A Q&A with Newport Academy Chef Stephen Serna: Mindful Cooking, Mindful Eating

Stephen Serna, Chef de Cuisine at Newport Academy’s Southern California campus, is dedicated to promoting mindful eating by creating nutritious, delicious food that “helps young people regain a sense of balance,” he says. In crafting meals as medicine for clients and staff, he uses the highest-quality, organic ingredients, as well as produce and eggs gathered from our own micro farm on-site.

Before joining the Newport Academy team in 2016, Chef Stephen served as a sous chef, chef de partie, line supervisor, and line cook for some of the best-rated restaurants in the region, including Bouchon Bistro, Eveleigh, and Public Steak. He graduated from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts-Hollywood in 2013, specializing in baking and patisserie.

We asked Stephen to share his story with us, including his journey from the military to the kitchen, what he’s learned from the top chefs he’s worked with, and his favorite Newport Academy mindful-eating recipes.

Tell us a little about your background and training as a chef

I joined the military after graduating from high school, but I was injured during a deployment and ended up leaving the military. Feeling lost and confused, I began using drugs to cope and escape. I was taking care of my grandma at the time, and she encouraged me to go to culinary school because she loved my cooking—simple stuff, just eggs and tomatoes, or shrimp with garlic. After she passed away, I decided to follow her advice and I went to Le Cordon Bleu. Right away, I enjoyed the feel of the kitchen and the fast-paced intensity.

Newport Academy Resource Mindful Eating Well-being

You’ve worked with some well-known chefs. What are the most important things you learned from them?

I worked for some amazing chefs: Jordan Toft at Eveleigh, Kyle Schutte at 54Twenty, Thomas Keller and David Hands at Bouchon, and my primary mentor, Matt Briggs, at Ocean Prime and Public Steak, to name a few.

Along the way, I also worked for some very loud and angry chefs, the kind you see on TV reality shows. I learned to jump and say “Yes, Chef” or “Oui, Chef” every time someone in charge said anything to me or even looked at me. And unfortunately, I also learned to yell at those below me. Chef Keller and Chef Hands were the first to show me that even when you have high expectations of the people who are working for you, you can handle it differently. You don’t have to yell to get your point across. Chef Keller speaks softly, but with the same intensity and urgency that has earned him multiple Michelin stars.

Since coming to Newport Academy, I’ve learned that mentoring and leading can be exhilarating and gratifying. Mentoring is a key component in our kitchen, and one that I have found the most rewarding. Teaching others to cook—whether it’s chefs in the kitchen or my kids at home—has become my personal mission, along with continuing my education through school, training, and experience.

What are the most valuable qualities for a chef when it comes to mindful eating?

In my 10 years of experience, I have learned that there are three qualities that are essential to creating a great product. Prioritized in order of importance, they are:

  1. I prioritize this over quality because, regardless of how good or fresh the product is, if your work space or the storage container or cooking area is dirty, there is no way to achieve quality.
  2. This means not only quality ingredients, but also instilling a sense of quality into every choice you make. Every decision should be in service of keeping the integrity of the ingredients and improving flavor, texture, or color. I prioritize quality over speed, because it won’t matter if we get the food out in record time if it isn’t delicious and beautiful.
  3. Moving with a sense of urgency and maintaining efficiency of movement is essential to our daily work. Cooking is like a dance. Our steps are quick, our cuts are precise, and our thoughts are intentional.

How would you describe Newport Academy’s philosophy on food and nutrition?

Above all, food should serve the body, mind, and soul. The energy and intention imparted into the food by farmers, chefs, and providers is a vital part of our food preparation. The meal is medicine—eating well and practicing mindfulness eating is an essential part of living a healthy and balanced lifestyle. The dining experience is a positive part of the recovery process.

Food is also integral to our community. Understanding that we all share the need of nourishment can help bridge gaps between us and foster a greater sense of connection.

As far as ingredients, we use organic, minimally processed, preservative-free food; humanely raised, antibiotic- and hormone-free meat; and no processed sugar. If we can’t pronounce it, we don’t serve it. 

Newport Academy Resource Mindful Eating Well-being

What’s your go-to meal?

Two of my favorite Newport Academy recipes are peanut butter and berry salad with flat iron steak and pork shoulder chile verde with black beans, corn tortillas, and Spanish rice.

What do you most enjoy about working at Newport Academy?

Spending time in the kitchen with our clients. Through nutrition, sobriety support, and emotional support, I am giving back what I was given by my mentors.