My boredom during a cooking demo turns into frustration when I learn that nothing edible will reward my attention's endurance. Watching TV chefs cook with deliberately simple ingredients to make a meal with mass appeal does nothing for me, especially if the chef is delighted and enthusiastic about shallots in a way I haven't been about anything since a childhood.
But last weekend was the antidote, as in, San Francisco's own ballsy and unpretentious personalities. As part of Omnivore SF, local chefs showed their skills and bantered with the audience, which sustained themselves on Sightglass Coffee and chocolates from Feve. Here are a few of the presentations from San Francisco's local talent.
Danny Bowein (Mission Chinese Food): Toasted barley porridge with duck and rock shrimp.
Popcorn is the basis -- "I burn it in the microwave every time. That button for popcorn isn't right" -- but the greater concept was building on umami, the fifth taste sensation. The kernels he put into the oiled pot gave a Gallagher-like explosion of popcorn towards the audience. After stopping the cooking with some water, he threw in katsuobushi, or petrified bonito, and let it steep like tea. This, he said, adds the ocean flavor, vital to umami. The idea is to have the corn's sweetness counter the bonito's smokiness.
He showed the audience how to make ginger scallion sauce, which I plan to apply to everything but my ice cream. It's scallions, ginger chunks, salt, and fish sauce. "I put this on everything," he said. For the meat, he heated up a whole duck that had been salted overnight, put the chunks into the soup, and added uni and rock shrimp. Upon his request for "porridge music," "Rock Lobster" played on the stereo, natch.
Bowein's tip: To keep a pot from boiling over, place two chop sticks across the top of the pot on each side.
Roland Passot (La Folie): Cauliflower mousse and Wagyu beef tenderloin
Chef Passot started with one of his staple amuse-bouches, one that uses the in-season cauliflower from the south bay. To the pureed vegetable, he added milk and cream, then poured the mix into a whipped cream dispenser. What came from the nozzle filled a decapitated and gilded egg shell. The top got a fat caviar dollop. "We like to spoil our guests," he said. This is why you go out to eat.
Next, Passot cooked a wagyu beef tenderloin, which was entirely as expected, save for the fire alarm it triggered, but the garnish was the novelty. If you've had steak at a French restaurant, you've probably had béarnaise sauce, a gout-inducing blend of butter and egg yolks. Instead of just putting a few spoonfuls next to the potatoes, Passot puts the sauce through hell. He freezes it, adds some egg whites and bread crumbs, then fries the whole thing into a croquette. The result is a glorious sauce ensconced in fragile bread. Why burn all those calories when the sauce would be find on its own? "It is amusing. It is for my pleasure, for the eye's pleasure," he said.
Passot's tip: When cooking meat, take care to not add too much oil. "It's like if you burn your hand, the skin will tighten and shrink," he said.
Mark Bright (Saison): Wine pairings
Saison is one of the Bay Area's most complete dining experiences, and my personal watermark for high-end dining around here. The dishes get just the right amount of creativity, the courses arrive with spot-on pacing, and it's all served sans pretention. No need for lofty ingredient listing from the waiter when the dish speaks for itself. My esteem for Mr. Bright's institution mattered little because the promise of good and free wine is rarely enough to get me off the couch. I find nodding and feigning interest in barrels and weather cycles not worth a vineyard's complimentary glasses of red.
Gin and rum still rule my world, but tasting wines in close succession, as Bright had us do, explains what the fuss is all about. It's tough getting your tongue to sense what's happening as aged beef hits your white wine-coated gullet. He said, "When you're pairing, you think about heat and sugar first." For example, alcohol exaggerates the spice of a dish, which can throw off the chef's intended flavor balance. Prioritize the dish's own ecosystem and compliment it without interrupting the flavors. Or just defer to the waiter as I'll still do, but with more curiosity.
Best tip: "acidity" makes your mouth water while "tannins" make your mouth dry. Now go impress (or repulse) your dinner date with your vocabulary.