On the Line: Ben LaFleche of Shades Restaurant, Part One
As temperatures rise, On the Line heads to the coastal cities, kicking things off at the Hilton Waterfront Resort, where Ben LaFleche is gradually changing the way guests think about corporate dining.
Your best recent food find:
It's not that recent, but it impacted me so much. My wife is Indonesian, and she introduced me to such an amazing and flavorful culture that still blows my mind with how great it is.
Tell us about your cooking style.
I like to cook proteins that require a lot of love. I love braising. My style tends to be on the heavier side, rich and slightly sweet. My love for Asian food shines through most of the time in my dishes. Here at Shades, I try to take classic dishes that people love and try to make them different using ingredients that people might not be so familiar with.
One food you can't live without:
Bread . . . because it's just amazing. And practical. And when it's warm, it reminds me of a small pillow on which I could, if needed, rest my head on.
Where does the restaurant name come from?
We got the name from the lighting that was designed by Rick Cooley. The shades are such beautiful pieces that they decided Shades Restaurant would be fitting.
What is on your current seasonal menu?
I'm in the process of modifying some items for the warmer season. I will be changing my Barramundi dish to a Mediterranean style, with artichokes, new potatoes and herbs from our garden.
Favorite places to eat:
I love ARC in Costa Mesa, Lola Gaspar in Santa Ana, as well as Java Spice in City of Industry.
Most undervalued ingredient:
The fifth quarter -- any parts of the animal that would normally be discarded or disregarded are by far the most undervalued in my opinion: neck, tail, hock, feet, cheek, tongue, etc.
What is your favorite mealtime?
I would have to say all of them. My favorite things to eat are sandwiches, whether it's a breakfast sandwich, PB&J, corned beef, or my bison melt. I just love sandwiches.
Best culinary tip for the home cook:
Have great tools. Having great pans and pots might cost a bit more, but it's well worth it and will last a lot longer. The right tool for the job is also really important.
Your earliest food memory:
My mom stayed at home most of my childhood, and my dad was a butcher. They both cook amazingly, so I have a lot of food memories. My mom's chicken cacciatore and my dad's pigs feet ragout were fantastic.
There are a lot I like. Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook from Animal. It is by far one of my favorite restaurants, and they cook things that I would love to get away with here. There are so many chefs I respect for their creativity and their passion. Orange County has become an amazing culinary destination.
Most popular items on the menu:
Right now, I would say the sweet, salty and sour chicken with a potato and tarragon waffle is up there. For lunch, the PB&J -- bourbon peanut butter and jalapeño jelly -- is quickly becoming a fan favorite.
Where was your most recent meal?
At home, and it was bumbu rujak. My wife, Mayco, is a fantastic cook, and she makes this Indonesian dish that has pulled chicken, corn, green onions and cilantro in a curry sauce made with coconut milk over steamed white rice. It's stupid good and addicting.
Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best:
We have the best of everything! It's Orange County!
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten:
Well, in culinary school back home in Canada, I was lucky enough to participate in the Insectarium's yearly insect-tasting event. [Laughs.] Back then, Montreal was one of the rare places that would open the doors to the public to let them try insects. I got the opportunity to cook and eat scorpions, crickets, grasshoppers, larvae and ants. It was a great experience.