I first started following the work of Ron Mendoza, long before I started following the work of Ron Mendoza. It’s confusing, I know. But about 3 years ago, I started coming across pictures of desserts made by the pastry chef of Aubergine. They resonated with me in a way few do, our desserts are kindred spirits you could say. Then, the name Ron would pop up in pastry-cheffy-conversations, and before I knew it one of my friends, Caroline Thompson, stage extraordinaire, was moving across the country for the opportunity to be his cook. I’ve become such a fan of Ron’s work, that I decided to invite him to contribute to this blog. When I asked my friend Caroline for his contact info, and divulged my plans to her, she said, “oh yeah, he used to write that blog One Spoon Quenelle.” It was then I realized I’d been following Ron long before I’d been following Ron. It should have struck me that Ron from One Spoon Quenelle and Ron from Aubergine were the same person long before, but alas! Lucky for all of us, not only did Ron agree to share his work with us, he’s well versed in blogging as well. Without further adieu, meet Ron!
What is your name, and what is your current position?
Ron Mendoza, Pastry Chef at Aubergine Restuarant in Carmel by the Sea
What was the first dessert you ever made?
For about 9 months in I worked Jaan Restaurant in the L’Ermitage Beverly Hills. I actually worked the garde manger station but made the dessert menu since I was the only one there with pastry experience.
The only dish I remember was a warm Chinese 5 spice broth poured into a bowl of shaved candied fennel, the fronds, and creme fraiche ice cream.
I remember this one because we got reviewed by the LA Times food critic and she liked the dish. I was thrilled because it was my first menu but was not credited as the Pastry Chef. Still it gave me motivation and a clear path.
Did you go to school, and where?
I went to Southern California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena. I never intended to do pastry. It was a 15 month program and the school was in it’s infancy so they had a poor curiculum. I worked the entire time and learned more on the job. The school has since grown and it seems lots of great chefs have come from there, including Stephanie Prida of Manresa and Thomas Raquel of Le Bernardin.
What was the worst thing you made in pastry school, or any other hilarious disasters we can laugh about?
As I previously stated, I went to culinary school not interested in pastry. So during the pastry program, I didn’t really pay much attention to the details of the craft. I was skipping school often to do cooking events with the restaurant I worked for. One particular day I missed was when we did laminated doughs and croissants. It bit me in the butt because, of course, for my final I had to make croissants. I winged it somehow. I guess I was lucky because though I didn’t prepare much at the time, I was a voracious reader of all cookbooks and techniques. My croissants surely weren’t worthy of selling but good enough to pass. Now I love doing laminated doughs and kind of wish I did them more often.
What was your first pastry job?
My first pastry job was at Patina Restaurant in Los Angeles. It was a dream job. I started there in garde manger 8 months previous. The station was next to pastry. I constantly pestered the pastry chef on how they did everything. Once a positon opened up, I grabbed it and never looked back. That is where I found my mentor and began my real training.
What has been your favorite job so far?
I would have to break it down into two moments. First, at Sona in Los Angeles. Along with my mentor and the rest of the team, we were cooking like no one else in town. Back in 2003, we wanted to bridge the gap between El Bulli and Chez Panisse, with influences of Sigur Ros and Jackson Pollock. The whole restaurant wanted that. There were no rules.
Secondly, my current position. Being outside of any major city with no one else around, I have had time to practice, try, fail, try again, discover, and rediscover everything and anything. I have definately found myself and my style here in Carmel.
Do you have someone you consider a mentor?
Michelle Myers of Sona Restaurant and Boule. She no longer cooks but I really owe everything I do to her. She taught me basics but more importantly taught me how to think outside the box. During work, we discussed food, techniques, flavors, art, music, film, design…she taught me creativity and how it applies to dining.
Why did you choose this career path to begin with?
This is a funny question. I don’t know, really. I don’t have any history with food aside from the fact that I was comfortable in the kitchen. I grew up a total latch key kid, making my own dinners with Kraft Mac and Cheese or just rice with butter and soy sauce. Quesadillas are a specialty of mine.
I didn’t start culinary school until I was 25. Way too late of a start. But I had drive and a sense of creativity.
I used to skateboard. Amatuer contests and all. I was pretty good. Lots of trophies. I always knew how to progress and push myself. Cooking techniques are like skateboard tricks, the more you know, the bigger arsenal you have and eventually you create your own style. Both take passion and a push from within.
Have you done any stages? Where? What did you learn there?
I didn’t stage. I wish I did. With such a late start, I needed to work. It’s always been a necessary job unfortunately. But I have been able to travel and meet people and have seen lots of great things because of cooking.
If you had to describe the style you work in, what would it be?
Organic. The main word my mentor taught me. Everything is organic. Menus evolve, style gradually changes over time. Nothing is forced. If it doesn’t feel right, change it.
Organic in flavors, in style, in plating.
My Chef said the ingredients should look like leaves fallen from a tree…delicate, natural, with a sense of ease, but meaningful.
That is how I want to work. I want the experience to be felt more than forced.
What was your first pastry chef position?
Sona Restaurant was my first pastry chef position. We opened a pastry shop, boule, across the street and my main focus was Sona Restaurant. It was great. So many great cooks came from that kitchen. I think the best thing about it was working with a great team and mentoring newer cooks.
Name one of your favorite cookbooks.
Easily Albert Adria’s first pastry book. Pastry chefs still do food that he did 16 years ago. Everything in there is still brilliant, relatable, and usable to this day.
And the iconic Michel Bras book. Nature, organic, technique, so perfect and thought out and at the same time completely at ease.
If you wrote a book, what would it be about?
Well, the first thing that comes to mind would be just a visual photo book of plated desserts. Similar to an artists book of paintings. I could fall deeply down a rabbit hole just staring at amazingly photogenic dishes. The colors, the textures, movement within a still life photo. The plate it’s on. The background or lack of.
The image itself inspires. They could be posters on a wall or photos in a museum.
Pastry books aren’t made like that. They have to teach you something. How many books have a pate sucre recipe or a macaron recipe where they are all basically the same. I want an image that moves me. That makes me think about how food can move others and other artists. It doesn’t even have to be my food. Just show how beautifull a dessert can look and let viewers question how it was conceived.
Have you ever written about your work before?
Yes. I used to have a blog. One Spoon Quenelle.
I started it when I moved to Carmel. It was a way to communicate with others, to document what I did, and to force me to think about what I did. The title came from the French Laundry book that referenced the quenelle and how that became the standard bearer of what fine dining pastry was. You weren’t doing fine dining unless you had a perfect quenelle on the dish. It forced me to rethink the concept. It ultimately became a lie we all lived. Now I smash quenelles or cover them up…..
If you had any advice to the younger version of yourself, what would it be?
Definately go stage, go travel, get out there, and talk to more people and don’t be such an introvert!
I used to skateboard. I always broke rules. I love art, film, architecture, clothing design…anything that comes from a creative mind. But I didn’t get out more and see more of this industry. To create connections, see how other people did things. So now, I feel as if half the time, even though I know what I know, I have no idea how this industry really works.
Restaurant, hotel, bakery, or beyond? What’s your niche?
I’ve worked fine dining restaurants most of my career. It’s where I feel comfortable. Though a pastry chef will always bump their head on that ceiling eventually. No where to go in that building, you know.
A dessert bar similar to a sushi bar would be a dream. Spontaneous, creative, trasparent, interacting with guests and serving desserts they couldn’t find anywhere else. I could imagine having a service where not one person gets the same dish. How cool would that be…..or crazy?
What was the last dessert you ate?
do you mean the pop tart or Ben Spungin’s dessert at 1833? The pop tart makes my latch key childhood happy even though I know it’s a terrible representation of what good pastry is. One the other hand, Ben makes the most ethereally creamy desserts and he’s such a cool guy to know.
And most importantly, do you have any pets, and what are their names. Tell us everything.
Unfortunately, I can’t have them where I currently live. However, my previous cats were brothers and were named Fauchon and Berthillon. While working in LA at Sona, we heard squeals in the wall behind the hostess stand. We hammered through and found 4 kittens, barely a week old. They had fallen from the roof where the mom gave birth and landed safely on a beam in the wall. Fauchon loved to suck on my shoulder and Berthillon just stared at me with eyes like C3PO. Lovely kitties.
Can’t wait for my next ones!