Friday, January 14, 2011
It’s been a long time since I worked at Chez Panisse. Even after all this time, cooking there is still as clear as day. I learned so much along the way and not just about cooking. It was that, of course, but also about working as a team, working with really talented people and philosophy. I've always said it’s “the Harvard of restaurants” and to work with other cooks and chefs with the same passion is something very special. This also made it a very difficult place to leave.
During the time I worked at the restaurant, I’d made the rounds cooking upstairs in the café, cooking for a summer downstairs, doing first courses, sweating on the line, working the grill and even a stint in pastry. After 4 plus years, I was ready to leave but didn’t want to go. I knew if I didn’t leave then, I might never leave. There were chefs that had been there for 10 even 15 years. I didn't want to be what I called a "lifer!" I decided to talk to Alice about it and see if she had any suggestions.
The year was 1990. I met her at her house and we talked over a glass of wine. I remember it like it was yesterday.
“I want to leave the restaurant but I don’t want to leave Chez Panisse.” I said to her not realizing at that time what I was really saying,-- that I might move on physically but my heart and soul would never ever leave Chez Panisse and the family I’d made there.
“I have an idea! I’m so busy now and don’t have the time it takes to taste the food every day at Café Fanny,” she said. Café Fanny is her smaller stand-up café named after her daughter, that Alice owns with her sister, Laura, and brother-in-law, Jim.
“You have a great palate, would you be interested in going to the Café every day and tasting for me?” Alice said.
Wow, what a job I thought! Get paid for doing what I love to do most, tasting great food.
The next week and for the following year, I “tasted” food at Café Fanny talking and consulting with the cooks. One of the perks besides tasting great food food was all of the fantastic recipes I got along the way. Here’s one of my particular favorites for millet muffins. They aren’t overly sweet but have a distinctive crunch from the millet. Serve them warm for breakfast slathered with fresh local lightly salted butter.
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup melted butter
12 tablespoons millet
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
Preheat an oven to 375oF (190oC).
Beat the egg and brown sugar well with an electric mixer.
Add the melted butter and 1/2 of the buttermilk.
Stir in the millet. Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt together and add to the other ingredients.
Add the other 1/2 of the buttermilk. Do not mix the muffins together too much or the texture will not be good! Place in greased muffin tins.
Bake in the oven for 20 minutes.
Makes 12 muffins.
Thursday, January 6, 2011
Getting up at 3:30 AM in pitch black is uncivilized but we had to do it. We had to catch a 6:00 AM flight from Buenos Aires to Mendoza and that was even cutting it close. With just two days in Mendoza, a place I’ve been dreaming about for years, we had a lot to squeeze into 36 hours.
Still bleary eyed, our driver headed towards our first winery. An hour later, we got out of the car in the middle of some kind of vineyard dreamland. Surrounded by vines with the majestic snow-capped Andes as the backdrop, this was our first chance to see why people talk the way they talk about Mendoza. Immediately, I could see it was more a state of mind than anything else. Was it my lack of sleep or was I in a trance?
Renee, Lauri, Barbara and I walked towards the showroom/tasting room of Cheval des Andes, a much proclaimed winery owned by Cheval Blanc of Saint Emilion in Bordeaux.
No ordinary winery, this blonde wood-framed glass room with 360 degree vineyard views make Opus views pale in comparison. We walked the four steps to get inside and already we all looked more beautiful. All the glass doors were open to the breezes, vines, polo fields and I had the sense that I didn’t know if I was outside or inside.
And who is that half stallion/half man wearing faded jeans, soft blue plaid shirt and summer scarf draped deliberately haphazard around his neck? Yes that one, the one strolling across the polo fields? There was no tango music but I swear I could hear it.
With tired, burning eyes, I couldn’t take my eyes off this scene, probably one of the sexiest images I've seen in my life. Why would I think any differently? After all, this is Mendoza, Argentina.
I had an incredible urge to run to the bathroom and touch-up my lipstick which I am sure by now was well faded. Oh, why didn't I wear that Giada-like top I had packed in my suitcase? And then he climbed those four stairs. I could hear his cowboy boots with each step.
And for the next couple hours, Nicolas Audebert, chief winemaker for Cheval des Andes, entertained us. He poured us his deep cherry colored ’06 Cheval des Andes Malbec Cabernet blend, which hinted of floral notes mixed with cedar, tobacco, red fruit jam and chocolate. It was well balanced with long and elegant sweet-silky tannins on the finish. Am I falling in love? With the wine, I mean!
“Grab your glass, let’s sit outside!” Nicolas said. I’ll do whatever he says, I thought. And I had no intention of putting my glass down either until every ruby drop was gone. Sitting on white couches outside, surrounded by vines, I was caught in an Argentine moment.