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Chef Q&A: Anthony Lamas

Anthony Lamas followed a girl to Kentucky from California in 1994.

While that relationship didn’t last, Louisvillians have benefited from his marriage of Latin flavors and Southern ingredients ever since.

After stints at several local dining institutions, Lamas and a partner opened Jicama on Bardstown Road in 2000. When the lease was up they parted ways and he decided to start fresh, opening Seviche, a Latin Restaurant, in the same space in 2005. You can’t get much fresher than seviche, fresh raw fish “cooked” with citrus juices. But Lamas, who is now exploring opening a second restaurant in Nashville, Tenn., is careful about what he takes from the sea. His commitment to sustainable seafood earned him a Seafood Ambassador Award at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s 2011 Cooking for Solutions festival. He has cooked at the James Beard House numerous times, and he was a founding chef of the increasingly influential Atlanta Food & Wine Festival. When he spoke with Food & Dining in early June, he had just returned from the third annual Festival, where he is now a member of the advisory council.

DD2_5686bAge: 44
Current Restaurant: Seviche, a Latin Restaurant
Previous Restaurants: Jicama, Timothy’s, Picasso, Baxter Station
Neighborhood (current): Springhurst (Louisville)
Hometown: Lindsay, California
Significant other: Samantha (wife)
Kids: Nicolas Anthony (20), Ethan Diego (10) and Ian Cruz (4)
Favorite Hobbies: Anything outdoors — camping, hunting, etc.
Favorite Cookbook: Marco Pierre White’s White Heat.
Favorite Kitchen Gadget: Immersion blender, for bisques, chimichurri and sauces.

Why did you become a chef?
We lived in a big agricultural area. I was in Future Farmers of America; I worked on a veal ranch; we raised lambs, steers. It’s kind of ironic that I ended up being a chef because a lot of what I learned through agriculture, I apply now. When I was about 11 years old, my uncle had a restaurant called Lamasty. I grew up around that and I’d learn a little bit, like how to use a knife; it started as a trade for me. But it wasn’t until I moved to San Diego and met my mentor, Jeff Tunks, in 1989 that it changed from being a trade into an art. I was turned on by the passion of it. He took me under his wing and gave me confidence because he said I had a natural talent.

What is your first food memory?
I would go stay with my aunt — my Nina Yolanda, I called her — every summer. A lot of times she would have all the cousins over. She’d take us all to the grocery store and give us five dollars each to get whatever we wanted. Everyone would run to get cupcakes and doughnuts, and I would go to the meat department and get a steak.

So what did you want to be when you grew up?
I loved music and I played the drums a little bit growing up, so I thought, How cool would it be to be a drummer in a band? Being a chef is kind of like being the leader of a band. You have to have everybody working together. In music, everybody has to be on time and focused, and the rhythm has to be there – and I think it’s the same thing in restaurants.

Fill in the blank: If I weren’t a chef…
… I’d still be a struggling musician (laughs). Maybe I’d be working outside — maybe farming. Something to do with agriculture. But it’s hard for me to imagine doing anything else.

Who has influenced your cooking the most?
My mother. Even though we didn’t have a lot of money growing up, we always sat down at the dinner table together, and she always created amazing food with just the simplest ingredients.

Who are your favorite chefs?
Jean-Louis Palladin. I met him through Jeff Tunks. He came from France in the early ’80s and really challenged Americans to source the best ingredients. Also José Andrés, and Alice Waters because of what she did in California.

Other than your own restaurant, what’s the first place you’d take out-of-towners?
I’d go see Bobby Benjamin at La Coop. I love his food. There are simple, straightforward ingredients, but his food’s really clean and his passion shows. I love the ambiance of Dean Corbett’s dining room; it makes you feel like you’re away. And then I would take them to Preston Highway to La Tropicana for some real-deal, amazing tacos.DD2_5863

Which seasonings don’t you respect?
Truffle oil. It’s not even a truffle. And people overuse it.

Which are underrated?
Salt, believe it or not. I think people are afraid of it, and so much food is so bland. And maybe citrus. People don’t use it in the right way. A squeeze of lime in a soup can just make something pop.

Are there any culinary trends you are wild about right now?
I like that people are being more health-conscious — lighter, brighter foods, not so rich, not so much butter.

Any trends you consider overrated?
I’m so burned out on “farm to table.” That’s what we do, that’s how I grew up, but people want to label themselves. We should be doing that — we should be sourcing the best-quality ingredients. My mom would go out and pick the avocado. That’s how we should eat — I mean, it comes from the farm and it goes to the table. That term just irks me. And I’m over bacon. Bacon, bacon, bacon — bacon milkshakes. It’s just abused right now.

What’s your greatest strength in the kitchen?
The ability to get everyone focused and to inspire and teach people.

What’s your downfall?
My weakness, which I’ve been working on, is probably my temperament — keeping my emotions in check. I’m very passionate, and I’m Latino, and the passion comes across the wrong way.

What music was playing in the kitchen last night?
It could be anything from Johnny Cash to Dépêche Mode, from Dr. Dre to Cindy Lauper. (The music is all from his iPod.) The restaurant is kind of a reflection of me, I think; my personality comes through in the way it looks, the feeling, the music. I always say, “Mi casa, su casa.”

DD2_5911What’s your favorite go-to ingredient?
Citrus and fruits.

Is there a guilty-secret ingredient in your kitchen — something you’d rather not be spotted using?
There is. My wife gets it, but I use it. It’s the spray bottle of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. It’s so convenient for corn on the cob. I would never use it in the restaurant, but sometimes at home I’m lazy and it’s just there.

What else is in your personal fridge?
A lot of fruits and vegetables. Cucumbers. I love simple cucumbers tossed with lemon and red-wine vinegar and salt; we snack on that. And meats for the grill. I do a lot of grilling.

Your favorite quick meal to prepare at home?
Albondigas soup. It’s a meatball soup that my mother used to make when we were kids. She would take cooked rice and mix in raw beef and seasonings and oregano and make meatballs. Then she would make a chicken broth with some squash and carrots and potatoes and a little corn and drop the meatballs in and simmer it. It’s so delicious. One-pot meals like that, I do a lot.

Best cooking tip for a novice?
Don’t be afraid to undercook seafood. So many people want to cook it all the way through, and then it’s dry. You can always throw it back in. Also, give your proteins —chicken, steaks, fish — a nice sear in a cast iron before baking to really lock in the juices.

If you could cook a meal for anyone, who would it be and what would you cook?
That’s a good one. Um… who would that be? Gosh, that’s… let me ponder that one and come back.

OK. What was your own last food-related ‘wow’ moment?
I was just in Atlanta for the Food & Wine Festival and I love what they are doing at Empire State South. The simplicity and all the local ingredients — you could tell it was springtime. You knew they were sourcing seasonally. And The Catbird Seat in Nashville. They do these modern interpretations of food. Sometimes when you do that, the flavors are second to the technique, but they just captured everything. It was like, Look how beautiful that is, and look at that technique — and then you put your mouth on it and it was, oh my gosh, full of flavor.

Dumbest thing you’ve ever done with food or in a kitchen?
Chopping chilis and then using the restroom and rubbing my eyes, if you get my drift. I learned real quick.

What cooking skill required in your kitchen is the most difficult to master?
The balancing of flavors.

“Iron Chef Louisville”: Whom do you not want to battle?
There’s not anybody I wouldn’t want to battle. Bring it on. I’m not scared.

“Survivor: Louisville Chefs”: Name two local restaurant personalities you’d want on your team.
I’d say Bobby Benjamin would be one, and then I’d go with Adam Burress at Hammerheads. Bobby is in shape – he was a baseball player – and Adam is from the woods here in Kentucky. He was my sous chef for five years and I used to tease him. If I needed him to climb a tree barefoot, he could do it.

OK, back to that previous question: If you could cook for anyone… ?
I could go so many different ways. I could say Julia Child; I could say the president; I could say my mother. But my mother is still here, and I can cook for her a lot. So I’m going to go with something fun: the original Charlie’s Angels, all three of them, because I had a crush on them as a kid. I would do something very romantic, like a rib roast with butter-poached lobster and grilled asparagus with lemon-chipotle Hollandaise. And for dessert I would do strawberry shortcake with fresh-picked strawberries, whipped cream and edible flowers.

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