By Charlie Pogacar

As early as age six, Eric Samaniego told his grandmother he wanted to become a chef. The thing was, he didn’t exactly know what that meant, or how that would happen.

“I knew what it was as an abstract concept,” Samaniego said. “I just always kind of loved cooking and eating. It made me feel good to cook for others. But how do you become that? That, I didn’t know.”

The first gig Samaniego held was as a food runner at his hometown buffet. Four years at culinary school and several other restaurant jobs later, Samaniego ascended to executive chef of Michael’s on Naples in Long Beach, California, a position he’s held since 2016. The menu at Michael’s on Naples features authentic, regional Italian cuisine and includes an assortment of elevated Neapolitan-style pizzas.

Related: How a French-Trained Chef Became a Great Pizza Maker

All aspects of the Michael’s on Naples’ menu allow Samaniego to exhibit the varied journey he’s traveled as a chef. The best-selling pizza is, of course, the Margherita, but other top-sellers include the Chef’s Pizza: pesto sauce, mozzarella and salame Calabrese piccante; the Pistacchio e Stracciatella includes house-made mozzarella, house-made stracciatella, mortadella, pistachio and olive oil.

One thing all of the pies have in common is that they use a sparing number of ingredients. That’s intentional—Chef Samaniego gets help from his in-house pizza maker, Julio Van-Schuerbeck, and one thing they both believe is that too many ingredients can muddle the taste of a pie. Less is more, in other words.

“The pizzas I love doing are the ones that we make with whatever we have coming in from farmers markets in the area,” Samaneigo said. “I grab a couple of items and say, Julio, I want to make this pizza, here are the ingredients I’m thinking about. Then there is a little trial and error getting the right layers. All the ingredients are there to work together and the collaboration between he and I is how our new pizzas get made.”

So how did a food runner at a hometown buffet become an acclaimed chef? It began when Samaniego attended the Johnson and Wales campus in Denver, Colorado. There he trained for four years, learning different culinary techniques and honing his craft. An impactful visit from Charlie Trotter—the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Chef winner in 1999—gave Samaniego a new goal: he wanted to graduate and work for Trotter at his restaurant in Chicago. That’s exactly what he did, and it progressed his career in positive ways, even if the experience wasn’t quite what he pictured.

“I was not ready at all,” Samaniego said. “I had built up this idea of what it would be like in my head, and it wasn’t anything like that. It was hard to fit in there; I felt like an outsider. I wanted to learn and get better but I felt like I was doggy paddling stay afloat.”

Still, the skills learned and the connections made during that experience made it worth it. Samaniego spent about two years at Charlie Trotter’s, and after, he and his wife made the decision to move back to Southern California. There, Samaniego linked up with David Myers, a Trotter-trained chef who was exploding onto the culinary scene. Myers gave Samaniego a dream job at Sona, which went on to become a Michelin-starred restaurant. This experience ended up being exactly what Samaniego had always pictured—he’d finally found what he’d been looking for since age six.

“We had this amazing group of young people who were all the same age—in our mid 20s—and we were all learning together,” Samaniego said. “We were a collective that wanted to be great. We developed the menu together as a group. When we got done with work we just wanted to be together, hanging out, grabbing food, having a drink, talking about food. It was a great, big family.”

After his two-year stint at Sona, Samaniego worked a few other jobs before eventually encountering some obstacles that kept him out of work for 10 months. His father began ailing and eventually passed. At the same time, Samaniego and his wife welcomed their third child into the world. It was both a difficult and joyful time for him—but one that also let him refocus on what he wanted to get out of his professional life.

When he was ready to go back to work, Samaniego had coffee with an old connection who introduced him to the owner of Michael’s on Naples. It ws a chance encounter, really, but a fortuitous one: The restaurant happened to be looking for a new chef de cuisine—and Samaniego turned out to be the perfect fit.

Though he hadn’t worked in an Italian restaurant yet, nor did he have experience cooking pizza, Samaniego proved to be quite adaptable. He had, like so many Americans, always loved pizza and found it to be something that put him in a positive mood. Learning how to make great pizza was a challenge he was more than willing to take on. Within just six months, Samaniego was named the restaurant’s executivecChef.

While the early days of Samaniego’s journey never hinted at his future as the executive chef of an Italian restaurant, the home he’s made at Michael’s on Naples makes a lot of sense to him. He thinks back to all of the times he was assigned to the pasta station at other restaurants. Or how the most joy he got some days was the peaceful practice of hand-making pasta with a dough roller.

“Those quiet moments meant so much to me,” Samaniego said. “Getting to Michael’s and realizing how invested they were in the regionality of Italian food, I found that really exciting. I’ve always felt Italian in my bones—something about it just felt right.”

Food & Ingredients