Meet the Santa Fe Steakhouse Chefs Preparing for a Night to Remember

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This year, the Santa Fe Wine Classic is scheduled for Friday, October 16 at Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen and will feature hundreds of wines from around the world and delectable food from some of the best local restaurants in McAllen.

Staring into the faces of the chefs behind the incredibly delicious food served at Santa Fe Steakhouse was riveting. Three of Santa Fe’s four chefs stared back at me as they sat with Sony Rego, the genius woman behind the success of the company’s three restaurants, Santa Fe Steakhouse. Republic of the Rio Grande and University Draft House in Edinburg.

“We’re a success because I have a great team. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do,” she said.

Mexico City born Chef Fernanda Leal began her life with food early.

“It’s quite simple. My mom always liked to cook. Since I was a kid I was always in the kitchen. I worked in her restaurants when I was in Reynosa before I went off to med school,” she threw a twist in the story. “One night I invited my mom to dinner.” “What the heck are you doing studying medicine? You should be doing something in the kitchen!” Her mom went straight to the point. Chef Fernanda pondered these words, then researched schools.

“I went to New York to the Culinary Institute of America and became a chef.” There was pride in her voice. Before she could go she needed six months experience in a restaurant kitchen. Her family knew Sony so she asked Sony for a job. Sony said yes and thus, Chef Fernanda began her career with the company. Returning three years ago with extra training in Spain on food and wine, this will be her fourth Wine Classic.

Chef Jorge Gonzalez, from Veracruz, visited New York City with his family. They left. He stayed.

“I wanted to go to school to learn English and something else.”

Beginning his career in the restaurant world as a dishwasher in a five star establishment, he moved on to Indian cuisine. From there he moved to another restaurant and found himself learning more and more about kitchen prep and cooking.

“I moved to McAllen and worked for a year at Outback Steakhouse, and four years at house.wine.&bistro” Taking some classes from a culinary school in Pharr, Jorge met Chef Roberto and knew he wanted to work with him. Chef Jorge made the move to Santa Fe Steakhouse to work with his mentor.

“I love it. I have the passion for cooking.” His face conveyed the joy and contentment he felt.

Chef Roberto Delgado, from Monterrey, is one of 12 children. He grinned when he repeated his father’s words, “‘We don’t have money for you to go to school.”

By 15, he had left home and had begun his restaurant career, also as a dishwasher. After spending five years in a banquet kitchen cooking for 3,000, he was fired.

“They had sent me to the lnstituto Regiomontano De Hoteleria,” he laughingly said. “The company told me they couldn’t teach me any more and to change my environment.”

Going into a hotel chain, he learned to analyze kitchens and fix any problems he encountered. Traveling around Mexico correcting kitchens. he ended in Reynosa before returning to Monterrey. After turning around another restaurant enterprise, Chef Roberto became a teacher at the International Culinary Institute in Pharr. Discovering he loved to teach, he found he loved being in a working kitchen more.

“I met Ms. Sony and came to work for her,” he said. “He has the soul of a teacher,” Sony replied. “He teaches the rest of us, and everybody likes to work with him.”

Chef number four, Zenon Ollis, was born in Chicago, graduated from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago and has been with the company for eight years. Unable to attend the interview, he is a mainstay at the restaurants and in preparation for the Wine Classic.

Combining the talents of these chefs has brought acclaim to the Santa Fe Steakhouse, recipient for more than 10 years of the “Best Award of Excellence” for its wine list, and named as one of the 300 restaurants in the United States you should try, according to Wine Spectator Magazine.

With the Wine Classic a month away, plans are shifting into high gear with all the secrecy of the Secret Service, with showcase the operative word here. Giving only hints of standouts of years past such as the Tomahawk Ribeye, scallops, and fish baked in clay, Sony insists part of the success of the event is in showcasing the chefs and in offering some surprises.

“People want to see us actually cooking. not bringing things from the kitchen,” declared Chef Fernanda. Seven years ago Sony was wondering how they could showcase the wine selections in the Valley, yet do something for the community at the same time.

“Gerry Garcia and Blanca Cardenas from the McAllen Chamber were having dinner. I was telling them how I’d like to do a major event for a non-profit and showcase the wine. They came up with the Wine Classic for the then Top 25 Scholarship program, now the McAllen Chamber Education Initiative. One hundred percent of the proceeds goes to this cause,” Sony said.

Along with local independent restaurants Kumori, Salt – New American Table, house.wine.&bistro. and Republic of the Rio Grande, the Santa Fe Steakhouse will be offering their mouth-watering delicacies. Over 175 wines from around the world will be offered including the popular Vega Sicilia wines.

All restaurants and wine companies donate everything in order for the proceeds to be the best they can be for the students.

“Well over 200 students have been helped because of this event.” Sony said proudly.

With only 300 tickets being printed this year, she has people waiting in line for the September 1st ticket sales date.

“I want to thank everybody for supporting this event,” Sony said. “We want to keep doing it for the students, for the restaurants, and for the people of the Valley to enjoy this extraordinary experience with wine and food.”~

BY RODA GRUBB