Jook, Love at First Bite (a Project Food Blog Entry)

Project Food Blog congee
Project Food Blog's Second Round Entry

When you move to Los Angeles from small town USA, the culture shock is great. The weather, the cultural diversity, the dominance of the entertainment industry, and the abundance of revealing clothes is all quite astonishing. What’s more, if you want to know anything about food and are curious by nature, every day in Los Angeles can be an opportunity to move outside of your culinary comfort zone.

For this week’s Project Food Blog Challenge (more about that in a bit), the contestants were asked to create a classic dish from outside their comfort zone. What better dish to make than Jook, a rice porridge comfort food from a culinary culture I know very little about.

I first learned about Jook from Jonathan Gold, one of our city’s most famous culinary journalists (and the only winner of the Pulitzer for food writing). Gold is what you’d call L.A.’s poster boy for strip-mall ethnic food. His craft for sculpting words and ability to describe uncommon meals in the most mundane locations has created something of a culinary fad where LA food lovers seek out the most unusual, ethnic eats across the city in our city’s trashiest of locations.

All this is to explain how it came to be that this white girl from Massachusetts has been craving a Korean comfort food I’ve never even tasted before.

The first bite is the greatest

Rice porridge, or Jook in Korea, Congee in China, Okayu in Japan, is a popular comfort food throughout all of Asia. Known for its restorative powers for both the sick and the hung-over, the slow-cooked rice dish is a savory oatmeal that’s eaten for breakfast, a late night snack, or during the lean times. Jook is a creamy porridge that’s both comfort food and a kind of blank canvas for all sorts of great flavors and textures. Slow simmering short grain rice for several hours in water or chicken stock results in a creamy pap that is the perfect food delivery device for the flavors and textures of sesame oil, fish sauce, crunchy pickles, spicy condiments, herbs, meat, seafood, and even a fried egg.

Eating a dish for the first time on a very empty stomach is often the best way to imprint a taste in your memory. I’ll never forget that crusty French bread slathered with rich butter that time I was a starving student in Paris. Nor will I ever forget the flavor of Congee after a day of shopping at the Korean market and rushing around to be ready in time for this Project Food Blog Challenge.

But oh! The jook! It was just beautiful the way the soft fried egg oozed onto the porridge. Or how the sesame oil pooled onto my spoon with a drop of salty fish sauce, creating a fishy vinaigrette. And the salty crunch of the bacon and pungent hit of chopped scallion gave every bite a satisfying texture. The soft porridge is the kind of comfort food that–regardless of your cultural heritage–you immediately want to adopt once you’ve tasted it.

Continue for the easiest Congee Recipe Ever! »

Nose to Tail Lamb Dinner Party

lambalooza wine and lamb dinner

Dinner parties with wine experts, restaurant owners/mangers, and chefs aren’t like your commonplace soiree. We don’t cater (unless it’s our friend that’s doing the cooking), we don’t go as a group to a favorite restaurant (unless it’s our friend that’s doing the cooking), we don’t use mixers for cocktails, and we most certainly don’t drink plonk wine. Rather, these after-hours events are more like being invited to an underground dinner club or pop-up speak easy—where there’s an abundance of food, great music, and an obscene amount of impeccable wine and hand-made cocktails.

Food industry parties–not the kind attended by press and marketed to create a buzz, mind you, just a little get together of friends—are Dionysian affairs where off-the-clock servers grin a little bigger, sommeliers share favorite wine stories and their best off-color jokes, and the chefs cook and eat food with nonchalance. Though these are intimate gatherings-they are the kind of party you wish you could watch on TV.

snout to tail lamb dinner
The Menu for the Snout To Tail Lamb Dinner

Be it spur of the moment get together or well-executed culinary bash—we restaurant folk go the extra mile to celebrate our day off by eating and drinking well and just relaxing. Crash one of our parties and you’ll see a group of people happy to be free of their uniform and outside of the demands of customers. Really, really happy.

snout to tail lamb

You can feel a kind of excitement in the air when you spend a night off with fellow industry folk. I imagine the dinner party fireworks of food and wine professionals are similar to the electricity between rock stars backstage, or in the dug out with baseball players. Put a group of people together who are in love what they do, and sparks will fly. If you look carefully, you can even pick up on the embers of exhilaration floating through the air*.

You can take a restaurant pro out of a restaurant but you can’t take the restaurant out of the restaurant pro

Earlier this week, I had the good fortune to be invited to an extraordinary backyard happening called “Lambalooza”, an event so named by its originator and co-host, Dan Perelli (friend, wine expert, and employee of the Wine Hotel). The eleven-course tasting menu was hosted at the home of Ben Anderson, a wine representative of Rosenthal wines and was organized by Sara Gim of Tastespotting. Dan was the mastermind behind the event that celebrated great wine and every tasty morsel of a whole Colorado prime lamb.

The moment I entered the backyard patio, I knew I had been invited to a remarkable dinner. Past the apartment’s back gate, I found a circle of excited sommeliers and wine professionals standing guard over a high-top table littered with open bottles and tasting glasses.

Continue Reading… »

Sunday Brunch Musings

sunday brunch restaurant

I cherish my Sundays. The day is quiet by design. The day’s placement—the final coda on an ever-rising sequence of days—gives a final curtain to a week of happenings. Sundays are a day of ellipses, where anything can fall between the rests.

The market. Brunch. A football game. Gardening in the yard. A Sunday supper at home.

But when your work is in restaurants, the week is misshapen. Phrases like “This Monday is my Friday,” are common in the dining room, because holidays and traditional weekends are never ours. Friday, Saturday, or Sunday may be your day to let loose and relax, but for us in restaurants, those are our hardest days. While most are thinking about Happy Hour, we’re lacing up our shoes, pressing our dress shirts, and eating a last meal before the onslaught of friendly struggle.

Sunday is the cruelest of days for the restaurant worker. Because though it may truly feel like a day of rest, for most waiters, bartenders, bussers, and kitchen staff, Sunday means work. It’s the longest of days, where all we can see are endless vistas of empty juice glasses, coffee refills, bloody mary’s to make, and egg-white omeletes to fry up. Because when most of the world wants to relax, restaurants are prepared to step in and make things easy.

Be aware Sunday brunchers that those poor souls scheduled to work a dreaded Sunday brunch—are the unsung heroes of the week. Be kind to them. Because almost everyone loves a Sunday. Even us.

Caramel Pork Banh Mi

how to make pork banh mi

Certain foods elicit recollections of childhood, others conjure up the essence of loved ones. Rare though, is a flavor so particular and influential, the act of consuming it has the power to alter the course of the eater’s life. Turning point foods are those that not only evoke an eater to remember, it defines the eater. So it is for me with Banh Mi.

I never expected a spicy Vietnamese sandwich called Banh Mi, would have the power to delineate my life. And yet, the simple and ultimately complex sandwich—the result of a tumultuous relationship between the French and the native Viets—has lead me to a whole new culinary realm and brought me significant friendships I will cherish forever.

My first taste of Banh Mi was a wake up call from the fiery spirit of a Vietnamese muse. I was living in New York City during a sweltering summer and working as a General Manager and consultant for a soon-to-open restaurant under construction in the Lower East Side. Despite the fact that I was new to the vibrant city, and lived in the heart of a new food mecca (Katz’s Deli, Russ and Daughters, Stanton Social), I lost myself to 16-18 hour work days. Rather than cherishing the opportunity to experience a new city, I poured myself into every passing minute at the restaurant. I was missing everything.

That’s when Banh Mi stepped in to kick my ass.

Continue for the full Vietnamese Caramel Pork Banh Mi Recipe »

Nuoc Mau: Vietnamese Caramel Sauce

Vietnamese Caramel Recipe

It takes a lot of faith and trust to let something—or someone—change before your eyes. It takes a lot to stand by and watch the process happen, even if you know the final outcome. You can observe, be ready to assist, and offer positive thoughts and well wishes, but ultimately the changing process is up to that person or thing. Some things are just out of your hands.

Take for example Vietnamese Caramel Sauce, or Nuoc Mau. This is a simple syrup made from sugar and water that requires a few seconds of stirring and then fifteen minutes of mindful watching.

What? No stirring? No touching? No manipulation of outcome? Gasp!

Vietnamese Caramel
This is the only time you can control the sauce

It took several failures to learn my lesson in resisting the urge to control the sauce. I had no idea how hard it would be for me to stare at a bubbling pot of hot sugar without manipulating it. I mean, one stir of a spoon and you can ruin the whole thing. An entire batch, ruined because of the need to control the cooking process of sugar and water?

Making Nuoc Mau opened my eyes to just how far my control issues go.

Continue for my Vietnamese Caramel Recipe »

Service 101: So You Want Your Own Restaurant

open my own restaurant
Great Restaurants Have Inspired Many New Restaurants…For better or for worse.

Eating at a great restaurant is like encountering sirens at sea: though thoroughly beguiling, a magnificent dining experience can make you do foolish things.  Legions of enthusiastic food lovers have crashed their budget on the rocks with an impossibly expensive bottle of esoteric wine or overspent on a tasting menu they couldn’t afford. Bewitching cooking methods have influenced kitchen renovations, spurred the rise in molecular gastronomy tool kits for amateurs and inflated the enrollment rates at culinary schools. Though risky, these are but mere dalliances with danger when compared to overnight restaurant openings and food truck roll outs.

The siren song of flawless service and impeccable food can lull the smartest of men and reasonable of women into a dream state where restaurant ownership seems like a good and easy choice. A well-run restaurant has the power to hypnotize mere mortals and make them empty their bank account and mortgage their home for the promise of serving their three favorite dishes in a well-designed dining room.

Listen to me very carefully. Resist the temptation. Ignore the symphony of wouldn’t it be wonderful and at my restaurant we’d do things like this, only better.

It takes a very special person—the kind of person who loves the roller coaster rush of not knowing what’s going to happen next, enjoys making very little money, loves people, is calm under pressure, thrives in chaos, thinks a twelve-hour workday six days a week is reasonable, and feels more comfortable taking care of others than themselves—to survive the life of a restaurant owner.  You’ll have to do plenty of unexpected things–things like plunge a toilet, shop for vegetables at midnight, wash dishes in an expensive suit, bus tables, dust chandeliers at 2 in the morning, eat scraps from a cold plate of food because that’s all you have time for, and so many other things that will shock you. Someone will no show for work, something will break, customers will be disappointed (even if you’re doing a great job), and there will always be some kind of a personality conflict occurring—no matter how hard you try–somewhere between the front door of the dining room and the employee exit out the back of the kitchen.

Perhaps the siren song of restaurant ownership has made you fearless. Understood. Influential restaurants and great dining experiences can carry a powerful tune. But before you swim towards the cliffs of restaurant ownership, I suggest you follow this simple six-step plan to determine your fortitude as an owner/operator.

Continue to Learn about the Open Your Own Restaurant Challenge »

Service 101: Finding My Religion

service faith religious work

Ever since I took on the job of Service Guru I’ve been doing a lot of work. Beyond the obvious stuff—learning the menu, getting to know the employees and the customers, and coming up with business strategies—I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching. Does my work in restaurants have the power to transform me into someone better? Does giving great service require I give generously of myself, put others before me, and be forgiving in everything I do?

Take, for example, the other service industry professionals. The flourishing minister or rabbi who must be humble and in control of his or her weaknesses. The successful butler who is accommodating and always gracious. The thriving caregiver, dedicated and understanding when a patient’s discomfort causes them to be cruel. To be of service, the individual is charged to uphold a lofty set of standards for those around them, even if they don’t know the people they serve by name.

I know service isn’t for everyone. But the more I think about living a life of service, the more I realize I’ve been interested in this sort of thing for a very long time. When I was little I wanted to be a teacher. In middle school, I dreamed of joining the Peace Corps and making a difference in the world.

Later, when I was a freshman in high school, I fell for a born again Christian named Rocky and started dreaming about missionary work. The problem was every time I was around the polished senior with a pooka shell necklace and leather coat, I kept thinking about the off-the-books-stuff like the missionary position. I went to Rocky’s youth group meetings in hopes of finding guidance from God and secretly listened to Prince’s Dirty Mind album after prayer circle. I did good deeds, prayed for others, and quietly suffered with shame as I felt a growing wave of longing for the affections of the boys around me.

As I struggled to define my faith, I wondered how a person could hold God in their heart and proceed in life without fault. How could I love God and yell at my brother or sister? How could I love God and make big mistakes?

Decades have passed since I defined myself by a particular religion (I’ve dabbled in many of the greatest hits and kicked around in some of the oldies and goldies).  And yet, ever since embracing the concept of working in restaurants as a Higher Form of service—albeit on a plate-to-plate level—I’ve been feeling that same kind of moral and ethical confusion I experienced when I was a teenager at the beginning of my conflicted, coming of age journey. How can I maintain a high set of personal standards in a thoroughly chaotic and unfair world?

Continue reading

Service 101: A Brief History of Tipping

history of tipping

Though tipping the waiter may feel like something that’s always been part of the dining experience in America, the fact is, the act of tipping is a borrowed custom from Europe.

According to Michael Lynn, a professor at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, tipping in the United States began just after the American Civil War in the late 1800’s. Lynn suggests that wealthy Americans traveling abroad to Europe witnessed tipping and brought the aristocratic custom back with them to “show off,” or prove their elevated education and class.

Tipping—which may have originated in the taverns of 17th Century England, where drinkers would slip money to the waiter “to insure promptitude” or T.I.P for short—wasn’t embraced by all Americans when the custom began to make its way into our country’s taverns and dining halls. A movement against tipping began in the late 1890’s as many Americans believed that tipping went against the country’s ideals and allowed a clear servile class that would be financially dependent on a higher class.

A servile attitude for a fee

According to an article that appeared in The New York Times in 1897, there was a movement brewing against tipping in America. The anti-tipping group believed that tipping was the “vilest of imported vices” because it created an aristocratic class in a country that fought hard to eliminate a class-driven society. In 1915 six state legislators from Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Tennessee and South Carolina attempted and failed to pass an anti-tipping bill that would make leaving gratuities unlawful.

In 1916, William Scott wrote a stinging diatribe against tipping in his book, “The Itching Palm,” in which he stood up against the policy of paying for a service twice (once for the employer and once for the employee). He decried tips to be “democracy’s mortal foe” and creates “a servile attitude for a fee.”

In the American democracy to be servile is incompatible with citizenship. Every tip given in the United States is a blow at our experiment in democracy. The custom announces to the world…that we do not believe practically that “all men are created equal.” Unless a waiter can be a gentleman, democracy is a failure. If any form of service is menial, democracy is a failure. Those Americans who dislike self-respect in servants are undesirable citizens; they belong in an aristocracy.

Scott continues, “If tipping is un-American, some day, some how, it will be uprooted like African slavery”.

Continue For More on the History of Tipping»

Service 101: When Gratuity is Included

Service includedIf a diner is unhappy with service at a restaurant they can voice their concern to the management or leave less tip for their waiter. As I mentioned recently about a recent poll on CNN’s food blog,, 49 percent of the people polled said they have left nothing for waiters, while another 34 percent said they have left a very low tip–as little as just a penny–to show their dissatisfaction with service. The amount of a tip, many respondents explained, gives financial reward to waiters for good work and punishes the bad ones.

But what happens when a restaurant eliminates the tipping structure out of their business model entirely? Does service improve or get worse?

Jay Porter, the owner of The Linkery in San Diego, says that his front of house staff and kitchen workers’ performance improved once his restaurant stopped accepting tips. The small neighborhood restaurant began its “no tipping” system in 2004 when they instituted a flat 18 percent “table service fee” on the final check for diners who eat at the restaurant.

“No other profession has the customer adjusting your pay scale according to performance,” says Porter. “That’s just not a circumstance when people do their best work.” Porter says this unique payment model brings his restaurant in line with other American industries. “It’s good for our staff to be seen as professionals, just like every other profession in America. No other profession other than the restaurant industry has people evaluating your work and basing payment on that.”

Continue Reading When Service IS Included »

Service 101: Service Not Included

service not included

One thing is for sure, if you’ve ever paid a restaurant tab you have are more than likely to have a strong opinion about tipping. Maybe you always tip 20% of the total bill. Maybe you think a 15% tip is sign enough that you’ve gotten good service. Or maybe you consider tipping a kind of frosting on the cake. Poll a random group of diners on their thoughts about tipping and within seconds you’ll feel the temperature rise as ardent responses come hurling back at you. No matter what you think about tipping, just about everyone has an opinion about what constitutes a good or bad tip.

I’m always amazed at how downright heated discussions become when the topics of service, tipping, and restaurant policies are brought up. People who have never worked in the restaurant business, lifetime servers, part time waiters, and frequent diners all seem to have strong views on the subject. For someone like myself–a restaurant professional who has worked in the industry for decades–I definitely come at this subject from an insider’s point of view. Not only do I write about service, I also read quite a bit about the subject. What surprises me the most is the ardent online chatter (nay, SCREAMING) about restaurant service.

Recently, CNN’s new food blog, Eatocracy, polled their readers on their view on tipping. Practically overnight, 45,000 opinionated readers responded with votes and lengthy ALL-CAP rants discussing exactly why they thought it was right or downright wrong to leave no tip if bad service is rendered by the waiter.

49% of voters said they left servers no tip after receiving bad service

29% left a low tip for bad service

15% said they would never leave nothing, and would never leave anything less than 15%

5% said they left a penny, just to prove a point

to Find Out Why Tipping Isn’t Optional »

On Brooks Cherries, Learning, and the Perfect Lemon Wedge

Bourbon Cherry Cocktail Mixed Drink
Master Cherry Cocktail: Things can get messy when you're the student.

In the ancient tradition of master and student, the student will always get the crap beat out of them. All the abuse aggressive teaching ends the moment the student masters the knowledge they’ve been struggling to learn. Military basic training is like that. Sports teams operate the same way. Even Yoda was no pushover with Padawan learner, Luke. And so it is when you enter a kitchen to become a cook (or in my case, the Service Guru): you’ve got to put up with a lot of shame, frustration, and possibly sharp points (the kitchen is full of polished chefs’ knives) on the way to mastering your station.

Once the ass-beating is done and the grueling hours of study and repetition turn into muscle memory, a kind of zen-like moment of release occurs. The student no longer tries. The student does. All the hard work results in something so graceful it makes the apprentice filled with pleasure (and less pain).

I still have a way to go before I am considered a master at my new job.

“In Japan, we have a saying, you can not make a sword with cold steel, ” my new boss, Chef H said to me before he began my training this week. “It is only when it is very hot and fresh from the fire, that you can pound steel to make it thin and sharp. No matter how hard you hammer cold metal, it will never become a sword.”

I grimaced a little. “So what you’re saying Chef is that right now you’re going to beat the crap out of me while I’m still new and malleable?”

“Yes,” he said with a smile. “Yes, that is it exactly.”

Continue for the Recipe for a delicious Bourbon and Cherry Mixed Drink! »

Service 101: On Becoming a Service Guru

*Gasp!* A new job!

Things are about to start tasting a whole lot different around here.

I’m pushing aside the canned tomatoes and Italian fettucini, and stocking my larder with bottles of fish sauce and dried rice noodles! Why? Because after more than three years working at Mario Batali and Nancy Silverton’s Pizzeria and Osteria Mozza, I’m starting a new gig at a pan-Asian restaurant.

What will I be doing? I won’t be bartending or waiting tables. I won’t be managing, either. My title? Service Guru.

(Cue: Sound of excited GIGGLING)

As Service Guru, I’ll be head coach of a big plan to get employees excited about giving great service every day. And not just take your order and get you out the door on time kind of service. We’re talking about creating a service program that gives employees the tools they need to put smiles on customers faces, turn them on to new and tasty foods, and makes customers want to come back to the restaurant again and again. My new gig is, without a doubt, my dream restaurant job.

Continue For the Inside Scoop »

Summer Reading: Great Food and Writing Books (and some fluff)

Summer Reading Picks: On Writing and Down and Out in Paris and London

I was lucky enough to get in a lot of reading while I was on vacation. Though much of my reading was crammed into the last two days of my trip, I was able to plow through three books in just a couple of days before returning home. Each book offered food for thought, entertaining story, and psychological fodder.

Continue Reading for my current picks for Great Summer Reading for Foodies »