Tag Archives: cuisine

Five disturbing trends in the restaurant industry

There have been a numerous new trends in the restaurant industry over the past decade, and, unfortunately, all of them are bad. Restaurant owners have proven to be susceptible to all the recent technological fads and have  contributed to the generalized dumbing down of society.

  1. Menus with photos.

This trend seems to be most prevalent in Asia and probably began here.  Almost every Asian restaurant that I visit now has a picture menu. Even the most basic, simple, and elementary dish requires an accompanying photo. Take, for example, the classic Vietnamese dish, Pho. It is sold on every street corner of the city, in every Vietnamese restaurant and in every shopping mall. It is eaten in every Vietnamese home. Yet, restaurant owners apparently believe that customers need to see a picture of a soup bowl with noodles inside next to the word ‘Pho.’  A can of coke requires an accompanying photo. So does a bottled water.

These elaborate picture menus require considerably more expense and effort than a good old-fashioned written menu. The pages must be much thicker; indeed, many of these menus are printed on cardboard instead of paper. Or, they are laminated with hard plastic. Picture menus  are often extremely large and one needs to carefully use the entire half of the table to open it. And because fewer items can be printed on each page, thanks to all the photos, the menus must be considerably longer as well. The longest menu I have seen in Southeast Asia was 70 pages.

Picture menus are for children. They have no place in any respectable restaurant. No owner with any sense of pride in his establishment and respect for his customers would have a picture menu. The photos are unnecessary and are a waste of space, time, money, and effort. In the ‘old days,’ owners had to spend time writing creative descriptions of their dishes for their menus. Nowadays, they take the easy way out and slap a photo next to the item. ‘Idiocracy’? We’re living in it.

2. Big Screen Televisions

Televisions in restaurants used to be associated exclusively with sports bars. The idea was to draw in customers who were traveling and wanted to catch their favorite sports team or watch a special game. Sports bars had their place the scheme of things and I never saw much harm in them. One day, though, some restaurant owners who were looking for a new gimmick to increase sales said to themselves, “Hey, maybe we can get a piece of that action. Why should sports bars be the only ones to have televisions? Let’s put a big screen tv up behind the bar and see what happens. We’ll keep everything else the same, but now we can say that we provide a television for the local sports games.”

And so it went. Pretty soon, every other restaurant, reacting to the competition and the trend, installed giant flat screens in their bars and dining rooms as well. The old clearly demarcated line between sports bars and fine dining was obliterated, almost overnight.

Once the televisions have been turned on, managers don’t like to turn them off. As an experiment, I encourage my readers to go to their favorite local restaurant and ask the manager, politely, to turn off the television and see what kind of reaction you get. He will most likely look at you as if you are insane.

A couple of years ago I visited my family in Washington D.C. My brother took me out to a trendy neighborhood with dozens of upscale restaurants. I asked him to take me one without televisions. He thought about it for a moment and replied, “You know, I can’t think of one. I’m pretty sure every single one of these places has a screen.

The invasion of televisions into restaurants has reached a height of absurdity unimaginable even a few years ago. Some resto-bars have a dozen televisions playing, along with music. Combine that with loud customers and street noise and you have a chaotic scene. Even though not a single customer can be seen who is actually viewing one of the screens, managers refuse to turn them off. They are now seen as ‘ambience.’

I have attempted to talk with managers and owners about this, but my protestations fall on deaf ears, always. I point out that having televisions does not bring in customers. I mention that nobody views them anyway. I argue that they are energy hogs. I tell them that they destroy the ambience of the dining experience. No matter. The trend has been set and now there is no turning back.

In researching this article, I did a google search on televisions in fine-dining restaurants and was heartened to see numerous articles written about the subject. There is a debate about it, but it needs to be much broader and reach a much bigger audience.

3.  Free Wi-Fi

Although flat-screen televisions had already mostly destroyed the ambience of many restaurants, the installation of free Wi-Fi put the final nail in the coffin. Once again, we saw  restaurant owners tripping over each other to be trendy and caving in to fickle and superficial customers who just wanted their damn Wi-Fi! Dude! Owners took the short-term view versus the long-term view. The short-term view means giving customers what they demand, now. The longer-term view, I argue, involves preserving something called the ‘restaurant experience,’ which involves far more than eating  delicious food. It encompasses the entire experience of eating out, from the moment you enter the restaurant until the moment you leave. When a customer is able to eat exceptional food in an elegant, relaxed setting and engage in stimulating conversation during the meal, the experience can be almost transcendent.

The availability of free Wi-Fi guarantees that customers will never be able to enjoy that kind of experience. A quick glance around the dining area of any restaurant today will show more than half of the customers with their heads bent down at unnatural angles, staring into the bright screens of their smart phones, their faces eerily illuminated. Conversation is entirely absent. Mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends ignore each other entirely for the duration of the meal.  A person can choose not to use a smart phone while in the restaurant, but there is no way to block out the surrounding customers who exist in their zombie cyber-world.

4. Servers using iPads and smartphones to take orders

I experienced this loathsome trend last week in the Bangkok airport. The nervous young girl who waited on me didn’t want to talk at all; she was nervously focused on her hand-held device, using her thumbs to carefully enter in my order, which was, apparently, sent at the speed of light to the kitchen a few feet away. What idiotic owner really believes that supplying his waitstaff with computers is going to improve service? The device creates a totally unnecessary barrier between the server and customer. The server’s eyes and attention are now entirely focused on the gadget and away from the customers, where it should be. The ability of the server to engage in conversation, banter, and even flirtation with the customers is severely hampered.

I recall a rather humorous experience I had a few years ago in Seattle when I first observed this trend. I was eating in an Indian restaurant for lunch. My table was just a few feet from the kitchen. Indeed, I could see the chefs through an opening in the wall behind the register. The owner decided to take my order and he entered it onto his hand-held device. It was clear to me that he was immensely proud of his high-tech way of taking orders. He assured me, with a broad smile, that my order would be received ultra-fast by the chefs in the kitchen and, hence, I could receive my food that much quicker. Alas, I was not impressed. I told him, flatly, that I thought his gadgetry was unnecessary, silly, and pretentious. Furthermore, I told him that I was not in a particular hurry and if I wanted ‘fast food’, I could go to McDonald’s. This portly owner seemed to regard efficiency as the highest goal in the restaurant business.

5. Servers unfolding the customer’s napkin and placing it in his lap

This may not be a new trend. Perhaps some fine dining restaurants have always done this. I’m not sure. But if it is a new trend, I hope it will disappear as quickly as possible. I remember clearly the first time a waiter grabbled my napkin and attempted to put in my lap. I was so shocked at the action that I didn’t know quite what to do or say. All I could manage at the moment was, “What in the hell are you doing? Do  I look like a baby?”

What kind of sheer nonsense is this? Customers now need assistance unfolding their napkins? Only babies and incapacitated geriatric patients should need assistance like this. The servers don’t ask customers, either. No. They simply come to the  table and with a big smile place the napkin in customer’s  laps.

I was in a nice Italian restaurant a couple of weeks ago when the server attempted this silly maneuver. I kept repeating, ‘What are you  doing? What are you doing? What.. are… you… doing…?’ She didn’t answer and continued to unfold the napkin and reach over to place it in my lap. I finally had to forcibly grab her arm and shove her away from me. Really, if owners and managers think this pretentious little dance is necessary, then why stop there? Why not have the server sit at the table and lift the fork and spoon for the customers? It’s the logical next step.

 

 

 

 

 

The death of literacy. Restaurant owners leading the charge to a dumbed down world

In many places in Asia, it is not necessary to be able to read when you wish to order food in a restaurant. The majority have menus which require dozens of pages as each page only has two or three items. The reason? Each entree and item must have an accompanying photo. Apparently, there are people out there who do not know what french fries look like. Or a bowl of soup. Or a coconut. Or a can of coke. Literally everything needs a photo. The menu pages have also become cardboard thick. Have we lost so much dexterity in our hands that we cannot turn the pages on regular size paper?

A new dim sum restaurant opened last week on my block. Out front, two six foot tall sandwich board signs are plastered with photos of the menu items. Inside, each wall is covered with enlarged photos of entrees and various dim sum items. Above the counter is yet another three by six foot backlit sign with food photos. You see all that before you even lay eyes on the menu itself, which of course has even more.

A chimpanzee would easily be able to walk in and place an order there. Some day soon, I’m going to do my best chimpanzee imitation and walk into one of these restaurants and not say a word. I will be hunched over and dragging my arms along the ground. I will make high pitched screeching noises and point excitedly at the picture that I like.  I will press my stubby fingers on the menu picture that I like and wait for my food to arrive.  No doubt this will work.

This past weekend I made my first trip to Kuala Lumpur.  My girlfriend and I sat down to eat in a fairly nice but not too expensive restaurant in a downtown shopping mall. The young, fresh-faced server, who was somewhere between late teens and early twenties,  came to take our order. He arrived not with a pen and order book,   but with an iPad computer. He asked for our orders and then proceeded to enter them into the iPad with his thumbs. I couldn’t see the screen but I feel confident that all he had to do was press the corresponding picture on the screen.

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We have now come full circle. First, they made it unnecessary for customers to be literate. Now, even the servers need not be able to write. They can merely listen to the order and find the accompanying photo on the screen. Restaurant owners, like owners of many other businesses, are quick to respond to current trends and even quicker to cater to the lowest common denominator. My dear readers, do you see where all of this is heading? Right now, orders to the kitchen are spat out on a ticket which the chef has to read before he starts to prepare the item. Soon, large flat screens will be installed in restaurant kitchens and a light will flash with a photo of an entree whenever an order is placed.

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I observed this young kid fumbling with his computer at our table while taking our order. Instead of being focused on us, the customers, he was focused on the screen which he was holding up to his nose. His face was bathed in that eerie computer screen glow. I’m sure the pencil -necked geek owner who thought of the idea of giving all servers an iPad thought he was being clever and efficient. All this cute technology however did not prevent the kid from bringing me the wrong order. Sigh….

Ten things I love about Viet Nam

10) The Weather

In the southern half of the country where I live, it’s never cold. Sweaters and coats are unnecessary. My clothing budget is minuscule;  I get by with shorts, t-shirts, and flip-flops when I’m not working. That’s not to say the weather here is perfect. Far from it. The heat, humidity and rain can all be unpleasant.  But overall, the climate here is conducive to my lifestyle and I love seeing the bright sun every day.

9) Cost of living

Inflation is happening and the bowl of pho that cost 25 cents a few years ago now costs $1.50.  However, the cost of basic items needed for daily living is still a bargain, especially if you shop around. Everything from pedicures to taxis is a fraction of the cost of Western countries.  If you can manage to avoid the more expensive touristy areas and the stores geared toward the wealthier expats, you can live quite cheaply. Shop for food at the markets and share housing, especially with a local family, and you can actually save money.

market8) Street Markets

For convenience, cost, and freshness, you can’t beat the local street markets. Even though there is a family of ten living in this house where I rent a room, their refrigerator is only 1/4 full. Why? Because they shop for fresh food every day at the street market. A refrigerator becomes redundant when you shop daily for fresh produce.

7) Tropical fruits

soursopExotic fruits that I only read about back in the States are now a part of my daily diet. Mangosteen, dragon fruit, durian, rambutan, lychee, jackfruit, soursop and more are just a few steps from my front door. In-season fruits sell for 25 cents a pound.

6) Being in Southeast Asia

Cambodia (with the otherworldly Angkor Wat ruins), Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and the Philippines are all just a stone’s throw away. With discount airlines such as Air Asia offering daily flights all over the region, there is enough to explore here to last a lifetime. A bus fare to the Cambodian border costs a mere ten dollars.

5) Opportunities

constructionViet Nam is a developing country. It is growing rapidly in an economic, political  and cultural sense which means there are many opportunities here for aspiring entrepreneurs. Many young Vietnamese who studied abroad are now returning here from Europe, America, and Australia and helping to build the country.  There is still far too much red tape to navigate for foreigners to start a business, but that is improving, albeit slowly.

4) A respectable English language newspaper

Viet Nam News is published seven days a week and is superior to any daily paper in the United States, and operates  on only a fraction of the budget of papers  like The Washington Post.

3) A sense of optimism about the future

Vietnamese believe that the best days lie ahead.  After two brutal wars of liberation from foreign powers, the country is rapidly industrializing and joining the global market. Foreign investment is flowing into the country and the internet is exposing the population to the wider world. Not just new technology, but new ideas are gaining ground quickly.

2) A well-established ESL job scene

ESL language schools have been around now for over 20 years, (some longer than that), and the demand for English instruction seems to be as robust as ever. This is good news for teachers like myself. Most of the bigger schools are reputable and treat their teachers with respect and courtesy. Now, if the government could just simplify the work permit process….

1) Vietnamese women

The women of Viet Nam are the most beautiful in the world. From their soft skin to their long silky hair, they are gorgeous in every respect.

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Why I won’t touch farm-raised (Atlantic) salmon

The oceans are under duress from overfishing and pollution. Global fish stocks are in steep decline. The price for high quality fresh fish continues to increase at the same time that more and more studies are coming out showing the demonstrable benefits of a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids. People want fish for the delicious taste and the health benefits and are willing to pay for it, even though there may be serious questions regarding the whole industry.

S_I_FIG1The demand for salmon especially has remained high as it has been shown to have some of the highest levels of precious, brain boosting omega-3. Hence, where there is demand, a supplier will work to meet that need. Our stores are filled with frozen and fresh salmon, restaurants and sushi bars all feature salmon on their menus and it appears that supply is meeting demand.

There is just one problem. The vast majority of that salmon, over 90 percent, is farm-raised. Most of the supply is currently coming from Norway and Southern Chile. It is usually labeled as ‘Atlantic Salmon.’ It is rarely labeled as farm-raised. Even if it were labeled as such, it is doubtful that most consumers would know what that means, or care.

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When I moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1999, I started to eat wild salmon fished out of the the Northern Pacific Ocean off the California, Oregon and Washington coasts and from Alaska. I gradually started to eat it more and more and during the fishing season when you could buy it fresh for seven or eight dollars a pound, I would eat it two or three times a week. I noticed the effects on my health from eating a  regular diet of fresh salmon. I felt more energized and happy, and my hair, skin and nails had a healthy glow.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI became curious about the history of the Native Northwest cultures and their ancient relationship to salmon, reflected in their art, traditions, songs and rituals. I studied how salmon had sustained entire tribes for millennia. I learned about the science and biology of the fish and their amazing ability to swim for thousands of miles into the ocean and return to their original breeding ground. I read about the history of dam building in the American West and the devastating impacts of dams on salmon populations.

fish artThe ancient and recent history of the Pacific Northwest is so intertwined with the story of salmon that numerous books have been written about it. Sometimes people I meet wonder why I am so passionate about salmon and so vehemently against farm-raised salmon. A salmon is a salmon is a salmon, right?

No! Unfortunately, many consumers around the world have no education regarding what they are eating and restaurant owners, fish market sellers and others are trying to protect their bottom line. As far as they are concerned, the consumers’ ignorance is not their problem. Buyer beware.

Book salmonThe massive problems with farm-raised salmon have been written about extensively, though much education remains to be done, judging from how ignorant the average consumer remains and how often these fish appear on menus. Salmon were designed by nature to swim freely in wide open oceans, for thousands of miles. They most definitely were not designed to be crammed into aqua pens with hundreds of thousands of other fish, swimming in a muck of antibiotic laden fish feed, feces, and sewage. Farm-raised salmon have much lower levels of omega-3 and significantly higher levels of PCBs, mercury and DDT- all of them toxic and carcinogenic compounds.

Additionally, the aqua pens consist of nets which trap sea lions and other mammals. The toxic waste from the farms is often discharged directly into coastal waters, severely damaging fragile coastal ecosystems.

king-of-fish-bookThe decline of wild salmon is one of the worst ecological and biological tragedies of our era. The emergence of this farming industry to fill the gap between supply and demand is a horrible development. These fish even have to be dyed pink so that unsuspecting consumers believe that they are eating the real deal.

I’m quite sure that some of my friends and acquaintances have in the past seen me as elitist and pretentious for saying I will only eat wild salmon. So be it. I know what real wild salmon is. It’s not just that so called ‘Atlantic Salmon’ is a poor substitute. It is no substitute at all. Shame on the industry and the sellers who continue to peddle these creatures.

 

http://glipho.com/toasttofood/four-reasons-why-you-should-never-eat-farm-raised-salmon

http://alexandramorton.typepad.com/10_reasons_not_to_eat_far/

The three stooges: Ramsay, Bourdain, and Flay

Recently, my students and I were viewing a cooking show on youtube when Gordon Ramsay’s name appeared on a related video.  A handful of girls in the class became quite excited and yelled out, “Hey, we want Gordon Ramsay. Please! He’s so handsome.”

I was surprised that young teenagers in Viet Nam had heard of the pugnacious chef from Scotland. Apparently, he has fans all over the world. We watched a quick video of the Michelin chef instructing the youtube audience on the proper way to cook  a steak. It was obvious that even when Ramsay does a three  minute cooking video from  home, he has professional videographers to do all the filming. One camera stayed focused on Ramsay himself, zooming in and out,  tilting up and down, and panning left to right constantly. The other camera was focused on the food. The post-production  editing produced a rapid-fire jump cut video that literally made me dizzy with the zooming, panning, tilting and cuts between chef and food. It was horrible. Add to that Ramsay’s narration, in which he spoke so fast that I could barely follow him, (let alone my students) and the end result was confusion. The chef didn’t look interested and rarely looked at the camera. Perhaps his business manager suggested doing a few youtube videos to increase sales of his cookbooks.

Gordon Ramsay, (b. 1966) exists  in the rarefied air of ‘celebrity chef.’ His restaurants, television reality shows and books combine to give him a net worth around 80 million USD, according to some sources. His television shows include Hell’s Kitchen, Kitchen Nightmares, and Celebrity Chef. Watching these programs, viewers are treated to a close-up view of Ramsay’s explosive  temper, foul mouth, and penchant for verbal abuse and humiliation. His favorite targets are other chefs, though he is not averse to insulting and cussing out restaurant patrons as well.

 

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He claims that he is only dishing out ‘tough love’ to struggling chefs and restaurant owners. Interesting. This guy is giving tough love a bad name. After watching a handful of video clips on youtube, I said to myself, “Enough.” The shows are  repetitive and boring : Ramsay storms into a restaurant kitchen, berates and humiliates the chef, tells him that all of the food was inedible, and then, when the other chef becomes indignant, looks at the camera and says, “Wow, this guy doesn’t take constructive criticism very well. What a loser.”

Anthony Bourdain, (b. 1956) is another well-known celebrity chef and ‘television personality.’ Bourdain gained notoriety in 2000 when his book Kitchen Confidential was released and became a best-seller. The semi-autobiographical book gives firsthand insight into the high stress and sometimes chaotic world of restaurant kitchens. Based strictly on its merits, the book is merely a decent read, but the New York press and reading public went absolutely ga-ga over it, with various publications and writers stumbling over themselves to guess which restaurant he was referring to in chapter 4, pg. 53, etc., etc.

Much of Bourdain’s popularity stems from the image he has carefully crafted of himself: a talented chef who inhabited the elite world of New York’s finest restaurants but who is really a tough man’s man, a no nonsense dude who despises wimpy faggot vegetarians and so on.

With the runaway success of Kitchen Confidential combined with Bourdain’s ego and charisma, it was inevitable that the the media establishment would come knocking. He soon landed a deal with the Food Network, followed by the Travel Channel, and then finally with CNN. Watch a few minutes of these shows, and you will see a strange spectacle: this multi-millionare New York chef trying his best to come across as an ‘everyman’ while at the same time flying around Sao Paulo Brazil in his friend’s helicopter, and bragging about his wealthy friends in far-flung countries.

Why viewers would want to tune into his show to watch him chow down a huge pastrami sandwich in Santiago, Chile and have a conversation with some rich local is beyond me. He has no insight into the culture, the people, or the history of the places he visits. During a beachside  chat with his Chilean contact, the man talked sadly about the destructive impacts of the salmon farming industry in Southern Chile and how he had seen so much wildlife disappear from the coastline over the last 20 years. Instead of pursuing that potentially rich thread of conversation, Bourdain brushed it aside with some remark about how ‘everyone’s gotta make a living.’

Bobby Flay  (b. 1964) is a spiritual brother to Bourdain and Ramsay. Wikipedia refers to him as a ‘celebrity chef, restaurateur, and television personality.’ As you would expect from someone with such titles, he has a gargantuan ego. He never tires of showing off to the world his cooking skills, which are undoubtedly prodigious. He has won numerous Iron Chef competitions over the years. But watch him jump on top of his cutting board after a competition with chef Morimoto and ‘woop-woop’ with his New York audience and you will get an idea of the guy’s character and ego. Only a guy with Flay’s ego could dream up a show with a theme like this: travel around the country and challenge chefs at their speciality.

 

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There are so many great chefs and cooks in the world who are unknown to the public. Even many who have gained respect and notoriety, such as Masaharu Morimoto and Mario Batali, manage to keep their egos in check and retain their humility. Do people like Ramsay realize that young kids around the world watch his shows? What kind of a role model is he? Does he care?

Any chef who claims to be the executive chef at half a dozen restaurants has  gone overboard with his ambitions. Isn’t it enough work to run one successful kitchen? How can one man oversee six or seven kitchens? And do all that while writing cookbooks, doing television appearances, and generally promoting the hell out of himself? No. These guys are merely selling their names. They don’t spend much time in their restaurants actually cooking for the patrons.

Let’s put these egotistical celebrities into a small one bedroom apartment for a week, fill the refrigerator and lock the door so they can’t escape. We can observe them with hidden cameras and see who comes out alive. Now there’s reality show I would watch.

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/06/100622112558.htm

http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2012/04/chilean-fish-farms-and-the-tragedy-of-the-commons/#.U2BtRiis3ww 

 

 

Peruvian food in Viet Nam???

An article appeared recently in Viet Nam News about a Peruvian cooking class which took place recently in Ha Noi. The class was organized by the Peruvian embassy and was for invited guests only, mostly diplomatic staff around the city, some local chefs and various media.

A Peruvian chef cooked up a number of traditional dishes for the guests, most of whom had never sampled the cuisine previously. According to the writer of the article, there were many ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ as the Vietnamese chefs were surprised and delighted to learn many unique ways to prepare potatoes and corn.

Reading this article, I was filled with nostalgia for the time I spent in Peru. I have been there three times; in 2012 I was fortunate to be able to live in Lima for 6 months. Even if the country did not boast an exceptional cuisine, it would still be well worth visiting, given its astounding natural beauty and numerous archaeological treasures.

Ceviche_mixto_con_zarandajasIf Viet Nam is lucky enough to attract a Peruvian chef to come here and open a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City or Ha Noi, it will be time to celebrate. I think we are probably still years away from that happening, but who knows? The country is developing quickly and opportunities abound.

In the U.S.A., foodie types in cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington DC have known about Peruvian cuisine for years. However, outside of those metropolises, it is still virtually unknown. Portland boasts one excellent restaurant, but when I was living in Seattle in 2011, it still did not have a Peruvian restaurant. I often sent emails to my friends in Peru, begging them to come to the Northwest and open a restaurant.

peru_mapThe staples of Peruvian cuisine are potatoes, corn, and chili peppers. The potato is native the Andean region of South America and there are somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 varieties, depending on who is counting. When I was a young man, I remember reading Jack Weatherford’s classic book Indian Givers, in which he explained, in great detail, how native American foods, once introduced into Europe, changed the course of world history. The potato in particular was to have an astounding impact on population growth in Northern Europe.

The humble spud: so unpretentious, boring, and often ugly. Yet, it is so versatile, easy to grow, delicious and filled with carbohydrates and calories that it can sustain a population almost by itself. Recently, I introduced my Vietnamese girlfriend to the joy of fried rosemary potatoes, and she became instantly hooked.

quinoaThere are many other native staples besides corn and potatoes, which are stars in their own right. Quinoa, for example, is slowly and steadily gaining popularity all over the world; its rich, nutty flavor, high protein profile, and easy preparation make it an ideal carb sidedish. It is now available in Viet Nam though it is prohibitively expensive.  Kiwicha, which is known as Amaranth in most English speaking countries, is another delicious and nutritious grain, with an almost muciloginous texture. Kaniwa, which looks similar to Quinoa, is yet another. Maca,  a tuber native to the Andes, is now a wildly popular add-on at smoothie bars in stores like Whole Foods Market. The tuber is ground into a fine texture, which can easily be added to shakes and smoothies or even sprinkled onto muesli and yogurt. Maca has a powerful physical and mental energizing effect. I once did a report on it for a nursing school class.

Peruvians eat meat dishes which are rarely seen outside South America, such as roasted Cuy (guinea pig), Alpaca, and marinated and roasted beef heart, called anticuchos.

variedades_nativas_500These staple ingredients are just the base of the cuisine. From the numerous immigrant groups who came to Peru over the centuries, including the Spanish, Italians, Africans, Chinese and Japanese, a truly unique and wonderful fusion cuisine has developed.  The chef Gaston Arcurio, who is a national icon,  has done more than anyone to popularize it around the world.  While living in Lima, I made sure to eat at least once in his flagship restaurant, Astrid y Gaston, and it was an experience I will never forget.

Gastón-AcurioA signature dish of Peruvian cuisine, and one served in every restaurant along the coast is ceviche, sometimes spelled cebiche. It a small, simple, and elegant dish made from fish which is marinated or ‘cooked’ in lime juice, with sliced onion, corn and often a side of sweet potato. You will often see a mixed seafood ceviche as well. Another well known dish is causa, which is made from boiled, mashed  potatoes which are then artfully layered with other foods and presented in a colorful manner. Papa a la Huancaina is a dish of boiled potatoes which is layered with melted cheese and served on a bed of lettuce. It is extremely popular in Lima and featured on most menus.

 

LucumaLucuma, native to Peru, is a fruit that is easy to become addicted to once you have tried it. Many restaurants in Lima serve it as an ice cream or smoothie flavor. Chicha Morada, a refreshing drink made of boiled purple corn (to lend color), cloves, cinnamon, sugar, and ice, was a daily staple for me. The Pisco Sour is the national cocktail of Peru. It is made from the Pisco brandy, key lime juice, syrup, ice, egg white and Angostura bitters. Though it will never achieve the fame of the mojito, it too is becoming well known around the world.

 

Chicha_moradaAs Peruvian cuisine  becomes known in new markets such as Southeast Asia, the never-ending story of food and cuisine cross pollination continues. Hopefully soon, average Vietnamese will have the opportunity to sample ceviche and causa, and Peruvians in Lima and Cusco will perhaps try their first bowl of Pho.

 

 

 

Whole Foods Market- one man’s recollections and thoughts

Whole Foods Market, the large grocery retailer based in Austin, Texas first opened for business in 1980 and now operates 365 stores in three countries, with  even more new stores in development. A publicly traded corporation, Whole Foods has revenue close to $20 billion and employs more than 58,000 employees.

I grew up in the suburbs of Washington DC and during the 1970s and  1980s there were no such thing as a ‘natural food’ store, save for a couple of old, dusty co-ops- holdovers from the 1960s and supported by a small but dedicated clientele of aging hippies and vegetarians. As a young kid and teenager, I wasn’t even aware of those co-ops. My family  got our food from Safeway and Giant Foods, two of the dominant grocery chains around the DC metro area. Those stores were characterized by their bland interiors , bright fluorescent  lighting, grumpy  employees, and sorely neglected produce sections. Whenever I accompanied my mom on a trip to the neighborhood Safeway, I wanted to get in and out as quickly as possible.

In the mid 1980s, I landed in Austin, Texas to attend university. For two and half years, I existed on dorm and student union food, supplemented with outings to local fast food joints. Then, in 1987,  I started dating a new girlfriend and I noticed that she had a number of interesting fruit juices in her refrigerator, with names like ‘pineapple-coconut’ and ‘hibiscus’ and ‘cherry-lemon.’ When she offered me a taste, I invariably ended up drinking the entire bottle. Sheepishly,  I offered to go to the store to replace them. “By the way, where do you buy all this delicious stuff?”

“Oh, I do a lot of my shopping at Whole Foods Market.”

“Whole Foods Market? What’s that?”

“Oh, that’s the cool hippie natural foods store down on Lamar Boulevard. Come on, I’ll show you.”

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And so I took my first trip to a real natural foods store. I’ll never forget it. It was a revelation. When I walked through the door, I couldn’t believe that I was in a grocery store. Instead of the harsh fluorescent lighting of Safeway, the lights were soft and unobtrusive. Hip music was playing over the speakers. Employees milled about, most with smiles on their faces, and appeared to be enjoying their work.

At the front of the store was a juice bar, something I had never heard of , selling bizarre stuff like grass put thru a modified crank. Not only could you get a fresh squeezed carrot or fruit juice, but you could also add on a host of extras like bee pollen, vitamin C, and spirulina, a blue-green algae which an employee assured me was very healthy.

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After trying to digest all that, I wandered over to the produce section and turned to my girlfriend and said, “Oh my god, everything looks so delicious!”  The fruits and vegetables were arranged and displayed artfully, piled high in beautiful ceramic bowls and earthenware.  Signs on the wall proudly stated that all of the produce was organically grown.

Going further, I encountered the spice section. Small and large mason jars by the dozens lined an entire wall, filled with what seemed to me to be every spice known to mankind. From Anise to vanilla bean, the aromas beckoned me. Starting at the beginning of the alphabet, I took down the jars, unscrewed the caps, and began to smell each one. My nose was introduced to a multitude of new and exciting smells and bouquets. After the spices, I dove into the essential oils. It was intoxicating to smell Basil, Bergamot, Cedarwood, Clary Sage, Eucalyptus, Grapefruit, Jasmine, Lavender, Patchouli, Peppermint, Pine, Rosemary, Ylang Ylang,..My girlfriend had to eventually pull me away and said,”We don’t have all night you know.”

 

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From that day on, I was constantly pestering her to drive me down to Whole Foods. Having no money at the time, I didn’t buy much. I really just enjoyed wandering around the store and  familiarizing  myself with all the new foods, fruits, vegetables, spices, herbs, flowers and essential oils that I was finding.

Our Saturday itinerary was usually the same: Spend an hour or two at Whole Foods , then go over to Book People for a couple of hours, followed by a trip to Barton Springs.

 

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This time, during the late 1980s was what I now refer to as the ‘good old days’, before WFM expanded, went public, and went on to become well known all over the country. Even before the company went public in 1992, it had started to expand into other states and to acquire competitors in the natural foods retailing market. It voraciously bought out most of its competition, including well established companies like Wellspring Grocery, Bread and Circus, Mrs. Gooch’s , Bread of Life, Fresh Fields, Nature’s Heartland, and Fresh and Wild.

In 1994, I finally fulfilled one of my dreams and got a job with the company, in a new store in North Austin. I would later work in one of their new stores in Washington DC, as well as in smaller co-ops and natural foods markets, in Austin, Washington DC, and San Francisco. Speaking with WFM employees in the early 90s,  I noticed that they were excited and yet more than little trepid about the company’s explosive growth. Rumors swirled that within a few years, WFM would have 100 stores! At the time, it seemed almost inconceivable.

Yes, my beloved Whole Foods, where I had received  my baptism into organics, juicing, vegetarianism, veganism and so much more, had sold its soul to the devil. Expanding your business is one thing- going public and getting in bed with Wall Street, as well as destroying your competition is something else altogether.

 

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Expanding so quickly and so aggressively  is inevitably going to earn you some enemies, and WFM was  no exception. With its strategy of buying out the competition and  fighting unionization of its employees, it has earned the enmity of many erstwhile supporters, including myself. Other controversies have popped up over the years, including  CEO John Mackey coming out vigorously against universal health care and continuing to sell GMO foods, while at the same time continuously proclaiming  that it is a ‘natural’ foods store.

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My bitterness and disappointment in WFM and the direction it went does not go so deep that I boycott the company. Whenever I visit or live in a city where there is one, I still shop there, occasionally. Their store designs still set the industry standard and even now, 27 years later, I get a kick out of wandering through the stores and admiring the eye-popping displays, and unparalleled selection of international foods.

 

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Also, the impact that WFM has had on the old guard grocery retailers cannot be overstated. Without WFM’s impact, many cities and towns across the USA would still be stuck with those horrifically bland and unimaginative stores. Almost every grocery store in the country, from tiny co-ops to the largest big box stores, has had to redesign itself to compete with WFM and become more warm and user-friendly. The ones who were belated in doing so lost customers to WFM.  Now though, many have caught up and added large organic sections  and are consequently drawing in some of Whole Foods’ customers. The game goes on in the cutthroat world of food retailing.

Best wine in the world

My favorite wine in the world is the Moscato (Muscat) from Alois Lageder , a winemaker from the Alto Adige in Northern Italy, near the Austrian border. The unique terrain here, combining the cold mountain air from the Alps with warm Mediterranean sunshine, helps to produce outstanding wine grapes.  I have never smelled a wine that so bursts with tropical and citrus fruit as this wine. Papaya, banana, lemon, guava, and mango blend into an impossibly enticing bouquet. On the palate, it is silky smooth, with just the right amount of acid to balance the fruitiness. Lageder also produces Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Gerwurtzraminer, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir.

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His family has been making wine since 1823 and they are devoted to biodynamic viticulture. I have been fortunate to be able to taste a dozen or so biodynamic wines, and there is definitely some ‘thing’ about these wines that distinguishes them from the pack. Gary Vaynerchuk once did  a great interview on www.winelibrarytv with a biodynamic pioneer, Nicolas Joly,  and I loved the way Joly  discussed biodynamics. He stated that one way you can tell a biodynamic wine is that you can chug it down like lemonade (not that you would want to), the purity is so refined. The entire interview is well worth watching.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicolas_Joly

Biodynamic farming, invented by the late mystic and educator Rudolph Steiner,  takes years, even decades,  to master. It is a blending of the spiritual with the scientific,  requiring a deep understanding of  nature and cosmic principles. It is a profound synthesis of the earthly with the heavenly, and the rewards for humans who practice the system are healthy, resilient and fertile soils which grow remarkably delicious fruits and vegetables to nourish us.

 

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There are many wines available which are delicious, well-made and reflect a terroir with style and elegance. Very few wines, in fact only a tiny percentage, do all that and make you feel different inside, as if you have just ingested something infused with true cosmic energy.  Lageder’s wines do that.

 

 

http://www.aloislageder.eu/en/vogelmaier_moscato_giallo