Amusements from the Snow Globe

Perhaps you've heard Seattle was bombarded with snow?

That's no joke.

I'm from the Midwest and certainly no stranger to snow, but this was something else entirely. The first few flakes were amusing...but as the DAYS wore on, snow just wasn't funny anymore.

Snowbound for 7 straight days, I passed the time away reading a slew of cookbooks and baking up a storm. In between batches of cloverleaf rolls and molasses cookies, I threw out a lifeline and called my friend Crescent.

Lamenting about snow to someone who lives in Vermont is...well...pointless.

Her response?

"Did you make snow ice cream?"

Our chat ended, and I immediately whipped up a batch! Some folks make lemonade out of lemons, I made ice cream out of snow. And what the hell? I broke out my best silver for the occasion!

I carved out a nice spot on my balcony. See how high the snow got? Little did I know, there was more on the way!

Take one perfectly portioned scoop of snow--be sure to break through the crust of ice from that momentary warm spell. Then, drizzle the top with a combination of condensed milk, sugar, and vanilla.

I giggled senselessly over the scene: snow, crystal, and a new use for my silver gravy boat (an irresistible thrift store find). The spell was broken when the thought struck me: It kinda looks pee.

Game over!

I went back inside...and endured another 4 days of snow.

A Conversation with Chef Jason Wilson

Crush is considered one of the top restaurants in the Seattle and with a well-earned reputation for excellence, they're firmly planted on the national radar. Chef-owner Jason Wilson has a long list of accolades, but just to name just a 2006, he received Food & Wine's prestigious Top 10 Chefs award. Then in 2007, Crush received Wine Spectator's Award of Excellence, and earlier this year, he was nominated for the coveted James Beard Award.

I'm extremely fortunate to be surrounded by incredibly talented people. Swirling around me are a number of conversations that are rooted in meaningful dialog...and this is one of them.

Working on a project for my Examiner gig, I contacted Jason to ask him a couple questions. Within seconds, the conversation delved deep into food and his culinary philosophy. I grabbed my laptop and began typing furiously.....

Chef Jason Wilson, Crush restaurant

How would you describe your culinary style?

It's personality-driven cuisine, based on a perspective of cooking. I use French technique and the style is modern American. Our approach is to use the highest quality ingredients, with good consciousness. We obtain the best quality, using ingredients that are reared properly and grown in the right dirt.

The dishes are not too far outside the range of what’s happening in America today. We use lamb raised in Montana. Short ribs raised in NE Oregon. Fish is American watered fish – Hawaii, Oregon, and Alaska. Lobster is from Maine. The only exception is exception is octopus, which is Portuguese. The quality of American octopus isn’t quite there yet.

Our culinary style is based on the principal: what is the highest level of quality we can get?

It makes a difference in the food.

I grew up seeing salmon everywhere. Salmon is seasonal and fish is being depleted massively. A live fish grown wild, I think, is better during certain times of year. Salmon has a peak season. Early in the season it still has full fat reserves, the further up stream they’re harvested—towards the end of their life cycle, it doesn’t have the fat and that affects the flavor. Wild fish – it’s imperative to use wild. Farm-raised fish just doesn’t have the flavor. We may serve Kampache, but that’s different. It’s grown in pens in the open ocean. And it’s killed to order.

What do you mean by using ingredients that are “reared properly?”

I was just reading an article about peaches, the pesticides and the chemicals they use to hide blemishes. It’s the same problem with the pesticides that are used on raspberries and strawberries. It’s a culture of pesticides.

But really, do you want to consume something like that?

I don’t want it around my food.

Crush serves a cuisine that is product-driven. What can we do to add finesse and engage the diner? By eliminating pesticides, it inevitably helps the food quality. It’s not the best you can get if they’re using pesticides. You want something that has a purity about it. Raspberries taste so much better when they haven’t been manipulated to ship longer distances and forced to grow uniform in size. Raise raspberries for consistency in size and durability and you lose flavor. Irregular is where the flavor is.

Think about a carrot coming up-mid to late-spring--it tastes of soil and it’s sweet. Compared to standard commercial produce, that carrot has unique aroma. But the point is, it smells how a carrot is supposed to. We’ve lost the ability to recognize that.

Find a potato that actually tastes like a potato. Take a bit of mashed potato—you'll’s so creamy and velvety. When you eat it, at first, you taste the earthen potato flavor and afterwards the flavor is just dramatic.

As a chef, once you’ve found a great product…you’re liberated even more....the potato chip is even better...the gnocchi is even better.

Our recipes are based on high-quality ingredient and a couple other things, but they’re not manipulated. The food is extraordinarily complex because of how it comes together. A dish may have 3-4 components, but they're simple and prepared in a unique way.

Like what?

Our short ribs are cured and then sous-vide for 24 hours. The sauce is prepared over 2-3 days. It’s a simple technique, but each process has an intense level of attention given to it.

Take, for example, our mashed potatoes. We always have some version of mashed potatoes on the menu. We use the best butter; our cream is organic from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. We use Alaskan salt. The Alaskan salt has no iodine and the flavor is so clean! It’s beautiful.

We use the best ingredients, but it’s the technique that takes it to the next level. We sous-vide carrots for 4.5 hours. It retains the flavor of the carrot and then we embellish it. The technique has no loss of natural water and maintains the flavors. When you bite into it, you say, “Now that’s a carrot!”

Working with the level of the ingredients that you do, how do you manage your costs?

Sous-vide exactness helps with cost control – especially with waste management. There’s not a lot of overrun with our products. We know we’re getting x number of fish in for x covers. And that’s it. No waste.

It’s about quality and if you want to have it as your moniker...people see that and understand it. They are driven towards it.

Cheap food has its place, but American culture has been lost by the wayside. I had a customer who brought her friend in from Germany. We talked about the food and the question came up: “Do German’s have a word for 'foodie'?” The answer is no, it’s a concept that is unique to America. He said, “The culture of food is how we live in Germany.”

You see, for Americans, it’s new to embrace food quality as an aspect of life. It might be a testament to how old the cultures are in Europe, but you think about Germany, France, Spain, Italy…food is a way of life there.

Our eggs are fresh from the farm. My mother-in-law raises chickens over on Vashon Island. It’s all organic. I know how the chickens are raised…heck, I’ve even killed a couple. So you pay 6 cents extra for an egg? In the overall scheme of things, what we provide is a unique experience.

What’s your take on Crush being considered an expensive restaurant?

We’re not. We had a customer bring in a menu from Outback Steakhouse. Nearly all our prices are on par with what you can get there, but it’s a much different dining experience here. I mean…what is expensive to you? We’ve been battling the “expensive restaurant” stereotype since the beginning.

[Crush restaurant is situated in a former home. The interior has wood floors, with modern white tables and chairs. It has been described as "stylized" and "chic".]

When you think about a place like (another local restaurant), their menu doesn’t use fancy words. They simplify the vocabulary, but our foods are all very similar when it comes to the growers. Sometimes they are even more expensive than dining here. The wood and the low lighting makes you feel like you’re in an everyday place. (In another comparison), they have wood interior and church pews for seating. It’s not special or precious. Our prices are the same, but the perception is different.

How do we battle the “expensive restaurant” stereotype? We embrace it. If people expect us to be special… then let’s be as special as we can.

When people come here, you feel good about what you’re eating.

2319 E. Madison Street
Seattle, Washington 98112

Book Hostage: Dolce Italiano

Seattle Public Library: The book is overdue.

Me: I know.

Seattle Public Library: Someone else has requested it.

Me: I heard. Thank you for the e-mail.

Seattle Public Library: The fines are accumulating.

Me: So it seems.

Seattle Public Library: We need the book back, Ma'am.

Me: I know, but I just can't seem to give it up. Have you seen the book?!? I want to make every single recipe! The cranberry tart was a huge hit at Thanksgiving. That polenta crust was so easy to work with...I'm just astonished! And the pumpkin custards were divine.

Seattle Public Library: You like the book, we get it. But you must return it now.

Me: But I still have dozens of recipes I want to try! The chocolate and tangerine semifreddo...the mosaic biscotti...honey clouds...chocolate kisses...I tell you, I'm not done yet!

Today, relief came with a thud. Tossed down a flight of stairs, the book smacked on my doorstep. Thank you Now I can release my hostage.

The Seattle Public Library will be relieved....

Honestly, I don't know why I ever bother to check books out of the library. My annual donations (read: overdue fines) accumulate into double digits. For me, books are tools. I scribble in the margins, flag recipes, and write copious notes to myself. No, books aren't for borrowing. Books are for owning. And there's a bit of me in every copy.

Checking a book out of the library is like...foreplay.

It's a long, slow tease before I cave into my desires and just buy the darn thing!

When a new book is in my hands, I confess...there's something soul-satisfying about....cracking the spine. Then I fix myself a cup of tea and pour over the pages, reading through every recipe. And when I'm done, the top is feathered in multi-colored post-it notes full of ear-marked recipes.

My book hostage was exceptionally bad this go around.

I mean really, how did Dolce Italiano slip under my radar? First published in 2007, all I can say is, I must have been in a coma! Gina DePalma is the pastry chef at Babbo and her book is far more than a supporting character to the Mario Batali empire. Her writing style is engaging and yet packed with bits of information. Instantly, I wanted to befriend Gina!

But the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. The first recipe I made was Pumpkin Custard with Rum-raisin Compote. The custard was smooth and creamy with a subtle hint of pumpkin. Easing the custards out of the ramekin was a breeze. Served with a sweet compote of plump raisins and a hit of was delish!

Cranberry season and a Thanksgiving invite led me next to the next recipe, a luscious Cranberry Tart with Semolina Crust. First let me say that the crust makes even a dolt like me have a small victory in the kitchen. And the end result is not only beautiful, but delicious and memorable. (Warning: the dough is so tasty, you'll be tempted to eat it like cookie dough!) The cranberry filling was a breeze and at Thanksgiving, this tart got high praise. It's an especially nice pop of color next to brown turkey, brown stuffing, brown rolls, and then...viola! A ruby red cranberry tart. It was like Mae West showing up at a coal miner convention.....

Now that I have a copy, I'll release my prisoner to the capable hands of the Seattle Public Library.

Roger that: crisis averted.

Chat Live with Flo Braker

Leite's Culinaria (winner of the James Beard Award for Best Food Website in 2006 & 2007) is hosting a live chat with legendary baker, Flo Braker.

Her new book, Baking for All Occasions, is a treasure trove of recipes and if you sign up for the call, you're automatically entered to win a copy of the book!

December 20st at 1:00 EST

Click here to register for the call. Spots are limited.

(Oh, and did I mention it's free?)

Come for dinner...

Japanese eggplant with ponzu and tempura bits

Nothing gives me more pleasure than bringing my friends around the table. Find a fantastic space, give a chef free reign to work their magic, throw in a diverse range of guests and stir. You've got the recipe for one enchanted evening!

My friend Kris is a woman committed to following her passions. After 20 years in the insurance industry, one day, she spotted an ad for a sushi apprenticeship. One giant leap later...and now she's a highly regarded sushi master who's hired as a consultant for many restaurants. Front of the house, back of the house, private events or splashy celebrity-studded film festivals, this woman has done it all.

We met at an event years ago, and then I was invited to her infamous brunch. The they history. Her fabulous home, perched on a cliff overlooking the water is the stuff of my fantasies. Kris' love for entertaining is equal to my own, and she has opened her home to my cookbook group, blogger rendezvous, private sushi classes, and last night...a dinner party that will live long in my memory.

Kris has decided to move on to other ventures, but before she moved out of her home, we had one last party. From her deck, we could see the rippling water bathed in moonlight, and across the shore, the city's skyline twinkled in the crisp winter air. Multicolored votives surrounded the room, and a blazing fire kept the chilly night air at bay.

Friends...old and new...joined us for Kris' final hurrah and the air was electric! Bloggers, chefs, cookbook authors, and other food-lovin' folk gathered around the table for a sumptuous dinner I won't soon forget. As watched the cacophony of conversation between a diverse range of friends, tears welled up in my eyes.

These are my most treasured memories....

Kris has deep roots in Asian cuisine and designed a menu that reflected a deliberate flavor experience. Prior to the meal, she discussed the menu, and noted how each dish was affected by elements in the preceding course.

The Menu:

japanese eggplant w/ ponzu & tempura bits

pecan salmon steaks

ohitashi (blanched spinach towers)

pork tenderloin medallions w/ mandarin ginger reduction

burnt asparagus w/ lemon & kosher salt

tiger eye (tuna & tobiko lightly fried)

stuffed figs dipped in chocolate served w/ cheese & fruit

Photographer & documentary filmmaker Scott Squire arrived with his camera in hand. He captured these beautiful photos with nothing more than candles and a bit of ambient light from the kitchen. (You may remember Scott & his wife Amy from the Doc Farm event back in August.) Scott has photographed for Nike; done documentary work in Kathmandu, Romania, and Cairo; and he applies that same aesthetic to engaging wedding photos.

Bloggers Dawn & Eric Wright have photos here.

And these are Scott Squire's photos:

The evening began with introductions...and a chat about the menu.

Robin, radiant in candlelight.

A bit of vino and the first course is on the way.
On the right, that's fellow blogger Dawn Wright of

Tiger eye (tuna & tobiko, lightly fried)

Kris, describing the progression of flavors on your palate.

Pork tenderloin medallions with charred rosemary sprigs,

served with a mandarin orange reduction

Phil and his flames, charring rosemary for the pork dish.

Rukshana, tapping into the secret behind
the meltingly tender pecan-crusted salmon.

Chef Hope Sandler (cookbook author, culinary instructor, and ghost writer...shh...she'll never tell who she wrote for!) and Kate McDermott. Kate has one food firmly planted in the food world --thanks to her husband Jon, but she is also an accomplished musician and music instructor.

As the night wound down, conversation flowed into the kitchen. (Doesn't it always?)

Still life, back of the house.


Whopper Virgins

I laughed when I saw Pizza Hut in the heart of Prague, and was shocked by proliferation of KFC restaurants in Bangkok. Now this....

Burger King is on the hunt for new test markets, and complied a film to document their efforts. In the spirit of those lavish Land Rover expeditions, it's stunning to see the lengths they went to. Burger King taste-tested their Whopper hamburgers among Hmong villagers in Thailand, Inuit tribes in Greenland, and villagers in Romania. The shot of a custom-made Burger King grill...being airlifted by helicopter is price less. I can't get the image out of my head.

Unfortunate Fortune Cookies

Rejects at the fortune cookie factory.

Unlike San Francisco and New York, Seattle's Chinatown is not a "living neighborhood". Very few people actually take residence in this quaint enclave, situated just blocks from the main downtown core. With the exception of bums and a few wayward restaurant patrons, the neighborhood rolls up early in the evening.

Over the years, waves of immigrants from Asia have set up bustling businesses in this neighborhood. Here, you can find everything from Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Korean restaurants. Those seeking a spam fix can satisfy their cravings at the Hawaiian BBQ joint just up the hill.

While the retail showroom isn't much to look at, I have a deep sense of satisfaction knowing there's a fortune cookie factory in the 'hood. On occasion, I'll buy one of these giant bags of "unfortunate fortune cookies." (The flattened discs are great served alongside giant scoops of ice cream.) And like a kid digging for the prize in a box of cereal, I go straight for the cluster of fortunes settled in the bottom of the bag.

Call me crazy.

I know.

I'm mining for a bag of rejected fortune cookies.

Maybe I am too optimistic.

I'm just saying....a handful of fortunes makes one feel very lucky!

Notes on the photo:
The retail showroom is closed on Sundays, which is why this is a through-the-window shot. (Notice the stop sign and neon dim sum sign reflected on the glass?)

Holiday Recipe Ideas

Luscious Cranberry Tart with Polenta Crust

The last couple weeks, I've been cooking up a storm. Brunches, dinners, Thanksgiving, and this weekend...a full day dedicated to charcuterie. I'm smiling just thinking about it!

Soul-satisfying Eastlake

Eastlake is a funky neighborhood, straddled between the main artery of I-5 and the east side of Lake Union. A handful of restaurants dot the primary thoroughfare, but more often than not, you can find me hugging the shoreline.

Tiny parks no larger than my living room provide public access to the water's edge. A bench and a bit of bread make one very popular among the duck and seagull crowd.

Shafts of late afternoon sun dance on the pages of my journal, as I watch as a pair of sailboats perform do-si-dos in the gentle fall breeze.

Along this stretch, wanderlust and picture-perfect houseboats provide that quintessential Seattle experience. A walk on the dock requires sea-faring legs to steady yourself against a toss from unexpected waves. Here, homes bob on the water a la Sleepless in Seattle, and amenities include swimming ladders, outdoor fireplaces, and dockside parking for the nautical set.

How many times have I dreamed of greeting the day, watching the sunrise over Lake Union...nestled in a kayak launched from my own back door?

More than I can count.

Welcome home.

It reads: "Long ago, mailboxes around the world lived freely amid the happy creatures and simple machines. They accepted and relinquished the mail willingly, content to serve as a temporary but sublime resting place in the endless flow of communication between beings..."

This way to the water -->

See? They float.

Which way does the wind blow?

A sweet little cottage on the water (I love the purple window trim!) And of course, pick your motorcraft...dinghy or a sleek wooden boat.

The dream, visualized.

Dock mascot.

Ready for company. The question you want to swim or kayak first?

Boat gazing.

Perfect endings.

A Chat with the Urban Italian, Chef Andrew Carmellini

Andrew Carmellini has set the food world buzzing with his new book, Urban Italian: Simple Recipes & True Stories from a Life in Food. Endorsed by everyone from Tony Bourdain to Michael Rhulman...Andrew's received praise from heavy-hitters in high places. Co-written with his wife Gwen Hyman, the book delves into approachable Italian renditions, most of which you could easily whip up for a weeknight dinner.

The opening of the book begins with a number of stories...the kind cooks share with each other over beers after work. A bit of eavesdropping cum tell all, reveals:

Truffle hunting in Italy?


Hellish nights on the line?


Italy...slow and easy, tempered by a fender bender?


Moving on to the recipes, these are gems that deliver big on flavor. Based on the drool-worthy photo, I started the Lamb Meatballs Stuffed with Goat Cheese. The meatballs are spiced with a trio of coriander, fennel, and rosemary, and oozy goat cheese erupted from one wayward ball, coloring the quick and easy tomato sauce a vibrant shade of salmon. The dish came together in no time and is a new addition to my regular lineup--both for weeknight or cocktail party fare.

A braise of boneless Short Ribs Braciole was sheer torture waiting the 2 1/2 hours as the flavors melded, yielding meat that was meltingly tender. A mere six salt and pepper...prove sometimes, the best dishes are the result of simplest applications.

My book is dog-eared with a number of other recipes on my radar:

- Garlic Dressing (made with 2 heads of roasted garlic) finds its way into the Fig Salad with Arugula, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and Prosciutto, but as Andrew points out, "It's an excellent marinade for vegetables, grilled shrimp or broiled fish."

- Lamb Ragu on pillowy homemade gnocchi has promise of a new-found fall comfort food.

- Marinated Beets with Grapefruit, Pistachios, and Goat Cheese with aged red wine vinegar is a strong contender for my Thanksgiving menu.

- Raspberry Involtini is a close cousin to rugelach cookies, filled with jam and almond crema, and a dusting of turbinado sugar. Spiraled with vibrant red raspberry jam, these are perfect for the holiday cookie tray.

More than a collection of recipes, this book has invaluable tips woven throughout the recipes and strategic side bars. "Beets are like sponges: they'll soak up everything, so be sure to taste them while they're marinating, and be prepared to adjust the seasonings before you serve them." The Gnocchi recipe has a nice discussion about the importance of salt...from salting your pasta water to taste like the invaluable tips on salting your dish early vs. later, and why. Where appropriate, step by step photos lead you through the process...from pasta to gnocchi. Just when I might be tempted to panic, there's a photo or a tip to guide you through, making this a book I'll reach for again and again.

Andrew and his wife Gwen are on book tour and will be in Seattle for a very brief time. I had hoped for a rendezvous, but unfortunately...the only day they're available...I will be executing my civic obligations at jury duty! As an alternative, we arranged a phone meeting. I gave Andrew a call between book tour stops, and we chatted about the book....among other things.

I'm still developing my podcast skills, so here's the text from our chat (minus more than a few "ums" on my part):

T: Can you tell me about the book? I have a copy, but I’m curious to hear about it from your perspective.

A: I was in between restaurant gigs and I was cooking a lot at home and that’s how the book came about. I had all this time off all of a sudden and that never really happened before…and I was cooking at home all the time. I was in the mood for Italian and started going out to Brooklyn and going up to Boston to buy different stuff. And that’s how the title came about—this Urban Italian idea. Then I started telling stories. My wife co-wrote with me. The stories turned into the front part of the book and every recipe had a story. Then there was a book.

T: I’ve worked with a number of chefs. Was it brutal trying to write recipes?

A: No, it wasn’t too bad. It was good because I always scaled recipes down when I was cooking at home. Gwen basically sat in the kitchen with a laptop on her knees and typed away as I cooked. The hard part came with the measuring ingredients. Sometimes we’d cook and have friends over; sometimes we’d have “recipe days” where we’d do a bunch of different recipes.

T: How did you test the recipes?

A: When it came to testing the recipes, I didn’t send them to a [professional] recipe tester. We sent the recipes to friends and family.

T: How did that work?

A: We did the recipes once, then we wrote them down and tested them again. Then we sent the recipes out to family and friends living everywhere from New York to California and Canada. We had them try out the recipes and tell us things like, “I couldn’t do this technique.” Or, “There’s no way I could find this ingredient.” We wanted people to be able to cook from [the book]. I didn’t want it to be a typical chef book where the recipe includes 15 ingredients you can’t get and $10,000 in equipment you have to buy to actually make the food look like the picture. So that was my approach.

T: Did you have people give you good feedback on the recipes...and others not so much?

A: Definitely. The people who don’t usually cook…they don’t give the best feedback. Some people would say, “You’re great…everything’s wonderful. It’s amazing!” And you’re like, “Well, that’s not really feedback." People who cook all the time gave great feedback because they knew what they were doing when they started, you know what I mean?

T: Were there any surprises in testing the recipes?

A: We made some adjustments. Originally, we called for peperonchini, which is another name for crushed red pepper flakes. I used that word in a recipe and people were going out in the West Coast or the Midwest and they were buying the pickled peperonchini peppers…you know the ones in the bad Italian salads at Olive Garden? And they were trying to use those. So ultimately we changed all the recipes to read “crushed red pepper flakes”. It made better sense to people. And that kind of feedback really helped.

T: Speaking of recipes, what the heck does it mean when you say in your book, slice garlic “Goodfellas thin”? What does that mean?

A: Did you see the movie?

T: No.

A: How could you not see the movie?!

T: Whatever! I want to buy a clue…what’s a “Goodfellas cut”?

A: Somewhere in the book it explains it, but there’s a great food scene in the movie where they’re in prison and they’re slicing the garlic really thin with a razor blade so it melts in the sauce. It’s a beautiful 30 second food scene...and that’s the best way to describe the technique.

T: I was doing some research and I came across the New York Times article about your wedding. Is your wife still a vegetarian?

A: No, no…that’s long been conquered.

T: How long ago did she fall off the wagon?

A: It was either just before or just after we got married. She called me up one day and said, “I ate a trout.”

“You ate what?!”

“I ate a trout.”

I said, “After 12 years of being a vegetarian, why did you eat trout?”

She told me, “I didn’t know it would come with the head on,” so she put a piece of bread over the head and ate it.

Being a vegetarian was beginning to affect her health. She felt she needed to eat protein again. I’d like to say it was me that tried to get her off being a vegetarian, but it wasn’t.

T: Speaking of Gwen, she’s cited as co-author. How did you and Gwen collaborate on the book? How did you divide your tasks?

A: Everything that has to do with words, she took care of. Everything that had to do with food, I took care of. It was great. We were able to get the book completed very quickly, that’s for sure. We went from proposal to publish in a year. Because we are together…it was really easy to get things done. I think she did a great job capturing my voice. The stories and the recipes are just how I talk. There wasn’t a lot of editing done, so I appreciated that.

We’re still married so that’s a good sign!

T: How is it being on your first book tour?

A: It’s good. It’s still early in the tour. Florida is only my second stop and basically…it’s a lot of smiling! I’m from Cleveland and Cleveland was busy, that’s for sure. I had a lot TV demo stuff, radio, book signings…you name it. I know a lot of people in Cleveland so that’s fine. But Milwaukee…I’m there for 10 hours.

T: Being on book tour, it’s a lot of people who aren’t familiar with your work, right?

A: I’m about to find out. It’s interesting because I’m in Miami and people are reaching me through my website – customers who come to New York. There are a lot of New Yorkers who live in Miami. And a lot of people who are from Miami, go to New York. Already today I’ve gotten 3-4 e-mails from people saying, “We read about you in the paper and see you’re going to be here. We’d love to see you.” Being in New York, you meet a lot of people from all over the country, you know?

T: It’s interesting because on tour, it seems you meet a lot of people who are in love with fame or the book, but they don’t necessarily know your food. I always thought that would be kind of bizarre—especially for a chef.

A: Yeah, I haven’t done a bunch of national television and I don’t have a show or that kind of thing. So it’s definitely different. I’ve met a number of people who like the book because they like the pictures, you know what I mean? But it’s interesting. I guess I’ll see more of that when I hit Chicago and Milwaukee as opposed to Cleveland and Miami.

T: I hear Cleveland is quite the food town. Can you tell me about being influenced by Cleveland?

A: First of all, Cleveland didn’t used to be a food town, that’s for sure. We grew up there and long before the word “foodie” existed, my parents wanted to eat good stuff. Good stuff meant…no preservatives, no processed food, no hydrogenated oil and that kind of thing. Not because they were really into chefs or restaurants but because they wanted to eat good things at home. That’s where it started.

When I started cooking, I was 14. It was 1985. There wasn’t the Food Network or Top Chef or anything like that. I liked cooking and that’s how I got into the business.

T: As a restaurant owner, tell me about your experience. Because you started young, have you noticed a change in the environment—from the patrons to people working the back of the house and the influence of the Food Network?

A: I was talking about this the other day. It definitely affects the younger cooks. They’re looking to get into the chef game because they want to be famous. It’s interesting to me, because if you want to be famous, there are a lot of easier ways to do it! You definitely see some people getting into the business at a young age because maybe they saw it on TV and I always say the same thing:
Before you go to [culinary] school, go work in a restaurant. Work in any
kind of restaurant. After that, if you still like being a cook…then go to
school. But don’t get into it because you want to be famous.
T: It seems like going to culinary school is the bougiose thing to do these days. If your kid can’t make up their mind what they want to study in college, they send them to culinary school. I don’t think a lot of people realize a. how hard the work actually is and b. that there’s only one guy who is the Chef. The Food Network glamorizes that position. I’ve got issues with that. People have no idea how hard it is.
A: I agree.

T: How is it being a restaurant owner? How are you handling that transition?

A: I’m in between gigs right now. I left A Voce. Being a restaurant owner just means control to me—both on the creative side and the business side of it. As a chef, you’re a control freak and as a chef-owner you can control everything a little bit better.

T: So you left your restaurant, A Voce? What happened there?

A: I had a break up with my partner.

T: One thing I was curious about. Since you’ve been in the business for such a long time, what inspires you? What keeps you going at the process?

A: I like the creative part of the process best. I like creating the concepts, creating the food, creating the menu…the business plan, the hiring, the way you sculpt the way the place is going to look. That’s the thing that I love—the constant creative part. Whether it’s creativity in the problem solving or creativity in the ground up kind of thing. Both of those elements are what get me up in the morning.

T: You’ve worked in a number of different restaurants. Who were your biggest mentors and influencers?

A: Food-wise, I think Gray Kunz, for sure. And business-wise, I think Daniel Boulud.

The way Daniel has grown his business slowly and the way things are managed there. And Gray, the way he combines flavor. He was one of the first guys in the early ‘90’s to do a lot. One of the things Gray did was to bring this Southeast Asian…I’ll say fusion...kind of approach to things in a way that no one else did before. That kind of approach about flavor building still influences my work today.

T: So are you influenced by other cultures? The book is Italian-focused but are you influenced by the Asian or Japanese aesthetic?

A: When I was the chef de cuisine at Café Boulud, for instance, for 6 years I did a lot of International kind of cooking. And I did a lot of traveling through Japan and Southeast Asia. I love Mexican food. Cooking is very International for me. I never try to make it fusion[-esque]. I don’t just study French food, or Thai food. The history is important to me. The culture is important to me. It’s not like I grab a book and just start cooking. It’s more about what the food means in the context of the country, if that makes sense.

A Voce was my first restaurant on my own and I did Italian. I found out a lot of people love my Italian food, but I love everything. As long as it’s good, I love it.

T: Let’s talk about books. What are some of your favorite books that have influenced you?

A: When I was a kid, my Grandmother gave me a copy of Jacques Pepin’s La Methode. It had old school French recipes that growing up in Cleveland, I had no idea what they were. That was a big influence because La Methode made me want to be a chef.

T: It’s funny, I’ve heard a number of people refer to that book’s impact on their careers. It’s about the technique, right?

A: It’s black & white pictures…a lot of “how to.” You don’t see that kind of book anymore.

T: I’ve talked with a number of authors and there’s always something you have to compromise or give up control over. Are you happy with the outcome of your book?

A: One of the reasons I went with Bloomsbury is because they were going to let me do the book I wanted to do. And that was really important to me. I didn’t want to give up anything just so the publishing house could tell me “Let’s make this change because we’ll sell more [copies] in the Midwest.” You know what I mean? They let me do what I wanted to do…and gave me some good guidance along the way… but at no point did they restrict me in any way. And that was important to me.

T: What kind of help were you getting from your publisher?

A: Design and a lot of copy editing. At one point I wasn’t going to do pictures and they were the ones who encouraged me to include them. In the end, I’m very glad they did.

T: Yes, I love the pictures. Visually, I think the photographer did a great job.

T: When I worked with the chef and he’d send recipes off to magazines, he’d see the photos in the final copy and say, “That looks nothing like my food. “ Do the photos in your book look like your food?

A: I didn’t hire a stylist. That’s just me and the photographer.

T (somewhat incredulously): So you did the presentation and then [the photographer] shot it?

A: I did everything. I cooked the food and plated it. I didn’t want [the food] to look like someone else did it. So every one of those pictures I did with the photographer. There’s no stylist.

T: That’s fascinating. I talk with a number of people who have no control over what the final outcome looks like. It’s amazing you had the opportunity to do that. The food looks great.

A: I was very hands on through the whole thing. I don’t think I’d do another book if that wasn’t the case.

T: Andrew, how did your book project come together?

We hired an agent and had 6 offers on the book. We met with everyone individually and tried to make the best decision.

T: What was the original pitch like? Was the selling point…you being the chef or the food…or a combination?

A: The narrative was a big selling point. It wasn’t just the A Voce cookbook or something like that. It was more complex than that. It was great stories, plus the recipes. But the book is almost exactly like the proposal.

T: Speaking of stories…whose idea was it to lump all the stories together? I thought it might have been more effective to spread the stories throughout the chapters. Was that your idea?

A: I wanted it to be a narrative in the beginning. I wanted the recipes to be separate from the stories because I like the recipes one after each other. When you want to actually cook from the book, it’s more practical.

I wanted people to actually cook from the book, you know?


Andrew Carmellini and his wife Gwen Hyman have an event at Tavolata Wednesday, November 19th . If you want to attend, here’s more information.

Additional book tour dates can be found on Andrew’s website:

The New Yorker: Tea & Wallaby

The latest edition of The New Yorker profiles photojournalists and their most memorable on-the-job meals. It's formatted into an audio slide show on The New Yorker website and worth a look.

The image with the purple heart still lingers in my mind....

Hello, Goodbye

I spent the afternoon holed up in an internet cafe...deeply engrossed in a pile of research. My focus broke. It's now dark outside, and I was greeted with this view.

This old movie theater is in one of my favorite neighborhoods (Wallingford). It's just down the street from the University of Washington, where tonight I'll be attending a lecture with National Geographic staff photographer, Sam Abell.

The Dalai Lama, Dave Matthews, and photographer Matt Freedman

Back in April, Seeds of Compassion hosted the Dalai Lama for a series of events here in Seattle. The culmination was a concert with local resident, Dave Matthews. Tickets sold out in a flash and the city was buzzing with the presence of his holiness, the Dalai Lama.

Tomorrow, I have a meeting with photographer Matt Freedman. While the Dalai Lama was in town, Matt shot several of the events standing alongside photographers from the Associated Press, Time Magazine, Newsweek, and Rolling Stone. While brief, this blog entry is quite fascinating.

Recently, I've found myself at several events with high profile photographers. I prefer to fade into the background and watch them work. Then I snap out of it and remind myself that I'm on assignment too...and there's work to be done. But if given the chance, it's amazing to watch photographers in motion.

Matt's posted his photos from the Dalai Lama/Dave Matthews events, and I'm particularly interested in photos 67 - 70. Check out those lenses! Can you imagine carrying those beasts around?

Behind the scenes, there's a ton of work that goes into photographs that take your breath away. And having recently worked for a magazine, I've learned that art directors can make a big difference too. A lackluster layout can diminish even the most stunning photography.

To see more of Matt's work, check out his website. He's got some wonderful photos from Burning Man and new work on food & form called the La Figa Project.


Buddhist Arts Association, Seattle, WA

Savory Parmesan Cookies

These delicate cookies are reminiscent of shortbread...with a savory twist. Butter, flour, salt, and a heaping pile of Parmigiano-Reggiano is all that separates you from these melt-in-your-mouth beauties.

Remember slice and bake cookies? With a roll of this dough stashed in your refrigerator, you are mere minutes away from great cocktail party fare.

Seasoning salts are all the rage...and I dusted the tops with my latest favorite. Try these parmesan cookies with a dash of porcini or fennel salt...or experiment with these fun sea salt combinations. (I've got my eye on the Nicoise olive salt.)

Think of these cookies as a great blank canvas for herbs or other hard cheeses. (Rosemary would be lovely.) With the short list of ingredients, quality and freshness will make a big difference here. Spring for the good cheese, and grate it yourself.

Parmesan Cookies
(adapted from Food & Wine)

2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups freshly grated Parmesan or other hard cheese (1/2 pound)
1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/8 -1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt*
seasoning salt (optional)

*Adjust, depending on the saltiness of your cheese.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and adjust racks to the upper and lower third position.

1. In a medium bowl, mix butter, cheese, flour and salt until all ingredients are incorporated and a stiff ball is formed.

2. Divide the dough into 3 pieces and roll into a 9-inch logs, 1 1/2-inches in diameter. Wrap in plastic and chill logs for 30 minutes.

3. Cut logs into 1/3-inch slices and arrange on a baking sheet (nonstick or lined with a Silpat.) Lightly dust cookie coins with optional seasoning salt. Bake cookies for 18 minutes or until golden brown, rotating the pans half way through for even baking.

4. Let the cookies cool for 10 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. These are best enjoyed the same day they are baked.

Photographer Authur Meyerson on The Color of Light

One of the best things about living in Seattle is the number of top notch people who come through this town. Seattle's population boasts one of the highest advanced degrees per capita, and we buy more books, per person, than anywhere else in the United States. With Microsoft,, and other leaders of intellectual industry in close proximity, it makes good sense to swing through Seattle. We have a population that supports the arts, and the city is accessible enough to make attending a lecture on a rain sodden Thursday night, worthwhile.

Legendary photographer, Authur Meyerson was in town last week, teaching a workshop on "The Color of Light." (Description at the bottom.) While I couldn't get into the workshop, I was able to attend a meet & greet, followed by a slideshow based on his work.

Perhaps it stems from the Texas affinity for sharing stories, but Authur Meyerson has a gift for imparting his knowledge. Listening to this charming Texan, we were guided through a myriad of subjects. Meyerson described his assignments and detailed exactly what he was looking for when he snapped various shots. It made me regret not taking his workshop.

I was trying to jugle furiously thaking notes, while keeping one eye on the screen, watching multiple images from Meyerson's vast body of work. Every now and then, there'd be an image so striking, I was forced to stifle a little gasp.

Below is a collection of random notes from his talk. Perhaps something here will resonate with you:

What is the Color of Light?
- Meyerson says he has a "love affair with light"
- It's the art of capturing color & movement

Commercial Work
- He shot commercial work for Coca Cola for over 25 years, and a host of other clients.
- It's important to make something interesting.
- Scout out your shots, but avoid any preconceptions. Be open to what's available.
- While you're focused in front of you, remember to turn 180 degrees. Some of his most interesting shots were taken behind where he was set up.

Black & White
- Black & White and Color are like two different languages. They require you to think differently.

Developing Your Style
- "If you're good enough, you can shoot in all kinds of conditions - test yourself." He illustrated several examples where he shot midday (when color is tough), low light, and in the rain.
- Work in as many different lights as you can. (Illustrating his point, he shot the same area in Paris at "dawn o'clock", sunset, dusk, and early evening. Each day, going back to get photos at different times.)
- Try working midday with shadows. "Midday is tough -- especially for color, right?" Get the shadows.

Carry Your Camera
- The more you carry it, the more you see.
- Don't talk about the shot, get it.
- Be prepared.

Photographing People
- Pay attention to hand gestures, reflections, and looking through things.
- Find the expressions.
- Use windows as a framing device.
- In his wry humor, Meyerson said, "If you shoot people through windows, they can't get at you!"

- Dawn & sunset -- follow the light.

Find the Moment
- "The Moment" reveals itself in light, gesture, surprise.
- "The Moment" is story telling.
- Look for the expression.

The Business of Photography
- If you're doing work commercially, he couldn't emphasize this enough, "Get a model release."
- If you're working in another country, get your model releases prepared in the local language, "People need to know what they are signing."
- If you're working with models, typically they have their own release.
- When in doubt, get a model release.

Lifelong Project
- Always work on a project of your own. For Meyerson, it was cowboys. He went to a ranch in Texas and photographed them for days every spring and fall. His work on cowboys spans over eight years, thus far.
- Then he showed an 8 minute slideshow of his cowboy work, with music, prepared in Quick Time.

How Often Do You Use a Tripod?
- He used to use one all the time, but he's been a handheld shooter for 25 years.
- "Digital has been a fantastic development because, technically, it's hard to screw up."
- As a spontaneous shooter, he does handheld work. Commercial work? Tripod.
- The bigger the lens, use a tripod.

The Impact of Digital Photography
- It's raised the bar for photographers. The commercial market is saturated. "But I don't know if it's any harder now than it was 25 years ago. It's just different."
- The influx of people who have never picked up a camera, now start shooting digital and come into the market, commercial photographers need to be better. "And why shouldn't they [be better]? No one said it was easy."

Corporate Annual Reports
- Corporate reports used to be a big slice of the commercial work available. Now many companies are doing away with annual reports, or posting them on the web.

Working with a Client
- He worked with Coca Cola for 25 years. Try to vary the style.
- "It's about collaboration with the art director. You're not just doing the work for a check. You owe it to the client to do it their way. You owe it to yourself to do it your way."

Working with Your Subjects
- Get on a level playing field with your subject.
- Build trust with an intimate situation. Be a fly on the wall. Observe and be aware of your surroundings.
- Always go back with prints. It's a pain and a hassle, but it's important build that rapport.

Get the Shot
- It's like fishing. Some days, the fishing's good, some days it's not.
- But for commercial work? "You HAVE to get the shot. You HAVE to come back with something -- and I don't mean an excuse. "

Technique vs. Style
- If you find something that you can do and no one else can, you've got something.
- Have a vision.
- It's not about technique. With just a technique, you're hot one minute, not another.
- To be remembered, you must develop your own style.

Parting Advice?
- If your heart is in it, you need to work and make sacrifices.
- For commercial photography? "Get a rep. Now a days it's a good idea. And you've got to have a website. "
- "You gotta market yourself."
- The more you shoot, the more you make a name for yourself.
- Be consistent and work on continuity. You want your work to be recognizably associated with you. Name --> Image. Name ---> Image.
- "It's tough...and why shouldn't it be?"


Authur Meyerson Photography


Workshop at Art Wolfe's Studio:
Arthur Meyerson: The Color of Light
5-Day Program: $1100
November 5-9, 2008

This workshop is designed for both amateur and professional photographers wishing to strengthen their abilities to see and work in color. Through daily shooting assignments, critiques, and discussions, participants acquire techniques to become more sensitive to light and its effects on color, composition, texture, pattern, and design. Our main focus is on investigating color from a personal point of view. Arthur guides and inspires participants to see how their unique vision of the world can help to develop and refine an individual style for personal enjoyment or commercial success. In addition to addressing the aesthetics of color photography, Arthur leads group critiques and spends individual time with each participant. Daily assignments put classroom discussions into practice and take advantage of the stunning light and color of the area. Participants leave at the end of the week with a greater awareness and an enhanced sensitivity to light and color.

Chocolate Bliss - Nick Malgieri's Frozen Chocolate Mousse

Frozen Chocolate Mousse, recipe by Nick Malgieri

Standing in my kitchen, there are moments when I take that tentative first bite, and in an uncontrollable urge, blurt, "DAMN! I made that?!"

Yes, I talk to myself.

And when a showstopper passes my lips -- it's duly noted.

But when the showstopper turns out to be my own?

Astonishment is more like it.

Case in point: Nick Malgieri's Frozen Chocolate Mousse.

For months, I have been on the hunt for a flavorful, do ahead dessert. My criteria was simple: I wanted something that's not too complicated, travels well and presents beautifully.

My friends, the search is over.

I put this frozen chocolate mousse together in no time. Whip the cream, melt chocolate and butter, melt sugar and egg whites, and whip them. Combine. Badda bing, badda bam! Scoop the mixture into your vessel (for me, it was a 4" cake pan with a removable bottom) and freeze. Couldn't have been easier.

The moment of truth came when I tried to get it out of the pan. I used a hot knife and ran it around the sides. The entire cake pan took a quick dip in warm water, and poof, the mousse came out cleanly. (Once it's removed from the pan, a warm off-set spatula or knife will smooth out any rough edges.)

I know the recipe says it's a frozen mousse, but after snapping a few photos, it held its shape beautifully even after it warmed up. I liked the texture closer to room temperature, which works perfectly for the holidays. Pull this out of the freezer as you walk out the door...and there's no need to worry about a having a melting mess on the way to grandma's house.

This recipe works for me on so many levels. It's easy, gluten free, I usually have all the ingredients on hand, it travels well, tastes great, and once you get the turkey out of the freezer, there's plenty of room in there. Here in the States, refrigerated space is always at a premium November - January. No worries, you won't be needing it!

Now, on with a little food porn:

See that rough edge? If my knife was hotter, the cut would have been clean. But I was a wee bit impatient, and frankly, I had no intention of blogging about this. I also had no idea it would be this good!

Garnish treatments are endless, but I opted for a simple chocolate curl. My peeler is from Sur La Table and it has a serrated edge, creating those nice ridges on the chocolate curls. (Note: I love this peeler. In the store, they demonstrated that you could remove the thin skin of a red pepper with it. Not that I'd peel a pepper like that, but it's sharp enough to do the job and works like a charm! Definitely one of my favorite tools.)

This is the richest and easiest to make of delicious frozen chocolate desserts. It rivals the best chocolate ice cream.
2 cups heavy whipping cream
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate
6 ounces unsweetened chocolate
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
2/3 cup egg whites (from about 5 large eggs)
1 1/2 cups sugar
Cocoa powder or chocolate shavings for finishing
One 9-inch springform pan or other stainless steel mold

1. Place the 9-inch springform pan or other stainless steel mold in the freezer. Whip cream to a soft peak and refrigerate until needed.
2. Melt both chocolates over hot water, remove from heat and work in butter; set aside.
3. Combine egg whites and sugar in bowl of electric mixer; and place over pan of simmering water. Whisk gently until egg whites are hot and sugar is dissolved. Use an electric mixer to beat until cooled and increased in volume.
4. Quickly fold together chocolate mixture and meringue. Taste a spoonful to make sure the mixture is not any warmer than room temperature. If it is, let it cool for a few minutes before folding in the whipped cream or the cream will melt and separate.
5. Scrape into frozen springform pan or mold and smooth the top with an offset metal spatula. cover tightly with plastic wrap. Freeze overnight before serving.
6. To unmold, have a chilled platter ready. Dip a small, thin knife in hot water and run it around the inside of the pan to loosen dessert. Unbuckle side of springform and remove. Cover dessert with the chilled platter, invert, then lift off pan bottom. Dust very lightly with cocoa immediately before serving or stick chocolate shavings all over top and sides of mousse. Return to freezer until time to serve.
This is great with a rich chocolate sauce or some crushed, sweetened berries.
Yields: About 1 1/2 quarts mousse

Note: I halved the recipe, which is why I used the 4" cake pan with the removable bottom. Unless you're serving a crowd, I'd opt to do half the recipe again. Keep the slices small. This is definitely a rich dessert.

A Back Room Taste of Mexico

For me, the ultimate thrill is when I get a chance to bring people together in a meaningful way. Over the past few years, I've hosted a number of dinners, cocktail parties and brunches in a sincere effort to put relevant people in the same room and help foster community.

The food biz is varied and diverse and while paths may cross from time to time, I've become much more deliberate about providing introductions. Monday evenings have become my favorite night for parties.


Why not?

It's typically a day off for most restaurant people and rarely conflicts with other events. As it turns out, Monday is a great night for this crowd.

It's no secret that I love a good party and when I read about Ina Garten hosting parties in her Barefoot Contessa shop, I became enamored with the idea of unconventional spaces. My own kitchen is the size of a postage stamp, and my tiny condo is not an ideal space (bad traffic flow), but I still like to entertain.

What if....I could find another space?

Then I met Michael Hebberoy. Michael is the man behind a famous (now defunct) underground restaurant in Portland, Oregon called Ripe. He'd have parties everywhere from farms favorite: glass hot shops. In the hot shop, not only did he cook food in the blazing kilns used to turn glass into liquid, he'd pour molten hot glass down the middle of the table and sear fish on it!

Spaces and what you could do with them, suddenly became limitless. Place became less of a destination and turned into a central theme that could create a sense of drama and intrigue.

Today, I walk into warehouses, art galleries, factories, barns, beaches, boats and buildings still under construction and I think, "Let's have a party HERE!"

I love funky spaces.

On a party barge cruising around Lake Union, we celebrated my birthday under the watchful eye of the Space Needle. The boat, affectionately known as The White Trash, had all the necessary merrimaking goods - wigs, feather boas, and my favorite, a golden lame turban! Tying up with sailboats from the Seattle Yacht Club, they'd take one look at us and say, "You're on The Trash, right?"

Another time, thanks to Michael, we dined in an art gallery surrounded by a photo instillation titled, "Bad People Have to Eat Too." Since the space didn't have a functioning kitchen, the chef prepared dinner in the alley behind the gallery. Trust me, you can do wonders with mobile heat sources. With a grill or a butane-fired hot plate, you are no longer tied to a kitchen. The possibilities become endless....

A couple weeks ago, I joined friends for lunch. Afterward, Catherine and I stopped by Villa Victoria Catering to say hello. I was instantly drawn to the owner, Naomi Andrade Smith. Warm and engaging, she's the kind of woman who embodies history and knows her place in it. Her food is soul-satisfying with a depth of flavor that creates legends of lore.

Our first meeting was intended to be a quick hello. But standing in her prep kitchen, in a building destined for sale in the next couple weeks, it's debatable whether I fell in love with her...or the space first. That fall day, the air was crisp and the back door was propped open. The amber light streamed in, and then faded as the hours whiled away. We talked about everything from the beautiful hanging gardens in Mexico City to her family connection to Poncho Villa.

Eventually, the conversation touched on her battle with cancer and the struggle to keep her business alive. When the city eliminated parking in front of her street-side building to make way for an extra lane of traffic, that signaled the death knell for her business.

No parking?

No customers.

I had just met this treasure of a woman and her business would soon be closed. It broke my heart. Naomi was clearly a woman of passion, and built the kitchen of her dreams. But the numbers don't lie. And it was time to throw in the towel.

Then I broached the subject, "Naomi, we should have a party HERE!"

Feeling less than festive, and after knowing me for only a few hours, she surprised me. A quick shrug of her shoulders and she said, "Okay."

Determined not to let this opportunity to slip away, we immediately started planning the details. Based on all the lovely stories I'd been hearing, I asked her to create a menu that had meaning for her...and talk about those stories at dinner. She agreed.

Naomi left the guest list up to me, we settled on a price for dinner and within days, the e-mail went out. The dinner sold out in a flash, waitlisted, and then we decided to extend the table.

Throughout the week, Naomi and I compared notes about who had what -- she had the linens, plates, and most of the stemwere. I had a couple cases of wine glasses and a trip to Goodwill took care of providing silverware for 24 people.

The guest list turned into the stuff of my fantasies. It included food people who rarely get a chance to interact -- a mix of wine & cheese aficionados, publishing & event folks, restaurant owners, chocolatiers & chocolate reps, architects, tech gurus, photographers, private chefs and stellar home cooks.

As the momentum began to build, we were asked to film the dinner for an upcoming documentary. This crowd often has media attention and for one night, I wanted to create a space where they could come and enjoy each other, without the spot light. At some point, you's nice to just gather with your people and let your guard down....

No camera crew.

It's just us, thanks.

This past Monday -- just after Day of the Dead and before the Elections, we gathered for dinner. What was once a large storage room with racks of supplies, was transformed into our dining space. Naomi completed the look with a large mural of blue agavae from Mexico and decorated with a few furnishings from home.

The building now has a for sale sign affixed to it, and parking was half a block down at the Chinese restaurant. Guests entered through the busy kitchen, and were greeted here:

Catherine Reynolds gave us a hand with the last minute touches.

See the large yellow machine on the right? That's Naomi's very own coffee roaster.

Tropical fruit display (yes, it's real.)

Black table cloths, white plates and linen napkins added contrast. I like the look of the mismatched silverware, purchased from a thrift store (I've since bought more). The heavy Mexican silver bowl and chunky urn keep the Mexican theme and roses add a nice pop of color. Wine glasses were set up at a station near the door so folks could mix and mingle before dinner, and leave the table intact.

Samosas, anyone? The tray is lined with a banana leaf. We buy banana leaves at the Asian markets, and they come folded and frozen.

Candles, cut the main lights and you've got the makings for fun dinner conversations.

Steaming hot carne asada fajitas with house made tortillas and lime, shared family-style.

Carne asada tacos with poblano chiles.

Delicate rockfish meatball soup.

Naomi and her chicken en papillote.

Mike, a transplant from Texas, had been pining for good Mexican food. Craving...satisfied!

Guajillo/pasilla-marinated chicken en tender it's falling off the bone.

Cactus, jicama & pomegranate salad and towards the back of the plate, that's coconut refried beans on plantains.

Warm rashers of candied pumpkin with ice cream. Later, Naomi served Mexican hot chocolate made with fresh raw milk and coffee from beans roasted that morning.

I love a good party and like the food geeks that we are, another dinner was being planned before we even left the table!

What's Naomi's next venture? With a lineage like hers -- rich and varied, and influenced by many cultures, my hope is that there's a book in her future. I want to read her memoirs and learn more about the family that left the oil-rich fields of Mexico during WWII. Arriving in the U.S., the only housing they could find was on a farm, previously occupied by Japanese, who were interned somewhere in a remote camp.

Naomi's food reflects her rich cultural background, and a seat at her table satisfies the soul.

Here's the full menu from our Villa Victoria dinner:

hot corn/epazote snack

carne asada tacos with poblano chiles

delicate rockfish meatball soup

guajillo/pasilla-marinated chicken en papillote

coconut refried beans

coastal-style rice with peas and carrots

cactus, jicama & pomegranate salad

warm rashers of candied pumkin with ice cream

hot Mexican chocolate