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

Monday, February 13, 2012

Reflections on Beauty and Value

I know I promised deets about the upcoming Theatre of Comfort Dinners in my last assured that they are on the way.  However, I do have a little detour from the fervor of foodiedom as I've had some insights over the past week that I feel it important to share.  I'm not sure how to approach this blog best as I have little experience with these sorts of things so, if this post is somehow wildly inappropriate then let me know.  I'll take it down.  I feel like this medium is a form of expression with a little bit of wiggle room and as a chef blog (I'm a chef) this may give you some of the meat of our real lives and let you know that we're not just food jockeys.  We emote.

One of the best things about having a mind rooted in the fertile soil of positivity is that no matter what happens, you can always see the beauty of it and you can always find something of value.  No matter what.  It is one of my many blessings in this life, for which I am extremely grateful, that I am surrounded by these positive, pro-active people.  When things look glum and I'm facing potential crisis (plural?), these people give me the perspective I need to see through the smog of doom and gloom that minds can so easily create.  The longer I'm alive, the more of these situations I seem to come across and perhaps one day I will find the key to creating that perspective more immediately.  Heaven knows I offer it to all manner of people around me whenever I can.  Sometimes its hard to take your own advice?  Anyhow, it feels great to have gratitude in any form; as long as it lives at the core of your being, you will remain free.

Beauty is reality.

Those freckles.  God's contribution to her subtle perfection, slightly twisted lips and the muddled scent of our blessed morning.  Beauty is the shape to which my hand conforms and its tender confirmations.  Beauty defies comparison.  It is boundless and timeless wherever and whenever it may be found.  Beauty is a gracefully opened hand of familiar form, a nurturing palm and a steady gaze.  Least of all does beauty expect or proclaim neither provision nor action.  She arises like the thoughtlessly shining sun.  Reaction-less she reflects all she receives, like the moon without effort or desire.  Like a prism she absorbs the harshest beam and diffuses it into a sparkling floral array.  She is this way on her innermost shore.

Value is clarity.

There is no common value but value through virtue, which is the least common on the shore.  Value is not a glistening steel reflection or a gemstone's turn and polish.  It is not the flickering ticker of the world's economic straw man.  Value is the shape of her hand and its subtle channels intended on their targets.  By its nature it defies expectation because it is boundless and timeless, giving itself wherever and whenever it may go forth into the world.  It is formed and passed by an opened hand, by and honest and gazing eye.  Value has shed its proclamations.  It only acts silently, thoughtlessly, pursuing without competition or comparison, seeing its own innate perfection reflected in the mirror of Creation.  Inside and out.  Bones to skin.  On the shore.

I can see the vast universe of beauty and value scratching at her surface, like so many of us.  What a struggle to deny ourselves such a gift as realizing our own beauty and value.  I express boundless and timeless appreciation for this amazing experience of love and life.  I have a newfound admiration and respect for the Malaysian and Australian cultures.  I have some of the best memories of my entire life thus far and a way to reference New York as maybe not such a hard city after all.  With someone like that to share it with, even the harshest environs can become a paradise.  But sometimes the timing just ain't right and ain't nothing you can do about it except keep moving and be grateful for the gorgeous gift that God lent you for the day.

These are the lessons that give me real perspective and allow my eyes the freedom to perceive her real beauty and her clearest, deepest value.  She will always be an incredible being and I will always honor the place within her where she and I exist eternally, at peace with our source.  Thank you, Doris.  Namaste.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Kitchen of Comfort

Believe it...  Sometimes its difficult to find a creative outlet as a professional chef.

sometimes its nice to just kick back and collapse on the floor

Don't get me wrong, I love what I do and I do it all the time, but sometimes the restaurant life gets a bit repetitive.  As chefs, most of our day is spent keeping up day to day operations and producing the same dishes, the same way, in the same kitchen and with (hopefully) the same staff.  We spend our time attending to the details that allow you and your spouse to go have an anniversary dinner where you can reminisce about how you fed this same chocolate cake to each other on your first sweet.  Most of the crowd is after what we might call 'spaghetti and meatballs' cuisine, and they pay the bills so we feed them exactly what they want:


...and we get bored.

The 'Reality Dinner' series in Houston came from this idea that I get from the Japanese term omakase, which is like a customized tasting menu available in many quality Japanese restaurants.  My personal interpretation of omakase is as follows: "A series of dishes intended to establish a dialogue between chef and client in order to determine the 'perfect fit' for the palette and perhaps the health of the individual consuming the meal."

The first Reality Dinner was a menu based on a list of ingredients and was revealed to the diners course by course, chalked up on a blackboard by my GM as they came out.  Some were planned, some were surprises even to me and some were riffs on pre-decided themes.  To be sure, even the team of chefs helping to put this thing together had only a rough notion of what was happening...huddled around for weeks deciphering one of my sporadic ingredient lists riddled with cryptic notes, slashes and arrows.

It was an experiment at the time intended to figure out what drives people together, I wanted to see the reality of a dining experience up close, from all angles.  Why are we here eating this weird stuff that I  couldn't have identified had someone not told me what it was?  "I'm not sure why it tastes so good to everyone else, its just plain odd to me."  I wanted to reexamine the dining experience as something of a theatrical venue because I believe it has gone down that road a bit.  'Molecular Gastronomy' and 'micro-local' trends and people's newfound knowledge and temperaments that they come to the table with.  How do we reconcile the subjective experience of dining and the objective running of a restaurant whilst keeping everyone happy?

These dinners were a fantastic outlet for our more adventurous clients and for all of the staff as well, from bartenders to managers to kitchen staff, a place where everyone could both learn from and contribute to something greater than all of us.  Anyone who has participated in these types of events knows exactly the type of synergy I'm referring to.  Food has been very special to most of us in one way or another since the beginning of our collective history.  Wars have been fought over the stuff, families are bound together by food-centric traditions.

For many of us, food is comfort.

In continuing to study what it is that drives people to put certain things in their mouths other than sheer necessity, we're putting together a series of dinners to investigate the history and motivation behind "comfort food"...the 'Theatre of Comfort' dinner series.  We want to understand what makes the intimate experience of dining so special and where some of the crazy traditions and foods were born, what kept them alive through the years.  I posit that we will find a close connection to necessity and to the abundance of specific foods within specific localities that have laid a path for tradition's journey to the modern day.  We will put together a series of regional menus and study the history and lore surrounding food traditions from the area, pair appropriate music and engage a theatrical theme for each dinner.

Theme ideas include: The American South, Italy, Latin America, The Northeastern US, Eastern Europe and Russia, The Japanese, India, The Pacific Rim, and of course China.  Some of the menus will be up on my next post and we will keep updates coming revealing time and place, thematic notions, and sundry entertainments.  Comment for us on any suggestions, special requests, if you're interested in hosting one of the dinners or if you'd like to lend a hand in any way, let us know!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Angels Behind the Stainless Curtain

Just to pay tribute to some of the most important people around me these days.  Let us remember well these pillars of support from old mentors who led us the way to the ones who mop the floors and put away deliveries for us, to the ones taking the real heat on the line, to the joyous ones who bring light to the end of sometimes dreary days.  I thank you all, humbly for all manner of support.  Without any of you, this world would be...well...a whole hell of a lot tougher to take.  I love and appreciate all of you.
Some are always there, you just know.

Some run their asses off for you, even when they're tired to the bone.
Some contribute mountains of time.

Some have a big enough heart to contribute everything they can, even in adversity.

Some make you laugh.

Some will be there in the blink of an eye.

Some are your hands.
Some are your heart.

Some bring us all together.

Some make us proud.

Some feed our inspiration.

Some are foundations.

And some just know these things all too well.
Thanks, y'all!