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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.

 

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 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.

How many times have I told you to cook with love? Really, how often do I mention within these posts the importance of sprinkling your food with fairy dust and passion crystals? There exists a direct correlation between your success in the kitchen and the amount of love spells dissolved in that pot on your stove. I stressed it enough over the months for you to think I would know better than to step into my cooking chambers all bitter, and with electric current of fury streaming through my spine.

Why, you wonder?

If you miss your best friend’s birthday extravaganza because your mate’s left part of the brain has grown twice in size over the course of one week due to work overload, and on top of that he’s drying out of hunger and thus turning into a pile of dust on a desk in his office as we speak, and you must forgo obeying the law while flying through all red lights of the streets of City of Angels rushing to him with a meal that will save his life, and you call your friend from the car with no headset (oops, another violation!) to let her know of the extraordinary circumstances causing your absence at the party, promising to make it up to her in the next few days, she should understand, right?

She didn’t. She was all “I get that Jason was stuck at work, but you could have shown your face at least”. Oh, Mother, when I heard that, a yellow puff of anger mixed with hurt snuck out of my wide open mouth. Really? I was so pissed that she didn’t give me the credit of the doubt, knowing how fiercely loyal I am, and understand that I must have had a damn good excuse to miss her Celebration Of Aging. And frankly, I don’t need to wait for her birthday to raise a toast for the three new wrinkles she’s developed, and the gray hair she’s grown …on her leg, way up there. And she also should know that the minute her boobs get soggy and her butt widens out of her mind so that she has to buy TWO airplane tickets to fly anywhere, and she gets stretch marks after her first childbirth that will resemble the fjords of Norway, I’ll be the first one to make her a FLOURLESS CHOCOLATE CAKE WITH FRESH RASPBERRY SAUCE, and stick candles in it no matter the date. Because that’s the kind of friend I am.

In such a frame of mind, I crossed the threshold of our kitchen to make dinner – a pot of hearty soup, one of my favorites, the soup that Jason’s parents loved so much they took the recipe down and entered a soup contest with it in TEXAS. In all modesty, I must say that if there is anything I know about cooking, soup is IT. That’s my forte.

I started peeling my carrots and parsnips all the while thinking of my dear friend, that itzy-bitzy little thing with a big mouth, enormous heart, and a really dirty mind. I crisped some pancetta and sautéed chopped leeks with an onion in a big pot. I tossed all the veggies in along with a few lightning bolts of anger and a dash of salt and pepper. I added two legs of chicken, a handful of spices, and completely engaged in the dialog in my head. From that point on, I have no recollection of the events that took place in my kitchen. I was so busy picturing myself as an old(er) woman with a handful of grandkids parked on the floor around my rocking chair, while telling them the story of a beautiful friendship wasted over …nothing.

The soup was done, and ready to serve. I took a spoonful to taste, and almost spat it back into the pot. It was absolutely disgusting. It was the most repelling thing I ever made. My poor soup, it took it all in – all the bitterness that I got out of my system, and dumped into the pot along with the veggies et al. There was no way to fix it. All I could do was to flush that sour and bitter mixture down the toilet, and drive to see my girlfriend to hug the hell out of her, and give her the birthday gift we both worked on with Jason, and tell her how much I wished I had been there to help her blow the candles, dozens and dozens of them. So many in fact, that the fire marshals arrived, the real ones this time, and not the touring Chippendales in disguise.

When we hugged it all out, I gasped “I’m sorry I couldn’t be there. Are you still upset?” She quickly cut me off “Don’t even sweat it. I was PMS-ing”.

I know PMS. You don’t mess with a woman who is PMSing, period. (No pun intended.) And you definitely don’t want to mess with a woman that is PMSing ON HER BIRTHDAY.

Long story short, I have no recipe to share with you today, as I used it all up during my ANGER MANAGEMENT session with self.

Cooking is therapeutic, have I not told you?

HAPPY BIRTHDAY VERONICA!

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