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Eating Through Time: FOOD-HEALTH-HISTORY

If you are going to be in NYC this coming Saturday, October 17th, and you have an interest in food, health, or history, then you would be a FOOL not to attend this event.  If you wont be in NYC, then get to NYC!  The New York Academy of Medicine is hosting the "Eating Through Time" festival, a celebration of food, health, and history.  I am thrilled to say I will not only be a speaker on a panel, but I will also be conducting a workshop on "Food in Space".  

Using food as the common theme, chefs, historians, writers, and public health experts are being brought together to discuss the past, present, and future of food in society, culture, and policy. This daylong event will include lectures, demonstrations, workshops, book signings, and more.   

How will we eat in the future and why?  Both in the past and the present, conceptions of the "future" have guided food research and innovation.  The panel I will be part of will examine how past and present conceptions of the "future" have guided our own research and practices both in the academy and in industry. 

I will be conducting a workshop on "FOOD IN SPACE: Not Just Freeze-Dried Ice Cream".  I will discuss the challenges of developing food for astronauts and how this food might change how we eat on earth. If you are wondering whether or not there will be a tasting of various dishes, well, there sure will be!  

If you're not sold yet, special guests include:

  • Chef Jacques Pépin, on food memories, a theme of his upcoming final PBS show Jacques Pépin Heart and Soul and its companion cookbook.
  • A Place at the Table, Film and Q&A with Tom Colicchio and Lori Silverbush
  • Cookbook Author Bryant Terry, in conversation on food, politics, and the power of culture
  • Josh Evans, The Nordic Food Lab
  • The Culinary Institute of America
  • Harvard Public Health

REGISTER HERE: http://www.nyam.org/events/2015/2015-10-17.html

HOPE TO SEE YOU THERE!

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LIVING THE LIFE ON A VINEYARD IN BORDEAUX (PART 2)

I decided to make an interesting mix of dishes, all stemming from different cuisines. Making a pure French meal just did not seem like the best idea. To start things off, a moderate array of locally made pate was served with perfectly toasted croutons. I wish I could remember each wine I consumed at every point of the meal but I was having way too much fun to record every bottle. All I know is each and every glass was better than the next. After spending time enjoying the pate, I moved to the scallop course. At the market earlier in the day, I found enormous, voluptuous scallops. It was true love at first sight. I prepared an asian style reduction sauce with orange juice, lemon grass, ginger, garlic, soy, and chilies. I reduced it down until it was a syrup-like consistency. After searing the scallops on an aggressive heat to form a perfect caramelized crust, I topped each scallop with orange and grapefruit segments to cut the richness. The dish was delicious, simple, and very elegant. I knew the dish was a success when I saw everyone pouring more of the sauce on their plates even after all the scallops were consumed. I told everyone to go ahead and start licking their plates, and that is exactly what occurred next. A simple salad followed with shaved radishes, fennel, and herbs. I wanted to keep everything light since the main course was a rich hearty rabbit civet, or stew if you will. I would definitely be lying if I said I was not nervous to serve the civet. I knew it tasted great but everyone at the party had eaten civet probably hundreds of times in their lives. After seeing everyone's reaction to the first bite, I was able to breathe much easier. I received nothing but incredible compliments on the dish. It was a pure success. I was even asked to cook for one of the wine producers full time instead of going to Noma, but it was an offer I had to decline. A large selection of wonderful French cheese followed with some dried fruit. I wanted dessert to be super light so I made a balsamic vinegar reduction that I drizzled on top of delicious strawberries. These were the strawberries that actually tasted like a strawberry, some of the very best I have ever had. The balsamic reduction added another layer of sweetness that finished off the meal on a perfect note. It seemed as if each bottle we opened was the perfect choice, even though the four bottles I chose were completely random.

It took no time at all to get used to the life of living on a beautiful vineyard. Each day at exactly 12:30, Philipe, Catherine, and myself would stop anything we were doing, regardless of the importance, and have a wonderful lunch outside in the gorgeous backyard. Each day was a very light lunch, but absolutely perfect. One afternoon we had scrambled eggs with herbs, bread, cheese, and delicious wine. Another lunch consisted of a tuna fritata accompanied by a salad with more cheese, more bread, and of course, more wine. Life could not get any better, until I would take a ten minute afternoon nap on a great hammock which was hanging from two perfectly shaped trees in the back yard. After the short nap on the hammock, it was back to work, acquiring more and more knowledge on wine.

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I was not expecting to feel as sad as I did when my time on the vineyard came to an end. After all, I had just met these people. In only one week, I had made some incredible life long friendships. I was treated as if I was part of their family every second of every day. I am beyond grateful for everything I learned while on the vineyard. The entire experience transformed me not only into a better chef, but a better person as well.

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Noma in the New Yorker

An incredible article written by Jane Kramer on Chef Rene Redzepi of Noma, the brilliant man I am training with at the moment, was just published in this weeks New Yorker magazine. Take the time to read this. I am beyond lucky to be learning from Chef Rene every day. "The Food At Our Feet" -Jane Kramer

I spent the summer foraging, like an early hominid with clothes. It didn’t matter that the first thing I learned about that daunting pastime of hunter-gatherers and visionary chefs was that nature’s bounty is a thorny gift. Thorny, or, if you prefer, spiny, prickly, buggy, sticky, slimy, muddy, and, occasionally, so toxic that one of the books I consulted for my summer forays carried a disclaimer absolving the publisher of responsibility should I happen to end up in the hospital or, worse, in the ground, moldering next to the Amanita phalloides that I’d mistaken for a porcini. I was not deterred. I had foraged as a child, although it has to be said that children don’t think “forage” when they are out stripping raspberry bushes and blackberry brambles; they think about getting away before the ogre whose land they’re plundering catches them and turns them into toads. I could even claim to have foraged as an adult, if you count a mild interest in plucking berries from the caper bushes that cling to the walls of an old hill town near the farmhouse in Umbria where my husband and I go, in the summertime, to write. Caper berries are like blackberries; they amount to forage only in that they are not your berries.

I wasn’t the first throwback on the block. The pursuit of wild food has become so fashionable a subject in the past few years that one eater.com blogger called this the era of the “I Foraged with René Redzepi Piece.” Redzepi is the chef of Noma, in Copenhagen (otherwise known as the best restaurant in the world). More to the point, he is the acknowledged master scavenger of the Nordic coast. I’ll admit it. I wanted to forage with Redzepi, too.

JUNE

I began working my way toward Denmark as soon as I arrived in Italy. I unpacked a carton of books with titles like “Nature’s Garden” and “The Wild Table.” I bought new mud boots—six euros at my local hardware store—and enlisted a mentor in the person of John Paterson, an exuberant Cumbria-to-Umbria transplant of forty-seven, who looked at my boots and said, “What’s wrong with sneakers?” Paterson is a countryman, or, as he says, “not a reader.” He is the kind of spontaneous forager who carries knives and old shopping bags and plastic buckets in the trunk of his car. (I carry epinephrine and bug repellent.) Being lanky and very tall, he can also leap over scraggly brush, which I, being small, cannot. Cumbrians are passionate about foraging—perhaps because, like their Scottish neighbors, they have learned to plumb the surface of a northern landscape not normally known for its largesse. What’s more, they share their enthusiasm and their secret places, something the old farmers in my neighborhood, most of them crafty foragers, rarely do. The peasants of Southern Europe do not easily admit to foraging—at least not to strangers. For centuries, foraged food was a sign of poverty, and they called it “famine food,” or “animal food.” The exception was truffles and porcini, which today command enough money for a good forager to be able to wait in line at the supermarket, buying stale food with the bourgeoisie. Some of my neighbors have truffle hounds penned in front of their chicken coops, ostensibly keeping foxes at bay. But they never ask to truffle in the woods by my pond when I’m around and, by local etiquette, they would have to offer some of the precious tubers they unearth to me. They wait until September, when I’m back in New York, and keep all my truffles for themselves.

Paterson got his start foraging—“Well, not actually foraging, more like scrumping”—as a schoolboy, combing the farms near his uncle’s Cockermouth sawmill for the giant rutabagas, or swedes, as the English call them, that children in Northern Europe carve into jack-o’-lanterns at Halloween. He worked in his first kitchen at the age of twelve (“I washed the plates,” he says. “I was too shy to wait on tables”) and twenty-five years later arrived in Umbria, a chef. Today, he has a Romanian wife, two children, and a thriving restaurant of his own—the Antica Osteria della Valle—in Todi, a town where people used to reserve their accolades for the meals that Grandmother made and, until they tasted his, had already driven away two “foreign” chefs, a Neapolitan and a Sicilian. In early June, I was finishing a plate of Paterson’s excellent tagliarini with porcini when he emerged from the kitchen, pulled up a chair, and started talking about the mushrooms he had discovered, foraging as a boy, in a patch of woods near a bridge over the River Cocker. “All those beautiful mushrooms!” he kept saying. He told me about green, orange, and red parrot mushrooms and parasol mushrooms and big cèpes called penny buns and bright, polka-dotted fly agarics “so huge they could fill a room” and mushrooms “like white fennels that grow from the shape of saucers into gilled cups.” He ate judiciously, but admired them all. In Italy, he started foraging for porcini to cook at home. At the Osteria, where he has to use farmed porcini, he roasts the mushrooms in pigeon juice, fills them with spinach, and wraps them in pancetta. He said that foraging had inspired his “bacon-and-eggs philosophy of little things that work together.”

A week later, we set out for some of his favorite foraging spots. We stopped at the best roadside for gathering the tiny leaves of wild mint known in Italy as mentuccia (“Fantastic with lamb”) and passed the supermarket at the edge of town, where only the day before he’d been cutting wild asparagus from a jumble of weeds and bushes behind the parking lot (“Great in risotto, but it looks like I took it all”). Then we headed for the country. We tried the field where he usually gets his wild fennel (“The flowers are lovely with ham and pork”) and found so much of that delicious weed that the fronds, rippling across the field in a warm breeze, looked like nature’s copy of Christo’s “Running Fence.” I was hoping to find strioli, too. Strioli is a spicy wild herb that looks like long leaves of tarragon. It grows in fields and pastures in late spring and early summer and makes a delicious spaghetti sauce—you take a few big handfuls of the herb, toss it into a sauté pan with olive oil, garlic, and peperoncini, and in a minute it’s ready. But there was none in sight, so we turned onto a quiet road that wound through fields of alfalfa and wheat and soon-to-be-blooming sunflowers, and parked next to a shuttered and, by all evidence, long-abandoned farmhouse that I had passed so often over the years that I thought of it as my house and dreamed of rescuing it.

Foraging places are like houses. Some speak to you, others you ignore. I wasn’t surprised that the land around that tumbledown house spoke to Paterson. He jumped out of the car, peered over a thicket of roadside bush and sloe trees, and disappeared down a steep, very wet slope before I had even unbuckled my seat belt—after which he emerged, upright and waving, in an overgrown copse enclosed by a circle of trees. Cleared, the copse would have provided a shady garden for a farmer’s family. To a forager, it was perfect: a natural rain trap, sheltered against the harsh sun, and virtually hidden from the road. Everywhere we turned, there were plants to gather. Even the wild asparagus, which usually hides from the sun in a profusion of other plants’ leaves and stalks, was so plentiful that you couldn’t miss it. We filled a shopping bag.

Wild asparagus has a tart, ravishing taste—what foragers call a wilderness taste—and a season so short as to be practically nonexistent. It’s as different from farmed asparagus as a morel is from the boxed mushrooms at your corner store. I was ready to head back and start planning my risotto, but Paterson had spotted a patch of leafy scrub and pulled me toward it. He called it crespina. I had never heard of crespina, nor, after months of searching, have I found it in any Italian dictionary. It’s the local word for spiny sow thistle—a peppery wild vegetable whose leaves taste a little like spinach and a lot like sorrel and, as I soon discovered, come with a spiky center rib sharp enough to etch a fine line down the palm of your hand if you’ve never handled them before. (I regard the small scar that I got that day as a forager’s mark of initiation.) We added a respectable bunch of leaves to the shopping bag, and carried the overflow up to the car in our arms. An hour later, we were separating and trimming the morning’s spoils in the tiny restaurant kitchen where, six days a week, Paterson cooks alone for fifty people (“Where would I put a sous-chef?” he said, stepping on my foot) and comparing recipes for wild-asparagus risotto. Here is his “most beautiful way” to make it: Snap off the fibrous ends of the asparagus spears and crush them with the blade of a knife. Simmer them in water or a mild stock until the stock takes flavor. Strain the stock. Pour a cupful of white wine into rice that’s been turned for a minute or two in hot olive oil and some minced onion. As soon as the wine boils down, start ladling in the stock. Keep ladling and stirring until the rice is practically al dente and the last ladle of stock is in the pan. Now fold in the asparagus heads. In no time, all you will need to do is grate the Parmesan and serve.

I made Paterson’s risotto for dinner that night, along with a roast chicken and the crespina leaves, sautéed for a minute, like baby spinach, in olive oil and a sprinkling of red-pepper flakes; the spines wilted into a tasty crunch. The next night, I chopped my fronds of wild fennel and used them to stuff a pork roast. When I called Paterson to say how good everything was, he told me, “Free food! There’s nothing like it. It always tastes better.”

JULY

I went to Oxford to give a talk, and got to forage in Pinsley Wood, an ancient forest near a village called Church Hanborough. You can find the original wood in the Domesday Book—the “unalterable” tax survey of English and Welsh land holdings compiled for William the Conqueror in 1086—and, indeed, the only altered thing about that venerable preserve is that now it’s a lot smaller, and everyone can enjoy it. In spring, when the ground is covered with bluebells, foragers complain about having to contend with lovers, nestled in sheets of sweet-smelling flowers, watching the clouds go by. By July, the bluebells are gone and there are no distractions.

My friends Paul Levy and Elisabeth Luard—writers, foragers, and distinguished foodies (a word that, for better or for worse, Levy is said to have coined)—walked me through Pinsley Wood, armed with bags and baskets. Our plan was to make a big lunch with everything edible we found. Levy, a polymath whose books range from a biography of G. E. Moore during his Cambridge Apostle years to a whirlwind sampler of culinary erudition called “Out to Lunch,” has been the food and wine editor of the Observer, an arts correspondent of the Wall Street Journal, and, for the past eight years, the co-chair of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. Luard, who began foraging as a botanical illustrator and traveller and whose many cookbooks include the estimable “European Peasant Cookery”—a virtual travelogue of foraged and home-grown food—is the symposium’s executive director.

My husband and I were staying with Levy and his wife (and self-described “arts wallah”), Penelope Marcus, at their Oxfordshire farmhouse, a rambling place, almost as old as Pinsley Wood, with a kitchen garden so vast and various in its offerings that I was tempted to ditch my mud boots, which had turned out to be plastic-coated cardboard (six euros do not a Welly make), and do my foraging there, in flip-flops, with a pair of gardening shears and a glass of iced tea waiting on the kitchen table. In fact, we began our foraging at the Levys’ barn wall, in a small overgrown patch of wild plants where fresh stinging nettles were sprouting like weeds (which is what they are) among the blackberry brambles and the dandelion greens and the malva, a purple flower often used in melokhia, a delectable Egyptian soup that I once ate in London but, alas, have never been able to replicate. We were going to use the nettles for an English broad-bean-and-vegetable soup that afternoon.

We drove to the wood in Luard’s old Mazda—past a village allotment with wild oats growing outside the fence and, inside, what looked to be a bumper crop of opium poppies—and listened to Luard and Levy talk about forest plants. Don’t bother with “dead nettles”— stingless flowering perennials that had no relation to our nettles and, to Luard’s mind, were not worth eating. Don’t overdo the elderberry unless you need a laxative. Beware of plants with pretty berries or pretty names, and, especially, of plants with both—which in the Hanboroughs means to remember that the flowering plant called lords and ladies, with its juicy scarlet berries and sultry, folded hood, was more accurately known to generations of poisoners as the deadly Arum “kill your neighbor.” “A stinky plant,” Levy said. I wrote it all down.

Levy considers himself a “basic local forager,” which is to say that he doesn’t drive three or four hours to the sea for his samphire and sea aster; he buys them at Waitrose. He loves wild garlic, and knows that sheets of bluebells in Pinsley Wood mean that wild garlic is growing near them. He “scrabbles” for the food he likes at home. “I can identify Jack-by-the-hedge for salad,” he told me. “And I can do sloes, brambles, elderberries. Anyone who lives in the countryside here can. Elisabeth is the more advanced forager, but I do know a little about truffles and wild mushrooms. Three of us once identified more than twenty mushroom species near here in Blenheim Park, and I’m quite good at chanterelles and porcini.” Levy thinks of Pinsley Wood as his neighborhood mushroom habitat. It has an old canopy of oak and ash, but it also has birch trees (chanterelles grow in their shade), and most of the interior is beech (porcini and truffles). Summer truffles are pretty much what you find in England. They are black outside and pale, grayish brown inside, and you have to dig twice as many as you think you’ll need to match anything like the deep flavor of France’s black winter truffles in a sauce périgueux.

Levy and my husband, who had been planning to spend a quiet day at the Ashmolean but was shamed out of it, immediately started following a network of burrowed tunnels—a “sett”—that led them into the wood near clusters of beech trees with small, circular swells of dark, moist earth beneath them. Swells like those are a sign of truffles, pushing up the ground. Setts mean that badgers probably got to the truffles first. A good truffle dog, like a hungry badger, can sniff its way to a truffle by following the scent of the spores left in its own feces from as long as a year before. The difference between a truffle dog and a badger—or, for that matter, the boar that trample my sage and rosemary bushes in their rush to my pond to root and drink—is that your dog doesn’t go truffling without you, and when it digs a truffle, as many Italian truffle dogs are trained to do, it mouths it gently and gives it to you intact. Or relatively intact. A few weeks later, when Paterson and I went truffling with an obliging local carabiniere named Bruno Craba and his two truffle terrier mutts, one of the dogs surrendered so helplessly to the intoxicating smell of semen that the tubers emit—known to foodies as the truffle umami—that she swallowed half a truffle the size of a tennis ball before presenting the rest of it to her master.

Being without benefit of a truffle dog, let alone a small spade or even a soup spoon for loosening the soil, Luard and I abandoned the men, who by then were up to their wrists in dirt, hoping to find a truffle that the badgers had missed. They didn’t. With lunch on our minds, we went in search of more accessible food. “Pea plants—plants of the Leguminosae family—are mostly what you get here,” Luard told me. You have to look for seed-bearing pods and single flowers with four “free” petals (which “The New Oxford Book of Food Plants” describes as “a large upper standard, 2 lateral wings, and a boat-shaped keel”). I left the identifying to her. Luard, who has foraged in twenty countries, has been called a walking encyclopedia of wild food. She was.

While we gathered pea plants, I learned that British countrywomen thicken their jellies with rose hips, crab apples, and the red fruit clusters of rowan bushes, which people in Wales, where Luard lives, plant by their doors to keep witches away. (There’s a recipe for “hedgerow jelly” in her new book, “A Cook’s Year in a Welsh Farmhouse.”) Passing what looked to be the remains of a wild ground orchid, I was instructed in the virtues of “saloop,” a drink made from the powder of crushed orchid roots which, for centuries, was the pick-me-up of London’s chimney sweeps—“The Ovaltine and Horlicks of its time, with more protein than a filet de boeuf,” Luard said. (You can read about saloop in Charles Lamb, who hated it.) We walked past silverweed plants (“Edible but not tasty”) and meadowsweet (“The underscent of vanilla in the flowers makes a nice tea”) and the leaf shoots of young, wild carrots (“Skinny as can be means good in soup”) and teasel (“Not for eating; for combing wool”) and butterwort, which, like fig-tree sap in Italy, is a vegetable rennet, “good for making cheese.” Along the way, I discovered that farm children in southern Spain, where Luard lived with her family in the seventies, ate wild-fennel fronds and “sucked on the lemony stalks” of wood sorrel on their way to school, by way of a second breakfast. “Children are a huge source of information about wild food,” she told me. “In Spain, I would ask the village women to tell me what they foraged and how they cooked it, and they wouldn’t answer—they were embarrassed by foraging, like your Italian neighbors—but their children knew. My children would walk to school with them, eating the leaves and berries that their friends plucked from the roadside verges. They learned from their friends, and I learned from them. I’ve lived in a lot of places, and I’ve discovered that a basic knowledge of food runs all the way through Europe. The people I lived with cooked, of necessity, what they grew, and the wild food they added—the changing taste of leaves and nuts, for instance—was what gave interest to those few things. It taught me that when you grow enough to eat you begin to make it taste good. That’s not a frippery, it’s a need.”

Luard, as senior forager, was in charge of lunch. Levy was in charge of fetching claret from the cellar and coaxing heat from an unpredictable Aga. Marcus was in charge of setting the garden table, while my husband, who had volunteered for the washing up, wandered around, keeping up the conversation. And I was stationed at the sink, sorting and cleaning a good deal of Pinsley Wood. It was an unfortunate assignment, since I tend to daydream at kitchen sinks, and the better the dream the slower my pace. Sorting our forage took me half an hour. Cleaning it took twice as long, given the number of bugs clinging to every leaf and flower, not to mention Luard’s instructions, among them separating the yarrow leaves we’d collected from any lingering trace of petals, and scraping the hairy calyxes from the bottom of borage flowers. We sat down to lunch at four-thirty. The soup was a vegetarian feast of flageolets with (among other good, wild things) nettles, yarrow leaves, and dandelions, and the salad a spicy mix of wild sorrel, dandelions, onion flowers, and borage flowers. But my favorite dish was the scrambled eggs that Luard made with an unseemly amount of farm butter and double cream and a mountain of fresh sorrel. The sorrel for that came from the Levys’ kitchen garden, a few feet from the back door.

AUGUST

I wasn't’t really ready for René Redzepi. I had tried to prepare. I downloaded the stories that appeared last spring, when a jury of chefs and food writers, convened by the British magazine Restaurant, named Noma the world’s best restaurant for the second year. I studied the photographs in Redzepi’s cookbook, memorized the names in his glossary of plants and seaweeds, and even tried to improvise on some of his simpler recipes with my local produce—impossible in a part of Italy where the collective culinary imagination is so literally “local” that broccoli is considered a foreign food and oregano is dismissed as “something the Tuscans eat.” But I flew to Denmark anyway, planning to make a trial foraging run in western Zealand with my Danish friend (and fellow-journalist) Merete Baird, who spends her summers in a farmhouse overlooking Nexelo Bay—a trove of wilderness food—and likes to eat at Lammerfjordens Spisehus, a restaurant run by one of Redzepi’s disciples. My foraging trial ended before it began, in a freezing downpour, and, as for the restaurant, the storm had left me so hungry that, at dinner that night, I passed up the young chef’s lovely deconstructed tomato-and-wild-herb soup and his leafy Noma-inspired offerings and ordered two fat Danish sausages and a bowl of warm potato salad.

I met Redzepi at Noma early the following afternoon. He arrived on an old bike, chained it outside the restaurant—a converted warehouse on a quay where trading ships once unloaded fish and skins from Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands—and tried to ignore the tourists who were milling about, their cameras ready, hoping for a shot of arguably the most famous Dane since Hamlet. In fact, most of them barely glanced at the small young man with floppy brown hair, in jeans, battered sneakers, and an untucked wrinkled shirt, locking up his bike. Redzepi is thirty-three, with a wife and two small children, but he can look like a student who slept in his clothes and is now running late for an exam. The most flamboyant thing about him may be the short beard he frequently grows—and just as frequently sheds. It is hard to imagine him in a white toque or a bloody apron or, à la Mario Batali, in baggy Bermudas and orange crocs. When I left for my hotel that day, one of the tourists stopped me: “That kid you were with earlier? His bike’s still here.”

Redzepi opened Noma in 2003, at the age of twenty-five, backed by the gastronomical entrepreneur of a successful catering service and bakery chain (whose bread he doesn’t serve) and a “new Danish” furniture designer (whose advice he routinely rejects). He was nine years out of culinary school, during which time he had apprenticed at one of Copenhagen’s best restaurants, endured a long stage in the unhappy kitchen of a testy three-star Montpelier chef, and made molecular magic in Catalonia with Ferran Adrià. “I ate a meal at elBulli,” as he tells the story, “and as soon as I finished I went up to Adrià and asked for a job. He said, ‘Write me a letter.’ So I did. A few weeks later, I found a job offer, complete with contract, in the mail.” He stayed at elBulli for a season, and, in the course of it, landed his next job—at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, in Napa Valley, where he was much taken with the emphasis on local food. He was back in Copenhagen, cooking “Scandinavian French” at the restaurant Kong Hans Kælder, when the call came asking if he’d like a restaurant of his own.

“We had the idea: let’s use local products here,” he told me the next morning. We were at a diner, making a caffeine stop on the way to a beach at Dragør—a town on the Øresund Sea, about twenty minutes from the outskirts of Copenhagen—where he likes to forage. “But I was very unhappy at first. Why? Because we were taking recipes from other cultures, serving essentially the same ‘Scandinavian French’ food, and just because you’re using local produce to make that food doesn’t mean you’re making a food of your own culture. I started asking myself, What is a region? What is the sum of the people we are, the culture we are? What does it taste like? What does it look like on a plate? It was a very complex thing for us—the idea of finding a new flavor that was ‘ours.’ ”

Five years later, having raised the money for a research foundation called the Nordic Food Lab, he hired an American chef named Lars Williams—who arrived with a degree in English literature, a passion for food chemistry, and fifteen lines of the first book of “Paradise Lost” tattooed on his right arm—to preside over a test kitchen on a houseboat across the quay from Noma and begin to “release the umami of Nordic cuisine.” At the moment, they were looking for some in a liquid concentrate of dried peas, which I had sampled on the houseboat the day before. (It was quite good, with the rich bite of a soy concentrate and, at the same time, a kind of pea-plant sweetness.) And they planned to look for more in a brew of buckwheat and fatty fish, starting with herring or mackerel. They were also “looking into” Nordic insects, Redzepi said. (On a trip to Australia last year, he had eaten white larvae that he swore tasted “exactly like fresh almonds.”) “The question for us is how to keep that free-sprouting spirit here,” he told me. “In gastronomical terms, we’re not at the finish line, but we know what it could be.”

A Nordic cuisine, for Redzepi, begins with harvesting the vast resources of a particular north—running west from Finland through Scandinavia and across the North Atlantic to the Faroes, Iceland, and Greenland—and using them to evoke and, in the end, re-imagine and refine a common culture of rye grains, fish, fermentation, salt, and smoke, inherited from farmers and fishermen with hardscrabble lives and a dour Protestant certainty that those lives wouldn’t be getting easier. Redzepi’s mother, who worked as a cleaner in Copenhagen and loves to eat at Noma, comes from that Protestant Danish stock. But the cook in the family was his father, a mosque-going Muslim from Macedonia who drove a taxi. “When I was growing up, we’d leave the city for long periods in the summer and stay in the village where my father was born,” Redzepi told me. “It was a two-car village, and cooking, for him, was kill the chicken, milk the cow. When he eats at Noma, he says, ‘Well, it’s not exactly up my alley.’ His alley is homey stews, homey peasant flavors, and lots of beans.” When I told Redzepi about a blog I’d read, calling him a Nordic supremacist, he laughed and said, “Look at my family. My father’s a Muslim immigrant. My wife, Nadine, is Jewish. She was born in Portugal and has family in France and England. She studied languages. If the supremacists took over, we’d be out of here.”

Redzepi remembers foraging for berries as a boy in Macedonia. He loves berries. Gooseberries, blueberries, blackberries, lingonberries—any berries in season, at hand, and edible. He carries a bowl of berries around Noma’s kitchens, popping them into his mouth while he checks a prep station or talks to a chef or even stands at the front stove, finishing a sauce. He also loves mushrooms. There are some two hundred edible varieties in Denmark’s woods, and he is working his way through them all. But, at the moment, the food he cherishes is cabbage—from the big, pale cabbages that he slices and steams, at home, in a knob of butter and a half inch of his wife’s leftover tea, to the tiny, vividly green-leaved wild cabbages that sit in pots, basking in ultraviolet light, on a steel counter in the middle of one of Noma’s upstairs kitchens, waiting for the day they’re ready to be wrapped with their stems around a sliver of pike perch and served to customers on a beautiful stoneware plate, between a green verbena sauce and a butter-and-fish-bone foam. One of the first things he told me, the day we met, was that, for him, the great surprise of foraging in Nordic Europe was to see cabbages sprouting from rotting seaweed on a beach, and to realize how much food value the sea, the sand, and the nutrients released in the rotting process could produce.

It’s an experience that he wants the people on his staff to share before they so much as plate a salad or get near a stove. Seventy people work at Noma. They come from as many as sixteen countries—English is their lingua franca—and it’s safe to say that every one of them has made a foraging trip to the sea or the woods (or both) with Redzepi. “There’s a new guy from the Bronx working here,” he told me, when he was introducing the kitchen staff. “I want to take him to the forest. I want to see the first time he gets down on his knees and tastes something. The transformation begins there.”

The beach near Dragør was bleak, but it was bursting with plants I had never dreamed of eating, and I was ready for transformation. “Foraging is treasure hunting,” Redzepi said; you’ll find the treasure if you believe it’s there. It’s also homework. When he began foraging in Denmark, he stayed up nights reading. He bought botany books and field guides—the most useful being an old Swedish Army survival book that had taught soldiers how to live for a year in the wilderness on the food they found. At first, he foraged with the Army manual in his pocket. Then he began consulting other foragers. Now he forages with his iPhone. “I know a great professional forager in Sweden,” he told me. “If I see something I can’t identify, I call her up, point my iPhone, send her a picture of what I’m seeing, and ask her what it is. At the beginning, I had a little problem with beach thistles—my throat started to close from those weird flowers—but that was the worst time. I got connected to the sea and soil, and now they’re an integral part of me. I experience the world through food.”

We started out in a thicket of rose-hip bushes at the edge of the beach, where wild grass was just beginning to give way to sand and seaweed. The berries looked like tiny cherry tomatoes, and there were so many of them that, after a few minutes, we left Redzepi’s “scavenger sous-chef,” who had driven us out that morning—Redzepi hates driving—with the job of locating a couple of large garbage bags and filling them. (I ate some of the berries that night, at dinner, in a warm salad of lovage, zucchini, wild herbs, and an egg fried at the table in a hot skillet.) Redzepi pickles his rose-hip flowers in apple vinegar, and preserves the berries as a thick purée, for winter dishes. The picking season is short in Denmark, and he has to start gathering in mid-spring in order to dry, smoke, pickle, or otherwise preserve—and, in the process, concentrate the flavor of—a lot of the vegetables and fruits that his customers will be eating in December. He told me about beach dandelions with nippy little bouquets of flowers and tiny roots that taste “like a mix of fresh hazelnuts and roasted almonds,” and about the vanilla taste of wild parsnip flowers, and about pink beach-pea flowers that taste like mushrooms. By the time we got to the water, we were sampling most of what we found. We ate a handful of short beach grass that tasted like oysters, and a cluster of spicy lilac beach-mustard flowers that made the mustard in jars seem tame. We snacked on enormous leaves of sea lettuce that came floating by. They tasted, to me, like mild, salty cabbage that had just been scooped out of a pot-au-feu. Redzepi serves a lot of sea lettuce at Noma. He breaks it down in a saporoso of white-wine vinegar (to make it “easier to eat,” he says, and also to bring out its “ocean flavor”) and wraps it around cod roe or oysters, or folds it into a poached-egg-and-radish stew.

The weather in Denmark begins to turn in August. It was too late in the summer for sea goosefoot, or for the bladder wrack that bobs near the shore like bloated peas and, according to Redzepi, is just as sweet. The scurvy grass we discovered was too old to eat. But the beach horseradish that day was perfect. It had the “big hint of wasabi taste” that Redzepi likes so much that he serves the leaves folded over sea urchin. By late morning, with the wind cutting through our sweaters, we were still roaming the beach and tasting. “It’s amazing, all these foods in the sand,” Redzepi said. “One of my most important moments foraging—important in the history of Noma—was on a windblown beach like this one. I saw this blade of grass, this chive-looking thing, growing out of some rotting seaweed. I put it in my mouth. It had a nice snap, with the saltiness of samphire. And a familiar taste. A taste from somewhere else. I thought, Wait a minute, it’s cilantro! This isn’t Mexico, it’s Denmark, and I’ve found cilantro in the sand.” That night, his customers ate beach cilantro, which turned out to be sea arrow grass. “We put it in everything that was savory.”

There are never fewer than five or six foraged foods on Noma’s menu, and usually many more. By now, Redzepi depends on professional foragers to supply most of them, but he and his staff still provide the rest. Earlier this year, they gathered two hundred and twenty pounds of wild roses for pickling, and a hundred and fifty pounds of wild ramps. By November, there were thirty-three hundred pounds of foraged fruits and vegetables stored at Noma, ready for winter. Redzepi told me that ninety per cent of everything he serves is farmed, fished, raised, or foraged within sixty miles of the restaurant, and while most chefs with serious reputations to maintain will occasionally cheat on “local,” even the Jacobins of the sustainable-food world acknowledge that Redzepi never does. Early this fall, a food critic from the Guardian noted that the millionaires flying their private jets to eat at restaurants like Noma leave a carbon footprint far more damaging than the one Redzepi is trying to erase at home. Redzepi thinks about that, too, but not much. He says that the point of Noma isn’t to feed the rich—that in his best-possible-world Noma would be free, because “there is nothing worse than charging people for conviviality.” The point is to demonstrate how good cooking with regional food, anywhere in the world, can be. His mission is to spread the word.

On an average Saturday night, Noma’s waiting list runs to a thousand people. The restaurant seats forty-four, and Redzepi has no real desire to expand. His partners keep asking, “When will the money begin to flow?” He ignores them. For now, at least, whatever profit Noma makes (last year, three per cent) goes right back into the business of sourcing and preparing the kinds of food that people who do get reservations come to the restaurant to eat. Most of the cultivated crops he uses (including his favorite carrots, which are left in the ground for a year after they mature, and develop a dense texture and an almost meaty taste) are grown for him on a polycultural farm, an hour away in northwest Zealand, that he helped transform. His butter and milk (including the buttermilk with which he turns a warm, seaweed-oil vegetable salad dressing into an instantly addictive sauce) come from a nearby Zealand biodynamic farm. Everything else he serves is “Nordic” by anyone’s definition. His sea urchin comes from a transplanted Scot who dives for it off the Norwegian coast. The buckwheat in Noma’s bread comes from a small island off the coast of Sweden; I downed a loaf of it, watching Redzepi cook lunch. The red seaweed I ate that night at dinner—in a mysteriously satisfying dish involving dried scallops, toasted grains, watercress purée, beech nuts, mussel juice, and squid ink—came from a forager in Iceland. The langoustine that was served on a black rock (next to three tiny but eminently edible “rocks” made from an emulsion of oysters and kelp, dusted with crisped rye and seaweed crumbs) came from a fisherman in the Faroe Islands. Even Redzepi’s wine list, which used to be largely French, now includes wines from a vineyard that Noma owns on Lilleø, a small island off Denmark’s North Sea coast. I tried an unfiltered, moss-colored white from the vineyard that night. It looked murky in the glass, but I wish I had ordered more.

Redzepi was fifteen, and finishing the ninth grade, when his homeroom teacher pronounced him “ineligible” for secondary school and said that he would be streamed out of the academic system and into trade school and an apprenticeship. He chose a culinary school only because a classmate named Michael Skotbo was going there. Their first assignment was to find a recipe, cook it, and make it look appetizing on a plate. “You were supposed to dig into your memories of food, of taste, and my most vivid was from Macedonia,” Redzepi told me. “It was my father’s barnyard chicken—the drippings over the rice, the spices, the cashew sauce. I think that my first adult moment was cooking that spicy chicken. My second was when we found a wonderful cup and put the rice in it—with the chicken, sliced, next to it on the plate. I had an idea. I said to Michael, ‘No, don’t put the sauce on the meat. Put the sauce between the chicken and the rice. We came in second in flavor and first in presentation.” I asked him who won first in flavor. “A butcher,” he said. “He made ham salad. It was terrific.”

The boy who couldn’t get into high school now speaks four or five languages, publishes in the Guardian and the New York Times, speaks at Yale, and last year disarmed an audience of literati at the New York Public Library with a philosophical riff on the beauty of aged-in-the-ground carrots, not to mention a biochemical acumen that many scientists, and most other chefs, would envy. To call Redzepi an autodidact is beside the point. His friends say he was born bored. “Wherever I go, I read, I look, I taste, I discover, I learn,” he told me. “I’m cooking with mosses now. They were a whole new discovery for me. I tasted them for the first time foraging in Iceland. Some mosses are hideous, but those were so lush and green I had to try them. I took some back to Reykjavík, where a guy I’d met ground it for me and put it into cookies. Then I went to Greenland. For years, in Greenland, it looked like the reindeer were eating snow. Now we know they were eating moss. We call it reindeer moss. The moss on trees and bushes has a mushroomy taste—we deep-fry it, like potato chips—but the ones growing from the ground, up near caves, they have the taste and texture of noodles.”

I ate reindeer moss at Noma, deep- fried, spiced with cèpes, and deliciously crisp. It was the third of twenty-three appetizers and tasting dishes I ate that night, the first being a hay parfait—a long infusion of cream and toasted hay, into which yarrow, nasturtium, camomile jelly, egg, and sorrel and camomile juice were then blended. The second arrived in a flower pot, filled with malted, roasted rye crumbs and holding shoots of raw wild vegetables, a tiny poached mousse of snail nestling in a flower, and a flatbread “branch” that was spiced with powdered oak shoots, birch, and juniper. I wish I could describe the taste of those eloquent, complex combinations, but the truth is that, like most of the dishes I tried at Noma, they tasted like everything in them and, at the same time, like nothing I had ever eaten. Four hours later, I had filled a notebook with the names of wild foods. Redzepi collected me at my table, and we sat for a while outside, on a bench near the houseboat, looking at the water and talking. I didn’t tell him that I’d passed on the little live shrimp, wriggling alone on a bed of crushed ice in a Mason jar, that had been presented to me between the rose-hip berries and the caramelized sweetbreads, plated with chanterelles and a grilled salad purée composed of spinach, wild herbs (pre-wilted in butter and herb tea), Swiss chard, celery, ground elder, Spanish chervil, chickweed, and goosefoot, and served with a morel-and-juniper-wood broth. I told him that it was the best meal I had ever eaten, and it was.

SEPTEMBER

I came home to New York, checked my mail, and discovered that I had missed the Vassar Club’s “foraging tour” of Central Park. It was quite a relief. I ordered a steak from Citarella (by phone, for delivery), walked to the Friday greenmarket on Ninety-seventh Street for corn and tomatoes, and was home in fifteen minutes. I spun some salad from my corner store, unpacked my suitcase, plugged in my laptop, uncorked the wine, and cooked dinner. It seemed too easy. Surveying my kitchen, I wondered where I would put a Thermomix or a foam siphon with backup cartridges or a Pacojet or a vacuum-pack machine or even a No. 40 ice-cream scoop—all of which I would need just to produce the carrot sorbet and buttermilk-foam dessert that I’d been eying in Redzepi’s cookbook. Where would Redzepi put them in his own kitchen? Then I remembered the sliced cabbage, steamed with a knob of butter in a half inch of leftover tea.

Noma isn’t about home cooking or even foraging. The restaurant is a showcase, a virtuoso reminder that only a small fraction of the planet’s bounty gets to anyone’s dinner table, and that most of it is just as good as what does get there—even better, if it’s cooked with patience, imagination, and a little hot-cold chemistry. It seems to me now that if you take John Paterson’s enthusiasm for little wild things that work together and Elisabeth Luard’s conviction that those things express the timeless “taste-good” ingenuity of peasant cooking, the message is not so different from Redzepi’s. Most of us eat only what we know. It’s time to put on our boots (or our sneakers) and look around.

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LIVING THE LIFE ON A VINEYARD IN BORDEAUX (PART 1)

A lesson I learned from my parents a long time ago is to always learn something from everyone you encounter in your life. This is exactly what happened the night I met a wonderful friend, Delphine, in Chicago. I always find myself meeting incredibly interesting people, with connections that result in life changing experiences. I guess it is a talent of mine. I was standing outside of a club one night, waiting to go inside, when I heard a beautiful french accent behind me. Hearing this accent got me very excited, since I was leaving for Europe in a few weeks. I turned around and decided why not spark a conversation. Who knows where it will lead. I asked her where she was from and when she said France, I told her I was going to be spending a few weeks in France very soon, before I head to Noma in Copenhagen to start my new job. Not thinking anything of it, I asked her if her family is still in France, and the answer was yes. It turns out that this woman, Delphine, is a novelist, who married a man from Chicago, and is currently living in the windy city. We exchanged contact information since I asked her if she would mind giving me some suggestions of places to visit while in France. After various emails back and forth, she surprised me with a message stating that she has a friend, Catherine, who lives in Bordeaux, that I can stay with if I would like, in return for working on the vineyard that she lives on. Yes, that is right, a vineyard in Bordeaux. I knew I had to make this happen! I then emailed Catherine, and she is just as wonderful of a person as Delphine is. We made arrangements that after I spent some time in San Sebastian, I would travel to Bordeaux and stay on the vineyard for four or five days, working, tasting wine, and learning as much as possible about the entire process, ranging from harvest, to fermentation, to bottling, to selling. It could not be a more perfect experience. There is no school out there that will present the students with the quality of knowledge and information I have been engulfed in the past few days. After my week in San Sebastian, it was time to go to the vineyard. Luckily, San Sebastian is relatively close to Bordeaux, about a two and half hour train ride. The journey started with a train from San Sebastian to a small city just over the border of France, by the name of Hendaye. It was mind blowing noticing the difference between the two cities, which are 15 minutes apart from one another. In just 15 minutes, everything changes from Spanish to French, which made things quite interesting. I do not speak a lick of French. Because of this, I could not figure out how to work the ticket machine to get my train ticket to Bordeaux, which led to me missing my train. The next train was not for another three hours. I was just about blowing steam from my nose and ears, like in the cartoons. After a long three hour date with a beautiful, sexy, espresso cup, with shots of extraordinary expresso being added one after the other, with the same level of quality throughout, it was time for the journey to Bordeaux.

My undesirable luck continued on the ride to Bordeaux. I was assigned a seat, on a very full ride, meaning there was no chance of changing. I turned out to be sitting next to a man with a scent of B.O. that I have never gotten the displeasure of experiencing. It was not the typical scent of B.O. that you would expect from a grungy looking lad; if that were the case, I would have thought things could definitely be worse. This was different. Unique. It was a cross between hard boiled eggs, fish heads, and a large fermenting bucket of old compost collected by a group of hippies. It was putrid. And I had no choice but to learn to like the smell. There was no alternative. I would not be able to just ignore the scent. It was that bad. I had to adapt and evolve, Darwin style, and train myself to enjoy the scent of this man, for three long stressful hours. Some may call this technique absurd, but it was the only way. Almost like having to accept the fact that you have to piss on yourself after getting bitten by a jellyfish. Its the only way for immediate relief. Life...it's a crazy thing.

The arrival of Bordeaux brought upon joy. I stood in the aisle for the last thirty minutes, giving my sense of smell a long needed break. My train to Medoc was in thirty minutes, and then I would finally arrive at the vineyard. I was greeted by Catherine at the small train station, last on the line, which was easy to determine after realizing I was the only one left on the train. We drove back to the house, which has a beautiful entrance, with a long windy driveway through the vast fields of vines, just finished being picked for harvest. I immediately knew as soon as I saw the property I was in for a very special educational adventure...yet again.

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Standing outside the house was the wine master himself, Phillipe. At first I was very intimidated, since my education level on the subject of wine is not as good as it should be. I was not sure if he expected me to know how to do things or what, but I just went with it. After spending a week on the vineyard, I now consider Phillipe one of the more generous, warm, brilliant close friends I have. The amount of knowledge he has on wine and the entire process is truly remarkable. I immediately starting forming many questions that I have always wanted answers to, regarding wine from the region, the process, wine from other regions, and anything else he had to share to a knowledge seeking young chef. After talking for a good hour, it was time to go to sleep, after all, I had to wake up at 7:00 in the next morning for work. This was going to be the real deal.

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The first morning consisted of a very strong coffee, followed by some grapes I found still on the vine from one of the areas that was not used for harvest. I believe they were the Merlot variety. Wonderful way to start the day, especially when you find fresh figs on the way back on a large tree in the backyard. I was falling in love more and more every minute with this place. I thought about putting a hunk of Parm in my back pocket as well as a small bottle of old balsamic, for all of the edibles I find growing along the way. Figs, pears, grapes, mmmmmmm.

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I was given a long tour of the entire property, taking many pictures along the way. It was remarkable to see the size of everything, the enormous tanks, the wide pumps that are used, the heavy machinery, everything was on a large scale.

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I had no idea if I was abut to drive a forklift or if I was going to be stomping on some grapes from a special grape variety. I was finally brought into the laboratory, where there were about ten glasses lined up, ready to taste. Everything had to be recorded, the PH level, the sugar content, the alcohol content, color, every detail you can think of. It was very cool being a part of this, and contributing my eager desire to learn, making things easier for the others working. There are plenty of books out there on how wine is made, but its not easy to come by an experience like this one. Every day of this entire journey I thought to myself how lucky I truly am to be in these situations.

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With many questions being answered in regards to just about everything dealing with wine, I started to feel like I actually knew a very good amount on the subject. I was very happy with my progress in understanding how everything works, as well as how important such small fascist are when it comes to the overall quality of the final product. I have always loved drinking Bordeaux, but I have never fully understood what makes it so delicious.

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Wine has been produced in Bordeaux since the 1st century A.D. Philippe made a point in repeating the fact that centuries of blending mastery combined with a unique terrain and climate give birth to wines of refinement and equilibrium. Everything has a balance. The grape varieties associated with Bordeaux wine are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. When he was talking about balance, he was trying to get me to understand that the distinctiveness, richness, and elegance of Bordeaux wines are the result of the subtle blending of these individual grape varieties, in proportions determined by each individual winemaker. The blending of different superior grape varieties ensures that each wine has a unique flavor and bouquet. I learned many great lessons from Philipe over the week spending time by his side. When asked what he thinks about his wine, he says it is good but not the best. There are plenty of vineyards who will say their wine is the best. Philipe thinks this is a horrible philosophy to have. If you have the best wine, then nothing can improve. There is always room for improvement according to Philipe. This is a mentality that I believe in very strongly. He believes there are always new subtle combinations of the grape varieties to potentially make a better tasting wine. This is the beauty of Bordeaux wines. It is a collaboration of what the noble grape varieties have to offer. Merlot gives color and the richness of alcohol, making the wine round. It has aromas of ripe plum, strawberries, red currant-violet, and truffle. Cabernet Sauvignon provides the tannic backbone or structure. It is very aromatic in young wines and aromas of blackcurrant, red berries, and licorice. Cabernet Sauvignon also allows the wine to gain great complexity with age. Cabernet Franc has aromas that are often complimented with aromas of vanilla, coffee, cocoa, and toast, which is given during the barrel aging process.

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I had a lot of fun walking through the large rooms filled with barrels of different varieties and vintages. All waiting to be consumed, some in days, some in months, some in years.

20111120-074710.jpg Other than asking questions and getting an in depth week long lesson on wine and the process involved, I had the pleasure of doing some good old labor. I was responsible for moving about 10,000 bottles of wine from one cellar to the next, the very first day. This included driving a forklift to pick the palates up, place them on an enormous truck, drive to the other cellar, take the palates off the truck with a manual lift, then finally park the palates in place, very carefully with an electronic forklift. It was very hard work to say the least. I was first given the job of waiting on the truck with the manual lift, where I would have to place the machine under the palate, crank the lever upwards, the same as lifting a car up with a jack when changing a tire. I then had to push this palate with 600 bottles of wine, into the correct place on the truck. It may sound easy since I am pushing something with wheels, but let me tell you it was nothing close to being easy. Half of the truck runs downhill so if you are standing in the wrong position, the palate can roll towards the wall, leaving no alternative but to pin you to the wall. Just about impossible to get out without the help from another person. Yes, this happened to me. Twice. Both times brought upon a great deal of laughter from Philipe. He quickly jumped out of the electric forklift, climbed into the back of the truck, and released me from the squished position against the wall. Ouch. After about six palates, I started to get the hang of things. Moving the 600 bottles at a time was getting easier. Before I knew it, four blisters later, it was time to drive the truckload to the other cellar.

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20111120-075013.jpg Once at the other cellar, it was the same process to get the palates off the truck. Only this time, I had to push the palates once on the manual lift slightly uphill which made things very difficult. I was only able to manage half of the palates alone, and Philipe had to help me with the rest. The fact that he made it look beyond easy every time he took control did not help with my self esteem. Once the truck was unloaded, we had to go back to the main cellar, and fill the truck up, TWO MORE TIMES. I was very excited for a glass of wine after this hard days work. I was truly getting the full circle experience.

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It is very important to always keep in mind where the food you are about to eat came from. The story of the animal, the journey it took from its home to the market. The dreadful day the bullet entered its body, ending whatever life it had. Even though I have been cooking in restaurants for many years, and food is my largest passion in life, I have never been hunting. The closest I have been is tearing the claws off lobsters that are still alive, trying anything possible to escape the madness they are about to endure. I guess I have some experience killing innocent animals if you count the times my brothers and I would dig for large earth worms after a long afternoon rain shower, tie them around M-80 fireworks, and watch them blow into many pieces. Very sick, very sad, but there are worse things I could have been doing while growing up with two older brothers. Everyone goes through a weird stage, don't they? I began to think about the entire situation in a new light. Thus far in my professional career as a chef, I have acted like the head boss in a Mafia crew, ordering up death over the phone, or with a nod or a glance. When I would need meat at a restaurant, I would make a call, or I would nod to fish monger the exact fish I want him to take out of the water. Every time I have picked up the phone or ticked off an item on an order sheet, I have basically caused a living thing to die. When the food arrives at the restaurant, however, it is not the bleeding, still-warm body of my victim, eyes open, giving me a very dirty and angry look. I don't see that part when working in a kitchen. I had never in my life gotten the opportunity, until arriving at the vineyard in Bordeaux, to go hunting.

When I was asked if I wanted to take part in a morning rabbit hunting adventure, I did not think twice, I had to shoot a gun. I woke up around 7:00 in the morning, had my strong cup of coffee, and I started to search for the much needed focus that would be needed to shoot a small fast jumping rabbit, with a large shotgun. Since I have never shot a gun before, I thought it would be a good idea to shoot it a few times before we went off on the hunt. A target was set up, and my cherry was popped. The kickback took me off guard, I was not expecting it to be that strong. After my third shot, I was having a blast experiencing the feeling of shooting a powerful weapon. It was invigorating, in a weird way.

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Philipe, his head cellar manager, and my myself took off into the vast vineyard. We had the pleasure of being able to hunt in the actual vineyard, now that harvest was over. It was a beautiful sight. Philipe started out with the gun, but had no success in finding a single hare. I was next, walking slowly along the vineyard path, Philipe suddenly motioned to me that there was a large hare to the left. I quietly, yet quickly, squatted down to take aim without being discovered. The shotgun that I was using was shooting cartridges that would release about 25 metal pellets in various directions once shot. After learning this, I thought my chances of shooting one were much higher. I waited a strong ten seconds before I decided it was time. I pulled the trigger, thinking I had missed. Philipe jumped up and down in excitement when he saw that I had hit the hare, killing it. In a matter of seconds, a live animal turns into dinner. It was a very exciting feeling, with a layer of sadness somewhere in the picture.

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Thinking about the fact that I would have to butcher this animal, and then cook it for 10 people distracted my mind from the sadness of killing the actual thing. I had to figure out how I would transform this dead hare into a delicious dinner for some of the best wine makers in all of Bordeaux. This dinner would be for the big timers. These people have chefs cook for them almost every night of the week. Most have a permeant chef, cooking food specifically tailored to their taste. These were the type of people that go to the best restaurants in the world for free, simply because they produce some of the best wine in the world. Here I am, with a shotgun in hand, preparing myself to cook them all a wonderful dinner, without the ability to go to Whole Foods, or Sunset in Highland Park. I had a dead rabbit, a small food market in town, and a beautiful herb garden to work with. This would be one hell of a top chef challenge!

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A very famous dish in the area is a Civet, which is more or less a rabbit stew. I have seen many french chefs do their own renditions of this dish. The last thing I wanted to do was try to create a famous French dish for a bunch of hardcore French people. I wanted to have similar flavor profiles but I wanted it to be my own. I wanted them to eat a meal they have never experienced.

Before I could begin to think of my own Civet rendition, I had to tackle to feat of gutting and skinning this hare, as well as dismembering the head. With the help of Philipe, the gutting took place, followed by some burning of the fur. The skin was then peeled off like a tube sock coming off a leg and foot at the end of a long day of walking. It was a beautiful sight. I carried the hare in one hand, and the shotgun in the other, back to the house where I would begin preparation for the big dinner.

Something that I could not stop thinking about was the caliber of wine that I would soon be consuming. These dinners are always paired with some of the very best bottles in the world. It only makes sense for big time wine makers to save the very best for themselves, and when would a better time be to enjoy the delicious varieties than at a table with a collection of the very best producers of the region. I felt like I was in a dream at various moments, especially when I would think back to Philipe's main private cellars, with bottles from the 1950's, 60's, 70's, 80's, and 90's. He instructed me to go down when I was ready and to choose any four bottles I wanted. I did not know where to begin.

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KOKOTXA

Before returning to Europe for the second time, I made sure to do hours of research to find the very best restaurants to eat at. I also made a point of sending my resume with a letter asking if I could stage, work for free for a day or two, at some of the joints with Michelin Stars. After all, I am heading to the best restaurant in the world so if I am going to spend my time learning from chefs around the world, they need to be the best of the best. The big leagues some may say. Arzak was of course on my list, as well as another restaurant that I ate at with my father the first night in San Sebastian two and half years ago, Koxotxa. Although Koxotxa only has one shining star, the food is extraordinary, with a strong emphasis on traditional Basque cuisine which was a very important factor for me. The night after my wonderful experience eating at the gastronomic society, I decided it would be a good idea to dine at Kokotxa. I figured it would improve my chances on landing a stage. I remembered the meal I had with my father, but I did not realize truly how delicious the food is. From the moment I walked in the door, the smells from the kitchen penetrated my mind, making me forget about everything else in the world. The dining room was filled with couples and foursomes, which resulted in many awkward looks when they saw me sit down at a table alone, with just a notebook and my camera. I was not uncomfortable. Not the least bit. I love eating alone. It is easier to focus on the flavors, the smells, the presentations. It is just me and the food. Many people ask what I do when I eat alone, and to be honest, I think. I think about various ways to re create these masterpieces in my own kitchen. I install flavor memories into my mind, that I will later use when cooking for others. If I had a choice, I would eat alone every night of the week, other than the dinners accompanied by my family or a beautiful woman. The meal started with an amuse bouche, a homemade parmesan cracker with a basil espuma, which was as lite as air.

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It was the perfect way to start the meal in terms of flavor, however, not in execution. As soon as a few bites from the parmesan cracker, it was impossible to reach the rest of the basil espuma. Maybe if the diner does not have my stubby thick fingers it would work, but I had to give up on the mission of eating this dish, I dropped the rest of the cracker inside and asked for a fork. It just didn't work. Such a simple solution to this is just the choice of serving piece. An example of a fundamental element not performed perfectly at a Michelin Star level. With that being said, it made my taste buds wanting much more.

Shortly after devouring the amuse, I was given a salmorejo con midges cruyientes, which was the same as a delightful gazpacho with seasoned breadcrumbs. The difference of textures was perfect. I have had gazpacho many times before, and each time I felt like I was eating a bowl of salsa. This was different. It was lite. I could taste each ingredient. I was told it was thickened with bread, which is something I have not experienced before with a gazpaco. The creaminess of the gazpacho was contrasted with the seasoned breadcrumbs onto, giving a great crunch with every bite. Two very satisfying courses to start the meal.

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I had a great time listening to the other four tables conversations throughout the night. The dining room is quite small, maybe ten tables, tops. The couple to my left were clearly having marriage issues, something straight out of The Sopranos. Confused Italians. The table across from me were Australian. Hearing accents from all over the world in a small room will never get old in my book.

Carrying on...marinated tuna, sea weed frissee salad, pickled onions, wasabi crema. The flavors were on point but nothing impressive. The tuna was not cooked properly. Should have been taken off the heat a minute sooner. Presentation was striking. I am a sucker for the slate, but the wow factor was just not there. I feel I have eaten some of the best food in the world, enough to the point where I can criticize just about anything. To a normal diner, the tuna dish would be a perfectly satisfying course, nothing too heavy, not too small, no surprises. In my mind, a restaurant with a Michelin Star should always bring on the wow factor with both taste and presentation.

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The next plate was gorgeous, with out with out the needed acidity I wish was present. Seared scallop and baby squids with salsify and a spinach chlorophyll. The scallop was cooked perfectly, as well as the squid. A contrasting flavor to cut the richness of the scallop was not brought to the palate. The spinach chlorophyll ended up adding more richness springily enough.

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The next course was my favorite of the entire meal. Slow cooked egg with mandioca, idazabal cheese, and seasonal mushrooms. This dish screamed BASQUE BASQUE BASQUE. Every component represented the Basque region in its own right. The egg was yet another wonderful example of how cooking an egg at 62 degrees is the way towards perfection. The manioca, which is also known as cassava or yuka, gave a great flavor. The idazabal cheese was as good as it always is. I could eat idazabal cheese with just about anything, and it can be found almost everywhere in the Basque region.

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This cheese is another example of how each cheese has its own history, process, and strict rules and regulation. People do not realize just how much is involved with cheese. Idiazabal is a pressed cheese made from unpasturized sheep milk, which have to be from the Latxa and Carranzana sheep in the Basque Country. The cheese is all handmade, covered in a hard, dark brown, inedible rind. It is aged for a few months and decelops a nutty, buttery flavor. If aged longer, which happens to be my favorite, it becomes firm, dry, and sharp and can be used for grating. Otherwise, it is a little too soft. For all of you cheese lovers out there who may possibly care, the cheese is produced by strong enzymatic coagulation. The pressed paste can be either uncooked or semi-cooked. It can eventually be externally smoked. The milk used to produce Idiazabal must be whole unpasteurized, with a minimum of 6% fat. The milk coagulates at a temperature of 77 to 95 °F (25 to 35 °C), with the addition of natural lamb curd, resulting in a compact curdle after 30 to 45 minutes.The curdle is cut in order to obtain rice-size grains, and then reheated to 34 to 38 °C (93 to 100 °F). In the case of coagulation at higher temperatures, the reheating temperature can reach 40 to 45 °C (104 to 113 °F). The reheated and shrunken paste dehydrates and is placed in molds where it may or may not be seasoned before pressing. Salting of the cheese is performed by rubbing the rind with dry salt, or by immersing the cheese in highly salted water for 24 hours. Finally, the cheeses are aged under cold and humid conditions avoiding mold, for at least two months.

The optional smoking takes place at the end of the aging process, using woods from the beech-tree, birch-tree, cherry tree or white pine. The intensity of the smoked qualities depends upon the type of wood and length of smoking. The cheeses are usually cylindrical in shape, although they are occasionally cone- or octagonal-shaped. The rinds of artisan cheeses may be engraved with drawings or symbols characteristic of the Basque culture. The rind is closed, smoked, waxy, without mold. The unsmoked cheeses have a yellow-beige color, while smoked cheeses are brownish.

The interior is compact, without air pockets or with only pin-head size holes, and is beige or pale yellow in color. The interior of the smoked cheeses has a brownish border. The taste is strong and pronounced, slightly acidic and piquant, buttery and consistent, with a characteristic sheep milk flavor. The smoked version is somewhat drier and stronger, with a pleasant aroma, which is what was used with the slow cooked egg.

There was a large variety of seasonal mushrooms, each giving its own unique earthy notes to the table. When the egg is broken open, releasing the luscious yellow yolk which mixes with the earthy mandioca broth, everything melds together, into one uniform note that will bring a large smile to just about anyones face. I will definitely have to try and re create this one.

The following course was a little too much for me. I never found out the name of the fish that was used for the course but it was the fish of the ay with an emulsion of sea urchins with calamari rigatoni and black ali oli. The overall flavor of this course was fish. From the first bite, I knew I was not going to be a fan. The fact that my upper gum was penetrated by a thick scale left on the fish, didn't help much with the extreme fishy flavor.

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The rigatoni noodles were stuffed with a calamri mixture of some sort, the only true highlight of the plate. The presentation was nice, but thats about all. Not a course that should be served if trying to maintain possession of that shining star. The sea urchin emulsion, once again, did nothing to the overall taste of the course, the same with the spinach chlorohyll from the course earlier in the meal. I quickly, and reluctantly, ate the rest of the course.

I was excited to be done with the fish portion of the meal. Iberian pork was the next course, roasted, served with a granny smith frisee salad, and passion fruit. This course was spot on. The texture of the iberian pork did not fail to amaze me. Each bite was more delicious than the next.

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After the first time eating Iberian pork, I became a very big fan. The Black Iberian Pig, has a unique origin that can be traced back to ancient times. The bred is found in herds clustered in the central and southern territory of the Iberian Peninsula in Portugal and Spain. The most commonly accepted theory at this time is that the first pigs were brought the the Iberian Peninsula by the Phoenicians from the Eastern Mediterranean coast, Lebanon today, where they interbred with wild board. This cross gave rise to the first Iberian breed whose origins, can be traced back to about the year 1000 B.C. What is fascinating, is the Iberian breed is currently one of the few examples of a domesticated breed which has adapted to a pastoral setting where the land is particularly rich in natural resources, in this case many varieties of oak. The pig is dark in color, ranging from black to grey, with little or no hair and a lean body. Since the animal lives freely, they are constantly moving around and therefore burning more calories than other pigs, which attributes to the very unique texture and taste. The first time I was served Iberian pork, I was convinced it was not pork at all.

20111019-040741.jpg The acidic nature of the apples and the passion fruit was wonderful with the richness of the pork. There was a natural jus that was the perfect dressing for the frisee. This is a dish to remember. This is a dish that deserves a place on the menu.

It was time for dessert. My mouth, stomach, and head was ready for something sweet. What I ate next will forever change the way I feel about curry. I have never been a big fan. I can appreciate a good curry but whenever I head in the curry direction, I find myself wanting to turn back halfway through. That was not the case with this dessert. Coconut crema, lime sorbet, curry breadcrumbs. I was not sure what to think when the dish was explained. The flavors make sense, but they never came across as being a dessert in my mind. I was curious to say the least. Each component on their own was delicious, and even better when combined. I am so happy to have gotten the chance to learn this flavor combination. When people ask why I love to eat alone, why I chose to travel the world alone, searching for the best food. This is why I spend all the time searching for the best of the best. Being able to now have another flavor memory in my head, will result in me being able to replicate, as well as build off of later down the road. My form of culinary school. The Culinary Institute of America has nothing on me. The coconut crema was extremely silky, followed by a perfect lime sorbet, mixed with sweet bold curry breadcrumbs, giving a wonderful contrast in texture as well.

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The last course was a chocolate-orange biscuit with a creamy hazelnut, and citrus. The flavors were good, but again nothing too impressive. I am not sure what they meant by 'biscuit', it was more like a chocolate-orange fudge. Major improvements would have been made if there was more citrus.

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There was a great balance between fresh fruit, and then various fruit juice encapsulations, that exploded once they enter your mouth. Always a fun experience. Also, the contrasting levels of sweetness and tartness amongst the fruit was perfect, other than there not being enough to balance out the richness of the chocolate component properly.

Overall, I was impressed, disappointed, and curious to learn a few things. There were many things that I would never allow if I were running a Michelin Star restaurant. For example, after each course, the table was cleared, and the dishes were placed on a table sitting at the edge of the room. The dishes would remain on that table, which is in the middle of the room, until the next course was dropped onto the table. I do not understand for a second the logic behind this. The last thing a diner wants to do when eating in a restaurant is to eat amongst dirty dishes. Oh well, it is their way. As much as I learn how to do things while traveling the world, I learn just as much what not to do, which in my mind is just as valuable.

I arranged to speak with the chef after the meal. He sat down, eager to smoke his first cigarette of the night. I explained who I am, what I am all about, where I am heading, and he could not have been any more gracious in allowing me to stage for however long I want while in San Sebastian. I told him I would be in for the stage a few days later, 10:00 am. I was very excited. I would be able to learn the surprises I encountered, as well as teach them a thing or two...I bet they will never serve a piece of fish with a scale on it again...I guess time will tell.

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NO WOMEN ALLOWED

(Before I begin, I would like to apologize for the lack of pictures. Along with no women being allowed to enter, photographs are not permitted. I was not about to argue with old wrinkly Basque men) There was barely a sound to be heard in the empty streets of Parte Vieja, just the clip-clopping of my shoes on the cobblestones echoing against four-hundred-year-old buildings. I was drunk, tired, and quite full. In my mind, San Sebastian is the perfect city. It has everything any food lover would ever want, not to mention some of the most gorgeous mermaids in all of Spain. When I say San Sebastian has it all for food lovers, I really mean it. There is an unwavering faith in its own traditions and regional products, a near religious certainty that its got the best cuisine in Spain, a language and culture that go back, literally, to the Stone Age. Did I mention San Sebastian has more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere else in the world?

According to the locals, San Sebastian is not in Spain. It is Basque country, a famously independent area of southwest France and northern Spain, where the street signs are in Basque (lots of names with t's and x's and few vowels). I have been lucky enough to experience a very special, and old, tradition in the city, the exclusive all-male gastronomic societies. When I lived in Spain two years ago, my landlord was the head honcho at one of these societies. I was thrilled when I was invited to join the clubhouse one evening and share a wonderful traditional Basque meal with many old rusty wrinkled Basque men, with hands that resemble sand paper. I was so happy that I made a good enough impression on my landlord that he remembered me two years later, and on top of that, invited me to an exclusive dinner with all of the clubhouse members.

Nervous is not the correct word to use to describe my feelings before this dinner, after all, I had eaten in the society two years ago with my roommates. My anticipatory anxiety was in high gear. I wanted these men to like me. I wanted them to think of me as a qualified chef, heading in the right direction. This time i would be alone. I guess I was more nervous to sing and dance with plump old men than anything else. I was told to meet Jose at six o'clock in front of the society, which happens to be right next to my old apartment. I decided to bring my chef kit, which included my knives and a few other supplies that i like to have with me at all times in a culinary situation. As soon as I entered, I passed a wide, oblong-shaped dining area lined with wooden tables and benches. I then alkyd into a nice-sized, professionally equipped kitchen, crowded with these men in aprons. The men were working very diligently on various individual cooking projects, the stovetops fully occupied with simmering pots and sizzling pans, while a few onlookers drank red wine and hard cider in the dining area. I was out of my element. First, I was at least thirty or forty years younger than anyone there. Second, all these cooks were amateur- as opposed to professional- cooks. These men cooked for love, for the pure pleasure and appreciation of food. Third, was the 'all male' thing, an expression I am not used to. This expression in my experience is most often accompanied by going to a strip club, or watching Sunday football with my buddies. Never have i experienced a dining experience where females are not welcome. When I think of a night out with just the guys, I think of getting wasted, smoking herb, urinating in inappropriate places, and lots of vulgar language

I was handed a white apron, something I am very used to. The funny part was all of the aprons worn by the men were dirty. I have been trained to always keep your apron and side towel perfectly clean, since you are supposed to be a good enough chef where a mess will never occur. This is the mentality in very prestigious restaurants, with michelin stars attached. Not the case at these gastronomic societies. I started to relax, thinking how this is a truly remarkable experience, one I will sure to never forget. It was time to help prepare a typical Basque meal, with a tall glass of hard cider in one hand, a bucket of soaking bacalao (salt cod) in the other. You dry the bacalao on the towel, "like this," said Jose,demonstrating for me exactly how he wanted it done. He blotted a thick filet of cod on both sides, ready to make his move to an open burner on the crowded stovetop.

I was making bacalao al pilpil, about as old-school Basque a dish as you are likely to find. After searing the fish and setting them aside, I covered the half-cooked filets in more hot olive oil. Then, moving over to a countertop and using a thick casserole, I followed Jose's example and carefully swirled in a gentle clockwise motion until the natural albumen in the fish bound with the oil, creating a thick, cloudy emulsion. It was beautiful. At the very end, Jose spooned in some piperade, an all-purpose mixture of tomato, peppers, and onions, which gave the sauce a dark pink flecked finish, and a very inviting spicy aroma.

The next dish I was asked to help prepare was cocoches. I had eaten these many times when i lives in San Sebastian, but I never learned how to prepare them. Cocoches are salt-cured cheeks of hake, soaked in milk, then seasoned, floured, dipped in egg, and fried until crispy and golden brown. Jose walked me through the entire process, making sure I was not making any mistake in preparing such a famous dish. The last thing I wanted to do was prepare a traditional dish incorrectly. That is a death sentence in this part of the world. The wonderful part about this entire experience is everyone is drinking, a lot, all the time. Without even asking, my cider glass would be refilled, while being given another glass filled with txakaoli, a sort of greenish white wine similar to vino verde. Yes, i was expected to double fist while cooking. If I was not nervous enough to be cooking very traditional old recipes for basque men, the added pressure of drinking two different types of alcohol, at the same time, really made the sweat drip quite fast. I was starting to feel that warm buzz, an artificial sense of well-being and inflated self-image very conducive to enjoying a fine meal. In hindsight, the heavy volume of alcohol that was flowing in my body was a great way to relax, and forget about the pressure involved in this wonderful situation. My life at this moment could not be more perfect.

The drinking policy for the gastronomic societies in the city are very interesting: Drink as much as you like-on the honor system. At the end of the night, count up your bottles, fill out a ticket totaling the damage, and leave the money in an envelope sitting at the bar. Jose insisted that I did not spend a single euro in this experience, yet another example of how wonderful of a person he is. A true life long friend. I was bought to the table, since the food was almost ready, and it was time for another verity of alcohol. This time, i was given a glass of patxaram, the lethal local brandy made from berries and anise. With the bottle held about two feet over the glass, he poured a glass for both of us, a true professional. This was followed by a heavy wink, and then gave me the Basque toast of 'Osassuna!' before emptying his glass in one go. I was feeling great. I was wasted and the meal had not even started yet. I needed food in my stomach very soon or I knew I would be reunited with all of he alcohol I had already consumed. The food was incredible. The cheeks were beyond succulent. The pilpil was very sweet and subtly flavored, the piperade/oil emulsion was a nice counter point to the salt cod and much more delicate than I'd expected. All the burly men sat down at different times, however before I knew it, the tables were filled with the animated passionate men, devouring the food that was just prepared while still wearing the food-spattered aprons. There was a constant clatter and roar of conversation punctuated by explanations of 'Osassuna!'

It was very interesting to hear from many different men, at different moments, how important the Basque region is. I was told, probably ten different times how the Basque, not Columbus, had discovered America. I was told that the Basque are fisherman, and always have been, as well as always being a small country. When they found cod, they did not tell anyone about it. I was told the Basque found a lot of cod off America. I simply shook my head from side to side with a large smile, as everything was beginning to spin, clockwise at first. I began to think what everyones reaction would be if I were to puke up all this wonderful food and drink, so I decided to give up the alcohol and move on to some refreshing H2O. Dessert was simple yet perfect. Whole walnuts and quince paste. At first I was worried about making a mess, until i saw everyone throw the shells on the floor. These people know how to enjoy themselves!

I don't really remember getting back to my apartment, but I do remember the headache I had when I awoke the next morning. Nothing a cafe con leche and papas bravas couldnt fix. It was a perfect combination and a perfect breakfast. Golden brown crispy fried potatoes, covered in two sauces. One was a garlic and herb aioli, and the other a spicy chili sauce. I would always ask for a fried egg on top, to make things that much more perfect. This is how I started my morning every day when I lived in San Sebastian, and every morning this past week. One would think I would go to different restaurants to try various renditions of the papas bravas, but this is something that was not possible for me. I am in love with the restaurant I used to live above, Monpas. It is equivalent to cheating on a person if I were to go somewhere else. I was comfortable at Monpas. Everyone would take time to talk to me, to make sure I was happy with everything. The people at Monpas treated me like family. The fact that my fathers cartoons are hanging on the wall makes it that much better. Oh, and I got everyone into The Grateful Dead, which is the primary music played at Monpas. Can you say perfection?

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TIME FOR DEPARTURE

Now that you all have a better understanding of what San Sebastian is all about, I assume it makes great sense as to why I am returning, to start my European journey #2. As soon as I received the news that I was offered a stage position at Noma, I knew I would have to use my finesse to first spend some quality time in San Sebastian. It would be the absolute perfect way to get my body ready for the grueling hours I will soon experience in the number one restaurant in the world. The following post was written after being in San Sebastian for a few days... I was sitting on the second airplane ride of the day, on my way now to Bilbao. It was a whirlwind of emotions, ranging from laughter to tears. I found myself going in and out of happiness and sadness, but as soon as I arrived in the beautiful city of San Sebastian, I was confident my negative feelings would disperse. One would think after studying abroad for a semester, homesickness would not be an issue later on in life. With how incredible of a family I have, there is nothing in this world that would prevent me from missing home and my wonderful parents. I am grateful to be in a position to experience homesickness. I can not imagine what it would be like if i did not have people who love me as much as my family does. Both the letters from you guys brought upon heavy tears on the plane.

The ride to the airport was fast, roughly twenty minutes after leaving the house I was walking into ohare, ready to face the next step. A beautiful woman took care of my luggage, which is probably why she let the extra weight fly, since my charm and good looks were of course still in tact, regardless of the anxiety inside.

After touching the outside of the plane and stepping onto the plane with my right foot first for luck, I had the displeasure of walking though the first class, then business class, then upgraded coach, and then my section. The small dinkie seats people sit in when flying somewhere for a couple hours. Today, it was an 8 hour journey. I squeezed into my seat, organized my belongings, and started thinking if I should drug myself and pass out or if I should stay up and see who is going to be sharing he cubby hole with me. Next thing I know, a large man, with very thick legs pops down next to me. German fellow. Did I mention he had very thick legs? The fat on his legs was oozing its way into every nook and crany, making sure not to leave any spare room for my small body to enjoy. I unfortunately had to lean against the window the entire time or else we would be playing footsie with our arms, if there is a such thing. To make matters even worse, he had awful breath, but I offered him a mint which he thankfully accepted.

My food options were either chicken with red wine sauce, or pasta alfredo. I was skeptical to go for chicken on a plane so I decided to tackle the pasta. It is not even worth describing what that was like. Nothing to write home about, that is for sure. After my first bite I was finished. The taste reminded me of the sour bitter aftertaste present after a heavy vomit session. Luckily, Lufthansa Airlines gives free alcoholic drinks, whenever you want. I took full advantage of this to tackle the nerves inside my mind.

After landing in Bilbao, I was eager to get onto that bus and get to San Sebastian. I checked the schedule when I got to the airport, and the next bus was leaving in four minutes, and I had just gotten to the baggage claim. There was no way I was going to make it. With Plotkin luck on my side, my bag came out first, and I was off running to the bus. I made it with about twenty seconds to spare. An hour later I had arrived at what I consider my third home. Second being Maine of course.

I arrived at the apartment where I would spend only one night. I was greeted at the door by a beautiful woman, which immediately made my knees buckle. Unfortunately, her boyfriend was only a few seconds behind her, killing any excitement that was going through my mind.

The bedroom I had was perfect. Picture perfect view on the balcony of Buen Pastor, the city's famous large church. The apartment was literally right next door. Could not have been any closer. I was going to attempt to see if a loogey could reach the front step but I decided that would probably be a bad idea.

20111013-111603.jpg THIS IS A PHOTO DIRECTLY IN FRONT OF THE APARTMENT, FACING THE BEAUTIFUL BUEN PASTOR

After settling in, I went for a long walk all over the city. It was amazing how much I have forgotten in terms of how to get around. I thought I would not have any problems at all but that was quickly erased as soon as I realized I was walking in the wrong direction for a solid ten minutes. My first stop of course was Monpas. Bocadillo #6 (my favorite sandwich, which I add hard boiled egg too), and the amazing part is I didn't even have to order it. As soon as I walked in, I was asked if that is what I would like. They remembered me! I guess I made a strong impression on them during the time I was studying here. It was great to see cartoons drawn by my father, still sitting in the case on the wall, never been touched since the day they were placed there.

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After returning to the apartment, I took a couple hour nap, unexpectedly. I woke up around ten o'clock, and went into the main room to see if the people who own the place were around. They were indeed, so I shared a bottle of wine with them, exchanged some stories in spanish, listened to the Dead, and worked on building what will probably be a long term friendship. They were wonderful people, even though I was always thinking how I could possibly get rid of this boyfriend, giving me a chance with the spanish mermaid. Didn't happen. Oh well.

I woke up the next morning around 12 which I was surprised about. I had yet had a coffee since being in Europe, so that was the very first thing I did. It was just as delicious as I remember. I think it was the first time drinking hot coffee since being here. If you ask for an iced coffee they will pretend you don't exist and walk in the other direction.

I had made arrangements to meet the owner of the apartment that I would be staying at for the next three or four nights around 130. I knew it was going to be close to my old apartment but I was not exactly sure how close. I was elated to see that it was one block away! That means one block from MONPAS. After settling in and checking the place out, I went straight to Monpas for another Bocadillo #6. This one was even better than yesterday's. Perfectly grilled chicken, crusty bread, tomatoes, lettuce, garlic aioli, hard boiled eggs, mmmmm. I then went for another long walk around the city, which brought me to my ass on the beach at the end, tired from all the miles. I cannot express how amazing it is to be surrounded by old saggy boobies again on the beach. And the old men in speedos, mmmmmmm. Everyone has nipples the circumference of a kosher salami, very strange. Must be a spanish thing. Not to mention it is normal in San Sebastian for a mother to be topless on the beach, with their child's mouth attached to their nipple like a leach, sucking away for some hearty nutritious white breast nectar. Very strange sight that I will never get used to.

20111013-112458.jpg THE BEACH WAS PACKED WITH NAKED PEOPLE OF ALL SHAPES AND SIZES EVERY DAY STARTING AT 9:00AM TO 8:00PM, I GUESS THE BEACH IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN WORK IN SAN SEBASTIAN

After laying down for a little in bed, I decided it was dinner time. This is where I wish I was with someone since eating alone when feeling a little homesick is not the best time. I ended up choosing a spot in the old part of town, which is where I am sitting now writing this. Nicoise salad was the choice, as well as a few beers. I am not sure what I am going to be doing the rest of the night but I will see.

20111013-113018.jpg THERE IS NO BETTER WAY TO START THE DAY WHEN YOU HAVE A VIEW LIKE THIS TO WATCH THE SUNRISE AND SOME DELICIOUS COFFEE

I was expecting to feel better today, in terms of not having these anxiety/homesick feelings, but hopefully they will be gone tomorrow. The guy who owns the apartment I am in now is a surf instructor so I am thinking about taking a surfing lesson tomorrow.

20111013-114115.jpg I ENDED UP SURFING WHICH TURNED OUT TO BE THE BIGGEST RUSH. I STOOD UP ON MY FIRST WAVE AND RODE IT ALL THE WAY IN. CATCHING A WAVE ON ONE OF THE BEST SURFING BEACHES IN THE WORLD...CHECK!

I am also planning on going on my favorite gorgeous hike, on the mountain directly behind my old apartment, which I took my parents and sister on when they came to visit me two years ago. The hike is not too difficult, unless you have a fear of heights, since there is a generous portion where you are walking on a very narrow path, with a very healthy drop on both sides, that would instantly kill a person. This is probably why my Mom was crying in fear most of the way. I am first going to stop by my University here and say hello to some teachers, as well as pop into some restaurants and try and set up some stages. I am also going to go to Arzak and see what strings I can pull there. I made a point to send my resume and a long letter to all of the prestigious restaurants in town before leaving Chicago, hoping one will let me come work for a day and night, learning from some of the best chefs in the world. Hopefully luck will continue to be on my side, but we shall see.

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ALL OF THE PHOTOS ABOVE WERE TAKEN WHILE ON MY FAVORITE HIKE, ON THE MOUNTAIN JUST BEHIND MY OLD APARTMENT. BREATHTAKING VIEWS!

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DOWN BY THE BAY...WHERE EVERYTHING TASTES DELICIOUS

Many people have asked me why I am going back to San Sebastian, after already spending six months, nearly two and a half years ago. I guess it is a good idea to explain why I decided to live in San Sebastian in the first place... As my junior year of college approached, I knew I would have to make a tough decision as to where I wanted to study abroad. I knew I wanted to spend a semester in Europe, further discovering flavors and tastes from chefs all over the world. The only problem was deciding where to go. Paris was always in the back of my head, as being the destination of choice when it came down to it, since Paris is the city of food, and love of course. Any chef has the dream of having the opportunity to travel to Paris and eat from one side of the city to the other. The only issue was not being able to speak a single word of French besides what I picked up from Bon Appetite. I wasn’t sure if this would matter, I always thought I would pick up a translating dictionary and be able to make my way but I was soon introduced to a place in this world that I can now call my second home. I was introduced to San Sebastian, Spain, a place where food is looked at as being the most elemental in a persons life after family and religion. San Sebastian was to become the place where I would solidify my passion and love for food to the point of never considering another career choice for myself. I was close to making a decision, but it took a happy coincidence to seal the deal.

Anthony Bourdain has always been a very large influence on my culinary journey. The way he expresses himself through the art of food is absolutely incredible. He tells the reader and viewer exactly how it is, without any sugar coating whatsoever. One night while watching an episode on Spain on his show, “No Reservations”, I finally made up my mind as to where I was going to study. The ten-minute segment of Bourdain in San Sebastian changed my life forever. I learned that San Sebastian has more Michelin Stars per capita than any other city in the world, including Paris, by only one star. This is a dream statistic for any chef considering a destination to live and to work. Bourdain, a mentor and inspiration made a quote during this particular episode that ultimately secured the decision as to where I was going to study abroad.

Bourdain stated, “If I could do it all over again, If I could be given another life, I would want it to be here in San Sebastian with Arzak as my father and his daughter Elena as my sister, this place is perfect, this place is special, and there is no better place to eat in this world than here in this very city.”

Arzak is the patriarch of the restaurant by the same name that is arguably one of the finest restaurants in the world. I knew I would be eating there again before long and if I was really lucky, I would land a stage while visiting San Sebastian this time around. I have been using my persistent nature yet again, sending my resume almost every night, hoping to be granted an opportunity. I knew things would be much easier once I went to visit and showed my face to the Arzak family.

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I immediately turned off the TV after the episode finished, and signed up for the only University based study abroad program in the country that is based in San Sebastian. Friends of mine thought I was crazy to go to such a hidden gem of a place in Europe, not knowing a single soul, but I knew in my heart it was the next move for me to make in my life. One thing that I did not do that now looking back I most definitely should have, is read the details of the program. Since the program I signed up for was the only one in the country to be stationed in San Sebastian, I didn’t really care about the classes they taught, or the requirements to be successful in the classes. All I knew was I wanted to go to San Sebastian to eat and to learn as much as possible, and all of the other details would work themselves out. I guess you can say at this point it is comical what happened next, but it only made me stronger. It turns out the program I signed up for was an extensive Spanish speaking program. Every member of my group was majoring in Spanish, and of course I was the only one who was majoring in Food and Entrepreneurship. Every single person was fluent in the Spanish language, as if they have been speaking their entire lives. I found out when I got there that every class I was going to be taking was taught in Spanish, and four hours of Spanish class 5 days a week was a requirement. Freaking out is an understatement for how I felt the first few weeks, not knowing a single person, not being able to speak English to anybody, and not knowing what I was ordering in any restaurant since it appeared to me that there was not one menu in the city printed in English. All of my buddies who made the decision to study in Barcelona were presented with the luxury of restaurant menus in English, classes taught in English, local residents knowing some English, but not I. I was probably the only one in the city not capable of holding a full conversation in Spanish. I knew I was going to have to work hard to make it in this city but the only thing on my mind was the food.

After the first few weeks of being thrown into an environment completely out of my comfort zone, I started to adapt more and more each day. Speaking the language was getting easier as I continued going to my exhausting Spanish classes, where I would sit day dreaming about what I would eat for lunch and dinner. Everywhere I went there was food, and everything that could be eaten was delicious. Whether it was from a can, jar, garden, grocery store, or from a small bar, each morsel I placed into my mouth those six months were life changing. I would make a daily habit of going to a local fish restaurant, speak to the chef in my broken Spanish, pick out the fish I would like to eat for lunch which was still shaking around on the harbor, usually hake, and dive into a delicious Spanish white wine. Bless my parents for providing this extraordinary experience!! The accompaniment of Jerry Garcia in my I-pod enabled ears would turn each visit to the local fish joint into a flawless experience. I never held back from trying to communicate with people in the city. I wanted to learn from the best and I wanted to learn everything. Because of this mindset, I would always carry a dictionary around with me, sharing my music from the States in return for some recipes and dishes from the very best chefs in the world.

Not only was the food incredible but also the coffee, café con leche to be exact, would transform me into an absolute addict of the these delicate beans! The frothy milk that was placed on top of the strong brew each morning, followed by a decadent chocolate croissant turning any morning into an orgasmic experience. If I felt brave, I would follow the café con leche with what every local would then drink, kalimocho, which is 70% table red wine and 30% cola. At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of this concoction, but after the first sip I knew I would be drinking them every day. Kalimochos took the place of drinking water. Any house I would visit of locals, the first thing I would be offered would be a kalimocho. After a delicious dinner, the first thing I would be offered would be a kalimocho. Even when I got sick and had to go to a small underground doctors office, with the help of a translator of course, the doctor would ask if I have given kalimochos a shot to fix my ailment. It was part of the society, part of the culture, and now it is part of mine. I would make a habit of making a CD of my favorite Grateful Dead tunes, and share the music with every bar I went into. As time went out, I would enter bars and hear the sweat sound of Jerry’s voice simply because I took the time to develop relationships with the bartenders. Each relationship I built was special, ones that I miss every day here in the USA.

Using finesse, I turned the daunting scholastic situation that was presented to me into one that worked. After finding out I would leave the program with 12 credit hours of Spanish, I made an appeal to the director of the program that I only needed three credit hours and I was in the city to learn about food, not the language, even though it was important to do so. I was convinced I would be able to learn enough of the language from hands on speaking experience with the locals, and that is exactly what I did. I did the five day a week, four hours a day program for only six weeks and I was then able to drop Spanish. I then took some food classes and some electives and was able to concentrate all my time on the food. I was hoping I would be able to land a job in some restaurant, learning from various chefs, but yet again the language barrier was daunting. I had no expectation of ever having to know so much Spanish but it was a task I had to tackle or I would not be able to communicate with anyone at all.

Taking classes to learn about the culture of the area in Spain in which I was studying was fascinating. The Basque region is such an interesting place, filled with history that I would never have known if I did not study in the region. The Basque country, or territory, is located in south-western Europe. It historically straddles the territory of two countries, France and Spain along the Pyrenees. The Basque Country in Spain is located on the coast of the Bay of Biscay, on both slopes of the Western Pyrenees that separate Spain and France. Basque Country is the territory which is historically, ethnically, and culturally Basque. Spanish and French may call Basque Country (Pais Vasco) only to a portion of the country, not the whole nation. Nevertheless, Basques conceive their country as embracing the area of the traditional seven provinces: Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa, Araba, and Nadarroa on the Spanish side, Lapurdi, Nadarroa, and Zuberoa on the French side. The Basque people, whether they are “French” or “Spanish” rightly claim that their distinct culture preceded the Europeans by hundreds of years and in fact the Basque language does not contain any Latin roots as do most of the other romance languages of the region. The Basque culture has spawned a long term struggle to gain independence which has seen much bloodshed and turmoil spilled on both sides.

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Something that I had to deal with every day was dealing with the Basque language. When I was not speaking Spanish, I would be studying how to speak Basque since it is the language that many locals speak, and it is a language that sounds nothing like Spanish. The origin of the Basque is still very much a mystery. Some scholars think it could be related to languages from the Caucasus in modern day Russia. Others believe the language is similar to non-Arabic languages from northern Africa. It is estimated that more than 600,000 people speak Basque across the seven provinces of the region. All I know is it is a very difficult language to master especially when your head is full of sharp red wine!

One terrific experience I was able to be a part of was taking cooking classes from the famous chef, Luis Mokoroa, president of the Cofradia Vasca de Gastronomia in San Sebastian. For many years in this wonderful city, underground gastronomic societies, which are very much like fraternities, flowered. These societies are all throughout the Basque region in Spain, not just San Sebastian; however, San Sebastian has more than any other area in the Basque region of Spain. This particular gastronomic society is one of the very few that are open to sharing their customs and traditions with the public by teaching various cooking classes. I was lucky enough to be a part of this tradition and I went to the society many times a week for classes and for traditional meals. These societies are based around a communal vibe, one in which all the men gather together for special meals throughout the week, away from their daily lives. The oldest societies are strictly for men, although the more recent ones accept both men and women members. There is one rule still in force according to which women cannot cook or do the cleaning after any lunch or dinner that is prepared. The kitchen in the society is the men’s domain. Any man or woman can enter the more recent societies but only if he comes with a member of the member. A meal might be initiated by a member of the society catching a large fish whereby he would then contact the rest of the society to meet up at the secret kitchen location and everyone would bring a certain aspect of the meal and all cook together. They would then have a feast together with lots of wine and organize their next function. Some societies have stricter rules than others. Most of them choose among the members a president, a treasurer, and some more important positions. Members hold periodic meetings in which they fix the rules, so even if the rules in each society are very similar, it is possible to find some rules different or even odd in some cases.

I found this to be one of the most incredible experiences I have ever been apart of, but there were definitely times where I would find myself to be very frustrated with some of the food. The Basque people feel very strong about their traditions, and when it comes to changing a recipe, it is absolutely forbidden. Because of this, the recipes for various dishes have been the same forever, and in my opinion, some dishes could use a makeover so to speak. I like spice, and bold flavors, which the Basque people cant tolerate so I would find myself having to keep my mouth shut and go with the flow. I would have my spice later on when I would get home where my bottle of hot sauce brought from America would be waiting for me.

Being a part of such an old tradition was fascinating. Luis, the president of the society I went to, would have a hard time speaking Spanish; instead he would speak half Spanish and half Basque, which as I mentioned is a very hard language to understand. I would find myself having to constantly look up words in my dictionary and constantly asking questions but for the most part I was able to learn with my eyes. I cherish the recipes and the information I have acquired from such interesting and devoted people. I cannot wait to make it back to San Sebastian and reunite with these very special people.

The nights I was not at the gastronomic society, I would be cooking my own meals and the nights I would not cook I would eat at the local ciderias, or cider houses, around town. Another very famous tradition in the Basque region of Spain are the cider houses, where they make hard apple cider, with approximately twenty different varieties produced at each cider house. The customs and traditions at these establishments were absolutely astonishing to learn about and I am so grateful to be able to be apart of such a tremendous cultural tradition.

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In the Basque region, apples and cider have been a major part of the economy for centuries. Because of the fruits importance, there have often been laws, documents, and regulations made on apples and cider in order to preserve it in the Basque region. For centuries, anyone who damaged apples or the production of cider was forced to pay a hefty fine. The Basque region has created legislation for production of cider since the beginning of time. The main purposes were protectionism and preservation of cider as a product. One could sell their cider in other towns, but it was forbidden to bring a beverage from town to town only with intention of drinking and not selling their product. Since apples ripen in the spring, the main time of cider houses and cider sales have been March-April, exactly when I was living in Spain.

Basque farmers gather the apples during harvest season, wash them, mash them, press them, and the resulting juice is distributed in the “kupelas” or the large barrels where it rests for about two months so that fermentation can take place and the cider can be ready for the tasting. When I would go to the cider houses, I would go with a completely empty stomach. Large lines would form in front of the huge barrels and the conductor of the operation would then remove a small pin in the barrel where a steady stream of cider would flow out. Each person would fill about an inch worth of cider into their individual glasses and leave the line, making room for the next in line. It is important to drink the cider fast and to not sip on it since the flavors are lost once the cider has time to settle. The aeration that is formed from the long stream from the barrel to the glass has a lot to do with the flavor of each cider. At each cider house there are various customs that have been in place for centuries such as the menu. At most cider houses, you will find the same food being served, all on huge wooden tables without any chairs since that gives it a more “social” feel to the room. The typical menu would include: cod omelets, fried cod with green peppers, and a huge thick juicy steak that was perfectly seasoned with salt. For dessert, whole walnuts would be served with nutcrackers as well as various cheeses and quince jelly. There is only one plate to eat off of so it is a very communal experience.

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When I was not having a blast at the cider houses, I would find myself at any of the hundreds of bars in San Sebastian, eating pintxo after pintxo, which are very similar to tapas. There is a strong pintxo tradition in San Sebastian. Before drinks are poured, my mouth would be filled with two or three montaditos (a piece of bread mounded with a mayonnaise-based salad), along side an entire platter of jamon (ham).

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Juan Mari Arzak is responsible for putting San Sebastian on the culinary map. He is one of my true culinary hero’s .The way he describes the process of eating pintxos with everyone is very fitting. He states, “You have different foods, wines—there are possibilities. You stand up, you are very free. Its popular, everyone eats pintxos. You move, its fast. Its one moment and then another.”

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20111012-085842.jpg THIS IS MYSELF WITH CHEF JUAN MARI ARZAK AND HIS DAUGHTER CHEF ELENA ARZAK, A VERY SPECIAL MOMENT FOR ME, ONE I WILL NEVER FORGET

I was lucky enough to live in an apartment right on the beach, with a wonderful bar underneath that had pintxos all day and all night long ready to be devoured. Friends and I would consume vast quantities of bread draped with boquerones (little anchovies in vinegar), salt-preserved anchovies, small boiled eggs wrapped in jamon with a shrimp and olive skewered on top or the most addictive of them all are the pimientos de Gernika which are anchovies and olives threaded onto toothpicks. The peppers are small and thin, and you eat the whole skewed affair in one messy, vinegary bite.

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As time went on, as soon as I entered various bars, the bartender would automatically call to the chef to start cooking my favorite dishes and the wine would be poured right away. I felt as if I had lived there my entire life, as if they were treating me like I was one of their own. It was such a warm feeling living in San Sebastian

While I was living in Spain, I would find myself having to make very hard decisions based on what I would do with my weekends when I would not have class. I wanted to travel Europe and taste everything I could get my hands on and that is exactly what I did. For my spring break, I had a week and half off of class and I knew I wanted to do something very special with my time. My friends were traveling from city to city each day but I wanted to go to Italy and learn how to cook some dishes from Italian chefs who have been making the dishes for their entire lives, who were taught by their family heritage. I was fortunate to find a family in the hills of Tuscany that agreed for me to stay with them for a week, where I would have a room to stay and I would have cooking classes six hours a day which were taught by the two sisters of the house, the only English speakers in the family I might add.

I started my adventure in Florence where I ate my heart out. I would go into every store I could find tasting every cheese, olives, meats, vegetables, wines, vinegars, oils, etc. After a wonderful weekend in Florence, I waddled to the bus station since my stomach prevented me from walking normally from all that I had eaten.

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I had an address on a piece of paper of a town that I was supposed to go to and I did not know much more than that. I guess you can say this was a situation where I knew very little but I was in for the ride and open to anything that was about to happen. After finding my seat on a hot stuffy bus, I calmed my nerves with Jerry Garcia’s voice yet again. About an hour into the Tuscan hills out of Florence, I finally saw a small sign that said Greve. Here I was. I was supposed to meat the Grandfather at the bus stop to then take me to the farmhouse for my week excursion. I stepped off the bus in Greve, Italy and found a very large man with a head of grey holding a piece of paper that said “PLOTKIN”. I proceeded to walk up to the man and said hello, which was followed by an entire sentence in crazy fast Italian. Clearly he did not speak a word of English and I did not know a word of Italian. I then thought I was getting myself into a situation that I perhaps should not have been in. I got into his car and for the next hour and a half we drove through the hills of Tuscany without speaking a word. It could not have been a more gorgeous drive, but in the back of my head I still was not sure what I was about to get myself into. We finally arrived at a wonderful farmhouse, where the two sisters were outside waiting for my arrival. At first, I was thinking they could be young and beautiful. What a wonderful way to spend my spring break! Two middle-aged ladies indeed greeted me, each weighing well over 200 pounds with a slight mustache below each nose. At that point, I let loose and told myself this is a once in a lifetime experience and that I had to take full advantage of every second of this opportunity. The sisters spoke some English, but not very well, just enough for me to understand them. They told me they had some bad news, the other travelers who were supposed to stay the weekend cancelled so it was just the family and me.

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This wonderful family included the grandfather, the two sisters, the husband of one of the sisters, and the two daughters of one of the sisters. I was shown to my living quarters, which was a beautiful attic area with a small window looking out to the Tuscan countryside. The view took my breath away. I have seen views such as the one I had out my window in movies and in books but I never thought I would be in a situation where I would look out of my bedroom window and see what I saw. They told me to make myself at home and that is exactly what I did. I unpacked, freshened up a little and went downstairs for an early dinner. It was quite awkward at first sitting at their dinner table, just me and the family, not knowing anything about them or knowing if they would have anything to say to me. The next three hours were filled with incredible food, and way too much grappa, which was made by the grandfather in the basement cellar. I had asked him if he could show me where the cellar was and when he showed me the science lab it looked like something out of Frankenstein. But that grappa was incredible and it sure warmed up my insides. At bedtime, I was instructed to wake up at 7:30 the next morning. One of the sisters offered me a bottle of wine but I politely declined and just asked for a glass of water. I knew this next week was going to be the time of my life.

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I awoke the next morning, eager to see what was in store for me. The first thing that caught my attention was the warm smell of freshly baked biscotti in the oven. I dressed and walked downstairs where I saw the kitchen table set for three with an elaborate array of breakfast goodies including homemade bread with at least five different homemade jams, biscotti, coffee, juice, fresh fruit, fresh yogurt, and other pastries. I felt as if I had died and woken up in heaven and was being treated like royalty.

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Each morning, there was a small bulletin board with the day’s menu written with perfect handwriting. I was originally asked what I would like to learn; however, it was impossible to pin point a few dishes, so my answer was anything and everything.

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The first days menu included, pasta alla norma, Pollo alla Toscana, fagioli al fiasco, focaccia di patate, biscotti di prato, and a generous amount of vino chianti classico, which has now become my wine of choice. I was blown away with the simplicity, yet an ultimate complexity of flavors in each dish. I know this may seem to be an oxy-moron, but the quality of the ingredients were so spectacular that when just a few were cooked together, the resulting flavors combined to create flavors and textures that were simply out of this world. Each day would begin after breakfast with a four-hour cooking lesson followed by a feast with the family for lunch. Because the lunch was so large, the dinners would consist of some bread, cheese, a few vegetables, and of course plenty of wine.

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I experienced a life-altering event that week that completely took me off guard. Throughout the week, after the intense morning of cooking, I would have certain events I could choose to join for the afternoon such as visiting famous butchers, wine tastings, touring ancient cheese caves, or a stroll through the local markets. I also had the option of grabbing a fabulous book for a quiet read or taking a hike alone through the hills of Tuscany, which at the time seemed to be a great idea, yet turned out to be quite the adventure.

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After expressing my desire to walk the land around the farmhouse, both sisters insisted it was a good idea for me to go for a hike alone throughout their village. I was told everyone in the village was extremely nice, and I was able to walk through anyone’s vineyard and discover my own hiking trail as I please. If anyone saw the landscape surrounding the farmhouse, they would jump at this opportunity, and that is exactly what I did. I packed a backpack with some essentials, my journal, bottle of water, bottle of wine, some crusty bread, and a pack of smokes, and my trusty I-Pod filled with my favorite tunes. I was assured I would not need a map, since supposedly it was easy to find my way, as long as I had a good idea as to what direction I started from. I was off, free at last in the Tuscan countryside with just my thoughts and myself. At this point in my life, I can honestly say I was at my happiest. I have never felt such freedom and excitement from simply being in this beautiful area surrounded by such delicious food and warm people. I headed down the hill and through the family’s vineyard, jumped over a small creek, and across the neighbor’s vineyard. About an hour into the hike, I still had a good idea as to where I came from so I was not concerned. Sipping on the bottle of chianti, munching on the perfectly crusty bread, and listening to the words of Jerry Garcia, I was in a near perfect zone. About two hours go by and I found myself at a fork in the road. At this point, I did not know where to go so I chose left. I keep walking and when I was expecting to see one sign, a completely different sign appeared. I guess it is fair to say at this point I was lost. I had thought I knew how to retrace my steps, but when I tried to do so, I found myself in a completely new vineyard surrounded by unfamiliar features. It was difficult walking down into large valleys surrounded by vineyards since it was very difficult if not impossible to see where I came from because of the lower elevation. I tried not to panic once I accepted the fact that I was indeed lost. I searched my backpack for the name of the farmhouse and luckily I had a piece of paper with the name of the family on it. When I was a kid growing up I heard plenty of stories of my father hitchhiking across the country and in Europe that was very common in those days. I knew at this moment I had to follow in my fathers well-worn footsteps, even if he would strongly have instructed me to do otherwise. I proceeded to walk to the widest road I could find, since I was traveling on dirt paths for the most part at this time. What happened next was very fitting for my experiences thus far. I threw my thumb in the air and waited for cars to pass by. I was preying there would be someone who spoke some English who knew the name of the family I was staying with who would give me a ride back. An hour went by and not one car had passed. Another hour went by and still nothing. Being a person who has always had some degree of anxiety, I was surprised at the fact that I remained relatively calm throughout this experience. Suddenly, I saw a red truck approaching from the distance and I knew this would be my best shot at getting back. I didn’t want to risk the car passing me so I stood in the middle of the road with my hand in the air, hoping the truck would not run me over. The truck, driven by an old man with a large mountain beard stopped in front of me. When I asked if he spoke any English, his response was nothing but laughter. I then showed him the piece of paper that had the name of the family’s farmhouse on it and his response went from laughter to extreme laughter. He waved me into his truck without saying a word to me. I thought either I was going to sit on this road all day or hope that this peculiar man was actually going to take me back to the farm house. When I got into the truck he started talking to me in broken Italian, believing I could understand him. With the occasional nod of my head and smile, I had my eyes pointed out the window hoping to see the farmhouse at any moment. After twenty-five minutes in the car I began to think I was being driven to a spot where my life might end. Just as I started to lose all hope, I saw the sign, MARI FAMILY, PODERE LE ROSE.

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I have never experienced such a feeling of relief. When I showed the family some pictures of where I walked to, they again gave me a response of sudden laughter. Luckily, at that moment another bottle of chianti was being opened, and fresh bread was being taken out of the oven. My nerves subsided. I was back at the farm, ready for another night of intense food. I never managed to get the mans name who drove me back that day but I will never forget the expression on his face when he saw the name of the place I was trying to go. I never thought I would experience hitchhiking in my European adventures but I guess the best things in life come unexpectedly.

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WHERE IT ALL BEGAN (college thesis part 1)

Food is our common ground, a universal experience”– James Beard

“Good food is the basis of true happiness” -Auguste Escoffier

“Respect all food, and avoid it’s waste, because it is life itself” - Thomas Keller

“You are what you cook” Alexander Plotkin

After nearly 22 years spinning around the sun I have suddenly found myself at a point in my life where big changes are about to occur. In the matter of months, I will complete my scholastic journey; ready to embark on any challenge life throws at me. Armed with my trusted chef kit. I will soon be able to devote myself entirely to my chosen professional path, the food industry. I have tried to do the best I could up to this point to fill my chef kit with a vast array of tools, both literally and figuratively speaking, all of which have been acquired throughout my adventures around the world and in various kitchens in America. I have not limited myself to acquiring the customary culinary tools and knowledge. The essential life wisdom that is needed to sustain a level of success in the competitive, critic centric world we live in today has been a major part of my learning experience. Although what already seems to be an eternity invested in creating a strong passion for food, I recognize I have but barely scratched the surface. I hope to continue to aggressively pursue all aspects of the gastronomical world, inserting my own flare for experimentation and traditional good cooking into a scene that will leave a long-standing impression on all who experience the magic I believe I am capable of producing. There is not a day that goes by where I am not asked what has been my main inspiration or how in the world did I ever jump into the culinary field at such a young age. I have yet to come up with a simple answer to this dash of inquisitiveness. I tend to tell people that I feel it is what I am meant to be focusing my time and energy on in life, keeping my response relatively simple so the discussion can end sooner than later. I never know if the person asking will truly understand the meaning behind my passion for food; then again, I guess I would never expect anyone to, unless they share the same passion to fully understand how complex my focus on this subject truly is. As time goes on and as more culinary knowledge is acquired from the very best of the best, I am better able to see where the root of my love for food comes from.

I believe I was born with the passion that is necessary to be successful in the food industry. I believe a person who is the best at what they do were born with that skill, as if they were put on this planet to master that specific craft. Mario Batali, one of the most recognizable and successful chefs in the country has clearly expressed his feelings on this matter when he states, “Great chefs are born, not made. Its in your blood, or it’s not: the passion” (Buford 30). For this is the reason I am able to stand on my feet for 14 hours straight in a kitchen that is over 100 degrees making sure each leaf of parsley is pointed in the exact same direction, and still remain as enthusiastic about the last leaf placement as the first. It’s important to offer some background for context as to how this passion was nurtured from my earliest days.

It is fair to say I was never very happy as a young child when my parents would leave me and my two brothers and sister home even for an evening out with friends. In those days I suppose I would have fit the description as a homebody, a momma’s boy, a kid with extreme separation anxiety. I prefer to look at it as being a kid who had so much love for my parents; I didn’t want to spend any time away from them. Maybe it was a combination of the two. Through out what seemed like countless nights of tears and agony while my parents were out to dinner, or on infrequent vacations together, the one woman who was constantly by my side was our housekeeper, friend and soul mate Willie McCoy. I would often spend time in the kitchen with Willie after agonizing therapy sessions lying on a couch being evaluated by some badly dressed, pallid skinned bald man right out of central casting who seemed to have a constant itch in his left eye. These sessions were frightening in their own right. I trusted Willie throughout my growing up years. Some may consider her simply as the role of the housekeeper, the babysitter, or simply the cleaning lady. I considered Willie my second mother.

Willie worked for my family for a wonderful twenty years, from the day each of my siblings and I opened our eyes for the very first time. My parents were always there for me…in more ways then perhaps I don’t fully appreciate today, however it was the separation that caused so much unhappiness. I was raised in a loving supportive family and am blessed to have a Mom and a Grandma who are also experts in the art of cooking from scratch. My first experiences in the kitchen were surrounded by these three great women.

Willie grew up on a farm in Mississippi in the late 1930’s, during a time when racial intolerance was at a peak. She doesn’t know her exact age since she was never able to see her birth certificate. On her last birthday she said she was 72 years old. When told various struggles and hardships she has had to conquer in those 72 years, you are able to see how she is a living textbook of an ugly time that existed not too long ago in our countries history. She would describe her daily routine on the farm, which included waking up at the crack of dawn to feed the animals just before picking cotton in the fields into late afternoon, where she would proceed to butcher chickens for the family. If anyone has ever questioned what happens to a chicken when its head is cut off, asking Willie will most definitely solidify an honest answer coming from a person who experienced such a gruesome yet necessary task for days at end. It is fair to say she grew up having a lifestyle very different from anything I have ever experienced. Through the hard work on the farm over the years, Willie became an expert in the kitchen, adept at making do with basic ingredients in clever and provocative ways. Willie was responsible for cooking dinner along with her mother for the family every night. Whether it was bean soup, grits, fried chicken, chicken feet, chitlins (made from pig intestines), collared greens, pies, corn cakes, or even making a root beer float, anything that came out of the kitchen Willie was working in was sure to be a gastronomic sensation. Willie often commented that her house was always the popular place to eat, since there was authentic soul food being prepared at great excess all the time.

A culinary lesson Willie taught me a very young age is to not waste anything. Growing up on the farm, Willie and her family would use every part of every animal they would kill, utilizing as much as possible. I soon had a solid understanding of the importance for caring for the food enough where you would not want to waste any part of it, a mentality that not enough people possess, especially in America. This is a crucial mind set to have with prices for ingredients today at their highest. It is also an opportunity to discover tastes and textures that can revolutionize the way a certain animal or vegetable is prepared in all the various possibilities. Willie taught me the meaning of sustainability, of enterprise and looking ahead to better days. I owe her so much.

One of the worlds most dynamic chefs working today is Thomas Keller, who I have admired ever since I got my hands on his cookbook and read about the level of respect other incredible chefs around the world have for his abilities and world view in the kitchen. This example only solidified the importance of caring for the food and producing as little waste as possible. Keller feels it is important to build enough care for the ingredients where you would never want to waste it. In Michael Ruhlman’s memoir, The Soul of a Chef, Keller is lecturing Ruhlman on the importance of this issue, while Keller is explaining an early experience in his career when faced with the daunting task of killing and dismembering twelve small rabbits. Through this explanation of this traumatic experience for Keller, Ruhlman obtains a vivid depiction on the mindset of one of the best chefs in the world. Talking about Keller, Ruhlman explains,

“He had taught himself about respect for food and, its opposite, waste. It had been hard to kill those rabbits because life to Keller wasn’t meaningless. If their lives hadn’t meant anything, it would have been easy to kill them. He took that life, and so he wouldn’t waste it. He would not overcook this rabbit. He cared about it too much at this point. These were going to be the best rabbits ever. He was going to do everything possible, short of getting in that oven to cook with them, to make sure they were perfect. It is up to him to not waste them” (Ruhlman 289).

I have adopted this mentality after having similar experiences as Keller had in addition to the profound lessons Willie McCoy has taught me. In a way, whenever I waste food in any manner, I feel as if I am disappointing Willie, after so much time has been spent teaching me the correct path in the kitchen. After the turkey is carved on Thanksgiving, into the pot the carcass goes for turkey stock. Once the shrimp shells are peeled off, right into the pot they go to make a seafood stock for a delicious risotto. I have experienced that over time, various mentalities and the proper way of going about ones craft stick. In other words, they become second nature, making it a part of the natural routine in any kitchen.

Growing up in Chicago was an incredible advantage for me in order to further develop myself into the chef I ultimately want to be. As home to many ethnic groups Chicago offers pretty much any ingredient one would need for any type of dish, whether it is found at the large supermarkets, the small farmers markets, small ethnic stores in hard to find locations, or from a neighbors garden. When I was not cooking for my family, I would always be cooking for friends when growing up. I guess it is fair to say when a kid is asking for an autograph of Julia Child while all of his friends are asking for Michael Jordan’s autograph, that child has a true love for food. That was me. To this day, my most prized possession is my autographed picture of Julia, which reads “Happy birthday to Alex and Bon Appétit. Julia.” As soon as I read those words, my knees instantly began to buckle.

Throughout high school, especially my last few years, I would undergo a constant battle in my mind as to what I would want to do once I graduated. I was not sure if I was ready to go to culinary school so I decided the best thing for me would be to get a liberal arts degree and take it from there. Something that helped me make this decision was the first job I landed in a legitimate kitchen during my junior and senior year of High School.

I thought it would be a good idea to get in a kitchen as soon as possible to see how I liked being in the center of action at a very intense level. I went around to as many fine restaurants in my area as I could asking for an opportunity to get my hands dirty and to learn more about the industry. After many looks of confusion as to why a scrawny short young kid wants to work for free in a kitchen, I finally received the good news from the owner of a restaurant named Carlos’, which is located near my home in a northern suburb of Chicago.

Carlos’ is a four star French restaurant, one of the very best in all of Chicago and is nationally known, which is why I was beyond excited to see what it was all about. In 2007, Carlos’ was written up by the Zagat Survey as being the #1 restaurant in Chicago. No small potatoes here! The New York Times wrote a review of the restaurant, saying “One of Chicago’s best French restaurants is actually in its suburbs”. Before this experience, the extent of my cooking was done in my home, for friends and family, so this was an incredible opportunity to bring my passion to the next level. I had made an agreement with the owner, Carlos, where I would be allowed to come in every Friday after school and into the night and then all day and night every Saturday. On Fridays I ended up working from 4:00pm-1:00am the next morning and on Saturdays I would work from 11:00am to apoproximately1:20 am. Both days were long, tiring, exhilarating, and incredibly beneficial toward helping me formulate a long-term plan for going forward. The kitchen skills that I learned while working at Carlos’ are some that can only be acquired if you are on the line at a restaurant of this caliber.

I wasn’t sure what to expect going into my first day. I knew I loved to cook but I was not sure if I would be of any use in such a fine establishment at such a young age. I remember walking into the back kitchen for the first time, causing every chef to stop what he or she were doing and proceed to stare at me in utter silence. Once a few of them stopped grinning, I introduced myself to the man who appeared to be the head chef who instructed me to follow him into the cooler.

At this point, I was surprised to see that almost 75% of the chefs in this very French restaurant were all Hispanic, including the head chef. The others were older men who had the hands of well-seasoned chefs, clearly demonstrated by sand paper textured skin with burn marks running up every forearm. The cooler was everything I ever imagined it being. Everything organized in such a way that you sometimes felt wrong taking something out of its place. The head chef, Ramiro Velasquez, shoved a large case of fava beans in my direction and said this was going to be my first project. I was not prepared at the least bit for what I was about to get my hands into. Ramiro then began to show me exactly what he wanted me to do. I was supposed to take the beans out of the outer pod, and then I would take each individual bean and peel the outer waxy shell off of it before blanching them. I didn’t think it would be that bad at first; however it was a little tough to get each bean peeled in the time allotted. The result of this assignment took up the first five hours I ever worked at Carlos’. Once I was done with the first case of beans I asked the chef what was next. As another case of fava beans landed on my cutting board, I knew I would have to improve on the pace during my last five hour session.

After each bean, I would question myself, whether or not I was making the right decision trying to jump into a kitchen at such a young age, when I could instead be at one of my buddy’s house, smoking cigarettes in the backyard and sneaking out later to meet up with girlfriends. Then I would remember I didn’t smoke and didn’t have a girlfriend at least not at that point. Pushing those thoughts aside, I pushed through and was able to finish the second case in less than three hours, forgetting the fact that a third of the case probably ended up on the floor. I left the kitchen around eleven o’clock that night, having a very intense feeling in my stomach. I knew I wanted to cook. I knew I wanted to show people what I was capable of. I was not sure if I would be given that chance or just be looked at as a young neighborhood kid who is curious about the industry. Rather than leaving with confidence and a feeling of accomplishment, I left smelling like a three day old fish with my fingers dyed green from being stuck in fava bean pods for hours on end.

For the next three weeks, each Friday and Saturday that I went to work, I was charged with the responsibility of peeling fava beans and after that, more fava beans. I never thought I would be given another assignment but at that point I didn’t care. I was going to do whatever the chef asked of me, hoping it would show my dedication and passion. Within those three weeks, there were three other new chefs who came in and were assigned the same task. All three lasted no more than a week, having a lot of trouble swallowing the task of being in charge of fava beans. Looking back at it, the chefs were using fava beans as a way to weed out the ones who were not dedicated enough. It was a test, which I thankfully had passed. To this day I will not put a fava bean in my mouth but losing all desire to ever eat another fava is well worth it for what the beans allowed me to do next.

After about a month of work on the weekends, I was given more and more responsibilities. It started with having to chop, slice, chop, slice, and chop some more. After a month of work, my hands felt as if they were made out of leather, the true signs of someone who works in the kitchen. I was beginning to understand what working in a fine dining restaurant is all about. I was beginning to understand the pace at which one needs to move in order to keep orders on track. It was a world that felt comfortable to me In a crazy way it seemed that the tumult and frenzied nature of the kitchen was mysteriously appealing. Each time I went to work, I gained more and more confidence that this was exactly what I wanted to do for a career. I couldn’t wait to make further discoveries about myself through lens of my job, constantly hoping that I was making the right decision spending so much of my free time with people who didn’t speak English or people who already have children my age. Granted, there were many times when I felt I had made a huge mistake. Walking into the area off the kitchen where the chefs would change clothes and seeing one of the assistant chefs sniff a white powder substance before my very eyes knocked me back a few steps. I had never experienced something like that before. I now understand that my industry invokes the best and the worst in people. Pressure takes it’s toll and only the strong survive. At such an early age these lessons were invaluable. Yet all of the strange encounters, good and bad only fueled my passion.

One experience I will never forget, one that quickly elevated me from being a rookie to being a chef who is responsible for a significant and important task was when I had to dismember a large amount of rabbits. I had taken apart chickens before, and frenching a rack of lamb was no problem for me, but taking apart a rabbit was not something I had been prepared to do. Luckily, the fur and head of the rabbits were already removed, but it still resembled a tiny creature that had experienced a really bad day. The chef who was in charge of the meat station, Adam, was the one who instructed me on how to go about completing this task. After showing me around the bases of five example rabbits, I gave it a go and completely messed up to the point where he threw my work in the garbage. I had punctured the liver and heart, which tainted the taste of the delicate meat. I was told I had to carefully take the loins off the rib bones without puncturing any of the internal organs followed by taking the silver skin off of the loins with careful long strokes made by a razor sharp boning knife. These little guys were very small so it was quite challenging at first to get it right, not to mention I have always found rabbits to be cute, but I had to put those thoughts aside and respect the food I was working on. After a decent amount of practice, I started to get the hang of things. I also started to forget the fact that I was taking apart rabbits; instead I would encourage myself to go faster than the one before. I always felt an incredible amount of pressure to get things done quickly, since I was the young new guy, and that is exactly what I did. I was told by one of the older chefs to make a game out of it, to test myself and to prove that I am better than the previous showing. Cutting myself was never a fear, nor was the fact that I wasn’t making a cent at the time, but the head chef being disappointed was something that I would never allow to happen.

I ended up surprising most of the chefs with my abilities with my knife work, which was rewarded by even more rabbits. At this point, each time I went into work I was given a bigger responsibility, until eventually I was in charge of my own station after working there for six months. I had never thought this was going to happen, but when I was given the opportunity to be in charge of the Amuse Bouche, I ran with it and did the absolute best job I could. I liked the fact that I was the one that was in charge of the diner’s first bite, with some supervision from the head chef of course. First impressions by customers eating in a high-end restaurant are often formed in these initial moments and now they were going to be subjected to the abilities of a young chef. The pressure was all on me as to whether or not the customers were going to have a positive or negative mindset going into the heart of the meal. The pressure on me at such a young age was intoxicating.

As time went on, I was given more and more freedom as to what I could prepare. It was incredible seeing customers reactions being so positive at such a high level place. At this point, I was still not getting paid and I was most likely working an illegal amount of hours each shift for my age but I didn’t care. Money was the least of my worries at this point since I was learning such an incredible amount every day. I started getting paid after working at Carlos’ for eight months. I was thrilled that I could officially call myself a legitimate chef at one of America’s finest restaurants. It was fulfilling to track my improvements in the kitchen during this period of my on the job training.

Something that many chefs will talk about is the natural instinct a chef must have in order to stave alive in the kitchens at the pace I was working at. Bill Budord, explains the same transformation when working under Mario Batali is his memoir Heat. Buford writes,

“You also develop an expanded kitchen awareness. You’ll discover how to use your senses. You’ll find you no longer rely on what your watch says. You’ll hear when something is cooked. You’ll smell degrees of doneness”(67).

This is exactly what happened to me. At first, I was always looking at my watch; always second-guessing myself when I thought something had spent enough time in the oven. I ended up burning things being overly cautious, resulting in me forgetting about something else when having to constantly run across the kitchen to check on a pot on the burner or in the oven. As time went on, I began to smell when the onions were done sautéing, I was able to hear when the meat was ready to be turned. I was seeing before my very own eyes the transformation from being a young man with a love for food to a chef in training whose skills were continuously getting better. I worked at Carlos’ until I graduated high school, when it finally was time to focus on my next step in life, college.

The decision to attend a Big Ten university is one that I have to admit I initially regretted. I knew I was going to be in an environment where being in the kitchen the amount I would have liked was not a real possibility. Ultimately, I decided the best thing to do was take advantage of the outstanding liberal arts education I was being offered, and to focus fully on the continuation of my culinary career during the summers.

During the summer of my sophomore year, I decided to take a risk and to see how I would do if I started my own catering company. People always asked me to cook dinner parties for them, so why not make a business out of it? At this point, I had proven to myself as well as many other chefs at Carlos’ that I was capable of producing quality food that I was very proud of. I was ready to prove to myself I was able to take it to another level and give it a go with a personal endeavor, regardless if it would fail or not. That is how Epic Eats Catering began. I was a one-man show, bartending, cooking, cleaning, serving, advertising, managing, and enjoying. My first summer, I had a little shy of ten parties, ranging from six people to thirty people. Being in total control was exhilarating, and daunting at times knowing the success of the party was entirely in my hands. I would have a meeting with my client beforehand, plan a menu, go over the budget, and talk about other details that needed to be worked out. I was a little concerned with figuring out the best way to handle the business aspects of this project, but I had decided I would learn as I went along and learn from my mistakes.

During my second summer of running Epic Eats Catering, I was preparing a graduation party dinner for as many as sixty people, which was one of the most intense weeks of my life. At first, I was stubborn and did not want to hire anyone to help me. I was convinced I was able to prepare everything and serve everything myself, making as much money as possible. The fact that I was capable of earning hundreds of dollars in pure profit excited me too much to ever think about sharing that money with someone else. This was a very ignorant mindset to have. I have learned that having people to help you in cooking situations is incredibly important since the client’s happiness is of the utmost importance. I luckily had enough sense to hire a few capable friends to help with the party. Everything turned out as planned. I was averaging a $1000 per dinner party of straight profit. Not bad I thought for having never been to culinary school. Every dinner party I conducted gave me more confidence to follow my dreams to be the best chef possible.

During that same second summer of Epic Eats Catering, I had decided to take on yet another experience where I would be turned into the rookie kitchen slave for no pay, just to acquire more skills and knowledge for my toolbox. Bread has always been something that I consider to be an obsession of mine as bizarre as that may be. There is no other scent that compares with that of freshly baked bread. I wanted to focus on my baking skills and develop a better sense of what it takes to produce the very best of the best. I went around to various bakeries in my area, asking for some type of internship where I would be able to shadow the bread maker and take notes. I finally found Food Stuffs, a retail food market made up of four stores that prepared many of its own items especially bread. The owner was more then cooperative in allowing this desire of mine to become a reality. One small detail that went with the job would be a shift that started at 7:00 PM and continued to 5:00 AM the next morning, otherwise known as the graveyard shift. This was going to be a different experience. At first, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to work throughout the night for no pay, in and out of hot ovens for hours at end; however, after my first go at it, my passion for baked goods continued to expand. The first night I went into the bakery I was once again met with the familiar laughs and snide remarks from the chefs I had received in previous jobs, especially since I was working the graveyard shift. Somehow they knew I was there working without pay which made my presence all the more curious. They constantly asked me if I was crazy or if I had severe mental issues, but I continued to maintain that if you consider a love for food to be a mental issue than by all means consider me to have one. I thought I would be able to learn quickly, but seeing how the capable hands of experienced well-seasoned bakers work was something I was not prepared for. Each baker would work with the dough with a delicate manner at a rigorous yet measured pace, making sure they would be able to bang out 300 loaves of French bread before the morning pick up. Some may say learning the recipes for the various breads would be the beneficial part of this experience, but to me it was acquiring the skills of handling the dough and the final bread product with your hands that gave me the most joy. I began to understand how to work with the ingredients in a way that would produce the proper amount in the time allotted, yet I was still able to acquire the intuitive understanding of the delicate process required when introducing the ingredients together. By the end of the summer, I would barely need to use a scale to weigh out the portions. I would be able to feel the dough through my fingers and tell if there was enough water added, I was able to poke at the dough to check the elasticity to see if more kneading was required. These elegant skills was what I was after, not the money. Because of this, I am more than happy that I decided to be a bread baker in the middle of the night, almost as if I was walking into a different world, one filled with flour and yeast. I benefitted by the lectures of the importance of caring for the ingredients that went into the baked goods. The importance of the taking care of the starter for the sour dough was one of the most essential tasks in the bread kitchen. It was as if the starter was a small child that had to be protected and nurtured. The lessons I learned were priceless, and are only going to make my future food endeavors that much more successful by adding yet more essential tools to my kitchen toolbox.

The amount of fun and excitement that I was having from my own catering company was simply too great to stop at the end of that second summer. When I went back to school in the fall, both my sophomore, junior, and senior year, I would bring my business with me and make a few changes to cater to the student population. I knew I was not going to find a population of people who were willing to spend over a thousand dollars on a fancy meal prepared by a young chef, but I knew there were plenty of students who appreciated good food and had no idea as to how to prepare a first class meal on their own for friends. I also recognized that there was a lot of money wasted by well off students on nonsense and that if I could present an alternative to fast food while creating a congenial atmosphere of good eats there may be a few takers. I was convinced there would be such a significant interest by students to eat incredible homemade food for a fixed cost, while giving them the ability to entertain their own friends at a much more classy level. Although Epic Eats Catering never evolved to the level as it did in the suburbs of Chicago, I was able to make a steady profit for each catering assignment I would find. I was willing to do anything, whether it was cook for a group of sorority girls, thinking it would improve my chances with the ladies, or even cater various concerts at the local bar where my friend’s band would perform on Wednesday nights. I never anticipated I would be baking 500 mini blueberry muffins to be passed out during the concert of one of the local bands, Main Squeeze, just to “spice-up” the show, but I did. I was approached by the bands manager with the thought of creating one-bite treats that would be served during the show. I immediately started to think of what would go well with a band with the name “Maine Squeeze”. Freshly squeezed orange juice shooters were passed out at the entrance to the bar, to give the person an introduction to what was to come. Mini “Maine” blueberry muffins topped with fresh lemon curd were the favorite of the fans. The money was less then anticipated, the work was long and tedious, but overall the experience was extremely fun and very rewarding. Although I was doing such a small thing in terms of cooking, I was still following through with what I love to do which is giving people a genuine sense of excitement when they pop a bite of deliciousness into their mouths. This blueberry muffin endeavor is just one example of the expansion I was making on my passion for food, and how I wanted to express that passion with as many people as possible. It is interesting to note that in the commercial food world, muffins have made a significant comeback with retail stores opening from coast to coast selling these inexpensive and delicate treats. Maybe I’m onto something after all!

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QUESTION OF THE DAY

"In what art or science other than cooking could improvements be made that would more powerfully contribute to increase the comforts and enjoyments of mankind?"-COUNT RUMFORD 1753-1814

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