I get up in the morning, take a look at what's growing on the farm, collect rhubarb and celery, dig up some horseradish and potatoes, carry my loot to the kitchen, and create a meal around it. C'est la vie, hein? And as the summer is getting late, the days growing shorter, the temperature cooler my cravings are turning to comfort fare.
Thursday, Pescadero Farmer's Market day, is our Echo Valley Farm lunch. Where the team gets a chance to gather around the table to refuel, rehydrate, and share a few stories before packing up the day's bounty and carting it into town.
What to do with a whole lotta basil? And a whole lotta walnuts? Pesto! Pesto! Pesto! Pesto! P-E-S-T-O!
Farmer's Kate & Jeff at Echo Valley bring in bushels of walnuts and we sit around the kitchen table cracking nuts, eating the 'bad' ones, and sipping coffee. It's a good breakfast. After 4 hours of smashing nuts with hammers and crushing with crab claws we barely have any walnut meat to show for our hard work.
Time to do some weeding. This blog is seriously overgrown.
After two years of barely having enough time to respond to email let alone cleanse the ridiculous spam from my inbox, I'm back. Refreshed. Renewed. And seriously annoyed that I have let Viagra Online take over my blog.
Even my namesake website address, Msglaze.com, which I failed to renew has been poached. Why would anyone use my name for a Japanese travel site? And a Russian site has been copying my content and won't remove my plageurized posts. Ha-rumph! And double shaking fists!!!
Regardless. Today is a big day at Echo Valley Farm. And I have not slept.
My nightmares have been disturbing. I wake in the middle of the night paralyzed with fear and force myself to move again. My throat is tight and no scream could escape even if life depended on it. After what feels like an eternity of frozen hell, I crawl out of bed and lock up my sweet little cottage just in case there is anyone on this enchanted farm that feels like making my fears a reality.
6A.M. comes around much sooner than expected. Man, doesn't it always?
Year in review: I packed up my stuff from New York and drove out to San Francisco. Opened (or re-opened) three restaurants. Two of which could really go nowhere due to lack of funding, but great learning experiences nonetheless. And one that I finally call home: Citizen Cake.
A conversation plays back in my head, my exit talk with Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin. Where we sat and chatted for a good half hour or so in private about life, cooking, and the future. A luxury rarely afforded at such a busy restaurant with a chef whose time is highly scheduled.
He said, “It all clicked for me here, all my years of hard work, it clicked into place for me here.”
It did not click for me at Le Bernardin, but I recall his words vividly and daily because I feel that way now. Every little thing I’ve learned along the way from every single restaurant. Including Le Club and Circa and Le Bernardin and Guy Savoy and Ecco. It now adds up.
It shapes every aspect of my kitchen today.
From the way I cook fish and meat, to how I make stocks and sauces, to what kind of team environment I want and don’t want, to what it means to mentor and train new cooks, and how to be a better chef.
And there is still so much to learn. Like how to not burn myself out. How not to burn my self. How to let go. How to trust. How to inspire. How to better manage payroll and restaurant numbers. How to keep personal life in balance (Not very good at this one yet). How to stay creative. How to stay in season. How to stay strong.
Opening a restaurant from scratch, from construction site to wow-people-are-actually-sitting-down-and-dining is a miraculous event. I sometimes look out from my very open kitchen and wonder how it all happened.
Only two months ago we were scrubbing the floors, setting up metro shelving, testing recipes, polishing pastry cases, unloading plates and dishes, ordering dry goods in bulk, hiring our first team, and staring at each other wondering how it was all going to get finished in time.
Now we have cakes in the pastry case, a vibrant and professional serving staff, a kitchen staff that is positive and talented, and food to serve for lunch and dinner. And we have Open Table so people can make reservations. What more could a chef ask for?
We survived/thirved the holidays shortly after opening our doors. Which for a restaurant that does a huge amount of specialty pastries, confections, and cakes is no laughing matter. Our amazing bakery put out all sorts of pies for Thanksgiving that decorated the walls pink in their pre-ordered carry boxes half way up to the ceiling.
People lined up on the street to get first dibs on the Christmas stollen, bouche de Noels, and eggnog cheesecake. Not to mention the ginger bread men and woman that flaunted bikinis and bright colored swim trunks. The restaurant was booked solid on New Years – no reservations on Open Table left to be made – and was filled with holiday shoppers morning, noon, and night.
And now, just when we thought we’d gasp for air, the reviewers are piling in under the radar. No one can let down their guard, not even for a second. And with the way things are today, everyone is a reviewer.
There is no such thing as a “VIP solo diner” anymore. I recall at Guy Savoy the resounding “Très, très soignier!" (very, very clean) from Chef Guy himself for solo diners that might possibly be Michelin scouts. But here in the States every person is a VIP yelper or blogger or twitterer or word-of-mouther. That’s tough for a new restaurant. But good. It’s the way it should be. Bring it on.
For me, one of the greatest gifts Citizen Cake has brought is the opportunity to work with Elizabeth Falkner. A great Chef and mentor. I love the creative freedom, I thrive on the tips and hints that make me a better chef, I appreciate the wisdom that comes from years of experience. And the female connection into the cooking world has been enormously helpful and resourceful.
My team is awesome. Two have left, but they are forever remembered in our hearts for all their hard work and energy in the early, early days. And our newest hires are brining fresh energy daily, which we greatly appreciate. We enjoy cooking together. I think it shows in the food.
I jump in the jeep and peel off down the coastal Highway One towards Santa Cruz. Radio blaring, hair stinging my eyes with the wind whipping it every which way, the salty sea air cleansing the grease off my skin from my kitchen after a very long, very chaotic, very exhausting Sunday brunch of 200 plus people.
Free at last. Free at last.
And although there is plenty of trouble to get into on a late Sunday afternoon in the sunny Marina, I need to get out of town or I can't truly relax. To go where my cell phone doesn't work. To be in wild blackberry bushes, and chicken coups, and zucchini plants up to my ears, and holly hocks and sunflowers towering over my head, and heirloom tomatoes ripe for the picking, and collard greens begging for attention.
I need to be at Echo Valley Ranch in Loma Mar, California.
One of the most enjoyable parts of being a chef in the Bay Area is making connections with the farmers. And I'm partial to the ones around Pescadero and Half Moon Bay.
Why? Because half my family lives here and I grew up on this coast boogie boarding and camping on the beaches and picking artichokes on the side of the road and buying beans at Phipps farm and getting fish just in off the boats.
I cracked my first dungeness crab at the local institution Duartes as a toddler. And have picked endless flats of the relatively unknown but nonetheless delicious berry, ollalieberry, to make jam with my mother.
Kate and Jeff Haas are the proud owners of Echo Valley Ranch. And they grow an array of beans, greens, squash, herbs, carrots, potatoes, and more. They also produce farm fresh eggs. (Although it can be quite challenging to find out where the chickens lay their eggs since they run around the farm at will - I even found one nestled at the base of a redwood tree)
I mentioned awhile back that I would really like zucchini flowers and maybe some interesting varieties of squash and now I've got so much of both I'm practically throwing them into all my dishes. This is a good problem to have.
Squash blossoms are a specialty item because they are difficult to transport. And for those who have suffered squash fatigue (I just picked all the zukes last night!!?! How is it possible that there are a gazillion more this morning??!), laugh not.
Although it is true that one plant can overwhelm a family and inundate a neighborhood with endless "gifts", restaurants pay top dollar for flowers and baby squash.
Currently on the menu I have handmade fettuccine with scallops, Laughing Bird shrimp, sautéed squash blossoms and dill white wine sauce. I have a walu (butterfish) garnished with stuffed blossoms in tempura batter.
But that's not all: I have grilled baby pumpkin and summer squash and a zucchini & basil soup garnished with basil-mint oil, crema, and micro cilantro. The only thing I don't have (and should have) on the menu is zucchini bread. I love zucchini bread.
I walk out in the gardens and pick bright colored rainbow chard, nasturtium blossoms, peppery arugula, red runner beans, corn, squash, carrots, basil, and tumeric root.
I look at the bounty and brainstorm dishes for dinner supplementing with whatever protein is in the fridge. Kate pitches in and we cook together on her old Merrit O'Keiffe stove in well seasoned cast iron pans that make everything taste so much better. Jeff pours wine lending a hand where needed and always adding his sense of humor.
We polish off God knows how many bottles of wine (whose counting anyway?) and close the night with wild blackberry pie and coffee.
The roads through Loma Mar are windy and I never make the trek home after dinner. Instead I stay in the meditation cabin just feet from the river that surrounds the property and close my eyes to the music of water rushing over smooth rocks and pebbles.
My shoulders relax, the crease in my forehead disappears, I smile at my good fortune to be in such a magical place, I am at peace.
For the moment...
I still have to find more recipes for all the flats of blossoms and cases of squash I know I'll be driving home with in the morning.
To walk into a pre-established restaurant and change a menu top to bottom that has been in existence since before the dinosaurs trampled the earth and deliver a totally different concept and style is not an easy task. Taming T-Rex at Jurassic Park without a tranquilizer gun would be far simpler.
But with optimism, stressism and hardworkism I can now say that it is not an impossible task either. And the light at the end of the tunnel is finally burning brightly. Most importantly I have an oustanding team that is able to execute new ideas quickly. Even if it means five minutes before we open the restaurant.
"Hey Sarama... you know that avocado salsa verde you made for family meal yesterday?"
"Can you make it again? I want to use it with the olive oil poached Walu. For tonight. Like right now. It's delicious."
(roll of eyes, slight smile)
So what is Circa? Where is Circa? What is the history? What is my position?
Circa is located in the Marina. It's most famous at the moment for its clubby night scene which takes over my dining room on the weekend after the last desserts go out. And this place gets packed. Lines outside the door and down the block until early in the morning.
The restaurant's last claim to fame was under the guidance of Top Chef contestant Erik Hopfinger who brought his big personality and comfort food. He also brought this animal called brunch with bottomless mimosas and eggs benedict samplers (choose two of seven choices). Anthony Bourdain dedicates a whole chapter of our Brunch in his latest book Medium Raw. Read the chapter then I'll give you the lowdown.
And I am not changing the eggs benedict sampler. Why? Why would I intentionally put my cooks and myself through this confusing torture every weekend morning? Because my cooks can handle it and they make the various hollandaise based sauces correctly and they poach the eggs to order (unlike some restaurants). If you don't like eggs benedict then try the Huevos Rancheros. It is the best in the city. A lot of love goes into it. I challenge anyone who thinks there is better.
I was hired on as a consulting chef to change and implement a new menu and new style. But it became clear that there needed to be an executive chef to execute it. So I am filling those shoes as well. Now you understand why I haven't posted for a month!
Circa has a large local crowd and we compete with other Marina local hangouts like Balboa Cafe and East Side West. My goal was to create a menu that locals would come in and enjoy a few nights a week. Something fresh and seasonal with my own feminine style. A California Bistro.
I focus on highlighting the purity of excellent ingredients and draw upon unique world flavors to do this. And my training in fine dining helps to deliver a clean approach and a beautiful plate to the client.
For example, Sarama's extraordinary avocado salsa verde is a perfect match with our Poached Walu Butter fish with grilled heirloom baby pumpkin that is garnished with a laughingbird shrimp stuffed zucchini flower lightly fried in tempura batter.
Our scallops are seared and placed on a bed of sautéed pea shoots sauced with a black garlic reduction and tiny hon-shemeji mushrooms scattered around with sugar snap peas – a sexy hot appetizer. The salads showcase interesting produce from heirloom carrots in an array of colors to heirloom tomatoes in all their glory.
God, it's good to be back in California!
Not that I ever thought I would be flipping patties, but our hamburger is seriously delicious served on buns made down the street at Chestnut Bakery (best bread in the city in my books). The burger is thick and juicy topped with whatever you can imagine. My fav is piling on bacon and blue cheese with sautéed mushrooms. But if you want to top it off with a fried egg we will happily comply.
Don't wear a white shirt if you order the hamburger. (There is a dry cleaner's right next door if you forget)
So the days of Erik's half chicken with garlic mashed potatoes and sautéed spinach or halibut over mushroom risotto are long gone. But we still retain a few of his masterpieces like the white truffle lobster mac-n-cheese and the black and white bread pudding.
And the brunch.
Oh my God, the brunch.
These will live on!
I know you know that when I don't write a blog post for two months or longer that things are either going really well or...
Let's cut to the chase: I quit.
No sympathy please. The warning lights were blinking before I actually packed all my belongings into a U-Haul and traveled across the country. But I guess at heart I just wanted my own kitchen and to do my own food so badly that I ignored all advice. And, I wanted to come home.
After seven years of living in foreign countries (and I think New York can be included in 'foreign countries') it is great to be on native soil. And I am thankful that this opportunity brought me home.
Let's chalk it up to: tough economic times and different goals & expectations. And the fact that the restaurant was completely bankrupt before I even came abord. Being the server, the chef, the cook, the dishwasher, and the kitchen cleaning crew was never going to be sustainable personally. And would never allow the restaurant to be truly successful on many different levels. And I simply can't live off air.
Again, I knew that walking in. So that's a big lesson learned. Why does learning have to feel what I assume childbirth must feel like? Incredibly painful but ultimately rewarding? And then just a blissful memory that makes you want to do it all over again?
But there were fun times and awesome food.
And I must say a big 'Thank You!' to the Nob Hill locals who often pitched in helping me wash dishes or even cook on the line. And there were often flowers that appeared on my prep station, and mint plants, and glasses of outrageously good wine that found their way back to the kitchen – even two enormous barrels for making sauerkraut and pickles!
My chef's table, in the kitchen right next to the line, received great write-ups and was very romantic. I would turn off all lights in the kitchen (accept under the piano) and light candles and play jazz music entertaining couples while cooking them dinner only two feet away from the line.
The private dinner parties always successful...
The countless hors d'oervres parties, often several in one evening with just two cooks (including me) to prep while serving dinner simultaneously were exhausting and a true test of skill or just sheer nerve...
But my deepest regret is not getting the Truffle Burger (or 'Ramin Burger', pictured above, named for a regular who was adamant about having a truffle foie gras burger on the menu) up and running. It was in the works and is delicious. And yes, seared foie gras for an additional charge. Bien sûr!
I guess I'll have to save this one.
I feel great about the food I did and the work I put in and I have no regrets. The restaurant business is tough and it is often hard to accept that even the best intentions, the most skilled and creative employee, and the most sincere hard work cannot save the day. But often, it can't.
So the question is: where am I going to next? And that's a big heavy question because the options include a contract overseas, a position with a legendary San Francisco chef who I get down on my hands and knees and pray to, or my own kitchen in a restaurant that has a successful trendy/chic bar scene.
The options are exciting and I'm still exploring them. I would like the next restaurant I end up at to be the last restaurant I end up at for a good long time.
Oh dear Lord, are you kidding me? I've got to have a quarter in here somewhere to feed the meter. Please God let there be a nickel hidden somewhere in this car, in this purse, on the floor, in my pockets....
Panic sets in.
I walk to work and it's a beautiful sunny march up the hills of San Francisco to the tippy top of Nob Hill where my restaurant resides. I am loving life. I am smiling the whole way. Butterflies, birds, and cute Disney woodland animals are gathering around my feet and coming to rest on my shoulders and finger tips. Life is beautiful and perfect.
Approaching the front door to Le Club excitedly wondering if all of my orders have made their way yet, my mobile phone rings instantly yanking me out of my fairy tale fantasy into the world of grown ups, responsibility and (gasp) reality.
"Hi Amy, I've got some bad news for you. Your company credit card was denied on your meat order so we won't be able to get out to you today until you clear that up."
I stop dead in my tracks with my restaurant in front of me, the TransAmerica building looming in the distance, the bay bridge magnificently reaching out to somewhere else, sailboats gracefully gliding with colorful spinakers on the sparkling Bay. I look up at the Art Deco restaurant sign embossed in bronze elegantly marking the spot "Le Club" and want to cry.
"I don't know how this can be. Let me call the owner and get back to you immediately."
The owner is not in San Francisco. In fact she is not in the state and getting ahold of her will be a problem. I dial. No answer. Redial. No answer. I leave a message...
"Gina? It's me. Listen there's a problem with the credit card and I don't know why. All my orders are stopped. It's 1 P.M. and we have reservations for the evening. Should I slit my wrists now or post 'closed for maintenance' on the door?"
Immediately I get a call back. Thank God.
"Hey Babe, no I just switched our bank accounts so we could use the bank down the street for deposits. It's so much easier. I'm sorry I didn't tell you this. I didn't think about your food orders. I'm super sorry hon. Will you be okay?"
"I dunno. It's too late to get them to do a delivery now and we have to re-fax all the new credit stuff. I'll be fine. No worries. I'll make it happen..."
"Take my car. The doorman at the Le Club has the keys. Get whatever you need and we'll cover it sweetheart and I'll call all the vendors right now."
Le Club is located in a very old apartment building on the corner of Clay and Jones. Originally when it was opened it was a private dining restaurant only for the tenants of the building. Eventually Le Club opened its doors to the public. But still, to this day, in order to enter the restaurant you must pass the front door test.
I take the keys from the doorman, locate Gina's car, and speed over to Clement street in the Richmond where a thriving Asian community resides with some of the best produce, meat, and fish in the city. The supermarket May Wah is always a zoo, but the prices and quality can't be beat.
Heart racing, clock ticking, panic setting in knowing that if I don't get my shortribs in the oven in an hour they will not be ready by the time we open. And they take time to prepare. I cut them off the bone, trim the fat, clean the bones and re-wrap them like little bone in filets mignons. It's not a fast process.
A parking space opens up right outside the super market and I flip an illegal U-turn in the middle of the street cutting off traffic. Horns blare, middle fingers are cast in my direction, I don't care. Tunnel vision has taken over: must get meat, must get meat, must get meat, get the meat, get the meat...
My veins turn cold. No change!?! I have no change?!?! There has got to be something in this car for the meter. Why me? Really?
I'm talking to myself at this point pulling up car floor mats, dumping out purse on passenger seat, digging through glove box, climbing over back seat with butt sticking up in the air shoving hands into backseat pockets, cushions, and crevices.
Et voilà! A dime! That'll buy two mintues of time. Awesome!
Entering May Wah is akin to willingly checking oneself into an insane asylum. It is a madhouse filled with chefs, cooks, locals, and out-of-towners wanting to view the spectacle. I approach the meat the counter and thankfully the butcher recognizes me and cuts off other people lined up to help me out.
We don't speak the same language, but that doesn't matter. I point at the shortribs and ask for 20 pounds. He pulls out the ribs, places them on the counter, and lets me inspect them and pick the ones I want. I motion for him to cut the ribs crosswise for me in 2-inch pieces.
This is why I really love May Way. They have a huge band saw right behind the counter and will prepare anything the way I want it.
The butcher zips the ribs through the saw expertly cutting them to my needs. Wraps them. Smiles. I grab the bag, tell him I love him, and race to the chicken aisle where I can pick out my own birds and carcasses for stock. God I love this place.
The line to pay is wrapped around the frozen food section. I cut off everyone again. No one says anything to me. My terror-ridden expression and chef's coat says it all. I pay and run out the door to the car.
The meter is blinking "expired, expired, expired..." and the metermaid is writing a ticket just two cars down from me. I hop in and speed off like an escaped convict.
Pulling up to Le Club, once again, but this time with adrenaline pumping I toss the keys to the doorman and run to my kitchen with groceries in arms. Thankfully my fish has arrived on ice. They must not have run the credit card today.
I turn the radio up full blast, turn the ovens up full blast, and turn the speed up full blast. This is going to be a good day afterall.
The ribs are nicely braising and the clock is inching closer and closer to 6:30 P.M. I am ready to rock. My helper, Danny, has arrived and he's finishing the garde manger prep. Everything is in place. I've mopped the floor and washed all my dishes.
I open the restaurant. The bar is looking beautiful. The tables are set. The bartender is gorgeous and professional. The cocktail waitress is ready. The bar back is ready. And I'm ready for a shot of tequila – no lime.
My first table arrives. Life is perfect and beautiful. Butterflies are flocking to my fingertips again. I retreat back into my very happy place and get to work.
Gina arrives later in the evening looking glamorous as ever. No one would even know she just stepped off a plane. Champagne is popping and customers are happy.
Never a dull moment in the kitchen.