The food I love is killing me
This post is even longer than my last one. Read it in chunks.
Why are services like Yelp so popular now days?
I feel like... a large part of social media's success is due to people being eager to self promote themselves. "My life is so great." "Look at me." "Wow this is so good."
I'd like to believe that there's no larger common denominator between people than food. Everyone eats. So what better battlefield is there to be competitive on? Yelp is perfect because even though most people have no idea what's going on when dining outside, they have to write a review, where a reviewer will attempt to sound knowledgeable... filling their post full of hyperbole, falsities, and intense snobbery.
Well, I fell into that trap:
In a sense becoming "foodie" is easy. You just spend more money than others on food, and you get to brag about it to those who don't have time or the resources to do the same.
Of course there are the people who really do care about the food and put hard work into learning their craft, but most of the time these people aren't battling it out online.
Here are the steps that one should follow to become a world class foodie:
1. Learn how to appreciate alcohol, any alcohol
For me it was beer. I remember distinctly 2 experiences that really turned me onto beer. In my senior year of highschool my brother took me out for lunch, where he got me a bluemoon with an orange. The 2nd was after a college party my freshman year where I snuck 2 Shiner's from the cooler to my dorm room.
"Hey, this stuff isn't that bad..." Once that thought crosses your mind, you're in.
Beer is a lot like tea. It's bitter, but it has more to offer than just sweetness.
Most people get stuck at the Shiner/Blue moon/Guiness level. The next step is to get to start appreciating craft beer.
I guess the analogy would be... Blue moon => oscar mayer, craft beer => finely cured meats.
When I started college, my friend Hoan introduced me to this cafe called The Green Muse cafe, located in South Austin (it's not there anymore), it was an amazing cafe that had large tables, outlets galore, and a lamp at every table, so I went there a lot to study. They had 2 beers on tap from 512, and the moment I turned 21 I immediately got one of them.
The 512 Wit is a Belgian wheat beer. There's just something to Belgian beers... when I drink one words such as "earthy"... "mature" or... "fuck yeah" just pop in my head. Seriously, try a couple. Ommegang is probably my favorite accessible Belgian brewery.
The cafe also carried 512's IPA. One hot Summer day I came into the cafe exhausted... and for some reason the IPA seemed to quench my thirst like no other drink could. Better than any sports drink or water. Once you get past the bitterness, most IPAs can be described as being "Juicy."
When first starting out, it's a good idea to write down or record on your phone what beer you had so you can look up the beerAdvocate rating and reviews afterwards. Even better, I like to just pull out my phone and look at the reviews as I'm drinking the beer. Visual appearance(color & lacing), smell, mouthfeel/carbonation, and taste (at different areas in the mouth) are important factors to consider.
The key is to not just want a drink, but to also learn and grow after every sip. Local beer is a great way to appreciate a new area as well.
2. Watch a lot of Anthony Bourdain
I have a signed copy of his book "Medium Raw" in my bathroom. Why there? Cause it's where I do a lot of reading. Another great show is "Mind of a chef" featuring David Chang, which is on Netflix.
I completely agree with the notion that food is the best way to getting to understand a culture.
Watch the show to see what I mean.
2.5 Apply his mindset to your traveling
The important take away from watching shows such as No Reservations and A Cook's Tour is how he goes about traveling. It's all about trying to avoid the tourist traps and getting as close to what the locals do as possible. If you know someone where you're visiting, be sure to ask them for recommendations rather than looking up stuff online. If you don't know anyone, try finding a nice bar, pub, or restaurant and asking the people there what to do.
Do as the locals do, and come home with the trip with a broadened perspective of the world, and how it works.
The worst thing you can do is to barge into a new place, impose your views on your surroundings, and be ignorant.
The thing I like most about Anthony is that he's always humble and always learning.
3. Become a Regular somewhere.
The first place that I became a regular at was Fricanos Deli in Austin. Jamil and I would talk shop about photography while I waited for those amazing sandwiches. Pesto Chicken Salad Wednesdays yo.
If you ever come across a place you really like, and can go to often... go.
Becoming a regular totally changes the dynamic of going to a restaurant.
3.5 Don't just eat, learn.
This is just a random theory I have, but I feel like the more you go to a place, and the more you talk to the folks working there, the more they will start to respect you. If you go to a pub, talk about beer. If you see something you haven't seen before or know nothing about, ask. It's always a good idea to just ask. If it's any good of a place the people working there should be passionate about what they're serving, and want to talk about it.
3.8 Sit at the bar
During an internship that I had in Boston 2 years ago, I met a coworker named Eve... who had the best advice on dining out. Among her best tips was to try to sit at the bar whenever possible.
The rapport that you build with the staff in my opinion changes the whole dynamic of dining at a restaurant. They'll start to give you more information. They'll tell you what's fresh and what's not, what's worth trying that day, and perhaps if you're cool enough they'll throw out some experimental dishes to try on you since you know the restaurant so well.
Eve :D. I learned a ton from hanging out with her and her partner Greg.
Eve regulars at Park No. 9. She feels so comfortable there that she can be seen without her shoes, walking around in her socks. Through piggie backing off her perks there... Park No. 9 has become my most favorite restaurant ever. Bar none... the best restaurant experiences I've ever had.
The picture above is probably the best thing I've ever eaten, and it wasn't on the menu.
Normal customers... can't get this. Order a chirashi at Kome, and compare yours with this one. (I'm not a regular there, but I got it through another insider way).
4. Befriend service industry folk
This one is pretty important.
Hanging out with chefs... especially for a budding foodie is amazing. I'm sure you know people who do nothing but talk about their work. If they work an engineering job at a big company, it's 99.7 percent likely to be boring as hell to listen talk, but if they're a chef and you're into food, usually it's quite interesting.
Drinking is indeed enjoyable, but another reason to get into alcohol is... Chefs like to drink. They work in a stressful and hot kitchen for several hours... and a beer is a great way for them to unwind.
Through being a regular at nearby bar, I eventually got to meet the majority of the crews at Uchiko and Ramen Tatsuya.
I've never heard a food blogger talk about food as passionately as a chef.
The insight and passion that these guys speak with is inspiring. They can even make the task of cooking grilled onions sound like a magical, ethereal process.
They make you want to get the next round of drinks and another pack of cigarettes just to keep them around. They're like rockstars.
I consider the following chefs and service industry workers my friends:
Elyse. She went to culinary school and has a bad ass tattoo of a knife on her forearm.
I think it's way cool to go to culinary school than go to a traditional college, waste your time majoring in something irrelevant or something you're not passionate about, and realize after a few years that you really should have just started cooking and opened up a restaurant.
Tatsuya Crew + Tim Dornon
Kana (when she's not photobombing everything)
Chiai & Chris
Avi, musician and manager at Bestwurst
No Table Manners Crew. Moto, Tim, Paul, Yoshi, Tatsu
Masa & Cate from Uchiko
Jamil @ Fricanos
Alfonso at East Side Showroom
Casey, formerly at Weather Up(she moved to Brooklyn)
Yoshi, lead singer of Death Party.
Renate at Cenote, also a photographer (a great one) for a local zine called Rubberneck.
Eric from the ESK Bar 96, possibly the best iteration of East Side kings, and the only legitimate attempt at doing yakitori well in Austin.
Service industry folk just have... more fun.
4.1 Their other hobbies may play a role in their cooking
Tatsu became well known as a DJ way before he became known as a chef. When you eat a Tatsuya listen to the music. Go out to his DJ sets. Then as you eat his food... think about they compliment each other.
Find out what else chef's are into. It adds another dimension to the meal, and it really means a lot if you go out to their performances.
4.2(optional) Identify a star, and stay as close to them as you possibly can.
A long story of how I met Paul, and eventually became one of their primary food photographers.
The first time I met Paul, I was just biking around downtown, totally in gym clothes, and sweating my ass off. I came upon a mobile East Side Kings trailer by Kung Fu Saloon, and having been a fan of the Bar 96 one, I stopped by curious to try the food. I saw Paul and was starstruck, he said they were catering a special event... so they weren't open to the public. He said if I came back in 2 horus he'd have a plate for me.
I biked for 2 hours... came back even more haggard looking than before, saw him, got scared that I was bothering him and bolted without the food. After uploading a picture of him on facebook he commented that he had a plate ready... jeeze.
Since I came to Austin for college, I've always heard that Uchi was one of the top restaurants here. The first time I went there was at the end of my 4th year, and it so happened that Paul was doing specials that day.
I had never had Paul's cooking before... and the first words to pop into my mind while trying his dishes were "refreshing" "complex" and "delecate." I had never seen top chef before... and just by trying his food, without any precedent, I knew he was a force to be reckoned with.
So I started following his twitter... one day he said he would be testing recipes for chicken wings at one of his trailers. I decided to go, met the guy, and he was really chill and humble. He would let me try a sample batch, I would say something like "perhaps this needs more spice.(no cooking knowledge so, not sure of how)" and he would come back with a different iteration.
Every time I went I actually had a different pack of cigarettes, and we could just chill behind the trailer... smoking. He seems to like Benson and Hedges. (Deana likes crushes).
Now, I do a lot of the food photography for ESK along with Nicolai, my old roomate.
A review of Qui.
Apparently Qui, Paul's new flagship restaurant has been receiving mixed reviews... and after dining 5~ times, I actually agree with the mixed reviews. I'm going to attempt to say why, but even this could be wrong.
My theory is that the management at Qui is there solely just to facilitate Paul and his genius. They're there to give him somesort of guidance and stability, and while they're trying their hardest, I don't think they have worked out all the kinks yet.
Qui in my opinion is one of the best places you could become a regular at. The dishes are highly dependent on what's available from local farmers, so it's always interesting to see what Paul comes up with. But the thing is the way it's set up and the way the restaurant presents itself makes it too hard for the average-Joe, or even the affluent-Bob to go often. It's just too darn expensive even though a lot of dishes Paul makes are really humble and do not involve the most expensive of ingredients.
The restaurant in my opinion is affected too much by Paul's state of being and the quality of local produce. Meaning that there can be off days, specials that don't quite work out, and it may be just because he's playing slightly playful that day and feels like presenting something from totally left field. If a random person, who has been waiting weeks, or even months to dine there goes on an off day... that's that. They probably can't afford or want to go again.
This could be remidied by either, having dishes that are cheaper and more affordable, OR by having an overwhelmingly talented staff that is on or near Paul's level that can cover his week spots for him. His team isn't complete. Cocktails need work. Desserts definitely need work. If the cheese mousse is runny, don't serve it. There needs to be more superstars. Paul can't run it all alone, and the management at it's current state can't mask his weaknesses.
If you read this and you don't agree and you think it's a perfect restaurant without any faults, fine. This is just my opinion after being there only a handful of times.
With all that said, I definitely had the best thing I've had in Austin at Qui. One day I came in only to get some sashimi... and instead I got a big ass plate of gulf shrimp. Holy fuck. The most tender, succulent shrimp, pre-peeled in a way that the head and body parts come out along with the tail so you get all the flavor. I never liked shrimp before, now I do. More please.
Qui is also doing something amazing which is promoting and working with the most kick ass local artists and craft makers to get all their equipment and furniture. It's awesome.
If I were in Austin right now I'd be going to the East studio tours, where Keith, the guy who makes the plates and dishes for Qui is having an open house.
I'm only being so difficult because I was so excited for the restaurant, and I still believe it has potential to be significant. Qui, it's your time. Don't get comfortable.
And who am I to tell you this? I'm just a fanboy.
5 Try many kinds of the same type of food
Kind of self explanatory, but just like how there are so many varieties of beer, there are many varieties of a particular dish.
The only way you're going to know what's up with a dish, is to try different versions of it and compare the varieties.
Let's take a very popular dish right now, ramen, and see how one might approach it:
I've never been to Japan, so I already know that I'm not an expert in the field. But I have been to a number of ramen places in America.
When you have your first bowl of "real" ramen at any place. Chances are you'll like it. After you've caught the bug and have been hooked by the fatty broth, variety of toppings, and bouncy noodles, you'll have more and more bowls.
At first it's easy to start to rate places. "Place x is definitely better than y." But after you go deeper into it, you'll probably find out that it's really hard to compare 2 place's dishes. There are styles of ramen... different broths, different takes on those broths, and with the large variety of toppings to choose from... no 2 bowls from ramen shop to ramen shop will be the same.
The same goes for comparing BBQ, there are so many methods of cooking them, so many regions that have their different takes on how to cook the meat, and it seems that all of these ways have been blanketed under the one term "BBQ."
That's why... when describing a ramen place, I'll usually say "It's worth trying." Which means that if you eat the ramen there, you'll learn a new persepctive that will broaden your knowledge of ramen.
But with all that being said... I do think the best bowl of ramen in the US can be found at Monta Ramen in Las Vegas. Eat it and let it open your eyes.
5.3 Learn how to eat food
This may also sound ridiculous, but to really appreciate some dishes... you need to learn how to eat.
Ramen is the obvious example. Slurp the noodles, experiment with different topping combination, try the broth alone, try the broth with condiments.
With beer, look at the color, look at the head and how the bubbles move and pop(you can usually tell how the mouthfeel will be by just looking at it), smell, take a big initial gulp, then when you take more sips go in for a closer look. Observe how the beer feels in your mouth, what did the beer taste like going in? What flavors did you get on the back of your tongue? What flavors did you get when you finished the sip? Smell it again..
I mean you don't have to follow these steps. They're just there to give you guidence on how to extract everything the food or drink can offer you.
With most complex modern dishes, I believe it's all about getting a perfect bite. Putting every component of the dish at the same time into your mouth is very important. In my opinion balance, the intricate play of sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami, is the most important aspect to fine dining, or enjoying food in general.
It's never a bad question to ask the chef or waiter how to approach and eat a dish.
5.5 Don't be afraid of trying new things
One day my friends and I were eating at Together, our favorite late night Korean spot which is open until 2am. We got our usual dishes... but then we saw this group of Samsung employees order this huge plate of heaping, steaming something.
Us: "Can we get that?" pointing over to the other table
Owner: "You won't like it."
Us: "We'll try it."
Well turns out it was agu jjim, and yeah, I almost threw up at the table. I just couldn't handle the little sea squirts. (the above picture is mackarel which is a favorite of mine there)
The thing is, you'll never know what you get. Just try new things... it'll broaden your outlook, and at least you'll have a story to tell.
5.7 Go with the flow, be nice, and only be an asshole if the place deserves it
Recently I went into Daruma Ramen, and overheard a customer asking for sriracha, the waitress said that they didn't carry it and he started complaining.
If you do things like that, fuck you.
It's one thing to try a dish, try to see what the kitchen was trying to accomplish, and then offer a suggestion on something that might pair well or improve the dish after the meal. But if you go into a place trying to impose your own ideals on the food without even making an attempt to see what angle the restaurant... that's pretty bad. In my opinion it's just as bad as going to a forign country and being a stark American tourist who is oblivious and loud.
If the food or experience is subpar... and you know why, try and make a suggestion. If the management doesn't reciprocate and consider them... then screw that place and never go back.
5.9 If you have a bad experience, it might be worth trying the place again
Even though consistency is a quality of a great restaurant, a place is bound to have its off days. Before you completely cross a place off your list, it could be worth going again, especially if a lot of people are saying it's a good place.
6. Have one blowout luxury sushi "Omakase" experience
When you eat a good sushi restaurant, the rice should be the main star. It should feel like electricity is running through your body the moment that rice touches your tongue.
Sushi is one of the best examples of how something so seamingly simple and basic can be elevated with care and hard work.
7. Make new friends
If your friends are picky eaters or don't want to learn more, just stop talking to them. Simple.
And while we're at it, here are some more cute pictures of Jane, who runs the blog called A Taste of Koko.
She's a force to be reckoned with.
All of the heavy food, pork belly, cigarettes, and alcohol have taken a serious toll on my body. I have a family history of some diseases, and eating out and drinking most days really isn't helping. When chefs go out to drink, it's usually after a really long day of hard work. Just meeting them after sitting on your ass the entire day really isn't the same.
Even though I do ride my bike quite often, it really isn't enough exercise to balance out everything.
I know this is sounding like the biggest #firstworldproblem ever, and it is. To give you an example how bad, there was definitely 2 days where I couldn't walk last week. This may be just an issue with me and doesn't apply to all foodies, but I definitely need to watch it.
Going forward the key is moderation. Cooking light at home, and not going too hard on the alcohol if there's not company to share the good times with.
Best places in Austin
Well to reward you for checking out this post... here are my favorite spots in Austin, sort of out of order.
- Happy hour: Lamberts, Olive and June
- Beer: Draught House Pub, Brew & Brew, Easy Tiger(not as good as it used to be)
- Bar: Yellow Jacket Social Club, Tiniest Bar in Texas, Nasty's
- Cocktails: East Side Showroom, Weather Up, Peche
- Cafes: Cenote, Brew & Brew, Halcyon, Cherrywood Cafe
- Trailer: East Side King Grackle, Dai Due, Proper Breakfast(closed?)
- Food $: Ramen Tatsuya, Together Restaurant, Taqueria Chapala, Las Cazueals, Asia Cafe, A+A Sichuan, Ho Ho, Sunflower, Thanh Nhi(Get the 1B), Tacorrido(Get revueltas), El Sunzal, Super Burrito, 888(yes, they got a new chef or something), Habanero, Rositas Al Pastor, Tamale House East, Wok n' Express(Yes), Fricanos, Pho Danh, Baguette House
- Food $$: Bufalina, Justine's, Kome(hit or miss), Olive and June
- Food $$$: Uchi, Qui
Places that could be good if improvements are made:
Sway, Swifts Attic
You'll probably notice that I don't have a lot of $$$'s on my recommendation list nor do I have trailers. While I love fine dining... I don't do that much of it. I also think that a lot of fine dining in Austin just isn't worth it.
-The Grand Take Away
Probably the best thing I learned from hanging out with chefs is even though media tends to idolize them and make them seem like these hermit-like, unreachable beings... they're just real people. Over the years, I've found that the best way to talk to someone, no matter what profession, no matter how much money they make, or how important they might be, to just talk to them like a normal person. I tend to have a scale that I use to "judge" people as I talk to them. If you talk to someone who's passionate and has found love within what they do, they tend to rate higher. This passion towards their craft enriches their conversions, it keeps them sharp, it keeps them humble, and being around these people will drive you to do more with whatever you're into. Chefs tend to rate very high on this scale.
Also, about this whole fine dining thing. I'm actually sure most of us, if not all of us would be perfectly fine eating the most basic of home cooked meals if that's all there was. I'm also sure that we all can indulge even in the crappiest of crap junk food. Hot pockets, love them. Instant ramen, great. Dat Taco Bell.
I sincerely think that it's not really the food that's the most important. It's where the food takes you and the people you meet on the journey. Crave it. Let it take you on a trip. It's amazing how food is such a basic necessity and yet it offers so much complexity and wonder.
So... if you have it in you, go forth and be a foodie.
P.S. For those who know me. Yes I was working on a food magazine for the past year. It never came to fruition due to my laziness and lack of commitment. Largely, this blog post entails most of what I wanted to get across in the zine. Perhaps a revised version of this post could make it into print if people like it enough.