking her staff whether each food item talks to the other on the same plate.
Chef Cathy attended cooking boot camp at the Culinary Institute of America instead of going the traditional cooking school route she already had enough degrees under her belt. She did pay her dues by starting at the bottom in a restaurant, but knew when it was time to open her own place.
Cathy’s kind heart shines through when I ask her what I should know about Lucca. She says her dedicated staff doesn’t get the credit they deserve. She’s misty eyed as she tells of the loyalty she sees from them and how she appreciates that they make it a place she wants to come to every day.
Look for EAT STREET coming Summer 2012! [email protected]
Chef Cathy Palvos shares the secrets of a summertime special, a Grilled Vegetable Platter, as seen on the cover of the July/August 2012 Issue of Great Taste Magazine.
6507 Quail Hill Parkway
Irvine, CA 92603
Mon-Fri 11:00 am – 2:00 pm, 4:00 – 9:00 pm
Sat-Sun 9:30 am – 2:00 pm, 4:00 – 9:00 pm
WHAT FIRST INTERESTED YOU IN THE HOSPITALITY INDUSTRY?
That would have to be the long hours and the big bucks! Okay, kidding there, I have always liked to cook and have cooked for family and friends for years before I got into the biz.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST HOSPITALITY JOB?
McDonald’s in the early 70’s I was the first grill woman at the company-owned McDonalds in Huntington Beach.
IF NOT A CHEF, WHAT WOULD YOU BE?
Well, I was an architect and a college professor (I taught design and history for 25 years) before becoming a chef. I think that if I weren’t a chef, I would probably be a professor again, maybe in the culinary arts this time.
1ST COOKING OR FOOD-RELATED MEMORY?
Cooking with my Grandma when I was about 4 years old, all of the Sunday Suppers in the late 50’s and early 60’s. My job was to set the table for 40 of our closest friends and relatives.
BIGGEST MYTH ABOUT WORKING IN THE KITCHEN?
They make it look so easy on TV. This is not, I repeat, not a job for the faint of heart. It is hard work: you get dirty, you sweat, you get lost in the onslaught of tickets, and there’s a lot of swearing….most of it in English.
FAVORITE KITCHEN GADGET OR TOOL?
My blow torch from Ace Hardware.