Heart Matters: An Irvine Company Designs a Heart Valve that Saves a World War II Veteran

Two Southern California gentlemen born decades apart. One is Michael A. Mussallem, Chairman of the Board and CEO of one of Irvine’s largest companies, Edwards Lifesciences. The other is Dr. Lester I. Tenney, a World War II veteran, survivor of the infamous Bataan Death March and former prisoner of war of the Japanese military. Their paths would cross seven years ago when Lester was told that he had only one year to live.

Michael A. Mussallem (Photo courtesy of Edwards Lifesciences) and Dr. Lester Tenney
Michael A. Mussallem (Photo courtesy of Edwards Lifesciences) and Dr. Lester Tenney

Edwards Lifesciences in Irvine

Edwards Lifesciences (NYSE: EW) is a medical technology company headquartered in Irvine specializing in heart valves and monitoring devices for the circulatory system. Edwards takes its namesake from engineer Miles “Lowell” Edwards who became interested in healing the human heart due to his own childhood experience with rheumatic fever which can cause scaring of heart valves and heart failure. 1)http://www.edwards.com/aboutus/OurHistory

We have the privilege on a regular basis to meet many remarkable patients whose lives have been saved and improved as a result of their treatment with one of our therapies, and it is our single greatest motivation and inspiration at Edwards. – Mike Mussallem, CEO of Edwards Lifesciences

He teamed up with Dr. Albert Starr and developed the first known successful mechanical heart valve ever implanted into a human patient. Edwards founded Edwards Laboratories in Santa Ana, California. Following restructuring, Edwards Lifesciences spun off and became an independent and publicly traded company in 2000. Today, one of the company’s most notable technological innovations is their transcatheter aortic heart valve.  2)http://www.edwards.com/aboutus/OurHistory

Lester Tenney, a WWII Veteran Receives Edwards’ Transcatheter Aortic Heart Valve

During World War II, Lester served in the US Army in the 192nd Tank Battalion. In the spring of 1942, following what would be one of the largest surrenders in US military history; Lester was captured in the Philippines by the Japanese Imperial Army. He was forced to walk the Bataan Death March and put to work as a slave laborer until he was liberated in 1945.

Lester Tenney in Fort Knox in June of 1941 (Photo courtesy of Lester Tenney)
Lester Tenney in Fort Knox in June of 1941 (Photo courtesy of Lester Tenney)

In his 1995 memoir, My Hitch in Hell, Lester recounts his harrowing story of surviving the Bataan Death March and then being sent to Japan to work as a slave laborer for a Mitsui coal mine. More recently, he wrote The Courage to Remember, a book on how he was able to overcome his post traumatic stress syndrome from his wartime experiences. In his book, he says that he found peace by letting go of bitterness and hatred. He concludes that the act of forgiving others was a gift he gave to himself. “Because of forgiveness, I am a prisoner no more.” wrote Lester.

In 2009, decades after his liberation, Lester was invited to lead a delegation of former POWs to Japan to receive a long-awaited apology from the Japanese government for the inhumane treatment they suffered during World War II. But at 90 years old, Lester’s health was failing.

Lester’s cardiologist told him that he needed a new aortic heart valve but because of his age, he was not a candidate for invasive open heart surgery. He was told if they did nothing, he would have maybe one year to live. Unable to accept this prognosis, Lester began researching less invasive treatment options.

I feel my life was saved by entering the Heart Valve Trial of Edwards Lifesciences. I was very lucky to have found them when I did. Thank you Edwards for these seven extra years. – Lester Tenney

“I believe strongly that we must be in charge of our own body. We can’t go through life giving that responsibility to someone else just because he or she is a medical doctor. We must be a part of the team that takes care of us. In fact, we are the most important piece of this puzzle.” says Lester.

He found out that Scripps, a hospital near his home in San Diego, was conducting a new clinical trial of the Edwards transcatheter aortic heart valve replacement (“TAVR”) treatment. Using this method, a patient is able to receive a new heart valve via a catheter instead of by open heart surgery. In the spring of 2010, Lester became a member of the clinical trial and received an Edwards heart valve. Today, the TAVR treatment has become a widely available option for patients needing an aortic heart valve replacement.

Just months after this life saving procedure, Lester traveled to Japan and received an official apology from then Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada. Looking back, Lester says “I picked up seven years that I never would have had.”

Patient and Innovation Focused Culture at Edwards

What does it take for a company to achieve breakthrough therapies for patients such as the TAVR? CEO Mike Mussallem says you have to accept the very real risk of failure on the path to success.

You once said, “I think if you really want to be an innovator in this world, you need to have the willingness to reach and the willingness to fail.” How has this philosophy helped Edwards reach for new breakthroughs in medical technology?

Mike: The recognition that we need to reach and be willing to fail comes from our patient- and innovation-focused culture at Edwards. We became an independent company 16 years ago because we wanted to be able to innovate more quickly and effectively for patients, and invest more resources in research and development.

Edwards Lifesciences headquarters in Irvine, California(Photo courtesy of Edwards Lifesciences)
Edwards Lifesciences headquarters in Irvine, California (Photo courtesy of Edwards Lifesciences)

Whenever we do bold things and pursue truly breakthrough therapies for patients, the opportunity for failure is real and we need to be able to tolerate failure. Only in failure can we learn and find the answers to the big healthcare challenges that we pursue.  We embrace a “shots on goal” mentality as we innovate, which means that we’re going to have some misses on our way to success. We know that when we keep our focus on patients, and partner with clinicians to address the unmet needs of their patients, we will drive meaningful change together.

Setting aside the medical technology aspect of Edwards for a moment, when people think about the word “heart,” it’s a very symbolic word. Expressions like “heart’s content,” “heart and soul” and “young at heart” come to mind. What does this mean to you and to Edwards to specialize in healing the human heart?

Mike: Our work at Edwards is personal. We have the opportunity to touch the lives of individuals all over the world with the work that we do. This means that people like Lester have the chance to fulfill a lifelong goal.

Lester speaks at Edwards headquarters in Irvine on Patient Day in 2015 (Photo courtesy of Edwards Lifesciences)
Lester speaks at Edwards headquarters in Irvine on Patient Day in 2015 (Photo courtesy of Edwards Lifesciences)

It is an honor and a great responsibility to create, hand-assemble and provide heart valves to people all around the world to save and sustain lives. We spend every day looking for answers to how we can better treat patients with heart valve disease and address unmet patient needs. Our 13,000 global employees are focused on patients first, and we come to work every day knowing that helping patients is our life’s work, and life is now.

It was Edwards’ transcatheter aortic heart valve technology that enabled Lester to travel to Japan to receive a long-awaited apology. You once said, “[o]ur work is personal, and it impacts people individually.” To ask the opposite question, how do patients like Lester impact you in a personal way?

Mike: Lester is an amazing person and an inspiration to me personally, and to many at Edwards. I’ve had the honor to spend time with Lester and his wife, Betty, and it is a privilege to know them. This is a man who persevered in conditions that few people ever face, and even fewer could survive. Lester had incomparable mental and physical strength – yet decades later, he found his life threatened by a heart valve disease that could be solved by new technology, if he could get access to it.

Mike visits Lester at his home (Photo courtesy of Edwards Lifesciences)
Mike visits Lester at his home (Photo courtesy of Edwards Lifesciences)

It’s humbling to know that our transcatheter aortic heart valve was able to restore his health, and enable him to travel to Japan to receive an apology for WWII veterans for the tragedies they suffered during the war.

 We have the privilege on a regular basis to meet many remarkable patients whose lives have been saved and improved as a result of their treatment with one of our therapies, and it is our single greatest motivation and inspiration at Edwards. I have photos of many of these individuals on my shelf in my office, and we have many more lining the halls of our offices at Edwards, to remind us all daily of the reason for the work we are doing.

Lester and his wife, Betty
Lester and his wife, Betty

“I feel my life was saved by entering the Heart Valve Trial of Edwards Lifesciences. I was very lucky to have found them when I did. Thank you Edwards for these seven extra years.” says Lester, a member of our greatest generation.

Editor’s note: Lester passed away on February 24, 2017 in Carlsbad, California at the age of 96.  Read his obituary on the NY Times here.

To learn more about Edwards Lifesciences, visit: www.edwards.com

Connect with Edwards on social media: Twitter | LinkedIn | YouTube

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References   [ + ]

1, 2. http://www.edwards.com/aboutus/OurHistory
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As I Live and Breathe: The Non Toxic Movement in Irvine and Beyond

This topic isn’t as polarizing as the choice between Clinton vs. Trump but you’ll find plenty of heated discussions between complete strangers if you search the internets. The most vocal commenters generally fall into one of two categories: 1) those who say things like, “Relax, everything can be toxic… so what? Stop with all the scare tactics.” or on the other end of the spectrum, 2) those who say things like, “The government and the chemical companies are all evil, you can’t trust anyone.” That said, let’s talk about pesticides.

Roundup Weed & Grass KillerWhere would you categorize yourself? I find myself somewhere in the middle. Maybe you do too. I buy organic produce for the “dirty dozen” and I use “green” cleaning products in my home. I’d like to think that I take reasonable measures to reduce my exposure to harmful chemicals wherever I can. I suspect this third category of relatively quiet middle-of-the-roaders, of which I have been a longtime member, is perhaps the largest group of people. So if you’re like me and at least curious about how the City of Irvine decided to stop the use of toxic pesticides, read on.

Pediatric Cancer in Irvine

September was Childhood Cancer Awareness month. Laurie Thompson, an Irvine resident and Non Toxic Irvine board member has a six year old daughter who is a cancer survivor. She says her daughter feels embarrassed that she had cancer and she doesn’t want to feel different from other children.

City maintained Bill Barber Park
City maintained Bill Barber Park

When asked what drove her to push for the ban of toxic pesticides in Irvine, Laurie said, “The effects of childhood cancer are not always visible but they are there. They never go away.  It causes me great pain to know that my sweet, spunky, tiny girl feels ashamed of her cancer journey. Cancer has already taken so much from our family and from so many others. I never expected it to cause my daughter embarrassment. The desire to protect my children and all of the children of our community from the effects of toxic pesticides is a major driving factor for me.

What is a “pesticide” anyway? Some Basic Definitions

basic-pesticide-definitionsPesticides and Children

Pesticides are products that are designed to kill or harm living organisms, whether they are weeds, insects, rodents or small animals, making them inherently toxic.1)http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/130/6/e1757

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “prenatal and early childhood exposure to pesticides is associated with pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function and behavioral problems.” Due to children’s unique vulnerability to their toxicity, the AAP recommends reducing children’s exposure to pesticides.2)https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/pages/AAP-Makes-Recommendations-to-Reduce-Children’s-Exposure-to-Pesticides.aspx?nfstatus=401&nftoken=00000000-0000-0000-0000-000000000000&nfstatusdescription=ERROR%3a+No+local+token

City Council of Irvine Votes Unanimously to Move to Organic Pesticides at the Urging of Non Toxic Irvine

The Irvine group Non Toxic Irvine (“NTI”) spearheaded a movement to make Irvine as free from toxic pesticides as possible. On February 23rd of this year, NTI, joined by several other Irvine residents and scientific experts, spoke at a City Council meeting to request that the City amend its policy on pesticide use due to health risks associated with exposure to toxic pesticides.  The City Council unanimously voted to amend the City’s Integrated Pest Management (“IPM”) policy.

Irvine’s IPM was amended to use pesticides in the following order: 1) organic pesticides, 2) Water Quality Act Allowed Pesticides, and 3) EPA Level III “caution” labeled pesticides only when deemed necessary to protect public health and economic impact by a licensed pest control adviser. Organic pesticides are to be used in all City properties and exposure to any pesticides where children and general public congregate would be limited.3)City Council Regular Meeting Minutes, February 23, 2016 at 4pm, City Council Chamber, One Civic Center Plaza, Irvine, California 92606.

Although governments can be notorious for stagnation, that was not the case here. Members of NTI say that working with the City has been a very positive experience. “Soon after our online petition launched, we were asked to meet with Mayor Steven Choi and Councilwoman Christina Shea. They agreed to add us to their meeting agenda on February 23.” said Kim Konte another board member of NTI.

Christina Shea was the Council Member who put NTI’s request on the agenda.  “Our non toxic pesticide organic program is one of the first to be implemented in the State of California. I am a cancer survivor and I am acutely aware of the damaging effects of toxic chemicals in our lives and the environment.” said Council Member Shea. “Our non toxic organic program will be effective in eradicating weeds and pest infestations within our green belts, parks and open space, but not cause undue harm to our wildlife, family pets and our small and vulnerable children. It was my pleasure to bring forward this proposal with our Non Toxic Irvine parent partners.”

Of course, bringing about major change is rarely easy. When asked if they’ve encountered opposition, Ayn Craciun, a board member of NTI said, “Yes, of course. I like to think it’s mostly inertia—people who are used to doing things the way they’ve always done them and can’t see another way. Some people are afraid organic landscaping will cost more, but when you tell them it will actually cost less in the long run, they are more interested.”

Ayn Craciun, NTI Board Member at City maintained Northwood Community Park with daughter Nina (not pictured)
Ayn Craciun, NTI board member at City maintained Northwood Community Park with daughter Nina (not pictured)

Ayn became interested in working on this issue after experiencing a series of unexplained miscarriages. She began looking for answers and found numerous studies linking pesticide exposure to fetal death. “I want my kids to know that when something is wrong, you do your best to fix it. I want them to remember that I tried to do that.” said Ayn.

What began as isolated efforts by individuals in Irvine within their own communities or schools, became NTI in early 2015 when they banded together to successfully lobby the Irvine Unified School District to stop using Roundup, a commonly used pesticide, at schools. Soon after, NTI turned its focus to the City of Irvine. Thanks to NTI’s efforts, IUSD has adopted fully organic landscaping methods.

Private Properties within Irvine

Legally, the City’s decision only covers properties managed by the City and cannot extend to private properties such as property managed by home owners associations.

The following is a current list of approved chemicals for a community here in Irvine.

Current List of Approved Chemicals for a Community in Irvine

“Irvine has 230+ HOAs, and all but maybe 8 are still using a conventional pesticide regimen. We are trying to help people who reach out to us make changes in their communities by providing a toolkit – template letter, meeting comments, factsheet, and other support. It is a lot of work, but it’s very rewarding when we hear that a community is making a change in the right direction.” says Ayn.

Evaluating the Risk of Pesticide Exposure

Perhaps one major reason NTI has had success is because they do not use alarmist fearmongerer tactics. Instead, the group relies on data and science to spread awareness. One of their scientific advisers is Dr. Bruce Blumberg, a Professor of Developmental and Cell Biology and Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences at UC Irvine.

Dr. Bruce Blumberg
NTI adviser Dr. Bruce Blumberg, a Professor of Developmental and Cell Biology and Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences at UC Irvine.

Last year, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (“IARC”) an arm of the World Health Organization (“WHO”) classified the chemical glyphosate, as a probable carcinogen in humans. Glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in the United States.4)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glyphosate The chemical has already been proven to cause cancer in animals.5)http://fortune.com/2015/04/15/roundup-monsanto-cancer-link-hard-to-prove/ “The major challenge with showing that a chemical causes cancer in humans [as opposed to animals] is that the cancer typically develops many years after exposure.” said Dr. Blumberg.

One of the most commonly used brand of herbicides that uses glyphosate as its active ingredient is Roundup, a product of the multinational agrochemical company, Monsanto.6)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monsanto#Current_products Roundup is an approved chemical in the list above.

“Timing [can make] effects permanent. That’s why it’s so important we protect children, women who are pregnant or may become pregnant.” Dr. Bruce Blumberg

Should the Public Wait for the Final Word on Glyphosate from Federal and State Agencies?

The US Environmental Protection Agency’s stance on glyphosate has been unclear at best. In 1985, the EPA classified glyphosate as possibly carcinogenic to humans.7)https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=4&ved=0ahUKEwiupqrHwOjPAhUGPiYKHQ1LCmYQFggyMAM&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.epa.gov%2Fsites%2Fproduction%2Ffiles%2F2016-09%2Fdocuments%2Fglyphosate_issue_paper_evaluation_of_carcincogenic_potential.pdf&usg=AFQjCNEIz48cO2sYFNdEyc_Vr0gnjxF9jA&sig2=us9Uv7Cbdzx49zE6NF3ZOA&cad=rja Then in October of last year, the EPA published a report stating it was not a carcinogen.8)https://morningconsult.com/alert/epa-paper-glyphosate-not-likely-carcinogenic/ This month, to evaluate whether glyphosate is carcinogenic or not, the EPA was slated to hold public meetings with expert panelists. Just four days before the meetings were to take place on October 18th, the EPA announced that it would postpone the meeting following lobbying efforts by the agrichemical industry to cancel the meeting all together or at a minimum, to remove panelists who has ever spoken publicly on whether glyphosate is a carcinogen. No date has been set to reschedule the meeting.9)http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carey-gillam/epa-bows-to-chemical-indu_b_12563438.html

At our state level, the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) issued a statement one year ago of its intent to list glyphosate as a chemical known to cause cancer under Proposition 65.10)http://oehha.ca.gov/proposition-65/crnr/notice-intent-list-tetrachlorvinphos-parathion-malathion-glyphosate In response, Monsanto (the manufacturer of Roundup) filed a lawsuit in Fresno this year, (Monsanto Company v. Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, et al, case number 16-CECG-00183) asking for the court to stop the OEHHA from listing glyphosate as a carcinogen and to declare the proposed listing of glyphosate as a carcinogen as unconstitutional. Numerous parties have joined the case and the next motion on calendar set for early December is a motion to dismiss filed by the OEHHA.

Roundup's Active and Inert Ingredients List
Roundup’s Active and Inert Ingredients List

But the potential harm to humans is not limited to cancer. In 1991, a group of scientists at the Wingspread Conference concluded that compounds introduced into the environment by human activity are capable of disrupting the endocrine system of animals … and humans.11)https://cfpub.epa.gov/si/si_public_record_report.cfm?dirEntryId=187223

Today, these chemical compounds are known as endocrine disruptor chemicals (“EDCs”) and they include chemicals such as bisphenol-A (“BPA”) and polychlorinated biphenyls (“PCBs”). EDCs can commonly be found in things we encounter every day including food, cosmetics, food containers and pesticides.12)https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/endocrine/

“These EDCs are chemicals with similar chemical properties to natural hormones, allowing them to interfere with the normal function of the endocrine system.” said Dr. Blumberg. Also significant is the timing of one’s exposure to EDCs. “Timing [can make] effects permanent. That’s why it’s so important we protect children, women who are pregnant or may become pregnant.” added Dr. Blumberg.

But back to those who might say “everything can kill us, so what?” Well, it’s partially true; we encounter things that are harmful to us on a daily basis. Some carcinogens, we may accept as having more benefits than risks and voluntarily expose ourselves to, such as alcohol or the sun’s UV rays.13)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcohol_and_cancer Other chemicals, if enough people speak out, may be banned. One such example is the history of bisphenol-A (“BPA”), an estrogen mimicking chemical that has been used in plastics since the 1960s. Although the Food and Drug Administration declared BPA as safe in 2008, after repeated reports of negative health effects, they instituted a ban of BPA in 2012.14)http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/18/science/fda-bans-bpa-from-baby-bottles-and-sippy-cups.html?_r=0

As of today, there remains disagreement and much controversy on the issue of whether glyphosate is harmful to humans. Today, we know there is sufficient evidence that it causes cancer in animals.15)http://fortune.com/2015/04/15/roundup-monsanto-cancer-link-hard-to-prove/ Is it a stretch that what can cause cancer in animals could also cause cancer in humans? No, says Dr. Blumberg. “It is true that there are some instances where a chemical will have one effect in humans and another effect in animals but those are the exceptions, not the rule.” says Dr. Blumberg.

The question we should ask ourselves is should we wait for the final word that glyphosate or other pesticides are a carcinogen or EDC? Or should we err on the side of caution and take action now?

“Why risk exposing young people to a chemical that is a probable human carcinogen? There is a benefit and a risk with any decision you make in life. You have to accept that you might make the wrong decision. Which way do you want to be wrong?” asked Dr. Blumberg “With respect to EDCs and carcinogens, it is obviously prudent to reduce exposure to suspect chemicals. This is what we call a ‘no brainer’ unless you are the person who stands to benefit from the sales or use of the chemical in question.”

PROS

  • Reduce exposure to a chemical “probably” carcinogenic to humans
  • Reduce exposure to EDCs
  • Long term likely benefit of improved health, lower incidence of disease and lower health care expenditures
  • Cost savings with increased soil health, reduced water use and reduced cost of chemicals

CONS

  • Possible decrease in aesthetics
  • Manufacturer of chemicals/pesticides may suffer lower sales or may need to offer an alternative formulation
  • Landscaping companies may need to adopt new practices

What’s Next for the Non Toxic Irvine Movement

Even though they’ve already brought about significant change in Irvine, NTI says they have only just begun their work.

Adam Chavez, owner of Adam’s Falconry Service displays hawk trained to control scavenging birds such as seagulls and crows
Adam Chavez, owner of Adam’s Falconry Service displays falcon trained to control scavenging birds such as seagulls and crows

NTI is still working with the Irvine Unified School District on their Pesticide Management Policy and four of NTI’s board members serve on IUSD’s Pest Management Task Force. They have also met with The Irvine Company and are hopeful that they too will follow the City of Irvine’s lead. Most recently, the large community of Woodbridge, home to some 30,000 residents confirmed that they are working with the City to develop a pest management plan that is consistent with the City’s. NTI’s efforts are being recognized at the national level and like minded people in other cities are starting their own non toxic movements.

Of her efforts to make Irvine non toxic, Kim Konte’s 11 year old son said, “Mom, I had no idea such a small group of people could make such a big change.” “To know that we could have fewer families go through what Laurie and her family has makes every second, every meeting, every moment working on Non Toxic worth it.” said Kim.

If you’re interested in finding out what chemicals are being used in your neighborhood, contact your HOA and ask them to provide a list like the one above. For more information on how to work with your homeowner’s association (or cities outside of Irvine) to stop the use of toxic pesticides please contact NTI.

Want to send Non Toxic Irvine your thanks or have a question for them?

Connect with Non Toxic Irvine: Facebook | Instagram

info@nontoxicirvine.org | www.nontoxicirvine.org

References   [ + ]

1. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/130/6/e1757
2. https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/pages/AAP-Makes-Recommendations-to-Reduce-Children’s-Exposure-to-Pesticides.aspx?nfstatus=401&nftoken=00000000-0000-0000-0000-000000000000&nfstatusdescription=ERROR%3a+No+local+token
3. City Council Regular Meeting Minutes, February 23, 2016 at 4pm, City Council Chamber, One Civic Center Plaza, Irvine, California 92606.
4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glyphosate
5, 15. http://fortune.com/2015/04/15/roundup-monsanto-cancer-link-hard-to-prove/
6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monsanto#Current_products
7. https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=4&ved=0ahUKEwiupqrHwOjPAhUGPiYKHQ1LCmYQFggyMAM&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.epa.gov%2Fsites%2Fproduction%2Ffiles%2F2016-09%2Fdocuments%2Fglyphosate_issue_paper_evaluation_of_carcincogenic_potential.pdf&usg=AFQjCNEIz48cO2sYFNdEyc_Vr0gnjxF9jA&sig2=us9Uv7Cbdzx49zE6NF3ZOA&cad=rja
8. https://morningconsult.com/alert/epa-paper-glyphosate-not-likely-carcinogenic/
9. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carey-gillam/epa-bows-to-chemical-indu_b_12563438.html
10. http://oehha.ca.gov/proposition-65/crnr/notice-intent-list-tetrachlorvinphos-parathion-malathion-glyphosate
11. https://cfpub.epa.gov/si/si_public_record_report.cfm?dirEntryId=187223
12. https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/endocrine/
13. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcohol_and_cancer
14. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/18/science/fda-bans-bpa-from-baby-bottles-and-sippy-cups.html?_r=0
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CUCINA enoteca: An Irvine Favorite for Rustic Italian Food with a California Twist

If you’re in the mood for California inspired Italian food, CUCINA enoteca is a must-try restaurant in Irvine. CUCINA enoteca is part of the Urban Kitchen Group collection of restaurants located throughout Southern California.  Under the leadership of owner and principal, Tracy Borkum, Urban Kitchen Group boasts five locations in the Orange County and San Diego metros.

CUCINA enoteca in Irvine
CUCINA enoteca in Irvine

Tracy Borkum’s Vision for the Urban Kitchen Group Collection of Restaurants

After multiple successful restaurant ventures in San Diego, Tracy’s first entry into the Orange County restaurant scene was with CUCINA enoteca at the Irvine Spectrum.  For this location, Tracy wanted a restaurant name that would encompass an integral part of their concept: wine. The name CUCINA enoteca loosely translates to kitchen + wine repository. As you enter the restaurant, you’re greeted with CUCINA’s impressive retail wine shop that features over 200 specialty labels from European to Americas with an emphasis on Italian and Californian varietals.

Retail wine section at the CUCINA enoteca entrance
Retail wine section at the CUCINA enoteca entrance

[I knew] I would be solely responsible for not only my achievements but also my failures. – Owner, Tracy Borkum

Urban Kitchen Group’s mission statement is: “to successfully craft the perfect dining ‘trifecta’: exceptional food and superior service in an imaginatively designed environment.” As you dine at CUCINA enoteca, you can’t help but notice that in every corner, with each dish and in all aspects of the restaurant there is so much personality. From the bohemian-chic fixtures to the presentation of the dishes (you can get roasted garlic burrata in a mini mason jar), it’s all very CUCINA enoteca. 

Founder and prinicpal, Tracy Borkum (Photo courtesy of UKG)
Founder and prinicpal, Tracy Borkum (Photo courtesy of UKG)

In taking the leap to go into the restaurant business, Tracy drew inspiration from her parents who were also both entrepreneurs. “[I knew] I would be solely responsible for not only my achievements but also my failures.”1)http://www.sandiegometro.com/2011/03/women-owned-business-owners-are-driven-by-an-entrepreneurial-spirit/ Since its opening in December of 2011, CUCINA enoteca has become an Orange County favorite for “Cal-Ital” cuisine. So much so that in 2014, Urban Kitchen Group opened a second Orange County location at Fashion Island in Newport Beach.

Honey roasted eggplant and herb goat cheese pizza
Honey roasted eggplant and herb goat cheese pizza

The Urban Kitchen Group’s mission statement “to successfully craft the perfect dining ‘trifecta’: exceptional food and superior service in an imaginatively designed environment.”

How did you come up with the idea of combining a restaurant with a wine shop?

Tracy: The restaurant-to-retail component was crafted throughout initial discussions of what the ‘look and feel’ of the space would offer. From furniture to lighting to candles and soap, everything is available for purchase. An obvious extension of the restaurant-to-retail concept was further carried out through the retail wine shop. Every bottle on the menu is also available for purchase to take home and enjoy.

CUCINA enoteca main dining area
CUCINA enoteca main dining area (Photo courtesy of UKG)

Why is the first word all capitalized? 

Tracy: When developing CUCINA, it was always our goal to expand the concept to multiple markets. The capitalization of the word ‘CUCINA’ fits in our brand of growing CUCINA concepts (CUCINA enoteca Irvine, CUCINA enoteca Del Mar, CUCINA enoteca Newport Beach), each with its own special identity. CUCINA is the trademark stamp that ties it all together. The most recent concept, cucina SORELLA, follows a different styling due to the “little sister” translation. cucina SORELLA is a spin-off on the other CUCINA concepts, offering a smaller more intimate setting which is fitting for its name.

If it’s no calories, it’s no fun! – Chef de Cuisine, Tony Trujillo.

 The CUCINA family of restaurants has several locations, what makes the Irvine Spectrum location special?

Tracy: CUCINA enoteca Irvine holds a special place in the CUCINA family as it was the first expansion of the CUCINA brand in the Orange County market as well as the first location that we were able to build from the ground up. It was also our first venture into a retail setting, a model that we have carried through our other locations and fits perfectly with our restaurant-to-retail concept.

CUCINA enoteca patio dining area
CUCINA enoteca patio dining area (Photo courtesy of UKG)

CUCINA has a way with Italian food, whether it’s their Italian comfort-food lasagna or “blistering leopard spots intended” rustic pizza. CUCINA manages to deliver authentic Italian while adding a fresh Californian twist.

Lasagna al Forno
Lasagna al Forno (Photo courtesy of UKG)

What is the inspiration for the California inspired Italian cuisine that one can enjoy at CUCINA enoteca?

Tracy: Combining the freshness of local California produce with the tradition of delicious Italian cooking, continues to be the inspiration behind CUCINA enoteca and all CUCINA concepts. Fresh, local fare leads our inspiration and allows us to create inventive twists on classic staples – there’s always something new to discover. 

Chef de Cuisine Tony Trujillo

Tony Trujillo is CUCINA enoteca’s in Irvine’s Chef de Cuisine.  If you’re in the mood for some seafood, feast your eyes on this beautiful Faroe Island salmon that Chef Tony Trujillo was preparing during our visit! “If it’s no calories, it’s no fun!” joked Chef Trujillo.

Chef de Cuisine of CUCINA enoteca, Tony Trujillo
Chef de Cuisine of CUCINA enoteca, Tony Trujillo

Strolling through the Irvine Spectrum, you’ll find CUCINA enoteca front and center in the Edwards Courtyard across from the Edwards movie theaters. True to Socal (and Irvine) form, the restaurant has a laidback and approachable vibe without any sacrifice in quality for their full-of-Italian-goodness food.  Have we mentioned desserts?! Their airy nutella zeppole is the perfect way to end your meal on a balmy Southern California night. Cheers!

CUCINA enoteca at the Irvine Spectrum
CUCINA enoteca at the Irvine Spectrum

CUCINA enoteca
Irvine Spectrum
532 Spectrum Center Drive
Irvine, CA 92618
949.861.2222

Connect with CUCINA restaurants: Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

References   [ + ]

1. http://www.sandiegometro.com/2011/03/women-owned-business-owners-are-driven-by-an-entrepreneurial-spirit/
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Bistango: A Restaurant That Grew Alongside Irvine

You could say he’s something of an original. And so is his restaurant: Bistango in Irvine. John Ghoukassian is the owner of Bistango Restaurant which will celebrate its 30 year anniversary next year. This is quite a feat considering Irvine itself was only formally incorporated 45 years ago.1)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irvine,_California Here is the behind the scenes story of a restaurant that truly grew alongside the City of Irvine and its owner, whose story will take you half way around the world and then back to Irvine.

PHOTO: Bistango owner John Ghoukassian
PHOTO: Bistango owner John Ghoukassian

John’s First Restaurant Venture and his Narrow Escape from Tehran

Born and raised in Tehran, Iran, John dropped out of college to work for his father who was a restaurateur. Then, as a young man in his late 20s, John opened his own restaurant also in Tehran. He named it the Chattanooga!2)http://www.ocregister.com/articles/restaurant-510794-john-very.html What an impression such a name must have made on the customers in Tehran in the 1960s.

I believe in setting the trends rather than following the trend. Being a very patient person, it has paid off to persevere throughout all these years. – Owner, John Ghoukassian

Even at a young age, John was not one to follow the crowd and his restaurant was one of just a few Western-style restaurants in Tehran at that time. It became a success, seating almost 300 people. But as the Islamic Revolution began intensifying, running a Western-style restaurant in Tehran became extremely risky. When he couldn’t ensure that all the female patrons in the restaurant were covering their faces, he received threats for failing to enforcing Islamic law.3)http://www.ocregister.com/articles/restaurant-510794-john-very.html

The American name of his restaurant may have been some foreshadowing as he would eventually find his way to the United States. When it became too dangerous to stay in Tehran, he narrowly escaped to France where he was granted a visa and reunited with his family. Almost a year later in 1983, he received a visa for the United States.4)http://www.ocregister.com/articles/restaurant-510794-john-very.html

The last three decades have been comprised of many “colorful” years, turning points, ups and downs, hardships and successes. – John Ghoukassian

Soon after his arrival to the United States, he and two business partners took a bold move and opened a restaurant called Bistango in Beverly Hills’ famed Restaurant Row. The restaurant became a success almost immediately and although the partnership dissolved, John opened a second Bistango location, this time a bit south of LA in a young new city named: Irvine. 5)http://www.ocregister.com/articles/restaurant-510794-john-very.html

Bistango Finds its Home in Irvine

It was 1987 and Irvine was nothing like the bustling city that it is today. John leased restaurant space in the business district near John Wayne Airport, where Bistango still remains today. No one thought his restaurant would succeed in the business district.

Well, surely there are more farfetched stories, like a successful restaurant in Tehran named the Chattanooga. So despite the naysayers, John kept a quiet confidence about his restaurant.

PHOTO: Rack of lamb and scallops dishes
PHOTO: Rack of lamb and scallops dishes (Photo courtesy of Bistango Restaurant)

From the start, he made Bistango unique. Bistango offered live music, artwork on the walls and of course, great food. He admits the early years were tough but as Irvine grew, so did his business.

Many people did not think Bistango would be a success when this restaurant first opened in Irvine. But you proved those people wrong and Bistango has experienced much success. To what do you attribute yours and Bistango’s success?  

John: During the last three decades, there were many occasions I could have easily given up when the road got bumpy, but instead of giving up, I adjusted and adapted. You always need to constantly re-evaluate your business and be able to evolve in order to stay ahead. This requires creativity, self-assurance and a vision of where you want the business to go so you don’t become outdated.  

I believe in setting the trends rather than following the trend. Being a very patient person, it has paid off to persevere throughout all these years. With the help of a great team to execute my vision and direction, we have been able to beat the odds.

Speaking of having a great team, Timothy Doolittle, who has spent the last nine years worked alongside the likes of Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse is Bistango’s Executive Chef. 6)http://bistango.com/executive_chef.html

Bistango is known for “New American” cuisine, what types of cuisine do you draw inspiration from to create a dining experience unique to Bistango?

Timothy: Bistango has a long history that offers me a leg up on creating dishes that our guests will embrace. I am lucky enough to have the input of our longtime General Manager, Ray Saniiand and  owner John Ghoukassian to help me navigate our menu progression.  While I draw my inspiration from many global regions including Europe and Asia, our dishes always have a California touch.

PHOTO: Bistango Executive Chef Tim Doolittle
PHOTO: Bistango Executive Chef Timothy Doolittle (Photo courtesy of Bistango Restaurant)

Finding success in a competitive field, Timothy had this advice for anyone wanting to become a chef.

Timothy: Be realistic about your expectations. The hours are demanding. Holidays are not what they used to be. Failure is far more likely than success. But it can be totally rewarding and worth the tremendous sacrifice. Anything worthwhile is not easy.

While most anyone can grill a filet mignon, it requires far more skill to prepare a cassoulet or short ribs and they are far more satisfying for me, whether I am cooking or eating. Anything worthwhile is not easy. – Executive Chef Timothy Doolittle

What are your signature dishes or favorite ingredients to cook with?

Timothy: Typically I get the most enjoyment from preparing things that take a lot of time like veal stock, sauces, confit, BBQ, roasted or braised meats.  I gain great satisfaction from taking something humble and making it great. Interestingly, what were once considered peasant foods oftentimes demand special attention, base knowledge and experience to get right.  While most anyone can grill a filet mignon, it requires far more skill to prepare a cassoulet or short ribs and they are far more satisfying for me, whether I am cooking or eating.

PHOTO: Chef Doolittle prepares Roasted Ruby Beets salad
PHOTO: Chef Doolittle prepares Roasted Ruby Beets salad (Photo courtesy of Bistango Restaurant)

Bistango has called Irvine its home for almost 30 years. How has it been, watching the restaurant grow as Irvine has grown?

John: The last three decades have been comprised of many “colorful” years, turning points, ups and downs, hardships and successes. As Irvine has grown, we have learned to adjust, adapt and listen to our customers’ needs and the rest becomes second nature.

When asked what he enjoys, John answers with a smile, “Good food, good music and good art!” Visit Bistango to experience its New American cuisine, live music and art. We hope you enjoy dining there especially after getting to know owner John Ghoukassian and Executive Chef Timothy Doolittle a little better.

Bistango Restaurant
19100 Von Karman Avenue
Irvine, California 92612
949.752.5222
info@bistango.com
www.bistango.com

Zagat Review.

Connect with Bistango on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

References   [ + ]

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irvine,_California
2, 3, 4, 5. http://www.ocregister.com/articles/restaurant-510794-john-very.html
6. http://bistango.com/executive_chef.html
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