Diego Velasco has been serving up his pleasure-yielding interpretations of Southern cooking at Memphis Café in Costa Mesa since he and his business partner opened in 1995. Classically trained at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, Velasco grew weary of his original career path, studying for a business degree at Cal State Fullerton. After a few kitchen gigs in Orange County, he knew that being a chef was the right fit.
An appreciation for cooking started early. At 6 or 7, he cooked with his grandmother, helping to turn out celebratory dishes focused on holidays. There were tamales at Christmas, and tortas de camarones con nopales for Ash Wednesday, plus menudo for New Year’s Day. His boyhood hands would peel garlic, prep beans, and steal the occasional warm homemade tortilla.
He says that he got the “Southern bug” at 19, while living with a band called The Rebels with New Orleans’ roots. He fell in love with what they cooked up, including collard greens, sticky chicken with cabbage, and black-eyed peas. The dishes impressed him so much, he would later study the roots of immigrant cooking in culinary school.
Passion for learning about cooking continues to this day. Participating in a yearlong program at the Culinary Institute of America, the Culinary Enrichment and Innovation Program, he takes in lectures on different topics, including food trends and production times. Only 18 participants were chosen from diverse culinary professions; they gather at the three CIA locations: Hyde Park in New York, Napa Valley in California, and San Antonio in Texas.
Graciously, he consented to show me how to prepare his ethereal buttermilk fried chicken, served with rustic mashed potatoes, country gravy, and collard greens braised with bacon. A little dirty rice is served on the side, but that’s a subject for another day.
Note that it’s helpful to watch the video to see the masterful way he butterflies the chicken breast before it’s battered and fried. He creates more surface area to capture the flavor and the crunch.
On the Side: He has been playing the drums since he was a child and is teaching himself to play the guitar. He says that music is a big second passion.
California Dreaming: He knows that he has been very lucky to obtain his dream and open a successful restaurant at 23. But as a creative soul, he likes to conceptualize about owning a restaurant in wine country, a spot that would include a winery and farm.
Drink of Choice: His newest preference is the New York Sour created by Joseph from Ruin Bar within The Lab. Bourbon, turbinado sugar syrup and fresh lime and lemon juices are shaken. Poured out, the ice-cold concoction is topped with a float of red wine.
Eight Limbs Abound: He collects octopuses. They adorn his shower curtain and paperweights. And an octopus stuffed animal rests atop his bed. Yes, he cooks the real deal, too.
Tunes at the Stove: In the kitchen at Memphis, he tunes into good rock ‘n’ roll. At home when making a French dish, cassoulet for example, he plays French café music from the ’50s and ’60s.
Memphis Café is at 2920 Bristol St. in Costa Mesa
Cathy Thomas is an award-winning food writer and has authored three cookbooks: “50 Best Plants on the Planet,” “Melissa’s Great Book of Produce,” and “Melissa’s Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce.”
Memphis’ Fried Chicken Plate
Yield: 4 servings (1 chicken breast per serving)
Marinade: 1/4 cup olive oil, 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, 2 minced garlic cloves, 1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley, 1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme leaves
4 boned skin-on chicken breasts, preferably with first joint of wing attached (airline chicken breast)
Buttermilk, enough to cover, about 4 to 5 cups
Collard Greens: 2 bunches clean collard greens, 6 to 8 ounces thick-cut smoked bacon (cut crosswise into 3/8-inch wide slices), 7 peeled large garlic cloves (cut into thin lengthwise slices), 3 1/2 cups water, 3 sprigs fresh thyme, 1 1/2 tablespoons honey, 1 tablespoon cider vinegar, 1 tablespoon salt, dash hot sauce (Red Rooster preferred), plus salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste at the end
Canola oil for deep frying
Flour Mixture: 2 cups all-purpose flour tossed with 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin, 1/4 teaspoon ground thyme, 1/4 teaspoon ground garlic powder, salt and pepper (to taste), OR tossed with 1 1/2 teaspoons store-bought Cajun seasoning (or seasoned salt)
Fresh thyme leaves for sprinkling atop hot fried chicken
Country Gravy: 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, 1 small onion, finely chopped, 1/2 cup finely diced andouille sausage, 2 medium cloves garlic (minced), 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, 1 cup whole milk, 3/4 cup buttermilk, salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Home-style lumpy mashed potatoes
- In a nonreactive bowl big enough to hold chicken, combine marinade ingredients. Add chicken and gently toss. Cover and marinate overnight in refrigerator.
- Remove chicken from marinade. Using a sharp knife, butterfly the chicken breast on nonskin side, leaving skin intact (make shallow cuts straight up and down working across; look at the video for clarification). Place in nonreactive pan, such as a Pyrex 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Add enough buttermilk to cover chicken. Cover and refrigerate 1 to 2 hours.
- Meanwhile, for collard greens: Using a cupped hand, remove lower sturdy stems from collard greens. Stack them and cut in half down center; cut into crosswise strips about 2-inches wide. Place bacon in Dutch oven and heat on medium; add garlic, then reduce heat to low to render fat. Once garlic is browned and crisp – and bacon is cooked – add water, thyme, honey, and vinegar. Add 1 tablespoon salt and bring to boil on high heat. Add greens; once wilted, lower heat to medium low and add hot sauce. Braise until very tender. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding salt and/or pepper to taste.
- In a deep pot, add enough canola oil to reach about 3 1/2 inches. Bring to 375 degrees, testing with thermometer (the kind that can reach 400 degrees). Place flour mixture in shallow container, such as a pie pan. Remove chicken from buttermilk and dredge in flour mixture. It is best to fry in two batches. Cautiously and gently lower dredged chicken into oil using tongs. Maintain temperature, lowering setting to medium-high if needed. Fry for 9 to 12 minutes, or until cooked through and crisp. Place on paper towels to drain and sprinkle with a little fresh thyme.
- For Country Gravy: Melt butter in large skillet on medium-high heat. Add onion and sausage; cook until onion is softened but not browned, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring, about 30 seconds. Add the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until fully absorbed, about 1 minute. Add milk in a thin stream, whisking constantly. Whisking, add buttermilk and bring to simmer, whisking constantly until thickened, about 3 to 4 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Plating: On 4 dinner plates, place a hearty portion of potatoes in center. Top with collard greens, then chicken. Spoon country gravy on top.