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Belated, I know. Mea culpa.

Or, I could blame it on Christmas.

First, I was hired (yoohoo!) to cater several Christmas parties in December, which kept me occupied twenty-four-seven till the minute the celebrations were over. Shortly after that we packed and left for East Texas, where Santa tossed truck-loads of gifts under the tree and the surrounding it floor, thus creating an obstacle the size of the Chinese Wall and consequently making it impossible for me to get through to my computer. Then, a fleet of overjoyed kids went through the house like a tornado, and I was forced to put all my efforts into trying to stay alive. Next, you wouldn’t believe it but Jason and I went through a dust storm, followed by tumble weed attack of massive proportions, then rain, sleet, and eventually a full on snow blizzard on our way back to Los Angeles.

I’m sure you’ll agree the circumstances I found myself in offered anything but piece and quiet for me and my laptop. Hence, the promised snapshots of the culinary extravaganza by widely popular eco-lifestylist and raw food chef Ani Phyo are only now lining up into a slide show for your enjoyment.

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There’s more information about the food and bites from behind the scene on Ani’s blog. You should click and take a peek.

Also, I owe you a couple of corrections to my previous article that Ani herself said were not a big deal. Hobo Oil she uses on her skin is made of jojoba, the plant. Also, she suggested using spirulina powder itself for an eye shadow, since it is dark green color. As for her make up, Ani uses the ones mineral based.

I hope you all had a wonderful holiday break. I shall reveal some intimate details from mine in the upcoming entries along with delicious food teasers, as customary.

Today’s article was sponsored by the color PURPLE.

(Go Frogs!)

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December is that time of year when everyone from Average Joe to Plain Jane hasten their steps in an attempt to find closure. Whether it’s personal matters like cleaning one’s teeth and de-cluttering their house, or a business deal that must be closed before the clock strikes midnight, all tasks are to be accomplished or else everything will turn into a pumpkin patch and Cinderella will run away barefoot.

The same commotion rules our house these days, hence my seldom presence in this cyber neighborhood. I’ve been meaning to sit down and tell you a story of a certain encounter, and a chat that followed…

Last month, while helping chef Fullilove shine his bright culinary light on LA food enthusiasts at the Test Kitchen, I ran into Ani Phyo, the raw food chef extraordinaire and author of four un-cook books. I think she’s working on her fifth now.

It’s funny how it happened really. All covered in flour dust while cutting beet pasta into long ribbons of vegan tagliatelle, I noticed this woman hanging around in the room, speaking gently on her cell phone, trying to be as non-intrusive as possible. Her voice I found very comforting and calming. Yes, I have a thing for voices. It turns me on if it strikes the right tone, and I don’t mean in a sexual way. At least not this time.

I digress.

The woman looked familiar, but I couldn’t match the face with a name in my head. She greeted us, asked about the pasta with an excited spark in her eye, and I couldn’t help but notice the voice again. Have I mentioned that I have a thing for people’s voices? I had to say something! Graciously she accepted my compliment and exited the room leaving nothing short of a shimmering glow behind. I saw her around over the two days I spent there, me working on Jason’s thing, her prepping for her event the following week. It wasn’t until I heard someone mention the name “Ani” and the word “raw” all in one sentence when it hit me.

I’VE GOT HER BOOK IN MY HOUSE! I’VE SEEN HER YOUTUBE VIDEOS. I KNOW WHO THE WOMAN IS!

Phew!

Ani Phyo in the kitchen of the Test Kitchen with Top Chef Alex Reznik.

Next thing I know, I’m stalking the poor gal around the kitchen premises hoping to score a short chat with her. For this blog. For YOU! Of course, it wasn’t the time nor place for it, so we settled for a phone conversation after her menu tasting at the Test Kitchen in mid November. However, Thanksgiving got in our way and it wasn’t until maybe last week that my phone rang at the precise time Ani said she would call.

I had a roster of questions I planned to bombard Ani with, but you know how it is. A conversation is a living creature, and so, as to be expected, it took us on its own ride. To begin, I wanted to know what was Ani’s definition of RAW FOODISM. She made it very uncomplicated by describing raw diet as fresh, whole foods made with ideally locally grown and organic ingredients.

“You can make a simple and delicious tomato and tarragon bisque straight from the blender. Or you can cook it, but that takes it longer and makes it more complicated” she explained.

Back in the day, when my eating habits were all over the map for reasons other than health, I went through raw stage myself. I read a ton about the diet, and learnt how complex and time-consuming its preparation was. Foods should be either completely raw or cooked in temperatures not exceeding 118° as to save the metabolism-boosting enzymes captured in the produce. Grains should be soaked in water for extended lengths of time in order for our stomachs to be able to digest them. If you wanted to get different textures you would have to dehydrate and/or powder some of your veggies. It wasn’t a diet for someone who works 10-11 hour days and wants to have a social life on top of that. Thank god, I lived in NYC back then where I had a raw food restaurant just a few blocks up, and a deli with fresh fruits and veggies cut and packaged daily for my convenience. My refrigerator stood empty for the entire five years that I was in Manhattan.

The memories of that period came back to me now, with Ani on the other end of the cable, and so I asked her about that whole process. Shockingly, she wasn’t very excited about dehydrating the food herself since in the process you lose, you know, the water. Then you need to drink it separately, and why would you do that if you can get both in one. Most of her recipes can be made very quickly, as she pointed out, using only a few kitchen essentials like a knife, a blender,  and a food processor, which I found stamped as little picture icons next to each recipe in her book, “Ani’s Raw Food Kitchen“.  Speaking of the book, its cover presents Ani about to take a bite from a raw sandwich she’s holding in her hands. That thing looks so incredibly appetizing. Every time I glance at the bookshelf, I want to rip it off the page, lick the paper, and bite into the binding. I can TASTE it just by looking at the damn thing. You must check it out!

The idea of raw foods instantly whisks me away to tropical lands abundant with fresh produce… and sunshine! Would it be wise and practical to switch to an all raw diet for someone who lives in an area where winter comes and slaps you in the face with its snow falls and damp weather, I asked next?

“You can add heating ingredients, like chili pepper, or ginger to your food. However, everyone is unique and must listen to their body. I lived in Portland for four years, where it rained a lot, and my hands were constantly cold. I don’t know if it was good for me that I ate raw there. It depends on a person. Just listen to your body, and if you feel like you need something warm, eat something warm.”

Here’s where I really started falling for that girl because… she’s rational. She encourages people to stay healthy and live balanced lives as opposed to following some strict rules that lead to extremes.

“If you want to make changes in your diet” – Ani suggests – “start with whole ingredients.” (Meaning unprocessed, organic produce.) “Have gratitude, educate yourself and make choices based on that knowledge. Living a whole and balanced life is not only about the food, but also about your attitude, creating a strong bond with your community, giving back, and having gratitude.”

Having heard all that I couldn’t help but wonder: does Ani Phyo, the sexy queen of raw food movement, cheats on an occasion with what she consumes herself?

“Oh, yes, I cheat sometimes. How crazy do you want to get?” she asked laughing. “I love quinoa. I like tempeh, too. Just the other day, I wanted something warm, so I cooked myself a bowl of lentils. And sometimes, when I get the craving, I stop by Veggie Grill and get a veggie burger. And you know what, I have wheat intolerance, and I know I will have a stomach cramp and I will feel bad for a day, and I may even break out. But once in a while, if I want it, I just have a veggie burger.”

I was in love. A normal gal, sane, with all the pieces of furniture neatly organized in her head. It’s all about balance, people. Extremes never work long term and too often lead to eating disorders, which I myself learnt the hard way. Ani also admitted to having lived hard core raw for a decade, and today she realizes it wasn’t healthy for her.

So what does her day look like today food wise? She starts with two, three smoothies in the morning. She’ll blend blueberries, cashews, water and lecithin into a creamy drink and have it for breakfast. For lunch she may have a big green salad since she likes to work out mid day. After breaking a sweat, she may enjoy another smoothie while her metabolism is rolling. Dinner meal could be a bowl of lentils, a wrap, a salad, whatever strikes her fancy. Kelp noodles is something she raves about for a great addition to a salad.

When on the road, and she travels a lot, Ani always carries with her a bag of goji berries, nuts, maybe nori wrap or dried sea vegetables to nibble on. A banana, an orange and some peanut butter also travel well and help her get through parts of the country that don’t offer a wide array of fresh produce.

Ani Phyo's Raw Kale Chips

In the end I got all girly on her and dug for her beauty tips.

“I don’t put on my skin anything I wouldn’t eat, since it gets absorbed through the pores and gets into my blood stream. I use hobo oil to moisture my skin. Or coconut oil. I just rub it all over. I smell like a piña-colada and I love it. However, in winter I use hobo oil, because it sinks into the skin faster.”

Make-up she uses sporadically, not on a daily basis. Ani’s OK with mascara in moderation, not to be extreme. And if she uses eye shadows, she chooses spirulina based cosmetics.

All in all, it was such an inspiring exchange. Ani is gracious, laughs a lot, and takes herself lightly. Her beauty comes from within first. It’s her healthy mind and body that allow for her charms to express themselves in the physical form as well. She’s delightful to be around, and I hope for another chance in the future.

Feel free to visit her website and direct any questions to her via her Facebook fan page. That’s the best way to get a hold of her, she says.

In my next installment, I’ll include photos of the foods Ani Phyo wowed the crowds with at the Test Kitchen back in November. Stay tuned.

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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