Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Royal Show

This is a bit out of sequence, but while it is fresh in my mind....

We were told at the beginning of this trip that the only way we could get back to America would be by winning the USA v. Australia Burger Smackdown at the Royal Adelaide Show. To be honest, I didn't think of it too much during the trip while my brain was swimming in Shiraz and my stomach filled with Wagyu and Lamb. However, the day arrived, and the nerves settled in.

Kristina and I were scheduled to do a film spot, an instructional video of sorts for local meat ranchers which was produced by MLA, our sponsors for the trip. The set was created on the rooftop garden of our hotel, just us, the crew, our mis en plac, a grill, and a bone chilling wind. It was a tedious task to stop, start, fake cue in, use Australian lingo, and the sort. Best part about it was learning another way of how chefs must interact with media and what it takes to get your own chef message out to the general public.

We got a short break and were scurried off to the Royal Show with a few ingredients brought from home, our chef coats, and our American flag. Kristina was brilliant enough to bring things like chipotle, guajillo, and ancho chile. All items not readily available down under. We walked into the pavilion to a wide array of food booths sampling items such as German sausage, "Bush" flavored ice creams, and many preserved jams and jellies made with local product.

On stage, a competition was taking place amongst 8 or 9 Australian chefs on Weber grills for the best Australian burger. We watched a little from the corner and the host began the trash talking almost immediately. "I can feel the nerves that just walked into the room"..."Those Americans knees must be knocking from fear"..."How can they possibly challenge the greatness of these Australian chefs and their burgers"....I guess it is all in jest and I had a smile on my face, but internally I was blowing up with competitive fire. There was really no way that losing would have been okay for me.

We step on stage for our introductions and the Australian crowd is gentler than I thought. Our little cheering section was loud and boisterous as we had coaxed them to be prior to jumping on stage. We were outfitted with an awesome Weber grill with half cast iron grates and half cast iron sizzle plate, a few utensils, crappy knives, a lot of lettuce and herbs, and a few pantry ingredients. We were then instructed that we could run into the show and pick up 3 ingredients from the booths. We bolted and went straight for a spicy brandy wine sausage, wattleseed ice cream (this is a native seed that gives the essence of chocolate, coffee, and hazelnut - there must be a God, right?), and our home ingredient of chipotle.

Upon return we are given a mystery box and 20 minutes to get our burgers to plate! The energy in the room picks up, the judges are sequestered, the anxiety builds, and the confusion sets in. I don't know the rules, I don't know where pots are, our grill is not hot, and I have not located the sugar, salt, or pepper. The countdown begins.

3, 2, 1....we open the mystery box. Kristina frantically pulls out ingredient after ingredient. We are expecting about 3 or 4 items in the box, but there about 20. Things like lamb, preserved lemon, avocado, pickled jalapeno, bottled bbq sauce, sandwich baggies, canned beets. I was like, what??? Kristina and I had a plan. We were going to represent our Los Angeles flavors and show a little ambition by serving our burger with a milkshake.

We pull lamb, piri piri sauce, avocado, Greek yogurt, red wine vinegar, and canned pineapples. We quickly review our dish, delegate duties and we are off and running. I decide to make a chipotle glaze and pickle our onions, but I don't have sugar. I waste a few minutes scrambling for sugar and the host drops off crystallized honey. I spend another 5 minutes trying to get this out of the bottle, impossible, so I go to the butcher board and cut the bottle in half and start dumping honey into my pots. This was a brief moment of relief until I notice that our grill is not fully lit. Only the outside flames were on, not the interior. There was no turning back so I prayed to the Culinary Gods to watch over us.

Kristina forged through and made a beautifully rich avocado crema with fresh lemon juice and the Greek yogurt. Meanwhile, we bowled up our Wattleseed ice cream and placed it next to the grill to melt. I wondered aloud before the contest how we could make the shake with no blending apparatus, but Rick Gresh, the Executive Chef of Primehouse in Chicago who is traveling in our group suggested to let it melt and whip like crazy. So we did just that. Nice assist Rick!

Meanwhile, I have reductions and pickling liquids working so I get the burgers seasoned with salt, pepper, shallot, thyme, and piri piri sauce. I form those bad boys and throw them on the grill. I don't hear a sizzle and my heart sinks. The US and Kristina are depending on me to get this lamb cooked and our freaking grill is not hot! I had to move on and deal with it. We are down to less than 5 minutes.

The 20 minutes fly by and we go to plate with less than a minute to go. Toasted bun, crema

We watch the judge's scrupulously eat and taste each burger. "What are they thinking", I ask myself. I can't handle the anxiety so I ask Nicole to run and get me a beer. So there we are, watching judges eat our burgers and Kristina and I are on stage chugging beer.

"And the winner is, with a score of 80.5"......."TEAM USA!!!!"

Yes, we did it. We shake hands, pose for pictures draped in the US Flag and enjoy another beer before being rushed off to another stage to demo our lamb burgers on the national ABC radio show.

Busy day indeed.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Fish Market, Victor Churchill's, Pony, Becasse

Fish Market, Butcher, and More

Adjusting to the new time has been a challenge, but our schedule is so busy you don’t have time to think of it. We were set to meet at 6:15am for our day at the Sydney Fish Market. Lattes and the smells accompanied by obscene amounts of fish is probably not the most complimentary of each other, but my excitement to see what Australia has swimming in their oceans trumped any other feelings I had. To think what a continent, a country, floating as an island would have as seafood possibilities.

We enter the back corridor of the fish mart standing atop a stadium seating of sort overlooking a wild chorus of Asian men yelling and barking numbers, pressing buttons as they take part in the Dutch auction. Their goal to buy all the freshest fish and shellfish that littered the hangar’s floor. The Dutch auction took a bit to understand, but in a sentence or two, a market price is set and the prices drop rather than rise and each auctioneer attempts to buy their fish at a low price, but not so low where they will lose out to their counterpart. And if you pay to high for the fish, you are definitely going to hear it as this group is not afraid to start a ruckus when they don’t approve.

Sydney’s fish market is home to the second most diverse selection of seafood. We saw purple crabs, bugs, flat head mullet, barramundi, mirror dory, manta ray wings, conch, cuttlefish, carp, bonito, ana cod, mud crabs, crayfish, kingfish, and many others. To top off the morning we would have a seafood breakfast. I thought of nothing better, but to have a dozen freshly shucked oysters creamy, briny and tasting of the ocean with a simple garnish of shaved Thai bird chili and a squeeze of fresh lemon.

Off to Victor Churchill’s which has to be the world’s most premium high end butcher shop. Located in the suburbs this butcher shop was no Marconda’s. It is more like a jewelry store and Tiffany’s of sorts, but in the display cases are aged beef, marble score 9 Wagyu beef, kurobuta pork prosciutto, duck confit, and pate de campagne. Marble floors, vintage hand cranked meat slicers and an illuminated Himalayan salt wall provide the decor, but the real show lies behind the plexiglass refrigerated rooms. Two butchers working behind wood cutting board cylinders while wearing impeccably clean white butcher coats surrounded a aging hind quarters of beef, pork, and lamb circling the room on a heavy track similar in fashion how your dry cleaner searches a network of hangers to find your pressed clothing.

I can not speak highly enough of the level craftsmanship, care, and detail taken at Victor Churchill’s. Every cut of meat sliced accurately, every pate emulsified and not oxidized in any way, every stock viscous in a harmonious balance of meat, fat, liquid, and gelatin, every truffle displayed in glory. Churchill’s opened my eyes to the importance of understanding my craft and the importance of what it means to be fundamentally sound as a chef. Not one display was neglected and every customer was attended to at a level of service that we can all take a lesson from. Victor Churchill’s has a high end niche market, but if your goal is do something at the absolute highest level, then Victor Churchill’s symbolizes what that success might look like for a butcher.

In the next four hours we are set to have two formal meals. An industry networking luncheon being held at the Pony at the Rocks, the oldest settlement of Australia, an Old Town of sorts. Here we would be catered to by celebrity chef Damien, a young chef, tall and lanky, confident and a deft hand when it comes to working with off cuts of meat. We sat at a 40 foot long communal wood table on their outdoor terrace, surrounded by Australian colleagues, chefs, restauranteurs, recruiters, sommeliers, and more industry folk. The restaurant was rustic in nature and anchored by a large open kitchen and an imported Argentinean style grill. We ate sirloin carpaccio in soy and chili sauce, beefy in flavor and balanced by aged soy and the slightest hint of burn from shaved thai bird chili; asparagus with ricotta salata and salsa verde, first of season asparagus, bright and green, accented with the salted sheep’s milk ricotta and rounded out with a blend of fresh herbs and the zest of lemon; smoked eggplant puree; twice cooked short ribs braised lovingly and then finished on the wood fire grill getting the best of both worlds - the succulence of fat dripping down the mahogany drapes of beef and all topped off with a gluttons true favorite, bone marrow and parsley salad, and finally, wood fired flank steak grilled over Iron Bark, both smokey and sweet. This food was approachable, executed well, but what I liked best was the vision it imprinted on me. Finally, the image I have always had in my head for the restaurant “look” I would want for myself materialized in front of me. Brick columns, chopped wood layered in triangular cubbies, and a black and white cowhide back drop centralizing the guest’s focus on the kitchen crew’s reality of serving 40 people at once.

Following lunch Nicole and I took a long stroll across the Sydney Harbor Bridge. It was a great way to walk off our big lunch as well as get another stunning view of that Opera House, yet this time from over the water. It is like from every angle, that structure takes on a whole new look and a whole new amazement that someone was able to think about the idea and someone was able to make it happen, proving that anything is possible.

It is only day 2, but dinner at Becasse would prove to be mind numbing. The attention to detail, the level of execution, and the thoughtfulness behind why ingredients were used rose this dinner into the upper echelon of dining. The dining room was simple, spacious and a bit elegant allowing the true star to shine, the food.

The accuracy of the first course got the inspiring juices bubbling. A pillowy cauliflower puree topped with tender scallops kissed with a hint of smoke, miso confit of blue eye, supple cuttlefish, and garnished with toasted buckwheat for crunch and a splash of olive oil. This indeed would be a preview of the greatness that would follow.

I would like to call our next course my favorite, but it would be impossible because of the pre dessert course we would  be having. However, a salad of heirloom vegetables with Riverina lamb would be a close second. Seems like Becasse understands the nuances of making puree balancing the flavor of vegetable with the blending medium and incorporating enough air to consistently produce these pillowy textures. This time it was a puree of beets and carrots juxtaposed by their synonymous roots. The vegetables were not the celebrity of the dish, but could’ve been. The real star, the lamb fillet, cooked sous vide and finished on the grill with a rosy pink throughout the flesh and tenderly soft capped with a sugar snap mousse, olive tapenade and a crispy cigarette of braised, breaded and fried lamb’s neck.

Wagyu had to be on the menu and chef Justin North is an expert in this area. He is known around town as the fine dining chef that popularized the Wagyu burger. He sat at the table with us and explained the muscular structure of the animal and gave specific detail into how he makes his burger utilizing the whole carcass spread across his three restaurant and using every last bit of the animal. He even passed on a few chef secrets as to why he believes his burger is great that I am going to reserve for myself having traveled 15 hours to get trade secrets just like that!

Wagyu cookery takes a deft hand. The chef has to balance the meats own inherent richness with the other items on the plate. Chef Justin hit a home-run here. He takes a forgotten cut on fine dining menus in the States, the sirloin or rump, and applies refined technique to its preparation. Being 100% Wagyu, this cut is filled with internal marbling and, just like it’s Angus cousin, it is naturally filled with amazing beef flavor. He cooks it sous vide to ensure tenderness and finishes it in the skillet with brown butter, garlic, and herbs. Chef was not done. He wanted to show us how great the “secondary” cuts or “Masterpieces” can be. How about a brisket, cooked sous vide for 36 hours hours. Tender, juicy, and dripping beef, a balance of meet and fat that gives you enough to chew without much effort. Eating beef with a spoon at this moment I could appreciate. The crispy bacon and smoked potato puree were additional gifts offered by the Chef.

Onto the famed dessert, or pre-dessert I should say. A milky cardamom laced panna cotta topped with a beet root mousse, beet root ganache and a blood orange granita. What a play on texture from smooth and supple to crunchy and cool and the way the beet and blood orange played off of each other from earthy to sweet to sour and savory. It was a bit of a symphony for a me and heavenly to say the least. Odd for me to enjoy something so delicate and almost feminine, but it was truly eye opening.

Lastly, having saved just enough room we were given the signature 70% Bolivian chocolate and caramel “cadeau”. A simple presentation of a sphere encased in shimmering chocolate paired with an equally simple quenelle of buttermilk sorbet. Upon first look, it appeared that we would have to crack through the chocolate shell, but it was tempered so well that the chocolate was a mere cloak for the rich caramel ball that lied within it. The dish was extremely rich, but if eaten with the perfectly paired milk sorbet the dessert could be enjoyed without a sip of coffee or water...just my style because I didn’t have to stop eating.



“Are you ready for the long flight” is all I heard amongst the “have an amazing time” and “takes lots of pictures” leading up to our big trip to Australia for winning the Australian Lamb Burger Recipe Contest. Yes, fifteen hours is quite some time to be cooped up in a fuselage, encased with the some of the worlds strongest metals, but this was different. This TransPacific flight was done in the comfort of a Qantas Airbus A380, a mammoth with wings, a den of comfort and entertainment all squared away in an area of 10 cubic feet of economy class. If Nicole and I were this comfortable, I could only imagine how well off our travel mates in Premium Economy were: Kristina Vanni, my fellow recipe winner, Chandra Ram, editor of Plate Magazine, Stephen Edwards, Chef from Meat & Livestock Australia, and Rick Gresh, Executive Chef of David Burke’s Primehouse in Chicago.

Fifteen hours passed like five, so we were all ready off to a great start. It was adjusting to the time difference that presented itself as a challenge. We left at 10:30pm Saturday night and arrived in Sydney at 6:30am on Monday, so you can only imagine how screwed up one, such as me, that keeps a tight schedule would be a little out there. Nonetheless, we were here for business and we would have a full agenda presented in front of us.

We checked in at the Amora Hotel located centrally in downtown Sydney just a short walk from the Rocks, the pioneering village just west of the Harbor Bridge and, of course, the breath taking architecture of the Sydney Opera House.

At about 3pm we met up with more MLA staff, Elissa and Mel, who would serve as our “tour guides, concierge, and babysitters”. Australians are a pleasant lot, highly sociable, friendly, and generally just a good people to be around.

We took a short walk through the city trying to remember to look the opposite direction when crossing the street. That whole thing of cars driving on the wrong side can lead a naive American into trouble if you are not careful. “Look both ways before crossing the street” takes a whole new meaning down under.

We wander off to an old bank that has recently went through a 36 million dollar reservation, home of the Rockwood Bar and Grill and the Spice Temple, two restaurants in partnership with celebrity chef Neil Perry, I’m guessing the Thomas Keller of Australia.

As we enter we are greeted by a kind waitstaff and scurried downstairs behind a LCD screen door blasting rays of color up and down the screen giving the entrance a psychedelic vibe. As we traverse the spiral staircase and drop into the Chinese den, dark, sexy loungy room, we are introduced to Executive Chef Andy Evans. He is another kind Australian, red hair, freckled and eyes wide and attentive like his focus from his work never leaves his mind.

The kitchen is quiet, but ironically full and busy with about 8 cooks working on an island station prepping things like salt prawns, various vegetables, and sous vide brisket. They have a live clam and lobster tank in the kitchen and no vent hood. That’s right, no vent hood, as the kitchen is entirely comprised of Electrolux electronic and magnetic induction cooking equipment. The chef states that the equipment is so accurate that they can control and maintain the temperature of their cooking equipment to the tenth degree. Impressive to say the least and not to mention not hot!

We visit the basement meat lockers to view the inventory, the money maker of the restaurant upstairs the Rockwood Bar and Grill. These two establishments share the purchase of beef by purchasing whole Wagyu cattle carcass...Rockwood using the primal cuts and Spice Temple using the secondary cuts. You will notice that this is consistent amongst Australian chefs, to buy the whole carcass, break it down and design their menus from nose to tail utilizing every bit of the animal.....Inspiring! Rows and rows of dry aging beef on racks, hind quarters hanging by hooks piercing through tendon and extraneous fat. There is a musty, cheesy smell throughout this meat locker. The beef is shrinking, its drying, its aging, but its developing dynamic flavor and a tenderness that can not be achieved otherwise.

We go on and on touring this restaurant "complex" of sorts seeing the layers of detail and thoughtful planning that was considered to design such a monstrosity of an investment. We pass by the banquet room and then the production kitchen that is buzzing with baby face commis scurrying away prepping tray after tray of lasagna bolognese, crab cakes, sous vide brussels sprouts, fresh pizza dough, amongst other things.

We finish the tour in their bar and our told of the owner's personal four million dollar wine collection and then are engulfed by thousands of riedel crystal wine glasses that make up the chandelier. You talk about excessive and unique, imagine glass after glass matchsticked upon each other stretching over the bar about 30 feet long and 10 feet high, polarizing light on our amazed faces.

We head back to our room briefly to freshen up and get ready for our pre-dinner drinks at the Opera House. It is a beautiful scene, we've seen it all before on television on New Years or during the Olympics, but seeing it in person gave me another feel. I had an electrifying sensation pulsating my veins that provided a sense of place for me...that travel opens eyes and hearts, that I've earned my way to Australia somehow, someway and that the inspiration that I am always seeking would finally be discovered in the next few weeks.

Drinks on a harbor framed by the stacked conch like shells that make up the Opera House cover, blue sea water and a steel framed arc that symbolizes the vitality of Sydney. We sat sharing Cooper’s beer awaiting our first meal in Australia.

Spice Temple is Neil Perry’s representation of modern Chinese food. We sat in our private dining room with the regular group along with 8 others from MLA who sponsored this trip. Being the special guests, the foodies, and the chefs we were guaranteed a barrage of courses and plenty of wine. To give you an idea, think pickled cabbage and cucumber, stir fry minced pork and eggplant, cumin lamb with fennel in freshly steamed buns, brisket with fermented black bean and house made oyster sauce, blue eye fish with ginger broth, and the grand finale, poached flat head mullet with toasted chili. Sounds fairly tame, but this dish was wild and feral with a toasted burn from three chiles and Sichuan peppercorns. To the eye, the bowl appeared to be filled with shimmering chiles slicked with oil, but as the server fished the chiles from the bowl, a delicate fish and onions lay serenely in a pool of infused soy and an oddly mild broth. The burn was more toasty than fiery...I guess looks can be deceiving.

This was not Chinese food that I have ever had, but that is not what was unique to me. It was the sauces and the balance of flavor that was most memorable. There was not once, cloying sweet sauce, or an overly salty soy bit of meat, or a gloopy sauce thickened with cornstarch. This was like taking years of training in haute cuisine, using refined technique and understanding of ingredients and applying it to the greatness and soulfulness that comes from Chinese peasant recipes.

This was a good start.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Not a Good Start

Not a good start to the Australian trip...came down with some sort of stomach virus and a chronic tension headache, but hopefully I can recover for the 15 hour flight and get my appetite back for this culinary tour.

Looking forward to making new friends and enjoying a vacation.

I haven't posted, basically since the Europe trip in 2007, but I will pick up where I left off with stories of unique meals, the comedies of fumbled transportation, and the development of new relationships.

Nicole and I are off!

See you in 2 weeks.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

I'm Back....

After over a 2 year hiatus, I am back. The Chef has changed in many ways since my last entry and the person has too. Over the course of the next few months, I will be back tracking in my process of finding a new home, developing a restaurant staff, redifining culture in a kitchen, and show how the inspirations of a culinary journey apply to a real life daily routine.

My name is Anthony, I was once a young chef, eager and salivating for every ounce of knowledge I could gather. It is not that this thirst has been quenched, but rather, that same desire and passion has transformed...or matured one could say. I once had a need to get myself so pumped up, intense, and so focused that I could not have anyone speak to me 15 minutes prior to service; I would go into the bathroom, soak my face and drench my hair, slick it back, look in that mirror and tell myself that I was going to kick ass on the line tonight. This is what I needed, this is what gave me the internal combustion to push myself through the last hour of service, through the 100th dish that night, to listen to my sous chef asking me if I had quit in me....Fuck NO! No one was going to make me quit, no one would determine my path on my culinary focus would be the only thing that determined my reality. I would succeed that night, I would succeed that year, I would become a chef, I would have integrity, I would make people fall in love with my food....I knew I could, I knew I turned out, it was a bit more difficult that it seemed. You see, cooking is not what you see on tv. It is not glamorous...I love food, but do I love cooking 42 steaks in 2 hours at all different temperatures? Not I love pleasing my guests, yes...but do I curse that motherfucker who asks for medium rare and actually wants it well done. You better believe it. But in this wierd kind of way, the roller coaster, the love/hate, the sweet and bitter is what makes a chef's job so damn fun. I can cook in my kitchen curse the hell out of you for not knowing shit about food, serve you a dish I created and I am in love with, send it out to you, you fall in love with it, and I come out to see you having just cursed you a mere 30 minutes ago and you end up telling me how great I am....Now, maybe it's just me, but that's what I call fun!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Santorini Island

The plane zipped down descending upon an endless blue sea dotted with ceremonious cruise ships approaching a series of black beaches and island life. Yes, Santorini awaited us. No agenda’s to be had, no sights to see and really nothing to do except for break out the bathing suits, the flip flops, and a few Euros to buy some beer. It seems fitting that we left the island life for our last few days of the trip. Oddly as it sounds, vacation can get tiring in an excessive way. You know, figuring out where to eat, figuring out how to get to the next amazing sight and figuring out how much money we have left. We stuck to a strict budget and have had to keep a close eye on it the last few days. Santorini would not fail us. We found greatness in humble offerings and excellent value in our time spent lying on the beach watching the waves crash and letting the scorching volcanic sand tango with our toes.

We would stay at the Santorini Palace Hotel which sounds a lot fancier than it actually it is. The best part about our room was the great balcony looking over the Caldera Sea and the paintings decorating the space as well. I had a great plan that would be legendary of sorts, but was unfortunately quelled by my better half. I was planning to heist one of the canvases, but I lacked the proper tools to do so. I thought it would be a great story to tell of this particular painting of the traditional Grecian seascape. On the other hand, the room had its negative aspects. For instance, the unforgiving bed that wound my back like a spring coil and its equally uncomfortable pillows that felt like a sack of soggy cardboard, or how I thought the sun rose in the east when it actually rose inside our room evidenced by the godly illumination inside our room at 5:30 in the morning, or the questionable capacity of our toilet. I am not accustomed to this part at all and don’t ever look forward to having to do this again. If you are not sure what I’m talking about, I mean after going “bad” bathroom you have to put the dirty toilet paper in the little waste basket next to the toilet for housekeeping to judge and for my wife to smell. This was new for me and made me thankful for efficient plumbing. All in all, these little hiccups would not hold us back from enjoying the greatness this island has to offer.

We have used planes, trains, cars, buses, bikes, boats, and our legs on this trip. We had one more mode of transportation to conquer – the scooter. We got a sweet 80cc fluorescent yellow Peugeot big enough for two and a silver and red helmet that were too big for both our heads. We head our quickly to the west side of the island in order to see one of the best sunsets in the world. We buzzed up and down the peaks and valleys and unknowingly arrived at our destination. We found a spot along a white fence standing along a rocky cliff as we made our space amongst a crowd of about 20 watching nature at its best. Embraced, we watched the burnt orange sun plummet beneath the rocks changing the sky color to glorious reds and purples. A few pictures and one more hug and we were off to dinner to a remote seaport village down some rocks weaving around tiny waves. We were greeted by the joyous Greek contingent serving fresh seafood by the kilo moving us to order our favorite catch of the day. Normally this would be a great experience for me, but I couldn’t get over the fact that we had very little gas left in the scooter, nightfall was a ½ hour ago, the temperature was dropping and that we were in the middle of nowhere. Nicole tried to make me feel better, but she couldn’t. The beer didn’t help, neither the grilled octopus, nor the whole fish that was perfectly grilled and served to me head on and bone in. It was sweet, it was extraordinarily fresh and it was full of flavor.

The gas thing was weighing in on me pretty hard as I bounced possible solutions off of Nicole. We agreed to get a taxi to bring us back, but I suspected that we had just enough gas to get to the nearest gas station and if this gamble did not pay off we would be screwed. After prying the wait staff for information about the local gas station they decided to get involved. A few giggles and hand signals later, one of the kitchen staff appears out of the back room with an empty water bottle and what looked like a siphon. Here is that hospitality thing kicking in again. They were laughing because this guy was going to siphon gas out of his buddy’s car in order to give us just enough to make it home that night. Nicole and I were so happy and so excited that this stress escaped us. We thanked God and we thanked these guys endlessly. I could finally enjoy this great restaurant, the baklava, and the ouzo. We left there with a great photo of that memorable and helpful crew.

There were many great things about Santorini - the locals, the beaches, and the food. I don’t think we had one bad meal there and helping in that feat would be our good friend Edy at Mythos Café. We visited him 4 times in our short stay there trying various items of his menu while taking pleasure in his outlook on American life, Greek life, drinking, kids and food. At Mythos we enjoyed ham and cheese crepes and omelet’s, strawberry cream and nutella banana crepes, Greek salads, pork, chicken and lamb gyros, frappes, fresh juices, spanokopita, tiropita, and plenty of gin and tonics and martini-sprites.

The beach offered some great eats as well. We had briny lamb and rice dolmades, crispy breaded and perfectly seasoned keftedes, and a rich and creamy eggplant salad dip laden with fruity olive oil while taking in the topless sun bathers, the shameless Speedo wearers and the sea swaying just a few feet away.

Even our last night, which is always so crucial for us to pick a great place, was outstanding. We went to a small taverna where the host practically begged us to come in helping us take our helmets off and park our scooter. The setting was laid back, but the food was serious. Someone’s yaiya (grandma) really taught these guys to cook because the food had some real soul. The saganaki (fried cheese) was thinly battered and deep fried arriving to us light and crispy with a molten filling. A light squeeze of lemon juice and I was reaching an orgasmic state. Nicole’s mousaka was served in a rustic clay pot filled with creamed potatoes, rich béchamel sauce, ground beef and roasted eggplant. There was just enough nutmeg to give this dish enough dynamics to make it memorable. My dish was simple, but it was something I was searching for my entire time in Greece. After eating out almost every day and night for the last month or so, we desire certain things like Mexican food and Sushi…no, seriously, a home cooked meal…something Mom or Grandma would cook and that is exactly what I got. My lovingly braised lamb, meat melting off the shoulder bone, dripping into the tomato orzo providing the perfect foil for the rich and gamey flavor of this humble cut of meat. It takes time and effort to braise properly and this chef not only infused aromatics and seasonings, but also his heart…and I was reaping all the benefits of his passion.

Well, one more day left. Nicole and I head back to Athens for a night’s stay just to pack, have one more walk in the Plaka, and have one more Greek salad and one more gyro. We will talk about our favorite moments, our trying moments and our funniest moments. We will be sad to end this life that we adapted to so easily, but at the same time we look forward to our upcoming challenges and of course visiting our very much missed family and friends. I think we’ve changed a little, not only in girth, but in our outlook.

I thank all those that read the blog and came along with us on our trip. I hope it was enjoyable for you all to read and I can’t wait to see you all. The donkey (Nicole’s nickname for me as she sympathized for me carrying around the entire luggage for the last month) is retiring until at least next year. We’ll see most of you in less than a day.

I will most likely do an exit blog so look out for that one.

See you all soon!!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Athens and the Food of Greece

Our last leg of our trip is upon us and it is sad to see it coming to a close. We went at this trip with everything we had, putting a lot on the line. Nicole found a way to step away from work for a month and is unfortunately faced with the fact that her computer broke down within the first day of our travels. Who knows what her work has in store for her when she returns. And me, I had a secure job and built myself a home at the Getty and I decided to let that all go in order to pursue this goal that Nicole and I shared for the last 2 years. You ask if there are regrets. I only have one answer….not one. This trip has not only taught us about culture, history and cuisine, but also about us, our relationship, our goals and our desires. This trip carries a price tag, but in my mind and in my heart it has been priceless.

Athens and the island of Santorini may be our last stop, but it is definitely not the end of our experience, our eating and our fun. Nicole and I have been looking forward to this part of the trip for some time now. The excitement of our arrival fills our minds as we patiently wait for our plane departure and share our last plate of Iberico Jamon. The thinly sliced cured ham, salty and buttery with a nutty background takes front stage to the toasted baguette dunked with olive oil and manchego cheese. This would be our only food until our arrival in Athens 8 hours later so we ate big.

I sensed landing in Athens was a small victory for Nicole. Her eyes lit up and her big beautiful smile became a permanent fixture on her face when the airplane’s tires touch downed. We practiced Greek phrases all the way from Rome as Nicole would be the lead communicator on this leg of the trip.

Our arrival at the Grand Bretagne Hotel in downtown Athens was inspiring. That is, it inspired me to work my butt off to get this rich. Nicole and I were definitely out of place in this hotel (aahh, the beauty of Amex award points), but as my good buddy Pete said “Just pretend you’re in the entertainment business” so we did as we sucked down champagne in our VIP reception and followed our “butler” to our suite. Crazy huh?!

We got to business opening our automatic curtains, eating fruit from the basket the hotel provided and munched on the various chocolate truffles. This was definitely high style and one in which we were afraid of getting used to.

We received a phone call from Nadia. She is the cousin of Nicole’s best friend Kathreen and she would kind of play host to us while we were in Greece. We met with her very close by at the Benaki Museum which displayed Greek and Roman antiquities. Sound familiar? They happened to be serving dinner that night from their balcony with a view of the lit up Acropolis. That’s right, 2500 years of history as our back drop for our buffet style dinner.
We were greeted by astounding Greek hospitality by Nadia and her boyfriend Vangilles (I don’t know how to spell that name, but apparently it is popular over here). Hospitality in Greece is something to be documented. It seems that almost everyone wants to go out of their way to comfort us, give us something or offer help and this is not solely from Nadia and her friends. This is from strangers as well. A funny story, we were underground finding our way on the metro and we must have looked lost, but we weren’t. A young man randomly approached us and in his best English asked if he could help us find our way. In typical defensive Los Angeles fashion we sternly answered “No” and wondered to ourselves what he wanted from us. Man we felt like idiots after that encounter.

Back to dinner. Things started slowly as Nicole’s Greek was getting warmed up and the same could be said for our Greek hosts and their English. They both spoke perfect English, but when not in practice one begins to question their command of a foreign language. Vangilles even wondered if he spoke English like a Russian – hilarious joke by the way!
Nadia put me on the spot a little and told the caterer, who happened to be her uncle, that I was a chef so the back story of all our great conversation was if I enjoyed all the food. Luckily I was hungry, but in all seriousness the food was great. We had a crunchy beet salad tossed with balsamic vinegar, Nicole’s favorite, Greek Salad and a stringy zucchini salad toss with fresh herbs and sautéed prawns. Greek salad is a little different here and it is much better. The main difference being the lettuce. Here the peasant version of Greek Salad is huge chunks of sweet tomatoes, sliced red onion, green pepper, kalamata olives, a slab of moist and salty Feta cheese and an agreeable Greek olive oil. I would call this harmonious and a dish that we would eat with lunch and dinner for the rest of our stay in Greece. The second courses were small red peppers stuffed with braised chicken and finished with a spiced Hollandaise sauce, tender roasted lamb leg and tiny nickel sized dolmades (grape leaves stuffed with lamb and rice) with thick and creamy Greek yogurt. What an excellent start to an all ready exciting part of our travels. The food was great, the view was great, but most of all the company was great. Nadia and Nicole caught up on old times and some current gossip while Vangilles and I found a bond that all men are able to find no matter the language barrier: sports, stupid jokes and hot actresses.

Athens is more than the capital of Greece. It is a metropolis, a city on top of a city. Houses and apartments are stacked next to each other, behind each other and on top of each other from the city center to the ocean and up the rising mountains. It is so concentrated you would think that this was the only part of the country to house all its inhabitants. In a way it is. There is a small unemployment problem in Greece and to work you have to be in Athens so that is why there is so much concentration in one area. But please, don’t get me wrong here. The congestion does not take away from the sheer excitement and life that this city contains. This place moves, but with a village flair and is filled with commercial offerings rivaling the best that L.A. has to offer. This is a big city with big city aspirations, but I think the people of Athens are still grounded and hospitable to remember their roots and their predecessors. Evidence lies in things like the Acropolis, Zeus’ temple and the hospitality that was mentioned before.

The next few days would be an all out onslaught of history, Greek cuisine and culture. We spent our first day visiting the archaeological sites of the Parthenon, Zeus’ temple and other parts of the Acropolis. This was definitely an all day affair and quite the workout on this hot day climbing to the highest point in Athens. Luckily, Nadia was an art history major and had actually been on a few archaeological digs herself. This was the way to take a tour of a major part of not only Greek history, but civilization’s history. She walked us through each monument of beautifully preserved marble pillars and statues and explained each one’s significance to the entire site. I have absolute admiration and respect for the buildings in my presence. Each felled column or standing arch represented ingenuity, drive, passion and ambition of the people of that time and all those that would follow.

There are few things that I’ve learned on these travels. One is that I can actually identify quite a bit when it comes to food and to reading menus, but the other is how much I actually don’t know. It seems that when we read and we travel we are supposed to know more, but honestly, I keep learning how little I do know. Arguably, this is one of my favorite parts of the trip even over all the food. The rich histories that surround each country dictate how a country ends up developing to our current state. To learn how many times Greece has had to defend its state, to learn about Spain’s dictatorship, to learn that French was at one time the international language and all the other large and little things about European history. It has truly been inspiring.
My appetite grew to immense amounts after this tour. You had to know what was on my culinary agenda – gyros! We walked through the Plaka, or town center, and found a small little café called Petros that happened to be Nadia’s favorite. The lamb was marinated with a thick garlic marinade and was stacked on top of each other until it formed a 3 foot high stack of lamb that was slowly roasted on a vertical rotisserie. They shaved the meat placed it in a crisp toasty pita and finished with red onion, French fries, and the creamy garlicky cucumber yogurt sauce tzatziki. They say this is not healthy fare, but I tell you what, for 1.75 Euro this fast food will blow away any Mickey D’s or Carl’s Jr. back home.

The next few days would be filled with dolmades, feta cheese, tiropita (baked cheese in filo), spanokopita, melitzanosalata (roasted eggplant with yogurt, garlic, onion and olive oil), Greek salad, gyros, souvlaki (basically kebabs), grilled vegetables, fried calarmi, taromasalata, lukaniko with lemon (grilled country sausages), and frappes. And we were fortunate enough to be invited to a dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Pappas, members of our church, who treated us to Taverna food with keftades (meatballs), souzoukikia (meatballs braised in tomato with cumin), and braised rooster with orzo.

The food has been outstanding, the company amazing and I still can’t get over how kind and gentle the general population has been. We have shopped and have been greeted with almost perfect English everywhere we’ve been. Although, the biggest surprise has been Nicole’s Greek. I didn’t even know she understood how much she does and the locals really appreciate when she speaks Greek to them. She is still a little shy with it, but with a 1 month stay in Greece I bet Nicole would be half way fluent.

I will have to get to our walk through the bar district on a Friday night at a later time. I need to get back to enjoying the island life of Santorini.

Until later…..

Gaudi and the last day in Barcelona

Our last day in Barcelona was well spent walking through the many mazes the streets have to offer. I am sure if I was at home this scenario would have really gotten under my skin, but here, in the wake of our travels, life has changed a bit for Nicole and I. The stress level is down, I am sleeping a full night’s sleep and not even once have I prepared a task list for myself for the following day. I guess this is what vacation is supposed to be about. The occasional mishap with the day’s travel plans and even over paying for little things still beats that daily grind that we all sign up for and try to enjoy. That being said, I have to be honest here…I miss the work I do. I am enjoying myself thoroughly and have adapted to this lifestyle of travel seamlessly, but I truly miss my craft and cannot wait to get back behind the fiery coals of kitchen life.

Nicole sipped on her mango zumo as we headed to the Gaudi Cathedral. This is an unfinished piece of work that he spent the last 43 years of his life working on. Spanish officials estimate that the project will not be finished until the middle of the 21st century, but when it is done, it will be the largest cathedral in the world. We took various pictures from a multitude of angles, but after reviewing these up close and personal photos, not one displays the detail and the life that was spilled into this work.

We enter from the back of the cathedral greeted by life size engravings in the entrance’s concrete of gospel stories. For example, Jesus chained to a post as he is getting whipped and Simon helping Jesus by carrying the cross. On the surface, this outdoor entrance tells a story, but the reality lies in the facial expression of each engraved figure. It is so real, the emotion, the eyes….all this in concrete and there we are asking ourselves if those are real tears dripping from those faces.

Upon entering the cathedral we are greeted by an all out assault of construction. Scaffolding consumes the interior as we are neatly escorted beyond the hard-hatted workers and into a foyer that tells a little history behind the project. I can’t help but noticing a beautifully spiraled staircase leading into the attics of the church. These stairs poured out of the ceiling like water flows down the smooth rocks of a small Asian bamboo garden. These graceful stairs were more viscous than solid making them one of the most memorable pieces of construction that I have ever seen.

We backed ourselves to the main entrance and were again awe stricken. This is the part that if you are ever in Barcelona do yourself a favor and see this in person. It is no wonder that this great architect died working on this project. The amount of detail in his design is gigantic. We are talking a whole different level of work here. Sparrows, blooming flower varietals, jewels, and other small displays all engraved into this church front. It was absolutely breath taking. Up close the detailed work is life like and I can only imagine the amount of artists it took to get as much as they all ready did. I feel like they would have had to employ the entire city’s artist community and more. The cool part, from far away, all this detailed work protruding from the foundation wall causes the entrance to appear that it is drooping. Almost like something you would see in a Tim Burton creation. Truly special.

We wanted to make our last dinner in Spain a casual one so we set out to a small café in the Gothic center. We were sat outdoors surrounded by brick road and brick buildings with concrete gargoyles staring down at us. We had a court jester of sorts tossing fire sticks behind us in search of a Euro or two and a good musician soothing us with his saxophone.
Salad was on the agenda for me. It arrived with a mix of vegetables like carrots and haricot vert, some crisp romaine, tomatoes and grilled corn. This is just what I wanted on this warm evening and finally I got a salad that was tossed with some sort of vinaigrette rather than the standard drizzle of olive oil. Nicole had a beautiful eggplant terrine that was enhanced with sweet red pepper custard and all topped with an enormous chunk of goat cheese and drizzled with concentrated aged sherry vinegar. The cheese was unnecessary, but regardless, we considered the dish a success.

Nicole was filled at this point because of her large appetizer portion, but went for a few bites of her shellfish risotto anyway. She fished out the seared cuttlefish, prawns and mussels and took a few spoons of her perfectly cooked rice swimming in a lusciously reduced fish stock. I had taken a chance and had the Catalan sausage. This type of sausage ranges from house to house and my version was made of pork trimmings, pork fat, paprika, garlic and blood. At first I was a bit afraid, but I must tell you this was quite delicious. The spices and the pork meld beautifully and when paired with grilled asparagus, mushrooms and a poached egg, well, it is hard to leave the table hungry. Let’s just say I was satisfied and the crème caramel that Nicole and I shared for dessert was pure gluttony.

Next stop….Athens…..

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Barri Gotic, La Boqueria and Restaurant Moo

Days are starting later the more we head south in Europe. We haven’t waked this late since making our recovery from jet lag in Holland or maybe it is the Cava we were drinking last night. Cava is the Spanish version of sparkling wine and the Spaniards claim is superior to their neighbor’s Champagne. I am not sure I agree with this, but the Cava wasn’t bad. Due to its highly acidic nature it is important to drink the cava while indulging in some sort of good eats as well.

The Barri Gothic was on the agenda for today. We would take ourselves on a long adventure matriculating through the intricate circuit of narrow alleyways and corridors that make up this old neighborhood. Architecturally, Barcelona is as diverse as they come. The many styles that make up this city create an amazing identity that has been unrivaled in the other cities we have visited and that is saying a lot. The buildings are old and have so many influences from the neo-classic look of the buildings in “The Triangle” to the influences of famed architect Antoni Gaudi and his unfinished masterpiece La Sagrada Familia and, of course, the chilling gothic and medieval buildings left in the Barri Gothic. Today, the Barri Gothic is filled with a wide array of shops, bars, small cafes and restaurants. In fact, some of these bars and restaurants have been around since the 17th century! The alleyways are dark and a little dreary with gargoyles protecting almost every building, but the streets are tourist ridden and filled with some of
Barcelona’s prime food hot spots filling the area with light.

We strolled the Gothic taking in all the sites and poking our heads in and out of the shops buying a few souvenirs. We had a strange breakfast that day opting for a zumo made of kiwi, banana and orange juice which was quite refreshing on this warm day and then chased it with cinnamon ice cream and a Belgian style waffle slathered with the creamy and chocolaty Nutella spread. If it weren’t for all this gluttonous eating we probably would have lost 10 pounds on this trip. We are averaging about a 5 mile walk per day and walking is what we would do as we searched out La Boqueria market.

Simply said, this market was amazing. I have never seen anything like this. I know I haven’t traveled the world, but this has to be one of the greatest on Earth. We turned down a large corridor off Las Ramblas, passed through the stained glass modernista entrance and fell into a large village of food stands bustling with chefs, tourists, and abuelitas searching for the best Barcelona has to offer. The area is huge, about 20,000 square feet, and vendors sell everything that represents all that is best with Catalan ingredients. We passed through the huge displays of seafood finding 6 different kinds of prawns, lobsters, 4 different kinds of clams, mussels, 3 types of snails, monkfish, hake, scorpion fish, sardines, anchovies, salted tuna roe and, of course, bacalla which seems to be a staple in Catalan cuisine. We passed through many exotic produce stands selling the best the season had to offer like apricots, cherries, lots of white asparagus, and bales of dried chilies on the floor and hanging from the ceilings. We came across a mushroom forager who had at least 15 pounds of summer truffles residing on his counter, chanterelles, enormous porcinis and even had a small section of edible insects like grasshoppers, crickets, and scorpion candy. Further on we pass by the legume vendors with their chickpeas, lentils, white beans, nuts, and dried fruits. They also sell artisanal cheeses and charcuterie. We see various types of chorizo and famed blood sausages hanging in front of the butcher’s tired faces. Despite all this, the most amazing part was the meat section. Again, I am faced with an enormous contrast to our American eating habits. We have to be the only country that wastes animal product because we saw customers actively purchasing the stomach lining of cows, lamb brains, bull’s testicles, the entire pig’s head and even asking the butcher to split the lamb’s head in half with eye balls and everything. Seeing their butchers at work was another sight. Imagine a 60 year old woman manipulated at 30 pound cow’s liver slicing off the most perfect medallions while preparing the ban saw to trim down a quarter hind of lamb. I was impressed by these women butchering meat and fish as I believe this is a profession mostly dominated by men state side. These sights blew me away to say the least. So now it was time to eat.

La Boqueria contains many tapas bars that create their menus based on what the market has to offer that day. We were on a mad search for a place called Pinotxo Bar, but were unable to find it so we settled down at another busy stand. I asked the cook to prepare us 3 of their best tapas, but he was apprehensive on what to choose so it didn’t make for the most adventurous experience. He brought us this wonderful mild and salty chorizo that were about the size of my pinky and were dripping with bright orange oil flavored with smoked paprika. He then passed along some plain roasted chicken wings that were marinated with turmeric, garlic and salt. We could have done without this choice and had the grilled calamari with garlic and parsley oil that our neighbor was drooling over. Lastly, he brought over a zarzuela which is a Spanish seafood stew. This was full flavored and tasted completely fresh. Squid, cuttlefish, hake, mussels, clams and prawns all lovingly braised in a seafood tomato broth and drizzled with a fruity and peppery Spanish olive oil. You better believe that I was mopping up that sauce with a baguette. Two beers later and we were off for a long walk to try and burn calories for our dinner that night and, of course, our daily siesta.

We were running late for our well anticipated dinner at what is said to be one of the best restaurants in all of Spain – Restaurant Moo, run by famous chef Joan Rocca. I have seen this restaurant in every travel publication that we have read about Spain and there was a huge feature about the chef and the restaurant in a chef publication called Art Culinaire.
We walked into this ultra chic and modern restaurant and felt like we were back at the trendiest hotel restaurants in Hollywood. Dark lounge furniture contrasted with Asian décor and growing beyond a Plexiglas window was a real bamboo garden. The service was friendly and professional and they accommodated us in almost perfect English. Staying with tradition, the chef has compiled a menu that is made up of ½ portions so that the diner can try many things, much like a tapas bar except that this was in a formal setting. Nicole ordered 2 items, a cheese plate and a dessert. I ordered 4 items and a dessert. Nicole suggested that we change our order because they would not be able to serve us correctly since I had a total of 5 items and she 4. I argued that this is a professional restaurant and I am sure that they have done this a million times before….they know what they are doing. Guess who was wrong here?

The first course arrived and we could tell they all ready had things mixed up. Nicole suggested to the waiter that we split a first course so that the service would not be off, but apparently he decided not to listen to us. Instead he brought out my Smoked Pigeon Carpaccio with Juniper Ice Cream with a theatric effect. The plate arrived covered in a glass dome and then the server unveiled the ploom of olive wood smoke that was encapsulated under the plate cover. The aroma filled the surrounding air making our table the current attraction. Nicole’s dish was equally, if not more impressive. She had a beautifully composed appetizer of blanched white asparagus mirrored by shelled long tender and salty razor clams rounded out with a fluffy green asparagus espuma hinted with lemon. This dish was not only clever in its presentation, but harmonious in flavor and texture.

Second course is where things got messy. It is not that the food was bad in any way; it was that they served it wrong. Now I was served another harmonious dish of Dublin Bay Prawns with a licorice-curry sauce dotted with lobster roe and asparagus tips. I thought this might be too assertive, but the prawns were as sweet as I ever tasted and balanced out the one two punch of the salty roe and the spicy licorice-curry sauce. Nicole was then given her “main course”, a duck breast sous vide with roasted beets and blood orange. The duck’s skin was crispy, but the meat itself had a raw look to it. However, one bite and I knew this meat had been cooked at a low constant temperature for a long period of time because of the tenderness of the meat. My teeth could’ve taken a day off with this one. It was excellent, but then as luck would have it the kitchen made a crucial error. They must have left a piece of sinew in that is between the tenderloin and the breast meat and Nicole found herself chewing on the untenable for quite a while. Without the sinew part this dish was definitely a winner. The problem with this course was that Nicole would have to watch me eat to other dish with nothing in front of her when this could have been all avoided had the waiter listened to us or knew what he was doing.

The next two dishes arrived quickly and I would eat them and share them quickly so that Nicole would not be left without food for long. We asked for the cheese plate sooner, but the chef refused saying that it must be served with dessert. My sea bass came with green beans and a ginger broth. The flavors all worked, but seemed way too ordinary for a restaurant like this. It took subtlety too far and was unimpressive. My “veal” was next and was very tender, practically melting in my mouth. The problem was that this was not veal. The meat was red and perfectly cooked, but in my experience, I have never seen veal that looked this way. I am pretty sure that the kitchen was misleading their guests with this one. Again, it was not bad, but it was not what it should have been.

Finally, Nicole’s next course, the cheese plate, and my dessert, breaded toffee with caramel ice cream, arrived. We expected the cheese plate to show off the great varieties of Catalu?a or Spain, but instead Nicole received three versions of France’s Comte cheese. This was definitely a letdown and it was oddly accompanied by paper thin shavings of button mushroom and one large red grape neatly sliced in half. My dessert was tasty, but the disappointment with the service and the cheese plate began to take precedence.

Nicole’s dessert arrived, and to our dismay, I was left staring at her eating. The timing by the service was so bad that it ruined the experience. The strawberry tartare with strawberry sauce and goat cheese ice cream was excellent and highlighted some very flavorful and sweet strawberries, but at this point we wanted just wanted to leave.

We paid the bill and asked for a call for a taxi. To top it off, this snobby and trendy restaurant told us none were available and to wait on the street to pick one up. I think the kitchen did well, but did not live up to the hype. However, the service failed that restaurant and for 3 Michelin stars one has to think what it really takes to get that king of rating. I would have traded our paella night over that expensive meal anytime.

We’ll catch up with the rest of Barcelona a little later.
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