Chef Marco Zapien: Chef, Teacher & Innovator

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By Taryn Sauer
Great Taste Magazine 2016 July August Issue

AS CHEF AND OWNER OF THE FAMILY-OWNED RESTAURANT, Zapien’s Salsa Grill and Taqueria in Pico Rivera, Chef Marco Zapien continues to introduce innovative techniques to classic Mexican dishes while staying true to the authentic styles of cooking passed down through generations.
Much of his menu stems from his mother and grandmother’s traditional recipes. “Without them, I wouldn’t have been so much in love with what I do,” Zapien said.
Growing up as the youngest of three brothers, Zapien found himself immersed in the kitchen, where he discovered his passion for cooking. He recalls a birthday where his grandmother made his favorite dish, chile rellenos, and once he ate hers, he “developed a love for everything she did and everything she made.” But Zapien did not immediately jump in to the restaurant when it first opened in April of 1993. While he was involved since day one, he decided to take a different path. After graduating from University of San Diego
with an accounting degree, the crunching numbers- behind-a-desk life didn’t suit him. He
returned to school, but this time, to pursue a culinary degree.
He graduated from the Los Angeles Culinary Institute with honors in 1997 and went on a tour of duty around the country, making stops in NewYork, Chicago and Florida before returning to his roots.
Since he took over the restaurant, Zapien’s has nearly doubled their business. And although the menu changes annually, offering new additions such as pollo en mole Chef Marco Zapienbowls and “tortinis” — the Chef’s rendition of a classic panini — authenticity and tradition still hold strong. For
the past four years, Zapien’s has been running a Lent menu, providing hungry customers with options they wouldn’t typically get at a Mexican restaurant.
The combination of his familial traditions and culinary background creates a balance between old and new.
Zapien says his cooking style is based in “the freedom of being creative and trying new things, [while still] using the traditional styles of cooking that [he] grew up with.”
Evidenced in the classic molcajete, the dish sizzles with delicious innovation. All of the
ingredients are prepared in-house: carne asada, grilled chicken, sautéed shrimp, chorizo, nopales, queso fresco, chile torreado, grilled green onions and fresh Salsa Ranchera.
Zapien lives the life of a hard working chef, putting in an average of 70 to 80 hours a week.
In addition to his role as the Executive Chef at Zapien’s, he is also the Corporate Chef in charge of Sport and Entertainment for Melissa’s Southern California Customers, which allows him to frequent local entertainment venues and baseball stadiums, including his favorite: Angel Stadium.
Providing sports arenas with quality produce is only one of his roles outside the restaurant. Through Melissa’s, he is also associated with such charities as Share Ourselves, Special Olympics, California High School (Whittier) Culinary Advisory Board and the James Beard Foundation, where he attends an annual event in New York to provide young, aspiring
chefs with scholarships. Locally, he conducts cooking demos, both in-house and through the Los Angeles County Library system. “I have a blast teaching,” he said.
Through the LACL, he conducts up to twenty cooking classes a year, mostly showcasing seasonal items. The latest is a Hatch Chile buttermilk biscuit recipe demo to occur on September 12. In his spare time, Zapien enjoys playing golf and following up on Anthony Bourdain’s travels. Zapien’s Salsa Grill and Taqueria retains its family-oriented nature. Zapien’s niece and nephew both work alongside him, full-time.

Chef Marco Zapien
Chef Marco Zapien
Zapien’s Salsa Grill
6702 Rosemead Blvd.
Pico Rivera, CA 90660
www.thesalsagrill.com

ZAPIEN’S SALSA GRILL
6702 Rosemead Blvd
Pico Rivera, CA 90660
www.thesalsagrill.com

ESTABLISHED

HOURS
Tuesday – Sunday 8 am – 9 pm

AVERAGE COVER
Lunch: $12.00
Dinner: $18.00

CHEF MARCO ZAPIEN – From Chef’s Mouth

FAVORITES:
KITCHEN GADGET OR TOOL 8” chef’s knife
KITCHEN APPLIANCE Beurre mixer
COOKWARE Cast iron skillet
CONDIMENT Guacamole
SPICE Ground Chipotle powder
OC RESTAURANT Javier’s
DISH TO EAT Pollo en Mole
JUNK FOOD Kettle Jalapeno potato chips
RAW INGREDIENT Cilantro
FAST FOOD IN-N-OUT Cheeseburger & Fries
HOURS YOU WORK IN A WEEK 70 to 80.
FIRST HOSPITALITY JOB Worked bussing tables and washing dishes at Buffum’s and cooked
professionally at the Dal Rae in Pico Rivera.
ADVICE TO STUDENTS Make sure it is what you really love to do before you make the commitment to the high cost of culinary school. I recommend taking a culinary course at a junior college first to make sure that you are really passionate before leaping into a full on culinary program.
3 WORDS THAT BEST DESCRIBE YOUR CULINARY STYLE Traditional, authentic, innovative.
3 WORDS THAT BEST DESCRIBE YOUR MANAGEMENT STYLE Teacher, firm, fair.
TOOL AND SOURCE FOR HOME KITCHENS Buy decent knives and cookware at Chefs Toys.
FOOD INGREDIENT SOURCE FOR FOODIES Melissas.com
CULINARY HERO Anthony Bordain. I love Anthony’s “tell it like it is” style. He has the best
job on earth.
BIGGEST CULINARY INFLUENCE My Mom and Grandmother have taught me so much about
cooking. Without them I wouldn’t be as much in love with what I do.
PLACES TRAVELED TO EXPLORE & LEARN
ADDITIONAL CUISINES New York, Chicago, Florida, and many local restaurants.