On the Line: Christopher Tzorin of Tortilla Republic, Part One
First impressions of chefs are generally positive. While it might be a dog and pony show for me, instinct will say whether they are genuine in their demeanor and response. The first time I met Chris Tzorin, he was working alongside Pascal Olhats during a culinary competition I judged. While he hammed it up for the audience, chef's On the Line interview showed there's a history of hard work behind that smile.
Your earliest food memory:
My father, Luis Tzorin, was the executive chef at 21 Oceanfront in Newport Beach, and he taught me how to peel potatoes when I was five years old. It was my first great experience in the kitchen.
Tell us about working with your father.
Working with my father was very special, because my first experience in the kitchen was with him. He initially taught me how to prepare food, which is when I fell in love with cooking. I wasn't allowed to call him dad in the kitchen, so I called him chef or his nickname "Chicko." He expected so much from me, which was very difficult at the time. But he taught me to set high standards for myself, and molded me into who I am today.
One food you can't live without:
I know this sounds silly, but I can't live without my wife Vanessa's grilled cheese sandwich. She creates the tastiest grilled cheese I have ever had, and it is made with love.
What is your beverage of choice?
I love the Long Island Iced Tea from The Laguna Beach Saloon, as the mixologists there craft fantastic cocktails with the right balance of ingredients.
Most undervalued ingredient:
Piloncillo (sugar cane) adds so much flavor to sauces and balances different flavors, especially when adding it to tomatillo sauce. I encourage every chef to use it as an ingredient, as it makes everything taste better.
Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best:
In general, Orange County has an underrated restaurant and chef scene. Additionally, The Golden Foodie Awards recognizes excellence and our local cuisine, which helps put the Orange County restaurant scene on the map.
Weirdest customer request (and did you do it?):
I have had strangers request that I butterfly filet mignon and make it well-done, which is strange to do on such a beautiful cut of meat. However, I have fulfilled this request as I want to to make our customers happy.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten.
Frog legs are the weirdest thing I've ever eaten.
What did you learn from working at The Beach House that you wouldn't have learned at The Art Institute (and vice versa)?
I learned how to prepare dinner for a very busy restaurant and cater to the local scene while working at The Beach House. At the Art Institute, I was able to network with other chefs, and I learned how to cook cuisine from all parts of the world, and how to plate the food.
Favorite place to eat.
Savannah Chophouse is my favorite place to eat because my best friend Manny Velasco is the Executive Chef there, and he cooks fantastic food. Eating there reminds me of sitting at home and enjoying a great meal.
What cooking competitions were you in, and what did you make?
I won best presentation for OC Tastefest Celebrity Chef Challenge in 2012, where I created three courses with drink pairings. I was also featured on two cooking competition shows on the Food Network, "Guy's Grocery Games" and "Cutthroat Kitchen" in 2013. In episode Cart Your Engines of Guy's show, I created triple chocolate pop tart s'mores, and in episode Duck Duck Gnocchi of Cutthroat, I made duck a la rouge.
How does the modern Mexican cuisine at 195 Downtown Grill differ from Tortilla Republic?
Tortilla Republic and 195 Downtown Grill are very different. 195 Downtown Grill was a sports bar, so I focused more on fusion and cuisine that worked well in a bar setting. At Tortilla Republic, I create authentic, yet modern Mexican dishes with French and Italian techniques. At Tortilla Republic, I also focus on creating dishes for guests with different dietary needs, including gluten-free items. While they are different concepts, I put the same love into every dish at each restaurant.
Where was your most recent meal?
I recently dined at Driftwood Kitchen in Laguna Beach, where the chef crafted an incredible soft shell crab sandwich.
Tell us about working with Pascal Olhats.
After winning OC Tastefest Celebrity Chef Challenge in 2012, I was singled out by Pascal to reinvent the menu at Savannah Chop House, which helped establish me as a respected Orange County chef. Although we don't work together anymore, I still call him every week to catch up. He is like a father to me, and he helped define my career path.
Favorite meal growing up.
I always loved eating my mom's enchiladas with red onions and Parmesan cheese topped with ranchero sauce. Still to this day, I ask for them when I visit her.
Best culinary tip for the home cook:
Recipes are just a guideline, so it is important to cook from your heart and put love into your cooking. Join one of my cooking demos, so I can show you what I mean.
Discuss those traditional Mexican flavors that you incorporate in the kitchen.
Growing up, my mom would cook Mexican food, so every sauce and ingredient I use reminds me of my mother's cooking. Tortilla Republic's Consulting Chef Cathy Shyne is my mentor, and she showed me how to use a molcajete and how to char tomatoes and reduce sauces so that they taste like traditional Mexican flavors. All the dishes at Tortilla Republic feature inventive, modern Mexican fare while incorporating traditional flavors.