Sometimes, life gives us hard pills to swallow, and no one should have to swallow certain ones ... but that's what happens, and then we have to move on ... one way or another.
Sometimes, people ask me advice on what they should do, or how they should handle something, and the answers I give them are never satisfying. I don't give step by step instructions to alleviate the issues. I don't pretend to possess such knowledge. I don't pretend that there is a solution that is worth figuring out that will somehow magically make all pain disappear. There's only one way ...
What am I supposed to do? Keep on keeping on ... feel what you need to feel, and then do the best you can to make things better. That's easier said than done, but most things are easier said than done. Now its time to do it, and don't expect it to be easy. If it is, don't expect it to last. If it doesn't last, expect that you've got to go through this again and again, and someday it will make sense. If it never makes sense, then let it all go knowing that you tried your best. There isn't a good answer.
Think of it like climbing Mt Everest, in some ways worse, but most of the time no one dies, in contrast with Mt Everest where if most of the population attempted it, most of them would die ... dealing with all the emotional trials that life throws at us isn't usually as fatal. Even those who are most capable of dealing with a task like climbing Mt Everest might fail. It doesn't get easier towards the top. Once you're there, you're experiencing a moment like any other, but you're past most of the hard part ... probably ... because you still have to get back down and then deal with everything else that happens in your life.
Sometimes we're left with a horrible mess to deal with, and there isn't any redeeming quality that we can take from the situation ... in those situations all we can do is keep on keeping on, feel what you need to feel, and then (most importantly) do the best you can to make things better. If there isn't a redeeming quality then go about trying to create them. If nothing else, the redeeming quality will be the strength and happiness that you have given to others in trying times. Fill your life with enough of these situations and we might even be able to look back on terrible events, like the holocaust, and say something like, "If given the option I would never wish that such an event would occur, but given all that has happened since, well, we are who we are because of what we've been through, these events changed who I am, and I have made myself into a better person because of it ... I would undo it in an instant if given a magic reset button, but I would hesitate for a moment thinking of all that has happened since, and all that might never happen ... I'll know that I'll undo some terrible things, and other terrible things might take its place, but how many times in your life are you given such a reset button?"
Just make a note that you can only say that if you have actually made yourself a better person because of an event.
Sometimes we're given hard pills to swallow, and it isn't just the fact that we swallowed them, nor the fact that others haven't had to, nor the fact that it was unjust in the first place, but how we compose ourselves through the ordeal and afterwards, how we deal with our day to day, how we remember without dwelling ...
The hard part about life isn't getting what needs to be done, done.
The really hard part about life is doing it all without becoming an asshole.
I was helping a friend make some ravioli stuffing when I had a craving for chicken liver. It's odd how the creative process works with food. You smell, or taste something, and a craving hits you. You want to put them together because the food seems to ask for it. In this case, this particular ravioli stuffing was asking for much more richness, we opted for brown butter, but it got me thinking about this idea.
I think chanterelles and liver are pretty much a standard food combination, and for good reason. It's all about getting the proper amount of liver richness to chanterelle mushrooms. I'd clean the mushrooms and then just sear them in butter with salt and pepper. Throw those into a food processor, lighten it up with some fresh ricotta cheese, and start adding some cooked chicken liver until the flavor is right. I'm thinking that the liver from 1 chicken is probably enough flavor for 1 qt of cooked chanterelles.
At that point, the next thing to decide is what ravioli shape to use. Personally, I love ravioli shapes. I love pasta shapes, cutting vegetables into perfect neat pieces, and just seeing mosaics of different colors and shapes altogether. I blame it on playing too many atari-aged video games. The thing with ravioli shapes is you have to figure out how much sauce to stuffing you want. In the case of something strong, and, to some people, offensive like liver, we'd want a more subtle ratio of stuffing to pasta to sauce. One of the best shapes for strong flavors is the twisted candy shape. It's also really pretty to look at, and when people see it, they're really impressed by it. Honestly, if I ever see a standard ravioli cut in a decent restaurant I'm appalled. You can get rippled squares out of a can. You should expect something more artisan from a restaurant with any amount of pride.
In general, for strong flavors, I like twisted raviolis. We used to make a long tube shaped ravioli that someone called tubetti. They were really pretty. I always thought a double helix kind of tubetti would be great. Make 2 long tubes filled with stuffing, then give each one a twist, and cut them to seal. Freeze them, cook them, and see what happens. This might be a disaster. The stuffing might just completely come out of them as the end doesn't seal, but there are ways to solve problems like this. Anyway, it would take some polishing, but seeing a double helix style pasta would be some amount of fun. It would also make a great vehicle for sauce, which brings us to the next question ...
What sauce would compliment chanterelles and chicken liver?
This is a two part question because I feel that every ravioli should be paired with an aromatic butter sauce. I really can't think of a single ravioli that I wouldn't want coated first in a butter sauce. You might like raviolis in a tomato ragout, or meat ragout, or whatever, but honestly, if you're paying top dollar for raviolis, then wouldn't you want them first lightly coated in a butter sauce, then topped with whatever ragout you choose? If it's well done, then there is no going wrong there ... What's more classic than mushroom, liver, and truffle? Toss those wonderful raviolis in a butter sauce with a dash of truffle, and then lay them out on a plate ... and ... what sauce next?
I would choose different sauces to finish this depending on where I was when I was making these. If I were in a more home style Italian place, I'd opt for a tomato ragout, perhaps with a hint of heat, but more likely I'm in a more upscale type place, and I'd opt for a heavy veal demi-glace lightened with chopped roasted tomatoes and herbs. Meat, tomato, butter, pasta, truffle, liver, mushroom, cheese ... sounds like a recipe for greatness, no? It's almost a deconstructed hunters sauce in the form of ravioli.
Would we care to get creative with pasta dough? I think in this case, the only pasta dough I might opt for is some kind of herb dough, like basil. With so many things going on, sometimes you just have to keep 1 dimension in the familiar range.
The trouble with selling such a dish is that all too often, hearing the word liver is such a repellent for a lot of people. Then again, just a chanterelle ravioli? It's hardly a crime, but then again, it just isn't really worth getting excited about. The only other thing I could possibly think of is maybe bone marrow & chanterelle, but then again, if we were doing bone marrow, I'd opt for something else entirely. I'll post about that another day.
The putanesca dish is such a popular flavor combination with chefs. I think it's possibly because of the robust flavor, ease of preparation, and cheap ingredients ... which also made it really popular with peasants. That being said, I firmly believe that dinner menu items need to be works of art that earn their right to be displayed on a menu. It isn't our place to put some cheap moneymaker that when purchased, gives the customer the feeling that he was just ripped off.
I've seen the classic putanesca mix of garlic, capers, and anchovy tossed onto all sorts of things, from cauliflower, to white beans, to salad dressing without even a mention of its ingredients. These days, people are so afraid of anchovies that it's down right irritating. Perhaps in their youth, they were forced to eat an entire bowl of low quality anchovies, or perhaps they were pelted with them by the local hoodlums. Sometimes, it's easier to just feed something to someone without telling them what it is, which brings me to this dish.
We've had a bucatini putanesca on our menu for quite some time. Although it's tasty, like I said before, it can't just be a peasant dish that we do, we have to take it above and beyond what someone can do at home.
When I was at Aroma, my boss always wanted to do some sort of seafood bolognese with octopus and lobster. I'm not sure if he had a great braised lobster dish, but I don't think extended cooking helps the texture of that meat at all. Up until today, I still haven't had a seafood bolognese that I really liked, but I had this idea for a braised octopus dish that I think might work out wonderfully.
We start with a classic red wine braised octopus. Rough cut mirepoix, red wine, throw the octopus in, braise until tender as hell, remove, marinate in garlic and herbs. That's just a classic way of preparing octopus, and a good beginning for any dish. Part of the braising liquid gets set aside for sauce, and the rest gets saved for the next batch of braised octopus. We'll use a nice piece of octopus for garnish, and chop some up into the dish.
One of my favorite ways to add body to a seafood dish is to use squid ink. It adds thickness, a light sweetness, a definitive flavor of the sea, and naturally darkens the sauce, which might or might not be a good thing. The ink is rich in protein and fat, which makes it a great sauce base.
For some reason, I think capellini might be the ideal pasta shape for this dish. The noodles look good with things that seem to be floating lost within the mass of pasta. It also sits well, and is easy to top with something. I guess we could use handmade tagliatelle also. Some pasta that might turn cake-y, like papardelle, could be a good thing, the contrast between the crisp octopus, and the texture of the pasta might be welcome. Well, this is one of those times when pasta shape really doesn't matter as much as the actual implementation of the dish.
The sauce starts with sauteing the octopus pieces with our ground up mixture of garlic, capers, anchovy, and olives. Once we've brought out the flavors of that, deglaze with some red wine braise. Finish the dish with a spoonful of diced tomatoes, a touch of marinara, a little squid ink, and fresh parsley. Toss with your pasta, top with our octopus crown, and serve.
This dish could go into a classic pasta bowl, but would most likely look better on some kind of plate with a small lip. I can imagine a touch of sauce splattered around the plate with some celery heart leaves, parsley, chervil, or almost anything with the octopus atop a mountain of pasta waiting to be devoured ... The sauce would be a deep burgundy from the red wine/squid ink with plenty of black from the mix of olives and capers. The large white plate would brighten up the dish nicely, but then again, everything looks better on white plates ... sorry about that fiesta-ware.
I was driving through Paia when I got hungry, and thought of all the places that I didn't want to eat. Maui is very frustrating for places to hang out. My mind wandered to Michael Baskin's place at the Paia Inn. It would be a nice place to chill if only it were open. What a complicated task that would be ... the space is just tiny.
Last year, he approached me about ideas for the place. I had just been hired at the Four Seasons, and I wasn't about to embark on some silly task that would take years to profit. Not without an investor that really knew the restaurant industry. Not without someone who was going to be accustomed to making small baby steps, and living with a very pessimistic forecast.
My first thought was of Momofuku, or as Maui knows the concept -- Star Noodle. That wouldn't work in this area. Sam Soto's is profitable, but their prices are dirt cheap. How could you possibly produce enough broth in such a small spot? Impossible ... My next thought was pizza, but you can't do pizza next to Flatbread. Bistro? No ... It really isn't a space that says bistro. So what else could I possibly put into such a small place? I think smokehouse would work.
I know the space from working with the ice cream shop. There's a space outside that could be transformed into a smoker. One big issue is refrigeration, but that can/has to be built. They don't have a proper restaurant conveyor style dishwasher, so managing dishes has to be kept to a minimum. This isn't tolerated with many places, but it would work with bbq style food. Plastic trays could be used, and the food works well with take out requests. If I were running the place, I'd keep the menu classic -- ribs, brisket, pulled pork, baked beans, cole slaw, corn bread. Keep those as the staples, and then start to go crazy with it.
I have prime access to pickles from Maui Preserved, and I'd them like crazy. Pickled Namasu vegetables would be a side. I'd do smoked duck, venison, and lamb. You could be sure that smoked fish would go on the menu. I'd take all the leftover smoked fish and make one of my favorite fish stews.
It would be a fun project. I would definitely serve burgers with smoked onion relish. I'd also throw together smoked meat tacos. I know it would be a hit. I'd have pita bread, corn tortillas, and flour tortillas. It'd be easy to have some kind of rice, and then I'm a step away from smoked meat burritos. I know Al from Milagros would hate me, but he'd get over it.
Until we have our own liquor license, I'd tell people all about a BYOB policy. I'd even make friends with the owner of the local liquor store, who happens to be a native New Yorker too. I'd have him make suggestions all the time. I know I can sell some beer to people, and I'd have him running out of expensive beers on a regular basis. I'd even have a delivery service from him. Hell, why even bother having a liquor license? That means I have to manage more refrigeration. Give the business to him, have him tell everyone about me, and give my dishwashers a walk to get beer delivery tip for some extra get happy money.
It isn't a perfect plan, and opening a restaurant is always a hop in the ass, but the thing about bbq is that it's easy to scale up. The toughest thing about a restaurant is being ready to be slammed. BBQ places can cook a ton of food overnight with the same staff. All you have to do is season things, and then fire and forget. You can keep a lot of pulled pork frozen. You can use specials to alleviate the load. It also all works as great lunch stuff, and you could even easily swing breakfast.
Lunch to dinner is an easy change ... you just up the portions, make the sides cooler, and add specials. Serve chips with every lunch meal. Serve 2 sides with every dinner meal. Use leftovers for lunch, and prep fresh for dinner.
The real draw for the owner is to have a kitchen available to serve his guests. The ability to pre-order picnic baskets to go, have things available for his continental breakfast, delivery straight to his rooms during business hours, and access to talent to do backyard BBQs for his high end clients is really top notch stuff. The nice thing about smokehouse is that you don't have to do that much a la carte cooking. Like I said, it's easy to scale up from the same amount of staff. Your limitations are really all storage and smoker capacity.
After that ... all that's left is really just flexing with the way you put your food together ... and like I always say, that's the easy part.
Just to be clear, this is just for fun, and just a mental exercise. I'm at the bottom of the list seniority-wise, and I have no say whatsoever with anything that goes on at work. I'm just doing this because, well, thinking is what I do, and this is how I deal with thoughts. So, if I were in charge, or had some say in menu ideas, these are the things that I would bring up. This is only for the lunch menu too. I realized that this became way too long to include dinner menu things, and that'll be another post altogether.
First things first, I'd ditch the spicy tuna roll. It was a good thought, and I think people do want it, but I'd rather swap it out for a spicy tuna tartar option with the california roll/sashimi app. You can order a half cal roll/sashimi combination, and people already ask for a tuna roll. Rolling the tuna roll is slightly annoying, and I don't think having 2 sushi rolls really helps anything. Instead, I'd do a pillarbox style tuna tartar on top of sushi rice. I did this at Milagros a few times, and it was well received. It also looked pretty neat. I'd keep the plate simple with just a small scoop of tobiko on top, and maybe some micro greens. If people want a full order of spicy tuna, we'd just make it bigger. I would eat it by picking it up between sheets of nori, like I would eat a chirashi bowl.
I'd also process our ahi different. Right now, we grind it up in a ricer, and I'm not a big fan of it. I think it abuses the meat too much, unless you're more delicate with it, but then again, why not just give it a small dice? Or if there is too much sinew, just scrape it with a spoon? At first glance, it seems like using the ricer would make things much easier, but in practice, it's very cumbersome.
The second thing I'd do is get rid of the lobster sandwich, and the lobster/shrimp burger. Although I feel that the new lobster burger is a great improvement over the last one, I still don't think it's fantastic. The addition of shrimp adds a lot to it, but I don't think the lobster is helping any. I'd take the crab cake off the sandwich side, and add a crab cake sandwich to the grill side. The crab cake recipe that we use makes a better sandwich than it does crab cake, mostly because it doesn't have a ton of bread crumbs in it. I think the person that put the lobster burger on the menu probably thought it would be a great higher end alternative to a crab cake sandwich, but in practice, I think the lobster burger loses out to the crab cake. Granted, we don't get requests for crab cake sandwiches, so we're probably filling a gap that would only make me happy, but I think those people that do order the lobster sandwich, or the lobster burger, would be more happy with a crab cake sandwich. The crab cake sandwich could use the same chipotle aioli that we put on our lobster burger, or perhaps even go the old garlic & basil tomatoes, or maybe even both.
I don't know if anyone would miss the lobster sandwich. I think the sandwich sounds very appealing, and then it ends up delivering something that is very average, or really just not all that amazing. If people were married to the idea of having a lobster sandwich, I'd opt for a lobster panini with a very different recipe to the salad mix. If it were a panini, I'd rather use a croissant. That would be pretty sweet, but I'd also consider the old truffle lobster flatbread. In general, I think a high priced flatbread is perceived as a greater value than a high priced sandwich. The value goes like this cold sandwich --> cold wrap --> tacos & burritos --> hot sandwich & panini --> flatbread ... would you agree? I just made that up. Anyway, the flatbread was profitable at $17 a pizza, and I can't imagine it would be priced less than $26. The sandwich is just overly brine-y, and I really believe the product would display better as a flatbread. The flatbread would have tomatoes, basil, and some decent quality cow milk mozzarella, or even some whipped ricotta. The idea is very creamy, but not very funk-tastic ... like a lunch version of the dinner pasta. We could even use panna cream, or irish double cream. Panna would be much more Italian. Putting panna, lobster, and truffle on the same pizza is pretty much recipe for a $26 pizza.
I'd love to put the salmon burger back on the menu. I love salmon burgers. I know this sounds horrible, but sometimes I like salmon burgers better than a piece of salmon. The last generation of the salmon burger was, in my opinion, a terrible compromise of the asian fusion/euro/american thing that our menu is doing. I think a much better option would be to go the salmon gravlox route. Keep the patty simple, diced salmon bound with salmon mousse. We'd just puree some fish scrap and cream, then bind the diced salmon like we did before. Season the patty with dill, and some chopped fennel tops. We'd finish the burger with a slice of smoked salmon, and the classic toppings of capers, onion, and tomato. If we feel like getting silly, we could even implement some sort of cream cheese spread, but that's not completely necessary. If I could have my way, we'd use different types of buns. A pretzel bun is the latest fad that hit the mainland like 5 years ago, so it might be a little too avante-garde for Maui, but it's an idea.
I'd love to add a grilled calamari salad to our menu. I remember calamari steaks being very reasonably priced, and easy to work with. The old recipe of chick peas, tomatoes, celery heart leaves, picked parsley, frisee, and grilled calamari, tossed in spicy aioli would work just fine. It would easily work as a sandwich/grill station combination. Sandwich station would give the grill station a bowl with all the ingredients, while grill station slices the freshly grilled calamari, tosses it together, and then plates it. Grill station has lemons on the station too, so it would almost make sense to throw a lemon on the plate. We already have all that stuff with the exception of the picked leaves, but that's some damn easy prep to add to a station.
There are a few small improvements that I'd like to make. I think the seared ahi wrap is a great idea, and it's pretty tasty too, but it usually ends up not really being seared well, or not being raw enough. All I would do is ask the butcher to leave the ahi in pieces that were easy to sear. We'd sear those larger pieces, and then dice them up. When I worked sandwich station, I'd take the less than pristine pieces of ahi, sear those, and then dice them after searing.
Just to make something clear before we proceed. At no point does anyone, as far as I know, serve anything that isn't in the best interests of our customers. That's just not how we roll. That being said, there is always the top end of the spectrum, and the lower end of the spectrum. Just because something is on the lower end of the spectrum doesn't mean it's bad. It just isn't perfect for certain dishes or preparations. Shaved beef carpaccio might only be great for that night, and it might discolor, but the next day it's perfectly fine for the best cheese steak sandwiches you'll ever have. We used to do this at one of our spots. We'd take the leftover carpaccio and just make ourselves sandwiches. A good restaurant always has its outlet for things that would fall into the #2 category. Day old sashimi grade fish becomes a great poached, or blackened fish tacos. It's a great way to incorporate higher quality ingredients into your more mundane items. Here on Maui, fish tacos are served everywhere, but not everywhere do they serve them with a high grade of fish. We all have bills to pay, you know? To work in a place where our #2 is good quality, and better than what most places would consider their #1 is a good situation to be in. For the most part, our menu is good at juggling top quality ingredients. Just like in this case, taking the ahi blocks that wouldn't be the best sashimi, and then searing them for our seared ahi roll makes perfect sense.
To stay on the same vein, I think that any menu with raw oysters on it needs a baked oyster option, but having them both at the same time complicates things. Baking oysters is a great way to utilize oysters that aren't in their prime any longer. We serve fresh raw oysters on our dinner menu, which I'm not crazy about, but that's only because I've eaten the carpet bagger oysters from Olives. So what would our baked oyster recipe be? I'm thinking about a dynamite style oyster with the addition of shrimp and lobster. It would basically be our lobster salad recipe with the addition of chopped shrimp, but a whole lot creamier. Top each oyster with this, bake until done, and enjoy with something classic, but silly, like a cheesy garlic bread with arugula and cherry tomatoes. It's one of those sort of lighter, but actually really heavy dishes that only works at lunch.
It would be a dream come true to get rid of the veggie burger, but that's mostly because of personal taste. I dislike the name veggie burger because it's basically a lie. It doesn't really have vegetables in it. Ours consists of split peas, brown rice, garbanzo beans, mushrooms, and hearts of palm. It doesn't taste bad, but peas and beans are both legumes, and they're very starchy. Brown rice is obviously starch. Hearts of palm is probably one of the most overrated things I've ever eaten, and it's starchy. So is mushroom the only vegetable in there? It isn't a leafy green. I don't know the specific nutritional content of them, and I'm not going to look them up right now. So we have a patty that is mostly starch, throw it in a bun, which is all starch, and add a few shaved onions, avocado, tomato, lettuce, and some more portabello mushrooms on top. It sounds good, yeah? Well, that's 90% starch. Serving it as a veggie burger leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
How would I do a veggie burger? I wouldn't. We already have a veggie panini on the menu, and that's fine by me, but if I were told that I need to have a vegetarian option that is a burger, what would I do? One that is also gluten and dairy free? I'd honestly go the falafel route with the addition of cauliflower. Seared cauliflower is one of the greatest things you can eat, and falafel is my binder of choice. This isn't a good idea, and I'll have to play with this idea a lot before I can get it down, but I honestly don't even see a point to having a veggie burger. It's mystery grain that is brown, and round ... Joy! Oh but it tastes good, they say, and of course it does, it's all starch. It's a great way to get your vegetables, they say, but little do they realize, those are just starches. I'd honestly rather have more veggie sandwiches than some piece of round mush.
The rest of the lunch menu works fine for now, and that's my way of saying those are all my immediate ideas, but I think the next part of being a great restaurant chef is having a bunch of specials ready to be thrown together when certain things need to be moved. I'm always an advocate for having lots of plan B's. Taking a proactive stance, educating our staff on how to utilize product while it stands in the spectrum of good product for sale, and taking that opportunity to excite our wait staff and guests is just part of being a professional chef. That being said, we don't actually have a lot of waste ... So here I'll just talk about a few things that I miss doing, and if I had my choice of cuisines, it's always very bistro, bar friendly, and easy to incorporate into lunch items.
One of my fondest memories of working with Sal Celona is our revamping of the terrible veggie wrap into our masterpiece of pickled vegetables with grilled zucchini. I'd love to serve that again just so I can eat it. Seared cauliflower sandwiches are really good. I know most people don't even like cauliflower, and it always breaks my heart. I'd do a lamb flatbread too, 2 different styles. One would be braised lamb with chick peas, and tons of spices, finished with greek yogurt, chopped onions, cracked parsley, and we'll figure the rest out. The other would be a seared spice crusted piece of top round served like a salad on top of a flatbread. We'd throw some sprouts, artichokes, olives, asparagus, raita, on a layer of harissa with some chopped romaine on the bottom. I'd have a bunch of frites dishes. I think saffron poached fingerling potatoes make excellent fries when you sear them. Saffron fries, some sorta marlin fish, and some kinda bouillabaisse style sauce sounds like a winner. I really miss serving my purple sweet potato fritters. Something I've always wanted to do was a beef and broccoli plate with the old spicy broccoli salad, wild rice cake, and a piece of skirt with a brown butter rosemary butter sauce. It sounds so asian, but won't be at all.
Sometimes I get carried away ... I have to always remember that confusing your guests isn't always a good thing. While we're on that note ... it's really late ... time for bed ...