Five minutes into videotaping with Nick Weber, I felt like I had a culinary soulmate at my side. As he built alluring flavors with nuanced techniques and ingredients, Weber won me over with his skills as well as his consistently upbeat demeanor. We had fun as he turned ratatouille into something that respected the classic dish, while offering twists to make it au courant.
Weber, executive chef at new Populaire, a modern Cal-French bistro at South Coast Plaza, partnered in the restaurant with much-respected chef-restauranteur Ross Pangilinan. The two are longtime pals, a kinship formed from early days working together in the kitchens of the Patina Restaurant Group.
A lot of thought went into Weber’s plated ratatouille. For one, the summer squashes (zucchini and crookneck) were halved lengthwise and pan-seared on the cut side to build sweet caramelization, as were the eggplants. I’ve made hundreds of ratatouille concoctions in my day, but never thought to do this before cutting the vegetables into large dice and tossing it into the fray. Nice.
Gochujang, the Korean chile paste, came to the party, too. Not only did it add some spicy heat, but it also contributed sweetness and an umami flavor with an underlying addictive je ne sais quoi.
Plated in a shallow bowl, the mound of caramelized ratatouille showed off a raw egg yolk. It was cradled in a spoon-made well, the diner tasked to stir it into the mix to further enrich it, adding creaminess. Finely grated cave-aged Gruyere adorned the top. Off to one side, slabs of pan-toasted sourdough sat at a jaunty angle, chewy on the inside and olive-oil crisped on the outside.
Both expected and unexpected, this ratatouille was a tribute to Weber’s talent and ingenuity. It filled my mouth with stars.
He lives in Huntington Beach with his wife and two sons, 12 and 14.
Populaire, 3333 Bristol Street, Costa Mesa (South Coast Plaza on Level 2, Saks Fifth Avenue Wing (former location of Lawry’s Carvery)
O.C. Restaurant Favorites: Anjin, in Costa Mesa, is a Japanese barbecue spot. The meat isn’t marinated as much as it is in Korean bbqs, so it chars nicely. For antipasti and pizza, it’s Trenta Pizza and Cucina. Two Italian guys own it and make a 30-inch pizza.
Luxury Pleasure: I love a swanky hotel with a good swimming pool, fast room service, and a good restaurant.
Influencer: I appreciate that working with Florent Marneau introduced me to a different style of French cooking. Watching Anthony Bourdain also—seeing him go to places and eat dishes I’d never seen before.
Secret Talent: I play the guitar, primarily an electric Gretsch … good old-fashioned rock and roll. Right now, it’s lots of Van Halen because my son is interested.
Underrated Vegetable: I love the texture of celery. It has such a pleasing, clean vegetable flavor. And the leaves give great flavor, too.
Kitchen Advice: Learn the classics. Learn how to build flavor. Keep it simple; if you use too many ingredients, you can make errors.
Dream Project: Opening Populaire. It took almost 30 years of cooking.
Drink of Choice: Green tea, water, or a good Pinot Noir.
Chef Weber’s Ratatouille
Yield: 4 servings, probably with some leftover ratatouille to chill and enjoy later
- 2 whole red bell peppers
- 2 whole green bell peppers
- Olive oil
- 3 zucchini squash, trimmed, cut in half lengthwise
- 3 crookneck yellow squash, trimmed, cut in half lengthwise
- 2 Japanese eggplants, trimmed, cut in half lengthwise, shallowly scored at 1 ½-inch intervals
- 2 red onions, cut into 3/4-inch dice
- 8 garlic cloves, peeled, cut into thick slices
- Salt to taste
- 1 basket cherry or grape heirloom tomatoes, left whole
- 6 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1 bunch parsley, cut into thin crosswise strips
- Olive oil
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 tablespoons gochujang (Korean chili paste)
- 2 quarts canned crushed tomatoes
- 4 egg yolks
- Tiny bit of Maldon flaky salt, used over each yolk
- Gruyere cheese, cave-aged preferred, finely grated on microplane
- 8 sourdough crostini (thick slices browned on both sides in skillet drizzled with olive oil – chewy inside, crispy outside)
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place bell peppers in a single layer on rimmed baking sheet. Roast in oven until skin blistered. Place in bowl and cover with plastic wrap for 20 minutes. Peel skin off peppers, remove seeds and cut into strips and then 1-inch dice.
- Reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil into a very large, deep nonstick skillet on medium heat (or a very large sauté pan with two loop handles). Add squash, cut side down, and caramelize. Remove squash, add a little more oil, and add eggplant, cut side down and caramelize. Remove eggplant, add a little more oil and onions. Cook onions until softened and translucent, about 6 minutes, adding garlic halfway through cooking time. Cut squash and eggplant into 1-inch dice and place in pan, along with the roasted bell peppers and whole cherry or grape tomatoes. Season with salt, about 1 tablespoon. Add thyme and parsley; toss to combine.
- Stir in a little olive oil, tomato paste, gochujang and crushed canned tomatoes. Taste and add salt if needed. If not working in an ovenproof pan, transfer ratatouille to a large ovenproof pan or casserole. Cover and place in preheated oven for 1 hour. Uncover, gently stir, and cook uncovered about 30 more minutes, checking to see if tomatoes on the surface are caramelized and texture of vegetables is alluringly tender. Cook longer if necessary, uncovered, checking every 10 minutes or so.
- Remove thyme twigs and discard. Spoon about a generous 1 cup of ratatouille in each of 4 shallow bowls (amount depends on whether it is served as a starter to main course). Using a spoon make a shallow well in center. Drop an egg yolk in each. Season yolk with Maldon salt. Finely grate Gruyere cheese on top. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and finish with 2 halves of pan-toasted sourdough bread angled on the side.
Source: Executive Chef Nick Weber, Populaire, South Coast Plaza