On the Line: Eric Samaniego of Little Sparrow, Part One

The day I met up with Eric Samaniego was a celebration of sorts. Not only was it his birthday, but I was the first to be seated on a newly installed banquette along the length of their dining room. It elevated the modest space, making for a desirable seating arrangement at lunch. We've met on multiple occasions, but it was nice to finally sit down and talk beyond pleasantries.

Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best:
Potential for greatness. I am fairly new to the OC restaurant scene, but I have met some amazing, talented chefs that are extremely passionate about creating a better food culture in Orange County. Diners are also demanding that chefs be as creative and forward thinking as we want to be. You should see my face every time we have an order of sweetbreads or veal tongue ordered in. I love that people are so open to trying anything I want to put on the menu. I don't want to speak for everyone, but I want to be a great chef, period. Not a great chef “for Orange County.”

Most undervalued ingredient:
Salt: I have been slowly emptying out all of my families' cupboards of all their iodized table salt, and replacing it with kosher salt. Start cooking with kosher salt, and see how much better your food comes out.


Why separate the bar from the main dining room?
The owners really wanted to create two unique rooms. They wanted a dark, sexy bar that guests would enjoy drinking at for hours. They were really inspired by cocktail lounges of Manhattan and San Francisco. But the dining room was meant to be lighter and brighter, with less texture so that the food would be the star. I love that we have smaller tables that are close together. It really drives home the bistro feeling.

Please explain the restaurant's name.
We are named after French singer Edith Piaf. We are not a French bistro, but we are all huge Francophiles at heart.

Earliest food memory [Editor's Note: This was also his favorite childhood memory.]:
It is really the only clear memory that I have as a kid. I was six years old, and I used to watch a lot of cooking shows with my grandmother (Nana). I loved Martin Yan, Graham Kerr, and especially Julia Child. One day, I leaned over and told my Nana that I wanted to be a chef when I got older. This is the only thing I have ever wanted to do as a career.

Best recent food find:
I am always looking for late night drinks and food. C4 just opened up around the corner from us, and it's exactly what I want after work. Great beer list, awesome deli sandwiches and snacks. It has great music and big, “loungy” chairs at the bar.

Most recent meal:
I don't eat out much, but I did get to finally try Broadway by Amar Santana last month. My wife and I sat at the kitchen bar and had a tasting menu. It was fantastic. The best dish of the night was the abalone with capers and brown butter! I'm really looking forward to trying THE RANCH next.

Can you tell us about your pastry chef?
We do all of our own desserts, and about 80% of our breads in-house. My pastry chef's name is Nasera Munchi. We worked together at Comme Ca. She is classically trained, and we have a great partnership when it comes to the menu. She was actually the first person I called when I was hired. She was living in India at the time, but serendipitously, by the time construction delays were done, she had moved back to the States and was looking for work. I snatched her up before anyone else could.

You're making breakfast; what are you having?
I'm not really a huge breakfast guy. But if I have the morning off, I usually make my kids pancakes, bacon, eggs and OJ. I'm good with just some coffee.

Who is your favorite chef?
The chef that has had the biggest impact on my life would have to be Charlie Trotter. When I first started culinary school, I wanted to work for the best. I stumbled on to his TV show on PBS one day, and was mesmerized by his intensity, passion and attention to detail. The first time I got to meet him was at Johnson N Wales; he was receiving an honorary doctorate. I got to pick him up from the airport and we talked for a while before graduation. For the next three and-a-half years I spent just about every waking moment preparing myself for my opportunity to work at his restaurant. I read all his books, watched all the shows and did as many school reports about him as I could. For my friends, I was a little nauseating, but for me it was the only thing I knew how to do.

Long story short, I made it out to Chicago for a two day stage at the restaurant, and was hired to work at one of the best restaurants in the country right out of school. I was only there a short time, but it set the tone for the rest of my career. I met my best friend there, and I also met David Myers (my future mentor) while working at Trotter's. It's sad to think that he has passed on, and I will never get the chance to truly thank him for taking a shot on me.

Weirdest thing you've ever eaten:
It would have to be andouillette sausage in Paris. It's quite funky and stinky, but good. It was a place called Le Verre Vole. One of my best meals in Paris.

What's in your savory popcorn?
I buy just a simple yellow popcorn and cook it with a little bit of canola oil. After it's all popped, then it gets flavored with furikake butter, togarashi and salt. I love it. It's the perfect snack.

Favorite meal growing up?
Without a doubt, it would have to be my Dad's fried chicken! He would make it for us about twice a month growing up. Also, anytime I would come home from college or Chicago, he would break out his old cast iron pans and make us some.

Favorite beverage:
When I go out to a new restaurant or bar I always ask for a negroni. It's a classic cocktail with very few ingredients. The bartender can't hide behind it; they either make a good one, or they don't. If they can make a great negroni, then I can trust them to make me something off-menu, or one of their signature cocktails.

Tell us where this quote comes from, “It is a sad opportunity to eat badly.”
I'm not sure who first said it. When I first started, it was printed at the bottom of my first business cards. I thought it was a perfect one-liner for food. Half of my cards said that, and the other half said, “eat better, not more.”

Culinary tip for the home cook:
Use a big, heavy cutting board, like a Boos block. Most people try to work on flimsy cutting boards that are dirty and dangerous. Give yourself some room to butcher and chop the right way. Oh, and get a sharp knife. I hate dull knives!

One food you can't live without.
I could take the easy way and say pork. But I am going to say good Spanish sherry vinegar. I cook with it a ton. It adds just the right amount of acid and sharpness to a dish. It really helps balance out a dish.

Favorite meal of the day:
I really love late night dinner. The best is eating in Europe. I don't think we ever ate a dinner before 10 p.m. When I was working in West Hollywood, my favorite late night spot was Canter's Deli. Super old and funky. Best of all, it's open 24 hours a day.

Let's discuss your pate.
Pates take a lot of planning to stay ahead of production. Our house pate is a campagne. It's made with pork shoulder, chicken livers, brandy and lots of other things. Basically, it all gets seasoned and ground together, then baked in a water bath. The most important part of making these terrines is pressing them after they are cooked. This condenses the meat into a dense brick and presses out impurities. We also make traditional head cheese using whole pig heads that are cured, then simmered for hours. The plate is finished off with either chicken liver mousse or pork belly rillette.

The first pate that comes to mind was made by my old chef, Michael David. It was a simple country terrine with an amazing balance of garlic, bay leaf and pork. While at Comme Ca, I would watch him work on charcuterie. I would eventually take over the whole program at the restaurant, but that one pate was the one that kick-started my passion for charcuterie. I have been working on it for about seven years now, and I could see myself one day in the future owning a charcuterie shop.

What was the weirdest request you received (and did you do it?):
While at Trotter's, they had a policy of never saying “no” to guests. One day, someone came in and wanted shrimp cocktail. We didn't have any shrimp in the house, so my chef, Bill Kim, told me to run down the alley to the Peruvian restaurant. I took off down the alley during the middle of service to ask for some shrimp. Then I ran back to the restaurant before I got too winded. It was crazy to think that someone would be that bold, and that Charlie would also be that accommodating. Things like that happened all the time there.

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