March 24, 2013

To be separated from what's around you by a pane of glass would be to miss -- everything.

Medium Raw
by Anthony Bourdain

"The only way to see Hanoi is from the back of a scooter. To ride in a car would be madness -- limiting your mobility to a crawl, preventing you from even venturing down half the narrow streets and alleys where the good stuff is to be found. To be separated from what's around you by a pane of glass would be to miss -- everything. Here, the joy of riding on the back of a scooter or motorbike is to be part of the throng, just one more tiny element in an organic thing, a constantly moving, ever-changing process rushing, mixing, swirling, and diverting through the city's veins, arteries, and capillaries. Admittedly, it's also slightly dangerous. Traffic lights, one-way signs, intersections, and the like -- the rough outlines of organized society -- are more suggestions than regulations observed by anyone in actual practice. One has, though, the advantage of the right of way. Here? The scooter and motorbike are kings. The automobile may rule the thoroughfares of America, but in Hanoi it's cumbersome and unwieldy, the last one to the party, a woolly mammoth of the road -- to be waited on, begrudgingly accommodated -- even pitied -- like the fat man at a sack race."
(p. 78)

"What is not debatable is that a perfect bowl of Hanoi pho is a balanced meeting of savory, sweet, sour, spicy, salty, and even umami -- a gentle commingling of textures as well: soft and giving, wet and slippery, slightly chewy, momentarily resistant but ultimately near-diaphanous, light and heavy, leafy and limp, crunchy and tender. There -- and nearly not there at all. Were this already not enough to jerk a rusty steak knife across your grandma's throat, empty her bank account, and head off to Hanoi, consider the colors: bright red chilies; the more subdued, richer-red toasted-chili paste; bright green vegetables; white sprouts. Pinkish-red raw meat, turning slowly gray as it cooks in your bowl, the deep brown colors of the cooked meat, white noodles, light amber broth. Nearly all God's colors in one bowl."
(p. 83)

Perhaps omelet skills should be learned at the same time you learn to fuck.

Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook
By Anthony Bourdain

"At no point in Kitchen Confidential, that I can find, does it say that cocaine or heroin were good ideas. In fact, given the book's many episodes of pain, humiliation, and being constantly broke-ass, one would think it almost a cautionary tale. Yet, at readings and signings, I am frequently the inadvertent recipient of small packets of mysterious white powder; bindles of cocaine; fat, carefully rolled joints of local hydro, pressed into my palm or slipped into my pocket. These inevitably end up in the garbage -- or handed over to a media escort. The white powders because I'm a recovered fucking addict -- and the weed 'cause all I need is one joint, angel dust-laced by some psycho, to put me on TMZ, running buck-naked down some Milwaukee street with a helmet made from the stretched skin of a butchered terrier pulled down over my ears.
Smoking weed at the end of the day is nearly always a good idea -- but I'd advise ambitious young cooks against sneaking a few drags mid-shift at Daniel. If you think smoking dope makes you more responsive to urgent calls for food from your expeditor, then God bless you, you freak of nature you. If you're anything like me, though, you're probably only good for a bowl of Crunchberries and a Simpsons rerun.
On the other hand, if you're stuck heating up breakfast burritos at Chili's -- or dunking deep-fried macaroni at TGI McFuckwad's? Maybe you need that joint.
Treating despair with drugs and alcohol is a time-honored tradition -- I'd just advise you to assess honestly if it's really as bad and as intractable as you think. Not to belabor the point, but if you look around you at the people you work with, many of them are -- or will eventually be -- alcoholics and drug abusers. All I'm saying is you might ask yourself now and again if there's anything else you wanted to do in your life.
I haven't done heroin in over twenty years, and it's been a very long time as well since I found myself sweating and grinding my teeth to the sound of tweeting of birds outside my window.
There was and is nothing heroic about getting off coke and dope.
There's those who do -- and those who don't.
I had other things I still wanted to do. And I saw that I wasn't going to be doing shit when I was spending all my time and all my money on coke or dope -- except more coke and dope.
I'm extremely skeptical of the "language of addiction." I never saw heroin or cocaine as "my illness." I saw them as some very bad choices that I walked knowingly into. I fucked myself -- and, eventually, had to work hard to get myself un-fucked.
And I'm not going to tell you here how to live your life.
I'm just saying, I guess, that I got very lucky.
And luck is not a business model."
(pp. 57-8)

"What specific tasks should every young man and woman know how to perform in order to feel complete?
What simple preparations, done well, should be particularly admired, skills seen as setting one apart as an unusually well-rounded deceptively deep, and interesting individual?
In a shiny, happy, perfect world of the future, what should every man, woman, and teenager know how to do?
They should know how to chop an onion. Basic knife skills should be a must. Without that, we are nothing, castaways with a can -- but no can-opener. Useless. Everything begins with some baseline ability with a sharp-bladed object, enough familiarity with such a thing to get the job done without injury. So, basic knife handling, sharpening, and maintenance, along with rudimentary but effective dicing, mincing, and slicing. Nothing too serious. Just enough facility with a knife to be on a par with any Sicilian grandmother.
Everyone should be able to make an omelet. Egg cookery is as good a beginning as any, as it's the first meal of the day, and because the process of learning to make an omelet is, I believe, not just a technique but a builder of character. One learns, necessarily, to be gentle when acquiring omelet skills: a certain measure of sensitivity is needed to discern what's going on in your pan -- and what to do about it.
I have long believed that it is only right and appropriate that before one sleeps with someone, one should be able -- if called upon to do so -- to make them a proper omelet in the morning. Surely that kind of civility and selflessness would be both good manners and good for the world. Perhaps omelet skills should be learned at the same time you learn to fuck. Perhaps there should be an unspoken agreement that in the event of loss of virginity, the more experienced of the partners should, afterward, make the other an omelet -- passing along the skill at an important and presumably memorable moment.
Everyone should be able to roast a chicken. And they should be able to do it well.
Given the current woeful state of backyard grilling, a priority should be assigned to instructing people on the correct way to grill and rest a steak. We have, as a nation, suffered the tyranny of inept steak cookery for far too long. There's no reason that generation after generation of families should continue to pass along a tradition of massacring perfectly good meat in their kitchens and backyards.
Cooking vegetables to a desired doneness is easy enough and reasonable to expect of any citizen of voting age.
A standard vinaigrette is something anyone can and should be able to do.
The ability to shop for fresh produce and have at least some sense of what's in season, to tell whether or not something is ripe or rotten might be acquired at the same time as one's driving license.
How to recognize a fish that's fresh and how to clean and filet it would seem a no-brainer as a basic survival skill in an ever more uncertain world.
Steaming a lobster or a crab -- or a pot of mussels or clams -- is something a fairly bright chimp could do without difficulty, so there's no reason we all can't.
Every citizen should know how to throw a piece of meat in the oven with the expectation that they might roast it to somewhere in the neighborhood of desired doneness -- and without a thermometer.
One should be able to roast and mash potatoes. And make rice -- both steamed and the only slightly more difficult pilaf method.
The fundamentals of braising would serve all who learn from them -- as simply learning how to make a beef bourguignon opens the door  to countless other preparations.
What to do with bones (namely, make stock) and how to make a few soups -- as a means of making efficient use of leftovers -- is a lesson in frugality many will very possibly have to learn at some point in  their lives. It would seem wise to learn earlier rather than later.
Everyone should be encouraged at every turn to develop their own modest yet unique repertoire -- to find a few dishes they love and practice at preparing them until they are proud of the result. To either respect in this way their own past -- or express through cooking their dreams for the future. Every citizen would thus have their own specialty.
Why can we not do this? There is no reason in the world.
Let us then go forward. With vigor."
(pp. 62-4)

I have a lot of work to do.

March 21, 2013

"I guess it's like being inside a book that nobody's reading."

The Things They Carried
By Tim O'Brien

I finally finished this book. I started in January 2011, blogged two excerpts ('The endless march' and 'If the answer matters'), got about halfway through over the course of 11 months and then stopped. I know why. Simply, it made me too sad. And for whatever reason, I didn't want to feel the emotions that this book will inevitably make you feel. And also, for the past couple of years I've been a terrible reader.

At the beginning of the year, I decided I was going to read more. Just a quick skim through this blog and one can tell I'm taking action on that resolution. All I want to do is read, I want to read more than I've wanted to read in a long time, all of the time, catch up on all of the books I haven't read, that I've meant to read. I don't want to write, don't even want to think about writing right now, I just want to read. It also helps that Goodreads makes it incredibly easy (and kind of fun--checking the "read" button once you're done and choosing a rating... my idea of fun). I set a goal of 30 books for the year, The Things They Carried was the 8th. I was waiting for two more books on my loan request list to arrive at the library and I had already finished Kitchen Confidential, so I thought it was time to finally pick it up again. I finished the second half in two days.

Blogging this because, I used to do this. The time-telling thing. I was really good at it and it excited me every time and I'm pretty sure all of my friends thought I was weird. Anyway, this is a pretty insignificant part of a significant chapter. 

"The road curved west, where the sun had now dipped low. He figured it was close to five o'clock -- twenty after, he guessed. The war had taught him to tell time without clocks, and even at night, waking from sleep, he could usually place it within ten minutes either way. What he should do, he thought, is stop at Sally's house and impress her with this new time-telling trick of his. They'd talk for a while, catching up on things, and then he'd say, "Well, better hit the road, it's five thirty-four," and she'd glance at her wristwatch and say, "Hey! How'd you do that?" and he'd give a casual shrug and tell her it was just one of those things you pick up. He'd keep it light. He wouldn't say anything about anything. "How's it being married? he might ask, and he'd nod at whatever she answered with, and he would not say a word about how he'd almost won the Silver Star for valor." 
(p. 134)

"The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head. There is the illusion of aliveness. In Vietnam, for instance, Ted Lavender had a habit of popping four or five tranquilizers every morning. It was his way of coping, just dealing with the realities, and the drugs helped to ease him through the days. I remember how peaceful his eyes were. Even in bad situations he had a soft, dreamy expression on his face, which was what he wanted, a kind of escape. "How's the war today? somebody would ask, and Ted Lavender would give a little smile to the sky and say, "Mellow -- a nice smooth war today." And then in April he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe. Kiowa and I and a couple of others were ordered to prepare his body for the dustoff. I remember squatting down, not wanting to look but then looking. Lavender's left cheekbone was gone. There was a swollen blackness around his eye. Quickly, trying not to feel anything, we went through the kid's pockets. I remember wishing I had gloves. It wasn't the blood I hated, it was the deadness. We put his personal effects in a plastic bag and tied the bag to his arm. We stripped off the canteens and ammo, all the heavy stuff, and wrapped him up in his own poncho and carried him out to a dry paddy and laid him down. For a while nobody said much. Then Mitchell Sanders laughed and looked over at the green plastic poncho.
"Hey Lavender," he said, "how's the war today?"
There was a short quiet.
"Mellow," somebody said.
"Well, that's good," Sanders murmured, "that's real, real good. Stay cool now." 
"Hey, no sweat. I'm mellow."
"Just ease on back, then. Don't need no pills. We got this incredible chopper on call, this once in a lifetime mind-trip."
"Oh, yeah--mellow!"
Mitchell Sanders smiled. "There it is, my man, this chopper gonna take you up high and cool. Gonna relax you. Gonna alter your whole perspective on this sorry, sorry shit."
We could almost see Ted Lavender's dreamy blue eyes. We could almost hear him.
"Roger that," somebody said. "I'm ready to fly."
There was the sound of the wind, the sound of birds and the quiet afternoon, which was the world we were in.
That's what a story does. The bodies are animated. You make the dead talk. They sometimes say things like, "Roger that." Or they say, "Timmy, stop crying," which is what Linda said to me after she was dead."
(pp. 218-9)

I won't blog the main Linda excerpt, but I'm sure everyone who's read this book remembers her character. I read the bit about her -- near the end of the book -- on the subway ride home and next thing you know I'm crying, and I have snot dripping out of my nose and onto my lips and not a tissue in sight. It was actually really gross and exactly what I didn't want to happen. But her character, and the role she plays in the narrator (the author's?) life is incredibly beautiful and incredibly sad. 

For a few seconds she was quiet. 
"Well, right now," she said, "I'm not dead. But when I am, it's like ... I don't know, I guess it's like being inside a book that nobody's reading."
"A book?" I said.
"An old one, it's up on a library shelf, so you're safe and everything, but the book hasn't been checked out for a long, long time. All you can do is wait. Just hope somebody'll pick it up and start reading."
Linda smiled at me.
(p. 232)

March 17, 2013

I got, finally, the hands I always wanted.

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
By Anthony Bourdain

"There are better chefs in the world. One comes reluctantly, yet undeniably, to that conclusion early in one's career. There's always some old master or new hotshot who's doing things with food you never would have thought of -- if they hadn't done it first. And of course, in the thin air at the peak of the culinary Mount Olympus, where the three- and four-star demi-gods dwell -- guys like Eric Ripert, Grey Kunz, Bouley, Palladin, Keller, you know the names, I don't have to tell you -- they have the added advantage of not only being geniuses or near-geniuses, but they tend to command crews that are larger, better trained, and more single-minded in their zeal. This didn't just happen, mind you. These guys don't get hundreds of hungry young culinarians banging on their kitchen doors, begging for the privilege of mopping their brows and peeling their shallots just because they have their names stitched on their jackets. Nobody is building million-dollar kitchen facilities around their chef, shelling out for combi-steamers, induction burners, fine chine, Jade ranges, crystal sniffers and fistfuls of white truffles because the guy can sling steaks faster than the other guy, or because he has a cute accent. Cream rises. Excellence does have its rewards. For every schlockmeister with a catch-phrase and his own line of prepared seasonings who manages to hold American television audiences enthralled, there are scores more who manage to show up at work every day in a real kitchen and produce brilliantly executed, innovatively presented, top-quality food. I am, naturally, pissed off by the former, and hugely impressed by the latter."
(pp. 255-6)

"In my kitchens, I'm in charge, it's always my ship, and the tenor, tone and hierarchy -- even the background music -- are largely my doing. A chef who plays old Sex Pistols songs while he breaks down chickens for coq au vin is sending a message to his crew, regardless of his adherence to any Escoffier era merit system. A guy who employs, year after year, a sous-chef like Steven Tempel is clearly not Robuchon -- or likely to emulate his successes. It is no coincidence that all my kitchens over time come to resemble one another and are reminiscent of the kitchens I grew up in: noisy, debauched and overloaded with faux testosterone -- an effective kitchen, but a family affair, and a dysfuncitonal one, at that. I coddle my hooligans when I'm not bullying them. I'm visibly charmed by their extra-curricular excesses and their anti-social tendencies. My love for chaos, conspiracy and the dark side of human nature colors the behavior of my charges, most of whom are already living near the fringes of acceptable conduct."
(pp. 256-7)

"If there was any justice in this world, I would have been a dead man at least two times over. By this, I mean simply that many times in my life the statistical probabilities of a fatal outcome have been overwhelming -- thanks to my sins of excess and poor judgment and my inability to say no to anything that sounded as if it might have been fun. By all rights I should have been, at various times: shot to death, stabbed to death, imprisoned for a significant period of time, or at very least, victimized by a casaba-sized tumor.
I often use the hypothetical out-of-control ice-cream truck. What would happen if you were walking across the street and were suddenly hit by a careening Mister Softee truck? As you lie there, in your last few moments of consciousness, what kind of final regrets flash through your mind? 'I should have had a last cigarette!' might be one. Or, 'I should have dropped acid with everybody else back in '74!' Maybe: 'I should have done that hostess after all!' Something along the lines of: 'I should have had more fun in my life! I should have relaxed a little more, enjoyed myself a little more...'
That was never my problem. When they're yanking a fender out of my chest cavity, I will decidedly not be regretting missed opportunities for a good time. My regrets will be more along the lines of a sad list of people hurt, people let down, assets wasted and advantages squandered.
I'm still here. And I'm surprised by that. Every day."
(p. 272)

"I got, finally, the hands I always wanted. Hands just like the ones Tyrone taunted me with all those years ago. Okay, there are no huge water-filled blisters -- not this weekend anyway. But the scars are there, and as I lie in bed, I take stock of my extremities, idly examining the burns, old and new, checking the condition of my calluses, noting with some unhappiness the effects of age and hot metal.
At the base of my right forefinger is an inch-and-a-half diagonal callus, yellowish-brown in color, where the heels of al the knives I've ever owned have rested, the skin softened by constant immersions in water. I'm proud of this one. It distinguishes me immediately as a cook, as someone who's been on the job for a long time. You can feel it when you shake my hand, just as I feel it on others of my profession. It's a secret sign, sort of a Masonic handshake without the silliness, a way that we in the life recognize one another, the thickness and roughness of that piece of flesh, a résumé of sorts, telling others how long and how hard it's been. My pinky finger on the same hand is permanently deformed, twisted and bent at the tip -- a result of poor whisk handling. Making hollandaise and béarnaise every day for Bigfoot, I'd keep the whisk handle between pinky and third finger, and apparently the little finger slipped out of joint unnoticed and was allowed to build up calcium deposits, until it became what it is today, freakish-looking and arthritic ... It's been twenty-seven years since I walked into the Dreadnaught kitchen with my hair halfway down my back, a bad attitude, and a marginal desire to maybe do a little work in return for money. Twenty-six years since my humiliation at Mario's when I looked up at Tyrone's mightily abused claws and decided I wanted a pair like that. I don't know who said that every man, at fifty, gets the face they deserve, but I certainly got the hands I deserve. And I've got a few years to go yet."
(pp. 301-2)

Buying 10,000 dollars-worth of meat a day gave me a strange and terrible thrill, like riding a roller-coaster.

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
By Anthony Bourdain

"My job at the Room, initially, was to prepare and serve a lunch buffet for about a hundred or so regular members of the Rockefeller Center Luncheon Club -- mostly geriatric business types from the building who assembled in the Rainbow Grill every day. I had to prepare a cold buffet and two hot entrees, which I'd then serve and maintain from noon to three. This was no easy feat, as the buffet was comprised solely of leftovers from the previous night's service. I'd begin each morning at seven-thirty pushing a little cart with wobbly casters down the line, where the cooks would hurl hunks of roast pork, end cuts, crocks of cooked beans, overcooked pasta, blanched vegetables and remnants of sauces at me. My job was to find a way to make all this look edible.

I have to say, I did pretty well, using a very dirty trick I'd learned at CIA. I turned leftover steaks into say, Salade de Boeuf en Vinaigrette, transformed dead pasta and veggies into festive pasta salads, made elaborately aspic'd and decorated trays out of sliced leftover roast. I made mousses, pâtés, galantines, and every other thing I could think of to turn the scrapings into something our aged but wealthy clientele would gum down without complaint. And then, of course, I'd don a clean jacket and apron, cram one of those silly coffee filter-like chef's hats on my head, and stand by a voiture, slicing and serving the hot entrees.

'Would you care for some Tongue en Madere?' I'd ask through clenched teeth, my face a rictus of faux cheer as I'd have to repeat and repeat for the hard-of-hearing captains of industry who ate the same spread of sauce-disguised leftovers every lunch and for whom the hot entree was clearly the highlight of their day. 'Boiled beef with horseradish sauce, sir?' I'd chirp. 'And would you care for a steamed potato with that?'

The Irish waitresses who worked the Luncheon Club with me were more like nurses after years of this. They had nicknames for our regulars: 'Dribbling Dick' for one ninety-year-old who had a hard time keeping his food in his mouth, 'Stinky' for an apparently incontinent banker, 'Shakey Pete' for the guy who needed his food cut for him, and so on. There were famous names in banking and industry with us every day, all New York laid out below us beyond the floor-to-ceiling picture windows -- eating garbage at the top of the world."
(pp. 109-10)

This next excerpt is from the chapter 'A Day in the Life,' which honest to god, gave me anxiety. I could never work in a restaurant, apparently. The behind-the-scenes, day-in-the-life at Les Halles, where Bourdain was an executive chef when this book was published, is fascinating, though, and the entire chapter is worth reading. 

"As I walk up to Broadway and climb into a taxi, I'm thinking grilled tuna livornaise with roasted potatoes and grilled asparagus for fish special. My overworked grill man can heat the already cooked-off spuds and the pre-blanched asparagus on a sizzle-platter during service, the tuna will get a quick walk across the grill, so all he has to do is heat the sauce to order. That takes care of fish special. Appetizer special will be cockles steamed with chorizo, leek, tomato and white wine -- a one-pan wonder; my garde-manger man can plate salads, rillettes, ravioli, confits de canard while the cockle special steams happily away on a back burner. Meat special is problematic. I ran the ever-popular T-bone last week -- two weeks in a row would threaten the French theme, and I run about 50 percent food cost on the massive hunks of expensive beef. Tuna is already coming off the grill, so the meat special has got to go to the saute station. My sous-chef, who's working sauté tonight, will already have an enormous amount of mise-en-place to contend with, struggling to retrieve all the garnishes and prep from an already crowded low-boy reach-in -- just to keep up with the requirements of the regular menu. At any one time, he has to expect and be ready for orders for moules marinières, boudin noir with caramelized apples, navarin of lamb (with an appalling array of garnishes: baby carrots, pearled onions, niçoise olives, garlic confit, tomato concassée, fava beans and chopped fresh herbs), filet au poivre, steak au poivre, steak tartare, calves' liver persillé, cassoulet toulousaine, magret de moulard with quince and sauce miel, the ridiculously popular mignon de porc, pieds du cochon -- and tonight's special, whatever that's going to be."
(pp. 184-5)

An excerpt from his stint as executive chef of The Supper Club in NYC: 

"As we battled through party season at the Supper Club, Steven and I did a lot of after-work drinking together, sitting around reviewing the events of the evening, planning our moves for the next day, pondering the mysteries of This Life We Live. I came to rely on him more and more, to find out what was going on, to fix things, to help me in the crushing, relentless routine of serving hundreds and hundreds of meals, different menus every day, hors d'oeuvres, à la carte meals, managing a staff of cooks that would swell into double digits for big events then shrink back to a core group of about eight for regular service.

Buying 10,000 dollars-worth of meat a day gave me a strange and terrible thrill, like riding a roller-coaster, and the simple act of moving ceiling-high piles of perishable fish and produce through my kitchen every day was a puzzle, a challenge I enjoyed. I liked being a general again: deploying forces where needed, sending out flying squads of cooks to put out brush fires on the buffet stations, arranging reconaissance, forward observers, communicating by walkie-talkie with the various corners of the club:
'More filet on buffet six,' would come the call. 'More salmon on buffet four!' 'This is security at the door. I got a body count of three hundred and climbing! They're really coming in!' Amusingly, we shared a radio band with a nearby undercover unit from the street crimes division of the NYPD. They were always trying to get us to change frequency, which we couldn't, as we used them all: one for managers, one for kitchen, and a security band. After threats and shouts didn't work, the cops got clever; they listened, got to know our lingo and our locations and would play games with us, calling for 'More roast beef on buffet one!' when none was needed, or creating notional emergencies that would cause security to gang-rush the 'mezz bathroom' to break up a non-existent fight. It was a wild-style life. It wasn't unusual to see naked women hosing ice cream off their bodies in the kitchen pot sink (the Howard Stern event); sinister Moroccan food tasters packing heat (Royal Air Maroc party); Ted Kennedy in a kitchen walk-through eerily reminiscent of RFK's last moments; our drunken crew, in a hostile mood, bullying a lost Mike Myers into 'doing that Wayne's World Ex-cel-lent thing'; Rosie Perez hanging on the saute end, fitting right in as if she worked with us, sitting on a cutting board, 'What's good to eat in here, boys?'; a clit-piercing on stage (Stern again); Madonna fans trying to sneak through the kitchen from the hotel (she brings her own eggs for Caesar salad); concerts, swimsuit models, hard-core hip-hoppers, go-go boys. One day there would be a wedding for 100 people where the customer spent 1,000 bucks per person for lobster and truffle ravioli, individual bottles of vodka frozen in blocks of ice, baby wedding cakes for every table, and the next, the whole club would be tented over, filled with dervishes and dancers from North Africa, serving couscous and pigeon pie for a thousand.

Thanks to the Bigfoot Program, I never ran out of food, was always prepared, was never late, and Steven helped enormously. What finally made him a serious character in my eyes was the night he ran a knife through his hand while trying to hack frozen demi-glace out of a bucket. Squirting blood all over the place, he wrapped his hand in an apron and listened to my instructions: 'Get your sorry ass down to Saint Vincent's, they've got a fast emergency room. Get yourself stitched up and get yourself back here in two fucking hours! We're gonna be busy as hell tonight and I need you on the line!' He returned ninety minutes later and managed to work, one-handed, on the sauté station, very capably cranking out 150 or so à la carte dinners. I was pleased with this demonstration of loyalty. Working through pain and injury counts for a lot with me."
(pp. 213-4)

March 10, 2013

Rested and ready after a day off, the chef is going to put his best foot forward on Tuesday.

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
By Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain is the kind of person we all wish we could be. Or fine, the kind of person I wish I could be. At least when it comes to all of his traveling, eating, and overall awesome live-life-like-there's-no-tomorrow attitude. (April 2010: A very cool moment, as awkward as this photo may be.) My first introduction to him was on excellent Travel Channel show No Reservations. He's since left to do a show for CNN called Parts Unknown; he's currently in the Congo (as evidenced by his Instagram). Kitchen Confidential is about his life before that. I'm still about 1/3 of the way through and it's equal parts funny, reflective, and informative. I thought I'd reblog some words that I'll probably never want to forget when I eat out.

Because I loooove mussels:

"I don't eat mussels in restaurants unless I know the chef personally, or have seen, with my own eyes, how they store and hold their mussels for service. I love mussels. But in my experience, most cooks are less than scrupulous in their handling of them. More often than not, mussels are allowed to wallow in their own foul-smelling piss in the bottom of a reach-in. Some restaurants, I'm sure, have special containers, with convenient slotted bins, which allow the mussels to drain while being held -- and maybe, just maybe, the cooks at these places pick carefully through every order, mussel by mussel, making sure that every one is healthy and alive before throwing them into a pot. I haven't worked in too many places like that. Mussels are too easy. Line cooks consider mussels a gift; they take two minutes to cook, a few seconds to dump in a bowl, and ba-da-bing, one more customer taken care of -- now they can concentrate on slicing the damn duck breast. I have had, at a very good Paris brasserie, the misfortune to eat a single bad mussel, one treacherous little guy hidden among an otherwise impeccable group. It slammed me shut like a book, sent me crawling to the bathroom shitting like a mink, clutching my stomach and projectile vomiting. I prayed that night. For many hours. And, as you might assume, I'm the worst kind of atheist."
(p. 66)

"Watchwords for fine dining? Tuesday through Saturday. Busy. Turnover. Rotation. Tuesdays and Thursdays are the best nights to order fish in New York. The food that comes in Tuesday is fresh, the station prep is new, and the chef is well rested after a Sunday or a Monday off. It's the real start of the new week, when you've got the goodwill of the kitchen on your side. Fridays and Saturdays, the food is fresh, but it's busy, so the chef and cooks can't pay as much attention to your food as they -- and you -- might like. And weekend diners are universally viewed with suspicion, even contempt, by both cooks and waiters alike; they're the slackjaws, the rubes, the out-of-towners, the well-done-eating, undertipping, bridge-and-tunnel pre-theater horders, in to see Cats or Les Miz and never to return. Weekday diners, on the other hand, are the home team -- potential regulars, whom all concerned want to make happy. Rested and ready after a day off, the chef is going to put his best foot forward on Tuesday; he's got his best-quality product coming in and he's had a day or two to think of creative things to do with it. He wants you to be happy on Tuesday night. On Saturday, he's thinking more about turning over tables and getting through the rush."
(p. 72)

"Do all these horrifying assertions frighten you? Should you stop eating out? Wipe yourself down with antiseptic towelettes every time you pass a restaurant? No way. Like I said before, your body is not a temple, it's an amusement park. Enjoy the ride. Sure, it's a 'play you pay' sort of an adventure, but you knew that already, every time you ever ordered a taco or a dirty-water hot dog. If you're willing to risk some slight lower GI distress for one of those Italian sweet sausages at the street fair, or for a slice of pizza you just know has been sitting on the board for an hour or two, why not take a chance on the good stuff? All the great developments of classical cuisine, the first guys to eat sweetbreads, to try unpasteurized Stilton, to discover that snails actually taste good with enough garlic butter, these were daredevils, innovators and desperados. I don't know who figured out that if you crammed rich food into a goose long enough for its liver to balloon up to more than its normal body weight you'd get something as good as foie gras -- I believe it was those kooky Romans -- but I'm very grateful for their efforts. Popping raw fish into your face, especially in pre-refrigeration days, might have seemed like sheer madness to some, but it turned out to be a pretty good idea. They say that Rasputin used to eat a little arsenic with breakfast every day, building up resistance for the day that an enemy might poison him, and that sounds like good sense to me ... Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed popemobiles through the rural provinces of France, Mexico, and the Far East, eating only in Hard Rock Cafes and McDonald's? Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble tacqueria's mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head? I know what I want. I want it all. I want to try everything once. I'll give you the benefit of the doubt, Señor Tamale Stand Owner, Sushi-chef-san, Monsieur Bucket-head. What's that feathered game bird, hanging on the porch, getting riper by the day, the body nearly ready to drop off? I want some.
I have no wish to die, nor do I have some unhealthy fondness for dysentery. If I know you're storing your squid at room temperature next to a cat box, I'll get my squid down the street, thank you very much. I will continue to do my seafood eating on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, because I know better, because I can wait. But if I have one chance at a full-blown dinner of blowfish gizzard -- even if I have not been properly introduced to the chef -- and I'm in a strange, Far Eastern city and my plane leaves tomorrow? I'm going for it. You only go around once."
(pp. 73-4)

March 03, 2013

The invisible ace that Land held in his pocket was an understanding of his audience.

Instant: The Story of Polaroid
By Christopher Bonanos

On my last, or one of my last, days as an intern at New York magazine, I stopped by Chris Bonanos' office. I was working on a project with him and art critic Jerry Saltz and I stopped by to give him an update on my research and to tell him I would no longer be interning there. Not sure how it happened but the conversation quickly led to Polaroid and the book he was writing about the revolutionary company. I ended up speaking to him for about half hour, maybe more -- whereas during the course of my internship we had exchanged only a few words -- as he divulged some of the fascinating things he learned while writing his book. He was super passionate about the project and I left his office feeling inspired; I couldn't wait for the book to come out. It did, in September, but I didn't read it until now.

Instant is wonderful; it explores Polaroid and founder Edwin Land's scientific, technological, and cultural impacts. As the story goes, Land was on vacation with his family when his young daughter asked, "Why can't I see the picture now?" after he snapped her photo. Within days, he had laid the groundwork to the instant camera's development. Within months, he had a camera. Land's curiosity, intelligence, and extreme work ethic led to the creation of a product most consumers didn't know they wanted but enthusiastically embraced. Polaroid was Apple before Apple; Edwin Land was one of Steve Jobs' idols. Surprisingly, digital was the company's downfall and Bonanos explains why. Recently, a few have stepped up to save the company and Polaroid is kind of seeing a mini-comeback -- or at the very least, staving off its complete extinction.

Bonanos showed me an image Land took of himself just as he was revealing his invention to the world. It's the one he's holding in the photo below. A lot counted on the image successfully appearing and you can see his apprehension in the shot. Bonanos describes that moment:

The invisible ace that Land held in his pocket was an understanding of his audience. The seated members of the Society were certainly going to find his invention interesting -- they were engineers and scientists. But the guys in the back of the room, newspaper and magazine photographers and reporters, had the real power, and they were another matter. Imagine what a 1940s newspaper photographer did every day. He went out, got his shots, and then hauled himself back to the office on deadline, whereupon the gnomes in the darkroom processed what he'd shot. If what he'd done was overexposed, underexposed, or otherwise lousy, he'd get a tongue-lashing from the photo desk. If only he could see it right away.

Land began speaking and setting up his demonstration, gradually taking his place in front of the view camera. He fired the shutter with a cable release, taking a picture of his own face. He had just exposed a big negative inside the camera, much as the guys in the press pool were doing with their beat-up Speed Graphics. A moment later, Otto Wolff, who was working with Land, pulled the negative out of the camera, in the process joining it face to face with a sheet of glossy photo paper.

Between the two sheets, at one end of the picture, lay one of the principal Polaroid inventions: the pod. Relative to its importance, it looked like nothing special: a slim foil packet, as wide as the photo, containing perhaps an ounce of thick chemical reagent; almost everyone at Polaroid called the contents "goo." Once the multilayer paper sandwich came out of the camera, it was run between two precisely made steel rollers, bursting the pod and spreading its contents smoothly between the film and paper. The goo stood in for a darkroom's baths of wet chemistry, and there was just enough of it that the print came out nearly dry. It had taken a lot of effort to get the pod right. It had to break open and spread its contents the same way every single time, which meant that it had to be precisely filled and sealed.
Wolff and Land switched on the motor driving the rollers, and fed the photo through, breaking the pod open and starting development. "Fifty seconds," Land told the room, and set a timer. As Peter Wensberg tells the story, Land was terrified that it would fail in front of the reporters, and in the photos of the event, he does seem a little less confident than was his usual mien. He had bet his company and the livelihood of his remaining employees on this moment.

As the timer counted down, the inside of that paper sandwich was undergoing some remarkably complicated processes. One side, the negative, dampened with goo, had developed in a few seconds. Where its silver-halide crystals had been exposed--in what were the lightest, whitest areas of the subject--they had turned dark. The remaining silver halide unexposed, was being chemically induced to send its silver across to the photo paper, where it made the dark areas of the final print. That was one of Land's great breakthroughs. The stuff that normally went down a darkroom drain was instead being used to make the picture itself. The fifty seconds on the timer wound down, and Land grasped one corner of the print, steeled himself, and peeled it off.

What he revealed was a perfect sepia portrait of himself. It may have been an accident that the 8-by-10 camera produced a photo almost the same size as his actual face, but that only added to the eeriness: There was Land, sitting at a table in his striped tie, displaying a fresh picture in which he sat at the same table, wearing the same striped tie. Wensberg says that "a gasp rippled around the room," and the New York Times reporter immediately demanded that he do it again. Land happily complied. The Polaroid team spent the rest of the evening shooting pictures of the dinner guests at the conference, and answered all their questions.

(pp. 39-41)