Sunday, August 21, 2016

Souvenirs from Cape Town

What do you cling to, to hold on to the vacation glow?

Mine was salt and vinegar chips left over from a week staying in Cape Town.

My friends and I had rented an Airbnb just outside of the central business district, and my first order of business upon arrival was sorting the food situation. Luckily, there was a Woolworths Food just down the road from our house, and I ended up visiting the M&S doppelganger three times in our first two days of vacation. (For those unfamiliar with Marks & Spencer, imagine a high-end grocery store, shrunk down to the size of a 7-Eleven, with all the ingredients you would need for cooking at home -- produce, meat, bread, etc. -- supplemented by lots of prepared options if microwaves and ready to eat are more your style).

I had selected the sharing-sized packet of salt and vinegar chips thinking that our merry band of four friends would have ample snacking opportunities during our week in this coastal city. But as it played out, we came to the end of our stay, ready to fly to the eastern part of the country for some safari time, and the bag had remained untouched. I considered leaving the chips for the next Airbnb guests, but an inexplicable fear that we would find ourselves somewhere desperately hankering for some salty-sweet fried potato goodness -- on the airplane, during the drive to the lodge, in the game viewer 4x4 doggedly hunting down an elusive big animal -- pushed me to hastily stuff the chips into my carry-on.

Of course, the game lodge did a superior job of feeding us and hunger became but a distant, abstract notion during our four days of safari. By my count, the lodge offered a meal or snack no less than every two to three hours, from our pre-dawn coffee and muffins to the nightly four-course dinner. And so the salt and vinegar chips got buried deeper and deeper under a mass of khaki and olive green clothing in my luggage.

Neither did my 28+ hour return journey proffer an opportunity to justify my impulsive snacking purchase, so I found myself back in the United States with an errant Woolworths branded packet of salt and vinegar chips amidst sundry other relics of our South African adventures. And it was there, in the jetlagged, disturbed cicadian rhythm haze of my re-entry into the real world, that I finally feasted.

With their origins in Ireland, salt and vinegar chips are hardly the most representative items of Capetonian cuisine. Coincidentally, I had also purchased a packet of peri peri potato chips that, due to their more exotic appeal, got consumed before we even left Cape Town. Yet, over the next few days of returning to work, stressing over how to feed myself absent a full game lodge culinary staff, and waking up at 4 am, each time I turned to that bag of sweet and salty goodness, I felt flushed with a wave of nostalgia for our South African vacation. Others might use postcards or kitschy souvenirs to recall the glory days of a recently completed vacation, but this was no ordinary Lay's packet of chips; these chips traversed hemispheres to accompany me back home.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Bright Lights, Big City

There's something wonderful about looking out at night over a city, all the little lights representing people and lives, whole existences separated from yourself and yet connected to you through this luminescence.

There's something wonderful about looking out over a great city at night and just marveling at what civilization has accomplished. From nothing, to this. Unimaginable toil and suffering and destruction and inequality.

But also, all of this stands witness to lifetimes upon lifetimes upon lifetimes of happiness and joy and revelations and love and peace and appreciation, and whole, whole extremes of the human experience. Cities hold within them magnitudes of life, teeming, over-flowing, rife with the human experience all compacted one on top of each other. So many thoughts, so many feelings, so many experiences... surely the meaning of life hides in there somewhere.

Surely one of those lights represents someone falling in love, appreciating love, savoring life, being raised to new heights, living a happily ever after.

There are undoubtedly people who, like all of us sometimes, are just going through the motions, are just passing time until chance or destiny might smile upon them again. But in cities with 500,000, one million, six million, 10 million people in them... surely one, if not some, if not several people might be experiencing some of those things in life that make us feel ALIVE. And there is an energy that comes out of that, that comes from being close to that, that comes from gazing upon it.

The country is a lovely place to be when you are happy with yourself, when you are happy with your life, when you want to be alone with your thoughts, or alone with the thoughts of a select few. But, for inspiration, for illumination, for the human experience beyond oneself, the city is clearly where it's at.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Best Bites of 2013

I realize that March of 2014 is rather late to be posting a best eats of 2013 list. But so it goes around here, and better late than never!

2Amys (Washington, DC)

Rare, I think, is the restaurant that can be a comforting midweek family treat, and also a destination for celebration that feels special and unique and indulgent – but 2Amys does it with aplomb. Lucky are the tourists who might casually stumble onto the black and white tiled floors after checking out the National Cathedral. For those who prefer not to leave their culinary delights to serendipity, make sure that 2Amys is built in to your DC itinerary (and yes, the cab ride or mile walk uphill from the Cleveland Park Metro station is well worth it). Their pizzas are always delicious (when in doubt, you can’t go wrong with the classic margherita), but their attention to detail and clean flavors in their small plates selection is also phenomenal. Yet this is no hipster hangout, nor is there any white tablecloth pretension; parents and kids can easily enjoy a plate of house-cured salumi or fresh gigante beans with the most amazing olive oil without batting an eye. Admittedly, this place made it on to my list of best bites of 2013 for somewhat sentimental reasons, but I didn't plan months in advance to celebrate my 30th birthday here on a special trip to DC just for sentimentality. 

Burma Superstar (San Francisco, CA)
All the things you’ve heard about Burma Superstar are true, and YES, the wait is worth it. I don’t say that lightly. Though I often recommended the restaurant to others and especially out of towners (seeing as most people visiting San Francisco are hard-pressed to find Burmese food in their own hoods), for a long time I eschewed Burma Superstar personally for its less hyped, less populated Burmese counterparts elsewhere. I mean come on; a tea leaf salad is not that difficult to replicate.

But then out of towners came to visit ME, and when the place that I had hyped to them (Ad Hoc in Yountville) was less than spectacular, I joined them for a final meal at Burma Superstar. With five people arriving at 7:30 pm on a Friday night, it was close to 10 pm before we finally sat down (dear gaggle of twentysomething girls just dishing the dish for a solid 30 minutes after you have paid the bill: yes, those death stares were aimed at you). And I understood again why the wait list begins about 15 minutes after they open at 5 pm and doesn’t abate until late in the evening. If you’re just craving some tea leaf salad or mohinga soup, the 20 or so other Burmese restaurants in the Bay Area will likely suffice. But if you want a tea leaf salad that feels refreshing and not slicked down with oil, or a mohinga soup that finishes clean on the tongue even as its thick warmth satisfies your belly, stop the grumbling and wait for a table here. The menu items are similar to all the other Burmese places, but everything is just done *better* than anywhere else. 

Beast (Portland OR)
Such a delightful surprise of a brunch -- there was something just so lovely about arriving on a crisply sunny Sunday morning to this straightforward, unassuming, simple space. Everything was clean and organized and placed just so, such that I was inspired by the mere simple reptition of multiple place settings on the communal tables. The space is minimalist in the best way: a straightforward dining room of two long tables overlooked by an open kitchen, and just enough pink and chalkboard writing to feel modern and welcoming. When we arrived on the early side for our seating, the chefs (all female by the way) were still preparing dishes: hand-whipping cream, breaking up candied bacon (more on that later), dicing vegetables. Nothing was hurried or frantic; rather, I felt instantly at ease and comforted by the fact that *they* all seemed so at ease and comfortable.

There are just two seatings for brunch, and everyone sits at the same time and eats the same menu. Though my party didn't really interact with those next to us, there was definitely a sense of a shared rather than individual experience. When you're eating a divinely indulgent poached clafoutis with whipped cream and a slice of maple-glazed bacon oh so deliciously thinner and more crackly than you would ever expect, your heart veritably swells with appreciation that all these people around you get to experience the same amazing food.

Benu (San Francisco, CA)
This was a bit of a surprise. I had heard of Corey Lee when he came to speak at a CIA graduation, and had heard great things about Benu, but clearly didn’t have my facts right. For one, I thought that his restaurant was in Oakland. For another, I had no idea when I suggested my friend try this place at the end of the year that the tasting menu would be $200. Many jokes were had about getting our full money’s worth... but once we arrived, I swiftly regretted not having brought the “fancy” camera.

I don’t know if it was fully worth $200 per person, but I’m a cheapskate. That said, it was a very very good meal. Surprises abounded, there was whimsy, but with soul, and I loved the new take on some very familiar Asian flavors and concepts like black beans, XO sauce, xiao long bao, etc. I actually don’t know if someone not familiar with these the flavors would have had the same experience… perhaps such a person would interpet the dishes as more novel, rather than as innovative re-creations. On the other hand, I often thought to myself that my mom would have dismissed the food as frou-frou versions of Asian cuisine that is readily available for cheaper elsewhere. To some extent I think she would have been right: some dishes were highlights, while others were so-so, like a more modern take on salt and pepper calamari. None were horrible. The final dessert, a light and airy cake flavored by the tempting mystery of white sesame and counterbalanced by an intense sweet-tart plum sauce, was perfection.

Cavalier (San Francisco, CA)

I’ve been intrigued by the bad rap that British food gets all the time, and I have to say, if more places like Cavalier opened up around the world, maybe that rap would go away. There is a kind of practiced, pretentious masculinity in its ambience that verges on obtrusive to me (I always hate when a restaurant makes me feel not cool enough to eat there, before I've even eaten anything), but the menu is like a greatest hits compilation of all the British food Americans didn't realize was delicious. The vibrancy of colors on my plate should surely put to rest the idea that all British food is gray mush, and this sticky toffee pudding in particular made me feel like I had died and gone to heaven. The prices could come down a bit to make it all feel a little bit more accessible... though I suppose if you consider the exchange rate between the British pound and the US dollar right now and standard London prices, the Cavalier might actually seem like a good deal.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Getting my panties in a bunch over media coverage of female chefs

Thank you, New York Times, for succeeding where TIME magazine so clearly, publicly, woefully failed. Not by writing a story about how few women there are in professional kitchens – that story has been written several times over – but by talking about how women *have* penetrated the once male-dominated kitchens, and how their presence and influence is only growing in the world.

The backstory: The internet and culinary worlds were aflutter back in November over TIME Magazine’s publication of a “Gods of Food” feature that neglected to include any female chefs. Taken to task over the lack of female chefs in the list, editor Howard Chua-Eoan dug a deeper hole for himself by explaining in an interview to Eater, that, "We did not want to fill a quota of a woman chef... We wanted to go with reputation and influence."

Cue female indignance, and every savvy internet editor (read: any and every other editor) capitalizing on Chua-Eoan’s fail moment to print their own lists recounting multitudes of female achievement in the kitchen.

But I have to admit something: I get it. When Chua-Eoan says that a Barbara Lynch is not as well-recognized or as well-celebrated as a David Chang, I get it... because aside from Dominique Crenn and Alice Waters, I, perhaps like you, did not immediately recognize many of the names that have emerged in the wake of the article's uproar.

I can name the renowned female chefs that have informed my own culinary sphere of course: Julia Child (I distinctly remember watching her make a hollandaise sauce on VHS over and over again), Cindy Pawlcyn of Mustard's (maker of the best hamburger, per my parents’ world view, which of course became my world view), Judy Rodgers of Zuni CafĂ© (favored haunt of my dad from when he used to sup there weekly), Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, Slow Food, the Edible Schoolyard, etc (it’s Alice Waters… there’s really no explanation needed, is there?). I've had the pleasure of meeting and witnessing firsthand the energy and innovative brilliance of Susan Feniger and Elizabeth Falkner, and most recently marveled at the all-female kitchen that served me a delicious brunch at Beast (Executive Chef, Naomi Pomeroy). My Top Chef addiction (and their wise choice in later seasons to seed the competition with many more female chefs from the get-go), has exposed me to more female legends in the culinary world, both longstanding and emerging, like Anita Lo and Stephanie Izard. I'm a slightly more educated than most foodie who now works in the culinary world, and yet I have to admit (though don't tell my boss!) that I struggle to name more female chefs than that. I'm guessing that unless you are a dedicated foodie or professional chef, you might also struggle to do so.

But, is our inability to name "big" female chefs with a widespread reputation similar to David Chang or Rene Redzepi or Thomas Keller due to the "basic reality" that there are fewer of them who have the name recognition? Or is it about *how* one gets their name recognized? That is to say, is David Chang really more of a "God" of food than Barbara Lynch as Chua-Eoan suggests, or is Chang’s PR machine, his drive for public recognition, his ego and machisimo -- in sum, his "manliness" -- more intrusive into the popular culture sphere than a female chef is wont to be? Yes, yes, "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" has become passe. But men have particular traits, women have particular traits, and the system of public recognition (largely distilled through media coverage, awards, and festivals) tend to reward those who trump up their own accomplishments more, i.e. men. Men who want to establish a broad geographical empire. Men who are concerned with leaving a legacy, and being critically acclaimed, and seeking recognition for their genius.

People say that one’s cooking should speak for itself and that reviews and accolades should not necessarily highlight the sex of the chef. Indeed, some people think that by calling out the sex of a female chef, it's like saying, "This chef is great despite being a female." But, when Anthony Bourdain writes in Kitchen Confidential that the kitchen is no place for a woman, and you have to be a certain kind of woman (to wit: a man-like woman) to survive -- well, it just makes me put an extra pump into my fist when I see a woman being celebrated and lauded and deemed a culinary god (or goddess if one should prefer).

Because to me, the more interesting story is when a woman succeeds not in spite of being a woman, but *because* she is a woman. Because she cares about things like soul, and feeding people, and serving others rather than herself. In sum, those things that people so often decry as the failings of being a female, the reason female “success” lags behind male success. To ignore that one's sex, the way your identity is shaped by socially constructed notions of behavior based on sex, has an influence on how you cook, how you run a business, how you promote yourself, is to be as naive as to think that we live in a race-blind era.

Really, Chua-Eoan and the TIME team could have easily avoided this whole debacle by including some female chefs... yes, even to fill a quota. Up until Chua-Eoan's interview, I thought that TIME, as a leading news publication, would see its role not simply as telling people about the reality that they think they already know, but to push the boundaries and expose them to something that they don't know. Chua-Eoan does a pretty pathetic job of trying to defend the decision not to include any females chefs by saying that he thinks "media covers the industry. I don't think the media has to advocate for anything." On this, he and I profoundly disagree: I absolutely think that the role of media as gatekeepers and influencers themselves, is to push the boundaries and illuminate imbalance or injustice. Several people have commented that the preponderance of male chefs reflects that Chua-Eoan hasn't really been out eating in these restaurants and actually observing who is in the kitchens, relying instead on press releases and other media coverage to assess influence and reputation. Who is better at trumping up one’s own ego and reputation? Who tends to put money and energy and effort into making sure that people know their name and their influence? Let's be honest -- the men.

In the end, I see two failings here: TIME's failure to take a stand and be a voice for what this list should be, and a general failure to acknowledge that sex *does* matter. So thank goodness for the New York Times. For not being afraid to acknowledge that sex has a place in this, and that achievements and acclaim based on one’s sex are nothing to shy away from. For recognizing that the media’s role is to illuminate that which people cannot readily see for themselves, and to advocate for the world that we want to live in. And for the very basic ability to recognize that hey, women *are* doing amazing things in the kitchen... and have been for a while.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Update on Conflict Kitchen

Two years ago (wow, really, that was two years ago?!?), I wrote about an intriguing project just getting started in Pittsburgh, called Conflict Kitchen. The premise was to focus on the food of a country with which America is in some kind of conflict, using the food to engage people in learning about these countries. The other day, I came across this Los Angeles Times article profiling the project, and its anticipated expansion from a stand serving street food to go, to a full-service restaurant in downtown Pittsburgh. Since the last time I read about them, they've done Persian, Afghan, and Venezuelan food, are planning for a Cuban iteration soon, and are also exploring a North Korean version. If you're in the Pittsburgh area, check them out!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Cultural Diplomacy and Turkish Coffee

This is what I call closing the last 3 feet of public diplomacy: handing out free Turkish coffee on the streets of DC, and inspiring lots of conversations about Turkey, Turkish culture, Turkish food, and Turkish coffee fortune telling in the process. 

 And I get to be a part of it! I would write more, but I'm headed to New York with the crew tomorrow as they spread the Turkish coffee love around the East Coast. So in the meantime, check out the Turkayfe website for more info on the project, and look out for lots of pictures and videos (courtesy of my newfangled DSLR) to come!