Q & A with Chris Phelps and Zak Walters, Part 2: Favorite California Products + Why No Dungeness Crab
Chris Phelps and Zak Walters at Salt's Cure
In part one of our interview with chefs Chris Phelps and Zak Walters of West Hollywood's butcher-shop-turned-restaurant Salt's Cure, they explained that wet aging is hocus pocus and that the pigs they buy from Napa Valley live more glamorous lives than we do.
In part two, the chefs reminisce about their culinary careers, how they met and the challenges they face in operating a restaurant that serves only products from California. Check back later for their pulled pork sandwich recipe. It requires little else beyond a whole lot of pig, but it's given all the love and care in the world.
Squid Ink: So how did you two meet?
Chris Phelps: Our paths intersected at Hungry Cat. And then we had a beautiful reunion.
Zak Walters: It was your birthday.
CP: Yeah, we were watching Sling Blade or Batman Begins.
ZW: Chris said that he's been wanting to throw a pig roast on the beach. We still want to do it. It was like a pipe dream in a way. But then we just continued to talk about it and we thought of a name. We didn't talk about any of this while at The Hungry Cat. Hungry Cat, we're coming up on four and a half years. It was a very long time ago. We worked together for nine months?
CP: Something like that.
SI: What other restaurants did you work at in the meantime?
ZW: I worked at the Mondrian Hotel. I worked at Cube. And then I worked here.
CP: Canele. Then I cooked for rich people, actually. That helped me get by.
SI: What was that like?
CP: It was really cool. They had a guest house and an Olympic sized outdoor swimming pool and a waterfall hot tub. A collection of 1990 Bordeaux. To have all that and get paid was great.
ZW: I worked at Tavern while this was all getting built. I did a lot of catering for Lucques. Again, we started talking about this two years ago in March. And then we got a business card. As soon as we got the business card it was official. Then we went through the joy of starting a business in the city of Los Angeles. And what a joy it is.
SI: What was that like?
CP: it was a lot of fun. (Both laugh.) A lot of trips to different buildings. It got old right away, and then it just turned into something else. I was a robot. Eventually it was done.
ZW: It's definitely a process. If you're gonna do it, you should definitely do it yourself. You should oversee it. Most people hire expediters to do their whole process for them. I don't even know if that saves any time.
CP: They do because they'll like bring a cute daughter along with them.
ZW: Oh yeah, we saw that.
CP: And they get to move forward in the line or something. Like, "Oh, here are some flowers." They don't bribe them or anything. They just do stuff. I don't know if they bring flowers or whatever, but they do little things to try to make it easier to try and get past the red tape.
SI: Was there red tape for the opening here?
CP: Just the usual. You have to do things in order, and it takes like a month to do each thing in the process. Like parking. To make that parking lot connect to here, it took a month to just say, "Yeah, it is part of it." And then we would apply for some other thing. Some health department thing. And that takes three months. And then we can do building and safety. Then that takes a few months until you're actually building the place.
ZW: And all the departments are also only open three days a week for the most part. Monday, Wednesday and Friday. And they get one Monday each month off so you have to plan your strategy. The city of West Hollywood was great, though. The planning department moved us quickly. They put our project ahead of a bunch of other ones.
CP: I don't think that was true.
ZW: I like to think that's true.
CP: I'd like to think that, too.
SI: So you guys were at The Hungry Cat, which is seafood. And one of you guys was at Gaijin Sushi in Norman, is that correct?
ZW: Yeah, how do you know that?
SI: Read it online.
ZW: You read that online? Jesus Christ. Yeah, I started at an Italian restaurant and then I worked at sushi bars for three years in Oklahoma and then a year at Blowfish Sushi when I first moved out here. I tried to get a sushi job in San Francisco, but they laughed at me.
ZW: Oh yeah.
CP: He was in love with a Japanese Princess, and the only way that she would...
ZW: She was Hawaiian. (Laughter.)
SI: Who was this Hawaiian princess?
ZW: No, I don't know. My ex is Japanese. But that had nothing to do with the sushi bars. (More laughter.) I just like the taste of seaweed.
SI: So you guys go from sushi and fish, and I know you guys have mussels and swordfish and oysters.
CP: Whatever we can find.
ZW: Well, the meat intensive thing is: his background is really, really high-end restaurants in Baltimore.
CP: I worked at a steakhouse. So we went through everything.
SI: What's the most unusual ingredient that you get to serve here?
CP: Sea urchin sometimes. And what's cool is that we get caviar from Sacramento. Some of the best caviar in the world is in Sacramento.
ZW: Tsar Nicoulai.
CP: They were ranked the best. One of their select was the best in the world. Might even still be.
ZW: If we wanted to, we could get abalone. Besides Japan, California is the only place that farm raises abalone. That would be interesting. Sea urchin is probably the coolest. More urchin that we use in the US comes from Santa Barbara than it does from Japan and the Mediterranean. It's amazing how much they have. They can fill dumpsters worth.
SI: What would you serve the sea urchin with?
CP: It was a deviled egg. So it was like with three eggs. It was deviled egg from the chicken with the roe from the urchin with caviar on top of that.
CP: It was $500. (Laughter.) No, it was affordable, but it was decadent. It was beautiful.
ZW: We found oysters from San Diego, and they also have seaweed, which is really great.
CP: Those rock crabs are really good.
ZW: Yeah, those rock crabs from Santa Barbara. They're a lot of fun, and we have a guy who comes by and delivers fish for us every Sunday. We mostly use fish for smoking. We always have smoked fish on the menu. So right now we have smoked snapper and a bunch of other stuff.
SI: What's the strangest ingredient you had to say no to? That you couldn't use?
CP: That we couldn't use? Umm... human. (Laughter.)
ZW: Oh yeah.
CP: This one lady makes these babies. It's weird. (Laughter.) We stay away from Dungeness crabs.
ZW: We stay away obviously from foods that are more associated with ethnic foods. We don't use that much cilantro. We try to keep our food continental United States if possible. But I guess we haven't come across an ingredient that was just like, "No." There are ingredients that don't work or aren't appropriate.
CP: There's lots of ingredients we wish we could use. Because we do everything from California, we can't do softshell crabs. That's one of my favorite things. So it's a little restrictive. We put a little handcuff on ourselves.
ZW: I think were surprised by some of things we can find. Like these rock crabs from Santa Barbara.
CP: Yeah, they're so good. It's really surprising.
ZW: They're a lot like stone crabs from Florida.
SI: Why no Dungeness crab?
ZW: Because the rock crabs are better. They're way better. Dungeness is so expensive. That's the reason why we don't put The Prisoner on our wine list either. We know a better product for a better price, and it's just more honest to put it on the menu. You also get more meat out of them.
CP: The meat is sweeter .
ZW: We're really excited for spiny lobster season to kick back up.
SI: Where do you get those?
ZW: The same guy we get the crabs from.
CP: That took a very long time to establish a relationship with him. We had to get his cousins to come here a couple times and have the food and harass him and tell him, "You've got to come over here and try the food" before he would agree to sell to us.
SI: Which one is that?
ZW: His name is John Wilson. He's up over in the Hollywood Farmers Market. Sea Fever, it's called. (Naomi Shim walks in.) This is Naomi. She's our pastry chef.
ZW: (Walters turns to Shim.) He was asking us about the ice cream. He's wondering why we don't have hot peanut butter sauce on the menu. (Laughter.)
SI: What's hot peanut butter sauce?
CP: It's like a sundae from Friendly's. Have you ever heard of Friendly's? It's this East Coast family restaurant. They push ice cream big. The sundaes. About half of them have peanut butter sauce on them, but it's hot fudge and hot peanut butter sauce and it's so amazing. It's just ridiculous. She seems to think it's trashy and won't put it on. But then we snuck in a photo of it in Jonathan's review. An online photo.
ZW: Naomi, how do you like just using products from California? We do have to bend a lot for the pastry department. Like the chocolate, for instance. But it's roasted in San Francico.
Naomi Shim: I mean, it's restricting. I would like to use coconut.
ZW: She would love to be making macaroons. (Laughter)
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