At a sleek house in the Historic Tennis Club neighborhood of Palm Springs, the chefs are introduced through other senses instead. It’s all about scent and sound. Walk up the driveway, and you already know who’s inside.
There’s the discordant clang of pans pulled from shelves. The shimmy and whistle of a simmering pot. Knives making contact with cutting boards. A cork’s deep sigh as it’s released from the wine bottle.
The air is laced with intoxicating smells. It’s an enchanting mix of rendering fat and caramelized onions. Yeast, roasted vegetables, the snap of vinegar. Burnt sugar and citrus. It’s eau de parfum.
This house is where chef Engin Onural and five of his pals are spending the day — eating, drinking, and enjoying some well-deserved merriment on a chefs’ day off.
Engin Onural shows some raw fish who’s boss.
He might look like a mere mortal while chatting with his friends, but in the culinary world, Onural is a renowned sushi prodigy. He earned the Sushi Proficiency Certificate from the All Japan Sushi Association in 2013 — before he even turned 30 — making Onural the only Turkish person in the world to carry it. He’s been named in the peer-reviewed Best Chefs America list for his sushi craftsmanship, and he consistently takes home prizes for best sushi in the Coachella Valley.
Onural is also known as the mastermind behind The Venue Sushi Bar & Sake Lounge in Palm Desert, a chic restaurant where the menu ranges from ultra-traditional to wildly experimental. And because the food is of such high quality, The Venue has also become something of an industry hangout.
Chefs from all over the valley flock to savor Onural’s culinary creations. Over time and over many servings of excellent eats, several of them have become his friends.
A quiet corner of Lance O’ Donnell’s extraordinary design.
“These people close to me are close to me for a reason,” he says. “We share good and bad. We help each other unconditionally, and it is hard to find those people these days.”
Everyone has levels of friendship, Onural continues. “These people are at — how should I put it? — they are the penthouse level.”
This gathering takes place on one of those particularly perfect days in Palm Springs when summer has officially been kicked out like an unseemly houseguest, and the clear sky feels like a gift. The mountains are dappled with sun, as golden as apples, but the air remains crisp. Tall palm trees quiver with the slightest breeze. Every door and window of the house has been thrown open.
Dining outside isn’t even a question, it’s a given. As each dish is prepared, it is carried outside to the glass table near the pool. A bottle of mezcal waits, and an empty glass nearby is just begging to be filled.
The real business of the afternoon – having a good laugh. Onural and Spears share a toast while Vasquez, Redelsperger, and Gonzalez-Cruz guffaw.
Chad Spears places a platter of biscuits on the dining room table, a tower of carbs piled astoundingly high. Spears has lined the hallway credenza with more lip-smacking sustenance for the day — a decadent spread of confections, cookies, macarons, coffee cake, homemade pastries smeared with icing, English muffins, and a mason jar filled with berry jam.
Spears, of course, is the executive chef at Wilma & Frieda in Palm Desert, one of the valley’s most popular brunch spots. Just about everything on the menu is one of his whimsical dinner-to-breakfast creations, from the short rib eggs Benedict to the griddled meatloaf and eggs. With a culinary background that includes the classic Lord Fletcher’s Restaurant, Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion, and the Waldorf Astoria La Quinta Resort & Club, Spears is a versatile chef. Most of all, he knows how people like to fill their bellies. He has spent a good deal of his adult life facilitating that desire.
A light repast.
“I just took what people love to eat and transformed it into breakfast foods,” Spears says. “It’s comfort food and fine dining at the same time.”
In addition to bringing all the sweets and carbs, Spears also cooks one hell of a meatloaf. It’s bigger than a breadbox, and the smell is tangy and savory. Just the sight of it draws gasps from the other chefs.
Gonzalez-Cruz’s goat cheese gets its brown on.
Chef Francois Gaertner strikes a Gallic pose.
“It sounds cheesy, but my restaurant is my home, and this is truly my passion, so staying fresh is not hard,” Onural says.
“When do we eat?” Onural says.
If it seems odd that a group of chefs would spend their day off cooking, think again.
“It sounds cheesy, but my restaurant kitchen is my home, and this is truly my passion, so staying fresh is not hard,” Onural says. “I do like to travel, and I travel alone. This keeps me in line.”
Over the past summer, Onural explored Northern Europe and Scandinavia, bringing home the best souvenir of all — inspiration.
“You actually see dishes … inspired from Sweden and Norway right now [on the menu], like the salmon rillettes or the house beets-cured salmon with creamy herbed cucumber salad.”
When they’re in the kitchen together, the chefs don’t act as line cooks. There’s no tension or barking or conflict or thrown elbows. As true professionals they instinctively know how to rotate through the cooking areas and maintain a thoughtful distance from each other, slipping from the refrigerator to the stove, pulling items from the pantry, skating around a hot pan with all the ease and fine choreography of an ice dance.
Arthur Vasquez, the chef and operations manager at Babe’s Bar-B-Que & Brewhouse in Rancho Mirage, deftly pulls his signature summer slaw together. It’s a colorful mixture of red pepper, shredded cabbage, green onions, candied pecans, local dates, mandarin oranges, and poppyseeds with a light dressing to accompany short ribs slathered in Babe’s signature barbecue sauce.
Vasquez has been friends with Onural for several years, when the latter chef was still working at another sushi restaurant and dreaming of opening his own place.
“I knew there was something about him, even then,” Vasquez says. “His talent was apparent in everything he did. We’ve been friends from the moment we met.”
Vasquez hunches over the kitchen counter to plate the succulent short ribs. And Chef Francois Gaertner from Desert Willow Golf Resort in Palm Desert leans in.
“What kind of sushi is that?” he jokes.
Indeed, sushi might be the thread that ties all these friends together. That’s how Gaertner met Onural as well.
“It’s very simple. My daughter loves sushi, and I love my daughter,” Gaertner says. “We started to talk with Engin and became fast friends.”
Born in eastern France, Gaertner apprenticed in Belgium before working in southern France with Michelin-star chef Michel Guérard. After a brief stint working in Dubai, Gaertner moved on to The Ritz-Carlton, Rancho Mirage, then Bighorn Golf Club in Palm Desert.
One of his best friends, Alain Redelsperger, also hails from eastern France. Born and raised in Strasbourg, Redelsperger worked under three different Maîtres Cuisiniers de France in two-star Michelin establishments. He brought those talents to The Ritz-Carlton, Rancho Mirage, where the James Beard Foundation named him a Top Star Chef, then to The Vintage Club, where he served as executive chef, and finally to Mountain View Country Club in Palm Desert.
Gaertner is quiet as he sears the lean venison tenderloin, which will be served atop parsnip puree, red onion jam, an earthy chanterelle ragout, and sauce grand-veneur, a classic accompaniment for large game sometimes referred to as huntsman’s sauce.
At the same time, Redelsperger moves his cooked duck breast to a cutting board to rest while he prepares the red onion compote and roasted local figs.
“Most of my days off are like this,” he says. “A lot of cooking and a lot of wine.”
When Redelsperger finishes cooking, Julian Gonzalez-Cruz steps in and takes his place at the stove. He pats goat cheese medallions with flour, dips each one in egg wash, then blankets them with panko breadcrumbs before they are fried. Each will sit atop a salad of baby heirloom tomatoes, nasturtium leaves, and frisee, tossed in smoked balsamic vinaigrette, and served alongside yogurt honey inverse ravioli.
Originally from Tampico, Tamaulipas, in Mexico, Gonzalez-Cruz trained at Mexico City’s acclaimed Ambrosia Culinary Center in the art of haute French cuisine. He followed that by completing two degrees at the Florida Culinary Institute, one in culinary arts another in restaurant management. He’s now at the helm of the Villa Portofino culinary department in Palm Desert.
“I couldn’t imagine my life without cooking,” he says.
To that point, when someone mentions wearing “normal” clothes, Gonzalez-Cruz gestures to his chef jacket.
“Normal clothes?” he says. “I thought these were the normal clothes. This is what I wear every day.”
When his salad is complete, Gonzalez-Cruz slides onto the piano bench in the living room. The fingers that just handled a knife are equally skillful on the keys as he plays John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
Music fills the house, and for one moment everything else comes to a halt — the room is silent as he sings. Halfway into the song, Gonzalez-Cruz stops and blushes.
“Back to the kitchen,” he says with a smile.
Palm Springs is known for an early twilight, the sun sinking behind the mountains like a lump of sugar disappearing into a mug of tea. This particular afternoon is edging that way when all the chefs head outside. A small fire blazes near the hot tub. Moscow mules are poured. Glasses clink. Plates are passed.
Onural leans back in a cushioned chair. He looks around at his friends and appears satisfied, satiated.
“All of these chefs are very passionate about food and cooking,” he says. “But all of us bring different talent to the table.”
Legendary food writer M.F.K. Fisher once said, “Wine and cheese are ageless companions, like aspirin and aches, or June and moon, or good people and noble ventures.” Add to that list: Engin Onural and sushi, chefs and cooking, Palm Springs and the perfect day off.
New Yorkers Mark Fichandler and Paul Travis owned a relatively nondescript ranch house in the Historic Tennis Club neighborhood in Palm Springs for about 11 years before they tired of the low ceilings and energy inefficiency and hired local architect Lance O’Donnell to completely renovate the property.
They loved O’Donnell’s sensitivity to the site. The architect kept the beautiful garden intact but redesigned the house so that the new space is flooded with indirect light from the clerestories. In the 3,000-square-foot house with its three bedrooms, three-and-a-half baths, and casita, the owners have found three favorite new spaces and named them.
The first is what they call the “office bridge,” a hallway that connects the main house to the master wing that also doubles as a two-person work station. The second is the “lanai,” an outdoor covered sitting area with a view across the gardens. The third is “the pavilion,” a very private lounging area, designed around a fire pit in the dense foliage at the rear of the property, that feels like another world.
The dining room is a study in simplicity, balance, and style.