2010 San Francisco Bay Area Rising Star Chef John Paul Carmona of Manresa

2010 San Francisco Bay Area Rising Star Chef John Paul Carmona of Manresa
June 2010

Manresa’s Chef de Cuisine John Paul Carmona developed a strong connection with food and its source at an early age. Born and raised in San Salvador, El Salvador, he grew up helping his father at the family farm and learning to cook as he watched his grandmother prepare meals on her visits from California.

Carmona decided to follow his passion and move to the United States to go to culinary school. While attending Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhodes Island, Carmona was selected to join the school’s team at the IKA International Culinary Olympics in Germany.

After culinary school, Carmona worked at such seminal restaurants as Clio in Boston with Chef Ken Oringer, Alinea in Chicago with Chef Grant Achatz, and Mugaritz in San Sebastián, Spain with Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz. Now as Chef de Cuisine at Manresa in Los Gatos, Carmona is able to utilize the restaurant’s farm and the area’s bounty of produce to create clean, sophisticated dishes that draw on all of his influences from childhood to present.

This year, Carmona appeared on Food Network’s Iron Chef America, assisting Manresa Chef David Kinch to clinch victory over Bobby Flay. During his tenure at Manresa, the restaurant has been awarded two Michelin stars for the fourth consecutive year.

Chef John Paul Carmona of Manresa - Los Gatos, CA

Interview with Chef John Paul Carmona of Manresa - Los Gatos, CA

Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
John Paul Carmona: My grandmother was a really good cook and she would visit. We lived in El Salvador and she lived here. I would look forward to eating her food and cooking with her. Growing up with my father and my mother, we really liked eating. Being a curious person, I always like to know how to do the things I like to do. One thing led to another. I always liked ingredients, my father had a farm where I worked sometimes. Being there and being able to eat what we produced is what gave me my love for that now.

AB: What is the food scene like in El Salvador?
JPC: I would say it’s like Miami 15 years ago. Its very simple, fresh seafood, most of the food you wouldn’t consider modern. The street food is very good.

AB: Did  you go to culinary school? Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs?
JPC: I went to Johnson & Wales in Providence, Rhode Island for four years. I would [recommend it] if you know what to do with it. Some people think that’s going to give you a free pass, but if you're going to take advantage of opportunities, work hard, you'll see the different parts [of the industry].

AB: What advice would you offer to young chefs just getting started?
JPC: Work hard, read, and eat a lot. Read the classics as well as the new things. I think the classics are more important to really understand cooking, [to understand the] things you know, things you don’t know, and continually taste and develop your palate and your imagination.

AB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
JPC: Los Gatos is pretty small but we take a lot of stages from the local colleges and San Francisco and culinary-wise, people come to Los Gatos to eat here and then in turn visit other parts of Los Gatos. So I think it benefits the city as well. I think having the farm is also a plus that says volumes about the quality of produce from this area and also brings notoriety to the farmers, who are really the source of the food we make.

AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
JPC: For food, I would usually think simplicity, and what a couple ingredients or what kind of flavor I can add to that simplicity to make it just a little more complex. Things should look and feel natural, and if you look at this dish it’s simple fish, and vegetables in the sauce. But the actual work has a huge complexity behind it. I don’t think how complex it is should translate into how something looks and tastes. The most important thing is flavor, but you should also show your effort and love for the ingredients in whatever you plate.

AB: What goes into creating a dish?
JPC: The season, what's available, sometimes it’s what you want to work with, mood. The garden dictates somewhat what we’re working with, because we want to take advantage of our garden, but after that it’s imagination—where you've been, what you've seen. Everything gives a little bit to the concept you're trying to build.

AB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your career?
JPC: I think the toughest thing is the ongoing part of working the opposite hours than everyone else. It’s the one thing you're reminded about all the time, whether it’s personal relationships or family time. I think it’s the base thing that's affected.

AB: If you had one thing that you could do over again or do differently what would it be?
JPC: I don't think I would do anything differently. Obviously I would have traveled more, I've worked in Boston for Ken Oringer, here, in Spain. I think the biggest inspiration for all of us would be Michel Bras. Everybody that’s modern can say they came up with a plating, but really it all starts with a source, which is him. I think traveling really feeds your work and is also one of the best things you can do.

AB: What has been your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
JPC: I think for me I'm still improving. I don’t want to be someone who looks back and I'm in the same place I was a year ago. A lot of it has to do with luck, ability (by practice or given to you innately). Some people don’t get the chance to keep doing what they love doing. I don't think I could do anything else. I guess because it's most recent, I would say being chef de cuisine here. It’s ongoing. You don't accomplish something and then stop.

AB: What’s next for you? Where will we find you in five years?
JPC: Hopefully by then, I'll be able to have my own restaurant. I don't know exactly where. I think that should be everyone's dream or goal—to be in charge of something that's their own. I don't know if it will be in this area, but I like it very much so that’s definitely an option. If it's in the US it would definitely be California.