Some people thought I was crazy, and when 20 women and 0 men initially signed up for my “Fondue and the City” singles mixer at Murray’s, I thought I might be way off track, too. Luckily, we put the word out that any man interested in 1) women, 2) cheese, and 3) beer should head on over to Murray’s one cold Friday night in January et voila… If you melt it and serve it with beer, they will come. My theory that fondue ultimately leads to love still stands.
Category Archives: This never would have happened in Finance
Here’s just a quick post about my first experience with St. Maure Chevre…
First, I am not a food snob. Sometimes I’m obnoxious, but I assure you, it’s without any other reason than that I’m oddly particular. I don’t judge food and I don’t judge your tastes (intentionally) because frankly, food to me is about both comfort and nostalgia. So, when I tell you that my first experience with goat cheese was on a chevre-producing farm outside of Tours, France in the Loire Valley, it’s not because I’m showing off, it’s because I had truly never been exposed to goat cheese before this time.
I was 19 years old and had followed my friend, Amanda, to France to study abroad for the summer. This was my first trip abroad without my family, and I was thrilled and terrified for the adventure. About a week before taking off, my then-boyfriend took me to see the movie “Final Destination,” about a class field trip to Paris where the plane crashes… Needless to say, he’s an ex-boyfriend now. I don’t know if it was that movie or just the fact that it was my first flight sitting all by myself, but that was also the first time that I realized that I am terrified of flying. That’s a dandy little peak into just one of my MANY increasing phobias and superstitions – oh, just remember to touch the outside of the plane before boarding… that helps keep in the air, you know… as do crying babies on your flight… because what kind of a God would kill babies in a firey plane crash???
Back to the cheese. One of the many excursions worked into my study abroad program was to a small goat farm that produced Saint Maure Chevre. At the time, I was convinced that I might be allergic to the goat cheese since I had only recently discovered that after years of riding horses, I had developed an allergy to them. And to me, goats and horses smelled EXACTLY the same. I peeked out of our coach bus upon arrival at the farm and was slapped in the face by the overwhelming heavy, slightly sticky sweet, hay and animal sweat scent of goats galore. My first instinct was to run.
Luckily, my dear friends mocked my fear and forced me from the bus to confront the odor-producing fiends face-to-muzzle. Damn, they were cute. They stank like there was no tomorrow, but those little cud-chewing bastards were super adorable. While my friend played with stray kittens that she found scampering amongst benches of hay (insert every stereotypical, bucolic image that you can), I hesitantly petted the coarse foreheads of a pack of rank goats. Their oppressive, syrupy stink was about to chase me away when someone called to me to come and see the baby goats…
Oh… sweet… cheezits… These soft, poodle-sized (although I’m not a fan of poodles – they seem arrogant), puddle-eyed mini-goats were endearing in the way that they stumbled over one another, trying to stand upright to get closer to my waiting hand, ready to caress those buttery ears. They just killed you in the way that toddlers stumble around, their legs not yet strong enough to fully cope with the enormous weight of their bowling ball noggins. Even their annoying, staccato calling was heart-warming… if only they didn’t stink… Yet still, I pet away, enjoying their adorableness and thinking slyly, well, how much worse does this really smell than anything else in France. (FYI – that’s a terrible joke – I’ve never actually met a stinky Frenchman. Their cabbies smell MUCH better than most of our regular citizens do).
Finally, we walked into the cheese-making facility for the shock of my life. After smelling the goats and swearing that I would forego tasting the cheese (even though up to this point, I LOVED cheese and had trouble refusing any food in general), I was completely surprised when a stocky French woman donned what looked like a hazmat suit and led us into a stainless steel, white, sterilized cheese-making facility. There, I learned about how goat milk was collected, coagulated, and molded into a tube surrounding a straw that was both traditional and used to help the tubular cheese maintain its shape — to this day, I sometimes think “paille” instead of “straw” when I see a singular piece of hay. We were then led into another room where the goat cheeses were coated in vegetal ash (although I didn’t recall it being vegetal ash at the time, but just know it now from the Murray’s affineur giving me a “it’s vegetal ash, you dumbass” look when I asked later), and aged for 1 week, 3 weeks, 7 weeks, and then 10 weeks at its oldest.
As we sat at large, wooden picnic tables set over hay in an outdoor barn area, I anxiously awaited what this “chevre” would taste like. Part of me hoped that it wouldn’t smell or taste anything like the goats that I was trying to rub from my hands onto my jeans (remember, this is before the days of Purell… whoa, right? Yup, I’m THAT old). When the first, 1 week aged chevre arrived, sliced into a round with just a small hole interrupting the snow-white, ridged perfection of the cheese, I leaned in and sniffed. Yup, still smelled like goat, but not in the sweat-covered coarse-haired fur-ball way that the goats had. The scent was milder, a little sour, but not in a bad milk way at all. Now that the cheese lay in front of me with just the faint wisp of a bloomy rind circling its outer edge, my normal food-cravings set in and my mouth began to salivate. I grabbed the disk and bit in…
Delicious. Yes, it still tasted a little like licking a goat, but damn, that tangy mild-creaminess could not be disliked. It tasted fresh. I was completely perplexed by how something that came from an animal that smelled anything but could taste like fresh-picked flowers, vegetables and fruit. As the aged versions arrived, each one becoming a little more plastic-y, somewhat resembling stained glass, I was intrigued by how the animaly-ness actually changed into nutty, almost meaty notes. In fact, the 10-week aged St. Maure was quite nice and snackable – it was like al dente pasta, its texture providing a lovely break from the soft creaminess of the younger versions. While the cheese was enlightening, the apple cider that we were then served (also produced on the goat farm) was unfortunately NOT what I had been hoping. It was as if an apple had been rolled across the back of a sweaty goat before being pressed and fermented…
After that trip, I ate “salade chevre chaud” as much as possible before leaving France. In fact, I ate it almost daily following my daily infusion of a pate de campagne sandwic and fromage blanc with fraises du bois. When I returned home, sadly, I couldn’t find my St. Maure again. I found other, delightful Loire Valley chevre varieties in different forms/shapes, but never that beautiful, tubular bundle of goodness complete with paille core. In my complete ignorance, I had no idea that it would be hard to find in the states.
As the years passed and my waistline increased, I’ve found my delicious St. Maure many, many times. But nothing prepared me for the day that I stepped into the caves at Murray’s as an intern and was asked to pat down the fuzzy, penicilium candidum mold surrounding the delicate and tender goat-milk cheese forming on a fresh log of St. Maure. Mike, the affineur, is not one for displays of emotion, so I hid the chills that ran up my spine and sniffed in the tear forming at the corner of my eye, quickly patting, rolling, and flipping the fragile logs.
It’s such a small thing, literally. It’s a log of goat cheese for Christ’s sake! Yet for someone like me, who everyday questions whether or not leaving my old career (and paycheck) was the right decision, it was a silent confirmation that I’ve chosen the right path. Sometimes I forget to savour moments like these, but luckily, a little thing like the scent-memory of a stinky goat welled up enough emotion to make me stop and be thankful.
…well, I’m not quite and eagle, I’m more like an overweight, lazy, park-grazing pigeon. It’s not important. What IS important is that I’ve found a new home! I have just completed my first week at Murray’s Cheeses where I will be organizing their classes and special events. I would have written sooner, but finally learning from all my past luck, I figured it was best to wait until the ink dried and I was actually there before letting it be known.
On top of my cautious announcement, I’m also holding back on the effusive elation, even though the job sounds like and has so far been pretty damn cool. Why? Well, I’ve learned that if you walk into a job with ridiculous expectations, you usually get spiked like a free-floating, unaware volleyball. So this time, I’m going in hoping for the best, excited for all the incredible things that come with the job, but extremely aware that this is, at the end of the day, still a job.
This path, the way of cautious optimism, allows me to experience every little benefit of my new Murray’s life as it happens, vs. trying to anticipate all of my enjoyment at once at the waaayyyyy beginning of the job the way I’ve done in the past. For example, the very first day I started work, my job was to taste 6 different cheeses, totaling about 1/2 lb, paired with 6 different wines. That was my JOB. I had to take a class about cheese for free – no, wait, I was PAID to take a class about cheese & wine. With every bite that I took, my mind frantically tried to wrap itself around the moment. It just couldn’t be. Someone was paying me to eat a 1/2 lb of cheese… It’s like all those times I wished upon a star didn’t fall on deaf ears.
And then the next day, when I ate another 1/2 lb of cheese and paired it with hard cider, which was even BETTER than being paired with wine, I considered that maybe this was all a cruel dream and I would wake up elsewhere… Here I was, tasting amazing American-made ciders that on their own were pretty damn good, but when paired with the right cheese, basically sang in your mouth (and not my karaoke singing). Could this really be happening or was I being punked?
The following day, when I ate an entire pound of cheese, I saw that there could potentially be some negative consequences to this job… I told myself that when sampling cheeses, I should only smell and nibble enough to understand the flavor, texture, and appreciate its pairing if it had one. Yes, this is what I told myself even as I devoured the last ounce of my 12th cheese of the day and happily washed it down with a glass full of Brooklyn Local 1 pale ale. At this point, I may still be dreaming, but who the hell cares, I’m going to live it up. Right now, I hope for but never expect an incredible day, which means that each day ends up being a little like a surprise Christmas morning, except there’s no tree, just lots and lots of cheese presents.
So, the next time you see me, I hope it’s at Murray’s where you’ve come to take a class! I plan on introducing some great hands-on classes taught by all of the great cooks I know who I’ve wanted to learn from and now have an excuse and venue to do so! And when you do see me, if I’m a little more solid, don’t blame the cheese… it could very well be the ridiculous Francois Pralus chocolate that my friend Taylor introduced me to on our way out of work last week. More on the dark chocolate Infernal Bar tomorrow.
(And if you’re still reading even though I’ve been delinquent with my blogging, thank you for your support!!! I will definitely be better in the future, and will most likely be posting shorter, more pointed posts given my lack of time… the new brevity will most likely make it a better blog anyway.)
…Because I’m officially done with FCI. After basically living within the walls of 462 Broadway for the past 2 years (plus a few days), I’ve officially said goodbye to the place that trained me to cook and gave me my first job after my career change.
This past weekend, I finished up my last job with FCI as the Guest Chef Coordinator for the New York Culinary Experience. Months of planning culminated in an amazing (and exhausting) weekend where I not only ran around like a chicken with my head cut off to make sure that the Guest Chefs had what they needed for class, but I did so without much of a voice since true to being a disaster, I got terribly sick the week leading up to the event.
There was chaos, yelling (on the part of a particularly diva chef and her sous-chef), and crying (mostly on my part quietly in the corner of the storeroom), but in the end, it was the perfect capstone to my career at FCI. Basically, every different division of the school, from the student volunteers to the Admissions department, worked together this weekend to make this event happen, and it warmed my heart in a cheesy girl scout kind of way – not that I was much of a girl scout, I think I made it to Brownies before I pulled a, “Bitch, peddle your own damn cookies” to my troop leader. Of course, this weekend, I was more of the troop leader and my girl scouts were an army of student volunteers who helped me keep my sanity, most-likely preventing a hypoglycemic rage blackout on my part. Basically, these student volunteers probably saved more than my life this weekend.
I also had the chance to witness Chef Jonathan Benno and his team from Per se teach a 2 hour class on using every part of the lobster, serve up multiple appetizer-sized tastings, bring with and cook their own lunch (Cuban sandwiches), all the while not making a single peep or showing any perceivable signs of stress. Damn. That’s freaking elite. I don’t think they ever verbally communicated… maybe there was eye contact or SWAT-like hand signaling going on, or maybe, just maybe, they run like the freakishly efficient well-oiled machine that you would expect them to be. Even if it was to be expected, witnessing their stealth and precise movements and harmonious interaction left me in complete awe. My jaw would have been hanging to the ground if not for the fact that I had to chew the extra tastings that his team plated up for volunteers and staff in the kitchen. Yeah, they had time for that, too. Without FCI, I would never have witnessed something so unforgettable. It was like an exit bonus, minus a whole lot of zeros.
After the frantic energy of this weekend, I spent a few quiet moments finishing up some work in a dark office Sunday night and it hit me all at once – FCI has been my home away from home for 2 years. I’ve spent more time there than anywhere else since moving to NYC. There have been amazing times, and then there have been terrible times, but in the end, I’m so happy and thankful for the friends that I’ve made and all the experiences that I’ve had. Where else could I have become so completely addicted to cocktails (which I believe is called alcoholism…), Swedish meatballs, consommé, blogging, and the best damn baguette this side of the Atlantic?
This event represented the best of my time at FCI, and it made it both easy and difficult to say goodbye to the school. You always want to go out on a good note, but going out on a good note sometimes makes you wish for more. You know, like that perfect dessert that makes you want to stay and order just one more plate.
First of all, let me just say that I wrote this whole post out on my WordPress app on my iPhone… which then deleted it as it was trying to connect to the network. Awesome. Probably for the best as I still can’t type very well on the touch screen and am just Fanny Fat Thumbs, typing 8 letters at a time by accident. That post would have made even less sense than the rest of my posts.
So, for the second time… Murray’s Affineur, Mike-aroni & Cheese, is in New Orleans this week to take a little time away. Unfortunately, the caves seemed to have sensed that he was about to leave and threw every malfunction that it could muster at him, almost as if they were saying, “Where do you think you’re going, Mike Anderson?” with that creepy Sigourney Weaver evil computer voice. Who moved my cheese? Mike Anderson did. The poor guy had to empty out an entire cave and transfer all its cheeses to a different cave, and then do the whole thing again. By the time he actually did make it out of there, he had earned his vacation about a million times over. It’s weird, the caves didn’t seem to have any problems until about 3 weeks ago, which ironically enough, is when I started working there…
And what was I doing in the midst of the cave hauling? I was patting down and flipping my cheese pets in Cave 3, aka “my happy place.” The one time I offered my help in lifting a 50lb wheel of cheese to my fellow intern, Isak, gave me a look that said, “The day that I need a small Asian woman to help me, a giant Scandinavian, lift something is the day I kill myself.” Actually, his look said that but he also said it out loud in case I missed it.
Isak thinks that my Asianess is also the reason behind why I love the fuzzy cheeses in Cave 3, because apparently, Asian love cuteness… Yeah, alright, it’s true. What’s wrong with that??? Isak and I have decided that fuzzy bloomy rind cheeses will be the next rage item in Japanimation – all they need are little googly eyes and some sort of super power, like the ability to be delicious. Don’t be surprised if furry cheese toys are the next big thing coming out of Tokyo.
At least my iPhone helped me take these pictures… although it probably wasn’t a great idea to touch my phone with my mold-coated hands. The answer to your question is No, I will never learn.
Bring on quasi-job/internship #24: Murray’s Cheese Cave Intern. That’s right – yours truly has been spending her free time flipping cheese and patting down penicillium mold in Murray’s chilly subterranean caves. If you don’t know Murray’s, then you don’t know cheese. Murray’s is THE cheese dealer for cheese addicts everywhere. Stepping into Murray’s is like visiting your cheese dealer’s cheese den, complete with other cheese addicts twitching in front of the counter asking for another cheese hit.
I am a cheese addict. I enjoy cheese and I would eat it at every, single meal if I could. Introducing me to the caves of Murray’s has now broadened my cheese-eating horizons, causing me to up my already perverse cheese intake and once again, sabotaging any hopes of a diet. It doesn’t help that my fellow intern loves cheese AND food, so we’re either talking cheese while working or spending our break walking around the West Village searching for yummy ways to fuel our cheese-flipping tanks. So far, Indian kati rolls and falafels have done the trick. I suggested to him having a cheese lunch everyday where we just split a baguette and 1/2 lb of cheese, but even he thought that may be pushing the cheese limit.
So far, my favorite cave task is patting down the bloomy rind cheeses. What does that mean? Well all of those delicious white, tender rinds on the outside of your Constant Bliss or Brillat Savarin start off as this beautiful, cotton-candy tufted white mold called penicillium candidum. That soft, white fuzz has to be gently patted down to form the supple rind. Murray’s Affineur, Mike Anderson (who I like to call Mike-aroni & Cheese, although I don’t think he enjoys it as much as I do), told me that if the mold gets out of control, the rind becomes tough and rubbery. I don’t know why, but there’s an amazingly rewarding feeling that comes with helping the rind develop… who knew that watching mold grow would actually be fun?
The only downside to patting down and flipping an entire cave of soft-ripened, bloomy rind cheeses is that after you’ve zoned out and taken care of the entire cave, you can no longer feel your fingers or toes. Not only that, but for some reason, the digits on my left hand just stop functioning and I basically have to use it as a board to place the cheese on while my right hand continues to work. After I leave the cave and walk out into the warm sunlight to defrost, my entire body immediately starts to ache and itch as the blood starts pumping again and the numbness starts to tingle away.
Oh, there is one last little side-effect that *might* be considered negative. My hands haven’t stopped smelling like mushrooms for a week. I wash and wash my hands and have even rubbed lemon on them to no avail. Mushroom central. The other day, post-lemoning, I was chopping onions and garlic and started smelling the delicious aroma of sauteed mushrooms! I couldn’t understand where it was coming from until I smelled my hands and realized that I had perfectly seasoned my mushroom fingers.
On the bright side, I get to shove my fingers into my friends’ faces and say, “My fingers smell like mushrooms and cheese” about 30 times a day. What’s even better is that not one of my food-loving friends has jerked away and yelled, “that’s gross!” Instead, they usually take a meaningful sniff, contemplate the aroma, and say, “Yup. So they do.” Awesome.
This past Saturday, I had the opportunity to be Nick Suarez’s (Food Competition King) sous chef for the 4th Annual Great Hot Dog Cookoff in Brooklyn. Nick’s been after me for months about competing in one of these cookoffs, but I’ve had to explain to him several times that it’s just not my thing. Am I a competitive person? Used to be. Now, I’m kind of trying to pursue a more life-zen attitude about everything to prevent me from flying into a competitive rage blackout and waking up surrounded by bodies. This seemed harmless, though – I wasn’t actually competing, I was just helping a friend to achieve their dream. And what friend doesn’t want to do that? Am I right? I was still on the fence until Nick explained that the competition was being held inside Kelso brewery where beside the endless hot dogs, there would also be endless beer on tap… How could anyone resist? I suited up in my “What the heo?!” t-shirt (heo means pig in Vietnamese), which featured an angry pig cartoon (very fitting for me), and was ready to rumble.
Chris and I showed up on Saturday morning and Nick had everything already organized and packed except for the corn salad, which he had left for me to season. As usual, I dumped a heart-attack-sized portion of salt in (he actually had to refill his salt well after I depleted it) before heading straight for the lime. A little sugar and cilantro later and all it was missing was fish sauce. This wasn’t a Vietnamese hot dog, though, this was a latin-fusion dog inspired by Nick’s childhood of when his chef-mom would leave him and his 2 brothers at home with his food-loving, but non-chef dad. Now, I’ve had Nick’s dad, Santi’s, cooking before and it’s pretty damn good. But I guess when you’re used to your mom rolling out the culinary red carpet, you’re a little more discriminating when it’s dad’s turn to man the stove.
Nick’s dad would apparently cut up hot dogs and then mix them with canned corn that he had charred in a cast iron pan. The roasted, caramelized flavor and crunch of the corn were perfect compliments to the meaty, savory, tender hot dog. Nick decided to up his hot dog memory by adding elements of another favorite corn treat he’d had growing up, zocalo corn – it’s corn on the cob roasted over a fire and then smothered in mayo and sprinkled with cotija cheese. Squeeze fresh lime juice on top, and the sweet crispy corn, creamy and tangy mayo, topped with savory, nutty cheese just pops with deliciousness. Nick added the cotija cheese and mayo, plus crispy bacon lardons, fried onions (in bacon fat), grainy mustard, a little reduced balsamic and sherry vinegar syrup, then just a brush of Portuguese piri piri sauce for heat. Oh, and Nick made a special trip to Sunrise Mart for Japanese Kewpie Mayo. Why is Kewpie mayo so special and delicious? Because it has the magic of MSG, and there’s nothing wrong with that!
At first, everyone thought there were too many ingredients in Nick’s “Corniest Dog in Brooklyn,” but when you think about it, it’s basically like making a deconstructed corn salad, with the onion, bacon, mayo, mustard, and acidity laid out as separate components. Chris, Nick’s brother’s girlfriend, Taylor, and I followed our fearless hot dog leader into battle, each of us carrying magical elements to what we knew would be a winning dog. We had to wait for our shift at the grill, so we placed our bags in the shade, and headed to the beer tap… again, and again. In fact, we visited that bar so many times that my husband decided that he would help out and just walked behind the bar and started pouring. The Kelso employee who was actually manning the bar just looked at him, saw that he was helping, and shrugged her shoulders and let him continue. He basically remained behind that station for the rest of the day.
Meanwhile, we grilled hot dogs and buns to perfection. The buns were drizzled in mayo, lined with grainy mustard, and smeared with fried onions before laying the hot dogs down, which were then brushed with piri piri. We brought all of our mise to our serving station and began placing the hot dogs, cut into thirds, into muffin liners before being topped with the corn salad and cotija cheese. Each dog also got a triangle of lime to be fresh-squeezed on top. We started joyfully handing out tastings to the crowd of people who had gathered around our table until we realized that we had miscalculated, been too efficient, and that we were not allowed to serve out our hot dog tastings yet. No worries, we apologized and just kept on assembling, covering our table in little bites of latin-inspired corn & cotija hot dog goodness.
I don’t know if someone said “Go!” or if a whistle blew, but all I know is that suddenly, we started handing out the dogs. It probably took under 2 minutes for almost 200 tastings to just disappear from our table, leaving behind nothing more than cotija dust and crumpled muffin wrappers that blew across our piri piri-stained paper tablecloth like dust balls moving across the street in the old west after a gun fight. We finally breathed out and were thankful that we had remembered to taste our hot dogs BEFORE passing them out as we had completely forgotten to save even one last bite for ourselves. Then, we waited… there was still one more round of tastings before one of the fine hot dog chefs in the room would be crowned champion. Luckily, we were able to keep our cups full and our throats well-lubricated as Chris was still manning the tap and chatting up the crowd, answering questions about which beer to try as if he worked at Kelso and brewed the beer himself.
Finally, they began calling out the winners for “Audience Choice” and several other categories… We waited to hear “Brooklyn’s Corniest Dog,” but still, we never heard it. It looked bleak and I’m not going to lie, I was starting to feel the rage blackout creep into the corners of my eyes. But then, we (and the entire room) were saved. The last category, the ultimate win, “Best in Show,” was about to be announced… They teased us, saying they couldn’t quite read the name… and then we heard it: “Nick Suarez.” Our fearless leader had led us into Hot Dog battle and we had emerged victorious.
Did it feel good to win? Sure… But it felt better to hang out with friends and all bust our butts together to help one of us achieve his dream: to win a Wiener Trophy. I did have one regret though – I wish I had set aside a full cotija & corn dog for myself. Just one bite of it wasn’t enough.
In my continuing search to find a paying career within the food industry (operative word being paying – lots of people are prepared to “employ” me for nothing…), my friend’s father was kind enough to let me intern behind the scenes at his latest food commercial shoot. When he called to let me know the details of the shoot, it might have been a little disconcerting had I not known better. I was told to show up to the basement of a building in Soho at 8:00 AM… What kind of filming was this again? I feel like that’s how those raunchy American Apparel ads start out.
What is Food Porn? It’s pictures and video of food taken so close that your gut screams that you’re beholding something indecent. Yet it’s so mesmerizing, so tantalizing, that you can’t look away. I just can’t stop watching how the perfectly nappant sauce slowly, teasingly, rolls down the side of the chicken breast. You’re so close that every curve and dimple on the food is magnified for your viewing pleasure.
I’m a novice (super novice) at Food Porn. Santi Suarez, Food Porn Director, sits in his Director’s chair (complete with his name on it) at the wayyyy other end of that spectrum. Who is he? What has he done? Well, if you, like me, broke thousands of plastic straws trying to jam them into an orange like Tropicana did, you have Santi to thank for that. Oh, and I personally hold him responsible for the few adolescent years where I was obsessed with pepperoni, which means he’s also accountable for the fat and acne that came along with that obsession. And here’s an interesting little factoid: it’s because of Santi’s wife, Bonnie, and Santi’s son, Nick (of Beer Experiment fame), that I decided to try my hand at the culinary world and go to FCI in the first place! Thanks, guys, it’s worked at real well for me… Working with him on this particular shoot was Marilinda Hodgdon, an incredibly impressive Food Stylist (cook, jewelry maker, sculptor, construction worker – you name it, she can do it and she has). Santi said that if I was interested in food styling at all, she was who I needed to meet and see in action.
For some reason, I only have 2 speeds: hyper-buoyant or disdainful-sarcasm… guess which of these two I am most of the time. Whenever I get excited to try something new, I go straight into hyper-buoyant, which is how I showed up at the ******* studios for the ****** commercial shoot. Oh, why are those names starred out? Well, I think that I broke even my own record for how quickly you can step in it on your first day. I got there at 8AM, but nobody was ready for my help. There were several confused stares as to who-in-the-hell I was. I asked if it would be alright to take some pictures as I waited. Sure, no problem. So off I went, taking pictures of props here, backdrops there… I even took some pictures of the product being advertised. And then… I TWEETED about it. Oh yeah… I felt like a happy little twitter monkey, finally using this damn technology that all the kids are talking about and that Teach forced me to do under threat of obscurity. GREAT idea, right? I’m sure you all already know that it wasn’t, but I’ll just go ahead and spell it out: BAD idea. VERY BAD idea.
Don’t try and look for the tweet, I figured out how to delete it… today… days after the fact… Apparently you just click the little trash can that comes up next to the tweet. Yeah. WHAT??? So I used technology without knowing fully what it did or how it worked! Ok, I made a mistake! It’s not like I freakin’ used a taser without knowing where the stop button was or anything. When Santi introduced me as a blogger to the Clients and their Agency for the shoot, I innocently told them that I had just tweeted about their product and… well, I might as well have shot that poor producer with a whole lot of taser juice. He seemed so nervous and upset by my tweet that I *think* I saw him cry a tear of blood. I was quickly informed that I was not allowed to mention the product or the client name, nor was I allowed to show any pictures of the product OR any food at all, even if the product was nowhere near it. Yowzas. This guy reminded me of an extremely jittery VP I knew from my Goldman days who didn’t seem to particularly enjoy anything outside of money and legal compliance, which meant that now was not the time to make the joke that was about to roll off my tongue. All this over a ****** of ****** being used to ****** a ****** of ******.
Luckily, Marilinda had some work for me to do back in the kitchen. I quickly started putting ****** on ******. I don’t know for sure that I’m not allowed to write about that, but again, Mr. Jitters has me nervous and the last thing I want to do is piss that guy off any further. I got to see Marilinda in action, though, using skewers to gently move something into position, a pair of tweezers to remove another food item. Man, this must be thrilling for you to read, huh? Move something here, take something away there. Sheesh. Let’s just say that Marilinda studied sculpting and was the head cook at a restaurant in NJ by the time she was 16 — she gets food, understands aesthetics, and has the precision of a surgeon. Respect.
As I put ****** on ******, I struck up a conversation with one of Marilinda’s assistants for the day, Neli, who it turned out I had met on her last day/my first internship day at Gramercy Tavern! We had bonded over the sous-vide station and then poof, she was out of my life forever until almost a year later when we both happened to be on the set of a ****** commercial! Small world! Well, we got to talking and catching up when my first verbal smackdown came from Marilinda’s Chief of Staff. Her exact words were, “It may not seem like it, but we’re in the weeds. You can talk, but I don’t want to hear it.” Awesome. Even better was the way she moved slowly over to me to calmly say it without any emotion whatsoever. Just a matter of fact, “I don’t want to hear your voice.” Hour 4 and I already pissed two people off. What can you do? I just nodded, “that’s cool” and went about the random jobs that were assigned to me. The next day I was on set, I was talking to Marilinda and helped her set up her own, personal blog: www.foodfloozie.com. She had mentioned the term as something she had coined for herself and her team because, “we’ll do it [food style] for anybody for money.” I loved it and we got to setting it up right away since no one seemed to need my help beyond opening ****** of ****** once every hour or so. Well, in talking with Marilinda, I pissed off her Chief of Staff again who asked if I would kindly stop distracting Marilinda. Ice, ice, baby. Between Mr. Jitters and Miss Not-so-Snoopy-snow-cone, I felt like I should put on a sweater and get the hell out of the food commercial business ASAP. I’m just not for everybody…
Thankfully, Santi flashed his super-warm “dad-smile” and let me check out the ins & outs of how he filmed the product. The insanity, time, and workforce that go into taking 10 seconds of food porn film is staggering. Take after take has to be reviewed, approved, discussed, etc. before it’s usually nixed and redone…. which means that the food has to be redone… utensils have to be cleaned and reused, etc. At one point, I’m pretty sure there were 30 people in the studio to film something the size of my left hand (it’s the smaller one) – 10 of which were cramped around a small table with the product on it. You can throw as many people at this as you want, but the most impressive thing of all was watching Santi & Marilinda work. Everyone was impressive in how completely in sync they worked: adjusting the light here, the hand model placing something in exactly the right spot every time, reflectors and gels being angled and replaced properly, producers/art directors/script supervisors, etc. analyzing the playbacks and making adjustments & suggestions. But it was Santi and Marilinda who were able to touch the food, adjust the food, angle the food in such a way to make it look effortlessly organic, even though its setup was anything but.
There were a number of eye-opening moments that forced me to look down at my poor little 6.0 Canon Powershot, cradled in my sweaty palm, and whisper, “don’t worry little guy – you’re still pretty awesome in my book.” My favorite of those moments was watching Santi move the camera to trace the path of the ***** as it moved quickly over the *****. Oh MAN is that such a great description, right??? Yeah… Anyhoo, as it moved, he anticipated where it would land and it reminded me of the way a lacrosse player moves his or her stick to anticipate the trajectory of the ball that they are trying to catch and then the way they pull that stick back in towards them to cushion the impact. It was fluid and graceful and had a way of triggering you into instant hunger.
Yesterday yielded another great 6 degrees of Gramercy moment. Ok, until now, I have kept my Gramercy-loving under wraps. More than anything, I’m embarrassed that I’m not working the line there right now. Let me tell you something: if there is ANY line in the world that I would want to work, it would Gramercy’s line under the leadership of Michael Anthony. Basically, he’s superhuman. Not only is he a ridiculous chef producing food and plating that make me regret not saving more during my Goldman days so that I could eat at Gramercy on a weekly basis, but he’s also the most humble and earnest chef that I have ever met. Did I mention that he and his team at Gramercy also do volunteer work at a local school? I’m going to start a list of people that I don’t want to stand next to because it makes me realize what a bad person I am – Michael Anthony’s going to be at the top of that list. So when yesterday, I met the woman handling post-production of the ****** commercial and she said her name was Mindy, I was already thrilled! I met another Mindy! How awesome is that? Do you know how rare it is for me to find anyone else named Mindy besides the girl who played Natalie on The Facts of Life??? This Mindy is pretty rocking, too, and definitely wins in a Mindy-off. Besides being an artist, she basically pulls together all the elements of commercials that involve some sort of CGI and special effects! Luckily, I refrained from asking her about the graphics in Lord of the Rings, with which I’m mildly obsessed. I’M A GEEK – WHAT? And then when she told me that her husband was Michael Anthony, I just couldn’t refrain and I literally blurted out, “SHUT UP!” Yup. That’s actually what I said. I promise, once upon I time, I could converse like a normal civilized person. I don’t know what happened… Well, I obviously couldn’t hold back and let spill how incredible I think her husband is and she, too, thinks he’s superhuman. Wow. A Mindy AND another Gramercy connection. I should have bought a lottery ticket, but I spent all my money on peking duck and noodles.
Last night, after the shoot, I went to take a picture of my peking duck and wonton noodle soup takeout and had a moment of sadness at the way it looked. The wonton just weren’t glisteny enough – Marilinda would know how to combat that deep-yellow drying that came from the wonton being steamed then packed separately from the liquid so they wouldn’t get too mushy. Where was the steam? At Santi’s shoot, there would definitely be steam wafting from the top of my takeout, coiling seductively over the bowl the way it only does in a Food Porn Flick. As the sun started to set and the light from my northern window started to wane, I did think of one makeshift, DIY thing that I could try! I quickly covered a small, plastic cutting board in aluminum foil and angled it to naturally light my bowl o’ noodles. Not bad, not bad. Besides, I’m not movie-scale Food Porn, I’m that free, internet Food Porn that you don’t need to pay anything to see. I know, I know – you’re just checking my site out for the articles, anyway.
I know, I said I was going to post on ramen today… but instead, I worked on a particularly GREAT post for Cooking Issues with Dave & Nils. It’s all about how to saber a champagne (or other sparkly bubble) bottle. Once you learn how to saber, you will never be able to open a bottle of champagne/sparkling wine traditionally without sighing a little for the lost chance to snap the cork off that bottle. Don’t believe me? Just watch the video (our first on Cooking Issues) and tell me that it doesn’t make you want to run out and by the cheapest bottle of sham-pog-nay that you can find. Happy sabering.
I dragged my congested self out of bed on Saturday to be part of the Food Panel discussion at the Vietnamese in NYC minifest called “Hay Qua.” Immediately after the event, I had to drag myself back to bed, but not before getting an awesome Banh Mi lunch with a side of inner peace and enlightenment.
I thought I was about 10 minutes late, but it turned out I was almost an hour early. I forgot that these were my people – punctuality is for the workplace, and Hay Qua was not work. And classic Vietnamese, it didn’t get crowded until lunchtime when the Banh Mi arrived – we love to eat and if we pay to eat, you better believe we’re going to be there to eat our money’s worth. An Choi, BEP, and Nicky’s all provided Banh Mi to sample. I’m not going to lie, I sampled a LOT. All 3 provided ridiculously delicious, grill chicken and pork garnished with pickled veg tastings. I’d love to pick a favorite, but in all honesty, I can’t. Being under the weather, my sense of taste is a little under right now and I don’t think it would be fair. You know the only solution, right? A banh mi crawl. You take a day and travel the boroughs sampling banh mi while taking tasting notes. It’s the only fair way. I also don’t like comparing food when it’s prepared en masse. I want individual attention lavishly garnered on my banh mi; pickled carrots and daikon lovingly hand-placed on crusty baguette. Hot summer days naturally compliment tropical Vietnamese cuisine, meaning that now is the time to take on this mission. Who’s with me??? (Yes, Nick – I see you. Put your hand down. We’ll get you that banh mi tasting badge)
Overall, I was the least-impressive participant by far, but I’m used to that. I was lucky enough to sit sandwiched between Thu Tran of Food Party and An Nguyen Xuan of BEP. If you haven’t seen Food Party, you need to. It’s beyond description, but if I had to try, it’s a little like Japanese Pop Art meets Sesame St. meets Japanese game show meets Martha Stewart meets Rachel Ray meets chemical-aided hallucination meets The State (the old MTV sketch comedy troop that rocked the 90s). Basically, it’s crazy amazing and Thu is the genius that drives it. If you have seen Food Party and like me, have wondered what she’s like in person, let me tell you: she does not disappoint. She’s hilarious without effort. The girl is REAL. She does and says exactly what she wants and thinks in that particular moment. She’s also humble and reserved. Once she gets on topic though, get out your tissues because she’ll make you laugh so hard that you’ll cry. An is also hilarious. He rocks a French-Vietnamese accent, is light-hearted and funny, and doesn’t stop smiling (probably because he’s constantly making himself laugh). Sitting between these two felt like being at a bar, just chilling with good people. We could have been anywhere – we just happened to be on a small stage talking to a roomful of people.
Tuan Bui of An Choi was the tallest Vietnamese dude that I have ever met. I don’t know how tall he is, but he’s like a one-man Vietnamese National Basketball team. He was thoughtful and well-spoken and has such a classic, well-groomed manner that I instantly felt like a putz. He, too, left Finance to get into food and has done so pretty successfully with An Choi. My confession is that I’ve never eaten at either An Choi or BEP, but meeting both Tuan and An has made me confident that they’re doing Vietnamese food justice. I’m excited to go try their current menus and then constantly go back to see how they continue to expand! Also on the panel was Yen Ha of the Lunch blog. This lady is no joke. Besides her impressive food blog, she’s also a partner in her own architecture firm. On top of all this, she is simply graceful and elegant. Her quiet confidence is so intimidating that I could only muster a “hello, nice to meet you.” I consciously decided that “less is more” with her and wouldn’t subject her to my diatribe of nonsense the way I torture all of you.
I finally got to meet the lovely Tam Ngo as well! Oh, did you know that being an amazing food writer and photographer is something she does in her spare time when she’s not practicing law or sitting on the board of Open House New York? Yeah. Talk about impressive. Oh, and she’s stunning. Girl’s able to eat a LOT (judging from her food pics) without gaining an ounce. Damn.
And you’d think that with all of this, I would have left Hay Qua feeling pretty self-conscious and down on myself… Full (of banh mi), but still down… Yet I didn’t. I actually left feeling… content. The theme of the day was one of savoring the now, heralded by Phong Bui (artist, scholar, and publisher of the Brooklyn Rail). With a buddha-like grin (and haircut), Phong gave an hour-long, reference-filled, speech that helped everyone in the room find a little more peace and acceptance with where each of us is in our lives at this moment. For me, it helped me actually laugh a little at my current predicament and find nothing short of amusement with all of my recent… pitfalls. Phong, too, was a career changer who saw a piece of art that changed his life forever. Yet he admits that he still doesn’t know where exactly he’s going (although his path thus far is pretty damn incredible). As someone who’s constantly asked “what’s your end-goal,” this rang so true to me. Is it OK to not know where you’re going, but to just enjoy the journey? If there is a destination point, what happens when I get there? Don’t get me wrong, I would love to be the type of person who has a goal or a target and just sets off to achieve it… but I’m not. I guess, like my friend Annette, I’m a wanderer, hungrily eating all of the experiences that my haphazard, hazard-filled life has to offer.