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).

5 comments:

  1. The creme brulee story nailed it, Greg. People are satisfied, even pleased with mediocrity. While it sometimes makes our job easier, it makes it far less satisfying. Sometimes I feel like I'm trying to climb a ladder with an anvil tied to my ankle.

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  2. 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.

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    1. Deanna, please find my response here:
      http://humblingattempts.blogspot.com/2014/12/well-you-certainly-are-talkative-bunch.html

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  3. 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.

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    Replies
    1. Daniel, please find my response here:

      http://humblingattempts.blogspot.com/2014/12/well-you-certainly-are-talkative-bunch.html

      Delete