We're going behind the scenes and getting up close and personal with some of the Valley's favorite chefs, learning what it takes to make one of their best-known dishes. Welcome to The Trail.
"I'm a ham, I gotta admit," warns chef Gio Osso as he readies his mis en place.
On a sunny September afternoon, the chef sets up to cook in the suite of the Bespoke Inn, located just above his restaurant Virtu Honest Craft. Downstairs his staff is busy wrapping up lunch service and getting ready for the sixth night of Arizona Restaurant Week. To impose in their space during one of the busiest periods of the year would be pretty much unthinkable.
Normally it might also be quite the inconvenience for Osso to have to cook outside of his usual kitchen; but in this circumstance he's not complaining. The 1,500-square-foot one-bedroom suite where he's cooking today is the crown jewel of the Scottsdale bed and breakfast that houses Osso's restaurant — and it's decked out to the nines with a stovetop that quite possible costs as much as your car, two fridges, a wine cooler, and more.
The star of today's show — well, aside from the camera-ready Osso himself — languishes in a silver bowl on the Carrara marble countertop as the chef meticulously prepares his cooking space. While raw, the Spanish octopus displays a rather unappetizing, pale complexion; once it's cooked and grilled, it will turn a memorable shade of dusty rose.
Eight years in the making
When Osso opened the 25-seat Virtu Honest Craft in June 2013, the chef was no stranger to the local food scene. For two years he'd called the Estate House, a fine dining but ill-fated (thanks to the recession) restaurant, home. It closed in 2010, at which time many local food lovers thought chef Osso really ought to just open up his own place.
It wouldn't happen for several years but when it did, Virtu saw almost immediate success. It was named one of the Best New Restaurants of the Year by Esquire Magazine — and the nod that came less than six months after the restaurant opened. Next it popped up on the radars of on the Wall Street Journal and the Boston Globe.
Each local and national fan had a unique view on the chef and his restaurant, but one dish in particular seemed to appear on everyone's must-try list: grilled octopus.
A year later, the chef says there's no way he could take the dish off the otherwise very fluid menu.
It's a fact he finds highly amusing.
"I did this dish in 2008 at Estate House — and people thought I was nuts," Osso says almost incredulously.
This isn't the only instance in which he's pulled out old recipes and put them on the Virtu menu. Osso says he's done it several times now, mostly because he finds it entertaining but also because people tend to love the dishes. In one case he says he featured a special from a recipe he'd written in the '90s. After one night, customers begged for it to be added to the regular menu.
The funny thing about Osso's most famous creation to date is that it's really quite simple to make. The whole thing requires less than a dozen ingredients and zero fancy kitchen tools.
It's, as Osso would say, an "honest" dish.
"Honest craft," he iterates while gesturing to add emphasis with his hands.
"That's part of the name. It's real food. There's no smoke and mirrors."
To start he tosses chickpeas — the canned kind because re-hydrating dried ones isn't worth the extra work, Osso says — in a simple marinade of chopped garlic, Italian parsley, Calabrese chiles, and "a couple glugs" of olive oil.
He then zests a lemon over the bowl before cutting the fruit in half and squeezing the juice into the mix while using his hand to strain out the seeds.
A "pinch" each of dried chile pepper flakes, salt, and pepper are all that's required to finish this component of the dish.
Next comes the Calabrian chile butter, which starts with a pan of butter, olive oil, and shallots. After letting the shallots caramelize for a few moments Osso adds a bit of white wine and the essential ingredient.
"Peppers are going in — yay, peppers!" he cheers, hamming it up as promised while he dumps a small bowl of the bright red vegetables into the pan.
He lets the sauce reduce by about half, which takes only a few minutes, before pouring it into a blender with more butter. Blend the two elements together on a low speed until you get a frothy sauce the color of orange Play-Doh and you're done.
Grandma knows best
So if the dish is so simple, what is it that makes Osos' version standout? If you've tried it, you know. If you haven't, the answer can be summed up in one word: tender.
It's easy to cook octopus wrong; the animal is so full of water, one misstep can lead to the dry, rubbery texture of a rubber band. Osso manages to avoid this with a simple trick he learned from his Italian grandmother.
"From the day school got out to the day school started, I was in Italy," the chef recalls of his childhood.
And though he remembers hating his Italian summers as a small kid — he just wanted to hang out with his friends after all! — Osso says he eventually came to appreciate the unique circumstance that exposed him to culinary experiences his friends could never top.
"In an Italian family, everything is food," he says.
So along with learning how to can tomatoes and cook classic Italian dishes, Osso picked up the secret to cooking tender octopus, a cork.
A quick Google search proves he's not the only one buying into this old-school trick. Chefs including Lidia Bastianich and Mario Batali swear by the power of the cork, though no one seems to be able to answer exactly why. According to Osso, it's enzymes in the cork that help break down the octopus meat.
He cooks his octopus in a pot with olive oil, chile flakes, garlic, and the magical little cork until the whole thing is "fork tender." Depending on the size of the animal it can two hours or more.
"When you have very little resistance, it's done," Osso explains.
Once cooked, the octopus, now a light shade of pink, will be marinated in sauce similar to the chickpeas earlier. There's garlic, parsley, chile flakes, olive oil, salt and pepper.
After a short while, Osso removes the tentacles and the meat is ready to go on the grill.
No rhyme or reason
Grilling adds some char to the octopus and though the step isn't necessary to cooking the dish, it does add essential layers of flavor and texture. Once each piece has seen a few minutes on the hot grill, it's finally time to plate.
"The inspiration for a lot of my plating comes from a guitar player called Eddie Van Halen," Osso declares as he begins making artful lines of orange chile butter on the plate. The abstract pattern is, in a way, reminiscent to a rock 'n' roll song.
"There's no rhyme or reason to any of this," he continues, as he placing segments of tentacle in-between the lines of sauce. Some he leaves on their sides, while others are carefully balanced on their ends.
A tower of arugula salad on one end anchors the dish in the corner. It's an easy mixture of baby arugula, sliced fennel, lemon juice, and olive oil that Osso insists be vertically oriented rather than strewed all over the plate.
"People tell you you're plating a salad," Osso says as he fluffs a pile of greens. "But no, you're building a salad."
A few tiny, black dots of balsamic reduction contribute a nice contrast of colors, but also an element of sweetness to the dish. And just like that, Osso's done.
He looks up from the picture-perfect dish, "There's nothing out of ordinary here."