Issue X, Volume IV : June 2013
While both of these seemingly failures during prep for the June Culinary Speakeasy were rightfully met with quite a few f-bombs, the tantrum I threw outside the permanently closed Hello Kitty store on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago made a kitchen-full of chefs look like innocent kindergartners.
Hello Kitty and food don’t belong together for most people, but, for me, they are as inseparable as mac and cheese. Both are the two things I am hardcore obsessed with.
I imagine my Intervention introduction: My name is Amanda, and I’m addicted to...Hello Kitty and food.
I have a Hello Kitty bathroom with a Hello Kitty shower curtain, Hello Kitty soap dispenser, Hello Kitty toothbrush holder, Hello Kitty toilet seat cover, and Hello Kitty hand towel. (Luckily, I have an understanding husband.) And I spend a hefty chunk of my day reading cookbooks, studying flavor profiles, prepping vegetables, trying new recipes, cooking old favorites, researching culinary schools, and generally just thinking about food.
As Kristin, co-director/camera-girl extraordinaire, and I headed west on the Ohio Turnpike under dreary skies, my expectations were to experience Top Chef Season 4 alumna Val Bolon’s Culinary Speakeasy, an underground gastronomic movement, and to finally procure the Hello Kitty “Pink Face” apron and Hello Kitty cooking tongs. No big deal. Cross ‘em off the to-do list.
But there are no controlling when revelations happen; they just happen. Food revelations are distinctively surprising. I will never forget chomping into my first Big Mac. Or how elation replaced fear once I nibbled my first taste of sweetbread. Or the pride I felt after spreading that last dollop of frosting over my first made-from-scratch 1-2-3-4 cake. Such was the case at Val’s Culinary Speakeasy. I thought I’d just watch talented chefs prepare and plate five delicious courses and chat with a couple of the 20+ foodies who RSVP’ed for June’s dinner club. However, the more time I spent in the kitchen, observing the intense prep the day before and the focused chaos during service, the more I felt called to honor all that happens to make the dining experience exceptional.
Behind the scenes, I felt part of the team.
Leading the masthead was Val Bolon, a seasoned chef who has worked in world-renowned kitchens, such as Gordan, Spring, MK, and Hot Chocolate. By Val’s side, business partner, hostess with the mostess, and personal chef Rachel Winpar, who draws culinary inspiration from her travels to France. Rachel not only has mad skills in the kitchen, but also brings elegance to the table with her ability to create a welcoming atmosphere with lovely floral arrangements and spectacular table settings. Just returning home to Chicago after living in Hawaii for several years, Tommy Chino Yamauchi contributed his talent and expertise to help make the dinner club a success. Of course, there were the wonderfully gracious servers to lend a helping hand with plating and the grueling work of clean-up. And Cookie the dog who begged her way through hours in the kitchen with sad, puppy eyes.
Technically speaking, Kristin and I should have been outsiders. But immediately upon arriving at Rachel’s fantastic downtown Chicago penthouse, we were embraced, included in all of the inside jokes, and treated with the kindness that only comes from the most sincere respect. Over 24 hours later, I realized that my connections to this team were much deeper; both Val and one of the servers, Jimmy, worked with and are great friends with one of my food mentors and contributors to From Plate to Palate, Chef Michael Bulkowski. The world is small. Dare I say the culinary world is even smaller?
For hours (10 hours on Friday and eight on Saturday before the event), Kristin and I observed Chefs Val, Rachel, and Tommy bust their asses to make every single dish live up to its inception. Between the multiple trips to stores and markets and phones calls to and house visits from friends, family, and pastry chefs, Kristin and I tasted along with the chefs, who bickered about seasoning or nodded simultaneously. I imagine this must be what having a backstage pass is like: getting the inside view of the artists’ work (if you think food is art, which was passionately debated at one point during Friday afternoon). Writing this now, I wish it was possible to show every second of film Kristin caught of Rachel arguing that food cannot be art, that it’s not lasting in the same way a sculpture is; of Val sharing kitchen tips while cuing for how to get into a handstand while checking on the chickpeas in the oven; and of boisterous Tommy sliding on his headphones, becoming quiet and focused in those precious few hours before the guests arrived. If only I could write about every single moment in that kitchen. I suppose I could have Tweeted it, but art, in any medium, cannot replace experience, especially those that alter one in ways that haven’t completely surfaced yet, such as my case.
As a high school senior, there were only two paths I had to choose between: become a creative writer or a chef. I chose Kent State and West Virginia University, with no reservations, to become a creative writer. Watching the magic of the line, the highs and lows, reminded me of sitting at my family’s dining table, a spread of college apps before me, and staring at the blank one for culinary school over and over again. This experience with Val and the team have really made me wonder if now is the time I should return to school, culinary school. After profound experiences, it’s hard to tell what parts are the most meaningful.
I can tell you, though, that Tommy’s amuse bouche of seared panko-encrusted tuna tasted like the ocean, waves gently lapping over the palate several minutes after swallowing—simple, clean, and nourishing. That the oven-dried, crunchy chickpeas complimented the silky texture of the pan-seared skatewing during the first course. That the sweet corn soup was like eating a sultry summer evening, clouds turning a tinge of golden from the setting sun. Or that peanut butter and curry are soul mates, even though they don’t sound like it, and together they make fucking killer ice cream. Every course during the Culinary Speakeasy had its element that mesmerized me as a food enthusiast, but what captivated my attention again and again was the line, the dance of the kitchen. At the beginning the chefs sprung to finish prep, then there was a loll through apps, more leaps, twirls, and drastic dashes carried the performance in and out of the weeds during Courses Three and Four. It all concluded with dessert, a graceful bow, the final offering before thunderous applause.
Usually I’m on the other side, as a diner, and there I’ve always thought the food was the focus. The wall between the chefs and the diners protects us from the insane heat, the smelly sweat, the profuse f-bombs, and all the other insanity we don’t see. We just see the perfectly executed dish and taste its succulence.
No, it’s not the food. It’s the hands that prepare it. Blessed be them.
The food industry is one of service. Nurses, teachers, writers, chefs, most of us make enough money to make ends meet. Honestly, we’re not the ones who can afford specialized medical treatment, Ivy League schools, days to write in solitude, or gourmet meals. Luckily, for us, we’re a talented motley crew who get a little help from their friends. In the economic state of our country, underground-dining groups may seem lavish and extravagant. I won’t debate that, but I will say that food is a universal language among all people. The diners at the Culinary Speakeasy were strangers from different backgrounds and had different motivations for being there, but the one thing that brought them together was the food. Those working behind the scenes to prepare the food, cook it, plate it, and serve it are the ones who make the bonds between those eating it possible, whether at home, a restaurant, or a Culinary Speakeasy. There are Chef’s Tables as many restaurants now, and they are exciting and fun to sit at, but nothing compares to being in the kitchen, being a part of the team, and being someone happily makes great food for others. Thank you, Val, Rachel, and Tommy. XOXOXO
After 13 years of making my way around some of the most inspiring kitchens around, I decided it was time to take a brief break from it all. So I "packed my knives" and decided to make some major changes and figure out what cooking really meant to me. I worked my way up the ranks like most of us do, and came to the realization that I needed to free myself for a while and set out to do some other things with my food background and skills. So off I went. After some extensive traveling and deep soul searching I decided it was time to work in a different environment. It was also time to explore my true creative side. I truly believed that I would take my culinary expertise and venture out alone into a scary world of the Personal Chef.
About a year into the early struggles of the life of a Personal Chef I realized that there was simply something missing from it all. Yes I had more free time, and was even making a bit more money, however, the creative freedom that I thought I would be able to obtain was simply not satisfying enough. While dining with a friend one night, and in the midst of many frosty cocktails, a conversation arose between us. We began to ponder as to how great it would be to be able to bring our friends and family and whoever else was interested together over food, wine, beer and whatever else we could muster up. We began to discuss this 'brilliant' idea, or so we thought it was especially after a couple of bottles of our favorite pinot noir, how we could make this vision a reality. I began to think how great it would be to truly get an opportunity to show my creative side to any and all who are willing to taste. And so the idea was born, a dinner club for all who love to eat, drink and simply be merry, as they say. So my good friend and fellow chef and I decided her home would be a great place to entertain 32 of our closest friend and family for a trial run. We managed to persuade some of our friend and family and even some strangers to sign up and experience our unique dining vision. We even had to extend our first dinner to a second night because we had some much interest in what we were doing. So two successful dinners later, Culinary Speakeasy was born.
Two and a half years later, Culinary Speakeasy lives strong and continues to grow and improve every time we gather. I believe that my extensive travels throughout the globe over the past 17 years, including 37 countries, has truly inspired my food and my life in such positive ways. I completely understand how food is the common link that connects us as humans all over the world and I extend full gratitude for the choices I made to wander about and taste it for myself. I know that our dinners bring people together who enjoy food and who also enjoy life, people who are looking for interesting ways to come together and have a shared experience. It's really about people who want to have some fun and try something new. Yes there are days that I miss the insane daily grind of working in a busy and popular restaurant. What I miss most is the opportunity to work together with a team of people who help to inspire every day. I miss the connection with the people. However, this is what we strive to achieve with Culinary Speakeasy, this is how I now choose to fill that void.
So Culinary Speakeasy will continue to grow and hopefully inspire for as long as people will sign up and take part in our little dream. We are honored and blessed that so many people are so willing to let us explore and experiment with this idea that food is one of the most universal aspects of life and that we should celebrate it together whenever we possibly can.
Enjoy these recipes from the June 2, 2012 Culinary Speakeasy menu!
Sweet Corn Soup
6 ears corn, sliced off the cobb (or 2 large bags frozen corn)
1/2 sweet onion rough chopped
1 leek, root end (white part, can discard green end) roughly chopped
5 cloves garlic
1 quart vegetable or chicken stock ( if desired, corn stock made from the cobbs can be used- recipe below)
1 tsp dried thyme
1 c. buttermilk
salt and pepper to taste
Place a large saucepot over medium heat. Add about a tablespoon of cooking oil, enough to coat the bottom of the pan. Let it get hot for about 1 minute. Add chopped onion and leek and saute about 2 minutes until the color becomes translucent. Next add the garlic and the corn. Continue to saute about 2 more minutes. Add the dried thyme and the stock to cover. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium and cook about 20 minutes to allow all flavors to release. Finally add the buttermilk and puree the soup in small batches in a blender until smooth. Strain over a mesh strainer, season with salt and pepper to taste and serve.
For garnish, I like to serve with a pinch of crab meat, some fresh minced parsley and a drizzle of buttermilk (optional).
6-10 corn cobbs
1 onion, chopped
1 leek, chopped
5 cloves garlic
3 stalks celery, rough chopped
1 carrot, rough chopped
handful of fresh thyme
In a large pot, place all ingredients. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and let simmer for about 45 minutes. Strain liquid and cool. Ready to use for soup.
Peanut Butter Curry Ice Cream
In a large saucepot bring to a boil the cream and milk. In a bowl combine milk powder, sugar, curry powder, salt. Pour warm liquid over other mixture and whisk. Then pour the mixture over peanut butter. Blend until smooth (either in a blender or a stick blender can be used as well). Cool and turn in an ice cream machine or simply pour in a container to freeze.