Travel Blog

Meet Santa Cruz County’s New Superstar Chefs

The ever-expanding Santa Cruz dining scene always has something new to offer, from debuting restaurants to the hottest seasonal dish. The latest buzz is all about new kitchen talent. With a bounty of fresh produce and seafood at their disposal, skillful new chefs are reinvigorating menus across the county. Here’s the scoop on a recent chef shuffle that’s perking up the local food scene.

Mo L’Esperance
Jack O’Neill Lounge and Restaurant
The Santa Cruz Dream Inn – located overlooking Cowell Beach – has debuted a new chef heading up the onsite eatery, the Jack O’Neill Restaurant and Lounge.  Mo L’Esperance is a California native, born and raised on the beach, where her passion for the ocean was ignited at an early age, which led to her dedication to sustainable seafood throughout her career.  Formerly the Executive Chef of the eco-friendly Costanoa Resort in San Mateo County – as well as other notable restaurants – she developed a new menu for the Jack O’Neill restaurant maintaining the iconic, laid back California vibe consistent with the O’Neill brand.  Menu items include healthy options which showcase the local area.  The family-friendly Jack O’Neill restaurant honors the late surf icon and wetsuit pioneer, who helped bring surfing to the world stage.  A bright space with spectacular views overlooking Cowell Beach, the space is filled with photos and memorabilia from the life the legendary surfer.  The Jack O’Neill restaurant recently underwent a renovation and is outfitted with new décor, tables, chairs and place settings – surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the beach, wharf, and boardwalk. The lounge has been expanded to allow better access to outdoor seating on the balcony overlooking the coast and features an expanded live music and entertainment program.

Chef Martin Hoellrigl

Martin Hoellrigl
Capitola Garden Feast
A native of Austria and a graduate from the Austrian tourism college Absam, Martin Hoellrigl showed his passion across Europe and California and developed an enthusiasm for seafood. He built his career in Austria, Italy, and Germany and later in southern California where he first joined the Hilton Hotels & Resorts family. Martin liaised with some of the most respected hospitality names like Hôtel Le Bristol Paris, Hilton Suffren, Gallery One, Palais Daun Kinsky, Falkensteiner, and Balance Resort Stegersbach to name a few and cooked meals for Pope John Paul II, Tonino Lamborghini, and Julia Child.  When Martin and his family decided to make Santa Cruz County their home, Capitola Garden Feast became the next chapter, offering an array of team building events that help inspire collaboration, creativity and improved communication using food and cooking as the medium. Martin and his team help create DIY dinners with a personal instructor for groups of eight or more.

Bistro One Twelve

Shannon Madison
Bistro One Twelve
French-trained – and with a background that includes working with Top Chef Master and James Beard Award nominee Chris Cosentino at Cockscomb in San Francisco, and with Chef Sam Nuckols of Trois Mec, Liholiho Yacht Club and Petit Crenn – Chef Shannon Madison has reimagined a sweet spot at the Tannery Arts Center, a live-work artists’ cooperative in Santa Cruz.  Once a working tannery for 145 years – and the oldest of its kind west of the Mississippi until it closed in 2001 – The Tannery Arts Center is now a vibrant gathering place for creative types and art lovers.  Bistro One Twelve is based on farm-to-table freshness, served up in a California-cool, artistically-rich environment.  Menu items include local coffee, baguette sandwiches with a French flair, gourmet flatbread pizzas, fresh salads, and other combinations influenced by California’s cultural diversity, Mediterranean climate, and seasonal fruits and vegetables. 

Chef Rodrigo Serna

Rodrigo Serna
La Posta
As La Posta restaurant in Santa Cruz’s Seabright neighborhood marks its 13th anniversary, the local eatery celebrates the appointment of longtime employee Rodrigo Serna to lead the kitchen.  The 32-year-old Serna has been part of owner Patrice Boyle’s Soif Restaurant and Wine Bar and La Posta family for more than a decade. Born and raised in the State of Aguascalientes in Central Mexico, he had always cooked with his family, but it was never something he considered a career. After a move to the Bay Area in his early 20s, one of Soif’s former chefs, saw a lot of potential in Serna and took him under his wing, teaching him everything from prepping ingredients to working across multiple stations. His growing interest in the culinary field led him to take on additional work in the La Posta kitchen about a year later, and has not set foot outside of the kitchen since.  As Serna reflects on his more than decade of working in a kitchen, he considers himself lucky to have been given the room to grow and an opportunity to work with great mentors. While he spent the last eight years working with mastering Italian cuisine, he also credits his time at Soif under chefs Santos Majano, Mark Denham and Tom McNary for building a solid culinary foundation. Opened by Patrice Boyle in December 2006, La Posta takes the soulfulness of Italian cuisine and transports it to the Seabright neighborhood with a market-driven menu of pizza, pasta and more, highlighting local farmers and food producers.

Updated August 2020

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