Saturday, January 31, 2009

Scratching the Surface at Lumiere

The first day I walked into Studio 31 at CBC Radio in Vancouver to watch The Early Edition live in action, I had no idea what was going on. The studio director Shiral was super energetic, which I couldn't understand because it was 5:30 in the morning when I got there. They kept throwing to items and Shiral was frenetically typing on a screen while counting down the host to every segment. Phones were ringing...people were running in and out of the studio...I just sat there and watched, dumbfounded.

Perhaps prophetically, that first day I got to sit in and watch an interview with a very intense and talented chef who had just taken over the landmark Vancouver restaurant Lumiere. It was probably his second day after being named head chef. That would be Dale Mackay.

He -- a year and a half later -- would be the chef who would lead me through my first full kitchen experience.

In a previous blog posting I wrote about how I won a day in the kitchen at Lumiere on New Year's Eve. It was part of a draw they did at db Bistro next door. I was thrilled to pieces because I'd been exploring ways to gain experience in the culinary world in my quest to become a food writer.

I finally cashed in my prize this Friday. And man...did I get an experience.

I had absolutely no idea what to expect when I walked in. My main goals were to absorb as much information as possible while trying like hell not to ruin everything.

Here's everything that I can remember in brief, in as consecutive an order as I can recall. Otherwise I might as well quit my day job to finish writing this:


I step into the kitchen at 11 am. Everybody is working full steam ahead already. I'm change into uniform and am desperately trying to recall every piece of culinary information so I can better process what's going on.

Get introduced to everyone and each position. I pray there's no pop quiz or I'm toast.

First up: time at the saucier station. First question I get asked: "do you know how to hold a knife?" Good question...haven't really given much thought to it. Am able to simulate a good enough approximation. Set to work cutting 1 cm long diamonds of peppers to garnish the mussel soup. It's much, much harder than you'd think. Am shown how to clean mussels and how to prepare the soup. Am told this is the greatest soup ever. It is.

At the meat station I am shown how to break down a duck for the first time. My mother does it by hacking away with a giant meat cleaver. Apparently this is not the traditional way to do things. Also get to try veal tongue.

Then am taken to check out one of the supply trucks that comes by every week. Have never been around that much high end produce before. Have never been around people so enthused about their product. It's awesome.

Off to the veg station. I'm cutting out rounds of sweet potato and cabbage. Am shown the potato cooking away in duck fat and butter. Good thing I hate diets.

I watch Dale painstakingly create what proves to be a beautiful terrine. Elements required include foie gras that's soaked in milk for four days and intricately assembled with truffles. Layered with venison and gelatin infused stock. Note to anyone eating this: value every molecule contained in this dish. You have no idea the amount of work per square millimetre.

Am given a tasting spoon to try the various soups and sauces. Am encouraged to try everything. I do. Keep spoon in pocket. Really comes in handy throughout the day.

Get to assist the only two ladies in the kitchen with pastries. Find out all the detail work involved in creating pineapple chips. Will forever treasure every garnish I'm served.

Am repeatedly asked if I'm a new employee. It's awkward having to explain what I'm doing there. But everyone is super nice.

Am also repeatedly told to ask more questions. My question for everyone is just: what are you doing? Everyone is very accomodating...explains what they're doing, what they're working with and how they're doing it without my having to ask. Questions feel redundant. Prefer to revert to journalism mode and observe.

The calm before the storm: at about 5 pm prep ends and the staff meal is served. Everybody hunkers down in the db Bistro dining room. It's nice to see all the camaraderie.

Then back to the kitchen to the garde manger station. Realize the squares under one of the elements of the butternut squash amuse bouche are square for a reason as I set about squaring them. Apparently they warp after baking. Sounds tedious but I love detail work.

At 5:30 service begins. I find as quiet a corner as I can to stand in. Unfortunately it's right under one of the salamander ovens so I spend much time trying to keep my head from bursting into flames.

Service really starts to pick up after 6. Reminds me of a live radio show in that it's all about timing, teamwork and precision. Anyone who doesn't have their shit together would be screwed. Am surrounded by hardcore professionals so this doesn't happen. Only serious issue of service turns out to be an amuse bouche element wrapped in too many layers of cling film. Takes much time and effort to free it of its confines.

And no...Dale does not at any point explode into an expletive filled rage a la a certain British chef. At least -- not while I'm present.

At one point am brought over to the kitchen at db Bistro. Amazing how you can have a completely different animal just a few feet away. That kitchen never stops. While Lumiere serves on average between fifty to sixty patrons a night, db during a peak period will serve between 180 to 200 people. Different food and a totally different atmosphere.

Imagined that my complete lack of experience would've created a fair amount of hesitation in asking me to do anything. Within sixty seconds of meeting chef Stephane Istel, am asked "Would you like to sauce something?" Immediate internal reaction is "ohgodohgodohgodohgod I'm going to destroy their beautiful food". Actual response: "sure". Did not destroy anything.

Then I'm asked to dress a salad. ohgodohgodohgod. I ask how much vinagrette to add. "So it tastes good". Well, duh Joan.

Why the anxiety? Add in all the anticipation, desire to do a great job because perhaps may actually work with these people in the future, and general terrifying fear of screwing up everything. Dressing a salad becomes anxiety-ridden.

Watch the meat station churn out cut after cut of arctic char, with the occasional steak. End up memorizing all the movements but do not dare attempt any of it.

Stephane gives me several dishes to try. They're so good am cursing myself I'm too full to eat them all. Also feel strange eating at the pass while service is going on around me.

At 9 pm -- head back to Lumiere kitchen. One of the waiters has to correct an order. Everyone in the kitchen is pissed because they have to refire orders. I am sole winner in this situation...and get the butternut squash ravioli dish that is no longer going to be served.

At one point am handed half a giant black truffle to hold and smell. It feels dense, heavy and incredibly expensive. Briefly consider running out the door with it.

Am also given other dishes to try throughout course of evening...including hamachi, duck confit spring roll, truffle risotto, and molten chocolate cake with pistachio ice cream. Akin to some kind of fine dining buffet experience I will probably never have again. Am trying to eat as much as possible but human internal capacity is defeating me.

About 10:45 -- service winds down. Now the pastry chef is serving up her beautiful creations. There's a drawer where all the ice cream is stored. Would happily eat my way through that in no time.

Everything is put away and the kitchen gets a good scrub down. Everyone's so fast. Feel guilty about not cleaning my kitchen for weeks. To be fair: haven't been cooking much lately.


After 11 pm people start to head off. I thank everyone for their help but feel like it's not really adequate. The experience has been more engaging and revelatory than I could have anticipated. I'm still rolling the day around in my head. It's taken me a couple days of thinking to even start writing it down.

I'm asked if this is going up on my blog (which has inexplicably started to be read by people other than my immediate circle of friends). Trevor, I told you I'd write about it. Hope you're keeping your end of the bargain by reading it.

This is all but a fraction of what I got to see and do. There is a lot more I still don't understand but I hope to one day. I managed to break the mystique of the radio world, so I know there's hope there.

Suffice it to say, spending at least a day in a kitchen is something I'd recommend for anyone who wants to know more about what goes on behind the scenes. Not everyone is going to be invited into such an accomodating kitchen. I was lucky because I got to be in one of the best. My sincere thanks to chef Mackay and everyone in the kitchen who guided me through what they do best. They are, indeed, among the best for very good reasons.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Bocuse D'or 2009

It's over for another two years. Bocuse D'or 2009 ended today. Well, this morning actually. At 1 am this morning (10 am local time in Lyon) Team Canada -- led by chef David Wong -- put years of anticipation into action.

The live feed from Lyon was working today, thank god. Otherwise I might've pulled out my hair. Despite the hellish chase day I had at work, I still managed to catch a glimpse of the Canadian team at work. It was so great watching David and his commis Grace Pineda finally live in action after watching two of their practice runs. Somehow everytime I had a chance to look up, there they were. I saw their fish and meat platter go out and I thought, "I actually know how much went into that!" The judges get but a glimpse of each platter. Frankly, with that much work it should've gone into a museum. But what do I know.

Despite my dislike for the two hackneyed MCs (could they have been any more obnoxious and self absorbed?) the English MC did manage to give a shoutout to the Canadian team by holding up the hockey jersey worn by the Canadian fans.

I managed to get some photos from the event, unfortunately none of Team Canada in action. Oh well. Above is a photo featuring honorary president Daniel Boulud and competition founder and food god Paul Bocuse. I got shivers remembering my own encounter with Boulud (there's a posting about this somewhere back in this blog).

Side note: What's with the music? Is this a euro thing? I'm pretty sure we could find some better music to go with the world class food. I wouldn't want to eat McDonald's with that shit blaring.

I love the fans though. They were all so damn happy to be there! And all of them screaming their heads off.

The fact the chefs were able to work with the Euro cheese music and the screaming fans is amazing. As you'll see in the following pics, there is no room for error. The judges literally have seconds to see your food on the platter and they're tasting twenty four dishes a DAY. And all these chefs are at the top of their game.

I wish I knew what country's food these were. There are no IDs from the Bocuse photo site. Boo. I know what you're thinking. You want to reach through your screen and eat this with your bare hands. It's ok. We're all thinking that.

Just to show the level of detail. Again, I have no idea what country this chef is from or what he's coating his dish with. But I'll bet anything it's absolutely mouth watering. You should probably go get something to eat if your keyboard is coated with drool at this point.

Another side note: as I'm writing this I'm eating frozen fries. They're not currently frozen, I baked them obviously. But still. Somehow it feels sacrilegious to write this while eating something so uncouth. Le sigh.

Norway's first place fish platter. I kinda think it's a cheat that one of the must use ingredients at this year's event was Norwegian cod...but it IS a gorgeous platter.

Norway's gold standard meat platter. Time to get a napkin.

How could I blog about this without mentioning the winners? Of course, Norway won gold...Sweden won silver...and France got the bronze. I know. I did it in the reverse order I'm supposed to do it in. Suck it. It's my blog.

And what you REALLY want to know did Canada do? We placed ninth out of 24. The Americans placed 6th. South Korea placed 24th.

Let me just say...I'm so immensely proud of our team. Having seen them in action and tasted the food, they're incredible competitors. It was a thrill to see them. Extra congrats go to Grace Pineda for winning Best Commis as awarded by the Academy of Bocuse D'or winners. That's a testament to the level of their teamwork.

I do have to say, the Norwegian winner Geir Skeie was absolutely adorable in victory. He was so ecstatic you couldn't help but feel that enthusiasm. Then someone who I can only imagine was his wife stood with him and she looked like the happiest woman on the planet. It was the sweetest thing ever. They looked like overjoyed teenagers.

On the flipside, the French chef Phillipe Mille looked almost devastated to get third place. I guess if you bet your soul on winning gold I could see how you'd be disappointed. But it's not like they made rillettes out of your puppy so calm the fuck down.

I'm sure David and Grace and the rest of Team Canada are still celebrating and that they'll be celebrating late into the evening. They deserve it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A gold medal for frustration

It's finally Bocuse D'or time. The competition is going on as I write this. Well, the first day is actually over because they're nine hours ahead of the West Coast in Lyon.

I've been following the story of the Canadian team (led by the fabulous David Wong) since last May. So I have a bit of a vested interested in what happens.

Like any half decent worldwide event, there's live streaming footage via the Bocuse D'or website (check it out at I watched some of it before I left for 5:30 am. I just managed to catch the Brazilian team putting up their meat dish for the judges. Gorgeous. But I have to say -- appearance wise it doesn't hold a candle to what David's team is producing. I know. I've seen it. And tasted it. The Canadian team is producing food that is everything you want it to be.

I digress. So I get to work and go back to the website, hoping to watch some other highlights of the day. And the live feed isn't working. I try another computer. Still not working.

Thinking it's just some stupid glitch with the CBC firewall, I contact the resident multimedia dude Charlie. We try different surfers. No luck. In his opinion it's something wrong with the Bocuse site.

Le frustration! What the hell? This is like hosting the Olympics and not letting anyone see it!

Even more surprising...with all the world media covering this event, there is surprisingly little coverage online. And I'm no Google neophyte. Most of the coverage is in Portuguese courtesy of the Brazilian press. Even the bloggers that are there aren't providing a ton of insight. If it were me, I'd be walking around with a laptop in a modified Baby Bjorn posting pics and text as fast as was humanly possible.

I can see why the Bocuse D'or hasn't really hit North America yet. Their overall campaign to get out to the public seems to have failed, whatever that campaign consisted of. I could see people posting comments on some of the blogs I'd read asking if one could watch it online. Perhaps they were too lazy to simply go to the Bocuse D'or website for themselves. Or perhaps they tried and were thwarted like I was. Either way, no one seems to be watching except for the people who are there.

For the love of god, webmaster, whoever, let me in!

For anyone reading this, David Wong and team Canada are competing tomorrow at 10 am (that's local time in Lyon, 1 am Pacific time) and they should be delivering their first platter to the judges five hours later. If the live feed is up and running I'm going to be watching. They'll be announcing the winners at 6 pm local time/9 am Pacific time. If I can actually get access, I wouldn't miss it for the world.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

2009, Here I come....

I got here in April 2006. I had only been to Vancouver a couple times to visit. Didn't know anyone. Didn't have a job. Was taking a huge leap of faith that Fernando's job was going to be awesome and that I, too, would find an awesome job.

After months of selling jewelry, clothing, helping teach English to international students, I was facing a 13 HOUR boxing day shift trying to sell overpriced clothes to people with more money than taste. I'd had it.

Then I met a lovely journalism student who was trying on a sweater. We chatted about journalism and she mentioned that she was doing an internship at CTV. That day I applied, got in shortly thereafter, quit my job and worked for free for three months straight. Then I got paid freelance work. Then I got to CBC Radio where I've been an associate producer ever since. It looks simple when I'm writing it now...but that was one steep hill to climb.

This year, I'm going to be facing a whole new set of challenges and what I hope will be rewards. I've set a deadline to go to culinary school this October, so now I'm saving money, preparing scholarship applications, and biting my nails wondering if I'm doing the right thing pinning my hopes on being a food writer. I know I can write. But will anyone want to read?

I like to think that my New Year's Eve celebration is a beacon of things to come, because it was fantastic. We headed out to db Bistro: me, Fernando, his sister Fernanda (no, it's NOT normal for siblings to have the same name in Brazil...) and one of Fernando's reporters. I had just eaten there less than a month ago (there's a previous entry about this below) and had a great time. I wanted to dress up a bit for NYE. I wanted to be coddled. I wanted to eat great food. I wanted to have a great time.

It definetely was a great time. Fernando and I both opted for wine pairings with the dishes, which ensured we were totally smashed by the end of the meal. I had to pass along my last glass of port because I knew I'd end up passed out in the bathroom if I didn't.

The staff passed out noisemakers and other NYE necessities. This greatly outranked the NYE we spent in a casino where, because they don't want people to notice the passage of time, there were no clocks or anything remotely indicating when the New Year was supposed to be rung in. We ended up asking a fellow patron who informed us that it was in fact just past midnight.

The New Year was rung in. Then we were given slips to fill out as part of a draw they were doing. You could win a day with the chef in either Lumiere or db Bistro and then dinner. There would be one winner for each restaurant.

I could barely fill out my own application thanks to the wine and my general lack of coordination. Fernando said, "You know we're going to win, right?" in reference to the fact that every year at his company Christmas party for the past two years -- he's won their grand prize. The first year was a paid day off. Last year was a free trip for two to the Dominican Republic. That was, needless to say, the best prize ever.

Well, Fernando was right. Just as I noticed the draw was taking place, they announced the winner for the Lumiere prize: me. I was of course thrilled to bits.

Shortly afterwards I marched over to their kitchen to once again harass the poor head chef, Dale Mackay (see previous entry about our first encounter). It's probably not a great thing that both times we've spoken I've been drunk.

Dale, as usual, was perfectly accomodating to whatever the heck it is I said. He apparently is notified whenever their public relations person finds an online mention of him, so if he's reading this I do promise that at our next meeting I will be totally sober. The funny thing is, I hardly ever drink. He just catches me at my most celebratory.

I can't wait to spend the day in the kitchen. As I've written before, I have spent over seven hours on my feet with a recorder doing a story in one. This time I'll be an actual guest. And now I will be seeing it through the eyes of someone who wants to actually learn the functions and flow as a future potential culinary student.

I don't want to jinx myself but it does seem as though this particular plan of mine for going back to school is coming together nicely. I'm so ready to take on 2009. Here I come...

...and for my friend Devon...Happy New Year!