Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Stream of Consciousness

I have some conflicting feelings about Small Business Saturday.

J & I have a rule - that any time we step into a small business we have to buy something - regardless of wether or not we find something we actually want.

Master of None is really fucking good. Way better than it should be. I've never considered myself a Aziz Ansari fan - but I cannot deny how mature, and well executed this show is. At times it rings of early Woody Allen. 

Now I found myself questioning the legitimacy of Indian accents on TV.

We got some Alba Truffles in at Peck's. J & I came in for a late dinner to have some. Its incredible how different it is to eat at your restaurant, sitting in the front of the house - rather than picking at things in the kitchen. I am incredibly proud to work with everyone there.

I find it very difficult to keep up with contemporary baking and pastry. It simply does not interest me the way regular food does. Sometimes I think this makes me a better pastry chef. Sometimes I think it makes me worse.

I have a dessert on the menu currently that is flavored by plunging hot sugar maple embers into milk, which effectively sears the milk.  Its a fascinating flavor, reminiscent of toasted marshmallow. I gently sweeten it with maple. Its used on a 's'mores' type dessert, and is selling better than I anticipated.

Sticky toffee pudding is back, at least for December.

Thanksgiving is over. I went dangerously far off my diet. Back on track...hopefully.

I baked less than thirty pies, which is a relief.

December is shaping up to be incredibly busy.

Fancy New Years is going to be pretty cool.

Italian Grandmother Menu looks amazing.

We went to see Seinfeld in Newark. We purchased our tickets before his show at the Palace was announced. It was pretty good. Not spectacular, though. As strange as it is to say, it just kind of felt like catching up with an old friend. More nostalgic than anything. I did, however, enjoy his bit on how even though he is in a place where he can do anything and go anywhere he wants, he still sits at home bored out of his skull - just like anyone else.

In 2013 I spent about $1400 on cook books. In 2014 all my money went to travel. In 2015 I decided to try only buying used books and I wound up spending about $700.

Its hard to choose a favorite that I picked up this year - so here are a few.. in no particular order:

Relæ by Christian Puglisi 
The Tex-Mex Cookbook by Robb Walsh
The Southern Pie Cookbook by Jan Moon
Bar Tartine by Courtney Burns 

My least favorite, hands down: 
World Class Swedish Cooking by Björn Frantzén

Currently there are 99 books on my amazon wishlist 

Apart from cookbooks, and a handful of audio books , I have not read a book my entire adult life. This is incredibly depressing for me.

J&I both ditched our Hondas and are now Subaru owners. 

Konigin turns 1 next month. We have been bringing her to Normanskill Farm dog park a lot. She LOVES it. 

Open enrollment for Obamacare ends tonight (Correction: It has been extended to 12/19). For 2015 I decided it was more economical for me to just pay the fine and not purchase insurance. It looks like I will do the same for 2016. The reality is that even after the discount offered, the premiums are still barely affordable, the coverage is mediocre, and the deductibles are so high that, frankly, its pointless to purchase. 

This has been a popular topic of conversation at work because of the looming deadline and the fact that health care is seldom offered in the hospitality industry. None of us in the kitchen have health insurance. We all made the same decision not to purchase it for 2015.

I have not had health insurance or seen a doctor since 2008

The fast food workers wage increase is also a popular topic of conversation. It seems like it will have impact on (non fast food) food service workers (and probably other industries too). For example, I have several years experience, have completed programs at two schools, generally speaking I am pretty successful and my food is well received,  and I have a fair amount of responsibilities to manage at work.  If you divided salary by hours worked, I doubt I've ever made $15 an hour. Currently I make about that if I work a 40 hour week (which I have never done). 

If I could could keep a constant wage and have 40 hour weeks, less responsibilities, and just have to grind it out at McDonalds? Why wouldn't that sound appealing?  

I took a 33% pay cut between where I am now and where I was before.  People on this side of the Mohawk call that 'Saratoga Money'. I easily spent the difference in gas and alcohol. I am much happier in Troy.

It's fascinating to think about the evolution of rolls, responsibilities, and pay structure that will come about because of these changes in wage laws.  

It came up in conversation with a server I know that once tips are eliminated, they would need to be making $25/hour to stay afloat. At 40 hours a week salary - that is significantly more than I have ever made any way you cut it. 

When the field is level, can you justify paying a server 60% more than a kitchen worker?

I actively look for ways out of this industry.

From the archives, circa 2013
Cheez-it Souffle, Black Currant, Blueberry.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Intrinsic Value of Art

There is one thing that Vic Christopher once said to me that has really resonated. If you know, or have had any interaction with Vic - you know that he is a goldmine for wisdom - intentional or not. He often says things that are deeply reflective as part of every day pleasantries, and while sometimes these things can seem a little silly..this is one of my favorite things about his personality. 
Over the winter, Vic dined at Peck's Arcade with a friend. We knew he was in the dining room - as we can see every seat from the kitchen, but in an effort to give a real experience..we did not offer him any special treatment (at least no more than anyone else). 

After his meal we talked to him about it.. to see what he felt about everything. How comfortable was he. The music. The energy. The service. The food, and every aspect of it. The timing. Literally everything. He had some minor criticisms that we took and adjusted accordingly, but overall he was very impressed.  This was his first time in the restaurant as a guest, and he was shocked about how different everything felt - just by changing his role, and not being stuck behind the DJ Booth. One thing he said was he was in a seat facing the exterior wall (Franklin Alley side) and he noted that there wasn't much to look at and that it sort of robbed guests sitting in that orientation of some of the experience. They missed out on seeing the rhythm of the dining room and all the things that happen in it. We talked about it a little - mentioned seeing mirrors on walls like this in other restaurants. I recalled seeing lots of art hanging on walls of restaurants in the past, to which he said, 

'The wall is the art'. 

My gut reaction was, as it so often is, 'Thats ridiculous'. But you know what? He was right. So much thought, so much work, and effort, and Im sure anguish and emotion went into designing this room - every detail was worked out and redone and then redone again for good measure. When you start to expand what you think of as a canvas you realize that creating that wall is really no different than creating, say, a painting. Here I caught myself putting arbitrary limitations on what art can and cannot be. I began to think about various paintings I had seen hanging in galleries and museums that, frankly, reminded me of the wall at Peck's. 

Some google image search examples:
Ethan Harper, Mountain Mist II
Helena Hildur, Blue Painting #01
Helena Hildur, Grey Painting #2
Maeve Harris, Creme 2

It bothered me that intuitively I rejected the idea of the wall being art. I love going to museums and galleries but without fail, my favorite to visit are Contemporary Art Museums. I don't care how 'good' or 'bad' the exhibits are - what I love is how fun they always are. How freely people will discuss the art - rather than the annoyingly silent galleries you find at more traditional museums. I think that.. more or less...Contemporary Art is the goto 'this is bullshit' art that regular people are most critical of. I often hear people say something like 'I could make that' or 'Anyone could make that' as a criticism. All I can say to that is its unfortunate that the only value youre placing in a piece of art is how difficult it is for you to recreate it.

Before we went to Montreal this fall, we were out to dinner with another couple. One of them asked if we were going to Musee d'art contemporain de Montreal. We weren't sure at that point - but they strongly suggested that we avoid it because when they went it was the absolute worst museum they have ever been to. They described an exhibit in great detail - which I cannot remember, unfortunately,  and how much they hated it. 

I asked them when they visited. It turned out to be a decade ago. I then asked if they could describe any other exhibit they have seen at a museum that they loved. They could not. The point I was making is that their initial reaction was that this particular exhibit was terrible. But here they are ten years later, remembering specific details - more clearly than any other exhibit they had ever seen - yet they still think it was terrible art. I suggested that not all art is supposed to be beautiful or make you sit in awe about how wonderful it is - and maybe the point of this exhibit was to create visceral reactions. Im not sure if this got through to them, but it helped lay out my thoughts on art for me. 

'Good artists borrow. Great artists Steal'

For me - the best exhibit I have ever seen - that is to say the one that I had the strongest emotional reaction to - was the Picasso Looks at Degas exhibit that the Clark put together in 2010. I visited mostly because they were two artists that I was familiar with - but not ones that I had much of any opinion of. If you are not familiar with this exhibit - it basically spanned the career of the two artists and showed Picasso's admiration for Degas' work and how he often borrowed or copied ideas. What I remember most clearly was Picasso's, 'Nude Wringing Her Hair'. Looking at the texture of the brush strokes, and the movement from beads of paint running down the canvas... for reasons I don't necessarily understand, I found these things to be deeply moving - and I'll remember these details for the rest of my life

Pablo Picasso, Nude Wringing Her Hair

Friday, November 6, 2015

Dinner: Blue Hill at Stone Barns

In early August, J&I had the opportunity to visit Stone Barns Center For Food and Agriculture and have a fairly transcendental meal at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Because of the extended length of this meal I am going to streamline this post into mostly photos.

The kitchen window

A couple take aways from the experience 

1 - Sone Barns is incredibly beautiful and inspiring in many ways. You can tour the Center separately from dining at Blue Hill. It is more than worth visiting and we plan on going back

2 - The meal was, essentially, everything I love about dining. Ill spare you the obvious details about their philosophy but what I loved was that it was so vegetable forward, everything was prepared in a very disciplined way - meaning there was no heavy handed ness. No over doing it. No bells and whistles. Just incredible produce and ingredients being presented in incredible ways. 

3 - While the number of courses we had here was close to or greater than what I had at Alinea, I did not leave hungry or ever feel uncomfortable. 

4 - Changing out of sweaty 'farm clothes' into formal wear in a Honda Fit while surrounded by Mercedes and BMWs and their owners was fun

5 - If you haven't seen the episode of Chefs Table about Dan Barber (and this restaurant) and you have Netflix (or other means), watch it. Really.

6 - The overwhelming theme of the day/night was education. About farming, about tradition, about the future, about food and food system, and many other things.

Ok - onto the goods.

The first thing you notice when arriving is how unbelievably beautiful everything is here. It is one of the most picturesque farms we have been to. 

The restaurant, as seen from one of the crop fields
The road leaving the restaurant
Some sort of cellar, built into the side of a hill behind the restaurant 
The bountiful terrace garden
The path through the woodlands

Blue Hill sheep grazing

There are many activities you can do throughout the day.
Making pesto in the garden
We took a wonderful, informative tour that explained quite a bit about what they do at Stone Barns Center

Once our tour was up we changed in the car and headed in to start our meal...
Crudites - simply prepared raw vegetables, picked just hours before. 
Incredible squash with poppyseed butter and poppy seed, harvested table side
Asparagus with cat tail pollen
Needles in a Haystack - Grissini in hay
Venison Liver
Peach, Speck, Charcoal
Weeds from the grounds + charcoal mayo
Corn Cobb Lemonade
Cucumber & Yogurt
Marionberry Bush with a little surprise underneath 
A perfectly petit tart
Tomato burgers
Ham Sandwiches & Pork liver with Chocolate
Green Gazpacho Julep - Reminded me so much of the gazpacho I had at Town House, which still haunts me today
The most incredible melon and farmers cheese. With sesame. This was the stand out dish of the night, so good we just sat there in awe.
Cucumber, Crab, Fennel
Copa, Melon
Peas, Corn, Lardo - Another stand out dish.
Fish taco, Kohlrabi Tortilla, Bloodline Tapenade - Tied for best dish of the night
Onion grown in soil amended with hazelnut, Hazelnut, Caviar 

Beans grilled with herbs, Peach Pit Yogurt & Blossoms

A detour to the patio, where we had Beet Hot Dogs with some beer as we watched the sun set.
An example of the restaurant educating its guests : three types of potatoes they are working on developing. Our server discussed many differences between them in taste, texture, starch and sugar content, etc..
Experimental Butter Potato, Baked in a compost crust
..Served with their cover crops. Another stand out course
Potato Pizza
Zucchini Bolognese, Peach 
Lets not forget the incredible bread
Blue Hill Pork, Spinach, Eggplant
Cabbage, Lardon, Lard
Oats, Blueberry ?
Plum Kouign Amann ?

Its hard to summarize this meal. We chatted a lot with our server and it wound up spanning about four hours time. There were a few stand out dishes (I'll never forget that farmers cheese) and really no duds. Our least favorite, if I recall correctly, was the half sour asparagus with cat tail pollen. The whole experience was deeply involved - from touring the farm, chatting with the farmers and researchers, to discussing the evolution of the restaurant and the conceptualization of dishes with some of the chefs. Often times in restaurants of this caliber, its easy to feel like you're just there watching, yet at Blue Hill..we felt involved. Seeing everything from the ground to the plate - being educated at each step...it was quite an experience. Its easy to have buyers remorse when spending this kind of money on a meal but we were discussing our return before we were done with our meal.

My biggest regret with the whole meal was not doing the wine pairing. We are not extremely knowledgable about wine - just appreciate it on a kind of...basic level - and often times pairings are not worth the expense to us ...were better off ordering a glass or two of something we pick out carefully but a few days later, when I was attempting to get ahold of the restaurant to discuss a Taiwanese version of the corn lemonade that they were very interested in I noticed their sommelier is Charlie Berg - who I had some very memorable pairing form when he worked at Town House - which remains far and away the best restaurant meal of my life. If nothing else, I wanted to pick his brain about a sake pairing at the Town House meal that I have been trying to figure out/remember since 2011. So next time...wine pairing.

In the end - I cannot recommend BHASB highly enough. If you read my ancient posts when I was hopping around lots of high end restaurants in Chicago - you will know that most times I do not think its worth the time or money. This meal, however, we will cherish and remember for many years.