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When I was in seventh grade, back in the days when girls still took home economics (I realize I don't seem nearly as attractive as I did 10 seconds ago, but I try not to lie on anything 'cept my driver's license), I entered a schoolwide chocolate chip cookie baking contest. We were all given the same recipe, equipment, ingredients, and amount of time to complete the task, and we all did our baking at the same Formica-topped kitchen stations. Yet somehow, none of the finished products ended up the exactly the same.
Whether this was the specific consequence of Julia Morgenstern's inability to read labels and follow directions (which resulted in the tragic substitution of salt for sugar, and painful disqualification) or my intuition that the recipe required an extra dollop of butter and water; or whether the whole exercise was an indictment of a system that sought to quash individualism and independent thinking in favor of an institutionalized, homogenized junior-high cookie ethos, it's hard to say.
All I know is that my round, chewy cookies beat her small, lumpy ones -- and I've got the apron prize to prove it. For years after, whenever I made cookies, I always considered the extras my secret weapon, a signature of sorts. You figure out something that no one's tried or that satisfies something deep inside you, and you grow attached. You carry it around with you like a talisman, until it becomes part of your character, like dotting your i's with a heart or combing your hair à la Donald Trump.
And even when you grow up and move on and stretch your creative wings, the dish finds a way back into your life. Such a truism is no doubt why roast lobster has trailed Gary Danko from the Chateau Souverain to the Ritz-Carlton, why Michael Mina has had a hard time letting go of foie gras in triplicate.
"For me it's [pork] rojo with hominy," says Lance Dean Velasquez, whose long résumé cuts an impressive swath through the city from Moose's to Home to his current spot, Bendean, in Berkeley (1647 Solano, 510-526-3700). "I'm completely in love with it -- the variety of textures, gelatin from the bones and protein, the starch of the hominy; it makes for a great mouth-feel. Not too soupy, and not a heavy stew. It's a reflection of my heritage, and of who I am as a chef."
The dish, a slow-braised pork chili, began green (as in verde) at JohnFrank (the pre-incarnation of Home), seasoned with cilantro, tomatillo, jalapeño, and raw onion. Variations have included flavors such as Mexican oregano, mint, and fresh lime.
"At Home, we did it served with minishots of Tabasco and avocado wedges, which was great for a high-volume scoop-and-serve menu," says Velasquez. "But then I got bored and thought, 'What would happen if I did the dish with chipotle and pasilla peppers, and tomatoes?'"
Thus was born his pork rojo, which has found a permanent, beloved spot among Bendean's offerings, and for which more than one local food critic has vowed to follow Velasquez to Timbuktu, should this gig not work out. In its current iteration, it comes with mellow lime guacamole and a mound of crispy tortilla strips.
"After I left Gary Danko at Chateau Souverain, I thought, 'This is the level of cooking I want to do,'" Velasquez says. "But that wasn't me. I had to recognize that I don't do cutting-edge food. Braising is a style that will never go out of fashion; it's a dish I'll never get tired of making or eating."
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