By Robert Johnson
Sometimes professionals can get too caught up in image and title. In doing so, they may lose focus on their craft and the end product may suffer as a result. One professional who can not only teach lessons on focus and passion, but can also take you to school on what it takes to become a great cook is Chef James Chavez.
James is the Executive Chef at Agio Ristorante at the DoubleTree Hotel in Anaheim, and he is dedicated to being dedicated. Chef Chavez grew up in La Puente, CA with very little. His culinary influence came to him at a young age: His mother cooked and served food for a local Catholic priesthood. James, however, dreamed of joining the Navy and following in the tradition of his family serving in the armed forces. However, asthma kept him from realizing his dream of enlistment, so he turned to what was comfortable – and he began cooking. James started his culinary career as if he were shot out of a gun. He began attending culinary school while still finishing his high school studies, and at eighteen, he took his first Executive Chef position at Sacred Heart Retreat House, and has since worked in various kitchens across Orange County and L.A.
In each restaurant, he would work around three to six months (just long enough to learn as much as he could) and then move on. He believes this has made him better rounded and valuable in the kitchen – if someone can’t cover their shift, from Sous Chef to dishwasher, James will cover it for them. He expects the same level of teamwork and dedication from all of his kitchen staff. Everyone who works in Chef James’ kitchen (five cooks, four dishwashers and one Sous Chef) is cross-trained to handle any other position: Dishwashers can run a prep station and line cooks can wash dishes. His team turns out gratifying dishes for the restaurant, Agio, as well as cooking the food for any banquets held in the hotel. With so much at stake, the kitchen must run like a machine.
According to James, cooking is not a job; it is a life. It would seem the military missed out. Chef Chavez believes in the product. He does not want pomp or presentation to get in the way of a tastefully done, simply-prepared meal. He and his team change the restaurant menu twice a year and try to focus on comfort foods that appeal to a range of guests, including theme park tourists. The banquets are where he gets to flex his culinary muscles – they’re often themed and include some exacting gastronomical requests. As a result, no two banquets are ever the same.
Chef James and his team pride themselves on being able to fulfill any request and make the experience unique every time. James would rather be remembered as a good cook rather than a good Chef, and he strives to utilize local and seasonal ingredients when planning menus for either the restaurant or for banquets. He enjoys preparing game meats, perhaps a call from his Native-American heritage, as well as walleye and pike. He loves preparing meals in such a way that the food is remembered and not who made it. It is his humble attitude that allows for the food to be the focus of the dining experience.
His delicious meals, his grass-roots attitude and his efficient, military style of running a kitchen will have him remembered by not only the people he serves but also the people who work around him. Everyone in his kitchen, he believes, should want to take the position of the person ahead of him or her. This eliminates dead weight, rewards dedication and inspires professionalism, as the uninspired employees will quickly get passed by as the driven workers take on more responsibility. James seeks no fame, does not want to be an artisan, and will work whenever he is called on to do so. He is a tirelessly dedicated cook bent on serving food because that is what he decided to do, and that is what he does.