Let's go back a ways shall we? I'd like to take you to a time where I worked in the kitchen for a very busy local bar and restaurant. A year prior, the children's dinosaur museum that I was managing had come under massive financial duress and the owners had to close the wrought iron gate doors for good. Sucks.
Thinking I was going to grandfather myself into that job, I had absolutely nothing lined up for me as a backup gig. Worried, tense with money running out, my wife She-Ra asked me to come work for her in the kitchen where she bartended and supervised. At first I was very grateful but apprehension soon slipped in. Thing was, I had never worked in a professional kitchen before. Sure I worked in restaurants but it was usually serving or bartending, although I had done some kitchen prep work in the past and helped with a friend's catering company, but that's about it. She immediately assured me that my basic kitchen skills, my love of cooking and just knowing what a “pass window” was, that I would do great at her place. So I took the job and found myself in love with cooking professionally and did that for over five years.
Now I work in a library and write about food on this silly blog.
But, hey!, this isn't about me this time. This is about the night I met a young high school kid named Carlos who was all of maybe, what?, 16 or 17 years old? They had initially hired him as a host but seeing as we needed help in the kitchen and he showed some interest and promise, we moved him to the BOH. Um, that would be “Back Of House” for you non-service industry cretins. FOH is Front Of House (that would be your servers, bartenders, hosts, etc) and BOH is all the creff that slaves hard over fire, is constantly cutting themselves with knives, lifts roiling stock pots and work long difficult hours just so you have a nice meal to send back because your stupid club sandwich “just isn't working for me.”
Anyway, I immediately liked Carlos. He was a good kid, always smiling, always flirting with the young female servers and had a good hardworking if not cocky attitude. You need that at times when cooking professionally and at the time that kitchen lacked a good dose of young cajones barking through the line announcing silently yet loudly “I got this!”
And he had it. What he had, we couldn't pinpoint, but it didn't matter. What did matter was when the kitchen had a rare quiet moment; perhaps it was that lag after the initial dinner rush or some big game was so underway that food was the last thing the patrons were thinking about, is when Carlos would spring into action.
This skinny high school kid would take bland, breaded, canned, boxed, corporate restaurant muck and somehow transform them into high end, extremely edible dishes. Sometimes they were just mere snacks, but it didn't matter. One time, if I recall correct, Carlos just “whipped up” a herby pesto, cut up a baguette, toasted the pieces, took some deli meat and created a well crafted chartreuterie board, from literally out of nothing and nowhere. Or the time he debreaded a bunch of frozen shrimp, reimagined the alfredo sauce on the line, finely diced some vegetables and made one of the best pizzas I had in that place. How did he do this? These ingredients are crap and this kid is making three star meals out of them! Unbelieveable.
Then, one day, he was gone. Rumor had it that Carlos graduated Salpointe high school, moved out and was never heard from again. This, dear readers, was not a happy time in that kitchen. We missed the little bugger and now we were back to limp bravado and having to eat standard fare because we were all too busy and lazy to elevate the food drudgery from it's already over processed state.
Some time passed, the restaurant pressed on, until we got some news about our old friend. Turns out that Carlos was in college studying marketing and was trying to turn his life around after some rough times in Tucson.
“Marketing?”, I thought to myself. “But that kid is a culinary wizard. He should be a chef, studying at some high end cooking school. But, hey...if that's what he wants to do then, by all means.”
As it turns out, it wasn't what he wanted to do. At all.
“I made a choice at a young age to drop everything and move to California and try and become a chef,” Carlos told me recently, visiting him in his new location in California. “I was still in college and working towards a degree in marketing. I got a opportunity to work for a chef Hans Wiegan in San Diego at the La Costa Resort. I took a weekend off from school and went to San Diego to "stage", or try out, for this well established chef. I got my ass kicked that weekend, emotionally and physically but I left wanting more. That was it, I never looked back. I then quit my job, left school and moved to California.”
Whew. Okay. Now I was beginning to relax when I heard that he was auditioning for chef Wiegan and when he landed that opportunity and was on his way to being a professional cook, things began to appear a bit brighter. Because a kitchen without the likes of chef Carlos Anthony, is a bit of a bleak future for the culinary world. I mean...marketing? Sure, all well renown chefs have some sort of inner publicist living inside them, among the turrines, arancini recipes, fish stock and hopeless self doubt, if not you think we'd give two craps about Rocco DiSpirito? No. He'd just be another punk kid chef that thinks he knows all about the all about. But because the likes of him have that spirit of self promotion, we now buy his cookbooks and buy into his wholesome looks and approach to cooking on the television.
Well, it's a good thing Carlos has that experience with marketing because in no time flat his talents began to get the attention of some respected chefs in California.
“From Hans I was able to train under chef Richard Reddington (of Redd Wood Pizza restaurant fame), then that led to working with chef Shane McIntyre which eventually got me the job at Searsucker in San Diego.”
For those that don't know, Searsucker is owned by celebrity chef Brian Malarkey, who came to fame by competing on Top Chef and being invited back for numerous televised cooking shows and competitions. It was at Searsucker that chef Carlos really began to cut his culinary teeth, so to speak. And after working alongside Malarkey for a good amount of time, Carlos knew it was time to expand his horizons.
“It was a crazy time at Searsucker,” Carlos explains. “I even got to meet Thomas Keller (of French Laundry and Ad Hoc fame) who called me 'chef'. That was a surreal moment.”
Around this time, a couple of restraunteurs and business partners were gearing up to open a sausage concept in downtown San Diego. When he heard about the opportunity, Carlos offered up his services and pretty soon the ubiquitous Salt & Cleaver opened in the Hillcrest area (www.enjoysausage.com, 3805 5th Ave, San Diego, CA ).
“Honestly it was Ferris Bueller's Day Off,” Carlos noted on the inspiration for Salt & Cleaver. “Really we wanted to do a concept about Abe Froman, the sausage king of Chicago, and bring him to San Diego. But after being shut down by Paramount studios, we cleaned up the idea and created Salt & Cleaver.”
Salt & Cleaver was to be more than a place to eat sausages and drink a beer. Chef Carlos, now Executive Chef Carlos Anthony, beefed up the idea and turned sausages on their casings by transforming them into “hot dog” style concepts with a skies the limit approach to flavors and textures.
There's the “Chicken and Waffles”, which features chicken sausage, bacon, gravy on a homemade waffle. Or the “Duck.Duck.Pig”, a bacon and duck sausage topped with a bacon glaze, orange marmalade and crispy duck confit. There's even a sausage take on the classic Vietnamese sandwich, the banh mi, featuring pickled carrots, cucumbers, jalapenos, cilantro and Sriracha hot sauce. A good dozen or so innovations of the hot dog made with house made sausages and a ton of re-imagined deconstructions from the talented Tucson native chef.
|The infamous Duck.Duck.Pig...|
Not to mention all of the other menu items such as fresh salads, flatbread and classic sandwiches, loaded fries, housemade pickles and sauces and a meat and cheese board to rival any Michelin starred restaurant that would, and does, charge a heftier fee for the delicious fare they offer up. Yet at Salt & Cleaver, you can enjoy such savory fare at a cost that won't have to put your pets up as collateral or pawn grandad's ashes. And that's the best thing about Carlos and Salt & Cleaver; it's a very relaxed, very friendly spot, a bar concept really – with a roll top entrance, intimate patio, full service bar and small comfortable seating areas. There is no pretension here, because there is no pretension in Carlos. Just skill.
|The green tomato salad with bacon relish....unreal!|
When asked about his approach to cooking, Carlos' response was a straight forward, “Simple cooking with classic technique. I want my food to be approachable but more importantly delicious.”
|Deep fried housemade pickles with home made tzatziki...|
Delicious it most certainly is! “I get a real pleasure out of people enjoying my food,” chef Carlos muses. “I think that's why we deal with some of the abuse so well; there is extreme satisfaction in a successful dinner service or a happy guest.”
|The "Board" at Salt & Cleaver|
Soon after Salt & Cleaver took off, the owners wanted to open up another place, a spot up north in Costa Mesa and this time it would be tacos. Again, they just wouldn't be serving up just another taco – oh no!, not if Carlos had is way. So, given the chance to transform yet another classic dish, chef Carlos took the helm and became Executive Chef for a second time, and this one would be for Taco Asylum (www.tacoasylum.com, 937 S Bristol Street, Suite B102, Costa Mesa, CA ).
“They just loved what I did with Salt & Cleaver so much, they just gave me the opportunity to expand my horizons,” says Carlos. Sure it might be a bit challenging commuting from one kitchen to another a good many freeways away, but Carlos is and was always ready for a new challenge, ones that will constantly test his skills as a chef, manager, cook and individual all at once.
Again, his take on the taco was uncanny, if not a bit maniacal. Think, duck mole. Think, wasabi shrimp. Think, pad thai. And, yes, think about a bacon PB&J. Just think about all that. Because I know chef Carlos did. And it's that kind of thinking, that is making him quite popular and not just in the back of house sense.
Which is when a certain invitation came via social media arrived, Carlos did not think twice and took this strange and once in a lifetime chance all the way possible. It was from the producers of the Food Network show Cutthroat Kitchen asking if he'd like to be on the show. Once again, that marketing and inner promoter came bubbling to the surface and of course Carlos said yes.
“It was a really fun, humbling experience,” he notes commenting from his experience being on the show. “I have no problem talking about my self so naturally I nailed the interview.”
Remember that cocky little kid I had mentioned earlier? Yeah. Nothing had changed.
Hosted by walking food thesaurus Alton Brown, Cutthroat Kitchen takes new and weathered chefs though countless and brutal challenges all the while having to cook a tasty and composed dish. Some of the trials include cooking with boxing gloves on, or your prep table be a fishtank and you have to figure out how to make the surface calm enough to cut on or having to use a an easy bake oven toy as your only source of heat...stuff like that. So when Carlos announced that he was going to be on the show, we all gathered around the night his episode aired and cheered him on.
To none of our surprise, chef Carlos nailed each set back and delivered a savory dish no matter what was thrown his way. But in the dessert challenge, Carlos' cookie didn't come out so well, and intoning that bravado we all have known to come to love and appreciate, he literally, let's say, “finessed” his way to a deserved win. The cookie he presented to the judges was a bit flat and not the best looking, but that did not sway the man of the moment here. Carlos literally said this was the exact same cookie he and his mom used to make, evoking a warm and heartfelt tale of better times yesteryear, which induced much eye rolling from the judges and Alton Brown himself from the clear and present danger of pulled heart strings. It was such a synonymous moment, that Food Network created a hashtag for his warm memory glow tale of cooking with mom. #Momcard is now out there as a way to explain no matter how dry and ugly your plate may be, it was the way your mom made it and you wouldn't change a thing about your dish.
|And it's chef Carlos for the win!|
Those infamous cajones had come back fully loaded and blazing in the televised limelight.
“The first show was amazing,” Carlos beams recalling his experience on the show, “it really highlighted my self and winning didn't hurt. I felt very comfortable behind and in front of the camera and I look forward to many more opportunities like that.”
Unfortunately, when he was invited back to compete in the “Evilicious” cycle of Cutthroat Kitchen, Carlos was, well, cut after the first challenge and to this day we have no idea why. The contestants had to make sushi and even through all of the weird obstacles that they had to deal with, Carlos' dish seemed, on TV anyway, the most composed. I still don't get it.
Chef Carlos was robbed!
And that is the bare nature of the cooking beast. As Carlos slowly rises to the culinary cream at the top, the journey itself is not always an easy one.
“Being a chef is a tough lifestyle,” he recounts sweating over the fire as he turns sausage on the grill. “I mean, long hours, grueling work, low pay. Every day in the kitchen is a new challenge, a new problem to overcome, but those struggles make the rewards so much sweeter.”
When asked about the daily toils of being a work a day, hands on chef, I had to know what got him into the business in the first place. What madness would a person such as himself have to possess to want to stand all day, getting very little sleep and repeat the process everyday and somehow make a career out of it?
|Passing it down the line...|
“I got into cooking by accident,” smiles Carlos recalling his angelhood days of working in restaurants. “I was too young to become a server in a Tucson pizza joint so they threw me on the line. With you actually! I fell in love with the speed, the fire and the creativity. I was immediately hooked. Beyond my first real start in the kitchen my grandmother has been grooming me in to become a chef since I was tall enough to stir a pot. I take inspiration and recipes I learned standing by her side as a child all the time in my culinary career.”
Knowing this and working harder than ever, Carlos has already chiseled a niche for himself in his early ascent into kitchen greatness. It's going to be a long road, but, again, the kid is always up for whatever comes his way.
|Cilantro lime chicken sausage curing to perfection...|
So with all that is going on in his life and with his career, I had to know what is next for him.
“Just onwards and upwards,” Carlos admits with a shrug and a wring of his hands. “We're thinking about a possible third location....who knows? I really want our sausages to go retail and wholesale for a wider distribution. Not to mention a couple of food apps are in the work right now. Just keep moving forward. Another Food Network win wouldn't be that bad. Ha!”
|House created pretzel bites with a creamy white cheddar bechamel...|
After a good long chat and consuming a good portion of what he has to offer on the menu, I just had one more question for chef Carlos. Seeing as this is the Tucson Homeskillet, I just had to hear about some of his best memories of living and eating in Tucson.
“Oh man,” he grins wide. “My best food memories are sitting in the El Presidente table at Mi Nidito. Just traditional Mexican food with plenty of love and I'm pretty sure Bill Clinton made that place famous. I also can't find anything close to our Sonoran hot dogs wrapped in bacon and covered in beans and mayo and hot sauce. So amazingly good. Man I wish I had one now.”
With that, we hugged and I left not only full and a little high from the intense flavors and meat, but also happy that an old friend had come so far in such a short amount of time. It was really good to see chef Carlos succeed at such a tender age and it's even better knowing he still has a ways to go. For that, we are all lucky and better off for.
Now we just have to feel lucky when we step into one of his restaurants, knowing he is back there manning the line, stirring up something special all the while concocting something new and delicious that will take us all back to a tasty and possibly familiar place. But not too familiar. We've already gotten familiar with that soon to be famous bravado of his and chef Carlos wants us to go to flavor territories we hadn't really thought about or even knew could exist.
For that simple reason, I thank him for it. And you should too...
|Chef Carlos: "I got this!"|
Camera and Typing
Late June, 2015
Exodus "Pleasures of the Flesh"