Friday, March 11, 2005


Tapas, dim sum, family style, tasting menu, communal eating -- my eyes light up because it means two things, variety and sharing. My motto for eating is "Share your food!"

As fellow diners will attest, I can turn any meal into communal dining. Regardless of germophobia or some people's need to keep their plates to themselves, I will finagle my way to get a bite of what's on that plate. At a new restaurant, never order the same thing as fellow diners unless there's only one item on the menu or the place is known for one specialty. With participating company, I can turn any meal into family style dining (passing plates). Part of the joy of eating is the company, the people, the social aspect. The company in which you share your food turns good meals into great experiences.

This underlying philosophy dictates they way I cook and serve. Always with a central theme (sometimes even loosely, but it can be a particular cuisine, a specific ingredient, a particular inspiration such as a book or memory of a trip), I cook with as much variety as possible, balancing out not only taste and texture, but also social involvement. You can talk while simultaneously tearing into a baguette. An appetizer requiring your bare fingers is a great way to dig in and break the conversational ice (a glass of wine doesn't hurt either). A salad requiring only a fork needs little commitment or hand-eye coordination. Then you have a steak or a beautiful slice of albacore sushi, where the first bite(s) should be enjoyed in silence, requiring your full physical and emotional commitment to the food. Then you resume your meal, tasting every dish on that table, talking not just about the food, but about anything that you want to share.

In the tradition of small plates to share, I cooked a relatively healthy meal for my girlfriends Jen S, Jenny P, Hannah, and Courtney (six months pregnant w. baby girl - yay!). A few of them are ardent Weight Watchers, so I had to twist their arms to not bring their own food (and still they did) or continually count the number of points. Even with what I deem a healthy meal, the points add up with multiple courses. The central theme (and this one is a common one for me) was healthy with an Asian flare. We started off with watercress and cranberries salad, topped with avocadoes and a sesame-citrus vinaigrette. Then I made a few kinds of spring rolls, a combo of lemon-soy sautéed chicken, fried tofu, asparagus, herbs. Served with a plum peanut sauce. I usually make a plum-coconut peanut sauce, but I was trying to cut fat where possible. Then I made mini entrees of steak (grilled without the usual cubes of butter), sweet mashed potatoes (sans the usual cup of butter and cream), and vegetables. Topped with my signature soy-port reduction. I finished the meal with simple sugar cookies (okay, so they were coconut-ginger cookies). We drank plenty of red wine and finished the evening with cordials of port.

So, it wasn't a lot of dishes, but there was a lot of variety. The meal had over fifty ingredients, from the seven ingredients used to marinate the steak (shiitake mushroom stock, soy, sesame oil, honey, Asian black vinegar, sesame, pepper) to the many ingredients in each spring roll (lettuce, herbs, vermicelli, etc.). It was a delight (and a cinch) to cook. The prep was laborious as usual, but I got my timing down. I served on time, each course within 20-25 minutes of each other, giving us enough time to commune and catch up. At a restaurant, I would have served each course within 10-15 minutes of each other, probably bringing out all the spring rolls and salad at once.

The work (and it wasn't that much) that went into making a meal for my girlfriends was worth the smiles, appreciation, and communal experience of sharing not only our food, but our lives.

Monday, February 28, 2005

Meal Prep Notes

I have about a hundred of these notes in between my notebooks, textbooks, in the middle console of my car, all over my desk, kitchen refrigerator (and I'm sure some lost in classrooms and rented kitchens). Sketching out a menu is one of the first things I do when planning a meal. Surprisingly, I can read my own handwriting. If I have others helping me, I write neater and better organize my notes. Sometimes I have different versions (rough through final).

This is a rough draft (and initial thoughts) for my friend Doug's surprise dinner -- service for 20

This is a cocktail reception I prepared for a hip business gathering at the Standard Downtown. Obviously, this is the first set of notes.

Our final menu, English Butler style service except for the mini bowls of edamame near the bar, consisted of:
• Bite sized seared ahi, over a mini-nest of pan fried vermicelli, topped with wasabi caviar (sweet soy dip on the side)
• Chicken satay (on skewers, peanut sauce on the side)
• Three kinds of spring rolls: Butter Grilled Beef, Tofu, Veggies + Herbs (coconut-hoisin-peanut and nuoc mam sauces served on the side)
• Curry chicken salad canapés (madras blend with fresh asian pears, dried cherries, home made asian aioli)
• Coconut cranberry shortbreads
• Mini ginger brulee's served in edible shells

This is an initial (and probably only/last) set of notes for a Lobster Risotto dinner I'm cooking for friends this Wednesday.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Spring is in the Air

The very season that inspires the name of my future restaurant is a profound time for me. Winters, especially gloomy ones as this has been with a historical rain season, are not something I particularly enjoy. Albeit being necessary, as life is cyclical and with depression comes gestation and growth, I look back at the past two months and wonder what happened to them. I've been neglecting friends, relationships, letting things go undone, forgoing exercise and dealing with paperwork/finances. I've been hiding behind my books, the scrabble board, and a vat of excuses (rain, it's cold, my right to be depressed).

However, today I woke up (even with mild symptoms of the flu), the sun is out, the birds are chirping, and I'm able to open my balcony door. The door gets stuck during the rain as wood expands. My potted herbs have been flooded, roots browned. It's okay. Everything will be okay.

I put on KCRW as I do by habit, and the usual Harry Shearer whom I adore is depressing me, so I put in a wonderfully beautiful mix by Drew. A little Keren Ann, Black Box Recorder, Rufus Wainright, Coco Rosie, and Ben Folds doing a live version of "Raindrops Falling on my Head."

I make coffee. I thumb through Dwell and Jane (a very guilty little pleasure). My house is in desperate need of cleaning, but instead, I'm sitting with my magazines, newspaper, books and daydreaming. For you multi-taskers out there, I don't think I can daydream and clean at the same time. Not today. Daydreaming is essential to my livelihood.

I dream of the food I will make and the people who will eat them. I think of the organic rooftop garden I will have. I differentiate the smell of peppermint versus spearmint in my head. I think of segmenting blood oranges into supremes for a mesclun salad served with a champagne-citrus vinaigrette, topped with roasted coconut flakes.

I think of my team who will strive for perfection at every corner. I think of stainless prep tables. I think of a warm oven and sweeping flames. I think of the clean, inviting, fashionable uniforms my staff will don. I think of a busboy who has dreams of his own. A mile away I can spot his talent yet until he walked through my kitchen doors he lacked opportunity.

I think of a kid whose parents had to bribe and drag before making it to my restaurant for Sunday brunch. The mopey boy would rather be at his best friend's eating potato chips and playing Grand Theft (what a lovely society we're raising kids in). Sitting at this Vietnamese restaurant surrounded by adults suck (except the cool Vans that they wait staff wear). Everything on the menu contains green things and sauce, too frilly for an eight-year-old punk skateboarder. Then I think, what a lucky kid. His parents must love him a whole lot. He just doesn't realize it yet.

I think of my Mom whose talent I admire more and more each day. Lately, I've been into terrines and galantines and realize how much Vietnamese cooking French influences. Although I'm not a huge fan of terrines and galantines, I appreciate the craft and skill that goes into creating and serving them. Growing up, I saw my Mom layering meets, and using all different kinds of homemade molds (milk cartons, cans, etc.) -- Surfas and Sur la Table are not things she's familiar with. Sometimes making one loaf would take ten hours. The worse thing is you had no idea how it was going to turn out (has it cooked all the way through, will the colors come through, was the fat to protein content correct, enough or not enough gelatin, etc.). Finally, the hours of working in anticipation was going to pay off, or not. The banana leaf wrapped galantine has cooled to the right temperature and she would gently put it on a cutting board lined with a recycled paper bag (so she can just roll up the mess once she was done). She would dip her sharpest knife in hot water, wipe off the knife and with one swift move, turn out the cleanest, most beautiful cut. She would call all of us over and make us look, "Come here, look at how this turned out." She critiqued herself, replayed each step, and thought of things she would have done differently. She would be proud of the fact that, "This is exactly how I thought it was going to come out." I would be the least bit interested and barely touch the plated delicacy (usually served with various sweet rice and pickled vegetables). I was not a fan of cold meat (still not). Moreover, I had no appreciation for my Mom's work and would complain about the heat, the smell, and the prep she made me do (I once peeled about over fifty cloves of garlic when she volunteered to make five gallons of Nuoc Mam for a church event). I spent a lot of time sulking in Mom's kitchen. Today I think back. I was/am so blessed. Little did I know.

This is why daydreaming is so important. Especially on crisp, clear days when the break of Spring is in the air.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

New Year, New Discoveries

First off, happy new year! I hope this post finds you having enjoyed and/or survived the holiday as well as New Year's Eve celebrations. I brought in New Year exactly as expected. After a few bottles of champagne, intense conversations, and epic Scrabble matches, I was able to sneak in a few hours of shut-eye before waking up and making us a fine breakfast of crepes, sauteed fruit, fruit salad, french toast, turkey bacon, fresh whipped cream, caramelized onion bacon croquettes, grapefruit salad.

Since then, I've been locked up in culinary school. With each step an ongoing pursuit towards perfection, I'm wholly enjoying this passionate art form. Although I don't know if my cooking skill has improved, I am sure learning a trick or two about being a chef.

My schedule will mellow out soon, hopefully, so I can devote more time in documenting my school experience as well as all this new year has in store for me.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

We're All Connected

Very little positive news have been heard or read about the tsunami/earthquake that took place earlier this week. Villages wiped out, babies left orphaned, decomposing bodies buried in mass graves for the sake of the living. However, light is finally finding its way as lives are found amongst rubles and desolation. Seeping between the death and devastation toll are stories of humanity and courage. And for scientists, this can of worms is proving to be good bait. Scientists are learning we are all literally connected. A affects B affects C and so on. They're learning more about the earth works and what makes it tick, rock, and shake. We're one big connected world. And if our technology would've been more connected, many lives would've been saved. Had an email or telephone been been made in as short of a notice as ten minutes, the devastation would have vastly been different.

Unlike the Pacific Ocean, where it's outlying denizens can afford to pay for alert systems, the Indian Ocean doesn't have one. Along most of the Indian Ocean's shores are farmers and developing industries, mainly tourism. In this joyous holiday season where most of us get to be with family and friends, take vacations, and have much to look forward to in a new year, inequality still exists and devastation still occurs. We may turn off BBC/CNN, NPR, the internet and read only the food, classifieds, and crossword sections of our newspaper, but the world is still there, all connected back to us. The world needs our blood, our extra pennies, and our thoughts.

The good news is if you're reading this post, you're already of likemind and have done your part in helping our connected world. However, I still write out of my own sense of humanity and inner obligation and I hope you forgive me for my on-going indulgence.

Happy New Year and may we stay connected!

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Christmas Eve Dinner

This year we celebrated with a quaint Vietnamese dinner on Christmas Eve after midnight mass (well, my parents went) and before tearing into gifts.

Mom & I shopped at this humongous Asian superstore, buying all different kinds of fresh herbs and produce.

And the result: Grilled to eat beef and shrimp, beef wraped in herbs (Bo La Lot), eggrolls, papaya salad with jerked beef, fresh extra thin vermicelli with fried scallions, salad and herbs, rice paper to roll ingredients in.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Everyone celebrates differently

Some people go to churches with Shell signs on them as seen while I was driving around Huntington Beach, California.

Others, bike around the beach in Santa costumes. It was about 78 degrees Fahrenheit.

Merry Christmas!