Chef Chat Part 3, Cunninghame West of Valentino Restaurant Is No Food Snob

The last two days, Chef Cunninghame West has been entertaining us with stories about moving around the country looking for new jobs, hiding things in cane fields and sleeping outside by the ocean; see our conversation here and here. Today West goes in the kitchen to whip up some things for us to try.

A vegetable appetizer course of stuffed zucchini with cauliflower and shrimp over a three-tomato sauce with rebiola cheese, thyme, garlic and butter was the standout of the night. "This is a good example the philosophy 'Never waste flavor' that I learned from Steven Simmons," says West as I reveled in the deep, smoky, flavors of a tomato sauce of sun-dried, oven-dried and fresh cherry tomato, scraping up every single bit of sauce I could off the plate. The textures in the dish were also pleasing: the zucchini was cooked but still firm, with an ever so slight crisp that contrasted well with the softness of the cauliflower and shrimp. "I was vegetarian for a number of years," says West, "so I really learned how to stretch the flavors for maximum effect."

A house-cured duck prosciutto, topped with a small mound of baby arugula, fresh shaved parmesan, and sprinkled with olive oil and fresh cracked pepper was simply beautiful to look at, the oil giving the prosciutto a slightly glistening sheen. Part charcuterie, part beef carpaccio, the duck prosciutto had a saltiness and a slightly chewy texture that went well with the spicy bitterness of the arugula -- this was a simple example of classic Italian, and a wonderful dish to pair with our 2007 Rodney Strong Meritage from Alexander Valley, an exceptionally smooth, yet full-bodied Californian red.

Valentino makes all of the pastas by hand, and since I'd tried his signature two-toned lobster mezzaluna before, West created a spiced spaghetti with lobster mushroom cream, tomato, basil, mushrooms and fresh lobster. "The pasta was twirled and laid in the middle," said West, who is adept at using the pasta press when needed. I love anything with rich, creamy sauce, but a sauce with mushrooms and lobster? The homemade pasta against the decadent, creamy sauce, for me, was like eating a well-made Chateaubriand topped with Bearnaise sauce, an indulgence you just have to experience to get how good it is, no matter how calorie-laden it might be.

We had several other dishes that night -- a scallopini veal, a beef involtini, and Valentino's signature slow-cooked baby back ribs (available on the tapas bar menu), but that night, the vegetable and pastas stood out against the meat dishes.

For dessert, he did a lemon brulee tart, with a shortbread crust, strawberry and vanilla bean sauce and toasted almonds. The crust was as light as air, the lemon brulee tart sweet but not cloyingly so. I typically don't care for lemon desserts, but this one was very pleasing. "What's in the creme brulee?" I asked, to which West lowered his voice and confessed conspiratorially, "To be honest with you? It's a Martha Stewart recipe."

And that about sums up what West is like. He's not a food snob, so if Martha Stewart's recipe is a good one, he's not above using it. He may have started as a teenage boy working construction and flipping burgers, but now he is Executive Chef at Valentino Houston, where he collaborates on menus with James Beard award winner Luciano Pellegrino. "Ask me if I can make mayonnaise or thousand island dressing now," he says, referring to how stumped he was when he went for his job interview with Steve Simmons. "Can you?" I asked. "Yes, I can make mayo," he deadpans. He can make a lot of other things, too.

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