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.

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! :)

Cooking with Books: An interview with chef and writer Marnely Rodriguez-Murray

Over a year ago, I set out to learn more about culinary professionals and the culinary world as a whole. An obvious benefit of this work is getting to know people like me; others that not only love food, but enjoy writing about it! Enter: Marnely Rodriguez-Murray from Cooking with Books.

Over a year ago, I set out to learn more about culinary professionals and the culinary world as a whole. An obvious benefit of this work is getting to know people like me; others that not only love food, but enjoy writing about it!

While I’ve had the opportunity to get to know more about many of them, one of my favorite bloggers is Marnely Rodriguez-Murray from Cooking with Books. As an added bonus, Marnely also has the experience of working in a professional kitchen which gives her the hands-on experience in the culinary world that I often wonder about. I had the opportunity to check in with Marnely some time ago; we talked a bit about how she got started cooking, what it’s like living on Martha’s Vineyard, and her personal food memories.

Foodie Journal: When did you realize that you loved food enough that you wanted to make a career out of it?

Marnely Rodriguez-Murray: I grew up in a household where my mom baked every-single-day, from cookies to brownies and so many cakes! Her passion for baking was always in the back of my mind, but I went on to get my BPS in Hotel Management with a concentration in Culinary Arts (more of a savory cook). At the end of my college career, I learned about The CIA in Hyde Park, NY and decided to make the move and do the AOS in Baking and Pastry Arts. So I went from being a cook, to a baker, to present day AM Sous Chef at Vineyard Golf Club.

FJ: Can you talk a little bit about your first experience in a professional kitchen?

MRM: My first experience in a professional kitchen came not even 3 years ago! As a baker, I typically worked in bread shops and chocolate shops, so switching over to be a cook on Martha’s Vineyard 3 years ago was my first “on the line” experience. I fell in love the moment the first ticket came in (and I also fell in love with a fellow cook, my now husband!)

FJ: Cooking isn’t the only thing that occupies your time. You have a great food site, Cooking with Books, and you also do lifestyle and food writing for other sites. What was it that prompted you to start writing?

MRM: Food prompts food blogging, simple as that. We went on a trip to Las Vegas and ate everything and everywhere. Back home, I needed an outlet to share our experiences, food photos, and thoughts. I had been blogging for 5 years before (personal blog), so thought that a food blog was the perfect way to share!

FJ: You live and work on Martha’s Vineyard — is it ever tough living through high- and low-season?

MRM: Working on MV definitely is like living in a fantasy world! We have 6 months off (October to April) to travel and research (meaning we just eat a lot out!) During the season (April to October), we work 13 hour days, 6 days a week and sometimes more, so I have to be really diligent with staying on top of the blog. 

FJ: So everyone that loves food has food memories that they love too. Do you have a favorite?

MRM: Wow, that’s a tough one. Food related memory: visiting a cacao farm in the DR. It’s surreal to see real cacao pods hanging from the trees and the baker in me squealed when I saw them! Another memory, which was a recurring memory since my Mom made this dish on rainy days back home and it is the ultimate comfort food to me. It’s the Dominican version of risotto.

Marnely currently works as AM Sous Chef & Baker at the Vineyard Golf Club in Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard. You can learn more about her on her phenomenal food blog, Cooking with Books. 

Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolates by Pam Williams and Jim Eber

Over the passed few weeks, my world has been slightly off kilter thanks to the singular word that any lover of food dreads: diet. A necessary evil, obviously, but every time I make the effort, I’m reminded of where my food allegiances lie. While I am an über fan of the savory, when the chips are down, the easiest fix I can find that will keep me out of the clock tower is a simple square of chocolate. No more. No less.

Chocolate can be found everywhere these days. For a quarter, you can get a handful of the candy-coated variety. A little more will get you a full bar. But, does checkout-line chocolate tell the whole story? Think of the work that goes in to chocolate from start to finish, or as Pam Williams and Jim Eber refer to it in their book Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolates, “gene-to-bonbon”. It’s easy to forget the hours of time, effort and money that goes in to producing chocolate regardless of its final form. A few months back I had a chance to speak with writer Jim Eber about where the idea for Raising the Bar came from, what the approach to writing it was, and some of the stories that really hammered home the need for more education on what the making of chocolate really involves.

Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate by Pam Williams and Jim Eber
Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate by Pam Williams and Jim Eber

Foodie Journal: Tell me a little bit about where the idea for Raising the Bar came from.
Jim Eber: The idea was purely Pam’s, who has been in some form of the chocolate business for more than two decades. She has a school, Ecole Chocolat, in which she does classes for people who want to get involved in chocolate making and manufacture at any kind of level. Whether it’s a chocolatier, or whether it is someone who wants to go back to the very beginning, literally go down to the bean and go down to Ecuador, or go down to places in Latin America and see what it is like.

The school celebrated its 10th anniversary in January. Pam thought about all kinds of things that she wanted to do, and she realized that the single biggest thing she could do for herself and the industry that she loves would be to write something that would explain to people what the future of fine chocolate might be.

She could have done a party. She could have done any kind of huge blowout thing. She could have done a big PR campaign but what she’d rather do is put a stake in the ground for flavor because that’s where her future is tied to and those are the people that she loves. She started thinking about this at then end of 2010, beginning of 2011, and I came on board with her in June of 2011 to be her writer. She’s the guiding light and she tasked me with putting this together.

FJ: The title of the first chapter was my absolute favorite, “Twenty Pounds of Cocaine.” That sure is a pretty easy way to catch a readers attention right away!
JE: It’s funny because that’s exactly it. This is written for people who love chocolate, and either need or want to know more, or are in this business and want to help people understand what they do. At the very beginning I was thinking, “How do I get people to read about the genetics of chocolate?” when even people in this business, their eyes start to glaze over when you start talking about it. So “Twenty Pounds of Cocaine” was just the way to point to that.

FJ: It’s a really cool idea, starting at such a base level. How did you approach the interactions with the different people that do this for a living?
JE: That’s a good question. We played with a lot of possibilities. As craft chocolate and manufacture has taken off, the expression “bean-to-bar” has become fairly common right now. Pam and I realized that bean-to-bar is a perfectly logical progression. You start with a bean, you end with a bar, even if the bar is meant for consumers or meant for chefs or chocolatiers to melt down and start doing their own craft.

When we were thinking about that, we said, “Wait, all that’s missing is the very beginning and the very end,” so we decided that gene-to-bonbon … or in Belgium it’s praline, or what we would call in the United States, chocolates. We decided gene-to-bonbon was the way to approach it and we tried coming at it in different ways, like by working our way back. Get back to the center, to the gene, but we said, “You know what? It starts on the ground.” That’s where the deepest lack of awareness is for people who are eating chocolate.

Many people don’t even think of it as a food, let alone something that starts out growing on a tree. We decided to start with the genetics. That was a big challenge because also, it’s the least yummy. You can’t taste the gene. That’s how we decided to approach it, and the real challenge was, “How do we keep people’s interest in the first quarter of the book if we move linearly from there?”

FJ: You mentioned how many different people that you had the opportunity to interview and talk to in writing the book. Is there a particular story from the book that you working on?
JE: Can I pick two?
FJ: Yes, absolutely!
JE: I think they cover the two extremes of what we really want to say. For all the problems that are going in the world of chocolate, for all the things that threaten flavor, the single most important thing to help keep the world of fine flavor growing, and the growth of appreciation and making it like the appreciation of wine or craft beer, is education. It’s the education of the consumer to help them appreciate the differences, and not to denigrate candy. It is simply essential that people understand where chocolate comes from. To that end, there’s one hurdle that people think is education, but it’s not, and it actually comes from a story you see in the first 20, 30 pages of the book. The first story about education has to do with the farmers.

When Brett Beach went to sample that tree in Madagascar, when that “Twenty Pounds of Cocaine” story, when he was taking it out there … we’re talking about farmers in Madagascar. We’re talking about a culture that is not literate. There is not a high literacy rate, and there is not a particularly high standard of living. We are talking about people who, nice as they can be, they’re just not an industrialized nation by any way.

Understanding what genetics are isn’t going to necessarily click, considering that Brett, himself, barely could articulate it in English, let alone Malagasy. When Brett told the farmer what they were looking for, the farmer walked right up to a tree and marked it. That tree was pure ancient Criollo. That tree was right on. It was something that was thought to not exist. They knew that it could, but it was thought not to. It was rediscovered that day. It was thought to be extinct, but he farmer knew exactly what it was.

Education for farmers is about helping them take that knowledge and get the best price they possibly can for their chocolate, helping them with systems that will improve their lives and be a win-win-win for everyone. It only works if you connect it to the second story, which is at the end of part two.

That was a story that Art Pollard told me. Art is Amano Chocolate; he’s out of Utah, has been open for five years, and is a part of the boom of craft manufacturers in the United States. He produces dynamite chocolate, by everyone’s accounts. He has been a mentor to some of the younger people in the business. He tells a story at the in a section at near the end of the book called, “’Cheap Chocolate’ should be an oxymoron.”

There’s no better emphasis than that, than Art Pollard talking about being at a food show with his chocolate early on in his work. A guy came up to him at a hotdog cart and said, “I really liked your chocolate, man. I’d like to buy some. How much is it?” He talked about the wholesale price was for his chocolate to go in there was $15 a pound. This guy said, “Oh my God. I won’t pay more than three.” Art looked at him and said, “I can’t even buy beans for three dollars a pound.” A bean is nothing. Have you tasted an unroasted cacao bean, Reuben?
FJ: Yeah, once. Not something to make regular practice of! Like unsweetened cocoa powder. Very bitter.
JE: Exactly. That’s not chocolate. It’s a bean. There are ten steps before it’s a chocolate bar. Yet this person wouldn’t pay more than three dollars. That story just indicated to me like, “Really? Really? Three dollars a pound is what you’ll pay for that chocolate?” Given the amount of labor and given what goes in to it? So, helping really educate, at both ends of the spectrum is really important, and something I think the stories in this book can do. There is great chocolate being made, and that needs to be appreciated. Once that appreciation starts to develop, then people will see that quality is worth paying more money for. At every level.

You can find out more about Pam Williams and Jim Eber, as well as additional information about Raising the Bar on the Ecole Chocolat website.

Instagramitazation… Yes. I am one of THOSE people.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

While the phrase itself appears to have been coined in the late 1800’s, the idea behind it is a much older one. Put in to simple terms, beauty is subjective. What I find beautiful isn’t necessarily what you will find beautiful. That’s just how it is, and I’m fine with it. The only thing I’d really have a problem with is if you didn’t have an opinion at all. What would be the point in sharing, then?

As you’re all well aware, I’m a lover of food. Because of that love, I am one of those people who enjoys photographing food. My hope is that the vast majority of people that read the words that I put to paper (or in reality, to screen) also happen to be those people who enjoy viewing photographs of food. So to that end, I wanted to share my Instragram stream with you.

The Foodie Journal on Instagram
The Foodie Journal on Instagram

If you’re on Instagram, feel free to give me a follow! I’m glad to follow back anyone that is in to creating a little food porn of their own.

Recovering from surgery…

Hey folks. Hope everyone is doing great. A very sincere apology to you all, but unfortunately I’m going to have to extend my little hiatus for one more week as I’m recovering from a surgical procedure I had done on Tuesday, December 4th. Nothing serious, but enough to have thrown me off by a few days, so there will be no new interview this week. Like I said last week though, I have some great pieces in the works. Four are being worked on now, with two more interviews coming in the next couple of days. I’m still here, alive and kicking, and plan to stay that way for a long time!

In the meantime, make sure to surf through the site a bit. There is a pretty cool archive of interviews and articles that are worth reading if you haven’t yet. Next week, I’ll back back to 100%. Stay tuned!

A zest for the food world: Chatting with Corie Brown from Zester Daily

My favorite drawer in the kitchen is my “gadget” drawer. It’s almost like an adventure hunting through that drawer, trying to find a specific tool while cooking. Part of the fun is coming across an odd uni-tasker and experiencing that “why the crap did I buy THAT” moment (everyone needs a garlic peeler, don’t they??).

One of the more useful tools in my “gadget” drawer is a zester. It’s a simple tool, really. Scrape it against the face of a lemon, an orange or any other citrus and you get a punch of flavor in a pinch. Taking it beyond its culinary functionality, though, a zester can also serve as inspiration for an incredibly great idea.

Several weeks ago I had a chance to speak with Corie Brown, co-founder and general manager of Zester Daily, a very unique site for food, wine and travel enthusiasts with a focus on smart writing (one of my favorite sites to check in on, to be honest). In Corie’s own words, “Our name, Zester Daily, does refer to the kitchen utensil, but not literally. We use it in the sense that we like to get beneath the surface of things in our stories.”

During my conversation with Corie we were able to “get beneath the surface” of Zester Daily to find out more:

Corie Brown – Co-founder and General Manager of Zester Daily

Foodie Journal: So talk to me a little bit about what Zester Daily is?
Corie Brown: It started out with very modest ambitions, but has become much more ambitious as time has gone on. At it’s core it really is a support system for writers, professional journalists, cookbook writers, and really for any professional writer in the food and wine space. What we eat and drink is of fundamental importance to our world, and we choose to write about all aspects of those things. We have a team of editors that help to edit material that comes in from our contributors. While to some that may not seem like a big deal, to writers it really is important. To know that what you’re putting out there really is as good as it can be, it’s a huge service. There is a promotional support system as well to help our writers get the attention they deserve.

FJ: So, what type of response has there been? Have there been folks really looking for this type of support in the food writing space?
CB: Well, it’s just a really difficult time for writers. What we discovered was that this was a service that people wanted and needed. Right now we have 50 writers around the world, and we have this sense of possibility that we can have 50 more. We’ve already got a substantial network, and we wanted to build on that. So we needed a site that would really support that. So that is why we relaunched Zester Daily in its current form. We are indeed very ambitious with what we’re trying to do.

FJ: From the food writers point-of-view, what’s the investment on their end?
CB: Well, we are very focused on being of practical help. I mean, all of our contributors make an investment in the site by putting in the time to write. That takes time and effort to contribute in that way. But, most of our contributors seem to feel that they really are getting more than they give by being a part of the site. So, we’re very practical in our approach to what people need and how to help writers succeed.

FJ: As far as the readers are concerned, how does Zester Daily end up benefiting them?
CB: We are very focused on serving our readers. We’ve come to appreciate that we need to write stories that work for people. We have a loyal following of people that don’t want their news and information dumbed down. In the same way that we are aspirational, our readers are as well. They want stories that help them to understand more about the world and not just, you know, “5 meals in 5 minutes for $5”. We know that stories like that are beneficial at times, but we really wanted to bring our writing up to the next level. So we strive to write for people who are intellectually engaged with the idea of what we eat and drink. We’re pretty excited about it, and we’ve had a great response from it. We have syndication deals in place with Yahoo and with the Huffington Post, and that brings in a good number of new readers to the site.

FJ: I know you’ve won awards for your writing. You’ve worked for the LA Times, for Newsweek, and Premiere magazine. How did you make your way to the food beat, and how did that lead to Zester Daily?
CB: I’ve been a journalist for my whole career and have written about a variety of topics: Nuclear power, environment, and entertainment. I covered Hollywood for many years. After a while I really just got tired of it. I was ready to move on to something new, so when I had a chance to jump over and cover food I was like, “Sign me up! That sounds like a great job!” I feel in love with it.

I always appreciated Hollywood because it was always the small-talk of the world, you know? People who didn’t really have much in common could sit down and talk about American television, movies and music. It really was a way for people to connect. But then with food, I found that same kind of connectivity but on a much deeper scale. People could talk about food in the same detail, but also bring something of their own to the table making for a much deeper conversation. It really was the best beat I was ever on. I loved it.

So when I left the LA Times I found that I really wanted to continue writing about food. I thought, “Well, I don’t really want to write a blog. Everyone has a blog these days.” I really wanted to do something more challenging and interesting, and I liked the idea of creating a collective of people like myself. I managed to find people who thought along the same lines, and that’s how Zester came to be. It’s been fun!

FJ: So why should people check out Zester Daily?
CB: It’s a site that is really easy to find your way around. We hope that people will come and take full advantage of what we have. We have over 1,000 stories in our archives, a lot of really fun and interesting stories that are all original to Zester Daily. This isn’t an aggregation of someone else’s stuff. It’s original content that is fun and really thought provoking. So I’d say come play and enjoy the site!