YFPA celebrates Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage month! Our featured guest, Bay Area Chef Dominic Ainza cooked chicken adobo on May 20 on Zoom! Watch it here!
Chef Dominic Ainza is well known in the Bay Area restaurant and the Asian American culinary scene, He has worked alongside award-winning executive chefs and developed kitchens in Michelin-recommended restaurants, such as Betelnut, Red Lantern and Attic.
1. What inspired you to become a chef?
I loved cooking. I would say I was inspired by a lot of what I was seeing on TV. But this was for me a second career. I never worked at a restaurant, and I didn’t want to start a second career earning minimum wage and working the night shift, the extra-long hours and standing all day, with minimal breaks. So, I enrolled into cooking school with the main objective of being a food tester, for like a magazine. I wanted to know how food worked. What was the difference between a good dish and a great dish, or why do you cook meat or vegetables a certain way and not all the same way? I wanted to cook a dish 30 times to know as much about the dish as possible and tell people, “this is the best version of the dish and why”.
That was my plan all throughout my time in culinary school. Pretty much until my last few days of school, where I had to decide an internship. All the magazines I applied for were out of state, no pay, where I really didn’t know people. I had to decide that to stay local, I found the one restaurant that was going to pay me for my internship, or the 8 other places that were not. I ended up in a restaurant and fell in love with the whole vibe and rush and haven’t looked back since.
2. What is your favorite thing to make at home?
It is not really one dish, because I can eat any version of fried rice every day. Rice and anything is pretty much comfort food. But to choose a favorite?? Cooking at times can be a little lucky, because I usually cook what I have and not so much following a recipe with the set ingredients. When something you feel that you pull out of nothing that tastes VERY good, then that becomes my favorite. It is not one dish that is my favorite, my favorite is the challenge of creating something with “nothing”.
3. Is there an item that is always in your kitchen?
I will always have basic staples like onions, carrots, garlic and canned tomatoes of some type. Having these items is a good base to start with when trying to cook from nothing. Also, I have some type of frozen vegetables. I tend to think protein first when cooking a meal. So much so, then I tend to forget sides such as vegetables. Having some in the freezer is always a good got when you need last minute veg for myself and the kids.
4. What was the best cooking advice you received?
The best advice that I found out myself as a failed restaurateur, is that “there is food that tastes good and there is food that sells” I tell this to all my cooks, it just goes to show sometimes you are only as good as your PR firm!
More on Chef Dominic Ainza
“I’m just a cook,” Chef Dominic Ainza humbly answers, but behind his humility is a focused creative passion for food and ambition to elevate cuisine that is closest to his heart. His path started in non-profit, working to help better the community as a youth counselor, developing youths to see life “a little outside the box".
Chef Dominic decided to move on from non-profit and decided to go to culinary school at San Francisco's California Culinary Academy (CCA). He went to culinary school was because he "wanted to know how food works." He had never worked in a restaurant before going to culinary school, he just wanted to be a recipe tester, a great home cook and possibly go back to work with kids. Prior to opening his own and now closed restaurant, Mercury Lounge, Chef Dominic has been a force behind numerous award-winning kitchens. He worked as an intern in the kitchen of Betelnut, an award-winning Southeast Asian restaurant in the Marina in San Francisco. Working closely with Executive Chef Alex Ong and Sous Chef Daniel Sudar inspired Chef Ainza to seriously pursue his passion for the restaurant business, pan-Asian cuisine. After three years with Betelnut, Chef Ainza went on to become the opening sous chef for Poleng Lounge, a well-regarded contemporary Filipino Pan-Asian restaurant in San Francisco. Under Executive Chef Tim Lyum. Ainza also served as sous chef for Michelin Guide-recommended Red Lantern in Redwood City, CA, where he reunited with Daniel Sudar who became the executive chef responsible for this restaurant's highly acclaimed Pacific Rim cuisine. This eventually led him to return with Chef Lyum’s restaurant Attic in San Mateo.
Chef Dominic’s cuisine doesn’t just represent the tradition. Just as his cultural background is a colorful quilt, his cuisine is intricately woven with the best of the Bay Area’s culinary cultures that should be enjoyed by people from all backgrounds. “Filipino food is my culture and what I love to cook. But for every dish I cook, I want to make sure I am representing history, culture, regions, integrity and families that cook the dishes. I know I did my job as a chef representing my culture.”
Dominic is currently a Chef for a Bay Area tech company.