Category Archives: General

I’m The Rock

don't take me for granite

No, I’m not Dwayne Johnson. But through the years, there have been many people who have told me I’m their rock. It’s always well-intentioned, the metaphor meant as a compliment. One that says they consider me reliable. That my constancy in their life is important. That when all hell breaks loose in their world, there’s a comfort in knowing that I’m there no matter what, unwavering and unchanging. It’s a point of pride for me. It’s the reason months can pass between us yet when you ask me “What’s new?” I can cheerfully say “Not much”. No drama, no turmoil to speak of. Sure, it’s the boring answer. And I’m self-aware enough to know that being boring isn’t a good look, but usually it’s the truth, and I’m ok with it precisely because that’s what makes me the rock for the people I care about. But beyond just being a little dull when it comes to small talk, there are more disheartening aspects to all of this which have been on my mind lately.

When you’re the rock, you’re going to have your deepest connections with others when they are going through tough times. This means you’re going to see them when they’re hurting. You’ll want to help but often feel helpless. And if things spiral out of control, you’re going to see some ugly shit. But you can handle it, you need to handle it, because you’re the rock for them. But the other side of the coin isn’t all bright and shiny either. When things are going well, people don’t need a rock and you’re going to be more of an afterthought. Most of the time, the tradeoff is more than worth it; knowing the ones you love are in a good place trumps everything else. Or at least it should. But beware those times where you start feeling sorry for yourself when you should be feeling happy for them. Then you’re going to have an existential crisis on your hands. Maybe you aren’t the rock you thought you were. Maybe you’re not even as good of a person as you thought you were. As Bert Gordon said to Fast Eddie Felson in The Hustler, “One of the best indoor sports, feeling sorry for yourself. A sport enjoyed by all”. When you’re playing that sport, all bets are off. Your judgment will be clouded and self-doubt will pervade everything that runs through your mind. But I think that’s ok, as long as you can keep it in perspective. In the casino of life, feeling sorry for yourself is like a game of Double Zero Roulette, a losing proposition in the long run, but its allure in the short term is undeniable. You can choose to play it but you have to keep your sessions short and know when to cut your losses. Don’t let it seduce you into losing control. Especially when the game is beating you up, you have to remember that this isn’t happening *to* you. It was and still is your choice to continue playing or to step away from the table. It’s also important to understand why people are drawn to this shitty game in the first place- it’s because it relieves some of the burden of responsibility. It’s so much easier on the psyche to tell yourself that you’re unlucky or that life just isn’t fair rather than owning what has happened and what is yet to come. The truth is, you’re still in control and always have been.

Some things will be out of your control though, and that’s perhaps the hardest part of all this. When you’re someone’s rock, you’re going to feel a sense of responsibility. It’s a weight which nobody ever asked or even wants you to bear, but it’s there nonetheless. Now try to imagine, what happens when you fail at this responsibility? What if you weren’t strong enough or smart enough to be there at a critical time when someone needed you most? What if you couldn’t recognize the signs that someone was in much more dire straits than you realized? What if you lost somebody because of it? You might not have had anything to do with the circumstances of their troubles, but if you were supposed to be their rock and you weren’t there when it mattered, then what are you really? It’s an existential crisis again. In a way, feeling responsible for someone else’s life is narcissistic, indicative of an inflated sense of self-importance. You shouldn’t blame yourself for what happens when others make their own choices and end up with negative outcomes, just as you can’t take credit for their successes when things work out well. Everyone ultimately expresses their own free will and the role of the rock in their lives is not as significant as you would like to believe. As much as someone may share of themselves with their rock, there are always layers that stay hidden and it’s often at those depths that their most important choices are really decided. While you may have been important to them, it was never to the degree where you were responsible for their success or their failure, their life or their death.

But not everything swirling in our heads are based on delusions of grandeur. Some of it is very real, most significantly the sense of loss. If once there was a presence in your life and now it’s gone, the vacuum it leaves behind sucks a bit of the life out of you. You can wreck yourself trying to replay events in your mind- things you should have picked up on, what you could have said or done differently. You will miss them. It will hurt. But here’s the thing- the universe is way grander than that void in our little patch of spacetime. Out of that vastness it’s an absolute certainty that something will come and fill the emptiness eventually. When that happens, the sadness emanating from the negative space will subside. That doesn’t mean you’ll ever forget the departed or ever stop wishing they were still with you. It just means time moves forward. Even if you’re a rock.

Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain killed himself yesterday. That’s as bluntly as I can state it. Just like doctors are supposed to be direct when informing someone that their loved one has just passed away, I think it’s best to just say it plainly. Acknowledge it, and then cope with the realities of it in whatever way works for you. Anthony Bourdain is gone and it is a very great loss.

Like many people, I was first exposed to Tony from watching A Cook’s Tour on television and then I went on to buy his book Kitchen Confidential (from an actual bookstore!). I loved that book, not just for the subject matter which was right up my alley, but also because of his writing style. Prior to that, my favorite food-related reads came from a monthly column by Alan Richman in GQ (an actual print publication!). What Bourdain and Richman had in common was a hilarious way of phrasing things, especially when it came to doling out sharp criticism. But Bourdain was so much more irreverent and that added an extra layer of cool. As his television career progressed, it was really his eloquence that made every episode so impactful. Whether it was clever quips during narrative voiceovers or thoughtful reflections at the end of each episode, he really had a knack for finding the perfect words for every scene. They were words that could range from the poetic to the absurd, whatever it took to punctuate a moment as either funny, poignant or profound. Over the years, there were countless times I would rewind a scene just to hear him repeat a particular line and think to myself, “wow, that was just beautiful”. And that’s what made him remarkable- he was perhaps even better at expressing positive things than he was at ripping into people like Sandra Lee or Guy Fieri (and he was very good at that). If the current state of American society is any indication, it’s so much easier to tear things down and insult people. Any insolent hack can do that. But to be able to connect, unite and inspire is a far greater challenge. Bourdain was a master at both.

This morning I pulled up an old blog entry of mine from 2006 when I was clearly already a total Bourdain fanboy. My appreciation of him even back then made me realize some things about my own writing. It’s natural to try and imitate those that you admire, and I think I’ve always wanted to find a writing voice that sounds like Bourdain’s. I am of course miles away from that. Whenever I re-read things I’ve written, the voice I hear coming off the page is often rigid and sterile, void of the color that animates Tony’s writing. Other times the voice sounds whiney, as if pleading for the reader to agree with my point whereas Tony’s style naturally carries a confidence that says “I don’t give a fuck”. But it made me wonder if perhaps every writer doesn’t carry that same self-doubt…and in light of what happened yesterday, it made me wonder what kind of voice Tony heard when he read his own words.

When I first read that Tony had committed suicide, I thought it had to be a hoax. Even after the major news outlets confirmed the story, I still didn’t quite believe it. Maybe there was foul play involved? Maybe a maniacal Trump supporter ambushed him in his hotel? Did Harvey Weinstein send a goon to take him out and frame it as a suicide? Somehow those scenarios seemed more plausible to me than him taking his own life. How could a man who loved his daughter so much do this? A man who had the best job in the world, traveling and eating. A man who was dating the beautiful Asia Argento and by all accounts seemed to be quite happily in love. Plus Tony trained Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, sometimes 7 days a week, so we know he had a fighting spirit. What could possibly make someone with all those things going for him decide to commit suicide? I suppose it could have been something chemical, but it seemed like his days of drug use were well behind him. It just doesn’t make sense.

But ultimately, I’ve decided I won’t do him the disservice of trying to come up with an explanation. It would be wrong, and I mean that in several ways. Wrong in t
hat whatever I come up with isn’t likely to be correct. Wrong in that it would be too simplistic. And ultimately, wrong in that its only real purpose is to provide
closure for myself. Taking something as serious and tragic as suicide and trying to wrap it up in a tidy little explanation just for my own peace of mind would just be narcissistic, so I won’t do that. Let’s all not do that.

Putting aside the unknowable, all that remains is what Anthony Bourdain’s life and death meant to each one of us. The number of heartwarming tributes to him across all forms of media today are overwhelming evidence of just how many lives he touched across so many walks of life. He leaves us with a well-documented legacy in his books, shows, articles, interviews and social media. The common thread running through it all is a humanistic one. Wherever he went he always sought to make real connections with real people. And despite, or maybe because of, his snarky and cynical tendencies, whenever he made those connections, you could sense he was humbled by each and every one and his appreciation ran deep. I hope he knows how much the world appreciated him in return. May he rest in peace.

The Easiest Soup Ever

Broccoli Soup with Spam
About a decade ago, before Gordon Ramsay was a household name here in the U.S. and before every video under the sun was available on Youtube, he had a show in the UK called Gordon Ramsay Makes it Easy. In one episode, he made a simple broccoli soup that really impressed me and it’s a recipe that I’ve revisited on several occasions over the years. The reason it was so impressive is because the soup was basically just 3 ingredients- broccoli, water, and salt, yet the end result was a soup with an elegant flavor and texture you might even call luxurious. It’s simple, delicious and versatile.

To make the soup, start by bringing some water to a boil with a little bit of salt. Drop in the broccoli florets and boil until they’re soft. Scoop them into your blender jar along with some of the cooking liquid. In terms of quantities, about 2 large stalks of broccoli will yield enough florets to fill my blender jar almost full, and for that amount, I would add enough water to go about halfway up the level of the broccoli. Cover the blender, but take the stopper out of the lid and cover with a towel. If you’ve never blended hot liquids before, do not take this step lightly because I don’t care how strong you are, you won’t be able to keep the lid on if the stopper is left in; if you don’t give it an opening to vent it will blow the top off the blender and cover your kitchen with broccoli. Even with the stopper out and a towel over the top, start with a few short pulses just to be safe before you allow it to really whirl. It should take less than 30 seconds to become soup-like. Just check the consistency and if it’s too thick for your taste, add some more of the cooking liquid and whizz it again. Add salt if it needs it, and then you’re done with the basic soup.

While it’s fine as-is, you will almost certainly want to chef it up a bit. Considering it’s basically nothing but the essence of broccoli, I find that it needs a little bit of fat and texture to elevate the satisfaction level and there are many different ways to get there. In Gordon Ramsay’s tv show, he finishes it with a some walnuts and a couple medallions of ash-rolled goat cheese. I’ve made a nice variation topped with fried garlicky bread crumbs. Or if you are insistent on keeping it fat-free, I once made it with toasted sliced almonds and it was really good too. But this weekend, I came up with my new favorite rendition, the one you see pictured at the top of this post. In true chef fashion, I was inspired by the fact that Spam was in season, i.e. on sale at H-Mart, so I decided to go with it. I did a brunoise of Spam (the low-sodium kind) and browned it up in a little olive oil with pimentón (Spanish smoked paprika) for a little smoky accent. And since I was feeling extra ambitious, before I served it, I actually ran the broccoli soup through a fine mesh sieve for an even silkier texture. That’s something I remember reading that they do in the French Laundry kitchen- whenever a liquid gets transferred from one container to another, they strain it through a chinois. It makes a noticeable difference. I was really happy with the end result- a nice color contrast, luxurious mouthfeel from the broccoli, a beautiful scent from the paprika, and of course the savory addictiveness that can only come from a processed meat product!

Taiwanese Mullet Roe

A few months ago I stopped by the Celebrate Taiwan event that was going on in Grand Central Terminal. They were trying to promote Taiwanese music, culture, and of course the food. I was particularly interested in checking out their dried mullet roe. The Italians have bottarga, the Japanese have Karasumi, but I had heard that the Taiwanese version was the best of the bunch. I was not disappointed. It was smoky, earthy and salty, kind of like a hard cheese that tasted of fish jerky. I posted a picture of it on Facebook at the time, and hadn’t really thought about it again until a couple of weeks ago. My old friend and 9-ball mentor Roger had seen my FB picture, happened to be in Taiwan this month, and lo and behold- a box of mullet roe arrived in my mail last week! Quite the unexpected surprise, especially since I probably haven’t seen Rog in about 15 years! I have the greatest friends. Thanks, Rog!

So tonight I decided to try it out. Here’s what the packaging looks like:
Mullet Roe boxMullet Roe package

And here’s what the product looks like when sliced:

Mullet Roe sliced

So what can you do with it? Well, with it’s inherent cheese-like character my first thought was to let funk play with funk, so I put together a riff on a traditional party hors d’oeuvre- bleu cheese crumbles on endive drizzled with white truffled honey and topped with shaved mullet roe:
Mullet Roe endive
This was just ok. This particular mullet roe is actually milder than the much saltier and smokier one I had tasted at the Grand Central event, so in retrospect, using a microplane to grate the roe wasn’t the best choice. The shavings were too fine, so it would have taken heaping mounds of it to stand up to the bleu cheese and white truffle. It was still a treat to eat, but didn’t allow the roe to shine.

Next up, a more traditional pairing with some egg on egg action. I made a chawanmushi by preparing a quick dashi, cooling it, mixed in some beaten eggs and then steamed it in a ramekin. Since I wanted bigger roe flavor this time, I abandoned the microplane and switched to a box grater to get some bigger chunks. This was, if I may say so myself, a great success:
Mullet Roe Chawanmushi

Even though my chawanmushi skills leave much to be desired (there were bubble holes on the surface from cooking too quickly I think), the flavor and texture were spot on, and the mullet roe funk was in full effect. With every spoonful, the custard would cleanse and reset the palate so that the bits of roe could follow up, bringing their intense flavor with full force. Pretty awesome.

Then it was time for something more substantial and so I went with another classic preparation- roe on pasta. Typically of course it would be bottarga on pasta, but essentially it’s the same thing with a different name. Granted bottarga might come from a different type of fish than what they use in Taiwan, but flavor-wise they’re aiming for the same dark, salty, smokey, fishy happy zone. Since I knew my palate was probably getting a bit desensitized from the big flavors in the first two dishes, I decided I needed to ramp things up even more for the finale. I ditched the box grater and just used my pairing knife to shave and dice the roe so I could create even bigger chunks. While the spaghetti was boiling, I decided to go even bolder by frying up some capers. When the pasta was cooked, I drizzled it with olive oil, sprinkled on some truffle salt that Ricky and Kathy gave me as a gift, and tossed it with the capers and mullet roe. With all those good ingredients, I think you can imagine how great this tasted!
Mullet Roe spaghetti

There’s a reason pasta and bottarga are such a classic combo. The neutrality of the pasta adds just enough substance and texture to carry the flavor of the roe so that it can linger on your tongue longer with each forkful. In my rendition, the truffle aroma added an extra dizzying dimension while the fried capers brought a floral counterpoint that helped keep the intense flavors from becoming overwhelming, i.e. it made me want to eat more and more instead of just blowing out my palate in a few bites.

Thanks again to Rog for the surprise gift, and for it giving me the inspiration to get my lazy ass back in the kitchen to cook again!

Elm

It’s been a while since I’ve been impressed enough by a restaurant that I felt compelled to write again, but after several trips up to Connecticut to dine at Elm I have been sufficiently wowed. Located on a quaint downtown street in New Canaan, Elm has a modern but elegantly casual feel to it. My favorite spot to dine is at the counter seats in the back from which you get this view into the open kitchen:
Elm kitchen

It’s a real pleasure to watch the team at Elm work. The kitchen is led by chef/owner Brian Lewis (not in the picture above), who’s food I first encountered way back in 2009 when he was doing a pasta demo at a tasting event. Back then, he was representing Richard Gere’s restaurant, the Farmhouse at Bedford Post (another one of my absolute favorites) where he was the original chef. I was impressed by him then and even more so now. At Elm, he’s assembled a kitchen staff that really cares about what they do. And I know this because I have been there on multiple occasions when Chef Lewis had the night off and I still witnessed the highest level of care and attention to detail under the direction of sous chef Devin Broo. Every plate was wiped of fingerprints with tiny squares of napkin they keep at the ready just for that purpose, almost as meticulous as the way Momofuku Ko wipes down plates using drops of vodka. Seeing the Elm team work reminds me of Paul Newman’s line from The Hustler when he’s describing how any activity can be elevated to greatness, “if a guy knows. If he knows what he’s doing and why and if he can make it come off.” Everyone in that kitchen, including the dishwasher, seems to work with that sense of pride and purpose. The kitchen space itself is spacious and bright, and the team moves about it with a calm efficiency reminiscent of how Charlie Trotters’ kitchen used to hum.

From a kitchen that polished you’d expect the food to be world class, and it certainly is. The ever changing menu is of the farm to table variety but not in an obnoxious crunchier-than-thou sort of way. The printed menu won’t list the provenance of every ingredient on the plate like some restaurants do these days. The descriptions are straightforward, clean and elegant, just like the kitchen. Consider them confidently understated, because without fail when the dishes arrive before you, they are artfully plated masterpieces to behold, and they are even more pleasurable to eat. Take for example this dish of “Glazed Spring Vegetables”:
Elm Glazed Spring Vegetables

It is perhaps the quintessential Elm dish. It treats the incredible ingredients with greatest of care and respect, elevating and accenting them with a rich buttery nage and laced with a drizzle of honey. Every element on that plate was spectacular, especially those baby radishes which were ridiculously juicy. The richness of the dish speaks to Elm’s approach of making things delicious first and foremost. Yes it’s a farm to table restaurant, but they are cooking to satisfy a foodie’s palate, not a hippie’s consciousness. That’s my kind of sensibility.

With this approach there are no cultural boundaries to constrain them. So you may have Japanese flavors of yuzu and ginger mignonette over raw oysters for one app and follow that up with the Thai curry broth in these mussels:
Elm Thai Curry Mussels

And then jump over to France with this, possibly the most brilliantly conceived and executed presentation of foie gras I’ve ever tasted:
Elm Foie Gras

It’s a dish of seared foie with sherry lentil jus, spiced rhubarb, and the kicker- crushed bits of smoked macadamia nuts. Lentils are the perfect element to add substance to each bite of foie because they give you just enough of something to chew while being subtle enough in flavor not to interfere with the star of the show. The rhubarb of course brings the sweetness and acidity you need in any good foie dish. But the eye opener for me was the smoked macadamias. I never knew that foie gras could be elevated by the addition of smoke, but now I do and I will never be the same. It provides you with a hit of smoky pleasure and interest right up front as you take your bite, just before the wave of richness from the foie washes over you as it melts on your tongue. Just an awesome dish. Just an awesome restaurant.