In the culinary environs of the Coachella Valley, men traditionally dominate the top spots in resort hotels. However, the skills and experience of two young women — Leanne Kamekona of Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa and Rocio Varela of Parker Palm Springs — have earned them total control of all the demanding functions that executive chefs encounter in our destination market. They’re performing with innovation and enthusiasm. We are pleased to introduce them to those of you who have not sampled their tasty fare.
The brand of this hotel and its kitchen is ‘happy chic,’ and I want my food to reflect this,” says Rocio Varela, who after seven months as chef de cuisine at Mr. Parker’s restaurant at Parker Palm Springs was promoted to executive chef when Pascal Lallemand left for Wally’s Desert Turtle in Rancho Mirage.
Varela came to the desert from Florida in 2004 to work as executive chef at Palomino in Palm Desert. After one season at the helm, she lost her job when Palomino’s corporate office closed the restaurant.
A cum laude graduate of Johnson and Wales University in Providence, R.I., Varela served her internship as a line cook at Café Plaza in Boston. Then came a stint at Boston’s Copley Plaza Hotel before she returned to her native Puerto Rico as a chef instructor at the International School of Tourism and Hotel Management at Universidad del Este. While there, she trained a team of 12 students to compete in the 2002 Future Chef Convention, and they won four silver and two bronze medals.
Soon Varela became associated with the world’s largest casual dining company: Darden Restaurants, which owns Red Lobster, Olive Garden, and Smokey Bones. As head culinary training instructor for Darden’s Bahama Breeze Restaurants Corporate Division in Orlando, Fla., she created a management culinary training program that is still in place today and opened four restaurants in the area. She also represented Bahama Breeze in the American Culinary Federation Culinary Competitions of 1997 and 1998.
As consultant development chef, Varela reworked original recipes and developed new recipes for the Bahama Breeze restaurants in Florida before becoming a chef at the Miami location. She won many corporate awards and American Culinary Federation events, participated in food and wine festivals, worked with students, conducted cooking demonstrations, and helped promote grocery products for major brands.
Her duties at Parker Palm Springs give her the opportunity to put her mark on the menus at the prestigious resort. Norma’s is the five-star breakfast and lunch restaurant that originated in New York, serving creative, almost decadent fare. Mr. Parker’s is fun with an upbeat décor and artwork and subdued lighting. Varela cooks in the French tradition, with a crazy twist to match the vibes in Mr. Parker’s — keeping it simple but with surprising flavors.
“The [Parker Palm Springs] owner flies in from New York several times a year and loves eating at Mr. Parker’s,” Varela says. “I am keeping his favorites on the menu and adding some new French specialties with that crazy twist.”
Unable to find her own replacement for her former position as Mr. Parker’s chef de cuisine, Varela has pulled double duty in the kitchen when she would like to have more time for menu planning.
Although her schedule is full, she makes time to work out and gets away when she can to Santa Monica, her favorite California beach. After being raised in Puerto Rico with its beautiful beaches and spending years near Florida waters, she finds the ocean a prime place to relax while she dreams up elegant French and gourmet casual menus for her growing clientele.
Fillet de Saint Pierre
2 Large Roma tomatoes, cut into 16 1/4-inch slices
Place tomatoes on a wire rack, season with salt and pepper, and drizzle with olive oil. Roast in oven 10 minutes at 350 degrees. Remove and let cool to room temperature. Season fish with salt and pepper, dust with flour, and pan sear. Place tomato slices on ovenproof plate and drizzle with balsamic dressing. Heat in the oven. Place one brioche on the center of each serving plate and top with four tomato slices. Drizzle balsamic dressing on the tomatoes, letting it soak through the brioche. Top with fish fillet, drizzle basil oil and balsamic reduction around the fish, and top with micro greens. Serves four.
Blanch the basil leaves and shock in ice water. Drain leaves and place in a blender. Purée until smooth, slowly adding oil. Season to taste.
Mix first four ingredients and season to taste.
Pour balsamic vinegar in a saucepan and heat until it becomes a syrup, to about 1/2 cup.
Leanne Kamekona became entranced with the idea of working with food while employed in a family-owned grocery store on the Big Island of Hawaii. Today, she is executive chef at Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa in Rancho Mirage.
Kamekona oversees a 60-person kitchen staff and develops the menus for four dining venues (Fresh Grill, Marketplace, Spa Café, and Splash Café), as well as Rancho Las Palmas Country Club. She is planning two new culinary concepts with noted restaurant designer Bob Puccini.
“Here I get to think out of the box,” she says, “because my manager is so supportive and approvals come quickly.”
Kamekona previously worked at the legendary, 800-room La Quinta Resort & Club, where she oversaw five restaurants and lounges, convention banquets, catering, and 24-hour room service. Her move to a smaller (450-room) landmark property allows her to get back into the kitchen and let her creative juices inspire simple yet distinctive menus.
She began her culinary career in 1990 working in a grocery store seafood and meat department. That experience led to the Hyatt Resorts Hawaii and Chef John Zaner, her mentor for the next nine years. She worked in several restaurants, production kitchens, and multiple cuisines. Zaner introduced her to Pacific Rim, Italian, Mediterranean, Mexican, Californian, and French cuisines. When he became executive chef at La Quinta Resort & Club, he sent for Kamekona, and her career blossomed. (Zaner has since moved to The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua Hawaii.)
An exciting journey from top resorts and spas in the islands — Outrigger Wailea, Grand Wailea, Hyatt Regency Waikoloa, The Grand Hyatt Wailea, and The Lodge at Keole — combined with some smaller venues gives Kamekona a keen perspective on trends in food preparation. And a philosophy of simple food with a lot of fusion because she comes from the melting pot that is Hawaii makes her curious about every type of cuisine and what is going on in the kitchens of the world’s restaurants. She travels extensively to places she has never been and loves to discover new recipes.
Kamekona represented La Quinta Resort at the prestigious James Beard House in New York, where she assisted Arizona Biltmore’s Chef Michael Cairns with his invitation dinner. She has been invited back to represent Rancho Las Palmas with her own special dinner.
She’s also active in the local community. She has competed in and won Les Dames d’Escoffier’s L’Affaire Chocolat professional chef’s competition and the California Date Commission’s Date Chef Competition, both benefiting scholarships for young women.
True to her island upbringing, Kamekona enjoys being around water. “I love boating!” she says. For rest and relaxation, she escapes to her second home at Lake Havasu, where she hops on her SeaDoo and takes off across the lake. “This is my water away from Hawaii,” she says. In La Quinta, she enjoys golfing and cooking at home.
Kamekona says it is important to have balance in her life. She surrounds herself with people who want to grow and who love their jobs as she does hers. She considers her staff like family and enjoys the many hours they spend together at the resort.
Lobster Grapefruit Salad
Whole Maine lobster, 1.25 lb.
Salt and pepper to taste
Blanch lobster and shock in ice water until lobster is chilled. Clean and remove all meat from tail, knuckles, and claw. Chop into bite-size pieces. Toss lobster meat with tobiko, lemon mayonnaise, citrus shallot vinaigrette, and salt and pepper. Form a cup with lettuce leaves and fill with lobster salad. Garnish plate with grapefruit
Citrus Shallot Vinaigrette
Mix all ingredients, adding white pepper, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, and salt last.
Whip eggs. Slowly add salad oil to emulsify. Add lemon juice, cayenne, salt, and pepper.