Gregory Webb: A talent for Tex-Mex

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Entertainment,Food and Drink,Alexandra Greeley

Bold flavors and brilliant though rustic platings are the hallmark of Gregory Webb's Mexican and Tex-Mex cooking. The new executive chef at Tortilla Coast, Webb is actually no stranger to this beloved culinary art form. A native of San Antonio, Webb grew up watching and cooking with his mother, a keen and talented home chef. Indeed, by the time he was 6, Webb says, he was making enchiladas the right way. "What comes to mind," he says, "is that the first enchiladas she taught me were in the traditional style. She rooted her cooking in somewhat of an anthropological style. That was a passion for her."

It's rather unsurprising, then, that young Webb became an advocate of true Mexican and Tex-Mex flavors, and just as unsurprising that even as a youngster, all he wanted to do was cook. "I always wanted to be a chef," he says. "Julia Child and Graham Kerr, I watched them both on TV. That told me at the age of 5 I wanted to be a chef."

As well, young Webb helped his mom when she threw Mexican-food dinner parties, making everything from scratch. "I helped her with her big parties," he says. "We even made masa together. I was her prep cook." By the time he turned 14, Webb's family had moved to the East Coast, far from the Mexican culinary influences of his early childhood. But ironically, at the age of 15, he got a restaurant job in a Tex-Mex restaurant in Connecticut. "I remember it fondly, of course," he says. "I was, after all, a Texan, and I grew up eating Mexican and Tex-Mex, too, so I knew the food I was prepping," adding that perhaps his mother might not have recognized the dishes the staff prepared, but that she was pleased her son had chosen cooking as a profession.

Deciding against attending culinary school, Webb chose to gain his culinary experiences by working for the most outstanding chef he could find. His first mentor turned out to be chef Robert (Bob) Neroni, who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and held several executive chef positions, including in Washington. "He really discovered me," says Webb. "He said I just needed some finesse and to travel. I did, with letter of entry to many great restaurants in New York City and New Orleans."

If you go
Tortilla Coast (Logan Circle)
» Where: 1460 P St. NW
» Info: 202-629-3280; tortillacoast.com
» Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight Friday, 11 a.m. to midnight Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday

Finally, Webb returned to his native Texas, where he opened his namesake restaurant, Gregory's, in Houston. In 1998, he won the coveted Chef of the Year title from the Houston Chronicle. From there, Webb moved to New York City, where another mentor helped him sharpen his culinary skills. That led to the big turning point of his career: being tapped as the executive chef for the W Hotel Mexico City in Chapultepec, Polanco. "I learned the difference between Tex-Mex and regional Mexican cooking," he says, adding that his boss flew him all over the country to sample and understand regional flavors.

Returning to the U.S. for family reasons, Webb vowed to go back to his chef's post in Mexico, but as often happens, life and circumstances changed the course of his career: He married, and then the couple decided to move to Washington two and a half years ago. Now, he can say quite frankly, "I love the city. And I am cooking food I really love ... It's the kind of food I found myself coming back to my whole career, and we're creating something that people can really sink their teeth into."

Q&A

What is your comfort food?

Enchiladas.

What's in your fridge?

I have a heck of a pantry, with 14 vinegars, salts, an enviable spice rack, plus in the refrigerator a whole chicken, chuck roast, pieces of salmon, thick-sliced smoked bacon, grilled baby back ribs, vegetables, blueberries.

What is your must-have ingredient?

Black pepper. I am enamored with tellicherry black pepper. Also curry and cumin.

What was the luckiest moment of your life?

When I met my wife-to-be.

What is your signature dish?

Black opal ducking ... a half-cured duckling from which I removed the interior fat. It's a play on Peking duck in Mexican style.

Recipe

Gregory Webb's technique for brining a whole chicken for roasting

Brining is a magical technique -- magical because of the ease in which it elevates even a simple family dinner staple like roast chicken into something noticeably better with moistness and flavor. I brine my chickens before roasting them so that I can pull the meat and shred it for preparing soups, enchiladas, flautas -- the list goes on and on. Using my brining technique, your chicken will be nicely browned with a crispy skin, sure to fill your home with that delicious roast smell that calls everyone to the table.

Ingredients:

1 whole, fresh chicken (about 3 1/4 pounds), rinsed, wing tips removed, and giblets set aside

For the brine:

3 quarts water

6 ounces piloncillo (natural, low-processed Mexican sugar, light brown sugar or granulated sugar)

4 bay leaves

1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds

3 whole allspice

5 whole cloves

4 ounces fresh garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

2 teaspoons black peppercorns, whole

3 tablespoons kosher salt

Combine all the brine ingredients in a large nonreactive pot and bring to a boil, then remove from heat and cool quickly (in an ice bath is best). Once cool, you simply put the chicken into enough brine to fully submerge the bird and refrigerate overnight. This is best if brined between 12 and 24 hours.

To roast the chicken:

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

Remove the chicken from the brine and lightly rinse it off. Discard the used brine immediately. Place the chicken breast side up onto a roasting pan and season liberally all over with kosher salt and black pepper, using perhaps 1 1/2 tablespoons in total. (*Chef's note: I prepare a salt-and-pepper blend ahead of time, using 4 tablespoons kosher salt for every 1 tablespoon of fresh cracked black pepper).

Roast the brined chicken on the center rack of the oven (low fan if your oven has that option). This chicken will need about 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours to reach a perfect internal temperature of 165 degrees. You may choose to rotate the roasting pan if your oven has hot spots or if one side of the chicken is showing more color than the other.

To tell if the chicken is ready without a meat thermometer, use a sharp skewer and pierce the bird in the leg joint; watch for any pink juices. If the juices are clear, the chicken is ready. Let the chicken rest about 20 to 30 minutes before slicing into it.

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