Archive for September, 2008

Life’s Not Fair

If you have more than one child you know how hard-wired the human hunger for justice is. Witness the bitterness that can be packed into the words “it’s not fair” when a child calls attention to an inequity. If you have a boy and a girl, the situation is even worse, because it can be awkward, or even impossible, to treat each child identically. When my son, Graydon, was ten, and my daughter, Lena, was eight, and Julia and I were homeschooling them both, the “fairness” in our hearts was put to the test.

Graydon went with me twice a week when I delivered our farm’s produce to restaurants in San Francisco. This allowed Julia to focus on Lena’s needs without distraction.

“Graydon has to get up at 3:30 in the morning,” I told Lena. But the way she heard it was that her brother “got” to get up early. “The produce boxes are heavy and they drip,” I said. “And I’m weak?” Lena asked.

So I took Lena with me one morning. It wanted her to see where some of our farm’s income comes from. Besides, cartoons tell kids that being a “gourmet chef” means being a fussy, high-strung, dramatic, French or Italian man sporting a ridiculous mustache, and I wanted Lena to see that such caricatures are falsehoods. First of all, we sell to plenty of woman chefs, like Traci Des Jardines. Sure, Traci is at home in the world of white tablecloths and sparkling stemware, but she can also break a whole pig down with quick sure strokes. And as far as drama goes, when Traci went up against “Molto” Mario Batali of the Food Network’s Iron Chef show, she messed him up bad, besting him 24/ 21 on flavor, going 12/9 on plating, and tying the big guy 11/11 on originality. One of “Molto’s” apologists told me that Traci won because, at the time of the competition, Mario had just come off a grueling three week vacation that saw him party his way across Asia. But so what! I wanted Lena to see how hard work and discipline make a winning combination.

Lena and I got to Greens Restaurant at first light. Greens is by the water in Fort Mason Center, and a giant freighter passed under the Golden Gate and slipped by us just a hundred yards off shore. We could smell the brine in the air and hear the seagulls and the wavelets from the big ship’s wake slapping at the pilings on the pier. It was so early that only the bakers were present, and Lena got a hot scone. Baker’s are a different breed than other cooks, partly I suppose, because the biochemistry of yeast is so unforgiving. And bakers also have to be morning people. Sometimes bakers don’t talk a lot, but the women at Greens talked to Lena as she enjoyed her scone, and she told them that she likes to bake too.

When we got to Boulette’s Larder, Chef Amaryll Schwertner gave Lena a beautifully wrapped little package of cookies. Lena is the sort of person who appreciates perfect presentation. I unloaded boxes while Lena un-wrapped her cookies and admired Boulette, Amaryll’s gorgeous, dreadlocked Hungarian Sheepdog. Boulette’s Larder is half restaurant, half boutique pantry, where discerning cooks can find special ingredients like fresh saffron and other exotic spices. While the use of unusual or expensive ingredients may seem profligate to some people, as I get to know more professional chefs, I’m struck, not by how “highfalutin” they are, but by how down to earth and thrifty they are, compared to the average American home cook. Amaryll knows when, where, and why to use saffron in order to achieve a specific effect, but she’s also the last person to waste food. She knows that even (or especially) luxurious restaurants must practice tight-fisted economies if they wish to stay in business.

Take tomatoes, for example. Extra tomatoes, soft tomatoes and tomatoes that are damaged or cosmetically challenged are not thrown away; they’re used for tomato water. First the tomatoes are chopped, then put in a cheesecloth bag over a pot in the refrigerator and left to drain. The clear liquid that’s captured has the clean, flavorful, essence of tomato without any distracting catsup “notes” or pizza “tones.” Tomato water is used to give character to vinaigrettes, sauces, broths, juices and cocktails. It’s been eye-opening for me to learn how the discipline and values that come from measuring food costs or being familiar with scarcity are far more important to good cooking than having an unlimited budget.

By the time we got to Zuni Café, Lena was bored. The service door at Zuni opens into Rose Alley, and I always pull my truck up on the curb next to the restaurant so that cars can pass. From the driver’s seat I could see Chef Judy Rodgers stalking through her kitchen like an egret hunting frogs, peering into simmering pots, inspecting plates, counting croutons. Judy is all about details. She knows it’s not enough to make a perfect, savory meal. Success comes from knowing why a meal came out so well, so that perfection can be achieved over and over again. Judy’s a long way from the silly cartoon image of the inspired chef who flings spices at a soup. That’s why the cookbook she wrote was no vanity broadside, but a focused, scholarly work that I’ve seen open and stained in a number of different chefs’ offices around the city.

The pantry and prep kitchen at Zuni is down some very steep stairs. To help with deliveries there’s a long wooden slide that folds up against the wall when it’s not being used. Someone stands at the bottom of the slide to catch and stack the boxes as they come flying down. Lena got out of the truck, and when she saw the slide, she knew what it was really built for. Quick as spark she hopped on the slide and went hurtling into the Zuni basement, one hand held high like a bull rider.

Judy looked up from a stove where she’d bent over to adjust a flame and saw me. She had a question for me about chard, and came over. As she spoke, she heard a huffing and puffing, and looked down. Her eyes popped. Coming up the steep, splintery, freight slide, hand over hand, right out of the prep kitchen, was a ragamuffin girl child, about eight years old. Judy was speechless. The Zuni kitchen is as organized and disciplined as Judy’s cookbook; it is not a playground for urchins. As I answered Judy’s question about the relative amounts of oxalic acid in different varieties of chard, I collared Lena so she couldn’t go shooting down the freight slide again. A young woman line cook hustled Lena out the door, and as she helped Lena climb back into the cab, the young cook gave her a brownie, and a compliment. “You know, sweetie,” she said. “I always wanted to do that, but I never had enough nerve!”

copyright 2008 Andy Griffin

photo above taken by Julia W.: it’s of Lena taking a special pastry class arranged by Aaron Toensing at Bix in 2006.  Thanks, Aaron and Zhana!

Lena this summer at the beach.

Rockin’ the Dolly

Our children attend Mount Madonna School now, but for several years Julia and I homeschooled both Graydon and Lena. During that time, when he was ten and eleven, I took Graydon with me when I made my restaurant deliveries. Every Wednesday and Saturday I’d root him out of bed at 3:30 in the morning, and he’d ride up to the City with me. At each stop he’d jump out, help me unload the truck, keep the door open for me when I pushed the hand truck into the restaurant, shuttle some boxes inside behind me, and keep an eye on the street for the meter maids. When he got stronger I gave him a dolly to push too.

It didn’t take Graydon long to figure out that if he made eyes at the dessert chefs, they’d give him something to ward off hunger. His favorite was Michelle Polzin, a tall, striking, punky, tattooed, red-headed, cookie-baking rock & roller with cat’s eye glasses. She always talked to him, asked him questions, and gave him treats. Graydon chatted up the bar tenders too. “You want a cold one for the road?” they’d ask him as we were leaving.

“Yeah,” he’d reply. “I’ll take a limonata.”

People wonder how the kid grew so fast. I wish I could say it was the home-grown organic vegetables, but I suspect it was the lemon tart from Delfina on 18th Street, the cherry fool he knocked back at Range on Valencia, or the hand-rolled bread sticks he inhaled at Incanto on Church.

Graydon learned about food preparation in the restaurants, watching the crew downstairs at Kokkari Estiatorio butcher giant fish, for example, or checking out the guys unloading trucks in the streets of Chinatown at dawn wearing yellow raincoats with dead pigs draped over their shoulders. We were downstairs in a prep kitchen one day when a cook sparked two blowtorches, one in each hand, gunslinger style, and blasted away at a tray of corno di toro peppers until they were black and smoking. Graydon stopped pushing his hand truck to watch. Why didn’t his parents ever bust out the blow torches to make dinner?

“Hey, kid,” said the prep cook. “You can really rock that dolly!”

“Yeah,” Graydon replied. “I’m helping my papa. What are you doing?”

“Flaming off peppers.”

“Why?” Graydon asked.

“A pepper has a thick, waxy skin,” the cook explained, flicking off his torches. “So we burn them real fast with high heat, which lifts the skin and caramelizes the flesh.” He tossed the burned peppers into a large, stainless steel bowl. “After they cool, I’ll peel off the burned stuff.”

Graydon nodded attentively.

“You see all that juice that drips out of them?” asked the cook. “That’s nectar. Save it! A splash of that and your sauce kicks ass!”

Graydon peered into the bowl.

“I’d use mesquite,” the cook continued. “I like the way the smoke balances the sweetness, but pinche flojo over there is tying up the grill, so I ‘borrowed’ the dessert station’s blow torches and I’m getting’ the job done. Wanna try?

Graydon was intimidated by the blue flames, so he stepped back, but he kept watching. Knowing that he had an audience prompted the prep cook to put a little attitude into his roasting, but then attitude is never too far from the surface in a kitchen.

When Chris Cosentino, the chef at Incanto, an Italian restaurant and wine bar in Noe Valley, went up against the Rabelaisian “Molto” Mario Batali, of the famed Babbo Restaurant in New York’s Greenwich Village, on the Food Network’s  Iron Chef show, there was an invitation-only screening party at a bar down in the Mission. Graydon wanted to go. It wasn’t exactly legal for me to take him, but the kid was being home-schooled and missing out on Social Studies Class, so some catching up was in order. “Stay cool,” I told him, “and try not to get in a fight.”

The Double Dutch was crammed and the monitors mounted high over the bar were already blaring by the time Graydon and I showed up. The theme was “Battle Garlic.” Chris had done the Iron Chef competition with two compadres, Jonnatan Leiva of Jack Falstaff Restaurant down in SOMA and Ravi Kapur from Boulevard on the Embarcadero, so the room was hopping with line cooks, prep cooks, sous chefs, garde mangers, and dishwashers from all three restaurants, plus their girl friends, boy friends, spouses and exes, half of whom also worked in restaurants. “This would be a bad night to eat out in San Francisco,” I told Graydon. “Half the talent in town is down here!” I got him a limonata.

On screen, Chris, Ravi, and Jonnatan hit the stage of Kitchen Stadium, and the crowd in the Double Dutch roared. “Molto” and his posse drew hoots. Actually, the cooks all dug Mario too, but you gotta go with the home-town talent, and besides, these were all working people who spend their days chopping, frying, boiling, grilling, reducing, blanching, and straining. They knew that if “Molto” was head chef at Babbo, Lupa, Esca, Carnevino, Casa Mono, Bar Jamon, etc, etc, etc, he’d already drifted off into rock star heaven. But the next day, when the beer buzz wore off, they’d all be back at their stations, getting it done, and so would Chris, Ravi, and Jonnatan. It wasn’t “Chris versus ‘Molto,’”or “Incanto versus Babbo,” it was “David versus Goliath.”

Chris led off with garlic crostino with rapini and ricotta. “If the contest were on this side of the world,” I told Graydon, “that would be our farm’s rapini.”

Sizzled diver scallop crudo with pickled garlic followed, and then Spaghetti alla chitarra with snails & garlic butter. But when Chris plated the squab with the claws still on, each foot clutching a roasted garlic clove, the crowd at the Double Dutch roared like English hooligans at a soccer game. Chris advised the judges to eat the bird’s brains by sucking them out through the beak. Graydon grinned widely and drained his limonata. But then the judges gave the match to Mario by two points¯ the contest having been decided by “plating,” of all things, and the crowd raged. “That’s bull$#*! Flavor rules!”

A prep cook turned to Graydon and I. “Chris outscored “Molto” on originality by five points,” he said. “That’s gotta hurt.” Clearly, if Chris had been judged by a jury of his peers he would have won, but no one ever said that the Iron Chef Program was run by the Department of Justice. Graydon was bummed, so I ordered him another limonata to wash away his sorrows.

School starts up again for Graydon pretty quick. He’s thirteen, so he’ll be learning about the Civil War and pre-algebra, and all that’s super important, I know. How much of his education he’ll remember past the tests is debatable, but I know he’ll never forget the savory education he got in the streets, the kitchens, and the bars of San Francisco when he was rockin’ the dolly for the family farm.

copyright 2008 Andy Griffin

Graydon circa 2005 or 2006 delivering to Quince in San Francisco (photo is also above

Graydon Today, next to the fridge in our kitchen (sorry we didn’t get a better photo, he’s difficult to pin down!  fyi: on the messy fridge includes 3 letters: LNF: that stands for Life’s Not Fair, and ‘cat box’ is part of our chore system.)

Restaurants we sell Mariquita and High Ground produce to twice a week

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