Leaving La Quinta

“Man cannot discover new oceans

unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.”

–          André Gide

 

We are in the final moments of an impending major life change.  The material acquisitions of a hard working life have been sold, given away, discarded or packed neatly into labeled boxes lined up in what used to be our dining room.  Looking at the stack makes me contemplate how one’s hours are easily measured by the amount of stuff accumulated.  It’s hard to break away from these thoughts but my post isn’t about materialism it’s about choosing to live life deliberately and enjoying every second of it.

The first time I literally walked away from a restaurant in my prime was at Pili Pili, a wonderful Mediterranean restaurant near the Merchandise Mart in Chicago. I can vividly remember my bosses face changing to a ghostly white as the color left it when I told him of my decision.   We were at the top of our game, recently named top ten in the world by Food and Wine magazine, and I was leaving for reasons that astounded him.  I had to go for a walk, a very long walk, a 2,167.2 mile walk on the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine.

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Gastronomica magazine published my story chronicling the thought process of how I had lost the desire to trade my life for a handful of dimes and needed something more spiritually significant happening in my life.  At the time I was experiencing what Phil Cousineau described as soul loss.  “There is another call, the one that arrives the day when what once worked no longer does. Sometimes people need a shock; sometimes a tocsin call. It’s time for a wakeup call. A man fired from a job; a child runs away from home; ulcers overtake a body. The ancients called this “soul loss”. Today, the equivalent is the loss of meaning or purpose in our lives. There is a void where there should be what Gerard Manley Hopkins calls “juice and joy.” The heart grows cold, life loses its vitality. Our accomplishments seem meaningless.”  I craved more significance in my life.

Sometimes to find yourself you need to let go of your perceived safety net, float freely away and completely lose sight of the shore.  Only amidst the turmoil of a stormy sea can you rebuild your life and find your way to your island paradise.

“There are many things that seem impossible

only so long as one does not attempt them.” 

― André Gide

I am leaving the kitchens of Figue Mediterranean and hanging up my toque looking for new challenges and goals to strive for.  I could list one hundred valid reasons to go and perhaps another hundred reasons to stay, but none will repay time lost with my three year old son Beaumont and my wife Lisa.   I am thankful for all the cooks and dishwashers I had the privilege  of working with over the last two years.  I am thankful to Lee Morcus for bringing me on to help realize his dream.  I wish continued success to everyone there.  And my biggest thanks to all our customers… without you a restaurant can never be.

At age 50, following my lifelong passions of food and photography I am reinventing myself as a food photographer and blogger and am hopeful to one day write a book, maybe turn it into a TV series and continue to explore the world one plate at a time.

Join me on the journey at http://www.EatTillYouBleed.com  The journey beginsin July 2014.

 

Francois

 

Chef François grew up in a very French household in Chicago. His earliest attempts at cookery began with the filleting of his sister’s goldfish at age two and a braised rabbit dish made with his pet rabbits at age seven. He eventually stopped cooking his pets and went to the highly esteemed New England Culinary Institute where he graduated top of his class in 1985.

Chef François de Mélogue has over 20 years of cross-cultural culinary experience, Chef François brings an impressive culinary history and a unique Mediterranean cooking style. After graduating top in his class from the notable New England Culinary Institute, Chef François began his career in a number of highly acclaimed kitchens across the country, including Chef Louis Szathmary’s restaurant The Bakery in Chicago, Old Drovers Inn, a Relais and Chateaux property in New York and Joel Robuchon Gastronomie restaurant in Paris, before opening award-winning restaurant Pili Pili in his hometown of Chicago, rated in the Top Ten new restaurants in the World by Food and Wine magazine in 2003. While working with Robuchon, Chef François began to shape his personal culinary philosophy of “Cuisine Actuelle,” which showcases the natural flavor in the ingredients he uses to create his dishes. Chef Francois specializes in simply prepared Mediterranean-inspired cuisine that is enhanced by his appreciation and knowledge of fine wine, craft beer, charcuterie and cheese. In line with his belief that food should be prepared without unnecessary distractions or alterations, Chef François creates honest, healthy and delicious cuisine that is approachable and always delightful.

Specialties: incredibly focused cuisine actuelle mixed with a deep appreciation of fine wines, beers, charcuterie and cheeses

Alain Passard’s 90 Minute Asparagus

de6575217e6c288d0dec2276a018edfeAsparagus’s first shoots have been popping up all over fields and gardens in Southern California for the last few weeks. They are a food lover’s early Spring harbinger telling us Winter is almost done and soon our tables will be overflowing with morels, fava beans, ramps, Alaskan halibut and other culinary delights.  It’s especially good news for those who live in parts of the country still buried under mountains of snow not believing that Winter will actually end soon.

I pre-ordered Michelin three star Chef Alain Passard’s highly anticipated vegetable book “The Art of Cooking with Vegetables”  from Amazon as soon as it was offered.  When it arrived, I leafed through it, loved the simplicity, then put it on a shelf and promptly forgot about it.  That’s one of the problems facing a cookbook addict who owns more than 2,000 cookbooks.  There ought to be a 12 step program for book hogs like myself who cannot refuse new releases.  Just the other day I picked it up again and became enthralled with Passard’s recipe titled “Stand Up Asparagus”, a recipe genius in it’s simplicity though it sounds a tad like a dish DeNiro would have ordered in Goodfellas.

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The recipe called for “the freshest possible asparagus with tightly closed tips and firm stalks” so on Sunday we went to the La Quinta farmer’s market and picked up a few bunches of just picked asparagus.  I trimmed off the bottoms, wrapped them in buttered parchment and bundled them together with kitchen twine.  I clarified 5 ounces of fresh sweet cream butter and put it into a one quart pot along with the asparagus bundles and slowly cooked  it for 90 minutes on super low heat, basting every twenty minutes.

asparagus 41The result is asparagus nirvana.  The stalks are perfectly cooked and tender with the tips still bright green with a light crunch.  Alain suggests serving with a poached egg and all that delicious asparagus butter.  Certainly you cannot go wrong with the classic combination but if you are adventurous and your arteries are not in imminent danger of clogging, you could poach an egg AND make a Hollandaise with the resulting asparagus butter.  For those of us pushing the limit of rich dishes consumed over a lifetime of eating great food you may want to consider charging the defibrillator prior to tackling this dish!

Chef F… Eat till you bleed!

Polite Provisions: Manufacturers of Local Tonics, Elixirs and Cures

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Polite Provisions is the brainchild of Erick Castro and the guys behind famed San Diego bars Craft and Commerce, Underbelly and Noble Experiment.  The interior space  has the feel of an old time drug store with it’s tiled floors and faux tin ceilings mixed with fitting but eclectic touches like old street lamps and fire extinguishers.  The space is absolutely cool, hip and well thought out but the real draw is the amazing cocktails made from a selection of over 50 different bitters and forty six taps pulling everything from craft beers and sodas to draft cocktails and spirits.

Polite Provisions 05We had to drive to San Diego to pick up our beloved VW Westfalia from Pete at SD Westy.  When we arrived he told us we would need another hour or two to button up some loose ends and get our vanagon ready for the voyage back home.  Lisa had come equipped with a list of places to check out and things to do.  Polite Provisions on 30th and Adams was at the top of the list.  We stood outside in the rain waiting for the bartender to unlock the doors and let us in the gold framed wood and glass door.

Polite Provisions 01We sat down and checked out their amazing cocktail and beverage menu with so many great choices of pre-prohibition influenced libations I knew we were in trouble.  Go to their web site to check it out: http://politeprovisions.com/menu/politeprovisionsmenu.pdf  We started with two cocktails, one rum based and the other with Champagne.

Polite Provisions 14Now that we had drinks we needed to order food from Soda and Swine, the sister restaurant next door.  The premise is a meatball shop offering six basic meatballs which you can get in a variety of guises from a sub to pasta and back again.  They have amazing sides, like the Scotch Egg pictured below to over the top dirty fries topped with pork belly and other tasty treats.  They kindly deliver food to your table so that you won’t have to leave your cocktail unchaperoned.  The food is plentiful, fatty and deliciously served on half sheet pans.

Polite Provisions 18While eating Pete called and said it would be a few more hours.  What a terrible place to have to sit and wait for your car to be serviced!

Polite Provisions 13 Polite Provisions 12 Polite Provisions 11 Polite Provisions 10 Polite Provisions 09 Polite Provisions 08 Polite Provisions 07 Polite Provisions 06 Polite Provisions 21I could not more highly, or drunkenly, recommend Polite Provisions!

Cheers!

Diavola: Maybe the best restaurant in the World?

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Dino Bugica has something incredibly and edibly special going on in Geyserville, California.  Dino is the Chef owner of Diavola, one of my favorite places to eat in the world.  What I like most is that it is a regular spot featuring amazing farm to table cuisine with an Italian touch.  The food is mind blowingly simple yet so rich and textured in it’s flavors and combinations.  The menu offers everything from amazing pizzas baked in his wood fired oven, like our perennial favorite the Cha Cha Cha, a house smoked pork belly pizza to pan seared Iberico pork loin in a white miso and mustard sauce.  Even dishes I would rarely if ever order, like tripe or tuna heart, are brought to majestic new heights at the Chef’s talented  hand.  If it is on the menu, I am ordering it.

Next time you find yourself in Northern California and you are wondering where to eat go visit Dino at Diavola Pizzeria http://www.diavolapizzeria.com/

Geyserville Diavolo and Coppola 15

braised Beef Tripe alla Fiorentina with a sauteed Farm Egg

Here is a gallery of photos I have taken over the last few years of eating there, enjoy!

Figue’s Figs

Our baked figs at Figue Mediterranean is undoubtedly the most requested appetizer on our menu.  It is the culmination of what Figue is in one bite, charcuterie, figs, labne, Provencal honey and Sicilian pistachios.  The melding of cultures and cuisines.  The inspiration originated when I bought Greg and Lucy Malouf’s excellent and inspiring book ‘Arabesque’ and saw a similar dish.  Ours is modified from their original recipe but still pays tribute to it’s origins.

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Please click the link below for a printable copy of the recipe:

Figs by Francois de Melogue at Figue

Guy’s Grocery Games, 98% Excited, 2% Scared or is it the other way around?

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Anyone else remember Michael Bay’s 1998 movie Armageddon starring Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Owen Wilson and several other stars?  The scene I am thinking of is when Oscar Choi, played by Owen Wilson, is getting strapped into the space shuttle and is describing how he feels.  

I applied for a spot on season two of Guy’s Grocery Games, the insanely cool cooking game show on the Food Network and happily got a call back.  If there are any folks who have never seen it it is pretty much Chopped mixed with a touch of insanity.  I almost crapped on myself when they did the Aisle Four game.  I think it was aisle four.  Whatever aisle number doesn’t matter.  What does is that you had to race to the candy aisle and cook a meal out of it.  Or the frigging bag switch? Only a madman with a twisted sense of humor does that to another human being. Owen Wilson correctly describes exactly how I feel on the very hopeful verge of getting onto that show.  “I got that excited scared feeling.  98% excited and 2% scared, or maybe it’s the other way around.”

I am going to represent the crazy anonymous folks that choose the restaurant business to carve out a living.  I suppose it was cooking or end up in some random padded cell to bounce off of in my straitjacket deep into my twilight years.  If I had to describe to my three year old son Beaumont what I do for a living it would simply be: “Daddy wears pajamas with a tall paper hat (lovingly refereed to as a Culinary Condom by Garrett Blackstock in the wildly popular BBC program ‘Chef’) experiencing moments of perfect calm punctuated by periods of unspeakable madness.  I race to get food cooked for 40 to 280 people depending on how many people walk in unannounced, barking out orders for an hour and half interlaced with obscenities and adolescent random comments about penises that would make Red Foxx blush, and perhaps legally classify me as having Tourette’s syndrome.  Sorry son, Daddy is a madman.”

Sorry to burst the bubble of those of you who think of Chefs as a serious bunch of artists and craftsmen wearing clinically white pristine Chef coats quietly contemplating each and every combination that goes on your plate. When I did my stage for one of the world’s greatest Chefs to grace the planet, Chef Joel Robuchon, I thought to myself now if there ever will be a serious kitchen this has got to be it.  By the end of the first service I saw all the same shenanigans I have attributed  to the lowly kitchens I have crewed (or maybe crude).  Oh we are a crazy bunch of culinary clowns, but damn I love it and wouldn’t do anything else!

I sent the casting agency my information followed by a short clip I filmed after a cocktail.  I suppose I should add part of my bio as a form of introduction to the 19 second clip that follows.  It also may explain my character a bit better and perhaps why my sister is still in therapy 51 years later.  “Chef François grew up in a very French household in Chicago.  His earliest attempts at cookery began with the filleting of his sister’s goldfish at age two and a braised rabbit dish made with his pet rabbits at age seven.  He eventually stopped cooking his pets and went to the highly esteemed New England Culinary Institute where he graduated top of his class in 1985.”  Do you think there is another profession anywhere in the world where you can write that you ate your pets and somehow it is perceived as a benefit?  I guess I was way ahead of the tail to snout foodie movement.  GEEZ LOUISE! Or as my French family might gasp “Mon Dieu.”

Moroccan Donuts with Harissa Hot Chocolate

Moroccan Donuts

Who doesn’t love a great donut?  Mmm, those sugary feathery light deep fried puffs rolled in sugar warming your belly and soul.  Donuts are pure magic.  They transport me back to an earlier time when food could cure all that has gone wrong in life.  Donuts, confectionery alchemy at it’s best.  Flour, sugar, butter and eggs transformed into sweet delectable pillows.  Donuts, proof that God does exist.  All this donut talk has nearly caused me to short out my keyboard from the anticipatory drool.  I do understand why I am fat.  I love food and quite honestly food loves me.

I won’t kid you, making these donuts at home will take some skill and patience.  Anyone can do it.  Just set aside some time, follow the recipe and prepare to enter Food Nirvana.

Makes Four Servings:

Moroccan Donuts

1 /2 cup        Milk

2 1/2 t.           active dry Yeast

3 cups            all-purpose flour

8 T.                  cold unsalted Butter, cut into 12 pieces

1/4 cup         Sugar

1 t.                   Sweet Paprika

1 t.                   Cinnamon

Pinch             Cayenne

1 t.                   Sea Salt

2 large           Eggs

2 large           Egg yolks

Heat milk in a small saucepan until it is just lukewarm.  Your body temperature is 98.6 degrees.  If you stick your finger into the milk it should be just slightly warmer then you.  Pour the milk into a small bowl and add yeast. Use a spoon to stir in 1 cup of the flour. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside until it is bubbly and slightly risen, about 20 minutes.

In a food processor, combine the butter, sugar, spices, salt, eggs and egg yolks. Pulse till butter is finely chopped and equally distributed throughout the mixture.

Add yeast mixture and pulse to mix. Add 1 cup of the remaining flour and pulse until the mixture is smooth. Scrape down the bowl. Add the rest of the flour and pulse again until well-mixed. Let the dough rest in the food processor for 10 minutes.

Weigh out two ounces pieces and roll into a log shape.  Pinch the ends together, put in a warm place on a parchment paper lined cookie sheet and let rest till it doubles in size.

Deep fry in 350 degree oil till brown and crispy on both sides.  Roll in granulated sugar mixed with cinnamon.  At the restaurant we are lucky to have deep fryers.  At home I use a large heavy gauged pot filled half way with vegetable oil.  I use a deep fryer thermometer to check temperature.  Be careful not to crowd pot with too many donuts because they will cool the oil and cause the donuts to soak up more fat.  Drain donuts on a cookie sheet lined with paper towels.

Harissa Hot Chocolate

2-1/4 c          whole Milk

¼ c.                Water

4 oz                grated Valrhona bittersweet Chocolate (Manjari)

¼ c.                Sugar

1                      Cinnamon Stick

1                      Star Anise

1 t.                   Harissa, or to taste

Pinch              Saffron

Combine everything, boil, pour into a mug.  Caution this hot chocolate is rich and full of flavor.  Your favorite powdered version will not taste good anymore.

Panigacci: Ligurian layered Pasta with Pesto

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In my researching interesting dishes for the menu at Figue Mediterranean I came across this dish in Carol Field’s excellent book “In Nonna’s Kitchen”.  I was taken by the rustic simplicity that I had to try it right away.  I made it first for my sous chef Keith Schneider and former manager Frederic Watson.  All of us were consumed by the simple flavors of basil married with tomato married with the soft pasta layers.  I tried finding references in other Italian books and couldn’t really find much.  The only other reference to it was a form of ancient flat bread baked directly in the hot coals of a fire.

Making Panigacci is more like making crepes than rolling pasta.  The first step is making the batter.

9 ounces Flour ( I used all purpose)

pinch Sea Salt

2-1/3 c. filtered Water

Mix the ingredients and strain into a four cup glass measuring cup.  Heat a small amount of oil in a Teflon pan and pour just enough batter to make a “crepe’.  If you have never made crepes google it.  The technique is the same.  The recipe should yield enough crepes for one panigacci.

Next make a simple pesto with basil and pine nuts.  I never measure ingredients and go more on feel and flavor but I will offer these helpful tips.  Do not buy store bought pesto because it sucks.  I start with a small boiled fingerling potato, garlic, Parmesan and olive oil pureed in a food processor.  The addition of a small potato came from an Italian chef.  The potato keeps your basil from turning brown and adds a level of creaminess that is amazing.  If I had to guess quantities I would say one fingerling peeled, 1/4 cup of pine nuts, 1 cup Parmesan (I used Reggiano) and one cup of extra virgin olive oil.  With the motor running I add about one pound of basil leaves that were blanched and shocked and I puree till smooth.  To me pesto should taste creamy, basilly with a hint of garlic.

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Spoon one tablespoon of pesto over each panigacci till you are done.  Roast the whole panigacci in your oven, or wood burning oven as we do.  Cut into wedges and serve on a San Marzano tomato sauce.  Try this immediately.  You will absolutely fall in love with it.  Thank You Carol Field for publishing such a great recipe!  I strongly suggest finding her books and buying them all!

WHOOSH! and they are GONE!

“Get Up.  Beau needs food for school”

Those were the exact words that shook me from a deep, heavenly dream of walking through the Sunday market in l’Isle sur la Sorgue with a rustic baguette from the wood burning oven bakery and transported  back to my bed in La Quinta.  “Honey, get up, Beau needs lunch.”

Half awake, sipping my morning cafe au lait, holding communion with distant plantations and tranquil pastures as Antoine St. Exupery once wrote, The joy of living.  Those first swallows of steamed milk and espresso.

“The joy of living, I say, was summed up for me in the remembered sensation of that burning and aromatic swallow, that mixture of milk and coffee and bread by which men hold communion with tranquil pastures, exotic plantations, and golden harvests, communion with earth.”

The smell of garlic and red chili flakes sizzling in olive oil.  I have been up four minutes and the house is filled with the sensual aromas of magic happening on my stove.  The act of transforming raw ingredients into the poetical act of love.  Fresh basil splatters and sputters. adding to the amazing bouquet in our house.  Two little feet running circles around me, still only half awake, I stir the pot.

Chopped fresh onion from the La Quinta farmer’s market and some San Marzano tomatoes and just let it simmer.  AS I do, I look over and notice Beaumont is mimicking me, cooking on his little fire engine red toy kitchen range.  He notices me glancing over and brings a spoonful of imagination for my me to taste and compare to my tomato sauce.  Shit, his is better.

I finish preparing his lunch of Spaghetti AOP with freshly grated Reggiano Parmesan and a drizzle of Mere Goutte olive oil lovingly known in my kitchen as “Mother’s Milk”.  Within three seconds they are gone…  The house is empty except for the sweet memory of preparing something so simple, with so much love, for someone I love so deeply.

Whoosh, they are gone!

Feeling Old… A Time for Reflection

As many of you have already read Charlie Trotter died two days again at the young age of 54, sadly found by his son, but that isn’t really the focus I am intending.  I talked to my sous chef about it.  Keith comes from the Chicago market and actually was the one who told me.  I talked to two cooks who work for me at Figue, one 37 and one 19, neither had heard of Charlie Trotter.  That shocked me.  Google Charlie Trotter and you will see very opinionated commentary on him.  People either loved him or hated him.  I found it fascinating that people who chose this career hadn’t heard of someone who was out there in the forefront, love him or hate him.

I first met Charlie a week before he opened his restaurant on Armitage.  We both had the same Edward Don rep, Wally.   Wally was so excited about Charlie and his project that he wanted to show it off to me.  I was contemplating opening a restaurant at the same time.  Charlie’s restaurant was well laid out and no expense was spared. Charlie’s career skyrocketed where mine just kind of went an average trajectory.  Back then I was bitter about that.  Today I have grown a lot and have no room in my heart for negative feelings or even hatred.

Charlie always struck me as a bit arrogant and over the years I grew to dislike him as a Chef. I could never comment about him as a person but as a Chef  I had heard many interesting stories about his background and claims he made.  I felt I owed it to him and to myself to eat at his restaurant and give it a fair try.  I ate with my mother and was unimpressed.  Too many ingredients on each plate.  I am more awed by minimalism.  We had had the grand tasting menu and two of the courses on the daily printed menu were substituted.  The waitstaff did not even think it necessary to tell us as they brought dishes different than what our printed menu stated.  The first course was very good and subsequent courses became less and less interesting culminating in the desserts scattered across the table that were mediocre at best. Only when I ordered a $400 bottle of a single vineyard Guigal did our table receive any attention.  Trotters was a bit pretentious.  Maybe it was an off night.  God knows I have had many of those.

I feel old because I am now sounding like my father in criticizing the youth of today.  It blows my mind that people do not know who he was.  I wanted to be a Chef so badly I used to go skiing with the Repertoire de la Cuisine firmly tucked in my pocket memorizing sauces and garnishes as I rode the lifts.  The binding came apart and I duct taped it back together.  Every spare second I studied food and Chefs, even ones I wasn’t in love with.  All of us who cook share a bond.  We all chose a career that is physically demanding and unyielding in it’s toughness.  We all have gone through the grind of trying to make it.  The weekends and holidays sacrificed for the art of the kitchen.  The divorce rates, suicide rates, alcohol and drug rates are astounding.  I have gone through a divorce and had my fair share of drug/alcohol related issues over time.  I definitely gave my pint of blood for this career and feel very much like a survivor.

I just read an interesting article about Charlie (read article here).  My favorite line is “I said, ‘From one Chicagoan to another, what would be your last meal?’ And he answered, ‘A 1900 Chateau Margaux,’ ”   I think I may have said the exact same thing.

I bid safe travels to Charlie and heartfelt condolences to his family, especially his wife and son.  I can only imagine the great pain they feel.  I raise a great glass of wine in your honor…  thanks for helping Chicago become a better known food town and thanks for doing your part in carrying le feu sacre…

 

The Story of Life

is quicker than the Wink of an Eye

The Story of LOve is hello and goodbye…

…until we meet again!