Saturday, July 26, 2008

Shelter Program Teaches Women Classic Cuisine

Chefs at Village Kitchen start from scratch

The women -- some just out of prison, others recently homeless -- have been given a chance to succeed, learning the techniques of fine cuisine at a Los Angeles cafe operated by a homeless center.

By Scott Gold Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

July 25, 2008 - Not long after Felicia Cuellar started working at The Village Kitchen, she began to suspect that the purple potatoes she'd been roasting had been dyed. The red carrots, too. Aren't carrots supposed to be orange?

Indeed, most everything she knew about food she'd learned from the drive-thru. She didn't know the proper way to hold a knife, much less how to distribute butter in batches of scone batter to keep them from spreading out like pancakes in the oven.

From her first day, however, Cuellar was an expert on the scale. She was so good, she barely needed one. Whatever the recipe called for -- 11 ounces of flour, 14 ounces of powdered sugar -- she'd squint one eye, size up her target, plop it on the scale and, more often than not, come pretty darn close. That's because back home in Lancaster, she'd used the same kind of scale for years. "To weigh dope," she said.

If you like your sandwich with a nice story on the side, think about stopping in at the new storefront cafe at 1667 Beverly Blvd., just northwest of downtown Los Angeles. The cafe is the latest project of the Good Shepherd Center for Homeless Women and Children. Over the last 25 years, the organization has provided thousands with food, clothes, housing and counseling, all under the steady hand of Sister Julia Mary Farley, its founder and a saintly sort in local social work circles.

Good Shepherd occupies nearly an entire block in a stretch of town otherwise peppered with cheap motels, union halls and lavanderías. Its latest addition is a $13-million building with 21 transitional apartments -- and this tiny cafe. The cafe is staffed by 10 women, nine of them mothers, all of them recently homeless, imprisoned or both. There are former addicts, dealers, thieves and old-fashioned down-on-their-luckers -- some of whom have eaten out of garbage cans -- being trained in classic cuisine and, on the best days, learning to love themselves again.

"This is the answer," said B.J. Daniels, 51, a single mother who grew up in Long Beach and had a stable life until a transportation company furloughed her job three years ago amid budget cuts.

Daniels stayed with relatives as long as she could, and then, out of options, landed at Good Shepherd. This summer, she signed up for a work program at The Village Kitchen, undergoing 80 hours of wage-free training. Now fully employed, she hopes to introduce some of her family recipes, including seafood gumbo, to the menu.

"This is an expression of our pride," she said. "People will see that we treat them with care. I think that will make it prosper." The idea, said Pasquale Vericella, owner of Il Cielo restaurant in Beverly Hills and a longtime Good Shepherd board member, was to use the cafe as a teaching tool to give the women "a craft and a sense of belonging."

But even the best ideas come with red tape and permitting snarls, so the cafe has been nearly 10 years in the making. It didn't get any easier once Executive Chef Jaime Turrey, a former Bay Area chef, was hired last fall. During much of the training and menu design, Turrey, 32, had only a shopping cart and a broom closet to store his equipment -- and many of his cooking tools, including muffin pans and his best knives, were taken from his own wedding registry.

Many of the women, meanwhile, had no understanding of cuisine. What they did know about food -- making "prison tamales" with crushed tortilla chips wrapped in newspaper, for instance -- wasn't much help. Everything is made from scratch -- a point of pride but also debate; Turrey spent an hour last week demonstrating that fresh mayonnaise is yellow-tinged, not bright white like at the grocery store. Math was another problem; hand-written equations ("11 1/4 oz X 2 = 22 1/2 oz") are scribbled all over the kitchen.

"I'm not training them for this job. I'm training them for their next job," Turrey said. "I don't want them to learn to pop something in the oven. I want them to be able to go to a nice restaurant and meet the expectations of that job from Day One. If the manager says, 'Blanche me some haricot vert' -- French green beans -- "they will know what that means. These women are ready for anything."

By now, Turrey is mentor, brother, counselor. On a recent morning, one chef needed to send a postcard to the father of her child; the father had recently been jailed. Turrey made four calls to locate free postcards. As soon as he hung up, another chef brought over a batch of dough and asked him to test the consistency. He gave it a pinch and approved. The kitchen was humming. There were meatballs sizzling in a sauté pan, red and purple potatoes in roasting pans, and beets cooling in a huge bucket of ice. Chefs emerged from the walk-in freezer carrying cheese bread doughs and fresh tomato sauce, their breath still steaming from the cold.

"You would never know," Cuellar said as she patted roasted walnuts into the frosting of a carrot cake. "What?" asked Kimberly Ferguson, 43, another chef. "You know," Cuellar said without looking up. "That we're convicts and stuff."

Theirs is not a tale of unadulterated salvation. It would be too simple to suggest that working at the cafe has marked a clean break for everyone. There are women here who merely fell victim to a sorry economy. But there are also women who ripped copper wiring out of strangers' houses and sold it to buy drugs -- not all that long ago, either.

There are gambling addicts who, when they appear to be contentedly shearing stalks of cilantro, are quietly fending off urges to make a run for a casino. Some don't regret what they did, only that they got caught. Some aren't convinced they won't do it again.

Cuellar, 32, has a kind, easy smile and is a mother of three girls. She spends much of her time fretting because her oldest daughter just started dating boys. It's easy to forget when she's showing off pictures of her kids that she had her first taste of methamphetamine when she was in the third grade; a relative stirred it into her milk, and they stayed up all night making beaded earrings together. By 12, she was snorting it; by 16 she was smoking it. Cuellar began dealing to support her own drug use, then to make money -- gobs of it, which she spent as fast as it came in. She sold drugs to friends, to neighbors. She stopped paying cash at fast-food restaurants, just handed over a few crystals of meth instead. She sold to gangs, including white-power skinheads who presumably didn't think much of her Mexican-Native American heritage. "Just business," she said.

After she helped savagely beat a man who had robbed her -- mostly to make sure that no one would think she was "weak," she said -- she was convicted of assault and sent to Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla for two years. She was recently released to a transitional treatment center in Los Angeles, where she was approached about becoming a Village Kitchen chef. A life like hers, she pointed out, doesn't get cleansed by baking a batch of muffins. But there is a sense here of new beginnings. Cuellar used to dream of building a massive house -- with no kitchen. No need for one of those. Now she's broke -- the government seized her assets -- and she's pretty much OK with that. She's hoping to work at a hotel restaurant back in the Antelope Valley.

"I feel . . . I don't know . . . free or something," she said. "I never thought in a million years I would like this. But I do. It's cool. It's really cool." She turned back to her carrot cake. "This," she said, "is going to be beautiful."

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Finest Dining Meets Fast Food

Paul Bocuse could make French fast food the next nouvelle cuisine

David Appell / For The Times

How do you say 'to go' in French? Superstar chef Bocuse says he 'saw the opportunity to feed thousands of people going to the cinema' -- and others in France are following his lead

LYON, FRANCE - REVERING la bonne cuisine as they do, many French are still fighting the good fight to hold the line against le fast food.

But long gone are the days when the mention of a cheeseburger could earn you a Gallic sneer and protesters drove tractors into a McDonald's; these days, burgers are being served in upscale Paris restaurants. And now, fast food from a Michelin three-star chef?

Yes, while classic French restaurants are making a comeback in Los Angeles (Thomas Keller's highly anticipated Bouchon in Beverly Hills, Anisette in Santa Monica, West Hollywood's Comme Ca), the most legendary chef in France -- and probably the world -- turns around and opens a fast food joint in the country's culinary capital.

Paul Bocuse, whose "back-to-basics" nouvelle cuisine tilted at the culinary establishment of the 1970s and who is a towering pillar of the establishment today, says he "saw the opportunity to feed thousands of people going to the cinema."

Bocuse is based in Lyon, France's elegant second city, two hours southeast of Paris by high-speed train. His "mother ship" remains the high-end, Michelin three-star L'Auberge du Pont de Collonges just outside Lyon, but he's also spent the last decade and a half opening a slew of bistros around town. Well beyond too: Japan, soon Switzerland, and in the U.S., Les Chefs de France, which plays French cuisine's greatest hits at Disney's Epcot theme park in Orlando, Fla.
He also oversees a highly respected culinary academy, and since 1987 his annual Bocuse d'Or competition has been the culinary world's Formula One, Oscars and World Series rolled into one. (By the way, for the next one, in January, the Yanks are coming: For the first time a U.S. team will be competing, headed by Daniel Boulud and Keller, consulting with the likes of Mario Batali and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Allez, U.S.A.!).

Express service

Yet at age 82, spry Monsieur Paul is far from stuck in the past. Some of his newer bistros are sleek and buzzy, with menus boasting trendy world-cuisine touches. And in January he launched this latest venture, right around the corner from his hippest restaurant, 5-year-old L'Ouest. Attached to a new Pathe movie multiplex in a gentrifying industrial district in the northwest part of town called Vaise, Ouest Express serves up fast food, Bocuse-style -- his boldest step yet into the mass market. As they say, if you can't beat 'em . . . .

And certainly since Wolfgang Puck, the idea of high-end chefs going down-market is hardly a shocker. Tom Colicchio of Craft and Gramercy Tavern fame has even coined the term "fine fast." Even here in more tradition-bound Lyon, "fine casual" is gaining steam: Besides his creative Michelin two-star restaurant, enfant terrible Nicolas Le Bec just opened a laid-back spot called Espace Le Bec -- at the airport.

The new "McBocuse" brings to mind what you might call "Jetsons chic": a large, rounded, fluorescent-lighted space with a high-tech look in white with red accents and a large glowing clock, presumably to underscore the "fast" concept. Red, padded booths and banquettes line a circular dining area, with additional white plastic tables and chairs along the outside and higher chairs along counters facing the floor-to-ceiling windows accented with long, low planters of wheat grass.

The service counters curve around one end of the room, including not only the expected menus above but display cases below, showing off a cavalcade of fresh sandwiches, salads, pastas, quiches, desserts and libations. As with his midrange bistros and "gastronomic" restaurant, Bocuse says, "we insist on good, fresh ingredients. The pasta is cooked in front of the clients, and what really makes the difference for the sandwiches is the bread -- they bake it every two hours."

On the menu

There's not a burger or Happy Meal in sight. Instead, rigatoni with boletus mushroom sauce, a fresh chevre sandwich on sun-dried-tomato ciabatta with olive-tomato tapenade, and a nicely balanced strawberry tart. Other sandwich offerings, all about $6.75, included sweet and prosciutto-style cured ham on pain de campagne (country bread), sliced roast chicken, and smoked Norwegian salmon (both on ciabatta). Crudites are served with tapenade and lemon tartar sauce (about $8.65); the daily entree special on a recent visit was sliced chicken in a French Basque-style sauce of tomatoes, onion and sweet red Espelette pepper, with rice and salad (about $15).

For that same price there are also formules (combo menus) -- sandwich, salad, quiche (such as onions, mushrooms and lardons, or bacon) or pasta (such as farfalle with a seafood sauce made with squid and mussels), plus frites, a drink and dessert. Gaufres, anyone? The waffles are served plain, or with powdered sugar, chocolate sauce or Chantilly cream. Wines include a Guyot Cotes du Rhone and Georges Duboeuf Macon Villages. Service is fairly friendly and the clientele varied -- a recent drizzly weeknight drew a large group of twentysomethings and various twosomes and threesomes ages 16 to 60.

Bocuse says he's been asked by Hilton Hotels Corp. to open branches at a number of its properties. Because he impishly promises, "I will last another 20 years," that still leaves the "Lion of Lyon" plenty of time to keep spreading his gastronomic gospel to the masses.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Congratulations to Class #50!

Class #50 of the Second Helpings Culinary Job Training Program graduated on Friday, July 18, 2008. CONGRATULATIONS to the graduates!

Pictured (front row, left to right): Costale Remarais, Mia Nolcox, Karen Oldham, Dionne Terry, Tamara Ayers (back row): Chef Conway, Michael Sims, Eric Siddall, Chad Fulkerson, Nicholas Grady, and Minkah Becktemba.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Dining Destination...BEIJING????

Culture of eating well has blossomed in China

BEIJING, China (AP) -- My last houseguest had 13 restaurants on his to-try list, including three renowned for succulent versions of crisp-skinned Peking duck, one popular for its tongue-tingling Sichuan cuisine and a Uighur joint, known as much for the ethnic minority's cumin-spiced lamb skewers as its exuberant floor show.

"I never thought Beijing would have so many things!" he said hungrily after hours of online research.

Gone are the days when the traditional Chinese greeting "Have you eaten yet?" seemed like a bad joke in the dour capital where, as recently as the 1980s, staples were rationed, state-run canteens dished out the slop of the day in chipped enamel bowls and restaurants were few and far between.

Today's Beijing is packed with eateries at every corner, open at all hours and offering regional cuisines of all kinds -- a reflection of China's stunning economic success after almost three decades of convulsive growth.

And the run-up to the August 8 Beijing Olympics has underscored the quantum leap in the quality and variety of fare on offer, with menus and manners being polished in anticipation of the crowd of 500,000 visitors during the games.

From al dente hand-pulled noodles splashed with bracing black vinegar from Shanxi province in the north, to fingernail-sized chicken pieces buried in a mountain of dried chilies from Sichuan in the southwest, to the rich, sweet braises of the east, there is something to pique every palate. Don't forget the street food -- handmade pork buns, candied fruit and egg, lettuce and crisp fried dough rolled in a freshly made flour crepe, a Chinese burrito of sorts.

And that's just from within the country.

Sushi and sashimi? Ocean fresh. Persian grilled meats and stews? In the heart of the city. Fish and chips? Beer-batter or breadcrumbs, take your pick. Greek, Vietnamese, Italian, German, French, Ethiopian, Spanish, Singaporean, even kosher ... the list goes on.

"Simply put, we've gone from eating just to fill our stomachs to the stage where we are open to the complete pleasures of the dining experience," says Chitty Chung, editor-in-chief of Beijing's Food & Wine magazine.

That includes not only an awareness of a restaurant's environment, the chef's concepts, quality of service, the pairing of food and wine, and nutritional balance, but also a willingness try new things, says Chung, who recommends Dadong Roast Duck Restaurant not only for the namesake fowl, but also for its light modern twist on traditionally heavy Shandong fare.

"People's eyes are opening up and they are becoming more international. They are ready to accept and taste food from other parts of the world," she says. "The choices are far beyond your imagination."

So are the numbers.

There are more than 40,000 restaurants in Beijing, 90 percent of which are privately run -- a far cry from the few thousand state-owned eateries that were found on the streets during the early 1980s, says He Zhifu, secretary-general of the Beijing Association for Food and Beverage Industries.

They run the gamut from the simple (mom-and-pop dumpling place) to the showy (the starkly modern Green T. House, where dishes are decorated with curling tree branches, and the Whampoa Club, where roast spring onion ice-cream can be enjoyed in a dining room that sits beneath a massive glass goldfish pond) to the bizarre (Guo Li Zhuang which serves the penises and testicles of various animals -- dogs, yaks, ox -- cooked in a variety of ways.)

And some of the tastiest -- and most authentic -- regional treats can be found in the restaurants affiliated to the provincial government offices that have set up in the capital.

In all, Beijing's restaurants rake in more than $4 billion annually and the revenues are still growing, a lucrative streak that has boosted the street cred of the city's food scene and drawn big names despite tainted product scares last year. Chef Daniel Boulud -- a cult favorite in New York who has grabbed headlines for his $150 ground sirloin burger filled with short ribs braised in red wine, foie gras and black truffles -- has just set up shop in a compound that used to house the U.S. Embassy. Le Pre Lenotre, sister restaurant of the three Michelin-star Le Pre Catelan in Paris, opened to great buzz in the Sofitel Wanda Beijing.

The also-very-French Fauchon is peddling its gourmet treats in a high-end mall and Philippe Starck designed the trippy, down-the-rabbit-hole Lan club and restaurant. Last month, Zagat, a global dining guide with a fierce hold on the American market, launched its Beijing edition.

"Beijing has a concurrence of circumstance at present," says Malcolm McLauchlan, general manager of 1949, The Hidden City, a cluster of ambitious restaurants overlooking the shady courtyard of a former factory. He checked them off: a rapidly growing middle class, relatively little competition and Olympics-driven tourism.

Prior to the boom, the few and far between restaurants offered just a limited number of dishes. They opened late, closed early and were staffed by servers who seemed to take pride in being as disagreeable as possible. Their favorite phrase was "mei you," loosely translated to mean "we're out." Definitely no Haagen-Dazs, McDonald's or Starbucks.

State-run food stores offered a limited choice of essentials, like meat, flour, oil and eggs. Milk, yogurt, bread, bottled fruit and bai jiu -- China's version of moonshine -- were plentiful. But that's it.

"Now we can eat whatever we like without seasonal and geographical limitations," says Xu Yimin, editor-in-chief of Chinese and Foreign Food magazine, who lists the delicate but juicy dumplings of the Taiwanese chain Din Tai Fung as his favorite.

"Although food prices keep going up, peoples' love for tasty food hasn't changed," he said. "Eating has become a culture."

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Move Over "Ugly Americans"

Remember the tightwad tourist whose baggy shorts, frequent complaining and shouted questions about why none of the locals spoke any English made the ugly American the world's Visitor From Hell?

Well, it's time for Archie Bunker to move over and make way for Petulant Pierre.

According to a recent international survey, the French are now considered the most obnoxious tourists from European nations, and behind only Indians and the last-place Chinese as the worst among all countries worldwide. And it's not only the rest of the world that have a gripe with the Gallic attitude: the French also finished second to last among nations ranking the popularity of its own tourists who vacation at home.

But it's the unflattering image being reflected from abroad that may give pause to the millions of French travelers now heading off to summer vacation destinations across the globe. Will that move them to improve behavior the poll characterized as impolite, prone to loud carping and inattentive to local customs?

If so, that's just the start: the study also describes the voyageur français as often unwilling or unable to communicate in foreign languages, and particularly disinclined to spending money when they don't have to — including on those non compris tips. Over all, French travelers landed 19th out of 21 nations worldwide, far behind the first-place Japanese, considered most polite, quiet and tidy. Following the Japanese as most-liked tourists were the Germans, British and Canadians. Americans finished in 11th place alongside the Thais.

The survey was carried out among employees in 4,000 hotels in Germany, the U.K., Italy, France, Canada and the U.S. for the French travel website The study asked respondents to rank clients by nationality on criteria of general attitude, politeness, tendency to complain, willingness to speak local languages, interest in sampling local cuisine, readiness to spend money, generosity, cleanliness, discretion and elegance. Many replies simply conformed to long-established reputations: Italians, for example, were deemed most style-conscious, and the French the best-dressed tourists.

American tourists fared well in some surprising ways: despite being notoriously language-limited, for example, they top the list of tourists credited with trying to speak local languages the most, with the French, Chinese, Japanese, Italians and Russians coming in last in the local language rankings. Does that mean Americans are the most polyglot tourists on the planet?

Maybe not, says Expedia's marketing director for Europe, Timothée de Roux, who notes the poll's focus on hotel operators may explain the counter-intuitive outcome.

"Most hotel staffs around the world speak English, meaning they'll communicate far more easily with native English-speaking American or British clients than with French or Italians who — it's true — are pretty bad with foreign languages," de Roux says.

De Roux explains how external factors similarly account for why Americans wind up as the biggest-spending and best-tipping tourists, while Germans and the French are among the worst penny-pinchers. "Our findings show the average French employee will get 37 vacation days spread over seven trips in 2008, versus 14 for an American — who won't even take them all," de Roux believes. "That means the French tourist will more tightly budget his or her spending over more trips, while the American spends freely on the one or two vacations taken all year."

By contrast, poll finds the French and Americans similar in being perceived as critical and rude when they travel — though for different reasons. The same local attractions that make France the world's top destination for 92 million foreign visitors each year, says de Roux, also explains why over 85% of French vacation in-country — and wind up spoiled by it when they leave.

"When they go abroad, French travellers demand the same quality they'd get at home, de Roux says. "Americans, by contrast, demand the same exceptional service they are used to at home, which is why they rank as the loudest, most inclined to complain, and among the least polite."