On The Line: Diego Velasco Of Memphis Soul Cafe, Part One

As OC Weekly’s Fresh Toast event draws closer, I’m hanging out with a few of our participating chefs. I’ve seen restaurants come and go, but in Costa Mesa, Memphis has been a constant. Diego Velasco’s roles as VP, Co-Founder and Chef keep him pretty busy, yet he still provided one of the more thoughtful interviews I’ve had the pleasure of conducting.

Most undervalued ingredient:
I would have to say legumes. Seems they have taken a back seat to more trendy grains and seeds such as farro, quinoa, chia and even hemp. Some nice puy or beluga lentils, or even the humble black-eyed pea can be the base for a very satisfying plate. They can be served cold or hot, as a salad or part of a salsa and the main ingredient, or a garnish in a comforting soup.

What do you recommend for first-timers?
For first-timers, I recommend attempting a braised dish, especially at this time of year. Chicken legs, lamb shank, short ribs, pork shoulder, etc. It’s a great cooking technique to learn, and once you have the basics down, you can vary the recipes and experiment with different flavor profiles and global ingredients. When successful, the reward is a comforting and satisfying dish meant to be shared and shown off.

After working under chefs Rockenwagner, Sedlar and Fox, were there ideas or practices you were taught that you apply to your restaurant group?
Call me old-fashioned, but the takeaway has been the fundamentals of the French kitchen. From the military style organization of the Brigade, to the foundations of modern cuisine still used today. Even in our tiny kitchen, we are still making stocks, beurre blanc and hollandaise for brunch from scratch. Sedlar’s cooking was very much a tribute to his French culinary studies, as well a his Southwestern roots. He taught me that classic technique is the foundation, but we are determines where we take it.

One stereotype about your industry, and whether it’s true.
That chefs are ass-grabbing, chain-smoking, deviant alcoholics. Is it true? Yes, for the most part. However, that all changes. Most of us get into this profession at a fairly young age (when we tend to do stupid things) and stay in it for a very long time. Gluttons for punishment? I think not. Rather, passionate people who bring our lives into our work, and our work into our lives.

As the life cycle goes on, personally and professionally, we all age, mature, start families, and, dare I say . . .settle down? The focus shifts, like the way love matures from lust to a great romance. The love for what we do becomes channeled and refined. We are no longer doing it for ourselves, but for the joy it brings others.

What is your guilty pleasure food?
Definitely ice cream. Neck and neck at the  top are Haagen Dazs’ Vanilla Swiss Almond and Ben & Jerry’s Pistachio Pistachio. Even better on a warm slice of boysenberry pie.

Is there a dish you would like to learn how to make?
I would love to learn how to make bread. I suck at bread. It has been the bane of my culinary journey. I have so much respect for the successful bakers of the world. The patience, the precision, it’s all quite an art form, in and of itself, to be perfectly honest.

As a chef, co-founder and vice president, what do you do that is above and beyond a restaurant chef?
The focus ebbs and flows from the kitchen to the entire organization. It can drag you out of the kitchen and into the office, helping to make decisions for the growth and success of the entire business. From helping to choose worker’s comp insurance and payroll companies, to managing all managers, front and back. Being financially responsible not only to the food cost numbers, but investors and partners as well.

With the business background, I handle a lot of the tax prep to be turned over to our accountant for annual tax returns and reporting. NOT so fun. However, I also designated myself as wine buyer, which requires a LOT of tasting. Now that IS fun!

You’re making breakfast; what are you having?
I love making hash. I find it to be a great way to get the creative juices flowing. It normally consists of what might have been for dinner the night before. Tender beef from braised short ribs or pot roast, chicken that was roasted with potatoes and fennel, leftover smoked salmon from a meat and cheese platter. No matter what it is, I still add fresh bacon, some greens or asparagus, and always top with a poached egg and shaved Parm or aged cheddar.

Your degree had an emphasis on African heritage cuisine, Italian and Irish immigrant cooking. So how did you settle on a Southern focus?
Before attending the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, I had the pleasure of living with a Southern rock band whose members were from in and around the New Orleans area of Louisiana. They were living in a trailer here in Orange County, and at the age of 19, I spent a year with them. They were the major source of inspiration to my interest in Southern cuisine. I started to ask questions like, “Why are their food and traditions so different than mine, yet we are all Americans?” This led to a further discussion, which led to the courses and research I chose during culinary school — the broader subject of Regional American Cooking and how the many immigrants that came and settled into those respective regions shaped the cuisine, the land and the traditions. 

Most important quality you look for in a sous chef.
Organization beyond mise-en-place. A sous chef should be a great multi-tasker. I need to be comfortable knowing that the menu is being executed, and that there is productive communication taking place within the kitchen and with the front of the house staff and management, including myself and my partner. On top of all the moving parts and the high volume during service, prep lists need to be accurate, inventive specials need to be created, inventories need to be conducted, breaks need to be issued, overtime needs to be in check, health inspections need to be passed. All that can only be pulled off by a very organized person, because there will always be a surprise “fire” to put out on top of it all.

What is on your seasonal menu these days?
After 20 years, it’s hard to get away from what we’ve become known for at the core of our menu. We do have several specials on a daily basis, and a small vegetable section on our dinner menu, however, where we use seasonal, appropriate ingredients and presentations. Right now we’re using cranberries— dried and fresh, endive and treviso, tri-colored cauliflower and romanesco and duck breast with white beans and garlic sausage for a mock cassoulet. Lamb shanks are coming up.

What would be your last meal on Earth?
I always wonder how people can answer this question. I’m a moody person, so it would depend on the day. And with food being such a huge part of my life, I don’t think one meal would do it. Once I learn the end is near, it would be a mad rush to get in all my favorites. Oysters and champagne, lobster, caviar, a Double-Double, good dim sum, a simple roast chicken. However, I would be happy to end on Auntie Sue’s Korean BBQ.

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