Hounds tooth…

I didn’t mind it tonight…the climma’ klamma’ of the kitchen.   It was a mellow night compared to last night’s wreckage.  The other night I had my first mentally challenging night.  I worked furiously and to no avail.  On the line by myself, with various mishaps.  Clearly it didn’t detour me.  I’ve been fortunate to come across some reliable and successful kitchens with patience.

Tonight I spoke with one of my sous,and as a student at UC Santa Cruz a professor told him, “When reading becomes a chore it’s time to move on.”  So that’s how he ended up in a kitchen…Santa Cruz…New York…Chicago…and San Francisco.

I’ve heard horror stories.  For cooking, to become a chore.  A haphazard mundane task.    So far, a pastry chef puncturing the nerve in her arm with a sharp German pairing knife (her right hand),  someone walking off the oven line in the middle of a busy dinner rush, slamming s hand in the walk-in then getting sent to the hospital also in the middle of a busy dinner rush, cases of ringworm, fingers getting sliced on the meat slicer, and this my friend is only the beginning of the cuts and scaring.  The other night a fire loomed just 3 doors down from the restaurant.  As the fire trucks came blaring down the street and the smell of plastic and burnt embers filling the air,   through the lights and sirens we kept working.   Mentors have even told me they heard a head cook screaming in the bathroom bloody murder in the middle of a hectic shift because of a kidney stones.

One night after a shift, a couple of us got together for a nightcap, and over a 40 oz and a glass of wine i heard a cook softly proclaim, “I just want to cook”.  Simple. His eyes nearly welled up.  It was the first time that I came across someone who feels that there is much more to cooking than just heat and chaos, the no frills. It is about nurturing a twisted instinct in us all to feed others, and to do it well.  I’ve always wanted to do that.

Maybe it was growing up in a bakery.  Maybe it was watching my mother cook. Maybe it was trying to cook for my brothers when my mother wasn’t home from a long work day.  Maybe it was that one time I made homemade pastries for my fifth grade class (Chinese crackers chocolate and butterscotch chips), or the other time I had to make my twist on egg rolls for an Sophomore English class;the topic, food from your culture (ground beef sautéed w/mushrooms, onions and garlic, along some spices rolled in won-ton wrappers).  I remember thinking, these kids definitely won’t like the grisly noodles and black mushrooms in my mothers egg rolls, so I’ll Americanize it!

In one of my first posts, I had mentioned that I carried my knives in a fancy bag. I no longer carry my knives in my calf skin Marc Jacobs bag.  I no longer feel the need really to get such material possessions when now I can’t even afford to think about such extravagances, even before, they were just window shopping dreams.  I can however think of foie grois, truffles, black-footed chickens, various charcuteries, cook books, a lovely dinner at Chez Panisse.

I now carry my knives in a fold-able black, hounds tooth lined knife bag.  In it I carry 2, 8 inch knives, one western one Japanese, a serrated knife, a 6 inch Japanese vegetable knife, a Japanese pairing knife, a small mandolin, measuring spoons, an ergonomic peeler, Sharpees, Neosporin, and a board scraper.   It’s exciting.  I find comfort in holding onto my knives… my toolkit.  Sometimes admitting that I throw in some chap stick, an eyebrow manicure kit, and even blush and a brush.  I see my hands aging and my bruises and scrapes becoming more common.

Maybe I am exaggerating, after all we all tend to become our worst critics clearly hoping that growth and maturing will develop.   It all pays off.   When you can learn someone new each day, and so far I’ve learned various techniques to cooking meats, pastas, and vegetables, various prep shortcuts, and most importantly appreciating what is immediately in front of you.  Focus and determination, just when you think your about to burst, you remember your ability to breathe.  The kitchen has revived my sense of self. The kitchen has also shown me how to keep up a sense of cool, and a bit of awareness and confidence.

Travel…ohhh travel is on my mind.  I have to admit I haven’t been able to travel much but I find it important for cooks to venture out to new territory, and to explore and cultivate their palate.  To be able to get inspiration from other restaurants and cooks.   To gain momentum by  gathering new ideas and ingredients from farms and purveyors but, to also be able to experience authentic regional cuisine.   Paris is currently on my mind…

I get choked up.

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It’s the start of a New Year.  Excitement is in the air and so is change and I am looking forward to new endeavors.  With that being said, I am letting go of a $1200 studio apartment.  I am finding it harder and harder committing to such a  heavy workload with such little pay.  I am going to go full force at this in hopes of learning more, without the stress and burdens that rain on me financially…we all know the kitchen is stressful enough.

So…Roommates.  Everyone knows what a task it is to find a room.  Particularly daunting is the thought of having somewhat crazy psychotic or worst a hippie vegan with staunch political views that won’t let me cook in the kitchen with animal products.  Those people exists.  Those people also wouldn’t want me as a roommate.  Roommate postings can range from sane to completely outrageous.  Vegans not wanting to share pots and pans, roommates wanting Taco TUESDAYS, must like this must like that must not do this must not do that.  It gets too much.  Viewings take on another rabid spirit.  When opening a door into a new apartment, there is sometimes that scary screeches from a soundtrack of a horror movie.   Think Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO. I don’t want to live with Normal Bates.   Then again it’s San Francisco I also don’t want to live with a Cheech Marin who will wreak of Nag Champa and patchouli.

I will miss my large and new kitchen.  I will miss the oven, where I have created shortbread, and cakes, and roasts, and toasts when I lacked a toaster.

On to a new journey.  More twists more turns.

The other week I cried.  I snorted and blubbered through a moist towel.  I sighed and breathed and got choked up.  I was watching Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. I don’t obsess over many things, or many humans, but I can sometimes obsess over food.  While watching the episode on Spain, I had a bit of an intense reaction to the beautiful philosophy that a culture had on food.  The innovation the soft beauty that was present in each family story.  Adhering to their roots…their culture, and transforming culinary traditions to create new ones.

It got me to thinking. I wanted to travel.  I yearned to.  I ache to.  I want to taste and savour the splendid tastes and aromas of regional cuisine.  I’ve gone on interviews with various chefs and talked about food, and when asked, “WHY?…do you pursue this…do you want this…what is it about food that you like…”

I’ve stated before that I can get pretty emotional with food, as well with art. But I was not expecting it to suddenly overwhelm me when I was watching the show. It evokes so much emotion in me.  A wonderful spirit.  Maybe it’s my fathers spirit lighting new hope within me ,when at times I thought all there was to this world was making my mother happy, and making money.

I couldn’t stop crying.  It wasn’t sadness, maybe it was envy maybe it was jealousy.  I wasn’t there to smell the wood burning, I wasn’t there to taste the seasonal farm fresh ingredients, overwhelmed with the sights and sounds of a different country.  The aromas, the language the sun all tied in a bundle around my heart.  Squeeeezing it sooo tight, that I really thought that my heart was about to burst.

It was just so beautiful.  And I want to experience that.  I love love love that.  The excitement the passion, and the tactile and sensory experiences.

I am exciting about this years change.  With $1200 of rent away…with getting my deposit back.  I am ready to move with no excuses.  With no looking back, no regret.  To be able to travel, catch that bug that my friends talk about.  Focus on expanding my palate with travel.  I can’t wait.  It will be a bit till I am able to save up for my culinary journeys, but it’s definitely going to happen.

I hail a toast to 2009 and beyond.  May the wine be bountiful and aromas be bright and warm.

Gateau Victoire…

I realize no matter where you’re at in life, what’s most important is your ability to adapt.  In the kitchen I find it so important to do just that…adapt.  As I had mentioned before, every kitchen is different…the staff…both front and back…managers…the ideology…the ethos…the menu…the attitudes etc.  What’s important is that you find the right place that best suites you. I’ve come across so many kitchens within my college years as well as beyond.  I have met so many facets of the business, as well as personalities.  The clash, the warmth, the oh so many descriptions of what can go on as well as who you come across.   The good the bad and the ugly of it all.

Tonight was my second night at this particular restaurant.   Tonight I remembered why I continue to passionately pursue cooking.  The way a simple pomegranate was being handled seemed completely different from any other restaurant I’ve worked at.  ONE….just one fruit…is treated like a precious gem.  This gem was cultivated by a front of house employees’ father who owns a farm.  This gem was aesthetically unpleasing to the public eye but beneath that rough and beguiling exterior lay tiny morsels of juicy pops.  Pops that resembled large popcorn kernels.  Popcorn kernels that were bursting with a crimson red.  No juices were lost.

Ohhhh, that look of excitement and the tiny giggle that came out of my pastry chef’s mouth.   The bright childlike innocence from her eyes that shook with wonder as she described to me the marvel of this particular pomegranate.  I loveeed it.  I too giggled inside when I stood there picking through the seeds and membranes.  I thought of her glasses and her rosy cheeks and the time she so happily charmed me with her love for that pomegranate.

Profit, consistency, whatever it is, it’s clear that the ones that really succeed do it mainly because the food always will be the stand out piece.  Pleasing the palates of your customers.  Imagine inviting someone into your house only to burn the turkey.  There’s this beautiful satisfaction that one gets from watching their loved ones carefully and quickly savor each bite that you have so lovingly created.

But what makes something stand out?  I don’t know yet. I’ll maybe figure it out one day.  For right now my focus is on the now…with slight dreamy flickers of the future.   I have to focus.

Tonight I realized that there was a distinctly  different air when I walked into a kitchen filled with my own peers who spoke of their similar love and excitement for food, who have knowledge of much of the same experiences that  I have.  To be able to connect and converse with an open dialogue.  To prove yourself in a different way.  Not just with strength.

There is a bit of a brotherhood/sisterhood that is formed when one has that familiar work ethic.   The hard work the sweat the toils of the kitchen.  The smooth movements the terminology, the confidence that one gets when you enter that hustle mode.  The crackle and buzz of the ticket machine, “OVEN!!” “HOT!!” BEHIND YOU!! HOT!!!” “TWO ALL DAY”….etc etc…

What I love most?  Ordering anything off the menu…what customers would pay 28-32 dollars for?  I get it…soup with soft roasted and simmered stocks? You got it…salads still so crisp they can resemble crisps? You got it…fresh from the farm greens with Banyuls vinaigrette and sharp white cheddar and golden raisins, roasted squab with an apple compote, lovely well seasoned roasted chicken with a bread salad and chicory, Devil’s Gulch rabbit with a mustard potato puree and braised garlic, bread soup with delicious imported Olivio Nuovo.  It’s all there and it’s what I have for dinner.   Fresh sushi from the 3 main fish markets in Japan? Never frozen and meticulously prepped?  I got it.  Spaghetti and savory yummy meatballs as large as the size of your clenched fists, fresh pastas, raviolis and all the charcuterie that I can eat…I once ate so much house made charcuterie on my first week of work that I got fever chills from overindulgence.

Never take this for granted.  In the end food is an essential part of life and I realize how lucky I am to experience this.  Even though I have not experienced a restaurant to the likes of El Bulli, I realize that if I ever did I would treat it like the most decadent meal.  If I ever go to the French Laundry? I would tear up with enchantment.  It’s a luxury and so are most forms of art; like theatre, or being able to purchase that Yinke Shoninbare piece, the symphony.  The finer things in life.  To which I think everyone should be exposed to.  As integral as food is to many old world cultures, I can begin to promote it as marvelously as I can to my friends and loved ones.

Oh how wondrous would it be for one to be able to conjure up and cultivate your own larder, with exotic and mind boggling imported items, the freshest herbs, the freshest most delicate and full flavored stocks.

Flickers of my future…I can’t tell you.  It’s really because I don’t know.  Presently It’s a beautiful thing…its something that when you are deep in thought and concentration nothing can mess you up, unless it’s that time of the month, a nasty breakup etc…but in a kitchen when your gunnin’ whole heartedly at it, that bit of ADD that was there all your life has suddenly pushed a pause button.  Your catapulted into your own realm of thought.

Here I stand with those that have been with this establishment for 10+ years.  The newbies…2 years…7 months…9 months…every single person I spoke with had a similar story of why they stayed.  Some culinary school grads, some not.  Many came from a college past, and decided to forgo their B.A’s or MfA’s in order to be in a kitchen.  Most of the chefs that I have had the brilliant time to work with did not come from culinary school.  It was their patience that lead them to where they are now.

Patience and conscious decisions go a long way when it comes to developing a successful entrepreneurial establishment.  Patience for someone who tears up from talking about food, patience for someone who hasn’t had much of schooling for the culinary arts.  Patience for the newbie.  Not many places can have or afford to do so.  With that being said…this was the first time I ever heard this when asked about my job performance…

“It looks like you aren’t green behind the ear”

Is that just more kitchen speak?

Common sense and being able to work in an environment that isn’t micromanaged makes your mental challenge so much more fulfilling.   An establishment that has the craft honed to a crisp from the years of paying attention in various kitchens.  Seeing what could be improved.  Using 4 plastic bins to shell through garlic?  Why?  There is a reason to why a restaurant exists and has stood the test of time.  Ahhhh, but common sense also comes with experience.  I hope to gain more.

“Hey Tina can you plate an anchovy plate”

As I sliced through that vegetables on my tiny cutting board and cut the four slices of cheese, plated the particular number of anchovies, the delicious green olive oil the cracked pepper the 5 nuggets of olives…there was an utter sense of pride and pleasure…

“That looks beautiful”.

I felt so giddy.

I’ve learned that an establishment that allows for questions is a prosperous one.

And as I savored that gooey bite of that mountainous thick rich gateau that layed there along that fresh and soft whipped cream…my tongue tingled with delight.  It smoothly dissipated in my mouth and down throat.   Not too sweet, but definitely a very skilful chocolate indulgence.  Ohhh sighhhhh…

Daydreamer.

There are moments and certain specific things in life that can bring me to tears.  Art is one thing, beautiful awe inspiring paintings, music, literature anything that is made with passion and an attempt to break through the mundane static of life.

Art is one.  I once cried during an interview with a curator at a gallery when we started to talk about Surrealism and female surrealists.  Many topics, from why I had chosen Art History as a major, and what is it that drives me.  It’s just something I really enjoy… it’s that simple.  I once felt that way with snowboarding…I still do when I can be on a ski lift and feel the crisp cold air…when I can ride down a hill and hit some small jumps along the way.  Its exhilarating.  Sometimes when I climb a tree after a couple of shots of whiskey I feel the same way.

Food is another. I teared up a couple of times talking to a couple of chefs about food.  For the same reason.  The beauty of it all.  The magnetic energy that both can bring to a dull conversation.  Beyond the world of sales and finance this to me is magic.

My brother’s and sister always complained that I was the overly passionate one of the bunch.  Maybe it was because I was the youngest.  I gained much respect for what was beautiful around me.  Maybe too much…

“Tina do you know what song You talk too much and you never shuttup?” Ms. Dan was her name.  She also told my parents, along with numerous others that “Tina is a daydreamer”… ADD ADHD…call it what you want, I just didn’t want to see grey amongst the vivd brights.

I was the daydreamer… and in someways the black sheep who always dreamed of becoming an artist.  I never became the photographer that I wanted to be but I gained much appreciation for the creative process. All of us siblings were a bit different, considering that we weren’t quite the token perfect Asian family, but i dearly look up to all of them.  They have all seen and been through some rough times, and to see them overcome certain obstacles through the years is pretty rad.   I long to be that person… I long to be that person that my siblings would soon respect. 

My passion comes forth through my love for food, and my passion is deep embedded in the warm hugs that I can offer.  Writing is something that I have learned to hone in on once again.

What is it?  What is it that flows within someone that can make something into nothing.  As I sit here and watch my beautiful friend paint an intricate watercolor painting, I am amazed at suddenly appears within minutes.  The creative process is an amazing human feat.  I admire the bravado that artists have, and the constant connection with their own unique flow of creativity.

I get this same amazement whenever I go home to see my neices and their sudden growth spurts.

The other day on the line I had my first taste of what it was like on the hot line.  I don’t mean a sexy phone talk line, I mean a line of cooks.  The burners the ovens, the pots the pans, the hot plates, the various mis en place. The quick flick of the saute pan.

“Eh Tina…Sergio wants to train you on the pastas.”

I did the “Uh…really?”  I stepped away from the pantry.

Tajarin, Parpadelle, Rabbit Agnolotti, Veal Agnolotti, ricottta gnocci, herb gnocci and more; truffle butter, porcini stock, veal stock, rosemary, marjoram, walnut butter, parsley, various wild mushrooms and well that large vat of butter.  Pan after pan, boiling liquids, fresh pastas.  I found it invigorating.  This time it was a combination of adrenaline, the pride that I was capable with the right training to be on a hotline filled with muscular large men.  My 5’2 self.   The dreaded hot line.  And the satisfaction that I alone made this babystep into something new.

A toss and a flick of the arm, the wild fire burning beneath the steel pans, the large vat of butter 6 orders 2 in one pan, a half order in another, 3 other pastas orders up. Bubble bubble boil … It’s not glamorous.  I end up with bruises on my arms from lord knows what.  I end up with cuts and knicks.  There is a callous on my finger from all the chopping, and my my shoulder blade is getting sharp pains.

I can often go into a tangent about what it is about food that I love.  I can also stop myself and fall short on words because of the same reasons.  Same with other forms of art.

Super Mercado…

So I have a few vices. It does not include harmful substances, well it does. It can cause heart defects, obesity, bad bowel movements and well there are numerous other ways that it can harm you. If done in excess, of course.

Home was a city that was ruled by majority Mexican Americans, and middle class Caucasians. It was here I learned the word Gracias. Where cheerleaders got the perks, and football games were the rage. Blue collar working class folk with families.  Considered “Cow Town”,  Chino wreaked of cow dung and manure.  It was once a farm town whose inhabitants were mostly farmers and migrant workers.  I remember a certain girl in French class who would ALWAYS copy off this nerdy lanky kid named Keith.

“Mr. Villneueve”…I said…

“Lisa is copying off Keith again”…

“Shuttup Tina” was the reply.

Lisa was orange, with crispy hair.   She always managed to keep a bottle of Aqua net at her desk. Or was it Rave?  It was those typical moments that really reenacted those classic television snippets that defined the jocks vs. the others.

It was here in Chino where I got my taste for cilantro, salsa picante, delicious grilled meats, and quite the affinity for tamales.

The SUPER MERCADO.  A completely different experience. The ladies at the checkout counter always remembered my mother. Spanish tabloids alongside Elle. The meat section even had a different smell. Tortillas, corn, matza mixed with sweet ripe fruits where mangoes were plentiful and pineapples were a staple.  Oh and that sweet sweet bakery.   If I wasn’t asking mom to buy a frozen pizza, I would often ask her to get a few pastries including a dense yellow cake with a light layer of pink frosting speckled withthose tiny rainbow confections. Oh it was so buttery and so good with milk.

Sometimes after school I would get locked out.  I would often stay at my neighbor, Carla’s house and eat her mother’s simple and delicious heart clogging food.  Beans made with lard, fresh tortillas, different types carne fried in Canola oil, rice with bits of potato and carrots.   My siblings were with extracurricular activities, my mother and father were at work, and my absent minded self would always forget the keys.   I learned to open the windows with a screwdriver at this time.  Looking the unordinary robber, I tweaked and screwed my way into the house.  With a jump and a climb I was in.  It was either the front or the back into the kitchen…either way I got in.

I met many girlfriends and their mothers who would influence my palate.

Rosa was her name.  She lived 4 blocks away from me.  I would often walk to her house and the numerous different Latin-American flavors, but like all other homes in the area rice and beans were always a staple. Our family had our jasmine rice.  Rosa would often snack on Lays’s potato chips with lime and Tapatio, a spicy condiment that laid on the table naturally like light. From the different homes I learned to fall in love with Carne Asada.  How delicious is flank or skirt steak that is marinated with fresh herbs and spices and BEER.   How oh that meat was marinated and grilllled up to perfection and succulence when it landed in your mouth.  The freshness and the intense flavors that acompletely married together once rolled inbetween that warm tortilla.  Oh how I crave a good homecooked taco once I landed here in San Francisco.

So I ran into Michelle.  She was a neighbor that I met during my freshman year of high school.  As she stated…Her mother was a single mother of two…and it was here that I was introduced to American Consumer goods.  If she had a class she would name it American Consumer Goods101. Michelle was a young vibrant girl with the gusto that would rival Donald Trump.  Bless her lovely heart, she is now in NYC and a successful spirited woman.  Michelle and I would walk to school together…I in my shorts and tanktop and her in her jeans and dare I say it her TYE DYED SHIRT!!

Often times most parents were at work so most of my friends had to make their own snacks.  Simple tortillas fried in oil with cheddar sandwiched in the middle. After school I soon discovered how tasty cheese would be after being melted in a microwave.  Simple fare that was new to me and warm to me.   But as tasty as those morsels were, I still longed for my mother’s rice and soups.

Frozen packaged goods.  Hostess cakes.  Not much was homemade, but I was introduced to such sodium loaded and ornately packaged items.   It was however, early on with the help of my father that I discovered American fast food.

Summers were year round in Chino and so were the BBQ’s.  It was a juxtaposition of American side items and Mexican staples.  Potato salads alongside grilled meats, hot-dogs and tamales, and guacamole side by side with a ranch flavored sour cream.  Junior high and high-school were the pinnacle moments of my suburban epicurean delights.

Fried Chicken, Pizza, and Bar B Q. Meats. My mother never really fried anything but eggrolls. She was really concious about what the family ate. She wanted everything to be cooked at home, not only because it saved us money but because American food was full of unmentionables.

She told us that “American food” was fattening was harmful and full of chemicals. Processed foods were never really kept in the house, so that meant: no cookies, no sodas, no beer, no alcohol, no butter, no bacon, no ham (no deli meats), hot dogs, chocolates. There was MSG but when mom found that she was getting headaches from it she launched it out of the window. It was hidden in the very very deep dark crevice alllll the way in the back of the spice cabinet.

When I started going to school I would get excited over American deserts like chocolate cake! Pizza was another favorite, and of course always with pepperoni. American food was such an interesting and delicious thing for me. Who could resist potato flakes turned into mashed potatoes and gravy! There was pizza in the plastic wrapper, hot dogs wrapped in a bagel, orange juice, chocolate, or plain milk in those cute mini milk cartons, fruit in a cup, mousse in a cup I mean pudding, goodness what else was there?

I learned that I really like mashed potatoes, I really like gravy, I really liked mustard. Sometimes I would beg my mom to let me get those nifty Handysnacks or Lunchables, just so I could fit in with the other suburban children. They never really made it to lunch the next day. I enjoyed my time immensely in the Asian market with my mother. Here there was this odd juxtaposition of American packaged goods and Vietnamese, to Japanese, to Chinese. I usually wandered off when my mom was haggling with the fish mongers. Jimmy Dean Sausage patties, Swanson chicken pot pies, amongst frozen crab claws. Chips like Doritos, Lays and all those major brands were amongst; Shrimp Chips, Banana chips, dried squid with chili, preserved mangos with chili…oh and those sticks that came in a cup and you could tip them in chocolate. It was a virtual portal into taste bud heaven!

Oh the smells of the Asian Super Market–moth balls, meaty, fishy, it often wreaked of Pine Sol.

As I got older I waited in the car. While mom was shopping I was listening to KROQ or some of my tapes. By this time my strict mother was letting me go to friends houses–well, that took a bit of coaxing. It was here that I came upon those wonderful backyard BBQ’s. American style cooking, steaks, casseroles, more pizza. It was different food was different, ambiance was different, packaging was different even other mother’s plastic containers were different. Most my friends lived in track homes, or cute one story suburban gems. Our family lived in a cozy apartment.

Cakes…my mother’s butter cake was dense and sweet and buttery, American cake was soft fluffy airy, and so fun to make. I talked earlier about a cake that I made with the dark brulee crust that was well BURNT. But it was experimenting with these packaged items that really helped me become a bit of a guru with pre packaged foods. Pre-portioned out cake mixes, those packaged boxes of noodles and sauce where you added the beef. This was magic to me. I experimented with different meats, different aromatics to add to the packaged goods

While my brothers got to hang out with their friends I was at home waiting to see if they brought me home any chips. My favorite were those Andy’s Fries. Those semi spicy fry shaped chips. On the cover of the bag was a somewhat Wimpy (from Popeye) like character with a large newsboy cap that covered his eyes. The sodium rich and crunchy morsels were so exciting for me, and so were Slim Jims.

I never really felt a sense of difference, we were always one of the few Asian families in the whole city.  I just really enjoyed my youth going to friends houses and eating their mother’s food.

My father took care of his family and he took care of us 200%. Giving all his heart and tender soul to his precious wife and children.  Even though both were always at work their love radiated throughout the house.  Like many of the families in the area he always dreamed of was winning the lottery, winning that American dream. Dad would buy lottery tickets at the liquor store a few blocks from home. He bought various scratchers and of course the Super Lotto–He wanted the Jackpot! On Saturdays he would always tune into NBC to see if his name was ever called to be on the Lotto show. It never was. It was a simple game of hope, and wishes that would never be granted. He never took it extremely seriously but a part of me knows that he really ached to win…for us.

Oh the liquor store. Sour Warheads (the candy), chips, Drumsticks, different juice drinks you name it. Sometimes to a child’s eyes the liquor store had more than the supermarkets. Such a small concentration of so many impulse items. A virtual Vegas for children. All the sinful teeth rotting treats within a concentrated environment of liquors and beer.

Now I realize how much of an impact all this really had on me.  I now will make lovely slow braised meats and stews that highlight both cultures.  Admiring the similarities and the differences, I am now able to appreciate all the spark of both cultures.  An anise flavored stew will mimic the taste of Pho while the cilantro and fresh diced onions will take me back to that beautiful Pozole of the past.

As the holidays creep around the corner, I miss the days when Carla or Christina’s mother would knock on our apartment door and drop off their homemade tamales.  Pork, beef, chicken, and sweet beans would gently lay themselves on our rickety kitchen table.  My mother’s crisp and piping hot eggrolls would dance playfully with the flavors of the Mexican cocina. I realize how blessed and not cursed I was to be surrounded by the authentic and hard working class people that made up our neighborhood and community.

Pork Belly

So you know, I get stressed.   When my mother stresses me out it involves a long drawn out lecture on being a woman on being a successful woman on being a successful asian woman.  Who doesn’t want success?  It’s more of a question of how do I obtain it and what does it mean to me.  Some people spend the majority of their lives seeking this out.  Hopefully that won’t be me (knocks on wood). I find solace in the kitchen.  I’ve said it before but you know the other day it really hit.  I was stressed out a bit and all I wanted to do was cook.  I wasn’t hungry, but I got antsy and wanted to cook what? I didn’t know! But I just wanted to create something.

My mother cooked on a budget.   She raised a family of 5 on a low and rigid fixed income, but somehow she managed to kick out some of the freshest and most flavorful meals that were full, fresh and balanced.  An abundance of crisp greens, various pickled or preserved items, and fresh herbs. Her cooking brought to life so many of the senses; cold, hot, sweet, sour, salty, fishy, meaty, bitter.  My mother had a knack for making simple cuts of meats, and vegetables taste so different and oh so flavorful throughout the years.  I never remember being bored at the table.  That is why lately, I’ve been so drawn to simplicity.  Just another way of cooking, less aromatics, more technique and well simplicity.  One of those “let the flavors come out by themselves” .  Of course some coaxing from salt helps.

o  A wonderful memory I have is of her homemade molasses.   The smells would permeate the air of our apartment.  The bubbling dark black liquid gave a rich burnt thick slighty bitter ember smell that was oh so soothing.  She used this frequently in her braised meat dishes.  She also inspired me to marry sweet and salty together.  I like to add sugars, jams, fruits, sweet wines,  fruit juices even sodas to some of my braises.  I remember.  I am learning to hone in on my memories past and present to create…

The other night I made a Persimmon and Carrot soup with potatoes and a slight kick of ginger and clove. Call it your variation of a ginger carrot soup.  I ended up with a mixture that was about eighty percent as a puree.   I tend to prefer that rustic texture.  It was nice because the combination of the sweet carrots and sweet persimmons melded well together, all while bleeding out a rich and delightful orange.

Growing up, my mothers pantry was well stocked with fresh veggies, lovely exotic aromatics, dried goods, and lean meats.  My mother didn’t have the luxury of shopping at a Whole Foods or any of those specialty grocery shops, she shopped at the local Asian market, where the fish smells swam all through the isles.  Where it didn’t cost you an arm and a leg to feed a family.  Where the meats weren’t all grassfed, and where the fish were fished, gutted and fried right in front of you.  Tropical smells in the isles, bad packaging in the packaged food section.  And well… it wasn’t the most sanitary looking place.

She may have lacked the means to a farm to table meal but what she didn’t lack was the use of spices, herbs, and other ingredients that would expand her daily dinners.  What was braised pork loin with soy sauce and garlic,  the next day was braised pork loin with ginger, marinated grilled pork over broken rice another day or her ever so popular fish sauce braised pork belly with whole hard boiled eggs.  She used her wonderful homemade molasses for this.

I remember when we ate that specific pork belly dish, there was always that accompaniment of pickled bitter greens. Pretty similar to bok choy, I would consider it…slightly spicy.  Maybe even similar to wasabi.  But when pickled it was crisp and  cold, tart and tangy.  The eggs were my favorite part. After they were hard enough, I would help her peel them and plunge them into the rich pork broth bath.  When finished, the eggs yielded this lovely brown coat that was so pretty when it was cut in half.

“Don’t eat too many eggs…they aren’t good for you” my mother would say.  But it’s sooooo good! The soft fatty pork that fell apart, the sweet and the savory the broth that flavored the jasmine rice was like heaven to me. It was so pretty, the layers of the rich glutenous fat and pork, the egg that was multi layered with colors from the broth that was permeating into the whites.  It was a thick heart clogging Vietnamese bacon! My mother banned this dish from the house because of health reasons.  I still miss it.

It’s so amazing how much we can be influenced by our memories.  Whenever I cook I always think of the people I care about.  A lot of it is making them happy through food.

An artist once stated that, “for me the best feeling I have when im painting is when i dont know how its gonna end…for me its a feeling of a challenge and a risk and for the ability that I dont know what the end result is going to be…I get a lot of joy from that.” – Maya Hayuk

I get the same feeling when I cook.

I’ve been spending some time at the library, or bringing home various culinary books to read.  The other day one inspired me to study more French technique and cuisine. I made something that night that came from the influence of another culture.  With Vietnamese cuisine there is quite the French influence.

As the soup was bubbling and boiling I then gave my attention to the chicken thighs.  One caste iron skillet later I had myself a nice chicken dinner.  The chicken’s skin crisped and browned to perfection as it roasted atop a bed of green apples and onions.   As flavors concentrated and deepened I finished the dish up with a braised milk sauce using the lovely brown remnants of the pan.

I had little to work with, but it WAS because I had little to work with what I had.  Something beautiful and spontaneous   When you have less you learn to work with more of your imagination.   The persimmon soup was a bit French a bit Vietnamese a lil’ bit Italian.  I topped the soup with a fresh sage leaf and a lovely drizzle of olive oil.  I began to plate: Placing the chicken atop the asparagus I knew I had accomplished something!  Just like the artist’s quote I got so much joy from the end result.  I let the sauce reduce just slightly and whisked a little butter.  A little drizzle over the chicken and a bit around the plate and there it was.

You know what’s so fun about it? It’s the feeling that your mind is racing  creating at that moment, consistent imagination and a plate delicious food.

Clint Eastwood….

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (sometimes). 

Life is not very balanced is it? Is it just being 27 and not quite figuring it out yet, or maybe it’s just that hard sometimes to get back on your feet after you’ve been laid off.  Yesterday I was slicing Coppa. 700 slices into it and I wasn’t even bored.  I’ve heard horror stories of a roomful of potatoes… maybe that guy meant a bucket and a lot os exageration.  Today as I was peeling salsify I though would get bored of this if given a bucket plus to peel?  No…I used to really like cleaning calamari. What would take 3 hours the first time was 1 hour next time. Same with pizza dough.  It was at a bar downtown. It was transitioning from a nightclub, into a restaurant.   In the day a full French/ Mediterranean restaurant and at night transforming into a loud dance club.  2 months into it bye bye chef–so his sous became the head honcho and I became her part-time left arm (you catch this joke?). Oh yeah, I worked the bar shift after my days at the museum.  So that meant loads of apps and bar items, like fries. 

Days were spent working at a museum and at night I ran outta work to become a cocktail waitress.  I was stable enough to give up the cocktail shift, if the new chef would give the non culinary grad a chance.  She did–and this would my novice first start.  I learned a couple of things; what a walk in was (know i know…), bainmarie , a hotel pan, a sheet pan, how to pull pizza dough, how to clean calamari, how to clean up the kitchen, how to toss in a bowl with just a flick of the arm.

Some bad some good.  

Well balance…with the good comes the bad. The good and the bad and of course the ugly… the sharp  knife–the bad cut–and the horrible scar, the bottom of the barrel and rising to the top through the muck in the middle.  Satisfaction… am I ever going to see it? 

These past couple of months, I have been fortunate to have met some interesting people along the way.  Usually they have given up something to be in the kitchen. Especially the ones that decided to pursue cooking.  Stories include but are not limited to; one person graduating from Cornell and who steered away from his major, the other person was an engineer, another Univ. of Boulder Grad turned Architect, people with their M.A’s, MfA’s PhD”s, painters, sculpters, an ex hotel manager, a luxury goods and retail manager, one guy even refused the financial help of his wealthy family ( I would try to negotiate with the rents‘ ). All these individuals now work in the kitchen as staff or Chef or Owner.  

 I didn’t give up much I just got laid off (hope that didn’t sound bitter), and of course I’m not bitter.  A pastry cook relayed an experience to me of a time when she decided 10 years after she graduating from college that she wanted to give up her lucrative career to attend baking school.  It was so nice to see her lift her head up high and say,”You know when you wake up everyday and are happy to be doing what your doing it’s not so bad…” Doesn’t that sound so cliche?  I mean it is but,  it’s a common anthem for people like her.  She did also tell me that if she knew what was to come that she would not have paid all that money to culinary school.  See with good the bad.  

Two chefs that I have worked with really helped me gain the confidence to be thrown in a kitchen, my mentors. I told them this and one guy replied,  “Well I wish I would have steered you away from that path”.  I think he meant it jokingly.   This same Chef told me a story about how when he was first apprenticing, his chef had decided that from out of nowhere he was the victim–so with a stabbing point of a finger and the brutal image of and red stained bucket, the whole tub of tomato sauce was poured all over him, in the walk-in. I still laugh when I think of this story.   

See, thats the great thing about this all.  I love hearing some of these stories of what people have gone through for cooking.  One of my favorite pictorials and spreads in a magazine was the Gourmet magazine PARIS volume. An Argentinian woman began cooking at 30 and has gained world wide recognition for her food.  She states that she stayed in Paris because she fell in love with a boy.  How charming. I like hearing stories about how food captures a bit or a whole lot of somebody’s heart.  

I knew someone who connected the warm and amazing food of their childhood, and associating that with some of the greatest moments of their life.  Comparing the fresh pasta that their mother made or recalling what East Coast pizza tastes like.  I know many people will always feel that it was their “mothers” something that was so good (don’t laugh), I mean I’ve heard people say “My mom made the best this…”  or that.  And, it’s true.  My mom made the best eggrolls, and noodle soups HANDS DOWN!! 

Another Chef told me a great story of persistency and about his first restaurant gig.  At 30 he discovered that he wanted to cook. He learned to cook because “I missed my mom’s cooking and I had to cook for myself”.  He had been a regular at the restaurant for years but decided that that wasn’t enough.  He bugged a particular chef who would later become his mentor about working in the kitchen. “Absolutely not” or “Are you sure?” his mentor would say.  Pointless to mention but to make for better writing,  persistency worked out for him–4 months of it.    One day he opens up the daily paper and “Oh Look” that same restaurant was calling for kitchen help.  So the chef gave him his chance and he worked his way up, and now he owns one of my favorite places here in the city.  

My parents talked me out of going to a trade school for cooking, so I decided that Art History was my best bet. I still use my college degree, when I talk about art; surrealism to post modernists.  The people that i’ve met have really helped me realize that you don’t always have to go to culinary school.  This idea was a great factor to me to never dive into cooking.  But this time I was persistent.

Food connects me when I am away from my mother and my father.  When this happens I like to explore the Vietnamese cuisine around town, but as always,  nothing compares to mamma’s clean good cookin’.