Everyone who works in the restaurant business knows some of the best, most creative meals take place in the kitchen far away from the limelight and paying customers. I have bore witness to some crazy, inventive shit only a slightly stoned cook could ever dream of. I also have seen epic fails where it required all my diplomatic skills to prevent the premature death of the guy who made it. The fact is, kitchen folk love to eat decadent delicious food. Maybe it’s the trade off for all the long hours we spend working together in grueling heat, producing amazing food for you to dine on. Fat adrenaline junkies. One of the most memorable was Keith’s short rib pizza. He ladled liberal quantities of horseradish bechamel onto a base of our chewy fermented rye pizza crust and topped it with a splattering of spoon tender beef short ribs and molasses-bacon jam. It was dusted with aged Manchego cheese and freshly microplaned raw horseradish. The first time he made it, we ate our entire mise en place of short ribs and had to quickly prep more for the next day. Seriously, my nipples get hard at the mere thought of it.
As a contrast, I had a French sous chef named Nicholas who danced the fine line of thrifty and frugal a bit too close sometimes. One night, he made what he termed a “French Paella” out of old chicken innards and leftover rice he had been hoarding for weeks. It was so bad, my entire staff threatened to walk out ensemble if I didn’t make something else. I mean right away. I seriously thought if I left Nicholas alone for a minute they would lynch him.
Bad meals were an anomaly. We loved food too much to eat crap. The best prep cook I had was Daniel, a Mexican-Spaniard from Mexico City who cooked his ass off. Show some respect, go back and click on his name. A song from Red Hot Chili Peppers will start playing, let it. That will put you in the mood by properly setting the stage for today’s blog, or at least how I remembered it.
The trimmed cheeks were slow braised in saffron, tomatoes, cinnamon stick, anchovies, dried orange peel, olives and garlic till they started to melt.
Daniel had a taco shop in Mexico City, but quickly sold it after coming to work one too many mornings, to find his staff bound and his store robbed. Every day I walked into work hearing Daniel’s music reassuringly echoing throughout the empty restaurant. He was prepping machine He jammed to great beats while pounding out solid amounts of prep.
I had a super popular dish on the menu made from slow braised Wagyu Beef Cheeks cooked in the fashion of a Southern French daube. The trimmed cheeks were slow braised in saffron, tomatoes, cinnamon stick, anchovies, dried orange peel, olives and garlic till they started to melt. Maybe it was a bit over the top using Wagyu beef for the already uber tender gelatinous cheeks. We were addicted, so I never dared change it. At the height we were going through four or five cases of meat a week. The byproduct was endless mounds of fat laced trim.
After braising, Daniel would chop the trim and make crack-like beef cheek tacos with his infamous roasted tomato salsa. Seriously, you could never just eat one or two. I dare you. We ate them to reckless abandon. Countless days I went into service hurting, unable to move at anything faster than a snail’s pace. Luckily the food runners were properly bribed to keep the flow of strong espresso running.
The byproduct was endless mounds of fat laced trim.
Every now and then I talk to Daniel. Everyone one I ever worked with has become like family, maybe even closer. I was always too embarrassed to ask Daniel for his recipe. I treated it like a trade secret. The other day I was missing the camaraderie of staff meals badly and contacted Daniel. He kindly shared the recipe through a series of cryptic facebook pm’s and strange text messages.I had five pounds of grass fed lamb cheeks from a nearby farm in Canby, Oregon sitting in my freezer and thought hmm, what should I do? So I slow braised the cheeks, made Daniel’s salsa and happily shared it with my family. My four year old looked like a possessed crackhead devouring his tacos. He snarled at my dog Lucy keeping her from wandering too close to the carnage.
I share with you Daniel’s Cheek Tacos with Roasted Tomato Salsa in pictures:
Gather around the roasting pan with corn tortillas grilled straight on an open gas burner, salsa, lime wedges, grated Cotija cheese, pickled jalapenos, pickled onions, chopped cilantro and some good beer. Eat a feast, Laugh a lot, then face an adrenaline pumping night the way we do.
- 1 Vidalia Sweet Onion, peeled
- 1 slice of Beet
- 1 Tablespoon of Sea Salt
- 2 Tablespoons organic Sugar
- 1/2 cup Water
- 1 cup White Vinegar
- Slice Vidalia onion thinly.
- Stuff into pint sized Mason jar.
- Push a slice of beet into jar. I used a cooked one because I had just made a beet salad.
- Boil salt, sugar, water and vinegar.
- Pour over onions, screw top on and let sit one day.
- 1/2 cup fat or olive oil
- 5 # trimmed Lamb Cheeks
- 2 sweet onions, chopped
- 5 carrots, peeled and chopped
- 2 ribs Celery, chopped
- 2 heads of Garlic, cut in half
- 2 dried Aji Amarillo Peppers
- 1 Cinnamon stick
- 1 Tablespoon Cumin
- 2 Tablespoons ground Chipotle peppers
- 2 oranges, cut in half
- 2 quarts Chicken stock
- Sea Salt and Pepper, to taste
- Heat fat in a large roasting pan.
- Add lamb cheeks and brown.
- Add chopped onions, carrots, celery, garlic, Aji Amarillo pepper, cinnamon, cumin, chipotle pepper and chicken stock and bring to a boil.
- Reduce to a simmer, cover in aluminum foil and braise in your oven at 350 for three hours, or until the lamb melts.
- Remove the lamb cheeks and chop, reserve.
- Reduce the cooking liquid till thick and add to chopped cheeks.
- Adjust seasoning and keep warm.
- 5 Tomatoes
- 1 head Garlic, cut in half
- 1 Vidalia Sweet Onion
- 2 Guajillo Peppers, seeded
- 1 head Cilantro
- 1/2 cup Oil
- 2 Limes, squeezed
- Salt and Pepper
- Build a super hot fire with Mesquite
- Burn, blacken, destroy five Tomatoes
- Grill split garlic head till cooked and browned
- Cut a Vidalia onion in half and char.
- Seef two Guajillo Peppers
- Chop one head of cilantro
- Measure 1/2 cup Oil
- Squeeze the juice and zest the peel of two Limes
- Mix everything in a low speed blender and puree.
- Adjust seasonings to your taste.
- I added two heaping spoonfuls of Aji Amarillo pepper paste I had been squirreling away for weeks.
- Salt and Pepper