Thursday, December 13, 2012

Culinary Kindness

It happened so quickly I almost didn't know how to react. This evening I was enjoying a meal with some friends at a local Thai restaurant when this guy and his kid come in. They sit down at their table and are quickly greeted by the wait staff. The waitress is a friendly, sweet spirited young Thai lady. After retrieving drinks from the kitchen for the two, she quietly asks them if they are ready to order. After about 5 seconds of uncomfortable silence the man barks " Yes I want the fragrant chicken with the onions, peppers and yeah, I want to show you how I want it prepared..." I turn to see mister white hair flip open his 'not so trendy' flip phone and begin to sort through pictures. " I want it made like this, I want it made like I make it at home!" He barks...

Did I hear that right? Not only did Powder bark at this kind waitress like she was mowing his lawn, but he wants her to quote " make it like he makes it at home"? Are you for real? Did he really just say that? To add insult to injury we then get to hear this curmudgeon complain to his 14 yr old daughter about how her friends have no respect for his home when they come over. Really? Respect?

This brings me to the topic of this week's rant...something I like to call 'Culinary Kindness'.

Imagine you are a waitress or waiter. You've just clocked in on the clock and are set to start work. You greet customers as they walk in the door. Short ones, tall ones, skinny get the picture. And for the most, most of the customers are smiling and at a minimal...courteous to you.

As the evening progresses, the crowd begins to build. You are handing out menus, taking up empty plates and pouring tea. While to the untrained eye it seems very chaotic. But you've got this. You are able to be courteous, welcoming and prompt in being a server. All is going well till you hear the sound of what might as well be fingers on a chalkboard. 'Klink, klink, klink...' Above the sound of table side chatter and forks against plates can be heard the sound of rudeness..'Kilnk, klink...klink'

Out of your peripheral vision you notice a man raising his arm above his head. Say he isn't...Yes, he has raised his glass of ice and is shaking it at you. Like a baby rattling their sippy cup, this 50 year old man is rattling his glass.

What in God's green earth would posses a grown person to act like this? Here's one better...A dear friend of mine was responsible for catering a wedding and provided the meal and desserts. As the caterer and her staff dipped into the kitchen to bring more food out for the guests, a woman appeared in the kitchen. My friend asked "Hi, can we help you?" The woman responded " Yes, I need to get some A1 steak sauce." My friend who had provided a delicious meal consisting of roasted pork and assorted vegetables responded " I'm sorry, we don't have any A1.." (obviously curious as to why anyone would want steak sauce on barbecued pork but I digress) The woman placed her hand on her hips and exclaimed " Daddy has to have his A1. He won't eat meat without it!" My friend, rather puzzled again repeated "sorry we don't have any" The woman began to wrinkle her nose as she snipped " We'll somebody has got to find us some!"

And to that I my friend, no they don't. Now I'm not saying that if you order a steak medium rare and it comes out charred black that you don't inquire with your waitress about perhaps something that went wrong with the order. But this growing issue of being such rude and entitled babies in restaurant and the food scene has got to stop! Do we even realize how hard it is to work in the food industry? From the chef behind the scenes to the waitress pouring your coffee, it is hard work.

"But when I pay for a meal, I expect service!" some will cry. Your absolutely right. But that service is not a license to be a jerk. For some reason we put on our best manners when we meet complete strangers at social events but find it quite easy to be rude to strangers who are our wait staff at restaurants. I recall an occasion in which I was eating with friends and one of the friends's spouses had gotten a steak that wasn't so enjoyable to her. As the perky little twenty something waitress dropped by our table and asked "How is everything?" My friend's spouse replied "This steak sucks!" The color in the waitresses face drained right before us. "Um...I'm sorry. Would you like me to take it back?" the waitress asked. " No, I just wanted you to know it sucks...." she replied.

How many of us know incidents like this where we 'just wanted them to know'? Here's a novel idea, when someone is trying to provide a solution, accept it. That waitress didn't cook your steak. Furthermore, insulting or being rude will not bring about a happy server. (I always have to warn folks, be kind to your wait staff...they can touch your food!)

It is true, going out to eat is not just about the food. It is also about the experience. The wait staff, the cook, the management...they are all inviting you in to eat in their kitchen. Whether it is a conscious effort, the true goal is to be hospitable and to provided an enjoyable dining experience. When a customer or one of the staff of the restaurant is a jerk, it hinders the flow of enjoyment. The customer that makes it hard on the wait staff will also make it hard on the next customer that comes in. The stress that is carried over from an incident of rudeness will affect the emotional atmosphere.

Why am I saying this? Because your waitress can't. The manager..can't. But it needs to be said. There is no law on the books that says just because you paid $9.95 for that plate of chicken fingers that you can be rude and it be acceptable. Show some culinary kindness. Be nice to your servers. Oh yeah..Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Holidays and Happy Kwanza! Eat Local!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Lessons learned from Anthony Bourdain

As a fan of writer and chef Anthony Bourdain , this past week was very bittersweet. On one end I was privileged to see him live in Memphis as he shared stories and anecdotes from his travels at the Orpheum Theater. One a sad note though, last night was the final broadcast of his show No Reservations.

I have been a follower of Tony since I first read his book A Cook's Tour back in 2001. The book chronicled his travels around the world to find various cuisines. As his popularity has grown, Bourdain developed quite a reputation for being cynical and arrogant. Bourdain's first book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly gave insight into the mind of a stressed out and jaded chef. Bourdain made several people mad as he penned several 'secrets' of the culinary industry. His words also spoke volumes to cooks, chefs and kitchen workers as he spilled the truth of what it is like to work in the food industry. Tony soon garnered a reputation as the 'bad boy' of chefs.

As I followed Tony's writings, it became apparent that he was changing into someone different. He stopped using drugs. He began to try to live a healthier lifestyle. He began to travel around the world to capture the culture of cuisine from various people. His experiences and his encounters with world cultures slowly began to erode away at the prideful shell he had once wore.  His experiences with other cultures took him from being a selfish addict that lived to spit venom and criticism to a witness of the world around him. He soon began to see that there are truly, other ways of being.

So if I may, let me wax philosophically for a few. While Tony still thinks a lot of himself and is not the icon of humility, he has experienced some life lessons that I think we can all learn from :

We should see members of other cultures as 'people' not simply as 'exotic'.

One of the real temptations in interacting with members of other cultures is to get caught up in the aesthetics of the unfamiliar. Someone wearing colorful beads, a veiled burka or ornamental tattoos can appear to be 'exotic' if we are not used to seeing them. However at the end of the day, they are not simply symbols of a people group. They are people. They are mothers and fathers. They are daughters and sons.

We should avoid being 'ethnocentric' 

Being ethnocentric is simply thinking that one way is the only way of being. While it may be tempting to think that we in the West have it all together as we watch the 'poor ways' of living of the world's other cultures, it is an error to think that we have the monopoly on living correctly. After all, we are the culture that pays sports figures millions of dollars while teachers and police officers have to take second jobs to make ends meet. We don't exactly have our priorities straight.

We should learn to appreciate diversity

It is easy to become jaded at the word 'diversity' as many of us equate it with stifling mandatory training classes for employees at most major work companies. Critics declare that 'cultural diversity' is a buzzword for being force fed other ways of living. Truly appreciating cultural diversity is accepting that the world is an amazing place of different 'tribes' with our own customs, rituals and worldviews.

When members of a culture share, show respect 

Unfamiliar foods from unfamiliar cultures may seem 'scary' or 'intimidating'. And while it may be tempting to turn up your nose or show disgust, remember someone is giving of themselves when they share their food with you. Foods, practices and customs may appear 'strange' when we are not familiar with them but if you are being offered to take part in any of them, remember you are being trusted. Show respect. Eat the chicken head.

Understand that you represent your culture

One of Bourdain's best stories he told in Memphis centers around how other cultures view our culture in the West. He explained how a goat herder in the Middle East who works very hard to feed his family happens to see something from American television like Adam Richmond's 'Man vs. Food'. He watches as this big guy funnels chicken wings while a host of frat boys cheer him on. He sees him eat all of this food and notices that not only is he eating enough to feed a village but that he's not even enjoying it. He's sweating and wincing in pain. He thinks about the hard work that he has to do to simply feed his family a little as he watches the uber-indulgence of the West on his television. He thinks to himself " I'm going to join Al-Qaeda!"

Humorous yet poignant. How we choose to interact with other cultures affects how are perceived.

Yes, even from the life of a cynical, self indulgent chef we can learn how to be better foodies, better citizens and better humans. Well done Mister Bourdain. Well done.


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Pizza on Chinese Buffets: Hinderances to local food culture

This rant will probably get me in trouble with some of you. It is not intended to shame or judge but it is instead a plea to open minds and open palates.

As we take a drive through the culinary highways and byways of West Tennessee, there seems to be some prevailing attitudes and behaviors that might perhaps 'stifle' the growth of the food culture. It becomes apparent as I watch the closing of locally owned restaurants and the opening of cookie cutter chain establishments. It also can be seen in what I like to call the 'syncretism' of foods among local establishments where foods like 'meatloaf' are found paired with ethnic foods like 'lo mein' or where an order of  Mole Poblano at a Mexican restaurant comes with a 'side of fries'....As Buffalo Springfield said " There's something happenin here, what it is ain't exactly clear..."

In looking at the West Tennessee region it becomes apparent that there is a 'hot list' of foods and restaurants that are popular among patrons. Some of these include:

  • Places that claim to serve 'homemade country cooking' but are truly serving fast food, canned sugar coated vegetables and deep fried meats. The traditional 'Meat and Three' typically ranges from dishes like meatloaf, fried chicken, poppy seed chicken (how country is that?) and country fried steak.
  • Chains that are known for their glitzy advertisements that sell '2 Dinners for 20.00' complete with plastic tasting deep fried cheese sticks and chicken wings. Most of these offer variations of the same four dishes: faux fajitas; chicken covered in cheese and bacon; horrible cuts of meat called 'steak' with some sort of seasoning on top and fettuccine covered in some sort of mystery sauce. Guilty suspects names begin with 'TGI', 'Apple' or 'Chili', nonetheless they are all the same.
  •  Mexican or Chinese restaurants that carry few dishes that have little resemblance to authentic dishes. Burritos, Fajitas and Nachos served with french fries or Chinese buffets covered in frozen pizza or deep fried corn nuggets. Both of these would bring tears to a Rick Bayless or a Ming Tsai in a heartbeat...

The common denominator in these trends seems to be to 'play it safe'. Why go to a place that serves low quality dishes in fifty different forms? Because it's safe, because it is familiar. Why do we have twenty Mexican restaurants in a town but less than three of them serve authentic dishes like Chilaquiles or Posole? Why do we have numerous Chinese restaurants but not one serves Dim Sum? Is it because the owners and cooks don't want to share these traditional dishes with us or is it that we are more comfortable eating grilled cheese tacos and hamburger helper?

There's a great scene in the 1996 movie 'Big Night'. The story focuses on an Italian family that seeks to bring real Italian food to the United States. Offended by the 'watering down' of Italian dishes by Americanized Italian restaurants, the family opens a restaurant to introduce the local community to 'authentic' Italian foods.
One evening a couple enters the restaurant and orders risotto and a pasta dish. The waiter brings the food out to the couple and when seeing a leaf of fresh basil on her husband's dish, the woman exclaims " That looks good. Oh look you got leaves with yours". The wife is then presented with a serving of authentic risotto. The woman begins to ask about 'a side of spaghetti' that typically comes with main dishes at the Americanized restaurants. The waiter explains to the woman that risotto is a starch and that it would be redundant to serve up a starch with a starch. Her husband then demands an order of spaghetti and meatballs. The waiter explains that spaghetti does not come with meatballs. Eventually the chef is told to cook what the customers want NOT what is authentic.

Are we wanting the chef to cook 'what we want' versus something wonderful that could be 'authentic'? Are we finding ourselves at a cultural crossroads in West Tennessee? Will our palates refuse to grow up as long as we are bound to 'safe' sounding foods that do not demand that we open our minds and hearts to trying? Unfortunately some of the refusal is based not necessarily on 'taste' but on fear and ignorance.

For example, if I had a dollar for everytime that someone says (Insert your best Toby Keith accent here ) " I wouldn't eat in those foreign restaurants, ain't no telling what they put in their food!" I would be a rich man. Wanna know what they put in their food? REAL vegetables not canned mutated vegetables preserved in mortuary grease to keep them safe for years beyond the apocalypse. They also use REAL herbs and spices, not powdered pre-packaged seasonings. Shards of real fresh cut garlic NOT garlic powder. And most importantly. REAL cooking takes place instead of a pre-rehearsed cadence of a twenty year old kid dropping a piece of mystery meat into a deep fryer. This is what they put in their food. Furthermore, incredible food usually takes longer to prepare because it is not sitting in a warmer on standby. It is prepared when you order it. Lastly, cleanliness and sanitary health conditions are one of the biggest 'mirages' that exist in the food culture. Think that your local Happy Hour chain restaurant is clean while the local Taqueria is a dive behind the kitchen door? THINK AGAIN. Talk to health code inspectors and they will give you an earful on your local favorite 'safe' places to eat. Plus the fact that all restaurants including 'scary ones' that don't serve tater tots or 'mamas country fried mess' have to undergo inspections as well.

So while it may sound harsh and before you accuse me of being a 'food snob' just understand that a palate's expectation of a 'good tasting' dish will only rise or fall according to what it has been exposed to. Think of a time when you took a chance and tried a food you had never tried before. Think of how you would feel if you never tried this dish. We must understand that the local food culture will not grow and expand if we do not try new things. There are literally tens of thousands of foods that this region may never know unless we are willing to try them and support them once they are here. I think of the only restaurant in Jackson Tennessee where one could get authentic Honduran pupusas now sits abandoned and boarded up. Sadly enough, hardly anyone would venture out and try them.

As you sit back and watch the Food Network and wonder if you'll ever get to try Korean short ribs or wonder why you have to drive to Nashville to get real Caribbean cuisine, just remember that in order to get a diverse food community locally there must be a demand and a steady customer base for it. Try something new. I promise, it won't bite...

Monday, September 17, 2012

Sleepless in Seattle

I recently had the opportunity to spend some time in Seattle Washington. The Pacific Northwest is a bustling region of culinary fixins ranging from scrumptious fresh seafood to eclectic ethnic eats. My first evening in town I was treated to a fine meal at local favorite eatery '13 Coins'.

13 Coins was named one of the Top 5 of Best Late Night Restaurants in the U.S. by Food Network. 
The restaurant gets it's name from a Peruvian tale in which a young poor man seeks to marry a young wealthy girl. The girl's father asks the boy what he has to offer in order to marry the young girl. The boy reaches into his pocket and pulls out 13 coins. The coins became symbols of love, care and concern. Each of the restaurant's tables are decorated with 13 coins as reminders of the story.

13 Coins is an elegant experience featuring a retro Vegas look complete with high back tables, captain's chairs and an exhibition kitchen that allows customers to watch chefs perform their amazing work right in front of their eyes. 13 Coins is open 24 hours a day and has been a local Seattle landmark since 1967.

My brief food excursion started out with some of 13 Coins seafood treats. Our party enjoyed a bucket of fresh clams cooked in white wine, butter and pesto sauce. Members of our party also enjoyed pan fried oysters, rock lobster and filet mignon. I personally enjoyed a seafood saute of jumbo prawn, fresh scallops and sole mixed with onions, tomatoes, mushrooms and lemon cream.

No trip to Seattle would be complete without a trip to the Public Market. The Public Market is one of the oldest public farmer's markets in the U.S. The market contains numerous shops including some of Seattle's best seafood vendors. It was refreshing to see the bright colors of fresh seafood everywhere I turned.

One of the best eats I enjoyed was a 'Dungeness Crab Cocktail' which consisted of a 'shot' of fresh crab meat resting on a sweet and spicy cocktail sauce. I delicately 'baptized' my shot in lemon juice and a dash of hot sauce. Mercy...

In the midst of the seafood extravaganza, there was also a smattering of food vendors serving various foods from Korean 'Bi Bim Bap' rice bowls to foie gras.

Amidst this 'food paradise' I happened upon a place that only existed before in my dreams: A restaurant that serves nothing but sausage. Meet Uli's Famous Sausage.

Uli's Famous Sausage Company is owned and operated by German butcher Uli Lengenberg. Uli makes   his sausages at the market using fresh ingredients with no artificial coloring or chemicals. Uli's also carries sausages from all over the world. German Brats, South African sausage, Mexican Chorizo and many international favorites. Some of the unique flavors Uli's carries include Fresh lamb sausage, Smoked Apple Sage, Rosemary Sage Chicken and Chipotle Tequila Sausage.

I sampled a very unique sausage made from smoked bacon. Served on fresh baguette and covered in a sweet and spicy slaw, this sandwich was heavenly!

No trip to Public Market would be complete without visiting 'Pike Place Fish Company'. By now the world has seen the dazzling fish 'throwing' exploits the market has become famous for on Food Network or Travel Channel. The fish are still be thrown everyday with plenty of crowd cheers and banter among market staff.

For those of you that follow this blog, you know that Chinatown in any city is my favorite place to be. Seattle's Chinatown is no exception. Known as the 'Chinatown International District', Seattle's Chinatown is a community of many diverse Asian people and businesses including Japanese, Korean, Thai, Filipino, Laotian and Cambodian nationalities. 

An amazing Dim Sum joint where I feasted on steamed har gow (homemade dumplings filled with shrimp), pork buns and jasmine tea.

My next stop, Kau Kau Barbecue was recommended to me by a good friend who lives in Seattle. Kau Kau is famous for their bbq duck and pork. Pork (Huo Rou) is marinated and slow roasted and served with a side of sweet plum sauce. The pork retains a crisp sweet outer shell while maintaining a juicy meat filling inside. Gracious....

My last day in Chinatown was bittersweet. On one hand, I found a Dim Sum restaurant  called 'Dim Sum House' that featured '60 cent' Dim Sum items. I also found an amazing Chinese bakery called 'Mon Hei Bakery' where I dined on a sweet shortcake covered in buttercream frosting. 

The downside is that I decided to try chicken hearts. Now, some of you might think that the fact that it is chicken hearts would be reason enough not to like them. It wasn't 'what' it is, it was the fact that the texture was similar to an inflatable chicken liver that you had to chew on like a wad of Big League chewing gum in order to get down sort of spoiled the show for me. Nonetheless, it was an experience. 


Seattle has a tremendous food culture. I think I could probably spend a couple of months eating my way throughout the city but I must get back to barbecue pits, tater babies and southern accents. So is the life of the Biblebelt foodie...