Bigger than ever, the fifth annual Outside Lands arts and music festival is back at Golden Gate Park this weekend. Bay Area Bites editor Wendy Goodfriend and I paid a visit to "Outside Lambs," chef John Fink's mini-empire within the festival grounds. His three booths with their colorful, Victorian house-like facades reside in the foodie territory of "MacLaren Pass," with their decadent neighbors, Beer Lands and Choco Lands, just a short stroll away. It's his first time participating in this cultural extravaganza.
The name of his catering business, The Whole Beast, reflects John's philosophy and approach to cooking. He focuses on using whole animals in the preparation of his dishes and lately, he's turned his attention to lambs.
"I have been working with whole lambs over the last few years, and the more I work with whole lamb, it has become a favorite meat to work with. It’s a luxury to cook it whole at a large event and use all of the parts."
And John's figured out a way to incorporate lamb into all of the dishes he's serving up to festivalgoers, whether's it's a garnish or the main ingredient of one of his offerings.
A tall, imposing figure, John expertly butchered up the freshly cooked lamb as described his prep for his meals.
"We have sourced 25 lambs from a variety of California ranches that will be served over the course of the weekend. The Whole Beasts' lambs are cooked in my special smoker from Southern Pride. A good friend of mine who's a fire chief told me I was working way too hard. He let me borrow his oven. Then I asked to borrow it again and again and again. At the end of the year I said, 'I have got to get one.'"
John and his crew fired up his oven at 6AM this morning with five lambs on the spits. "They take about three-and-half, four hours to cook, depending on how often that oven door opens up. Lamb necks take about six hours."
"It's so efficient," he continues. "I don't have to burn that much wood. I do different varieties of whole animal cooking: open fire; underground; and a special fish grill where I butterfly the animal. But at these large events I can cook five to six lambs at a time. Lamb and goat really excel in there. With the rotisseries, it's a nice, moist cooking environment. And you can introduce the smoke, or you don't have to. I can 'kiss it with the wood,' so to speak. We're doing it with white oak and it's fantastic. And it's mobile, so I can do something like this as there's no open fires allowed in Golden Gate Park."
The lambs have been marinating for two to three days in a Moroccan-inspired rub.
"I love Moroccan food. I don't know what it is, because I'm not Moroccan. I'm English, German Dutch, but I love that yogurt, and I love that kind of strong flavor profiles. I got turned onto this chermoula marinade and kind of adapted it to my own and added this and that to it. So I use yogurt with lamb and I reinforce the chermoula rub with garlic, ginger, jalapeño, cilantro and parsley and marinate that for three days. It works its magic. The classic combination, of course, is lamb with mint jelly. It has its application. And lamb with garlic and rosemary; I love that too. This is something different. It still has that garlic and mint, but with a little bit something extra. I think lamb really goes well with chilies. Pigs can take the heat, but lamb even more so."
Wendy and I were lucky enough to sample most of the items that were served up on Saturday. The lamb was cooked to perfection and was the juiciest, most succulent lamb I'd ever had. The Moroccan spices in the yogurt dressing melded together perfectly with the roasted meat and the cool, crisp cucumber-red onion salad.
Their version of the curried Indian stew, mulligatawny, incorporated whole roasted lamb leftovers from the gyros. The soup base was coconut milk and lamb stock, with Rancho Gordo chickpeas, potatoes, peas and summer squash swimming in the rich broth.
John also concocted his own version of the French-Canadian comfort food dish, poutine, using fresh cut Kennebec potatoes twice-fried in rice bran oil and rendered lamb fat. Salted and tossed with parsley, the fries were smothered with lamb gravy, lamb bits and topped with sheep’s milk cheese.
John also shared his space with some old friends from his former days at Aqua in the early '90's.
"I was a cook at the Mina restaurant Aqua in 1994. When I told my friend and colleague chef David Varley of the Michael Mina restaurant group about my Outside Lambs idea, Varley was dying to get involved and asked if he and two chefs from RN 74 and Bourbon Steak in Washington, DC could be a part of it. We worked together on the menu they are doing, and it complements my dishes and the flavor of lamb so well."
RN74 chef David Varley grilled up Brentwood sweet corn, spooned melted garlic butter on top, then liberally topped them with lamb sausage crumbs, chili powder and cotija cheese.
Bourbon Steak House's chef Omri Aflalo prepared his "grandmother’s lamb kefta meatballs" with Allstar Organic Farms cucumber and a fennel-yogurt aioli.
His fellow Bourbon Steakhouse chef, Adam Sobel, grilled up lamb sausage hotdogs with heaping piles of fried onions and sweet and hot peppers on mustard-slathered Acme hotdog rolls. Ryan Farr of 4505 Meats produced the hot dogs for Sobel.
If you find yourself hungry while checking out the bands at Outside Lands, it's worth walking over to McLaren Pass for some tasty lamb eats. All items are $10 each or less.
Related Outside Lands 2012 Posts:
- Day One at the 2012 Outside Lands (KQED Arts)
- Day Two at the 2012 Outside Lands (KQED Arts)
- Outside Lands: 5 Craft Beers You Must Try at the Festival’s New Attraction, Beer Lands
- Outside Lands 2012 Photos: Food, Art, Music & People
- What I Learned at Outside Lands 2012 (KQED Arts)