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I first went to Mexico as a backpacker over winter break in 2007. My total budget for three weeks and 5,000 kilometers was $500, which ended up covering transportation, lodging, food, drinks, and a healthy dose of souvenirs and presents. Swiss friends drove down from Mississippi, picked me up in Louisiana, and drove on down to the border. We left the car in Laredo, Mexico (a long story onto itself), and hoped on a bus to Mexico City. We lounged on the beach in Puerto Angel and visited Indian villages around San Cristobal de la Casas. We played cards on the zocalos of Oaxaca and Palenque. We spent many nights in buses, since they both got us from one place to the next and saved us the cost of a hotel night. I remember arriving in Acapulco around 4 one morning and exhaustedly drinking vodka and coffee outside a small café where only a thin tarp protected us from the pouring rain until it was late enough to go to a hotel that wouldn’t charge us for that day. Or taking 12 hours to drive 200 kilometers on dirt roads in the mountains, once again so exhausted that we slept on the floor of the bus between seats. Or eating blue corn tacos made by an old woman crouching against a wall in Mexico City, before heading on the subway to go to the acclaimed anthropology museum, and feeling absolutely content.  It was a trip of countless adventures, discoveries, and encounters, the kind of which are only possible when backpacking and having all the time in the world, even if it’s never enough. It was a trip that made me fall in love with Mexico.

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breakfast on the street in Mexico City, November 2013

We were broke college students, and fine dining had no room in our plans. We didn’t try to eat exclusively Mexican food, but our budget forced us to and we followed the recommendations of Let’s Go Mexico for the best cheap places in each city we visited.  I knew nothing about Mexican food then (we occasionally made tacos with high school friends in Switzerland, with Old El Paso taco shells and seasonings, feeling worldly, and what I ate in Louisiana was really Tex-Mex), so every bite opened me up to new flavors. I would eat the salsas on our tables by the spoonful to unpack their different taste layers—once even getting a real high from the heat of the chiles, something I’ve (thankfully?) never experienced again. I fell in love with tacos al pastor, that perfect combination of pork, chiles, and pineapple, which today remain one of my favorite foods. I was constantly looking for the next dish I hadn’t tried yet, to a point that became almost ridiculous, especially since then my career aspirations were to become a war reporter for the Associated Press, not work in food. It was, in retrospect, an unconscious behavior, just another materialization of a love of food that didn’t become intentional until I graduated college and looked for my first real job.

I dreamed of going back to Mexico ever since then, but it took me until May 2013 to make it happen, when attending Mesamerica in Mexico City. Then I went to Acapulco in October for the first Foro Mundial de la Gastronomía Mexicana. And back to Mexico City in November, to research a profile of Enrique Olvera of Pujol and another piece on the next generation of Mexican chefs. Those came out in the March issue of Food Arts, and appeared online the day after I came back from yet another visit, this time to Merida in the Yucatan, to celebrate a friend’s birthday. I’ll be back in May. I am lucky.

Those trips have been different. I’ve eaten world-class tasting menus in the best restaurants in Mexico City and traditional dishes prepared by village cooks over a wood fire, alongside experts who could explain and contextualize it all. They have offered the same contentedness and joy, however, and have rekindled a love that I hope never becomes dormant again.

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The 11th edition of Madrid Fusión, which took place January 21-23, focused less on dazzling with technique and more on expressing sensitivity to one’s physical and cultural environment. It can be safely assumed that immersion circulators, rotary evaporators, and other modern technologies are very much part of the everyday repertoire of the chefs featured, and that for most of them, “creativity continues”—this year’s theme—beyond technology, especially in times that call for responsible economic and sustainable decision-making.

Click here to continue reading my Food Arts article about Madrid Fusión on the magazine’s website.

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I wrote an article about Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, an interview with Nathan Myhrvold, and a profile of co-author Maxime Bilet for the ICE newsletter. I’ll post some of that when it comes out, but this is more of a stream-of-consciousness post to try and understand why it was so hard to write about a book I’ve been hearing about since 2008—the first time I talked to Max and to Chris Young, the other co-author, about it. I saw early pages when Chris brought them to StarChefs’ International Chefs Congress in September 2009. I saw some more again in May 2010 when I was lucky enough to have coffee with Nathan and his extraordinary publicist, Carrie Bachman. Chris and Max agreed months ago to present at the daylong symposium of the Experimental Cuisine Collective in May. So I think it’s fair to say that I’ve been pretty familiar with the project, without being intimate with it. I was expecting words to flow on the page once I read through all five volumes and kitchen manual in an online viewing site and through a hard copy of volume 2 (Techniques and Equipment), such was my excitement at finally getting to see it all. But it was almost too much to process at once (and by once I mean several weeks).

There isn’t really is a beginning and an end to Modernist Cuisine, although everyone should start with volume 1, which provides the fundamentals necessary to understand the material in the other volumes. It is easy enough to consult the index when looking for a specific information, or to let oneself be carried by the beautiful, clear writing a few randomly opened pages at a time. I had first favored that latter approach, when trying to grasp the breadth and depth of the full book, then decided to methodically make my way through each volume, skimming some pages, reading others attentively. I was fascinated with the history section of volume 1, which thoroughly (starting with the invention of fire) contextualizes Modernist cooking. Having read many food history works and being knowledgeable of the specific history of this new cuisine, I was nonetheless impressed by the material covered and the superb summary that chapter provided, only regretting that I couldn’t copy it for the students of my experimental cuisine class at NYU. Knowing the context in which this genre emerged is essential to its application in the kitchen, I believe, or even to its critique. Too much of what I read online or in print about experimental/science-based/Modernist cooking is overly simplified and shows no sense of history. Reading those 100 or so pages should be mandatory for anyone who writes as much as a blog post using a term like “molecular gastronomy.”

So why so hard? I think it’s because I felt a personal responsibility to do this book justice. Some reviews, even when written by renowned authors in prestigious publications, didn’t seem to “get it.” Others did, beautifully so, raising the bar for anyone writing on the topic, even if not even close to coming to the same category of publication. I adore this book and find it to be a bargain (at $625, or $462 on Amazon) when all the information it contains is taken into consideration. It’s a work of art visually. It makes science and technology accessible. It provides recipes to use the technologies that have emerged for kitchen use (rather than just lab use) in recent years. It challenges its readers to be better—better cooks, better thinkers, better food people. But just saying this is equivalent to gushing, so I had to do more. I’m not sure I’ve succeeded, but I know that I can’t wait for my copy to arrive so that I can continue to think about and explore Modernist cuisine in all that it has to offer, thanks to the amazing gift Nathan, Chris, Max, and their large team have given us.

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Prohibition, which was in place between 1920 and 1933 and forbade the production, sale, and importation of alcohol, all but killed the vigorous spirit industry that had taken root in the United States until then. Most distilleries were forced to close. The ones that remained open, as did Buffalo Trace in Kentucky, were allowed to do so under special licenses to distill bourbon for medicinal purposes—only four such licenses were dispensed in the country, according to Buffalo Trace’s history. From 2000 legally registered distilleries, 63 remained in Kentucky after the Prohibition ended. All New York State distilleries closed. It took 70 years for one to reopen.

Tuthilltown Spirits, the first legal distillery to open in New York since the Prohibition, is tucked away in the Hudson Valley, in Gardiner, NY, surrounded by fields and farms. Just like its unmistakable bottles, the distillery is small—a converted barn that looks more like a large garage hosts the entire process, from milling to bottling. The barrels are aged in a two-story building that now also hosts a small tasting room and gift shop. Ralph Erenzo bought what was then a gristmill in 2001, with the intention of turning it into a climbing facility and hostel, explained his son, Gable Erenzo, who is a distiller and brand ambassador for the company. The neighbors, fearing that such activity would bring too much noise and chaos to the town, opposed it. The town’s code officer advised Ralph to open a winery instead, which would classify it as a farm and give it the Department of Agriculture and Markets’ protection. Ralph and his partner, Brian Lee, turned to distilling instead—a distillery also has farm status—and produced their first batch in 2003, obtaining their license in 2005.

Tuthilltown's Four Grain Bourbon with peers

“Before the Prohibition, almost every farm had a still,” Gable Erenzo said. “After the harvest, they would grind up grains and fruits and distill. It was really a farm product, an agricultural pursuit. But laws after the Prohibition made it cost prohibitive to restart on such small levels.”

Tuthilltown benefited from a change in regulation in 2001 that made craft distilling possible in the state. Before that, the only license available was a $50,000-a-year industrial one, said Erenzo.

For all of its complexity when it hits the tongue, bourbon begins simply enough—with grains. Rye, wheat, and malted barley are the typical complements to corn. Tuthilltown Spirits’ Baby Bourbon is made of 100 percent corn, while its Four-Grain Bourbon contains 60 percent corn and an equal proportion of rye, wheat, and malted barley. Maker’s Mark, by comparison, contains 70 percent corn, 16 percent wheat, and 14 percent malted barley, while Woodford Reserve is made of 72 percent corn, 18 percent rye, and 10 percent malted barley.

Grains are milled into a fine flour, then poured in proportions specific to each bourbon’s recipe, one type of grain at a time, into large mash cookers with water. Each grain is then cooked to a specific temperature until the next one is added. This cooking process is called mashing.  The mash bill then must be cooled down to 55 or 60 degrees before being placed in fermenters—at which point yeast, and often sour mash from a previous batch, to ensure consistency, are added—where it will remain for several days. The fermentation time depends on the distiller; Tuthilltown’s bourbon ferments for five days. One pound each of two types of yeast are added on the second day after being tempered in three gallons of water for 15 minutes. Mash is added to the bucket, and then poured into the fermenting vat. Fermenters at Tuthilltown have a capacity of 200 gallons. Small batch indeed: the industry’s largest tanks, at Buffalo Trace, contain 92,000 gallons.

Fermentation tank at Maker's Mark distillery in Tennessee

During fermentation, the mash is first sweet, then tastes like flat beer, and finally turns sour, at which point it is known as “distiller’s beer.”            After fermentation comes distillation. The mash is placed in a still, the liquid is heated, and as it goes through several copper plates, the liquid comes down into a recipient. Most bourbons are distilled twice, as is the case at Tuthilltown. The distillery uses two German-made pot stills that allow them to create a number of different types of spirits, said Erenzo. The fermented mash bill sits in the pot while a steam jacket heats it up. The liquid then evaporates and goes through a series of copper plates. As it goes through the cold coil, it condenses back into liquid. During the first run—the stripping run—the bottom plate is closed and the “bad” alcohol disappears. The second distillation allows the “heads” and “tails” of the alcohol to dissipate, so that only its “heart” remains, ready to be captured. After the second distillation, the bourbon reaches 78 to 80 percent of alcohol by volume. The distiller adds water to bring it to 57 percent, at which point it goes into barrels.

Still at Tuthilltown

A batch of Tuthilltown whiskey starts with 400 gallons of water and 800 to 900 pounds of grains that are then milled on site. Ninety percent of the products they use come from local farms, within a radius of about 10 miles, explained Erenzo. “We found a guy upstate with a seed bank, and so we use a heirloom varietal of corn,” he said. “We mix it with a local high-quality field corn.”

Two farmers grow wheat specifically for the distillery, while the apples used in its vodka come from an orchard three miles up the road. The malted barley comes from Canada. The enzymes it contains break the grains’ starches into simple sugars, said Erenzo. The distillery, which occupies 10 full-time employees, produces one or two batches a day, which each turns into about 50 gallons of finished spirit. Each bottle is filled, corked, and labeled by hand; the current year is also hand-written on the label.

“We touch the bottles seven times before they leave the door,” said Erenzo. About 40 cases are bottled and packaged a day.

No just any whiskey can be called bourbon. Its signature elements are carefully regulated. By law, a bourbon must contain at least 51 percent corn; be aged in new, charred oak barrels; be distilled to no more than 160 proof; go into barrels at no more than 125 proof; and be bottled at no less than 80 proof. Some distillers keep secret the exact percentage of grains and the temperatures used in their bourbon. No coloring or flavoring agents can be added. Kentucky distillers will tell you that the water of the bluegrass state is essential to the taste of bourbon. There, river water runs over limestone, which leaves it rich in calcium and magnesium and low in iron. In addition to being beneficial while cooking the mash, in Bourbon at its Best (Clerisy Press, 2008), Ron Givens writes that if the water that is added to bourbon after it is distilled—to lower the proof before it goes in the barrel—contains too much iron, a reaction with chemicals in the wood can turn the liquid anywhere from green to black. Tuthilltown uses water from a deep well.

According to Charles K. Cowdery in his book Bourbon, Straight (Made and Bottled in Kentucky, 2004), rye was the grain of choice to make whisky in colonial times. This changed once pioneers settled in Kentucky, where corn was abundant. Evan Williams opened the first commercial distillery in 1783. Bourbon was placed in barrels and shipped down to New Orleans to be sold. The journey on boats down the Mississippi River took several months to complete, and by the time the whiskey reached Louisiana, it had begun aging. Initially the barrels were not charred. But in the late 1700s, Elijah Craig experienced a barn fire that charred his barrels. According to the history passed on while touring Heaven Hill distillery in Bardstown, KY, he filled and shipped them anyway. The whiskey that arrived in New Orleans was smoother and tastier than its previous incarnations. Cowdery offers a more simple explanation: Barrels were used to store all kinds of goods at the time, and so were charred in between uses as a way to sterilize them. He suggests that new barrels were charred as well because the process gave the bourbon a better taste. The practice seems to have been widespread by the mid nineteenth century. Four levels of charring exist, which refer to the length and depth of charring; Tuthilltown uses a no. 4 char.

Barrels at Tuthilltown

The barrels at Tuthilltown are part of what gives the distillery—and the bourbon—its unique character. Rather than using the large, 53-gallon barrels one will see in the larger Kentucky distilleries, Tuthilltown ages its spirits in barrels that contain between three and 14 gallons. A smaller barrel increases the surface of exposure between liquid and wood, explained Erenzo, and allows the bourbon to gain its distinctive taste much faster, without needing to wait 10 or more years for a full, smooth flavor. A three-gallon barrel ages in about 4 months, an eight-gallon barrel will age in about a year, and a 14-gallon barrel in two years. This is particularly crucial for a young distillery like theirs, since it means that product can be on shelves rapidly. As Tuthilltown expands its production, however, the distillers have begun using slightly larger barrels; five gallons is their smallest size now, said Erenzo. In June 2010, William Grant & Sons acquired the line of Hudson Whiskeys from Tuthilltown, which gives it an exclusive licensing contract for seven years. This will help propel sales of Tuthilltown’s whiskeys in Europe and generally help further develop the company.

Whiskeys from various barrels of different ages go into each bottle of Tuthilltown bourbon. “It makes it more well rounded to blend bourbons that range from four months to two years old,” explained Erenzo. “The younger barrels have a more robust oak flavor, the older ones are more smooth.”

Smaller barrels are more cost prohibitive. The production of each gallon in a three-gallon barrel is between $25 and $30, while it goes down to $3 a gallon in a 53-gallon barrel, Erenzo added.

According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) 2009 Industry Review Tables, sales in the bourbon and Tennessee whiskey category were up by 0.3 percent last year—not a significant number, but one that. However, one just needs to take a look at the bourbon shelves in a well-stocked liquor store to realize how many small batch, high-end bottles are now available. Kentucky distillers also know that bourbon is popular, as they see more and more tourists visiting from all over the country and develop their public offerings to tap into that demand. The Kentucky Distillers’ Association offers an official bourbon trail, which features six distilleries that pay to be included. Tourists receive a “passport” to be stamped at each distillery and traded, once completed, for a T-shirt.

The main distillery building at Tuthillltown

No need of a passport to visit Tuthilltown, which offers two tours for the public on Saturdays and Sundays year-round. State laws also allow the distillery to pour ¾ ounce per person. With the ¼-ounce pours served in the tasting room, each visitor can try three of the distillery’s products, from white dog (whiskey straight from the still) and bourbon to rye and vodka.

“It’s important to come and see the process and understand the connection we have with local farming,” Erenzo said. “We experiment with our grain varietals, we make whiskey from grain to bottle. We’re getting to the point where some farmers grow just for us, which gives them another outlet for their harvest.”

This article first appeared in fall 2010 issue of The Main Course, the newsletter of the Institute of Culinary Education.

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Culinary Careers: How to Get Your Dream Job in Food, with Advice from Top Culinary Professionals (Clarkson Potter)  is now out!

This book is the culmination of nearly two years of work, from proposal to publication. Institute of Culinary Education President Rick Smilow and I conceived Culinary Careers as a comprehensive guide to help students, career changers, prep cooks looking to move up, weary chefs in need of a new way to use their skills, budding food writers, or aspiring winemakers go about their job search and learn more about the industry as a whole.

Cooking, baking, managing, producing, distilling, brewing, distributing, planning, marketing, writing, editing, photographing, filming, styling, designing—the career opportunities in the food industry today are seemingly endless. Because such a plethora of career paths are possible, it can be hard to find out exactly what job would best suit oneself, or how to go about obtaining it, short of talking to everyone. In Culinary Careers, we did just that: We talked to people in all aspects of the industry about their education, career path, and day-to-day activities, to provide the most complete and useful advice possible.

I interviewed close to 120 people for the book. With word count restrictions, 89 are now profiled, including Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, Dan Barber, Rick Bayless, David Chang, Graham Elliot Bowles, Gale Gand, François Payard, Ruth Reichl, Michael Ruhlman, Gail Simmons, Mindy Segal, Erin McKenna, Michael Laiskonis, Elisa Strauss, Zingerman’s Ari Weinzweig, Chef’s Garden Lee Jones, Orangette’s Molly Wizenberg, Julie and Julia‘s food stylist Susan Spungen, Allagash Brewing Company’s Rob Tod, and Savannah Bee Company’s Ted Dennard, as well as more sommeliers, caterers, company owners, media producers, stylists, photographers, publicists, consultants, and educators.

Culinary Careers (click here for the table of contents) opens with three chapters that cover three different career-building stages: Getting Started features information on educational needs for beginners and career changers alike, describing programs and schools around the country, along with some top international programs. This chapter also offers tips for resume writing and job interviews. Career Development and Growth gives advice on advancing one’s career, from developing a palate to acquiring additional education and credentials. It also discusses how to change jobs, which organizations to join and trade shows to attend, and networking both in person and online. The third chapter, Ownership and Entrepreneurship, addresses the many entrepreneurial opportunities that the food industry affords, from owning a restaurant or a food product company to a public relations firm or a catering company. It covers the pros and cons of ownership, the components of a business plan, permits and certifications, and investors. Lessons from the Stratosphere features commentary and advice from those who have reached the pinnacle of their profession.

Eleven chapters then include exclusive interviews with both food-world luminaries and those on their way up that allow readers to discover what life is really like in their desired field. These professionals also offer their thoughts on salaries in their field and what they look for in a new hire, for up-to-date, frank information on what one can expect to earn when working in the food industry. Those job category chapters are:

Cooking
Pastry and Baking
Catering, Events, Personal and Private Chef Work
Management
Wine and Beverages
Food Artisans
Retail, Distribution, Sales
Media, Marketing, Public Relations
Assorted Business Services
Nutrition and Nonprofit
Education

I can’t describe how inspiring it was to work on this book. All the people who were generous enough to share their experiences, knowledge, and advice were a daily source of positive energy, thanks to the passion they exuded. I’ve repeated that so many times it sounds trite, but it nonetheless remains true. Despite the long hours and the sacrifices they often make or have made as part of their careers, people who work around food just love what they do—and love sharing it. I would end interviews with my brain racing, in an exalted state, because of how excited people were about their own jobs. I feel so lucky, and am so thankful, to have gotten to share a small slice of the lives of the people now featured in Culinary Careers. Writing a book is a pretty brutal process: You stay glued to your computer for weeks and months on end, cutting down on nearly all social obligations to research, research, research and write, write, write. Then you suffer terrible anxieties wondering if your editor will actually love the manuscript, which are nothing compared to the anxieties that come once the book goes out to the media, and then finally is available for public consumption/criticism. Getting to interview such wonderful people, spend months researching in depth so many aspects of the industry that’s been mine for nearly 10 years, and share it all with people who want to be or are part of that amazing world made it all worth it.

Now it’s out of my hands and I can only hope that readers learn from the book and find jobs that they love as much as I love mine.

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Chocolate Epiphany

Chocolate Epiphany: Exceptional Cookies, Cakes, and Confections for Everyone

Francois Payard with Anne E. McBride [Clarkson Potter, 2008]chocolate-epiphany-smaller1

The publisher’s description:

Celebrated French pastry chef and owner of one of New York City’s favorite bakeries presents an impressive and comprehensive dessert cookbook with recipes for everything chocolate, from easy cookies to showstopping cakes.

On any given weekend at the esteemed New York City institution Payard Pâtisserie & Bistro, locals and tourists swoon over sweet delicacies like creamy chocolate truffles, fruit tarts, and delicate, decadent cookies, while brides take note of the stylish wedding cakes in the window.

For the first time, its owner, famed pastry chef François Payard, devotes his creative powers solely to chocolate, sharing 100 recipes for home cooks of every level in Chocolate Epiphany. From easy to challenging, white to bittersweet, a stunning and sumptuous dessert awaits on every page. Thanks to the clear and thorough recipes, treats such as Bittersweet Chocolate Sorbet, Chocolate Sticky Toffee Pudding, and Milk Chocolate Truffles à l’Ancienne are not only delicious but also accessible. And for the ambitious, Chocolate Coconut Caramel Cake, Cranberry-Chestnut Tart, or Milk Chocolate and Candied Kumquat Napoleans could be the perfect end to an extravagant dinner party.

Inside you’ll find chapters devoted to:

  • Breads and Brunch Dishes
  • Cookies and Petits Fours
  • Candies and Chocolates
  • Custards, Mousses, and Meringues
  • Plated Desserts
  • Tarts
  • Cakes

With a rich, full-color design and stunning photography throughout, Chocolate Epiphany is the perfect gift for chocoholics and everyone looking to enlarge his or her dessert repertoire.

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