If you drop by Night+Market Sahm during Resy’s Off Menu Week LA (Feb. 24 to Mar. 1), you may notice some unexpected dishes on the Thai menu. Shrimp ceviche. Bass al pastor. Tomatillos. Salsa borracha. And that’s because Night+Market is letting its sous chef shine.
Meet Samantha Quintero, a Mexican-American chef who pushed through racism and sexism to cultivate a better kitchen environment for her team. The trailblazing chef talks to Resy about her childhood in L.A., Off Menu Week, and how she leads her kitchen by lifting others up.
Sam Quintero is the proud daughter of Mexican immigrants, with a mother from Guadalajara and a father from Sonora. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she was shaped by the traditional foods of her family’s homelands, her childhood memories imbued by the cinnamon aroma of her mother’s arroz con leche.
But Quintero was also shaped by Los Angeles itself, too. Japanese, Thai, and Salvadoran dishes were staples of her early life, with birthdays calling for the fruity sponge cakes of Chinese bakeries, and Christmas devoted to the familial confection of tamales. Her parents made sushi rice as much as ceviche.
“They were no culinary experts,” the 28-year-old Quintero says, “But the effort of trying and putting other cultures into food really inspired me.” Her mother, Emma Lopez-Maya, instilled in Quintero a strong work ethic from a young age. Lopez-Maya ran her own business, and always ensured that her daughters had a fresh, made-from-scratch meal on the dinner table every night, no matter what.
By age seven, Quintero was shucking her own oysters with a butter knife, shooting them down with lime and Tapatío sauce. At age 12, she begged her mother to buy her the ingredients to make Corn Flakes fried chicken. And by the time she was in high school, she was making three bread loaves’ worth of school lunches for her friends. But it wasn’t until Quintero joined a Police Explorers program that her culinary prospects took shape.
“Every time we had events, I would always make cookies or pasta.” Quintero says. “I remember making this baked ziti, and everyone was like, ‘Why don’t you become a chef? You’re so good at cooking.’”
On a whim, Quintero applied to culinary school straight out of high school, and found a home at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Pasadena. There, she learned about molecular gastronomy and the likes of Grant Achatz and Ferran Adrìa. Her mother pushed her to seek externships in Spain, the hotbed of modernist cooking. But in the kitchen of Barcelona’s Michelin-starred Alkimia, Quintero got a first taste of what being a woman of color in the kitchen could be like. She was immediately relegated to pastry, something she would face time and again.
“Everywhere I started working, they’d be like ‘Pastry, pastry, pastry!’ I was like, why are they putting me here? I never liked pastry. I thought I wasn’t good enough,” Quintero says.
Fresh from her externship and with a culinary degree in hand, she left L.A. once again, this time for Chicago, with the hope of working at Achatz’s Alinea.
Instead, she was hired as a line cook in other fine dining restaurants, where she experienced a string of upsetting tendencies. She was often the only woman and person of color in the kitchen. And no matter how many extra hours she put in, or stations she learned to work, her hard work never paid off: Despite her qualifications, Quintero was constantly overlooked for promotion.
“I took a step back, took a deep breath, and said, ‘Maybe this isn’t it,’” she says.
It was at Salero, Chicago’s now-closed Spanish restaurant, that Quintero finally got her break and found her first true kitchen family. Chef-partner Ashlee Aubin became a mentor. “Chef (Aubin) was so great and always willing to teach,” she says. Quintero bloomed, and within a year was promoted to sous chef and had her own creations on the menu.
“At that restaurant, I not only grew as a chef, I made a lot of great friends,” Quintero says. “They were my peers, they helped me grow, and I felt like I brought something to the table. Until this day, we’re still texting, ‘Hey, what’s the best way to smoke this belly?’”
After six years of cold, bitter Midwest winters, Quintero became ready to move back to California. A Craigslist ad led to an interview at Night+Market Sahm, the third outpost of Kris Yenbamroong’s cult Thai restaurant.
In May 2019, Quintero was hired as the sous chef of what was, at the time, a macho, male-dominated kitchen. At first, the kitchen crew didn’t take kindly to the new boss.
“I had people quit.” Quintero says. “There was a point where I was like, ‘Oh my god, what am I doing wrong?’ But I wasn’t doing anything wrong. Those people didn’t want to change their old ways.”
Still, Yenbamroong trusted Quintero. She rose to the task, running everything from the ordering and the scheduling to the managing. Now, after nearly a year, Quintero looks at her team with pride.
“I have a really solid crew now,” she says. “Most of the people who work with me, I’ve hired them all. There was a point when my line was all female. That was such a proud moment for me.”
Quintero hasn’t just grown into a respected chef. She’s grown into a teacher who champions her employees, regardless of rank, language, or gender.
“I’ll offer anybody an opportunity if they want to work hard for it. I’m going to be there, 100% by their side, helping and teaching them,” she says. “I feel like I’ve always been on that side, where I’ve never been given opportunity.”
Now with Resy’s Off Menu Week, Yenbamroong has given Quintero the freedom to unleash her creativity in a new way, with six specials that will run from Feb. 24 to Mar. 1. And though the menu will incorporate the flavor profiles that Night+Market diners have come to love and expect, Quintero is getting very personal.
A shrimp ceviche is a tribute to those her mother would make on a hot summer’s day. Hers subs out jalapeños for fresh Thai chiles, replaces the classic tostada with a butter lettuce leaf, and adds fish sauce to the lime juice marinade.
A skirt steak marinated in beer is a riff on the carne asada her father would grill at family barbecues at the park every other Sunday; the smell of the meat hitting the fire is one of Quintero’s most potent food memories.
And her dessert is a wink to those birthday Chinese sponge cakes. Her version replaces the whipped cream and strawberries with coconut and rum. The cake is soaked in homemade simple syrup, topped with rum icing, and finished with a drizzle of salt and lime zest.
The menu is a love letter to her Mexican heritage and Los Angeles upbringing. And it’s exactly this kind of personal food she hopes to offer when she opens a place of her own. There, she intends to be a teacher as well as a leader, continuing on her mission to lift up others.
“You’re never going to know a person’s potential if you never give them the opportunity,” Quintero says.
“I’m always going to believe in that.”