Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Katya: What Shabbat Means to Me

When I went vegan three years ago, my grandmother was very upset.

Even now, she refuses to even say the word “vegan” and resents that my little brother has since gone vegetarian.

But love and care lie at the core of her resentment: namely, the frustration that she can no longer feed me when I come to her house. The food I eat is now different from the food she eats (let’s be real here- Bubbie don’t mess wit kale), and she hates the feeling of not being able to share the traditional foods she’s been making, in her words, ever “since G-d’s dog was a puppy.”

My wonderful, sassy grandmother with her Eastern-European-Brooklynese accent passed her Jewish Mother Complex on to my mother, who has undoubtedly passed it on to me. I’ll admit this openly: I have a pathological drive to feed people.  It makes all too much sense that I love my job here.

This Jewish Mother Complex led me to host a number of large dinners and pop-ups throughout college and my early twenties. I felt connected to traditional Jewish food and its significance to my culture, so I hosted Passover Seders, Shabbat dinners, and an annual Chanukah popup called "Latkes and Vodkas". I’m so excited to now take these recipes -- recipes passed on from friends, family and my own kitchen developments -- and execute them on a larger scale here at NSB.

Matt has been very gracious and supportive in allowing me to do these dinners, and is kindly serving as my sous-chef as we temporarily switch roles. Just as he has taught me so much about classic American food, I’m now trying to explain things like kashrut and the difference between Ashkenazi, Mizrahi and Sephardic Jewish dishes. The biggest struggle: explaining to a gentile what kugel is (“So, it’s kind of like casserole, but less goyish…and it can be sweet or savory…you can eat it as a side dish or main dish or breakfast or…uh... just google it.”).  But while I continue to struggle with this, the preparation begins.  Tomorrow, I hope the supermarket cashier won't laugh at me for buying a gazillion canisters of Matzo meal.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Weekend Update

This past weekend we had an amazing menu from Chef Matt - African Night.  Word on the street was that it was one of his best yet.  There were many shouts for getting the Maharagwhe (an East African curry) on a regular basis at NSB.

Pic of the weekend:
Happy Babka Eaters at the Durham Farmer's Market

This coming weekend: Shabbat
We are excited to hold two nights of Shabbat dinners this coming Friday and Saturday.  More coming soon on the inspiration and preparation for this event.

Tracks of the Weekend:

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Shout-out!: Morgan

Morgan G. is the charismatic face of Ninth Street Bakery’s vegan kitchen operation. She’s not vegan and chooses to stay far away from kitchen work, but she’s everything we could ask for as the third member of our trifecta. If you’ve ever chatted with her at the counter, you understand why that is.

I’m always impressed by Morgan’s ability to provide customer service that is genuine and consistent. Beyond being upbeat and patient, her communication skills make her a perfect liaison between the kitchen and the customer.  The skill sets that she contributes are ones that Matt and I certainly lack, so we would never want to run the dinners without her.

What you don’t see behind the scenes is that when Morgan isn’t helping a customer, she’s organizing, cleaning, filing, or doing other helpful jobs that are necessary but that no one else has the time to do. The same helpful, considerate nature that she shows to the customers is shown to Morgan’s co-workers.

If you haven’t yet introduced yourself to Morgan during a Saturday night dinner, definitely do so. The girl’s got tons of creative style (she runs her own vintage company and makes jewelry), so be on the lookout for her contributions to a much-needed makeover of the café space.


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Shabbat Menu

Shabbat Menu is up and this ish is going to be epic!  First time Matzo Balls have been seen in Ninth Street.........Two nights only......Not to be missed.

Weekend Update: On Corndogs and Feeling Like an American

 Thoughful wrapup this week from our sous-chef Katya A.

When I first looked at the SliderShack menu, I got a little nervous and said to Matt “I have never eaten, let alone cooked, most of the dishes on this menu.” His response was, understandably, to make fun of me: “I’m Katya and I’m so cultured that I’ve never eaten chili cheese fries!” When I told another friend about it, her response was that I deserved to be deported back to wherever I was born.
I was born in the US.
I grew up on rice, beans, chicken, pasta, frozen fish sticks and 50-cent school lunches courtesy of federal assistance. This was supplemented by bagels on Saturday mornings and my mother’s tabouleh, falafel and hummus.  I ate PB&J sandwiches and pizza like every other kid, but there was an unspoken kosher twist to what I thought was my standard, low-income American diet. I’d never eaten corndogs or cheeseburgers and never heard of chili cheese fries or biscuits and gravy. Growing up in a small city (Ithaca, NY) with a large international student and immigrant population, this wasn’t abnormal.
                I went vegetarian when I was 18 and vegan when I was 20, which steered me further toward South Asian, East Asian, Middle Eastern and West African recipes in my own cooking (not to mention countless meals of plain, sautéed kale when I couldn’t afford anything else). I didn’t bother trying to veganize American food because I’d somehow managed to grow up in America without figuring out what American food was.
                Two months ago, I moved to North Carolina and learned what “chicken-fried” meant. Since Matt undeniably did grow up eating classic American food, I’ve gotten to hear and think about what that is (also see here).  It’s been a valuable learning experience to execute Matt’s recipes for state fair food, Southern soul food, and “Midwestern church picnic food”.
                On Saturday, I got to sample the dishes from our Slider Shack event. I have to say, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt as much like an American as I did in that moment. Culture and politics aside (you may never hear me say that again), I felt a sense of “Oh, I get it now!” patriotism when I tried sliders and chili cheese fries. After trying a few bites of each dish, I felt like waving an American flag above my head and singing G-d Bless America.
                So in honor of Oscar night (that happened recently, right?), let me conclude with a fake acceptance speech: I’d like to thank football, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and most of all, Slider Shack night for making me feel connected to the country in which I was born.

Track of the Weekend:

Monday, March 10, 2014

To Neal's Garage

I've never gone online with a customer service complaint.  But after my interaction with Neal's Garage, I felt they had really "done me wrong" and were unsympathetic when I told them I was not happy with the service on my vehicle.

In November I had our Mercedes Van towed to Neal's Garage as they had previously worked on it, and I had not had any negative experiences prior - in fact, they routinely gave us free oil changes in return for our patronage.  

To: Neal's Garage

Re: Mercedes Van in your shop

I wasn't really mad when you kept putting off the date my van would be ready.

And I wasn't mad when I would call every week and you would say that you were trying to get to it and to just give you a couple more days.

And I wasn't peeved when you said the holidays got in the way of the repair.

And I wasn't upset when you told me a starter replacement would cost $500 plus labor.

And I wasn't exasperated when you told me the starter was fixed but there was a problem with the electrical box.

And I wasn't enraged when it took nearly three weeks to get an electrician to look at it.

But I started to get a little worried when an independent mechanic was able to turn over the engine by switching battery cables that were in the wrong place.

And I started to get a little infuriated when you appeared then to have not an idea what the issue was two months after the van arrived in your garage.

And I felt betrayed when you told me the independent mechanic had not been authorized to look at the van (I had given him my authorization) - how else could he have received the keys from y'all?

And I started to act resentful when I realized that my best option at this point would be to sell the van and its resale value had probably now been sliced in half.

And I started to get pissed when I met the mechanic who had worked on the van and he wrung his hands, stared at his shoes, and could not answer my question as to what the existing issue with the van was.

And I was legitimately surprised when you told me I couldn't speak with the owner of Neal's Garage because he was out of town for "several weeks".

And I felt lied to when it turned out that the owner (Chris Snipes) actually was in town and could call me.

And I was sad when Chris was condescending and rude to me over the phone and refused to budge from the full repair cost, which at that point had run to over $1,600 (including a $320 battery replacement when the batteries had been perfectly fine and recently replaced when the vehicle arrive at the garage) and still had not fixed or identified the issue.

And I was upset when Chris refused to allow an independent mechanic to test the supposedly bad starter that was pinpointed but never proven as the original issue.

And I was lastly fit to blog about the experience when Chris told me that my credit card was not good at his place of business, and that I would need to either bring cash or bank check to tow my van out from his lot "by Friday, or I am putting it in storage".


Postscript: After towing, the independent mechanic then diagnosed the vehicle, purged the fuel line (there was air in it), and got the bus working in short order.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Chef Matt

I like to give shout-outs on the blog to our steadfast, workaholic crew, but here I really have to give a double-thanks to Chef Matt.

Matt has been going way way beyond the call of duty since our changeover last September.  He's regularly logging 60+ hour weeks, doing menu creation, training, ingredient purchasing, prepping, cleaning, the whole shebang.

On top of that, the food itself that is coming out has been stronger, more focused, and more finished.  The menus lately have had a great precision, both of ingredient combination and preparation technique.  You should watch this guy cut mirepoix - it's so evenly diced it's like it came off a machine!

Matt's cuisine has grown so much over the last year - I really can't wait to see where it goes.  He is now building a food lab in his home, so I am especially looking forward to more wildly exotic fermented things - kombuchas, kimchis, curry pastes, and so forth.  I really have no doubt that Matt is one of the most talented vegan chefs in the U.S.  While the food we cook is not served on white linens, I think the deliciousness quotient matches anything you might find elsewhere.  Typically, when you go to a fine dining restaurant and order the vegan or vegetarian plate, what you get is a salad or or a side dish medley.  Matt's creations are all designed so that the plant is directly centered in the middle of the plate - entrees are entrees and are wholesome, savory, and filling at that.

Chef Matt at Home

Food Pilgrimage: Skylight Inn, Ayden, NC

Usually when I go on food pilgrimages, it is outside of North Carolina (cf. Katz' Deli).  But for the last year or so I have been waiting to travel to Ayden, NC to sample the barbeque at the Skylight Inn. Self-titled as the barbeque capitol of the world (hence the gaudy replica of Capitol building on the roof), Skylight was filled on a Saturday with barbeque eaters lined up out past the door and into the parking lot.  The only other food you can get at the Skylight besides barbeque and their hardtack cornpone is barbeque chicken and it's only served Thursdays and Fridays.

I was ready to be disappointed after reading David Ross' review of The Pit wherein he gives a sideways diss to Skylight, but I have to say that I found Skylight's barbeque to be an almost perfect expression of Eastern NC barbeque, almost like barbeque as ideal type.  The meat is rubbed only with salt before smoking and then gets a simple additional helping of salt, pepper, apple cider vinegar, and Texas Pete once chopped.

And the flavor, not to put too fine a point on it, is in the chopping.  Laid upon a bowed cutting board and chopped using two cleavers, the barbeque retains a startling amount of flavor and juiciness in the five minutes it takes to go from board to sandwich or platter.  All the flavors come through equally pronounced without muddling each other -- the smoke, the meat, the salt, and the spice.  Though I love Allen and Son, the barbeque at Skylight just tastes fresher since it has not been marinating in a steam table for hours. My food pilgrimage companion JCD was equally smitten and was looking forward to bringing friends the hour and forty-five minutes east towards Greenville to make a return trip.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Pi(e) Day Cometh

What is American Food?

If you listen to the online podcast Taste Matters, you know that host Mitchell Davis is obsessed with unraveling this question of what is American food, or at least he mentions it to nearly every guest on the show.

Food culture signifies something about society, so what is American food, and what does it say about us?

American food is soul food.  Examples of soul food is barbeque, hamburgers, ice cream. french fries. grilled cheese, mac and cheese. biscuits, fried chicken, fruit pies, steak, etc.  Soul food is marked by a lack of refinement. a lack of sophisticated preparation (e.g. turn and burn), and few (typically less than five) ingredients per dish.

Why would America not only espouse this unrefined food, but in fact celebrate it, to the point that you can find very refined versions of soul food in well-regarded, expensive restaurants.  It must have something to with who we are.

Not to get all patriotic about it, but who we are is a state born of a revolutionary spirit, a young state, a state in adolescence that managed to adopt the stature of the unipolar for a time by dint of industry, ingenuity, war, and market control.  To power a revolution, you better get it in your soul.  A state in flux has no time or history for refinement - instead go for the calories (cf. American obesity epidemic).  Hence, the flavor profile of soul food is typically salty, fatty, and sweet.

While American is not an ethnicity, America is filled with fantastic ethnic food.  Perhaps the reason why Mitchell Davis' guests have such a hard time defining American food is that the adolescent food culture, like the adolescent, is trying desperately to both define itself and resist definition.  Never comfortable with themselves, the adolescent actually puts value on their undefinability and their refusal to be pinned down.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Weekend Update

This weekend was our Hot Pepper Eating Contest. Shouts to winner Grayson Currin, second place finisher Chris Vogler, third place finisher Erin Kaplan, and all of our other contestants.

Chef Matt came correct with his Spicy Menu the following night.  Highlights were the Tom Yum (spicy sweet and sour soup) and the Lo Bok ( spicy daikon slaw with sesame).

Tracks of the Weekend: 

New Staff Addition

Since early January, we have had a new addition to our crew, Katya A.  Hailing from Ithaca, NY, she is a vegan and now sous-chef under Chef Matt.  I have been amazed to watch her quickly learn from Matt and now this dynamic duo appears to be moving in the kitchen with lockstep synchronicity.  We are excited for her upcoming Vegan Shabbat dinner she is going to curate in late March.