Inspiration behind Tito & Pep’s Art of Plating winning dish

"I think the dish speaks to the overall flavor profile and food philosophy of the restaurant."

Tucson Foodie hosted its second Art of Plating event, in collaboration with Copenhagen Imports and 11 outstanding local chefs, on January 30, 2020. All of the chefs graciously donated their talent, time and food in support of The Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona.

With a display of deep talent, choosing the winner between all these beautiful and delicious dishes wasn’t easy. The votes were close, but two victors emerged: John Martinez from Tito & Pep won the Judges’ Choice Award; Gina Skelton from First We Eat Catering won the People’s Choice Award (stay tuned for a separate article on her).

Here is Martinez’s winning dish, the Carne Asada Tartare Tostada:

Art of Plating dish by John Martinez from Tito & Pep (Photo by Jackie Tran)

Art of Plating 2020 dish by John Martinez from Tito & Pep (Photo by Jackie Tran)

What was your approach to your dish? What made you think of combining “asada” with “tartare”?

The dish kind of came from eating cold grilled steak leftovers. For me, having some steak in the fridge left from a dinner makes a killer lunch. I had wanted to have a steak tartare dish on the menu because it is something I enjoy, but I had banged around a couple of ideas that could make it uniquely T&P, but never really settled on anything.

How was your history represented in your dish?

That is when the thought of leftover rare steak kind of crossed my mind. By getting the steaks over hot coals and getting that sear and that flavor of the mesquite we were engaging the grill which is the heartbeat of our kitchen. After that, it was how to dress the beef. I kind of thought of it as a ceviche de carne, so to say, but also what would make for a great tostada, which would be our ideal vessel. So to the diced beef, we added some tomatoes that we had slow-smoked and roasted over the embers in the hearth, some charred white onion, which lent an earthy sweetness to the dish. We dressed [it] with lime juice, our salsa macha, cilantro, and green onion. We also used some crushed avocado that was simply seasoned with lime, cilantro, and onion. Our baseline was going for something inherently yummy, and once we had that, it was a matter of reinterpreting those ingredients in a more refined and artistic way for our show plate. We dressed the tartare the same, but also converted the charred onions into a puree with some smoked chile powder we have been making in house. We added some of our house hot sauces to the plate for color and a little chile pop and converted the crushed avocado into an avocado stuffed with the components you would get in a good guac. Then we used masa to create a tuile that had the same texture and flavor profile as a tostada, but a much more refined appearance.

Could you expand on the artistry side of how you created your dish?

Oh man, the artistry side of it. I guess it was creating something bright and enticing while at the same time balancing the canvas with the various components. It’s kind of like how they say jazz is more about filling the gaps, once the main component was on the dish it was how to get the other things on there in a way that didn’t crowd or overwhelm visually, but at the same time, not leaving it too bare. I also wanted the components to have a color palette that tied to the desert overall, so having some earthy tones, the bright red-orange and ochre of the hot sauces, and the green of the avocado worked from that aspect

How does your dish represent the food you serve at Tito & Pep?

I think the dish speaks to the overall flavor profile and food philosophy of the restaurant, which is utilizing the regional pantry and the mesquite grill to create dishes which are yummy and speak to the palate of Tucsonans.

John Martinez setting down his plate at Art of Plating 2020 (Credit: Jackie Tran)

John Martinez setting down his plate at Art of Plating 2020 (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Will there be a way for anyone who missed the event to taste your winning dish?

We have been running specials on the regular lately and it will definitely be making it back into the rotation.

Can you tell us about your work with The Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona?

Having the opportunity to support the CFB was awesome as well. We have benefited from their culinary program, having hired three cooks out of their kitchen and also partnered with them as a host for their externship program. It is a pleasure to help benefit a charity that does so much to address food insecurity in our and other communities.

Jackie is a food writer and photographer native to Tucson. He loves corgis and still thinks rickrolling is funny. If you'd like to stalk him, visit jackietran.com and his Instagram @jackie_tran_.

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