Chef Daniel Villanueva.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVID FOUTS
When you’re eating a meal at Daniel’s Table in Cathedral City, a server will never swing by and ask if everything is “OK.” Instead, they’ll say something like: “Is everything great?”, “Are you loving your entrée?”, or “How wonderful is your meal?”.
It’s a subtle distinction but one that’s emblematic of chef Daniel Villanueva’s reverent approach to food. He believes every ingredient that goes into a meal is of the utmost importance, including the verbiage that surrounds it. “When you ask if everything’s ‘OK,’ what does that say about our food? It’s just OK?” he asks. “We don’t do that. That’s Applebee’s language.”
Daniel’s Table certainly isn’t Applebee’s. You will find nothing processed or prepackaged in this kitchen, which bursts with fresh, organic produce, grass-fed meats, wild fish, and game.
“Here we’re not just serving a meal,” he says. “We’re forming a relationship, and that’s established as soon as you walk through my door.”
Graffiti eggplant gets its name from its speckled skin. “Your eyes eat first,” Villanueva says. “The eggplant varieties from Black Sheep Farms tend to be not only more attractive but also sweeter.” He might grill and serve them with smoked tomato.
That’s why Villanueva’s menu changes weekly. It’s based on what the chef finds at the farmers market, so each handwritten item on the chalkboard menu is seasonal, constructed upon the relationships he has built with farmers, ranchers, and fisheries.
“I feel very strongly about knowing where food comes from,” the chef says. “When you eat something that’s fresh and that has been grown with care, you can taste that. That’s building a connection with the earth.”
To fully understand what Villanueva does, you’d have to observe him at the farmers market, which is like watching a bird in flight. This is the chef’s natural habitat, and he practically vibrates with energy while moving through it.
It’s an honor for me to go to a market and tell the farmers that I love their work,” he says. “It makes my job easier, because they know the food so well.”
Edgar Jaime and Lidia Bedoya-Jaime of Black Sheep Farms pose with Villanueva.
While he does work with farms in the Coachella Valley, Villanueva also treks all over Southern California in the pursuit of produce, particularly in the summer months, when options in the desert grow scarce. He’ll hop behind the wheel of his truck and head to the ocean or the mountains, anywhere he can catch his favorite farmer.
“This sort of dedication has been lost in the craft,” he says. “You don’t see a lot of chefs who travel far to find the perfect berry or the freshest tomatoes.”
On this particular Thursday, Villanueva drives about an hour-and-a-half on a winding, pine-laced road to Twin Peaks, a rustic, unincorporated community that was settled in the 1860s by strawberry farmers. The market here runs year-round in the parking lot of the local Masonic lodge, a small space that’s jam-packed with vendors, all showcasing pesticide-free fare.
Villanueva comes here not just because it’s as quaint and picturesque as a Hallmark movie set, but because he’s formed a real relationship with the farmers.
The chef gets tactile, mentally preparing a menu with cannellini beans, plums, peaches, corn, and different types of eggplant.
“I can’t create food that’s healing to the body if I’m smoking cigarettes or treating myself poorly. And it’s like that with the farmers, too,” he says. “I meet them, I get to know their families, and I have to see that their hearts are going into the food they raise.”
It’s chilly enough that Villanueva pulls on a windbreaker. It bears the logo of Black Sheep Farms, making clear that he’s a regular — the jacket was a birthday gift from the farmers to the chef. He grabs a snarl of long, purple-streaked string beans and plops them into a bag, following suit with handfuls of bright green okra. Then he points to crates holding three varieties of eggplant.
“What can you tell me about these eggplants?” he asks the woman standing at the Black Sheep booth.
A family-owned farm, located in Chino, Black Sheep Farms grows the distinctive and unusual varieties that Villanueva prefers, like watermelon radishes, cranberry beans, rainbow carrots, and striped Roma tomatoes.
“After working closely with someone for so many years, they become friends,” says Lidia Bedoya-Jaime, who helms Black Sheep with her husband, Edgar Jaime. “That’s one of the best aspects of farming, when our customers become more than just a customer.”
Reserve a spot at the chef’s counter for a front-row seat to the culinary magic.
Bedoya-Jaime offers some suggestions, and within minutes Villanueva has gathered a rainbow of produce — cherry peppers for pickling, scarlet heirloom tomatoes, bright yellow sweet corn, bouquets of herbs, rosy peaches, deeply purple plums. He crushes a sprig of chocolate mint between his fingers and inhales, a scent that’s cool like peppermint dipped in rich cocoa. He gazes into the distance, lost in thought.
“This is going to be ice cream,” he says, and tosses the herbs into his haul.
Villanueva zigzags around the vendors and booths, sampling the craft kombucha, buying a tamale to-go from one stand (that’s for his own lunch, because he was too busy to eat earlier), then scouting out the gluten-free breads, which will become part of a Mediterranean spread for a private client.
After about an hour, it’s time to hit the road. Before he leaves, Villanueva makes the rounds once more. The berry seller still has his debit card, the tamale vendor has his lunch, and the guy at Black Sheep has his keys; while Villanueva shopped, the farmer loaded his truck.
Villanueva shrugs and says they operate on an honor code, built on mutual respect. “I trust everyone here,” he says. “These are my people.”
Raised in a military household that was stationed in Germany for a portion of his childhood, Villanueva moved back to the United States when he was 13. His most vivid memories of that time involve his grandparents, who ran a catering company while growing produce in their garden and preparing food from scratch.
That sparked a genuine love of cooking for others, though it took a little while for Villanueva to find his direction. After stints in many, many restaurants (“You might think I’m exaggerating,” he says, “but I’ve worked in 200 restaurants, and I got fired from every single one.”), Villanueva took the lessons learned and launched his own catering business in Hollywood, Flavors With Love.
“Through the years, I had people saying I was never going to make it or that I’d never cut it as a chef,” he says with a laugh. “But if you clean enough fish, you discover the skeletal composition of the fish. You start to see the food from the inside out. And you take what you’ve learned and grow from there.”
The menu might include a dish like Dungeness crab cakes made with capers and fresh chopped herbs.
When Villanueva moved to the Coachella Valley in 2012, a seismic shift occurred in his cooking. He was inspired by the agriculture of the region and the health-forward consciousness of the people who reside here.
“Back when I was catering, nobody really cared where the food came from,” he says. “But when I moved to the desert, I found it to be a very healing place. I started paying attention to what people were eating and what made them feel good.”
Villanueva launched Balisage Bistro in 2014 near the Palm Springs International Airport. He developed a Mediterranean menu with a farm-to-table sensibility and filled the space with fresh herbs growing in pots, developing a reputation for serving high-quality meals. After three years at that location, Villanueva moved to the Cathedral City Cove area and refined his concept to be more “earth-to-table.”
“It’s a connection that goes beyond the farm,” he says. “And I tie that memory to watching my grand-parents creating a relationship with the earth.”
As the food industry blows through trends, from molecular gastronomy to robot servers to eye-catching dishes designed to leverage the social media algorithm, Villanueva believes something has been lost along the way.
The chalkboard menu evolves regularly, depending on Villanueva’s weekly farmers market haul.
“The culinary world is so focused on going forward, and I’m going backward,” he says. “I purposely want to get back to the basics. Regenerative farming, eating seasonally, fueling our bodies with food that gives us health. That’s what I’m into.”
That became the driving force behind Daniel’s Table. Villanueva focused on going back to the basics of vibrant, whole foods that nurture and sustain us, while tapping into the food knowledge his ancestors seemed to know instinctively.
And then, for good measure, he added fire.
“I decided I was going to get a big-ass grill and bring the element of fire into it,” Villanueva says. “I wanted to harness the flavor that’s been there since the beginning of time.”
Inside Daniel’s Table
The restaurant is unassuming, located in a strip mall directly behind a mattress warehouse. The large glass windows are darkened, while inside, the lights are dimmed to a hazy glow. The interior is unfussy. But this sums up what Daniel’s Table is all about. The setting is a mere backdrop for the real show — letting quality ingredients shine.
“I want to give people aromatics from the earth, and the best way to achieve that is through fire.”
What actually sets the tone for this culinary journey is the long bar situated in front of the open kitchen, offering a large-screen-TV-size view of the food preparation.
It’s early evening on a Friday, and sous chef Rick Polacek prepares the mise en place. Villanueva hoists a hefty salmon into the air, before plopping it onto a cutting board and fileting the fish. It’s like watching a choreographed dance. In this case, the dancers wholeheartedly believe in the role they’re playing.
“You know how they say food connects people?” Polacek muses. “Well, it also connects us to it. High-quality food that’s organic and prepared well gives us a different energy than something that’s taken out of a package. It lifts us up.”
Chef cooking on an open fire.
Villanueva slices peaches that will be grilled and served with a salad of baby gem lettuce.
The fiery grill takes up the bulk of the kitchen space, and almost everything ends up over the open flame at some point. Every once in a while, the chef’s face reflects the tomato red embers as he stokes the coals, urging the cooking process along. The scientific explanation for what’s happening here is called the Maillard reaction; high heat creates a chemical reaction between amino acids and sugars, browning the food, evoking new flavors and aromas. But to Villanueva, it’s a kind of food magic.
The chef plates an entrée of grilled steelhead salmon over farro and rocket arugula with steamed summer squash. Villanueva cooks on an open flame.
“I want to give people aromatics from the earth, and the best way to achieve that is through fire,” he says.
The server presents an amuse-bouche of diced cantaloupe, grape slices, peppers, and anchovy filets in a delicate vinaigrette. It’s like a remix of the previous day’s market haul. The salad course arrives, and it’s a pile of microgreens with shaved fennel, raspberries, fresh herbs, flower petals, and hunks of goat cheese, all tossed with a plum dressing. And finally, fire comes to the table in the form of a grilled lamb loin, slathered in fig jam.
The server stops by the table to check up on the guests and smiles warmly.
Then comes the question: “Are you loving it?”