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featuring:

Diego Velasco

from:
Memphis Cafe
recipe:
Backyard crawfish boil

Crawfish boil today? Hell yes. Just hope the weather clears. Pack the gear and point the car. 55 to the 5, first right on Broadway, end up at 201. Memphis. Love this building, The Santora. Kind of eerie at the moment but we enter anyway. What’s up, Diego? Where’s the creatures? Used to hunt them as a kid, sloshing around a creek in Villa Park…

Memphis has a cool interior with diagonal wood floors and simple tables and chairs that give it an art deco meets schoolhouse vibe. We head to the kitchen to go crawfish hunting. You ever race ‘em? Snapper Head and One Claw (the underdog) play in the kitchen before we pack the bunch into the car for their final destination…

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Describe yourself in a few words. Myself, well I’m pretty ambitious. I got started owning my spot at a pretty young age, against better advice at 23. We opened our first Memphis Cafe in Costa Mesa. I’ve been known to set my mind to things and just go for it. There’s been times where it hasn’t worked out, but thankfully most of the time it has.
That’s pretty ambitious for a 23-year-old. When you’re young and you have less to lose, you’re more inclined to go for it. I was fortunate enough to meet my business partner at a young age and decided this is the direction I wanted to go. This is the direction he wanted to go too, so we made plans to make it happen. One of those for me was going to the culinary academy in San Francisco. If we’re going to do this, we thought, we’re going to do it right. So I came back a couple of years later and we opened 8 months after I graduated.
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Is there a soundtrack that runs in your kitchen? Yes, I love music. Music inspires me not so much in my food, but it gets me going. I’m one of those people that likes to work under pressure, leaving something to the absolute last day that it needs to be done. Things are fresher that way too, but I just like to work at that pace, so it’s typically classic rock. It’s Led Zeppelin, it’s Smoke on the Water, some Deep Purple. It’s just really energetic music that kind of drives me to keep up and maintain that hurried pace. It could be a wine dinner or an event and I’ll still go in there and turn on KLOS or bring my own iPod and go to work.
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What are five things I don’t know about crawfish? Well California is the second biggest producer in the country and they come out of the Sacramento delta area, but Breaux Bridge Louisiana is the crawfish capital of the world.
You may or may not know that it’s very important to pinch, squeeze and suck the head out because you want to get all of the brains. I mean the tail works, the tail’s nice. It’s sweet, it’s small, it’s succulent, but the flavor from the boil really just kind of sits in the top cavity of the head and the body. It’s not so much the brains, actually, it’s the fat. It’s the fat in the head.
So let’s see, that’s three. I mean, they’re pretty simple creatures. You probably don’t know that I never went in the river and fished them out myself when I was a kid [laughing].
I got you on that then [laughing] Yeah. So what else?
They aren’t sold by a pound rate, right? Yeah and typically they’re not sized. Like shrimp would be 16/20, you know how much you’re getting per pound. Usually with crawfish it’s kind of the luck of the draw. They just pull them out, they don’t go through the process of sizing them, spacing them out, they’re just out of the water and onto your plate.
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Which recipe are you most proud of creating or reinventing? This is a good one. I love this one. Succotash. Succotash is soul food, a seasonal dish of beans and corn, essentially.
I recently did a “Not Your Mama’s Succotash” and I got these beautiful Christmas lima beans hand-shelled from a farm in Bell Gardens and I braised those. We’re at the end of the season for sweet corn, and I made a sweet corn flan and then I added all the other elements to season it. Blistered grape tomatoes, fried basil, micro celery and spritzed it with some smoked olive oil. You get that back yard, soulful corn and bean kind of thing. Smokey. It’s kind of what we do. A sweet corn flan with braised limas. I’ll show you a picture later on my phone. It’s like, it’s a beautiful dish, it was really well executed.
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Cajun is “a person of French Canadian descent born or living along the bayous, marshes, and prairies of Southern Louisiana.” So… you Cajun? I am not Cajun myself. I am not even from the South, but I am a huge Francophile. I love all things French. I love French food, French wine and I love that the French influenced our American South. It was a huge influence on the direction of my own career. It was the Acadians that came down from the North and you look at dishes like a Spanish paella and you see that influence in jambalaya. I studied African heritage cooking and now if I have gumbo, which is the word for okra, and it doesn’t have okra, it’s not gumbo, you know? So yeah, I’m a huge Francophile but not French at all.
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What are your pet peeves in and out of the kitchen? In the kitchen, I’d say… [he trails off] Hold on, we’re having a security breach. [To the kids] Hey you guys, you need to go in the back. For reals. Okay? They’re going to be around later, you can watch through the window but you have to be very quiet.
That’s hilarious. Yeah, yeah. So pet peeves in the kitchen. I would say just not being clean. Not cleaning as you work, you know? I always have side towels and the one over my shoulder because there’s always something to be cleaned as you’re going. It can be annoying when people don’t respect that. [Looking toward the kids again, laughing] Where are the freaking parents? Where’s the fucking adults? Hands off the glass. Look how she’s smashing her nose.
Oh my God, look at that. She’s the clown.
That is hilarious. Okay, now they got to be careful. They’re going to go through that. [To the kids] Hey! Off the glass. Memphis!
They’re right in the center of that glass. I’m going to call my wife because she’s in the backyard, tell her to get a handle on this. [To the kids] Go get mom.
Just send a text. Come herd the cattle. Okay… I forgot.
Pet peeve in the kitchen is cleanliness. How about outside the kitchen? I would say people that don’t respect time. You know, being on time, because always as a chef, as a cook, even in my own home the timing and execution is everything, you know? That late person, that extra time on the stove, the extra time sitting throws everything off.
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Do you go to Louisiana often? This is embarrassing to say, especially since we are quasi soul food restaurant that’s been operating since 1995, but I’ve been to Louisiana once and that was just a year and a half ago [laughing]. But the good part to the story is that Louisiana came to me.
When I was 19 I lived with a Southern rock band from Louisiana in a trailer as they were touring California. They basically taught me the cuisine over a year, not even knowing it. They had their methods and their habits and their way of life and I was just part of that. I learned gumbos, jambalayas, sticky chicken and cabbage, black eyed peas, the whole thing. It was a spark at 19 years old just before I went to culinary academy, and it was an emphasis of study when I was there.
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When did you know that food had power? Oh, that’s a good one. There have been a couple points and I would say my first one was very young. We would go to Ensenada quite a bit, almost every Summer and stop off at like a road house in San Felipe or wherever you’re at down there, and having all the lobster you could handle. Rice and beans, tortillas, lime. That was one of those moments—lobster’s my favorite food to this day still.
But on a more soulful level, I grew up cooking in my grandma’s kitchen and one of the best dishes that I still make with her to this day, she’s 87, is the dinner we have on Ash Wednesday in Hispanic culture. It’s these dried shrimp cakes, because you can’t eat meat. Incidentally, it’s the day after Mardi Gras Fat Tuesday. So this dish is lentils, it’s shrimp cakes made out of dried ground shrimp and nopales, the cactus. The dessert that tops it off is capirotada. It’s non-dairy, basically a bread pudding made with stale bread and kind of a cinnamon stick flavored stock. That’s the biggest one, the Lent meal.
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What’s your creative process? I always have to think things through, so I’d probably suck on one of those shows like Chopped or whatever. My creative process starts with a pen and paper. Building a road map. There’s so many ideas, it’s like how do you put them all into one dish? How do you put a series of dishes into one menu?
So I start by asking what are we trying to get across? Is it a farmers market menu? I hate to use taglines but is it “farm to table” or “field to fork?” Whatever. So it starts with an idea, who you’re working for, who you’re cooking for.
Then I’ll break down the proteins, you know, seasonality is a big thing because we like to source as local as we can. There are other social issues that kind of play into that too. We used Dungeness crab when we started doing crab cakes way back when and the price got outrageous. We sourced from Canadian crab but now we’d rather pay more and charge a little more to have a superior product and—not to get all political—but not support the crabbers in Alaska that have licenses to also kill seals for the pelts and that kind of thing. It’s just better to stay here, stay local. Dungeness crab is a far superior product to rock crab meat from Canada or even snow crab meat for that matter. I think I got off topic [laughing].
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What’s one secret from your kitchen you can share? I don’t really keep a lot of secrets. I wish I could have read that earlier [laughing]. I’m trying to reach but that’s a tough one.
What chef tool could you not live without? I don’t have a lot of tools, per se. Oyster shuckers are a good one, I eat a ton of oysters and it’s very difficult to open oysters without one, the way they’re designed. But my favorite utensil to use is a wooden spoon. I mean, just stirring, making up risotto and watching everything kind of gel on a wooden spoon. It’s just so comforting and homely and basic.
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We saw this online: “When the sacred ‘mud bugs’ or ‘crawdads’ go into the pot, a breath of excitement fills the air.” How so? Well, I mean for the crawfish it’s hundreds of breaths of excitement, I’m sure. I would hate to be in their position [laughing]. It’s just coming together, you’re getting your friends and family together and recreating a traditional American feast. And we recreate it over and over because we’ve been doing it in our catering at the restaurants for a while. It’s just fun. You got Professor Long Hair and Dr. John playing on the radio and you’re just kind of transported to the South, which is a very magical place, especially New Orleans.
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Are you a risk taker in your cooking? I don’t like to follow trends or be over-the-top, it’s kind of not my style. I’m a little more down-home, a little more soulful, but there’s a bit of me in everything and there are definitely times when I love to experiment, to be inspired by whatever… it could be reading a book, it could be going to the market, traveling of course, traveling is a great one. Trying things that you pick up along the way.
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Good food and cooking is a mixture of many things. What elements do you think support good cooking? It goes beyond just the food. The ingredients are important, of course, start with the finest ingredients and you’re going to have a superior product on the plate, but for me and our philosophy at Memphis is that there is so much more that goes into it. The friends, the relationships, good music, good wine. I think we look at it as an encompassing experience. It’s all about personalities and soul.
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the recipe:

Crawfish boil

Serves 10-12
  • 10 lb. live crawfish (preferably from Breaux Bridge, Louisiana)
  • 1 bottle Zatarain’s crab boil liquid concentrate
  • 1 bag Zatarain’s crab boil spice bag
  • 6 lemons, halved
  • 1/2 c. cajun seasoning
  • 1 bottle Red Rooster Louisiana hot sauce
  • 2 1/2 c. kosher salt
  • 16 qt. water
  • 5 Spanish onions
  • 6 heads garlic
  • 8 celery stalks
  • 8 lb. spicy smoked sausage (andouille or hot links)
  • 5 lb. assorted fingerling or new red potatoes
  • 8 ears sweet corn, cut in thirds
  • 6 bay leaves
  1. The crawfish boil is usually done outdoors in a large stock pot set over a single, propane gas burner. To start, place crawfish in sink or ice chest and cover with water to purge dirt, mud, etc. Fill a large stock pot with 16 qt. of water and if available, insert a large, perforated metal basket into the pot to make pulling out the ingredients easier.
  2. In the pot of water add the Kosher salt, Zatarain’s spice bag, Zatarain’s liquid boil, bay leaves, Cajun seasoning and Red Rooster Louisiana hot sauce. Squeeze the halved lemons into the pot then add the squeezed lemons to the water. Bring to a boil.
  3. Meanwhile, halve the onions, peel them and cut each half into thirds leaving the root end on so the wedges stay in tact. Cut the tops of the garlic heads off to expose the cloves and add the onions and garlic to the boil. Bring down to a simmer and cook for 8-10 minutes.
  4. Shuck the corn, clean the threads off and cut through the cob into thirds. Place the corn in a bowl and add the celery, cutting each stalk into 2-3 inch pieces, and the sausage, cutting each link into thirds. Add this mixture to the boil and simmer for 8 minutes.
  5. Lastly, cut the potatoes in half and add to the pot. Cook for an additional 8 minutes or till the potatoes are just tender. Lift the basket out of the pot or, with a skimmer, remove all the ingredients from the pot leaving only the liquid. Discard the spice bag and keep all the ingredients warm in a large dish until ready to serve.
  6. Bring the water back to a boil. Drain the water from the crawfish and add them to the boiling liquid. Bring back to a boil and cook for 8 minutes. Turn the heat off and cover the crawfish and allow to steep in the seasoned water for at least half an hour.
  7. Serve the crawfish with the rest of the boiled ingredients. If needed, the vegetables and sausage can be dropped back into the boil liquid to reheat. Dump the drained ingredients onto a table lined with newspaper or kraft butcher paper. Serve with additional bottles of Red Rooster Louisiana hot sauce, crunchy french bread, chopped parsley and lemon wedges.
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