Back of the House

I've spent over 20 years working in the restaurant industry and for me, the kitchen is an undeniable lure. Thomas Keller, executive chef of culinary bastions including The French Laundry, Bouchon, Per Se, and Ad Hoc, calls professional cooking a "dance." To me, it's a physical and creative battle that when done well, is more like poetry in action. Whether I'm working or not, when I get the chance, the kitchen is the pace I want to be.

While you may not live in Washington...or in the U.S. for that matter, I hope you'll cull universal elements from this photo essay.



November 13 -14th, 60 Washington state and 20 Napa Valley wineries will be featured at the Taste of Tulalip. It's a jam-packed 2 day event and in addition to the wines, Tulalip's award-winning chefs will be strutting their stuff. (See menus below.)


Earlier this month, a group of writers and food bloggers were invited to preview the menus.

Yes, that's right.

Menus.

We were served two tasting menus--plus wine flights--back-to-back. (You're feeling sorry for me, right?) The food was incredible, but even better? They gave me kitchen access. So instead of tweeting most of the night (it was a Tweet-up, after all), I was hanging out with the staff.

Wanna peek in the kitchen? Come along with me....




This looks promising, doesn't? Surprise! More wines to follow with the second tasting menu. Good thing I stayed over night!


Commemorative plate preview.



While the other guests were engrossed with electronic devices, I took a peek in the kitchen.




Meet Raja. If you think of the kitchen as theater, this guy is the director. He heads off any potential problems and paced our multi-course dinner. A big, heartfult thank you to Raja, who gave me carte blanche kitchen access.



With a name like that, he was destined to rule, eh?
Raja = East Indian prince or monarch. Julius = Roman ruler.



Tulalip Resort has five restaurants and for our meal, the chefs alternated courses. Here's the Excecutive crew.














Salad prep, with a chive garnish



Here's the chef in charge of our 1st course.



1st course, waiting in the wings--an expansive hallway between the kitchen and the ballroom.




Dungeness & Alaskan Crab 'Sushi' with wild rice, sesame lavash and avocado wasabi foam (Notice the layers? King crab, wild rice, and dungeness. I wasn't a fan of the wild rice component. The firm rice + crab = odd mouth feel. I kept thinking I was stumbling on crab bones and the rice did little to show off the crab. Otherwise, stunning presentation.)


To the dining room...



Between courses.


Plated and and headed to the holding station.



Server down time, taking in the kitchen action.



"Here, have a taste!" This salmon eventually made it's way onto the white & red Miso salmon with Miso rice, lemon butter tamari mushroom medley and inari-nori slaw course.


Plating the apple lacquered Pacific halibut over savory fennel-butternut squash bread pudding



Hotel kitchens are huge! Here's a look inside the walk in.





Skull Syrah from the Charles Smith vineyard





Chef Dean Shinagawa redies a plate for presentation.




His course...my favorite of the night: Wagyu beef short ribs and certified Angus beef tenderloin with blue cheese, potato, shiitake, sun dried cherries and cabernet demi-glace, topped with those crispy fried onions.



Voila!



Exquisite butter-poached scallops.


Overhead look at the assembly line.




A final drizzle of butter topped these succulent butter poached sea scallops, garnished with crushed toasted pine nuts.


Behold, dessert for 50. Each plate had multiple components, yet much of the work was done in advance. Last minute finishing touches included garnishes for the baby fondant cake (on the left) and the milk chocolate cremosa (2nd from the left).

Work in progress....

“A study in chocolate” with white chocolate cream, milk chocolate cremosa, 55% chocolate ganache filled raspberries and 72% dark chocolate baby fondant cake.


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For tickets and scoop about the 2nd Annual Taste of Tulalip, click here.


The menus:


Surprising Delights at the Tulalip Resort and Casino



The Tulalip Resort and Casino is an easy jaunt just 45 minutes north of Seattle. Nearby outlet malls lure folks just as much as the gambling on site, but there's much more than that. Like Vegas hotels, there's nightly entertainment that frequently lures big name acts like BB King. The food? I'll throw down the gauntlet and say, to date, Tulalip's award-winning food and wine program trumps every hotel I've tried.

Now when you say "tribal casino," that is not my idea of a good time. But I was invited to preview the Taste of Tulalip festivities happening on November 12th, and I'll be the first one to admit, I was blown away! I never set foot in the casino, but I will definitely be back. Both the food and the wine program were impressive. Within the hotel, the Tulalip Bay restaurant has Chef Dean Shinagawa at the helm, and his food was a major highlight. Shinagawa's Wagyu Beef Shortribs and Angus Beef Tenderloin on a bed of blue cheese potatoes topped with shiitaki mushrooms had us crying for more. And his butter poached sea scallops with toasted pinenuts was a model in restrained perfection.

Side note: While there are five restaurants on site, the Tulalip Bay restaurant has some mightly fine national accolades: Winner of the prestigious Wine Spectator Award of Excellence and the coveted DiRoNa Award granted to the most distinguished fine dining establishments in North America.


I stayed in a deluxe king room and with a $145/night rack rate, I went in with few expecations. While that's an average hotel price in Seattle, what that affords you just outside the city is so much more. The room was large with modern furnishings, a huge flat screen TV, and a bathroom so elegant, it trumps even the Four Seasons. There's something about the room that instantly put me at ease. It's like home...only better.

Tulalip Resort highlights:

- Free wifi throughout the hotel
- Wifi is easy to access, no registration or other hoops to jump through
- Noteworthy food & beverage program
- Indoor pool & hot tub with nature-driven rock wall features
- Free valet parking
- The bathroom is equipped with an oversized shower, double sinks, and bonus! A separate vanity.
- The bed--linens, mattress, and pillows-were exceptionally comfortable (Yes, I lifted up the sheets to find out who made that mattress. It's a Simmons "HealthSmart." And get this, the pillow top unzips from the mattress so you can wash it. Genius!)


Note to event planners: I kept thinking...if there were a corporate event or conference scheduled here, I'd be very happy here.

Staycation? Definitely.



Details:

Tulalip Resort and Casino
10200 Quil Ceda Boulevard
Tulalip, WA 98271
(360) 716-6000
http://www.tulalipresort.com/


My stay was sponsored by Tulalip Resort, courtesy of Richmond PR.

Exploring Wheat with Shepherd's Grain

What's the opposite of gluten-free?

Yeah, that's me. Gluten glutton.


I could write a soliloquy about William's twice-baked almond croissants. And if you get a chance, you must try Ethan's pan-fried gnocchi--pillowy on the inside, crispy on the outside--they're a strong contender for my last meal on earth.

Earlier this week, I was thrilled to see Columbia City Bakery announce their new CSB program. What's that? Think: Community Supported Agriculture...in the form of artisan bread. (Community Supported Bakery). A weekly ration of artisan bread....Genius, no?

So, you see, my love for wheat runs deep.


When wheat cooperative Shepherd's Grain invited me to come out and meet their farmers, I jumped at the chance! Before this trip, I knew very little about growing wheat (read: nothing). I took pages of notes and frankly, my mind is still swimming. One part travelogue, one part brain dump, this post is an attempt to compile notes from a life changing experience.



Long before dawn, I boarded a bus full of bakers and settled in for the 4 hour trek to Eastern Washington.



On the ride over, Shepherd's Grain co-founder Fred Fleming gave us the lay of the land. As the miles stretched on, the type of crop shifted from irrigation-dependent crops like corn and potatoes to dry land crops, including wheat, barley, mustard, and canola. A stunning piece of environmental trivia: in the valley, every 10 miles, annual rainfall increases by 1".


While Seattle is famous for rain (155 days a year), east of the Cascade Mountains, you'll find a high desert. Rainfall is scant and crops near the mountain range rely on irrigation. (Arms of the irrigation apparatus stretch across the entire frame of this photo.)



Hay harvest, drying in the sun.


This hay has already been baled. Note: The hay must be absolutely dry. In a rush to store the hay? Bad idea. Not only is spontaneous combustion is a very real risk, rising heat levels cause a significant loss of protein. How does hay spontaneously combust? Chemical reactions and microbial growth in hay occur because of the change in availability of moisture, oxygen, and pressure to create heat to the point of ignition and fire. (Read more about that here.)



Winter wheat, already in the ground. Tiny shoots surface before the first snow fall. An unusually cold summer meant an overlap between harvest and planting. Farmers on the western side of the Columbia River had their crop in the ground, while on the eastern side, farmers were still bringing in the harvest.


Crossing the Columbia River. Multiple dams on this river provide cheap hydro-electric power to Washington state residents and irrigation to surrounding farmland. The dams are also responsible for the significant loss of salmon, which historically, migrated up the Columbia River to spawn. Migration routes are now blocked by dams and poorly designed fish ladders, driving many salmon runs to extinction.


Of all the factors involved in farming, one element I never considered was wind. With few trees to shield the momentum, fierce winds whip across the dry plains. Annual fires spread rapidly under these conditions and during the wrong time of the year, a hard rain and violent winds can wash priceless topsoil into the Columbia River. (It's dredged frequently for this very reason.)




Wheat is harvested 8 inches from the ground, leaving fields of "stubble." Between harvest and the next planting season, "stubble" keeps the topsoil intact.



The distant mountains beckon in shades of purple. In this area "wind" is a four-letter curse word and now I know why. Wind drowned out any reasonable attempt at conversation and erratic gusts whipped my skirt to the point of indecency.



Shielded by a knoll, I took advantage of a welcome respite and succumbed to the hypnotic tango between wind and wheat. Immersed in a rhythmic ocean of grain swaying in the wind, I paused just to listen.



Bit of trivia: As humans shifted from a hunter-gatherer society, wheat provided an important and stable food supply. By 4,000 BC, wheat farming had spread to Asia, Europe, and North Africa.



Innovation is at the heart of Shepherd's Grain. Their direct seed program is a game-changer Western Washington wheat farming. They tell it best:

By direct-seeding we no longer have to invert the soil with a plow. Our plants are seeded directly into the residue of the crop that came before it. Direct seeding is a complete change in the way a farmer grows his crops. The change from conventional seeding to direct-seeding is a major change requiring new equipment as well as a new approach to weed and disease control. Although the direct seed system has many challenges that the farmer must deal with it also has many advantages.

Soil erosion is reduced, reducing soil runoff into streams and rivers.

Less fuel is burned than conventional tillage. Reducing the amount of exhaust fumes being released into the air.

The amount of carbon in our soils is increasing. Conventional tillage releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere where direct seeding traps the carbon in the soil, increasing organic matter and building a healthier soil structure for creatures that live in the soil such as earthworms.

By direct-seeding we've taken a more holistic approach to crop disease and pest management. We use different crops in a rotation so that diseases and pests don't build up in the soil and have to be treated by using chemicals.



Commodity wheat prices, 2005 - 2010. (Source: International Monetary Fund)


Opting out of the commodity grain market is another important factor in the Shepherd's Grain business model. Crop prices are driven by market demand, which can create wild price fluxuations, as seen in this graph. Life was good if you sold your crop at the peak of the market in March 2008, yet just 1 year later, the prices had dropped a whopping 47%. (Click here for a closer look at the graph.)

Not only are farmers impacted by commodity price turbulence, but for large-scale buyers of wheat--commercial bakeries, hospitals, and supermarkets--wild price fluxuations wreak havoc on budgets.

As an alternative, Shepherd's Grain locks in the price for a period of 6 months, guaranteeing a more stable cost structure for both farmers and customers.


Wheat farmer Tom Zwainz and Shepherd's Grain co-founder Fred Fleming.
Pictured at Tom's farm, Davenport, Washington.


Our tour stopped at 4 different farms. We learn that profitable modern farms rely less on labor and more on technology. This combine costs $400,000. Data is downloaded into a laptop on the rig, and a GPS ensures straight, even rows. GPS efficiency eliminates planting gaps and overlap, saving on fuel and seed cost.



Once the wheat is harvested, it's stored in these silos until it's sold and shipped to a mill. The wheat can be stored for up to a year. At this point, it's important to monitor moisture content to prevent mold and other issues.


Learning about different grains: hard wheat, winter wheat, spring wheat, etc.


Portland, OR chef, Cathy Whims. Her James Beard-nominated restaurant, Nostrana, makes fresh bread in house.


Distinctly different: soft white and hard white spring wheat.






While the bulk of Shepherd's Grain flour is sold comercially, their retail product is packaged under the banner of Stone Buhr's All-Purpose Flour. (Other flours in the Stone Buhr line are sourced elsewhere.)


Want to learn more?

Check out their website: http://www.shepherdsgrain.com/

The Best Bread: Shepherd's Grain Flour (via @Gastrognome)

Find the Farmer (via Food on the Brain)