Diatribe with Dave: 10 Years at Santora with Chef Diego Velasco

Diatribe with Dave: 10 Years at Santora with Chef Diego Velasco

Every second and fourth Wednesday night of the month, legendary bartender/chef/restaurant insider Dave Mau hosts Dinner with Dave at Memphis at the Santora, where he treats drinkers to a free meal and live music as the evening progresses. To remind ustedes of this great night, Dave treats us every Wednesday morning that he's on to a random OC food or drink musing of his choice. Enjoy!

Food. Community. Culture.

With those three words, Memphis defined a one-of-a-kind creature here in OC. Talk is cheap and a lot of restauranteurs pay lip service to this sentiment, using it as a marketing tool or vehicle to get a conditional use permit modified in their favor by the city. Not the case here. Memphis lives, breathes and walks every letter of those words and there are no agendas. With a solid, dedicated client base and a staff that is almost pathologically dedicated to the institution, it's the model as far as I'm concerned. Couple that with a solid product, standout locations and an adaptive approach to the industry and you have some real magic going on.

Velasco: El Jefe
Velasco: El Jefe
Photo by Dave Mau

DJ Danny Love of The Bristol Sessions chimed in on this for me: "Memphis has always been as much about community as it is about food, consistently supporting the music and art scene in Orange County by hosting local bands, DJs and art shows. It gave the 'alternative' or 'indie' crowd a place to hang out and call home. The 'Costa Mesa 500' was the name given to the crowd of loyal Memphis devotees and trendsetters who regularly hung out and made Memphis their own. That tradition continues today with the next generation of hipsters making both Memphis locations the centers of their scene."

Memphis did something that had never been done before in OC. They created the first truly hip restaurant and pioneered the now commonplace transition from restaurant to cool late-night dance spot. Not that it hadn't been done before but, prior to the Memphis fellas doing it, it just hadn't been done right. Regarding SanTana, Gypsy Den put the key in the doorknob to unlock the Artists' Village, Memphis turned it, peeked in then The Crosby followed behind and kicked the door right motherfuckin' open.

Full disclosure: I've been hanging out at Memphis for 17 years, working there on and off for 11 and don't plan on changing either of those situations any time soon. Also, chef-owner Diego Velasco and I have fed literally thousands upon thousands of people (and drank literally thousands upon thousands of beers) together over the years, providing grub for Anthem Magazine's epic but now defunct Coachella parties, the Orange International Street Fair and a slew of private events.

But that's not why I'm doing this little sit down with him for this week's piece. Today marks the six-year anniversary of Dinner with Dave, and Saturday is the ten-year anny of Memphis at the Santora. Fresh off some great Best Of nods from us here at the Weekly, a menu revamp at the Costa Mesa location, a roll out of the Sunday night family dinner and interior redo at Santora, Diego is absolutely on fire and at the top of his game. Here's his take on the restaurant biz and some personal observations:

About customer service. Is the customer always right?

I would say yes, in most cases. Our philosophy is to turn customers into regulars by exceeding their expectations. We accomplish that in two ways: first and foremost, by maintaining our food quality, service standards and friendly atmosphere. The second way we do that is to find ways to accommodate and anticipate customers' needs and requests. In any business, the word NO is something most customers do not want to hear and when heard often, will not continue to support those businesses. Of course, humans can often take things to the extreme and tend to err on the side of ridiculous, entitled and even selfish.

Happy medium between profit and quality?

When you love what you do, you're willing to sacrifice profit for quality but that only lasts so long. Startups are like that. You invest time, energy and sacrifice on food/labor costs to put your best foot forward... You market, you advertise, you spend on PR. Hopefully you make it, word of mouth begins to work in your advantage. Ultimately, you are able to maintain quality and become profitable. Let's face it, I love what I do, most people in this industry do. They're full of passion, want to learn and like me, enjoy coming to work everyday. But a business is a business and we're not just doing it for our health.

Subway or Togo's? Neither?

In a jam, Subway, it's mostly for my daughters. However, it does seem like Togo's has better bread...? Hmmm... And Subway's chicken doesn't even resemble something that had a former life. What am I doing to my kids? The madness has got to stop.

Least productive quality a chef can have

I would say the lack of organizational skills. I have worked with chefs under me who are great talents, creative and know their way around the kitchen but when it came to organizing their thoughts, prep schedules and even their team they just couldn't get it done. I like to think there is still a hierarchy in the professional kitchen... a brigade if you will. The chef must lead, be organized, direct and delegate. Without a plan, that chain of command begins to unravel. I mean, I'm all for spontaneity in the creative process but the plan beyond that must be well charted for success. I am very methodical in my creative process in anticipation of how I am going to execute.

Best time cooking?

Nothing against you, Dave, and our glorious times at Street Fair, Coachella and the likes, those are close second and third... but, I would have to say it is a tie between opening Memphis Cafe and Memphis at the Santora. The feeling of pride and accomplishment when the kinks are worked out, your restaurant is full, you have settled in to your new crew and they are up and running, trained and the room is full of sated customers, nodding in approval. There is an amazing energy and volume and at that moment, you can be in the weeds, sweating, exhausted and you still can't help but look up, laugh out loud, smile then put your head back down and cook.

Balance between presentation and it being too much:

Let's face it: we've come a long way. The grass roots, simple is better environment that we have seen post recession is amazing. Serving food in a paper boat, food trucks, hot dog carts, pop-ups. They are all doing great food, simply. There of course are still fine dining spots but presentations are more minimal. No more towering food of the '90s or spun sugar apparatuses floating 12 inches off your dessert plate. I suppose there's a place for that and molecular cuisine, etc. but I am not a fan of whimsy as it pertains to food. Also, I hope, one of my biggest pet peeves is all but dead... serving seafood cocktails in martini glasses! When you have the right ingredients (and farmers' markets are great inspiration for this, of course) you can do an amazing job wowing with color, texture and cooking technique alone, hold the bells and whistles.

Ten Year Plan, and not the one you tell everyone else:

Ten years might be too soon, but in about 15 years, I would say the plan would be to move to Northern California. My family and I spend a lot of time in and around the Bay Area, a place we never get tired of and one that I deeply miss since graduating at the California Culinary Academy in 1994 just before opening Memphis Cafe. We have a dream to open a small restaurant in semi-retirement with Arie running the front and me in the back, either in the city or in wine country somewhere. Nothing big, under 2k square feet but something special. A place for family and friends--old and new.

No bull, best fellow chef in the OC:

I'm not sure about the best. There is a lot of new talent out there today which fluctuates and tends to make that decision hard to pinpoint, however, Florent Marneau of Marché Modern is one of my go-tos but here is someone I am really impressed with right now... I just had the pleasure to stumble upon Daniel Hyatt at Juliette Kitchen. I remember him from his days at Nesai, a restaurant owned by my friend Shima's mother. Wow, his cooking has matured. I really enjoyed everything my wife and I shared. Really focused and fresh, great flavor combinations, risky and fun but made sense. You get the feeling that his experience and travels are really playing into a cuisine he can have fun with as well as enjoy manipulating and putting onto the plate, casserole dish, mini Staub braiser, paella pan or whatever the case may be.

Closed restaurant you miss:

Since this is a local rag, I would have to say La Brasserie, which was on Main Street at Almond: old school French/Continental cuisine. I only dined there once but it was the perfect spot for date night with the missus. The owner was a jolly Frenchman from Lille, a city in the north of France which my wife and I have had the pleasure of visiting. He would greet you, float around from table to table, sip his wine--classic. We would usually just cozy up to the dark, swank bar, order a bottle of Champagne and nosh on escargot, duck pâté and smoked salmon with proper garnishes and toast points. Bummer...

Simple, embarrassing meal you like best:

I wish I could find something embarrassing about it... My wife's simple chicken & rice. She takes bone in, split chicken breast and puts them in a zip lock to marinate with sliced garlic, soy sauce, lemon juice and Lawry's. She pan roasts them till caramelized, serves them over rice and adds the pan drippings and crispy garlic. Usually a simple salad is served with a vinaigrette along side. She's really come up with her cooking. The chicken is done just right. Maybe embarrassing because she's doing it better than me.

Gentrification of DTSA? How do you feel about it?

Santa Ana is a city with a rich history of ups and downs. There have been many 'golden eras' so to speak, as well as some lows. I think that improving a district that lies in the county seat so that it can become again what it has been in the past is important but also, realizing an unlimited future potential is phenomenal. The downtown is on the verge of realizing its greatness again. Memphis at the Santora has been downtown for over 10 years now. We have seen a slow rebirth in those 10 years, which has recently picked up steam. That can only be good, not only for the city and its residents, but for the good of our county and State. There's dignity in that.


El Jefe with his favorite slinger
El Jefe with his favorite slinger
Photo by Dave Mau

Tonight is going to be great, and on Saturday Johnny Sampson and I will be manning the main bar and the talented Jeffrey Van Billiard will be slinging drinks as well. Both nights will feature lots of music from friends, old and new. Come down for either or both.

While swimming through a sea of martinis and floozies at The Bristol Sessions many years ago, a common occurrence was to hoist a round and proclaim, "God bless Dan Bradley!" for starting the whole Memphis thing. Well, as I write this, I am hoisting a tasty Manhattan and proclaiming "God bless Diego Velasco!" for a fine follow through.

Want more of Dave's rantings/ravings/ramblings? Check out www.dinnerwithdave.com for the latest!


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