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. VoilĂ ! 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.