For delicious ramen and yakitori, great craft beers and cocktails, and an amazing view, check out Loft 94, Jamul Casino’s open-air bar and Asian-inspired eatery. Enjoy the breathtaking views and relax the day away while you enjoy Yakitori Grilled Wagyu Beef, Tonkotsu Ramen, the Ahi Poke Bowl and many other unique options. Perched above the action of the casino floor, Loft 94 is a perfect spot to break away before you get back in the game at San Diego’s closest casino. Join us.
Award-winning Chef Keoni Simmons grew up in Huntington Beach, CA. He received his first cookbook in 5th Grade and since then, has become very passionate about food. His multi-cultural background has given him the ability to cook many different styles, most preferably Pacific Rim comfort food. When he’s not cooking up a storm, he’s following his favorite sports teams – The Pittsburgh Steelers, Liverpool F.C., LA Dodgers and Lakers. A veteran of the World Food Championships, Keoni has placed Top Ten in the sandwich category in both Las Vegas, NV (2013) and Kissimmee, Florida (2014).
In order to learn about how this featured property and Chef Keoni Simmons are faring in the age of COVID-19, we caught up with the Chef himself.
Tell us a little bit about your career so far – when did you first know you wanted to become a chef, and how did you get your start in the industry?
Around 2001, I went to culinary school at Grossmont College here in San Diego, had great instructors like Chef Joe Orate to mentor and push me when needed on my culinary journey.
I was able to be part of the Grossmont Culinary team that was sent to compete in the 2004 culinary Olympics in Erfurt, Germany. That was when I knew I wanted to be a chef.
You currently serve as the executive chef at Loft 94 in Jamul which serves Asian-inspired cuisine. What is your favorite part of the job?
Actually I’m the executive chef of the casino, but the all-new menu and décor at Loft 94 was my passion project. We came up with the concept back in 2018, and we opened it in 2019.
But if I had to pick the favorite part of my job, it would have to be working with my culinary team. We have several venues that serve food on a daily basis while at the same time we do special events that bring in guests by the thousands. As a team we succeed together and it’s a big part of the reason why I believe we are the best casino in San Diego.
Are there any unique challenges that come with functioning as part of a casino?
The amount of business is on a whole different level compared to a restaurant or hotel, there are a lot more moving parts with eight dining venues serving several thousand meals a day. The demand to constantly innovate is much greater since the competition is so fierce between the local casinos.
How has Loft 94 been affected by COVID-19 and how have you and your team been able to respond to this giant cultural shift in restaurant dining?
Guests and team members have their temperatures checked before entering the casino, they are also required to wear a mask when they are not eating, drinking, or smoking. We have a clean team with their sole purpose making sure furniture and equipment is sanitized to help protect the guests and team members alike. The new protocols are particularly important in our dining areas because that is where our guests and team members are most vulnerable to potential transmission, so we have to constantly ensure that we’re on our “A” game to follow the protocols all day, every day. We can’t get complacent, and it’s taxing. Having to wear a mask while in a hot kitchen or dish area is definitely a challenge, so we make sure the team gets time to step away to get some air and water.
Have these shifts led to any exciting innovations for you?
Oh yes! Obviously everyone loves a good buffet, but those are just out of the question right now, so we’ve introduced “Endless Dining Options” for our guests to be able to have course after course delivered to them for a set price. We’ve also introduced additional options to serve our guests and our community by offering “Jamul at Home” takeout options, where people can order entire meal options for 2-4 people. Not every type of dish translates well to to-go, so we’ve chosen the options that work the best, and also provide directions for ways that people can finish the preparation at home in order to get the best possible experience. [Click here to learn more about the program, or click here to order directly!]
What (or who) are some of your biggest culinary inspirations?
I was fortunate enough to work with or be taught by several great chefs; Joe Orate, Mial Parker, Jeff Roberto, James Foran, Dave Polis, Nicholas Villamil, and Eric Mauritzen to name a few.
My father taught me how to make rice and how to whip up dinner with whatever was in the kitchen. Then you have my uncle Richard who had his own restaurant with these ribeye steaks that I still remember 20 years later.
Is there anything you wish more people knew about pursuing a career as a cook or chef?
Being a cook/chef is not just a job, it is a lifestyle, and you have to fully commit to be successful. You will work long hours and miss a lot of family events, but that is part of what it takes to become a chef. You have to be prepared for that going into it.
Finally, we’re obviously all eating out a lot less these days. So if you could have any meal in the world prepared for you right now, what would you be want to be eating?
The meal itself really isn’t important, what I miss is having all of my friends and family over to eat it with. But if I had to choose one meal, it would be Christmas breakfast. I have great memories of trying to get that last piece of Portuguese sausage or lone blueberry muffin before my siblings did. Our family motto on it was “you snooze you lose.”