A Place Holder: "Many Parts Are Edible…" (The Redux)

September 16, 2010

We’ve been reviewing our Atlanta “Bucket List” of restaurants we’d like to try, looking at menus on websites, reading reviews, etc.  One that we are considering has not one, but two different preparations of two different kinds of testicles (notice that everything is coming in two’s here…)

Now, I am as open minded as the next guy, maybe more so when it comes to what I will and won’t put in my mouth (yikes, the double entendres are coming hot and heavy here this morning!) but I would think one type should be sufficient for anyone.  These guys must be digging really deep into their butcher’s product list.

It all reminded me of a something I posted over a year ago on the topic of “parts is parts”; so here’s a redux for you, with apologies to Euell Gibbons and his 70’s TV ads hawking Grapenuts (which to me have no parts that are edible).

I’m leaving for Miami tomorrow for what will hopefully be the last in a month-long series of interviews.  I’m hoping that I finally land this gig so next week I won’t  find myself putting a checkmark in a box to answer questions like “Did you look for work?” or “Was there any reason (other than sickness or injury) that you could not have accepted full time work each weekday?”

Until then, if you haven’t already, please “Enjoy!”

“Many Parts Are Edible…”

This morning our cat caught a bird. This was not an unusual occurrence as he is a  formidable hunter and does not discriminate. We have found, at various times, parts of mice, lizards, snakes, gophers and birds on our back patio. The weird part is his surgical precision in removing the entrails from his trophies. The whole bird was left this time, minus the heart. “Sweet Jesus, Everett, they took his heart!” But he is an animal after all, and they do eat each other, given the chance.

Somewhere along the line of history, we humans decided it is not okay to eat each other, that cannibalism should not be a philosophical choice. Where and when this occurred I do not know, but I am sure it was well before the first Hannibal Lechter movie came out. I am also unsure whether this was a gradual process, such as the backlash against smoking (the Surgeon General warns that cannibalism can lead to low birth weight), or if it was one of those epiphanies where mankind slapped its collective self on the forehead and said, “You know, eating your Uncle Tony is not polite”. We stopped eating each other, and decided that sacrificing ourselves to the gods was counter-productive as well. So we turned on our friends in the animal kingdom.

I don’t know how it came to be that offal (and what a perfect, if misspelled, name that is!) like Sweetbreads were considered a delicacy; or how it was discovered that liver was good with bacon, but I am happier for it. However it occurred, we do eat some very strange things in restaurants. We are eating straight fat (lardo, another perfect name!), fat back (just add in “hairy” and this would be perfect, too), beef cheeks (from the face as well as the other end), shanks, ribs, knuckles, feet, tongues, kidneys, brains, and stomachs. And that’s just at the taco truck. I have seen Pork Blood Jelly on menus at Chinese restaurants and of course the ever-popular tripe at Italian and Mexican restaurants.

We have decided that it is not only okay to eat animals, but we have to eat each and every part of them. This idea probably stems from the early Caveman’s philosophy that using every part of the animal was economical. Killing a Mastadon is a bitch of a lot of work and we might not get to do it again for a while, so sit up straight and finish your hooves.

The vegetable kingdom is not without its “how the hell did they figure out you could eat this?” foods either. Jerusalem artichokes (a somewhat less than perfect name) are a puzzler. They grow deep in the ground, have a shape that makes peeling unbelievably difficult, and you have to have a hundred of the little bastards just to make a bowl of soup. Hearts of Palm, that staple of mediocre Country Club lunch menus everywhere, is really just that: the heart of a palm tree. It was probably a guy with a seafood allergy stranded on a desert island that figured that one out. And Tapioca: it’s made from the cassava root which is basically poisonous unless cooked well enough to remove the toxins. How many dead Sous-Chefs did it take to perfect that technique? “Eh? Henri ese dead? Vee vill need to kook it more, no?” Salsify is a root vegetable that is so face-twistingly bitter coming out of the ground that it has to be cooked several times in milk or some other liquid to make it palatable; and the trendy new vegetable item at haute cuisine places is purslane, or red amaranth. It’s a weed, people. After the constant battle I wage with this invasive, prolific gardener’s bane, I can almost understand the satisfaction derived from eating it. If it had guts, I’d go spit them out in the melon patch, like my cat with his bird parts. Take that, bitches, and don’t let me see you around here again!

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"Scary Movie VIII: Bachelorette Party, Napa Valley"

March 8, 2010

Let’s face it, people come to Napa Valley to drink.  Some do it in “moderation”, trying to experience new wines and wineries, some just do it.

Working for a couple of years at Domaine Chandon’s étoile Restaurant, I’ve had more than my share of power drinkers.   Limos full of  tiara-wearing bachelorettes were a common occurance at 6:00pm on weekends all summer.  After a full day of wineries, a salad for lunch, and maybe a “what the hell” margarita, or a couple of shots in the car, they decide it might be a good idea to stop in and power down a bottle or two of Sparkling.  They get the “drunken munchies”, see the restaurant is now open, and think that eating a five-course meal loaded with foie gras and pork belly sounds like a good way to top things off.  The survivors of the group always seemed mystified as to why some of their party end up in the bathroom driving the porcelain bus.  Chandon had the distinction of being open later than many tastng rooms, so we would end up with a lot of these “end ups”.

We ended up with a similar group at La Toque on Saturday night.  A woman had called in to see if we could take a party of 10 at 8:30 that night.  I am always wary of late Saturday night reservations made at the last minute, say around 5:30pm that day, called in from a winery.  Most of the time, it goes like this:

1)  Make reservation after a full day of visiting wineries.

2) Return to hotel room to change at 6:00pm.

3) Fall asleep for three hours.

4) Wake up with the “fuck-its”, and order a cheeseburger from room service.

5) No-show, no-call at the restaurant.

Or the alteranative scenario, where they go through Steps 1 and 2, but instead of proceeding to nap at Step 3, they try to power through and just keep drinking, resulting in them being a hot mess when they show for dinner.  Even though I have always been a fan of the “Go Big or Go Home” philosophy, most first timers to Napa don’t have the stamina they think they do, and this second scenario always spells trouble.

So when I got a call for a last minute 10-top from the hotel next door at around 6:00pm I was, to say the least, skeptical they would actually make it.  But having a late 10-top is like finding 50 bucks in your jeans when you are folding the laundry.  So on the off-chance that they would show, I offered them the only option I could, which was to seat them on two separate tables of five.  “Okay, we’ll be there…”

The night is going fine, busy yet smooth; and as 8:15 rolls around I actually have two adjacent tables available, so I tell the crew to put them together and we’ll give this late party a thrill by letting them all sit together, if they show at all.   Then, as it always seems to when things are going well, that other shoe drops.

The advance guard of the 10-top has arrived and two of them can barely stand and are propping each other up; the other two are distancing themselves slightly, talking loudly on cell phones in the foyer.  I approach, ask if the rest of the group is en route and am told they are now eight.  Okay, only eight.  Thanks for calling.  Normally I would know better and not make a table adjustment until I have the entire group assembled, as drunk chicks are notoriously bad at math; but I look out the front door and see the other four ambling up the stairs, with no stragglers in tow.  They are all pretty buzzed.  So the table is adjusted and they are seated, the loud-talkers quieting down somewhat as they enter the dining room.  Safe so far.

I tell the back waiters to get some bread to the table immediately as these chicks clearly need something in their stomachs.  They get themselves situated, get the menus and start looking them over.   As I do a walk-by, I see that one of them has folded her napkin into a little square pillow so she can comfortably lay her head down on the table for a little snooze.  Another, a couple of seats over has put on her sunglasses and is trying to navigate the menu through her Chanels in our dimly lit dining room.  The girl seated next to Shades is groping over at her face, trying to grab the glasses off of her head, “Ooh, those are CUTE, let me wear them.”  One of them, who actually still has her wits about her, asks me for a Wine List.  Uh, no.  I proceed to explain we will not be serving their group any more alcohol for the obvious reasons.  A tall blonde looks up at me and whispers loudly, “I’m not THAT drunk…”  Yes, you are.

There are really only three of the eight that needed to be cut off, but in group situations you are asking for trouble if you attempt to serve only some, as those that are banned will attempt to drink covertly.  Drunks are not good at being sneaky, so you will have to cut off the others anyway.  Might as well deal with it right from the get go.

The two that were doing the three legged race trying to hold each other up earlier, offer to leave if I will agree to serve the rest.  Before I can even get the word “No” formed on my lips, they are up, pinballing back out of the restaurant and down the hall.  I follow them out to make sure the bartender at our other bar in the lobby is aware of their status.  Their situation couldn’t be more clear if it was tatooed on their foreheads (“Ooh, cool!  Lesh gedda taTOO!!”), but better safe than sorry.

So I get back to the table and the remaining six are debating whether to stay and not drink (“Where’s the fun in THAT?!”) and “threatening” to leave.  Really?  Promise?  But most of the group seems okay to me now, so I acquiesce and they decide to stay.  Four of the six order the Wine Pairings with their dinner, the other two are smart enough to stick with water, and lots of it.

This group is like one of those horror movies with the eight Summer Camp girls in cut-off jeans and bikini tops huddled together in the dark cabin, with a maniac on the loose in the woods.   Two of them have already been picked off, but now another one goes off to try to find help, or get wood for the fire, whatever; and when she doesn’t return, another says, “I wonder what’s happened to her…” and one by one off they go, until all of them are in pieces in Hefty Bags.  Halfway through her first course, one of our Survivors gets up and walks quickly out and towards the restroom.  She reappeared briefly about 15 minutes later.  She gets her check, pays quickly and leaves, obviously preferring to vomit in the privacy of her own hotel room.  And then there were five…

"Maybe we should go see if Lisa is okay..."

The rest of the evening passed without incident, and several of the girls actually thanked me for letting them stay, and for helping get rid of their drunk friends which they had apparently been trying to do unsuccessfully for most of the day.   Like a movie where the Mob Hitman has an attack of conscience but needs proof the job is done, they ended the night by having their waiter take a photo with the rest of them in “passed out” poses, with a couple of wine glasses knocked over for effect.  Good thing they got the photographic evidence as actually remembering the events could prove problematic.  We go a phone call from one of them ten minutes after they left saying she had lost a sweater.  I didn’t even bother looking as I knew she was probably wearing it.  Girls just wanna have fun…


"Anything That Can Happen, Does…"

January 15, 2010

My wife stopped by to visit me at work last night as she had a little time to kill while our daughter was at her nightly swimming practice. She will often come in to sit at the bar, have a beverage, and chat a little. Because she has a “real job” and works 8 to 5, we see each other for about half an hour in the morning, and then that’s it until my days off. So a visit from her is always welcome.

As an anal-retentive manager, my eyes and my mind are constantly on the move when I am at work. John Madden used to call it “Linebacker Eyes,” always moving, looking, trying to stay ahead of the curve and on top of the situation. So it’s not that I feel justified in giving more of my attention to the “paying guests” than I do her; and it’s not because the restaurant is so slammingly busy that I need to go bail out some server, or run food (indeed, last night we had only a handful of tables, as it is January in Napa Valley, after all); but I usually end up feeling a little guilty for not giving her my full attention while she is there.

The main reason I am distracted is that I have learned, through years of personal experience, that I absolutely need to watch and be aware of everything that is going on in the restaurant, because the minute I am not something shitty happens. This is not a theory, or a matter of coincidences; it is a proven postulate that bears out every single time I let my guard down.

Read the rest of this entry »


Live and Let Liver…

November 12, 2009

Going to take a minute to go on a semi-political rant here:

I got a rare opportunity to pay a visit to Sonoma-Artisan Foie Gras’ farm in the aptly named community of Farmington, just southeast of Stockton. Owners Guillermo and Junny Gonzales, along with their lovely daughters Maria and Elena hosted a group of about 40 Bay Area Chefs and restaurateurs for a tour of the farm and a lunch afterwards.

Guillermo and Junny have been producing what is arguably the best foie gras anywhere in the world. Indeed, the Gonzales come around to their accounts every year with their and their competitors’ product for a blind taste. They wouldn’t even think of doing this if their product had any chance of even a second place finish; it always wins. Now they are potentially being forced from the State that has been their home since the early 80’s by the impending ban on sales and production of Foie Gras in California that goes into effect in 2012.

Guillermo and Junny are originally from El Salvador. Back in the late 70’s it was thought that Foie Gras production would be a natural industry for El Salvador. It’s abundance of feed corn and cheap labor could be funneled (pun intended) into making El Salvador a player in a market that had really only one producing country with which to compete: France. But revolutions and political strife made their home country too unstable to justify any significant financial investment, so they made their way to California.

On a trip to South Dakota, of all places, Guillermo saw an ad in a travel journal promoting a farming vacation to Perigord, the French home of truffles and Foie Gras. Guillermo spent a couple of weeks on a family-owned farm. He returned home and packed up the wife and kids and sailed off for an 8-month internship. After his return to California, he set up shop in Sonoma County. They were amongst the vanguard of artisan food producers like Laura Chenel and her eponymous cheeses, and Bala Kironde who jump-started the Free Range poultry movement with his distributorship of Rockies, poussin, and quail at Stockton Poultry. The Bay Area food culture/California Cuisine movement was exploding and Chefs like Alice Waters, Jerimiah Tower, Albert Tjordman and Masa Kobayashi were eager to procure and use locally farmed and produced foods.

All was well with their world until just a few years ago, when they opened Sonoma Saveur as a small bistro/charcuterie shop on the Square in Sonoma. A couple of days before opening their shop, and the home of their partner Laurent Manrique, then the Chef-Owner of Aqua in San Francisco, were vandalized. Windows shattered, interior spray-painted, refrigeration sabotaged. Laurent’s home was similarly attacked and both partners and their families received threats on their lives. Al this from the marvelous Animal Rights people, who apparently have no ethics themselves, but want animals treated ethically. It’s a “do as we say, not do as we do” philosophy with them, I suppose. (By the way, I am a huge fan of PETA, but the acronym of the group I support means “PEOPLE FOR THE EATING OF TASTY ANIMALS.”)

So they have survived  the vandalism and the general rising costs of doing business in California.   Much of Guillermo’s story is documented in the book The Foie Gras Wars.  It talks about the current issues and has a bit about the history of foie gras in the culinary world (5000 year-old heiroglyphics tell us the practice of gavage was employed by the ancient Egyptians.  Man, they invented beer AND foie gras?  I love those people!!).

The latest threat to their livelihood is SB1520, which will make illegal in California the production and sale of Foie Gras.  Certain provisions in the bill, which was passeed by the Legislature in September of 2004 but doesn’t go into effect until July of 2012,  give Guillermo time to prove his methods are humane.  The true threat of the bill, as it now reads, is the dangerous precedent it sets in allowing our government to legislate our personal choices of what we eat, based on the opinions and opposition of a very vocal, well-funded minority.  Namely, Animal Rights groups.

In attendance last Monday, amongst others were Mr. Offal himself, Chris Cosentino of Incanto, Elizabeth Faulkner of Orson and Citizen Cake in SF, and the above mentioned Bala Kironde who now owns and operates Preferred Meats in Oakland. We all listened to Guillermo’s story and toured his farm. What we saw were ducks that really only experience one bad day. They have all kinds of room to wander about in their well-lit and ventilated barns, but because they are social animals that group together for warmth and safety, they do tend to clump. Animal Rights groups are fond of taking pictures of the ducks packed into a corner, looking terrified. Well, they are terrified because a human who they do not recognize has herded them into a corner and taken a flash picture. It is a learned behavior for ducks to recognize and remember their handlers. Guillermo and his workers could walk amongst them and barely cause a ripple in the flock; I got in the pen and it was like the rush for the door at the Who concert in Cincinnati back in the 80’s.

They spend 6 weeks in the barns, 6 more outside in paddocks under a walnut grove protected from predators, then another two in the feeding barn. Three brothers who have worked for the Gonzales for over twenty years perform the twice-a-day feedings of blanched feed corn with an amazing gentleness. Ducks have no real throat. They have a tube in their necks that has the texture and rigidity of a fingernail that deposits food into their gizzards. It is wide and flexible enough to allow them to swallow whole fish and permits them to feed their young when they put their heads inside it to eat. It is this natural feature of their biology that is the real “feed tube.” Their necks are filled with the corn via a stainless steel tube from a machine that portions the feed automatically. They are allowed to digest it at their own natural pace. It is not rammed into them with funnels and plungers. Their genetic ability to store fat for their long migratory flights is what allows their body fat, under their skin and in their livers, to increase.

Sure the animals are being used; but the Gonzales make use of the entire animal after slaughter, producing rilletes, pates, confit legs, and smoked breasts at their Stockton packing house. They are no more “used” than chickens, pigs, cows, and lambs, and Artisan Foie Gras’ operation is much more humane and sanitary than any feed lot or henhouse I have seen. And make no mistake: if this ban is enacted, all those production facilities will be in next in the activists’ sights.

We as consumers can fight the ban, and some of the Chefs attending Monday’s tour have already begun their own protests via the Internet and through word of mouth at their restaurants. Chris Cosentino has commissioned Hangar One Distillers to produce a Foie Gras-infused vodka which is called FU-2012 (I don’t think I need to explain the name, do I?) ; and he has had his website (www.offalgood.com) attacked and crashed by the activists because of his vocal opposition. At the lunch after our tour, we all agreed to do what we can to bring some true, non-sensationalized, public awareness to the issue.

The real crime is the campaign of dis-information being spread by the activists and their celebrity spokes-people like Alicia Silverstone and Mary Tyler Moore (who, incidentally, looks like she could use a little “force feeding” herself), and our state government’s intrusion into our personal dining and shopping preferences by legislating our cholesterol intake.

I would urge everyone who loves Foie and Freedom of Choice to write to their state representatives and support the repeal of SB1520 before its enactment in 2012. Noreen Evans, Assemblywoman for the 7th District, which includes Napa and Sonoma counties, is making a run for the State Senate. At a dinner last week with some high-powered supporters, the first course was, you guessed it, seared Foie Gras. I doubt that it would have been allowed anywhere near her table if she weren’t a supporter.


"They Were The Best of Guests, They Were The Worst of Guests…"

September 18, 2009

Had to re-publish this older post due to “Internal Server Error”.  If you’ve already read it, sorry; if not, thanks for reading…

(Originally published 06/24/2009, but still just as relevant today…)

A Tale of Two Tables:

Despite our best efforts and our deeply entrenched sense of hospitality, occasional guest dissatisfaction is a fact of life in our business. Sometimes it’s food over or under cooked; or the accidental beverage spill on a cashmere sweater; long waits for courses or maybe some other half imagined, half true issue. Whatever the case, the staff’s reaction and handling of complaints should be as professional and accommodating as possible. Sometimes, however, they don’t make it easy, these people.

Last Saturday night we had two tables that complained, Table 71 and Table 48.

Table 71 was a party of six that arrived early, around 6:15pm. My manager’s “Spider Sense” was tingling as they sat. I anticipated problems. They looked grumpy, didn’t say much on the way to the table, and they were all apparently related: to me it looked like Mom, Dad, and maybe three of their adult kids and someone’s spouse. Family dynamics at the dinner table are always dicey. Family dynamics while traveling and vacationing are most always a recipe for trouble. A two hour layover at George H. Bush in Houston with your brother in law, listening to him go on and on about playing “World of War Craft” on-line, can be enough to make anyone want to open an artery. This group sat, were given menus and one of the kids started right in complaining about the price of the wine pairing for the four-course menu. (“Four glasses of wine for $62? I don’t think so…” ) Uh-oh, here we go.

I know our menu prices are on the expensive side, but even just slightly wine-savvy guests realize our pairings are a very good value, as we pour very expensive wines: Napa Valley Cabs and Syrahs, great Pinots, Premier and Grand Cru Burgundies, Gruners and the like. The wines are expertly paired with the dishes, and we will always happily pour a little more for people if they finish the wine before they finish the food; no problemo. Add to that the interaction with the Sommelier, who pours and explains the wines and why they were chosen for each and every course, the high quality stemware we use, and just the general surroundings, and you really get your money’s worth. I always urge our guests to have the wine pairings not because I want to bilk them out of $62, but because it is a big, big part of what makes dining with us unique. But there will always be people who just don’t get it; and there were six of them sitting at this particular table.

This group was clearly out of their element in regards to wine and food knowledge as well as basic fine dining experience. There was the jet-lag issue, and some, who had ordered only two courses when the rest did four, didn’t understand why they didn’t have any food in front of them while the rest were eating. “Our food is taking a really long time…” At this point I stepped in, apologized, and pre-fired seven desserts for this party of six and had them on the table within seconds after the last person had finished eating their main course. Desserts are all on me, so sorry for the “delay”.

So, these people just didn’t get it. But that’s cool; in a hotel setting like ours we get these types all the time (“Do I get soup or salad with the Salmon?”). My staff has become quite skilled at meeting these guests at their level. They do the best they can to make them comfortable and hopefully not feel too out of place even if they are. They know not to recommend the foie gras with mango to the steak and potato crowd. Sometimes we get guests that sit, look at the menu and either go into sticker-shock at the prices or, like that dorky sixth grader on the first day of Junior High, look around and start to get that “Whoa!!, Wrong room!” expression. At this point, some will give in to the latter portion of their “fight or flight” instinct and suddenly disappear like a trap door opened under them. Some try to tough it out and act “as if”. They say the strong give up and move on while the weak give up and stay. Enter table 48.

The couple I seated on Table 48 was in their mid-twenties and came in about an hour after Family Feud on 71. The man (I will eschew the term “gentleman” here as he later clearly demonstrated he wasn’t) was already lit, talking loudly and being just a little too friendly with me on the way to the table. They sat, ordered martinis, four courses with wine pairings, and seemed like they were going to be OK. I told their waiter to “keep an eye” on the man as he was 1 ½ sheets out of three to the wind already. Getting some food into people at this point in the inebriation process can go a long way toward settling them down, so I was okay with them ordering the wine pairings. Bad move on my part.

After their second course had been cleared and they were “marked” with the silverware and glassware for the third, the man left the table to smoke. I was walking through the patio, checking on guests and stopped to re-fold the man’s napkin. His girlfriend asked me if I was a “manager-type person”. Why, yes, I am. “Well”, she starts off, “I wouldn’t normally say anything but because I’ve worked in Food Service”… Oh God, here it comes: some people think that working a summer at Chili’s or scooping Mac and Cheese on the cafeteria line in prison qualifies them to tell me what’s wrong with my restaurant. I can spot “industry people” in a hot second, those that have in the past, or currently work in places on a par with ours, and this broad was clearly neither.

“What seems to be the problem here?”, I am wondering to myself at this point, as she starts in: “It hasn’t been good so far”. Okay, pretty vague. “The first wine pairing with the foie gras was not good (yes, the Sauternes with the foie gras was an ill conceived match, so we had brought her a Chardonnay, ick!). “I don’t have my wine yet for this course (and you don’t have the food either), “this course is taking a long time” (the boyfriend is away from the table, outside sucking down American Spirit Menthols so we haven’t fired this course yet), and”, as she puts her hand on the “Show Plate” in front of her, “my dinner plate is COLD!” Okay, is that really the best you can come up with? I explained that the plate on the table was a “charger” and that we were not going to actually serve any food directly on it; and that if she wanted her third course on the table to get cold while her boyfriend smoked, I would be happy to bring it right away. Anything else?

Listening sympathetically, caring genuinely, and acting graciously to solve problems are the first steps in turning people from raving mad to Raving Fans. Then we proceed to exceed their expectations. “Dinner is on me tonight” or “I’ve taken care of all your wine” are powerful tools that take the power to be pissed away from the guest; but it was all a total waste on Table 48, and that’s frustrating to say the least.

Now, I don’t mind complaints. I really don’t. Dealing with them is part of my job. But they really do need to be valid. I don’t mind going overboard and comping someone’s dinner if their lamb had to go back to be re-cooked while their tablemate eats alone. That’s our fault. But bitching just to bitch, or to see how big a hoop you can make me jump through is not okay. This woman hadn’t a leg to stand on, but was still going on about what, in her mind, was now the worst meal of her life. And now Smoky had returned too, and wanted to slur his two cents worth. I apologized, hurried their next two courses along (they sent back both meat courses as unacceptable), let them order dessert (hated that too) and comped their entire dinner. They grumbled and left. It really kills me to comp someone like this who had no real problems other than they just didn’t get what we are about; and they were going to go home and bitch about how bad it was to anyone who would listen from that day forward.

So, here are your results, America:

Table 71 thanked me for taking such good care of them and proceeded to give us a five-star review on their Open Table Diner Feedback e-mail form a couple of days later. They mentioned the gracious way the manager handled the situation, the free desserts and raved over the food quality. They said they would definitely be back and would recommend us to all their friends.

Table 48 went upstairs to their room and proceeded to call downstairs and leave a drunken complaint message on the concierge line, then called the front desk to complain about how bad their free meal was to any live person they could find. Apparently the complaining technique had worked so well on the restaurant, let’s see if we can get a free room too.

One class act and one with no class.

In the Major Leagues, going one for two might get you a headline in the next day’s papers, but in my job it is just an average


"Many parts are edible…"

July 26, 2009

This morning our cat caught a bird. This was not an unusual occurrence as he is a  formidible hunter and does not discriminate. We have found, at various times, parts of mice, lizards, snakes, gophers and birds on our back patio. The weird part is his surgical precision in removing the entrails from his trophies. The whole bird was left this time, minus the heart. “Sweet Jesus, Everett, they took his heart!” But he is an animal after all, and they do eat each other, given the chance.

Somewhere along the line of history, we humans decided it is not okay to eat each other, that cannibalism should not be a philosophical choice. Where and when this occurred I do not know, but I am sure it was well before the first Hannibal Lechter movie came out. I am also unsure whether this was a gradual process, such as the backlash against smoking (the Surgeon General warns that cannibalism can lead to low birth weight), or if it was one of those epiphanies where mankind slapped its collective self on the forehead and said, “You know, eating your Uncle Tony is not polite”. We stopped eating each other, and decided that sacrificing ourselves to the gods was counter-productive as well. So we turned on our friends in the animal kingdom.

I don’t know how it came to be that offals (and what a perfect, if misspelled, name that is!) like Sweetbreads were considered a delicacy; or how it was discovered that liver was good with bacon, but I am happier for it. However it occurred, we do eat some very strange things in restaurants. We are eating straight fat (lardo, another perfect name!), fat back (just add in “hairy” and this would be perfect, too), beef cheeks (from the face as well as the other end), shanks, ribs, knuckles, feet, tongues, kidneys, brains, and stomachs. And that’s just at the taco truck. I have seen Pork Blood Jelly on menus at Chinese restaurants and of course the ever-popular tripe at Italian and Mexican restaurants.

We have decided that it is not only okay to eat animals, but we have to eat each and every part of them. This idea probably stems from the early Caveman’s philosophy that using every part of the animal was economical. Killing a Mastadon is a bitch of a lot of work and we might not get to do it again for a while, so sit up straight and finish your hooves.

The vegetable kingdom is not without its “how the hell did they figure out you could eat this?” foods either. Jerusalem artichokes (a somewhat less than perfect name) are a puzzler. They grow deep in the ground, have a shape that makes peeling unbelievably difficult, and you have to have a hundred of the little bastards just to make a bowl of soup. Hearts of Palm, that staple of mediocre Country Club lunch menus everywhere, is really just that: the heart of a palm tree. It was probably a guy with a seafood allergy stranded on a desert island that figured that one out. And Tapioca: it’s made from the cassava root which is basically poisonous unless cooked well enough to remove the toxins. How many dead Sous-Chefs did it take to perfect that technique? “Eh? Henri ese dead? Vee vill need to kook it more, no?” Salsify is a root vegetable that is so face-twistingly bitter coming out of the ground that it has to be cooked several times in milk or some other liquid to make it palatable; and the trendy new vegetable item at haute cuisine places is purslane, or red amaranth. It’s a weed, people. After the constant battle I wage with this invasive, prolific gardener’s bane, I can almost understand the satisfaction derived from eating it. If it had guts, I’d go spit them out in the melon patch, like my cat with his bird parts. Take that, bitches, and don’t let me see you around here again!


Making a Rash Decision

July 13, 2009

Adult diaper rash. Yes, it’s finally come to this.

This past week we hosted the James Beard Foundation’s Legends of Wine event at the restaurant. It was a great event filled with luminaries from the world of food and wine. I usually eschew name-dropping, but there were so many to drop over the last two days, I just can’t resist.

This year’s honorees are Jim and Bo Barrett of Chateau Montelena (past recipients of the award have been Robert Mondavi, Christian Moieux of Dominus and Chateau Petrus, and Warren Winarski of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars). So, along with the Barrett Boys, attending Sunday night’s dinner were of course Bo Barret’s wife, Heidi Peterson Barrett (she of the Screaming Eagle, Paradigm, Showket, La Sirena, and myriad other monster Napa Valley Cabernets); Dickie Brennan of New Orleans’ First Family of Restaurateurs (Commander’s Palace, Palace Café, Bourbon House and Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse); Dan Berger, syndicated wine columnist; Chuck and Ann McMinn, owners of the Vineyard 29 label; Gary Danko, owner of the eponymous San Francisco restaurant, Gary Danko; Emily Luchetti, renowned pastry chef from Farralon in San Francisco; Guillermo and Junny Gonzales, owners of Sonoma Saveur, producers of this country’s best Foie Gras; and the visiting Chefs who prepared Sunday’s Grand Dinner: Neil Fraser from Grace in Los Angeles; Sanford D’Amato from Sanford’s in Milwaukee; Michel Richard from Citronelle in Washington D.C.; Ken Frank of La Toque; and Steven Durfee, pastry Chef/Instructor from CIA in St. Helena.

All this name/link-dropping has gotten me confused. Where was I? Oh yes, chaffing and irritated.

One of the events over the weekend was a multi-vintage tasting of the Montelena wines at the winery on Saturday, followed by a lunch, which we catered. My mantra for many years has been “Just say NO to catering…”, but when Chef asks for stuff like this, I can’t tell him I don’t do windows. So we loaded up the truck and took our show on the road.

It’s been a while since I worked an actual “double”. Even though my usual day at the restaurant lasts 10 to 12 hours, this promised to be an exceptionally long affair. Transport all the china, linen, food, etc. needed for service for 20 to Calistoga by 10:00am, set up the tasting of 16 different vintages of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, serve the four course lunch, pack up, back to Napa, dinner service for 70-plus in the dining room and a party of 40 on the patio; well this would be a marathon.

The function at the winery went off without a hitch except for the fact that lunch was served outside (the tasting was in a blessedly cool room inside) and it is July in Calistoga, which means 90 degrees in the shade; and Saturday was unseasonably humid (what we Californians call “earthquake weather”). Setting up tables, moving heavy umbrella stands, serving and clearing for two hours. My servers are wearing light, cotton-poly shirts but the two Sommeliers and I are in suit and tie; probably overkill, but you got to represent, yo. The event, of course took a couple hours longer than anticipated, so my plan to stop home for a quick shower was replaced by a frantic call home to my wife to iron a fresh shirt. That was all well and good, but the repeated in and outs from cool winery to beastly hot and humid patio resulted in profuse amounts of sweating and cooling, sweating and cooling; so by the time dinner service that night back at the restaurant was two-thirds finished (10 hours later), I was “walkin’ like a Big Dog”.

When we moved to New Orleans back in ’05 we had this running joke about Boudreaux and Thibodeaux (and indeed, they take the place of the “Italian Joke” characters of Giuseppe and Pasquale in Southern corny jokes). We encountered them everywhere: last names of co-workers, names of businesses, and even two Shar Pei puppies at the local vet’s office. We decided that Boudreaux and Thibodeaux is Cajun for Smith and Jones.

Sunday morning when I awoke, ready to play the lead role in the life story of Colonel Red Ruffansore, I was about to resort to the tried and true line-cook’s method of the Cornstarch application; but the chronic nature of my affliction precluded that. So, my wife went off to the store and returned with “Boudreaux’s Butt Paste”. I am totally serious. Yes, laughter is the best medicine. But the best part is that it really worked. I thought I would have a couple more decades before actually needing a product like this, but it’s nice to know it’s there when the incontinence and adult diaper phase hits.
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