arriving at Oxheart Restaurant

As long as I’ve known Justin, he’s always wanted to have a restaurant of his own.  If you’ve been around long enough, you know that Oxheart’s food was not what he envisioned years ago.  You would also know that I was “destined” to be a partner in a really boring desk environment.  Thank goodness that all changed when we began our nomadic adventure.

Without a home to call home, we have been given much opportunity to explore all types of cooking and baking.  A high-level breakdown of our lives since I jumped into the restaurant industry and away from my useful economics degree: Chicago for pastry school, Napa for the seasons, Europe for staging and a white Christmas, living in NY to “test” the strength of our marriage, with the gaps between in transit.

The next few years I can gladly say we will stay put in Houston, Texas and start a family.  Not that kind of family.

We are so excited to be starting this adventure with all of our friends and families we have amassed along the way. We hope you will be a part of it.  Our blog will transition into one that follows our less nomadic lives at Oxheart.  Until then, I leave you with this, courtesy of Yuling Designs.

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Going Home.

I don’t belong in NYC.  Maybe when I was in finance, right out of college, single and chasing the life that meant lots of worldly stuff and badly needed vacations.  As a happily married wife, 1,500 miles of distance between Justin and I didn’t feel right even if Justin reminds me it’s to pursue the dream of opening something together.

Is hearing sirens at 3:11 am in the morning going down my street supposed to make me stronger?  Am I supposed to feel alone in a city of 8 million people? Should I worry that I may get mugged on my way home or to work because it happened to a co-worker?  How do I enjoy the smell of piss in a subway on a hot summer day? Can I ever sleep in total silence again without freaking out?

I’ve learned that opening a business requires much sacrifice and patience.  We have already had a lot of practice in replying with regrets.  The weddings we regretfully decline.  The missed baby showers.  The missed happy hours.  The missed birthdays.  The holidays we spent apart from our families.  The UT Football games I only see on ESPN college recap.  I feel like I need a sign that says if you want me/us to come to a life-changing event, it cannot be on a holiday or a weekend.

With that being said, NY has opened a lot of doors and shut some that I never want to open again anyways. I have experience my best falafel pita (Azuri Cafe, not Taim), my first apple picking experience (in Warick), the best almond croissant (Bien Cuit), the best lox + bagel (Russ and Daughters), best meat sweats (Roberta’s), best beach buddies (the Leftwich’s), the best roommates, the best co-workers, many memorable meals, and my first real cravings for alcohol.*  Many of you have flown into NY and made it a point to meet up with me.  (And I have only known you through my Justin.)  Those moments meant a lot to me.  It taught me where home is – where home will be.

Despite all the firsts and bests in NY, there were things that Houston has that I could not live without.  I miss our friends who take the time out of their busy weeks to hang out with Justin and I.  I miss Vietnamese food.  I miss guacamole done right.  I miss cocktails that are more reasonably priced and coffee that is brewed by familiar faces.  I miss a culture of people who truly want to make a difference and don’t have other motives.

Thank you for being so patient with me.  It took a bit of convincing of all the things I miss most about Home, but I suppose distance made this heart grow fonder.  I have so much to share with you all.

* If you have a significant other who seems to have a drinking problem, it’s may not be true.  Sometimes alcohol does help relieve stress and allow one to sleep through the night – something you may be thankful for.  You could say I am an advocate for “proper” use of alcohol.

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On Vegetables. And dinner details.

Radishes, my favorite

I get it. Cooking vegetables is a huge “food trend” these days.

But that’s not going to stop me from cooking them. In fact, I think it’s a great thing– a task that I hope more chefs take to with vigor and open eyes.

I never imagined that I’d want to direct my career in a path where cooking vegetables would be the great majority of what I want to put out on menus. Hell, I grew up the fat kid. And let me tell you, it’s hard growing up the fat kid without loving to eat meat proteins. But things just happened that way: I ended up at Green Zebra restaurant in Chicago for my externship even though I thought I was going to be working at their (now-defunct) sister restaurant Spring and was introduced to the joys of turning cases upon cases of artichokes because I got there just in time for the spring season. When I moved to Napa, we happened to move within biking distance from Ubuntu, and I felt so compelled to work there that I pulled the ol’ Grant Achatz-move and sent it what probably amounted to 8 resumes and four walk-ins “to see if I can talk to the chef” in less than a month’s time-span before obtaining an unpaid job for the first couple months. And working “for” the garden that they’ve cultivated up there– well, let’s just say that garden was the most fickle boss I’ve ever had.

But the lessons that Chefs McClain and Bulkowski at Zebra, and Chefs Fox, and London at ubuntu taught me on how to look at vegetables with different perspective than rather just the same ol’ “line veg on a plate with some polenta/pasta/risotto” I think has helped me in other areas of cooking, on how to look at the dynamics of an item rather than their end being.

Vegetables and fruits to me are exciting. Their variety in numbers is only rivaled by maybe fish. But trying to understand their textures and flavors within the never-ending barrage of terrior, ripeness, growing conditions, weather, and handlers keeps me often-times confused and intrigued. Cooking with them is often a dizzying and frustrating task because they hardly ever come out the same way it did the time previously. Their ability to be sweet, bitter, acidic, grassy, and even almost gamey at times make them great products to work with. But figuring out the best “parts” of the vegetable and trying to figure out new uses for previously trashed waste of the items is a rewarding game of trial and error, and one that’s taken and taking me a lifetime to grasp. I suppose that’s why cooking is so fun though.

But to answer an Eater Austin commenter, that’s why we’re calling these dinners vegetable-focused as opposed to vegetarian. I’m not trying to play to any favors in dietary restrictions or or make any sort of political stance. I’m not cooking vegetarian because of the fact that it’s vegetarian, but because I just really, really enjoy cooking vegetables. We just want to make the products the star of the show Which is why I’ve learned to say “vegetable-focused,” because, well, it is. But if I need to split hairs, yes, it’s a vegetarian dinner.

That being said, these dinners aren’t vegan, we’re not bringing in new pans or cooktops or anything that may have touched meat, but I am really excited to cook for the Austin crowd. My wife, the forever Longhorn, sees Austin as our second home and first choice as a retirement city or dropping-all-our-worldly-possessions-to-live-as-bums-because-we-can’t-find-a-job city. Whichever comes first. We love the vibe, the people, and Austin itself.

So beyond all this, Chefs Ned and Jodi Elliot of Foreign and Domestic will be lending me and a few friends their kitchen and dining room for one night: Sunday, October 9th.  Bobby Heugel and Chris Frankel from Anvil Bar and Refuge will be pairing all sorts of drinks, and David Buehrer and Ecky Prabanto of Greenway Coffee and Tea are coming to provide some quality caffeination. Most of all, I just hope it’ll be a fun night where we can serve the Austin food and chef community.

We’ll have two seatings: a supper 5:30 seating and a dinner 8:30 seating. The cost is $75 payable via PayPal at the time of the confirmation of your reservation. You can make your reservation by emailing:

We’ll start taking reservations at tomorrow, Tuesday, September 20th at 10 AM.

We look forward to be cooking and pouring for you all up in Austin or for whoever wants to travel to enjoy. But the biggest thanks goes to the Elliots. They really have a great vision up in Austin and we hope you’ll do your best to support them on a weekly basis and also if and when they continue their guest chef series.

Thanks again and hope to see many of you soon!

The ubuntu garden, 2010

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My TEDx Houston Experience: The Importance of Balance

It must have been some sort of mix-up

Or, it was by just some sort of stroke of sheer dumb luck, but last month I had the chance to speak at TEDx Houston. TEDx, as some of you may know, is An event that brings together some of the world’s most apt minds to speak about new ideas, express passionate vignettes, and push forward innovations in their respective fields. The TED talks globally are huge YouTube hits, spreading ideas and bringing light to new thoughts from a variety of disciplines. Bill Gates has done one, David Blaine has done one, Sir Ken Robinson has done one. Hell, Rene Redzepi did one. This one was independent to Houston (hence the “x”), and gathered there to speak that day were CEOs of major companies, notable leaders of Houston’s community, world champions of dance, highly respected doctors and architects, and a gentleman that spoke with such a tone, conviction, and interest that you hung on every drip of every syllable that escaped his mouth.

Aaaand then there was me.

Shit, I was sandwiched between a rocket scientist and a nanotechnologist.

How a-bout that?

Mostly my TEDx experience was filled with sweaty palms, lots of pacing, and extremely sharp pains in my stomach from the searing amount of adrenaline that went through my veins when I walked on stage. I don’t remember much of what I said while on stage, so hopefully it all somewhat made sense to the audience. But to walk onto a platform in front of such a notably involved group of peers is an mind-numbing, humbling experience. When it was done, I walked off stage and wanted to vomit but ended up curling into a ball for a good ten minutes offstage. But you know, that’s just how things go.

Overall, I think I made it out alright. I talked about pretty much everything I’ve said here on this blog. Hoping to urge people in our community to go out and explore the big world around us and to bring back home new ideas, humble thoughts, new points of view, and appreciation of other cultures to take our naturally rich, raw ingredients from our region to create a distinct food culture here in the Gulf Coast. The whole word “stage” is sort of becoming banal with the use of it around here, but that still shouldn’t deny its importance.

But you’ve already heard all that, you can just scroll down our blog to pretty much get the gist of what I said for the entirety of the ten minutes. I’m not writing this post to talk about what I talked about. I’m writing this post because something hit me the next day as I went through all the foggy memories of all the talks I sat through that day at TEDx.

Chefs have always told me that when you’re a cook, you should be well versed in everything. You shouldn’t be able just to work the line, you should be able to be a butcher, to do basic baking and/or pastry, and to know the basics and ideas of charcuterie. You should strive to understand (that doesn’t mean know how to cook) all cuisines, to understand food, its history, and how it got from the ground to the plate. It’s important to be well-rounded, because you’ll never know when you’re going to be called on. Lately, especially here in Houston, I’ve even seen extremes go where cooks are learning more about service, coffee, and tending the bar, everyone is working with and learning from everyone else. It’s in the early stages, but chefs, sommeliers, and bartenders are all starting to become interchangeable as they learn more about other parts of the food industry.

In example of this, Peter Jahnke of Les Sauvages probably is the first to come to mind. That guy can do it all (and we all hate him for it because he’s too good at everything.)

But what I realized that day was that because it’s so easy to get caught up in the food industry and all its facets, we as food industry professionals often get *too* caught up in the business. There’s so much to learn and enjoy about food and beverage that it’s hard not to become obsessive about it, but then we forget that there’s this other world around us and that we’ve lost perspective of that other world.

The amount that I learned that day from TEDx, from the statistics on how volunteering helps, to why disbanding the space program will ultimately hurt us, to getting a basic understanding of what nanotechnology is and how it helps us, and especially what the difference between what an MC and a DJ is, was not only invaluable, but it also showed me how out of balance in knowledge I was.

I, myself, love being involved and engrossing myself with everything related to food, and maybe sometimes that’s a problem (for me at least) because I’m oblivious to everything else.

Maybe I should put down the copy of Lucky Peach and pick up an Economist. Or stop hounding for menus on restaurant websites and read some more relevant literature sometime. Maybe I should lay off constructing dishes in my head for a few hours and really explore other creative outlets every once in a while. Hell, it would probably please the heck out of my mom if she saw me getting interested in my violin again (shut up, I know what you’re thinking.) And who knows, gaining balance in my knowledge of the world might even help with my cooking one day.

Like I’ve been saying. The world’s a big place, it has a lot of ideas, and you should go check it out. With my free time nowadays, I try to pick up random books, go to places in town that I’ve never walked through, and inquire on interests that I never thought I’d be interested in. It really helps with your perspective as a person.

All I know is that by watching all these other passionate people that day at TEDx being so animated about their lines of work hit a chord with me. There needs to be balance in other things rather than the world of salt, yeast, shakers, and tampers.

Because who knows– maybe the world will call on me one day.

And the things I’ll have to do won’t involve me having a knife or a pan in my hand.

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Being a cook is one of the most humbling jobs I have ever done.

A pretty personal entry.

Anyone who says, “OMG, you’re a chef? (replace interchangeably with pastry chef).  That’s so cool.” must not know how hard it really is.

It is not that kinda of cool.  It is sometimes fun and most of the time stressful.  It’s pretty much hard physical work.  The work that makes your feet hurt if you aren’t conditioned for standing more than 12 hours.  The work that makes your back hurt because you’ve been standing for more than 12 hours.  The work that makes the back of your neck sore because you’ve been looking down for more than 12 hours.  The work that makes your muscles in your back so tight it takes you over an hour of stretching at night to feel remotely relaxed to sleep. (Or the work that requires you to beg your wife to step on your back again.) The work that makes you dehydrated at the end of the night because you don’t drink enough because you don’t have time to go the bathroom.  The work that makes you come home smelling like grease or fryer oil or overheated Pam spray.  The work where you have to wash your apron in the sink because it’s so dirty it cannot be mixed with other laundry.  The work that makes you crave a cigarette, a joint, a drink, or whatever else helps you relax.  This shit’s not easy.  Now I know why my dad tells me he doesn’t understand why I want to work so hard when he worked so hard so I wouldn’t have to work so hard.

There are some things I prefer not to do.  Dad, you may be right about some (and probably many) things, but I am not doing this so you, dad, can tell Justin he needs to open a catering business.  I am not doing this so you, (dad) can tell me that heart-shaped cookies for Valentine’s day is going to make me rich.  To the rest, yet another public announcement, I am a bread baker, so my job description doesn’t include making cupcakes or cakes for your wedding/birthday/1st child/to-be-mother even though you’re friends with my best friends or sister or mother.  I’m just not comfortable mixing batters and frosting cakes.  I will not bake my bread lighter because you like it that way.  I prefer my bread with color, because the Maillard reaction is a beautiful thing.  Sometimes bread should not be served warm.  Think of bread like wine.  If it’s too warm, you can’t taste the subtleties of the flavors from long fermentation.  I am doing this for me, for us, for you who will appreciate me as an artist, as a person with a point of view, an attitude, as an individual trying to make a statement of my own.  I do love and appreciate the support.  I am here to make a humble living on what I love to do most.

I am working in a city that never sleeps, filled with 8.175 million people, yet I feel worlds away from everyone.  The sacrifice Justin and I made to live apart so that I could keep learning and pursue our dreams is really that hard.  I suppose this statement is necessary if you haven’t gotten the tone of my voice in the very direct comments above.  I wanted to write this piece so that you could feel me – understand where I’m coming from – relate if you can.  I don’t want more comments on how to live my life.  Our life is hard enough.  It really is.  It really is like a box of chocolates- you hope you know what you’re gonna get but you usually never know what you’re gonna get.  I have already rejected my Chinese heritage by not putting my education to good use.   What will I do with that Economics degree and what was the point of getting multiple honors? I am even farther from financial security than I was 3 years ago.  I have no idea what my next meal is.  (This is not always true, but it actually did materialize the first 3 weeks I was in NY.)  I miss my husband like mad.  I miss whatever home means.   This shit is really not that fucking glorious (it is glorious, but not glorious in that kind of way).  So next time you think cooking for a living is cool and fun, imagine giving up your job with financial security, benefits, paid time off, paid maternity leave, and having weekends off.

Anthony Bourdain may have been angry when he was writing Kitchen Confidential, but in Medium Raw, he says, “I  instinctively liked and respected anyone who cooked or served food in a restaurant and took any kind of satisfaction in the job.  Still feel that way.  It is the finest and noblest of toil, performed by only the very best of people.”

(I believe best is being used here loosely.)

I wasn’t sure if this was appropriate to share.  (Justin said it may be seen as an angry piece).  But I never know how to describe my work to people not in the “industry.”  Still to this day I have a hard time adjusting to this “way” of life – the hours, the standing, the pay, the ability not to “go shopping”, the constant downsizing of our living space every time we move, the increasing number of suggestions people tell me what I should have in my bakery, or the type of food they want Justin to serve.  I can’t describe to you in words what I want my bakery or Justin’s restaurant to look like or serve.  We don’t even have a location, a home, or a large enough bankroll for us to be comfortable.  I have vented.  I have cried.  But at the end of the day, I am proud.  Proud to stand up to the challenge that continually humbles me.

I hope that regardless of who you are, what you do, how you eat, that you will appreciate the people that helped make your last meal.  This shit is hard work.

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NYC as a bread baker

The hardest decision I may have ever had to make resulted in me going to NYC alone – to make viennoiserie (aka croissants, danishes, puff pastry, etc.).  Justin did not come up with me.  We decided that it would be best for him to stay in Houston to continue looking for potential locations for a restaurant.  (No, we are not having marital problems, but thanks for asking.)

The irony is that this was a necessary move in order to solidify our future.  I had always had this dream of living in NYC when I was working in finance- and he, well he can’t really withstand the constant hustle of being up here for long periods of time.  We can both pursue our dreams without holding the other back.  For the majority of the time we have been married, I have caused Justin to move around due to my desires to pursue a pastry career.  Along the way we’ve had many homes away from home: Chicago, Napa, Texas, Belgium, Copenhagen, Texas, and now NY.  And we did it with the common goal to one day have a business of our own. But the trail is treacherous and frustrating, I became increasingly cynical in Houston.  I felt inefficient, a little useless, and for me there is so much more I want to learn, see, and experience.  And I realized it would be unfair of me to ask Justin once again to redirect his life to follow my fork in the road.

It’s harder than it looks

I thought it would be a much easier move since I am pretty independent, but I realize with a city as big as NY, it’s nice to have a best friend to experience what this city has to offer. I am, however, very thankful for all the friends we have met in this industry as they also move around, and glad that my move up here has allowed me to cross paths with these friends again.  It makes me a little more at ease.  Either way, it can’t be worse than my friend who’s boyfriend is at elBulli for 8 months and can only communicate with Skype dates once a week if they are lucky. At least my significant other is only a phone call away (well, if he picks up.)

And I have found that I have a new found respect for chefs in general.  To the outside, it seems like a glorious job since there is so much fame associated with celebrity chefs, but the truth is there is a long path that filled with hard decisions and mental angst for much of the industry, especially for the ones that want to do something really special.  Many suffer time apart from their significant others.  Many don’t even have the same days off.  Most have loans and the pay doesn’t exactly lead to a short payback schedule.  (Though in Denmark, school and apprenticeship are subsidized.) Many don’t have health insurance. Hell, most don’t get paid for their overtime (though that is biting some institutions in the butt as they are getting sued). It takes years and years of planning for that first (or second or third) restaurant to open.


It feels good to allow Justin to really go for it. So hopefully there’ll be some good news soon.

But for me? I’m here to learn.  To be patient with the process.  And to have a little fun.  Ok, a lot of fun.

Who knows? Maybe all I’ll ever accomplish is making bread for Justin’s special dinners.

Don’t feel bad for us.  Be excited. There will be good stories to come.

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Relæ: the bullshit free zone.

(To note, Karen staged at Relæ, so take whatever we have to say with a grain of salt)

Relæ is everything I want in a restaurant. It walks the line between indie rock and too cool; it’s a space where it doesn’t seem like a designer splashed his ego (and the restauranteurs’ money) all around it, and with the staff,  you have a hard time deciphering who exactly is the head chef between all the cooks or the front of the house manager from one of the two servers is (Although both Christian and Kim have had their picture taken so much, I’m sure everyone knows by now.) But to me, that’s a good thing. The food is uncluttered, exact, and most of all, delicious. In all, our December meal at Relæ was our best meal in 2010 following 2009 when Commis dominated (just so you know where we’re coming from.)

Pretension is a funny thing. It’s one of those things that can change from view to view, differing angles, and different expectations and perceptions. I’m sure with just the press, the attention, and with Christian and Kim’s high-end restaurant backgrounds, many see Relæ as a place of pretension even without setting foot into it. To people who see food first as a price tag before enjoyment, Relæ is probably fine dining. But to me, it’s anything but. It’s an experience and cuisine that’s cut to the very bone of what the chef really wants to put out. It has ideals in service and food that are very finite, where energy is put into facets of the dining puzzle that the staff really cares about. And the other parts of the dining puzzle where they can spend less time on, they find thoughtful ways to make functional. Though maybe some people who are looking for “noma lite” will be disappointed (not to state the obvious, but this isn’t noma (in a good way)) you can see Relæ’s upbringing in their attention to detail in the food and service. It’s just less obvious to those who aren’t looking or haven’t had those types of details etched into their DNA. But these things add up, and though most of the walls are stark white and the comfort level is ratcheted up (Johnny Cash all-day, every day? Um, yes.), the details that Relae most pays attention to make for a ridiculously enjoyable, wholesome dining experience.

What I loved most about Relæ is that their time and energy was put into the things that I personally value most in a restaurant: comfort, quality of ingredients, and technique. There are no elaborate schemes to create a whirlwind experience where flourishes really crowd out the food, but rather the restaurant is a very direct translation of the owners’ personalities. Eating here is like sitting down and having a conversation with the Chef Christian Puglisi himself. The food itself seems simple enough to by eye, each plate doesn’t have very many components to them, but you notice when you eat the food that there’s always a very clear, delicious, yet complex flavor. Garnishes that don’t add a real flavor to the dish (one of those big foraging-y complexes that I want to appreciate more than I actually do) don’t ever make it to the plate.

May be the most telling ideal of this in our meal were the Nantes carrots on the veal and carrot dish that I had. That’s all that dish really was, braised veal and roasted carrots. Yet, the carrots weren’t peeled; something thought of as lazy to guests who only eat by eyesight. Gently scrubbed and trimmed at the tops to maintain their nutrients (along with those nutrients’ flavor), they were roasted heavily to get that amazing sticky, carroty goodness that one can only get with good technique and lots of patience. Paired with simply braised veal and showered with an powdered Icelandic seaweed called sol, it was just one of those dishes that ruins all other “simply braised” dishes for you for the rest of your life– one where the accompaniments met the match of the proteins and they all came together in a delicious, savory balance.

Another dish, one of my favorites of all last year, a porridge of barley, cauliflower, smoked almonds and pickled trumpet mushrooms was an expert balancing act where many things can go wrong– but here they don’t. It could be because of good cooks or good ingredients but even a simple dish with *literally* four ingredients works so well together here because the dish is measured. Again, literally. The amount of smoked almond for the dish is measured out, the amount of acid for the dish in the pickled mushroom are calculated exactly to be precisely what the chef wants every time. It’s these little, obsessive qualities in the food that make it so good.

So what is the trade-off? Some could nail Relæ for maybe being too relaxed. You pour your own water, you set your own table with little drawers of flatware underneath the tables, and the napkins are paper. But again, hiring another runner would cost the restaurant, and then you more money. You pay for their bottles of purified water (which awesomely enough, they also use for the stocks here), and also their opening snack and ending mignardises if you so choose. But that’s all that you really can choose. There’s that, and the choice between the omnivore or vegetarian menu. That’s it. So maybe some people may stick it to them for being *too* unlike a high-end restaurant.

Me? I love that relaxed pace and setting where the food is good and no one is really fretting over me. I love watching the staff really pay attention to the food and really pay attention to their guests. Every dollar you spend there you can see and taste, the whole restaurant is straightforward. Here, there is no bullshit in an era where bullshit seems to be beloved by everyone else. They don’t care if your hair is gelled or your shirt is ironed, and you won’t care if your garnish isn’t tweezed on to make the plate look like dancing sugar plum fairies in a candy cane forest. And for that and much more, I loved my meal at Relæ.

Delicious bread

Hakurei turnips cooked in whey, seaweed

Braised Veal and carrots

Literally, the entire kitchen

Posted in Copenhagen | 3 Comments