Archive for September, 2009

A simple bite

September 29th, 2009

A man came into the restaurant tonight with his wife and mother for his birthday dinner. They each asked me a series of questions seeking clarification about certain menu items.  Is the fried chicken traditional?   I gave the whole spiel about the chicken: how it spends 24 hours brining in salt water; 24 hours soaking in buttermilk; dredged in seasoned flour and finally fried in beef suet.  They were impressed and the gentleman asked if their were another item that was particularly special.  Hands down, the whole hog plate, I said.  We butcher a hog every week in back and you get four different cuts that we prepare four different ways.

“Over the fish and shellfish pan-roast,” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

When the plate arrived I asked him if he would like me to point out the different cuts.  In response he navigated the plate, telling me, quite correctly, the identity of each cut. When he came to the corn meal crusted head cheese he stopped and asked what it was.  I told him.

He looked at me and then told me a story of how he had had one bite of head cheese 25 years ago and had avoided it ever since.  I explained the integrity of our kitchen and he said he would try it.  He ate the whole thing and liked it.

I can’t think of a better example to illustrate my favorite moment in my restaurant life: to take a guest’s perception about an item, or the restaurant itself, and move it 180 degrees in the opposite direction.  It’s a two way street, for sure.  The guest has to be willing to taste the head cheese, even after 25 years of built up distaste.  And, of course, it has to be prepared correctly. Sometimes it seems magical what one can accomplish through doing things the right way.

A burst of epiphany

September 18th, 2009

I have had this regular guest for most of the 2 1/2 years my restaurant has been open. He’s a tad garrulous at times, overly particular about his food, and generally finds himself to be very knowledgeable. He is not overly respectful of either the back or  the front of the house. He is sometimes rude and always tips 10%.

When he came in today it was my turn in the rotation.  Actually his wife came in first and I sat her at a table by the window.  When he arrived ten or so minutes later his eyes hurt him and so he asked to move towards the back of the restaurant where it is dark.  Of course, I said, and moved the water glasses and menus over to the chosen table.

My dad once told me a story about working at the Ringside in ’71.  This fellah came in and regardless the size of the party or the bill would tip the staff $1.  My dad swore to himself that he would some day get $2.  With the correct service and real warmth, by the end of the year, the gentleman was tipping 5 bucks a dinner party.  He never went over that, but that’s not the point.

The cooks behind the line of our open kitchen bear witness to everything that happens in the room…unless, of course, they are getting their asses handed to them.  All kitchen personnel are philosophers.  They are attempting to understand our existence through the growth and preparation of the  food we eat and/or they don’t have to talk to the public.  All cooks are philosophers.

They whisper to me, over the corn grits and grilled pork, they whisper questions about the floor.

“Is that guy on 204 a total douche? Is he really paying more attention to his iphone than to his son?” or “did I really  hear chicken wing guy tell you that he could be a restaurant critic?”

See. I don’t care how decrepit the social graces or what brand of moron walks through that door.  I smile at every nitwit, jack ass, ding dong that rolls into the room…it’s the entirety of the concept that one has to embrace.  If the food is made with love then it deserves to be served with love.  Sometimes it is not received well, but then one can only produce ones best and not everyone in the world will enjoy oven smoked tomatoes with their grilled shrimp.

I busted my ass and made sure the service was genuine and Jack leaves me an astounding 12%. As he is bustling his belongings together he uses his cell phone.

“Where are we? “he asks.

“On the North side of Southeast Stark street,” is what comes to my mind.

“Don’t you know what street we are on?”

I tell him.

His brother came in for the first time about 20 minutes later and sat at the bar.  He had a martini, a two course meal with a beer, and enjoyed himself very much.  He left 20% on his bill, but that’s not really even the point.

It’s the big picture, baby…

My two cents on Yelp

September 17th, 2009

Screen shot 2011-04-26 at 2.32.40 PM

I appreciate the folks seeking to help the small restaurant prosper by expending the effort of posting compliments on yelp.com.  I even appreciate the criticisms. However, I feel forced to add a caveat to my appreciation of yelp.com.

There are no polls to support this, but I have found  that a large percentage of these dramatic food gripes were never once voiced to the restaurant staff.  I ask every guest how they are enjoying the food.  In the few instances that someone mentions something critical (and I really believe our food is incredible; I know the extensive preparation that each dish goes through, but mistakes still do happen) then I take action.  Sometimes one most read the body language of the guest and actually pry the criticism out.  Either way I inform the owner.  We either replace it our buy it.  More instances than not the food is perfect and a dissonance exists between the guest and the food.  One really sees this at breakfast when the blood sugar is low.

It is these folks who do not say anything to the staff, but suffer on through the experience, who write these miserable, yet sometimes eloquent yelpings.  These people affect a professional demeanor, even breaking out into witticisms and pseudo poetry, then try to convince others of the searing nature of their experience.  The menu states that the fried chicken is on a bed of collard greens!  Don’t like it?  Ask me to have the kitchen separate  each item from the other or ask for a separate plate when the carefully assembled dish arrives. How petulant and egoistic is it of you to hurl cowardly, electronic stones at good people who are attempting to change the world in one small, positive way?

Sure everyone makes mistakes.  There are truly bad restaurants out there. There are many restaurants that prepare and serve food without integrity, but there are  definitely restaurants that serve food incorrectly which create a danger to the public.  I applaud those who sincerely are trying to inform other people of your concerns.

Have the courage to let me know if something doesn’t agree with you.  If it doesn’t agree with you the second time then perhaps your taste buds just weren’t meant for our table.  I apologize, but sometimes it just aint meant to be.

Love my Oregon peeps!

September 16th, 2009

The drive down I-5 was sunlight and gentle, though the traffic was sluggish until we made it past Eugene. I had expected the 5 to be swollen until at least past Portland, maybe even Salem, but we could barely sustain a creeping 55 miles per hour.  However, it was a beautiful drive through the Willamette River Valley and over to Jacksonville.
I encourage anyone who enjoys music to see a show at the outdoor amphitheater in Jacksonville. It was extremely intimate (Michael Franti was sold out at 2200), and the views over the valley were lovely, but the sound quality, so true and intense, dwarfed the other components of the show. A truly amazing musical experience.

My friend Sheldon, from Lincoln City, had brought fresh salmon and crab. Fresh cracked dungeness  crab, caught that day, is something to appreciate.  We had 5 quarts of already cracked crab for crab cocktails, my home made pico de gallo and guacamole for our cocktail hour-greeting-pre-function for the Michael Franti show.  Fantastic!

In the morning, after coffee, my good friend Peaches made a smoked salmon, cream cheese scramble and hash browns.  Swimming in the Applegate river, and then back home to deep fried salmon bellies and my beet, tomato, cucumber salad with sunflower green goddess dressing.  Yes, and of course plenty of vino for the heart.

I love partying with people who appreciate the land they live in!

Seasoning

September 9th, 2009

I had always been taught to season at the very end of the cooking process and not to add salt to a marinade. Salt draws moisture from the product.  My father always told me that any reduction of water will increase the ratio of salt to product, which may make the final product too salty.

But at the Farmer’s Market demonstration that Adam did a while ago, he professed the opposite theory.  In other words to salt as you go.  Salt as you go

We cure a lot of our meats at the Country Cat before we cook them, but the above example Adam is talking about vegetables and the resultant flavor profiles that proper seasoning imbues in the food.  Food for thought (and testing in the kitchen).

The true craft of the restaurant

September 4th, 2009

Folks come in to the restaurant, and with good intentions, tell me that they used to work in a restaurant when they were making their way through school.  Or as a part time job when they were younger.  Without meaning to be caustic or ornery  I suggest that most people trivialize restaurant work as some thoughtless drudgery that requires neither skill nor talent.

This is a frequent rant of mine, but there is a craft behind the restaurant.  Even, perhaps a spiritual duty to ensure that every component of the meal was handled with care and love from its raw stage to the finished presentation.   Here is another clip from Adam talking about why he and Jackie wanted to open up the Country Cat.  The craft behind the Country Cat

Food is necessary to survival.  Of course we could subside on peanut butter and jelly.  But we have traditions going back hundreds of years which elevate our humanity and create beauty from the canvass of nature.  Perhaps if we spent more time being conscious of what we ingest, we might find ourselves being drawn to people like Adam and Jackie that love what they do and create meals filled with integrity as well as nutrients.

The beauty of corn: a sustainable kitchen

September 3rd, 2009

Growing up I remember hearing that Americans believe that meat comes wrapped in plastic: that we are divorced from the relationship between the animal and our plate.
I have grown up taking salmon, crabs and other seafood apart in the kitchen, but what a joy there is in actually witnessing a half side of beef being broke down, or a hog, or a lamb. There is an empowerment that comes with understanding the tools that one work with in the kitchen.  This concept is not merely limited to carnivores, as Adam points out during his demonstration for Chef in the Market.  Using the whole product

It seems to me that with a little better information, and with government subsidies focused on local, whole foods instead of soybean and rape seed products, that perhaps we could break the strangle hold that fast food has on this nation’s people.

Tasting the product

September 1st, 2009

I have worked in places where the chef  will raise his eyebrows at you if he catches you munching on a dinner roll.  Lord forbid he catches you eating black berries in the walk-in cooler.

I was laughing to myself  earlier today about eating at the Country Cat.   Not only does Adam feed us a meal before service (it is usually an amazingly healthy salad which helps offset the evening meal) and again feeds us after (we eat a lot of fried chicken!), but he also encourages us to eat during service and as we are setting the restaurant up.  Taste the raw product first is how Adam encourages us to understand the culinary concept behind the Country Cat.

It’s not that rare that a restaurant owner will feed the staff, but it is very rare for the owner to consistently get excited and want to share that excitement with the employees.

A little bacon in the summertime

September 1st, 2009

Adam Sappington defines Summer Succotash

Portland is such a fun city to live in if food excites you and you like to hear knowledgeable folks talk about it. I was able to film my boss, Adam, as he went to the PSU downtown Farmer’s market and demonstrated the Chef in the Market.
Shell beans and ripe corn and onion and a little love provides a beautiful summer succotash. And bacon.
Portland is a city with pork on the plate, so to speak.  Mortdadella, Proscuitto, thick cut bacon all abound in this town.
The end of summer with its baby onions and its sweet corn and bright blackberries is a lovely vehicle to add a little smoked bacon to.   That is of course if you are not vegetarian. Heck, take the bacon, cream and butter out and the fresh veggies and fruits are a vegan delight as well.  Really, anything goes if the raw product is the best available.  Interpretative Summer Succotash