While nestled within the Sands Hotel & Spa in Indian Wells, The Pink Cabana is a food lover’s destination. With a menu influenced by the lush flavors of Morocco and the Mediterranean, Chef Jason Niederkorn takes his international culinary experience using modern French cooking techniques married with playful spattering to create a dining experience unique to the desert.
His training at the Culinary Academy in San Francisco led him to embark on an award-winning path as chef at Hotel Jerome in Aspen, Colorado; Aubergine in Newport Beach, California; Magazin in Salzburg, Austria; and more recently at SOPA in Palm Springs, where he was applauded for his work in Forbes and Conde Nast Traveler.
Palm Springs Life spoke with Chef Niederkorn about his road to The Pink Cabana; the importance of taking notes; and his love for Florence, Italy — and also for Bill Murray.
VIDEO: Watch Chef Jason Niederkorn teach writer Tiffany Carter how to make the Heirloom Tomato Salad.
Who or what inspired you to become a chef?
I’ve always loved cooking. I remember I was about 4 or 5 and was making pie dough from hand and being experimental with food. Growing up in Big Bear, there’s not a lot of great restaurants, so it was really important to my parents to expose me to some great dining experiences. Ironically my favorite restaurant at the time growing up, the chef there, John Richardson, opened up a restaurant in Big Bear. I went to him one day and said, “I want to learn from you.” He said, “OK, that’s fine, but you need to stand in the corner and not touch anything.” So I did that on my days off for several months with no pay, of course. And one day he finally put me to work. He tried to scare me out of being a chef by showing me what a difficult career choice it was. But when I stuck it out he helped me get into the culinary school in San Francisco. He told me which restaurants I should check out as far as working at. At the top of the list was Stars in San Francisco. Magically I got a job there and was there for three years, and all of those things happening really pointed me in the right direction to putting me at a top-notch level early on.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JAIME KOWAL
Executive Chef Jason Niederkorn
What is your favorite cuisine to eat and what is your favorite cuisine to cook?
I really don’t have a favorite. I get bored quickly. I go through different phases where I’m really into Japanese food and then I’m really into Italian food. For me, the most important thing is to really enjoy something great for what it is. Whether it’s just a simple grilled cheese sandwich that has amazing bread and amazing butter and amazing cheese. I love French cuisine, I love Italian cuisine, a lot of things from the Mediterranean are really inspirational to me and even what we’ve done here in California in the past 30 years is definitely a big part of what I still have in my DNA as a chef.
You last weekend on earth, which city would you most like to eat in?
Based on my experience it would have to be Florence, Italy. It’s the best food I’ve ever had in my life. It was so understated and so simple. It was all about the purity of the ingredients and having a really deep respect for food and love and a passion for it and it really translated everywhere I ate there. That was a special time and I would love to do it again.
Is there a chef that you admire?
There are several chefs I look up to and I follow them everyday just to be in tune with what the current trends are and even the older things and respecting the history. Top of my list is Jeremiah Tower, who is the chef I worked for at Stars in San Francisco. He’s probably the first true celebrity chef and is considered the Godfather of California cuisine. If it weren’t for people like him being a true pioneer, we wouldn’t have these opportunities as chefs. I love Thomas Keller a lot. I think he’s much more of a down-to-earth fundamentalist kind of guy. One of the best dining experiences I’ve ever had was at his restaurant. I had the opportunity to cook for him years ago and it was a tremendous experience. Those are probably my favorite two right now.
Who would you most like to cook for?
When I’m cooking at home for fun, I want it to be an enjoyable time. Not stressing out, “OMG, I hope they love it!” I just want to enjoy a bottle of wine with someone. So If I had to pick one person I would have to say Bill Murray, who is probably my favorite actor.
What’s your favorite Bill Murray movie?
Caddyshack. I’m a big golfer so it all kind of ties in.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JAIME KOWAL
The Pink Cabana at the Sands Hotel in Indian Wells.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?
Well, if my golf game were a little better, I would like to be on the tour. I didn’t go to college, I went to culinary school. I always felt strongly that this is what I wanted to do with my life. I’ve never questioned it ever since I was determined to go down that path. There’d be no other; there’s no Plan B.
Pink Cabana is part of a resort. How does that influence the menu?
I learned a long time ago as a chef that you are not cooking for yourself, you are cooking for the guests. You are here to run a business as well as express yourself as an artist and it’s a very delicate balancing act to be successful at both and be fulfilled in all ways. I always try to look at Pink Cabana as a single standing restaurant because I do think it’s unique and very special, and we really want to be at a high level with it. I think there’s a stigma that goes along with hotel restaurants that are not really special. There is an approachability to the menu that may or may not be there if it were just a restaurant and not a hotel. But a lot of thought and consideration went into having that balance and something for everyone. We have locals here, [as well as] world travelers who may want more of a world-class dining experience. With some of the locals “we just want to split a salad and hang out in this beautiful space.” So it’s a really diverse crowd so far out here.
What has your time being a chef in the desert taught you about what people are looking for in a dining experience?
It’s definitely unique. I’ve been cooking in the desert for almost three years now. Especially during those hotter months, putting a hot soup on the menu doesn’t fly. Where as when I was cooking in Aspen you could put four hot soups on the menu and they would all do really well. It’s all about adapting to your environment. Understanding your clientele. It’s having that broad scope of choices. Being seasonal and knowing your crowd.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JAIME KOWAL
What from past experience in working in restaurants in Aspen, Austria, Newport Beach, and San Francisco did you bring to Pink Cabana?
A broad, diverse view of what’s possible. I went from working in a 40-seat restaurant doing nothing but nine-course tasting menus to running huge hotels and everything in between. When you’re working with local ingredients and you’re all over the world, you’re exposed to things you wouldn’t be exposed to if you were just to stay in one place. And I think that experience brings a lot of maturity and a lot of humility to what I do. Lot of chefs have a huge ego, and I still have a little bit of that, but as time goes on I just want a team who is happy to come to work everyday and I think I do have that team now. Part of that comes from being humble and appreciative. It is very difficult what we do, but we have a good time doing it. That’s just the perfect balance and I’m proud everyday when I feel that.