Great Maple at Fashion Island (one of three locations) was an establishment I would walk by, but never felt compelled to check out. That is, until I met friends there last year. Serving a menu that appealed to the masses, Corporate Chef Carmine Lopez provides insight on not only the brand, but her childhood as well.
How do you explain the Great Maple brand for those not familiar?
We are a Modern American restaurant. Great Maple serves seasonal dishes as well as familiar plates to the palate. We have a great appreciation for the kitchens of the world, especially kitchens we grew up in. We've gotten our perspective from these influences and incorporated it into our version of a Modern American eatery.
How do you like your steak cooked?
Typically, medium-rare; but I do prefer my filets rare.
When you joined the Great Maple family, you mentioned being excited about building a brand (as opposed to an already established one). Could you please elaborate on that?
When I joined Johnny, I was given an opportunity to work with him and his vision. San Diego was going to be a hub of creativity for Great Maple. So to be given that creative outlet and seeing it throughout our other restaurants is pretty amazing.
Most undervalued ingredient:
I think in American culture, fish sauce is underrated. I am Filipino, so we pretty much put it on everything. I think it's such a good ingredient for balance of sodium, but without making your dish taste too salty.
One stereotype about your industry, and whether it's true.
People assume we make five-course meals at home or elaborate parties. I'm pretty plain when it comes to my own food. Whatever's quick and convenient is good for me. I am more in awe with what my friends whip up in the kitchen. I feel like they are better chefs at home than I am.
What are some of the seasonal items in the current menu?
We do Specials Boards every day, so we get to be creative anytime. Right now, citrus is in season. One that has become a favorite is our Farmers Market Tangerine with roasted beets, Anderson Valley goat cheese, crushed pistachios, shaved Brussels sprouts and citrus vinaigrette.
Most important qualities you look for in a sous chef:
Loyalty and leadership.
Is there a dish you'd like to learn how to make?
It's not a dish, but more like the cuisine. I would like to learn Indian/Middle Eastern cooking. It's very complex with so much balance. I want to learn under a mother who has been cooking for her family for decades.
One food you can't live without.
I can't live without eggs. Eggs just go well with everything you eat. You can have it for dinner, in a sandwich, on noodles, with rice. The possibilities are endless!
The last time we ate there, there were these long boards of food going through the dining room. What were those?
Johnny had an idea of "dim sum style" with small bites. It's a fun way to interact with the guests as they are patiently waiting for their food. We ring the bell when something is about to come out. And for the sweet bites, we light up the red light and ring the bell when Chef Kelly's freshly baked goods come out during our brunch service.
Your responsibilities include training both back and front of the house. What are the most important things you can teach kitchen and dining staff?
I always advocate communication. If you don't know, then ask! Another important aspect of both front and back of the house is that we work together and not against each other. It's all about the guest and their experience in our restaurant.
Favorite meal growing up:
Growing up, I was obsessed with shrimp. My mom would whip up sauteed shrimp (head and shell on) with garlic, butter and lemon. I would eat it over rice. I was pretty spoiled, and my mom would peel the shrimp for me. Now, she does the same for my son.
Tell us something most people don't know about you.
I was born in a car. I didn't quite make it to the hospital, so my dad delivered me in a car.
Favorite places to eat.
Tofu House, Izakaya Masa, Mariscos Nine Seas Seafood, any kind of Korean BBQ, Minh Ky.
What is your guilty pleasure food?
I don't have much of a sweet tooth. Almost every night, I pop popcorn in a pan and season it with furikake, which is a Japanese seaweed seasoning. It's the best!
You are from the Philippines, but your upbringing was in Japan. Why did your family move, and how did that affect (if at all) your cultural and culinary background?
My Dad was in the Navy, and my family was stationed in Atsugi, Japan for almost eight years. I moved there when I was 10, and my Dad retired after my high school graduation. I spent my adolescence there, so culturally I was absorbing anything Japanese. But I was a stubborn Navy brat who just wanted to move back to San Diego. It wasn't until I left Japan that cooking struck a chord in my life. I just missed the food and I had to cook for myself.
Last thing you looked up online:
DIY - Plant care for succulents.
Do you have any skills that have nothing to do with food?
I am a plant lady, and I like to build succulent arrangements. It's starting to get out of hand!
Where was your most recent meal?
I just went to Tribute Pizza down in my neighborhood in North Park. I had their Brooklyn's Best Pizza that has a sesame crust and it was amazing. Most definitely going again!
Hardest lesson you've learned.
You can't do everything yourself.
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What's your favorite childhood memory?
Growing up in Japan (or a military lifestyle) made my friends and I latchkey kids. So we got to explore Japan without any parental guidance. We got lost a lot! Definitely so many great memories with my friends whom I still hang out with after 25 years.
You're making breakfast; what are you having?
Over easy eggs and honey ham over rice.
What would you like to be doing if you weren't in this business?
I was very into soccer in high school and JC. I wish I had pursued a soccer career.
Great Maple is located at 1133 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach, (949) 706-8282; www.thegreatmaple.com.