Winds of Change: Chef Andrew Vaughan’s Journey from Hurricane Katrina to Terranea Resort in Palos Verdes

With a passion for food rooted in the gardens of his New Orleans childhood, Andrew Vaughan—chef de cuisine at Terranea’s mar’sel—found his way to Los Angeles in the wake of Hurricane Katrina via a one-way emergency airline ticket.

Written by Diane E. Barber  |  Photographed by Stephan Cooper

Chef Andrew Vaughan began learning to cook at a very young age in his native Louisiana. “When I was about 7 years old I started to spend a lot of time in the kitchen with my mom and my Cajun grandmother,” he shares. “My grandmother lived close by, and she cooked for us several times a week while she and my mom enjoyed catching up.”

His deep appreciation for gardening and the fruits of the earth was also born during those formative years. “My grandmother had massive gardens, and my younger sister and I had many wonderful adventures in them. It was a time of great excitement for us to play in the vegetables and find scary bugs,” he adds with a smile.

Though he was just a bright-eyed observer in his grandmother’s kitchen, Andrew eventually became a hands-on helper at home with his mother, who prepared typical American dishes. He fondly recalls bonding time with her while cleaning onions and shrimp and making spaghetti sauce.

Special family memories were also made during his father’s rare stints in the kitchen. “Dad cooked if Mom was out of town, which was only a handful of times. It was fun because we never knew what he was going to do,” he remembers. “He was creative and always tried things out of his comfort zone. And whatever ended up on the floor, our dog was standing by to lick it clean.”

When he was not in school, mowing lawns or doing homework as a teenager, Andrew was in the family kitchen or watching cooking shows. “I actually realized my profession through TV. Mom always watched cooking shows on PBS, and the chefs on The Galloping Gourmet, Great Chefs of New Orleans and MasterChef were like superheroes to me!”

In high school Andrew became interested in art. “During school I thought I wanted to be an artist,” he says. “But when I graduated I wasn’t certain. Because I did not know for sure what I wanted to do, I told my parents I would not allow them to pay for college. I have always been a practical realist.”

His father later found a newspaper ad for a culinary program at Sowela Technical College in New Orleans that was $75 per semester. Andrew enrolled in the 18-month program.

“At the tech school, my class ran the school cafeteria where we prepared 200 to 300 lunches daily. I made salads at the beginning, asked a lot of questions and caught on quickly,” the chef says. “After three months, my teacher said, ‘We need to do something with you!’ She shared a Culinary Institute of America textbook with me and made a call to a chef who needed a cook, which put me on the slingshot that became my career path.”

Chef Andrew received school credits working at Chateau Nouveau, a small classic French restaurant in the outskirts of New Orleans, which was formerly owned by one of America’s first master chefs, Fernando Oca. Andrew started out preparing vegetables and appetizers, but after three months he became sous chef at only 20 years old.

Yet after graduating, he yearned for more. “I felt like I was on the outside looking in and wanted to work in the city. The chef was supportive, though he warned about the partying lifestyle of New Orleans. All I cared about was learning.”

With his diploma and restaurant experience in tow, he ventured into New Orleans with his sights set on working at Mike’s on the Avenue. “Michael Fennelly was an artist who also became a chef. His restaurant was one of the first fusion restaurants in New Orleans—an eclectic blend of creole Louisiana with Asian and Southwest influences.”

Andrew landed a job preparing salads and in a short time was crafting sushi, making fresh pastas and became the lead line cook. After one year his insatiable, hungry mind motivated him to enroll in a two-year course at the Culinary Institute of America in New York City in 1998.

“I did not have any money or anywhere to stay, but I was able to get financial aid and a student loan. I had a pick of restaurants to work in while I was a student and chose Restaurant Daniel, which was the best restaurant in New York at the time,” he says. “During my second year, I was able go anywhere in the U.S. for an internship. I chose Madison, Wisconsin. Not only did I have a place to stay with a friend there, I also wanted to work with a female chef and learn to utilize local produce and assist with creating seasonal menus. I went to work for Odessa Piper (the Alice Waters of the Midwest) at L’Etoile, which greatly influenced my career. She was a superstar, and I was able to shine and grow with her.”

At the end of the six-month internship, Chef Andrew returned to New York to finish school while working at Restaurant Daniel at night. The cost of housing eventually forced him out of his apartment and the city. He called his old friend Chef Michael Ruoss in New Orleans.

“Not long after our conversation I left New York, and Michael picked me up at the train station in New Orleans,” he says. “Michael was a sous chef at Mike’s on the Avenue where we first met, and we ended up working together for celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse upon my return. That is when everything came together. I was a sous chef and got to use my creativity in a high-profile kitchen with high standards. I was not a partier, though I was surrounded by the tough conditions of New Orleans: gambling, drugs and partying. That is when I realized that if I could make it in New Orleans, then I could make it anywhere.”

After three years Chef Andrew was at another crossroads, and his all-too-familiar yearning for a new life chapter returned. He left Emeril’s in 2005. “I wanted something different, but I didn’t know what. I loved coffee, so I went to work in a coffee shop. I figured I could still learn something while I collected my thoughts. I remember thinking that if I didn’t leave New Orleans, God was going to push me out.”

And pushed out he was. Chef Andrew was in the process of moving into a new house and applying for a job at a luxury hotel when the Hurricane Katrina warning came. “I decided to stay. Luckily I was living in a big old house where it was easy for me to sit through the hurricane with just a leaky roof.”

The next day he walked for two hours through streets blocked by fallen trees to go to work at the coffee shop. On his way, a man called to him, “Be careful. The water is coming!”

Andrew arrived at the shop to find it evacuated. By the time he walked back home, he was waste-high in water in sweltering August humidity. After spending a day and a half on the second floor of the house, he heard the loud motors of swamp boats that were evacuating people.

“I filled a backpack with essentials, and a boat took me to a bus shuttle to the convention center,” he remembers. “I arrived in the dark, and I slept on the floor. As it got later, it got louder and louder with more people arriving. It was chaotic with looting, turf wars and everyone in survival mode. I was lucky. The pay phones were working, and I was able to contact my family. I was told to stay put while they called my uncle who was the commander of the Louisiana State Troopers. The next day a SWAT team arrived in SUVs with dogs and flashing lights, and I was driven out of the city, put in another car and driven to my sister’s house in Baton Rouge where my parents were. My parents wanted me to stay, but New Orleans was home and I couldn’t go back. I needed to figure out what was next for my career, so I got a ride to Houston to a FEMA emergency site to fill out paperwork—where I was offered a one-way ticket to anywhere in the U.S. that I had a place to live.”

Andrew had a friend who lived in Hollywood, so he took a one-way flight to L.A. with $200 he had saved, $500 from Red Cross and a six-month food stamp card. He found a teahouse where he could hang out close to where he was staying. Eventually he took a job there.

He then started working for a production catering company on film and photo shoots. “That job helped me get back into food.”

Through his enduring passion, perseverance and homespun grit, he later navigated the elite restaurant empire of Vegas-based Elizabeth Blau. He was hired as sous chef and helped open Simon L.A. restaurant in the Beverly Hills Sofitel hotel. He ended his seven-year tenure there as chef de cuisine and left the U.S. for the first time to open a restaurant in New Zealand. Andrew returned to Simon L.A. as head chef after one year abroad.

“When I came back, my former Sofitel coworker Michael Fiorelli started to call me,” he says. “He was the executive sous chef of Terranea at the time and the first chef of mar’sel. He invited me for a tour and in 2012 told me about a chef opportunity at Nelson’s.”

Chef Andrew accepted the position at Nelson’s and introduced farmers market ingredients and more sustainably sourced seafood to the menu. “I wanted to help educate our guests about locally grown produce and quality fresh seafood from Pacific waters.”

From Nelson’s he moved on to develop a hands-on creative banquet program. “I assisted with conducting banquet events. I interacted with the customers and was their liaison with the kitchen.” 

In 2014, in collaboration with executive chef Bernard Ibarra, the Chef’s Table Dinner Series was born—a four-course tasting menu with local seasonal ingredients paired with California wines. The event is open to the community.

“I like to tell stories with my food in close collaboration with Chef Ibarra’s vision,” says Chef Andrew. “We came together from different walks and generations with similar views and ideas about receiving nourishment from the land through farming and sustainable practices.”

Exclusive mar’sel Library Wine Dinners evolved from the series, featuring wineries from Napa, farm-to-table fare and guest speakers.

In 2015 Andrew was named chef de cuisine of mar’sel, where he continues to carry a torch for expressing his creativity, steadfast culinary values and education, while celebrating his team and the guests they serve.

“Being at Terranea and in California has transported me as a chef because of what the region has to offer. Mar’sel is a gem of a restaurant in the South Bay where I can constantly be creative with seasonal menus that include a nod to my roots in New Orleans. I like to keep a little structure with the main dishes but change what is presented seasonally with offerings from the off-property Catalina View Gardens and local farmers markets.”

When asked what is on the horizon for this passionate and forward-minded chef, Andrew responds, “I want to continue to be innovative and relevant to the trends while maintaining the culinary foundation that is at the heart of Terranea. This, along with showcasing the talents of our staff, is paramount to what our guests receive on their plates.”