It Occurs to Me: Merced cooks, chefs a special breed who aim to please

As you get your meal at some of the more popular restaurants in Merced County, have you ever wondered who cooked it and what experience or training that person had?

For the most part, unless you have a keen interest in cooking, I don’t think most diners put too much thought into who cooks their meal. It’s more of a trust issue, confidence between the owner, the management, the servers and the customer. They are the face of the eating establishment, the ones who deal with people face-to-face.

But the chefs or the cooks are a special breed. They are the ones behind the scenes, making sure they deliver what’s been asked of them and who take pride not just in how they cook the food, but also in how it is presented to the customer. They know that whatever comes out of that kitchen is part of what will determine the overall credibility and quality of the restaurant, so they work hard at maximizing their skills.

Granted there are some large chain restaurants that have pre-established menus and meals that a cook has to honor, and having worked in the restaurant business many years ago, I realized that these restaurants pretty much stay with the same formula in making their meals. But still, a cook has to develop his or her own style.

Whether working in a restaurant, cafeteria or as an independent caterer, there are chefs and cooks who have become well-established in Merced and developed a strong following.

One of these is Fernando Palomino of Livingston. Just the mention of his name brings about a sigh of relief for someone who is looking for a caterer, because they know Fernando can be counted on to come through with the quantity and quality required.

Other highly regarded cooks are Roy Mercado, who owns two eating places in Merced, and fellow Merced restaurateur Gerardo Olivera.

Then there are Alejandro Okida and Soledad “Chole” Chavez, who cook at two different school districts. One of them is also very well-known for the food she prepares for the annual Young Women’s Conference held in Livingston. You can tell they enjoy their work, their food creations and the teamwork it takes to prepare it all.

Chole loves her work and always shows her passion cooking. She reminds me of the main character in the movie “Chef,” who is very passionate and emotional about the food he prepares. (As a matter of fact, “Chef” is playing now at the Merced downtown movie theater. It’s a movie I do recommend you try to see).

There’s also Lupe Lopez. You’ll see him cutting and slicing your favorite piece of prime rib or steak at the Hometown Buffet restaurant in Merced. He has been at Hometown Buffet for 25 years and still enjoys interacting with the public when he is approached for a slice of the fine meats he prepares.

No matter how much training these cooks and chefs have had or the type of venue where they perform their culinary magic, there’s just something special about being a person who can please another person, their family members or a huge crowd with his cooking.

And you can tell the cooks who have a passion for creating something with their own hands, because if it doesn’t have that special taste they’re looking for, they would rather not have it served.

We’re lucky to have so many talented cooks who are dedicated to their work – and putting smiles on the faces of their customers.