Chef/Owner: Elements Kitchen
37 S. El Molino Ave.
Pasadena, CA 91101
Yelp: 4 stars
Interview Date: Tuesday, April 13, 2010
The first thing I thought when I arrived at Elements Kitchen in Pasadena was “wow – how great to be next to the Pasadena Playhouse!” When I said that to Onil Chibas, owner and chef of Elements, he chuckled. “Yeah,” he said, “except we opened on January 19th and the Playhouse closed on February 7th!” Despite this potential setback, Onil is positive and optimistic about his third food business, and his energy is infectious.
A native of New York City and Massachusetts, Onil says that he has always loved cooking and food. While attending college in Boston, he worked as a waiter at several fine hotels and restaurants. “It gave me an appreciation for the restaurant business, but I knew that I didn’t want to be a waiter,” he says. So he moved to California to pursue the dream of making movies, and ended up working in animation at companies including Disney. Although it sounds like a very creative business, Onil found that working in animation was somewhat restrictive, but he did learn about organizational structure, operations, marketing, and other key practices that have served him well in the restaurant business.
In 2003, Onil hit the big question of “What do I want to do with my life,” dropped out of animation and attended Le Cordon Bleu. “I loved it!” he says with his characteristic enthusiasm. “I wish that I could have been as good a student in college!” When he finished the program, he started Elements Catering with a friend who also attended the school. “We were working out of her loft apartment downtown, and the business was growing slowly when we caught a lucky break,” he says. A friend from his days in animation was a producer on Barnyard – they needed a caterer once per week for 18 months. “That was a great steady job to give us the confidence to find a location and build a kitchen,” says Onil.
The pair found a storefront location in Old Pasadena that fit their needs for a catering kitchen, but also had the opportunity to expand into a café. And, thus, Elements Café was born. “We retrofitted the location and decided to take advantage of the storefront,” says Onil. “We were thinking we would just have food to go, but from the first order, the guests wanted to eat on-site, so we added more tables and chairs, and just grew naturally.”
The partnership ended, and Onil kept both businesses until last year when he found the location for Elements Kitchen next to the Pasadena Playhouse. “I love old buildings and classic things,” says Onil. “This just felt really right.” The day that I interviewed Onil he added outdoor tables in the courtyard of the Pasadena Playhouse. “We hope the Playhouse will be back up and running soon, but until then, it’s up to us to make this place look open and inviting,” says Onil. The colorful red umbrellas and crisp white tablecloths set around a beautiful old fountain on the courtyard should do the trick.
The common theme throughout all three businesses is using fresh ingredients in creative ways. Onil is obviously an artist at heart, and his medium is food. He has attracted a team of creative cooks, bakers and bartenders, who work with him to constantly create new items and combinations. “This is why we went to culinary school,” he says. “We want to cook, not just open cans!”
Onil’s favorite part of running Elements is the collaboration with his crew and seeing everything come together. For example, he and a crew member brainstormed on a creative omelet. “We were inspired by Breakfast at Tiffany’s, so we took an omelet and added all kinds of luxurious ingredients, like caviar, crab, lobster and truffle oil.” Onil has also instituted Wednesday night “sketches” in which each crew member is tasked with coming up with a creative way to use a single ingredient – last week it was asparagus. This approach allows everyone to have their own creative expression, and keeps loyal guests interested and coming back week after week. “Creative energy is the best part of being human,” says Onil.
The hardest part of owning Elements? Onil says it’s managing the financials. With two established businesses and a new one just launched, he has a lot to juggle. But he doesn’t seem at all stressed. “We are still climbing, but everything is so positive,” he says. “As the leader, I have to keep the vision and the passion alive.” And it seems to be working – Elements Café doubled sales in 2009 – a year that most restaurants would like to forget. Now he just has to keep “climbing” at the kitchen!