A PASSION FOR FRUIT & POTATOES: THE
WAY TO CHEF LUIS JOSE VERGARA GOURMET HEART
By Selicia Kennedy-Ross
The simple potato has always been the key to Chef Jose Luis Vergara’s success, a secret he knew even at the tender age of 11.
Today, the 37-year-old Chef Vergara is the owner of the Colton-based Gourmet Potato Works, which distributes his unique potato creations to upscale eateries such as hotels and restaurants nationwide. He established his business in 1999, moving the headquarters east from Los Angeles to Colton in 2008. He oversees a permanent staff of eight, bringing in extra help for catering jobs and also sells his products online.
“Gourmet Potato Works is the gourmet side of the potato industry,” the Rialto resident explains. “The potato industry is so HUGE that I keep myself in business by creating something different. I cannot compete with French fries so I don’t try to. Instead, I give other chefs something to upgrade the menu, very gourmet potato dishes.”
Vergara studied for five years under Chef Wolfgang Schweinberger, a master chef who trained the young man under an apprenticeship.
Potatoes also played a part in his career choice. Vergara was 16, he was working in the kitchen, peeling potatoes at an afterschool job when he met the elder chef who would become his mentor. The master chef understood his passion for cooking and trained the youngster in the art of European gourmet cooking. Vergara toiled away and in time, became a sous chef.
Eventually, the two men became partners. Later, Schweinberger sold him the business. Their relationship has come full circle. These days, Schweinberger works for Vergara in sales due to his extensive contacts in the gourmet industry.
While he has always had a passion for creative dishes, it was the potato that always inspired him, Vergara said.
“Why potatoes?” he asks with a smile. “It’s amazing what you can do with potatoes: they can be fried, boiled, steamed, baked. From snacks to desserts – the possibilities are endless.”
“Most chefs like to create things, to come up with new ideas that gives customers something to talk about,” he says. “So I made a pomme gaufrette basket that was brushed with chocolate inside. Since chocolate has oil in it and the potato is deep fried, somehow the flavors blend well together. Then we add ice cream and fruit and may be some type of flambé as well.”
As for his signature dish, Vergara says it may well be his pomme soufflé. As far as he is aware, he is the only one in the United States who has managed to commercialize that type of potato dish.
“It is made with single slices of potato cooked in very different oils and it puffs up,” he says. “It is a very expensive and very exclusive dish. Only certain restaurants have it.”
In addition to his gourmet potato business, Chef Vergara recently started a second gourmet venture this past summer, a hand-carved fruit dessert business he calls My Fruit Works, which is primarily marketed online.
Drawing from his experience in country clubs and restaurants where he often had to carve fruit for Sunday brunches, it occurred to Vergara that such a service featuring personalized hand-carved-fruit dishes might be a good investment. So he paired his exotic fruit creations, which include tall elaborate fruit arrangements with melons and strawberries and paired them with a warm chocolate fountain for dipping.
“It came to me that I already had everything I needed here and I knew the fruit would go well with chocolate fountains,” he says. “I like to create visuality so I carve everything by hand and my carvings are always personalized. Say a wedding is all about butterflies or fairies, I can carve that as well as names, logos, faces or labels into a watermelon base.”
So far, the reaction has been positive, he says. My Fruit Works currently caters special events all over Southern California such as weddings and quincenearas.
Vergara, who has two young sons, Luis Jr., 14, and Alan, 7, says his children are big fans of his fruit desserts but it’s the more exotic gourmet dishes that he has trouble selling them when he tries to expand their palates.
“They always love my fruit dishes but for dinner they just want fried things and pizza,” he says, laughing. “I try to make them some gazpacho, or fix them gourmet meat dishes but it doesn’t matter whether its chicken or lamb, it’s just plain meat to them. They just don’t get it yet.”
Vergara, who is of Mexican descent, was born in Phoenix, Ariz., the son of immigrant parents and considers himself Mexican-American. He credits his parents who he says instilled in him a strong work ethic from the time he was very young, which he believes has helped him to value hard work and succeed in his career.
“Before, most chefs used to be European, they were the king of the kitchen but now that’s changing – the industry is opening up to everyone,” Vergara says. “Some people just generalize and when they see a Latino chef, they think he’s the dishwasher. But Latinos are coming in and taking over the kitchen, little by little, going from dishwashers, to cooks to chefs.
“Sometimes I think as Latinos, we need to do even more than others, be better in some ways,” he adds. “It can be very challenging, we have to work harder and show ourselves more but in the end, it is even more rewarding.”