Chef's Corner: Jose Luis Ugalde, executive chef & owner of Cafe Gibraltar

Chef’s Corner: Jose Luis Ugalde, executive chef & owner of Cafe Gibraltar

The peninsula is bursting with fantastic restaurants, most of which are dedicated to using local and fresh ingredients, just like what we carry at our store! Each Chef’s Corner will feature a local restaurant, chef & a recipe in the hopes that you’ll grow to love the chef’s passion for food, and their restaurant, as much as we do! Enjoy — Carmelo Sigona

By Carmelo Sigona

Cafe Gibraltar -- 425 Ave. Alhambra -- El Granada, CA

Recognized by foodies and their favorite industry publications stretching from San Francisco, Calif., to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, Chef Jose Luis Ugalde, owner of Café Gibraltar in El Granada, has made his mark on the West Coast as a culinary genius. Café Gibraltar is another restaurant I absolutely love for its wonderfully creative dishes and warm, friendly feel. The short distance over the hill is well worth the drive.

Chef Jose Luis has created a menu featuring authentic Mediterranean cuisine with dishes from Italy, Turkey, Greece, Spain, Morocco, and France, as well a few dishes using a style after his own namesake. Menu items with a Ugalde notation are of Jose Luis’ own creation; they are generally of the Basque persuasion, as tribute to his heritage.

The menu is also all-organic and Jose Luis sources his ingredients as locally as possible. For example, he brings in seafood from Monterey, tomatoes from Watsonville and Swiss chard, onions and cabbage from Pescadaro. In fact, just as Christine and I were leaving, a local farmer pulled up to the back of the restaurant with fresh, local artichokes. Jose Luis pointed in their direction and said with a smile, “those will be artichoke soup later today.” He feels just as blessed to be in the Bay Area with such fantastic resources as we do!

The artichoke soup is a famous, seasonal menu item at Café Gibraltar, as well as the lamb. “We change our menu about every three months to incorporate in-season items, but we keep a few of the dishes or ingredients we know our customers love. For example, we always have a dish that features lamb, though the cut and the preparation may vary on each menu or every other menu; people definitely come for the lamb.”

What a view! Cafe Gibraltar looks right out over the ocean. Perfect place to catch the sunset.

The unique seating at Cafe Gibraltar adds to the cozy atmoshpere - these seats are great for sunset gazing.

After a quick search on Yelp, we’ve proved that to be true. One reviewer wrote:

I would come back here for the lamb shank and the lamb shank alone.

I love the story about Jose Luis’ passion food and restauranteering as he didn’t follow the usual path of most executive chefs or restaurant owners. “When I was about 10 years old, living in Mexico City, the city had just selected a new governor and to celebrate they brought in chefs from all over the world,” said Jose Luis. “They interviewed the chefs on TV where each talked about what they would be making and how they would do it. That really captured me. It made me realize that’s what I wanted to do.”

Jose Luis then told us briefly about how he moved from Mexico City to Los Angeles at the age of 16 and worked in various food- and field-related positions before moving to the Bay Area where he took a position as dishwasher and busser at Via Venetto in Oakland, Calif. It wasn’t long before the owners noted his drive and skill and moved him to the position of lead line cook.

Having gained a new expertise, Jose Luis eventually took a position at La Brasserie Francaise under Chef Eric Branger who taught Jose Luis more about French cuisine. From here Jose Luis and his wife, Liam, traveled to Seattle to take a position at Spazzo, a Mediterranean restaurant, and from there moved into a position at the Grand Aleutian resort in Dutch Harbor, Alaska before returning to Seattle where Jose Luis took a position as the opening chef at Carmelita, a vegetarian restaurant with a Mediterranean twist. Here he developed the entire menu, which was 70 percent vegan and 90 percent vegan-optional. As a result of the stellar menu, Carmelita was voted Seattle’s best new restaurant against competitors such as Roy Yamaguchi and Wolfgang Puck!

Hot and fast...that's Jose Luis' secret to fantastic calamari.

As most of us do eventually, Jose Luis and Liam felt the tug of home on their heartstrings and moved back to the Bay Area in 1998, where soon thereafter they opened Café Gibraltar at its former location in Montara, north of El Granada.

And we certainly are happy they did! My wife Jackie and I have been to Café Gibraltar a few times and we always order from the tasting menu, which allows you to order any five of the entrees, including dessert, for $60 per person (see their entire menu here). I love asking chefs for a sampler plate of all their menu items at restaurants so in one sitting I can get a real feel for the chef’s style. When Jackie and I go, we both order from the tasting menu and dine from eight different, all organic entrees and two desserts throughout the night. It’s perfect!

Offering all-organic dishes is one thing Jose Luis said he was proud to dedicate himself to doing at his restaurant. “There are many reasons people may say they ‘go organic,’” said Jose Luis. “I look at it as coming down to the flavor of ingredients and a way of acknowledging our history and respecting the earth. Eighty years ago there wasn’t a question of organic or conventional; it just was, it was that simple, and that’s how I like to operate.”

Carmelo takes a turn with the calamari

Another dish I think is absolutely fantastic is the Spanish-style Chipirones al Ajillo, or calamari; it’s most like the calamari I had as a kid since I grew up with authentic Sicilian cooking. Knowing this, Jose Luis made us a plate of our own when we went to visit him for Chef’s Corner. His secret, aside from his house-made Meyer lemon sauce and a garnish of microgreens (tender and tangy young lettuce and mustard greens), is a high cooking heat and little cooking time. Fast and hot, if you will, as you can tell from the accompanying photo. These are a must try!

Jose Luis graciously sent us home with a few Café Gibraltar recipes to share with our customers, and most of the ingredients are available at our stores. Enjoy!

Carmelo and Jose Luis share a few secrets of the trade, including how Jose Luis makes his own lemon sauce.

Recipes from Jose Luis Ugalde

Artichoke Soup

A Café Gibraltar favorite!

  • 1 lb Potatoes, peeled, cooked & diced
  • 4 lbs artichoke hearts, cleaned & cooked
  • 1 lb butter beans, cooked
  • 1 ea onions, diced large
  • 4 cups celery root, diced large
  • 4 ea carrots, peeled, diced large
  • 4 qts vegetable stock (see below for a recipe)
  • to taste, salt and pepper
  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • for garnish roasted almonds

Heat oil in a stock pot, add onions, season and cook over low heat for 15-20 minutes.  Add carrots, celery, butter beans, potatoes and artichokes, season with salt and pepper and mix well. Add stock, cover and simmer for 25-30 minutes.  Remove, puree, strain and serve garnished with roasted almonds.

Vegetable Stock

  • 1 cluster celery, large diced
  • 2 ea yellow onions, cut in 1/2
  • 4 ea carrots,  peeled, cut in chunks
  • 1/4 cup  canolve oil
  • 8 quarts water
  • 1/2 bunch parsley, roughly chopped
  • 2 ea bay leaves

Spread oil on sheet pan, mix veggies together, season, spread on sheet pan.  Roast in oven for 30 to 40 minutes until veggies caramelize, remove, add to stock pot with water, simmer on low for 30 minutes. Turn off, strain immediately.

Kaskasu bi’l-Lahm

Try one of Jose Luis’ famous lamb recipes for yourself!

  • 4 shanks shoulder or shank lamb meat, braised and pulled (see braising liquid below)
  • 1 basket pearl onions, whole
  • 1 cup tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 Lg. carrots, blanched, diced large
  • 1 cup fresh fava beans
  • 1 basket cherry tomatoes, cut in 1/2
  • 4 TBL harissa (recipe follows)
  • 2 cups  reserved sauce from braising
  • 2 quarts chickpeas, soaked for 24 hours, braised
  • eggplant, roasted (optional)

Directions: Braise the lamb shanks in a 325 degree oven for about 2 hours in the braising liquid (below), or until the meat, pulls easily from the bone. Remove the lamb and set the liquid aside.  In a hot skillet with oil, add all ingredients except cherry tomatoes, mix well and immediately transfer to a tajine, bake in the oven for about 30 minutes at 350 degrees, until the vegetables are tender and have started to simmer.

Remove and garnish with mint leaves, roasted eggplant and cherry tomatoes, serve.

Braising liquid

  • 6 cups  Beef stock
  • 1 Lg. yellow onion, chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 4 stocks celery, chopped
  • 10 dried chiles, deseeded
  • 1 Lg. carrots, chopped
  • 1 bay leaf, whole
  • 12 dried apricots, cut in 1/4’s
  • 10 prunes
  • 1 sprig each mint & parsley
  • a pinch salt & pepper

Directions: Combine everything and braise according to the directions above.


  • 1 cup cumin seed, toasted, ground
  • 1 cup cumin, ground
  • 2 cups smoked paprika
  • 1 TBL chile flakes
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 2 cups lemon juice
  • 6 cups canolive oil
  • 2 cups garlic, chopped

Directions: Add all ingredients and blend in a food processor until smooth.

Patatas con Chipirones al Ajillo

This is one of my favorite dishes. It reminds me of the calamari I had as a kid, growing up with authentic Sicilian cooking.

  • 2 lbs Calamari, tubes and tentacles, peeled and cleaned
  • 1 cup Ajillo Sauce (see recipe for this sauce below)
  • Flour, for dusting
  • Lemon juice from 1/2 lemon
  • Salt and Pepper, to taste
  • 1 TBL Canolive Oil
  • 2 cups  Braised Potatoes

Directions: Heat a skillet over high heat until smoking, add oil, rotate to cover entire surface. Pat dry calamari, season with salt and pepper, coat with flour, shake to remove excess.  Add to skillet and saute over high heat for thirty seconds to a minute.

Add sauce and stir, saute for another minute, add lemon juice and stir.  Remove and serve over braised potatoes.


  • 6 lg Russet potatoes, peeled, diced large
  • 1 Tblsp Garlic, chopped
  • 1 lg Yellow Onion, diced medium
  • 1 bunch Green Onion, diced small
  • 4 lg RomaTomatoes, shredded
  • 1/2 cup            Heavy Cream
  • 1 Tblsp Butter, room temperature
  • *4 cups Vegetable Stock * or enough to cover potoates
  • 1 Tblsp Canolive Oil
  • To Taste Salt & Pepper

In a large braising pan, heat up oil over medium heat, add yellow onions, cook for five minutes.  Season with salt and pepper, add tomatoes and garlic, stir and cook for three minutes, add potatoes, remove and enough stock to cover the potatoes.

Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for about thirty minutes, or until most of the stock has evaporated and the potatoes are cooked but still lumpy.  With a wooden spatula, mix well and add butter and cream, then green onions, and season if needed.  Keep warm until served.

Salsa Ajillo

  • 1 tsp Smoked Paprika
  • 1 TBL Garlic, chopped
  • 1 tsp Parsley, chopped
  • Pinch Chile Flakes
  • 1/2 tsp  Ground Cinnamon
  • 2 TBL Flour
  • 1 Btl Dry Spanish Sherry
  • 2 TBL Butter
  • 1 bunch Green Onion, green only, chopped
  • Salt & Pepper to taste

Directions: In sauce pan empty sherry bottle, bring to boil until sherry flames and burns off most of the alcohol, with about two cups remaining in the pan. In another sauce pan melt butter over medium heat, add garlic, cinnamon, chile flakes, parsley and paprika, season with salt and pepper, stir. Add flour, stir until flour absorbs butter and all ingredients become a little pasty.

Add sherry reduction, with a hand whisk break down paste with the sherry until smooth and even consistency, slightly thicker than gravy. Add green onions and cook for two minutes over low heat.  Sauce can be added to calamari hot or cool.

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