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Crazy Ones

October 5, 2011.  It’s a day that will likely be forgotten by many, yet remembered by most for years to come.  It’s a day that no matter how much we were not thinking about it, we all anticipated.  Steven Paul Jobs passed away.  We all knew, when he resigned in August 2011 as CEO of the company he co-founded and loved, the end was near.  While many are likely burnt out of the 24/7 coverage of one man’s life and his contributions to the way we think, live, and communicate, I’ve been reflecting on what his man has meant to us who knowingly, or unknowingly, use his and his company’s inventions every day.  I think beyond Steve and Apple’s core innovate soul and spirit, is a man who can clearly see very clearly, the difference between what is good and what is insanely great.  He is a man who knows no fences and walls in creating something truly beautiful and yet truly functional.  While many ride down the river of complacency for the sake of increasing shareholder value [RIM, I'm talking to you specifically], Steve was known publicly as a person who regularly browbeats his team for what everyone else would say is impossible.  And yet, through no love for him, I’m sure, his team always delivered, even if the public didn’t always embrace their products completely [insert Apple III, Lisa, the Newton, Cube, Apple printers to just list a few].  But even with these failures, there was never any submission to mediocrity.

With remarks like “You’ve baked a really lovely cake, but then you’ve used dog shit for frosting” [His comment to a NeXT programmer], it’s clear that Steve isn’t the most nurturing individual in the office.  He’s never going to win “best caring manager” in the world.  But it’s this constant knowledge that it can be better.  It has to be better.  That’s the drive that only he knows and can live by.  Many, I am sure, will say that 80% is good enough.  The other 20% is not worth the time and money to reach there.  But Steve was after the insanely great.  It was clear, that he was the crazy one of the bunch when Silicon Valley wasn’t even known as Silicon Valley.  Maybe at one point, he wanted to win the PC war.  But even he admitted, Microsoft won: “The PC wars are over. Done. Microsoft won a long time ago.”

You know, when you’re young, being foolish isn’t so foolish.  We never understood how our parents’ generation can work at the same company for 40 years only to get a gold watch at the end of the rainbow.  Steve made this comment when he was 29:  “We’re gambling on our vision, and we would rather do that than make “me too” products. Let some other companies do that. For us, it’s always the next dream.”  That dream didn’t end when he turned 30.  Or 40.  Or 50.  While many of us are happy to just have a job in 2011 [as we should], Steve was and had been dreaming of products that can be both beautiful and technological.  Of course, Steve had more money than he knew what to do with and one can argue that it’s easy to dream when you’re a billionaire.  And while that’s true, we shouldn’t compare our dreams to his.  In his famous 2005 commencement speech at Stanford, he never said that the graduates should be like him.  He never said that they ought to try and be the richest man/woman in America.  He just wanted them to dream.  To live the life they were meant to live, rather than listen to the “noise” of what society tells them they ought to do.  And that’s what made Steve so crazy.  In a time when CEO’s ought to increase shareholder value, he sunk his time and money into the Macintosh rather than milk the Apple II for as long as he could.  Instead of consolidating the core Macintosh products when he returned in the 1990s, he scrapped it all and gave us the colorful iMacs.  And instead of giving us a phone with more buttons and functions than we know what to do with it, he gave us a beautiful device with one button and an intuitive way of using our finger as the stylus.

Here’s to the crazy ones.  In this case, the crazy one.  I don’t think we should be like Steve in all the things he represented, but we can follow his lead on dreaming big for our lives.  Whatever that is.  And we ought to live our lives and not someone else’s.  While that may not be as simple as 1-2-3, it all starts with a step.  And lastly, in the words of Steve: “I think if you do something and it turns out pretty good, then you should go do something else wonderful, not dwell on it for too long. Just figure out what’s next.”

This isn’t about pho.  Well, indirectly, this entry was inspired by my recent experience with pho.  So the picture above says it all.  A bow of pho.  A plate of herbs.  Sriracha.  Wait.  Pump the brakes.  Back up to the herbs.  You see those 2 wedges of limes?  Those beautiful wedges of limes is what makes the broth sing.  Don’t get me wrong, the broth itself is already sexy.  But those limes?  They make the broth red carpet sexy.

But what I’ve noticed over the last year is that when the price of limes go up, the pho shops EVERYWHERE demote this very special ingredient to lemons.  LEMONS????  I mean, do they think I’m not paying attention here?  I recently went to a Vietnamese pho place and not only did they serve lemons instead of limes, they took away other condiments on another dish.  I mean, don’t take it out on your customers people.  It’s not our fault the limes are more expensive.  It’s not our fault you put the price of a bowl of pho at $5.  But don’t think I’m not watching.

I know some of you out there, you think I’m just being dramatic.  I mean, limes, lemons, they’re both citrus right?  It’s the same, right?  Well, it’s not.  It’s not the same.  The tartness of the lime is what accentuates the broth.  The lemons is like a bad substitute, like baking a cake with Equal.  It’s like telling yourself that the tofu cake you’re eating is really cake.  It’s like a vegan telling me that the tofu chicken I’m eating is chicken.  Well, IT AIN’T.  But that’s what so frustrating about these places.  The limes go up $0.10 a pound and we get lemons.  What are we going to get when the price of chickens go up?  Oh yea, LESS CHICKEN!!!  And what about beef?  Yea, that’s right, LESS BEEF!!!  Now you’re getting the picture.  It’s less of whatever the price is rising.  Or substitute it for something else, that’s kind of similar, but it really isn’t.  Can you imagine going to Panda Express and getting your fix of their Orange Chicken, but instead of using orange [or whatever flavoring substitute they use], they use tangerines?  But they still call it, Orange Chicken?  See, you don’t think you can tell.  But you can.  That’s the beauty of our taste buds as it interacts with our memory.  We remember.  We remember the first time we ate a great burger.  We know what that burger taste like.  You substitute that ground beef with ground turkey, no matter how much the other stuff stay the same, it’s not the same burger.  It’s just different.  And something’s just a little off.

Recently, I had the pleasure of eating at Ikko in Costa Mesa here in SoCal.  While there are many, many Japanese restaurants in the OC, few have the elegance and thoughtfulness of Ikko’s approach to sushi.  And with the company I was dining with, the only way to really enjoy a place like Ikko is to have a gastronomical approach of “letting go”.  And in the Japanese approach, letting go really means, “up to you”, or omakase.

Omakase isn’t that popular, I’m guessing, because we all know what we like, and don’t like when it comes to sushi.  In the words of Anthony Bourdain [paraphrased], “If cooking is about control – controlling the heat, timing, ingredients, etc.  Eating is about submission.”  We have a problems with the word submission.  And rightfully so.  Submitting has this undertone of weak, someone lording over you, being under someone else’s control.  But with food, in particular with eating, submission is a good thing.  Submit to what the chef/cook has done because to try and control it from the dining room is not only insulting to the chef, but also not experiencing new things.  Omakase is one of the best ways to submit ourselves.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not doing omakase at Sushi Boy, even if they offer it.  I’m doing omakase at places I trust and look forward to magical things happening.  It’s a way to relax and learn to experience new things for the next 2-3 hours.  It’s a way to experience sushi where tuna, yellow tail, and salmon [the staples of all customers ordering sushi on their own] is forgotten.  Instead, you get things like seared kobe beef [wait, is that sushi?], squid topped with squid liver, toro, and abalone.  No shoyu.  No wasabi.  Just you, your friends, and the chef.  Allow him to  serve you whatever he chooses.  The “up to you” is not only about submission, but it’s about granting trust to someone else to bring content and happiness with the meal.

Submission is not a bad thing when it comes to food.  We shouldn’t always be scared to try something new, especially when you go to a place like Ikko, where the chef knows more about fish than I ever will.  And to not use the shoyu and wasabi as a crutch where most people drown their perfectly good sushi with the stuff.  Let the chef prepare it the way it was meant to be prepared and then take that piece of sushi and put it in your mouth to savor.  And in the end, just say a simple “thank you”, or “arigato” and know that submitting can be a good thing.

Big Foods and Big Eats

While I know many people watch and enjoy Adam Richman‘s “Man V. Food” on the Travel Channel, I myself do not understand why in this country, we are obsessed with how much we can eat in a limited period of time.  The shorter the time and the more abundant the food, the more we are mesmerized by the insanity of any human being who would want them to do that to themselves.  And yet, we insist on watching a show that only enables a behavior that has put this country to its knees with obesity.  And to add insult to injury, the brilliant minds of the producers at Travel Channel decided to up the ante and create, “Man v. Food Nation”.

Now, before we all get excited about what new food Adam Richman will be jamming in his mouth, this new show is not about him gorging by himself.  The show is now recruiting people to join in this insanity.  There is a social aspect of this show that really gnaws at me.  Even though I don’t eat like Adam Richman on the show, I know I am no better than he and others who really eat too much food in general.  So, I am not saying I am a better person because I don’t watch this show or that I am a better person because I don’t partake in the gorging, because I’m not.  I am just as guilty in my waste of food, in how I take food for granted, and how I don’t think more socially about the hungry.  There’s a part of me that gets why people watch this show, but for me, I just think it’s a sad testament that millions go hungry every day and then there are shows like this, where it’s a contest to eat a 9 pound burrito in 90 minutes for what?  A picture of yourself on the Wall of Fame.  Wow.  Have our lives been reduced to this kind of insanity?  And for me, it’s a sad testament that amount of food I waste because I over bought, over estimated, and just plan forgot about.  There’s a long way for us to go in this country.  One of the ways is to think about these things more often, even if we’re thinking about them while watching this show.

Meal of a Lifetime, So Far

While we didn’t plan all that well with what could have been THE meal of a lifetime, we did have A meal of a lifetime.  So far.  I’m still holding out hope that one day, we will get to eat at the French Laundry.  For now, I am not ashamed at all to say that Cyrus, with its muscular 2 Michelin Stars to boot, is a meal I will not soon forget.  Located at Healdsburg in Sonoma County, it is about an hour drive northwest of Napa.  But that drive is so worth it.  As part of a hotel near the little downtown area, Cyrus is in a class all by itself.  If a 2 star Michelin restaurant is this good, I really can’t wait to try the French Laundry.  The 5 course [6 for me since I added a cheese course] tasting menu and the out-of-this-world candy/dessert cart basically blew our minds.  I had to abandon my rule of not taking anymore pictures of food for this meal.  Some words to describe this meal:  Exquisite.  Beautiful.  Fun.  Sublime.  I’m not going to write too much about the meal as I’ll just let the pictures speak for themselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yountville.  The West Coast mecca of 2 and 3 starred Michelin restaurants.  Our good friends Snoopy and Peppermint Patty [yes, those are their aliases, not their real names] made a push for us in calling for reservations.  Our best showing?  Wait listed for any meals while we were in the Bay Area.  In fact, we opted to stay another day longer to try and see if we can get a Friday or Saturday lunch time seating.  For 5 days, my cellphone didn’t get any calls from an area code number starting with 707.  The closest we came to dining at the French Laundry was actually visiting the restaurant, just down the road from their Bouchon bakery.  We walked around in the garden and just sat at their bench for about 10 minutes.  Taking it all in.  Looking around to see the staff coming in and out with flowers for that evening’s service.  Seeing the kitchen still buzzing and prepping for what will most likely turn out to be a busy night.

Like a giddy school girl waiting to see her own David Cassidy, I gushed when I saw Thomas Keller walk around the restaurant from the front to the kitchen.  We were across the street in the French Laundry garden, seeing the vegetables they were growing for their daily menus.  I’m sure if it wasn’t for all the hype and press around food over the last 10-15 years, we wouldn’t have even thought about who he is and what he does.  But I think we all need to admit and accept that food is becoming more crucial in how we live our lives now.  Organic versus non-organic. It all plays into where we are at with our overall health these days.  On the other end of the spectrum, we have bog food conglomerates who continue to want to have us buy crappy frozen foods laden with just the things we can’t afford to have in our diets: sodium and sugar.  So to see Thomas Keller is not just seeing another celebrity.  It’s about what he and the restaurant represents.  The highest quality both in food and service.  Yes, it’s expensive and yes, it’s a meal that many people will never get a chance to eat due to its price.  But we were close.  We were thisclose but still so far away.  Next time.  We will have to plan our whole trip around this meal.  A meal that can set the standard of all meals to come.

Renewal

It’s been 2 months to the day since my last post.  Time seem to fly with every day life, but then, time seemed to stand still because of it.  No inspiration from the drab dining experiences behind the Orange Curtain and feeling flaccid in any attempt to call upon any muse for something magical.  Then, there’s nothing better to feel a sense of renewal in prose than to be inspired by things that are beyond the everyday.  During our vacation up north, we experienced a lot.  And to be sure, it reaffirmed what I have been pontificating and standing on a soapbox about for many, many posts now.  There truly is nothing less spectacular in our eateries in South Orange County than your average chain restaurants.  Even those we do like sometimes feel overused and over visited.  And yet, we seem OK with that.  We seem OK continuing to get our bagels at Panera Bread and Corner Bakery when we should be demanding the simplest things to come down here, like Noah’s Bagels.  We should be wondering why places like Redd and Cyrus would likely get less customers and attention than a BJ’s or Islands.  But we don’t.  I guess in many ways, we’ve come to expect nothing less than mediocre from our senses as we devour another pizookie.

And yet, when we were in the Bay Area, we truly experienced some places that are magical.  More magical than Providence.  More magical than Mastros.  Places like Redd, Cyrus, Bouchon, Incanto are just a few places we let our sense of taste be released from the dreary and the mundane.  Places like Gott’s, Oxbow Market, and the 1 Ferry Building remind us of how a good public market doesn’t need to serve Baja Fresh and Panda Express.  I had to take a break from my own rule of no more taking pictures of our food during our vacation because the food we were eating were so damn good.

We were surround by great friends and family during our week there and it was those times that stick out, even more than the food we consumed.  But the food, as simple as strawberries from local farmers that tasted like candy it was so sweet, added a dimension to our vacation that we will not soon forget.  It will be tough to come back to the reality of BJ’s and Islands, but we can always draw upon our memories to  remembers that we are not prisoners of our own culinary demise.  We don’t have to settle for mediocre.  We just need to search out something better with vigor and perseverance.

I Can’t Pull The Trigger

My favorite new show.  And it’s about a topic I know very little about, other than the fact that I just can’t pull the trigger.  I can’t look through a scope of a rifle or a bow and pull the trigger/arrow to kill an animal.  It’s not because I’m a vegetarian or that I’m a member of PETA.  It’s that I know, unless it were about survival, it’s tough to shoot a breathing/living animal.  But what I now appreciate much more is that even though watching it on TV is, I must admit, an awkward and wussy way to come to grips with hunting, I get a better understanding of what one goes through.  Steven Rinella, writer, hunter, father, and husband, is one of those rare individuals who has that personality where you want to be his friend, even though he has just knived a boar in the jungle of Molokai.  He’s been hunting and fishing most of his life, so he’s quite comfortable in the wild where the sound of branches breaking would bring a bead of sweat to my forehead.  I will say that if push came to shove, I would kill an animal to survive, but here in America, I’m glad I don’t have to.

What I have much more of is respect for an animal that gave its life in helping me fill my hunger, likely hundreds miles away.  No, even after watching almost a full season of “The Wild Within”, I am not going to pretend that I would want to go toe-to-toe with a wild boar in Molokai.  Nor would I want to trek through the jagged ridges of western Texas to hunt for auodads and javelinas for a barbacoa.  BUT, I totally appreciate people like Rinella, who is not a mindless sports hunter, but a hunter who eats his own kill and who has total respect for the animal whose life he is going to take to feed not only himself, but the communities that he has taken this life.  This isn’t about mindless hunting where you kill a moose only to cut off its head as your prize and leave the rest of the animal for the vultures to come and pick at its body for days.  This is a person who is trying to tell a story.  The story that deep inside all of us men, there is a wilderness that lives inside our souls.  One where we used to hunt for meat because that’s how the circle of life has been designed.  Maybe it doesn’t ring true for all men at levels like it does for Rinella, but I get what he’s trying to say.  Even though I am not rugged, sporting an 18 gauge, awith a leathery face where matches can be lit, deep inside, I am more in tune with those who hunt not only because they enjoy it, but because it’s a way of life.  I don’t think I will soon forget the gut wrenching scene in which Rinella takes the life of a wild boar.  Not from a distance with a rifle or even bow and arrow, but with a knife.  With the boar at his feet, while stabbing its neck to try and pierce a major artery.  Quickly with as few stabs as possible so the boar isn’t suffering.  Even for someone like Rinella, to take a life with his own hands was a wake up call.  Is he the hypocrite huntsman who enjoys eating his fill of meat and yet cannot come to terms in which to get the meat?  Hunched over, breathing heavily, he looks at the camera – the soul of a man who you know had to make a split second decision to chase after that boar and wrestle it with his knife before viewers see a bloodied creek.  A man who has come to terms with the hypocrisy he does not want to live with.

This show will, no doubt, cause PETA and those who are extreme vegetarians to write emails and letters, pleading the Travel Channel to put Rinella away.  But that would miss the point of what he is trying to do.  He wants us to understand that the ribeye in front of us at Mastro’s didn’t just appear out of nowhere.  We ought to respect that animal, who gave its life at the slaughterhouse for us to enjoy the goodness of its body.  And that’s OK.  It would only be disrespectful for us to never think, for a second, of how this cow was bred to do just what it was intended to do.  To give up its life for many others.  Those of us wealthy and rich enough to pay $40 for that steak, even if it’s just once a year.  So I applaud Rinella for showing me a different perspective of hunting, one where I also had to ask some tough questions about whether or not I am OK with how the meat I gladly eat gets to our house.  It’s about a clean kill.  Rescuing that animal from suffering with one shot, rather shooting its leg and than letting it scamper away, wounded, and taking hours to finally lay to rest.  It’s about taking all the meat back and not just what you want/need.  To donate the meat you don’t need so others can enjoy what this animal has gone through. In one episode, after he and his brother find a half butchered elk in Montana, he says the hunter who killed this elk was totally and utterly disrespectful of this animal.  And that if he saw the hunter right now, he “would shoot him himself”.  Maybe half joking.  But then again, maybe not.

So when I cook now, it’s with much more precision and care to cook the meat I used to take for granted.  I’m not going to burn and char a piece of meat because I wasn’t paying attention to the heat.  And then throwing it away like it was someone’s dirty diaper.  I just can’t do that.  That cow/chicken/pig deserves much more than an absent minded cook, even a very amateur one, not being aware of heat and time.  I may not cook something magnificent each time, but I sure as hell will pay more attention in the preparation and how the meat will be cooked and served, that’s for sure.  Thanks Steven Rinella for igniting that part of my mind and soul to what’s there, in the wild within.

I Don’t Get It

Why FoodTV continues to give us crap shows, I will never know.  I’ve come to terms with my social soapbox-ish rant about Iron Chef America.  Where that entry may have come from a place of anger, I don’t know that I’ve grown that much since.  I still don’t understand why a television network named FoodTV gives us the worse food shows in this country.  Cupcake Wars, the now defunct Ace of Cakes, Triple D, Throwdown with Bobby Flay, Challenge, and over the last couple of years, the heinously bad Chopped.

The premise is simple:  Rustle up some talented chefs, dangle $10,000 in front of them and then….wait for it….give them crap to cook with and see how much of an ass they can make of themselves.  All the while, being critiqued by “renown” chefs and restauranteurs who’ve all gone into “kitchen stadium” [ICA] themselves and LOST.  And they had awesome ingredients to cook with on ICA.  Here on Chopped, it’s just the bizarre on top of bizarre.  After watching the Chopped All Stars, where master chefs such as Anita Lo and Nate Appleman go against one another, I have affirmation that Chopped is a show I just don’t get.  I don’t get why putting bizarre ingredients in front of chefs and asking them to cook in 20 minutes is good entertainment.  We don’t learn anything, we don’t want to eat the food they serve, and we certainly would never attempt to cook anything they prepare.  Why giving a chef fresh pasta sheets, dried papaya, chorizo, and bluefoot mushrooms is suppose to get my culinary juices running is beyond me.  Granted, the Chopped All Stars have a social undertone to it.  These chefs are not just competing for themselves, but they are competing for some really great charities they partner with.  I have this picture of the production offices of FoodTV, snotty MBA graduates sitting around the table saying to each other, “Let’s put raisins, pine cones, spinach, and bitter melon and see what these a-holes can create in 20 minutes”, followed by maniacal laughter.  Oh FoodTV, how low you have gone in your desperate attempt to come up with something like “The Wild Within”, “No Reservations”, and “Top Chef” that Bravo and the Travel Channel are kicking your butts in.

I wish I could “chop” this show along with 90% of all the other shows this network puts together.  There’s a reason Anthony Bourdain, after just ONE year of “A Cook’s Tour“, decided to ditch FoodTV and jump to the Travel Channel.  Emmy Awards later, I am sure he is glad he never agreed to the preposterous idea FoodTV threw at him to travel the US to find the best BBQ.  Thank goodness Anthony Bourdain gave them the all familiar suggestion rather than buckle to fame and riches, both of which he was able to achieve anyway in another channel anyway.  And my new favorite show, “The Wild Within” would never fly on FoodTV.  Why?  Because it’s actually good.  Not only that, it’s social.  It’s thought provoking television.  Even if you disagree with hunting in general, you have a better appreciation of what Steven Rinella is doing on that show.  And FoodTV?  Another cupcake show?  Another show to squeeze every last bit of Bobby Flay?

Yes, this is another angry rant.  No, I am not happy.  Who can be, with this network?  Watching Guy Fieri devour another chicken fried steak is not my idea of good television.  Let’s do some real television people.  Tune into “The Wild Within”, “No Reservations”, and “Top Chef”.  Those are the shows we ought to be watching.

Dai pai dong.  Big license plate stall of goodness and cheap eats.  Where it used to be a ubiquitous sight in Hong Kong and Kowloon, these culturally rich fabric of Hong Kong is slowly and surely dying or moving indoors.  When I think of these food stalls, I think of my childhood where we would love to get the yau tieu’s [fried Chinese donuts, although they look nothing like it and they're savory, not sweet] and congee.  Wonton noodles, rice noodles were other items we would get.

The rich history of these food stalls cannot go unnoticed.  After World War II, the Hong Kong government gave out ad hoc food licenses to injured civil servants so they can make a living.  These licenses had to be visible in public, and since they were food stalls, they were big.  Thus, the big license stalls.  Dai pai dong.  From there, the popularity and the quality of of food just took off.  But because of the amount of dai pai dongs sprouting, it was causing pedestrian and traffic congestion.  Additionally, because owners of these stalls started to “lease” their space out in the black market, the HK government no longer issued these licenses after 1956.  The licenses could no longer be inherited so if the owner passed away, it could only be transferred to their spouses.  If they didn’t have a spouse, the license would expire at the time of death of the owner.  Since 1983, the HK government, in order to promote healthier hygiene, began to buy back these licenses and push these stalls in doors in what could only be described as food courts.  Since the licenses could not be passed down, the owners were glad to be compensated in this way.  The number of dai pai dongs have drastically decreased over the years, much to the chagrin of people like myself.  Were they the safest place to eat food?  Probably not, but they certainly cranked out some of the best the city of Hong Kong had to offer.

It’s a rich food heritage that has come to a slow death in Hong Kong.  It wasn’t just a place to eat for millions of people.  It was a place where one might make their early morning stop to get a milk tea, a place where impoverished families could still go and get a decent meal for cheap.  A place where lower income couples could have their dates while whispering their sweet nothings to each other over a bowl of rice noodles.  But as most things in life, we learn to move on and change.  And while it lasted, the dai pai dong was good to the people of Hong Kong.  It became integrated in their every day lives as they provided meals for hungry souls in the city of fragrant harbor.

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