One of Orange County’s hidden hotspots is Mesa Lounge, in The Camp in Costa Mesa. This chic, sophisticated lounge is well known to locals, but is still being introduced to visitors to the city – and when they walk in, they’re immediately hooked. While Mesa’s known for its specialty craft cocktails, it’s also a hit because of its innovative small-plate menu and late-night bites. Mesa’s Executive Chef, Niki Starr Weyler is a Southern Californian local, born and raised in Orange County.
Chef Niki, tell us a little about your background.
I am a Southern Californian local, born and raised in Orange County. I attended college at Cal State Long Beach and received my bachelors of science in Health Science. I was about to get my masters and a nursing certificate when I decided to switch career paths and head off to culinary school. I went to a small fast paced school in La Mesa, SD called San Diego Culinary Institute where I received my Commi De Cuisine certificate. From there I started an externship at French 75 in Laguna Beach. I learned so much in those first few months in the kitchen, nothing can truly prepare you for that feeling of a serious rush in a busy restaurant. I was hired immediately after my externship there and continued to work there for a year. Then I moved on to Charlie Palmer at Bloomingdale’s in South Coast Plaza. This is where I met my mentor chef Amar Santana.
I worked under Chef Amar at CP for about 3 years, getting many promotions and ending up one of his Sous Chefs. Chef Amar taught me so me so incredibly much during this time, I remember watching him in awe as he would create recipes. I absorbed as much as I could through working along side him, everything from flavor profiles to work ethic. After leaving Charlie Palmer I did some private chef work and then followed Chef Amar to his new location where he is Chef/Owner; Broadway By Amar Santana in Laguna Beach. Worked with Chef Amar for over two years there until I received my first executive chef position here at Mesa Lounge. It was a bittersweet feeling to leave the comfort of my mentor chef that had helped mold me into the cook I am today but also so liberating and exciting. Chef is very proud of me and comes in to visit and dine with me often here at Mesa.
What brought you to the culinary arts?
I grew up being sent to my Great Aunt Bettie’s house up north in Alameda, right outside the city during the summer months. In my trips there my Aunt Bettie showed me a side of the culinary world I never knew existed. We tried oysters at the ferry building, went to the cheese board in Berkley, watched fresh pasta being made in Little Italy and so much more. I began to fall in love with food and all that the idea of a restaurant had to offer. Even though I was just a little girl my palette was that of a much more mature level. As I grew older and went to college I was a nanny for a family in Corona Del Mar to pay the bills. The family I worked for let me cook whatever I wanted to for dinner and I started exploring my boss’s collection of French cookbooks and started to self teach myself many techniques. I remembering flambéing for the first time in their kitchen (thankfully I didn’t burn the kitchen down). Upon completion of my bachelors I finally admitted to myself that culinary was my passion and I was going to pursue it at all costs. And that is exactly what I did.
What kind of cuisine are you preparing at Mesa?
I would say my food is modern Californian cuisine. I like to pull from many different cuisines and flavor profiles. I think there is a lot to be said for simplicity and doing few things very well with major attention to detail. Also I always love to keep things seasonal, especially since here in Southern California we experience little to no seasons – it’s nice to evoke those feelings through food.
What is your favorite dish to prepare?
This is always one of the hardest questions for us chefs to answer. But a few of the things I absolutely love to do in the kitchen are: making soups (the many hours of developing layers of flavors and tweaking the seasoning to get it just right are my favorite), breaking down proteins (its almost a meditative state for me), and lastly searing any fish with skin on (and getting that perfectly crispy skin).
What is your favorite thing to eat?
Also another very hard question; but my answer would have to be foie gras and pork skin chicharrones.
What do you like about Costa Mesa – why might people want to come visit?
I love how eclectic Costa Mesa is, I moved here about 4 years ago and still to this day I find new little spots I have never been before. We are definitely an artist community and express our creativity all through out the city. My restaurant, Mesa Lounge, is located at The Camp in Costa Mesa, which is a very different type of center than your local strip mall. The whole venue here oozes hip, artistic culture. Mesa in particular is a beautiful space with an open roof, rotating local art, amazing musical talent every night and most importantly inspired culinary offerings.