Saturday, February 26, 2011

Wellness Festival Recipes

Today, I was invited to give a demonstration of some healthy recipes at the Community Wellness Festival. My talk/demo today hit the same three points that I made last year when I cooked at the festival: 1. Include more fresh/raw vegetables in your diet. 2. Make smart ingredient choices without sacrificing flavor and texture. 3. Get most of your protein from beans, legumes, and fish.

First up was a raw salad of fennel and oranges: healthy for you, tasty, and very crunchy. Second was a hash of sweet potatoes with dried cranberries and pecans, showcasing the carotenes and potassium of sweet potatoes, along with the goodness of fruit and nuts. Finally was a salsa, bright and tasty, that I incorporated into a bean salad with Sea Island red peas and that I put into a whole wheat wrap with pan-roasted catfish, for a tasty and healthy take on a fish taco.

Fennel Orange Salad. I figure a lot of people have seen fennel in the grocery store and have no clue what to do with it. I wanted to show how friendly and easy this vegetable is. This salad combines oranges, fennel, roasted olives, and a touch of feta cheese.

1 large fennel bulb, julienned
2 tablespoons fennel greens, finely sliced
zest of one orange
3 seedless oranges, sectioned
1/2 cup roasted olives (recipe follows)
1/4 cup feta cheese crumbles
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients in a bowl. Season to taste. I covered how to section citrus fruit some years ago. See this post if you are unfamiliar with how to do it.

Roasted Olives

1/2 cup mixed olives, pitted
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pinch red pepper flakes
4-5 fresh rosemary needles, minced
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 pinch black pepper

Toss all ingredients and place on a sheet tray. Heat in a hot oven (400F) until sizzling, about 10 minutes.

Bourbon Flambéed Sweet Potato Hash. This is a quick and fun take on hash. I often make this with slab bacon at the restaurant, but omitted the bacon given the health-oriented nature of today's presentation. Sweet potatoes are fairly nutrient dense and are a reasonable choice instead of standard potatoes, but they do have a fairly high glycemic index.

1 medium sweet potato, about a pound, diced
1 medium yellow onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 ounce bourbon
1/2 cup sweetened dried cranberries
1/2 cup toasted pecans
salt and pepper to taste

Heat a saute pan over high heat and add the sweet potatoes. Cook 2-3 minutes, stirring to keep from sticking. Add the onions and cook until translucent 2-3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another minute. Add the bourbon and let it burn off. Check a sweet potato for doneness. If it needs to cook a bit more, add a couple tablespoons of water to the pan to help the sweet potatoe steam. When the sweet potatoes are done, add the cranberries and pecans, mix well and season to taste.

Basic Grape Tomato Salsa. I introduced this because every seems to love salsa and despite it being simple to make, nobody seems to make it at home, relying instead on terrible store-bought salsa. I also wanted to highlight salsa as a great means of introducing flavor and texture to dishes, without adding calories.

1 pint grape tomatoes, halved
1/2 small red onion, finely diced
3 green onions, sliced
2 tablespoons minced cilantro
2 garlic cloves, minced
juice of one lime to taste
1 small hot pepper in fine dice to taste
salt to taste

Mix the tomatoes, onions, cilantro and garlic. Add lime juice, hot pepper and salt to taste.

For ideas of what to do with salsa, I cooked a small catfish filet and put it in a whole wheat wrap with lettuce, cilantro, and salsa for a quick and healthy take on a fish taco. And I mixed salsa with cooked beans, in this case, Sea Island red peas, a heritage pea from Georgia (see photo below). You can use any canned or cooked bean for a quick bean salad.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Stock Clarification Techniques

I like to try out new techniques in the kitchen every once in a while to see how they might be useful in my repertoire. Cooking is a continual process of learning for me; if I’m not learning, why am I in the kitchen? Among the new techniques that I have tried is a method for clarifying stocks into consommés. I conducted a small series of experiments over the last year to compare the new technique to the standard technique.

Because my grounding is solidly classical, I have heretofore made my consommés using a protein fining technique, adding raw egg whites or raw chicken breast to cold stock and gently heating it. As the raw protein coagulates (cooks), it traps the impurities from the stock and with reasonable care, a clear consommé emerges after filtering the “raft” of solid protein from the liquid.

Some years ago, I learned of a technique called ice filtration (or gelatin clarification) via the famous British chef Heston Blumenthal. I doubt that he invented the technique, but he is certainly responsible for bringing it to my attention and that of chefs all over the world. The technique involves letting a stock gel (either from naturally occurring gelatin or by adding more gelatin), then freezing the gel, and then letting the gel melt very slowly such that the clear liquid separates from the gelatin matrix which holds the impurities in suspension. There is no doubt that this technique is high on cool factor; it is really quite amazing to see it in action.

Both techniques achieve the desired result of a clear liquid, but there are some significant procedural differences and clearly perceptible differences in the resulting consommé.

First the technical differences. The ice filtration technique takes almost no effort on the part of the cook, a clear win for the novel technique. But the process of chilling the stock, freezing it, and letting it thaw at refrigerator temperatures takes seemingly forever, a minimum of 48 hours for a reasonable amount of consommé. And getting the frozen stock to thaw in a reasonable amount of time involves freezing it in thin sheets; this takes a lot of both refrigerator and freezer space, space that many restaurants may not have. That’s two wins for the standard technique to one for the new technique.

Now for the qualitative factors. The ice filtration technique appears to clarify the stock slightly better than the standard method based on my observation in the kitchen. Done correctly, ice filtration gives crystal clear consommé every time; sometimes it is necessary to clarify a stock a second time using the standard technique. That’s two wins apiece, a draw so far.

My experiments concluded by tasting consommés made from the same stock using the two techniques, side-by-side and blind. The ice filtration consommé has a water-like body: all the gelatin is gone from the final product. The standard consommé has a weight to it, a silkiness that the gelatin imparts, not unlike the body that glycerin gives a wine made from ripe grapes. And I find that the ice filtration consommé tastes weaker than the standard consommé. It may be that the gelatin increases my perception of flavor; in any case, I clearly prefer the standard consommé over the ice filtration consommé every time during blind tasting. On my score card, that’s four wins for the old method to two for the new. Your mileage may vary.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Chef's Tasting

We just did a tasting for Phil and Deirdre Armstrong of Harvest Thyme Herb Farm in Staunton, VA, suppliers of herbs and vegetables to fine restaurants in the Staunton and Charlottesville area, as well as fellow bloggers. We wish we lived closer together so that we could work together.

Gravlax of Brook Trout. I'm a sucker for all kinds of cured and smoked fish, so when I got a delivery of way too many brookies, I decided to do a traditional salmon cure on some of them, hence the appropriation of the term gravlax. Garnishes are caperberries, dilled sour cream, red ribbon (aka blood) sorrel from the flats growing in our kitchen, and chervil which overwintered outside on the deck. I especially like the deep red color that the overwintered chervil takes on.

The crispy brown bits are parsnip crisps, something that we arrived at serendipitously. I love to serve smoked fish with latkes and we have been doing a lot of parnsip latkes lately. The night before the tasting, one of the cooks made a latke that was too big to fit onto the komatsuna garnish that I had already laid out on a plate, so I had him cut the latke down with a round cutter. That left all the crispy edge bits on the cutting board for chef snackies. The crispy edge bits were so good that we decided to do all crispy bits for the tasting.

Guinea Breast. We had a couple of guinea breasts laying around with no other use in mind, so we did a little ghetto sous vide on them and served them in a bowl of Surry sausage jus, with blanched Kentucky Wonder bean sprouts. Who knew you could eat baby bean plants? I sure as hell didn't think of it until Billie Clifton of Sunflower Cottage, our local microgreen supplier, brought some in a couple weeks back. To answer your question, they taste just like green beans. Go figure.

Porcini Carolina Gold Risotto with Wild Mushrooms, Guanciale, and Sage. We just had to do a wild mushroom course because we have wild mushrooms coming out of our ears now. It's been a great winter season for both black trumpets and hedgehogs. This is a really simple risotto of Anson Mills Carolina Gold rice, dried porcini, fresh sage from my home garden, and spectacular guanciale from La Quercia in Iowa. This is the last of my supply from La Quercia but even as good as it is, I'm looking forward to trying the guanciale from the home team in Manakin, VA, Olli Salumeria Americana. How cool is it to have two great suppliers of guanciale?

Garnishes are black trumpet mushrooms, hedgehog mushrooms, prosciutto crsips, fresh sage, and a cheese crisp made from porcini powder and pecorino Sardo. What you don't see in the photo is the barely poached quail egg beneath the robe of risotto. I love this trick. The egg yolk really enriches the risotto.

Pork Confit with Polenta Poblano Spoonbread and Salsa Verde. Ordinarily we don't do tomatillos out of season, but they were already in house from a very specific tasting that we did last weekend. I like to think of this dish as something you would get if your Southern grandma were of Mexican descent. It combines Southern classics spoonbread and fried green tomatoes with poblanos and salsa verde. And the crispy pork confit evokes carnitas, but the flavor is different because we used some orange zest and cognac in seasoning the pork before we cured it.

So what you see on the plate from left to right is a swoosh of salsa verde (poblanos, onions, tomatillos, cilantro, garlic), a fried green tomatillo, crispy pork confit threads, pimentón sauce (the orange sauce), and a cube of pork confit sitting on top of the spoonbread (leftover polenta, roasted poblano purée, cream, and eggs).

Bestilla of Border Springs Lamb. We get lambs in on a regular basis and tend to use the primary cuts (racks, loin chops, and legs) first. Then we end up with a lot of tiny foreshanks and necks in freezer after several months. That's when I get to braising, because braising is my favorite cooking technique and the neck and shank meat is the best meat on the lamb. This time, Craig's wonderful lamb ended up in a classic Moroccan tagine, a stew redolent of spices. I have made hundreds of tagines in my career and this was one of the best; I'm really honing in on just about the perfect spicing to showcase the lamb without overwhelming it. After braising, the lamb gets separated from the vegetables and the sauce. The lamb gets pulled and mixed back with the vegetables and the defatted and reduced sauce.

I wanted to showcase this beautiful pulled lamb, so I came pretty quickly to a classic bestilla. Rather than scramble eggs into the filling in the classic manner, I packed the pastries with lamb and buried a raw quail egg in the center, which then baked into a solid egg in the oven. We generally accompany our lamb tagine with chizu, a spicy carrot slaw. I wanted to use the chizu as a sauce and so we made a vinaigrette of it like we do with kimchee à la David Chang of Momofuku. Because of the high water content in the carrots, we had to use a touch of xanthan to bind the water and keep the vinaigrette from bleeding. The other sauce is a mixture of ras al hanout (an Arab spice mix) and Greek yogurt.

The salad garnish we called a winter salad. It consists of everything green that we could find, dressed with a preserved lemon vinaigrette. From what I remember, the salad contains brussels sprouts petals, tiny broccoli leaves, micro arugula, micro bulls blood beets, and chervil.

White Chocolate Goat Cheese Cheesecake with Sweet Potato, Almond, and Cranberry Florentine. I wanted to use sweet potatoes in the dessert course and it struck me to substitute them for the candied orange peel in a classic florentine, a crunchy cookie containing nuts and candied fruit glued together with honey, cream, and sugar. Florentines are often coated or drizzled with chocolate. We coated ours entirely with white chocolate and then used the Florentine as a crust for a white chocolate and goat cheese cheesecake. I've made hundreds if not thousands of cheesecakes in my life, but never with goat cheese, although that seems a pretty obvious thing to do. I enjoyed the goat cheese flavor; it reminded me of a panna cotta made with yogurt in which the acidity of the cheese/yogurt plays off the sugar to give a well balanced end result. Garnish is a drizzle of blueberry crème anglaise.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

2011: February 15th

As I sit here writing this, I am extremely tired and physically sore from all the cooking that we did over the long Valentine’s Day weekend, which culminated in outstanding fashion with two full turns of the dining room last evening. Turns indicate how many times a table has been seated. Two turns means that we seated every table twice last night, an excellent thing. Had Valentine’s Day been a weekend night, we might have reseated some late tables for a third time. But as it was a Monday night, we only had lukewarm enthusiasm for our tables at 8pm and later. Can’t say that I blame people for that; we all had to work this morning.

As hard as last night was on the staff and me, Saturday night was far worse. Valentine’s Day is well scripted and flows quickly but naturally for us from long years of experience. The tables are seated at regular intervals (we set the times the tables will be seated for Valentine’s Day) and divided into two separate seatings so that the traffic, while intense, is spread out at manageable levels for the service staff and for the kitchen. Last night, we did two full turns of the restaurant spread out over five hours.

But by contrast, this past Saturday was a free-for-all. Customers reserved tables willy nilly and so we had the same number of customers on Saturday night as we did for Valentine’s Day, only we jammed that into about 3 and a half hours. Apparently it was like this at most restaurants on Saturday night. Every chef that I have spoken to about Saturday night has used the same word to describe it, “Brutal.” Brutal though it was, these kinds of nights are what we live for in this business. We love to be busy and we love to be challenged and we love knowing that we can still deliver the goods even when seemingly all hell is breaking lose.

The kitchen on one of these busy nights is a mad house. It is bright, it is noisy, it is hot, and it is frantically busy. The dish machine is roaring and filling the kitchen with steam—I don’t have a luxury kitchen with a separate dish pit; the dish line is right behind the plating counter which is right behind the hot line: seven feet separate the line cooks from the dish machine and its belches of steam. The radio is blaring, but none of us hear it. The exhaust fan on the hood makes it nearly impossible to hear when you are under it, so we are yelling to be heard. The expediter—the person in charge of calling tickets, pacing the line, and picking up food—stands 8 feet from the end of the plating counter which is another 10 feet from the farthest line cook and is yelling to be heard all the way down the line.

The heat in the kitchen, while not nearly so bad as in the summer, was unusually high because of the abnormally warm weather we have been having. To make up for the air that the exhaust fan is venting from the kitchen, a separate fan blows outside air back in. We’ve been used to air temps below freezing during dinner; to have 50-something degree air coming back into the kitchen in February made it seem a bit summerlike. But it definitely was not like in the summer when the 90-degree makeup air is the coolest thing in the kitchen. No, far from it. But that’s a tale for the summer and we’ll get to it soon enough.

And busy! It was crazy! The dishwasher is running racks of dishes as fast as he can to keep the dish table clear so that the servers and assistants have room to dump more dirty dishes. And so we have enough china, silverware, and glassware to handle all these people. In doing two full turns of the dining room, we used some of the dishes five and six times. The servers and assistants are nearly running through the kitchen dropping checks, picking up food, telling the expediter when they need the next course of food for a particular table. And the cooks, we’re multitasking like we invented multitasking, although the servers are likely out-multitasking us for we get to stand in one place, while they have to be seemingly everywhere at once.

At one point during last night’s service, the kitchen had about a five-minute break between seatings—and I feel bad for the servers here because there are no breaks in the front of the house. I took advantage of this to go out the kitchen door into the server station to get my first glass of cold water in two hours. Unless you are in the business, you cannot imagine the abrupt transition from the kitchen to the dining room.

The heat, the belching steam, the blinding fluorescent lights, the yelling cooks, the blaring radio, the screaming exhaust fan, and the chaos of everyone working at breakneck speed just stops dead the second you walk out the kitchen door. The contrast is such that you might have well been dropped on another planet. The dining room is dimly lit, comfortable, and quiet! You hear the soothing sounds of the guitarist strumming away, ice tinkling in glasses, and people chatting and laughing. And the servers are walking as if they had all the time in the world.

To understand that we are at war behind the kitchen door and that our customers a few feet away are oblivious to it is to understand the great performance that we and all restaurants put on each and every service.

As I was finishing the last posting at the first of the month, I learned that a long-time customer and supporter of the restaurant had passed away. Doug Adams died the first of the month. Doug sent back more food than any other customer in the history of the restaurant! He wanted things just so and if they were not just so, back the food came. He was in earlier years prone to try foods that he had never had before—softshell crabs come to mind—and if he didn’t like that food, back it came. But we loved him anyway. He was a good man, a good friend to a vast number of people, a great supporter of the restaurant, a prominent man in our community and we will miss him. Doug, wherever you are, don’t order the softshells!

We also did a couple of tastings in the last two weeks, the most intricate of which was a 9-course tasting on Saturday night before the Super Bowl. We took our cue from the time of the year and themed the dinner “Super Bowl Foods.” We drew up a list of commonly served foods at Super Bowl parties and then worked out how we could pun each one or alter it in some totally unexpected way. We had a blast and the customers loved the dinner. An example course is the Buffalo Winngs for which I boned out a turkey wing, stuffed it with braised bison short rib, and formed it into a classic galantine which we browned and served sliced with a highly reduced turkey glace.

One final example is the dish you see in the photo, the dish that we called Popcorn Shrimp. The customer who booked the dinner told me that his wife loves blackened scallops. We wanted a way to serve her scallops that would both fit in with our theme and a way that we could sneak the scallops onto the menu under her radar. We cut very large scallops into shrimp shapes, attached a shrimp tail, and hid the scallop under tempura batter. We served this with a bit of a spicy sauce made from our house-made Cajun spice mix and a bowl of delightful Cajun-spiced popcorn. As fun as this scallop was to do and to eat, I think the popcorn upstaged it. It was really good!

Last Monday, in preparation for launching our cooking classes, Michelle and I did a photoshoot and interview with the Winchester Star, the article to be published later this week. And then Tuesday, I spoke at Career Day for the 8th graders at my youngest daughter’s school. These two extracurricular events outside the restaurant were enough to get me behind schedule heading into the psycho-busy Valentine’s weekend. It was heads down after that trying to get back on track. The worst day of the week was probably Thursday when we received truck after truck after truck after truck all day long, just to get enough food, drink, and supplies in house to get through the weekend.

In the midst of all this, we finished testing applicants to replace Chris, who leaves at the end of the month. After interviewing candidates, we bring them into the kitchen to work with us for a few hours. We can’t tell everything in that short period but we can assess basic knife skills, general kitchen knowledge, cleanliness, attention to detail, and speed. After testing five candidates, we narrowed the choice to two and started checking references on both of them. And I finally hired Travis, a relatively inexperienced young man with workable skills, but with a seemingly insatiable appetite for the food business and creativity. It is always that self-drive and sheer passion in creating great things with food that separate one candidate from the pack. Travis will now train with Chris for the remainder of Chris’ stay with us.

I had a bit of a scare last week. On Thursday right before Valentine's Day, my seafood sales rep informed me that my delivery on the 13th would be the last for his company—they decided to close the doors on their Northern Virginia operation. I thought that this was going to leave me in a real bind for the next week at least until I could formulate a backup strategy. But it’s nothing new. This is the third seafood company in seven years to go out of business on me. In a bizarre kind of way, I guess you could say that I am used to it. Fortunately, my sales rep moved to another seafood company and convinced management there to start serving the high end restaurants in this part of the world.

In closing, signs of spring are there if you look for them. Yesterday I took full advantage of the gorgeous and unseasonable weather to prune the roses at the restaurant. They never went fully dormant this year and a couple were sending out leaf buds. I wanted to prune them to retard their growth in case the weather turns severely cold over the next few weeks. I don't want any cold damage. These roses are old friends by now and I had to make some hard cuts this year, removing (by plan) some of the old canes that have supplied such beautiful blooms in the past so that there is room for the newer canes to come on and supply us with blooms for the next few years.

In addition to bud break on my roses, we are getting fresh broccoli, arugula, spinach, and rapini from local growers. And hopefully with the longer days and warmer weather, the Chinese broccoli, gai lan, will be here next week. Also the first shad roe hit the market this week though I won't buy any for a couple of weeks until the price moderates. And my mushroom guy says the first crop of morels from California should be harvested around March 1st. So until then, thanks again for reading along.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

2001: February 1st

January is now in the books and it was one for the books: our worst month ever in nine years of business. The press keeps touting that the recession is receding but from my vantage point, I can't see it. Recession or not, the weather was a crucial factor in lack of January sales. In the last two weeks of our first four-week month, we lost 7 of 10 sales days to weather. (Aside: our year is divided into 13 4-week accounting periods so that we compare the same weeks every year; calendar months complicate things because for example, January can have four weekends one year and five the next). As I have said before, the actual weather doesn't matter and for the record, we only had one bad day of snow. Just the forecast of bad weather is sufficient to stall business. I don't like the weather forecasters very much right now.

This is the time of year that gift certificates come back to haunt us. We sell scores for Christmas and consequently stockpile a little cash to help us get through the winter. In the last couple of weeks, those gift certificates have come out of the woodwork. At this, the slowest time of year when we are starving for cash, we’d love to have everyone pay cash, but it is not to be. Perversely, this is the time of year when we take in the highest percentage of gift certificates. So what really matters to our business, cashflow, is at its worst of the year at a time when the weather causes traffic to be at its worst too. But such is the business; I'm used to it.

It's not all gloom and doom, though. I have two pieces of good news. First, while business overall continues to be weak, I’m pleased with the strength of our Saturday night book. The majority of our business is coming from 703, 571, and 202 area codes. Thanks to everyone in Northern Virginia and DC for making the drive out and keeping us in business. While our restaurant is one of the more expensive ones in Winchester, by Northern Virginia and DC standards, our prices are on the low end of the spectrum. To quote a customer from a recent anonymous dining survey, "the best tasting fine dining meal I've had for the lowest price in a long time."

The second piece of good news is that all my year-end bookkeeping was completed by the 19th, well ahead of my usual schedule of the 23rd or 24th. I put my head down for 8-hour stretches at a time and motored through the paperwork. Thankfully, it is all behind me for another year.

Last posting, I talked about needing to revamp the lunch menu. Here’s another reason. Since the debacle in the Gulf of Mexico last spring, the price of shrimp is through the roof. And shrimp is king of our lunch menu. Our shrimp and grits lunch entrée is easily the biggest seller we have. And now, the shrimp we use has escalated from $6.50 a pound to $9.25 a pound. The shrimp and grits entrée priced at $12 is no longer pulling its weight. As currently constructed, this dish needs to sell for about $16.50. My options are: keep on sucking it up and pray for shrimp prices to recede, raise the price to reflect the true cost of shrimp, shrink the portion size, raise the price slightly, reduce the quality of shrimp, or some combination.

This is an example of a problem that food purveyors and grocery manufacturers deal with continually: how to maintain profitability when a commodity escalates sharply in price. I’m not a big business: I can’t stockpile 1000 pounds of shrimp in my freezer. My freezer is barely big enough to hold ice cream for desserts. I can’t lock in prices on long-term or futures contracts. I have to deal with market prices. For our dinner menu, this is not a problem. I change it daily, so if, for example, rockfish were to spike to obnoxious price levels, I would serve another species of fish. But the lunch menu is a different beast. It changes about six times a year, leaving me vulnerable to price fluctuations.

In the last two weeks, guests have really pleased me by latching on to two of our more creative dishes that are not the typical salad/crab cake/steak dishes that we sell so much of. The Sweet Potato Bisque with Crab appetizer is a silky smooth soup that we make with sweet potatoes, coconut milk, kaffir lime, red curry paste, fish sauce, and Thai basil. On top of this fairly thick soup we nestle a mound of jumbo lump crab marinated in kaffir lime vinaigrette.

Also popular is the vegetarian Israeli Couscous “Risotto” with Goat Cheese entrée, Israeli couscous cooked like risotto in vegetable broth, seasoned with a little garlic and pimentón, garnished with tomatoes, roasted red peppers, and artichoke hearts, and finished by swirling in goat cheese, grated pecorino, and baby arugula. It may be selling because it is a really good dish. Or it might be selling for a reason that I mentioned in my last posting: people are prone to try to eat what they perceive as healthier food at this time of year because of their New Year’s resolutions. In any case, I applaud them for trying a dish that they cannot find at another restaurant.

I polished the Valentine’s menu and posted it on the web site on the 17th and opened up the reservations book for Valentine’s Day reservations. We do not accept reservations more than 30 days in advance; our experience has been that we have a very high no-show rate for tables booked more than a month out. Almost immediately, all our tables from 7:00 to 7:30 filled up. We still have a lot of tables from 5:00 to 9:00, but those really won’t start filling up until the final week before Valentine’s Day and a large percentage of people calling then will grouse about not being able to get a table in the 7:00 to 7:30 time slot. Not much I can do about that.

For Valentine's Day and other days when space is at a premium, we require a credit card to hold tables; it keeps our no-show rate right around zero. Before we started requiring credit cards, we would have a significant no-show rate for the early and late tables. The game that some people play is to wait until way too late to book a table then call a bunch of restaurants, booking any table (or even a couple of tables at different restaurants) closest to the time that they want. Then they will waitlist themselves at all the other restaurants. If a table opens up at a more preferable time, they will take that table, but not cancel any of their reservations. And they still stay waitlisted hoping for a still better table. It’s a despicable practice, but it happens frequently.

We were in the highly unusual position this year of cancelling one of our prime time tables. We held the table because the customer said, "I’m at work and my credit card is at home." We didn’t believe that—who goes out without their credit card?—but still we held the reservation on the off chance that the customer may have truly forgotten her card. After three unanswered phone calls to her and messages requesting her credit card number, we left her a message stating that her reservation had been cancelled and her table given to someone else. This has never happened before for a prime table. And as we get into February, this won’t happen again. No credit card, no reservation.

Also in the past couple of weeks, I’ve sent photographs to Virginia Wine Lover magazine for an upcoming issue featuring the City of Winchester. And I did an interview with a writer for the National Culinary Review about using kale and winter greens for a forthcoming issue as well. I also sent them photos and a recipe for a couple of soups featuring kale, including my ribollita.

We hold a wine dinner each month, typically on the third Thursday and in January, we scheduled a dinner with Tarara Winery from just north of Leesburg. Unfortunately, we had to cancel it because we didn't have enough reservations the week before the event. Sadly, we could have gone forward with the event because true to the recent fashion of waiting until the last possible moment to book, several people called for reservations after I had already cancelled it. I don't think people realize that it can take up to a week to get the necessary wine delivered so I have to make a go or no-go decision about a week in advance of the dinner. Speaking of wine dinners, we're planning a really cool dinner featuring excellent new-style Greek wines on February 24th. We'd love to have you at the dinner; just make sure to call by the 18th. I promise that we will not serve retsina at this dinner or ever!

Speaking of wine, we make major revisions to our wine list twice a year, just before Memorial Day and just after Labor Day. The spring sees the addition of rosés and juicy summer patio whites such as Vinho Verde, Rueda, and Torrontes. The fall revision ushers these wines out; actually it’s nothing we do actively. When the weather starts to turn, we all reflexively reach for the reds for the fall and winter. It’s the normal scheme of things.

I mention this now because we are already starting to think about revisions for the spring, about what sells well in our market and what does not, about which wines are trendy right now, about which regions had great upcoming vintages, and about which distributors are doing well by us and which are not. We currently have a sales rep who is not doing a good job for us; worse still, the distributor for which the rep works is undergoing a lot of internal turmoil, turmoil that is readily apparent to us, the customer. This is bad for the rep because we are actively searching for replacements for that rep’s wines. Although there are a bunch of wines that we cannot move away from this rep, this rep will probably do 50% less business with us in 2011 than 2010.

As you know, we take the local sourcing of our ingredients seriously and get some of them from some surprising sources. The Grafton School in Berryville, home to many special needs students, has a greenhouse on site for one of their programs in which they grow various things, including red ribbon sorrel for the restaurant. We just took delivery of a couple of flats of beautiful sorrel that reside in our kitchen to be used for garnish. This is a great win-win program.

As I mentioned in the last post, teaching cooking classes is in my future. The major stumbling block to doing cooking lessons at the restaurant is that the kitchen is too small and too busy. By teaming up with a local catering company and using their kitchen, I'm going to be able finally teach cooking classes. The schedule is posted on the restaurant web site.

I'm full in the throes of trying to replace Chris. Over the past week, we have interviewed several candidates and brought them in for test shifts to see what their skills are, to see what our mutual chemistry is, and to see how cleanly and efficiently they operate. Speed and efficiency is key but that has to be balanced with with executing dishes correctly and beautifully. So far, I've seen several meticulous cooks who are very slow. We still have a couple more candidates to test out. Hopefully I will hire someone in the next few days and get on with the process of getting the new cook up to speed.

I'll close with a story of a hateful table from last week, a couple of self-important types who wanted everything just so with their service, yet wouldn't let us approach the table to give them the service that they wanted. This type of table tells you they’re not in a hurry and gives you clear signals to stay away and not to interrupt them, yet are the first to jump down your throat when they need more butter. If you’ve ever waited tables, you know the kind. Your tip is screwed no matter what. Either you give them the service they want and get screwed on the tip because you wouldn’t leave them alone or you leave them alone and get screwed because you didn’t give them the service that they wanted. Why do these people go out to eat?

Looking forward, I have two Chef's Tastings this week to focus on and then I have to get really serious next week about Valentine's Day. There are a lot of logistics to be managed that I am certain I will discuss in the next posting. So, until right after Valentine's Day, thanks for reading along.