While their food career paths are similar, General Manager Heather Nunnelly and Chef Celestina “Cel” Ford arrived at Chez Loma from very different avenues. They met a decade ago in Junior Woman’s Club, they were both born with a love of food and started cooking as children. At age seven, Heather remembers thinking that homemade tortillas would taste delicious with the veggies from their garden and fresh meat from her family’s Texas farm, so she went to the kitchen and taught herself how to make them – and yes they were delicious! Around the same age, Cel remembers scrambling eggs with leftover meats and caviar and having her dad declare them the best eggs he ever had!
Chez Loma just reopened on June 4, having found it not feasible to offer take-out food, other than Easter brunch, during the COVID-19 crisis. The past two weeks have felt like two years, with all the safety precautions and changes they are putting in place. Both say that the community support has been heartwarming, and the city’s assistance has been key to reopening, with the quick loan turnaround and allowing outdoor seating. They credit Coronado MainStreet for the positive way they are overseeing health safety compliance, alleviating some of the load from local law enforcement. The Chamber of Commerce has also been great at keeping locals informed of restaurant options.
Originally a family home from 1889 through 1960, the residence changed to The Chowder House in the 1960s. Chez Loma opened in 1974 and current owner Andres Girault bought it in 2008. Both say he is the best boss in the world, allowing them total autonomy.
A Coronado native, Cel remembers eating at Chez Loma with her parents from the age of three, and even recalls savoring the duck topped with cherry sauce at age seven. When Andres called her to be the chef at Chez Loma, she resisted at first, but ultimately found herself starting in March, amidst the pandemic. She thought she would have some cushion of time to get prepared, but instead likens it to being on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, in the most awesome way, with lots of hard work.
Cel’s father was from Sicily, so she spent a lot of time there surrounded by family, soaking up the culture and the food. After graduating from college, with a degree in Comparative Literature, she thought she would end up as the female version of Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, but instead turned to her lifetime passion for food and went to culinary school in Italy. Returning to Coronado with her husband who’s a Navy SEAL, she worked as a chef at Tartine until her son was born, and then opened Cocina Celestina Cooking School, where she kept busy with cooking classes and catering, and even mentored a local teenager who went on to win Chopped Junior. She also created “A Moveable Feast,” a pop-up restaurant, and then decided to go back to school to study food history.
“I love to know where every ingredient comes from. For instance, the journey of chocolate is fascinating.” She can even tell you about the history of the plate, which dates back to Hampton Court, when a giant slab of old bread was used to hold meals, and then carved wood was used.
While Cel has lots of new menu ideas, she’s kept familiar favorites like Beef Bourguignon, Pepper Filet, and Steak Frites. She has given a new twist to some familiar choices like switching Coq au Vin to Coq au Jus. A new scallop entrée, crab cakes and her famous lemon angel hair pasta are proving to be popular with diners. She gets a gleam in her eye when describing the new Shrimp Cocktail with luscious mango, cucumbers, green onions, and tomatoes, with a Moroccan-inspired vinaigrette and cilantro aioli, which she promises brings the sweet with the heat.
“We will always keep customers’ favorites, but plan to rotate seasonal dishes for added selections. I love going to the Farmers’ Market to see what has peak flavor and create a special entrée around it. We will be adding duck entrees, rack of lamb, homemade pate and steak tartare to the menu as well.” She says winter is her personal favorite season and she loves making cassoulet when it rains.
Cel says that she cooks every cuisine except for Chinese, which she enjoys at restaurants. She points out that many people don’t realize the diversity of French food, which is based on the different areas, like the Basque region, where there are lots of fresh veggies and meats, and German specialties like schnitzel, with Moroccan, African, Spanish and Italian influences as well.
“It’s a miracle what comes out of our tiny kitchen. We work like Cirque de Soleil acrobats to make it happen,” Cel comments. To top off a decadent meal, dessert options include a flourless chocolate cake, vanilla crème brulee, and soon-to-come mini lemon bundt cakes glazed with limoncello, with the promise of gingerbread returning in the fall. Stay tuned for brunch dates that will be coming soon.
Heather has been in Coronado for 15 years. Her husband is also in the military and his service took them to Japan and Sicily. When her daughter was little, she started working in the Child Development Center’s school kitchen and found the cupboards full of canned foods. She quickly switched to fresh produce from local farmers’ markets, creating the first scratch government kitchen in Europe.
“I was born to cook. It’s how I show love,” she says, and fondly remembers sitting on a stool next to her grandfather in his butcher shop growing up. She didn’t attend culinary school until she was 33, having always relied on her innate love of food. Having always been interested in the ethical side of food, she is amazed that as a society we now use far less ingredients from the earth than our ancestors did. Baking wasn’t initially her specialty, but she found she excelled at it, first winning her school baking challenge, then the San Diego challenge, and finally taking second place in the Food Network Challenge in Las Vegas, with her decadent banana cake topped with whiskey whipped cream.
“I started to love baking because, as a rebel, I reveled in pushing science, manipulating yeast and leaveners to create interesting creations.” She is famous for her scones, both sweet and savory, and especially her mouthwatering blueberry ones. She has worked at Clayton’s, Nado Gelato, and Fuel, making her scones and bakery treats along the way, which she delivered every morning on her bike. She created a catering company and ran her successful pop-up bakery, Birdies Sweets and Tweets, which was a hit around town. She also owns Crown Town Tipis.
Heather and Celestina say they are on this Chez Loma journey together because they work well together and have a staff of 15 locals that feel more like family than employees. They collaborate on food, but as general manager, Heather enjoys interacting with and leading people. “We balance each other perfectly,” they state almost in unison. They try to use as many local vendors as possible like Heave Ho Coffee from Patrick Erskine, who was once a dishwasher there.
Chez Loma is designed to give diners the feeling of a European bistro. With such a small space, the majority of their dining is now offered outside under lights, with French music, giving the ambiance of being on a Paris sidewalk. The new veranda is the hot ticket in town with its privacy, view, candles, flowers, and that food with European flair.
The bar and happy hour feature scrumptious delicacies, with special drinks like the must-try Stan Margatini, named in honor of beloved community member Stan Searfus who worked at Chez Loma. The flavorful tequila drink is steeped for a week with a combination of jalapeno, lime, pineapple, and oranges with a tajin rim, then topped off with a pineapple wedge. Delicious offerings like surf and turf tacos, duck tacos, the bistro burger and truffled grilled cheese are among the standouts of the happy hour menu. Diners are encouraged to check back weekly, to see what new culinary delights are offered.
Acknowledging that Chez Loma has had a great past, they feel that they are just getting to the good part of the book and there is much more of the culinary story to write. Future offerings include Winemaker Dinners, Beer Tasting with Coronado Brewing Company, and a potential Coffeemaker Brunch, which they brainstormed during our interview. With the current travel restrictions, now is a perfect time to feel like you are getting away by enjoying an authentic European dining experience at Chez Loma, located in the heart of town at 1132 Loma Avenue. Check out updates on Facebook and Instagram and on www.chezloma.com