On top of the cooking, planning and training, Lacara coordinates menus for weekly dinner parties customized to the current executive class. Themes range from a European night, complete with wine and cheese, to Down Under for the South Africans and Australians. He’s also the resident ice carver and responsible for coaxing intricate shapes from frozen blocks. The ice dragon for the Asian-themed gala takes more than 12 hours to complete and must be carved in three separate pieces – when assembled it’s too large to fit in the freezer.
So what’s Lacara’s secret to culinary success? “I love the simplicity of the food,” he says. “I just like to have two or three ingredients to bring out the freshness and the quality.” He sometimes stops his chefs in the middle of their cooking to give them a history lesson about where the food came from. “It gives them a better sense of how to use it,” he explains.
Lacara also works around the clock – a legacy of his days climbing his way through the ranks in Philippine hotels. “You really needed to earn your spot. You had to work three times as hard,” Lacara recalls of his early days in the kitchen. His rich work and travel history season his food. As a chef at the Intercontinental Hotel in the Sultanate of Oman, he experimented in Middle Eastern, Indian and Pakistani cuisine. In Miami, Lacara finessed his approach to Cuban and Latin cooking. He also prepared feasts on a small luxury cruise ship, where he perfected the art of performing in tight quarters with limited resources. Lacara eventually moved to San Francisco where he was named the youngest senior chef at the Mark Hopkins International Hotel. He favors Southeast Asian food, and his favorite dish is rendang, a Thai curry.
Lacrara is continually innovating and experimenting. “Raul is like Madonna, he constantly reinvents himself,” Montell says. “Food builds connections. It builds community, and there are a lot of emotions tied to it.” Lacara’s always finding new ways to customize the food to the executives and to get around the banquet style for a more intimate experience, Montell adds. He points out that food plays an important role in networking, and often executives want to share dishes from their home states or countries with their classmates – Lacara makes sure it happens.
Lacara’s culinary achievements have not gone unnoticed. He’s constantly turning down invitations from executives to come cook for them – and even the occasional employment offer. He’s also nabbed first place awards at the National College and University Food Service (NACUFS) Culinary Challenge, the National Wild Game Competition and the San Francisco Ice Gala.
But Lacara’s biggest accomplishment is outside the kitchen. The father of two makes sure his children get homemade breakfasts and packed lunches for school every morning. “I’d feel guilty to cook for so many people and then not to cook for them,” he says. Their most requested item? Macaroni and cheese. After countless hours spent catering to executives, it must be nice to serve a less finicky set of eaters.
(See next page for one of chef Raul Lacara’s top dinner recipes)