UC San Diego Executive Chef Vaughn Vargus featured at ‘Hail to the Chefs’ Food Bank gala
“Just announced call to dinner.” This key phrase jumpstarts commotion in the kitchen, everyone picking up the pace as though on fast forward. “Let’s get to work,” says Vaughn Vargus, executive chef at UC San Diego to his culinary team. The cold spring pea gazpacho is carefully ladled into 20 neatly aligned bowls, then the curlicue crème fraiche is added, and lastly, a fresh herb salad is placed perfectly in the center. After the chef snaps a quick photo of the finished product, waiters whisk the first course away to the guests.
Chef Vargus, with assistance from UC San Diego chefs Dave Gardinier of Café Ventanas and Tiago Battastini of 64 Degrees, donated his time and culinary talents at the 3rd Annual Foodtasia Gala at the Jacobs and Cushman San Diego Food Bank. The event, held Saturday, May 2, benefits hunger-relief programs in the San Diego community. Themed “Hail to the Chefs,” the gala showcased the culinary prowess of more than a dozen San Diego chefs. Each prepared a gourmet three-course meal for two tables of ten guests, drawing upon the unique specialties of their respective kitchens.
“I feel very strongly that it is our responsibility, as a public university, to give back to the community,” said Vargus. “I jump in on these types of opportunities as often as I can. I am grateful to have the support of Housing, Dining and Hospitality and the ability to do these kinds of events.”
The gala was hosted at the Food Bank warehouse, with space and portable equipment provided for chefs under a large tent outside. Although bustling with activity, the atmosphere was one of camaraderie rather than competition, with many chefs admiring each other’s creations in the downtime. When an unexpected vegetarian dish was ordered at UC San Diego’s table, the neighboring chef gladly provided beets and watercress for a salad. “It was a treat to work alongside colleagues from the city, many of whom I know professionally and personally,” said Vargus.
Gala attendees were paired with chefs randomly, discovering the menu only when they found their seats. In addition to the pea gazpacho, Vargus and his team prepared a seared foie gras hors d’oeuvre for the cocktail hour. The main course consisted of maple leaf duck leg confit and seared sous-vide duck breast, followed by a smoked s’more dessert with organic strawberry mint salad. All food served by UC San Diego was donated by Housing, Dining and Hospitality for the fundraising event.
“Funds from this year’s gala will benefit the vital feeding programs which enable the San Diego Food Bank to feed 370,000 people every month,” said San Diego Food Bank President and CEO Jim Floros. “And in particular, it will provide money for our Food 4 Kids Backpack Program, which is for kids living in poverty who have little or nothing to eat over the weekend.”
Vargus has been executive chef at UC San Diego’s Housing, Dining and Hospitality for six years and leads a team of more than 800 dining employees, including 16 chefs and sous chefs. He also mentors student workers, which comprise 70 percent of the dining staff, and helps develop tasty, nutritious and balanced food options for the 18 eateries on campus—including dining halls and markets in each college, specialty restaurants and catering for campus-wide catering events.
“What I enjoy most is working with our dynamic culinary team and engaging with the students,” said Vargus. “The educational part of my job is really fulfilling. I encourage the staff to continue to grow and become certified. And our student-workers learn to work as a team and be accountable.”
Vargus’s homebase is 64 Degrees, Revelle College’s new dining facility featuring a burger lounge, salad bar, rotisserie specials and more. Here he hosts regular demonstrations for students about making healthy food decisions as well as cooking techniques—from how to make a hard boiled egg to how to prepare a crème brulee. An important goal for him is to teach respect for food, including where it comes from. For last month’s Earth Day, he held a special presentation on how UC San Diego Dining Services utilizes locally grown, locally harvested and organically raised produce as well as humanely raised diary and animal proteins.
“Ultimately, everything we do is for our students. We have just a small window of time to make an impact in their lives,” said Vargus. “We want to instill in them healthy eating habits to maintain strength and brain power. These are skills that they can use throughout their lifetime.”
An avid surfer, Vargus decided early on that he wanted to work at night so that he could hit the beach during the day. He began working at a restaurant at age 14, and has been passionate about food ever since. He attended the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, but says that he is largely self-taught. “I have vivid memories as a young child of being in the kitchen when my grandmother was cooking. She was a phenomenal cook; she grew up in the Dust Bowl era,” said Vargus. “For some reason, I was the only one she would let in the kitchen when she was cooking. It probably had some influence on my career choice.”
Vargus prefers classical pairings over arbitrary combinations for the sake of experimentation, which is why he chose to prepare a traditional dish for the Food Bank Gala. “We put a lot of thought into what we design, how it goes together and tastes,” he said. “A big part of my job is to make sure that the food we serve is consistent, flavorful and has eye appeal. Things are done a certain way for good reason.”