Archive for February, 2009

L’Oeuf

Friday, February 27th, 2009

A local poet, Rebecca Hoogs, whom I have had the lucky aquaintence of for a few years now, printed this little gem of hers in the Stranger today.

Since the egg is a cornerstone of the culinary world, I thought you too would find beauty in this playful look at our lovely L’Ouef.

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Ghosts

Saturday, February 21st, 2009

Last night, I drove by Veil.  You remember, that modern fine dining restaurant I worked at until last July?  The one that closed in September?

The papers said it was one of the first casualties of the economy.  A restaurant barely in in its third year, taken down by the tightening belts of the diners in the city.

I spent exactly one year at Veil, hired alongside Johnny Zhu, who left within weeks of me.  Our small crew, who predated our tenure by a month or so, stayed on until they got the bad news, at which point they scrambled to find a new paycheck.

Towards the end of my time there, it was clear Veil was ailing.  The ownership was doing all it could to keep their business floating.  The customers came in erratically.  Brunch service was added.  Sunday dinner service was cut.

I can’t imagine too many things sadder than watching your restaurant die.  It was hard to stomach as an employee.  Watching the numbers in the book read zero twice a week.  Seeing your cooks loose half their shifts and shake their heads at paychecks that won’t cover rent.  Checks that at times bounce.

It was sad in part because Veil held so much hope for me as a pastry chef.  The dining room was modern and absolutely stunning, stark white, veiled and back lit with pinks and ambers.  It set the stage for me to bring striking modern presentations, creative flavors, new textures.  When I returned from my stage at WD-50, it was clear I needed a creative outlet, and Veil was the first place I took a resume.  It was the only place in Seattle I knew I’d have the freedom to do exactly what I wanted, no compromises.

When I drove by last night, the sun was setting, casting pinks and ambers through the windows, a ghostly reminder of the light that once illuminated Veil.  Everything is there, the marble communal table, the Philip Stark chairs, pots, flatware.  The tables sit as if in wait for their next service.

It gave me chills, seeing the empty restaurant left exactly as it was the last day it was alive, a for sale sign the only indication this restaurant wouldn’t be opening that evening.  I pulled over and pressed my nose against the glass, watching the sunset color the restaurant one last time, my memories casting shadowy figures in the kitchen, ghosts striding through the dining room.

It made me sad.

Creating within a format

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

Once upon a time, I was ambitious enough to teach a 3 part series on plated desserts to a group of enthusiastic amateur cooks. After all, it’s the heart of what I do, I should certainly be able to translate that into a class.

I believe I gave it a good go, discussing plating styles, trends, contrasts and compliments of texture and flavor, pastry chefs to know.  I taught the recipes as building blocks, breaking the recipes into 3 categories; main components; secondary components like sauces and compotes; and garnishes.  For the last hour of the last class, we laid everything out, and the students took plates constructed plated desserts from the building blocks we created.

During one lecture, we touched on the creative process by which a dish is brought to life.  Every dish has to have a starting point.  It can be a fruit in season, a particular flavor you want to work with.  But often, the dish is being worked within some kind of loose format.  There are many.  You can set your boundaries within classic dishes, a season, a holiday, a culture.   We focused on the format of nostalgia, discussing traditional desserts that have been turned into plated desserts in fancy restaurants.

The students each chose a dessert they craved as children, begged their grandma for, hoarded pocket change to purchase at the corner shop.  We discussed the rules of this dessert, physical and emotional, then broke each dessert down into little pieces.  Then with their new found knowledge of how to construct a plated dessert as if the components were lego’s, they build imaginary plated desserts from their favorite childhood treats.

The example I used to walk the students through the process was T.K’s coffee and donuts.  Today in the New York Times food section, this iconic dessert was used again as an example.  This time, however, the format it exemplified was that of turning breakfast into dessert, a trend seen on dessert menus of late.

Within this format, there is only one rule; you must create a dish that the diner will recognize in some manner as breakfast.  Depending on the cultural ties, this can vary.  At The Fat Duck, a dessert mimicked  a plate of full English, a breakfast of tomatoes, eggs, bacon, baked beans, and toast.  Using the locked format of breakfast, Heston was able to stretch elements in very creative directions, introducing the diner to bacon and egg ice cream.

Most desserts are either built to appear like a breakfast, with flavor and ingredients swapped, or build to look like familiar desserts, with ingredients most commonly found in breakfast.  An example given of the former, a toad-in-the-hole made with caramelized brioche, a ring of white pannacotta, and a spherical yellow mango center.  Where as the latter may be exemplified by a pannacotta infused with the flavor of a breakfast cereal, an oatmeal creme brulee, or one of my favorite textural components, caramelized rice crispies.

I believe that tightening your boundries often forces you to be more creative.  In order to keep the dish recognizable with in a format, you don’t have as many directions to take it.  You end up inverting in a way, finding the depth of the integral parts, focusing rather than expanding, pulling and pushing at the same time.

What part of your breakfast would you translate into a dessert?  And before you say “bacon” read the last part of the article calling bacon out as the skinny jean of the dessert world, super trendy, sexy when right, but oft ill applied.

VD

Saturday, February 14th, 2009

For 270 people, love will be on a Thali at Poppy tonight.

Last year I wrote quite frankly about some of the realities of St. Valenties Day, or VD as we refer to it in the industry.

Poppy is in a protective bubble of some sort right now. And by that I mean we are busy. Trust me, we know how lucky we are.

That said, we have been booked out for weeks. We have a set menu. Well, we always have a set menu. But tonight the set menu comes with a starter, and a dessert Thali for two.

You won’t find anything too cheeky coming from me tonight. I am serving a “hot date cake,” but then again, I always do. However it does seem more fitting today. I am also making a passion fruit sorbet, which will temporarily replace my current sorbet, chocolate tangerine. This was hard for me, as I am intensely attached to this chocolate tangerine sorbet. It tastes like a decadent tangerine perfumed fudgesicle, and each bite holds an intense amount of nostalgia for me.

Passion fruit sorbet was my compromise, however, as what was really desired of me was “love potion”.

I’m just not that girl.  Don’t even get me started on the whole chocolate sex orgasm thing.

Jokes in the kitchen have chruned out fake scenarios of me looking shocked when i find out that rohypnol isn’t an ingredient in love potion, and a line of edible underwear.  Banana flavored banana hammocks anyone? And of course, the I-really-love-your-peaches-wanna-eat-that-bra-right-off-of-you peach flavored bra.

I’ll spare you jokes of the VD chocolate and chile “it burns” variety.

The romance of this day has been bled out of us cooks with 14 hour days, struggling to find things in a walk in swollen with prep and product for the evening, the monotony of making 300 of one thing, and of course the tight feeling in your chest from the 6 hours of an insane serivce like this.

But this day isn’t about me. It’s about passion fruit sorbet, hot date cakes, hearts, and love.

And I always put love in my menu.

First Timer

Sunday, February 8th, 2009

I did something today that I have never done before. I made molten chocolate cake.

I don’t know that I ever really considered making a molten chocolate cake before. It’s not that I actively avoided it, sneered at it while calling it names like “cliche”, or “washed up” behind it’s back.  No, I harbor no resentment towards molten chocolate cake.  It just never entered my mind as an option.

In fact, I can’t really remember ever eating one. Which seems odd, because for a long while they were everywhere. And for a long while, I had an aching sweet tooth, which sat in the back of my mouth, next to an aching chocolate tooth. (Thanks to my daily intake of sugar, my sweet and chocolate tooths have been quieted and given way to a potato chip tooth, and a bacon tooth, but that’s a different story.)

But this dessert is sooo cliche, and sooo over it’s prime, that it’s not even everywhere anymore.

Despite all this, today I made molten chocolate cake. Actually, I made 9 of them, at the request of a very special birthday girl. And I have to say, I can see why these things were everywhere.

Warm, gooey chocolate inside warm soft dense cakey chocolate. What’s not to love. I even garnished it with raspberry coulis, in little tear drops, and a dollop of whipped cream. If I had it on hand, I would have done this dessert right by itself, propped a sprig of mint in the top, and dusted the entire thing with powdered sugar.

When I began looking into making this birthday wish come true, I consulted my research assistant, Google.  Google led me to the original recipe, from none other than Jean-George. This recipe turns out to be in the category of urban kitchen legend I call, “fortunate misfortunes.” In other words, a blunder that turned out to be better than the intention.

Legend tell us that Jean-George pulled the cake out of the oven too early. Upon unmolding it, and cutting into it, the unbaked center oozed chocolate goodness. And they all lived happily ever after.

That is to say, the American public and the molten chocolate cake have been in love ever since.

Like I said, I get it.  It’s pretty dang good. And not only is it good, it is not hard to make. Whip the eggs and sugar. Melt the chocolate and butter. Fold together. Fold in a little flour. Bake in ramekins for 10 minutes.  Unmold and voila! Since the batter can be preset in the ramekins and kept in the refrigerator until you want to bake them, they are a dream for service.

I believe it’s safe to say that the molten chocolate cake has joined the ranks of new American classic. Desserts, like the brownie sundae, that are well on their way to being classics, but without the tenure of strawberry shortcake, or creamsicles.

And of course, this dessert will start teasing me, making me wonder how I can make it mine. How can I translate it through my present state of experience, filter it through my personality, and what would come out the other end?

It may never see my menu, but then again, I doubt I’d have a hard time selling a modern twist on the new American classic, the molten chocolate cake.

Molten Chocolate Cake

1/2 cup unsalted butter
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate
2 eggs
2 egg yolks
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons all purpose flour
1/4 tsp kosher salt
extra flour and butter for coating 4 – 4 ounce ramekins

1.  Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

2.  Use your fingers to smear some of the extra butter inside the ramekins, coating the entire inside evenly. Put a spoonful of the extra flour in each ramekin, and shake it around until all the butter is coated in flour. Pour the extra flour back out of the ramekin, tapping it on the bottom lightly to make sure anything that isn’t stuck to the butter comes out.

3.Melt the butter and chocolate together. To do this, make a double boiler by setting a large mixing bowl over a medium pot of simmering water. Put the chocolate and butter in the bowl and let it melt slowly, stirring a few times to mix it together.

4.  When the chocolate and butter have melted together, turn the heat off the double boiler, and use pot holders to take the bowl of chocolate off the pot of water. Be careful of the steam from under the bowl, it could be very hot.

5.  Place the eggs, yolks, and sugar in the bowl of a mixer. Using the whisk attachment, whip the eggs on a medium to high speed. Continue mixing until the eggs become pastel yellow, thick, and glossy.

2. Pour the melted chocolate and butter into the bowl with the eggs, using a rubber spatula to scrape all the chocolate from the sides of the bowl. Turn the mixer on the lowest speed, and carefully mix the chocolate with the eggs, until it is even.

5.  Take the bowl away from the mixer, and add the flour and salt. Use a rubber spatula to carefully fold the flour into the chocolate, until it is very evenly mixed together.

6.  Divide the batter evenly between the four ramekins.

7.  Put the ramekins of chocolate batter on a baking sheet and bake them in the 450 degree oven for 8 to 10 minutes.  The outsides should start to set, but the center should feel soft when you press on it lightly.

8.  Let the cakes cool for about 1 to2 minutes, to cool just a touch.  Using a dry dish towl, hold the hot ramekin with one hand, and carefully turn the cake out into your other hand. Quickly set the hot ramekin down, and use both hands to gently place the tender cake onto a plate.

9.  Serve immediately, with raspberry sauce and whipped cream.

Raspberry Sauce

2 cups frozen raspberries
1/2 cup sugar
the zest of 1 lemon

1.  Put the frozen raspberries in a bowl. Sprinkle the top with the sugar, and grate the lemon zest over the top of the sugar.

2.  Toss the berries with the lemon zest and sugar until they are evenly coated.

3.  Put the berries in a small sauce pan, and put it over low heat. Cook the berries for about 5 minutes, until the berries release all of their juices.  You will notice the sauce start to bubble and thicken a bit.

4.  Take the pot away from the heat, and carefully transfer the berries and juices from the pot to the cup of a blender.  Put the lid on the blender tightly.  Turn the blender on the lowest speed first, just to get the berries moving around a little, then turn it up to a medium speed to puree the berries into a smooth sauce.  If you turn the blender on a high speed right away, the hot berries might splash out of the blender!

5.  Pour the raspberry sauce into a strainer set over a bowl to remove the seeds.  Let the sauce cool in the refrigerator.

6.  You can make this sauce up to 3 days ahead of time.

Siem Reap Asian Cuisine, Long Beach, California

Friday, February 6th, 2009

I’m in Long Beach for the week. The spot I’m stuck in is a concrete jungle of hotels, convention spots, chain restaurants, and bad local restaurants that are more focused on selling alcohol than making good food. I did some basic research to see what we might find on our one off night in terms of decent local fare. I read somewhere that there was a significant local Cambodian community that had their own little Cambodia neighborhood with lots of restaurants. FWIW Yelp felt that Siem Reap Asian Cuisine was the best of the bunch so off we went.

If you’re opening a restaurant featuring cuisine from Cambodia, the Philippines, Laos, or even Vietnam, it’s semi-common practice to claim to also offer Chinese or Thai food. Ethnic entrepreneurs worry that the local American population won’t come unless there’s something they recognize. Fair or not, I usually won’t go to Vietnamese restaurants that offer Chinese food. I figure, they’re kind of all over the place and their food will be too.

I am no expert on Cambodian food, despite (or maybe because of) spending a week there a couple of years ago. The country was beautiful. And finding a driver that would take me to non-tourist food establishments was difficult. In some of the poorest neighborhoods the main feature of each restaurant appeared to be the TV. Diners would sit at long tables, all on one side facing the TV so they could watch while they ate. The restaurants I finally got to eat at all shared beef as a central ingredient. It’s typically paired with some cool crunchy vegetables, and some citrus accent. This is a vast over-simplification but it’s an oft-present signature.

Siem Reap Asian Cuisine is a fine example of Cambodian cuisine. I’m a big fan of meat on sticks, and Cambodians don’t disappoint. One of my favorite Cambodian dishes, Beef Lok Lac, was probably the best of the meal from my perspective. The small pieces of beef were coated in a caramel-like glaze, all savory with hints of molasses. Pairing them with cabbage and cucumber as well as the sauce of lime juice and an enormous amount of pepper was absolutely delicious. Some of the other steak items didn’t have as much flavor on their own but my sense is that you’re expected to coat them in the various sauces you’re offered. Another highlight was a small bowl of curried ground pork meatballs. For folks used to eating some of the bigger players on the American Asian cuisine scene (Chinese, Japanese Thai) having these interesting new flavors are a nice change of pace.

Needless to say, we had a lovely meal. And the family that runs Siem Reap Asian Cuisine were kind and generous hosts. They called us a cab and it took quite awhile. We were afraid we were keeping them late but they made it clear that they wanted us to wait inside until the cab came. The said it was too dangerous to wait outside. We thought they were kidding. I’m pretty sure now they weren’t. In my quest for good Cambodian food it appears I’d led our little party into a bad part of town. Oops. I suppose that’s the cost of trying to get a decent meal in Long Beach.

Who’s table is it anyway? What should restaurants do with customers that won’t leave?

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

I recently was in the fortunate position to be able to compare and contrast two similar difficult situations that were handled differently. It’s rare in life that you get to consider a situation and your response to it after witnessing it handled in two different ways and seeing the results. The situation is as follows. Most of the time, when I go out to eat, I make a reservation. I take reservations very seriously. I show up on time. And on the rare occasion that I need to cancel a reservation or will be more than a couple of minutes late, I call the restaurant to let them know. For me, the reservation is sacred. A restaurant is granting you a spot in their precious schedule (typically you don’t need a reservation if their schedule isn’t all that full) with no commitment on your part. You can even blow them off with no consequences to you (and many do). But such is the business and I try to hold up my end of the bargain. (Yes I know there are some restaurants that demand credit cards and issue cancellation fees, but they are few and far between.) As the owner of my own small business, I understand how scarce time and resources can be, and I don’t want to waste theirs.

And when I arrive at the restaurant, I understand that I may not be seated exactly at the time of my reservation. I understand that the flipside of taking reservations on the honor system is that shit happens, and things run late sometimes, and that the restaurant tries to leave time between everyone so tables become available at the right time, but that’s not always possible.

This is very different than my conception of the reservation with airlines and doctors. In those cases I’ve typically already given my money which they will keep whether I show up or not. Why there is no government investigation into how an airline can sell you a seat on a plane and then tell you it’s full is a crime against humanity. I especially love the airlines use of the “overbooked” euphemism as if it somehow absolves them of responsibility. “The flight was overbooked.” Who the hell overbooked it? OK. Sorry. Moving on.

A couple of weeks ago I went to dinner at a restaurant that is fast becoming a favorite of mine in Seattle. The restaurant is Tilth. It’s a small place set in a little cute house with not too many tables over a dozen. I booked weeks in advance an 8:30 reservation for six of us to have a celebratory dinner. We showed up at 8:30 on the nose. Our table wasn’t ready. Within a few minutes, the friendly host came by and assured us it wouldn’t only be a few minutes as the folks at our table had just gotten their check. He was wrong. It took an hour. I have to admit that setting our expectations poorly didn’t help matters. It’s the opposite of the Disney trick where they tell you a line is longer than it is so you feel good at the end of the line about how quickly it went. Now… throughout our hour of annoyance, the host came out and apologized profusely several times. He offered us some snacks in the waiting area. He did the best he could, but nothing could move these chatty people out of their seats. Our icy glares at their backs seem to have little to no effect either.

Finally, out of frustration, I at one point asked the host if he would just tell them that there was another party waiting for their table. He politely told me he understood, but that there was simply no way he was ever going to ask them to leave. I told him I understood, though it did little to alleviate my frustration. And I did understand. The dining experience is a escape. It’s a place where you show up, you ask for food, and then it magically shows up. Perfect. Someone made it for you. Just for you. And they’ll keep bringing you food, and drinks, and waiting on you, even taking away your trash and cleaning everything for as long as you sit there. There’s no timer. There’s nothing taxing your experience. No pressure. Just ease, and comfort, and relaxation. Easy. And so I understand why the host wouldn’t corrupt this experience for these diners. Odds are, they’d never be back. It would basically ruin their evening. All other thoughts and impressions of the meal would be forgotten, replaced by the shock and anger as a result of the invasion of their peaceful night out. A friend of mine who’s parents ran a restaurant for many years would stay until the wee hours of the morning if just one party was still enjoying their conversation. The would never ever say anything.

But. I still wanted him to ask them to leave. Because I genuinely think they’re contributing to the breakdown of society. Just kidding — sort of. ;)

Just as with the reservation, when you go out to dinner, you are in an unspoken contract with the establishment. Even the most casual observer knows that if they eat at an early sitting, the restaurant is going to try and put another party at your table later on in the evening. And while paying your check is appreciated, it doesn’t mean you own the table for the entire evening. (At least in the U.S. it doesn’t. France is another matter.) But Americans think they own things once they buy them. In the same way that many diners think of restaurant kitchens as room service kitchens (can’t they make me whatever I like) they think they own the table for the whole night. And I understand wanting that experience. But I also understand being respectful of the restaurant as a business that has other customers. I found these diners behavior particularly objectionable because they sat there for almost an hour after they paid their check and could have easily noticed that there were tons of people still waiting to get in. They didn’t seem to care.

Eventually another party left and we got seated. The restaurant also I think bought us a round of something.

Recently I was in New York eating at Joe Doe. There were just two of us dining and we had an 8:30 reservation. (hmmm… maybe 8:30 is just a bad time for dinner.) We got there, sat at the bar, and were told that our table would be available shortly as the party using it had just gotten their check. Eerily familiar. But it wasn’t exactly the same. The two main differences were that Joe Doe had a bar and Tilth didn’t. Also, Joe Doe had a four top available, and Tilth was completely packed. Joe Doe was trying to hold the four top for a party of four so they didn’t want to put us there. It’s possible the two guys at the table either thought we were not waiting since we were sitting at the bar, or thought there were other tables available as there were. For some reason, I wasn’t as annoyed with them as I was with the party at Tilth. Then again, it was only half an hour that we waited.

Did they finally decide to leave? Nope. The waiter went over and informed them that someone was waiting for the table and they needed to get things going. I didn’t hear what he said, but he was incredibly diplomatic to me all night when I got in trouble for taking pictures so I would imagine he said it as politely and compassionately as possible. I wouldn’t be surprised if he offered to move them to the bar (an option not available to the host at Tilth). The gentlemen got up. And one of them was standing right next to us and said to the server “why didn’t you tell us that people were waiting for our table?” Filled with the wisdom of the host at Tilth, and my more lenient perspective since I guessed he wouldn’t realize there was anyone waiting for his table, and since he was referring to us, I said, “cause that would be rude”. Only problem was, that’s not what he said. My dining companion and I misheard him. In fact, what he said was: “Why did you tell us that people were waiting for our table.” He was pissed about it. And when I added my “helpful” commentary he thought I was castigating him. And then he told me I was rude. The server intervened so that things didn’t come to fisticuffs and we quickly realized that something was wrong and I shut the hell up. After the angry diners left, I profusely apologized to the server and explained my confusion. He was apologetic, but had no sympathy for the party that was overstaying their welcome. As he pointed out… 90 minutes should be enough for dinner. Two hours is just overstaying your welcome.

And while they weren’t perfectly identical situations, they were pretty close. Sure enough, the diners at Joe Doe had the reaction that the Tilth host was trying to avoid. And while I think the Tilth host would have been positively crushed by creating such a situation, the Joe Doe folks seemed to have a more resigned attitude. Why the difference in attitude and action? The easy explanation is Seattle vs. New York. The restaurant culture and the restaurant diner in New York city is simply more evolved. People who go out to eat at a restaurant like Joe Doe understand how things work, or at least they should/ And Joe Doe may get enough business that they can be picky about their customers. After all, in any service business, knowing when to fire a customer as almost as important as knowing how to get someone to be your customer in the first place.

Who did the right thing? I don’t know. If Tilth had a bar, I think it would have been ok to ask the party to move to the bar. Maybe offer them a free round of drinks or bottle of wine or something. I would guess that even if Tilth had a bar, they wouldn’t be willing to do that. I don’t blame them for this. I get it. But it still made me crazy. I wanted them to fire those customers if necessary. Then again, the server at Joe Doe said basically that to the folks at our table and they got pissed. I probably didn’t help with my confused interjection, but the guy was already pissed off before I opened my mouth. I just made him more annoyed.

I guess in my fantasy world, diners know how a restaurant works. And are respectful of the establishment that provides such a welcome escape. Several times we’ve been to Nishino, and they’ve been willing to fit us in at the last minute if we wouldn’t mind freeing up our table in time for the next party in time for their reservation. It wasn’t an unreasonable request on their prt, and we were only happy to oblige given how nice the were to squeeze us in on a busy night. And in my fantasy world, since diners are always cool, and good restaurants are always full, people who don’t play nice can be booted with little to no consequence because society will judge them harshly, and the restaurant won’t feel any ill effects.

Of course, that’s my fantasy world. And as such, not super helpful.

What do you think the right thing is?