SPOTLIGHT ON...CHEF OCTAVIO BECERRA
HOMETOWN: Los Angeles
COOKING STYLE: Mediterranean influence with locally sourced ingredients.
FIVE COOKING STAPLES: Great olive oil, fleur de sel sea salt, farm-raised eggs, hand-made tortillas, his mother's salsa.
FAVORITE KITCHEN GADGET: Truffle slicer.
FAVORITE COOKBOOKS: "Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook," by Alice Waters; "Ripailles," by Stéphane Reynaud.
FAVORITE DISH AT PALATE: Calamari with figs.
When you add it all up, there's more than just dinner at Palate Food + Wine. Located on the bottom floor of a wine-storage depot, Palate is a restaurant, a wine shop, a tasting
bar, a cheese cellar and a "gastronomic" library with more than 200 titles. "It's a wine-centric, passionate and down-to-earth place," says Octavio Becerra, a self-made chef who opened the Glendale eatery about a year ago. Unlike many of his colleagues whose affinity for cooking began at an early age, the Los Angeles native launched his culinary career almost by accident.
"At 19, I stumbled into the Cadillac Café. It was my first restaurant job," he recalls. "The restaurant offered a creative environment and a platform or medium where
I could truly express myself. I really became interested in touching people's senses, sights, sounds, smell, touch and, ultimately, taste. I went into it from an aesthetic point of view - and wasn't really focused on becoming a chef."
That changed after a pivotal meeting with restaurateur Joachim Splichal, who was working a two-night stint as a guest chef at the café. Splichal hired Becerra to work at Max Au Triangle in Beverly Hills - "I waited all day for an interview that lasted 45 seconds," Becerra says - and later arranged for the budding chef to work at Michelin starred restaurants in France and Spain.
Returning to the U.S., Becerra went to work for the Patina Group, becoming executive chief and a partner in Pinot Bistro in Studio City. He was instrumental in opening several other Patina Group restaurants and training chefs until his departure in mid- 2005. "It was just time to move on," Becerra says. "I was 40 years old, and if I didn't pull the trigger then, it would be more difficult at 45 and almost impossible at 50."
Palate represents Becerra's first solo restaurant project, an enterprise with 26 investing partners. He describes the cuisine as "infused with a Mediterranean sensibility" using ingredients from local growers. "I have great reverance for ingredients and technique and letting the ingredients sing on the plate," he says.
The menu changes every Thursday, but always includes a signature "porkfolio" of cured meats, along with mason jars of patés or potted meats and fish. Entrees may include prosciutto-wrapped scallops, pork belly with stone-ground grits or prime beef with spring onion agrodolce.
Wine director Steve Goldun has assembled a broad selection of wines from around the world, which can be paired with dinner, tasted at the bar or purchased at the shop in the rear of the restaurant. "We have a synergistic relationship between the wine shop and the restaurant, and 90 percent of the value-driven wines in the restaurant can be purchased in the wine shop."
Although other restaurateurs are daunted by the down economy, Becerra hopes the dampened real-estate market will give him the opportunity to expand. "I think it's safe to say that I'm not just a one restaurant kind of a chef," he says.
Heirloom Tomato Salad
4 heirloom tomatoes
24 cherry or Sweet 100 tomatoes (or a combination)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon Banyuls vinegar (a mellow vinegar from the Banyuls-sur-Mer region of France)
1 cup wild arugula
4 ounces hard sheep's-milk cheese, shaved
Rinse and pat dry tomatoes. Oven-dry the cherry or Sweet 100 tomatoes at 300° for 1 hour. Meanwhile, cut heirloom tomatoes into different sizes and shapes and place on platter. Arrange oven-dried tomatoes on and around the heirlooms. Drizzle with olive oil and vinegar and season with salt and pepper, to taste. Sprinkle with arugula and shaved cheese.