Fil-Am chef makes waves in Santa Cruz, California | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

Chef Carlo Espina of Assemby in Santa Cruz, California
Chef Carlo Espina of Assemby in Santa Cruz, California

SANTA CRUZ, California — The recent selection of Carlo Espinas as executive chef of the new restaurant Assembly in Santa Cruz, California, was, in culinary parlance, a perfect pairing.


Assembly, true to its name, aims to promote a sense of community by offering rustic California cuisine, sourced locally, in a comfortable venue. Espinas, a topnotch chef who grew up in a big Filipino family in Fremont in the Bay Area, is an enthusiastic advocate of this concept.


The fourth of six children, Espinas has 46 cousins on his mother’s side alone. He has fond memories of family gatherings, sitting around the dining table, spending hours eating, talking and laughing.  His father, a neurologist, made adobo when it was his turn to cook.  His mother, who worked as office manager at his dad’s office, expanded her children’s palates by whipping up diverse menus.  She would cook sinigang or pancit one night and follow it up with paella or linguini with clams another night. As his mother’s helper in the kitchen, Espinas learned early on about the need to make food that is delicious but approachable, fun and thoughtful for large groups of people.


Although becoming a chef seemed like a predestined future for Espinas, who enjoyed working at cafes during his teen years, he took a circuitous path towards a culinary career.  After graduating in 2001 from American University in Washington, D.C. with a degree in print journalism, he worked as a freelance writer in New York City. The rat race in this field did not appeal to him, and while mulling his next move, he entered the “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” contest on TV.  Espinas missed going for the top prize but won a hefty $125,000, a portion of which he used to buy a car and travel.


His love of history and different cultures led him on a two-year road trip, crisscrossing the country and enjoying regional cuisines, from barbeque in the South to lobster and other seafood dishes on the East Coast.  By the time he returned to the Bay Area, he had made up his mind to become a chef, a passion that had been simmering in his consciousness for years.


Following his graduation from the California Culinary Academy in 2004, he worked his way up at the kitchens of highly rated San Francisco restaurants.  He served as line cook at Incanto and learned the basics from Chris Cosentino, a “Top Chef: Master” winner on Bravo TV.  Espinas became opening chef at Piccino in the up-and-coming Dogpatch neighborhood and earned nods from Gourmet Magazine, New York Times, and San Francisco Chronicle.


To further hone his skills, he sought a position at Camino in Oakland because he greatly admired its chef-owner Russell Moore, a 20-year veteran of Chez Panisse. He calls Moore one of

Espina’s slow-cooked beef with root vegetables

his strongest influences, imbibing his use of seasonal produce and innovative treatment of ingredients.  Later at Comstock Saloon, he used his journalism background to research dishes from the 1900s, the San Francisco restaurant’s theme.


By the time he was hired at Assembly early this year, Espinas, now 34, had become seasoned in his craft.  Only three weeks after the downtown restaurant’s opening, he and his staff were already preparing an average of 300-400 plates daily.  Assembly is quickly developing a following in the scenic seaside town and beyond.


Len Stec, a financial professional who has lived in San Francisco for 31 years, recently had lunch at Assembly with a group of friends.  Stec, who hails from Dorrance, Pennsylvania, says Espinas’s food made him nostalgic.


“The slow cooked beef with root vegetables reminded me of my late mom’s Sunday dinners.  Besides the wonderful memories it evoked, the meal was delicious. I definitely want to return for dinner,” said Stec. His friend Voltaire Gungab, who works at University of California, San Francisco, and is a member of Culinaristas, a Fil-Am foodie group, summed up his dining experience as “great food, cozy modern ambience and excellent service.”


While he has not yet featured a Filipino dish on his current menu, Espinas says that his cuisine carries the flavor profile of his culture, such as a lot of acidity and piquancy in food, utilizing vinegar, peppers, garlic and other homely ingredients.  He incorporates his family’s technique of slow cooking to produce bold sauces that can be sopped up with bread. Using the rustic California approach, he prepares vegetables in a simple way, making sure that the flavors and freshness do not disappear by overworking them or adding too many contrasting tastes.


Espinas works directly with local producers and growers to source his meat, cheese and produce.  He happily notes that lately some Filipino Americans his age have become interested in farming because of the current popularity of organic and sustainable products and farm to table dining.


The crowd chowing down at Assembly

Often working long hours, Espinas, who is single, keeps grounded by thinking about his family while he is cooking. The familial warmth, fueled with plenty of food and laughter at his Fremont home, reminds him of his mission to replicate the same at Assembly. He loves to sit at a communal table with farmers who come to the restaurant to enjoy his dishes made from their harvests.


On his rare days off, he drives to San Francisco to meet with friends and dine at some of his favorite places, like Bar Tartine and Trick Dog in the Mission. He talks to other chefs often and reads culinary books and menus from around the world widely.  When asked for tips he could share with aspiring Filipino chefs, Espinas says, “Cooking is really not something you do on your off time. The only way to learn is to cook a lot and make a dish over and over.”


Two years ago, popular chef and TV personality Andrew Zimmern declared that “Filipino food will be the next big thing.” Long before this prediction, Filipino food and Pinoy chefs have been making a mark on the culinary map nationwide. For almost two decades, veteran chef Romy Dorotan has been wowing New Yorkers with his innovative take on Philippine cuisine. He and his wife Amy Besa are co-authors of Memories of Philippine Kitchens and co-owners of Purple Yam in Brooklyn, which replaced Cendrillon, their popular Manhattan restaurant.


Food and Wine Magazine has just named Paul Qui, whose eponymous restaurant in Austin, Texas, serves kare-kare and dinuguan with gnocchi, one of the Best New Chefs for 2014. Espinas has traveled to Austin to dine at Qui. Responding to Zimmern’s prediction, he states, “There is certainly a place for Filipino food in the current restaurant scene. People are just waiting for our delicious dishes to capture the imagination of everyone.”



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