Bizarre Logorrheic Nap

I occasionally watch Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern. I occasionally am entertained. Additionally, I occasionally learn something. And lately I am noticing that occasionally I am really bugged. It is only after watching a marathon of the show that the latter occurs. Mr. Zimmern is obviously thoroughly knowledgeable about traveling and world cuisines. He is entertaining too. I gotta admit, the guy gets to see and experience some amazing stuff that I would love to do and he is blessed with a job that allows him to travel and experience life in ways that few of us will ever get to enjoy. But like all of us, he has his quirks.

In a recent episode starring Miami, it got to the point I finally became annoyed and more importantly realized why. Being a chef by trade, I can really understand where he is coming from on how he tries to explain the intricacies of bleeding edge cuisine to the layman. He was in his element at Azul restaurant enjoying a multi-course fare prepared by Chef Huff. Mr. Huff knows his stuff (no I didn’t set out to make that funny when I typed it). Huff’s fusion of West Coast and Miami cuisine was amazing in the tiny snippet we got to see. Granted, what we saw of Azul was a monthly underground culinary high-wire act for Miami foodies. Huff was getting to do what few chefs get to do; basically play in a sandbox of the world’s best ingredients and serve it to the few people who can really appreciate and enjoy it all within the bubble of fantastic PR. A tiny sampling of the dinner was a course of sea urchin with a sorbet of monstera fruit and hibiscus with fresh wasabi. While monstera deliciosa can be a decorative Floridian vine, it’s corn-shaped fruit (which in an unripened state contains toxic levels of oxalic acid) has a pineappley texture and a taste that’s been described as everything from apples to jackfruits, bananas, cotton candy, and pineapple. If that wasn’t enough, another course was the forest floor risotto, which was a bowl of risotto sitting atop a larger bowl of heated moss, stone, herbs and dried mushrooms. The risotto itself was made with basil-fed snails, chanterelles, nasturtium leaves, salicornia (a salty herb known as samphire or sea beans) and topped with a soft cooked egg. Hot tea was then poured onto the stones and moss to give the aroma of a forest. Truly remarkable and I wished I could have been there.

As I was saying, this is Mr. Zimmern’s element. His compulsive logorrhea (excessive and often incoherent talkativeness or wordiness) of adjectives like smoky, floral, savory, nutty, creamy, gelatinous, silky, contrasting, succulent, gooey, buttery and earthy were right at home in Chef Huff’s dinner extraordinaire and it made sense since it was the only way to describe this culinary three ring spectacle.

Cue eye rolling. What get’s me is Zimmern’s propensity for this logorrhea I spoke of. He can’t help himself. In the same Miami episode, he visited the tiny unremarkable Nicaraguan eatery of Raspados Loly in Sweetwater, Florida. The food here looked just as tasty as Azul but in a completely different way. It was simple. The contrast between Azul and Loly to put it mildly, was staggering. I have always held that the simplest food is the hardest to do well; vanilla ice cream, a plain cheese burger, a glazed doughnut. By the lines of people waiting to eat at Raspados Loly, it was obvious they were doing simple food extremely well. Simple is the operative word here and why Mr. Andrew is now driving me nuts every episode. It all started with the dulce de leche raspado. Ah the dulce de leche raspado.

Dulce de leche is one of the most beloved sweets in Central America. Argentina and Uruguay are still arguing over it’s origination and other countries claim the mythic yummy stuff as their own as well. Quite simply, it translates to milk candy, candy made of milk or milk jam. It’s basically milk and sugar, although everyone puts their own slant on it with different ingredients, slowly cooked until it becomes thick. Consistencies vary from fudgy to creamy to dry and crumbled. Loly’s desert takes their own version and drizzles the thick caramel like dulce de leche over alternately layered chunks of pound cake and shaved ice in a small cup. Simple. In the Miami episode we watched them make a few for the horde of waiting people on a warm day and it looked delicious but certainly unpretentious.

As the smiling, wide-eyed and certainly sugar crazed owners, employees and customers gulped the stuff down we got to see Andrew Zimmern go into his long winded list of adjectives, again. Again? Seriously? It was such an uncomplicated, straightforward and lovingly crafted confection. It didn’t need to be called nutty nougaty creamy savory sweet icy crunchy velvety and … I’m just grimacing while typing all these nonsense words to describe something you can just sit back and enjoy on a hot summer day.

Needless to say, ever since my discovery of Zimmern’s long-winded pseudo intellectual descriptors of every food item he eats, I cannot stop being annoyed by it. What was once interesting and endearing about the show is now an overused schtick. Don’t get me wrong, I do really want to hear what those balut, pastillas or tlacoyos taste like when made well and I love seeing the local flavors and cultures for sure. And I can only imagine that Bizarre Foods viewers are on the intelligent side, so it’s even more disappointing to see him pandering to the what might be the lowest common denominator who doesn’t understand anything about food or cuisines by constantly over describing everything. Obviously the whole idea of the show is telling us poor unlucky souls about the foods and cultures that he sees, but c’mon. There’s no denying that what was once taboo like sushi and frog’s legs is pretty tame fare nowadays. And while I do believe there is a trend among gastrophiles to push the boundaries more and more as we become a world culture, and certainly Mr. Zimmern was at the front of that movement, Bizarre Foods is becoming an unintentional cliched parody of itself.

Where once I used to stop at Bizarre Foods while channel surfing, more and more frequently I end up changing it after the dreaded descriptors start. I wouldn’t care at all that Zimmern was regurgitating his own stuff if I never liked the show to begin with. It’s only my enjoyment of the past shows that has caused me to turn my nose up now. Okay, maybe I’m being tough on Andrew. Okay, I can admit it. I can admit I’m in the minority who already knows something about food. I can admit most people don’t cook ever and don’t know what ice or pound cake is and we need to know exactly what those common things are like with as many descriptors as possible so we can understand them. Oh wait…

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You Are What You Don’t Know…

Combing through old blogs, reviews and new articles and admittedly being at a loss for what to go with this week (and being a bit lazy), I am deciding to re-Facebook a comment I made to my friend a few days ago. We were discussing what is in the food you eat that you think you know but really don’t. This friend coincidentally sells nutrition products (marketed as weight loss to be honest) and stands by them regardless of any reasoning not to. I only offered my comment after it was solicited (after reading it, ask yourself if you really think I’d write all that if it wasn’t?). They are quick to tell me that their products don’t contain castoreum (a natural vanilla flavor made from anal glads of beavers) or any corn molecules but they have no idea, to be honest. It’s all just a higher up telling them that their company is acting in the highest moral sense and then my friend passes it along verbatim (maybe ad nauseam?) to the customers. After reading this, they responded that “their products don’t contain corn,” like it was memorized. Seriously, who honestly knows a product doesn’t contain corn molecules? Really?

What follows fits the articles here nicely. My aim has always been to cook food I enjoy, but followed by getting people to think for themselves (especially regarding food). I won’t be dogmatic past that and will just post…

“You said you were interested to hear, soooo here goes…

Okay so I’m just gonna take a simple vitamin as an example. While some supplements are far worse, this one is pretty simple by comparison and it’s something we all use. Vitamin C has been heralded as the cure to everything from cancer to the common cold. Since you said “supplements” (this is a broad category and Vitamin C fits the definition) and I said “some”, this reply meets the requirement for relevancy to your original reply. Since we are not talking about the sprayed-on vitamins that companies use to boost the vitamin content to meet the old RDA standards – vitamins that are removed and broken down as a result of the heating and extruding process in nearly all processed foods, but supplements – I have to add a few things. One is that those same vitamins that most people take as supplements ARE the same as the aerosolized vitamins made in labs. The second, is that these processes have been going on a long time for many of the “supplements” we all take since the late 1800’s thanks to our two friends Christiaan Eijkman and Casimir Funk (I didn’t make those two guys names up, I swear).

Okay so vitamin C. We think of cherries and oranges right? The actual truth is most Vitamin C on our store shelves are made from genetically modified food AND OR synthesized and produced from noxious petrochemicals. This is undoubtedly a result of our society’s belief (but hopefully changing) that you can eat bad and take supplements to overcome the deficiencies (the answer is to eat right from the beginning, but I am digressing again and that’s another rant). Most Vitamin C on store shelves is made from corn. Yes Virginia, that GMO corn, but that’s another blog yet again.

Most vitamins are, not surprisingly, made in China. Most US plants that used to produce vitamins have either moved or gone out of business. The only vitamin plant remaining in the US is a DSM beta-carotene plant in Freeport, Texas. Yes, that’s the Freeport many of us know as a chemical super center. The fact that the DSM vitamin plant pumps out as many toxins as it’s Roche neighbor goes unnoticed when it’s other Freeport neighbors are Dow, BASF and Conoco Philips. It’s not surprising to note that many of the world’s vitamin plants can be traced back to chemical companies like Monsanto, Conoco Philips and Dow.

The last remaining Vitamin C plant was located in New Jersey and closed it’s doors iin 2005. Located a just a few miles from a high school, the Roche vitamin plant, which was brewing different chemicals and emitting large amounts of hazardous air pollutants like methanol, chloroform and toluene, was fined by the EPA and State of New Jersey. After being implicated in a vitamin price fixing scheme, Roche became unattractive to investors and was ultimately sold to DSM and the US void was then subsequently filled by the Chinese. Although China has been implicated in many scandals regarding food processing in recent years, with the exception of the 2007 melamine scandal, China has not been  implicated in any incidents regarding vitamins to my knowledge.

Deep inside the food processing world, you will find that most Vitamin C is made from the fermentation of corn. Corn fermentation is the less expensive form of the outdated vitamin chemical synthesis, which in itself is the thing chemical engineers dream of like the rest of us dream of unicorns and cotton candy. The process has about 10 steps which included other sub-steps. This, in and of itself, is not absurd considering the amount of processing that goes on in most of the civilized world’s industrialized food.

The process begins without any actual corn, corn syrup, corn kernels or even ears of corn or husks. Instead, it starts with sorbitol, a a sugar alcohol made commercially by using enzymes and a hydrogenation process to rearrange corn molecules. Although the fermentation does not pollute the air as bad as it’s chemical synthesis brother, it has been shown to cause water pollution in certain studies. Once the sorbitol s made, the chemical fermentation starts with adding bacteria and after more molecular rearranging, makes sorbose. Sorbose is then mixed with a GM bacteria to make 2-ketogluconic acid, which is then treated with hydrochloric acid to make basic ascorbic acid. After that, it’s purified, filtered and milled into a fine white powder which is then transported to be sprayed into your food as an additive or compressed into Vitamin C capsules among other things. It is important to note that Vitamin C is not used only as a “vitamin”, but food and chemical companies like to use it for it’s preservative qualities as well as other reasons.

While the GMO angle is being argued, the fact that almost all Vitamin C comes from GMO corn is an ongoing issue as well. Your own reading can turn up several volumes on that discussion alone. Also, my newest reading about the effects and benefits from Buffered Vitamin C versus Ascorbic Acid Vitamin C suggests that the highly processed (though far cheaper) Ascorbic Acid Vitamin C may be far less healthy than previously thought. Some people even suggest that the Ascorbic Acid Vitamin C version is nearly worthless in many ways as a health supplement and isn’t really even Vitamin C at all.

While I posted ONLY about Vitamin C, the same is true (and worse in some cases) about most supplements (vitamins, herbs and minerals). Recently a study was conducted about supplements from overseas. They found that most all supplements tested DID NOT contain the advertised product but contained cheap fillers such as soybean, rice and wheat. While my background is is food and nutrition, I never post this stuff to get people to believe what I believe – I only want people to research, read and learn for themselves instead of just listening to what some person or body of people tell them.

As with any food, I always say hey, maybe things like hydrochloric and 2-ketogluconic acid and growth hormones aren’t categorically hurting you, but they certainly aren’t unquestioningly helping you. I apologize for any spelling errors and have not included footnotes, but I was in a hurry. Sources: UMMC, OCA, M. Warner ISBN 978-1-4516-6673-1 PP 74-96, BMC Medicine 2013, 11:222  doi:10.1186/1741-7015-11-222, et al.”

That’s it really, except for some good-natured back and forth. Interesting to note that their totally serious response was (I’m not kidding) “I’ll have to get back to you on this, after I ask the someone else.” Sigh.

From Squirrel to World

The 1961 edition of the go to encyclopedia of food for serious cooks, Larousse Gastronomique, included a recipe for squirrel and it was considered pretty normal. Maybe not yawnworthy, but normal. Imagine the disbelief of those chefs and food vamps if they could be transported into our high tech 24-7 world of insta television food media. The housewives of the depression era roasted rodent for a Sunday dinner and yet we consider it normal to see chefs on television boasting of everything from bread courses and duck eggs to deconstructed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with flavored salts. It’s not so hard to see that it’s all relative.

Food as a whole is a relative thing. Much of it matters not whether it’s rodent salad or truffle ice cream, only whether it’s pleasing to the person eating it. Every time I think about this subject or I am asked what food I like to cook, I come to the same conclusion; it’s the food dummy. It’s all about ingredients. From Beijing to Los Angeles, it just doesn’t matter. We can go on and even argue about what cuisine we prefer or what comfort food makes us feel good when we’re under the weather, but without the enjoyment of the person eating it, it’s all Lutefisk.

As I travel around the world sampling everything from home cooked meals to upscale restaurants to wedding parties, I notice that same thing. A chicken fried steak in Wichita Kansas, fish and chips in Dublin Ireland, or organic vegetables in Boulder, Colorado are all the same in one fundamental way; It tastes good. Restaurants live and breathe to serve the customer. Whether that’s by making the customers happy, earning a profit or the owners and staff simply loving what they do (hopefully it’s all of the above but frequently it’s not), it is ultimately to please the customer. Any restaurant that doesn’t meet this criteria has low customer standards or hasn’t got long to live. O.K., maybe the owner has LOTS of money to just keep the place open for egotistical reasons and that happens too. Restaurant owners and chefs can be a can be an egotistical nightmare. But on a whole, people leaving the front door have to be happy for a restaurant to stay open. Even housewives cooking for dinner guests will get a polite “no, thank you” if something is not worth returning for.

This all brings me to my main point; A good meal can be found anywhere. It can be prepared by anyone. I’ve worked and eaten in more than a few restaurants, hotels, and friends and relatives dining rooms, and with the above named exception, it’s been true every time. I am however surprised often enough at what the local area considers good food since often my personal favorites aren’t on the menu. It’s a pesky thing to see a dining room full of people and dirty tables with elephant sized portions. But I can usually sit down and be objective. I may personally never like why the corporate billion dollar food chains sustain the customer base they do with all our growing knowledge of food and nutrition, but as a businessman and professional taster I understand how it works.

A chef at Spago once told me something I have always remembered and it explains some of the fast food nation status we enjoy (or loathe depending on your point of view). He explained that we go to fast food restaurants (I won’t mention names) because it’s reliable. When we go get that value meal burger and fries, we know the next time we order the exact same thing from the same restaurant that it will be exactly like the last. When we enjoy that salty crunch of a french fry or that juicy cheeseburger we know that the next time it will be just like we remembered it. Corporations have engineered it that way and thrive on it. It’s why we go back again and again. Burger King to the French Laundry it’s the same; we go because it tastes good.

As a chef and food writer among other things, I know that you have to understand where you are to judge anything. Good is good and bad is bad. Ruth Reichl wouldn’t go to Mogadishu and expect New York fare, much less write a column bad mouthing a restaurant because it wasn’t a swanky restaurant. It absolutely matters where you are and you have to remove this filter of “everything here is bad because I’m from *insert your big city name here*” if you have one and see everything with an eye to understanding that idea of “good is good”. I admit I was once a snooty chef as my friends liked to call me. I only understood that great cooking was one thing – the absolute best ingredients you could possibly get prepared by someone who had a far-beyond-superior knowledge of the cuisine. The end. But now I see it for what it is and although truffle risotto is still a comfort food for me, I see now that whether it’s squirrels or 24 hour a day reality food media world, it’s all really the same.

We don’t have to live in Los Angeles or Paris to enjoy good food. Sure, Paris has some great butter and cheeses, (and well, a lot of other foods actually) but you can find good, well prepared food anywhere and small towns are no different. You can always bet that the local establishments cater to their market. It’s how they stay in business. I will never expect to dine at a great vegan restaurant in Shreveport or expect Daniel Boulud to open a bistro in Jerome. But there are great meals to be enjoyed anywhere you live. If you expect foie gras with spiced blackberries and quince everywhere you go, you will be disappointed. But if you understand the idea of anything being possible and give it a chance, you might find yourself pleasantly surprised. Sure, the portion size may change greatly, the food may be healthier (hey who doesn’t love a good Tommy’s chili cheese burger, right?), and the kitchen might be messier but it doesn’t matter (I’ll get to the health inspectors in another article, I promise). When you put that first bite into your mouth and it tickles your taste buds and it makes you smile inside, that’s what matters. From a Hershey’s chocolate bar that reminds you of the first time you bought one with your hard earned allowance on a summer day to a crunchy medium rare duck breast with oranges that takes you back to a cool evening in Singapore when you fell in love with your wife, you know one thing.

They got it right.

Okura Sushi

I must admit I don’t get down to the Palm desert area often. When I do, I usually find myself surrounded by restaurants that cater to an era of Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope. I am always surprised to find something great other than steaks, lobsters and baked potatoes served by waiters in tuxedos.

Okura Robata Grill & Sushi Bar is just such a case where I was pleasantly surprised. The outside is unremarkable as the restaurant sits in the middle of a strip mall. You definitely breathe a sigh of relief as you enter the nicely air conditioned dining room from the warm evening parking lot. The decor was upscale, modern and well lit and the interior felt inviting but not over cluttered, claustrophobic or cold as many sushi restaurants do. When we arrived, we saw the bar area was almost full during happy hour, but seats were available throughout the rest of the restaurant if we chose not to enjoy the happy hour menu.

As we were whisked away to your table by the hostess, we were greeted with a friendly “Irashaimase!” (Welcome!) by the entire staff. We got the feeling that the entire staff seemed to care and was proud of their establishment and the food. The waiter was friendly, knowledgeable and professional and any questions he could not answer were promptly answered by the chef.
Since seafood is clearly the foundation of the restaurant, we had decided beforehand to focus on that and although there are a few meat, chicken and vegetarian dishes, their scarcity made them seem like afterthoughts.

We ordered many things throughout night, both appetizers and entrees and the food arrived quickly and well prepared. Luckily rock shrimp was in season and upon the waiter’s recommendation, the tempura rock shrimp with spicy tobiko caviar aioli and crispy wontons was amazing. The tobiko aioli gave the crunchy sweet shrimp a touch of smoke and salt and turned the rock shrimp that I have seen countless times into a memorable dish. The entire table wolfed it down and practically licked the plate.

Almost needless to say, all the maki sushi (sushi rolls) were impeccably prepared and tasty. You might think that a place in the desert cannot get fresh sushi grade fish, but you’d be wrong. The volcano roll topped with salmon and tuna and red spider roll with soy paper and spicy eel sauce were remarkable and although many restaurants do serve these rolls, few taste as good as these. Simple things like the rice being perfectly cooked and seasoned and the rolls being made correctly were done the way they were supposed to be. Each component of the rolls was prepared with skill and precision.
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The octopus salad was another of our favorites. The thinly sliced and lightly salted cephalopod rested on a bed of cucumber “noodles” and seaweed. The sweetness of the rice wine vinaigrette together with the crunchiness of the cucumber was just right as a warm summer night dish that anyone would have loved even if they normally disliked octopus. In fact, one member of our party that swore they didn’t like octopus finished off almost the whole dish. Other dishes like the mussels with crab and tobiko were prepared with an eye to detail and skill and were perfectly cooked and seasoned. It was all done right.

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My personal favorite was the uni (sea urchin) with quail eggs. The fresh uni had a lovely light nutty ocean flavor and the raw quail egg gave it a texture of creaminess. If you can get fresh sea urchin it is a delight to the senses that you will almost certainly always remember. Although I loved it, I accept the fact that many people may not like it like I did.

I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop and for some part of the meal to not meet or exceed my expectations, but it did not happen. The seafood gratin was served in the same thick black iron skillet that it was cooked in and each bite of the baked shrimp and scallops with the spicy mushroom cream melted in my mouth. It was a simple dish with few components that, like most things, when done correctly is aspiring. I was a little concerned when ordering the curry bacon scallops that it would be easy to have completely unbalanced flavors and drown out the light scallop with bacon and curry, but again, I was not let down. The giant scallops wrapped in thin smoked bacon played wonderfully with the sweet, lightly curried cream sauce. Each bite reminded me of how good seafood can be when a chef does not try to be too funny and over think every dish.

For desert, we ordered the crème brûlée mostly out of curiosity and were not disappointed. Although I must admit it was probably my least favorite of the dishes simply because everything else stood out so prominently. It was as a crème brûlée should be, creamy and bursting with vanilla seeds, but it was only very good. We also asked the chef if we could sample the special desert from another fixed menu we did not order from and he happily brought it to the table himself. It may have just been the last thing that left an impression on me or maybe it was the desert itself, but rarely do I see something so simple, creative and tasty in the same dish. It was a called yuzu jellied fruit, but it arrived in a cocktail glass dotted with raspberries, strawberries and blueberries. I had not seen the hardy lemon-like yuzu prepared in this way before and each bite exploded with sweet flowery citrus berries and then slowly melted with a light salt and sour aftertaste that was spectacular. I walked out with a feeling that I rarely have in any restaurant; not just one of being filled up, but one of truly being satisfied.

Okura Robata Grill & Sushi Bar
***
Address: 78370 Highway 111, Ste 150, La Quinta, CA 92253 (760) 564-5820
Ambiance: Although it is technically in a strip mall, the rest of the sun soaked concrete disappears once inside. It’s elegant and fun without being overdone.
Service: Friendly, welcoming staff while also efficient.
Recommended dishes: Uni sashimi with quail egg; dynamite rock shrimp; octopus salad; curry bacon scallops, yuzu jellied fruit
Wine list: It is tempting to try the many different drinks, which go well with the food. But wine drinkers have a wide range of good options at fair prices.
Hours: Sundays through Thursdays 4:30 to 9:30 P.M., Fridays and Saturdays 4:30 to 10:00 P.M.
Price range: sushi and sashimi $4 to $28, appetizers $3 to $12, main courses $9 to $29, desserts $4 to $8
Credit cards: All major cards
Wheelchair accessibility: Yes

What the stars mean: (None) Poor to Satisfactory * Good ** Very Good *** Excellent **** Extraordinary
Ratings reflect the reviewer’s reaction primarily to food, with ambiance and service taken into consideration. Menu listings and prices are subject to change.

Madeleines

I said awhile ago that I would not abandon this project. I need to apologize for the absence and get back to the articles and reviews. In doing so, perhaps I can explain my delay in writing and offer something meaningful, although somber.

I have been reminded of Proust and his “Remembrance of Things Past” too often to count. Those passages about the tiny shell shaped sponge cakes always reminded me of how something so simple, profound and heartfelt can be so difficult to explain to others. A thought, a memory, or a feeling so easily grasped by us all inside loses it’s meaning and importance somehow when put into words. As it turns out, I have spent much of my life in pursuit of something that I only recently understood.

Many times throughout my busy, hurried hours, days and years spent in restaurants, I stopped and closed my eyes. The swirling smells of the kitchen are too scattered to stop and place unless peering into a stockpot or some intern is busy burning bread. But there were smells that, when presented to me, stopped everything and the blur of the kitchen slowed down to a crawl, and finally stopped. In those tiny seconds, I would remember my childhood. So far away in every aspect from a chaotic kitchen that it was a small, instant vacation to a another time. A time when I hated mornings. As a kid who was too smart for his own good and less than enthusiastic about waking up at my father’s preordained time, I found the early hours of the weekend day tedious and would lie in bed listening to the grumbling of my father and constant calls to wake up from my mother. She was always willing to go above and beyond my impatient father by tirelessly asking me to wake up. As I lie in bed, I would slowly begin to breathe in my mother’s breakfast cooking. The smell of bacon and onions drifted throughout the house and eventually into my bed where I lay dreaming. It was a smell that could not be ignored. It was the smoked salty savory scent that lingered from the early morning hours throughout the day into the evening that would always remind me of home.

Other times I was reminded that there was nothing that could compare to Mom’s chocolate chip cookies. They were of course delicious, but always baked for friends or celebrations of some kind. They were always associated with happy times. The gooey chocolate chips floating in the salty and sweet soft centers, surrounded by the crispy crunchy outer crust, were heavenly. As a child I ate them voraciously but never understood until many years later how they gave me a feeling of utter contentment. While I nibbled on a cookie during a busy holiday event thousands of miles from my family back home, I was taken back to the times of my childhood when I sat carefree with my family. With each bite I was transported back in time to when I was surrounded by loved ones, swimming on hot summer days and laughing with childhood friends. As I stood motionless amid strangers drinking and caroling, I suddenly realized how great my childhood days were. How carefree and loved I was. Until then, I looked back dispassionately on my youth and it was not until that Christmas eve that I understood and actually became fond of it.

Days when I was sick and home from school, I would lie underneath a heavy velvet blanket with leopard spots that Mom had sewn together herself. As I lay on the couch the watching “I Love Lucy”, coughing and generally feeling miserable, Mom would walk in with a bowl of hard cooked eggs expertly prepared. The eggs were always cooked perfect with never a runny or grey yolk and just the right touch of salt and butter to make them fluffy and delicious. They were sublime, and most importantly were made with love. Though I was ill, the eggs had an unusual healing property that remained the same throughout the years. My Mother’s care, the laughing on television, the hard boiled eggs and being curled up under a heavy blanket, always made me feel better. I remember knowing I was safe and loved and that nothing else mattered on those mornings. Of the thousands of hard boiled eggs I must have cooked in my life, each one I’ve cooked reminds me of a simple dish fed to a tiny ill, but happy child, on a sofa a lifetime ago.

She never seemed to stop cooking. It was one constant in my early years. It provided me with the most basic ability of a chef – to make food taste good. I suppose I also inherited the desire to make others happy with cooking much like mom, although I confess, it gets lost in the day to day chaos that is a professional kitchen. My mother did not have packaged meals or pre-made food in her repertoire. Everything was made from scratch. Not made from scratch in the corporate restaurants who have everything shipped in from out of town way, but in the Italian grandmother slaving over a hot stove to make a single meatball way. Growing up, I never knew how respected this way of cooking was until I began working for culinary luminaries. It was the most basic concept to cook everything from scratch, but I soon found out how few people actually did it. It takes a talent, a patience, a knowledge and a love, to cook that way. It was all intrinsic and fundamental to my Mother.

Looking back, everything she did in the long list of things that encompasses making three meals a day for a family was done with care and joy. She seemed to take some secret pleasure from cooking, always going about even the most mundane tasks of cooking in a way that most people do not understand. The tedious chores of shopping, frying, baking, chopping, boiling, roasting, sauteing were transformed into happy times in between boring life necessities that make up the days of a young family. Kitchen work that was uninteresting or inconsequential and insignificant to most of us, was a privilege and a source of happiness for her.

So maybe now I realize that my mother has given me one final gift. One she could not have ever known about but would have made her happy. Through food, I am able to remember her and our family in a way I could never have imagined; with kindness, fondness and love. I know that intellectualizing and writing about involuntary memory cannot evoke the memory of my mother in the way I wish it would. Nor can remarking on her incredible gift of cooking for others and her cheerful and giving disposition explain to a stranger who she was. To all this, I can only offer something simple yet hopefully meaningful. We’ll miss you mom.

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