Discussion Post #1- “TWO COOKS ENTER, ONE COOK LEAVES!”

Good afternoon, friends and neighbors!
Today I figured I’d introduce something a little more interesting than my usual posts- I want to put a question to you, and find out what YOU think! Every now and again, I’ll set up a conversation and ask all of you to tell me what you think in the comments. I won’t put in too much, but I will be reading, so no matter what STAY CLASSY and keep it respectful, alright?

Let’s start with an easy one….

     Afternoon, all! Have you seen the latest episode of Chopped? How about Master Chef? Hell’s Kitchen? Top Chef? The Great British Baking Challenge?

     Neither have I, and I don’t intend to.
No judgement on you if you do, of course- you do you. To my mind, though, they just do not interest me, or represent the culinary world as I like to see it.

     When I was a kid, the only cooking competition show I ever watched with any fervor was the original Iron Chef, dubbed for American audiences from the Japanese. I loved seeing the crazy ideas that a genius could whip up under pressure, given the barest hints of what the secret ingredient would be, a team of cooks and stocked pantry to make it happen.

     Since becoming a professional cook though- and even while I was a student, when you think someone in my position would be watching religiously and taking notes- shows that have tried to follow in its footsteps simply don’t impress or thrill me anymore. While I allow there is still something exciting about watching cooks MacGuyver fine food under pressure, to me it feels like these shows take something I love and think about often and turn it in to a gladiatorial bloodsport.

In January of last year, acclaimed chefs Alice Waters and Jacques Pepin- the latter of whom has a unique place in the history of food television- echoed my sentiments very well.

“That’s not what’s cooking is all about,” Pepin told reporters at the Television Critics Association Press Tour. “Cooking is about being together, about love and sharing … That kind of confrontation that you have there is not really how you learn to cook, or how you understand food.”
Waters is in total agreement.
“We’re teaching fast-food values of our country in those competition cooking shows,” she said. “Cooking really is something that can be very meditative. It’s never about competition. It’s about the pleasure of dealing with real food and learning about yourself. … It can be empowering. To put that in competition really takes away from the essence of cooking.”

Do you watch any of these cooking competition shows? 
If so, which ones and why? 
Do you think they have value beyond just being spectacle?
Do you think they are a boon, or a burden, to the culinary world?Other famous personalities in food, like Anthony Bourdain and Bobby Flay, also have less-than-salutory thoughts on the subject. At one point, Bobby Flay decried some of his experiences doing his one-on-one competition show “Throwdown,” saying that he “…didn’t exactly enjoy showing up in the yard of someone’s grandma and acting like he could make a better meatloaf than her.” 

While I appreciate how much of it is spectacle- that competitors are chosen as much for how they’ll seem on camera as how they might do in competition, that judges are encouraged to be simultaneous honest and brutal to elicit as much drama as possible, and Gordon Ramsay’s shrieking sailor’s mouth is just an act- I feel like it’s all unnecessary and even degrading. Are we as a culture so competition-happy, so victory-drunk, that we need to see people sweat and bleed and possibly be humiliated over FOOD- for our amusement?

Discuss:
Do you watch any of these cooking competition shows?
If so, which ones and why?
Do you think they have value beyond just being spectacle?
Do you think they are a boon, or a burden, to the culinary world? Why?

Stay Classy,

Review #11- The Tannery Bar



​Fall in Portland is a bit schizophrenic.

 

Emily and I were hoofing it against the stiff breeze down Burnside, still trying to reconcile the warm weather earlier in the day with the fact that we were both now scarved, gloved, and double-coated. Darkened windows of houses and apartments leered in from opposite sides of the busy road- there was a threat of rain.

“So what are we going here to try?” Emily suddenly pipes up, her hands deep in her coat pockets.

“I was told they have a Fernet-Branca Chocolate Pie, and there are interested parties that want to make it for themselves,” I state matter-of-factly.

“Adam and Nancy, huh?”

“… Yes.”

Emily chuckles. “Well, I hope they have more than chocolate pie here, I’m friggin STARVING.”

“I hope they have friggin’ seats that AREN’T outside…. oh good, doesn’t look too busy.” We hustled inside the Tannery Bar and left the wind outside.

Tannery Bar is pretty easy to miss. A tiny, windowless building except for the front, and directly across from a supermarket and small shopping plaza. The exterior is extremely minimal, with a few uncovered outdoor tables for smokers, people-watchers, and folks with warm coats. Inside, however, we were greeted with an air of warm, unpretentious rustica.

 

​The restaurant is long and shallow, with a small open kitchen behind the bar and long tables of communal seating. There are a few stools at the window where no one in their right mind would sit- simply because it puts you right in the way of passing patrons and servers.

Emily and I get seats at the far-end of a table, underneath antique tools and oil lamps. My back is to the main thoroughfare, so I try to sit as close to the table as possible- I’m keenly aware that not everyone is used to saying “Behind!” when they are slipping past someone, and as wonderful as the kitchen smells, I’d rather not be wearing anything from it.

The menus land, and the first order of the night is drinks. The cocktail menu is fairly straight-forward- mostly house riffs on old standards. There’s a Dark and Stormy featuring blackstrap rum and orgeat… a White Russian featuring orgeat, housemade coffee liquor, and dusted nutmeg…at least three different kinds of Old Fashioned. They are VERY proud of their orgeat, apparently. In the end, Emily chooses a “Jessie’s Girl”, and I decide to play it straight with one of their “shot and a beer” combos, the “Rebel Rebel” (now apparently called “The Bowie”)- a bottle of Rebel Czech lager and a shot of Rebel Yell Reserve Bourbon.
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Decent drink
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Best wifey.
Next, food. Most of the menu items are definitely meant to go with your drinks, and- like the cocktails- are thoughtfully-executed iterations of pub standards, like their fried Brussels sprouts with Cholula aioli, cheese board, and Tannery fries. Emily selects the Hangar Steak, medium rare, and I go for the Tannery Burger- an eye-catching little monster of locally-sourced beef wrapped in goat cheese, topped with bacon and caramelized onions. To lead off, though- a pretzel.
Not just any pretzel, though- a FRESSEN pretzel
Fressen is a local bakery that specializes in old world German baking.
My colleague Victoria spent several years working for them, including twisting such pretzels as these, following recipes that had to be updated to remove certain classic ingredients- like lye. One day, while we were discussing tattoos, she revealed that she’d decided her first tattoo would be the first baked good she’d made one thousand off. Consequently, there is a soft pretzel somewhere on her body- I did not feel it was professional to ask where.
All of this is to say that, these pretzels are GOOD. The people who make them have a long history of making good pretzels, and Tannery has chosen to serve them up warm with malted mustard butter and dijon. 

Emily and I have lived near Philadelphia most of our lives. We KNOW something about soft pretzels, and… my God, YES. After the first bite, we fall upon that curvaceous little wonder like a two-person plague of locusts.

Shortly after the vacated plate is removed, our entrees land- both Emily’s steak and my burger are accompanied by a small escort of the handcut fries and the house salad. The salad is a simple, but pretty little number- dolled up with hemp seed, sprouted almonds, shaved parmesan, and poppyseed cider vinegarette.

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No, I am STILL NOT with the whole ketchup-and-mayo thing out here. They can call it aioli or whatever- it’s mayo, and it does NOT belong with my ketchup, thank you.
Now, Emily and I are practically obligate carnivores- I make no apologies. We both are also ridiculously fond of fries in all their expressions, Emily especially.
The salad went first- for BOTH of us.

This is not to say the burger and the steak weren’t excellent- they absolutely were. My burger flowed with the mingled juices of onion and tender beef on a grilled brioche bun, and Emily’s steak was grilled to perfection. Something about that salad, though, made it positively addictive. Tart. Crunchy. Tangy. Sweet. Salty. It was all there, and all ours.The entrees evaporated quickly, and we were ready to finally achieve our stated goal- an analysis of the Fernet Branca Chocolate Pie.
They were out. The chef only makes so many a day, and it had been 86’d.

Disappointment would be an understatement.

As we donned our coats and prepared to slip back out into the windy night, Emily happened to catch a glance at someone’s menu.
“Hey, you know they do brunch?”
“Huh… well, I guess we’re doing that next.”
​“Possibly a good idea.”
__________________

[A week later, Saturday morning.]

I was never a big “brunch” person. Brunch was a thing for Sundays, Mother’s Day, and people who slept late enough to want their breakfast at 11am- so just the experience of walking back down Burnside toward Tannery was fairy odd. I had looked over the menu, however- and I was told there would be waffles. From my first Eggo to the finest Belgian- I am a round-heeled, loose-walleted pushover for waffles.

If the nightlife at Tannery was a little busy, brunch was pandemonium. Above the din of voices and clattering dishware, a waitress tells us we can sit at the bar or grab seats all the way at the far end of the last table, where a couple had vacated just minutes before and had yet to be cleaned down. Given the choice between a face full of busy kitchen or looking at a couple of crumbs for a few minutes, Emily and I decide not to be picky.
The menus land, almost unnecessarily. Emily gets a gussied-up Irish coffee called “Muddy Waters,” I get a Bloody Maria (a Bloody Mary made with tequila instead of vodka), and we make our selections.

We had looked over the menu- and we wanted waffles.
Emily went for the Morricone- a dainty little waffle topped up with mascarpone, Lomo ham, argula, a poached egg, and an apricot grappa glaze. I decide to just rub my face right into the stereotype and go for the Timberline- a waffle served up with country fried steak, a fried egg, homefries, and smothered in sausage gravy.
As you may expect, there were no survivors. Emily’s Morricone was sweet, luscious, and complex- and mine was the beautiful mess of meat, starch, and gravy that I rarely indulge in but always have a spot in my heart for- usually the small space NOT occluded by fat deposits after such repasts.
Again, the Fernet Branca pie was raised… but we decided it must wait for another time. Both of us had had quite enough, and I didn’t need MORE in my gut to waddle uphill back home with.
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I REGRET NOTHING

Three weeks later, Tuesday evening.

The post-shift. A long day of work, a long walk home, and I’m on my own. This review had waited QUITE long enough. It was time to get the last piece of the puzzle that is Tannery. I’d had their dinner. I’d survived their brunch. The goal post was now in sight as I unbuttoned my wool coat in the door.


“Hi there- just me tonight, and… do you have the pie?”
“Let me check…. Yep! We got some!”

“… A piece of that and a White Russian, please.”

​ It’s distinctly more calm in the dining room on a Tuesday evening. Only two people manning the tiny kitchen, and a single server pulling triple-duty as waitress, bartender, and hostess. I slip into the nearest stool at the bar and watch the cook casually peel potatoes and stir a pot of chili. The waitress buzzes about, and I wait for my cocktail and pie.

The White Russian is quite good. I don’t blame them for talking up their homemade liquors, but I could have easily missed the orgeat if I’m honest. The crafting of the White Russian is beautiful- the cream floats on up in a slash broken only by the occasional ice cube, implying “Some small amount of assembly required.”
At last- three weeks after Emily and I walked through the door for the first time, I finally get a piece of the Fernet Branca Chocolate Pie. It is velvety brown, dusted with powdered sugar, and topped with a loose glob of chantilly cream.
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It’s not bad.
A very nicely-done chocolate mousse pie on a cookie crust. The herbal bitterness of the fernet riffs on the inherent bitterness of the dark chocolate, and almost balanced by the sweetness of everything else. The texture is cold, smooth, and creamy, melting into a chocolatey goo with every bite. I finish it off with the last traces of my White Russian.
Chocolate pie may just not be my thing.
At least I can finish the review now.

 

WHEN: Dinner hours are Mon- Sat, 4p to 1a. Brunch is on weekends from 9a to 2p. HOW: Just swing in.
WHY: Because you need a casual, not-too-swanky place with great food for a date night. Or you really want a hell of a good brunch. May the odds be ever in your favor.

Kitchen Magic- Rites, Rituals, and Esoterica

Good evening, friends and neighbors!

It’s Sunday morning- my Monday at the cafe, and the ritual begins as soon I walk in.

An impressionist-style illustration of a tall, hooded figure by a gravestone.

Photo from Unexplainedaustralia.com

Our laminates guys, Roy and Chris, promptly clear the bench flour from my table when they see me walk in. My bag drops and I pull out whatever personal affects I’ll need at my station that day- phone charger, headphones possibly, hat if I’m not already wearing it, and a slide to keep my hair back.
After a quick look at the board for the day’s requests from Morning Bake and glossing over the letter from Victoria containing my to-do list, it’s straight to the back corner to drop my bag in the locker and swap my shoes. Punching in rings the bell- let the day begins in earnest.
A red bucket and sanitizer are acquired and I leave it to fill in the sink while I grab my apron and sidetowels- always two. One hits my table dry, the other is tossed in the perfectly filled bucket as I return and cut the water- just a little finesse.
Bucket goes by my feet, apron goes on- I’m ready to head up front and check the case.
—————–

Not exactly what you think of when you hear the word “ritual”, is it? No weird hooded figures, mystic amulets, or chanting in dead unholy languages. The clean bench, the bucket, the two towels- it’s all so mundane.
It makes a world of difference.

Food, and the preparation thereof, are integral parts of any culture- and the thing about culture is that any activity within it, performed with intention and will, is imbued with meaning. It is made magical.

Magic
Sandra’s seen a leprechaun,
Eddie touched a troll,
Laurie danced with witches once,
Charlie found some goblins gold.
Donald heard a mermaid sing,
Susy spied an elf,
But all the magic I have known
I’ve had to make myself.”

Shel Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends

In an article in Psychology Today, researchers explore the role of ritual in athletic performance. That is to say- when a basketball player always bounces the ball a certain number of times before a freethrow, or a tennis player sets his water bottles down in a specific way before a match, does that really make them perform better?
I invite you to read the full article and study, but the bottom line seems to be that these seemingly-innocuous actions have a powerful affect on their performers. By easing their mind with a reliable familiarity, they are partially inured to the neural deficits of performance anxiety- that is, even if they fear screwing up, it doesn’t get in the way nearly so much.

My little morning ritual above is similarly innocuous and mundane- certainly not as obvious or quirky as other rituals performed by athletes- but it helps me start my day with my “head in the game.”

A man standing alone on top of a dune. The text is the

This one is pretty ideal if your job involves pain-inducers or riding sand worms.

Since I have been in the working world, I’ve picked up more than a few eccentricities, superstitions, and historic hand-me-downs from an industry that is, necessarily, fueled on passion, madness, and being your best at all times.

1. The Tools For The Job
In a previous post, I introduced you to my Bubba’s kitchen witch, its history, and the fact that I insist on putting ONLY wooden utensils in her. Given that statement, it’s not a stretch to understand that the number of wooden spoons in my kitchen in beyond comical. While I cannot pinpoint exactly where I acquired my affinity for wooden spoons, I can say that there has been a LOT of study and ink dedicated to the humblest of utensils- their merits, their history, how the flavor your food (spiritually AND physically) with their presence.
While they are certainly not ideal for everything (a non-reactive metal spoon is necessary for checking the consistency of Creme Anglaise, for instance,) just holding on in my hand feels close, earthy, and companionable- enough that I would tattoo one on my arm at any rate.

A close-up of the tattoo on the authors right inner arm. The tattoo depicts a birch spoon, hickory rolling pin, and mahogany fountain pen bound with a banner reading

The same can be said of rolling pins and fountain pens, really.

2. Knives
Even if you don’t believe in the woogy-woogy, touchy-feely business of this post, knives are a real big one. Good knives are EXPENSIVE. They last generations. Their owners rely on them, baby them, keep them in perfect sharpness, and God help you if you grab someone’s knife without their permission.
By the by, if you ARE given permission to use a chef’s personal knives, you are hand washing that thing immediately afterward. Not letting it sit dirty, and DEFINITELY not putting it through the dishwasher. As Chef Masaharu Morimoto points out:
3. Symbols and Superstitions
Food is part of culture. Cultures get REALLY weird ideas regarding it, as this article from The Kitchn enumerates. (Link) Some it turns out have basis in fact, such as the Chinese belief in “wok hei” (link), or “the breath of the wok”- the idea that a wok that has been passed down through a family for generations and constantly seasoned rather than cleaned imbues it’s own indescribable flavor to food, similar to maintaining a cast-iron skillet in the American South.
For the most part, however, symbolism in the kitchen is an extremely personal affair. Just like the athlete’s rituals I mentioned before, bakers and cooks may have their own rituals and superstitions they adhere to to bring out THEIR “A” game.
Here are a few of mine-

Animated GIF from Dreamworks' From “The Prince of Egypt”

Exodus 4:17 – 20
Unsurprisingly, I take things that I have tattooed on me pretty seriously. Every wooden tool I have on my tool box has the passage quotation written on it. The quote is as follows:

“The Lord said unto Moses, ‘Take the staff in thy hand, that you shall do My wonders.’ And Moses descended from the mountain and spoke to his father-in-law Jethro. “Please let me take my family and return to Egypt, for it has been many years since I heard from my people there, and I do not know if they are dead or alive.” Jethro said, “Go in peace.” And so Moses packed his family on a camel and returned to Egypt, and in his hand he carried the staff of God.”

Without getting into too much detail, the quote to me is an allegory for talent and finding what you were meant to do. Every time I look at it, it reminds me of where I was in life when I got the tattoo, and all the scariness and sacrifices I’ve undergone and will undergo to do what I love.


Ravens and Beavers
Long before I was a baker, I was a Boy Scout. Scouting has been- and continues to be- a huge part of my personal development, and there are a number of symbols I attach special meaning to because of it.
The Raven was my Scout Patrol animal, and in the lore of various Native American peoples, the raven is not just a clever trickster character, but one of creativity and intuition as well. The Beaver, meanwhile, was my Wood Badge patrol, held in lore as not just a teacher of diligence and industry, but of dreaming and the ties of family. Having a likeness of one or both of them on me when I work quietly inspires me,, reminds me of their lessons, and all the things that Scouting has taught me to take through life.

A pewter pendant depicting the sephirot in the Etz Chaim pattern.

The Sephirot
No, not the Final Fantasy villain- the original Sephirot.
Though I have not always been outspoken about my Jewish faith and heritage, I have always been proud of it. The Sephiroth (Hebrew for “emanations) come from Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, and this layout of them is called the Etz Chaim (or “tree of life.”) In Kabbalah, the Sephiroth depict how Divine will is enacted upon the world by way of human behavior and experience. In brief, it depicts the act of creation beginning as Divine Will, and finally being born as inspiration and action through the work of humans. I regularly wear this pendant when I work- not just as a symbol of creation, but as a connection to my heritage.

How about you? Any of you out there have certain symbols or rituals that, against all reason, just seem to help you work?

Stay Classy,

Review #8- The Big Legrowlski

WHERE: The Big Legrowlski, 812 NW Couch St., Portland, OR, 97209

Let it never be said I’m not a sucker for a good gimmick.

I can’t remember when I first saw the cinematic cultural touchstone that is the Coen Brother’s “The Big Lebowski.” I think it may have been while I was flipping through channels and came across the stark and baffled faces of Jeff Bridges and John Goodman after the famous “ringer at the bridge” scene. A moment later, John Goodman uttered the line that formed a cornerstone of my life philosophy since college, and I was a fan forever:

Since that boring night on the Jersey Shore, I have downed more than a few White Russian cocktails and irritated two girlfriends and my wife with viewings and trivia.
For the most part, they abided it well. (See what I did there?)

Thus, find a certain bar during my perambulation of Portland can only be expressed as a sign from the Heavens.

I truly am a round-heeled pushover for the things I love- especially fandom.

As soon as I walked in, the message was received loud and clear with a quick look around. I was meant to walk in here, sit down, and… “just take it easy, man.”

The Big Legrowlski not only combines one of my favorite beverages and favorite movies, it does so with a minimum of fuss. The decor is mellow, dark, and dedicated- woodblock prints of famous figures from the the movie line the walls. The menus are scribbled in colored chalk on the walls by the bar, and there’s- well, an overall very Dudelike vibe to the whole place. Hard decisions (outside of which beer to get) seem strongly discouraged. Their eighteen taps are all local, microbrews, or otherwise curated for quality in a selection of styles. Besides the taps, a few bottles on the rack betray a penchant for cocktails as well- such as “Bunny’s F***ing Martini”, “Jesus’ Margarita,” and- of course- “The Dude’s Caucasian.” For this, they keep a running tally. 5,108 served to date.
I wind up going for a Ft. George “May the Oats Be With You” Porter and eye up the bar for a place to crash.

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“Two oat sodas, Gary.”

The seating encourages mellowness and intimacy- you can choose from the bar, small tables inside, or sidewalk chairs to peoplewatch from. Like any reasonable front with a gimmick, they merchandize. You can buy sweatshirts, 64 oz. growlers, t-shirts, even prints of the the woodblock artwork and specific elements from the movie. I’m more than a little tempted to pick up a “Treehorn Productions” growler- but Emily will kill be if I shove one more container of mead in our fridge. Instead, I mosey on through to “The Rug Room.”
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Mike the Busker, live in the Rug Room

More prints. Rugs EVERYWHERE. A small alcove with a TV for karaoke or live bands and entertainment. (Apparently bands are forbidden from playing ANYTHING by The Eagles.) The Dude’s zip-up sweater in a shadow box.
Yes… I can be comfortable here.

After a beer or two, the munchies set in. The food menu is simple- the food is not the issue here, Dude. They’ve got some sausages from Olympia Provisions- served up simply on a pretzel roll with mustard and sauerkraut, and some finger foods if you just need a snack. Fresh-popped popcorn and cinema salt shows up on the table- a good companion for beer and literature. Every night, some form of entertainment rolls in- open mics, a DJ- tonight it’s Mike the Busker, banging away at Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, and the Pogues among others. Not bad at all- goes well with the Caucasian I just acquired.

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The Holy Vestment

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It really ties the room together, does it not?

You know, life in this city has its ups and downs, strikes and gutters… but as long as places like this exist, I’m pretty sure I can take it easy for all us sinners.
Another Causcasian, then I’m out.
WHEN: Hours: Tuesday-Friday 3.00pm to 2.00am, Saturday 12.00pm to 2.00am, Sunday 11.00am to 12.30am, Monday: 3.00pm – 12.30am. Happy hour 3pm to 5pm Monday-Thursday. Great place for a post-shift!
HOW: Drop in, or check out their website to check out upcoming events, pick up some merch, or rent the Rug Room.
​WHY: Cause you’re a conscientious objector, and you just wanna drive around, bowl, and ideally NOT get wrapped up in a nihilist kidnapping scheme when you try to get your rug replaced. This is not ‘Nam, there are rules…

Keep It Moving

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

The professional kitchen has a reputation for being loud, busy, sweaty/on fire, and mired in what looks like absolute chaos but is in fact a precise choreography (affectionately called “the dance.”)
Not all kitchens have this vibe though. Some high-level chefs enforce a “silent kitchen-” where if you are not calling orders, calling back orders, or otherwise describing the tasks immediately at hand, you are to be silent and focused utterly on your work.
For the most part, pastry kitchens are considerably more quite than the average, line kitchens. The very best ones are almost like medieval scriptoriums- lines of bakers focused quietly and diligently on delicate work.

In all kitchens, though, there are times when it MIND NUMBINGLY BORING.

No matter what’s being made, when or how- nothing comes from nothing. SOMEONE had to stand in one place and peel all those potatoes for your vichyssoise. It was SOMEONE’S job to painstakingly peel an inconceivable number of oranges in order to get that delicate candied orange peel garnish on your chocolate cake. Certainly it’s tasks like these that most chefs- particularly those with restaurants who need to focus on quantity as much as quality- prefer to farm out. They buy Candied Orange Peel decor, or peeled and cubed potatoes in a 30 lbs frozen bag.

In some cases, they go REALLY deep. The very first day of my professional career consisted of cutting 30 frozen, pre-decorated, Italian Rum Cakes. 30 cakes, taken out of cardboard boxes, sliced in 12, placed on boards… and set up to be served to about 300 hungry casino-goers.

For THIS I went to culinary school….

My own personal traumas aside, the point is- when you go to a fine restaurant, no matter what you order, SOMEONE was standing in one place for hours at a time grinding through the same task. It is possibly the single most obvious, inescapable, and soul-crunching part of my professional life.
In the last few days, I:

  • Diced 6 lbs. of bell peppers
  • Diced 1 gallons of onions.
  • Individually zested 50 lemons to make lemon poppy bread and scones.
  • Individually scooped and dipped 80 Buckeye truffles.

Sound like a lot? THIS IS LIGHT. Compared to the work in banquet and resort kitchens, this is practically nothing compared to tray upon tray of petit fours, all necessarily IDENTICAL, or chopping onions by the 50 lbs bag. This is generally the work that falls to the lower rungs of kitchen hierarchy- the prep guys, the new kids, or the student/stagieri who’s there “for experience.”

No matter who or what it is, though- it’s easy to go into autopilot. Your brain shuts down, you move automatically…and then you slow down, or make mistakes. The Zen master Dogen wrote about just such situations.

“Do not just leave washing the rice or preparing the vegetables to others but use your own hands, your own eyes, your own sincerity. Do not fragment your attention but see what each moment calls for; if you take care of just one thing then you will be careless of the other.”

Those of old tell us, “For the tenzo [head cook], the mind which finds the Way actualizes itself through working with rolled up sleeves.”‘

– Tenzo Kyokun, “Instructions to the Cook” by Eihei Dogen, trans. Anzan Hoshin roshi & Yasuda Joshu Dainen roshi

Like so many things, “easier said than done.” Eventually your neck starts to cramp from looking down for hours. Your back hurts from hunching over the table. Obviously you can make some ergonomic changes- change your stance and posture regularly. None of that helps your mind though.

​So how to keep focus?

I normally can slip on some headphones and listen to music or a podcast, but that’s obviously a rare exception. Most kitchens forbid their cooks from wearing headphones even in one ear for obvious reasons. Therefore the options are generally music/technology free.
1. Keep Your Brain Busy
Sometimes just keeping your mind busy helps the work go faster. My friend Karen would do math problems while she worked at grinding tasks- how many lines of 15 pieces could she do? 14?
Being a bit of a literature/storytelling nerd, I tend to think of old stories and try to come up with how I might retell them later given the chance.
2. Go full-on Zen
As Dogen suggests, cooking and food preparation can be seen as holy work and the act itself as meditation. As you work, find your rhythm. Simultaneously focus on each aspect with due diligence, and also let them pass.
In Taoism, there is a concept called “Wei wu Wei” that I have discussed previously. It translates as “doing not doing,” or “Effortless Action”- the point at which there is no difference between the actor and the act. Motion becomes as simple and thoughtless as breathing. This is something I like to believe I approach when doing prep. When my wife and I cook dinner, there’s an unspoken agreement that whoever had the worst/most stressful day gets to do the prep work for dinner- the feeling of quiet, rhythmic industry can be meditative and soothing, to the point I actually got a bit salty when Em shoved me away from the cutting board and took over prep because she was in a bad mood.
She apologized later, though- I did the dishes. Not quite as satisfying as chopping, but still very soothing.
3. Go HAM on the task.
When all else fails, go HAM and GET IT DONE. Actually, this is probably the FIRST thing you’d wind up doing- figuring out the fastest and most efficient way to chop a pepper, or zest a lemon. Analyze your motions, figure out the best way to move to get the job done quickly and completely- and constantly reevaluate the task. Especially for zesting lemons, I have found that- by moving only my right hand, and keeping the “to do” lemon bowl in front of me and the “done” bucket to the right, it takes me roughly 30 second to completely denude a lemon. 30 seconds times 50 lemons is 25 minutes.
I could probably get faster if I stopped looking at a stopwatch.

Those are the music-free methods that tend to work for me- but frankly if you’ve got a job that doesn’t mind you having a set of earphones (and you’ve got a LOT to do,) I heartily suggest Welcome To Night Vale, Myths and Legends, and Fictional for your listening/storytelling/vegetable chopping pleasure.

Whatever you choose to do, however- remember to make the task worth doing, and take pride in your work. If you can’t do that, then it doesn’t matter how quick, complete, or focused you are- the effort is wasted.
​Again, from Dogen:

When I was staying at Tiantong-jingde-si, a monk named Lu from Qingyuan fu held the post of tenzo. Once, following the noon meal I was walking along the eastern covered walkway towards a sub-temple called Chaoran Hut when I came upon him in front of the Buddha Hall drying mushrooms in the sun. He had a bamboo stick in his hand and no hat covering his head. The heat of the sun was blazing on the paving stones. It looked very painful; his back was bent like a bow and his eyebrows were as white as the feathers of a crane. I went up to the tenzo and asked, “How long have you been a monk?”

“Sixty-eight years,” he said.
“Why don’t you have an assistant do this for you?”
“Other people are not me.”
“Venerable sir, I can see how you follow the Way through your work. But still, why do this now when the sun is so hot?”
“If not now, when?”

There was nothing else to say. As I continued on my way along the eastern corridor I was moved by how important the work of the tenzo is.

Stay Classy (and conscious),

Review #7- The Bivy / Saint Burrito

Where: The Bivy/ Saint Burrito 113 SE 28th Ave., Portland

I was 25 when I was first exposed to the glory of food trucks.

My older sister invited me to visit her in New Brunswick where she was attending grad school. Besides record exchanges, all-you-can-eat mediocre buffet sushi, and other wonders of the modern world- Steph said I HAD to get a “fat sandwich” from one of the grease trucks while I was there.

Fat sandwiches are what the country would eat for every meal if no one discovered kale and Whole Foods fell off the face of the Earth. Everything you can fit on a New Jersey sub roll- usually starchy/meaty/deep fried things- all wrapped up into a 10-inch long heart-murdering missile of joy. She brought me to a square of trucks staffed by evil/enterprising young student bent on the perfection of these lethal concoctions, and I- to my only partial shame- finished a chicken finger/fries/meatball/cheesesteak/Parmesan/mashed potato sandwich in one sitting.
We sat in a parking lot, knocked them back with bubble tea, and felt no pain.

Even before I moved to Portland, a veritable food truck capital of America, street food had- quite literally- gained a place in my heart. Some food is simply best experienced- NEEDS to be experienced- while standing in the elements, leaning against a wall, or hunched over a public garbage can with the sounds of the world surrounding you.
Even so, I have yet to review a single truck.

It’s time to fix that I think- so let’s start with breakfast and burritos.

Around the corner from the cafe where I work is a smallish food pod (the term for a food court-style gathering of trucks.) Ranging from various-cultures chicken to Middle Eastern to Thai, the pod boasts 7 venues as well as a beer-only truck with regularly-rotating taps. Most of the carts have been there for several years, but nothing lasts forever. When the Mexican-inspired “Guero” left its truck to establish it’s first brick-and-mortar down the street, two new businesses were ready to fill the vacancy.

First came “The Bivy”- offering “campfire inspired brunch”, they took the flavors of a camping cookout and dragged them back to town, smoking their own meats right by the service window and baking their own English muffins. The Bivy perfectly represents my own philosophy for the best way to cook- “Simplicity with Elegance.”
When I first stopped by the new truck after work, cold beer already in hand thanks to the Captured Beer Cart, I was hit by a barrage of scents wafting from inside. The hot metal of the flattop. Browning butter. Spicy smoke, as their bacon (butchered and smoked on site) sizzled away, and the hot fat blending with the butter underneath eggs.
“Whatever that is, I need one.”

It was the Prigo- their flagship sandwich, and the best goddamned breakfast sandwich you will find anywhere.
It came out to me about 15 minutes later, and as soon as the foil-wrapped puck hit my palm and the sweet smell of grease eked out- I knew I had chosen wisely.

The Prigo features a scratch-made English Muffin, a slice of Tillamook cheddar cheese, house apple butter, big chunks of their bacon, and a seared egg. No, not fried- SEARED. The white is slightly crisped, and yet- at the first bite- the barely-cooked yolk explodes, coating the contents and taking the sandwich over the moon.

You might notice, however, that I mentioned “brunch.” The Bivy’s hours are only from 9a to 4p. While not the same financial burden as a brick-and-mortar, running a food truck is still a costly and demanding proposition. When you have a skeleton staff and a specialized menu, how do you afford to keep your place?

Well, you go halfsies. Enter Saint Burrito, and the first timeshared food truck I’ve ever seen.

Saint Burrito, a Mexican-inspired truck that runs select days from 4:30p to 9:30p, signed on to share the truck with The Bivy- completing the unique pairing by painting their menu and signage on the backs of the Bivys. Run by a couple who confess themselves as “not being cooks,” Saint Burrito’s menu offers – duh- burritos loaded up with chicken, carnitas, or vegetables. There is no “build your own” dynamic here- all burritos are compounded as the should be. Rather than typical yellow rice, Saint Burrito says “No. Red rice.”
Wilted, depressing shredded lettuce? “No, shredded green cabbage to maintain its crunch.”
Meats lingering on a steam table? Try crispy pulled pork, or guajillo-ancho pulled chicken.
Salsa in a Burrito is for amateurs- Saint Burrito says pico de gallo and their light-but-fiery arbol chile crema.

These are ridiculously good burritos- delivered in the simple foil wrapping that says “Here you go, dude- all good. Take that thing for a walk, man- enjoy it.”
Then you realize they also have fish tacos.

Every now and then, Saint Burrito runs a Yellowfin Tuna fish tacos, for $3 a piece. Forget the “Taco Tuesday,” limp greaseslop-filled sleeves of sadness you associated with the word. These are honest-to-God street tacos- three bites maximum, loaded up with sashimi-grade marinated tuna, grilled rare, and paired with their pico de gallo and chile crema. Finished with a little wedge of lime to make it all that much better- a quick little nosh before while you wait on the main event.

WHEN: The Bivy is open daily from 9 to 4. Busiest times are the late morning and early afternoon. I try to show up around 1 or so.
Saint Burrito takes over Wednesday through Sunday, 4:30p to 10p. Call either at (503) 875-0038

WHY: You are in the city of Portland, a goddamned food capital, and it just doesn’t feel right if you aren’t walking around with a greasy, meaty, delicious something wrapped in foil in your hand.

Turn The Page- At the end of the day…

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

When I was culinary school, I had a chef instructor who didn’t just teach pastry arts and baking- she also taught how to put them down and walk away.

     Chef Chelius was one of the toughest, most exacting- and consequently, one of the very best- teachers the school had. There were teachers that were a little goofy, others were jovial and paternal, sardonic and dry, even matronly and sweet. Chef Chelius was a BOSS. She was known for NEVER giving anyone an “A”- “An ‘A’ is perfection,” she would say. “I’m not perfect. If I wouldn’t give myself an A, like hell one of my students will get one.”
     When it came to cleanliness, Chef Chelius was the one who got me to compulsively clean my workspace. “Your table reflects your mind. If your table is messy, so is your mind. You can’t focus.”
​     She had absolutely no problem telling me, early on in my first class with her, that if I didn’t shape up I would be kicked out of the program, and my future as a baker would be shaky at best.
Picture

A young Black Hat Baker getting graded on his Cucumber- Winter Melon Granité presentation.

    This hardly seems like the type of person who will tell you how to go home at night and not think about work.

    Clearly, I shaped up. A year or so after that conversation, I was in my third class with her. That was when she took a few moments at the beginning of lecture to tell everyone “When you go home, remember to GO HOME.”
    Chef Chelius was a holy terror in the kitchen- but she also practiced violin, read, and enjoyed gardening. She encouraged us all to have friends and hobbies outside the kitchen. “If you don’t, your life will only be kitchen people, talking about kitchen things, and nothing else.”
  
     I especially remember her describing a particular “ritual” she had when she got home. She used to make a lavender-scented sugar handscrub for herself. It was her finish line, so to speak- when she got home, hung up her uniform and used that scrub, that was it. She was scrubbing her hands of the day, and leaving it behind.

    
    One of my favorite memories between us was during this same course. I had had a miserable day in the kitchen, and berated myself (as us young people do/did) publicly on Facebook. I had forgotten that Chef Chelius had friended me on there- and would read it.

    
     The next day, she called me to her desk. 

“You had a rough day yesterday, Matt.”
“Yes Chef, I’m sorry- today will be better.”
“I certainly hope so, it was an interesting status you posted.”
“…Oh. Um.. yes, Chef.”
“Matt, do you remember what I told you two years ago, standing over by the flour bins?”
“… Yes Chef- that if I didn’t shape up, I’d be out of the program.”
“Yes, Matt- and you’re still here. You’re going to get an ‘A’ in this class. You’re doing fine- it’s just food, Matt. Remember to go home.”

—————–

Flash forward, from 2013 to now. Nearly 5 years after that conversation, and sometimes I still forget to go home.

    As I write this, I am sitting in the Horse Brass Pub, behind a short glass of Rauchbier Weizen- a creamy smoky tasting beer I am increasingly fond of. I am on Day 4 of nine-day work week, and I have been berating myself for the last two days or so for not working the way I feel I should be.

    Not at the cafe- work has been rough for the last few days, but I feel confident in my accomplishments there and how I handle my shifts. It’s THIS- the blog, and being the BHB. I want it to be more a part of my future career, and I am frustrated- a lack of creativity, a lack of energy… just the feeling of lack.

But your thoughts will soon be wandering the way they always do
When you’re riding sixteen hours and there’s nothing much to do

And you don’t feel much like riding, you just wish the trip was through

     It is because I forget to “go home.” 

     Between baking at the cafe, and then coming home to research and write, I go from one office to another.  There isn’t even a change of uniform to mark between the two (as I no longer have to wear a uniform at my current job.) There is nothing like Chef Chelius’s sugar scrub anymore- no ritual to mark the distinction between work and the rest of my life- simply because my life is increasingly wrapped up IN my work.

Ah Here I am, on a road again
There I am, up on the stage
Here I go, playing the star again
There I go, turn the page

     That is maybe why I enjoy writing in cafes and bars the most. That may be why I can write this all down now- I am in the midst of my little Rauchbier Ritual. The “quitting time beer o’clock beer” as I call it on my Instagram.  Sitting down and nursing a beer tells me that my time is my own again- to work or do whatever I please with.

Back in my old house, I had a hammock in the sunroom where I would lounge, drink, and write. I had a mental image of something between Hemingway, Norman Rockwell, and Jimmy Buffett when I would work like this- it was a clear division between my daily work for OTHERS, versus my work for MYSELF. I had to leave the hammock behind in New Jersey though, and our apartment has no room for one anyway.

    Note to self: get a big wingback armchair, with armrests wide enough to support a cup of tea/whiskey. Tell Emily it is for mental health reasons.

Later in the evening as you lie awake in bed
With the echoes from the amplifiers ringin’ in your head
You smoke the day’s last cigarette, remembering what she said…”

Remember to go home, people,
and of course-

​Stay Classy,