My next hometown...

Here’s the thing. If you’re lucky in life, you have an astounding moment once, maybe twice if you’ve really logged some good karma. You’re moving through your life with purpose in an active, aware, motivated, conscious, conscientious and centered way. You have goals, methods, ambition and sometimes even enough resources to take action. Never mind that those goals are ever a ceaselessly moving target (thank god for that) – the closer you get to one, the further away you are from another of whose existence you are still blissfully unaware.

At any rate, you’re moving along, taking in new experiences, readjusting perspective and expectations as needed and somewhere along the lines, a fun and related (yet at first glance, seemingly tangential) opportunity arises. Knowing when to say yes to the right opportunities is a learned art, and luckily, this one is blatant enough you jump on it. The opportunity is actually just a shell for this path-altering moment. People talk about “being in the work” and you are just that, which is when your brain isn’t thinking about what this opportunity should be/do/accomplish, but instead just a simple, beautiful, real time opening for change.

The change is palpable, your previous map of goals and choices suddenly means something completely different and everything is so new and mind blowing that you internally (and sometimes audibly) gasp and stop moving. It’s almost infuriating when your reality cracks open so quickly – how could you have not known this existed before? It’s not that you were wasting time. Certainly there’s no way you could have reached this moment via an alternate history. It’s simply that you’ve encountered a missing piece to the journey you didn’t actually realize you were on.

Let me be clear – New York as a city is not this moment for me. Additionally, I am painfully aware that my rudimentary and poorly written description above does complete disservice to the actual moment and the joyous weight it has on your entire being. But, I wasn’t an English major and I exchanged my food writing days happily for whatever the hell we’re calling this current iteration of self-guided culinary/grad school. This blog is about sharing my real life experience, as it has always been. Sometimes I burn shit, or I over or under cook a dish. Sometimes I do everything right and it still tastes like crap. But that is the beauty of the kitchen – I can just try again.

Embrace failure. When your pile of failures is tall enough, you can stand on top of them and have a better view of where the hell you want to go next.

I won’t spoil the fun of telling you when my astounding moment was because to be honest, (and we all know that I am sometimes brutally honest) I’m still trying to figure out what in the hell I was doing before it happened. It was so good, made me SO HAPPY and changed so much for me that I think telling you at this point will fall flat even if I could find words. I’d apologize if I were sorry, but trust me, it’s better this way.

I took a red eye from Seattle on Sunday night so I would arrive well slept and fresh faced, first thing Monday morning at JFK. Baaaaaaaaaaaaahahahaha, yeah, RIGHT. That’s not how red eyes work, we all know this (except I somehow always have amnesia every time I book the next flight out there?). Here’s the real deal about red eyes:

I am too cheap to pay for business class (hi, maybe we haven’t met before, but I just saved enough money to work, unpaid, and travel a foreign country for up to 6-10 months).

I hate losing daylight hours to plane travel. Trains? All about it. Show me your rolling hillsides, green pastures and mood inducing mountainsides. Bring it, forests and aqua-flecked oceans. Let me traverse your hairpin switchbacks in a tiny-ass Peugeot in first gear. But not by plane.

Even though I arrive puffy-eyed with a dry throat (you know we all look the same when our mouths fall open like suicidal turkeys standing in the pasture, mid-torrent) and mascara smeared across my left cheek (I have no idea, so don’t ask), I still take a red eye every time.

I made my way through Manhattan with my shiny new suitcase which is slightly tested with the requisite “baby’s first flight” scrapes, that has enough worldly belongings to get me through four months of life as well as all my kitchen gear. Yes, this suitcase definitely weighs the exact amount allowed on a commercial flight before you have to pay extra. I spent my time in New York staying with one of my oldest and dearest friends, Marc, who now lives in Hell’s Kitchen.

Marc coincidentally owns one of the premier specialty cake bakeries in New York, City Cakes. Lest you think I purposely surround myself with only food people, I have known Marc since we were sophomores in college working at Johns Hopkins in the sweaty summer death that was Washington DC in 2002. We made a few great friends, many life lasting inside jokes and an abundance of serious errors in judgement. It was the BEST!

These days, Marc and Benny run the show and always let me stay with them no matter the time of year or duration of my squatting. By now I owe them a lifetime of doing dishes (which I hate, but alas). My trip to New York was much overdue and I needed time to see friends, cook with friends or weasel my way into a kitchen here or there, and essentially redraw the mental map of food as it stands today in the city.

Having always traveled there for vacation while working back in Seattle, I previously thought of New York as a place I loved to visit but not a place I ever mused about realistically living in. Specifically, I was very aware I could live there and would really enjoy doing so, I just wasn’t in a place where I was ready to leave what I was doing at that time. Clearly this trip was different. I ate my way through boroughs every single day, pestering all my friends that live there or happened to be traveling there at the same time as me.

I repeatedly performed an exercise my father taught me when I was in college in Portland. “Drive or take the bus as far as you can in one direction for about an hour. Allow yourself to get lost, and then spend the day working your way back, simultaneously exploring, learning the city and memorizing the lay of the land.” That is a gold nugget, Sam Sampson, thanks for that one! I actually did this in different neighborhoods of Brooklyn on four separate days and after each one, I was completely convinced that each was my brand new home upon my return to the states, post-Spain.

While Marc and Benny were out of town on various trips, I kept an eye on things at the apartment and/or bakery as well as our resident mascot, Oliver. I couldn’t even come up with these poses if I had orchestrated a professional photoshoot. Oliver is not to be understood, he is to be marveled with a head tilt and an eye roll. God forbid you attempt to socialize him in Central Park (a mistake I definitely won’t repeat when move back).

Marc and I discussed all sorts of pipe dream projects that did or did not dovetail with the product testing and expansion or integration discussions we had about their current and future offerings. Bakeries are different than restaurants to be sure, but they share some difficulties here and there, product and business-wise. Or course the best conversations happened while I was piping salted caramel buttercream into my greedy little mouth, or destroying the evidence of a cupcake that had accidentally bumped against the cake stand. Oops.

We ate our way through Chelsea, drank our way through Hell’s Kitchen, and I made it my personal vendetta to French fry my way through Brooklyn. Listen. It’s real. I eat them every day, sometimes they’re high end and sometimes they’re not. It’s my thing. There were a couple days in New York I couldn’t find French fries and it sucked. And no, I don’t eat them with ketchup, I don’t like ketchup. You know what those fries want? FAT. They want you to LOVE ALL UP ON THEM WITH SOME AIOLI, OKAY?! Give those fries what they want, and then give me what I want. Anyway, best fries goes to Five Stars in Brooklyn.

One of the best things about being in New York is waking up with zero idea of what to do with my time. I didn’t have plans every day (which is new for me, because I am THE planner) which meant I had an abundance of open-ended options. This was my test zone and trial time to begin shedding the previous lifestyle I’d so diligently built over the past decade in Seattle. While I’m ever grateful for having learned how to develop, plan and execute massive events, dinners, campaigns and strategies, I really need to invest time learning the other side of life now. Time to chill out and really enjoy being present, or as I call it, “breaking myself”.

I caught up on life via tacos and frozen mojitos at Habana Outpost on more occasions than I’m ready to admit in writing. I reunited with Josephine, a pretty incredible woman I grew up with back in Seattle. We painted the town one night with her fiancé, Sean, which was fantastic and ended with, what else, cold beers and French fries while Sean and I got our Sports Center fix. (Please don’t make me reiterate my affinity for college football. Also, GO DUCKS.)

I also downed some goodies (fries included) there on another outing with my longtime Seattle friends, Sandeap and Neha. They were in town visiting family and we have this great serendipitous timing where we travel to the same cities unbeknownst to each other, or run into each other at the airport. So fortuitous in every way.

We love to eat together and are horrible influences for each other which is my favorite. Case in point: they happened to have a reservation at Eleven Madison Park later that week and invited me to third wheel the hell out of their dinner. You don’t have to ask me twice – SOLD!

Dinner at EMP was great and worth every red cent to experience their service, approach, and in depth conversations with each member of their staff that patiently looked after us for four and a half hours. The tour of the kitchen was a delight, each of the 14 courses was executed in a memorable way and there were some definite stand outs for me, such as the micro English muffins they made for the eggs benedict course. As a cook, one of my two current focus areas is bread/pasta making and I really need to learn how those were executed so perfectly. I did not take a single picture of dinner because I really think the best meals are memorable enough without them, not to mention I think it’s discourteous at that level of service. We snapped an O-dark-thirty picture out front while we waited for cabs and said our farewells. Not a dumb way to say goodbye to your friends for a while, right?

It was also Independence Day while I was there and I do love me some fireworks and refreshing beverages.

Marc ensured I crossed a couple tourist items off the never ending list. I’m always doing the local things I love so much instead of seeing the sights. However, there was an all-day group outing on the 4th of July that started with a spin class in the morning. We tromped the Brooklyn Bridge, ate a mammoth brunch wherein I finished everyone else’s leftovers (I know, I should try to be less predictable), and then America’s other favorite pastime, sidewalk people watching with rosé spritzers.

I got some great runs in along the waterfront, and helped Marc with a couple cake deliveries to The Intrepid museum and had some business meetings for other future projects during the days. During the evenings I tracked down a serious force to be reckoned with, my amazing friend Kim. Kim White and I met four or five years ago, through our blogs, and we finally met up in person when I was in New York a while back. Our friendship is built on straight up common ambition, drive and working in the creative arts. Kim is a celebrated makeup artist and a solid friend. We swapped business advice, stories, laughs and “I’ve been there” anecdotes while she introduced me to new spots in the city.

Then I helped a pretty special group of guys with a fun dinner out in BK. The Williamsburg Hotel is under construction, and the team wanted to do some dinners in advance of the opening. Just so happens the Executive Chef is Adam Leonti. Adam is, without measure, one of the nicest, most compelling people I know. We met back in April when he was on a book tour with Marc Vetri, talking about handmade pastas, Italy and risotto. He fed me heavenly risotto, I ate it, and that was that.

The “patio dinner party” turned into the “we just got rained out and now it’s a multi-course, standing-room-only house party.” We got rained out during the second seated course, and all the guests filled the room around us where we’d set up a make shift kitchen for service that day.

There were no chairs or tables to sit at indoors, so everyone happily leaned against the walls and found chatter in the nooks near boxes of cook books and make shift work stations, mingling with their amazing glasses of wine (which I never did have time to ask Adam and the guys about, but damn, it was good. Of course the food was outstanding, so the wine was a perfect compliment). Usually I’ll take pictures here and there during prep or right before a course hits the pass, in an attempt to share the brilliance of whatever chef I happen to be in the presence of. However things didn’t really go as planned, they went even better. Frankly, I’m glad I didn’t take any pictures of the food because there’s just no way I could have it justice given everything that was going on. Also I was more concerned about making sure we had enough clean dishes for the next course before we reset and plated the next course. I haven’t enjoyed myself that much since Brendan and I went rogue at the Incredible Feast a while back, and I was frying quail eggs sunny side up on a camping stove for 200 people inside a beautiful plant nursery.

I hit a few other memorable stops before bidding farewell to New York, including an exhibit I’d wanted to see for a while now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art inside Central Park. The Temple of Dendur is a stunning exhibit and because my dad (as an architect) has had an ongoing project and interest in structures of Ancient Egypt, I really marveled at the sheer design and construction. The rest of the exhibit was equally beautiful, and I clearly have an obsession with faces

The last great meal in New York was at Casa Mono,  a fantastic neighborhood spot that exemplifies the best Spanish cuisine you’ll find arguably anywhere in the US. Adam and I ate till we just couldn’t move, drank amazing wine and chatted the hours away. Just when we thought we couldn’t eat any more, we saw a bone marrow dish hit the pass and ordered it without blinking. Chef Anthony Sasso and his skilled team had me holding my head in my hands after more than a few of the dishes, asking myself what just happened. Top night.

As much as I was looking forward to landing in Spain, I wasn’t ready to leave New York when I did. It was difficult to put a hard stop when I was just hitting my stride there. I didn’t exactly do the best job of keeping my cool - yes, I cried. My final day was rough, long, and nerve-wracking and I really didn’t want to say goodbye. Looking forward to coming home to the big city and seeing everyone again soon.

Wouldn’t you know it, the day I left the country was also National French Fry Day. Much to my dismay, the international terminal of JFK didn’t have a single restaurant or walk up stand with fries, so I settled for my other jam, a whiskey neat, and toasted the city. New York, you’re so damned fun. Can’t wait to come back and shake it up!