“Christmas Eve in Malibu”

screenshot-2016-12-23-15-12-28During my earliest days as a chef — long before I even deserved to consider myself a competent line cook — I once found myself in Cher’s kitchen on Christmas Eve day, helping to prepare an early dinner for eight at her Malibu estate. For lack of a better term, it was one of those typical “Hollywood moments” (the common person’s brush with celebrity) that Los Angeles transplants tend to be so proud of at first.

Personally, I had already become totally jaded in that regard.

I had spent well over a decade in L.A. by that point, with many ups and downs, and thanks to various gigs in the entertainment industry, I could list dozens of encounters with celebrities. But my fascination with Hollywood had already worn completely thin by then (so thin, in fact, that I had left it all behind to become a cook, which really says it all).

Chopping onions in Cher’s kitchen wasn’t noteworthy just because she had won an Oscar, or because she was an early pioneer of auto-tune, or for any of those other reasons. The fact is, I could’ve been cooking for Kathy Griffin or Andy Dick, or any regular person for that matter. I was just proud of the fact that I was actually cooking somewhere, and getting paid a decent wage to do it.

For the past several months, I had been working nights as a short order cook in West Los Angeles, basically struggling to keep pace with a small, yet bustling dive bar called the San Francisco Saloon.

My nights at the Saloon were often long: the kitchen was open late, and my mornings usually began with a full day of prep work at Houston’s (now Hillstone) Santa Monica. I used to catch a half-hour nap between gigs, and then somehow battle through a marathon dinner shift at the Saloon.

My work schedule was relentless, but back then, I was eager for any kind of professional cooking experience. At some point during my hazy tenure at the Saloon (drinking on the job was allowed and encouraged), the owner of the bar introduced me to a caterer who occasionally worked for a handful of the B-list celebrities.

Every once in a while, this chef’s modest network of celebrity clients would foster a somewhat lucrative catering job, and I would gladly enlist my services, hoping to earn a little extra income. In those early days of short order cooking, a catering gig was a huge step forward for me: easier work, better hours, better food, more money.

• • •

Knowing what I know now, I suspect that I landed this Christmas Eve gig because no one else was willing to work during the holiday, but that didn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things.

The dinner itself was well within my skill set, since it was just a basic turkey dinner, complete with all of the requisite trimmings. Even as a novice cook, fixing mashing potatoes and making cranberry sauce was rudimentary work. And really, all things considered, my most valuable contribution to the meal was probably unloading the catering van on that rainy December day.

Given the fact that I was cooking for Cher, you might assume that I would remember more about the dinner than I did. But it was a long time ago — I barely remember anything about the day, except for the weather, and the fact that Cher had a stunning hillside view of the Pacific Ocean from her kitchen. Of course, the kitchen itself was also beautiful in its own right, with a giant professional range that could’ve easily been mistaken for brand new.

As for the other details, I also remember that Cher’s name was mentioned dozens of times before she ever appeared. I wouldn’t say that her employees seemed fearful or unhappy, but clearly, everyone in the house wanted to make sure that she was having a happy holiday. It’s understandable.

When Cher did finally appear in the kitchen, she exuded a commanding presence, although (as usual) I expected her to be much taller than she actually was. Cher had an aura about her that was completely unique and unmistakable, and it took me completely by surprise, to be perfectly honest.

Before becoming a chef, I had encounters with all sorts of celebrities during my dotcom days. I dealt with talent ranging from Willem Dafoe to Christian Bale, and even before that, just living in Los Angeles provided a litany of anecdotes.

I was once walking through an empty parking garage when I saw a girl coming towards me wearing a pretty cool vintage ski jacket. I was *just* about to compliment her, when I noticed it was Drew Barrymore. I seized up and said nothing, a moment that I regret to this day.

I’ve pretty much had a lifetime crush on Drew Barrymore, so that particular encounter has humbling, not that it would’ve mattered. She was into Tom Green at the time. But I still feel sheepish for having been starstruck. Moments like that one have proven to me that “star quality” is definitely a palpable trait, an attribute that transcends mere charisma.

Standing in Cher’s Malibu kitchen, I had to assume that Cher had carried this trait with her for her entire life, even long before she ever became famous. Her presence was undeniable, regardless of what you thought of her movies or her music. No wonder she was the basis for so much chit-chat around the house: She may as well have been The Queen.

After her one brief appearance in the kitchen, Cher retired to a separate part of the mansion for the rest of the day. I never saw her again. However, she did deliver my chef an old, hand-written recipe card for stuffing. It was the very recipe that her grandmother had used for years, and Cher wanted us to prepare the dish.

Instinctively, I had my doubts from the get-go.

For one thing, I knew that Cher’s grandmother had probably stopped using that recipe card years ago, and if she was like most grandmothers, she most likely made that entire dish from memory. Grandmothers cook from the soul. Who knows what sorts of adjustments or additions she had made over the years?

Or maybe she did use the card. Who knows? Regardless, the original plan was that my chef would cut and prepare all of the mise en place for the stuffing. Then, once everything was ready, Cher would come in, assemble the dish, and put it into the oven.

Many of my readers (especially those who fancy themselves gourmets) may dismiss Cher for this rather detached approach to cooking. But let’s face it, this scenario is the classic TV chef move. Do you think Emeril ever prepped his station while the audience was lining up for “Emeril Live”? I could easily understand how Cher, as someone who has been in show business for several decades, would prefer to just swoop in for the glory.

Except that she never did. As the ingredients sat waiting on the counter, someone on Cher’s staff instructed us to assemble the stuffing ourselves, and to go ahead and bake it off. Although this stuffing had seemed very important earlier in the day, we were told that Cher was occupied with something else. We double-checked to make absolutely sure that Cher did not want to be involved, and then we mixed the ingredients and slid the glass baking dish into the oven.

We set the timer, and began turning our attention to other projects.

When the stuffing was about halfway cooked, one of Cher’s assistants arrived and asked for a sample of the stuffing from the oven. Although it wasn’t finished yet, we were told that Cher was curious about how it was coming along. We obliged with a heaping spoonful of our work-in-progress, which was whisked out of the kitchen to another part of the house.

After a few minutes, the assistant returned to the kitchen with the spoon and a verdict: The chicken livers were not diced small enough.

• • •

I once had a chef-instructor at the Culinary Institute who said that professional cooking has a lot to do with recovery: How well can you fix the situation on the fly when the unexpected happens? This observation is absolutely true.

Unfortunately, in the case of the stuffing, we didn’t have the time nor the ingredients to start over. Recovery, in this case, presented only one option: We were soon mining bits of chicken liver from a steaming dish of half-baked stuffing, then piling the tiny liver scraps onto a cutting board for further mincing. It certainly wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t impossible, either.

After some effort, we returned the finely chopped livers to the stuffing mixture and continued to bake it. About twenty minutes later, the same assistant reappeared to procure another spoonful of stuffing, which was again hurried out of the kitchen.

A couple minutes later, we learned our next bit of troubling news: The stuffing had too much liquid in it. This information was a bit more dire.

Aside from possibly rolling the mixture in a giant piece of cheesecloth and somehow wringing it out, there really wasn’t much that we could do about an overly-moist stuffing. Sure, it would lose a little more moisture through baking, but the dish was just about done. It was golden brown and puffy, and we had reached our point of no return.

There was simply no viable recovery in this scenario. From a chef’s perspective, this can be somewhat defeating. In our business, a great deal of pride and self-worth is tied to rising up to meet the challenge. Cooking, for the most part, is a series of these challenges.

But despite being slightly demoralized, my chef and I tasted the stuffing and decided that it was actually pretty good. It was a perfectly competent version of stuffing, and we weren’t just being overly optimistic and positive. Objectively, it was fine.

Consider any two recipes for stuffing, and there are so many stylistic variations on this dish, to claim that one is “right” while another is “wrong” has more to do with personal taste than anything. Some folks like their stuffing slightly dry and crumbly, while others may prefer it more moist and adherent.

Personally, I could do without the chicken livers, but that’s just me.

• • •

Although this incident happened over 10 years ago now, I’ve recalled that dinner many times since then — usually every time I make stuffing for Christmas — and I have arrived at this conclusion: That day, we were simply doomed from the very beginning.

Given the origins of the dish — a cherished family recipe — there was simply no possible way that a couple of caterers were going waltz in and duplicate Cher’s grandmother’s stuffing, whether or not we had the original, hand-written index card, or any other specific set of instructions. The odds were simply stacked too heavily against us.

Cher, like so many of us who treasure family recipes, was in search of nostalgia. She craved a certain taste that would elicit fond holiday memories from her childhood. But recreating her grandmother’s stuffing note-for-note would’ve taken a Christmas miracle.

Family recipes are just that way.

They are unique, and at the same time, comforting and familiar. In fact, these dishes are very much like celebrities themselves: They seem to contain their own aura and their own star quality, never to be captured by others, and never to be duplicated.

Please visit VintageSupper.com, if you wish

I’ve been on hiatus and I’m not coming back. The journey here at Accidental Wino is now officially over, although it seems to have actually ended with Crispy Ginger Shrimp in October 2014! It had been six years and almost 500 posts for me. It was plenty. The content on Accidental Wino will remain here as an archive (at least until I’m dead, and can no longer pay the hosting fees).

As the creator of Accidental Wino, I’ve covered enough good spots in the Bay Area to eat somewhere different every single day of the year. Frankly, I’m just not that into it anymore, and there are only 24 hours in my day.

My interests have shifted to culinary antiques and ephemera, and I have a lot to share — please check out *Vintage Supper* if you find this subject compelling. That’s where I’ll be. Otherwise, this site is eminently searchable if you need food and wine recommendations for the Bay Area.

Thanks!

Crispy Ginger Shrimp @ Huong Tra Restaurant, San Pablo Avenue, Richmond

Crispy Shrimp with Ginger and Onions.

Crispy Shrimp with Ginger and Onions.

There are lots of Vietnamese restaurants around the Bay Area, and quite frankly, finding a decent bowl of pho is far less daunting than trying to find a decent bowl of ramen. I’d also say that there is also a fair amount of banh mi to be had. But what about something beyond soup and sandwiches? For me, Huong Tra in Richmond is one of my favorite places to explore the other facets of Vietnamese cuisine.

 

Five-Spice Pork Shoulder @ China Village, Albany

Five-Spice Pork Shoulder @ China Village, Albany

Steamy goodness: The Five-Spice Pork Shoulder @ China Village, Albany

The photo for this entry may not do the size of the dish any justice: The five-spice pork shoulder at China Village is a massive chunk of flesh meant for at least two people (priced at $18.95), and the spoon at the upper right is actually the large serving variety. Alas, I consider the “serves two” caveat as a dare, especially when it comes to pork shoulder. I entered China Village on a mission to check this signature dish off of my Bay Area bucket list, and I was not disappointed.

China Village specializes in Szechuan cuisine and its other signature dish is probably the West Style Spicy Fish soup, which brings quite a bit more heat than Five-Spice Pork Shoulder (at China Village, the intensity of any dish can be increased upon request, so I’m basing this comparison on their default preparations). Both dishes are presented with a bit of table-side ceremony, with the tender pork shoulder arriving as one solid piece before it’s parsed into the broth with the aid of a serving spoon.

China Village’s Five-Spice Pork features a slight hint of sweetness that brings the dish into balance, and the sauce is garlicky, plentiful, and addicting. It not only elevates the pork, but the bok choy, and an otherwise-ordinary mound of steamed rice.

The Katsu Curry @ Muracci’s Japanese Curry, Berkeley

muracci

The Katsu Curry @ Muracci’s: Panko-crusted pork cutlet, steamed rice, plenty of curry sauce, and of course, a sunny side egg added on.

When I used to live in West Los Angeles, I learned to take full advantage of the wonderful Japanese eateries that dotted Sawtelle Boulevard. Since I’ve left Southern California, the scene along Sawtelle only seems to have improved over the last 10 years, with some killer ramen shops now in the mix. I wish Tsujita and Daikokuya had been there during my post-collegiate years.

Back in the late 1990s, my favorite restaurants included Hide Sushi and Hurry Curry of Tokyo, the latter of which offered a terrific pork cutlet that became a weekly staple throughout my early 20s. I was thrilled to find something similar when I discovered Muracci’s in San Francisco several years back. The only problem was that Muracci’s was deep in the Financial District, which is probably the least friendly part of the city for me to navigate.

Lo and behold, I’m in Berkeley a couple weeks ago, strolling among the crusties of Telegraph Avenue, when I spot the storefront for Muracci’s latest outpost. I felt like the restaurant gods were looking out for me. What a boon for the East Bay. Not only is Berkeley considerably easier to navigate than San Francisco, but the restaurant is also located between my two favorite record shops, and just one block from one of my very favorite bookstores.

Even better, Muracci’s of Berkeley boasts a much more spacious dining room than the original storefront, and this East Bay incarnation features table service, which proves to be a much more relaxing environment overall (the original San Francisco location is tiny, typically crowded, and take-out orders are the default option for FiDi workers).

• • •

A good friend of mine thinks that Japanese curry will be the next wave of Asian to cuisine to wash over America, once ramen loses some of its steam. I’ve considered this same theory on my own, but I’m not convinced that it’s that simple.  However, I do feel that there’s something about Japanese curry that could catch on here in America.

Although curry finds its true roots in India, curry was first introduced in Japan by the British Navy, and because of this association, curry was therefore considered a “Western” dish (and an example of yoshoku, the Japanese interpretation of Western cuisine).

In general, Japanese curry features a subtly sweet note that distinguishes it from its Indian counterpart, and it’s this inherent sweetness that may ultimately cater to the American palate. Whether or not Japanese curry is ready to become the next Big Deal, I’m at least thankful that it has finally arrived in the East Bay.

The Lemon Ricotta Pancakes @ Solbar, Calistoga

solbarlemrico

The Lemon Ricotta Pancakes @ Solbar, Calistoga. Served with huckleberry sauce and pine nuts.

In my experience, people from Napa tend to discuss Calistoga with an air of levity. Is this fair? I’m not sure, but there may be a few reasons for this attitude. Perhaps it’s mainly because Calistoga has remained somewhat rustic, despite the tourism boom that seems to have affected the rest of the valley. Or maybe it’s because Calistoga is the very last stop to the north before you cross from Napa County over into Sonoma County (surprisingly enough, Calistoga is actually two miles closer to Healdsburg than it is to the City of Napa, which says quite a bit about our geography).

As the culinary centerpiece of Solage Resort & Spa, Calistoga’s Solbar is easily the town’s finest restaurant, having maintained its Michelin star since 2009. Though Solbar can easily be overlooked because of its up-valley location, it certainly remains a destination worthy of the drive. All told, the distance from Napa to Calistoga is about 27 miles, but this jaunt through the heart of wine country can be a scenic and relaxing commute, so long as you remember to take the Silverado Trail.

As the road less traveled, “The Trail” features just one lone stop sign between Napa and Calistoga. Driving northbound, this stretch of single-lane road offers pastoral scenery, with the Vaca Mountains to the right and the beautiful valley floor to the left. (Conversely, if you take Highway 29 to Calistoga, you’ll still enjoy some great views, but you’ll have to deal with several stop lights in St. Helena, much lower speed limits through Oakville and Rutherford, and much more tasting room traffic in general.) However you decide to get to Solbar, a memorable plate of lemon ricotta pancakes will be the reward for your journey.

And if you’ve driven almost 30 miles just for breakfast, then you might as well add on a side of biscuits and gravy while you’re at it.

ebookplug

Tonkotsu Ramen @ Tadamasa, Union City

cap

Tonkotsu Ramen @ Tadamasa, Union City.

I could be wrong, but I believe that my visit to Tamadasa last week might’ve been the first time that I’ve ever set foot in Union City. To be honest, the entire Hayward-Fremont area of the East Bay remains kind of a blind spot for me. As many times as I’ve made the drive from Napa to San Jose, the 680 whisks me past Hayward and Fremont before it bends westward and drops me into Milpitas.

My reason for stopping through Union City was to taste the ramen at Tadamasa, which proved delicious, with its relatively light, very clean-tasting tonkotsu broth. Tadamasa offers a Sapporo-style ramen, which is typically heavy on the vegetables, though I still ordered chasu (roasted pork) with mine. I also noticed a miso-coconut broth on the menu, which I’m tempted to try on my return.

Tonkotsu Ramen @ Himawari, San Mateo

The Tonkotsu Ramen @ Himawari, San Mateo.

The Tonkotsu Ramen @ Himawari, San Mateo.

I’ll just cut to the chase. San Mateo boasts a quartet of reputable ramen shops: Ramen Dojo, Santa Ramen, Ramen Parlor, and Himawari. These are the four noodle joints that dominate the San Mateo landscape. Three of these restaurants (all but Himawari) are owned by the same chef, Kazunori Kobayashi, who launched his mini-empire with Santa back before ramen was a thing (the original Santa location was where Ramen Dojo is now).

In some ways, Kobayashi is what Thomas Keller is to Yountville, though that might be a stretch. I guess it all depends on how much you obsess over ramen. I enjoy it quite a bit, myself.

With Kobayashi quietly dominating the ramen landscape in San Mateo, Himawari is kind of the independent option in town, which is absolutely welcome. Even under the best circumstances, you don’t want all of your ramen from the same chef, and Himawari proves noteworthy in its own right. The restaurant’s ace-in-the-hole is its steamed pork belly, a generous block of tasty pork that’s even more tender than tofu. Steamed pork belly is traditionally a Chinese preparation, so it’s appearance in a bowl of ramen is unique. Best of all, it’s a thoughtful contrast to the braised pork belly (also delicious).

Spätzle with Herbed Walnut Sauce @ Gaumankitzel, Berkeley

Spätzle with Herbed Walnut Sauce @ Gaumankitzel, Berkeley. Before...

Spätzle with Herbed Walnut Sauce @ Gaumankitzel, Berkeley. Before…

I was at a wedding on Sunday, and my lovely date was surprised to hear me mention that I wanted a cold beer. I realize that she’s only known me to drink wine thus far (which is always how it is in the beginning), but I do enjoy a cold beer, especially on a warm afternoon.

The groom at the wedding was a good friend of mine from our Martini House days. Back in 2007, the kitchen staff would habitually drink “Tecate Tea” after work: That’s a one-quart plastic deli filled with ice, a liberal squeeze of lemon and lime juice, and Tecate poured to the brim. It’s impossibly refreshing after a night in a sweltering kitchen.

A beer aficionado may criticize this whimsical concoction, perhaps the same way that a wine aficionado may sneer at sangria. But I don’t ever want to party with those kinds of people.

If I’m in the East Bay and I happen to crave a fancier beer, then that’s my opportunity to visit Gaumankitzel in West Berkeley. I’m a fan of Gaumankitzel’s whole brezel and sausage concept, so I like to pair that little plate with a big, tall German bier.

The last time is visited Gaumankitzel, I stayed on for an early dinner of Spätzle with Herbed Walnut Sauce, pictured above and below. Most of us will probably recognize this green “walnut sauce” as pesto, especially here in the Bay Area, where pestos were ubiquitous during the California Cuisine movement.

Although pesto originates in Northern Italy, Gaumankitzel’s substitution of walnuts for pine nuts offers a Germanic twist that works well for this dish. The spätzle’s prodigious nest of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is an even more literal (and more decadent) nod to Italy.

I wondered, foolishly, if perhaps there was TOO much cheese on this dish, but it actually melted into the fresh, house-made spätzle with terrific results. Now I’m wondering: Has pesto and Parmigiano-Reggiano been slowly infiltrating German cuisine all these years?  Or is this Italo-German mashup purely a Berkeley thing?

cap

… and After: Spätzel with Herbed Walnut Sauce (Redux) @ Gaumankitzel, Berkeley.

 

The Kubideh @ Kamdesh Afghan Kabab House, Oakland Chinatown

cap

The Kubideh @ Kamdesh Afghan Kabab House, Oakland Chinatown.

I might argue that the best restaurant in Oakland Chinatown isn’t actually Chinese, but is in fact, Afghan. I suppose that Afghan cuisine might be a tough sell in this political climate, especially since Afghanistan has been portrayed rather (shall we say) negatively in the Western media. Of course, the same exact thing can be said for Syria, or just about any other country in the Greater Middle East. It’s a shame that this region has become the epicenter of so much upheaval, although it’s hardly anything new. Religious wars have been waged in this area since the Crusades.

From a culinary standpoint, the Greater Middle East boasts tremendous historical importance as the site of the Silk Road, the earliest commercial link between Europe and Asia. Cities such as Kanduhar and Kabul occupied key positions on the Silk Road’s Southern Route, and the spoils of the spice trade are thus reflected in the Afghan cuisine. I’m a junkie for food history, so I may be somewhat biased in this regard, but I think that there’s something mesmerizing about these ancient flavor profiles, especially in the right hands.

To put it succinctly, Kamdesh Afghan Kabab House floors me every single time. I had a great meal there about a year ago, and my most recent visit last month was equally stellar. Back in June, I ordered Kamdesh’s kubideh, pictured above, and this deftly-seasoned ground beef kabab was succulent, sophisticated, and just an all-around pleasure to eat. Kamdesh’s fare may be the best Middle Eastern cuisine in the Bay Area, though I’m still on the case.

Like most entrees at Kamdesh, their kubideh comes standard with a generous portion of their “brown” rice, which is not to be discounted as some sort of flavorless health food. I wouldn’t send you down that road. Look closely, and you’ll notice that Kamdesh’s rice is actually basmati, which turns brown after it’s simmered in a rich, broth-based cooking liquid. This rice isn’t just some starchy afterthought, it’s serious sustenance.