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The proverb goes: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. However, I wasn’t given the option. God knew I’m a rebel and I refuse to follow the masses. God respected it, and so instead of the above mentioned yellow, über tart fruits, he/she handed me… onions.

VERY FUNNY, GOD! I HOPE YOU’RE SHAKING UP LAUGHING ON YOUR FLUFFY, LAMB-SHAPED CLOUD UP THERE.

On my very first day at ANIMAL I was given a task of chopping onions. Thirty (30) of them. Each one to be peeled and diced into 1/4″ cubes. Roughly, because who’s measuring, right? Next, I was to caramelize the bunch, cool it, and store it away for the dinner service later that night. Shallots followed, twenty of those, with a tiny cut adjustment called brunoise. It’s a fancy French word for a VERY SMALL FOOKING DICE. (1/8″ cube to be exact, but again, who’s running around with a ruler!) Have you ever tried that? No, the French did not mean you MINCE the bulb, because that would be too easy, and sloppy, but precisely BRUNOISE them. End of story.

Three weeks later I still begin every morning at the kitchen with at least twenty onions on my chopping board turning them into a bowl of tearsome dice one head at a time. I got really good at that, thought I did not expect working at the restaurant to be that emotional. Sniff-sniff.

Luckily, during my time with the restaurant’s crew I did more than just improve my knifing skills. In a true ANIMAL spirit, I’ve seen a ZOO pass through their kitchen. Let’s pause for a moment and take a look at the menu before I move forward.

Once seated at the table, one can start with a CHICKEN LIVER TOAST, and then push it with CHICKEN HEARTS WITH LIMA BEANS, BABA GHANOUSH & YOGURT. If that doesn’t bring your testosterone levels up, there’s MARROW BONE WITH CHIMICHURRI & (my!) CARAMELIZED ONIONS available at your request.

All that is just a happy meal for your toddler when you juxtapose the starters against other treats on the menu. How about some PIG TAILS “BUFFALO STYLE” or PIG EAR WITH CHILI, LIME & FRIED EGG? RABBIT LOIN WITH COUNTRY HAM & SUCCOTASH introduces you to game I myself am a big fan of. Like the CRISPY RABBIT LEGS WITH MEYER LEMON AIOLI where the meat is so tender it melts in your mouth as fast as that cliché comes to mind.

There’s more, but you get an idea where ANIMAL comes from, and where it goes for that matter. In the morning hours of prep, I witnessed beheading of an octopus; I assisted at an autopsy of hamachi fish; I deboned smoked trout, and cooked and cleaned sweetbreads (calf’s gullet that is, and not a bread of any kind). Oh, yes, I butchered a bunny as well.

As macabre as it sounds, it’s just nature that feeds us. When plated at last, all the meats are simply fabulous. The food is the reason I chop those onions endlessly without as much as a bleep, so I can get up close and personal with the process and techniques. The kitchen is organized impeccably. Operations run smoothly like in a well oiled apparatus. The crew is friendly, professional, and welcoming–from day 2 I felt a sense of camaraderie. I haven’t met everybody yet, since I’ve been working the morning shift thus far, but beside the bosses, the TWO DUDES, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, there’s Frank and Rebecca, there’s Carlos and Dan, there’s Jose and Gaby, and there’s Raymundo.

The local legend says Raymundo was a surgeon in his native Mexico, and one day was summoned to operate on a drug lord. He butchered the surgery deliberately thus eliminating one of the top mobsters from his home turf. Consequently, he was forced to flee his country, and that’s how he got to the U.S., and became a cook.*

At least that’s what the legend claims, and you know what they say about legends, especially those very local ones…**

Raymundo has since worked with some of the biggest names in the industry, like Mario Batali to name one, before he laid out his knives in ANIMAL’s kitchen. I told you his story for I am about to share with you one of his recipes, and I want you to be able to fully recognize its value. Also, this is to show that ANIMAL is more than just the flesh and bones. Those bi-weekly trips to farmers’ markets happen for a reason. It may come as a shock but there are a few vegetarian options on the menu as well. Raymundo’s recipe would be one of those:

RAYMUNDO’S TOMATILLO SALSA (proportions adjusted):

- 5-6 tomatillos, husk off, washed and quartered

- 1-2 jalapenos, keep seeds of one for heat

- 1/2 tsp cumin

- 1 tsp red wine vinegar

- juice of one lemon

- pinch of salt

- handful of cilantro

- 1-2 garlic cloves, smashed

Place all ingredients in a food processor, or blender, and give it a solid whiz. When liquified, cut small pieces of a ripe avocado and sink them in the salsa. Drizzle a spoonful of the goods all over fresh burrata. Finish with a few sprinkles of sea salt (muy importante).

That’s how it’s served at the restaurant. However, at home, I loaded my plate with butter lettuce first, thus making a bedding for my burrata and salsa, and added a few ribbons of red onion for color and whole cilantro leaves for fun. A drizzle of good quality olive oil is an option that will bring everybody together, just like the Olympic games do.

You think that’s not enough for a dinner? Think again. Neither Jason nor myself had any room left even for a single chocolate chip cookie afterwards. You MUST try RAYMUNDO’S TOMATILLO SALSA. It’s to die for. (No pun intended.)

* + ** All names, dates and places have been altered in order to protect the lives and privacy of the people involved in the story. All characters mentioned and the story itself may or may not be fictional and have plenty or nothing to do with reality.

Even when it seems that nobody’s home and things get eerily quiet around here, like minutes before sunrise, don’t think for one second that I lounge with my bum buried deep between soft cushions of a couch and scratch me some balls. On the contrary, I’ve been out and about cruisin’ and schmoozin’. As a result, just the other day, I met Susan Feniger of STREET, and then Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo of ANIMAL, another wildly popular restaurant and one of LA foodies’ favorite.

A close friend’s birthday celebration brought me to a dinner table at STREET, where Susan poked her head in between us to say hi and offered her menu suggestions. I couldn’t help myself and launched across the table over a timidly flickering candle, barely missing my friend’s wine glass, in order to shake Susan’s hand. My impetuous plunge landed me right in front of our chef and I came just shy of kissing the woman. I looked up in terror, prepared to be escorted out of the venue at once. To my astonishment, after my less than graceful entrance, chef Feniger was simply delightful, all smiles, and generously opened her door to me whenever I am ready to commit some time in her kitchen. Woot-woot!

ANIMAL is a whole different animal. If you’ve been hanging around here for a while, you may remember me mentioning PIGGING OUT at the place just a few short months ago. To this day I have vivid memories of their BACON CHOCOLATE BAR (go ahead and click the link to see the chefs in action) that haunt me whenever I’m craving a dessert. I was so impressed, in fact, with the food and the entire concept behind their restaurant that I finally got my act together and approached chefs Jon and Vinny directly. I prepared a speech, and drove down Fairfax with candy up in my sleeve ready to bribe. I asked for a job, the non-paid kind, an apprenticeship.

My wish was granted even before I finished telling my long and windy story with a trembling voice and sweaty hands. I couldn’t believe how easy that was. And just like that, at 8 o’clock the following morning I was tucked in a truck along with Jon Shook and his right hand Frank heading down to Santa Monica Farmers Market in order to get fresh produce for the restaurant.

Farmers are the only providers of produce and meat for ANIMAL’s kitchen. “It’s all about the love” I was told. How classy? How elegant? And how honest an approach to making food and conducting business in general that is? Think about it. As a customer at a fine dining place you don’t want to be served some cheap rubbish full of chemicals and genetically altered by mad and corrupted scientists. As a restauranteur, you don’t want to cheapen your final product  by using crappy produce of vague origin. Also, by shopping local not only do they support their farmers, but also minimize their carbon footprint! And yes, they recycle at the restaurant as well. I was shown separate containers for food waste, trash, and then paper and metal. One of the staff members takes away all the plastic bottles they collect in a month and takes it to a recycle center.

Need I say more? I’m in love. I can’t wait to join the 2 Dudes, as they used to call themselves, and their team, and see my inner dude come out and play. Did you take a look at that video I told you to click the link to? The Bacon Chocolate one? Go ahead and do it again, this time paying close attention to the chefs’ surroundings. You see that kitchen they’re making the bacon candy bar in? From now on, a few times a week, this will be my office, my lab, my classroom, and my playground. It is going to be a fun and rewarding ride, and you bet I will be writing about it. Looks like we got a green light for Season 2 of my Restaurant Diaries. Woot-woot indeed!

Last Friday I sat down with TOP CHEF Season 5 finalist, Stefan Richter, at his LA FARM restaurant here in Los Angeles.

We first met about three years ago when I was still working in the sales department of a moving company. I came over to Stefan’s tiny cottage (one room with an attached kitchenette) in Santa Monica to give him an estimate of a moving cost. I knocked on the door and was greeted by this bald guy, who on top of his accent spoke so fast it took me a few minutes to adjust and to understand him. Talking to Stefan, in fact, is like playing racquetball. It requires reflex and focus. His words, like the ball, shoot out with such speed that they bounce around all over you, on the floor and against the walls. If you want a fair game, you better pick up your racquet and hit back. Otherwise he’ll talk you to death.

When I began to turn around in his apartment (again, it was the size of a shell of a pistachio, so to say that I WALKED AROUND would be an overstatement) one glance at his wall brought instant shivers to my back. There was a set of SHARP and SUPER POINTY KNIVES attached to a magnetic rack mounted above the sink in his kitchen. I had no clue what his profession was at the time, mind you. All I knew was that I was writing down an inventory at a stranger’s bedroom feeling the bald guy’s breath on my neck (have I mentioned the size of that place?) while from across the room the knives watched my every move, patiently hanging on the wall. And then he started flirting with me.

Ten minutes after I left, Stefan called me to ask if I was married or if I had a boyfriend. He made me laugh.

GIVE ME A GOOD PRICE AND I’LL MAKE YOU A VEGAN DINNER AFTER I’M MOVED. WE’LL CELEBRATE.

I jacked up the price and booked the job. The dinner promise was never fulfilled, but we did become friends and raised a few toasts together after all.

Many rivers have dried since those days. I am no longer a vegan, and funny enough now I cook for a living myself. Stefan went on the TOP CHEF, got a national recognition, and soon after opened two restaurants in Santa Monica, CA – STEFAN’S LA FARM and STEFAN’S ON MONTANA. He also has a book deal and a clothing line coming up later this year called COCKY CHEF CLOTHING.

Mirror Reflection

It’s been almost a year since I saw him, and when I arrived at LA FARM last Friday all that past time went out the window when I heard Stefan’s:

SR: Hi Agi. You cut your hair! WHY?

AG: You no likey?

SR: I didn’t say I didn’t like it. I prefer long hair on a girl.

AG: Yes, you’re very traditional in certain aspects.

As it was the lunch hour, the place was slowly getting busier and appropriately louder, hence we made ourselves comfortable at the private section of the restaurant – an elegant and quiet banquet room.

Banquet Room at LA FARM

First, I wanted to understand what being a chef meant to him:

AG: Stefan, tell me what makes one a chef, beside schooling and/or training.

SR: Go to restaurants. Try their food. See what you like.

AG: What does make one a good chef?

SR: Look at the restaurant. Is it busy or not? That’s the deal. It’s not just about being a chef. It’s about being smart. It’s a business, too.

AG: Do you still enjoy cooking?

SR: Of course, I do.

AG: Do you cook every day?

SR: Yeah.

AG: Do you ever cook at home? Does your refrigerator today have anything else beside beer in it?

SR: Nope. I don’t eat at home.

AG: What is the hardest part of your job?

SR: People. Dealing with the employees.

Dealing with Employees

AG: Apropos, I talked to one of your employees. He said it takes a thick skin to work for you, but at the same time he’d never seen anyone cook like you do.

Stefan would never admit he enjoyed the compliment, but I did see a shadow of a smile tinkering in the corner of his eyes upon hearing it. I asked nevertheless:

AG: How do you feel hearing that?

SR: I couldn’t give a shit. I don’t care because this is business and people have to understand that. If I’m running a business, and my business doesn’t make it, they’ll all go somewhere else. They’ll get another job. If I fuck up this business, what am I supposed to do? Go back to Finland?

AG: You were doing pretty well on your own, before the show, before the restaurant. Your catering business is still thriving.

SR: I know, but still. I’ll look like an idiot if I lose this restaurant.

AG: So how is the business?

SR: It’s great. It’s been nine months. We do 240 lunches on average, 180 dinners.

From LA FARM's menu

AG: How is STEFAN’S ON MONTANA different from LA FARM?

SR: MONTANA is simple, local. It’s inexpensive here as it’s inexpensive there. Main course here, Steak Frites is $17. You’ve got to be smart about it. The economy is bad.

AG: What’s your favorite cuisine?

SR: I don’t know. Let me think about it for a second. I don’t have a favorite one. I like everything. I love food. I love to cook, anything. That’s why I do it for a living. By the way, isn’t it funny? Look at my wine rack. There are two different bottles in there…

…And just like that Stefan gets distracted as his ADD gets the better of him. When he rearranges the bottles on the shelf, I manage to get him to sit back on his tuchas for a few more minutes. I wan to know if anyone else besides me sees the similarity between him and another chef, über famous British star Gordon Ramsay. Both are hyper, cocky and swear like … chefs. I’ve been watching Ramsay’s show called THE F WORD…

SR: Like fuck? (laughing)

AG: Like food.

SR: A lot of people don’t realize that it’s a normal thing in a restaurant business. There’s an old saying: if you can’t take the heat, stay away from the stove. If you want to be in this business, you have to shut the fuck up and deal with it for a while.

However, unlike chef Gordon who says anyone can develop and train their palette, Stefan is convinced it’s a talent one must be born with. “You either have it or you don’t.”

Beside the passion for making food and European heritage, we don’t have many things in common with Stefan. The more so was I surprised and pleased to learn that he gives a damn about his carbon footprint.

SR: I only have American product – American meat, American wine and beer. The economy is bad in America. Why would I bring shit from Europe and put a carbon footprint out on something on top of that?

AG: Where do you get your produce?

SR: I get California produce, so I go to a farmer’s market. Certain farmers drop off their tomatoes here, their potatoes, etc.

AG: What’s next for you?

SR: I’m writing a book that I have to finish by the end of the year.

AG: And what’s the name of your ghostwriter? (laughing)

SR: No, for real, I’m writing it myself. Do I have an editor that will go through it and correct it later? Absolutely. But I am writing it. I started it about 7-8 years ago.

AG: So tell me about the book.

SR: It’s about my life – stories, recipes, bullshit. Every chapter has a recipe.

And some day, down the line, he also “wouldn’t mind a couple of kids with the right person”. In the meantime, it’s all about business.

AG: Are there chefs you look up to, someone you would consider a mentor?

SR: Not really. Do I think there are great chefs that I respect? Absolutely. Jean-Georges [Vongerichten], Thomas Keller… They are great business people. But do I look up to them? I regard people with whom I have valuable business.

AG: At last, but not least, what dish would you recommend to my readers if they wanted to make an easy and yet gourmet meal?

SR: Risotto. If you have a date make a risotto. It’s easy and you can make it vegetarian or with meat. There are a lot of options.

Stefan at his kitchen at LA FARM

I left the Finnish chef at LA FARM and I headed over to his other restaurant, STEFAN’S ON MONTANA, to check out the new, local breakfast-lunch-and-dinner joint.

In front of STEFAN'S ON MONTANA

When I was bending over the menu trying to snap a photo, an older gentleman approached me, and inquired if I was anybody’s friend at the place. “I’m friends with Stefan Richter.” I offered to which the man reached out his hand and introduced himself (and his wife sitting nearby with their dog) as the co-owner of both restaurants.

Later, I texted Stefan:

JUST MET YOUR PARTNER. FUNNY, YOU NEVER MENTIONED YOU HAD ONE. A LOVELY MAN.

To which Stefan replied:

Text Message from Stefan

Followed by another message from chef Richter a few minutes later:

YOU LOOKED GOOD. NICE BUTT. JUST A COMPLIMENT.

Many things he isn’t. You can’t expect to have a deep, existential debate with Stefan. He is one opinionated guy and will offer his point of view on any matter in the world. Most of the time, however, it’s just a fluffy cloud of clichés and one liners with no substance. One thing he is though is his business. A typical only child, he doesn’t know how to share himself, his attention, his time, unless it is beneficial for his affairs. People either love him or hate him. While the first admire his confidence, the latter are put off by his cocky attitude. Whichever way you see Stefan, he is a greatly talented chef and a successful businessman.

I’m quite certain we’ll be hearing more of Stefan Richter in the future. In the meantime, someone get me a cocktail. I’m exhausted.

Bye, bye, Year 2009. You have brought us many changes, moments of overwhelming joy … and sheer terror. (Remember the Mashed Rutabaga with Cauliflower?) I have discovered my pyromaniacal tendencies and started to play with fire in the kitchen on a regular basis. Knives excite me just as much.  Bring it on, Angelina! Who knew? All that led to turning our house into a science lab of food making. There have been plenty of experiments (steaks from a toaster oven is just one example), and so far Jason hasn’t complained.

We have serious reason to be concerned about the future of our kids on this planet (Koyaanisqatsi), but there’s still hope with the growing trend of getting fresh produce from local farmers (Feeling Peachy) and turning to alternative energy sources. We can get healthier with every bite of real food we put in our mouths and what we feed to our offspring. Preparing hearty meals with a variety of vegetables is not that difficult, and never boring. Every time I look at the photos of the Butternut Squash Risotto I made for dinner one night, or my Brussels sprouts on a Bed of Quinoa with a layer of Caramelized Onions, I experience such intense drooling that Jason is inclined to run for a stack of towels to cover the floor around me.

Do you want to hear about the best part? I lost about 15 lbs over the last year WITHOUT DEPRIVING myself of any food. There’s no diet plan, no counting calories, NO STRESS! Sometimes I may overindulge a tad, but who wouldn’t when served those scrumptious Veggie Balls over a bowl of Spaghetti Marinara? Duh! I eat whatever the hell I am in the mood for, and whenever my tummy screams HUNGRY. I hate fast foods with a passion. I avoid processed food products like the plague. However, I am on good terms with a bit of butter here and there. Cream poses no threat to me either. There are no sweets lying around the house, but it doesn’t mean I won’t occasionally get in the car and drive to the bakery for a piece of crunchy pastry when the craving strikes.

What I wish for myself, and for every single one of you, in 2010 is to live more in balance with Nature, stress less, laugh louder, breath lighter, and to age slower. Also, let’s not forget to bring the inner monkey out to play more often.

May all of us see a major shift in the collective consciousness and finally learn how to live symbiotically with Mother Earth so our kids and future generations get to experience the joy and innocence we were granted when growing up.

Thank you for being a part of my 2009. I hope we’ll be able to share and interact more in the upcoming year, and beyond.

HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYBODY!

Hurry! Hurry before the summer really is just a sweet, sunny memory. . The scorching heat is behind us, true, but if you open your windows, spread your arms wide and look up, your face will still get a big fat lick of energy from our Brightest Star. Hurry!

As October makes itself more at home with each passing day, there are also fewer varieties of sweet luscious fruits at the Farmers Market to be found. Bummer. Even though I’m bursting with fruit flavors for all the fall apples and pears, I wish I could somehow capture the sweet joy of peaches we devoured this past season.

PEACHES

If you HURRY, you may still be able to grab a few juicy peachy balls from the last supplies of an orchard. And while you’re there browsing the stands of fresh, organic produce from your local farmer (hats off for the love he delivers in those crates and boxes), snatch a bag of iron and calcium rich spinach, a couple of pinkish shallots and run home to check your stock of pine nuts.

I’m going somewhere with this, I promise.

As I’m pondering how to segue from the tour at the local Farmer’s Market to your kitchen, Cosmo checks on me occasionally (You know, the usual editing stuff – typos, orthography, syntax – he’s alert!) from his office.

Cosmo on desk

I won’t beat around the bush any longer. Today we’re making a Spinach and Grilled Peach Salad. Empty your shopping tote and align the following suspects on your kitchen counter:

-       2 Peaches

-       Spinach (6 oz. bag, more or less)

-       1/2 cup of toasted pine nuts

-       3 slices of pancetta

-       White Balsamic Vinegar

-       Extra Virgin Olive Oil

-       1 Shallot (the rest you can keep for later)

-       Salt + Pepper

How do you like the ingredients so far? Can you put it all together into a perfect salad just using your imagination? Can you taste the sweetness mixed with salty bites of Italian bacon, all wrapped in a smooth symphony of White Balsamic Vinaigrette? No? Then go ahead and grab yourself a grilling pan and heat it up, while you seed your peaches and give each one a wedgie – eight to ten per fruit, to be precise.

You also need your nuts toasted, and for such a small amount, I wouldn’t bother the old fat oven if I were you. Just spread the pignoli flat on a sheet pan of your toaster oven, or – if there’s a lack of such – use your loyal buddy, the frying pan. It will take circa 5 minutes (maybe 7, but that’s pushing) and only 2-3 on the pan for the guys to be all tanned and happy. The minute you smell your nuts, it’s time to get them out. (I can see where your mind is heading. Do NOT even go there!)

Your grilling pan surely is scorching hot by now – a perfect surface for the slices of pancetta. Let the fat melt away while the bacon gets crispy. Next, remove the brittle slices and set on a paper towel to get rid of the extra grease and let the guys chill.

Onto the same pan, throw the wedges of your fruit and spread in one layer. Let them sit flat for a couple of minutes until the heat breaks the body and you see grill marks on one side. Flip each one over and give it another 2 minutes or so. Turn off the heat and set the peaches aside to cool as well.

Before you relocate everybody into a bowl, you want to shake up the vinaigrette first. Mix two parts of olive oil with one part of white balsamic vinegar, add a finally chopped shallot, big pinch of salt, a smaller pinch of black pepper, and whip it good. Better even – drop the potion into a blender, and let it take a ride on a rollercoaster.

Bowling time! Into a glass bowl, toss the spinach, drizzle with just a touch of your vinaigrette, and mix until the greenery is all coated and smiling brightly. Now gently place pieces of grilled peaches on top, sprinkle with crushed chunks of cooled pancetta, bring in the pine nuts, and sprinkle all with another few drops of the White Balsamic Vinaigrette. Like a gentleman, toss everybody around, carefully, softly, easy…

Spinach

The salad is ready. Picture time! Enjoy the view, as it won’t last long after you dive with your fork for the first taste. Do you get it now? The sweet and savory fixed together in the mist of sweet and tart vinaigrette…Mmm.

Are you hungry yet?

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