A hearing impairment never deterred Chef Darren Weiss from pursuing his dreams …
It lit a fire.
Written by Diane E. Barber
Photographed by Shane O’Donnell
Chef Darren Weiss was born with profound hearing loss. He lived in Pennsylvania and England before settling in Santa Monica in 1976. A passion for food that began during his childhood eventually led him back to the East Coast to attend the Rochester Institute of Technology and the Culinary Institute of America in New York.
After graduating from the latter in 1996, he worked in Hawaii as an executive sous chef before moving to the South Bay in 2000. He owned and operated Catalina Cafe for five years in Redondo Beach prior to opening Darren’s Restaurant in Manhattan Beach. When he talked about his journey for this story, he revealed a humble spirit that is centered in gratitude and loaded with grit.
Q: When did you realize that being a chef was your calling in life?
I knew for as long as I can remember. I have always been good at making food taste good and always have liked how it makes people feel happy.
Q: What has been most challenging with being hearing-impaired during your career, and how have you compensated for that?
Challenges have been there all day, every day. Communication is most important in life, and mine is restricted. Imagine not being able to hear what people are saying for a day—let alone a lifetime (though I enjoyed not hearing when any chefs yelled at me!) I can lip-read very well. When cooking I use more vision, tasting and alertness with minimal communication.
Who most inspired you to overcome those challenges?
My parents inspired me to always focus on what I could do, not what I could not do. When I was growing up they always insisted that I was mainstreamed in regular classes.
Who were your favorite culinary role models and why?
Alex Purroy, my former boss who owned Doce Lunas in Kenwood, because he was very helpful and showed he had so much passion in his cooking. I also worked for David Paul Johnson, founder of Lahaina Grill in Lahaina, Maui—a tough chef who taught me how to overcome problems without any help by learning from my mistakes and from fellow workers.
How do you communicate with your team in a busy working kitchen? Are any of your staff members also hearing-impaired?
None of my staff is hearing-impaired. Most of my fellow workers have been with me for a while. At first we had difficulties with communication, but as we got to know each other more we were able to understand each other better and better. They just needed to get used to my deaf accent!
How do you best describe Darren’s Restaurant?
The restaurant is an elegant and friendly neighborhood gathering place. We serve California cuisine with a flair of both the Mediterranean and Pacific Rim. I love the taste and flavor of Asian ingredients because they are newer and more exciting than the classical ingredients. We also serve a lot of fruits and vegetables—mainly from local farms.
What creatively inspires you?
I fly to Thailand every year to visit my wife’s family. One of her relatives lives in Northern Thailand. He owns his own restaurant and has taught me several interesting recipes. I also learn from going to many other local restaurants and farmers markets. Their street foods are incredible.
What would you like to share about your life and your family in the South Bay?
I am blessed with a wonderful family. My wife, Sawalin, is also deaf. Our son, Noah, is 7 years old and is hearing. He is the love and motivation of my life. He is a terrific ice hockey player and excels in school. Most importantly he is a nice and kind kid. He is also bilingual, as he communicates with his mother only through sign language.
What is your message to someone who is also hearing-impaired and aspires to be a chef?
Focus, focus, focus! Pride, pride, pride! Every year I host a full day for deaf students from Europe to show them that deafness does not have to be an obstacle to not only being a world-class chef but also an entrepreneur. I also put on classes for local young deaf kids on the basics of cooking.