The Grub Blogger is into cooking, exploring cultures through food and sharing his experiences with anyone out there who has similar passions (actually - just a mild curiosity will do). On GrubBlogger.com you will be walked through some of the dishes coming out of my kitchen, along with as many step-by-step pictures as I could manage while cooking. You’ll also find some back story about why I cook what I do. The other major topic you’ll find are restaurants and markets I have checked out on my food outings to find (hopefully) hardcore grub wherever I am. Below is a longer piece setting out where my love of food came from, and how I either followed it or it followed me throughout my life.
Gloria’s Roti. The Grub Blogger’s interest in cooking started as an interest in food years before I put a pan to flame. Growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I was exposed to Chinese restaurants and pizza parlors, as most New York youth are. My first insight into another culture was standing by the side of the lady who cleaned our apartment. Before leaving, she would cook food from her homeland of Trinidad, specifically curried chicken and roti. Roti is sort of like a layered tortilla, stuffed with ground, split, yellow peas, and spiced with curry powder. I loved this stuff before I was even in school, and begged for roti so much that there was always a stash in the freezer to get me through the week. I was too young to appreciate, or even care about, the process, but I still think of the excitement of these days when I think about what grub to cook up as an adult.
Cooking to Survive. It wasn’t until I went away to college that my interest turned into a practice. I lived on campus my second year and saw how my friends who lived off campus were eating. Mostly frozen pizzas, canned soups and microwave food. The summer before I moved off campus, I set up an apprenticeship in my mom’s kitchen, helping her cook dinner as much as possible, and taking notes in a small, wide-ruled, marble-covered notebook. I started simple with basic pasta sauces; a bean and meat chili with canned tomato sauce; quickly sautéed spinach, etc. Cooking is an iterative process, and the more I worked on the starter recipes in my little marble notebook, the more I was able to understand recipes I clipped from the newspaper or saw on television. I started turning out more complex dishes using pan sauces and spice blends, as well as moving into regional cuisines like Cajun (I went to school in New Orleans) and Chinese. I didn’t have wheels in college (a real city boy – I had only gotten my license months before going away to school), so I had a deal with one my friends: she would drive me to the market for my weekly shopping and I would cook something up. I had started cooking as a self-preservation mechanism – a way to avoid the horrorshow diets I saw my friends chained to. Now, as I started cooking for my friend, I found that I really liked feeding other people, especially when I saw that the person eating was really enjoying the meal.
Cooking School. By graduation, I knew that I enjoyed cooking and wanted to travel, but didn’t really have any concrete idea of what to do with myself. I made a list of ten things I wanted to know how to do or to have done before I turned 30, so I at least had a loose game plan. At the top of the list were to be professionally trained as a cook, work in a top restaurant for a bit and live and work in Western Europe without a backpack (I don’t remember much about the rest of the list, except that I did fight in a white collar boxing match and did not learn carpentry). I ended up finding a work-study program at Peter Kump’s New York Cooking Schoool (now re-branded The Institute of Culinary Education), which changed my whole outlook on food, and what I could do with. The way the program worked was that I worked for the school, and got a certain amount of credits that went towards paying for tuition for a certain amount of hours works. Nights and weekends were time-and-a-half, so I tried to pick up those shifts, when I could. In the end, I paid a $100 application fee and worked off the over-$30,000 tuition. Also included in the deal was a whole set of cooking equipment (knives, spatulas, whisks, etc. – all packaged in a cool knife roll), some of which I still use today. The best part of the deal was that I learned more from working at the school than I did in class.
Learning on the Job. My first day I reported at 7AM to the pantry, after changing into chef’s checkered pants, a chef’s jacket and a tight-fitting chef’s head (not the fancy tall one you are thinking of – this was more like a sailor’s cap). I probably had never been anywhere this early. I walked into a room with a large sink up front, a small office to the side, metal shelves filled with dry goods and heavy doors, all of which were oddly swung open (odd because they seemed to be walk-in refrigerators and freezers). Odder still was that people dressed in the same outfit I had were running around frantically, and a few were yelling things like, “The shad roe, the shad roe!!!!” I asked for whomever I was supposed to ask for and in response had a huge side of beef shoved into my arms, staining my jacket red before I had worked out any of its creases. I stood there, staring at the guy, who yelled at me like I should’ve done it already, “Put that on the ice that Tony has by the large sink!!!” Okay, I thought. I saw the sink when I walked in, so I’m off. I realized that the electricity had gone out for all the walk-ins, and the other work-study folk were panicking in their effort to save the food. Things settled down after the triage was over, and eventually the power went back on. Still, I got home and crashed out like I had never crashed before. I was completely toast – lying in my bed at only 9pm, thinking to myself that I couldn’t go back to that crazy place again tomorrow. One of the advantages of baptism by fire is that the next day is always so much easier – really the best way to learn.
Inner Workings in the Pantry. The work part of the work-study program was set up in three stages. First, you earned your stripes in the pantry. Then, you started bringing food and other prep items up to the classrooms. Finally, you assisted the chef-instructors with classes given to the (paying) general public. Down in the pantry, there were a couple of paid employees – one sort of like a petty officer in charge of supplies who mostly kept to his office, the other his eyes, ears and arms in the pantry, directing the somewhat clueless (depending on length of service) work-study folk. In the pantry, our main task was to load rolling carts with whatever items were needed for classes. We would get a print-out of the goods, and start loading up the carts, being sure to take the oldest of anything around first, to keep the stock rotating. You knew you were moving up in the ranks when you would be entrusted with going out to a local market to pick up something we didn’t have on hand. Restocking was a major task, as well, properly storing the incoming food into the rotating stock system. I loved dealing with the produce, and would sometimes go into the veggie and fruit walk-in just to look at the abundance of well-ordered stock. I especially liked looking at the cratefuls of different mushrooms and peppers, many of which I had never seen before. Once I started getting the confidence of the people I worked for, the pantry became more and more of a food laboratory. We usually over-ordered meat and fish and always had tons of produce and dry goods on hand. For instance, I would be given a huge, prime cut of sushi-grade tuna somewhere in the middle of my shift, which I would throw into a plastic pint container with whatever type of marinade I was feeling that evening. One of my favorites was light soy sauce, rice mirin vinegar, fresh lemongrass, ginger, garlic, Thai chili pepper and cilantro. I would throw this in the walk-in, with my name marked all over it, and cook it on each side for a couple of minutes the next off-day I had for a killer lunch that would have cost over $20 in a quality restaurant.
Out of the Cellar. The next step in my evolution from “work” to “study” was bringing the carts stocked with food up to the classrooms and bringing any unused products back to the pantry. At first, these were quick trips. But, as I continued to gain trust, things got more interesting. Say I was working the morning shift and brought up the carts and found some serious, imported chorizo in the fridge that had not been used in the Cooking of Spain from the night before. Instead of bringing this back down to the pantry as my instinct told me, the person training me might suggest that we slice it up, brown it off, and scramble a few eggs in it to eat with a few of the tostadas we were bringing up for the upcoming Mexican Fiesta class (they would never use them all, I was assured). We would chow down on this fine breakfast and leave about half of it of the side with some aluminum foil, keeping it warm, and head back downstairs, telling our (select) colleagues that there was some breakfast waiting for them in 401.
Into the Pan. The last step up the work-study ladder was assisting chef-instructors with their avocational classes (meaning the clientele were paying customers looking more to have a good time and drink wine than really learn much about cooking). I would be assigned to a class, and the first thing I would do would be to show up early and check the fridges and pantries to ensure that the folk downstairs included everything we would need. At this point, if something was missing or the chef had a surprise request, I could just pick up the phone and call downstairs to place my order. I was on the top of the work-study pyramid now. The “students” were mostly (hard) working professionals, most of whom were blowing off steam and kept asking if I could pop open another bottle of wine. There were a few people who wanted to learn a little something, but for the most part I was monitoring alcohol intake and dodging sharp knives and hot pans, trying to make sure no one got hurt. The great part of these classes was that the faster I took care of whatever needs the students and the chef had, the faster I could saddle up next to the chef and learn something myself. He or she was usually grateful to have someone who cared, so I took advantage of this as much as possible. This is where I really got my cooking education, helping chefs to carve up birds, fillet fishes and execute (sometimes complicated) sauces, all the while keeping an eye out on the crowd - half to make sure no one got stabbed and half to see if my guesses as to which couples would hook up were panning out to be correct. It was also at this point, with some irony, that I decided that I could never be a real chef, working away in hot, dangerous kitchens, spilling out of work exhausted and stressed into some local bar to load my nerves up with enough nicotine and alcohol to be able to sleep. All this was clear, even though I hadn’t worked a day in a kitchen and was having a great time. Just talking to the chef instructors and hanging out with the cooks-to-be after our shifts made me realize that I would never be a professional in the kitchen. Still, I knew I would always be involved in food in some way - I just loved it so much.
Labastide Esparbairenque. After completing classes (which were mostly just turning out recipes from a text book - like I said, I learned more “working” than “studying”), I went to work for a summer at a bed and breakfast in a tiny village in Southwestern France, northeast of Carcassonne called Labastide Esparbairenque. There were only a handful of people living in this hamlet tucked into the Montagne Noir, and no businesses at all. Most of the residents left for the summer, and since there were only about 100 people in the town when full, the town had probably 10 people in it, plus me and the owners of the b&b. My job was to cook for the light, but steady, stream of guests who came through. The only forms of commercial, political or religious life in the village were the mayor’s office, which was open every other Tuesday from 8am-11am; a chapel, which was opened four times a year (none during my summer) and the merchants who would roll through town in their trucks. Every morning, the bread truck would tear through the small road that bisected the village. This road was carved into the side of the mountain, with rows of homes on either side, and then pure rock or sheer cliff. I would buy bread for the day, and if I were luckily, a still-warm chocolate croissant to eat with my coffee. Once a week a meat vendor came through, from whom I would buy incredible dried sausages made in the mountains. A vegetable vendor came through about once a week, as well. The only other outlet was to walk down a couple of miles to a really good restaurant, where they had killer cassoulet. My favorite part of the restaurant, though, was that when you ordered the charcuterie platter as an appetizer, the waiter brought out a huge, wooden slab with mounds of dried sausages, country-style pates, confits, bread, butter, cornichons and great bread - all with a huge Laguiole knife stuck into one of the larger hunks of food. The app was like 8 bucks-U.S., and you could eat as much as you wanted. During weekends, we would drive down to Carcassonne to the farmer’s market to shop for the week, where we found fresh, local produce, including specialities like wild mushrooms, truffles and pates that would cost a fortune in New York. I pretty much had free reign to prepare menus, and tried to keep things local - dishing out pork loins with a tapenade crust, duck cooked in fresh cranberries and salads made from whatever looked good at the market. All washed down with local wine that we got by the gallon straight from the producers. The gig was only for the summer, so I packed up my knives and headed back to the States to complete my externship - which is like an internship after school has ended.
Working in a Restaurant. I headed out to the Bay Area to work at Spago in Palo Alto (unfortunately, the restaurant is now closed). I write “work”, but this was an unpaid externship, so there was no real pressure on me. They were happy to have the extra set of hands around. What made me really realize that I was not working was that I was (still) carless at the time, and had to catch the last Caltrans to get back up the peninsula - meaning I got to skip the clean up at the end of the night, which went on long after the restaurant was closed and I’m sure had no glory to it. At first, I mostly helped out with family meal, which is a meal cooked behind the scenes for the whole staff to chow down on between lunch and dinner service. I would help out with industrial pans of lasagna or chili for 60 people. Eventually, they started weaving me into food that made it out to patrons. I went from baking dinner rolls to making vinaigrettes. Frying wonton skins into a cup shape to osso bucco. I loved making the osso. I would brown huge, lovely veal shanks, and then build a sauce with red wine, fresh veal stock and two killer ingredients that are pretty much restaurant-specific. First, I added demi glace, which is made from simmered down and thickened veal stock enriched with flour, red wine, fat and aromatics. You could do this at home (probably takes over 20 hours, between prepping, roasting, simmering and cleaning) or buy that pre-made stuff in the freezer section - but the real deal stuff is like nothing I had ever tasted. Rich, dark, tongue-coating essence of cow. With a deep sweetness and slight tang that was like drinking an incredible, aged port. The shanks simmer in the stock, wine and demi glace until they are fall apart tender. But the real trick was that to that lovely braising liquid, I would add reserved braising liquid from the last night’s batch. This ment that the flavors were increasing and deepening with each pot coming out of the kitchen. The one time I sat in the dining hall and ate, this was what I ordered. Unreal stuff. What also came with with this experience was the reinforcement that the trenches of the kitchen were not for me.
Out of the Kitchen. After completing my externship, I came back to NYC to go back to school and enter the professional world. I found that I was cooking at home as much as I could and always searching for great places to grab grub. Eventually, I started taking photos of my food, and posting them on Facebook. I got some good responses, so I put my fingers to the keypad and started up GrubBlogger.com. I hope you enjoy the site.