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.