That’s the name of one of the new videos from Hungry Channel, the Food Network’s new(ish) Youtube channel. Nice to see what one can get away with in the food media world, sans regulations. Make sure to watch with the sound on!
This past weekend, I stopped into my uncle’s new bakery. It’s a Chinese bakery (think bbq pork buns, pineapple bread, egg custard tarts, curry chicken puffs, etc.), located in a Vietnamese mall, and all the baking is done by a bunch of Mexican guys. Hence the title of this post. I spent some time in the kitchen watching these guys make Taro Buns at breakneck speed — each purple sphere consists of a ball of sweet taro paste wrapped in a delicate flaky marbled taro pastry, baked. The skill and accuracy with which these guys (with whom I of course couldn’t communicate given I don’t speak the universal language of the American restaurant kitchen) kneaded the taro dough, molded the paste, and deftly enveloped each taro ball in the light dough, closed off with a twist, would’ve put many a Chinese grandma to shame.
Sorry I’ve been MIA! Having been scolded, I’m back.
Since returning from Spring Break, we started our latest segment in culinary school: Cuisines Across Cultures. In this class, we learn about, and then cook, the cuisine of one “culture” every other day. In between during down-days, we also get to learn about and taste (at least those of us over age 21) wine.
Cuisines Across Cultures is taught by Chef L, who is Israeli and pretty badass. He’s serious, but in a good way. That said, it took everyone (including me) some adjustment time to get back in the groove after our mini-vacation in Baking & Pastry. Gone are the days of casually rolling out dough, waiting for it to rise, strolling down to Starbucks to get a latte, playing with molding chocolate, etc. Back are the days of super tight timelines, cooking 8 things at once, being told repeatedly that my food isn’t salty enough, and walking around with a ton of burn scars all over my hands and arms. Feels like home 😉
Though the class has been good so far (lots of substantive knowledge), the things we’ve cooked haven’t been. The format of the class is such that we progress from the least exotic to the most, at least in some sensibilities, and so we spent the first two weeks cooking our way through Italy, Germany, Austria, and France — sadly, kinda snoozy. The funnest thing was this crazy meat roll, Schweinelendchen im Schwarzbratmantel, of Austrian origin: Take a piece of pork tenderloin, sear it, and then roll it in a mixture of . . . more ground pork. Wrap the thing in aluminum foil, twist up the sides like a tootsie roll (see photo), and poach the crap out of it until it’s completely and utterly flavorless. Serve sliced. Heavens only knows why someone would come up with the idea of taking one piece of pork and rolling it in more ground pork. Sigh.
So that’s why i’m low on pictures. We cooked our way through Spain after that, which was great (4 kinds of tapas, plus paella), so great I forgot to take pics. The one cooking tip I have on that? During cooking, paella should 1) never be covered; and 2) never be stirred. Doing either of those things creates a mushy rice mixture — the last thing you want in classical paella.
As I said, the food has gotten more exotic as class has progressed. This week, we’re on to Africa. Depicted top left: Chicken Tagine (N. African), Black-eyed Pea Fritters (W. African), Grilled Tamarind Fish with Coconut Sauce (E. African), and Stewed Eggplant (S. African). Then, the Middle East. Depicted above: Hummus (shelling chickpeas by hand, one by one, is miserable, but really does produce an ultra smooth and delicious hummus), Red Pepper Walnut Spread, Tabbouleh, Fatoush, Lamb Shish Kebab with Rice and Raita, Dolma, Baba Ghannoush, Spanikopita (turns out there IS such a thing as too much butter on filo dough; prevents the dough from browning), fresh Pita, Saganaki, and Falafel with Tahini Sauce.
Some of you may recognize this word from Forgetting Sarah Marshall. (Quote from the chubby Hawaiian hotel bartender: “I can name a gazillion different kinds of fish . . . including Hawai’i’s official state fish, humuhumunukunukuapua’a. Bitch.”) The chubby bartender is right; the trigger fish, as it’s more commonly known, was previously designated Hawaii’s official state fish. But the locals call it by its Hawaiian name, which is far more fun to say and which, apparently, translates to “Fish that grunts like a pig.” Ha.
That is actually a dumb caption for this post, since it has nothing to do with anything, but it was just too hard to resist. This post, instead, is about Sheldon Simeon, executive chef of Star Noodle on Maui and recent runner-up and fan-favorite of Top Chef Seattle. Stopping by his restaurant was of course a must-do during our trip to Maui, so we popped in on Friday night to scarf down some noodles and hopefully catch a glimpse of him. (With the exception of a ribeye dish intended for two, there is no single item on his menu that exceeds $15. Awesome.)
We were told as soon as we got there that “Chef Sheldon has already left for the night.” We hadn’t really expected to see him anyway — everyone says that a formidable showing on Top Chef changes the contestants’ lives post-competition, and they are thereafter inundated with public appearances and such. Indeed, we’d seen Sheldon’s picture at least 4 times in various papers, magazines, and fliers for various food events during our week in Maui. Nevertheless, we thought it appropriate to console ourselves by ordering nearly everything on his menu.
Depicted here (this is NOT everything we ordered, not even close): 1) Vietnamese crispy creme with shrimp and bean sprouts; 2) Classic tonkotsu ramen with housemade mayou (Asian dark sesame oil); 3) Lahaina fried soup consisting of pork, bean sprouts, and stir-fried chow fun, a Sheldon family tradition made using tapioca noodles, which retains its chew (or, as we Taiwanese like to say, it’s “Q-ness”) even when cooled (and no, don’t ask me why it’s called “soup” when there’s no soup); and the best of all, 4) Sheldon’s Filipino “Bacon and Eggs” made of seared pork belly, fried onions, and a 62-degree egg that was served on a sizzling hot plate. Every single item was amazing. Truly.
Even more amazing? I’m mid-gobble, look up, and there’s Sheldon. Not in his now-signature red cap (from American Apparel, as I learned), but in a blue version of the same. And he is totally cool. Spent no less than 15 minutes sitting with us at the bar and chatting us up, inviting us to come eat his sweet potato leaves appetizer that he’s doing for another food event the next day, explaining to us that the ramen pork bone broth is made from the carcass of the giant pig that we incidentally ate at Old Lahaina Lu’au the very night before (same ownership), and just generally being wholly down-to-earth, humble, friendly, and a really nice guy. He told us that Urbana — the restaurant concept that he’d done for the “restaurant wars” episode of Top Chef — is something he’d genuinely like to do (perhaps in San Francisco!), and that the fact that I work with Off the Grid is “legit” cuz the organization has done a lot for the gourmet street food movement. Yay.
For Spring Break — yes, as a born-again student, I, too, get Spring Break, “chefs gone wild” style — A and I spent 7 days in gorgeous Maui. One of our must-dos was to order a hawaiian pizza, which I have never really been a fan of but wanted to try there because it’s kitschy and dumb and awesome all at the same time. We picked up a large half-Hawaiian/half-meat lovers’ from Pizza Paradiso, supposedly one of the best pizza joints on the island, and while it was good (the Canadian bacon was noticeably less salty), it didn’t do all that much for me. Now that we’re back on the mainland (that “mainland” lingo caught me off guard at first; a grocery store clerk asked me if I was “from the mainland,” and my Taiwanese blood immediately prickled until I realized that he was referring to the continental U.S. and now evil communist China), we’ll likely stick with margherita.
You’ve probably figured out from my title that I didn’t win the Luce competition. Instead, the grand prize (which, as they informed us less than 24 hours before the awards ceremony, was no longer a trip to Aspen Food and Wine but instead some way-less-fun-sounding dinner-for-the-press dinner in New York) went to my competitor Juliet Fine, who admittedly did an amazing job. (Honestly, I would’ve been way more annoyed if someone other than her had won.) I did, however, get an awesome trophy of a 4-inch-tall gold-plated chef, with the plaque captioned: Runner-Up. hahaha.
Of course I’m disappointed. I’m human, and the judges were on camera saying that my meal was the best. But of course there’s a huge kitchen component to it as well, and I undoubtedly screwed up here and there (the 1,076 gnocchi that I accidentally sent to pasta heaven come to mind). Juliet is a far more skilled chef, having gone through multiple culinary programs and apprenticed at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse. So I have no doubt she showed more command in the kitchen. She’s one that I will be keeping tabs of…
Regardless, the Luce competition was truly one of the most amazing experiences in my life — definitely up there in the Top 3. A year ago, sitting in my office and reworking a class certification brief, I never in a million years would’ve dreamed that I would have the opportunity to open a Michelin-starred restaurant, have its amazing staff, kitchen, ingredients, wines, etc., at my disposal, and serve a 3-course menu that I had personally conceived of, to the public. And that so many of my close friends and family got to personally taste my food at its very best.
No regrets, far from it. Thanks to all for your support!!