Q & A with Chris Phelps and Zak Walters, Part 2: Favorite California Products + Why No Dungeness Crab
Andrew Froug Chris Phelps and Zak Walters at Salt's Cure
In part one of our interview with chefs Chris Phelps and Zak Walters of West Hollywood's butcher-shop-turned-restaurant Salt's Cure, they explained that wet aging is hocus pocus and that the pigs they buy from Napa Valley live more glamorous lives than we do.
In part two, the chefs reminisce about their culinary careers, how they met and the challenges they face in operating a restaurant that serves only products from California. Check back later for their pulled pork sandwich recipe. It requires little else beyond a whole lot of pig, but it's given all the love and care in the world.
Squid Ink: So how did you two meet?
Chris Phelps: Our paths intersected at Hungry Cat. And then we had a beautiful reunion.
Zak Walters: It was your birthday.
CP: Yeah, we were watching Sling Blade or Batman Begins.
ZW: Chris said that he's been wanting to throw a pig roast on the beach. We still want to do it. It was like a pipe dream in a way. But then we just continued to talk about it and we thought of a name. We didn't talk about any of this while at The Hungry Cat. Hungry Cat, we're coming up on four and a half years. It was a very long time ago. We worked together for nine months?
CP: Something like that.
SI: What other restaurants did you work at in the meantime?
ZW: I worked at the Mondrian Hotel. I worked at Cube. And then I worked here.
CP: Canele. Then I cooked for rich people, actually. That helped me get by.
SI: What was that like?
CP: It was really cool. They had a guest house and an Olympic sized outdoor swimming pool and a waterfall hot tub. A collection of 1990 Bordeaux. To have all that and get paid was great.
ZW: I worked at Tavern while this was all getting built. I did a lot of catering for Lucques. Again, we started talking about this two years ago in March. And then we got a business card. As soon as we got the business card it was official. Then we went through the joy of starting a business in the city of Los Angeles. And what a joy it is.
SI: What was that like?
CP: it was a lot of fun. (Both laugh.) A lot of trips to different buildings. It got old right away, and then it just turned into something else. I was a robot. Eventually it was done.
ZW: It's definitely a process. If you're gonna do it, you should definitely do it yourself. You should oversee it. Most people hire expediters to do their whole process for them. I don't even know if that saves any time.
CP: They do because they'll like bring a cute daughter along with them.
ZW: Oh yeah, we saw that.
CP: And they get to move forward in the line or something. Like, "Oh, here are some flowers." They don't bribe them or anything. They just do stuff. I don't know if they bring flowers or whatever, but they do little things to try to make it easier to try and get past the red tape.
SI: Was there red tape for the opening here?
CP: Just the usual. You have to do things in order, and it takes like a month to do each thing in the process. Like parking. To make that parking lot connect to here, it took a month to just say, "Yeah, it is part of it." And then we would apply for some other thing. Some health department thing. And that takes three months. And then we can do building and safety. Then that takes a few months until you're actually building the place.
ZW: And all the departments are also only open three days a week for the most part. Monday, Wednesday and Friday. And they get one Monday each month off so you have to plan your strategy. The city of West Hollywood was great, though. The planning department moved us quickly. They put our project ahead of a bunch of other ones.
CP: I don't think that was true.
ZW: I like to think that's true.
CP: I'd like to think that, too.
SI: So you guys were at The Hungry Cat, which is seafood. And one of you guys was at Gaijin Sushi in Norman, is that correct?
ZW: Yeah, how do you know that?
SI: Read it online.
ZW: You read that online? Jesus Christ. Yeah, I started at an Italian restaurant and then I worked at sushi bars for three years in Oklahoma and then a year at Blowfish Sushi when I first moved out here. I tried to get a sushi job in San Francisco, but they laughed at me.
ZW: Oh yeah.
CP: He was in love with a Japanese Princess, and the only way that she would...
ZW: She was Hawaiian. (Laughter.)
SI: Who was this Hawaiian princess?
ZW: No, I don't know. My ex is Japanese. But that had nothing to do with the sushi bars. (More laughter.) I just like the taste of seaweed.
SI: So you guys go from sushi and fish, and I know you guys have mussels and swordfish and oysters.
CP: Whatever we can find.
ZW: Well, the meat intensive thing is: his background is really, really high-end restaurants in Baltimore.
CP: I worked at a steakhouse. So we went through everything.
SI: What's the most unusual ingredient that you get to serve here?