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

Is there anyone out there?

My name is Guy.  For the last five years I, with my family, have owned and operated an Italian restaurant in Orange, CA.  My first restaurant job came when I was twelve as a dish washer then bus boy.  From then thru college there was always a restaurant job in there somewhere.  

Now, the more time I spend in my own the more personal improvement I seek.   I follow other restaurant, other chefs, other cities, and I am becoming more aware that my surroundings dictate my progress.  

Is it that people around me don't know or don't care?

These are the answers I'm looking for.    I'll do my best to keep it on topic but if I stray I do my best to keep it interesting.