Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Stupidity of Culinary Nationalism

After my negative experience with Texas BBQ I delivered my views of Texas BBQ to some associates of mine from Texas. Both of them live in California now, and both are critical of the Texas culture. One was a vegetarian for many years. The other, after spending a period of his youth in China, loves Chinese regional cuisine.

Both reacted VERY negatively to my criticism of Texas BBQ.

Their reactions kept making me think about that episode where the Texas delegation challenged the Israelis to a cookoff -- bbq vs shawarma. It also hit home the contradictions involved with Culinary Nationalism. When I speak of Culinary Nationalism I mean the tendency of people from particular regions/countries to claim their cuisine is the best in the world, all others are crap, and they have nothing to learn from other food cultures. Texas BBQ lovers picking fights with Israeli shawarma eaters, and emphasizing the superiority of the Texas BBQ over the other schools of BBQ (Carolina, Tennessee, Kansas City, etc.) embody this.

One of my associates/Texas BBQ partisans explained that the best Texas BBQ was actually from the Hill Country. This BBQ was a cultural fusion of cuts of meat that the German immigrants popularized and the spice mixtures that Mexican immigrants brought with them.

Ironic. Texas BBQ exists today because the Germans, Mexicans, and Anglos, who interacted with each other in the Hill Country were not so proud and rigid in their ideas about food that they couldn't experiment with new flavors and techniques. Yet modern Texans, with their chest thumping love of Texas BBQ, remain willfully ignorant of the broader world of grilled and roasted meats. Their dismissal of the other great meats of the world is like Hugh Hefner only allowing blonds into the Playboy mansion.

Hefner -- wisely -- never engaged in such ignorance.

On that note, from now till the day I die I will eat every grilled meat on the planet, and I will choose no favorites. Equal opportunity!

Sunday, April 19, 2009


Did the Redwood Peak trail run this morning. It was a 15K trail run in the hills overlooking Oakland, sponsored by XTerra. I had done an XTerra 12K on the Dipsea trail during the summer of 2007. It was horrendously hard, but I liked the organization and experience. So I thought I would come back for more.

I had trained on the hills in the city, running up and down some of the larger hills in Pac Heights and Nob Hill area. Two of my longer training runs finished with the California mile -- uphill on California Street from the Financial District up to Grace Cathedral.

The run turned out to be beautiful, I'm glad I did it. But it wasn't easy. We had an unusually hot day in the East Bay Hills, so dehydration was a risk. They even ran out of water and gatorade at the finish. They also did a last minute change to the trail, extending the course. The final distance was somewhere around 9.5 miles.

The race began with a 1 mile relatively smooth downhill, which jacked up the speeds for everyone. Around the 4 mile mark, just after the first water stop, we finally hit the first real hill. Very nasty. Nobody among the group I was with could jog it, it was way too steep. Afterwards was a 3 mile relatively flat section along the ridgeline. Seemed easy on the surface, but it turned into the most frustrating section of the trail. It was completely exposed to the sun, so the heat beat everyone down. Also, at that point my legs no longer had any snap in them -- so I couldn't run with a long stride. It turned into a slow 3 mile long slog in high heat.

The most interesting thing about the day was that those God awful quad exercises that I had to do in the Krav/Crossfit class (squats, burpees, lunge steps), and the stairclimbing I did last month for Climb California, helped me in the last 2.5 miles. About 2 of the last 2.5 miles were a very steep uphill. It was like stairclimbing. While it was painful, it was familiar. For others it was rougher. One girl that I passed was walking uphill with her feet pointed diagonally and with her legs in a wide walking stance -- big waste of energy. She should have kept her legs close together, her feet pointed straight, everything moving straight forward.

As I passed her she said to me "This blows!" I told her to look at the bright side -- we were under the trees now, so it was very shady and cool, unlike the previous 3 miles in the sun.

As I drove home from the race, the thing that hit me was that I missed these types of events a great deal. Triathlons and the three races/events that comprise it were the sports that during the past 5 years made me feel 10 feet taller and 15 years younger. As much as I like Krav/Crossfit/TRX/etc., those workouts are just that -- workouts. They aren't sports, they don't have events or competitions associated with them. They also don't bring you outdoors. Having the wind and sun in my face -- even if I'm getting roasted or chilled, adds to the experience. I miss that feeling of being outside dealing with nature.

Now where do I go from here? I feel committed to Krav, but I miss my old sports.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Why the Instructor Matters

I took my second TRX class today.

TRX is a new workout routine based on a workout some Navy SEALS put together down in San Diego using old parachute rigging. The rigging is hung from a ceiling, you grip the rigging, keep your back straight, and use your body weight as resistance in a series of calisthenics.

The first time I did it I wasn't impressed. It was only hard enough to annoy me. Not enough to truly hurt me.

This time it hurt me. The instructor this time is also the instructor who teaches my occasional CrossFit class and my Krav Maga conditioning class. While she uses a soft touch, she is still one of the toughest instructors I've ever had. Ironically, I took the TRX class this evening because my quads couldn't handle her conditioning class so close to a race day. Her workouts have left me with 8 weeks of non-stop quad and knee soreness. Murphy's Law being what it is, she took over teaching the TRX class.

For lack of a better phrase, she broke me. She was exponentionally harder than her predecessor. The section where I cracked were the ab exercises. The way they work abs in TRX is to hook your feet into the loops, which are suspended 12-18 inches off the floor. Doesn't sound like much, until you do the following;

- A sideways plank: having your feet suspended in the air a few inches off the ground exposed problems in my core strength between my front and back. Unlike sideplanks with my feet on the ground, I couldn't maintain a stable position.

- Did a tabata of bicycles where I got in a push-up position, then brought my knees up to my chest one at a time like in a bicycle sit-up. It was 8 sessions of 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off. Doesn't sound hard, but as is the case with the sideways plank, being suspended off the ground exposes a ton of balance and core strength weaknesses.

Torn at this point. My quads, thankfully, didn't die. So I'll be able to run on Sunday without a hitch. Everywhere else on my body hurts like a mo-fo. I hate being reminded of how weak my core muscles are, and all the places where I need to work.

Texas BBQ Ain't All That

Way back a colleague of mine, well versed in the world of BBQ, provided some great insights on the world of BBQ. He explained that the styles of BBQ that people cite (Texas, Carolina, Kansas City) aren't really strict styles but general schools of BBQ. For example, Carolina BBQ has many sub-genres unique to different sections of the Southeastern US. The thing that binds them together is the sweet & sour sauce, and the emphasis on slow cooked pork.

The colleague also went on to diss Texas BBQ. His theory was that Texas (a major beef producer) used its dominance of the beef market to proliferate the idea that beef was the king of BBQ meats, and that the only good BBQ'd beef was Texan. He also stated that Texas BBQ wasn't nearly as delicious as Texans claimed it was.

After this week, I'd have to agree with him.

I visited Dallas earlier this week. I was so excited to finally eat Texas BBQ in Texas. Random Texans I had met (predictably) sang the praises of Texas BBQ to me. I even heard a story about a bunch of Texans visiting Israel who challenged the Israelis to a food battle -- Texas BBQ vs. Shwarma. Stupid food machismo...

While in Texas I only ate two meals of BBQ. It was enough. Afterwards I had no more taste for meat, and ate seafood for the rest of the trip.

Yes, that's right, BBQ in Dallas was so bad that it drove me to eat seafood hundreds of miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico.

I ate BBQ at two different restaurants in Dallas that had 4 star yelp reviews. The common factor in all of them was that the meat was as dry as a bone. At the first place I ate a combo of beef and pork ribs, to get a comparison of how different meats react to Texas BBQ techniques. The next day I had a beef brisket.

The first case, I wrote it off as being a problem with the restaurant. I ate there at dinner, in a mostly empty restaurant. The place was probably more of a lunch spot than a dinner spot. So what I ate was probably left in the cooker for several hours too long.

With that in mind I went to my second restaurant the next day for lunch. It was a busy bbq joint with high turnover at lunch. I assumed that there would be meat fresh out of the smoker, and it would be moist and juicy. So I took a historically fat and juicy cut of meat, beef brisket, known back on the East Coast as pastrami.

See the picture below;

From Drop Box

Notice all that thick brown sauce covering the beef brisket. That's a BBQ sauce that they drench the meat in. Its the only moisture that the meat has. While it was the same cut of meat as pastrami it was radically different in flavor and texture, but not in a good way.

Oh Katz Delicatessen where art thou...

I asked for more details from my BBQ expert colleague. His theory was that Texas BBQ relies to much on smoke, essentially slow smoking the meat to the point that all the moisture disappears. In that situation, drenching the meat in an overpowering sauce is the only way to keep the meat palatable.

Thinking back to the story I heard about the Texan's challenging the Israeli's to a BBQ throw-down, I know which side I'm betting on in that fight. I'll take a shwarma over Texas BBQ ribs anyday.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

More on Why We Shouldn't Daydream About Owning a Gourmet Restaurant

When looking at he world of celebrity chefs, I can't help but notice a kind of spectrum of chefs. On one extreme side, you get very refined and very packaged. When I mean refined and packaged think;

Giada Delaurentis
Nigella Lawson
Jamie Oliver
Andrew Zimmern

They are all very clean, never curse, barely break a sweat.

Then there is the opposite extreme, the bad boys of the celebrity chef world;

Gordon Ramsay
Anthony Bourdain
Marco Pierre White

Neither of these three make any effort to hide their crassness or rough edge. In the cases of Ramsay and Bourdain, they profit from their crudeness.

There is also a third group. I like to think of these guys/girls as bad boys whom the Food Network/Travel Network sent to a finishing school, manhandled into a shell of respectability, but occasionally let slip their rough edge. They fall somewhere in the middle.

Rachele Ray (yes, I know, everyone hates her)
Bobby Flay
Mario Batali

Batali's rough side slips out in writings by food writers and other chefs who know him personally. Flay is supposedly quite abrasive.

The Bad Boys understandably irritate many foodies. As much as I love Bourdain's show and his books, I don't think I can handle a road trip with him. His sarcasm could get old very quickly. But the more refined of the celebrity chefs (Lawson, Delaurentis, Oliver), they are bad in that they give foodies this delusion that producing gourmet food is somehow not painful, or difficult, that you can run a quality restaurant without being an absolute a-hole.

The Marco Pierre Whites/Gordon Ramsay/Anthony Bourdain's remind us of just how hard this line of work is, the physical toll this line of work takes over the span of decades, and how it shouldn't be overly romanticized.

They also remind us that we shouldn't just respect the Great Chefs for their artisty, but for their grit, their perserverance, and their mental and physical toughness.

Why We Shouldn't Daydream About Running a Restaurant

I recently finished reading Bill Buford's book Heat. Also finally caught episodes of Hell's Kitchen with Gordon Ramsay. Reading Buford's descriptions of being verbally abused by Mario Batali's Sous Chef's, then watching Gordon Ramsay rip his contestants a new orifice, it made me think back to my family's old restaurant back on the East Coast.

My parents shared ownership of a Chinese restaurant with a few of my aunts and uncles. It was tough for them. Lots of fighting. Business arguments pretty soon poisoned the family relationships. When they all finally sold the place in the mid-1990's, it had the effect (over the span of a few years) of healing most of the wounds between them.

At times I thought that all the stupid fights between my parents and relatives at the restaurant were unique to their situation. Running a brown sauce Chinese restaurant in a rednecky town East Coast town wasn't easy to begin with. The narrow profit margins, the growing competition from Fujianese immigrants moving to the suburbs from New York, and having no clear chain of command, probably made it worse. Last but not least -- it was a low end Chinese restaurant, not an upscale American/Italian/French/etc. place. I and my siblings just assumed that the Chinese factor was what made it so difficult, that restaurants run by Chinese people were inherently conflict ridden.

Reading Buford and watching Ramsay hit home the fact that even successful upscale restaurants are tense nasty environments. Managers and chefs yell and fight. Stupid turf wars go on all the time. The staff on the bottom of the ladder get verbally abused. The only difference between Babbo and my mom & dad's place was that all that tension at a place like Babbo somehow (miraculously) leads to a product that people are willing to pay a lot of money for. We were not so fortunate.

At times I and some of my siblings have dreamt of opening somekind of upscale restaurant, catering business, bakery, charcuterie, bar, brewery, etc. The assumption is that it wouldn't be anything like the pressure cookers that our parents spent decades working in, that it would somehow be less tense, more artistic, and not particularly stressful because we'd be following a passion.

Buford & Ramsay remind us that where there is passion there is also a tremendous amount of pain.