Friday, July 02, 2010

MLFDWGC Part 3:The Beards

The clock read quarter past six. Work had been crazy the previous week and I was feeling so down that I found myself sitting in a Subway sandwich shop ready to order their nasty five-dollar-footlong, Italian B.M.T no less. We all stoop really low at some point. Just as I take the first bite, I get a text from a close CIA friend, almost as though the culinary gods sent it personally, reminding me about a $500-a-ticket culinary event that any gastonomically inclined gentile would kill to attend. I definitely couldn't afford it and it was too late to buy tickets anyway. At this point, I thought to myself, I would have to crash the party to get in. No harm trying.

I had 15 minutes to get there. Within the first five minutes, I ran back home and changed into a suit; if this were a movie, I probably would've looked like Clark Kent switching into Superman, except I didn't have a red cape, neither did I wear my underwear on the outside. Come to think of it, I can't fly either or do I have X-ray vision, though that would be nice. I jumped into a cab and made it just in time. Thankfully, I had a friend on the inside who came out to get me with an entry badge he borrowed from someone on the inside. You would think there'd be better checking measures at a $500 gala event. He led me through a series of doors and hallways into the main auditorium just as the emcee introduced himself. It was none other than Alton Brown and I was at the James Beard Awards!

Among the many perks that come with living in New York City are the many events and shows which one can attend that cover practically every realm of man's activity. Art Gallery openings, food shows, science festivals, air races, award ceremonies, group meetings, grunge parties, festivals, you name it. But the James Beard Awards Ceremony is the pinnacle for someone in the industry, the Oscars of the culinary world. And I was right there in the middle of it all.

The ceremony honoring the finest in the restaurant industry lasted about three hours and had everyone from Thomas Keller to Kevin Zraly give away the awards. Quite inspiring, to say the least. We were then escorted to the main hallway for food and drink. There were over two dozen stalls set up by noted chefs from all over the country serving up their favorite grub. Jonathan Benno was there promoting his upcoming restaurant at the Lincoln Center. As was Jen from Eric Ripert's 10 Arts in Philadelphia. Navigating my way through the crowd, I couldn't help but bump into some great chefs and strike up conversations. Jose Andres wouldn't stop talking about Spain and even offered a job at any of his restaurants. Rick Bayless and I spoke of a common friend I currently work with. Sean Brock of the McCrady's fame who'd won a Beard earlier that night was my friend's former boss. He was drunk and couldn't stop smiling from the joy of having won something so prestigious. In between trying to get another round of Champagne and looking for Alton Brown, I stumbled upon a man in a suit that vaguely resembled the joker outfit in Batman. Jacques Pepin! I giggled like a little school girl. Okay, enough name dropping. All in all, it was one fabulous evening. I wouldn't trade the experience for anything!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

MLFDWGC Part 2: Doughnut Crazy

The last time I had a great doughnut was a long time ago - 4 years, 9 months, and 23 days to be precise. I was vacationing in Goa, India's hippie capital and home to some of the most beautiful beaches on the planet. A reliable source pointed me in the direction of a German bakery called Infantaria speaking volumes about its pastries and desserts. I wasn't much of a pastry guy, and still am not, but there's something about the power of suggestion that you can't ignore. So I had to go there. And there it was, lying behind a glass counter, coddled among dozens of other delectables. It was round, jelly-filled, and dusted with tiny crystals of sugar. It didn't particularly stand out; in fact, it was probably the least decorated which is why I was drawn immediately.

I took one bite and I got that feeling you get when you reach or achieve the pinnacle of something. I think they call it ecstasy without the capital 'E'. The crunch of the sugar, the chewy softness of the dough, and the succulence of the jelly, all in one unctuous bite. I usually take pictures of memorable meals but I didn't this time because I knew I could never forget.

Ever since then, I have had constant cravings for something at least remotely as good. And it has taken me to many faraway places but in vain. I conveniently place doughnuts in that category of foods that are simple to make but extremely hard to perfect (for the sake of argument, perfection in my world can be achieved, as difficult as it may be). And the Infantarian doughnut was a hard act to follow.

If there was one place that I felt I could find one that was almost as good, it was New York City. I tried the fried rings of dough at several different venues but none matched up. Most were either dense or mealy, usually too sweet for the palate, and stale almost every time. I thought the one they serve at Bouchon Bakery on the weekends would be a close contender but it just didn’t make the cut. A little deeper searching on the internet led me to Doughnut Plant on the Lower East Side.

I ventured out on a hot sultry summer day in June hoping this would be it. And it was. I had finally found a doughnut that was comparable to what I had nearly five years before. I tried every different kind they had- Chocolate glazed, Coconut cream, Crème Brulee – and man was it good. They were chewy but not tough, sweet but flavorful, most importantly, they were freshly made. My doughnut cravings were finally appeased.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

My Last Few Days in the World's Greatest City Part 1

It would be almost three years of having lived in America when I leave this July. Yes, I'm leaving. For good, I hope. I'm going back to what I've always called home - India. It's not that I don't like it here. In fact, I've grown awfully fond of living in New York City these past several months. I actually feel like a New Yorker. But even after three years, I still feel like an alien in a foriegn land, which I very much am. The fear of never feeling at home here grips my throat. That and feeling distanced from my real home (I've visited India only twice in the last 3 years!), the people I've grown up with and am close to, the culture I cherish every day, and the food- oh, the food!

Don't get me wrong. The past three years have been incredible. The things I have seen and experienced, the people I have come to know, the lessons I have learnt - I would do it all again if I had to. I'm quite proud of everything I have accomplished here, and this country will always be a part of my being.

In these last few weeks, I've come to realize what I'm leaving behind, the things I've taken for granted that aren't going to be at my disposal anymore. The vast multi-culturalness that is New York City; Winter and Spring and Summer and Fall; the plethora of ingredients from all around the world be it produce, protein or dairy; wines and beers for every mood and taste; restaurants, bars, clubs, cafes, dives, and speakeasies that I thought only existed in my imagination; concerts, art battles, Broadway shows, Shakespeare in the Park; the finest kitchens in the world with cooks that are as passionate about the craft as I am; and of course, being able to pick my own dream and chase it.

The next few posts are going to be documentations of my last experiences in NYC while attempting to do some of these things just one more time, whether it be waiting in line overnight to make it to a free Shakespeare in the Park Production, or eating fresh strawberries from the farmer's market, or dining at the infamous Per Se.

Monday, August 31, 2009

10 Things You Definitely Did Not Know About Me

The coffee I drink every morning is called 'Monsoon Malabar'. It is sourced from my home state of Kerala about 8000 miles away from where I currently live.

I spray cologne before going to bed just because I like smelling good.

I buy a bottle of coke before heading into a movie theater. I can never justify paying $5 for soda. I do however buy the $6 popcorn.

It has taken 12 alarms to wake me up every morning ever since my mom stopped giving me wake up calls.

I've never asked a girl on a date.

I hide $20 bills in different places in my wallet just in case I run out of money.

My wardrobe has hardly changed in over 4 years.

At one point in my life, I was so delusional that I thought I was god.

I am yet to meet someone who's read less books than I have. I will however write my own book some day.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Yet Another Blog?

Here's the link to my latest blog, Memoirs of a Cook.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Passing of a Cherished Friend

As I sit in my room distanced from my hometown half way across the world by over 8000 miles, I feel eternally helpless. One of Cochin’s best caterers and the pioneer of stand-alone restaurants in the city is no more. But this man was more than just all that. He was warm, ever-jovial, kind-hearted and above all, a beloved friend.
This man has influenced me in a plethora of ways. He trusted in me at the risk of his own business, and let me experiment and stray away from the norms of running an event, let alone a food festival. He gave me a chance to express myself in my own style, no questions asked. He treated me like a dear friend, and shared with me his many experiences. We shared a common love for good food and a passion to feed. I clearly remember the several conversations about food and culture and politics and the hospitality industry that we’ve shared over delicious lattés at his cute landmark of a café. He was a sincere man – honest to himself. He’s had many hardships both in his personal life and his career, but he stuck through it all, brave and perseverant. He set a quiet example during his time on earth that life may take several unexpected twists and turns which we have little or no control over, but it doesn’t decide for you how to live – you do. In the midst of all that was going on around him, he lived his to the fullest.
As many do every day, I cannot help but wonder why this gem of a man was chosen amongst us. It’s one of those times when you think – and surprise yourself at your own absurd intellect – why the nicer amongst us have to leave first. Why is it that those who’ve done so much for others and been a constant source of support for everyone around are called to the supper before the rest of us? Is karma after all a big hoax?
I have never before had to face up to the death of someone I even vaguely know, and I knew it would be hard when it finally happened. And it truly is. But this I’m grateful for this; I’m grateful that he has left us all with memories of his kindness and generosity – something that is more eternal than life itself. I last saw him towards the end of December 2008 when I had gone over to say goodbye before I left for the US again. Our meeting was brief that time but he wished me the best of luck and hugged me goodbye. May this great soul rest in peace.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

I Had Fun at the Cafe Wha?

Finding the right bar or club to go and have a great time is seemingly difficult, even in New York City. For example, there's the typical college student's bar filled with people constantly falling and spilling drinks all night and loud mundane music playing in the foreground. There's also the classy expensive bar where one is expected to maintain an illogical level of decorum within the constraints specified. Not to forget the gentleman's bar which might sound appealing to “gentlemen” but is definitely not for an Indian born-and-raised with a shallow wallet to spare. Then there's the occasional miracle pub you come across. A place with some sort of a character; one where people actually seem to be having a great time. I decided that I had to find myself one such place built around and for the appreciation of good music.

To those of you who know the history behind Cafe Wha?, the place is more than just a great party spot; it is a legendary iconic establishment. Most 60s rock music aficionados all over the world know the real relevance of this New York City club. Being a hardcore classic rock fan myself and a temporary resident of Manhattan, I made my way there to experience it first hand.

Located in the heart of Greenwich Village in Manhattan just a couple of blocks away from Washington Square Park, Cafe Wha? at first glance seems not too different from other clubs in its NYU neighborhood. Music enthusiasts however have been frequenting this institution of sorts ever since the 1950s when it started out as a venue for live bands to perform. Today, this cult of a club has three different acts performing during the course of the week with occasional comedians entertaining the early birds.

Perhaps the most notable claim to fame for Cafe Wha? is that it was the original stomping ground for several very famous musicians and comedians especially during the revolutionary Beatnik era of the 1960s. Legendary performers like Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Kool and the Gang and Bruce Springsteen all began their careers here. So did outstanding comedians including Woody Allen, Joan Rivers, Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor. Cafe Wha? was also frequented by Allen Ginsberg, the famous American poet and activist who fought for gay rights and legalization of marijuana.

Having grown up with an addiction to great music, I had always wondered whether such a place really existed. I eventually made my way to Cafe Wha? one Friday night with tremendous zeal and enthusiasm over the little I'd researched and read about it. A flight of stairs down led me to the arena where history was written and continues to be. Weekend nights usually have The Cafe Wha? Band performing and it got pretty crowded by the time the band started playing. I was crammed into my table with five strangers (who I eventually became buddies with) and the rest, as they say, is history.

The band played a mixture of classic rock, R&B, Reggae and Funk made possible through the diversity in talent of its nine members. The sheer energy that the band vibrates through its music resonates through every individual in the crowd. Whether it was a song by The Beatles, Prince, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Led Zeppelin or even the club's theme song, “I had fun at the Cafe Wha?”, everyone found themselves either singing along or dancing ecstatically and more than often doing both.

I knew every song the band played and was not bothered for even a second that I had come alone. In those few hours of sheer exhilaration, I felt transported back into time to the days when rock music had a bigger and more genuine following. It seemed to me at that instant that the rest of the crowd shared a similar perception.

Cafe Wha? may still have some kind of a reminiscence effect from its historic performances and guest appearances in the past. But what made my night at Cafe Wha? memorable was because it let me as a rock music lover spend an unpretentious evening singing and dancing without a care in the world. It was raining heavily that night and I walked back home at about 2 am slowly taking it all in and completely oblivious to how drenched I really was. After a fun night of drinking plenty with strangers and dancing away to my favorite tunes, I woke up the next morning asking myself, “Who? When? Where? Cafe Wha?!”