Q&A with Richard Verdoni, Black Creek Kitchen's owner and chef

Richard Verdoni is a Michigan native and the owner and chef behind Black Creek Kitchen in Sanford. Verdoni’s menu features a range of healthy courses including a mouthwatering list of choices of traditional and non-traditional proteins as well as vegetarian and keto options. Verdoni is proud to bring a unique flair to the area with ingredients he and his staff are passionate about.

At a young age, his family left for Mexico City where his father worked as production manager for the 1968 Summer Olympics publications. His father’s side of his family operates Circo Atayde, a Mexican touring circus with a 131-year history.

After that, Verdoni studied graphic design at the University of Michigan’s School of Art and Design, then moved to California to be closer with family, accepting a job in the kitchen at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch. Over the years he has returned to Mexico and California on multiple occasions and has tied his experiences living and working in both locations as inspiration for Latin cuisine.

Verdoni is an experienced entrepreneur in several realms with previous ventures in video production and editing, video game design and web design. He truly has done it all – and once owned the Studio Z nightclub in San Francisco, worked for the U.S. State Department, and was the CTO of the Movie and Music Network in Los Angeles.

Q: Thanks for joining us today! Can you tell us a little about your background and living Mexico and California?

A: I was born in Muskegon. And six weeks after I was born, we moved to Mexico City when my dad took a job as the production manager for the 1968 Olympics publications. He was in charge of the photographers, writers and that team of people who put together the publications for the event. His side of the family also has what is now a 130-year old circus business named Circo Atayde. So, I grew up around those types of big events.

And after high school I joined the Navy. And I spent five years in as a photographer. After that, I went to the University of Michigan School of Art and studied graphic design. And during that time, actually I got an internship for a company in Silicon Valley and that’s when I moved out to California. And we were making video games for Atari.

The games I worked on specifically were for a 3rd party Atari Developer, V-Real Interactive. I helped develop an arena football game, a fighting game based on astrological characters and a bowling game.

Just then, Charles Prior, Verdoni’s chef brings a taco over to the table to sample.

Q: So what is on this taco, guys?

A: That’s the braised pork. That’s the reason I opened this restaurant, is that taco right there. That’s one of the best tacos you’ll taste here and the meat takes us a day to cook.

Q: You guys have homemade hot sauce too, correct?

A: Yes. We make our own salsas and hot sauce. (Charles returns with a “Market Taco” and hot sauce to sample-it features avocado on a corn tortilla topped with pickled red onion, tomatillo salsa, or Pico de Gallo and fresh crumble cheese).

I’ve been wanting to open a restaurant based on this taco (the ‘G’). Because every time I made it my friends from Mexico exclaimed ‘these are the best tacos!’

Every time I made them, the crowds would get bigger and bigger.

Q: What’s in the hot sauce?

I call that ‘The Atomic’ because it is hot! This stuff if good-you’re going to like it. It’s actually not that hot on the taco because the grease will cut it. The ingredients for the hot sauces vary, as I use different combinations of serrano, jalapeño, habanero, poblano peppers and pasilla chilis along with tomato or tomatillo, cilantro and salt.

(Charles brings over a tamarind tea on ice to sample-a tropical fruit-based beverage that has multiple health benefits).

Q: What’s in this? It’s very good.

A: That’s Tamarind. It’s a pod, it’s a fruit from a tree—from the Tamarind tree. And I also have hibiscus tee which is made with hibiscus flowers. See the idea here is to really nurture ourselves with some really healthy food. It’s healthy on its own, with its own natural ingredients.

When I was back in Mexico City from 2006-2012, I was also running photography workshops down there and so I got to know some chefs and the culinary folks. So that allowed me to taste some really awesome food down there and the cuisine. So, in the back of my mind I was like ‘You know, I can do tacos!’.

Q: Any other influences on your cooking style?

I’ve always been a food lover and my mom always had an interest in cooking, always looking for new recipes and trying them out on us. So that’s been a little of my inspiration, travel, having my mom’s cooking around and trying new things.

Just from living down in Mexico and when I was most recently back there, was just an inspiration — the people cooking on the street, and their methods of just getting everything fresh and ready to go. You sit down on one of those plastic stools, you place your order, and they’re making the tortilla right there and doing everything fresh.

What I’m trying to do is package that up in more or less the same way. If you ask for zucchini mushroom taco, I’m taking the zucchini, slicing it, and I’m taking mushrooms, slicing those and putting those on the grill with a tortilla and cooking that all together—so you’re getting that with some fresh salsa. It’s really…delicious!

I also don’t want the places to be out of range. I don’t think a taco should cost you an arm and a leg, it’s just a taco! This is my first restaurant. I had a chance to really think about what I want to do. I didn’t want to do a diner with a whole bunch of stuff—I had to keep things in a refrigerator, and then go through a lot of food.

My ingredients are fresh and I can mix and match. You can take a ‘Market Taco’ and put a couple thin slices of meat on that and have a totally different experience. I think that I’ve developed a formula here that really caters to an audience who wants to taste some authentic flavors from across the world.

Q: What is your favorite dish to make?

A: I like to eat food in general. It really depends on the day.

I had a customer come in a couple of weeks ago and he had the “G” Taco. He looked up at me and he said ‘You know, when I met my wife in Mexico 30 years ago, that’s the last time I tasted this. Thank you!’ So, I can translate some flavors, I have a palette that I can sort of create a vocabulary with.

Q: What is your go-to home comfort food that you look forward to at the end of the day?

A: Ice cream. I like a nice big bowl of ice cream or popcorn. Popcorn with lots of butter. I love popcorn because I grew up in the circus. My grandmother used to give me free popcorn all the time.

Q: Is there anything else you want to point out about the cuisine here?

A: I do a really awesome pizza, I do a 72-hour slow-rise dough, I make my own sauce, and the thing is there’s a lot of pizza places around here so I just turned off the oven in the summer and I do grilled cheese. It’s going to probably be a seasonal thing.

Q: What advice do you have for the home chef that’s trying to cook something new?

A: I would say that you have to explore and don’t be afraid to try different things. Part of it is exploring. Trying new things. That’s all you can really do. If you don’t try, then you’re not going to learn. Just try new things, it’s not going to kill you.

Q: Can you describe to us what your definition of the perfect taco is?

A: All tacos are generally pretty good, if you put something in a tortilla, it’s probably going to taste ok. It just depends on how you dress it up and what you do with it. That’s a really hard question, because you can mix and match so many things. A lot of the time it could just be, the perfect taco is really one that you’re going to share with your friends, or the ambience, or if you have a friend here you’re going to have a good time, it’s going to be that much better.

I remember when I lived in Mexico going out at night with my friends and you just sit around the table and you just enjoy the food—the breeze, the smell, the fresh-made tortilla, it’s that whole thing. The food just adds to that perfectness. That’s what life is, just being in that moment and enjoying who you are with your friends.

Q: What’s the best thing you’ve ever eaten?

A: In Mexico they have a lot of little restaurants, they’re called ‘comida corridas’ which means ‘food on the go’. You go in there and they have their fixed menu which is salads, soups or salads, your main course, and dessert and drink for 25 or 50 pesos.

I found this guy in the city somewhere and his kitchen was probably one single room, and his cooking area was right in the back with pots and pans and everything. There was an awesome menu on the wall and listed on it was a hot dog.

I ordered the hot dog, and golly that was the best hot dog I’ve ever eaten. This guy was a gourmet chef but the attention to detail, the sauces, and his hot dog was amazing! It’s ridiculous to me that I’m talking about a stupid hot dog! It was the contrast of having this really incredible chef preparing this seemingly simple thing and it happened to be so delicious. It was a homemade hot dog.