A Birthday Letter to My Daughter

August 27, 2009


Dear Ryan-

It’s really hard to believe that you turn fourteen on Saturday.  I still can’t help but think of you in your blue soccer uniform,  dribbling down the field to score another goal for the Diamonds.  Now you’re the captain of your team.  I remember sending you off to kindergarten at Olds Elementary, worried about you.  You’re now a freshman at Broughton, taking classes with upperclassmen without even worrying about it.  I remember when you taught your younger brother how to read when he was 3.  Now you help a young couple take care of their infant triplets.  You’ve gone from that cute chubby toddler (oops, I shouldn’t have written that) to the beautiful young lady you are today.  I’m so proud of you.  And I am so pleased that you asked me to cook for you and your friends on Saturday.

I know you don’t care for red meat and really dislike seafood, but that’s not a problem.  It’s your birthday, and I’m going to serve you what you like.  We talked about the menu last night, and I think it’s coming along quite nicely, a nice balance between sophistication and familiarity.  Yes, there will be a lot of courses, but it won’t be a problem.  I’ll keep them small.  And no, you can’t have any wine with your dinner.

I promise I won’t try to embarrass you or try to act extra-goofy, I’ll just try to get out some good food and make your guests have a great time.  There’s going to be 12 of them, right?  Wow, that’s a lot of dishes!  And I really can’t believe that we don’t have a single soccer game on Saturday — what are the odds?

Anyhow, this is our menu, but let me know if you need me to make any changes.

Hors D’oeuvres: Foccacia with rosemary, olive oil and sea salt.

Amuse:  Fried bocconcini (mozzarella balls)

Soup:  Summer minestrone

Salad:  Watermelon, mint and goat cheese with aged balsamic vinegar

Pasta:  Fresh ricotta raviolo with vodka sauce

Main course:  Grilled chicken thighs with pomegranate vinaigrette and sweet corn/orzo

Dessert:  Cherry chocolate cake with dark chocolate ice cream

Don’t worry, the portions will be pretty  small, so hopefully no one will be too full after the soup course.

Fourteen.  Wow!  Happy birthday, Ryan.  I’m really, truly touched that you want me to cook for you and your friends.

I love you.


Poole’s To Host Special Dinner to Benefit Girl’s Family

August 27, 2009

I have a big smile on my face because I just got off the phone with Ashley Christensen, chef of Raleigh’s Poole’s Downtown Diner.  I always enjoy talking to Ashley, and she and I support a lot of similar causes.  But today, Ashley called to tell me about a very special dinner she’s cooking on Sunday, a five course dinner showcasing the offerings of Harland’s Creek Farm.  The meal will have a particular focus of the farm’s heirloom tomatoes.

That’s not what made me happy.  This is: Poole’s will be donating 100% of the profits from this meal to the family of Ashley Ramos-Hernandez, the six year old girl who was killed in the school bus crossing accident last week.

As I wrote earlier this week, Ashley Ramos-Hernandez’s parents are both restaurant workers in Raleigh, at Vivace and Coquette.  Both of those restaurants, and the other establishments in the Urban Food Group, are donating the tips received this Saturday to the young girl’s parents.  I appealed to the restaurant community to step up and support the family, and Ashley Christensen and Poole’s is certainly doing that.

So, after your dinner at Coquette, Vivace, Frazier’s or Porter’s on Saturday, consider dining at Poole’s on Sunday.  You’ll be very well fed, and you’ll help the healing process for a young family.


Harland’s Creek Farm Wine Dinner

Poole’s Downtown Diner

Sunday, August 30th, 6:30 p.m. Price per person is $79 plus tax and tip. Please call 919.832.4477 for reservations

A Hot Bath a Day Keeps the Berry Mold Away

August 26, 2009

rasberriesHarold McGee has an interesting story in today’s New York Times, focusing on one technique to keep berries from rapidly molding, which is so frequently a problem: he heats them briefly in a hot water bath.  McGee discovered that a 30 second bath in 125 degree water substantially reduces the amount of mold growth on strawberries, blackberries and raspberries, whereas blueberries required 30 seconds in a 140 degree bath.

Most importantly, the quality of the fruit was not compromised.

This is an experiment I need to try, as I can’t tell you how many raspberries I’ve had to toss because of that ultra-fast mold growth.  It appears from nowhere, even in the refrigerator.

Harold McGee, food scientist, is once again my hero.  The geeks shall rule the world!!!

Helping in Times of a Tragedy

August 23, 2009

Ashley Ramos-HernandezOn Wednesday, August 19, six-year old Ashley Ramos-Hernandez finished a day of school, got off the bus, and then tragedy ensued.  She was hit by a vehicle where the driver failed to see the school bus lights or gates, killing young Ashley.  This incident sent a chill through every parent in the Triangle, and our hearts poured out to Ashley’s family.  The food community is pouring out even more.

Ashley’s parents are employees of Urban Food Group, working at both Vivace and Coquette.  And on Saturday, August 29, the servers, bartenders and staff of both restaurants will be donating 100% of their tips to Ashley’s parents, Alfonso and Elena, to help defray the costs they are encountering.  It’s horrific to lose a child in such a tragic accident, but then having to deal with the medical and funeral expenses makes it even worse.

So if you are looking for a place to dine next Saturday, consider going to Vivace and Coquette.  While you’re there, please tip a little more than usual, knowing that you’re helping to ease a family’s pain.

Even more, I challenge other restaurants and their staffs in the Triangle to help this family in similar ways.   The restaurant worker community is pretty tight-knit, and I know how quickly they can mobilize to help each other in times of trouble.  If you own a restaurant or just work in one, think of how you can help Alfonso and Elena with these financial burdens.  Or just do it in memory of Ashley.

EDIT:  I received the following email from Urban Food Group this morning:

The Urban Food Group family is greatly saddened by the tragic death of 6 year old Ashley Ramos-Hernandez, who was killed in a school bus crossing accident in Raleigh this week.

Ashley’s parents, Alfonzo and Elena, along with several other family members, have been long-time employees of Urban Food Group’s restaurants, and we have enjoyed having them as a part of our team, our community, and our family for many years. We share in their grief, and we offer our support.

On Saturday night, August 29th, all of Urban Food Group, owners and staff, will be donating their time and money to assist Ashley’s family.

-At Vivace and Coquette Brasserie, where Ashley’s parents are employed, the service staff has volunteered to donate 100% of their tips and wages from the entire day to the family. Both restaurants will be open from 11:00 a.m. until 11:00 p.m.

-The service staff at Porter’s City Tavern and Frazier’s Bistro will be donating portions- and in some cases, all- of their tips and wages from the evening’s dinner service as well. Porter’s will be open from 5:00 p.m. until 11:00 p.m., and Frazier’s from 5:00 p.m. until 10:30 p.m..

-Urban Food Group’s owners and management team have been, and will continue to support the Ramos and Hernandez family in their time of need.

If you would like to help, you can do so by simply by visiting any of our restaurants next Saturday.

If you would like to do more, or cannot make it out that night and would still like to make a contribution, simply call or stop by any of our restaurants and ask to speak to the manager. We will be happy to make arrangements for you.

We would like to thank you for your continued support, your patronage, and your assistance in helping Ashley’s family cope with this tragic loss.

I’m Hired!

August 18, 2009

Well, when I wrote a couple weeks ago that I had never worked a minute in a restaurant, I stated the following:

I’m announcing today that I’m offering up my services to work the line in a real restaurant, to flip burgers, to prep for the day’s service. I got your brunoise right here, buddy. I’ll wait tables, wash dishes, or throw together a tasty mojito. Oh, I’ll screw it up, of course, and your customers may suffer, but I want to see how incompetent I’ll be. And how stupid I’ll look, as I don’t even have the right kind of shoes to work in a kitchen.

I thought I might get one or two offers, but I ended up getting 6 that represented 15 different establishments across the Triangle.  And these didn’t include offers from chefs who have become pretty close friends over the years.  And I didn’t accept one offer, I was stupid enough to do two.

So, where will I be working?  My first adventure will be at Globe Restaurant and Bar on Glenwood Avenue.  If you want to witness a train wreck, or avoid it, I’ll be working both lunch and dinner on Friday, August 28.  Yes, that’s a Friday.  Yes, that’s Restaurant Week.  Yes, I’m completely insane.  I’ll be in the kitchen, trying to stay out of the way of chefs Heath Holloman and Gray Modlin.

That would be crazy enough if I stopped there, but, NOOOOOO, I have to completely prove that I’m not fit for this business by working at Herons Restaurant in the ultra-swank Umstead Hotel.  I’ll be plenty nervous working at Globe, but working the dinner service at Herons may make me break out the adult diapers.  I’ll be in the kitchen on Tuesday and Wednesday, October 13th and 14th.  I’ll be working the dinner service, so you’re safe for lunch.  I was informed today that the Fall menu will be in place then, and knowing how talented chef Scott Crawford is, it’ll be a blast.  And I’ll even get a uniform and apron!  I’ll also do a front of the house shift after I complete my kitchen training, but we haven’t sorted out that date yet.

Honestly, I’m not at all nervous about this, as these will be fun experiences for me.  Sure, I’ll screw up, but we’re all entering into this relationship with our eyes wide open.  And I assure you that no one will let any of my mistakes end up on your plate.

So come and heckle me at Globe or Herons on those nights.  Who knows, I just might do a decent job.

Why Do We Have Restaurant Week?

August 12, 2009

restaurant week

I’ve been a fan of Restaurant Week, where restaurants in a city come together to offer low-priced three-course lunches and dinners once or twice a year.  My history may be a little weak, but I believe Restaurant Week started in New York City in the mid-80s, where Danny Meyer and others offered special lunch prices to entice diners to try their restaurants.  In particular, over the years, Meyer’s restaurants allowed diners to order off the regular menu at dramatically discounted prices.  I remember going to lunch at Eleven Madison Park (which just got a 4th star from the NY Times), having three  incredible dishes, and paying only 20 bucks for that pleasure.  Moreover, we received some chocolates to take home and a 20 dollar gift certificate for any subsequent meal at EMP.  This was just one example of what Danny Meyer did to make a lasting impression with his guests, and that was pretty much the theme of Restaurant Week.

Well, beginning on August 24, downtown Raleigh will be having its own Restaurant Week, and after looking at the menus, my primary thought is, “How the hell is this a good value proposition?”  Let me give you an example.  For $30, you can go to the Irregardless Cafe and get a 3-course meal.  Let’s say you’re a vegetarian, so based on the Irregardless Restaurant Week menu selections, you could order hummus, the portabella polenta, and the blackberry and peach crisp.  Sounds pretty good and not entirely unreasonable for the $30.  But if you went to Irregardless tonight (see their menu here), you could get that hummus for $5 and the portabella polenta for $13.  That’s 18 bucks.  Unless their desserts typically cost more than $12, you end up spending MORE money during Restaurant Week.  WTF?????  Even if you went with the higher priced items, such as the Greek Salad at $7 and the small plate surf & turf at $16, the dessert would have to be more than 7 bucks to make Restaurant Week a good value.  That’s not what Restaurant Week should be about.

The Irregardless Cafe isn’t the only one guilty of this transgression.  From what I could ascertain, Duck & Dumpling and 42nd St. Oyster Bar have similar pricing issues.

Another problem I have is when the Restaurant Week menu is not just limited, but it offers no choices whatsoever.  Examples include 18 Seaboard (at least they’re only charging $20), Second Empire (where grilled salmon is the only entree), 518 West, and Humble Pie (although they do offer separate $20 and $30 menus).  Many other places offer no more than two choices for each course.

Then there’s a place like The Mint, which has a daily $30 menu, so the RW menu is nothing special at all.

Who gets it right?  Well, Posta Tuscan Grille has some interesting choices, and seeing they typically charge 30 bucks for their baked sea bass, which is on the RW menu (although portion sizes may be smaller, which is OK with me), this is a great deal.   Red Room might have the best values with their $20 menu.  You’ll save at least ten dollars going to Sono during Restaurant Week.  The Big Easy offers 11 different entrees for RW, and with them charging only 20 bucks for their three courses, there are some definite bargains to be found.  Solas could be a solid value, depending on what you order.

Jibarra and Bogart’s don’t give you a lot of choices, but they’re charging only $20, which would save you some money.

A place like Caffe Luna handles this week a bit differently, where the entrees offered are not typically on their menu, and at $20, this will inevitably be a better value than a regular visit.

In the end, my primary question is this: Why do we have Restaurant Week?  I thought it was a mechanism to get people to try restaurants. Yes, it puts a hurt on profit margins, but this is an investment in the future success of each establishment.  Build up some goodwill during Restaurant Week, and if you do it well, then you’ll establish some new loyal customers.  Unfortunately, too many restaurants treat Restaurant Week like a big burden, and if that’s the case, they shouldn’t participate.

Fig Pizza

August 11, 2009


We have a fig tree, but it’s in a shaded area and doesn’t produce much fruit.  My in-laws, however, make up for that, as their fig tree can produce over two pounds a day of harvestable figs.  What to do with all that fruit?  A fig pizza, of course. Read the rest of this entry »


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