On the Line: Niki Starr of Mesa, Part One

I recall when Mesa first opened. It was a taste of LA nightlife and cuisine in an unmarked building. These days, the building now has a proper sign and Niki Starr is running the back of the house. We met with the lavender-coiffed chef, as she noodled over our inquiries.

What's the one thing people didn't tell you about working in a restaurant?
Nobody really prepares you for this industry. There's not a single person that can tell you how it's gonna be for you. We all take it in different ways; some can handle the lifestyle, and many cannot. You can read the blogs about what it's like to be a chef, talk to mentor chefs, or read Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, but ultimately it's what you make of the long hours, physical labor, lack of time spent in the outside world . . .It is what you decide it is. And that, to me, is the best and most rewarding part of the industry. Your success or failure solely depends on you and what you are willing to give to achieve what you want in this industry.


Favorite meal growing up:
I remember doing a report on myself in third grade; we had to make a poster about our favorite things. One of the questions was our favorite meal, and I remember quite distinctly my third grade teacher was blown away by my response. “Halibut, twice baked potatoes, grilled tomatoes and a home made Caesar salad with my mom's famous croutons.” I think she was used to the common 'hot dog or pizza' response.

Is there anything you'd like to learn how to make?
I'd love to make really authentic, delicious ramen noodles. However, I know that this is no easy feat, given that some take their whole lives to learn their craft?

What is your beverage of choice?
A Fitzgerald. A good friend made it for me a couple of years back, and ever since I have been hooked. It's a classic cocktail with gin, simple syrup, lemon, and Ango bitters.

Your best recent food find:
I am obsessed with the food court at Wholesome Choice in Irvine. I know it sounds funny to be obsessing over a food court [Editor's Note: It doesn't; we enjoy it, too.], but just trust me– all types of Middle Eastern/Mediterranean food under one roof. Not to mention the awesome specialty items you can find in the market. And don't leave the market without grabbing some freshly baked sangak flatbread; you may have to wait in line. Ok, you will have to wait in line, but it's worth every second.

Most undervalued ingredient:
Vinegar, citrus or really, acid in general. I feel like that is the main thing I miss when a dish isn't balanced. I find that in my own cooking, when something just doesn't seem “there” yet, I usually end up adding acid. It takes it where it needs to be.

We heard you love making soup. What can we look forward to this season?
I am super into curry and coconut soups right now, so probably some combination of root veg or squash with Thai flavors.

What do you recommend for first-timers?
My chef-style mussels. They're like the traditional, cast iron skillet mussels that Mesa has always been famous for, but with an additional punch of flavor. Black PEI mussels with smoked paprika, chili flake, Bilbao chorizo, green onion and deglazed with white wine.

Weirdest thing you've ever eaten:
Well, I have eaten tons of offal (i.e. heart, tripe, tongue, liver, sweetbreads, etc.), but to me that's not weird. It's super awesome. So the weirdest thing I have ever eaten would probably be the McRib. I mean, do they have like a Play Dough press to make it look like it has bones??

You're making breakfast; what are you having?
Potato pancakes with a sharp cheddar, green onions and lots of creme fraiche, sausage patties and a huge glass of fresh squeezed orange juice.

Favorite places to eat:
I love ramen. My personal favorites are Santouka at Mitsuwa and Shin Sen Gumi. Hamamori is hands down the best sushi in OC. And I love going back to Broadway for a nice dinner and getting to sit on the other side of the counter. Amar really 'raised' me in this industry, and he will always be like family to me. And let's be real, the guy can fucking cook!

One stereotype about your industry, and whether it's true.
That we are all foul-mouthed, screaming, degrading tyrants like you see portrayed by Gordon Ramsay on those ridiculously fake “reality” shows. And no, it's not true. Well, maybe the foul-mouthed part. But for the most part, I think we as chefs are stern when we need to be, but are also relatable and caring when it comes to our kitchen staff.

Best culinary tip for the home cook.
Do not cook (i.e. sear or pan roast) with extra virgin olive oil. This is only used for finishing oil. Olive oil's smoke point is too low for you to get a proper sear on your food. Use an oil with a higher smoke point, so you can get your pans ripping hot to ensure optimal caramelization and imparting no extra flavor of the oil. My personal favorite is grapeseed oil.

Where was your most recent meal?
Well, it's ramen week, so I used my ramen week pass to get half off Tonkatsu ramen at Yotoro Ramen in Fountain Valley. I have a noodle addiction.

One food you can't live without.
I can't live without cheese. All kinds, and the stinkier the better. And the reason why is because it is the ultimate food sensory memory trigger. I can take a certain cheese and know exactly when and where I was when I first tried it. Both my mother and my Great Aunt Bettie introduced me to so many cheeses at a very young age, and I blame my cheese 'addiction' on them.

What would your last meal on Earth be?
My last meal on Earth would probably consist of a wedge salad to start, with lots of bacon lardons, red onions and chunks of St. Augr blue cheese. Then a nice, big piece of meat. Preferably a New York or ribeye steak served rare with a twice baked potato. And for dessert, I would finish with peach tart tatin and seared piece of foie gras and black pepper caramel.

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