Monday, January 26, 2015

The Road Trip, Part 2: West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana

*Just a quick note - as the formatting on this blog keeps some of the photographs pretty small. You can click on any of the pictures to enter a slide show, which will allow you to see larger format photographs*

The inside cover of our travel journal.
After we left Pittsburgh we were headed to Indianapolis, IN. 360 miles, 5 hours 35 minutes.

While I wanted to make a diversion to Falling Water, but it just didn't fit into our time frame. We didn't have anything to do between Pittsburgh and Indianapolis so we pushed through. The first part of the drive, through the western bit of Pennsylvania and that teeny little tip of West Virginia, was pleasant enough, but Ohio and Indiana were both fairly dull. Its hard to say if its growing up in the Northeast that makes this area of the country so...not stimulating, or if its really just boring. My aunt describes driving on the NYS thruway as 'driving in green tunnels' and...well...shes not incorrect. 

Anyway, our reason for going to Indianapolis was to visit one of J's friends, Adam. J spent a semester abroad in Copenhagen and while she was there, she met several other American students in her program . Adam was one of those American students. It also broke up the drive to Chicago, which was our next stop. 

We got into Indianapolis in the early evening and settled in quickly. We met adams roommate, who also lived in Copenhagen for a while. After chatting a bit, we walked over to the main drag - in a neighborhood called Broad Ripple. The street was lined with bars and restaurants and shops. Not unlike what you would see in say...Saratoga Springs, NY. Not without charm, but...well, it is what it is. We stopped at Starbucks for a few minutes to use the wifi, before moving on to some bar for dinner and drinks. This is where I had my first Gumballhead of the trip, and what a moment it was (Gumballhead was my beer of choice when I lived in Chicago, and it is not available outside of that area of the midwest) . J also may have accidentally dropped her knife off the balcony onto the sidewalk. Good thing there were no pedestrians!

After dinner we got some drinks at a couple different places and eventually made our way back to Adams apartment. Several of his friends - far as I could tell ALL lived in Copenhagen at one point or another - came over, and the whole thing turned into a fairly clam frat party. We, reluctantly, played some drinking games and got to know some people before they all decided to go out to the bars around the block. We hung back and just talked with Adam until the early hours of the morning when we fell asleep.

Adam had to goto a formal with his girlfriend at her school the next afternoon (yes, I am serious) so we said our goodbyes. As per usual after a night of drinking shitty beers, we were craving something greasy. We went down the block to Ripple Bagel Deli for one of the best breakfasts we had on the entire trip, the morning mess. 

Look at that...CHEESE
After breakfast we headed to downtown Indianapolis which was...vacant. We actually really enjoyed walking around because it was so quite...but there didn't seem to be anything going on. One thing J&I really look for in a potential place to relocate to is good cycling infrastructure. We were particularly tickled by downtown Indianapolis's sidewalks, with separated protected riding lanes & sidewalks. 

This is not a figment of our imagination. It is real. 
We made our way to the Indianapolis City Market, but either...there was nothing going on that day, or we just arrived a bit too early. There was maybe half a dozen other people in the building.

First fisheye of the trip

From the city market we walked a few blocks over to the Soldiers and Sailors monument, which was actually pretty neat. Its much larger than we expected - standing about 285 feet tall, and covers the interior of a very large traffic circle. 
I wasn't willing to make the effort to find a vantage where I could grab the entire monument in a here you are, a small section of the monument. 
It was beginning to sprinkle a bit so we made our way back to the car and decided to head over to Easley Winery for a tour and tasting. This was our first visit to a winery together and we both enjoyed ourselves. The tour was fairly quick and the tastings were fine. Nothing to blow your mind - but we did wind up buying a bottle to bring with us to Chicago that night. It was also both of our first time trying wine made from Catawba grapes.

Inside Easley Winery
After leaving Easley we crossed the street and went to Sun King Brewery for a tasting. They had a great system here where you come in the door, get IDed, and they give you 3 bottle caps and 3 ticket stubs. They have their regular beers which you can exchange a stub for or their specialty beers which you can exchange a cap for. There were high tops throughout the warehouse and it kind of felt like a big party. We tried all of their beers and left. We made some shitty sandwiches in the car and then headed out. 

Before going to Chicago, we took a diversion to Center Point, IN to visit the Exotic Feline Rescue Center - a volunteer run facility that takes in large cats. Apparently they rescue them from bad situations all over the country, and give priority to cats who have been involved with a mauling or killing. Its a pretty straight forward thing - you get shown around by a tour guide and get to see lots of cats in a very intimate environment. Not like a zoo, where theres a partition and a moat and a cage...this was just a simple chain link fence separating you from lions and tigers and...other big cats. Oh my.

Our guide giving a tiger a kiss.

After we left Center Point we headed straight for Chicago. We made a quick stop for a late lunch/afternoon snack at Steak & Shake. This was the first and last Steak & Shake of the trip. Shit steak, shit shake. The drive from Center Point to Chicago was... pretty dull. The highlights include several hours of cornfields to the horizon, and a couple (actually kind of neat) wind farms. There was a nice colorful sunset with a lot of heat lightning. We got to Chicago fairly late, but still had time for dinner at my favorite Thai restaurant in the United States. Sure Pok Pok is good, but its got nothing on TAC Quick

Next up - a week in Chicago with dear friends.

From our book:

    3 Sisters Café (6360 Guilford Ave) – Mon – Sat 8-9, Sun 8-4. 6360 Guilford Ave/Indianapolis IN/46220
Free to do: 

  • City Market – Mon-Fri 6-9, Sat 8-9. Open-air market. 222 E Market St/Indianapolis IN/46204
  • Indianapolis Museum of Art – Fri-Sat 11-5. Gardens & greenhouse too.  4000 Michigan Rd/Indianapolis IN/46208
  • Lockerbie Square – Oldest intact neighborhood in Indianapolis. Fully restored.
  • White River Park – Sculptures, canal walk. 801 W Washington St/Indianapolis IN/46222
  • Canal Walk – 1.5-mile stroll from White River Park to 11th Street, canal cuts through downtown.
  • Central Library – Fri-Sat 10-5. Pretty stunning building. o 40 E St Clair St/Indianapolis/46204

  • Easley Winery Tour & Tasting - $5. Noon on Saturday. 205 N College Ave/Indianapolis IN/46202

Stuff to do: 
  • Exotic Feline Rescue Center – 7 days 10-5. $10pp. 2221 E Ashboro Rd/Center Point IN/47840

Stuff to do:
  • 3 Floyds Brewery – Carry out beer 7 days 11:30-Midnight. Tours Sat 12:30,1:30,2:30,3:30, 4:30, 5:30. Check facebook for schedule changes. 9750 Indiana Pkwy/Munster IN/46321 

What a week

Towards the end of my time at Sperry's, a man who I was very close with died very suddenly of cancer.  I remember him telling me in passing that he had some pain in his back that wouldn't go away - and within a few months he was in the ground. While my grandmother had passed away from brain cancer about 6 years ago - this was the first time I had really experienced this disease from start to finish and seen how it can cripple a family. Its such a strange thing, having a loved one with a terminal disease. You feel so helpless. There always seems to be an answer for everything, a solution, or a way out. With something like this - you always seem to be one step behind, as if no matter what you do, you just cant win.

Wen-Ho's pain persisted and doctors seemed unclear about what the cause was. By the time he was in so much pain he could no longer work, or really do anything, they realized what it was. He received treatment at Johns Hopkins, but soon went into organ failure and was transferred to Hospice Care back here in New York. I was in Chicago staging with a friend when I received the call that I needed to come home. It was only a few more days before he was gone.

The (Taiwanese) rituals and traditions associated with his passing were very moving and something that - while I am deeply saddened to have experienced - I am also grateful for. His body was prayed over for (I believe) 12 hours before it was handled. His children were to kneel and say goodbye to their father as he was carried out. At his cremation they shouted for him to run from the fire. His funeral was standing room only, a testament to how much he was loved, as well as how deeply connected the Taiwanese American community is.

We recently celebrated his birthday by gathering with friends and eating a traditional Taiwanese dish of braised pork shanks, which are supposed to bring you good luck, along with some of his other favorite dishes too. 

I found out this week that a close friend of J's family, a woman who we stayed with on our trip this fall, had passed away. When she and her family emigrated to the US from Egypt, they lived with J and her family while they got on their feet. Before we left, she taught me some Egyptian Arabic. Ba hebek, Grandma. (I hope Im getting that right)

A few days later, I learned that the son of my mothers dear friend and neighbor had passed away from a very aggressive cancer - and then later in the week their daughter died very suddenly in her sleep. While they have quite a community of support, it is just unimaginable what they are going through.

There is no real reason for this post - these are just things that I kind of feel like putting into words. Sometimes you cant help but feel surrounded by death. But its important to remember how precious life is, and to make sure those around you know they are loved. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Road Trip, Part 1: The first couple days

*Just a quick note - as the formatting on this blog keeps some of the photographs pretty small. You can click on any of the pictures to enter a slide show, which will allow you to see larger format photographs*

We left Albany on a Wednesday in late August. Our first destination was Pittsburgh, PA. 460 miles - 7 hours 16 minutes.  We had been scrambling for days to get all of our affairs in order and we were decidedly anxious. On our way out of town we cashed in our first Groupon - for groceries at the Honest Weight Co-Op. We stocked up on some non-perishable food and spent the remainder on some sandwiches which we ate in the parking lot. 

It was pushing 90 and becoming increasingly humid. The drive ahead wound up being the most unpleasant of the trip due to our broken air conditioner. J quickly fashioned herself a mister and spent the majority of the drive spritzing herself to stay cool. Not knowing how to pass the time, we wound up listening to audiobook for Mary Roach's, Stiff. For whatever reason - neither of us could get into the book and it just added to our misery. 

It was right around dinner time when we got into Pittsburgh. It was our first time there - and we both were taken by its rugged appeal. We came in on 376, driving along the Monongahela River to the Fort Pitt Bridge, where we were admired the city's beautiful skyline, as well as the houses and buildings scattered throughout the surrounding hills. Suddenly the comparison to San Francisco's terrain was making sense to me. We crossed the river and headed to Mt Lebanon, where we were staying for the evening.

Our hosts, Jeff & Andrea - two of the most fun and generous people we have the pleasure to know - are the parents of a dear friend of mine who I met while going to school in Chicago. Julia is currently the Executive Pastry Chef at the Boarding House. We quickly settled in and refreshed ourselves before heading out for a late reservation at Il Pizziolo. We had pizzas and under the cover of lemon trees on their beautiful patio, and discussed our plans for the following day. Jeff & Andrea were preparing for a road trip of their own, in France, which they were leaving for in two our time was limited. Jeff decided he would spend the next day showing us around town. We eventually made our way back to the house and quickly fell asleep.

Our first stop of the day, at my request - was to see Canton Avenue, the steepest in the United States (and possibly the world - there seems to be some dispute between it and Baldwin Street in New Zealand). I wont embarrass myself by posting the photograph I took, so I suggest you just check this out to see it . Theres not much to say other than it is a very steep street. 

Our next stop was to see a sculpture of Mister Rogers along the North Shore, just south of Heinz Field. While this was pleasant, with the entire thing overlooking the cities skyline and Point State Park, the eleven foot bronze sculpture was....kind of creepy:


From here we spent some time exploring, making quick stops at the Andy Warhol Museum and the Heinz Center. Throughout the trip if we weren't totally sold on seeing a museum or didn't have time, we would check out the gift shop to get a 'cliffs notes' version of things. This was the case here

Checking out the gift shop at the Heinz Center

Around lunch time we made our way through PPG Plaza - a complex of six buildings in downtown Pittsburgh, gazing at the fascinating architecture and use of highly reflective glass.

Installation at PPG Plaza
After seeing PPG Plaza, we walked over to Market Square and browsed through the mid week farmers market. The produce was largely the same as what was available in Upstate New York, which was no surprise. We walked around a bit more and decided to get some lunch at Sienna Sulla Piazza where we sat on the sidewalk so we could watch the city happen. This part of Pittsburgh seemed pleasantly calm. In fact, we were surprised how 'not busy' the entire city seemed. 

Eggplants at the Market Square Farmers Market

After lunch we walked around a bit and made our way to the Monongahela Incline - and took the tram up to the top of Mount Washington for the famous panoramic look at the city skyline. 
Taking the tram

After taking in the view we walked around Mt Washington for a few minutes. It reminded us, strangely enough, of Florida. Maybe it was the weather, or the excessive amount of ice cream shops? We spent the next few hours driving around, taking in the sights. We spent a bit of time in The Strip - where we picked up some wonderful cheese at the Pennsylvania Macaroni Company . We decided that we would eat it picnic style at the first green space we found...which happened to be Allegheny Cemetery. The cemetery was surprisingly pleasant. Very still and quiet. We saw an unbelievable amount of wildlife, especially deer who were grazing on apples that had fallen from trees around the property. 

Cheese in the cemetery

After our picnic we decided to make our way back to Mt Lebanon, which took us a ridiculous amount of time because of several accidents in addition to unusually heavy traffic due to some event at Heinz Field. When we got back we relaxed a bit, having some drinks on the back porch, just enjoying the last bits of light for the day. We decided to check out Jeff & Andreas 'go-to' sushi spot - Little Tokyo, which we absolutely loved. It wasn't life changing sushi, but just a good, honest, eat-here-every-week kind of place. I don't think we found sushi we enjoyed better on the entire trip. Our conversation geared mostly towards our plans for the remainder of our trip as well as their upcoming trip to France. It was a great end to a very nice day. 

Jeff & Andrea insisted that we take whatever food we wanted from their fridge, as it would spoil while they were away, and we could save some money on groceries. We were ecstatic, as this was the perfect gift for two people trying to travel cheap. We made breakfast, eggs with some rainbow chard Jeff's father had grown. We then packed up and made our way out. Our next destination; Indianapolis, Indiana by way of some Big Cats. And a drive through Ohio

Ohio, What happens here stays here. But nothing ever really happens here.

Before we left we did quite a bit of research on each destination - so we would have some idea of what to do. Most of the things are geared towards being thrifty - and I think I have decided to include the information we came up with for each city with each corresponding post I write. Some are light, like Pittsburgh, because we had people to show us around - or because we didn't plan on staying for very long. Either way, hopefully someone can find use of this information. Please keep in mind that everything was compiled in the summer of 2014.

Pittsburgh, PA

  • REGIONAL SPECIALTY: Primanti Brothers – classic ‘Pittsburgh’ sandwich
    with French fries, slaw, cheese, tomato on top
Free to do:

  • Canton Ave – Steepest street in US. Close to Mt Lebanon
  • View from Mt. Washington – 'top 10 views in US'
  • The Strip – shopping/cultural district/open air market/good for foodies
  • Society of Contemporary Craft – Mon-Sat 10-5, current exhibition is
    contemporary works in ceramics. In the Strip. 
  • Pittsburgh Glass Center – Mon-Thu 10-7 – museum, studio, school. In
    transitional neighborhood. 
  • The Frick Museum – Tue-Sun 10-5, art museum, car and carriage museum,
    and grounds
  • Frick Park – Largest Park in Pittsburgh, walking & hiking, Reynolds St
    entrance is opposite Frick Museum.

  • Carnegie Museum of Natural History & Museum of Art.  $11.95/student. Admission covers both museums.
  • National Aviary –  $14.  

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Breaking plates, lights, and my head, or: My first week

So, again - I apologize for the short break in writing. I am trying to keep up with this thing, but life has a tendency of getting in the way sometimes. I accept a job offer doing all of the baking and pastry at a new restaurant

From the first interview I knew that the place was going to be something special. Sometimes you meet people and their energy is so infectious - its hard not to get excited. At this interview - I met 4 of them. 

What I found so appealing about this kitchen is the fact that they are cooking the food that they want to eat. And they're doing it right. Making everything from scratch, no matter how labor intensive, no matter how much of a pain in the ass it is. Its not that there aren't easier routes to take, its just that they all result in a shittier product. Its not about just banging things out here - but rather making the absolute best thing you can. This is the sort of environment I have been craving, and need to be in. 

I had four days from accepting the job offer to the restaurants soft opening - and a monumental amount of work to do. My first order of business was putting together our bread program. We decided that in the beginning, we wanted to have a crusty, hearth baked/'artisan' style bread for our bread service. This is something that I have some experience with - but none in a restaurant setting. Everywhere I have worked has either ordered their bread - had its own bread baker - or used something other than bread for its 'bread' service (we'll talk pop-overs some day). My first hurtle: Our ovens. We have two, full size conventional ovens. Thats it. No convection. No hearths. Just regular old ovens. To achieve the type of bread that I want - using this type of oven is a big challenge. 

In the past, I have talked about Jim Lahey's technique of using a dutch oven to bake your bread in - and you can get some really incredible results doing this. The problem is that cast iron dutch ovens, or even deep skillets can run a pretty penny. Especially when you're talking about doing in excess of 20 loaves of bread a day. So that was out. My work around - preheat two sleeved sheet trays in the oven for at least an hour, and then drop the dough directly on them - as well as throwing some ice in a (also preheated) iron skillet for some steam. This is essentially what you would do with a stone in your oven...just without the need to buy anything. After trying two batches successfully - it was decided. 

Then it was a matter of timing. Most of the traditional ways of making bread didn't seem to line up with me having a 'normal' schedule - or if they did, they would result in flavorless bread because of such a short fermentation. What I decided on was making a dough utilizing several techniques to promote a more mature, deeper flavor - and doing a long fermentation (typically 18 hours) so when I walk in the door in the morning I can start portioning and shaping my dough immediately - and when the bread is in the oven I can start my dough for the following day. 

The end result is a loaf of bread with a moist, chewy crumb with very mild sour notes and pleasant russeted crust. When the first test batch came out of the oven, everyone in the kitchen (including myself) was stunned - none of us believing that it would be possible to produce this sort of result in these circumstances. 

The rest is kind of a blur. My creative process isn't exactly like most chefs who can just kind of wax on about doing this dish or that dish. I often find creativity in strange places - and it cannot be forced out of me. So - while I had two dishes decided more or less immediately, the third and final one took me a bit to land. I wound up just making one component - knowing that once I was forced into something - the rest would come with it. In the end, I didn't present my dessert menu to the front of the house until literally 10 minutes before the doors opened. 

All in all, its good to be back in it. And even better that I am somewhere that is pushing me to do good things, and not become complacent. I am proud to say that I am happy with everything I am putting out. I am doing everything to the best of my ability and not cutting corners. And I find myself inspired by the work that everyone else is doing.

Some funny (?) things that have happened this week;

I am - by quite a bit - the tallest person on the staff. Its clear that the kitchen was not designed for someone as tall as I am. The result is me constantly hitting my head on things. The worst offenders are the fry pans hanging above the line. Every time. 

My first day I walked into a light fixture, shattering it. I walked into the same light two more times. They have now moved the fixture. 

Our walk in does not have a release from the inside. My previous job had a warm walk in, so it is second nature for me to close the door behind me. The first time I locked myself in, I was in for 5 minutes. The second was 20 minutes (the Pastry Chef is often the first person in). We now keep a pair of chop sticks in there to push the release with. I am too embarrassed to admit how many times I have used them. 

My clog came lose while carrying a stack of pasta bowls up a flight of stairs. This resulted in me eating shit and shattering a bunch of bowls - just as the other chefs were finishing cleaning up the line. 

Dominic - Get the dog! Open the French Bistro! Take it easy this month, and have a speedy recovery. 

Up next: A response to Deanna via Daniel

Thursday, January 8, 2015

A quick one

I just wanted to keep you guys up to speed - I am not abandoning this thing - I have just started with a new restaurant this past weekend and have been working all day and night to get things up and running for our opening day. Expect more regularity soon!