My Challenge with French Haute Cuisine

Baked Alaska image courtesy of HuffPo

My introduction to haute French cuisine was a dinner my brother and I still talk about. Our mother thought it would be a good idea to train us in fine dining starting from a young age. I was around 8 or 9 years old, my brother around 5 or 6. Because we were so little, our mother chose a venue she considered safe to bring children: a culinary academy’s restaurant.

At that time, there were two cooking schools with restaurants in San Francisco: The California Culinary Academy and The Culinary Institute of America. (We googled images and can’t recall which one it was, but it was one or the other.) The dining room was set up like a proper restaurant with crisp white table cloths and appropriate place settings. The servers wore tuxedos and treated my brother and I like adults. We somehow made it through seven courses cooked by the school’s chefs in training — which were six too many for my brother and I.

Through the dinner, talking and giggling were kept to a minimum by our mother shooting us her ‘act up and you will be in big trouble when we get home‘ death stare. While most of my questions and comments were kept to myself, I couldn’t control my expressions as the server lowered the large white plates with unfamiliar foods. Which made my brother break out in uncontrollable giggle fits.

Neither of us remember what we exactly ate, we clearly recall the food just wasn’t good. The hors-d’œuvres were greasy, salty and weird. The salad was over dressed. One of the courses was an over cooked lamb with a meat smell so strong, it was like a bag was put over my head and I was forced to take in the lamb aroma from my eyes, ears, nose and pores.

The one highlight of the dinner was how we were introduced to Baked Alaska, extremely popular in the 90’s and as it turns out, with children as well. I can still see our server brûlée the meringue table side, lighting the entire dessert on fire. Since that dinner, my brother and I begged our parents to take us anywhere they served Baked Alaska.

Our mother was livid after the dinner. She was mainly upset my brother and I didn’t even try to enjoy the food, made inappropriate comments about everything and ungrateful through the meal. She didn’t talk to us for several days… which still makes my brother and I laugh so much.

But because of that dinner, we both prefer cuisine that isn’t French. I still have difficulties enjoying lamb.

I bring this up only because I am sitting on sharing a recent dinner in Tokyo at… you guessed it. A French restaurant and felt the need to preface perhaps an unfavorable bias with French cuisine.

Stay tuned.

Sidenote: when did Baked Alaska lose its popularity? I can’t remember the last time I saw it on a menu.

My Mom’s Perfect Instant Ramen

I was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area long before the Asian invasion. At school kids made fun of me for eating ‘gross’ sushi. My mom packed bentos which was super weird. Rice? Who eats that? Me. That’s who. I remember feeling sorry for myself for being born to immigrant parents. Why was I forced to speak Japanese? Why did we have to take shoes off at home? Why couldn’t we eat fish sticks for dinner every night? Oh woe is me.

As tragic as my life seemed, my mother had her own struggles with food too.

Our family was fortunate to arrive to California (from Canada, where my brother and I were born) when the Japanese economy was booming. There were many Japanese companies head quartered in San Francisco and the Silicon Valley and a robust Japanese community.

Lucky for us the Japanese culture is very food-centric. Because groups of very important people from Japan were forced to live abroad to head international branches, foods and ingredients from Japan were quickly exported and made available for purchase. There was even a tofu man who moved to California, built a mini tofu factory and distributed fresh handmade tofu on a truck.

Despite our good fortune living in an area and time where almost all basic ingredients needed for Japanese home cooking (including fruits and vegetables) were accessible, my mother would endlessly complain. What is wrong with this daikon Japanese radish – why is it bent like this? The skin on these nasu eggplants are too tough. Why can’t we get yuzu here? What is wrong with the quality of [beef, chicken or pork]. The fish sold here smell. Why are they not fresh? Why aren’t there more choices for [konbu, katsuobushi, niboshi, sake, mirin, vinegar, soy sauce, miso, salt, insert whatever condiments and seasoning]. On and on the complaints would continue, every day, when grocery shopping. I immediately learned to tune her out and just nod my head in agreement.

My mother was a pretty smart person and an incredible cook (her older sister, my favorite aunt, was the best — she was the one who taught me to cook but that’s a story for another day). And even if most of the foods and ingredients were so terrible they are insulting she said, as the resourceful person she was, found clever ways to hack recipes to transform these bastardized foods and ingredients into sufficiently palatable dishes. Looking back, she was indeed, pretty amazing. 

One of the most memorable is her modified instant ramen. There are hundreds possibly thousands of delicious instant or semi instant noodles in Japan. Back in our time, the availability was limited, especially abroad. Since our decent ramen options were extremely few, my mom had no choice but to use what was available, and here is her recipe.

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How to Tell if Your Sommelier Knows Wine

I’m honest when I dine out. It took me some time to get here. I was raised in the era when the food revolution was just starting in America and growing up, I have vivid memories of my mother constantly reminding me that most American restaurant staff cannot be trusted. So much so, my mother would research before going to a restaurant. Those days, the internet was non-existent (late 80’s, early 90’s) and she made me call restaurants to have them fax menus and wine lists before we made reservations. Looking back I wonder what those fine dining establishments thought of a child with an obvious kid voice, calling to request menus.

In my mid 20’s, I was dining out more and more without her and by this time, the internet was the norm. Out of habit, I would look up menus, specials and wine lists online. One day I got tired of all the effort and made the leap of faith to start trusting restaurant staff.  It changed my life. Ordering was now fun instead of stressing out if my choices and recommendations were good enough. Thanks mom. Perhaps my positive experiences are because I ask one or two preliminary questions to show I’m not a novice diner but most restaurants — especially fine dining establishments — employ staff that pick up on unspoken cues (manners, etiquette, body language, etc.).

Wine, though, is a different story. There are hundreds and thousands of wine flavor profiles and wine is such a personal choice. For modern diners, wine has become such an integral part of meals, picking and choosing while dining with important people causes anxiety. Frankly, I’m not that knowledgable and my wine knowledge was built through what my mother taught me, years of dining out and dating men from various parts of the world. It’s true what they say by the way, the French really know their wines. 

Repeating mistakes, I’ve picked up key words to communicate to the sommelier my preferences. “I love heavier reds and prefer French and Italian over California reds. Malbec, Côtes du Rhône, Syrahs, Barolo, Barbaresco are my safe reds. Côte-Rôtie, Léoville-Las Cases and Tignanello are some of my favorites.” And even then, I’ve had more misses than hits when it comes to wine.

The simple solution here, is for me to learn wine but I can not be bothered — there is still so much more I want to learn about food. So imagine my delight when I stumbled onto this piece: “10 Ways to Tell if Your Sommelier Really Knows Wine”

Here are some several of my favorite points:

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NYC to Tokyo

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Photo by me via Insta. I think this is somewhere around Greenwich Village (near the West Village, where I lived for years)

 

In June of 2013 I moved from NYC to Tokyo. It’s pretty hard to leave a city like New York. New York City is a very special place. There’s a vibrance just walking down the street. It’s packed with people from all over the globe, focused. Driven. Rushing. It seems like everyone has a purpose, a goal. The colossal skyscrapers, the culture, the subcultures, the food, everything about New York is a daily reminder of how insignificant I am to this world. I always want to do more. See more. Be more.

In April of 2013, I visited Tokyo for 10 days. It was the first time in six years, I stepped back into Japan. I was captivated. Continue reading

Washington D.C.

It’s cherry blossom time in good ‘ole Washington D.C., the capital of the US. The photos as well as the election talk brings me right back to when I was living there, as well as an extremely memorable encounter…


Union Station, Washington D.C.
Union Station, Washington D.C.

We pop open the fourth bottle of house Prosecco at house pricing but the quality doesn’t matter right now: we are happy. The presidential debate is on the big screen and every time one of the candidates speaks the keyword we swig. I am at my favorite bar in Washington D.C., one of the most surprisingly liberal cities in the U.S. I think the trigger word to drink is tax cuts or education? Maybe healthcare I can’t remember — the same words are constantly repeated once every four years. I don’t miss American politics at all.

I’m listening to know-it-alls shout back at the TV. Political peanut galleries are so passionate, as if the candidates and America can hear them. Nothing new is spoken. I am bored.

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Hello Again

IMG_2133Let’s look for the champagne with strawberries for you he says in his soft, calming voice. I look back at him and smile with appreciation, as I was still a bit bummed my first glass didn’t have a strawberry or cherry blossom petals. We are seeing each other for the first time in almost a year. I am bit relieved he remains the sweet, soft spoken charming guy I adore.

The last week of March is the best time to be in Japan. It is when the cherry blossoms come alive for their short lived annual bloom. The city just keeps getting prettier as the cherry blossom buds open, bursting with pink and white. You can’t help but look up and around while walking the city. It is a special time in Japan and the air seems warmer, the sky more blue and everyone is just… happy. Positive energy really is, contagious. I can’t get enough of spring in Japan.

There are several parks and sight seeing spots in Tokyo where the full glory of cherry blossoms are on display. Nakameguro is my favorite. Not because it is within walking distance of my home, but because the cherry blossoms lining the canals are unlike any of the other parks. The cherry blossoms grow closer in proximity to ground level and even if there are hoards of people, there are enough pockets and grooves along the canals to escape. There is also plenty of space around the canals to take photos, as the canals stretch for miles. There probably isn’t a place where one could take a ‘bad’ photo, unlike a lot of the other parks, where there are only one or two scenes everyone takes pictures of. And of course, the street food at Nakameguro is the best.

I really had a good time this trip he says, as he jets off to his next destination. See? Never farewell.

My Ex’s Out of Control Adobo and Kinilaw

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Padada City, Mindanao, Philippines

You should’ve had my baby.

What a way to start a conversation.

Last week an ex almost gave me a heart attack with that text. But he is constantly inconsistent and full of surprises which is why he is, and will always remain, my favorite ex. He is not the first guy I dated but the first who stole my heart.

The year was 2007. May of 2007 to be exact. I was splitting time between NY and LA and visiting the SF Bay Area where I was raised. As soon as I landed, several girlfriends dragged me to “Two Dollar Tuesdays” at a local club. We walk in, grab our drinks and take over the dance floor like we always do at clubs. A group of guys try dancing with us, like most groups of guys at clubs do. A birthday was being celebrated and I end up dancing with the birthday boy.

Out of the corner of my eye I spot him.

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