3 Valley chefs offer intimate looks at their home kitchens.
Written byLinda Grasso
We’ve watched and experienced their culinary talents. Now, a chance to see some well-known food impresarios in their own backyards. Take a stool at the center islands of Jeffrey Saad, Alan Jackson and Mario Del Pero for a candid “show-and-tell” of everything from their go-to tools to their prized appliances.
Life has gotten pretty busy for chef Alan Jackson and his wife, Heidi, in recent years. Their popular Lemonade chain now includes 13 restaurants and 450 employees. The newest branch just opened in Studio City; another one is planned in Toluca Lake.
Alan presides over the eateries’ expansive, seasonal menus, and he just released The Lemonade Cookbook. Meantime, Heidi helms their full-service catering company, Jackson Catering and Events.
Perhaps that explains why there’s an overwhelming sense of simplicity and calm at the Sherman Oaks home the couple shares with their two young daughters—a traditional ranch with well-manicured grounds. Interiors are sophisticated and unpretentious—yet warm and inviting. The low-key vibe extends into their bright, sun-filled kitchen.
“Home is about family, not what we are eating. And here, we chop by hand,” Heidi shares as she watches her husband simmer tomatoes and garlic at the stove.
When it comes to tools, Alan is partial to a set of copper pans purchased from Williams-Sonoma about 25 years ago. Otherwise he’s a minimalist. “All I really need is a great copper skillet, stove and knife. And I don’t even need a fancy knife,” he quips.
Indeed, utensils here are restaurant grade and countertops are appliance-free. The center island is Caesarstone, which Alan says “is great for rolling pastries.” Splurges include their high-end Wolf stove.
“We have a large catering business, so we’re pretty familiar with the Wolf stove,” Heidi shares. “It is a hotter stove—which you really need for the kind of cooking we do.”
The couple’s favorite mode of cooking, though, is outside—an outdoor oven that can reach temperatures of 800º. “It’s like a giant tandoor pot. We cook pizza here all the time. But I also cook things like fish, and I like to make baba ghanoush,” the soft-spoken chef explains.
Heidi and Alan in the sunny kitchen of their Sherman Oaks home.
While simplicity rules at home, things at work can get pretty complicated (at least to this observer). On a daily basis, Lemonade serves 20 veggie dishes, 10 braised meat dishes, nine land-and-sea dishes, and six flavors of lemonade—all served cafeteria-style.
“We wanted the food to be the kind you’d get at a restaurant with white tablecloths: lots of flavor and variety but in a more casual atmosphere. It’s the kind of place where—with so many healthy choices—you could go every day,” Heidi says.
Though he’s running a budding empire, Alan says he’s still pretty hands-on. “I just really love cooking. It was like last night: Heidi and I were catering a large event. I cut 400 pounds of fish by hand. I didn’t have to do that. I did it by choice.”
Jeffrey and his wife, Nadia, a real estate agent.
Lots of TV chefs only cook in front of the camera. At home, no matter how well-equipped, their kitchens are essentially show ponies. But walk into the sprawling Encino cookery of Jeffrey Saad, and it’s clear: This is a well-worn and designed space.
“I cook for my family every day, three times a day. So I’ve designed it to accommodate that as well as entertaining, which we do frequently,” the charismatic cook explains.
Jeffrey says he likes to face outward from the center island and move in a tight triangle. “When you’re at the stove, it’s a stir or a sear or a sauté for a moment. Maybe I’m turned briefly while I’m at the sink washing or prepping vegetables. Then I turn to face the room, whether it’s my guests or my son doing homework. One step to the stove, fridge and sink. Even though it is a huge kitchen, the action all happens in this very small triangle.”
When Jeffrey, his wife, Nadia, and their two children moved in a few years ago, he installed a spacious “see-through” commercial refrigerator. “Through the glass I’ll see squash blossoms or cilantro or overripe bananas, and it’ll inspire me to think of something to make with them,” he shares.
The small freezer is separate and contains a few plastic ice trays. “I hardly use a freezer for anything, so this works. That’s the funny part—if you look at this kitchen, would you ever think we make our own ice?” he chuckles.
He relies more on tools like his All Clad pans and his Brasilia espresso machine, which he uses to caffeinate every morning and almost as often just for hot water during the day. “I’ll use it to soak chilis to make paste or to make Ramen noodles for my son,” he says.
The easy-going chef, a finalist for The Next Food Network Star and Chopped All-Stars, is currently putting final touches on La Ventura, his new Studio City restaurant set to open in December. Jeffrey says La Ventura’s fare will be “modern Mexican.”
“When you walk in, it won’t scream, ‘This is a Mexican restaurant!” You’ll think, ‘This is a cool place to be; I want to hang out here.’ It will be comfy with great style. And when you taste the food, if you are Mexican, you will say, ‘Oh my gosh, this chef has been to the Yucatán!’ And if you’ve never been to Mexico, you’ll think, ‘I recognize these flavors.’”
Known for his love of artfully fusing food genres, Jeffrey will veer into Asian and Latin territory for the menu. “For example, we’ll do calamari tacos with pineapple salsa, using a Chinese-style batter almost like a tempura—very light and crispy. Or we’ll have chicken marinated in lemongrass with a serrano chili dipping sauce. But the flavor palate will be primarily Mexican.”
Jeffrey’s Grilled Achiote Veggie Tostadas
Mario prepares a beet salad and a bacon, mozzarella and heirloom tomato sandwich while Ellen watches.
Mario del Pero
Mario del Pero and Ellen Chen are partners—in running the Mendocino Farms eatery chain and in real life. He handles the food end of the operation; she runs the business side.
The married couple was delighted to open their seventh branch this past fall in Sherman Oaks, just a stone’s throw from their home. They’ve moved their headquarters and 20 employees here as well.
“It’s great having it all so close,” Ellen shares, adding, “We could practically walk to work!”
“Mendocino Farms is a neighborhood sandwich shop,” Mario explains. “It’s a place we want people to feel like they can come and stay and hang out and not have to order a four-course meal.”
The eatery may be down-home in vibe, but ingredients are upscale. Well-appointed sandwiches and salads boast premium ingredients like heirloom tomatoes, crisp local greens and fresh bread from Drago Bakery. Chicken is farm-raised; gluten-free bread is available.
Decor is minimalistic. “A lot of sandwich places have knickknacks. We try to keep everything very clean.” That same clutter-free philosophy rules the couple’s home kitchen.
“We aren’t the kind of people who want things in our kitchen to reflect where we’ve been. We keep our kitchen like we keep our tools: sharp,” he says.
Kitchen “must-haves” include a Viking wine refrigerator and an ample center island. “For us, a big deal is when we want to cook with friends. We hang out here at the center island. I like to share a glass wine with everyone while I’m cooking,” Mario says.
Maintaining the formidable center structure, topped with striking but super-absorbent Carrera marble, can be a challenge with their two kids. “We are just really careful with it. Everyone here knows when something spills, you wipe it up right away,” Ellen states.
The couple’s approach to home cooking is old-fashioned; the only countertop appliance they own is a single-cup coffeemaker.
“We just don’t use appliances,” Mario shares. “It’s like with whipped cream. A lot of people might use a mixer, but for me, if your arm doesn’t ache a bit, it hasn’t been done right. I can cut a tomato as fast as someone with a dicer. It’s a very old-school mentality. You’ll find a very 1950s level of items here.”
Their new Sherman Oaks location, their largest at 3,000 square feet, has lots of bells and whistles though. It boasts a live, 30-foot tree and a gigantic board for kids to do artwork.
As Mario sees it, “Ellen and I are basically sandwich geeks, but we love being innovative. The thing that gets us most is the idea of creating gathering places. People want to find places they can go to meet up with friends and hang out. We are trying to create that environment, and it’s exciting.”