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Ode to Anthony Bourdain…

No Reservations (book)

Image via Wikipedia

10 years ago someone gave me Anthony Bourdains Kitchen Confidential” as a gift. I gave the book a cursory view, didn’t like what I read and threw it in a pile of books on a shelf in our apartment.

I was a working Chef in NYC, a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, and at that time was running the catering department at Columbia University. I had no time for trivial stories about some drunk’s exploits in the kitchen. I myself was a drunk, trying to get on the straight and narrow….and succeed in the Big Apple.

My career in NYC started in 1999. My future wife and I moved to the city for her educational pursuits and I scored a sweet job at the Russian Tea Room as  Chef Tournant. The Tea Room was re-opening in a grand new gaudy style, with the backing of restaurateur extraordinaire Warner LeRoy.

By the end of the first week I knew I had to get out of the Tea Room. I was starting work at 2pm and not leaving till 2 in the morning. The minute I clocked in I was running up and down 4 steep flights of rat infested stairs, pumping out borscht by the cauldron, getting yelled at by coffee drunk Sous Chef‘s and in turn yelling at line cooks! The place was an utter mess. Completely F#*cked up! One night the catering department served 200 raw Chicken Kiev‘s to a dining room full of stunned VIP guests. The only benefit was when I made a quenelle of Caviar for the signature RTR stuffed potato, I could lick the spoon clean of the excess delightful Ossetra row; tossing the sterling silver utensil into the dish room with gusto! Hey, it was 1 in the morning!

At the Cape

In 2001 I was lucky enough to score a job as Catering Chef at Columbia University….and get out of the restaurant mayhem….never to return. Later I would run Ferris Booth Commons, Columbia’s premier gourmet retail outlet. Working for Columbia had its own issues though….weekend parties, 5000 guests/parents on graduation day, Ivy League Politics etc…..But Columbia  gave me a semblance of normalcy, and that’s when I was given Bourdains book. So you can see that I had no interest, or time for Tony.

Cooking the Goat Heads

Columbia did afford me time to travel, and my wife and I went off to Peru, South Africa and Europe. With this new love of traveling came an interest in Tony’s travel show, “No Reservations”. At first I was reluctant to watch, maybe even jealous: this old Chef got it right…and here I am still slinging hash. Regardless, I couldn’t help but enjoy his show. He was a natural on-screen. He was funny, insightful. His shows went to all corners of the world…and he ate whatever was served to him. When I was in South Africa I attempted to copy Tony by agreeing to eat roast goats head. The head was buried in hot ashes and was fully intact, eye balls and all. Luckily the tour guide forgot about our deal….thankfully I was let off the hook.


So I was now a fan of Bourdain…watched all his shows, rented the “Lebanon” episode from Netflix. I was impressed that as he became more popular, he stayed true to his form; unlike Emeril, who I used to watch when his show was simple and interesting and he didn’t wear so much make-up.

Recently my wife was promoted to a position in South East Asia. The location was between Bangkok, Thailand and Jakarta, Indonesia. We eagerly rented Tony’s shows on the 2 mega cities. Bangkok was our first choice, but to our surprise, Bourdain didn’t have great things to say about the city (protests and all). Jakarta on the other hand came across quite well. So Jakarta it is. I’m not saying we made our decision based only on Tony’s show, but it did make an impression.

Last week we were back in NYC, saying goodbye to friends and family. I was looking through some old stuff of mine at my mother’s house. I came across Tony’s book…in the same place I tossed it 10 years earlier. The book didn’t look a day older, not even a crease, just a bit of dust. I was about to put it in the “goodwill” pile, but hesitated. I thought to myself….”should I read this? Give it another shot?” I was at a different place in my life, maybe the book wouldn’t bother me as it did long ago. I thumbed through the first few pages, and there it was, the connection I missed in my arrogant past. Tony mentioned that he was the guy who came in after  “the first Chef turned out to be a psychopath, or a mean, megalomaniacal drunk, “and stabilized the kitchen. He was no superstar, but he was a solid, damn good Chef, and that was his value. That was my role as well. And it took some time for me to accept that role. Everyone starts fresh out of school thinking they will be the next big thing on the Food Network.

Anyway, I always followed some high paid, blustery fool, who had ground the kitchen right into the grease-trap/sewer. After a few successful “clean ups”, I found my niche. I introduced sanitation programs, addressed employee issues, tightened up inventory controls, lowered food cost and got the business into the black. Not very glamorous, but a solid career. So after all, Bourdain and I did have something in common. We were both solid Chefs…so I read on…and was hooked!

Now, just as Bourdain has, I am about to embark on my next career path. No one should stay in the kitchen for too long…it can burn you out, but you will never get the kitchen out of your blood. So thanks Tony. Sorry for dismissing you way back then….but back then I was too close to the fire to enjoy the burn!

 
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Posted by on January 25, 2011 in Food & Culture, Living in Jakarta, World Travel

 

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Vin Diesel…and other stories of NY train travel in the 70’s

Grand Central terminal in New York, NY

Image via Wikipedia

My parents were separated early in my life, so every weekend found my sisters and I shuttling between NYC and Cold Spring NY via the Metro North Railroad. For those of you familiar with the mostly clean, efficient Metro North of today, nothing could be further from the case back in the late 70’s and early 80’s.

Known in those days as Conrail, it was a mismatched fleet of old dusty rail cars pulled along by giant diesel belching locomotives. Many of the rail cars were hold overs from the 1950’s and 1960’s. It was not uncommon to find commuters sprawled out on large lounge chairs, drinking whiskey, smoking cigars and playing poker…..all the while cruising down the coast of the Hudson River. Other cars you stumbled into would be bright, clean and packed with wives and mothers going to Sing Sing to visit there troubled loved ones….

The trains where never on time, and if we were lucky, my mother would get us to Grand Central Terminal just in time to sprint down the platform and jump on to the 7:50, at 8:05pm!

Announcements on the trains where careless and sporadic at best…..but to this day the thought of the conductor yelling out “Cold Spring! next station stop is Cold Spring!” brings me back to those bygone days.

Stepping onto a Conrail or Metro North train back then was like stepping into a time machine….it was pretty awesome, if not damn near scary…..

 

(photo via Penn Central Online)

I would bring friends from the city up to my Dads for some cool suburban fun. Mark Vincent aka Vin Diesel, came up a few times. Back then Mark (or Vin?) was a skinny guy who ate like crazy, including one night when he ate about 12 taco’s my Dad had made…and then we were off to Friendly’s Fishkill for the “Giant Sundae”…..which was a big as a fish bowl!

One very scary situation happend on a snowy night when my sister and I were exiting the train in Cold Spring. Once again the lack of proper communication came into play. She stepped out on the wrong side of the train directly into the path of another oncoming train! The train whistle blew, but my sister was stunned and caught in the oncoming lights. I yelled out to her, and finally she came to and jumped back into the train. Disaster averted. No conducter to be seen…..or heard from.

Another thing about that time period was the condition of Grand Central Terminal. It was dark, dirty, dangerous, and full of gaudy advertising. You would not dare use the restrooms without risking picking up some disease. Restaraunts? Forget about it…although the Oyster Bar was always around. Nowadays, if you look up at the ceiling in the main hall you can see a small square spot that was left uncleaned by the renovation. This mark is to let people know just how dirty the station use to be.

(photo via rogerand frances)

Those days are now long forgotten. Grand Central Terminal was renovated and transformed into one of the stellar land marks of New York City. Conrail gave way to Metro North…..the fleet was modernized and timetables are now strictly adhered to. Progress is good, but in some ways I miss those old “funky” days….It was a transitional time, the day of pay phones and subway tokens. I just feel fortunate to have been there to have a glimpse into the past every time I stepped onto one of those dusty old trains.

 
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Posted by on January 19, 2011 in Music & Entertainment

 

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Aviation Obsession!

When did I become afraid of Flying……?

 

We were cleared to land at New York City’s JFK International Airport. It was sometime in the early 1980’s. As the plane, I believe a United Airlines DC-10, started lowering into ominous black clouds, the cabin grew dark as night…we were in a full-blown summer storm. Lightning was crashing outside our windows and exposing terrified faces. I quickly glanced over at my mother and noticed she was white as a ghost….it was a bit surreal…. We were all strapped in and it felt like we were on  Rolling Thunder at Six Flags Great Adventure….

A few minutes later we landed and the passengers broke out into cheers. Why all the fuss? What could ever possibly go afoul. I thought all the old folk were nuts!

15 years later

Having not flown for 15 years I found myself with my future wife boarding a Northwest Airways DC 9 for Detroit. As we sat down my nerves got the best of me. The doors closed and I felt like I was trapped in a sardine can. As we taxied down towards the runway, the cockpit doors flapped open and closed, adding to my anxiety. Airborne I was a white knuckled goon, sweating with clammy hands and stink breath!

SO WHAT GIVES?

How did I go from a fearless passenger bounding through turbulence to a pathetic nervous fool gliding over calm skies?

I pondered this question for a long time. I had travel plans in my future. I couldn’t go through the same horrible experience every time I boarded a plane.

I figured I had anxiety from a small case of claustrophobia and a slight fear of heights. But the big thing was a lack of control. I felt at the mercy of the aircraft, the weather and the Pilots. I would feel better if I was up in the cockpit, “controlling the thing”! But who was I to fly a plane? I will never be a pilot….So what could I control, how could I fly comfortably?

I addressed my fears by doing some of the following:

Fear of Heights: I take a pill before flying, this quells my anxiety. I am not a pill popper, but this little ones seem to take the edge off. xanex

Claustrophobia: I find the most spacious seat available. Economy class is different on certain airlines and plane types. Take control of where you sit and how much extra room you can get/afford. This website lets you compare different airlines seat set ups.Seat Guru

Control:  I went about to learn as much info about aviation as I could, to the point of becoming an aviation buff! I researched the safest aircraft and safest airlines. This site has an awesome data base that let’s you decide who and where you want to fly. Aviation Safety Network

I found out that the best cure for my fear of flying, was Flying!

So we flew from JFK to Berlin direct on a Delta 767 ER. Straight across the Atlantic, over a lightning storm, and then landed in pea soup fog…amazing!

Then we flew from JFK to Johannesburg South Africa on a South African Airways A340-500. 16 hours on a plane. We slept most the time, enjoyed South African wines, and were happy with the very comfortable economy class experience.

More recently I took a solo flight to San Diego on a Jet Blue A320. First thing I did was take advantage of the seat upgrade for $40. This gave me a larger seat up front in the plane, which provides a smoother ride. Surprisingly, no one else took advantage of this option. When we took off the pilot let us know we were going to hit some bumps on the way up, and we did. I could see the engine pods bouncing up and down in the turbulence. Once we hit smooth air one of the pilots came out of the cockpit and apologized for the rough ride. Was I bit nervous? Yes. Turbulence always gets my heart racing a bit, but all was good. I seem to be able to fly again….and even enjoy it!

 
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Posted by on January 4, 2011 in World Travel

 

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