Driven by fresh ingredients and an infectious come-and-join-us attitude, Someone’s in the Kitchen, a cooking school and restaurant, has been filling its kitchen for almost a year without affectation or fuss.
Chef Gene Soto and partner Katie Gonzalez offer a menu of soups, salads, sandwiches and hot dishes inspired from ports around the world that changes every week.
I have to admit, from the fi rst time I heard your name, I just wanted to create an action fi gure. Chef Gene Soto, accessories sold separately.
CHEF GENE: It has become quite a sport.
No kidding! I saw a commercial for “Hell’s Kitchen” the other day. Geez. Yours seems more like Zen Kitchen. Being a cooking school and a restaurant, you must have a lot of patience.
CHEF GENE: I think for the most part, I am fairly under control. The only time I ever lose it is when I feel the customer isn’t getting what they paid for.
But it’s safe to say you would never throw a pan.
CHEF GENE: (smile) Never. It’s a matter of getting lunch out in a timely fashion but more so, making sure that it looks good and tastes good.
KATIE: There’s no reason why a 30-minute lunch can’t be a wonderful experience.
Did you start with the muse of the school and then the restaurant?
CHEF GENE: Yes, the idea was a cooking school first, but the restaurant wasn’t an after-thought. I thought it was important to have some kind of showcase where people could come in and sit down and eat and have an idea of what I actually cook.
I know you’re a believer of farm-to- table…
CHEF GENE: Even further than the farm-to-table concept, we really try to hone in with our students what’s available at the market — meaning Super 1, Safeway or Albertson’s — and what to look for. During the fall and winter, there are root vegetables and greens that people have no idea how to utilize.
KATIE: With the tag line it’s “Someone’s in the Kitchen … and it’s you!” It works for the classes and it works with lunch service because it’s such an open format. You can see everything.
CHEF GENE: You are part of the kitchen.
Back to Gene Soto, action figure — if he were to wield a kitchen tool he couldn’t live without, what would that be?
CHEF GENE: A basic teaspoon. I like to keep a container of them around because they’re good for stirring quickly and tasting. You can peel ginger or garlic with it or use it as a knife if you have to.
Is that the kind of practicality one can expect from your classes?
CHEF GENE: We purposely try and equip this kitchen to what a person might have at home. Our mixing bowl and knives are from Target.
KATIE: And I think when people take the classes here, they kind of feel like it’s their kitchen.
Do items make their way to the menu from the classes?
CHEF GENE: At the request of a student, just last week, we put pasticcio on the menu — a casserole that we made in our Greek class.
I love the fact that the menu changes every week.
KATIE: A guy who works around the corner made the comment: “I could eat here every day for a year and never have the same thing, but I always know it’s going to be good.”
What you’re doing in the process is expanding people’s awareness and their palate. Trust develops between chef and customer. Once you have them sold on some basics, they are willing to be a little more adventurous.
KATIE: We’ve definitely seen that happen. Customers have come in wanting a plain turkey sandwich and they’ll try it with, let’s say a rhubarb chutney, and they’ve surprised themselves.
An a-ha moment…
KATIE: Yes, and next time they won’t even ask.
I noticed on your Web site that you can e-mail a question directly to Chef Gene.
CHEF GENE: Absolutely. I’ve had students call or come back in with the recipe and say: “I’m going to make this tonight. Can we just go over it really quickly?”
CHEF GENE: It happens!
Unlikely pairing that has really worked?
CHEF GENE: In our “Oodles of Noodles” class, we made a fideos dish that had garbanzo beans, creme fresh aioli, fennel, orange and some vanilla. Amazing.
KATIE: We get people from all over the world in the classes. In our Oktoberfest class, we had a guy from Austria and guy from Germany.
CHEF GENE: The guy from Austria came as a birthday gift from his wife because she saw the menu items from his childhood — sauerbraten and spaetzle. He said, “This is better than my mom’s!”
And you still run kids classes?
CHEF GENE: Twice a month When the kids prepare things, because they have ownership, they want to try it. It just goes back to helping people to try new ingredients or products.
KATIE: And the parents are shocked — they ate grilled pineapple? Not that exotic but …We’ve done birthday parties, a class where husbands cook for the wives, a demo class, a family bonding dinner … We don’t want to teach you something you don’t need to know or don’t want to know. But it should be fun — there is a very social aspect to cooking.
CHEF GENE: We finish by eating what we’ve made and everyone talks about what they’ve done and how great it is. Some of our regulars have even brought their guitars, or borrow one from the back … Anything can happen.