Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Dinner for Eight, $8,500

Last Spring I was asked to donate a dinner for an auction to benefit the Development Office at the private school I am Food Service Director at. I had never been involved in putting up a dinner for an auction. It was for a good cause, it sounded like fun, so I agreed. We planned to auction off a dinner for eight to be held at the Headmaster’s home on campus. Sounds pretty simple, I thought. I went to the event downtown at the Hyatt to help volunteer with the auction that night. While helping out guests I kept looking for my dinner to see how much it was going for, but couldn't find it on any of the tables. I asked someone if they had seen it. They told me it was one of the items in the live auction that was to be held at the end of the night. My heart raced a little, that’s going to raise the bar, I thought over a glass of wine during dinner. I have had the privilege of taking care of some wonderful and very generous people over the years, but nothing I have ever done before prepared me for the couple who won the bid for this dinner.

When it was over, my little quaint dinner for eight sold for $8,500.

My heart was in my throat, I had better show up for this thing.

After figuring out the schedules of four sets of couples, we settled in on October 24th.
Shopping and prepping for three days for only eight people was really great, something I had never experienced before. I now have a glimpse into what all of those private chef’s are up to, with the exception that my clients are great to take care of, and I don’t resent them.

Check out my plates and enjoy the photos...

Dining Room

Escorole and Watercress, Slow Roasted Red and Gold Beets, Roquefort Cheese, White Truffle Oil, Cracked Peppercorns

Nori Seared Ahi Tuna, Wakimi Salad, Enoki Mushrooms and Dikon Sprouts, Fried Won Tons, Sesame Ginger Vinaigrette

Antipasto Plate with Prosciutto, Peppered Salami, Cured Olives, Marinated Feta, Campo De Montalban, Aged Manchego, Tillamook Smoked Black Pepper Cheddar

Grilled Sugar Cane Shrimp and Pan Seared Scallops with Chorizo and Mango Salsa, Shot of
100% De Agave Anejo

Seared Wild Sockeye Salmon and Grilled Fennel Ratatouille, Smoked Tomato Coulis

Grilled Lamb Chop Crusted in Pistachios, Braised Leeks and Diced Butternut Squash Mustard Demi

Adobo Dusted Elk Filet Mignon, Grilled and Topped with a Lobster, Dried Corn and Applewood Smoked Bacon “Succotash” Celery Root and Potato Puree, Pomegranate Reduction

Moscato and Vanilla Poached Pears with Agave Nectar, Honey and Bee Pollen

Chocolate Butter Cake with Blackberry Filling and Dark Chocolate Ganache

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Fire Hot, Fire Good

All good cooks start out at a very young age, playing with fire.

Whether it was matches starting up the BBQ with Mom and Dad, waiting for it to “poof” with heat, or maybe blowing up plastic WWII airplanes with fire crackers with your big brothers, fire is fascinating. Perhaps it was the classic neighborhood fireworks show with bottle rockets, along with buckets of water, water hoses and the lingering smell of sulfur and shredded paper in the street. The feel of heat on your face is addicting to a classic chef pyromaniac. The dazzle as your eyes react to heat is a rush as you stare and “everything is going according to plan”. The hot summer grill, the sound of meat sizzling, yes you tree hugging vegetarians, I said it, “sizzling meat”, smelling a marinated and well seasoned hunk of flesh, so there. Even if you don’t enjoy eating it, or thinking it used to have a face, you can’t tell me you don’t naturally salivate when you smell it. You still have teeth, right?

It’s what heaven will smell like, reducing brown veal stock and a perfectly crowded grill. What do you think we’ll be doing around Gods banquet table anyway? Just talking?

Here is my point; turn your neighborhood into a slice of heaven this weekend. The Fourth of July is on a Saturday this year, get it in gear, no excuses. Do some shopping, plan ahead, season and properly marinate your carnage, or your cauliflower puree pancakes. Take your time and do it right. Nothing is worse than rushing a good meal, trust me. Invite your neighbors over, yes, even the ones who drive too fast past your house. Put the dog on a leash and leave the side gate open, see who decides to drop by. Watch the fireworks, maybe blow some things up. Enjoy the smells and open breezes through the windows in the evening. Watch the kids, maybe a future cook, delight in the noise and heat, witness their wide eyed wonder. As they rub their hands together, bounce and balance on their toes in the grass, watching the fireworks display over their heads, you will swear you hear them whispering to themselves,

“Fire Hot, Fire Good”.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Diet Revival

I’ve decided to create a diet revival. Janet came across an add from the 1930’s that has inspired me.

Now, it’s important to me that you know I support those who are willing to get out there and try to better themselves. God knows that I could do a little more for myself in the swimming pool if I intend on pulling off this plan of living to be 100.

People today are more conscientious about what they are putting into their body, but they are also willing to subject themselves to all sorts of things in order to achieve their goals in regards of weight and fitness.

I thought this idea would be a perfect fit, another option if you will, to quench the public’s desire to “try anything” in order to reach those personal goals.

I mean really, I figure that if people are willing to move away from their families and go onto a TV reality show to get help and lose weight, if they are willing to be wrapped in mud, if they are willing to have their stomach stapled, and are willing to count and keep track of what they are eating, maybe this could really catch on. I mean, it’s just so easy.

Like the add says, No Diet, No Exercise”, and “No Ill Effects”!!!

So order your Sanitized Tape Worms today!!!

I’ll see you all in 2068!!!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Back at the CIA

Anyone who knows me well enough knows that, well, I’m kind of anal, yes it’s true. I tend to have a “need to be particular”, especially when it comes to food. I like to have things in place, just so. Hard to believe, right? This was a food related trip to cook at the Culinary Institute of America, my Alma Mater. I was, as you can imagine, quite wound up. I was asked by my national chef to come to NY to test out recipes for a cookbook with a team of chef’s from around the country. I was stoked, excited and high as a kite. Like the All-Star that she is, Janet cancelled a weekend trip for our 15th Anniversary to give me the opportunity, drove me and the kids to the airport on the morning of Sunday the 22nd and told me that if I didn’t come home in one piece on our Anniversary on the 26th she would raise me from the dead and slap me silly (we were once on a plane together when an engine caught on fire, not very fun).

When we arrived I immediately hopped out, gave and received my hugs and kisses, and marched on my way. As Janet pulled away and I was speaking to the baggage guy, it was revealed to me that I was one the East side of the airport, and my airline was on the West side of the airport. I looked at my ticket again, it said “US Airway-operated by United Airlines”. It did not read “US Airways”, like I interpreted. “Crap, I’m on the wrong side of the freakin’ airport!!!” I looked up, but Janet had already pulled away. Thankfully, I only had to walk about 200 yards through the terminal to get to the West side. Problem solved, except for the HUGE line. No need to implode, Janet had gotten me there early, she truly is amazing.

I called her on my cell to give her the (now) funny story, she said she was wondering why I told her to go to the East instead of the West, but figured I knew what I was doing, I didn’t. Then she told me that I had left my hat in the car. She even lovingly offered to turn the car around, I gratefully declined. My new black “pork pie” hat was to be my security blanket for the week. Silly maybe, but so are a lot of things (Ferris Bueller quote), so why not me too?

I hurried to my gate to find my flight was delayed an hour, grabbed a sandwich and hunkered down. My flight boarded, it was quite full, and we were off. Newark NJ, the airport signs directed me to the baggage claim. I got a hold of another chef, Jess, an experienced veteran on this team every year. He mentioned as we waited for my luggage that the chef I was replacing never even got his luggage last year, and laughed. I didn’t. I told Jesse I would let him know if it was funny in another ten minutes.

Ten minutes later, it wasn’t funny, at all.

It appears that luggage missed my flight and was scheduled to come in on the next plane. Missed my flight? What, did it stop off for a beer or something? Another plane? Are they going to charge me twice for that? An anal chef without his own jackets, pants, shoes and knives, oh dear. I can feel myself derailing, just slightly, towards the left.

I decided that I would not have a reaction (melt down, heart attack, head spinning, whatever…) until I actually realized that I really had to show up in the kitchen without my stuff, without being myself, without being ready, on Monday morning. After all, the airline told me that it should arrive by 9:00 am, maybe I would get lucky and it would come early.
I asked the hotel to wake me up when my bag showed up, no matter what time it was, I would have to iron my coats, they don’t travel well. Jess, like a champion, offered to lend me one of his own jackets if mine didn’t show. He said this smiling and with a chuckle, which only made me wince inside and do a double take.

I didn’t sleep very well, or much, and my phone never rang either.

I met the other chef’s in the lobby in my traveling clothes, introduced myself and said hello to all, no chef gear, no hair goo either. Where’s my hat, oh yeah, I left it in Janet’s car.

I got to introduce myself to Master Chef Rudy of the CIA in my street clothes, so much for my grand entrance. Mind you, Chef Rudy is one of sixty chefs in the world who have earned the title “Master Chef”. A distinction my industry takes quite seriously. As I said before, they are mystic creatures, chefs of precision, knowledge and professionalism. Master Yoda in a white chefs coat, get the picture? He put me at ease immediately and made sure his student fellowship ordered me a pair of chef pants. I put them on with Jess’ coat, which for the record I returned clean, and got to work.

Our task for the week was to produce food from recipes that had been submitted in a contest. We had to make sure the recipes actually worked, tasted good, and were easy to replicate for someone at home. Everything had to be measure, weighed or counted, like working in a lab. We were not permitted to add an ingredient to a recipe, like spinach for instance, because we thought it would be an improvement. That would damage the integrity of the submitted recipe.

When a chef completed a recipe, everyone stopped what they were working on and met at a display table. Two plates were “served up”, one for a photo, and one for everyone to taste and evaluate. A questionnaire was filled out for each tasting, with a number rating system. The decision makers would then decide what would make the book, or wouldn’t.

The real kicker behind having Chef Rudy at our disposal was his input regarding cooking techniques, plate presentations, basic skills, well, everything and anything you could think of to discuss with him. At the end of each day every plate was critiqued by him, and it was awesome. Just to be around someone with so much knowledge and expertise was a rush, even if he made a suggestion on how to improve one of your own plates. There was a lot more to it, but it was a blast and an honor to work with such a valued group of cooking professionals every day.

The hotel called me later in the afternoon on Monday. My bag did arrive, after 9:00 am, and nothing was even missing. I had a great week, worked hard, learned a lot, saw some of my old chef's and took in as much as I could.

Monday night I stayed up and ironed all my coats.

I felt like a million bucks the rest of the week.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


My regional chef boss called me two weeks ago and asked me if I was available to travel (all expenses paid) to The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park NY. I had to pick myself off the floor. Evidently I was asked of by name by his national counterpart back East. I had to give him an answer by the end of the day, I told him yes within the hour. Janet (my lovely wife agreed to hold down the fort and work double time so I could do this by the way) proclaims herself a “restaurant widow” so I would like to thank her publicly. I would like to also thank the nameless “national television network” for not choosing me for their contest so that I am available to do this.

I am the rookie of the seasoned group of twelve who do this every year. We are going to test recipes that have been submitted for a recipe book. I have never done anything like this, so I am quite stoked. I am told to “bring my A game, if you have one” by a friend who has done this for years. We are looked over and managed by Certified Master Chef Rudy. Master Chef is not a title you achieve with ease mind you; he is probably one of just 200 in the entire world, a mythic creature of professionalism, skill and subtle brutality. I am anxious to have him bust my chops and make me a better cook, either that or send me to the corner, curled up and in tears, shaking violently.
I am going to bring my camera and take mind numbing notes, documenting everything.
I will post some of it when I get back.

Until then, enjoy your food and play your music just a little bit louder

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Peanuts in the News

I’ve got a cartoon on my office window that someone cut out of a newspaper and gave to me a while back. Charlie Brown is sitting on his Dr.’s examination table, scared and with a wiggly line for his mouth, the double lined eyebrows and the squiggle tuft of hair. He is supporting himself with his hands flat on the table, afraid, staring wide eyed into nowhere. His Dr. examines his chart and declares, “You’re Allergic To Peanuts.”

Part funny, part twisted, part scary, very accurate. But as you may know, now it’s worse. Peanuts are making the healthy, the young, the old and the feeble, dangerously ill, and have even killed nine as of today.

Bring in Stewart Parnell, the owner of Peanut Corp. of America, who is reported to repeatedly plead the fifth at every turn. His company basically processes peanuts and then sells them to other manufactures that in turn use them as an ingredient from crackers and ice cream to candy and coffee products. Simple right, no, under his leadership they screwed it up and now we have a serious problem. This guy is what we like to call a “shoe maker” in the kitchen, he has no right to be in the food business.

According to MSN and I quote directly-“The owner of the peanut company at the heart of the massive salmonella recall refused to answer the lawmaker's questions — or any others — Wednesday about the bacteria-tainted products he defiantly told employees to ship to some 50 manufacturers of cookies, crackers and ice cream.”

The congressman Greg Walden, Republican from Oregon, at one point challenged Stewart Parnell, held up a container of his company's products wrapped in crime-scene tape and dared Parnell to eat from the jar. This congressman should get should get a friggin’ medal like a four star general. Parnell, the weasel, of course pleaded the Fifth, because it is important for him to be treated fair. This guy is a joke. Who gave this guy his job in the first place?

He had one product, peanuts, with the responsibility to the public to make sure they were safe at all times, and it’s reported that he told employees to sweep them up off the floors because they “needed to turn them into money”.

I hope this sort of thing really pisses you off, because it should. Food safety is a life or death responsibility, not a “turn the crap on the floor into a profit” business. Our lives are at stake dear friends, so I am calling out the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee congressmen to go old school on Parnell and take a group of elementary school kids and turn him into a living canvas of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, to cut the crust off and brown bag him while they’re at it.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

What's The Temperature?

I am a huge fan of professional waiters.

They are the waiters who understand what you might enjoy by just observing you get settled, who pulls something off the table because it doesn't measure up to their standards, and who makes sure your glass is full without asking. They remember your favorite drink when you don't come back in to eat for three months. They are the old school guys who used to come in after a late shift for a drink and to wind down, and want to see if you have any orders of Bone Marrow left. The ones you never heard complain when you asked how they were doing and the restaurant was packed. The ones who never sweat over your salad, or wiped their forehead with their sleeve. These are the ones you hope will work for you in your dining room.

I have always tried to feed them well when they have worked for me. We have a mutual respect and admiration for each other and enjoy working towards the common goal of taking good care of our customers. Because we want those customers back, we want them to think they can never live without us. We want them to become dependent on the professional treatment they receive. These waiters trust you and ask you what you want to recommend tonight as they tie their aprons and look at the special board.

I was working in the East Bay in Danville at a very nice place when a ticket came in from the new cocktail waitress. Filet Mignon. No problem. But that was it on the ticket, no temperature, Rare, Medium Rare, Well Done? Nothing...Give the new-be a break, she probably just forgot, no problem.

I got her attention as she walked up to the line, we were not busy, but it's important to figure out this stuff as soon as possible so I held her ticket up and asked her,

"What temperature?",

she stared back at me like my hair was on fire, so I checked, it wasn't. The cooks on either side sort of stopped, they wanted to know the temperature of the steak so they knew how to proceed, quickly.
I asked again, "What the temperature?" and I got nothing back.

I asked a third time as I physically pointed at her ticket in my hand for the ONE table she had.

"What's The Temperature?"

I immediately knew she wasn't one of those professional waiters I admired and loved to have work for me, I knew she wasn't going to last very long, I knew it was just a matter of time when she replied,


and I just shook my head.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

"86 The Salmon!!!"

I'm sure there are many readers who have heard the term "86" in a restaurant, whether intentionally or not. At some point in time, college mostly, there are those who are familiar with the term. Retired or not, experienced buss boys, waiters, bar tenders, managers, cooks, chefs and dish washers all know the term, it makes them wince. As much as I would like to not include the "part time hostess, only on weekends, in the evening, but only when daddy doesn't schedule a dinner party down at the country club after his and mommy's tennis tournament exclusively for executive members," I'm certain even they have heard the term, and stared back blankly.

In 1986 I was working in the pantry and at 18 I learned a lot from watching and listening, spying on everyone quietly, watching their every move, like we were all pinned down in a bunker and one false move could make you a gonner. Keep your head down, or it might get blown off. I would see another more experienced cook do something and the chef would go off on him. "Well", I'd say to myself, trying not to stare or smile, keeping busy, "PW-Don't do THAT".

Early on I immediately noticed that when we ran out of something everyone yelled "86 the salmon, or pate, or special pasta". It is the back of the house restaurant equivilent of screaming "fire" in the dining room. Cooks double check tickets to see if they need the one we don't have so they can inform the waiter "you screwed up, I don't have it". Waiters riffle through notes to see if they reserved the one they needed for table 34, thinking "that guy is such a jerk to his wife and this may send him over the edge, I could get her killed." The manager writes in on the white board with a dry erase pen, bold, in black. 86 Salmon. It gets repeated over and over by everyone like a hyptic chant until everyone has heard it one hundred times. Even the piano player knows it and twinkles out a little "86" jive he has been working on.

It's a big freaking deal.

My first New Years Eve came and went, and Chef Dean and the experienced kitchen crew saw that I had survived,"he still comes back every day, he's still standing, he hasn't broken yet" I would hear. They took me in and slowly, I emulated their every good move and learned from their mistakes. Organization, posture over a cutting board, knife skills, keeping your cool while facing a firing squad. I was really beginning to feel special, I had really found something I was good at and I really enjoyed it. It was like throwing a party every night for guests who might not go out to eat until their next anniversary. It was a rush and very satisfying to learn numerous new things each day for years and years.

One night I was running a count on an item in the pantry, Blackout Cake, a house favorite. The count ran low, I informed the chef and the staff. Three left, Two left , One left, ...

"87 the Blackout Cake!!!" I began the chant.

Adam, who learned to cook in the army, one of the most dedicated and organized cooks I would ever meet or learn from stopped dead in his tracks and turned to me with his eyebrows raised, "What did you say?"At this point I was really beginning to feel like one of the gang, like I was being accepted. The look in his piercing eyes told me my success was on the fence.
I swallowed, "you know, 87 the Blackout Cake, I'm out, I have no more orders, it's gone."

Without a word Adam turned the corner and I heard, "Hey Chef, Pee Wee just '87ed' the Blackout Cake!" Then he did what I feared, he laughed.

"He did WHAT?!!?"
Oh God, what have I done?

Chef Dean saddled up to me, trying not to laugh. "What's up with the Cake Pee Wee?"
"I ran out, I had a count down and I ran out, so I 87ed it Chef."
"You mean 86ed it?", he asked.
"No, I 87ed it." He really looked puzzed and I wasn't sure why.
"Why did you 87 the cake?" He was serious.
Deep breath, a crowd of hot line cooks was peering around the corner. "Last year we 86ed everything when we ran out, now it's 1987". No response. "Don't we 87 it now when we run out, you know, because it's 1987?"

He was really trying not to laugh, what was so funny?

He put his arm on my shoulder, was he going to throw me into the stock pot?
"P Dub, when we run out of something it is always "86ed", no matter what calender year it is, it's out, it's "86ed". Understand?" he smirked.
Shaking my head, "Yes Chef, but why?"
"Why what?"
"Why do we say 86, it doesn't make any sense?"
He searched his memory, "I really don't know, that's what I was taught too, it's just what we say".
"Yes Chef".

Twenty years later I had told this story to about every cook or chef I worked with, but no one could ever tell me WHY we said "86". Even in culinary school I never got a straight answer, for real.

Then we took a family vacation to Disneyland. We were in line for Soaring over California, which is a cool ride, and my mother in law says, "Hey Paul, look at this".

And this is a photo of what I saw...a discription of the F-86 Saberjet from the Korean war, at the time the world's fastest fighter jet...

So that is why we 86 items when they run out, go figure.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Contest Winner-Not So Much

I recently entered a national foodie contest, much to my dismay I never heard back, despite making the original deadline (they extended it twice). It was about a twelve page application and I had to turn in a three minute video as well. I thought this "major network" would've at least had an intern send me the "thanks but no thanks" on a 3x5 card. But no such luck. I wrote them a note suggesting that they were punishing the punctual and organized. I never heard back from them on that one either now that I think about it, go figure. It probably didn't help that I poked fun at one of their franchise personalities in my video.
It did however give me the opportunity to reflect on the questions they asked, which ended up being very satisfying. I came home one night and told Janet, "I got an e-mail with another invitation to enter this contest again this year" Gung-ho Janet responded with, "Do it, just go for it, do it. What's the worst that could happen? You could win or do well and we could move to NY. So what!!!" She is so great.
With the help of a Janet and a couple friends, I wrote and re-wrote, had a video recorded and edited, and had a couple stills taken. Since the network didn't want to share me with the world, I thought I would. So without quoting the actual application questions on my blog and finally getting contacted by this network, by way of their legal department, I thought I would share a couple of my answers.

-I would be honey, because honey is the real deal. Honey is strong, pure, sweet, adaptable and loved by all. Honey is organic, translucent, sustainable, medicinal, therapeutic and embraced by different cultures around the world. With its distinctive flavor, it can work alone, like me, or as an ingredient, as part of a culinary team. Honey’s flavor is influenced by the surrounding nectar of flowers, as my cooking has been influenced by those I have spent time next to over the stove in the kitchen. Honey contains complex carbohydrates, trace amounts of vitamins and minerals and antioxidants. I contain knowledge, experience and a strong personality, willing to share what I know with others. Honey is good for the individual, a powerful resource used in a variety of ways and settings, understated and valuable, as I am.

-Keep your knife sharp and clean, treat it with respect and with care, like driving a car you know you cannot afford.

-When you are working on a specific task and paying close attention to all the details in front of you, it is crucial to also keep in mind what your next task is so that your time is managed well. Nothing is more detrimental to a deadline in the kitchen than a cook who is not sure what to do next. I like to say, “Think about what you have just done, concentrate on what you are doing, and focus on what to do next.”

-When producing large amounts of food it can get particularly challenging when you are racing against the clock and trying to do a quality job. I find that more inexperienced cooks get confused easily and become messy and disorganized. This can also lead to an accident. One of the most important things you can do to keep on task is to keep your cutting board clean, dry and organized; I find that it is a reflection of what is going on in your mind.

-All ingredients should be handled with respect and care; from carrots to foie gras, they are a gift and we who posses the skills should treat them as a gift. Don’t take shortcuts that damage your ingredients and compromise your results.

-Don’t over complicate your recipes, plates or presentations. Be clean, crisp, straightforward and honest. Just because you think of something to add doesn’t mean you should; think it over carefully. You can add it, but you can’t take it out.

Take that major network.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Two Great Foodie Books

My lovely wife Janet got me an incredible book for Christmas 1001 Foods You Must Taste Before You Die by Frances Case. Does that girl know me or what?
It’s not as morbid as it sounds. It’s a reference of crazy hard to find or unique foods from countries and cultures around the world. Not all of them are available unless you do some serious traveling, but where else are you going to find such great ideas and get the exposure in one place? Don’t say the internet; it’s a book for cryin’ out loud. It’s got different sections; Fruit, Vegetables, Dairy, Fish, Meats, Aromatics, Grain, Bakery and Confections. It’s amazing; if someone can find another book with such coverage I dare you to find it for me.

I also got The Flavor Bible from my parents by two of my favorite food authors Karen Page and Andrew Dorenburg, these two write books that speak to me. A book that explores flavor combinations and for use as a reference. For instance, if you wanted Thai food you could look it up and it would give you flavor profiles and indigenous items to that region. Exciting stuff for foodies like me. People often ask me what my favorite cookbook is and I never have an answer because I never buy a book for recipes, but rather inspiration or reference when I’m stumped or when Jazz or Modern Rock can’t find the creative buttons in my head. The introduction has a great quote that sums up my point of view.
“Over the years, cookbooks have come to dictate precise measurement of ingredients along with instructions for their preparation and assembly, which has done much to improve the general accessibility of recipes. However, they also have come to provide a false sense of security for which the unsuspecting cook pays a price. When a recipe is rigidly scripted and blindly followed, it negates the cook’s own creative instincts and good judgment-not to mention much of the pleasure of truly ‘being ‘ in the moment”
That’s probably why I have always enjoyed live music so much, the point of cooking when you just “go off” and reach, making something you were working on go from good to great because you choose to step off the ledge and don’t fall off.

Check out those books.