Santos Majano has truly worked his way up through the restaurant business. A native of El Salvador, Majano was 17 when he was hired as a dishwasher at Taste Cafe in Pacific Grove.
Fast-forward 16 years and Majano, 33, now holds the title of executive chef at one of Santa Cruz’s most heralded fine dining establishments, Soif Restaurant, Wine Bar and Merchants.
“When I first got the dishwashing job, it was just a job to me,” said Majano, relaxing in the restaurant’s dining room on a recent morning before the start of his workday. “It wasn’t until two years into it that I discovered that I loved being in the restaurant. I loved the dinner rush — I still do.”
Established in 2002, Soif — as the locals call it — is truly a trifecta for connoisseurs of fine wine and fine food. Consisting of a restaurant, a wine bar and a wine shop, Soif, which translates from French into “thirst,” is tucked away on Walnut Street, just off bustling Pacific Avenue in the heart of downtown Santa Cruz.
Collaboration is the name of the game for Majano and staff. In addition to attending weekly wine training sessions, Majano also sits down for a weekly meeting with wine director John Locke.
“Soif is a very interesting place to work because the menu can change daily,” said Majano, who also lives in Santa Cruz. “The wine list is the same as the menu — it’s always changing. In the retail store, there are about 320 to 360 different kinds of wine right now. John always looks to get the most interesting wine he can.
“Sometimes, John and I work together on the menu,” he continued. “Sometimes, I suggest a dish first, and other times I’ll taste the wine first. Sometimes, John will ask me what I think about a particular wine. That’s the way food and wine come together here. We’re trying to find the perfect wine to go with the perfect dish.”
Hired in 2008 as sous chef, Majano became executive chef a year later. He estimated that 98 percent of the produce Soif serves comes from farmers markets. A weekly visitor to the Aptos market, Majano first purchased produce from the Monterey Bay Certified Farmers Markets back when he worked at the Taste Cafe, heading weekly to the MPC market to shop for the restaurant.
While Majano has introduced countless new items to Soif’s ever-changing menu, he said he also returns to what has worked over the years. Dishes that have been served since Soif’s opening day include an appetizer of Piquillo Peppers with Manchego Cheese for $7.
Majano singled out a salad of Bloomsdale Spinach with Point Reyes Blue, Baby Beets and Dijon Vinaigrette for $8 as a popular starter as well as the Artisan Cheese Plate for $17.
Majano said he has increased the selection of entrees on what was once a menu more focused on small plates. A recent top-selling entree was Crispy Duck Breast with Kabocha Squash Gnocchi, Brussels Sprouts and Greens for $24.
Warm Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream for $10 is always in demand when on the menu, according to Majano.
“In the kitchen, we do it all ourselves,” said Majano, who left Taste Cafe to work at fine dining establishments in Carmel Valley, San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay, Paso Robles and Sonoma before joining Soif. “Everything is made here, including the ice cream and sorbet.
“I feel so lucky to be part of such an amazing restaurant like Soif,” he continued. “We get to work with the freshest ingredients, I have the freedom of creating the food I love and I feel we have a menu our customers respond to. For Patrice [Boyle, the owner] to trust me with all that, I couldn’t ask for more.”
Soif Restaurant, Wine Bar and Merchants is located at 105 Walnut Street in Santa Cruz. Hours: 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday through Thursday; 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Wine shop opens at 12 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.