WATERMELON SALAD WITH CUCUMBER, AVOCADO, AND COTIJA RECIPE
By: Chef Travis Dickinson of Cochinito Taqueria
Per Plate Up:
CANDIED COCOA NIBS RECIPE
Meet Chef Travis Dickinson from Cochonito Taqueria
To start off our “5 Out” chef series, we decided to look no further than our own backyard (aka Spokane, WA), spotlighting a chef who is near and dear to our spicy hearts. Meet Chef Travis Dickinson.
His story is one that most of you will relate to. He began his culinary career as a dishwasher at an award-winning resort (the Coeur d’Alene Resort to be exact) with the sole purpose being to fund his skateboard and shoe game.
“It all started when I was 15. I fell in love with the pace, organized chaos and cast of characters that you find in a kitchen. I felt like I fit in as a fringe kid. I felt accepted. When the chance to go to culinary school arose I took it.”
And while his skateboard career ended with his fifth (yes, fifth) knee surgery, this culinary badass has been sharpening his skills at some of the best independent restaurants in the great PNW, including stints as Executive Chef for both Hall Street Grill in Portland and Clover in Spokane. But, most recently as the executive chef and co-owner of Cochinito Taqueria.
We had a chance to sit down with Chef Travis and talk tacos and about bringing elevated Mexican cuisine to a town just a few hours away from the Canadian border. Enjoy.
Where did you get your love for Mexican cuisine?
While most of my previous experience was in Italian, Pacific Northwest and Mediterranean influenced cuisine, most of the people I encountered in my kitchens were from Latin American countries. As those friendships grew, I got the chance to really experience and grow to love their culture and cuisine. Crew meals were often some incredibly flavorful Mexican dish that was built using whatever leftovers we had stashed away in the cooler. The ability to take some unsung ingredients and make something amazing out of it. That’s where it’s at. Beyond that, I married into a Mexican family. My wife was born and raised in Sinaloa. Getting to spend time visiting her family and teaching myself to cook the dishes that she had fond memories of only furthered my appreciation for this versatile cuisine.
Why Tacos? And why Spokane?
I’ve always had a passion for small plate style eating. And, for the past seven years, I dreamed about opening a place like Cochinito. I wanted to find a place where I could use my fine dining techniques, sourcing and experience that I built over my career but offer plates at an approachable price. A taco is a perfect way to do that. And, why Spokane? There are plenty of traditional Mexican restaurants here but no one was taking a chef’s approach to it.
And, Cochinito doesn’t disappoint with taco options aplenty like their Snake River Farms Pork Loin Al Pastor, Fried Maitake Mushroom and even a slow-poached Octopus. There’s a little something for everyone.
Favorite Chile (And yes you have to pick one)
I’m stuck between two. Guajillo for its complex depth of flavor. Dried tropical fruit notes while still packing a punch. There’s so much to it and the flavor can be so different depending on how you prepare it. My second is dried Chipotle for its beautiful but aggressive smokiness. A little bit goes a long way, but I love to throw some in a braise and let it do its thing.
Who do you look up to when it comes to Mexican cuisine?
I always think about the places I go to when we visit where my wife is from. You find the most amazing meals everywhere. I love checking out these little family-owned street stalls where every cook has a different specialty. Just walking the street building a meal from 10 different chefs. But, there are some great chefs that I follow too. Like Enrique Olvera at Pujol in Mexico City. He’s challenging what people think of as Mexican cuisine. I love watching what he’s doing. People in the states have a preconceived notion of what Mexican cuisine is. He’s pushing how Mexican food is evolving just like we do here, and borrowing from other cuisines and cultures to do so. I also am a big fan of Alex Stupak of the Empellon empire. He comes from a fine dining and pastry background and it shows. His approach is beautiful, progressive but rooted in classic Mexican preparation.
The culinary tool you couldn’t live without?
Everyone chef says their chef knife, but I’m obsessed with my plating spoons. Trust me, most chefs have an unhealthy obsession with these. So yeah, I’d go with a good heavy plating spoon.
Why did you pick the recipe you shared with us?
This is my go-to potluck dish if I don't have a ton of time to prepare something more involved. My wife loves Chile Lime seasoning and we sprinkle it on all kinds of fresh-cut fruits and veggies for a quick snack. This dish came from that habit to create a great salad that is super fast, easy and always a crowd-pleaser.
The dish you recommend most at Cochinito?
For all the progressive stuff we do, I’d recommend our Heritage Duroc Pork Cheek Carnitas Tacos. While we use pork cheek instead of shoulder, it’s a classic with perfectly sticky, unctuous pork and a simple topping of salsa verde, cotija, pickled onion, cilantro, and lime. It’s as good as it gets.
Having had his pork cheek carnitas tacos, we agree.
So, if you ever find yourself in our quaint PNW town, make sure you stop by Cochinito even if it isn’t Tuesday (we think tacos are an everyday thing) and high five Chef Travis.