Foodie Talk: Santana Diaz
The new executive chef for Neiman Marcus Cafe chats about coming to Walnut Creek; NM Cafe's new prix fixe menu; and sage cooking advice.
NM Café’s new executive chef is entering the Walnut Creek restaurant scene armed with plenty of enthusiasm. After working his way up the ladder in Sacramento, including stints at Taste, The Firehouse, and most recently as sous chef for the Sacramento Kings, he was ready to make a move to foodier pastures. “I was looking to come out to the Bay Area and knew Walnut Creek was a foodie town,” he says. “And I wanted to try to challenge myself to see if people would enjoy the food I was preparing.” So far, so good, as Santana Diaz has taken Neiman Marcus’ directive to push the boundaries of what a department store café can offer, and run with it.
“I wasn’t looking to just flip burgers and make sandwiches, and Neiman was interested in seeing how far I could take things and how customers would respond.”
Whenever possible, Diaz is sourcing local: all his bread is from local bakery/sandwich shop A Sweet Affair, he's shopping for produce form the Locust Street Farmer's Market, and his beef is Newport Pride Natural from a free-range ranch in Vallejo. For Restaurant Week, Diaz created a three-course prix fixe meal that was so popular he made it a permanent fixture on the menu. The $30 special (it’ll always have one seafood option) will rotate weekly and even be offered for dinner after Neiman decided to expand the café’s hours to the evening. CLICK HERE to check out this week’s menu (which includes the pictured lamb lollipops). 1275 Broadway Plz., Walnut Creek, 925-472-6186, NM Cafe website.
Name: Santana Diaz
Hometown: Yuba City
What inspired you to become a chef?
Just my passion and creativity to marry flavors that might not always be paired together. And to be able to enjoy people’s company and provide them with things that are gratifying, that's always appealed to me: food brings people together.
Describe your perfect meal.
Anything seasonal that’s prepared well. And I’m partial to a good steak. Medium rare.
What are some of your favorite restaurants (other than your own)?
Well, I’m from the Sacramento area so a lot of my favorite restaurants are out there. Taste restaurant in Plymouth, where I used to work: we turned that into a number one Zagat rated restaurant. Mulvaney's B & L in midtown Sacramento. And there’s a place in Paris in the Hotel Fouxuet, where I staged [interned] that will always be really special to me.
Who would you rather have dinner with: Anthony Bourdain or Alice Waters? And why?
Anthony Bourdain. He’s real, and he’s a respectable chef. I met him once when he came to the Sacramento Convention Center: he just seems like a guy I could sit down to a meal and enjoy a beer with.
What’s the best cooking advice you ever received?
A chef friend of mine once told me to never serve anything that you wouldn’t stand behind. In other words, never put out something for a guest that I’m not proud to be serving.
What’s one tip you could give diners about ordering at a restaurant?
Try letting the chef be creative with a meal; allow yourself to try something new. You may end up liking combinations of flavors that you wouldn’t have thought to order yourself.
Wine or beer? And what kind?
Wine with food, and beer with friends. I do prefer Bordeaux and Margaux wines. For beer, I’m definitely a microbrew guy.
What’s tops on your music playlist right now?
Other than the music playing in my head [laughs]? Honestly, nothing, really: I’m not much of a music guy.