Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Inspiration is...

...basically just old-fashioned thievery in a nicer looking package.

It's hard for me to just go and quietly eat my food at a restaurant anymore without, in some way, analyzing, critiquing or just plain wondering about what's on the tip of my fork. By no means am I one of those self-proclaimed, self-righteous "foodies" that feels the need to inform the whole table of the dish's ingredients and put in my two cents as to how I would have made it better. If ever asked my opinion on a dish, a meal or some overall experience, I try to offer as educated an opinion as possible, while keeping any personal distaste or bookish criticism to a minimum. After all, I don't go out to eat hoping to be disappointed--that would be a gross waste of time and money, neither of which do I currently possess in abundance. No, I go out to dinner, to lunch, for a drunken snack looking for satisfaction in the form of sustenance, be it to my local Mexican spot or a five-star establishment in New York, hoping to be surprised, to discover something I hadn't tried or tasted before, or to simply be inspired.

Like I said in my last post food, much like an empty canvas or a blank piece of paper, possesses raw potential, no pun intended. Oranges are made of peel, rind, meat, juice, seeds and so on, all of which can be used in some manner to make something tasty. If I'm not aware of every possible use of an orange, though, then how should I go about my research and discovery? Dining out. It's like going to a museum or reading your favorite author's novel (if you are a painter or a writer yourself)--there's always more to be learned than what you know yourself.

So I go out to eat. I go order things that sound good, sometimes things that sound too bad to be good. I try things I've never heard of eat with an open mind. I look for things that I can use on my own menus, for my lunch specials, for my personal use. Then I write it down and commit it to memory. I discuss with my coworkers and continue developing ideas. I politely take what I've seen and, in some way, make it my own. And so food moves forward, bouncing from one cook to another, changing its form, elaborating upon its own uses, evolving.

So, what's for dinner?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Leftovers or...

I see potential or...
The Importance of Iron Chef

I can't say that I'm impressed by every episode of Iron Chef that I see. Often, I'm left with the feeling that the dishes created are surreal, perhaps a little silly or simply unusable. The chefs involved are certainly capable of the dishes they create, not to mention creating them in the allotted time frame. It's just that things like offal truffles or however many random sorts of savory ice cream have been created could only sell in a handful of restaurants in the world, if even in those. Then again, that's the point. The dishes are only served to a handful of onlookers, some trained food professionals, others food enthusiasts lucky enough to be invited to judge. Either way, the dishes will most likely never make it beyond the collapsible walls of kitchen stadium, leaving us to imagine what they might taste like, however random they may be.

Coincidentally, it's that randomness displayed on Iron Chef that keeps me watching, if only the finale, week after week, just to see how many ways and with what types of cuisine something like a green bell pepper or even a beer could be used. It is the celebration of random, often exotic and even forgotten ingredients that pushes the participating chefs to the limits of their knowledge and, for someone like me, still learning and developing within the craft of cooking, forces me to think outside the box.

For the painter, there is the canvas. For the photographer, the landscape or the silhouette of a turned head against the sunlight. For a cook, a chef, there is a refrigerator and a pantry, chock full of food, ready to be emptied. In each, there is potential. Failure or success. A new exhibit or a nightly special you just can't plate quickly enough.

For myself, it's the leftovers that excite me as much as a fresh delivery of produce, a new product I've not had the privilege of using or the basic menu items I produce on a daily basis. Leftovers can be the difference between going out to eat or having a truly exciting meal right at home. At work, they can mean the difference between losing money or making a profit on specials alone. They can be the dish you might not have otherwise considered but, given this random set of five or so ingredients, come together as something better than you might have hoped for.

The Iron Chef. The home cook. The food enthusiast. For each, there are ingredients. For each, there are inevitably leftovers. For each, there is potential.

For everyone else, here's a recipe:

Frozen puff pastry sheet, thawed and rolled out to fit a large cookie sheet / sheet pan
Leftover Bolognese sauce
Shredded cheese

Top the pastry with the sauce and cheese. Bake at 400 for 15 minutes.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


Cool breezes and dim lights. An Italian red, a little to eat, dessert a little later. Aromas waft from the kitchen and the sizzle of a hot saute pan means the food is on its way. Night has settled in and, for cooks around the nation, it's time to work. It's been different for me as of late, though, with my new found lunch shift, early morning awakenings and back home by six. For once, I'm missing the stress, the sweat, the allure that cooking by night has to offer.

By no means am I lamenting the working hours of the public majority. When I officially joined the ranks of professional cooks almost two years ago, I just accepted that my work day would begin at 1:00. Wake up, run errands, nurse your hangover, back to work. It became the norm, and I was fine with it. But then came New York, and now Austin, working by day, rediscovering life outside of a kitchen by night. It was odd, but by no means uncomfortable--like putting on a forgotten pair of shoes. Great food in a popular setting was, and is, actually possible. Incredible.

Food doesn't gain recognition, doesn't earn stars or an award-winning reputation by day, though. Not normally, anyway. It's the proper backlight and cars passing that make the evening dining experience truly unique. It's dressing up for a night out that makes the food better, less of a lunch-time function, more of a special occasion. It's cooking for a full house and exceeding expectations, consistently delivering perfect food even in the face of countless reservations that make cooking by night that much more rewarding. However, going home at 5:00 has its rewards, too.

Perhaps it was feeding a Gourmet magazine function in addition to a packed house that made last night seem so intriguing, or perhaps it was simply that I hadn't worked a night like that in some time that made me long again for those whirlwind shifts to which I'd grown so accustomed. Who knows--it just felt right. And undoubtedly, they'll be back, those long, at times agonizing shifts, when the tickets simply won't stop coming, when experience is invaluable and speed, even through exhaustion is necessary. Without a doubt in my mind, they'll be back, and I'll be ready. Accustomed to a five-day, Monday through Friday work week, relaxed and most likely looking forward to a beer, I'll be ready.


Thursday, October 16, 2008


For those of you that missed last night's premiere of Anthony Bourdain's new talk show, At the Table, don't worry--not only did you not miss anything of importance, but you are perhaps better off for having not sat through one of the worst hours of television in recent memory. At his best, Anthony Bourdain is the celebration of what all cooks could and perhaps should dream of one day becoming--a semi-distinguished, retired chef traipsing the world over for a great meal, all the while sharing the ambience of a great meal with friends both new and old. In the Spain and Japan episodes of No Reservations, it felt like he had finally let go of his sordid past, the need for shots of him and his obligatory beer and iconic cigarette. We saw a man that had done his time as a cook, who had studied and learned a great deal of what makes a good cook a great chef, someone who had taken this knowledge and moved on to something more promising and less exhausting. In these episodes, it really seemed like there is life after cooking. Apparently, that wasn't good enough.

Whether or not Bourdain himself or the Travel Channel is responsible for this new (or perhaps simply more intimate) look at the life of a retired chef and one-time bad boy is uncertain, but regardless, someone seriously needs to stand up and reconsider this course of action that's been taken. I should clarify that I wasn't at all surprised to see a new evolution in Travel Channel's love for Anthony Bourdain, simply disappointed. That he could open the show with a question of whether or not supposedly spending $1800 on dinner for two was shameful, while sitting with Ted Allen and Bill Bryson at WD-50 over a multi-course, high-ticket dinner, was just plain tacky. It's not as if people watch his other shows and think him anything less than a celebrity--who else would spend $2000 on a Hawaiian shirt before going to eat papaya-filled hot dogs? So, why the act?

Given that he has been treated to chef's table meals at Morimoto in Japan, Arzak in Spain, Bouchon in Las Vegas and so on, I find stories of the most disgusting things someone has done in a restaurant (discussed on the talk show last night) to be rather inappropriate. Why? Because it makes the rest of us cooks, chefs, restaurant professionals, those of us who go to work everyday, sober and ready for action, seem like the bad guys. Would he do those things today, in any of the restaurants to which the doors are so kindly opened? Then why bring it up in the first place. It's not like people don't already feel threatened by making a special request for fear that one of the cooks will spit in their food, so don't perpetuate the myth even further. Don't create a subculture of restaurant-goers that revel in making a mockery of a restaurant or other establishment's reputation simply for the sake of shock value. You're 50 years old Tony--let it go!

Perhaps I'm being a bit overzealous, but the show frustrated me. As a cook at this point, I can barely afford to go out to the local taco stands here in Austin, let alone a private tasting menu at WD-50 with four of my close friends. At a time when restaurants and their chefs, farmers, purveyors and televison alike are doing everything possible to make food a legitimate, sustainable, desirable medium for expression, highlighting the negative just seems pointless.

In his most recent post, blogger line cook 415 waxes on the question of why we the cooks do what we do day after day while enduring harsh working conditions, exhaustion and an overall lack of praise. Amongst his list of answers that cannot be simplified to just one, he says that we cook to make others happy, that we're hospitable--and this is coming from a line cook! Even crazier is that it's true. We cook because we're good at it, because we love it, because it's our job. What we don't need is a retired celebrity drunk who's upset that the good old days of the Ramones and blowing lines in the kitchen are over making our job any harder. It's already hard enough.

Pilot Light

At this point, I realize that no one is keeping up with my writing, least of all myself. Six months is a long time to be away from something that was only in it's early stages to begin with. However, things are a little calmer now that I've found myself living in Austin, Texas, working, living, sleeping roughly eight hours a night. Since last I posted, way back in February, I've finished my stage with Gramercy Tavern in New York (an exhausting, at times frustrating, enlightening and ultimately rewarding experience), travelled to Ireland, moved back to Florida, gotten engaged, purchased my first bicycle in over three years, and finally moved to Texas where I now share a one bedroom apartment with my fiance, our couch and my first set of real kitchen utensils that I use nearly everyday. Missing, however, has been the presence of written words, both my own and those of others, owing mostly to the fact that amidst moving, working, choosing a ring and lamenting my ever-expanding mid-section, mental stimulation has been more easily attained by drinking a beer than sitting down to read or write. With my 14th and final move in the past six years behind me, though, it's time to get back to the important things, like food, and eating, and restaurants, and gadgets, and so on.

Thanks, in large part, to my new coworkers Andrew and Jason at Austin's Fino (www.finoaustin.com), where I've managed to land a lead line cook position, my interest in most everything food-related has been reinvigorated. While we do revel in the innane banter and compulsory use of sailor-speak that is life in the kitchen, we spend most time talking about food. It's nice when you realize you're in the right place.

So, before I become any more sentimentally cliche, I'll welcome myself back as I look forward to what's good

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Grammar Dies at Menu's Hands...

...would be a strong contender for the title I'd choose when writing an obituary for English grammar.  

Before I return to writing about food, restaurants and the industry as a whole, I'd like to address a semi-related subject that's near and dear to my heart--grammar.  At first, it might seem like a rather unlikely topic for a blog that's dedicated to food, but when you consider that signage, menus and specials boards are typically what draws a customer in, grammar plays a huge role in how we sell our food.  I'm not saying that words aren't meant to be played with or that menus need be the perfect example of proper English grammar--after all, menus are usually just a menagerie of lists, sentence fragments and headlines that tell us what we're buying.  However, within these confines there still needs to be some sort of standard that doesn't allow us, the sum total of English speakers, to forget that spelling matters and that we're only doing ourselves an in justice by simply forgetting all the formative years of education we suffered through. 

Case in point--Pazzo's, the new "Cucina Italiana" just south of the drawbridge on A1A in Ft. Lauderdale, FL.  Because I haven't eaten there or even considered such a venture, I'll leave my opinions on the food to a minimum, except to say that given the abundance of such restaurants claiming to serve "Authentic Italian Cuisine," what the grim landscape of the South Florida restaurant scene needs is not another family style Italian place; especially not one that's going to blatantly misuse the English language in order to promote their supposed "FRESH" ingredients, however loaded that term may be.  

"Fresh Pasta's," "Fresh Pizza's," "Fresh Salad's."  If you don't notice the error here, it's the apostrophe at the end of each noun.  In short, the apostrophe should be used to denote possession, i.e. "Patrick's Frustration," or to abbreviate "is", i.e. Pazzo's going to kill me when he reads this; not, however, to denote pluralization, i.e. fresh pasta or fresh pastas (no apostrophe).  Go ahead and call me a nerd, but when I see signs like this around town, on vans promoting someone's (possessive) business or slowly moving its (the one case where an apostrophe is not needed to show possession) way into other written forms (plural), I fear for the fate of English.  

Pazzo's (spelled correctly, ironically, to denote that Pazzo is the owner), is not the first to misuse grammar and they will certainly not be the last.  I suppose I just know that in the future, should I become a restaurateur, a food writer or simply a menu writer, I will try to make my grammar as meticulous as possible, and I just wish that others would, too.  I realize, too, that within the culinary world and consequently on this blog, there are much larger fish to fry (no pun intended) than whether or not an apostrophe was misused, but it just seems to me that to be a successful restaurant or even one that simply appeals the masses, one shouldn't simply rely on good food to get by--it should be an entire package that sells itself like a fine work of art might, based on overall integrity.  

With that, I urge anyone whom I've annoyed by nitpicking at the presence of English in food to call me up for a cook-off.  Yours will most likely be cooked much faster, but mine, I would hope, would be much more eloquently presented.  

Moving Right Along

So, for the few fans that have actually been keeping tabs on what's good, you may have noticed it's been more than two months since I've written anything substantial, or even about food, that wasn't a mere update.  My plan was to do a summary of what I had missed in 2007 so I could catch up myself.  However, 2007 is long gone at this point and a good deal has happened since the New Year, so let's catch up (quickly), move on, and keep eating.

2007 essentially meant getting back on my feet--moving back from Chile after a year and a half, moving to Miami, enrolling in culinary school, meeting Dean Max and, consequently, eating a lot.  I threw myself head first into the culinary field, buying books, doing research outside of class, eating my way into my first credit card and finally discovering a field in which I'm fully ready to immerse myself.  Michael's Genuine Food and Drink, 3030 Ocean, Gramercy Tavern and Anthony's Coal-Fired Pizza were just a few of the notable dining experiences that pushed me forward, kept me cooking and fattened me up.  And that was 2007, in short.  Learning and working for, at times, 18 hours a day, not sleeping enough, starting two different jobs, once again becoming an American.  

And now it's 2008, the winter is in full swing, and I'm back in New York city for three months, potentially longer.  Just after the new year I flew up for a stage with Michael Anthony and his staff at Gramercy Tavern, and they accepted me with open arms.  I'm one of just three in my class that either chose or were able to leave the state and go for what should be an outstanding internship.  It's a great opportunity about which I have mixed emotions, mostly because I left New York a long time ago with a bad taste in my mouth, and I wasn't really sure if I'd ever return.  Here I am, though, on the eve of my first day in a world-renowned kitchen, ready to get back to what it is I've been doing for the past year, eager to get cooking.  

The next three months will, I'm sure, prove to be demanding, fun, interesting and, most importantly, full of great food.  I already have a great deal to talk about and it's only been a few days.  So let's tie up a few loose ends in Miami, pack up and move on.  Sounds good to me.   

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Back in Action

So, for those of you that may be "regular readers" of this blog, I must first apologize. It's been exactly one month since last I posted anything, and I'm not happy about that. Since that last post, though, I've been incredibly busy. We started our Christmas prep at work, I had two weeks off of school, and basically spent the majority of my time sleeping, buying ideal Christmas gifts for my girlfriend or, mostly, working. We prepped like crazy people and worked even harder. Needless to say, I didn't have much time or energy to write.

Aside from working, the big news is that I traveled to New York on January 4th to do a one-day, observational trail with Chef Michael Anthony at Gramercy Tavern. When I left, I had my externship lined up along with plans to return in late February. I suppose that answers my question, "What's better?" My plans to go to Boulud or any other spot for my externship have been cancelled. I'm quite thrilled and would like to say thank you to all of you that have supported me thus far.

With that, I'm now back in school finishing up my classes before going to New York, and I intend to get back to writing. Within the next week, look for a recap of 2007 in which I plan to briefly, yet thoroughly, touch on everything I couldn't get to and look ahead at what's to come in 2008. It'll be a pretty hefty post full of Azul, the clam farm, Lola's in Hollywood, FL and pizza. I hope you're as excited as I am.