Foreign Fruit

I’m sitting safely back at home nursing a wrecked and exhausted body trying to wrap my head around the last week.  From exotic cocktail ingredients to machine gun armed military police, it was a week full of eye opening scenery and fantastic new people.  I apologize for the length of this post, but there is a lot to be said, and I’m home sick with time to write it.

Dave and I were asked to head down to Colombia and present about cocktails for the Bogota Wine and Food Festival, a gathering a chefs from around the globe coming together to celebrate the up and coming gastronomical culture of Colombia.  After securing our trip down to South America I of course realized my passport was expired and needed to get a renewal in 4 days, but as it turns out as long as you meet with some people in midtown with a wad of cash it can be done, and apparently, legally.  These magical people somehow had conjured a passport in my hand the same day I dropped off my application, and since now that I have gone and returned from a foreign land I can confirm that it was real!  If not shady…

We arrived in Bogota late at night to find that the airport, and as it would later turn out every street corner, was guarded by military police armed with machine guns amidst a throng of drivers recruiting our patronage.  Once all of the chefs were gathered up from their various terminals we were loaded into our SUVs and trucked off into the night.  When you have such a precedence of danger about a place it is hard to look passed your own biases, to feel what is real rather than what you expected to feel, and with all of the warnings radiating in my mind, “don’t take the taxis, they’ll abduct you,” and other sentiments the like left me uneasy.  We pulled away from the airport and our driver immediately became lost, completing loops through neighborhoods constructed of bamboo and cardboard houses we wound our way into the unknown of everyone in the cramped Toyota.  Stopped at a light in an unsavory section of town with crowds of people eyeing our car, the driver leans over and locks the door and asks us not to look out, it was then that I realized that I had been in this situation a 100 times in Albuquerque, Arizona, LA, and NYC.  This was no different than driving through our neighborhood in a rough part of the ‘burque except here the streets were lined with military patrols to make sure nothing would happen! I was probably even safer than in other situations…?  An hour later we safely rolled into our hotel, were sniffed down by the ever sweet bomb sniffing Labradors, scanned by metal detectors, and permitted to enter the beautiful lobby of this weeks home base.

Bogota is truly a beautiful city.  Set up high in the Andes it is a constant 55-65 degrees, perfect sweater wearing weather (+1000 points), with towering forested peaks and a rolling landscape filled with such lush greenery and interesting architecture you quickly fall in love with it.   Our hotel was luxurious with beautiful stone showers, soaking tubs, and giant beds.  People were beautiful and exceedingly accommodating to every weird demand in broken Spanish we made.  Restaurants had an abundance of unfamiliar and exotically good ingredients.  Such a constant flood of wonderful things quickly forced me over any fear of being abducted and shot, and I almost instantly executed a complete 180 into the realm of a having huge crush on this city.

Dave is obsessed with fruit and as soon as we dropped our bags off in our rooms he dragged me straight to a bar to grab a Lula Mojito-esque drink.  At breakfast in the morning the hotel laid out a fruit bar which meant Dave was hunched over the breakfast buffet ripping apart random colored fruity victims with childish glee.

Pitahaya. Amazingly looking/tasting fruit which we vacuumed rum into.

Repeatedly pods and bulbs were torn from tree limbs and quickly ingested to sweet satisfaction or rare disgust, quickly followed by,”gaw! That’s disgusting! Quick, try it!”  Thanks Dave, way to sell it.  At one point a fellow guest looked over to see Dave joyfully munching down a flower, violet petals still hanging from his mouth, and let out a laugh, “can you eat those?” Which garnered Dave’s shrug and muffled reply, “does it matter?” In the end about 90% of what Dave handed me was truly delicious and unparalleled in northern produce.  The colors, tastes, textures, and smells could only be found there in Colombia and left us jealously plotting how to get them to our bar.

Our first presentation snuck up on us quickly, and as it turns out using someone elses kitchen using a different language and packed with 40 other chefs can be a nightmare.  We had decided to use local ingredients in all of our demos and cocktails as it would be one of the few times in our lives we would have access to them.  Not knowing the flavors, scents, or textures of any of our ingredients meant having to create new cocktails on the spot.  Not an overwhelming proposition when you know the way around your kitchen like the back of your hand, but when transported to a foreign place where nothing is the same every single step takes triple the time it should.  So as is the fashion when Dave and Tristan are prepping for anything, the 2 hours before our demo were sheer madness.  We worked on every batch of ingredients up until the last 10 seconds before the lecture started with as much focus as could be mustered.  We had no time to prep our luckily beautiful and wonderful (she took the punches like a champ)  interpreter whom I had forgotten would even be necessary.  In the end we landed on stage and taught about centrifuges, liquid nitrogen, and red hot pokers for almost 3 hours, and took away from it the use of 5 new beautiful fruits, but I would be damned if we were as unprepared for the next round of talks.

Our next lecture was the largest and most visible of the week, and I was making damn sure we were going to be prepared.  Prep lists written 3 times and handed out early, order completed on time, long term prep already started the day before, and a schedule the next days events all laid out.  Up at 7 AM to eat breakfast, more continental breakfast fruit lessons from Dave, and then over to the restaurant to start off a day of prepping.  With 200 people, 3 hours of speaking, and 10 cocktails to get out the crowd, we had our work cut out for us.  El Cielo is the leading restaurant in ‘molecular gastronomy’ in Colombia, think the WD-50 of Bogota, and has achieved much acclaim to that end.  The kitchens are white and sterile laboratories which are constantly being cleaned, buffed, and shine, and required us to don full mesh hoods and pristine chef coats.  A rotovap in the corner and a canister of liquid nitrogen strapped to a wall instantly destroyed anything I had assumed about cooking in Bogota, and anything we needed was at hand and ready to go the second we needed it.  I thought we had stepped into a room that would propel our job to the next level with ease, and it might have done just that if we had had any ingredients.

3 hours later and a 5 hours to go until show time we had most of our ingredients sorted out thanks to the help of two brothers who volunteered for our event, heroes, both of them.  Armoring ourselves with mesh helmets we once more dove into the fray.  1 hour in and everything cranking away it looks like we may actually be ready for the night.  1 hour and 5 minutes in we find ourselves sitting at a 12 course 2.5 hour lunch put on by our our gracious host restaurant.  It was not an invitation you refuse, and in spite of our humble apologies and excuses we were plopped down and fed, properly.  We dined with the young head chef and owner, a young man he had befriended and his girlfriend, and this said girlfriend’s mom who was meeting the boyfriend for the first time. We were given course after course which exemplified the techniques that the restaurants style, such as course one: a hand washing of mango puree and salt over a bowl of tapioca beads which you were encouraged to crush to relieve stress.  This was followed by violet smoked gelatin, sweet potato foams, liquid nitrogen ice creams, other interesting bites, a steady stream of Lambrusco, and some interesting family chatting.  After constantly running upstairs to see how the interns were progressing with the juicing and centrifuging, and after our 2nd dessert, we were able to take our leave and use the last hour before the event to freak out and run around like maniacs.  I don’t know how it ever comes together, but somehow it always does.  We were there with a packed room, translator, our drinks, and a worn out team of people all focused on just getting through the next 3 hours, and in what I would have that was less than 10 minutes turned out to be 3 hours and we were done.  We packed up wearily, I looked to our chaperons waiting to get us back to the hotel and said, “we’re going out.”  I grabbed Dave, our translator Luisa, and Monica Hernandez (a new made friend met in Bogota who lives in the West Village?) and we marched into Bogota leaving a worried group of people in our wake.

At this point I was very worn out on niceties, not knowing where I was, and being so scheduled and orchestrated that I need to be out and in the city for a bit.  Luisa was from Bogota and led us to meet her boyfriend at a great Italian place where we finally got to relax and laugh about things other than festival matters.  It was beyond refreshing to hear about life in Colombia from young professional people living there.  It wasn’t a jaded outsiders view and it wasn’t someone trying to sell the city to me, just an honest perspective.  We heard about how dangerous it could be, and the bombs that did go off in the city, but also how wonderful it was to live in a beautiful place.  Like anyplace out there Bogota has its good with its bad.  It’s true you don’t get into a cab in the city as it’s likely something will happen, but it’s also true that if you keep your wits about you than nothing will happen and you will get to enjoy a flowering and beautiful city.  Dave and I left that dinner with lighter shoulders bearing no more responsibilities for the week and the support of new friends in an exciting place.

The next morning we were up early and heading to the airport to make our jump to Armenia, the center of the Colombian coffee industry.  We had been given the choice to fly up to the tropical paradise of Cartagena on the northern coast of the country where tropical beaches and stunning hotels awaited us, but unanimously we decided to head deep into the mountains to stay on a coffee farm.  The small prop plane took us over peaks and then down into bamboo and palm forests where we finally came to rest at a tiny airport.  This is the other side of our trip.  As soon as we got off of the plane I knew this was going to be a change.  This wasn’t the gorgeous hotels, always have a driver, wonderful meals at restaurants Bogota and festival, this was a small hatchback taxi, small road side shanties, and deep tropical forest.  We very carefully got into a taxi after quizzing our driver to the point of making him call our contact in Bogota to verify his ID, and once we were convinced that Abalardo was really our driver, we headed off into the stunningly green world.  So. Damn. Green.  It was foliage on top of foliage.  I was fairly sure Dave was going to have a panic attack because no one could possibly ever try all of the fruit that was so abundantly hanging within arms reach.  We slowly wound through the towns and farms quietly taking in a scene so foreign to us that we had nothing to really talk about.  Occasionally Dave would prompt ask me to ask Abalardo, the legitimate and non-abducting taxi driver, a question about what it was we were seeing, but mostly it was a quiet journey of constant awe.

It took us almost an hour in the car to reach El Delirio de Quindio, the small but beautifully equipped farm house we were housed at.  We were quickly show to our rooms which had only bars for windows, most places barely had walls due to the wonderful climate, where we were able to unpack quickly.  By the time I had my suitcases down and had washed the travel off in a quick shower, Dave had already rounded up our host and had him marching straight into the fores to find fruit to eat.  Upon his return he presented me with pods, berries, flowers, and nuts and simply said, “eat them!”  So we gorged on wild varieties of random fruits all afternoon.  That afternoon we ventured out of our compound towards the small town nearby to find lunch and get some shopping in before returning back to the farm for dinner.  We dined that night with a lovely American family who had moved to Bogota for business, and they entertained us with stories of living in the city and what it was like raising a family there.  Dave and I sent them to bed for the night, grabbed a bottle of Aguardiente (local booooze) and went to town.  After looking over some 80’s cocktail guides, and finishing our bottle, we ourselves meandered towards our rooms.

On my way towards our quarters, which were separate from the house, I encountered a man waiting for me with a machete over his shoulder and a vase of water in his hand.  Late at night, in the middles of real jungle, and with stories of violence swimming around my head this was somewhat of a jolt to the ol’ psyche.  The stranger offered me the water, oh yeah fucking right like I am drinking this rufied water so that you can hack me up with your over sized ‘I’m over compensating for something’ knife, ran through my head, but luckily cooler thoughts voiced themselves, “What the heck is that for!?” came out in broken spanish pointing at the machete.  As it turns out he was there to guard me, “and that’s really necessary?” Hoping the answer to be ‘of course not,’ but instead receiving, “absolutely!”  He planted himself firmly in front of my door.  It was after the perimeter alarm sang for the 3rd time creating barking and frantic feet shuffling that I resigned myself to reading, full well knowing sleep wasn’t going to be visiting me that night.

I studied International Affairs, and for the life of me want to be a Foreign Service Officer, but being in uncertain conditions where you aren’t solidly convinced you are ok will make you reconsider everything.  I slipped out of my room that morning exhausted but happy to see the sun, and realized that I was probably in no real danger at all and if I had marched to bed without ever encountering my faithful guardian I would have slept like a baby.  We sat for breakfast with the visiting family and all recounted similar stories of the previous night, which left me feeling better.  Only looking back on that night can I still say that I would still love to be in foreign service, maybe Prague has a post available?

Although tired I was ready to take on the country side and see what coffee was all about.  We were scooped up by a new driver, Lena, and her son Tomas.  They ushered us to La Recuca de Cafeteras to learn about the coffee making process, which believe it or not Dave Arnold was a whiz at, to the point of receiving a grunting nod of admiration from our tour guide after we picked our berries to be processed into coffee.   Coffee: not easy or fun to make.

It was becoming apparent that we were both starting to feel a little tired after our week and loss of sleep the night before, and we pressed on to the airport with only a quick stop for lunch, refreshments, fishing, meeting the new puppy ‘Estrella’, and to drop off the kids at Lena’s abuelos house.  At the airport we went through another bout of, ‘this is legal and allowed on a plane,’ with security over the red hot pokers and travel centrifuge we were carrying in our bags.  Finally boarding the plane we zipped back to Bogota.  7 hours of roaming the Bogota airport found us crammed into the un-reclining and minuscule last row of our 6 hour flight home.  6 hours later at 7AM I apologetically dislodged my femurs from the back of the row in front of me, and surprisingly ripped through customs.  Falling repeatedly asleep in the cab on the way home, I climbed the stairs to my apartment, and without a single thought, slept.

I woke up in a horrendous way, stomach wrecked, body stiff and weak, and unable to eat.  What happened I can only guess is hangover from 60 hours with no sleep and hectic travel, at least it has allowed me to stay home and eject from my body these memories.  Colombia, it is an awesome place which deserves respect.  When left alone to normal life I was only awed by how exquisite the landscape was and its bountiful offerings, I felt safe and warmly welcomed by the truly gorgeous people.  This country has been safe for a decade now, secured and policed, only old habits of maintaining over the top security reminds you that it once was a place unsafe to travel.  If you have the chance, go and take in the produce, the people, and culture, but go without bias and let the cities and country speak for itself rather than outdated words from the unknowing observers.

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Got a break we can catch?

Finally the update I wanted to give!

Culinary School.

For the last 2 Months I have been working with the French Culinary Institute to find a way for me to attend.  I have always been drawn to culinary school and now that I have been in touch with the food industry in so many capacities I know that’s where I am headed.  As soon as I made the decision to attend school I began to attempt to secure the financing to enroll.  Turns out this is not exactly an easy thing!  Now, I have very good credit, but if you have lived in a new state for only 3 months, and have only been employed at your job for 1 month… good luck getting a loan, even a student loan.  The lovely people at FCI have been trying every single avenue to give me the opportunity to attend, and finally we thought we had the answer: one small loan, and a 20k scholarship!  SO once we had assumed that I had secured financing I enrolled and began classes!

What an amazing thing it has been so far!  I bundle up in my entire ensemble of chef’s attire and march down to Soho every other night.  It is amazing the layers of clothing I wear in those 85-90 degree kitchens…. chef’s coat (embroidered with my name), t-shirt, check pants, apron, hat, neckerchief, clogs… Quite the outfit.  I also lug around with me my whole suitcase of knives and tools!  Honestly there is something hilarious to me about carrying around a suitcase of knives right through the bustling crowds on Broadway.

Day One: We did not mess around when starting class.  Our Chef Instructor: Chef X (Xavier) is a feisty and driven Frenchman, and is a firm believer in results and not wasting time.  We picked up our knives almost instantly and began to learn every single french vegetable cut that we would ever need, all the while Chef X is walking around criticizing our lack of skill, 20 mins into our first ever class.  It was an eye opening first day, and honestly quite reassuring, because it became apparent that we were there to learn and not be coddled.  It is extremely nice to know that you were going to get your moneys worth of education, there simply is no fluff involved.

Day 2,3,4,5: Everything is going so fast!  After stumbling through day one and barely escaping with all of my fingers I buckled down and made sure I was prepared for all of the upcoming classes.  We have amazing text books which I have been pouring over in order to make sure I am ready for classes.  As it turns out I am one of the least experienced chefs in the class, but with every single dish we cook I am able to prove myself to our chef and classmates.  I may not be extremely versed in technique but when I cook, I can cook!  It feels so good to be challenged, and every single minute of class is exhilarating and a learning experience.  I am absolutely in love with creating something with my hands, and being allowed to show a little creativity.  Chef X’s militant instruction has eased slightly towards the students who have shown to be committed and competent, and already I feel the class has formed into the classic kitchen brigade helping each other out in order to put out great food and gain good results.  Learning learning learning… I feel like my brain is going to be saturated in no time.

It has been pretty challenging working 50 hours a week, and then Monday, Weds, Friday nights spending 5 more hours on my feet in the kitchen, but man it has been exciting.  It is that kind of satisfying exhaustion that I have mentioned on here before.  Feeling tired for a good reason feels so validating.  It feels so great knowing that the effort you put in is returned to you.  Although sometimes I feel like Shannon is going to forget what I look like.

I am now convinced that this is a very worthwhile endeavor, worth the price, the time, and effort.  I will absolutely be able to call on these skills to succeed in the culinary industry.  On that note, it is going to have to wait.  As it turns out the scholarship didn’t work out.  Instead the financial offices attempted to rig together a systems of loans to make the money available for me to attend, but in the process created such high monthly payments that I will be unable to afford going.  So.  I have had to withdraw (hopefully temporarily) from school.

The plan is to work, work, work… save save save.  Hopefully over the next year I can put away enough money to make the payments I need to attend school.  It is hard to get a little taste like this, like a teaser trailer, but I think it will keep me fueled and pumped up to achieve that ultimate goal.

I don’t know what this may entail or where to start, but I am determined to continue my culinary education outside of the classroom.  I hope to find a chef or organization to mentor me so that I can gain more and more experience.  It may come down to me simply going through the text books they gave me page by page until I learn every single term and technique in it.

Anyways, Shannon is going to start at FCI soon!!!!  We ultimately are both going to be the ultimate knife wielding duo!  Shannon starts there in a few weeks, and I after getting to know the school I am so excited for her to dive in!  She is going to rule the pastry scene!  I am going to have breads, cakes, chocolates, candies, and everything wonderful that ever grace an oven come pouring into my home… world get ready for Tristan the 6’6″ 650 lbs behemoth.  I will let you know how her adventure goes when it kicks off, and how my belt line is fairing.  I am a little sad not to be there with her, but with some time and maybe an extra job, we’ll get there.

So that’s what has been on our plate out here for the last 2 months.  It has been quite the roller coaster.  Hopefully we can sort everything out over the next year…

My sister is here owning New York.  She has apparently decided to rule the city and secured a job at Pure Food and Wine, a really cool raw food restaurant that attracts all of the biggest names in the city.  She has seriously just showed up here, landed and her feet, and just hit the ground running.  It has been a blast having her here.

Upwards and onwards from here.

Uber Post…

I have been so distracted by everything that has been going on out here that by the time I get home every night I am too exhausted to even think about writing a blog post!  So here is a complete blast of information about what has been occurring around the world of the Wandering Willey!

Work is going great!  I am truly assuming a positive role as the manager of the joint.  We are evolving and creating new avenues towards success (including new locations!).  I am in love with the employees

Shannon visiting me at work. A common occurence.

of the place on both the crif side and the bar side.  Everyone seems to be completely involved and passionate about what they do, and not to mention extremely nice.  They have been very welcoming and made my life extremely easy as I dive in head first.  So far so good at Crif Dogs.

Shannon’s job seems to be going amazingly!  As it turns out she is phenomenal at being a cocktail server.  I know we never doubted her, but she really has taken everything on head first and proven to her new employers that there is no one better to be had.  She is ripping up the ranks, and I am continually astonished by her new found cocktail knowledge.  She is ruling the Manhattan cocktail scene.  Tanner, Dan, and I have already created a wonderful routine of planting ourselves at her bar… woe is me, life is hard when you have the two most distinguished and exclusive cocktail bars at your disposal at any time!

We have a DAN!  Shannon and I recently went out and got ourselves a Dan to live with.  After all of his recent travels Dan DeMartini has finally landed himself in open arms at 198 Ave A.

A taste of the new wine selection.

Bringing with him some rare delicacies from Italy and France, and an armful of stunning wines we have had no excuse to not celebrate his arrival.  The vintages we have been sipping at home lately have been not only great wines, but once in a lifetime wines.  Dan we love you.  We are so extremely happy that we have you to share new adventures with.

I had a particularly rough day at work the other day when I was working the counter at Crif.  It just so happened to be the New York Dance Parade, which turns out to be a procession of any and every kind of dancing that winds its way through the city and ends right in front of our restaurant!  In other words I had approximately 8 Trillion dancers filter in and out of the place for hot dogs all day long!  It was so extremely bust that we ultimately would run out of essentially everything at one point or another during the day.  On the other hand we did get to watch break dancers, stilt dancers, belly dancers, hip hop dancers, and many many more waltz their way through the city streets all day long.  One thing I am beginning to appreciate about the city is that there is ALWAYS something going on around where I am.  There is never any shortage of wonderment happening at any given time.

Shannon, Dan, and I have been focusing on eating well and in a somewhat un-traditional fashion lately.  We have solely been eating in small tapas style portions.  We come home every night and pop open a bottle of wine, and then lay out a spread of beautiful tastes which we pick at all night.  Dan actually was able to taste us on some amazing treats most recently: black truffles, white truffle creme, and a spreadable salami which was to die for.  I have included some photos of our typical spreads.  They are truly very simple, and they seem to be more satisfying than most meals I have eaten. 

Shan and Dan... Preparing for feasting.

There are a lot of new developments happening out here, and as soon as I am up to date with everything (hopefully tomorrow) I will make sure to let all of you fabulous people know exactly what is happening on this small little island we have decided to call home.  I hope everyone is doing very well out there.  I so very much miss New Mexico right now.  I miss the open air and all of the lovely people there.  I am sorry I can’t be with you for this extremely important weekend coming up!  Love you all!

Shrimp Night, Crustacean Cuisine.

So tonight we made a list of dishes we wanted to cook at home that we haven’t ever attempted.  We have been relying on so many of the same dishes week after week, and it is time to branch out.  I have been having a craving for shrimp lately, and so tonight… we made shrimp.  We first had a few 1/2 pints at the bar with our friends Dan and Mel while crafting a carefully planned grocery list.  From there we headed to whole foods to pick up supplies for tonights dinner, and then quickly returned home with our fresh shrimp.  We had picked out a variety of methods to prepare our shrimp but rested on beginning with a simple shrimp cocktail, followed by some Cajun rubbed sautéed shrimp, and a two whole steamed artichokes.  (Of course beer to accompany the process/meal) We sat down and to this and dove in: great success!  We are going to attempt as many new meals as possible over the next few weeks, so if you have any good suggestions of some of your favorite home cooked meals let us know!  Here is what we have on the agenda already: Risotto, Flounder,Ratatouille, Enchiladas… etc.  Hit us with your ideas!

Outside of the kitchen nothing truly exciting has gone down here.  We are just counting down the days until Dan and my sister get out here!  I hope everyone out there is doing well!  Here are some pictures of the meal, inspired by Daniel B DeMartini culinary photography.

The Shrimp Cocktail, and Shannon "Crustacean Crusher" Tebay

Cookin Some 'Chokes...

El Chefe.

Shrimp!

Dinner! Kind of a weird dinner, but delicious!

This is the view out of our living room window...