Rebecca Merhej is 29, chef de cuisine at Love & Salt and a next-gen culinary star. Meet her now
Rebecca Merhej understands that cooking and respect for culinary traditions can build family ties — and community. Growing up in the San Fernando Valley ("I'm a Valley Girl," she says with a big smile), the chef de cuisine and pastry chef at Love & Salt restaurant in Manhattan Beach spent many hours of her childhood in the kitchen, helping her father and grandmother with dishes that celebrate their Lebanese heritage.
After high school and a stint in community college, Merhej enrolled in culinary school and then made her way to the (now closed) Simon LA restaurant in the Sofitel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills, where she worked with the chef de cuisine, Michael Fiorelli. They also worked together at Mar'sel at the Terranea resort and spa in Rancho Palos Verdes and, now, they're at Love & Salt in Manhattan Beach (he is the executive chef), where she continues to help shape the seasonal Italian menu and burnish her reputation as an innovative baker.
Merhej has been included on Zagat Los Angeles' "30 Under 30" list (2014) and Eater's "Young Guns" lineup (2015). And she's still "Under 30" — until June.
We recently chatted with the chef to learn more about what drives her in the kitchen, and what she’s up to.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You grew up cooking with your family, helping your father and grandmother. Most kids just want to eat, rather than do the work — did you really enjoy it?
My dad's family is Lebanese — from Beirut, and both my dad and my grandma are amazing cooks. When we were little, we'd make these little cheese pies with her, which was so much fun. We'd help her roll the dough out. Such good memories.
Do you still cook with your family?
Yes, with my dad — and my mom likes cooking too. I had surgery a while back and she made me matzo ball soup. She's very "what can I get you... let me get you food." We love eating together. With my dad, I've been trying to cook more with him so we can get those family recipes down.
When did you know you wanted to be a chef?
I always loved eating and helping [in the kitchen], but I never felt like "I want to be a chef." After I graduated from high school, I went to Pierce College for a semester, and I [remember thinking], "I hate this so much. This is not what I want to do! I want to go to culinary school." I feel like I had a little bit of advantage over some of the other students there. Some of them didn't even know what a cucumber was, and I thought, "This is my time to shine — because I have some knowledge of food."
Do you make all the desserts at Love & Salt?
At first, it was just myself and chef Michael. But we recently trained everyone to make them.
Do you have a favorite dessert?
The brown sugar pudding. I know it sounds funny because it's pudding, but everyone who's had it says, "This is the best thing I've ever had. I need the recipe." They're scraping the cup at the end.
What about the dinner menu?
One of my favorite things is the kale salad [with salami, olives, pickled peppers, bread crumbs and ricotta salata]. We wanted to make an Italian sandwich into a salad. I could eat that every day.
Your name keeps popping up on lists of "next generation" culinary stars. Is that stressful?
It's not really overwhelming. Everyone I surround myself with is excited for me. And I'm happy to talk about it. I'm still in that "oh my gosh I can't believe it" stage.
What's your current food obsession?
I always want to put olives in everything. I could eat them all day. Also labneh [a thick Middle Eastern yogurt]. I could eat it with anything.
Any confessions to make about secret food cravings?
I love all the Asian packaged noodles. Every time I go to the Korean market with my dad, I'm like "I have to try that one!" I don't eat them all the time because they're not the best for you, but they're definitely in my cupboard.
You've been inspired by cooking with Michael Fiorelli and your family. Where else do you find inspiration?
I actually just got back from the Philippines. There are many different cuisines there, but I came back wanting more seafood. And then there's Instagram. I love the Half Baked Harvest feed.
It's a date
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