Monday, August 19, 2013

Hanging Out with MasterChef's Howard Simpson

Via his Twitter profile (MC4Howard):

 "I'm a combat veteran living in Southern California. I love food, I love wine and I love cooking for my friends!!" Howard Simpson is a San Diego transplant now living in Orange County. So it was fitting to end up at CUCINA Enoteca, another SD transplant, for our interview. Eliminated from MasterChef, we grilled him out on the patio as he inhaled his Brandt Farms burger [Note: Made with braised short rib and Fiscalini cheddar. Needless to say, he loved it.] and Moretti beer. We chatted about hospitality education, his current employer and that Ramsay character.  

What are the differences between the dining scenes in San Diego and Orange County?
I think the Orange County dining scene is growing and has a lot of potential. It's not established yet, but I think it's getting there. There is so much opportunity to grow. Everything is developing. San Diego has kind of been established, and now we're kind of tweaking things. Right now, I feel there's two categories of eating. You have your upscale dining, which seems like Sol and Cannery-- all of these $150 dinners. And then you have your hole-in-the-walls. There are no medium, casual dining places that are not chains. In San Diego, we have this place called Ocean Beach Noodle House. They have live entertainment and microbrews on draft. Yeah, you can go and get hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese food. But you get that idea and bring it into a atmosphere near the beach, with a young crowd and different cultures.  

Let's discuss your time serving.
I spent three years in the US Army, based out of Fort Lewis, Washington. I was in the infantry, so I spent 12 months in Afghanistan. I was an assistant machine gunner on a machine gun team. I finished out my contract, got out and went straight to hospitality school.  

Where are you going for hospitality school?
I was going to the Art Institute in San Diego. But now I transferred to the Orange County campus. I started in July for food and beverage management.  

Was MasterChef what you expected it to be like?
Yes, it was. I didn't think I was going to make it as far as I did. I was just happy if I had just gotten an apron. I didn't grow up cooking in a kitchen. I just like cooking for fun. To have someone say I'm one of the best home cooks in America is the most flattering comment I could ever have. I could die tomorrow, and I've served in a war and worked for the best chef in the world at 26. All I need to do is have a kid and buy a house, and the American Dream is over.  

Have you met your cooking inspiration, Brian Malarkey?
Yes. I worked at his catering company, called Campine Catering. I interned there for about a year. I'm a fan of his reputation, his food and his success. He's where I want to be at his age.  

Where have you eaten since you moved here?
My favorite place is Charlie Palmer, so far. I've been to Cannery, 3-Thirty-3, EN Sushi. I haven't found a good ramen place yet. I heard about the one in a market, but I don't want to go to a market to get ramen. I love seafood curry ramen.  

What was the hardest challenge?
The first mystery box, which should've been the easiest because it was a lamb challenge. I started by making a lamb roulade and I put a cranberry lime relish inside and rolled it up. Then I made a bell pepper frittata. So I had my plate, and I put my relish down. Then I get the frittata, cut it out and I stack it. I butterflied the lamb loin, put the relish inside, rolled it up, put it on foil and baked it. I put that on top of the frittata and drizzled jalapeno honey on it. It was so good, and they didn't show it.

The next challenge was "chocolate, bacon, tomato, potato." In my head, I thought frittata-- breakfast. This is a show about creativity and individuality. I didn't want them to think all I could do was frittatas. So I decided to do something crazy. I did a potato scramble stuffed in a tomato and chocolate-covered bacon. But I was so scattered with my ideas that I didn't season the chocolate or do a double boiler. And the girl behind me did a frittata. They loved her dish. That's how I got eliminated.  

Where are you working these days?
I was recently hired at Pelican Hill to take care of the private villas and bungalows. They're one of the finest resorts in the world right now, so it's nice to be a part of that. Even though I was on MasterChef, I'm a front of the house kind of guy.  

How did you learn about MasterChef, and what did you learn from the show?
I had been cooking for my girlfriend for a few months straight, all the time. And I always had my old roommates try stuff. They were cooking frozen stuff from a bag, and I'm making things like ceviche. My roommate came home one day and said they were doing a casting call. He told me to try out. So I made a dish that represented who I was. My ingredients were all organic and local to San Diego. I got halibut that was caught off the coast from Point Loma Fish Market. I made a citrus ceviche with cucumber slices. Out of 30,000 applicants, I made it to the top 100. And then I made it to number 15 before I was eliminated.

If you think you're a good cook, you definitely get checked at the door when you go to MasterChef. Gordon Ramsay cooked in front of us a couple of times. To see a Michelin-starred chef and the way he performs, he just uses pans and olive oil. I thought I was horrible. I have no idea what I'm doing. But at home, when you're cooking for your friends and roommates, you look like a Michelin-starred chef.

I'm a big fan of Gordon's YouTube channel. I watched how to cook scallops, and then he cooked them for us. I had the YouTube video in my head. He put the scallops in a circle, grabbed the seasoning, put his hand out and seasoned them from a distance. He then heats the pan up, adds olive oil, sets them up at 12 o'clock, and goes all the way back around. By the time he drops the 11 o'clock and flips it over to 12, it's 90 seconds on each side. Takes them out. Done. Perfect.  
What do you want people to know?
I'm new to Orange County. I'm exploring the culinary world that Orange County has to offer. I would love to be welcomed into anyone's restaurant. I would rather wear a suit than a chef's coat. I have an amazing palate, and I have a strong opinion. I'm encouraging any restaurant owner in Orange County to invite me for a tasting.

Monday, August 12, 2013


I'm typically the warmest person in the room, so searching for heat isn't really a priority for me. However, when I can get a little entertainment with my meal, then fire is most welcome. Here are some places where I love to watch them light it up.

For the Blue Light Special: El Corazon

How about some flaming tequila with your coffee? This one-man show offers the most options in addition to your after dinner drink. Frangelico, Kahlua, and Kahlua & Baileys can all be incorporated with your heated tequila in a flourish, as you can see from our model. One of their signature items, El Corazon is less about dining and more about socializing with margarita in hand. Unless you order Mexican coffee-- then look forward to the scoop of vanilla this balancing act will be poured over.

This reminds me of Independence Day sparklers. One of two table side treats, the other being an old school Caesar, Kierney (our server) presents a dazzling performance known as their hot chocolate. The Catch dessert starts off innocently enough, then blazes into a fireworks spectacular worthy of neighboring Angel Stadium, thanks to creme de cocoa and Bacardi 151. Coated in salty/sweet flavors, walnuts, caramel and chocolate protect vanilla bean ice cream. A nifty shaker of cinnamon allows for a good 15 seconds of Instagram video fame.

In this throwback to Old World cuisine, classic Italian specialties appear in their dark, cozy dining room. My preferred antipasti is hot stuff, as shown above. I was initially nervous at the proximity and height of our towering seafood inferno. However, he deftly prepared our shellfish, finishing with citrus and herbs. What I liked most was watching the dish come together from start to finish.

Sushi Dave sums it up best when he updates his status with, "Hot women and cold fish." From our awkward visit to The Venetian to his chef interview, it is apparent that David Fernandez knows sushi. Those that dine upstairs agree one of his best is the salmon lime roll: a creation of crab and avocado, topped with salmon and slivered lime. The final step is a brief torch of canned heat, intensifying the flavors. Of course, no discussion of Dave is complete without pitching his infamous jalapeno sauce. His all-purpose condiment is on the verge of something big-- it's just a matter of time.

Alcohol and flames give me flashbacks of St. Elmo's Fire (Don't ask if you don't know). Watching the ARC gang wield its powers for good is magical. Patrons are treated to seasonal vegetables, dips that unintentionally commingle and memorable cocktails. Libations such as Fighting Chance or Cigarettes & Coffee are embraced by counter culture, as gentlemen infuse smokiness and other nuanced flavors into liquid nourishment. At ARC, it's all fire, all the time.