Desert Cooking With Craig Mattox

Craig Mattox is the executive chef of the Ace Hotel Palm Springs, meaning he oversees all of the food emanating from the King's Highway restaurant and room service. We sat him down and grilled him for some behind the scenes info and had him explain what makes the desert community a lot like Northern Africa, how much brisket makes a perfect burger, how scrambled eggs are a key seller, and the secret to a perfect grilled cheese.

What is it about Palm Springs that makes the food so special?

We live in the middle of the desert. There may be a lot going on around us, but it's still the desert. With some of the items on my menu, I wanted to look at the types of food that people who live in the desert eat and find a common thread. There is chili in most all desert cooking and there is a commonality of flavors and spices — cumin, cinnamon, coriander — these are common spices and long before they could be traded, they were cooked with.

We ate dinner at King's Highway and we loved the Lamb Harissa. How did the dish come about?

When we tried to write the nuts and bolts of the menu, we found that in the desert of North Africa, they used a lot of lamb. Harissa is a chill garlic paste and used all over North Africa. It's a mix of dried chilies and onion and garlic that we ground into a paste. I use that in the marinade of the lamb. As a signature dish on the menu, we wanted to do a lot of playing around with it and instead of buying Harissa, we wanted to make our own, so we messed around with the recipe and came up with something a little better and deeper. We serve the lamb with an eggplant purée and chickpeas. The nice thing about the Ace is that I get a chance to take a dish you would find somewhere else and I get to play around and turn it into something I like. I've never been to Africa, but I play around with the spices that I love and I read about.

How is it getting good ingredients in Palm Springs, which for years was known as much for Elmer's Pancakes as for anything else.

Sourcing the food from in Palm Springs is hard. Living in the desert is a lot like living on an island. If it's important to the chef — and it is to me — you have to seek it out and find a way to get it. We have a place in Cathedral City that we source the tortillas from, with dried spices, I get some of them from the Internet. We have a relationship with some great organic farms. The farmer's market community here is legit; once you wander around and talk to the people, a whole new world opens up.

You were recently an executive sous chef at Hollywood hotspots like 25 Degrees and Dakota Steakhouse. How big was the change between Hollywood and Palm Springs?

It was huge, from the cost of living to the sourcing the food, to the people out here. I think it's great.

What's the most common thing you sell at the Ace.

A burger is the most common thing. If you meet a chef at hotel restaurant and they tells you that their best seller is something else besides scrambled eggs and a burger, they're lying to you. From my time at 25 Degrees, I had a relationship with my butcher. They do a meat blend for me — in fact, it came out so good, they asked my permission to sell the blend. It's 50% sirloin and 50% brisket, where most burgers are 100% chuck. You taste the brisket in it. It has a meatier flavor to the burger and it has a bite to it too. When we tried with 100% brisket, it didn't taste right so we mixed it with the sirloin. It has a meatier flavor and is more expensive but it's worth it. We sell about 300 to 600 lbs. of burgers a week.

And the grilled cheese?

With the grilled cheese, we wanted to do what people love but something different. We're a hotel and we have room service and King's Highway still has the nuts and bolts of a diner, so we wanted to take something that was traditional diner food and at the same time make something that's nothing like it. A diner wouldn't use a $15/lb. cheese to make a grilled cheese. What I love is that we get to play with it. We call it The Stinky Grilled Cheese and we use Fontina and St. Albray cheeses and top it with an herb-marinated tomato and some fresh basil. We use a thick sliced whole wheat from a local bakery and we put it on the grill where we cook the pancakes, and finish it off in the oven. We serve it with Skunkweed pickles — also called Epizoiet — which gives it a good flavor. I love our grilled cheese.

Tell us about King's Highway restaurant.

The room we're sitting in used to be a Denny's. I remember the first time I saw it: There was nothing but piles of dirt and no roof, and nothing was here except for the posts where the chairs are and the basic frame and bones of the diner. We didn't change the shape of the restaurant. Sometimes we'll hear some stories from old timers that used to come here back in the day and they'll tell us stories about Elvis and how Sinatra used to come in trolling for girls. Great stuff.