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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.
I know it’s not much, and certainly not a recipe for anything, but here I come with the fruit of a collaborative labor between my dear friend Jason Gurvitz, a talented photographer (among his other talents), and my humble self.
As I’ve been building a website for my personal cheffffing, one day I realized I was short on professional photos of self. Jason G. was so kind to offer his help, and so with no further ado, nor much constructive thinking, yesterday, on my day off from Animal, I stood as I were in front of his lens… *
So… what do you think? Do you foresee my success in the near future? I mean, how could I not hit it BIG with these!
* I apologize in advance for the nightmares I may have caused you by sharing those semi-sweet cherries of fruits of my photo shoot. Sorry I am, but don’t even think of sending me the bill from your therapist. I’m not that sorry.
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!
Guys, I have a new fun project and I hope you can help me. I am looking for talented cooking women of certain age, basically raised before the Internet era, who learnt most or everything they know about making food from their mothers and grandmothers.
Take a look at this ad I posted on Facebook and think hard whether it’s YOU or someone you know that fits the bill:
- Is your mother/aunt/grandma the best cook you know?
- Do all your friends look for an excuse to come visit around mealtime, claiming they were “in the neighborhood by chance?”
- Do your mama’s dishes take you back to her homeland, the country where she was born and raised?
* * *
If yes, I want to meet the women of your tribe. I invite your Mama/Grandma/Aunt to try her food on me, to show me how she does it, and to let me write about her on ONE MORE BITE. Using my blog, I want to showcase the hidden culinary talents amongst us, with a special dose of love for those who, like myself, had crossed the ocean in search of a new home here in America.
There are ethnic restaurants all over Los Angeles. However, I’m looking for authenticity, hidden away from commerce, where culinary traditions have been cultivated for generations. Whether your Mama/Aunt grew up in Thailand, India, Vietnam, Lebanon, Camerún, Italy, or Sweden, I’m dying to learn the tricks she inherited from her mother and grandmother.
I know there are amazing and highly skilled cooks in Los Angeles, who, despite the lack of professional training, are experts in their native cuisine. Help me shine a spotlight on the hard-working women from your family or community, who express their love through food.
Don’t wait! Contact me ASAP within the comment section!
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.