Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Interview with Chef Ian Reeves From The Queen Vic

My interview with Chef Ian Reeves from the Queen Vic

I knew I was in for a treat when The Queen Vic‘s Chef Ian Reeves asked if I could Marco Pierre White-ify the photos [which, alas, I miserably failed in due to technical difficulties]. In other words, shoot them in that iconic black-and-white, cigarette-dangling-from-the-corner-of-the-mouth, literally dripping with bad boy swagger style. You know…like back in the days when chefs weren’t “famous” for peddling Teflon pans on TV, but were instead infamous for true rock star-worthy antics like physically tossing unappreciative rubes of patrons out of their restaurants [which Marco has done plenty of]. For those of you not in the know–and what kind of a self-respecting foodie do you fancy yourself to be if you do not, for shame–Marco Pierre White is THE eponymous British chef, the youngest chef to earn three Michelin stars, and a veritable maniacal workaholic. He also is probably one of the few men who have made Gordon Ramsay cry in the kitchen–small consolation, Hell’s Kitchen contestants.

So, when Ian Reeves cited Marco Pierre White as one of his major influences, I knew he had good taste! He was also a really good sport, a jocular and jolly fellow, and a frequent user of the “luv” appellation [like, "are you hungry, luv?"]. In other words, he was the perfect host and a brilliant interview subject.


Chef Reeves has been cooking for a decade, with no formal training, “just working his way up in kitchens.” Born and raised in Gloucestershire, England, he touts the home economics course he took in what we Americans would call high school, as well as his Grandma and mother’s cooking as great learning experiences. The holidays he spent in Brittany also contributed to his culinary stylings. In the UK, he worked in country house hotels and honed his skills in “upper-end modern European cooking.” In 2005, he worked as a Chef De Cuisine in Vikram Garg’s Indebleu, where he picked up some of the Indian influence that shows up in The Queen Vic’s menu.

“I would say that one big focus of The Queen Vic is roasted meats, slowly braised. We break down half a side of beef, or pig, every couple of weeks right here on the premises. We have four blackboards in the restaurant, with ten specials on a daily basis. I often incorporate Indian or Northern African dishes, like stews, on the menu. I also have a good basis in Italian and French so we do things like gnocchi.” After a recent stint back home, Chef Reeves came back to the US with his wife. “I am really glad to be here. There are a lot of opportunities.”

At Fashion District, Chef Reeves and his wife will be serving a braised and pulled pork with a Szechuan sauce in a lettuce wrap, with a cucumber/carrot/cilantro/roasted peanut garnish.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Jiro Dreams Of Sushi Review

My review of Jiro Dreams Of Sushi

The Confucian saying goes, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Jiro Ono, the 85-year-old sushi chef behind the counter of a world-renowned 10-seat sushi restaurant in Tokyo, takes this ethos to another level. In his 75 years of work, he has never taken a day off except to attend funerals and, by his own mirthful admission, detests all holidays. Jiro Dreams Of Sushi is a love song to the ethereally exquisite world of sushi, but ultimately, it’s about dedicating your life to mastering a skill and working at it with unwavering dedication. In some sense, it is not about falling in love with *your* work, but more so about falling in love with work. Perfectionism, fanatical dedication, and humility are all we really need to know about Jiro.

Director David Gelb’s cinematography lends itself especially well to the subject matter. Close-up shots of the sushi feel like a dance performance, a time-lapse series of intense, gleaming beauty. The nigiri flutters like a bird as it gracefully settles after being shaped by the mind-blowingly deft handiwork of the chefs.

Jiro’s restaurant is the perfect balance between tradition and creativity. Rigorous routine notwithstanding - Jiro even rides the subway in the same position every morning - he is a rebel. He explains that even after 75 years of doing this, he is always looking ahead and improving his skills. Every element of every ingredient’s preparation is dissected to the minutest of details. For example, octopus has to be hand-massaged for 45 minutes before it can be prepared. The kind of meticulous, exacting standards that he holds himself up to apply to his entire staff, and with even more strictness to his two sons, Yoshikazu and Takashi. One of his apprentices shares the story of how it took him 200 tries over the span of 4 months to make the grilled egg “cake” for the egg sushi—when he finally got it right, he cried with pride. The training takes ten years of sunrise-to-sunset work and few chefs can endure it, but Jiro offers the knowledge for free.

His approach is a far cry from the despotic, sadistic Gordon Ramsey star chef prototype. Obsessive dedication is demanded for its own sake and value—Jiro would serve this kind of food even if he had one customer. His mantra, repeated throughout the movie, is that this is not about money but building a skill and only showcasing the best. Anything less than perfect is unacceptable. The vendors he works with in Tokyo’s famous Tsukuji fish market are equally skilled and “anti-establishment” themselves. Some of them only work with Jiro and will purchase one fish a day. The film offers a glimpse into this underground world of connoisseurship that exceeds all imagination; in an indicative scene, one monger can predict what a fish will taste like on instinct alone. Most of them have been working for decades, almost as long as Jiro himself, carrying on traditions and refusing to modernize for the sake of profit. The rice vendor tells a story of how he refused to sell his rice to a major hotel chain because they “would simply not be able to cook it right.”

Jiro Dreams Of Sushi is a fascinating look into Japanese culture and traditions. It is also the story of a place where, by work being done for its own sake, beauty through simplicity also follows.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Slow Machete: Killing You Softly with the Otherworldly Sounds of Haiti

My interview and feature on Slow Machete for The Vinyl District

Rolling Stone
once described Sigur Ros as “the sound of God weeping tears of gold in heaven.” Slow Machete, a musical collaboration of local artist Joe Shaffer and Haitian sound-makers, is no less otherworldly and intensely moving.

The vibe in certain parts is musically reminiscent of the spirituals written by enslaved African peoples in America; this is ethnomusicology at its finest, devoid of arty, slapped-on electronica stylings to make it palatable for Western consumption.
Even though this was recorded during Shaffer’s many volunteer trips to Haiti, this album is not polemical in its message (and refreshingly free of overbearing Bono-esque humanitarian asides). It is an album that is truly a tribute to Haiti’s spirit, raw and uninhibited and unbridledly beautiful. The harmonium [similar to a reed organ]‘s sound is lushly organic and, mixed with the vocal and other samples, creates a sonic tapestry of something akin to peaking behind the curtain of a really cool place. Slow Machete’s Evening Dust Choir officially releases today free on Bandcamp.

Tell me a little bit about how this project came about. What is its significance to you and how does it relate to the work you do in Haiti?
I’d been going to Haiti for a few years with different NGOs and medical teams, assisting clinics, working in an orphanage, clean water initiatives, and so on. Through these networks, I’d begun making some very close friends who are singers or musicians in Haiti. I recorded an album for them, and that sort of began the relationships that I would later record for this project.
I made this album as a soundtrack for experiences. This is a music group or a collective in a way, and I’m tying these sounds together and writing lyrics that sort of just move the plot along without trying to take the spotlight. Haiti is a wonderful place, music everywhere, honesty and directness in people that’s incredibly refreshing. I can’t ignore the difficult situations people are facing like how horrible cholera is right now, but I think my objective is to give an honest representation of how I perceive the culture, and that culture is incredibly beautiful.
The sound of the album is extremely unique in its strong ethnomusical vibe. Could you talk a little about the special instruments and samples you used?
The recordings are split between a few places: DC, a tunnel in Pittsburgh, Costa Rica, Montevideo, and Cap Haitien, Haiti. I’d record hours and hours of everything and anything then spend the evenings trying to piece things together with field samples, movie samples, and drums that are mostly native percussion with pitched down sounds of machetes (hence the band name).
Two sounds that are prevalent throughout the album—an Indian harmonium and “the 913”—I soldered a few bass pickups and alligator clips in a cigar box that I use a lot for drones and bass sounds. I play that with tuning forks most often.

You sampled a machete chopping?
Correct. I have a machete, and I’d record hitting / chopping / swinging that against a variety of things in my apartment in Costa Rica, then pitch those samples down several half steps.
What do you think of the music scene in DC?
I originally came to DC excited about the experimental/noise scene that’s great here. I love what’s going on with house shows and art house venues, anything that makes people connect more intimately with the music.
Could you talk a little about your musical influences?
I love movie soundtracks. The King’s Speech by Alexandre Desplat—I’ve been in love with recently. The Sneakers soundtrack and Jurassic Park soundtrack were my favorites growing up. Some other faves are Juan Luis Guerra , Compay Segundo, and Rage Against the Machine.
How do you want to move this project forward? Do you plan on releasing this album on vinyl?
I hope so—if there is an interest in it. I would like to play shows, and make videos that match the aesthetic.

Interview With Jesse Miller from Cafe Saint-Ex

My interview with chef Jesse Miller from Cafe Saint-Ex

Like most great chefs, Café Saint-Ex Executive Sous Chef Jesse Miller honed his skills the old-fashioned way, eschewing the chef-in-a-box culinary school route to earn his chops by working in kitchens for years. Originally from Baltimore, Jess studied painting at Towson University. To make money during art school, he worked at The Elkridge Furnace Inn, first as a dishwasher, then moving on to prep cook and sous chef. “You can be good at it [cooking] and hate it or bad at it and love it. It just bit me. I decided to focus on this art.” He spent seven years at the Elkridge Furnace Inn, which he describes as “a great place to learn,” and fortuitously met Saint-Ex’s Executive Chef Billy Klein there as well, who recruited him later to join Café Saint-Ex. Their collaboration continues to bear fruits—“we like pushing each other to get better.”
Café Saint-Ex’s menu is very seasonal and showcases the food of local farms. “We go to meet the farmers and it really makes you care about the food more. When you see how hard they work, it really gets you passionate about representing their food.”
At Fashion District, Jesse will be serving a King Salmon sashimi, with a Thai chili relish, yuzu vinaigrette and a soy reduction, with claytonia greens. The soy reduction has a deep, almost caramel undertone, resulting from the soy sauce being cooked for a really long time with a tiny bit of brown sugar, getting it to the right level of viscosity, with an almost-burned tinge for that little bit of char flavor. The yuzu vinaigrette is vibrant and really matches the equally springy claytonia [Miner’s lettuce] that is surrounded by the salmon.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Being Flynn Review

My review of Being Flynn:

Ernest Hemingway once said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed.” In Being Flynn, Jonathan Flynn says, “Life is gathering material.” There lies the absurdity of prose: it is both prosaic and profound, complex in its very simplicity. Being Flynn is a film about bleeding and writing, stumbling and surviving. Based on author-poet Nick Flynn's memoir "Another Bullshit Night in Suck City," it recounts Nick’s (Paul Dano) relationship with his estranged father Jonathan (Robert De Niro).
Nick grows up a latchkey kid, raised by a loving but terribly over-worked mother (Julianne Moore). His only sense of his father comes from the bombastic letters he receives from prison; they are filled with Jonathan’s proclamations that he should have a place in the pantheon of great American writers. While Jonathan manifests as an absence in his son’s life, his non-presence couldn’t be more momentous to Nick, not the least of which because Nick writes just as well. Such is the basic tension of their father-son relationship: he declares “I am *not* like my deadbeat Dad” while wondering “How much like my father am I really?” Jonathan’s absence has built up the mythos of him, yet their approach to writing couldn’t be more different. Jonathan is full of swagger, in contrast to Nick’s meek “I write, but I am not a writer.” And surely enough, it’s through this fraught relationship and struggle that Nick will come into his own.

Being Flynn is also a film about homelessness, literally and metaphorically. Director Paul Weitz uses his lens to show the brutal Bostonian winter landscape with a gut-wrenching intensity and poignancy. Long after Jonathon leaves prison and descends into alcoholism, Nick meets him at a homeless shelter. Snippets of Nick’s writing provide a literary backdrop to the film. His description of his father’s going to sleep on a Metro grate as “an invisible man in an invisible room in an invisible city,” is a trenchant metaphor for the blind eye toward homelessness. The shelter is a microcosm of the struggles of the outside world and a testament to how hard it is to stay changed. The way up is long but the way down quick and always lurking around the corner. When Nick takes on the job in the shelter, maybe subconsciously he’s hoping to see his father. As Nick says, “if both of you are lost, you both end up in the same place, waiting.”
Through their push-and-pull interaction, Nick and his father tumultuously find a way to reach other. Paul Dano plays Nick with a quiet vulnerability and just enough of the inherited-self-nihilism required. DeNiro plays Jonathan with borderline-insane megalomania, a seething intensity, and a tragi-comic flair (he calls his masterpiece The Memoirs of a Moron). He doesn’t want our pity; he insists he is a survivor. And so is Nick, who finds his own voice.
You can’t kill someone with words, Jonathan Flynn says, but it doesn’t mean the words are not heavy as stones.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Women Hold Up Half The Sky Filmfest

National Geographic’s Women Hold Up Half The Sky is an annual film festival featuring films by women about women.

Here I Am, the feature debut of documentary director Beck Cole, follows Karen, a young Aboriginal woman who has just been released from prison and her journey to find a place outside. Beck’s decision to cast non-professional actors pays off well here, especially in Shai Pittman’s wonderfully subdued yet profoundly eloquent portrayal of Karen. Cole explained that she intentionally picked the women in the film because it not only “added to the film’s honesty, but it also gave them a chance to be humorous and very real.” The story takes places in the Port Adelaide women’s shelter that Karen lives in and, indeed, despite the very difficult circumstances its residents face, the dynamic is vibrant and the environment surprising nurturing. Cole spent time visiting these homes and described how they are often “regular houses on suburban streets.”

Here I Am is unique not only in that it features modern Aboriginal women on screen, but also in that those women are the key characters. While it shows the discrimination and bleak reality Aborigines face, it is also a testament to the strength of the characters who have overcome it—for example, Karen’s social worker and parole officer are both Aboriginal women. The film also portrays the marginalization that Aborigines have to contend with—in several instances, we see the thread of “do not be the way they assume you to be” and the need to get the “white man’s certificate”[and by implication, approval] to find one’s way in the rather divided environment. There is the pervasive sense that the shelter is of life-saving significance to these women who are doubly ostracized for being ex-convicts and for being Aboriginal.

The evocative cinematography is a beautiful milieu for Shai Pittman’s engrossing performance as Karen, who is equally vulnerable and tough. The role’s minimal dialogue allows for Pittman to play up the character’s quiet resolve and indomitable spirit. Devoid of self-pity and platitudes, Karen’s single-minded determination to find her way back to her 2 year-old daughter and her estranged, tough Mother is fervent and intense, without relying on fanciful plot twists and calamitous events or melodrama. Cole said that “it is important, as a film-maker, that your work be inward-looking. I wanted to take a different approach than ‘pointing the finger.’” Her focus on the characters themselves makes for a beautiful paean to getting a second chance.

My Wedding And Other Secrets, based on director Roseanne Liang’s autobiographical documentary “Banana In A Nutshell,” riffs on the all-too-familiar cross-cultural rom com theme. Sure, Chinese-New Zealand-born Emily Chu’s nerd-heavy romance with fellow geek James is cute and endearing, but it is also incredibly contrived and barely elicits a chuckle in the first half of the movie—how many groan-inducing Klingon and Dungeons & Dragons and never-been-kissed jokes can one make!? It would not an exaggeration to call it a geek-romance-by-the-numbers, replete with self-referential “aren’t we just too cute!?” overbearing and cringe-inducing “humor.” It’s only when Emily’s parents’ disapproval of the relationship comes into play that the film hits a stride and sparks some interest. In one particularly meaningful scene, when people applaud Emily for “sticking it to her parents,” by marrying James does the struggle of loyalty to one’s family become palpable. Then, the conundrum of choosing between selfishness-to-a-fault as a signal of “independence” Western-esque bend and the concern for her parents comes to life. The parents’ characters are especially nuanced and not easily dismissed as two-dimensional “narrow-minded”/racist. When Emily plaintively wonders why she “can’t have both,” there is a lot of depth behind this seemingly childish and simplistic sentiment.