What I Did On My Summer Vacation Part 2: Modernist Cuisine

Before little Dirt Candy goes dark tomorrow (!) I wanted to make sure I put up the second half of my summer vacation, which involved three of my favorite things: lady chefs, lots of food, and plenty of booze. One of the biggest cookbook events of the last four years was the publication of Nathan Myhrvold's Modernist Cuisine. Of course, the second biggest cookbook event of the last four years was me unwrapping my copy of Nathan Myhrvold's Modernist Cuisine.

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The pea course involved super-punny placards.

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And in June, I got to go have dinner at their lab.

I met the Modernist Cuisine folks a while back after giving them a shout-out in the Dirt Candy Cookbook trailer, and we all kept crossing paths, so I was super-excited to get an invitation to the dinner they had in Seattle for lady chefs.

Since publishing their mammoth cookbook, the staff out there have hosted dinners and, well, I'll let them explain:

"Over time the dinners grew into something more than just promotion. As much as I love making cookbooks, cooking is fundamentally about making food for people to eat. In book production, we are cooking for the camera and our team, which is fine, but it isn’t the same as cooking for people in general. So we continued holding dinners long after our book launch was behind us. Over the last three years, we have had dinners every month or two, which is a far cry from what we would need to do in a real restaurant, but, of course, we still have books to write."

This one was all for female chefs, and the guest list was amazing, including everyone from myself, Anita Lo, and Elizabeth Falkner, to Ruth Reichl, Dominique Crenn, and Nancy Silverton. If you want the complete guest list and photos of almost every single dish, please go to Ruth Reichl's blog. There were 25 of us there, the dinner was 35 courses, it lasted for six hours, and my photos mostly look like this:

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However, Ruth Reichl is a professional and she can take photos long after I've slid under the table or started dancing on top of it. So for the grown-up's POV, she's your better bet.

The big difference between her meal and my meal is that I got a vegetarian version of every single dish, which was really awesome since it made me feel like a super-special VIP who got different, better food than everyone else. I'd never met Ruth Reichl before, so that was a huge honor, and I got to have dinner with a bunch of other women I'd always wanted to meet. Nancy Silverton has been doing this whole restaurant thing so successfully for so long that she's practically legendary. I'd met Naomi Pomeroy by email, but never in person, and even though she mostly focuses on meat she also runs a small restaurant. Trust me, if you meet another chef who has a tiny restaurant then you never run out of things to talk about. And I'd been dying to get to at least one of Ashley Christensen's restaurants, but meeting her was the next best thing.

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I got gold leaf on one of my plates. Because I am special.

So we arrived at the Modernist Cuisine food lab, got a talk about the book and the process of how they approach food, and then took a tour, which was amazing. You'd go from a kitchen, to a walk-in full of flies for their anti-malaria laser gun testing. Basically it was like a tour of Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory except for food instead of candy and no one fell into a river of chocolate and got sucked up into a tiny pipe (my nightmare).

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The control center of the Death Star.

There's a misconception about what people like the Modernist Cuisine folks are doing, and they're often dismissed as advocating "molecular gastronomy" as if it's some fussy subset of cooking when, in fact, it's very much at the heart of cooking. They aren't trying to come up with weird new ways to cook for the sake of it, inventing finicky techniques that are all style and but have no substance. Instead, Myhrvold and his posse are taking apart classic techniques to see how they work, then finding new ways to make them work better. With the level of tools we have today, it's time some of these techniques we've always taken for granted (braising, boiling, steaming, frying) evolved. Sure, their dishes can sound crazy, but the techniques they use for making these dishes are the important thing.

Also, they taste delicious. Reminder: I am a little hazy on all the details of the meal, especially two months later, but it was amazing. You'd think you'd get bored at a six-hour dinner but each course was more fascinating than the last. There was frozen gazpacho, the most intense pistachio gelato I'd ever tasted (made of pistachio butter), a pea soup made with the liquid that comes out of a pea when you put it in a centrifuge (every pea has a tiny drop of its own juice in the center), a cappuccino porcini broth that had coffee butter in its foam, so as you tip the glass to drink it you get hit with this intense coffee flavor, but the dish has a completely different taste.

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At times I thought I was going insane, like when we were served the dessert called Breaking Bad (Ruth Reichl has photographic evidence) that involved sucking the fumes of super-heated alcohol through a glass pipe. By that point we'd all had so much wine that the room looked like it was full of junkies, bent over in an alley, smoking meth.

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France in a bowl!

Like I said, it's all a little bit hazy, but it was one of those meals that was worth the trip. Will I ever serve a dish like these at Dirt Candy? Maybe. But more importantly I learned a lifetime's worth of tips and tricks and had at least a half-dozen inspirational moments, and that's not bad for a single dinner in Seattle.

What Dirt Candy Can Teach The World About Being Small

Dirt Candy is small. Really small. Really, really, really small. Just look at this tiny kitchen:

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What does that have to do with you? Well, if you’re one of 35 million Americans who lives in an apartment, then you probably have a tiny kitchen, too. Or maybe you live in a house that was built without a kitchen for some reason and you've had to construct one yourself. In a closet. Either way, over the past six years of running Dirt Candy I’ve learned a lot about how to make the most of an absurdly small amount of space and some of my tips might help you.

First off, realize that you’re starting out ahead of the game. I have to squeeze three or four people into my kitchen every night, you just have to fit you. So, you’re winning already. Pour yourself a glass of victory wine. Then contemplate the most important rule of small kitchens:

Don’t have more than you need.

Let me do that again:

Don't have more than you need.

If it takes you more than sixty seconds to find a piece of equipment or all six of your water glasses or those bowls you like, then you’ve got a problem. Sixty seconds is the general rule of thumb. If your kitchen is as small as Dirt Candy's I’d say cut that number down to thirty seconds.

You know how the rule for closets is if you haven’t worn something in a year, throw it out? The same holds true for kitchens. “But what about…?” I hear you ask. “I’ve got this thing over here I might…?” you begin. And I agree: it is hard to throw things away. But you have to, and when you do you’ll be so much happier.

So you're committed to reducing but you can't seem to get started? Allow me...

First, quality, not quantity. You don’t need two peelers, you just need one good one. I guarantee you will never need an emergency back-up peeler. If you’ve got two of something, you’ve got to be tough and play Sophie’s Choice. Put them next to each other on the counter: Which is nicer? Which is in better condition? Which one do you use more often? Keep that one, send the other one packing. Cry about it later.

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Second, if you’re having a hard time being all Meryl Streep about it, get a box and put in all your questionable items. By questionable items I mean mixer attachments, weird tools you bought once for some purpose you no longer remember, bamboo skewers, strange spoons, plastic attachments for your blender, anything that you cannot use to kill a vegetable. All that stuff, into the box. Now put that box in the closet or under your bed. Over the next six months if you find yourself pulling that box out for stuff, then keep it. If you don’t even remember what’s in there six months later, then that’s a good sign you can get rid of it all.

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Third, if you’re REALLY having a problem deciding, then write down every single piece of equipment and every single bowl and plate you use over the course of the next month. At the end of the 30 days, look at what you use again and again and what you never used at all. Then pull out that box and start packing. Yes, in some unforeseen situation in the far future you might need that giant colander, but when that time comes you can buy a new one or borrow one from the neighbors. Until then, you need the space more than you need the possible future colander.

Fourth, you don’t need more than three knives unless you’re a butcher. Seriously. You need a regular chef’s knife, maybe a paring knife, and a bread knife. If you’re not butchering meat or fish on a regular basis, then you don’t need all those extra knives. To the thrift store they go. Then, get a whetstone and a steel, learn how to use them (it’s not hard and there are a million how-to videos on YouTube), and keep your three knives super-sharp. Trust me, you’ll be happier.

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Fifth, you probably have everyday plates and special occasion plates. If your kitchen is small you’ve only got so much cabinet space to go around. Free more up by taking all those special occasion plates and boxing them up and storing somewhere else. Right now, they’re just taking up valuable real estate.

Sixth, get one set of nested mixing bowls. That’s all you need. All others — to the thrift store.

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So now your kitchen is emptier, which feels good, but how do you use it?

The most important thing is to make sure that the things you use regularly (the saucepan, the whisk, your knife) are front and center, not hiding behind a bunch of other stuff. Plates and serving pieces you rarely use go on the high shelves, your everyday plates and bowls go down low. Put those mixing bowls where you can grab them the second you open your cabinet doors.

The same with ingredients. Get a speed rail or rack near your stove and put your olive oil, salt, and pepper right there where you don’t have to go digging for them when you’re cooking. Throw out your old spices and move the ones you use the most to the front.

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The best spices of all.

Get some hooks. When space is limited, hooks are your best friends. We hang everything at Dirt Candy so that if one of my chefs needs a pan it’s right there in their face and they can just grab it off the hook. If they need a mandolin, it’s dangling by the sink, it’s not hiding in the back of some drawer. In a small kitchen, hooks are your best friends. You can order super-powerful magnetic hooks, or just drill them in yourself, or hang them from pipes.

Then, at some point, I guarantee, you’ll be cooking and run out of pans or mixing bowls or knives and you’ll curse my name. You’ll think, “I never should have listened to that stupid girl because now I don’t have enough mixing bowls.” No, you have plenty. The trick to running a small kitchen is: clean as you cook. At Dirt Candy I only have the number of pots and pans that can be used at one time, so that when they’re dirty my chefs are forced to clean them. That way, they’re cleaning as they go. When service is done there are dirty dishes, but it’s not a mountain of dirty dishes, just a small, manageable hillock. You probably only need two pans, but you have to get used to cleaning them as you cook. Once you form the habit it’s hard to go back.

My tips won’t help everyone, and I'm building a bigger restaurant for a reason (you’d be amazed at how many things I can’t do in a microscopic kitchen), but by being tough-minded about cutting back on your junk, emphasizing quality over quantity, by reorganizing so the things you need are right in front of you, and by cleaning as you go, you can change how you use even the tiniest kitchen without resorting to crazy expensive renovations.

Coda di Volpe is back!

A couple of years ago, one of my favorite wines on the Dirt Candy list was the subtle, salty, smoky, classic Vadiaperti Coda di Volpe. It's been gone for a while, and that's probably because wine snobs seem to hate the poor coda di volpe grape, and that's a shame. This is a wine that pairs perfectly with food because of its sneaky saltiness that works just like real salt and causes the flavors in a dish to pop and sparkle. Customers loved this wine when I had it on the menu but distributors haven't carried it in a while so I've been out of luck.

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Good news! As of today, the Vadiaperti Coda di Volpe is BACK on the Dirt Candy wine list. And wine snobs can kiss my grits. Here's the original post about this Coda di Volpe so you can read it and see all the snobby potshots that the Oxford Companion of Wine takes at not only the grape but at the Campania region where it grows. To be honest, I'm surprised Campania never punched the Oxford Companion of Wine in the nose. Coda di volpe rocks!

10 Days Left of Service

Tonight marks 10 days left of service at little Dirt Candy. I'm so happy to be getting a bigger space, but surprisingly sad, too. I'm going to miss this little guy.

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