Monday, April 21, 2008

Volume I Episode IX

First and foremost, the Saints schedule for next year is out. Feel free to meet me in New Orleans for Saints-Niners (Sept 28), Saints-Vikings (Oct 6th-Monday night) or Saints-Raiders (October 12th) before they go on an epic road trip for a month and a half.

Ok, now that we have taken care of the business matters, back to the blogging. So, after the Sabor Festival, I pretty much hopped on the first bus I could possibly find out of town and headed to the beach. Los Troncones, to be exact where I met up with my cousins, Kimberly and Mike, and their daughter Kailani aka Kaiboo, their friends Stewart and Lauira as well as their kids Emma and Lucy and our friends Stowe and Caroline. They had rented a super sweet beach house, which according to the owners description was meant to look like an Italian villa, but looked more to me like a big old gringo beach house with some nice gardens, lots of hired help and a pool looking over the ocean. Anyway, you can be the judge, but we definitely enjoyed it and it was a perfect vacation spot for a bunch of kids (note to friends who are about to have kids.... Dont try to take vacations that involve culture and big cities and crazy exotic locales. Rent a house, on the beach preferably, with a pool, and let them run around and go crazy. It will be easier and more pleasant for you and much more fun for them. Trust me). There isnt much to do in Troncones other than surf, eat a lot, walk on the beach, swim and fish and or sail if you have the means. I stuck to the middle three plus a few magazines and very moderate attempts at bodysurfing which mostly left me looking like a beached whale.
Unfortunately, on the way home from Troncones, a not completely unpleasant 8 -12 hour bus ride, depending on how many layovers/transfers you have to make (I had 2) and how much really bad Jorge Negrete movies annoy you, I lost/had my wallet stolen. It wasnt totally clear because I passed out on the last bus (the old 1 am departure from Queretaro) and when I got in the cab in San Miguel, the old walleto was not in the bosillo. Anyway, as you can imagine that causes a little annoyance. Not exactly easy to get a new drivers license, ATM, insurance card etc when you are in Mexico where the mail service is less than 100% completely reliable, and the good old US of A is such a paranoid police state that nothing can be done without 23 types of certified, magnetized, government monitored and documented identification.
The rest of March was pretty quiet I guess. We did an almost complete menu change, changing all of our appetizers except the mixed green salad, all of our desserts and several of our entrees. It was about time....I had been peeing red for a month. We had a beet salad on our original menu which involved cutting roasted beets with a ring mold thus sacrificing a good part of the outside rings. These would then end up in our family meals pretty much every day. Beet salad- 22 ways, beet soups, beet liquados and even an occasional meat and beef goulash type a thing. Anyway, as many of you know who enjoy the glory of the reddest veg, it tends to make your peepee red (as Cynthia's dad told me).
Another highlight of the month involved helping out on a cooking demo with the great Diana Kennedy. For anyone who has been sleeping the last 50 years, she brought Mexican cooking out from the shadows and into the light. She came here in the 1950s with her husband and wrote the original Mexican cookbook...the Cuisines of Mexico, originally published the year I was born, 1972. She has traveled all over this country from the smallest hilltop villages, to the beach pueblos to the taquerias of Mexico City studying the cuisine, asking people for their recipes and assessing the ingredients, their history and their usages. And whatever ripe age she is up to today, she still spits hot fire. First thing she said to me, after I had been introduced to her as the writer of a local blog about the opening of the Restaurant (where she has already dined 3 or 4 times) is....I hate blogs. Some bloggers were in here yesterday taking my class. Sitting here typing every word I spoke. I dont give this away. Its not free. You wanna take my class, you gotta pay for it. Don't post what I say up on the internet. Im a writer and a teacher. If you give my words away for free, what do I have left. I can't just change careers at my age......Anyway, you get the point. She went on to give a great cooking demo. We made Flor de Calabaza (zucchini flower) Tamales, some sort of marble potato dish that I forget the name of and Chicken in Green Mole which I had to stir while it bubbled and spattered all over my jacket and which she told me I could not turn down. She was cool. She told us that all of the little red Mexican potatoes are dyed red (which I knew by the fact that they always leave pink water when they are washed), that the fresh cooked garbonzo beans that you buy in the market are often dyed green, and to watch out for packaged farmers cheese, its usually made with low grade milk and almost no fat. Anyway, it was a great learning experience and a great opportunity to meet an idol. Thanks to the people at Sazon (the host of the cooking demo), and particularly Kristin West, for giving me this chance.
Tod, a friend from Barcelona came to visit. He took a lot of pictures of the Botanical Gardens. He also spent a full day waiting for the gas guys to show up and they never did. Until Saturday morning, the day before Easter, when they both came at 7am (even though they had both been called for Thursday). Nice.
My uncle Mike and Larry came to visit from New Orleans. They stayed at a really sweet B&B called Sussuro that I highly recommend to anyone coming to San Miguel. For some reason it reminded me of the French Quarter in New Orleans with its hidden back yard and lots of cool decorative ironwork. Place was dope and the breakfasts were bad ass. I had some poblano chilis stuffed with eggs that were professional restaurant tight and delicious.
Berwin's visit was pretty well documented. Great visit to the Pulque ranch, and good to know that even an observant Kosher maniac, can survive and even enjoy 36 hours in San Miguel (let alone crash a wedding).
Dude is still missing. If anyone sees a hyper miniature German Shephard with the cutest face around, grab him and bring him into the Restaurant. Free meal on the house.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Volume I, Episode VIII

from the mind of El Culo Malo

I awoke to the sounds of roosters crowing and dogs braying. All kinds of birds were chirping and the general cacophony reminded me of that great fairytale where these animals all get together and decide to form a band. The animals head out of town and start looking for gigs, but they are too much of an experimental act for anyone to show any interest. Finally, they end up cold, tired and hungry in some pre-Middle Ages town. As they walk the streets looking for somewhere to sleep, they see a light shining through the window of a dark house on the edge of the city. As the animals peer into the window, they see thieves feasting and counting money. To cut to the chase here, the animals stand one on top of each other and start making noises all at once. The combined braying, neighing, barking, crowing, etc. and the fact that when the thieves look out the window they see this grotesque shadow reflecting the stacked animals, causes the thieves to take off and run. The animals move into the house and feast and live happily ever after.

It was Monday morning in San Miguel, and although I had been partying since I arrived the day before, I felt great. The City's dryness and high altitude make life there pretty forgiving for a partyboy. Neal Cassady had not fared as well. He died by the railroad tracks on the side of the City. Many of the beatniks hung out in San Miguel back in the day, which is why a lot of people who came of age in the 60s are now retiring to San Miguel.

So if you ever plan on going to Mexico again, then you must visit San Miguel de Allende in Guanajuato. It will be extra enjoyable, if you happen to be friends with the number 1 chef in the city, who works at the number one restaurant that everyone is talking about, and all the high rollers who are down from Dallas to attend some big wedding in the Instituto del Arte that yours truly crashed told me that "oh, all the people at our hotel were telling us about the new restaurant," meaning Blake's restaurant. The governor of Guanajuato ate there with his posse last week, and I am also pleased to report that our friend has become a celebrity in San Miguel, on a variety of levels and with different strata of the City.

The restaurant is beautiful. I really don't know much about what restaurants are supposed to have, but at 10am on Sunday morning, the kitchen was very very hot even though nothing had been cooking in the restaurant since Saturday night. It's no wonder that Blake's column in the local newspaper is called "En El Estomago del Monstro." Since I only keep kosher, I could not join him in partaking in most of things he has described in this blog, but I did convince him to give me some Costco almonds, which seemed relatively kosher. [The other thing that's great about visiting Blake right now is that it gave me the opportunity to continually pepper him with questions about how he does his work, since it turns out that just like football is a great metaphor for action in any context, running a kitchen is a great metaphor for life and it's challenges and victories.]

Another kosher opportunity arose on Monday morning, when we visited El Caballero del Fruta, who every morning stands on some intersection outside of San Miguel. El Caballero is dressed to the nines and he slices his fruit with a huge machete, before doling out portions of super fresh fruit bathed in lime juice and sprinkled with a liberal dosing of chili powder. We were on our way to Escondido Place Balneario, which has signage outside with a large Pepsi logo, suggesting some affiliation with Pepsi, or perhaps respect for the brand. Hard to say, but for 80 pesos, you can spend the day in the hot springs. I went there with Blake and Culo Flaco for a couple of hours, and it was great. It got all the kinks out of my hips, and it really relaxed all of us. Apparently, Alligator Dave's 30th birthday party will be held there later this month. The Balneario can be rented for $200 for the evening. Renting a place like this in Estados Unidos would be 50 times the price. . . well, you probably couldn't rent a place like this in the Estados Unidos, and then bring in all your friends, and a really good hiphop dj.

It's just like the pulque, man, which is basically the tequila of beers. Pulque is drawn out of a large cactus plant, which starts fermenting as soon as air hits it. A liter of pulque costs about 10 pesos, and that's enough to fuck up a typical pulque drinker. Blake, Alligator Dave's girlfriend ("Lily"), Culo Flaco and I went looking for the Pulqueria, which was supposed to be this hole-in-the-wall ranch that some eccentric lady had been running for years. We were instructed to travel up the road away from San Miguel, pass a cheese place, pass an Italian restaurant, pass a Spanish restaurant, pass a line of tall trees and then make a left.

The directions left us a little lost. We took many dirt roads, spoke to some people who basically told us to get off their land, and a lady who told us that she was only cleaning the windows of the cheese store and knew nothing about a Pulqueria. Finally, we saw a bunch of kids standing around a pickup truck at a corner. Blake sent me over to the truck to see if they knew about a Pulqueria. The driver of the truck, Guillermo, asked us to follow him. He led us far off the main road, took us through some small towns, and then finally dropped us in the middle of a little town with lots of cowboys hanging out on their horses drinking 40s of dark Corona and looking grim.

I was convinced that we were going to be carjacked or kidnapped. I couldn't help to think about how when Blake and I had teleconferenced with my mother earlier that morning, the first thing she wanted to know was if I had a gun. Culo Flaco told me to calm down. He said "if Guillermo says there is a Pulqueria here, then there is a Pulqueria." As it turns out, Guillermo took us a store that sells pulque. We sampled the pulque, and I wanted to buy 10 liters, but Blake and the others talked me down to 5 liters. I also bought some socks for this punk chick I recently met, since her birthday is coming up.

With Lily's car well-stocked with pulque, we headed out of the cowboy town. As we re-approached the main road, we finally found the Pulqueria, and the sexy mamacita with the pulque-belly that was running the joint. We sat on red plastic chairs with new friends, and we drank her pulque too. Then we took a look at the plants and hung out with a burro and some baby pigs. The Pulqueria is basically a little rancho farm kind of place.

The point is that pulque will never be mass produced, because it has to be lovingly drawn out of these big cactus plants. Moreover, it ferments so fast, so it cannot travel very far. You want pulque, you go to San Miguel.

We brought the pulque back to Blake's super-sweet house. The place has something like 5 decks and they all have amazing views. We hung out on the roof, drinking pulque while the sun set. Before we knew it, because Culo Flaco was in the house, we were all speaking Spanish. And because I was there, we were eating almonds.

Previously, that morning we had gone to the market after absconding with the almonds and teleconferencing with my mother. We had Dude with us, because Blake felt bad for him, since he had been sitting at home for a few days. Blake tied Dude to a phone outside the market, and when we got back from our walk-through, Dude was totally gone. It was like one of those bad Allstate commercials, but with a dog instead of a car. The lady next to the phone said that a half-drunk Mexican man took Dude. We were not super worried, because Dude was a street dog to begin with, and it seems that he had a previous owner. The kids in Donny's school knew Dude, as "Solito," and one day, when Blake was walking Dude, some guy rode by in a truck and yelled a lot of smack.

While we were checking out the market, we ran into Rabbi Dubrovsky who was visiting from Dallas to conduct a wedding that evening. Naturally, I asked him if I could crash the wedding, but since I was dressed kind of sketchy, he was evasive about where the wedding would be. No worries though, because San Miguel is a small town, and Lily had seen them loading a lot of flowers into the Instituto del Arte.

Originally, we were supposed to get a ride to the Pulqueria with Alex, who is a super tall San Miguel gangster with a lot of nieces and nephews that eat all his food. However, when we got to Alex's house, no one responded to our knocking, so we decided to take Lily's car instead. Just as we turned onto 20 de Enero (Blake's street), we saw Culo Flaco ride by in a cab. We yelled after him, which is easy to do, since the City streets are so rocky and jagged with random speedbumps, and everyone drives really slowly. I digress with this story, because it demonstrates how San Miguel is not just a small town, but it's a small town where people constantly run into each other and what they are looking for in fun and human ways. I'd like to say that the town has this weird good energy, but maybe it's just being around Blake and the fact that his friends are pretty cool.

After the sun set and Lily had left, Blake encouraged me to change out of my skanky clothing and crash the wedding. I was hesitant. After all, in San Miguel one can get away without showering or shaving for quite some time. Why ruin a good record. It took some convincing (I didn't want to wear shoes, etc.) However, we all know Blake's power of persuasion, and before I knew it I was dressing to crash a wedding. Culo Flaco and Blake dropped me off at the Instituto del Arte, and I set about making friends with these Dallas folk. Everything went really well, and Rabbi Dubrovsky made sure that I was introduced to both families as well as the bride and the groom. The people at the wedding were super nice, and I managed to make a decent impression, albeit a pulque-addled one. The food was pretty good and kosher too, as it had been shipped from Distrito Federal the night before.

After the wedding, Blake, Culo Flaco and I went to La Cucaracha for a nightcap. When we returned to Chez Blake, we ran into Andrew and Lilian, since they had just come home from partying Saturday night. It was Sunday evening, so basically they had been partying for more than 24 hours. Their enthusiasm helped me rally, and Culo Flaco and I accompanied them to see this Norteno band in this huge venue where lots of kids in cowboy hats were dancing and the stage show included shooting fire, sparks and confetti.

We hitched a ride in the back of a pick up truck with a couple of other chicas, and headed over to this all-night bar in San Miguel called The Ring. The Ring is at the edge of a funky little square in the center of town, and guess what is on the corner of that square. Go ahead, guess. Its a Starbucks. Yep, the end is near for San Miguel, as if the high-waisted khaki-wearing preppy invasion was not enough. Now San Miguel is getting a Starbucks. It is a little hard to be pissed about the preppy retirees and other rich folk that move down here and improve the economy, even if that affects the culture of the place. It's kind of super-naive for a gringo like me to demand cultural consistency, even if I think of myself as someone who keeps it real most of the time. Maybe the Starbucks won't succeed. After all, Starbucks was never able to get it going on in Israel.

The Talmud teaches us that heaven and hell are basically the same thing. Both are metaphorically represented as well-set tables with amazing cutlery and great cuisine. The people sitting at the tables do not have elbows so they cannot feed themselves. In hell, everyone is pissed, because they are sitting there being taunted by the amazing food that they can't have. However, in heaven people are reaching across the tables and feeding each other.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Volume I Episode VII

Im just going to start with the last ten minutes of my life and we will go from there. Imagine in your minds eye, heaping, steaming piles of trash...probably about 3 feet high and rising and at least big enough in diameter to house a small pride of lions. Our 3 busiest days in the history of this little, but growing restaurant, worth of uncollected basura plus an extra Sunday and Monday to ferment...piled in bags, boxes, cannisters, tubs, barrels, sacks and satchels. I guess there is no garbage collection here in glorious San Miguel during the second half of Semana Santa also known as Good Friday, Why not throw in Saturday and Easter Sunday.
Guess who just happens to be around, along with 2 of the toughest cleaning dishwashing ladies on Earth, to haul it from one end of our football field size establishment to the other, and then lift it up to the open waiting arms of the trash man who remains firmly ensconsced, inside his truck, 10 feet off the ground. So each bag dripping chicken blood, last drops of beer bottles, dirt and incredible mounds of purple jacaronda flowers has to be lifted over head so he can reach down and grab them before flinging them behind him into his truck. Cheap plastic garbage bags oozing and seeping the dregs of a weekends pleasure into your hair and eyes.
Im not sure how many of you know this about me, but back in high school I had a little incident with the Palo Alto police force that lead to a little community service being performed. Anyway, by the luck of the draw my service, or should I say performance, was to pick up the trash, at the dump. When you have a dump that happens to lie out alongside a very windy bay, a lot of the trash tends to float and fly around fairly haphazardly. So, those of us unlucky enough to be caught serving alcoholic beverages to minors (even if we are minors ourselves), get to walk around the dump with plastic bags and recollect the flying trash. Not too glorious a job, and definitely a stinker. Anyway, to make a long story short I'm having some major dejas vu. Back then, I would come home for about a 2 hour soak in the tub, hoping to cover/clear the stench. Can't wait to see my friend Sr. Espuma tonight.
So, on with the story and opening night. The funny thing is, all I can remember about opening night is that a pair of tongs got dropped in the deep fryer behind me and I got hot grease spattered all over the back of my neck. I didn't deal with it so well at the moment, got a little hot under the collar, I guess. It was a little shocking, but accidents happen, especially on opening night. Anyway, I think I was supposed to take notes on all this stuff, so three weeks later when I went to write about it I still had some memories left. I guess the fact that I dont means that things went pretty smoothly or I have a pretty bad memory or both.
We decided to organize the kitchen so that all of the appetizers come off one side of the line and all of the entrees (except for the vegetarian pasta which comes off the appetizer side since they already have a pot of boiling water using up a burner for mushroom raviolis) off the other. I work in the middle on the big wood grill searing off salmon, steaks and quail as well as cooking the rainbow trout dish.
The food seems to be mostly successful as far as the clientelle goes. The funny thing about working in a restaurant is that its always hard to tell from the kitchen if the food is really good or bad and if people are truly enjoying it. You usually just hear vague positive commentary from the waiters. Yeah, people love it. So and so said its the best chicken they ever had. Things like that. And then occasionally you get something sent back. But even then, you tend to convince yourself that this customer is just picky or crazy or on a power trip. What do you mean that pork chop is overdone? Its pink in the middle. Any pinker and people are going to worry about trichinosis. Were in Mexico for Gods sake. Most people here like their meat cooked to shoe leather. I mean what do customers know anyway. Most people are such plebians when it comes to food. They've never had a good steak. They wouldn't know a proper Caesar salad if it slapped them in the nose. Thats why I never trust other people's restaurant suggestions. Who are you to say whether this place is good or bad? What do you know about French food? Or Mexican food for that matter? Yeah, sure, its not like your mom's. First of all, we arent in your mom's house, so its not always easy to make things the way mom does. We cant cook one tortilla at a time. But also, just cause mom makes tasty food, doesn't mean that its right. As subjective as food is, there is definitely, or at least usually, a right and a not so right. Sure, you can make Cassoulet with chicken apple sausage and turkey bacon, but it ain't right. It might even taste good, but its still not Cassoulet as made in the south of France. This is a kind of hard concept for many people since whether or not food is good or bad is so subjective. But, there is an objective right and wrong. It might be wrong thats more easy to define than right, but still.
I almost never eat in the restaurants I cook in (except for family meal). It just feels wierd. I mean I don't think many strippers come into the bar at the club on their day off work. You have already been so entrenched in that scene, so involved in every meal that goes out, that you know the flavors by heart, even if you have never sat down and eaten the dish in a civilized fashion. So, I don't really know what it feels like to be a diner at the Restaurant, but I can say that pretty much every time I step out into the dining room during service, I get some kind of ovation and people usually stop me for some sort of compliment. I think people here in San Miguel are really appreciative of what we are trying to do and are definitely thankful for a new restaurant experience. So, thats a good start. And every day we are becoming more and more crowded. Breaking our previous nights record almost every night or at least week to week (as in this Thursday was better than last Thursday).
One of the things that I have also seen in the opening of the Restaurant is the infinite value of forethought, foreplanning and flexibility. First of all, you never get any time back. Once the place is open, there are so many challenges to get through every day, you never have time to write lists or read recipe books or search for new equipment. If its not in house and more or less ready to roll when you open the doors, good luck ever finding the time to go back and start from scratch. Of course, that being said, how do you know things like consistency of product, or timing of pick up or difficulty in repetition until you've done something a bunch of times. Therefore you have to stay flexible. This dish isnt working. The macaroni and cheese is too hard to cut in a ring mold. It gets too dry when it cooks. Ok, lets switch to bread pudding. You gotta be ready for things like that. And any chef worth his or her salt knows a few fall back on recipes for a money starch, protein or veg that they can count on when the going gets tough. Sometimes its also good to know a few cookbooks you can count on. Places where you trust the taste of the chef and know that when he or she writes a recipe, its going to come out perfect.
Speaking of which, the second week of work was all about the Sabor Festival and the Friday night dinner we hosted. The main course we were serving was to be a lamb 4 ways inspired by none other than Thomas Keller, who includes a pretty vague chef only description/recipe of lamb 4 ways in his bible, the French Laundry Cookbook.
We came in Monday for a big lamb butchering party. We had received 7 whole spring lamb from our main man Ricardo Vega the week before which had been patiently drying/dripping in the walk-in. First we removed the tenderloin so that it wouldn't get sliced or scarred in the less delicate processes. Next we pulled out all of the internal organs....kidney, livers, lungs, heart and gallbladder. We soaked the livers in milk to try to cut some of the gaminess and stored the rest for a family meal treat. We carefully cut off the front and hind legs conscientious to not lose any of the precious meat around the joints as these lamb only weighed between 20 and 25 pounds dressed (meaning without head and guts but with all of their bones) and we were hoping to feed 12 people with each (we would actually receive 2 more later in the week as our original limit of 80 people quickly jumped up to our absolute maximum capacity of 100). We then cut the neck away from the rest of the body and carefully removed the the loin (to be boned out later) with our trusty bone saw (a large hand held saw with a strong, sharp but somewhat flexible blade). We next cut across the ribs to make a double rack which we would later bring to the butcher shop to have the cut smoothed out with their large electric table bone saw as well as having them separate the rack from the chime. Frenching a rack of lamb is one of the more time consuming and fastidious parts of the boning process. Using a boning knife you cut across the rack at the level on the bone above which you plan on removing all fat, meat and sliver skin. You then score down the back side of each bone with the knife insuring that you cut through all of the silver skin. You then tear the meat and silver skin off the bone from back to front leaving nothing but clean bone on the top of the rack. If you never done it, trust me, its a project. Especially on 14 racks. We then made a stock from all of the bone and meat scraps which slowly simmered over night.
Tuesday, we trimmed up the legs and loins making sure to remove all silverskin, excess fat (which there is almost none on these baby lamb) and tough sinewy pieces. We also tried to shape the pieces to make them equal and visually appealing. This left us with a few pounds of usable scrap meat (from the 7 lamb) which we then ground to be made later into forcemeat. We braised the forelegs and necks in the lamb stock, browning them in a hot oven (they were too large and unwieldy to brown at all efficiently in a pan) before slowly simmering them in stock, red wine, thyme and bay leaf for 4 hours.
Wednesday, we picked the lamb meat from the front legs and neck and then reduced the stock they had cooked in for several hours to make a thick sauce known as a demiglace. Meanwhile we cut a small brunoise of carrots, zucchini and onion which were sweated in butter until soft. Once our stock reduction had reached a stage of gelatinousnous (check that word out Meredith) which we thought would bind our rilletes, we folded the picked meat into the demiglace along with the brunoise of vegetables and some thyme, chives and parsley. This meat mixture, which we decided to call lamb rilletes (although technically a rillete is cooked and served in its own fat I believe) was then rolled up in saran wrap into 16" tubes of about 11/2" in diameter. These would then be refrigerated for 24 hours during which time they would stiffen up enough to be cut into cakes.
We next removed the thigh bone from the rear lamb legs (this makes the legs easier to carve since you dont have to work around the femur bone, but you retain the juices by cooking the meat still attached to the shank bone) and smeared the inside with mustard. These legs were then marinated with olive oil, coarse ground black pepper, sliced white onions, thyme, rosemary and shaved garlic.
Thursday we made a forcemeat from the ground lamb by pureeing it with cream and a little bit of madiera, salt and pepper until we had a light fluffy mousse. We then piped this farce into our deboned and butterflied (when you cut across a piece of meat horizontally making it both twice as thin and twice as large in circumference) loins. We lay the tenderloin across the center and carefully rolled the entire package up (the tenderloin is now the centerpiece of this spiral) before wrapping the whole kitten caboodle three times in caul fat (caul fat is the a lacy web of fat that surrounds the intestines of a pig. It is commonly used in French charcuterie to envelop a meat that doesn't have enough fat itself and/or which needs some sort of wrapping to hold together. And if you think it is easy to find in Mexico you got another thing coming. Luckily, our boys at Nueva Aurora supersweet Carniceria were eventually able to understand our crazy descriptions and figure out what the hell the wierd gringos were talking about and then come through with some beautiful tela just in the nick of time). We also made 100 little flaky tartlette shells, 10 lbs of roasted garlic, lime, herb compound butter with which we would baste our Australian lobsters and 2 gallons of rose geranium pastry cream.
Friday, before service, we cut and breaded the rillete cakes with flour, egg and panko. Our 400 lobsters came in live the night before, so we had to clean them, cut them in half which was done with this cool bread knife stand which Ricardo found at an antique store, and then stuff each half with our "special" butter. We also cut a gallon and a half of tomato concassee (skinless seedless super suanee tomato cubes), pickfresh fruied through, washed and dried 3 kilos of organic baby arugula, piped and decorated 100 individual tartlettes with 3 kinds of ultrafresh berries from our friend in Michoacan. We made a Mexican version of a French spring vegetable medley with baby zuchini, braised baby carrots, cebollita onions, fava beans and cherry tomatoes as well as a basil oil to decorate the plates. We picked pansies, chive tips and thyme from our herb garden to use as garnish and made a rice wine vinaigrette to add some contrasting acid to our lobster plates.
The service itself involved one kitchen cranking out plates of 8 lime and roasted garlic butter drenched lobster halves roasted in a very high heat oven with a salad of tomato concassee and baby arugula. The other kitchen then created the lamb 4 ways entree.... searing the caul fat encased loins, grilling the unadorned beautiful baby racks, roasting the mustard and herb crusted legs and pan frying the rillete cakes. They carefully positioned one slice of each of these over a swash of puree of potato and fennel which held in place the "ratatouille" of baby vegetables. The plate was then sauced with some of the reduced lamb sauce and garnished with basil oil and thyme. Dessert followed....Individual fresh fruit tartlettes with geranium pastry cream and a drizzle of mesquite honey.
All in all a pretty nice meal for the high plains of central Mexico. Definitely a highlight of my career utilizing a lot of the skills, techniques and moves Ive acquired over the years. Unfortunately the pictures taken by all of the fancy professional photographers have yet to show up so in the meantime you will have to make do with what I got.
Finally, just a note that parts of this blog, as of this weekend, were officially published in one of the local newspapers, called the Atencion, in a column appropriately titled "Belly of the Beast".

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Volume I Episode VI

Sunday, March 2, 17:03:53

Man, its been a while. I think Im out of blogging shape. Anyway, now that my grammar, punctuation and most importantly, paragraph structure, have been adequately chastised and corrected, we can return to the business at hand. First and foremost we need to discuss 2 critical Saints offseason acquisitions. Randall Gay, cornerback, formerly of the almost world champion New England Patriots, and Jonathon Vilma, linebacker, former Pro-Bowler and Defensive Rookie of the Year, from the Jets . Good to see the focus this offseason is on defense. Sometimes, when I get lonely, or miss home or my people or my life at 401 Detroit Street, its good to think about the Saints, and all the glory, joy, pain, tears, anguish, heartbreak, jerseys, paraphanalia and tequila they have brought to my life. Ok, now, back to the story.
So, since Meredith left, the Restaurant, has gone from dream to reality. She was a guest at our first practice dinner, which was also a thank you to the owners of the building and store in which the restaurant is housed (sollano 16). That dinner, went quite well, as you can witness by the glory of the pictures in the last episode. We continued last week with a series of dinners for various friends and investors to hone our skills, practice our coordination between front and back of the house and iron out the kinks.
In my mind one of the most overlooked aspects of restaurant organization is the job or task of the host and/or reservationist. On our second practice dinner, the ship sunk(to put it succinctly) as we tried to seat all 24 guests within a fifteen minute period. It wasn't anyone in particulars fault. All the guests were friends of the owners and wanted a tour, or wanted to hang out for a drink or whatever. Therefore, nobody wanted to be the first to sit and nobody wanted to be the last. Anyway, the difference in the kitchen (and the front of the house) between receiving orders spaced 5 or 10 minutes apart and being hit all at once is huge. You very quickly realize all of the issues when 4 or 5 orders come in at once. No space for plating. No space for cooking (only 6 burners on each side of the line several of which are used up with a bain marie - double boiler used to keep sauces and starches like polenta or mashed potatoes warm- as well as a pasta pot, as well as a stack of pans that wont fit on the shelf above the line). 12 burners may seem like a lot to your average home cook. But when you think about an average restaurant plate...protien, starch, vegetable and sauce (let alone messing around with two different vegetables or sauces or garnishes) and each of them needs to go from cold or room temperature to hot and glossy and seasoned in a matter of minutes you can imagine how we can go through some serious pans and burner space. Most restaurants have at least 10 saute pans in each of 2 or 3 different sizes depending on the number and type of dishes to be picked up at once in each.
Different pick-up times for different dishes is a whole nother complicated aspect. For instance, searing and cooking a hind leg of rabbit in the oven takes much longer than sauteeing a filet of red snapper on the plancha. Grilling, resting and refiring a 1 inch thick piece of steak to medium rare, takes even longer. Which takes longer, tossing a green salad and stacking it on a plate or frying 3 balls of brandade? Depends on the cook, the fryer and the plate-up style (some chefs want you to dress and stack a salad leaf by leaf. Don't bruise the lettuce!. These things (some people call it communication) all need to be figured out kitchen by kitchen and cook by cook. So, that adds to the confusion. Especially, when the kitchen has 2 open doors to the outside, as ours does, which allow the cold air in to cool off the hot food within minutes or seconds. Not to mention cooks speaking English, Spanish, a little bit of culinary French, ghetto slang (English and Spanish) and a little hungover mumbling. I cant imagine what it must be like working in a kitchen in a country where there are like 43 dialects. It was bad enough in Barcelona where we had Catalan, English, Spanish and French whipping around non-stop.
Occasionally, I end a night in the kitchen not wanting to talk to anyone about anything. Pretty much stomping out like a spoiled kid who had his playstation taken away. That was night two. I just take this cooking thing real seriously for some reason (I mean, its only food) and it takes a minute to step back and get perspective.
Anyway, I guess thats what makes this business hard. If we could do it right on the second night, there would be a lot more excellent restaurants in the world. There is no formula (other than to make money - like McDonalds) for the independent restauranteur. Its about caring, patience, perseverence, thinking, evolving, flexibility, vision, reaction and hard work. Luck helps, although, it seems pretty rare.
A couple of more practice dinners later in the week helped smooth out some of these ruffles. The only thing I can remember of much siginificance is that we ran out of water two nights in a row. Not exactly how you want to end a night in a restaurant. It kind of cuts into your cooking, dishwashing, beverage service, etc. Not to mention toilet flushing and handwashing. Anyway, its not always easy to get to the bottom of these problems. Our dishwasher, seemed to think that there are 2 kinds of water service in town. One that is 12 hour service pumping water from the street into your underground storage well (cistern)which can then fill your tenacos (the big unsightly water tanks that are on the roof of every building in San Miguel) from midnight to noon. The other is called business service which is 24 hour. All we had to do was change our service to solve the problem. Sounded good and fine until the people at the water service had no idea what we were talking about. Other people said that we didnt have enough storage. The only solution was to buy more tenacos or expand our underground water storage. Neither of these options really sounded that fun. Tanks are big and not that easy to hall up and install on the roof and need additional pumps and pipes and everything else. Expansion of the cistern is even less appealing involving tearing through concrete and digging up big tracks of the almost finished restaurant. Luckily, it turned out that the problem was with the electrical pump from our underground tank to our tenaco. As you can imagine this little bump in the road caused a little forehead grabbing and hair pulling out on the part of Donnie and Cynthia.
Ive been helping Donnie work out a dessert menu that is both up to the standards of the savory fare and easy to prepare and execute. Donnie, like myself and lots of other chefs, leans way out to the savory side with little love, patience or comprehension of the sweet art of pastry. Its a completely different world. More hocus pocus, chemistry, turning water into wine than what we do in the savory kitchen. Baked dishes dont evolve slowly like savory dishes. You cant taste each component, reseason as you go, and make mid stream adjustments like you can when making a stew or soup. You put it in the oven and you pray that it works. And high altitude effects pastry like the wind effects disc golf. IT goes from fair and comprehendable to complete randomness. IT effects every aspect. Additionally, unlike savory food, sweets seem to me to be much more black and white. Its either right or wrong. So, not only can you not fix a problem midway, its trash if its not right. Our current menu includes a goat yogurt and mesquite honey panna cotta with strawberry soup and mixed berries (the berries are pretty incredible. We get them from this superstar farmer in Michoacan who also supplies us with quail and has the best mangoes Ive ever eaten. When he and his wife came in to deliver our goods this week, they gave me at least a 45 minute sermon about the mountains in which they live and grow, how to care for my berries, and the 20 types of avocadoes they offer), chocolate caramel tartlette with cajeta ice cream (the almond crust is still one of those work in progress things), apple strawberry crisp with vanilla ice cream (this is the kind of dessert that is like money in the bank. Its easy, tasty, stores and reheats very well, and is relatively cheap and low on the labor) and a shaker lime pie with geranuium (from our herb garden) cream (Im not sure how many people in Mexico know what a Shaker is, but it doesnt really matter since that didnt make it into the Spanish menu translation. Anyway, its almost a good dessert. Mexican limes seem to have a more bitter skin than the lemons the Shakers used in making this dessert originally. We are trying to soak them for a few days in cold water to remove the bitterness. )
So, you may ask, whats going on outside of the restaurant? Not much. We are into the 70-80 hour weeks of opening. Some might call it the ides of March. Its like harvest time...the hard work, the big pay off, the glory or disappointment. The social world of my people in San Miguel seems to axis around a bar called Limerick. San Miguel, like New Orleans, has a pretty active, vehement, and nocturnal, drinking crowd. Occassionally, Ill put in a night at Limerick. Check in with how the rest of the world lives. I try to make my exit before 2, the witching hour aka the tipping point. Before 2 its social, fun, hanging out, catching up. After 2, you never know where its going. Some crying, some heated talks about the fate of the world, some back room antics, some chest puffing tough guy shenanigans, and worst of all, daylight. I mean, if professional football teams impose a curfew, to keep their players fresh, game ready, and out of trouble, why shouldn't I.
So this week we have been getting geared up for the opening. lists, purveyor lists, prep lists, station lists, employee lists, recipes. What dishes are we gunna make. How many are we gunna make each night. What ingredients are needed for each dish. How are those ingredients prepped (washed, dried, skinned, diced, sifted, cored, peeled.....). Where do we get those ingredients. Do they deliver. What if they are out of that ingredient. Who or what is the back up. What size do we want. Who is going to pick it up. Whats the best route to make the maximum stops with the minimal driving and traffic. How can we pay...... Its incredible how much fetching you do to open a restaurant.
For instance, Tuesday morning we went to the Taingis market to start. Actually, before we even made it to Tainguis we stopped at a butcher shop in a tiny little Colonia (kind of a village or neighborhood within a town). Pretty cool when you get to custom design your pork chops. We would like 4 11-bone pork loins with a 1/2 inch fat cap left on (we could say this because the butcher had the whole pigs hanging in his refridgerated store room right where we could see them). Not like the butchers at my local market at home who probably couldnt point out which part of the pig the loin is in. I mean, if you need another pork loin, this guy calls the farm (about 30 miles away in Dolores), the farmer slaughters a pig, and you get your meat the next day. At home, first of all, the pork is coming out of a cryovaced package. Second of all, if they want more pork for your order, the pull it from their freezer, or call their supplier (a local distributor) who then pulls it from their fridge or freezer. And if they are out as well, they call their supplier ( a meat packing plant probably), who pulls it from their fridge or freezer. The meat we eat is so far from the pig, its no wonder it has a different name.
So, after the butcher, we head over to SuperGuapos supersweet iron works. SuperGuapo built us the most bad-ass legitimate grill three California white boys (Donnie, Andrew and I) have ever seen. A big old 3 ft square iron grill with a huge rolling drawer underneath to store wood (we are mostly burning mesquite although we throw in some pine from broken down packing crates, oak from random dead trees, and charcoal as well). Its really hard to be even remotely tough or manly when you are hanging out with a dude who makes cast iron grills and is wearing a red puffy vest, matching red truckers cap (not from a vintage store like all you San Francisco wanna bes. This thing is the real deal from some sort of huge steel works that probably employs 50,00 people or so in some sort of half step above slavery type conditions and kills off ten or twenty endandgered species a year without thinking twice) and cowboy boots polished with the blood of dying roosters. This guy is so tough his pit bulls are nice. He has such a complete disdain for paperwork and any sort of drawings or plans, it really brings a new perspective to the American business ideal. Anyway, after Donnie foolishly and somewhatly meekly tries to argue with SuperG over the barbeque price, we grab our big nylon shopping bags and head across the street to buy our produce. Guapo yells out at us as we leave in Spanish grabbing his huevos for extra emphasis "Where are you pussies going? Only grandmothers carry shopping bags!¨ I guess Im not going to try to tell him that he's the star of my blog.
Im not sure how many grannies lug bags as big or heavy as we did. Packed full of everything from lemongrass bought from the herbalist, to quail eggs (I assume they were quail...they looked like them) from the lady who sells all kinds of little parakeets and other exotic birds, to mesquite honey which of course had to spill all over my shoes and honeycomb to 50kg sacks of onions and carrots (those we admitedly did not haul around with us). ITs a pretty sweet market. You want stolen drills of any sort, they've got em. T-shirts with pictures of a plane crashing into a tall building and the slogan Just Do It, they've got those too. Barrettes, shampoo, chili covered tamarind balls, mops, random electrical equipment, gummy worms, puppies, all kinds of jeans with rhinestone pockets (ask Mer about that one), you name it, the Tianguis pretty much sells it.
Next stop was at a random little organic produce, chicken and wine store in a tiny back alley off a street near my house. What inspires a person in Mexico to start an organic store in a back alley of a random neighborhood is still way beyond my comprehension. Especially one that only has about 8 different items, maybe 6 or each type. The day we were there, they had 3 bunches of beets, about 12 white onions, 2 chicken legs, a few heads of broccoli, 4 or 5 heads of lettuce, a dozen eggs and maybe one other thing. I could use all that in one meal for 4.
Next stop was the little cheese shop who is supplying us with our goat yogurt as well as 3 locally made cheeses for our cheese plate. The place is called Luna de Queso and the cheese is pretty pimping. I guess the woman who owns it is the daughter of two former veterinarians and current cheesemakers. Although they are now seperate, both parents make some of the best cheeses in Mexico. They apparently did some studying in France, and it shows. The goat milk camembert is tangy, creamy, rich and smooth (and I should know having spent a few days engorging myself at the camembert festival in Normandy). We are also using an organic sheep's milk Manchego made by some friends and a cow's milk pont l'eveque. That all gets slapped up on a plate with some local hand made quince paste (known as membrillo here in Mexico) and some of the mesquite honeycomb.
My final point about all of these pick-ups and shopping and purveyors is that the only people who have really screwed us badly so far in our shopping quest have been the two large corporate outfits with whom we have tried to order some of our dry good and dairy supplies. Both ended up being so far behind in their deliveries that we were forced to go and pick shit up off their trucks while they were parked in front of other restaurants. Same crap just like in the states. High minimums, terrible customer service, crappy products, high prices and the illusion of convenience with absolutely no flexibility or compassion. Fuck Sysco and the corporate food oligarchy.
That was all before noon on Tuesday. Needless to say between then and now we did some major prepping. We have a pretty cute little staff. Lots of Mexican ladies of varying ages from about 20 to at least 60. Unlike some of the dishwashers Ive encountered at home, these ladies have absolutely no compunction with washing linen and ironing it by hand, cleaning bathrooms, scrubbing walls and floors, carrying big sacks of garbage out to the street (the garbage truck around here comes around every afternoon and is preceeded by a young kid who rings a bell to let you know to drag out your garbage bags and load the truck yourself.), washing lettuce three times, peeling huge sacks of garlic etc. If you are getting paid by the hour, it should be all the same. Work is work as long as its not actually painful or degrading or disgusting or whatever.
Alright, I gotta go now. Carnitas is calling. You will have to wait for the exciting story of our opening

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Volume I Episode V

Hello everyone from your guest blogger, Meredith.

My missions with this guest blog are threefold:

1. demonstrate that formatting can be fun, so that the witty but long-winded regular author of the words you see here, may be persuaded to throw the rest of us a paragraph break every now and then

2. try to keep up with the Jones´, or Jerems` in this case, as I understand that his guest appearance among Blake`s missives home from Spain was a major hit


3. add my humble impressions of San Miguel and the nascent restaurant venture.

So, I´m off.

See, indenting feels good :)

My own arrival to San Miguel was stymied a bit by weather. I arrived in Houston, but ended up with a canceled flight to Leon (apparently the state of Guanajuato has a curfew, no planes landing past midnight- or else they are grounded?). So I spent a night in the Hampton Inn in Humble, Texas. It was humble, but I enjoyed all 4 hrs of sleep Igot. Arrived safely in Mexico the next day, but naturally, without my checked bag. (Bag arrived the following day, another Mexican adventure not worth wasting my precious blog space).

BUT, Blake WAS there at the airport, and we had a very happy reunion.We drove the 1.5 hrs back to San Miguel de Allende (SMA) in his boss´car, and then spent the afternoon hiking around the hills of SMA, enjoying the views and the crazy shaped cactus collection of the botanical garden. The following day was my first venture to the hot springs, I think Blake has talked about these already. They were more swimming pool-esque than I expected, but fed by all natural hot springs, and very relaxing. Blake orchestrated home cooked deliciousness for lunch and dinner that day. Oh, I miss home-cooked deliciousness.

AND THEN, the following night, I got to be one of the first people served in the new restaurant (called The Restaurant, in case you weren´t clear). Five courses served expertly to myself and the owner of the property the restaurant is on, and some of her friends and co-workers. Ceviche & dayboat scallops, portabello ravioli in a slow cooked onion broth, salmon on a bed of lentils, beef filet and mac & cheese (Ma Belle, it tastes even better in mexico!), and then a panna cotta with fresh berries and edible pansies (Reba, wish you were therefor the p.c.). Are y'all jealous? As far as I'm concerned, this is taking the cuisine in this town to a whole new level. You may not think I can be an expert on SMA cuisine, having been here less than aweek, but you´d be wrong. The Restaurant is still in its very early stages, doing private parties only, but hoping to ramp up to full (or full-er menu) soon. Stay tuned...

In my non-restaurant hours, I have kept myself busy wandering around on the cobbled streets, poking around in tons of chachki stores, attending a pilates class, visiting open air markets, and getting a fabulous massage, of course. I've been enjoying meeting the cast of characters in Blake's life these days -- as you all know, he has a wonderful knack for befriending the good ones. I leave tomorrow, but I'm looking forward to coming back soon.

Thanks for reading. Send a few comments my way, kay?