My Head is Spinning

The farmers in Fukushima prefecture are cooked, food prices are skyrocketing, Mark Bittman has found GOD, and Asian restaurants are hitting their stride in Boston.  Makes me think: “Car 54, where are you?”

How’s a person–let us not be gender specific, ever–supposed to sort it out, weight the values, and sum up?  How do we make sense of the world?

In Fukushima, according to today’s NYT, farmers are going to have to destroy all their crops and pour away all their milk.  The stuff may glow in the dark for all I know.  Anyhow, generations of hard-working, spirited farmers are watching their livelihoods destroyed.  It’s tragic and heartbreaking.  What will they do next? Join the ex-dairy farmers of Northeast Kingdom?  You tell me, Kitty, as Anne Frank used to write.

While the farmers reel, the food industries are shrinking packages and charging the same as before.  Makes me think of watered down drinks or fleeting kisses.  You know it’s only gonna get worse.  Don’t need Kitty to tell me that.  Look, they have the goods, we buy them.  Um, hello?  Doesn’t the buyer set the price?  Boycott chips!  Boycott salsa!  Grow your own.  Just sayin’.

In today’s OP-ED, Mark Bittman tells us of his fast to find faith or something.  I don’t know.  This should have been called, “Skim this Column.”  I mean, honestly, I love the guy’s recipes, but as far as his ability to offer advice goes, I’d rather ask my neighbor.  He stays the minimalist.

And meanwhile: Asia in Boston.  O-Mi-God, as they say in Japan.  Went to Bon Chon, a Korean restaurant that is part of a chain in South Korea.  This is the first US outpost.  Yesterday, lunch.  Bull Dak, a spicy chicken dish that feeds two easily, at $17.95 has heat and umami.  You eat it, you feel good.  You feel better in minutes as the heat creeps up on you.  About an hour later, your mouth stings pleasantly.  It’s like a hot kiss.

Eating in Japan

The fellow who runs the very wonderful Sakanaya, a Japanese fish store in Allston, told me yesterday that the past couple of weeks, “Few Japanese customers have been in.”

The very estimable John Gaunter, a sake genius based in Japan, whose humor and intelligence shine, is informing people about how to help sake brewers in prefectures hit by the earthquake and tsunami whose products are suddenly taboo.

A friend from Tokyo writes me: “Now, people in Tokyo worry about radiation levels, from water, from vegetable. Poor farmers in the affected areas.  Even though their homes and fields and produce are intact, they have to dump their produce because nobody wants to buy them out of fear of radiation.  So agriculture and dairy farming, the main industries of the area are damaged, so is fishery as port facilities and fishing boats have been damaged.”  (Yumi)

Coppa: A Review

I had been wanting to go to Coppa since it opened on Shawmut Avenue in the South End, but was deterred by the NO RESERVATIONS policy.  I had heard of people waiting for one or even two hours to eat there.

I had no idea it was open for lunch until a wise friend, a brainy editor and professor, suggested we meet there.

No wait, half empty.

The room is pleasant and reasonably dark.  Service was efficient.

We both ordered pizzas.

My friend had the “Pepe Bianco” which was made up of white clams with bacon and vidalia onion.

I had the “Salsiccia” that was tomato, spicy pork sausage, ricotta, and red onion.

These were very good, individual portion pies.  The Pepe Bianco cost $14.  The Salsiccia cost $16.

With tax and tip, my pizza was $21.  We had all the tap water we wanted.  The price of our pizzas?  Easily 100% more than most pies in Boston or NYC that feed two.

Were the pizzas at Coppa 100% better than the competition?  No, of course not.  Don’t be silly.

So why pay more?  For one thing, the restaurant is part of the Ken Oringer empire.  Oringer has exceptional hubris.  His restaurants are French (Clio), Japanese (Uni), Mexican (La Verdad), Spanish (Toro), American (KO Prime), and now Italian (Coppa).  You’re paying for a brand.  Most chefs with empires stick to one cuisine and delve deep into it: Boulud with French, Batali with Italian, Emeril with Cajun, Puck with California-French, Vongerichten with Southeast Asian-Chinese-French medleys.  What emerges, as a result of the deep focus, are original interpretations of the cuisines.

Oringer is the only empire-chef who believes he can cook the foods of many nations.  But with an empire that purports to show the cuisines of six nations, you get a culinary school version of the food that lacks soul and depth.  These restaurants are conceptual; they are more about the chef than the food.  The food?  Good, but not great.

Will I go back to Coppa?  Absolutely.  I’m curious about the rest of the menu.  Delicious pizzas, sure, but no better than pies at half the price elsewhere.

Stay Organized

In Today NY Times, a fascinating story appeared on a remote village that persevered after the earthquake in Japan.  Responsibilities were created and woven together to establish cohesion.  The ordinary psychology of how one experiences or faces or survives after disaster is endlessly fascinating as it really is the story of how humans got this far.

Severed From the World, Villagers Survive on Tight Bonds and To-Do Lists

OM: A Review

The very estimable Patricia Yeo, who ran the kitchen @ AZ, off 5th, and then opened Sapa, and then opened Ginger Park, is now at OM, in Harvard Square. Her cooking is stellar and while it is very odd to find her in Harvard Square, her troubles that landed her there are our good fortune as diners.

The place itself has its ups and downs.  On the up side is the racial diversity of the crowd, the subdued lighting, and the views of the little park.  On the down side is the blaring Techno and interior design that make the rooms look as if you’re in a club rather than a restaurant.

Physicality aside, the service is first-rate.

Good service, good crowd.

The food the night I was in was delicious:  “Chop-chop” salad, Korean style marinaded beef with lettuce leaves to wrap them and homemade kimchee, a whole fried ocean perch, and pho with tea smoked duck.  This is food with deep flavors, beautifully plated, and subtle.  The palate wakes up and stays conscious. Borderline umami, folks.

On the down side: Very little variation in textures and what is up with the house’s take-out box on each table of “truffled” potato chips and popcorn?  Are we at the movies?

Anyhow, great food comes at a price, but the value is there and let’s all rush in where angels fear to tread.

I love Yeo’s food, have since I first went to AZ and reported on her for Robb Report and on public radio, am thrilled she’s close by, and expect to see other local restaurant chefs try to cook at her level.  With the exceptions of The Monday Club Bar, Tamarind Bay, Shabu-Ya, Tory Row, Legal Seafood, & Harvest, what a great alternative OM is to bars like Russell House Tavern that serve dinner in the Square.   And  Yeo?   Better than all the rest!

Japan on the Brain

For obvious reasons, I can’t stop thinking about Japan.

I first went in 2003 and have returned seven times since then, three times last year.

As a result of the visits, I have friends and colleagues in Tokyo, Niigata, and Ishikawa.

On my first visit I recorded Elizabeth Andoh cooking miso soup.  She taught me how to make it from scratch.

Among the things I love about Japan are the silences allowed between friends, an acceptance of foible bordering on passivity, and an unspoken curiosity about the unseen in nature and ourselves.  So much of the culture is about what is implied rather than said.  No wonder Roland Barthes called his wonderful book about Japan, The Empire of Signs.

Everyone is safe.  No one is complaining openly.

What I hear instead is that people are tired.

Or about ordinary lives, such as these words from my friend Yuko, a writer, in Tokyo.  She is the translator of Ted Bestor’s classic book about the Tsukiji Market.  Yuko writes, “I am fine as I had a nice sake and sat with my friends after watching a good play by Issei Ogata. Many plays or concerts are canceled especially by Europe people, but Japanese actors or musicians are alive.”

New from Planet Japan

The news this past ten days reminded me that I’d written my doctoral thesis on the psychological effects of living under the threat of nuclear war and had studied Japan back then.

Resilience.

More news from friends in Japan.  I started going to Japan regularly as of 2003.  Now I realize more deeply the feelings I have for friendships there…:

“A sixteen-year-old boy and his eighty-year-old grandmother were found under rubble today!  They survived ten days by drinking coke and eating yogurt.” (Kiyomi, Ishikawa)

“I had been busy for a while. My friend arrived Tokyo on early morning on last Saturday from UK. Actually she is originally from Sweden, but was born in Tokyo. She decided and made very important work for a news paper which is the largest in Sweden. It happened in a very short term. She came here to write about Japan after the earthquake. Anyway, I am helping her work soon after she arrived. So much interviews, walking all whole day. Especially today.. We went to one shelter opened three days ago for refugees from North. I had kept speaking = translating( I am not a translator basically. but I am sure it seems to work). There were a lot of nice meetings, but I got very tired. As every interview let me consume so much energy. Parhaps it is because every person had been experienced a lot of hardnesses.” (Yuko, Tokyo)

Does this sound like good news to you?

In today’s Guardian this report showed up:

Japan has banned the sale of food products from near the crippled Fukushima nuclear power station after finding elevated radiation levels in spinach and milk from the area’s farms.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said: ‘Though radioactive iodine has a short half-life of about eight days and decays naturally within a matter of weeks, there is a short-term risk to human health if radioactive iodine in food is absorbed into the human body.’

Tainted milk was found 30km (20 miles) from the plant and contaminated spinach was collected up to 100km (65 miles) to the south.

Chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano told reporters in Tokyo that the radiation levels exceeded the limits allowed by the government, but the products ‘pose no immediate health risk’ and testing was being done on other foods.

‘It’s not like if you ate it right away you would be harmed,’ Edano said. ‘It would not be good to continue to eat it for some time.’

Edano said the amount of radiation detected in the milk was the equivalent to one CT scan – the series of X-rays used for medical tests – if consumed continually for a year.”

UPDATE:

“The Japanese government has reported that trace amounts of radioactive iodine have been detected in tap water in Tokyo and five other areas, amid concerns about leaks from the crippled Fukushimanuclear power station.The ministry says the amounts did not exceed government safety limits, but the announcement has added to safety fears among the Japanese people. Earlier in the day, Japan banned the sale of food products from near Fukushima after finding elevated radiation levels in spinach and milk from the area’s farms.”

In case you’re wondering–I am–what the typical foods are from Fukushima, the prefecture lists these on their tourism information page.   Also: What happens to the farmers?  How will they live?  The foods include:

Peaches: “Fukushima is the nation’s second largest producer of peaches.”

Mehikari: “The mehikari inhabits a habitat with the Fukushima shore as its northern boundary, growing to 10-18 cm, and is the ‘fish of Iwaki.’”

Apples: “Fukushima has a long history of growing apples, and these have a range of distinctive tastes and external appearances. Thanks to Fukushima’s warm climate, the first apples are ready to eat in late August.”

Grapes: “Fukushima Prefecture is a major grape-producing region.”

Hey, Good Looking…

Hey, Good Looking, Whatcha Got Cooking___________________

“Chef Talbot rarely uses processed sugar or preservatives and is committed to sustainable food. ‘At the Mondrian,’ he said, “every fish I use, I know the name of the vessel, the captain’s name, the exact time it was caught and the ocean it was caught in.’” –”A Chef is Cooking,” The New York Times (3/9/211)

First fish I ever caught, I was thirteen years old, and growing up in North Carolina that meant sand dabs.  Schooner was named, “Daisy’s Folly,” named after Captain Mark O’ Malley’s first wife, Daisy.  They had been high school sweethearts, married when the test came back positive, but when the child, Michael, named after Mark’s paternal grandfather, started to grab Daisy’s attention, and when Daisy no longer wanted to go out drinking with Mark like she used to, the marriage hit the skids and Mark took to fishing more often.
He took me and my dad out on Tuesday, September 9th, 1991, at 6:12 A.M.  Water was choppy and he saw storm clouds rolling in, which is how we ended up fishing in shallow waters.
The Atlantic is fickle, like most oceans, and without patience it can be frustrating waiting for the fish to bite.  But dad had a case and with a, “Don’t tell your mom look,” he and Captain O’ Malley made a big dent.  By noon, there was half a six-pack left.
These days, cooking professionally, I maintain the same interest and integrity in fish I had as a boy.  You don’t know the fish, you don’t how to cook it.  It’s not folksy, it’s common sense.
Is it harder now to keep track of the fish?   Of course it is!  That’s just one difference between being a professional chef and an amateur.  I am a professional chef.  You don’t what that entails, look it up.
Let me ask you something now: When’s the last time you cooked fish at home?  Last Friday.  OK.  What do you know about that fish?  Sole.  OK, good.  What else?  Atlantic ocean.  Good, good.  Anything else?  I didn’t think so.
Now let me tell you about my week:
Friday, we get sixteen branzino, farm raised from Greece, harvested at 7:12 A.M. Greek time, 1:12 A.M. Eastern Standard Time.  Man who killed the fish?  Nikolaos Gelesthathis, age 41, wart on his right cheek, receding hairline, left handed.
Busy weekend, shipment of line caught cod sent down from Gloucester, boat is named Sasquatch, captain is named Stevie Petersen, cod caught at 1:12 A.M., off Georges Bank, packed on ice, FEDEX to me in time for service on Saturday night!  Now we’re talking!
You see, the thing is, cooking–being a chef, being a top chef, that is–it’s not just about standing behind the stove, posing for the T.V. cameras, and talking to people like you.  It’s about knowing where things come from, who caught ‘em, and then getting a team in the restaurant to work on what I bring in.
What are the names of my prep cooks?   That what you’re asking?  How the Hell should I know?

The Latest From Japan

I’ve been in contact daily with friends in Japan who reside in Tokyo, Niigata, and Ishikawa.  Recently, I wrote a friend in Tokyo and asked what changes were occurring in her daily life as a result of the catastrophe that began last Friday.  She is an interpreter.  Her husband is a medical doctor.  She wrote this:

Do you mean you want to know what changes are taking place in our life?

Many.

For example, college admission exams are cancelled, meaning that those high school seniors have lost a chance to get in those colleges.

As for A, my son, many of the job interviews have been cancelled and nobody knows when they are scheduled again.

N, my younger son, is interested in spending the coming summer overseas.  But such programs may be postponed.

The hospital where my husband works have sent doctors to the tsunami-hit areas, meaning that my husband has to work more for them.

These are just a few changes that affect us directly.

There are many other certainties.

For example, the radiation leakage.

If the level of radiation stays high, we may need to stay indoors as much as possible, and that will affect our plans for the coming months.

Many shops are closed, and everything is in short, food, fuel, and other daily necessities.

Transportation is disrupted.  On the first two days, people who work downtown Tokyo had to walk back to their house in the suburbs.  It took them 5 hours!

Power is in short because of the breakdown of so many power plants.  So the government and the power company impose “blackout” on certain communities in certain hours of the day with very short notice.   What if you need artificial dialysis and find no power at the hospital?

I have always believe that in Japan, everything is very organized.  But now I know that those power company are not.

Yumi