Midpeninsula Post

Statera Catering by Sam Alvarez: A fine-dining company run by 17-year-olds

Statera chefs prepare the ahi tuna and salmon nigiri for a client’s birthday party. (Eason Dong)

In his client’s cozy home nestled in Emerald Hills, Design Tech High School senior Sam Alvarez — or “Chef,” as he is referred to in the kitchen — called out orders while he butter basted a sizzling trio of pork tenderloin cuts. One person opened the oven to pull out a stack of warm plates, another cleared the table to place them on; someone announced that they were about to taste a sauce, and a freshly rinsed spoon was placed into their hand seconds later. Through handpicking each member of his team and spending time with them over the course of several months, Alvarez has built a close-knit group of chefs whose personalities balance each other out neatly.

Statera Catering, named after the Latin word for balance, is a fine-dining catering group run by six local high schoolers. Five minutes of conversation with Alvarez and it’s obvious why he made the choice to base his group around balance. From the flavors of each dish to the team’s chemistry to his personal life, the idea of balance has permeated just about every aspect of his lifestyle.

According to sous chef and fellow Design Tech student Josh Bingham, balance is the most important factor of a good dish.

“What makes food bad is when there’s one flavor that’s just too strong and overpowering,” he explained. “So I think that having [balance] as the philosophy guiding Statera helps to make our food a lot better.”

The components of each dish on Statera’s tasting menus, from Maine lobster tail to yuzu to pico de gallo, all stem from different countries. This particular genre of modern fine dining, labeled “fusion cuisine,” is brilliant when executed correctly and culturally insulting when messed up, according to Alvarez.

“I think [fusion cuisine] is a way of uniting them, a way of taking completely different flavor profiles … and elevating them,” Alvarez said.

Alvarez has been working to master flavor profiles — the combination of flavors and elements used in a dish — for years. This is Statera’s secret to fusion cuisine: If you can balance the ingredients’ respective flavors correctly, the dish will taste good no matter how eccentric the combination might seem.

Pork tenderloin is plated with a duck pomme purée and black garlic, topped with a sour yuzu reduction and sage. (Eason Dong)

Alvarez’s first foray into the professional culinary world occurred when working as a parking attendant at Portola Valley’s Alpine Inn, where he was asked by a chef to taste a dish and received an offer on the spot after impressing the chef with his detailed critique. A few months later, he had the opportunity to work at the Michelin-starred Plumed Horse in Saratoga. Although he declined both offers due to his young age and a desire to break into the industry on his own, the consecutive professional recognition sparked the idea to create his own group.

It doesn’t take long to figure out how well the boys — Matteo Farinacci, Lukas Worthington, Atticus Seale and Duke Jamison, in addition to Alvarez and Bingham — work together. As they prepared the first course, Seale gestured towards a large slab of ahi tuna while debating with Alvarez over how well it would pair with a lavender-apricot honey. Jamison plucked the spoon out of Seale’s hand as he passed by and gave it a good scrub, plopping it into a drawer and clapping Worthington on the back as the latter brushed puff pastry with egg wash. The dynamic of the room was casual, yet each chef knew exactly what his role was and performed it flawlessly.

“There [are] people who are energetic. There [are] people who are focused and more passive, who are willing to do the smaller stuff in the kitchen to help accumulate greatness in the food,” Alvarez described. “Everybody is different, everybody gets along, but everybody knows their place. It’s all out of respect and just wanting to make this group greater.”

Although most people probably adapt their personalities a little when they’re off work, Statera’s philosophy is ingrained into Alvarez’s personal life as well. His greatest passion besides cooking is bodybuilding, which led him to befriend the rest of the team. The way he described his bodybuilding journey — eyes lit up excitedly, hands gesticulating — was similar to how he talked about a new recipe he was particularly proud of.

“If I’m dealing with stress or anxiety, I’m always going to work out and I’m always going to cook,” Alvarez said.

Alvarez’s passions for cooking and bodybuilding came from his parents. His mother, a former pastry chef, attended the Institute of Culinary Education, and his father was a personal trainer in college and trained bodybuilders and athletes. But his biggest inspiration is his grandmother Aurelia Alvarez owned two restaurants specializing in Puerto Rican cuisine. Alvarez credited her as his biggest inspiration in all aspects of his life.

“I just think her work ethic is unbelievable,” he said. “She grew up an orphan and homeless in Puerto Rico during the Great Depression. She was working, like, four jobs, and she had six kids. And she just managed to come out of that on top really successfully. So… if I’m slacking off, I think about my inspiration. A lot of it comes from her.”

As the elder Alvarez talked about her life and experience as a cook, it was obvious that she considered raising her family to be her greatest achievement, above the restaurants and money. A good meal nourished her children so they could do well in school and showed them that they were loved. When I asked her about watching Sam grow up and develop his love for cooking, she paused for a moment before answering.

“I think you have to be born… with an instinct,” she said. “Because even though my kids are all very, very smart, each one has different kinds of instincts. … [Sam] has always loved to cook and get involved in the kitchen.”

That instinct was on full display as Alvarez maneuvered around the kitchen, tasting sauces and making slight adjustments to better complement each dish’s flavors. As Worthington and Jamison were preparing to sprinkle coconut flakes onto a puff pastry dish, Alvarez had an idea: blending the coconut into a fine powder and gently dusting it on at the end. That way, the textures of each bite would be more balanced — the flakey texture of the pastry versus the coconut powder. The result was a more innovative, visually appealing alternative to an original dessert topping.

“There are times where I’ll just make something and I won’t even taste it,” Alvarez said. “And I’ll give it to people, and it fits that balance.”

Alvarez sifts blended coconut flakes onto a puff pastry dish. (Eason Dong)

He had also been training his team to do the same without his help; Seale recalled frequently going over to Alvarez’s house last year to familiarize himself with a wide variety of foods and ingredient combinations. Although it was a bumpy ride at first (he chuckled at how intimidated he was when Alvarez interrogated him on flavor profiles), he managed to get the hang of it and became one of Alvarez’s most trusted tasters.

“It was a lot of trial and error. I feel like that’s usually the case in cooking,” Seale said. ”But it’s about correcting that mistake in the instant, learning [to] add some more milk to this, add an egg white. And then that really gives you a deeper understanding of what each dish needs.”

With Statera’s chefs rapidly gaining experience and familiarity with their craft, Alvarez said he has been able to rely on them more to help create hand-tailored menus for each client rather than doing it all himself. This has allowed the team more creative liberty with each course rather than adhering to traditional recipes; when tied into the experimentation necessary for fusion cuisine, it all added up to even more freedom to have fun in the kitchen.

“I love to use ingredients that no one has heard of in mixtures that no one has heard of,” Alvarez said. “It’s so cool for [the average person] to experience that. I want to bring them these flavor profiles they’ve never had or even thought of.”

Innovation is not the only thing on Alvarez’s mind when creating the menu, though; he tries to attach some sort of personal value or memory to each dish. This way, he’s able to deliver something that comes from a place of love, just as he was raised.

That love was on display even after a kitchen accident when cooking for his family and some close friends — on his own birthday. He fondly laughed at how he got so excited after cooking numerous servings of steak and potatoes that he forgot to check for knife safety and accidentally dropped the knife on the side of his hand. Even with his hand bandaged and throbbing, he focused more on how the meal was able to put a smile on everyone’s faces.

“I just remember everyone singing happy birthday to me [while] I had my hand over my head,” Alvarez said. “[My grandpa] was just stacking the food on his plate, and he was like, ‘Sam, this is so good.’ I just feel so much joy when people are enjoying food. … I love the memories that are tied with cooking [and] how it makes people happy.”

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