Meet the Chefs

The San Diego Food Bank’s 10th annual Chefs, Cork & Craft Gala will feature the culinary talents of 13 chefs from around San Diego County.

Our Chef Chair is Sara Polczynski. This year’s chef volunteers include: Chef Evan Cruz, Chef Amy DiBiase, Chef James Foran, Chef Jack Ford (not pictured), Chef Gina Freize, Chef Carlo Guardado, Chef Jonathan Hale, Chef Ryan Orlando, Chef Amy Russert, Chef Augie Saucedo, Chef Vaughn Vargus and Chef Alexis Wells.

Chef Sara Polczynski (Chef Chair) Seasoned Plates

Chef Sara Polczynski is the owner and Culinary Artisan for Seasoned Plates, a full service catering company specializing in bringing bold flavors, bright colors, local freshness and a custom culinary experience to each and every client.  She is very involved as a consultant with a few restaurants in San Diego, developing sweet and savory creations for their menus.  For the last 17 years, Sara has also worked as an Associate Professor for the Baking and Culinary Arts programs for San Diego College of Continuing Education, teaching the next generation of pastry chefs.

Over the years, Chef Sara’s love for cooking began to expand along with her love of travel. Having the opportunity to travel and learn about regional Mexican cuisine, art and culture with influential chef mentors, Rick Bayless, Ricardo Munoz and Susana Trilling, has shaped the style and flavors of much of Chef Sara’s cuisine.   In 2012 she was able to utilize her knowledge, passion and techniques of authentic regional Mexican cuisine as the Consultant Executive Chef for The Blind Burro in downtown San Diego.  Bringing authentic Mexican cuisine with a modern Californian flair to the people of San Diego was a dream project.  Chef Sara has also had the opportunity to teach hands on cooking classes at the world renowned Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, utilizing fresh produce grown on their on-site organic farm.  Over the years, she has had a strong involvement in the community with many charitable causes including the Jacobs & Cushman San Diego Food Bank, Just Call Us Volunteers, Collaboration Kitchen and many more.

Chef Evan Cruz Cohn Restaurant Group  

Chef Evan Cruz, an aspiring young chef, was born in the Philippines and raised in San Diego. At a young age, he learned how to cook in his grandmother’s kitchen, rolling Lumpia (Filipino spring rolls), cooking rice, cutting fish and cleaning vegetables. At 15, he continued his journey with the culinary arts by working as a prep cook and dishwasher. Learning quickly and constantly challenging himself, Chef Evan worked his way up to Sous Chef by the age of 19. From there, he found himself in the midst of Las Vegas’ glamorous city lights.

In 2000, ready to take the next step, Chef Evan enrolled and graduated from the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. Afterwards, he returned to San Diego and became the executive chef and partner at Roy’s La Jolla. With that “seven year itch” in 2007, Chef Evan left Roy’s to start his own catering company, Exclusive Chef Catering/Consulting.

Wanting a greater challenge and missing cooking for guests, in 2010 Chef Evan found himself at Pacifica Del Mar. With Chris Idso moving into a new position as General Manager, the two created a perfect symbiosis, sharing a passion for fresh local ingredients, sustainable seafood and Californian coastal cuisine.

At the end of 2011, looking to further his experience and knowledge, Chef Evan took on the position as Executive Sous Chef for the prestigious L’auberge Del mar Hotel and Resort. In the beginning of 2013, he found a great opportunity to work with another James Beard Award-winning chef, Chef Bernard Guillas, at the majestic La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club. Finally, with a phenomenal opportunity from Arterra and the San Diego Marriott Del Mar, Chef Evan found himself taking the helm of Executive Chef at the landmark Carmel Valley hotel.

“My food is inspired by the bounty of San Diego, from the seafood-rich oceans of Baja California to the fertile farms of the Imperial Valley, developed with a local-centric view and global influences. To me a chef is just like any artist; you want them to leave you with an impression of their soul.”

Currently, Chef Evan is Corporate Chef for the Cohn Restaurant Group.

Chef Amy DiBiase –
Grand Restaurant Group

Master Chef Amy DiBiase draws on over a decade of experience managing acclaimed local restaurants. She has previously served as the culinary lead for downtown’s Intercontinental Hotel and the award-winning Tidal at Paradise Resort & Spa. DiBiase is esteemed for her boldly modern take on classic French and Italian dishes.

Chef Amy practically grew up in the kitchen! After spending her formative years in her family’s New England restaurant, Chef Amy seemed destined for culinary stardom. At Johnson & Wales University, she double majored in Culinary Arts and Food Service Management.

Leaving everything she knew behind, Chef Amy set out west on the journey of a lifetime. Starting at Laurel Restaurant & Bar, she worked her way up from cook to Executive Chef in just five years! In 2006 Chef Amy moved to BALEEN, where she reworked the restaurant’s menu to promote sustainability by minimizing food waste. Her colossal efforts garnered the attention of Roseville, an upscale French brasserie which promptly offered her the role of executive chef.

Following her exit from Roseville, Chef Amy served as the executive chef for several renowned local restaurants, including Cosmopolitan Hotel, The Shores, and eventually Tidal. Chef Amy’s jump to Tidal was a major step forward in her career. She was tasked with developing an entirely new restaurant concept for Paradise Point out of whole cloth, to replace their now outdated BALLEEN. Within the first two years of operation, Chef Amy increased annual sales from $800,000 a year to a jaw-dropping $2.2 million!

Chef Amy then went on to open the Intercontinental Hotel San Diego along with its signature restaurants, Vistal and Garibaldi, before taking her place as Executive Chef of the Grand Restaurant Group, where she currently resides. As the culinary head of GRG, Chef Amy crafts delectable dishes for some of North County’s most prestigious restaurants, including DiCicco’s, Bellamy’s Restaurant, Nick & G’s and Giaola Italian Kitchen.

Chef James Foran – Grossmont College

Chef James Foran is currently the Pastry Instructor and Culinary Coordinator at Grossmont College, as well as a professional consultant who designs dessert menus and trains dessert chefs at fine dining establishments. He has worked in some of the best kitchens in New York City, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and San Diego as Executive Pastry Chef.  He is published in several books and most recently won Food Network’s Chopped for competing with chocolate.

Aside from his passion for teaching all things pastry, Chef James enjoys surfing, motorcycles, playing guitar, traveling and being a student of life.

Chef Gina Freize Venissimo Cheese

After visiting her parents’ home in Austria while growing up, Chef Gina often wondered why America didn’t have fabulous cheese shops. Hence, Venissimo Cheese was born. In 2004, Chef Gina opened the first Venissimo Cheese in Mission Hills, intending to do for cheese what Starbucks did for coffee. Since then, she has opened neighborhood shops in Del Mar, North Park and Liberty Station. “Soon the camembert will be as well-known as the cappuccino!” says Chef Gina.

Chef Gina has created an app and library of more than 2,000 domestic and international cheese varieties! And yes, she has tasted all of them. She can tell you the type of milk, country of origin, production methods, plus perfect wine, beer and food pairings for each one.

Over the years, while visiting both domestic and international cheesemakers in her quest for the title of “Cheese Wiz,” she has learned about the pure goodness and joy of artisanal foods.

Chef Gina is a member of the American Cheese Society and established an Academy of Cheese (AoC), Southern California’s first official cheese school with upwards of five classes and events each month. She is the host of Noon on Tuesday, a weekly podcast all about cheese, all of the time.

Next up is a cheese cookbook featuring delicious cheese recipes from nearly every country in the world. Plus, watch for her new lifestyle video series Fear Less, Try More.

Chef Carlo Guardado

Chef Carlo Guardado grew up in Fallbrook and would often visit his family’s farms in Aguascalientes, where his great grandfather would bring him along to visit the pig farm and the processing plant, as well as local restaurants. From a young age he was taught the importance of local sourcing and of utilizing every part of an animal.

Chef Carlo began his cooking career in Kauai, learning to butcher whatever the local fishermen brought in. He moved to L.A. and learned in fine dining kitchens, challenging himself alongside award-winning chefs. Chef Carlo is now back in Fallbrook with his young family, operating a California style BBQ spot and a mixed use courtyard with a restaurant and bar. He looks forward to bringing the San Diego County community together through locally sourced ingredients and unique live cooking events.

Chef Jonathan Hale –
Cohn Restaurant Group

Executive Chef Jonathan Hale knew at an early age that he would one day become a chef. He has always enjoyed tasting different types and textures from all over the globe, which is most likely the result of his geographically eclectic background. He was born in India, raised in London and finished high school in New York.

Chef Jonathan’s first job in the restaurant industry began at the age of 17 as a waiter in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and his ambition soon led him to the Culinary Institute of America in New York, where he graduated in 1991. He moved further westward and landed a position as Chef Tournant at the Renaissance Restaurant in Aspen, Colorado. He remained there for over two years, then decided to relocate to Hawaii where he could work with the freshest seafood possible. He started as a line cook at the famed Pacific Café with Jean-Marie Josselin in Maui and Kauai and was soon promoted to Executive Chef.

After seven years in Hawaii, Chef Hale moved to San Diego in 2001, taking over the helm as Executive Chef at the first seafood restaurant in the Gaslamp Quarter – Blue Point Coastal Cuisine. Chef Hale and his team created a first class menu, earning awards from the Gaslamp Quarter Association such as “Favorite Place to Dine,” “Best Seafood,” “Favorite Wine List,” “Best Customer Service” and “Best Downtown Restaurant” from San Diego Home & Garden Magazine.

In early 2010, Cohn Restaurant Group was pleased to announce Chef Jonathan Hale as the newly appointed executive chef of CRG’s award-winning restaurant, The Prado at Balboa Park. Chef Hale’s favorite thing about his job, besides working with his culinary team, is “being able to create a dish, market it, execute it, and do it all over again the next day. It just doesn’t get old.” Chef Jonathan’s experience and unique style have quickly distinguished him as a leader and an innovator for the Cohn Restaurant Group.

Chef Ryan Orlando – The Plot

San Diego native Chef Ryan Orlando is a self-taught chef who got his start in the kitchen at the age of 16. With no formal training but an intense drive to further himself in his craft, Chef Ryan decided to leave his hometown of Encinitas and depart for New York City in 2003. Upon his cross-country move, Chef Ryan quickly landed a position in the kitchen of esteemed chef Charlie Palmer’s flagship restaurant Aureole. After his time in New York, Chef Ryan decided to move back to the West Coast, where he was hired to assist chef Jeffrey Strauss at Del Mar’s dining institution, Pamplemousse Grille. There he met his mentor, Tommy Dimella.

Chef Ryan moved north to Portland where he became Sous Chef at the now-shuttered Filbert’s Café. After gleaning a wide bank of knowledge during his tenure in the Pacific Northwest, San Diego was pulling at him again and he settled back in his hometown. Next, Chef Ryan traveled to one of the most predominant global culinary hotbeds, Copenhagen, where he staged at his brother and Noma alum Matt’s renowned restaurant Amass. It was during his experience there that he developed a more holistic understanding about how to bring both local and natural environments directly to the restaurant. That mindset informed Chef Ryan in the kitchen upon his return to San Diego at Del Mar Country Club. After a brief stint at Lomas Santa Fe, Chef Ryan ended up in the Michelin-recognized Campfire Kitchen as Chef de Cuisine.

Drawn to the health benefits and global impact of plant-based eating, Chef Ryan spent the last several years educating himself on soil health and the overarching techniques behind plant-based cuisine. Through industry connections, Chef Ryan struck up a friendship with The Plot Owners, Jessica and Davin Waite. With excitement for the reopening of The Plot and a deep connection to the Waites’ ethos and thought process surrounding plant-based eating, Chef Ryan quickly joined the team. As Chef de Cuisine, Chef Ryan is committed to constantly searching for innovative ways to expand, create, learn, and educate the public about plant-based foods. He plays a crucial role in the progressive, collaborative, ever-changing plant-based evolution of North County.

Chef Amy Russert – Amy’s Cakery

Chef Amy Russert is the home-based Cottage Food Operator behind Amy’s Cakery. She is a self-taught baker who has been making creative cakes, cupcakes and sugar cookies for eight years. Chef Amy is married to Heath, who serves in the US Navy, and has three children: Nathan, Nick & Connor.


Chef Augie Saucedo – The Lot







Chef Vaughn Vargus – UCSD

Chef Vaughn is an American Culinary Federation Certified Executive Chef (CEC) and Certified Culinary Administrator (C.C.A.). His background includes all phases of on-site food service operations. He also has an extensive background in running multiple unit and off-site locations and catering venues. Career highlights include attendances at both CIA Campuses and opportunities to represent American Cuisine in Southeast Asia and Europe.

Chef Vaughn is Executive Chef at UC San Diego Housing, Dining and Hospitality and leads a team of more than 800 dining employees, including 16 talented chefs and sous chefs. He also mentors student workers, who comprise 70 percent of the dining staff, and helps develop tasteful, up to date and nutritious food options for catered campus-wide events, as well as for the 18 eateries on campus, including dining restaurants, specialty restaurants and markets in each of the six colleges.

An avid surfer and ocean goer, Chef Vaughn spends evenings cooking in local restaurants and days in the water. He began working in restaurants at age 14 and has been passionate about food ever since. He attended the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, but 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. 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.”

Chef Vaughn is a current member of the ACF and NACUFS and has been involved with national culinary competitions as a competitor and administrator.

Chef Alexis Wells Desserts by Alexis

Chef Alexis Wells is a San Diego-based pastry chef who specializes in unique artisan desserts. You may have seen her premiere on the Spring Baking Championship on the Food Network.

Chef Alexis is the creative director behind Desserts by Alexis and The Goods Bakehouse where she creates modern desserts, elegant pastries and celebratory cakes that add the perfect touch to any occasion. Keep up with her featured events and latest creations through social media.

Instagram: @dessertsbyalexis @Thegoodsdougnuts