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Let’s open with the latter.

I would like to take a moment to talk about the Internet. It is a mysterious machinery I do not understand. I file it under the same category as radio, airplanes, and telephones. It may be not kosher to admit that in public, but I have no clue how those work. Nor do I care really. As long as they do their job!

What puzzles me about the Internet in particular today are those little hairy monkeys from my micro-world, and directly related to these pages. As any committed blogger, I check the stats every day to know who’s coming to visit, how they find ONE MORE BITE, what pages I get linked to, etc. I don’t really KNOW who reads it, relax, unless you decide to tell me about it in the form of a comment, send me an email, postcard or a new Audi TT (black,  please).

What I do know is what phrases Internauts enter into their search engines (like google or yahoo) to find my silly page in the cyber world. Today for example, some horny hungry person, clearly lucking the time to cook on their own, decided to look for “sexy personal chefs” and so typed that into the google search. I’m flattered to have been found. However, just so I don’t get too cocky and my bra doesn’t pop from pride bubbling up in my chest, there’s another little flower here leading to my blog that reads: “kill it before it spreads”. Huh?

People look for Stefan Richter and that restaurant I used to work at, Da Vinci, and find their way over here. The “quinoa and brussels sprouts recipes” entry will also successfully lead you to my blog. If you want a “goat cheese cranberry stuffed chicken”, you’re in luck–there is my Chicken Cordon Blue recipe with these components described in detail among these pages. That makes sense. “Melissa Peterman nipples” or “drop crotch carrot men” don’t.

If you think I made those up, you so overestimate my creativity and wit. I take no credit for the above. Moreover, I beg for an explanation! How in the world do people who search for a “text on indian toilet” find a food blog?? Hello! Google people, talk to me!

I don’t know when and if I’ll get my hairy monkey problem resolved. That’s all for the SOUR part for today.

Now on to the SWEET thing. Why? Because sweet is GOOD. Sweet is necessary to keep balance in your food and then in your system. Sweet is one of the four basic flavors (along with salty, sour, and bitter) that are present in any complete dish. Nonetheless, it’s all about finding that fine balance in anything you do, cooking included. Well… duh.

My sweet suggestion for today are CARDAMOM POACHED APRICOTS STUFFED WITH MASCARPONE. Even though the apricot season is pretty much over, you can make this beautiful and sweet bite all year round, as we’re using dry fruit for the thing.

Once again, I lifted the idea from my handy book called “Small Bites” by Jennifer Joyce that I had referred to previously. Once again, I changed the recipe by an inch and a half after trying once and needing some improvement. I am a big advocate of a freedom in one’s kitchen. Don’t be enslaved to a recipe. Make it work for you instead.

To start, gather the following:

– dried apricots, about 8 oz package

– handful of seeds from crushed cardamom pods (ground cardamom will do, too)

– mascarpone cheese and goat cheese, 1-2 tbsp of each, softened

– fresh mint, chopped, about 1 tbsp worth

– juice of 1 lemon

– 3 tbsp raw cane sugar

– 1-2 cups of water

– 1/2 cup unsalted pistachios, roughly chopped.

In a small sauce pan heat together the water, sugar, lemon juice and cardamom. Toss the apricots in and let it all simmer for about 10-15 minutes until the fruit is soft and plumpy. Remove the the orange balls and let them cool.

In the meantime, mix both cheeses together along with mint. See, Jennifer’s recipe calls for Mascarpone only. However, after doing it her way, I was missing something. The goat cheese will give the whole thing a tang that will take your sweet bite into a different dimension. Also, I dare you to add just a pinch of ground cardamom into the mix. Just do it. It will be fine.

Take each apricot and using a paring knife make a small incision on one side, enough to scoop in a nugget of the cheese mixture. Now dip your stuffed fruit, cheese side down, into the crushed pistachios so they stick to the filling, thus covering up the entrance to the cave. (Yes, I’m a dork, I know.)

Such prepared Sweet Bites arrange in a single layer on a platter , or in an air-tight container, and store in a refrigerator for at least an hour so the cheese sets.

An hour later… VOILA!

Cute, right? And you know what else? SWEET!

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!

Last Friday I sat down with TOP CHEF Season 5 finalist, Stefan Richter, at his LA FARM restaurant here in Los Angeles.

We first met about three years ago when I was still working in the sales department of a moving company. I came over to Stefan’s tiny cottage (one room with an attached kitchenette) in Santa Monica to give him an estimate of a moving cost. I knocked on the door and was greeted by this bald guy, who on top of his accent spoke so fast it took me a few minutes to adjust and to understand him. Talking to Stefan, in fact, is like playing racquetball. It requires reflex and focus. His words, like the ball, shoot out with such speed that they bounce around all over you, on the floor and against the walls. If you want a fair game, you better pick up your racquet and hit back. Otherwise he’ll talk you to death.

When I began to turn around in his apartment (again, it was the size of a shell of a pistachio, so to say that I WALKED AROUND would be an overstatement) one glance at his wall brought instant shivers to my back. There was a set of SHARP and SUPER POINTY KNIVES attached to a magnetic rack mounted above the sink in his kitchen. I had no clue what his profession was at the time, mind you. All I knew was that I was writing down an inventory at a stranger’s bedroom feeling the bald guy’s breath on my neck (have I mentioned the size of that place?) while from across the room the knives watched my every move, patiently hanging on the wall. And then he started flirting with me.

Ten minutes after I left, Stefan called me to ask if I was married or if I had a boyfriend. He made me laugh.

GIVE ME A GOOD PRICE AND I’LL MAKE YOU A VEGAN DINNER AFTER I’M MOVED. WE’LL CELEBRATE.

I jacked up the price and booked the job. The dinner promise was never fulfilled, but we did become friends and raised a few toasts together after all.

Many rivers have dried since those days. I am no longer a vegan, and funny enough now I cook for a living myself. Stefan went on the TOP CHEF, got a national recognition, and soon after opened two restaurants in Santa Monica, CA – STEFAN’S LA FARM and STEFAN’S ON MONTANA. He also has a book deal and a clothing line coming up later this year called COCKY CHEF CLOTHING.

Mirror Reflection

It’s been almost a year since I saw him, and when I arrived at LA FARM last Friday all that past time went out the window when I heard Stefan’s:

SR: Hi Agi. You cut your hair! WHY?

AG: You no likey?

SR: I didn’t say I didn’t like it. I prefer long hair on a girl.

AG: Yes, you’re very traditional in certain aspects.

As it was the lunch hour, the place was slowly getting busier and appropriately louder, hence we made ourselves comfortable at the private section of the restaurant – an elegant and quiet banquet room.

Banquet Room at LA FARM

First, I wanted to understand what being a chef meant to him:

AG: Stefan, tell me what makes one a chef, beside schooling and/or training.

SR: Go to restaurants. Try their food. See what you like.

AG: What does make one a good chef?

SR: Look at the restaurant. Is it busy or not? That’s the deal. It’s not just about being a chef. It’s about being smart. It’s a business, too.

AG: Do you still enjoy cooking?

SR: Of course, I do.

AG: Do you cook every day?

SR: Yeah.

AG: Do you ever cook at home? Does your refrigerator today have anything else beside beer in it?

SR: Nope. I don’t eat at home.

AG: What is the hardest part of your job?

SR: People. Dealing with the employees.

Dealing with Employees

AG: Apropos, I talked to one of your employees. He said it takes a thick skin to work for you, but at the same time he’d never seen anyone cook like you do.

Stefan would never admit he enjoyed the compliment, but I did see a shadow of a smile tinkering in the corner of his eyes upon hearing it. I asked nevertheless:

AG: How do you feel hearing that?

SR: I couldn’t give a shit. I don’t care because this is business and people have to understand that. If I’m running a business, and my business doesn’t make it, they’ll all go somewhere else. They’ll get another job. If I fuck up this business, what am I supposed to do? Go back to Finland?

AG: You were doing pretty well on your own, before the show, before the restaurant. Your catering business is still thriving.

SR: I know, but still. I’ll look like an idiot if I lose this restaurant.

AG: So how is the business?

SR: It’s great. It’s been nine months. We do 240 lunches on average, 180 dinners.

From LA FARM's menu

AG: How is STEFAN’S ON MONTANA different from LA FARM?

SR: MONTANA is simple, local. It’s inexpensive here as it’s inexpensive there. Main course here, Steak Frites is $17. You’ve got to be smart about it. The economy is bad.

AG: What’s your favorite cuisine?

SR: I don’t know. Let me think about it for a second. I don’t have a favorite one. I like everything. I love food. I love to cook, anything. That’s why I do it for a living. By the way, isn’t it funny? Look at my wine rack. There are two different bottles in there…

…And just like that Stefan gets distracted as his ADD gets the better of him. When he rearranges the bottles on the shelf, I manage to get him to sit back on his tuchas for a few more minutes. I wan to know if anyone else besides me sees the similarity between him and another chef, über famous British star Gordon Ramsay. Both are hyper, cocky and swear like … chefs. I’ve been watching Ramsay’s show called THE F WORD…

SR: Like fuck? (laughing)

AG: Like food.

SR: A lot of people don’t realize that it’s a normal thing in a restaurant business. There’s an old saying: if you can’t take the heat, stay away from the stove. If you want to be in this business, you have to shut the fuck up and deal with it for a while.

However, unlike chef Gordon who says anyone can develop and train their palette, Stefan is convinced it’s a talent one must be born with. “You either have it or you don’t.”

Beside the passion for making food and European heritage, we don’t have many things in common with Stefan. The more so was I surprised and pleased to learn that he gives a damn about his carbon footprint.

SR: I only have American product – American meat, American wine and beer. The economy is bad in America. Why would I bring shit from Europe and put a carbon footprint out on something on top of that?

AG: Where do you get your produce?

SR: I get California produce, so I go to a farmer’s market. Certain farmers drop off their tomatoes here, their potatoes, etc.

AG: What’s next for you?

SR: I’m writing a book that I have to finish by the end of the year.

AG: And what’s the name of your ghostwriter? (laughing)

SR: No, for real, I’m writing it myself. Do I have an editor that will go through it and correct it later? Absolutely. But I am writing it. I started it about 7-8 years ago.

AG: So tell me about the book.

SR: It’s about my life – stories, recipes, bullshit. Every chapter has a recipe.

And some day, down the line, he also “wouldn’t mind a couple of kids with the right person”. In the meantime, it’s all about business.

AG: Are there chefs you look up to, someone you would consider a mentor?

SR: Not really. Do I think there are great chefs that I respect? Absolutely. Jean-Georges [Vongerichten], Thomas Keller… They are great business people. But do I look up to them? I regard people with whom I have valuable business.

AG: At last, but not least, what dish would you recommend to my readers if they wanted to make an easy and yet gourmet meal?

SR: Risotto. If you have a date make a risotto. It’s easy and you can make it vegetarian or with meat. There are a lot of options.

Stefan at his kitchen at LA FARM

I left the Finnish chef at LA FARM and I headed over to his other restaurant, STEFAN’S ON MONTANA, to check out the new, local breakfast-lunch-and-dinner joint.

In front of STEFAN'S ON MONTANA

When I was bending over the menu trying to snap a photo, an older gentleman approached me, and inquired if I was anybody’s friend at the place. “I’m friends with Stefan Richter.” I offered to which the man reached out his hand and introduced himself (and his wife sitting nearby with their dog) as the co-owner of both restaurants.

Later, I texted Stefan:

JUST MET YOUR PARTNER. FUNNY, YOU NEVER MENTIONED YOU HAD ONE. A LOVELY MAN.

To which Stefan replied:

Text Message from Stefan

Followed by another message from chef Richter a few minutes later:

YOU LOOKED GOOD. NICE BUTT. JUST A COMPLIMENT.

Many things he isn’t. You can’t expect to have a deep, existential debate with Stefan. He is one opinionated guy and will offer his point of view on any matter in the world. Most of the time, however, it’s just a fluffy cloud of clichés and one liners with no substance. One thing he is though is his business. A typical only child, he doesn’t know how to share himself, his attention, his time, unless it is beneficial for his affairs. People either love him or hate him. While the first admire his confidence, the latter are put off by his cocky attitude. Whichever way you see Stefan, he is a greatly talented chef and a successful businessman.

I’m quite certain we’ll be hearing more of Stefan Richter in the future. In the meantime, someone get me a cocktail. I’m exhausted.

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