an offally good update

Foie gras bruléed with fruit gelée @ freshlocalandbest.blogspot.com

On 11/26/2008, I posted this brief proclamation of my distaste for the vasty majority of offal. I don’t think I realized how bold was the title I envisioned at the time! Or ignorant. As my first commenter pointed out, it’s downright wrong to lump foie gras with other organ meats. Along with caviar and truffles, foie gras belongs to gastronomy’s Holy Trinity of foods, hallowed ground for the aspiring culinary professional. This is my public apology to the food gods for failing to recognize the greatness of foie gras. While I’m personally not completely sold on it, having worked with it and learned more about it and tried it some more, I am beginning to see why people swoon for its silky, rich, my-oh-my buttery goodness. Most recently, we played with it in class, pan-searing the liver and serving it on top of pumpernickel toast with a coulis-type sauce garnished with fresh raspberries. While 9 times out of 10 I’d rather have a damn good burger than a bite of foie gras, I knew that dish was wicked made. And along those lines, being a cook is not about liking the foods that you “should” or that other people, be they Careme or Escoffier, tell you is where it’s at; but about constantly exploring what’s out there and then making those decisions for yourself.

Note to those who have heard of the practice of gavage, by which ducks are force-fed to fatten their livers prior to harvesting: check this video out:

Anthony Bourdain visits Hudson Valley Farms, one of the two leading foie gras producers in the U.S., talks to a vet, and discovers that ducks ACTUALLY LIKE GETTING THIS TUBE OF DELICIOUSNESS STUCK DOWN THEIR THROAT. It is NOT an act of animal cruelty. They don’t have the same anatomy as we do, and as painful as gavage might sound to us, it is anything but that for the ducks. As Bourdain sees for himself, the ducks in fact enjoy having this metal rod inserted down their throat, are so visibly eager for this pleasure that they will shove and crowd into line when the feeder approaches. Gavage also happens (not entirely by coincidence) during the period when ducks naturally begin fattening up for their winter migration, and thus doubly appreciate this delectable dose of food being “forced” upon them. So if you’re one of those people who may have been misinformed about how foie gras is made, I encourage you to re-evaluate your stance and join the not-so-dark side.

Clash of the titans

I’m working on a couple bigger posts, but in the meantime, an hors d’oeuvre, if you please: Frank Bruni’s recent op-ed in the NYT, “Unsavory Culinary Elitism.” Bruni takes on a pretty volatile interface, that between food and class, as he points to a recent clash between two food world titans that “exposes class tensions in the food world that sadly mirror those in society at large. You can almost imagine Bourdain and Deen as political candidates, a blue-state paternalist squaring off against a red-state populist over correct living versus liberty in all its artery-clogging, self-destructive glory.”

Bruni puts Anthony Bourdain on the chopping block for his characteristically blunt and unflattering remarks about Paula Deen, and rightly so, even if Bourdain did have a point, as he usually does. Paula Deen does not help matters by skirting Tony’s apparent concern for her audience’s health, as she seems more intent on landing a low blow of her own. Perhaps she skirts it because there isn’t really a good reason why “regular families” need to add ridiculous quantities of butter to the food they cook at home…though maybe it’s because only then would home-cooked food be preferable to the fast food burgers these families would otherwise be gorging on? I don’t know. But instead, as Bruni points out, with her rhetoric Deen turns the argument into a class issue by targeting the very comfortable perch from which Bourdain speaks. Not that her own perch isn’t just as peachy.

This spat between Bourdain and Paula Deen is exactly that, but the differences in their worldviews when it comes to food does well illustrate the sort of class divisions that Bruni is getting at. The antagonistic and hostile quality of their remarks is reminiscent of the “ill will and polarization” of our politics at large. As we all know, these sorts of petty remarks (“her food sucks”) don’t help the greater public health issue that is at stake and at the heart of this discussion. Neither person seems particularly wed to the cause, but because they are such influential figures in their respective circles, what they say and how they act will reverberate. As people in power, both would do well to spend more time embracing the responsibility to act and speak thoughtfully and less time abusing the privilege of having an open mic.

Thoughts on Kitchen Confidential

Having finally, triumphantly, finished Middlemarch, I decided to read something lighter for a break from the heavy duty stuff.  Kitchen Confidential was the first book I thought of, and given my natural interests in books, food, and the restaurant industry, I’m surprised I didn’t check it out earlier.  Once I started reading, I barely stopped until I was finished, feeling compelled to continue even in an intoxicated, spicy nacho-ed out state.  The last book I remember devouring this voraciously was Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.  While not a suspense thriller, it is nevertheless thrilling in the sense that it often invokes horror and disgust.  I think KC borrows a lot conceptually from Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. Both are composed of experiences of and reflections on life on the margins.  Both find great, rich material in the characters and circumstances the authors encounter, and for both, description is key: infusing details with vitality and significance, whether it is the size of a rat or the flavor of fresh pasta.  They also share a similar, straightforward narrative style, not nonchalant, just no bullshit.

For Bourdain, life as he knows it seems to start with the taste of his first raw oyster in France, which opens up a lifetime of adventure, chaos, and belonging.  His tales are entertaining, and for a food-interested person, the specificity with which he discusses dishes and ingredients is an added bonus.  But the book really is about his journey of self-discovery — and in all its fucked-up craziness, there are, one must concede, discernible slivers of inspiration, ambition, and passion.  And aside from his excessive fondness for the phrase “such as it was,” the book is inoffensively written, even lyrical at times, as when he compares the innumerable, overlapping scars on his hands to layers of an ancient city.  One of my favorite parts of the book is when he discusses the kind of bantering that filled the kitchens where he worked.  Vulgar would be a timid way to describe the kitchen talk he describes.  Every other word is “dick” or “fuck,” usually followed by [insert minority of choice].  But, he points out, the verbal spewing really is only chatter, a sort of patois — in the kitchen, as long as you can hold your own, it doesn’t matter what you be, who you are, your criminal record, your citizenship status, your sex preferences — all that matters is that you can do your job.  Chances are, everyone around you is a misfit, too, as arguably only a misfit would willingly endure the hellish quality of life that comes with working the line.  A misfit, or someone demented enough to follow a dream.

Along the road, Bourdain also offers insider tips on restaurant dining –i.e., what not to order (seafood on Mondays, steak well-done), what things are pre-cooked or rip-offs ($8 garlic bread)– and hates on many a food celebrity.  It appears that the likes of Sandra Lee and Guy Fieri are a plain embarrassment to food culture, criticized perhaps for taking food too lightly, in his eyes.  Part of me agrees that food lacks meaning, or something like gravitas — and I, too, abhor Sandra Lee’s food personality, though for different reasons.  But surely we can’t all exalt food the way he and his brethren do, and can ill-afford to, in terms of time or money or emotional investment.  In recent weeks I’ve been wary of the extent to which I prioritize food, even idolize it, I suspect, and regular readers will probably have intuited the effects of this recognition on my blogging output.  It’s sad but true that for most people, many waking hours are spent trying to realize, and then maintain, a balanced appreciation for it, an appreciation that is susceptible to the cyclical and seasonal nature of our lives.  For those of you who identify with what I’m saying, know that you’re not alone, and that acknowledging the struggle is not an admission of defeat, that we are all, like Bourdain, on our own twisted paths of self-discovery.

Just read please

Dear reader, know that this post will not do its subject justice.  Nevertheless, I am compelled to share my first, though by no means my last, foodie encounter with something very special.

A few weeks ago, another ETA urged me to watch Anthony Bourdain’s travel show “No Reservations: Hong Kong.”  As fate would have it, our institute is located within an easy bus ride away from not one, but two of the restaurants that the show features.  Below is the clip from the show about both these places.

I discovered I had already been to the first one, a restaurant specializing in roast meats, and had left underwhelmed.  Always one to give others a second chance, I did go back after watching the episode and ordered exactly what Bourdain did — roast goose and suckling pig — with better results.

The highlight of Bourdain’s trip to Hong Kong, however, is without a doubt the noodle shop that he visited directly after his roast meats experience, conveniently located only blocks away.  This to me was the larger prize, in part because I have never been a “noodle person”.  When given the choice, I almost always go with rice, largely because that’s just what I ate growing up.  Up until the last couple years, my run-ins with noodles were primarily restricted to instant ramen, delicious but artery-clogging beef chow fun, and the occasional bowl of soup noodles.  With Chinese food, I also generally view carbs as supplementing a meal rather than being the star of the show, and rice seems more open to taking a back seat, in that sense.

The show also makes clear that this noodle place is not just any old, run of the mill noodle establishment but the home of a dying art form: handmade bamboo noodles.  The cloyingly sentimental tone of the feature aside, perhaps we all know something of the beauty that Bourdain describes, one rooted in the mortal quality of great things.

Eager to experience the hype of these noodles for myself, I had previously attempted to seek out this place, but failed miserably.  It doesn’t help that the show makes little effort to put a name to a face.  Luckily though, a friend of the hardy sort proudly announced that she had tracked down the name of the place.  Armed with that, in addition to sky high expectations, a trio of us set out to finally give this place a whirl.

We stepped inside Tai Po Cooked Foods Centre with direction and purpose.  The place was promptly found by said friend, and we grabbed the table closest to the kitchen to watch the maestro at work.

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I couldn’t help but smile broadly upon noting his presence.  Yes, he had no idea who I was, but I felt a strong affinity for him, especially after learning of his extreme dedication to his family and craft.  The cheesy music and overly dramatic script of the show became afterthoughts.  I instead latched on to his gentle mien, his sure, precise movements, and the quiet confidence he exuded.  Even before our noodles came, I felt sure they would not disappoint.

We ordered and within five minutes, our noodles arrived.

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And they were nothing short of unforgettable. The minute I slurped them in, all I could think of or feel was the incredible interplay between the ungodly springiness of the noodles, the creamy, pork lard coating bathing them, and the shrimp eggs that added nuttiness to every single bite. The noodles were cooked to absolute perfection: chewy and light, heaven’s gift of a vehicle and an excuse for transporting the savory pork oil into ma grande bouche. One mouthful was all it took to realize I had never tasted anything like this before, with the centuries dedicated to perfecting this dish infusing every dusty corner of my palate.

We got seconds.

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And I could’ve kept going, restrained only by the thought of ‘next time’.  Toward the end of our second plates, the man himself stopped by our table and suggested that the noodles would be enhanced by a spoonful of vinegar.  We enthusiastically followed his suggestion, and just when I thought things couldn’t get any better, you bet they did.  The slightly tart/tang kick from the vinegar opened my t-buds to new worlds, elevating the dish another dozen or so notches.  I only wish he had stopped by sooner so I could’ve enjoyed both my heaps of noodles doused in vinegar.

Here he is preparing haw fun noodles:

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Though sad to leave, there are few times I left a meal feeling so content, privileged, and excited at the prospect of coming back.  His signature noodle dish is without a doubt ridiculously delicious, but it was the completeness of the experience that made it quite extraordinary.  From before the start to after the finish, this was one foodie’s dream meal come true.