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.