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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.

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“There’s a hole in your heart. You can try to stuff it with alcohol-sex-food-drugs-what have you. And you never will” – a shaman said to me one day. “That’s the place for God” – she told me. “Let him back in and you will never again feel lonely. Never again will you feel lost, loveless, or hopeless. Never again will you feel ALONE“.

Sunset 2

I left the woman’s apartment with an ironic smirk teetering on my face. What was I thinking going over there in the first place? That she will cure me from sorrow? That she will cleanse my aura and thus heal my aching soul? A hundred and fifty bucks dumped into the sewer of the city of CRAZY.

And then, one morning, I rise along with the first rays of sun, and on the road I proceed in my car that obediently carries me in every direction that I order. My eyes are still in denial and want to stay shut and keep dreaming. But the sun is relentless – its arms reach my face, warming me up, encouraging me to breathe, and to stay roused.

The fresh morning air pours inside the car. Windows rolled down, the road almost empty. Sunday morning. Easter morning. It used to mean something. Its importance has diminished over the years away from family traditions, away from home. Home.

One sad thought. I let it fly out with the breeze, so dominant now. The wind makes itself at ease in my car, in my hair, floating around my head, over my eyes. Single strings play with the floating air on the edge of the window. They hang over the cliff of the windshield, dance, and do not fall. It’s the game the wind plays with my mop. And I let it. Liberate me, too, I beg inside my head, but stay taciturn outside my scull.

I keep the car speeding steadily while passing by the ocean on my left. That infinite mass of water, so sparkling, so cheerful, with the sky glancing down as in admiring its own reflection. Nature’s mood is calm, quiescent, tranquil. A glass of water glistens on one side, the wind twirls inside my vehicle, the sun shines above, and music flows from the speakers hidden beneath me. I’m heading to a temple. Lake Shrine. I enter the temple and it’s a place like I’ve never seen before…

I haven’t crossed church’s gates in years. I turned my back on the whole institution while still just a young girl somewhere in a small town in the midst of Poland. That girl, an indignant teenager is all, rebelled the Church. A bunch of hypocrites I decided all priests were, and nothing but. I despised those cynical and double-faced “guardians of societal morale”. Burn in hell, I pouted. And like that I abandoned the ranks of the Catholic fellowship.

Fifteen years later and thousands of miles passed. “There’s a hole in your heart” – a shaman said to me one chilly afternoon in California.

… On the bright Easter Sunday I walk into the temple of the Self Realization Fellowship. It’s their morning service.  Most seats already have an occupant. As I tread down a soft, carpeted isle, I am slammed with flashbacks from the days of youth…  My body shivers under the chill of a dim and hollow hall of a gothic building; its silence interrupted by the threatening echo of scurried heals stomping against the tile floors. The echo fills every inch between the monumental walls, then bounces back and travels farther from the ground to the tip of the spire… In my mind I put a spell on the dreadful memory and shake it off. Be gone! My eyes open again and I glance around. The faces surrounding me are bright, placid, warm, and welcoming. My body relaxes. The peace here has the texture of red velvet.

In this House, meditation replaces prayer.  Love of self fills in the shoes of Catholic guilt. Intent allows for focus. The minister’s voice calmly leads me through my journey inwards. He accompanies a search for my inner light and encourages me to expand my heart while making room for… God?

I have to think about that one. Later.

My entire essence is suddenly stirred into motion by the music that I hear. A choir performs spiritual songs in Hebrew, German and English. It’s not the words, but the voices, their harmony, the threads of notes waved into a coherent fabric of music that move me to the core.  I’m touched. I’m shaken by the beauty that fills and surrounds this space. Where am I? Tears blur my vision, but I am able to see now better than ever.  The hole in my heart is no longer.  The emotion overwhelms me, and I no longer feel lonely. My reason sunbathes on the lawn outside while I experience the unspeakable. All I know at this moment is LOVE.

Sun Behind a Tree

Almost eighteen months have passed since that Easter morning. I’m not a regular at the Lake Shrine by any means. Life happens to me.  Tired happens to me. Lazy happens to me.  All the other Sundays in between the above mentioned however I make the effort to find the time for a spiritual practice. Whether it’s the  temple of the Self Realization Fellowship with its calming attitude, or the highly vibrant and bursting with energy church of Agape, peace finds me. There I unfold stress and discharge negative emotions. Those places are real, accessible, and welcoming.  I feel safe there.  They help me reinforce balance in my life.

That’s not all, however, and there are more pieces to the puzzle that this la dolce vita is. There’s laughter, there’s love and respect for self and others, sharing and giving, eating healthy and nourishing foods, honoring my word, loyalty, building a HOME with Jason and Cosmo, music and written word, education and learning, exercise, fresh air, friends, family… Those are my building blocks and my scaffolding.  That’s where I find the strength and courage to deal with stress, my hormones, broken promises, disappointments, anger, bruised ego, insecurities, road range, hurt feelings, and the mundane of every day life.

That’s my struggle in keeping it all balanced and healthy, as intended by Nature. I don’t mess with religions. If I have one, it’s Love. You find your own way. Everyone has a method. And whatever you do, really, ENJOY Yourself!

Agi Free

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