Televsion Confessional

(screen cap courtesy of Eater.com)

When the Food Network first appeared on my television lineup, I loved it.  No, I mean I LOVED it. I couldn’t get enough. Emeril? Bam! Alton Brown? I was an acolyte. That hunky Bobby Flay?  Eh well, I think I’ll stop there.  But I felt like I was adding to my existing and expanding food knowledge.  And I was really…because I could see the techniques in real-time rather than read and look at pictures.  In most cases, it made whole some things I was already doing.  It also prompted me to take more chances.

Around that time, I was asked by a friend who was putting on a New Orleans-style party to come over an be the “guest cook” and make some jambalaya to supplement the rest of the fare.  I was no stranger to doing this for friends as I had done several dinner parties and whatnot.  Being situated in the kitchen (facing the main room of the party), I became a small center of attention with people asking how I did this or that or what things I did in the kitchen.  I admit that I liked the attention but at the end of the day, my real “like” was if the guests at the party enjoyed the food that I was producing.

In my wildest fantasies, I mused about being famous and on television doing the thing that I loved: cooking.  Screw all of the paying-your-dues crap….bang-zoom, right to the tube!  But no.  I’m just not that stupid. I liken that industry to joining the NBA.  There are thousands of college basketball players – some extraordinary, some great, some nicely skilled.  Of the first category, only a minuscule fraction actually make it to the NBA.  The other two categories better have a back-up plan.  So I was content to let the fantasy live in its own world.

What food television since then has become is sheer spectacle.  There’s very little learning.  There are chef challenges galore (some horrible, some just plain demeaning), junk “chefs” humping the Emeril paradigm until it is beyond raw and has bled out (you know exactly who I mean, Mr. Flavortown), and the worst of the worst: food challenges that have their hosts eating strange/overblown/junkheap food in train-wreck-sized amounts usually with cheering crowds behind them urging them on.  Pointless, save for sheer spectacle.

Now I an a huge fan of Chris Cosentino. He (and his initial Boccalone Salumi Society folks) inspired and de-frightened me to make my first pancetta.  I always wanted to go to Incanto (his first restaurant, now closed) but never did even though it’s just up the road about 50 miles.  I follow his Twitter and other social media accounts and more-or-less hang on his every word.  At first I was happy for him to have a television show (Chefs vs. City) but watching it left me kind of empty.  It felt clown-ish and even though his entertaining, competitive character shows though on it, it was mostly spectacle.  I didn’t lose respect for him at all but wished for more technique and story behind why he did what he did.  But that shit doesn’t SELL on food television as it once did.

And today, thanks to Eater, I got to watch a heart-wrenching, courageous and inspiring video of Chris Cosentino telling the story of his food television experiences and how it drove him to sickness, shame, anger and regret.   There’s so much here that describing it blow-by-blow won’t do it justice.  I was close to tears through some of it and respect the man even more now than before.

If you were ever deluded about the “rich and famous” part of food television, watch this now.


Welcome Back, Mr. Kotter

About two years ago (give or take), the server that hosted …but the devil sends the cooks crashed. And it crashed HARD.  The machine had its fans screaming and was in an unruly state for some untold days in a row as I was in Tokyo on one of the 26 blurred business trips I took between 2010 and 2014.  The machine was complete SHITE in it’s meltdown glory and it took the disks with it.  Thankfully, the disks were recoverable. That took 3 days. And that was the easy part.

The actual hard part was having the time to:

  • get a new server (I told you, the old one died a horrible screaming death)
  • pore and crawl through the recovered disks to grab all the old files
  • get suitable software to run the blog (Movable Type chose NOT to support an open source (i.e. free) version anymore so fuck them)
  • learn how to tweak WordPress (which is pretty neato but the learning curve is/was hair-tearingly brutal for a while)
  • manually re-enter all of the old posts (all 99 of ‘em!)

“Having the time”. Ha! I found that real difficult while being employed and dealing with a million different things related to the job, and semi-insane travel, and other of life’s “challenges” (some of my own doing, some not).

So what? Boo hoo.  Listen to the bad man whine.  I seek no pity; I only write this to tell you that …but the devil sends the cooks is BACK!  Lots and lots and lots of things have changed – for me and for many of the things I have posted about in the past.  I’ll relive and revisit some of those things in a handful of posts as I feel they’re important.  The tone and tenor of the blog will change likewise.  I’m now gainfully unemployed, finally pursuing a dream that began over 5 years ago and it’s some scary shit for sure.  And you’ll get to hear about some of it.  Wooo!

But really, welcome back.


Forks In The Road

The day I quit the computer industry was the day I was set free from the pressures and utter chaos of it. Liberating? Yes. Satisfying? Most definitely.

Four solid months of complete slackerdom. It was always designed that way (well six weeks of it, at least) so I had no reservations about it. Then, like Don Vito Corleone himself was speaking, I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse. So back to the industry I go.

Funny thing is…through all of the hand wringing and guilt for leaving what I knew for 20 years and then returning to the heart of the beast, I have no regrets. Even more so, since I have actually been baking my happy ass *off* (keeping my sour starters healthy, making bread nearly every week…and always thinking of the next modifications I can make to my bread recipe arsenal) plus cooking and discovering new food joints and restaurants, I have rarely felt the need to write about such things anymore.

And yeah, about the writing thing…maybe it was just showing off when I couldn’t achieve my dreams. Or showing off just because I wanted, needed and craved the attention about thinking that I knew more about food than everyone else. I am the first to admit that such arrogance lives right inside of me and actually feeds me from time to time. Well, maybe a little bit more than that.

But the humbling aspects of meeting and working with food industry people that really DO know more than you, have more experience than you, and actually have DONE MORE than you puts this arrogant little boy into his proper place. The arrogance is still extant but the quest to learn is much, much stronger and associating with and, more importantly, working with experienced folks is the order of the day, even if I can only do that occasionally because of the new path I have chosen.

Will I ever have my wholesale bakery operation (as I cryptically alluded to back in July)?
I will.

Will I make kick ass bread and other bakery goods?
Always.

Everything is just on a different timeline now…one that is bounded by nothing except my desire to succeed, no matter what job I do.


Lab Work

sandys

(logo courtesy of Sandy’s Chocolate Laboratory and Sandesh Reddy)

When I tell people I’m going to India, everyone says “ooh, how neat, you’ll get to eat a bunch of great Indian food!”. Well, not to burst anyone’s bubble, to me India (actually the city of Chennai or Madras to the Brits) ain’t all that. To spare you the excruciating details, let’s just say this city is not one of my favorite places to go for a variety of reasons. Food-wise, however, there is some outstanding Indian food here but 2 or 3 days of two meals a day consisting of nothing but curries and dosas and tandoories gets tedious real fast.

On my first night here (which includes 24 hours of travel time, going to bed at 6 am, plus all that jet lag), my co-worker and I (full disclosure: the co-worker in this case, is my manager Irina, who is quite cool all around, pretty fun to travel with, and wee a bit of a chocoholic) were expecting an evening of fine supping at one of the restaurants we went to on the last trip.  But what her friend Kaushal found for us was anything but ordinary for Chennai.  And from the moment I saw Sandy’s Chocolate Laboratory and Delicatessen, I knew it would be like Alice falling down the rabbit hole…

Sandy’s Chocolate Lab is mainly a dessert place.  If there’s anything in India that can match curry’s popularity, it is sweets.  You find them everywhere and in many forms.  But chocolate?  Well, you can find it but it’s just a tiny bit less difficult than finding a (beef) burger joint. Sandy’s (named after the founder, chef and lab master Sandesh Reddy) is a small place, tucked away on a small thoroughfare in a residential neighbourhood.  Yes, if you blinked while driving by, you’d only see a giant silkscreen of an enlarged thumbprint decorating the small entrance and maybe pay it no notice.

Once inside, it looks 180° opposite of your typical Indian restaurant with low modern tables, equally modern lighting with an easy ambiance and a case of goodies that will immediately get you wondering just what these guys are up to.  There’s a case of desserts that look familiar but are definitely not and a case of some pretty high end cheeses and cured meats which seem to be rarities in Chennai (and maybe India overall).

Sandy’s menu is a very simple affair if you recognize that it is printed on carbonless credit card receipt paper already sitting on the table. Because it looked like the bill from a previous party, our waiter had to come over and pull it out of its holder because we thought it was a bill and were scrupulously leaving it alone.

The menu has a small but diverse selection of starters and mains ranging from corn cakes with salsa to Vietnamese catfish with pesto.  And the fact that they had barbecued pork chops there too meant that there is probably a lot more going on here than meets the eye.  Although the starters and mains are merely a side light of Sandy’s it doesn’t mean they skimp on flavor or presentation.

The corn cakes were more like small blinis with a nice, almost smoothly blended salsa with just a nice fresh tomato flavor highlighting the lightly sweet corn kernels.  A pasta with an aioli made of capsicum (moderately hot peppers, in India parlance), butter and a bit of cream was a just-right spicy take on the old aglio-olio pasta sauté.  The “Asian” chicken was a pan fried breast (just a shade past done) that was completely covered in a light coating of finely ground garlic, mild pepper, and ginger.  A nicely sautéed stack of vegetables, arranged in tort fashion accompanied most of the dishes.

kids

even the kids get to experiment (photo by wm. christman)

But the real stars at Sandy’s are the completely over-the-top desserts.  Most of them have some form of chocolate in them and if you’re looking into the dessert case, it is pretty hard to just order one.  The highlight of the case desserts was a piece of chocolate cake insanity called the “tiny” cake.  If you can call 7+ layers and resembling a giant door stop “tiny”.

Actually, the Tiny cake is the only dessert that approaches Cheesecake Factory-sized portions but it is clearly meant to be shared as are most of the other desserts.  But given the Indian penchant for sweets, it was no surprise that there were lots of people navigating their slices solo.  If the treats in the case weren’t enough, there is another menu that the waiters take some pains to recite tableside.   This “secret” menu is where the real fun begins.

As far as desserts go on this menu, Sandy’s “laboratory” concept is taken quite seriously as beakers, test tubes and other Pyrex lab equipment are used as vessels to carry their sweet treats.  Quaint? Maybe. Cute? Definitely.  But what they actually fill those things with completely blows away any notion of it just being a gimmick.

The most over the top dessert in this category is the “kids” dessert (available to kids of all ages…). The waiter will ask you of your choice of pastry (a small waffle or pancake) and chocolate (dark, light or white).  And that’s it.  When the dish arrives, the plate is filled with whimsical delights. Along side the pancake or waffle come two test tubes of toppings: tonight it was maple syrup and a stabilized chocolate sauce (dark chocolate which is what I chose).  There is a small beaker of “milkshake” also based on your chocolate choice, a small and very moist brownie and a wicked looking giant syringe, minus the needle, filled with thickened chocolate milk.

All of the treats on the plate did not tip the scale sugar-wise as there seemed to be some care to highlighting the flavor of the chocolate.  The strange but delightful tableau extended itself with the parents of family sitting next to us who ordered two of these for their twin daughters and were having a grand time with the contents of the syringe, knocking back the milkshake, playing with the test tubes and waffles.The girls were clearly enjoying themselves based on the giggle-fest in full chortle.  And that’s the point, everything on the plate is meant to be played with and savored in a very un-serious way.  (By the way, Irina insisted that she get to use the syringe first. On me. Those pictures won’t be posted here anytime soon!)

The Happy Jack (and cookies!) (photo by wm. christman)

The Happy Jack (and cookies!) (photo by wm. christman)

Another customised dessert was a series of milkshakes which were thick enough to stand a spoon in. We ordered the “Happy Jack”  and the “Cookie Monster”.  The former was a chocolate-peanut butter mix and the latter a dark chocolate concoction with cookie chunks merely mixed in.  Both were served in beakers. Included with each of these was a small “cookies and milk” side; a small beaker with a thick-ish moist cookie and a small test tube of thickened chocolate milk.  As with the Kids dessert, preserving the chocolate’s flavor was front and center.

Although side-street bound, Sandy’s had a steady stream of customers coming in seeking their sweet creations.  By the time we got up to leave, the “Tiny” cake was gone as were most of the other items in the dessert case.  Deemed “expensive” by Indian standards, Sandy’s is a complete bargain compared to what some of their dishes might cost in the US.  And Sandesh is clearly going out of his way to create something unique in the middle of so much of Chennai’s traditional (albeit good) food.  In fact this evening was his last in the restaurant for a month as he was off to New York to do research for an all-new menu for the July.  And that just might be worth another 24 hours of travel to Chennai.


Sandy’s Chocolate Laboratory and Delicatessen (Facebook page), # 14, 1st Cross Road, RA Puram Off Greenways Road, Chennai, India, 044 42303852


Shoot Yourself In The (Bare)Foot

A good day down the tubes... (photo by wm. christman)

A good day down the tubes… (photo by wm. christman)

I like coffee houses with attitude. I especially like those that reflect that attitude through the clever design to their menus and interiors, and how they handle and treat their customers. Usually, those type of places have folks running them that are very knowledgeable but not arrogantly so. And because these places usually have a rabid interest in serving kick-ass (delicious) coffee beverages, their coffee and roasting skills also reflect the care and attitude.

However, attitude alone is not substitute for good service. And attitude for the sake of having one or trying to prove that you are somehow “hipper” than everyone else by being arrogant, treating your new customers like shit, and generally acting like idiots because you “know better” is even worse. Enter San Jose’s Barefoot Coffee Roasters.

Barefoot Coffee Roasters have been around for several years and have become one of the better independent coffee roasters in the Bay Area. I drink their coffee through three or four different, and not affiliated, coffee houses. Their coffee has been consistently good so I have no particular beef with that. In fact, I support businesses like this but find myself less inclined to do so after the treatment I received this morning at their store on Stevens Creek Blvd. in San Jose.

The day started out pretty good for me. There was a huge clump of traffic between me and where I work so I decided to pay Barefoot a visit while I was taking city streets to work. There was a line (there usually is) when I went into the store but they had some nice morning, beat-filled music going on so that was no big deal. The array of BFCR cups and knick-knacks provided decent distraction. I snagged a menu as they don’t really have any signage for their drinks. I guess it keeps their coffee house vibe true. So far, no problem.

My drink of choice every morning is an Americano (espresso with hot water). I didn’t see that on the menu but there was a thing called a “Romano” which was espresso and hot water. Hmmm. There was no size info so I assumed (yeah, yeah…) that 1) it was literally an “Americano” and 2) it was between 12-16 ounces large. So assuming away…it was settled, a Romano it would be.

I got up to the person at the counter and ordered the Romano. “Will that be for here or to-go?”, the person asked. “To go, please”, I said. “OK, that’ll be $2.73″, she replied. “Um wait, but its to-go and you’re still charging me tax on that??”, I asked. “We just got audited, so ‘yes'”, was the response.

Stupified, I wondered why exactly this was MY problem? In California, to-go food and drink is usually NOT taxed (forgive me for not being up on the complete rip-off California tax laws that extort money from businesses because THEY can’t balance their books. Ever.). I didn’t want to make a big deal of it so I paid.

“Jeez, that’s the most expensive Americano ever”, I said as I handed her the money. “Well, it’ll be the best one you’ve ever had,” she shot back. “And if you don’t think so, you can go across the street and buy coffee there…”

Um, EXCUSE me? The reason that I’m AT Barefoot, you arrogant fuck-wit, is because I don’t frequent Starbucks so why pull out the crap attitude? Especially on someone who you’ve never seen before. The whole idea is to keep customers, not drive them away no matter how much you think you’re the coolest, most bitchin’ coffee house employee in the fucking world!

Now, to her credit, she apologized a minute later saying “I shouldn’t have said that, sorry…” but the damage was already done. But…if the first thing that comes out of your mouth after someone questions your charging tax for a to-go item and then quippingnicely about the cost of said drink is some sorta attitude-filled, cryptic dribble about “if I don’t like it I can go to Starbucks…” then what the fuck is your real problem?

So now my day has just gone from pretty good to right in the shitter because of this idiot being, well…..an idiot, then the barista calls out and says that my Romano is ready. I look and see what she has set down and it’s this teeny-tiny white cup (~8 oz.) of espresso and water. She notices the slight askance look when I see it. Then I asked if that was really the size of the Romano? “Yes, we don’t add too much water so the espresso is stronger…” Er, ok.

So, I guess that’s fine but there’s not word ONE on the menu as to how big the drink is – just a flowery description on how the addition of hot water will make the espresso “smoother”. There’s nothing like making your customers guess what their drinks are. I kind of felt like I just walked into the Las Vegas of coffee houses. I put my money down. And I hope I win something!

“I guess I should have asked for an ‘Americano” then but it wasn’t on your menu.”, I said. The response I got was even more maddening: “Oh, that [the Americano] is on our ‘secret’ menu…here’s your drink…” Stunning.

At that point, I realized that I should have just walked out at being charged tax on a to-go drink. But I had faith that Barefoot coffee was good enough to maybe put up with the gaffe. But what transpired after that point was just one of the worst examples of arrogance in a coffee house I have even had the misfortune to experience. Ever.

So now, was that Romano the “best one that I have ever had”? Eh, honestly it really wasn’t. (Oh horrors! Now I’ll HAVE to go to Starbucks! Or plunge six-inch needles into my eyes! Decisions, decisions.) It was good but not great. But the taste was clearly overshadowed but the ridiculous ordeal that I had to go through to get that coffee to my lips.

The nagging question now is: does Barefoot have good coffee? I believe they do and the evidence is in the previous cups I have had at the places that use their coffee. However….will I frequent the Barefoot store again? Probably not. Would I recommend other people go there? Definitely not to anyone I like or care for. As for anyone else, unless you’d like an equal cup of completely shitty and totally unnecessary attitude to go with your coffee, knock yourself out.

Pull your head out of your collective ass, Barefoot. The arrogant twits that work at your store will KILL your reputation – may I suggest a customer service seminar or class for all of them?

You’ve got a good thing going on being a local coffee roaster that has some really great skills. And there are many reasons that I don’t frequent Starbucks and you’re one of them. Don’t blatantly chase away customers that value that merely because your employees think they ‘know it all’.


What You Don’t Need

I’m not a fan of chain restaurants, in either diner or fast food varieties, so maybe this is just me pissing in the wind. HOWEVER…..

Of all the dumbshit food combos that have blanketed the news lately (A KFC Double Down, anyone? Your delicious heart attack is just moments away!), this one struck some sort of nerve enough to wonder if the aim of all of this is to try and turn us all into (even more) dumb beasts.

What I’m referring to is IHOP’s new “Pancake Stackers” that are “delightfully layered with creamy cheesecake…” Yeesh. Why? Aren’t pancakes with some maple syrup and a side of bacon or sausage ENOUGH anymore?

Apparently not because IHOP’s press release states that they’e topped [their pancakes with] “with one of America’s favorite flavors — cheesecake”. Jesus, what’s next? A deep fried, beer’n’salt battered slab of back bacon to go with IHOP’s take on what makes America’s taste buds tick?

Let’s take a look at the IHOP scoreboard: Taste Buds 1 , Still Beating Heart 0. Way to go IHOP!

(Thanks to slashfood for the article link for this post.)