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Former dishwasher now Zov's culinary director

"Hold on," said Louie Jocson. "I'm in the process of caramelizing onions."

The newly appointed culinary director of Zov's, the restaurant chain known for its Eastern Mediterranean-influenced cuisine, is a fixture on the Southern California culinary scene.

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Jocson will work alongside chef Zov Karamardian in overseeing locations in Newport Beach, Tustin, Irvine and two quick-serve concepts at John Wayne Airport.

But long before the 43-year-old started preparing dishes with smoked bacon, mixed green salads or marinated lamb, he got his first taste of restaurant life in Karamardian's kitchen washing dishes.

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On a Wednesday morning, Jocson stood in the Zov's Newport Coast restaurant kitchen and remembered the first job he got at age 15. It was his eagerness, speed and drive that would lead him to a world he never imagined.

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Jocson was born in the Philippines and moved to Fullerton with his family at age 6. He was taught early that there were no handouts in life and that once he'd finished household chores, he could play with his friends. The first time Jocson set foot in Zov's Bistro & Bakery in Tustin was for one reason: His older brother worked behind the take-out counter.

"I was my brother's tag-along," he said.

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It wouldn't be long before the younger brother filed an application.

Then a student at Troy High School in Fullerton, Jocson would finish class, rush over to the Tustin location, lace up an apron and stand at the sink.

He washed dishes, peeled garlic and chopped parsley.

Karamardian saw potential in the young employee.

She wanted Jocson to learn how to make the caramel sauce for the restaurant's signature apple tart.

The recipe demanded patience because, as Karamardian had explained, the sauce needed to bubble gently for several minutes until thickened. But, she warned, if not monitored closely, the cream, sugar and vanilla could burn within seconds.

"I killed it," he said with a laugh. "It went from golden to black.

"Today, I make caramel sauce like a pro."

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The experiment in the kitchen served as a sign to Jocson that he was ready to be taught how to cook, and he needed to start somewhere.

While in high school, Jocson worked at various restaurants to save for school or whatever the future would bring. His interest in the culinary field deepened. He toured the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and spoke to the dean about admission. But it was rare for 18-year-olds to be accepted. If he wanted to apply, he should write an essay.

The dean was so impressed with his essay that he asked him to obtain a letter of recommendation from a person who knew his work ethic well.

That person was Karamardian.

Days later, Jocson got a phone call from the academy.

"Welcome to the school," they said.

"Zov was there to watch me from washing dishes to going to school," he said. "She's a big part of what I am today, as far as being a chef goes."

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Culinary school would be the most difficult thing Jocson endured. The instructors were stern, he said, and they only wanted the best to graduate.

"They really taught it the way it was," said Jocson of the two-year program. "You have to wake up restaurant, eat restaurant and sleep restaurant."

With his new formal culinary training, he returned to Orange County, finding employment as a line chef at Antonello Ristorante in South Coast Village. He ascended to sous chef to executive pastry chef to co-executive chef before leaving to lead his first Mediterranean restaurant, Sorrento Grille in Laguna Beach.

One night, businessmen dining in the casual setting asked Jocson to help at Wind & Sea Restaurant.

After a short stint, Jocson was offered the job of culinary director at the Farmer's Market in Atrium Court in Fashion Island. He'd see Alyssa Milano and Tiger Woods perusing the aisles.

His experience as culinary director led him to the same position at Karl Strauss Brewing Company in San Diego.

"When you're culinary director, you're transient," he said. "You have to build a rapport with all the kitchens in all the locations. They're all different."

Jocson left to establish Red Table in Huntington Beach with partners. But there were concerns. The restaurant was so tucked into the back of the center that patrons couldn't see it from the street. And the kitchen wasn't finished before opening day. Dishes would have to be prepared at Jocson's home. He and his partners had doubts from the word "go."

"I thought, 'I'm going to do this no matter what,'" he said.

At midnight, hours before the gastrobar would officially open its doors, Jocson stood near the restaurant's front doors with his daughter. He prayed and asked if he could have customers enter on the first day.

"When we opened, it was absolutely embraced by the community," he said.

Today, Jocson gives back by providing five courses at the Share Our Selves annual celebrity chef dinner to end hunger and homelessness in Orange County.

Food connoisseurs representing county publications praised Red Table for its outstanding gourmet food.

Three years later Jocson sold his shares at Red Table and sought other opportunities.

It wouldn't take long before he'd receive a phone call from Karamardian's son, Armen. Would Jocson be available to do some work?

The two met at Zov's in Tustin to discuss bringing the restaurant to new heights. After the conversation, Jocson said there was nothing to think about. He was in.

The family shook hands.

"I was greeted by one of the best hugs from Zov as if she hadn't seen her kid in 15 years," he said. "I knew we were going to build something special together."

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Family support has been constant in Karamardian's foundation throughout her career. Her husband, Gary, son Armen and daughter Taleene all play creative roles in growing and delivering Karamardian's culinary creations.

And with Jocson's return home to help his first restaurant employer, he said it's an honor to be the latest addition to the family kitchen. The family is just as excited.

"We are delighted that Louie has returned to Zov's after so many years," said Armen Karamardian, vice president of operations. "As we continue to grow and evolve, securing the talents of someone as talented, creative and accomplished as Louie is critical to our continued success."

Jocson and the Karamardians are remodeling the Tustin location and updating the restaurant with a new look by adding private dining spaces and a bar Jocson described as "striking." The restaurant is expanding to Anaheim with an opening slated for late September.

But there's an upcoming event in Jocson's life that he cannot speak about without smiling. He is engaged to be married, and his future wife's two teenage daughters will be sisters to his teenage daughter.

Asked if he's going to celebrate the milestone with a Karamardian wedding menu, he laughed.

"There's definitely going to be a Zov involvement," he said. "For certain."

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