While most chefs generally stay within close proximity of their restaurant (even when they're not on duty), our most recent crop of subjects consists of jet-setters. Take Peter Serantoni, who splits his time between northern and southern California. With our misaligned work schedules, I tolerate Orange crush traffic one Friday afternoon for our interview.
Serantoni's appreciation for multiple cuisines is apparent as we interrogate him within the confines of Cha Cha's Latin Kitchen's patio, perfect for downtown-Brea people-watching. (Or maybe it's more about being seen?) More on that tomorrow. Best response in part one is easily his tip for the home cook.
Your earliest food memory:
My grandmother's gnocchi in a very simple, light tomato sauce, plus fresh-grated Parm.
Favorite meal growing up:
Anything Nonna Maria cooked; my grandmother cooked three meals every day and shopped for groceries twice daily. I was seriously spoiled with good food.
Most undervalued ingredient:
Flat-leaf Italian parsley. Everybody knows it. Everybody's seen it. Everybody uses it. And yet it's underrated. There's so much you can do with it. It's so cheap and available. When you wash it well and cut it fresh, it has so much flavor that it sort of holds its own.
I read your happy hour is ALL DAY, Sunday through Thursday. Seriously?
Yes, it's all true. We offer great food and drink specials all day. It's a great way to socialize and try our food and fresh cocktails in a fun, casual setting.
Anything special going on for Cinco de Mayo?
Cinco is always a great time at Cha Cha's. We are serious about our food and service, but we like to have fun as well. Our great house band Sombre Quieta are playing all day. Food and drink specials will feature 100 percent agave tequilas, homemade sangria, and our all-fresh, homemade, grande house margarita. We'll have raffles, prizes and tons of fun.
What do you think made you OpenTable's “Diners' Choice” winner for 2010-11?
We really do try very hard to make our guests feel welcome and well-taken-care-of by ensuring warm, friendly service and well-prepared, fresh, flavorful, wholesome food.
Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best:
Mexican street food from original loncheras and Vietnamese places all over Garden Grove. I don't pay attention to the names. Simple, but really tasty stuff.
What fast food do you admit to eating?
Falafels up in San Francisco, a pit stop at In-N-Out now and then, and a good hot-dog stand is hard to walk by.
What is your beverage of choice, and where do you get it?
Simple red table wine — old-school style.
Locals are particular about their Mexican cuisine. How does your Latin kitchen stay true to the flavors of Orange County?
We respect the foundation of Mexican cuisine and don't stray too far from time-honored techniques and ingredient combinations, while taking a little lighter approach to our presentations.
Diners rave about the chips and green salsa. Care to share?
We make all nine of our salsas from fresh, seasonal ingredients. Lots of charring, roasting and blending. Our chips are made with fresh stone-ground corn that we cook in small batches throughout the day, so the chips are served warm and crisp all the time.
One food you can't live without:
Pasta is so versatile and can satisfy basically any food or flavor craving.
Where was your most recent meal? What did you have?
Bar Tartine in San Francisco. The owners recently redid the concept. Now it's Eastern European, very Hungarian-inspired.We practically ate the whole menu: grilled tripe, warm beet soup with smoked brisket, creamed herring, pork blood sausage with stewed sauerkraut. It was truly well-prepared and very tasty.
Best culinary tip for the home cook:
Keep it simple and plan ahead so you can enjoy your guests as well as the food.
What do you think of people who take photographs of their food?
Why not? I love that people take an interest in what they are eating.
Frank DeCarlo of New York's Peasant, one of my all-time favorite restaurants — simple, rustic, sensible food that tastes great every time. What a restaurant should be all about. His restaurant has so much soul.
We heard you are a master mixologist.
I don't really like that title. It's true that I do a lot of cocktail and drink development. I'm really just following the same simple principles that guide our food approach.
As a whole, restaurants didn't spend a whole lot of attention on the beverage side. Then this whole mixology thing started to shed some light and put a lot more interest and focus on the bar. Drinks became fresher, more homemade, with a little more thought put into it — which is fantastic. But now it's sort of gone to taking 25 minutes to create this masterpiece, and when you get it, it's more floating debris than actual liquids. It went overboard, but it's coming back to more pure quality of the spirits.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten:
Balut — no bueno. It was on a dare. The whole texture thing was ugly.
Favorite places to eat (besides your own):
Seafood Paradise in Garden Grove for the dim sum. It's freaking awesome. I love that place. The energy there on a Sunday is amazing. The girls are fearless with those carts. I also order salt-and-pepper shrimp, black bean clams, and all the other seafood.
You're making breakfast. What are you having?
Espresso and American Spirit cigarettes. I don't get enough time to eat breakfast.
Weirdest customer request (and did you do it?):
To read the Celiac disease [Editor's Note: Also known as gluten-intolerance] book on methods and protocol at 8 p.m. on a Saturday. NO.