Chef Victor Albisu grew up wanting to be in the foreign service but ended up taking us around the world with South American flavors at Del Campo and Taco Bamba. While the two kitchens are very distinct, Chef Victor puts the same dedication into the cuisine at his downtown dining room as his suburban taqueria. His food even landed him on The Food Network’s Beat Bobby Flay where he bested the man himself. You’re in luck, avid brunch-goers. You can get your fill of his fare at Del Campo’s bottomless food and drink brunch, all for $45. We recently sat down with Chef Victor to talk South American cuisine, his extensive ideal brunch guest list, and his quest for the perfect taco.
Where is your favorite place to brunch in town?
It depends on what I’m looking for. One of my favorites is Mintwood Place. I love their brunch. It’s one of those really approachable family style brunches and almost anything on that menu is a fan favorite. I also really like the dim sum brunch at The Source as well.
What is your favorite dish to cook for brunch?
I’m a big fan of steak and eggs. I make skirt steak with parmesan cheese and onion topped with a fried egg, shaved asparagus slaw with smoked hollandaise and grilled chimichurri.
Do you prefer to brunch in or out?
I love going out to brunch, for sure.
What brunch item do you have to order if it’s on the menu?
I’m a Benedict guy. I would have one for lunch if I could. If there’s a Benedict on the menu, I’m ordering it. I really enjoy the Eggs Benedict at Bistro Francais—that was a staple for me growing up in D.C.
Do you prefer Bloody Marys or mimosas?
I’m a Bloody Mary guy, for sure. I like mine spicy, peppery, and strong.
If you had to invite a group of local celebrities to brunch, who would they be?
I’m a huge Wizards fan and I love Brazilian food, so the basketball player Nene. We have a lot in common. I’d definitely have to bring a chef or two along for the ride, so Scott Drewno and possibly José Andres. I would invite Sam Kass, even though he’s not around anymore. He’s always been a really great guy.
Your restaurants Del Campo and Taco Bamba celebrate Latin American cooking. What are the most important aspects of this type of cuisine that differentiates it from other styles?
Well, Taco Bamba focuses on the street food of Mexico and I take a good amount of liberties and freedom with that, so we do the traditional side as far traditional tacos and then we also do the more modern twist on tacos, which is my perspective on it. That part is a lot of fun. Del Campo obviously focuses much more on the art of the South American grill. A lot of people call it a steakhouse, but it’s much more of an interpretation of what I grew up eating. It’s how I see that food through the lens of an experienced chef.
You have spent time in highly acclaimed French kitchens. How has that influenced your cooking?
I was able to get the French background through my travels and education. It gave me a high expectation every time we’re coming up with new stuff. I think it gives you a certain high expectation of food. When you live in France, everything has to be incredible always. Not just the refinement, but also the understanding of the basics of building flavors and sauces. My expectation of myself and my staff is very high. That’s one of the many things I got from that.
You run two restaurants with very different vibes. What are the biggest differences in running an upscale dining room versus a taqueria? What are the challenges and most enjoyable parts of both?
There are very obvious differences. Basically, Taco Bamba is a kitchen with a front door. It is what it is and doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not. With both restaurants, I wouldn’t know how to run them any differently. I’m there every day. I’m at Taco Bamba in the morning and Del Campo in the afternoon and night. I’m very intensely involved in running both. The major difference is not in the creativity, because I bring the same dedication to both. I try to build tacos like a dish and rework traditional dishes like I do at Del Campo or sometimes I just let it be. Obviously, the expectation level of a downtown DC restaurant is not equal to a strip mall in Falls Church, Virginia. It makes a big difference in the expectations of things and the price points. If we get something wrong at Taco Bamba, people are happy to get another taco but, at Del Campo, it’s a much bigger deal. They’re both so satisfying. Del Campo is the restaurant I’ve always dreamed of opening. Taco Bamba was just something fun that I grew into and loved it.
Oh, can I also invite Dave Grohl to brunch? And Seth [Hurwitz] from the 9:30 club.
We can’t get enough of the food at Taco Bamba. What would be on your ultimate taco?
I don’t think the ultimate taco has been made. It is a constant search and journey to the ultimate taco. It’s hard to say, because we’re still searching. The signature Taco Bamba has grilled guacamole, grilled chorizo, crispy chicharones, and pickled chilies. It’s got everything flavor component- a little bit of spice and richness. Texturally, you have the chicharones that give a bite to it. The ultimate taco, though, is the one you want every day and I’m working on that.
You recently went on “Beat Bobby Flay” and beat the man himself. Can you tell us what you did to prepare and the dish that took him down?
I think the last 20 years of so of cooking prepared me. I didn’t do anything other than do what I do every day. I cook every day, so it’s not a stretch for me. It was a different kitchen, but I didn’t put any more or less importance on it. Every dish that comes out of my kitchen, even at home, has to be great. If I fall short, I come back with that same perspective every time. I picked steak and eggs because I grew up eating that dish from my dad. One of my favorite things is steak, black beans, rice, and two fried eggs on it. When you eat that in a Cuban restaurant, it’s called steak on horseback. The horseback comes with an egg on top, so I wanted to refine that dish.
You are part of the American Chef Corps, serving the Department of State. What have your activities on the corps been and how do you think food can serve as a diplomatic tool?
I studied international affairs and I used to work in international development. I grew up with the goal of being a diplomat. I wanted to be in foreign service and work in international settings. My mom wanted that very much for me. I’m a first generation American and they probably didn’t expect me to be in a kitchen. When I decided to do this, my mom was kind of disappointed. She didn’t want this kind of life for me, because it’s so demanding.
What’s funny is, years later, I was asked to be a culinary ambassador. I’ve been able to participate with the State Department, so I was finally able to tell my mom that I’m an ambassador. I think there are endless possibilities with food. It’s one of those common things. It’s better than breathing. It’s better than everything. The best way for people to come together is to have a common goal and food is one of those things. Food is a common ground wherever you go in the world. People can agree on and appreciate things that taste good. It’s what brings people to the table. I recently went to Uruguay to cook with chefs from all over South America. There are cultural issues sometimes between South Americans, but when you come together around food, all of that kind of dissipates and makes no sense. I have high hopes for these programs and I believe in food as tool of diplomacy, for sure.
You participate in a number of charities including Share our Strength and the First Lady’s Let’s Move initiative. What role do you think chefs play to bring attention to these causes?
It’s been a very hard journey for me as far as people seeing chefs as cultural figures with some place in pop culture. I always thought I would just be a cook in a kitchen and I didn’t expect this for my career. To me, it’s always a surprise.
In terms of food, and the First Lady’s campaign, it’s on all of us to always choose the better ingredients and choose the more intelligent road in terms of what we buy and cook. I think it’s an easy fix and this is an amazing spark to expecting the best quality of food and the best quality experience from your food. I think the world of her. I’d also like to invite her to brunch. This is getting to be a big brunch. I think we’ll need to have some PBR there.