Sunday, December 13, 2009

Engineering your life

So I had a conversation with my dad this morning. He's in the US for work for a little bit. A topic that came up, was what I've been doing with my life lately. I guess as I'm getting closer to being 30, it's a topic that comes up with more frequency, at least more so internally.

Funny enough two words come to mind. Balance and engineering. Even though I have an engineer in my title, I don't consider myself in the same league of engineering as my dad or my brother. That being said I never really thought what engineering was all about. A professor I was listening to put it this way: It's not about perfection, it's about getting the most out of what you've got. In other words, achieving a result given many constraints.

What does balance have to do with this? Balance is probably the word used when describing how one engineers their life. Everyone's balance is different but it's the maintainable, yet flexible mix that I'm discussing here. If you were the CEO of your life (which funny enough, many people don't act like they were), what are the big problems you'd be trying to solve? Are they worth solving? What would things look like when you solved them? Would you even recognize it when you solved the problem? Are they big enough for you? No insightful thought here, most of this comes from the CARVER decision making matrix used in the military.

As the year is drawing to a close, it's probably worth highlighting some items I've tried to engineer a bit while keeping in mind that my ultimate goal is getting the most out of what I've got. And again my usual disclaimer, this is less insight and more just personal observation. The motivation for writing this is because I had a few friends ask for some thought around this topic.

Sleep. I bought a Zeo and use it every night. 5 months later, I have gathered enough data on my light, deep, and REM sleep cycles to know what is a reasonable amount of sleep. It's a light headband that wirelessly transmits my sleep patterns to an alarm clock-like device. Why is this important? Because between sleep and food, I feel that these are two areas that have some of the highest ROI for time/money spent on it. If I can get really good sleep, and make it repeatable, I've dealt myself a better hand for tomorrow. How will I know I got really good sleep? The Zeo tells me. Obviously I can feel it, but now with the Zeo I can game the system a bit. There are things that I can do before sleeping that will make 7 hours almost as good as 8 hours. Not only is that engineering, that's changing the game. Everything else I do that next day will likely be better.

Second part is eating well. Everyone thinks I eat a lot. I eat frequently, but not a large quantity. Why? Because that means I have more money to spend on higher quality food. What boggles my mind is that people think that if they eat nutritionally meager, poorly executed food, they'll be able to perform at a different quality level than the fuel they just consumed. My proposal is this, cook for yourself more often, buy local foods. Take responsibility for what you eat. There are absolutely nights where I don't want to cook for myself, but most nights I still do, even though I've either worked at the restaurant, or did multiple presentations. Learn a few basic cooking skills, and use them frequently. The whole "foodie" movement boggles me too. Anything that goes in your mouth, you should probable be knowledgeable about and involved with. Just saying. To have to label interest in such a fundamental part of living? What's next, the "Life-ist" who is really into living life well?

Why am I so hung up on these fundamentals still? Because they remain the highest returning areas of my life. And I believe most people have the time, to dedicate some effort to improving them. There are few people I consider truly "busy" and I am not one of them. It's just a state of mind. Productive yes, busy no.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

You don't have to look far

I think everybody has a moment where they don't know where things are going, what things mean. And this doesn't mean that you're undirected, or unguided. It just means perhaps that you need some perspective. This can take the form of wild success and massive failure. Perspective can usually be found around you.

Despite the lack of direction, the last few months I've had, have been the most meaningful I've had in a while. And this comes from being able to fully appreciate both a job well done and getting a fat kick in the nuts. Most importantly though, are people who help you bring some clarity to the situation. The can come in the form of mentors who go out of their way to make you better, and those who just inspire you to do your best. And just from what I've seen, you don't need to look far. You can usually find them within your existing circle, both personally and professionally.

On the professional end, there are many things I need to work on. I've been very fortunate to have a manager and colleagues who have taken significant time to coach me on soft skills that need tuning. My manager has gone far and beyond to help me take lessons from working as a chef and apply them to working as a sales engineer. Specifically, it's how to build the same satisfaction one gets from a great meal, into a sales engagement. There isn't a text for this.

Great lesson, but what's more important is the opportunity I have here, to prove to him and the team, that time spent on me is time well spent. Taking this back to music lessons, one of the saddest things is when a teacher has given up on a student. Now reversing that up, the opportunity to keep practicing and performing so your mentor won't give up on you is one of those unspoken promises that I think can be fully appreciated at work as well. Perhaps it's this aspect of work that provides meaning. And it has for me for the past few months.

On the personal end, every once in a while you'll meet somebody, usually through another friend who just by what they represent, inspires you to step things up and make good decisions. It could have been their experiences, it could be what they say, it could be just how dialed in they are. This time it was a combination of the three. This weekend he'll be moving to the east coast to take up an incredible job opportunity, mentorship being a key component. It's very well deserved.

It's important to highlight here a few aspects that might be overlooked. One, I've only known him and his family for a few weeks. He's got a great wife and kid, and as one friend pointed out, is genuinely appreciative of his situation. Two, he was introduced to me by another friend who I look up to, who visited last month. Both their accomplishments are impressive. Both are incredibly humble. And so when I'm trying to figure out what this all means, I don't need to look far. Just have to appreciate the situation for what it is, who is around you, perhaps the key to living meaningfully. And that's what has been going on the last few months. It's a nice change.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sashimi, Fish Filleting, Sharp Knives

As much as I've been working on Japanese cuisine, it's been difficult to find the time or the audience to do an entire Japanese meal from start to finish. Usually I'll blend concepts and do some kind of mix. Last night I decided to put the individual skills together into a well formed tasting menu. What you're looking at on the left is Japanese Medai, sliced for sashimi, plated on a hand painted plate. The point of the plate...we eat with our eyes too.

I had the Medai auctioned for me at Tsukiji Market in Tokyo, through my dealer. It's such a pleasure to gut and fillet such a fine fish. I just read on some blog that one of the worst considered tasks of kitchen work was gutting fish. Yes it sounds bad on the surface, but it is one of the most critical parts of precision seafood work. I'll explain. In order to keep the fish fresh, and to prevent the enzymes in the gut of the fish from deteriorating the rest of the fish, you need to remove the gut and gills as soon as possible and in a proper way.

I'll put up a video shortly of how to do it, but here are the key takeaways. First you don't want to rupture the internal organs. Second, you don't want to cut into the flesh close to the spine without properly rinsing and then drying your knife. The prerequisite for this is a very sharp knife and a knowledge of the cutting pattern. And you have to care about what you're doing. Do most sushi bars do this properly? No. Does their food taste good? No. Do most customers demand properly prepared sushi? No. And thus the cycle continues..."Hey I want a roll, the one named after myself." Bet it tastes like a cheap corndog too.

If you do want to break the cycle, order sashimi. This will highlight knife technique. Look for glassy surfaces (on most fish). This will tell you that the chef understands the cutting stroke and how to sharpen a knife. If you push cut, you'll smash the fish. If you don't know how to use the length of the knife, you'll have a smooth surface but jagged edge. And if you don't have a sharp knife, then you have far greater problems. I'll post a video on how to sharpen a sashimi knife soon as review for peers in the industry. I don't mean to sound extreme here, but it's to emphasize how important your primary cooking knife is. Primary, meaning for home cooking friends...don't buy knives in sets even though the stores want you to.

More on sashimi later. If there's anything I can convince you to do, that would be to take your main chef's knife that you own, and get it professionally sharpened. You can get it done at your local food store, or they'll know where to go. For home cooking, using a sharpening steel is recommended each time you use the knife. There are plenty of videos out there on it. If you told me you wanted to learn how to sharpen it on a stone, I would probably say that unless you had a bunch of time on your hands, or you used high performance Japanese knives, to just get it done at a store but use a steel to hone it each time you use the knife.

Note though, if you use Japanese carbon steel knives, know that you're getting into the high performance, high maintenance realm of cutlery. You can't, shouldn't use a steel on them, and need to use water stones to do your sharpening. If you're in practice, you can do a knife in about 10 minutes. For reference, I use three knives for Japanese work. A yanagi (sashimi slicer), a kiritsuke (combination sashimi, vegetable knife), and a deba (fish butchering knife). Total cost was about $2k. The first two knives were forged by hand, by Keijiro Doi. The deba is by Masamoto. I'm looking to put another sashimi knife into the collection of the stainless steel variety, likely by Nenohi, another popular japanese brand.

Random...I was thinking, am I being too extreme about this, at the risk of alienating the readership? Perhaps, but as I was making salsa with my brother tonight, the need for a sharp knife was apparent when dicing a tomato. I pulled out one of my work knives that was very sharp but not razor sharp and it gave me a little difficulty when taking it through the skin. But when I polished Ambert's chef's knife, the work was very quick. Dicing a tomato is probably something that most home cooks have done. So yeah, get your knives sharpened.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Menu for Ambert's Birthday Dinner Party

Ambert, my brother wanted a birthday dinner party with friends. "Yeah I'll give you a dinner party," said I. So I called my guys at IMP Foods, and they called their guys at Tsukiji Market, Tokyo, and sent over some stuff via JAL Air Cargo.

We have over 25 people confirmed for tomorrow, standing room only. Glad that my boys are backing me up in the kitchen or someone will be ordering pizza and looking like a total fool. I'll be taking off early from work (salesforce) tomorrow, trading in smooth demo skills, for badass knife technique. Here's what we're doing...

Western compositions:
Arugula + endive salad with mustard vinaigrette and shaved ricotta salata
Cannelini bean chili with ancho beef cubes
Applewood smoked ribeye with Maldon salt, red peppercorns and green beans

Eastern compositions:
Marinated, cold smoked Japanese mackerel, with grated ginger, scallions, on a baguette
Oysters with ponzu granita, chives, grated spiced daikon
Poached Canadian lobster and albacore rolls with yuzu, shiso and soy paper
Live sea urchin with fresh wasabi, yuzu
Shiitake miso soup, with first dashi of kushiro kombu

Sushi, Sashimi, Nigiri:
Japanese albacore sashimi from Tsukiji market
Atlantic mackerel, spot prawn nigiri sushi
Salmon roe gunkan nigiri
Hokkaido scallop handrolls with shiso, gobo, tobikko

Monday, June 29, 2009

A lesson from before - slowing things down

This is probably more about personal operation in general than it is about cooking. But I think cooking is a perfect way to get my point across.

Ideally I'd like more time to build dishes at work, nigiri, rolls, sashimi...but we need to move faster. A few weeks ago, I felt like I just reached my max and yet I wasn't at the clean, smooth operation that I wanted to be at. It was getting really frustrating, because I just couldn't keep up, at least to my own expectations. To everyone else, it was business as normal.

My violin teacher used to stress playing things slowly and in irregular patterns, like clustering notes together, and playing them in odd patterns. This would help in an overall increase in the upper speed limit. Obviously I didn't appreciate it at the time, being in high school and busy resisting change in general (aka being a nerdy idiot). Taking this back to food work, I reexamined all my roll and nigiri techniques, asking myself if each movement was absolutely necessary. My goal was to reduce the overall movement, losing anything of little value. After that I'd practice in parts, each remaining movement. Ideally when making nigiri (fish piece on rice cluster), you'd touch the fish as little as possible. Real professionals do it around 3 contacts, depending on how you count, with a perfect arch and a well defined head and tail.

After a lot of practice, and visualization when not around fish and rice, I was able to get it down to three contacts. While this last part happened inside a month, the overall technique has taken a few years. Some might think it's stupid to work on something as simple as a piece of fish on rice. And yes sometimes I get bored with it too, but then if I weren't willing to spend time on a critical technique as nigiri sushi, I'd be missing a key point of Japanese cuisine and it's draw to chef's of different backgrounds. The key point being simplicity. Another being, the respect of "original flavor" as our master chef, Jason calls it.

I realized this had more significance than just for nigiri. Frequently I find myself confused, sitting down, not knowing what to do next. So then I default to urgency and recency, which of course may be an effective way to sell, but not a great way to run your life. I realized that while I spent all this time on my hobbies, I wasn't spending enough time with friends. I had to tell friends that I could see them in a few weeks. It's taken me far too long to realize the shortcomings of this. And now looking at my activities, I've begun to dial down activities that use a lot of time but aren't the most important right now. For example, I used to go to the rifle range a good bit, now I've had to reduce it enough to just maintenance sessions. I wish I was still active competitively since it's so much fun. But, food being the focus now, I opted for reducing the practice.

Obviously there are systems that can support decision making; I will go into the various methodologies I use, GTD, Carver Matrix, Mind Mapping, at a later date, but all these methodologies tie back to simplicity and ease of comprehension. The Carver Matrix assists with deciding which targets to pursue, Mind Mapping assists with understanding the root issues, and GTD (Getting Things Done) assists in execution.

Now being able to prioritize among only a few things, it's much easier mentally and on my schedule. With the extra time on my hands, I'll be able to do the things I'm used to doing, but with more time, and more intensity, which for me results in more quality, and satisfaction. And surprisingly it does wonders for speed too as your technique and behavior become cleaner, faster, and tighter.

Credit for the photo goes all to Brad Herman, who stepped up some black and white game at a recent dinner party.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Impromptu Dinner Party

So I took a Friday off of Salesforce to do some food work. I had a dinner party planned for a colleague, Neil so I needed that time to really think through the plan and prep.

A friend of mine, Juan had the day off of work from the restaurant so I called him up to see if he wanted to practice filleting on some fish from Tsukiji Market. Then I realized this could be a great time for an impromptu dinner party. I called a few girl friends up and the pitch was simple: Two guys are cooking for you. Professionals.

So I told Juan about this and we rushed down to Whole Foods downstairs, scoring some ribeye steaks, bunch of vegetables. So you know, this was the first hour of 7 hours of mayhem. We first got to work by setting up our workstations, a board for each. I sharpened my Nenox S1 Gyutou for Juan since I wanted him to rock the best. I sported my Suisin Kiritsuke.

Anyways we took apart the fish, got some scallops out and then got to work on the vegetables. Juan took apart a pineapple, and braised it in some juice, with a variety of spices. It smelled so good as we were working on the other stuff. He even took us to Morocco with a spiced sauce that we at the last minute, used with the giant botan shrimp heads, some well structured fusion. I worked on some sashimi, plated that to start, and then did some stuff with dashi. I wanted Juan to learn how I did dashi so he could experiment with it at work. I think after course 8 or 9, we slowed down a bit, and relaxed, since it was now 3am.

Juan served up the braised pineapple on top of a rose granite. I served up, um scotch. Seriously though, such a great night. Juan is probably one of the better chefs I know. Working as the Exec Sous Chef at Luce under Dominique Crenn is no small accomplishment. It's definitely a privilege to cook with him and I know the friends we invited all had a great time. Him and Dominique served me and my friends one of the best tasting menus I've had. Story another time.

What you read, was the first of 3 dinner parties of that weekend...

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

"My Night Off" dinner party

It's nice to be able to cook for pure recreation. Last Saturday night I had a few friends over, 3 to be exact, to have some hotpot. Having been working 6 days a week for the past year, I suppose you really value your one day off, for me it's Saturday. But many weeks I throw a dinner party on Saturday where I'm probably harder at work at home, than I am in the restaurant.

So last night I figured I'd have a few friends over, spend the day relaxing, work on a pisco sour, research things. Basically food I'd love to eat myself, was served. Had two friends I haven't seen in a while, as well as a neighbor who is awesome. Here's how the night turned out.

I decided on a few courses. First we did a gravlax nigiri, made the gravlax a few days ago, love the texture of it. It was firmer, so I sliced it thinly...2mm in thickness, put it on rice. The top arc at the highest point of the nigiri was very elegant, nice. It's the small things. Made a cucumber salad, 1mm thickness per piece, knife cut.

Next we did some hotpot. Made a dashi for it, with some new bonito fish flakes I got from IMP foods. Extracted the glutamates from the kombu kelp at 140F for one hour, raised to 180F, dropped in the flakes, settled for a few mins, then through a chinois and into the pot for the hotpot.

Had some lamb and beef slices and moved onto Nigerian spiced short ribs. I had similar versions when I worked in Ghana, and it's made an impression on me ever since. Then made a caterpillar roll, with Hokkaido scallops. The avocado was from my CSA. Good quality. All the while drinking lots of pisco sour, wine, beer.

Total prep was about 2 hours, much of it idle time though. It's nice to be able to cook for 4 people, and have things be relatively relaxed.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Knowing Your Limits

What's nice about not working full-time as a chef, is that I have no choice but to take out of context lessons and make them relevant, otherwise I won't grow at the rate I want to. I've got to try a lot harder to catch up. One observation is seeing many of chefs trying to operate outside their skill levels perhaps in the name of experimentation. I see that a lot too just in general.

So for some background here, I've been competing in shooting sports since I was young...I love it. In the current discipline (distance rifle), under timed conditions, high winds, distances from 100 to 1km, we take shots at targets very precisely. There is one game in particular we play, called KYL or Know Your Limits. I'll try to describe it as if you were there.

Here's the game: there are 5 circular steel plates out a ways, last time it was around 400 yards, 4 football fields. You have 5 shots. Each target is worth 20 pts. There are a few problems though, they each get smaller, starting at 10 inches, ending at 4 inches, don't forget the high winds and the need for computed ballistics predictions. Also, you have 45 seconds for all 5 shots, AND, if you miss a target, you lose all your points. Which means that you could have plinked 4 out of 5 targets, and miss the last, only to be beaten by someone who hit the first target, and stopped shooting. Hence, knowing your limits, or skill level. Also people are egging you on to "go for it."

So at the competition, I guess the wind reading, 7 mph, dial in a few clicks into my scope, and press 5 rounds into my rifle's magazine. The timer starts, and I focus onto the first plate in the cross hairs. I even out my breath after the 2nd full breath. I squeeze the trigger gently and feel the gun kick pretty hard. The ref yells "impact!" and I quickly eject the hot brass. The bullet impacts a few inches off of center but was still a hit. Must be the wind, so I make a mental adjustment. I shoot two more times, and two more targets are hit with a center impact on the last one. Very encouraging.

Through the electronic hearing protection, I hear "GO FOR IT!!" quite loudly. I put the pad of my fingertip against the trigger, and begin my shot process, while watching the vegetation for a change of wind direction. I can feel my clear Oakley M-Frames digging into my brow as I focus. But then I relax the pressure on my trigger finger, and slowly open the bolt. I pull the live round out of the rifle, slightly warm. I hear the ref call time and yell "Unload your gun and show clear." After triple checking for safety, I place my rifle on the safe rack, and sat down to reflect. After a few moments of quiet time, I realized I hadn't taken that shot because I knew that under those wind conditions, I wasn't confident in my ability to hit the smaller plate, but I had done the smart thing. I wasn't dialed in and so I didn't go beyond what I practiced.

Turns out, 60 points was the high score. Not an overly risky strategy, but clearly good enough to win.

And now back to the kitchen, I see this manifesting itself with poor execution. A dish that comes out, with lots of complexity, a really busy sauce, sour, sweet, salty, but still missing the balance, the basics. I think you see this with sushi a lot. A piece of nigiri (fish on rice), with a strange topping. Interesting topping, but the rice is not seasoned, and the fish has a rough cut. Looking further, a dull knife. And this is not to say experimentation is unwarranted, but it's got to be appropriate and within your capabilities. Take for example what happened to Carla in this season's top chef. She broke out sous vide, it wasn't her game, or previous practice, and according to some, lost some of her previous credibility. She's a great chef, but in this case, went for the 4th target unnecessarily.

I think what impresses me is a simple dish, but with the ingredients, plating, concept, well thought through. It shows refinement. It shows discretion. It's one reason why I love Japanese cooking so much and I've just scratched the surface. Well done Japanese food does take other cultures influences of course, but it strips away the noise, the clutter. It transforms a dish, into an elegant idea, with a minimal number of ingredients but it's impact is much greater than the sum of the parts. And I think that operating within your skill level is key.

A really good shooting coach once told me, that under competitive situations, you will not rise to the occasion, but instead, you will default to your level of training, your skill level. I would love to see fellow chefs embrace that idea, and operate to 100% of their current skill, rather than 60% of a skill yet to be acquired. That makes for a great meal. Save experimentation for family meal and not on diner's checks =)

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The story behind last night's party

What a night. Last night's dinner party was held at a friend's loft for 30 people. The highest rated dish was the beef ribeye with jus over a baguette. Also a little bit of sushi, Hokkaido scallops pan seared, roasted beet salad.

What made it interesting was how things came together and the people who made it happen. Let's do a timeline. So a month ago, we came up with the idea. Two weeks ago we built the guest list. One week ago we invited people. Chefs would be myself, Ben Grol, Jen Kibler, and Vinz.

I was really struggling to come up with a menu during the week, 30 people, not my well as having a really intense work week at So I dived into cookbooks, asked friends, talked to Jason at Okoze (where I work). At that point as always, we have good idea of what we should do, but accept the fact that things will always change.

And they did. I went to the fish market (IMP Foods) on Friday morning. The cool sea smell of fresh fish is just mesmerizing at times, then I realize I have to snap out of it, finish the shopping, then head into salesforce for some customer calls. After work, I came home and did a few hours of prep, thought about the dishes, made myself dinner.

Saturday morning, Ben Grol came over to help prep, Ambert made breakfast which was fantastic (beef rib omelette with cheese and pepper blend). So after a very satisfying breakfast it was go time. Went to costco to score beer, vegetables, and cleaning supplies. Dropped off the beer at the loft, and then really sailed through prep. I filleted halibut while Ben roasted the beets, powdered the peppers. We got into the weeds a bit, and prep took longer than expected and we managed to get to the party when the first guests showed. We talked to Jen and she was rocking out a dessert which was very reassuring. Ben was like, Jen is a rock star, she'll make it happen.

Basically the kitchen there was unusable for our work, so we had to take all our gear. It included the immersion circulator for sous vide, Polyscience cold smoker, knife bags, foam boxes with food, two induction units, pans. Then we were told that because it was an old building, we couldn't use either of the range tops we brought because it would trip the circuit. Wow now we were all burners down, not to mention that we were 45 minutes out from serving.

Then that's when things actually came together. Skipping back, I think I was really in doubt earlier in the week that things would go well. But I think a quick talk from my brother Ambert basically along the lines of "There a lot of friends of yours who expect you to deliver a great meal, go make it happen," really sealed the deal and was what I needed. The next piece of inspiration was from Ben before we sent out the first plates. I don't remember what he said but again just basically "Let's get it done, the stoves don't set us back that much" and then I remembered I brought a butane gas stove as backup. And it was my high powered one. At this point, with one working stove top, we sent out the bread, and began with the salad.

The night gets better. Loren Trefethen of Trefethen Vineyards, one of my favorite wineries and a personal friend, sponsors the wine portion of the event. He sets a wine tasting of their premium whites and reds (the riesling is the best out there). And just looking over at the perfectly set glassware shimmering in the candlelight just made me smile while we were about to send out a total of 150 plates over the course of the night and the pressure was building quickly. Looking out there, people having a great time, friends stepping up to contribute what they could, really reassured me that we could do it. And at a very reasonable cost too at $20 a person. Also need to highlight Evan De La Torre's efforts to collect money. That was huge.

So salad is out, the wine tasting is going strong, but we're really backed up. Who shows up? My brother Ambert, who wasn't even supposed to come. He goes "what can I do?" It was amazing. I put him on the saute station, and he executed well. T minus 1 hour out from serving the beef, we tossed the vacuum sealed and seasoned ribeyes into the circulator, at 135F and I adjusted my watch to mark time. Scallops were sent out a few to a plate. I took a quick break and talked to some friends, made sure they were having a good time, tossed the chefs jacket and went to t-shirt. Sauce was heated for the steak, bread sliced, steaks came out of the water bath, rested, and then on the pans for searing. I gave Ambert my work sashimi knife (yes I trust him that much), and then he went to slicing.

We plated all the beef dishes individually. The sauce was very well balanced thanks to Ben. And I think some of the comments reflected that sentiment. At that point, I realized I had been cooking for about 16 hours and yes I was exhausted. But when I see everyone having good conversation, the wine glasses bright, the generosity of friends, the motivation of friends of family, I just think to myself that it's all worth it and I'd do it again...just without so many shots of Fernet at the end.

Sunday, March 29, 2009


Without precision, it's impossible to have consistent results. At tonight's shift at Okoze, I focused on making sure that all my execution was precise and predictable, by slowing things down just a little bit.

For me, it allows me to drill in proper technique. For the exec chef, they have confidence in what I can turn out. A few reasons why I like this line of work so much is because there is a premium placed on technique, and there isn't much BS in terms of faking what you can and can't do.

So I was making dinner for my brother and some mutual friends at Okoze and while I was working on their omakase dinner, I realized my nigiri (fish on rice) technique was finally coming together. Basically I'm looking to touch the fish less and have it down to three compressions as opposed to the 5 or 6 you see at many restaurants. Within those three compressions, you should see a graceful arc, with a wider head. The tail should also look graceful as if it were the tail of a fish. This is just my opinion and style. But this all can't be done without an exact cut and portioning of the fish. Too thick and it won't round out properly. Too thin and there won't be enough taste and the proportions will be off.

Above is a lemon, sliced for some rolls. Even if we have enough made, I will still do a few just to warm up before guests arrive. I'll usually warm up on my dinner too because I'm not about to go half-ass someone else's meal. I need to go to bed, I have to give a customer portal training for my sales reps bright and early.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Friday, March 13, 2009

Gone huntin!

So in a few moments I'll head out to the central valley with some friends to go boar hunting. If anyone has read the Omnivore's Dilemma, I believe they make some mention of that. Then on Sunday, we'll be meeting up for a butchering class where we drop the pigs off at if we're fortunate.

To be able to harvest some truly wild game, and cook with it is an amazing privilege. Fortunately I've been a competitive shooter since I was small so I can handle the marksmanship part. Either way, what most people miss about the whole aspect of hunting is simply to be outdoors. Having absolute respect for the animals you harvest, respecting and upholding game laws...are all part of it. I don't hunt much, but it's great to be able to take some responsibility for what you eat. I'll be able to apply handling principles on high grade seafood, to the handling of this game (should I get even anything), to make sure what we get has been handled with the utmost care.

It's also nice because I'll be going with some hunters who want to learn more about shooting, so I can help them with technique etc, and I'll be able to learn more about hunting and wildlife in general. For you gearheads out there, I'll be taking my Remington 700-5R in 308 Winchester with Leupold Mk4 LR-T scope (my competition platform). Thanks to Chris for letting me borrow his Benchmade fixed blade. I promised him some sausage or boar chops in return. Good deal.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Dinner Party Menu for March 7th 2009

Here is the menu for this weekend's dinner party. Of course I might change things up should I spot a winner at the market.

Shiitake miso soup with manila clam and leeks
Ankimo sunomono
Amberjack and tuna sashimi
Sushi...obviously (Engawa, ikura, maguro)
A roll or two
"Napa trip" scallops
Poached lobster with truffled mac and cheese
Black bean clams with fresh bell peppers
Rose-Raspberry Almond Tarts

Chef's notes:
There's a few guests that have had some of my main creations like the Ankimo and lobster. To keep things interesting for them, I'm going to prepare them in slightly different formats. On the sushi portion, I do want to get more into the nigiri and one or two rolls just to demonstrate technique and bring some depth to the Japanese portion. The "Napa trip" scallops has no real name but it's a round molded chopped scallop course with tobbiko and avocado. I made this for Serena in Napa on a trip there and she requested it. The poached lobster is always a hit, and I wanted to make it more accessible by pairing it up with a nice mac and cheese. Black bean clams this time again, but with more of an emphasis on the vegetables to offer up a fresh crunch. Knife work on the bell peppers will be important.

The dessert is what I will focus a lot of development on this week. It's a relatively technical dish and will take some practice runs this week. A paired dinner drink that we had in New Zealand may make it's way onto the menu too but we'll have to see as far as time/expense goes.

Food pic is a roll I made a few years ago.

Monday, March 2, 2009

More on inspiration...

As I was developing the menu for this Saturday's dinner party, I hit a roadblock on a few items. On palette cleansers, on transition dishes. So I figured, that I'd leave them alone for a day or so, but for right now strengthen one of the courses. So I reached out to my friends.

I was chatting with a friend of mine, Olympic cyclist and foodie and were were talking about mac and cheese (How he finds time to hang out and bike at such a high level is beyond me, ie. baller-dom). But such a humble dish...who doesn't like it? There it was, poached Maine lobster tail, with truffled mac and cheese (with the poached lobster claw diced in there). I feel okay introducing such a heavy hitting flavor combination as long as the flavors are managed appropriately. My risk is that it will taste busy, and I'll need a flavor to have a clear separation between the lobster claw (I love the aggressive claw flavor), truffle oil (finishing flavor), and the mac and cheese. I'm thinking even some bay leaf which could blend with a strongly flavored cheese but different enough to offer contrast.

Just for a sanity check, I was also chatting on gchat with another friend of mine who loves food. Ran the idea by her and obviously cheered her up from her long work days (lots of exclaimation marks). She really likes similar foods I like (black bean clams), so I thought it was a good dose of reality to run it by her. As far as the menu goes, we'll be coming off some very styled dishes, so it will be refreshing to still have the intense ingredients, but with a plating that demonstrates a home style approach.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Eating Real Food

I can't agree more with the post found below by Tom from Top Chef.

The topic of eating real food, versus powdered, stabilized junk is something that I just can't get my head around. Why is there even a debate? When I hear about kids getting served some of the junk they're given in school cafeterias, I am shocked. Point is, eat real food.

I don't have kids, and I know I'm going to take some heat for this. I know what some people will say. Sure Bryan, I can't cook like you. But then again I can't cook like some other chefs, so that's pretty much a non-issue. What matters is that you're willing to spend a little time buying and practicing with ingredients that are fresh and REAL. Real food being vegetables, produce, meat, fish.

I don't generally eat at home, what I serve at Okoze. Even for our dinner before work time, Jason sometimes whips up a classic stew he has eaten for years. We love it. It's a slice of his upbringing that we can share in. It's got some scraps of octopus, spicy sauce, and vegetables in there. The aroma is so good. It didn't take precision knifework. It was just placed in a pot and cooked.

For example, tonight, I made matzoh ball soup. I love it. I had a rough week and it's something that makes me happy and is also real food. I added in some leeks, fresh carrots, and spices. And of course, you don't need to follow a recipe. Recipes are good for general guidance, but ultimately you can't escape the underlying technique. So learn the technique. Watch the videos online at the Food Network. When you have some decent basics, you can just pick stuff up at the market and make it at home. For example, I didn't work much with cauliflower before this winter. Now that it's always around in my CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) box, I have put it in my soups, made purees...etc. I just looked up some instructions on google, and practiced. This is not me as a professional, this is me just hungry and trolling for a decent meal, just like anyone else. I'll even make food for the week in the form of a nice bold stew, so I can focus on the menu for the weekend and on my day job too.

To give you an idea, I'll work about 12 hours a day for my day job both in the office and at home. Saturday I'm out at the range practicing or competing...on non dinner party days. And then I'm working at Okoze for nearly a full day. I get back from Okoze close to midnight on Sunday. Like Tom says, it's not practical to make a gourmet meal. I'm dead tired at that point. But I'll have a fridge full of fruit that I hit up. Or some greens and some protein, that I'll put together and season. It probably takes less than 5 minutes to prepare. Hope that generates some ideas and perspective.

Food pic above is a collection of spices from SF Herb Co.

Getting great feedback, beer kegs, cutting boards

So I really have to thank a friend of mine who just today, gave me some great feedback. It was very encouraging and actionable. It's rare to get a whole page of things that you agree with. It's even rarer to have a friend who will take the time to detail out all the possible improvements you can make.

On beer kegs, I went to the Anchor Steam Brewery on a tour the other day, and it dawned upon me that I could add significant value by always having premium beer fresh and on tap for dinner parties. I would also be able to save on alcohol costs, which would drive costs down for my guests. The thought of more value, less cost while improving quality and lowering response time gets me incredibly excited.

Think about it, the concept is so simple, have two premium beers on tap at all times. Assuming that I don't drink it all myself and never show up to work again, I'll be able to have both a medium body and full bodied beer like Anchor Steam Porter whenever guests want, at a fraction of what a bottle would cost. We would not have to worry about running out of beer, and I could guarantee high quality. For example, in the past, there would be a food charge, and then guests would bring their own bottles of wine and beer. For the last few dinner parties, I have upped the price and used the extra funds to purchase well matched sake and alcohol, like Hangar 1 vodka, and Wakatake Onikoroshi (a very fragrant sake).

Now what if I could reduce the price a little, and be able to have guests just walk over and pour themselves a fresh beer, either Anchor Steam or Porter? It would also save on the significant amount of recyclables that get generated from each party. So what do I need to execute on? Buying a keg fridge with double taps. A CO2 tank. And two 5 gal torpedo kegs. Basically the torpedo kegs will allow me to fit two kegs in the space of a standard half keg, allowing more variety, and improving turnover. Look for some execution on this over the next few weeks.

As for the food smut above, that's me carving out sashimi blocks from a Hawaiian tuna. The ruby color of that fish was amazing. It was so much fun to cut into it and prepare the sashimi. The knife sails through the fish and leaves a glossy texture on the cut surface. Now that we're talking about knives, look for a description soon on all the tools I use, so you know what I recommend...especially the knives. I am a huge fan of the Suisin brand, and I generally buy my knives from Basically you can usually tell how serious a person is about cooking if their knives are sharp, and their cutting boards solid. There is way too much crap sold out there, for example cutting boards that you can roll up. That's not possibly a work surface. It's so important, that I always bring my chef's bag, as well as a cutting board should I have to cook at someone else's house. Spend the money, get something end up being less of a consumer, and throwing things out when they fail.

So you know, I highly recommend the Epicurean line of cutting boards, with a rubber anti skid mat that sits between the board and your counter. I use one for traveling, and a rubber cutting board (Sani-tuff brand) at home. They're so important, I may upgrade to the boards we use at work, which are a few hundred $ a piece, but thats overkill for most home cooks. Point is, it's that important, it warrants the discussion and the money.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Why I like Fabio

Fabio from Top Chef.

I like Fabio from Top Chef because I feel he represents the warm bond between customer and chef. There are chef's who prefer to be left in the kitchen and hide there. There's no correct position and I feel that it's one thing to be able to envision and execute. It's another to be able to connect your guests with the process.

As diners become genuinely more knowledgeable about food, we'll see more exchanges of information between the chef and the trusted customer. I love it when some of my best customers share with me a dish they had at an another restaurant and we try to recreate it together.

Obviously we don't always get it right, but what is right? There are very few "right" ways in my opinion. There are "fastest and safest" and then adherence to the restaurant's standards. Because we're breaking standards, what is "right" is our best effort to execute on some of our customer's ideas. They get to play exec chef from vision standpoint, and I take the role of the soux chef that gets things done.

What's great about working at Okoze is that I'm never micromanaged. I'm given a great deal of flexibility to comp dinner items, make off menu dishes. At the same time the respect goes both ways. If I'm asked to make something beyond my skill, I'm not going to try it and risk the customer's experience. I'll have Jason, the owner, go and get it done, with me taking notes and snapping pics. Then at home, I'll break apart the dish into the individual skills, and practice on myself. Basically I try to serve, the way I would like to be served.

I think Fabio's approach is one that will keep customers coming back. No restaurant executes flawlessly all the time. But if the relationship is there, and you know the chef is accessible, you'll spend your time and money with the organization that values your mindshare and business.

I wish I could have had a piece of the chicken he made on the "Last Supper" episode. It looked really good. Oh yeah, and the piece of food porn on the top is wasabi root flown in from Japan, in front of a Masamoto Virgin Steel Gyutou knife.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Explaining the meal

Another really great suggestion I got was to make sure I explain each of the dishes we serve. Before I would just send something out. Now, I love to talk about the work we do. Whether it's at home, or at Okoze, where I work. Jason, the owner sends me out to tables sometimes to personally serve them and walk through our thought process for the meal.

I think last night's dinner party had some good examples of getting questions answered and helping our guests understand what was the thinking behind the flavor and how best to enjoy it.

Thanks to Jason Rosete for illustrating some of that. Jason has done a piece on my work at Okoze before that can be found in Facebook. I really like his photo work and hope he continues to snap photos at dinner parties.

Family style versus individual

More photo talent from Micah Joel.

Some dishes lend themselves to individual servings like this ankimo or monkfish liver, with ponzu, momiji oroshi, and green onions.

Other dishes, lend themselves to family style like this Hokkaido scallop with cumin foam over Japanese cucumber.

The net of this is, that for right now, I will default to family style dishes if in doubt for the dinner parties because I feel it's more appropriate for the setting. At least family style eating was the way I was raised, going out to restaurants.

The classic dish

Some feedback I got from my brother is that I shouldn't stray too far from my fundamentals, despite the desire to please guests.

This dish here, is one of those fundamentals, and I've been eating it since I was small. Stir fried black bean clams. It's my way of sharing something from the heart. A dish I care about a lot. And a way to come off the poached lobster which was probably the best reviewed dish of the meal.

This was served as the last savory item at yesterday's dinner party. It's plated a little differently then standard which is pretty much "thrown on a dish." I felt the execution was very tight, the sauce consistency was exactly where I wanted it, thickening done by tapioca starch. The color was provided by thick soy sauce. At the last minute, we added a teaspoon of vinegar to balance out the flavor.

The picture was taken by Micah Joel. I'm very fortunate to have friends who are excellent photographers.

Taking feedback

Here are the two ends of the service spectrum for chefs in my opinion. On one end, some feel that they have the last say in what you're having that night, somewhat of a hardcore Omakase, or tasting menu. The other side has the chef following every whim of the customer. I can't say exactly where I fit, so I need to take lessons from my other life as a sales engineer.

I think one of the best lessons I've taken working with some amazing sales reps is to be as consultative as possible during the sales cycle. Ultimately, we're here to serve our customers, and when some deals fall short, we can often point towards our sales strategy where we had a gap in information. In this case, at times I have gaps in what I consider top notch, and what my guests consider top notch. I need to narrow that gap, and narrow it quickly.

My guests carve out a full evening of their Saturday and spend 6 or more hours with people they might not know. I owe it to them to make sure they have as good of a time as possible. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don't. I've made my share of mistakes with every aspect of the dinner party and cooking. Everyone learns, but how do I learn as quickly as possible?

The only way to improve the overall quality of the dinner party experience is to always solicit feedback. And everything has to go into this effort. You have to make your guests feel comfortable about giving you suggestions and comments. Offer up some areas where you think you may have fallen short; show humility. Demonstrate that you are willing to execute on a meal or concept that exceeds their expectations. However, show that you are firm in what you consider a good dish.

For example, some feedback I've received is that I appear too intense while I work. I can appreciate that comment. I am definitely passionate about what I do. At the same time I don't want to alienate milder guests. For this item, I'll look at my body language, and see how I can keep my intensity high, but appear softer. At the same time, I will review the invite lists a bit more stringently. Invite the best guests you can. And demonstrate you'll listen and work for them.


Sometimes at the last moment, we get inspired by small things. Sometimes it takes a glass of wine or 4 to get a breakthrough.

I love to open with a soup. My brother came up with the idea to use a Bodum espresso cup to serve it in. Then at the last moment, Ben thought that a freshly ground coriander seed would make a great garnish. So we chatted for a few, ran the seed through the grinder, toasted them in a pan, and tested one serving.

We both loved the combo, totally his idea. Then we made and served 11 more. The small side note here is that while you may get inspired, the inspiration has to evolve into consistency.

It's about the people

Pretty simple here. Make sure people enjoy each other's company. I try to invite people with varied backgrounds.

I like to involve the guests in as many aspects of the dinner party as I can. Some friends are great at getting conversation started. Some like to see how things are run. Some like to watch a specific technique. There are even some dishes that I'll coach a guest through.

Here the guests are getting to know each other, while another is reviewing my planning, budgeting, notes, and execution plan for the food.

Taste everything

You have to taste everything. One of the best suggestions I got was to keep tasting spoons handy. I have 2 containers full of spoons on both stations. I also have some in my jacket pocket.

Even if you're not throwing a dinner party, try tasting all the ingredients before you throw them into the pot. Know what each one contributes to the final dish, and how they may change in the cooking process.

Don't underestimate what one single recipe can teach you about cooking. Always get feedback. Sometimes I'll send a tasting spoon out to the dinner table while I'm cooking and ask for feedback. Here Ben is having me provide a second opinion to the new batch of soup.

Having fun

I'd say that half my friends see me as generally very serious, and the other half see me as incapable of a straight answer.

Bottom line is that even though expectations are high, you need to keep it fun. Especially if you make mistakes. I have to laugh at myself here. I'm cooking with Ben, a very experienced chef for last night's party and we did a test run of the avocado soup. The flavor/texture was dead on...his execution on my idea was perfect. Problem is, I figured the vacuum seal containers and the citrus/acid in the soup would keep it from turning colors. Wrong. Here we're reviewing the slightly off color batch before dinner service.

We laugh it off, or rather laugh at me and redo the soup. We can't send anything out to our guests, that I have any doubt about, even if it's a shade of green too dark.

On Ingredients

Use only the best ingredients but by doing so, you subject yourself to higher costs, and potentially unavailable items. Sometimes you need to be creative. While I like living above whole foods, shopping there for spices, especially in large amounts, drives up costs significantly without much benefit to my guests. I am totally fine with high food prices, if I am showcasing an item but not when I can get it in bulk and cheaper. Here, these spices/herbs from SF Herb Co, do come in larger quantities, like by the pound, but they are significantly cheaper. So what happened here? I bought 40 bottles to divide up spices among my friends. The quality is incredible from this place. Friends benefit from handpicked items, and I turn over my spice collection quicker.

Before the party...

I love this chalkboard and how we use it to write out the menu. It's actually my brother, Ambert's. I wasn't really turned onto the idea of having a chalkboard up, but I really like the feel of it now that we do it consistently for each party.

It has nothing to do with food, but everything to do with the experience. The food is important, and I'm not going to marginalize it's impact on the experience. However, service and experience is the priority in my kitchen. I want to always be closing the gap between the cook and the customer.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Dinner Party Pre-Plan

Tonight is the dinner party. What started out last night as a mild sake tasting, ended up becoming a two bottle session, complete with diver scallops and matzah balls (I've been working on matzah balls as a comfort food). Oh yes, and we made the ankimo, which came out well. Well seasoned, buttery.

Today's breakfast: water, advil, two oranges.

I have a few knives to sharpen. Theres going to be a lot of sashimi rather than roll cutting, so I can put a finer of an edge on it. I finish with a leather strop after a series of natural and synthetic waterstones at least on my main work knife which is Suisin Shiro-Hayate 270mm made by Keijiro Doi. Look him up on google. My other one for western work is the Nenox 210mm S1 Gyutou which uses a 3000 grit Naniwa ceramic stone. Anyways, I'll use both of them tonight.

On suggestion, I will aim to shorten the food service portion to about 2 hours. I have a good amount of sake for tonight, but we're right up on the budget which is $450. I was definitely on target with the seafood portion. It's amazing that even at wholesale, food costs are incredibly high. The hirame/halibut was almost $70 alone, but I'm pretty happy with the overall spend.

Gotta finish writing up the execution plan, since I'll be directing an equally skilled cook on my vision for tonight's service.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

On Dinner Parties

Hosting dinner parties are a unique experience for me. It's a way for me to put together meals for friends, and showcase guest talent. It also allows me to practice techniques from work, that I might not get around to doing, depending on the orders that night.

For example, we prepare steamed ankimo (monkfish liver) on Friday at Okoze. Problem is, I don't work Fridays. Therefore, I'll practice this at home, and it's become a regular appearance at the dinner parties. It's not something a casual sushi eater would order, yet it hasn't been turned down at a dinner party before. That being said, the dinner party venue is a great way to introduce new long as your execution is good. Fortunately, the guests provide good, crisp feedback and I'll take it seriously.

I can also work on various speed techniques in preparation for my work shift on Sunday. For example, thin slicing Japanese cucumbers. Each sliver should be between 1 to 2mm at least for our restaurant spec. We don't use a mandoline for that, nor do we have all day to serve one dish. I'll talk more about the planning behind dinner parties and the synergies between them and work.

I don't really call it work though. It's a privilege to serve our customers and I get to work with seafood at the highest quality levels.

Dinner Party Menu for Feb 21st, 2009

Wakatake Onikoroshi
Gonu Esshu

Seasonal Starters
Chilled avocado soup with fresh cream and truffle oil
Seared scallops with caramel, cauliflower, green apple

The Fundamentals
Cucumber salad in ponzu
Ankimo - monkfish liver
Tai - red snapper
Hotate - scallops
Hamachi - yellowtail
Amaebi - sweet shrimp
Maguro - tuna top loin

A Menu Item from Okoze
The Salamander Roll - Tuna slices over yellowtail, shiso, burdock root, cucumber

The Lobster Duo
Meyer lemon sorbet
...tempura with soy salt
...poached in shallot butter and turkish bay leaves

Comfort Food
Manila clams with black beans, ginger, green onions

And to end
Fruit puree, silky smooth, with Madagascar vanilla bean foam