Category — Site News

Forty.

I turned 40 a few weeks ago.

In the years leading up to this day, I had grandiose plans in my head for how I was going to spend my 40th birthday. I wanted to start the fourth decade of my life in another country, or on a cruise ship, or in some locale worthy of kicking off a new chapter of my life.

But then we became parents.

As the calendar rolled over to 2012, I realized that the birth of my daughter almost three years ago was the new chapter, and that the magnitude and joy of this new phase of my life had the effect of making 40 just a number. And in the months leading up to my birthday, I began to realize, to my surprise, that I was going to turn 40 with absolutely no regrets, no remorse, and no wishes for a do-over with respect to anything. And that I would be perfectly fine with a nice, quiet evening at home with my family, or at a good restaurant.  Nothing fancy.

The truth is, I am happier and more content today than I have ever been, in every area of my life.

Having said all of that, I was really quite okay just letting my 40th birthday just quietly roll in and back out like the tide. Maybe a nice dinner out, but nothing extravagant. And since I was treating my 40th as business as usual, I didn’t really have a conflict when Chef John Brandt-Lee of Avalon and Avalon Pasta Bistro messaged me on Twitter, inviting me to a preview tasting of his new Fall menu. The guest list was limited to local food bloggers and journalists, and, given that there was no whirlwind tour of Greece that needed rescheduling, I accepted. It would be, as I had wanted, a nice dinner out, and we’ve loved John’s food ever since we first set foot in one of his restaurants.

We booked a babysitter, grabbed a bottle of wine, and headed out to dinner. When we arrived at Avalon, the dining room was dark and empty, since it was 5:30 and dinner service had not started. The tasting was being held in the courtyard in the back of the property, and as the host led us through the restaurant, I greeted Chef John in the kitchen. He held onto my handshake and pulled me closer. “Don’t mention anything about her being your wife,” John whispered, nodding toward Jennifer, “cause no one else back there brought their spouses.” I acknowledged his warning and followed my wife Jennifer into the courtyard.

There was a crush of people and a table of food. I was disappointed that it looked like my “nice dinner out” was going to turn into a networking function. And I remember briefly thinking to myself, “Who’s the guy with the camcorder and why is he taping me?”

To say that I never saw it coming would be the grossest of understatements.

My wife had not only booked the entire restaurant for the evening, but she managed to fill it with family and friends from every chapter of my life. Work friends, college friends, neighbors, and even my best friend from high school, whom I had not seen in almost 20 years. Jennifer had been planning the party for months, even working with Chef John to create a reason for me to abandon our prior arrangements in favor of a “Fall Menu Tasting” – an event that never existed.

She had managed to pull off the greatest trick of all time – making me think that going to my 40th birthday party was my own genius idea. And you know what? It was the best 40th birthday party that I could ever have imagined, I had nothing to do with it, and all I had to do was show up!

September 21, 2012   Comments

Four Lessons from The Fancy Food Show

Yes, it’s that time of year again.  For the second consecutive year, the National Association for the Specialty Foods Trade held its annual convention in Washington DC, and we trekked down to the nation’s capitol to discover what’s new, hot, and happening in the food world.  The Fancy Food Show is home to 2,400 exhibitors showcasing 180,000 products spanning every possible facet of gourmet food and beverage, with representation by over 80 countries and regions.

After checking in and picking up my badge, the Press Room Manager said to me, “I don’t need to tell you about the show, you’re a veteran.”  She’s one of those people that I see once a year, but we recognize each other on sight, if not by name, and she does a good job ensuring that badge pickup runs smoothly and that I start the show in a good mood as a result.

Her comment made me pause.  Was this really my fourth time at the Fancy Food Show?  Had I finally learned how to pace myself properly, to keep from exploding in a mushroom cloud of chocolate, cheese, and olive oil?  After miles and miles logged on the carpeted floor of exhibit halls in New York and Washington, had I reached a point where I could speak of the experience with authority?  Maybe I have.  And maybe I should.

In the past, I’ve always written about the Fancy Food Show from the perspective of an attendee, but I’ve come to realize that many exhibitors, especially those who’ve never been to the Fancy Food Show, can be just as overwhelmed by the experience, if not more so.  Sure, you can get your booth set up, fan some literature out on the table, and offer samples to the throngs of conventioneers – but it can be so much more than that.

One: Build Relationships.  All Year Long.
Every year, about a week before the Fancy Food Show, my inbox gets bombarded with offers to meet and interview the founders, creators, and corporate representatives of exhibitors at the show. It’s all so flattering!  And overwhelming!  And…entirely ineffective!  Here’s why.

It’s too much information to process. Most of these emails, even from companies whose products truly interest me, go unanswered, because they’re in competition both with each other as well as with all of my regular, non-Fancy Food Show email.  To break through all of that noise and reach me, we need to cultivate a relationship prior to the show.  It can be a quick back-and-forth on Twitter, or an email exchange, something that reveals that a producer has at least read a little bit of my writing and has a hunch that their product is a good fit with the site.  The interviews that I’m featuring from the show floor this year were pretty much ad hoc, not staged or formally arranged prior to the show.  In each of these cases, the companies distinguished themselves as being outstanding in their field, and tasting their product made me want to learn more about the people and the stories behind the process.

Two:  Try To Look Like You’re Having Fun
Most of the exhibitors were really into showing off their products, and would readily engage anyone who came up to their table for a sample or some literature.  But with 2,400 exhibitors spread out over two floors of the convention center, attendees have an extremely limited window of opportunity to interact with companies.  If your booth was manned by just one person, sitting in a folding chair and checking email on their phone, chances are very good that I didn’t stop.  No big deal, because I’m only me, but that probably holds true for any number of major distributors and retailers looking for the next hot thing to stock the shelves.  The lesson to be learned is this – send your best, most knowledgeable, and most enthusiastic people to represent your company, without exception.  Grill them on your product, if you have to.  Role play in the weeks leading up to the show.  Emphasize the importance of the fact that the Fancy Food Show is not about babysitting the booth and refilling samples, it’s about winning the game of distinguishing your goods out of a field of thousands.  It’s not easy.

Three: Distinguish Your Product
This is probably the hardest goal to meet.  For one thing, you’re in a massive convention center filled to the rafters with thousands of outstanding products.  But, from my point of view as an attendee, I can tell you that it will be a long time before I’ll be able to try another Sea Salt Caramel anything.  It’s easier to stand out if you’re one of the first producers of an innovative product (black garlic comes to mind), but as breakout product transforms into trend and then becomes almost mainstream (like sea salt and caramel), it just gets harder and harder.  So, how did producers grab my attention this year?  By having great stories behind the products, and inspiring people who were driven to succeed despite initial setbacks.  Or people who just got lucky with an amazing recipe.

Four:  Please Step Aside, You Giant Annoying Waffle
As an attendee, I’ve already talked about having a narrow window of opportunity to experience as much of the Fancy Food Show as my legs will permit over a two to three day period.  So, imagine my consternation, when I’m trying to get from one end of an aisle to the other, and my path is blocked by a giant, wildly gesticulating waffle.  It’s one thing if your company has a huge pavilion, and you’ve got some elbow room to offer once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunities with your WafflePerson.  But if you’ve got a 10 foot square booth, and your mascot is standing in the middle of the aisle, I’m not going to remember your product.  I’m just going to remember the annoying Waffle.

July 9, 2012   Comments

A Contest! Chocolate! A Chocolate Contest!

ChuaoChocolatier.com - Simply Irresistible

I’m not very good at contests, which is why long time readers of this site have never seen me host one. The way I see it, if I announce a giveaway, there are two possible scenarios: either there’s so little participation (or, even worse, none at all) that I’m left picking a winner from a field of two or three readers whom I probably already know, or there’s a flood of entries, and I have to deal with the pressure of picking one deserving entrant with very little guiding criteria.

Oh, and then there’s the fulfillment aspect of it all, wherein I drive around for weeks with the prize in the trunk of my car and a To Do List that perennially includes the guilt-inducing task “MAIL PRIZE TO CONTEST WINNER”. Did I mention that The Best Food Blog Ever has no interns?

But this time, things are totally different! There’s chocolate involved, for one thing – really good chocolate. And the prize is outstanding, and something that won’t fit in my trunk and that I don’t have to ship. And to enter, all you have to do is click on the graphic that’s at the top of this post. “WHAT IS THIS GLORIOUS PRIZE?” I hear all of the Internet exclaim… (the graphic does not do it justice)

Ready? The grand prize, offered by Chuao Chocolatier, is:

A trip for two of you lovely readers to San Diego, California!

And, dinner at The Shores restaurant, which a quick Google reveals to be located right on the beach, offering spectacular views and seasonal dining.

Plus, a private wine and chocolate pairing event with Master Chef Michael Antonorsi.

And just for clicking and entering, you’ll also be eligible to win one of 14 Limited Edition Sweetheart Boxes filled with 22 bonbons or, as is considered in my household, a single serving.

While I will freely disclose that Chuao Chocolatier has sent me review samples of their products for the killer price of zilch, do you know what’s better than getting free chocolate?

Winning it. Beating others to it. Outperforming all of your peers to emerge victorious. Blood in the water is one thing. Chocolate brings the game to a whole new level.

So, here’s my selfish pitch. This contest is only open to readers of certain food blogs and websites, including this one, so the field of potential winners is much smaller than, say, that of a typical soft drink bottle cap sweepstakes. If the winner of the contest happens to have clicked through the link on this blog to enter, I get a $50 credit to stuff my maw with Chuao product. Plus, another $50 credit to give away to one lucky reader (again, this is good because I don’t have to ship it). So, you get a trip to San Diego, dinner, and a private wine/chocolate tasting. I get more chocolate. And someone else gets more chocolate. And still someone else may get bonbons.

I would describe this as a win-win-win situation. All you have to do is click and enter. I believe you can enter as many times as you’d like, once per day, and the contest runs until February 14, 2012. Now go and make me proud with your clickiness.

February 6, 2012   Comments

On The Purpose of Writing

Every so often, I’ll meet someone new and mention that I have this site, and they’ll ask me what I write about. No matter how many times this happens, I always find myself awkwardly reaching for an answer, unable to encapsulate a response into a neat sound bite, and I ultimately end up rattling off a laundry list of things that I don’t write about instead. Reading this account of the demise of a food blog in Buffalo, New York made me think long and hard about how I view myself as a writer, and how I want others to view me.

Since the inception of The Best Food Blog Ever, I’ve always regarded myself as a food writer. In that singular declaration, though, are a lot of presumptions that need to be dismissed. For one thing, I’m not a food or restaurant critic. I’ve never felt that it was my place to decree that anyone that happens to find themselves reading my material should be obligated to like and dislike the same things that I do. Words have power, and words that you publish on the Internet have enduring power.

If a restaurant has a bad night, with an unfamiliar face filling in for a sick chef, or a large party that lingers, causing booked reservations to pile up in the foyer, or for any one of a million unknown factors, I’m not going to memorialize the displeasure of that evening in an entry. On the other hand, if I have a fantastic experience, one that goes beyond all of the expectations that I had when I laid my hand on the front door, sure, I’ll write about it. In the realm of restaurant cuisine, it’s far more likely that an establishment has the occasional off night than to have a consistently bad place that occasionally gets it right. Restaurant critique is best left to the professionals, whose livelihood depends on being able to weigh the quality of a dining experience in as objective a fashion as possible. For most of us on the web, without formal training, this isn’t possible. There are too many bloggers, and I’m including everyone on Yelp, who believe themselves to be the next Ruth Reichl, Frank Bruni, or Craig LaBan.

I also don’t publish recipes on any regular basis, and in saying that, it’s not my intent to knock those sites that do. One of the reasons why food blogging is so popular is that, if you’re focused on recipes, you can count on being able to generate at least one new recipe per week, and likely many more. In the early days of The Best Food Blog Ever, I dabbled in recipe design, and almost immediately felt suffocated by the limitations of that writing model.

In my mind, recipe writing and food writing are different animals. There is a scientific, methodical approach to recipe writing, and while you may have endured many long hours experimenting with different ingredients in shape, form, and quantity, ultimately your end product consists of a list of components, followed by numbered steps telling folks what to do with them. Finish it up, take a good photo, then post it. This is not to say that I’ll never write another recipe ever again, but unless I have a dish that’s truly inspired, it’s just not anywhere near the top of my list. There’s got to be a story that drives the recipe in order for me to consider posting it. I was asked to submit a recipe that will be published in a compendium later this year, and, to be honest, I enjoyed writing the headnote the most.

With all of that said, sometimes writing for The Best Food Blog Ever is the hardest thing to do, and also the most rewarding. Once you’ve eliminated restaurant reviews and recipes from the regular rotation, the universe of possibilities shrinks to a small solar system of prospective topics. From time to time, a particularly inspirational story just lands in your lap.

One of the phrases that stuck with me, when I read the writer’s final entry on Buffalo Chow, was that “our system here…is too broken for me to fix it”. This, after enduring a meal at the Olive Garden and venting about the decline of the quality of restaurants in the Buffalo area, and of suspiciously biased reviews of establishments by the local papers. In the end, it seems that the blog died because, as a site focused on restaurant reviews, there was nothing left to write about.

I’ll admit it, I eat at the Olive Garden. I’ve also eaten at Taillevent. And in between the Olive Garden, with its vibrating, flashing pagers and Taillevent, where your bottle of wine is poured over a candle flame so as to avoid getting sediment in your glass, I will eat and write about an entire universe of food, if there’s a story to tell. I won’t tell you about the Olive Garden, because you and everyone else knows about the Olive Garden. Personally, I don’t find the food to be particularly epic or offensive, but the prices are decent, they have a great kid’s menu, and the atmosphere is loud enough to mask the sounds of a fussy baby. Now, if you’re going to the Olive Garden exclusively for the food, and you don’t have a baby with you, your own personal experience is going to lack two of the three important factors that appeal to me. But my experience is going to be different from yours, obviously. As a new parent, I enjoy the Olive Garden much more than I would have before the baby came along.

Is it my responsibility, as a food writer, to “rescue” people from dining experiences that don’t meet up to my own personal standards for quality, value, or foodworthiness? Did the Olive Garden suddenly become a much better restaurant once I became a parent? Of course not. Our lives, perceptions, and priorities are in a constant state of change and evolution, and it just so happens that we’ve become part of the demographic that the Olive Garden has designed its restaurants to attract. 21 months ago, we weren’t in that demographic. Today, we are.

The world of food writing is large enough to accommodate all of us, whether we choose to embrace the comforting uniformity of chain restaurants or elect to be the first reservation on opening night of the latest Farm to Table to Fork to Mouth to Gut bistro. No matter where you fall in the spectrum, it is my ambition to offer you the best writing that you can find on the web. Writing that happens to be about food, at least most of the time.

June 17, 2011   Comments

Amanda Hesser: Representing NYT To The Fullest

Somewhere on the western outskirts of Philadelphia, in the living room of the well-appointed home of a stranger, I find myself sitting on a couch with renowned New York Times food columnist Amanda Hesser.  Nursing a pleasant buzz from a hearty quaff of Victory Brewing Company’s Festbier, we’re discussing the benefits and disadvantages of no less than three different Twitter clients that I have installed on my iPhone.  Nearby, a dining table creaks under the weight of pimento cheese, venison stew, stuffed mushrooms, cold sesame noodles, and a myriad of other delectable, homemade dishes.

How did I get here?

The story begins six years ago, with Hesser putting out a call for readers to submit their most beloved recipes from the pages of The New York Times.  Six thousand responses later, and after years of culling, testing, and refining, Amanda Hesser has debuted The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century, a collection of nearly 1,000 dishes spanning a culinary epoch that began in the 1850s and ends with me standing over a food processor last Tuesday night, making pimento cheese.

To celebrate the release of the book, a call to arms was heard throughout the City of Brotherly Love, beckoning food bloggers to a potluck, hosted by the author herself, Audra Wolf of Doris and Jilly Cook, and Marisa McClellan of Food in Jars, with libations to be provided by Victory Brewing Company.  “Food bloggers!”, I said to myself as I read the invitation, “I are one!”  And so a plan was hatched to attend the fete.  But first, I had to decide what to bring.  And before that, I needed to get my hands on a copy of the book.

Thanks to living in the future, Amazon was able to drop a copy of The Essential New York Times Cookbook on my porch the very next day.  I hefted the 4.6 pound work onto my coffee table and started flipping, making mental notes, poring over interesting recipes, and flipping some more until I reached the index.  The first impression that one gets from the book is how strikingly organized it is, for such an extensive collection of recipes.  Yes, we have grown accustomed to expecting chapter headings leading us to soups, salads, poultry and game, fish and shellfish – but what surprises and delights the harried cook is the breakdown, for example, of the soup chapter into listings for cold soups, vegetable soups, soups for each season, even soups for 8 and soups for 2.

I decided to make two easy dishes that would survive the trek in below-freezing temperatures to University City.  Pimento cheese was a natural choice, seeing that I had used other recipes to make it many times before, and could easily adapt to a different preparation.  The other dish, Take-Out Style Sesame Noodles, was selected partly due to its ease of preparation and partly due to my ongoing quest to find the perfect cold sesame noodle recipe (hint – the search is over).

On Wednesday evening, our GPS guided us to a row of darkened homes on a short street that was made to appear even narrower by the fact that the houses sat above us, with imposing brick and concrete stairs arching upwards at a sharp angle.  We made our way to the house number that was designated on the invitation, rang the doorbell, and basked in the warm glow of incandescent lighting as Audra Wolfe answered the door and invited us into her home.

Once inside, I set the dishes on the table and made a point of making nametags – not for myself and my wife, but for the dishes – “Hi, my name is Pimento Cheese.”  With that duty discharged, I scribbled my name and site name in sharpie and proceeded to mess up my “look” with an inartfully placed adhesive rectangle over my heart.  I made small talk with the other invitees and started grazing, taking small samples of everything.  Over the course of the next few minutes, more folks arrived and the table started filling up, with the statistically improbable outcome of my pimento cheese meeting up with two of its twins.  At least my sesame noodles stood alone in their spicy, peanut-y goodness.

Amanda Hesser, as it turns out, is far more approachable than I had ever anticipated, which is not to say that I expected her to be mean or anything like that – she’s just an incredibly friendly and open person.  Someone who, despite her extensive list of accomplishments, still retains the humility to write her name out on a name tag at a party featuring her own book.  We found each other hovering over the three bowls of pimento cheese, and started chatting amiably like soccer moms in the produce department of a grocery store.

At one point, I asked her if she had ever had the opportunity to try any of the offerings from Victory Brewing Company (a local favorite which, coincidentally, is ten minutes away from my house) and, when she said no, I took that opportunity to introduce her to one of my favorite beers, Festbier, a lovely Oktoberfest-style lager that uses all German malts and whole flower European hops.  With the bottles of Festbier being in the shortest supply out of all of the varieties, we were lucky enough to snag two of the last bottles.  While we were at it, she also had the good fortune to try a sample of the Bee Sting Ale, the homebrewed creation of our friends Melissa and Ray of Bathtub Brewery.  And there we all were, my wife and I, Melissa and Ray, Dave Speers from Victory Brewing Company, and Amanda Hesser – drinking beers, crammed into the narrow hallway next to the staircase.  It felt like college again, but with more flavors of awesome than the human mind can even begin to imagine.  And without classes to attend the next day.

As the party wound down, I was glad to see that all of the sesame noodles were consumed, saving me the trouble of hauling the leftovers back home.  We rendered the last of the pimento cheese onto a paper plate, and my wife was kind enough to give the bowls a quick wash.  We bid goodbye to Amanda, Audrey, Marisa, and all of our friends both new and old, and scurried off into the dark of night, just a bit warmer than when we had arrived.

December 16, 2010   Comments

Making A Spectacle of Myself, Part Two

They say time flies when you’re having fun.  Guess what?  Time flies even faster when you’re trying to prep for a rapidly approaching cooking demo in front of an audience of 150 people.

I had reached the stage at the New York Botanical Garden with an hour and fifteen minutes before the start of my first demo at 1pm.  In order to pull off a successful show, I’d have to start the demonstration having already prepared batches of roasted garlic and caramelized onion, as well as a finished, or nearly finished, pan of caramelized onion bread pudding.  The roasted garlic component would require, at minimum, 45 minutes in the oven, while the onions would need a good 20 minutes on the stove.  The bread pudding needed to bake for 40 minutes, if not more.  With all of this in mind, the timing of the prep and assembly would be critical.

Here’s what I learned from doing this demo – the relative organization of the portion of the stage that is visible to the audience is not an indicator of what’s happening behind the scenes.  The New York Botanical Garden was nice enough to set up large fans to keep the air flowing under the tent, but every time I peeled a clove of garlic, the airflow would blow the loose skins up into the air like ticker tape.  I would take my knife, bash the clove, peel off the skin, and it would float onto the floor – but I was in too much of a hurry to stop.  Eventually, the carpeted floor behind the counter was filled with skins, swirling about as if I had stepped into a garlicky snowglobe.

The whirlwind of activity on the stage soon attracted curious onlookers, who filed into the seating area to watch.  Some of them even started taking photos and video. The New York Botanical Garden had provided me with an assistant, which was a total blessing – he assumed the task of peeling the garlic cloves while I separated them.  By noon, I had unpeeled cloves of garlic roasting in the oven, and five cups of onions sauteing on the stove.  By 12:30, I had assembled the bread pudding and put it into the oven.  I was in as good a shape as I had ever hoped to be.

I had just enough time to run to the restroom, returning to the stage with only a minute to spare.  In just that brief period, the number of occupied seats had ballooned – it wasn’t a full house, but the open-air environment allowed for a far greater number of audience members than an indoor stage in a department store.  The emcee announced my name, the name of my site, and I started my presentation.

The next 45 minutes flew by, thankfully with minimal hiccups.  I was able to demonstrate the use of a mandoline to breeze through the slicing of an onion in ten seconds, showed the audience the sauteing of the onions, followed by a quick cut to the pot of caramelized onions that were ready for their close-up.  I showed how to dress unpeeled garlic cloves for roasting (salt, pepper, olive oil) and popped those into the oven, whereupon I magically removed the packet of roasted garlic that I had strategically started cooking at noon.  The same process produced the reveal for the caramelized onion bread pudding, a proud moment that saw me lift a casserole high into the air, with the requisite oohs and ahhs from the crowd.

What was most surprising, though, was the level of interest and enthusiasm during the Q&A session that followed.  People were genuinely intrigued by the recipes, the same recipes that I had become almost numb to during recipe testing and evaluation.  I asked if there were any questions, and hands shot into the air.  Many of the inquiries focused on substitutions – whether you could replace the dairy entirely with low-fat milk, or if you could use a different kind of cheese.

My favorite exchange occurred when an audience member asked whether she could substitute egg whites for the whole eggs.  I told her that, considering the recipe calls for six eggs for the entire pan of bread pudding, which was large enough to feed a crowd as a side dish, an individual serving would probably contain fewer than half of an egg’s worth of cholesterol.  As I watched her ponder the math of it all, I added that, if she’s worried about fat and cholesterol, she ought to have been much more concerned with the two cups of Gruyere that get melted on top of the bread pudding.  Laughter ensues, end scene.

Get the Roasted Garlic Soup recipe!

Get the Caramelized Onion Bread Pudding recipe!

September 16, 2010   Comments

Making A Spectacle of Myself, Part One

I wonder if anyone at the New York Botanical Garden could tell that I had never done a live cooking demo before?

The week leading up to the point where I would take the stage as part of the Edible Garden series went by like a blur – five days that were filled with a sense of excitement tinged with a moderate degree of anxiety.  Was I excited to have the opportunity to cook in front of a live audience?  Absolutely.  Did I have any notion of how one goes about preparing for a live demo?  Not really.  My greatest fear was that of the unknown – I had never been to the New York Botanical Garden before, had never seen the Kitchen Conservatory Stage, and could not, therefore, envision any of the setup in my head.

My wife encouraged me to practice, and I’m glad that she did.  I ran through the recipes at home, having selected a roasted garlic soup for one dish, and a caramelized onion bread pudding for the other.  Both were easy to prepare in a home kitchen, and readily lent themselves to being a showcase starter or accompaniment for a dinner party.  Each preparation contained steps that could be performed ahead of time, which was critical to a successful demo, and steps that could be shown to an audience to teach technique.  The only missing components were the words that were supposed to come out of my mouth while I was doing the cooking.  The cooking would be the easiest part.

I tried to do a dry run at home, recording myself with a camcorder.  It went fairly well, but  too much of it felt forced – I just can’t have a conversation with thin air, and the notion of practicing in front of friends and neighbors gave me more anxiety than the thought of doing it in front of strangers.  I came up with a basic outline of what I wanted to say, but I knew that at least half of my presentation was going to be extemporaneous.  Again, that darkness of the unknown reared its head, and I was stuck in limbo – both prepared and unprepared at the same time.

We stayed in a hotel the evening before the demo, just to minimize the potential for traffic delays.  Having reviewed the route to the New York Botanical Garden, and in consideration of the ingredients and equipment that I had brought with me, I decided that it would be quicker and less unwieldy if we drove from the hotel to the site instead of taking the subway or a cab.  Since we were staying in Jersey City, it looked like a quick hop up Interstate 95, a crossing of the George Washington Bridge, a twist here, a turn there, and we’re at the Garden.

As it turns out, it really, really, really isn’t that simple.

Checking out of the hotel reasonably on schedule, we packed up the car and headed out with plenty of time before the first demo was to start at 1pm.  New Jersey Turnpike traffic was light on Saturday morning, and we were cruising along.  I had already expected to hit a slowdown on the George Washington Bridge, but how bad could it be at 10am on a Saturday?

Would you believe incredibly, stupendously, horrifically BAD?

Four lanes shrank to two lanes in concurrent merges on the left and right, cramming the scrum of hot metal together into a soup of exhaust and frustration, with mere inches separating bumpers.  We crawled through the tolls at a pace that was so slow, I could have paid the $6.00 in pennies, with change to spare.  Our Civic fought its way through the traffic, inching along the upper deck as the minutes ticked away.  Thankfully, our GPS instructed us to take the exit immediately following the bridge crossing…right into the heart of the Bronx.

As anyone with a GPS can attest, the device has no independent judgment of its own.  It operates purely on logic and algorithms and programming routines that dictate that the best route is always the shortest, even if it’s only shorter by an eighth or quarter of a mile.  So, instead of channeling us to the New York Botanical Garden via the Henry Hudson Parkway, a pretty drive accentuated by views of the river and trees and a speed limit of 50 MPH, the GPS took us through the Bronx, which features traffic lights every quarter mile, double-parked cars, jaywalking pedestrians, and trucks in assorted states of loading and unloading.  And time continued to drip away from us.

We finally arrived at the New York Botanical Garden shortly after 11am.  I rushed to the stage, carrying my canvas bag filled with garlic and onions that I had prepared previously, my Santoku knife, and my mandoline.  As we approached the stage, the magnitude of the afternoon’s events started to dawn on me as I saw, for the first time, row after row of empty chairs, arranged in front of an elevated stage.  There was no time to let it sink in – I had to start my prep work immediately if I was to be ready for a 1pm showtime.

After a few minutes, my nerves settled and my heart rate eased.  I familiarized myself with the location and operation of the stove, the oven, and the sink, and took inventory of the four large bags of ingredients provided to me by Whole Foods.  I checked my watch, took out a cutting board, removed my knife from its holder, and started cooking with an hour and fifteen minutes to prepare.

To Be Continued…

August 13, 2010   Comments

Taking This Show on The Road

Edible Garden

Honestly, I have no idea how this happened, and in many ways it still feels like an odd dream that I will wake up from at any given moment.  Until that time comes, I suppose I can reveal to you that, on July 31, I will be giving a cooking demonstration on stage at the New York Botanical Garden, as part of their Edible Garden exhibit that runs from now through October 17.

As the driving force behind The Best Food Blog Ever, I receive a lot of food-related emails throughout the week.  Many are from marketers and public relations folks, letting me know about the opening of a new restaurant or the availability of a new product that would be of interest to my readership.  So, when I received an email from the New York Botanical Garden telling me about their Edible Garden series, I initially thought it was just an announcement, and that I was one of hundreds of others on an email distribution list.  As I read through the rest of the email, though, which talked about how chefs like Rick Bayless and Mario Batali and Sara Moulton would be taking to the stage to give cooking demonstrations, I reached the final paragraph, which began with this sentence:

“We hope that you will be interested in doing a cooking demonstration this summer or fall.”

I admit, I had been skimming up to that point.  Reading that made me rewind to the beginning to review the entire message more carefully.  Martha Stewart.  Lidia Bastianich. Rick Bayless.  Dan Barber.  Mario Batali.  Me.  Something doesn’t quite fit here, and here’s a hint – it’s not Rick Bayless.  And yet, there is no mistake – the New York Botanical Garden is extending the invitations to a handful of food bloggers in this, the second year of the Edible Garden series, and I’m one of them.

Saying yes to this wonderful opportunity has kicked off a series of weird-to-me-ness that won’t stop until it culminates in my cooking demonstration on July 31.  The New York Botanical Garden needed a headshot, which I had to scramble to produce, considering the only profile photos that I have here are blurry (and I am drunk in all of them).  They asked if I wanted to promote my book, which I would love to, but I don’t have one.  They even asked me if I needed a prep chef, which is so many kinds of awesome that it almost makes me want to make something uber-complicated just to have someone chop stuff for me.  I get to play on stage with a Viking range, Anolon pots and pans, and an entire pantry of ingredients provided by Whole Foods.  It’s like Top Chef, only I get more than five minutes to come up with what I’m making.

I’m beginning recipe testing this week, and the good news is that I only need to come up with two or three dishes that are appropriate for the stage and which will provide samples for the audience.  Soup is one of them, I know for sure.

For those of you who want to come out and meet up, my stage times are at 1pm and 3pm, and July 31 is a Saturday.

July 12, 2010   Comments

Help Me Win The FoodSpring Food Blogging Contest!

It’s funny to think that I’ve been writing The Best Food Blog Ever for over two years and I’ve never actually talked about my most exciting food experience.

Well, that changes today.

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited by Foodspring.com to compete in a contest describing my most exciting food experience, and it’s currently live and ongoing, with voting lasting until Sunday, June 6th.  I’m competing against seven other stellar food bloggers, and as a result I need your help to win all of the food blogging marbles.

The experience that I chose to represent The Best Food Blog Ever is one that I’ve never alluded to on this site, primarily because it happened years before I even started writing about food.  The setting was the Isle of Capri, a sun-kissed dot of land in the Mediterranean Sea, off of the coast of Naples.  The meal that I speak of happened almost fourteen years ago, but I can still taste every nuance of the dishes and smell the breeze coming off of the ocean as if it were yesterday.

Click here to jump to the contest entries, and thanks for your vote.

May 30, 2010   Comments

Coming Full Circle

While I was a longtime subscriber to food magazines through my early cooking years, after a while I began to realize that I was seeing the same recipes year after year.  Every May, for instance, brought the secrets of the perfect burger.  Every fall, I saw the same recipes for squash soup and roasted turkey.  This would have been tolerable, if not for the fact that, other than the recipes and advertisements, there was often very little else to read in each issue.  Once Epicurious.com launched, providing me with free access to all of the same recipes that were contained in the magazines, there was little reason to continue paying for my subscriptions.

I can’t say the same, though, for Saveur magazine.  For close to fifteen years, I’ve been diligently picking up Saveur each month, and the back issues take up the bottom shelf of the bookcase that holds my cookbook library.  Saveur has always provided well-written content that provided a foundation and background information for the recipes that accompanied each article – while the other magazines eventually made their way to the recycling bin, my Saveur issues were digested from cover to cover, then carefully archived.  In fact, when it comes time to decide what to serve for a dinner party, I pull out all of the current and prior months’ issues of Saveur from the stacks, yielding a pile of around 30 issues that serve as source material for my menu.  My collection used to be in chronological order, but has since evolved to be organized by season.

Because Saveur became the only food magazine that I read, it also happens to have become a major influence in my style of writing.  With food blogs quickly approaching a market rate of a dime per three dozen, I knew that I wanted to create a website that was more than just a collection of recipes or overviews of what I ate for lunch.  I wanted a site that reveled in writing about food as an experience, one that was a barometer of culinary culture, whether I was writing about an eight course tasting menu or a cheesesteak from down the block.  I respected and admired the writing style in Saveur and purposefully set out to emulate it, and sometimes I hit that sweet spot and sometimes I don’t.  It largely depends on how much coffee I’ve had.

When Saveur announced that they were soliciting reader submissions for their Top 100 list, I figured it would be fun to submit something.  I clicked over to their website, pulled up the form, and gave them a paragraph on the farmhouse table dinner at Talula’s Table.  Having written longer pieces on the topic once or twice before, it was fairly easy to dash together something quick and concise.  I hit ‘Submit’ and promptly forgot all about it.

One afternoon in October, I picked up my phone to see that I had one missed call and one voicemail.  The missed call was from the 212 area code, and I presumed it to be a misdial, as I don’t know anyone in Manhattan who would be calling my cell phone.

Listening to the voicemail revealed that the call was no mistake.  An editor at Saveur wanted to let me know that they were going to use my Talula’s Table entry in their Top 100 issue. I can count on one hand the number of times I have literally jumped for joy, and this was one of them.  But this was back in October, and the issue wouldn’t be arriving on newsstands until some time in January, long after Halloween, Thanksgiving, and the mad rush through the holidays.  Just as I had forgotten about submitting my entry in the first place, I tried very hard to put the notion of appearing in a national publication out of my mind.  It could have been, after all, cut due to space reasons.  The editors could change their minds.  The Large Hadron Collider could have spawned a black hole and ended the planet before it was published.  Until I held the hardcopy issue in my hands, it would not be real for me.

About two weeks ago, the current Saveur issue featuring the Top 100 became available in digital format.  I pulled it up on my browser, and while I saw my words laid out on the screen, part of me still couldn’t accept the reality of the situation.  But, there it was.

As it turns out, the world of magazine editing is a strange and wondrous place.  On the submission form, I had initially given them a single paragraph, knowing from previous Top 100 lists that each entry is allotted a very limited amount of space.  Saveur came back and asked me for more details, so I gladly wrote a longer piece, about four paragraphs.  Ultimately, the final copy that appeared in the issue had been edited – back down to one paragraph.  It still contains the major points of my original work, so I can’t help but be pleased with it.

It was only last week, when I spied the issue on the magazine rack at the supermarket, that it really felt real for me.  I grabbed a copy and flipped to the center of the issue to find my Talula’s Table entry staring back at me.  My name, my photo, and my words have been published in Saveur, the magazine that has propelled my food writing endeavors from the very beginning of this site.  It’s a small paragraph, to be sure, but it’s a start.  It’s not a feature article by any stretch of the imagination.  Still, the piece, #52, occupies the entire center of a spread that spans both pages, accompanied by a photo of a party enjoying the farmhouse table dinner.

It was a wonderful way to begin the new year.

January 6, 2010   Comments