Chef Daniel Villanueva’s colorful career started with splitting his time between pursuing a music career in Los Angeles and cooking to pay the bills. His early years saw him working for everyone from the Patina Group to the House of Blues before launching his own catering company. After a mind-opening stint as a private chef in the Coachella Valley, he opened Balisage Bistro, an “Earth-to-Table” Mediterranean restaurant in Palm Springs. He followed it in 2018 with Daniel’s Table in Cathedral City, where he brings the best-sourced foods from local farmers, ranchers, and fisherman to a creative menu that stays true to the seasons.
Read our conversation with Chef Daniel below, and click here to get tickets to his upcoming Community Table dinner.
The Ecology Center: What first sparked your imagination regarding local seasonal ingredients?
Chef Daniel: It was always there. I grew up with grandmothers who gardened, growing vegetables and fruit, and raised chickens. I remember in my young restaurant days, chefs would add so much to a peach to make it taste good. I always thought that was crazy. When you go to a small farm, a peach might not look as attractive as the one coming in from the big produce company, but the difference in flavor is night and day. You don’t have to add sugar to a high-quality peach.
As I got older and became self-employed, I started to notice that so much food was being modified—by the time fruits and vegetables got to you, they were already a different flavored product. All my old memories of being a kid came back, and I was like, “You know what, I’m going to take yesterday’s memories of quality ingredients and pair that with today’s refinement.”
The Ecology Center: What drives your passion for regenerative cuisine?
Chef Daniel: What comes to my head is longevity. I believe food is very healing. Right behind that is the amazing relationships I’m able to make with these farms, the families that grow the food, catch the fish, etc. There’s a certain element of truth when we believe in what we do, and we find the truth in those relationships. One of these farms, the owner has a background in marine biology—they’re like “Oh yeah, I was making $200k a year and I gave it up to start a farm.” I can relate to that. I didn’t get into cooking food because it was glamorous, and I didn’t get into owning a restaurant to be wealthy. But wealth comes in different forms.
The Ecology Center: How has a regenerative ethos developed the way you cook?
Chef Daniel: It’s like that saying: “The older we get, the less we know.” Because I’ve cooked so much food over the years, learned technique from working within so many ethnic cuisine styles, and made so many mistakes, now look at what I have, thinking about what I feel like eating, understand the season, and follow my intuition.
Also, many people don’t know that I grew up with art as my first love. Watercolor, charcoal, pastels, painting. My eyes are so attached to pigments and colors and specks and dots. Now, years later, art is still a very integral part of what I do with food.
The Ecology Center: What do you see as one of the culinary industry’s biggest challenges to caring for the earth?
Chef Daniel: A greedy system that’s been designed for the wrong reasons. Money’s important, but from my point of view, it seems like the greed in the heart of people spreads across the supply chain—the plastics, the food waste.
I think the biggest problem is the lack of knowledge of the masses. If you don’t know food or where it comes from, then how do you know what the issues are? As chefs, we have impact! It’s not a coincidence that all these Food Network shows have blown up. The more that chefs start coming together and caring about the environment, the better. It starts with one chef at a time, then a few chefs together, then twenty, then fifty chefs in LA and fifty chefs in Chicago, and it just spreads.
You sacrifice to get across what you believe in. If you’re more concerned about driving a Range Rover, versus your own truth, to me you’re in it for the wrong reasons.
The Ecology Center: How can the culinary industry do a better job of caring for people?
Chef Daniel: The first word that comes to mind is “values.” I learned as an employer years ago, even though my name is on the sign, it doesn’t mean I come first.
When I was working in kitchens when I was younger, I remember having to run into the walk-in and look for something to scarf down—chefs didn’t care about breaks or making sure the employees got fed. I remember thinking I would never do that to my employees—my staff is going to eat well and be cared for. That spreads to the dining room. My employees are taken care of, there’s no yelling, we’re all in a flow together with joy in what we’re doing, and the guests notice it, and hopefully from there it spreads to the community.
The Ecology Center: If you could change one aspect of our current food system or culture through your work, what would it be?
Chef Daniel: I would take the bureaucracy out and replace it with good farmers. If you’re a billionaire, you can’t tell a farmer how to live. If you’re buying up all this land, but you don’t know farming and your affiliation is not with the families of the farmers…again, I think greed plays a big role.
The Ecology Center: When you imagine a food culture that cares for the earth, cares for people, and shares abundance with those in need, what does it look like to you?
Chef Daniel: I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but when people eat well, they’re happy. I see it as more joy, more unity, happy families. It’s interesting—you can go to any country, and have fun through two things: playing and listening to music, and cooking and eating food. If I’d ended up being a musician, I would have wanted unity through music, but since I’m now a chef, I want to create unity through food.