Friday, December 21, 2012

Weekly Musings–The Holiday Edition

I know, I’m a day late today, but I’m on the road so there’s that.  It was really a whirlwind of a week with parties, dinners and events.  Let’s not waste to much time with the chitchat. 

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Food/Drink Musings:

  • I finally had a chance to get my ass to Rich Table to have dinner.  Met Evan while doing a Meatpaper MOMA event and the occasional market run-in, he was nice enough to remember my stupid face and chat – which I always feel is unnecessary knowing how busy the kitchen can be during service.  I made mental note about how good he was about going around to welcome or say hi to some other guests and maybe some regulars(?) as well.  That’s pretty much above and beyond the calling type of stuff – diners always appreciate the accessibility to the chef and the personalization – it’s a sense of comfort and warmth.  All while putting out the quality of the food they put out.  This is not a review or an endorsement, but you should really try to get there for dinner.  My list for places that I get excited to dine out for (besides the low key ethnic comfort joints, aka the fun stuff) is pretty short – I can count them probably on 1 hand. 
  • There has been a steady trend emerging from a few new successful restaurants in some different cities that I’ve started to kind of notice.  While having an open kitchen is neither new or special, I’ve seen a lot of partially open or off-center accessible kitchens.  In many cases, the kitchens are in more of a clear view and displaced in an area that is close and open enough to the dining room to allow for some sort of interaction with the diners.  Open kitchens typically hover over a bar of some kind or they are far from the view of the dining area (and only open by a small window/barrier box), but some of the smaller places are really putting the kitchens in closer quarters – and, while the cooking is not completely on open display, the cooks/chefs seem (and generally are) a lot more accessible.  Is it form, function, or random coincidence of style?  Not sure, it might just be a side effect of the layout of the space or the chef owner’s conscious desire to get into the dining area quicker, but it is certainly something worth noting, because I think examining not just the decision about an open kitchen is necessary, but rather how an open kitchen should be designed is worth noting.  And if you really want to be visualize with this, think open kitchens for Boulevard vs. Statebird Provisions vs. good sushi chef bar/counter – all have levels of personalization, but all are different in approach and result. 
  • I’ve not really tried to pair too much seafood with fried green tomatoes and I’ve never had actually had seafood with fried green tomatoes until having them in Little Rock.  Crab and fried green tomatoes are my new favorite couple.  For example, Dungeness crab, fried green tomatoes in a nage based vadouvan curry sauce.  I’d eat that all day.

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  • Just when I finally found a few restaurants really special and worth going to down in Little Rock, my project ends.  There is definitely better Cajun/creole here than bbq.  Dinner last night had multiple highlights including some unbelievable Louisiana crab cakes and soft shell crab – almost enough to make me ignore the stupid parsley garnish on the side of my plates… almost.
  • For the first time ever, I missed a reservation and was called by the restaurant.  It wasn’t my fault – it was my stupid Opentable app that didn’t process the cancellation properly.  I wholeheartedly apologize to Plaj.  Really not acceptable – but we’ll get to etiquette later…
  • I am flying to Chicago today and getting ridiculously excited for my time there.  Special shoutout to Piccolo Sogno who sought me out on twitter to say “hi” and “come join us.”  I love twitter because it connects people on a personal level and sometimes surprises you with how warm, detailed, and amazing the people of this industry can be.  For a restaurant like Piccolo Sogno (prominent and beloved Italian restaurant in Chicago) to do that, I want to wholeheartedly give you a Wayne’s World, “we’re not worthy.”  Sappy, huh?  Holiday edition, people, holiday edition. 
  • Lesson here: for all the darkness and cookie cutter bullshit named Applebee’s, TGIF and Olive Garden out there, there are so many more successful, modest or aspiring small business restaurants that serve as indisputable proof that what really matters is the love for the food and the people who cherish it.
  • It’s windy in the Midwest.  I have a flight that lands in Chicago at 5:30 and a 8:30 reservation at Grace Restaurant.  Please don’t fuck me, O’Hare.
  • By the way, Grace randomly fell into my radar on some random comment from twitter.  And then, I started reading and following up… let’s say I’m a little more than mildly excited… check it out.  Oh yeah, there was just a little coverage.
  • The two spots I am most excited about boozing it up in Chicago is The Aviary and Scofflaw.  If you don’t know the Aviary, then you’ve been slacking on your cocktail game, playa.  I’ve heard good gin mumblings about Scofflaw and I love the Logan Square/Buckhead/Wicker Park neighborhood area.  The excitement and anticipation can be likened to a sorority girl getting ready for her first Malibu Bay Breeze.

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  • According to what I have been reading and looking through, I’m not sure what city has had a bigger year than Chicago this year.  I’ve never seen a big city with so many spots get elevated so to such a frenetic level within a year of opening.  Though some people are talking a lot about Seattle…
  • Congrats to Ryan Farr, friend and mentor for opening his new 4505 Meats Butcher Shop in Mission and 15th.  San Francisco needs more places for people to go out and buy good meat.  Stop eating that Safeway shit, it’ll cost you more in the long run.

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Travel Musings: A Summation of My Year of Travel and Eating:

I like the idea of summing up each individual’s big years in terms of eating – though I’m not sure any city deserves an overrated category.  Some of the writers have been very astute to define the wonderful year some cities have had with new restaurants and a burgeoning scene of some kind, but I’ve really began to wonder why or how someone can think a metropolis city is overrated simply because they have had a few unmemorable meals.  Note to food writers, maybe it’s “overrated” because you haven’t spent enough time finding the right places/scene yet. 

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  • The most embarrassing claim is calling out NYC as a overrated destination.  Having spent an entire summer between there, I can argue that there are neighborhoods in Brooklyn that had more dynamic new restaurants than entire regions of this country.  And that includes a list of places that no one writes about.
  • Philadelphia is probably the best food city that no one talks about – they are doing some really awesome things there.  They have a Portland circa 2000’s feel to them, like they are ready for someone to take notice…
  • I’m done with people shortchanging Chicago when it comes to this NY vs. SF supremacy thing.  I’ll offer some sort of recap next week, but based on what I read here and there, it might only cement it as the most dynamic, diverse and fun city to eat – seemingly endless stream of great natural and beautifully conceived restaurants.  
  • I’m sure Jonathan Gold can tell you, but the Vietnamese, gastropub, contemporary modern (and even sushi) restaurants are legit in the OC. 
  • What do I need to do to find a good bowl of Bun Bo Hue in the Bay Area?         
  • Ohshima in Orange, CA – not sure how and why it got there, but if you ever need proof that great things and legitimately great sushi can come from places you least expect it. 
  • Speaking of sushi, had the sushi meal of my life from one of the best places in the quietest Tokyo neighborhood called Asagaya-minami in a gorgeous sushi restaurant located in a basement named Namba Sushi.  No, I haven’t been to Jiro, but Namba is listed in the top 10 amongst locals in Tokyo – which makes it the .000001% of sushi places in the world.  And when I say that, I’m not comparing a decent sushi place to slightly more decent sushi places, I’m actually comparing Namba to all the other unbelievable sushi places I’ve been in throughout 4 major Japanese cities -  all of which would easily outperform the sushi anywhere outside of Japan, and, all of which do not come close to comparison to Namba.  I used to sit and skeptically wonder how much better it can actually be.  To say it surpassed expectations would be to undersell it.  If that isn’t a compelling argument for you to go have the sushi meal of your life in Tokyo, then nothing will convince you.  Spend the money – you will have a lifetime’s worth of rich experience to justify the cost.  Jiro, Namba, Saito –whatever you decide in your research – will likely change your life.
  • Smith Street/Cobble Hill/Park Slope area of Brooklyn in NY has become my favorite neighborhood to walk and eat.  I can pitch the equivalent of a perfect game in terms of my dream food day there: coffee, baguette and croissants at Bien Cuit for breakfast, stroll and shop at Los Paesanos for aged meat, head to Prime Meats for brunch and wine, get some soda floats at Farmacy, spend an afternoon at Brooklyn Bridge Park with Sixpoint beers and hot dogs at Bark, and then finish with dinner Pok Pok.  Justin Verlander, eat your heart out.

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  • Fuel City Tacos in Dallas is my kind of taco spot.  Why is it only the South that knows how to pair food with gas stations?
  • If you travel to a Southern city and have bbq, here’s a tip: they eat it religiously/daily here so sometimes places do not try to keep fat and char (aka “bark”) on because a lot of restaurants generally try to keep it leaner for the regulars.  Fuck that noise, ask for the fat and the bark.  There is no excuse for some of the bad Southern bbq travesties that I have had to endure this year.  Dear South, you got problems when Fette Sau in hipsterville Billysburg, NY is putting out the good shit that you should be putting out.  No excuses.
  • I have dreams about the Whiskey Bread from Gwynnett Street in Williamsburg.  Oh, I would eat it all day long.
  • Tatte in Cambridge, MA gives me hope that there are actually croissants in my hometown worth eating.
  • On this year’s travel wishlist: New Orleans, Savannah, Morocco, Lisbon, Barcelona, Paris, Lyon, Marseille, New Zealand, Sydney, Kauai and if I could fit Bali/Singapore in there, I would.

Random Life Musings:

  • A long time ago, I used to think that sushi chefs in Japan generally had a lot of odd quirky rules and mannerisms because they were maybe naturally more surly, strict and sticklers for etiquette.  I used to think that it was more forgivable that certain sushi chefs were off putting, sometimes rude and curt because that was the nature/byproduct of the occupation.  Then, I went to Japan and ate everywhere – high end, mid range, low end sushi – it didn’t matter.  I never dealt with bullshit, attitude or poor service from any of the sushi chefs there.  They, like all service industry people I met in Japan, were courteous, respectful and generally concerned about the quality the food in relation to my dinner experience.  So I’ve just about had it the bullshit that some Japanese sushi restaurant chefs try to put on you here.  Enough is enough.
  • I had another discussion with a colleague of mine about poor service yesterday – that marks the second time this week that I have had a conversation about poor service and tipping.  My friend in SF dealt with a very poor dinner experience in terms of service and ended up tipping close to as much as he normally does – though he slightly regretted doing so.  My colleague had a very poor service experience when he brought a 3 year old daughter to a teppanyaki place (really just for kids it seems) and had to be persuaded by his girlfriend to not tip. 
  • I believe in a very clear idea.  If you receive what you think is poor and inexcusable service that has become a detriment to your night, you should not leave a tip.  It is within your right as a customer.  It is part of your dining contract.   
  • I am very very forgiving when it comes to service because I believe how hard and grueling the work can be.  Good servers have to put up with crazy asshole guests and ridiculous people on a daily basis and manage it with smiles.  That is mentally draining.  That being said, I overcompensate in being forgiving when service slips due to a very busy night or when a restaurant ends up clearly shorthanded.  A good server apologizes and explains the situation – typically trying to rectify or ease the concern of the diner.  A good diner would typically understand the situation – like a contract. 
  • I get angry when the following inexcusable things occur in bunches: the server is rude, impatient or condescending; mistakes are made ordering or firing and are not acknowledged or acknowledged in a rude way; poor service in barely full restaurant; waiting without acknowledgement or waiting without a clearly explained reason; nonchalance. 
  • The holidays are here and I love Christmas music, I just don’t like Christmas music sung by most people.

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  • I unabashedly love Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You.  During December, I hum it all the time.  Yes.  I am a cheesepuff.
  • I keep hearing about goose for xmas, but its tough to find in stores typically… 
  • I am on protein this Xmas, and I do not disappoint on protein.
  • I am a bit sad that I won’t be around Boston or New York on Xmas because my parents are not going to be vacationing in Asia, but I’ll try to console myself with my 3 day vacation in Chicago. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Another Week’s Worth of Musings

Can I get a Barney Stinson Up High for consistency?  Another Tuesday, another random ass amusing column of my random ass amusing thoughts.

Let’s not waste time, onwards march.

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Food and Drink Musings:

  • I’m not sure how there can be so many Pho and Vietnamese noodle places in a city, but yet none of them offer something even vaguely close to what I remember Bun Bo Hue is supposed to look like in OC, DC or any other powerhouse Vietnamese neighborhood.  In my eyes, its not Bun Bo Hue unless we get some goddamn pork parts in there. 
  • I’m fairly sure there is the exact same amount of meat in Turtle Tower’s small and big #4’s.  Which is perfect because I don’t really try to eat the noodles.  It’s a diet thing.
  • In one afternoon, I realized I had the following pastry options of: a giant Tartine seeded wheat, a pack of Marla Bakery (NoPa vet Amy Brown’s new bakery company) Parker House rolls and a Craftsman and Wolves Rebel Within muffin.  That’s a triple threat like nobody’s business.
  • Scrambled eggs should never be brown.  Ever.
  • I roast a chicken every week it seems (sandwiches, dinner, salad, whatever).  And if you are smart, you know to split it in half and roast over  a 10 inch saute pan with veggies or whatever below.  Here is one of my favorite options.  If you should happen to obtain the patience for it, toss toasted sourdough wheat with aromatics (and onions, leeks, tomatoes, whatever) and coat with your typical bread pudding quantity of cream/egg.  Split a whole brined chicken for roasting and place it over this bread pudding mix in the oven for roasting.  Finish roasting chicken, but don’t eat the bread pudding.  It will seem wet from chicken juices.  Drain as needed.  Refrigerate and save it for eating the next day.  It will be amazing hot or cold.  Some things just need more time.
  • More places need to immediately carry Dolin Blanc.  In my eyes, this is the only thing that is versatile to handle almost any gin. 
  • There are way too many gins out there to explore right now, I’m like a kid in a candy store with all these different varietals.  Oh yeah, barrel aged gin, once thought as the next big thing, has arrived.    
  • Caught a girl ordering a martini with Hendrick’s gin – my favorite as a 21 year old, but I grew sick of it very quickly.  It used to be the rare option at the bar with the Tanq and Sapphire as the common standstills.  Now, it just bothers me with its overwhelming fragrance and lack of subtlety.  Gin has come a long way in less than a decade.  Its not a very good gin for a martini – which will bring me to another point about the girl and venue later…
  • If you ever shake my gin martini, don’t expect me to pay $12 for it – let alone drink it.
  • The ratio between cravings and eating Indian food and NY pizza are about 300:2.  It’s the ultimate buyer’s remorse of healthy eating.
  • The ultimate buyer’s remorse of drinking: Vodka Red Bull.
  • The ultimate buyer’s remorse of party decision making: Vodka Red Bull
  • Went to a cookie party and decided to keep it simple and just make great chocolate chunk cookies.  I need to try to remember to stop auto-piloting my ratio recipe because I sometimes forget how much batter my production recipe generates.
  • Fermentation, preservation and pickling has certainly begun to spike in terms of restaurant use, but I’d argue the surface is barely scratched here.  The tough part about this issue is that it is not readily or easily acceptable for people to approach certain cultural fermented items.  It sometimes involves very intense flavor profiles that can only be acceptable if introduced early on or for many years.  Items like belacan, fermented soy in red wine, stinky tofu, thousand year egg, soy pickles, Asian salt/spice cured radish, Chinese dried/cured fermented fish are not quite household items.  There’s an entire world out there that isn’t touched yet.
  • Vinny at Bar Tartine is probably the nicest man in this entire SF industry and I finally got to eat there this year after insisting to him that I would be there at some point this year.  Sadly, my friend got sick from a long day at Napa and had to cut dinner short, but I do wish I could have made it to the entrée portion of my meal, so I could continue stuffing my face.
  • I made fun of Beef Tartare earlier this year, despite the fact that I really, really love to order and eat it.  To me, it always seems a relic of dining, but flavor-wise, it is rather timeless.  Of course, its showing up on menus now like gangbusters.  In. my. face.

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On Food Life

  • Went to Wonderfull at Mezzanine on Saturday night.  It’s a yearly party run by my friends and their collective called Massive Selector.  Still the best party of the year.
  • Went to Chambers for the first time on a whim, it was too sceney for my blood, bordering on Marina.  And of course, there’s a clueless girl who when pressed by the bartender over what gin to use for her martini, randomly selected Hendrick’s. 
  • Good lovers are only good lovers because they know what they love and they know how to appreciate something to be loved – with conviction.
  • There was probably some sort of weird cosmic significance to all of the odd, disappointing, surreal, marvelous and unexpected personal moments last week, but I’d be damned if I could tell you if I knew what it all meant.  We’re on Tuesday and the weekend felt like a light year ago.
  • Went to the Armory Club for the first time and the most impressive thing was the crowd.  It was never too full or stuffy and there was never a long wait at the bar.  The crowd was pretty diverse.
  • A couple of older gentlemen (50’s) accompanied by younger women (mid/late 30’s) were hanging out at the Armory Club when one of the women struck up a conversation with me.  Oddly enough, she told me that they were there on some sort of business thing with Kink.com (like some sort of odd partying big wig types) and asked where they should go to find a decent party with people (lounge/club maybe).  I listed a few places nearby and then they asked if my friend and myself might want to join them.  This seemed oddly out of the ordinary and intrigued us, so we decided to ask as they were leaving if they were indeed planning on going to the recommended place.  The older gentlemen apparently convinced the most of the party that they should head back to the hotel in San Mateo.  One of the women stayed behind – who then told us that they were all just executives for a company and not some clandestine inappropriate escort/liaison situation.  Shit, that was disappointing.  Pretty much sums up my week, beautiful flashes of wonder and intrigue, followed by just a whole lotta meh.     

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A Week’s Worth of Musings

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I think I’ve left this blog pretty vacant recently, but honestly with a lot of travel and random projects going on to the left and right, I can’t seem to get it right in terms of putting the appropriate standards of pointless drivel that I am used to producing.  So it is becoming a weekly, I hope. 
Food:
  • I go to Yankee Lobster down Seaport in Boston for fried clams when I don’t want to make the 40 minute drives North or South of the city for decent big belly clams.  (the only place in the city with no drop-off in quality) One of the most fascinating details about driving down Seaport is to see the development of big flashy restaurants that vie for the business of convention, hotel and show-goers in this rapidly developed area.  Yes, there are many not-so-subtle metaphors in there for your reflection on self awareness, direction,  corporatism  and (some may even think) Buddhism.   
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  • I saw black and white zebra pattern high back lounge chairs at The Hawthorne in Boston on Friday night when I went to try out the recently touted cocktail menu there.  It is a remarkable improvement over the douche-y ultra lounge that used to exist there.  I would never have believed that a zebra (albeit more muted in tone and natural color) would work in a room, ever – but, it did.  The color swatch contained muted stone (lavender hue) walls, dark wood and dark matte frames/accents with heavy muted silver around.  If you want to extract some metaphors for this one too, feel free.
  • I am a traditional tea drinker that only stays within the confines of the 4 base teas that all others are made: oolong, red (aka black), green and herbal.  And, to be more specific, I prefer oolong and I prefer Iron Goddess (aka Tikuanyin) above all else.  The quality of tea is probably more abused in this planet than coffee.  I’d estimate 95% of tea that people drink is likely on the 10% quality scale.  Try good tea, it’s worth it.  If you want to try good tea with a meal, don’t be afraid to ask for it.  South Seas in San Francisco allows for the selection of high grade teas with your dim sum – not by place of choice, but that option is relatively special outside of Asia. 
  • Diet Coke might screw your metabolism up – especially when you are in a diet.  It won’t make you necessarily gain weight (other than water weight), but it will definitely slow the pace of your weight loss.  I learned this when I isolated the 1 anomaly I had on the scale Thursday nights when I traveled.  It was always the free diet coke on the plane – the only day of the week I had one. 
  • The chandelier at Tatte in Cambridge MA is a simple, elegant, cheap and wonderfully orchestrated chaotic masterpiece.  See here: http://pinterest.com/pin/204210164325225555/.  While having refrained from the gorgeous 12 item miscellaneous French pastry box that I picked out and bought for my kid cousins, uncle and aunt – I can tell you that there was absolutely nothing left in it after 5 minutes.  Not. one. crumb.
  • My parents: almond croissant lovers and connoisseurs. 
  • My mom’s eyes light up when people discuss the idea of ordering clam chowder.
  • Dwelltime in Cambridge, MA (owned by Barismo owner Jaime and wife) has the most beautiful and comfortable coffee bar (no booze) I’ve ever seen (think Absinthe’s bar) – oh, and it helps that Barismo coffee is probably second to none.
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Food Life
  • My friend Gabriel Mitchell, (pictured above at Dwelltime) a good friend and culinary kindred spirit, now lives in Boston and is studying a good deal of food research, influence, history, theory, and methodology.  To be honest, I read and research and study on my own accord – mainly on a similar subject matter, but I never thought I’d be interested in going back to college for that type of structured learning process until he noted some of the subject matter.  It kind of woke me up the possibility – but, no, I am done with colleges.
  • If there is a fellowship or a research program associated with the El Bulli Foundation dedicated solely to the study, progression, discussion and innovation of food/cuisine, I’d like to sincerely announce my candidacy/application for 2014.   
  • It only took me 3 years to see that the idea of food and cuisine without the borders of a restaurant is vast and its permutations are infinite – its understanding and attention however, are disappointingly finite.
  • When the question of “Is food art?” is asked and debated over and over by Herve This and Pierre Gagnaire in the book, Cooking: The Quintessential Art, I often focused in on trying to justify along with them about the answer to the question posed.  I have come to this understanding and conclusion.  Whether you choose to answer that question, “Yes” or “No” with fervor and justifications attached, you are always going to be right.  It is a question that obviously possesses no real answer to a answerless question – the only truth that comes out is whether you choose to be someone who possesses the ability to see things in a certain dimension, where you believe that there are cosmic/artistic/spiritual significance attached to food, or you are someone who simply chooses to ignore the idea.           
  • Another discussion worthy of a broad, college class study would be the role of food in influencing war and war strategy throughout the history of man.  That’d be an awesome class.
  • The “in” book right now is Sun Tzu’s The Art of War apparently.  I had a long discussion with an acquaintance the other day after Monday Night Football (of all things) over the validity of the author and its many debated commentary perspectives.  Having acknowledged the thorough importance of said book in the annals of history, I asked him this: “is that book a great book because of its content or because its content is vague and general enough for interpretation by every successful person that wants to tout his interpretation of its effects on his success?”
  • I can successfully apply the Art of War in a kitchen – and by that, I mean that I can take a sous chef’s head off if the staff laughs at me and doesn’t heed my every order.  Just kidding… maybe.
  • Another fun book that is free on my iPhone app store is the Kama Sutra.  Now that shit is not vague.  It’s pretty softcore and unsexy by these days standards.  Having read through most of it, based on what it is telling me – I basically should not have relations with any of the girls I have had relations with in my life.  Yup, it is certainly not sensitive to modern racial and class discrimination.  There is also an entire section where they list and justify all the scenarios where you could questionably slum it with “public women”. 
  • I had a great conversation on a plane – something rare.  That person was reading the Alchemist – a favorite of mine.  I’d go out on a limb and say that if you love the Alchemist, we’d probably be compatible for good conversation.
  • I’m not sure how to properly say this without offending the sensibilities of the entire Northern California population, but I think it needs to be noted:  Not being straight with somebody is just another form of lying.   Which by transitive property, makes you a liar.  I know, it sounds bad, but fortunately the truth doesn’t hurt as bad as you think.
  • Dux, brand shiny and ton of fun new stuff, coming sooner than you think in the next month or two… working hard.

Monday, November 5, 2012

A Few Different Reasons Why You Should Vote Yes on Prop 37

If you do not know what Proposition 37 is, please read the following well written and well researched articles regarding some of the issues (positive and negative) that come as a result of passing Proposition 37:

http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2012/10/26/gmo-questions/1658225/

http://blogs.sfweekly.com/foodie/2012/11/three_things_i_learned_prop_37.php

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/14/magazine/why-californias-proposition-37-should-matter-to-anyone-who-cares-about-food.html?pagewanted=all

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The Basic Idea:

A Yes on Proposition 37 will force producers to slap a GMO label on foods that are produced genetically modified.  The largest multinational companies in the US want to defeat this badly and they argue that it would cost California more money and result in unforeseen amounts of litigation and issues.  Supporters want transparency and the ability to adopt a system that helps them stay aware of the food choices they make when they are purchasing their produce and ingredients.

A Few Different Reasons:

I will try not to regurgitate the pros and cons written in the links above, but I will offer a few different perspectives regarding this proposition – and they may or may not be bulletproof, but they seem logically sound to me when I did my research regarding the decision to support Proposition 37. 

1. Without much argument, I support transparency in food.  Its very simple.  This alone is enough for me to vote yes on 37. 

2. The economic arguments and propaganda spat out in this arena are not what they seem.  I don’t think either side has a good grasp of what the final cost to each other will be, consumer vs. manufacturer.  And if they do, I don’t think they would want to disclose that information.  Who I think should benefit from this are the non-GMO farms and local farms.  This only re-centers the argument for purchasing, offering and eating local produce from local farms.  Prominent nearby counties, including Marin and Mendocino currently have their own county bans on GMO farm production.  I reason that Prop 37 should more likely stimulate California small farms and producers in some minor economic way.  If anything, it just always provides a better argument to offer local produce, which brings me to my next point… 

3. It forces your current supermarket or Safeway chain to reconsider how they market, select and offer their current produce.  Because frankly, the produce at Safeway is already a sorry excuse for anyone looking to cook anything from scratch.  Influencing WHERE we shop is every bit as important as the influence on HOW we shop.  If people begin to understand their decisions in a supermarket and make alternative decisions based on a GMO label, then supermarkets will forge and find new appropriate items to properly echo those sentiments.  It essentially forces the economics of the supermarket into a slightly more consumer-advantage direction instead of a manufacturer’s jungle.   

4. I think this was either mentioned by Bittman, but probably the most important part of a yes vote would be the conversation.  Generating the conversation of GMO labeling on a national level by becoming the model would be monumental for future food legislation. 

5. I understand the pitfalls of legislation, but in the end – we all want to be aware of how things are going to affect us – namely the bottom line.  We all essentially want to make smart decisions.  Human consciousness necessitates I always ask the simplest and most important question: why?  If they believe the science doesn’t specify differences between GMO and non GMO, and, they believe that the cost would only be incurred by consumer primarily, then why does a company spend so much money into trying to prevent me from seeing a label?  I know the answer as to why I want to see a label, but I’m not sure there’s been a sufficient resounding answer about why I wouldn’t. 

6. The trend for human health is not going the right direction.  Worldwide cancer is suggested to be 75% higher by 2030.  Worldwide incidence of allergies are higher than ever.  Obesity rates have almost doubled since 2000.  The increase of processed foods is likely higher than it has ever been.  Things are not trending in a positive direction here and while you might not be able to draw a line for those things back to GMO foods (highly unlikely), it really wouldn’t hurt to start putting some speed bumps in the way of how people eat and treat food right now.  In fact, it wouldn’t hurt to put some iron fences up either.

7. People who live in countries that have banned GMO production almost all have longer life expectancies than we do.  It might not have everything to do with GMO’s, but that’s probably at least a considering factor in addressing the food issue here.  There are a few that don’t have longer life expectancies, but those countries suffer from either lots of famine or lots of war.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Making Lists – a story from Litcrawl SF Event on 10/13/12

The following story was the piece I read for this Litcrawl SF event: http://litcrawl.org/sf/events/out-of-the-kitchen-on-the-road/, hosted by Craftsman and Wolves.  Three chef writers – Daniel Patterson, Richie Nakano, Samin Nosrat and myself spent the early evening telling our stories supposedly about chefs and international travel.  Seeing as to how I sometimes feel completely inadequate as a travel writer, I decided to write a story about the philosophy and quirks of my travel instead.  The very short story I wrote is called Making Lists:

Making Lists

For most, every trip begins with a list. If I don’t make a list for my trip then three things are likely true: 1). I’m on a very rigid business schedule or 2). I’m on a strict family affair or 3). I’ve exhausted everything I want out of a city. So when there is no list, it is distinctly because I choose to not make a list. It is borderline obsessive compulsive, but in this profession, it is simply known as appropriate behavior.

The first thing you need to know about my list is that it really isn’t actually a list. What my list is, is a string of reply emails with names and addresses written… to myself. Most of the time, I don’t get too clever with the subject name of the email because if I go back to the same city, future “me” enjoys a trip to memory lane – partly to reminisce the itinerary, sometimes to recall unfinished business, but mainly because of stress induced damage to my memory.

When I first started making the list, I was a pretty novice traveler and I stuck with popular places and common recommendations. I think I even used yelp – just kidding. I was under the impression at the time that the content of the list was the most important part. I often correlated the quality of the list with the success of the trip. On any given list, there had to be an element of fine dining, a delicate mix of charming local holes, and a scattering of burgeoning neighborhood gems - most importantly, of course, no chains.

Honestly, I wasn’t trying to impress anyone, but I think I just wanted to be impressed with myself. I was enamored with setting goals and accomplishing them, which I fairly thought was the prerogative of the young cook. To appropriate a generous critique of James Bond, I saw cities “as disposable pleasures rather than meaningful pursuits.”

But, I made fantastic lists for years. The cumulative one for Japan ended up being a total of 26 reply emails and New York has fallen into the teens range over the years. And, as a result of meticulous planning and culinary ambition, I have had dinner experiences that range from finding the signature sushi meal – one that all others will be judged against – in the basement of a quiet residential neighborhood in Asagaya Tokyo to the complex maze of courses in almost every 3-starred Michelin restaurant in New York. It truly has been a blessed embarrassment of riches.

But just like any other personal story of true discovery for a young cook, there was a turn and a denouement. At some point, without realizing it, the methodology of making the list had changed. No, I didn’t change my fervorous approach or obsessive research, but I stopped making choices solely out of recommendations, variety, or Michelin stars. Gauging the success of the trip suddenly became about discovery. And as a result, the restaurant names became less important than the ideas and intentions behind them.

Now, the obvious assumption here is: my education and progress as a cook is the primary contributor responsible for this change in travel philosophy. But the truth is, working in a kitchen never changed how much I enjoyed dining, it just became the catalyst for an education that never turned off outside the kitchen. The easiest way to metaphorically explain this is to ask you if you remember the exact moment in the Matrix, when Neo wakes up and starts to see the world in green code? It’s a little like that, except without the dying, the flying or being “the one.”

What I can tell you about how it feels – is that I still wonder on some nights about how it was possible for a ramen stock to be as golden clear and taste as rich in pork as the one in Shingetsu ramen is Sapporo. And every now and then at dim sum, I still wonder what ratio or apparatus was used when I had the thinnest and silkiest rice crepe roll in a restaurant off a strip mall in my hometown, China. Some mornings when I have espresso, I start to wonder about the technical specifications of the juiciest espresso shot I ever had, pulled for me from Barismo coffee in Arlington, MA. It’s not always good. In some of my most neurotic moments, I think about correcting the agar ratios of the plate in front of me during dinner.

From time to time, people wonder in casual conversations over dinner, about how chefs perceive food and dining in restaurants. They’ll sometimes ask if it’s difficult for us to dine at certain restaurants or eat certain things, possibly out of intimidation or possibly out of curiosity. I’m not sure. I think the pressure of trying to be impressed like a critic is not something that most of us deal with on a day to day basis. So, it shouldn’t surprise you that we do indeed love food, but sometimes the relationship isn’t simple – and the prospect of travel is tantalizing like Red Bull to a teenager.

So finally, a little metaphor or food for thought: Franz Kafka once wrote a short story appropriately titled “The Hunger Artist” about a man’s public starvation as his art. When asked why, the man’s final words served as the representation of the solitude of his craft. He explains, “Because I couldn’t find a food which tasted good to me. If had found that, believe me, I would not have made a spectacle of myself and would have eaten to my heart’s content, like you and everyone else.”

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Starting From Scratch–A Working Evaluation Process

leonardo-dicaprio-ellen-page-inception-dream

I’ve been introduced to something old that for me is very shockingly new.  I thought about using the word “reintroduced” in that previous sentence, but I’m not quite sure I’ve ever considered this idea before.  For the first time in many years, I am enjoying the treasure of time to simply sit back and do nothing but evaluate everything I’ve done past and everything I am planning for the future.

This all-encompassing subject is basically what people decide to do in a hazy post collegiate period – when you can’t reconcile the end of one significant event with the proper methodology into establishing the next.  It is what some of our parents have affectionately called “being a bum” or “being lost” or best of all “aimlessly moping at home.” 

Fortunately, that’s not how my days go right now (call it a working vacation), but the fact that I’ve stepped slightly to the right of the picture has lent me time to evaluate some of the ideas and personal direction I was seemingly set on – a course that has begun to alter and form slowly.

I’ve found more time and opportunity to talk to friends, family and random people this year – an event that leads to many questions.  Specifically, questions about the restaurant I am planning and dreaming to open in the near distant future (vague, huh?).  The structure, the concept, the seating, and the food sits in my head almost like Ellen Page’s introduction to dream building in Inception.  It’s set and there, but I realize that I can shift worlds with one simple altered tool or thought.

What kind of restaurant do you want to open?

This is the question that has been cancerous to the synapses, tissues and neural channels that connect my mind and my mouth for the last 10 months – primarily because this thought continues to evolve in and out of the semantics of the restaurant format that I desire versus the format that people inevitably will evoke in their minds. 

On some days, I don’t know if I can intellectually betray myself to say fine dining.  The expectations of fine dining and tasting menus have increasingly become a disconnect for me.  I have written about the issues I specifically have with the service structure, the timing, the heat, the politics, and the hypocrisy of the message versus the result.  If you have not read Pete Wells’ piece today from the NYTimes regarding tasting menus, then you must do so here.  He put on paper a lot of the increasing angst I’ve felt about the words “tasting menu” and “fine dining” into very methodical analysis.

The one thing that Pete Wells only hinted but suspiciously didn’t point out (maybe a different story for a different day) is the game played by the abuse of the “tasting menu” – one that many have felt is the only way to ascertain or maintain the status and attention of the Illuminati-esque organizations that bestow some of the most notable crowns in the restaurant industry. 

If you don’t think that chefs and restauranteurs don’t possess a blueprint to Michelin stars, then you are kidding yourself.  The blueprint is there, but unfortunately it requires acts of genius, blind ambition, luck and pure insanity.   

I think there are a lot of moments during a tasting menu dinner where I feel the chef’s primary focus isn’t the apparition of 1,2, or 3 stars, but rather, the instinctive use of a tasting menu to cultivate the proper experience (most recently my dinner at Manresa, as well as others noted in the NYTimes article).  I think a lot of the issues I have (and possibly Pete Wells has), is that the thought of the experience and its intimacy, namely its story, is steadily being lost in the sea of tasting menus.  Worst of all, there is no direction for the ship.

I’ve come to realize a compelling idea that is equally effective when reverse engineered.  If the intention is to provide that style of service and dining, then what would be the end goal of trying to build a copycat?  If I’m not trying to set out and develop a coherently original or an emotionally connected concept, then wouldn’t it serve my cause better if I just devoted the years to working through those restaurants?  The education in those kitchens are vast and limitless in know-how and resource – and, I am deeply impressed and envious of some of the people that get to call those kitchens their own every night.  But I wonder if entrenching yourself in a specific style of kitchen and direction is going to net a result of discovering a voice or adapting one?

More so than ever, I feel I am more aware of the absorbing effect of the cuisine that is currently considered great, artistic or trend-blazing.  It’s hard to try to negate the influence of people who are doing great things and its even harder to try to grow contrary or untested ideas into something that might one day be considered on par.  Trying to build something different to standout is a daunting task and requires a good deal of confidence (or convenient denial).  Trying to understand and evaluate the process with constant criticism requires a good deal of humility.  Both things, confidence and humility, continue to be my best asset and my worst enemy at one moment and another.  

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Possibly Neurotic Guide to the Perfect XLB

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Let me preface this before people get all uppity with pitchforks and hoes.  These are simply my observations and preferences for what I would certainly deem a perfect Xiao Long Bao (to me).

I won’t give you any names or places or mention locations that may result in turf battles of the China vs. The World variety.  I will simply give you a subjective breakdown of what I would consider the a great xlb.

For some basic history and an argument on authenticity of cuisines, I direct you to this fantastic Serious Eats article on the xlb. 

Let’s start with some of the basic “need to know” facts.

Definition/Origins:

XLB short for “xiao long bao” is directly translated to the words “little dragon bun.”  For reference, people normally refer to them as Shanghai soup dumplings – which is really a crappy and sometimes misleading name because certain people (some call “noobs”) expect a bowl of soup with dumplings.  Plus, the name Little Dragon Bun is badass in its own right. 

Contrary to what you think – this is not a technical bao (Chinese for enclosed bun).  It is wrapped like a bao, but it certainly is closer to a dumpling.  We can argue the technical aspects of baos and dumplings all day long, but its just a name.  Every Chinese town/city has a regional bun or dumpling, and in some cases, they even have family/neighborhood/clan specific recipes that tend to intermingle and confuse the names even further.  There is no traditional standard beyond the esoteric regional preferences of towns, mainly because there are about a thousand varieties and manipulations of provincial specialty dumplings.  I would know, my family has multiple family heritage recipes that deviate wildly from the standard ones observed.  Since the xlb is one of the most famous Chinese dumpling in the world, we will simply have to grade it on its most well known attributes and common merits.

Structure and Ingredients:

3 Basic Components – Skin, Soup and Meat

Skin production involved 1 basic technique and a few basic ingredients.  The Chinese cook their dough when it comes to dumpling production, so they add hot water to a variation of AP, wheat starch (bleached), variant root/vegetable starch.  Ratios, types of starch and flours make a big difference in how the dumpling turns out (color, texture, elasticity and tensile strength).  Color and transparency are the giveaways for the primary flours/starches used.  Elasticity, texture and tensile strength are a result of manipulating recipe ratios and workmanship for the dumpling.  Obviously, different types of dumplings call for different varieties of chewiness, stickiness, thickness, mouthfeel, color and flavor – all dependent on what is traditionally acceptable.  The dough gets kept moist until it is portioned into balls and then rolls out for hand folding and production of dumpling.  In the case of the xlb, its filled, given many pinches and a final signature twist to close off the opening.

Soup production involves 1 basic technique: make stock.  Creating a pork laden stock with variable vegetables (chicken, seafood combo also used sometimes) and then refrigerating it to create a gelatin for filling. 

Meat production involves 1 basic technique which is typically ground pork mixed with a variety of difference flavorings dependent on family and area, but I will say that the most common flavors in the pork filling include garlic, ginger, scallion, rice wine, sesame oil, and soy.

Critique:

There are many facets to critiquing something seemingly so simple.  Many people have different ways and means of going about what they consider good or bad (some of them wildly off-base), but I will categorize the method of my madness when it comes to critiquing a dumpling.  In this case, we’re talking about a xlb, but you can apply the standard model for most dumplings.

a). Skin – It’s the first thing you encounter.  The skin of the dumpling is the most telltale part of the entire eating experience.  If the skin is not good, then there is simply no need to continue with the evaluation process.  You could argue that the success or failure of an entire Chinese restaurant hangs by the balance of the skin of a dumpling.  This is not an exaggeration.  If you do not possess the knowledge to understand, critique and technically evaluate the skin of a soup dumpling (or the king of dumplings: the hai-gow aka “shrimp dumpling”), then you do not qualify to have your opinion heard.  Being Chinese doesn’t qualify you – even though it enables exposure, a cultural reference point and experience – I’ve had Chinese people give me piss poor recommendations to some of the worst dumplings I’ve had ever.  Every dumpling has a different point of reference when it comes to evaluation.  In this case, the xlb is often a matted grayish white that has a much less gummy or starchy mouthfeel than many of the transparent dumplings seen in dim sum.  There isn’t much bite to the dumpling unlike the skin of the much thicker Northern style, but it should certainly hold up better than that of the wonton or gyoza.  A great xlb dumpling should have skin that is both strong, thin and certainly elastic/flexible to a certain extent.  The thinnest skin does not equate to the best dumpling, contrary to what some people seem to think or judge them by.  Super thin skin likely leads to leaks and breaks, but thicker skin inevitably compromises the texture and taste of the dumpling.  If the skin isn’t somewhat flexible, it may burst upon lifting – a disappointing eating experience.  Most recipes point to AP or some high gluten flour as the way to go, but I suspect that the best ones don’t go with an all flour recipe and use some variant flour (rice, tapioca?) as a mix in to lend help either with mouthfeel, but this would require endless trial runs of dumpling making.  I do know that some xlbs are whiter and may have a more textured appearance that is traditional to bleached flour; whereas some are a little more yellow gray and have a shinier smoother sheen across the surface of the dumpling skin.  The ones with a shinier smoother sheen are less gummy and stronger – as a result, can be rolled thinner.  They also stick less to the chopstick and cabbage.  Thickness/thinness is all dependent on technique, craftsmanship and what the dough ratio will allow.     

Soup and Meat Filling – Not sure a traditional French stock would taste right here, so a slightly more neutral pork/beef/chicken stock of some sort would make more sense.  The Chinese version of mirepoix ranges wildly left or right to different ingredients depending on what soup they make.  The meat in the filling should not have a coarse texture, but it shouldn’t be all creamy either.  It should never be bouncy like sausage.  The round ball of pork should melt in your mouth (or be fatty enough too), but should maintain some sort of shape after being steamed.  The aromatics inside should taste of sesame, green onion, garlic and a hint of ginger.  Typically the most common issues I have with xlbs are 1). the missing flavor of ginger and 2). the overwhelming taste of garlic and sesame oil.  The flavor of pork should be prominent and be supported well – when not properly supported, it could be too sharp (porky).  I also hate it when the meat in the dumpling melts in with the soup and just becomes a pool of indiscriminant pork liquid.  Xlbs also seem to have their slight differences regionally it seems, some dumplings taste a little heartier and more savory with mixed flavors – more “country”.  Some of them have a cleaner broth and distinctive refined flavors –more “city”. (this concept of “city” vs. “country” is very easily discernible, but that’s a whole other conversation)  I prefer a slightly more “country” rustic dumpling if we can call it that.  

Size – I typically see the dumplings in smaller form, 1.5 – 2 in diameter, but some make them very large, up to 2.5-3 in diameter.  I prefer something closer to 2 in because the experience of larger dumplings (despite thinner skin) seems to lead to more leaking and breaking.  Also, they don’t make soup spoons capable of accommodating such large sizes.  I prefer to the option of putting the entire dumpling in my mouth and let the pork and soup explosion happen.   

I’d honestly say my critique isn’t some mind blowing discovery process, but one that is rooted with my own insights and preferences.  Most of what you’ve probably read is meant to relay the specifics behind the general day-to-day opinions I hand out so thoughtlessly.  This should probably lead you to a couple of conclusions (or both), 1). I am particular and know what I like or 2). I’m ridiculously neurotic about dumplings. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Trust Issues

trust-issues-funny-quotes

I’m definitely a fan of well thought-out and well executed restaurant criticism.  To me, it doesn’t have to grab every indefinable word for every dinner experience and it definitely does not need to be verbose.  Sometimes the best criticism has been written in a very elegant storyboard form that is more experience driven than technical.  And great critical writing, when fairly and thoughtfully leveled (even at myself), should be appreciated.  Poor critical writing and utter nonsense is however cancerous and spreading. 

I have no interest in restaurant critique, but I can be absolutely ruthless at times when it comes to a bad or lukewarm experience.  I’m not going to name names publicly (outside of hushed conversations amongst friends) because in this industry, that’s disrespectful and professional suicide.  More importantly, I don’t like to talk about bad restaurant experiences.  A poor dining experience from a cook’s perspective is typically one that is met with empathy and not immediate hatred.  Sometimes I find myself making more excuses for the food and service than most people – I tend to think that people working in hospitality are always more understanding of the struggles of their peers.  So, if a restaurant ever manages to piss me off completely, it’s going to end up being something that is monumentally egregious.  On a side note, I will only ever mention a restaurant’s name (via twitter and whatnot) to thank them for an unbelievable meal.

Much like anyone else, I have high expectations when a place is recommended and when those expectations are not met, a strong empty feeling of disappointment washes over me.  This happened with Xiao Long Bao the other day.  Some affectionately call it XLB for short and many know them classically as Shanghai Soup Dumplings.  I made the offhand comment to a friend and trusted food confidant about this disappointment and he then began rattling off a bunch of other names and places that he preferred.     2012-09-14 13.37.44

I also made a comment on twitter about how hyped or highly recommended xlb’s always seem to end up in disappointment – more likely than most enthusiast dishes recommended for some reason.  To this my friend asked, “well, what is it you’re looking for that ended up wrong?”  This is the the quintessential question that often gets ignored when we pass opinions or ask for recommendations.  I notice that I (and many others) don’t seem to take the time out to justify or technically explain a recommendation based on our own specific preferences. 

I understand that sometimes we don’t ask for specifics because it ends up being too long winded of a conversation.  Also, if you’ve established a brand of “food or recommendation trust” with someone, you typically don’t need to ask endless questions as to why they like a place.  This is where ignorance serves up both hell and heaven.  To care and know food as a cook, professional or even the savvy culinary enthusiast (not using the F word) – you understand basic truths, preferences, ingredients and flavors better than those who are not.  This is not an elitist statement and it is not a secret club; all I am saying is that if you are surrounded by the experience and enthusiasm of a subject matter, you are more prone to be capable of judging the experience in an authoritative way.  In other words, I may like the work of a certain guitarist named Joe Blow from a fan perspective, but if Jimmy Page tells me that Joe Blow is the best guitarist alive, he probably might have a little more insight on that reasoning than I would.

Where does that leave us?  I take blind recommendations from my cooking friends and only them.  I listen to everyone else, but we really need to be on a similar wavelength with some built past history for me to blindly go to a place without any research.  I do listen, write-down and acknowledge all recommendations/reviews, but research typically means a good deciphering of the menu, circumstance and mood I’m in.  If you don’t know yet, I obsess about all aspects of food and restaurants ceaselessly (gross understatement).  Some wonderful examples of “recommendation trust” at their pinnacle can be taken from my time in New York.  Bien Cuit and Gwynnett Street were separate recommendations from friends who cook in the city.  Both of which, I went to blindly; both of which, I continue to miss and mumble under my breath when someone one reminds me eating in Brooklyn.  The mumble is pretty quiet and you can make out the words “olive loaf” and “whiskey bread” when my eyes roll back.

I can’t help but think that the one misplaced aspect of this whole situation is continually disputed and redefined role of the actual professional critic.  It’s a tough, sometimes unenviable job, having to navigate the definition and redefinition of a position constantly evolving with the introduction of the tidal waves and poopshoots of new media outlets and voices.  I’ve heard many years ago that the role of the critic should serve as an ultimate resource – that people have personal favorites with which they feel the tingly warmth of “recommendation trust.”  But over the last few years, I have heard otherwise from critics themselves – that they are not always the ones that people should establish bonds with – they are meant to simply analyze – possibly aiming to extricate themselves from the emotional end of the writing.  (For the sake of appearing impartial?)  I have also heard that the writing itself is at times more important and necessary than subject written about.  The most frustrating byproduct of all this is the ambiguous review: a thousands of words of no conviction that result in a indecisive wink or cop-out nod for me to “see for myself.”  While that may be the most sensible course of action (and fine by me), it certainly doesn’t build momentum and trust between a dining reader and the critic.  So where does the reader go from there?  (Yes, the cliff dive answer is the Yelp community.)           

So after the poor XLB incident, I thought about how I could have circumvented the situation or possibly help others circumvent the situation.  And, so I came up with some sort of idea to technically profile some of the foods I enjoy and possibly identify some of the my specific preferences for them.  This idea comes in part from deciphering lines and lines of Japan’s Supleks ramen database where some people just go for broke with the analysis and over analysis of the minutia of ramen.  You can’t discover perfection unless you understand the details that make something perfect [to you anyways].  I figure this will give me some sort of direction for the next entry at least – seeing as to how my attention recently has been focused on slightly more serious projects for Dux.  More soon.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Music in the Kitchen

If you are working in a kitchen where spoons, pindrops and chef rage is all you hear, then this blog probably doesn’t apply to you.  I’m sorry.

Here are my 50 fun random thoughts on music for the restaurant:

 

  1. If I ever have to listen to La Raza 93.3 on the goddamn kitchen radio ever again.  I will punch someone in the nuts. 
  2. Friday night service in my world is known as Michael Jackson time.  Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough is thus known as the Powersong – yes, like on your iPod Nano Nike+.
  3. When you have no idea what type of music people enjoy in your kitchen, the best defaults that should piss no one off are the following: Golden Oldies, Old School Golden Age HipHop, Classic Rock or 80’s Cheese.  If you have issues with all of those then you’re a douchebag emo asshole.  Really, get over yourself.
  4. The Mexican Dudes I used to cook with (Tomas, Nacho, Cheesco, David) were the best, the funniest and the most illogical barometer for “acceptable” American kitchen music.
  5. Great In Theory But Poor In Reality Kitchen Music Choice: Tribe Called Quest.  Yeah, I fucking said it.
  6. Poor In Theory But Great In Reality Kitchen Music Choice: Pat Benatar.  No, really.
  7. I go to Lers Ros (Larkin) for the really bad 80’s and 90’s soft rock.  It’s like the best karaoke bar in San Francisco with awesome food. 
  8. If you sit in Lers Ros long enough and daydream of a shitty soft rock song hard enough, it will come true.  I tested this theory out 3 times – I’ll Make Love to You by Boyz II Men, Endless Love by Lionel and Diana, and I Swear by All 4 One.  I have witnesses.
  9. You’re not cool for playing really loud metal or house music during brunch hours, you’re an asshole and I hate you.
  10. Good for FOH Breakfast, Brunch, Lunch, Dinner or Dessert: Feist.
  11. If I could pace a kitchen service with a song, I would pick No Diggity by Blackstreet.
  12. If I could pace the FOH service with a song, I would pick Feel Like Makin Love by D’Angelo.
  13. I could prep and cook for hours to Bob Marley. 
  14. Great in Theory and Great in Reality Kitchen Music Choice: Prince.
  15. Poor in Theory and Poor in Reality Kitchen Music Choice: Taylor Swift.
  16. Do. Not. Touch. The. Radio. When. It. Is. Playing. Sinatra.
  17. Try not to listen to music that make people who work with sharp knives go crazy.  That is the simple rule that we all must live with.
  18. I used to whistle in the kitchen while working, then my sous Elgin told me it drove him insane.  2 months later, the sound of whistling started to drive me insane.  Weird but true.   
  19. We used to have these DJ Vinroc neo-soul mixes for Poleng’s FOH – it was the best thing to listen to after a long night of service and the best mix to mingle at the bar scene with.  I am still looking for that mix somewhere… I suck.
  20. It was all fun and games when we let customers pick out the playlist in the café, until they kept playing Ace of Base.  It was like 1992 all over again with no escape from the Swedish and their goddamn Signs.  We have ourselves to blame.  That and the assholes that kept playing Ace of Base.
  21. Consider the following artists banned from any future restaurant of mine for being overplayed: Ace of Base, Empire of the Sun, and Beach House.
  22. The RIAA can suck it.
  23. There are a few songs out there that the minute they come on – the entire place lights up and sings.  The first: Al Green – Let’s Stay Together.
  24. The second: I Wanna Dance With Somebody by Whitney Houston.
  25. The third (a tie): Sir Duke by Stevie and Real Love by Mary J. Blige
  26. Laura, one of my favorite cooks and people in the world, now working at the always amazing Nopa, loves I Wanna Dance With Somebody like no other.  Totally embarrassing, huh? 
  27. My people party on industry nights at Krazy Mondays at the Beauty Bar.  Good hiphop on Monday nights without the typical weekend hipster assholes – downright therapeutic.  There used to be this girl Kyle who spun the most chill neo-soul hiphop at Double Dutch every other Monday – I think I was in love with her just cause she would spin exactly what I wanted to hear on my night off.  Well, I think she might have been a yoga instructor too, so that doesn’t hurt.     313136_10151267554675116_954642480_n[1]
  28. Good all day today and tomorrow and everywhere: Winehouse.   
  29. The artist that everybody hates but me: U2. 
  30. Great In Theory But Poor In Reality in the Kitchen: Radiohead.  Love the band, but sometimes it’s the kind of stuff that you don’t want knives around for.
  31. Favorite Morning Hangover Prep Song: Sweet Nuthin by Velvet Underground.
  32. I break into full song after service while I’m wiping, mopping and cleaning – it is the ultimate secret to breaking down your stations efficiently and quickly. 
  33. There does not exist a world where any of my HipHop kitchen playlists do not include Ms. Fat Booty or Girls Girls Girls. 
  34. Great In Theory But Poor In Reality: The Go Team. 
  35. Poor In Theory (for some) But Great In Reality: The BeeGees.
  36. Country pop music has no place – absolutely no place – in a kitchen.  Sorry.
  37. I once listened to Explosions in the Sky with my cook Tom.  I think we both wished we were 10 years younger and smoking weed.  Definitely not the most productive kitchen tunes.
  38. Simple rule: if you didn’t bring your iPod to work, then you have no say in pretty much what music gets played that day.  Good luck with La Raza or Slayer.
  39. I created Boner Jams Mix #1 for enjoyment in the kitchen.
  40. I then created Boner Jams Mix #2: The Sequel for more enjoyment in the kitchen.
  41. When cooks gotta pump shit out during service, there’s always a few mojo bands that we all have – everyone’s got a few of them. 
  42. My mojo music? Zeppelin, Sinatra and MJ for service, prep and cleanup in that order.
  43. Good In Theory But Poor In Reality: Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors – totally down with those guys, but man, its like a brain scrambler on your focus.
  44. Every time I play “Nothing Compares to You” by Prince, everyone thinks it’s a cover of Sinead O’Connor.  Prince + Rosie Gaines is the original and only version of the song you should ever know or listen to.
  45. Guiltiest pleasure in the kitchen: tie between Usher and Boyz II Men.
  46. I have lived happily without ever hearing a Bieber song in a kitchen, let’s keep it that way. 1281543881_justin-bieber 
  47. Serious rappers during prep time, fun rappers during service time.
  48. Spotify > Pandora – simply because I can skip the shit songs as often and as much as I want.
  49. I have a couple of other dream jobs that I'd never pursue over cooking: one of them is the guy that picks the tunes they play at department stores, malls, grocery stores, elevators, etc..  It would be such an awesome job.
  50. If you don’t like D’Angelo then you are telling me you are vanilla and have no soul.  Don’t be vanilla.  Have a soul.  Listen to D’Angelo.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Food and the Modern Zeitgeist

"Considering the current Zeitgeist, I just don't feel comfortable dining as I used to; there seems to be a very 1% feel to it."

That line was delivered from one of my roommates in my NY sublet.  It sat entrenched in my mind all day Sunday after it came at roughly 11:00AM in the middle of a breakfast conversation over eggs and tortillas.  During which, an enjoyable and lively debate ensued over the relationship between fine dining and its juxtaposition in the current socioeconomic climate of America.

It was a valid, innocuous and sensible argument which unfortunately had all the elements of surreal paranoia and overgeneralized logic that a majority of our country operates on.  The mental constitution of this country right now can be conservatively described as fragile.  My roommate recounted his years of having an affinity for fine dining and restaurants, but also noted that he has become increasingly self-aware of the indulgence of food and its perception in our Zeitgeist.  He honestly admitted that it is this perception which has turned him away from dining - which is becoming an increasing popular sentiment over the last five years.  Despite reassurances that he still went out and dined out, I couldn’t help but think of the idea as unsettling – almost as if I was tuned to the echo of the paranoid schizophrenic.  It seemed to resonate in my head a little louder – especially considering it was coming out of the mouth of someone who happened to work in a notable public forum on culture and the arts.

I think when we entertain this stream of thought, we enter dangerous territory.  There are few facets to this comment that are disarming to me.  The first is the history.  History has told us that when people reach times of religious, social, moral and financial crisis, mob mentality has always been quick to extricate the things that may symbolize indulgence.  And inevitably, art and intellect are always the smoking gun for the indulgent.  Great paintings, sculptures, monuments and city structures have been leveled in the name of the righteous.  Chunks of culture are often lost in the shadows of the "modern" Zeitgeists of other dark periods.   I can list examples, but there is no point to doing so: just blindly turn to any page in the history book listed under human atrocities, significant war or social "revolution."
You can argue the merits of whether you should consider food as art, but if you choose to create food for a higher cause beyond its basic value, then you are speaking of art. Art, in its core simplicity, is partially defined as taking something physical (or not) and elevating it to a metaphysical consciousness or expression. And if you deny this, then you are denying the purpose of many - and that denial, historically, is considered as ignorance.  It is during these dark ages that people stop considering the arguments and lessons of our art, but only see the danger assessed to its value.

The second reason for my issues with this comment are a byproduct of the first.  A big reason that humanity goes through this cycle of destruction is mainly associated with a lack of appreciation - attributed to either poor education or a disdain for culture.  We can continue to spin and speak soft sentences to lessen the grimness of such a statement, but coddling the sensitivity of the stupid is the reason for our issues and not the resolution.  It is increasingly clear to me that we are beginning to fall into a social trap that dictates that the intelligent must repress any display of their intellect, whereas the stupid and plain-spoken must find every opportunity to parade their shortcomings.  See: social media.
Generationally, we are forfeiting the understanding and inherited education with food and cooking at an alarming rate.  Today, fast food, convenient fixes and quick meals are the replacement for the nourishment provided and taught to us by our previous generations.  Food interest may be peaking (Food tv, Top Chef, Yelp), but what is the gauge of our skill beyond the fodder?  (Some of which are funded by the interests of fast and convenient processed products.)

I understand that people liken dining choices to a mine field.  And I agree.  It is almost impossible to distinguish one chef's intention over another. I also understand that placing the idea of "value" onto the dining experience is only relative to the circumstance of the individual (or his wallet).  Manhattan is probably one of the best examples of the current situation; a concentrated area that is saturated with empty dining experiences made fulfilling by its trendiness, reputation, bloated expense accounts, uninformed tourists and streams of professionals with easy smiles and good looks.  Fittingly, these empty dining experiences always seem to be physically full (i.e. seating capacity).  To this, I have almost no solution. It is a endless cycle of money, property, image and derivation in a place that replaces the one pretentious hedge fund foodie for the next.  And, in this specific microcosm of the modern Zeitgeist, I am close to speechless.

It is only through an appreciative, honest and educated approach to food that we can start to see the art behind the wall. How can people begin to argue the merits of restaurant value, the 1% or the "current Zeitgeist" when most people hold no basic understanding of whether good apple pie or chocolate pot de creme is more impressive?  The gap between the level of know-how and appreciation for cooking between the diner and the restaurant is beginning to sound more like the ever expanding tectonic rift in the ocean.  Compounded to that issue, print journalism and professional critics continue to give way to the free enterprising mediocrity and delusions of the "my-voice-matters" generation.  (Yes, I blindly defend the food critics of the world, whether they deserve it or not.)  While I am truly amazed by how wonderfully interwoven the power of cause-and-effect can sometimes be, this is not one of those cases.

A lot of times when people see an expensive and intricate tasting menu, they tend to bring the value system of all their bad experiences from bad restaurants with them.  It is a very natural response, but as difficult to believe as it may seem, there are restaurants who put bet their stars and reputations every night to make sure that their customers [of all different value systems] leave fulfilled with the proper impression of what that experience was worth.  Though great places may be few and far in between, they are the shining examples of dining as a perceived value and not a extension of financial worth.  And, in many cases (especially for those in consideration for best restaurants in the world), these restaurants operate on no profit or a loss despite being full every night.   

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Shrinking Dreams of Grandeur

Trianon Palace Versailles, Waldorf Astoria Collection - Paris, France Hotel - La Véranda restaurant

At 23, I knew exactly what my idea of grandeur was.  I had these visions and dreams of a restaurant space with every single square foot detailed and almost every logistic imagined.  I saw recessed shade lighting, soft cream and white tones, French wrought iron, booths tucked away by elegantly frosted glass and contemporary interpretations of a fleur-de-lys.  And, in the center of it all, was a signature glass chandelier – one that might make Chihuly blush.  I could have drawn you the space from my head (probably still can).  150 seats was arguably on the lower end of estimates.    

I slept soundly and dreamt capriciously.  I was pretty stupid.

At 25, I think I smartened up a little.  Take out the French iron.  Fleur de lys?  Tacky unless you’re French and, sometimes tacky because you are French.  A big marble bar is nice, but do I really want people lounging around in booths all night?  Chihuly?  Better at the museum.  Plus, I could get a wood burning oven with that money.  Words like rustic, bistro, casual and comfortable felt just… right.  I gawked, envied and dreamt to have what the greats had – I wanted their dreams.  60 seats sounded… perfect.

I slept lightly, only dreamt when I could.  Rest of the time, I was awake and learning for 18 hours of the day.

At 28, I became a realist.  Trust and competency suddenly became the most tangible and valuable assets I could imagine for a restaurant.  I was no longer walking to an imagined future, I was running.  I could see the path, but I also lost sight of what my visions were.  A chase for grandeur no longer had a physical manifestation – it was all about the bite, the food and ultimately, the experience.  Important words like listen, learn and watch were now giving way to equally important ones like discover, create, and build.  I heard the conversations and read the books – I stopped listening to the noise.  I envied the ideas – not the people, and certainly not the restaurants.  I was easily fulfilled to tell 8 people in 8 seats about stories and their food for an entire night.

I’d like to believe I was sort of living the dream, but honestly, I remember being too tired to dream of much else.  While my present was satisfying, the reality of the sacrifices to get there, was rather grim.

At 30, what was once rich and majestic is now small and minute.  As I increasingly come to understand it, my happiness and fulfillment is inversely related to the size of a restaurant.  We are beginning to see these examples and realizations throughout the culinary scene from city to city.  The concept of true grandeur and ambition is one that has shifted from space to plate.  Of my dreams, past and present, I have been told to, precisely in this order: make them, disregard them, aspire to them, manage them, forsake them, invest in them, reinvent them and build them.  But we also understand that today is only the shadow of a reference point for what may happen tomorrow.     

Today, I do not know how many seats will end up making up the new restaurant (an inevitable event), but I do now know better than to leverage my dreams and my ambition with my seat count or my reality.       

Today, I sleep soundly. 

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Little Things

During my little hiatus this year, I have the fortunate chance of having the opportunity to spend my summer in NYC – a city that seems to deliver on its promises of big and bright experiences.  But, if this weekend is an indication of the months to come, it is becoming very apparent that the most inspiring and provoking aspects of this rich city come from a collection of incisive details that range from celebrated Michelin restaurant to treasured hidden gems.  It is always the little things are what matter the most.

Here are some of the most notable little things and details that I found inspiring or interesting during my recent weekend in New York. 

  • At the very least, you should walk by Anyway Café on 2nd St. and check out their list of house infused vodkas.  Itty bitty places like this charm my pants off.
  • The Apple Room in Bouley is my favorite room in all of my experiences in fine dining restaurants.  By chance, I walked into Bouley (not for dinner) and was blown away by how simple but provoking it was.
  • If Prune doesn’t win you over with food, it can probably win you just by sheer courage and quirkiness.  Two uncommon things that I loved about Prune: the tubed assortment offered for the brunch dish “Youth Hostel Breakfast” and Alka Seltzers in place of mints.

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  • Wet cement is the best way to make your mark in NY.  Mine can be found on Ludlow and Rivington.

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  • The pink lights and paper dragon in Mission Chinese.
  • The lights made with giant Hobart whisks in The Grey Dog in Nolita are rad as fuck.
  • The Sunday barista at Bowery Coffee pulled the best shot and cappuccino (Counter Culture) I’ve had in a month.  Hats off to the good man that brings me the stuff that keeps me ticking.
  • The beer tap handles at the bar in Fette Sau.
  • The spruce elevator in the Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg that takes you up to The Ides Bar.
  • The Goose Island Matilda on tap and available for growler at Top Hops on Orchard.
  • I never knew belly dancing could go with a German band in a beer garden, but it was pretty amazing.

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  • Can someone explain why the show Girls decided to do their shooting in every place I went in Williamsburg?  Can someone tell me why I would possibly relate to or enjoy the coming-of-age story of a suburban girl blossoming into a future hipster?  Because I can’t.
  • Golden chocolate Jesus from Bond Street chocolates.
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  • This mural in East Village.

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  • Pok Pok Wings or Pok Pok in Brooklyn.  Can’t wait to make it a regular thing.
  • Even the ice tea at Le Bernardin was exquisite and refined – much like everything done there.  Other Things I Loved: the offset spatula (used in place of a knife), the giant floral arrangements and the custom Le Bernardin Zagat guide that comes complimentary with a copy of the menu.  

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