Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

You guys who write daily are out of your minds. I have no clue how you find the time, much less the inspiration. Even once or twice a week is challenging.

Christmas has come and gone in a flash. Both of our parents are split up and both families see extended family on the holidays - so between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day it can be a little hectic. Last year we drove about 320 miles and visited six homes in about 24 hours. We omitted a few stops this year and it was much easier to handle. Today I have a second interview about a possible pastry position for a restaurant that is to open in a few weeks. Its exciting thinking about getting back into it. I have been spending most of my free time the past few days trying to clean up and organize my recipes. A few years ago I took the time to digitize everything - and needless to say I haven't kept up with it. I have been sifting through a few years worth of notes, jots, tests, experiments and ideas. Its fun to revisit things, to see how I have matured, how ideas have progressed - the evolution of my creative process. 

Dominic, lets chat about your most recent post. The first paragraph, specifically;

"On Monday we had a group in for a 5 course tasting menu and wine pairings. They confirmed the number several days prior to be 9 regular people and one vegetarian. At 5:00, about an hour before the event they confirmed the number to be 8 regular people, no vegetarian. 11 people showed up. I have no idea where the vegetarian is, likely too ill to attend."

This is a difficult one. I think that there is a certain mysterious nature to our industry, and for people who have never worked in it, there are a lot of unknown things. I have seen and experienced this  scenario a few times - and if you are in a restaurant that does not have a regular tasting menu, it can be a real drain. 

I've had people ask me, 'How do you bake bread so fast so that each table gets a fresh loaf?' The answer is - once you have made something 50,000 times - you learn how to shave some time off the process.  All joking aside - you don't bake bread to order. You bake it in the morning, or in some cases the day before, and then reheat it before it goes to a table. This basic idea applies to most things served in a restaurant. Typically you prep whatever you can in advanced and hold it for however long you can without compromising its quality, and then reheat or finish it to order. 

For example - most places aren't making their red sauce every day. A cook will think, 'This recipe will yield enough for me to get through the weekend and it will hold fine for 3 days.' Then when your spaghetti is fired, your pasta (fresh or already blanched) is dropped in (already simmering) water, your sauce is put in a fry pan and in a few minutes they are married and sent out to your table.  

The whole point I am trying to make is that as a guest, you may think things like, 'Whats the big deal if a couple extra people show up for the tasting menu' or 'Its okay if we cancel last minute, at least we're letting them know and now they don't have to cook for us!' - But the reality is if you have made a reservation for a tasting menu, and the restaurant isn't lazy (just plating tasting portions of menu items) - its fairly likely special ingredients have been ordered specifically for you and your guests, and that one or more chefs or cooks have dedicated time to prep (in advanced) your entire menu. Adding a guest or two isn't a huge deal because often chefs over prepare a bit for many reasons - this being one of them. But I think its still kind of inconsiderate. Would you show up to a dinner party with a few extra people in tow, unannounced? Would you wait until 30 minutes before dinner is served to tell your Mother you and your guests aren't coming? So why act this way towards a restaurant? 

A solution? 

Well, selling tickets is something that has been gaining a lot of popularity. Nick Kokonas and Grant Achatz started it in 2011 with their restaurant Next. The basic idea is similar to buying tickets for a show...you see a calendar, with available seats and times. A two top at 7. A 4 top at 10. You can add your beverage pairing. Buy your ticket and then its confirmed. You have paid for your meal and reservation in advanced, now its all on you to show up. 

I know this is geared towards higher end places, places that do not accept walk-ins, and could conceivably lose hundreds of dollars per guest who does not show (there is, however, evidence that the system, or a variation on it can be applied to casual, a la carte restaurants). It can be a serious financial drain for these restaurants - so this solution seems to work fairly well. Kokonas has developed a system,  Tock, which is currently in a pilot phase and is scheduled to go live sometime next year. I know of 11 restaurants who are currently using the system, and several more are scheduled to sign on. You can see on Tock's web site that it is catching on... Fish & Game - in Hudson, NY - is switching over. 

I don't expect to see this in Albany any time soon. And thats okay. My only experience with a ticketing system was for Next's debut menu - Paris 1906 - which at the time was maybe the most sought after reservation in the country. Needless to say it required a lot of time hitting refresh on a crashing website. I did, however, secure a pair of tickets. 

Another solution? One thing I saw, often enough to think it was common practice, was the requirement for a credit card to hold your reservation and a cancelation policy..which generally read something like 'if you cancel with less than 24 hours notice you are subject to a fee of $X.XX' . I always thought this was totally reasonable - and I know the system is in place with sites like opentable - which seems like it is finally starting to catch on in this area. 

Anyway...Im glad that your guests actually showed and you weren't damaged financially or emotionally (Its fun doing tastings! It sucks when they get taken away!).

Now on to Daniel. In regards to your '3 Reasons Not To Trust Dunkin Donuts' post. I've got to say I love whenever anyone smears Dunkin Donuts. Its not a 'go to the little guys' thing for me - which generally I support and encourage - its just a deep rooted hatred for that steaming heap. (In my youth I had fun coming up with nicknames for shitty chains - Dunkin Donuts is known to me as Funkin Blonuts - though my personal favorite is Yak in the Box). Anyway - all I want to say about this post is of course you shouldn't trust Dunkin Donuts. Of course its shit. I think - or hope - that most people recognize it for what it is. And its popularity is due mostly to its convenience. I can name probably a dozen intersections or stretches of roads where you don't need to turn left - going in either direction - to get your sugar and/or caffeine fix from Dunkin Donuts. Not turning left carries a LOT of weight for me whenever I am driving. 

Another post I would like to call attention to is, 'Small, Cheap, & Unique.' Its no secret that in the past, I have had a lot of resentment for this area - its something that I think a lot of people who grow up around here harbor. It gets worse the older you get and the more well travelled you are. Now, with that being said, this past year J & I have taken some action to leave. The trip we went on, that I keep not talking about, was specifically to find someplace new to call home. Somewhere that does have the things we love and look for. Over the summer we did a lot of soul searching, and tried to make the most of what we have available to us here. What did I learn? That its not so bad here. The first time it hit me like a hammer was wandering through the old growth forest at Lisha Kill Nature Preserve. I had rode my bicycle past this area probably hundreds of times and never noticed it. It was all a matter of opening my eyes and letting my guard down. Heres this place, that is really quite spectacular, and one of many - that is literally just a few minutes from my house. And in 28 years I had never noticed it. 

So for the remainder of my time in this area, which is probably going to be one year, I am going to try and be more open to things. I will seek things out, I will give things a chance, and while I will certainly be critical - I will also be fair. I think I will start with your list.

A choppy video from Lisha Kill

Now - I never got the chance to visit Shwe Mandalay, and I am a little bummed about that. My cousin turned me onto Burmese food in the summer of 2009. She was visiting from San Francisco and brought a fermented tea leaf salad (or more accurately, the ingredients for one) for me to try. A few weeks later I was in San Francisco with her and in a week we ate at no less than half a dozen Burmese restaurants. Yamo and Burma Superstar have since been regular stops for me any time I am in San Francisco. I'm sad that they have closed, and even more so that I didn't get a chance to stop in.

As for the rest of your list - I have actually been to every place except Persian Bite, and frankly my feelings on all of them are not the same as yours. But I am going to give every single one another chance. More than anything, I want to support these small business owners who have taken the risk to do something they love - something I am way too big of a coward to do myself. But I believe that any kitchen can have an off day - I've experienced them at Michelin Starred restaurants (maybe I'll write about Tru someday) - and everywhere deserves at the very least a second chance. I appreciate that you took the time to recommend specific things - which I will also consider when I visit. From here out - whenever I go to one of these places I will write about it and be sure to let you know what I think. Thank you for what you do to support people and places like those on your list. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Well you certainly are a talkative bunch

Rather than individually respond to comments and posts on here and a few other places, I figured I would just do a continuation of my last post (I also ended that one kind of abruptly, so I would like to fix that!).

Daniel, I am going to take your approach here, so thanks for the format.

Great post - le sigh, that creme brulee! I've seen that, too, or at least similar situations. It breaks my heart when I go to write about a place that everyone raves about, only to see it's a bunch of pre-processed factory shit that "chefs" are essentially boiling in a bag and charging a ridiculous amount for. A lot of the problem (at least from where I stand, I can't speak from a chef's position) seems to be owners trying to cut corners to boost profits. It's greedy, it's self-serving, and it's just simply wrong. I wish customers weren't so complacent and willing to ask all the Portlandia-style questions.

Very much enjoyed this piece, looking forward to reading more.

Deanna - I think that most people, regardless of their knowledge of food or its importance in their life - would be off put if they knew frequency in which convenience products are used. This isn't exactly the same thing but I think it will make the point. I remember once upon a time on Table Hopping someone complaining about how they found out a local bakery was freezing their cakes and how they were appalled by this. And then there was this never ending comment section with people going on and on about how they couldn't believe it and that they can always tell the difference between cakes that have been frozen and ones that have not. But the reality is - I would venture a guess that 95% of every cake anyone has ever had that wasn't made in their or someone else's home.. has spent at least some part of its life in a freezer. Yet these people went their whole lives being totally fine with these cakes... only hating them once they knew they were in a freezer. Whenever I hear someone say they hate when a place uses a freezer I think of a mentor of mine telling me about working at Payard's in New York City...and their holiday production and how from the week before Thanksgiving to New Years they would sell something like 30,000 cakes. People would order these cakes from around the world. Francois Payard is/was considered one of the best Pastry Chefs in the world. Do you think they used freezers? You bet they did! Were the cakes compromised in any way? Nope!

Now.. I will go right out front and say convenience products are a necessary evil to some degree - but the downright reliance on them I have seen in many kitchens in this area...is shocking. I wouldn't place all the blame on money hungry management/owners, but they certainly are a factor. The most obvious reason chefs use them is because they are convenient...You can be as idealistic as anyone else but when it comes down to it - unless everyone (especially management/owners) is on board - you just might not have enough time or labor hours to get everything done. The thing I keep going back to is hiring a Pastry Chef (Shocker here - I am a Pastry Chef). To the best of my knowledge, desserts are typically ordered by around 30% of your guests (obviously numbers fluctuate based on a million things - so this is just a general, average number). Your revenue needs to be pretty high to justify paying a 40-50k salary for a position that doesn't necessarily bring in a ton of cash. Its made even more complicated by the fact that - frankly you can get 'passable' desserts from any of the major food suppliers, and ordering your entire dessert menu and bread program from Sysco is a lot cheaper and less of a gamble. In many cases it makes more sense to hire another great sous chef (who will work on the menu that 100% of your guests will order from) and then have some of your cooks prep some easy desserts in their down time, and fill in the rest with prefabricated stuff you get from your supplier. I have seen this exact scenario - both with and without pastry chefs - in several kitchens in this area. This includes many of the 'high end' or 'nicer' restaurants. 

I also want to tell a quick story about a chef I used to work for - even though I am more than capable of making a cake - he would only let me serve boxed yellow cake in his restaurant. For birthdays, weddings, any special occasion. His reasoning wasn't 'Greg, you suck at making cakes' or 'Greg, you don’t have time to make these cakes' or 'We don’t have the labor $ to have you make these cakes' - it was that people were generally raised on boxed yellow cakes - and because of that they prefer it over anything else. Was he right? Im not sure. I don’t agree with it - but I don’t necessarily disagree with his logic.

Yes. It's hard to get people to break out of their comfort zones. Especially in the Capital Region. 

But I'm encouraged by the success of places like Ala Shanghai. Still, it amazes me how many food lovers have never even heard of the place despite all of its accolades in the regional food blogs and traditional media. Tara Kitchen is another place I would not have suspected to take off as much as it has. And when I heard that Vic & Heather were opening up a wine bar in Troy, I thought they were nuts. Boy, was I wrong.

There is a hunger for better things done right. But people are so starved for innovation they are also willing to applaud mediocre things just for their novelty. 

I'm glad to have you back on the scene holding up those places that are doing things well and calling to task those who under deliver.

Daniel, Im glad that we agree that people around here are reluctant to break out of their comfort zones. I am fascinated by our different takes on things though. We both have lived in bigger cities - ones with Micheline guides and established food scenes. I know I can be emotional with my opinions and I have trouble looking at things differently sometimes. I was at Ala Shanghai the week they opened. I live in Latham - have spent the better part of the past decade essentially living with a Taiwanese family (who were Chefs in Taiwan) and would somewhat regularly make treks to Flushing for good soup dumplings. Off the bat, Ala Shanghai was a disappointment. They were serving more traditional fare but…I still didn’t think it was well done. I noticed some other things that rubbed me the wrong way too - how dramatically different the quality of food and service was when I was with the family I spoke of earlier, who would order in Mandarin, from the Chinese language menu verses when I would order the same food in English, by myself. Over the next year or so they did improve. From my understanding this was from the Chinese American community complaining to them about making their food too….’gringo’. Now…there are a few things that I feel are worth ordering - but for the most part I think the place is still kind of a bust. I always felt that it stuck out because they were doing something ‘new’ for this area and people were excited by that (or as you put it…people applauding it for its novelty) . Tara kitchen I haven’t gotten to yet - but I have been wanting to for a while. 

Its interesting that you mention Vic & Heather. Only a few hours before you posted this comment I met the two of them for the first time, and it was somewhat energizing talking with them. Vic kept saying that this area is ‘Hungry for culture’ and all you have to do is give it to them. Listening to him talk about his experience with the wine bar, and how in two years he hasn’t had a single bad night or felt down about it….its good to hear that. I think they do stand out because they are bringing an aesthetic and quality to the area that was….for the most part, lacking before. I spent a while talking to Nick and Matt, who are running the kitchen at Peck’s Arcade and it was neat hearing them express the same frustrations and thoughts about this area and food - but they were excited…talking about how they’re going to cook the food they want to eat and have fun with it …and its being well received. Look at the pop up they did. If you told me you were going to have a ramen pop up for two (non consecutive) days - and you would see nearly a thousand people walk through the doors - I would tell you that you are crazy and there is no demand for it. But guess what? I would be wrong. They were successful - doing what they want. So…its exciting - and Im interested to see how the restaurant is received. 

In response to Daniels post on FLB;

You are right in that the general feel of (lets say, one star) Michelin Restaurants is shifting. You do see less formal, more affordable restaurants with stars now…and yes, they can be affordable. While I think that you will spend more money at a starred restaurant stands true as a general rule of thumb - it is not always the case. But I think that the point I was trying to make - and I guess I wasn’t totally successful at - was that the cost of running the restaurant is prohibitive for our population size in addition to the amount of disposable income people are willing to drop on a meal. I feel that in the Capital District you may have a certain number of people willing to dine at Yono’s, 677, and Sperry’s regularly but the overhead doesn’t equal out. Theres the obvious - spending more money on labor, employing more-highly talented people, buying higher end ingredients….but there are other things to consider. Think….service pieces. Sperry’s buys their china at The Christmas Tree Shop (or at least they did when I worked there). I can’t speak for Spotted Pig but the starred restaurants I staged and worked at all had their china made specifically for them - or ordered from companies like Villeroy & Boch. These service pieces on average cost ten times what china from Christmas Tree Shop costs - and they break just as often (there is some possibility of a warranty, but I usually associate that with cheaper, durable china rather than fine pieces). I think what I am trying to say is in starred restaurants every detail requires attention and thought and (typically) money - and this helps to elevate the experience across the board. Now while a restaurant with similar price points may survive around here - Im not sure that a place would float with similar numbers…meaning a starred restaurant with similar prices would have to turn more tables than, say, 677 in order to stay afloat…and large cities have enough people to make that model work. Small cities like Albany…Im not sure. 

I also want to be clear - as I saw it in some comments…I don’t expect Michelin to ever release a guide for Upstate New York - I am merely using Michelin as a point of reference for a level of quality. 

Ultimately I just don’t see the same culture in the restaurant scene around here as I did in starred/fine dining kitchens in Chicago. The entire mentality, mood and overall discipline is just absent. A comment from your post on FLB sums up what I mean pretty well…and I will leave it at that.

December 22, 2014 3:51 pm
I worked for years as a line cook and sous chef at a number of Manhattan restaurants, mostly in New York Times two- and three-star kitchens, and including one that’s held a Michelin star for five years now. I moved to Albany two years ago to go back to school, but continued cooking to pay the bills, so I’ve spent time in the kitchens of some of the real darlings of the Capital Region restaurant scene, either as an employee or a one-day interview/”stage”. I was and remain appalled by what I’ve seen. I haven’t seen one kitchen, either as a cook or as a diner that approaches the level of skill, attention, discipline, and organization required to cook at that level. I’ve worked with cooks in Albany who can’t even be bothered to clean up a spill in the walk-in, let alone get an acceptable sear on an order of scallops, or to sharpen their knives – that is, if they even own and take care of their own. These are highly-regarded restaurants, too. The disingenuous owners aren’t any better, passing off Sysco-purveyed cut-rate institutional products and bulk frozen goods as “artisanal” or “local” in their menu descriptions (just pay attention to the delivery trucks rolling behind your favorite local gastropub). No one cares, at all – this is the norm around here. Perhaps, as Mr. Colose suggests, it is because the customers expect so little, beyond quantity over quality and a hefty doggie bag to go home with.
I have nothing personal against the restaurant business in Albany, and I really wish it wasn’t as disappointing as it is, especially now that I’m retired as a cook and would like to enjoy a meal as a customer from time to time.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Return Home & Creating A Dialogue

107 days. 18,511 miles. 32 states. 

J & I returned to Albany this past Thursday. Its not easy summarizing a trip of this magnitude. While this wasn’t the first time I have spent an extended period of time on the road (it was her first time though) - I still found myself in awe of things nearly everywhere.  It never ceases to amaze me how overwhelmingly enormous this country is (we easily could have been out for twice as long and still not seen everything we wanted to), as well as how deeply moving it can be. I try to resist using the phrase ‘life changing’ - but when you’re sitting at the summit of Angels Landing gazing down into Zion Canyon or watching tens of thousands of Monarch Butterflies migrating down the Pacific Coast - how can I not?

The whole purpose of our trip was to explore new places and hopefully find somewhere new to call home. We moved at such a fast pace - averaging 173 miles a day - we became accustomed to constant change. Transitioning from one place to another, meeting new people, seeing new things - became part of our daily routine. Now things seem to have come to a screeching halt.

I have always felt that the most difficult thing about traveling is the return home. Acclimating back to your normal - every day life can be…jarring, to say the least. For us, it is compounded by the fact that we dropped everything to go on this trip - and consequently don’t have normal, every day lives to return to. In the days since our return we have both been wandering somewhat aimlessly - not sure of what to do with ourselves. There are obvious things, seeing friends and family, finding new employment, etc.. but apart from these - everything seems so bizarre and stagnant. Like an episode of the Twilight Zone or Invasion of the Body Snatchers. We are home - but it certainly doesn’t feel like it.

We lucked out with the itinerary we chose. Leaving in late summer and heading west over the northern part of the country, while returning east through the south kept us in fairly good weather for the duration. It seemed as though we experienced Fall for the entire trip - seeing transitioning foliage in nearly every part of the country.

First snow in Glacier National Park

The first snowfall we experienced on the trip was in early October - while in the high peaks of Glacier National Park.  The second was the nor’easter that dumped up to a foot and a half of snow in the greater Capital Region last week. Only 3 weeks ago we were sleeping without cover in the Arizona desert. 
Like my Ghosts of Meals Past.. uh…series(?) - I will likely talk in great detail about every part of this trip over the next year or so. Just use it as fuel for more, regular updates. I have also decided that I would like to use this blog as a way to create dialogue between myself and some other local bloggers. I hope that apart from the obvious - this may be a good way to encourage some other people to keep writing too.

This brings me to the blog, 'chefsday' - penned by Dominic Colose - who is currently the Chef at The Wine Bar of Saratoga - one of my favorites for wine because of their option for tasting pours - (are there enough links for you in that sentence?) Now - while I have never actually met Dominic in person - he and I have been familiar through things like…Facebook and both working in restaurants in Saratoga Springs, NY. Now this may seem silly to mention but…well ..if you have worked in restaurants in Saratoga Springs, NY you would understand that we are all kindred spirits.  I like Dominic’s blog because it is what it is. A chef venting. I find myself reading and nodding along because it is all stuff that I agree with or can relate to - and its fairly unfiltered. I especially like his snippets or random thoughts. I often find myself with the overwhelming urge to share something that doesn’t seem relevant to anything - and this is a good way to do it. Sometimes you want to say ‘This town is fucked because chefs are garnishing with rosemary sprigs’ and leave it at that. I've always thought Dominic seemed to have a good approach - his food seems honest, and actually seasonal (don’t get me started on how every chef in upstate cooks ‘seasonally’ ) - but now I feel like I understand him better and can relate to him about a lot of things.

In early November, Dominic wrote an entry about the plausibility of a restaurant in the Capital Region being capable of receiving a Michelin Star. This question haunted me in some ways. When I moved to Chicago for school - and you can see some evidence of this from the early days of this blog - I took out extra money so I could eat at as many restaurants as possible. Michelin had just released their first Chicago guide a few months before I moved - so I used it as it was intended. I ate at nearly every starred restaurant in the city and I thought of it as just another part of my course work. Seeing and experiencing food that I would otherwise not have access to. What I didn’t realize the effect it would have on me and my opinions of my home.

My school also had a major effect on my perception of the industry and what excellence truly is. It was very small (72 students in the entire school) that was modeled after the master apprentice style of learning. The program was short (six months) but very intense - and allowed me to learn intimately  from some of the best and most accomplished Pastry Chefs in the world (Ever hear of the documentary, The Kings of Pastry? Several of my mentors/instructors were featured in this film) - were talking about World Baking and Pastry Champions, Master Pastry Chefs, MOF’s, etc.. The school also strongly encouraged students to stage as much as possible while we were there - and provided us with means to do so. I remember being in awe receiving our stage and employment contact list on our first day and seeing personal phone numbers and e-mail addresses for chefs at places like Noma, Alinea, and The French Laundry. What I am getting at is my time in Chicago allowed me to learn from starred chefs, eat in starred restaurants, and work/stage in starred kitchens. I am - by no means - an expert on anything, but I feel like I do have at least some idea of what is required. And from what I have seen and experienced in this area - nobody - and I mean nobody is even remotely close to it.

Why? I have a few ideas. Dominic mentions that young cooks often don’t put in the requisite number of years working for great chefs and break out too soon to run their own kitchens. I agree with this 100% - but I think its a bit more complicated. Are you implying that there is a pool of ‘great’ chefs with years of experience to teach in this area? Im on the fence about that - I know there are talented chefs around here, and lots of chefs with lifetimes of experience - but we are talking Michelin Star quality. Im not sure there is anyone in this area who is at that level.  I completely acknowledge that I could be wrong here - there are a million reasons why our food scene is what it is - that are completely out of a chefs control - like… is there any demand for it? Lets say you dropped a starred restaurant in Albany. Not a destination restaurant like EMP or Alinea or whatever, but just your average one starred restaurant.  Would our customers care enough to go through the motions? To spend the money? To eat there regularly? Or would they be happy with the status quo - and continue to eat at their regular places that have been doing the same thing for as long as they can remember? I cant help but think back to one of my first jobs in this area - working a pastry station at a large party. My only responsibility was to fire creme brûlée  all night and schmooze with the customers a little. Now the 'creme brûlée' that we were serving were made from a convenience product called Zurimix. It is a powder that you add to a liquid (milk, in this case), bring to a boil, and pour into a vessel. This is not creme brûlée. What it is, is bullshit, disgusting, and I was embarrassed to be seen serving it to people. (I do want to reiterate that I was not in charge by any means, just a green, starry eyed culinary student doing what he was told).  Anyway, about halfway through the night a middle aged gentleman came up to me and with a completely straight face said to me, 'This is hands down, the best creme brûlée I have ever had - and I have had many!' The point of this story is that...I genuinely believe that people are happy with what they have around here. That they have been raised on mediocrity and genuinely prefer it over something exceptional. I do believe that was the best creme brûlée he ever had. And that breaks my heart.

My limited experience tells me that people are EXTREMELY resistant to changes - to new things - to anything exciting. I have seen many chefs and experienced first hand trying to do something different or exciting and being shot down so quickly by other chefs, management, customers,  - that it puts a major strain on trying to elevate what you do. So maybe there are Michelin level chefs here who are just shit on repeatedly, forced to do things like use Zurimix, and can’t find the forum to do what they’re actually meant to do.

Then there is the question of wether or not it is financially viable or even possible. Is there enough wealth in this area to support it? In addition to a higher overhead because of the venue, supplies, ingredients, etc, a starred restaurant requires a lot of highly specialized people. Virtually every position in the restaurant needs to be filled by someone who specializes in what they do and have has a lot of experience doing it. Most restaurants in this area can’t even afford to hire a Pastry Chef (something I am all too familiar with).

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Quick update

So I just wanted to touch base here and say that I have quickly realized how difficult it is to update this thing from the road. We have been out 70 days so far and look to be about half way through now. We've completed the northern half of the United States and are currently in San Francisco. I won't be trying to update regularly until we are done with the trip - but we've been keeping journals / notes and have been taking an enormous amount of photographs. If you would like to see or track our progress along the way, the best way is to follow me on Instagram. You can find me on there with the username flappysmacks . Adios !

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Trippy Stuff & Ghosts of Meals Past Vol 2 - Fish & Game, Zak Pelaccio

For the past few days, I have been doing an endless amount of research for the upcoming trip.  In the past,  my traveling has been much more intuitive - but this time there is a goal for the trip: Find a new home. And I have a companion with me this time, who I have to consider at all times. So while typically I would just get in my car and go wherever I feel like, this time I have an itinerary..and need plans for each stop so time & money is not wasted. I'm finding the whole thing difficult because the things that interest me in a place to live are not necessarily the same as the things that interest me in a place to visit. And the things that I am interested in seem to be very similar - do I want to go to 50 different art museums in the next couple months? Do I need to stop at every farmers market? There are a lot of things to weigh here - but regardless the trip is definitely shaping up to be a very interesting mix of stops, sights, and attractions. I will post the rough itinerary at the end of the list - if you have any thoughts or suggestions for any of the stops - leave it in the comments.

Now for some pictures. This meal was at Fish & Game in Hudson. There has been a fair amount of hype for this place - both locally (Hudson is not far from me) and nationally. I try to keep my expectations in check so I don't ruin the meal for myself. This is very important to remember when going to special restaurants - or places you have read a lot about or have obsessed over. If you put something so high up, think so highly of it - it will be nearly impossible for it to meet your expectations.  Its like when you try something from your childhood that you remember loving and its not very good - or go back to a restaurant you had a fantastic meal at a few years ago, and have the same dish again. This has happened to me several times in the past. It can be tricky to figure out if a meal wasn't good or if you had unrealistic expectations. So now-a-days I try to take a much more relaxed approach to these things. I still get excited and have expectations for things but...I try not to dwell on them. And this approach pays off.

SO - Fish & Game. We went here for my birthday dinner. If you're not familiar with Hudson NY...its a pretty cool town...getting very trendy. You see a lot of money from the city coming up to Hudson and while I'm not going to try and say this is good or bad - the town is definitely seeing a resurgence...and I like that because its a very historical place, and has a lot of beautiful buildings that will now get some money poured into them. Fish & Game, for instance, is housed in a 19th century blacksmith shop. 

Not too much else to say. You probably already know Zak Pelaccio. What he is doing here is downright brilliant. A classic example of perfect in the field, perfect on the plate. Not over manipulating things. Just great, comforting food. I don't have photos for the entire meal - sometimes you dig in and when you're looking at your empty plate you realize you forgot to take one! Sometimes there just isn't good lighting or you just took a shit photo. Either way...I'll describe best I can, with or without a photograph.

This was one of the most memorable dishes I have had in 2014, but I wasn't thrilled about how it was sold to us. The meal at Fish & Game is a set tasting menu - so you just kind of sit down and food starts coming to your table. Our waiter simply asked if we would like to start with this mushroom toast. We did not realize this was an add on to the menu, but regardless, we would have purchased it & we absolutely loved it. It was Morels in cream sauce on toast. We still go on about this course - some 5 months later. Whenever we eat something good it inevitably comes up.  Its a prefect example of how a few ingredients can combine into something that is so much greater than the sum of its parts. Lesson here, don't fuck with your food and it will be better because of it. Utterly satisfying on every level.

Clams, Prosciutto Broth, Mi Na Ri (I *think* this is Chinese Celery), Asparagus (tempura). Oddly enough this is another dish we were talking about recently. She has been working at a fish monger this summer and needless to say our seafood consumption has gone up exponentially. Its pretty great when your other half comes home with some soft shells & sable fish unannounced. Anyway, she was lamenting that she has never had a clam dish that was very memorable - except for that really great one at Fish & Game. And...it was great. The asparagus was great, young & barely cooked and it retained its crispy texture for the duration of the course. The clams were tender, meaty and delicious - and the broth was sensational. It was the very essence of prosciutto - which I know the next course has some they made in house - so I can only assume this broth was made with the same ham. It was meaty, buttery, with a great amount of salinity. 

This was - after the morels - my favorite course. Egg (super soft poached), Fish & Game 15 Month Aged Prosciutto, Herbs. In a nutshell - this was a perfectly poached egg, wrapped in the best prosciutto I have ever had (keep in mind I am not by any means a prosciutto connoisseur) on top of some really, beautifully pungent and herbaceous ramp leaf salsa verde. Just a prefect combination of fat, salt, umami, and pungent green flavors. I have made this for myself several times since. Its never as good. 

The next course, which I have no photograph for, was: Bok Choy, Wild Onions, Meyer Lemon Syrup. I remember liking this, but I also remember it being my least favorite course of the night. 

Rice, Sausage, Green Garlic, Lobster, Squid. This was described as 'kind of a sea food fried rice' - and while that was not entirely inaccurate - it certainly does not do it justice. The dish came covered, and when the lid was removed the seafood aroma was almost overwhelming - we continued to get whiffs of it for the remained of our meal as other tables received the same course. This reminded me a lot of the good, comforting rice dishes I would have with my ex girlfriends (Taiwanese) family. Just really nicely cooked, flavorful rice with great ingredients on top. 

Chicken, Mushroom Gravy, Rhubarb (pickled, or maybe persevered.. if I remember correctly), Dumpling. I don't remember this dish as well as the others so, what you see is what you get. 

Corn Shoot Ice Cream, Black Cardamom Cracker. This was such a relief, after such a long period of time without having really, properly made ice cream , we had this. Ive made Corn Husk ice cream before - and this was reminiscent of that, just a little sweeter and a little more 'green' flavor. If you have had corn shoots before - I remember having them fairly often in Chicago in 2011 - this tasted just as you would imagine. I liked the cracker a lot, however she did not.

Last course was Pine (biscuit - biss qwee - the cake), Mint (chiboust), Chocolate (ganache) & Cheese. I remember enjoying this, however the chiboust - which is pastry cream with meringue folded in, very close to a mousse - was a bit broken (folded too much) and the mint flavor was a bit over powering. I like mint, to a certain degree, but you have to be very delicate with it - as it can overpower a dish very easily. The ganache was nice and the cheese - I don't remember what it was, I do remember it was salty and microplaned over the dish (I want to say it was Danascara, but I really don't remember). I liked the way the cheese worked with the chocolate and it made me want to play around in the kitchen - which regardless of how successful this dish was - is something I love to feel after eating something. 

So, overall, the meal here was great. Everything was carefully thought out, and well executed. I also had a very nice cocktail - the only detail I remember was pickled celery - but it was good! Hah. If you're in Upstate NY or feel like taking a train north out of the city - go here, you won't regret it. 

Ok - now for the itinerary, if you care. There are more, smaller/quick stops that I didn't include. And, of course, all of the in-between. A lot of the mountain passes depend entirely on when we get there & the weather so some of these stops may not happen:

Albany NY
Pittsburgh PA
Indianapolis IN
Chicago IL
Bolingbrook IL
Madison WI
Iowa City IA
Ames IA
Denver CO
Boulder CO
Fort Collins CO
Rocky Mountain National Park
Steamboat Springs CO
Grand Junction CO
Aspen/Snowmass CO
Arches National Park
Park City UT
Salt Lake City UT
Grand Teton National Park
Yellowstone National Park
Bozeman MT
Glacier National Park
Spokane WA
Northern Cascades National Park
Seattle WA
Bellevue WA
Olympia WA
Portland OR
Eugene OR
Mitchell OR
Crater Lake National Park
Bandon OR
Redwood National & State Parks
San Francisco CA
Berkeley CA
Santa Cruz CA
Monterey CA
Sonora CA
Yosemite National Park
Death Valley National Park
Las Vegas NV
Zion National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park
Page AZ
Grand Canyon National Park
Flagstaff AZ
Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
White Sands National Monument
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Llano TX 
Austin TX
New Orleans LA
Jackson MS
maybe Nashville TN
Chattanooga TN
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Asheville NC
Charlottesville VA
Richmond VA
Washington DC
Baltimore MD
Portland ME
Burlington VT
Albany NY

Friday, August 8, 2014

Ghosts of Meals Past V1: Blackbird, Dana Cree

Over the past few years, I have amassed quite a collections of photos - stuff that would have made it to the blog had I made any effort to stick with it. Now...I stopped taking notes a long time ago and I have very little recollection of the details but thats just fine. These 'Ghosts of Meals Past' entries will be mostly photographs and I guess whatever information that I can scrounge up. 

Im going to kick things off with a meal I had at Blackbird the last time I was in Chicago - the summer of 2013. Blackbird was where I had my first meal in Chicago and I have had many fantastic meals there since. Its always my first recommendation to people wanting a nice meal. Ive always thought it was the most consistently delicious, creative and exciting food available in the city. Its not the most cutting edge, or the fanciest - but frankly I think that its found a balance of things that eludes most other places. The menu changes often enough to keep it fresh, Ive never had a dud, the food is exciting and beautiful and thoughtful. And its very affordable for a restaurant of this caliber. 

Anyway, last time I was in town I was out on a little adventure with my friend Alejandra (who I'm sure I will write more about later when I visit her new bakery) when our sweet tooth struck. Where we were in the city, I can't really remember, but for whatever reason we couldn't find anything suitable. She asked me where we could find something good and Blackbird was the first thing that popped into my head. We decided to go with the spur of the moment idea and headed over there. When we got there and sat, it was obvious there was only one choice - order the entire dessert menu. These are the photos.

A side note - Dana Cree, the Pastry Chef at Blackbird is, hands down, one of the best Pastry Chefs in the country (read her ridiculously good blog here.) Seek her food out if you are in Chicago - its available at not only Blackbird but also Avec, and - if Im not mistaken, Publican Quality Meats as well. 

The meal started with the two cheese options. 

This dish was my favorite of the night, and frankly, one of my favorites in all of 2013. And look at it, its absolutely stunning. When they put this in front of us we both knew this was going to be a special meal.

This dessert was pretty great too. The ice cream flavor was bubblegum and made entirely with fruit. Im not sure if I am supposed to say what blend of fruits create the signature flavor but...you probably have them all in your house right now. I only know what they are because of hints from a pastry cook at Blackbird & a careful eye on twitter.  Ive tried for a while to hit the mark in recreating the flavor and haven't quite hit the nail on the head the way she did here. It was remarkably 'bubblegum'.

While I don't necessarily remember the details of this one, I do remember a bit of the story. We were told that the plating inspiration for this one was something to the tune of weeds growing through broken wood or boards on a deck or something like that. And that throughout the menus life the weeds grew, meaning that they became less hidden and more prevalent. I remember liking the danish (yes, the pastry, its the swirly thing at 6:00) a LOT.

I guess thats all. I'm not sure if we can budget a meal at Blackbird this summer or not - but I sure hope so!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Well well well

It sure has been a while. Nearly three years by my count. Not sure what to make of this now-a-days. My hiatus was due mostly to a 2 year stint running the pastry department at a restaurant in Upstate New York. That and being completely uninspired and lazy. I can't really make up any excuses - it can be a real pain to  keep this thing updated with any regularity. But I've had some time off, some time to reflect. I miss writing. I've always felt that this blog felt somewhat forced, I pretty much just stuck with restaurant & food. Not any more. I think removing the boundaries will free me up to write more frequently and intuitively. Whats been going on with me? Not a whole hell of a lot that merits discussion. We're planning on traveling this fall, taking a road trip around the US. It is shaping up to be fairly extensive and should last a few months. So...I suspect I will be writing mostly about that for a while.

So what now? Well shit...I'm not sure. I will start with some random pictures.

Testing out the fisheye I picked up for the trip. Best $40 investment I've made in a while!

Another fisheye shot, in the garden.

Paella cooking

Serving the Paella. We made this (for 20 people) for my grandparents 70th Anniversary. 

Some Padrón Peppers from the anniversary. You picking up on the theme?

We constructed these trellis' for all of our melons and squash - growing them vertically saves an enormous amount of room and the only expense was the chicken wire - all other materials were salvaged. 

John Boyd Thacher State Park

Somewhere in Upstate NY

I found Wild Strawberries just about everywhere this summer. 

Some fungus on Peebles Island. 

A Croquembouche I made for a wedding sometime in the past year or two.

And lastly, my main man, Petey Wonder - in the shit. Read his blog, it is better than mine.