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May, 2009

Chef Carlos Garcia

By Dennis Linden

May's Guest Chef...
Chef Carlos Garcia
May’s featured recipe, a uniquely flavorful marinade created by Chef Carlos Garcia of the Sheraton Cerritos Hotel, in Cerritos, California, would definitely be a great addition to any Cinco de Mayo celebration. However, the versatility of this sauce extends way beyond this one holiday and even the steak-on-a-stick tapas that Chef Carlos chose to show off for this feature. In fact, this inventive chef’s unique creation has multiple culinary personalities in the best sense of the term.

Achiote Habanero Marinade is one of those rare blends that can enhance the flavor of beef, fish, chicken or pork with equally delectable results. As a sauce, it is delicious poured over rice and vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower. At your next backyard barbeque, try it slathered over corn on the cob for an altogether new taste combination. The all-purpose nature of this sauce was experienced firsthand when this writer served the chef’s steak strip tapas to some friends. When the tapas had been consumed, my guests improvised with slices of sourdough and turned some of the leftover marinade into a very tasty dipping sauce! While polite decorum was practiced, it was definitely a controlled feeding frenzy, also in the best sense of the term! Do not let the habanero in this recipe scare you off either; this marinade is all about flavor, flavor, flavor. While there is just a hint of spicy aftertaste that pleasantly finishes the experience on one’s palate, it is surprisingly mild considering this pepper’s fiery reputation. The trick is in how the chef seeds and lightly scrapes the habanero’s interior, a great lesson in managing the impact of any hot pepper.

The flexibility of this sauce starts with an ancient Yucatan mixture called Achiote, which is a paste made from crushed Annatto seeds, vinegar, salt, garlic and spices, then dried into a small, bouillon-like rectangular block. Achiote can be found in any well stocked Hispanic section of most supermarkets or gourmet specialty stores. While its roots can be traced back to the Mayan culture of Mexico, today it is also a favorite ingredient in Jamaican cuisine, and in the Philippines it is considered a whole style of cooking. While the Achiote block is flavorful on its own, it became multi-faceted under Chef Carlos’s culinary creativity. He dissolves the block of spice in a combination of marinade fluids like soy, Worcestershire, oil, liquid smoke and then adds several more layers of fresh flavors with selected herbs, garlic, shallots and the habanero pepper. It should be emphasized that the liquid smoke needs to be a part of this recipe no matter the cooking method used and that includes a barbeque grill. “The liquid smoke is an essential flavor ingredient,” explained the chef when asked. “Without it a flavor component is lost that cannot be replaced even on a wood fueled BBQ.” The resulting taste is that of a smoky rib sauce with salsa overtones; although that description only hints at the complexity of flavors that are triggered, which does vary depending on what this recipe is used on or in. The whole preparation process will take the reader very little time to make, however this sauce will keep on ticking with food and flavor combinations that are practically endless. Chef Carlos Garcia approaches his art with an infectious enthusiasm. At thirty-three, Carlos says that he has found his professional niche after spending his twenties exploring all the major sectors of the culinary world and, as he put it, having way too good of a time during that process. He began his career working at fine dining eateries in Southern California. His restaurant experience lead to a stint in the Sports & Entertainment sector of the food business working in large stadiums and special event pavilions for a national food service corporation. Then he learned what it was like being his own boss with a successful catering company for a couple of years. “While each position taught me valuable skills and lessons in my chosen profession, none provided a clear path to the success that I knew I could achieve given the right career environment,” admitted Carlos. “That is, until I had the opportunity to move into the hospitality industry with the Sheraton Cerritos and Sunstone Hotels Inc., who manage this venue as well as other hotels globally. I immediately realized that this was the opportunity that I had been looking for and I intend to cook my way to the top of the organization.”

This commitment to maximizing his position as Executive Chef is very much in evidence with a unique partnership that the chef has formed with a local high school located near the hotel. Carlos has turned his kitchen into a working classroom, where he shares his passion for food to inspire and instruct students in a very hands-on culinary arts program. His students are his kitchen crew for the hotel’s real time culinary needs. This is not a drill for the teacher or students; in fact, Chef Carlos became a certified instructor in order to further legitimize the program as an accredited class for graduation. This summer the program will expand from one school to include students from throughout the entire school district.

“Because this class is being taught LIVE in a working hotel kitchen environment, students come here with a roll-up-the-sleeves attitude. They respond to the challenge that the tasks assigned them contribute not only to their culinary education, but to the hotel’s bottom line success. For me, it’s very exciting to watch these kids grow as responsible individuals; plus knowing that I may be responsible for some of them to follow a culinary career is extremely rewarding.” While this quote came during a telephone interview, it was obvious that the chef was speaking with a smile that beamed with pride for his student crew. Conveniently located at almost the center point of the Southern California region and just steps from the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, the Sheraton Cerritos pulls visitors from the entire area. Besides providing an opulent getaway setting for guests from Los Angeles to San Diego, the hotel is a premier location for corporate functions, conventions, wedding receptions and other special events. Chef Carlos oversees all food service activities for the hotel, which include the hotel’s Grille 91 Restaurant, Room Service and Special Event Catering. Remember his name, Chef Carlos Garcia, you are bound to see it again as the ambitions of this dynamic chef become his reality.

Achiote Habanero Marinade
Yield: 3¾ cups marinade, tapas for 4 servings.
Achiote Habanero Marinade
Ingredients:
2 Tbsp. Liquid Smoke
1 cup Soy Sauce
5 oz. Worcestershire Sauce
4 oz. Canola Oil
4 oz. Water
1 (3 oz.) Achiote block
2 Tbsp. Garlic, minced
2 Shallots, minced
¾ cup Cilantro, finely chopped
2 Tbsp. fresh Thyme, finely chopped
1 Tbsp. fresh Rosemary , finely chopped
1 Habanero, seeded, lightly scraped interior, minced
2 lbs. Hanger Steak (options = NY, Shirt or Flank cuts)

Combine Liquid Smoke, Soy, Worcestershire, oil and water. Dissolve Achiote block in liquid mixture. Add the rest of ingredients except the steak. Separate out 1 cup of marinade to spoon over steak once cooked.

Slice steak into ¼” strips about 8” long. Sew onto skewers, marinate for 1 hour. Quickly grill or broil (about 3-5 minutes per side), basting once per side. Arrange tapas skewers on a large platter, spoon more marinade over steak, serve.