Hands That Feed- Culinary Charity, and What You Can Do

Good morning, friends and neighbors.

Since the first time I heard it in the retrospectively-awful-yet-beloved Rankin-Bass animation of The Hobbit, this has been one of my favorite quotes in all of literature.

As Thorin, the Dwarven King, lies dying of wounds he sustained in a battle started in part by his own greed and bitterness, he speaks his last words to Bilbo Baggins are:

“Child of the Kindly West… if more of us valued your ways- food and cheer and song above hoarded gold- it would be a merrier world. Sad or merry, I must leave it now. Farewell.”

 

Whenever things get a bit too dark and heavy in this world, I try to remember that, and I try to do whatever I can to hold back the darkness a little longer.

I write some nice stories. I bake some pastries, and make people smile… and I thank Heaven that there are people in this world with the means and desire to do more than that.

Today is about them.

A quote from J.R.R. Tolkein's The Hobbit

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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.

Holidoldrum


The bake shop is quiet as I write this. The cafe has closed early- everyone hustled through their chores, their closing routines- the maddening crush of the morning receding into exhausted bones and weary souls as they grab their coats and slip out into the gray Portland streets (threatening rain, but they always are. You stop paying attention after a while.)

Me? I’m waiting on quiche for the next couple days to finish in the oven. They’re almost there, but not quite. They slosh too much in the middle, where it should be an all-around uniform jiggle- “like a perfectly toned ass,” as Victoria said once. I’ve mentioned before how cooks use weird descriptors and get excited by the strangest things. Emily’s gotten used to hearing it when I’m in the kitchen.

Once the quiche are done, they get cooled, labeled (I’ve got my own system to separate the meat from the vegetarian) and set in the walk-in.
I’ll shut down the cafe, lock up, and make my own way home.

It’s Christmas Eve. I’ll be married in a little under two weeks. In five days, I will work my shift, and then get on a red-eye flight to see New Jersey for the first time in nearly two years.

Why this apathy, then? I want to look at myself in the mirror and say “Dude! 10 days off from work, you’re getting MARRIED, AND you get to go home again! Cheer up!” That’s what I’d like to say to myself- if I could just stop thinking it and then saying, “And then what?”

Cooks tend to think procedurally. Their days are laid out as an order of operations, and they approach much of their lives through the philosophy of mise en place- every day is a dish to be prepared in the right way, on the right timeframe, to be finished completely and well-executed.
Bakers are the same- but often 24 hours in the future. To make sure everything gets the time it needs to finish, bakers will plot out their production schedules days in advance to make sure that when the deadline comes- as always- everything is done completely and well.

The quiche are out of the oven now. Crusts of bronzed gold, filling like the last bits of a sunrise before it’s truly day. They need to cool a bit, otherwise they’ll crack in the walk-in.

I guess the holidays feel like a finish line- the wedding will be in January, the holidays will be a breeze. I don’t feel like I can enjoy them though. I feel I can’t let myself stop and experience them as anything more than another completed task. Am I afraid of something? Running from something? TOWARD something?

One of the crusts sunk in a little bit. It’s fallen back from the lip of the plate.

Not perfect, but useable.


I’ve forgotten how exhilarating and annoying travel can be.
It’s been nearly a week since I starting writing this (the quiche was delightful, by the way.) Emily has now been in New Jersey for about a week, working with our parents to get things lined up and reporting new developments back to me. There have been a couple hiccups (favors coming in wrong, where to stick that one friend that can’t stop discussing politics on the seating chart, music, etc) but now it feels like crossing the finish line will be a graceful lope, rather than a heaving, lizardlike crawl.

Or at least, SOON it will be. As of THIS writing, I’ve been up for over 24 hours, little more than 45 minutes sleep at a time. For some reason, I can never MAKE myself comfortable enough on a plane to fall asleep. I need to be dead tired, and my head just somehow rests on the wall JUST RIGHT that I can pass out for takeoff and wake up just when crew members are coming around with snacks and drinks.

When I arrive, Emily will be waiting for me. We’ll jump into her car and dash off to finally do some wedding stuff together in person. I want to believe that’s how our marriage will be- both of us dashing around, trying to plan but making it up as we go along, and somehow finding the humor in it later on.

That’d be about perfect.

Stay Classy,

Define Your Limitations- Not The Other Way Around

Good evening, friends and neighbors!

I was standing at the range in the cafe the other day. On Wednesdays, Victoria and I work together, and she tends to have me do the day-to-day production while she does macarons, special orders, and R+D’s new recipes. One of my duties, therefore, is to make the savory galette for morning bake to finish.

Galettes are a rustic tart- essentially a disc of pie dough piled with fillings, the edge folded up to contain them, and then baked flat. For Victoria and I, galettes are one of the things we get free reign on- whatever tastes good, and can go with an insane amount of cheese, can go in a galette. That day, I decided on Italian sausage, sautéed mushrooms with herbs, braised kale, and manchego and Feta cheese.

I work out of one large skillet, my mise lined up on a cutting board behind me. I’m cooking the parts of the filling in a certain order- something experience has taught me will work quickly and allow the different parts of the galette to allude to each other:

– The sausage goes in first. It’s already full-flavored, and it has fat the other things will need to cook.
– Cremini mushrooms next, with a small amount of garlic and fresh herbs. As the mushrooms cook, they release liquid- pulling all the crusty bits left by the sausage up from the pan. This and the liquified fat from the sausage work their way into the earthy mushrooms.
– Finally, the sautéed kale. I use the method Emily and I use at home- a little supplemental olive oil in the pan, garlic, dried pepper. In goes the kale with a loud sizzle, and finally the broth with a loud hiss and a gout of steam. I slam the lid on the pan and let it braise. The broth deglazes the pan as it steams the kale- uniting its bitter green with the unctuous sausage and sweet mushrooms.

Valerie is next to me at the range, watching all this with interest. She’s asking questions here and there as she eyes the cream she’s heating up for ganache. So much of baking is waiting for the time to be right.

“Hey Matt- have you ever worked on a line before?”
I’m keeping my eyes on the pan, making sure the kale gets coated in garlic and pepper. “Only briefly on a dessert line, never hot.”
“Huh… you’d be good at it, I think. You’re a good cook, and really organized.”

I chuckle a bit, “Nah… I could maybe be good once I was used to it, but that’d take a while. I’d frazzle and burn out a bit first- probably wreck some shit in a panic. Nah, I like being a baker. Less of a rush, more of a logistics puzzle.”

“Ahh, gotcha… well, I can see why you like teaching people. You have a real soothing voice.”

I smile and tip the kale out on to a half-sheet, where the sausage and mushrooms are warm and waiting. “Well, thank you.”

I scatter shredded manchego on the dough disc. Pile on the warm filling, and more manchego on top, with some cubed feta. The feta won’t melt- it’s too dry- but it will provide visual texture and some nice cheesy funk to each slice.

I’m smart enough to know what I’m good at, and what I need to work on.
I’m a good cook.
A good enough cook for me.
A good enough cook for me, for right now.

I can also tell a great story, teach people a thing or two- and make a MEAN galette.

Stay Classy,

P.S.
I’m not allowed to give out the cafe’s gallete dough recipe, and the fillings are really up to you- but here are some tips for when you decide to make one at home.

1. Balance your ingredients and flavors. “Meat Lovers” sounds great on pizza, but it can be a bit much. Work in veggies!

2. Meat in a galette should be fully cooked, but remember that once the galette is ready, it goes in an oven. Remember that some things (not covered by crust or cheese) may overcook- especially eggs! Consider a soft scramble for egg galettes.

3. If you want your galette to look really great, egg wash the sides after you fold them up. That’ll make a great golden brown gloss- and you can dust the edges with spices or seeds too.

-BHB

“Lovers and Madmen…”

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

Joe is about my age, but he’s been cooking for way longer than me- he’s a locally respected chef, running one of the best bistros in South Jersey. It’s easy to see why- watching Joe move through service, he seems to crackle with energy. He yells, swears, barks, laughs- never still for more than a moment. 
I’m helping him out for a couple nights on his dessert line- towards the end of the day, he comes running up to me and drops a crate of tomatoes on the bench.

“Matt! Dude, you need to smell these!”

I take a quick whiff- smells like good tomatoes, fresh and red. I say so.

Joe looks at me like I just farted in church. “Matt, no! SMELL THEM.” I think he may have grabbed my head and practically smashed it into the crate of lumpy red fruit. The smell of tomatoes filled my nose- not fresh and red, but GREEN. Green leaves, freshly tilled soil, warm air and cool rain on their skins.
Joe looked at me like a Zen master seeing the light of enlightenment in a pupils eye- the big smile reserved for a kindred spirit that just “got it.”
“You smell that? Find the good ones and dice them.” It was going to be for gazpacho, and it took me forever. I couldn’t stop smelling the tomatoes. His wife Jennifer, another chef, came over with a cutting board and kept me on task.

A year later, I’m standing over the floor mixer of the cafe I work in now. I’m making pie crust using a method I had learned there. A method meant to produce a dough of velvet smoothness, yet tissue-thin flaky layers when baked. Where every “perfect” pie crust I had ever learned or made called for slow, careful hand-mixing, this NEEDED to be done in a machine with a creaming paddle- and there was little room for error.
Everything must be perfect- the butter must be frozen. The water must be ice cold. The butter must be mixed in to EXACTLY the right point, and the water added at EXACTLY the right time to make the difference between perfect dough, and a bowlful of greasy mush.
I’ve squeezed the dry ingredients and butter. They crack under my thumb, after some pressure. As the paddle moves, the contents start “cliffing” – the early stages of clumping, where ingredients against the bowl stick just enough to make cliffs of flour to look like Dover in Great Britain. I add the water.

As the dough forms, I pull a clump out and slowly pull it apart in my hands.

There are layers. Layers like the strata of rock in the Grand Canyon. A thrill of joy and beauty shoots down my spine. I let out a whoop of joy as I examined my pefect crust, and hoisted the 55 lbs. kettle from floor to bench- easy as breathing.

Victoria, the pastry chef at the cafe (and the one who actually has to use the dough once it’s portioned and formed) comes over to see what I’m so happy about. I feel that same crazed thrill up my spine as I describe the process- each detail- and show her the flaky layers her pies demand. With a nodding head and smile, she gets it.

Of course, I’ve seen her rhapsodize over the arrival of fresh chantrell mushrooms and perfectly sweet summer berries- and my old friend Kevin croon over elegantly handled cuts of meat.

For people who love art and craft, people who can’t help but experience the world viscerally- the strangest things excite and thrill us.

Perfect pie dough.
A magnificently built violin.
A piano tuned to perfection by someone blessed with perfect pitch.
A certain shade of blue.
The smell of fresh chanterelle mushrooms (to my mind, kind of like flowers and apricots.)
​The flavor of a perfect bowl of lentils.

Perhaps it’s because of that viscerality- we feel and experience everything about what we do very deeply, to a physical level- where something like a perfect slice of pie can move us to tears.

It might also be the exacting nature of our work, and the pressure we put on ourselves and those around us. When the difference between success and failure means EVERYTHING has to be “just so” (and rarely ever is,) seeing a glimmer of perfection- whether it’s a product of your labor or a contributor toward it, can sometimes feel like a ray of sunshine on a gloomy day- a moment of bliss amid madness, release among constant tension.

I think, perhaps, it’s something much simpler. When your life, work, and self-worth are all invested in creating things of beauty and moments of bliss for others, finding ones for yourself can feel difficult. You take time to appreciate the beauty of what you do and what makes it possible- even if it may weird out people who aren’t “in the know.”

“Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.”

– Shakespeare, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, Act V, Scene I

We all find beauty where we can. Artists and culinarians find it easier than others.

Stay Classy,