On the Line: Christopher Meehan Of Bistango, Part One

Water, no ice
Water, no ice
Photo by LP Hastings

A mainstay in Irvine, Bistango has served power lunches and dinners for 28 years. When it was time to find a new chef, they knew the right person would also move them into the future. Cue one Christopher Meehan to secure client favorites and introduce specialty meats.

Tell us about some of the new items diners can find at Bistango. New items you can currently find on the menu are Texas quail with sweet potato succotash, and Duroc pork chop with serrano sauce and apple/jicama/cherry slaw; both of which have become quite popular. Venison rack with pinenuts and gnocchi is new to the game section of the menu, with more to come in that arena very soon. The small plates section is new to the menu, and has found a home among diners here at Bistango, with new items being introduced there on a regular basis.

Favorite meal growing up: Anything that my Grandmother made for me. When I was coming up, she would let me sit and watch her cook. And while she would go from this to that, she would explain to me what she was doing and why. I did eat a great deal of homemade tomato soup, grilled cheese sandwiches, homemade jams, root vegetables, roasts, smoked meats and deviled eggs. Oddly enough, the deviled eggs probably were my favorite because I only got them when my grandmother was feeling generous or on special occasions.

One stereotype about your industry, and whether it's true. That everyone in the restaurant wants to be a chef or a general manager, and will work as hard as they can to achieve that goal, while having the same shared vision for the direction of the food and the restaurant as a whole. Much as this may be true on television, this is not true in day-to-day operations.

Most undervalued ingredient: Rutabaga. This root veg just has such a great flavor profile and can be adapted to many dishes and proteins; I just don't see it attached to many menus.

Where have you enjoyed dining at since you've moved, and is there anywhere you've been wanting to check out? I have been to and had great meals and wonderful experiences at the following restaurants: Marche Moderne, Spago Beverly Hills, Bayside Restaurant in Newport Beach and Andrei's on Main Street. I have a list of places that I want to go to, and I am always looking for the "off the beaten path" spot to go and get something to eat.... I am also on the lookout for some exceptional Thai, and am determined to find it.

Strangest customer request (and did you do it?): When I was in Hawaii, I had a woman that came in every night for a week and was a huge fan of our prime rib. However, she was not a fan of the fat that comes along with it. Her request was to see if I could dissect her 20 ounce cut and remove the fat. Challenge accepted: I proceeded to do so, and return the prime rib to the plate as if it had just been cut-- minus the fat. She was ecstatic, and I was happy to do it. End result: She got what she wanted, and wrote a letter to the hotel commending me for my efforts.

Tell us about your father and his restaurant experience. How did this affect your decision to enter the restaurant industry? My father was a very shrewd businessman, and his restaurant experience consisted of owning and directing restaurants rather than actually working in them and managing them day-to-day.

I did, however, initially work for a friend of my father's that owned some restaurants, and the chefs in that environment sparked my curiosity to enter into the culinary field. I do not attribute my father owning restaurants for the reason to enter the field; the simple fact that he never wanted me to be a chef probably affected me mostly in my decision to enter the restaurant industry. Partly from spite, and partly from the fact that I am creative and he was not.

What is your beverage of choice? My beverage of choice is water, no ice. In addition to that, I like fresh orange juice. And in the realm of adult beverages, I like anything by Paulaner, as well as a big red. Not much for variety here; I do not drink soft drinks or fruit juices. Simply too much sugar for me.

Your best recent food find: My most recent food find has to be the lamb sirloin that I am about to add to the small plates menu. They are coming out of Colorado, and the flavor profile is incredible. The more you eat of it, the more you want to eat it. Beautiful, clean flavor, with a small fat cap on it that gets nice and crispy on the grill (adding to the overall flavor profile and eating enjoyment). I have also just recently begun to work with Kobe beef tallow, which is a great fat flavoring agent that takes things in a new, yummy direction.

Is there anything you'd like to learn how to make? I am a perfectionist, so in regards to learning how to make something, the first thing that strikes me is how to make everything we do better and raise the bar. I am always looking to raise the bar in that respect.

I do not have a particular region of cuisine or a particular dish that I would like to learn how to make, but rather would like to focus on a sector of cuisine; that being vegetarian and vegan dishes. I would like to be able to accommodate these diners within my current menu and banquet menus. I have a background in this for personal reasons, and have cooked for vegans, vegetarians and macrobiotic both in the restaurant and in my catering business. I would like to focus more of my energies on adding to my repertoire in this area.

What's the one thing people didn't tell you about working in a restaurant? Quite honestly, I don't think anyone told me anything about the restaurant business or working in a restaurant exactly. This may have been due to the fact that I have been working in restaurants since such a young age (14), but maybe I should have taken their silence as something more.

Your work experience includes roles as a butcher, cheese maker, pastry chef and baker. Of the four, which profession do you think is the toughest and why? This is a seriously difficult question to nail down. They are all equally difficult in their own way, and take a great deal of focus and dedication, while each individual tailored to these passions is wired a bit differently. For me personally, I feel that pastry chef is the hardest job due to the exact precision required to execute day in and day out, particularly in larger operations. The ability to take a drawing or idea and bring it out of your head and into an actual, workable, functioning, edible peace of art as produced for weddings, special occasions or in patisserie found the world over is simply amazing, and I have the utmost respect for the craft.

What was it about Bistango/Orange County that made you decide to stay? I decided to stay at Bistango because I was able to forge a very good relationship with John and the staff, which continues to grow and develop as we work towards the future of the restaurant. I liked the idea of being part of a restaurant that has been successful for 28 years, and wanted to be an integral part of moving Bistango in a new direction, keeping it viable among the stiff amount of competition now present in the marketplace. I very much enjoy the creative freedom afforded to me by John, since so many chefs are being stifled in that regard throughout the industry; it plays well with my personality and style, since I have no problem pushing myself and my staff to reach new heights. We have only just begun, but I look forward to the continued relationship.

Best culinary tip for the home cook: I would tell the home cook the same that I have said for years about myself and will continue to do so: Don't be scared; don't be afraid to try something new. Get in there and get something done. If it doesn't come out exactly the way you had thought it would, it gives you drive to try it again; or maybe you have actually ended up with something you like better. All chefs have had that happen to them through trial and error.

Don't rely on recipes too much outside of an ingredients list and a cut and dry method. Learn to rely on your own intuition, monitor your progress closely and the more comfortable you become, the greater and more confident you become in the kitchen.

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