Valentine to Food

It’s been about 2000 years since Saint Valentine bought a box of chocolates for his girlfriend and took her to an overpriced 3 course dinner at a trendy neighborhood restaurant with angry overworked waiters in his best his suit and tie. Normally, he sits in his house and she cooks him dinner. But today is special a special day. Wait, let’s get this right.

Valentinus was famous, of course, for driving the snakes out of Ireland. No, wait, I know he had something to do with love. There was more than one Valentinus, actually. And among other things he was known for performing marriages of people who were forbidden to marry. The sentiment is lovely to be sure and the mythology is as rich as the real story, maybe even more so. Unfortunately, I don’t remember any of it having to do with food. No restaurants, no chocolates and no aphrodisiac truffles. Being as how this is a food blog, that should about be the end of it then, right? Nope. It took us a few more centuries before we got it right with capitalism and got money into the right people’s hands. I mean that sarcastically of course.

In the restaurant business it’s one of those days that makes restaurant and chocolate store owners alike giddy with joy at the idea of having more money in their pockets. Their employees no doubt have little money of their own to spend on loved ones, let alone pay the bills. Yet every restaurant owner who is worth his weight in Fleur de Sel will find a way to maximize profits on this special night of the year. Whether it’s special seating, a different (and often easier to produce, and yet oddly more expensive) menu, or longer hours, you can expect owners and chefs alike will go to almost any mind-boggling length to raise their profit on the one night when they know they have a captive audience who is rabid to spend money. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not a disgruntled liberal socialist proletariat nor am I an angry old man who wants to squeeze every penny out of my business at my employee’s expense. I am merely stating the facts. It’s a pretty small percentage of restaurants who actually have workers who come to work because they love their job and look forward to making diners happy with their Valentine’s Day offerings. It’s one of the most completely predictable rare days a year when everyone knows the restaurant will be booked solid (and if your restaurant isn’t packed until next week then something is really wrong) and even the most normally dead dive bar can turn people away. Valentine’s Day is a cash cow. Granted, a spotted with cute little red and pink hearts that say “I love you” cow. But nonetheless a cow.

When you go out to eat with your significant other, whether it’s to propose marriage, get laid, get away from the kids, or even cheat on your spouse, you are simply a dollar sign to almost every eating establishment you might imagine making reservations at. That’s not to say it won’t be good or even entirely enjoyable; you probably know your chances of that happening long before you arrive at your destination along with your chances of sleeping alone with the internet and your Boston terrier. Who knows, maybe you will have the most amazingly romantic night of your life. I’ve seen it happen. But I do guarantee that the waiters will gleefully sit at home with a wad of cash and the owners will have one more needless art thing on their mantle. The only ones who really get screwed are the cooks who come in and work extra for maybe a little overtime if they’re lucky. They all see no benefit to your wonderful romantic evening out. All the cooks know they will never spend a Valentine’s Day in their life with a love interest. It’s another holiday spent with coworkers and without extra pay instead of a holiday spent with the one person they can’t live without. It’s part of the restaurant business. And if you happen to have the busiest nights off, then you aren’t really that valuable to begin with. The chef didn’t schedule your day off on Valentine’s Day because he thinks you’re cool.

All this brings me back to capitalism. We play this whole silly game on Valentine’s Day because it’s the expected norm. We go to jobs and we don’t even like, let alone love most of the time, so that we can participate in this game. We give someone else our hard-earned cash because we grew up with the idea that it’s just what we do. We learned it. Like Pavlov’s dog. We don’t need to do it, we just do it anyway like an affection starved zombie wanting to be like everyone else. If we took that time we worked for the money to eat out and spent that time actually learning a recipe, shopping and then cooking a meal it might somehow be more real. More real than being lazy and having a falsely smiling waiter serving you food, made by cooks who don’t want to be there and then giving your money to a person who rarely loves what they are doing, but more than likely just wants to separate you from your cash. Sure you can have a romantic evening with a room full of strangers on a predictable night, but doing something that brings you joy to do for the person you can’t live without isn’t a learned behavior, it’s something honest and meaningful – something unpredictable and beautiful, something that food aspires to be in it’s best and bravest moments, like love itself. That is, after all, the whole idea isn’t it.

Happy Valentine’s Day

It’s Not Always Like This I Swear

This is going to be updated on a regular basis. I have no intention of making this blog and then abandoning it. This is my 35 year-old live at home too-smart-for-their-own-good child. Someone that knows they can make a difference, but isn’t sure how to do it. All I can do is to try. I wish we were all as well intentioned as my child here…

We all eat. We all live in a food world. In fact, everyone of us has run-ins with the food and hospitality business more than we probably realize. We cook food for our kids, we eat out, we stay in hotels, we read cookbooks, we attend catered weddings, and we watch people saying “BAM” on television (sigh). More on that guy in a later post…

I want to put up my most recent experience for example one. It has all the earmarks of a disaster that I’m sure has happened to all of us at one time or another. If you are Alec Baldwin maybe it doesn’t happen to you, but I bet it does. I know I’ve screwed up a few movie star’s dinners in my early days as an aspiring chef and then was summarily verbally, emotionally, and psychologically tormented for it (yes more on that in later pages too). So let me tell you the story of a bad experience gone, well, badder (or worse for you linguaphiles).

It was a late afternoon in downtown Fresno California. Fresno isn’t the kind of town you aspire to “be” in. It isn’t even the town you want to drive through. And certainly not the downtown government area. It’s L.A.’s less glamorous, foul-mouthed, dirty, uneducated, farm worker stepchild. Please note, if you are a dirty farm worker, I’m okay with that. I’m only using it as a reference so you might understand my colorful allusion. We had to be there for business so I wasn’t critiquing anything, though I often can’t help myself when leaving the house. It’s just that I know what I should get and what I shouldn’t when spending my hard earned ducats.

Pulling up to the hotel, oh what the heck, it was the Holiday Inn in downtown Fresno (I won’t always be able to say exactly what or who I’m referring to for legal reasons that will be apparent in later posts), everyone was double parked. You couldn’t even get off the main road and into the car entrance to the parking lot. Needless to say I later found out these were employees cars. So I had to wait in the car while my wife went in and paid for the room. She was told she couldn’t and we would have to go park the car and come back because I personally needed to show identification. I am on the Holiday Inn corporate watch list apparently, so we waited for cars to leave to be able to drive to the parking lot, then go back to the front desk. My wife is none to happy at the snotty attitude of the employee behind the desk and at this point, I’m already fighting a snarky vibe.

Since I’m part of the VIP Gold Platinum Guest Rocket Scientist Silver Mega Club or whatever it is, the young lady behind the desk is now apparently a changed person. No longer does she have anything but the most wonderful attitude. Unlike me, my wife is not fighting her snarky vibe and snarled teeth instinct. But we get our key without incident and go up to our room.

Ah the room! Now normally you would think a Holiday Inn is going to be semi uniform in their rooms and guest service right? I would have thought so too based on my experience. Going from one Holiday Inn to the next isn’t supposed to be like going from the Ritz Carlton to a Motel 6. It isn’t. I know it isn’t. I know there can be some variance if a place franchises individual locations out to individuals as opposed to being owned by Ronald McDonald himself who checks up on each one and then fires everyone if the Big Mac doesn’t measure up. Wait, that’s a bad example because McDonald’s DOES indeed franchise places out (but Ronald can still come down hard on you if you keep a dirty place). Either way, hopefully you get the idea.

The room should be clean right? I don’t walk in with a white glove and check the inside rim of the toilet, although that’s a good way to see if the staff is doing their job in a hotel room. But it looks clean. Now, if you know Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley, you know it can be muggy at times. So first things first. Hit the AC. It doesn’t work or at least not that I can hear. I realize there is a small self help manual next to the thermometer and try again. Still no AC. OK fine. I’m not the kind of person who goes and raises a stink at a small thing. I just stroll over to the balcony, pull the curtains and open the sliding glass door to let in air. This is when I start grinding my teeth just a tiny bit.

There isn’t a screen door. Okay, not the end of the world. The balcony looks down onto the busy, noisy, and smoggy smelling bus station outside the Fresno courthouse. No biggie. But I guess it builds up when I see that the balcony isn’t even secured. The room next door’s balcony connects with ours. So we in effect can’t really leave our door open and relax without fear of Fresno’s version of Jack the Ripper hopping over into our room. Okay, well I’ll just keep my eye on it, I think to myself. This is already looking sketchy. But hey it wasn’t that expensive. But the hot and muggy room is bugging me the longer I stand there smelling diesel and watching homeless people.

Right after dark, I say, ‘hey we need some water and snacks up in this place’ (that sounded pretty fly huh… that’s so 90’s. Forget I said it.). I tell my lovely wife to wait in the room for me and I take off to find the nearest convenience store. The only problem is it’s dark now and apparently this is where the movie Escape From Fresno was filmed. The lady at the front desk assures me this is a safe neighborhood, even though I can see a guy sleeping with a blanket of little white plastic baggies right outside the front door. I’m a pretty tough guy having braved bad neighborhoods in big cities when I was younger, so I take off. I soon realize I braved it when I was younger because I didn’t worry about dying. In the 3 blocks it took to get to a CVS pharmacy things are looking pretty sketchy. On the way back I get the usual “I need change for a hot dog” and “my kid is starving can I have a cigarette” thing. I didn’t even bring a gun with me! The ones not begging were groups of downward looking hoodies. Needless to say, the lady at the front desk was full of crap – it wasn’t remotely safe. I was looking over my back the entire time and I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to bring a female with me.

We get to the point where we can relax and decide to watch some television in the evening with some room service. We even decide to splurge and watch a pay per view movie. No, not that kind. It was Seven Psychopaths. I can’t say it was a bad movie, I can’t even say it was a good one because we, well I’ll explain. Halfway through it, the movie locks up. Christopher Walken frozen on screen. The End. Sigh. I call the front desk and explain. They apologize profusely and then tell me that they already knew that our room’s television has a problem and that tomorrow at our convenience maintenance will be up to fix it. They do also, give us the option of packing up and changing rooms at 10 pm at night too. No, I say, it’s okay just please take the movie off our bill and it will be fine. Send the guy up at 2 tomorrow and we’ll get it fixed or move then. They oblige, asking to not try to watch the pay per view movies until then, and I hang up. The food then arrives, and although it’s not great, it’s not terrible. Which if it is, is always an insult at room service prices. The waiter even tells the truth and explains that the 18% auto gratuity is his tip so no need to tip extra (you might think that’s a no-brainer for a waiter to be honest about the simplest of things, but you’d be surprised. Remind me to go through the Colorado Garden of the Gods Country Club later). I do stop and wonder why, if they knew the television had a problem, didn’t they either fix it beforehand or give us another room?

I explain this to my wife, who looks at me like I just landed on the bed directly from planet Zebulon with green smoke coming out of my face and says, “I want to watch the movie.” I realize this is not a crazy request and call the front desk back. “I’d like to watch the rest of the movie please.” They again oblige and ask that if it happens again we just call them so they can refund the movie … again. As we eat our Fresno Burger (a burger with jack cheese and a roasted chile on it) and Caesar salad we watch the rest of the movie, almost. At the last minute it’s frozen again. This time I am not going to wade through it a second time, and forgo the last minute. Enough is enough. We call and explain and this time while I’m at it, I decide to mention the air conditioning that isn’t working. The room is now actually warmer, according to the thermostat, than when we walked into the room. They tell me they’ll add it to the maintenance fix it list of things to do tomorrow at 2pm. If they can’t fix it, they will move us. Good enough. We don’t sleep well with the warm room, but it isn’t a park bench so we’re okay I figure. As I doze off, I see the television lock up again on the regular channels… this time it’s an infomercial frozen on screen. The unmoving guy selling hair removal lube isn’t as appealing as Christopher Walken. At this point I decide to double check the car is locked in the parking garage and decide to stop off in the lobby to discuss my issue with the night manager. He is very nice and I try to be just as nice explaining our problems, but at the same time firmly state that what is happening isn’t acceptable or right. He then asks the golden question (whatever is going on, they got the customer service part down here, I think to myself), “what can we do to make it right? Can we take $30.00 off your bill?” And I reply matter of factly, “How about half.” He cheerfully accepts and I decide to be happy with our deal and go back to the room and fall asleep.

After our business the next day, we make sure we are in the room for our 2pm appointment with the maintenance crew. At this point it would be cliche for no one to show up. It was cliche. I had to call and ask where they were after we sat there for 30 minutes and made it a point to be there for them. They now show up, give a glance to the television and AC, then as they get ready to walk out the door I say, “You know if we have to change rooms, I just want a non-smoking room the same or better than this one. A suite would be nice even I say half jokingly.” They smile and respond that they’ll see what they can do. I sit on the bed in the quiet room with no television or AC with a door open that the flies are coming in from.

Fifteen minutes later, the 2 gentlemen knock on the door and say they can’t fix it and hand me some new room card keys. “I think you’ll be more than happy with this room sir,” says the guy who I later find out is head of engineering for the hotel. They take off and I’m happy. I think. We grab our stuff and head from the 3rd floor to the 9th. This time the hallway out of the elevator requires a key. Okay now I’m special, maybe. So far I’m not really sure what to expect. I’ve been to some dives and some really nice places in my life, so this could be anything. I decide not to hold my breath. We open the door and although it qualifies as a suite by definition, it is one room. Basically our old room with a couch and coffee table. OK well heck the AC works right? Wrong. My teeth are admittedly gnawing more now. I walk over to the sliding glass door and open it. Weird. It has no screen (again) and this time it doesn’t even lock. I guess as long as Spiderman can’t get up her it’s okay. Wait. Our balcony is just one long walkway connecting the banquet room and 20 other rooms. Oh no this isn’t going to work. But I see a small pin at the bottom of the door that stops it from sliding. It’s a kind-of-lock. I must have made some gorilla grunting sound at this point, because I hear a loud “what?” from the bathroom. I tell my wife to come over and lock me out of the room and I’ll pretend to be a rapist.

She obliges and closes the door and puts the pin in at the bottom and shuts the curtains and lays down on the bed. From the outside of the door, I’m able to just kick the pin out and open the door. Voila! Crime committed! The look on her face is not one of amusement. I’ve finally had enough and make my way to the lobby. I’m pretty pissed right now. The AC still doesn’t work and we’re not safe in our room. Why am I paying for this? I calmly explain that the AC in both rooms didn’t work, the television kept locking up in the first room and now the outside door doesn’t lock either (not a problem if the balcony was enclosed, but it’s not). So again we can’t get anything but warm air out of the vents and since we can’t have the door open, we’re in a sauna. I also explain that I understand staffing issues and all the problems that can occur, but this just isn’t right and I need it fixed. After all, I am a VIP Gold Platinum Guest Rocket Scientist Silver Mega Club member. They apologize profusely (again) and send up the maintenance guy to bolt the sliding glass door to the wall so that the only way in now is to break it, and to bring us a portable air conditioning unit. The problem with the AC unit is that it blasts hot air out the back so that whatever is directly in front of it gets cold – meaning the rest of the room heats up. So now we have to huddle together directly in front of the tiny AC unit to get cool. We must have looked like fools fighting for the best spot on the bed for the tiny air conditioning unit to hit us just right.

We decide to go have some drinks and food in the downstairs bar.The food was mediocre, and I was glad to have it that way and not worse. Before handing us our bill, the bartender left and walked into the hotel lobby. After returning, he informed us that the bill was on them due to the issues we’d had at the hotel. Wow. Now that was surprising that they all interacted (or gossiped maybe) enough to know that we were the same people with no AC. Well free mediocre food was better. We decide that since we have extra money now and had nothing but business on this trip, we could stay an extra day, and I informed the front desk we would be here one more night.

After returning to the room we fell asleep. It is worth noting that the bed was clean and pretty well above average. At 3 in the morning I hear a scuffling noise. It is the bill. Through my squinted eyes, I see what must be a glaring mistake. The room has not been comped as I was told it would be. I can’t help but start to get annoyed now. I’ve been good so far. If you’re questioning my patience, I can tell you that I know I’ve been doing good withholding my ‘tude so far.

The next day was umm Fresno. If there was anything to do in California’s 5th largest city we must have found it. The details were boring except to say we were tired and came back for a third and final day and ate at the hotel again. We didn’t even bother to see the nightlife or local food because I was just plain lazy. This is one of the few forays in these blogs that sidetracks off food a bit. It’s still there, but it’s just the giant club footed zebra carny yelling when you really want to see the frozen woman from Mars. This finally gets worse when at 11 o’clock we start hearing a pounding. It’s the banquet hall which also happens to be on the top floor, and it’s rockin’. The drunk people are screaming, the staff is breaking plates, and the music is blasting all through the floor. It’s around this time I realize I don’t feel well. Not only ‘not well’ but very sick to my stomach. I go down the list in my head of timetables and food poisoning symptoms. It’s pretty easy as we ate ONLY hotel food for 3 days. And as I’m trying to run to the bathroom, I trip and twist my foot on a metal support bar for the bed that is somehow sticking out. It was hidden well under the skirt but still stuck out about 4 inches. Now I’m pissed, hurt and sick. I swear, I’ve never had any experience ever come close to this.

I was sick enough to not worry about it and pretty much passed out soon after from flu like symptoms. The next day I sought out the head of maintenance again because the bed frame sticking out was almost unbelievable. I filled out an accident report in case I ended up having a broken foot or some nonsense. I hoped I didn’t have to call them because if I never had to contact this hotel again it would be too soon. I promised the staff I wouldn’t go blasting them to Tripadvisor or Hotels websites. They really had tried to fix whatever they could and were super nice about it. They appreciated that I understood their payroll and staffing issues and hinted that I knew something about restaurants. I asked them nicely to please make sure they were cleaning their salad greens as well. They were a bit embarrassed that they had not comped the bill correctly and took off even more money from the final bill when I pointed it out to them. I know it sucked but it was as good as it could have been as an outcome. I suppose I could have gone all Donald Trump on their asses and gone up the corporate ladder and raised hell just to be a jerk, but I don’t really want to be like Donald Trump and be a football in my next life. I just don’t want to be like Donald Trump in general.

Any lesson that might be gleaned from this would be that you too can get results from pretty much any staff member or management and walk away happy from a bad time. I mean who doesn’t want free money, right? Just make sure you tell them about it so they have a chance to make it right if you can. If you think they are just going to let you eat a whole dinner and then after the fact tell them it was terrible and you want your money back, you might be surprised at the result. You might also be surprised at the result if you start off a complaint by being drunk or with four letter words.

I don’t always have a bad time when going out to places. In fact, some of my greatest moments in life have been in the service industry when something is so out of the ordinary and outstanding that you feel as if the universe is somehow perfect and that humanity has a chance at surviving; that perfect synchronicity of all of life’s parts, like falling in love for the first time, something that you remember forever.

It is worth mentioning that while Fresno isn’t my city of choice, it is for some people. For those of you who fit into that category, please do yourself a favor and go and visit The Frosted Cakery in the Tower District. My mother baked and decorated wedding cakes for a living and I grew an instinct for fine baked goods at an early age. This place was worth the drive to Fresno for their cupcakes alone. And if the rest of their offerings are as good as their cupcakes (the only thing I tried, but the rest of the story and how The Frosted Cakery made more than a few people’s hearts warm unknowingly will have to be another blog) then anything they make must be outstandingly amazing 😀 http://www.frostedcakery.com/

Until Next Time,

Me

What It’s About

This thing might work. I’m not telling you this so you wonder at my sanity. I’m telling you this so that you realize you *might* learn something. Something you can share with your friends. Something that interests you. Something that *might* even help you in your life.

I’ve sat at home and watched hundreds if not thousands of television shows and movies about food and the food business for years now, even back when Good Morning America was the only place to watch a chef. I’ve worked for complete idiots and geniuses in the food business for over 30 years. I’ve run businesses in consulting for restaurants, catering, hotels and other odd businesses between working 60 hours a week in restaurants. I’ve lectured and even appeared on FoodTV, magazines and newspapers. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying this because I think I’m cool and super knowledgeable about this and I need to convince myself or you of that. I only want you to have some clue that I *might* know what I’m talking about. The proof will be in the strange and wonderful pudding I’m going to whip up. And now I’m going to tell you about it. Stuff you might know but probably didn’t.

Some entries might be restaurant reviews (and I promise I’m more experienced at the topic than most restaurant critics whose knowledge you pay for), some might be my late night experiences with a well-known celebrity chef, some might be things about restaurants and health departments you don’t know unless you are around it, and some might be about grandma’s apple pies. There are a ton of topics that the hacks at food television and food magazines won’t tell you about because you don’t meet some target audience of soccer moms, match.com dudes or divorced wives for their ‘information’ (not that if you are in those demographics this blog won’t be eye-opening). I’ve tried to be well read about food and I’d like to think I know what normal is. You’ve had enough of normal shoved down your well-read gullet. This won’t be normal, I promise.

Before I get to that though, I realized something else. While trying to set up this blog, I found out everyone and their mother has a food blog. Let me just relate a few of my experiences reading them.

BLOG 1:
Most Recent Blog January 10, 2003
iknowfood blog
“Mary Sue Beth
Hi, I’ve been a crochet expert for 50 years and recently Joe Ellen told me I knew more about food than Joe Bob. So I decide to tell the whole world that it’s important. My first recipe is hot oatmeal. I always tell people…”
I don’t need to write more. It’s terrible.

BLOG 2
insidefood blog
Most Recent Entry June 3, 2009
Sunflower Granola
I am a professional, psycholigist who started realising that I was eating porly. I want to learn about foods and started re searching kale. While lurning about kale, I found out about eskarole. I have post the vitamins that is found in kale with a pikture below. After that, I posted a pictur of escarol for you to see. When I was going to the farmer’s market after making my hemp necklaces…”
Nuff said.

BLOG 3
restaurantinsider blog
Most Recent Entry September 29 2010
“Rudy Samone
I’m the third generation food worker. I’ve done everything imaginable from busboy to cook to server to dishwasher to manager in my dad’s restaurants. He has 6 of them. I want to share my experience from my dad’s restaurants with you. It was been an incredible journey to get 3 stars in the North Jerome area and now I can tell you about what it’s like to work in restaurants. Our salsa recipe is known for…”
I’ve heard it before. /facepalm

All the rest are just some name that someone grabbed and then never used. Bleh. My advice to anyone creating a blog is, make it readable and stay with it. Every name in the book is used already by someone who doesn’t care – even the great blog names. Heck, people even whored out Twitter names and never used them – apparently waiting for some billionaire to buy the unused name from them. Only a small section of all blogs are created and written well by someone who really knows what they are talking about. And so now, the only real thing I know about blogs now is; 1 people take a great blog name and write one if any blogs on the named subject and then abandon it, and 2, their self-professed knowledge is lacking at best. Please people I beg of you, either learn your subject matter and actually write about it or get off the interwebs. Apparently someone told everyone they could write about their knowledge and experience and people would care to read it. We don’t. Actually, there is a third and most important thing I learned about blogs – have respect for the reader.

I don’t have any expectations about this, but I will do my best not to be a crack pot and assume what I’m writing will just be read because I’m on the internet. In general I’m not one of those people. I don’t want to waste my time or yours. So with that in mind, do us both a favor and keep reading…

Me