What a difference a year makes.
In the 12 months since Niki Starr Weyler has been at the helm of Mesa Lounge in The Camp in Costa Mesa,, Calif., the chef and the establishment have really hit their stride.
Weyler’s journey to the head of the kitchen took an unorthodox path, but she doesn’t count any of it as a misstep. From working as a nanny to a foray into interior design to studying to become a nurse, Weyler says it all has helped mold her into the chef she is today. One that is steeped in Southern California culture and committed to keeping that local mindset in the dishes she serves and the ambience she helps create.
“Cooking dinner for a family of six every night led me to my passion,” Weyler says of her time as a nanny—a job that helped put her through school. Armed with a credit card for ingredients and the limitless shelves of Gelson’s, Julia Child cookbooks became her road map.
Weyler, a 2007 health science alumna, comes from a CSULB family — her father, John, is a 1975 journalism grad. She originally set out to pursue a career in nursing when culinary school called to her.
“My time at The Beach helped me learn about who I was. I learned about nutrition and my background in health science absolutely ties into my cooking,” she says of putting her degree to work.
After CSULB, she went on to the San Diego Culinary Institute and moved quickly to an externship at the prestigious French 75 in Laguna Beach.
“Nothing can truly prepare you for that feeling of a serious rush in a busy restaurant,” Weyler says of the transition.
From there she joined Charlie Palmer at Bloomingdale’s in South Coast Plaza and was introduced to chef Amar Santana, who became her mentor and as well as her introduction to Mesa.
Before Weyler, the establishment was known for its specialty craft cocktails, but the signature drinks now compete with popular dishes like Tempura Green Beans, Korubota Pork Chop, among Mesa’s evolving menu.
“The vibe is so cool and modern. You can go across the street to South Coast Plaza and then come here and it’s really eclectic and lax. You’re just as likely to sit next to someone in a suit as someone with a Mohawk,” Weyler says of the atmosphere at the lounge.
With her signature purple hair and hands-on approach, Weyler stands out in the crowd and is committed to interacting with customers. “I love being out on the floor and connecting with people. I don’t want to be a nameless figure in the back,” Weyler said.
Weyler pulls from many different cuisines and flavor profiles to create the constantly changing items that make up Mesa’s menu, “I love to keep things seasonal, especially since here in Southern California we don’t experience seasons like the rest of the country. I like to evoke those feelings through food.”
When Weyler started leading the kitchen last year, she quickly learned that being a chef is made up of more than just cooking. From sourcing ingredients to restocking flatware to creating the night’s menu, she hit the ground running to master the balancing act of all these tasks and more, but the process of preparing and serving dishes is still the what drives Weyler.
“One of my favorite things about being a chef is plating a dish. Good plating really elevates your food. I believe in making going out to eat fun,” she said.
With the joy Weyler puts into her work and the ambiance of Mesa, going out to eat is a lot more enjoyable with her running the show.