Posts Tagged 'food'

Pizza and Love in Milan: Le Grand Fooding Milano 2011

The way to a man’s Italian’s French hipster’s anyone’s heart is through food. Especially pizza.

This is the main lesson I came away with from a weekend spent at Le Grand Fooding Milano. The others included: Italians don’t know what aioli is; there’s really no such thing as “Italian” food, and Northern Italians are shocked and somewhat scandalized by white pizza; Nespresso isn’t bad; there is perhaps no one more effortlessly chic and hip and fucking nice as a French foodie; as such, I will never be a Le Fooding girl; and it’s pretty easy to crash a food festival (and sneak into a Sheraton) as long as you work hard and smile a lot. And know the right people.

I spent the last weekend in Milan, at a three-day food event put on by the French culinary guide/movement/cultural phenomenon Le Fooding. While not terribly well-known in the States, they’ve been around 10 years in France, stirring shit up and throwing parties and breaking rules and basically being the anti-Michelin Guide.

The theme of Milan’s festival was international chefs cooking Italian food versus Italian chefs cooking Italian food, and, being one of the better-known Neapolitan-style pizza restaurants in the US, Pizzaiolo (where I waited tables for the past year and a half) was invited to attend. My co-workers/chefs Jed Cote and Jason Loeb were flown across the globe, put up in a Sheraton, given a pizza oven and prep kitchen and about 100kg of squid, and sent to represent us.

And, since I was in Italy, I decided, you know, what the fuck—I’m going too.

So I showed up with my backpack and messenger bag and hoodie and crashed the party.

Represent!

Well, it wasn’t crashing exactly. We just figured that if I showed up to the San Pelegrino prep kitchen with Jason and Jed in the morning, hung out and sliced tomatoes and picked herbs and shit, and if I rolled with them to the event, just acted like I was supposed to be there, you know, that it’d all work out.

And it did, and it’s a good thing it did, cause it turned out to be one of those races to the finish, getting the pizza dough right, and cutting the squid, and plating and serving all the slices at the party. More than just a freeloader, I ended up being really useful. And having a rocking good time.

In all its glory

We were there making one of our signature pies (and one of my favorites)—a squid, cherry tomato and aioli pizza. Simple, makes the most of our Northern Cali goodness—abundant, sustainable squid supplies, bomb cherry tomatoes in the summer. We were contracted to pump out 50 pizzas, enough to feed the 300 guests each night, in the hour and a half before they went into the dining room for the seated dinner featuring four dishes from four different chefs.

Hella squid

We spent the mornings prepping, and one of the things I wasn’t expecting was how different the ingredients and facilities would be. Of course, the very premise of the event brings up issues of authenticity, of what happens to a cuisine when you take it from its home and drag it across the planet like… a spaghetti noodle (thus the name). But I didn’t anticipate how the location change would affect our own pizza. Jed and Jason brought their own yeast and used the same OO flour we use at the restaurant, but the squid was larger in Milan, and the tomatoes were more like small Romas instead of Sungolds and Sweet 100s, and less acidic and sweet. We also had a smaller mixer that required 4 batches to make our usual one; we also transported the dough to the event in a trash bag (classy). The pie didn’t end up tasting exactly how it does at home, and I guess that’s part of the point—that locality is crucial, defining, and that when foods travel, they change.

Trash bag dough!

At the event space, which took “industrial chic” to new levels, I hung out while the boys got the fire cranking and set up. It was some truly awesome people-watching. All the Le Fooding people were young and impossibly chic in that particularly Parisian way, cardigans and scarves (the boys) and little boots and tights and drape-y tops (girls), and a look we dubbed “the urban equestrian.” In my younger, less settled incarnations, I would have spent the time comparing myself to them and ultimately feeling shitty about myself. But now it was just comical—”Do we even grow girls like that in North America?” I asked my friends, and they shook their heads so fact I thought they might fall off.

Le Fooding girls

It was kinda like the squid and the tomatoes.

There were also tons of Italian crew setting up, working on the lights and such—they were less chic, more working class, in their cargo pants. Then there were the security guards and the phalanx of confused-looking 18-year-old assistant cooks/mignonnes, and the caterers—and everyone chain-smoking, chain-smoking, like it was their job. (One of the girls at the arancini stand was smoking while she set up the deep fryer…)

The people attending the event were a different breed—mostly middle-class, middle-aged Italians, with a sprinkling of hip folks and a whole slew of media. While the boys cooked, I plated slices, and talked to folks.

“Pizza di Oakland,” I heard people mutter.

“Pizza di Aukland?”

“No, America. Near to San Francisco.”

“Ah, pizza di Oakland! This is how you do pizza in California?”

“Well, this is how we do pizza.” And a wink and smile.

But the real test was the reception, which we seemed to win. People were only supposed to get one slice, but, as per our stuff-everyone philosophy, we’d prepped enough for 20 or so extra pies. So I got the catch people’s eyes as they tentatively looked over, tried not to hover, and I got to smile and motion for them to eat another. And another. Kill em with kindness, but also with food.

At 8:30, the Le Fooding kids ran a little bell and herded everyone into the dining room. Which is when the real fun started. Technically, we were done. But while the important chefs scurried around with their mignonnes, plating 300 dishes, and a crew of young caterers lined up, wearing all black with fucking headlamps on, like it were a Vegas show—we got to do what we love best, which is love on people.

It’s part of the whole Pizzaiolo philosophy (and the reason I loved working their so much)—to love the shit out of people, through food. So we started cranking out the pies. First some of our neighbors: the arancini girls and the Mumm champagne kids, and the guys at the next pizza oven, from Pizza East in London. Then a couple for the security guards and the people working the front door. How about the two gender-ambiguous Filipino cleaners? Of course! The endlessly hungry-eyed mignonnes—sure! Hey you, founder and director of this big-deal culinary movement—you get enough squid? How bout you, firefighter? You cold, Pelegrino girl?—come huddle by the pizza oven for a few minutes.

Cause that’s what it’s really all about, right? That’s why we call it breaking bread, why we mark important events by gathering for meals, why every fucking culture in the world comes together for food. It’s about love and building relationships and making friends, not cause it’s gonna get you something or somewhere or even a reciprocal drink/dish/whatever, but because that’s what we do—that’s what cooks get into the business to do, and what I, it turns out, love most about the industry: the simple act of feeding people.

And that’s what I think, after three days, that Le Fooding is all about to. I’d scoured the internet for English-language articles about them, and the main thing I’d read from the big American food critics is that they didn’t understand what Le Fooding wanted, or what they were trying to do (reminds you of Occupy Wall Street a bit, huh?). But after the weekend, after seeing how intensely we broed down and how food enabled all that, became a kind of edible language, when real language failed—it’s not that hard for me to understand what they want. They want that: love.

By the third day, we knew everyone—everyone stopping by to say hello or waving as they passed—and we partied late into the night on Saturday, dancing and smoking and exchanging hugs and email addresses. And it came out, you know, that I wasn’t a chef and that I’d just kinda showed up, but there was so much love no one gave a shit—they gave me those French double cheek kisses and wished me well in Cambodia.

And it’s a shame to be leaving the restaurant industry after such a weekend. But, as Jed said, “Way to go out on top.”

And with a lot of fucking love. And a belly full of pizza, which I’ll miss almost as much as the love.

Loved these two!

Headcheese, Chicken Feet and “You Are What You Eat”: How Travel’s Beaten the Squeamish Eater Out of Me

Jeffery was taking a machete to the disembodied pig’s head when I walked into work.

The other boys stood around watching. They looked up when they heard the door, grinned sheepishly at me. “Headcheese,” Colin said by way of explanation. “Sorry.”

I looked at the knives, the smeared aprons, the hunks of pig scattered about the wooden cutting board, and shrugged. “I think Southeast Asia has cured me of any squeamishness towards meat,” I laughed.

Food culture, it can be said, is a microcosm of culture. Traveling around, I’ve discovered that a society eats and its attitudes towards eating can be simultaneously one of the most telling and easily accessible aspects of a culture. In this way, eating in a foreign country is both a lofty, anthropological glimpse into the psyche of a culture, and a visceral adventure that often sends one dashing to the nearest squat toilet.

Case in point: there’s a certain semi-green queasy look Westerners wear when walking through a Southeast Asian street market. The plucked bodies hanging limply from hooks; the still-alive fish flopping out of their plastic tubs; the women waving fans at the flies that settle on heads, hooves, chunks of body; the smell of raw meat blooming in the humidity like irony mold—it’s all so utterly unlike the shrink-wrapped FDA-approved supermarket culture of the Western world.

And I’m not gonna lie: I was a bit unnerved at first. The literal rawness of market culture in Southeast Asia is jarring. Watching a teeny little woman crouch down in her pajama suit and hack off a chicken head seems brutal, surreal. Ordering a bowl of soup and seeing a chicken foot poke out of the translucent tangle of rice noodles is startling. And not at all appetizing.

Yes, I eat meat, your Westerness seems to say. But I don’t want to think about the fact that I eat meat. I don’t want to be confronted with the reality that I’m eating another living being.

When I was London a few years back, there was a big stir about Marcus the Lamb. It was being discussed on the talk radio station that played through my friend’s basement flat while we brewed morning coffee.

The story was this: as a lesson in the breeding and rearing of livestock, a primary school had adopted a lamb. The kids named the lamb Marcus, and did cute things like bottle feed him. Six months later, it was time for the lesson to culminate: Marcus was to be slaughtered. A shitstorm ensued.

Parents freaked, animal rights activists threatened, the headmistress was branded a murderer and some of the pupils were reported to develop stress-related insomnia. To their credit, the school officials remained firm: this was the point of the lesson—teaching urban children where their food comes from—and they weren’t going to cancel the lesson. A national debate raged, centering, it seemed, on the extent to which the urban, Western world has become disassociated from its food.

I considered this all as I chewed my toast in the gray London light. I’d been a non-vegan/vegetarian for a little over a year. During my 12 year run as a non-meat-eater, I’d maintained that meat eaters should know and acknowledge the reality of meat consumption. I wasn’t one of those PETA people plastering horror-movie pictures of slaughterhouses around town, but I’d always thought—Fuck, you eat the shit; you should be able to handle a head or a hoof or something.

And I had to hold myself to that when I started eating meat again at age 25. If I was gonna do it, I reasoned, I was gonna do all of it. I wasn’t going to hide from the fact of it, and I wasn’t going to be wasteful. Living in the Bay Area and working in the restaurant industry, it’s easy to make mindful, informed decisions about where one’s food is from, to nestle in the cozy, bedtime-story feeling a Cruelty Free label provides.

Way of advertising a butcher in Morocco. Flickr photo.

But then there’s the Southeast Asian food market. Or the goat head stew in a Moroccan medina. Or cabeza tacos in Mexico (or the Fruitvale, whatever). And by being confronted with heads and eyeballs and recognizable anatomy that doesn’t seem so different from our own, you’re also confronted with your Americanness, your Westerness.

But people are amazingly adaptable, and after a couple weeks you normalize your surroundings. You don’t look twice at the rows of raw meat, and you even acknowledge that while eating a fertilized duck egg is a mind-fuck—a bit like eating an abortion—it is goddamn delicious.

And then you come home and wonder what the fuck everyone is riled up about. Yeah, it’s headcheese, made from head meat, you think, What’s the big deal? Or you wait on a dude who sends back the whole shrimp on his plate cause the little head and eyeballs “Just ain’t cool.” And you think, Really, buddy? You’re a grown man; that’s just a lil ole head. But you laugh and shrug and say, “No problem,” cause you know that that’s just the culture he’s coming from. And it’s your job to make him happy, not to judge what kind of food he’s comfortable eating.

To say that Westerners, especially Americans, have become disassociated from our food is an understatement. (“Where does ketchup come from?” a friend asked her inner-city students once. “The store!”) You think of the old adage “You are what you eat,” and you wonder what the hell that means for us. It can’t, you reason, be anything good.

If you can tell a lot about a person by how they eat, what does a society’s food culture say about them? They say, for instance, that girls from alcoholic homes are exponentially more likely to develop eating disorders. If you extend that on a societal level, it’s a fascinating if unsettling picture of a national psyche. The ability of Americans, for instance, to feed themselves nourishing food in a way that’s free of drama and control and fad diets seems to have shattered, gotten lost somewhere; I think that the sanitized, shrink-wrapped, mass-produced foods we eat are a part of that.

We in the West, and especially the States, don’t know what the fuck we’re eating—or are so far removed from it we flip out at the potential of exposing our children to the age-old reality of meat eating. (For the record, it was the students themselves that voted to slaughter Marcus the Lamb. But one has to ask: would such a lesson ever even happen in the US? Assuming, of course, a school even had to funding for such a lesson…)

Growing up, my mom was convinced that the demise of the family dinner was inextricably linked to the break-down of the American family. She thus insisted that we all sit down, no matter how much homework we had, for a nightly family meal. This was, as you can imagine, infuriating for a moody teenager; I’d scowl at my plate until eventually someone would say something funny and we’d all sit and laugh and linger for an hour.

I’m grateful for that now, in the same way I’m grateful to have traveled to five different continents and gotten the squeamishness beaten out of me. There are some things I still won’t eat—shark fin soup, which is just plain wasteful; or that monkey-brain stew they make in China by pouring boiling water into a live monkey’s recently cracked skull—that’s just plain cruel. I don’t think I’m a particularly enlightened eater, nor do I think I’m gonna change the world by shopping at farmers markets.

I just think that I’ve gotten a bit more realistic, had a bit of my own barriers broken down. At least to the point that walking in on the making of headcheese doesn’t cause me to look twice.

Okay, so maybe I played with the eyeballs...

A Morsel of Americanness, Here in Cambodia

If you look deep, deep into my center of my American soul, you will find that it’s not composed of car owning or monolingualism or even rock n roll.

It’s filled with peanut butter.

Australians have their Vegemite and the Swedes have their Muesli and the whole of Europe has their Nutella. But I am American, and my heart pumps, not red blood like yours but thick, chunky, light-brown swirls of peanut butter.

In previous posts, I’ve claimed that this love of the ground peanut is my number one American qualifier. I’ve gone so far as to consider a peanut butter tattoo, which I envision coming complete with a traditional-style banner that reads: “From my cold dead hands.” I effing love the stuff, and I miss it dearly when I travel. Usually, when homesickness and the craving for healthy fat gets the better of me, I search and search for a jar to no avail.

So imagine my sheer delight when I found this little gem of patriotism staring out from the shelf at me:

Not only is it delicious and nutritious, it comes with a prominent display of national pride. Now that’s what I call proper marketing.

The Americanness of Garlic: Weekend Wedding Part III

We rode down the line, past the line, through it: the slice in the sky where the fog stops and the blue begins.

The California Coast and the Central Valley: there’s more than just a fog bank that separates the two. They’re culturally two different worlds. One is liberal, cultured, Priuses and windbreakers all year round. The other is hot, flat, migrant and dusty, rumbling trucks and fruit stands, too-neat rows of too-green produce lining the highway, whipping past your window in a monotonous flipbook, eye-numbing and strangely hypnotizing.

To us coastal folks, the Central Valley is a hazy strip of heat and pesticides, a nebulous region of towns we’ve heard of in passing, maybe driven through, but never really experienced past a gas station or two. Which is why Gabe and I had decided to stop in Gilroy, a typical agricultural Central Valley town, on our drive back to the Bay. That, and the garlic.

The Gilroy Garlic Festival is one of those things I’d heard about my whole life, but never been to. I wasn’t even really sure where Gilroy was. It’s one of those small-town events that put the place on the map, gives it some sort of name recognition to city folk. You get the feeling that the whole town lives for Garlic Festival weekend, that it’s their moment to shine—or more accurately, to waft.

We snaked along the single-file traffic leading to the parking lot. Everything was agriculture: produce stands, the Garlic Shoppe, a garlic restaurant, garlic paraphernalia. People with coolers stood on the roadside selling bottles of “ice-cold water, $1 here, $3 at the festival.” The town was amped.

We tromped across the dirt parking lot, past port-o-potties and shuttle bus lines, volunteers with bull horns, in towards the banners and balloons and cloud of cooking garlic.

It wasn’t cheap: $17 to get in. It didn’t matter. We were in it to win it.

At first, it was kind of disappointing—all the usual festival stuff: cheesy craft booths and “funky” bands, frozen lemonade (not garlic-infused). I was expecting some sort of kitschy throw-back vibe, a state fair kind of atmosphere. I was expecting uber-ridiculous, inventive garlic food, garlic everything.

But as we wandered more, went deeper into the booths and stands, the subtler ridiculousness revealed itself. And then we found this:

A flaming garlic effigy. How metal is that?

We went for it. We didn’t care that everything cost $5 and the lines were long and the sun was brutal. We wanted the full experience.

That’s right—garlic ice-cream. This is one of the festival’s great claims to fame that I’d heard about. And it’s ice-cream. So I had to have it. Oddly enough, they served it in a half cantaloupe. Not so sure about the culinary success of that, but I could appreciate the eco-friendliness.

Shit yeah!

Gabe was obsessed with finding deep-fried garlic. When he succeeded, we sat down on a hay bale and indulged in our treats (dipping deep-fried garlic into garlic ice-cream: amazing). One of the bands had broken into a cover of an obscure, early Johnny Cash song. As the families trundled by in the afternoon heat, there was something really sweet about the whole thing, something All-American in a way that I once scoffed at.

And then we found this dude:

Nothing like a man in drag resembling a human garlic nut sack to really get the party started.

While most of the booths were of the folk-art and rip-off variety ($20 for a flattened glass bottle window hanger), there were some hidden gems in the rows of awnings:

More vaguely scrotal goods

“The Originals”—thank god! None of these impostor custom toe rings.

This one goes out to all the vegetarians in the house...

“Gourmet Alley” was the closest thing to the state fair vibe I found. They seemed to serve all the same fare as the rest of the festival; the fonts on their banners were just of a more dignified variety. There was a cook-out section complete with demonstrations and seminars, where local hot shots flexed their garlic prowess. It was all proudly and unironically sponsored by Foster Farms (complete with chicken-shaped balloons bobbing overhead). We may have only been an hour and a half from the Bay Area, but the food culture was was a whole nuther world: purely All-American.

And in a way, beyond the deliciousness of garlic, that’s what I been looking for, hoping to find at the festival: America.

There’s a kind of beautiful part to participating in a culture, in mainstream culture. Growing up in a city, and especially in a place as distinct as the Bay Area, you don’t get a lot of chances to indulge in Americana—we’re all about film festivals and Critical Masses and dirty punk shows in dingy warehouses.

But there’s this American mythology, this agrarian life, a “simple life,” that’s always been there: a vague background noise, aired on old sitcoms, tucked into dusty paperbacks, into the heart of the big, wide country that I fly over and past, but never stop in. I’ve never experienced it, never lived it, observed it from a distance, as the Other.

I think us city people feel alienated from that culture. We judge it (“uneducated, small-minded, uber-Christian bigots”), and are afraid it was judge us (especially if we’re something other than straight, white, native-born). There’s a kind of deep distrust—”that isn’t me, can’t be me, not ever me.” There’s something lonely about existing in something other than the predominate culture.

It was nice, for an afternoon, to feel like in some small way, I can be a part of that too, that that’s in me as well: America. Never thought I’d say that.

And sweating garlic for the next day and a half was fun too.

Candy, Travel and Love in Los Angeles

On a smog-sighing spring afternoon in Los Angeles, I met my soul mate. Possibly two soul mates.

Tuesday was a charmed day, my last full one before I hit the highway and headed back up the green spine of California. I ultimately failed in my scurrying attempt to cram in everything I hadn’t gotten to in the previous days—but I did encounter, sheerly by happenstance, two kindred spirits, cosmically bound in a coruscating tango set to the tune of my greatest loves: the unexpected beauty of travel, and sugar.

I got to Glaco’s Soda Pop Stop the round-about way. I learned about the Highland Park neighborhood (where Glaco’s has operated since 1897) through Trekking Los Angeles, a non-profit that aims to leverage cultural tourism to bring financial benefit to underserved communities. A pretty bad-ass ambition, and especially interesting given the recent spark in the ongoing debate about the cultural benefits/damages of tourism at World Hum and Matador. But how would it play out practically? I tried out one of their neighborhood guides.

The Highland Park guide focused mostly on art galleries and community spaces, which though interesting yielded a pretty incomplete neighborhood guide. I cruised past several of the galleries, finding only one open, and discovered the crowning Southwest Museum to be closed indefinitely due to earthquake damage.

What I ended up finding coolest was just wandering the streets. Far from trendy and slick, Highland Park is a diverse, working class community (not too different from Oakland) filled with raspado carts, 99 cent stores, auto shops, old women walking under the shade of umbrellas, panderias displaying Nescafe, Santeria markets, Food4Less, fast food chains, the lonely hiss of traffic. And art. Graffiti bloomed electric in the alleys, while murals covered the sides of buildings, highlighting local history, cheerfully advertising for businesses or bilingually encouraging you to recycle your motor oil. If it hadn’t been for Trekking Los Angeles, I’d never have ended up in Highland Park.

But Yelp led to me to the real gem of the neighborhood. Judging by the magazine articles taped to the front door, Glaco’s is far from undiscovered. Which is a good thing. Because under the fluorescence and atop the linoleum lies one of the most killer collection of sweets I’ve ever seen. I’d come to the holy land of sugar fiends. Cane sugar fiends.

I walked starry-eyed through the aisles, along displays of glass bottles and vintage candy. As I stocked up on candy cigarettes, Bubble Up and chocolate taffy, I perused some of the ingredients list. High fructose corn syrup was nowhere to be found. At the check-out line, I asked the grayed, smock-wearing clerk if the sweets sold were all in fact original recipes, free of all the chemicals and crap found in American candy today.

His eyes shone, a web of smile wrinkles appearing. “Our products only contain cane sugar.” My heart fluttered. My wallet opened.

Turns out the clerk was John, the owner of Glaco’s and the man responsible for turning it from an old-school deli to a cornucopia of candy. Being a fairly mellow Tuesday afternoon, John commenced to guide me around the store, explaining his philosophy and pointing out beloved brands.

John was all about the taste. He wasn’t a new-agey health nut (obviously)—to him, products made from natural ingredients like cane sugar just taste better. “The big companies are all about cutting costs,” he told me. “They don’t care about taste.” He told me how he remembered, as a kid, when 7Up switched from using lemon and lime oils to extracts. “It was terrible,” he lamented, with the touch of nostalgic heartbreak reserved for unhealed childhood wounds. “Now this,” he picked up a bottle with care, “is the good stuff. Original Dr. Pepper formula, with Imperial cane sugar.”

John and I proceeded to bro down about ingredients for about 20 minutes. Coming from the Bay Area dining scene, it’s all about quality, natural ingredients, even at the bar—squeeze your own fresh juices, make your own simple syrup, even your own small-batch Vermouth, increasingly. It’s a trend based on taste. But for John, it’s no trend. The vintage candy and soda thing isn’t a gimmick, isn’t hip. It’s just the way sweets were always meant to be. A square-shaped old man with smiling eyes and a die-hard passion for sugar, I almost asked if he had any single grandsons.

Thirty dollars and one mean sugar buzz later, I headed clean across town to Culver City, the undercover hotbed of hipness. Some of LA’s most prominent contemporary urban art galleries are housed in the unassuming tract of wide streets and windy sidewalks, including one often featured on one of my favorite street art blogs, unurth. I checked out the whimsical exhibition by Brazilian street artist Nina Pandolfo at Carmichael Gallery, and chatted up the friendly dude gallery sitting. He told me not to miss the current exhibition two doors down, at Roberts & Tilton. And oh man, am I glad I listened.

The white walls of the gallery’s main room were lined with a single ring of photographs, hung right at eye-level. The black-and-white images were haunting, gritty, unflinching, and ultimately beautiful. They were the work of Ed Templeton.

Ed Templeton is a kind of a Renaissance Man of contemporary cool—a pro skateboarder, photographer, artist, editor of a magazine, and, after reading the press release for his current show The Seconds Pass, a damn good writer, I’ve decided:

There is a scribble of asphalt and meandering ribbons of concrete tangled all over North America in a contiguous line of material that connects each of us to whomever else is also in contact. I sometimes marvel at this, walking from my front door and standing on the asphalt looking down at its grimy blackness, wishing I could rest my ear down on it and hear everything like the Indians in an old western film. The pavement I’m standing on is connected to other pavement, concrete, or steel to almost anywhere I can think of. Certainly everywhere you can drive to. Someone in Burnt Church, Tennessee is standing on gravel that is connected by touch to my street, just like someone is in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I can be in New York City in 3 days from my home in the suburban sprawl of Orange County, California without ever touching the earth.

All the photographs in the exhibition were taken from cars. On the road, in transit, the photos captured those fleeting moments, those “ephemeral winks” that slide past the glass like a poem of images, a slideshow of humanity and place. Walking, biking, waiting for the bus, staring out through the windshield—they were snapshots of those little moments, seemingly small and sometimes lonely, that are somehow connected, or connect us.

I’d been roadtripping for 9 days, riding the veins of America, the journey of it as much a destination as the places themselves. Dusty towns, gasping palm trees, billboards and cacti, strip malls and faces, faces—it was like a projection of something, a movie flickering on my windshield, disappearing in the side-view mirrors. And a thread of something laid underneath it all, tying it all together, like some obscure plot line I couldn’t quite grasp, but that kept nudging, whispering at me in its language of images, the roar of the wind. It was the road, the black asphalt itself—and god-damn, if I could take a decent picture, it’d look something like the ones lining the walls of that gallery.

It might have just been the cane sugar coursing through the blood, but things were beginning to make sense.

Kimmo´s Culinary Quest in Madrid

Shopping for produce

Shopping for produce

Kimmo sighs a cloud of smoke and looks into his half-full pint glass. ¨I told her one and a half months, I´ll try it. Then,¨ he shrugs and manages a smile ringed with worry lines.

It´s one am, and we´re washing down the 4th night of Doña Antonia´s grand reopening at an endearingly tacky Irish bar in the cobbled heart of Madrid. The red plaid wallpaper and grime-covered Guiness mirrors seem to agree with Kimmo, who looks 10 years younger out of his white-starched chef´s jacket.

Kimmo, Matt and I at one time all worked for the same 5-restaurant company that encompassed, at varying times, 3 SF-Chronicle Top 100 restaurants. That is to say, we´ve all been well-indoctorinated with the Alice-Waters-inspired culinary philospohy of organic, locally sourced ingredients. Ours paths have crossed for one heavy-skied Sunday in Madrid, where Matt, some friends and I feasted on the kick-ass creations of Kimmo´s new menu. It was one of the best meals I´d had in awhile.

But, apparently, Madridanos don´t share our American enthusiasm.

¨Madridanos,¨Matt tells me, ¨aren´t very discerning diners. It´s more about atmosphere than the actual food.¨ Kimmo nods in semi-forlorned agreement.

A recent transplant from the Bay Area culinary scene, Kimmo´s been trying to reconcile his California-cuisine sensibility with Madrid´s affection for over-salted sameness. It´s been 6 months, 3 restaurants, and so far, it hasn´t gone splendidly.

Listening to Kimmo´s qualms and Matt´s frustrations, I begin to realize that culinary values and expectations in California are wildly different than those in Spain.

Matt, an ex-bar-manager turned handle-bar-moustached vagabonder, has been frustrated with Spanish service and quality for the past 7 months. Kimmo, a sweet-faced Scandinavian socialist who´s vowed not to die in either the US or Finland, has been struggling against the low standards and unadventurous expectations of Madrid´s diners and restauranteurs. A chef by trade, he´s been hired as the head chef and sole cook of the newly reopened Doña Antonio near Plaza Santa Ana.

Kimmo´s creative menu includes untraditional dishes like mussels with chorizo and garbanzo beans, a sort of inventiveness valued in the Bay Area. Put the same old things on the menu there, and you can bet on your clintele steadily plummeting. In Madrid, it´s the opposite. For the 4th consecutive night, Kimmos´s watched nervously as potential diners sip on coktails (he insisted on expanding the beer and wine bar to include mojitos and caipirinhas), peruse the menu, look confused, and leave without ordering.

¨When it comes to tapas restaurants, the kind younger Madridanos go to,¨ Matt says, ¨I usually don´t even have to look at the menu. They´re pretty much all the same.¨

The increasingly anxious owner of Doña Antonia wants a more typical menu; in the previous day´s blow-out, Kimmo conceeded to including bravas and croquetas on the menu. ¨She tells me,¨Kimmo says of the owner, ¨ ´You can do them your way.´ But no one in Madrid wants to try lemon aioli. And they haven´t even heard to romesco!¨

Another problem Kimmo´s encountered is that modern Madridanos seem to have no familiarity with the Spanish cuisine he learned in the States. Filet of fish with romesco? No go. Paella without seafood? Won´t fly. Additionally, the organic craze has far from set in. An almost nauseatingly hip trend in the US, the inherent taste superioirty and sustainable sensibility means nothing in Spain. ¨There´s no idea that you might want to spend more for better ingredients. I can´t say, ´The meat is expensive because it´s organic.´ They won´t care; they say, ´Find it for cheaper.´ So I have to try to cook with rubbery arugula, carrots that don´t taste like carrots.¨

Kimmo´s decided to give it 6 weeks. He´ll do what the owner wants: put the typical dishes on the menu and try to make the best of less-than-optimum ingredients. Will he eventually conceede and adapt to the Madrid way of dining, or will he maintain his high standards and continue the seemingly impossible struggle to raise diners´expectations, lower their inhibitions and up the ante of the Madrid tapas scene?

There´s no way to know, not now. But tonight we can kick back in the thickening smoke creeping through the psuedo-pub as the crowd thins and the evening grows damp and heavy, and let it all go. Afterall, tomorrow´s Monday, Kimmo´s one day off.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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