Edible Monterey Bay

Star San Francisco Chef Headed to Santa Cruz

Chef Carlo Espina  (photo courtesy Nader Khouri)
Chef Carlo Espina
(photo courtesy Nader Khouri)

January 7, 2014 – A veteran of several of San Francisco’s trendiest restaurants is getting ready to move to Santa Cruz next week and take a new job as executive chef at the soon-to-be-opened Assembly restaurant on Pacific Avenue.

Assembly owners Kendra Baker and Zachary Davis—who also run the popular Penny Ice Creamery and Picnic Basket—said 34-year-old Carlo Espinas will start work on January 15. Depending on the progress of a remodel, the new 100-seat restaurant—which will instantly become downtown Santa Cruz’s largest—could open as early as Valentine’s Day.

Baker first met Espinas when she was pastry chef at Bar Tartine in San Francisco and the two remained friends over the years. “I knew Carlo was one to watch,” she says. “When Zach and I started talking about people we would want to work with he immediately came to mind.”

Most recently, Espinas was executive chef at Comstock Saloon in North Beach, where he researched historical dishes from the Gold Rush era and served them up with a modern twist. His Roast Duck Pot Pie and Hangtown Toast were lauded as some of the city’s best eats.

He was also opening chef at the celebrated Piccino in Dogpatch and worked in the kitchens of Incanto and Camino.

“The owner of Camino, Russell Moore, is probably the chef who has had the most influence on me,” says Espinas. “He spent 20 years at Chez Panisse and has that local, seasonal style.”

Rustic, ingredient driven, Mediterranean-style cooking is likely what the new restaurant will feature, although the menu is still being developed. “I’m amazed at the number of farms in the region and the farmers’ markets both downtown and on the Westside have great produce,” says Espinas, who already has a relationship with Mariquita Farm in Watsonville that dates back to his days working at Incanto.

Espinas grew up in a large Filipino family in Fremont and believes food is meant to be shared. “I believe Santa Cruz food should be healthy and properly sourced, but also approachable, not dumbed down, but fun stuff that brings people to the table for laughing and talking,” he says.

Assembly Restaurant is getting a complete remodel
Assembly Restaurant is getting a complete remodel

Pastry Chef Anna St. John, a veteran of the Penny Ice Creamery, will work with Baker on creating desserts at Assembly. 

The kitchen at Assembly will serve as bakery and much-needed prep space for the tiny Picnic Basket. Espinas revealed that it will also have a streetside pop-up window serving lunches to go, with a broader menu than the salads and sandwiches available at the Picnic Basket.

Chef Carlo has rented a place in the Seabright neighborhood and envisions himself biking to the beach before work. “I’m kind of a city boy, so it’s going to be a big change for me, but I’m really excited about it,” he says.

Espinas holds a degree in print journalism from American University in Washington DC, but found he enjoys cooking more than writing. He appeared on the TV game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire shortly after graduating from college and there’s a You Tube video of his 15-minute appearance with Regis Philbin on the Internet. Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 9.26.45 PMSpoiler alert: he successfully answers several rounds of questions before being stumped by the various names for cow stomachs, but walks away with $125,000.

He used part of the winnings to pay back his mother for college, bought a car and travelled around the United States for two years, visiting friends and enjoying regional specialties wherever he landed.

For those who just can’t wait to sample Espinas’ cooking, there will be a sneak preview of things to come on February 6th at the Del Mar theater in Santa Cruz. Assembly will provide small bites at a screening of the new film Spinning Plates—an acclaimed documentary that tells the story of three restaurants and what they mean to their communities.

Assembly • 1108 Pacific Avenue, Santa Cruz • www.assembleforfood.com