Chef Creates Impact Beyond the Kitchen Bret Thompson

Bret ThompsonBret Thompson was working at Billy’s Meat, Seafood and Deli in San Clemente, California, when Véronique, a deli client whose son was a chef, recognized a similar passion and flair for cooking in him. Intrigued by Thompson’s talent, she posed a life-changing question: Have you ever considered attending culinary school to become a professional chef?

At 19, he was directionless, with no clear vision for his future, but her words struck a chord. Inspired, he hopped on his Suzuki GSX-R750 motorcycle and made a solo 445-mile journey up the California coast to attend a seminar at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, the same school her son had attended.

After that seminar, Thompson decided to become a chef and has never looked back. Today, in his early 50s, Executive Chef Bret Thompson has been crafting and launching restaurants globally for more 25 years.

His latest venture, Pez Coastal Kitchen, opened in January in Old Pasadena, featuring seafood and seasonal California cuisine. Alongside his wife, Lucy Thompson-Ramirez, he also co-owns the Downtown Los Angeles Mexican restaurant Pez Cantina.

When asked what it takes to open a restaurant, Thompson replied, “Grit. You have to be able to handle the pressure. I’m a cook at heart. That’s what I do. I could never imagine opening a restaurant if I wasn’t a chef.”

Thompson’s vast experience in the restaurant industry stems from his career with The Patina Group, which he joined shortly after finishing culinary school. He quickly rose to become their Corporate Executive Chef, traveling the globe to launch new restaurants.

By age 28, he lived in San Sebastian, Spain, a resort town on the Bay of Biscay in Spain’s mountainous Basque Country. With no immediate family ties, he was eagerly preparing to start a stage (pronounced stahj), or internship, at Arzak restaurant, where he would apprentice under the legendary three-star Michelin Chef Juan Mari Arzak. However, a sudden call from his boss, Patina Group Founder Chef Joachim Splichal, altered his path.

“You’re going to Beirut to open a restaurant for one of my investors,” Splichal said.

Thompson knew this would be a challenging assignment. But when he arrived in Beirut, it was unlike any city he had ever been to before or since.

“Tanks, soldiers, at 5 o’clock the mosque starts chanting,” Thompson said. “It was just such a different world for me. And it was so exciting… I loved it and I just gravitated to it so quickly.”

Downtown Beirut lay in ruins, still recovering from the scars of the civil war that ended five years earlier. The political landscape was volatile, and corruption was rampant. Thankfully, Thompson’s grit, love of cooking, street smarts and meeting his future business partner, Nayla Audi, helped him navigate this challenging assignment.

“I opened a restaurant for her and I trained a bunch of Lebanese boys to do American and French food,” Thompson said. “In turn, they taught me their Lebanese cuisine. I’m a pretty good Lebanese cook nowadays.”

However, over the coming years, the nonstop grind of opening restaurants took a toll on him. After 10 years of relentless dedication, he left Patina Group in 2006.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for Patina,” Thompson said. “But it was very intense and a lot of the European chef’s mentality of just grinding, grinding, grinding. I got grinded to a pulp.”

In 2007, Thompson’s career took an entrepreneurial turn when he and Audi partnered to open the hugely popular MILK Ice Cream Parlor and Bakeshop in West LA. Although MILK closed its doors in 2022, it remains a cherished chapter in his culinary journey.

Desiring to gain more agency over his career, Thompson and his wife, Lucy Ramirez-Thompson, whom he married in 2002, opened Pez Cantina in 2015. Their collaborative effort has made waves in the hospitality world, culminating in the recent opening of Pez Coastal Kitchen. This experience, however, felt more manageable than his previous ventures.

“The number one thing that comes to my head is it’s okay,” Thompson said. “I’ve been here, I’ve done this, I’m still alive and life’s getting better. And it always works out.”

Thompson developed this positive outlook over time. Since turning 50, he has thought more about his legacy and how he can help people. As a family, the Thompsons are active members of their Pasadena church and generous community volunteers. Their two sons, Levi, 17, and Luke, 14, are acolytes.

Thompson’s mentor, Adventist Health White Memorial Charitable Foundation board member Raul Salinas, recently approached him about joining the board of directors. Wanting to learn more about Adventist Health White Memorial, Thompson agreed to a tour. He envisioned his impact in addressing food insecurity and the educational resources he could provide on proper diet and nutrition. Seeing the Healthcare Workforce Development Program and its dedicated staff in action also resonated deeply with Thompson.

Thompson trusted his gut reaction and joined the board in March.

As a young chef traveling the world to open restaurants and hone his craft, Thompson’s primary focus was professional ambition. Today, he embraces a more balanced lifestyle, driven by love for his family and community. Although he occasionally has to grit his way through a tough day in the kitchen, his love of cooking has never been stronger, adding to his excitement about the future of Pez Coastal Kitchen.

And as an Adventist Health White Memorial Charitable Foundation board member, Thompson is equally enthusiastic to pass on the life lessons he’s learned to the next generation.

“This is definitely a positive change in my life,” Thompson said. “I hope to also make some positive changes in other people’s lives.”

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We hope Bret Thompson’s story inspired you and we invite you to join us in making a difference. Whether you’re interested in volunteering, contributing or simply learning more about our initiatives at Adventist Health White Memorial, your involvement can have a profound impact. Visit our contact page here to find out how you can help create positive change and provide essential support to those on their health journey.

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