Thursday, August 26, 2010

Step Up To The Plate

What is the single guy to do? Stocking dishes for a new apartment or home for a guy can be a bit of a challenge. Maybe he's got his parents' cast-offs or has a girlfriend who takes him to a "chain home store" to get him set up. But then he could be stuck with someone else's taste and/or personality when all he really wants is something that looks cool, won't break, and won't set him back a lot of cash. There is something out there for him: Buffalo China.

This is the classic all-white dinnerware that's been revived and sold through outlets like Bed, Bath and Beyond. The look is vintage without being "granny", and there is heft to these dishes that speak to their durability. On a practical note, the dishes are made of porcelain, which is why they resist chipping and breaking (these were the workhorse dishes for diners, hotels, and railroads all over the US for most of the last century, after all) and are microwave and dishwasher safe - in other words: low maintenance, but with a certain style.

These come in complete sets or it's easy to find retailers that sell the dishes a la cart in sets of four (four dinner plates or four bowls, for example, or mugs instead of cups and saucers, or vice-versa, whatever might be needed).

So for less than a hundred bucks, a guy can have a great set of dishes that his friends can't embarrass him about, and can still host a dinner date in his own home, even if the food is takeout.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

What's a trip to Paris without seeing the major sites? Eiffle Tower, check. Louvre, check. Versailles, double check! But our intrepid travelers went off the beaten path to perhaps a lesser known, but no less famous (at least to us!) site: 100 rue de l'Universite, or as its former tenant referred to it: Roo de Loo!

I am speaking of the Paris home of Julia Child, the woman who taught (and still teaches through her tapes and books) Americans how to cook. The building still stands, as it has for hundreds of years, oblivious to the many pilgrims who come to pay their respect, and we were no exception. Food is an integral element in the entertaining ritual, and while you don't always have to truss a capon or beat egg whites till your wrists ache for a chocolate mousse, it can be fun to expand your repertoire of "company dishes".

Back in the States, I had an opportunity to spend four amazing days at the Flower School New York refining my skills and adding to my own repertoire of flower arranging know-how. Food and flowers by themselves are nice, but when combined, they can be the spark that ignites a magical evening spent with family and friends. I found out about the school on Michael George's website. He is a New York floral powerhouse who, inspired by George Balanchine, sought to share his art through teaching. Classes now are taught by many of the leading florists in the business and the school is ever expanding its offerings that include one day workshops, weekend intensives,  and the multi-day courses similar to the one that I participated in. They are available to students of all skill levels, from the hobbiest to the professional.

Having worked for Los Angeles florist, David Jones, I knew I knew a lot. But still, it was refreshing to  put myself in the student's seat and allow myself to be taught something new. The first assignment was to arrange 25 roses in a short cylinder, a la Michael George. My instructor for the week was Felipe Sastre, who worked with Michael for several years before starting out on his own. He had a twist on Michael's technique, but the end result was equally effective: 25 well- conditioned (so important), arranged rose heads and their perfectly spiraled stems, visible through the clear glass. Simple and stunning, just what a centerpiece should be! There were seven other assignments that week ranging from hand-tied European bouquets, to working with tall branches and flowers (crab apple, eremurus, and pee gee hydrangea for my class) for a fairly monumental arrangement. Working with flowers of the highest quality and being guided by a great teacher and artist for four days in New York was a wonderful cap to a wonderful summer!

There are many ways to arrange flowers for a tabletop centerpiece, but finding one that pleases you and that you can recreate with success can give you peace of mind when planning a special meal.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Tabletop in action!

Sanctuary Camelback Mountain
One of the things that I look forward to each summer is the Lunch and Learn series at Sanctuary Camelback Mountain resort in Phoenix. The resort is beautiful - lush, private, contemporary and yet intimate (sometimes "contemporary = cold", but not here!), and boasts two amazing hospitality venues which channel the Tabletop vibe of making guests feel welcomed and like family: their restaurant, Elements, and the Jade Bar lounge.

The chef, Beau MacMillan, is the ringmaster of Elements, and of the Lunch and Learn series each summer where other top chefs from around the world come and share recipes, techniques and philosophies of cooking and entertaining with those gathered for the event. The usual pattern for these events is arriving and being greeting with a glass of champagne or sparkling wine, just the way it should be done! The pour is generous and continuous till the start of the program. Beau, as host, then gets the show on the road and makes everyone feel welcomed. He is truly happy you are there and sharing the experience, and his love of food and hosting is palpable. He then introduces the guest chef, who often has a connection to Beau (the man gets around!), and the event is underway, which usually includes a demonstration of a three course meal with each course paired with a wine chosen to accentuate that course presented by a noted wine expert.

Yesterday, the chef was Akira Back, executive chef of Yellowtail at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, and he presented an amazing meal of big eyed tuna pizza with micro shiso and truffle oil, grilled large tiger prawns with yuzu lemon brown butter and tomato concasse, and tempura honeydew melon with vanilla bean ice cream and mesquite honey. Each course demonstration included tips on what to use for substitution if certain ingredients were unavailable, or you had a different pallet (how great is that - talk about generous and hospitable!), and all the while Chef Back talked about the relationship between us and the ingredients used, and the importance of hospitality and sharing a meal together.

Instead of wine pairings for each course, yesterday's meal was paired with drinks from the Jade Bar's mixologist, Jason Asher, who created 3 signature cocktails to go with each course. To keep things light and fresh, these cocktails were sake and shochu (distilled sake) based, and highlighted fresh ingredients, which the Jade Bar is known for (everything is juiced and infused fresh- no mixes or pre-made here!) To accompany the pizza, Jason created a shiso Collins (made with shochu), for the prawns, a kaffir yuzu gimlet (sake based) and finally for the dessert, an almond vanilla 'saketini' (made with unfiltered sake and with the bar's house-made almond milk.)

Table XII at Elements
As you can tell, the food and drink were spectacular, but it was the hospitality of the entire crew, led by Chef Beau, that made the afternoon memorable. I can't possibly say this enough - whether a simple soup and salad or a meal of the caliber we had yesterday - it is the hospitality that matters most. If people feel welcomed, if they feel like family, if they feel essential to the gathering, it can only heighten the experience of the food and wine. As lunch event ended, Chef Beau came to our table and invited us on a tour of Table XII, the private dining room at Elements with a view onto the beautiful kitchen area (think: your own personal 'Kitchen Stadium'!) and the kitchen, itself. The spaces are breathtaking, with beautiful furniture, finishes, and place settings, and where the Chef's creative juices flow as he and his crew grant your culinary heart's desire. But what made the tour even that much better was the Chef himself - he made us feel like VIP's in every way.

Chef Beau MacMillan
We closed out the afternoon by enjoying a few more cocktails at the bar - thanks to Chelsey and Tyson - and we're still talking about how much we enjoyed Lunch and Learn a day later. So thank you, Chef MacMillan, you embody the spirit of Tabletop!