It was almost two decades ago that famed American Chef Cindy Pawlcyn, best known for San Francisco and Napa Valley restaurants, and featured in the first season of Bravo’s “Top Chef: Masters,” singled out young Sergio Morales, previously a dishwasher, as one of her proteges.
When we asked Chef Morales, who has excelled in his profession without formal training, what he credits for catching the eye of such a highly revered chef as Pawclyn, he responded, “I think she liked that I was always smiling a lot. She really liked my positive attitude.” Morales shared. “I was always working very hard. Sometimes I spend more time at my job than at home. So why do I need to be grumpy? Angry cooks make angry food.”
After working with Pawlcyn for 13 years and moving on to work-learn from elite chef-mentors including, Michael Mina, Thomas Keller, and Michael Chiarello at various hot spot culinary venues in NorCal, Chef Morales tried his luck and dropped off his resume for a job opening not too far from his longtime home in Calistoga, at the highly coveted Indian Spring’s Resort- Sam’s Social Club.
Fortunately, Morales, a self-proclaimed “diamond in the rough,” was hired as Executive Chef of the Calistoga favorite, Sam’s Social in 2017. Sergio expressed his sincere respect and gratitude to the entire Merchant family (original owners of the venue), who hired him in the position. John Merchant, who bought and renovated the iconic space decades ago (as well as many other popular Calistoga venues including Calistoga Depot), passed last January 2020. A well known creative visionary, Merchant’s influence on downtown Calistoga has been deeply impactful to the quaint, popular wine country town.
When CW Mag. spoke to Chef Morales, who shares his home with his devoted wife and four children, he and his team at Indian Springs/Sam’s Social Club had just gotten the venue up and running again after being closed for three weeks due to the dangers and bad air of the nearby Glass Fire which destroyed 1,555 structures, including local wineries. Emergency evacuations during California’s “Fire Season” in the Fall (once merely known as Harvest Season for the wineries), as well as closures and cancellations due to COVID, are challenges chefs like Morales, are becoming very well acquainted with. Chef Morales commented, “With all of the craziness of COVID and three terrible fire seasons, we are putting a lot of energy into executing a lot of new procedures to first and foremost keep our guests safe, and to have us ready as possible for all of the potential challenges.”
Having established a “farm to table” identity way before “farm to table” was such an overused term, Morales shared that what makes his cuisine at Sam’s Social Club singular and special. “For me, it’s really important to have a really good connection and relationship with my vendors and distributors, like with Doug Achterberg (CW Rep and V.P. of Business Development) at The Chefs’ Warehouse. It is through these close relationships that I can offer our guests the very best seasonal ingredients and local and imported products.”
Gearing up for the Holiday Menu at Sam’s Social Club, Chef Morales relayed his enthusiasm for creating a truly wholesome traditional feast for Thanksgiving, replete with organic local turkey, fall fruits including: pomegranate and persimmon salad, roasted baby carrots, butternut squash soup, and apple pie. For Christmas Dinner, Morales looks forward to offering Allen Brothers Prime Rib with all the trimmings.
Chef Morales completed our conversation commenting on the unique synergy he has with everyone he works with at Sam’s Social Club-Indian Springs, “We are all on this same page and this really helps things to run as smoothly as possible. Everyone jumps on board together always for the safety and experience of our guests. I am very grateful to be here working with this great team.”