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:, 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.”