Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Inner peace

I am passing this on to you because it definitely worked for me this afternoon, and we all could probably use more calm in our lives.

Some doctor on TV this morning said the way to achieve inner peace is to finish all the things you have started. So I looked around my house to see things I'd started and hadn't finished so I have managed to finish off a bottle of Merlot, a bottle of Chardonnay, a bodle of Baileys, a butle of sum, a pockage of Prungles, tha mainder of bot Prozic and Valiuminun script ions, the res of the chesescke an a box a chocletz. Yu haf no idr how bludy fablus I feel rite now.

Plaese sned dhis orn to dem yu fee ar in ned ov iennr pisss. An telum,u blody luvum.!!  xyzlpdq            X

(Thank you anonymous-internet-forwarder-with-too-much-time-on-your-hands - I'm glad you do; I will be taking this advice to heart!)

Saturday, July 30, 2011

This is a rock

There's quite a lot of interesting psychology behind how people read menus and how clever menu design can influence or increase diners' orders, however one trend I can't get my head around is restaurants that simply list the ingredients of  a dish. A cassoulet might, for example, become 'pork, duck confit, haricot beans'.

I can't help feeling it rather misses the point. Where's the connection? The cooking method? The culinary influences? The evocative turn of phrase that makes me want this dish? Admittedly some menus go too far in the opposite direction, seasoning their menus with adjectives as if they were Maldon salt flakes, but surely a happy medium is the way to go?

The menu at Bilson's Restaurant, where I sampled the L'omnivore Grand degustation last week, was a case in point - 'baby carrot, calamari, ink, macadamia, cocoa' read one description; 'polenta, zucchini, Parmesan, hazlenut' read another; 'marscapone, beetroot, orange, white sesame' was the sum total of a third.

Okaaay, but what exactly will I be eating?

The answer, it quickly became apparent, was 'soil', 'rocks', 'foam', 'gel', 'powder', 'air' and any number of 'smears'. The single most substantial item in the whole 10-course menu was a solitary quail breast. Moist, delicious and beautifully cooked, but demolished in two bites.

I'm not singling Bilson's out for special attention; I've been to half a dozen other restaurants recently where a chemistry set is obviously part of their regular mis en place. Why simply emulsify a sauce when, with the help of maltodrexin, you can turn it into a powder?

Nor am I saying that such feats of culinary wizardry are all bad (have I mentioned my big foodie crush on Heston Blumenthal?), but they are definitely over-used, and I'm prepared to hazard a guess, the reason why some menus have been pared back so far. Just look at the amount of inverted commas I've used in this blog post - I'd have to use all those and more to rewrite Bilson's menu to adequately describe the dishes on there.

I'd like to see the pendulum swing back from so-called molecular gastronomy to food where beautiful, fresh, seasonal produce is allowed to take centre stage. It's already starting to happen but not fast enough for my liking.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a rock-free, soil-free, smear-free meal to prepare. Bon appetit.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Memories are made of this

There are few things as wonderfully evocative as food. Good or bad, just one taste of a dish can catapault you back in time, conjuring up the sights and sounds, even the emotions you experienced. A perfectly ripe strawberry, warmed by the sun, leads itself to reminiscing about idyllic late summer afternoons picking your own berries at a local farm. The dry scratch of yet-to-soften Weetabix recalls the sensation of trying to choke down a British hospital breakfast (see Notes from a hospital bed  for a whole blog on this topic) after a tonsilectomy.

I won't try to pretend to be the first person to have made this link; there's a whole genre of food memoirs that
testify to the power food has to transport us through time and space.

In his charming memoir Cooking for Claudine film critic John Baxter links his early attempts seduction techniques in '60s Sydney with the theatrical hiss of steam caused by wine splashed into a hot pan. In Giulia Melucci’s deliciously funny and sometimes poignant book I loved, I lost, I made spaghetti she reminisces about the dishes she used to seduce the men in her life and the comfort food she consoled herself with after her relationships fizzled out. For food writer and television host Nigel Slater, author of Toast: The Story of A Boy's Hunger, the smell of burning toasts conjures up his memories of his mother, who died when he was nine.

I had one of those moments tonight when I made French onion soup, served with the cheese toasts we used to call crostini when we used to have this dish back in the '80s. The sweet silkiness of the onions, buttery broth and the soup-soaked bread took me back to those Sunday evenings when dad would roll up his sleeves and peel and slice onions galore to make a huge pot of this classic soup. The house would fill with the aroma of caramelised onions, fresh thyme, bay leaves, stock and a healthy splash of brandy; the kitchen window would steam up and I would start my not-so-stealthy campaign for more crostini and less soup.

I wasn't actually sure when I decided to make this soup, the recipe for which can be found here, whether I would like it (it has been a very long time between tastes) but it seems that I like both the soup and the memories it evokes.

Oh, and if your only memories of French onion soup are of adding a packet of the powdered variety to a tub of sour cream to make "French onion dip", then it might be time to create new ones...

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

In my opinion

Not everyone will agree with me but one of the defining characteristics of blogging is how egotistical it is - most blog posts are, after all, about what the writer has seen, done or thinks about the topic they're writing about.  There are very few opportunities in journalism for a writer to insert themselves into a story.

That is unless you happen to be someone like food and travel writer AA Gill, who has made a career from sharing his very strong, very subjective opinions, and was in Sydney last week for the Sydney Writers' Festival.

I wasn't lucky enough to get a ticket to his session with globe-trotting chef/writer Anthony Bourdain  (not for lack of trying; they seemed to sell out in about two minutes), but I was inspired by the brilliant profile by Nick O'Malley in Saturday's Sydney Morning Herald to pick up a copy of Gill's 2007 book Table Talk. How could I not after this description:

His writing is precise and poised, profane and savage. It is famously, horribly funny. It is marked by wild, mean metaphor and simile. In an evisceration of the Parisian bistro L'Ami Louis published last month (now the subject of 752,000 web references) he bestowed upon its waiters the "meaty malevolence of gouty buffalo" and described its oversized snails as "dinosaur boogers".

Gill's burlesque prose would collapse under its own weight if it weren't for the carefully crafted frame on which it is built. Phrases and sentences tumble over one another and rhythms erupt before he sinks the slipper. "It's all timing, everything is timing," he says. "Iambic pentameter. We speak in threes."
Gill has pissed a lot of people off with his iambic pentameter. His Wikipedia entry is a list of complainants. There are the Welsh ("loquacious, dissemblers, immoral liars, stunted, bigoted, dark, ugly, pugnacious little trolls"; the English ("lumpen and louty, coarse, unsubtle, beady-eyed, beefy-bummed''); residents of Norfolk ("the hernia on the end of England''); of the Isle of Man ("[it has] fallen off the back of the history lorry to lie amnesiac in the road to progress"); the Albanians (''short and ferretfaced, with the unisex stumpy, slightly bowed legs of Shetland ponies'').

As I said, brilliant! (And I'm saying that about both Gill and O'Malley's prose.)

I am less than a third of the way through Table Talk and already Gill has eviscerated vegetarians, pandas, dinner parties, Milton Keynes (a British "New Town" which undoubtedly deserves it), holier-than-thou organic restaurants, the ballet Coppelia, politicians and fat picnicers in clip-on bowties.

Given that I don't usually write about books until after I've finished them, why am I writing about this one now? Because it will go some way to explain, if you happen to see me on the bus or train tomorrow, why I'm giggling, sniggering and guffawing helplessly.

And because I can - it's my blog...!

Monday, May 23, 2011

One night at El Bulli

Someone asked me earlier today what I would do for one night only if I could do anything in the world, with no ramifications, and if money was no obstacle.

My answer? Dinner at chef Ferran Adria's El Bulli restaurant in Spain, arguably the most famous restaurant in the world and definitely one of the most innovative. Admittedly it would involve it a little bit of magic carpetry, and I'm assuming that a booking would also be no obstacle (the restaurant receives more than 2 million enquiries for just 8000 places a season), but yes, please!

While most of my culinary fantasies centre around being a guest at one of Heston Blumenthal's Fantastical Feasts (the man is a genius and honestly, who are those simpering reality TV starlets they invite on to taste his creations? Pfft!), Ferran Adria is front and centre in my mind because I have just finished reading The Sorcerer's Apprentices: A season at el Bulli by Lisa Abend.

This book provides a behind-the-scenes account of what it's like to do "a stage" (ie. work long, back breaking hours for free, for up to to six months, for the experience) at El Bulli, following the group of 30 or so young chefs from around the globe who work in the restaurant during its 2009 "season".

Despite Adria being the drawcard for the 8000-plus chefs who apply for these positions every year, as well as the avid foodies who'll read this book, the funny thing is that he's strangely distant from this book. I suspect he was as unavailable to the author as he appears to be to the staigaires. Just because you orbit the sun doesn't mean you can look at it directly.

The thing that most strikes me about the the picture this book paints of the kitchen at El Bulli is that, for one of, if not the most, innovative restaurants in the world, it is a terrifyingly dull and regimented place. It may have reputation for creativity but if there's any place closer to a production line staffed by robots, I don't know where it is. A stagiaire - who might have come from running their own kitchen at home - might spend all day making congealed milk "skins" (like those on hot chocolate when you let it cool), six days a week, for three months at a time. And doing nothing else. Did I mention they're doing it for free??

And yet this is a restaurant that serves Artichoke Roses, "roses" which appear to be made of artichoke leaves that are in fact made of cooked edible rose petals and dressed wth artichoke and rose oils, to play up the flavours of both references the dish makes.

It seems to me that the take home message from this book is that the reason that El Bulli is able to be so creative is that they have so much free labour, all worshipping at the feet of the elusive Senor Adria.

Unbeknownest to the author or the stagiaires, it is during this period that Adria decided to close El Bulli at the end of the 2011 season, in just a few months from now, and reinvent it as a think tank for gastronomic creativity. It seems I may have missed my chance to dine at El Bulli...

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Hello, my name is ...

Photo by Ramzi Hashisho.
Listening to my national advertising sales manager chat to a new member of the ad sales team about the challenges of cold calling and how to deal with those calls that don't go to plan (that is, the client can't be convinced to buy squillions of dollars worth of advertising) I was struck by the similarities between sales and internet dating. Yes, really. Off the top off my head:

1) Prospective clients/partners are probably talking to two or three "potentials" at any time.
2) Meeting up is either super-urgent or postponed endlessly.
3) Once a meeting is postponed, there's a fair chance it won't happen, full-stop.
4) Subtlety gets you nowhere; being pushy can turn people off.
5) Everyone wants a demonstratable result. Fast.
6) Chemistry is everything.
7) The moment the bill is presented is always a little awkward, no matter how friendly relations are.
8) Definitive yes or no decisions are delayed to the "nth" hour, if you get a decision at all.
9) Prospective clients/partners can stop taking your calls if they want to let you down gently or avoid confrontation.
10) Sealing the deal can really pay off.
11) Building an ongoing and fulfilling relationship requires work.
12) If things don't work out with the first choice, you'll often get a call sometime down the track.

I could go on...

Thursday, March 10, 2011

I'm in love

Ohmigod, Schulz Bacon from the Barossa Valley in South Australia, named Australia's Best Bacon in the PorkMark Bacon Awards for Excellence earlier this week, and described to me as bacon "crack",  really is that good!

The really, really good news is that it's sold nationally. And if it isn't sold somewhere close to you, consider a trip to South Australia. Seriously.

Habits of sucessful people

The mysterious "they" say that it takes around three weeks to form a habit, which seems strange to me because it seems to take me about one night to form a "bad" one, such as smoking (a habit now broken, phewww), avoiding tackling that last packing box from my most recent move (in early December) and most recently, playing endless games of Mahjong online. 

However, because I am a gullible soul and believe most of the things people tell me (unless it involves a discredited businessnessman offering to transfer a hundred squillion dollars into my bank account right after I email him the account number), I have been attempting to forge a habit of going to the gym. So far it's been less than two weeks and I'm not entirely sure that four visits constitiutes a promising start, but hey, even going twice a week can become a habit, can't it? Can't it?

Having been a bit of a hermit lately, I am also determined to get back in the habit of doing a few other things such as getting off my beaten restaurant/cafe/bar track (aka getting "off my arse") and blogging about my experiences. If you haven't heard back from me in the next three weeks, feel free to email/text/slap me with a wet kipper (hmmm, maybe not the last one) for an habit-forming update.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Random things that made me happy this week

In no particular order:

My first ever attempt to poach eggs wasn't a total disaster - in fact it was good! For years I've only been ordering poached eggs at cafes because I thought they were "hard to make" but I wrong. Yippee!

The Qantas lounge.

A friend "picking me up" from the airport even though his car had broken down and he'd had to catch the train out.

Being licked by a neighbour's labrador puppy on my way to work.

Discovering a cool, new "small bar" in Surry Hills while it's still possible to get a table there without reserving one a week in advance.

Finding exactly what I was looking for, at the right price, in Myer and then having the sales assistant mark it down 60% at the cash register.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Striving for authenticity

I received a text this afternoon from someone who was worried about me because, the text said, in part "your blog has stopped". Well no, it hasn't, but it has been on a brief hiatus.

Despite not posting here since early January I have been thinking - and talking (most recently at this afternoon's Inner West Social Saturday "tweet-up" at the Warrenview in Enmore #IWSS) - a lot about the direction I want to take this blog in this year.

I don't, after all, want to continue my Book Project 2010 here into 2011, although the list is ongoing, with 15 titles on it so far this year.

Most of all though, I don't want this to be a negative space, where I just whinge about all the things I don't like. Who needs that kind of energy in their life? Instead, I want this to be an positive, uplifting place that I, and anyone who drops by, enjoys to spend time in.

I watched a wonderful talk by blogger Neil Pasricha on this morning (if you're not familiar with these talks, they're definitely worth checking out). Neil's 1000 awesome things blog, is all about the simple pleasures in life - clean sheets, the smell of rain on hot tarmac, horror movies with goofy monsters, popping bubble wrap... His talk, 'The three A's of Awesome', was thoughtful, funny and uplifting (there's that word again) and I was particularly struck by the last of his three As - authenticity (the first two are attitude and awareness).

His point was that by being yourself and following your heart, putting yourself in the places and conversations that you can enjoy, and going to the places that you've dreamt about, you'll find fulfillment.

And that's what I want to do here, and in my life in general, in 2011: strive for authenticity.

How that manifests itself in my blog posts moving forward I'm still not entirely sure (bear with me), but overall I want to concentrate on the positive; step into the unknown with a sense of adventure; learn how to say no to the things and people that don't make me feel good, and generally, be the best version of myself that I can be.

Here is Neil Pasricha's talk. I highly recommend it.