Monday, November 15, 2010

It’s In The Books

We are officially a month and a half in the books and things have somewhat stabilized – not necessarily my hours but everything else seems to be going swimmingly to a certain extent.  I seem to have a million things swimming in my mind, but almost nothing simultaneously.  So I decided to write this blog in segments which is the only way I could strategically tackle everything.

 

“Really, dude, really!?!”

Our battle with ABC and the bevy of organizational issues that they seem to pass of to the restaurant owners and merchants alike are still ongoing – 5 months now and counting (now two months past their expected completion date of 90 days).  With that said, the most recent issue – requiring clarification from the Planning Department for zoning in this space – was not even brought up or vetted until the very end of this process.  This is of course the type of basic thing that should happen at the beginning of an application process, but that would make too much sense, wouldn’t it? 

Not sure if you’ve heard recently during the election season, but the spin on the political season was basically the promise of untangling the government knots that effectively put strangleholds on small business entrepreneurship and kill our local economy.  As with many things, the promise of things to happen are normally far from the reality of those situations.  We represent a small business with thin margins and sometimes support ourselves with customers that may or may not sit here for 8 hours on a $2 ice tea.  We have a staff of 15-20 and try our best to be responsible, fair and positive with our staff – but, for those who have been sleeping in a time capsule, it gets hard to pay them towards the pay scale that we wish we could and the amount that many of them really deserve.  This basic wine and beer licensing issue is pinching every single nerve with each additional barrier – whether that stems from ABC’s disorganization, poor staffing and or pointless array of technicalities – its not going to help businesses hire and thrive in an environment where payroll and fees are the killer.

 

Be Your Own Food Hero

Well, aside from the sobering reality of basic job economics, I have had more time recently to start playing with new menu specials and random ideas in my head.  The fun part of having creative control is that when I like something out of my test kitchen, I just put up a sign and sell it.  I recently had a chance to talk to a writer and we started to get into some of the ideas and inspiration behind the food concepts at the Summit.  I didn’t quite know how to place the terminology at first and then I started to reference the approaches that appeal to me the most, the metaphor of guitar hero riffs began to swim in my head.  And thus, I started to coin the phrase “food/cooking hero” to describe the type of restaurant that I was most smitten with.  The items or types of menu where certain things borderline the realm of ridiculous, wonderful, abstract and even excessive.  Sometimes that means putting foie in profiteroles and selling it as dessert and sometimes that means stuffing a pig trotter with more massive quantities of pig and duck sausage – or it can be fluffing a pillow with smoke and serving it as a tray for a course.  And sometimes considering how long, hard or lucky you need to be able to invoke your inner food hero – you might as well take that opportunity by the balls and have fun with it.  There isn’t a written rule sometimes to whether failure or success is a given in this industry – its always just a matter of how much time you have with either.  I’m sure the rock and roll greats don’t get on the stage to find their guitar hero, you get on stage to become the guitar hero.  All I’m saying is I dream of the day when people can all cook to be their own food hero.   

 

Happy-Bunny-You-Suck.jpg You Suck image by SpeedyHedgehog

The Golden Rule

Moving on to a new topic, I fired my first cook a few weeks ago.  It was a poor fit with a bevy of issues and going into the details wouldn’t be the right thing to do– but I think I decided a long time ago that team cohesion and basic respect between kitchen staff would be the first and most important rule of my kitchen.  It is rule #1. 

 

Time to ramp up again – The Summit’s Inaugural Art Show on Thursday, 11/18

We are finally ready to get the art show on the road.  Our first exhibition gallery is a collection of album covers from a list of local merchant record owners, DJ's, writers and friends that agreed to put on display their interpretations of what a “third space” concept meant to them and how it reflects in their LP cover collection.  Some featured include Mark Farina, Cool Chris, Dick Vivian, and others.  It should be pretty nice to finally fill these wood walls with our vision of contemporary art.  Check it out here.

 

Bringing The Debate For Milk To Food

As with my other blogs since we’ve opened, I’ve been tracking our use of Straus milk , which has been consistent and pretty nice.  And with the changes of the fall menu, I started making my butternut squash soup strictly with Straus milk.  People dig it because it’s richness – almost a meal in a bowl.  With that, we’ve started to see a nice steady increase in requests and we’ve started ordering more of it progressively with both the soup and coffee featuring it.  I think there is still a lack of basic education and its hard sometimes to really get people to understand that milk has a fundamental flavor difference that is qualitatively tangible.  In the end, I have the feeling that people need to start experiencing milk in their own homes and refrigerators to start asking for a better product throughout.  It is a luxury though, that’s not lost on me. But if you haven’t thought to try it, you should.  We’re thinking of ways to spread the word a little more. 

 

And finally some pictures of specials, butchers blocks and such… you know, food porn.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

“You’ve Met Me At A Very Strange Time In My Life.”

It has been 14 days since our doors opened and it has been overwhelming madness.  It took a total of 9 days to happen, but I admitted to my cook that afternoon that I was “exhausted” – a word I had avoided considering that it (to me, at least) connotates Kryptonian in its implied usage during The Summit’s opening stretch.  So I took off early during a calm Friday night service after a mere 13 hours on the job and finally had my first real sit down meal in weeks. 

To be honest, dinner service has still been steady and even paced considering that we still don’t have our beer and wine license.  But things could be better because the dinner/bar/dessert tail end of our daily program is simply waiting for our anchor: the beer/wine program.  At this point, it seems businesses are just at the mercy of the departments that control such things.  To be candid, we’re a little bit like lab rats waiting to be fed – there is no information structure, hard deadlines, date settings or anything that might help a business prepare and ready for a major shift in their setup.  It might be the internet/information age, but sometimes I feel like we’re dealing in the wild wild west.  From a friend and restaurant owner, apparently “it just comes in the mail.”  Any friggin’ day now.

Since dealing with delays on our opening, we’ve had to operate with a menu that is coming to its seasonal end – which means that in less than 2 weeks, we get our first menu overhaul.  Ah, the joy of trying to stabilize operations and re-doing my sourcing is doubly as fun.  It’s even harder on a creative level nowadays when there are a million issues to confront, remedy and fix.  In the world of blog, reaction, hype and overreaction, the difficulties of meeting expectations are present – especially when it comes to being high profile in one of the most outspoken neighborhoods in one of the most opinionated cities.  It’s an element that we welcome because honest and proper criticism is important part of growth – perfection or stability is only a false vanity of the “thin mirror” variety.  It doesn’t exist.

One of the more offsetting but poignant digressions that I’ve come back to many times is a line from Stanley Tucci in the movie Sidewalks of New York:

“"Show me a good-looking woman... I'll show you a guy who's tired of fucking her.""

It’s my little metaphor for avoiding complacency.  I think the one of the most important things in work, life or personal goals is to avoid being complacent.

That being said, there is nothing complacent about our opening two weeks.  On one of my rougher days, approximately 3-4 days ago (feels like months), we had pastrami issues with the temperature in which the pastrami came out.  Having run around to pickup items for both services and prep out for dinner, I had not seen the new piece of pastrami my cook cut into.  Due to the oven being set 5 degrees lower than normal, the pastrami was cut at that temperature to serve.  The base temperature for the red meat was perfectly fine for serving, but when you account to the fat ratio and texture difference between those pivotal 5 degrees – you are looking at a product that is not coming out the way it is supposed to (or at least not the way I wanted it).  It just so happens, I met Carolyn of SF Eater and she ordered a pastrami – it really is just shit that you can’t make up sometimes.  Sorry Carolyn, just one of those demoralizing days when you are trying to run circles to figure things out. 

On top of all the joy happening at the Summit, you can add a case of anxiety driven nausea in the morning and a 5:45AM mental alarm clock that has no sleep button.  That is how the first 14 days of a 18 hour-shift cafe/restaurant feels like.  It’s a constant reminder of what you did not do and not so much what you have done.  Thankfully, I slept relatively well the last couple of nights.  I didn’t get more hours, but was able to have a couple of nice and weird dreams as opposed to nightmares about remembering to soak beans and whatnot. 

Ultimately, there is a vision for utilizing and sharing this space which includes our rotating art exhibit, the Minibar-inspired fine dining concept, the beer/wine program, community driven classes/events, etc..  But as of right now, after 14 days of madness, I’m just running to stand still. 

And we’re very thankful for everyone’s patience and understanding in the meantime. 

Monday, October 4, 2010

Getting Dialed In.

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It’s Monday morning and my stomach is gut-wrenchingly abusing me for ignoring it for 16 hour stretches.  Meanwhile, I tried to sleep 7 hours last night, but my brain cut me short at 5:45AM in the morning today which means that I subconsciously robbed myself of 75 minutes.  And so, this is how I welcome week 2 of our opening. 

By the way, I found the key to curbing obesity in America: force every overweight person in this world to open a restaurant.  We’ll have better malnutrition numbers here than a small third world country after that.

I dreamed of eating ramen and enjoying a sexy cocktail with a pork chop on Thursday and Friday, but by Sunday those dreams seem to be lost.  Things are stabilizing here and we are figuring out the timing and shifts needed for everything.  The kitchen seems like it has found a groove, but with the shifting weeks and busy periods – you just never really know.  All in all, I am content and happy – which despite the marathon hours, is as much as anyone can ever ask for.

Once the dust settles, hopefully soon, we can start working on expanding menus and resolving issues.  In the meantime, I won’t say that I’m thrilled that Friday and Saturday dinner services were a little more on the quiet end, but with fingerprints on everything stretching from beverage, lunch, dinner and operations – personal pride aside, I’m not going to stress about it.  Right now, it’s all about dialing in the product and quality – that is the only thing that matters.

While I do enjoy summer produce, we’re going to have to shift to fall and winter pretty soon.  It really sucks to be open at this point and then have to rotate items so fast, but I’m excited to start introducing a new season.  It is definitely the best part of the job.

One of the hardest things for me to understand is how people psychologically view mental wait times in spaces.  I’m not sure if there is a difference (other than customer perception) if you are waiting for a coffee after you are rung up in line or if you are just waiting in line for 15 minutes and then getting your coffee 5 minutes later.  People seem to be happier to wait in line longer standing than wait sitting down.  This slightly confuses me. 

On the coffee end, as part of our Straus Barista milk project, we’ve been getting a few orders everyday for the lattes and cappuccinos with Straus added ($.25 extra).  It hasn’t been a ton of orders, but those who have done so, really appreciate and love the product.  One lady even did an add-on for her drip coffee.  It was never a doubt in my mind, the end result is superior and I don’t think keeping it in stock has been much of an issue.  Storage on the other hand is the kryptonite to all restaurants.

I’m proud of all the staff here because they were thrust in the fire and they’ve responded unbelievably and positively.  We were also very sad to see one of our initial front of staffers, Grace, go.  You don’t meet many people who work this job with a better attitude, but she had to move temporarily for urgent matters.  So this is my little way of appreciating her work ethic and positivity.  You can be as smart or as talented as you want, but will, work ethic and attitude wins out almost all the time.

I think I’ve jumped into the Barista line 4-5 times the last few days which while fun – is madness.  Foaming soy milk infuriates me and good latte art still slightly eludes me.  I can pull some pretty nice even shots, but I am crowning myself the prince of drip here only because I’ve been psycho about it for the last 2 years – maybe not jimseven.com crazy, but pretty much close to there.  So consider yourself blessed if you see me on drip, you’re in good hands.

Alright, enough writing, back to work.

Monday, September 27, 2010

FINALLY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

 

It’s about m#$@f$%$ing time.  We passed our final inspection.  Time to get it on.

 

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Backbone of the Latte – A Study and Experiment into Exploring the Foundation of Milk with Espresso

For the last month or so, I’ve been speaking a lot with Straus milk and their Barista milk product.  Without being prompted in any way, I can honestly say that I’ve always been aware that Straus makes a superior dairy product when compared to most of what’s available in the market.  Sadly, some decisions as chef partner are more about value, sustainable costs and customer willingness to pay more for what is already perceived to be a high end/cost latte.  For a while, I went on accepting that this was just a matter of fate.

After sitting down with Straus and meeting Anna Kharbas (great twitter name: @MilkMistress), we started to try to develop a trial program of sorts to highlight what seems to be overlooked in milk based espresso drinks: the milk.  There are essentially two determining factors for realizing the full capacity and potential for milk in these drinks (commonly the cappuccino and the latte).  They are:

1. Temperature

For many believers in raw milk and kitchen science – heating and pasteurization process are argued to be the destroyer of the truer flavors of milk.  Much mass produced milk is blindly flash-heated to a temperature level where subtle flavors and richness have disintegrated.  People who normally desire burning hot lattes and cappuccinos do not understand that they are robbing themselves of valuable flavor.  The steamed milk temperature for these drinks should not hover above 140F degrees (significantly lower in the case of a cappuccino).  Don’t be a fool, a piping hot latte is wrong.

2. Milk Quality

It’s simple – better cow, better practices/process, better milk solid/fat all equates to a more flavorful milk.  If you put different milks side by side, you can tell the difference.  It’s not rocket science and its definitively easier than the Pepsi Challenge. 

For those that do not realize this, milk makes up 85% of your latte and about 66% of your cappuccino.  If you were to rationalize this into a cooking thought – try to imagine a soup that is 85% meat stock.  I’m sure the quality, intensity and depth of that meat stock directly and drastically influences the final quality of that soup.  Now apply that relationship to milk and you have a good argument for milk as being the backbone of a latte.

Having identified the necessity for high quality milk, we still weren’t sure how we could offer a better product without loading our ideals onto a customer’s wallet.  After working out the logistics (fridge capacity, ordering, pricing), we felt that the best way was to enable customers to decipher the difference in quality themselves.  We will offer Straus milk as a .25 cent optional add-on for our cappuccino and latte menu for a 2-3 month trial period.  This way, we could give the customers the ability to make up their own minds and judgments about the differences in milks in their drink.  And while customers are deciding, we will watch and evaluate carefully as to how much they react to their latte experience with Straus Barista milk.  During this time, Straus has decided to also work with us and offer us a modest rebate as we try to intelligently log our coffee issues/experiences that we will encounter with Straus Barista milk.  I will be feeding readers with an update from time to time on our little Barista milk experiment. 

Here is a link and release from Straus on the program.

Oh yeah, if you didn’t catch it, our little project was featured a few days ago on Chow.com.  Read it here. 

For the real masters of talking coffee shop, I’d read: www.jimseven.com, blog.terroircoffee.com, http://www.intelligentsiacoffee.com/blog, http://www.coffeegeek.com/.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Officially Announcing… The Waiting Game.

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A mini dessert preview from Maison Mitchell. 

Over last weekend, we ran soft openings for friends and family to introduce ourselves to those who have supported us over time.  During this time, we got a chance to really run tests on staff, equipment and basic logistics for our space.  And from there, we received different sets of feedback and important pieces of criticism to really help us improve for our opening.  For the most part, things ran relatively smoothly if you discount the fact that all food disappeared in less than 3 hours on Sunday night’s service.  On that end, it was pure madness. 

Here are some of the more notable opinions, observations and highlights this weekend in regards to our soft opening:

- The most important thing that I will always heed is food service issues with seasoning and temperature.  Both were slightly off in some of the dishes that went out due to lack of focus from the kitchen.  Not particularly excusable – especially when you considered that certain scores hovering 7.5 could have easily been 8-8.5 with a simple adjustment.  A simple Sleight (or Salt) of Hand is all that is needed sometimes.  Nice to know, my super cheesy jokes are still alive even though I’ve disappeared for 3 weeks…

- I am putting salt containers on tables.  Ugh.  I’ve conceded that we are cafe/restaurant and fine dining controls are not in place for me to say “how I season this is how you should eat it.”  I don’t think I have the technical tools for that kind of arrogance/confidence – yet.

- The worst comments are the ones that project and grade on personal preferences for how and what menus should look like.  It’s okay to tell restaurants that you wish there were more options.  I appreciate those comments and take them to heart.  But to score actual food based on the lack of a specific preference and option is fairly self-righteous.  I’m not sure I’ll barrel into a restaurant ever and complain that there wasn’t a wild boar option.  It would be a better and a fairer world for people to judge food, art, and people on just their own merits and not our perceived standards for them. 

- On a separate note, is it a double standard to go to a regular restaurant and expect a vegetarian or vegan option, but not the same in a vegetarian restaurant?  I’m just curious.   

- What’s even more egregious – having superficial issues with the direction of plating (completely unrelated to the flavor or food).  It’s basically saying, “hey I like how you drew that picture, but could you paint it in the colors that I want?”  Or how about, “hey I like you, but can you wear different clothing the next time I see you.” 

- The oddest comment was “use organic produce” as a way to improve our food.  It was probably a lack of a sign to point out how we source our food, but we are 100% organic local sustainable farm to table with every facet of produce we buy.  Meat-wise we source from certified humane California farms such as Llano Seco, Petaluma Poultry and Pacific Pastures.  There will be a sign, but we didn’t feel a need to write it all over the menu.  If I started naming every farm for each item, the menu might read like Moby Dick and I might as well be cooking in San Francisco circa late 1990’s.  Feel free to ask me or staff where everything comes from though, I’d be happy to tell you.  Or you can just watch me run around like an idiot at the farmer’s markets in San Rafael or San Francisco as satisfying proof. 

- I totally fucked up one of the dinner plates due to improper temperatures for the protein coming out of my CVAP oven.  It was all my fault – me, myself and I.  I immediately cancelled all table orders and pulled it for refund.  It was my call and I did not want to serve the item half assed.  I apologize to those that did not get it after ordering.  Fail on my part.  Cooking can be unbelievably humbling sometimes. 

- The San Francisco Building Department is not on your side.  We’re ready to go here, but we’re officially playing the waiting game for our final inspections to get done.  Part of the issue lies with horrendous contractors that worked on the building project prior to us (and our own contractors) stepping into the space.  It’s cost us a ton of money, time and problems as a result.  We’re not happy, but sometimes this is the hand that you get dealt.  Crying about it won’t get shit done faster.

- Dessert tasting is happening right now as evident in the picture above.  If you don’t know Gabriel Mitchell (his brand, Maison Mitchell) is our inaugural Summit Dessert Program Chef.  Gabriel boasts a ridiculous resume spanning city to city and was most recently, was the pastry chef at Zinnia. 

- The menu we have for the opening is not the final size that we’d like it to be but I felt it more important that lock down a good opening menu and then add on items as we move forward and push to do more.  Having pastries, lunch, dinner and a dessert program designed or coordinated has natural limitations and I never imagine the assortment of different things I’d have to do and be involved with when I started.  It feels like a intricate balancing act or bee dance of some sort.  First special on menu might be a roasted chicken sandwich with a black garlic aioli – that and I’m working out some fresh fruit pickles.

- Alongside with the food, I’ve been working through to plan out a good beer program here with my bar manager Rosie and consultant Alex Fox.  We’re excited for what we are planning, but I’m at crack-addict desperate with trying to get some Russian River or Moonlight up in here.  Help.

- The best thing about cooking and prepping on the line again are the little cuts, burns and citrus/salt that sting them.  It sounds painful, but I’m not sure there’s anything out there that makes you feel more alive.  Pain is a funny memory sensation in a kitchen.

“Many happy returns, Mr. Wayne.”

- Hopefully, my next blog will introduce a new program that we are trying to experiment with Straus’ Barista milk.  We really want to offer latte/cappuccino lovers a higher end alternative for to highlight all the great flavor profiles affected by milk quality in those drinks.  There is really a science and a positive end result from the quality of milk utilized. 

-I’m crossing my fingers and getting my rest right now.  Let’s hope this waiting game ends soon.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Anger, anxiety and hope

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We are very close now to our official opening date and things are starting to round to form.  Thankfully the most recent delays have been a matter of days and not months – to that extent, I feel relatively blessed.  It doesn’t make it any easier considering that we are balancing a hired staff which have been scheduled for intensive training.  With all our dates and deadlines in mind, here is some of the more interesting tidbits over the last few weeks to tide you over until I have concrete news.

The Front of House Interview Process:

I think one of the hardest things to do is to gauge the capability or personality of a person and correlate that with work ethic during  a package of two 30 minutes interviews.  With that said, we weeded out 40 or so resumes from a pool of 200+ for front of house and conducted initial interviews.  We then conducted second interviews after cutting that number by more than half. 

During the round of second interviews (which I was one of two people asking questions), I wanted to create questions that would measure a few basic things: quickness when processing information, poise, intelligence, decision-making, creativity and personality.  I felt that out of all the questions we posed, the one question that seemed to catch people off guard the most was this:

“In Japan, there is a coffee cafe where you order for the person waiting in line behind directly behind and subsequently the person in front orders for you.  Given this were true, what would you order for the person behind you and what would you expect from the person in front?”

Here are some statistics:

-The most basic response for ordering for the person behind: Americano and Drip.

-The most basic response for a person ordering for you: Latte and Drip.

-# of responses that were considered “great”: 2 – one of which was Americano, but contained a perfectly laid out argument as to why an Americano would technically be the right drink for most people.  The other was practical and straightforward, “ I would just ask them.”  Only 1 person thought to say that.

Here are some other statistics on the rest of the FOH interview process: 

-There are at least 4 employees from Top 20 Universities/Ivy Leagues in our hiring group.

-We have artists, a successful product designer, a former MIT Toy Lab manager, a coffee production major, fashion designers, a hyphy hip-hop DJ and much more. 

-There is a dead-ringer for Carey Mulligan in An Education and there is another employee that looks like a hybrid of Charlie Sheen’s brunette gf in Major League II fused with Lizzy Caplan from True Blood/Hot Tub Time Machine.  Seriously. 

Inspectors, Vendors and the SF Metermaids

Not friends of mine.

Don’t be afraid to hurt a vendor’s feelings, hurting your business model and or budget is worse.

One of the inspectors tells us that we can paint a surface with color like black or brown, then after the surface is painted granite (lighter than a dark gray definitely) he tells us that it might be too dark, but apparently there isn’t a definitive rule or anything. 

A meter maid blatantly makes up an arbitrary ticket about me parking for more than two hours from 10:30AM to 1:11PM.  Too bad the spot was still street cleaning before 11AM (which, even if I was there, would more likely prompt a street cleaning ticket) and many witnesses put me as arriving here well past 11:15.  Seriously, if you’re going to make stuff up and ticket me, at least pick something more plausible. 

Anything But Cooking

At this point, I’ve been doing everything but cooking to get ready for our opening.  Oddly enough, there has been a lot of different aspects/skills/information that I acquired in my life that have all of a sudden become relevant again.  Some of those include utilizing my many years of experience in painting (summers spent working for dad’s contracting company), drawing mechanical diagrams in CAD for different items that we want to build and engineer (former mechanical engineering major), and knowledge acquired from studying geeky books and blogs on technical exploration of coffee/food.  It’s very Slumdog Millionaire. 

For some reason, I recently recalled a brief conversation I had with Melissa Perello a few weeks prior to her opening Frances.  When we were talking, I asked her if she had her menu and such all planned out and ready to go, to which, she said something to the effect, “I’m not sure, I haven’t even had time to think about it yet.”  It struck me as a little odd and I thought Melissa was just being modest because I always envisioned that the menu would be the first thing to happen, but fast forward 10+ months and I think I get it.  Melissa may have only been partially joking, but its really not that off base.  Cooking is the last thing that happens.

The truth is at this point, there are three basic mantras that as a chef-owner, I’ve come to grips with and understood:

1. If you don’t get it done, then nobody else will.  You are the planner, the executer and the backup plan.

2. Beg, borrow and steal – it takes a “I’ll do anything and everything” mentality to get through the madness.

3. Don’t let anyone outwork you.     

 

Hope

We hope great things out of our new dessert chef.  It’s official, our dessert concept is pretty much set for round 1.  We’re excited.  Announcement coming soon.

We’re also excited to be featuring Jared Nash as our inhouse pastry vendor.  His line of goodies will fall under the name NashBaker Pastries.  We really feel confident that we can provide a legitimately delicious match for your Red Blossom tea and Blue Bottle coffee. 

Here’s hoping my next blog is an official open date announcement and a welcome message.  Oh yeah, final inspections are this week.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Summit Dessert Program – Roll Call

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For the last couple of months, I have been playing around with the idea of trying something unique for our dessert program at The Summit.  I had considered all of the following options: 1) taking on that piece of the menu myself in a limited state, 2) hiring a pastry chef and 3) outsourcing the items made.  I liked the control aspect for all three of the items, but I hated the time commitment for 1) and I worried about the payroll/motivation aspect of 2) and questioned the quality/creativity issues with 3).  Since then, I started to develop an idea that I am now trying to install into our new space.

One of the primary philosophies and themes of The Summit revolves around the general premise that we want to be an incubator space and meeting point for the creation of ideas – a concept that is depicted with one of our signature campaign posters with our “MM” (four even pointed mountain tops) logo and a light bulb.  And, in this spirit of incubation and creation, I started playing with the possibility of having an incubated dessert program.

At first I thought the idea was fairly interesting, but I wasn’t sure how we’d exactly fit the bill in terms of logistics.  Sometimes ideas are sexier in a raw and primal state, but there is always the potential of a pitfall when we need to bring them to fruition.  I set out to logically create a structure for how we would work out this system and began to find ways to make the concept an appealing one to serious pastry/dessert chefs.  Ideally, a rotating/incubator dessert chef program offers the ability to 1) showcase otherwise unknown talents of pastry chefs who may or may not be interested in starting/drawing attention to their own new/existing ventures, 2) generate a buzz and devoted interest into a commonly overlooked part of the meal experience and 3) enable The Summit to be a catalyst for a unique and evolving dessert program.  

Here are a few of the rough and unfinished details for how I envision our dessert program:

1. Pastry/dessert chefs will commit to create their signature desserts and serve them in our space for 3-4 months at a time.

2. During this time, they will have creative control for what they serve and how much they would charge.

3. The Summit would exclusively feature and serve their desserts after dinner service for all night shifts that go past 12 AM.  Desserts can and likely will also be served throughout dinner service.

4. One of the guidelines is that The Summit expects that the production of all desserts adheres to the California Code of local/sustainable whenever possible.

5. The dessert chef will have space, storage, use of facility and access to accomplish all aspects of making/prepping their desserts.

6. To properly launch each dessert program, The Summit will likely hold a initial introductory launch party for the new "tenant."

Of course there will be more details and specified conditions to be worked out for each new chef, but I'd like to present the basic idea and spread the word to all interested pastry chefs (currently working in a restaurant space or not) who might want to branch out or feature their work in a different arena or neighborhood.  While this model may seem a bit more unusual (and hopefully intriguing) than hiring a dessert chef, I am also cautious about its sustainability in the long run.  If successful, I believe this could be exciting and rewarding to the right dessert chef and to the dining public.

So, now that you’ve heard my thoughts on the matter, I guess I’d have to say that this is the official roll call.  All interested parties can contact me at eddie@thesummit-sf.com.  I would be happy to provide answers, timelines and more specifics. 

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

On and on and on and on…

Today, I am in a much better disposition than yesterday. 

It’s funny how monumental some of the battles seem when you try to figure out how pieces will fit and how things will work out, but how tiny, simple and elegant the solution normally ends up being.  And so went the case of resolving out the majority of our equipment issues.

To those with the restaurant entrepreneurial spirit, here is a warning.  Don’t bother trying to get a loan from a bank.  It’s relatively pointless especially considering the 18% interest you may have to swallow.  From what I understand of financial institutions right now in association with restaurant loans – a majority of them require that you have been in business for 5 years or more.  In the world of the restaurant, if you have been in business 5 years or more, I would imagine that you might not want to borrow the cash (enjoyed success) or you shouldn’t borrow the cash (struggling restaurant in debt). 

Yes, restaurants are a bad case for loans, (if the 80% failure within 2 years still stands), but I’m not sure the loans are approached at the proper vetting or even the basic consideration.  I’m not sure why there isn’t a short term approachable equipment loan (considering equipment has tangible value even over time) for restaurants.  There are risks, but I’m not sure those risks are necessarily more than the risks of renting out a car necessarily. 

Now that my major headache is resolved, here are some tidbits:

- We’re trying to finish inspections this week and next, so if everything goes according to plan, we’re moving fast out of the gate.

- The interview process can be a bitch… the complexion can change from good to bad in a matter of hours.  You can be cruising in the morning from good interview to good interview and then hit a bump and trickle down a shitty slope.

- “I don’t care” is not a word that should ever be used in an interview.  You should always care. 

- Someone came into an interview telling me they were already starting at a new restaurant for Bruce Hill’s (well respected chef in this city) Zero Zero this week.  I asked him why he was here and he simply said he was “looking for the best money available.”  My response: “money commensurates with the quality of the cook.”  I should have told him that his hourly rate just dropped $4 an hour when he opened his mouth. 

- Interviewed a girl for a front-of-house position that’s kind of a dead ringer for Carey Mulligan in An Education.  Honestly, one of the smartest, charming and well spoken interviews I’ve ever been a part of.  What was even more impressive was that her first interview was very good, but her second was even better.  Now that, my friends, is called bringing an A game.

- One of the most annoying but important things in getting this business going is really nickel and diming each decision we make.  Costs compound and what may seem like a bunch of harmless bar rags here or there, end up becoming the difference of a few thousand dollars in a year.  So yes, nickel and dime everything and everyone.  It absolutely matters. 

- We just got our tabletop in and it’s in theme of the bar as well except it’s got a very intricate cross pattern design.  In the scheme of naming different areas and sections of our space – for some reason, the guys wanted to name our table “Tron.” 

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- I’m doing some test runs for our food receive and delivery since I happen to be cooking an event this weekend.  Today, I got my first delivery from one of the farms we plan to source a lot from: Full Belly.  Check out the amazing Sun Golds… so sweet.

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- In terms of schedule management and hiring, we’ve been really scraping our minds around what is really necessary.  When you open, you need a lot of hands on deck, which means you will likely have to over-hire to start, but after 2-3 months people become comfortable with their roles and expected workload, so your staff doesn’t need as much help.  It’s a very sensitive point because payroll is the ultimate cost when it comes to San Francisco restaurants.

- More stuff coming later in the week, including some juicy reveals.  Oh yeah, we got lucky and ended up having a smart and devoted intern, named Laura, help us with steering this crazy ship a little bit.  She’s blogging about her adventures and or our misadventures on the Summit wordpress blog, seen here.  You can also follow her at twitter account: FoodiesBooty.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Another Week Closer…

It was a hectic but unbelievable week for The Summit project.  After a few weeks of tough breaks with construction and planning delays, we seemed to have finally gotten in the right direction and flow with getting everything ready to go.  I haven’t been specific with updates recently, but here’s a piece by piece review of all the shit that’s been going down.

-Thank you ABC for being attentive, responsive and amazingly cooperative for getting our license seemingly in line with our expected dates.  I don’t think I’ve ever felt that way about a government licensing agency and I was overwhelmingly surprised to feel so positive about this one. 

-We are narrowing down our equipment and we finally got all the final drawing edits completed and ready to go a week and a half ago.  Despite a 2 week delay, things got back on track. 

-I will tell you that I have not had a good experience with equipment vendors, I do not understand how people can possibly be so irresponsible with responding and getting back to perspective clients in good time.  Is it me or does it feel like I have to spend most of the work in order for me to give people money?  It makes saying “no” to some of the bids very easy.

-The woodwork for our bar construction is nearing completion and it is looking quite snazzy, here is a Hot Food Porn exclusive sneak peek at part of our end section:

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-The Summit logos has been unveiled and we were all very smitten with how everything is looking.  I’m glad they are done because its beginning to get annoying to live without a business card.  I never once thought that was ever important until people kept asking me for one.  Here is another sneak peek of one of posters from our first series of designs.  As you can see, we are focused on the dual “MM” as the primary design for our logo series.  As our designer put it, it exemplifies a mutual meeting point and joining of ideas, which happens to be one of the main objectives/end-results of a summit.

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-Figuring out the right plates and flatware is exhausting.  Between my partner and myself, I think we must have spent an hour contemplating the merits of creative visual output versus efficiency on the floor.  We are leaning on contemporary modern, but fairly aggressive.  The plate you see is one of conceptual menu dishes: wild mushroom in vadouvan: butter bolete and chanterelle mushrooms, baby potato medley and chioggia beets.  Sneak peeks galore:

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-Dear industry, a job resume is important.  Please learn to write one.  Please.  We are looking for line cooks.  Got some resumes in, but looking for more.  Email: jobs@thesummit-sf.com for more info!

-I have seen some of the most horrendous resumes during from our job posting.  Some of which have contained more intimate information than the Personals section on Craig’s List.  Please, sunset walks on the beach won’t help you at your job. 

-We are currently working out some unique plans for our dessert service, hopefully we can approach it in a very fresh way and offer an interesting approach to it.  Will have more on that as we get into talks with other interested parties.

-Some of the themes and ideas we’ve lived by and considered at every juncture of this project is: craftsmanship, curatorship, local sourcing, and the creation of a sustainable high concept – low cost model as supposed to the saturated “high (cost) low (concept)” market in San Francisco.  I’m sorry to disappoint, but burgers, fried chicken and pizza (as much as I honestly love them) do not currently exist in our menu. 

-We’ve begun to have meetings on setting up the art component to our space.  A lot of that will go through a series of think-tank sessions and an approach not unlike that of an actual gallery.  It’s fairly intense.

-Oh yeah, in some weird world of ours, we ended up with a fantastic intern that has been following and observing our opening process.  Her name is Laura and part of her duties include blogging on her experiences.  Her update will probably end up on Desi’s Summit blog – coming soon.

-We’ve started identifying farms and vendors that we want to work with and I am currently in the process of picking and choosing them.  It really feels like Christmas during this process and it is one of the most creatively energizing and rewarding tasks throughout our project.  Once we get started, we will definitely be detailing our sourcing for our produce.

More stuff to report later this week…

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Smoked Salmon Flavored Vodka, um… yeah

On Saturday, I happened to listen in on a conversation at the market about someone’s fairly ridiculous suggestion for creating some sort of weird meat/bourbon/breakfast infused cocktail.  I’m also skeptical that other than pure alcoholics, who would want to start their day with a sausage and egg cocktail? And then yesterday, I saw this article on boston.com detailing how there is a smoked salmon vodka coming from Alaska. 

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Honestly, I’m torn.  Part of me says the exploration of flavor is exciting in the right doses and for the proper purposes.  I am very principled when it comes to being open and trying new things, so I am extremely open to progressive combinations.  I really like savory, refreshing and adventurous cocktails (which by the way, will be featured at CUESA’s July 7th Savory Cocktail event.  Free plug for a cool sounding event, tickets here.  You’re welcome.)  But frankly, a lot of the weird protein shit going on with spirits sounds disgusting.  I’ve had bacon infused whisky and other forms of savory cocktails, but I’ve never ventured past a small sip.  And, I’m not sure there are many patrons in this world who walk into the bar looking for a bacon or salmon drink.

The idea of a protein based cocktail (as noted in the article) is most prevalent in different variations of the Bloody Mary (clam juice being the common ingredient), but I’d argue the clam juice is only a minor supporting character in the makeup of the drink.  I’m not even sure if some recipes call for it. 

If we were to apply some sort of cross/reverse engineering to the idea of a meat-based spirit, we should look at how spirits/alcohol are traditionally approached in cooking.  I’d say that for 98% of the time, the process in which spirits/wine are used in cooking requires that most of alcohol component be cooked off – accenting the primary flavors of the spirit.  I’m pretty confident veal stock in whiskey or slices of smoked salmon sitting in cold vodka aren’t particularly pleasing.

Looking beyond the gimmick, is there a measurable quality to the spirit?  Much like any other flavored vodka, there is no sense in discerning any type of quality/craftsmanship to the spirit when there is no standard to its creation.  Spirits seem to often be judged on being nuanced and accentuated by their creation process, subtle ingredients, complex (and elegant) flavor, skill or patience used to craft them.  But, when you produce an item that doesn’t necessarily need to identify with any of those elements, is there really any value to the cocktail it produces?  Is there a point to drink a meaty bourbon cocktail when the primary qualities of bourbon are robbed by the overwhelming flavor of bacon?  Please don’t let this be the Zoobas-pant trend of 2010. 

I think the exploration for interesting and balanced flavors makes a lot of sense whether they are savory or sweet, but I’d caution on the pretentious overindulgence and culinary masturbation associated with trying to force fit flavors like they were triangular pieces into a square hole. 

Friday, June 25, 2010

Identifying Dinner Plate Intangibles

One of the books on my list of too many books to read is The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.  For those people who have read the book and those who can infer simple ideas from simpler book titles; the book is essentially about a pinpoint moment where an event tips you over to one reaction of another.  I’m sure there is also a good deal of subsequent reaction and consequential hypothetical discovery in the book, but I wanted to write today about how there are basic tipping points that go unnoticed on dinner plates. 

On Sunday night, I had a wonderful Chinese family style dinner (with only one dining companion and 4 dishes ordered) at a relatively new restaurant in my neighborhood.  The meal was comforting, satisfying and unbelievably filling – at the end of which, I decided that I needed to walk the 15 block distance home to burn of part of the meal. 

The restaurant was packed that night as it seems to be during almost every other night that I’ve driven by.  After dinner, my roommates were curious to gather some of the details on the quality of the dinner and what I ordered specifically.  After running through the names of the dishes, I started telling them about why they were good and the amount of polish that was present in each dish – a sign of a very detailed and well-trained chef. 

It happened that a lot of what I was analytically describing normally seems to go unnoticed by the patron.  For those who have a good understanding of dinner plates and technical elements (e.g. presentation, techniques employed, textures), they have a slightly better appreciation for what’s in front of them – and they are also able to qualify their appreciation/joy/satisfaction with the proper words.  The most articulate group are normally referred to as restaurant critics… sometimes.  But, for the casual and common diner, an analysis in the proper words or descriptions do not come so easily – despite the fact that they consciously know that their meal was of a superior “it-was-great” quality.

I’m not implying that people should start to psychoanalyze their meal, but I’m actually trying to put light on some of the more overlooked components of a dinner plate that seem to render a favorable verdict.  Let’s call these things, dinner intangibles. 

And yes, by naming them out, I guess I am making them “tangible” – I understand the contradiction.  Let’s move on.

 

Dinner plates: Everything about the type, size, color and style of the dinner plate matters.  Appropriately sized and thematically coordinated dinnerware is integral in the type of message that the food is saying.  Using modern white plates to convey Southern comfort is as confusing as using Chinese blue fish plates for fine dining.  Need an example of the perfect combination of restaurant theme and dinnerware?  The quickest that come to mind are the Heath ceramics at Frances and the custom designs at Chicago’s L20.  It’s not like those restaurants are wildly acclaimed or something…

 

Garnish: For many people, garnish happens to be the stupid parsley leaf sitting pointlessly in the middle of the plate.  I assure you that garnish, when properly executed, should be an integral element of the meal.  For many detailed chefs, it always seems to be a final element that either accentuate or add complexity to the plate.  Sometimes it’s the most apparent thing on the plate and sometimes I’d argue that some garnishes are not even visible, but the primary intent for the garnish should be used in support of the actual food (with texture or flavor).  Some of the more popular/trendy garnishes over the years include edible flowers, flavored oils, different salts, shaved vegetables and fried shallots/garlic.  Dyed daikon roses really don’t do much for me.

 

Plate temperature: Plate temperature is more about function than anything else.  It’s really simple: hot food in cool plates get cold fast and cold food in hot plates get warm fast.  Unless you ordered a warm salad or cool steak, I’m not sure either of those things help your dining experience.

 

Uniform shapes and clean cuts:  Nobody cares when they get a steak that sits naturally on a plate, but if you were to look at a plate of vegetables where some were cut into squares and some where cut into diagonal slices, I’m pretty sure you’re going to be dissatisfied with either the ugliness or the different textures due to uneven cooking.  I’m not sure people want to see manhandled  and jagged slices of meat or bread either.

 

Portion control: Portion control should be a part of the message or theme of the restaurant.  If you put a share plate that has too much food, then it will likely not get finished – partially running cold and endlessly sitting in front of the guilty diners.  If the portion appears to small compared to other plates, then you’ve let the diner psychologically demote the value of your plate and or part of your menu.  A mentality that let’s them think, “only some things are worth ordering.”  I think most people crave generous portions and appreciate large portions, but from the standpoint of the diner and the restaurant alike – a balance or appropriate portion (with respect to the restaurant style) is much more important.  For some restaurants, I understand and appreciate that excess is the point.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Nic Cage Wants Cake.

I haven’t posted anything remotely funny or retarded in a while, so I thought I’d throw this out there considering that it combines two very enjoyable things: a song related about food and Nicholas Cage being crazy:

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Contractors, Concept, Contacts and Contingencies

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Having a newly designed space and the ability to mold your concept into said space is a blessing and a curse.  For those who are not familiar with how the basic restaurant/cafe real estate model – you have two choices: a newly created space or an existing restaurant space.  The advantages and disadvantages to either are pretty clear cut. 

In an existing space, you have the ability to simply setup, make minor aesthetic changes and start cooking with the available set equipment.  You do not need to worry about new building permits, overarching technicalities or any element of structural/building design.  The negative side of that equation is the inability to create or design a space that ideal for your concept.  And sometimes, you may have to end up ponying up for the actual restaurant business and also an overvalued (existing) lease linked to the space.  This amount can be exorbitant at times.

If you happen to conjure the lunacy of deciding to renovate a space for restaurant use – you are looking for a world of hurt and hassle.  All changes are major.  There is no equipment until you buy it.  You need permits to okay everything from hanging ceiling fixtures to wiping your asshole (it seems).  Everything aspect of the space requires thought, design, criticism, consideration, and execution.  In other words, the pain and process are burdening, but if you see it through (as we seem to get closer to doing daily), it should be very self-fulfilling process and rewarding result. 

Since the Summit is of the latter method of hell, we have recently been going through our changes to existing plans and updating proper equipment and bar design components.  This requires a redrawn and resubmitted plan – which after completion, will require approval.  After approval, there will be new contractor work on design changes, more approval, more new changes, more approval, purchase, installation, more approval and hopefully completion.  And all these steps and items require money and more money.  It seems that everyday there are a set of new challenges and changes with how or what we can technically do or not do – a constantly fluctuating current.   

I can see that for many people, it may seem that with a newly designed space, it might appear fairly straightforward to design something from scratch and execute the plans, but I assure you that that’s not the case.  Let it be known that new spaces must go through the permitting process and approval according to new regulation – a problem that does not surface for restaurants grandfathered in existing restaurant spaces. 

The changes and revolving cast of characters (contractors, vendors, designers) required to set the proper events in motion (and on schedule) are sometimes a challenge enough to keep straight with calls and emails.  On top of all that, you must have contingency plans and flexibility to alter designs and make quick decisions or sacrifices as you navigate the waters of multiple permitting government agencies.

Time obviously equates to money and your timing essentially becomes your debt collector.  If you are not careful with your scheduling and you happen to mismanage your timing, you end up creating your own domino effect of compounded loss and penalty.  For example, if you hit stalls in revision planning, then you can’t finalize the work details with your contractor, who in turn can’t start their work on the proposed date, which in turn delays each department of the permitting process, which in turn delays your final site approval and thus delaying your opening and resulting in possible accrual of losses in your initial operating budget.  Even worse, pushing other steps past their schedule seems to promise an exponential possibility for more delay for each following step.

I wish I could say that there is some form of control over issues and timing, but I can only say that most of the time there is only the perception of control.  Trusting the process and luck, especially with your choice of contractors/designers, is really as important as any steps you may ultimately take in trying to put the gas to the pedal.  If you can shop for the right people, please do so – but keep in mind that it may end up costing you more in the time wasted gathering estimates than allowing the appropriate and most responsible group (a lot of times, the group most attached or in-tune with this project or similar projects) to do the work.  Coming from a family of contractors, the lowest estimate for a project might only give you the temporary illusion of saving money. 

Along with some of the basic warnings I outlined, here are a few things I think may serve those thinking to venture to a new space or any type of construction/contractor work they may want to pursue:

- Make good decisions quickly.  Do not make good decisions slowly.  Do not make quick decisions. 

- For everything that you plan to be on budget for in terms of time and money, add a buffer of 20% in addition of that.  Or scale everything 20% down and move forward that way.

- For everyone you need to contact, contact them first by phone and if necessary by voicemail.  Whether or not you’ve spoken to them on the phone, always followup with reminders by contacting them by email.  Never assume detailed information is properly transmitted over phone or conversation.

- Most scenarios and decisions should be made to get ready for an opening/finish date, but make sure they will have positive ramifications for direction, success, growth or expansion in the next 2-5 years. 

- Don’t rely on things to get done on time because you can only hope that they do.

- Don’t rely on any piece of information or feedback based on something you can figure out yourself.  In other words, don’t trust someone to do something well that you can probably do better by yourself.

- And finally, sometimes success is not necessarily about perfect execution, but rather it can be defined by how good you are at damage control. 

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Way With Words…

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More than ever during our build-out process, there’s been the need to articulate food and presentation in a cohesive manner in (what seems like) two lines or less.  The task of compressing expression is incredibly difficult and beckons me to ask this question: can you define the make of a man in two lines or less? 

The introspective answer is clearly a resounding “no”.  Without selling themselves short, I’m not sure anyone could genuinely be able to express themselves in two simple sentences.  Unfortunately, people (myself included) have a constant need to compartmentalize every aspect of our lives – a byproduct of a social requisite for productivity, effort and efficiency.

Defining things into neat, tiny and easily understandable packages seem to be important for many because it’s the most linear way of simplifying what is perceived as a busy or complex lifestyle; evident by the thousands of careers based on this principle alone.  They even made a show about it: it’s called Mad Men.   

With that said, I’ve spent a lot of time the last month concentrating on verbalizing my food and concept.  It is incredibly difficult – which is why I often need outside perspective and assistance in doing so.  And as much as I don’t always agree with the process, I absolutely understand its necessity.  Marketing, wording, formatting, menu description and design is paramount because people desire information in the proper measurements. 

There have been instances where menus have been an undeniable factor in restaurant success and failure.  Wording in a menu can be the difference in customer expectations including: how much people order, what people order and how people ultimately judge their meal.  A menu that reads like a book can be intimidating, tiring and confusing for diners – which can lead to a situation where the words may ultimately overwhelm the food.  A menu that reads too minimalist can be too vague and uninformative – leading to improper interpretations/expectations of what is actually written versus what is actually served.  The dream menu should have the perfect balance of food seduction and honest expectations, which is honestly impossible. 

Keeping in line with this theme of compartmentalizing our lives with simple things and words, (apart from the discussion of menu construction) I think there is a lot of danger in the desire to approach our food with this mentality.  Inherently, cooking in a basic form is simple – the French can tell you that they only require three components to make anything taste great: heat, butter and salt.  However, the perception of cooking for many is often a cumbersome and complex task, whereas the simplest road to nourishment is processed and fast foods.  And, if you can’t infer the relationship already, these processed items are amongst the most complicated, deliberate and chemically contrived.  

While I’m no master of painting food into language (clearly not a food critic), I am an admirer of the art of written/sensory interpretation and reaction of food.  It may sound odd to label something so vague and subliminal as an art form, but I think the ability to manipulate reaction and expectation should be considered as a creative process.  There have also been studies in effect of food and perception of flavor via the sound of words, known as synesthesia.  It intrigues me that specific wording can be met with an associated sensory perception whether that is a component of our nervous system or merely a Pavlovian reaction.  In other words, is “bacon”, “butter” and “sausage” really as sexy as it sounds?  Is it even better if I call it “sexy bacon”?

Hopefully, down the line at the Summit, we will find ways down the line to explore and develop some of these ideas experimentally in an interactive format lining food, words and sounds together in an provoking way. 

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Beginning of the End of the Beginning & “Cookbook Mixtapes”

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It has been a few weeks since I’ve had a chance to write much of anything, but I promise that it has not been due to lack of effort.  Since the start of the new project, The Summit, I’ve been inundated with meetings and logistics that go with our preparations for opening within the expected timelines.  And, because I was still completing my final few weeks at my day job, the workload for both positions soaked up any free time I normally have to write.

Today, however, reads June 1st on the calendar, which happens to coincide with the first official day that I can dedicate my primary and undivided focus to my new position – which of course, involves detailing it on this blog.  As things currently stand, we are in the middle of tuning the build-out, reviewing vendors and taking all steps involved with the permitting process. 

I’d say logistics takes up most of the work hours because truthfully, planning and execution is paramount.  Of course, I’m not necessarily speaking from a position of experience with the process of building a new space, but thankfully I have had an career’s worth of experience with nothing but project management, planning and implementation.  Throw in a degree in engineering and a contractor for a dad – and I’d say I’m not feeling too lost or overwhelmed… yet.

Despite the tangible workload and tasks required to get things running, one of the aspects of this project – which I have been desperately trying to squeezing in time for – is the creative process.  With each weekly turn of the calendar and shift in the thermometer, produce steadily creeps into its most robust season; with it, creative inspiration and instinct should make the same gradual and continuously changes – a philosophy that harkens back to the most basic of cooking principles. 

As almost every good chef has preached, cooking seasonally is necessary and relatively commonplace in San Francisco.  Adhering to these principles is a must, but the word “principle” only denotes itself as a guideline and guarantees no sense of style or tone.  To this, many chefs turn to inspiration or experience that speaks to a more personal sense of passion or desire.  For me, these inspirations or experiences are the loudest when I am discovering something amazing for the first time: a resonating moment.  To that effect, I feel the conglomeration of these unique experiences eventually become the foundation for what we may deem as our individual style. 

Oddly enough, over the last couple of years, the best way I’ve felt to tap into this inner sanctum was through what I like calling a “cookbook mixtape.”  It is literally what it sounds like.  I look at my collection or I pace around a bookstore and I visualize an image of how I want to creatively express or approach something.  Don’t lie to me, I know most of you did this in high school with a tape deck or a bunch of CD’s.  Once I had an idea, I would pull out those specific set of books and skim through the recipes, techniques, and interpretations that each one provided.  Most importantly, the primary point is to understand the basic governing philosophy behind the food and NOT to follow the recipes.  I’ve found that despite how ridiculously different some books/cuisines may be, there is an internally linear relationship that you will see between them – kind of like putting D’Angelo and Feist on back to back tracks.  My current mixtape can be seen in the above picture. 

It might sound weird, but it’s okay if no one else gets it.  Just as long as you do. 

Friday, May 14, 2010

Moving Forward

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First of all, I would like to thank sf.eater.com for the attention and quirky hoopla that took place last week – a big part of it, is also attributed to Desi on the Summit blog.  I feel blessed to have garnered the attention. 

To be perfectly honest, I have no issue with making it known that I will be heading the food program at the Summit and I have been making all the steps to transition from my current job to my new responsibilities.  Between all the handoff work of one job and the responsibilities and meetings of a new one – I have frankly been inundated with tasks which have left me with little time to blog, confirm and properly craft the right messages in response.  Considering I had no intention of stretching out what seems to be painfully obvious, (blown cover within seconds of the eater posting I think) I made it a priority this week to work out all the mission statements, meetings and contracts that needed attention prior to making it officially known.  There was no hidden agenda to be coy so I apologize if that took place. 

Thankfully I live in an industry where publicity and hoopla are only false idols that can bring people to the gate, but never promises keep them in.  Your food is ultimately your salvation.    

In the coming months, I really hope to sincerely make the focus of this project about the food, the ingredients, the farms, the vendors, the successes and even the mistakes.  I plan on using my voice, my blog and twitter to make this an open, transparent and organic process.  In that mindset, I think it makes this something similar to a grassroots affair (with the aid of the internet, of course). 

On a personal note, keeping the picture of me (or any for that matter) that looks like I’m on the toilet in the bathroom (actually it’s a former hospital room) is motivation enough to move the discussion to food. 

Thank you all for reading and supporting me.  I hope you can join me during this exciting time.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Lost In Translation

I think this is the second time I’ve tried to write this post but I may have fallen asleep due to jetlag the first time.  Since Japan, a lot of friends have asked me about what I thought about the food and how different it was compared to Japanese cuisine in the US.  The first thing I’d clearly like to say is that since my ramen tour, the idea of a eating my first bowl back in the US has been met with tepid enthusiasm at best.  It is honestly a matter of Paradise Lost, but it is inevitable and I do believe honestly that I can still enjoy it because the spirit and comfort of ramen exists whether it’s Tomita (#1 in the world) of Japan or a stove top bag of instant Nissin.

Aside from waxing poetic about ramen, I’ve also told friends that I’ve finally clarity on the disjointed representation of Japanese cuisine in the US.  Simply put, I’m not so sure that there are too many popular and established cuisines that are quite so misrepresented as Japanese cuisine is.  The gap between here and there is astonishingly distant. 

It’s not an issue of technique and it’s not an issue of divergent styles.  The intention and structure of the restaurants and menus are not that different.  First and foremost, it is a matter of resources.  So much of the food in Japan is in sync with the resources and options made (easily) available that, to me, it seems that they work here without the same abundance of those conveniences (or necessities).  While you can cook with the same menu and recipes, things drastically get lost in translation when the quality of your ingredients are not met with the same access or governing cultural philosophies.             

The other big component lacking in the cooking here is enthusiasm and expectation.  Yes, there is enthusiasm for sushi and noodles here, but without a native identity, the interest is relegated to being niche at best.  Again, take ramen as an example: the Japanese approach their ramen and noodles with about 100 times more fervor than we approach pizza or burgers.  They consider and treat great ramen as an elevated art form and a passion – critiquing every element with a detailed perspective.  There is no food here that we have ever held in that regard and I’m sure (nothing beyond a warm adoration for pizza) has ever generated that excitement.  And in that vein, such excitement constantly generates an atmosphere of growth, ambition, experimentation and achievement.  What incentive does an Ippudo have to rank above mediocre in Japanese standards (cumulative ramendb score of 52) when they are constantly crowned as one of the best in the US?

I understand that we might be too big of a country with too many identities to ever reach the momentum of establishing such a culture, but if anything, I have seen how a tool with similarities to yelp (GULP) can become such a powerful asset for improving food.  Of course, our yelp is still an education degree or two behind coherent and appropriate criticism.          

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Another Year, Another List

I’m not the biggest fan of “Best” or “Top” lists.  While I understand the excitement and public interest that these lists generate, I simply can’t rationalize the generalized yearning for constant gratification based on a judging system for a subject that cannot be tangibly judged.  It’s not lost on me that competition, awards and recognition are all good things to have, but I’m not so sure they are core measures for the art or spirit of cooking. 

First, let me put a disclaimer out there: basic human vanity and ambition is not lost on me.  I will never say no to being awarded for my work and I will never work without a goal in sight.  And, while I often argue the legitimacy and bias of these lists, I’m not immune to their impact or their value in the restaurant industry.  They are important and they are necessary.

If you haven’t seen or heard it over the last 24 hours, Danish restaurant Noma has been crowned the #1 restaurant in San Pellegrino’s 2010 Top 50 Restaurants in the World – a hefty honor that Spanish restaurant El Bulli had seemingly handcuffed the last 4-5 years.  To be honest, I’ve always been dazzled by the promise and meaning of being on that list.  It is not only a dream, it is a definitive pinnacle of culinary success and for many, it is enough reason to die happy.

While I can certainly defend the importance and existence of such a list, I’m not sure I can defend its credentials, unintentional bias or ripple effect on a evolving industry.  The list is unbelievably biased to Western fine dining in a time when fine dining is becoming less approachable and more difficult to maintain.  I’m sure the 50 (or 100) or so restaurants on that list have no trouble drumming up business, but doesn’t it seem misleading to put out a giant list that sends such the message: “non-tasting menu need not apply.” 

I know the techniques and skills grandfathered by some of these great restaurants have inspired so many in the world, but at the same time, doesn’t that subjugate creativity on some level?  The El Bulli, Fat Duck and Alinea books may be the open peek to their ascension to the top of the world, but it seems that some cooks have spent more time reproducing someone else’s inspiration than redefining their own.   And in that vein, a desire to be top-listed has likely lead to influxes of copycat restaurants hell-bent on attaining what they think is a clear-cut and linear fine-dining climb to the top.

While most of my example here is geared towards the Top 50 list, I tend to think that the example holds true for any list/trend.  When lists and awards come with a promise of dollars and publicity, it’s hard to look away from what sometimes may just be a rat race.  It’s even easier to try to get mixed up in the fray, but it seems on closer examination, isn’t it always an original that sits at the top?     

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

My Japan Trip Photo Album – Part 1, Sapporo!

As I promised, I have got most of my photos set.  All the ramen ones are being worked on separately for another purpose, but there is plenty of other good food porn photos.  This is the first part of my trip, Sapporo.  That way, you’ll know what the hell you are looking at.  I’ll slideshow and put the rest up the next couple of days.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

HFP Videos from Japan

 

This is a video of an awesome machine in Kyoto that turns out tons of little shortcakes that have a pancake like texture with a little crisp.  There are sometimes filled with vanilla custard or red bean.

 

These gals made fluffy Japanese pancakes and then filled them with sweet goodies of your choice.  I love the costumes and the funny faces branded on the cakes.  The fact that they have a special tool to make the faces is even better.

 

This video is from the Nishiki Market in Kyoto where the guy was grilling oysters for less than a buck a piece.  These Japanese oysters don’t have much brine, but have a very nice creamy texture.

 

This is charcoal grilled tofu on a stick with a house made miso paste.  They sold the miso paste separately as well.

 

This is from a street food vendor in Osaka, where we sampled a nice egg and greens (spinach and green onion, I think) Okonomiyaki.

 

I’m calling it ebiyaki, shrimp version of takoyaki (octopus).  These little creamy balls of shrimp and veggies are also from Osaka’s street food offerings.

 

This is a video of the bullet train from Kyoto to Tokyo.  Watch as buildings disappear in seconds.  I think you can also spot a Nissin ramen factory along the way.

 

This was taken from the middle of Kyoto station where a million people move in a million directions constantly.  This was pretty busy, but I’d say it doesn’t compare to the madness of Tokyo station.  I do not have a video of that, I was afraid of being trampled.