Food & Drink

Vaca family members are secret stars of Sacramento’s restaurant kitchens

The list reads like a roll call of Sacramento’s favorite restaurants: The Kitchen, Mulvaney’s B&L, Lucca, Ella Dining Room & Bar, Esquire Grill, Mother, OneSpeed, Riverside Clubhouse, Hock Farm, Paesano’s, Pangaea.

All standout eateries, for sure. But these places share another common denominator, one that’s not apparent to even the most avid local diners.

This connection won’t be found on Yelp or printed on a nightly menu. To find the answer, move away from the white tablecloths and head to the kitchens’ sweltering grill and sauté stations. That’s where you’ll find members of the extended Vaca family, a clan that’s earned the reputation as the most sought-after line cooks in Sacramento. Their collective résumé is a veritable Zagat guide of local eateries.

Though the Vaca family rarely gets name-checked outside the local restaurant industry, chefs say they’re kitchen all-stars, and scramble to recruit them if word leaks that they’re looking for a new gig.

Patrick Mulvaney of Mulvaney’s B&L: “Those guys are studs, each and every one. I would be happy to hire any of them.”

Mike Thiemann, proprietor and executive chef of Mother: “All of them should be chefs. They can do everything.”

Ian McBride, head chef of Lucca: “They’ve made a huge contribution to what’s going on around town, as much as those who have their names on a (chef’s) coat.”

You’re likely more familiar with the Vaca family’s cooking than you realize. Juan Vaca, 34, has manned the pizza station at Paragary’s Bar & Oven, prepared fish for The Kitchen’s sushi intermission, grilled local lamb at Mulvaney’s B&L – and that’s just a slice of his 20-year career in Sacramento’s leading kitchens.

If you raved about the vegetarian cuisine at Mother, or savored lunch lately at Hock Farm, that’s partly a compliment to the cooking from Vaca’s brother-in-law Luis Escamilla.

This dynasty extends all around town. Vaca’s younger brother, Jesus, works the line at east Sacramento’s OneSpeed. Two sisters, Isabel and Lidia, prep food and cook at Riverside Clubhouse. Brother-in-law Christian Lopez serves as kitchen manager and line cook at Paesano’s.

“I know I can make more money in construction or something else, but I enjoy cooking and working with food,” said Juan Vaca, who cooks at Pangaea Bier Cafe. “If a chef tells me I need to get something done, cool, I get it done.”

Big names get no small amount of help

Chefs have emerged as the new rock stars of Sacramento, thanks in part to the culinary skills and TV-ready charisma of restaurateurs such as Mulvaney, Adam Pechal and Randall Selland. But the not-so-secret secret is they do very little of the actual cooking for customers.

A kitchen is like an army, where executive chefs are the generals who conceptualize menus and manage staff, among other top-of-the-food-chain duties. They’re generally assisted by a chef de cuisine or sous chefs as second-in-command.

Line cooks are the front-line soldiers who sauté vegetables, grill steaks, boil pasta and prepare sauces – all for about $11 an hour, if they’re lucky. Without these rank-and-file cooks, there would be no appetizers or entrees, nothing to Instagram or Facebook before ingesting. Job hazards include sharp knives, scorching grills and steely glares from demanding executive chefs. Ten- to 12-hour work days are the norm, and they’re far from glamorous.

“My hands always smell like onions and garlic, even if I’m not working for two days,” Juan Vaca said. “When I work the grill, my clothes stink of charcoal, and my nails, they’re like a mechanic’s. If you work on a hot line, you drink water all day. Water, water, water.”

Vaca has been a staple of Sacramento restaurant kitchens since 1994, starting as a dishwasher at Ernesto’s Mexican Food when he was 14. Possessing a no-nonsense intelligence and a temperament that could handle the frenzied heat of a dinner rush, he moved up the ladder, becoming known for a willingness to work hard and soak up new kitchen skills.

“The most important thing is reliability,” Mulvaney said. “I can give Juan a list of things that need to be done, and I know that list is going to get done. I can walk away and everything’s going to come out beautifully.”

One of seven siblings, and the first of his family to find restaurant work in Sacramento, Vaca is from the Mexican state of Michoacán. As his reputation grew, he helped find restaurant jobs for his family members, inculcating in them his core values as a line cook – speed, and absolute precision in appearance and taste. And if you want work, don’t be a flake.

By 2005, Vaca was one of the de facto kitchen leaders in Sacramento. He trained McBride, then a cook at Paragary’s Bar & Oven, on the pizza station. Later, when McBride became chef at Lucca, he hired Vaca and younger brother Jesus to work the line.

“Juan can do everything – the guy is just an all-around good cook,” McBride said. “Some line cooks can knock out a bunch of plates really fast, but you ask them to make a batch of soup and they fall flat.”

None of the extended Vaca family has any formal culinary training. They started as dishwashers, typically minimum-wage jobs that often double as a farm team for potential line cooks.

“I always tell the dishwashers, ‘You don’t want to wash dishes your whole life. Jump in here, come grab a knife,’ ” Juan Vaca said. “(Eventually) you can go to another country, another city, and make more money.”

After all, the line offers a crash course in culinary techniques and cooking styles. Vaca learned to cook pizzas at Paragary’s Bar & Oven, discovered the nuances of Asian ingredients for The Kitchen’s sushi intermission, and the finer points of temperature control for cooking meats at Esquire Grill.

Experts at multitasking, line cooks are the air traffic controllers of the kitchen.

“You need to control the food,” Vaca said. “I’m always very focused. If I see someone playing around I say, ‘Hey, are you ready?’ You can’t make the customers wait.”

Sometimes it’s hot in the kitchen

The recent sold-out “Rare Beer Dinner” at Pangaea Bier Cafe was awaiting its first course. In the kitchen, Vaca scooted over the slick floor from a station where he shaved fennel to check on a celery root purée that simmered on a burner. The salad course needed to be plated ASAP, but there was a small problem.

“These plates are too hot!” Vaca said.

Vaca knew the salad would wilt easily on a hot plate, so he shoved the plates into a small refrigerator, flashing a look to others that said: “We should know better than this.” Far from a meek kitchen helper, Vaca is known for his Type-A personality, challenging other cooks to step up their game.

“Juan’s fearless and not afraid to call people out – and some people don’t like to get called out,” Thiemann said. “We get along really well, but some people don’t. (Luis Escamilla) is the nicest of the brothers.”

Vaca met his future brother-in-law, Escamilla, through the network of local line cooks, who gather at spots such as Simon’s Cafe and Elixir Bar & Grill to decompress after a shift and get the scoop on job openings. Other families are well known on the local line cook circuit, including the Lopez brothers – Chuy, Julio and Rogelio – who work at Grange.

Like Vaca, Escamilla started his restaurant career as a dishwasher before being promoted. He’s worked at Esquire Grill, Chops, the former Pyramid Alehouse, Lucca – or, as Escamilla says, “Everywhere here in downtown.”

Escamilla now works the lunch shift at Hock Farm and dinners at Mother, Thiemann’s acclaimed vegetarian restaurant. The job is something of a reunion. Escamilla, Thiemann and Vaca worked together as line cooks at the former Mason’s, and Thiemann later recruited them when he served as executive chef for Ella Dining Room & Bar.

“Chefs in town get a lot of press, but it’s a lot of people coming together and making the chefs look good,” Thiemann said. “(Luis) is very skilled and super consistent. Everything’s seasoned right. It’s never too salty or undersalted. He’s the least of my worries.”

The Vaca family members don’t usually stay at one restaurant for long, save for brother-in-law Lopez, who once worked a nine-year stint at Piatti. Juan Vaca recently started working at Pangaea, after dropping in for a couple of weeks at Mulvaney’s B&L and working on the opening crew at Capital Dime. Jesus Vaca recently returned to OneSpeed after working Lucca’s line.

Sometimes they take a job to learn a new cooking style, even if it pays less. Juan Vaca took the Pangaea gig in part to learn more about food and beer pairings. Others look for opportunities to work with particular chefs. They prefer to work jobs on an hourly rate, vs. taking a salary and not receiving overtime.

Moving up the kitchen food chain toward an executive chef or management position generally means apprenticeships in other cities or a school to learn more about business. Most of the Vaca family members are simply trying to work as many hours as possible to provide for their own families. Still, they’re avid about learning on the job.

“I’m just looking for the best,” Escamilla said. “I’ve learned from everybody, trying to pick up the best of what you see. Almost everywhere I’ve worked, I’ve learned all the stations. I’ve been so lucky with this (work). I enjoy it.”

Learning behind the line

Most kitchen veterans dream of owning their own restaurant, to be the boss for once. But owning a restaurant comes with its own grind, not the least of which is raising enough capital. Just launching a taco truck costs about $50,000 on the low end, according to industry experts. Isabel Vaca, the youngest of the siblings, operated a taqueria in West Sacramento with brother Jesus, but its run was short-lived.

So, Isabel Vaca is back to restaurants, this time as a prep cook at Riverside Clubhouse. She previously worked at Rio City Cafe, Paesano’s, Pronto and Gogi’s Korean BBQ. She said she enjoys the hands-on aspect of her current job, with its slicing and dicing.

“I like to be in the back,” Isabel Vaca said. “You learn more things (as a prep cook) than on the line, because on the line everything’s set up for you. You learn about herbs and oils.”

She hopes to open another restaurant some day. She envisions a Mexican-themed sports bar with “pretty servers, and a lot of TVs and Mexican appetizers like mini sopes.”

Until then, they’ll keep prepping food and moving plates.

Juan Vaca sometimes likes to pop into the dining room during a quick break. He’ll grab a soda from the bar, his apron displaying the splattered badges of a slammed dinner service. The customers don’t know his name, even though he’s prepared their food. But that’s OK. Watching them savor his cooking is satisfaction enough.

“For me, I feel good,” Vaca said.