Tourist Pics

Sometimes it’s nice being a tourist in your own city. Coming back from Marin County yesterday I detoured onto the Marin Headlands to snap a couple of pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge. A nice breeze had swept the air clean providing a dazzling view of the bridge and the city. I’ve done a little Photoshop work on these images to give them that old postcard look. For a larger view of these pictures click here to be taken to my Flickr photos.


Pizza Terroir

Updated April 25, 2008 12:01 pm

$483.00 for a decent slice of pizza in San Francisco? Is this the going rate at some trendy, fashionista-friendly pizzeria down on Union Street? Fortunately it’s just Wired Magazine’s Joe Brown’s MSRP for a proper slice which includes a plane ticket to New York to pick up the perfect pizza.

Now, I’ve had a couple of slices here and there-a couple in NYC and one or two on trips abroad. But my favorite remains Old Chicago in my hometown of Petaluma. Of course, a steady deep dish diet would probably be the death of me, so, after sampling my current neighborhood pizzerias I’ve settled on my favorites here in the City. And while proximity is important, (after all who wants to walk far for their fix?) I’m also on the lookout tangy sauces, tasty pepperoni, and flavorful crusts. Right now Serrano’s on 21st at Valencia fits the bill; you’ve got to love a place where you can call ahead for a slice. The pizzas are just the right balance of cheese to sauce, wonderfully flavorful overall, and I’ve never had a soggy slice–a big complaint her in the City.

But Brown’s article highlights a point about flavor I’ve never considered-the age of the ovens used in NYC pizzerias.

“As you cook, some ingredients vaporize, and these volatilized particles can attach themselves to the walls of the baking cavity,” Tisi says. “The next time you use the oven, these bits get caught up in the convection currents and deposited on the food, which adds flavor.” Over time, he says, more particles join the mix and mingle with the savory soot from burned wood or coal — the only fuels worth using — to create a flavor that you can’t grow in a garden: gestalt, if you will.

Yes, gestalt does sound a little California hipsterish, but isn’t that gestalt the reason we sometimes grill meats, cedar plank fish or even toss a couple of wood chips in the smoker? Were always on the lookout for those “volatized particles” and the flavor they produce.

NYC may have the best pizza because they’ve got the most crud in their ovens, but I’m going to skip the plane flights on Friday night and stick by my local pizza crew.

Read Joe Brown’s Wired article here: Why New York City’s Iconic Pizza Is So Tough to Replicate

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Kitchen Improv

Zoi who?

Zoi who?

Listen to Jennifer discussing last night’s episode in this interview from

There you are minding your own business out for an evening at some improv night club. Everyone’s having a good time. A couple of drinks. A couple of laughs. The actors are really killing. Now they’re soliciting ideas from the audience for their next skit. You smile as the audience yells out crazy suggestions to questions like, “Name a color,” or, “name an emotion”. You’re smile fades a little, though, as the suggestions suddenly get awfully close to your self-interests. At this point in the evening, if your a chef, the cry of “name a food” would chill your blood. After all, if you’re at an improv club there’s no worse feeling than that of going from being audience member to being full-fledged participant on stage.

Trust me.

Even for our hearty TC contestants, with their willingness to endure Tom’s critiques of their culinary exploits and Padma’s occasional withering stares just for a shot of fame and exposure, the kind of exposure an improv stage provides can prove to be too much for our band of ego-driven chefs. Mercifully, we were spared the sight of Jennifer and Dale acting out a version of the “Meeting your girlfriend’s parents for the first time!” skit. Instead the gang had to use the Mad Lib-like suggestions from a drunken improv audience to prepare food for the cast of Chicago’s Second City theatre group. Overall an interesting juxtaposition given the Quickfire challenge, overseen by Johnny Iuzzini, which required the chefs to exercise their baking and pastry skills. Whereas cooking in general is improvisational, baking is a science like chemistry, and some of it’s best know practitioners are about as exciting as chemists. Aside from Duff on Food Network’s Ace of Cakes, can you name a baker with a Mario Batali-like personality?

Back at ChefHaus contestants break into teams of two to plan their improv meals. And, as if “Depressed Bacon” and “Perplexed Tofu” wasn’t difficult enough, the contestants are forced into more improvisational moments when they discover many of their kitchen electrics have been removed, and, two-thirds of the way into their cooking time, they’re forced to pack up and leave the friendly confines of the GE Kitchen for the cramped galley of ChefHaus. Serving proceeds apace with not a little bit of sexual innuendo, and then on to the Judges Table where one of the show’s problems comes to light. All of the challenge winners are men (hooray, Spike finally got to make his soup!) but the bottom quartet are all women including, gasp! St. Stephanie. A female contestant has not yet won on Top Chef, and picking off another one right now doesn’t improve the odds one will win this season either.

Another problem facing the judges is just who to send home anyway. Does someone from the team whose plate was a riot of flavors and ideas pack their knives and leave? Or, do one of the chefs from the team which ignored the rules of the challenge take a hike? Apparently, breaking the rules isn’t always enough to get you sent home, so poor Jennifer and her asparagus ends her quixotic quest to avenge Zoi, and instead will get to comfort her in person. The judgment seemed a little unfair to me. After all Antonia and Lisa flouted the rules and didn’t even include an element in their dish they were required to use. Perhaps, if they had, the taste and execution would have been worse than Jen and Steph, and one of them would have had to pack their knives and go.

I guess the judges felt they should reward Team Polish Sausage for their ingredient improvisation.

Kiwi lives!

Da Bears New O line
Meet Da Bears New O line

What can you say about an episode whose most interesting moment was the poll question? Who would I want to touch during a game of touch football-Padma, Tom, or myself? I’m not telling.

Nice fake out, though. Kiwi looks like he’s finally going to have to pack his knives until Ryan decides he’d like to bring haute cuisine to the masses. Big mistake. And didn’t he learn anything from the block party Elimination Challenge? Tom and the gang don’t like individuals or teams showing too much personality during the challenge. Apparently, though, they don’t mind a chef tasting from a spoon and then using the same spoon to serve guests. Health department violations aren’t enough to get you booted off the show even though you’ve been in the bottom tier many, many times, but an overly ambitious menu might just be your ticket back home. Now we’re down to one chef representing San Francisco.

Oh, and Stephanie was back in the top three again, and the other Chicagoan, Dale, broke through with an EC win. Maybe now he’ll stop kvetching for at least an episode.

Speed Demon

Sara Hall
As if I didn’t feel enough of a slacker or slowpoke, along comes this article from the New York Times featuring Sara Hall. Check out this little snippet regarding her and her husband Olympic hopeful Ryan Hall’s training regimen:

“I’m not running as far these days,” Hall said, compared with the distances she ran in high school and college. That might come as a surprise to anyone who learns that her average weekly mileage remains 85 to 90 (compared with her husband’s 140-plus). A typical training week includes easy running on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday (usually twice a day). Hall, who can run almost a four-minute mile, lopes through these 30- or 50-minute workouts at a leisurely mile pace of 7 minutes.

I just don’t know why this article is in the Style and Fashion section, though.

No Soup For You

Spike is still looking for soup

Not a lot of food porn in this episode since the Quickfire challenge was the ever-popular blindfolded taste test. A nice change of place slowing things down and returning to the basics of cooking. Even Richard acknowledged there’s nowhere to run and one can’t hide behind technique in a challenge like this. Either you’ve got a palette, or you don’t. But while a taste test is nice, how about a knife skills or a speed prep demo? That’d fire everyone up and test that liability clause in everyone’s contract.

And a note to Dale. He said he’s tasted a lot of caviar so he knows what to look for. Since he picked the less expensive version, he may want to find out who produces it. If he can be fooled, so can the customers in his restaurant, and he could probably save a few bucks buying the cheap stuff.

For Elimination teams broke up into four groups to prepare dishes evocative of four elements-Earth, Air, Fire, and Water (I thought for a moment they’d include Wind to try for a 70’s retro vibe, but, sadly it was not to be)-for a Meals on Wheels fundraiser. The drama hook was Fires team’s lack of consensus and focus. Lisa, Dale, and Stephanie had difficulty conceptualizing their dish and couldn’t make up their mind about what to prepare even during their food shop. But guys, why worry? You’ve got Stephanie on your team. With all the challenges she’s won and winning teams she’s been on, she’s a walking good luck charm. If the Chicago Cubs want to win a World Series, they should comp hometown girl seats to all of their games. Despite Fire’s indecision and Lisa’s kitchen profanity tirades Fire team takes the challenge and the producers afford us the delicious shot of Dale fuming after Lisa is picked over him as the overall winner. Oh, smolder, smolder.

On the opposite end of the spectrum Antonia’s immunity proves to be the kiss of death for her team and their carpaccio. Padma and crew, along with the rest of the diners, found their Earth-inspired dish to be bland, tasteless, and less than inspiring. I mean, come on, they had Earth. Where were the hearty roasted vegetables? The braised meat with a toothsome sauce (although I admit braising meat may have taken them over their two-hour cooking limit, but with big risks come big rewards, right?) Spike tried to convince his teammates to create a butternut squash soup, but he was shot down by Immunity Girl, although she later denied it. Their lightly seasoned effort seemed to be a much bigger sin than Richard and company’s salmon, which according to the judges still had enough scales on them to jump in the nearest river and swim upstream.

In the end another San Francisco entrant, Zoi-poor, hapless Zoi-was done in by her lack of seasoning or taste. I was kind of surprised Zoi packed her knives because I thought the producers would try and get more mileage out of her relationship with Jennifer. We’ve had glimpses in earlier episodes of the kind of jealousy they engendered in the other chefs, but again finding herself on a losing team finally caught up with her. I don’t think the butternut squash soup could have even saved her.

Secrets of a Chef

Hubert Keller at his Burger Bar in Las Vegas
Hubert Keller at his Burger Bar restaurant in Las Vegas

I’ve started working on the second season of Secrets of a Chef with Hubert Keller, he of the budding restaurant empire which includes the Michelin rated Fleur de Lys here in San Francisco. While the first season of this public television show was very successful, the second season promises to be even better. The recipe segments shot in the Jeriko winery tasting room look terrific, and Chef Keller looks happy and relaxed on camera. And the recipes-Tagine of Chicken, Venison Chops, Lamb Shanks-look delicious, and Chef Keller’s gentle delivery will give any viewer the confidence to try them at home.

If you live within reach of KQED, will be re-running the first season of Secrets of a Chef. When I know when it’ll be back on the schedule, I let you know.