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South Coast Plaza’s top chefs present benefit for culinary students

Foodies who love to dine in and around South Coast Plaza need to know that “Top Chef” runner up Amar Santana, chef/owner of Vaca and Broadway, and Tony Esnault, chef of Michelin star restaurant Knife Pleat, have gathered an all-star lineup of the shopping center’s chefs to serve a dinner benefiting culinary students on Sunday, June 5.

Santana and Esnault will prepare a four-course meal with wine pairings as one of many events celebrating South Coast Plaza’s 55th anniversary.

At the dinner, Ross Pangilinan (Terrace by Mix Mix), James Hamamori (Hamamori Restaurant & Sushi Bar), John Park (Tableau) and Nick Weber (Populaire) will prepare an array of appetizers. Vaca’s beverage director Michael Rooney and Knife Pleat sommelier Victor Moreno will arrange libations, which will include cocktails and a wine bar hosted by Whispering Angel. Diners will have an opportunity to bid at a silent and a live auction.

The evening, titled, “O.C. Chefs: The Next Generation,” benefits C-CAP, the Careers through Culinary Arts Program. According to its website, the nonprofit “provides culinary, job and life skills to over 20,000 middle-and-high school students in seven regions across the United States: New York City, Newark, Philadelphia and Camden, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C./Maryland/Northern Virginia and Arizona, including seven Navajo Reservation schools.”

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Santana, who hails from the Dominican Republic and spoke little English when he arrived in New York at age 13, is an alum of the program. He won his first scholarship as a teen through C-CAP: two weeks at Le Cordon Bleu in London. By the time he entered his second C-CAP scholarship competition, he was at New York’s Butterfield 81 working with former ballerina Patricia Williams, who helmed the now-defunct restaurant with legions of fans. “She was an amazing mentor,” Santana said in 2015.

The program helped launch Santana’s career. He studied on scholarship at the Culinary Institute of America and earned an externship at Charlie Palmer’s Aureole in New York where he was subsequently hired when Palmer found him washing dishes at midnight after his regular shift ended.

His success as a restaurateur and chef was predicted by the program’s founder, Richard Grausman, who was interviewed by NBC-TV in 2005. Then, Santana was just a 23-year-old sous chef, but Grausman’s comments proved prescient. “There’s no limit as long as he maintains his focus and his passion,” Grausman said. “He has the personality, he has the integrity and within time there’ll be investors who will want to open a restaurant. And Amar will be looked at as someone to head that kitchen.”

If You Go: “O.C. Chefs: The Next Generation” will be held from 6-9 p.m. on Sunday, June 5 at South Coast Plaza, 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa. Tickets are $475 per person and include valet parking, reception, dinner, beverages and gift bag. To purchase, visit

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