Chef Cliff Wharton demonstrates how to chop garlic and mince ginger for Lumpia.
Cliff WhartonCliff Wharton didn't grow up thinking that one day he would become a chef. No, he wanted to be a rock star! But the road to rock and roll glory is a tough one. After several years in a band that made it to the top 10 in Kansas City, but didn't quite place on Billboard's hot list, Cliff decided that maybe he wasn't destined for a life in the music limelight. When a financially rewarding outlet for his creative restlessness wasn't apparent, he worked in kitchens to pay the bills. Little did he know this would be the opening act for a life as a culinary superstar: in fact, in September 2003, Chef Wharton was named one of StarChefs.com’s Rising Stars. His familiarity with the kitchen began in Kansas City, Missouri, the place he called home from the time he was five. As Cliff will proudly report, prior to that the Philippines was home—his birthplace and the country from which his mother hails. In 1992, eager to leave Kansas City and experience the world, Cliff followed his brother to a naval posting in San Diego, California. There, he secured a job in Executive Chef Jeff Tunk's kitchen at Loew's Coronado Bay, working at the hotel's restaurant for a year under the careful guidance of Tunks, whom Cliff now regards as his mentor and the man to foster in him a serious commitment for the profession. But it was not long before Chef Tunks decided to venture to Louisiana to accept responsibility for the dining room at the prestigious Windsor Court Hotel in New Orleans. Tunks requested that Cliff Wharton join him as sous chef. "It was then," says Wharton, "that I realized I had chosen the right career. My desire to prove myself in the kitchen grew. I started to take things seriously when Jeff acknowledged that I had talent." As the evening sous chef at the Windsor Court, Wharton learned how to manage a kitchen. Although he claims no formal training, he insists the three years he spent at the Windsor Court with Jeff were "a formal apprenticeship"—a time to refine the skills he learned on the fly as he made his way from kitchen to kitchen. From the Big Easy, Wharton journeyed to Washington with Jeff Tunks, opening the instantly successful DC Coast restaurant in 1998. "Putting in 80-hour work weeks was bearable,” he says, “because I really like and respect the staff. Jeff has taught me a tremendous amount, especially about decision-making. It's really gratifying to see what can happen when everyone pulls together." In August 2000, Wharton, the young man who wanted to be a rock and roll star, became the leader of the band, rising to the position of Chef de Cuisine at DC Coast's Asian-Pacific inspired sister restaurant, TenPenh. Cooking dishes familiar to him from his childhood, Wharton builds his meals around fresh vegetables and grains, deftly seasoned with vivid spices that are roasted, ground, and blended specifically for each dish. Indulgences such as juicy shrimp and creamy sweet accents provide an occasional lush counterpart. Behind that welcoming smile lurks a visionary ready to lead the band in playing the simple truth. Thanks to Wharton, locals have become acquainted with traditional delicacies from the Philippines such as lumpia, a crispy rice flour roll filled with cabbage, beef or pork, water chestnuts and bean sprouts; an elegant version of Chicken Adobo, a flavorful chicken dish that's slow-cooked with black peppercorns, bay leaf, soy sauce, and vinegar; and Pancit, a noodle dish containing vegetables, meat, and Longaniza (Philippine-made) sausage. Striving to prove his belief that "simplicity sells," Wharton prepares beautifully simple food with complex tastes taken from his native country, the Philippines, as well as Vietnam, Thailand, China, Indonesia, and Malaysia. TenPenh has garnered consistently rave reviews, and in October 2003 it was favored by Gourmet magazine in its Guide to America’s Best Restaurants, which specifically cited a “complexity” “beneath the surface of Chef Cliff Wharton’s Asian-fusion menu.” He is listed in The International Who’s Who of Chefs. And so, the Rising Star has arrived… and he’s rockin’ the kitchen.
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