Woo and his wife, Jackie, partnered with Palm Springs Art Museum to create Livs, located on the museum’s lower level. Here, they pose at the restaurant with their daughter Olivia.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY FREDRIK BRODÉN
As Gabriel Woo prepares to open his new restaurant, Livs, this month, he reflects on his culinary journey — from mixing cookie batter on his driveway in Cathedral City as a child to establishing himself as a respected chef with a vision for a cheerful and lively restaurant at Palm Springs Art Museum. His passion for cooking, dedication to innovation, and love for hospitality will undoubtedly make Livs a must-visit destination in Palm Springs when it opens later this month. However, he was no overnight success. It’s been a long journey, with many different roles undertaken by a chef on the rise who has officially arrived.
Woo’s interest in cooking started when he was an elementary school student. The budding chef, who grew up in Cathedral City, was captivated by a force so powerful that some of the world’s top chefs over the past 70 years have cited the same source of inspiration in their culinary journeys: Julia Child.
“Something that influenced me, without me even knowing at the time, was Julia Child on PBS,” he says. “I always thought the show was funny. Me and my sister and my brother would watch it and think it was cool, but we’d never want to make that food or even eat it.”
Instead of making boeuf bourguignon, Woo’s first venture into cooking was somewhat sweeter and perhaps more age appropriate.
“I used to check out cookbooks from my school’s library. I was about age 10, and I wanted to make peanut butter cookies,” he says. “It seemed easy because I had all the ingredients at home. But my mom didn’t want me to make a mess in her clean kitchen, so I went to the neighbor’s [house].”
Chef Gabriel Woo is poised to open Livs in early 2024. Until then, get a preview of his offerings during the museum’s weekly Thursday Night Sessions event.
He mixed the ingredients in a bowl while sitting outside on his driveway, and then strolled next door and popped the raw batter in his neighbor’s oven.
“I started playing and, of course, forgot about them. They all burned. Their house smelled like burnt cookies for a couple of days.”
His first restaurant job was as a dishwasher at Tamarisk Country Club in Rancho Mirage when he was 15. He worked hard, and it paid off. “I would help the chef,” Woo says. “He’d pick me out of the group and tell me I was going to help him set up the buffet, and then we’d go downstairs and get all the supplies.
“I would also peel all the carrots or peel all the onions and potatoes, drain the stock, stuff like that. I was learning.”
Later, Woo found himself tossing dough in the kitchen at Stuft Pizza in Old Town La Quinta. This is where he met Jackie, who became his wife and business partner.
“She was a host, and I was in the kitchen on the line,” Woo recalls.
He transitioned from making pizzas to working the cold line, then the hot line, and then he landed the role of kitchen manager. After a few years, and having reached the end of the line at Stuft Pizza, he opted for proper training at The Art Institute of California, Inland Empire. This led to positions at various golf and country clubs throughout the Coachella Valley.
“I went to PGA West and all those clubs,” he says. “My first chef mentor, Chris Olson, hired me. He taught me many things and was patient. He’s at Thunderbird Country Club now.
“One thing he taught me that stuck was not to think about the money. He said to focus on my technique and growth, and then the money would eventually come.”
Woo did just that, working in numerous kitchens, eventually landing in Palm Springs — perhaps most notably helming the culinary operations at Holiday House, Sparrows Lodge, and Bar Cecil.
The restaurant is named after their youngest of two daughters, Olivia.
For his latest endeavor, Woo Hospitality LLC, he and Jackie partnered with Palm Springs Art Museum to create Livs. The eatery is named after the couple’s youngest daughter, Olivia (Bar Cecil has a dessert named after their first, Aniston). “We wanted to make it cheerful like our daughter,” he says. “The space is bright and homey. It’s yellow and has a floral theme,” he says of the recently refreshed restaurant space, formerly occupied by Persimmon Wine Bar & Bistro. “I’d say it’s the best patio in Palm Springs. It’s cooler down there. You get the view of the mountains and people walking by upstairs, and then there’s the sculpture garden.”
Livs presents an eclectic menu inspired by Woo’s travels and collaborations with different chefs. While his cooking style defies categorization, he’s excited to lean into comforting dishes for breakfast and lunch.
“I’m going to do a crabcake roll and a lobster roll. Then a cool cinnamon roll that you can share — I’ve wanted to do that for a while,” he says. “There will be omelets and eggs Benedict. Then we’ll have pancakes, of course, in some capacity.”
One unique challenge the chef faced while outfitting the restaurant was the museum’s “no open flame” policy. Instead of trying to overcome the limitation, he fully embraced it, equipping the kitchen with top-of-the-line electric appliances. “It’s going to be really interesting,” he says. “I’m going to embrace it. There’s so much equipment out there that’s electric.” Through it all, the museum has been a great partner. “They’re so supportive. They see the same potential for a cool, buzzy restaurant.”
Woo is excited to work alongside Jackie. “It’s amazing that we get to spend time together and work in the same place. We both share a passion for hospitality,” he says. “Jackie has always dreamed of owning and operating a restaurant. We are both very passionate about the industry, and she’s the best up front — everybody loves Jackie.”
For the couple, opening Livs at Palm Springs Art Museum is the realization of a long-cherished dream. They will strive to create a warm, inviting atmosphere that encourages people to gather, make memories, and relish exceptional food. If Woo’s weekly culinary pop-ups leading up to the grand opening have been any indication, Livs is sure to generate a buzz in the Greater Palm Springs dining scene.