Local Chefs Celebrate Loved Ones with Holiday Traditions


By Rachelle Cano, Special to the Independent

Chef Leo Bongarra

Long after our parents and grandparents have left us, our family traditions continue. Traditions—the things that outlive any material object we might buy while roaming the malls during the holidays. Simply put, our traditions—and the memories that uphold them—are priceless.

During this time of year, we reminisce about the recipes that unite us in collective memory at the dining table. Passing on family recipes and preparing them together creates eternal bonds, immortalizing our loved ones for generations to come.

Four local chefs recently shared their holiday family food traditions with the Indy.

Chef Leo Bongarra of Saline at Hotel Joaquin in North Laguna reflects on his diverse food experience growing up in Buenos Aires, Argentina:

Chef Leo’s Ukrainian grandmother made a Russian-influenced dish called Varenyky—half-moon shaped pasta filled with ricotta, onions and potatoes. Photo by Mehri Photography

I was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina by my Ukrainian mother and grandmother. My grandmother, Esperanza (Nadia) Sivak, was a professional chef with a long list of traditional recipes that she brought with her from the Old World.

Throughout my childhood, on every Christmas and New Year’s Eve, and for special birthday parties, my grandmother made this simple, but exquisite Russian influenced dish called, “Varenyky.” This delicate, handmade, half-moon shaped pasta is filled with ricotta, onions and potatoes. She would top it with crispy, savory lardons (chunks of slab bacon) and a dab of sour cream. The taste was pure heaven. This has to be one of my favorite meals of all time! In memory of my mother and grandmother who are no longer with us, I lovingly recreate this dish at Christmas and on New Year’s Eve.

I came from a huge family, and gatherings were often held on Sundays with 20 or more people at our home, so leftovers never lasted more than a day. No matter the occasion, when grandmother would ask if we wanted something special, of course our response shouted out in unison was always, “Varenyky!” I love to make them for my family and hope you will enjoy them, too.


As a child, Craig Strong created gingerbread houses with his siblings every Christmas. Photo courtesy of Craig Strong

Chef-Proprietor Craig Strong of Ocean at Main carries on his family tradition of building homemade, edible gingerbread houses:

One of my favorite holiday memories is of my mother making gingerbread houses for my seven siblings and me when we were kids. We would come home from school and she would have a gingerbread house baked and ready for each of us to decorate, with candy and decorations laid out on the table. She and my dad also decorated a house. The next day, we would bring our colorful, decorated houses to school and give them to each of our teachers as gifts. My parents’ gingerbread house stayed at home with us until New Year’s Eve, when we would break it open.

Chef-Proprietor Craig Strong of Ocean at Main carries on holiday traditions with his daughter, Scarlett. Photo courtesy of Craig Strong

I began this tradition last year with my own daughter and included our friends’ children, too. It was so much fun having all the kids over decorating the gingerbread houses in our home. It truly brought me right back to my childhood.

A newer food tradition I have come to love during the holidays is from my wife’s side of the family. I cannot wait to indulge in the wonderful homemade tamales prepared by my mother-in-law at Christmas. She uses a delicious chicken mole inside, which is a combination of chili peppers and chocolate, balanced just right. And, they’re a bit thinner than the traditional tamales, so on the lighter side. I can never get enough of them! I love blending my wife’s and my own family’s holiday traditions together for our daughter, Scarlet, to experience.


Chef Amar Santana’s holiday eggnog. Photo by Sarah King Photography


Chef Amar Santana of Vaca and Broadway by Amar Santana cherishes the unique accents of growing up in his native Dominican Republic:

The most vivid, heartfelt food and drink memories I remember growing up were drinking the Dominican Republic alcoholic eggnog topped with rum, while experiencing that feeling of anticipation roasting the spit-roasted pig, knowing when it was finally ready, it would be so tasty. We would patiently roast it outside as a family and sometimes a community. I treasure those times. During the holidays, we would party and celebrate the whole month of December.

Chef Amar Santana’s holiday eggnog. Photo by Sarah King Photography

Remembering Christmas in my country inspired me to bring those flavors to Orange County, and last week at Vaca I prepared my family’s traditional spit-roasted pig recipe, and our guests devoured it. Preparing and cooking a whole pig can sound like such a challenge, but I’ve been told that when I was little boy of only 6 years of age, I was already cooking pasta with tomato paste and butter. All my life I just wanted more when it came to food, so I reached out. Learning my family’s recipes at a very young age was something that I was curious about and making them happen came


My dad passed away about 15 years ago and one thing he loved to eat was my mom’s braised oxtail. To keep my parents’ memory alive, I have it on the menu at Vaca. I grew up eating it as well, and because it reminds me of my mom and dad, I will always offer it to my guests.When it comes to sweets, it feels great that I have Mama Santana’s flan recipe on the menu at Vaca. It’s absolutely perfect! My mother’s flan is something I was also eating at home growing up, and now I get to make it at Vaca and serve it toour guests year-round. I find that amazing. I am grateful to be able to share our family’s love of food and tradition, and Christmas just makes it all the more special. Happy Holidays! Feliz Navidad!


Chef Benjamin Martinek of Studio at Montage Laguna Beach is passionate about his grandmother’s Polish kolacky cookies:

Chef Benjamin Martinek of Studio at Montage Laguna Beach. Photo courtesy of Studio at Montage Laguna Beach

There is a sense of culture and passion behind holiday traditions, even when cooking in the restaurant. I value the traditions I had growing up and try to incorporate them into the holidays—either professionally or personally.

My grandmother in Chicago used to make us traditional Polish cookies each year during the holidays called kolackys. She would stuff the small pastry with her homemade raspberry and apricot jam, and then package them very carefully before mailing them to us in Colorado. When we’d open the box, the scents of butter, shortbread and fruity jams would fill the air and we would know Christmas is here. We’d flip through at least 10 layers of white tissue paper before getting to the actual cookies.

Another fond food memory comes from my other grandma who lived in Mississippi and had her own pecan tree. She would harvest the pecans, roast them in brown butter and mail us a package each year. They were so delicious!

Chef Ben preparing kolackys. Photo courtesy of Montage

One of the biggest traditions we’ve carried over from my grandparents is to prepare a standing rib roast to have for Christmas dinner. I really miss the special dishes my grandma sent each year, but we’ve at least kept the rib roast tradition going in our family.

Chef Ben’s kolackys. Photo courtesy of Montage

My grandma was Irish by birth, but she was adopted and raised Polish, so everything she knew was traditionally Polish. She had a vast knowledge of Polish recipes, but none were ever written down—they were all in her head. She was truly talented in the kitchen. Her kolacky cookies and her fruit dumplings remind me most of her. Sadly, the recipe for her fruit dumpling went with her to the grave. The idea of the dish is to wrap a dumpling around a pitted stone fruit, boil it, pull it out at just the right time so it doesn’t fall apart, and then roast it with lots of butter. The dumpling was finished with powdered sugar and served with a dry curd cottage cheese. No one in our family has ever been able to replicate her dumplings. But the good news is we have her kolacky recipe and can reproduce those—but they are never quite the same as hers.

This year I tailored our Christmas brunch at Studio to be similar to the foods I would eat on Christmas morning while growing up—crab, eggs benedict and a maybe a country ham. Studio will have a crab and shrimp display, an eggs benedict station, and of course, a carving station at this year’s brunch. And for Christmas dinner at Studio, we’re serving a smoked prime ribeye in honor of the standing rib roast that I always had on Christmas night at my mom’s house.

Chef Marc Johnson of Pelican Grill at The Resort at Pelican Hill. Photo courtesy of Pelican Hill


Chef Marc Johnson of Pelican Grill at The Resort at Pelican Hill makes sure his grandmother’s artichoke dip is on the appetizer table each Christmas:

Every Christmas morning my mother would make quiche for my brother and me. Then, we would enjoy nibbling on it happily, while opening presents together. Another vivid memory growing up comes to mind each year around this time when I think of my grandmother and her artichoke dip. She used to make it special during the holidays. Once I was old enough to be in the kitchen, she shared the recipe with me and we would make it together. I deeply value food tradition in my family and feel nostalgic during the holidays thinking about my grandmother. Now, each Christmas, I always make sure there is artichoke dip, and it really brings back fond memories of the sweet times I would spend with my grandmother during Christmastimes past. Sometimes it’s the simplest things that can bring us back together again.


Chef Nancy Silverton of Pizzeria Mozza, Newport Beach/LA treats us to her mother’s famous brisket:

Chef Nancy Silverton of Pizzeria Mozza. Photo courtesy of Nancy Silverton

Unlike some mothers of today who have a vast repertoire of recipes, my mom Doris had only about a dozen tried and true dishes she prepared while I was growing up in the 50s and 60s. And by the way, they weren’t recipes, just dishes she made from trial and a few errors that she was quick to fix.

Of all of them, my favorite was her brisket, which she cooked for God knows how many hours. I would come home from grammar school and I swear I could smell–even feel–the brisket before I even opened our front door.

But, then, then “the wait” began. She wouldn’t let me tear into it until our beloved nightly ritual; my mom, my dad Lawrence, my sister Gail and I sitting around the dinner table discussing our day. It was a cherished routine I think that is becoming a rarity in today’s technology-crazed world.

It’s probably no big surprise what I’m going to say next, but I’ll say it anyway. That brisket was delicious.

See below for family recipes from each chef:

Chef Leo Bongarra’s Family Recipe for Varenyky 

“I promise once you learn how to make these, everyone will ask you to make them again!”

2 lbs flour
2 tbsp olive oil
2 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
1 tbsp salt
4 cups warm water

Mix the dough until smooth, and rest for an hour before making the individual balls.

For the mix:
1/2 lb ricotta
2 cups of chopped sweet onions
3 each garlic cloves (chopped)
1 lb of baked potato purée
1 tbsp of salt
1/2 tbsp nutmeg
Pinch of white pepper
1 cup of bacon diced and fry
1/4 cup of sour cream

Sauté the onions, garlic and fry until golden and crispy.

Cool down and add the rest of ingredients in a robot cup. Blend until smooth and fill your 2.5″-3″ pasta circles, folding over into half moons

pinch the edges together to seal the filling

Gently place into soft boiling water for 3 minutes and remove from pot delicately with a large sieve spoon.

Top only with bacon and sour cream. (No Parmigiano cheese please, as this is a light dish and it would overpower the delicate flavors)


Craig Strong’s Gingerbread House/Cookies (makes 5 houses)

1 Cup brown sugar
1 tsp. each: salt, ginger, cloves, allspice, cinnamon
1/3   Cup oil
1 ½ Cup dark molasses
2 tsp. baking soda
2/3 Cup water
6 Cups flour

Mix dry ingredients together. Mix sugar, oil and molasses thoroughly.

Blend in water gradually.  On low speed, blend dry ingredients into molasses mixture.  Cover bowl and chill.  Roll ¼” thick

Bake 350 degrees F.  10-12 min. (gingerbread men) 15 min. (houses)

Roll out dough and lay on cookie sheet.   Cut pattern on sheet.


Chef Amar Santana’s Recipe for Holiday Super Moon Nog

“When Dominican Republic Rum is not available, I use a variation of different liquors. My guests really love the Blinking Owl Aquavit of Scandinavian descent, an organic distilled spirit with 10 gorgeous botanicals produced locally, right here in California.”

Super Moon Nog

1 ½ oz Blinking Owl Aquavit
¾ oz honey syrup*- we liked it best when we short measured the honey syrup just under .75oz
2 oz moon milk**
1 egg yolk

Combine ingredients and shake hard without ice. Add ice and repeat shaking vigorously. Fine strain into chilled snifter. Garnish with spice blend*** using a tea diffuser.

**Moon Milk (if making individual size use all heavy cream instead of splitting with milk half recipe below)

22 oz whole milk
22 oz heavy cream
3 tsp ground cinnamon
3 tsp ground turmeric
½ tsp ground cardamom
¼ tsp ground ginger
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
5 tsp coconut oil
12 turns of a pepper grinder

Heat milk and cream until it just starts to simmer. Vigorously whisk all other ingredients until combined well, avoiding clumps. Watch carefully to avoid scalding. Stir frequently and continue to cook on low for 10 minutes until spice is at good level. Strain off spices using a cheese cloth. Chill overnight in fridge. Remove any coconut solids before using. Will keep for 4 days.

***Spice Blend

1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground turmeric
2 fat pinches ground cardamom
1 fat pinch ground ginger
1 fat pinch ground nutmeg

*Honey Syrup: 2:1 – Honey:Warm Water Combine honey with room temp to hot water and whisk until combined.


Grandma Martinek`s Polish Kolacky Recipe

(Makes about 50 pieces)

Ingredients for the dough:

8oz sweet cream butter, cubed
6oz cream cheese, softened
2 ea egg yolk
1 ¾ C all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
4tsp sugar
pinch salt

Extra ingredients:

Jam for filling the cookies, she preferred raspberry or apricot
1C powdered sugar


Pre heat oven to 350 degrees.

Mix all ingredients for the dough in a mixing bowl, using your hands. Work the dough until it becomes cohesive, and the butter has incorporated.

On a floured surface, roll the dough out to ¼” thickness, and cut into 1.5” squares.

Spoon a small amount of jam onto each square, keeping the jam centered so it doesn’t run off when baking.

Fold one corner of the dough over the jam, and the opposite corner over the first, creating an envelope shape, with two free corners and some of the jam still visible.

Transfer to a silicone mat lined baking tray, and bake at 350 for 12 minutes, or until lightly browned.

Allow to cool and finish by dusting the cookies lightly with powdered sugar.


Chef Marc Johnson‘s family Artichoke Dip recipe:

1 1/2 Cups Mayonnaise

1 1/2 Cups Parmigiano-Reggiano
6-10 Cloves garlic, Minced
2 Cups Artichoke Hearts cut in quarters
1 Tsp Kosher Salt
Mix mayonnaise, Parmigiano Reggiano and garlic together. Quarter artichoke hearts and add to mixture. (If you are using artichoke hearts from a can, make sure to rinse them and drain well). Season mixture with salt. Mix everything well and put in a 1 1/2 quart baking dish. Place in 350 degree oven for 20 minutes, or until slightly browned and mixture bubbles. Serve hot with your favorite crackers or bread.

Nancy Silverton’s Brisket al Forno

1 ea Brisket
4 tbsp vegetable oil
2 carrots, cut into quarters
2 celery stalks, cut into quarters
2 fennel, cut into quarters
2 onions, cut into quarters
3 tbsp mustard seed
8 chile de arbol
6 bay leaf
3 garlic heads
1 tube tomato paste
5 sprigs thyme
1 bunch parsley
1 magnum red wine
2 bottles stout beer
3 Qts chicken, veal, or beef stock
black pepper

In a rondeau, heat up vegetable oil. Season brisket on both sides with salt and pepper. Sear well on both sides and place in 600 hotel pan. Pour out excess oil. Add Onion, Fennel, Carrot and Celery and sauté. Add Tomato paste and sauté until caramelized. Add mustard seed, chile de arbol, bay, and garlic. Deglaze with red wine and beer. Add stock. Taste and adjust seasoning. Simmer for 5 minutes. Pour mixture over brisket in hotel pan. Tie together thyme and parsley and add to hotel pan. Place in 300-degree oven and braise overnight for about 8 hours.


Rachelle Cano, who worked professionally as a singer-songwriter and recording artist, currently works in real estate and digital marketing in Laguna Beach. She co-chairs the Laguna Beach chapter of the American Association of University Women. Reach Rachelle at [email protected].

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