Sunday, November 6, 2011

Special Guests

Nights like tonight are why I am in this business. I'm certain of it. For the first time, since I've been a cook at L'Etoile, I had the opportunity to cook for great friends of mine. For so long I come into work, and cook my ass off for people I don't know, can't see, will never talk to, and who don't know me or how much the kitchen crew cares about their dining experience. It's refreshing to cook for people you actually know, and will give you feed back and who are familiar with the sacrifices that are made to put food in front of them. Tonight, Mary (Friend from High School, UW Volleyball Player) and all of her family came in for her Mom's birthday. It was a very personal experience for me even though we were in different rooms and I couldn't even speak to them.

My excitement started to build on Tuesday when Mary told me she had made a reservation. Immediately I went to the reservations department at the restaurant to inform them that the 8 30 5 top were special guests of mine and informed them of the birthday celebration so that special menus could be printed saying "Happy Birthday Mama O!" Then the anticipation built over the week. I knew Saturday would be busy, but I wanted to make sure that everyone at the table had a wonderful meal, and that I was able to personally cook for all of them.

Saturday came and as I pushed through prep to get set up I was even more excited. My plates going into the window looked as good as ever, and my seasoning and speed were about as good as I can ask for. Surely, 8 30 came around, and I asked the expediter to let me know when the 8 30 5 top was seated. Around 8 45, a server came back into the kitchen and told me they were here. I immediately pulled a note out of my pocket and asked her to give it to them. It was just a little happy birthday wish, and I wanted them to know I was aware they were here. Soon enough their orders came in. I was ready. I'd spent all week getting ready for this moment. I was cooking for other tables at the same time. They ordered first courses, then it was time to cook their midcourses. They ordered two delacata squash dishes, two escargot with orechiette pasta dishes, and a risotto. I wanted to do something extra for them so I started a cranberry bean dish to send out for the table to share.

In a ten minute window, for five guests, heres the play by play. First I took the pre roasted delacata squash and warm it in the oven. Fire two orders of agnolotti. Sweat ginger in olive oil. Sautee brunois veg with garlic, olive oil and butter. Heat Lemon brown butter with a little bit of chiffonade sage. Add chicken stock and par cooked rice to the ginger for the risotto, heat up cranberry beans and chiffonade kale with pork demi and butter. Fire a sausage patty. Fire a duck egg. Add red wine to the garlic mirepoix mix... reduce. Pull the agnolotti and put into the brown butter. Gently heat and toast the agnolotti. add rock shrimp to cooking risotto. SEASON EVERYTHING TASTE EVERYTHING. Fire plates.... hot food on a cold plate becomes cold food way too fast. Fire orechiette pasta. Add chicken stock and over dried tomato to wine, garlic sauce. heat up shrimp curry broth in a sautee pan. Pull delacata squash. Pull duck egg. Mount risotto with butter and cheese and herbs. SEASON EVERYTHING TASTE EVERYTHING. Plate delacata squash. Top with agnolotti and spoon brown butter around. Top with popcorn garnish with grape must and pancetta shards. sell plates. pull the orechiette and toss with the sauce add nicoise olives, snails, herbs. Plate the risotto. Spoon risotto into the center of a bowl. Spoon curry broth around. Garnish with toasted coconut, cilantro oil, lime zest, sell. Plate snails, garnish with cheese. sell. Cut duck egg with ring mold, season with sea salt, pepper, herbs. place on top of brioche toast. Spoon beans onto plate. place sausage patty on plate. Quenelle cranberry mostarda. Place duck egg on toast, plate. Spoon pork demi sauce around plate. sell. Phew, and in this window I'm starting new dishes for new tickets. On three burners.

I got to go out into the dining room after service, and talk to the Ording family. They were finishing up dessert. I came to their table, hugged everyone and thanked them all for coming. We talked about what everyone ordered, and they gushed about the food they had. They thanked me for the wonderful meal. Then Mrs. Ording asked me when I would be done. I asked her what time it was, and she said about 11. I told her I'd be done around midnight. Then Mr O asked me what time I had come in. I told him about 12 30. They all looked shocked. Such a long day (didnt seem so to me). Such hard work (Again didn't seem so to me). They said, it must be so hard. I told them it was a labor of love. And I wasnt joking. I love the food I get to cook every day. I love the people I work with. And on a few nights when the stars align... (like tonight) I love the people I get to cook for.

Days like today make busting ass making tiny perfect kuri squash agnolotti for the delacata dish seem that much more worthwhile. It felt great, because over the past three months every single guest that I have cooked for has been at the restaurant... because they want L'Etoile's food. They want the service. And they want the experience. And thats great, I'm proud of the kitchen I work in and the food I put out. But as a faceless cook, every once in a while, to have five guests come to the restaurant who say "We want to celebrate, enjoy each other's company, eat some great food, and ... oh yeah, that kid Mikey in the kitchen, we kinda like him and we want him to cook for us" feels really great.

In a perfect world... I would open a restaurant where I only cooked for friends... then again, I don't have many of them. So business would probably suck.


Monday, October 17, 2011

Going Ham

It's weeks like this that make me extremely glad that I am a professional cook, and that I was lucky enough to be able to return to Madison and work at such a bomb restaurant with such great people. Rarely am I this upbeat at this time on a Sunday, due to the hopelessness that has developed over the last six weeks with the Colts. But I am coming off an awesome week at work, I just wokeup from a nap, am no longer hungover, and I can still feel remnants of acorn fed whey finished mangalitsa hog fat on my fingertips.

We lost an awesome cook, sous chef Mike, this weekend. He will be missed greatly, but just like the Colts would say... next man up. Good luck Mike. Come back and visit!

On Friday we were packed and there were only 4 line cooks. No middle men helping out either Garde Mo (apps) (where I work) or the Entree line. I hoped for the best but expected the worst. But honestly, everything went really freaking well. Plates were looking as good as ever, and not once did anyone but myself or my partner set foot on our stations to help us plate. We killed it.

Earlier that day we had a delivery of six massive beautiful hogs from a farm called uplands dairy. This farm raises dairy cows and makes some exceptional cheeses (Pleasant Ridge Reserve: winner of best cheese in America according to the American Dairy Association). We partnered with them, and now they raise a small amount of Mangalitsa Hogs (a heritage breed of pig known for its amazing fat content) that are raised on a natural diet of acorns (the original pig feed) and they are finished on whey from the cheese making process at the farm. The acorns give the pork a wonderful nuttiness and the whey gives it just that much more creamy unctuous fat and marbling.

The pigs came in during prep Friday and Ryan spent most of the day breaking down what he could. After service he called me over, pointed to an entire side of pork, and handed me a saw and a knife: as if to say "have at it kiddo". I cut a bunch of thick ass rib chops from the side, smiling ear to ear the entire time, and eventually made my way back over to my station to finish cleaning up. (If you ever see anyone smiling and taking as much enjoyment out of sawing through bones as I was on Friday night... RUN)

Saturday we had a full crew, and a full dining room. A sort of "hit us with your best shot" attitude towards the reservations department was definitely exhibited by all. I knocked out prep, pushing myself to not need any help from Toby (working as middle man between Hot and Cold Apps last night). I was set up on time. Before our first ticket comes in I was in the walk in grabbing limes and Mayhew walks in... "They're looking for you downstairs, they need you to make bearnaise". My heart stopped. Turns out a couple had requested an off the menu lobster dish a week ago and Chef wanted me to make the bearnaise he was going to serve with it. I haven't made bearnaise in over a year and a half. Sure techniques are simple, but I had to make a perfect bearnaise sauce at 5 o'clock right before I am about to get blitzed with tickets, have it sit for 3 hours and not break, and finish setting up my line. I was nervous. I could feel it was a test of sorts. Chef stood over my shoulder the entire time and told me stories of learning to make bearnaise from Andre Soltner, and gave me little tips as to how to ensure the emulsion wouldn't break. He was talking out loud to the rest of the kitchen trying to figure out how much to charge for the off the menu lobster dish and was running through numbers and reasons why he should charge what he did and I piped in as I was whisking clarified butter into my egg yolk emulsion, "You have to pay me, who paid 60 grand to learn how to fuck up your bearnaise chef."

The final result was a success. Chef tasted it, told me to add a touch more chopped tarragon and a bit of truffle oil and to give the sauce to Mike. But he added, "If it breaks during service, I'm gonna be pissed."

Service was a blur. Five dishes on three burners. 4 of them being multiple pan pickups. Walk-ins kept being announced during our biggest pushes... it was insanity, full blast. Rocking out dish after dish after dish. 4 top after an 8 top after a 6 top. But food was moving out faster than the front of house could keep up with. Servers would run into the kitchen, pick up plates and I'd hear ,"table 601, soup seat 1, delacata seat 2, cranberry seat 3, risotto seat 4". Ten minutes later, "compliments from 601." I swell with pride, but dont get caught up... because if I stop to blink, the entire ship goes down on a night like this.

Its after 10 o clock. I put up a risotto in the window, look over at my ticket board after selling the ticket... empty. 5 hours of constant sprint... 5 hours of back and forth banter between me and my partner. 5 hours of "I need another fucking duck egg this one broke". Without a doubt my best five hours as a line cook to this point in my short career. Oh yeah, and mid service I heard Tory call to Mike, "Check that fucking bearnaise, did it break?" I keep my head down... cook. I listen for a second... "No chef." Relief.

Thats how things are going these days. I look back at the cook I was two months ago... hell, even a month ago. I have gotten so much better its astonishing. I sucked ass a month ago. But now I can successfully work my station, keep up with tickets, put out food on time that I am proud of, and not look like a complete fucking jackass in the process. Every day my apron is a little bit cleaner after service. Every day my plates look a little bit tighter in the window. I am nowhere near where i want to be, but the strides I am making are encouraging. I might just be okay in the long run. We'll see.

The kitchen family I have developed over the last few months has really been great. I look down the line and I know that if I am going down in flames on my station... or if I need anything. There will be four sets of hands ready to rock out whatever I need. And I know that if someone needs anything from me, it is my duty to go above and beyond to help them out. There is a competitive vibe here like in all kitchens, but it only underlies the senses of trust and cooperation that are definitely more helpful in a kitchen.

Mopping the floor, I walk past Toby and Ryan who are talking something over. "Mikey," Ryan stops me "158". Toby immediately smiles and reaches over to fist bump me. Holy shit, my biggest night ever. we've done 145 maybe once or twice. 158 covers... 0 food sent back to the kitchen from any station. Its nights like last night where I know I made the right choices.

Sunday morning. 4 hours of sleep. Hungover. And I'm walking in to work... scimitar ready to go. I've got a hot date with some piggies.

The staff came in for a pig party. Pork-a-palooza. We broke down the rest of the pigs. I cured 6 bellies of bacon, three bellies of pancetta, cleaned hams for brining, cut chops, cleaned tenderloins, boned out shoulders, butterflied bellies for porchetta, and cured guanciale. FUNNNNN! We'll have pork for months and months and months. It makes me that much more pumped to come in to work... were serving one more thing that I'm absolutely in love with. I cant wait.

I'm sore. I'm tired. I'm hungover quite a bit. My arms are covered in burns and scrapes. My hands are blistered. I'm happier than I've been in a while though, god dammit. Now if only the colts could put together a win or two.


Photos from Pork-a-Palooza

About 10 percent of the pork trim accumulated from the pork. SAUSAGE!

New Restaurant concept. Pork Chops as fat as your head.

The single greatest pork chop I've ever seen.

Butterflying a belly for Porchetta!

Toby Cutting Chops.

Chops in Brine.

Trotters to be on the menu soon! Fergus Henderson doesn't even use trotters from pork this amazing!


Photo Credits to Brigitte Fouch

Monday, September 12, 2011


I'm back on the line. And I'm getting into a rhythm. I'm beginning to pick up momentum. Everyday is a push. But I'm getting better, all the time.

I just need to remember to relax, because if I get too stressed, it will show up on the plates.

One little blurb from this past Friday night puts everything in perspective. I was working cold side, we were pretty busy, but everything was going smoothly. Myself and the rest of the cooks were pushing out bomb food. Chef Tory was working the pass, so everyone was on edge. We don't want to disappoint him.

Sous Chef Mike's parents were in for dinner, and I was putting up a tomato plate for their table. The tomato plate is basically several different heirloom tomatoes sliced to order, seasoned with sea salt and black pepper, garnished with pickled red onion, sliced mousemelons (they look like grape sized watermelons, but taste like sour cucumbers), crispy bread shards, torn basil, warm olive oil poached wild cherry tomatoes, and is garnished table side with a bit of sarvecchio foam (sarvecchio is a wisconsin made parmesan cheese). Its a great dish, simple clean flavors. Tory calls me to the pass, says the plate needs a little bit more sliced mousemelon. I walk back to my station, quickly slice a few more, hand them to him and as I do, he laughs and says, "Can you believe we do this? We slice fucking mousemelons for a living!" and he handed me more tickets. I turned my back to him and faced my rail and shouted back, "Just livin' the dream chef!" with a smile on my face. Thing was, I wasn't kidding. Neither was he.

Most people who I grew up with are currently studying things like medicine, accounting, journalism, law... all things that seem very practical in the real world. I come in to work every day and get paid to do things like make fresh pasta; clean and cook lobster mushrooms (wild mushrooms that are bright orange like cooked lobster and have the texture of lobster claw meat when cooked); dice watermelon, remove all the seeds, and compress it with kim chi liquid, soy, sesame oil, korean chili, and fish sauce; I brine and confit beef tongue, then slice it and dredge it in egg whites and a mixture of rice flour and corn starch. It's not a normal profession by any means, but I'm not a normal person. Far from it.


Thursday, September 1, 2011

Same Old Same Old

People in the food service industry tend to think of restaurants themselves as living, breathing creatures. Tony Bourdain said of his former restaurant, Les Halles, "One day she can be a well oiled machine, and the next she can turn into a cruel, nine headed hydra."

The majority of the faces in the L'Etoile kitchen may have changed since my departure in October, but the restaurant herself, shes pretty much the same animal. A few small things have changed, like the fact that cooks currently have an hour less prep time, and that all of the dry goods are about as far as they could possibly be from my station, but the dynamic of the restaurant is still the same. I walk in about a half an hour or thirty minutes early every day, and Ryan, still sous chef, immediately starts his playful jabs of, "Mikey hurry the fuck up you're in the fucking weeds!" I smile and return a half assed, "Yes Chef." And he comes over and says, "This isn't a fucking joke Mikey, move faster you're fucked." He smiles the whole time. I look at my prep list for the day. I'm basically completely set up except for the daily tasks of herb prep, fresh pasta making, and maybe a few more tasks like cleaning scallops, cleaning corn, making a batch of corn chowder, or confiting beef tongue. We've got 50 on the books, its a Wednesday. I'm not in the weeds, but I have to push myself like I am everyday if I'm going to survive weekends, or get moved up the line.

Then Mike, other current sous chef, (fun fact. I trained Mike on garde manger when he started at L'Etoile) will shout something at me in German along the lines of, "Mikey schneller zu bewegen!" which I think means move faster.

I'm no longer Mikey the Intern, no longer Mikey the Prep Cook, no longer Mikey the slow night cold side cook, I'm Mikey the full time hot side cook. That means instead of busting my ass prepping salads, cheese plates, and other cold appetizers, I'm working a much more manageable prep schedule and getting my ass kicked nightly on the hot line. I really have no "station" as it would be defined. I have a small cart that can hold a hotel pan of Mise en Place, but doesn't have nearly enough room for all of the prep for my four dishes. I have four burners, an oven, a salamander. I don't have a board to plate on. I can fit about 4 plates on the edge of my range, but thats it, and during a push, when tickets are coming in and I've got 5 tables fired, and 13 or fourteen plates to put out in a 5 minute window... shit gets rough. not to mention that the majority of my dishes require multiple pans and multiple burners. Of my four burners, one of them is completely occupied by a small cast iron grill pan that I use to grill scallops for the corn chowder. that means I effectively have three burners at my disposal. The beef tongue dish alone requires three small sautee pans. One to sautee ginger and garlic and then toss in the orange soy glaze that us the sauce for the beef. Another is used to heat up green beans with chicken stock and butter, and another is used to sautee a crescent of sushi rice. The Confit beef tongue gets fried on meat station and passed down the line when I call for it. Then the beef gets tossed in the glaze, add sliced scallion, plate the sushi rice, plate the beans, top them with the orange beef, then drizzle sauce... top with micros, which I have to pull from cold side because I have no room for them in my mise en place. The Chowder requires the grill for scallops; a small sautee pan to sautee fresh chorizo, sweet corn and chive in butter; and a small sauce pot to heat up a ladel of corn chowder which gets put in a small teapot and poured table side. The Gnudi dish really only needs one pan. A sautee pan to heat up sauteed lobster mushrooms with butter, lavender, chicken stock, then I drop the gnudi in a pasta pot that is located (thank god) on Fish station's range. This dish is all about perfect execution. The sauce for the Gnudies (a goat cheese dumpling) is really only an emulsion of butter and chicken stock. It will separate if it sits too long. It will separate if the quantities of stock and butter aren't perfect. It will separate if the plates are too warm or too cold. Sometimes it will just separate because God hates me. The minestrone dish is the easiest and least stressful dish... but I sold just one tonight. And I spent about an hour prepping the stuff for that dish, all of which has to be done DAILY. And I sold one. Everything else was thrown out or will be used for comida. I'm beginning to think God really does hate me.

Monday was my first day running an entire station by myself. Noone was watching my back, telling me what to do second by second. It was rough. I got my ass kicked. Tuesday I worked a shift on cold side, then today I came back to hot. It's amazing how much more confident I have become working those three godforsaken burners. We did more covers than Monday today, and in a shorter amount of time. A ten top and a nine top came into the kitchen at the same time, and I successfully put out 4 chowders and a gnudi and a beef tongue followed by four more chowders and another gnudi in about a five minute window... which is miraculous if you had seen the kind of shit I was pulling on Monday.

Thursday is my day off this week, and I am gonna spend it sharpening my knives, doing laundry, and maybe buying Madden for myself if I'm feeling like I deserve a treat.

Friday and Saturday... I'm personally terrified. I want it to go well... I really do. But there's only so much I can control. I can't control spacing of reservations, or what people order, or how busy cold side is, or how well my partner calls my tickets. All I can do is come in with a fucking plan. Bang out my prep, and get set up as well as possible. Then It's up to me to do my god damn best to roll with the punches, work with what I have, and make sure that every plate I put up is worthy to be served to a guest at L'Etoile, the best restaurant in Wisconsin, and one of the best restaurants in the Midwest. Hopefully she'll be kind to me this weekend... but you never know with L'Etoile. She's an unpredictable bitch.



Thursday, August 11, 2011

Muscle Memory

Its been seven weeks since I left New York. I have eaten some bomb food, been to some awesome places, and there have been major developments in my future plans. So now, I will attempt to give somewhat of an abridged version of my summer. Because in about a week, I become a working stiff... for good, and summers will never be the same.

I visited chicago several times, on job hunting expeditions, and managed to eat at Hot Doug's (BEST RESTAURANT EVER), the Publican (THE OTHER BEST RESTAURANT EVER) and a few other awesome places. I went to Cape Cod where I ate my weight in Oysters. I played with my dog, read a few books, and enjoyed my summer thoroughly. But my time has come, it was time to go back to where it all started.

On Sunday I took a trip up to Madison. I visited with Ed, who readers of this blog would know as fish cook Ed, then he became sous chef ED. Now Ed is moving to NY to work at Per Se, Thomas Keller's New York Restaurant, arguably the best restaurant in the country. I am extremely happy for Ed, he worked his ass off at L'Etoile, and deserves this job. Plus, knowing someone at the best restaurant in New York can't be a bad thing. My visit to Madison had several intentions, to see Ed and wish him well before his journey out east, and to swing by L'Etoile, and ask if they would have me back. And I am very happy to say that I will be in the dairyland again very soon. As soon as I can find an apartment.

The one thing that I was taught in Madison last summer that has stuck with me more than anything else is the idea of muscle memory. Constant repetition of the same task will in time make it effortless. That is my goal for my future time at L'Etoile. I want to get better at everything I do. I want to peel potatoes faster, I want to be able to bang out a double batch of agnolotti in no time flat. I want to be able to case and link 80 pounds of sausage in record time while not bursting one damn sausage. Everyday I step out of that kitchen I want to be a cleaner, faster, smarter cook than I was when I walked in that morning. I want to effortlessly glide through fully booked Saturday night service, putting out plate after plate that I can be proud of. I want to be able to break down a whole pig, then set up my line, push through 140 covers, then get ridiculously drunk and do it all again the next day. I want to work so hard for so long that moving at breakneck speed becomes second nature.

I will be working a lot of hard hours for a quite a while now folks. I'm not a kid any more, at least not on paper. Forgive me if I seem distant, or if I'm hard to get a hold of, or if when we do talk I seem like I don't care. Fact of the matter is my life will be whatever kitchen I find myself in, and it will not be easy. There might not be holidays, there certainly wont be vacations, and there probably wont be a whole lot of sleep in my future. I've got a lot of shit I want to accomplish, and not a lot of time to do it. To quote the great Childish Gambino, "My work is my play time, I need you to understand and to stay fine." I am a cook now, first and foremost, and will be for the rest of my life.

I will try and keep this updated as often as possible, but I cannot make any promises. I will be working on two or three personal projects on top of my full time job at L'Etoile, and might not be able to keep up with this for extended periods of time.

I can't promise much, but what I can promise is that I am doing this because as sick as it sounds, it makes me happy. Its the only thing I could ever do. And in the long run, these next few years will turn out to be the most important in my development as a cook and as a person

I may be done with school, ladies and gents, but my education is just about to begin. And personally, I'm fucking stoked.



Saturday, June 18, 2011

Here's a Toast

I am officially a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. While I wasn't a speaker at the graduation ceremony, here's what I would have said if I had been given the chance.

I came to the CIA to learn from the best, along side the best. I was not disappointed. Two years ago I set out for the strange world of Hyde Park. I met some awesome people, and learned tons of shit. I learned the basics, and on extern I learned the restaurant lifestyle, but most importantly I learned a shit ton about the kind of cook I am and the kind of cook I want to become. I worked with so many amazing people. We're all so young, but I can already say that a lot of them have amazing careers in front of them.

People like Taylor and Eli will work their asses off in kitchens for years and years until they find themselves at the top. Eli will be one of those New Orleans greats, or maybe even a ridiculously successful corporate guy like his Dad. Taylor will be one of the last of the old guard. A cook first and a chef second. He'll be fifty years old, still at the pass, jumping on the line to bail some young apprentice out of the weeds. Jon will work in lots of awesome restaurants and will "fuck shit up" every where he goes "cuz he aint no bitch, chef." All joking aside, the kid will do great things wherever he goes. Zach will use his connections to travel all over the world and learn tons of amazing shit and come back somewhere and piece it all together to do some incredible food. Jared will cook with all his fucking heart and soul, and be extremely happy and extremely successful. Nate will go back to Seattle, and be a main proponent in Pacific Northwest cuisine, (in my opinion one of the best regions in the country.)
A few people will work in the best kitchens in the world, and use their experiences to push modern cuisine to its limits. I wouldn't be surprised if there were at least a couple Michelin Star candidates among them. Jenny will be a bat shit crazy cook and kick tons of peoples asses on every line she will work. Jeff will always work ridiculously hard, and always play twenty times harder. The names could go on and on. The point I'm trying to make is that everyone will go on to do great and completely different things. I hope that everyone will live up to their potential, but some will fizzle and burn out. Some will choose a life with more financial security or more time for family, and that's okay. Do what you have to do to make yourself happy. People's goals and interests change. Life's about improvisation, and adaptation. A cook would know that better than anyone.

I'd like to take a second to thank a few people. First, the CIA chefs who have played such a large part in my education. To Chef LeRoux, who taught me to focus on the little details, because when the techniques are simple, every little step shows in the final product. I'd like to thank Chef Averbeck. He was the first person who I had ever seen almost brought to tears because of an improperly cased sausage. I'd like to thank the people at career services for helping me find L'Etoile. I'd like to thank Raimundo Gaby for making me think, dream, and actually believe I can pull something off.

The people I met here gave me something I never had before. I never had someone to talk to or relate to when it came to food or cooking. I had never had an informed discussion on the differences between heritage breeds of pigs, I had never almost gotten in a fist fight over whether or not cajun boudin was better than an LA taco, and I had never been able to sit back with a beer in hand and tell war stories from different kitchens I had worked in. Here's to you, my first friends in food. It's been a pleasure.

Whether you need a butcher, a drinking buddy, or a shoulder to lean on... You know where to find me.

Cheers, It's been real.


Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Victory Lap

Memorial Day weekend means one thing to everyone who has ever lived in Indianapolis. The Indianapolis 500 has been called the single greatest sporting event on the planet. While I may not exactly agree with this statement, I do believe that experiencing the Indy 500 first hand is something that every single sports fan must do at some point in their lives. I have had the pleasure of attending three 500 races in my life.

The first time I was about ten years old. Just my dad and I went, and I saw it as an excuse to hang out with my dad, knock back a few IBC root beers (I thought I was a bad ass because they looked like beer bottles), and watch machines moving at high speeds crash into each other. I was young, my enthusiasm faded not too long after Stephen Tyler made up his own lyrics to the National Anthem, “AND THE HOME… OF THE… INDIANAPOLIS 500!” I managed to stick around for 100 laps, and we made it home in time for my dad to catch the last twenty laps on the radio.

The Next time I went to the 500 was two years ago, the summer after my senior year of high school. VIP tickets and a police escort into the race didn't discourage my friends and I from sneaking a cooler of goodies into the stands. The race itself was fairly unimpressive, and I drew Danica Patrick’s car in our group’s gambling pool, so I was forced to mask my chauvinism and pure hatred for Danica and not cheer when she crashed out of the race.

My last 500 was my favorite. The day after I got home from New York and three weeks before I moved to Madison, my friends and I rolled up to the coke lots around 9 AM. I was there to celebrate finishing a year of culinary school, kick off a three week summer vacation, see some of my high school friends for the first time all year, and make a damn fool out of myself just like 90 percent of the clowns that attend the race annually. It was a success. I enjoyed Bacon sandwiches that I had packed in a lunch box, burned in the hot sun, and shotgunned beers outside at tailgate parties and shouted “AMURRRRRICAAAAA” at the top of my lungs every time I did. It was without a doubt one of the most fun days of my life. Its very difficult to catch much of the race from the infield. But it was nonetheless fantastic.

But this year the Indianapolis 500 took on special significance. For the first time in my life I watched the entire race in its entirety, live on TV. It’s one of the things that gives me a strong sense of home. I watched the race full blast in my dorm, with my window open. As I listened to the roar of the engines, I envisioned myself in my driveway, 12 years old, shooting hoops, with the loud buzzing of the engines miles away ringing in my ears. I pictured my dog chained to the tree next to the driveway. I smelled smoke from the charcoal grill in the back yard. Nostalgia to the max. I can't remember the last time I missed my house, or Indiana in general more.

Im currently sitting on the train on my way back from a long exciting day in New York City. It hit me that this could very well be my last trip to the city for quite some time. So when Mary, my friend from home who lives in Madison, and her sister had to go to an engagement party, I decided to go on my own personal victory lap of NYC. It was a mix of the tastes that I loved the most, and the stuff I needed to try before I left.
I started off with dinner at ABC Kitchen. I walked in without a reservation, took a seat at the bar and immediately placed my order. I got a house made sausage with a spicy warm potato salad with mustard vinaigrette and pickled jalapeños, followed by a wood oven pizza topped with ricotta, wild mushrooms, parmesan, oregano, and a runny soft cooked egg. Both were really good.

I ran down past Union Square to the Lower East Side to Ssam Bar, where I picked up the obligatory pork belly steam bun that I had been craving ever since watching Kung Fu Panda 2 on Friday. I walked across the street to the new Milk Bar, grabbed a piece of crack pie, and chased it down with a cup of cereal milk soft serve. I could go back to Hyde Park now, satisfied.

You know, I’ve completed the requirements necessary. In less than three weeks I’ll be a graduate of one of, if not the most prestigious culinary school in the world. All that stands in my way is 12 days of serving tables. Twelve days of flambéing crepes Suzette tableside, chilling with the friends I’ve made here over the last 2 years. Two more weekends packed with a shit load of nothing to do. One graduation, one bittersweet goodbye to the guys I’ve cooked alongside for the better part of two years, and one twelve hour drive are all that’s left. And by 3 o clock, on Sunday the 19th of June, I should be pulling into that gravel driveway for the first time in six months. And one of my oldest friends will be at the back door, tail wagging ferociously, waiting to greet me with a drenching of slobber. In less then three weeks time, I’ll be Back Home Again in Indiana, Jim Nabors style.

Lets all just pray I don’t pull a JR Hildebrand and smash in to the proverbial wall.


Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Another uneventful weekend has passed in Hyde Park, NY... at least on the surface. My activities included laying in bed, watching movies, getting a hair cut, mooching off of friends for food, and spending a lot... a lot of time watching highlight videos of one of my personal idols and heroes. Inside my head, a whirlwind of emotions (happiness, sadness, frustration, and incredible excitement) kept me occupied for the two days I had off.

Man United won the title this weekend. They are officially the greatest club in English football history. I celebrated their victory, this weekend. 19 English top flight titles in the club's century plus of existence. It was incredible to watch a side labeled as the worst United side in years pull off an incredible season and win the English Premier League title by a whopping 8 points. They're an exciting team to watch, with tons of extremely talented young players, with an undoubtedly bright future... but thinking about how the season is pretty much over, this season in particular, makes me get a slight lump in my throat. The moment that I have been dreading for years has finally come. Arguably the most influential athlete in my life has played his final match at Old Trafford. I will only get to watch him play one more time, this Saturday, in the Champion's League Final against Barcelona. Edwin Van Der Sar, in my opinion, the greatest goalkeeper to play the game, will hang up his gloves on Saturday... never to play again.

I remember when I was twelve, While I was in goalkeeper training for the first time with a man who I consider to be like a second father to me, I knew very little about soccer. I was not a very good goalkeeper. I was young, cocky, big, and fearless; the characteristics required from a young keeper. But I had no technical skill. I had been playing exclusively as a goalie for about 2 years, and was introduced to a new trainer by a team mate. Mike was his name.

Mike turned me from a chubby little kid who played goalie because he thought it was cool, and he didn't have to run, into a monster. I was one of the best in the state just a year after I started training with Mike. He would pull me into his office and we'd watch film of goalkeepers. The guy who caught my eye most was Edwin Van Der Sar. He played like I played. He was slightly unathletic, not incredibly quick, but he had incredible technique. He instantly became my favorite player, but was not a member of my favorite team... Man United. In 2005 though, that changed. He was signed at the Age of 34. in 6 years he has won 4 titles, a champions league (one more on Saturday hopefully) and a myriad of other trophies. Incredible.

After five years of watching, idolizing, and emulating the guy, and after my playing career was over, I had an opportunity to take a day off work, drive to Chicago from Wisconsin, and just watch a training session. I got to sit and watch Edwin at work, live in person. I was giddy. Then came one of the best moments of my life. He came to the side of the stadium where I was sitting. I trampled a few people to get up to the front row. I actually got to shake the hand of the greatest goalkeeper of all time. I shook the hand that kept out Anelka's penalty in Moscow. I shook the hand that had influenced so much of my 8 year long career of goalkeeping. It had all come full circle.

As I graduate in three weeks' time, I really don't have a plan. I'm kind of like the kid I was 8 years ago. I have a passion, then it was goalkeeping, now its meat. I am inexperienced, but I want to do great things. I'm willing to dedicate my entire life to meat, as I dedicated all of my life back then to soccer. I just need a little instruction, from a guy like Mike, and I need a role model, a guy like Edwin Van Der Sar; someone for me to observe to help me set my goals, develop my techniques, and someone to inspire me to reach my full potential.

Thanks again Edwin, You'll be missed.

Saturday's gonna suck, hopefully a Man United win will brighten up a day when World Football loses one of it's greatest players.


Saturday, May 21, 2011

3 and a half weeks... but who's counting.

When I was filling out my paperwork before even coming to the CIA the date June 17th 2011 meant almost nothing to me. It was over two years away. And it was, at that point, to be only a half way mark of my time here in beautiful Hyde Park, NY. But for the past few months, the date June 17th has been a beacon of hope, and at the same time a stress compounding reminder that in less than a month, I need to be working. It is soon... oh so soon.

Three more dinner services in the E Room are all that separate me from three weeks of smooth sailing. To say that I am slowly going insane here is an understatement. This monotonous routine that I have built up goes a little something like this. Wake up at noon.Lay in bed until it's time to get ready for class. Get to the kitchen at 1 15 to help check in the food order. Lecture for an hour. Clean lettuce. Fry capers. Make crostini. Roast/clean/slice/cut beets. Eat a few bites of a shitty family meal. Take out garbage. Pre-service bathroom break. Slice foie, plate salads, for three hours. Hurry and try and clean the damn kitchen as fast as possible so I can go back to my room, shower, and try and get something to eat. Hang out and drink beer until three in the morning. Go back to my room. Screw around on the internet. Fall asleep around 4 or 5. Repeat.

I got to make a big batch of pate yesterday which was a plus, but other than that I'm not really having fun or learning a ton in Escoffier. I spent the better part of the summer running a similar station at L'Etoile. I had three more dishes there, each more complex than the ones I have here, and I was on my own. At school I have a partner... Taylor, who makes the days even more interesting with his never ending sass.

I am ready to move on to my next challenge. A new adventure. I'm over school. Hopefully I'll be able to get a job soon, but I can understand why people would be hesitant to hire a kid who wants to be a butcher, but the only thing worthwhile he's got on a resume is five months of charcuterie experience at a restaurant in Wisconsin. If by June seventeenth I do not have a job offer, I have a plan. I'll go home to Indiana for a week or two, then go to Chicago for a few days, live on my sister's floor, and roam around the city, with my knives, a resume, and a pep in my step. Hopefully they'll see things then that they can't possibly see on a paper resume. They'll see that I am bat shit crazy for all things pork. They'll see that I can learn quickly, and they'll see that I will do anything for an opportunity to spend my days elbow deep in pig.


Monday, May 9, 2011

Breaking Bread

My days at the Culinary Institute of America are coming to an end. I am in my last kitchen class, the legendary Escoffier Kitchen, and have only six weeks until I will find myself out on my own, in the real world.

We don't really talk about it much, but my friends and I all realize that most likely, in six weeks, we're all headed to different parts of the country, and I don't really know if or when I'll see any of these guys again. But we're approaching it in a positive light. Let's enjoy our time together while we can, make these last few weeks memorable. That means buying way more beer, spending more time together, and eating really damn well. Over the last month or so we've developed a sort of a Sunday tradition. Every Sunday, five or so of us drive to a grocery store, and each one of us buys food to cook. Each person cooks their dish when we get back, and we eat pretty much continuously for five or six hours. The life of a cook is rough.

As we all hang in the kitchen talk shit, cook, taste, and prep for hours on end. Five or six cooks cooking, and another four or five people sitting at bar stools watching us prep, and joining in the conversations. A few people who were too cheap to buy food try and get their hands in on the cooking, but they are pushed away quickly, they can eat, sure... but leave the cooking to the people with the ideas. Over the past month or so, its amazing how each person's style of food is so evident in each of our dishes. We share a bit of ourselves with eachother when we cook together.

First there's Filch, or Zach as he is elsewhere known. He's cheap, so the most exciting thing he'll cook is a bacon egg and cheese, then he'll slide away to play video games while the rest of us cook some more... but somehow he'll sense when more food is ready, and will appear out of nowhere... expecting to be fed.

Then there's Jon. My roommate, who is gone every other weekend working at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. When he is here, he is all too eager to utilize techniques he has learned in his time at Blue Hill (along with ingredients he has taken from the restaurant) to wow us with simplicity paired with awesome skill and even better ingredients. Last weekend, Jon brought back some Red Fife Brioche, and we made fresh ricotta using only milk and buttermilk and a little sea salt. And served it with a pickled ramp mustard. It was too good for words. Washed down with a 60 dollar bottle of Veuve Cliquot that we sabered out back, breath taking.

Jared is my little Filipino pork brother. Jared grew up in Sacramento and cooks the food he ate growing up. Pacific Islands cuisine with a hint of Asian flair. The kid cooks from his heart. And I love every thing he's ever fed me. Last week, he made a chicken Katsu. We boned out and skinned chicken thighs, rendered the skin, pounded out the thighs, panko breaded them then fried them in the rendered chicken fat. Served with a little sweet and sour sauce, hacked into strips with my new cleaver, and sprinkled with sea salt. My mouth was burning, but it was one of those "hurt so good moments." This week Jared made Pork adobo. An incredible Filipino dish consisting of Pork Butt, cubed and simmered in water, soy, salt, pepper, and bay leaf until just tender. Served on top of rice, it is unbelievable.

Then there's Nate Wong. The guy is so intense about his food. He comes up with an idea, and regardless of the difficulties, he goes for it. He cooks with an incredible amount of finesse, and puts things together that shouldn't work together... but they do. Today nate bought tofu... the very sound of the word makes my skin crawl. He bought a shit ton of marrow bones. He bought Ginger, Jalapenos, carrots, and some beef neck bones. He roasted the bones, took out the marrow, then proceeded to make a really fucking strong brown stock in about 4 hours. He threw in some dried mushrooms that gave it an amazing depth. He fried the Tofu in my leftover Lard (more on that later) topped it with a little bit of bone marrow, and a relish of jalapeno and ginger, served with his amazing beef reduction sauce. It was so strange, so labor intensive, and so out there... but it all worked.

Taylor cooks the classics. He's all about old school french preparation. He'll cook the shit out of a potato gratin. Beef Wellington. The stuff that we all come to culinary school to master. He does is really damn well. He's all about rich, flavorful sauces and braises. But he rarely cooks with us, because he's usually out cold whenever we're cooking. The guy sleeps more than anyone I've ever met.

Last of all there's me. I cook pretty simple, straight up food, that tastes really good but will make your fucking heart stop. Three weeks ago I made Pierogies by hand. Loaded them with potatoes whipped with a shit house of butter and an entire container of Widmers' brick cheese spread (The shit I fell in love with in Madison) cooked them in tons of butter, with kielbasa. On the side I slowly cooked sauerkraut with smoked ham hocks, then shredded the hocks and put them back in the kraut. Mrs. T's aint got shit on me. Last week I made a massive, delicious meatloaf... simple, but satisfying. Then today, I took it to a whole new level. I wanted to do butter poached potatoes, crisped and served with chorizo and eggs and cheese. I bought these awesome little baby golden potatoes, some chorizo, eggs, queso blanco, but as I looked at butter, I noticed that a pound of Snow Cap Lard is half the price of a pound of butter. And I, being the frugal bastard I am, opted for two pounds of Lard instead of butter and my dish took shape.

I slowly Confited the potatoes in the lard, until they were fully cooked, then I cut them in half, and crisped them up in a pan with more lard and also crisped up some chorizo in... more lard. In a pan I made a bed of potatoes and cracked a dozen eggs sporaticly over the top. I gently heated the pan over a burner to cook the whites that had dripped to the bottom, so that when I popped the whole thing under the broiler the only thing I would need to do is just set the yolks of the eggs and melt the cheese. As the eggs cooked, I basted them with... yes... more hot lard. The finished dish was a rich, salty spicy concoction. A symposium of crisp potatoes, spicy chorizo, runny yolk, gooey cheese, all scented and moistened by the lard, and kissed with a generous finishing of Cholula. It was a hit.

These are the days I'll miss most with the friends I've made here. These are the days when I feel most blessed for being able to live the life I live, doing what I love on a daily basis, with people just as crazy about food as I am. And as I head out into the world in just a few short weeks, very few things are certain. I don't now where I'll be working, where I'll be sleeping, or how I'll be paying off my student loans and eating regular meals. But one thing's certain... I'll be working with food, alongside people who are passionate about it just like me. I really can't ask for more than that.


Saturday, April 23, 2011


The Central Park I am currently sitting in is one completely different from the one I found myself in less than a week ago. I'm in the city visiting a friend from high school, and while he sits in meetings, I decided to take a step outside into the crisp, rainy morning. I walked twenty blocks from the times square hotel where he is staying to a little salumi shop on the upper west side called salumeria rosi. After admiring the display case chock full of beautiful imported pork products for several minutes, I dicided on a bit of parmacotto, a steamed parma ham, and a few slices of arista, a roast pork loin.

I walked a few blocks east to central park and wandered through the empty trails, until I found the perfect spot. Under a shelter overlooking a pond I sat myself and got ready to enjoy my snack. Few people would call a half pound of pork and a block of focaccia the size of my face a snack, but we've already established the fact that I'm not exactly normal.

The rain is coming down, there's a gentle breeze blowing errant drops against my face. The taller buildings are covered in a thick fog, making the city seem a little less intimidating and a little more like home. Cigar smoke from a gentleman on the bench across from me is strangely calming, and the only sounds distracting me from my salumi are the chirping of birds and the sound of rain gently falling. Although my generosity in giving a few small sparrows a nibble of focaccia has escaladed quickly into a "if you give a mouse a cookie" scenario, and bigger, more territorial birds are now stalking my bench, I am at peace.

It's moments like these when you take a little time to enjoy the little things, that life seems so much simpler and so much easier. Take a walk in the park, sit outside and enjoy a really good ham sandwich, you'll be amazed at how happy it can make you. Life is beautiful, folks... Just take a little time to enjoy it.


Monday, April 18, 2011


Today was one of those days where everything just seemed to click. And when at the beginning of the week I was stressed and unsure of what to do, a weekend with family and a conversation with one of the people I look up to most in the world made me realize what is important to me, and what I need to do to get where I want to go.

My Dad and sister flew out from the midwest on Friday night and took the train from Grand Central to Poughkeepsie. I met them there and took them to lunch at Rossi's deli. We all enjoyed massive sandwiches. Then we went back to campus, and I showed everyone around. We took a tour of the building and the kitchens. They got to meet my boss in the CE department. My sister had never set foot on the CIA campus, and my dad had never really experienced it on this kind of a scale. I'm glad they got to see a bit of what I go through on a daily basis, and meet a few of my friends. I took advantage of my Dad's willingness to take me shopping, and picked up some new clothes, along with Chef Kowalski's Charcuterie book.

Sunday came and we went to NYC to hang out before my family had to jumo on a plane and head back home. We got pork buns in Chinatown. My dad is a sucker for dim sum and I couldn't let him leave NY without trying some baked pork buns. He loved them, I loved them. We went to Central Park (I'd never been before) and basked in the sunshine. I used leftover porkbun to bait sparrows into attacking Anna. She has a weird bird phobia I'm sure is induced by the Alfred Hitchcock movie. Then came the special meal.

We got a late lunch at Bar Boulud. A mecca for charcuterie lovers such as myself, Bar Boulud has been on my go to list for months and until now, I had never made it. The charcuterie platter was a great way to start. It satisfied my need for pork, aspic, and old school french delicacies. There was a classic pate grandmere with pork and chicken liver. The creamy slightly livery spread was just what I expected. The next was a terrine of braised beef cheeks packed in aspic. So much gelatin, it was a beautiful terrine. The rabbit terrine stole the show. It was pulled rabbed layered with celery and carrots, (almost an "ode to bugs bunny" in a way) and packed in a crystal clear aspic. A beautiful saucisson sec was also on the platter, along with several slices of sweet, slightly smokey parisian ham.

I was slightly worried Anna would embarrass me. Her slight aversion to pork products in general makes me really question her realtion to me. She was set on a croque madame, a cheesy ham sandwich topped with a fried egg. Either she was going to do the unthinkable and ask for the sandwich without ham, or she was going to pick the ham off at the table, severing the sandwich's integrity entirely. But, to my amazement and hers, she ordered the sandwich with the ham, and ate damn near every bite, saying that she even liked the ham. She said that the sandwich was part of her dream meal, and that she would crave one every time she was hung over. Its shit like this that gets me. I love introducing people to new things, putting things people wouldn't normally eat and saying "trust me".

A few times in my life, not many, I have ordered something, expecting something great, and when it arrived and I took a bite it blew anything I had expected out of the water. Such was the Boudin Blanc at Bar Boulud. I ordered it expecting a solid, fatty, juicy pork sausage over simple, buttery mashed potatoes. Even when the dish was placed in front of me, A shallow bowl with a perfectly formed white sausage, lightly browned on one side, served on the most decadent, truffly potatoes with chives, and a pork jus, I expected something completely different. I put my knife to the sausage, expecting to need to use some force to break through the casing. To my surprise, my knife immediately slid through the entire sausage with ease. There was no casing, but the sausage was perfectly formed, and the meat was incredibly light. I took a first bite, the light, smooth, creamy pork sausage was like nothing I'd ever had. I took another bite and let the creamy forcemeat dissolve all over my palate, while the truffle in the potato brought such a deep earthiness. The perfect bite. I laughed for about a minute, with my mouth full. There was such incredible skill behind this sausage, absolute genius. To get the sausage to have that texture, to achieve that perfect shape, and to somehow manage to either produce it without a casing, to remove it without damaging the integrity of the sausage took a magnificently skilled, and wonderfully creative person... I thought as I laughed and smiled, "I want to be this good." I want to be able to make meat magical.

I said goodbye and headed back to Poughkeepsie. Later this evening I was contacted via facebook from one of the cooks at L'Etoile. My friend Ed. We started to catch up, and I found out that he'd been promoted to sous chef. We talked about future plans and such, and he offered up a HUGE bit of advice, an option I'd never thought of before, but it's right under my nose. I might be considering a butcher training program in the Hudson Valley at a Nationally renowned butcher shop nearby. An apprenticeship of sorts. It would be an incredible chance to learn and would open tons of doors.

I'm going to try and reciprocate and pull some CIA strings for Ed, maybe help repay all the hours he spent pulling me out of the weeds.


Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Butcher's Apprentice

First of all, I'd like to take a minute to Congratulate Tory Miller, Chef at L'Etoile in Madison, WI on being named a finalist for the James Beard Awards, Best Chef Midwest. For those of you who aren't aware, the beard awards are like the Academy Awards for Chefs and Foodies. It is one of the highest honors in the food world, and I am honored to have played even the smallest part in his nomination. Great guy, Great Chef, and the guy who took me in when no responsible Chef should have really hired me. I have scouted the competition, and this could just be me being biased, but I think he's got it in the bag. I'll be in NYC for the award ceremony, either in the audience, or on the street outside, L'* hat on. Cheering on the guy who gave me the job that changed my life, and the kitchen crew who taught me everything I know.

Looking back only a few weeks, it is amazing to see how drastically my plans for the next few years have changed, at the drop of a hat. A month ago, I had a plan, to work my ass off in the pits in NYC, for celebrity chefs and at nationally renowned restaurants, while hoping to get an opportunity to cut some meat every now and then, or crank out a few yards of sausage every so often. But why bullshit myself, I thought. I don't really like plating salads or prepping garde manger menus, basically things that I'd have to do, for a while, and do really freaking well in order to be moved to positions where I'd have an opportunity to do what I'd really like to do. So why don't I skip all that crap, life is short, I don't want to waste it doing something I don't enjoy, or take up time that could be spent mastering a craft.

I have always had these illusions of grandeur. These images of myself, 21 years old, in a white coat, being the head charcuterie cook at a Boulud restaurant. That's not realistic, though. It's hard to avoid those kind of thoughts when the school I attend breeds cockiness, and pumps out a lot of pretentious, audacious cooks who believe that they are the next big thing in food, even though they've only spent about 5 months in a professional kitchen. And to some extent, they have the right to feel that. For the amount of money we spend on our Education, we should be at the cutting edge of the industry, but the quality of the education does not match the price. The price matches the amount of money most parents, unfamiliar to the food world, are willing to pay to keep their kids in school a little longer, and have the security of that CIA degree, when realistically in today's world, an untrained, hard-working, line-savvy cook may even be more valuable than a little punk in chef whites who can write down recipes and spit back the mother sauces from memory. But the one thing the CIA does better than anyone else, is that it opens up the world to young cooks. Things I wouldn't have dreamed of doing, or even known to exist two years ago, are at the forefront of my to do list today. Without the CIA I would have never been to Madison, without the CIA I'd still be a snotty little wannabe Top Chef with a "Culinary Boner" T-Shirt, and most importantly I'd still be looking at my journey in entirely the wrong way. I'd be trying to follow a path some other famous guy had taken. I'd be trying to stage at the French Laundry, I'd be trying to be promoted to sous chef at a Michelin Restaurant, I'd most likely be picking parsley leaves for the next two and a half years, and personally, I'd be miserable.

I have a luxury that not a lot of people had even a few years before me. There's a movement going on right now, nationwide. Chef's are slowly turning back to the artisanal means of curing meats, butchering whole animals, and specializing in just that. People before me had to work in restaurants, and over time figure out that buying whole animals and butchering them in house, making sure that every last bit of the animal is utilized was actually financially and morally responsible. These chefs eventually left the restaurants entirely to start their own meat centric ventures, and to educate the masses on their newly rediscovered craft. And every craftsman needs an apprentice: some wide eyed, eager to learn, psycho-kid who desparately wants to spend the rest of his life elbow deep in pig, to pass on his trade to. That's where I come in. I want to learn from these pioneers of American Charcuterie, these lone butchers. I want to master everything they can teach me, and then, take some crazy little fuck into MY shop and teach him how to debone a pork loin while leaving the belly attached, so that he too can enjoy the magnificence that is porchetta.

So kids, that means that New York City is a no go for now. There are windows open in other parts of the country that just make 90 times more sense than NYC right now. I will always have a love affair with the food in New York, but it'll be a long distance relationship for now.

"But if not New York, where else is there to go?" you may be asking. I've thought about it, looked around, studied my options, and there are two major possibilities of where I may find myself in three months after I graduate: Chicago, close to my roots, in a familiar setting with awesome food and a shit ton of really cool stuff happening; or across the country, in the Napa Valley, which is scary as shit considering I've never been West of Texas, but hey, I'm not so bad at being the new kid. I've done it so well so many times before.

I apologize if my next post is a little while away. Restaurants are kicking my ass and I'm frantically trying to find a job.

Until then, take care.


Monday, March 21, 2011

The Bull and The Pig

Today was one of those days where I really enjoy being a student at the Culinary Institute of America. Few people have the privilege of waking up on an ordinary, snowy March morning, walking a hundred steps from their dorm room, and witnessing a mad genius, speaking of his philosophy towards food for an hour and a half. Then, sprint to the library across campus and witness a personal hero prepare a dish they have wet dreams about, and actually get to speak to her. The conversation may have only lasted a minute, but was more meaningful than a lot of conversations that person has had with most friends.

Yes, I am speaking of my experiences today, and the two chefs I am referring to are Ferran Adria, the Spaniard who has changed the way people think about food, forever, and the British chef who is doing (in my opinion) some of the greatest stuff on the planet right now and who I personally adore, April Bloomfield.

I went to the gym an hour early to try and get a seat for the Ferran Adria lecture, and when I arrived, I discovered that just about the entire school had the same idea as me, and that the entire gym had been reserved by teachers, and that in order to get a spot I would have to lie about whose class I was in, and risk the wrath of that instructor, but nothing was going to stand between myself and Ferran. So I jumped past the guard and snuck to a seat and waited for it all to begin.

When Ferran finally came out, I discovered that the discussion was to be about a new book released called "The Sorcerer's Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at El Bulli." El Bulli is the restaurant that changed it all; Ferran's mothership and a mecca for cooks and diners world wide. It is open for six months a year, and the other six months are spent at their test kitchen, developing the menu for the next season. They receive 2 million reservation requests anually, but can only fill 8,000 a year. Forty courses per guest come out of the kitchen for each of the forty some odd guests nightly. Ferran is so innovative, that he only has to pay about three or four of his kitchen employees. Cooks and executive chefs from the best restaurants all over the country beg the man to let them pick herbs for him. He bases his entire kitchen staff off of free, yet extremely skilled labor. Cooks jump at the opportunity to experience the works first hand, even if they do not speak spanish, or get paid. The book was about these stagiers, these nomadic students of cuisine.

Crazy dishes like liquid ham fritters, spherical olives that are like olive flavored gushers, Mussel spheres in a potato and bacon soup with dots of double cream and cubes of apple jelly, grace the menu and make the guest wonder if what theyre enjoying ever was in fact actually food. Ferran is both known as a genius for what he does, and a culinary terrorist for giving others the idea that they can do things he does, when in fact they cant. They can't take six months a year to just play around in a kitchen, they don't have an innumerable army of the most intelligent, talented, and passionate cooks begging to work crazy hours for no pay at all, and they don't have the balls to taste something, love it, put it in front of a guest who has traveled across the fucking planet and paid thousands of dollars in total just to eat your food, knowing fully well that half of the diners will hate it, and the other half of the diners will see it as the most brilliant bite of food they have ever had in their lives. These are the liberties that Ferran has developed, that make him a one of a kind chef at a one of a kind restaurant.

The most memorable moment of his speech was when he said something along these lines: People often think of my food as strange, because they dont understand it, but I don't believe it is. There is no such thing as strange cuisine, only strange cooks.

And god damn it, I smiled and took a little confidence out of that bold statement, because I am one strange fellow.

But El Bulli, the restaurant will close its doors in July, never to open for another service ever again. Instead Ferran is doing what he has always intended to do with the restaurant. He is opening it to the world, while closing it to guests. He's turning it into a food research institute, that posts live updates worldwide of all the innovations and developments his cooks are making, as they happen. You may not be able to eat his cuisine, but it will be more easily experienced than it ever was before.

As soon as he was finished I ran to the library to get a seat to see April Bloomfield prepare blood sausage with a fried duck egg. A dream dish for me. And she started it out in the most picturesque way possible. She began sweating a shit house of bacon and red onion, until it was a sweet, salty, porky jam. I was hooked.

She continued making the dish and taking questions and I was just admiring the process and quietly trying to muster up the courage to ask her the question I had been dying to ask. And just as she finished up the final touches on her dish, I raised my hand and was given a microphone. I just prayed that my voice wouldn't crack of I wouldn't choke on my own spit like I tend to do when I'm nervous. I took a breath, and these words slowly came out of my mouth.

"It's obvious that there is a trend towards utilizing offals in America, and I think that you're one of the people that should take a large part of the thanks for this happening. But when you first opened The Spotted Pig, were you at all tentative or nervous in implementing all these dishes with things like pigs ears, tongues, and livers to a target market that had never been introduced to these ingredients?" She smiled and looked me in the eye, which she didn't really do to anyone else. She stopped what she was doing to look at me, and to give me her direct response. Her answer was something like this:

You know what, I never really gave it a second thought. I wanted to serve my guests the things I love to eat and love to cook, and if they don't like it, well I really don't care. There are plenty of other restaurants in the neighborhood that will cater to their specific tastes. I cook the food I like, because its what I know and I do it with love.

I smiled, thanked her, and just like that the whole demo was over. I sat in my seat as the auditorium emptied and pondered her advice, paired with what Adria said. There was an overwhelming theme of both of the day's lectures. Do what you want to do, do it with passion, do it with love, and don't listen to any of the morons who try and knock you off your track because chances are you are more knowledgeable than they are. Take risks, for Christ's sake.

I graduate in less than 3 months. And these bits of advice and unlimited wisdom really helped ease some of the anxiety I have about leaving school for good, and trying to do what I need to do. I know what I need to do now. I'll be in touch with some friends in the Dairyland for advice, a point in the right direction, and to catch up on things. I've gotta talk to people at the CIA. ANd I've gotta let the people who I plan on working for know that I'm here, and I'm ready to hit the ground running.

Busy week ahead of me. Finishing wines and starting the restaurant life at the CIA. On top of trying to get all my other shit sorted out. Should be fun.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Champagne and Cheetos: Wine "Studies"

For those who do not know, Wine Studies is the most difficult class at the Culinary Institute of America. It requires a ton of studying, and a ton of knowledge retention. We are not only expected to know grape varietals, different wine making techniques, and how to pair wine with food, but by the end of the class, I should be able to look at a glass of wine, smell it, and taste it, and be able to tell what kind of grape the wine is made of, where it was grown, and roughly how old the wine is (for reds, mostly, as most white wines aren't aged). Not only is this class the most demanding class I've encountered in my entire life, it signals the beginning of the end.

My schedule at the CIA is divided into 5 fifteen week terms. And the start of Wines Class means the beginning of fifth term. Thirteen weeks from tomorrow will be my last day of school, ever.

Let me walk you through what we learn about wines. The class takes a region by region approach. First was California, including Napa Valley, Sonoma County, and Central Cali. There are hundreds of AVA's (American Viticultural Areas) found in California. AVA's are the special place names that can be written on a label that will usually indicate quality in a wine and raise the price. For example, Napa Valley is an AVA known for its incredible Cabernet Sauvignon. Inside Napa Valley, there are tons of AVA's, such as Rutherford and Stag's Leap. We are expected to know what grape varietals each area is known for and what qualities of the region, whether it be climate or soil, effect the grape and how they effect the finished wine.

The Green Valley AVA, of the Russian River Valley AVA of the Sonoma County AVA is known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and a large amount of sparkling wines. But the Dry Creek Valley AVA of the Sonoma County AVA is known for Zinfandel and Syrah grapes, because it's climate is slightly warmer than the rest of Sonoma County, and Chardonnay and Pinot Noir need a cooler climate. It's a lot of fucking valleys, creeks, rivers, counties, and AVA's to memorise, along with a lot of grapes and wines. It gets repetative, but it has to be crystal clear, or you fail and pay 4200 to retake the class.

And that's just the US. Foreign countries don't even have to put the type of grape on the label. While in the US, the label will read 2006 Reisling from "Such and Such Vineyards" from the Willamette Valley, Oregon; the French label their wines by the region the grape is grown. A bottle of French wine may read "Muscadet de Sevre et Maine sur Lie, (Fill in the blank winery) 2007". We have to know that the the Region of the Loire River valley where the grape is grown is Muscadet de Sevre et Maine. There are regions called Muscadet, Muscadet Gros, etc. The grape primarily grown in this region is not Muscat, which would only make things easier, no, it's a grape called "Melon de Burgogne" which means Melon from Burgundy. To make things worse, the grapes neither taste like melon, nor do they come from Burgundy. The "Sur Lie" means that the grape itsself is pretty simple and straightforward, so in order to add some complexity to the wine, they age the wine with the yeast still in the wine and age it "On it's lees" or "sur lie". Thank God I took French in High School or I'd be lost.

And you know what, were cooks damn it, so we should be able to know what foods go with wines. The Muscadet I mentioned earlier would be awesome with oysters on the half shell, a Melbec from Argentina would be killer with big fatty steak, a super dry Riesling from Alsace would go great with some choucroute (sauerkraut slowly cooked with bacon, sausage, and other smoked delicious pork products; a combination I've been craving since I tasted a riesling from the Finger Lakes on Friday). When we have tastings in class, we taste about ten wines every night, we have to imagine foods that would pair well with each wine. Yesterday, while tasting Champagnes (from the Champagne region of France... nothing else can be considered true Champagne) a particular pairing was mentioned by our snobby ass wine professor. Apparently a student of his had mentioned once that a nice bottle of champagne and bag of cheetos was a sublime combination. Our teacher doubted the validity of the statement, and proceeded to pick up a bag of cheetos on his way home, and popped a bottle of "Brut, Blanc des Blancs, Premier Cru Non Vintage" (Which is a dry champagne made from only chardonnay grapes, from the first growth signifying quality, and made with grapes from several different years). He described the tandem as "killer". I knew at that moment that I had to try it.

So today, a study day, meaning that we don't have class and are expected to spend the day catching up on reading, a few friends and myself, decided to do a little tasting from our dorm rooms. There was a bottle of champagne, cheetos, seven other bottles of wine, a vast spread of takeout chinese food, and six studious cooks, looking to develop their palates and wine knowledge while getting hammered on a day off school. I have to say, that the cheeto and champagne were to die for. Try it yourself, take a bite of a cheeto (preferably of the "puff" variety) then sip the champagne. The fatty, cheesy powder on the puff coats your palate, then the acidity from the champagne cuts through the fat brilliantly, and the bubbles (as if they were the magical scrubbing bubbles from the cleaning product ads) magically lift the cheesey powder away and prepare you for another cheeto. I could have eaten the whole bag and drank the whole bottle, but I had to share. The standout pairing of the chinese take out was an off dry riesling with spare ribs. They were slightly smoky, and salty because of an abundance of soy and hoisin. Holy Shit.

I tend to talk shit about the CIA public in general. The school is only slightly corrupt, and the majority of the student body is pretentious, cocky, and not willing to work as hard as a young cook needs to in order to make it in this industry. It's a ton of talk, and not nearly enough walk. But I have to say, I'm lucky to have settled into a niche of friends who are not only really great people, but pretty damn hard workers, and pretty talented cooks. And today I learned what restaurant I'll be in for the first six weeks of restaurant row, and was pleasantly surprised to find that all of my friends will be slaving away with me, bangin out covers, and bustin each others' balls. It'll be the closest I'll have been to recreating the environment in the kitchen at L'Etoile. A few really close cooks, lots of jokes, lots of hard work, and as soon as somebody slips into the weeds your buddy will have your back and all will be okay. And after Friday night service, we sit and enjoy a nice beverage, and talk shit. I cannot wait.

City this weekend. Interesting plans, stay tuned.

Until then enjoy your champagne and cheetos, and thank me later for the suggestion.


Saturday, March 5, 2011

It's Been A While

I realize that its been about a month since my last post. I've been busy as hell with class, and traveling a lot, and honestly, I just haven't had time to write anything at all. It seems like just moments ago I was in my Cuisines of the Mediterranean class, and I blinked my eyes, and suddenly I've finished that class and my banquets and catering class and I'm getting ready for my wine class.

I've had some great weekends and visits to the City in that time too. Family members have come several times and it was a great chance to show them a first hand glimpse of what I do on a bi-weekly basis. First, my mom came along with my sister (surprise) to visit my Aunt and Uncle in CT, then go to the city. Visits to Ssam Bar, Artichoke Pizza, Milk Bar, and the ever so disappointing Doughnut Plant were on the agenda, and we enjoyed the shit out of it all. Anna even ate a few things she never had before and did a fairly decent job keeping up with me. She took the competition factor seriously, but still didn't match my level. I handed her the olive branch when I didn't go for the dirty water hot dog from the street cart which would have made me the undisputed champion.

I guess that one of the reasons I haven't posted in a while because my family came to visit. The reason I started writing this whole thing was because I was hundreds of miles away from them and I wanted to share my experiences with them, but they saw it for themselves this time. I had a blast and they did too.

A few weeks later I went back to the city because my Aunt from Texas was in town visiting with friends. She brought a friend with her from Texas too and wanted to take me and a friend out with them to dinner. I picked a spot and brought along my friend Taylor, who you may remember from previous posts. We met them at Convivio a one michelin starred restaurant in Midtown East. It's owned by Michael White, a Chef who has several restaurants, all featuring different regions of Italian cuisine. Convivio is his southern Italian restaurant. I ordered the fusili carbonara for my first course. Tender hand made fusili pasta with pancetta, pecorino romano cheese, and finished with egg yolk. It was incredible. And for my second course I got the Parmigiano crusted veal chop with guanciale brussell sprouts. It was a beautiful rendition of several of my favorite things in life. Salty cheese, caramelized brussel sprouts with pork fat, and tender baby animal. It was a great meal, with great company. I hadn't seen my aunt in years. Just spending time with her would have been good enough, but being able to have such a great meal at such a great location made it a very memorable night.

I finished my banquets and catering cooking class, which was pretty easy. I mean, before school I rocked out banquets for 800 people with a smaller crew in a smaller kitchen. 72 should have been a joke, but yet again, people at the CIA manage to over think and under prepare for shit and the shit hits the fan. But we survived. Then we started serving the banquets... thats right, for seven days I had to take drink orders and fill water glasses. The thing was, I actually didn't suck at it. And it was easy as shit.

Then the day came. The end goal of this class is that one class cooks the banquet for a graduation ceremony, and the other groups serves it. My group was responsible for serving it, and as group leader I was responsible for serving the VIP table. The table included CIA President Tim Ryan, Three Michelin Star Chef Laurent Gras formerly Chef of L20 in Chicago, and several Chef instructors from the CIA. I had visions of wine being dumped all over Gras, or hot coffee being spilt on Tim Ryan's lap, but as the day arrived, I had a sense of calm assuredness that everything would be fine. And it was. I was instructed to hover near the table to make sure that everyone had everything they needed. So, as they sipped they water, wine, and nibbled on their bread I listened intently to each of their conversations, and it was really interesting to hear what they talked about. Gras, a frenchman, is extremely interested in cycling and the Tour de France, so they discussed cycling, skiing, and other sports for a while, and then they discussed food trends, which nation was going to have the next big thing in the food world, and they discussed the Michelin system. They even took time to discuss "Giggles" a sex shop just north of campus.

When it was all over, I thanked the table, told them it was an honor to serve them today, and walked away. The strangest thing though, was that I realized in 15 short weeks, it will be me and my family sitting at those tables. In another blink of an eye I will be finished with school, and out in the world, working my ass off yet again. I'm ready for this vacation I call school to be over, and quick. Time to get back to reality, and out of this Hogwarts for cooks.

But shit, I still need a job.


Thursday, February 3, 2011

Snow Day #2: Michelin Starry Eyed

As this freakshow of a National weather pattern rolled over the northeast, I braced myself for yet another snow day. What this usually means is that all of the school kitchens would be closed... and that I'd be starving for the day. All of my friends cars would be stuck in the parking lot due to the shitty plowing patterns of CIA's campus safety.

Then, after the news of a snow day broke, and my kitchen frantically broke down our service set up to get out of class ASAP, I became aware of a distinct possibility of a last minute glutton's adventure. My good friend Taylor, probably the guy I relate most to here (Apparently I wasn't the only kid who peed the bed until they were 9) had planned on visiting the city, because his Dad was in town on business from Texas. I decided I would tag along. Taylor was without a doubt someone who I could count on to follow me blindly into whatever restaurant I decided to go to. I was ready to go. I was jonesin' for a trip to the city, I hadn't been in over a month, I had actually been losing weight. That had to change... and fast.

This morning came. I showered, dressed, and put my game face on. The last thing I grabbed and put in the pocket of my pea coat was my treasure map of the city, the 2011 Michelin Guide. I had a small itinerary, but wasn't set in stone. I did however have one spot I had to visit, the Spotted Pig. Taylor and I discussed the gameplan on the train, and eventually it was decided.

Our first stop was momofuku Noodle Bar. Taylor had never been, and seeing as we hadn't eaten all day and it was already 4 o'clock, we wanted something quick and delicious. I ordered the pork buns (thick, unctious slabs of pork belly on a steam bun with pickles and hoisin sauce), and the cold smoked chicken wings. The pork buns were better than I had remembered them. And the chicken wings were ridiculous. They are cold smoked, then sauteed crispy with pickled chiles, scallions, and soy. Taylor's dad met up with us there, but we were quickly and awkwardly pushed out shortly after his arrival because the staff was to have a meeting and staff meal.

We quickly walked to the next momofuku stop, Milk Bar. Many of you have heard of my love of the goodies at milk bar. I got the cereal milk ice cream and a slice of crack pie. As I ate the crack pie, a gooey butter pie with a crunchy oat crust, I realized how Dave Chang, the owner and creator of the momofuku empire, makes it work. The crack pie can't have more than 7 or 8 cheap ingredients; oats, flour, butter, eggs, sugar, corn syrup, vanilla. Each is cheap and the cost of making a whole pie will probably be around 5 bucks. With one slice of the stuff, sold at $5.40, they cover their entire food costs for the whole pie, meaning that they make roughly 700 percent profit. And I'd gladly drop five bucks once a week for a piece.

We swung by Eataly and picked up a bit of Bresola (cured and dried beef) to snack on on the ride home. And then we set out on a journey.

Usually I'm a proponent of the Subway system, but it was crunch time. The spotted pig, the restaurant I've been wanting desparately to visit for years was our destination. Recently awarded a Michelin Star, the third highest honor a restaurant can receive from the Michelin Guide (the most respected restaurant guide among foodies), the Spotted Pig is ridiculously popular. Co-owned by Mario Batali and Jay-Z, its a celebrity hangout, a hipster collective, and a personal culinary mecca of mine.

We pulled up in our cab around 6 45. It was a Wednesday night, and relatively early, so we walked right in and got a table. Not five minutes after we arrived there was a wait of over 45 minutes, and by the time we left there were people signing up to wait over 2 hours for a table.

The dining room is a cozy, quirky little room that was dimly lit, and covered from floor to ceiling with unique little works of art featuring pigs, ducks, and cows, but mostly pigs. The Spotted Pig was the gastropub from which Tory from Madison got the idea for Graze. Its casual food, done incredibly well at a reasonable price, in a comfortable atmosphere. It's a wonderful concept, and the Spotted Pig hit it out of the park. We sat, and immediately placed out orders. I ordered the gnudi (sheep's milk ricotta dumplings in brown butter with fried sage), and the crispy pork belly with polenta. Our first courses came, and I patiently waited for Taylor to snap a few pics of the simple but beautiful plates. My gnudi was amazing, the tender, pillowy dumplings held up to a hork, but as soon as I put half of one in my mouth, the cheese oozed out, and when accompanied by a piece of crispy sage, was out of this world. Taylor had the crispy pig's ear salad. A slow cooked, tender pig ear, flashed in the fryer until crispy, served with a bright radicchio salad. The pigs hear was incredible on its own, then when I tried a bite with the salad, the fat of the pig ear was countered beautifully by the salad. It was a brilliant dish.

The second courses came and my mind was blown yet again. The pork belly that I ordered was cooked to perfection. The skin was incredibly crispy. The contrast between melting fat, the crispy skin, and the tender meat made every bite more interesting than the next. I wanted it to last forever. Taylor's dish, a grilled beef tongue with duck fat fingerling potatoes, creme fraiche and pickled beets, really impressed me. The beef tongue was very tender and had a wonderful beefy flavor. It was slow cooked then sliced and grilled. The acidity in the beets and creme fraiche perfectly counter balanced the rich potatoes and tongue.

It was my first true michelin experience, and it was bomb. I sat with Taylor at the table and marveled at the simplicity and pin point execution of each dish. Probably the coolest place I've ever eaten at. I had to pick up a spotted pig t-shirt on the way out.

Me outside the Spotted Pig post dinner.

Then, we closed it all out with a dirty water hot dog outside grand central. SHIT.


Monday, January 24, 2011

No Words: The Blue Hill Experience

I find myself in a fit of speechlessness after my latest dining experience. There are few words that can accurately describe the meal I just enjoyed at Blue Hill, Stone Barns. But, the adrenaline and pure unfiltered inspiration I currently feel is compelling me to make an attempt to allow anyone who may read this to at least, even if on the most basic level, share in the breathtaking joy that has just been placed in my soul. For six and a half hours we sat around a crowded, round table, and for the majority of it, I sat with great friends, silently contemplating the wonders that had been placed in front of me, and patiently awaited the magic that was sure to come.

Those who follow my stuff will know that my good friend and roommate Jon is a cook at Blue Hill; a restaurant that is doing something that is for the most part entirely unique to Blue Hill. They own 90 percent of the farmland that produces products for the restaurant to use. It is a place where the faces of the people behind each ingredient shine through the plates. You arrive, sit down, and simply submit yourself to the will of the Chefs, and prepare yourself to pay homage to the ingredients presented to you.

Jon worked a lunch shift, then met up with us as we arrived. There were nine of us in total. Jon, Myself, and five other friends from school. Two of Jon's friends from home came up to meet us for our meal. At 5 15 we were seated. And immediately Jon was whisked away to the kitchen my the Maitre'D. He was gone for several moments. And while he was absent from the table I had images of Jon being asked to hand deliver a bottle of champagne to the table. I envisioned Jon being asked to suit up and personally oversee the production of our plates. I didn't now what to expect. He finally reemerged from the kitchen, and explained after I asked him what had happened. Apparently Dan Barber, Chef Owner, had taken the time to personally express to Jon that he, along with everyone in the kitchen, would be cooking their hearts out for our table. I knew at that moment, that the meal would be unlike anything I had ever experienced, or may ever experience again.

We ordered the 8 course tasting menu, which comes with several amuse bouches, or small bite courses, and a few desserts. First, we toasted Jon with a little champagne. Then the flood gates opened. First, we received a few vegetable fences to share. Baby vegetables, served in a light vinaigrette served on individual skewers all brought out in a large wooden block. It was a nice start. We were then brought individual serving cups of beet gazpacho (a cold beet soup) with horseradish sorbet. Our next course was the veggie chips. Cooked and dehydrated assortments of vegetables were delivered to the table. There were beet chips, potato chips with sage, parsnip chips, and smoked kale chips.

Next, the first mind-blowing dish arrived. I immediately recognized it when it was presented. Jon had told stories of this dish. A soft cooked egg yolk, wrapped in a gossamer thin sheet of lardo (pure salted slabs of pork fat). I grabbed a spoon, placed it in my mouth, and let the warm egg yolk, and slightly salty pork fat just melt on my palate. So rich, yet so delicate. I wanted more, but was surprisingly satisfied at the same time. While everyone else had placed their spoons back on the plate, I kept the spoon elevated between my thumb and forefinger, eyes closed, hoping that when I reopened them, another tiny egg yolk would appear on my spoon, ready to be enjoyed. I will dream of that one bite for years and years.

Next, a small "beet burger". A patty made of beets ground with spices, vinegar, and assorted pickles served on a tiny, warm sesame seed bun was a welcome contrast to the rich, luscious dish that I had just enjoyed. The dish that followed, a skewered piece of salsify, perfectly cooked, with a base wrapped in a thin slice of pancetta and coated in sesame seeds, was near perfect. The salsify was almost creamy as I nibbled down to the little nugget of pancetta and sesame on the bottom of the piece. When I finally reached the nugget of joy, my whole palate was gently warmed by the melting fat from the pancetta, and was followed by a light crunch from the sesame.

The next course might have been my favorite amuse course. Thin slices of sweet coppa (a salted and rolled pork product that I would describe as a cross between ham and salami) served on top of small rounds of polenta cake. The polenta cake was like no polenta I had ever had before. I was expecting the lumpy, gummy block of boiled cornmeal we all know so well, but it was a piece of the lightest, sweetest, most moist cornbread I'd ever had in my life. And the perfect piece of coppa on top, warmed slightly just to release some of the oils inside of the meat, went perfectly with it.

The next course was a thin layer of shingled out venison salami served on top of a crispy corn flatbread. To die for. The salami was again warmed to release some of the natural oils in the slice. As I ate it, some of those oils rubbed off onto my lips, leaving my licking my lips for several minutes in an attempt to get every last little taste of the salty, gamey, oily goodness.

The next course was one that I was honestly a little worried about. Venison liver pate with caramelized chocolate and sea salt. The guy sitting on my right, Zach, had had this before, but with duck liver. I thought the venison liver would be way too strong, and gamey. And as I popped the little rectangle in my mouth, I was hit hard by venison straight away, but the sweetness from the chocolate slowly coated my mouth and the finished taste on my palate was actually pleasant, chocolate with a slight lingering gaminess. Not bad at all.

The final amuse course, I knew right away. My friend Simon had advised me at all costs to do everything in my power to get the bone marrow. And as they cleared the last course and placed long, slender silver spoons in front of us, I began to cheekily smile, as I knew what was in store, but noone (except Jon) had any idea what those spoons were for. And when the bones were set in front of us, it was as if I had just opened up an awesome present on Christmas morning. On top of the marrow was a bit of roughly chopped parsley, and a sprinkling of toasted bread crumbs. Too good. The creamy, warm meat butter inside those bones is stuff legends are made of.

We were finally given silverware, which signaled the end of the amuse bouche courses. Now for the actual meal we were paying for. It was at this point where Jon informed me that he had spoken to the chef de cuisine earlier. He had asked Jon what we wanted to eat. Jon told him we'd eat anything, including offal (organ meat) and that there was one little boy at the table who would love it if we had a wee bit of pork... i.e. Myself. Our server even asked us if we were okay with a bit of organ meat, I smiled and rapidly nodded my head up and down.

The first course was the most forgettable course of the menu, but it was still delicious. It was a small rectangle of layers of pressed egg crepes, and in between each layer was different vegetables. Also on the plate there was a little espelette pepper and a small pool of sauce grabiche.

The next course was a 12 hour grilled onion. Each of us was presented with a half of an onion which had been grilled over an open flame for 12 hours. It was served with an array of condiments, beet tartar, pickled winter vegetables, olive tapenade, and something with pork in it. For obvious reasons, the last was my favorite.

We were then presented with thick slabs of heirloom grain brioche, gently toasted on one side. Accompanying the bread were large cups filled with warm, soft, made minutes ago ricotta cheese. I spread spoonful after spoonful of the stuff on top of my bread, sprinkled a little sea salt on top, and voila, some of the best shit I've ever put in my mouth. Warm, soft bread, enriched with lots of egg yolks and butter, slightly sweet. The cheese, warm and runny, slightly salty. This is where I stopped eating and exclaimed... holy shit. I desperately wanted my sister to be eating this dish with us. The girl who could live on bread and cheese alone. The girl who on Christmas morning was ecstatic when I melted a little butter and a few slabs of cheddar on a cheap grocery store baguette. This was bread and cheese like I'd never tasted. She'd have pissed her pants. I tried to savor it a little more, in her honor. Who knows, I learned a thing or two about baking brioche from the lady bakers in Madison. Maybe she'll get lucky next time I'm in town.

The next dish was brilliant. We were presented with shallow bowls, and at the bottom of the bowl was a long, thin slice of what looked like prosciutto, but the smoky aroma immediately gave it away as speck. On one end of the slice was a little bundle of sauerkraut, and on the other end was a little white pillow of something. I wasn't quite sure what. The server then explained the dish, Speck with poached cod cheek, sauerkraut, and sauce charcutier. For all of you who haven't had the privilege of trying fish cheeks, especially those of fish like halibut or cod, it is the most delicate, rich and wonderful bit of fish on the whole animal. The salty, smoky speck when mixed with the sweet cod cheek, and the tangy kraut was out of this world.
And it became obvious that the guys in the kitchen were looking for more and more ways to hit us with pork. I like that.

The next course was where it started to get real crazy, real quick. A soft poached egg was placed in front of us, in a small bowl. It was covered with a thin slice of some sort of meat, and served in a pool of a vibrant green sauce. We were informed that the egg was corvered in venison heart. A small roar of excitement was going on in my own head, so I completely missed what the sauce was. Jon later mentioned something along the lines of phitoplankton. It was completely unidentifiable to my palate, but completely delicious. I did the instinctive thing. I cracked the yolk with my spoon, allowing the yolk to run. I mixed it all up until the greed sauce was swirled with yellow yolk, and bits of red venison heart. They had the foresight to deliver a basket of warm, crusty country bread and butter to the table, so after a few spoonfuls of the stuff I began dipping hunks of bread in the bowl. So great.

Then came the dish I will have dreams about for the rest of my life. A brilliant pasta course that I would have paid 80 dollars alone for. The bowls were delivered and I immediately recognized the dish, not from ever having eaten it before, but because I had seen a similar dish many times in an episode of No Reservations. Eric Ripert has a dish that I have been obsessively craving for several years. A pillow of angel hair pasta served with an Uni Broth and caviar. This rendition of the dish I had tonight, was perfect. The server described to us that the thick spaghetti like noodles in front of us were actually made with "honey nut squash", a hybrid squash that the farm is currently developing. The squash is roasted, pureed, and hung in cheese cloth for three days to rid the mass of excess moisture. Then it is incorporated with flour and eggs to form a delectably chewy, slightly sweet pasta. The pasta is served with an uni broth. (Uni is sea urchin roe, and probably my favorite thing in the world aside from pork and cheese). Uni tastes of the deep ocean, it's slightly salty, slightly sweet. And somehow they got the broth to have a slight foam on the top, reminiscent of the ocean. The first bite was pure bliss. The sweet chewy pasta, with the rich salty broth was out of this world. I wanted to slurp op my first forkful, but then I remembered my setting, and the fact that I was wearing my nice suit, and decided against it. The only downside to the dish was the fact that they hadn't left any of the bread out for me to sop up the remainder of the broth in the bowl when the pasta was gone. I thought about licking the bowl clean, but again, decided that to be rather unwise.

The next dish was the kitchen's attempt to hit us with their best shot. I wanted pork, and that's what they gave me. Pork loin, perfectly cooked and sliced in a tower on the plate; slow roasted pork belly, crispy pork brain, tender pork snout, goose tongue, and root vegetables. I started with the loin, incredibly moist and flavorful. I then went on to the belly, a few layers of tender, slightly chewy lean pork kept me occupied as a thick layer of pure unctious pork fat slowly oozed out from between them. The pork brain, out of this world. Imagine a chicken mcnugget, but filled with pork, and every time you bite into it, a little bit of porky cream oozes out. The dish was truly a great cap to the savory courses, and it successfully satisfied my lust for pork.

I, being the man I am, decided to do the honor or ordering a cheese course. I told the server that I loved stinky cheese and she obliged. She delivered four cheeses. One looked rather familiar, and as she started explaining the cheeses, I didn't allow her to finish. "First we have Ban..." Those three letters confirmed my suspicions and I exclaimed, "BANDAGED CHEDDAR FROM BLEU MONT DAIRY IN WISCONSIN!" She smiled, impressed with my knowledge of the cheese. This cheese was my second favorite cheese while I was working at L'Etoile. I've met the people who make this cheese. I made it a point to put it on every chef's choice cheese plate that I put out. It's incredible, the ability food has to bring back the most obscure memories and emotions. And as I sunk into the first bite, I was immediately transported back to that rectangular table, on the second story of that old building on the capitol square in Madison. The first time I ate dinner at L'Etoile, the day before I started work there, having just met Tory for the first time. I had ordered a cheese plate. And the first cheese I tasted was bandaged cheddar.

The desserts were great, though I was so emotional and food drunk at this point that they are pretty foggy in my mind. The one thing that stands out was the fresh yeast ice cream with caramelized white chocolate. Ridiculously good.

At the end of the meal, we went back into the kitchen. It wasn't as big as I had expected. And the cooks were breaking down, scrubbing all the equipment, just like every kitchen in the world. It reminded me that when it all comes down to it, in the end Blue Hill is still just a restaurant. It's an extremely special restaurant, with some very special people, and extraordinary food. But they don't get ahead of themselves. It's still all about the food, all about letting the beautiful products of the farm, and the skill of the farmers and the cooks shine through each plate, whether it was the smallest simplest amuse or the most complex thought out course. I consider myself blessed for being able to experience it with the people I did.

Several times throughout the meal I had to stop, put down my fork, close my eyes, and think to myself. "This is not a dream, you're actually here. You actually just ate that."

Cheers to Jon for making this meal possible for all of us. Happy Birthday bud.

Mike Kolodzej.