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

Diego has a lot to say, and we don’t mind.
Want to catch up on Part One? Well, it’s right over here.

Your favorite childhood memory:
I would have to say, since we are on the subject of food here, going to Ensenada in the summers with my family and eating lobster in Puerto Nuevo. This was a major catalyst towards my love of food, and ultimately my career. In fact, lobster is still my favorite food. It became very difficult when I was in my Grandparents’ care to take me out to dinner, because when asked what I would like to eat (expecting to hear McDonalds or the like), I would say “LOBSTER!”

What were you studying in school before attending the California Culinary Academy?
I graduated high school with the Bank of America Award for Business and an award in computer science. I was well on my way to an MBA. I studied at Cal State Fullerton, and landed a job with a small financial planning firm in Fullerton. When tax time came around, I realized I couldn’t fathom doing what I was doing year after year, so I left the job, stopped going to school and found the first kitchen job that would take me— Nordstrom Cafe in the Brea Mall.

What was the turning point in your life when you decided you wanted to be in the hospitality industry?
As mentioned above, the culmination of those events, coupled with early exposure to food and cooking via my Grandmother’s kitchen, I realized I could make a career out of what I truly wanted to do and be around what I very much enjoyed. My Mom also influenced me by turning me on at a very young age to foods like Thai, sashimi, and I always remember going to a French restaurant in L.A. as part of her employer’s Christmas party. In fact, as I was reaching the boiling point in the financial world, I had already started researching culinary schools on my own.

What should culinary school teach that you didn’t learn until you worked in restaurants?
I think culinary schools have a hard time trying to convey the pace of the professional kitchen. Students typically work in some sort of school restaurant, but it never really comes close to the amount of pressure one feels on the line during peak hours in service. Tickets screaming out of the printer, piling up on the pass, organizing everything in your head that is required of your station can make some people lose it, scream, cry or even go hide in the walk-in. Shit, no wonder we smoked and drank so much!

Where did you grow up, and where’s home these days?
I was born in Long Beach, and at an early age we moved to Santa Fe Springs, then Montebello. I attended high school at St. Paul near Whittier. Aside from taking the RTD bus to Huntington Beach to boogie board when I was young, I really had no exposure to Orange County ’till I picked up kitchen jobs in Brea while attending Cal State Fullerton. Shortly after opening Memphis Cafe in 1995, I rented in East Side Costa Mesa. In 2001, just before opening Memphis at the Santora in Downtown Santa Ana, I bought my first house in Washington Square and have been a resident of Santa Ana ever since, living in Park Santiago as of 2004.

Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
Most people wouldn’t know that if I wasn’t in the culinary field I would have most likely chosen a path in the fashion industry. During the school year in middle school and junior high, I worked summers in my Grandpa’s pleating and novelty stitching shop in the Garment District in Downtown L.A. I would use the money I made to buy clothes for the following school year. My Mom was a designer, production manager and pattern drafter, and later taught at her alma mater, Trade Tech in L.A. (now retired). My Uncle took over Park Pleating when my Grandpa retired. Two things I was always influenced by were fashion and my Grandma’s kitchen.

You have a whole day to yourself; what would you do?
I grab the current Sunday crossword puzzle from the L.A. Times and I hop around from lunch through happy hour imbibing and sampling food and drink. It could be taking the train to L.A. and visiting Cole’s and my buddies at Stocking Frame, heading down to San Juan Cap or just staying local, hitting spots like Hollingshead and Lola Gaspar, among others.

How was your last camping trip? Where would you like to visit next?
These days, camping isn’t as rough as it used to be. I have two daughters ages 12 and 8. This past summer I took them to Lake Cachuma to camp and fish. It’s pretty hard getting out there and seeing the devastating toll the drought has had on many of my favorite childhood spots like Shaver Lake, Lake Crowley and even up in the back country between Yosemite and Mammoth. Next up, it is tradition to camp and fish Mammoth Lakes in the late summer with my entire family.

Last thing you looked up online:
I looked into the Neptune School of Wine. Myself and/or my business partner, Dan Bradley, have curated our wine list off and on over the years. We are of the ‘learn as you go’ breed of restauranteurs. I thought it would be rewarding to continue my education and refine my palate, as well as broaden my scope with regard to more in-depth wine knowledge. Definitely considering it.

Hardest lesson you’ve learned.
As it pertains to my career, I would say that everything has a beginning and an end. Case in point would be our beloved Memphis at the Santora. Sometimes you have to put the emotion aside and make the hard decisions: priorities— family, the business cycle, an exit strategy. I know I sound a little cryptic, but you don’t know what it is or what it will be ’til it happens. Being in an industry based on hospitality and ‘restoring’, there will be times when you will need to do what’s best for you.

What would you like to try if you weren’t in this business?
If I wasn’t in the business, I would like to try my hand at TV or film production. Seems like an interesting and exciting environment to be in. We have catered various shoots over the years, and I’ve always been intrigued at what goes on behind the scenes. I’m definitely a behind the camera kind of person, as opposed to in front of it. 

Any idea what you’ll be cooking up at Fresh Toast this month?
Our buttermilk fried chicken is the most popular item on our menu. Between our Thursday night fried chicken promo, our chickcn and waffles on the brunch menu, the Cobra sandwich on the lunch menu and our fried chicken entree on the dinner menu, we sell about 1,000 plates of fried chicken a month. We will most likely be doing a fried chicken and biscuits version of a Benedict: a mini cheddar and scallion biscuit, with fried chicken oysters, fried quail egg and our country gravy. But don’t quote me!

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