Some of the Greatest Chefs in the World are found in Orange County, California.
What is your first food memory?
Eating lobster tacos in Baja California, rice, beans, handmade tortillas and watching lobster men basically giving the spiny lobsters away. From then on, when we would go out to dinner back at home, I’d get asked “what do you want to eat”, expecting to hear McDonalds or something reasonable for a 5-year-old kid... instead, I’d say, “I want lobster!”.
Did you grow up in a cooking family?
I did. My mom was single for a good part of our upbringing so while she worked, I was in the care of my grandmother. She was a homemaker and I grew up in her kitchen. Some of my fondest memories were of preparing traditional Mexican dishes for Ash Wednesday/Lent including lentils, nopales and tortas de camaron, and other holidays, such as Christmas (Tamales) and New Year’s Day (Menudo).
Who has influenced your cooking the most?
Well, besides my grandmother, I would have to say several members of a Southern Rock band known as The Rebels. I had the pleasure of living with them in a trailer in my late teens for about a year when they were out touring in Southern California. They were all from in and around New Orleans, LA. Being around them day in and day out really showed me what food was like in the South and in one of America’s great food capitals. That forged my path to pursue Regional and Southern American Cooking later on in Culinary School.
Why did you become a chef?
I realized that the world of finance and going to school for my MBA was not in the cards for me. Having grown up in the kitchen and taking notice of the LA food scene in the mid and late 80’s, I realized I could pursue a career following my passion. I left Cal State Fullerton and a job at a small financial planning firm and got a job with the first kitchen that would take me, Nordstrom Café in the Brea Mall.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I guess growing up I didn’t realize that food and cooking was a viable option for a career so I had always been influenced by my family to pursue the world of finance since I had high level math and computer science skills. I wanted to be an accountant or stock broker.
If I weren’t a chef, I’d be:
Most likely, I would be in the fashion business. My Mom, Uncle and Grandfather were all in the garment industry in some way, shape or form. I actually started working Summer’s during high school at my Grandfather’s pleating and novelty stitching shop in the Garment District, Downtown LA working on samples and fabrics for anything from designer fashion houses, to LA Laker Girl Uniforms to movie costumes for Star Trek. I think I would find myself in this industry because it too is creative, artistic and dynamic.
Who are your favorite chefs?
I have a lot of admiration for Female Chefs such as Gabrielle Hamilton and April Bloomfield. I appreciate their approach and sensibility towards food, ingredients and flavors. I would also have to say the late Anthony Bourdain, Thomas Keller, and Dan Barber. Chefs that have a more cerebral approach to cooking, the kitchen environment and a Chef’s lifestyle.
Which seasonings don’t you respect?
I suppose anything that is not made with integrity or overused. People, including myself, hate on truffle oil, but it can be useful, in small quantities, if it is not overbearing and comes from a great producer who hasn’t cut corners or uses inferior product or methods. And when I say overused, I mean both, using too much in a dish or using it just cause everybody else is, kind of jumping on the bandwagon just to use tag words to try to make your menu sound more interesting than it really is.
Which spices are underrated?
Fresh tarragon doesn’t seem to be the most popular, but I find it very versatile using it in mignonettes for oysters, folded into lobster salad for lobster rolls, and also great with chicken and lighter meats. And in the same realm, I’m also very fond of fennel seed for flavoring beurre blanc, hollandaise, and excellent with fatty meats like pork shoulder or belly (Porchetta) and duck.
Are there any culinary trends you like right now?
I’m not a big trend guy but I think the discovery in the recent past of American heirloom ingredients such as Carolina Gold Rice, Antebellum Grits, Benne and the such has been super exciting for me. Chefs are bringing American heritage and culture to the forefront and being that I have followed Regional American Cuisine for so long, I find it refreshing and important.
Any trends you consider overrated?
All trends are overrated by definition. That’s why they’re trends. I generally gravitate towards the things that stand the test of time and try to be creative with those. However, more specifically, I think the ‘gastropub’ is overrated. And poutine. And food trucks. And...
What do you think is the next worthwhile food/dining trend?
I think as popular as artisanal products have grown and have trended up, from the myriad of micro brews, small batch/production spirits and the such, we are going to find continued growth into other segments especially regarding seafood (backyard trout/tilapia farms, etc.). Hydroponic farms, hybrids of vegetables and fruits, manipulation of live proteins on a natural and holistic level, area specific product lines and hyper local influence on ingredients being ‘bred’ for chefs and restaurateurs alike. But this won’t just be for the high end, fine dining establishments but for the masses. Fine dining will also be more approachable and affordable so that it is not just for special occasions.
What food is your guilty pleasure? Ice Cream.
Is there a food you can’t bring yourself to eat?
No, honestly, not that I can think of.
Your favorite quick meal to prepare at home?
Roasted Chicken... Other than the cook time, it is really simple to prep and get in the oven. My daughters love it and leftovers go in their lunch the next day.
Your worst kitchen nightmare?
Cutting my hand in a food mixer making King Cake for a Mardi Gras event at our former Memphis at the Santora location. I needed 22 stitches, but my buddy picked me up from the ER, took me to a pastry shop to improvise and the show went on. It was a highly publicized event with press, DJs a set menu and all. I managed to do photo ops with my hand behind my back because my bandage was the size of a boxing glove.
Best cooking tip for a novice?
Learn proper knife skills and keep your knives very sharp. Practice daily. Also, be organized clean and efficient. Mise en Place... and Taste, Taste, Taste.
What’s your last meal on earth?
It’s a toss-up. Depends how I’m going out I guess... It’d either be In-n-Out (double double with onions, fries, chocolate shake) or a seafood tower with lobster, oysters, crab, scallop ceviche in the shell, and live sea urchin.
Give us one reason why Orange County’s food scene rocks.
There is a lot of talent out there that has increasingly become recognized on a national scale. I think we have such a bounty being in Southern California and Orange County in particular is so well diverse in terms of ethnic contribution to the scene. It is also such a beautiful place to live that customers are discerning and potential talent is attracted to the area and the companies thriving here.
What’s your favorite type of music to listen to when cooking?
At home, I like listening to French music... Puts me in the mood. I am such a Francophile and old school French Café music sets the scene in my mind and pays homage to the founders of Modern Cuisine and Technique. At work, there is more of a time issue so faster and harder... Classic Rock or 90’s Grunge.
If you could cook for anyone who would it be?
I would have to say Anthony Bourdain, because I never got the chance to meet him. His tragic departure left a huge void. I would have loved to pick his brain, get his feedback and here is comedic but open honesty. And if I could cook for him, it means we could have found some way to bring him back.
What’s the strangest request you’ve ever had from a customer?
Too many years and too many odd requests to think of as being the strangest. Only relying on recent memory, I would have to say when someone ordered our Chilaquiles (smoked chicken, new mexico green chile sauce, pinto beans, queso fresco, blue & white corn tortilla chips, cilantro & poached eggs) with chicken on the side. I mean, I understand if you want no chicken because you are going the vegetarian route, but it was odd to plate the dish up with a side of shredded, smoked chicken just sitting alongside it.
What’s the best part about being a chef?
Making a living doing what you love. Bringing creativity to the workplace. That everyday can be an opportunity for something different, or not. Serving others, feeding others and comforting others.
What’s the most challenging part of being a chef?
Balancing family life and work life of course. We all know the demands of the industry and of Exec.Chefs/Owners such as working nights, weekends, holidays, etc. Sacrificing family time for work, employees and positive customer experiences. However, I have to force myself to find balance as I am a single father. It is a blessing that I am also the Owner and our longevity (23.5 years) has afforded myself and my business partner some flexibility to spend more time with our families.
Anything you’d like to share with the readers?
I don’t just cook and run businesses. In my spare time I enjoy music, I play drums, I am learning guitar, have been on a lifelong quest to teach myself French, I am a huge crossword puzzle freak (NY & LA Times), and enjoy most outdoor activities including camping, fishing, horseback riding, gardening, kayaking, etc. and some indoor activities like working out, yoga, and boxing. And I love being in the kitchen at home cooking for and passing my knowledge onto my two daughters.
Just for fun, what is your favorite color? Grey
Chef Diego Velasco
Restaurant: Memphis Cafe | Restaurant Website