Monday, September 18, 2006

My Day in Salinas

I was asked to do a food demonstration in Salinas, CA the lettuce basket of the world. If it has leaves it probably comes from Monterey County. The event was "SaluteToAg", I guess you can figure out it means salute to agriculture celebrated September 14, and an awards lunch recognizing Andy Matsui, self-anointed "Farmer" and honored also as a "Philanthropist" on September 15. I could not attend the luncheon because I had to return to work in San Francisco the next morning after my demo.

The event was held at the National Steinbeck Center in downtown Salinas, a charming part of the City. The Center itself was fascinating mostly because of the Museum devoted to artifacts and certainly literary references to John Steinbeck’s work. I loved the old Model T Ford (I guess that is what it was; I was so motivated to do my demo that I spent only a little time looking). I want to go back some time soon and spend more time poking around.

Lisa, my wife, and I arrived in Salinas about 11:30 a.m. We checked into Hotel with great difficulty (I was used to 11 to noon check in times in many European hotels but here in the U.S. it is 2:30 to 3 p.m.). But after much lower lip biting and whimpering, a kindly desk clerk "found" a couple of rooms for us (my Sister Dee and her friend Jeanne came to give moral support. They also had a hell of a good time partying). After checking out the Center and the demo area we decided we were hungry, and went for a stroll. Happily we found just the perfect spot for lunch at the Monterey Brewery. The place was a revamped warehouse of exposed brick and looked at once old-timey and up-to-the-minute. It offered micro brewed beer and a tasty offering of foods, several of which were deep fried. Deep frying is an art. I loved what they did. We had fried calamari (what else?), fried breaded baby artichokes (what else?), a delicious grilled artichoke that was first blanched until almost tender, then marinated in beer for a full day, and then grilled. It was very meaty and tasty - next time I must order more. We also had bleu cheese salad made with local bleu and a tasty mixed green salad with balsamic dressing.

What we also had which just made me happy was a "beer sampler". You could get 4, 4-ounce tastes or 8, 4-ounces tastes of their beers. We, of course, had the 8's - what did you expect? And for only $4.50 for the 8 samples. We could have had 4 samples for $2.50 which would be perfect for wimpy beer drinkers. The beers were poured into small straight glasses, and were delicious and went down very easy with the food. It was fun to see the beers laid out on a plastic rectangle identifying which was which. It is funny to see this at the time, because I had just had the idea to do something similar at the Vivande Piccolo Wine Bar with wine (but not 8!). Maybe I'll do 4-2 ounce pours. What?

At the demo it was the usual chaos. The coordinating Chef was Todd Fisher who owns a very nice and nice-looking restaurant called Hullabaloo. When you meet Todd you will know why; he defines Hullabaloo - a stand-up comic who cooks. This is a great attribute and gets one through some tough spots. If you were, on occasion, not feeling so perky you might want to smack him, though. He and his side-kick, a young Chef really on the make from all indications was Tyler Stone, a boy-Chef-wonder already at the tender age of seventeen. He was cute and sincere and I liked him.

He and Todd demonstrated beet and goat cheese napoleons, and fig tatin. What with figs not arriving (this happens all the time in kitchens which is why we are Chefs; we know what to do), so they used fresh plums. Tyler and Todd are fun together and probably X-rated - maybe only R-ratd. But their enthusiasm only amplified their sincere effort to get folks to cook.I wonder why I don't have as much fun when I cook?

I made a duck leg salad. You say what has this got to do with Italian cooking. Well, it does. The dish, made with pan roasted duck legs (for economy), has all the taste of duck breast about at 15% of the cost, and has dried prunes and raisins soaked in red wine. Such combinations are popular in the Northern parts of Italy, around Veneto and the Austrian parts. The greens were raw turnips (I LOVE them) matchstick cut, tender, yellow celery hearts, fresh grated horseradish, toasted walnuts, and lots of extra virgin olive oil and fresh squeezed lemon juice. The salad was arranged on spokes of Treviso radicchio and the cutest and most tender Sweet Gem local lettuce which I also love. They look like baby romaine but have the creamy tenderness of really good butter lettuce and they are small. I cannot get them for my restaurant, try as I might. The radicchio comes from Royal Rose and is grown locally there plus in other locations.

Royal Rose is the biggest radicchio grower in the world. I know the owner Lucio Gomiero and have cooked several dinners for him based on his products including the excellent Vignalta wines from his wineries in Italy. Dennis Donahue, the President of Royal Rose is my friend also, and he was there in Salinas being a very responsive host. Dennis is one of the friendliest people imaginable. It is hard to fathom how he can head up a large company and make it all work and be like this amiable papa figure; and he really means it. Dennis is running for Mayor of Salinas. Why anyone would try to govern these days is beyond me, but he will be very, very good at it, and when you meet him you know he is dedicated.

Pilar Sanchez from Napa was there doing her magic with paella. We all learned something very important - don’t' say "paella pan" because that is redundant. Paella IS the pan - Ha! Anyway, she made a really great vegetarian paella, which ties in the with the greens theme and proves, once again, that vegetables can and must be part of your diet. In the hands of a pro, they are as satisfying as meat, any day.

My favorite colleague was Walter Potenza from Walter's Restaurant in Rhode Island (I don't know how to create a link yet but try this; www.chefwalter.com/). We call him Mario, too, because that is part of his name. Walter's father named him so because he liked the name and it was distinctive in the small town in the Abruzzo where Walter was born. Walter is a philosopher as well as a master cook. Every phrase he utters is stentorian, even a little joke. "Uomo imponente", imposing man - that's Walter Potenza. It doesn't hurt that he is also a trained historian. He was charming without being false, and he was like an adoring father to the extremely cute and equally extremely hardworking 4-H "kids" who served the food and were all around good-buddies helping wherever they could. Walter got some of them up on the dais with him while he was cooking a delicious penne pasta dish with lots of vegetables. He was very funny with them and really taught them to do the dish and he did it with real regard and respect for them. I think they really liked being there in the spotlight and were just what you imagined youngsters should be. How nice an older head in the house treating the up-and-coming with respect. (Walter is by no means old. He is a youthful, and very fit, handsome, ex-soccer player and you can see his athleticism in his every movement).

He is also is quite inventive; he created some fabulous-looking clay casseroles to cook in. What a brilliant medium. I love my very old Vulcania clay pots and use them for braising and for light sautéing. Walter says his pots are better and I am ready to believe him. I have yet to obtain one, but it is on my list. He also invented some incredible eye-glasses which bridge the nose with magnets and stay wrapped around your head or neck as you wish. I have never seen anything like them - and red, yet! Walter is a special man. Lisa, my wife liked him immensely, no mean recommendation, that. Walter made hay out of Sister Dee's name, Dolores, which in Italian is really Dolorata. So he was Mario and she was Dolorata - and that's that. I think they had fun naming names. Lisa and Jeanne were bemused most of the time.

After being on stage with the spotlight flaring in my aging eyes meaning I could hardly see the cutting board and the knives, let alone the audience, I cooked my duck legs and made my salad and had a really comfortable time conversing with the audience, disembodied as they were. We exchanged ideas, some questions were answered, and it was just a very nice event.

Afterwards, Lisa, Dee, Jeanne and I were going to return to Monterey Brewery for a late supper. But as luck would have it we ended up at Hullabaloo. I had planned to go there in any event, but someone told me it was a ten-mile drive and I did not want to go that far on a dark night and being tired. I was dissuaded and regretted it, but, it turns out Hullabaloo was only two blocks away! So much for getting directions in Salinas. Fortunately, we ran into Walter again and he joined us. We sauntered the short distance and were warmly greeted by a charming waiter/host. There were lots of young and good-looking men and women there (actually all over the place), and friendly and approachable. I was thinking how different they were from some of the hatchet-faced, grim, not to say bitter service people one easily finds in San Francisco restaurants. Hatchet-faced in a good metaphor because a lot of these folks seem to really have an axe to grind. Anyway, our server got us settled in and got a little lesson in wine pouring from Walter. Walter is irrepressible. The server loved the lesson and beamed. He did a good job of taking care of us. As we sat and chattered, Dennis Donahue joined us and we had a very good time, indeed.

We had arancini, and cold melon. This was perfect for late-night eating. The wine, a California selection that was not so well suited to my palate, was OK, but I would have liked an Italian Pinot Noir or in a white, a crisp Gavi di Gavi - but, in all an enjoyable supper. One flavor note; Salinas, get a good water purification system! It was crystal clear but if your eyes were closed it would be a sure bet you were sipping well-aged algae. Non-gassed bottled water was hastily ordered and much appreciated.

At the next table were Tonie Francis, my contact for the event, and her husband Butch who was so helpful to me in lugging stuff around. Butch was so solicitous, it was all I could do to keep from exploiting him. They were with a whole gang of Event people and were they having a good time! If good times were decibels they would be a bag-pipe brigade. Tonie, (wouldn't you know she was Italian), was on the phone with me back and forth for more than a month about this event, and the e-mails - well, they were carrier pigeons without feathers - one message sent, one message received, lord knows how many. She also made sure we had rooms at the hotel being the go-between for Laura at the Chamber of Commerce.

There were so many helpful nice friendly people who looked after us, that I hesitate to try to name them all; George the Sous Chef looking like he was going to implode from all the requests (make that demands) made on him by all the Chefs and he was so calm and so accommodating and getting all the ingredients for all those mad Chefs - thank goodness none us was a prima donna (well, I wasn't). Laura at the Chamber of Commerce was like a den-mother checking everything with her walkie-talkie on "alert" at all times, and CarrieAnne, MC in the Salinas room where we Chefs cooked our little hearts out, and Felicia the ambassador of goodwill for the Chamber.

I look forward to returning to Salinas. I only hope I get an invite. Mayor Dennis are you listening; Laura, CarrieAnne, Tonie - are you all listening?

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