If anyone has the moxie to take over what was once known as a white tablecloth, fine dining establishment and spin it into a casual, down-home hangout, it's probably Esther Abobo. Her grit and determination know no bounds, and, after all, she knows a thing or two about warming hungry bellies with comfort food staples.
From her humble beginnings as a teenage dishwasher more than two decades ago, to her rise as a high-powered chef at glittering Las Vegas casinos like Paris, Monte Carlo, and the Palms, to working for celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse, everything she's learned has brought her to this point: Being her own boss and making her own way.
Since moving into the former Artisan building last year, the hardworking chef-owner has endeavored to make the space her own"to mold it into something Paso Robles sorely needs: a casual, affordable family friendly diner; a place where you can order up a big stack of fluffy buttermilk pancakes in the a.m. or a slab of country fried steak smothered in gravy after a long day.
That doesn't mean that transforming public consciousness has been easy or instantaneous. It can be hard for a newcomer cooking up patty melts and deep-fried mac and cheese ... especially in a wine-centric town that foodies flock to.
Good thing Abobo is not easily deterred. She's been quietly winning over one customer at a time with ample plates of simple, comforting food that sticks to the gills.
"We have regulars that come in and get the same thing every time, and I think it reminds them of coming home to mamma," Abobo said.
"The usual" might be a plate of home fries topped with eggs and cheese or a killer burger with all the fixings. One thing's for sure: It's not fancy.
We recently chatted over a plate of deep fried Twinkies and Oreos splashed with a vibrant berry drizzle. With the California Mid-State Fair coming up, the dish felt like quintessential "country" Paso"before the wineries exploded and everyone started eating kale (note, Nosh does serve up a mean baby kale Caesar salad, but I digress).
I marveled at the lightness of the dish, refreshed by Abobo's freewheeling spirit and her ability to weave hilarious, no-nonsense yarns.
"I've always felt it's about what's inside that counts," Abobo said, pointing to the gooey center.
This could be said about the dish, but it also speaks to how she hires. After so many years in the kitchen, she can see the potential in others before they can see it within themselves. The same goes for the vast menu. At Nosh Delights, approachability is key.
Some people have been known to grumble over just how long the menu is (it spans multiple pages), but Abobo just smiles and gives them a little more time to look it over. She didn't come from a place of overflowing opportunities. Now is her chance to give that abundance to others.
Originally from the Philippines, Abobo's family settled in Las Vegas on the urging of the patriarch of the family.
"My dad said the weather would be the most similar to back home; he was an avid gambler," Abobo said with a smile. "I have nothing against that decision. I really do believe everything happens for a reason."
As a 10-year-old girl living in North Vegas in the late '80s and early '90s, life was rough and breaks were few and far between. A bright kid with a burning will to thrive, Abobo took refuge at after-school programs, basketball practice, and at the Boys and Girls Club. It was there that Abobo met "her reason" for moving to America. He was a massively influential mentor"a charismatic karate teacher named Cedric Pickett.
"He took a few of us kids under his wing, but I like to think I was his favorite," Abobo said. "Unfortunately, he passed away in 2006 and never got to see me open my first restaurant, which he really wanted to see. As a kid, I wanted to be a computer scientist, and then I got into criminal justice. I was also good at basketball, but it wasn't my passion."
Instead of more schooling, Abobo craved freedom"and what 16-year-old doesn't want her own wheels? She worked at McDonald's to pay for her passion.
"I got my 1988 Toyota Corolla with no air conditioning," Abobo recalled with a laugh. "Then, I got a job washing dishes at a fine dining place called the Tillerman, which paid far more. That's where it all started."
Abobo said she initially wanted to make even more dough as a waitress, but she always had a "big mouth." This sass, coupled with a contagious confidence, served her well in the kitchen, a place where only the tough survive.
It would be about a decade later before Abobo received formal schooling from Cordon Bleu School of Culinary arts in Las Vegas, all while working at the MGM Grand serving more than 5,000 rooms and 50 high end suites.
Back then, she was just trying to get her footing.
"Getting kitchen jobs in Vegas was easy back then, and I was lucky enough to get exposed to so many great opportunities out there, bouncing from casino to casino," Abobo said. "When I didn't know what I was doing, I faked it."
The chef said she still remembers the first few days at one new gig in particular. The special of the day was T-bone steak, and she was put on the broiler station.
"I had never cooked a steak in my life, as I had only been doing appetizers and buffet at this point; I mean, I didn't know the difference between rare and well done," Abobo said. "I probably burned about two cases of steak that night and messed up about six orders. Being a woman in this industry, especially in Vegas, people are going to pick on you a bit. After that night, I survived. And I realized that this stuff isn't that hard. So I stuck to it."
That's one way to put it. Abobo's determination has brought her plenty of wins. In 2010, she decided that if she was to eventually own her own restaurant, she needed to learn all aspects of operations. So, she took a job as food server at Aria hotel and Casino"ever watchful of what it took to make customers truly happy.
In late 2013, the chef reached her goal and opened her first restaurant, Divine Eatery, located in the Providence community in Northwest Las Vegas.
It was a proud moment.
And yet, the chef jokes that she "still doesn't know what she wants to do when she grows up." For Abobo, life is about laughter and inclusivity. Maybe that's why she's the mother hen of her kitchen. She likes to say that "mamma always knows." This includes what her kitchen needs and what her dining room truly wants.
"I just want to create true comfort food," Abobo said. "I moved out at 17, and my roommate and I would eat 99-cent Jumbo Jacks and french fries for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. When I'd come home I'd always be hoping my mom was cooking."
If there was soup or spaghetti on the stove, Abobo knew life was all right. Now, her oldest son, 19, comes home from college on breaks with a detailed list of what he wants to eat.
For the chef, there could be no bigger compliment. It's the same comforting feeling she hopes to inspire in her guests, whether they be winemakers, 10-year-old kids, broke teenagers, or traveling salesmen passing through on business.
"My food is all about the excitement of coming home," Abobo said. "I want people to wonder what I'm cooking today"what's happening at mamma's house."
Find out moore about Nosh Delights, including an August. 3 beer and food pairing here.