Friday, February 5, 2010

All over the place

This blog entry, like most everything for me right now will be... All over the place.

It has been a while since I've sat down to write. The excuses are many. Tomorrow, tonight, this weekend when I have a spare moment. Days turns to weeks and so on. So much has happened in the last few months, good and bad, and any spare moment I have to write is quickly overtaken by the urge to lay down recharge for what's to come.

If I was to only choose a few of words for my life during the last part of this year they would be: Pressure, Inspiration, and Motivation. And like a good game of "Rock, Paper, Scissors" each word has its strengths and weaknesses.

Let's start with the pressure.

The pressure is an everyday thing and to be honest, I couldn't live without it. I don't know life without the constant looming questions of "How are we going to pay the bills this week?" or "What are we going to do to keep the customers coming back?" I thrive off the hustle and I take pride in always managing to make it happen. To me 2009 was "The Year of the Hustle"! The pressure forces us to keep going. To find a way. But there is a different kind of pressure that hides in the back ground and shows itself as doubt. It's the doubt that slows you down if not stops you dead in your tracks. It's not long before the doubt leads to questions of worth and place. What am I doing? Where am I going? The fortunate thing however is that while pressure leads to doubt, and doubt leads to questions, the next thing to come along is the search for answers.

It was in the search for answers to those questions that I found the "The Inspiration".

Whenever I'm feeling stagnant I begin looking for some sort of light. Something to light my way through a dark time. I didn't really know what I was looking for but I knew what was behind me.

Inspiration doesn't always just show up when you want it so this last year saw me seeking out some planned inspiration and it came in the form of the fundamentals.

In my searching I came across many people. Some showed me a thing or two, some told me a thing or two, and some just looked at me funny. I was learning something. Then, out of the blue, I was fortunate enough to meet a very special person whom to my surprise was very honest with me about their place in the business, where they'd come from and where they were going. A pro. A gifted artisan. And now, I'm proud to say a friend. In one sentence this lovely person was able to turn my search for inspiration and direction into straight Motivation.

"Guy, I hate to break it to you but I have a feeling you're ten steps ahead of where you think you are right now." (Thanks, GDeP)

All this time I had been looking to others for guidance and technique but not looking at the person who could take me to where ever it is I'm trying to go. Me.

So what's the difference between Inspiration and Motivation? For me "Inspiration" is about believing but "motivation" is all about the doing.

In the words of Jay-Z "It's, about, to go, down!"

This year started off with me being handed a pretty little package and this spring I will find myself in a very familiar yet equally foreign environment. The days will be long, the challenge will be great, and the payoff will be a combination of the three things that I've fought with for so long. Pressure, Inspiration, and Motivation all balled up into what I'm sure will be one of the most memorable months of my life.

Chefs, you know that little bit of excitement you get when you run your knife along the steel? The sound of the knife resetting its edge. It enters your ears and moves down your spine and is almost electric. That's what I feel inside now as I go forward. If you've felt it you know what I'm talking about and if you haven't I hope you some day will.

For us, in the restaurant world, every day has us or someone around us doubting their decision to do what we're doing. Maybe over the pre-shift coffee or the post-rush beer we'll sit down and tell our kitchen-mate that we just don't know if this was for me. Maybe we'll be listening to someone say it to us. This work is a choice and for some it's the right one. For others its temporary. I can honestly say to you that I don't think I've chosen this life. I think IT has chosen me.

I'll keep you posted on my trip as it unfolds. Tickets are bought and arrangements are made. For now I want to leave it at that. Maybe I don't want to Jinx it. Maybe I'm a little nervous.

What I will say is that a very special person has pushed me along these last few months whether she meant to or not. Please check out her site The Cowgirl for a Cure Foundation. Instead of asking for help she's out there helping others like her while at the same time holding the torch for her craft in the kitchen everyday.

That's all for now. Sorry for the delay and untill next service, Stay Hungry everybody! ~G~

Saturday, October 17, 2009

La Porchetta (From blog Sept 09)

I originally wrote this post for my friend's blog at on September 23, 2009

This September marks twelve years since I first stepped foot onto Italian soil as a teenager looking to find my heritage. Little did I know that over a decade later I would just be scratching the surface.

As the years passed I learned to speak the language and I opened my own Italian restaurant that is your typical red sauce joint with big pasta bowls and loud Italian music. My trip to Italy as a teen was quickly becoming just something I did a while back. A collection of fun stories to tell the customers over dessert.

Then about a year ago, around the same time I was celebrating the eleventh year since I had first gone to Italy, the economy took a dive and took many of my customers with it. The realization set in that I was in danger of losing my restaurant and I would have to cut back to make ends meet. How would I stretch out what I had? How do I compete with the big chain restaurants? How would I survive?

Sitting in the empty dining room after closing I racked my brain for ideas. Looking at the black and white picture of my long lost Italian family I began to imagine them and the romantic stories I had told time and time again to my guests. Stories of turn of the century poverty and the food that sustained them through the decades. That's when it hit me. So much of our heritage has been centered around survival during tough times. Now in some poetic way my own personal survival would depend on me learning about the one thing I had been chasing down my entire life. My roots.

The last year has been the toughest and most exciting year of my professional life. By turning to my friends and family both in Italy and in here the states I have been reminded of the basic principles of my Italian heritage in relation to cooking; Don't waste anything, and don't take short cuts.

Over the past months I have poured over cookbooks new and old. I've made countless calls to Italy with recipe questions. I grew my own vegetable garden. I've even began learning to butcher the cuts of meat I serve to cut costs and maximize quality.

These ups and downs have pushed me to better understand my roots as an Italian American and as a chef. I have a new found pride in my work as an extension of who I am and an appreciation for those who over the many years have brought a perfection to the traditions born from struggle. To be Italian is to understand and appreciate the craft of the artisan!

So here I am a year later. I'm at work on my day off trying out another recipe that is new to me but has been around for centuries. I share my triumphs as well as my failures with my customers who now wait patiently for my next lesson in Italian Culinary Tradition. And you know what? The effort has paid off. Now I have an edge that the other restaurants near me just don't have. The customers know that what comes out of my kitchen has my passion behind it, and that my friends is very specifically ITALIAN!

One dish that has worked well for me over the past few months is La Porchetta! This is a relatively inexpensive dish that is delicious in both flavor and presentation.

Arnone's Porchetta

5 lbs Pork Loin- butterflied (have your butcher do this)
6 feet butchers twine. (ask your butcher if they've got any in the back. Usually they're pretty cool about giving you enough for the meat you've purchased.)
1 lb ground mild or hot Italian sausage
1 fennel bulb, centers removed and chopped
1 bunch fresh spinach - steamed and set aside
1/4 lb Prosciutto
2 Tbls extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper

Pre-heat oven to 425 degrees
Steam your spinach and set aside to cool.
In a large hot saute pan add the olive oil. Add the fennel and saute until soft. Add sausage to the fennel and mix with a slotted spoon until the sausage is cooked. When done, use the slotted spoon to remove the sausage and fennel and leaving any excess grease.

Lay out your pork loin on a flat surface. Season with salt and pepper. When cool enough to handle evenly spread the sausage and fennel mix onto the loin. Next, lay the spinach on top of the sausage and fennel followed by the prosciutto.
Now comes the hard part, rolling and tying the loin. It's always good to have an extra pair of hands the first time you try this.

The best you can, roll up the pork loin. Once rolled up use the butcher twine to tie it tightly together every inch or so. Take any filling that may have slipped out the side and simply stuff it back in the ends.

Place the rolled and tied Porchetta on a baking sheet and place in the oven for 35-40minutes or until the internal temperature reaches 140 degrees.

Remove from oven, let rest for 15 minutes, cut the strings, slice and enjoy.

Viva La Porchetta and Forza Italia!


Monday, August 24, 2009


The times, they be a changing.

I find myself, as many of us in the restaurant business do, in a strange time. What was the way we've always done business a year ago is now just not enough. Those busy nights bookending the weekend, for some of us, are gone. Those little extras that made the final plate or were given away as a token of thanks just aren't in the budget. We've said goodbye to coworkers and didn't get a chance to say goodbye to some customers. They just couldn't make it in as often and just faded away. The last year has forced many of us to change the way we do business. We've had to cut out some things. We've had to do some things that we just didn't want to do to keep the doors open. For every restaurant that has hung on this long there are three more that didn't make it.

So what's a guy supposed to do? I've got a restaurant that people enjoy, a good crew behind me, and for the moment the doors are open. I lay awake at night fighting it out in my head. Is this what I want to be doing? Should I pack up and move to a bigger pond where I know things are jumpin' or do I stick it out as long as I can. Do I run a happy hour? Two-fers maybe? Do I sell out completely and put out a coupon for one last rally before the restaurant grim reaper shows his face? HELL NO!

The answer for me was to keep things consistent. Give the regulars what they want. They're the ones that help keep my restaurant open. So how do I help them out? How do I make it easier for them to keep coming in?

The Change would have to be me. My dial would have to go to 11.

I have spent a good amount of time, (and this blog is proof), looking to other chefs for inspiration. Watching entire cities out class mine in food culture, knowledge, and ingredients. I'd watch my customers eat their Fettuccine Alfredo with glee and wash it all down with a Root Beer and a smile. I couldn't be mad. They asked for it and I gave it to them. "If only things were different. If only I was somewhere else." Can't sell the place, no one is buying. Can't go back in time, time machine is broken. I was kicking the can big time.

The goal was simple. Stay open. But how? We'll get through this together and watch each others back. Sounds a bit aggressive I know, but shit, this is my livelihood. I sat down with my family and they were all behind me. And Chef? Thank god for Chef Luis. He straight out said, "I'll stick with you till that last day." And there you have it. Time to start scrapping.

The change would come in the form of us doing what we do but now even better. That one dish we did a year ago? We'll do it again but better. That one thing we've been wanting to do but haven't? We'll do it now. What's that? They don't have the cut of meat I need? Tell me what part of the animal it comes from and I'll cut it out myself!

We'd rally the troops and tell the locals that it's ON at my place. Get there early and come hungry. While the guy across the street gives his customers an endless pasta bowl and the lady on the corner gives away sliders, I'll be giving everyone the only thing I know how to give them. My energy, My passion, My love for what I do.

Sounds all good and exciting, right? The problem at hand was that my skill set wasn't as deep as my enthusiasm. No one was going to knock on my door and show me how to do new things, I would have to teach myself. I've spent the last months pouring over new and old cookbooks, asking questions, calling in favors, and arranging for weekend lessons in the meat department of a market I once worked at.

It was in changing the way I do business that an unexpected change began to happen. In changing the way I do my job I have changed my attitude, which in itself broke the roof off the possibilities that I had limited myself to. I will make of this what I will. If I want to learn something than I will. If my customers don't know what they're missing then I will show them what they're doing up the way, across the pond, or across the street in the barrio.

So far it's working. The customers love the thrill of the surprise. They don't know what I'll do next because I don't know what the hell I'm doing half the time! When it works it works. When it doesn't we learn from the mistake and make it work the next time. Customers have begun talking and now they're asking what's for dinner? Along with me they've become a bit more adventurous. I tell them what I'm learning and how. For them its an experience and that in itself is why people go out to eat. For the experience.

If I do all of this and it still doesn't work out at least I'll know that I got everything I could out of it. This downward swing that has affected so many in horrible ways has pushed me to better myself. It has been a year of changes. Some for the worse, some for the better.

Stay Hungry, Guy

Special thanks to Judy Witts of and @davinacucina on twitter. Your blog, recipes, and emails have been a big help and my customers thank you.
Thanks to all of the Chefs who have taken the time to answer all of my questions. Check them out on twitter. @Ginadee @linecook @Coreynead @Cookerguy

Sunday, June 28, 2009

It's in your blood, now what?

It's 3:45 am and I'm awake. My mind is racing. I can't stop thinking about salami, sausage, and panchetta. I try to roll over, get more comfortable, but the thoughts just go from tasting it to making it, from cooking it to selling it, from people enjoying it to the colors of the walls in which a dream Salumeria would be. Yeah, it's official. "It" has occurred. It's in my blood now.

I was talking about the change with my girlfriend a while back and she asked a very good question, "When did 'It' happen?"

The "It" as I call it is hard to describe but those who have experienced "It" know exactly what I'm talking about. I picture something like a werewolf morphing from man to beast or a vampire taking in his last sunrise before entering into the world of the night. Too extreme?

Now I'm not referring to just being in the restaurant business. Many of us work or have at one time worked in a restaurant, be it front or back of the house, and almost all of us have some kind of affinity for the restaurant life. Some of us will be referred to as "Lifers", a jail like term referring to those who spend their entire working life moving from one establishment to another, flipping the eternal burger or serving the immortal A-hole customer. While I don't like the term "Lifer" I use it because there are those people whom it fits perfectly.

What I'm talking about is the It
IT noun- the change that happens to some of us who at one time had perfectly good goals, dreams, and direction but instead chose something we found to be much more important and rewarding.

For me there wasn't one moment that I can pinpoint the change happening. For me it seemed more like adolescence. One day you have a few zits, a couple of heartbreaks, five or six fashion mistakes, and then one sunny afternoon you're an adult and you don't remember how you got there.

I was well into the restaurant business and enjoying it. I had worked in many both in the kitchen and on the floor and was now running my own with my name on the sign outside and everything. The family restaurant my father and I had talked about for years was a reality and now we would take shit from no one. Not a bad little thing I had going for me.

It wasn't long before the worry set in. Did they like their meal? Would they come back? Will I be able to sell enough to pay the invoice? What if someone calls in sick? What if everyone calls in sick? Do I really know what I'm doing? I had cooked before but for survival and not enjoyment.

Then it happened. Friday night, getting ready for a dinner service. I check the reservations, nothing scary. Just the usual deuces and four-tops with a couple of sixes and sevens and a big table for my cousins and grandmother. In came the first couple of tables and soon we weren't just in the weeds but the entire restaurant was in the shit big time. Every table full with a wait outside. Orders coming out slow, the soda machine just ran out of ice, customers tired of waiting are leaving, and it's attack of the relatives at table twelve.

The servers were getting their stride back and the ice had found it's way back into the glasses. The only thing backing up was the dessert station. Imagine looking at a table of four, wine glasses almost empty, napkins over one leg, table clean with everyone happy except for the one house wife with a sweet tooth waiting for her dessert. Got the picture in your head? Now picture that table next to a window with four more hungry people standing outside looking at you, then at them, then back to you. I look over to the kid on the dessert line and he's just looking at the tickets with his head cocked to the side like a puppy.

Not having the time to explain the economics behind turning the tables I decided to go into the kitchen and help out. I approached the cold station then took a step back and looked at myself. I was wearing slacks, beautiful shoes, and nice dress shirt. "Shit!" Not wanting to ruin my new shirt I stepped back and grabbed one of Chef's coats, an apron, and apologized to my shoes for what I was about to put them through. Within minutes I had made a dozen Canolli, plated half a dozen tiramisu, and scooped some screaming kid's spumoni. With the dessert rush over it was time to start making appetizers for the next turn. I turned to Chef whom I had know for years at this point but never cooked with. He gave me a simple nod and a smirk as if to say, "There's no getting out of here now. Buckle up, get through service, and welcome to YOUR restaurant".

That was the turning point. This was my restaurant and I needed to know it all. The next morning I was in extra early. I had taken the chef's coat home, washed it, and claimed it as my own. I was first in that morning and began asking the questions. Poor Chef. Honestly, I knew when I put the chef's coat on it wasn't coming off. I've been the first one in every morning almost every day since.

Fast forward a year or so and I've got the menu down. I've been in the weeds and clawed my way out. I was feeling pretty comfortable. Then the voices start in. What's next? What else is out there? How could this be better? How can I change something for the better that isn't broken?

That's the "It" I'm talking about. It was too late. It was in my blood stream and I was pissed!

For a little while "It" sent me into a depression. Here I had a restaurant that people truly enjoyed but I felt held back. I knew my potential and there wasn't much I could do to improve. Maybe I had made a huge mistake?

I felt very isolated until I stumbled across other people with the same enthusiasm on a grander scale. Young Chefs, working hard, taking chances, making mistakes, and talking about it. Chefs like Richie Nakano(Linecook415) and Corey Nead of Nopa in SF. They're doing great things in the kitchen (I've eaten their food. Go there) and they talk about what keeps them pushing forward. Now a chef talking about himself is nothing new but it's guys like them and countless other chefs and cooks that I've met through social networks that prove that the "It" exists. They're not afraid to tell you how they did something. No attitude or temper tantrums. No ego.

This is "It". There are others out there that believe in what they're doing besides a paycheck or a photo op and it excites me. So now instead of kicking the can over the same menu that people love, I'll make it better. Make myself better. That's how you know "It" has happened and there's no going back now.

Chef Richie Nakano and Corey Nead cook at NOPA in San Francisco.
Check them and other cool food industry people by finding me on twitter at @Guyarnone and check out my list of people I am following. There are some great Chef's, Food Photographers, Foodies, and other industry people out there just like me and you.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Every Sauce Has Its Story

I was five years old when I was first invited by my father to participate in making "The Sauce", but let's back up a bit.

It seems that every Italian American has "their own sauce" and it's always better then yours.  It is generally a Grandmother's recipe and it might contain a countless combination of ingredients including but not limited to ground pork, ground beef, pork ribs, pork neck bones, sausage, wine, no wine, tomato paste, no tomato paste,(if you get the "aggida" then you're best off skipping the paste).  

Not only do we stand by our family recipes but we plant the flag of our origin into the sand like Columbus landing on the West Indies.    Siciliano, Calabrese, Napolitano, we all have our very special sauce and a very deep pride in its preparation.   

It was in this preparation of "The Sauce" that I found myself captivated as a child.   Like a magic potion it was prepared without measurement.  The base ingredients added by sight and taste along with key words that just make me laugh now that I work in a professional kitchen.  
"A little bit of this.  A handful of that.  Not too much of that.  Sprinkle it on till there's a nice layer".  Nice layer?  How much is a nice layer?  

Once everything is added it's time for the stirring to begin.  "Keep stirring it!" Dad yells.   "I'm stirring it!" I scream back.   "He's stirring it!!" shouts a distant voice from the somewhere in the house if only to taunt Dad and add to the anxiety of the room.

Then there's the positioning of the lid.  This is the most tense part of the recipe and much importance was put on the lid and its placement.  

"You have to put the lid on at an angle!  Not all the way on or it will BURN!"  Dad would say while looking deep into my eyes as to permanently ingrain this information into my soul.  He would also inform everyone in the house of this rule in case they felt the urge to taste the sauce without asking.  If the lid is off the sauce will reduce too fast, but if left on all the way the heat will burn the sauce causing a bitter taste that will never come out.  This has only happened twice in my life time, the worst being Christmas Day 1992.  You never forget when the sauce was burned.  It is a waste of a day, causes my father great stress and anger, and is a general sin against God.  

So now that the ingredients are in the pot, it's been stirred, and we've all been scolded for something we haven't done yet, (or something my Mother hasn't done since Christmas Day 1992), we wait.  You see the wait is the worst part.   Once the sauce heats up the smell fills the house almost immediately but it will be hours until you get a shot at tasting it.   

Sound familiar, Italian-Americans?  I bet it does.

While my family recipe may not have the same ingredients as yours it does share something with all versions... The story.

When I went to Italy for the first time I was shocked that there was nothing like my family sauce anywhere.  Even worse, they gave you pasta in little bowls not the giant ones we eat our pasta in at home.  The reason for this is that in Italy pasta is the starter, where as in turn of the century America pasta was all many of our Italian families could afford.   The recipe was never written down because you never knew what you would have from week to week.   My family's sauce has more water in it then most, not because it was authentic to its Sicilian roots but because my great grandmother had to stretch it out amongst her eight children.  Now what was once the only thing they had to eat has become our heritage.

Within each changing recipe is the resourcefulness of our ancestors making their way in a strange place.  With every taste is a little snapshot of family dinners past.  In every twirl of pasta there is a father teaching their child how to hold the fork, (and spoon).    Our different recipes handed down by memory is our way of connecting with the past and tasting the same flavors as those who came before us.  A real tangible way to touch the past.  

I see this now in the food I've been introduced to by my co-workers from around the globe.  Their flavors are little pieces of home.  Tiny windows to their own past and longing for home. 

So the next time you lay out your ingredients to make a nice pot of Sunday Sauce, take a minute to remember who taught you and how you're going to teach those to come.   And if you're so lucky to have them around, tell them thank you for teaching you how to do it because no one can make it as good as them.   

So here it is.  My family's sauce.  It's not the best. It's not the most Authentic.  And its been changed over the years.  But for me it never gets old and it's what has pushed me down the path that has led to an amazing life. 

The Arnone Family Meat Sauce  ~ feeds 4 - 6 people or 3-4 of my relatives

1 Sauce pot with lid
1 240z Can Whole Tomatoes
2 150z Cans Tomato sauce (reserve cans)
16oz Pork Neck Bones or County Style Pork Ribs
1/2 Onion diced
2 tbsp Garlic Salt (plus some to taste)
1 tbsp Pepper (plus some to taste)
1 tsp  Sugar
2 1/2 tbsp Italian Seasoning or (1 tbsp Died basil,  1 tbsp Oregano)
Pinch crushed red pepper

Put whole tomatoes in Sauce pot and crush with your hands.
Add tomato sauce then fill each 15oz can with water and add to pot.
Add dry ingredients until a nice (layer) is formed
Drop in pork.

Stir and put on high heat until sauce comes to a boil.  Reduce heat to low and place lid on at an angle so that the steam is able to escape and the condensation is returned back into the sauce.  

Stir every 15 minutes for 2 and a half hours.   Enjoy with what ever pasta you prefer. 

Buon Appetito!!

Monday, May 11, 2009

That's why

I take a look back at the reasons and expectations I had for the restaurant before it opened and laugh at how different it all is now.   Not just what I thought it was going to be like but how different the things that I want out of it are now.   What was supposed to be something to do has become every thought in my head.  What was to be someone else's show is now my circus to sell.  I am such a different person now with such different wants and directions.  And with every new thing I learn comes an equal and a seemingly more difficult obstacle to overcome.   The day ends with almost certainty that I will say to myself just before I lock up...   "Why am I doing this?"

My passion has become this restaurant life.   I want to do it better than anyone else.  I spend any free time I have trying to learn a little bit more, a little bit more, a little bit more.    And the more I learn the further away I feel.  The knowledge needed is endless and the motivation is not.  

I can write about the long hours and other hardships but much better writers have done that much better than I ever will.  

What I will say is that I'm in the Spaghetti and Meatball business.  A "red sauce joint" it's called.  It is what it is,  a restaurant that people are slowly but surely are coming to love.   It is what I and many other people in this world know Italian restaurants to be.  Pasta, red checkered table clothes, "That's Amore" playing in the dining room.  I am told that the food is great but I can't help but want to push it a little more.  To show the people what they're missing.  You see I love what I've learned and I want to show this to the people I've met.  But there is a one small problem,  not everyone wants to learn.    What they want is their fucking Fettuccine Alfredo.     What I have established is a good thing that I, at times, get pretty tired of.

I travel to San Francisco as often as possible to see my girlfriend and there I get to see these places packed with young people interested in food.  Excited about that new ingredient or by some chef's concept they line up to have a taste.   I see people that care on both sides of the counter.  In a hurry I come home and run to blank stares at the local produce store when I ask them if they have ramps.  "Handicapped parking is on the end of the building" the clerk tells me.  That's when I know I'm home.  There's no food culture here.  There's dining out.  There's good food.  There's no food culture.  And I am stuck in the middle of it.  

Imagine knowing that The Beatles exist but you can only get your hands on the Dave Clark Five.  That's where I live in the food world.  

Which leads me to ask myself,  "What am I doing here?"   I've thought about leaving for Italy for a while to learn.  Or maybe I'll move to San Francisco and work my way up in a good kitchen.  Really put myself into the scene head first.

Then yesterday something happened.  
Mother's Day.  People are all dining out yet not thrilled that they have to do it with their families.   A young couple with two small children came in for dinner.   As kids do they grabbed the forks and knives and began banging them on the table.   So I go over there to see if there's a way to defuse this bomb and when I get to the table the mother tells me that her child is Autistic.  My inner monologue tells me, "You know what, Guy,  let this one slide."  I listen.

I call in the order to chef with instructions to get the food out fast.  Front of the line.   They eat, I check on them once or twice and all are happy.    They all get up and we wave goodbye, "Happy Mother's Day!" I say with a smile.   Before he can reach the door the father comes back and puts out his hand,  "My kid never eats.  He's never eaten like this before.  Your food is really good."   Then they left.  

 So I guess that's why I do this.    

My restaurant might not be everything I want it to be but I can be confident that what I do is good.  I know that my food however simple it may be is good.  I know it when my regulars sit at the bar and share their day with me.  I know it when people choose my place to celebrate a birthday.  

I can't make my place all of the things that I want it to be, but you know what,  it couldn't be anything else.   A meal is 10% what's on the plate and 90% who's in the seats around you.   

I do this because it's my job and I have to.  I push myself to learn because I want to.   And in doing the things you have to do you find the things you want to do.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

How the does your garden grow?

The restaurant's beer and wine cooler broke and wouldn't cool down causing bottles to either explode or freeze over.   So as I wait for the repair man to come in on a Sunday evening I'll talk about tomorrow and Day 1 of...    My summer garden.

I've purchased many packets of seeds to start what I am hoping will be a nice Italian garden consisting of;  Basil, Oregano, Mint,  Broccoli Rapini, Beets, Red Onions,  Red Onions of Florence (my Godfather in Florence was pleased to hear of this selection) Roma tomatoes, Italian sweet peppers, Peppercinis, Serrano Peppers,  and Tuscan Kale.

There has been a big push on television and in the cooking community to go Organic and the starting of family "Recession Gardens" as a way to save money on produce.   

Great ideas but not why I'm doing this garden.

Written about 50 years ago but still applicable to today's foodie.   He's an Italian immigrant from Tuscany who speaks of the American food scene and the American's ability to , even in hard times, not know what hard times really are as our supermarkets have such selection that almost anything can be obtained regardless of the season.     He writes (and I'm paraphrasing), the purpose of life was to understand how hard it was to sustain life.   He goes on to talk of his family garden and eating only the few things that would grow where he lived.

 It was this that I have been trying to put into words for some time in my own work with food.  Everything has it's trends and the food industry is no different with restaurants that feature either organic and/or seasonal menus.  Organics and Seasonal menus are nothing new, however it is only now that the terms have become easy buzz words for restaurant P.R. to get asses in the seats.  After all,  before World War II there was nothing other than organic.  Now that people are realizing some of the chemicals found in processed food aren't the best for you there has been a swing to organics propelling stores like Trader Joe's and Whole Foods into the forefront offering natural alternatives.   

In cities where the food culture is at a higher level you find restaurant featuring 100% organic menus purchased from local growers.   I find this truly fantastic but the practicality of it all makes me wonder.  What about the salt and pepper?  That organic too?  Who churned that unsalted butter, Virgins?    

I would love to feature a seasonal and organic menu but my surroundings prevent me from doing so.   New York and San Francisco have no problems getting their hands on some fennel for tonight's salad, but here in Orange County try and find enough stock to feature it for 200 to 300 covers without braking the bank.  There's just no market for a truly seasonal menu in my neighborhood regardless of the money that is still in these hills.  Even then, if I offered it I'm not sure that my target clientele as a whole are food savvy enough to order it.  

In Pelegrini's book he writes of eating seasonal because that's all you had to eat.  You didn't eat tomatoes in the winter because they didn't exist.  You grew what you could in your surroundings and ate things when it was time, usually with the bland flavorless bread of Tuscany that gets its non-flavor from the lack of salt, (a recipe resulting from a centuries old feud with the Pope's salt tax).   

My godfather in Florence, Silvano 66 years old,  spent his early childhood under the occupation of German soldiers and the later part of his childhood in the poverty of what was post war Italy.  On Christmas Eve a few years back I traveled to Florence.  We sat after dinner eating mandarin oranges out of a large box.  One after another.    But instead of throwing the peels away he would hold them in his hands, smelling as he called it "il purfumo".  To him the mandarin orange was a magical thing.  Later he explained to me that as a child his brothers and sisters all received only one Christmas gift each, a mandarin orange.   I tell this story to my customers and try to stress the importance of the mandarin orange as so rare in that part of Italy at that time of year that just the smell of the citrus was gift enough, even for a 5 year-old boy.

So in an attempt to better understand the business in which I find myself becoming more and more consumed I begin planting a garden.   From the Italian deli near me, Claro's, I've purchased what I think is a good starter kit of seeds.  Then it's off to Home Depot for the supplies.  I'm starting from seeds and not starter plants as to really get a feel for the time and effort it takes and hopefully by Labor Day I'll be able to treat the family to a nice late summer feast of home grown organic produce.   I'll try to post pictures of the progress for anyone who cares.  And if you have tips, well, send them my way.  If I don't take them, well, don't be upset.  I'm just stubborn.  

Ci sentiamo,  G