Thursday, July 23, 2009

Tounge-Numbingly Spicy

Sorry Anthony Bourdain, I think I'm going to have to steal your favorite word for a sec, "ethereal". Ok, so it's not ethereal in the way the cool summer breeze carries dandelion seeds over a vast hill of swaying green grass. But ethereal in the way hell would be if it served raw kumamoto oysters on a half shell with a spoonful of caviar on a daily basis--so hot, yet so damn good.
This would be the category that Szechuan food falls in--an ethereal hell.
What makes Szechuan food so uniquely delicious? Why, the Szechuan peppercorn of course.
This tiny little peppercorn packs not only a punch, but a numbing sensation so strange that it can only be compared to, well, Novocaine (in trace doses of course). Every mouthful of food cooked with these unassuming little pods really creates a crazy experience. It's still spicy, but the tingly feeling on your tongue is inescapable.
It's somewhat of a masochist feat--painful yet so satisfying.
Chung King in Monteray Park, California is the place where you go if you want the most authentic, amazingly delicious, and spicy food without having to go to China. Plus, you can really impress your friends when you tackle that plate of pepper covered chicken!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

As Promised: My Roy's Article

The appearance of the front of the house at Roy’s is strikingly different during the day when all the lights are turned on as compared to the dimmed, almost romantic feel at night. Upon walking into the waiting area at Roy’s, a Hawaiian fusion cuisine restaurant, diners are greeted by a hostess dressed in a colorful silk Chinese top and black pant. Diners are also greeted by a large, brightly lit florescent blue tropical fish tank filled with neon colored fish and a large lollipop shaped coral, which really sets the exotic mood of Hawaii. Walking past the rather mundane podium where the hostess stands diners will find the extravagant dining room.
The dining area is crisp and clean. Every fork, every dark blue napkin, every spoon, every glass, every butter knife and plate in its proper place. Salad fork for a delicious seafood appetizer or a crisp green salad perhaps, entrĂ©e fork for one of Roy’s signature dishes: roasted macadamia nut mahi mahi, a fresh linen napkin atop a uniquely shaped bread dish, and a butter knife for the soft and creamy butter to spread on some warm bread. In front of the place setting sits a beautiful dark blue glass stem ware for the fine wine the sommelier will gladly recommend to accompany your meal and beside that sits a tall glass for a refreshing glass of ice water poured by your server from a large metal pitcher.
Within this vast space adorned with Hawaiian plants, photos, and ambiance, you’ll find a chaotic jungle of metal in the back of the restaurant that is Roy’s kitchen. A territory marked by the executive chef, executive sous chefs, sous chefs, and line cooks, prowling the jungle floor in their white and black chef’s coats and baseball caps marked by a variety of “Roy’s” logos. The terra cotta colored tile floors are covered with heavy duty rubber mats to prevent the staff from slipping if ever the floor were to get wet or greasy. Beyond this seemingly overwhelming mass of silver colored appliances, is a vast kitchen filled with brightly contrasting fruits, vegetables, and fresh combination of surf and turf. From apples to pineapples, to lettuce, to bean sprouts, to skewered scallops, to racks of lamb, to the array of colorful European sauces. The kitchen is where you see the “fusion” in the name Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion Restaurant come into play; Asian flavors and ingredients paired with European sauces.
Edgar Agbayani, executive sous chef at Roy’s Newport Beach, wears a black chefs coat with his sleeves rolled up to his elbows, exposing the tattoos on both of his forearms. He also wears a black Roy’s baseball cap with the Roy’s logo embroidered in white in the front center of the cap. The logo resembles a fancy, backwards lower case “y”. Embroidered in lavender thread reads: “Roy’s”, “Edgar Agbayani”, “sous chef”, on the left breast of his coal black coat. This now thirty-two year old accomplished young chef is of Filipino descent. He has a medium complexion, dark brown hair, and dark brown eyes that squint when he smiles.
The fine radio tunes of hip hop artist Wyclef featuring Akon and Lil Wayne “Dolla Dolla Bill” plays as the Edgar, his line cooks and other sous chef begin to prep for the day. They had just gotten a new sound system for inside the kitchen area. “We just got this, it’s out new toy.” The chefs and the line cooks chatted away as they scavenge away trying to find someone with a good CD in his/her car that they can bring in and play. Prep time is quite possibly the most important time of day; it entails getting the sauces ready and the mise en place; which in French means “to put in place.” This term commonly used in most kitchens means that everything will be organized, accessible, and ready to use when needed; whether it’s chopping veggies, dicing, chiffonading, pouring sauces into squeeze bottles, this is the mise en place process.
The lights in the front of the house dim. The light from the setting sun hazily shines in to the restaurant through the white wooden shutters. Soft Hawaiian music plays in the background. The ambiance is calm, yet cultured. Five o’clock, time to fire up the stove. Everyone puts on their chef faces. Let the cooking begin.
“Tzzz.” The sizzle of another piece of meat thrown on the grill.
The savory aromas traveling through the air makes my mouth salivate; I wondered how they were able to share the same room with all this amazing food and not want to indulge.
“Spencer you got that ribeye ready?” yelled Edgar.
“Ribeye right here.” Spencer yells back as he preps the dish for the ribeye.
The restaurant begins to slowly infiltrate with semi-formally dressed, hungry customers ready to indulge in some of Roy’s famous dishes.
“Buzz, buzz.” Here comes another table’s order.
“110, fire up one 110.”
“110” is the order number, so when Edgar calls out the numbers each and every line cook knows where to look, what to begin cooking; the kitchen works as a cohesive, well oiled machine. One mistake could mean disaster.
Edgar pulls out another perfectly marbled filet mignon from the reach in refrigerator just below his work station, which just so happens to also be located just below the shelf that holds the new stereo system which is now off.
He takes a pinch of salt, and while he’s seasoning the meat, he sarcastically says to me, “This is what we call controlled measuring”, he laughs. Edgar’s been with the restaurant and a chef long enough to “eye-ball” or estimate how much of each type of seasoning he needs without having to pull out a measuring utensil.
“Tzzz.” The filet mignon the hot grill top.
“Sunday is like meat night,” said Edgar with a smile on his face and a tone of relaxed humor, “everybody orders meats on Sundays.”
Who knows why Sundays are meat days really? Perhaps it’s because eating meat a good way to begin a new week; a big slab of juicy, tender, meaty protein on a bed of brightly blanched veggies, who can say for sure? But one thing is for sure, this means that today Edgar’s station is going to be busy, very busy. Cranking out the sirloins, ribs, racks of lamb, the desire for meat in the front of the house is unstoppable.
“Tzzz…” the meats atop the grill sizzle away.
Back in grade school, Edgar and his family used to have gatherings at his grandmother’s house at the end of the weekend in a little town called Rich Grove California. The family would buy whole pigs or whole cows and have family outings where they would dissect the large carcass and divide the meat. Being the young child he was, Edgar tried to help out wherever he could, keeping a close eye on what the adults were doing, and always wanting to take part in the culinary action. Once all the meat was divided up, they would have huge barbeques in celebration of being together as a family and of sharing in this fine experience with one another. The family would talk amongst themselves, converse, catch up, and wait for the delicious and fresh meat to come off the grill. The outdoor grill which had been heating up was now up to temperature. The family cook puts on his oven mitt, lifts the cover, and a huge ball of white smoke curls through the air and disappears into the atmosphere.
The smoky, mesquite smell coming from his grill station at Roy’s was distinct and pungent. The mesquite gave the meats a little extra something, a kick, a depth of flavor, and subtle intensity that you can’t get just by tossing meat in to a pan. Although mesquite is a common flavor associated with say—Texas barbeque—this smoky style of preparation is key in inducing the meats with a sweetness, a smoky goodness like no other.
The kitchen began to get hot; hotter than before, especially over the large grill that Edgar is working at. He tells me that it’s about 105 degrees Fahrenheit over the large glistening grill top. The grill is so hot that you can see the heat rippling in the air, almost like the ripples you see in an arid dessert. He didn’t even seem to break a sweat. He remained composed, with a smile on his face, and cranking out jokes when the moment permit; you could sense no tension coming from Edgar at all despite the semi-hectic chaos around him as the line cooks race back and forth from station to station garnishing dishes and plating.
“Spencer”, Edgar calls out to one of his line cooks, “I need more racks of lamb from the back.” Spencer quickly races out of the kitchen into the large walk-in fridge filled with meats and other perishable items that need to remain cool in order maintain optimum freshness, and grabs a few vacuumed packed racks of lamb. Spencer returns to the kitchen and begins to cut open the plastic seal from the racks of lamb and preps them for Edgar. Today, Spencer is Edgar’s right hand man; he helps Edgar with whatever he asks for; from prepping the sides to putting dishes under the salamander (also known as the broiler). Spencer is like Edgar’s apprentice; he wants to make sure that Spencer has all the necessary skills to advance in the kitchen hierarchy.
Standing next to grandma, young Edgar plays the role of apprentice. Grandma’s garden was a vast space, a garden, filled with squash, peppers, jalapenos, and tomatoes; many of which were ripe for the picking. The simple fact that Edgar could venture out into Grandma’s lush garden with a basket, return with as many brightly colored vegetables as his little muscles could carry, and within a matter of minutes and hours end up with a meal fascinated him. It was the heartiness of life and the cycle of foods that really captured Edgar’s attention. He loved chasing chickens and collecting fresh eggs from the hen houses for Grandma to cook. Sometimes, on sunny days, Grandma would sit out back with Edgar and teach him how to make tapioca and raisins. For Grandma, this may not have been a horribly difficult task, but it was one that Edgar enjoyed taking part in and sharing with her. It was the simplicity of it all that really captivated him.
“ Buzz, buzz.” Another order prints up, then another and another.
“Holy cow that’s a big one!” Edgar says, finding the long strip of paper fairly humorous. He then pulls the sharpie that is clipped where the buttons meet on his black double breasted chef’s coat and begins to mark the receipt with the order number and then with “X’s”, “R’s” and other markings to help visually organize what he needs to do.
Despite being an executive sous chef at a widely renowned restaurant, he still enjoys the homey, simplistic feel of a warm plate of chicken adobo or a large bowl of porridge. The idea that your day can change just by simply taking a bite into something is a concept Edgar holds on to, and is something that you can taste in his dishes; the passion he has for food. This, he tells me, is without doubt, something that he has learned from this grandmother.
Being a young cook at a young age helped sprout the chef that sat before me. He had cooked before he went to culinary school in Scottsdale, Arizona; it was a great reminder of what he didn’t know. He was a bit hot headed before he went to culinary school but he was really humbled and amazed by the fact that when he put his mind to doing something, he could actually do it. From pulling sugar, to building fragile chocolate boxes, culinary school was a way of attaining and learning the skill to achieve his goal. Culinary school had a huge impact on his life, and he believes that it can have a great impact on the lives of others who wish to become a chef. It was here that he learned how to appreciate the preciseness and cleanliness of the overall presentation of the dish before it leaves the kitchen.
Edgar takes his House Smoked 16 oz. Bone in Ribeye steak hot off the grill with his shiny silver tongs, and pulls a pre-prepped warm dish from the salamander with a dish towel and plates his ribeye. He swings over to the sauce station to finish off the dish. He pours the Peppercorn Brandy Pan Sauce, which is a reduction of a beef stock with a splash of brandy, over the dish. He takes the same dish towel that he always keeps in hand and wipes off the dish. He turns over, looks at me, smirks and says, “I’m a professional dish wiper”, I respond to him by telling him that he did a very good job, he then replies “Thanks! I work out”. He tells me that the clean finish and the flawlessness of the plating is called finesse; it’s what you want before you send anything out to the front of the house. You never want to send anything out that you’re not confident in!
Edgar spends a lot of time thinking about the restaurant. How to make a profit, what the day’s going to be like, what to order, how much of each ingredient to restock, how much time he has to get the ingredients in. Time has been the largest obstacle that Edgar has had to face as a chef. You don’t want to waste any time when you’re at the restaurant. Sometimes, there’s not enough time to complete everything, which definitely causes the stress level to sky rocket. Not to mention, time is definitely the enemy when it comes to trying to maintain a private life. It’s difficult to have a significant other when the hours of a chef fluctuate so much, especially because it’s hard to take time off because the restaurant relies on you to be there. There are days when he works eight hour shifts but there are also days when he works 15 hour shifts it all depends.
The most stressful moments are when Roy comes to visit the restaurant because everything has to be perfect. Large shipments of food come in, and when one thing is missing, a domino effect happens; something else is missing, and then something else is missing. When Roy gets to the restaurant, he wants to taste everything. If Roy doesn’t like something, he will change it, and it will be changed. He’ll find the flaws in the little things and fine tune it. There was once an event in Anaheim where there was a guy making a monte au burrere in a shellfish stock and the next thing you know, there were eight guys with whisks, whisking fifty pounds of butter in a large vat. As a chef, you’re constantly thinking, “What did Roy change? What does he want? How can I better the restaurant?”
“My favorite part of being a chef is that I like to eat.” Edgar makes Vegas runs and he’ll go and eat out there or he’ll go out to find a “hole in the wall restaurant”, anywhere he can find something really good and something enjoyable to eat. He takes the concepts or the restaurant he goes to as a learning tool. He goes into the restaurant, pin points the parts that are different and take it with him and try to recreate or acquire a technique that he think will benefit his career and the restaurant. There’s not one moment where he doesn’t think of the restaurant.
It was a good night. As all the stoves and ovens shut off, the chefs mingle and debrief. Joke around. They give each other a pat on the back, head out the kitchen, hang up their coats, walk out the door. Tomorrow is another day.


So my boyfriend and I stumbled upon this very unassuming restaurant a while back and found out that it was THE BEST hidden gem Tustin, California has to offer.

It goes by the name Sushi Wasabi.
Located at the end of a very small strip mall, next to a 24 hour donut shop, and peeking out from behind a Korean BBQ joint. Let's just say that it's the kind of sushi restaurant that you would either walk by because it's so low key, or you would just blow it off because it looks so slummy.

This place is great. They serve sushi "omakase" style just like Japan. You won't find any rolls here! Just nigiri and hand rolls. When I say nigiri, I mean the real deal. Not that 1:3 fish to rice ratio you often find at sushi restaurants, try a 10:1 fish to rice ratio. The freshest sashimi served on a rice ball no larger than the size of a dime so that you can really enjoy the freshness of the fish which is not masked by unnecessary carbs. You can count on eating some of the freshest fish in town because the sushi chef personally goes out to the fish market everyday to buy fish. (Talk about an early morning kick start). When you sit at the sushi bar you're basically signing your rights away; the chef chooses the best fish of the day for you to try...sorry pal, but you have no say. Trust me, it's worth it. Put your stomach in this guy's hands and he'll make you happy.
This place should have a warning sign: "Warning: If you eat here, you will never fully enjoy sushi at any other place ever again".

Fried Seafood and Potatoes

IT'S A CRIME I TELL YOU! Frying seafood or serving seafood with potatoes--it should be outlawed.
Ok, so I admit that I'm guilty of enjoying that occational fish and chips (especially at Union Jack's in Costa Mesa, California). The British have stumbled on something very successful--large pieces of fried fish served with what resembles the American steak fry, wrapped in newspaper which by the time it gets to you from the fryer has soaked through with grease. The only thing it really needs is malt vinegar.
But really, sweet, succulent seafood (and I guess what I really mean when I say seafood is shellfish) battered and fried is quite possibly the most disappointing thing I've ever tasted. I swear off of fried oysters, fried lobster, and fried shrimp. Fresh seafood should really be enjoyed with the minimalist approach (salt, pepper, maybe an acid of somesort, maybe butter and that's about it--Japanese cuisine has really captured and embraced the idea of unaltered seafood). To manipulate the freshness of seafood by suiting it up in flour or a batter of somesort and then drowning it oil is like the creation of the chicken nugget--it just should not have ever happened.
And Oh the disappointments of being served mashed potatoes with a beautifully poached lobster. Some may think it works, and trust me when I say it is served at Michelin Star rated restaurants and called something fancy like "pureed potatoes" or "whipped potatoes", but the heavy startch form the potato (no matter how you make it or what you call it) really takes away from the very juicy, very plump piece of the beautifully cooked seafood.

And if you're wondering if I'm the kind of person that eats the rice separately from the sashimi when I order nigiri at a Japanese restaurants my answer is "Why yes, yes I do". The only real purpose that garganchuan, unauthentic lob of rice serves is a pedistool for the fish and as what I like to call a "soy sauce iron" (take the fish off the rice, dip the rice into soy, and spread the soy on the fish with the lob of rice--end result--a perfectly seasoned piece of fish).

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


The first time I ever stepped foot into a restaurant kitchen was at Roy's, a Hawaiian fusion restaurant. (The one located in Newport Beach) I was doing a Literary Journalism story my sophomore year of college on one of the chefs.
I dressed fairly nicely the day I went in to interview my subject; nothing really out of the ordinary from my regular wardrobe--button up shirt, leggings, and a pair of tan moccasins.
I was introduced to Edgar, a young chef of Filipino descent who had been cooking a Roy's for some time. I had spoke to him over the phone a few days before my visit to set up the appointment. He seemed friendly--and that he was.
We sat down at one of the dining tables while I debriefed him on what the angle of my story would be--Edgar the chef, plain, uncut, and uncensored. He was cool with that, so we proceeded.
He offered me a plate of food, nothing off the menu, just what the chefs and the other employees ate before opening to the dinner crowd. As the staff joked and laughed they made me feel like part of their family--not so much the hard-core, badass stereotype you hear a lot. They
Edgar suited me up with a chef's coat (I was extremely excited about this part!) He poked fun at my moccasins, noting that they were in NO way kitchen footware. I told him that I didn't mind if they got dirty. He continued to chuckle as he offered to put bags over my feet. I laughed, and told him that I would rather get them dirty, than wear bags.
Stepping into the kitchen was like stepping into a compeltely different world. Heavenly music played as I slowly and carefully walked my way around the greasy floors. Braised meats sat in large catering trays under the salamander, the mise en place was all ready to go, pans were hung neatly on the walls, an array of colors and smells of fresh produce and seafood purfumed through the kitchen. It wasn't by any means a large ktichen, but it was enough for this restaurant.
As the rush of hungry diners began to flow in, the chefs, including Edgar, manned their stations--with a smile of course and a handful of jokes.
The kitchen got HOT quick.
But none of the chefs ever got to busy to ask me how I was doing and to make sure I was getting some good information about them for the story. They gave me platefuls of risotto, fish, and other things that were on the menu to taste. IT WAS GREAT.
They seemed...really relaxed. I'm not saying, by any means, that they "had it easy", there was definitely a sense of urgency and a need for speed and accuracy, but something about how graceful they moved and how much they joked made the job seem effortless and enjoyable--despite the heat and the greased up floors.
The orders kept rolling in and they knew what to do--which sauces when where, which seasonings were for the salmon and which were for the ahi, each dish finished with "finesse" as Edgar put it.
The kitchen wasn't the place for me. I wouldn't be able to stand the "heat" of the kitchen in every sense of the word, no matter how fun and easy they made it seem.

(I'll attach the article I wrote soon!)