Searching high and low for my next recipe…
A Musical Diary
Searching high and low for my next recipe…
I was inspired to draw a connection with the recent Spring/ Summer 2010 Alexander McQueen runway.
HE IS AMAZING. His conceptual response to fashion and the runway is major with it’s Avante Garde staging as an installation. Going through his archival of runway shows I find myself saying over and over again “WOW” or “Oh my GOD!” even “WOWIE” was proclaimed. Each show is a meeting of massive multi dimensional morphing! Pure visual imagery and pleasure. MY GOAL is to go through each runway show and create a multi faceted menu:
Just read the didactics from Fall/Winter 08: “
Based on the British Empire, the Queens of England, the Duke of Wellington, toy soldiers and punk princesses, this fashion fairy tale is dominated by an ancient tulle-wrapped tree referencing the work of the artist, Christo. For the first half of the show our heroine is dressed in beautiful rags: nipped waisted jackets, Victorian-line dresses with S-bend corseted tops, textured, hand-knitted mohair and washed tweeds all in dark or neutral colours lend a make-do-and-mend feel to the proceedings. It isn’t long, though, before our Princess meets her Prince Charming, at which point she descends from her treetop habitat and finds all the riches of the world at her disposal. Her clothing duly explodes into colour and references everything from the wardrobe of the young Princess Elizabeth –crimson velvet New Look dresses, ermine wraps and a bastardised Union Jack print – to the palaces of the Maharajas – a draped, predominantly empire-line silhouette finished with paper-flat embroidered slippers, each pair bespoke and created to complement its own outfit.”
In this link is McQueen’s 2010 line titled PLATO”S ATLANTIS I find playful inspiration sparking up inside me again. Haunting and awe inspiring, it revives my imagination so that it doesn’t relocate to a less creative space…and that BUILDUP!
YUMM. This futuristic, reptilian, aquatic and hedonistic, fetish bound concept of this particular line sparked a vision of what I would be able to do with food. Most the time food at its purist form is the most attractive and this connection with wildly exotic can conjure up rich stews, pastas, bountiful and beautiful greens layers of flavor, seafood game meats…It’s beautiful really, it evokes a playful passion that imparts the same attraction when viewed, and surely enough thats relevant with food.
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…
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.
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…
It has been planned for nearly 3 decades that this day would come that inevitably I would be pursuing cooking FULLY.
Of course its more than fate that lead me to this day.
I remember hearing stories of when my father and mother would tell me that I picked an egg and a pair of scissors. I loved hearing this story because I was always a creative child who excelled in the arts.
So that you can further comprehend, there is this old Buddhist tradition, that in your first year of birth you are allowed to pick up two items from a table that would later determine your destiny. Consider it like self handpicked clue to the rest of your life.
Creativity and Food, I took it as Creativity and Life…
You can look at it either way.
Of course my brothers and sisters picked up, a calculator, pair of glasses, a pencil, a pen and a book. I don’t remember the rest but my sister ended up a driven business woman and dotting mother of 4, my brother a writer/ philosopher and a fireman, and my other brother into sales and marketing, all admirable in their rank, all graduated with degrees and some. Then there was me, the egg and the scissors. While I decided at 18 I wanted to dive into food.
“No” my mother would say. Girls are meant to stay clean and pretty and the kitchen is tough work and long hours. My daughter will never be doing that”
My mother in a nutshell. Actually no, my mother was a manicurist, to expand on this she was quite the workhorse. When she passes she will be a martyr because she lived for her children, she worked and breathed for her children. She was a lowly paid immigrant mother who never wanted her children to struggle like she did. But as long and strenuous and she worked she would come home and there would ALWAYS be fresh hot food on the table. Fresh stocks in the freezer, fresh herbs, fresh vegetables, fresh fruit. And of course always on a budget.
“Mom don’t you remember that I picked an egg and a pair of scissors? Don’t you think that meant something?”
“Don’t you realize that this was all superstition? It’s just a fun tradition”
“Well then why do you always say that it rang true for everybody else?” Everybody else meaning my brothers and sister.
I was always pretty spiritual and admired the idea that someone out there was looking out for me and that there was something mystical in the air that would lead me to my path. I liked this idea because from an early age I began to cook. I was fascinated by flavors and textures and how food felt in my mouth. I savored every last morsel of my mothers cooking and when my father took me out to “other” restaurants I would sometimes go into a daze about the food I was cherishing down.
My first true experience and my FIRST experience with being in a kitchen was at a spaghetti shack. When I went here for the first time I fell in love with the ambiance but most importantly I fell in love with the tangy and thick marinara sauce that blanketed the strands of spaghetti. The meatballs that were served with plate were large and beautifully savory. This took me back…it took me back to a time when my father would take me to this dingy Italian restaurant in our hometown and my favortite thing to get was the spaghetti and meatballs, that tangy sauce resonated through my memory and for years I never found something comparable to the sauce.
I bugged the chef endlessy for months to let me behind from just being a customer to becoming his apprentice. “For Free” I said. Well months later he called me out on it and I finally had my first training. On and off for a few months I came back into the kitchen. The haunting smells that would linger on me for hours even after leaving “the shack”, this was a safe warmth to me that holds dear to me because it was like a hug from my father.
My delight came from Saturdays with my father when he would come home from work and bring me home “American FOOD”
From Chinese takeout, In and Out Burgers, Fried Chicken, to Spaghetti and meatballs.
To me these were all considered American FOOD because all I had experienced really was my mother delicious Vietnamese home meals.
Her dinners were always abundant, there was always a soup to accompany a rice dish with a luscious table full of cucumbers to freshen the palate from the salty and savory spiced proteins that were served alongside fresh herbs. Her porridge was a homage to her mother and all the mothers and grandmothers who came before her and was like soft cushion of warmth in the cold winter months. Her soups and stocks were elegant and refined with delicate flavors that were bright and vibrant. I can’t say enough about my mothers cooking and there will never be someone who I feel would ever be able to mimic her clean style of cooking. I remember going to the markets with my mother, her 5’1 frame would coyly ask the produce man “Sir would you happen to have anything special back there or fresher??” of course he would run back to her with fresher basil, mint, sprouts anything. I was sometimes embarrassed by how much she would torture the fish mongers and butchers with the same question when they would say no she would argue with them and complain about the quality of meats that were present.
“Look woman if you don’t want it don’t buy it”
to that my mother would reply “YOUR MOM” and elegantly walk away annoyed because she didn’t get her way.
“No no not that one…the one next to it…no the bigger piece…less fat less fat, no no not that one…the eyes are too grey…yeah that one its plump!” From her I learned quality.
My father was the juggernaught of force in my early culinary discovery. I remember a time when he was a cook at a Chinese restaurant. He wore many hats, he was once a school bus driver, a mailman, a line cook at a Chinese restaurant, a line cook at a bowling alley, a gardener, a migrant worker, a janitor, and of course my favorite a baker. He was an educated man who immigrated to his country because he was in love with my mother and in love with his children and wanted a better life for them. So BOTH did whatever they could in order to raise us very well.
One day dad brought home an EEL! I had never seen one before and was curious to what I was about to see. He plopped the thing in the bathtub filled with water and said that it was still alive. It slithered through the water still alive and whipping.
I watched him butcher the writhing creature till it was just bits. Cleaned of all innards and blood it did it cleanly with a cleaver and a wooden cutting board, with his feet flat on the floor and squatting down. Raising that cleaver like it was an axe and he was the cowboy. He made the most delicious curried stew in that electric wok, with lemongrass, garlic, onions, curry powder, carrots and potatoes with of course that one floating bay leaf hidden within. The eel fell off the bone and we gladly ate the fish sauce infused stew with bread.
Both were gifted in the culinary arts, and both were sticklers for freshness and flavors.
My mother would have to work early in the mornings but my favorite day to wake up were Saturdays. I would get a light kiss on the forehead, slowly wake up from my slumber and make a trek to the living room…pulling my heavy blanket through the hallway. Sleep till about 9:00. Do you remember cooking shows before there was even the Food Network? Do you remember these beautiful classic and just straightforward cooking shows that would elevate and inspire so many other future chefs? I do. And I remember Jacques Pepin, and The Frugal Gourmet, Julia Child, Martin Wong, Lydia Bastianich, YES I remember allllll of these and I remember that watching them cook was like learning about the most profound things that I have ever come across. SO within my nearly 3 decades I was talked out of a cooking career. What was the catalyst? What was the last straw? What was it that made me get into cooking now? I remember yearning to try what fresh homemade pasta wasted like, I remember learning important vernacular that I still use to this day. Julienne, slice, dice, mirapoise, bechamel, to butterfly, to pound…I remember it all.
Please read over this post again…Just because I was talked out of it before never made it impossible to pursue.
I have so many fond memories of food and how they have enveloped my thoughts and how much I find passion within flavors and producing awe inspiring cuisine. Learning and working around it alone, I feel that I have been privileged to be around and have such great mentors past and present. I hope this will be an interesting journey.
Let’s start off by admitting that I was hesitant to enter the world of food partly due to fear.
I was fearing losing my femininity, I was fearful of the long hours, I was also fearful of the financial burden and questioned whether I would be able to sustain myself.
This is new to me, the long hours on your feet, the concentration, and the chaos. Coming home smelling savory, cuticles dry.
Let’s get it straight…all those things aren’t really new to me, more or less I have been witness to the long hours on my feet as a waitress, the concentration (fairly new) and well the chaos. I’ve always liked chaos, but what I like in a kitchen in the organized chaos. The dry cuticles on the other hand have intensified.
I currently live in San Francisco in a small studio with a very large kitchen and a separate bathroom. It’s pretty cute and most importantly it’s my own. With that being said, it is also expensive. What I said earlier about being able to sustain myself.
So far It has been 8 months since my official layoff from a 9-5 and 7 into my attempt at this cooking career. And so far I’ve accomplished much. Yesterday I was passing through a couple of waiters counting their tips as my 5’2 small framed self was carrying stacks of hotel pans through them. I thought to myself “Damnit what am I doing?” seconds later as I headed over to my station I realized NO REGRETS! This was something that took 27 years in the making and now I have a chance to pursue it!