Comfort food: Chef Raul Santana

February 2019 Posted in Community, Food & Drink

Raul Santana opened Magnolia Grill in Mount Angel in December. Brenna Wiegand

By Brenna Wiegand

Raul Santana first found work in the berry fields after migrating to the U.S. in 2000. The 16-year-old, brought by an uncle, taught himself English and completed his GED in pursuit of The American Dream. It was his love of learning that got him there.

“The rest of my family is still in Mexico City and I go back and forth,” Santana said. “Moving away was hard and is hard still.”

Nevertheless, Santana got busy, picking berries, building fences and fighting wildfires until, at 18, he got his first restaurant job at Love Teriyaki in Wilsonville. Being the dishwasher gave Santana a bird’s eye view of the kitchen and, ever the student, he started asking questions. The line cooks rewarded his curiosity by teaching him how to cook.

“After six months the cooks disappeared; just vanished,” Santana said. “The owner was freaking out and I told her I could do it.” As his capabilities and passion for the kitchen grew, Santana went from one restaurant to another starting as a line cook and working his way up the ranks to sous chef and then head chef, racking up cooking experience that includes Moroccan, Italian, American, Argentinian, Mexican fine dining and Indian cuisines as well as event catering.

In 2009, Santana took a cook’s job at the Oregon Garden Resort, eventually making head chef. Later, Santana became a chef with Willaby’s Catering of Salem, something he still does, and helped a friend to open an Italian restaurant in Mount Angel. About six months later the friend told Santana he was going to close. Santana realized this was his next step.

“I think it’s every chef’s dream to have your own place,” Santana said. Despite the knowledge that he was heading into a restaurant owner’s two worst months of the year, he seized the opportunity – and took the leap.

“I didn’t know how hard it would be; how people would respond; but I thought this is my chance,” Santana said. “I’ll give it a try; I’ll do my best and let’s see how things go.”

Friends and family helped Santana prepare and decorate the space and Magnolia Grill opened Dec. 1.

“We have comfort food like chicken pot pie, a couple pastas and a couple steaks, so we have a variety,” Santana said, who believes American food lends itself to more creativity than other cuisines.

“I’m already thinking about changing the menu in a couple spots,” he added. “You can tell whether something’s going to work or not in just the first two weeks.”

Santana’s specialty is wine pairing and once a month he holds a wine pairing dinner after hours.

“I love to do it; I can be creative and provide a fine dining experience,” Santana said. “I think the town needs more of that so people don’t have to travel to Portland. Even in Salem I don’t think there are very many places doing wine dinners.”

Daily lunch and dinner specials provide another outlet for his creativity, as does hosting private events. Santana seeks out fresh, local food, high quality meats, fish and makes everything from scratch.

“These first two months have gone better than I’d expected and I’m very confident in our team,” Santana said. “I’m grateful for the support of friends here that treat me like family.”

Magnolia Grill
210 E. Charles St., Mount Angel Open Tuesday – Saturday, 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. for lunch; 5 – 9 p.m. for dinner.

The next wine pairing dinner is March 14. Cost: $75; call 503-996-1029 for reservations.

Menus and events at Magnolia Grill on Facebook.

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