Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Adrift in the O.C.

Looking beyond the Stereotypes

In Late February our friends Dawn and Ed had us transported from the New England winter doldrums to Orange County California, the O.C., the place that many only know from a mediocre nighttime soap, and a reality show that centers on vapid, whiney, tasteless, harpies and their equally clueless, credit card grubbing, over-privileged, brood. I did not meet any of these types. I spotted some but felt safer viewing them at a distance. I did meet many good, genuine people. Cockroaches and butterflies can coexist. I had a interesting discussion with a man on the beach, who happened to be a Lakers fan, regarding the stereotypes that he, and myself, (a Celtics fan) have come to fall back on when perceiving the opposition. We got on quite well. The weather was near perfect, upper 60’s, lower 70’s. It came close to overshadowing the fresh produce.

Living In New England one comes to expect a short supply of anything locally grown throughout the course of the long winter season. You learn quick enough to avoid the cardboard textured peaches from Peru, the truck ripened water bomb tomatoes from Florida and the soulless strawberries from Mexico. To spend the morning prowling a southern California farmers market in February was my equivalent of a die-hard Elvis fan eating his lunch on Elvis’ commode at Graceland. And, because we were staying with friends, rather than a hotel, I got to cook all that we procured.

In addition to some superb meals prepared and shared with friends, we had some wonderful experiences dining out. I am only going to write about one though, my favorite of the trip, a breakfast on our first morning there.
We went just a few blocks from our friends home in Laguna Hills, by car of course, to an unassuming little strip-mall, in the middle of which, sat a small café called
“The Break of Dawn”.

The café, open for only breakfast and lunch, has a tactfully refreshing Pan-Asian, natural wood themed décor and a small terrace, where we chose to sit. In America breakfast tends to be more or less straight forward, based upon meat and eggs, usually varying in regards to the quality of the meat and eggs used. I am as guilty as the next person of being totally content with 2 eggs, sausage, home fries, toast and coffee. The cuisine at the Break of Dawn might best be categorized as Global Fusion meets Hybrid American Comfort Food. Although our friend Ed, who prefers American standards when it comes to breakfast, had pancakes, the rest of us dined on items unique to the establishment. We had:

Cinnamon Sticky Bun
Baked in Cast Iron Pan, Coffee Syrup and Almond Glaze,
Whipped Cream

Sausage and Rice
Portuguese-Hawaiian Sausage, Green Papaya and
Sesame Salad, Scallion Puree, Two Fried Eggs

Smoked Salmon
Coriander Cured, Oatmeal Galette, Herb Poached Egg,
Marinated Tomato, Preserved Lemon-Caper Emulsion

Barbeque Pork
Pulled Pork, Jalapeno Corn Cake, Tropical Slaw and
Egg Tempura, Essence of Five Spices

Dee Nguyen, the owner and Chef, waited on us. He is not just a little over qualified for running a moderately priced breakfast and lunch joint. A graduate of the San Francisco-based California Culinary Academy and former Executive Sous Chef at the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel, Dee was on a fast track to Culinary success when tragedy struck. Dee’s wife Lihn, who he first met as a child, on a refugee boat fleeing Vietnam, was 18 weeks pregnant when doctors discovered their unborn son had Eagle-Barrett syndrome, in which his urinary tract and abdominal muscles were malformed, causing severe damage to his internal organs. After a series of operations during his first two years, their son, Berlin, underwent a procedure to repair the damage to his stomach. During the surgery, his breathing tube was mistakenly blocked, causing him to go without oxygen for over ten minutes. He was in a coma for a month. That was in 2003, today Berlin is slowly making progress but it is a high level of adversity to battle day after day. This is what motivated Dee to abandon his dream, owning his own fine dining restaurant, and devote his life to the care and upbringing of his son. Linh, a full time Pharmacist handles the administrative duties at the restaurant, Dee's father, once a professional studio photographer in Vietnam, busses tables and the rest of his extended family help out where they can. Laguna Hills is a tough place for a creative Chef to ply his trade. Socially conservative, it could be viewed as the vanilla in Southern Cal’s ice cream chest. Olive Garden and TGIF are local faves. Despite the fact that Dee would prefer a Frisco audience, he has carved a niche for himself in the community and has garnered much praise in the regional press, most recently being named O.C. Chef of the Year. When a highly creative person has to scale back the artistic output they thrive upon, it isn’t easy. What Dee has managed to accomplish with the Break of Dawn demonstrates much about his passion and ability as a chef. It speaks volumes about his integrity, character and soul.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Revisiting Gourmet Magazine

The first time that I looked at a food magazine was in 1977. I was 22 and had spent the better part of my time, up until then, learning how to cook traditional American home cooking. My repertoire of ethnic fare included Swedish Meatballs, Turkey Tetrazzini, Beef Stroganoff and Chicken Florentine. The actual ethnicity of these dishes was dubious, at best. I had just gotten hired as an apprentice Garde Manger at the now defunct Petroleum Club, in Evansville Indiana. The kitchen, and the club, in regards to the style of food and service, was completely old school Continental. The waiters wore tuxedos with white gloves, there were at least 10 items on the menu that were flambéed tableside and much of what we prepared was straight out of Escoffier’s “le Guide Culinaire”. My introduction to Gourmet magazine coincided with my induction into the kitchens of Haute Cuisine and helped to place me decidedly in the camp of those who live to eat.

I can’t say when the last time was that I read a current issue of Gourmet. I have been on their website on occasion, and have watched the show “Diary of a Foodie”, but I haven’t really read the print copy in years. I browsed through one at a bookstore recently and decided to pass on it based on the fact that the sheer volume of advertisements was staggering. It had the same feel as GQ, or Cosmo, where one has to plow through page after page of ads in order to stumble upon a couple of narrow columns of text. I am sure this is due to an ever-increasing reliance on that ad revenue. The Gourmet of old, at $8.00 per year subscription rate, had that as a major source of income. Considering today’s printing costs, the present rate of $12.00 per year could hardly cover production expenses.

My thoughts for this post were formed the other day when I received 6 issues of Gourmet, from 1975, that I had purchased on ebay for $10.00 including shipping. I had been rereading Patrick Kuh’s “The last Days of Haute Cuisine” and David Kamp’s “The United States of Arugula” and noticed how they both gave special emphasis to the October 1975 review of Chez Panisse by Caroline Bates. The fact that this review put Chez Panisse on the map is beside my point. It was reporting like this, that young cooks, such as myself, needed to move beyond the restraints of the classical kitchen and keep abreast of the contemporary restaurant scene in America.

The travel writing of gourmet was also an important aspect of the publication. We all take the Internet for granted when seeking new information. Need a recipe for Chicken Tika Masala? No problem, Want to watch a video demonstrating hydrocolloid sphere making procedure? You can pretty much find cooking information from the exotic to the pedestrian. My first forays into Portuguese, Brazilian and Spanish cuisines, in the seventies, were due to reading Gourmet. Access to decent ethnic cookbooks at that time was near nonexistent.

Today, most chefs look upon Gourmet and other cooking publications as being geared more towards the home cook and view them as more than just a little condescending. However, I do owe Gourmet a debt of gratitude for planting a seed, fanning a flame and ultimately assisting me in my choice of careers. Maybe I will buy another issue.