Profile: Bartender George Koop
George Koop is a very good cook. A few weeks ago, he got up at the crack of dawn to prep for a dinner party for his friend’s 40th birthday. After visiting the farmers’ market, his favorite cheese shop and his go-to butcher, he proceeded to make a multi-course feast, which was served family style.
There were gougeres, a crabmeat dip, and a selection of cow and sheep cheeses for appetizers. For the main course, he made grilled rib eye steak with romesco sauce and a couple of roasted chickens, accompanied by a celery-potato purée, baby kale salad with apples and walnuts, panzanella, and crispy, herbed potatoes. “My favorite way to cook potatoes now,” says George, “is to add a half cup of salt to the water and boil them whole, skin on, until the water evaporates.” For dessert, he whipped up a chocolate tart.
George’s gastronomic education started early, when he would assist his mom. One year, she gave him a whisk and omelet pan for Christmas. “I think secretly, she wanted me to help her,” he says. Three months abroad in France during high school opened his eyes to food as an important part of daily life, and he returned there a few years later, after a dull semester at a culinary school. “I really wanted to learn how to bake bread,” remembers George. “But they didn’t teach that, so I dropped out.”
In Jonzieux, a small town 50 miles south of Lyon, he found what he was looking for: a job at an old, family-run bakery. He lived above the bakery, got up every day at 2 a.m., and worked until noon. “It was hard, but I learned a lot,” he recalls. “We made all the basics: baguettes, pain de campaigne, whole-wheat bread, chestnut bread.” George stayed a few months and then hopped back over to the States to continue his bread odyssey. In Raleigh, North Carolina, he apprenticed for Lionel Vatinet, an authority on artisanal bread baking.
These days, George doesn’t bake professionally, but he still works in the food industry—as a waiter and bartender—and loves to cook and entertain at home.
Age 40 — Hometown Chicago — Where do you live? Los Angeles — Occupation Waiter/Bartender — Signature dish Popovers — Who taught you how to cook? My mom got me started, but Julia Child and The Frugal Gourmet took it from there. I loved early PBS cooking shows. — Favorite kitchen tool I’d be lost without my KitchenAid stand mixer — Always in your pantry Pimentòn - sweet smoked paprika from Spain. Good on just about everything. — Go-to snack I love me some popcorn — Favorite cuisine Mexican, which is why I love LA! — Do you diet? Not really, should I? — Food addictions Pistachios — Food allergies Thank God, no. I’ll eat anything. Well, almost anything. — Food fad pet peeve Small plates — Who’s your sous chef? Still looking... — Drinking while cooking? Uh, duh — What’s for dinner tonight? Will hopefully jam some baguette in my face while bartending if I get a second. — Do you ever cry over spilled milk? I try to celebrate kitchen mishaps. Some of our favorite foods were discovered by accident. However, if the clock is ticking and guests are arriving and something goes wrong, yeah, I might cry a little. — Best meal you ever had I remember dining at Street & Co. in Portland, Maine many years ago. Tucked down some narrow cobblestone street, it was one of the first restaurants I’d been to that had an exposed kitchen that was basically within arm’s reach from our table. I remember the clanking of pans, the bursts of flame, the smell of every dish being prepared before my eyes. It really made a lasting impression on me. — Contact googlyeyesonstuff.tumblr.com
“I obsessed over tacos after I moved to L.A.,” says George. He toyed with several recipes for carnitas—“little meats” in Spanish—until he developed this version. Thrillingly rich, juicy and distinctly flavorful, thanks to the citrus fruits and spices, it is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.
- Serves 6–8
- 3–4 pounds boneless pork shoulder, trimmed of large fat pieces, cut into 2-inch cubes
- 1 onion, peeled, cut into quarters
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 whole cinnamon stick
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled, chopped
- 2 teaspoons cumin
- 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 orange, skin on, cut into quarters
- 1 lemon, skin on, cut into quarters
- 1 lime, skin on, cut into quarters
- Taco-size corn tortillas
- Guacamole (recipe to follow)
- Pickled red onions (recipe to follow)
- 1 cup Cotija cheese, freshly grated
- Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Place the meat, onion and bay leaf into a Dutch oven or large, ovenproof pot. Sprinkle the cinnamon, garlic, red pepper flakes, cumin and salt over the meat. Squeeze some of the juice from the citrus fruits over the meat and spices, and leave them in the pot. Pour water into the pot to come up 2/3 high (do not submerge fully).
- Place the pot on a stovetop, cover with a lid, and bring to a boil over high heat. Immediately transfer to the oven, and braise for 2½ hours, until the meat falls apart.
- Take out the bay leaf, cinnamon stick and citrus fruits, and discard. Strain the liquid, put it back in the pot, and simmer over medium-high heat until reduced slightly, about 15 minutes. Place the meat on a rimmed baking sheet and shred with a fork. Discard any large fat pieces.
- Pour the reduced sauce over the meat and brown under a broiler for 2 minutes. Flip the meat with a spatula and cook for an additional 2 minutes. Serve on warm tortillas, with guacamole and pickled red onion, and top with Cotija cheese.
The Aztecs in Mexico are credited with creating this handsome, emerald green dip. There are gobs of recipe variations out there—with or without tomatoes, onion, cumin, yogurt, vinegar, lemon juice, basil or oregano, to name a few—depending on local traditions and your taste preference.
George’s version is simple and super addictive. He likes to mash one avocado to a smooth paste and leave the other one chunky for a good balance in texture.
- Makes 1½ cups
- 2 avocados, peeled
- 1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
- 1 jalapeño, seeded and minced
- 1 shallot, peeled and minced
- ½ cup fresh cilantro, finely chopped
- Juice of 1 lime
- Mash the avocados with a fork in a bowl. Add the garlic, jalapeño, shallot and cilantro, and make a rough paste. Season with the lime juice, and salt to taste.
If, for some unlikely reason, you end up with any leftover guacamole, put it in a bowl, even out the surface, and press a small piece of plastic wrap directly on top of it; this will prevent browning.
Pickled Red Onions
These pickles are easy to make, and they provide a layer of tangy kick and subtle sweetness much-needed with the dense carnitas. Make them right after you put the meat in the oven, and they’ll be ready when you serve the meal.
- Makes 1–2 cups
- 1 large red onion, peeled and cut into thin rings
- 1 cup water, plus extra for blanching the onion
- ½ cup vinegar
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 tablespoon salt
- Bring a medium-size pot of water to a boil, and blanch the onion for 2 minutes. Strain and cool under cold, running water. In a large bowl, combine the water with vinegar, sugar and salt. Add the blanched onion, stir well, and place it in a jar with a lid. It will be ready to eat after 2 hours. Store in the refrigerator.
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