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

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.


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

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.


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.

Follow @ocweeklyfood on Instagram! And check out Dave’s podcasts: Memphis Mondays and Fat Drunk And Happy!

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