South Coast Plaza chefs cook for a cause

Chefs Tony Esnault, left, and Amar Santana during Dinner Under the Stars.
Chefs Tony Esnault, left, and Amar Santana during Dinner Under the Stars at the historic Segerstrom Ranch House on April 11, 2019, in Costa Mesa. The chefs will collaborate on a menu for South Coast Plaza’s dinner benefiting Careers Through Culinary Arts Program.
(Ryan Miller)
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Chef Amar Santana has made a name for himself as a Bravo “Top Chef” winner and executive chef and partner at restaurants Broadway by Amar Santana in Laguna Beach and Vaca in Costa Mesa. But his story of success begins with a nonprofit organization, Careers through Culinary Arts Program, or C-CAP.

“There would not be an Amar Santana if there was no C-CAP,” said the celebrity chef.

As part of its 55th anniversary, South Coast Plaza is hosting a culinary fundraiser benefitting C-CAP, which trains underserved youth in high school for a career in the culinary arts.

Santana will be cooking alongside other South Coast Plaza chefs for the event, including Tony Esnault of Knife Pleat, Ross Pangilinan of TERRACE by Mix Mix, James Hamamori of Hamamori Restaurant & Sushi Bar, John Park of Tableau and Nick Weber of the plaza’s latest addition, Populaire.


Santana moved to Queens from the Dominican Republic at age 13, and in high school he enrolled in a program called Culinary Arts.

“Since I was a little kid at home, I liked to cook,” said Santana, “but I didn’t think that it was a career.”

While Santana dropped the cooking class the first year, he was automatically enrolled back in the class the following year because it was a four-year program. The second time around, he took to the cooking. His instructor noticed his talent and told him about C-CAP, which could help a student like Santana get a scholarship to go to culinary school.

“I said, ‘You’re telling me if I do this competition and become part of this program, I could actually go to school here for free? I am in!’” said Santana.

Santana earned a scholarship from C-CAP to study at Le Cordon Bleu London for one week and, later, a scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

Santana said he knows the restaurant industry is facing a labor shortage, and programs like C-CAP can help.

“Think about California, think about Orange County, there used to be a lot of cooking schools here. They all closed,” said Santana. “So now you have restaurants opening everywhere, but you don’t have students graduating every few weeks coming into the industry anymore. It is so hard to find good help in the kitchen.”

The culinary fundraiser dinner on June 5 begins at 6 p.m. in South Coast Plaza’s Penthouse with a reception of anniversary cocktails crafted by Vaca Group beverage director, Michael Rooney, and Knife Pleat’s sommelier, Victor Moreno, with passed appetizers. A curated four-course dinner by Santana and Esnault will follow.

As a C-CAP alum, Santana said he is most looking forward to spreading the word about a great program and helping the restaurant industry flourish.

“We want to help the young kids nowadays to become chefs and have the same fire that I had when I was younger, that is what we want to create now,” said Santana. “Otherwise, we are going to have no restaurants.”

Tickets can be found at

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