Paris Gastronomique

Ah Paris. What an amazing city.  It was my first time visiting this gorgeous place and it couldn’t have come at a better time, my schooling at Le Cordon Bleu is just a week away from ending and my internship at a modern French Boston restaurant (Menton) is just about to begin.  The stars aligned for this one.

Throughout my life, I have formed opinions of how the French people are, most of my influence came from movies, books, and stereotypes. Even cartoons such as Pepe Le Pew when I was a child conjured ideas in my head about the snotty and rude French.  However, I must say, after spending seven days in this country I did not encounter one rude, maladjusted, or condescending person. I asked for directions, ordered meals, and participated in everyday language both in English and my horrible French without any problems at all.  Perhaps it was my boyfriend’s ability to speak French so eloquently that enabled us to fit in seamlessly, but, then again he’s English and that’s a whole other story. (Why the French hate the British).

We arrived in France on a rainy and cold afternoon, after finding our way out of the Luxembourg station in the 6th arrondissement, near St. Germaine De Pres we were steps from our rented Parisian apartment (Thanks Airbnb!). Although I was too excited by all the smells, sights, cafes, and well-to-do-frenchies, we decided it would be best to nap off our jet lag a bit.  I awoke to wine, brie, and a warm and crusty baguette…right! I’m in France! Yes I have the best boyfriend ever. I shook off my foggy head and got down to business with wine and travel guides.

After stuffing myself full of cheese, bread and wine, we went to hit the town around midnight. Although the French often eat later in the evening and restaurants’ usually stay open until 2am, this was not so much on a rainy Monday night.  We found ourselves just a block away at a covered outdoor café that faced the Luxembourg gates.  It wasn’t anything special, but my surroundings and company were, so we had a fantastic time.  The elderly owner was still fluttering about serving us and the few remaining Parisians that still imbibed sipping wine and smoking.  We enjoyed a wonderful bottle of Bordeaux until our teeth looked like wood and Dan splurged on a plate of frites while I took in all the sights and smells of the world around us. Our waiter/owner did not rush us albeit approaching two in the morning, he let us sit and sip and relax until we were the last people in the restaurant.

After three bottles of wine and ten hours of sleep we awoke without one trace of a hangover.  How can this be we thought! A spot of coffee and a few croissants later.. ok and a pain au chocolate.. ok AND a bit of baguette with jam we made moves.  Pastry overloaded and quite happy we decided to plop our carbed out bodies on a tour of the city by way of the Big Bus Tour.  Two and a half hours later we had seen all the major sights and scoped out our adventure areas for the week.

On Wednesday we woke up to torrential rain, it was not what we had planned for, however we were in PARIS and it didn’t matter.  After a few train rides on the metro, we ended up in the largest and oldest covered market in Paris. Tiny books stores, craft shops, wine boutiques, tiny restaurants, artisans, and the occasional empty space filled over 4 city blocks of undercover market places. It felt like true old world Paris.  I could feel the tinkers, butchers, and cheese mongers who formerly occupied this space. It was very special.

While most of the lunch spots were bustling with customers, we were starving and a bit defeated when we stumbled upon a rather fancy but empty looking spot; Passage 53, located at the 53rd address of covered arcade.  We entered a modern minimalist dining room adorned with simple art, and colorful place settings. The maitre’d greeted us in a smart-looking, sleek black suit, with a black skinny tie. He was very French looking minus the thin upper lip mustache, and with a bright smile he welcomed us. He sat us and quickly explained that there was no menu, only pre fixe gastronomique tasting menu; the lunch version, or if we wanted to go bigger, the dinner tasting menu.  But before we were to choose he needed to check with the chef to see if he could accommodate two more for lunch. He further explained that they run solely on reservations.  I started to get nervous. I felt under dressed; I was wearing a simple sun dress soaked in rain, and Dan in his t- shirt and shorts. I was convinced he was checking with the chef to figure out a way to tell us to leave. We were under dressed but that didn’t seem to phase the wait staff, the Maitre’d came back with excellent news that they had room for two more. To our delight, we began to discuss the menu options. Without question Dan and I went for the whole shebang, plus the extra course with caviar. We’re on vacation, bring it! My nerves were instantly calm, we had been accepted.  As guests started to arrive, we noticed their anticipation and energy flooding the room and we quickly began to realize that we were somewhere unique.

If I could eat tasting menus everyday of my life I would. They are such a thrill, a rollercoaster for your palate, and always an adventure of new flavors and products. What I am about to walk you through is an endless homage to traditional French cuisine but in the most simple flavors and modern techniques of our culinary culture to date.  It is and exquisite experience to eat such developed flavors and to understand their depths and difficulty.  Fourteen courses of pure amazingness; some simple, some complex, but all fabulously harmonious.

Amuse bouche #1-Grilled salsify, first poached in butter.

Amuse bouche #2- Veloute of fresh pea with a quenelle of pea ice cream

Course Un- Caviar alongside potato strings with chive and chive blossom

Course Deux- Crab, English cucumber, pea gratinee, horseradish cream, poured cucumber jus with verbena

Course Trois- Gentle poached langoustine with cauliflower cream with crisp cauliflower shavings

Course Quatre-White asparagus, Parmesan cream, crumbled egg yolk and parmesan crisp

Palate awakener- Veal Consomme with a 3 minute egg, sorrel mushroom, chives and asparagus

Course Cinq- Turbo with peas, lima bean, and butter poached wheat berries with wood sorrel

Course Six- Veal breast with fingerling potatoes, celery foam, fennel foam, cabbage, mustard micro green and mustard seed puree

Course Sept- Squab, pumpkin cardamom puree, a micro brunoise quenelle of carrots vichy

Course Huit- Crème Brulee with an isomalt crackle

Course Neuf- Lemon curd ice cream with a lime candy and a cold lime crème sauce

Course Dix- Burnt caramel ice cream with a shaved white chocolate crumble

Course Onze- Season cherries, cherry sorbet, grated white chocolate and cherry grantinee on top of a white cherry ice cream

Course Douze- Chocolate ganache tart with citrus honey

All in all; 14 courses with champagne to start and coffee to end.  Our bellies were full, our minds were swirling with excitement and my taste buds were dancing around in my mouth. It was one of the best meals of my life; simple, well executed, unexpected, and entirely memorable.

Paris Part Deux coming up soon!

The Day I cooked for Jacques Pépin

I recently had the honor of being a chef volunteer at the 5th annual Pebble Beach Food & Wine Festival. I first caught wind of the idea through a west-coast based family member, “uncle” Kent, who I’ve just been getting to know over the past 2 years.  You might remember a blog post from the early days of UMK titled; A life without cheese, is not a life worth living!  when I first met Kent in his cheese shop in Carmel, CA.  Kent, a former Hawaiian native, professional sommelier and serious cheese intellectual has the friendliest personality west of the Mississippi, not to mention he’s a natural born networker and knows everybody.  

When Kent first mentioned the PBFW was coming up in April of this year, he said “hey maybe you want to come? I can probably put you in touch with the event organizers and perhaps they can get you volunteering in the kitchens”  Really?, I thought to myself. How cool! I immediately planned to be there.  After sending my resume around and having a phone interview with the head Chef Liasion, Dorothy… things started moving.  I was offered a position to come work and she told me she’d do her best to ‘take care of me’.

It wasn’t until 2 weeks before the event when I found out what she meant…

Holy Sh*t. Eyes wide, mouth dropped open, nervous laughter begins… Jacques Pépin. How? what? me?!

When I arrived at the Spanish Bay club to meet Chef Harvey Wolff, Jacques Pépin’s tour/chef manager on Thursday morning, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was excited.  Upon meeting Harvey, he was an energetic guy, with a lovely British accent, adorning cigarettes behind both his ears. As we waited for our other chef volunteer, Janet, to arrive, Harvey and I engaged in small talk and found we had quite a lot of things in common, this comforted me, eased my excited nerves and got me ready to work!

Once Janet arrived, we made our way down to the kitchens. One minute it’s a quiet, peaceful, California sunshiny day and with one swing of the door we enter a chaotic, busy kitchen; pots clanking, the sounds of dish washer spray, rolling carts of products, dishes being stacked, Spanish, English, French speaking flutters about.  I love this.  We locate our rack of product and head to find a kitchen.

As we prep our mise en place and put together our plan of attack, Harvey puts Janet and I in charge. We are given two student volunteers, with the hopes of receiving a few more. Prepping 1000 pieces in 8 hours seemed doable…and then we got started.

  • 45 lbs of tuna, filleted and small diced
  • 3 crates of cucumber, mandolin sliced paper thin, and cut to fit each .5 oz tuna tartare
  • 24oz of pressed caviar to be rolled paper thin and stamped out into 1000 circles
  • 1 lbs of shallots, brunoised
  • 1 lb of garlic, brunoised.
  • 1 jug of horseradish
  • 750 ml red wine vinegar
  • 4 volunteers total

We quickly realize we have a daunting task in front of us, but this was the job and this was for Jacques Pépin.

When we finally began working it was already 11am, by then we had luckily secured one other student volunteer making us a team of 5.  Time to get started! Janet and I filleted the tuna, Dominique rolled, pressed, and cut the caviar. Nathan worked on the cucumber slices, and the other student who was as slow as molasses helped out wherever she could. By 1pm we only had 100 pieces prepped on a sheet tray and they weren’t even wrapped in cucumber or garnished with the caviar yet. With one glance, Janet and I both knew we had to get moving!

This hors d’oeuvres, although wonderful in concept was a nightmare in execution. All pieces needed to be worked on quickly and stored back in the walk in, handling raw fish, caviar and cucumber does not last long if out of refrigeration for too long.  We found ourselves making small batches of tuna tartare, rolling and slicing the extremely delicate caviar and rushing it into the walk in. Attention to detail along with time and temperature control was of strict importance.

By 2pm, we had another 150 done.

At 4pm we were only at 500…

Service was to begin at 6:30 and we were IN.THE.WEEDS.

With 2.5 hours to go, our kitchen became fluttered with other chefs such as, Michael Chiarello, Daniel Joly, Michael Cimarusti, Daniel Boulud, Michael Symon,  and Anne Burrell, PLUS their assistants and teams! All of a sudden space became public enemy #1.

Adrenaline was pumping, my hands were starting to shake due to the lack of food and low blood sugar, but I was too involved with my job at hand to be star struck.  Here I am calling shots, moving trays, garnishing, slicing cucumbers and cleaning up my work station simultaneously in between Michael Cimarusti (Top Chef Masters guy, hello!) and Michael Chiarello (tv Celeb chef). Very cool, but totally unphased.

Plating began at 6pm, and we only had 850 pieces nearly finished. Setting up an assembly line in the midst of chaos was interesting, but we made it work. Michael Cimarusti helped give us more room, we stacked our pieces on top of sinks, rolling carts, and other peoples food! Whatever it took to get these out to the guests while still cold and delicious.

Between 6pm and 9pm we were making Tuna Tartare with pressed caviar and chive blossoms a’la minute. Hectic. Fun. Beautiful looking and… worth it.

Finished product: Tuna tartare, wrapped in cucumber with pressed caviar, chive blossoms and garlic aioli.

Jacques station and caviar promotion

Around 8pm Jacques and Claudine came into the Kitchen. The commotion around us quickly slowed down and the other chefs in the room took notice.  Chef Pépin is a happy older man, who’s a well respected icon. His presence is fascinating to all who are in the room.  He comes over to thank us for our hard work and to give us credit for making his dish well. He and Claudine are clearly pleased of the outcome and of the buzzing guests on the floor mentioning “the wonderful hors d’oeuvres by Jacques Pépin!”  He graciously shakes each of our hands, looks us in the eye, and wishes us well with our future culinary adventures.  Claudine comes up to me and says “Your Kent’s niece right?”  “Yes” I say, then she goes into what a wonderful guy Kent is, how happy she is to meet me and have me here, and then calls “papa” over in her lovely french accent to come take a photo…

An epic moment

One of the most exciting moments of my life.  I’ve met a few celebrities here and there, but no one person has been more influential and inspiring than of Jacques Pépin. It was an absolute pleasure to work my butt off for him, to go a full day without food, to learn high end production in an over the top, chaotic, environment. It was the best learning experience this budding culinarian could get in a days work.

I also learned a lot about myself on this particular day which is far more beneficial then the actual work we did.  I learned that I can do this. I can kick butt in a kitchen. I can give direction, and can take it. I can motivate others.  I looked at the situation, mapped it out quickly in my head, and got it done;  precisely, efficiently, timely, safely and confidently. But the biggest piece I take from this was that I was able to earn the respect of those around me.  After all the work I’ve done in school over the last 18 months, this moment made it all worth it and it was the first real experience that made me realize I made the right choice to follow my passion.

All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them- Walt Disney

Next up: Los Angeles Food & Wine August 9-13!

Homemade Pork Gyoza

I love dumplings.

They are little presents full of happiness for your mouth and almost every culture has their version; pork, fish, beef, vegetables or sweets can be baked, fried, steamed, or boiled. What a versatile food! But when I think of dumplings, I think of Asian pork dumplings, my favorite.  Savory, spicy, and a tad sweet all in the same bite.  I didn’t realize until I started making them the other day that I’ve never actually had homemade dumplings; I usually just order them at restaurants. And lets be honest, they probably pull them from a cardboard box in the freezer.

I have this great little Sushi place a few blocks up from my apartment called Zen, and until the other day they had my all time favorite pork dumplings. Well Zen, I’ve found you out and I have an even better recipe. My dumplings have the same flavors, but with actual chunky ingredients, not a solidified ball of meat, which makes them a slam dunk.

Skip the take out tonight, and whip up these little pockets of love, you will thank me.

INGREDIENTS:

Blanching the Bok Choy:

  • 8 oz Bok Choy
  • 2 qts water
  • 2 tsp salt

In a small pot bring water and salt to a boil. Once a boil is reached, add bok choy stems and blanch until tender (about a minute).  Shock in cold water.  Next, add the bok choy leaves to the pot and blanch until wilted, about 30 seconds. (this will happen quickly so keep a close eye) Shock the leaves in cold water.  Remove the bok choy and pat dry on paper towl, set aside.

Making the filling:

  • 1 lb Lean Ground Pork
  • 2 egg whites, whipped until frothy
  • 2 oz soy sauce
  • 1 oz sake (optional)
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 1.5 oz sesame oil
  • 1/2 cup Scallions, diced
  • 8 oz bok choy, diced
  • 2 tbsp Ginger, minced
  • 2 tbsp garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp, pepper
  • 2 tsp, red pepper flakes

In a mixing bowl, whip the egg whites until frothy. Combine the pork and mix in the soy sauce, sake, sugar, sesame oil, and mix well together with hands or a fork.  (*Having a box of disposable kitchen gloves nearby is good for a project like this).  After the liquids are mixed, add the ginger, scallions, garlic, pepper, red pepper, and bok choy. The filling is now ready.

Why make pot sticker wrappers when you can buy them! No brainer. A package of gyoza wrappers contains 40-50 wrappers and will cost around $3. Boomski!

To start making the dumplings, line your work space with a piece of parchment paper, this will minimalize the gyoza wrappers from sticking to the bare counter.  Also, place a piece of parchment paper in a sheet tray, this is where you will place your ready-to-be-cooked bundles of tastiness.

Lay out 5 or so wrappers to start on your parchment lined work space. In the center of each dumpling add about a 1/2 tablespoon of filling. This will be trial and error.  I started off with a full tablespoon and quickly found out that the wrapper could not encase that much, but 1/2 tbsp was too little.  You’ll figure it out. Using a finger, dab in a small cup of water and run it along the edge of 1/2 of the gyoza wrapper, fold in half and secure the seams with a few good pinches, pressing the dough together.  Try to make sure to get most of the air out. Reserve on the parchment lined sheet tray and begin the process again with the remaining wrappers and filling.

Cooking the Dumplings:

Flash steam/boil them 4 or 5 at a time in a saute pan filled with about 3/4″ boiling water. This will take about 1-2 minutes.  Pull them from the water and let sit on a parchment lined sheet tray. In a second saute pan add enough cooking oil to coat the pan, around 1/2 inch and heat just until the oil begins to smoke. Make sure the dumplings are fairly dry before tossing in the hot oil.  Scorching hot oil and water do not get along.  Pan fry until golden brown on both sides and serve with my dumpling dipping sauce.

For the sauce:

  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp water
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 2 tbsp ginger, finely minced

Let me know how yours turn out! Thanks for reading- xo, G