California

Ten minutes in Mexico: An unnecessarily tense moment with Customs and Border Protection

The Border Patrol and Customs agent along the US border in the Mexican town of Mexicali was built like a bulldog puppy with suspicious eyes, a mild Mexican accent and an intense, unexpected lisp that was accentuated when, snake-like and terse, he asked me to remove my “sunglasses” and “step outside the vehicle.”

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Never before had such a harsh firing of hissed “S” sounds made me so nervous. Dutifully, I removed my shades, exited my vehicle and walked toward a chain-linked cage where an armed guard then directed me to sit on a well-worn wooden bench where I would remain until a team of agents decided whether or not I could return to my motherland.

In hindsight, I shouldn’t have been surprised at my temporary holding situation at the inspection station. After passing the agent my passport, he asked me where I lived. I told him Los Angeles. He then asked why I had come to Mexico. I told him I was researching a script I was writing. He asked me what it was about, which gave me pause.

The script, among other things was about0 a corrupted and inept border agent who had taken a bribe to allow ten million dollars worth of cocaine go over the Mexicali Calexico line. Probably not something he’d want to drag his family to see.

Having not prepared a more appropriate, less insulting answer, I feebly croaked “all this…”

“All what?” He said with no sign of a lisp.

“The border?”

“The ‘Border?’” he parroted with an eye roll and then continued before I could elaborate. “How long were you in Mexico?”

Upon my answer to this, he was officially suspicious. Given my half assed attempt not to offend him given the premise of my script and having only been in Mexicali for a grand total of just under ten minutes, minus the forty-five minute wait to get back into the US, I understood why.

If a lone American wanted to get their hands on recreational and illegal anything, it seemed that even a short, shallow venture into Mexicali would yield nefarious fruit of any kind. So when I said I lived in Los Angeles and had driven four hours to Mexico only to enter for fifteen minutes then leave, it was time for them to do their jobs.

(Disclaimer… I am not in any way above having fun in Mexico. I’ve been….)

With its taco stands and souvenir stores, the border town was not without its cultural appeal, but within two blocks and thirty seconds of being in the country, a disheveled man approaches my window, pantomiming first the “Popping” of a pill, followed a giant dopy toothless smile. He then gesticulates to one of five or six pharmacies that line this one particular street where said sleepy pill may be purchased.  Not deterred by my lack of interest in pharmaceuticals, he begins humping the air, rubbing his chest and tweaking imaginary nipples urging me toward a gentleman’s club impressively already open at 11:30am on a Tuesday. This event with different casts and incarnations repeated itself three times in my brief stay.

Now relegated temporarily to a well-guarded cage between two nations, I could see the wheels of homeland security spinning. Aside from a well-worn miserable bench in the holding area, there was nothing but a fifty-inch flat screen TV playing an “informational video” about the purpose of border control. Impossible to ignore given the video’s volume, it outlined each and every potential transgression that might occur whilst crossing the border and assured the viewer that if any such crime has occurred, life will change dramatically and for the worse.

The cage is also within view of your car as it is searched. And when I say searched, I don’t mean glanced over. If your car were your body, these border guards would not stop at spread your cheeks and cough. They get up in there. I make nervous chatter with the guard watching me. “Not quite as easy to get to the US as it is to get into Mexico, is it?” He pretends not to hear me.

I watched as everything from my glove box, console and my extremely cluttered trunk were inspected. Gym bags were opened and containers within gym bags were sniffed. Sniffed! Pockets of jackets emptied. Gas tank opened. Mirrors are used to look under the car. Everything under the hood is studied with the eye of a German auto engineer and the nose of a German Shepherd.

As my car was violated, I began to worry. I have many pot loving friends whom I’d driven to the golf course… Perhaps an errant nugget of weed might have fallen at some point from a pocket. Maybe a drug-dealing valet accidentally dropped a bag of a white powdery substance while parking my car. They could find anything. Like many caged before me, I began to pace.

The longer it took, the more nervous I became. Especially as I listened to the video outline the severity of such international violations. I had done nothing and yet I was squirming like a teenager who comes home to find his bong and a bag of weed on the bedside table next to his folded laundry. How anyone smuggling mass quantities of drugs could remain calm doing such a search and under the watchful eye of armed guards is beyond me. I had done nothing and felt I was about to face the executioner.

Finally it ends and I’m clear. Yet now, I felt dangerous. Like I had gotten away with something massive. So too, given the brevity of my trip, did the agents. Having come back into the US many times from many locations all over the world, I am almost always greeted with a “welcome home.” Not the case after my fifteen-minute trip to Mexicali. “Looks like you can go….” He says, still suspicious as hands me my passport.

“Got a restaurant recommendation in Calexico?” I ask. He tosses a sideways smile, as though somehow I’d won this battle and says nothing, waving forward his next suspect.

As I drive back into the US, My heart finally begins to slow down. It had been an intense hour between two borders. My car is full of nothing but water bottles, dirty gym clothes, and my waning anxiety. Even though I hadn’t even gotten out of my car,  I can’t help but think… “Suckers….”

Glad to be stateside, I crank some Springsteen and head home, glad that those guys are keeping our borders safe.

Matthew Kenney’s RAW Cooking Intensive: A carnivore’s journey into the world of meatless cooking

The kitchen at Matthew Kenney Culinary School, a raw cooking school in Santa Monica California is well lit and immaculate. Each workstation is a testament to sterility and function.  In front of me, in addition to an assortment of stainless steel mixing bowls, chopping devices and measuring spoons is an avocado, a grapefruit, and a bulb of fennel, some fresh mint, macadamia oil and some coriander. When assembled, this grapefruit fennel salad will be the forth dish I will learn to make on my maiden voyage into the world of the culinary arts.

Matthew Kenney's RAW Intensive

Matthew Kenney’s RAW Intensive

What makes this otherwise, overly equipped teaching kitchen capable of producing dozens of dishes most interesting is that despite having enough gadgetry to make Sur La Table green with envy, there is no stovetop or oven. There is neither a Crockpot nor a Dutch oven. In fact, unless a fellow student at this weekend intensive is a smoker or a Pyromaniac, one is as likely to find the tooth fairy in this kitchen as an open flame. Matthew Kenney’s Culinary School, associated with his acclaimed restaurant MAKE, located next door, is completely raw. Not vegetarian. Not vegan… Raw.

All his innovative dishes are made up of organic fruits, vegetables, and nuts, and in order to protect precious nutrients and enzymes from breaking down due to exposure to heat, nothing served will ever reach a temperature of more than 118 degrees.

And while this kind of culinary experience may have appeal to those already committed to an organic diet free from anything that has ever walked, swam or otherwise consumed oxygen, wrapping my meat loving brain around this idea was a struggle. Especially because I come from the school of thought that you could consume four score and seven pounds of veggies but without a piece of chicken or a pork chop, you’d just had the salad course.

Even the boldest and most well executed dishes where soy attempts to masquerade as a rib eye ultimately feel like a feeble attempt to pass off an animatronic cocker spaniel as the beloved family pet.  Many times, I’ve left vegan restaurants marginally satisfied, but never have I left proclaiming that the “not-fish” fish dish tastes better than the fresh seared tuna that I could have had at the Santa Monica Fish Market right down the street.

RAW workstation

RAW workstation

And building on my marginal disdain for such a drastic lifestyle modification, might I add that rarely have I had a conversation with an individual fully committed to any of the half dozen or so variations of a plant based diets where when the conversation ended, I didn’t feel like I’d just parted ways with the altruistic, health obsessed version of fully committed doomsayer. Not to say that all plant-based eaters want to convince you that their way is better, but many do with a Scientologist’s certainty.

So naturally, the idea of indulging on a complex multi-course meal made up of a creative arrangements of nutrient dense, fresh nuts and vegetables, served raw and never prepared at temperatures higher than 115 degrees seemed slightly off-putting. That said, back when Pearl Jam was releasing their first album if you had told me that I would eat tongue, I would have said you were insane and now, as I write this, just thinking of a lengua taco from Ruben’s Taco Truck makes my mouth water so I figured, let’s give this rabbit food a dance.

Two hours later, after eating at MAKE, my attitude toward this type of meal changed entirely. So much so in fact, two months later, having never taken a cooking class before in my life, I committed twelve hours of a weekend to learning the process….

Fennel and Grapefruit Salad

Fennel and Grapefruit Salad

Our instructor is named Sean. His focus is to teach the small class how to make as many varying types of dishes using the greatest variety of organic ingredients as possible. Within an hour, I have created chocolate brownie dough from scratch and watched almonds, after being blended, turn in to milk, then used to make a smoothie. The milk, in our case made from almonds, is then flavor balanced to taste (something else I learned!) with a pinch of salt, dates for sweetening and a hint of vanilla. Coconut oil can also be added not only for flavor but because it adds healthy fat, which in a raw diet, just like any other, is important as it helps the body absorb other essential vitamins.

As the day goes on, we are introduced to different fruits and vegetables as well as kitchen equipment and terminology. Juicers, blenders, food processors and dehydrators all play important roles in constructing our dishes. As do knives, mandolins and various chopping techniques. Rather than making raw food, if you had told me my day would involve the terms chiffonade (a chopping technique) and that I would be using a mandolin (tool for slicing), I would have envisioned a bluegrass festival. And yet, here I am making a zucchini tartare, touched up with a touch of agave and a hint of lemon juice, and enjoying myself.

Chipotle Kale salad

Chipotle Kale salad

While Sean’s dishes look like masterpieces, mine look like a toddler with a box of crayons got impatient with a coloring book but I am proud none-the-less. Having eaten each and every dish I made, I am beginning to feel like I am capable of making something beyond a steak or a ham and cheese sandwich. Not only that, and perhaps most shocking of all, despite only eating uncooked things that grew from the soil of the earth, I’m also starting to feel full.

By the intensive’s end, I have made beet ravioli, zucchini tartare, a grapefruit fennel salad, a gazpacho, multiple salads, brownies, tarts, smoothies and juices among other things. Narry a dish trying to pass itself off as a steak or seafood dish anything else but what it is.  Healthy and delicious. My body feels clean and I’m more comfortable with a kitchen knife. While I have no intention passing on the ribs next time someone invites me to a barbeque, I know that if it is a potluck, and there is already enough meat, I’ll be able to make something a lot healthier and it will blow some minds.

For more information on Matthew Kenney’s RAW weekend intensives, go to http://matthewkenneycuisine.com/education/santa-monica/weekend-intensives-enroll/

In the meantime, here is a recipe from the Intensive for Heirloom Tomato Lasagna from the Intensive….

MACADAMIA RICOTTA

1 cup soaked macadamias

¼ cup water

2 teaspoons nutritional yeast

½ teaspoons lemon juice

¼ teaspoons salt

Blend all ingredients until completely smooth.

PISTACHIO PESTO

1 cup basil leaves

¼ cup spinach leaves

¼ cup pistachios

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

¼ teaspoon sea salt

½ teaspoon lemon juice

Pinch of freshly ground pepper

Pulse ingredients, except olive oil, in a food processor until well combined but still slightly chunky. Gradually add oil last while food processor is running.

RED PEPPER MARINARA

½ cup sun-dried tomatoes, soaked 1 hour

1 medium tomato, de-seeded and roughly chopped

½ shallot, chopped

1 teaspoon lemon juice

2 teaspoons olive oil

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoons red chili flakes

½ red bell pepper, seeded and chopped

Squeeze out excess water from sundried tomatoes.  Combine everything in food processor except oil. Gradually add oil last while food processor is running.

ASSEMBLY

1 zucchini, ends trimmed

1 heirloom tomato

2 baby heirloom tomatoes

fresh thyme                                

fresh basil

olive oil

salt

black pepper

Cut zucchini in half and slice lengthwise 1/8 of an inch thick using a mandolin or sharp knife. Toss zucchini strips with a pinch of salt, black pepper, olive oil, and thyme. Set aside while gathering other components.

Cut 2 thick slices of heirloom tomato and set aside.

Place 3 strips of zucchini on a plate, forming a square. Spread a layer of marinara on top of the zucchini slices. Place 2-3 dollops of pesto and ricotta on top of the marinara. Cover with a tomato slice. Place 3 strips of zucchini on top of the tomato slice. Repeat the previous steps for the second layer. Garnish with halved baby heirloom tomatoes and fresh basil leaves.

“What was in those pancakes?” or “When a wall isn’t just a wall…”: The Little Swiss Cafe in Carmel, CA

I had anticipated that the secret ingredient to my pancakes at The Little Swiss House in downtown Carmel, California would be something exotic. Perhaps the vanilla extract came from a rare Tahitian orchid harvested only by Aries between the hours of 2am and 4am on clouded nights when the moon is waning.

Carmel, with its elf-like cottages and ancient cypress trees, is an enchanted beach town that conjures up images of elves and magical fairies. Perhaps the secret to these dreamy flapjacks arrived by way of hobbit from Middle Earth. There had to be something esoteric that made these airy, almost crepe-like cakes so special.

“The reason the pancakes are so good here is that we add extra water to the batter and keep the skillet really hot,” my waitress tells me.

I take another bite and consider what she has just revealed. Heat and a couple of lousy hydrogen molecules chained up to a molecule of oxygen are all that separate these ethereal cakes from the likes of bisquick? Clearly the secret to the pancakes at this quaint local breakfast joint isn’t one to be shared.

The Little Swiss Cafe, a family run restaurant since 1972, is a lunch and breakfast spot located on the corner of 6th Avenue and Dolores just off of Ocean Avenue and specializes not only in pancakes and the usual breakfast fare but also cheese blitzes, Swiss Sausage and liver and onions. No matter what you get here, it is good.

Just off of the Carmel’s main drag, The Little Swiss feels very much as though you have stepped into a tiny eatery somewhere in the Swiss Alps.  It is divided into two rooms. In the front room are a couple of small tables looking out onto the street. The back room is a small, square room with several tight, upright booths.

The walls of this snug room are painted with murals of the Swiss countryside, each wall reflecting a season. At a glance, the landscape seems benign, if not slightly cliché and in disrepair. Duct tape carelessly hangs in the sky above one of the landscapes and on another, a nail, once intended to hang a painting, protrudes from the wall. At least that is how it appears… In truth, there is much more going on.

But if one were to try to remove the duct tape, they would be quick to discover that the duct tape, stringy on the edges and muted silver, is actually painted on the wall. So is the nail. Caught off guard by this peculiar artistic ruse, my eye begins to wander across the European countryside and as it does, what was once a fairly straightforward mural becomes a joyful exercise in observation.

Duct tape… Or is it?

The wintery mural at a glance, features a frozen lake surrounded by some humble cabins and inns. One of the Inns, however has a tiny Motel 6 light on it. On one of the logs coming out of the water rests a parrot. A matador with a red cape antagonizes a bull in a field of cattle. Gollum hangs out in a tree. A seal’s head pops out of a crack in the lake. A penguin reads a sign on the water’s edge that says “No Diving.”

The wall representing spring features a river running through a field of beautiful flowers. In the river, a shirtless man, with his hat on backwards, flyfishes for trout. Puss and Boots sword fight over a log. Shriek and his girlfriend Fiona soak in the stream and the couple from the classic Grant Wood painting American Gothic hang out in one of the rows of flowers while a tennis net stretches across another row of flowers and on either side of the net, two people engaged in a match. In the distance, barely visible is the Eiffel Tower and just a hop, skip and a jump from there, the leaning tower of Pisa.

What all can you see here?

There are more than fifty images playfully hidden in the landscapes painted in 2005 by artist Andre Baylon. By reputation, a serious artist, Baylon, born and raised in The Netherlands, currently shows his more serious work down the road at Jones and Terwillinger Galleries. At The Little Swiss House, however, he let his imagination run wild, much to the delight of both locals who call this eatery their own as well as tourists from all over the world.

Under the watchful eye of the old couple from American Gothic, I finish my pancakes. As I leave, I notice on the mural a strange man in the bushes smoking a cigarette. Above him, a flock of birds heading straight to where I once thought was a nail protruding from the wall. One of the birds is upside down….

Like the pancakes, it is too good.

Full and inspired, I head into the day. I glance into the bushes outside, now half expecting to see a gargoyle stoically eyeing me. Above I notice the clouds. One seems to be shaped like a car. In another, perhaps I see the face of a lion.  A car whizzes by and for a second, I think it might the driver might just be Mickey Mouse. As I take a breath of the Carmel salty sea air, there seems to be more to the world than there was an hour ago and I can’t help but wonder… What was in those pancakes?

Look closer….

 

 

 

 

 

A weed in a city of color

I have to be honest. Korean street fashion has always baffled me. Alright… Bothered me. Especially men’s fashion. Loud skull printed shirts with scarves. Dyed and carefully arranged hair. Eye liner. Thick framed (often glassless) fashion glasses. The males, if not in designer suits (which during the day, most are) Urban Korean fashion is a cataclysmic explosion of tight techno-bright, Jersey Shore inspired, pulsing, bejeweled fabrics and metals designed accessories to ensure that no matter what, if there is a God, no one on the planet, or even any other planet  for that matter, will look like you. Even in the fashion conscious Los Angeles, this aggressive form of Gangnam-style, hyper-peacocking stands out in the trendiest of crowds.

In contrast, I am notoriously a simple dresser. Solid colored tees and jeans is the normal and on a Friday night I may dazzle with a collar and some blue stripes. I make every effort to appear as though I don’t give a shit (though occasionally I’ve been known to drop $60 bucks on a white tee shirt because I like the cut).

While I’m certain that such simple style of dress may conjure a snarky glance at a yacht club or golf course, and probably would make it even more challenging for me to get into (god forbid I would ever have to go) a night club, it is, at the very least, non-offensive. So, per usual, when I travel, I toss in a couple of tees (black, green,  blue… purple for crazy days), a couple of long sleeve tees (also black and blue), a pair of khakis, a pair of jeans and head to Seoul.

When I arrived to Bradley International Terminal at LAX  for a midnight flight, I was sandwiched by fashion. Ahead of me, a guy in tight reddish jeans, giant black frame glasses, a shirt that sparkled, and a scarf. His bag had what I could only describe as Stegasaurian metal notches along its back. Behind me, a variation of this man, albeit different colors, jewels, cuts, etc., of the guy ahead of me, only this guy had on eye-liner and his hair was at least three different shades of red and going in several different directions. Keep in mind… This is what these guys are wearing for a thirteen-hour flight leaving at midnight and arriving on the other side of the world at 5am. The ticket line was peppered with these types of fashion savvy youth, leaving me, a weed in comparison, scratching my head.

Recently, I was in Costa Rica and was floored by the birds. Much like the colorful fish that make their homes on elaborately colored coral reefs, these birds have evolved into brilliant reds, cobalt blues, and rich greens with epic plumage suitable only for royalty, not because of a divinely appointed lineage but because they match their landscape. It wasn’t until after my plane landed and I set foot into the immaculate, neon, radiant city of Seoul did the otherwise flamboyant style of dress begin to make sense.

In a word, Seoul is ebullient. The architecture is so other-worldly that one finds it hard to believe that the valet isn’t parking flying cars. The city is mirrored and glowing, exploding with combustible color and this chromatic fervor extends beyond its buildings to the cuisine, its temples, and is ultimately and primarily expressed through its people. There isn’t a crayon box large enough to contain the hues of this exuberant expression of urbanity. And suddenly, in this techno-garden that is East Asia, I find myself walking down Meyong-Dong, the epi-center of this cacophony, and feel like dusty sparrow in a world of macaws and toucan.

The sidewalks and streets are lined with vendors selling elaborate cell phone cases, bejeweled hats, hooded sweat shirts with animal ears and bunny tails, glasses of impossible shapes and sizes and even anime-covered socks. Even on a Wednesday night, stores bustle with colorfully clad teenagers looking for that next great piece of apparel. It is a virtual sea of electric humanity and despite what I had always believed, in this environment, I love it.

The city and its people have a pulse. It is superlative. It is clean, the people are kind, and if ever were an urban hub where hyperbole infectiously reigns, this is it. It is a grand expression and while I don’t find myself reaching for a pair of Gangnam-style Psy-inspired socks or non-ironic, over-sized Harry Potter glasses, I do find myself thinking that maybe it is time to add a little color to my wardrobe. Who wants to be a weed anyway? After all… I live in Los Angeles.

LA Food and Wine Show Night One: It Begins….

 

Giada De Laurentis signs a bottle of wine for a fan.

Under the frenetic lights of the Nokia Plaza, located in the epicenter of the hip and ever-expanding downtown Los Angeles, affectionately known as DTLA, is the opening of the LA Food and Wine Show. The decadent four-day event spans from downtown across the city to the shore of the Pacific in Santa Monica and features countless chefs from restaurants across California. Chef superstar Giada De Laurentis hosts Thursday’s event, called Giada’s Festa Italiana and it features Italian chefs from restaurants as far north as Big Sur and more than 200 wines from wineries across the world.

While the process is simple, the event itself, is at first, daunting. It is hard to wrap my brain around the availability of 200 wines and food from twenty-eight of California’s finest restaurants. Not to try each and every one would be a colossal slap in the face to foodies across the globe, and while the term “foodie” makes me cringe, tonight, that is just what I am.

By night’s end, culinary delights from such chefs as Matt Molina from Osteria Mozza, Gino Angelini from Angelini Osteria, John Cox from Big Sur’s Post Ranch Inn, Danny Elmaleh of Cleo, Top Chef’s Fabio Viviani from Café Frienze, Michael Fiorelli of Mar’sel will be fighting for space in my stomach in a sea chardonnays, merlots, pinot noirs, pinot grigios, syrahs, and tempernios to name a few and while that thought makes me fear for the future, never in my life have I been so eager to live in the present.

The line for a tasting of Giada De Laurentis’ featured dish of the night, Penne with Short Ribs Ragu and Summer Watermelon and Coucous, is long but moves fast. As it does, I sip a Pinot Grigio from an Italian vineyard called Barrymore, owned none other than Drew Barrymore. There are whispers that she might even turn up to pour a couple of glasses herself. To my right, Giada herself poses for pictures with adoring fans and upon trying her Short Rib Ragu, I understand exactly why. Forget that she’s famous. Her food is perfect.

Morro Bay Oysters from the chef of Post Ranch Inn

Some of the dishes are familiar ones.  Others, like Post Ranch Inn’s John Cox get creative, serving oysters with lemon verbena, cucumber, basil seeds and balsamic.  Cleo’s Elmaleh personally hands me a squash blossom with tallegio, honey and truffle. While I don’t have the slightest idea what tallegio is (sorry foodies), my taste buds are pulled into a thousand blissful directions.

As the hot Los Angeles evening turns dark, the event is as packed as my stomach. I bring the night to a close with a olive oil and sea salt truffle from Los Angeles Chocolatier Jonathan Grahm, owner of Compartes Chocolatier and a alcohol infused push up pop (like the ones we had when we were kids, only with booze), courtesy of the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas, called a Pour Some Sugar on Me. It is made up of Maker’s Mark, Peach Rooibos Tea, pureed peaches, and lemon juice. As I finish this modified version of a childhood favorite, Saturday’s featured chef saunters past me.  It is none other than Wolfgang Puck and if I’m going to eat some of his food, I best stop for now so there will be room.