I lived in California for over fifteen years. It’s a place I called home for almost a third of my life. I met my wife there, landed my first executive chef job there, and met some amazing people from all over the globe. It’s also where I was exposed to some of the greatest food I’ve ever eaten. When you think about San Francisco, the first thing that comes to mind is the food scene. During my time, there were over three thousand restaurants crammed into seven square miles. This is not an exaggeration. You had global cuisine at your every beck and call.

What many don’t realize, is that there is also a myriad of restaurants in San Francisco that are as equally as amazing as Michelin-starred restaurants which don’t carry names like Michael Mina, Alice Waters, or Nancy Oakes. These are little hole in the wall Taqueria’s that are all over the area but mostly located in The Mission District. I worked in the Mission for over three years. You can find any cuisine that starts from the top of Mexico down to the tip of South America.

Mexican, Peruvian, Honduran, and Salvadorian restaurants were my most favorite but you also had some Spanish Tapas restaurants that served cheap and amazing food. I’ve always have had an affinity for meats, spices, and vegetables from Mexico and South America. I worked in a restaurant that had cooks from six different countries working in my kitchen.

I was exposed to those amazing Salvadorian meat or cheese-filled griddle cakes called Papusas. My friend’s wife from Mexico introduced me to a meat and hominy soup that blew my mind called Posole. I learned how to make a proper hot salsa from my Mexican cooks. I had Beef Tongue for the first time. It was a life-altering experience that I never would have enjoyed unless I made the trek to California and I will be forever thankful for what I’ve learned while on my culinary journey in that incredible state. I do miss it.

The great thing about being back home is having friends who share the same enthusiasm for Latin/Hispanic food. Chris Mundy who in his own right, loves to dabble in this simple fare. But there is nothing simple about the flavors. Smokey, salty, acidity, spicy, and above all, fresh comes to mind when creating and eating this food. Chris is no slouch. If anyone has ever seen his “Jam Band” dinners, you realize he puts a lot of research and effort into what he prepares. Every meal seems carefully executed. I admire that.

This will be our second collaboration. Both have South American themes. In no way am I trying to replicate exact dishes of any specific country, but it’s more of an homage to the ingredients utilized to create dishes that I’ve learned from my friends in California and will always appreciate.

Chris made an Aji Verde sauce. Traditionally, the sauce comes from Andean countries like Columbia, Bolivia, and Peru. It is a mayonnaise-based sauce with cilantro, jalapeno chiles, red onion, and lime juice that is pureed and served as a condiment over fish, chicken, or beef. In Chile, they substitute lemon juice and is called Aji Chileno.

I made the ultimate trip to Jungle Jim’s, warned my knees about the size of the place and my brain about the hordes of people I’d encounter. I took and deep breath, and pushed the cart through the door! Yay! First step!

The place is huge but I had my list and made just a short pit stop by the wine department. I picked up various items for our dinner including Mojo seasoning which is a Cuban meat seasoning that I thought would go great with the chicken because of its citrus properties. I also picked up a cast-iron skillet. Yes, I always need this in my life.

The base of our meal was Peruvian beans, white onion, diced tomatoes, garlic, white wine, paprika, lemon juice, and salt and pepper. Though Jungle Jim’s didn’t have Peruvian beans, white and red beans were a suitable substitute. I also topped the beans with sauteed arugula with fresh lemon juice, garlic, and sea salt.

I purchased a whole Amish chicken which I deboned into quarters. Dusted the chicken with the Mojo seasoning and pan-seared it in the cast iron skillet. I transferred the chicken to the oven at 350 degrees for a half-hour and then in a heavy pot, added olive oil, and brought the heat up to high. I sauteed the onions, added garlic to sweat then deglazed with white wine. I add the beans and tomato and then slowly incorporated the paprika and salt. Adding salt early and reducing the sauce of the beans can make the beans very salty. I finished with lemon just a put aside.

I did a quick saute of olive oil, garlic, arugula, lemon juice, and sea salt. Mounded the beans on the plate, topped with the sauteed arugula, arranged the cooked chicken over the beans and arugula, and topped it all off with Chris’s great Aji Verde sauce. He also brought a seared Halloumi cheese with mint and watermelon and the whole dinner was amazing. Cheers!

A Pandemic Threnody

June 24, 2021

As I sit here with pen in hand pondering what my next chapter in my life would entail, I was also ruminating about what I would use as a title for my next blog entry. I would not necessarily call it an ode to the dead, but rather a requiem of my life during the last fifteen months of this still ongoing Pandemic. The last year has not boded well with this old chef. I am sure this rings true with many of my friends and family.

Everything we knew about our lives and how we lived them was radically changed and we are all still reeling from the collateral damage this insidious disease has done to us as human beings. We’ve lost friends and family. I lost an Aunt to Covid-19. From my own personal confessional, I for one stopped living. I wasn’t working, I found a permanent home on the couch, arms reach from bad food and lots of booze and way too much time on my hands. The results were anxiety, health problems, and a complete lack of forwarding movement in productivity. Since getting the vaccine, I’m trying to change all of this.

I’ve been given a unique opportunity to spend some time in Cincinnati with friends and family for the Summer. This in itself has created some anxious moments. I haven’t been back to Ohio in almost four years and am taking this journey sans my amazing wife Judy. We’ve been together for almost twenty-five years. This isn’t the first time I’ve gone away to attempt to right my ship. It’s the third time but Judy has been nothing but supportive and it strengthens our relationship which I am forever grateful.

I’m not sure what I am hoping to accomplish being back home. Part of this journey is to reconnect with family and friends. The thought of being alone growing old terrifies me. I’ve seen what it does to people first hand. We are social beings. We need a connection. I have been in a converted garage for almost a year and a half and honestly, my cat is a lousy conversationalist. I intend on changing this.

Another goal is to start seeing the positive things out of life. The last four years have done nothing but encourage my cynical side which doesn’t need much fostering. Waking up every morning and reading the news did nothing but raise my cortisol levels as well as my blood pressure. I’m in a much better space now.

As a once busy chef in Pennsylvania, because of our schedules and home life situation with my mother-in-law, we ate out. Frequently. On a typical week, we’d have dinner at our local haunts consistently three to four nights a week. When the Pandemic hit, that all changed. As I mentioned in my previous post, my wife Judy became an excellent cook. Her imagination shined through with every dish she created. When we were finally able to dine out, the disappointment of our dinner including the cost versus what we enjoyed at home for the fraction of the cost was like a kick in the head. Hey, I still love to eat out and love being connected to my industry folks but I don’t think we will return to the same habits that were familiar to us pre-Covid-19.

Coming back to Cincinnati was an adjustment. Not only demographically have things changed, so has the dining scene. And for the better. I’ve been fortunate to experience some great eateries here in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. It was pretty difficult to find places I wanted to eat because there are so many choices but thanks to industry friends, we’ve been able to enjoy some great places.

The search for breakfast restaurants in Cincinnati is hit or miss. Either greasy spoons or corporate cookie cutters like First Watch. I’ve worked in really upscale breakfast/brunch establishments. I know how to recognize good ingredients in menu descriptions. We decided on a breakfast spot in Oakley called The Sleepy Bee. https://www.sleepybeecafe.com/#locations

The place was open-air with high ceilings. It was reminiscent of the Portland breakfast houses we enjoyed. Lots of young kids who seemed to sincerely enjoy their jobs. A well-rounded “scratch” menu. They made their own bread and even served house-made Goetta. For the non-Cincinnati folks, Goetta is a German breakfast meat that is made from Pork, spices, and Pin Oats. We have a similar concoction in Pennsylvania called Scrapple which is a Pennsylvania-Dutch breakfast meat that uses Corn Meal versus Pin Oats. Not everyone enjoys it but damn, this was good. My wife had the Avocado toast topped with Granola and herbed oil and I had a Chorizo scramble. Both dishes were excellent. The coffee was amazing too. The service was top-notch. There is nothing remotely this good where we live.

The next restaurant that was suggested was Bouquet in Mainstrasse in Covington Kentucky. https://www.bouquetrestaurant.com/

It is a farm-to-table establishment that has been in business for over fourteen years. It opened about a year after we moved back to San Francisco. The menu changes daily and they source most of the product from local vendors. I have to say this was one of the best meals we’ve had in years. We decided on the tasting menu which allows you to choose three courses. We started with the savory ramp pancake with sesame seeds, soy ramp & sorghum sauce, and a roasted radish and seared tofu appetizer. Both were cooked perfectly.

For the second course, I had Wagyu beef meatballs Scallion Gremolata, Lemon Caper purée, and Chili oil. The acid from the Lemon Caper puree was a perfect complement to the meatballs. The thought of actually sharing this with my wife almost made me go into a homicidal rage! Yeah, they were that good! But I acquiesced. She loved them damn it! My wife had the Salmon with German hot slaw, Bacon, Sunchokes, and Horseradish. It was cooked perfectly mid-rare. It is had to find places that know how to cook Salmon correctly. Most of the time it is cooked to death and dry. We had a similar dish at home in PA that was so overcooked, it made baby Jesus cry rivers of blood. It was that bad, but this was moist and flavorful.

For the third course, I had the Duck Breast with Fava Bean puree, Fiddlehead Ferns, and root vegetables. The only other chef that could ever cook Duck this well was David Cook of the former Daveed’s. Perfectly seasoned, moist and the skin was crackly and crisp. Stunning. My wife had seared Boga I believe, which is an Argentinian white fish with English Peas and root vegetables and a sauce that resembled Chimichurri. It was moist and flaky. Just like her husband.

We ended the meal with a Cardamom Blueberry pound cake paired with a Sauternes.

The service was professional and courteous. It is a special occasion restaurant but it’s worth the splurge.

The next destination on our short culinary tour before my wife headed back to Pennsylvania was Otto’s in Mainstrasse which again is in Convington Kentucky. https://ottosonmain.com/

This is a cool and funky joint that’s been around for years. They provide both inside and outside dining. Outside can be a bit hectic with seating right on the pedestrian sidewalk adjacent to the street and can be loud at times. We had a good light brunch. My wife had the Brie, Figs, shaved country Ham, Arugula, and Local Honey. Cooked perfectly and well-balanced. We shared the Brussels Sprouts which were prepared with Bacon and Brown Sugar. I enjoyed the dish but adding a little heat like Sriracha would have given the dish more depth. Our dining guests and I decided on the BLFGT which was Bacon, Lettuce, fried Egg, white Cheddar, Mayo & fried Green Tomato on a toasted Croissant. It was light and flaky and not heavy or greasy. A very solid sandwich. The service was prompt and friendly.

Though I didn’t eat at our final stop, we did enjoy a beautiful evening with family on the rooftop of The Gaslight Bar and Grill in Clifton where my friend Kevin Worthington is the Chef/GM. https://gaslightbarandgrillclifton.com/

My Uncle and his wife did have dinner which was a simple grilled burger. I liked the plate composition and both of them enjoyed their meals. He has a great staff and we felt taken care of.

When I need to clear my head, keep that feeling of isolation at arms reach, and being around others, I head to Sitwell’s Coffee House in Clifton. Though they don’t have a website, they do have a Facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/sitwells.coffeehouse/

It’s a funky coffee shop that used to be a pizza restaurant many years ago. Quirky décor, fun and helpful staff, and the coffee is good. I haven’t had a chance to try their food menu yet but what I saw coming out of the kitchen looks very appetizing.

These last two weeks have been an adjustment. I haven’t been without my wife at my side for more than a day in almost ten years. I miss her dearly but she also knows this Pandemic has done a real number on me and wants me to heal. She wants her husband back home whole and not fractured and frustrated. I’m trying hard to do that work and reconnect with family and friends. This blog has been cathartic. I want to continue to write and enjoy what I’ve been doing for over thirty-five years. Welcome back.

My Mac-n-Cheese Made Simple

September 15, 2010

Everybody loves mac-n-cheese. If you have taste buds, you love macaroni and cheese. I for one am an avid fan of this wonderful comfort food. I’ve also had some really terrible mac’s in my life from family to friends and from restaurants who dare to try to create something that rides on a thin line between deliciously sublime to almost inedible. I wanted to take this chance to share my mac-n-cheese recipe with you in hopes that you will also enjoy at home what I’ve been very successful at selling for the last three years at my restaurant. Mind you, measurements are subject to change in regards to how much you actually want to make for yourself or family but the ingredients are key to ensuring your dish will stand out amongst others you have tasted. The dish can be made either vegetarian or with bacon which I suggest. We use house-cured bacon that is probably some of the best in San Francisco.

The following recipe with be scaled for 6 to 8 people. This is something that you can adjust on your own to fit the number of people you want to serve.

Dishes and utensils you will need for this dish are:

1 wooden spoon, 1 whisk, 2 medium to large sauce pans, 1 large baking dish, 1 large pasta cooking pot and strainer, 1 large mix bowl

Bulk Ingredients

2 lbs dry elbow macaroni
2 quarts cheese sauce (recipe follows)
1 1/2 cups 25/75 shredded parmesan and Japanese bread crumbs
1 cup premium bacon-cooked and drained
1 lb roux (recipe follows)
Salt and Pepper to season

Roux Procedure

1/2 lb whole butter
2 cups flour

In a sauce pan heat butter until melted. Slowly add flour into butter and stir with a wooden spoon until butter and flour start forming into a dough like consistency. Keep flame on low so not to brown or burn the flour. Continue to stir until bubbling and you achieve a “popcorn” aroma from the roux. Hold at room temperature until needed to thicken sauce.

Cheese Sauce Procedure

For this procedure I suggest you do not use a hoppy beer. A light pilsner would suffice for this dish.

1/4 cup pilsner beer
1 quart heavy cream
2 lbs shredded sharp cheddar (tillamook or similar quality)
roux to thicken
salt and pepper to taste

Pour beer into medium to large sauce pan and bring to a boil. Add cream and also bring to a boil then immediately reduce to a slow simmer. In small increments, add roux and whisk continually to break up roux and to thicken sauce. When you have achieved the thickness you desire, slowly fold in cheddar until the sauce becomes silky and smooth. Season with salt and pepper and hold warm until next step.

It is my understanding that most novice cooks are able to cook pasta so I will leave this step out. The final step is combining all these ingredients.

Place pasta in a large mixing bowl and slowly add the cheddar bechamel sauce and bacon. Add only enough sauce that you are comfortable with and if you like your macaroni more saucy, then by all means add more sauce but if you like it crunchy and drier, add less. A reminder that when baking this dish, the sauce will thicken from the oven heat but all in all this is a very durable dish to make. When the macaroni and sauce are incorporated, place in a large baking dish like a pyrex for example. Sprinkle the macaroni with the parmesan-breadcrumb mixture and heat in a 375 degree oven uncovered for approximately 20 minutes. The bread crumbs should be nicely browned and and there should be bubbling around the edges of the macaroni. Serve immediately to the delight of friends and family!