Sunday, March 22, 2009

Show Us the Pork!

Last weekend Jon’s school, L’Ecole Superior de Cuisine Francaise-Ferrandi, held a “portes ouvertes” where the public was welcomed to visit and explore the culinary school world. This Open House was the big reason Jamie and Steve decided to visit- not that they don’t love us, but the opportunity for free food and a chance to heckle Jon in his school uniform would have been too good for any of us to pass up. Plus, rumor on the street was that the American team in Jon’s class was making pulled pork- if this were true we would have been fools to miss out, seeing as how Jon’s famed porcine product is out of commission for the duration of our stay here due to the fact that we essentially do not have an oven. So, we roused ourselves at an appropriate time on Saturday morning, gathered up Olivier who needed to be inducted into the heaven that is Jon’s pulled pork, and made our way to the ESCF building.

The school is huge with seemingly no intelligent layout- buildings jut out at all angles and heights within the complex. Unlike the other masses roving about (yes, apparently the French too are big fans of free food), we of the American contingent had a specific goal in mind, i.e. get us to the pork as soon as possible and no one would get hurt. We had to have several people guide us- up stairs, down corridors, through broiling kitchens and cold pantries- until we finally found the “Anglo Kitchen.” One woman actually asked me if we were Anglo-Saxon when I asked her for directions! I’m pretty sure none of us actually fit into that category (does anyone anymore? Where’s Paul Gambon when I need him- he’d set me straight on this one), but I said yes in the hopes it would get us there faster. It didn’t. We eventually did find our way to Jon’s kitchen, however, and received quite a nice welcome.

Jon’s chef, Sebastian, seemed very happy to see us. He was standing at the door to the kitchen directing the set-up of the food table- the plank that was about to hold culinary delights from all corners of the world representing the local cuisine of the Anglo program’s students. This meant there would be sushi from Japan, shrimp ceviche from Mexico, bitter balls from Holland, and so on- all very well and good, but get us to the pork already. There was no sign of the desired dish, yet as we peered through the steam and heat coming off the huge stoves in the middle of the kitchen, we saw Jon’s smiling face appear. He looked very dapper in his white cap, chef’s coat, checked pants and white (oh Lord!) kitchen shoes. The best thing about his uniform was that he had his name embroidered on his shirt. We were all very impressed by that. It looked quite nice all scripted out in blue thread- very official.

Jon too seemed very happy to see us, and as the pork wasn’t quite ready yet (zut!), he offered to take us on a tour of the kitchens in which he works. We were shown all around the “small” kitchen, as he called it. Small is a relative idea- this kitchen was five times the size of a normal house kitchen and would have made it possible to cook enough food to feed a small army. Yet, “small” it was as we quickly learned when taken into the “large” kitchen, an enormous room of mammoth proportions. The stoves in the center of this room were huge iron things, belching fire from their cook tops like geysers shooting out of Yellowstone. French students (mostly teenagers as the ESCF is a trade school where kids who don’t want to go to university finish their education) bustled all around the cramped and heated space in the center of the room while huge metal tables separated them from the paths of the eager and interested visiting public. This was the kitchen used for dinner service, Jon told us, where only two nights before the Anglo students (Jon included) had put out their first complete dinner to guests of the Parisian Chamber of Commerce. Jon had worked one of those flaming cooktops, making braised beef cheeks with his partner Adam. Saturday, however, the French kids had reclaimed their space in la grande cuisine and were serving up such dishes as fried fish (delicate and delicious with its accompanying tartar sauce), pizza (hearty with olives and caramelized onions), and onion tarte (thick-crusted and creamy). Having sufficiently whetted our appetites, Jon led us back to his kitchen where the pork was surely ready.

Indeed it was ready and delicious too. Chef Sebastian had somehow managed to find Liquid Smoke- where and how he went about procuring this is a mystery to Jon. Granted the bottle is industrial sized, prompting Jon to tell Chef that it will last for years, to which the man replied, “Yes, because you are the only person who will ever ask for it.” The group decided to serve the pork on top of coleslaw over slices of baguette (hamburger buns aren’t readily available here either). They made a little sign that labeled the dish as American Barbeque (which Jon told me he later changed to “Obama BBQ” in the hopes of stirring up more interest. This apparently did the trick as every person who came by afterwards not only tried some but also wanted to know if it was the actual recipe the President enjoyed eating!). The four of us, Jamie, Steve, Olivier, and me, gobbled up several servings of the plump and saucy goodness, before moving on to try the other Anglo dishes. All were good, but none measured up to the pork.

We decided perhaps we were making a bit of scene what with all the face stuffing and munching, so we said goodbye to Jon and moved on in pursuit of more delights. We certainly found plenty to keep us eating— seafood chowder, braised lamb, chocolate displays, fondant roses, and whole pain au chocolat and croissants for the taking. We also watched the patisserie students making puff pastry by hand! Seeing that much butter being pressed into dough has given me a new appreciation (and fear) of those croissants I love to eat. We filled up on bite size morsels of gourmet meals and left the kitchens to the professionals. Our trip to Jon’s school had been an eye opening and fulfilling experience. I think we were all impressed by what Jon is doing on a regular basis and by how comfortable and calm he appeared in the midst of all the bustle. Now, if only we could find a way to cook more pulled pork… football season isn’t that far off after all.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

On Hemingway, Hammaming, and Other Such Business

Wow- I’m a pretty bad blogger. I suppose I have no regularity to my posts whatsoever and for that, I apologize. I’ve decided to try to be better, so here goes my first attempt.

The past two weeks have been full of activity for the Houstons in Paris. We’ve had our first and second rounds of visitors, all of whom were lovely. Before the visits started, however, Jon and I spent an incredible evening celebrating my 30th birthday (I still cannot believe that I have entered the fourth decade of my life!). On February 21, we got dressed to the nines and went out for cocktails and dinner at the Ritz! In Paris! The Hemingway Bar was incredible. The bartenders (the head among them being one of the most famous mixologists in the world) dress in old-fashioned style white shirts. The bar is a tiny little space across the hall from the bigger Ritz Bar. Apparently, it used to be called the Little Bar in the old days, and was a favorite Right Bank spot of Hemingway and his cronies. When the Ritz was refurbished in the 1970s, the bar was redone in honor of Papa and is hence filled with all sorts of photos and memorabilia from the man’s life and works. It is a very cozy spot, all dark wood, leather, and candlelight. The drinks are strong and each comes with a fresh flower floating in it. I tried the Serendipity, a recommended concoction, and a champagne cocktail. Both were quite potent.

Lucky for us, Crystal and Brian wanted to see the bar during their visit, so Jon and I got to make a repeat visit a little less than two weeks later, where we tried more cocktails and got to meet the famous bartender, Collin P. Field, ( who signed a copy of his book for Crystal. This time I decided to go back to my roots, and had the Ritz version of a bourbon and ginger- yummy! I also got to discuss the history of a Gin Fizz with one of the bartenders, who showed me the bar’s “Bible,” a heavily worn copy of some Barkeeper's guide that had been lovingly taped together more times than a teenager’s first Playboy. The thing that was so cool about this particular book was that not only did it give the history of every cocktail known to man, it also held within its moldy and ripped pages the cocktail recipes for all of the bar’s regulars since time immemorial. It was just the kind of thing I go for- an old book about booze? A perfect combo if there ever was one.

The birthday dinner in the Ritz restaurant, L’Espadon, was just as fun (if not much more elegant) as our pre-dinner cocktails in the Hemingway Bar. The space is an incredible and pleasant assault to the senses- all guilt and mirrored like one of Marie Antoinette’s chambers. The waiters are efficient and exact- able to meet one’s every need yet remaining in the background. They were buzzing busily around, yet they weren’t bothersome. We had the winter menu and ordered wine pairings with each course. The meal started with champagne, of course, and progressed from there. While I can’t quite remember exactly what we ate (more from the passage of time rather than drink. Honest!), I do remember that the food was delicious and the wine divine. It was an amazing experience- one that isn’t likely to happen any time soon (since I would have to put a future on the life of my first-born in order to be able to cough up that much cash for a meal again) which makes it all the more special. Thanks, Jonny, for a great memory!!

Our culinary adventure continued with the arrival of Crystal and Brian, as we dined with them at several of our favorite places in Paris and some of our not so favorites (like the Italian place where the pasta was homemade, but we sat in the roaringly hot basement next to a family with what seemed like fifty hooligan kids, but was actually made up of five children one of whom was a wild dervish who ran out from the table at random intervals to attack the legs of the waiter or throw spaghetti at his older, text-messaging sister). We also took a quick trip up to Alsace thanks to Crystal’s wine connections. She arranged a visit to the Paul Blanck et Fils winery, whose inheritor, Philippe Blanck, showed us an incredible time. Aside from getting to try the new wines right out of the barrels (sorry, Crystal, I don’t know the correct terms for them), he provided incredible bottles of his family’s vintages at each meal, including a 1983 Riesling that was to die for, and sent Crystal (and me for that matter) into spasms of joy. Philippe even sent us home with a bottle of wine he pulled right off a shelf of the winery cave. We’re saving that one for hot weather and a picnic.

This past weekend we finally got to repay Jamie and Steve for the years of hospitality they’ve shown us, whether it was crashing on their couch in Hoboken for weekends in NYC or cozying up in their London down comforters. While our rickety pull-out is no match to a cozy blankie (in fact I feel that with its decided downward tilt and creaking frame, the pull-out bed of our couch is a far cry from anything even remotely resembling the term “cozy”), I think we were able to show our dear friends a good time.

Jamie and I went to a hammam on Friday. Why we do not have these places in America, I have no idea!!! A hammam is a Turkish bath, but let’s just call it “Heaven on Earth.” Owing to the slight hot water problem we have in our apartment (as in, there really isn’t any), I haven’t been able to really be as completely warm and wet (minds out of the gutter!) as I want to be since moving to this town. I have found my solution! For a flat fee, Jamie and I gained entrance into a woman’s only bath, which was really comprised of an enormous room outfitted with showers along one wall, a huge heated tile dais in the center for lounging, a tepid plunge pool for cooling, a sauna in one corner, a steam room in another, and side rooms for gommage (body scrub), mud wraps, etc. It was a steamy, lavender-and-sea smelling paradise! We paid extra to try the gommage, so after an hour of lounging in the different areas of the bath, we subjected ourselves to the scrubbing prowess of the attendants who rubbed us down with enough force to peel the skin off an elephant, taking off God knows how many layers of good epidermis along with the dead stuff. While we turned as red as strawberries and questioned the intelligence of the decision to lie down on that table, our skin did glow (eventually) and Jon did comment on how soft my back was. So, I guess there really is some truth to the whole “Beauty is pain” concept. However, I think that when I hammam again (Jamie and I decided this had to be a verb), I’ll pass on the body scrub and spend more time soaking in the heat. Did I mention this experience is Heaven on Earth?

The rest of the weekend was just as much fun. Jamie and Steve met Olivier, who joined us for dinner on Saturday at Le 24, our absolute favorite place to eat in this city. We also took them to Le Nemrod, our local cafĂ©, and to The Highlander, our favorite place to go to get a beer and hear some spoken English. We’re going back there tonight, actually, to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. It’s funny- the Scotch and Irish don’t always get along, and I certainly wouldn’t presume to visit a Scottish pub on March 17th in the States. But here among the Gauls, the Celts tend to stick together- even in today’s 21st century world. So, I’ll drink a pint of Guinness tonight in a pub run by crazy Scotch women and feel a little more at home than I do anywhere else in Paris. Slainte!

P.S.- Pictures of all the fun stuff we did with Crystal and Brian are up on my Picasa album:

P.P.S.- I'm really interested in who's reading my blog. If you don't mind, Kind Reader, would you please leave me a comment, even if it's only your name, to let me know you were here? Merci beaucoup!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Unfortunately, Katie...

Unfortunately, Katie... allowed this photo to be taken.

So, I've had to stop everything I was doing (namely avoiding sleep by aimlessly searching craft blogs on the internet) in order to put up this fun find. It has nothing whatsoever to do with my life in France, or with the FANTASTIC week and weekend I just spent with Crystal, Brian, and Jon (post soon to come on our adventures in La France Gastronome). But, it's fun to have a change of pace every once in a while.

The "Unfortunately, [insert your name here]" Game-- Warning, this can be addictive.

Type Unfortunately, [your name] into Google and see what happens. Here are the first ten things that popped up for me (The second-to-last one if my fav!). Pretty funny.

Unfortunately, Katie... doesn't own her castle yet, but she holds out hope that one day soon she can pull her berets out of storage ...

Unfortunately, Katie... is nothing compared to the ultimate hotness, Michelle Pfeiffer.

Unfortunately, Katie... and those around her come across as sanitized versions of people.

Unfortunately, Katie's face is completely obscured...

Unfortunately, Katie's marriage to Tom, seems to have made the masses believe that they know anything about her.

Unfortunately, a different style and therein lies the problem, which CBS should have foreseen.

Unfortunately, Katie... was one of two contestants voted off of the show tonight.

Unfortunately, Katie... is NOT one of the good as well as beautiful actresses in Hollywood.

Unfortunately, Katie's globe trotting is restricted because she starves when abroad.

Unfortunately, Katie's not so dead husband resurfaced into town.