Little Donkey, Jamie Bissonnette, and musings on food writing…

Its always fascinating to me to watch the organized chaos of a restaurant kitchen, the constant flow of runners bringing out plate after plate to a sea of hungry diners, and the hustle of servers trying to ensure that each one of those diners leaves happy and full. In these moments, I always feel a draw to start writing about the restaurant industry again.

So, why now? Its been almost 2 years since the last time I published something on Behind the Pass. There have been plenty of night’s out in that span. What made August 25th, a Thursday night dinner with friends at Little Donkey in Cambridge, matter more than others? The answer is simple… memories.

On this particular night, some of the stronger memories that I have when it comes to writing about food were jarred loose. So, if you’ll indulge me a remembrance, I’ll take you back to the beginning of Behind the Pass, formerly known as The Foodie Journal.

“Starting a blog is easy, keeping it going is harder…”

Everyone and their uncle seemed to have a blog at the time, and even more so now. I believe it possible that, if her fluency with the written word in English were better, my 73 year-old Portuguese mother might just have a blog herself (She has 3,500+ followers on Pinterest. Seriously.) So, starting a blog wasn’t an issue. Figuring out how to keep it going was the hard part.

When I started The Foodie Journal, I knew I wanted to write about two things: food and restaurants. While my love of food is sincere, my know-how pales in comparison to the myriad other food bloggers that exist. In that aspect, I felt there was  minimal way to set myself apart. Similarly, with respect to restaurant reviews, I felt I didn’t have the authority (I must be missing the ‘Yelp’ gene that so many others have).

After a few fits and starts, my attention shifted to restaurant kitchens and those in the thick of it. The chef. Individuals who have made the conscious decision to stand on their feet hour after hour in blazing hot kitchens, working their hardest while everyone on the other side of the pass is feasting and wining (or whining, depending on the individual). But, where do you start? How do you get a foot in the door?

On April 12th, 2012 I read an article about a rising star Boston chef by the name of Jamie Bissonnette. It was the first time that Jamie had been nominated for a James Beard Award (he would go on to win Best Chef – Northeast in 2014). I thought, ‘It would be wicked cool to maybe interview him and talk a little about the whole ‘getting nominated for a Beard award‘ thing.’ So, given that I had absolutely ZERO connections in the food industry, I went the only route I could think of to reach out to him.

I sent him a tweet asking for an interview. About an hour later, I received a direct message response back on Twitter:


… I had zero writing cred. I wasn’t affiliated with any of the relevant food sites at the time – just a knucklehead wanna-be blogger. My expectation wasn’t for a negative response, but simply NO response. Instead, I got a ‘Love to. Email me’.

Jamie was the first chef I ever interviewed in any way. To this day, I still view that interview exclusively as a kindness on his part. Obviously, any type of interview leads to some level of exposure. Even if only 5 people read it, its good attention for the person being interviewed. But, that interview was a boon for my writing if for no other reason than having given me the courage to reach out to more and more chefs. Months later, Jamie went on to give me more of his time for a second interview, and the opportunity to spend a day kicking around the kitchen at Toro in Boston. I owe him quite a lot, even if he doesn’t realize it. Thanks, Jamie.

Little Donkey

The night of our dinner at Little Donkey, Jamie was working the pass. Shortly after being seated, we were greeted by the incomparable Katy Chirichiello, general manager extraordinaire (Katy was the assistant GM at Toro when I hung out there forever ago). Halfway through dinner, I ran in to food & lifestyle photographer Huge Galdones (if you frequent food sites or read Food & Wine, you’ve seen some of Huge’s photographs, I guarantee you). Dinner was rapidly becoming an unexpected game of ‘This is your (blogging) life’! As if all that wasn’t reason enough to get me in front of my computer to do more than my typical 9-to-5 shenannigans, the food (my God the food) clinched it.

Little Donkey has only been open a few months. In my experience, most restaurants don’t really hit stride until they’ve been open for several. I state this opinion for no reason other than to marvel at the meal we had. If my count is correct, I believe we had 13 dishes (or roughly half of the available menu that night). Thinking over each of those dishes, I have yet to pick out a single thing I disliked. The only complaint I could express is that by the final plate, a dessert of mango curd on Ritz crackers (obviously), I was too full to steal everyone else’s.

My favorites on the night included the BLT lettuce wraps, the burger, and the Texas smoked short rib. Even as I typed that, my brain was basically yelling, ‘OH, AND THE SILVER QUEEN CORN. THE CHOW FUN AND THE KIMCHI FRIED RICE TOO. THAT WAS AWESOME! OH, AND THE OCTOPUSOKLETSGOTHERERIGHTNOWI’MSTARVING!!!’

It was a good night.

On Food Writing

By most accounts, writing is a very lonely act. Granted, the act of sitting at a keyboard or with pen and paper in hand is singular. When writing about food, however, I personally have never felt that way. My version of food writing always involves memories. Remembering who I was with on a given night, what we ate, what we talked about. I’ve always been a proponent of the idea that food is never really ‘just food’. More often than not, its an experience. Experiences that stay with you long after you’ve paid the bill, or moved to the couch and unbuttoned your pants. Its in those experiences that I feel it. The draw to start writing about the restaurant industry again.

To Jamie Bissonnette and the whole team at Little Donkey: Thanks for the reminder.

Gadgets for the home kitchen: Immersion circulators

Last week I wrote about the awesomeness that is ChefSteps, an online cooking instruction site with a focus on “cooking smarter” utilizing modern techniques and kitchen gadgetry. A gadget they highly tout, and one that has garnered more and more attention over the past couple of years has been the immersion circulator.

Up until the recent past, circulators were only available to professional kitchens or the particularly adventurous home cook who had cash flow to burn. That, however, is no longer the case. Companies like Anova, Sansaire, Nomiku, and one of the original pioneers in immersion circulator technology, PolyScience, have made efforts to bring the device in to the home kitchen at a much more affordable price.

Continue reading “Gadgets for the home kitchen: Immersion circulators”

Learning to cook… with ChefSteps

I need to learn to cook.

Ok. Yes, I do know how to cook, but that isn’t what I meant. I need to learn to cook well. Like, restaurant well. Given my propensity for wanting to eat restaurant quality food on a regular basis, I need to learn to cook fast lest my bank account decide to find a more doting benefactor (“Always take, take, take. Why don’t you GIVE!!”).

Continue reading “Learning to cook… with ChefSteps”

Lovin’ Spoonfuls Food Rescue: An interview with founder Ashley Stanley

It is something that many of us living in the United States likely take for granted; Knowing, without doubt or fear, where our next meal is coming from. This is, after all, the land of opportunity! Food security shouldn’t be an issue here. And, you’re right. Food security shouldn’t be an issue in the United States. But, just because it shouldn’t be an issue doesn’t mean that it isn’t.

Food security: The availability of food and one’s access to it. A household is considered food-secure when its occupants do not live in hunger or fear of starvation.

It is something that many of us living in the United States likely take for granted; Knowing, without doubt or fear, where our next meal is coming from. This is, after all, the land of opportunity! Food security shouldn’t be an issue here. And, you’re right. Food security shouldn’t be an issue in the United States. But, just because it shouldn’t be an issue doesn’t mean that it isn’t.

According to a report issued by the USDA’s Economic Research Service, “14.5 percent of American households were food insecure at least some time during the year in 2012, meaning they lacked access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members.” That’s approximately 17.6 million households, comprised of 49 million Americans, 15.9 million of those being children.

Staggering.  

So what’s to be done in support of those who are struggling with food insecurity? In many major cities in the United States you’ll find organizations that are dedicated to help those in need, and in Boston, it’s no different. We have the privilege of a fantastic organization called Lovin’ Spoonfuls. I had the opportunity to speak with founder Ashley Stanley about the organization, the support that Lovin’ Spoonfuls gets from the restaurant community in Boston, and a personal food memory that represents just how important the work organizations like these do every day.

 Foodie Journal: So how did you come up
with the idea for Loving Spoonfuls?

Ashley Stanley: I kind of hate the
term “a-ha moment”, but something did click and while my background is athletics
and fashion and these things that my life has really focused on for such a long
time, food has been such a fundamental part of my life. It’s been a fundamental
part of my family, and my friends.  Really everything good has revolved
around food. A few years ago, I was looking for a career change.  I was looking for something else to do.  I wasn’t really sure what that was and it was
during the holidays.  I found myself
sitting in a restaurant with plates of uneaten food and tons of leftovers and I
started thinking about portion size and serving size.  During the holidays you always hear about
people in need, charity, and how there isn’t enough for everybody. That was
sort of in the back of my mind because on my table I had enough.  Not
just for me, but for probably five or six other people too.  

FJ: Right.

AS: All I thought about is I can’t be
the only person in the only restaurant at the only table with this much food
available. 

I woke up for a few days really
thinking, “Is that message really accurate that there’s not enough?”  Maybe we’re asking the wrong questions.  Maybe we’re responding to the wrong
statement.  So I googled the phrase “what
happens with the wasted food” and found the sites for City Harvest and Philabundance,
Food Runners, all of these established food rescues in different parts of the
country.  I called and that’s where
I learned about food rescue clinics.  Here we are a few years later!

FJ: That’s awesome! It’s true,
though. I think portion size is something many of us forget about.  Too many people are just looking for the most
food at the cheapest price and never really stop to think about what they’re
leaving on the plate. Plus, how many times do you really end up finishing a
full plate when you go out to eat at a restaurant?

AS: Yes, and it was just one of those
things and it probably wasn’t the first time I’d been in a restaurant with all
the leftovers and it wasn’t the first time there was an opportunity to maybe
see that that was happening, but it was the first time where it really made
sense to me.  

FJ: So what were the first steps for
you?  How did you actually get to the point of establishing this
organization?

AS: Well, they weren’t any linear
steps. First understanding the statistics about food production helped out. One
thing I did was I thought about our market, because I was
reading about waste and I wanted to know if it was food that was coming off of
people’s plates at the end of the night, which you can’t do too much with, or
if it was whole raw product that essentially should be getting used in some
manner.  I found it to be the latter, and
so much of it.  I was stunned. I saw
pallets of eggplants and potatoes and carrots, and sure some of it maybe had
lost some if its marketable or salable value, but not much. When I go
to buy food, if I’m grilling it or putting it in a stew or if I’m cooking it
down, the appearance is less important I think. 
The point is that I was shocked as to what was classified as
eligible for waste.

FJ: Yeah, it’s funny the view we have
of food quality. If we have a garden in our yard, we aren’t going to toss
things we grow ourselves just because they don’t look picture perfect, but in a
grocery store we avoid those items for some reason.

AS: It is a little strange, isn’t it?

FJ: For sure. So what kind of support
have you seen from the restaurant and culinary industry in Boston?

AS: We exist in large part because of
our friends in the restaurant industry. 
I think regardless of what a non-profit mission might be, whether it’s
trying to cure cancer, or something directly related to food, regardless of
what it is the culinary community and the restaurant community always are the
first to say yes.  There’s this seemingly
built in willingness to help your community and that is something we are
forever grateful for.  In terms of food rescue and in terms of Lovin’ Spoonfuls
in particular, I think this is something that chefs, restaurateurs, folks
who’ve been working in this space for a long time feel a particular connection
to because they see first hand the waste that can happen.

We have a culinary panel, which includes
folks like Christopher Meyers who has been in the food space for 30-plus years
in Boston, LA and New York. I remember when I was listing the pros and cons about
potentially starting a food rescue I asked him and Joanne [Chang], “Do you
think this is a good idea?” They said, “Oh my God, yes and you’ve got our
support!”  They’ve been just incredible
supporters and advocates and mentors to us in that space.  You’ve got folks like Jeremy Sewall who has really
helped us to see how to make a difference in our community.  Jaime Bissonnette from Toro is a great friend
of ours and is really committed to whole ingredient cooking which results in
little to no waste in his restaurants. 
Then nationally we have Andrew Zimmern, a great friend of mine, who does
Bizarre Foods and writes columns for Food and Wine and all that.  He’s a fierce advocate for food justice, and
stands behind what Lovin’ Spoonfuls is doing and he’s given me some the best
advice I’ve gotten along the way.  It really has just been an
unbelievable amount of support from people in the industry.

FJ: What type of impact do you think
Lovin’ Spoonfuls had so far?

AS: Well, we rescued, in just about
three and a half years, we’ve rescued just under three-quarters of a million pounds
of food.

FJ: Wow!

AS: Yeah!

FJ: So I usually end interviews
asking for a personal food memory.  For
you I’d like to know if you have a memory specific to the work that you’ve been
doing so far with Lovin’ Spoonfuls?

AS: I do.  It’s actually a
memory from when I was a kid, but then it clicked just after Spoonfuls
started.  My family loves food, we’ve always loved food, and we have
family in New York and we traveled to New York often when I was a kid.  We’d go into the city and when you’re staying
in a hotel, you usually don’t take your leftovers with you since you typically
don’t have a fridge. My family, we always packed up our leftovers no matter
what, something I thought that everybody did when they traveled. [LAUGHS] So we’d
pack up our leftovers and my parents taught us that we leave it by the side of
a trash can or by the side of something where you know it’s a high traffic area
and somebody’s going to see it. I never
thought too much of it.  I just did it because I thought that’s what everyone
did. 

When
I was maybe eight or nine, I remember eating at the Carnegie Deli, which for
most people is guaranteed leftovers. Corned beef hash in particular because
it’s a mountain of stuff in front of you and as much I tried, I could never
finish it.  My dad and I, it was just him
and me at this particular meal, and we took our leftovers and dropped it at the
side of trashcan on Fifth Avenue like usual. 
For whatever reason, I happened to just turn around and I saw somebody
pick it up and start to eat it.  It made
sense in that moment, not to the point where I grew up thinking about food
rescue or wanting to get into hunger relief or anything like that, but it was
just something that made sense to me and I said, “Oh! That’s why we do it  

I
don’t think I thought about it again until 2010 when Lovin’ Spoonfuls started,
but that was a real visceral memory for me because it was one of those rare
times where one experience helped make sense of so many other moments in my
life.

 Lovin’ Spoonfuls has rescued more that 841,345 pounds of food to date. That’s food that would otherwise have been disposed of, but was instead used to help those in need.

If you’d like to learn more about the organization, or are interested in supporting Lovin’ Spoonfuls by volunteering or donating, visit their website at www.lovinspoonfulsinc.org.

What’s in a name: The battle of being a foodie

There is a word that is rarely uttered in the circles of chefs, service staff, and food writers. And, when it is, it typically is laced with sarcasm and used only to express derision. It’s considered profane enough that some food sites won’t allow their writers to include it in their pieces, and the ultimate truth is that most writers don’t want to use it in the first place. The dreaded “F-bomb”. Foodie.

There is a word that is rarely uttered in the circles of chefs, service staff, and food writers. And, when it is, it typically is laced with sarcasm and used only to express derision. It’s considered profane enough that some food sites won’t allow their writers to include it in their pieces, and the ultimate truth is that most writers don’t want to use it in the first place. The dreaded “F-bomb”. 

Foodie.

Foodie is defined, at least as far as the interweb is concerned, as “a person with a particular interest in food.” That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? But, for so many, the word foodie is an albatross slung around the neck of the arrogant – know-it-alls and snobs who consider themselves to be better than others because of their appreciation of fine food and dining.

I’m with you on this. These kind of “supreme beings”, in a word, suck. They annoy me just as much as they annoy you. But, why damn the whole bunch due to some bad apples? Every society, every faith, every race, profession, or trade has their share of individuals who act a fool.

Case in point – there were a couple of recent Instagram postings that garnered solid attention (here and here). The photos, screen captures of a couple of emails sent by a cook, were posted by Erik Desjarlais of Weft & Warp Seamster, maker of high quality knife bags, leather totes and aprons. In said emails, the cook expressed a desire for preferential treatment (expedited production of a knife roll and, wouldn’t you know it, a discount) due to the fact that they had worked for a short period in a couple of the world’s best restaurants. After all, he “deserve(d) something for (his) efforts.”

Most would agree that this guy is, quite clearly, a tool. But, by no means does he accurately represent the whole of cooks around the world. I’ve been able to get to know quite a few cooks and chefs, and most of them are pretty rad! I know a few lawyers, and they’re far from the picture painted of ambulance chasers. Some friends of mine are salesman, and excellent at what they do without being of the sleazy sort. I also happen to be acquainted with certain people who claim “foodie”, and I’ll tell you what. They aren’t so bad.

So, what about me, the guy who runs a site called The Foodie Journal? Am I a know-it-all? Not even kind of. In fact, I’m reminded pretty much daily about how little I really know about both food and the culinary world. I’m proud of that fact, and am glad for every opportunity to learn. Am I a snob? I’d like to think that I’m not, and I don’t think anyone that used to make themselves Dorito sandwiches as a kid* is allowed to be a snob.

I’m just a guy who simply has “a particular interest in food.” My name is Reuben, and I… am a foodie. Is that such a bad thing?

*Yes. This is exactly what it sounds like. Two slices of bread, and handful of Doritos. … This is a safe place. No judgement! :)

Architecting the American dining scene as we know it: A conversation with Jeremiah Tower

Jeremiah Tower was supposed to be an architect. A young man at the time, he was on his way to Hawaii to do just that. But, as has happened throughout history to many a young man trying to make their mark, Jeremiah hit a snag. He was down to his last $25, and stuck in San Francisco. So, what’s a man to do?

Why not become one of the individuals credited with completely redefining the American dining scene? Perhaps become the person that many consider to be “the father of California cuisine”?

If you ask him, Jeremiah will be the first to tell you that he never set out to change the culinary world. A lover of food since childhood, working as a chef seemed a natural way to earn some money so that he could continue on to Hawaii as he’d planned. Along the way, however, things changed. Not only did Jeremiah find success in the kitchens of California, he found a way to become one of the main architects of the American dining scene many of us know and love today.

I recently had the honor  to speak with Chef Tower. During our conversation we spoke a bit about where his love for food began, what it’s like to have had such an enormous impact on the culinary world, and what he has on the horizon for the culinary world.

Jeremiah Tower - Photo courtesy of Jeremiah Tower
Jeremiah Tower – Photo courtesy of Jeremiah Tower

Foodie Journal: When was it that you first realized that you had a love for food?
Jeremiah Tower: I fell  in love with food and restaurants when I was five, and we lived in Sydney. There was severe  food rationing at the time, except for in restaurants, so we ate in them a lot and I was allowed to go along.  The most glamorous at that time was Prunier.

FJ: I take it that food continued to play an important role in your life through your teen years, and when you were in college. What were some of the dishes you enjoyed making in those formative years?
JT: Well, my aunt sent me off to college with a hot plate, a Le Creuset frying pan, two bottles of hundred-year-old Madeira, and her recipe for chicken livers, which I cooked in the closet for my roommates. [LAUGHS] But, a favorite of mine, because of my Russian experiences, I loved making coulibiac, though I don’t typically do it with sturgeon. I prefer salmon, or something similar. Do you know what coulibiac is?
FJ: No, that’s new to me. It’s a typical Russian dish?
JT: Yes, so it’s a brioche pastry in to which is stuffed a whole salmon filet with rice, mushrooms, hard-boiled eggs. It’s beautiful in cross-section, and served on a big plate. Then you pour butter and sour cream all over it.
FJ: Wow, that sounds brilliant!
JT: It is! Then you have it with vodka. It’s really unbelievable! Aside from that, I would also make blinis. Obviously without caviar at the time, as it was very expensive.

FJ: So, despite that love for food and cooking, you didn’t originally start down a path that was likely to lead to becoming a chef or a restauranteur. What was it that finally drew you to the kitchen?
JT: Circumstance. I had cooked a lot for friends in college and graduate school, but thought I was going to be an underwater architect. I was on my way to Hawaii to help with a pavilion for a World’s Fair, but I ran out of money in San Francisco. So, a friend suggested I take the job of chef at a café in Berkeley. I was down to my last $25, so I went for an interview.  It was called Chez Panisse.

FJ: Now, from Chez Panisse you moved on to Stars, which was one of the biggest restaurants to open in the United States. Many credit you and what you did there as really changing the landscape of what it means to dine in America. What was it that led you to make Stars in to what it became? Were you interested in “changing the world” so to speak, or did you just want to cook your way?
JT: At the time I was equal partners with Alice Water at Chez Panisse, but I decided to leave after she would not agree to do what is now the café.  I was tired of Berkeley, and wanted to live and work in San Francisco.  I was also in love with the idea of a brasserie,  along the lines of La Coupole or Boeuf Sur le Toit in Paris or the old Delmonico’s in New York, with a huge bar.  But, as a footnote, I really want to say that we had no idea what we were doing in terms of changing things, or creating what became known as California cuisine. I was not aware of the idea that we were changing anything. I was just doing what I wanted to do.  Ultimately, what  I wanted was what Johnny Apple, a writer at the Washington Post, later called “the most democratic restaurant in the USA”.

FJ: You definitely made an impact on the culinary world, and on many chefs with what you did at Stars. I recently had the chance to read your Kindle Single, A Dash of Genius, about Auguste Escoffier, and its obvious that he had a big impact on you as an individual. Can you talk a little about some of the others that impacted who you became as a chef, and what you want to create in the kitchen?
JT: Another mentor was Fernand Point and his book Ma Gastronomie.  I learned to cook from my aunt, her Russian uncle, and also my mother.  Then the two people who influenced me when I was working in restaurants were my great friends Elizabeth David, and Richard Olney.  Another mentor for me, not so much as far as food was concerned but very much for advice in general, was another great friend, James Beard.

Potatoes in paprika - Photo courtesy of Jeremiah Tower
Potatoes in paprika – Photo courtesy of Jeremiah Tower

FJ: So, what do you have in the works now as far as the culinary world is concerned?
JT: Well, 10 minutes ago, I group of people just approached me about opening a dinner club in Merida (Mexico). [LAUGHS] Much to my surprise. But, what’s really going on is the project in New Rochelle, in New York. We’re going to be doing a big urban renewal of some old buildings there, the first of which will be a big food hall. It will involve lots of outreach and educational programs with students and farmers.
FJ: That sounds really exciting! Glad to live not too far from New York so I’ll be able to pay it a visit when it opens.
JT: It will be great for the community. A renewal for the culinary and agriculture in the region. It’s very exciting!

FJ: So on to one of my favorite questions. You’ve had a storied career, and undoubtedly have had countless experiences with food, so I need to ask the impossible question. Is there a particular food memory or experience that stands out in  your mind? Something that really left a mark on you, and solidified what you love about food?
JT: Fried eggs with a blizzard of white truffles in Barcelona last week at Ca l’Isidre. No, just kidding…

I think it was the meals with my aunt, and my Russian space scientist uncle in Washington D.C. when I  was a teenager. My aunt was an extraordinary cook, and my uncle loved to talk about food. It was just amazing to sit around with them, eating and hearing stories told by some of my uncle’s friends, including a man who was a childhood friend of the man who killed Rasputin! These meals would just go on for hours, and I remember that, for me being a teenager, I always saw it as a check of my manhood to start off by trying 5 different types of vodkas, caviars and then make it through dishes like my aunt’s chicken liver with hundred-year-old Madeira. So that was an amazing introduction to how to eat glamorously, because they were glamorous and the conversations were extraordinary.

A Dash of Genius is available as a Kindle Single on Amazon.com. You can stay current with what’s going on in the world of Jeremiah Tower by visiting his website at jeremiahtower.com.

Foodie-wear: Friends know you’re a foodie, now everyone else can too!

Over the past couple of years, I’ve slowly started to collect what I affectionately refer to as “foodie-wear”. My current prized possessions, which I’m certain my wife is quite tired of seeing, are two shirts I acquired while on a weekend trip to San Francisco a couple of years back. First, and my favorite, my “I ♥ Offal” shirt, which I purchased during a visit to Chris Cosentino’s Incanto. If people don’t know what offal is, I get very confused, sometimes concerned, looks. Those in the know universally respond, “Awesome shirt!” The other is my “Praise the Lard” shirt, which I first spotted at the Prather Ranch Meat Company stall at the San Francisco Ferry Building. I’ll shortly be ordering it in hoodie form to get through the New England winter ahead of me!

“Foodie-wear” is becoming more and more common place, which I really dig. So, I was excited to come across merch from one of my favorite food quickie spots, Chipotle Mexican Grill. They’ve just released some brand new designs through their online web store, which I think are pretty slick.

I have a soon-to-be one year old daughter that this is wicked appropriate for...
I have a soon-to-be one year old daughter that this is wicked appropriate for…

One of the cool aspects of the Chipotle merchandise is that, like their food, they try to be eco-conscious. The merchandise is made in collaboration with Loomstate, using eco-friendly materials like organic cotton, sustainably harvested wood and recycled billboards. Sustainable clothing!

“Foodie-wear” for you (or as a gift for a friend). Helping the environment. What’s not to love?

Check out the Chipotle Mexican Grill web store to see all their latest designs While you’re there, take a look at the mission Chipotle and Loomstate are on to stay environmentally and socially responsible.

Memories of Portugal: Sopa de pedra

Of all the things I could remember about a trip to Portugal, I remember soup.

All of sixteen years old at the time of the visit, I traveled there with my parents, both originally born in a small Portuguese village called Vale Covo. One morning, we made a day trip to the city of Alcobaça, roughly 75 miles north of Lisbon, to meet up with one of my father’s old army buddies.  My father was the equivalent of a sergeant in the Portuguese Army, deployed in Angola, and the man we were going to be having lunch with was one of his subordinates.

Alcobaça

I do wish I remember more details about that day. The man’s name, for example, escapes me, though I do remember him wanting to match me up with his daughter (“Nice try, dude, but no chance without a picture!”). I also remember the weather, which was overcast, and unseasonably cool for August in Portugal. A perfect day for a bowl of soup.

Sopa de pedra

It was my first experience with sopa de pedra, known in English as rock soup. It’s a story told across Europe, tweaked slightly depending on the country you’re from. The Portuguese version goes like this:

A traveling monk is passing through Almeirim while on a pilgrimage and stops at a home. Too proud to come out an ask for food, he asks instead for the opportunity to use the family’s fire and a pot to cook sopa de pedra. They invite him in to their home, amused by this idea of a soup made from a rock. Bringing water to a boil in the pot, the monk removes a smooth, clean stone from his pocket and drops it in. The water bubbles, and after a short while the monk takes a taste. “It needs a little seasoning,” he says, eyeing his hosts. The wife brings over some salt, and feeling compassion for the humble monk brings a small plate with some sliced chouriço, a portuguese sausage. In to the pot it goes. More time passes, and the monk takes another taste of the soup. “I think it just needs to be a little bit thicker,” he proclaims. “Would you perhaps have any leftover potatoes or beans? Something you could do without?” The wife, smiling, does him a further kindness, pouring little of both in to the pot. After simmering for a while longer, the monk stirs the pot, bringing the rock up out of the broth. He wipes it down and returns it to his pocket. Looking to the family, he declares the soup ready and, of course, delicious.

Is it a true story? No one really knows. One thing I do know: it makes for a tasty soup.

The sopa de pedra I had that day was amazing, and unexpected. Filled to the brim with chunks of potato, chouriço, and bacon. The broth was bread-dipping worthy, with little bits of cilantro floating about. What follows is an attempted translation of an old Portuguese recipe. Enjoy!

Sope de pedra

Ingredients:

  • 2 large cans of kidney beans
  • 2 large chouriço, or other mediterranean sausage
  • 6 oz. pork belly, fatback or bacon
  • 2 lbs. potatoes, cubed
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Chopped cilantro
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Chopped parsley, for garnish

Note: You can include thinly sliced pig ear, or trotters to enhance the flavor. If you go with ear, you can keep it in the soup when its ready to serve.

Directions:

  • Boil the kidney beans, sausage, pork, onions, garlic and bay leaf, and season with salt and pepper. Traditionally you would just use water, but for added flavor you can use chicken broth.
  • Once the meat is cooked, take it out and reserve. Once cooled slightly, chop the meat in to small pieces.
  • Add the diced potatoes and cilantro to the pot.
  • Let the potatoes cook through until fork-tender.
  • Remove the pot from the heat, add the previously chopped meat back.
  • Serve in a bowl of your choice, and top with chopped parsley.

A right to choose: Food trucks or Restaurants

Note: This is an op-ed piece, and I’m approaching the topic from the vantage point of a person who loves food and dining out. No more. No less.

As I’ve stated in previous writings, I don’t have much experience in the food industry. I’ve never worked in a kitchen, be it between four walls or on four wheels. Maybe that’s why I find this “war of words” that has started up in Boston between Adam Gendreau and Patrick Gilmartin, owners of the Staff Meal Food Truck, and the Andelman brothers of the Phantom Gourmet to be so intriguing.

I think this is missing a stream of urine from logo to logo, but my Photoshop skills aren’t that good

So a little backstory first: There has been a growing divide for some time, but most recently the two sides have argued as to whether or not food trucks should be allowed to provide service near brick and mortar restaurants. The Andelman’s are of the mind that food trucks should not be allowed to set up shop near restaurants, apparently feeling that any closer than 1000 feet is too close. Their claim, and the claim of some restauranteurs who have been heard on the Phantom Gourmet radio program (it should be noted that some of these restauranteurs are sponsors of the show), is that food trucks steal their business.

The Staff Meal guys, on the other hand, stand by the idea that brick and mortar restaurants already have a leg up over food trucks as it is, and further regulations forcing the trucks to keep such a distance from restaurants would be crippling to their business. Considering the number of restaurants in the Boston area, I’m not sure you can blame them.

Both arguments have some level of merit, but I have to be honest and say that I feel more inclined to side with the food trucks. So, bear with me while I give you what I believe to be relatively commonsense reasons for my inclination.

I worked in Boston for about 10 years. As is the case with most office jobs, few are the days that are slow paced. More often than not you’re eating at your desk, if you even end up eating at all. So, in those instances when you do manage to make your way outdoors, you rarely do so without a plan. If my plan was to head to a restaurant, that is where I am headed. A restaurant. Seeing a food truck nearby isn’t likely to draw me away. Unless of course they add “Do your ears hang low” music like old-school ice cream trucks. Then I might be screwed (what IS it with that music??).

That takes me to the core of the matter, though. It’s clear that people are always on the hunt for a good deal, which food trucks can provide. But, let’s face it. Most people that enjoy food aren’t just interested in cost. They want quality. They want food that is going to rock their world. If it’s on the less expensive side, all the better!

So, that raises the question: If people are indeed choosing food trucks over brick and mortar restaurants, is it really a regulatory issue? Or is it a culinary issue? Is it really the trendiness of food trucks that is causing people to give them a shot? Or, is it simply the fact that the food they’re getting at food trucks is just, dare I say it, better?

A little healthy competition never hurt anyone! Rather than push for regulations or sanctions against food trucks, pushing the competition out of the way, why not step up to the plate (pun!) and be competitive? “Those damn food trucks take our business!” Then give diners a reason to come back to your restaurant!

I’m not a restauranteur. I don’t run a food truck. I am a diner. I think restaurants and food trucks are rad, and I believe they can work together. Maybe I’m wrong. But, just remember: If you’re in favor of regulations that handcuff food trucks, making it extremely difficult for them to set up shop in major cities like Boston, people aren’t coming back to your restaurants because they like you better. They simply had their other choices taken away.

Learning about the industry: Service at Toro Restaurant

“It’s organized chaos. But, that’s the way it’s supposed to be, and when it works like this it’s amazing to watch. I’ve been in other places where it was just chaos. Here? It’s pretty special.” – Katy Chirichiello, Assistant General Manager, Toro Restaurant

Line cook Eric Frier and Assistant GM Katy Chirichiello

So let me tell you a story about Jon Kay. Jon is a waiter at Toro Restaurant in Boston. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America along with chef du cuisine Mike Smith. “Along with” works on two levels here considering that they attended at the same time, but they also followed the same educational path through the CIA: cooking and management.

One is a chef, and a damn good one. The other is, as I mentioned before, a waiter… and a damn good one.

“I like the front of the house,” Jon answered when I asked him if he ever thought about getting back in the kitchen. “I might go back to the kitchen one day, but I like serving people. I love talking to them about the food and wine.”

So, why does this story matter? It’s simple, really. A meal at Toro is better because Jon Kay is a waiter there. So is Kelly Walsh. So is John Stoddard, and others who I didn’t have the chance to speak with during my day at Toro. When the service staff loves what they do, life is better for everyone. Especially the diner!

El Toro

A strange relationship

The relationship between diner and waiter can be a strange one. Anthony Bourdain has commented multiple times on how, when he goes to a nice restaurant, he “wants his waiter to like him” and is afraid that the waiter will somehow sense that maybe he doesn’t belong. It can be contentious depending on the personalities involved.

Really, the relationship itself is bizarre and unlike any other. John Stoddard and I talked about it briefly and he summed it up perfectly when he said, “If you work in an office, you don’t have someone just walk in off the street and start telling you what to do or telling you that you’re doing something wrong. So its kind of a strange relationship. For us, its our job. We’re there to help and we want to help. Once people realize that, it works out for the best.”

With the team assembled at Toro, it usually works out for the best.

Knowledge is power

Part of what makes the team at Toro exceptional is their food knowledge. Taking in to consideration the typical clientele of the restaurant – Toro is a regular haven for industry folk – you need to know what you’re talking about. To that end, the service staff gets regular support from chefs Jamie Bissonnette, Mike Smith, and General Manager Jen Fields. Speaking with Assistant General Manager, Katy Chirichiello, she outlined some of what goes on at Toro to help the service staff get geeked up on food knowledge:

“Every day there is some form of education. This can include anything. A menu or wine pop quiz. Tasting new food or wine, and learning where it comes from and what it consists of. Jamie or Mike might bring out new vegetables or herbs and talk about how they grow, what they taste like, what the ideal climate and growing season is for them. We also offer something called “wine words” which is every Thursday from September through May. On those days Jen might run a class on a new wine, might revisit old wines, or sometimes we’ll do a month of education just on sherry. Occasionally we’ll have wine and liquor reps coming in to teach a bit about their offerings. We also may even do a month where Dave Robinson from South End Formaggio will come in on a Thursday and teach about cheeses, or Jamie will go through the whole process of making our house made chorizo.”

Growing up, my restaurant experiences were mostly limited to those of the chain variety, and most weren’t of the more “classy” variety that exist today. Asking for a recommendation in one of these joints was at your own risk. The response almost universally included a sigh and occasionally an eye-roll (followed by a short prayer on my part). There was minimal knowledge (and barely any interest) in the food being served at those restaurants.

At Toro? No such concerns. The service staff knows food. They love food. They love talking about food. Just ask them!

Well oiled machine

As I mentioned in the first part of this series, I found a spot by the fireplace where I could quietly observe dinner service, and hopefully not get in the way. I was actually quite excited about this! Whenever I’ve dined out, I’ve always taken note of the work put in by those serving my table. But, rarely have I had the opportunity to pay close attention to an entire service staff. When dinner service began that day, I was mesmerized.

Hamburguesas

A few things to keep in mind. First, Toro is not a big place. They have seating for around 90 people, and that includes the patio. Second, they don’t take reservations. That means there will be folks milling around the bar, drinks in hand, waiting for a table. Third, Toro is one of the hottest spots in Boston. So those folks milling around the bar, drinks in hand? There are going to be a LOT of them.

I concluded the first part of this series by referring to dinner service as “poetry in motion”. Melodramatic it may have been, but it was amazing to watch. Servers quickly moving to and fro. Talking to diners. Getting orders. Putting orders in to the computer. A bell sounds, and a cook shouts, “Server!” Picking up plates. Grabbing drinks. Printing checks. And all the while, the staff is smiling. They’re actually smiling.

Conclusion… for now

The final moment that cemented in my mind the type of person that makes a good waiter was courtesy of Jon Kay. There had just been the now familiar shout of “Server!” Jon grabbed the plate, and paused as he was about to pass me, showing me what he was about to serve. It was the Asado de Huesos. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” Jon asked me. “Roasted bone marrow with a citrus salad and oxtail marmalade. One of my favorites.”

The service team at Toro is great at what they do because they love what they do. Period.

My day at Toro was almost beyond words. Even now, I look at what I’ve written and feel that it pales in comparison to the actual experience. I came in to that day with a desire to understand a little more about the food industry. What I left with, besides the understanding I desired, was a greater appreciation for the people that do it day in and day out. They are amazing, unbelievably dedicated people. It was an honor to have had the chance to sit in with the whole team. If they’re willing, I hope to see them again sooner than later, and have them put me to work. I want to learn more.

Toro is located at 1704 Washington Street in Boston, MA. They don’t take reservations, but trust me… they are worth the wait.