Meet the Chefs

The San Diego Food Bank is honored to feature the culinary talents of chefs from around San Diego County at our 12th annual Gala. Each chef is generously donating their time and skills to create delicious and unique appetizers for our guests to enjoy on this special night.

This year, we are delighted to welcome back Chef Sara Polczynski as our Chef Chair for the evening. We're deeply appreciative of Chef Sara's unwavering commitment to the San Diego Food Bank's mission, particularly as she celebrates her tenth year serving as Chef Chair at this year's San Diego Food Bank Gala.

Chef Sara will be leading our team of talented volunteer chefs which include, Chef Jeff Roberto, Chef Accursio Lota, Chef Evan Cruz, Chef Ricardo Heredia, Chef Amanda Palomino, Chef Daniel Romero, Chef Dante Romero, Chef Sadie Rose, Chef Vaughn Vargus, Chef Reyna Venaga and Chef James Foran.

Special thank you also to the chefs from Bread & Cie and Venissimo Cheese for curating our delicious bread and cheese appetizers.

Chef Chair

Chef Sara Polczynski – Seasoned Plates

Chef Sara Polczynski is the owner and Culinary Artisan for Seasoned Plates, a full service catering company specializing in bringing bold flavors, bright colors, local freshness and a custom culinary experience to each and every client.  She is very involved as a consultant with a few restaurants in San Diego, developing sweet and savory creations for their menus. For the last 17 years, Sara has also worked as an Associate Professor for the Baking and Culinary Arts programs for San Diego College of Continuing Education, teaching the next generation of pastry chefs.

Over the years, Chef Sara’s love for cooking began to expand along with her love of travel. Having the opportunity to travel and learn about regional Mexican cuisine, art and culture with influential chef mentors, Rick Bayless, Ricardo Munoz and Susana Trilling, has shaped the style and flavors of much of Chef Sara’s cuisine. In 2012 she was able to utilize her knowledge, passion and techniques of authentic regional Mexican cuisine as the Consultant Executive Chef for The Blind Burro in downtown San Diego. Bringing authentic Mexican cuisine with a modern Californian flair to the people of San Diego was a dream project. Chef Sara has also had the opportunity to teach hands on cooking classes at the world renowned Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, utilizing fresh produce grown on their on-site organic farm. Over the years, she has had a strong involvement in the community with many charitable causes including the Jacobs & Cushman San Diego Food Bank, Just Call Us Volunteers, Collaboration Kitchen and many more.

Sponsor Reception Chefs

Chef Jeff Roberto – SOAR: Sushi On A Roll

I first started sushi when there was only a handful of Japanese Restaurants in San Diego. I was traditionally trained as a chef and had 8 years experience when Sushi on a Roll began. I am happy to be in San Diego and I support local business when it comes to preferred vendors, even if I had to pay a little more occasionally. We have been fortunate enough to provide sushi for hotels, caterers, country clubs, brunches, concerts, conventions, stadiums and other major events. We've catered Kosher parties, we've supplied orders from two rolls to tens of thousands of pieces of sushi during the Super Bowl. Along with the assistance of a great crew and awesome friends, we bring the "Aloha" spirit as well as sushi quality when invited to work at events. 

Having been a Sushi Chef for over 25 years here in San Diego, my passion is still making sushi. As a Sushi Chef, we were considered entertainers, while our guests enjoy the delicacies of our sushi making.  Having fun and energy throughout the course of the meal is how I enjoy this side of the business. The camaraderie of the crew, the friendships and loyalty we have in the business is truly a blessing. On-site events (setting up the whole sushi bar) is the Sushi Chef's place to shine, somewhat on stage.  My staff and I considered this part of the business to have an exciting time at each event.

I am the Executive Sushi Chef / Owner of Sushi on a Roll, inc. Having been honored to consult for restaurants to open and design their Sushi bars, Seau's (RawMana) and Red Lion Hanalei Hotel (Island Sushi and Pupu bar) now the Crowne Plaza Hotel, gave me so much experience, from different demographics here in San Diego to remodeling each bar to fit each and every need. Special "Thank You" to everyone for a great 23 years and here is to another decade of service.  

Domo Arigato, Kanpai. Cheers and thank you very much from the staff of Team SOAR (Sushi on a Roll, inc).

Chef Accursio Lota – Trattoria Cori Pastificio

Accursio Lota grew up in a small agricultural town in Sicily, enjoying and learning to cook the centuries-old Mediterranean recipes made by his mother and grandmother. These recipes glorified locally caught fish, local farm-raised meat, and the fruits and vegetables from his family’s own prolific gardens. There was spicy green oil from their olive groves, homemade wine from the grapes they grew, and fresh-made ricotta cheese from neighboring sheep and goat dairies. All this bounty led Lota to develop a strong attachment to the land, culture and food of his homeland, and the conviction from an early age that he wanted to be a chef.  “I loved to be in the kitchen,” he recalls. “When I was just a baby, my mom would put a pile of flour and water in front of me to play with on our tiled kitchen floor. By the time I was five, I was coming home from school and pulling out the flour, sugar and milk and making crepes!”

At 14, Chef Lota began culinary school and at 18 represented his school in a prestigious national culinary competition. Upon graduation, he worked at the Four Seasons Hotel in Milan under the tutelage of Chef Sergio Mei, one of the most highly respected chefs in Europe. “From him I learned the simplicity of pairing ingredients, and the search for inventive, but honest, flavors, as well as the essential techniques of fine dining cuisine,” Lota explains.

When he was 22, Chef Lota transferred to The Biltmore Santa Barbara, also a Four Seasons Resort. There he learned the importance of sourcing organic products from small, local producers. During this time, he had the honor of cooking at a private fundraising dinner for 2000 guests at Oprah Winfrey’s house in Montecito, benefiting the future President, Barack Obama.

At 24, Lota was offered the Exec Sous Chef position at a new 5 diamond hotel Imperiale in Taormina, Sicily, and returned to his home country as a success. In this position, he developed his personal culinary style, which he characterizes as “Sicilian tradition meets a new, global generation”. He was able to hone his skills and style further when, on returning to California, he became the sous chef at the Marine Room in La Jolla and expanded his understanding of global fusion cuisine.

In 2012, Chef Lota and his wife Corinne Goria, a San Diego native, launched an intimate dining club – Limone: Fine Dining Underground – where they served multiple-course meals to a few select guests. This venture gave him carte blanche to explore new tastes, textures and presentations using molecular gastronomy, haute cuisine and traditional Sicilian techniques, to widespread acclaim. At the end of that year, Chef Lota was tapped to become the executive chef of Solare Ristorante in Liberty Station, and during the six and a half years that he helmed the kitchen there, he and the restaurant won may prestigious awards, including numerous “Best Chef” titles. 

Perhaps Accursio Lota’s most celebrated triumph until now has been winning the 2017 Barilla World Pasta Competition in Italy, for which he was chosen to represent the United States. Competitors in the grueling, multi-day contest embodied the best Italian cuisine chefs of 20 different countries, and the judges included five Michelin-starred chefs, two food critics, and a representative from Barilla. 

In 2019, Chef Lota and his wife Corinne founded Lotaria Restaurant Group and opened Cori Pastificio Trattoria in San Diego’s vibrant North Park neighborhood, where the pair and their children live and are actively involved in the local community. At Cori, Chef Lota brings the expression of who he is today and all that he has learned to a casual concept, affordable restaurant. A departure from the fine dining, special occasion culinary model for which he is known in San Diego and Southern California, Cori is the type of restaurant he himself seeks out on his visits to Italy--- a family-owned neighborhood favorite with a warm, inviting atmosphere, excellent food made from locally sourced ingredients, and where he is both host and chef with the opportunity to interact with guests on a personal level.

At Cori, which both means “heart” in his Sicilian dialect and is a tribute to his wife’s name, Chef Accursio Lota is presenting the cuisine of his heart to the San Diego dining community.

Specialty Hors D'oeuvres Chefs

Chef Evan Cruz – Cohn Restaurant Group  

Evan Cruz, an aspiring young chef, was born in the Philippines and raised in San Diego, California. At a young age, he recalls learning how to cook in his grandmother’s kitchen cooking rice, rolling Lumpia (Filipino spring rolls), cutting fish, cleaning vegetables. He discovered his fascination with the culinary arts starting as a prep cook and dishwasher at the age of 15. Learning and working hard he worked his way up to sous chef by the age of 19. From there, he found himself in the midst of glamorous city lights of Las Vegas.

Not feeling satisfied and wanting to educate himself further, in 2000, he enrolled and graduated from the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco.

In 2001, missing home, he found himself back in San Diego and becoming the executive chef/partner at Roy’s La Jolla. With that “seven year itch” in 2007, Evan left Roy’s to start his own catering company “Exclusive Chef Catering/Consulting”.

Still wanting more of a challenge and missing cooking for guests, in 2010 he found himself finding that passion and love at “Pacifica Del Mar”. With Chris Idso moving into a new position as general manager, this created a perfect symbiotic relationship where both chefs have the love and passion for using fresh local ingredients, sustainable seafood with focus, love and passion for California coastal cuisine.

At the end of 2011, looking to further his experience and knowledge, Evan took on the position as Executive Sous Chef for the prestigious L’auberge Del mar Hotel and Resort.

In the beginning of 2013, he found a great opportunity to work with another James Beard Award winning chef with Chef Bernard Guillas at the majestic La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club

With a phenomenal opportunity from Arterra and The San Diego Marriott Del Mar, Evan found himself taking the helm of Executive Chef at landmark Carmel Valley hotel.

I believe that food is inspired by understanding the bounty of San Diego from the seafood rich oceans of Baja California to the fertile farms of the Imperial Valley, my cuisine has developed with a local-centric view and global influences.

“To me a chef is just like any artist, you want them to leave you with an impression of their soul.”

Currently, Chef Evan is the Corporate Chef for the Cohn Restaurant Group.

Chef Ricardo Heredia – Cohn Restaurant Group

My background is Mexican and Native American, Mexican Cuisine is very close to my heart and the beginning of my journey in Food. Since moving to San Diego in 2007 I have had the pleasure of being a part of the evolution of cuisine in Baja and San Diego that helps to define my style of cooking. I have been a consultant for many years opening many different concepts across the US and now Japan. In 2022 San Diego passed MEHKO in San Diego County. With my two daughters we started Barrio Bird, a Chicano Fried Chicken concept in Barrio Logan. I am currently a Culinary Operations Manager for Cohn Restaurant Group in San Diego.

Chef Amanda Palomino – Kitchens For Good

As a culinary instructor at Kitchens for Good, a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering individuals through culinary training, I am passionate about using food as a tool for positive change. My journey in the culinary world has been marked by exciting achievements, including winning Episode 10 of Season 58 of Chopped, where I showcased my creativity and skill under pressure. Additionally, I had the honor of being featured on both Season 15 and 17 of Hell's Kitchen, where I thrived in the high-intensity environment and learned invaluable lessons from renowned chefs. Through my work and experiences, I strive to inspire others to pursue their culinary dreams and make a difference in their communities through food.

Chefs Danny & Dante Romero – Two Ducks

Two Ducks (IG: twoduckssd) is a new underground (clandestine) fine-dining pop-up from the former Executive Chef and Chef de Cuisine of Wormwood, brothers and Calexico natives, Danny and Dante Romero. The Romero brothers amicably departed Wormwood earlier this year to pursue and catalyze a healthier approach to working within the restaurant industry. Danny and Dante were seeking an alternative solution to the all-too-common industry grind and the long shifts over many days which often take a toll on mental and physical wellness. As a new father, Danny wanted to shift the mindset in order to prioritize family while also continuing to nurture his craft.

The two formerly operated Tortoise, a pandemic-era underground pop-up during their earlier time at Wormwood and it inspired the current Two Ducks concept, a roving dinner experience that heralds all the tenants of fine-dining but is whimsical, fun and approachable with curated playlists of everything from The Beatles to mariachi band covers.

Inspired by some of the successful restaurant models they experienced in Europe, Danny and Dante operate Two Ducks two nights per week with limited seating available per evening. Each seating features 8-10 courses based on classic French technique with Mexican/Southern Californian culinary influences and includes the option for beverage pairings. Reserved guests receive an email the evening before that discloses the location of the dinner.

“The Tortoise & the Ducks" and "The Tortoise and the Hare" are cautionary tales à la Aesop’s Fables and the morals of both stories are at the root of the brothers’ mission and vision – slow and steady.

Two Ducks is the pop-up predecessor to what will be a permanent Tortoise brick and mortar in the future where the same sacred approach to the preservation of mental and physical health and life balance will be honored.

Chef Sadie Rose   

Sadie is a cheesemaker and has the privilege of making cheese for chefs and fundraisers all over San Diego. She focuses on locally sourced milk of the highest quality. She believes strongly that food equals community and loves creating food for that community, her friends, and her two amazing kids.

Chef Vaughn Vargus – University of California San Diego

Chef Vaughn Vargus, C.E.C., C.C.A. is the Executive Chef at UC San Diego’s Dining Department, focusing on flavorful foods, ethnicity, sustainability, and modernization of the classics with a great love and respect for tradition.

Throughout his extensive career, he has embarked on a variety of culinary travels to experience the foods of Southeast Asia, Bahrain, Europe, and Mexico. Plant forward and food / lifestyle variations are of great interest to this Chef.

Always fun and exciting, he loves to teach about food, flavors, skill and techniques where they are understood and applicable for the everyday cook!

An active member of the American Culinary Federation the NACUFS Association, he has been consistently involved with culinary competitions, both as a competitor and administrator nationwide.

Chef Vaughn has been a participating Chef for the San Diego Food Bank’s annual Gala every year and finds this to be a very fulfilling experience, he is honored to support his home city of San Diego!

Chef Reyna Venegas – Rancho La Puerta

Executive Chef Reyna Venegas prepares fresh and delicious food that energizes, inspires, and nourishes guests. She fuses the culinary and cultural heritages of her own Northern Baja roots with the nutritious “spa cuisine” pioneered 80 years ago by Rancho La Puerta co-founder Deborah Szekely. At La Cocina Que Canta, “The Kitchen That Sings,” Chef Reyna teaches healthy eating as a celebration of life in farm-to-table cooking classes.

As a lifelong learner, Chef Reyna graduated from the University of California, San Diego’s Integrative Nutrition program in 2023, which focuses on how food promotes wellness. She is also a graduate of the Culinary Art School in Tijuana, and holds a Pastry Degree from the Lycée Technique et Hôtelier de Monte-Carlo and Fondation Turquois in Monaco.

She and her husband, Chef Marcelo Hisaki, own Restaurante Amores, a hidden culinary jewel in the heart of Baja. In 2023, she managed Team Mexico in the Bocuse d’Or Finale, a prestigious culinary contest in Lyon, France. Team Mexico was honored to receive the Social Commitment award in recognition of their commitment to combatting migrants’ food insecurity in Baja, California. Currently, she collaborates with Team Mexico as they prepare for the Bocuse d’Or Americas 2024.

Dessert Chef

Chef James Foran – Grossmont College

Chef James Foran is currently the Pastry Instructor and Culinary Coordinator at Grossmont College as well as a professional consultant designing and training dessert menus for fine dinning establishments.  

He was worked in some of the best kitchens in New York City, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and San Diego as Executive Pastry Chef. He is published in several books and most recently has won Food Networks Chopped for competing with chocolate.  

Aside from his passion for teaching all things pastry, he enjoys surfing, motorcycles, playing guitar, traveling and being a student of life.  

Bread and Cheese

Bread & Cie and Venissimo Cheese