Archive for June, 2010

Facebook, Palo Alto, CA

Posted 28 Jun 2010 — by S.E.
Category On-Site Dining

I am with a friend and we just spent 90 minutes driving north from Monterey up the 101 toward San Francisco, the pastoral garlic fields of Gilroy giving way to urban San Jose and Palo Alto. The sun is shining and the weather is dry, it’s a classic northern California day. Along the way we decide to stop in and see Facebook Culinary Overlord (an all around good guy) Chef Josef Desimone, have breakfast, tour his shop, and find out the latest culinary happenings at the worlds most popular social media juggernaut. Although I make it sound like the visit is impromptu it really isn’t, we decided to make this stop as part of our itinerary several months ago.

Prior to leaving home to make this trip I took time over several nights to read “The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook” by Ben Mezrich a writer with a Harvard pedigree just like Facebook founder and billionaire Mark Zuckerburg. Although Mezrich paints a sensational picture of the creative genius and high drama that occurred during the birth of Facebook he also subtly reveals that Zuckerburg could potentially be a guy who likes the finer things in life like good food and wine (in addition to supermodels and long hours writing code). I wonder if this is true and what the typical Facebook employee eats. Maybe Joe will enlighten me.

Wall Art at Facebook HQ

With so much written about Facebook and Mezrich’s sensationalism finally dissipating, my attention is drawn to the food and food preferences of the young and elite class of geniuses that run this place. What does a Facebook employee crave for a meal after signing on another five million users in a week or getting hammered in the New York Times for some sort of security breach or advertising strategy? After a few minutes waiting at the front desk, Chef Desimone steps into the lobby to greet us and in we go. Josef is unlike any other onsite foodservice chef I have ever met. His statistics aren’t all that unusual; 3100 meals a day, operating hours from 4:00 am until 1:00 am, 53 employees give or take a few, generous but finite budget for food and beverage, the unit falling under the real estate division of the company. His approach to menu development, food safety, staff development, and culinary quality, however, are at the leading edge of the industry.

We are now walking through the wide central hallways of Facebook headquarters on our way to the dining room. Branching off of the main hallway are twenty foot wide workspaces with clusters of open cubicles populated with young, vibrant, totally engaged Facebook employees who don’t even look up as we walk past. Turning a corner at a hallway intersection an employee snack station appears to my right. Joe points out the selection of fresh fruit, healthy snacks, ice cold beverages, hot beverages, cereal, candy, trail mix and the like, explaining how he first deployed these types of snack stations while executive chef at Google and has refined and improved the concept here. I ask Joe what other things he does differently at Facebook and he spins around the corner with me in-tow heading toward another bank of cubicles on the other side of the hallway where his desk is located. As we cross over to the other side of the skylight hallway two employees walk past, both dressed like they just stepped out of a mid-town Manhattan night club. Interesting!

We get to his desk and Chef Desimone pulls open a file folder and starts thumbing through page after page of menus. Then, he logs into his computer and opens up a spread sheet. On the far left column are the months and days of the year for 2010; in the next column is a theme, in the third column a group of names. At Facebook “menus are like sandcastles” Joe says. Sandcastles I ask, startled? “Yeah, once you create one, it lasts for a day, then it’s done and you make a completely new one.” Joe goes on to tell me that at Facebook he never recreates the same menu twice. Every day he offers a unique, themed menu based on a country or event. He shows me a page from the April menu that includes themes, offered from Monday the 5th to Friday the 9th, titled “Major League Baseball Opening Day, Pasta Bar, France, Thailand, and Breakfast for Lunch.” Each theme includes detailed menus, recipes, and production schedules created by the team leader and individuals assigned.

We make our way out into the kitchen for a tour, talking as we go. Joe operates a large kitchen divided into sections according to production. Refrigeration and food storage lines the back wall adjacent to a hot line designed for bulk production (stocks, braises, bulk soups etc). In one corner of the space is a pastry production area and, rounding the corner opposite the bulk production line is another long hot line with a deck oven (he makes lots of pizza), wok station, fryers, griddle, and gas ranges. Across from this second hot line is a row of stainless steel work tables lined up end to end followed by the hot serving line. The kitchen is quietly busy and spotless. Every cook is professionally dressed and every one of them is wearing a hat. Joe’s kitchen isn’t just clean and organized it is wound tight like a Swiss watch. Seeing production in action prods our conversation back to menu planning.

The menu planning process which involves as much organization and discipline as it does creativity, is one of Joe’s key training and staff development tools. He knows every detail of what was served in the past year and what is planed for the weeks and months to come and scrutinizes every menu, giving feedback and assistance along the way. He assures that there is always something new and of high quality being developed by his staff members and, in turn, the staff members never grow stagnant. Everyone, including Joe, is constantly growing and expanding his or her repertoire.

This makes me wonder if the culinary attention span of the twenty-something engineers employed at Facebook force chef Desimone to go to such lengths. He relays that his intent is to constantly offer new and interesting foods while also providing an opportunity for Facebook employees to expand their food preferences and refine their palate. He sees his role as one of providing sustenance while also providing a type of culinary education to employees too. He does, however, repeat proteins on a regular basis due to demand. “I can offer any kind of chicken and they will love it, they love healthy fish and they kill pulled pork when I run it” Joe relays. Rotating menus aren’t a response to fickle eaters; they are a tool to keep eaters and employees engaged when the same group of cooks and consumers see each other five days a week.  Joe is one part conductor of an ever evolving symphony and one part jazz musician jamming as he goes, the same musicians (cooks) and audience (employees) at each performance.  He orchestrates the whole process while offering a regular core menu and group of accompaniments 20 hours a day.

Looking out into the dining room, with is long bank of windows with views of the first floor patio, twelve foot high ceilings, orange and grey chairs, white tables, and neutral toned carpet, the design is sleek and bright. We make our way over to the beverage and cold food station and he shows me another innovation, an allergen symbol system. If the menu item being served contains egg, the item description posted above it on the sneeze guard includes a graphic of an egg. If it contains dairy, the description includes a graphic of a small milk carton. This system continues for wheat, nuts, shellfish, fish, alcohol, spicy and hot products. He also places on asterisk on items that are vegetarian and contain no meat products and two asterisks on items that are vegan and contain no animal or animal by-products. As Joe explains the system, we walk over to the baked goods section (breakfast is still being served) and I notice one of the Facebook employees taking a muffin from a basket. I ask her if the symbol system makes sense and she agrees stating that it took her less than two minutes to figure it out. The system is simple, clear, and effective. Joe is smiling.

We pick up trays and head over to the hot line. I grab a spoon full of perfectly cooked scrambled eggs, a couple fresh sausages, some roasted potatoes and head for a seat. Three of us sit down to have breakfast and our conversation continues as Joe tells us about his professional background and vision for Facebook foodservice in the coming year. What makes his food so good is that it’s perfectly prepared using the best ingredients and loses nothing in quality due to the massive scale he contends with. Time is running short now so I ask Joe what Zuckerburg likes to eat. Joe, the consummate professional, smiles and explains the incredible relationship he has with the Facebook executive team and that Mark Zuckerburg’s food preferences are not up for discussion. He pauses for a moment in thought reading my face to see if I am disappointed by his answer. With a twinkle in his eye he leans over to whisper, the educator in him coming out again, and tells us that he continues to introduce Zuckerburg to new and exciting foods when ever he gets the chance. If asked, I bet Zuckerburg would tell me that Joe has never served him the same thing twice and that he’s learned more about food from Joe than anyone else in his life! Facebook is an ever evolving community of eaters and Joe does food right for them all.

White House Chef Sam Kass: The Most Powerful Chef in America

Posted 23 Jun 2010 — by S.E.
Category Food Alert Trends

Sam Speaks

On June 4th, 1000 chefs (including me) attended the launch of first lady Michelle Obama’s “Chefs Move Schools” initiative on the south lawn of the White House. This was an event associated with the “Let’s Move” program mentioned in an earlier blog post. The day started with a series of presentations on healthy eating and wellness strategies for public schools at the JW Marriott Hotel around the corner from the White House. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan presented along with others including Billy Shore of Share our Strength. At 10:00 am 1000 chefs departed the J.W. Marriott Hotel and headed west down Pennsylvania avenue cuing up at the east gate leading to the south lawn. Imagine the scene; 1000 chefs dressed in their whites walking in unison down Pennsylvania avenue.

JW Marriott

After crossing through the east gate and through multiple security checkpoints I enter the white house grounds at 10:30 am. For the next ninety minutes, I have the pleasure of walking around the vegetable garden planted on the southwest corner of the lawn adjacent to E-street, observing the new beehive up close, and interacting with dozens of colleagues, celebrity chefs, and friends. In addition to regular folks like me and my immediate companions, the festivities attract a cadre of world class chefs including Daniel Bolud, Marcus Samuelson, Tom Coliccio, and Sherry Yard along with television chefs like Cat Cora, Rachel Ray and 994 others of varying culinary backgrounds and pedigrees. By now, the launch has been widely reported in the press and from what I can tell “Chefs Move Schools” is gaining momentum. At 11:30 we make our way up toward the White House to take our seats. Through a series of lucky opportunities (and some good friends), I find three seats in the front row. Its 11:50 a.m. now.

Bee Hive

Looking up from my seat, I am overwhelmed by this place. As a major fan of American history, my mind is reeling. Leaning back, I scan over my right shoulder, catch the eye of chef Ellie Krieger of the food network and realize she is sitting just a dozen or so yards from where Richard Nixon made his final departure from the White House and his presidency on Marine One, hands raised waving peace-signs over his head as he stops at the helicopter door to smile before taking off for the last time. My skin is tingling. Turning around to face forward, I sit quietly reflecting and realize that slightly to the right in front of me are the twin staircases leading up to the south portico where Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated for his historic fourth term, the ceremony kept sedate in 1945 due to the ravages of war around the world and (most likely) FDR’s failing health. This is hallowed ground. I close my eyes for a minute to soak it in. I hear the door below the south portico open and then shut and I open my eyes again. An attendant has exited the ground floor and is carrying a small table with two glasses of water on it to the podium. I guess we are about to get started.

Cora & Samuelson

At 12:00 noon sharp, Ms. Obama exits the vestibule on the ground floor of the White House residence through the arched doorway just below the south portico onto the lawn to deliver her speech. There is a nervous excitement settling while she heads toward the podium. She opens her speech by commenting on the blazing heat. It’s above 90 degrees and we are all sitting, sweating in full sun, a sea of starched white chef coats reflecting the sun back at Ms. Obama. After a couple of additional comments she states “I have to say I wasn’t sure when I heard the goal of having nearly a thousand chefs on the South Lawn.  I said, right, Sam, sure, whatever. But you all pulled it off.  And I am just so proud and honored to have you here at the White House.” The Sam she is so proud of is Sam Kass, special events chef at the White House.  Kass is a Chicago native who graduated from the University of Chicago, was on the crew at Avec under Chef Paul Kahan, and, according to the Chicago Tribune, is founder of Inevitable Table also in Chicago.


The Obama’s recruited him to join the White House culinary team in January 2009 and since then he has been building a reputation as a culinary activist with a broad goal to improve the world through food. He has a heavy leaning toward local and organic foods and was the primary influence behind the now famous White House vegetable garden. Watching Kass throughout the morning and hearing Ms. Obama’s comments makes me realize that, as of today, Kass has brought culinary activism to a whole new level. He has joined the national ranks of chefs Alice Waters, Ann Cooper, Dan Barber and, more recently, Jamie Oliver. Along with being a historic moment in culinary activism, Kass has just become the most powerful chef in the country.

Jose Andres, Ellie Krieger

He has taken a page out of the Obama’s play-book and garnered the support of major grassroots organizations like Share Our Strength, Chef’s Collaborative, Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, The American Culinary Federation, Research Chefs Association and many others to attract in less than 10 days 1000 chefs (at their own expense) to this event. Hundreds of chefs are mobilizing and volunteering at schools around the country and Sam is the force behind all of this along with Ms. Obama. This is the first time I know of that a chef at the White House has leveraged his or her role to create grassroots change in foodservice; a real historic moment.


Over the years I have dined with and spoken to other chefs who have worked at the White House. Henry Haller was a true gentleman who quietly went about his business and refused to speak about any of the details surrounding the foods that particular presidents preferred or disliked or matters related to politics. Chef Roland Mesnier, although absolutely hilarious and fun in social settings, shares a bit more of the details that Haller was hesitant to divulge but never ventures into social change or other political matters. My discussions with these chefs were about food and about continually increasing the quality of dining at the White House. It never occurred to them that being a chef at the White House would be a source of power and cultural change. They never remotely touched on activism. Considering the popularity of cooking and food as entertainment today (I am surrounded right now by celebrity chefs) the level of culinary activism emerging at the White House seems to be a natural progression. Kass is a chef of his generation just as Haller and Mesnier were. Kass is blessed with a contemporary food and culinary culture (and an administration) that allows his culinary activism to be taken seriously. He stands on the shoulders of Haller, Mesnier and the others who came before him.


Ms. Obama continues to speak. She is talking about empowering chefs to improve school foodservice now and states “This has been a long conversation that Sam and I have had over the years, and I think it’s just pretty powerful to see what started out as a few conversations in our kitchen on the South Side of Chicago turn into a major initiative that hopefully will change the way we think as a country, not just about the health of our kids but about our health as a nation.” Her talk lasts another 30 minutes covering inspirational topics related to health and wellness and detailed statistics that show she (her staff) has done her homework.


Ms. Obama wraps up her comments. “So let’s move, let’s get this done.  Thank you all for the work you’ve done.  And I look forward to seeing you all in the months to come.  Thanks so much.”  She steps down from the podium and heads indoors while the secret service ushers us back out the east gate. Chefs continue to mill about taking pictures, talking, and basking in the moment, many are now sunburned and parched. Have we entered a heightened era of culinary activism? Perhaps, only time will tell. One thing is for sure, that Kass is taken seriously marks a watershed moment in the evolution of the culinary profession and a tremendous step forward for American Chefs. What a privilege to watch history as it happens.

Nobu Miami Beach Sexy Sushi

Posted 12 Jun 2010 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining

We’re cruising down Collins Avenue in Miami in my friends powder blue drop top BMW coupe searching for a place to eat. It’s a hot spring night in South Beach and all the beautiful people are out strolling along the sidewalk. The Shore Club, home to Nobu Miami, appears up on the right and we impulsively pull in and valet park the car. “Let’s check out Nobu, we haven’t eaten there in almost a decade. I wonder if it’s still good?” I ask. I am interested in seeing if the restaurant has retained its edge after all these years.

When I first dined at the Miami outpost of Nobu in 2002, the experience was cutting edge. Chef Nobu Matsuhisa had started expanding his fledgling restaurant empire six years earlier and his style of Latin inspired Japanese cuisine was a natural draw in Miami.  It was here that I first tasted Nobu’s Jalapeno Hamachi, a dish I will never forget for its simplicity and incredible taste. Perfect paper thin raw Hamachi slices, glistening with fat and sweetness, topped with equally thin circular slices of Jalapeno pepper, a few cilantro leaves, and a drizzle of soy. All the elements of a perfect dish are present; sweet, salty, fat, and umami. This is the essence of elegant simplicity.

Since opening his first restaurant in the continental U.S. in Beverly Hills back in 1987, Chef Matsuhisa, with the help of long-time friend Robert De Niro, went on to open Nobu in New York City in 1994 followed by a steady series of new outlets around the globe. Today, Matsuhisa has a portfolio of approximately 22 restaurants in 18 different countries. His restaurant empire is split between two owners; the Matsuhisa family which owns the Matsuhisa branded restaurants (L.A., Aspen, etc) and the Nobu restaurants which are owned by Matsuhisa and additional partners including Robert De Niro, Meir Teper and others. His steady expansion has run parallel with the overall global fascination with, and acceptance of sushi around the globe.

When I first started cooking professionally in 1980, the consumption of raw fish was a completely foreign notion to me. The idea of eating uncooked fish never crossed the minds of the culinary professionals I worked with or those of our customers. Since then, Chef’s like Nobu Matsuhisa have brought sushi consumption to the masses and served as disciples of Japanese cuisine. At the same time the American dining public has evolved faster than ever. An August 10, 2000 National Restaurant Association survey on the rise of ethnic cuisine in the U.S. reported that 44% o the dining public enjoyed trying new ethnic items. When this type of attitudinal shift occurs within the general public, certain ethnic cuisines have the potential to become mainstream. Italian, Mexican, and Cantonese/Chinese cuisines evolved in a similar way decades earlier and are now a common feature in American dining. Japanese cuisine and sushi specifically, has benefitted from the same type of evolution.

We make our way through the dimly lit lobby of the Shore Club Hotel toward the back patio where Nobu is located. The color white must be in vogue right now because the entire lobby, from the reception desks, walls, seating, uniforms, and muslin drapery hanging form the ceiling, is stark white. Every one we pass looks like a Calvin Klein model. I love South Beach! When we cross through the threshold at the back exit to the patio the lighting shifts and we make our way through the dimly lit light to Nobu. We don’t have reservations so we ask to sit at the Sushi bar and are promptly escorted to our seats. Our server hands us two menus, takes our drink order (two Nobu Special Reserve Ales please) and disappears. When she returns with our drinks we both order the five course prix fixe menu and away we go. Without going into the details, Nobu hasn’t lost one bit of its edge. The food was outstanding, service excellent and, like an old friend, consistent and reliable as ever. The Hamachi was exactly like I remember it and identical to those served at Nobu Las Vegas and Matsuhisa in Aspen. Nobu has his restaurants running like clockwork and I admire the hell out of him for that.

Japanese Red Snapper with Scallion and Crispy Shaved Garlic

Glazed Black Cod with Red Miso


Nobu Miami Beach is located at

1901 Collins Avenue

Miami Beach, FL 33139



Chef Jacques Pepin Reflects on Culinary Soul

Posted 06 Jun 2010 — by S.E.
Category At Home, Fine Dining, Food Alert Trends

Chef Jacques Pepin & Chef Jean Jacques Dietrich

It’s the end of May and I am on an airplane over the Atlantic Ocean at 33,000 feet sitting next to Chef Jacques Pepin. Through a series of interesting events, we are together in the third row of a three hour long Southwest airlines fligh. He’s on the aisle and I am at the window with an empty seat between us. Although I am trying to remain cool, my thoughts are percolating. To me, this is one of those once-in-a-lifetime situations that come along from time to time and I want to maximize the opportunity and ask him two or three good questions.

Along with memories of watching Julia Child’s WGBH Boston cooking show broadcast on my grandfather’s old black and white Philco television back in the early 1970’s, I remember Jacques as the first real French chef I ever saw. I have most of his cookbooks and have been a fan for decades. He’s 74 years old now and still going strong while aging gracefully. He is quite stylish in a dark blue blazer with light blue and lavender colored stripes, kaki pants, and trendy lavender colored shirt. His brown eyes are piercing with energy if not fading to grey a bit around the iris and he is sporting a neatly cropped grey beard and mustache. He still has long eyelashes and those same arched eyebrows that cause him to look like he is going to say something at any minute. His mind is sharper than ever and I am hoping he is willing to talk.

How often does a chef like me get three hours with a person like Jacques Pepin? What a privilege. I am nervous and sweaty. What will I ask him? I hope I don’t sound stupid. I can’t boil water compared to this guy. However, I do have some questions. What does all this recent “food-as-entertainment” mean to our profession? Where is the profession headed? “What makes a good chef good?” “What is the essence of a good chef?” “Is there a common set of competencies that all great chefs share?” In no way am I a student of Taylorism and scientific management, but I am drawn to breaking things down into their component parts as a way of making them easier to understand. Developing knowledge is easier when done in increments. There has to be a secret. What is the secret Jacques? Can such expertise be broken down into its component parts? I start by asking what makes a good chef good. It was a good question to ask!

Jacques weaves an answer to my questions into the 90 minute conversation we have in increments while flying north. “A good chef is true to himself. He knows his culinary soul and stays true to it. He doesn’t resist it; he builds on it and develops it.” He doesn’t over complicate it but instead climbs the mountain of culinary competency, becomes an expert, only to proceed back down the mountain to the place he started having made a full circle. The difference is, upon retuning to the base he is educated and competent, capable of many things but drawn to the basic and elegant cookery of his beginnings. His mastery has given way to elegant simplicity, elegant simplicity that only the highest degree of mastery would allow.

“A chef is as much a product of his upbringing and surroundings as the food he creates. Although he changes and evolves there is always a foundation within him laid in place during his youth.” Layers of food memories, food preferences, and food emotions are part of this foundation. To reject this foundation could be perilous. It could potentially cause a chef to become something he is not, although it is natural for a chef to expand beyond his origins, but only to a certain extent. The greatest chefs are the ones who climb the mountain to the summit, head back down and embrace the place where they started. They master culinary method and technique and understand their food foundation. Often, the combination of these two things is what defines the greatest chefs. Mastery paired with simplicity and a good dose of humility. Rather than try to cook what the people want for the simple sake of impressing them, it is better to cook what you love, what you keep in your culinary soul, to cook it perfectly, and to serve it because it represents who you are rather than to impress the eater. By default, the eater will be impressed because of the integrity and quality of your work. Chefs that make it full circle have established and embraced their culinary soul, developed their own identity, and found their own style and voice in the profession. After nearly 60 years in the profession, Pepin has the wisdom and experience from which to draw such an image. His message is profound.

Julia Child's Kitchen

When asked about his most profound food memory he explained that he’s had so many that it is impossible to select just one. However, he does go on to tell me a story. When he was younger he spent hundreds of hours working with Julia Child in her kitchen at her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Over the years, the two filmed television shows, tested recipes for cookbooks, and cooked for pleasure there. Of the many chefs who worked with Julia, Jacques was second only to Julia and a few of her closest assistants in the amount of time spent in her kitchen. These facts are common knowledge in the food community, but what many people don’t know is that Jacques had one of the most profound moments in his life when he visited Julia Child’s kitchen at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. The experience was overwhelming for Jacques and he described is as “weird” and “unsettling” to see a place where he spent so much time preserved as a historic landmark. His description of the experience made clear that the contributions he and Julia made to the evolution of eating and cooking in American culture occurred by coincidence rather than by design. Seeing her kitchen encased in glass made clear to him in a flood of emotion the incredible extent of their contributions. His description of the experience caused him to well up with emotion and we fell silent in the moment.

While the emotions dissipate, we both enjoy some quiet time. Our plane is starting its descent now and I am frantically typing my scribbled notes into my laptop before the details of our conversation fade. He asks for my business card and offers to set up a visit to the French Culinary Institute sometime. I thank him for sharing his thoughts and wisdom and wish him well. I hope our next conversation will occur in a kitchen.