Acclaimed Chef Stephen Wambach Finds an Oasis in the Coachella Valley
The first thing I notice about Stephen Wambach when I interview him is that he smiles. He smiles a lot. It’s not just a polite smile that chefs give during interviews to appear engaged, either. It’s the type of wide grin that, every time it’s flashed, conveys a feeling of “I can’t believe this is real.”
It’s real, all right, and it’s earned. Some of the wattage comes from his new stint as Executive Chef at 4 Saints and Juniper Table, the two main eateries at the Kimpton Rowan Hotel Palm Springs, the Kimpton Group’s Palm Springs property slated to open November 2017. The rest of its power comes from the journey he’s taken to get here.
“I didn’t take the normal path,” he confesses. “I grew up in New York and was interested in getting into the industry, but I didn’t know anyone and didn’t have any formal training. When I tried to break into the business, the Internet wasn’t what it is now, so I went all over town dropping off my resume at all kinds of places. Eventually, I got a call from the Royalton Hotel in Manhattan, and that’s where I started. I’ll never forget how lucky I am that it worked out.”
Landing the gig at the Royalton did more than work out. It sent Wambach on a career arc so stacked with connections and adventure, it almost seems like a pastiche from other chefs’ journeys. He’s worked with Michelin-starred chefs like Jean-Michel Lorain and Marc Meneau. His resume boasts stints at Michelin-starred restaurants L’Eperance in Burgundy and Restaurant Marc Forgione in Tribeca. He’s opened restaurants in Miami, Hong Kong, and Chicago; the latter city’s restaurant, Epic, landed on Esquire’s “10 Best New Restaurants” list in 2009. These merely represent a sample size of his achievements.
It’s also a career that’s seen its fair share of stories. “I had a chance to do a little work in Panama City,” he says. “When I’m down there, I get a call from a colleague, asking me if I want to help him open up a restaurant in Beirut. I thought ‘why not?’ Worst plane trip ever, by the way – it took me 40 hours to get there.”
Wambach’s phenomenal, globally-charged career demands that one question be asked: What leads a chef of his caliber to Palm Springs, a resort town of about 44,000 residents known more for its Sinatra-smooched past than its present? “It’s a quality of life thing,” he says. “I’ve been in big cities all of my life, and I love the quietness of the desert. I also like that I don’t have to deal with catching a subway or the hassle of a city commute. I can ride my bike to work if I want to – that’s refreshing to me at this stage in my career.”
While Wambach digs Palm Springs’ slower pace, he has no intention of blending into the scenery from a culinary perspective. This becomes evident halfway through the interview, when a waitress breaks in on Wambach mid-anecdote. “Sorry to interrupt,” she says. “We just pulled your cockscombs out of the freezer.”
“Thanks!” Wambach replies with a smile, natch. “I’m trying to create cockscomb chips for an appetizer,” he says to me nonchalantly.
He wouldn’t be able to hide from Palm Springs with or without the cockscombs. When the Rowan opens, it will automatically be crowned as the tallest building in Palm Springs. At its top will be 4 Saints, a rooftop chef-driven restaurant offering dramatic views of the Coachella Valley landscape. The visuals alone promise to keep the place packed, but Wambach is refusing the venue to just be a pretty face. This is where the cockscomb chips will land if he pulls them off, and they’ll be joined by a host of other items ready to nudge the desert community’s palate forward, like foie gras bread & butter and sea urchin tofu with green apple-coriander salad, squid ink, and black sesame crisp. “I could take the easy way out and make it a place that serves burgers, sandwiches, and tacos,” he says. “But I can’t do that. The freedom I’m allowed to have at 4 Saints makes it too good of an opportunity to just play it safe.”
Wambach plans to balance his adventurousness at 4 Saints with Juniper Table’s more casual culinary approach. Situated on the ground floor, the eatery will be a more casual all-day option. Guests coming here can expect more traditional breakfast, lunch, and dinner options with a touch of Mediterranean influence. “We want to make sure our guests have options,” he says. “Juniper Table allows us to provide something more laid-back.”
Regardless of venue, Wambach plans to govern both concepts with a distinct culinary philosophy that’s cognizant of his surroundings. “We’re in the desert, so I want to keep things clean and light,” he states. “We’ll have a big steak on the menu, of course, but there will also be plenty of fish options, and lots of dishes high in acidity. They’ll satisfy you, but you won’t feel uncomfortable like you may feel after having a big meal.”
As Wambach settles into his Palm Springs digs and preps for The Rowan’s November opening, he’s found constant inspiration from his cavalcade of previous experiences – it turns out working with people like Lorain and Meneau sparks creativity. It’s also been the impetus of great personal responsibility. “It’s my goal to teach my team of cooks to be the next generation of Coachella Valley chefs,” he says. “If you don’t teach, all of that knowledge you have dies with you. I don’t want that to happen. I was given a golden opportunity two decades ago by some incredible chefs, and I want to pay that opportunity forward to others. That’s how I think you measure personal success. It’s not what you achieve, it’s what those that work with you achieve.”
That’s something worth smiling about.