Sunday, June 13, 2010

Veronica meets Simo

When I go out for a drink I tend to keep it simple: beer or wine.  In fact I consider myself more of a beer lover above all.  Rum and cokes, vodka and cranberries, gin and tonics, etc. were drinks that filled my oh so “just turned 21 and don’t really know what to order” drinking days with bartenders tending to be heavy on the liquor and just splashing in a mixer.  When most of us were 21 we were most likely trying to get a buzz and not trying to truly enjoy a cocktail.  (At least I hope most of us went through that point in our lives.)  But if you put yourself safely in the hands of an expert mixologist you will find that there is an art form behind cocktails and these purveyors of distilled liquids take as much care with their ingredients as any top chef.  What is seasonal and fresh helps develop the cocktail offerings just as much as the regular menu.

My introduction to Simo, resident Equinox mixologist, has presented me with a vocabulary of techniques and ingredients that I’m still trying to grasp.  But being the avid student that I am, I decided to sit down with him at the bar and be his guinea pig for the night.  It was a tough decision guys, but someone had to do it.  In his able hands, and using dishes for inspiration, I learned that just like wine or beer, a great cocktail could complement and enhance your meal.  So let this be a 3 cocktail story that brought out the best on my plate.  That’s right….3!

Cocktail 1: grapefruit juice, sake, lemon verbena essence, Chinese wolfberry syrup, with start anise garnish.  Out of the 3 cocktails of the night I found this one the most interesting and complex.  The flavors were ones that you would generally encounter in an Asian dish, but now these were put into liquid form, which was just a new taste adventure for me. The cocktail was paired with the crispy blue crab spring rolls with lemon aioli.  Oh my yumminess!!!  The spring rolls are crispy, light, and have a wonderful brininess from the fresh crab.  Its shell is thin and does not take over the entire roll, like you will find with the some of the usual take out Chinese restaurants.  This allows the crab to be the main player; as it should be.  With the cocktail’s hint of lemon, the aioli was enhanced, and the licorice taste of the star anise, which only intensified as it sat in the drink, was the perfect accent to the sweet cream

Cocktail 2: lychee lemonade, Campari, St. Germain, CapRock organic gin, and red wine.  Now this is a cocktail that made me want to high tail it to the pool and let myself soak up the sun (maybe with a cute cabana boy for company).  It was sweet, floral with lavender and elderflower, and pink in color; this is what you want to sip on a hot summer day.  But the addition of red wine mellows the drink out so you are not just having a dessert cocktail.  What also helps calm the sweetness is to combine it with a dish that is savory. A salad of bacon and asparagus that was topped with a refined “toad in the hole” made with brioche toast and a quail egg was the perfect complement.  Both the drink and salad are light and are a great intro for your dining experience.  Nothing is over the top so you are not immediately weighed down, but instead left wanting just a bit more.  The best kind of tease there is!

Cocktail 3: brown sugar, orange bitters, cinnamon infused bourbon, fresh lemon juice, and a touch of sour mix.  Spicy….that is the only way to describe this drink.  The orange hits you toward the end, but you are first bombarded with cinnamon that just warms your throat.  Take a sip of this and then have a bite of perfectly cooked beef.  The meat already tastes amazing because it has the earthy taste that comes through with grass fed cows.  Combine it with this drink and that taste is enhanced ten-fold.  I didn’t want to stop taking a sip and then having a bite.  It was the ying and yang, the Burt and Ernie, a happy marriage of food and cocktail combinations.  In other words, this was good.  Capital g, Good!

So are you ready to try?  Put yourself at the bar and let Simo work his magic on you.  Pick an appetizer, salad, entrĂ©e, or dessert and leave your drink choice up to him and you will not regret it.   


Saturday, June 5, 2010

Todd Gray Speaks at The White House

Friday June 4th 2010

I adopted Murch Elementary last year – a public school here in Washington, DC.

Working through the schools administration we visited during lunch and assessed what the kids were eating. All though there were some fruits and available much of it was actually going into the trash.  From this observation it became clear to me that the kids may have heard that these foods are “good for you” – but they were not necessarily eating them. 
I needed to somehow make these nourishing foods more appealing to the kids by helping them to have more respect for wholesome foods. By helping them to experience more about the origins of their food and involving them in the process they developed wonder and natural curiosity took over.  

It dawned on me that as chefs; what comes so natural to us is not so accessible to kids – many of them are not invited into a kitchen or a garden on a regular basis – food is something that is put in front of them and they are told to eat it. But they have tremendous curiosity – it was not hard to get them excited. This is where a chef can have the most impact in a school – bringing this opportunity to the entire school population.
This needs an approach that involves the teachers, the parents and the school administration. What developed from this process was a community set on changing not just the foods offered to kids but the way the kids look at food in general. The parents and teachers became just as excited about the project as the kids did.
We held several meetings in the school library with a core group of participating parents to plot the year and how we would do this together – I guided them on the food end they guided me on teaching their kids. 
The teachers at Murch began to incorporate the idea of a school garden and cooking into the classroom through earth sciences where they were taught about geminating seeds to mathematics where fractions are a natural part of following a recipe.
Kids are not into preaching as we all know – they only learn and act when they are excited about something – That’s why this required a hands on tactic to teaching them to how to plant, harvest and cook some very basic produce – the idea got them excited and most importantly interested.

One of the most successful ways of accomplishing this is hands on cooking classes – The don’t have to be complex – we set up several stations in the gym or on the playground and gave kids simple tasks to do while preparing a meal for the entire group. They enjoyed simple tasks like mixing ingredients for a panzanella and making simple vinaigrette. It gave them pride in their creation – and bonus – they got to eat it! I demonstrated to them how to trim an asparagus – by giving them their own pile to then work with I saw them laughing and having a great time with it – they were involved in the process not just cooked for and told what to eat because its healthy.

The parents are just as excited about the cooking tips as the kids. Our classes became a meeting point for a sort of Q&A with the “school chef”. I encouraged and answered so many cooking questions from parents on everything from proper cooking times of a chicken to healthy alternative for deserts. I am doing them quarterly with a seasonal emphasis. Involving the kids and parents together in these classes gave the group a foundation to work together. Kids love the idea of a team.  
This is where we chefs – we men and women in white can help out because kids see our whites and instinctively listen to us – they see us as a definite authority figure when it comes to food. This is why we are so valuable to this movement.
We started a little village of gardeners at Murch school, the parents, the faculty and the kids, it grew into a community that I led – that is something I never experienced before.

Its incredibly gratifying to make such a difference in a school – to be in a position of leadership for an entire community is incredible – it’s a terrific way to be so appreciated outside of my own kitchen.
Its very helpful to interweave the food and where it comes from into the school curriculum. This helped to build a discussion point for kids and parents at home and in the classroom on whatever level they chose – some kids like the cooking part some like the math part – some just like the eating part – but the substance was there for this dialogue to take place. My cooking demonstrations gave families a starting point for conversation – it was an activity that brought them together.
Every community is different – the key to success is approaching that community is from being a member of it – by adopting a school you become not just a member but a leader. Not one that is coming to preach to them how they should change their eating habits – but one showing them how and most importantly involving them in the process. They need the seed of guidance and then I found that the community takes over and makes its own way – all will be different – all situations/budgets and administrators are different – you have to recognize and respect that. 

This project has been one of the most rewarding aspect of my 25 year career as a chef. I never dreamed of this in culinary school – but this is the evolution of things and we are needed right now to share our culinary education and experience with our next generation of diners.

Make a commitment to the school and these kids –it will change your life professionally and personally – our own son is so proud of what we are doing and asks us all the time – “when are you coming to my school?” 
 -     Chef Todd Gray ~ The White House 2010

20831734 | Your Lightbox Photos | The Washington Post

20831734 | Your Lightbox Photos | The Washington Post

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A Monumental Memorial Day in DC

Memorial Day has come to mean many things to American culture.  The official creation of Memorial Day back in 1868 was to give a day of remembrance to those who had died in service, originally during the Civil War.  It has now become a day to honor men and women who have given their lives during all military engagements that the United States has been a part of.  Did you know that it also was originally called Decoration Day?  Just thought I would throw another interesting fact at ya.  But Memorial Day has also become a day to celebrate life, to gather with our friends and families, and enjoy what we have at this very moment.

It also seems to be the definitive marker for Summer to begin, which can only mean that it is time to fire up the charcoal and cook the ubiquitous hamburger and hot dogs that grace most of our gatherings. But let’s get one thing straightened out here before we go on any further, what most of us call a Memorial Day BBQ is really not….is your mind blown yet?  A BBQ purist will tell you that barbecuing involves cooking your meat low and slow for hours or even days.  What most of us are doing is grilling, which is when you cook over high, direct heat for a much shorter period.  So what was happening was grilling and we did some damn good grilling on Monday. 

The usual food suspects were there but with the Equinox twist and attention to only having the best ingredients that all of us have come to adore.  Handmade hot dogs and hamburgers, fresh brioche buns, coleslaw, potato salad, and of course it wouldn’t be a party without something sweet.  Is strawberry cake with fresh whipped cream good enough?  Why yes it is!   

When humans are near fire and are in the act of cooking food over it I feel like our inner caveman starts creeping up to the surface.  I have nothing wrong with that when the results are so delicious.  I only had a hot dog, so I could not speak of the hamburgers virtues, since when anyone is grilling I must have one or my life would be over as we know it; dramatic, but true.  And these dogs were spicy, smoky and had that great pop when you bite into them, which can only be achieved from being cooked over the flames. 

The weather was beautiful, good people surrounded us, and even our own personal chef guitarist was there to serenade us.  We only let him stop when he expressed the need for food.  Selfish, I know! J  But you never know, when you come to Equinox sometime you may see him playing again.  So come by and see us because the doors are open again and we are looking good.