Reimagine: A Storyteller’s Guide to Writing Menus

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Menu-writing for multi-course dinner sucks.  There…I said it.  Until recently, I never really enjoyed it and when I asked professionals how they compose/curate/conjure one up, I was met with two parts mysticism (“I just write what the Universe says through me…it’s all about connecting with the Divine”), a heaping of cryptic shade-throwing (“Well, you have to first study and really understand the seasonality of the local terroir after which you compose layers of sometimes contradictory but simultaneously harmonious flavors”), and a pinch of astringency (“Actually…I don’t know.  I make what I want OK?”).

“Artful” menu-writing seemed so mysterious, shrouded in veils of secrecy to prevent us uninitiated commoners from discovering just how the Stewards of Sauce-ry know to follow a biting Mizuna-Shiso salad with lightly roasted cod under a citrus foam.  Without much insight into their cabalistic procedures, I often resorted to cobbling together pieces of different menus/recipes into some Frankenstein-esque monstrosity where beef curry was somehow followed by roast chicken on biscuits & gravy with bok choy (true story!).  For a data geek like me whose Accounting degree had no business being in the kitchen, it was infuriating!

With a month away from my third pop-up dinner, a collaboration with the Filipino Kitchen and Pilipino-American Unity for Progress, and the bad taste of gravy-soaked bok choy in my mouth, I attempted to apply some unartistic nerdery to come up with a menu centered around our chosen theme of Philippine Independence Day.  Unorthodox?  Perhaps.  Time-consuming? Oh yes indeed!  But did it work?  Read on…

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“Filipino Enough?” The #FKEDUP Team Questions the Question in Boston

In this lookback of the first #FKEDUP live collaboration in Boston this past February, Paolo Espanola and Sarahlynn Pablo reflect on the team’s brunch pop-up and participation in a regional conference for Asian-American students.

PART 1

It takes a certain kind of muted masochism to pull off a pop-up: embracing the uncertainty, unfamiliarity, and heightened stress that comes with these one-off engagements that lack the full commitment of owning your own space. In our case, masochism took the form of a crew that’s never met in person, a venue smack dab in the middle of Winterfellian Boston, and a cuisine that hasn’t quite broken into the local populace’s psyche quite yet.  Now, I don’t want to make it sound like we were in the throes of despair as we peeled over 60 lobster tails during prep night…but we definitely preferred the raucous music playing on the kitchen speakers to what must have been bubbling anxiety underneath; courageous denial, so to speak.

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The menu – a far cry from Filipino dishes of long ago – seemed more fitting for a sun-soaked Californian patio, not the gloomy slush that covered the streets: Longganisa Scotch Eggs? Chicken Inasal and Atsara na Mangga? No one asked whether the steady snowfall would mean we soft-boiled too many eggs. No one asked whether the unsuspecting populace would “accept” our version of Filipino food. And when a tita – the venerable judge of Filipino food – called and said she would rather eat in Chinatown where it’s cheaper since we weren’t offering some sort of “show” along with brunch service, we hardly had the time to panic.

Longganissa+Scotch+Eggs+Maja+Blance+Pancakes+#FKEDUP

And so we waited breathlessly during those first few hours; waiting for signs that they’ll like our food.  That’s the paradox of how we were cooking Filipino food: reckless abandon by a people so concerned about what “they” will think of our food. “Baka ‘di magustuhan ng mga Kano!” [“Maybe the Americans won’t like it!”] The feeling that perhaps our cuisine isn’t good enough…not refined enough…not pretty enough to warrant a proper brunch service; food that belongs in the dimly lit turo-turos and not the airy pub-cum-brunch hall we found ourselves in.

Inasilog+#FKEDUP

Then again, we weren’t really cooking Filipino food, were we?

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A #FKEDUP Journey into the Messy (and Delicious!) World of Filipino Cuisine

Oh wow…it’s been a good minute since my last post and boy let me tell you…it feels like I’m starting over again!

For those who’ve been asking me what ever happened to the blog and what culinary adventures I’m been throwing myself into, suffice it to say that it’s been a wild ride and perhaps I’ll write about it some other time.

For now, just know that the Errant Diner is back and has some straight up delisyoso news!  I’ll now be posting on the regular and the blog is back in business!

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We Hosted Our First Pop-up Dinner…And I (Almost) Wanted Us to Fail

(Note: for pictures and more info on our co-conspirators, check the links below!)

You mind can really fuck with you while washing dishes.  When you’re elbow-deep in soap, your fingers caked in coagulated fat, and your shoes are unrecognizable in a thin coating of rice flour and flecks of slimy basil puree, your mind has no other option but to transcend the cramped dish room in order to escape the combined smell of burnt cookies and leftover shrimp. Once again, I had forgotten to eat anything today save for the occasional taste test and in my hunger-induced dizziness, I glanced over my shoulder to the remaining hardcore friends who formed a dishwashing brigade in the now empty loft. “What the hell are we doing?”  One of us just missed two days of work and a much needed paycheck, another had a flight in a mere few hours, one was a dinner guest conscripted into cleaning duties.  Just a few minutes ago, we were surrounded by supporters praising us for the wonderful dinner but here I was trying to feel the elation I thought I would be experiencing and finding it oddly missing.  Yep…washing dishes can definitely put you in a rather pensive state.

One-man service (c/o Abdul

One-man service (c/o Abdul “DJ Douly” Abdirahman).

But I’ve skipped forward quite a bit.  It all started months ago when the iron grip of my day job slowly loosened and after months of scheming, I was itching to finally throw a dinner that didn’t involve my apartment’s poor lighting and mismatched plates.  And so with a bit of youthful recklessness and some unresolved bitterness to regain my rightful place in the kitchen, I booked a date at Suite ThreeOhSix’s classy loft in Tribeca to host Hidden Apron’s inaugural pop-up dinner.  It took mere days before thoughts of dishes took over the last remaining brain space I had.

Guest chef Yana Gilbuena of the SALO Series.

Guest Chef Yana Gilbuena of the SALO Series.

I dreamed of breads during breakfast, compotes during commutes, offal at the office, jellies at the gym, and sauces in my sleep.  I caught myself staring at blank walls imagining multi-course menus and flavor profiles and soon enough, the scribbles made their way onto life-size post-it notes that covered my bed room wall.  I went to work an hour earlier and slept an hour later agonizing over every last detail: Can a hollow croquette keep its form?  What if people don’t like raw fish?  Will diners eat with their hands?  Every last detail was pored over that I knew nothing could possibly go wrong…

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Kitchen crew. S/O to Bertha for the last minute assist!

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Interview with Yana of SALO: Chicago (Filipino pop-up dinners)

(Photo credits: Cassandra Sicre & Eileen Zara, Video by SALO Series.  Check out the YouTube link below for more details inc. the full menu, co-sponsors, and deets on where the next SALOs will be!)

Cooking in a Filipino kitchen has always been chaotic for me.  Oil from the frying short ribs was splattering everywhere, the oven wasn’t heating up fast enough, the person bringing the ice (who was also providing music for the night) was nowhere to be found, and the blender for the Kare-Kare sauce just broke.  Remind me again why I took a 24-hour bus ride to Chicago for this?

A few months ago, I had written about Yana Gilbuena, Creative Director and genius behind SALO, the 50-part pop-up dinner series bringing every state a Filipino kamayan-style (eating without the use of utensils) dinner every week.  Just recently, I trekked out to Chicago where she held her 19th one to a turnout of almost fifty people (I mean…mainstream media channels have been covering her)!  Having made it almost halfway through without being driven insane by the perils of her cross-country travels (ie. monotonous roads, endless McDonald’s, and horror movie-esque rest stops), Yana graciously welcomed me as her sous chef for the day.

Getting interviewed for the documentary in progress

Getting interviewed for the documentary in progress

Cooking for SALO was an entirely new experience, throwing down at Sweet Tips BBQ, an artist launch pad-cum-BBQ joint owned by modern-day Renaissance Man, Roy (who happens to raise his own cattle too).  However, it still felt comfortingly familiar; the banana leaves, the lack of rigid plating conventions, the family atmosphere, and the celebration of the Filipino sport of eating non-stop.  It was a hot and humid day made worse by the simultaneous operation of a sizzling griddle for the fried rice, the entire stovetop, and an industrial convection oven.  But in between wrapping the milkfish in taro leaves and checking to see if the chicken inasal was done, I got a chance to catch up with Yana and ask how SALO was going.

Into the heat...

Into the heat…

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A Summer Welcome: Harlem Rooftop Picnic

I once read that there are more than 50 words for “snow” in the Eskimo “language” (this has been the subject of an ongoing debate believe it or not).  And while I like to think I have 50 of my own, they all happen to be vulgar and unfit for print.  Summer however, yields a far more polite but just as numerous vocabulary for the type of weather we’re having.  There’s “beach weather”, that almost-too-hot sting of a cloudless day that can only be balanced by jumping in an almost-too-cold ocean.  “Patio weather”, when the mosquitoes haven’t quite decided to attack yet and the light breeze won’t threaten to blow out your grill flame.  “Window-shopping-with-ice-cream-in-hand weather”, “people-watching weather”, “brunch-with-unlimited-mimosas weather”.  It wasn’t until I moved here to NYC that I found a new one to add: “Rooftop Weather”.

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With NYC’s streets crammed with bodegas, irate cab drivers, and parks too full of pasty bodies attempting to achieve that slightly seared look, those lucky enough to have access to a rooftop clamber up.  Be it the European models at the Top of the Standard, the pseudo-hipsters at the rooftop pools in Williamsburg, or in our budget-conscious case, a Spartan rooftop all the way up in Harlem.

An accessible rooftop in your apartment is sometimes almost as good as having a large living room and the moment Rooftop Weather hit, my friend Angel and company decided we should baptize it the right way and hold a feast.

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5 Things I Learned Cooking for Crowds (the Life and Death of the Mystery Meat Group pt. 2)

(Even though I’ve said it before, many thanks to Coco-Mat SoHo for hosting, ARK for planning, and the numerous volunteers for throwing down….yes….uber-belated thanks)

My co-worker commented the other day that I haven’t blogged in a while and the fact that I haven’t puzzled me.  I was finally out of Busy Season, I got out of work by 7 PM at the latest, and my weekends were not swamped with “work-from-home” tasks.  But looking back, my life in food has taken some pretty sharp turns and it’s been a crazy few months.  A while back, I wrote about how my friend Ricky and I kinda “fell into” the catering business after pulling off a four-course meal for a family of ten in deep Jersey.  Soon after, our (dare I say) champion, Ayesha, of the international non-profit, Advancement for Rural Kids asked us, the newly formed catering crew Myster Meat Group, to cater her 80-person Poker Night fundraiser in a month’s time.

Just a short year ago,I was adamant about running my own restaurant one day or die trying.  It was at the tough love advice of another Pinay chef here in NYC where I let that dream go in favor of opening myself to the wisdom of the universe.  Had someone told me I’d be a “caterer” (I still use the word very loosely), I would have laughed since my image of that industry was one of tired menus of Chicken Cordon Bleu, stale buffet setups, and someone’s overly drunk Tito Boy unsuccessfully piling spicy chicken wings over his dessert.

The setup

The setup

The event we catered was nowhere near my misconception as we passed reimagined hors d’oeuvres, cocktails, and desserts using a crew of volunteers and fellow cooks who have had absolutely no training doing this sort of thing…much less for a group of high-rollin’ foodies.  As the $900 suits walked in and  I looked down on a half-finished prep, it wasn’t panic that set in but some weird pseudo Zen-ness.  The feeling that you’re absolutely fucked and well…there’s really no use getting your proverbial boxers in a knot over it.

We’ve now fed larger groups but the lessons I learned from that night were the ones that stuck and stung (in a good way) the most:

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The Life and Death of the Mystery Meat Group pt. 1

(Special thanks to Ayesha, Jerry, and the Topitzers for having us over and letting us be a part of a three-way birthday/reunion).

It’s weird being back on WordPress and writing again.  It’s like that one time you finally cooked that last can of Spam you had taken with you when you moved apartments.  It doesn’t evoke the subtle smell of nostalgia like a warm bowl of arroz caldo.  Nor does it give you that sinking feeling of guilt you get when you devour that full pint of dulce de leche ice cream.  It’s more like reuniting with a not-too-long-gone past.  Like that familiar salty goodness, it’s like being back in a place you’ve never quite left.

It’s been almost two months since I’ve taken a leave from this blog and I was surprised to have people asking whatever happened to the Errant Diner.  Well…I’m back now and I’d be remiss if I didn’t fill you guys in.  For the past month, my job has kept me in the office till long past midnight and the better part of both weekends.  I slept, ate, drank, and shitted Excel sheets.  While the young and hungry plowed through brunch after boozy brunch, my pots and pans lay untouched, dry on a stove that only turned on to heat the occasional cup of tea.  I lost 10 lbs., slept 4 hours a night (on a good night), and subsisted on Seamless sushi dinners.

But in the midst of it all…I became part of a ragtag catering crew.  A crew that would later fizzle out as fast as it had came rushing into my life  I’m hesitant to call ourselves a legitimate business and you may label us as you wish, but I suppose I should start at the beginning.

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The Errant Diner x Little Paula Deen: “The Manny” (Pork Belly Adobo Slider)

I’ll admit it.  I’m one of those guys who loves office potlucks.  In the age of Seamless deliveries, it’s very rare to taste home-cooked food at the office (or at least for those who take the effort of bringing something home-cooked).  It used to be that people brought casseroles or roasts to the office or made large platters for office functions.  Even worse, with 2 of our 3 meals being takeout during Busy Season, a departure from the mass produced is a welcome break.  And yes, I’ll also admit to loving the opportunity to show off a bit and attempt to feed people other than the roomies.

The Canvas

The Canvas

 “+”

The Filling

The Filling

Our department just held its Annual “Best Ethnic Recipe” cookoff and I couldn’t pass up the excuse to throw down in the kitchen.  Problem was, Filipino food isn’t exactly the prettiest food out there.  Plus, how to introduce people to concepts beyond the usual Lumpia and Pansit (more Chinese than Filipino…but I digress)?  To put my own spin on “Fusion Food”, I decided to make a Pork Belly Adobo Slider topped with some home-made Achara and sandwiched in a fresh-baked Pan de Sal.  And since boxing legend Manny Pacquiao was about to fight Brandon Rios (I know we all wanna see Mayweather but again…I digress) a few days later, I dedicated this flavor powerhouse to the Pac-man.  

What better way to get the powerful flavors of Pinoy cooking into the mainstream than through the popular slider?  The pork belly was braised in a soy sauce-vinegar adobo sauce and then broiled to crisp the skin.  To help cut the buttery fat, I pickled carrots and daikon radishes to make Achara, the Filipino take on the usual slaw…except sweeter. But the real kicker was the bread, the blank canvas, the foundation of this epic meal-to-be.  I wanted a fresh baked Pan de Sal, the ubiquitous Filipino roll.  Soft, simple, goddamned comforting.  Problem was…I hated baking. I just can’t bake (probably stemming from some deep-seated trust issue but that’s another story).  So I called up my friend Chelsey who happens to work some real baking magic and asked if she can bake a batch.  Not only did she agree, she insisted on baking it the morning of.  If that isn’t magic, I don’t know what is.

The Errant Diner x Little Paula Deen

The Errant Diner x Little Paula Deen

Check her recipe (and her amazing baking blog!) out here.

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