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