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SMORGASBORD FOOD TOPICS : Key Ingredients : Two restaurants, the Wine Cask and Wheeler Hot Springs, have each added new chefs to their staffs.


A restaurant can have a stunning location, opulent interior and the absolute best of table service. But if the food tastes like a Happy Meal, what good is it?

A number of elements create an exceptional restaurant. But the ingredient that gives luster is the chef. His personality and knowledge of food preparation combine to form menus that entice customers to return again and again.

Two exceptional restaurants have acquired new chefs in the past year. Both men are trained in classic French cooking and have been on staff at well-respected Southern California restaurants.

The Wine Cask and Wheeler Hot Springs are each in restored early California structures. Other similarities include a grand, handcrafted fireplace as the centerpiece of each's main dining area and contemporary art gracing each restaurant's walls. Each has a romantic outdoor dining area complemented by colorful landscaping and babbling water.

In April, Gael Lecolley became chef at Wheeler Hot Springs. A native of France, Lecolley studied culinary arts at Lycee d'Etudes Professionnel in Caen, and with Gaston Lenotre, one of France's top pastry chefs.

Lecolley's first professional appointment was at the Hotel Moderne de Caen and from there, he moved to London's busiest French restaurant, Le Pelican. He later relocated to the southwest region of France and expanded his knowledge of Italian cuisine. While chef at La Dolce Vita in Mimizan, on the southwest coast of France, Lecolley impressed Daniel Forge, owner of Beaurivage in Malibu, and came to California to be chef at Forge's Mediterranean-style restaurant. Most recently, Lecolley was head chef at Santa Monica's Remi.

Lecolley's forte is smoked fish, fowl, meats and cheeses. While in London, he owned a business that prepared smoked gourmet items.

His talent is evident in an entree such as bigoli d'anitra-- whole wheat spaghettini with smoked duck prosciutto, roasted garlic, wild mushrooms in a cream sauce.

The Wine Cask has brought together a winning team that is drawing reviews from national magazines. Since October, Galen Doi has been in charge of the restaurant's kitchen. He and his sous chef, Troy Telitz, migrated from the posh San Ysidro Ranch.

Doi, who worked at the Meridian in Newport Beach before going to San Ysidro Ranch, has put together a distinctive menu.

This month, to celebrate the Chinese New Year, Doi is offering a special menu in addition to the regular one. He will present traditional Chinese entrees such as fried dumplings, roasted spare ribs with Hunan-style cucumbers and hoisin grilled duck.


* Wheeler Hot Springs, 16825 Maricopa Highway, Ojai, 646-8131. Open 5 to 9:30 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays for dinner, and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays for brunch. Parking lot. MasterCard, Visa, American Express. Full bar. Dinner for two, food only, $62 to $90. Brunch $15 per person.

The Wine Cask, 813 Anacapa St., Santa Barbara, 966-9463. Open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays through Fridays for lunch, and 5 to 10 p.m. daily for dinner. Street, public and valet parking. Major credit cards. Beer and wine. Lunch for two, food only, $8 to $23. Dinner for two, food only, $42 to $75.

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