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Last week I parted with Da Vinci restaurant in Beverly Hills. Why? I’ll get to that, but first I want to tell you what I was making there during the last few days, even hours…

Jason Fullilove, the executive chef and my mentor, makes one of the best breads I’ve had in my life. First and foremost, his creations remind me of home. Home as in Poland. I don’t know if it’s the water or the quality of grain (must be either one as those are the main components of any bread) in European breads that make them so voluptuous and fragrant. Each loaf slides out of the oven dressed in that brilliant crust all around while it’s slightly chewy yet airy, and perfectly delectable on the inside.

Don’t even think for a second that I am comparing those bakers’ diamonds to the stuff you normally find in your grocery store in America. Those pre-sliced, cotton-like, packed with artificial ingredients and god-knows-what-other-crap “breads” frankly don’t even deserve to be called that. Ask Michael Pollan.

If you ever tasted a homemade bread, especially the French style bread, you get my blues. You hear my music. You understand also why so desperately I wanted to master the skill of making that perfect loaf. Chef Fullilove granted me the space for the exercise. He also crumbled some of his secrets before me. The last few days that I worked at Da Vinci I was making breads. Lots of them. Breads with dates. Dill rolls. Whole-wheat loaves. The most luscious, aromatic, fluffy and almost creamy Focaccia bread with Olives.

These dorky photos, taken with Jason’s iphone, don’t even come close to the true beauty resting on those sheet-pans. Nonetheless, have a glimpse…

Oh, my dear Zeus and the rest of the Olympian gods that must have looked after me from the top of their holy mountain. Between the two languages that I use fluently on a regular basis there are not enough words to express the hedonistic moment of ecstasy that electrified my entire body upon the first taste of that Focaccia. My whole life flashed in front of my eyes in a form of movie clips as well as cartoonish clip-arts, and I saw a light in the end of a tunnel…

AM I IN HEAVEN NOW?

But I was still alive. Though I could not comprehend that I was given a chance to taste such delicacies on this Earth still.

Ok, I am not quite trying to toot my own horn here. This bread was made with a close supervision of the chef and his sous-chef Nichole. Herself, she can whip those babies out in the middle of the night, blind-folded and with a glass of Dirty Martini in one hand, if she chose to. However, it was me who lost her virginity that day, and the Angels Choirs sang to announce my becoming… of a bread maker.

My appetite only grew from here. The following day I arrived at the restaurant and from the door I screamed to the chef:

CAN I MAKE BREAD TODAY????

Thanks to my untamed enthusiasm, I was entrusted with making butter rolls. And a few hours later yet another success! I was on the roll, and hell yes, pun intended!

I know you’re on the edge of getting grossed out by all the sugar-coated descriptions of my personal glory, but wait till you see what I did with those puffy buns of buttery euphoria… I turned it into authentic, very realistic, explosive, steamy and moaning FOOD PORN…

Just imagine the taste of this home-roasted and juicy turkey along with voluptuous avocado, sun-ripened tomato and lots of sweet roasted garlic squeezed in between two legs of that tanned and muscular Butter Roll…

I’ll leave you with that image for a moment.

I know what you’re thinking. It’s also my definition of Lunch With A Happy Ending!

Aaaand back to reality. A few days ago an article on LA Eater made chef Fullilove’s departure from Da Vinci public. Allow me to add my three pennies to the story.

What led to chef’s exit were months of his struggle with the circumstances of this troubled Beverly Hills eatery. The owners’ dearth of experience in running a high-end restaurant became obvious to most parties involved early on. Additionally, the lack of true management only expedited the venue’s fall despite the executive chef’s tireless efforts to promote Da Vinci and attract real enthusiasts of culinary artistry with his extraordinary creations.

I think it says volumes that three other staff members walked away along with their chef, myself included.

Without looking any deeper into the ugly eyes of the monster, know that I deeply cherish the days I spent at the chef Fullilove’s side in that kitchen for I have witnessed and tasted the fruit of his labor. I was lucky enough to observe him at work, and to be so generously offered his secrets and his knowledge in general. Yes, I have learnt a ton. I have enriched my culinary vocabulary and expanded my kitchen horizons. I was taught cooking techniques I only had heard about before. I was given a place to experiment and exercise my passion.

It has nothing to do with respect, but for all the above I am grateful even to the (still) owners for making the space available to me as well.

Chef Jason, I thank YOU! And I look forward to the day (in the near future I hope) when your beautiful food is accessible to public again.

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The francophonic week is over. The spirits of the literary geniuses of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre have fled. Poof. No more Fhench accent for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. No more late night intellectual discussions about the benefits of a Thai massage with a happy ending versus a relaxing afternoon at a local strip joint with a lunch buffet.

Laurent and I go way back. We met years ago when I first moved to New York City. I was as naïve as they come, and he was my guide and a companion while I was getting a fast lesson in life in that city that never sleeps. NYC is not for pussycats. We became instant friends. We took trips around the city taking pictures (Laurent is a brilliant photographer, I kid you not. Just take a look at these for a second: http://www.stock-photo-motion.com).

We partied our asses off. He taught me my un, deux, trois’s and Je m’appelle’s. Then he asked me to be a witness at his wedding, after which he left me, jackass, alone in NYC and moved back to Europe with his wife. OK, not quite alone. By then I already had a family of friends and possibly dated a guy, or two. I went to visit the newlyweds in Versailles. Then life happened, winds of change came, Laurent wandered solo from a country to another, got an MBA to complement his doctorate in chemistry, because why not, and three and a half long years went by before I saw him again.

It’s only a miracle that I’m not married and with 12 kids wrapped around my ankles. Hence, I had the time to take Laurent around the Tinseltown and show him where celebrities come to be “stalked” by paparazzi, and “the stairs” in Santa Monica where they get their asses pushed by the personal trainers. When we strolled down Rodeo Drive he concluded: “I’ve never seen so many fake boobs in my life!”

Now Laurent is gone. Bye, bye Loh-hou. All we have left are a few pictures and a memory of the Pahree-inspired dinner I made for my friend’s arrival. Ratatouille. Mmm…

It is a vegetable stew that for centuries was considered a peasant’s meal. The dish got a facelift over the years, and today the Frenchies serve it in their top restaurants as a posh side dish, and adequately charge big bucks for the bite.

I’ve never made Ratatouille before. However, since I’ve just watched the movie “Ratatouille” not long ago, Laurent’s visit prompted me to try it out. I’m notorious for skipping recipes. And even if there is one to guide me, still I tend to take side trips off the beaten track and fook around with the dish. Hence, when I did my “research”, I simply read on Wikipedia what the most common ingredients used in the stew are. Next, I went to the store, bought the veggies, and I was on my own.

Feel free to follow my steps, as the dinner was quite delightful. However, keep in mind the words of the native Frenchie (Laurent) when he took the first taste: “Hmm…, interesting. I’ve never had a spicy ratatouille.” So goes the authenticity of my stew.

Forget the spicy. THESE ARE THE CLASSICAL COMPONENTS OF RATATOUILLE, more or less (hell with the proportions):

–       1 large eggplant

–       4 medium zucchinis

–       1 red bell pepper

–       2 green bell peppers

–       1 large onion

–       6-8 garlic cloves

–       3 medium carrots

–       2 Roma tomatoes

–       14 oz can of tomatoes

–       fresh marjoram

–       fresh basil

–       fresh parsley

–       2 bay leaves

–       splash of red wine vinegar

–       kosher salt and black pepper to taste

–       1 tsp red pepper flakes

–       1.5 tbsp of paprika

–       1 tbsp of ground nutmeg

–       1 tbsp of freshly ground fennel seeds

–       1 tbsp dry marjoram

–       dash of cayenne pepper

–       olive oil

It’s a one-pot dish, but requires some loving. Ok, it’s a royal pain in the arse, because once you’ve chopped and diced and cubed that mountain of vegetables, now you pretty much have to sauté each one separately. It adds up, so you better clear your schedule for the afternoon. Don’t be discouraged, however, as when you’re done, and that beautifully cooked stew oozes off the sides of the herb-infused rice on your plate, the labor pains are just a vague memory and you’re stupidly ready to do it all over again. The joy of creation. The symphony of flavors. The SATISFACTION!

I used my brand new Dutch oven that I got from Jason’s parents for Christmas. The pot was deflowered by a French classic. Can you see how poetic and romantic that is?

First, heat some olive oil and toss the carrots in. Season with salt and pepper. Remember to cut all the veggies in similar size chunks. After about 10 minutes remover the redheads from the pot and set aside in a large bowl. You’ll keep adding more sautéed vegetables to that bowl as you go. Next, go with the eggplant. That guy is soooo flavorless it’s sad, and this is when I got creative and added a bunch of spices (red pepper flakes, salt, pepper, and chopped marjoram). Add a splash of red wine vinegar to help you deglaze the bottom of the Dutch oven. Give it 10 minutes and out of the pot and into the bowl. Time for the zucchini, and a little more olive oil if needed. Same thing – season with a touch of salt, some paprika, some nutmeg, and the ground fennel seeds. Last but not least, the bell peppers, and you’re half way there. Stir, sauté until softened, and out.

A touch of olive oil and we’re making the sauce that will bind the circus into a proper stew. Toss your sliced onion into the pot, sprinkle with crashed marjoram, and cook until translucent. Don’t salt the onions just yet, as you want to capture the natural sweetness of the onion and let it condense. Salt would prompt all water to evaporate thus drying out the veg too quickly. Add diced tomatoes and cook them along with the onions. Garlic goes in along with the canned tomatoes. Stir and drop in the bay leaves, toss chopped parsley and basil (a handful of each), taste and season with more paprika, nutmeg, cayenne pepper and a touch of salt and pepper. Remember, you’ve seasoned all other veggies with salt already, so be gentle here.

Bring all the vegetables back into the pot, mix together with the tomato and onion sauce, cover with a lid, and place in a preheated oven (400°) for 30 minutes. And you better keep your mittens on.

Voila! You have just made yourself a beautiful, healthy, vegan, and yet quintessential French meal. If missing a bit protein, use ratatouille as a side dish to your chicken breast or a pork chop. Or better, keep it clean and vegetarian with a thick slice of rustic country bread, or over a bowl of steaming rice mixed with more chopped fresh herbs. (The first night we tried it over spaghetti. Not the best choice.)

Hello! This is some kind of wonderful…

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