Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Inverse Relationships

Time and again over the last few weeks, I’ve been continually met with the theme of “diametrically opposed” ideas or inverse relationships.  These ideas really came from a series of different random thoughts I’ve been having more and more after doing some selective reading about food community and societies.  What amazes me is that for some reason, food discussion and intellectual culinary relationships seem to only take place between very selective and high minded culinary set of peers.  The internet has closed a gap in the public’s understanding of responsible sourcing, ethics, technique and restaurant life, but I’m not always sure it has been a source for pragmatism in pushing the craft of cuisine.  For some reason, I seem to always have this lingering romantic vision that the communities of chefs in Europe are so much more interwoven with each other’s work and culinary progression.  For some reason, I just can’t help but think that even with the world’s biggest forum: the internet – chefs here rarely develop “shop talk” relationships.  And, I’m not talking about the Food Network.  In all likeliness, its probably just misplaced romanticism and babble.

Here are some of the things that have come to bother me more and more over time:

1. Artistic Representation of Food vs. Profit

Money and making a living is diametrically opposed to a chef’s desire to push the envelope.  Yes, there are a lot of people who have no desire to do that – which is perfectly fine.  But, if you want to be adventurous or experimental, making money cannot be your objective.  Money cannot dictate the creative effort and approach taken to food or ingredients or else it is compromised, but in the world of restaurants, this is more of an anomaly than the standard.

2. Eating Sustainably vs. The Cost of Eating Sustainably

You’d love to do the right thing, but the right thing is either never convenient enough or never affordable enough.  It is a system that is sadly manipulated by too many awful industries and politics to be fixed in the right way.

3. Artistic Output vs. Dietary Limited Cuisine

Yes, its nice to have vegetarian and vegan restaurants because we all need options and have dietary restrictions.  I am sensitive to all those things… most of the time.  However, it makes no sense to side-skirt the truth of the matter.  If you regard yourself as a cook, limiting the education of your craft to a restrictive set of ingredients basically goes against being a professional or (if you want to call yourself one) an artist.  (I don’t consider most cooks as artists even though I think cooking can be artistic – maybe because it sounds pretentious.)  It would almost be like a contractor who decided to build a house without nails because he never learned to use a hammer.  Sure, it can be done, but I’m not sure why that’s not lesson one.  Cooking with dietary restrictions can net beautiful and creative results (evident in many SF vegetarian restaurants), but the restriction isn’t what makes it special and it certainly doesn’t contribute to what makes it creative.  

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Wonderful Message for The Fight for Sustainable Meat… by Chipotle?

A couple of days ago, I posted the following video via twitter after seeing it before the previews in a theater. 

I have to admit, it was all about the pill shaped piggies when I was watching through the first few seconds, but then as the video unfolded, I was very drawn and then very moved… up until the Chipotle sign showed up on the truck.

Seeing the Chipotle truck almost ruined the video for me, but since that time, I’ve started reading into and studying Chipotle’s new marketing plans to be responsible with sourcing local meat.  I am still skeptical, but I am also a tiny bit impressed.  Whether this is just a ploy with marketing or not, I think its very important that a national fast food chain is capable of taking a stance like this.

But let’s ignore the actual food end of this discussion – what Chipotle ends up doing or promises to do is almost irrelevant.  Putting out a video with this message could quite possibly have more of a positive impact in terms of influencing people than anything Chipotle could do on the plate.  And in some ways, something so well thought out and childlike in design is probably going to affect more people than trotting Michael Pollan out for NPR interview after NPR interview. 

Idealism is great, but if people don’t have a medium to understand the idea, then it is only called futility.  I don’t doubt people have the intelligence to understand complex issues in front of them, but I do not necessarily have faith in their patience or attention span to absorb it. 

I have to credit Chipotle for spending the money and embarking on this project.  Often times we’ve bitched and whined about how irresponsible fast food companies seem to be – making no strides at being responsible with sourcing.  It would be wrong at this point to lay the gauntlet on the first sign of someone trying something different.  If Chipotle responsibly sources meat locally, then they might even end up being one of the few burrito places to do so, because I’m pretty sure that that is not the norm for most of the taquerias in SF. 

 

Here is a video for the production by Johnny Kelly at Nexus:

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Back to Basics

Le Pigeon’s famous t-shirt logo

Just got back from my Montreal/Boston trip after the longest 6 weeks of my life.  But, having had a chance to relax and center myself over the last week, I feel rested and ready to get back to basics.

To get a head start on recharging this blog, I’m going to first let you know how I feel about the upcoming foie ban of 2012 in California.

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-09-07/foie-gras-lovers-in-california-fall-victim-to-rights-of-ducks.html

It is a crock of bullshit.  Essentially a cosmetic issue for posturing lawmakers and peacocking animal rights activist who want to mask their inability to actually factor into more important legislation changes.  Nothing but wasted money, wasted time and wasted energy on something that doesn’t affect 99% of people in this state.  On the scale of food politics, foie gras legislation is probably the least globally important food issue out there.

All that wasted money and campaigning for a fight to piss off seemingly nobody but guys like me. 

So for all the bullshit artists that want to discuss this issue and cry over the injustice of making ducks fat and tasty, then why don’t you first try to tackle anyone of the millions of more important issues that relate to mass meat production, meat standards, oversight for FDA, legislation restrictions on imported produce, organic farming emphasis/subsidy, and process food oversight/education/transparency.

By the way, I ate a lot of foie in Montreal – where they don’t deal with such stupidity when it comes to food.    

Monday, July 25, 2011

Cooks

There was a recent comment made by David Chang (via twitter) a week or more ago concerning the quality of cooks becoming successively worse from generation to generation.  To those words, I disagreed with him on many aspects – one of which is in reference to the advent of food exposure/information, general knowledge and increased availability of science and technique out there today.  The question or topic happened to end up on Eater National (found here).  In the Eater article, they had multiple chefs weigh in on the discussion and describe the current state of affairs with cooks in their kitchen. 

I found this topic interesting because recently there has been a good deal of shuffling with cooks in my own little makeshift kitchen for the café.  I have never regarded my café kitchen as a particularly classic or serious one, but rather I have always told my cooks that what we may lack in terms of equipment or manpower, we will make up for in terms of approach and autonomy.  I think when I first hired my cooks, there was a different sense of enthusiasm and I cemented a few very basic rules in the kitchen: 1. there is no shit talking in the kitchen, 2. leave your personal issues at home and 3. do your job.

So in the last 10 days, I have had one cook move on to better things (which I knew was coming and am very proud and happy about), another injure himself outside of the kitchen (now unable to work for an undefined term) and another canned because he was a no show (essentially quitting in an irresponsible manner).  This is the tale of two cooks really – one motivated by a desire to learn, improve and continue to cook; the other unmotivated in his career by slowly decaying over personal issues, work ethic and maturity.

At this point, after interviewing 10-15 candidates (35-40 resumes), I had to make a decision as to how I would approach my new hiring process.  I had seen a few cooks who had a good amount of experience and were interested in simply coming in to do their job and do it competently.  I had also seen a fair amount of cooks who were a good deal less experienced, but looking for a chance to grow.  So the question that ultimately came up and isn’t normally asked was: what is the preference for how you find or hire a cook? 

To this, it seems that hiring a cook is actually more of an introspective experience than a logical one.  There does not seem to be a shortage of resumes or people with experience that range from none to 20 years.  I think I chose to hire based on what I thought my kitchen was capable of providing for the cooks that I bring to the staff.  While we can point fingers at the cooks that come in and out of our kitchens/lives, I think sometimes chefs can overlook motivation over the more ever present necessities of experience and talent.  With that I sometimes wonder, how can you expect someone to be successful at doing things your way or a certain way immediately when you hire someone who has been doing things someone else’s way for years? 

I’m not particularly certain how we can avoid hiring poor cooks or how cooks turn from good to bad, but in my own mind, I feel that the failure of an unsuccessful cook is in part a failure to put him in a position of success.  And oddly in the case of the fired cook, I should have fired him earlier when I had begun to see him unravel.  What I will not say is that his failure is my lack of motivation because at the end of the day, nobody should be trying to push initiative on you.  Initiative is something people get for themselves.  If opportunities are not present, then I think it is the job of the cook to decide to either move on or make the most of a situation responsibly.  And if they hang around too long without any motivation whatsoever, it would be smarter for everyone if chefs either encouraged to push them out or fire them. 

In many instances, I think there are chefs that need to look in the mirror in terms of who they are and how they choose to run their kitchens.  Maybe sometimes an abusive environment isn’t the best way to get the most out of cooks – and, in my case, maybe a tolerant one isn’t either.  There is a good deal of misguided thinking in the ranks of cooking – maybe its wrong to continue the general thought that someone who moves through the ranks of becoming a chef are going to be good at managing, motivating and most importantly of all, teaching.  There are so many trains of thoughts about good cooks and chefs versus bad ones that it would be an endless chicken and egg conversation, but I would say that relegating the issue to the question of “why cooks suck more today than the days of yester year” is a somewhat ridiculous premise.  And if you answer it in a certain way, wouldn’t you end up pointing the finger in your own direction as the culprit?  Every generation always feels the degeneration of the previous. 

I’ve always been in the belief that the things that makes a good cook, sacrifice and hard work are things that people do when they want to succeed for themselves and are not a generation conundrum.  Good cooks are the ones who are always accountable for their own success.               

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Inconvenience of Fine Dining

The title for this blog is misleading.  There is no intention to say that fine dining is an inconvenience, because it isn’t.  It is, when properly executed, a marvel and a privilege.  Also, this is not a blog to complain about the required jackets and etiquette required for such affairs because I, for one, truly believe that we are approaching at a time where etiquette, dress and formality (and chivalry for that matter) are sorely lacking.  Rather, with my recent introduction of Dux (www.duxsf.com), I’ve started to wrestle with questions on what should and should not be considered as a fine dining experience. 

The primary catalyst for this discussion was the Thursday night conversation that I had with a good chef friend of mine while enjoying the 17 course tasting menu at Benu.  We had started a blow by blow analysis of each course – analyzing technique, chemical and composition for everything we ate.  At some point at the end of the night, he asked me whether or not I ultimately dreamt of something close to the grandeur that we had just experienced.

With only sophomoric experience (and an independent attitude) in crafting tasting menus and, more importantly, serving them, I felt uneasy about the question.  Frankly, I’m not sure.  The answer was not a reflection or digression on my confidence or ability, but rather, a direct result of what I think are philosophical contradictions to what it means to offer the finest of fine dining menus.  What exactly does it mean to be a L20, Daniel, French Laundry, Benu, Jean Georges, Eleven Madison, Michael Mina, etc.?

The first issue discussed was the lack of focus on head-to-tail philosophy, something that I have always embraced because it has always been a matter of importance stemming from cultural inheritance and schooling from chef mentors.  Fine dining tasting menus always focus on emerging trends and the necessity to showcase top-tier ingredients.  Most of the time this means that you will likely be served the best cut of the best breed of animal available.  Tenderloins, frenched ribs, rare breeds, distant seafood are not just the norm – they are the expectation.  None of this is an issue –especially to me when I dine, but I also don’t expect to find braised tripe and offal as the third course on many of these menus. 

The second part of the discussion was the waste that commonly occurs in fine dining establishments.  To get to the perfect circles, squares and shapes of your fine meal, it normally must mean that certain quantities of the prepped item were cut away and discarded.  Sometimes the yield required to make food pretty is disgustingly low.  Again, this somewhat ties me into my first point presented.  When the focus of the meal is to serve best of the best, the rest of what may be attached is likely unused or discarded.  Don’t get me wrong – fine dining is a necessity like high concept or avante garde art is a necessity.  There is way too much brainless trash available to us on a daily basis that we NEED equalizers in the form of high standard and art to maintain our balances.  For the purposes of this blog, the discussion is strictly a matter of what it means when you choose to cook this way.

Finally, we got to the question of the heart and the soul.  Inevitably, there is always heart to these beautiful menus.  At some point, a chef poured his intelligence and creativity over dish by dish, normally no bigger than 6 square inches, and worried endlessly about whether his critical diners would understand, appreciate and enjoy it.  And in most cases, his heart, intelligence and creativity is leaps and bounds above most.  But, has the chase for the stars (figurative and literal) masked the soul of the food?  The service: always far more professional than warm; the food: always more technical than rustic.  I’m not sure, but at some point does it seem that the fragility and preciousness of certain food take away from what we perceive as soul in cooking?  Is there more or less soul in a dish with 4 tweezers and 3 different cooks working on it?  I honestly don’t really know.

Over the last decade, it seems increasingly more common that some restaurants featuring head-to-tail and rustic menus are becoming ranked in the stratosphere of fine dining.  While that is nice, redefining fine dining and what it necessarily entails is a far cry from a progressive movement.  Just look at the list for Best Restaurants in the World – or even Michelin star rankings in different cities.  Will these lists, stars and rules always determine how we choose to value a fine dining experience or how special does something have to be to provoke a change?  There are clearly examples of both, ranging from Daniel Boulud’s documented chase for a final star to a Michelin starred Hong Kong dim sum joint.  Are we looking at the rule and an exception to that rule – or are we looking at a rule and an exception that proves the rule? 

Monday, April 25, 2011

Dux – At Last

DUX_FINAL

A long time ago, I think I mentioned that I had been playing with the idea of developing a series of dinners served and composed at the bar area at The Summit.  Some might call it a little restaurant within a restaurant – technically similar to the concept of Minibar in Jose Andres’ Cafe Atlantico in Washington DC. 

Launching within the next two weeks I hope to unveil a weekly Sunday night series that will feature an inaugural menu from my new dinner concept named Dux.  With Dux, I want to create a slightly alternative and modern dining experience that offers an element of education and inspiration with every thematically generated series menu. 

While full-on details are still completely being worked out, those will be available within the next week.  For a glimpse of the menu, you can visit the Dux homepage at:

www.duxsf.com

Each menu will range from a series of 5-7 courses and the situation permitting (soon enough), it will be paired accordingly per course.  It is, of course, absolutely no surprise to anyone that the first focus of Dux is a fitting tribute to the duck.  With that said, more details to come.  Thank you all for their support in making this happen. 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Masks

There is a significant difference between the effort it requires for getting up versus waking up.  And if I were to rank the difficulty of those occurrences with the act of staying up, I’d place them 1, 2 and 3 respectively.  The truth is that when I get home, there’s a blankness about the life there.  My time spent at home now is sometimes a little bit of a charade and often just a necessary means of recuperating the energy loss to the battles that occur on a daily basis at the cafe. 

When I’m not assuming my role and wearing my mask for work, a lot of my other time is filled with different pieces that help maintain a certain sense of sanity; which is to say that this is spent as far away from work as possible.  Recently I’ve toggled my limited time and space between a tight knit group of close friends, visiting family and mind-numbing hobbies/activities.  And to them, I sometimes need to apologize for being half of a person.  Despite the undeniable desire to take solace in my cave of a room, these things provide me the comfort I sorely look for.  I’m very thankful some days for their ability to overcompensate for my lack of energy, engagement and excitement. 

As much as work absorbs a part of my life out of it, it doesn’t mean that I am not myself at work.  At this juncture of my life (though it may sound a bit sad), I have more passion and love for work than anything outside of it.  It is an ambiguous sense of self and personal identity; a duality that is both supportive and symbiotic.  And if you can’t understand or relate to that kind of lifestyle that exists, than you need to look no further than the case of Bruce Wayne and Batman.  The real man exists in both personas, but they are an  almost bipolar representation of one and another.   

Sometimes I want to be both, one, or just not the other.  Some of the staff and myself are close and, over time, we develop strong friendships, but there are times when they’ll talk or react to me as the mask and not the man.  It is simply human nature that we approach people and situations in the roles that we see them most commonly in.  I’ve done the same with almost all of my bosses and supervisors and, at times, its undeserved but certainly understandable.  If anything, I think its this tangible air of being generically cordial that I’m not in love with.

Again, its all very understandable and if you think about it, that boundary kind of creates an inadvertent cause-and-effect.  The problem is that one part of my life seems to completely dominate the other – resulting in almost no semblance of balance.  I’ve taken the last couple of Wednesdays’ off, but I seemed to have found a way to volunteer them to doing all the errands for work  either at home or at the Planning Department.  And when I finish with those, I’m normally not quite sure what the rest of my day should be used for (aside from laundry). 

I guess I’ve been in a better disposition considering that I am beginning to see the Bruce Wayne end of things – whether that signifies that I’m doomed to kicking it with my butler all day or to unsavory relationships – I’m not sure.  I’m also a little cautious sometimes about how much I choose to isolate from one part of my life to the other – its an odd struggle.  Keeping things too business-like takes away from enjoying your work and getting too close feels like you’re taking a piece out of your own privacy/identity.  The great thing about my line of work is that the personal satisfaction is there, but I’m sure there are many that worry about whether the fulfillment part of it will be there waiting at home.   

Friday, February 25, 2011

Days of Thunder

The days are passing and just flying by recently.  I had naively imagined that my hours would settle a little and things would begin to even out, but its really been very busy in a good way as of recently.

If I remember properly I think we had 6 different events over the span of 2.5 weeks leading from the end of January to Valentine’s week.  Included in the mix was a community shop/swap event, a Forage SF dinner, an Eventbrite fashion show and a collaborative SF Beer Week dinner with Beer & Nosh, now Almanac founder, Jesse.  The beer dinner was probably the most work-intensive amongst all the others and the most fruitful professionally.  I enjoy our cafe menu, but personally, I get a lot more joy out of being able to stretch my legs creatively in a tasting menu.  Then again, who doesn’t I guess.  Every bit of the experience was worth the planning and extensive work required.

Here is a finalized menu with the beer pairings:

 

The Summit and Beer & Nosh Tasting Menu

February 14, 2011

Scallop and Citrus Ceviche

-sweet lime and coconut vin, ale carbonated orange, tangerine agrumato,

turnip, jasmine citrus syrup

Almanac Beer Co. Summer 2010 Blackberry Ale

Uni with Soup Dumpling

-house soy broth, elderflower mint gelee, sweet tea cornichon

Drake’s Brett Butler Barrel Aged Triple

Espresso Mole Pancetta in Edible Garden

-espresso mole “soil”, baby radish, minutina

Dogfish Head Bitches Brew

Vadouvan Braised Shortrib

-vadouvan curry, lentils de puy, hedgehog mushrooms, baby carrots

SF Beer Week Collaborative Bourbon Barrel Common

Taleggio Mousse in Choux

-madras curried pineapple compote, Retribution ale reduction sauce

Highwater Brewing Retribution Double IPA

Foie Torchon with Candied Mandarinquat

-brioche, lavender vanilla duck egg sabayon

Firehouse Brewing Pete Support Belgian IPA

Humphry Slocombe Espresso Balsamic Beer Float

Speakeasy Payback Porter infused with TCHO Cocoa Nibs

David Jensen of Beer 47 blog did a recap of the event as well and it can be seen on his blog here.

At the end of beer week, I got a little bit of time off, but I was invited to participate in this month’s Meatpaper SFMOMA event – which for the longest time, I’ve really wanted to partake in.  It was always one of the more thought provoking events  that highlighted the confluence between food and art.  When I got the invitation, I was very flattered and I was very excited to say yes.  It was also an honor in itself to be grouped with Jake of Local Mission and Evan Rich of Coi.  Here is some linkage to Meatpaper and the details for the event.  Visavis, I got a “hot of the presses” copy of Meatpaper yesterday and just blew through it because inside the new issue, I found a piece on Mark Ryden and an interview with personal hero Martin Picard of Au Pied De Cochon.  Pretty awesome stuff when you can’t quite put it down.

In more of the world of Summit news, we were recently featured in Businessweek magazine and also The Atlantic.  Sometimes I’m not sure what to make of the great PR, but it certainly puts a nice end to the work week.

This really has been more of an update blog, I promise there will be more interesting topics including a 2011 primer for next week.  Until then, I think this has been the positive blog I’ve had in months.  Hopefully more good times to come.

 

 

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

2011 – Start Up, Step Up or Shut Up

complaints

I think it might have been two years ago that I started this blog.  To be honest, there was never a vision, reason or intention to do anything beyond musings about shit that only seemed to interest or annoy me.  Two years later and firmly footed in a new business that has yet to get itself properly anchored – I feel my enthusiasm has definitely changed.  The blog has no longer become a smorgasbord of pointless and joyfully innocuous food topics, but rather one that heavy handedly details the inner workings of my experiences in The Summit.  And for that, I sincerely hope that part of myself can resurface with a little more levity, comedy or absurdity. 

We’re now three plus months in – and with that, the anxiety, bliss and surrealism of opening has steadily passed as the weeks started to float by.  Frustration, weariness, exhaustion and creative voids begin to creep in as the most obvious emotional replacements.  So, with my life both in and out of my blog, I am seeking levity.  I can see employees starting to fade in energy levels whether they are attributed to personal conflicts, seasonal stress or holiday complacency.  It’s not a rut, but I guess the group has collectively taken a cooler attitude.  And with that, I feel that I –  more so than anyone else, should not be projecting that type of energy.

Our issues with beer and wine has become a sordid and sad affair – now requiring the assistance of legislative aides, entertainment lawyers, possibly expediters and every one in between.  In a neighborhood that is 80+% small business, it seems that the city policies as they are written, support anything but.  Throw in a bunch of loony anti-gentrification-fueled “ethnic/social inequality” crybaby assholes parading around the Mission like a bunch of blind chimps and you have the makings of a double team assreaming between the immovable object and the unstoppable force.  It’s especially funny considering that I am an ethnic minority, have no associations with corporate partners, happen to be first generation immigrant and serve as a primary operator in this business.  I’m sorry, but considering that I employ Mission residents, pay city taxes, try to support my neighbors and respectfully serve customers basically means that I’m responsible to the neighborhood.  It also means that I’m not some covert hide-in-the-weeds politico operation that gets itself off by denigrating blue collared entrepreneurs – all while seemingly offering nothing to a neighborhood but the sound of their self righteous and disillusioned voice.

Now that I’m through with telling certain peoples to go kick rocks, another thing that seems to happen in most chef positions is this constant struggle to try to listen to people explain their ideas for undermining you creatively.  It’s essentially the same warning with any position of power – if you want to hold the reins of creative control and direction, you need to ensure that you are not in a position where that can be pulled from under you.  I’d say most of the time when you hear about a chef leaving a position – it is directly the result of one variance of the issue or another.  Yes, some chefs are assholes and there are many that are irresponsible and clueless (like any profession), but its a common story in the industry to hear that someone responsible and talented has been forced out because of the constant frustrations/battles/struggles with direction coming from those who might not have worked a day in the life.  For those that are trying to get to this point in your career, there are a couple things you need to understand, 1. thicken your skin and soften your ego because every suggestion needs to be heard regardless on how wildly ridiculous it may be, 2. there will ALWAYS be opposition 3. learn to coherently, effectively and professionally address issues (yes, reading and writing are important), 4. open your mind, but don’t compromise your integrity,  and finally 5. make sure you’re holding cards and not just dealt a hand.  It costs you to have skin in the game, but it’ll cost you more eventually without it.

With the New Year, I finally get to change our menu format and system into something that makes more sense.  Instead of a lunch and dinner service with a small amount of items on each, we are swapping it for an all day service with more items – including some sandwich options and entree options as well.  Without beer and wine, it logistically makes no sense to deal with splitting services.  We will also be utilizing a more bistro style menu that will be something like a chalkboard menu – this allows us to change items in a more freeform fashion and offer a better capture of the best that the farms can offer weekly.  With our limitations and kitchen size, it is easier to manage in terms of inventory and it is more efficient (ultimately, responsible) in terms of sourcing.  All that essentially means we get to do more fun stuff.

That’s all for now, hopefully my next update won’t take as long or sound as militant.  So all I can say for now is let’s all try to smile a little more even though it might hurt your face.