Portland Wine Week Chef Feature: Chef Ilma Lopez of Ugly Duckling & Chaval
Meet Chef Ilma Lopez, two-time James Beard nominee for Best Pastry Chef (national), Head Chef of Ugly Duckling, and co-owner of Chaval with her husband, Chef Damian Sansonetti. She is our final local chef highlighted in the Portland Wine Week 2023 Chef Feature sponsored by Buoy Local. Ilma is the picture of hard work paying off. Born in Venezuela, she and her family struggled with food insecurity at a young age; so growing up, she developed a determination and grit to take care of her family. Her mother was instrumental in showing Ilma the love and support needed to make her believe that her dreams were possible. After cooking school in Venezuela, and working in many restaurants, she moved to Washington to continue her training in the culinary arts and discovered a love for making pastries. Ilma then moved to New York where she worked under revered Chefs, Daniel Boulud and Olivier Muller. From New York, she traveled to work in Spain, then went east to Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand, among other places before finally settling down and having kids in Maine. In Portland, she helped to open and run Chaval, Piccolo, and eventually her own spot, Ugly Duckling. She is one truly of the most impressive chefs and people in Portland, and after sitting down and hearing her story, it's easy to see why.
Chef Lopez grew up with three siblings. In Venezuela, her mother and father labored intensely to provide for her family. Her mother is one of their biggest influences in life. Ilma recalls some hard days where there wasn't enough food to feed their entirely family, so her mother would ensure that Ilma and her siblings were fed first. Chef Lopez attributes everything the she has become to her parents. When it came time to pursue higher education, her parents pushed her to attend college so she could make something of herself in her country. She went to college per her parent’s request but never stopped working in restaurants. She would leave school and go directly to working in the kitchen. While her parents continued to encourage her towards the college path, they promised that if she dedicated herself to both an education and cooking for a full year, they would allow her to pursue her culinary dreams. Ilma did just that. She kept up with her studies while working long hours in the kitchen. When that year came to an end, her parents finally gave her their blessing to attend culinary school. When she graduated, she moved to working in a bistro. After a few years doing that and learning all she could, it was time for her to move to the states.
When we Chef Ilma asked what her favorite thing about cooking was, she replied, “It’s the look on people’s faces when they see the food. That’s what I like.” With all the love and effort she puts into her dishes, it’s impossible not to rejoice when one of her thoughtful masterpieces is placed in front of you. We highly recommend visiting both Chaval and Ugly Duckling in the West End if you get the chance. Chef Ilma is most excited for “Spanish Sunday’s” at Chaval, where they’ll focus in on hispanic, savory dishes. At the moment, Chaval is utilizing a lot of jamón, or Spanish ham, in their weekly menu. Sunday’s are an opportunity to experiment with the ham leftovers such as working with the bones to make ice cream or the fat to make caramel. At Ugly Duckling, she’s excited for everyone to experience her trocadéros. Named after the famous Paris neighborhood, trocadéros are a custard filled, fluffy brioche. Ugly Duckling will have new, daily flavors of trocadéros on rotation. With an assortment of delectable options and Chef Ilma at the helm, this spot will surely become a staple luncheonette of the Portland food scene.
portland Wine Week Events:
(SOLD OUT) ‘Susucaru’ Magnum Dinner — Piccolo Style (6/15)
Lopez De Heredia, Including Reserva Vintage Library Wines (6/17)
(SOLD OUT) Occhipinti (6/18)
portland Wine Week Events:
(SOLD OUT) Chateauneuf-Du-Pape With Domaine Du Pegau (6/16)
(SOLD OUT) Fabulous Champagne Brunch (6/17)
Fabulous Champagne Brunch (6/18)
“It’s the look on people’s face when they see the food. That’s what I like.”