The Top Chefs in the Valley Get Invited Over to a Backyard Barbecue Hosted by Mendocino Farms Founders Mario del Pero and Ellen Chen

It’s a pot luck on steroids!

  • Category
    Eat & Drink, People
  • Written by
    Linda Grasso
  • Photographed by
    Michael Becker

When Ellen Chen and Mario del Pero entertain at their Studio City home, the vibe tends to be casual and relaxed. “We entertain a lot and love having friends over—often with their kids. Everyone is running around all over the place. It’s crazy and fun!” Ellen laughs. And as with their restaurant chain, Mendocino Farms, dishes tend to be farm fresh with a gourmet slant, whether it’s a mile-high sandwich on uber fresh bread or a goat cheese-spiked salad of mixed celadon and purple greens.

So on a recent summer evening, when the couple invited some other successful luminaries in the food-and-beverage industry over for an al fresco dinner, that vibe did not change. “Oh, we know all these guys pretty well,” says Mario, who handles the food aspects of Mendocino Farms (Ellen helms the business side). “We all work in the Valley and you get to know each other. It’s a pretty tight community here; it’s never been like we’re competitors. It’s more like we have all have a bond.”

On this particular evening Ellen and Mario decided to take advantage of the gold mine of talent. Everyone was assigned to bring a dish of their choice.

Ellen’s Garden Forage Salad

Serves 4-6

  • Mixed baby greens (6 generous handfuls)
  • 1 cup Mama Lil’s pickled peppers, chopped
  • 1 fennel bulb, shaved
  • 8 ounces grilled Manouri cheese
  • Summer sherry vinaigrette
  • 12 pieces of quartered artichokes
  • Frizzle-fried leeks

Cut off the stalks of fennel and shave bulb very thin, preferably on a mandolin.

Gently toss the greens, pickled peppers, shaved fennel and crumbled grilled Manouri with the vinaigrette until the lettuce is evenly coated.

Pile the salad high in the center of a platter and arrange the cooked artichokes around the base.

Scatter the frizzle-fried leeks on the top of the salad to garnish.

*Get recipe on

Summer Sherry Vinaigrette

  • 7 ounces sherry vinegar
  • 1 ½ oz. shallots
  • ¼ cup agave nectar light
  • ¼ cup maple syrup
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 2 cups extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 ½ teaspoons ground pepper

Add all ingredients to a blender and blend on high for 1 minute or until smooth and emulsified.

Boiled & Grilled Artichokes

  • 3 artichoke hearts, ends cut
  • 13 garlic cloves
  • Sprigs of fresh thyme
  • Salt and pepper
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil

Place a large pot of water over high heat and add handful of salt. Smash 10 of the garlic cloves and add, as well as a few sprigs of thyme. Bring to a boil.

Cut a half-inch off the stem end, and cut off an inch or two of the artichoke tip to expose the inner layers. Add to the boiling water. Cook anywhere from 15 minutes if artichokes are small (fist size) to 30 minutes if artichokes are large (grapefruit size).

Check for doneness by squeezing the stem and the base. If cooked, they will give. Use tongs to transfer to a plate or cutting board, flipped upside down to drain off excess water.

Use a sharp knife to cut artichokes in quarters by cutting down through the stem and the body. Use a spoon to scoop out the choke (i.e., the hairs in the center). Pull out any sharp-tipped leaves.

Mince the remaining 3 cloves garlic and add to the extra virgin olive oil. Brush the artichokes generously with the garlic oil, then season with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Sear artichokes on all sides over a hot grill until nicely charred and the hearts are soft.

Grilled Manouri Cheese

  • Manouri cheese
  • Extra virgin olive oil

Slice cheese into ½-inch thick slices and rub with oil on both sides.

Preheat grill, scrub the grill grate free of debris, and wipe down with a well-oiled cloth to prevent sticking.

Place cheese over medium heat and cook both sides until golden brown. Takes a couple minutes.

Frizzle-Fried Leeks

  • 2 leeks with both hairy end and green end chopped off and discarded

Using only about 3 inches of the white section, cut in half lengthwise. Slice as thinly as possible lengthwise to make very thin 3-inch strings/strips.

If you have a deep fryer, preheat to 330. Add the sliced leeks to the fryer, cook until light golden brown, then remove immediately and transfer to a paper towel-lined plate or tray.

If no fryer, toss the leeks in a generous amount of oil and spread out on a cookie sheet and bake for a couple minutes or until golden brown. Remove immediately from oven and transfer to a paper towel-lined plate or tray.

Note: The leeks will crisp up slightly during the cooking process and will crisp up further as they cool.

Ellen picks some lettuce from her garden. Left: Jeremy Bringardner

Chef Antonia Lofaso, who grew up just a stone’s throw from Ellen and Mario’s home, co-owns and operates Studio City’s Black Market, as well as two other LA eateries. She arrived toting three-day aged ribeye steaks. “That is as long as I like my steaks aged!” She promptly set herself up at the grill, showing off the mastery that landed her on shows like Top Chef and Chopped. As she flipped each steak numerous times (“Forget about perfect grill marks, I like the char all over”), she shared a story about how she got inspiration for one of the dishes at her new downtown eatery, DAMA. “We were near the border of Tijuana and we saw these kids cooking on the side of the road and their food was amazing!”

Chef Antonia Lofaso’s Aged Bone-in Ribeye With Salsa Verde and Grilled Vegetables

Serves 1-2; Paired with Wham from 6th and Labrea

  • 24-ounce bone-in, dry-aged ribeye
  • Gray coarse sea salt
  • Black pepper
  • Extra virgin olive oil to coat
  • Lime and avocado wedges for garnish
  • Tortillas

Grill ribeye on high heat for 8 minutes on each side. “Rest” meat uncovered for 15 minutes.

Slice steak and place on platter or plate. Serve with grilled veggies, lime and avocado wedges, fresh warm tortillas and salsa verde.

Salsa Verde

(makes ½ cup)

  • 4 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 teaspoon chopped garlic
  • 1 boquerone anchovy, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
  • Zest of ¼ lemon
  • 1 teaspoon chili flake
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
  • Extra virgin olive oil to cover

Mix all ingredients together and place in small ramekin.


  • One Japanese eggplant with skin on, cut on bias into 2-inch-thick round pieces
  • ½ cup wild mushrooms
  • 2 green onion stalks whole
  • Sherry vinegar

Season all with salt and pepper and coat with olive oil. Grill until soft, tender and charred. Season generously with sherry vinegar and olive oil.

The buffet table. Right: Mario del Pero uncorks some red wine.

Next to Antonia, on a wood-fired grill, was chef Ted Hopson, who owns The Bellwether in Sherman Oaks with his wife, Ann-Marie Verdi. He was grilling corn in their husks. “I soaked the corn in water for about an hour beforehand, so you get the char on the kernels and a nice smoky steam,” says Ted. He’ll use the corn to create a salad that will be a bed for grilled swordfish. “Everything about this dish is summer to me!”

Mendocino Farms’ corporate executive chef Jeremy Bringardner stationed himself in the open, spacious kitchen. He brings some serious chops to the chain (now with 28 outposts), having competed on Chopped and won. His dish was a foraged garden salad, and he was busy boiling some pristine artichokes in a big pot of water. “I boil them first with garlic, lemon and fresh thyme.” Later, he finished them at the grill “just for a little carmelization.”

Chef Ted Hopson’s Grilled Swordfish from The Bellwether

Serves 6; Paired With Saison Li from Bluebird Brasserie

  • 6 8-ounce swordfish steaks, skin off, trimmed
  • 8 ounces olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons cumin seed, not toasted, cracked
  • 1 tablespoon Aleppo chili flake
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper, ground
  • 1 teaspoon coriander, not toasted, ground
  • 1 lime with zest cut off so it’s large, no pith
  • Kosher salt

Mix all ingredients together. Add the swordfish and mix so it is well coated.

Let sit a minimum of 2 hours; better if overnight.

Preheat grill to medium-high. Remove fish steaks from marinade, season with kosher salt on both sides.

Grill. We love to cook it to medium, about 3 minutes on each side, but it really depends on your fish and your grill. Place on top of the corn salad.

Ann-Marie Verdi and Ted Hopson. Left: Tony Yanow

The well-known artisanal brewer Tony Yanow was also in attendance. Having sold Golden Road Brewery to Budweiser, he now owns and operates four brewpubs in the LA area, including Bluebird Brasserie in Sherman Oaks. He befriended Ellen and Mario after curating the beer selections at the couple’s new Mendocino Farms in Studio City; he’s charged with the same responsibility on this evening.

Kristine de la Cruz, who owns and operates the Crème Caramel dessert emporium on Burbank Boulevard in Sherman Oaks with her husband, Sean, was charged with the après-meal sweets. She brought 3-inch high cookie/marshmallow creations for roasting s’mores, a coconut corn vegan pudding and a purple yam custard.

Spectacular flower arrangements of large pink peonies, purple tulips, yellow roses and clippings from a bright orange Australian shrub in the yard helped create a stunning backdrop as guests noshed on a round wooden board filled with charcuterie, cheese, dried fruit and nuts.

Dinner was served buffet style. Plates in hand, guests ambled down a few stairs to a lower-level lawn where a stunning table was set for 12.

Kristine de la Cruz of Crème Caramel brought these Petit S’mores.

Crème Caramel Petit S’mores

Chocolate Chocolate Chip Cookie Base:

  • 370 grams butter, room temperature
  • 550 grams brown Sugar
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 tsp. Vanilla Extract
  • 580 grams All Purpose flour
  • 1.5 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 900 grams chocolate chips

You’ll also need:

    • 12″ x 18″ baking pan with 2″ wall
    • Stand mIxer
    • Scale
    • Candy thermometer
    • Kitchen torch
    • Sturdy bamboo sticks
    • Graham cracker crumbs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Butter all sides of pan and line with parchment paper

Whisk dry ingredients, flour, baking soda, and salt, until combined in a bowl. Set aside.

In your stand mixer, cream butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy.

Add eggs one at a time, creaming thoroughly between each addition.

Add vanilla extract and blend thoroughly.

Slowly add flour until all mixed thoroughly.

Add chocolate chips until blended.

Scoop batter into lined pan and using your fingers and palms. Press the batter down into the pan so that there is a level mixture of cookie batter across the whole pan.

Bake chocolate chip cookie layer for 18 minutes or until middle of pan is no longer shiny and edges are golden brown.

When done, thoroughly cool down.

Marshmallow Layer:

  • 56 grams of unflavored Gelatin (Knox brand works)
  • 1 1/4 cup cold water
  • Another 1-1/4 cup water
  • 1,015 grams Cane Sugar (or 1.015 kg)
  • 1-1/4 cup Lyle’s Golden Syrup (or brown rice syrup)
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 5.25 grams egg whites
  • 2-1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

Add gelatin to cold water and mix. Let sit undisturbed for 510 minutes to bloom.

Combine water, sugar, syrup, and salt together in a saucepan and with a candy thermometer attached to the side of the pan heat to 236 degrees. (Make sure thermometer is not touching the bottom or sides of the pan and is measuring the heat of the liquid only.)

When the temperature is reached, carefully add the gelatin mixture and stir until completely dissolved. It may bubble and sputter, but adding gelatin slowly will minimizes this. Take off of heat and set aside.

In a clean stand mixer bowl, whisk egg whites to soft peaks. Keep whisking at a medium speed and slowly stream the hot sugar mixture into the eggs.

Increase to a higher speed until fluffy and mixing bowl is cool to the touch on the bottom (approximately 15 minutes).

Pour over baked pan of cookies and use offset spatula to even out top of marshmallow.

Torch top of marshmallow and leave in a cool area or refrigerator to set.


If you have a metal pastry cutter, this will make short work of the next step. If not a large kitchen knife will do. It helps to run the pastry cutter or knife over an open flame to cut the s’mores more easily. Scrape off excess marshmallow from the cutting tool and reheat before inserting it back into the pan for clean lines.

Cut the Petit S’mores into 2″ Squares.

Roll Petit S’mores in graham cracker crumbs and skewer.

Take it to the nearest fire pit and enjoy!


Seated left to right: Ellen, Antonia, Mario, Carolina Guddemi, Kristine de la Cruz and Sean Gilleland. Standing: Mario Guddemi, co-owner of Black Market and Local Peasant.

Right before the meal began, Mario bounded back up the stairs to the house to grab a few bottles of red wine from a glass-enclosed cellar adjacent to the kitchen. The cellar was one of the few things the couple added to the two-story home when they bought it last year. “We updated the kitchen a bit and made light fixtures throughout the house a little less farmhouse and a bit more contemporary. But other than that, it was pretty turnkey.” He selected only two varietals. “I’m putting a few reds on the table but I think the hit of the evening will be Tony’s beers.”

He was right. The steak blended perfectly with the dark-hued “Wham” variety Tony brought from his 6th and LaBrea brewpub. And later when the crowd moved over to the bonfire to roast Kristine’s gargantuan s’mores, the chocolaty “Skag” brew, also from 6th and La Brea, cut the sweetness in a taste sensation that was truly heavenly.

Guests lingered into the night. No one seemed to want to leave. And even though Mario and Ellen and their two kids were headed on vacation to Mexico early the next morning, they weren’t exactly taking it down a notch. Keeping with her relaxed style, Ellen quipped, “No rush. Really! I’m never rigid about anything when it comes to entertaining. It’s about terrific food and drink—and friends. Great entertaining is as simple as that.”

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