While having coffee with a friend last Friday, the topic fell, as it is want to do, on my hometown. She, a native of Southern Maryland who attended college in Wisconsin mentioned her feelings on Philadelphia saying "it's dingy" (well, we're working on that), "it's dirty" (that kind of depends on what street you're currently walking/driving), and the people there are rude (thank you national media for perpetrating that stereotype to the nth degree).I tried my best to refute all of those claims, but as her mind was made up I was left with little recourse. How can you convince someone that your city, your home, is all you believe it to be? Short of tossing her over my shoulder, skipping work, shooting my S60 up 95, and physically showing her why I love Philadelphia, exposing her to the people, the places, the innate charm I find on the streets there was nothing I could do. I had not a shred of concrete evidence I could offer to support my claim.Saturday I took that drive up 95 that I have taken so many times since I moved to Maryland to meet someone for dinner. After an evening filled with wine, laughter, and one of the best meals I've had in recent memory, I left to head south of the Mason-Dixon line back to Charm City. Two days later (yes, it took two days), I realized I could not find my license. Typical of me, I assumed it had fallen out of my pocket in my car and I resigned to look for it when I had time (aka sometime over the weekend). Thinking it was somewhere still in my possession I was shocked when I received an envelope sporting my full name (hard middle name to forget) with a return address in Philadelphia. Inside was a sheet of paper with a simple note:Here, finally, I had proof of why I love my city. Yes, this can happen anywhere. Hell, I've even done it myself when I found someone's wallet years ago. But this gesture, made the kinder by its anonymity, showed that, for the most part, people are kind and decent.If the person who found my license is reading this, I can only offer you my most heartfelt thanks and offer to buy you a drink (or two) next time I'm in town. Thank you for reaffirming my faith in my city, and my people.
Blind dates are awkward. You're typically set up by someone who "knows what's best for you", who "knows what kind of person you'd get along with best", and who, while they may have your best intentions at heart, wouldn't mind seeing you in a complete train wreck of a situation. You go, often reluctantly, but hoping for the best: some sort of instant connection created for cinema, where the crowd parts and you catch eyes upon entering the bar with romantic music swirling about you.You hope for that, but what you expect is the awkwardness; patches of silence, forced laughter, struggling to find a connection of some kind, any kind really, or, worst of all, the invariable questioning ("what happened to your last relationship?", "what's your favorite type of cat?", "do you believe that we are reincarnated? Because I used to be the third wife of Ramses II")
Since relocating to Maryland, I've been hesitant to jump into the dining scene down here for the same reason. Like someone who keeps returning to an ex for whom they still pine, I would drive to Philadelphia time and time again to see friends and dine out at some of my favorite spots. I felt safe and secure there; I knew where to go and where to avoid, who was in which kitchens on certain nights, and where the best bartenders worked. It was comfortable; it was home.
Making plans with a friend to get dinner, though, put me on the hot seat. There was the conversation where I asked them where they'd like to go, only to be told that "you should choose, I'm really not that picky". While the latter part was welcome (it's so hard choosing around a person's limited dining choices), the former was daunting. Despite asking for suggestions and proclaiming my ignorance to the local culinary scene outside of Michael Mina's Wit & Wisdom, I was left to my own devices.
I turned to, of all things, Open Table for help; the culinary equivalent of an online dating site. It gives you a little bio about each restaurant, some vital information (instead of a person's age, location, and what they are seeking you get price range, dress code, and parking suggestions), and the ability to filter your results to your personal tastes. You get a photo showing off, of course, the best view the restaurant chooses to post, to give you an idea of what to expect. But, much like a blind date, you have no idea what will come from the actual experience.
After endless research (see: flipping a coin), we ended up at Ten Ten, a restaurant classified as an American bistro. If you're reading this you know I don't review restaurants or food; as someone who hasn't worked in the industry (and knows far too many chefs and cooks), I don't feel it's my place to praise or criticize the work of others. I will say that it was one of those blind dates where things go without a hitch; the food was excellent, the ambiance couldn't be beat (I'm a sucker for exposed brick, what can I say?), and our server was pleasant.I wasn't dropping to one knee and proposing to Ten Ten at the end of the night; it won't become my regular Maryland haunt. But I have already recommended others visit and see how they enjoy their meal. If nothing else I learned that taking the plunge in a new city isn't as frightening as I made it out to be.
I'm terrible at cooking, but not in the way that everything I try to make turns out raw in the middle or blackened when it wasn't supposed to be. I'm terrible at cooking in the way that means I don't like to cook, or if I'm honest, I hate cooking...except when I don't. Do I sound bi-polar yet? Good.
Cooking and I are like 8 year old siblings: when we feel like hanging out we have a lot of fun, but most of the time we are ignoring one and other and secretly stealing each other's left over Halloween candy. I find cooking to be a boring, remedial task especially when I'm hungry. I'm an excellent planner except when it comes to making real meals. If you need to get across Los Angeles during rush hour I can get you there on time, but for some reason I only end up in my kitchen when I'm so hungry I could eat a table leg like corn on the cob. Thus, anything involving more than 3 ingredients and 15 minutes is off the table, literally. I will stand in my kitchen and curse the cupboards for being so boring and then open the fridge only to make the same discovery and so I turn to the freezer because surely he won't fail me and when he does, as if I am some ADHD cupboard troll, I do it all again until I give up and eat half a box of pepper jack cheese-its, defeated.
When I do cook, it is as if a magical food-fairy sprinkled imagination and inspiration over me as I walked into the store, making me bring home all sorts of fun things to make real meals with. And that's the problem. When I do cook, I'm not bad at it. If I was just one of those people that could even catch cereal on fire I could give myself a free pass to not cook in the name of personal safety. But, I've made some pretty tasty dishes. I even made lasagna from scratch. After reading my previous explanation of how I feel about cooking you should be as impressed as I was with my minor victory. I'm pretty sure the lasagna got cold because I spent 20 minutes high-fiving myself. However, this cooking streak, (where I am in a constant state of mirror cheers-ing myself for how "responsible" and "adult" I am) never lasts for long. Soon I will be opening all my cupboards like an advent calendar full of cracker-shame.
This is where Cholula comes in.
Oh, heavenly light fall upon thee, Cholula. The most consistent relationship in my life is the one I have with Cholula. (That might be hyperbolic, but I AM seriously considering sending Cholula a Valentine's card this year.) Putting Cholula on your food is like the nerd girl taking off her glasses in a 90's chick flick make-over montage; it's still the same food, but now you want to take it on a date! Cholula is always there for you: on pizza, on eggs, on your sandwich, Cholula doesn't judge, it's just there to give your mouth a hug. When I was really poor, (I'm an actor, it happens) Cholula was the one way I could make the blandness I could afford edible. And, it is at times the only thing that keeps me from always eating half a bag of something for dinner because it will be there as a reward for trying at all.
Despite what you are thinking, no, I don't work for Cholula. They don't even know I exist in spite of all the rain-drenched nights I spent outside their factory with a boom-box over my head. I'm just a person who has a bi-polar relationship with cooking who uses Cholula as their mediator. So, if anyone else out there has the same relationship issues with cooking, have hope. You will be happy to see cooking if you have a little Cholula in your pocket.
When "The Amazing Spiderman" was announced I felt...confused. It was ten years ago that Tobey Maguire donned the blue and red spandex and set in motion a trilogy of movies that was a finacial juggernaut (despite the third movie. I mean, really...does anyone remember this scene?). Could fans of the comic book genre just forget that abomination that was the third film and accept a complete reboot?
2012 was, for lack of a better term, my equivalent of Spiderman 3. There were highlights, a la James Franco's performance as Harry Osborne, mostly studded by the great friendships I have developed with a number of chefs and industry workers. But like Topher Grace's acting, any scene involving Maguire with slicked hair, and the entire story line with The Sandman, there were many events last year that I'd rather have avoided. But, as we all know, that's just part of life; you play with the cards you're dealt and know that, at any time, things can go askew. Amidst all of this my passion, my writing, suffered. I found myself too tired, too distracted, or too...I don't know...mopey? Is that a word? Whatever, I'm using it. Stuck in a state that was foreign to me, in a job I wasn't cut out for, I was doing my best to soldier on and make the best of a situation that was less than ideal. I'd faced down, and defeated, cases of writers block before; this wasn't a similar situation, and it was defeating me.Easy there, Emo-boy. Listen to your My Chemical Romance and calm down.
I don't make resolutions, I simply state facts. 2013 is, for lack of a better term, the reboot for my writing and this site. I'm hoping to cultivate more guest writers and new articles from those who have written in the past. I plan on writing more about what drives people to immerse themselves in the culinary industry and what fuels their love for food. I will make the push to establish this as a site for storytelling with (hopefully) some humor, and as a place that shares the passion of those working in restaurants across the country.
Michelangelo (...Buonarroti...the artist not the ninja turtle) said, "The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark." I made a promise to myself (and did so quite publicly) that I would win a James Beard Award in 2014. Time to aim high and show the world what I can do.
Looking back at the past 365 days of my life (which have been, for the record, a personal hell of sorts), there is a lot for which I have to be thankful.First and foremost, I am thankful for my family. When my world fell apart last year, they were there to help me pick up my pieces, often shouldering more than their fair share of the burden. In a particular time of personal crisis my mother said, "Okay, no sense in panicking about things; let's just figure out where you go from here". My parents, who always taught me to be independent and pushed me to stand on my own two feet in life, lifted me up when I stumbled. I'll never be able to thank them enough.
I am beyond thankful for those individuals I currently call my friends. I have always said in your lowest moments you find out who your true friends are in life. Not only did I see who stuck by me in my struggles, I found a new and incredible group of people, many whom I have only interacted with via Twitter or, in the case of Caitlyn Larimore, through countless emails. But I have so many people who know me, the real me, so well whom are scattered across this country and whom I consider true friends.
I am thankful for the people who inspire and motivate me every day. No, I don't know why or how I've become friends with so many amazing chefs, and, yes, I do still often wonder "how the hell did I get here" when I am hanging out with them. I haven't quite grasped that, when I look in my phone, I have the numbers for Top Chefs and a James Beard award winner in my contacts. It's humbling, it's baffling, and it's flattering when any of these individuals take time to talk to me.I am thankful that I have things that I didn't have a year ago: a job, a roof over my head. and the support of people I can trust and whom I am sure love me for me.
It’s a cold and rainy post-hurricane evening in South Philadelphia. I’ve spent the past two days holed up in my warm and cozy house with my beloved kitty cat, trying in vain to ward off the inevitable cabin fever that comes from being rained in alone with little but my thoughts and a pile of junk food and booze. With all this time to think, I decided it was probably time I forced myself to sit down and write something.
Life is good. It’s no longer just me in the kitchen; I have a talented and driven sous chef and three line acooks. I never thought I would be capable of managing a staff, but I always learn best by being thrown into the fire; this time is no different. I also have to thank Joey Chmiko for teaching me so much. If it weren’t for his tutelage, I wouldn’t be where I am now.
My love life continues to be a convoluted affair. I don’t expect anyone to really care, but it’s my article so I’ll write what I want to write. Tonight I read through all the stickies on my desktop I’d written since the big breakup over a year ago, and I can’t believe the amazing amount of crap I’ve put up with from guys since then. I have the best friends a girl could ever ask for, but MAN do I have bad taste in men. Maybe one day I’ll get it right. I do have lots of great stories (all of which I am keeping to myself). For now though, I don’t even know what I want, and I’m married to the job anyway, so that’s that. I might wind up living alone in a mansion in New England with thirty cats and a big vegetable garden...and I’m kind of alright with that.
Anyway, as terrible as the devastation is resulting from Hurricane Sandy has been for so many, I’m happy it provided me one positive in that it forced me to sit down for a second and think about what I’m doing with my life. Deep down I would still love to be a rock star, but honestly, I couldn’t be happier. I just have to remember not to read the comments on the blogs!
My next post will be about all the crazy stuff I’ve carried on my handlebars. Let me tell you, it’s been A LOT of shit. I also plan to write an article about what it’s like to be a woman chef in a kitchen full of dudes. THAT’S gonna be a fun one to write!
Cheers, AMB readers. Hope you had a Happy Halloween... and I hope you were good...
...well, sort of good.
When I posted a tweet with the link to my last article about my fortune reading with Angela Ranalli I wrote, "Oh hey, I still write!"...and it dawned on me: I don't write any more. But as I thought about it on my drive to work something more unsettling set in...
I don't cook anymore.
Granted...I don't have anyone to cook FOR. Between Crista and I divorcing and now living in Maryland on my own, without friends or family around, there's no need to entertain. Add to the mix the insane and excessive hours of my job and you have a recipe for my most recent horrible diet. What was once a routine of stopping on the way home from work to pick up fresh produce and proteins to cook dinner for Crista and her daughters has devolved into take-out from chain restaurants with my co-workers for lunch and occasional stops at fast food joints on my drive home. When I do cook it's a salad and pasta of some variety, almost always simply prepared with some olive oil, garlic, and sundried tomatoes (and somehow I always end up cooking pasta in a sauté pan...Joe Cicala may have just rolled over in his grave...if he was dead...and if he is reading this).
The tough part is I don't WANT to be in this rut...hell, I don't even want to be in Maryland. You can keep the crabs, the aquarium, and the Ravens (did you know Ray Lewis killed a guy?). I want to be home, and the only place that feels home to me is Philadelphia. I may have spent the last several years in New Jersey (I was always quick to point out to someone I was "from Philadelphia but happened to live in Jersey for the time being), but I was born in the Northeast and, as I continually tell people, "grew up in Center City" thanks to my high school and collegiate years.
The last few months I've felt like my life has been on hold while things happened before me: watching our divorce play out, falling into my new job and learning the workings of an industry I never knew (or, up until now, cared to know), waiting on phone calls, emails, and texts that never came from people who were too wrapped up in their own world while I waited for them with baited breath...it's been never ending. But I realized that I cannot and should not sit around waiting; my life can't hang on the whims and decisions of others. Sparing you the typical "carpe diem" nonsense that is thrown about so haphazardly these days, I'm embracing that instead of waiting for doors to be opened I may need to simply kick them down.
I've never believed in fortune telling. Or clairvoyance. Or the Long Island Medium (apologies to my mother; she loves that show. I'm not sure why).
I've always believed it to be an act perpetrated by a bunch of con men and charlatans, taking advantage of the weak-minded (sorry, mom), the desperate (sorry, mom), and the gullible (sorry, mom). "It is a bunch of malarkey", I'd say, as I passed tarot readers at various social gatherings (the latest just two weeks ago).
Sorry, mom...not buying itAngela Ranalli didn't help much. Not in the beginning at least.
Angela is a ball of energy, standing at a whopping 5'0". Serving as pastry chef for both Le Virtu and Vernick, she is constantly on the go, constantly talking, and constantly hitting me. Or it's just her exuberance as she gestures wildly with her hands. The only time I've been in her presence and wasn't engaged in some never-ending conversation with her was when I first met her at the Ommegang Hop Chef competition as she was plating the second course for Joe Cicala. Telling me how she read tarot cards, did star charts, and knew about the maloix, I was mostly amused and slightly frightened.
From time to time I would get a tweet from Angela telling me she wanted to read my future, and I would good naturedly rib her about how it was a bunch of mumbo-jumbo and go about my day. Last week, though, Angela asked when I'd be back in Philadelphia and we made plans to grab dinner. After everything was set in stone, she added "oh and I'm going to do your reading; send me your birthday, time of birth, and where you were born!"
I arrived at Le Virtu expecting the experience to be somewhere between the voodoo characters of Disney's The Princess and the Frog and Harry Potter's Professor Sybil Trelawney. I was incredibly disappointed when Angela walked in and she wasn't wearing a Hogwarts robe or shaman mask.
As we were seated at an outdoor table I began to wonder...what exactly does a pastry chef do when it comes to the dark arts? Okay maybe they weren't dark but...come on, this stuff can be spooky. Would she toss flour in the air and look for signs in how it landed? Would we be reading what shapes were seen in dough? Would my future be told by how batter swirled in a mixer?
All of those options seemed, to me, less frightening than the tarot cards Angela carefully unwrapped from a scarf (gypsy!), or the amethyst rock (pretty sure she robbed Crystal Caverns), or even the sage...um...well how does one describe the sage wrapped in paper that she showed me? Well, I'll put it this way: Angela said to me "I'm not going to do the sage smoke part because you'll smell like marijuana and I don't want that if you get pulled over driving back to Maryland". Yeah, smart call on her part.
We started with the star chart and Angela showing me how the sky looked when I was born thirty-one years ago. She explained how this planet being in this portion of the sky accounts for this part of my life going poorly, how this planet soon moving to that part of the sky will make another part of my life soon excel, etc. That, to me, all seemed well and good and, being that Angela and I know a good deal about one another, a bit too easy. She's heard about the recent ups and downs I've had so...who wouldn't be able to point at a piece of paper and say "oh and that's why things have been so crappy".
Then came the spooky part. The part where she explained how "because this planet is here you often have this ailment". Or "as a kid you used to act like this". All the stuff about ME, not just facets of my personality, but certain quirks about me that she would never ever know. That no one in the culinary world we share could tell her. That is when I started to believe.
At my request she looked up my ex's star chart (the day Angela and I met was Crista's birthday) and told me things about her; again, not personality traits but things more personal to Cris. I was freaked.
We covered my dad. My grandmother. All totally accurate. I just kept shaking my head.I was glad when the food arrived; partially because it gave a break to our contact with..um..the spirit world...or whatever. Mostly, though, I was excited because a) I was on a defcon level 5 of hunger (you know that point where you're so hungry you're borderline homicidal? I created a box with snacks I kept in the car for Crista for these occasions as I think she once reached defcon 9) and b) because it was Joe Cicala's pollo alla casalinga (which I believe translates literally to "dear Christ this is delicious". I now proudly declare it as the dish I would want as my last meal).Over dinner, wine, and beer we discussed what was going on in our lives and what we both had coming up down the road. Joe joined us and we shared a lot of laughs, as we typically do when we've gotten to hang out. But the whole time my mind was racing with all that Angela had told me; what was going on with my life, what was coming up, and what certain planets moving certain ways would bring me. You know...the stuff Tom Cruise believes.I'm hard pressed to say that I am a firm believer and proponent of "readings" or "fortune telling" or the "momma juju voodoo" stuff that Angela was doing, but I will say that I am MUCH more in tune with what is going on around me, looking for coincidences, signs...anything, really that lends some credence to what I've learned from the world beyond.
I was fortunate enough to have an email fall into my lap, sent from a chef to their former colleagues. I believe it speaks volumes and stresses what many people forget in their career, no matter the field: stay humble.
Team, past and present,
It's been about 2 weeks that I've been here in Brooklyn. I was going to take a month off and chill but I'm feeling the jones for the stoves so I went on a few trails and interviews and tastings.
I was hesitant and a bit nervous. It is New York City, after all. But, I went in with an open mind and sharp knives, a pen, a sharpie, and notebook.
What I found was very busy restaurants with food being turned out by uninspired cooks; undisciplined kids with little care for their craft.
Cases of veg in walkins still in the box. Stellar farm vegetables being put away still dirty. Dirty reachins that smelled like old proteins. Hoods (in open kitchens) that I had to wipe down before I felt comfortable working under it. TONGS!! Pouring sauce from pans/pots onto plates. Tomato based products being cooked/picked up in aluminum pans.
I've been offered every job I've trailed for and interviewed for. I'm not stroking my own ego here, but trying to impress upon you that if you use the Spike Lee philosophy it carries over no matter where you are cooking: Philadelphia, Manhattan, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, or f*cking Mars.
Take what it is you know, things I've tried to impress upon you:
- Surpass expectations
- Do the little things
- Clean everything
- Use spoons, taste
- Question everything
- Push, push, push
- Expect more from yourself and your staff everyday
- Don't take no shit
- Finishing salt
- Herbs for the love of God put herbs in and on your food
- Fish sauce pies
- Eat good food
- Eat bad food so you know the difference
- Cook with music
- Cook in silence
- Make bread
- Drink wine and beer
- Drink whiskey occasionally
- Drink good tequila only
- Work with dough
- Learn to bake
- Connect with the food
- Touch the food (gloves are for rookies…unless you're portioning fish/protein)
- Screw with the servers
- Take off the blinders
- Learn to sharpen your knives and keep them sharp
- Respect food
- Head down
- Get in the weeds
- Get out of the weeds
- No matter what happens you get to go home after the shift
- Quit smoking
- Quit soda
- Do yoga
- Build/fix something
- Less chefs and more cooks
- Love to cook
- Stainless steel
- Blue steel
- Enameled cast iron
- Cook with fire, pig and wood
- Respect the veg
- Fast for a day
- Wear a helmet
- Good food is universal.
"ALWAYS DO THE RIGHT THING."
On my run this morning I saw an older man drop all of his mail in the middle of a crosswalk. I was rounding the corner, sweaty and in the throes of urging myself not to lay down in some stranger's dog-piss covered grass, gasping for the sweet, sweet life nectar we call oxygen. He dropped all of his mail, and his hands were full. I saw it. And, something weird happened.
"By the time I get to him he might have it all picked up... but what if he doesn't? I don't want to offend him. What if he's mean to me? I don't want to stop. I don't know this guy anyway."
And then it hit me.
"An old man dropped his stuff in the street under the blazing sun and I saw it. What kind of person am I if I don't TRY to help him?" (This internal dual-personality-on-my-shoulder conversation happened in the time it takes a hummingbird's heart to beat twice, mind you.)
I immediately trotted over and collected the rest with him. He thanked me with a smile, I nodded and hopped back to my self-induced-torture-called-exercise.
However, that 3 second interaction stuck with me all the way home. I didn't do anything extraordinary. At. All. But, the watermelon-slice-smile that man gave me when I handed him his papers filled my heart with the most important feeling -- a feeling I think our society is weeding out with every social-media-reality-television-whore-shaming-political-campaign-finger-pointing-allforthemoney-noise-- and that feeling is humanity.
The more I thought about it, the more it bothered me that I hesitated. There are people who wouldn't have paused. But, there are also people that would have, and even continued running. In a big city like the bright-full-of-dreams city of Los Angeles you see the spectrum of heartbreaking kindness to heartbreaking selfishness every day. This morning it became clear to me what end of the spectrum I want to be on.
By the time I got home, (and victoriously punched the air like Rocky I), I didn't want to lose how that grateful watermelon smile made me feel. So, I made a simple list, directions if you will, of things easily forgotten, and even under appreciated, to remember as we enthusiastically connect to glowing screens posing as people.