Monday, October 31, 2011

Japanese Conversion

I have been cooking professionally for 25 years and have been a dedicated Wusthof Classic Chef.  Classical utilitarian durability was plenty good enough and the lifetime warranty has accounted for several replacements in a long career of use and abuse.  Happily, I can witness that many knives have stayed with me through most of that time.
When the various Santuko style knives became popular, followed by the Global mini-craze and most recently the super-high end Japanese cutlery came into favor, I was not a fan of any of them.  Santoku  shaped knives were good for too few tasks, making them a poor choice for the "every knife".  Global’s offerings were just too "futuristic" and from a practical and ergonomic perspective - too light to be any good.  Not only did their hollow character fail to inspire confidence, their willowy feel required too much input from the user and were therefore, tiring.  The Japanese whiz-bang cutlery seemed reserved for trophy buyers, too pretty for the line, too expensive for 95% of the chefs in the field to afford.

So, after a demonstration at a W-S in Northern VA, I was able to enjoy a substantial discount and took a bite on a Shun Kaji, Western 8".  At nearly $300, regular price, it was far more than I would have spent if I were paying retail, but still substantially UNDER the top of the line Damascus, uber-unobtanium Shun Premier line.   The latter are more like presentation grade knives for those who are truly up their own ass.

For me, being a Southpaw, the full range of Japanese knives has been an uncomfortable and limited exposure at best.  The “D” shape to most handles being obstacle and the single sided bevel to the edge being the second.  The handle shape can be overlooked by some, but the bevel is a deal-breaker.  The Shun Kaji has both a classical and non-specific handle shape and an equal degree of bevel to it’s edge grinding.  Make no mistake, the Shun knives are ground for detail work – at approximately a 16 degree angle, the edges are best used for dissecting vegetables and protein, no hacking up a chicken.  I also keep a $9 China-Town special, one-piece cleaver around for the poultry work.

Having test driven this knife for a few weeks now, I can say without reservation that this is the sharpest, out of the box knife I have ever purchased.  Without a doubt one of the most comfortable to use all day with excellent balance, reasonable weight for repetitive chopping, yet light enough to work all day on brunoise. 

For kicks and to see how this knife would feel to a line-dog, I spent about 2 hours making brunoise mirepoix.  It's been years since I've done that kind of volume knifework and behold, not fatigue.  It may sound extreme, but if you notice the tool, it's not very comfortable for you.  Not that many line cooks are going to drop half a week's pay on a knife, but I do promise, those that do won't be disappointed.
The Shun is an instinctive pointing device.  My grip is very choked up on the blade and with the balance point just behind the bolster, I can easily twitch the point with my pinky finger and by using fine motor movements, one's body doesn't get as tired, as fast.

This is knife is well worth the price of admission.  As I was looking for a new French knife, the Shun Kaji is the best of both worlds.  An added plus is that this knife is built with a two sided bevel and ambidextrous handle - I am left handed, so this matters.   

5 Stars.

Monday, October 24, 2011

100% Tired of 99% Cry-Babies. Get with it - Create Something!


Q: You're one of the 1%? 

A:  Guilty, I guess by some observers, I may be part of the 1%. But what does that mean to you?  To me it signifies that I'm in the one percent of people who's bust-ass, never give in/up/out work ethic CREATED jobs last year. I am proud of the fact that my company gave out raises to 25% of our employees last year, bonused managers – twice - and is on track to grow both gross revenue and net profit. What did it take to do that? People.  People who aren't afraid, feel entitled or are given to sitting back and expecting salvation to jump out of their TV set and into their wallet.

I don't mind paying my fair share of taxes to support valid social programs. But, I especially don't mind national sovereignty and moveable type. I take great exception to layabout neo-socialists that want to re-distribute my get-up and go.

I don't make the magic $250K that has been bantered around the Hill as the definition of "rich", not by a long shot. Well under that. But, in lieu of bailing out of small business ownership and sending another 24 hard-working wage earners into the un-employment rolls, I looked outside my own company and took on another full-time job.  Yep, I’ve got two of those now!  Seems to be the "responsible" thing since my team relies on me to make sound business decisions and I value their contribution to my success thusfar. Now, which is a better and more productive form of altruism/philanthropy - giving a fish or teaching to fish?

I really didn’t want to take a turn toward the biblical reference, but it applies. I believe that my greater contribution is in the creation of things, not the DOnation. Our economic world is monkeyed with on a scale that I can't conceive - don't want to conceive - won't every be part of the congnoscenti who are allowed to conceive of it. So, I do what I think is right, dodge bullets and try to help good people tap in to their power to create, please and develop others to do the same. That's service I guess - to Man, Country, God, Baal, Buddha, whatever.

I don't see a movement at all. I see social media capable of creating an overnight bumpersticker culture and some social disorder. As you've seen me post lately - "the revolution will not be televised" - well, I don't think it will be on Facebook either. It's underway and it will not be announced.

The "99%" have no idea who the mythical "1%" are.  Everybody would like to be part of a group, but which group? Social responsibility is not a function of paying taxes or a numerical formula. Morals and ethics are the missing links.  My 1% hungry tired ass just ordered 99% pure Thai food from the family of immigrant entrepreneurs up the road. YES, even though I am a chef, we order take out! Should I have given the (likely meth addicted) vagrant kids in Crystal City my $45 dollars or the Thais? Who would create a job and who would create a bigger buzz?

I’ve quickly grown 100% tired of this red herring - catch-phrase, social media fueled, flavor of the month.  It will only take 1% more postings about “occupy ___” for me use 99% of my foot to occupy 100% of some lazy hippie’s backside.


Foie Gras for the Rest of Us.

A few years ago, I struggled with keeping foie gras in rotation on our menu.  No doubt about it, if you're a "serious" restaurant and you know what that means - you have to have foie gras on the menu.  By late 2000 I had studied Thomas Keller's French Laundry and practiced with my brigade the making of classic torchon de foie gras.  Oooh we were fancy with our Sauternes gelee, caramelized pineapple, rum raisin chutney, dried raspberries, hazelnut toffee, etc!  By the time our food cost began to catch up with our creative zeal we were stuck with several weeks and many hundreds of dollars worth of duck liver curing in the walk-in. The tied and bound liver filled cotton towels were a genuine nod to our hero, Thomas and the Old World.  It was hubris to behave this way - disrespectful to the duck to over-produce torchons like we did, but they were beautiful.  Unfortunately for all the beauty in the walk-in box, neither Chef Keller nor the ghost of August Escoffier were around to help us empty the larder. To the corporate chef and accountant, our art was a huge chunk of inventory dollars to behold and it had to go.  

In the restaurant, we served a 3 oz portion of foie gras for 17 dollars.  3 ounces is a lot of fat - given that foie gras is almost purely that, and $17 isn't a lot of money to give for that kind of portion in anyone's restaurant.  Even well adorned and at the nice-price of $17, I struggled to move more than a couple a night.  However determined I was to make it work for the menu, there was no mistaking that it went to the plate at a 43% food cost before accompaniments and shrink due to staff snacking and net loss due to yield. The ego cost vs. cache vs. movement vs. real food cost pointed sharply to dropping the most noble of innards.  

I knew that we couldn't afford to menu all the torchon that was curing in the box, but we also couldn't afford to sit on it as long as it would take to move it at an even higher menu price.  As I sat nibbling on some Mimoulette Francais one evening, I remarked at how by slicing thinly with a cheese plane, I could enjoy all the aromatics of the cheese without really consuming a lot of the product.  By making more surface area available in proportion to the mass I could maximize my flavor sensation by making more aromatic cheese surface available to my olfactory sense and minimize my cheese intake.  Reasoning that since your olfactory is nearly 75% of your sense of taste, "tasting with your nose" made perfect "sense".  

There was the "Aha!" moment.  Enter micro plane... enter stick blendor... enter foie gras as an ingredient for everyone.  And, enter foie gras as a profitable luxury.  Further still, foie gras on several dishes at once, not just flying solo.  I set to portioning the torchon into pucks that could be kept on the line in the ice cream freezer.  The torchon that had not cured fully, I reformed into "crayons" - thumb sized sticks that could be frozen and kept frozen - removed only long enough to manipulate for a dish then returned to the freezer.

Before service, several pucks were removed from the freezer and added to the saucier's mise en place.  He would use a stick blender to buzz a puck into sauce for duck breast.  A red currant duck demi glace went well over the edge when a foie puck was added - beautiful, frothy and mahogany red against pink Long Island duckling.  This sauce later  evolved into the sauce for the duck confit agnolotti and later rabbit. 

Again on the Garde Manger station, we would grate copious nests of aromatic and unctious duck liver into soups and even onto pasta.  David Chang of Momofuku cites that he and his crew use a similar technique to elevate their pork bun.  Diners attest that they have pushed the ethereal 

Todd Gray of Equinox once served me a very seasonally sensitive and inspiring cauliflour cream with fresh oysters.  I've tweaked that presentation and now frequently serve a a roux-less cauliflour soup made with minimal cream; the oyster is soaked in dry, white Sherry and foie gras is grated over the finish soup as it hits the pass.  The marks on this one have been very high.  Elevate sweet potato, butternut squash or the Sherried duck soup we've menued each fall.  It's a great hook to get foie on your menu.

And, in the spirit of the Italian trattoria, gloved waiters have presented fresh tagliatelle with walnuts, olio nuevo, Pecorino Romano, parsley and shaved-at-the-table foie gras from one of the "crayons".  There's no limit to what the guest may ask for as the foie fluffs  so when shredded, be generous.

As chefs, we want to get the most from every ingredient and we want to give as much as we can to each guests' experience.  We face a very tough dining economy and any advantage that we can achieve to set ourselves apart, to be more generous that the last guy, to give our guests just a bit more of a departure when they arrive in our dining rooms can make the difference between for-profit and non-profit status.  Add to that our beloved foie gras is on the ropes these days.  Don't forget that every time you serve foie, it's an opportunity to add to the legion of fans among the dining-voting populace.  

Friday, September 2, 2011

Reunions, Chance Encounters and New Old Friends

Wine reviews of what I drank last week.

2002 Cline Small Berry Vineyard Mourvedre – Contra Costa County, CA
Like a reunion with a high school sweetheart, this encounter with Cline’s single vineyard Mourvedre was nearly 10 years after the fates separated us and I was reminded how much I loved her then.  While rekindling the old flame I also noticed how this flower has blossomed! When I first tasted the 1998 Small Berry in 2000 for my wine list – its intense eucalyptus, menthol and underpinned luscious fruit was the suggested pair for lamb at Bistro 309.  I bought the 1998 with abandon and sold it just as quickly, but saved a ½ case and sprang the last bottle in 2005. That last bottle was intensely minty with green peppercorn flavors, but the rich primary fruit was gone – with air, is all but disappeared completely.   To my despair, in its youth the wine was amazing, but couldn’t last.
Fast forward to August 2011, Dr. Harvey Allen, a regular of Bistro 309 drops off a carefully cellared 2002 bottle of Small Berry Mourvedre – a gesture of appreciation for turning him onto this wine 11 years ago. With vivid palate memory for this wine I waited for some superior lamb from Border Springs Farm (Virginia) and smoked it on my Weber grill to give the Cline its due.
Dark purple, ink-like in the glass, with some visible sediment in the bottle.  The familiar eucalyptus and menthol is there on the nose.  Hurrah!  A rush of memories – subtle herbs and lavender – the bouquet is pure South of France in a bottle.  On the palate, you get a slosh of intensely bundled, sharp fruit that is a little confusing.  The wine is very integrated at this point, but a lot like a dark chocolate bar with dry cherries and chiles peppers.  There is so much going on all at once, that the wine can easily stand alone as a novelty.  The 14.5% alcohol is balanced well by the intensity of the fruit and a firm acidity that shows in the bittersweet chocolate tones.  The finish is very long and very intense.  A worthy pair for the smoked lamb, without a doubt. 
The label back on this bottle references the Small Berry Vineyard as a 9 acre tract.  Previous discussion with the winemaker tells me that not all 9 acres are bottled as single vineyard, so this bottling can be a rare find – often only available on-premise or from the winery.  Cline claims that the Small Berry Mourvedre does well to bottle age over 5-7 years, but I’m confident that it has as long plateau and my continue to develop out to 12 years.  The benefit I anticipate is that it will further integrate and become less jagged in the mid-palate.
Cline Small Berry Mourvedre – $33-42 upon release.   A near impossible find.  It helps to know a guy.

2006 d’Arenberg The Dead Arm Shiraz – McLaren Vale, AUS
The Dead Arm Shiraz is d’Arenberg’s money-shot.  Parker, Tanzer, Spectator, Enthusiast – they all love this wine.  What’s not to love about one of the most consistently delicious, deeply developed expressions of McLaren Vale Shiraz in the market.  There is so much wolfish fruit and meat to this wine, but it’s all wrapped in such silky sheep’s clothes, you might find yourself waiting for the hammer to hit.  But there’s no blunt impact – leave that for the Barossa Shiraz – this, IS McLaren Vale. 

The 2006 Dead Arm delivers an elegant, Royal purple juice with a no-apologies fistful of alcohol.  The nose is a cloud of smoky meat, earth, tack-shed and fruit, fruit, fruit.  On the palate a sinuous undulation of flavor carries you through the riot of blackberry jam, cherry, cinnamon, star anise and allspice woven together without a seam.  The finish is an experience by itself as it has its own evolution with peaks and plateau finishing finally with a silky sweet lingering kiss.  This d’Arenberg iteration is exotic and complex, distinctively feminine.  Truly ancient, starved vines on the edge of their lives turn out minimal, elegantly refined juice that is a must-drink.  Robert Parker says “this beautifully rendered Shiraz demands a decade of cellaring… superb from 2018 to 2036."  Of course Parker said that in 2008.  That’s great if you bought cases and expect to live that long.  Three years have passed and this elegant Cougar has been tamed.  Opening The Dead Arm a little early will not be punished – decant, drink and enjoy tonight if you want to make an ordinary barbecue EXTRAordinary; save it if you possibly can, but those sneers from your curtain-twitching neighbors are envy, not scorn.  
2006 d’Arenberg The Dead Arm Shiraz - $50-65 retail upon release.  Still available in some markets.

2009 Dominique Roger, Cuvee “La Jouline” Sancerre – Loire, FR
After a 4 week wait for my case to be shipped from WineAccess, I anxiously followed the FedEx shipping on line.  When I saw that the package had been delivered and signed for, I went looking for the box.  WineAccess, an on-line specialty wine shop, spends much thought and time on packaging their wines for delivery so that they arrive in top condition.  This case not only was way oversized and filled with injected foam, there were chemical cool-packs inside to assure that the temperature of the wine inside didn’t soar during shipping in August.  Upon opening the box, I shot a temperature reading with an infrared thermometer – 61 degrees, damn fine in my book.
I have been looking for 2009 Sancerres since a Loire tasting over a year ago.  I also had a chance to taste several 2006s at that tasting and some 2003s.  If 2009 was as good as the critics were saying, these wines would taste even better than the excellent and age-worthy examples that a sampled from a few years back. 
Dominique Rogers’ Cuvee La Jouline, has a brilliant fresh green hay color, it has sparkle in the glass.  A rich and earthy nose of wet rocks and smoke – it is hard to imagine the smoky nose of a Cotes Rotie in a white, but it’s there.  Crisply acidity with intense mineral notes and a piercing attack.  The palate is abundantly acidic and absent of cliché citrus tones – this after all is Old World Sauvignon Blanc, from an O.G. winemaker.  In the mouth, there are crab apples and under-ripe pear flavors up for grabs.  Allowing the wine to linger in the glass affords time for lemon curd to develop, but the strong underpinning of flinty minerals still evokes that smoke.  There is gravity and backbone here, a depth and width not often seen even in the Loire.  2009 was very kind to the Loire in general and Sancerre in particular and I look forward to watching these wines develop. This classic, “old skool” Sauvignon Blanc has horsepower enough for pork, strong greens, bacon and a variety of cheeses – we enjoyed this tremendously with a Frisee Lardon and a La Tur triple cream cheese.  This is a gem of a wine and a refreshingly delightful, expression of terroir and the grape.  Will benefit from a 1-3 years of holding.  For grins, I’m putting some away for a long stretch.
2009 Dominique Roger Sancerre, Loire, FR – $35-45 retail.  Small lots imported, worth tracking down. 

Monday, November 29, 2010


One must start somewhere and I am starting here - en media res.

My name is J.  I am a chef.  I have been cooking professionally for more than 22 years.  I accepted the title of chef in 1996.  I have a degree in English and Classical literature.  I have gathered stories throughout my career that are educational, sensational, depressing, elevating, disgusting, touching and damned unbelievable.  This is my first effort in Blogging.  I am writing this for professionals and civilians alike - for information and insight - and to assemble structure and sense to what has been happening in our industry and to me over the last 25+ years. 

I've had a few literary concepts going in mind for several years, maybe ten years - one of which is a coffee table book dedicated to "Velvet Elvis" paintings.  Two outlines for works relating to the culinary field rest comfortably in expandable files, safe in my desk.  A series of published articles, contribution to several books and the composition of course curriculum for many cooking classes precede the efforts before you.  FEEDING FRENZY - in many ways is a follow up and crystalizing of earlier work and the pre-publication test-bed for much more.  In the course of a twenty two year culinary career, I have benefitted from the knowledge of from gracious mentors, the generously shared absurdity of many, mountains of minutiae and a lot of "free comedy".   The field of culinary arts (more on that later) contains so much oral tradition and knowledge, one of my objectives here is to share that which is not written down and provide a window into something a little more real than TV's version of what we do every day.
Seemingly everyone has a blog about something and much of what I read is simply inane fantasy poop-spam-spoop-spap-pap.  So here is your Bill of Rights - the readers’ Bill of Rights.  Everything you will read here is non-fiction.  If I make assumptions about the minds of others, you will be informed.  Everything else, EVERYTHING, is verifiably true.  Occasionally, names may be changed to protect the guilty - but sources will be given whenever required or relavent.

An editor of mine ten years ago, told that my writing reads like I sound when I am speaking.  My editor, I take to mean, asserts that my writing includes parenthetical statements, serial sentences, dramatic pauses and convoluted sentences that are still grammatically sound.  I use the dramatic pause and the turnabout to bring you closer.  So, may I hope that you will follow along, scratch deeply below the surface, look closely and draw some blood with me. 

Game on.