Chef at Big Water Grille meshes family experience with learned techniques | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Chef at Big Water Grille meshes family experience with learned techniques

Rob Galloway
rgalloway@tahoedailytribune.com

INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — Everyone has those favorite food experiences that bring back memories of home.

Whether it's the distinct taste of mom's spaghetti and meatballs, or the company of Sunday night dinner around the table, chances are everybody has their own.

For Executive Chef Manny Baez of Big Water Grille in Incline Village, his first memory of cooking is tagging along with his father, who had a side job as an omelet chef, and watching him cook up the requests of hungry buffet goers.

"At home we'd have family meals and he would always be the one cooking. I'd be in the kitchen with him and whenever he needed something done, I'd jump in and help," recalled Baez. "He would always hand cut French fries sitting in front of the TV watching basketball."

While Baez was not quite skilled enough to join in the fry cutting party at an early age, he eventually graduated from the Pennsylvania College of Technology for culinary arts, altering his career path from becoming a forensic scientist.

He then was hired as an unpaid intern doing all the hard things in the back of the house of a local fine dining restaurant. That internship lead to a promotion as a line cook and eventually he worked his way up to Chef de Cuisine.

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It wasn't until Chef Kristi Ritchey, a past-alum of the same college, came into his restaurant for dinner on a visiting chef program, that his life really changed.

"I was introduced to their table and she said 'just make me something special,'" noted Baez. "I made them a seared tuna appetizer with uni [sea urchin] and they were stoked on what I made them."

On a whim, Baez sent Ritchey his resume and within a month he was in Los Angeles, having never been to the West Coast, working as a protégé under Ritchey.

In L.A., Baez worked as kitchen manager in one of four Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop locations, and also helped open a fifth location. Not long after, Ritchey decided to leave L.A. to come to Tahoe at the West Shore Café.

"It was a shock to everyone," recalled Baez. "I was bummed for sure but after about a month and a half she asked me to join her."

Baez had never been to Tahoe. He came up for about three days to get an idea of the situation. And while he had his reservations about leaving the highly touted and always buzzing Los Angeles food scene, Lake Tahoe reminded him of home.

"The lake is a hard place to say no to," added Baez.

Eventually, Baez took the position, feeling that this was the next step in his culinary journey. As opportunities kept presenting themselves around the lake, and only six years in the industry, Baez ultimately found himself in his current position as executive chef of Big Water Grille.

When asked how to describe the food that they serve at the restaurant, Baez described it as fine dining American food with an underlying French technique.

"To me, American means multi-cultural. I like to do Asian. Southern. Basically take bits and pieces of what I think America is and put it on a plate. I like to dabble in a little bit of everything," added Baez.

You can tell from the menu. Items like blackened mahi mahi with lobster claw cream sauce, cast iron roasted rack of venison and Mexican mole braised lamb shank, offer cuisine mash-ups from across the globe.

When asked if any of his dishes are taken from his experience with his family growing up, Baez said: "The fried chicken we have on the menu right now is inspired from my dad. My mom makes the best French toast so sometimes I make it for the guys in the morning."

While it took some time to fine tune the menu, it wasn't without learning. Chefs like to be able to create, sometimes leaving old menu items that were not their creations to be jettisoned.

"I was hard-headed when I first started. I took a bunch off the menu. I felt like what I removed could be found anywhere in Tahoe. I grew from that mistake and realized I could bring back the favorites the locals love but with a little twist, either in flavor or plating. I can make a dish someone knows, but make it look like something they've never seen."

One could almost say you will find as unique dishes here as the lake itself. So what if Lake Tahoe were a dish? What would that be?

"I've lived here for a few years. The people that live here are what make Tahoe. They have a down to earth quality and like to live life to the fullest so maybe something with mushrooms and a super rich sauce. Maybe a pasta, a ravioli with truffles and bring in the California influence with pomegranates and fresh herbs."

Whether that makes its way to the menu, it definitely mirrors the beauty and depth of Tahoe.

With a little luck, the more time chef Manny Baez gets influenced by the people and beauty of Tahoe, the better food everyone will get to enjoy.

Big Water Grille is located in Incline Village at 341 Sky Way. You can find them online at http://www.bigwatergrille.com or by phone at 775-833-0606.