Papi Tino’s Cooking Competition

Some behind the scenes shots from the competition Wednesday night.
The competition was for new chefs. Chip Singer and I were pitted against each other in a “battle Royale” as Alton Brown would say. In this case, we weren’t in Kitchen Stadium on Iron Chef, but we were in Papi Tino’s snug cooking space on East Sixth Street here in Austin.

Below: The night’s menu.

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We had about 4.5 hours to prepare 50 portions of each dish. I think it went pretty smoothly, thanks to Chef Lalo’s outstanding guidance and team. He provided help all along the way, especially with practical issues like keeping food warm during service. He made an emergency run to the store when my lentils ended up overcooked.

Chip and I both did meat-free selections for the guests, who had paid $35 a head for the three-course-plus-drinks evening, which was sponsored by Wahaka Mezcal and Vess Consulting, a local events organizer/marketing company.

Below: Chip plating like a champ.

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Below: My original plating layout.

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Below: Chef Lalo’s plating (the one we used).

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Below: Chef Lalo, me, Chef Marko from The Natural Epicurean/Balcones Springs Resort, and Chip Singer.

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I was lucky to have won by a slight margin. Now I’m going up against students from other cooking schools in Austin on September 26. Come out and show your support! I’ll be developing a new dish for that night.

Here’s an Austin Chronicle article about the evening – http://www.austinchronicle.com/blogs/food/2012-09-07/culinary-school-students-compete-at-papi-tinos/

Mr. Natural

After several months of blogging I can’t believe I never got around to posting about Mr. Natural!

Mr. Natural is a vegetarian restaurant less than a mile from The Natural Epicurean and a favorite stop for students. I’ve loved their healthy spin on Mexican, Latin, and more since I moved to Austin five years ago. They have great smoothies, baked goods (including gluten free and vegan) and other stuff, too. The East location even has yoga and meditation classes.

Below: One of two Mr. Natural locations in Austin. Notice the little “I (heart)” peeking out from behind the store. How nice!

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Healthy Cooking Class

I conducted a cooking class for some friends last week – my first class ever. I was very excited and had a great time. We cooked a quinoa salad and Thai spring rolls with a peanut sauce and I showed them some steel cut oats, as well. I also brought some raw almond-flax muffins with a lemon-blackberry icing.

This is something I would never have done had I not started culinary school, so it was kind of a milestone in my career journey. I really had a lot of fun and felt fairly comfortable. I wish I could have had my ingredients a bit more prepared, but otherwise it went very well and everyone seemed to learn and enjoy the presentation.

Below: Making spring rolls with lots of greens, herbs, and vegetables. Here I am dipping a rice paper wrapper in hot water to soften it for the rolling process.

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East Side King Beet Fries

Just for kicks, I replicated the beet fries at East Side King* at the Liberty Bar. Hot, sweet, blood red and delicious, served with a side of Kewpie mayo (the most popular mayo in Japan, according to wikipedia). I didn’t have Kewpie, although it’s sold at Central Market, so I used veganaise and plated it on this miniature dish. I need some new blog photo-worthy plates!

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* East Side King is a food truck owned by Paul Qui, head chef at Uchiko and winner of Top Chef Texas 2012.

Cooking at Casa

I had a day off Friday from class, so I volunteered in the morning at Casa de Luz, Austin’s premiere (and possibly only) macrobiotic restaurant. Casa de Luz was how I heard about The Natural Epicurean culinary school, so in a large sense, it was very instrumental in my life! The food was so delicious and nourishing, and the space was so tranquil and enriching, that I had to know how I could learn those skills.

Volunteering at Casa means chopping veggies for three hours and at the end getting a free lunch (or dinner, if you volunteer in the afternoon). I figured it would be a good chance to practice higher volume chopping. I got what I bargained for there! And the meal was fabulous as usual.

Below: A pallet of fresh vegetables delivered to Casa that I noticed as I entered the restaurant.

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Below: Cauliflower that I chopped. I’m not sure where this ended up.

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The meal below is a great example of balance on a plate. To feel truly satisfied after a meal, one needs a balance of tastes and mouthfeel plus nutrients. Popcorn as a meal doesn’t work – it’s a simple flavor (buttery, salty) and one texture (crunchy/starchy) over and over again. Plus, it’s very light on nutritive elements. As a meal, it doesn’t work. Believe me, in desperation, I have tried.

This meal, however has warm and cool, crunchy and smooth, acid and neutral. It even has the slight sweetness of root vegetables and the saltiness to contrast against. In macrobiotics, overly sweet food is generally not suggested, but every plate has some element of sweetness to maintain balance. Japanese sweet potatoes are a great example of this that I’ve seen used at Casa de Luz. As for nutrients, this plate is loaded with carbs, protein, fiber, and an adequate amount of fat. If I had a choice between this plate and almost anything else, I would choose this. I might need a second helping, though.

Below: What a meal, and I helped make it! Blanched greens with a nut/seed sauce on top (just made a similar sauce in class called sun cheese, which is also used at Casa), short-grain brown rice, lentils with cilantro (amazing), pickled radish that I chopped, and steamed veggies.

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Below: I love the natural lighting at Casa de Luz. Maybe that’s where they got the name from!

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Week 4 of 22 Begins

Okay, I’m not exactly sure how many total weeks I have, but 22 is pretty close. And time keeps ticking away!

Career Reflection Moment

A lot of folks in the program are very interested not only in cooking, but in helping others. So, the career of personal chef is a popular choice. It certainly has appeal for me, too. The idea of helping someone think through food issues on their way to feeling better is an amazing thing to be able to do each day. I’d much prefer that to selling insurance or writing clever ads or doing soil measurements. I’d also prefer it to hiring, firing, compensating, and training people, which is what I was doing in my last career. Not bad work, but the sense of a higher mission was really hard to grasp most days.

Beans

Beans are terrific little powerhouses of carbs, proteins, and fats. Add fiber and lots of nutrients, and it all makes beans are incredible useful things to incorporate into your daily diet if you can. And if you can take dried, bulk beans and turn them into creamy masterpieces, then you’re saving money, having fun, and putting good energy into your food, as well.

Below: Lotsa beans to choose from in this life.

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Below: Not a lot of action in this week’s blog post, but here are the delicious results of Monday’s cooking. Tomorrow, we turn this into hummus (chickpeas) and black bean patties.

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Career Change: How Did I Get Here?

Today is February 16th, 2012, and tomorow I will begin a natural/vegetarian/healing foods culinary program at The Natural Epicurean Academy of Culinary Arts, here in Austin, TX. I find myself on the doorstep of leaving my 10-year career in human resources, reflecting on how I arrived at this amazing turning point in my life…

Early Signs

As a child, I loved to watch cooking shows on public TV. The sounds, the physicality, and the vitality were very attractive. Chefs were always very excited about their work and the pleasure it could bring them and their guests.

My mom got me my first cookbook when I was fairly young. It had a plastic set of measuring spoons which I still use today. I had some cooking successes, and many failures.

Below: These spoons have been used in my kitchens for the past 20 years or so.

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Open House, Open Heart, Open Mind

I went to The Natural Epicurean for an open house event on January 7th. This was my second such event as an incoming student (I blogged about the last open house). Even though I already know what I’m getting into, I’m the type of person who learns from being present, from interacting, and from doing. So any chance I get to visit the school and meet new people, the better. It’s all part of opening my mind to this new experience and planning to get the most from it.

Waste Not, Want Not

The open house started with a brief talk by two of the program’s students on the topic of preserving food that would otherwise have been wasted.

Below: A recent Natural Epicurean graduate talks about the food preservation process. She’s backed by (L to R) David McIntyre and Maya Farnsworth, the Managing Directors of the Austin and Portland locations, and Ken Rubin, the new Vice President of the school.

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As it turns out, there is a significant amount of food waste in our food supply Farms waste food by not harvesting all of it or not selling produce that is not ripe enough or that isn’t visually appealing enough. The same happens in grocery stores — a significant amount of food is thrown out because it doesn’t sell or the grocer decides that it isn’t sellable. Restaurants discard food that isn’t eaten and restaurant patrons toss out uneaten “doggie bags.” And finally, as consumers we waste food when we overbuy food that spoils before we can eat it all.

The students shared their experience working with Green Gate Farms in preserving what’s called the “gleaning,” or the excess or undesirable food from harvest. It sounded like a great way to make the produce useful instead of throwing it out.

Insight into Career Change

Being open to the possibilities of a new career was my big takeaway from this open house. I met Ken Rubin, the new Vice President of the school, who is a long-time culinary educator and is helping to expand the school into a national operation. He talked to me about learning by trying new things, and going after the information that I want. He also said you can never know where your life will end up in the future – you just have to stay true to yourself and keep seeking.

Below: Jeanine Jacobs, an admissions rep for the school, talks about the program courses and requirements.

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Next, I spoke to Craig Vanis, the head chef at Veggytopia, an Austin vegan meal prep service. He talked about his career path and the opportunities that exist for natural foods chefs who merely seek them out. He talked about pursuing work opportunities that I’m passionate about, letting my intrinsic desire motivate me, and being pushy when I need to be.

The Universe Provides – If You Help It

It is clear, quitting my job and sitting passively during culinary school classes is not enough. I have to actively seek information from my instructors and seek out culinary experiences. And then it becomes a lifelong learning process.

It struck a chord with me that the universe will give me what I need, if I just ask and open my mind. It seems to me that a lot of success is knowing yourself and letting your natural passions show without shame. I’ve struggled a lot with showing my true self and going after what I want in all situations – breaking through that in a genuine way is going to be instrumental in my success.

Below: Me with Craig Vanis, head chef of Veggytopia, a new vegan food preparation service in Austin.

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Below: I bought a book from Christy Morgan, a school graduate.

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Richardson Farms Visit

After reading Mark Bittman’s New York Times column about junk food from September 25, I investigated the local chapter of the Slow Food movement – Austin Slow Food. I found out they were going to visit Richardson Farms near Rockdale, TX, the following weekend. $20 covered the tour and a portion of locally-raised meats, so I was in.

Richardson Farms is a 200 acre farm that raises cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, and ducks…for human consumption. I went to see where meat comes from. I wanted to look in the faces of the animals that many of us eat. I wanted to see where they lived and, yes, where they die.

If I choose to eat meat, I want it to be with this complete knowledge.

Granted, Richardson Farms raises it’s animals under conditions that I would consider more humane than your average industrial ag operation. Does that make a difference? An animal farm that is more humane is still a production facility of life destined to be killed for our food – MY food (I am what many call a “flexitarian”).

I don’t have any moral judgements or philosophical certitudes to pass on, but what I can show are the images I captured.

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At around 90 degrees or so, it was warm, but it was a lot better than 105, which has been the high temperature range most of the summer.

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Jim Richardson (khaki shorts and baseball cap), the man who runs the farm, speaking to the Slow Food Austin group. Mr. Richardson is a veterinarian who says he loves his new career. The man knows his stuff when it comes to raising animals in a healthful, ecologically thoughtful manner.

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Above – Turkeys for Thanksgiving. It’s hard to read the mind of a turkey, but I can tell you it sure looks like there isn’t much going on in those brains. They gawk and honk, mouths open, most of them with their heads turned in your direction. Like photocopies of a turkey, photoshopped onto the dirt landscape in front of you.

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Above – Chickens. I saw one chicken sitting in the corner, seemingly unable to stand (I saw it make an attempt). I wasn’t sure what was wrong, but it did seem either hurt or sick. One pig kept tilting its head to one side, which they said was due to an ear infection and which they treated the pig for with antibiotics (they said the pig would not be sold for this reason). We did discuss how some animals die on the farm prior to slaughter. It seems that just like people, animals get injured or sick and some don’t make it. Still, I felt a pang of guilt for my small contribution to the confinement and eventual slaughter of animals who sometimes suffer various disabilities or injuries with/without notice from those who could correct the problem (lest we forget, many humans in our world also suffer disability and injury without notice). Is it my fault these animals are hurt? Does their pent-up animal prison condition increase the odds of injury? Am I the cause of pain for the occasional bite of chicken I enjoy?

Many of the chickens were missing feathers in patches, often on their backsides. According to Mrs. Richardson, this is because they peck at each other. You put a mob of birds in fairly close quarters and things are going to happen. I didn’t see any injuries or bleeding sores, but these weren’t the robust birds, fully feathered and ready for a magazine cover photo shoot, that I had in my mind. Still, I’m not sure that was a realistic image in the first place, and overall they looked healthy to me.

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Above – A young turkey. I guess it’s fair to say that most of the birds had some part of them which was red and featherless where you’d expect feathers.

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Above – It’s tempting to anthropomorphize animals (imagine they are more human than they really are), such as this pig, which seems to be smiling. Still, the pigs had shade, and mud to roll in. On the other hand, it would someday have it’s life prematurely ended for human gastronomical enjoyment (certainly not for the nutritional benefits).

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Above – A shot from the “killing room.” Chickens’ heads go into the tubes and out the bottom. This is where their throats are cut. The silver box on the left is filled with scalding water to aid in feather removal. I considered not mentioning this part, but that’s part of the problem with today’s food culture in America – we don’t think about how the meal comes to our plate. I figure it’s better to know and decide on a particular food than to make a thoughtless decision. When we think of meat as easy to get, I think we’ll be more likely to mindlessly indulge in more of it than if we were fully away of the effort and grim realities that go into it’s delivery to our dinner table. Many understandably choose to not eat meat because they find these images repugnant and unnatural, and I understand completely.

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Above – This machine spins and removes the feathers of birds dipped inside (they’re dead by this point).

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Above – A pig wallow. Let me tell you, after a couple of hours in the dusty Central Texas heat, it looked inviting.

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Above – Sorghum leaves.

My convenient, middle class, and Western lifestyle has meant I have the luxury of thinking animal farming and slaughter is a bit brutish. It’s not necessarily so for all the world’s people, who may raise or hunt animals for necessary food without a twinge of moral confusion. For we Americanos not wanting to bloody our Banana Republic slacks, Richardson Farms falls somewhere on the sunshine-y side of the continuum of livestock operations which starts at bucolic, idyllic pastures where you’d almost imagine the animals are happy to be your meal and goes to behemoth, frightening flesh mills. The Richardsons seem to be genuine people who care about the animals, the ecosystem, and their customers.

But do the animals notice the difference? Do our bodies notice the difference when we consume animals from “nicer” farms as opposed to grimier operations? Do our spirits notice a difference? What about the spirits of the people slaughtering animals repeatedly? (I once read that violent crime is higher in areas with more slaughterhouses.)

Does anyone deserve judgment for enjoying a meal of their choosing? Aren’t they doing just what they’ve learned? Is the morality of animal consumption relative – or absolute?

My research into correct diets leads me to believe that minimizing our consumption of animals is in our best interest. Beyond that, it’s up to each person to decide if, and how much, they should consume them. In any case, it behooves us to know from where our food comes and make choices which align with our personal values.

What do YOU think?