20 Q’s with Dave Lieberman
We scored a major coup this week when Dave Lieberman agreed to answer our 20 Questions. In our book, Dave Lieberman, a contributor to OC Weekly’s Stick a Fork In It food blog, is one of the most brilliant denizens of Orange County. Not only does he speak 11 languages, he’s a corporate IT guy by day, and a talented food writer, highly skilled home chef, loving father, choir singer, and great friend to many on the side.
He grew up in New Jersey in a wanderlust family. His father loved to find little holes in the wall (as does Dave), and his mom trusted that shipping him off to school in Switzerland at 13 would be an invaluable experience. “It was really my first glimpse into the fact there are multiple ways to lead a good life,” Lieberman says. “Really gave me a sense of perspective. And I met people from all over the world may of whom I’m still friends with.”
Read on to find out some of Dave’s favorite OC holes in the wall, and although he wouldn’t reveal to us his top 5 favorite restaurants (he’s saving that for the OC Weekly) his restaurant picks are terrific. Enjoy, oh and sorry, Dave seeks anonymity when it comes to being photographed. We’re using one of his favorite seafood spots in the world, a street cart in Ensenada, as his headshot.
1. If you had to begin a different career, what would you do?
Setting aside all the practical considerations, I'd love to learn cabinetmaking and furniture-making. I've got friends who make just astoundingly beautiful things that last forever, and I'd love to learn how to do it. If we're just talking strictly about putting food on the table and keeping a roof over my head, though, anything. I've held the most random assortment of jobs in my lifetime, from Yellow Pages ad proofreader to roofer. I think we as Americans have over-specialized in the U.S. over my lifetime, and we've started to depend on people to do things for us. While you definitely need a specialist now and then (don't re-wire your house by yourself!), anyone ought to be capable of doing whatever is necessary to keep his or her family fed.
2. What’s your most prized possession?
The family sword. My great-many-times uncle, Joseph Johnston, was a high-ranking Confederate general. He died childless, so his sword was passed to his brother and has been passed on down through the generations. It's very useful for home defense; most would-be home invaders aren't really thinking about having their legs cut out from under them.
3. Favorite drink?
Tequila. It's amazing how many people think tequila starts and stops with that turpentiney Cuervo rotgut; great tequila is as finely nuanced and as variable as Scotch, and half the price or less. Find a bottle of Arette añejo at Hi-Time Wines and sip it neat. It's life-changing.
4. Your biggest pet peeve?
People with no sense of perspective. It's amazing to me that out of the billions of people on this earth with opinions, somehow the person I'm arguing with has managed to get it all exactly right, with no room for error.
5. Fantasy purchase?
Well, there's travel, and a larger house, of course, but I'd settle for a pickup truck. I want a Chevy Silverado. (My fantasy purchases are pretty low-key.)
6. What can’t you live without?
Coffee. My team at work knows not to get in the way of my caffeine habit. Orange County has some unbelievably good coffee that's on par with any city in the world, but frankly, when it comes down to the wire, I will drink the stuff that squirts out the nozzle at the gas station if it means not dealing with the caffeine withdrawal.
7. What’s next on your “to do” list?
In general, there are so many things I want to do. I'm teaching myself Portuguese and Finnish, I'm finally embracing the fact that living in Orange County means I can exercise outdoors 330 days a year, and I'm trying to branch out from food. If you stop learning, you might as well be dead.
Food-wise, it's time to be a little more active in improving the way people eat, rather than just writing it. It's a beautiful thing to see someone bite into an orange grown in Anaheim, or a strawberry grown in Fullerton, and realize that it's so much better than supermarket produce. Food demos, or maybe just being an interfering old so-and-so at the farmers markets...
8. Biggest regret?
It's hard to look back at wasted opportunities. I'm a very risk-averse person, and that leads to sighs of, "If only I'd..." I try not to dwell on it. As a concrete example, I really regret having (inadvertently) taught my daughter to swear in four languages by the age of three. It was very embarrassing when she dropped a piece of candy in a pensione in the Italian Alps and promptly swore like a Brooklyn dockworker.
9. Cause that you’re most interested/involved in?
Every year, I get on my trusty bicycle and I ride 100 miles from Irvine to San Diego for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. It's a hard ride, because I am definitely not the stereotypical MAMIL (middle-aged man in Lycra), but it's absolutely amazing what they can do with the money we raise, and it's amazing how tangible those improvements are in the lives of people with MS.
10. Your dream day in Orange County?
Get up and have breakfast in a coffee shop with my daughter; then shopping at a farmers market. Out for a bike ride on one of South County's amazing bicycle trails, and home in enough time to get cleaned up and make dinner out of the things we bought. If I've got a sitter, go out for cocktails and hopefully music wherever people are.
11. Favorite place for breakfast?
Russ and Daughters in New York. It's the taste of home and every year I have a box drop-shipped from there for Christmas morning.
Closer to home, though, if I have time to sit and relax, you'll find me nursing the iced coffee at Break of Dawn in Laguna Hills. If I've got to have something on the go, though, champurrado (a thick, sippable chocolate drink) and a piece of anise-flavored sweet bread from Las Tres Princesas on Bristol St. in Santa Ana.
12. What was the best day of your life?
Everyone always talks about the day their child was born. For me, though, it was the first day I came home after a long day at work and my daughter came running to the front door laughing and screaming, "DADDY DADDY DADDY!"
13. Last concert that you went to?
I was going to go to the Calexico concert at the Fonda this week, but it got postponed to January, so my last official concert was "Carmina Burana" at the Hollywood Bowl. Everybody in the U.S. knows the first movement ("O Fortuna!") because it's in pretty much every single movie battle scene ever made, but it's a beautiful oratorio, and have you ever read the translated lyrics? These were German monks writing scandalous notes in the margins of the texts they were copying, and Orff just collected them and set them to this intensely bombastic music.
14. Favorite vacation spot?
I love to just fly in somewhere, get in a car and noodle around. I spent a beautiful week touring tequila country in Jalisco earlier this year, and several years ago I spent an unbelievably relaxing vacation in the Canadian Maritimes.
15. If you had to live somewhere else, where would you like to move?
I'd move to Vancouver, B.C. in a heartbeat. Lyon, France, too... it's like Paris with better food and without all the things that make life in Paris such a trial.
16. Favorite books?
I love to go into bookstores and judge books by their covers. Then I buy one and read it (sometimes this requires some mental discipline). I bought a copy of Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies in the review copy section of the Strand in New York many years ago and fell in love with her storytelling. I can read Jean de Florette and Manon des sources by Marcel Pagnol a hundred times in a row and never get tired of them, and I firmly believe that everyone who ever wasted six dollars seeing the movie version of Carl Sagan's Contact should go find a copy of the book, because it blows the movie treatment away.
17. As a food writer, we can't imagine you can list your favorite restaurants in Orange County. What about your top 5?
That's cheating, and would spoil our end-of-the-year fun, so let me give you a sampling of really good restaurants instead.
South: Sol del Sur in San Juan Capistrano is the kind of place you bring friends you need to catch up with. You drink a lot more wine than you'd think and eat a bunch of absolutely incredible tapas. Before you know it, four hours have gone by.
Coast: Cucina Alessa in Newport Beach and Huntington Beach. It's Italian, it's excellent, and best of all, it is completely unpretentious. It's nice enough that I can host business dinners, and casual enough that I can duck in with a friend with no reservation. I haven't been to the Laguna Beach branch, but I can't imagine it isn't just as perfect as its northern cousins.
North: Olive Tree in Anaheim's as-yet-undesignated Little Arabia district. It's a crowded, slightly awkward space, but the warmth of the people who run it is unmatched, and the food is absolutely outstanding. Make sure you ask what the specials are, because like any good Middle Eastern restaurant, it's what'll be best that day.
Central: Playground in Santa Ana. It's very, very experimental food, meaning that you eat what they have in the house and feel like inventing. Ninety percent of the time, they're geniuses and you end up loving what's on the ever-changing menu; the other ten percent of the time, you send it back and there's absolutely not a single bit of attitude or drama about it. Of course, the fact that every single draft beer on tap—and there are always at least a dozen California craft beers—is $5 doesn't hurt at all. The only problem lately is getting a seat.
Mobile: Taco Maria. It might be the best Mexican restaurant in the county, except I'm way too squirrelly to make any such pronouncements. Every single thing that comes off that truck is worth twice as much as you've paid for it. It's unbelievable. I am desperately waiting for the day when Carlos Salgado has a full restaurant, because he's going to shut a lot of mouths around here.
18. Biggest accomplishment?
My biggest accomplishment is getting where I am with the help of others and not bragging about my accomplishments. (Rimshot.)
19. What’s your biggest fear?
Snakes. I have no problem with flying insects, crawling insects, rodents, small woodland animals, birds... but snakes inspire abject terror in me.
20. Secret most people don’t know about you?
When I was a young man, I was training to be a singer. I was a reasonably decent (but not outstanding) tenor in college; unfortunately, I developed a tumor in my larynx at the age of 20 and that was, as they say, all she wrote. I had to find something else to do, so I decided to teach French in a very rural school district in eastern Iowa. I still love vocal music, though, and I live vicariously through people who can make the music I love.