Meet Chef Greg Moro of Nieuport 17

"Think big, be big." - Chef Gregory Moro, Nieuport 17
We entered through the hushed service-way of Nieuport 17 one early afternoon when the restaurant was still closed in preparation for dinner. It was a restaurant neither of us were familiar with but certainly one whose chef we had seen before albeit representing another establishment at the time. Even though Chef Greg Moro is still under 30 years of age, he has definitely seen a lot in his culinary career and headed various restaurants and concepts all over Orange County. We had first spotted him when he triumphantly grasped a Golden Foodie Award in 2012 for Best French Cuisine for the beloved French 75 restaurant (which later closed). Then we met him officially behind the line in the kitchen of Nieuport 17, happily stroking the handle of one of his newest knife purchases as he mentally prepared for the night's service.

Chef Greg's first venture into the food industry started at Claro's in Tustin, an Italian deli that was home to a 17 year old Moro who made sandwiches, sliced meat and cheese, stocked the shelves, filled up jars of marinara, and bagged sausages daily. His good service and efficient work ethic led him to be offered a waitstaff position at Bianca Trattoria in Orange when he was 18, and he socialized often with guests with tales of his dream to go to culinary school. The day he met renowned Chef Pascal Olhats, though, was when it all started falling into place.

Tell me about your first encounter with Chef Pascal.
"He asked for olive oil and vinegar so I brought him our containers. He looked at me and said, 'This is not olive oil,' and I was in shock because I was a server and didn't know differently. I brought it back to the lead server to tell him what happened. He looked around and said, 'That's Chef Pascal Olhats, one of the best chefs in Orange County.' So then I pour olive oil directly into a container for him and tell him my story of how I am going to culinary school in San Francisco soon. He offered me to train with him but I moved up to San Francisco for the California Culinary Academy for a year, training full-time at five days a week, eight hours a day."

Unfortunately, after graduation, Chef Greg's internship at the Ritz-Carlton did not pan out or lead to a hire. However, about a week after that disappointing news, his former colleague called to relay the message that Chef Pascal had gone to the restaurant and asked about Greg, a surprise to him since nearly two years had passed since the first interaction. After meeting with Chef Pascal, he began his true culinary training with hands-on experience as a new hire at Tradition by Pascal.

How was your first day with Chef Pascal?
"My first time was on the hot line on a Saturday night with about 80 reservations. I pulled a potato gratin out of the salamander, and I dropped it. It shattered on the range. He looked at me and said, 'Go to the pantry,' and I made salads for a good 4-5 months before he let me back onto the hot line."

Haha. Do you have memorable moments of your time with Chef Pascal?
"He brought me to New York to cook at the James Beard house in 2007. I was 23 years old. It was something that people strive their whole lives to do, and I got the opportunity to do that at a very young age which made me feel like I owed him. I stayed longer. Then we went to Hawaii and did a cooking event there. When we were in Hawaii, he told us staff that we were going to Florida. 'You fly back, land Sunday morning, work Sunday night at the restaurant, have Monday off, and fly on Tuesday.' He handed us a handwritten menu that we tried to decipher (handwriting by a French chef after all) and prepped for service Thursday through Sunday at 500 people a day. It was for Gulfstream Airlines. 

When we got back, we went to Drew Carey's house for the culinary Olympics. There were three different restaurants cooking there, and we were the only one in his house - the rest were in the backyard. A camera crew watched us and celebrities were walking around. I remember telling him he was a childhood hero for me. After that event, one day when I was prepping in the restaurant, Chef handed me a menu and said I needed to prepare it. It was for a 'VIP,' which he kept stressing. I had to ask who it was so he looked around, looked at me, and said, 'George Bush Jr.' So I've prepped dinner for a former president! I didn't get to go due to the high security level but got to prep. Chef Pascal went though, and the dinner had 22 Secret Service guys."

Chef Greg spent nearly five years as an apprentice to Chef Pascal, often trying to pioneer different techniques and dishes to keep the menus from being too classic or traditional. He frequently wondered how an ingredient could benefit from a different technique and vice versa which allowed him to eventually leave Tradition by Pascal and work at perfecting his technique and speed as a line cook again. Chef Greg then helped open Nana Jean's in Tustin where he designed different menu items such as their grilled cheese sandwiches (five different kinds including a Philly Cheese). Though he was having fun thinking outside of the box at this comfort food restaurant, he was eventually found again by Chef Pascal who came in for dinner one night and asked to meet.

How did that go?
"'I think you're ready.'
'Okay, thank you Chef?'
'They need a new Execuive Chef for French 75 down in Laguna Beach.'

It was my first Executive title, and I was 26. It was also when my gray hairs starting showing up!"

Chef Greg swept into his position with aplomb and quickly went to work rewriting every menu and rehiring the kitchen staff. Everyone was a culinary graduate or student that shared his own passion for food, allowing the team to push each other and the envelope for food. This stint led to an eventual win for Best French Cuisine at the Golden Foodie Awards in 2012 but unfortunately did not last long. French 75 ended up closing December 2012, putting the young chef in the unfamiliar position of being unemployed during the holidays. His break was shortened to just one month though as his culinary restlessness led him to help start a Laguna Beach pizza joint, working on a Neopolitan wood-fire oven.

That's a change of pace, going into pizza.
"It was a cool experience with a wood-fire oven, making dough every day and keeping the deck at 800F but it was not what I wanted to do my whole life. I could do it but I wanted to get back into fine dining. I really missed that attention to detail and level of food that this is. So, I had my resume on Craiglist and got contacted to do an Aviation dinner here, a pop-up with up to 60 people done every month where we bring a guest chef in and do a full menu. A week or two after that, I talked for half an hour with the Executive Chef who asked me to rewrite the menu, making it more seasonal and more exciting. So I started here March 11th."

The changes were minor at first as he took a few weeks to become more acclimated to the community and people. Chef Greg's revision finally launched on a Thursday night to the tune of 30+ staff in the kitchen, photographers capturing the event, a Chef's table for interaction, and set-up booths. The end goal was to keep the regulars constantly coming but also presenting a way for new guests to come to the restaurant and enjoy the food without becoming bored. He explained that every menu item should be tempting enough for people to come back and try what they hadn't before.

What's the process like when redesigning a menu?
"Redesigning the menu of a restaurant that's been around for 44 years is a tricky balancing act of keeping your regulars and locals very happy, those who have been coming here for 30+ years. We took all of our item counts through the last six months to see what the best selling and least selling are. The latter get removed, and absolute top favorites are chosen from the former. Those recipes I don't touch! You can't upset your regulars who come in three times a week but you still need to draw in the new crowd that hasn't been here ever. We designed some dishes to be a little more modern, a little more trendy to bring in younger demographic and people."


So tell me about the dishes we're seeing you make today.
"The Bloody Mary Shrimp was one of my first appetizers I put on the menu and stemmed from a seafood duo that a customer asked me to do for her. To make that, I ended up with a lot of shrimp shells left over. Remembering Chef Pascal's constant drilling of not wasting anything, I made a sauce from the shells and came up with the Bloody Mary shrimp. It's almost a play on Southern blackened shrmp with my own blend of seasoning that mimics a Bloody Mary rim (celery seed, Old Bay, paprika, dry mustard, chili powder, coriander, garlic powder, onion powder, salt, and pepper). It's served over spinach and arugula sauteed in butter.

We also have the Buffalo Aranicini, similar to vegetarian chicken wings for the bar and one of my favorites. It's a great little snack and literally just risotto with a Frank's Red Hot buffalo type sauce bound by Cheddar cheese. I bread the mixture in ground panko before frying and serving with ranch dressing and Bleu cheese crumbs. 

For our entree is one of my signature dishes, the Pan Roasted Salmon on Burgundy mushroom risotto that is naturally dyed magenta to give contrast and color. Layers of color will give you a great effect - after all, you eat with your eyes first. I want people to look at it and wonder I made it. I want people to be more engaged with their plate. I make the color from white wine that has soaked with raw red beets which is then all pureed and strained. I also dehydrate the pulp so wine sugars are left in the beets for a crumble. I top it with a sweet fennel cream sauce. Then for dessert is a Deconstructed Candy Apple made from apple poached in port wine and brown butter, drizzled with caramel."

You have quite the history. How do you make sure that you just keep going?
"I think there is no such thing as failing. Failing is giving up. You dont' give up, you don't fail. I got that from a Red Bull athlete who did a squirrel jump through Heaven's Gate. Every time you want to do something bigger, you have to work harder for it. You just keep striving for what you want. Eventually you'll get it. All you're doing before then is figuring out what didn't work and why it didn't work."

That's an amazing outlook on life in general! Lastly, I saw that you listen to music while cooking. What's on your playlist?
"I listen to people like DJ Shadow during prepwork, Daft Punk and the like during service. During bad moods and service times, I'll listen to Tool but the good times, I'll turn out some Sinatra."

Our thanks to Chef Greg for his time and to "Meet the Chef" for introducing us formally to the chef. If you're interested in seeing what kind of fine dining this young talent has up his sleeve, you can find him at Nieuport 17 which is located at 13051 Newport Ave, Tustin, CA 92780. We certainly had a great time learning about his history and tasting his food!

Photography by Duc Duong. More photos available on Facebook here.