Sunday, December 30, 2012

Cat piss and books

"I think there's a cat here"
"It smells like there's a horde of them"

Indeed it did, for other than the general squalor of the lieu, the first thing that assaulted the senses was a stinging, clinging miasma of concentrated feline urine.

This place sells cookbooks?

Books, yeah, there's a lot of them here - all somehow related to cooking, although I'd expect a few cat lore tomes hidden somewhere in the dusty aisles. This was the right place, a culinary-only used book store somewhere in the urban gumbo of greater Los Angeles. We learned about the place while looking for a book in our favorite bookstore - out of stock, but maybe we could try...

There are about five cookbooks that I'd like to find, and there's nothing better than finding a $40+ cookbook gleaming on the shelves of a used bookseller, it's original price slashed to affordability. Sometimes the books are a bit scribbled in, with helpful notes from their former readers giving the books a sense of history. Most often, they were just unused gifts in pristine condition.

I inquired about a recent book, not expecting them to have it.

"We don't have that," the book purveyor stated flatly, then turned back to whatever she was doing amid stacks of clutter.

"How about...?"

"No, we don't have that either."

"Where would you have similar books?"

"Over there," she pointed. Apparently she was too comfortable to actually move.

So I walked the aisles, scanning for titles of interest. Ah, there's something by Claudia Roden. $35.00. But... this book is $40.00 new, untainted by constant immersion in the cloying fumes of cat urine. Back it went. Ah, something on mezze... with another almost-new price. I tried another book, one that I'd found at a regular used book store, sans eau de chat. Double what I'd paid.

Fearing that the eau de chat would soon impregnate our clothing, our hair, the very pores of our skin, we left.

We thanked the bookseller on the way out, stifling any comments about litter boxes and odor removers. There was no reply as the door shut with a wood and glass clank, sealing off the store from the clean air outside. We took deep breaths, bookless.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Life's a pumpkin?

Sometimes it seems like we're all living inside a big pumpkin, just going 'round and 'round as everything around us slowly rots, sinking into the earth. Checking some seeds here, nibbling some flesh there.

The question is, how many of us dare to take a knife and cut a hole to see what's outside? How many even remember that there is an outside?

Monday, November 26, 2012

Goodbye side panel

First, I got an Error 403 message instead of a sidebar. That's bad.

Then, things improved: the message became, "There was an error in this gadget".

Looks like the Recent Posts sidebar no longer works. I don't know why, but it had to go.

It seems that the 403 message is sent by the web server (a machine somewhere in the heart of Googledom) without any specifics or information on why it was sent nor how to correct the problem - other than simply removing the offending gadget.

So, goodbye for now, little panel. Adieu. Sayonara, farewell. I hope your death by the 403 Error Reaper was not too gruesome - although that might improve my hit count...

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Autumn menus

Roast herb-rubbed rack of lamb, shallots, jus
White Tepiary beans with herbs
Lemon basmati rice, barberries, saffron
Syrah. Ceago, 2005. Biodynamic.

Roast chicken, kohlrabi, Yukon Gold potatoes
simple, all done with a bit of oven timing.

Duck confit, baked French pumpkin with pepitas, halloumi & Calvados, Wild mushroom Yukon gold unsmashed potatoes.
Merlot. Tapiz, Argentina.

Deconstructed mega-bacon shu mai. Seasoned ground pork, bacon, Brussels sprouts, won ton wrappers, mustardy sauce.
Freixinet Cava, brut.

Chawanmushi. Shrimp, fresh shiitake, dashi, scallions in steamed custard.
Turkey Udon. Udon noodles in turkey broth, turkey tonkatsu, enoki mushrooms. The tonkatsu is just pieces trimmed during preparation of the turkey, breaded and fried, dropped on the noodles as a garnish.

Bacon-wrapped boneless turkey breast with spinach strata. Lemon-baked yams, raw orange/mint/cranberry relish, Garlic/mushroom/bacon mashed Yukon Gold potatoes, gravy.
Calvados Apple pie.
Clarksburg Chenin Blanc
Clarksburg C. vociferous (this worked because of the bacon).


Crusted baked turkey legs. Sourdough rosemary bread, mashed potatoes.


Pilgrim Pasties. Sort of like Cornish pasties - but turkey based. Leftover dark meat, carrots, onions, garlic, herbs wrapped in pasty dough and baked.
Clarksburg Delta Rouge.
Laubade Armagnac.

Chicken Marsala. Sage, porcini, Marsala, prosciutto, chicken breast.


Chicken Korma, basmati rice.
Made with lots of cardamom so you can taste it long after the meal is over.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Meal for the last fling of summer

The storm arrives tomorrow. Wind, rain, clouds. Things that have been scarce these last five months.

The weather situation will be grim, so only one thing to do: make a final tribute to summer meal.

Summer's Last Fling

- Sourdough whole wheat rosemary boules (bread).

- Sencha infused roast acorn and kabocha squash with butter-sautéed pippin apples.

- Ratatouille

- Poached and planked pork shoulder with chimichurri sauce

- Slow braised chicken with three mushrooms

- Baklava


Vinho verde

It was a great day to sit outside in the warm sun, something to remember when the tule fog wraps everything in its cold embrace.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Meals that might have been

There's no negotiation at the Oak Cafe, so I'm not in the back of the house this semester. A month's advance notice or just failing to show up give the same result: you're out! So, after a pre-emptive drop I'll try again next year.

Just because I was to be thrown out of the class does not mean that I didn't do my homework, in the hope that somehow reason would prevail. It didn't, but I still like the fall menus I created. I might even invite some friends over and make one or two of them.

The assignment was to talk about my inspirations. With this paper, I was already breaking the rules, because we're supposed to start with Famous Chefs for inspiration. I don't. I start from fresh, seasonal ingredients, tie them together with a theme and prepare a menu.

As an aside, I'm not really a Famous Chef fan. The chefs I admire most are the ones who stay with their customers to create wonderful meals in a warm, welcoming atmosphere. They might write a cookbook or two, hold culinary events in their restaurant, or do other local activities - but they aren't the guys who are constantly on television, opening restaurants thousands of miles apart and hawking their brand of Things That Come in Bottles designed more by food engineers than chefs.

Since this was a seasonal menu, I went with cuisines that follow the seasons, using typical autumnal ingredients like pumpkins, mushrooms, quince, game (well, duck anyway), pomegranates, persimmons and pine mushrooms for the Japanese menu.

Everything was supposed to come from one, inspiring chef. Unfortunately, I preferred recipes from several chefs in the same theme, so another broken rule.

Three Inspirations

The real inspiration is the food, the different courses linked by a common theme and in this case done in a common style per menu. People enjoying food around a table is the true end goal; recipes and cookbooks are but a means to that end - as are preparation, training, quality ingredients and the panoply of things that must be done and known in order for that seemingly simple meal to be a success.

With this in mind, I’m starting from the meals themselves and working towards chefs who fit into the theme. These foods also come from places with a sense of seasonality, especially Japan where they may go so far as to simulate a full autumn moon in a bowl of soup.


These foods were great things to find, coming in from a cold autumn day. These aren’t high-end, three star restaurant foods; they’re things people in France eat more or less regularly. Except maybe the millefeuille, but part of the idea is to make things you love.
Sample Menu
Brandade de morue, Pumpkin soup, Confit duck gizzard salad with pine nuts, Toulouse sausages with beans, millefeuille, quince tarte. Country-style sourdough bread.
Paula Wolfert, Julia Childs, Auguste Escoffier, Alain Senderens, Peter Reinhard (bread)


This started with an Iranian restaurant in Pasadena. The place was for some reason never crowded, but the people inside seemed to be enjoying themselves. So I ventured inside to discover some really wonderful foods. We have restaurants just as good here in Sacramento, where in addition to the printed menu, they often secretly brew up a pot of khoreshe fesenjan, yours for the asking.

Sample Menu
Pomegranate soup, Stuffed quince, Duck/Pomegranate stew with nuts (khoreshe fesenjan), Ground lamb kebab, baklava, rice pudding. Pita bread, herbs.

Claudia Roden, Maideh Mazda


I really didn’t have many white friends where I grew up, since the hood was at least eighty percent Asian. So, when I was invited over for something to eat, it wasn’t PBJ’s. Since then, I’ve traveled to Japan, and dined for a while at a small kaiseki-inspired restaurant in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles. That’s where I discovered chawan mushi and matsutake. Tako yaki was discovered in Tokyo on a cold day as I was passing by some street vendors. Then there's that izakaya place where you squeeze in and order of a chalkboard that changes constantly...

Sample Menu
Pine Mushroom (matsutake) soup, (or tako yaki ), custard soup (chawan mushi), Miso-grilled fish, Katsu Kare (curried breaded pork cutlet), Persimmon ice cups, Sesame crisps, Steamed chestnut-bean squares. Rice.

Kuwako Takahashi, Elisabeth Andoh
I don't know if they would have accepted these people, since they're not hip, fusion or cutting edge. They just write (or wrote) good recipes for traditional Japanese food.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

No more isms!

Capitalism. Socialism. Communism.

Isn't it time we thought of something better? None of these things creates any kind of utopia. Most are based more on some kind of leap of faith than on hard science, where hypotheses are tested with facts.

There seem to be a lot of people who think we should all act like the elite in Ayn Rand's book, "Atlas Shrugged". Hello? Those characters were fictional. The author set things up so they couldn't lose. How many of the lead characters didn't own a factory, mine or other large company? What were their workers doing while they were remaking the world. Probably starving. They starved in the end, both workers and unfit leaders.

Then there's socialism. It seems like a more humane blend of communism and capitalism, until you look at older socialist systems. A socialist system needs armies of people to manage, mid-manage, sub-manage, over-manage, administer and control it. Often, these people can't be fired for any reason, certainly not incompetence. As time goes on, these systems grow. The method for determining one's grade in the hierarchy, it seems, is to count how many underlings they control. So, if I want to rise fast, I need to hire as many people under my control as possible, competent or not. The system grows. Instead of a simple system for processing a piece of data, it now must pass through a multitude of hands, all unfireable, none motivated to perform. Time passes. The bureaucracy grows, yet itself produces no revenue. It feeds on other sources, growing, cancerlike, sucking the vitality out of the system in which it resides.

Taxes rise to unreasonable levels, especially for the rich - who might work essentially nine months of the year for the government, amassing funds to be turned over to the Man.

Taxation may be necessary, but it needs to be balanced. It can't bleed the system in which it lives dry, nor can it leave the wealthy untouched to create a plutocratic aristocracy not subject to the same laws as the majority of the population.

Not that communism is any better, at least not the way it's been practiced. Everyone is equal, but for some reason there always needs to be a Communist Party. Was there ever a true worker-run communist system? I doubt it. A communist party needs people to run it. This leads to bosses and underlings, a typical hierarchical system. Inequality sets in. Bosses are superior to underlings. If the system is working, it's producing something. If it's producing something, there is a flow of wealth - something that somehow managed to get concentrated in the hands of party officials. Then, if you really want to muck things up, make membership in the Party revokable, where non-members lose all rights to whatever is distributed. Voilà! An instant underclass, in a system that purports to give something to everyone according to their need.

Then there's that sticky part about reward. Everyone, no matter how much they produce, gets the same benefits. So, where's the incentive to work a bit harder, finish the production run today instead of tomorrow, finish later than your co-workers? Nowhere, unless people change their fundamental nature to value work for work's sake - but that would mean everyone would have to love what they do so much that the pay was irrelevant. Can this happen? Who would choose tasks? How would workers, tired of one set of conditions, choose another? Central control? The workers themselves?

What if everyone were an independent agent, valued for his or her skills? What if human resources were not based on a mechanistic, people-as-commodity mindset? What if everyone could somehow choose what to contribute, let some kind of free market determine its value, and link everyone to create a flexible and resilient system of labor and production?

I don't know how this could work - maybe local cells of people who accomplish tasks that when linked together form larger and larger systems. As technology advances, a day may arrive where small groups of people could manufacture or prototype just about anything. DNA sequencers, 3D printing, virtual component testing... these can all be distributed, shared and collaborated upon, since in the end they will all boil down to data transmission.

Could this work for politics? No more County Supervisors with hidden agendas. No more mayors, governors, presidents. Just groups of people linked across larger and larger scales, with no hierarchical concentration of power. Perhaps this would end in chaos, perhaps not.

We're already dependent on technology, so saying that these systems are too technology dependent would be ridiculous. If we're already dependent on technology, might as well admit it and put it to good use.

Imagine that there were no electrical grid for six months. No gas, because nothing could pump it. No refrigeration unless it were generated on site. No cell phones, television, major sports. No way to move food from one end of the planet to the other. Catastrophic. Yet, some think this could happen - all it would take would be a major solar storm to fry much of our capacity to generate and transmit energy.

No more government subsidies to business. None.

Here in the USA, our government hands out money to keep vital industries afloat, or to ensure that what they produce sells way below market value. Billions of dollars to overproduce, prop up or otherwise bastardize the capitalist system. Not exactly a "free" market.

This could not be done instantly; there would need to be some time to implement the new system, after which current subsidies could slowly be phased out without ruining anyone. The new system would need to retrain subsidy recipients, finding ways to empower them to move into more profitable modes of existence where they could better control their own destinies instead of being cogs in the military-industrial complex.

A lot of tax money goes into propping up systems that would quickly fail,  yet our educational system is in danger of collapse due to lack of funding. 

What if, instead of subsidies to all manner of businesses and production systems, we gave the money to colleges and universities for research into how to do things better, here, with our own people?

The universities would develop technologies, doing the research and testing needed to make them marketable, real-world solutions to problems. Things like food and energy production, manufacturing, materials science, communications, data... anything that our society needs to function.

Once developed, the government would hold the patents, and companies would pay to license these technologies. There could be multiple tiers of licensing fees - expensive for limited-time exclusive rights, moderate for shared rights, and minimal for things that could be applied at a grass roots level to ease major world problems. Companies outside the USA or American (or non-NAFTA?) companies using the technologies outside the USA or its territories would pay the highest fees with the most limited time. We want our tax money to stay here, after all.

The licensing fees would go back into the funding system, reducing the burden on taxpayers.

The end result is that the USA would over time develop and hold patents and processes in all manner of vital areas. We would build the skills and production base here, keeping jobs in our country and raising employment.

Since funding would come from the government, hopefully with citizen oversight as part of a wholly transparent system, questions of bias due to corporate sponsored research might disappear as a fringe benefit.

Wouldn't this system be better than subsidies, some most likely awarded as a result of major industry manipulations of the government?

Companies could do their own R&D, of course. Nothing stopping them, but if this were set up right it would be less expensive to license the tech from the schools than to build and staff expensive facilities. I suppose the military would remain outside this system, since some things really do need to stay secret.

A better voting system for the United States

Get rid of this crappy system where most people (myself included) vote against the Bad Politician instead of for the Good Politician (oxymoron, but perhaps this could change).

Have a two part final election. First run, everyone votes for who they want. Second run, pick the final winners. That's it. Simple enough, and it already works in other countries. Candidate selection would be iterative before the final election, moving from small to large groups.

Change the high cost of entry, too. The current system favors millionaires and those with connections to Big Money. I would imagine that anyone who gives a pile of money to a candidate expects something in return, and not necessarily what's best for the country. Hosting a web site and uploading candidate data is cheap, so I'd imagine that a fee of $500 or less would be sufficient to eliminate those who would run on a whim, yet be low enough for virtually anyone to throw their hat in the ring. 

If potential candidates were chosen by increasingly larger groups, selecting candidates would not be information overload. They'd first be chosen by their local community, where people would know them personally. The scale would change after each iteration, bringing the leaders to the attention of larger and larger groups, until the final runoff election. This would keep the number of candidates relatively constant per iteration and prevent information overload.

This system, obviously only works if it's possible to conveniently vote on line. Have the results go to multiple servers - anyone with a IP address could collect votes. Maybe an app could simultaneously send people's voting data to multiple receivers, so that nobody could game the system and rig an election.

How to verify identity? Use the information taken for passports - biometrics, real-time analysis of facial features, a government-issued key that you complete to prove you're you, something that works from any computer equipped with a web cam, or a smart phone, tablet or other gizmo. Maybe a few people would squeak through, but then I doubt the current system is foolproof, either. Voting from anywhere, any time, for anyone you liked... wouldn't that raise voting participation?

Wouldn't it be great to vote for someone you liked instead of against someone you hate?

While they're at it, get rid of the Electoral College, too. What an evil scheme that is!

End campaign contributions!

A politician's Super PAC spends billions during a campaign. Where does it go? Does society benefit from this in any way? Is it simply devoured by a propaganda food web of writers, filmers, pleasant voices, statisticians, plotters, planners, actors, and wasters? It would seem so.

A friend told me that upwards of two billion dollars will be spent on the upcoming presidential campaign. He added that he doubted that any of it went to people who really needed the money.

I certainly didn't get anything out of it besides annoyances.

So, let's end this whole thing. No more contributions to anything political. No fees required to run for an election, no barriers to anyone at all becoming a politician, provided they're a citizen. The act of giving or receiving a political contribution would result in mandatory closure of the campaign, confiscation of the money and barring of both giver and recipient for a period of at least ten years. Jail time on a chain gang does not seem unreasonable, either. The penalty would need to be severe enough so that this practice would end.

So, how would anyone find out about candidates, learn their views, determine if they deserve to hold office? The same way you're reading this. Every candidate would receive free server space, enough to build a comprehensive web site.

But what about people with no computer, cell phone or tablet? Well, they're spending billions on campaigns now, aren't they? A fraction of this money could provide publicly accessible computers in libraries, city halls, community centers.

Maybe a 100% tax-deduction for anyone contributing to the Electoral Information System? Two billion dollars could fund a lot of internet access points. They might even benefit local communities. If all the furniture were made in the USA, setting these places up would stimulate job growth. Staffing the centers would provide employment, and if they included meeting space could form places for people to gather and become more active in local, if not national, politics.

A fork in the road

This post marks a juncture, where I lose all inclination to stay on topic. There are blogs elsewhere, wildly popular, about all kinds of things that I simply don't want to write about.

I will revel in my verbosity, refusing a simplified vocabulary, opting not to submit to the banality of endless recipes for cupcakes, donuts or whatever items of varying edibility happen to be the current rage.

Since blogs bury everything in layers of duff over time, I created a page explaining more about this. Although nobody will likely ever read it, I was somewhat amused by creating it. Shouldn't that be enough?

Friday, September 14, 2012

Prix fixe - excluding tax

The menu is $48, excluding tax and gratuity. Why not just say, "Fifty-two dollars (includes sales tax) + gratuity"? It's not like the sales tax is optional. What, you're going to dine out wholesale? Who will you sell the uneaten food to?

Looks like another sneaky way to "lower" the price, although technically this isn't deceit because only an idiot would imagine that there would be no sales tax. Or can you get the thing to go, and exclude sales tax? Who would do that?

What would be so wrong with $60, includes tax and 15% gratuity (you're welcome to tip more if you like). Or you could be precise, putting the tab at $58.92. A paltry $3.92 more than the fundraiser base price.

Yes, that fundraiser, the one I just wrote about. At the fundraiser, you could eat the equivalent of four or more hamburgers, listen to live music, have all the drinks you want and contribute to charity. The fundraiser included everything in the price, no ups no extras. Even parking, bless their hamburgery hearts.

Now I'm really confused. One special event lumps everything into one simple, yet higher, price. Another splits everything apart to make the price appear lower, but when all is said and done it comes out a bit more than the "expensive" price of the fundraiser - except it's almost certainly not all you can eat. I'm not even sure you can sample all the plates, or have to choose.

What's the best pricing strategy? A simple yet larger figure, or a smaller figure that will auto-inflate? Too bad I won't have data on the events. I'd be curious to see which sell out - although there would have to be some kind of factoring in the huge capacity of the fundraiser vs the low capacity of the restaurant.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

May the best burger win!

Fifteen restaurants. Fifteen burgers. Fifty-five dollars to step up to the table (seventy-five if you pay for VIP treatment). Let's say they cut the burgers in fourths. That's about the equivalent of four whole burgers, total.

On a good day, I can eat one burger, with fries. I could possibly consume two, if they weren't huge, without the fries (I wouldn't, though). Who would be able to consume every sample, maybe returning for more to settle favorite burger questions?

One fancy burger, presumably with fries, would run me $15 at a restaurant with tip and tax. Let's say since this is a charity, everything goes 50%-50%. That would bring the now charitable burger to thirty dollars. Let's make it $35, since they threw in parking (great idea!). These are probably smaller than that half pound gourmet monster I'm thinking of, so their share of the profits might be even greater.

Those unlimited burger bites are not $35, though. Nor $40, not even $50. Fifty-five and up. What is the reason why this could not have been, say, $35?

There are prizes. Yeah, that makes sense, the winning restaurant should get a trophy. No - I read the text again. These prizes are for the audience? Like a door price? Why do I need prizes? I'm there for the food! Forget the prizes and lower the entry cost. Then there's live music, drinks, the burgers... everything all you can consume. Still, I can't consume that much, not safely. Not without seriously regretting my binge for hours afterward.

Why the three-ring circus? Food, drinks, live music, prizes... Among all that, where's the beef? A simple, hamburger-centric competition would work for me.

Could this be simpler? Would people go just to eat hamburgers, without all that sideshow stuff? What if the burgers were all you can eat, and only water were provided free of charge? I'd throw in free parking, because that's a really great idea. Aside from that, all drinks could be extra. I'd even reconsider having live music, since there's going to be a lot of noisy, burger-munching people crowded into the space. Lower cost, lower ticket prices, potentially higher attendance, possibly even more money to the charity. Would a no alcohol policy lower insurance prices enough to boost charity revenue, or would this be a deal breaker for potential attendees and reduce proceeds?

I'm not expert at this kind of thing, but I can't help asking a few more things. Do they really make more money for the charity by creating a huge, expensive event (instead of a more affordable, lower overhead one)? Do they need this high price to keep attendance down? Would a lower price make them more money overall, or would the venue get so crowded that nobody will ever return? Will anyone return anyway?

If the thing sells out, then they're right. On the other hand, if there are lots of unsold tickets, then maybe I am making some kind of sense here. 

NOTE: The thing sold out. They're right. Let's just raise all the hamburger prices to $20 so everyone will be happy. I'll just eat something else.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

BOH: Rule with an Iron Fist!

Sometimes plans just don't work. I won't be working in the school's restaurant kitchen this fall. I'm giving a conference that people actually pay to attend, and will be forced to miss two days of class.

This breaks The Rule: anyone missing two days of class will be dropped. Since it would happen after the drop deadline, I suppose this means the school keeps about $400 and I get an "F" adding insult to (financial) injury.

Only a fool would enroll in a class with terms like that.

To be fair, one of the chefs tried to find someone to swap shifts. It's a Good Chef / Bad Chef schtick. One wants to crush everyone, break them, make them run screaming for the doghouse, their tails between their legs, get them out of the hospitality business now before they sully the reputation of the school. The other, although strict, genuinely seems to want everyone to succeed. This chef is the one who smiles, and it's a real smile all the way to the eyes. The other person smiles like the cat when it's about to engage in some play at the expense of a small furry creature, generally vermin. 

Here's the funny thing: if I just flaked and didn't show up, it's considered no different than trying to work out a schedule a month in advance, make up time lost, turn in paperwork early, or any other advance mitigation.

The class guidelines say to be professional, communicate, plan ahead - but when you actually do these things the message is that none of this counts. Apparently these rules apply to things initiated by others.

So, imagine that this is a business. That's what the school keeps saying, that this class is just like working in a real restaurant, because you are working in a real restaurant. The only difference is that you pay them instead of the other way around. The other difference is that you only work part time, two days per week.

So, here's how the business is run: Anyone who knows in advance that they won't be able to work a shift will have to find someone to take their place. If they can't, they're fired. If anyone is late too many times, they're fired. If someone does not show up without notice, they're fired. There is no hiring after the beginning of September. If they wind up with a skeleton crew after mid-November, that's just the way it will be. There are no excused days, no matter what attempts are made in advance. No show: goodbye!

I think this place would be bankrupt rather soon, due to a lack of staffing. Their reputation as a hostile place to work would spread as those removed from employment spoke to their friends. Fewer and fewer people would apply, and those who did would likely not be the best qualified for the job.

The main message is that you can't negotiate with management. They are not your friends. They are not reasonable. It's futile to even try.

I would have missed two days in the semester, true. But I would have made up the hours, and even offered to replace others who could not attend on their work days. In a real business, things could probably be worked out. Someone would call in sick, I'd replace them, food would happen. They will probably eject other people for breaking The Rule. If I were there, I'd replace them where possible, keeping the kitchen staffed.

Maybe restaurants really are run this way. Since I need to have work experience to get work experience, I won't know. It seems like a great way to increase turnover and create animosity in a profession that's already demanding. It also conflicts with a "fair but firm" rule in management - how is it fair that trying to work things out in advance earns the same penalty as just not showing up? Where's the incentive to communicate, negotiate, work things out?

Chefs are fighting the idea of food as a commodity, where all chickens are identical (except for size), all factors other than price are irrelevant. They want each bit of food to be traceable to some source, where happy animals and plants live in happy ecosystems, happily converting sunlight, water and nutrients or whatever they eat into delicious things for us to eat.

Yet, when it comes to human resources, we are all commodities. At school, our value is measured in hours. We're interchangeable. Our pasts, desires, feelings are irrelevant. We are but cogs in the machine, mechanistic automatons executing preplanned instruction sets.

How can an industry that wants to strengthen complex interconnected food production and sourcing do an about face and reinforce the industrial groupthink concept of people as commodities?

I always viewed Zen as something that breaks rules, thinks outside the box. Right thought, right action does not seem to mean commoditizing people into cogs in a food processing machine.

If this is our best paradigm for kitchen management, it's time to choose again. The food, its origins, the people preparing it, the path of the matter and energy in the food, the building and its systems are linked. Saying one part of the system is organic and ecological while another is mechanical and linear just doesn't make sense.

If I ever get this Hospitality Management certificate, some day I could be management. I would make the inflexible rules, fix my victims with the angry reptilian stare, send them articles on Zen Buddhism while practicing something else. This is supposed to be a model of how to run a restaurant, right?

Perhaps I will, though hours of meditation, achieve some form of enlightenment and find a solution - although I fear it would be dynamic and changing. The truth is not the thing that can be contained in words, as they say.

I've dropped the class. Gone, forgotten. Although several fellow students gave their condolences, there was not even a note of regret that it didn't work out from anyone involved in managing the class. A new cog was found, the machine works. Nothing further need be said.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Peru comes to Roseville

I really like Peruvian food, and was surprised to see an elegant new Peruvian restaurant opening in Roseville. Normally this is a cuisine that I have to enjoy in Los Angeles, but now I hoped I'd have a new favorite local destination.

This is where I need to say that being in a restaurant management program is definitely not the route to take if you want to enjoy dining out. You see glaring errors by the service, lack of training, bad hostessing, bad management, missed opportunities, dashed expectations, plating errors... all stacking up with a single purpose: to destroy your chances of enjoying all but a very few restaurants. These things can be overlooked at inexpensive dives; plating a burrito or torta ahogada really isn't that critical. But in fine dining, plating a lamb shank with half its meat gone swimming in the sauce in the kitchen becomes a reason never to return. Likewise serving oxidized wine for tasting, opened who knows when. Blowing a dessert by masking the star ingredient in favor of flour and strawberries... not so fine.

This was one of those times where I think of the Turing test when dealing with a wait person. This is the test where you plunk down a human at a terminal and give him or her a few minutes to converse with someone or something at the other end of the line. If the person can't tell if he or she is talking to a machine, it passes the test. Both the waiter and the hostess might have struggled to pass, sometimes giving what seemed like incoherent answers.

The "free wine tasting" poured from a bottle containing perhaps an inch of wine at the bottom. Against my hopes, it was indeed oxidized. Transformed from fragrant wine into something less good, not indicative of its true character. What else can you expect, when the bottle contains 90% air and 10% wine? So, naturally I said something too complicated when asked if I liked the wine: "I don't know, since it was opened too long ago, oxidized and no longer tastes of itself."

What would a good waiter do? He'd say, "I'm sorry, I didn't realize that this had been open so long. I'll open another bottle so you can have a fair taste.". This didn't happen. He just walked away, mumbling something that lowered his Turing score, or just proved that he didn't know spoiled wine from Gatorade - or maybe didn't want to waste house money by opening a bottle that I might not order. So, bad management (not authorizing the wait staff to open new bottles when necessary), or badly trained wait staff? I don't know. Maybe both. One demerit.

Carnitas by another name does indeed taste as porky. It's apparently called "chicharrón" in Peru, but it's made the same as carnitas, from pork butt or pork shoulder - not pork belly. It's simmered then fried, just like carnitas. The sauce and finish are different, but basically it's four or five (I wasn't counting, so let's say five) one inch cubes of pork. Lined up on a plate, each glued down with a dab of pureed sweet potato and topped with a squidge of aioli. Sweetish pork, sweet puree, sweetish onion, a bit of garlic. No acid to kick things into a higher gear, but a price worthy of Campagnolo (expensive bike parts... never mind). That's something that probably runs, what, four bucks a pound or less. Five cubes, lots of negative, aesthetic and empty space around it. Good deal for the house, but it seems the Mexican restaurants can make a profit on carnitas plates that are much more generously endowed and come with rice, beans, salsa and chips to boot. Hmm. Not trying for repeat, non-special occasion business here, are we?

Every time I've eaten a lamb shank, it's had meat going all around the bone, just like it was on the animal. Muscle groups come in opposing sets so the beastie can bend its hoof this way and that. Since muscles only pull - they don't push. This lamb was apparently a mutant, since it only had meat on one side of the bone. Where did the other half go? Presumably it's still in the pot, where it came off the bone during the long braising process. The problem is, from a management point of view, that nobody verified this. It just got plated and served. Nobody cared. Maybe I'm wrong, and they used that piece of meat for something else (I couldn't find lamb anywhere else on the menu, but this proves nothing). So, here I am, surprised to discover as I turn over my shank, that lunch is over. The waiter's attitude was not exactly of service - he didn't care that the wine was long past its prime. There was nobody else in the place who interacted with customers, save the hostess, and she wasn't into smiling herself.

In culinary arts, we learn that if something is based on a principal ingredient, it should actually taste like said ingredient. Our "Passionfruit piece of heaven with forest fruit didn't. With a name like Pedazo de cielo de maracuya con frutas del bosque (if I remember correctly), the passion fruit should jump up and shout, like that paleta I ate in Mexico. Instead, it tasted primarily of strawberries and mint. This was another instance of taking what should probably have been one medium-sized flan-like thing and plating it with some garnishes, maybe even fruit that actually comes from Peruvian woods. It was instead divided into three slider-like mini-things. Pretty, but not a lot of dessert mass for the money.

I wonder what Peruvian forest fruits could be. Peru runs from the Pacific Ocean, over the Andes and into the Amazon rain forest. Lots of opportunities for fruits, so how did Peruvian forest fruits become field-grown strawberries? Perhaps they were grown in Peru, but still... I was expecting something more exotic. A quick search yielded interesting things. Camu camu, cherimoya, maracuya, dragonfruit (Pitajaya)... but not strawberries. Some are available as frozen puree, so presumably they could have made a coulis out of a couple of them and gone wildly Peruvian.

There were two examples of a red wine varietal available by the glass. The waiter did not ask which one I wanted - he merely poured the most expensive, saying that it was the bottle we'd tasted. Our fault? No - it's his job to ask whenever there is more than one price point for the same varietal. Sneaky, sneaky - but we should have paid more attention. Why? We're hoping that the house wants us to come back and won't sneak around. It was a $4.00 difference, not really enough to matter in the monetary sense, but enough to create a strong perception of profit maximization at our expense. Badly done!

Managing expectations is a key term here. You want to exceed expectations, make the customer feel special, cared for, honored. Avoid at all costs making your guests feel like marks in a carny show. 

It's all about perception, not necessarily reality. This creates happy customers who will likely return later and spend more money - part of other key terms like frequency. The basic goals are to get people to come more often and spend more money. Either or both works. Neither is not great, since it leads to bankruptcy after the novelty of the place wears off. These guys set expectations high, then failed to meet them. Tasty food but expensive with small portions. Spoiled wine and perceived indifference by the wait staff. Going for profit over satisfaction and hospitality by pouring the expensive wine while ignoring the more reasonably priced glass of the same varietal, with a perception of house greediness. Perceived missing food in the case of the lamb shank. Leaving the customer to wonder where the main dessert ingredient went, after suggesting the dessert as better than another (more expensive, too - so perception of upselling). Perception of lack of hospitality when the hostess seemed annoyed or worried that I would abscond or otherwise ruin a culinary book set out for display (if you don't want the books touched, but them in a glass case!).

So, here was the result: we felt somewhat swindled from the combination of high prices, small portion sizes, the wine switch and the missing lamb. This was compounded by the waiter's lack of action over the spoiled wine offered for tasting and his failure to ask which Malbec we wanted to order. We didn't feel cared for, since every time we mentioned something wrong, we were met with a mumble, an excuse, and no action whatsoever. Problems arise. Failing to deal with them can be fatal. Fixing them can turn them into assets and create avid, faithful fans who will return.

The final clavo en el ataúd was the hostess as we were leaving, who looked ready to defend a pristine cookbook at the entrance with tooth and nail - but not find out if the house desserts came from its pages. She asked if I had a question. I did. She had no answer. Instead of smiling, finding someone, creating an interaction, a link to the person preparing the food, maybe a reason to return, she ended the conversation, question unanswered. In an empty reception area, she was too busy. Missed opportunity.

I posted the following review elsewhere on the web, where the restaurant might see it and possibly improve things - or start ranting and send nasty PMs... hopefully the former.

La Huaca Restaurant

This could become a really great restaurant - or vanish, but only time will tell. The food is generally quite good, but everything else... read on!

My star-losing complaints are that I feel like there's a fair amount of portion size sleight of hand going on here relative to the price points. Compounding this, the wait staff seemed more intent on maxing out the check. It seemed like there was no chef in charge, nobody to care for each plate to come out of the kitchen.

The portion size thing would be fine if the prices were lower - I'm all in favor of small plates, but only if they have small prices so I can sample more things. La Huaca likes  to put tiny morsels on one elegant, spacious dish with a lot of air in between. That's some expensive air!

They have a ceviche "bar". Although, it isn't really. See, at a real bar, people sit at bars, interact with the bar chef. Here you order from the menu; the bar maestro does his thing across the room. No interaction. The ceviche is nonetheless fresh,  like pieces of sushi grade fish tossed in a citrus-flavor mix and served, so that it doesn't really "cook" in the marinade so much as soak up the flavor.

Our pork appetizer was like Peruvian carnitas. One inch cubes of tender pork sitting on an orange sweet potato purée, topped with some onion and aioli. The flavors lacked contrast; everything had a bit of a sweet note that would have profited from some acidity to compliment the other flavors. At half the price, this might be worth getting.

The lamb shank sat buried in sauce, with a dab of beans at its side. The meat was indeed falling off the bone, for when I turned the shank over, there was no meat there, just a bare bone. Huh? Where's the rest of my food? A mistake? Or not? Half the meat? That's not fair! I paid for that meat. Didn't I?

When you name something "passion fruit piece of heaven with forest fruit" (my translation from the Spanish), you expect it to taste like passion fruit first and everything else second. Sorry. The star - maracuya - was almost a no show, drowned by strawberry and mint. Another plate of mostly air:  three small, cakey things arranged on a plate.

Free wine tasting is supposed to be an amenity, but my first taste came from a bottle that sat open too long: feh!. When I pointed this out to the waiter, he just walked off. He didn't return with a freshly opened bottle so I could taste the wine as its maker intended, but instead offered a taste of another varietal. Things didn't get better, either.

One varietal appears twice on the wine list: two glasses with a four dollar price difference. When I ordered that varietal, he brought the most expensive glass without even asking which I wanted. His excuse? "I poured out of the expensive bottle, so you should have known." Fail!

Oh, one more thing. Those beautiful cook books at the entrance? LEAVE THEM ALONE! I tried looking up the passion fruit dessert (not there) and the hostess came over to hover around and ask if I had questions. I did - but she couldn't answer them. She was there to Protect the Book. I noticed from outside that she carefully checked the book for damage (none) and carefully put in in its place on the table.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The meals of summer

Summer flows tranquilly along, a time of barbecues, fresh fruit, ripe tomatoes and corn on the cob. Yet, over the horizon lurks the next semester. One day it will dawn and summer will be over.

It's not like there was no culinary action here. Where my friends used to invite us for dinner, they now say they've got a super ingredient and can I cook it. This is a huge improvement over the days where I had to get the ingredients and invite them.

So, here are this summer's highlights. Some of these might already be in this blog.

- Swordfish with lemon butter and capers
- Seared wild duck breasts with blackberry gastrique
- Seared steaks with sauce Bordelaise, purée de celeriac
- Bloody damn steak, no side. Just meat and "Hatchelaise" sauce - Bordelaise meets Hatch peppers (and wine, of course).
- Direct Charcoal steak, pommes alumettes
- Seared 100% grass fed hanger steak, reduction sauce, garlic-potato cubes.
- Burger: 100% grass fed beef, garden tomatoes, rosemary sourdough, red pepper coulis, goat blue braised onions.
- Pan-seared lamb, rosemary-garlic avgolemono sauce
- Chicken tajine with olives and preserved lemons
- All-vegetable couscous
- Imam bayildi
- Garlic-eggplant chawan mushi
- Red pepper bisque
- Shrimp bisque
- Chicken mechoui
- Rosemary chicken
- Chicken breast in sauce verjus
- Spice basted country style pork ribs
- House ground porky bacon burgers
- Fish tacos, char-grilled marinated snapper & salsa
- Sautéed shrimp
Thin crust summer vegetable pizza
- Chicken tajine in sweet tomato jam
- Caprese salad
- Wild duck confit with garlicky potatoes
- Regular duck confit with garlicky potatoes
- Herbed duck fat popcorn
- Herb-grilled branzino
- Chicken and egg plant chow mein with black bean sauce
- Pan fried chow mein, summer vegetables
- Shrimp with watermelon
- Carnitas
- Chile colorado
 -Standing rack of lamb
 -Grilled lamb chops

- Fresh fruit tarte
- Cake with fresh fruit coulis
- Chocolate-dipped strawberries

- Four grain sourdough
- Rosemary whole wheat sourdough
- Focaccia
- Baguettes
- Whole wheat sourdough
- French style rye
- Morocan style bread

Simple recipes for famous blogs

Apparently, there are blogs about things like simple recipes, motherhood, I don't know what else. Making LED powered endoscopes... and all of them get thousands of hits per day.

This blog, however, is different. It lurks in a tiny back room of the Internet lit by a 4 watt bulb (usually turned off ), in a box in the back of the closet behind the fake flowers from the Easter party and a forgotten case of one dollar wine given for Christmas by a now distant friend, covered with cat hair, dust and spider tracks.

Someone told me about the guy who makes enough money on a simple recipe blog to travel around the world. The author probably even built a McMansion with a huge kitchen, all from doing a blog.

I'm not even sure what a simple recipe is. Is it something that highlights a main ingredient of excellent quality, only adding things to showcase its flavor? Maybe it's something that comes from simple cans of simple things (simple as long as nobody reads the ingredients on the cans). Things that can sit on the shelf for years until called into action, simply. Then, there are all kinds of "simple"mixes. They tend to have more ingredients than something you'd do yourself in almost the same time, but there seems to be a common belief that mixes are simple.

Some recipes are intrinsically simple: grilled oysters, roast chicken, fried eggs... Others are not. Of those, some seem simple but aren't and others are complicated no matter how you look at them.

This blog is about the experience of attending chef training. Apparently, it's just not as fascinating as a simple recipe like 1/2 can of tomato paste, a dash of dried oregano, a bit of basil, some garlic powder, dehydrated onions, 1/2 a can of chicken or beef stock, salt and pepper poured over microwaved pasta. That's just not what chef's school is about. We'd say fresh, fully ripe San Marzano variety tomatoes, fresh basil, dried oregano, sautéed onion, minced garlic, salt and pepper. We might even make the pasta from scratch, too. So, which do you think would taste better? If I were really being simple, and had a corporate sponsor, I'd just tell everyone to microwave brand X Italian Pasta Sauce and never mind that stuff lining the can might be carcinogenic.

As to that endoscope... I'm thinking it uses actuators, multiple CCDs for stereo imaging (CCDs outside the tube) and yes, LEDs for light. Make the thing thinner, easier and faster to use than what's out there now. It would all be in one tube, and additional instruments for biopsies, etc. would run up it if needed via micromotors. If anyone answers, I'll draw a picture. Although I have to admit that I don't know much about the things other than what I could find on the net.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Is that chicken... safe?

Today, we were supposed to strike a blow against intolerance by eating chicken in a specific chain. Yes, we would smite those who dare criticize the establishment's adamant stance against gay marriage. Those intolerant leftists who dare oppose Liberty must be shown that hate will not be tolerated.

I didn't go there. I was afraid. Terrified, even.

How could I be sure the chickens themselves were straight? There's no proof. They probably arrive frozen in a box, cut up, with only the USDA telling us they're physically safe to eat. But, are they morally safe? OhmyGod! That could have been a homo-filet! It could be full of, of... I don't know, really, but I'm certain that if I ate even a tiny bit, things could happen. Potentially contagious things. Things that would spread insidiously through the American genome, subtly altering our DNA, destroying family values, taxing billionaires, changing our thought patterns, messing with our gonads. This could destroy the American Way of Life!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Panchito's El Tepeyac Cafe departs Northern California

Apparently due to pernicious exhaustion of funds, Panchito's El Tepeyac Cafe has bid adios to Northern California.

For fans of this L.A. institution, it's back to the 400 mile drive to get a Hollenbeck Burrito or some good SoCal machaca.

Perhaps they'll find a solution and return north in a better location, bringing their unique burrito expertise. For now, though, it's back to Evergreen in Los Angeles.

Swordfish with lemon butter and capers

Some ingredients aren't meant to be tasted; they're present to make other things better.

There's molecular gastronomy - where you might want to make a raspberry into a foam - and there's food science. I'm not a big fan of molecular gastronomy. Too many chemicals with names I don't recognize, things that I doubt are healthy.

Food science, on the other hand, looks at the interface between what's in the food and how we perceive it. So, how to improve on a recipe that I've been making for over twenty years?

The basic recipe is to take great quality swordfish, thick steaks whisked here from the most pristine water possible (no such thing as "pristine" but still...). The fish is seasoned with salt and pepper, then sautéed in vegetable oil, put aside before it's completely cooked. A pan sauce gets built with the fond: a quick sauté of some capers, white wine to deglaze, reduce, add butter then lemon juice, adjust seasoning, pour over the fish and serve.

That was my old recipe, from before I started reading about glutamate receptors and how to increase the perception of richness and depth of flavor. So, armed with a bit of knowledge (enough to be dangerous?) I began my mise en place. Celery paste, garlic paste, nuoc mam (nam pla) shiitake mushroom powder and shallots step into the equation.

The sauté process remains the same - that part is all good science, Maillard reaction, all that stuff. The fun begins once the fish is out of the pan, holding in the oven. Sauté the shallot paste, then the celery, then the garlic - deglaze with white wine, add a tiny dash of nuoc mam, throw in the mushroom powder, reduce, add butter, lemon juice, adjust seasoning, pour over fish and serve.

The result? Much richer, a sauce that segues from flavor to flavor, lingering. The trilogy of fish, wine and sauce works well, with nothing dominating.

So, here's the theory. The nuoc mam, shiitake powder and celery paste all supply glutamates that stimulate umami receptors in the palate, making the food taste more rich and savory. None of them were there to provide their own flavor - the mushroom powder and nuoc mam, in fact, were undetectable by mere mortals. It's all a question of proportion, like most things in cooking.

So, eleven ingredients for the sauce, but they definitely take the dish to a new level.

salt - flavor stimulant
pepper - flavoring
capers - flavoring
lemon juice - flavoring and acidifier
nuoc mam - umami (anchovy paste would probably work as well)
shiitake powder - umami
celery - glutamates, again - for umami
shallots - flavor
white wine - flavor, acidifier
garlic - flavor, and umami again
butter - mouth feel, richness

Of these ingredients, the ones you're likely to actually taste are the salt, pepper, capers, wine and lemon. The other ingredients are in smaller quantities and will blend in to support the dish without stepping up and screaming.

Heirloom Tomatoes, Inc?

It crunched, almost. There wasn't much tomato flavor, about the same as those "vine ripened" things they sell year-round at the supermarket. Nowhere near as much flavor as the Early Girl we harvested last week, our first tomato of the season.

So, has Agribusiness Inc. corrupted even the noble heirloom? Were these fruits ripped green from the vine, thrown into some ethylene fogged vault and sold to an unsuspecting public?

Is nothing sacred? We pay a lot more for that real tomato taste, something heirlooms had, until now, faithfully delivered. Now, buyer beware. If the fruit isn't fleshy, heavy and does not smell of time spent ripening in the summer sun, leave in there in the bin. It's not the tomato you're looking for!

(For the record, tomatoes are legally vegetables, but botanically fruits).

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Big Party

First course

perch fillets

Veal with cranberries

The party lasted ten hours. Without proper nourishment, nobody could last through swimming in the lake, dancing, drinking, sitting, talking and drinking some more.

Medieval Sheeter?

This image was on the wall of a boulanger in Semur en Auxois. Maybe I'm crazy, but it really looks like a sheeter (a machine for rolling out dough). So, something I thought was a 20th century, or at least a 19th century invention might go back for ages and ages. At least back then everything was made from scratch on the premises.


We made a lot of these things in class, but some of them are a mystery, like the green things that look like char siu bao, but can't be.

Road signs

Every bush hides an automatic radar machine. The speed limit changes constantly. If you pass a white rectangular sign with a red border indicating the name of a village, no matter how tiny, the speed limit drops to 50 km/h. You are supposed to know this. There wont’ be a speed limit sign - just a radar machine or a cop. If you’re on the open road, without a barrier in the middle, the speed limit will be 90 km/h. Unless it’s not. It could be 70. Narrow streets in tiny villages allow snails to pass, with speed limited to 30 km/h. If the road is divided, the speed limit is supposed to be 110 km/h, but it seems that they can issue more tickets by making it 90 km/h. Never assume anything. The autroute, a much more expensive option than the routes nationaux or departementales, allows a maximum speed of 130 km/h, unless it’s raining. Then it’s 110 km/h. 

Here, the rignt of way really is a right of way. Unless otherwise indicated, anyone coming from the right has the right of way, and you have to let them go. Unless you have a yellow diamond sign, or a sign with an upright arrow crossed by a tiny black line. Then you’re free to roll through the intersection, with only a twinge of fear that the other car will scream out in front of you.

Along with all this are small signs. They’re not into billboards, thankfully. The signs are small, indicating local hotels, restaurants and camping areas. It seems that each village of any size at all has its own tourist office.

Driving on small roads through the countryside is like connecting dots. The nearest big cities are indicated by arrow-shaped signs at intersections. Smaller hamlets have their own signs, relative to their proximity. So if you’re going far - say from Nemours to Anneccy, you need to know the names of the larger towns along the route. You can also use a compass, since the road network is like a series of triangles between villages. If you’re wrong about the relative direction of an indicated town, you might end up going the wrong way. If you ignore the increasingly strident voice of your passenger trying to point out this fact, things can get a bit tense. 

We pass a large sign inviting us to visit the Arcy Caves, indicated as something not to miss in Bourgogne. Unless you’re claustrophobic. We continue. 

Yes, we’ve returned to Bourgogne, this time under a blue sky. We’re even moving in the right direction.

In the middle of nowhere, two signs for restaurant-inns compete for our attention. Rivals, apparently. Voutenay sur Cure seems too small to have two inns, yet there they are. 

For now, we ignore the signs - lunchtime is still an hour away. 

The landscape flashes by in a blur, people towing camping trailers in the right lane, the most impatient in the left, and everyone else jockeying for their place in between. Two white lines between cars indicate the proper following distance. There are never two lines between our car and the one we’re following. This is not a place for daydreaming; someone may approach from behind instantly, or someone heading on vacation in a loaded camper might be crawling along on the left - all this with other cars zipping from one lane to another, each trying to beat the others in the race toward the South.

While we race rally-like, the radio plays. Music alternates with interviews. This being France, the interviews are about… cuisine. So, imagine someone trying to note a recipe, flying across the blacktop at 80 miles per hour, weaving to maintain the most advantageous position. Cuisine and high speed, a dangerous combination, yet we saw no carnage.

Luckily, it’s not my turn to drive.

A man with an accent we can’t identify gives an interview for his recipe for cod in bacon. A piece of cabaillaud (cod) or colin. Some chopped garlic, some white wine, some bacon or better yet, a sheet of smoked pork belly, salt, pepper and chopped onion. Season the fish, wrap it in the bacon. Fry the onions, add the fish, turning to brown it a bit, add the garlic, sauté a bit more, add the white wine and pop the whole thing in an oven to finish. Serve with rice. 

And old song by Jean-Jacques Goldman plays.

They talk about French cuisine in the Middle Ages, how so many ingredients that now form what we call classic French cooking did not exist, because nobody had been to the Americas to bring them back. No tomatoes, no potatoes, no peppers…

An updated version of “La Javanaise”, by Serge Gainsbourg streams from the speakers, followed by some news items: “A boulangerie was held up at gunpoint. Apparently, no bread was stolen”. French humor.

A quick tidbit about discusses oysters in gelée. Annette seems impressed, until I mention that it’s really quite simple to make, if you have good oysters and a clear seafood stock.

A song from “Starmania” plays. Strange. They’re not exactly into recent music on this station. These are good songs, but they’re at least ten years old. Maybe gourmets and aficionados of fine French cuisine don’t listen to rap…

Simplicity | 24 May


charcoal sack

local breads

Good ingredients, simply prepared. Sometimes it’s what you really want, not an elaborate plate that required days of work by a kitchen team. 

We’re back in the Gatinais, a land of plains dotted with small hills topped with tiny villages. Our village is so tiny it’s not even listed on most maps, nor do signs from the adjacent town point out its direction. Tourists don’t come here. It’s agricultural. No fancy cathedrals, no museums, no big department stores filled with expensive fashions. This is a place of fields, ancient stone churches, swallows that swirl and dive over the landscape and sky.

Luckily, there is a good butcher and a wine cheese and produce market in Puiseaux, about ten minutes away by car by tiny roads crossing wheat and sugar beet fields. 

The boulanger sold us a sesame bread and a type of baguette with a fancy name. Perhaps because of the weather, none of these had a terrific crispy crust normally associated with bread in France. We’d already noticed this from other bakers. A pretty big disappointment when you fly 6,000 miles and end up with the same quality of bread you’d get in your local supermarket in Sacramento!

We bought lamb chops from the butcher, along with some ham and a saucission. From the other store, we bought a large red coeur de bœuf tomato, tangerines, carrots, garlic, a lemon and a beet. We moved to the cheese section to buy cantal, a tomme de chevre, a muenster au cumin and a saint nectaire. We thew in a bottle of Mas de Mare l’Original 2010, a hearty red wine from the Pays d’Oc recommended by the owner.

We tasted most of the cheeses before we bought them. Perhaps because of my accent, we were repeatedly warned that some of them were very strong. This was especially true for the very mature tomme de chevre, something that was a bit runny, covered in a thick moldy crust with a flavor that hit like an enraged goat and stuck to your tongue with a vengeance. I could imagine someone, shocked by the strength of the cheese, scraping his tongue with anything available to free himself of the taste.

The supermarket furnished us with a label rouge chicken, fed only on grains and much tastier than the generic fowl adjacent to it. We added some yogurt and our shopping was complete.

Lunch was simple: a table in the garden, surrounded by passing bumblebees. We started with a salad of grated carrots with a bit of lemon, salt, pepper and chopped parsley, followed by ham, a bit of cheese and a tangerine for dessert. 

Dinner was only a bit more elaborate than lunch. We started with the salami. The lamb chops got seasoned with salt and pepper, oiled, and thrown on the grill. They were sprinkled with fresh chopped rosemary toward the end of cooking, then taken off to rest. The tomato was transformed into thick slices, seasoned and grilled while the meat rested. Afterward, the cheese, all washed down with the Mas de Mare. 

We sat and watched the swallows circle overhead, serenaded by a merle who sat on the adjacent roof, some tourterelles and a pigeon ramier or two, while the flavor of the tomme de chevre slowly faded in our mouths.


It's now the beginning of August, 2012. I wrote this over two months ago, and nobody ever read it. Not one person. Bad title, or is simplicity just not worth reading about in our over-complicated lives? I don't know - nobody comments on a post they never read.

Repas simple | 23 May

With all this driving around, it’s good to have a safety meal ready to go, so you can eat something good with virtually no preparation at all. 

A salami, a can of friture de canard or rillettes, a bottle of wine, some bread and cheese combine to create a meal that’s a perfect antidote to  post-route fatigue.

Chez Camille, Arnay-le-Duc | 23 May

“Let’s go there - they have a menu du terroir!” Annette said as we walked up the street in Arnay-le-Duc. 

I’d been tempted by another, smaller restaurant, but when we peeked in the lights were off and the place looked deserted. So, Chez Camille it was. The menu looked decent, and better yet, they had a pastry chef in addition to the chef and sous-chef (pastry chefs are quite rare in restaurants back home, at least restaurants that I can afford).

After asking for a table for two, we were ushered into a small, dimly lit lobby crammed with furniture. We sidled between pieces of furniture, wondering if someone found too good a bargain to pass up, brought the furniture to the inn and crammed it into the lobby.

The chef, a tall somewhat gaunt man, greeted us as he moved to another room, where he was having his lunch. The kitchen would survive without him.

We were given menus. A small plate of amuse-gueles arrived. Charcuterie in aspic, more charcuterie en croûte. 

We ordered two prix fixe lunches -  “Menu du Terroir”   -  featuring an appetizer, main plate and dessert (or cheese).  Other people with reservations were ushered quickly into the dining area, no lounging required.

We remained in the lobby. 

“Um, this ever happen to you before, being stuck in a lobby?” I whispered. 
“Non, jamais,” my wife replied.
“So presumably we won’t be eating in lounge chairs with bent knees off a too-small table?”.
“No. I think not.”

Happily she was correct. The lounge interlude was just a pause before entering. The dining area lay under a twisted ficus benjamina, pruned artistically to crawl along the underside of the skylights. The kitchen, with large windows open to the action, nestled against the far wall. An ancient stone stairway led underground to the wine cellar, leaving the waitress about two centimeters of clearance between her head and the keystone. 

The tables featured white tablecloths with large decorative plates bearing an illustration of the restaurant. As soon as we were seated, the fancy plates disappeared. It’s normal to have expensive display plates, but usually guests get to enjoy the artwork prior to the plates going back to their niche. 
Another waiter arrived with a basket of rolls: bacon, normal and grain. Bacon in bread always strikes me as a bit American, a gimmick to spend less time developing the bread’s flavor by adding a bit of smokiness and fat that wouldn’t otherwise be there. The plain roll was competent, if not exquisite.
Our entrées were a lapin en gelée and a bouchée à la reine. The first was bits of cured rabbit put into a mold and covered with aspic and chilled. The bouchée is a columnar puff pastry filled with bits of meat and vegetables, typically in a béchamel sauce - although I think they might have used velouté here for lightness. Both were competent, with the edge going to the rabbit.

Our main course sautéed Charolais beef with scalloped potatoes and a somewhat sour version of Bordelaise sauce. We couldn’t drive by all those fields of grass-eating cows without dining on one. 
Dessert was a good Mousse au chocolate and a type of fruit mousse thing whose name I forgot.
The chicken will be for tomorrow. Placed on a bed of garlic, carrots and shallots and roasted, a sage-based sauce whipped up from the jus to drizzle over the meat. It won’t need anything more, since these chickens are bred and raised for flavor.

Bernard Loiseau (no, I didn’t eat there)

Somehow, instead of heading north towards Montbard, we turned south, toward Saulieu. I really don’t know why - I wanted to visit nearby Epoisses, site of a very famous - and very fragrant - cheese.

We drifted among verdant rolling hills, passed through woods, small villages and wheat fields. There was no way to know what direction we were going; the sky was a uniform gray with no indication of the sun’s position. 

We arrived in Saulieu, more a small town than a tiny village. We’d heard that one of France’s most prestigious restaurants, Bernard Loiseau, was here. We wondered how to find it, until we realized that it was just a bit farther down the street from where we parked. I’d imagined something more intimate... Instead, it was an imposing two story structure painted a warm pastel color, with its name writ large. To the left of the restaurant’s entrance, a boutique invited people to visit with windows displaying their goods for sale. 

We entered the boutique. There was a display of All-Clad cookware from the USA, with some pieces different than those typically sold in the United States. A pot with tapered (not rounded) sides, for example. A round table displayed cookbooks and biographies of Mr. Loiseau himself and of course the illustrious restaurant. To their credit, there weren’t any T-shirts, although they did offer towels like those in the hotel. 

We didn’t eat there. For one thing, it was only 10:30 in the morning. For the other, the place was intimidating, like it dared us to pass within, if we were worthy. 

Menus placed in stanchions outside featured a colorful dish of frog leg “drumsticks” placed radially around a plate, sitting in a bright green sauce or Charolais beef cooked with a clay crust. There were some elaborate foie gras preparations. I forgot the rest, but I ‘m sure it’s all online. 

The menu we looked at was somewhere around 195 euros per person. I don’t know if that included wine. So, about the same price as The French Laundry back home. 

The next day, I turned on the TV to see if the weather would improve or if we were doomed to gray skies. Good news, the gray skies will disappear and the sun will return. 

After the weather forecast, the regular programming started. This being France, there was a program featuring culinary arts students on a field trip. Apparently they have a better budget than we, since they went on a week (or weeks) long discovery of food producers. 

They showed a cave where they make Cantal cheese, large wheels stacked on wooden planks, row upon row disappearing into the misty depths of the caves. Everything isn’t so rustic, though: robots flip the wheels at regular intervals. Expert cheese makers tap the wheels with mallets to determine its condition, kind of like a human sonagram. After years of tapping wheels of cheese, it is possible to discern its exact state of ripeness just by tapping and listening. 

The students visited a charcutier, who works in a large conical wooden smokehouse packed with hanging sausages, slabs of bacon and dry-cured hams. The air inside was only slightly smoky, fed by a small stream of smoke issuing from a pit in the floor. 

Despite all the raw-appearing meat, there were no flies. He mentioned that flies don’t like properly cured meats; they only attack rotting things, meaning that if there are flies something went quite wrong. 
At the end of the field trip, the students did a two day stage at Bernard Loiseau in the front of the house (see, this section does belong here with the restaurant). They learned how to properly iron and place the round, white tablecloths. No wrinkles on the edges. Then they placed the plates, making sure the “BL” was correctly oriented. The spoons, one finger’s width, rounded side up, to the right of the plate. Every piece placed with mechanical precision. Perfection, perfection! They were understandably nervous, but it apparently all worked out. 

The restaurant does not serve meals; they serve dreams. They explained that, just like The French Laundry, some people save up for years just for the experience of dining there. The experience, the memory, is the thing here. I suppose that the food needs to be interesting, too - but presentation and ambience reign.

Strangely, the boutique could have been used to better effect. If the restaurant was a fantasy, the boutique was a down to earth means of moving merchandise. Nobody greeted people as they arrived nor thanked them when they left, unlike a chef’s boutique we visited in California. There was no sense of welcome whatsoever. If there was a wonderful, expensive cookbook showing the restaurant’s creations (à la French Laundry Cookbook), I didn’t see it. 

What if we’d be greeted and welcomed in the boutique? Would be now be $500 poorer, but graced with wondrous memories of a fantastic meal?

Semur en Auxois

The landscape flows past. Green grass decorated with pale, almost white cows amid yellow buttercups. Hedgerows separate the fields, creating a tapestry of greens draped across rolling hills.

Semur en Auxois is a medieval city built atop a ridge next to a river. It has ramparts, towers, ancient stone walls, narrow streets guarded by gates (at least in the old part of town). 

We asked around for the local culinary specialty, thinking it would be something relative to all those cows, cheese, or perhaps wheat. Nope. It’s semurettes,  small dark chocolate truffles shaped like rugby balls (or American-style footballs).  They directed us to a blue shop in the heart of the ancient town, presided over by Mr. Coeur, master chocolatier. Semurettes aren’t something you eat in quantity. They’re rich, dark chocolate ganache coated with cocoa powder, more rich than sweet.

Strangely enough, Mr. Coeur leaves for California in a couple of weeks, to follow the famous Highway 1 between San Francisco and Los Angeles.   

Monday, May 21, 2012

Foie Gras, a tale of two cultures

"How can the government tell you what you can and cannot eat?" people say, with an astonished look. I explain the typical arguments about force feeding (gavage), and how people in the California government use them to justify legislating an entire business out of existence, at the same time telling restaurants they can't serve the stuff, and intruding in everyone's choice of diet.

The anti-foie gras arguments typically revolve around the alleged cruelty of the force-feeding process, mixed with general animal rights issues.

People here in France then wonder about other food-related legalities that they consider questionable. Doesn't California allow chickens to be raised where they never see the sun or breathe fresh air? They wonder how large industries can serve genetically modified food, something they feel lacks sufficient information on its long term effects on human health. They hear in the press that medicinal antibiotics can be given to beef, allegedly creating dangerously resistant bacteria - yet this practice is apparently legal.

So far, some common questions repeat. One is concerned with lawmakers wasting time on what they consider a relatively minor issue; another is about legislating away personal freedom. Then there are the inevitable questions about the faction that so adamantly opposes the sale of this product.

Where is the government that is supposed to protect us from what many feel are unsafe and unhealthy industrial practices? Instead, they're busy legislating foie gras out of existence? Why?

Why did people in the government decide to stick their legal fingers into everyone's dinner, arbitrarily snatching an ingredient off everyone's plate while leaving other arguably more questionable foods untouched? Is America a free country or not? What will they outlaw next, and with what justification?

Some hear that people selling foie gras in California allegedly receive death threats against themselves and their families. They ask how can someone who would kill another person over their diet claim moral superiority, something I certainly can't answer.

Talking with people involved with selling and producing foie gras is interesting. The industry has quality standards and regulations. As long as people make sure the certification is valid these standards will have been followed. The birds - ducks or geese - are fed a grain only diet and live outside. For most of their lives, they're not force fed. They walk, quack (or honk) and eat. After a certain age, they're force fed - not as nasty as foie gras opponents claim, since birds can supposedly breathe with a feeding tube in their throats. Likewise, the process is supposedly not painful when done correctly - although I suppose you would have to ask a duck or goose to get the final answer. They don't seem to run away after they've been through the gavage thing, so presumably they either have short memories or it's not as bad as it looks. Producers say that torturing the birds leads to inferior product, and that they want happy, fat animals to get a top quality rating.

So far, I've only talked to one purveyor here in Paris. It was a long talk, however. Along with the questions, there was a bit of attitude concerning our respective styles of government. He felt that the French government would never interfere in people's choice of diet without a very good reason (prohibiting eating endangered species, for example). Domestic ducks and geese certainly don't fall into this category.

The French know where their foe gras comes from, what the birds are fed and how they're raised, or at least can easily find answers to these questions. Can we say the same about our chicken, pork or beef?


The flour for this bread was milled in La Ferte Alais, not too far from Paris. It said this on the bag. It added that the bread was made in the bakery. Not frozen and shipped there to get stuck in an oven and sold.

The funny thing is that other baguettes at the same bakery were not so specific, and could have been less soigné. It's not always clear exactly which breads are artisanal and which are just placed next to artisanal but in fact are anything but.

Strangely enough, even in Paris it's not always that simple to find an excellent baguette, slowly fermented from selected wheat, nursed from flour, water, salt and yeast (or starter) all the way to a cracklingly crunchy baguette with a wonderful sponge and a succession of flavors that form and reform as you chew.

Some neighborhoods have a number of award-winning boulangers - unfortunately they're all far from here, too long a metro ride just to pop in and fetch something to go with our Camembert au lait cru.