After Dark

Ask “Why?”: Russell Davis (Spike TV’s “Bar Rescue”)

If you don’t ask, you don’t get. This principle is probably the most basic and straight-forward introduction to philosophy in existence, but it seems to be the one society is most reluctant to adopt, especially when it comes to knowledge. “Why?” is the most important question an individual can ask. At least that’s the perspective of Russell Davis, Bar and Mixology Expert on Spike TV’s “Bar Rescue,” Nightclub and Bar Magazine’s 2012 Bartender of the Year, and Bar/Spirits/Mixology Consultant with a ridiculous variety of industry projects keeping him busy around-the-clock.

The only thing currently slowing Russell down is the knee surgery he is recovering from, but when I nervously shake his hand for the first time in-person, his energy is candid and jovial. After pouring me a glass of wine and preparing a pot of green tea, we sit across from one another with his best girl, aka his dog Daphne, climbing excitedly over both of us to provide a perfect ice-breaker to the next two hours I will spend learning and laughing (laughing a lot) from this talented multi-hyphenate.

Russell grew up on a 400-acre peach farm in a town of 80 people in East Texas, founded in 1836 by his great-great-great-great-grandfather. Everyone in town knew one another, and he briefly describes selling peaches on the side of the highway with his grandfather’s best friend. He speaks with affection about his father’s peaches, claiming they remain the best he has ever had, but wrinkles his nose when describing an aroma he hasn’t experienced since leaving home – rotten peaches. “Anything you produce in mass quantities – you know what it smells like decaying, and also as fresh as it can be.”

The majority of our conversation will end up revolving around senses, stimuli, and metaphor, which seem to encompass the most effective jargon to convey his opinions. He describes the bar as a gigantic piano, with each bottle embodying the notes played, then tells me the bar is also the story of his professional life. Smelling the contents of each bottle can transport him to each institution he has worked in since age 18, when he began bartending while studying Theater at the University of Texas at Austin. “My weird oddities reflect trends from each of those places,” he says, grinning, going on to describe the cumulating development of his love for green chartreuse with a root beer back, which began at Peche, a craft cocktail bar in Austin.

“It’s got 136 botanicals in it, but I hated green chartreuse at first. That’s the bottle that was never touched.” He likens the combination of green chartreuse and root beer to being in a pine forest surrounded by anise, and enjoys the effervescence of the soda bubbles carrying that aroma up to the nose.

“No one is more of an expert in root beer than me,” he responds, when I ask him if that combination is indicative of personal preference, since he has been acknowledged in the industry for developing a signature root beer float recipe.

He loved root beer as a child, and dug up sasafras roots in hopes of making it. (Someone in his family told him root beer came from roots, and I find myself giggling at the thought of tiny Russell carrying a root to an enchanted sorceress in the woods and returning with a mug of soda.) When he started experimenting with his own recipe, he had a very specific goal: he wanted his root beer to be like a cold-brewed tea, replicating root beer but thoroughly original to him. The version he uses starts with a black tea base, sassafras, marshmallow root (used in Indian culture as a thickening agent), and various essential oils.

Russell developed this recipe, along with 17 syrups, 70 tinctures, and 36 extracts (all non-alcoholic by FDA standards) while at The Ice Cream Bar in San Francisco, a take on a classic soda fountain. Not the Norman Rockwell soda fountain, the gritty 1890s version developed by pharmacists in drugstores to compete with popular saloon offerings, then made doubly appealing by the ability to get drugs. He describes this era (after the 1860 prohibition attempting to regulate the sale of pharmaceuticals) as the definition of what cocktails are.

I note that he seems to take much inspiration from this time period. “It’s not what I was interested in, it’s what people were interested in,” he replies, and we end up having a tangential discussion about history.

“How much of the story is told in alcohol?” he muses, describing a tonic made from dandelion and burdock root around the 12th Century AD described as “tonic of life.” After he reminds me that the phrase for distilled alcohol in Latin is aqua vitae, or “Water of Life,” we talk about legends about King Arthur, and how the Holy Grail is also described as “Water of Life.”

“I like to study people and culture. Alcohol is just my medium. You very rarely see people at their best in a bar. Very often, you see them at their worst. I’ve seen the layers of a person peeled back,” he says. “I love the bar industry, and I love what I do, but at home I’m a different person. Get the gasoline of your life from something else to fuel your passion.”

After asking him to describe his early bar memories, he comments that he can envision the exact spot he is standing in with each scenario, and describes after-hours at Cain & Abel’s in Austin listening to “Heaven” by The Talking Heads and “Where is My Mind” by Pixies. These early memories cause us to be temporarily derailed (again – my bad) by a discussion of Top Ramen (not Cup-O-Noodles, there’s a difference) and Sour Punch Straws, after which I learn one of the first cocktails that struck a meaningful chord with him: a sazerac, developed around 1836 in New Orleans. The manager of one of the first bars Russell worked in would regularly describe driving to New Orleans for this drink, especially the look and smell of the absinthe and whiskey in it.

Russell got his chance to try a sazerac while at a cocktail convention. He visited a bartender named Marvin (who he now sees every year – usually during summer) at the Carousel Bar & Lounge of the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans, the city’s only rotating bar. “My year is not complete without one,” he says. His eyes brighten when he describes the rotating bar, and I’m wondering if he catches the same metaphor I do when he continues, “You go back to the same seat, but the carousel has spun around.”

Is there a cocktail he’s created that has left a similar lasting impression on him? Ask him about “The Unforgiven.” “It defined something for me.”

Created after being asked what he would make if Clint Eastwood (or Bon Jovi, the only celebrity he claims he would be star-struck by) sat in front of him at the bar, “The Unforgiven” is a room temperature cocktail of aged Old Tom Gin, mezcal, carpano antica, spring water, and a tobacco-infused moonshine aromatic. Russell’s matter-of-fact pride in the drink comes both from the inspiration behind it (a riff on a frontier cocktail) and his love of the dirty mezcal against the bright gin.

Coincidentally, mezcal is one of the beverages he uses to describe his love life. That or a Flaming Dr. Pepper. “Dirty, but hits you just right,” he jokes.

So how else can someone or something hit the sweet spot of a man whose baseball walkout song would be “Wanted Dead or Alive” by Bon Jovi? For example, what cocktail could a bar-back or runner prepare to prove their worth? Answer: A Daiquiri or an Old Fashioned.

Why?

“To me, what makes a good anything is being able to look at a portion of a drink, and whoever made it can tell you why. I like people to make decisions. It has to have a reason. ‘I was trained to do this,’ is the wrong answer. It’s a way to have bad techniques perpetuate. Ask ‘why’ it was made the way it was made….It took seeing people care about it to make me care about it.”

Russell takes his steak black and blue and believes pho is the best hangover and illness cure in the world. “I don’t want where I eat pho to have a name. I just want a neon sign that says “pho” or a graphic of a soup bowl.”

When he’s feeling blue, he eats a low country boil or any other large pot of shellfish (sometimes in bed), and he only drinks piña coladas when he’s on vacation. For breakfast, he likes chai tea and scrambling a few eggs.

When he gets good news about a project and has a dance party in his living room to celebrate (come on, we all do it), he switches on “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk or “Pompeii” by Bastille. He hasn’t officially worked behind a bar for a couple of years beyond consulting and promoting, but he remembers getting “Everyday I’m Hustlin'” by Rick Ross and “Feel Good Inc.” by Gorillaz stuck in his head.

When the times comes to ask, “Why?” He chooses to ask, “What next?”

“When I answer, ‘What next?’ the ‘why’ is in there.”

 

For more information about Russell Davis and updates on his latest projects follow him on Facebook and Twitter or check out the Unlimited Liabilities website.

What You Think You Become: What Chef Brad Mathews Taught Me

If you have friends you text random questions to with absolutely no surrounding context at random hours of the day, use that as your frame of reference when picturing Chef Brad Mathews.

I met Brad at a tapas bar in Santa Monica, had an awesome time eating his food at Fishing with Dynamite in Manhattan Beach, and now anxiously await the opening of Cadet, a new restaurant in Santa Monica where he will be throwing down with Kris Tominaga from Hart and the Hunter. (Who in turn, is partners with Jeff Weinstein, who opened The Counter. If you want more of the Kevin Bacon-like degrees of separation, just ask Google. Don’t worry, it’s easier to keep track of if you don’t try to talk it out.)

Seriously though, isn’t that the best restaurant name ever? It’s more magical than Harry Potter. When I go, I expect all of you to join me. And bring friends. Otherwise, we can’t be friends.

See you at Cadet!

This month’s attempt to put my spin on a chef’s food memories and associations garnered some fantastic results.

Brad ate eggs at his (Great-) Grandmother’s house in the morning before school, but mostly remembers receiving one dollar from her to spend at a doughnut shop next door to his middle school each day. With a 30-minute window between the shop’s opening and the school day beginning, he would buy a fresh doughnut for 50-cents. With the remaining 50-cents, he would either buy 50 Swedish Fish (at a cost of one penny each) or play video games (Street Fighters or Lethal Enforcers.)

I respect anyone with a love for Swedish Fish and who actually remembers playing Street Fighters in a doughnut shop, so I became curious about what he looks for in a good doughnut. Midway through the coffee we have used as an excuse for meeting, he relates his love for the eclairs and Boston Creams at Bob’s Donuts in San Francisco, where the line of drunk hungry people wraps around the building at 2:00 AM and the doughnuts go directly from the fryer into a glaze into the box. Served while hot enough to release steam when torn open, this memory incites a tangent discussion about the ridiculous nature of chocolate.

Brad has shared several early food memories with me, thanks to being patient with my constant stream of questions over the course of our friendship, including a vivid one of thinly shaved venison heart over toast. Our conversation turns to chicken gizzards and his Uncle “Fireball” Marty, who uses them to make a tomatoey “hillbilly menudo,” served with peppers on a bun.

Which is more wonderful to discover: The Uncle sharing a name with the most disgusting-hangover-inducing whiskey known to man, or the fact that he makes a version of a soup known for curing the worst morning-after headaches?

For comfort food after a difficult day, Brad turns to pork shanks manipulated into a smoked pork bolognese, with his version of capitelli pasta shaped into “pigs tails.” As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I have never associated pasta with comfort, but understand why people do. Still, his demeanor becomes more relaxed just by discussing pasta and the “good Italian” food he associates with date nights with his wife, so I make a mental note to try making some sort of pasta dish ASAP. (Not a bad excuse to carb-load.)

My inspiration increases when he discusses his desire to make “magic” food and describes brown butter as “something special.”

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The Way I See It #1: Pasta as Comfort Food – Shrimp, Corn, and Brown Butter Fettuccine

The culinary trends he hates to love revolve around menu items “everyone thinks they can do,” like crudo and pork belly. He pushes up his glasses and we share a bonding moment about our respective tendencies to be underwhelmed when we are served pork belly. “It’s supposed to be flavorful, salty, sweet, succulent, gelatinous, fatty, melt-in-your-mouth delicious,” he exclaims, going on to describe the ideal pork belly texture as being spoon-tender, with a caramelized top layer of fat after a day-long cure in sugar, salt, chili, garlic, and herbs and cooked on a low 250 until “ridiculously tender.”

When he’s sick, he eats pad thai and watches “Ghostbusters.”

Damn, I meant to ask him if he prefers the original or the sequel.

Occasionally, he’ll cure his colds with ramen, which he takes with pork, soft-boiled egg, green onions, and sambal. He mentions a dream from the previous night involving pork broth, flavored with ginger, garlic, and lemongrass after cooking the flavor out of a pig’s head and trotters (the hoof up to the knee, which he helpfully indicates on his tattoo.)

Always trust a man who is good with knives and willing to tattoo a pig on himself.

If you’re thinking a lot of my conversation with Brad was about pork, it’s because pork is an ingredient that makes him feel better, regardless of what has happened that day. (He says a whole roasted or grilled fish will also suffice.) Brad likes foods that require nurturing, and as such get mistaken for being finicky. Akin to a healthy relationship, he favors working with ingredients that require patience and skill to emphasize their versatility – think radishes, peas, fish (especially black bass), and stone fruit.

A few days after this conversation, I text him a photo of pulled pork, which I have finally gussied up the patience to prepare.

The Way I See It #2: Pulled Pork from my Inner Nurturer

A Thank You Card, In 100 Words (Since chefs opening new restaurants hardly have time to breathe normally, let alone read my blog posts):

Dear Chef Brad,

Talking with you seems to simultaneously make my brain simplify and stop worrying while making my cooking times longer. Thank you for your advice and feedback without ego – there’s a reason why myself and several others look to you as a source of knowledge. You’ve helped remove some of my insecurities about cooking pork, which led to a new goal being set and achieved….With help from our conversation (and that pulled pork recipe), my family will be trying my food for the first time in November. I can’t freaking wait for Cadet to open.

-S

Eat It, Live It, Breathe It: A Conversation with Bar Pintxo’s James Martinez

James Martinez strolls out of the kitchen in typical form – fitted baseball hat worn backward, prep container of iced tea in-hand, apron with a folded towel tucked into the waist, lip ring, and tattoos. For once, he’s not headed for a station on the line; he’s graciously agreed to give me two hours of his time to talk about himself and the people he cares for most: his kitchen family. We head for the outside corner table of Bar Pintxo in Santa Monica. Almost three hours later, I emerge with a full belly and brain full of inspiration. I’m honored to know this man and call him friend – enough that I’m up at 6:30 in the morning before a long day of museum professional development hoping I do his passion justice.

James has spent his life bouncing around Los Angeles – born in East Los Angeles, moving to the West Side with his family, then over to North Hollywood after a few years in the kitchen. Maybe his love of cooking is connected to his father, a courier who took the family for sushi dinners and attempted to mimic recipes from cooking shows, but he’s not certain. His first kitchen memories were the result of necessity: both his parents worked, and his mother saved her days off for much-needed rest. As a result, fourteen-year-old James started making Spaghetti-Os for his four-year-old sister and newborn niece. He realized food was something he could get lost in and fall asleep thinking about when he began attempting recipes from the L.A. Times newspaper. Whenever he was uncertain, he improvised.

Kitchen pursuits temporarily diffused when James entered his junior year of high school, during which he swapped his L.A. Times recipe experiments for Taco Bell family packs with varsity football teammates. The topic of cooking resurfaced in a conversation with his father before the end of his senior year, who surprised James by admitting a previous desire to become a chef.

After graduating, an aunt’s boyfriend mentioned a connection to a culinary training course. James jumped at the opportunity, and showed up to a rehabilitation program for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts. Never one to turn away an opportunity to grow, he stayed and learned the basics, eventually working in the coffee shop operated by program alumni. After a brief stint at a Pavillion’s deli counter, he decided to expand his culinary knowledge and deepen his anxiety about debt by enrolling in Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Pasadena.

“School was different. It’s sped-up and rushed, which makes things inconsistent…..I picked everything up – it’s somewhere, but I’m still not sure what I paid for,” he admits, laughing as he remembers his externships. “With a restaurant, you master things. You do them again, and again, and again. I’ve seen people get fired over cooking a steak. I’ve seen people get pans thrown at them.”

His professional kitchen experience started at the Langham Huntington Hotel & Spa with a pre-“Top Chef: Season 6” winner Michael Voltaggio, who now owns ink. on Melrose, where James worked for five months while finishing Le Cordon Bleu, and externing for Wolfgang Puck’s catering company. He speaks fondly of both experiences, noting Voltaggio’s energy and presence. “You knew when he was in the kitchen. Hearing his voice, hearing something happening – you knew….you had to just do something. Put your head down, cut carrots, cut anything. He was always there for his kitchen, making sure every single plate was perfect.”

He doesn’t need pressing to recall his most memorable experience with Wolfgang Puck. It occurred at the Oscars Governor’s Ball party, which Puck has catered for almost two decades. Appetizers were going out, James one of the many young externs cooking meat. A hand reached around him to grab a set of tongs, and James glanced over his shoulder to see Puck himself flipping over the steak on his station. “He just looked at me and said, ‘Don’t let me do your job again.’ ….What else was I supposed to say? ‘Oui, chef.’ ”

After changing his metaphorical pants, of course.

His began his first post-school job after meeting Jimmy Martinez, a chef at BOA steakhouse in Santa Monica, at a barber shop. Even though he was taken on for pastry duties, he became a line cook after two months, and a line lead one month after that.

His eyes light up and I can feel electrical energy shooting out of his fingertips when I ask him to talk with me about cooking on the line. His entire demeanor changes. He sits up straight, looking across Santa Monica Boulevard at a kitchen I can’t see.

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“There’s nothing else like it. It’s hot. Yelling. Feet hurting. Intense. My first time cooking on the line, I asked, ‘Is this what I want to do?” It’s fearful. After one week,  I knew this is what I want to do…..it’s the funnest thing. Cooking defines who you are: the way you keep your stations, your mise [en place]. You develop obsessions with knives. You get addictions like coffee, Redbull. You go out afterward….If you’re worried about cutting yourself, burning yourself, you make it harder. You have to just go. That’s how you can tell [who the naturals are], because their bodies take over. It’s a lifestyle. No one will understand kitchen humor. Sexual. I mean sexual….lighting people on fire. It’s more family than your actual family, than your girlfriend, than your boyfriend.”

BOA Santa Monica also led James to his first mentor, Jason Ryczek. Executive sous chef at the time, he pulled something – the spark I love seeing every time James is on the line at Bar Pintxo – out of James. On James’ first day, Ryczek asked him to whip four quarts of chantilly cream by hand. Halfway through, he pulled an electric mixer out and placed it on the counter. He checked every detail of James’ work, pushing plates back to him if they weren’t perfect. “To me, he was God. He taught me the world.”

Ryczek eventually left BOA to open his own restaurant, calling James one week after leaving to work at Artisan House in Downtown Los Angeles. However, James didn’t make the transition as a line cook. “He started me doing salad. He told me I’d never want to go back and learn those stations if I started as a chef or line cook. After one month, I moved up.”

There is also an overlap with BOA and Artisan House of James working for Red O by Rick Bayless, cooking on the line and working the saute and grill stations. It was a normal thing for others in the kitchen to be six or seven years older than him, with over a decade more experience. The cooks at Red O helped him realize speed comes from cooking intelligently: working clean, controlling tickets, and knowing how to read accurate temperatures when cooking proteins. All these lessons occurred during service, since there was no time for training in the hectic environment of morning and afternoon prep.

“When you see a full board of tickets, all you want to do is run. Just….fuck. Close the restaurant. Leave. We’re done.”

He emphasizes the importance of working smart and clean again, citing it as the most important thing he picked up during his time at Red O. “It’s like a dance. We should know where everything is without looking, no matter what. You can tell how long a chef has worked and where they’ve worked by the way they keep their station. Everything is a unit. The chef gets the credit, but he’s directing the orchestra and we’re helping making this beautiful music.”

James was eventually offered a promotion at Red O – more money, more control. The same day, he received a call from a chef named Brad Mathews, who he’d met on the line at Artisan House. Mathews was the first chef I encountered at Bar Pintxo, and my conversation with James becomes more vivacious and quick as we delve into familiar territory. Our snacks are gone and I’m pressing pen to legal pad so hard I’m almost ripping the paper.

He laughs as he describes his first encounter with Mathews, who was working at Ford’s Filling Station in Culver City at the time. Mathews had accidentally burned bread while working the saute station – a joke which runs through their friendship to this day. Mathews was in transition to work at Bar Pintxo, and offered James a junior sous chef position. When Mathews said Bar Pintxo was a Spanish restaurant, James responded, “Like paella?”

“I had no idea what else Spanish food was,” he laughs. He ate at Bar Pintxo twice before starting work, and was blown away by how much was accomplished in the small space. He remembers tasting the carrilleras de buy a la riojana, beef cheeks braised for three hours in red wine and iberico stock, served with market vegetables. He would later help Plonowski execute this dish at James Beard House in New York City.

We pause for a short trip down memory lane, where I talk about remembering the first time I saw him walk into Bar Pintxo for a meeting with Mathews, thinking he looked like a high school student. He reminds me that I acted bitchy the first time I saw him working on the line. Our relationship hasn’t changed much.

Plonowski is almost twelve years older than James, and was initially hesitant about what a twenty-something with a backward fitted hat, funky sneakers, and a lip ring could bring to his restaurant. He asks every interviewee the same question: “What are the last three restaurants you ate at, and what did you eat?”

James was prepared, flippantly answering, “Bar Pintxo, of course,” drawing a laugh out of Plownowski, before talking about Pica, Hatfield, and Animal. And after calling mentor Ryczek for a reference, James was asked to cook one piece each of meat and fish. James decided to make complete dishes to express more creativity: seared duck with fingerling potatoes and cherry reduction and chimichurri shrimp over rice with calamari and pea puree.

A unit formed. Plonowski, Mathews, and James quickly learned how to collaborate and put out fantastic food. “Every single tasting menu since I’ve started working here has had a dish by me. But something I’ve learned is that ‘we‘ made this food. Not ‘I‘ made this food.”

In January of this year, Mathews left Bar Pintxo, and it was James’ turn to step up. “I’ve learned simplicity, not restraint. Flavors. Balance. One quick punch, then you’re out. One to two things on a plate to bring out flavors.”

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Plonowski has become a second mentor, providing insight to the business side of running a restaurant. “Spanish cuisine is fun. We want to pioneer this. There’s bar food….there’s bizarre food….but where is the middle ground? We’re trying to find that comforting mix.”

Fast forward to James Beard House in New York City. The crew slept at the restaurant during preparations the week before, and James was reunited with mentor Ryczek, who came along to provide help and support. The trip started precariously, with Virgin Airlines leaving two packages containing 80 rabbits in Los Angeles. Arriving at the James Beard House to prep for service, the group discovered the pastry scale wasn’t calibrated properly, and the evening’s menu had already been printed advertising chocolate pate with blueberry caviar. James spent two hours mixing tapioca maltodextrin and calcium chloride blindly before giving up. He squints his eyes closed in frustration while relating the story back to me, clenching his fists while relating how the first thing he did after returning from New York was make a full batch of blueberry caviar – belated closure.

Regardless of the hiccup, the four-hour service went well. To James, it felt like twenty minutes. Each course meant sending sixty plates out at once from a kitchen the size of Bar Pintxo’s. James was happiest with the rabbit that almost got left behind, braised in sherry over lentils with chorizo, bacon, and iberico stock. The emotional circle completed with Ryczek expressing his pride in James’ growth. “Having a mentor is like having [a father] who says you’ve never done anything. He’s only said he was proud of me twice. It was amazing. I was always aching for a compliment from him – something. Anything.”

The food James puts out speaks to his constant desire to improve and ability to absorb. He gives as much credit and love to his kitchen family as he does to his accomplishments – he loves everyone he works with, down to the dishwashers. “You have to eat, sleep, breathe, dream, live it. If you’re not doing that, you’re not cut out for this. I go to bed every night thinking about my mise [en place] for the next day. I don’t count sheep.”

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We head inside and I sit in my usual seat at the bar that runs around the Bar Pintxo kitchen. I eat bone-in elk with tequila-infused tomatillos and peppercorn sauce, heirloom tomato salad with anchovies, padron peppers flashed in a pan with olive oil and salt, and end with the beef cheeks that started James’ journey. Per usual, he gets a hug and smooch on the cheek from me before I head out the door. He gets an invite to dinner at my apartment, as long as he agrees not to give me too hard of a time about my food.

Twenty minutes later, I receive a text that sums everything up.

A chef with that mindset and care can prepare my food any day, time, or way. Oui chef.

Off the Menu Podcast: Shady Business and Awkward Moments

 

 

Elephant in the room: Mr. Burch and Junior are vegan and vegetarian, respectively, and have been so patient with my continuous stream of pork/beef/cheese compliments. In this edition of Off the Menu, we finally address the awkward moments. We also discuss that girl who allegedly sprayed Windex in her roommates’ food.

Be Here Now, Or How Kettle Chips are Super Deep

Someone had scrawled a long paragraph down most of the bottom half of the stall door. Two phrases caught my eye before I took the time to read the entire passage. “I can’t stop crying, because I just feel like I don’t belong at UCLA.”  And “I don’t have anyone to turn to.”

I never met the person who wrote those messages. It had definitely been done within the past few hours, because the maintenance crew hadn’t wiped the sharpie from the door. What occurred during what was clearly a very bad morning/early afternoon? What prompted the final push to removing a sharpie from their backpack and losing control in such a strange juxtaposition between private and public? I wasn’t in the presence of mind to analyze the situation so thoroughly at the time, but I definitely wondered if she was anywhere near. And all right.

It was my first week of classes at UCLA. I had managed to find the Dodd building successfully and had some time to kill before Classics 10: Ancient Greeks. I wandered into the women’s restroom and stared at my reflection in the listless and brooding aesthetic perfected by teenage angst. My high school boyfriend had broken up with me via phone the first night of my freshman orientation, and I still wasn’t over it. I didn’t know my two new roommates very well and had already gained my Freshman 15  (soon to be Freshman 30) from drowning my feelings in Chipotle (I’d still rather customize a burrito bowl than a sundae, conceptually.) I missed my parents. I had never lived away from home.

I mean, I was a college freshman.

When I ducked into the nearest bathroom stall, I wasn’t expecting to see a paragraph of handwritten text describing exactly how I felt. In the selfish state of being that comes with feeling lonely and upset, I couldn’t do much more than let an overwhelmed feeling wash over me.

Yes, my stoic exterior is a shell (a shell that’s as thick as molasses-based BBQ sauce, but a shell nonetheless) for a burning passionate nature. I’m essentially a Vulcan. Or Shrek.

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Maybe Daria hides her ears because they’re pointy like Spock’s. I digress. There are only so many nerd references one can make before it starts to weigh down an anecdote.

I also didn’t expect to see the plethora of scrawled responses. A multitude of ink thicknesses and textures made up the kaleidoscope of handwriting in the supportive replies. “Girl, we are Bruins. We stick TOGETHER!!” read one bubbly print, the I’s dotted with circles instead of dots. “You proved you were good enough by getting in! We’re the most applied-to university on the planet! This is going to be the best four or five or six or whatever years of your life and you get to live it with all of us,” read another.

I will never repeat this act in a public restroom again, but I reached out and touched the words. I didn’t want to introduce myself to every contributor and become their best friend, but I at least felt as though I’d be able to stomach a 75-minute lecture. I wiped the tears from my eyes, wiggled my feet around in my checkered Van loafers (I wore flat shoes then), and stumbled out of the restroom door. In a moment of movie magic, I bumped into a young man outside the door and knocked his laptop to the ground.

It wasn’t a Carrie and Big “Sex and the City” moment. It wasn’t even a “Kobe and Shaq exchange high-fives amid rumors of rivalry after that epic alley-oop play” moment. After getting mutually excited about the indestructible nature of Mac laptops, he noticed my red eyes.

“You okay?”

I smiled and replied that it had just been a long day.

“Freshman?”

I nodded.

“Don’t wait until your senior year to finish your GEs,” he joked. “You here for Classics 10, too?”

He slung his backpack to the floor and slid down the wall to sit, motioning for me to join him. He pulled a small bag of Kettle Chips from his backpack, opened it, and extended it to me.

“It’s rough, you know? You’ll be fine.”

He prattled on about professors, classes, and tests as we continued to dip into the bag of chips. He knew I wasn’t listening or attracted to him, that we wouldn’t speak after class or possibly ever again, and he didn’t care. He was selflessly giving me the opportunity to collect myself. He was providing me with multiple iterations of nourishment.

A $2.00 bag of Kettle Chips isn’t a quarter-inch thick piece of seared foie gras on toast or my Grandmother’s pumpkin pie, but I can’t see a bag without thinking of that moment, being grateful, and hoping that girl found the push into readiness she needed. It is an intense emotional journey to experience in the span of two seconds, but one I am continuously appreciative of.

“When a film’s heroine innocently coughs, you know that two scenes later, at most, she’ll be in an oxygen tent; when a man bumps into a woman at the train station, you know that man will become the woman’s lover/murderer. In everyday life, where we cough often and are always bumping into people, our daily actions rarely reverberate so lucidly.”          from Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy

kettle chips

Off the Menu Podcast: The One Where Ryan Drinks

 

 

Have you ever consumed a strong vodka cocktail so quickly that you rendered yourself incapable of doing basic math? I have. It was for a special occasion, though. Ryan is drinking again after a 109-day cleanse, and Jake, Junior, and I are eager to celebrate the occasion. You’re going to hear us clink glasses a few times, but hang out with us while we discuss a new Foodstagram (that’s the food porn side of Instagram) celebrity and play “Fridge or Cupboard” – there are debates about Nutella and soy sauce we’d like you to Fact-Check.

 

Off the Menu Podcast: James Beard Would Have Liked WeHo

 

 

Two new voices in this “Off the Menu”: Kelly, the Pop Tart Queen and Andrew, the Man Just as Monotone as I Am

(Don’t worry, Jake and Ryan are still around. You’ll hear them in the next one. Kelly and Andrew rock. I promise.)

 

Listen to our take on The James Beard Foundation Awards (for those of you scratching your heads, we also explain what that means), Tweezer Food, and….bacon overkill? Is there such a thing?

 

Off the Menu Podcast: Hola.

 

 

National Tortilla Chip Day was yesterday, and we’re celebrating by having a debate about red vs. green salsa and discussing how we take our chilaquiles.

Bonus: a tribute to Nutella. Would you like to be able to make Nutella soft-serve with only two ingredients? We’ve got you covered. And a $50 Fifty Shades of Grey cocktail? Huh.

Stirring Up Memories

It’s some point in the mid-90s, and I’m in elementary school. There is a two-tier black footstool in the kitchen, which I use to stand at the counter next to my mother while she cooks. Tonight, we’re having breakfast for dinner. I drag the stool over to the counter to “help.” I am still young enough (Full Disclosure: I will be this emotionally young until about age 20) not to process that Mommy is exhausted from making breakfast, throwing me out the door and into the car to get to school on time, and eight hours in an office. We always cook in chaos: bags of miscellaneous ingredients sag on the counter, magazines and junk mail are stacked across the dining room table, Tupperware and spice containers burst out of the refrigerator and pantry doors.

I suppose the prosaic way of phrasing it is that we’ve accumulated a lot of crap.

My favorite part of pulling up the stool next to Mommy at the counter is making waffles. I like being reminded to be careful when pouring the melted butter slowly into the batter. I like that the only thing Dad has to do to assist is whip egg whites into fluffy peaks, which he can do while watching TV.

Dad? Dad makes eggs. It doesn’t happen very often, but I think that’s because he’s not retired yet.

Hindsight being 20/20, I hope I didn’t insult my mother by having a clear preference for Dad’s scrambled eggs over hers. I have a feeling it was their allure. I was never allowed to help Dad make his eggs, so I had to surrender to the mystery. I didn’t know what herbs he used. I didn’t know how long they took to make. If you were to ask my father for the recipe, he’d chuckle and say he doesn’t really know what he puts in them. He does, but anything less specific than the way he makes hamburgers or meatloaf is something he claims not to know much about.

Remember, my father isn’t particular about what he eats. Just give him exactly what he wants.

The thing about food memories is that they have nothing to do with what is consumed in the moment we are eating, and everything to do with what is in our heads. After a certain length of time passes – one day, one month, one year – our inner recollections carry more weight than what actually happened.

Last week, I came across an article written by Aria Beth Sloss in 2013 with the following piece of trivia:

“In researching my novel, I came across Owen Wister’s Lady Baltimore, a 1906 novel that features a cake by the same name. Though the cake’s origins remain in dispute, one version of its legend has Wister responsible for inventing it. He made the ake sound so delicious that readers demanded the recipe. Fiction became fact. A story birthed a cake. What we believe is just one side of the truth.”

It’s always a good time to create new traditions. It’s why I created a section of this website titled “New Classics.” When I get to the point far, far, FAR down my road map in which I am a mother, I’m not entirely certain if I will share more food stories or food lessons with my child(ren), but I’m going to have a two-step footstool in my kitchen next to my counter.

After that sentimental interlude, I present you with this thrilling photo of my father leading my scared nugget self on a horse ride through a park.

horsie

Off the Menu Podcast: Pancake Vortex

 

 

It’s National Pancake Week. And pancakes are always worth talking about. Do you like noodles? There’s a contest for you. Just submit one recipe, nothing major.

But there’s also a big-deal pastry chef opportunity in New York City, and Jake and I have tips for ordering vino in a restaurant.