Life is strange. Very few of us actually end up where we plan to go. Rather than battle against the current of life’s ocean, we succumb to its effluence and trust that we will be provided for. Rather than be taken away by the current, Dave Dennis of the Matador Cantina in Fullerton, CA, was submerged well below it exploring the reefs. Dave started out as a scuba instructor and then later plunged himself into a life as an executive chef.
A native of La Habra Chef Dennis originally attended a commercial scuba diving program in Santa Barbara. While in school, he worked as a cook in order to earn money. So he was already used to being in the kitchen. He hoped to become a dive master on a charter boat, but there were not any of those positions available. One of the crew approached him with the opportunity to work as a dead head cook on the boat. This allowed him to keep continually diving and being around boats on the open sea with the opportunity to assume the role of dive master every once in a while. From there he worked as a scuba instructor in the Caribbean Sea splitting his time between Haiti and the Bahamas for one and a half years.
Once his time in the Caribbean had ended, Chef Dennis took his culinary skills to the high seas once again. He worked on a privately owned yacht as a chef. He spent nine months on the boat cooking and fishing with the crew. When the owner was ready to use the boat, Chef Dave and the crew would rendezvous with the owner at an arranged port. Then, when the owner was ready to return to land, Chef and the crew would drop him off and go on their way until called upon again. The yacht travelled mainly from Southern California to the southern part of Mexico on the Pacific Ocean side and all points in between. For the nine months he was not working on the boat, Chef Dave lived in Mascota, Jalisco, Mexico. This time spent in Mexico is where Chef gained much of the Mexican influence and technique shown in his many dishes at the Matador Cantina.
With all of the time spent in the kitchen pursuing his love of diving, Chef Dave soon found another passion; one of cooking. The girl he was dating, the one who would eventually become his wife, was from the Scottsdale, Arizona area, and he found himself in the Scottsdale Culinary Institute cooking full time. His first chef position was at Zen 32 an Asian fusion restaurant in Scottsdale, AZ. Upon graduation he moved on to Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in Phoenix. He then opened a kitchen for a small chain, but discovered the heat and arid climate of Arizona too much to handle for the sea dog in him, so Chef Dave moved back to Southern California.
One day Chef Dennis answered an advertisement on Craig’s List for an Executive Chef. Some owners were opening a restaurant and needed a top-notch chef to help them get their venture off the ground. Chef Dave was their answer. The Matador Cantina offers excellent dishes with a Spanish flare while at the same time exhibiting a global influence due to Chef’s extensive travels and experience. Ever had a Mexican eggroll stuffed with ground beef, cabbage, carrots, and black beans, then slathered in a sweet and spicy chipotle sauce? Or a Mexican inspired seared ahi salad with jicama, tomatoes, and mandarin oranges dressed in a tequila lime sauce? It’s doubtful. But not all of Chef Dennis’ dishes represent a global fusion. He has taken some very traditional Mexican dishes and raised the bar on them with respect to their flavor standards and creativity. One of the signature dishes of the Matador Cantina is a new take on the classic chili relleno. Chicken, Oaxacan cheese, cream cheese, and green chilies are stuffed into a poblano chili, and then the whole thing is crusted with colorful tortilla chips and cooked. A made-from-scratch roasted tomatillo avocado salsa accompanies this dish along with rice and beans. It is not only delicious but also a near work of art. As for the creative, Chef Dave has concocted a sinfully decadent chorizo ravioli dish with chipotle cream sauce. Chorizo…good, ravioli…good, chorizo ravioli…out of this world. And don’t forget about the seafood. A man with his experience both in and on the water should be able to create knockout seafood dishes. With dishes like enchiladas de mariscos, enchiladas stuffed with crab and shrimp or beautiful blackened mahi mahi dish served with a tomatillo avocado sauce and a black bean sauce, he certainly doesn’t disappoint.
Chef Dave is driven by passion and has the experience under his belt to finally have earned the right to design his own menu and run his own restaurant. He admits that chefs must be married to the restaurant for the plan to be successful. This is ideal for him because he loves preparing dishes but also loves the sights, sounds and smells of the kitchen. He runs a small crew in the kitchen, which consists of himself, two cooks and a dishwasher. Those in his kitchen help him with ideas for dishes and they try them out and tweak them to suit the style of their menu. Whenever possible Chef loves to get out on the floor and talk to customers and clientele so that he can continually get feedback on his dishes. Without getting notes on his dishes he would have no way of knowing what things needed improvement or what things are working well.
When he is at home, Chef Dave usually eats Mexican food but when he eats out he enjoys a variety of cuisines. He loves to eat sushi and Vietnamese foods when he dines out. If he were ever to own his own restaurant, Chef Dennis thinks the ideal type of food would be tapas. He loves the idea of having a variety of different dishes to sample. The late-night menu at the Matador Cantina menu works in a similar way to a sushi menu with tapas style food. Grab a pencil and click away. He strives to take ideas from one cuisine or influence and incorporate them into his own dishes and methods. This makes for a unique and delicious dining experience. Located in historic downtown Fullerton, Matador Cantina offers a contemporary, comfortable setting to enjoy one of several signature cocktails while dining on Chef Dave Dennis’ extraordinary Mexican-fusion dishes (sangria braised short ribs anyone?).
To view a few recipes from Chef Dave, please click here
Chef David Dennis
WHAT IS YOUR ANNIVERSARY WITH THIS RESTAURANT? 3/15/09.
WHAT IS THE RESTAURANT’S ANNIVERSARY? 3/15/09.
WHAT ARE THE RESTAURAN’T HOURS? (M-F 11am to 2am) ( Sat Sun 9am to 2am).
AVERAGE NUMBER OF HOURS YOU WORK IN A WEEK? 60.
WHAT IS THE AVERAGE COVER FOR ONE GUEST, INCLUDING BEVERAGE? – Lunch: $ 10 – Dinner: $ 18.
FIRST COOKING OR FOOD-RELATED MEMORY: Making donuts with my mom.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB? Arby’s.
WHAT FIRST INTERESTED YOU IN THE HOSPITALITY INDUSTRY? When I realized it was a way to make people happy.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST HOSPITALITY JOB? Working on live-aboard dive boats.
IF NOT A CHEF, WHAT WOULD YOU BE? A Boat Captain.
FAVORITE KITCHEN GADGET OR TOOL: Immersion Mixer.
FAVORITE KITCHEN APPLIANCE: Robot Coupe Food Processor.
FAVORITE TYPE OF COOKWARE: All Clad.
FAVORITE CONDIMENT/SPICE: Truffle Oil.
MOST RECOMMENDED KITCHEN TOOL & SOURCE (ONLINE OR RETAIL SHOP) FOR HOME KITCHEN: Chef Toys.
MOST RECOMMENDED FOOD INGREDIENT SOURCE (ONLINE OR RETAIL SHOP) FOR FOODIES: Surfas Restaurant Supply in Culver City.
BIGGEST MYTH ABOUT WORKING IN THE KITCHEN: That it is easy.
SIGNATURE OR FAVORITE DISH TO MAKE: Sangria Braised Short Ribs, Other Cuisines worked with: French, Italian, Asian, American, Indian.
HOBBIES: Scuba Diving, Golfing, Skiing, Mountain Biking.
FAVORITE OC RESTAURANT: Landmark Steakhouse.
FAVORITE DISH TO EAT: Anything Sushi.
FAVORITE JUNK FOOD: Cookies.
FAVORITE RAW INGREDIENT: Tuna.
FAVORITE FAST FOOD: In-N-Out Burger.
DO YOU WATCH “FOOD TV”? IF SO, WHICH PROGRAM(S) IS(ARE) YOUR FAVORITE? No reservations & good eats.
CULINARY HERO(ES): Ming Tsai.
WHAT OTHER PUBLICATIONS HAVE YOU BEEN FEATURED IN? Experience, 944, Occ Register, @ Home in Fullerton, Fullerton Chamber of Commerce Dining Guide, InDulge.
YEARS OF CULINARY EDUCATION: 2.
SCHOOL: Scottsdale Culinary Institute.
OTHER EDUCATION: Recreational Diving Degree.
PLACES TRAVELED TO EXPLORE & LEARN ADDITIONAL CUISINES:Mexico, Haiti, Bahamas, Belize, Costa Rica, France, Denmark, Germany, All over the USA including, New Orleans, New York, Alaska, Hawaii, Maryland, etc.
YEARS IN BUSINESS: 15.
WHAT 3 WORDS BEST DESCRIBE YOUR CULINARY STYLE: Fresh, Homemade, Innovative.
PREVIOUS INDUSTRY EMPLOYERS: Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, King’s Fish House, Zan 32, Keegan’s Grill.
111 N Harbor Blvd
Fullerton, CA 92832
Mon-Fri 11:00am – 2pm
Sat-Sun 9:00am – 2pm
Average Cover Including Beverage:
Lunch: $10 Dinner: $18
Chipotle Chicken Chowder
Batch size: 8 gallons
2-1/2lbs Bacon – diced 1/2″ thick
6 qtsYellow onions – diced 1/4″ thick
3 qtsCelery – diced 1/4″ thick
1/2 CGarlic – fresh minced
3 TSalt – Kosher
4 tWhite pepper
1gal Milk – whole
1- 1/2 CChicken base
1 TChili powder
2 galChicken meat
1-1/2 galCream – manufactured
7 ozChipotles – pureed
Cook bacon until almost crisp, Add butter once melted add the onions and cook until sweet. Add celery and garlic cook for 2 minutes. Add liquid and spices. Bring to a simmer. Incorporate roux and simmer for 15 minutes. Add chicken and corn.
By Robert Johnson