Several times while conversing with Chef James Siao about his life and career, the phrase “I wasn’t supposed to go down this road” comes up. He’s in charge of the kitchen of Finch & Fork, the Canary Hotel’s popular restaurant, but he was only supposed to be a transitional chef for this Kimpton property when he took over five years ago.
In fact, the Queens, New York-born, Northeast Ohio-raised chef never thought he’d wind up anywhere in California. “It’s not easy leaving friends and family,” he admits. “Living on the West Coast wasn’t the most desirable thing.”
But the allure of Santa Barbara cast a spell on him, so he decided to take the position permanently. “Most towns are completely disengaged,” he explains. “Here you’re getting a lot of growth and sophistication from the travelers coming in. There’s a dynamic of people traveling far and close that creates a very unique culture.”
James was born into the restaurant business. His father owned a restaurant called Little Hunan, where James grew up prepping, busing tables, bartending, and doing anything to help. But he wasn’t allowed to cook — that was his dad’s job.
“I was supposed to go to the Naval Academy,” he says. “In my family, all generations have a military background.”
He was more passionate about cooking, so he attended the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute in downtown Pittsburgh. “As a chef in a restaurant, you’re really connecting with people,” he explains. “The development of their lives is what I love about the restaurant business.”
Right after culinary school, he interned for a year at the Hyatt Regency in Scottsdale then returned to Ohio for several restaurant jobs. He returned to Scottsdale for a job at Taggia, a coastal Italian restaurant at Kimpton’s FireSky Resort & Spa. “I worked under great mentors at Taggia,” he says. “I learnt about the simplicity of Italian food and the depth of it.” He spent six years there, and also lived in Italy for three months to help a friend open a restaurant in the Marche. “It was really eye-opening to see the culture first hand,” he shares. “It was great to see and understand hospitality a bit differently.”
At Finch and Fork, he prepares what he calls Comfort Modern American, “a playful interpretation of classic food I grew up with,” he explains. “These are the flavors I grew up with in the Midwest. A lot of dishes have a lot of nostalgia. It was about rediscovering flavors and cooking techniques.”
He also makes things unique, like starting each table with a jar of pickled vegetables. “You challenge the senses of the guests through the depth of how we’re building flavors,” he says. That means sea scallops with chorizo vinaigrette and ruby red grapefruit and avocado or, at brunch, pork belly and eggs with chipotle hollandaise.
For the past three years, Chef James, who commutes by bicycle from his place on Upper State Street, has participated in the Chef’s Cycle, a fundraiser in which chefs bike 300 miles in three days to raise money for No Kid Hungry. This year’s event takes place from May 16 to 18. See chefscycle.org.
Of his work at Finch and Fork, James explains, “We focus on every meal that you have here with the intention of creating a great experience.”
Chef James Siao answers the Proust Questionnaire.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
The Bill Kimpton Award. I received this award just two weeks ago at our national chef/GM conference. It’s the highest level of recognition in our company for an individual. I feel unbelievably honored from the support of my peers and my team. I couldn’t achieve this accolade without them.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Vince Lombardi. His ability to teach and motivate players helped make him one of the most dominating coaches in history. His trait of being a workaholic helped him achieve his dreams, a similar characteristic that helped me accomplish my goals and make me who I am today.
What do you like most about your job?
Everything. But if there’s a few things: all the unique people you work or meet through their travels; that challenges are opportunities; and that the food is always changing, which makes learning endless.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Sharing a meal with friends and family, all equally enjoying delicious food while reminiscing over memories and adventures. Taking nap in a hammock on the beach somewhere always appealed to me as well, but I haven’t experienced it yet. Someday.
What is your greatest fear?
Public speaking — the feeling is greatly disliked.
Who do you most admire?
People who have courage or balance. Courage, having the ability to take risks or tackle obstacles without having regrets. Balance, because I’ve never been able to achieve this as a chef.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Currently seems to be cycling and all that comes with it. But most of the time it’s eating out and enjoying life.
What is your current state of mind?
Adventure. I enjoy the escape of the day-to-day to discover a new place, whether it’s close or far. Food is obviously the driver that points me in a direction most of the time.
What is the quality you most like in people?
Selflessness, common respect, and caring for one another is what I see make a difference.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
Dishonesty. I can’t understand the sneaky nature of people.
What do you most value in friends?
Loyalty. Makes for a long-lasting friendship with unconditional love that creates a true bond of companionship and support. My friends are my family.
What is your most marked characteristic?
Hopefully, I’m more than a few strong characteristics, some bad, some good, but most of them need this to be strong: passion.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Working in a kitchen lends itself to using many choice words and phrases every day.
Which talent would you most like to have?
I wish I spoke Chinese and Spanish. That would really help with my day-to-day at work and life.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
To have full head of hair or a high metabolism. Being a chef isn’t the healthiest of jobs.
Where would you most like to live?
The Pacific Northwest. The wilderness and that part of the country always interested me. Doing pretty well at my current place of residence though.
What is your most treasured possession?
My family and friends. I wouldn’t be able to be who I am today without their support and guidance through my life. I would do anything for them.
Who makes you laugh the most?
The people I work with — never know what’s going to happen next.
What is your motto?
Make changes and challenge yourself by working hard and having fun.
On what occasion do you lie?
Try not to, but sometimes lies can actually help over-prepare people or myself for what’s to come. But there’s never a right occasion. It’s always the fear of getting caught in a lie.