American Melting Pot

David WilhelmRecipes

One of the unique and wonderful aspects of American food is that it all came from someplace else…just like us. Maybe because of this we’ve never had any issue with combining ingredients in non-traditional ways, which is so unlike European traditions, where each country has its own cuisine and there’s not a lot of ‘fusion’ of different ethnic dishes going on. Sure, there’s the Alsace region of France where French and German foods came together in a delicious, unique, and somewhat combined style, but this is rarely the case in Europe at large.

Back in my early chef days, at my restaurant Pave, in Corona Del Mar, I was a practitioner of what was then dubbed ‘California-French’ cooking, which meant using French techniques and sauces to create lighter, fresher dishes which were a better fit with the ‘healthy’ California lifestyle. This was big for some time in both LA and Napa Valley.

‘California-French’ cooking was really the early genesis to the whole ‘Farm to Table’ movement that eventually evolved and has become so prominent today.

About the same time there began to emerge another type of ‘fusion’ cooking that became known as ‘Contemporary Southwestern Cuisine.’ Chefs like John Sedlar, Mark Miller, Dean Fearing and Stephan Pyles were making big splashes in California, New Mexico, DC and Texas combining the wonderful tastes of Mexican food into French, Italian, Asian and American dishes. This trend in the mid-80’s was, excuse the pun, red hot, with seemingly endless combinations, some of which worked and some just too precious for their own good. But for several years I was into it too, having grown tired of cooking the same Cal-Frog dishes, this was exciting stuff so each night in addition to the 4 course CF menu, I started doing a few SW dishes as specials. They immediately became so popular that a few nightly specials quickly grew to a separate a la carte menu filled with such dishes as BBQ Shrimp on Sweet Corn Tamales with Salsa Verde, Goat Cheese Chile Rellenos with Blue Corn Crust and Papaya Salsa, and Brandied Lobster Burrito & Corn Crepe Burrito.  Annual treks to Santa Fe were like finding the Holy Grail to me. Memories of walking from restaurant to restaurant, with snow falling and the smell of Pinon wood fires in the air is still vivid for me today.

Back from Santa Fe, my cooking had caught the attention of El Torito Founder and President, Larry Cano, who was looking to update the ET brand. He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse and asked me to create a new prototype concept, which eventually became the El Torito Grille opening in Fashion Island in the mid-80’s. I was given the ‘Best Chef of the Year’ award by the Southern California Restaurant Writers later that year. Larry was a visionary and a great guy to work for and I was saddened by his passing 3 years ago. More about ET later…

Fast forward to my departure from ET and to the opening of ‘Kachina’ in downtown Laguna Beach, my own Southwestern restaurant complete with colorful New Mexican folk art, glowing sponge painted, ochre colored walls, the prerequisite Kachina doll, and all the blue corn muffins you could stuff into your face. Even with the success the ET Grill had enjoyed I was quite shocked at the immediate success and response to Kachina.

LA Times critic Max Jacobsen call my work at ET trendsetting and said my ‘Shrimp and Green Corn Tamale’ was one of the best dishes he had ever had.

It was a heady time and, as a member of the self-described “Devil’s Triangle” along with Michael Kang’s ‘5 Feet’ and Sorrento Grille, we kicked some serious ass in Laguna. Prior to these three restaurants there wasn’t much reason to dine in Laguna Beach but these 3 put Laguna on the culinary map and started it on the path to where it stands today. Note: Of all the restaurants that I’ve created over the years, more people tell me that Kachina was their favorite than any other.

Well, I almost forgot where this incredibly self-serving story was headed, and some of you likely are saying “Yeah, and you better get there soon.” OK, so many of the dishes I created for the ET Grill were either Mexican dishes that used non-traditional American ingredients, or were American dishes that incorporated Mexican ingredients…I worked it both ways. The classic steakhouse ‘Wedge’ salad and the traditional ‘Caesar’ are arguably 2 of the most iconic salads in the country so I wanted to but a Southwest twist on one of them. I was uninspired in trying to see how I could Mex up the Wedge, so I decided to rev up the Caesar salad. I started with the dressing. I loved the punch and flavor profile of classic Caesar dressing so didn’t want to veer too far away from that, so I started with the traditional recipe but added a pesto to it made with cilantro, roasted Poblano chiles, and toasted pumpkin seeds (pepitas) …really liked it. Next, I borrowed an idea from the Italian side dish of grilled radicchio, which I had enjoyed many times before. I cut a heart of romaine in half so it had a flat side to it, I brushed my new dressing onto the cut side, and grilled the head cut side down. My goal was that it would have both hot and cold elements to it with the outside slightly charred and wilted and the inside still cool and crisp, so there was plenty of texture to the salad. I was digging the little bit of char that was added to the flavor so the last step was to just decide how to finish it off with yet some more Mexican goodies, so I diced some avocado and sprinkled it on the top along with some pico de gallo, a few chile powder spiced pepitas, and a little Parmesan cheese for good measure. When I tasted the complete dish for the first time the only thing I felt it needed was more of that righteous dressing so I spooned a generous amount on the plate before putting the lettuce on it which added the punch and help keep the head from sliding all over the plate. This salad now tasted like a runaway Sante Fe freight train! It had become one of my iconic creations at ET and one that I had absolutely had to have on Kachina’s menu.

So the story here is that with every restaurant I opened after Kachina, I had Guests asking why I didn’t have the grilled salad on the menu. During my earlier years, I was proud of the fact that no two concepts ever had the same item on the menu but, ultimately, I caved to the pressure, and it became a signature salad on each menu and it continues today as one of our most popular salads at all JFAT locations.

So back to ET one last time. This salad and, more importantly, the dressing, along with the sweet corn cake garnish that came on most plates, were two of the most popular items on the menu. Today, you can find both my dressing and my mix for the corn cake on the shelves of many local supermarkets under the ET label…I should have hired a better lawyer.

In closing, I am sharing the recipe for my Poblano pesto so you can make my, or your own version, of the grilled Caesar. It makes a light, yet satisfying starter on its own but add a little grilled steak, shrimp or chicken and you’ve got yourself one very satisfying entrée.

I am recommending that you buy your favorite brand of Caesar dressing and stir in the Poblano pesto as the results will be great and most of you won’t want to spend the time making your own emulsified Caesar dressing. The pesto is also great tossed with pasta (it’s how we make our Spicy Tequila Shrimp Pasta) or spread atop grilled chicken or fish.

Have a great grilling summer friends and thanks for listening!

Recipe – Roasted Poblano Pesto


» 4 each Large Poblano chiles
» ¼ cup Raw pumpkin seeds
» ¼ cup Parmesan, grated
» 1 Bunch Cilantro, stemmed
» 6 each Garlic cloves, peeled
» 1 tsp Salt
» ½ cup Olive oil

Baste with dressing


Place chiles over high flame on stove top or grill and char until all sides are well blackened. Place in a covered container and allow to steam for 20 minutes.

On the Grill

Meanwhile, place raw pumpkin seeds in saute pan and heat, tossing frequently until popped and toasted on both sides. Under cool running water, remove blackened skins, stems and seeds from the Poblanos. Place poablanos and all other ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth puree forms. Place in container, cover and keep refrigerated until ready to use…

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