This past weekend at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival in Indio was pretty memorable: Leonard Cohen at sunset; singer/vegan Morrissey's classic between-song nugget of food criticism directed at the BBQ shack — “I smell burning flesh … and I hope to God it's human!”; Warrior Queen's incendiary set of nasty dancehall; My Bloody Valentine's ear-blowing Sunday set.
But a decade from now, if you were to ask me about Coachella 2009, there's a good chance that the 2 a.m. feasts created by Ken Concepcion, sous chef at Cut in Beverly Hills, will be the first thing to pop into my mind.
In addition to cooking at Wolfgang Puck's flagship steak restaurant, Concepcion is also a music freak and has done Coachella for the past six or seven years. He and some friends rent a house with a pool and a big kitchen, and do music and food. I've been lucky enough to stay with them for the past two years during the festival.
After I returned from the Coachella weekend, I kept thinking about Concepcion's food, and tossed the chef an email asking him for details on what he cooked, and how the hell he managed to prepare such exquisite meals for eight while on an ten-hour-per-day Coachella music schedule. He says he narrowed it down to three meals:
“This year I had certain cravings and ideas about what sun-burnt, dust-covered, hearing-impaired festival goers would find comforting after 10 to 12 hours in the desert air,” he writes. “Pretty much everything I bought Thursday night at the nearby Albertsons, and it cost only a little over $100. The only things I brought from L.A. to the house in Palm Springs was kosher salt and a few spices (ground cumin, smoked paprika and chile powder). I had to think about things that were satisfying, relatively inexpensive and, most important, could be almost done in advance so I wouldn't have to be behind the stove all day / night.”
After Paul McCartney let out on Friday, while the rest of the crowd was stuck in line at Del Taco, we headed back to Palm Springs.
The night before, Concepcion had prepped something exquisite. As we were hanging by the pool, the aroma of fennel, marjoram, mint and parsley mixed with the gentle smell of lamb and drifted out of the kitchen — “classic bolognese,” Concepcion says, “with lamb being a cool twist for the spring.” The chef continues:
“First was the rigatoni with lamb bolognese — with peas, pea shoots, and mint. I was pretty happy to find locatelli, which is this great kind of pecorino, to micro-plane on the pasta. As you might recall, I started the prep for the lamb ragu Thursday night and then put it on Friday morning, and it was good to go before I left to sit in three hours traffic. Ground meat, wine (both “Two Buck Chuck,” red and white), some San Marzano crushed tomatoes, mirepoix plus fennel, marjoram, mint, parsley and then finished with a healthy amount of milk and butter (bowing to the the dish's origins of Bologna). The peas — which were frozen — and the pea shoots (from the Santa Monica farmer's market) were all good companions to the lamb and mint. It cooked for nearly three hours. I learned this dish at Spago, where they will do this sometimes with gnocchi. I thought it was even better on Sunday night, as all ragu gets a chance to marry flavors over a day or two.”
Saturday night, I rode back to the place with LA Weekly freelancer Jeff Weiss, who was also staying at the house. On the way home, we were a little nervous. Concepcion, who is the most hospitable host there is, had made us a feast the night before, but hadn't really said anything about Saturday night. We didn't want to be presumptuous and expect something as perfectly paired as midnight and bolognese — we didn't want to assume that he had cooked anything at all. So we hit a Wendy's, and I nearly ordered a hamburger. But then I gambled. I decided I'd rather go hungry with nothing than waste space in my stomach that might possibly be used for another Concepcion creation.
We walked into the house and my knees nearly buckled with the aromas. As Concepcion tells it, here's what was served to us that night:
“Latin-style black beans and rice with 10-hour pork shoulder. Friday morning I marinated some pork shoulder with smashed garlic, orange peel, scallions, the cumin, paprika and oregano, thyme, bay leaf and a ton of cilantro. I splashed that with the juice of two Cara Cara oranges and some extra-virgin olive oil. Threw it in the fridge overnight. I had brought my trusty Crock Pot so all I had to do Saturday morning was throw the pork in with some canned black beans, chipotle peppers, more orange juice, some aromatic veg, two cans of Rotel's tomato with chiles, a touch of Mrs. Buttersworth syrup and a bottle of Shiner Bock beer. Easy as it gets. When we got back from the festival on Saturday — which was actually around 2:30 Sunday morning — I just had to cook some rice in my rice cooker, which I also brought from home. The pork was really tender. Served this with some red onion, lime wedges and some sour cream.”
Sunday night we had the most amazing leftovers you could possibly imagine. Monday morning we slept in, then dilly-dallyed. Concepcion expressed disappointment that he hadn't cooked the chorizo yet. Yeah, we said, that's incredibly disappointing.
I'm turning the rest of this post over to Concepcion:
“I really wanted to make some eggs while at the house, because eggs are easy and also because breakfast is pretty much perfect anytime of the day, but especially when feeling lazy and hungry. So I thought a scramble of chorizo and eggs with a touch of that canned chipotle juice and cilantro would hit the right note for desert grub. It was all about the garnishes, really — perfect avocados, sliced and dressed with lime juice, olive oil, and some store-bought pico de gallo; sliced scallions and diced red onion; crumbled queso fresco and fresh cilantro sprigs; and of course, warm corn tortillas. Eating this Monday for lunch and reflecting on the past three days by the pool was pretty much perfect. Beans and rice was also on the side.
“Have to give a special shout-out to Michelle's awesome mesquite-flour cookies with chocolate chips, walnuts, oats, and banana chips. She also made overnight “creme brulee” French toast, which was essentially bread pudding that we poured the syrup over and washed down with big cups of coffee. But I think you and Jeff missed this, you were at Billy Duff's.
“Cooking food over Coachella weekend wasn't that much work, and given what our options were after coming home from the festival this seemed like the way to go. The kitchen in the house was fully stocked and well-equipped so it was that much easier. Being a chef, you want to be good host and obviously feeding people is a big part of that. Even when you are on vacation.”