The Unemployable Feast: A Supper Club

This last weekend, I hosted the first of what I hope will be many monthly supper clubs for other unemployed writers, artists, and musicians. Everyone was kind enough to bring a dish or two that they’d made. The theme was…well, there wasn’t really a theme. Themes are for people who receive remuneration in exchange for performing a service. You know, fancy assholes!

We put on a Louis Armstrong record and lit the DIY candles that I’d copied from a Readymade article on repurposing your dog’s earwax. We greeted our 8 guests—all wonderfully talented and devastatingly interesting friends we’ve met doing art shows and poetry readings—with a plate of cracked lasagne noodles topped with the rest of that jar of lemon curd someone gave me last Christmas. The noodles, being raw, were delightfully al dente (it’s so hard to get properly al dente noodles in this town—we need more Italians, for sure!) and the almost fermented funkiness of the curd really gave them intrigue. My friend Louise remarked that she’d had something at Alinea last year, when the rich guy she was blowing flew her to Chicago for the weekend. Well, blush blush, Louisa! I swear I wasn’t even trying.

Bennie X, a graffiti artist who sleeps in an abandoned food trailer, is SUCH an amazing mixologist. He brought a wonderful cocktail he created out of flat Sprite and the small portion of vanilla extract that he managed to prevent himself from drinking for its 50% alcohol content! Deeeelish! The genius he is, he even improvised with a peppery sprig of spider fern from our neighbor’s porch. He makes his own moonshine, too, with corn he steals from the dumpster behind HEB. Even though it’s not organic, it is totally authentic in that it makes you blind almost instantly.

Steffy made kimchi enchiladas. What a fusiony treat these were, OMG. As the corn tortillas had been in the back of her fridge for several months, they had great chew. And the kimchi was fizzy and om nom nom nom. Nom. (How many of those are you supposed to do?) These went perfectly with Zaira’s mustard tostadas—we all agreed that the most common ingredient in any out-of-work artist’s fridge is a forgotten bag of tortillas in the back of the second shelf, behind the stock you made from that really big carrot you got tired of eating once.

Our friends Dinah and Calvin showed up—what a delightful surprise! Dinah’s lupus usually keeps her in the house and Calvin’s constant crying has had him positively swamped lately, but they managed to throw together an amaaaazing main course of decorative kale they found growing in front of St. David’s, garnished with dog park mushrooms.

Between heaving dry sobs, Calvin confessed he felt the dish  was missing something, but I improvised with a box of Kikkoman tempura flakes that I got from a food expo in May, and the bottle of safflower oil that’s been laying on its side in the cabinet above the stove since before we moved in. Yessss! The deep fry gave the fungus just the right texture to bring out its slightly bucolic assets.

Meanwhile, Nat poured from a bottle of 2002 Barbaresco he’d opened for an account earlier that day. Hint to all unemployed artists: marry, date, live near, or befriend anyone in the wine industry. They’ll keep you in good wine no matter what you can or can’t afford!

Granted, the Barbaresco was a bit young, but I personally felt that the thick grape tannins coating my teeth gave me the feeling of being full, which I was grateful for because no one likes a fat AND poor person, except Republican presidential candidates.

For dessert, we had our friend Abacus whip up one of his famous Nutter Butter Brown Bettys! Even though he’s, like, this close to getting funding to open a food trailer based entirely on this one treat, he was kind enough to let me share the recipe with you. (See below.)

All in all, I’d say it was a pretty successful first supper club. Maybe next month we’ll do it at Bennie X’s trailer, or in the parking lot behind the Reid’s Dry Cleaning, which is where Calvin swears there’s a field of dandelion greens growing wild for the taking. Yummers!

Until then, enjoy Abacus’s soon-to-be famous treat:

Nutter Butter Brown Betty

4 packages of Nutter Butters, crushed from being at the bottom of an old backpack, or under a bus seat, or whathaveyou

10 packets of Sugar in the Raw

12 oz. coffee (hint: if you are checking the bus tubs at your neighborhood coffeeshop, look for the leftover mugs of people who used cream. The dairy will create an interesting caramelizing effect.)

Layer ingredients in a…whatever. Put in preheated oven on 350 for 25 minutes. Serve immediately, preferably with a scoop of some food blogger’s homemade ice cream. Just tell them you’ll barter it for a day of nonstop Tweeting about how “amaaaazing” it is.

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Are Austin’s Dining Reporters Lost Up Their Own Asses?

No one considers CultureMap any great source of journalistic integrity (or grammatical, for that matter—would it kill someone there to edit a piece?), but the sneering denigration toward Chef Deegan McClung in this article seems supplied entirely by the perspective of one source, in this case one restaurant reviewer, Pat Sharpe (almighty in her Texas Monthly throne though she is). Never mind that McClung turned Jeffrey’s from an increasingly irrelevant dinosaur into one of the best restaurants in Austin.

Never mind, too, that TM took that star away before McClung had even cooked there one day—a fact Sharpe admits to in the article—implying that the decision had less to do with Jeffrey’s earning the demotion and more to do with politics. Emotional, petty, high-school politics.

Sharpe says, “Texas Monthly removed the star from Jeffrey’s—we have a three-star system—in April 2009, in an abundance of caution when Deegan McClung became chef. He was new and relatively untested. We had no idea whether he could handle the kitchen of a major restaurant.”

Really? So in your illustrious decades of writing about restaurants, with that James Beard Award glimmering brightly on your mantel, you still “had no idea” that a guy who worked at Commander’s Palace and Herbsaint in New Orleans, and who was the Chef de Cuisine at Uchi when it leaped into the national spotlight, could handle the kitchen of a major restaurant? How curious.

She goes on to claim that,”We never gave the star back. Yes, there were flashes of excellence and creativity, but the quality was inconsistent.”

Interesting observation. It’s worth nothing that Texas Monthly has pelted former Jeffrey’s chefs Dave Garrido and Alma Alcocer-Thomas with coos and kudos throughout the years, even though their cooking isn’t so much inspiring as it is resolutely capable (anyone who’s eaten at Alcocer-Thomas’s Tacos N Tequila might find this a bit generous). Could this be the real reason for the knee-jerk star spanking? It’s one thing to stand up for your friends; it’s quite another to use your power and reach to condemn the person who replaces them, having “no idea” whether you should or shouldn’t.

All of this lends the next quote from Sharpe a near-histrionic peal: “In January 2011, we took Jeffrey’s out of our dining guide. That was the first time it had not been in since March 1976, shortly after it opened.”

The reader is almost shocked not to read a subsequent “so THERE.”

More importantly, the fact that TM took Jeffrey’s out of its dining guide — but splattered Robert Del Grande/Schiller Group’s unbelievable Lake Travis stinker Soleil with unflagging adulation—speaks more to TM’s food section’s increasing irrelevance and removal from reality than it does to any ability on the part of McClung’s kitchen.

In full disclosure, I have become friends with the McClungs in recent years, a measure more of my attraction to talent and good people than the cause of my praise for his cooking skills and defense of the underhanded attack on him. Don’t confuse the two.

In further disclosure, I was the editor and a contributor to the Fearless Critic Austin Restaurant Guide when Deegan took over the kitchen at Jeffrey’s, and was part of a panel of critics that independently visited and reported on the place in the first year of its revival—a panel that unanimously found it one of the most important and interesting restaurants in the city, even with moments of “inconsistent” quality.

Regarding the dubious reliance on “inconsistency” to make one’s case: the Swedish theologian and scholar Krister Stendahl might step in here to remind us that “The more one pleases generally, the less one pleases profoundly.” In my years as a restaurant critic, I have never once thoroughly enjoyed an Austin restaurant that was consistent. Quite the opposite. You experience higher highs when a chef takes risks—even Uchi has had some flops on its changing specials page, but it more often hits it out of the park. If you seek the remarkable with “consistency” as your lamplight, you’ll keep running into Chili’s.

Or, in the parlance of the stove: If you want to make a fucking great omelette, you have to break a few eggs. If you want to eat a mediocre omelette, however, you could consult Texas Monthly’s dining guide. It’s riddled with them.

You can read (a regrettably abbreviated version of) what Fearless Critic had to say about Jeffrey’s here.

But regardless of how much and how often I disagree with TM’s food reviews and its apparently specious star system, it stands to irrefutable criticism that this CultureMap piece is petty and outrageously one-sided, plus gloriously riddled with grammatical errors. If CultureMap is interested in offering Austin something it doesn’t already have with Eater, Republic of Austin, Austinist, or (shudder) The Examiner, then it will better vet its pieces and strive for the sort of journalistic integrity that seems so otherwise lacking in our fair city.

Otherwise, stick it in a blog…where it belongs.

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Does One Need Teef To Make Good Beef?* A Study of Austin’s Pitmasters

A few months ago, our panel of restaurant reviewers went on a BBQ crawl, limited (challengingly) to Austin’s city limits. As many know, it is outside of Austin, in those bucolic towns with 100-year-old storefronts plotted around a majestic courthouse/city hall, where one may find the best BBQ in Texas. Snow’s, Louis Müeller, Kreuz Market, Smitty’s, Luling City Market, City Meat Market in Giddings…there’s copious (ad nauseum) pontification on these icons all over the Internet. But it had been a long time since anyone did a really focused case study within the Austin borders, an area long overlooked (and rightfully so) for having mediocre BBQ.**

What we found was a curious relationship between mouth bling and good BBQ: the more bling on the teef, the less amazing the beef. It’s tempting to believe the inverse is true—we tend to associate extreme subculture aesthetics with extreme magical wizard capabilities, such as those required to perfectly smoke, render, and season a brisket. For instance: would you prefer a guy with dreadlocks making your Jamaican ackee and salted fish, or one with a preppy haircut?

But there it was anyway, a series of repeated coincidences—as the pitmaster’s sparklemouth decreased, we found the quality of the BBQ increased. There was one exception: Uncle Billy’s, a detestable chain whose vibe is a manufactured rudeness (completely anathema to the Southern hospitality one encounters at more authentic places in and out of Austin’s borders). Sulky waitresses, faux-rustic décor, and numerous flatscreen TVs do not real Texas BBQ make. And so comes The Uncle Billy’s Hypothesis, wherein bad vibes negatively influence the success implied by a lack of shiny teeth.

As illustrated in this brief PowerPoint presentation:  Grill-to-BBQ Study

Flavor? I ain't think so.

* Title taken from iconic House Park BBQ sign in Downtown Austin: “Don’t Need No Teef To Eat Our Beef” (which, by the way, Sam of Sam’s BBQ says they stole from him long ago, but he’s fine with it – in fact, he might just be the nicest man in the country)

** It should be noted that mediocre BBQ in Texas is still the best BBQ many New Yorkers, Californians, Chicagoans, etc. will ever have, which is why places like Salt Lick and Stubb’s are so lauded by visitors.

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Cater Hater

My fellow waitpeople: It’s wedding season! That means catering gigs are everywhere, and while it’s a low-commitment, relatively stress-free way to earn extra cash, keep in mind that it’s a different animal than waiting tables in a restaurant.

Like, possum-versus-possum-with-the-head-of-a-poisonous-alligator-different.

If you’re going to do it, following are some Dos and Don’ts:

DO identify the mother of the bride as soon as you can. Avoid her at all costs. If she’s heading your way, you’ll wind up being asked to perform any number of ridiculous, nitpicky, potentially hazardous tasks that aren’t even remotely your responsibility. These may include (but are not limited to): holding an incontinent Pomeranian, relighting candles every time they go out despite being in the middle of a 25-mph gale, talking to the DJ about not playing so many songs with sexual connotations in them, or sweeping all the little “thingies” that are dropping out of the trees onto 250 place settings as if it’s an unexpected disaster of the sort no one would ever expect from an orchard wedding in the Spring.

DON’T think for one second that the bride wants to hear your name, how beautiful she looks, your congratulations, or any other thing you have to say. You are a worthless, sad piece of garbage. If she’s sober, she will merely curl her lip; if drunk, you could end up in the pool.

DON’T go out of your way to make sure the bride is eating something, unless your manager specifically sends you over there with a plate. Let her drink too much and vomit on her new in-laws. See above.

DO assume all guests are merely giant, helpless babies. Giant, helpless babies who can, by the way, get you fired. They will try to give you their glass while both of your hands are full. They will stare at you from across the printed buffet menu and ask what’s on the buffet. They will cry if you ask if they would prefer the lighter-bodied red, or the fuller-bodied one. If they see you someplace out of the context of the immediate party area, such as outside the bathroom, they will be stunned into either making choking noises or really uncomfortable small talk.

DON’T risk getting caught nibbling some of the cake. It will be the blandest, most cardboardy, embarrassing reason you ever get in trouble.

DON’T ever say anything to the drunk groomsman who is wearing his sunglasses even though it’s after dark. He will become so frustrated that he cannot date rape or hit you, that he will take the one thing you said to him and then taunt you with it for the rest of the night.

*: Almost verbatim, this is what a groomsman said to me after I made the mistake of telling him what was on the plate I set in front of him.

P.S. If he’d actually looked like James Spader, I’d have fallen over drooling and giggling like a roofied tween.

DO lift weights. You’ll be holding heavy trays at a 90-degree angle for five minutes at a time. You will pray for death. But instead of death, you are asked to lift a full glass rack from a stack higher than your head, making your back and neck form a hellish cat’s-cradle from which you will never recover. Also, stretch every chance you get.

DO be gellin’. Yes, like Magellan.

Like a fun waterbed for your feet.

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>I Puked in Your Car…What’s For Breakfast?

>When I was waiting tables at this popular breakfast & lunch spot in the OC (don’t call it that), the chef/owner, who also lived on the premises, was this crazy pirate who turned up The Pogues full blast on Sunday mornings, played the drums shirtless (and not very well) in his bedroom—of which tables 9 through 13 had a perfect view—and drank shopping carts full of booze on a regular basis, often with his sweet and also-deeply-alcoholic sous chef, Bumpy.

Several times a week, his friends would come to drink all the restaurant’s booze and jump off the roof and perform other feats the guys on Jackass wish that they were stupid enough to. We girls would clock in at 7am in our overalls and bandannas, and be greeted by some disheveled hobo in the kitchen, slobbering all over the espresso machine in agony. One morning, after shooing one away and making proper cappuccinos for the gang, which included nearly all of the chef’s childhood buddies and our whole kitchen crew, we learned that one of the high school chums had gotten mad at some point in the night and stumbled off to sleep in the sous chef’s car.

He wandered into the kitchen as the first tables of blue hairs and rich housewives filed onto the patio for breakfast, and announced to Bumpy, “I puked in your car. What’s for breakfast?”

Following are some of my favorite hangover foods, by region. Bumpy-approved:

Korean:

Seoulleongtang (pronounced “So Long, Tongue”): beef bones simmered in water until it turns milky white – bland on its own, but you’re supposed to add coarse sea salt, kimchi, chili paste, and whatever else they give you in the banchan dishes that come on the side. The marrow will restore you to life, and the water will hydrate you. Plus Koreans are so goddamned nice and quiet. When you’re not related to them.

Vietnamese:

Pho (pronounced “fuh”): again, beef bones simmered in water, but with allspice and star anise and plenty of salt, so you get the most marrowy, baking-spicy, slightly fennelly broth you want to just fall asleep in. Add all the fresh Thai basil, greens (often mizuna), jalapeños, and sprouts you can; test the broth before mucking it up with plum sauce and Sriracha.
Order fatty brisket to further flavor the broth, but only plan to eat the eye round, ordered “on the side” so you can dunk it right before eating and not get that leathery consistency you get when it’s been sitting in there too long.

Bun bo Hue (pronounced “bun bo weigh”): from the Hue region in Vietnam comes this soup with cubes of pinkish-brown floating in it. What is that, you say? Just eat it, it’s good for you.
You say you taste something tinny, like iron? Yeah, that’s cause it’s congealed pig blood. And it’s delicious. But now you’ve puked on my shoes, so that’s one setback to going bun bo Hue instead of pho for your hangover cure (but it’s the only one).

Mexican:

Posole or Pozole: Yeah, yeah menudo. Whatever. When someone is seconds away from ralphing on your shoes, do you really want to show them a bowl of tripe? It looks like something a doctor left in you during surgery that you finally passed, but not before it fused with your own intestines and created a sort of hybrid tissue that longs to tickle your mouth with its freaky little fingers. No, gracias.

Posole is porky and dried-chile spicy and full of corny, earthy hominy. Fill it with cilantro and radishes and squirt it with lime. Don’t dip tortillas in it unless you’re really sure you can stand that much starch yet.

Albondigas: Means “meatballs.” It’s also got lots of squash, celery, carrots, potatoes, and onions in it – and whatever, really. Just use cilantro or get out. if you’re one of those unfortunate people who was born with the enzyme that turns cilantro to soap in the mouth, I pity you, you poor bastard. Cilantro, for the rest of us, produces an ecstatic experience that is rivaled only by the finale of Bizet’s “Carmen,” combined with a meteor shower and oral sex, all at once.

Maybe you should get that fixed or something.

Chinese:

Congee: A velvet rice porridge designed to coat your insides with loving caresses, like a doting Chinese mother; not the kind that makes you hold your pee while you play Rachmaninoff to perfection. By the way, Tiger Mother? Whatever. Saw it when it was “Sybil” and it was just some crazy white lady. Which brings me to a critical analysis of white people: Chinese kids, it is widely held, flourish with this strict discipline. Whatever their emotional problems later in life, they certainly don’t develop multiple personalities to deal with the trauma. Psssh. Lazy, soft white people. When I finally bless the world with my spawn, I will make them green-thumb baking wizard piano virtuosos with straight A’s and a job at 15. You’ll all appreciate it when your kids grow up to be whiny, lazy brats who can’t commit to each other and are deeply depressed that they haven’t become famous. In other words, me.

Thanks, hippie parents, for all that “emotional license.”

Japanese:

Ramen: Not Top Ramen, you silly such-and-such. Get the handmade noodles and tonkotsu broth simmered all day with pork bones. Then pop a soft-boiled egg in ‘er and so good make eye roll back! Add MSG. It makes you smarter. That’s the “headache” you all complain about.

Eastern European/Ashkenazi Jewish:

Matzoh Ball Soup: Is there anything in the world as restorative as a broth polka-dotted with the schmaltz from a chicken’s skin? It’s a velvety hug from your bubbe, and its stern carrots seem to suggest a soup that’s seen it all, and has learned that, at the end of the day, it comes down to roots. Root vegetables, your family roots, the roots of your faith. The farther down your roots go, the more unmovable you are when the winds come—like a potato, an onion. Also, take your elbows off of the table, you schlump.

Hit me with some more regional hangover cures.

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>Chefs Have Awful Taste in Wine

>It’s true.

I’ve worked for a CIA-trained chef in California who drank 375’s of Port like a little girl – yeah, he drank 10 at a click and would end up shooting someone in the ass with a BB gun, but still.

Your Pegasus called, little girl, it would like you to brush its glorious mane.

Another chef, a nationally acclaimed sushi savant, favored Rosenblum Zinfandel when I met him. He’s since graduated, but with a slow and painstaking babystepping that he probably never, ever had to endure in his Japanese food training.

Just because you’ve got a preternatural sense for fish doesn’t mean you’re ready for Burgundy, Daniel-sahn.

The third chef…forget it. Beer. I love good beer, but this is about wine.

So when I come across shit like this:

“Chef Kent (Rathbun, of Dallas fame and Austin jeering) Recommends”

I wet myself with glee. Let’s look at the flavor/texture profiles of his favorite wines, yes?

Whites:
Amayna, Chardonnay, Leyda Valley, Chile 2006
Domaine Chandon, étoile , Rosé, Sonoma-Napa County
MacMurray Ranch, Pinot Gris, Sonoma Coast
Patz and Hall, Chardonnay, Alder Springs Vineyard, Rutherford
Roederer Estate, Brut, Anderson Valley NV
Rubicon Estate, Roussanne-Viognier-Marsanne, Blancaneaux, Rutherford
St. Supéry, Sémillon-Sauvingnon [sic] Blanc, Virtú, Napa Valley

So from this, I take it this guy’s bag is a giant bucket of buttered popcorn topped with oak chips and a copy of Wine Spectator with which he can wipe his glistening craw.

Not a single Old-World-style wine among them, which has become, for me, synonymous with a lighter, better balanced, often subtler experience.

If I had more time and weren’t just writing this to blow off steam between tasks on my steps-to-fucking-Shangri-La-sized to-do list, I’d thoughtfully consider the notion that chefs’ palates suffer from an eventual blanding – a phenom that explains why so many guests find things saltier than the chef can taste. Anyone out there know the results of studies done to this effect? Like I said, I’m busy with an actual job. Let the geeks do the work and spittle all over my shirt while they tell me about it.

His red selection is even worse. I won’t go into it.

The point of this instruction today is: Don’t give a fucking rat’s ass what the chef likes to drink. If it were up to him, he’d be passed out in the walk-in with an empty case of cherry Robitussin and an underaged Thai hooker.

Posted in chefs, Robitussin, wine | 6 Comments

>Another Yelper Makes Me Want To Shove Razors In My Eyes

>”My friend ordered three dishes. I don’t speak Chinese, so I don’t know their exact names, but I have approximated them below:

1. Chicken Buried in a Giant Mountain of Red Peppers that is Really Goddamn Hot
2. Fish Fillet Swimming in a Giant Pool of Spicy Chili Oil that is Really Goddamn Hot
3. Ma Po Tofu Swimming in a Giant Pool of Spicy Chili Oil that is Really Goddamn Hot”

You found this review:
Useless
Embarrassing
Makes You Want To Shove Razors In Your Eyes

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