Anna Lena

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When Chef Michael Robbins auditioned for Top Chef Canada, he stressed in his audition video that he was an “extremely competitive person”, like a promise of what might come. All the more painful an irony that he ended up cut first, before even preparing a complete dish. That was a loss for the judges and show. I was convinced of that at the time, having eaten at the Oakwood Canadian Bistro, where Robbins had a relaxed neighborhood room that still produced plates with high-volume flavours and high-wire techniques.

I’m even more convinced now, having eaten at Robbins new place in Kits AnnaLena (named for his two grandmothers). There’s a playful and welcoming quality to this room too: rec-room chic bar, Lego light fixtures, Darth Vader alarm clock, casual but attentive service. Robbins himself has described his food as Modern Comfort Food. But cast your eyes upwards and note a crucial detail: high on a shelf, as if to say that direct reference to them is no longer required, a copy of the NOMA cookbook and all five volumes of the 2500 word mega-gastrotech-tome Modernist Cuisine.

That’s your cue that dinner will likely be more modern than comfort. And while I am almost invariably more comfort than modern myself, Robbins has nailed it at AnnaLena. Every plate pushed the boundaries, and in almost invariably the right way.

We started with a table of small plates. The grilled octopus is first sous vided, giving each bite a creamy tenderness with a background note of char. Finished with fingerling potato, sauce gribiche, dill fronds and lobster mayonnaise, it’s an umami wow. The buttermilk fried chicken has a similar complexity, with the twice-fried chicken thighs perfectly cooked, combining crunch with a sharp sweetness from the horseradish maple aioli, and the fantastic finish from salt and vinegar chicken skins. Every time I looked up, it seemed that three more of these were on the pass and whisked away. I sense a neighborhood standard being born.

Other small plates evoked that same approachable inventiveness. Cured tuna is combined with crisp sweetbreads, papaya salad with puffed wild rice, all this nestled down in a lime coconut broth with cilantro oil. Combine with wild garlic torn sourdough for dipping and there’s a taste of what modern comfort means.


None of these plates overly genuflect to their localness, an interesting choice on Robbins part at this moment in culinary history. But there was a spot prawn special. And Robbins had them whole peeled, tossed with pickled jalepenos, black garlic, toasted sesame seeds and nasturtium leaves. It’s a neat trick to pull off the overlay of saline ocean flavors with earthy and peppery notes. Great dish.


The larger plates extended these themes. Wagyu short rib is sous-vided and seared, served with peppercorn jus over sun choke puree, with peas, sun choke chips, radish and pea shoots, and tiny potatoes carved into tinier mushroom shapes, proving someone is still rocking the old school techniques back there. And if there were a climax to the meal, I’d name the pork belly. A potential gastro-cliché, here it is gets the Robbins treatment and is artful, surprising and complexly delicious from beginning to end. The grilled pork belly is marinated for 24 hours in tamari and served with roasted beets and pickled mustard seeds. And in a nod – unwitting or otherwise – to the similarly personal and innovative spirit of Dave Gunawan’s Farmers Apprentice, Robbins here elects to bind the elements of the dish with an oat porridge. What sounds horrifying is warmly comforting indeed.


Don’t skip desserts, because this team can do sweet with the same sensibility as the plates described above. Black pepper thyme ice cream is superb with the texture of nut crumble and meringue, and a spike of acid from the rhubarb compote and rhubarb gel. The salted caramel ice cream will be too salty for some – it was for me, not for my son who licked the plate – but combined with the chocolate custard, the sponge toffee and the lemon/bitter chocolate dust, you get again that surprising roundness in every bite for which this kitchen will soon be well known.

In another cooking show called My Kitchen Rules, the Australian judges like to comment on whether the dishes served really rose to the standards of a “competition dish”. For a guy who didn’t get his due on Top Chef, Robbins is knocking out exactly that at AnnaLena. Each dish vying for the top of the list.



Posted: Sunday, Sep. 18, 2016 11:52am


Continuing with my repost of restaurant reviews written for my friends at Vancouver Magazine... I confess that I'm torn about posting the bad ones. There have been a few. But I don't know many food writers who enjoy speaking poorly of a place. And if you have to - because a place is pretentious or over-rated or just poor quality - then you do it once, and don't necessarily want to repeat yourself.

As luck would have it, most of the new places I've tried in Vancouver in the past couple of years have been great. So I'm nowhere near running out of positives.

So I'll stick with that, for the time being. Here's my thoughts on the "modern Peruvian" restaurant Chicha, on Broadway over near Main. Excellent little place, well worth trying if you are in town.


The term “white table cloth” as short hand for “fine dining” doesn’t mean much anymore. In keeping with roughly everything else going on in Western society, there’s no longer any agreement on the ceremony of the great meal. At the VanMag restaurant awards last month (2014), none of the restaurants shortlisted in the “Best New” category use table clothes at all. And one of them specializes in currywurst which is to German cuisine roughly what the Timbit is to ours: loved but not lofty.

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Chicha on Broadway is the kind of eatery that happily flourishes in this liberalized dining space. Billed as “modern Peruvian tapas”, the Broadway & Main 40-seater is a category pioneer, and the décor gives few clues as to the dining experience in store. The room has a Lima backstreet feel with its Peruvian textiles, turquoise and black walls, cutlery wrapped in paper napkins and green tinted bottles of Pisco stacked behind the bar. But the Bin 942 legacy of chefs Shelome Bouvette and Allison Flook suggest a more polished culinary sensibility which is brilliantly manifest on the table.

These are approachable street-level dishes, make no mistake. Cassava fries with spicy Huancaina sauce (thickened with saltines traditionally, with bread here). Classic ceviche with lime, cilantro and corn. Antichuco skewers, smoky from the grill. Causa potatoes and empanadas in flakey crust with savory chicken filling. And service is impressively fast. We ordered a table of food on a night when the restaurant was slammed. Large extended South American families to our left and right. The housewives of Cambie Corridor crowded in around the bar drinking Margarita Patadas infused with jalepeno and Chilcanos made with ginger. Our food started arriving and didn’t seem to stop, a happy parade of bright flavours and fresh, colourful presentations.


And here’s where the meal steps above its street-level inspirations. Those causa? It’s a cold mashed potato dish served with canned tuna in its most common form. At Chicha the potatoes are whipped to an airy texture, infused with herbs or beetroot or Aji Amarillo, topped with crab or black sesame crusted fresh tuna. Papas rellenas come perfectly crusted, paradoxically light for the carbohydrate payload, stuffed with fragrantly seasoned ground beef. And then the sliders. You could go to Chicha just for the Pan Con Chicharron and emerge with a full stomach and a solid idea what this place is all about. Not strictly Peruvian but deriving from the country’s long Asian associations, a sweet mouthful of glazed pork belly on a soft bun, red onion, a spray of radish sprouts: explosive culinary simplicity. That is one hell of a bite.

In the end, Chicha succeeds in marrying the aesthetics of the high and the low and in a room that buzzes with energy and enthusiasm. Here’s a menu of nailed flavors and innovations that rarely draw attention to themselves. Delicious and unpretentious, more or less my highest praise. Is the flavor profile of this food narrow? You could probably winnow these plates out to three main flavor groups: those deriving from red chili, those from Aji Amarillo, and those from a green herb described to me as the “Peruvian basil” which in fact bears resemblance to mint. But that would be to miss the flexibility of the trio as its used with different proteins and in different preparations. Those are the base notes of Peruvian flavor there. The melody and harmonizing is all Bouvette and Flook. And what a song they make together.

The name chichi may derive from the cocktail chichi morado, made with  purple corn, spices, pineapple, and citrus. I prefer the alternate explanation offered by the chefs themselves: “feminine and fun”. And who needs a white table for that?

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Posted: Monday, May. 25, 2015 8:27am

The Farmer's Apprentice

I started as Food Critic over at VanMag last year. I'll be posting my reviews here periodically after they're published.

Chef David Gunawan's restaurant Farmer's Apprentice was my first assignment on the job. He captures perfectly the inversion of culinary values in the foodie west over the course of the past 30 years or so.

In high end rooms, it used to be an almost unswerving devotion to three ideas:

1. Adherence to continental and North European culinary tropes.
2. A muted elegance of flavours.
3. The exotic foreign ingredient.

In contemporary foodie rooms, we now see an almost perfectly inverted set of values, derived I'd argue from the originals:

1. Innovation in technique and aesthetic.
2. Bold, bright, surprising flavours and combinations.
3. The exotic local ingredient, foraging, 100 mile etc.

So if you want to eat the contemporary culinary moment, so to speak, and you also happen to be in Vancouver, you won't got wrong at The Farmer's Apprentice, even if you will almost certainly be perplexed by some of what you're served.


When Chef David Gunawan spoke at Pecha Kucha last year, just a couple of months after opening The Farmer's Apprentice with partner Dara Young, he made a comment that got nervous laughs. He'd been talking about his desire to eliminate the ego in cuisine, to do away with pretension and fussiness -- the crumb removal and expensive cutlery -- and get at something more surprising. And he said: "We don't want you to like everything about us. I find it boring to love all dishes. I'd rather have you like one, hate another, and find two okay, then have a dessert that's amazing!"

Maybe chefs aren't supposed to say that, but Gunawan did and good for him because The Farmer's Apprentice is packed. Forty seats, including every available inch at the bar, and I was there twice and could hardly see the floor. An interesting room: equal parts hole-in-the-wall comfort station and mad scientist's lair. There are simple wood tables, jars of pickles on shelves, a warmly lit sidebar with a turntable and a stack of vinyl. But then there's the kitchen, which is so open that you feel like you're eating in it. It pulses with energy as Gunawan and his cooks and dishwashers square-dance around the Rational oven and Kamado grill and a single prep table stacked with what would appear to be 800 plastic tubs of mise en place.

Keep reading here.

Posted: Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015 11:14am

1 Ordinary Cook, 35 Impossible Recipes: Outtakes from a week in the culinary trenches

My article about cooking incredibly difficult food from the most insane cookbooks of the year is running over at Cooking Light.

1 Ordinary Cook, 35 Impossible Recipes ("Can a home cook learn anything from the supercompmlicated cookbooks of the world's most celebrated chefs? We asked Timothy Taylor to dive into the deep end and throw some dinner parties for friends.") Marina Dodis shot the pictures for the magazine. Here are some outtakes I shot myself. Random preparations and plates.

11 Madison Park Radicchio and Mango Salad with Basil Gel

Blanched basil leaves

Juiced basil
Set up with agar-agar
Assembly, note re-pureed basil to make gel
A pretty plate. Basil gel necessary? YMMV

NOMA Dinner with Heston Blumenthal dessert, by far the most massive undertaking I've ever attemped in any kitchen, anywhere.

Obsessive planning paid off, in the end. Couldn't have done it by memory.

Beets and blood oranges for the jellieParsley OilApple gel for discsShallots marinating in blueberry juice24 hour oxtail reductionImprovised "dirt" for the NOMA vegetable fieldShocking veggiesPlating the app: Blueberries and OnionsSpectacular dish. Amazing flavours.Plating the vegetable field: mashed potatoes, shocked veggies, top with dirt and carrot greens.Et voila. Oh man. Goo-ood.A hit.Apple discs for the mainApple *gel* discsOxtail, oxtail reduction with verbana leaves, apple garnishOxtail with reduction, apple, sunchokes and crisp verbana leavesBlumenthalian Jelly.



Posted: Monday, Feb. 18, 2013 12:12pm

Coffee and Coral Snakes: Batesian Mimicry at Work and Play

From Vancouver Magazine Fall Issue 2012


Note: I was inspired by the always-fascinating work of Eric Falkenstein (at Falkenblog) in my application of Batesian Mimicry to consumer behaviour.


It will have escaped nobody’s notice that Vancouver is a top-ranked city in at least three categories. We’re always high on those “liveable city” lists. We have the most expensive real estate on the continent. And, of course, we’re also among the urban zones most addicted to the roasted seeds of an epigynous berry found on Asian and African shrubs known as coffea Arabica.

Yeah, we love our joe in this town. We’re boffo for coffee. Two Starbucks per intersection never struck us as ridiculous. A friend from Montreal, visiting for the first time in the early 90’s, described his first experience of Robson and Thurlow. “There were a bunch of bikers at this one Starbucks when I entered. I saw them finish their coffees, get on their motorcycles, and then CROSS THE STREET and go into the other one.”
That’s Vancouver in a nutshell or, in this case, a roasted endosperm.
Of course, most residents also realize that our relationship with the brown bean hasn’t been static. We weren’t born this way. Don’t anybody try to claim that Jack Khatsahlano greeted our city forefathers with high-altitude, shade-grown juice served out of a Belgian gold plated vacuum coffee siphon. My point being that fine coffee isn’t in our blood. It’s is a choice we’ve made, socially and economically. And as such, it offers a portrait of, if not who we are, then at least who we think we are.
I found myself considering all this over the past month as I sampled my way through a list of cafes and fine bean roasters in Vancouver recommended to me by my most ardent coffee-loving friends. But I found it brought into absolutely crystal focus while sitting in boardroom of the Doi Chaang Coffee Company on West Hastings Street downtown. John Darch, the company’s founder and 50% owner (the other 50% is owned, notably, by the Akhi hill tribe in Thailand who farm the beans) had just served me up a cup of their single-estate espresso, which (not to give it away, but…) would prove to be best cup of coffee I drank during this whole experiment, and our conversation had turned to civet coffee.
You may have heard about this stuff already. The civet, a svelte mammal whose musky body scent is used in perfumery, also happens to be a bit of a coffee fiend. Only, they eat the fruit. The cherry, as it’s known. What emerges from the other end of the civet then, in due course, is the seed of this fruit – the coffee “bean” – neatly de-fruited by that point and (connoisseurs maintain) enhanced in flavor as only possible by exposure to the enzymes in a civet’s digestive tract. It’s coffee scat, essentially. But what Darch wanted me to understand that Doi Chaang’s particular brand of civet coffee scat was special. Sold at $55 for 50 grams, which works out to $1,100 a kilogram, and carried by both Harrod’s and Dean & DeLucca, Doi Chaang’s civet coffee isn’t made using farmed civets who are inhumanely force-fed coffee cherries and whose poop is then combed for seeds. It’s made by wild Thai civets who rove the coffee plantation nocturnally and voluntarily, eating in the manner and pace of their choosing.
“Garbage in, garbage out,” Darch says of other brands. “Our civets are choosing their own cherries. And of course that means they choose only the best!”
It’s a great story. (I’ve been telling it ever since.) And perhaps that is the key point here. Coffee these days is very much about having a great (and ideally heartwarming) story. Google up any of the major players in Canadian independent beans these days, in fact - Ethical Bean, Kicking Horse, Salt Spring Coffee, Doi Chaang – and you’ll find such consistency in the stories it’s hard to believe they weren’t centrally coordinated. No, nobody else boasts of having wild Thai civets custom processing beans for them. And I’m not talking about the product being “organic” or “fair trade”, either, which should be considered the bare minimum entry requirements in this field.
I’m talking instead about other initiatives intended to humanize these companies to the point that they don’t sound like corporations at all and more like non-profits. These are companies touting projects to build schools in Central America (Ethical Bean), or to recycle coffee grounds and bags (Salt Spring), or to funnel financial support to the Canadian Nature Conservancy and local food banks (Kicking Horse). Doi Chaang, whose founder gave half the company to the Thai tribe where he sources his beans is perhaps only pushing farther down the same virtuous avenue. Did he have to? Not legally. But to make a mark in coffee, it was a very savvy move.
“Of course people won’t buy crappy coffee,” he says. “But nobody has a story like ours.”
And as if to underscore that point, he describes how sales of Doi Chaang’s coffee “struggled” for the first two years. Not because of quality. Critic Ken Davis, whose ratings in Coffee Review have become the Parker Points™ for the beverage, tells me that Doi Chaang coffee is in the top 10% of coffees he has “cupped”, rating around 89-91, where your typical cup of Starbucks is 83-84, and Folgers instant crystals comes in around 60. No, the struggling was story-related, in the sense that not enough people knew about what Doi Chaang was doing. Sales only exploded following the airing of a Global TV documentary on the company’s “Beyond Fair Trade” partnership with Akhi peoples. In one year sales tripled and haven’t looked back.
Which is a curious market feature, when you think about it. We don’t refuse to use Hootsuite unless Ryan Holmes builds a school in Honduras. We don’t boycott Burrowing Owl if they neglect to build their brand around high profile environmental donations. Why then do coffee consumers demand that people in the coffee space go beyond making good juice – and here I mean both wholesalers and retail cafes – and also somehow commit to making the world a happier and more egalitarian place? What the hell is in this stuff other than caffeine, some kind of ethical, high-minded pixie-dust?
Doubtful. I think the answer is, in fact, a lot more scientific and less flattering to us individually. It’s Batesian Mimicry at work, folks. Species copy each other, mimicking high value features, like stripes and spots that signal venom and discourage predators. Perhaps the most famous example is the entirely harmless Scarlet King Snake who copies (not perfectly, but pretty well) the markings of the very-poisonous Eastern Coral Snake, securing for itself a protection that it didn’t actually earn.
Consumers do the same thing, in waves, mimicking high value ideas to secure the returns that they have observed other consumers earlier receive. So the first generation of Starbucks users were able to signal to the world a powerful knowledge, positioning them advantageously relative to coffee drinkers who’d come before. Starbucks consumption indicated that you didn’t drink the watery, flavorless, institutional coffee that had prevailed prior in North America. You’d travelled to Europe. You knew the truth about craft and quality and the way coffee really should be done.
As status accrued to those early adopters, a billion mimics followed, displaying the logo in obedience to the evolutionary code written within: signal what the successful species signals. The cups proliferated. Competitors to Starbucks responded by darkening their own roasts. Starbucks responded by growing, growing, growing. They became a mega-corporation. They started selling breakfast sandwiches and their “cafes” started smelling like cheese. The line-ups grew. And at some fateful tipping point, the exclusivity of the brand collapsed.
Which is exactly what happens to Coral Snake populations when too many Scarlet Kings mimic their markings and dilute the results.
Starbucks may still be profitable. (John Darch observes: “Starbucks changed people from being willing to spend 10 cents on coffee to being willing to spend $2 or $3.”) But they’ll never regain what was lost: exclusivity, the trust of consumers that a status message could be reliably communicated by the simple act of holding one of their cups. That business has now passed on to another wave of merchants and consumers who now position themselves advantageously relative to the Starbucks drinkers who’d come before, signalling that they know the truth about craft and quality and the way coffee really should be done. Only in this iteration of the story, importantly distinguished from the Starbucks version that preceded: humanized, small-scale, socially conscious, non-corporate.
And still expensive. $3 plus still prevails for an Americano, of which Lloyd Bernhardt of Ethical Bean assures me only $.25 or so is actually the cost of coffee. But for that $2.75, we’re getting back the story that we originally craved, the one that distinguishes people on both sides of the Clover.
Has Batesian Mimicry followed? Go read the websites of the major coffee wholesalers and most popular cafés decide for yourself. They all look like Coral Snakes and Scarlet Kings to me. Will there be another bursting of bubbles? A migration of opinion, perhaps very suddenly, away from that which grants status to geeky mustachioed guys in undershirts hunched over pour-over gear and the earnest customers who watch their every move?
Count on it.
In the meantime, sample yourself from what is on offer, and ask yourself how much of the brand promise is in the story told versus the coffee delivered. Highly subjective, of course. But I can start the ball rolling with my own informal survey. I made a short list of cafes to try based on beans served and recommendations from friends. I asked for small Americano in each case. (Except for the civet coffee, which I made myself at home.) Here are the results. I list them in the order sampled for you to dispute, dismiss, or to use in hand-crafting a coffee-story of your very own.
Elyssian Room on 5th Avenue: A jazzy place with geek-chic baristas and dressy clientele. Seen: red lizard wedge hi-heels. Overheard: “What a beautiful necklace!” The Americano: $3.25. Toffee notes, not burnt or oily, but also not particularly rich. Rating: medium good.
Milano on 8th opposite Jonathan Rogers Park: roast their own beans. Spacious, modern room with superb outlook across the park to downtown. Lovely staff. Seen: software dudes. Overheard: “We have to strategize.” The Americano: $2.65. Blech. Watery, barely coffee-flavoured. A dumbfounding let-down given the room and service and number of recommendations. Rating: bad.
Kafkas on Main off Broadway: Herkimer beans from Seattle. Serious-coffee vibe: siphons available, tasting flights. Eclectic furniture and clientele. Seen: curated art work on the walls. Overheard: somebody growling over a plucked guitar. The Americano: $3.25. Deep molasses and chocolate-y notes, vegetables too. Rating: interesting juice, would try again.
W2: Salt Spring Coffee. Seen: women doing dance gymnastics dangling on bungee cords in the atrium under the Stan Douglas. Overheard: Metric. The Americano: $3.00. Smooth but not heavy or oily, distinct light choco-caramel/tobacco notes. Rating: superior, will return.
Nestors, Woodwards. Ethical Bean Coffee. Drip only available. I tried two: Rocket Fuel and Classic. $3.36 for two cups. Sipped standing outside on Abbot Street with the cups balanced on a newspaper box. Seen: ladies cooing over a Labrador puppy. Overheard: garbage truck backing into an alley. The coffee: hmmm. In a phrase: truck-stop two ways. Rocket Fuel burnt and Classic more or less tasteless. Not, one suspects, how Ethical Bean would want their stuff featured. Rating: bad coffee, though kind of right for the time and place.
Ethical Bean Express in the Granville Skytrain station: giving EB a second chance, I went to their own outlet. Seen: people in a rush. Overheard: the bowels of the city. The Americano: $2.41. Dark to tarry flavor, very intense. Rating: medium.
Matchstick Coffee Roasters at Fraser and Kingsway: roast their own. Aging Brooklyn hipster vibe. Seen: bike hats, grizzly beards, antlers on the wall, subway tiles. Overheard: “Skype me this afternoon.” The Americano: Veering to the black tar end of things, but balanced and rich. Rating: good.
Kranky Coffee on East 4th off Main: Kicking Horse beans. Eclectic east side vibe. Seen: old books, blue French country style painted counters, bead curtains. Overheard: Beth Orton. The Americano: $2.85. Some acids and fruit, but also deep oily notes. Rating: medium good.
49th Parallel 4th Avenue: roast their own. Seen: counter guy in dirty sleeveless undershirt out of which sprouts copious body hair. Brill cream. Siphon on display, seemingly never used. Overheard: EDM. The Americano: $3.00. Disgusting. Oily, burnt, bitter. Rating: threw it out.
Doi Chaang Civet Coffee: made this myself at home according to meticulous instructions found online: bodum, medium grind, 85 degree water. The first cup was weak, without much of a flavor profile. The second, ground finer, steeped longer before the plunge, much stronger. Interesting depth of flavor with no bitterness or oily notes. Way over-priced at $15 a cup for home use, but interesting juice.
Doi Chaang Single Estate Espresso: made for me at Doi Chaang’s office by Tanya Jacoboni, the company’s VP Business Development, served without pretense in a mug I think my grandmother used to own. The Americano: rich, balanced, fruit notes, no oiliness or bitterness. Rating: superior coffee.
Posted: Thursday, Sep. 20, 2012 8:48am

The Adventures of Generation F

 From the November 2010 Issue of Cooking Light

A couple of hours after setting foot in Brooklyn for the first time, I find the heart of the action. It's 7 p.m. on a hot summer weeknight, and I'm hanging with a group of fashionable young people, all good-looking and under 30, who favor the uptown stylish look (pressed shirts, nice shoes) or that of the ubiquitous Brooklyn hipster (beard, plaid accents). They're socializing, having a laugh, and I'm hanging with them. We are not, though, in the latest hot restaurant and bar, nor are we listening to a painfully obscure band. No, we're standing in the commercial kitchen attached to a store called The Brooklyn Kitchen, canning pickles.

That's right: hipster picklers. Because whatever you may have read about being on the inside track of cool these days, for these New Yorkers, it's all about brining vegetables.
As the evening—which is basically a pickle seminar—unfolds, considerable ground is covered by affable expert Bob McClure, 32, co-owner of Detroit-based McClure's Pickles and a poster boy for a phenomenon sweeping North America: artisanal food production.
"Now for relishes," asks one pickle pilgrim, who looks like he might be a securities analyst when not brining, "do you use finished pickles or chop up the cucumbers fresh?"
Fresh, apparently. There is much head-nodding and brow-furrowing.
"Artisinal" is the big word in food these days. It attaches to a staggering range of producers, from cheesemakers to chocolate crafters, bakers, condiment producers, sausage curers, microdistillers, and quite a few more picklers than I would have thought the economy could support. The essence of the ethic—more than an idea, it's an ideal—is independent ownership, hand-crafted food, small-scale (often urban) production, fealty to real or imagined culinary heritage and, often, savvy packaging, canny marketing, social-media outreach and, sometimes, wacky experimentation with flavors (hot-chile-pepper ice cream from Ohio, for example, or jerk-flavored cheese from Seattle). Genuine handmade artisanal food production is a tiny part of the 60 billion dollar "specialty" food industry, but the artisanal movement thrills those who dream of beating back the industrialization of food. It is catnip to foodies, trend-sniffers, and those who survey and supply them: Martha Stewart and Williams-Sonoma both being well aboard the artisanal train by now, along with the Food Network and especially its new expansion effort, the Cooking Channel. At its heart is the conviction that a young country can both recover and invent the sort of real-food heritage that the Old World—whether Europe or Asia—built its cuisines upon. A tall order, but one the indie-food generation is excited to tackle.
Four years ago, Bob McClure was an actor in New York City, working temp jobs on the side. One jar of pickles made from his great-grandmother's recipe, brought to a dinner party, changed his story arc. McClure's Pickles now produces 800 to 900 jars a day out of a small Detroit facility run by Bob's doctoral-candidate brother Joe, and where both their mother and grocery-industry-veteran father are now employed. That's 800 to 900 quart jars, retailing for 8 to 12 dollars each, of what Brooklyn's Bedford Cheese Shop proprietor Charlotte Kamin describes as by far the most popular pickles they sell.
It's easy to taste why: The pickles are a crisp and tangy-fresh delight, and McClure's pickle-juice-infused Bloody Mary mix is bloody good (it won a Cooking Light first-annual artisanal Taste Test Award last month). Although the factory is where the family is—ravaged Detroit—McClure does new-product development in his Brooklyn "laboratory" and epitomizes the Big Apple small-food movement, selling his product locally in boutique food stores, larger stores such as Whole Foods, and at a pair of curated food-and-collectibles markets called Brooklyn Flea.
Four new picklers have popped up in Brooklyn alone in the past few years, along with chocolatiers, distillers, bakers, and meat-curers. "There are a lot of people out there trying to get in on this food scene," says Eric Demby, cofounder of Brooklyn Flea. Demby tells me he sorts through thousands of e-mail applications for spots in his two markets, only a fraction of which he can accommodate. The most common applicant is a small jewelrymaker. Second most common is someone making artisanal baked goods.
The bottom line, Demby says: "If you are young and have some business savvy, then you're starting a food business right about now."
I tasted artisanal foods and met their makers in two areas, New York and the Seattle-Vancouver corridor in the Pacific Northwest, which is my home (Portland's thriving food scene will be described in an upcoming issue.)
In New York it was mostly Brooklyn, a borough of 2.5 million people where immigrant foodmakers have long plied their trade—fresh mozzarella in the "pork stores," kielbasa in the Polski shops—until this new-generation scene really started heating up a few years ago.
In the west—where both the coffee and microbrew beer crazes originated, and where Alice Waters still presides as Queen of the Locavores—there is much ferment as well: There are 23 licensed craft distilleries in Washington State alone, and 20 more area applications are pending. There's been a microburst of salami makers out there, as in the east. Foraging, smoking, and small-scale urban gardening are booming. And then there are the indie choco-artisans—west, east, and everywhere in between—who have shaped an improbable alternative national cacao economy in less than five years. Every American city, small and large, has gotten at least a taste of the artisan movement.
Which is good news for anyone who loves good food. I like having new local cheese, preserves, and wine options from the region just around my own city—Vancouver—every year, and I like that every other month another chef seems to decide that he simply must make his own charcuterie. More Americans are awake to the pleasures of the local and the handcrafted, and seem willing, even in lousy times, to pay more—which is absolutely crucial to the artisanal economy, because none of this small-scale foodmaking comes cheap, or easy.
"It's the hardest work I've ever done," says 30-year-old Shamus Jones of Brooklyn Brine, who used to be a chef, not exactly a slacker's job. His superb asparagus with lavender, along with his carrots with chipotle and garlic, are flying off the shelves. He's working around the clock. He's had a relationship go south and troubles with a business partner. He shows me the burns across his forearms from handling the hot brine pots.
Yet he's absolutely committed. "I'm from here and I want this company to become a New York institution."
Handmade food is hard work. Brad Sinko, the head cheesemaker at Beecher's Handmade Cheese in Seattle (whose flagship cheddar won an artisanal award from Cooking Light last month), is up before dawn to stir vats of fresh milk by hand. The Mast brothers of Brooklyn, Rick and Michael, roast cacao beans themselves after traveling to bean-growing countries to meet the farmers who grow them. And Mast Brothers is, after all, a tiny business.
It's very time-consuming," admits 37-year-old Robert Belcham of Vancouver tells me, concerning his much-loved Vancouver salami and cured ham business, The Cure, which he runs out of his restaurant, Campagnolo. Curing meat the old-fashioned way also has old-fashioned risks that your average foodie may not think about. "Making charcuterie can also be quite dangerous," Belcham reminds me. Painstaking care is needed. "You have to follow the time-honored traditions and use the right formulas or you could end up hurting people." By hurting, of course, he means poisoning.
What keeps these people going? What inspires them? A taste-bud epiphany, usually, plus, in the newer generation, the addition of a thick dollop of youthful idealism.
People who enter the artisanal game later in life tend to have had an aha! moment on the heels of an established career. Wade Bennett, a 54-year-old apple and pear farmer in Enumclaw, Washington, discovered Calvados (French apple brandy) and suddenly began to see his trees in a whole new way. His company, Rockridge Cidery, now makes a range of apple- and fruit-based wines and spirits. Dennis Robertson, the 53-year-old founder of Soft Tail Spirits, in the town of Woodinville, Washington, supplied stone to the construction trade until he discovered grappa while on a business trip to Italy and began to dream of a second act. In 2008 he decided to start a grapparia, and after only a year, his grappa, made from Yakima Valley sangiovese grapes, won a silver medal at the 2010 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
These are stories of people who had a mid-life awakening and the means and drive to redirect their lives.
Among younger artisans, I heard epiphany stories, too, but there was evidence of something else there, a deep yearning—and a lot more tattoos. When Belcham arduously tracked down a source of heritage-breed pigs on Vancouver Island and started making salami and cured hams, the objective was partly to get a better product than you can buy at the average supermarket. But it was more about reconnecting with lost virtues of self-sufficiency and labor.
"I wanted to make things the way my grandfather and my great-grandparents had done," he tells me, speaking of his pioneering ancestors who had made similar products with pigs from the interior of British Columbia, where they'd lived. "People living in cities have lost those traditions over the years."
The fabric of "the small, the local, and the beautiful," as Eagle Street Rooftop Farm's Web site describes the emerging ecosystem of Brooklyn restaurants, food growers, and artisans, is complex. Eagle Street takes compost from Brooklyn Brine. Its produce goes to a few local-food restaurants. It hosts "lecture series" featuring people like "locavore heroine Leda Meredith." One of the farm's cofounders, Annie Novak, came to artisanal city farming via a family tragedy. Her father was killed in an auto accident in Chicago five years ago. "I started vegetable gardening and began to realize the benefits of working on something very immediate, with your hands, but understanding that it has a long-term focus."
Brad Estabrooke, 31, realized that something more than a career had gone astray around the time he lost his job on the bond-trading desk at Deutsche Bank (there are more than a few ex-finance people in the artisan game now). It might not be the first thing that would pop into your mind, but Estabrooke decided he was going to make something of his life by making gin. "What was missing was the fact that I wasn't actually producing anything. I wanted to make something. I wanted to work all day and end up with something delicious at the end of it."
Estabrooke's new gin, named with the Dutch spelling of the place it's made—Breuckelen—is superb, flavored with five botanicals. There is, naturally, an artisanal tonic water to go with it, too—Q Tonic, made with Peruvian bark.
A skeptic might ask how much soul-searching a good gin and tonic requires. A can of Schweppes perhaps has more sugar than you need, and Bombay Sapphire is owned by Bacardi, which sells about 5 billion dollars worth of booze a year, but I've never poured the two of them into a glass together with ice and lime and had anything less than a satisfactory experience. Still, over at Q Tonic, founder Jordan Silbert recalls that his eureka moment pivoted around a glance at commercial tonic and feeling what he described as "aesthetic retching."
It's emotional, being an artisan, clearly. Matthew Tilden, founder of SCRATCH-bread, which is featured weekly at the Brooklyn Flea, waxes new-age-y: "Bread could be one of the world's most naturally modest superhuman powers," he says. "Locally defined, handmade bread, enough for and made in communities all over the globe. It could potentially change our entire beings."
Your third-generation challah baker in Williamsburg might snicker at this, and it might amuse the ancient Berkeley bread artisans who founded Acme, way back in 1983. But the less giddy artisans make it clear: Big ideas are in play.
"The attraction to craft food is the result of the public wanting authenticity in identity and tradition," Rick Mast of Mast Brothers Chocolate tells me, stroking his long red beard and staring me straight in the eyes. "This is not a trend-art project. Our goal is to reinvent the family-owned craft business. And we'll consider ourselves successful when we pass this business on to another generation."
Or as Kurt Dammeier, founder and co-owner of Beecher's Handmade Cheese, tells me: "Our mission statement is to change the way people eat."
Does a sip of Rockridge raspberry wine or a slice of SCRATCHbread have the power to reconnect us to lost values? Can a bottle of corn whiskey by Kings County Distillery or a slice of Flagship cheddar from Beecher's transform the culture?
Generation F will try.
In the meantime, they're at least eating better than most of us did in our 20s or early 30s. When I talk to Daniel Sklaar, the 30-year-old founder of Fine & Raw Chocolate in Brooklyn (and a former financial analyst), he tells me that dinner parties have gone potluck in his social scene these days. Before each meal there's a flurry of Facebook activity as people compare notes on what they're bringing. That is, what they're making with their own hands and bringing to the table. "People want authentic food," Sklaar says. "Food that connects them to other people. They want a communal experience."
May these artisans thrive; may their numbers grow. We'll all eat better for it. Some foodmakers, of course, will learn that idealism is not the same thing as expertise or business sense. As Dammeier, in the business for seven years, says, a lot of "wash-out" will happen. "It's not good enough just to make something yourself. It has to have the quality and the consistency." And the market, and the business plan. One goat-cheesemaker described to me how many farms fold at the critical moment when the goats multiply to the point that you have a business-sized, not a hobby-sized, herd on your hands. At that point, some dreamers run away, bleating.
And small doesn't always mean tasty, either. Handmade chocolate turned out to be gritty chocolate on several occasions, and one taste left a burn in the back of my throat like I'd just dry-chewed an aspirin. Not all indie pickles are created equal. Some I tried were murky-tasting and over-flavored. I brought home a handmade cookie that my kid wouldn't finish, drank coffee just as burnt as any Starbucks ever produced, and ate at least one artisanal sourdough baguette that could have broken a tooth.
There's also the matter of price. Mast Brothers chocolates, purchased online, including shipping, will cost you $92 for 10 (2.5-ounce) craft bars, which works out to about $60 a pound. Compare that to as little as $8 per pound for Dove chocolate from Pickled beets can be $2 in a supermarket, $8 or $10 from an artisan. Add a big carbon footprint if you buy artisanal foods by Web and Fedex.
But if this were an investment market, I'd be bullish about continued growth. Artisans, like chefs, drive taste in a nation that simply gets more hungry for fine food and new (read old, authentic) flavors. Expect big brands to explore ways to make themselves seem more artisanal, like the McDonald's ad campaign that stresses that every French fry in fact comes from a potato (grown in the ground!). In 2009, Starbucks opened an unbranded, artisan-ish coffeeshop in Seattle called 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea.
Meanwhile, the successful artisans will continue to push the definition of authenticity. Bob McClure has considered moving some of his booming pickle operations to a 200-acre farm in Latvia, where his wife inherited some land. Going back to the old country: That's keeping it real! The Mast brothers are so keen to reduce their carbon footprint that they plan to take part of their early 20th-century production practices back into the 19th century—and bring in their cacao beans from the Dominican Republic by sailing vessel. (Thereby reducing their carbon footprint to zero from what a container shipping insider described to me as "unmeasurably infintesimal" due to the miniscule volume of their shipments.)
8 A.M., Pike Place Market, Seattle. I watch as Brad Sinko makes cheese, mesmerized as he stirs the milk, checks temperatures and gauges, then trots over to a second vat where he has added jerk spices to small curds (yes, jerk spices, for a tasty cheese cleverly called No Woman), getting ready to pack the curds into the presses. The cheesemaking operation is surrounded on three sides by wide glass windows, and crowds of people look in, some shading their eyes for a better view, a couple of kids with their noses pressed right to the glass. How curious they all look. How engaged. How interested. They remind me of Bob McClure's pickle pilgrims.
"It's a show!" Sinko quips, noticing me noticing the crowds, which of course he hardly does anymore because they are here almost every day.
It's a show about cheesemaking, but also about how curiosity can shape our understanding of real food and the appetite for it.
Later I click around the McClure's pickle Web site, which gives off a fine tang of artisanal character, looking like woodblock on craft paper, containing charming bios of family workers, and holding forth, I notice when I click the "buy" box, a gorgeous bit of slow-food irony in this Web-fast world: You can find McClure's in 0.32 of a second on Google, but if you want to order a mixed-case online (and they only sell by the case), keep in mind that "It will take approximately one business month from order date to get your product."
That's because tiny McClure's is busy shipping to a growing list of retail shops across the country. It's no Heinz, but it's getting a little less local all the time.
Posted: Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012 3:21pm

Willamette Wandering

It takes a while to reach the Willamette Valley in Oregon, but you’ll know it the moment you arrive. Out the interstate south of Portland, past King City and Sherwood, the strip malls and discount stores fall away and the fields open up to either side. Somewhere around Newberg – as the light grows golden and the air takes on a pleasantly farmy, smoky aroma – you feel yourself leaving the rest of the world and entering a rather special new one, where almost everything and everybody seems devoted to the pleasant, elemental rhythms of winemaking.

Protected by the Coast mountains to the west and the Cascades to the east, the Willamette Valley is a perfect vintner’s blend of cool nights and warm days. And most wine drinkers know that the pinot noirs from this area – first grown seriously by a handful of winemakers in the early 1980s – are now being turned into world class expressions of the heartbreak grape.
What’s less apparent about this rolling green fold in the Oregonian landscape, running from Portland about 100 miles south to Eugene, is just how necessary it is to come here to appreciate the most important ingredient in a Willamette Valley wine. Because while the bottles can be exported and sipped in any location, you really have to be here to experience the Willamette terroir.
It’s one of those high-foodie concepts people define in different ways. But in the Williamette Valley it’s a most approachable idea. That’s because terroir here is a product of the soil and the fruit, certainly, but also the characters and stories that live behind every vine and every bottle.
People in these parts love to talk about wine. There are over 200 wineries in the area, according to the map I pick up from the Willamette Valley Wineries Association. All of these are scattered in the hills and along the ridgelines of the six distinct “American Viticultural Areas” or AVAs that make up the region, from the green sloped Chehalem Mountains  at the north end of the valley nearest Portland, south past the red-volcanic soil of the Dundee Hills to the southernmost AVA of Eola-Amity just outside Salem.
But don’t over plan. You might as well just get in the car and start driving because not only will there be a winery around every corner in every one of those you’ll meet someone keen to talk up favorites. That’s how I end up with a recommendation to visit JK Carriere Winery within hours of arriving for dinner at Jory Restaurant in the Allison Inn, complete with Google map directions to the hill-top tasting room on Parrett Mountain.
But it’s the same way I pick up a dozen other recommendations along the way. A tip at Adelsheim Wineries – where I sip (and spit) the delicious pear and apricot hinted Caitlin’s Reserve Chardonnay – to try the Riesling over at Bergstrom Wineries. Another lead at Bergstrom to check out an interesting single vineyard pinot noir made at Penner-Ash. And after tasting that one – elegant black cherry flavors with a hint of Asian spice, made from the Dussin vineyard right outside the winery’s front door – I emerge into the sunshine to find a note tucked under my windshield wiper by someone who’d overheard my conversation with the winemakers inside.
“While doing your research,” the note urges with friendly insistence. “Do not miss a visit to Beaux Freres Winery.”
Slipped into place by someone from the Beaux Freres Winery, perhaps? Lynn Penner-Ash chuckles when I show her the note later. She says: “That certainly sounds like Kurt.” Referring to the Director of Sales and Marketing Kurt Johnson at Beaux Freres, one of the owners of which is the influential Wine Advocate publisher and the 500-pound gorilla of the wine world, Robert Parker Jr. But whether it was him or another winemaker, the moment speaks volumes about the collegial willingness of locals to share with visitors what they love about the area.
“We’re probably not as competitive amongst ourselves as they are in Napa,” Thomas Houseman, the winemaker at Anne Amie winemakers tells me. Although, displaying a typical easy-going humor, he also  squints across the valley at this point and deadpans: “I mean except for those guys over there, of course. You don’t want to be going to the Dundee Hills.”
That cooperative spirit might have to do with relative size and fame. The mansion vineyards of Napa would mostly look out of place here. The Beaux Frere tasting room is very spare and shares space with some extra barrels. Bergstrom likewise, where you sample the wines in a room just off the main winery, with pleasant views out over the vineyards. Anne Amie itself is in a hilltop house that, with a bit of reverse remodeling, might be a middle class home. And when Houseman and I walk the fields – a glass of their pinot noir rose to sip as we go – he’s almost as interested in talking about the composting system and the vegetable gardens as he is about the vines. I nod as we look out over a vineyard of 30 year old Muller Thurgau vines, which many a winemaker would have replanted long ago with pinot noir given the profitability of that grape and the prime south slope acres involved here, but which Houseman left in place because he knew they could make something good with those old vines. And he did, too. Cuvee A, a fantastic crisp dry white, alive with green apple and white blossom. One of the real surprises of the trip. An expression of the Willamette terroir in flavor and attitude if there ever was one.
“We’re out here in the vineyards all the freaking time,” says Rebekah Bellingham, the young Beaux Freres tour and tasting guide, as we stand in the dirt furrows of the upper terrace sifting Willakenzie sedimentary soil through our fingers and discussing the ripe red fruit character associated with it.
Although, that naturalism noted, we can’t overlook the final critical element of terroir in Willamette. The people involved. It’s their willingness to let the land express itself that has made these wines what they are. And they do so because being first generation and so early on the enthusiasm curve, nobody makes wine in the Willamette Valley because they have to or because it’s part of a master investment strategy.  People get involved because they love the work.
Years back Houseman was a modern dancer. He got tired of living in an apartment the size of a “small box” in Manhattan. Scott Paul Wright of Scott Paul Wineries was a famous disc jockey, called Shadow Stevens, and later a senior executive at Epic Records. He left because of the stress. Lindsay Woodard, whose award winning Retour is made at the cooperative facilities of the Carlton Winemakers Studio, had a background in brand development before she came home – having been raised in McMinnville, minutes from Carlton – to make pinot noir.
It’s a familiar type of story by the time I finally reach to top of Parrett Mountain on my last day in the valley and visit JK Carriere, recommended to me within a few hours of arriving in the area. JK Carriere is the brainchild of Jim Prosser, who’d worked for Xerox and the Peace Corps, sold Christmas trees and travelled the world before coming home – having been raised in Bend, in the Cascades – to make wines that will, in his own words: “astonish you, spark you, and give you every reason to share that experience with someone else.”
When Prosser says this, of course, he’s standing in his vineyard in rubber boots, holding a pitchfork.
I drive down Parrett Mountain with a bottle to take home. The first wine I tried, as luck would have it, also ended up being one of my favorites. And when I sip it at home – sometime in the next ten years, when the occasion seems right – I’ll taste it remembering the golden light, the smoky smell in the air, the personalities and the enthusiasm. The terroir of Willamette Valley.
To stay:
The choicest accommodation, in the heart of the valley. Tranquil setting among vineyards and filbert orchards and a 15,000-square-foot spa. The restaurant Jory is named for one of the Willamette Valley soil types and has a dynamite wine list and sommelier.
To visit:
(A slightly arbitrary list of my personal highlights. Everyone should really follow their own path and the suggestions they get. It lends to the enjoyment.)
Beautiful, large tasting room overlooking the Chehelam Mountain vineyards. Excellent chardonnay as well as reserve and single vineyard pinot noirs from vines in Boulder Bluff and Ribbon Springs.
The Riesling really is excellent. But there is a range of good pinots as well.
A nice rose, Riesling and vigonier, as well as a single orchard pinot noir from a vineyard just outside the tasting room, the Dussin Vineyard.
Eight excellent and sought after small scale winemakers share winemaking facilities in Carlton. Andrew Rich, Hammacher Wines, and Retour are notable examples. Very small batch sizes and meticulous care in harvesting and processing make these wine elegant and expressive.
Around the corner from Carlton Winemakers Studio, Scott Paul is both a maker of several pinot noirs, and an importer of often-good-value wines from the Rhone. His own wines tend to the elegant and silky end of the pinot spectrum, away from the intensity and jamminess, for example, of some pinots from California.
A fun place to spend an hour. Make sure to talk to winemaker Thomas Houseman if he’s around, and try the Muller Thurgau, which is excellent.
A small 20 acre all-estate winery with a fast rising following, Lenne is perched on top of a hill in Yamhill-Carlton. The soil is rocky and the wines are full of black fruit and rich textures. Lenne is the favorite wine of the wife of the President of Spain, apparently.
High end wines with a big reputation. Beaux Freres’ tasting room is only open on Fridays and by appointment, so call ahead. The Upper Terrace pinot is earthy, spicy and foresty.
Beautiful vineyard on the top of Parrett Mountain, just a few minutes drive northwest of Newberg. JK Carriere, named for Jim Prosser’s two grandfathers, makes wine from various Willamette vineyards and soon from its own Parrett Hill vineyard. The Gemini vineyard pinot noir is dark cherry, with brown spices and nuts, and a bit of sweet barnyard thrown in. Delicious.
To eat:
Go for “Whole Hog Wednesday”, when pork shoulders are on special. Slow cooked to a recipe Chef Jason Stoller Smith developed after an intense 10 day tour of Texas barbecue joints, it is served on toast with mustard sauce and sauerkraut, applewood bacon and onions. All you can eat.
Refined dining in a refined refurbished old house in Newberg, the tasting menu is inventive and light. Dishes reflect the region from Viridian farm asparagus salad with quail eggs and truffles, to the slow roasted Steelehead with Beet Chutney and Pinot Noir Gastrique.
Posted: Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012 9:46am

They're Everywhere


Holy stickers Batman. These things have hit Toronto, New York, Halifax... everywhere.

Now they've reportedly crossed the pond. They're going up in the UK now.

Move over Banksy. Or whatever. I have no idea what this means.

Posted: Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012 9:47am

Chef Mavro Interview 2010

For the essay series Global is the New Local published in EnRoute Magazine in September, October and December 2010, I visited Hawaii and ate my way around the island of Oahu. One of the best meals, of the trip and probably my life so far, was had at Chef Mavro's, where extremely high-end does not mean pretentious. And where I didn't feel like keeling over after our eight course meal (like I did after eating what Tom Aikens had to offer, for example).
Here's the transcript of our conversation, which touches on his idea about "regional", the technical reasons his cuisine is so approachable and paradoxically light, as well as his creative process in creating a new menu item.
Chef Mavro: When I arrived in Hawaii it was just starting. You maybe know this story. When I arrived, many restaurants were doing “continental cuisine”. Mahi mahi with beurre blanc, even though Mahi Mahi wasn’t from here, it was frozen from Mexico. Everyone was doing a Caesar salad and a shrimp cocktail. But there were already a group of chefs Roy, Alan Wong, Sam Choy, and we say: we don’t do Caesar salad. So we created Hawaii Regional Cuisine. And we started of course to work with farmers who were doing specific ingredients just for us. Nalo farms was one of them.
Posted: Thursday, Sep. 2, 2010 11:02am

Rabbit Receiving his own Information

On a gig for Western Living Magazine, I toured the Willamette Valley recently. Lots of gems to discover there, like Whole Hog Wednesdays at the Dundee Bistro. And of course several hundred small, high-craft wineries that produce the amazing fruity, farmy pinot noirs of the region.

But I particularly enjoyed "meeting" the mascot of the Scott Paul Winery. He's a rabbit. And the painting of him, which Scott Paul used to inspire the rabbit on their label, is by Oregon artist Cody Bustamante. The painting is called "Rabbit Receiving his own Information", and it shows the animal with his head cocked to the sky, as if listening to a timely bit of advice.

The story behind the painting is a good one.

Posted: Monday, May. 31, 2010 10:58am
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