A Culinary Wonderboy Grows Up – Chef Octavio Ycaza

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Octavio Ycaza. The guy was different. One look at him and you knew as much. Because you could see it in all the little ways: the way he moved through the kitchen; the way he held his knife; the way his eyes sparkled and seemed depthlessly bright with that indefatigable and unrelenting belief in gastronomic possibility and culinary wonder. Yep. The guy was different. He radiated and pulsed at a frequency far deeper than the other cooks I’d yet known in both professional timbre and tone. He was calm at his work, almost Buddha-like and beatific behind the line. And his cooking abilities—even back then, back in those mythical good old days—were preternatural in their ambition and scope. He was the kind of cook every front-of-house manager dreams of—the kind forever ready to meet the chaos and calamity of culinary life with a clear-eyed equipoise that says, bring it on, motherfuckers, bring it on. With this guy in your kitchen, losing would never, ever be an option. With Octavio in your kitchen, triumph was assured.

And this made him a beloved figure in Washington-area gastronomy.

It also made him a figure of some controversy among fellow cooks. Because he was so young. And so talented. And so very, very popular with the girls (his then-uncanny resemblance to singer/songwriter John Mayer did little to dampen the female ardor, let me tell you). And because he pursued—at too young an age, evidently—a populist’s ambition in obliterating the largely false dichotomy between high and low cuisines by desiring to cook all things for all people, some in Washington—those feckless few—were quick to dismiss his work. They pointed to his school-issue knife roll, his incorrigible surfer-boy charm, his palpable irreverence for the tired old tropes of Francophile gastronomy, as vestiges of a professional immaturity that remanded him to occupy that les enfants terribles status bestowed on all young, so-called “industry climbers” deemed too wet behind the ears to be taken seriously.

How wrong they were.

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I met Octavio nearly fifteen years ago on what surely had to be among his first days on the job. I was running dinner service for four hundred guests at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.; Octavio was my chef. And while the details of that particular event have dimmed and gone a bit fuzzy with time, I do remember—with perfect, soul-shuddering clarity—that things in the kitchen went terribly wrong. There was a raging Sterno fire in a Crescore, for one thing. A kitchen prep table collapsed due to a faulty leg, for another. And one of our perennially inebriated sous chefs nearly severed his thumb with an Adams-Burch utility knife while cutting bread—the typical farrago of behind-the-scenes hijinks and culinary pratfalls that attended most catered events in those days. But Octavio wasn’t the least bit phased. He extinguished the fire, bandaged his cook’s badly mangled hand with a kitchen towel and duct tape, then managed to crank out four hundred of the most beautifully composed and catered entrees Washington had yet seen that season—all in just under eighteen minutes, a culinary land-speed record that is still spoken of by Washington caterers to this day.

Dinner service was seamless that night, and our client—a defense contactor whose company then built bombs for a better American tomorrow—was positively over the moon. He hugged us and slapped our cheeks and pressed a hundred dollar bill into each of our béarnaise-stained hands.

Triumph was ours, and Octavio and I celebrated that night in a dive bar on Capitol Hill. We dropped a few jukebox quarters on the Ramones and swiveled on barstools and drank warm PBR out of the can and discussed all the things young food careerists talk about when buzzed on that admixture of adrenaline and beer—food and girls and rock and roll, ad nauseam, ad infinitum, until the bartender kicked us out after last call. In talking to Octavio that night, I discovered I had found a confederate, a secret sharer, a colleague and compatriot in whom I could invest every faith to deliver gastronomic excellence no matter the adversity or peril at hand. The dude was a jedi. A ninja. A chef to the bone.

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But our great culinary Lennon-and-McCartney collaboration never really got off the ground: Octavio disappeared from Washington a few weeks after that event. He left suddenly, Houdini-like, it seemed, and just like that—poof—he was gone. Why? None of us in the industry ever require an answer as to the comings and goings of our brethren (the nature of the business is itself itinerate), but I now think that after our triumph at the Air and Space Museum that night, the world must surely have seemed more alive with possibility to Octavio, while our little town of Washington, D.C. must have suddenly contracted, gotten smaller, more Southern, more narcoleptic and confining to a young titan gifted with such culinary aptitude and drive.

So Octavio lit out for Paris.

He studied at the Gregoire Ferrandi Culinary School and worked under famed Chef/owner of Le Chateaubriand, Inaki Aizpitarte. After Paris, Octavio journeyed to Ecuador, country of his birth, to travel, and cook and study the food his homeland in all its subtle and sublime glory. After three years in Ecuador, Octavio returned stateside, to New Orleans this time (where he had spent part of his childhood), and in 2010, worked under Chef Alon Shaya at the Cresent City’s famed Dominica restaurant. After that, Octavio’s talents landed him as sous chef at Rio Mar in New Orleans’ CBD, where, by sheer luck, I ran into him again in November 2013.

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I had seen Octavio only once in the intervening decade between 2003 and 2013. That meeting was a tipsy, “bromantic” encounter at a 2004 fundraiser for Phuket tsunami survivors at which Octavio was both raising funds for charity (he donated a dinner for auction), and trying to procure lion meat for a group of Russian mobsters in nearby Great Falls, Virginia (a true story if there ever was one; I couldn’t possibly make that up). To see Octavio after a decade’s time, there in his New Orleans kitchen at Rio Mar, was to see a friend who had arrived at the kind of success that only the constant and unrelenting pursuit of one’s true passion can bring: Octavio looked as happy and contented as any fellow culinarian I’d ever seen. Gone was the wonderboy I had known years before. In his place stood a now-fully formed chef at the pinnacle of his craft. And his hair—that fucking hair—was still perfect. We hugged and shook and made vague plans to rendezvous, later, for a beer. But things came up, as they will, and I didn’t see Octavio for another year and a half, until one sunny afternoon this last April, as I was walking down Louisa Street in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans, next to a restaurant called Booty’s. Octavio’s restaurant, as it turns out. Octavio spotted me from the dining room of his restaurant, and came running out to hug me in the middle of the street. He would cook for me, we decided, the very next day, on Easter Sunday, of all the days, and I would sit at his restaurant table as his guest and eat and eat and eat.

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The mission of Booty’s Street Food is simple: to assemble an international playlist of streetfood’s greatest hits from around the world on a single menu. This concept is much maligned in and around New Orleans; detractors point out Booty’s bo-bo, too-cute-by-half and highly-curated menu is a ham-fisted attempt at dispensing the cuisine of third-world culinary cultures (re: the food of poor people) to the white, privileged dining demographic New Orleans with price points well behind the economic reach of the foods’ original progenitors. Co-owner and travel filmmaker Nick Vivion brought the concept to Bywater after eight years of working—and eating—abroad, and has spent the last couple of years defending it. And while local critics might have a point, I say bollocks to the controversy. I say fuck it. Because it was my Ecuadorian-born friend, after all, who was presiding over this enterprise; my friend of many years, with whom I had worked the worst of culinary trenches, and who always, always had had my back. Fuck the critics; eat the food. So at two o’clock the following afternoon, I entered Booty’s, ordered a beer (a can of Jack the Sipper from Southern Prohibition Brewing in Hattiesburg, Mississippi—brilliant stuff), and prepared for a two-hour culinary thrill ride with one of my oldest and dearest industry friends at the wheel.

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The food I encountered—Octavio’s food—was nothing short of miraculous.

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There was Ecuadoran ceviche paired with popcorn. There was Thai lemongrass chicken. There were Amsterdam-style frites with an unlikely and delightful trio of dipping sauces—mayo, chimichurri and curry ketchup. There was an ingenious play on bacon and eggs: Greek yogurt (the egg white) with mango sorbet (the egg yolk) and “sausage” made of Girl Scout cookies and bacon. All of it—each and every dish—was a minor revelation in the elevation of streetfood to something just slightly finer through craft and careful sourcing. But the one dish that stood out more than any other was Octavio’s Balik Ekmek—a simple Turkish-style sandwich of grilled fish rubbed in sumac (and fully dressed in the parlance of New Orleans sandwich making) on fresh bread. All hyperbolic, I-love-your-food-man “bromantic” nomenclature aside, it was the best sandwich I’ve yet encountered in New Orleans. I know I’ve written extensively on the subject of meat-on-bread in that city—the incredibly delicious po boys at Adam’s Street Grocery in Uptown; the mind-bendingly good banh mi at the Dong Phoung bakery in New Orleans East. They’re all good. Really, really, really good. I meant every word. But forget all that. Do, really. Because the Balik Ekmek at Booty’s Street Food is quite simply the best thing on bread I’ve yet to put in my mouth.

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After two hours at the table, I tapped out. I waved my napkin in surrender; I couldn’t eat another bite. Octavio left his kitchen and grabbed a can of beer from the bar and joined me at my table. We talked about his food and menu, then traded industry anecdotes, and spoke of the future, his and mine, and the things we hoped to accomplish in the coming year: Octavio would help open Booty’s sister restaurant, Ursa Major, and continue his good work with Brian Bordainick and the exceptionally awesome folks of New Orleans-based Dinner Lab; I would finish and deliver my own food book. We talked about people we knew, and what had become of them over these past several years. And as we spoke, sitting there at that table, in that magical half-light of a New Orleans spring day, I found myself growing almost misty-eyed with pride that Octavio had done it—he’d become the chef I always knew he would be. A great one.

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Your link to Booty’s Street Food:  http://bootysnola.com

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