Cooking Tip for the Day: Some people preach the importance of good pans in a kitchen: copper versus stainless versus aluminum has long been source of debate. How thick should the pan be? Currently reading Modernist Cuisine, I found that the diameter of the burner under the pan and a relatively thick pan are much more important than how well a metal is able to conduct heat. Moral of the story: don't spend your money on copper (or even steel pans, as they are proven to be the least effective), get yourself some thick (7mm) aluminum pans and a wide diameter burner and you'll be better off. (If you are looking at updating a kitchen in your home, or getting new kitchen paraphernalia, I highly recommend consulting this massive text prior to purchasing. They ran hundreds of very scientific tests on products and have a lot direction as to how you should equip your kitchen.)
So I have been a complete delinquent on this blog the last month, which I am sorry for. But usually when someone is not blogging, it means they are too damn busy to bother with this business. I am not one to like excuses, but this is exactly what I am doing just here. :) There are so many stories that I want to recount from this last month, so forgive me if this is long winded, too much information, or scatterbrained (or, as it may be, all three). There are a few principle occurrences I would like to share. Since I tend to love lists, here's one for you. You can skip to any given number to read up on what happened specifically. Or read all, as they happen in chronological order.
|San Sebastian, Basque Region, Spain|
1. My stage at Spring in Paris finished. 2. Nance, Whit & AlPey came to visit. 3. Ferrandi "graduation." 4. Dinner at L'Astrance, my first Michelin three star. 5. Traveling to San Sebastian, Spain (Basque Region) for some absolutely mind blowing food with Gloria. 6. A job falling through in Italy. 7. A new job search for an appropriate workplace in Italy. 8. Booking a ticket to Italy sans job. 9. Finding a job at the 11th hour (confirmation of said job on a Monday, travel to Italy Wednesday, start job Thursday). 10. Beginning my new job. And LOVING it.
1. Finishing my stage at Spring was somewhat anti-climactic. I got quite sick the last week of work, and therefore missed some of it (including Gloria's last day). And the final Saturday I was supposed to work, I was given the day off as my family was in town and we went to dinner there that night. Overall, I would say my time at Spring was an enriching experience that broadened my understanding of cuisine (especially modern French) and of a high-stress kitchen. I understand and appreciate quality products like I never could have fathomed beforehand. We honestly used some of the most beautiful produce I have ever seen. The respect that the team had for the product was one of the main things I will take away from the experience. Also, the attention to what seems like minute detail, but takes a plate from mundane to awe inspiring.
Each person I worked with there, I learned something different from. It was difficult to see it at the time, but even the individuals I did not get along with as well taught me something. Organization and management from (Daniel) Eddy. Precision and getting in the zone from Oleg. Speed from Simon. Patience from Gloria. And recognition of perfect product from (Daniel) Rose. Sakho, the dishwasher, brought a light hearted warmth to the kitchen most days. The front of house was most often a blast to work with. And the multilingual nature of the workplace made everyday one of linguistic learning. Overall, I think it was a great placement for me in Paris. I'm pretty sure the pleasure I extract from challenging authority would have made me hell in most Parisian kitchens. French chefs really like to run their kitchen as a brigade: top down order and a very clear hierarchy. Rose put up with me quite well, to be fair.
2. The weekend prior to the end of my stage, Nance and Whit came into town. I had just seen them a few weeks prior at Whitney and Pete's wedding back in Montana. It was so much fun to see them in Europe, though. We had a great lunch at Yam'Tcha, went to my favorite market (Aligre in the 12th), biked around the city, cooked dinner with our old Bello Drive neighbors--the Sabres, and explored the city together. They spent the week in Normandy, while I finished up work/got incredibly ill. By the next weekend Alex came, I had finished work, and we spent Saturday together as a family in the city. Saturday night we dined at Spring. It was the sommelier's, Sandra, last night as well, so the wine was flowing quite freely. It was a fun family meal. Although Paris isn't my happiest place I am so happy that my family got to experience the parts of it that were a significant part of my life while I was there.
|Biking Sunday w/ Nance & Whit|
|Louvre w/ Alex|
3. Sunday saw WhitPey leave, while Nance, Al and I spent Monday at the Marché de Puces at St. Ouen. We meandered around the bric-a-brac vendors, the furniture fronts, and the millions of other stalls in the northern part of the city. For lunch we ate at Brasserie Paul Bert (not sure if it is related to the renowned steak frites place in the center of the city). There, we ran into Rocky, the institution of a waiter from a former workplace, Broder's Pasta Bar, in Minneapolis. How small the world can be.
Monday afternoon included my Ferrandi graduation. It was so much fun to see all my former classmates, catch up on how everyone was/not liking their stage (more the latter than the former), and see our school chefs one more time. The graduation was not full of pomp and circumstance. The French don't seem to be big on celebration (as can be noted from their small weddings etc). Our program organizer, Adrienne, made things even less celebratory by saying, "I am sure most of you are having doubts about your choice to come into this industry at this point." A perfect way to set a light-hearted mood.
Nance, Al and I went to Verjus Wine Bar after the graduation cocktail hour and enjoyed 4 or 5 great light plates together with a fantastic wine. It was so much fun to spend time with the 3 of us like we used to traveling to Europe. It felt really nostalgic, and even though it is 15 years (or something like that) from our original European adventure, it felt like time stood still if just for that night.
4. Gloria and I went to L'Astrance, arguably the best restaurant in Paris, the next night. It was my first Michelin 3 star restaurant (you can look this up here if you would like a minute explanation). Our good friend, Johanna, works in the kitchen there so we were lucky enough to go see the kitchen and meet the chef after the service. Very cool. We had a wonderful meal from start to finish. There are too many courses to recall, but our favorite was basically a Thai style green-papaya salad, made with a mango foam and grilled calamari. It was sublime! They also make a perfect crustacean broth (that I believe is also made at Yam'Tcha, whose chef is a protégé of L'Astrance's chef).
5. A couple days later it was off to San Sebastian, Spain with Gloria for a 5 day food adventure. We literally ate our way through that town. Each and every pintxo (tapas) bar that we deemed acceptable we set foot in, ate, drank, and moved on to the next. I ate pig's ears and duck tongue for the first time. And ate lots of joue de veau (veal cheek, one of my favorite cuts of meat). We also had a remarkable meal at Mugaritz. We began lunch at 1pm and after twenty courses finished at 5pm. I think the kitchen never gets a break. Not every course was mind-bogglingly excellent, but each had a distinct flavor and point of view (up until the desserts, which just have not been excellent anywhere we have been lately). The highlight for me was the ugliest dish visually. It was a piece of guinea fowl covered by a mustard yellow sauce that was actually a lobster duck reduction. Un. real.
|Table Art, Mugaritz|
|Sake marinated shirmp, Mugaritz |
|Garden herbs atop a mascarpone encased egg yolk, Mugaritz|
|The pass at Mugaritz|
|Dumpling with duck jus, Mugaritz|
|Duck tongue, Mugaritz (may sound disgusting, but it was amazing)|
Another special food experience in San Sebastian was our lunch at Ibai. This place only opens when the proprietor deems the quality of the product good enough. So he's closed a lot. In the five days that we were there, it was only open our last day. We know because it was 2 blocks from where we stayed, and at the recommendation of our sous chef tried to go from day 1. When it was not open on Thursday lunch, we looked at dinner, and at lunch the next day. You get the picture. We literally walked by this place every friggen day. It was never open and at some point became determined to eat there. On Monday, our last day in San Sebastian and the least likely day for it to be open, we walked by at 1230 and the lights were on! We made a reservation for a 130 lunch and stayed there until 4pm being served whatever the hell they wanted to serve us. The proprietor speaks Basque and Spanish. No English. Between Glo and I we just got in a drink order and I told the guy to serve us whatever he wanted. I heard something about fish, and that sounded good to me as we were close to the sea. The meal was special. It is in the back room, kind of speak-easy-ish, behind a tapas bar. The only other clientele was a group of 6 Basque men in the 40s-50s, and a duo of old (70s) Basque men who were something out of a caricature. Gloria dropped her napkin, didn't notice, and one of them came over to pick it up for her. The proprietor was proud of his product and cleaned our fish table side. It was a perfect way to end our time in the town of food.
|Basque Language--easy to read? Bar I got. The other part, not so much|
|The "Wind comb" at San Sebastian|
On the flip side, San Sebastian's weather was miserable. It rained everyday we were there and we spent most our time saturated. I think we had one day of visibility. It was too bad, but didn't matter so much as we were just going from one bar to another and eating and drinking our way through the town. We also met this great Irish traveler, Gerard, who was staying at the same AirBnB place we were. He hung out with us most days and added a good sense of humor to our group. Our time in San Sebastian would not have been the same without him. He was a trooper about the rain, as he comes from a life full of it and always kept our spirits up about the state of the weather.
|SUN! On the church just across from our accommodation|
|Veal Cheek at Borda Berri, one of my favorites|
|Bacon wrapped scallops at La Cuchara de San Telmo|
|La Gilda: the quintessential Basque tapa of olive, anchovy and pickled pepper|
San Sebastian is an amazing town that everyone should try to visit if remotely charged by food and drink. We were lucky enough to be there for restaurant week and ended up having a dinner for 25 euro/person. It included 3 courses, plus coffee, and wine. The amount of wine we would get was a source of debate leading up to the meal; and at 25 euro, we weren't expecting much. When we arrived at the meal (9pm) we were given the option of white or red, I chose white, Glo and Gerard each chose red. Two entire bottles were set at the table and left there. I am pretty sure if we would have asked for the other bottle of red, it would have come no questions asked or eyebrows raised. After Paris, this seemed like a steal. As we were finishing up a very good dinner there around 11:15pm, an elderly couple walked in to sit for dinner. You know you're in Spain when . . .
6. My trip to Italy in August was dual-purposed: I wanted to return to the land I loved so much the first few times around, and wanted to search for a job for the end of the year when my contract in Paris had finished. I was successful in both and left the country with a couple job offers. Upon touching base with the restaurants I wanted to work with, I decided upon one that was the most suitable in every way--Villa Bordoni. I have been in contact with them since, and the day I left for San Sebastian the proprietor emailed to notify me that bookings were down for November, so they wouldn't be busy enough to need me there. I decided I wouldn't let it ruin my time in San Sebastian; I would deal with it when I returned to Paris. And I did.
7. I put out all my feelers from the moment I got back and waited with bated breath for some reply. Sent my resume and cover letter seemingly everywhere in northern Italy. I spent a few days emailing, phoning and networking with everyone I could think of. Lots of people at the other end of the line hesitating.
8. While waiting for a response, I had a dilemma, do I go to Italy even if I don't get a job? My move out date from my apartment in Paris was quickly approaching, I only wanted to burden my friends with my presence on their couches for so long (I think I have saturated that avenue in Paris long ago--remember my Tahitian friend, Wehi, putting me up on his couch for my first month in the city?). Or do I stay in Paris and find another job for the two remaining months that I'm in Europe? That would have been the easy answer as I am familiar with the industry there. But I decided that job or not, I was going to Italy, because it is where I wanted to be. If nothing else I would go door to door upon arrival and find something in the food industry, whether it was making pasta at a factory, harvesting olives on a farm, or cooking in a restaurant (all of which I pursued in those few days of job searching), I wanted to be in Italy and out of France. So I booked a ticket. The cheapest one I could find to Italy was to Milan, so it was to Milan I headed . . . Jobless, homeless, but hopeful.
9. One of the people I contacted was someone from work at Spring, Sandy. She is Swedish, but has lived and worked in Italy in the past. Her boyfriend is from Lucca, and they just happened to plan a trip back to Lucca this past week because his parents are (finally) getting married after 25 years of being together. She came home with him for the celebration. I got an excited phone call from her on Monday saying that she found a place I could work (with staff housing); it was in Lucca, and since she was here she would pick me up at the train station to introduce me to my new chef when I arrived on Wednesday. Talk about things falling into place. I came to Lucca with no idea what restaurant I was working at, who the chef was, or where I was living. I just trusted her.
10. It couldn't have been a better decision. My new job and home are in Lucca, Italy. Restaurant L'Imbuto is located inside the Lucca Museum of Contemporary Arts. My chef is Cristiano Tomei, whom is a true lover of food, and--without a doubt--the most hands on chef I have ever had. He is actively cooking on the line for every service. We change the menu throughout service based on what he feels like (and what the guest will like). Despite the seeming haphazard nature of it all, everything seems to work really well together on the plate. Instead of calling for a dish, he directs all of us to prepare one element of his imagined plate. When we're all ready, he plates one, and we follow suit with the others. It is definitely open field running.
The best descriptor for him is a free spirit. He is a huge goof and loves to make fun of himself--I think we spend 20% of the day just laughing til our stomachs hurt, of the other 80%, 60% is laughing while working. It is such a stark contrast from my last job. I don't really feel like I'm working at all. The first few days I was hesitant to open up because I couldn't imagine a kitchen would be that fun that was putting out that quality of food. But after a few days of work, I have warmed up to it and feel less out of place in the convivial atmosphere. I'm wondering why anyone does it any other way?
But the real question after all of this--the year as a whole, now that retrospect is coming into play-- is the following: What the hell was I doing in France? Seriously. Why didn't one person say, are you sure you want to go to Paris, the city of the some of the most jaded individuals in the world? Are you sure you want to deal with the snobbishness? All the "romance," love, and lights? No thank you, not for me. I would rather be in a run down town in the Tuscan countryside, spending time getting to know locals who are excited about new people; not being sneered at in a romanticized sidewalk cafe sipping (the French's shitty excuse for) coffee, be ostracized by females my age to the point that making friends feels hopeless. To become a person I never imagined. Bitter. Sad. Miserable. Slightly self-loathing. And sneering at those who speak loudly, make friends easily (in the customs line at the MSP airport), and generally see the world through rose-colored lenses (a person I used to whole-heartedly be).
Paris as a city of romance is a farce. If you have been there and think otherwise, its because you came there with those rose-colored lenses that all those Parisians insult for sport. Its no wonder Victor Hugo was able to write a massive novel based on the misery of those in and around this city. The misery has been present for centuries.
Think I'm bitter about my experience there? Think again. Without the last 10 months, I would not nearly appreciate my seemingly short 13-hour work days right now, the lovely people in cafe that I meet on my way to work, the laughter in my current home/work place. And what I can look forward to upon my return home with the friends and family, who all are not Parisian in the best way possible. Which is to say, they are lovely. The grey of the last 10 Parisian months is only darkened in comparison to the brightness, the light, the opportunity, the love that awaits at home. What I lacked in the last year makes me realize how lucky I am to have all that I do.
I also gained in knowledge in the art of cuisine--my chosen profession, had unique and special experiences that can't be repeated, and made lifelong friends that could never have crossed my path if I had stayed put. As an aside, post rant, I would like to say that the reference to les miserables does not at all apply to any of my non-French friends I met through school at Ferrandi or work at Spring. It is most definitely not meant to diminish them/the quality of the relations I had with them. They were (almost) all great people of the most magnanimous stature surviving in the same conditions as myself. My guess is that most would probably agree with many things I have to say about Paris/ians.
I think this is enough for now. Until the next time, cheers.