Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Golden Tilefish

This year I have been pushing my seafood vendors to find me new species for the menu. In part, this is because I am a restless chef and want to serve different things to my customers and different things from other restaurants. And in part, it's because I worry about the ecological impacts of serving the same old species time and again. Hence this Golden Tilefish (Lopholatilus chamaeleonticeps) on my cutting board.

Most fish that I see on the market run between five and fifteen pounds (2-7kg). The one pictured here is a 15-pounder of about 3 feet in length. If you click on the small image to view the larger one, you can see the prominent gold spots on this fish, hence the name, and the fleshy flap on top of its head.

All the specifies of tilefish that I have worked with have huge heads: I would guess that one third of the weight is in the head. The huge head coupled with a relatively wide and large ribcage means that yield from a fish is poor. I estimate that yield from landed weight has got to be on the order of 35-45%. The ribcage is extensive and makes taking the filets off a tilefish fairly difficult. The fish skins readily and easily, however.

The flesh is pinkish and slightly translucent, becoming white during cooking. The cooked flesh is not highly flaky and tastes a bit of shellfish. Customer reaction to this fish is highly positive. Tilefish stays moist even when fully cooked, but it tastes great even when not fully cooked. I tend to aim for about medium to medium well when cooking this species. It reminds me slightly of lobster, monkfish, and orange roughy.

Currently, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Golden Tilefish harvested from the mid-Atlantic, where this one was fished, is a reasonable alternative fish. Mid-Atlantic stocks are rebounding.

For more reading, see this excellent monograph by the American Littoral Society.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Why are Chiles Spicy?

Am I the only chile head who has wondered why chiles are spicy? Finally, we have an answer to that question thanks to Josh Tewksbury of the University of Washington. Late last summer, he published a paper entitled "The evolutionary ecology of pungency in wild chilies" in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This paper theorizes that certain bugs are vectors for a Fusarium fungus that destroys the seeds of chile peppers and capsaicinoids are a chemical defense against the seed-destroying fungi.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Paella Cakes

Gary, here's the recipe you asked for. This week, we've been serving Shrimp and Chorizo Skewers with a Paella Cake as a starter.

Paella Cakes

The term "paella" is a bit of a misnomer. For this dish, we're making basically a paella-flavored risotto; just a slight difference of technique from paella but one which yields a creamier rice from which to make cakes. The word paella conveys just the right flavor and concept, so paella it is, with all due apologies to my Spanish friends.

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion in fine dice
1 poblano pepper in fine dice
1 red pepper, roasted, in fine dice
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 large pinch saffron
2 teaspoons pimentón
2 cups paella rice (or Arborio)
1 cup white wine
24-32 fluid ounces seafood stock (or water)
salt and pepper, to taste
3/4 cup grated Manchego cheese
1 large egg
vegetable oil
Wondra (or all purpose) flour

Heat a pan over medium high flame and film with the oil. Start the sofrito by adding the onion and both peppers and cooking until the onions become translucent. Add the garlic, saffron, and pimentón and cook for another minute. If I were using chorizo in my paella cakes, which I often do, I would add it to the sofrito and cut back on the pimentón.

Add the rice and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring, until the edges of the rice become translucent. Add the white wine and stir well. Lower the flame and let the wine evaporate slowly, stirring occasionally.

Then, as for risotto, add sufficient stock or water to just cover the rice (shown in this photo) and stir often as the rice cooks. Add 1/2 teaspoon of salt and continue to add stock 2 ounces at a time as necessary. As the rice nears doneness, adjust the seasoning to your liking. The rice will take about 20 minutes to become tender, but still a touch chewy in the center.

Remove the rice from the flame and help it cool quickly by spreading it out on a tray. When cooled to just above body temperature, stir in the cheese and the egg. Refrigerate until cold and firm.

Shape the cold, firm rice into patties (wetting your hands between cakes helps), dredge in seasoned Wondra (or regular flour), and brown in a pan filmed with more oil over medium heat. Reserve warm.

Makes 12 3-ounce cakes.

I often apply this technique to any leftover paella or risotto, as either an appetizer as in this case, or as a garnish for an entrée.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

On Salt and Pepper

Yesterday during lunch I had the opportunity to observe several tables as they received their food. At three different tables, one of the guests on receiving his food immediately grabbed the salt and pepper mills and even before tasting the food, ground salt and pepper all over it.

Why wouldn't a guest at least taste the food before seasoning it?

As a chef, shouldn't I feel slighted that customers assault the food in this manner?

Over the years, I've seen firsthand that we all have tastebuds that vary remarkably. And so to answer the question, I'm not slighted when customers do this. That's why there are salt and pepper grinders on the table in the first place. Although it is beyond me why people don't taste before seasoning.

This reminds me of the flap years ago when the late and quirky Jean-Louis Palladin at the Watergate Hotel in DC refused to put salt and pepper on the table and refused to let the servers bring salt and pepper to the customers. I liked the man, his food, talent, and passion, but not his resistance to letting customers season food at the table.

Sure, when I send food to the table, I've sent it out how I want it seasoned, but seriously, what is the big deal if customers reseason it? As long as they don't complain about my seasoning and as long as they are happy, I'm happy.

Because seasoning is so subjective and palates are so widely variable, there is no one correct seasoning level. Knowing this, the only thing that I can do is make food that tastes good to me. But over the years, I have also learned to trust my palate. If it tastes good to me, experience shows that it is going to taste good to the vast majority of my customers.

Young chefs everywhere, learn to trust your palate. And just look the other way if your customers add more seasoning. They're not questioning your ability, just making things to their liking.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Merkels and Such

It coming up rapidly on the season for local morels, I am getting ready for the annual phone calls asking, "Do you buy merkels?" In my experience, merkel is a somewhat local term for morels and clearly a corruption of the Latin genus Morchella, despite all kinds of amusing apocryphal tales about the name.

In Virginia, I know the term merkel to be used in the hills around the northern terminus of the Skyline Drive, where a lot of our morels come from. We also get a lot out of the local apple orchards.

My mother, who is from tobacco country on the Virginia side of the North Carolina border, and her family, always called them hickory chickens. Perhaps they grew in close proximity to hickory trees in that part of the state. I was too young, just a toddler, when my grandfather and his brother would lead a posse out into the woods to return with grocery sacks of the prized mushrooms, too young to remember anything about where they grew.

Out in Southwestern Virginia towards coal country, the hillfolk call morels Molly Moochers. Why? I've no clue.

I've also heard certain oldtimers refer to them as fish or fish mushrooms, though why I don't know.

I'm interested in what others call these mushrooms. What are they called in your neck of the woods?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Morels with Pancetta on Pappardelle

Last evening a customer enjoyed our most recent morel entrée which is a direct take off on a similar appetizer that we made during last year's morel season.

You'll notice that I include a cured pork product in both dishes; it's because pork and mushrooms have a great affinity for one another: think bacon and mushrooms! Sometimes I omit the cream and use veal demiglace instead. Sometimes when I use the cream, I mix in a tablespoon of veal demiglace at the end. This dish is also benefits from the addition of a vegetable, especially a foraged one such as wild asparagus, fiddleheads, or stinging nettle leaves. Asparagus and spinach are great as well.

Morels with Pancetta on Pappardelle

8 ounces pappardelle
1 tablespoon clarified butter
2 ounces pancetta in 3/8" dice
1 shallot, halved and thinly sliced vertically
6 ounces fresh morels
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves (lemon thyme is particularly good)
pinch salt and pepper
1/2 cup heavy cream

Cook the pappardelle in boiling water until done. Meanwhile, heat the clarified butter in a sauté pan and add the pancetta. After this has cooked a minute, add the shallots and continue to cook until the pancetta is nearly crisp and the shallots have started to caramelize.

Add the morels and thyme and cook for another couple of minutes, stirring. Add a pinch of salt and pepper and then the heavy cream. Cook until the morels are soft and the cream is reduced. Add more cream or water as necessary. Add the cooked noodles and mix well. Adjust the seasoning. Garnish with fresh thyme.

Serves two.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

On Pasta

I live on pasta, I crave it, I thrive on it, and it provides 90% of the protein in my largely vegetarian diet. Atkins bewildered me and the current low glycemic index diets scare me; I have to have my pasta. I know how the majority of Italians feel: a day without pasta seems incomplete. Though there's not one drop of Italian blood in me, I have the pasta lust in my soul.

To start this story, we need to wind the clock back a good many years. How is it possible that I have been out of college for a quarter century and just who was it that put my life on a speeding bullet train anyway? I was just out of grad school and for the first time ever was living on a budget that was not mere subsistence level. Before that, whatever money was left over after the rent and beer runs went to food. And by that, I mean mostly dried beans. For years, my food budget was around a dollar a day.

At the point where I finally had a little spare cash in my pocket, one of my coworkers was what we would recognize today as a foodie, although that term would not come into use for another 15 years. One day at lunch, he told me that he would only use DeCecco brand pasta because it was head and shoulders above the rest of the brands on the US market. These were the days when you had to find a speciality Italian grocery to purchase DeCecco; it wasn't on every supermarket shelf as it is today.

I wasn't really sure why he was making all this fuss over something so simple as pasta. Pasta was not a big thing at my house when I was growing up. We did eat it, but it was mostly spaghetti, and it was always one of the American brands such as Ronzoni or San Giorgio, both of which are made in a factory not three miles from where I sit typing this. I don't suppose there were any choices other than the standard American brands on the grocery shelf when my mother went shopping at the Safeway. And, I think she bought pasta on price, whichever was cheapest when she needed it was what came home.

So while I had been exposed to several brands of pasta, they were all pretty much the same to me and I was indifferent to them. The idea that there could be big differences between brands seemed an alien concept at the time. But, I did like to eat and cook and at my friend's urging, I spent some of my newfound money on a box of DeCecco pasta. And my life changed.

The great revelation that all pasta is not created equal started me on the road to understanding that in food, quality is everything. Before this point, I had taken a lot of foods including pasta for granted. After this point, I started exploring all kinds of foods and learned that there are vast and easily detectable differences in most foods. There's a world of flavor and texture difference in salt; olive oils are vastly different. And so forth and so on.

Once I discovered that pasta could be really good and not just something to fill up the stomach, it became a great food source for me. And coincidentally, it was just at this time that America started awakening to the joys of Italian food and we saw the proliferation of books by the likes of Marcella Hazan and Giuliano Bugialli. This brought pasta, especially fresh pasta, to the American kitchen. For a time, Bugialli was everywhere at once making fresh pasta.

It came to be in the late 1980s that you were no kind of cook if you didn't make your own pasta; foodies didn't use box pasta; foodies made pasta. So, I went through my fresh pasta phase with the rest of America and although I can still go right in the kitchen and knock out tagliatelle, taglierini, or maltagliati in dozens of hues and flavors, I no longer make fresh pasta except when I'm making ravioli or agnolotti.

Fresh pasta always left me lukewarm just like Mom's American spaghetti and it took a few months to understand why. Ultimately, I came to understand that even though fresh pasta was all the rage, for me, factory made boxed pasta was preferable. Fresh pasta lacks the tooth that dried pasta brings to the plate. And it is this al dente quality that I love so much about pasta and which drives me to seek out the larger, thicker cuts in preference to the thin cuts such as capellini and vermicelli.

Now looking back and having cooked thousands of pounds of pasta in over a hundred shapes and sizes, I still marvel that I can walk into most grocery stores and find not just Italian pasta, but a choice of brands. As a country, we've come a long, long way since I discovered that pasta is good.

And back to the light blue box that changed my life. DeCecco pasta is still rock solid across the entire product line and remarkably consistent from box to box, from year to year, from wheat crop to wheat crop, and decade to decade. I still eat a lot of DeCecco, but at home and at the restaurant, we've switched primarily to a no name brand made in Gragnano, the pasta capital of Italy. Our no name brand just feels and cooks slightly better than DeCecco, but because of the artisanal nature of their company, the range of cuts is extremely limited, so that leaves a lot of room in our pantry for the light blue boxes as well.

All great pasta including DeCecco and our no name brand is forced slowly through rougher bronze dies, rather than smoother modern Teflon-coated ones. The extra friction of the bronze dies slows production to a crawl when compared to the Teflon dies, but great pasta makers still use the traditional bronze dies. Why? Because if you taste samples of bronze pasta next to Teflon pasta, you can feel the difference. The rougher bronze die produces a rougher pasta. Not only is it less slick when cooked, sauce adheres better too.

If you never imagined that there could be vast differences in something as seemingly simple as pasta, perhaps you're in for a revelation of the sort that I experienced so long ago.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Chicken Cacciatore Soup

Sunday all over the east coast was a dreary, cool, rainy kind of day, a not yet spring, hanging on the cusp kind of day. A non-motivating kind of read the Sunday paper day where the dog wraps herself around your feet to ward off the damp rawness kind of day. A true soup day.

I'd already been down to the restaurant and made lunch for some friends who traveled over from Northern Virginia and on the way out the door to come back home, I thought about grabbing something for dinner, but then I thought that surely there must be enough stuff in my admittedly bare refrigerator for a pot of soup.

I knew I had a chicken carcass in the fridge and if you've got a chicken, you've got soup. Roast chicken on Monday night yields Monday night dinner, another meal later in the week, and a big pot of soup on Sunday. At least it does for our family of four that is not terribly meat-oriented. Chickens are most useful creatures to have in the fridge.

My wife was traveling and I called her to find out if she had any ideas about what kind of soup she wanted, she being the picky one, and surprisingly she said she wanted something with tomatoes in it. Usually, she claims she doesn't care until it gets on the table and then it's not what she wanted. ;)

That got me thinking and suddenly Chicken Cacciatore popped into my head. I decided that I wanted a soup that was similar to a very thin pizza sauce, without a whole lot of texture, basically a tomato soup. While I would put large chunks of vegetables in my Chicken Cacciatore, I decided to minimize them for this soup.

The key to the following recipe is the quality of the stock: the more intensely flavored the stock, the better. I would say that if you are not going to find a lazy day to make stock, you're going to find this soup very disappointing.

I just happened to have a ham bone in my fridge too, which went into my stock pot with the chicken carcass, the chicken roasting juices, and some celery scraps. After two hours, I strained the stock and reduced it to about a quart and a half of intense chicken goodness with a little country ham background. I picked and chopped the chicken while the beagle ensured that the floor stayed spotless.

Chicken Cacciatore Soup

1-1/2 quarts chicken stock
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 small onion, finely diced
4-6 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1-1/2 cups cooked chicken, finely chopped
salt and pepper to taste

Combine the chicken stock, tomato sauce, onion, garlic, basil, and oregano and bring to a simmer. Simmer for 20 minutes or until the onion is done. Stir in the chicken and season to taste.

I decided not to precook the onion and garlic. It could have been laziness, the desire not to dirty another pan, or perhaps I just wanted to go with the more dominant flavor of raw garlic. I didn't have to add any salt because of the ham bone in my stock. And because my tomatoes were really ripe, I didn't need to add any sugar to counter their acidity.

Red and green peppers and mushrooms would be really good in this soup, but as I said, I was just going for a simple tomato soup. It was simply delicious.

Monday, March 16, 2009


I just returned from my bank where I had to get change for our cash register and all the paper bills that they had were slick new ones. If you've ever handled paper money at all, you know that these things are a bear to count because they always want to stick together.

All these sticky bills reminded me of a customer some years ago, a Brit who brought three others to lunch, a guy who was not a very nice person, who was haughty, demanding, and condescending, just the kind of guy you want your daughter to date. NOT! Just the kind of person that the servers love to hate because they know that they will have to put up with a lot of grief for little to no tip.

After a few beers, his party of four had run up a lunch tab of nearly $100, $97.20 to be precise. At the conclusion of lunch, he put some cash in the bill presenter and left. We were too busy to count the cash as he left saying "keep the change," almost always a sure sign of a lousy tip. We weren't in a hurry to count the cash anyway as we didn't want to get irritated over the lousy tip that we were certain was coming.

After all the lunch customers left, the server asked me to guess how much tip the guy left and I guessed $105 for the total, or $7.80 in tip. She shook her head and said, "much lower" while handing me the bill presenter which contained a crisp $100 bill. It was about 20 minutes later as I fished the bill out of the presenter that something felt funny about it. And surely you have guessed by now that it was not a single hundred, but two glued ever so tightly together.

And folks, that's a big lesson in karma.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Chipotle-Glazed Coho Salmon

In response to a reader request, here is the recipe to accompany my October post about the Chipotle-Glazed Salmon we were then serving. Note to readers: wild salmon is out of season right now.

Like most restaurant recipes, this one has several components: there's a base of lentils, the broccolini, the fish itself, the chipotle glaze, and the orange salad. None of these recipes is inherently difficult and you shouldn't be daunted by the length or number of recipes. You should be able to carry this whole meal off start to finish in under an hour, which is how I am going to approach this post. The quantities specified here serve four people.

We'll start with the items that take the longest and work towards the items that take the shortest, which is always how we cook in restaurants. If you ever watch Iron Chef, you'll see that they start with the basic prepwork and the long cooking items first. That's just the normal progression of things.

The two long items are the beluga lentils and the chipotle glaze.

Apricot-Chipotle Glaze

2 cups apricot nectar
1 tablespoon adobo from a can of chipotles, or to taste

Most chipotles come packed in a rich smoky tomato sauce called adobo; that's what you want to use for this recipe. Alternatively, you can seed some chipotles and blend them to a paste. Reduce the apricot nectar in a non-reactive sauce pan over medium flame until it is reduced from two cups to about a half a cup. Stop reducing when you have a nice glaze. Stir in the adobo from the chipotles. Add more to taste.

Beluga Lentils

Beluga lentils are very small, quick cooking black lentils that remain whole and become shiny when cooked, resembling beluga sturgeon caviar.

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 small onion in fine dice
1 small carrot in fine dice
1/2 stalk celery in fine dice
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup beluga lentils
1 quart water or stock
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
1 tablespoon sweet butter
salt and pepper to taste

Heat the vegetable oil in a small saucepan and add the onion, carrot, and celery. Sauté for a couple of minutes until the onion starts to become translucent. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Add the lentils, water, salt, and bay leaf. Simmer the lentils until soft enough for your taste. 25-30 minutes is usually enough for me. Remove the bay leaf, drain the lentils and reserve warm. When you are ready to serve them, add the thyme and butter and bring them back to temperature. Season to taste.

Orange Salad

2 oranges, segmented
1/2 small red pepper, sliced into thin strips
2 green onions, sliced into 1/2" segments
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 pinch salt
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

Mix all ingredients and let stand at room temperature while you prepare the rest of the meal. Adjust seasoning to taste.


2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 salmon filets
salt and pepper

Heat a heavy sauté pan over high flame and film with the oil. Season both sides of the salmon filets. Sear the top side of the salmon until well browned, about 2-3 minutes. Flip the salmon and sear the bottom side. Brush the top side with the chipotle glaze while the bottom side is cooking.

When you stop cooking is a matter of personal preference. I would stop at the point at which the salmon is still medium rare in the center. If you would like to cook it more, place the fish into a hot oven and cook until as done as you like.


1 bunch broccolini
1 tablespoon butter or olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
pinch red pepper flakes
salt and pepper to taste

Bring a pot of salted water to the boil. Once you have started the fish cooking, drop the broccolini into the water and cook until as tender as you like it, 2-4 minutes. The natural sequence would be: start the fish, start the broccolini, flip the fish, stop cooking the broccolini. While the broccolini is cooking, heat the butter or oil, garlic, red pepper, and a pinch each of salt and pepper in a small pan until the garlic is cooked. Remove the broccolini from the water, drain, and toss with the butter or oil. Reserve warm.


Refer to the photo above for how you want the finished dish to look. In the well of four large soup plates, make a disk of lentils using about a 4" diameter ring mold. If you don't have a ring mold, just spoon the lentils into the bowl in neat piles. Place 3-4 pieces of broccolini over the lentils and the fish over the broccolini. Brush the fish with more chipotle glaze. Mound a little orange salad on top and drizzle the plate with more glaze.

You can help me write better recipes by posting any questions you have.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Black Barley

Black Barley, aka Purple Barley, has been on the market in the US for a few years, mostly at health food stores, but I am just getting around to working with it. Aside: I have a vast list of ingredients that I want to play with and I am ticking them off one by one.

Black barley has a dark purple to black bran layer that reminds me of Forbidden Rice in color and similar to Forbidden Rice, Black Barley lends a black to purple color to the things that it is cooked with.

I guess the real reason for this post is to say that now that I have worked with it, I'll probably be very loath to go back to standard pearled barley. Black barley has a great texture, similar to that of Wild Rice, which lends itself to soups because it doesn't go mushy. But I really have to say that I like it just plain, both for its texture and its nutty flavor. And plain is how we have been serving it recently. After boiling it, we drain it and then reheat it at service with a touch of salt and butter and serve it under ostrich paillards.

It is simple to cook: merely boil it in sufficient salted water until it becomes tender, about 75-90 minutes. I've found that I get about 1:3 or 1:3.5 yield; that is, it expands about 3 to 3-1/2 times.

I have dozens of applications in mind for it, but I have been unable to get beyond just eating it plain. And I don't appear to be alone. I walked in the kitchen yesterday to find my sous chef snacking on some plain black barley just before dinner.

Great texture, great flavor, great nutrition, what's not to like?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

You Want Fresh? I Got Your Fresh!

A little kitchen fun featuring a gorgeous local cock Ring-Necked Pheasant and a beautiful Gray Tilefish.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Black Gold, Part Two

My previous post entitled Black Gold was about the bounty of black truffles that we had and still have in our walk-in (three pounds of Oregon black truffles are newly arrived this week). This post deals with another black gold that is just making its way onto the market: Black Garlic. And you see that it is truly black in this photo.

I first heard of it last fall via the chef grapevine when it hit the menus at Charlie Trotter's (we buy from a lot of the same vendors), but until just recently, it's been very hard for me to source, out here in the boonies like I am. This week I was able to get my first shipment and I now understand what the fuss is all about: it was love at first bite.

Black garlic is a cooked and fermented product that is everything that roasted garlic wants to be when it grows up. It is soft and sticky like candy, a little bit chewy in the same way that fudge has some tooth, supersweet but not cloyingly so like licorice root or Stevia, with a midpalate of molasses and a hint of licorice, and a lingering sweet garlic essence, everything that you want in garlic ice cream.

It is so good that I could eat $50 worth (yeah, it's still really expensive) just like candy. And although my mind is running at warp speed with visions of all kinds of sweet applications (e.g., black garlic-chocolate flan), my first foray with the garlic was to enrich a savory sauce and to use slices of the garlic as garnish on the dish.

We red-cooked local lamb shortribs (braised in soy, black vinegar, mirin, and duck stock with ginger, garlic, black pepper, star anise, cinnamon, and green onions), then strained the sauce, reduced it with brown sugar, and blitzed in black garlic with an immersion blender. Then we portioned the ribs and grilled them to order using the sauce as a barbeque glaze. The ribs were plated on a fried rice cake and garnished with more sauce, black garlic slices, white sesame seeds, and a scallion brush. Fantastic!

For more information, see the producer's web site blackgarlic.com and the Washington Post article Inventive Chefs and the Rise of an 'It' Ingredient.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Stinging Nettles: Love and Hate

The first nettles of the year are in and they're going on the menu tonight in a Cream of Parsnip and Nettle Soup. I like the mild, green, herbal, almost spinach-like flavor of nettles, which never fail to remind me of spring, but I hate the stingers. Despite double gloving yesterday, I can still feel where my thumbs got bit a couple of times. Ouch! Reminds me of close encounters of the nettle kind when I was a kid.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Tale of Two Nights

Last night was one of those odd nights in this business, a night in which we either loved or hated the tables, no in between ground. It was one of those nights where it was just slow enough that I got to visit with every table. There was an hour when I was tied to the kitchen, but I either got to visit with each table at the beginning or at the end of their dinner.

I like visiting with the tables. I get to catch up with friends, meet new friends, hear some amazing stories from customers, check on the food and service quality, and probably most importantly, to thank customers for their business and to let them know that I am a hands-on owner who cares.

On the positive side last night, we had a few tables of regulars with whom I got to catch up. And we had a large table of young ladies celebrating a 30th birthday, a table that requested a cheesecake. I haven't made one in 20 years, but by all accounts, mine included, the marbled chocolate cheesecake was a hit. Just like riding a bike—you never forget!

And on the negative side, a guy apparently brought a date to the restaurant to break up with her. Guys, some things are not fit for public places, and breaking up with your girl is one of them. It was so awkward for us to see how miserable she was, running frequently to the restroom to deal with the tears. You wasted your money on what could have been a good dinner and I'm sure that neither of you will ever be back, given that my restaurant is now a place of bad memories. And, you made all the staff and the tables around you highly uncomfortable. Thanks for ruining our night in addition to your own.

But the loser of the night award goes to a woman who walked in with some sort of malfunction. It was clear from the outset that she was not happy. No doubt, she was probably in an evil mood and that mood followed her into the restaurant. We all have days like that; just ask my staff about my mood on Tuesday morning after wrestling with computer problems all morning. So, I know all about being grumpy. But what I don't understand is her reaction to my table visit to see how their evening was progressing.

As I will do frequently, I approached the table and because the couple was not conversing and they were both looking at me, I asked, "May I get you anything else?" Not only is this an invitation to ask for more butter, to let me know that your opaque olive oil cruet or teapot needs a refill, that you really would like another glass of Port that you weren't sure about when the server last visited, and so forth, but it is also an invitation to talk about anything you want to. And if you don't want me around, I'm bright enough to recognize that, to thank you for dining with us, and to move along to the next table.

When I asked that question, the woman's face contorted into something resembling a snarl. The man assured me that they needed nothing. After that look, trust me, I wasted no time in moving to the next table.

After service, the server told me that the woman subsequently inquired who I was and then told him to relay to me that I should never ask a table if they needed anything else. Too bad for her that she came to a place where the owner is actually present and cares about customers and their experience. Next time, she should go to some random chain where they really don't care. This is one piece of grumpy advice that I will always remember, but never follow.

But on balance and despite the best efforts of the two bad tables to ruin my night, the good tables prevailed and I went home happy knowing that we had done a good job.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


Persimmon season is over with now, but we had a great run with them this winter. I find their flavor irresistible: a mix of mango, peach, and apricot. Seriously, what is not to like about that?

There are roughly two types of persimmons on the market, ones that I call sour and sweet, though I think the technical terms are astringent and non-astringent. You'll see these on the market as Hachiya and Fuyu respectively.

Sour persimmons are roughly spherical and commercial varieties grow to about the size of a cricket ball. Our native persimmons here in Virginia are much smaller, smaller than a golf ball, and are most assuredly of the astringent type as I found out as a gradeschooler! They are a pretty rough go until they have had a lot of frost and become dead ripe—I'm talking about turn-your-mouth-inside-out tannic! Once ripe though, they're pretty good if you can keep the wild turkeys off of them. I know that I ate enough of them when foraging about the woods of our property in Albemarle County, Virginia as a kid.

The other kind, the sweet variety, is what you see in the photo above, a flattened sphere in the traditional tomato shape. Because the sour Hachiya types have to be dead ripe, they tend to have very soft flesh like a plum, which doesn't lend itself to dicing or slicing. In this regard, I like the sweet Fuyu types better for the restaurant because I can do more with them. Here's a photo of a salad of sliced Fuyus with Mâche and Goat Cheese.

Late next fall and next winter, when you see persimmons in your market, take some home. Both kinds are delicious; just make sure that the Hachiyas are fully ripe before you tuck into them. If you've never had a persimmon before, you're in for a real treat.

I leave you with a recipe for persimmon salsa from my forthcoming book.

Persimmon Salsa

4 Fuyu persimmons, about 1 ¼ pounds (500g)
1 bunch (about 10) green onions, sliced into rings
½ small red onion, finely minced
½ bunch cilantro, minced
1 serrano chile, finely minced
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 pinch salt
juice of one lime
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Mix all the ingredients well and let stand for a few minutes before serving. Feel free to substitute any chiles you like: habañeros are particularly good in this recipe. Yields a bit less than a quart (1 liter) of salsa.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The $372 Cup of Coffee

I just need to rant for a moment to clear my mind and try to get ready for lunch service. You probably never imagined that restaurants struggle with IT problems, just like every business.

Yesterday late afternoon we were closed as usual for a Monday and I was in my office doing battle with the inevitable heap of paperwork from the prior week. It being very cold in my office on an exterior wall without any insulation or heat, I brewed myself a pot of coffee and brought a cup back to my office, to try to stay warm.

Naturally, as I was moving from one filing cabinet to another, my elbow tapped my clipboard, which rapped my keyboard, which collided with the mouse, which upset the cup of coffee—all over the mouse and worse, all over the keyboard. Long story short, after about 30 minutes, the keyboard ceased to function, despite my best efforts to get the coffee away from the electrical contacts.

No surprise there: keyboards and coffee are pretty incompatible. Not wanting to lose a lot of my day, I went to the closest place to pick up a new keyboard. Given that it was the closest place, the keyboard options were limited, very limited. The cheapest option was a $70 wireless keyboard/mouse combo from our dear friends in Redmond, Washington.

Twenty minutes later, I effected the keyboard and mouse switchover with surprisingly few problems. Important foreshadowing: installing the drivers took 10 minutes. Ask yourself, why does it take 10 minutes to install a USB driver? Still, I was pretty happy for I had expected plug-and-pray to work like it always does: not in the least. But, within 20 minutes, I was up and running, although at first, the mouse was uncooperative. Closing everything down and rebooting managed to get the mouse back in action.

So at that point, I went home last night in a fairly good mood, thankful that my dumb mistake had only cost me about a half an hour of my time and $70. Well, add $2 for that pot of coffee, for $72. Stupid me, I know better than to have drinks around keyboards from my almost 20 years in the computer world.

Fast forward to today. It's check writing day and I have a huge stack of bills to pay, so I go to fire up QuickBooks for the first time since I shut it down before attemping the keyboard and mouse surgery. Of course, it took forever to try to load my database. In fact, it didn't ever load. After several attempts, I managed to see that it was choking on one of the DLLs in the Microsoft (remember our friends from Redmond?) Visual C++ Runtime.

Remember that 10-minute installation of the USB driver? I checked the log file and well, suffice it to say that the majority of the 10 minutes was dedicated to upgrading a whole bunch of my runtime. And the new runtime files are incompatible with QuickBooks. Two more hours on top of the hour that I already spent were needed to undo the mess that the new keyboard caused. At $100 an hour for my time (a bargain!), that's another $300 on top of the $72.

And thus ends the saga of the $372 cup of coffee. Can you imagine Chef Average who had not spent nearly 20 years in the computer business trying to figure this out? God help him. He'd still be out of business. I don't know how small businesses without IT staffs function in this electronic world. I really don't.