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Chef Juan's Taste-Popping Pop-Up

02 March 2016 Written by  By Tricia Piquero
Published in March 2016 Articles

At the end of January, I participated in an incredible, multi-course dining experience, called a pop-up, hosted by a local chef, Juan Hernandez, owner of Elisa’s Catering.

This was Chef Juan’s second major pop-up. Last October he hosted a 10-course dinner focusing on Asian-French- Fusion cuisine paired with wines from Big White House Winery and John Evan Cellars.

Chef Juan said the evening became a feast for all the senses because the 30 guests had gathered for the meal at a beautiful Diablo Country Club residence and were treated to a spectacular sunset above a beautiful valley, which provided a fitting visual accompaniment to the flavors, textures, and spices that were pleasing the diners’ sense of taste.

Chef Juan’s January pop-up that I attended was a splendid dinner featuring Southern and New Orleans cuisine. Each entrée and side dish had its own brand of spiciness and a unique kick to the taste buds.

Chef Juan greeted each of us with a small bag filled with southern heirloom popcorn flavored with Cajun spices and butter. The meal itself had nine-courses, each of them paired with a fine bourbon, beer, wine, or champagne. The dishes featured traditional New Orleans recipes including such regional ingredients as rice, peas, popcorn kernels, and grits. I never tasted anything so Southern and so good.

Gourmet food preparation at this level requires the absolute freshest seafood and ingredients. I learned that Chef Juan had ordered many of the ingredients from a South Carolina distributor, Anson Mills, which was a premier source for Southern fare. Chef Juan said that when the shipment came in, “I could get the feel and taste of the South.” I know just what he was talking about. Shrimp and grits were combined with spices for a taste-popping sensation. Seafood Gumbo was served. Oysters, crab meat, Carolina gold rice, soft-shelled crab salad with watercress, shaved golden beets, shaved relishes, shaved watermelon relish, and grated cured Cajun egg yolk were some of the taste splendors of that incredible meal. The Sous Vide Fried Chicken was melt-in-my-mouth.

Chef Juan served an interesting and tasty version of the southern traditional black-eye peas and rice dish, called Hoppin’ John, except that he substituted tastier heirloom purple-hull peas for the more common black-eyed peas. The Grilled Oyster with Spicy Garlic Butter Sauce and Gnocchi with Lobster and Oregon White Truffles were indescribably delicious. We finished off with Cornbread Ice Cream flavored with sorghum syrup, Bourbon Bread Pudding, and Beignets.

The Louisiana-themed dining was an adventure for most of us — with flavors, spices, and textures that we Californians seldom encounter. I’m a fan of the “continental” dining style Chef Juan has at his pop-ups, which includes a number of entrées following one after another in a leisurely procession, allowing time to appreciate the taste of the particular dish we were eating and to carry on conversations with the others at the table. The serving sizes were appropriate — sufficient to permit enjoyment of the taste and flavors but not so large that you ended up feeling overly stuffed. The experience was so delightful that I didn’t want the night to end.

There was an additional quality to the event because it was held in a private home that had recently undergone a beautiful renovation and was impeccably furnished with elegant grace. Pop-ups are fun and have an ambiance that is more inviting than would be possible in a formal eating establishment. We were guests in a splendid home rather than customers in a fine restaurant. The event began with a feeling of camaraderie and happy expectation. We were strangers at the beginning of the meal, but while dining on those amazing dishes, chatting, and joking with the others at my table, by the time the meal was over I felt that my fellow diners had become friends.

Chef Juan and his wife Erin explained each course before it was served. The presentations were marvelous and the crew of table servers served us in a Downton Abby manner. Water glasses were always full; empty plates were immediately cleared. The servers were more than merely professional; we could feel a sense that they really loved making us happy.

Chef Juan admitted that he had never been to New Orleans but a friend, who was a specialist on the area’s cuisine, had given him two bags filled with old style Cajun and Southern cookbooks. Chef Juan searched through hundreds of recipes and experimented with a number of them, inviting friends who had been born and raised in the South to sample his dishes, and quizzing them about what would make the food taste more like authentic Southern and Cajun cooking.

Chef Juan said he discovered “heart” to be the most distinguishing characteristic for success with this cuisine, because creating these dishes in a correct manner requires a lot of loving patience. For example, gumbo takes time to prepare because it must be thickened with a base of flour and fat cooked together, called roux, which has to be babied and cooked slowly in order to extract the nuttiness from the flour. He then had to be equally careful about mixing the roux with crayfish stock. “You have to have the heart for it to do this right,” Chef Juan said. “You have to cook for the love of it.”

The two pop-ups were such successful events that Chef Juan is planning a third one, possibly in the Brentwood area. In this case, the recipes will be made from ingredients supplied by Brentwood’s noted Farm Fresh to Table agricultural setting. He’s planning to have the dinner outdoors, perhaps, at the end of March or early April. I can’t wait. My mouth is already watering in happy anticipation

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