“The most expensive seat in the house is the empty one.” This seemingly simple statement made by Chef Manuel “Manny” Gonzalez during the lovely afternoon I spent at TAPS Fish House and Brewery speaks volumes about his perspective. He believes that all the seats will fill themselves if the food and service are great. This is no small feat in a restaurant that can do 1200 (!) covers in a day. Great food is the result of his stellar experience including CCA training and hard work under celebrity chefs merged with rare common sense, urgency and a selfless attitude. Great service means that customers should not have to ask for a thing once they have placed their order. As Manny moved up the ladder of success, he specifically points out the importance of the time in his career when he was finally able to cook as well as interact with guests; when front of the house and back of the house came together for him.
Manny points out with obvious passion how TAPS is run during my tour of the entire restaurant and kitchen. Owned by the Manzella family, TAPS is one of three family owned locations including The Catch (Anaheim) and TAPS (Corona). What could easily be a chaotic situation is anything but. Oyster shucking trophies sit atop the shiny oyster bar with cooks shucking oysters at a speed I’ve never seen.
Homemade beers are created in-house behind a massive wood bar with the time and attention most often given fine wine. Today’s specialty boasts notes of coffee and chocolate. We breeze by a cigar station (why not?) where the decor is very warm Old Boys Club. Moving into the kitchen, we’re aware of the absense seafood odor. At the volume that they sell, product moves in and immediately out of the restaurant each day. This contributes to everything being as fresh as it can be. Even the corn is shucked daily and roasted to order. Manny’s philosophy is that his cooks can make fast work of a task if they do it every day or turn it into a 10 hour job if they do it once a week.
I’m struck by the large number of cooks bustling around; forty-five cooks to be exact. Managing the cooks’ schedules and concerns might just be a full time job in itself. He responds, “It’s not a big deal, I either say yes or no:” in his mild mannered friendly way. There is suddenly no response to this but “ok”. In fact, Manny is very much hands on when it comes to cooking. He has creative license to make California cuisine as he sees it. California cuisine is fresh ingredients that combine a little soft with a little crunch. With that, I am served a gorgeous amuse plate (if I can coin a term) of raw shaved Kobe beef, raw swordfish with tiny cross section slices of jalapeno and a balsamic drizzle to die for; perfect soft, perfect crunch.
Maybe Manny is more even keeled than most chefs because he comes from laid back San Diego. After CCA, a time with Michael Chiarello and then Gary Danko, like many native SoCal Chefs he left and then found his way back. He returned to San Diego and worked with certified master Pastry Chef Rudy Weider as well as a restaurant in La Jolla through every station for 5 years. But it was at 910 restaurant, also in La Jolla, where he had the opportunity to learn about the best ingredients (mainly Chino Farms) and how to use them without the usual financial restraints. The kitchen staff was tiny there so they were a close group, working together to create each 7 course meal, one customer at a time.
In his personal life, Manny finds adventure and joy in dining on his days off. As an admitted foodie, he plans his vacations around where he will eat. He has traveled around Europe (France, Spain and London) as well as the States, meeting up with the cooks and chefs he has worked with along the way, eating as the locals do. He makes the annual NRA show and will drop in on the hot spots when he can. He is a fan of Chicago at the moment and will steal a trip there once in awhile. However, make no mistake, he is a workaholic.
TAPS in Orange County called his name because he saw pallets of fish arrive, “not broken down and not corrupted”. He likes that TAPS is not a tourist destination, it is a neighborhood place which is not seasonally directed with no off season. He enjoys seeing customers several times a week which is evident from the many familiar “hellos” and “goodbyes” I witness. After 6 years at TAPS, his routine is predictably steady although consistently packed and he has managed to find a comfortable space. His level of ease is apparent and he made me feel comfortable as well, like I could leave my responsibilities at the door and be taken care of for awhile.
See recipes for Chipotle Maple Polenta, Bacon sauteed greens with blistered grapes, Peanut butter and jelly cobbler andPan Seared Skuna Bay Salmon, served with fresh English peas, wild mushrooms, corn, Spanish chorizo & sauteed pea greens topped with saffron corn foam
101 E. Imperial Highway
Brea, CA 92821
Sunday – 9:30 am to 10:00 pm
Saturday – 11:30 am to 11:00 pm
Mon-Fri – 11:00 am to 11:00 pm
Chef Manny Gonzales
AVERAGE NUMBER OF HOURS YOU WORK IN A WEEK? Too many to count.
WHAT IS THE AVERAGE COVER FOR ONE GUEST INCLUDING BEVERAGE? Lunch – $25, Dinner – $65.
FIRST COOKING OR FOOD RELATED MEMORY? Separating the rocks from dry hominy to make pozole.
WHERE WAS YOUR FIRST JOB? Movie theater.
WHAT FIRST INTERESTED YOU IN THE HOSPITALITY INDUSTRY? Throwing a party every day.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST HOSPITALITY JOB? Pastry chef.
IF NOT A CHEF, WHAT WOULD YOU BE? Pirate ship captain.
FAVORITE KITCHEN GADGET OR TOOL? Fish spatula.
FAVORITE KITCHEN APPLIANCE? KitchenAid Mixer.
FAVORITE TYPE OF COOKWARE? All Clad.
FAVORITE CONDIMENT/SPICE? Cumin.
MOST RECOMMENDED KITCHEN TOOL AND SOURCE FOR HOME KITCHENS? JB Prince.
MOST RECOMMENDED FOOD INGREDIENT SOURCE FOR FOODIES? Amazon.
BIGGEST MYTH ABOUT WORKING IN THE KITCHEN? You get to cook all day.
SIGNTATURE OR FAVORITE DISH TO MAKE? Fried rice.
OTHER CUISINES WORKED WITH? Everything but Indian.
FAVORITE OC RESTAURANT? Charlie Palmer.
FAVORITE OUT OF TOWN RESTAURANT? Alinea in Chicago.
FAVORITE DISH TO EAT? Pho.
FAVORITE JUNK FOOD? Snickers Bar with almonds.
FAVORITE RAW INGREDIENT? Cucumber.
FAVORITE FAST FOOD? In-N-Out.
DO YOU WATCH FOOD TV? IF SO, WHICH PROGRAMS ARE YOUR FAVORITE? Good Eats.
FAMOUS CHEFS YOU’VE MET? Thomas Keller.
CULINARY HEROES? Rick Bayless and Mario Batali.
YEARS OF CULINARY EDUCATION? Two years.
SCHOOL: CCA San Francisco.
PLACES TRAVELED TO EXPLORE AND LEARN ADDITIONAL CUISINES? Spain, France, Philadelphia, New York, London, Chicago, Florida and Mexico.
YEARS IN BUSINESS: FOH? Five years. BOH? Fifteen years.
WHAT THREE WORDS BEST DESCRIBE YOUR CULINARY STYLE? Fresh, light, and seasonal.
PREVIOUS INDUSTRY EMPLOYERS? Nine Ten San Diego, Roppongi La Jolla, Tra Vigne Napa.
CHARITY AFFILIATIONS? Share Ourselves (SOS).
Apple pork chop marinade
5 Pork chops
4-1/4 Cloves garlic
1 C and 1 T Apple cider vinegar
1/2 C and 1 t Soy sauce
2 C and 1 T Honey
1 t Ground ginger
4-1/4 Pinches ground black pepper
Place pork chops into a large resealable bag. In a blender or food processor, combine the garlic, vinegar, soy sauce, honey, ginger, and pepper. Puree until the garlic has been finely chopped. Pour this mixture over the pork chops. Seal, and marinate in refrigerator at least 4 hours.