Young chef brings Guam flavors to Southern cooking

Growing up, Sam Reyes was unsure what she wanted to do after finishing school

Chef Sam Reyes in the Hunt Club dining room. (Joshua Fitzwater/Southside Daily)
Chef Sam Reyes in the Hunt Room dining room. (Joshua Fitzwater/Southside Daily)

VIRGINIA BEACH — Hampton Roads is an area where perhaps most restaurant chefs are men, and of the executive and sous chefs that are women, there is an even smaller number who are young.

In this region, typically most women in the culinary arena own and/or work at catering companies versus being a restaurant chef.

However, 28-year-old Sam Reyes, sous chef at the Hunt Room in Virginia Beach, is poised to make her mark; from the commitment to using the best ingredients possible to the inclusion of the flavors from her native Guam, Reyes is determined to creatively challenge taste buds by pairing her homeland with Southern dishes.

“I’ve been researching Southern traditional cooking and try to incorporate my culture into what I cook but it’s still Southern inspired dishes,” Reyes said.

The weekly specials highlight the flavors of Guam; duck confit empanadas and a venison hand pie with a mango curry aioli are just two examples of the unique blend of cultures.

Put quite simply, “I cook what I crave and what I miss,” she said.

Growing up, Reyes was unsure what she wanted to do after finishing school.

“I had no idea what I wanted to do…I almost didn’t graduate high school, but then I took a culinary class as an elective, and that was the beginning of my career and I didn’t even know it,” Reyes said.

Sam Reyes expediting food in the Hunt Club kitchen. (Joshua Fitzwater/Southside Daily)
Sam Reyes expediting food in the Hunt Room kitchen. (Joshua Fitzwater/Southside Daily)

Shortly after high school she began an apprenticeship with Hilton Hotels, and worked there for six years.

“The biggest thing I struggled with in Guam was my age,” she said. “There were a lot of older cooks, and I was really young, so I had a lot of issues there but we were able to overcome those obstacles.”

Being a woman in a field that is heavily prevalent with men doesn’t bother her; “it’s been normal for me. It’s not something I think about,” she said.

Instead, Reyes constantly thinks about what kind of fresh elements to include in her dishes.

Sam Reyes cooking in the Hunt Club kitchen. (Joshua Fitzwater/Southside Daily)
Sam Reyes cooking in the Hunt Room kitchen. (Joshua Fitzwater/Southside Daily)

“Product is very important to me; I believe that if you start off cooking with great ingredients, then the end result is going to be great,” Reyes said. “I’d rather spend the extra $2 or $3 more to make the guest experience 10 times better.”

The food at the Hunt Room reflects this philosophy, and she describes the food as, “very seasonal; we’re changing the menu in the fall, and I’m trying to incorporate fruit into cocktails at the bar.”

Using her culinary creativity, Reyes is looking forward to putting her stamp on future menus.

“When I have a light bulb, I have to make something, and I have creative control in The Hunt Room,” she said. “I’ve always had a creative mindset, and now I’m able to explore that. Our corporate chef supports me through anything and it’s awesome.”

Additionally, Reyes works closely with Tarnished Truth Distillery, which is located a few steps away, to make sure her dishes pair well with the craft spirits.

Chef Sam Reyes plating food in the Hunt Club kitchen. (Joshua Fitzwater/Southside Daily)
Chef Sam Reyes plating food in the Hunt Room kitchen. (Joshua Fitzwater/Southside Daily)

“We have a Tarnished Truth steak sauce, which is sort of like A-1 Sauce, and the Ava vodka sauce that goes on shrimp, which is our No. 1 seller,” she said.

Looking toward the future, Reyes said, “I’ve been thinking about teaching because I was an apprentice and I want to give back.“

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John Mangalonzo (john@localvoicemedia.com) is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.