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December is that time of year when everyone from Average Joe to Plain Jane hasten their steps in an attempt to find closure. Whether it’s personal matters like cleaning one’s teeth and de-cluttering their house, or a business deal that must be closed before the clock strikes midnight, all tasks are to be accomplished or else everything will turn into a pumpkin patch and Cinderella will run away barefoot.

The same commotion rules our house these days, hence my seldom presence in this cyber neighborhood. I’ve been meaning to sit down and tell you a story of a certain encounter, and a chat that followed…

Last month, while helping chef Fullilove shine his bright culinary light on LA food enthusiasts at the Test Kitchen, I ran into Ani Phyo, the raw food chef extraordinaire and author of four un-cook books. I think she’s working on her fifth now.

It’s funny how it happened really. All covered in flour dust while cutting beet pasta into long ribbons of vegan tagliatelle, I noticed this woman hanging around in the room, speaking gently on her cell phone, trying to be as non-intrusive as possible. Her voice I found very comforting and calming. Yes, I have a thing for voices. It turns me on if it strikes the right tone, and I don’t mean in a sexual way. At least not this time.

I digress.

The woman looked familiar, but I couldn’t match the face with a name in my head. She greeted us, asked about the pasta with an excited spark in her eye, and I couldn’t help but notice the voice again. Have I mentioned that I have a thing for people’s voices? I had to say something! Graciously she accepted my compliment and exited the room leaving nothing short of a shimmering glow behind. I saw her around over the two days I spent there, me working on Jason’s thing, her prepping for her event the following week. It wasn’t until I heard someone mention the name “Ani” and the word “raw” all in one sentence when it hit me.

I’VE GOT HER BOOK IN MY HOUSE! I’VE SEEN HER YOUTUBE VIDEOS. I KNOW WHO THE WOMAN IS!

Phew!

Ani Phyo in the kitchen of the Test Kitchen with Top Chef Alex Reznik.

Next thing I know, I’m stalking the poor gal around the kitchen premises hoping to score a short chat with her. For this blog. For YOU! Of course, it wasn’t the time nor place for it, so we settled for a phone conversation after her menu tasting at the Test Kitchen in mid November. However, Thanksgiving got in our way and it wasn’t until maybe last week that my phone rang at the precise time Ani said she would call.

I had a roster of questions I planned to bombard Ani with, but you know how it is. A conversation is a living creature, and so, as to be expected, it took us on its own ride. To begin, I wanted to know what was Ani’s definition of RAW FOODISM. She made it very uncomplicated by describing raw diet as fresh, whole foods made with ideally locally grown and organic ingredients.

“You can make a simple and delicious tomato and tarragon bisque straight from the blender. Or you can cook it, but that takes it longer and makes it more complicated” she explained.

Back in the day, when my eating habits were all over the map for reasons other than health, I went through raw stage myself. I read a ton about the diet, and learnt how complex and time-consuming its preparation was. Foods should be either completely raw or cooked in temperatures not exceeding 118° as to save the metabolism-boosting enzymes captured in the produce. Grains should be soaked in water for extended lengths of time in order for our stomachs to be able to digest them. If you wanted to get different textures you would have to dehydrate and/or powder some of your veggies. It wasn’t a diet for someone who works 10-11 hour days and wants to have a social life on top of that. Thank god, I lived in NYC back then where I had a raw food restaurant just a few blocks up, and a deli with fresh fruits and veggies cut and packaged daily for my convenience. My refrigerator stood empty for the entire five years that I was in Manhattan.

The memories of that period came back to me now, with Ani on the other end of the cable, and so I asked her about that whole process. Shockingly, she wasn’t very excited about dehydrating the food herself since in the process you lose, you know, the water. Then you need to drink it separately, and why would you do that if you can get both in one. Most of her recipes can be made very quickly, as she pointed out, using only a few kitchen essentials like a knife, a blender,  and a food processor, which I found stamped as little picture icons next to each recipe in her book, “Ani’s Raw Food Kitchen“.  Speaking of the book, its cover presents Ani about to take a bite from a raw sandwich she’s holding in her hands. That thing looks so incredibly appetizing. Every time I glance at the bookshelf, I want to rip it off the page, lick the paper, and bite into the binding. I can TASTE it just by looking at the damn thing. You must check it out!

The idea of raw foods instantly whisks me away to tropical lands abundant with fresh produce… and sunshine! Would it be wise and practical to switch to an all raw diet for someone who lives in an area where winter comes and slaps you in the face with its snow falls and damp weather, I asked next?

“You can add heating ingredients, like chili pepper, or ginger to your food. However, everyone is unique and must listen to their body. I lived in Portland for four years, where it rained a lot, and my hands were constantly cold. I don’t know if it was good for me that I ate raw there. It depends on a person. Just listen to your body, and if you feel like you need something warm, eat something warm.”

Here’s where I really started falling for that girl because… she’s rational. She encourages people to stay healthy and live balanced lives as opposed to following some strict rules that lead to extremes.

“If you want to make changes in your diet” – Ani suggests – “start with whole ingredients.” (Meaning unprocessed, organic produce.) “Have gratitude, educate yourself and make choices based on that knowledge. Living a whole and balanced life is not only about the food, but also about your attitude, creating a strong bond with your community, giving back, and having gratitude.”

Having heard all that I couldn’t help but wonder: does Ani Phyo, the sexy queen of raw food movement, cheats on an occasion with what she consumes herself?

“Oh, yes, I cheat sometimes. How crazy do you want to get?” she asked laughing. “I love quinoa. I like tempeh, too. Just the other day, I wanted something warm, so I cooked myself a bowl of lentils. And sometimes, when I get the craving, I stop by Veggie Grill and get a veggie burger. And you know what, I have wheat intolerance, and I know I will have a stomach cramp and I will feel bad for a day, and I may even break out. But once in a while, if I want it, I just have a veggie burger.”

I was in love. A normal gal, sane, with all the pieces of furniture neatly organized in her head. It’s all about balance, people. Extremes never work long term and too often lead to eating disorders, which I myself learnt the hard way. Ani also admitted to having lived hard core raw for a decade, and today she realizes it wasn’t healthy for her.

So what does her day look like today food wise? She starts with two, three smoothies in the morning. She’ll blend blueberries, cashews, water and lecithin into a creamy drink and have it for breakfast. For lunch she may have a big green salad since she likes to work out mid day. After breaking a sweat, she may enjoy another smoothie while her metabolism is rolling. Dinner meal could be a bowl of lentils, a wrap, a salad, whatever strikes her fancy. Kelp noodles is something she raves about for a great addition to a salad.

When on the road, and she travels a lot, Ani always carries with her a bag of goji berries, nuts, maybe nori wrap or dried sea vegetables to nibble on. A banana, an orange and some peanut butter also travel well and help her get through parts of the country that don’t offer a wide array of fresh produce.

Ani Phyo's Raw Kale Chips

In the end I got all girly on her and dug for her beauty tips.

“I don’t put on my skin anything I wouldn’t eat, since it gets absorbed through the pores and gets into my blood stream. I use hobo oil to moisture my skin. Or coconut oil. I just rub it all over. I smell like a piña-colada and I love it. However, in winter I use hobo oil, because it sinks into the skin faster.”

Make-up she uses sporadically, not on a daily basis. Ani’s OK with mascara in moderation, not to be extreme. And if she uses eye shadows, she chooses spirulina based cosmetics.

All in all, it was such an inspiring exchange. Ani is gracious, laughs a lot, and takes herself lightly. Her beauty comes from within first. It’s her healthy mind and body that allow for her charms to express themselves in the physical form as well. She’s delightful to be around, and I hope for another chance in the future.

Feel free to visit her website and direct any questions to her via her Facebook fan page. That’s the best way to get a hold of her, she says.

In my next installment, I’ll include photos of the foods Ani Phyo wowed the crowds with at the Test Kitchen back in November. Stay tuned.

Months of anticipation, weeks of preparation, two days of hard work, and now it’s all over with. My two days at Test Kitchen with chefs Jason Fullilove and Seth Caro were not only educational, thrilling and satisfying on so many levels, but also those two days in the freezing kitchen (an oxymoron, true nonetheless!) turned simply into a big family event.

There was an army of us helping chef Fullilove present his big guns, his culinary creations. Despite the stress and long hours with no food (the cobbler’s children walk barefoot) there was a sense of camaraderie and thrill among all of us. When I first saw the menu penned by Jason Fullilove I thought out loud:

HE’S SUCH A SHOWOFF!

…only to hide my intimidation with the dishes he had put together for his Test Kitchen stint. Take a glance at what we served and drool with compassion:

Black Rice Beignets w/ Goeduck & Sea Urchin Crudo, Cherignola Olive Powder, Salmorigio Aoili, Lemon Confit
Pear Ravioli, Telaggio Cheese, Marcona Almonds and Fresh Cardamom
Barramundi, Black Octopus Sausage, Smoked Lobster Nage, Aerated Sorghum Seeds
Ras Al Hanuot Spiced Lamb Belly, Fresh Chick Pea Puree, Heirloom Carrots, Salsify
Warm Gianduja Cake, Butternut Squash Pudding, Pear Yokan and Fenugreek Ice Cream

Black Rice Beignets w/ Goeduck & Sea Urchin Crudo, Cherignola Olive Powder, Salmorigio Aoili, Lemon Confit

Pear Ravioli, Telaggio Cheese, Marcona Almonds and Fresh Cardamom

Barramundi, Black Octopus Sausage, Smoked Lobster Nage, Aerated Sorghum Seeds

Knowing the Los Angeles market and its ever growing demand for vegan options Chef Fullilove also served such bites ala carte. One of the biggest hits of the night was vegan pink pasta, cutting which was a floury task just hours prior:

Tagliatelle, butternut squash, tuscan kale & olive oil poached tear drop tomatoes

Roast Forest Mushroom and Leek terrine w/ Chestnut & Lambrusco Espuma

The desserts, conceptualized and executed by chef Seth Caro (a recent contestant of Bravo’s “Top Chef Pastry”), were an artistic exposition in their own right. I was lucky to observe and participate in the process of their creation, never anticipating the final result to be that electrifying to my palette.

Warm Gianduja Cake, Butternut Squash Pudding, Pear Yokan and Fenugreek Ice Cream

Jason, my better half, came to the restaurant for the tasting along with our good friend Dana. When I stepped out from the kitchen to check on them, Dana was squealing and squeaking with a mouthful of the above delight, wiggling her tiny butt across the chair she was sitting on. When she saw me approaching, she exclaimed:

WTF? THIS IS UNREAL! HERE, YOU MUST TRY IT.

…and a spoonful of the cake with the oozing hot chocolate entered my mouth at once.

Dana couldn’t help herself. Her joyful exuberance caused by the explosion of flavors in her mouth urgently needed an outlet. Born entertainer, not only was she the perfect companion for Jason, who celebrates the culinary arts with similar passion to mine, but also she befriended everyone in her vicinity from the patrons at adjacent tables to all the wait staff swiftly sweeping across the room.

Dana, with her expressive nature, was a perfect example of the satisfaction all our guests experienced on both nights. All the food was impeccably paired with wine by the Test Kitchen co-owner and sommelier, bringing each dish to a new level. We served close to 200 people, and smiles were ever present, emails and comments of gratitude still pouring into chef Fullilove’s inbox.

I forgot how much fun I had by his side at that other restaurant in Beverly Hills some months ago. After those two 14-hour days I was ready to play again. Hence, as of this week I’m sharing my restaurant time between Animal and Desert Rose in Los Feliz, a Mediterranean kitchen Jason took over last month. I’ll be reporting more. Stay tuned.

 

Last weekend was very dramatic for some 40 millions of Poles; not only those who live in Poland, but also for the rest of us scattered all around the world. Life goes on, however, and we must do, too. I’m lucky to have found an optimal way to keep my focus on being productive, whilst learning at the same time.

Remember Da Vinci restaurant I wrote about a few weeks ago? Remember the chef, Jason Fullilove, who had asked me to write a review of his fine dine venue in Beverly Hills? I hesitated for a few days whether I should do it. Boy, am I glad I gave in to my tickled with flattery ego, for I have officially begun my apprenticeship at the restaurant as of last Friday.

How did that come about, you wonder. Well, it’s all about the food with me these days. After my Jason and I were fed the feast of our lives at Da Vinci, I approached the chef himself and threw myself down on to the impeccably clean floor begging to be granted an unlimited access to his kitchen. I needed to see him cook, as I saw there a big opportunity for me to learn from a master. OK, maybe I wasn’t THAT dramatic …on the outside, but in my head I was serenading the chef and sending him fruit baskets and belly dancers straight from the Rio de Janeiro carnival (picture the feathers and nipple tassels!) in order to get my foot in the door. Worked like magic!

I’m all itching to tell you about my experience thus far. Let me begin with stating that I have never worked in a professional kitchen before, or a restaurant in general. As soon as I walked in, I was given a chef’s jacket and an apron, none of which accentuated my svelte figure, dammit. With latex gloves on and my short hair I looked like a 16-year old boy working on his science project for school. Wait, 16 may be a few years too old for that kid to be still sweating over science homework, so I’ll let this photo serve as a cane for your imagination:

Agi at Da Vinci's Kitchen

You see me here prepping a TUNA TARTAR, an assembly of perfectly diced tuna meat later served with lemon saffron emulsion and rye tuile. I may look professional, but don’t let that fool you. I have no idea what’s happening around me. It’s as if I had pushed the door open expecting to enter the kitchen, while I landed in a different galaxy, far, far away from the Milky Way. I heard people talking to me and telling me things I was supposed to be doing and all I could extract in response was QUE? The chef said PEEL AND BLANCH ASPARAGUS to which I was trying to remember what name my mother gave me at birth.

I experienced one of the most severe brain farts in the history of the humankind.

That wasn’t even the hardest part yet. As I soon realized, working in a professional kitchen is all about sweat control. I’ve mentioned the uniform before. Now I’ll walk you through all my layers from the bottom up: *satin thong * leather garter * lace-up bustier * cotton t-shirt * chef’s jacket * steal apron * latex gloves * dull facial expression. Need I say more?

I was first put in charge of chopping an onion and chives, which out of the blue escaladed into cooking the so-called Family Meal (lunch for the entire staff of the restaurant). The chef gave me the ultimate freedom to use anything from the WALK-IN (the refrigerator) and the pantry, and I was on my own. Thus the sweat-fest began.

That whole first day was utterly intimidating, mind-wringing, back-breaking, and absofookinglutely exhilarating. I couldn’t wait for more. And more I got, big time. On day two I entered Da Vinci’s kitchen and froze when faced the door of the WALK-IN. Right there, in front of my green-and-blue eyes framed by a mustache of thick black eyebrows was a list with my name at its top taped to the refrigerator door. The note had a litany of tasks I was entrusted with for the day. I scrolled down the roster:

-       make mango and avocado sorbet

-       make fennel pureé

-       clean and organize the containers in the WALK-IN (there are millions of them in that, that… COLD fridge!)

-       make the Family Meal

-       make a soup for TODAY’S SPECIAL for the restaurant

-       make watermelon consommé

-       scrape salmon.

Come again??? Does it say that I am to cook a soup that will be served to the guests of this fine dining locale?

The pressure and the level of expectation I was bequeathed terrorized my guts. The chef, once again, offered me total independence in the kitchen and I could concoct whatever my shaken soul desired.

In normal circumstances, I consider myself pretty confident in a kitchen, particularly when it comes to making soup. I have it down. By normal circumstances I understand a familiar kitchen supplied with ingredients I have previously chosen and purchased myself, or at least approved. None of which was true at that very moment at Da Vinci. I wandered back and forth between the fridge and the pantry looking for my regular suspects: celery root, carrots, parsnips, leeks, and chicken or veggie stock. I found carrots, onions and celery stalks. There were also two heads of a cauliflower.

Over the next 6 hours I ran amok looking for missing ingredients, chopping, sautéing, simmering, blending, pureeing, cleaning, re-labeling, chopping some more, juicing, freezing, and sweating like a wild hog in a Swedish sauna. One by one I crossed off my tasks from the list on the refrigerator door.

Five o’clock ding-dong announced my CAULIFLOWER SOUP ready to be served. Minutes later the first guests arrived. Orders came in: TODAY’S SPECIAL. Three bowls of the soup went out. Exhausted, but still riding off the leftover adrenaline rush, I kept myself busy impatiently awaiting the waiters to return with empty plates. I needed to know how my soup was received, but I didn’t dare asking. Luckily, I did not need to. Alina rolled in through the swinging doors and delivered with a comforting smile: THEY LOVED THE SOUP!

Swoooossh! A giant stone fell off my chest and banged on the floor. That one sentence at that very moment made it all worth the sweat and sheer terror that accompanied me throughout the day. That’s the best validation any cook or chef can ask for, aside from every penny a client happily pays for our services.

I shall return with more insider’s stories and tips straight from Da Vinci’s kitchen. Right now, however, the water is rapidly filling the bathtub, blue bubbles are bursting violently under the current, and I can hear my name called from the bathroom. I’m going to soak my aching limbs.

Remember my recent interview with Stefan Richter I posted on these pages just last week? Little did I know the article would open the gates to some SUPER KEWL STUFF like making ice-cream with liquid nitrogen.

Ok, so maybe it’s not that titillating and super-duper-exhilarating to you. In America you kids get to play with such cool things at your high school lab. However, in post-communistic Poland, where I pushed myself three levels up the educational ladder, there were no funds for such excess. We had books… lots of books, literature, graphs, exercise books, and then physical education. We shared one projector between many classrooms and we lacked props and toilet paper in the restrooms. It wasn’t that bad. We had electricity.

Um, where was I? The interview, yes. Having read the post, Jason Fullilove, an executive chef of Da Vinci Restaurant in Beverly Hills contacted me inquiring if I would review his fancy joint. I hesitated because, let’s be honest, I’m no food critic. I like food, love making it (the food, too), and I’ve been trying to build a career out of that art form as well. Does that mean I have the right to tell people where to spend their hard-earned dollars on food? Yes. No? Maybe.

Nonetheless, I was intrigued enough to do a quick search. I found Jason Fullilove’s bio along with a description of his new high-end food court in the world-famous Beverly Hills. There it was in black and white, clear as the day, bright as the sun in the morning sky, in the chef’s own words:

“We focus on seasonal ingredients purchased locally, modern cooking techniques – like liquid nitrogen – and hyper modern cuisine to increase the flavor and experience.”

LIQUID NITROGEN. Hello! Instantly, I wanted to get into Jason’s kitchen to play chemistry assistant in his food lab so I could blog about it later. I was sold. Well, to be perfectly honest, he had me at his name. JASON. FULLILOVE. And a chef at that. It just doesn’t get any better. The food MUST be amazing at this place, I thought. I grabbed my Jason The Life-Partner and off we went to Da Vinci.

We were seated at the Dean Martin booth, as the rat pack member apparently was a regular at the venue back in the 70’s.

Dean Martin's Booth at Da Vinci Restaurant in Beverly Hills

The place is proud of its history, for its history is dense and curvy. The owner, who mooned over the main floor throughout the evening, eagerly shared stories with us. I would gladly pass them on to you if it weren’t for the excellent choice of wine we were offered at the table: KENWOOD JACK LONDON 30th ANNIVERSARY, CABERNET SAUVIGNON, SONOMA, 2006 – $13/glass. After the second serving of god’s nectar certain details just didn’t sink in.

Chef Fullilove (I can’t get enough of saying it out loud. Admit it, you’re smitten, too!) came out of his kitchen to greet us and shortly thereafter disappeared behind a pair of SQUEEEEAKY doors adjacent to our booth. Minutes later THE SHOW BEGAN.

Just as you’ve seen a million times in various animated cartoons, a river of crisp white plates appeared floating in a single file line from the kitchen chambers, through the SQUEEEAKY door, around the corner, and straight onto our table. Ok, maybe it was a waitress carrying the dishes, but to me it seemed just as magical as the moving pictures on a TV screen when I was five.

One course after another we ploughed through the feast, starting with a basket of fresh, house-made bread. Let me just pause here for a moment to honor each slice with a minute of silence, as I haven’t enjoyed bread this much since leaving my motherland in Europe close to a decade ago. Chef Fullilove explained to me that the secret to such voluptuous texture and round flavor hides in the amount of time the starter is given to develop, about a month.

We tried and tasted, smacked and swallowed, chomped and chewed through all 175 courses (or so). The festival seemed endless; hence I decided to narrow it down to what we thought were the highlights of the night.

Heirloom Beet Salad w/Humbolt Fog Goat Cheese & Pistachio Vinaigrette

It was more than just a Beet Salad. It was a summer romance you wish could last through winter.

Grilled Asparagus w/Chick Pea Puree & Blistered Teardrop Tomatoes

If you’re anything like me, when you hear Chick Pea Puree, your brain automatically turns toward the Middle East in search of pita to scoop your hummus. You could not be more surprised with this appetizer – it tastes nothing like hummus. It also came with deep fried cherry tomatoes. Their skin was crisp like a chip, while the tomato itself took on a flavor metamorphosis I had never witnessed before. Enticing.

Pan-Roasted Sablefish with New Potatoes and Crab Hash

Perfectly crispy skin covers the most velvety and delectable flesh of this white fish served over new potato and baptized with crab hash. Oh, so luxurious.

At that point, after three additional, house-made pasta dishes (and you know what pasta does in your tummy – EXPLODES!), Jason and I were rapidly reaching the critical point of saturation. Secretly, we slid our hands under the veil of the tablecloth and loosened our belts and buttons hoping to find more storage.

Then we heard a drum-roll and the Royalty arrived.

Colorado Spring Lamb Duo w/ house-cured Lamb Bacon & Fennel Puree

I can’t even begin to describe the perfection of this dish. It’s an ode to lamb embellished with house-cured lamb bacon. The meat cooked perfectly – it melted in our mouths. Each bite was silky and rich, ecstatic and comforting. Chef Jason’s dish bequeathed the lamb a second, and who knows if not better life. I will never forget that first bite. Absolutely brilliant!

When the waitress arrived with the desserts, she had to pull us out from underneath the table where we had slid unable to sit upright any longer. When supine, there seemed to be less pressure put on the walls of our four-chambered stomachs.

Meyer Lemon Panna Cotta with Butter Cookie Crumbs

Decadent and delightful. Impeccable presentation.

The night was spectacular. Not only were we served a superb meal of the highest quality (and well beyond our storage limits), but also, and maybe most importantly, it was a celebration of food in general. It was a feast reminding me of my European roots. Not once were we rushed through the courses. In the end, we spent almost THREE hours at the restaurant being allowed to savor and indulge. The chef himself joined us at last and tasted his own sweet creations. I felt home.

The very next day, I went back to snoop around (with chef’s Fullilove’s permission) Da Vinci’s kitchen. He let me take a few pictures of liquid nitrogen in action. Before my very eyes, with the excitement of a six-year old (that would be me), Jason Fullilove made a batch of Mango and then Green-Tea Ice-cream.

Liquid Nitrogen freezing mango and cheese

Mango in Three States of Being after a treatment using liquid nitrogen

The high pitched squeal you heard last Monday, circa 3:30 pm, was me not being able to hold the excitement inside any longer.

Boy, did we have fun at Da Vinci. Thank you, Jason Fullilove. You truly are full of love and it shows in every dish you create. Bravo!

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