Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Buitoni School

I arrived in New York for my second 'tour' about a year and a half ago with my sights set on Italian cuisine.  I came back, on the recommendation of a friend, to an off-the-beaten-path Brooklyn restaurant in a serene little corner of Williamsburg.  Aurora was founded in 2003 by a dynamic trio of Italian-born restauranteurs (Villa, Luna and Buitoni) and has built on its solid roots a growing company including two acclaimed SoHo restaurants in addition to the original Brooklyn location.  These pioneering entrepreneurs have come to foreign soil and managed to make real magic happen, and this magic has much more to do with the incredibly personable constituents of this little community than anything else.

Within the castle walls of this little empire are an impressive list of long term employees--a truly difficult thing to find in the high-turnover world of small to mid scale restaurants.  There are several who have been here since the beginning, most have been a number of years and at least employee one was even working with the owners before the original Aurora's inception over 9 years ago.  I'm still the new guy here.

Since I started working with Chef Buitoni at Aurora I have been treated as family.  This is a phrase that people tend to throw around like free popcorn at a movie premiere these days and I'm afraid that it does not carry the weight that I intend to apply by saying that I have been treated as family.  I'm 35 years old and I've been working since I was 15.  These people have reset the bar for me.  I'm a changed man for their influence, from their example.

...these are actually raisins, not hamber
All niceties aside, the company is a bit chaotic at times.  Il Baraonda...look it up.  Systems seem to come and go with the seasons.  You might even say that the restaurants themselves are like little organisms that hunker down in caves for the winter, forage the spring melt, pine away the sweltering summer and glow through the leaves of autumn like so much ambient light, glittering among the myriad folk of this crossroads.  Its a very organic way of life here...the ability to adapt at the drop of a broken glass is critical.

"Run downstairs and grab me the Pockfax!!"
I moved into the Chef de Cuisine position at Emporio around mid-september of last year.  Its a very integrated restaurant because of the extreme exposure of the open kitchen.  All the cooks and servers know each other, which is not always the case in restaurants.  Not to say that everyone always gets along, but this has been a really tight crew of people in my time here.  Relatively speaking.

I came to the Buitoni School knowing a minimal amount of Italian cuisine.  I'm still, and always will be, learning.  I mean, what can you say about a cuisine which is literally thousands of years old and which has had such an impact on the way humans eat...especially Europeans and their progeny.  I've learned an unquantifiable set of skills in Chef Buitoni's kitchens.  Not just food skills.  Remember, I said before that the magic of this place has much more to do with the people who work here than anything else.  In my final weeks here I find myself hoping that some of that has rubbed off on me.

Coming from the background of kitchens that I've worked in, one of my greatest challenges has been to overcome the explosive dynamism that we so often find as young cooks, so eager and so electrically inspired that we often find it difficult to get back to the humdrum, monochromatic mentality of most working people.  People who are just trying to pay their bills and get to the next step in life's parade of mediocrity.  To be more clear:  I've been known to have trouble keeping my temper in check.  I'm getting better all the time (like the Beatles).

When I started here at Emporio, I wrote on a little piece of masking tape which is still there after nearly a year.  I haven't replaced it.  It reads: "Hatch the Eggs".  The other half of that little phrase is "don't smash them"...its understood, I think.  I've been practicing 'hatching eggs' for the last year.  It seems to have had a better effect at work than at home, but then again I'm still learning (thank God).  I just hope no one smashes me for the things I'm still lacking.

Its been one of the most fun years of my recollection.  I've made some potentially life-long connections and, hopefully, affected lasting change in some people's lives along the way.  I've learned how to use bananas to surpass the world's highest technologies.  I've put fruit on raw fish--again.  I've seen marriage proposals, wedding receptions, rehearsal dinners, bar- bat- and probably some other sort of -mitzfahs that I don't even know about yet.  I've hung out with movie stars.

I've chased the paparazzi up six flights of fire escape, aced health inspections, romped with the neighborhood restaurants, roasted pigs for hipsters, cooked for collectors of $20,000 bottles of wine, built bridges, burnt fewer, both relished and relinquished my precious days off and waxed poetic for far too long in various run-on sentences, paragraphs, essays, blogs and artistic venues in general.
In the immortal words of Han Solo: "Sorry about the mess."

I'm excited to make this next move.  Its like a first taste of entrepreneurial life all over again.  Except this time I feel like I've had lasik surgery.  Or fallen into a vat of radioactive waste to gain some weird super power.  Or  grown somewhere.  Or something...I love these people.  They have helped to guide me in the direction of an amazing future.  Riccardo, Gaspare, Elena, Damien, Emanuele, Carlos, Beto, Abram, Porfirio, Antonio, Domingo, Lucas, el Perdido, los Crudos...ha!... Ellen, Mike, Suheyla, Kelly, Ever, Camilo, Lazo,  all of the slightly homosexual 'coffee station guys' from Aurora.  Irene, Nadia, Rebecca.  Frans.  That's just Aurora...I don't have pictures of them:(

Frans was the transition, he took my place at Aurora so I could take on the pizzeria.  Marcus greeted me smiling in the doorway on my first day.  I'm sure of it.  How could you not love this face:

The yin to his interminable yang:  Miryam, Theresa, Anais, Joan, Jackie, Laura, Roxanne, Aisha, Hannah, Fulvia, Danielle, Lena...Valkyries all.  The first time I've really gotten on well with FOH.  Chemma, Miguel, CJ, TJ, Bruno, Diego, Sasselli, Mike, Alan, Khaled, Mohammed, Imed, Giuseppe (thought I'd slip that one in on the sly *wink*), Jose, Daniel, Mark, Corey, et alii.

joie de vivre

the grill section
Phil Collins

Riccardo has a gift for creating a crew.  Its the most valuable lesson I've learned yet.  These guys are a frikkin machine, capable of far more than they even know.  Lanfranco, Joel, Bayro, Chaco, Eliseo,  "Brian", Pedro, Angel-Samuel, Angel , Juan, Edwin, Lusiano, Daniele, Miguel, Danny, Epifano, Alejandro, Frans.  My sanity belongs to them.  They are the ones that keep this vessel of mad pirates afloat.  They are the crew of the S.S. Baraonda.  We make the magic happen.  Thank y'all.

early times

the magic of Bayro



Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Bushido IV - Benevolence

There are seven aspects to the ethical code by which the Samurai composed themselves - Justice, Courage, Benevolence, Politeness, Sincerity, Honor and Loyalty.  I have chosen to spearhead an organization which can help chefs and other service industry professionals to make positive changes in their lives and I believe that those who are looking for change will find it on this path.
Each week we will examine one of the aforementioned virtues and see if Bushido may be a good path for the Order of the Chef to use as a guideline in inspiring industry professionals young and old...

BENEVOLENCE - the feeling of distress

"Rectitude carried to excess hardens into stiffness, benevolence indulged beyond measure sinks into weakness...the feeling of distress is the root of benevolence, therefore a benevolent man is ever mindful of those who are suffering and in distress."  
                                                                                     -Inazo Nitobe

Benevolence - Jin
I think Benevolence is the most complex of the seven virtues and somehow a cog in the wheel of Bushido: a central concept supported by and supporting of the others in a synergistic symbiosis.  It is certainly a concept built into the very nature of restaurants as, at our best, we are here to alleviate your distress in every sense.  A well heeled restaurant staff will immediately attend to your every need without your having to make a single request, they are sensitive people, will notice your slightest hesitation and preemptively resolve any potential discomfort.  They also won't take any shit from you.  At all.

Courage and unflinching righteousness are both prerequisite to benevolence...and before you start, I could easily write volumes on this one, weaving in and out of modern socialist banter, rebuttal after witty rebuttal until the ensuing logic blanket grew to cover the sun and signal the end for generations to come.  Please, spare us all the touchy-feely bullshit - benevolence is a balanced blade.  It is like the nature of water, and like water, should it bend too far to its softer side it will puddle and stagnate, filling the room with flies and stench.  Should it bend too far to its harder side it will crush shorelines, changing the shapes of continents, wiping out entire civilizations.

Zen master to the sword masters, Takuan Soho
We in the restaurant business in general are great at being benevolent servants, bending on our knee to cater to the most seemingly ridiculous requests day after day, night after grueling night.  While this description fits more often and more easily into the front of house (FOH) profile rather than the back, chefs have many opportunities to practice benevolent action and I think that it would serve to polish all facets of our industry if we, as chefs, took every possible chance to practice walking the tightrope of the benevolent dictator.  After all, we are always looking to balance things aren't we?

More than just benevolent action in the service of our clients (which may align more with duty or loyalty), this sensitivity to distress in others is vital to the internal functions of a restaurant.  Every position in the company structure has its own set of pressures and every individual employee has certain reactions to these as well as pressures that may exist for them outside the workplace.  The most successful restaurant owners and managers are those who are capable of simultaneously alleviating feelings of distress both in and out of the workplace while keeping the 'pressure to produce' valve cranked full-tilt.  And we all know that some people are just not cut out for this business - on both sides of the equation!

Somewhere between this.... 
These masterfully benevolent people who reign supreme in restaurants around the world are always ready and able to help surmount the insurmountable in every arena.  They are kind, supportive, empathetic, patient and well informed about a great many things.  They are also hard-wired for combat intensity, intolerant, pushy, always busy and they don't take shit from anyone up or down the ladder.  They can be brutally honest because they have a sincere desire to make the best of things whether those things be clients, employees, recipes, standards of cleanliness, and so on and on and on.  Most importantly, they know when to use the front of their swords and when to use the back.

...and this!
There is a certain difference between the ability to discern a feeling of distress in another and the ability to act appropriately in order to effect the dissipation of another's distress.  One chef I worked for used the term 'striking them with a velvet glove', another always prescribes 'a punch with a hug' in order to create effective changes in people's behavior.  

In general, there is a lot of teaching going on in the restaurant industry and benevolence seems to send a universal message which challenges the most cutting edge technology as a transmitter of understanding.  People tend to absorb more information from a benevolent source, whether they want to or not, they reflect and grow from interactions with benevolent teachers more than from the iron fists of tyrants.  The prism of benevolence collects its light from justice and courage and shines in rays of politeness, sincerity, honor and loyalty.  It is the key to the effectiveness of our path.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

A Journey from Before to After in the Gulf

Spending time with family is always refreshing.  When life consists of a work-home-work-home eternity, and the hours eventually stretch into months, there is nothing like being surrounded by loving and supportive people at least for a few days at a stretch.  Amidst one such precious getaway, I had the opportunity to hit the wide open bays of Padre Island, TX for an afternoon and found some beautiful trout out looking for a bite.

Captain 'Ron' was nice enough to show us the sweet spots and we brought in several nice keepers despite massive winds that had the Gulf heaving offshore enough to keep us in the bay.  I can't describe the freedom to anyone who hasn't been there, out in the salt on a lovely 86 degree mid-morning, rockin' to the beat of the waves against the motor, cold beer getting warm fast and still tasting like the sweat off a mermaid's breast...divine!  And even reeling in a little perch can be exciting for those of us who don't have the luxury of doing this every day, not to mention a 26" speckled trout!

South Texas is magical when juxtaposed with the alleys and subway tunnels of New York City.  Of course, New York has its own magic and we can all attest to that who have donned the shrouds of her shadowy sunrise and been lulled to sleep by her siren's song (pun intended)...but Texas, oh sweet Texas!  There is something to be known about these humble people filled with love and adoration and coated with a sticky layer of gruff thistles and brush.  Our captain was a solid Texas fisherman, born in Houston and now permanently vacationing in the bosom of the Great State: 'The Valley'.  Arriving on the boat, he was straight to business - in fact, the previous night he asked more than twice if we were sure we would make a 9am dock call, and upon his third inquiry, informed us that we would be receiving his wake up call at 8:30...and that we did!

After cleaning our catch, we met with Ron at a local restaurant where we had our fresh catch cooked right then and there to our delight and sampled one of the Gulf's greatest bounties:  the mystical Gulf Oyster.  Being a part of the whole process of one's meal is an experience that I think more Americans should enjoy on a regular basis.  There is something deeply nourishing about the food that you just caught, respectfully dispatched and then cooked not 20 minutes later (not to say we weren't sampling the provisions as soon as they were cut...we are certainly not squeamish about raw foods from the wild).  I would love to see more Americans becoming more in touch with their food in general and this is certainly a fun way to go about it.

I'm glad we decided to go ahead as we thought it may have been a bit steep to pay what we were asked to pay for a half-day trip into the bay.  Thanks to Mark Musatto at Airline Seafood in Houston for the perspective and advice, I miss you up here in NY, bro!  As an aside, and regarding the character of Texans in general, I would just like to mention that we had not paid Ron for the trip, proceeded to get in separate vehicles and agreed to meet at the restaurant to settle up.  I can't see this happening in many places on this vast planet's surface...take from that what you will.

Fish is becoming more and more of a love of mine, probably inherited from my grandfather Lee Grandison Wiley, who was a sea-faring man for his whole life.  I have myriad fond memories of trips to Galveston, boloney sandwiches (soggy), cans of Big-K grape soda (dented, and slightly rusty), triscuits and cheese whiz (still delicious) and me and my grandpa not catching a damned thing all day.  Those were the formative days of my youth, looking back.  Days that I didn't realize the value of even remotely until now, when we would get back to his Galveston apartment complex, sun-drained and red as Valentine's candies and Christmas ribbons.  Just enough daylight left for a dip in the pool, an old fashioned for him and an ice-cold country time lemonade for was intense.

This last foray into those salty Gulf waters was intense as well.  After passing 20 or more years since those early times, I have a fair amount of perspective, fair enough to see the value of half a day on a fishing boat with a couple of good ol' boys, mixing the spray of the mid-morning wake with the mist off a cold can of Bud Light, bouncing to the rhythm of the big blue heart of the world, squinting into the sun and looking for the sweet spot.  I think we found it, y'all.  I'm sure we did.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Paths We Take II - Transitions Into Clarity

 I worked with John Smith at Cullen's in Clear Lake, TX for a time then hired him later when I was at Yelapa.  We made some kind of bond and have managed to keep in touch.  I asked John to share his story because I think that 'industry' people will be able to identify and hopefully get some benefit from these types of accounts.  We'll keep these up as the Order of the Chef continues to grow.  Please let us know your thoughts.  
Thank you, and (as John would say) Namaste.

...trailing off from Part I of this series, the story of a young man riding the restaurant merry-go-round continues as he decides that travel may lead him to a new place...

...West, where I knew nothing or anyone, and better than that no one had heard of me either. And thus started my tour as river-guide/camp-chef.  That lasted a season.  A non-nudity clause was introduced into the employee handbook, as well as another adressing non-fraternization with clients. I had made my mark.  Again.  So a short 18 hour bus ride back to Houston it was.  Again.  

A short jaunt to Boston.  To Colorado.  Then out of nowhere it was 2006.  And with my "charm" and "wit" I somehow landed a job at a stained glass collage of various, now defunct eateries back in the Houston medical center. And go-figure, by sheer coincidence they were owned by the same chef I started with ten years prior, back in 1996.  He, of course, didn't run the show. That was left up to the hands of 'Sanchez' Lopez.  Who, after hearing my fantastical story of travel and pseudo cookery, promptly hired me as his sous chef. Not only for one of the restaurants, but four of them.

My big break, I thought, and it actually was.  Just not a break for fame or fortune.  It was a break for the beginning of a path that I continue to this day.  It took about a week for chef to realize that I had talent, a work ethic, and a small amount of finesse, when I was sober, which started to be less and less often.  Yet he stuck with me.  He never stopped pushing me to learn techniques that I either had forgotten or never learned when I should have.  He began, upon looking back now, to show me what integrity and honesty and standards were.

Then, as I always seemed to do when there was any sign of success, I quit.  I thought we were done. Until three weeks later when he called me back to come work for him again.  I didn't stay long the second time either.  Yet, the seeds were planted. Watered.  Had begun to sprout.  I took some time off - out of the restaurants.To be precise, I took two years.  My desire and love of cooking never waivered.  My return in 2008 found me with a renewed sense of purpose and drive along with a new found sobriety.  

I started out again as the AGM of a corporate Mexican fast casual restaurant. That worked out for a very short time.  Not due to any slight of mine, rather due to the fact that three years earlier that sprout had become a leafed stalk.  A sapling.  And running 17 year olds to the point of passing out was not my idea of fun.  Also, in my spare time I was reading and making anything and everything I could get my hands on in attempt to get my style and chops back from being gone so long.  

Then came Yelapa, and the auspicious reconnection with an old/new chef/beginning friend...


Thursday, March 22, 2012

Bushido III - Courage

There are seven aspects to the ethical code by which the Samurai composed themselves - Justice, Courage, Benevolence, Politeness, Sincerity, Honor and Loyalty.  I have chosen to spearhead an organization which can help chefs and other service industry professionals to make positive changes in their lives and I believe that those who are looking for change will find it on this path.
Each week we will examine one of the aforementioned virtues and see if Bushido may be a good path for the Order of the Chef to use as a guideline in inspiring industry professionals young and old...

COURAGE - the spirit of daring and bearing

These are cheesy, right? ...the motivational posters we've all seen in myriad waiting rooms, eh? ...well even a cliche is a cliche because it carries enough weight to enrich the many.

...doesn't mean you aren't scared, it means you go anyway
Inazo Nitobe calls courage "the spirit of daring and bearing" and says that it is as simple as doing what is right.  It is the active manifestation of the virtue of Justice.  It is quite often the most difficult choice one can make, often involves sacrifice and thus transcends ego by its very nature.

Just as we follow a trend in order to push our business to the next level - or at least to keep up with the Kardashians so to speak - as humans we naturally seek to follow an easily assimilated lifestyle in order to keep our sanity.  Our sense of community.  We want to fit in with our surroundings.  So what if you were to find yourself in a restaurant, bound to 12 hours a day and sometimes with not much to do but wait for the next rush...slow restaurants are like this and can make big problems for people with very active, artistic minds.  Like chefs.

The nature of the restaurant is excess...people don't go out to eat for a special occasion and look for moderation.  The highest selling items are not generally low calorie broths and fruit salads, they're macaroni and cheese, steaks and fries and bourbon milkshakes.  Successful restaurant people know this, its not a big secret.  So in a place steeped in the energy and intention of excess, focused on providing a lush, decadent experience to every finger that touches a water glass in your humble establishment, in a place like that, why would it not follow to naturally attune to the same mindset?

Chefs are artists, someone told me today, and there goes along with the mind and mettle of an artist a tendency for compulsory, irrational and generally addictive behavior.  We sense.  We are experts at the visceral experience of life.  We can rock your world.  What on Earth makes you think we wouldn't know how to rock our own.  And we can do it well - any. time. we. want...

I've heard the argument many times that "I'm using my free will to [insert binge here] and if I just go home and be like all those 'squares' in their cardboard houses, I'll be executing my free will."  I say bollocks to that mentality and instead posit that free will is much more potent when it is used in conjunction with courage.  Courage to go against the norm.  Courage to have a sparkling water at a whiskey bar or eat a banana while you're working the pasta station or to go to a 24 hour gym instead of a 12 hour nightlclub.  Courage which is the spirit of daring and bearing - and to dare to bear the weight of isolation from the only people you see and bond with for 12 hours a day is not an easy spirit to assimilate.  But it helps.

When you can do it.

I don't pretend to be a teetotaler or anything, I go out with the boys and girls to the bars and the dance clubs and have fun on some weekends...and some weekdays.  Then I take time off from that.  And I have a support network, I go to my family and talk and find things to do to kill the time that adds up and is so easy to kill alongside all so many braincells.  I do yoga.  I work out.  I write this crap.  I share my story...and don't even need a dollar to do so.

I had to start somewhere and that was a very dim place from which I have travelled long and byzantine trade winds to uncertain shores by way of bottomless risks, but who can tell the difference between the risks of equally risky paths with absolutely opposite destinations.  Should I risk the next round of shots or the ride to the projects to score or the hours of sitting in stillness, squirming and crying and exorcising demons that most would never notice?  Should I risk exposing and facing my demons or should I risk their raucous festival under cover of shifty handshakes and code names for unscrupulous activities?

Courage has great bearing on the Order of the Chef.  We can help build courage because there is safety in numbers.  Even if you spend 12 hours a day surrounded by phase-happy college kids working a temporary server job while they figure out how to read the road map that leads their thumb finally squirming free of their toothless wonder.  Even if you're buried in prep-work and order-fire tickets from dawn til dusk and your only solace is the local flirt of a bartender who keeps you company from dusk til dawn.  Even then, we can provide a philisophical foundation for your courage.

Everyone carries a seed within them with the potential for great joy and abundant life.  Let's have the courage to find and nurture that seed.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Bushido II - Justice (Rectitude)

There are seven aspects to the ethical code by which the Samurai composed themselves - Justice, Courage, Benevolence, Politeness, Sincerity, Honor and Loyalty.  I have chosen to spearhead an organization which can help chefs and other service industry professionals to make positive changes in their lives and I believe that those who are looking for change will find it on this path.
Each week we will examine one of the aforementioned virtues and see if Bushido may be a good path for the Order of the Chef to use as a guideline in inspiring industry professionals young and old...


As a foundation for the remaining virtues upheld by those who walk the path of the bushi, Justice demands constant vigilance over one's own actions.  In his definitive treatise on Bushido, Inazo Nitobe defines Justice or Rectitude as "...the power of deciding upon a certain course of conduct in accordance with reason, without wavering - to die when it is right to die, to strike when to strike is right."  The path of Justice is not an easy or common path among most people, and so arose the concept of Gi-ri (literally Right Reason) in Japanese culture as an enforcer of Justice among the masses.  

Giri is a concept in Japanese culture that is understood as an obligatory service for those to whom one is indebted.  For a very simple example, if someone takes you into their home in a time of need, you will now have giri to pay back to that person.  This may be as simple as taking them for a nice meal or as severe as taking your own life to save theirs, it all depends upon the people and actions involved.  The concept came about to protect the integrity of family units because when familial love was not motivation enough for someone to do the right thing, the social construct of giri brought a motivation based on personal honor and duty as seen by a public eye.  

There is not enough giri in the culinary world.  There are certain understood rules that can be often difficult for young cooks to learn: show up on time, bring your own knife, give a timely notice if you plan to quit, work in a tidy and timely manner...  For chefs who have done their time in the industry, there is a sort of unspoken code that we have and the more "old school" the chef, the stronger this code seems to hold.  All of these rules, however arbitrary they may seem to an industry novice, can be made obvious by applying Bushido and by having a sense of giri. 
...peer pressure?

Perhaps more importantly, young chefs should be taught to respect and empower themselves in order to better serve their chosen "daimyo".  Often it is too easy for a young cook to be swept up by the popular current of good times and revelry in a new place, trying to fit in and protect a fragile ego.  However, a person on a path founded on Justice will have a much easier time in controlling his behavior and escaping the pitfalls of the restaurant scene.  The primary effect of following a code founded on right behavior is that the student develops a sense of constant vigilance over his actions and sets up a 'guard rail' to keep from slipping into a negative pattern.  Bushido can be a great stepping off point for a person who has demonstrated great Courage by initiating a positive change.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Paths We Take - The Tale of A Wayward Saint

I worked with John Smith at Cullen's in Clear Lake, TX for a time then hired him later when I was at Yelapa.  We made some kind of bond and have managed to keep in touch.  I asked John to share his story because I think that 'industry' people will be able to identify and hopefully get some benefit from these types of accounts.  We'll keep these up as the Order of the Chef continues to grow.  Please let us know your thoughts.  

Thank you, and (as John would say) Namaste.

In 1994 Hugo Ortega walked me by the hand into HCC culinary dept. and introduced me to the chef instructor Charles Pyle.  That was the beginning of the beginning of my love of all things relating to food production...

Granted at that point, I was already a seasoned server that hung out more in the kitchen than than at my tables and, saw the wee beginnings of a fixation on whiskey, women, and late nights. Never did I once call in from the all night debauchery that ensued, a point of pride I carried with me for a long time-until I learned better. 

After a bit of cursory training and basic skills gained at the culinary department of said community college (all of which I felt beneath me, since I had already surpassed most in my class, just from having been in the industry for 7 plus years at that time) I had no idea what was in store for me. I found out the hard way that it was to be years of being beaten down by some of the top chefs in the city at that time-the names will remain with me so as not to embarrass or, perhaps more importantly, piss them off (again).  Even through the bitter years, their ways of instruction led me to where I am today, and for this I am forever indebted to them. 

Whether it be throwing sauté pans at my head, or wishing death upon me for being a minute late on a side item or entree, I still hadn't been broken. More on that later. It is not a good thing for an aspiring cook to go unbroken. It's a must that somewhere along the early path of a line cook that it happens. Looking back, it teaches discipline, focus, and a drive to become better. So, feeling stagnated in that arena of the restaurant, I made the decision to go back to the FOH.  

My decision was mainly due to the fact that at this point, seven years later, my drinking had turned its focus to other not so healthy "relaxation tools", which by nature, was the complete opposite of what the intended use for such substances was.  The internal lie had begun.  And the fact was that cash in hand every night was easier than cash every two weeks for procurement of what were at the time, necessary ingredients to function. 

From Hugo and serving food I bounced around from job to job. Playing in a band that got signed, so that pulled me even further down the scale with my original goal of being a good cook. And added to the drinking and other accompaniments that in my mind seemed to go along with the alcohol and lifestyle of a musician.  In '02, I decided that It was time to get back to the original profession of love that had brought me so much joy originally.  So, I headed to Dallas and worked with Tim Byres at Standard 2706 on Elm street, across from The Green Room and Trees.  

Chef drove me hard, he saw my potential and worked very hard to get me to see it as well.  Unfortunately, I didn't, or couldn't at that time. So, after a write-up in Texas Monthly about a dressing/salad that I had designed, and did not realize that when under the chef, that it was actually HIS food, I left. Once again, having not being broken, I felt slighted, and my ego raised its ugly head, and I and headed back to Houston again.  

Almost immediately I went to work at furthering my addiction for alcohol, and cocaine at this point, and the knowledge I had gained in Dallas I used to show my peers how "good" I had become.  Which was a farce. The little I had gained at Standard I used to feed my ego and once again feel "better than" my colleagues, only because I felt like a piece of spit shined shit on the inside. 

Of course my colleagues at the time of my return from Dallas consisted of a few 'base-head' cooks and like-minded servers. Not a whole lot of expanding each others professional aptitude, to say the least. With that in mind, I once again returned to the FOH because I had developed, over the past few years, the art of manipulating people. Not only the patrons of the establishments I happened to work at, the people I worked with, the management I worked for, but also myself, into believing any and all sorts of self created bullshit. I think I killed off five grandmothers, four sisters, two mothers, had fifteen car accidents - in short, I was a real piece of work. No one trusted me, including myself. Bearing this in mind. I headed out West.


Bushido - Our Code

Chefs are servants.  

I feel this kinship with Samurai because they were servants who were required to maintain composure and moral grandeur in the midst of high pressure, high speed situations.  In the culinary industry we serve in all directions: We serve our patrons.  We serve our employees.  We serve our employers.  We serve our investors.  We serve each other.

It is our charge and our challenge.  

It is our path to enlightenment through service. 

On this path, we are chefs.

There are seven aspects to the ethical code by which the Samurai composed themselves - Justice, Courage, Benevolence, Politeness, Sincerity, Honor and Loyalty.  I have chosen to spearhead an organization which can help chefs and other service industry professionals to make positive changes in their lives and I believe that those who are looking for change will find it on this path.  After all, Samurai were servants.  Warrior vassals who made service to their Daimyo an integral part of their existence in both life and death.  We give our lives to this business in no small way, dedicating the vast majority of our waking hours to the care of the restaurant to which we have assigned ourselves.  

The western world at large seems to be in a state of self-gratifying stupor and as a child of that world I've searched extensively for some understanding of what our culture is going through.  I set out to seek my enlightenment several years ago and I chose the culinary arts as my path.  These are my musings along the way and this is no more than a humble attempt to share what I have learned in the hopes that some questions might be answered, some light might be shed and that some peace may come.

We can all use the wisdom of Bushido to enhance our experience of life.  

The current Western mindset would say that we're all different and that we should follow what feels good and that whatever system is in question may not 'work for everyone'.  There is always truth to be found wherever one looks for truth.  I would urge caution when approaching any new or different way of thinking and examine it as thoroughly as possible from as objective an angle as possible.  That said, I would also argue that if one's path holds steady in the torrential information blizzard at hand in this modern world, it is likely to be the best path for you - likely, but you'll have to try it on to see if it fits.  

If it works then use it, if it doesn't then reject it.

Welcome to our study of Bushido (Path of the Gentleman with a Knife)

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Back to Reality

Hello, Readers!  First of all, thank you for taking the time out of your very valuable lives to read these various rants and raves of mine--I certainly appreciate you all!

Now.  Back to Reality...

I've managed to lock myself away into a cave for the last several months which was a great joy, a gift of the most immense magnitude and an abundant learning experience for me.

I'm a bird by nature, but I know turtles now.

I'm back.  I've recently rediscovered books, recipes and learning which I had been neglecting for things I somehow considered more important.  Thanks to an amazing support network and a bright and informative Universe around me I am beginning to take some giant steps forward into a marvelous future.

One day at a time.

Pastry.  The sweet side was always intriguing to me, although I rarely gave it enough attention to merit much result aside from the occasional experimental mishap or obligatory menu dessert.  Thanks to inspiration from a former associate and friend, Chris Leung (, I've been delving into the pastry files and testing some new stuff.  The Michael Laikonis recipe files recently released on (Notes from the Kitchen) have provided me an incredible foundation to begin exploring the world of 'Dolce' as I should have years ago.

brown butter poundcake, passionfruit curd, port and mascarpone (those are 'sambuca' microgreens...yum!)

I am excitedly prancing about the kitchen now with an ink-stained fistful of printed pages, c-fold napkins and protracted plans of epic proportion, eager to find a moment for a new experiment.  And am attending to my priorities as all responsible chefs should...balance, you know?

I seem to love blogging as well.  It has become quite therapeutic for me and I'm sure it will lead to a healthy addiction to writing in general.  Those who know me well will easily fall for that one :)

Pasta.  Although I've not seen this one really explode yet, I feel some carbon fusion building that may supernova under the right circumstances.  I feel that my current circumstances are ripe for this type of movement as I am in the tutelage of a masterful Italian craftsman who seems constantly inspired to reach new limits in culinary artistry.  Thank you all and enjoy.

tonarelli, jonah crab, uni, porcini and shiso

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The City Life


Sometimes its just pandered about sloaganishly as if the city were somehow coddled by the comfort that its citizens care.  Sometimes its genuine.  Of course, one can live anywhere and find it to be a wonderful or a horrible place depending upon that person's general inward satisfaction with life.  Its easy to find plethoras of issues within such a myriad wonderland as is this little wing of our universal fractal.

Its a hard city.

Sometimes, especially in the winter (which seems to have lost its general temerity this season), I feel a microscopic web like the veins of a dragonfly's wings spreading across and through my bones when I wake up and I have to get back to work after 4 hours sleep and 2 hours commute through cold, wet streets.  Walking, standing, waiting on concrete waiting blocks; and my days off are spent in an apartment lucky enough to have one or two windows which filter what little light trickles down the sides of the snowy cloud banks into a grey courtyard of concrete and air handlers and through a layer of solidified smog stuck to their once tranquil and luminescent surfaces. I love New York.

I love New York because she forces the positive out of people in such a way that only the truly stalwart of spirit are left behind and the city brims with greatness all the way to its industrial shorelines because the only people who actually enjoy living here are natural winners.  Competition is deadly.

I love New York because she leaves you no choice.  "Take me as I am, you miserable bastard," she says, "because I am a city generated from the purest fires of passion.  That is what makes you great."

One day, I'll leave this war zone of a city.  When I become complacent.  When I no longer have a drive to grow.  When I become satisfied with the view from the plateau that has become my life, then I'll quit New York.  Yet, even then I'll want a loft in the Financial District, a one bedroom in Tudor City or a little house in Bay Ridge with tenants who save me the attic apartment with a view of the harbor.  Heck, I'd even settle for a gritty studio in the middle of Brooklyn with a grey winters' concrete view.

I'll always take care of the city that has taken such good care of me because I'm sure that as long as I love New York, New York will love me too.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Kitchen of Comfort II

What could be more comforting than roses made of butter?

Sometimes comfort is hard to come by.  I've been rolling with some uncomfortable circumstances lately and haven't found anything that would qualify as "comfort food".  Except music.  There is a thickness that comes with music into a space and occupies it somehow in a similar way to light filling a dark room.  Like people, songs are all different inherently.  Like people some songs enter a space and immediately put a smile on someone's face.  Some songs sparkle.  Some songs change when you hear them over time, under different circumstances, through the muffled sound of rain falling on a concrete patio outside a screen door, or in the silent safety of the illusion with which we panel our interior lives.  Sometimes.  Sometimes you find a song that you can just count on every time.  These songs are rare.  So are these people.

So.  Comfort food and the Theatre of Comfort Dinner Series...

The South makes many people feel like home!

I've drummed up ideas from my own feeble headed memories of growing up in the Southern United States and from talking to a few people here and there.  I would like suggestions as well.  Let me know what else I can incorporate to diversify this (heavily Texan) 'Dirty South' tasting menu for our first event...I know y'all have ideas 'cause y'all loves to eat!  Thank you and enjoy!

The Theatre of Comfort : Act I  "The Dirty South"

Scene I
Corn 'n Crab "Li'l Debbie" vs. Mac 'n Cheese "Poppers"

Scene II
NOLA's Fried Gulf Oysters and Krystal Hot Sauce

Scene III
"Border Town" Ssrimp 'n Grits
(Blue Corn Hominy Grits, Gulf White Shrimp & Chorizo)

(Your mouth won't believe it either)

Scene IV
Hill Country Jackalope with Taters 'n Greens
(Deep fried rabbit confit, mashed potatoes, mustard greens)

Scene V
BBQ by the Pound...How else would y'all serve it?
(Malta glazed smoked brisket, Lamb spareribs, Pork slider)

Scene VI
Buttermilk Biscuits & Homemade Jam

Chess Pie and Satsuma Oranges