Ben Diaz has elevated the burger at El Jefe, located inside The Saguaro in Palm Springs.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY NATE ABBOTT
Running a restaurant kitchen is challenging. Running multiple restaurant kitchens within a resort in an increasingly popular destination while attending to an everchanging mix of guests, menus, and concepts during one of the toughest periods in hospitality history is not for the faint of heart. Meet three chefs who are new to the Coachella Valley but hit the ground running, making popular desert dining venues feel like home once again.
Ben Diaz, The Saguaro Palm Springs
There’s nowhere Ben Diaz would rather be right now than exactly where he is. “What better place to be than in paradise, right? I came here and spent a weekend, tried the food, talked to the staff, talked to some of the guests, and I fell in love with the property,” he beams. “It’s a little quirky. It spoke to me.”
Though his training is in classical French cooking, he has shifted his focus over the past few years to Latin fare, with stints at two modern Mexican restaurants in Los Angeles, his own pop-up taqueria, and a consulting gig for Que Vida Tacos in Huntington Beach. “So,” Diaz says, “this is the perfect fit.”
The chef’s first order of business after starting here late last year was to tweak some of the recipes at El Jefe, the convivial taco and tequila joint that expanded to the hotel’s primary restaurant space and back patio during the pandemic. Since El Jefe has gained a following over the years, including loyal crowds that show up for à la carte tacos and discounted drinks on Taco Tuesday and Thursday, Diaz wanted to improve on fan favorites rather than change the menu too much too soon.
Case in point: He amped up the uber-popular burger at El Jefe — which previously included a single patty — with two 3-ounce patties made up of an umami-packed wagyu beef blend layered with triple-smoked cheddar, newly created special sauce, and caramelized onions on a sweet honey bun. “We took it back to something simple, delicious, and reminiscent of backyard burger,” Diaz says, “and it’s become our number-one seller.”
He tweaked some of the tacos, too, swapping the existing tortilla for one with a richer corn flavor, and changing the carne asada marinade to a guajillo-citrus blend infused with hickory- and applewood-smoked sea salt.
Over the last six months, Diaz has created special one-off menus for the hotel’s monthly Mezcal pairing dinners, and with triple digits on the horizon, he’s putting the finishing touches on a Mexican-style raw bar offering for the summer pool menu with chilled dishes such as mahi ceviche and yellowfin tuna aguachile. “I’m very focused on farm-to-table and, really, fisherman-to-table,” he says.
The hotel plans to launch the new El Jefe Cantina, in El Jefe’s original lobby-adjacent bar space, this month. “The food there will change on a monthly basis,” Diaz says, noting it will be heavy on cocktails and rotating bar bites like the beef taco-quesadilla hybrid quesabirria and vegan chicharrónes. “We want to use the cantina to showcase new things.”
Parker Palm Springs
In many ways, Parker Palm Springs is the city’s quintessential hotel: It’s all about design, with a playful Hollywood Regency meets midcentury aesthetic. Set on the former estate of “singing cowboy” Gene Autry, it has a Hollywood history and remains a go-to destination for modern-day celebs. But one element truly defines the property, says executive chef Pedro Baroso, and that’s what he aims to showcase at each of the Parker’s three restaurants: luxury.
“My background has always been working for very high-end brands, and I think Parker is at the same level,” says Baroso, who most recently oversaw two on-site restaurants at The Ritz-Carlton, Washington, D.C., and has served as chef at Grand Wailea in Maui and Bulgari Hotels & Resorts in Dubai. “We want to put things on [the menu] that someone looking for luxury is seeking, like caviar, black truffles, or when it’s white truffle season, I’ll create dishes with white truffles,” he says. “It’s all about using a fine product. That’s the key.”
Baroso says he always wanted to live in California and that Parker Palm Springs — with its independent spirit, European vibe, and strong culinary program — was the perfect fit for him. “Parker speaks for itself,” Baroso says. “It’s unique, and each outlet is separate from the hotel. I’m Portuguese, so my background is Mediterranean. I’m going to put my touch on a lot of things but also keep what Parker is already.”
The chef plans to maintain wine bar Counter Reformation’s focus on tapas (the sliced-to-order Iberico ham is here to stay) but potentially switch up presentations or certain ingredients. He also plans to integrate some of his own Med-influenced specialties, including his signature patatas bravas and beef tartare, in addition to a larger selection of California-sourced cheeses.
“It’s all about using a fine product. That’s the key.”
- Pedro Baroso
While the glam restaurant Mister Parker’s remained shuttered for much of the pandemic, Baroso is charged with reopening it. “I will be the one designing the menu. It’s going to be modern cuisine, Californian-European,” he says. “It will be the same level as it used to be — fine dining in a sense. Simple dishes with a focus on the product. If you put the best product you can get with the right garnish, and make the plate beautiful, the ingredients speak for themselves.”
At the patio restaurant Norma’s, he might adjust the dinner menu, but those whimsical daytime dishes — from the French toast drenched in Valrhona chocolate sauce to the fruit-stuffed waffles with a glassy brûléed top — are staying put. “We have so many guests from outside who come to Norma’s because it’s just so famous for breakfast and brunch.”
Juan Morales, Agua Caliente Rancho Mirage
Juan Morales knows how to juggle multiple restaurants at a successful desert casino. For the last six years, he was executive chef of Green Valley Ranch in Las Vegas. He credits that experience — along with his time working at L.A.’s renowned Patina Restaurant Group — for preparing him for this latest position: overseeing six food and beverage concepts at Agua Caliente Resort Casino Spa Rancho Mirage — a massive operation that caters to a diverse group of locals and visitors around the clock.
In his new position, Morales enjoys great autonomy to be inventive and take chances on new things. “I have more creative freedom here,” he says. “I can bounce ideas off my F&B director and get feedback. Obviously, there are things that work and some things that won’t work and need refinement, but never once have I felt like, ‘Oh, no, I can’t try that.’ That’s one of the big benefits.”
Morales points to the more global, unexpected offerings on the menu at sports bar 360 Sports as examples of the out-of-the-box thinking — dishes like tempura cauliflower bites and Asian-inspired firecracker shrimp lettuce wraps with housemade pickles and Vietnamese herbs. “While we do have traditional sports bar items like wings, others are very culinary-driven with specific flavor profiles and textures,” he says. “To see that take off and be a part of it continuing to grow is an amazing thing.”
Since he started in December 2021, Morales has given a big chunk of his attention to The Steakhouse, collaborating with his team to update and grow the menu, incorporating more local produce, offering more seasonal specialties and options for vegan guests.
“One of the things that drew me back to California is the ability to get great produce year-round,” he says. “My hope is that we’re going to start to see fresher, lighter items, more well-rounded menus that guests identify with.”