Tuesday, November 17, 2015

World Food Championships

Long time, no see. That's because I was doing a bit of traveling this month. I had gone off to the World Food Championships held in Celebration, Florida. This is the same place where our own Pangaea Cafe, winners of the Sacramento Burger Battle, were off to compete against the best in the nation...and the world.

In actuality, I was at the blogger component, a conference called Food Fight Write. I was among about 40 other bloggers from across the United States and even one from Myanmar, thus contributing to the World component. The real goal of Food Fight Write (FFW) was to bring in bloggers to promote the World Food Championships (WFC) and "food sport" or competitions.

This was the fourth year for the WFC. Prior to this they had been held in Las Vegas. The creators of the WFC had the idea to create the equivalent of the Olympics or the Superbowl — for food. After all, every year there are regional cook-offs at events or State fairs for everything from chili, to barbecue, to desserts. The idea was to have a final arena for these regional winners to compete and claim the ultimate title of World's Best.

The competition categories are: dessert, pasta, recipe, chili, barbecue, burgers, sandwiches, bacon, seafood, and steak. Dishes are judged based on the EAT methodology of Execution, Appearance, and Taste. This year the competitors included 17 countries and 40 States.

Each category has two stages of cook-off. The first stage sets everyone to prepare two dishes — their signature and a "structured" dish that has create their own spin on the same basic dish.  The top 10 then go on to compete in the finals where they must use a specific ingredient . The winner wins $10,000.  The winner of each category then goes to a final competition where they compete for the $100,000 grand prize and title of Best Dish.

For this endeavor the competitions took place in two places. In downtown Celebration, where I spent my time, there were 50 cooking stations set up down their main street. Every station was equipped with brand new Kenmore Pro Series appliances that included: range, microwave, toaster oven, gas grill, food processor, standing mixer, blender, pots and pans. Every few stations shared a refrigerator.

The other location was at the Westgate Resorts where the barbecue and burger competitions took place. I believe the reason is that they had more than 50 competitors and also that they had a range of barbecues available and there was more concern for fire danger.

I should mention that Pangaea just BARELY missed the top 10 by like fractions. Good job though! VERY close to cracking the top 10.

Our pantry selections
Meanwhile I had the lovely honor of competing as well. We actually were the first to use the Kenmore kitchens in an "all in fun" cooking competition. It was designed to  make us see what it's like to participate in a cooking competition with the timing, judging, etc. We had to use filet mignon from Kansas City Steaks as well as one of six sauces from Saucy Mama. I knew everyone would be cooking, so I chose to do a steak tartare. Let's just say at least I didn't come in last place.

My overall impression is that someday the WFC will be a huge deal. Right now it's still in growing pains. They've chosen to stay in Celebration for the next five or so years. While I understand that it's easy to keep coming back to the same place logistics-wise, downtown Celebration is small and I just can't see tens of thousands of people crowding and attending it there. 

Each year there is sure to be more sponsors. Last year Kenmore wasn't one, this year they are. Also, celebrities will help as well as the TV coverage that takes place by some of the food networks. 

Meanwhile, Sacramento should try to send more competitors in more categories besides burgers. I hope to see that grow as well. 

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Dan Barber visits Sacramento

I am not interested in eating insects. Oh, I know they are the next big food thing, but count me out on that one. It gives me the heeby jeebies. Yet I inadvertently ate some the other night.

I was at the Fruit to Root party, put on by the Food Literacy Center,  that preceded the Dan Barber speech at the Central Library Galleria. A dozen of Sacramento's chefs were all presenting bites a la Wasted, Barber's New York pop-up restaurant that serves only dishes made from parts that we normally throw away. This list includes offal from animals as well as things like carrot tops, peels, and seeds that are normally tossed from plants. 

Fox40's Bethany Crouch trying the arepa

There were some pretty impressive bites, including the arepa that was made with meal worm flour mixed with maize flour, thus the insects. At least I couldn't see them. All joking aside, all of them were creative and delicious. (Scroll to the bottom to see some of the dishes).

Of course the star of the evening was Dan Barber, James Beard Award winning chef and the author of The Third Plate. Now in all honesty, I knew I wouldn't be able to read that book, so I opted for the audiobook, which he reads. He apologized for his boring voice, but actually, it's quite enjoyable as an audiobook because it's like he's telling you stories of his trips and discussions with people. It's more personal.

What I love about the book is that he shares his insights in what is wrong with the farm to fork movement, his journey to his conclusions, and the way it wakes you up to a new way of thinking about where our food comes from. There are many topics/chapters in the book that all relate to the overall message of how we need to change how we look at farming and food. 

Barber was also gracious enough to say that Sacramento has an important part to play as we are the Farm to Fork Capital.

Making me wonder...

Barber talked about the importance that chefs can play in educating and changing the way we eat. He also explained how, when he made his changes to serving dishes with rotational crops and lesser known ingredients, he switched to a prix fixe menu. Prix fixe menus mean that you eat what the chef decides instead of choosing off a menu. So, in his case, you were eating offal and rotation risotto (risotto made with other grains such as barley and millet) whether you wanted to or not.

I've also been watching Chef's Table on Netflix. There's actually a great episode with Barber, but the one I'm thinking about now is the episode with New Zealand chef Ben Shewry. In it he talks about how every Tuesday is their experimental night. Guests know it and they pay for a prix fixe menu of a meal where anything goes. It could be good, or some dishes can fail.

So all this makes me wonder... what if a restaurant here took the same approach with a creative menu using waste? Have a night where everything is helping to educate people and getting used to eating in a way that is better for farming and the environment.

Thing is, Sacramento isn't exactly a prix fixe town. The only restaurant that solely works on a prix fixe basis is The Kitchen.  All other restaurants that have prix fixe menus also allow off-menu ordering. My cynical thinking is that if people have a choice, they'll opt for their familiar favorites over trying something adventurous, so I'm concerned it will only work by limiting to prix fixe menu only.  But then will there be enough interest/orders/sales?

I'd love Sacramento to prove me wrong. I'd love us to be like Barber said, a leader in the movement to TRUE sustainable farm to fork dining. Can we make it happen?

Braised lamb neck

Whole grain risotto, smoked eggplant, goat milk feta

Winter squash guacamole

Crackers of sprouted buckweat, bruised apple butter, chicken innards mousse

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

An A-ha Moment re Michael Pollan, Dan Barber, and America's Food

Tuesday night I was lucky enough to be gifted with tickets to see food writer Michael Pollan. Anyone who is into the food movement knows he is the author of The Omnivores Dilemma, a groundbreaking book on the impact of food and the American diet. 

During his talk Pollan discussed nutritionism. This is where Americans have learned to look at food in terms of nutritional components instead of as just food.  For instance, calories, proteins, probiotics, etc. instead of beef, broccoli, and beans. And that we categorize them into good and evil - gluten, carbs are bad; omega 3s are good. In the late 70s is when we started to piece apart nutritional components trying to find the magic good ones and nasty bad ones that we need to eat or avoid.

The other landmark book on food has been last year's The Third Plate, written by Dan Barber who will happen to be here next Tuesday, exactly one week after Pollan. 

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Pear Bridge Dinner Celebrates Farm-to-Fork

While all the hoopla was going on with the Tower Bridge Dinner downtown, I had a lovely evening on a picturesque bridge on the Delta. The Pear Bridge Dinner was put on by the California Pear Advisory Board on a small wooden bridge in Walnut Grove. 

The bridge used was one built in 1951 to connect to Dead Horse Island. The local farmers used to take their old, worn out workhorses to the island to live out their final days free and easy. 

Before I show pictures, I had some thoughts about this dinner and the month long farm to fork celebration. It occurred to me, as I sat among the local delta farmers and pear growers, that there needed to be more bridge dinners like this. 

The Tower Bridge Dinner has become such a show piece with tables gobbled up by sponsors and VIPs and only a handful available to the public, only to be bought up in mere seconds. Here I was for an intimate dinner with farmers and I thought, what if each county or farm community put on its own bridge dinner? That way the people who really should be celebrating, the farmers, could enjoy this sort of harvest celebration together. It would also make more tickets available to pubic in different areas.  Have one in El Dorado County, Placer County, one on the historic covered bridge in Nevada County, with the almond growers down in Ripon and one with the rice farmers in Woodland. What if, on the same night as the Tower Bridge Dinner, there were a dozen other bridge dinners throughout the region? 

I think such an idea would better embrace the farm-to-fork spirit and give more people the opportunity to participate. There are smaller farms that can't afford to be a part of the Farm to Fork Festival or donate money or product to some of the large events. But if there was a dinner in their own community shared with their neighbor farmers on a smaller scale, it would be easier for them to participate.

On to the dinner...

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Favorite Sacramento Restaurants 2015

When you are a food blogger, critic, or writer, the number one question has got to be, "What are your favorite restaurants in town?" To that end, I hereby submit my current list. The last time I did this was in 2011 and a lot has changed.  In another 18 months, even more so with the 30-50 new restaurants expected thanks to the new arena.

Links are to my posts of each place.

First, The Kitchen cannot be put on a list. I highly recommend it and like it, but it is so expensive that it is hard for the normal Joe/Jane to pony up unless it is a special occasion. So it is in it's own category.

These restaurants are the ones I return to on a regular basis

- Ella $$$ fine dining, affordable happy hour and lunch specials
- Empress $$$ meat focused fine dining
- Kru $$-$$$ best sushi/Japanese in Sac
- Fish Face $-$$ same owner as Kru, but only serves poke in a fast casual concept
- Lou's Sushi $$ my 2nd favorite sushi, addicted to the seafood nachos
- Broderick's $$ best burgers in Sac
- Viet-ha $ fast casual Vietnamese - banh mi sandwiches and rice/noodle bowls

Fine dining:
- Waterboy $$$
- Mulvaney's $$$
- Paragary's $$$

Restaurants I will happily return to when someone wants to go there:

- Hawk's $$$ fine dining in Granite Bay
- Localis $$-$$$ exceptional farm to fork
- Grange $$$ fine dining in the Citizen Hotel
- Matteo's $$-$$$ neighborhood Italian in Carmichael
- The Press $$-$$$ downtown bistro
- Biba's $$-$$$ landmark Italian
- Magpie Caterers $$ a Sacramento bistro favorite
- South $$  Southern cuisine
- Mother $-$$ vegetarian even carnivores love
- Cafe Plan B $$ - French bistro fare
- Cask & Barrel $$-$$$ - Modern Southern cuisine
- Boulevard Bistro $$$ CA bistro
- Porch $$-$$$ Southern
- Roxy $$ American

In the chain restaurant category:
- Texas Roadhouse BBQ - my go-to when I'm in the mood for a ribeye
- Maggiano's Italian - love their pasta deal. Order 1, get another to take home.

In the ethnic category:
- Cafe Morocco - favorite Mideastern
- Siam - Thai
- Katmandu Kitchen - Nepal/India
- Boon Boon - Thai
- Macau Cafe - Chinese
- Vallejo's - the one at 4th and S - Mexican
- Lalo's - very authentic Mexican

Fast food:
- Popeye's Fried Chicken
- La Fiesta Taquerias
- In n Out
- Chando's
- Suzy's
- Buckhorn Grill

- Dad's - American style

- Tower Cafe
- Ettore's

- Bacon and Butter
- Tower Cafe
- Original Pancake House
- Capitol Garage
- Mama Kim's

#1 Alonzo's!!! $$- in Citrus Heights, but the best stuffed pizza
- Federalist $$
- Masullo's $$

Monday, September 21, 2015

Food 101 - Local education

I'm honored to be asked to be a part of Food 101, a fun series of events put on by Lucca Restaurant and their sister business, Lucky Dog Ranch. Over the next few weeks they will be holding a series of "classes" with different topics and speakers. Check out the schedule below.  What's great is that the events all include food! 

As for mine, feel free to comment if there are some topics or ideas you might like me to cover in my session.

First one is this Saturday with Burgerjunkies!

School is back in session and Lucca Restaurant is hosting a multi-date event entitled “Food 101.” The event is a five-class course featuring five different speakers, each with a distinct realm of expertise in the culinary world who will share their knowledge during a casual lunch at Lucca. Classes begin on Saturday, September 26, and are taught every other week. A broad spectrum of topics will be covered, such as: Burgers, Food Photography, Food Industry Trends, Wine, and Innovative Culinary Techniques. Each speaker will work in collaboration with Chef Ian MacBride to create dishes for the lunch that accompany the discussion and enhance the learning experience. All classes will take place in a casual setting at Lucca Restaurant, 1615 J Street, Sacramento, CA.

Event Line-Up:

Saturday 9/26/15 (11 a.m. – 1 p.m.) Rodney ‘@BurgerJunkies’ Blackwell -- the founder of the Sacramento Burger Battle and creator of the blog, "Burger Junkies." He has built a lifestyle traveling around the world, experiencing & rating hundreds of burgers. His topics may include: the best burger preparation techniques, home recipes, what’s new in the burger scene and even Instagram tips.

Saturday 10/10/15 (11 a.m. – 1 p.m.) Debbie Cunningham – a contributing photographer for Sacramento Magazine & Edible Sacramento who specializes in food & restaurant photography.  She has worked with countless top restaurants and been published in numerous other venues. Her topics may include:  how to take the best food pictures, composition lighting and editing -- all ranging from using a professional camera to a mobile phone.

Saturday 10/24/15 (11 a.m. – 1 p.m.) Catherine ‘@Ms_Munchie’ Enfield – the creator of the Sacramento Food Film Festival; Have an Offal Day; her blog, Munchie Musings; and the owner of SacFoodTrucks.net. Her topics may include: upcoming trends & predictions of the culinary industry and food trucks,  tips for amateur food bloggers, community involvement of local food bloggers.

Saturday 11/7/15 (3 p.m. – 5 p.m.) Mike Dunne –the writer of a weekly wine column for The Sacramento Bee and The Bee’s former food editor, wine columnist and restaurant critic.  His topics may include:  tasting, pairing and writing about wine; as well as touching on observations and predictions of the California wine scene.

Saturday 11/21/15 (11 a.m. – 1 p.m.) Hank Shaw – the creator of the blog, Hunter Angler Gardener Cook; author of the books, Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast, and Duck, Duck Goose: Recipes and Techniques for Ducks and Geese, both Wild and Domesticated; and an award-winner from both the James Beard Foundation & the International Association of Culinary Professionals. His topics may include: innovative & unique methods of preparing seafood, wild game and sausage.

Event Details:
  • Tickets are $30 for each class
  • Each ticket includes cuisine that enriches the educational experience
  • Classes are limited to 50 seats

Tickets are available for purchase online only. To buy tickets and for more information, visit http://www.food101.brownpapertickets.com

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Why it's great that the International Food Blogger Conference is coming to Sacramento

We just got some news that I think is great for Sacramento. One of the best (and my favorite) food bloggers' conferences is coming to Sacramento in July 2016. Next year's theme: Farm to Fork (big surprise). That means about 500 of the nation's top food bloggers (and a few international) will be coming to town.

The International Food Blogger Conference (IFBC) is one of the top in the country.  I love it and I've gone to IFBC four times myself. There are many reasons.

First is the content. The sessions are actually helpful and educational. Whether it's about improving search engine optimization (SEO), food photography, or pitching book deals, you will come out having learned something. Second would be the speakers. Over the past few years the speakers have included documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, famed food critic Jonathan Gold, Saveur editor Joel Oseland, and famed food photographer Penny De Los Santos. Finally is the camaraderie with food blogging friends made over the years from across the country.

What does it mean for Sacramento?  500 or so food bloggers in town? Promotion! Promotion of our food scene, farm to fork, and all the wonderful things our area has to offer in terms of agri-tourism.

One thing IFBC does is offers food bloggers a huge conference discount as long as they write three posts devoted to IFBC. While some will be writing about the conference, many will be writing about their visit, the restaurants they ate at, the events they attended. Again, great promotion for Sacramento.

The Friday is always pre-conference activities. This will include tours and so I can picture visits to farms, orchards, breweries, or wineries in the area. Then Friday and Saturday evening events are a showcase of the bounty of the region with samplings of food and drink from purveyors and local restaurants. After that, bloggers will be descending on restaurants around town.

To promote Farm to Fork across the U.S. and attract visitors to come, you can't ask for a better promotional opportunity than for IFBC's hundreds of food bloggers to spread the word.  

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Sactown Restaurant Service - the next two years

You have to have been a coma not to know that there's a new Kings arena being built downtown. It's pretty hard to miss if you happen to be anywhere near the construction. With it comes all the talk and excitement of what the arena will mean to Sacramento, mostly in terms of economics.

My mind has been dwelling on one facet of those economic changes — the state of the Sacramento restaurant scene in terms of restaurants and their staffs.

You may think Sacramento has a fine collection of restaurants as it is. Well hold on tight because we are about to see an explosion of restaurants in the next 18 months. Some are already beating others to the punch. In June there were the openings of the remodeled Paragary's, Iron Horse Tavern, Roxie Deli, Dos Coyotes. In July we got the moved Magpie, Localis, Fish Face, and Metro Kitchen & Drinkery. The midtown Broderick's and the long awaited Empress Tavern just opened up.

Here's the thing. Competition is going to start getting fierce to not only hire all levels of staff for these restaurants, but also to hold onto them. The truth is, Sacramento does not currently have enough staff for all of these restaurants. There are not enough servers, chefs, line cooks, general managers, bartenders, bussers, dishwashers, etc. for the current number of restaurants, let alone the 30+ slated to open in the next 18-24 months.

Even less? QUALITY staff. Already restaurants in town are trying to lure quality servers, GMs, and more.  This has made me really think about what will be happening with restaurant labor over the next few years. 

This post is not meant to take any position on any particular method(s) but to point out some of the issues our local restaurants will be contending with over the next 18-24 months.

High turnover 

I worked for the State of California for 20 years and many of the last ten years were filled with hiring freezes and furloughs as the State tried to save money. Because of the strict hiring freezes, agencies and departments would end up hiring staff from other agencies because they couldn't bring in fresh new blood as new hires from the public. The problem is that when you have this much constant turnover of staff, work doesn't get done because it never gets learned. Before a hire has time to learn the new job, maybe even improve upon it and leave a legacy for new hires in the future, they were already being enticed away to other positions and promotions. The labor force was constantly moving.

Now imagine that in the restaurant industry. In Sacramento there are only so many restaurant staff currently available. We're not talking fast food staff, we are talking about seated, service restaurants from small cafes to fine dining establishments. Restaurant work is hard and low pay. Quality staff are going to be sought out, enticed, and hired away from competing restaurants. Chefs, GMs, and servers are constantly moving.

Recruit elsewhere

The best solution to look elsewhere and the most obvious is the Bay Area. What does Sacramento have that the Bay Area doesn't? Lower cost of living. It's time to start heavy recruitment of quality staff from San Francisco and vicinity. Local restaurant leaders should (and are) join forces to start an active advertising campaign and recruitment effort in the Bay Area and maybe even Southern California as well.  In order to get new hires to make the move, give them an incentive to encourage them to recruit their fellow restaurant coworkers to join them in the move. 


Monday, August 31, 2015

Sacramento has a new Empress

In what must be the most anticipated restaurant opening in a decade, Empress Tavern is finally ready to open. After months and months of delays and waiting, we finally get to see what took so long. And boy is it worth it. 

Chef's Table
It may be named Empress Tavern, after the old Empress vaudeville theater it sits under (now the Crest), but pretty much everyone in town drops the "Tavern" and just calls it Empress. And it is a regal restaurant. You will see every dollar spent and every day spent waiting when you go down those stairs.

Prime rib bites
On Saturday I was one of the lucky ones to attend the VIP soft opening event. This is obviously not a review, but just my first impressions.

The exit to street level was where the emergency exits were, cut into the little inset to the right of the Crest box office and alongside the Mediterranean Cafe's patio. Now the glass doors are replaced with curved wooden doors akin to those that often open into wine caverns in Napa or France. They set the mood for what you will find inside.

I often went to movies in the downstairs Crest theaters, so I remember the configuration well. Two smaller theaters sat side by side and the floors were considerably sloped for seating that afforded good views over others' heads. Now you will find the host stand at the top of the stairs, descend the stairs to the landing where you can make a grand entrance - see everyone and be seen by everyone. You will take in a transformation that is almost unbelievable. Arched brickwork to look like wine caverns and underground cellars. It's pretty amazing.

When I saw Michael Thiemann later in the evening I had to ask about the bricks. I could not believe they would basically build a building underneath another. I thought it might have just been thin slice brick veneers, but Thiemann assured me that they had a team of brick masons in here and every brick in there is real. Anyone who remembers Greek history and the importance of the arch will be in awe.

Inside the bar occupies the center with 360 degree access. I liked that many of the tables have leaves on them to make them either square or circle in shape. The benches are similar to Mother in that they also act as storage bins. On the far wall are the most impressive tables. There are several arched alcoves with longer tables for parties of 6-8. Someone joked that they should place bar doors on them so it would look like prison cells.  At the farthest corner is the Chef's Table, long and beautiful.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Uber paradox and why you should tip

I wanted to do a follow-up article to the one I did in January (It's not worth it to drive Lyft and Uber in Sacramento) because this week Uber has been celebrating its One Millionth Ride in Sacramento. All week long they've been doing special things for Uber customers. On Tuesday there was Chando's deliveries, Wednesday a chance to win a trip to Hawaii, and Friday a chance to win a cruise. Yay. Great. But what about the drivers? Zip. Nothing.

What Uber SHOULD be doing is having two celebrations. One for the customers, but another for the drivers!  We are the ones doing all the work for miserable pay. Better yet, pay us more!

My prior post goes into all the reasons it sucks to be a driver now. I've actually stopped driving. I'm not interested in making money for greedy Uber and losing money myself. 

The Kum-ba-ya of Uber is gone

I find it interesting that at first it seemed the whole idea of ride sharing was that people could sign up and drive Uber on their spare time and make some money. A kumbaya, sense of community, communal idea. And at first the money was good. 

Now the only way to make money driving is to go full-time. I truly think that for part-time drivers they are losing money, not making it. It's the working of full-time+ hours that helps the drivers to average out their dollars/hour earnings. 

So think about it. Uber has become as taxi as any taxi company. Full-timers are sticking with it, but part-timers are giving up. New drivers sign up, become quickly disillusioned and quit. So much for kumbaya.

So this is why you should take pity and tip your Uber driver