In this series, I'll have a chef come cook at my kitchen, compose a dish that means something to them & their career, and have a drink or two while we are at it. I'll be taking a few elements and ingredients from their dish to create my own bite sized spin as well. And in between, we will get to know just who it is making these epic dishes & what drives them to keep on cooking.
In 2015, i cooked next to one of the most passionate chefs I had ever seen. In a head to head battle. It was almost difficult to stay focused on my own work. He had professionalism I really had not seen at that level yet. Confidence and precision. There is something about competitive spirit that really shows someone’s heart. We both walked away without any hardware that day. But if there was ever a feeling that you knew you’d see someone again- and see them doing something amazing- then I can definitively say this was one of those feelings. So it was an easy choice to call up my next chef for this series, a chef I’ve respected for year. That is Gabriel Balderas, owner and executive chef of El Cabo Verde.
I try to get a good feel for someone’s career early on in these interviews, as I’ve noticed I get a better idea of how they became the chefs they are today. The pedigree here is impressive, each part of his journey building on the next. From taquerias in Chicago; a stop to a small town in Kentucky that went on to become a little arts mecca. An extended stay in Birmingham that led to time in a Thai Kitchen- where he learned to rethink some of the ingredients he was familiar with from his roots. And even more time under great names in Birmingham, learning how to and how to NOT run a high end kitchen. Gabe even ran a kitchen for a huge barbecue operation. We’re talking down home, potato salad and beans, ribs and pork butts, ice box pie kinda barbecue joint. The type of batch cooking that I can only have nightmares about, but yet they still had a commitment to doing everything from scratch. And that focus on integrity of product is something that kind of ran throughout our night.
So all of that to tell you how we ended up with the Balderas fam in Shreveport! Gabe was all set to move from Birmingham to open up a new seafood restaurant in New Orleans…in the fall of 2005. Katrina happened, and the Balderas crew, with two young kids, decided it wasn’t a good time to make that move in to the unknown. So his company sent him up here to Shreveport- and the rest is just our good fortune!
I have since had a friendship with Gabe over the last few years, but its always been in the context of our own restaurants. So it was really great to get to learn more about the kinda guy he is. I found my interview and cooking time with Gabe to be focused. Every question was met with a thoughtful and even inspired answer about where he has been & where he is going. And even more importantly, where he hopes WE are going.
From humble beginnings, i can’t paint in words the lush tropical setting he laid out. Fresh water streams with rainforest tilapia and river clams. Low hanging guavas, mangoes, bananas and plantains- all out in the wild. And all of this shines in his philosophy of food. Every fruit, veggie, meat, and fish that comes in to his shop is inspected like a hawk. So many in our business sell a tagline that only the finest ingredients make the finest foods. But very few hold dearly true. It was refreshing to hear from him his thoughts on foods role in community and identity. I truly hate to bastardize his eloquent words, but his heart is in educating- his staff, his kids, his customers- and focusing so much on bringing this commitment of quality real foods to everyone. He has spent so much time with Slow Foods spreading the good truth on real grub. Helping schools build farms and teach each of them how to grow their own food. Even the coolest little urban garden right outside his restaurant. Everything about his food is centered on integrity.
Which makes this dish such a heartfelt decision. He prepared for us lentils. Organic green ones to be precise. Packed with onion, bacon, plantains and cooked in an instapot. This was the dish of humble origin. He remembers the comfort tied in to it, made by his mother and grandmother. Smoky and salty and sweet. You could see how it felt like home. This was a base for dishes to come, and he wanted to finish off the dish. Grouper was the choice.
Each medallion cut on the bias in about a 2 oz piece. Flame on high, he worked the fish over and over with hot butter, ladling over each piece quickly until each small filet was perfect- and i mean perfectly- cooked. It was such a rhythm cooking that fish, intuitive from years of repetition. And what dish is complete without garnish rounded up from your own garden- like these sun gold tomato blooms, thyme and red serranos (not to mention the best pickled red onion I’ve ever had.) The dish was homey. Delicate and robust at once. Warming but not over powering. The definition of balance, which is just hard to find these days. Like a true craftsman, he pointed out the flaws. I wouldn’t have known any different, but you have to respect anyone that serves as their own biggest critic.
My dish went in a different direction, based on that same hominess and paralleling a few of his ingredients. I settled on a custard that ultimately I loved to hate and hated to love. Sweetened with maple and turbinado, I just couldn’t get it to where i wanted sweetness wise.
The custard was predominantly egg yolk, coconut milk, maple syrup, turbinado and a touch of bacon grease- as well as minced bacon. The salty smokey was on point and just missed that extra sweetness. I fried the plantains on top and dusted with cinnamon sugar. Now those plantains I could have snacked on for days! Super ripe plantains are definitely the way to go on something like this. Overall, I’d make this again, but I’d probably sweeten the custard with sugar as opposed to natural sweeteners.
It was time well spent learning from a friend. He mentioned on the way out how impacting it is to cook for someone in their own home. And I think- caught up in the day to day of restaurant life- I forget how much heart goes in to cooking for one another. A meal not soon forgotten with years of friendship ahead.