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.

Posted in Texas | 5 Comments

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

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.

Patience.

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.

Posted in NYC | 5 Comments

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

Still Not Home

Just because I am back in Texas doesn’t mean that I feel “at home.” (Yet.)

The moving around

In our short married life, we’ve been everywhere. Less than three months after getting married, we packed our bags to Chicago where I went to the French Pastry School. A few stages at Blackbird and TRU, and many, many meals at Avec later, we were headed to Napa where I was a part of the TKRG family and Justin the Ubuntu family for a good year and a half. Our little family has never stayed in one place very long. We only recently adopted our first pet, a tiny snail that we found while picking through carrot tops last week. His name is Mr. Snail.

What I’m trying to say is that from Chicago, to Napa, to Europe, and back down to Houston, we’ve always gone where the grass has seemed the greenest (not in a literal sense, Europe in the winter?) It’s been a long journey. I know that many cooks and chefs take a much longer paths than we have, but we’re tired of moving. Shoot, we haven’t even opened all our wedding gifts.

Texas, our Texas…
We get asked a lot why we want to be in Texas. The why is usually in a pretty sarcastic manner, since most people don’t regard Texas, let alone Houston to be as exciting as Austin, Chicago or Napa.  Austin has got the outdoors and hippie lifestyle I desire, but Houston’s got great ethnic food like no other city I’ve lived in.  And Napa doesn’t have any Asian food.  Being Chinese, we do have our cravings of rice, even if it’s just with a fried egg and some spicy condiment on the side.

Our goal isn’t to make millions and we have a pretty narrow range of ideas. We are unemployed, but probably the most busy unemployed people you have met. Justin has been pursuing hard to find a location for his restaurant and me, I’m along for the ride. Justin’s project is our first priority – a bakery is secondary. I know Houston needs good bread, real pastries and non-cupcaked sweets, but I’m satisfied with taking pottery classes for the moment and hanging out with lots of new friends.  We have looked almost everywhere west of downtown, inside the loop, south of memorial and north of the heart of rice/west u. Real estate and financing is a tricky thing, even with good resources.

Home is where I know I will be in a more longer-term setting. We want to settle down.  Temporary means living at home, and being married and living at home with the parents is not my form of ideal situation.  We have invested a lot of time nurturing relationships here in Houston.  Justin has cooked some fabulous meals for his family, friends and new friends.  The Belgium Beer dinner is where I started to really understand the vision that we’ve refined over the past few years. I almost killed Justin while prepping it, but I did finally understand what he was trying to get at with the food when we were all finished.

But who knows, we’re always keeping our options open. I know we have no problems with being the lowly cooks again. It’s just a matter of fate and timing. Who knows where “home” is yet. I just hope we find it soon.

And no we’re not in Toronto to look for jobs. Justin was just kidding. We’re here for some good food and dim sum (thanks, Haan) and to learn some of Grandma’s old Chinese cooking secrets.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

USPS, the worst customer service in the… world?

So our time abroad was not all filled with jumping bunnies and pretty, pretty pansies. There were a few downers, but may be the biggest one came directly from back home.

It was known as the United States Postal Service.

Many cooks and chefs can tell you that your knives and tools are like an extension of their own hands. Well, for the entire three plus months we were in Europe, until the day before we left back home, Karen and I were without our knives, our spoons, and every one of the little personal tools that you like to have with you for odd and end use (mine is my personal plastic bench scraper). Not having your own personal tools is a defeating feeling, it’s like trying to walk around blind and gutted.

But how, how did this happen, you ask?

Well since no one at USPS was willing to listen to our story, I might as well just tell it here:

We originally were going to just bring our knives with us, but had heard of the horror stories of customs agents turning cooks right back around and sending them home– even if they had written letters from the restaurants stating that they would be staging, not working in the countries. We’d also heard of people just getting let go without so much of a two phrase question, but the whole game seemed to be a crapshoot, and not one we were willing to try to play.  So when some people advised us to just mail our knives, that’s what we decided to do.

I left the task of sending the knives to Belgium to Karen, because I know that she’s the one that always asks the right questions, and makes sure of the right details to get the job done. So when she went to the Post Office to send everything, she spewed off her normal spiel of questions, letting the agent know that there were knives in the package, asking if there was anything we needed with the package to make sure it went through. And in true USPS fashion, the cashier said “of course” there would be no problem as long as we declared that there were knives there, and “absolutely” the package would be there a week later, as we had it expressly shipped, full on, with insurance, tracking and confirmation, and the works. So by the time we got to Dranouter, were our knives there?

I guess I wouldn’t be writing this post if they were.

Online, the tracking said that the package was in customs, so at first, we just waited a week and hoped for the best, but eventually, we were getting antsy so Kobe offered to call the customs office to offer an explanation (and be able to speak to them in Flemish) to try to get the package out. The only problem was that even in the small country of Belgium, there were like 8 different customs offices. So naturally, I figured I’d call USPS to ask them which one it was at because they were tracking it. Of course, they would know exactly where it is because otherwise it would make tracking and confirm a completely useless tool, right? Right?

Wrong.

Not only was the agent unapologetic, but the only thing that she could tell me was that the package was in customs, and that they only track it through where the package was scanned, even though they have no idea where it was scanned. They couldn’t offer me an idea of which customs office our knives were in let alone an address or phone number. It’s like me telling you that I’m serving you beef, even though I have no idea which part of the cow I’m serving you.

Eventually, we wanted to make a claim at USPS, and was told that they were going to do an inquiry, to which they never got back to us. So through Kaatje, in de wulf’s amazing front of house manager/innkeeper/day to day utilitywoman, and her tireless calling around, we found out where our knives were… but to get them out, we would have to come up with receipts. For. Everything.

What in the world.

To try to make this long bitch-fest somewhat shorter, we came up with a way to at least get our knives out of customs without as much as a lift of a finger of help from our friends at USPS, and they arrived at In de Wulf… four days after we’d left and two days after we’d bought new knives in Copenhagen so we’d had something to bring to our stages at Kiin Kiin and AOC.

I’m sure had we not gone after it ourselves, our tools would have been stuck in Belgium’s customs limbo forever.

I wish the story ended there, but after calling USPS today to try to recoup a lot of long distance call money, maybe something to offset the cost of us having to spend a lot of money on new knives, maybe an apology for a lot of frustration, or at least something off of the 100 bucks that we’d spent to send an express international package with insurance that doesn’t insure anything and tracking that doesn’t track your package, the only thing I got was a surly woman telling me this:

USPS does not guarantee the delivery of international packages unless it’s the 1 to 3 day global mail.

So what does 100 dollars guarantee you? The non-delivery of your package, a lot of dealing with customer service agents whose only goal is to make you want to bust a cap in their ass, and maybe some good blog fodder for you if you happen to write a blog. I hope you’ll join me in *not* using their piss-poor-even-for-third-world-country services again.

The only good from this is probably the fact that it gave us a great reason to see Poltje, Kobe, and Willy again, as they brought us our knives all the way to Seasalter, England when we went to go eat at The Sportsman. Best customer service ever.

So what is the moral of this story?

If you’re going abroad to stage, bring your knives with you and hope for the best.

Or maybe try Fed-Ex.

Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments

Snapshots of Geranium

So maybe it was better that I didn’t take pictures at Geranium, they would have paled in comparison to these that Trine over at verygoodfood.dk. You can read her account of Geranium here.

Great insight, just from the photos.

(I was on the station just to the right of those cooks plating up)

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“Best” baguette in Paris

When I was in Napa, working at Bouchon Bakery, I thought we had the best baguettes I had ever tasted and seen.  The lunch baguettes, to me, were the most balanced – nutty, sweet and a hint of sourness (from the overnight fermentation).  I was reassured we were the best repeatedly by regulars, tourists, and industry people.  My only regret is that I didn’t try enough other baker’s baguettes.  Perhaps it is like wine, where you end up developing a palate for the house wine.

As a baker, it is important for me to try other baker’s breads.  It’s not really for me to judge whether or not their baking styles are correct or the most refined. It is really for me to figure out what it is that I like (and dislike) – think of it as research.  My preference is not always someone else’s preference – usually Justin and I clash on this account.  This baguette tasting of Paris probably should have included more bakeries, but I only had 36 hours, limited stomach space, and had to work the bakery schedule around Justin’s planned meals.  Justin would have said I didn’t have to come eat with him, but how could you pass up on the potentially 3 best meals of the near future?

The best baguette in Paris can change on a daily basis. On this particular trip, spanning two days (Feb 2-3, 2011), there were two clear top-runners.  It does not surprise me that the two I liked the most were in the top five of the 2010 Grand Prix de la Baguette in Paris.  I judge the breads based on appearance, crust (how far it was baked), aroma, flavor and crumb.  To get a proper sample of the crumb, I brought a serrated knife with me and hoped the security at Eurostar would let me through.

Eating a warm baguette may be nice, but you will not get the full effect of the preferment and flavor exchange from the Maillard reaction of the crust.  Also, the crust will soften as you allow the bread to cool.  I prefer a thin but noticeable crust with slightly black edges of the ears and a moist interior.  Flavor is color and I appreciate bakers who are not afraid to go darker.  Don’t be surprised if you find pale breads in Paris. I won’t even dare to eat that.

Le Grenier à Pain Abbesses: 38 rue de Abbesses, 75018, M: Abbesses

I was recommended this bakery by Master Baker Jonathan Dendauw of the French Pastry School.  Djibril Bodian, the Senegal-born baker of Le Grenier à Pain Abbesses, won the 2010 Grand Prix de la Baguette and received the honor of baking bread for the president of France for the year (and some nice pocket change). When we arrived in Paris on the 2nd, we went straight to the bakery – only to find that it was closed (apparently closed Tuesday and Wednesday).   We purposely planned our Paris trip to not fall on a Sunday or Monday since many places close.  Not willing to miss this opportunity, we went out of our way to try again on Thursday.   The bakery alone – set up and quality of products – was the highest I had seen of Paris bakeries we walked past.  Their focus was mainly breads, but still allowing the small selection of pastries to receive the same attention given to the breads. The baguette had a very nice sweet wheat flavor with a crisp crust that was thicker than thin but not too thick.  I would go back every time I visit Paris.

crumb is a little tight, but everyday can't be perfect

Yves Desgranges: 6 Rue de Passy, 75016 Paris, M: Passy

Desgranges’ baguettes had the wonderful aroma and flavor of a baguette made with a poolish – slightly nutty and sweet.  The scoring may not have been as precise as Le Grenier à Pain’s (nice even length scores); however, the way they scored it allowed for even expansion – the mark of a straight baguette.  The crust was dark, just how I like it, but not too hard that it would be unpleasant to eat. The bakery was also a patisserie with a large selection of tarts, viennoiserie chocolate and cakes. All were made with a very high attention to detail.

crumb has a nice balance of large and small alveoli

Other bakeries visited included Eric Kayser at Boulevard du Montparnasse, Gosselin and Anis Bouabsa at Au Duc de la Chapelle.

Eric Kayser’s bakeries are known for only using a sourdough levain to leaven their breads. This yielded a baguette with a nice, perfectly balanced sour profile. The crust was nice and thin. There was also a large selection of pastry items that looked good, but not great.

At Gosselin, (258 boulevard Saint Germain, 75007) the baguette was lacking flavor, but had a nice thin crust. A really nice, chic, modern storefront with fresh crepes made under your nose.

Anis Bouabsa at Au Duc de la Chapelle (32 rue Tristan Tzara, 75018) was perhaps the most disappointing of all.  The crumb was really tight, more white than creamy, and I refused to take a bite.  Maybe it was the day, maybe it was the chef not being there, but I hate making excuses for such high expectations.  One shouldn’t make a nice baguette for only special occasions. Apparently this isn’t the only top 5 that has gotten a nod of disappointment.  Cotton-ball like fluff?

There were many more bakeries I wanted to visit, but with a tight schedule and only 36 hours, my selections were limited.  Next time, I definitely plan on trying Dominique Saibron of Macaron’s Café at 77 avenue du Général Leclerc, 75014 and Daniel Pouphary of La Parisienne at 28 rue Monge, 75005.

Btw, the homeless gratefully accept half sampled baguettes.

Posted in Paris | 3 Comments

Two posts in one: what I’ve learned, and my soapbox.

Whenever I chat with others back at home on my off-days, the most often-ringing question I’ve been asked is:

Well, what have you learned there?

Well.

I’ve learned the virtues of cleaning kilos upon kilos of whelks. I’ve learned that freshly cracked coconut oil is an amazing thing. I’ve learned the best way to de-skin the film on big-ass sepia. I’ve learned two new ways to say “hot, behind you!” in two different languages as well as two new ways to say “yes, chef.” I’ve re-learned that in fact that when you work with chocolate, it is not the chocolate that is messy, it is, in fact, the cook working with the chocolate that is messy.

I’ve learned that no matter how many hours, over how many days you’ve worked, it’ll normally be your brain that gets tired before your body. I’ve learned that whatever a michelin star is, it is only in the eye of the beholder. I’ve learned that Danish cooks are badasses. But I’ve also learned that not every Danish cook is a badass. I’ve also learned that I can keep up with the cooks, whether Danish, badass, or not. I’ve learned that when I prep, I want to listen to the Studio Brussels radio station. I’ve learned that I’ll probably never figure out what a G6 is, and these European kids are no help.

I’ve learned that you can, in fact, overload on nice food to the point where you don’t even want to sniff an amazingly in-season truffle. I’ve learned that there is a fine line between determination and obsession in order to win the Bocuse d’Or, though I did not learn where that line is. I’ve learned that two layers of clothes, plus a pair of gloves, a hat, and a scarf, is only the start of what you need to endure a Danish winter. I’ve learned that the US needs to get over itself and switch over to the metric system. I’ve learned that noma does indeed live up to it’s reputation.

I’ve learned that I’ll never be able to drink all of Belgium’s beer in my lifetime, though I’ll darn well try. I’ve learned that speculoos with a glass of fresh milk is highly addicting. I’ve learned that Dominique Persoon may be the best chocolatier in the world. I’ve learned that Christmas is kind of a big deal up here. I’ve learned that pork and boiled potatoes are a large part of the diet in this part of the world, but the new revelation of sushi (up here) is quickly catching up. I’ve learned that the US Postal Service sucks. I’ve learned that if you want to actually eat out in Europe, don’t wait till Sunday or Monday. I’ve also learned that if you want to eat out in Europe, expect 30 US dollars for a main course to be normal for a middle-end restaurant.  I’ve also learned that if you’re to make staff meal here, don’t make it spicy otherwise you’ll definitely hear the words, “damn Americans” uttered.

I’ve learned how to break down a monkfish without hanging it. I’ve learned there is no good Asian food up here. I’ve learned juicing kilos upon kilos of horseradish is a job often left for the stages (you’ll see why if you ever try it.) I’ve learned that excellent flavors often has more layers than a celebrity birthday cake. I’ve learned that simple definitely doesn’t mean easy, and that I don’t ever want to punch out little circles of parsley, ever. I’ve learned that this industry is so small that even across the ocean, I’ll run into people that have cooked with people that I’ve cooked with. I’ve learned that the Danes do in fact love their ash. I’ve also learned that Danes also do in fact love American Football.

I’ve learned that you can hear five different languages, a whole host of different accents, and the phrases, “oh, that cheese bread stinks so bad,” and “oh my gosh that raclette sandwich smells so good” in less than five minutes of walking around the Bourough Market. I’ve learned that freshly cracked nuts shaved over dishes is just as good as truffles shaved over dishes. I’ve learned that I can endure an entire month of being in the same vicinity with Karen for an entire month without killing each other (or rather, her killing me)(thank you, In de Wulf.) I’ve learned that meeting new people, seeing new things, and finding different perspectives never get old.

I’ve learned that if you really want to be a serious cook, you should stage. Whether it be your hometown, another state, another country, or another continent, if you’re so serious about cooking that you feel like one day, you can be one of the best at what you do. You should go stage.

To stage is to subject yourself to being completely open. More often than not, you’re not even listed on the lowest points of the totem pole, but it also allows for possibly the most amount of learning to happen in a very short period of time. It is a measure of worth, a tool of refinement, and a compass for direction. To work for no money means utter and complete dedication to yourself and the restaurant that you’re in. Either you learn something, or you’re wasting your own time.

So my question is: why is it that so many cooks feel as if they’re above it?

To call cooks boisterous would be an understatement. Many students call themselves cooks, and cooks call themselves chefs, and chefs call themselves executives before they ever really begin to understand the meaning of the word. Which is why I don’t understand many of them when they seem so happy to tread water for their culinary careers for their entire lives. They build their own castles in their own heads, and proclaim themselves kings of the kingdom they’ve never ever even seen.

To note, I do understand that some people do have instances in their lives where they just can’t put aside the money to go out in the world. Some people have childen, some people have helpless family that need to help out. But I’m not talking about these people. I’m talking about the many upon many cooks that I’ve heard of and met from New York, to Chicago, to Bay Area, to Texas that are young, unwilling, and able. They’re unmarried, unconnected, and have all the chance, potential, and ability in the world that they’re not willing to tap into.

I’m not writing this with anyone in mind, though if you do think I’m talking about you, maybe you should think about what I’m saying. You’re in the one industry that travels to any part of the world (and feeds you, to boot) where you can meet new people, learn new techniques, and absorb yourself in different cultures and food cultures.

That’s not to say that the whole process is easy. To go abroad, Karen and I had to have the sort of monetary discipline that you would think would end when you got out of college, and to think we’ve been planning some sort of trip for the past two years and have it end in three months may seem slightly deflating. But I’d like to think we’ve done more in the last three months that many people do in much of their lifetimes.  To save money takes discipline, to plan the trip takes cunning (especially if you’re planning on trying to stay past… alloted times), and to ask politely to stage takes a lot of belief in your own self worth. But you don’t even have to go out of the country. One of the best things about the US is that many great restaurants are close by, whether by car or plane. Of course there are many things to consider before you go out on your adventures, you have no idea how often I wished there were someone to help me out financially, or to tell me how to get from form point A to point B in the easiest way possible, but the biggest obstacle is to get past yourself and just go do it.

To me, going out in the world was like a rite of passage. It’s nothing that you could have ever read in a blog or a book. I will use the kitchen discipline, techniques, and ideas that I’ve learned from Belgium and Denmark for the rest of my career. From the way to try to seamlessly integrate the chemicals and powders that many people are so afraid of into the food so that it works *for* the dish rather than against it, to new uses for nitrogen, to new ways of looking at cuts of meat and pieces of vegetables that I’ve used my entire career, cooking and eating in these two countries really solidified to me that if you’re not walking forward, then other people are passing you. But even more than that, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the relationships that I’ve built from the chefs, cooks, dishwashers, and random friends that have come along the way.

But for Karen and I, this was our time. And I hope before any sort of family happens for us, we can do it again. (I say Japan next, but then again, I’d have to probably go learn Japanese.)

You’re only young, energetic, and full of curiosity for so long in your lifetime. Don’t waste it.

I’ve learned…

that no matter how much I’ve learned, it only shows that there’s so much more that I don’t know.

Posted in General restaurant thoughts | 7 Comments

A look back: my first “stage”

At the time I started my 3 month stage in Younvtille, I could not realize the impact the experience would have on my career.  I had some previous experience in bakeries and restaurants, but I consider this to be the “beginning.” With the discipline and attention to detail, there could not have been a better way to mold me.  I only had good habits to pick up.  Their core value are deeply implanted into my memory – modesty, integrity, respect, responsibility, awareness, initiative, collaboration, consistency, impact, success, legacy.

I thought my role would be insignificant as a stage, but I was wrong.  We were all integral parts of the team and very important in making memories for the guests.  Stages here didn’t just pick herbs or clean, they really did learn.  Pastry Chef Courtney Schmidig deserves a lot of praise because she’s pretty much a bad ass.  I would find myself tying shortbread alone in the “red room” many days, never expecting company – but most days, I had company.  Every task was just as important, and not just “stage” work.   She may not know it, but she gained a lot of respect from me.   As did most of the staff.  Wendy Sherwood of la forêt, now a Napa chocolatier, held me very accountable.  I am glad they were strict with me, which kept me under a fear of failing – it made me more aware of my actions and surroundings.  It’s not just coincidence that many of the new(er) great chefs in this world have walked this path.

After staging abroad for the past 3 months, I realized that working clean and organized is not inherent to all – being cleaner than most is not good enough (for me).  In Yountville, we had deli trays where we could put our trim from our prep so it was a quicker and easier clean up.  In many other kitchens, we use deli containers/condi box/old baking paper.  Many kitchens will do a big clean right before service, but I have found that cleaning up after every task is just as important. I find it easier to focus when my workspace is not cluttered. I was taught that towels should always be refolded after every use.  At AOC when I went to go help Justin for New Years, I noticed that they even have silver containers that hide them.  A wadded up towel just freaks me out.  I feel as if this is just an extension of your discipline in the kitchen.  I find myself refolding a lot of towels here.  That brings me to my ultimate kitchen peeve – the dish pit.  It should always be organized – like things stacked together and really dirty containers rinsed off.  If you have a second to load, by all means, load.  Justin made another astute observation, as he always does – when others are stressed about the messiness of the dish pit, they will eventually control their frustrations by organizing it themselves.  I will mention again that I am a bit OCD.

It is important to greet your peers by saying good morning and good-night/afternoon/bye, whatever is acceptable by the culture’s standard. (I learned you never say good-bye to a Dane, unless you will really never see them again.  You are to say, “See you later” or “Hej Hej” which sounds like “Hi Hi.”  Here in Denmark, they care about how your weekend was, how your wife is doing, what you plan on doing next weekend, or just how you are.  Greeting is a sign of respect.  Why is it so much easier to greet your co-workers than your in-laws?

Sense of Urgency – this may have been my favorite lesson. A sense of urgency is a discipline, a focused mindset, an awareness.  The top kitchens always work like they don’t have enough time in the day.  I feel like if you have a sense of urgency during prep, you’ll have a better service because you’re focused and ready.  I like to wear a watch when I’m in the kitchen – it keeps me in check.  I have been told I’m too intense and sometimes it intimidates my co-workers.  I apologize to all I have ever worked with, but I was raised by Chinese parents (no I did not play an instrument, but I was once a math champ in my elementary years).  Personally, I like to skip the bs and get to work.  I don’t like it when smokers get smoke breaks while I get no break at all.  I don’t mind music.  Just as long as I don’t have to hear “like a G6” or “Barbara Streisand.”

“What would you do if you knew you could not fail.” – TK

Those are words I am trying to live by every day.

The pastry team under Pastry Chef Courtney Schmidig definitely left a lasting impact on me.  Hopefully I brought a little of it with me to Belgium and Denmark.

Posted in General restaurant thoughts | 2 Comments