Monday, January 31, 2011

The Food

How do I describe my food? My style? How do I describe the meaning behind my menu?

I'm trying to put down all of my ideas, experience, and passion into a quick talking point. It's not easy. We hash out the concept over and over. Each facet should be easily regurgitated and should captivate in one breath. "Like an essay", "Bullet points", Loretta says. I don't really think that way. I'm wordy in a way. I'd rather paint a picture and cuddle up with it for a while then share it through conversation, over a couple glasses of wine. Loretta calls me a nerd chef because every time I talk about food I sound like one of those computer techie guys that no one understands.

Ok, I'm going to give this a shot...but first a back story about my food.

I came from a family of 6 kids, all pretty close in age, Irish twins if we were Irish. Growing up my mom worked a 9 to 5 job as a teacher then went to school at night and for a few years even worked a second part time job on campus. The years I remember before she started school (and the nights she was home) she cooked a nice big dinner. We were poor as all hell so we would eat things like "hamburger surprise" which composed of ground beef and pan roasted potatoes mixed together. This dish was especially delicious with lots of ketchup though I'm not sure if the beef or the potatoes were the surprise. My mom did her best. She was incredibly creative with what she had to work with. She would make elaborate compositions based around the 29 cent packages of ramen noodles or a big can of Campbell's soup. My mom was the master of taking whatever was in the fridge and making magic. She would totally win any "mystery basket" cook off. When she went to school we didn't have our warm, mama prepared food every night. She started buying those big microwavable, family style meals for us...I wasn't into it. We had all spent a lot of time with her and my grandma in the kitchen all of our lives so we had a good idea of how to whip something together...for some of my siblings this consisted of putting any protein in a tortilla and covering it with cheese and green chile...voila!...meal. I was into eating really healthy in middle school and high school so I was all about making chicken soup from scratch and things like that. Somewhere down the line I picked up my mom's incredible "mystery basket" ability in the kitchen and was able to come up with some pretty good stuff from whatever was in the fridge.

Years of professional experience later and I still cook like my mom. One of my favorite dishes at Colors came out of a "lets see what's in the fridge" experiment. Loretta and I had some left over prime rib in the freezer from Thanksgiving, a head of cauliflower, tomato product of some kind, a half full bottle of wine, and some big shell pasta. I thought, "ah, prime rib ragu, caramelized cauliflower, and big shell pasta"...voila!...meal. I got rave reviews that night for my ragu and a few months later in New York, Loretta was like, "remember that ragu you made, that has to go on the menu". The dish that came to be is a short rib ragu with caramelized cauliflower and fresh pappardelle. Beef. Tomato. Wine. It doesn't have to be perfectly spelled out for you, if you have the basic elements of a dish in your fridge, go for it...see what happens...well that's what I think.

So bringing it back around, the "cook what's in the fridge" mentality is one of the cornerstones to our food concept. I don't want to design a menu that I have to keep the fridge stocked might not sell, it might not be seasonal, ingredients might not always be available or affordable for that matter. So I'm thinking, why not let the seasons, the market, the quality, the price, and the freshness of ingredients decide what goes in the fridge and on the menu? Let the inventory drive and creativity stay awake to navigate and play DJ. This way we limit waste, use what's in season which is a pretty good way to keep our food costs in line.

The other facet to our food concept is sustainability. I have always felt so strongly about sustainability it's a definite must in my restaurant. Reducing waste, using only what you need and doing business with those who hold the same values and standards to prolong the life of the industry is my definition of sustainability. Use only what you need and use it right. We will support special farms and ranches who are doing the right thing and producing a superior product to produce our food.

The third element is in the same vein as the first's the beef to the wine and tomato. We will use whole animals instead of selected or prime cuts of the animal. Nose to tail cooking as it's called, is the concept of embracing the entire animal and finding creative uses for every delicious part. Spanish cuisine lends it's self to this type of cuisine very well with the curing of meats and stews. We will select a certain number of proteins based on price and availability and use all of the animal across the entire menu.

So now for that quick, sexy talking point...

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Anyone can cook!

Or bake! I starting a baking project because we plan to make our own breads once our restaurant opens. We are considering a baker/pastry chef, but how awesome would it be to do it ourselves?? It's actually a lot easier than I thought it would be especially since I have a great book, Tartine Bread, which gives step-by-step instructions. I decided to start w/ the basic country loaf, and bought 25 lbs of AP flour from Costco so I can experiment cheaply. Making a starter is the first step. By allowing water and flour to sit around and make bubbles for a week with a little attention each day, you no longer need commercial yeast. Suits me, and our artisanal concept.
After you starter becomes "predictable," you can work on a leaven, which as I understand it, is simply a starter that is more calculated. You measure out proportionate weights of water and flour, and leave it to ferment with just a smidge of your original starter for about 12 hours, or overnight. So far I've made 2 batches. The first batch had a leaven that was left out for 16 hours, the second had a leaven of 6. You know it's ready to go when it floats in water. The flavor was slightly more pronounced with the first batch, but the final products were more or less equally aerated. This leaven is key to the bulk fermentation, or the paper mache stage, as I see it. You mix lots of flour with warm water, salt and the leaven and you get a sticky wet mess that you flip around every half hour or so for 4 hours. A proper leaven, and proper flipping for that matter, initiates the accumulation of air in your dough. Chad recommends to wet your hands before flipping, but I found that that adds extra water and makes the mache more messy.
The next stage is more lovely than the paper mache stage. Basically, you allow your dough to stretch out and rest on a bench...or cutting board if you aren't fancy enough to own a baker's bench. This stage seems the most bread-like, because you're actually pulling and stretching on the dough. With Chad's method, you never actually knead the dough, which is a little disappointing because I've always imagined bread-making to require some kind of obscure baker's "touch," but at the end of the day if you can get the same results without actually working, I'm down. After a very calculated 4 hour final rise, I noticed my dough gained about 25 percent in volume and was light and fluffy to the touch. At that point, I knew it was time to throw my cast iron combo cooker into the oven to heat. My first batch had to go without rice flour because I didn't have any so the bottom crust got thick and dark. I also scored the loaf with a dull knife so the surface looks almost silly. The second time, I used rice flour exclusively and the bottom crust was much more palatable. I also sharpened my knives (I'm not quite sure why he recommends a razor instead of a sharp knife, but I suppose I will learn once I get a razor). These are my first and second attempts, side by side.

Anyway, I think I did a pretty good job. The crust was light and crackled, the tunneling was very pronounced, and the bread had good flavor. A few deviations from Chad's method - I don't have a bench knife, a razor, a thermometer (TM told me on my first batch that the temperature of my water was somewhere between 65-70 degrees, so I guess I don't really need one), or a small scoop. The only tools I would say are absolutely key (for Chad's method, at least) are a digital scale and a cast iron oven. Also, I did both rises (bulk and final) during the day, which for the last few days meant in 75 degree weather. We didn't get to eat the bread until 11pm at night. Since we'll be baking for lunch and dinner service, I'm trying my third batch with a final rise in the fridge so that I can bake first thing in the am. Also, my former boss at Le Pain Quotidien just shipped some very fancy organic wheat flour to me. I'm super excited to see how the results improve with a better product.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Perhaps this post is better suited for my journal

Right on schedule, we finished this morning. We took 3 weeks to write the first draft of our feasibility study, which contains 8 parts: The Opportunity, The Concept, The Market, The Competition, Management Profiles, Key Risks, Timing, and Financials (Projections, B/E Analysis). In sum, the restaurant will be a Spanish-inspired, artisanal restaurant that pushes traditional notions of sustainability (i.e. local-sourcing, composting, etc.) to the next level by examining whether we can make other areas of restaurant operations - such as service, food purchasing, and inventory - more streamlined and less wasteful.

Before I continue work on this project, I feel compelled to put out a disclaimer. Perhaps this post is better suited for my journal. We aren't out to revolutionize the industry, show anyone up (esp. not one of the many famous Spanish chefs out there currently), wag our finger in disdain at any other restaurant or restaurant owner, or even say that we are doing something no one else is doing. Indeed, we plan to launch an artisanal Spanish restaurant and neither of us is fluent in Spanish, we can't bake a loaf of bread to save our lives, and we have only just started to read about butchery.

None of the ideas put forth in our plan haven't been done by others before. Doubtless, hundreds of restaurateurs are more qualified to do what we have set out to do. I know for myself, that there is nothing about restaurants or restaurant operations in which I consider myself an expert. I certainly have not received that designation from any of the many certifying institutions out there.

What I do know, however, is that between the two of us, we do know a little about a lot of different things in this industry. We have good palates for food and wine, good cooking skills, culinary creativity, a working knowledge of hospitality, solid management skills, a pretty good understanding of business, and more than anything else, a heck of a lot of passion for what we do. We might not be James Beard Award winners or Master Sommeliers, experts in the realm of sustainability, or Six Sigma Black Belts, but we are open to learning more and perhaps most importantly, not afraid to admit it when we don't know very much at all.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

This is(n't) a post about food

Since 2002, I have moved between NYC and LA 8 times:
  • 2002: To NYC for my NYU PhD program in Literature
  • 2003: Back to LA on a leave from my program to reevaluate my career
  • 2004: To NYC with a new perspective, if not a new career in restaurants
  • 2005: Back to LA after getting a nice beating in NYC restaurants
  • 2008: To NYC for my Columbia MBA
  • 2009: Back to LA with no career prospects from my MBA
  • 2010: To NYC to work for the NPO, Restaurant Opportunities Center
  • 2010: Back to LA to do my own thing

In that same span of time, I've had 13 different residences: Williamsburg, Bushwick, Arcadia, E. 19th St, Jersey City, Robertson, Los Feliz, Santa Monica, 182nd St, Hollywood, E. 22nd St, E. 29th St, and finally Corralitas Drive. Each time, I've been extraordinarily lucky to have had family in both places to support me (i.e. store my stuff) when I move, but ultimately, I have learned to live with the possessions that fit within two suitcases.

I've never been wedded to my material possessions and have almost always chosen to discard household necessities and start fresh in each new living situation. A caveat is, I've never owned anything I've wanted to keep all that badly (except my books and my knives, which remind me of how much of a badass I once was within academia and the kitchen, respectively). Because I've developed a mindset that all things are replaceable and will eventually be replaced, I don't often seek permanence, material or otherwise. Given all this, it is somewhat ironic that what has made me reconsider my approach to permanence are some material objects, antiques that have been left me by my grandfather.

Initially, these pieces simply planted me in LA (they won't fit in two suitcases or my mom's closet), but eventually they led to our first substantial furniture purchase - very fittingly, a dining room table. It isn't a fancy table, or one that cost an extraordinary amount of money. It is a sturdy, thick, mango-wood table, and has seated 1 and 10 with the same ease. It is the center of our home, and gives me pride in ownership and craftsmanship, and I want the table to last our lifetimes.

In a recent Dwell interview of a vintage furniture shop owner, the interviewee argues for a house free of "shit [you] don't need," and instead, for a few quality pieces: "the stuff that costs more [because someone was paid a living wage to make it], that you have to think hard about, and that you're not going to get rid of." His approach to investing in quality as opposed to quantity made me think about my own approach to permanence: 1) how easily I have discarded or donated past possessions (do I really know that x will be taken care of in its second life) 2) how my pride (in ownership, craftsmanship, etc.) has satiated my drive for more/something else, and 3) whether what is permanent is necessarily more expensive.

Obviously, this post is about our restaurant. So to bring it back, I guess I would begin by asking, what is so immutable about the industry that you cannot offer both quality and affordability? Why has the drive for affordability chosen the path of separating the grower of the food from the preparer of the food from the eater of the food so much so that there are trucks, distribution centers, kitchen doors all in your line of sight as you sit in a restaurant dining room just trying to understand where your food came from? Who gave us the idea that more food is better than good food, so much so that we will waste food (on the plate or in our refrigerator) to support those restaurants that pile thousands of low-quality calories on plates in an effort to draw more customers?

Obviously, I have no answers beside this idea of permanence. That if you understand waste is permanent, that it cannot be recycled or even composted away, that to truly reduce waste you must "think hard" about what you purchase or consume to begin with, it will help you reevaluate how you choose to eat. As hopeful restaurant operators, Teresa and I have the potential to make an even greater impact - our choice of responsible vendors, ability to realize the greatest product yield, management of an efficient inventory, maintenance of a clean and organized facility, and ultimately production of a superior dish will all determine how other people realize waste individually. At the end of the day we won't be perfect, but if we continually examine - and allow others to examine - our practices, perhaps we will be one step closer to understanding what moves us each to behave differently.

Mi Cultura and The Motherland

I'll start by saying that my Spanish is not very's something that I'm not proud of that I intend to fix. I'm from New Mexico, land of enchantment and land of confused ethnicity, apparently. We're not Mexican, though most of our families have been there before it became a state in 1912, and we're not Spaniards because most New Mexicans have never been outside of New Mexico and could not find Spain on a map. If we are Spaniards, why the high cheek bones and great grandfather named Dancing Wolf? We are a hybrid, mutts, like most Americans, we're Spanish/Native American (all different kinds for some)/Mexican/whatever else snuck in there. We are however a very proud people, for example (yeah that's the flag tattooed over my heart):
I've never met a New Mexican who was not proud of where they came from, it's something I don't see in all Americans, Texans perhaps but all I really know is that Texas is not to be messed with. New Mexico is, sadly, one of the poorest states in the country. We are on the top of the every "worst" list and last on every "best" list. What we do have is a rich, rich culture, like the Spaniards, we love our food, we love our heritage and know the value of taking it easy and spending time with family. I didn't think too hard about my ethnicity until I left home for college in Los Angeles. I was asked by my Caucasian classmates to explain myself, "What are you?", I was asked, "Why do you have such curly hair?", "Are you black?" I was thoroughly amused by these questions but found I had a hard time explaining myself. "I'm New Mexican", I'd say...that meant nothing to some people because they would tell me my English was really good or that I don't look Mexican....jeez. Anyway, I'm Spanish, Native American (Apache), and a little Irish man snuck in down the line. New Mexican. Not Latina, not Chicana, not Mexicana. My Mexican colleagues in the kitchen solidified this fact by calling me a "huera" (white girl)...fine...I could use some sun I guess. I was a little confused after being rejected by the Mexicans and found myself eager to discover Spain...the Motherland. So...I went, last September with my best friend in the world Ayla Anaya who is a half New Mexican half light colored New Mexican (which is a whole other story). This is Ayla enjoying the Mediterranean:

The Motherland!!!

We immediately discovered two things, Barcelona is the most glorious place in the world and that we were finally among our people! Hente! Though we knew less about their culture than Mexican culture it felt so right. The people were so warm, hospitable, easy going and loved their culture...hmmm sounds like New Mexico. We could not get over it! After our validation as people of Spanish decent and finding our hotel it was time to eat!!!

At first I thought Ayla was putting me through fat camp because we had a light breakfast everyday then hiked up and down the city until dinner time never stopping for a snack or happy hour. Then we found the boqueria!

The market, the heaven on earth...we ended up visiting the market a couple times popping salt cod fritters in our mouths and washing it down with fresh jugos, ooh-ing and ahh-ing at the giant tuna steaks or the crusty bread by the cheese counter, we could not get enough!

This is my favorite place in, this is my favorite place in the world (well besides my grandma's house)

The food is what really spoke to my soul even before my trip I knew there was a special connection every time I cooked up some paella at Ciudad or put a glass of tempranillo to my nose. I've found my passion and a little piece of myself in Spanish food. I'm not attempting to bring "traditional" Spanish food to LA. I'm not Jose Andres, I'm not from Spain and my Spanish is probably some messy LA, New Mexico, kitchen Spanglish but food is it's own language. And I am so eager to share my love and excitement for this wonderful cuisine!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Respect and Responsibility (A Rant)

I just wrote a Yelp review. I don't usually do that because Yelp is such a free for all kind of review site. Any old dumb ass can write about your restaurant and scare away other guests or write great things about their friend's sucky restaurant. Anyway, I wrote a review because I was outraged by an experience Loretta and I had at a place downtown on 1st and Hope (not to mention any names). The service was beyond terrible and the food was...deep breath...I'm so mad...the food was disgusting. Complacent, inhospitable service in a tacky, over done setting all for about 50 dollars per person (that's with one beer)...Grrrr.

If I've learned anything in this industry I've learned respect. Respect for my guests, for my coworkers, my bosses, their bosses, the facility, the product, the equipment, my tools, the community, the environment, and myself. What I've seen, and still see far too often is complete disrespect for everything I've just mentioned and then some. I'm so tired of working in places where all I learn is what NOT to do rather than someone really showing me respect and responsibility. I'm lucky to have had a few people in my experience who have shed a little light on these things. I've seen so much bullshit from not paying living wages, overtime abuse, sexual harassment, sexism, physical intimidation, lying to customers, cheating customers, printing lies on your menu, grabbing food from the trash and placing it on a clean cutting board with the intention to serve it, filling bottles of top shelf booze with bottom shelf booze! Yes, there's more...drug use, cockroaches, rotting moldy food, no call/no shows, blood, puss, burns, spit, dirty cooks, and lots of jaded, cold hearted people who love to make your life hell..I'M SICK OF IT!!! It makes me sick. And half the time the customer doesn't even know all of this stuff is going on...that's the worst part. I want to be able to sleep at night knowing that I put out a clean and honest product at a fair price that just happens to be incredibly delicious. I see that as my responsibility as a chef. I am not trying to change the world or reinvent the industry, as cheesy as it sounds, I'm just out to do the right thing. I'm glad to have a partner who feels the same way, who has seen the ugly, greedy faces of the industry and has chosen to take a different path. So what does that mean? What are we all about? We have an idea, an outline, a skeleton of a menu and business plan but where does that put us? I think that right now we are little specs of life on the right track to rapidly evolve into a creative, intelligent, progressive entity with the innate ability to always choose right over wrong and perhaps grow up to be revolutionary.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Sunday Supper 01

Before I take the liberty to use this space as a forum to voice sweeping generalizations and my philosophies on food culture, the act of eating, the act of killing and preparing food, hospitality, people management, money management, and how all these experiences and thoughts resolve themselves in our first concept, I should post a few thoughts on this tradition-turned-experiment of our Sunday Supper. In the past, our Sunday supper was a party; we would invite a group of our friends to our home and cook what we fancied. When TM and I decided that this would be the year we launch our restaurant - which if you cannot tell from my last post, will be Spanish-inspired - we decided not only to feed our friends, but to use them for feedback, support, and general discussion on menu items intended for our restaurant. Hence, our first Sunday Supper happened on 01.02.11, partly to welcome in the new year and partly to involve our best friend visiting beautiful Los Angeles from NYC.

In attendance were Ayla, Sam, Raul, Nephresha, Lesley, Gabe, Reyna, Justin, Kersu, and of course us, the instigators. We started the night with a Sparking Shiraz, which admittedly wasn't Spanish or even intended for that night, but was nonetheless delicious and a befittingly bodied bubbly beginning the bash. We must have something similar on our menu, simply because it makes sense. It was richly colored, bold, risky, well-balanced, tasteful, tasty, playful, and serious, all adjectives I imagine will describe our first restaurant.

To start the feast, we plated Stuffed Piquillo Peppers - kumquat jam, caramelized onions, piquillo peppers, fried shallots, lemon zest, and LOWFAT CREAM CHEESE only because we intended to make a sardine terrine with piquillo peppers and kumquat jam but were foiled by water-logged sardines. Plan B was literally made from scraps we had on hand in the garden, in the fridge, behind the fridge. They came out surprisingly well, and were quite a hit!

Very fittingly, this Plan B dish partly inspired Part B of our restaurant concept (Part A is obviously the Spanish-inspired element), which is an extension of sustainability, something that TM and I hold close to our hearts. I know I said I would try to hold back on my philosophical banter, but I cannot. Modern food culture extols everything that is "prime," i.e. prime cuts, perfectly portioned vegetables, the most rare ingredients. This is all wonderful, until you work in the BOH and come to understand the level of waste produced in cooking this way. Something that I have learned from TM is to shop for and cook with what is in season, what is fresh, what is discounted because of an inconsequential blemish or the end of a sales day. Though you walk away with sometimes an odd assortment of items, you learn to be creative when you cook and resourceful when you reach the end of your provisions for the week. One of the first times TM cooked for me, I gave her a challenge by purchasing a random basket of foods for her to prepare several dishes. The first thing she said to me when she saw what I had purchased was, "oh, you took it easy on me." I thought I was providing her with a challenge, but now I know she needs more. So, what if our restaurant concept was not only Spanish-inspired cuisine, but also included an element of resourceful sustainability (I need a better catch-phrase)? What if we could use whole animals in their entirety to produce an assortment of dishes that are not immediately identified as "peasant food" or sub-par? What if we could demand superiority AND creativity to change the way restaurants ordered, prepared, and eventually wasted (or not) their food when it reached the consumer? What if, what if? But I digress. Let's talk about Sunday Supper 01, item no. 2: Braised Lamb Shoulder with Lentils and Grapes., gamey lamb braised until it separated with a fork, TM's specialty. Al dente lentils and grapes that matched the sherry braise. Very Spanish, and very much a hit. TM wants to use a fattier cut. I don't mind experimenting if it means that the lentils will gain natural fat. I'm not a fan of beans or legumes, but I agree that the dish could be made into a homerun with a little tweaking.

Chorizo and Littleneck Clams. These clams are not for the faint of heart, cook or eater. They overcook quickly to become tough, big morsels, which was a small problem the first time TM made these for just us. But when cooked just right, they are tender and so much more flavorful than the smaller, stingy Manilas. I liked the chorizo in the dish, but the broth needs tinkering. Not as full and luxurious as I would have liked. I would have also liked more bite from the fennel. Overall, however, this is easily one of my favorite menu items so far.

The last item of note was the Pan Con Tomato, which was so unexpectedly delightful, I'm just pleased with everyone involved. We grated the tomato and then rolled cubes of bread in the puree before baking. The result: crispy, tomato-y outsides and soft centers. Not only does this dish inspire me to bake my own bread, it makes me want to grow heirloom tomatoes, and learn about fine olive oils. It is the epitome of simple, healthful, delightful eating. And so, for me, this Sunday Supper 01 was not only an inspiration for the Part B of our concept, but it also summed up what we have always hoped to do with our food and our hospitality: serve delicious, artisanal, healthful foods in the comfort of our own home and in the company of our friends.