Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Big Burger Trek

They say if you went to a different restaurant for every meal of the day, you could never exhaust the list of possible eateries in New York City. My question is, if you tried six restaurants each day, and peaked in a couple more for good measure, could you then say you've been to every eating establishment in the Metro area? I'm thinking you'd get close if not all the way there.

Yesterday, I spent the day eating my way through the meatiest parts of Manhattan with five chefs who support the menu pipeline for my company.

Gabby. Our tour guide and Filipino burger fanatic.
Jess. The model of the culinary world.
Eric. The Green Bay cheese man, but Minnesota Vikings fan.
Michael. The flavor expert.
And Chris. The tattooed meat grinder.
Together, we trekked through the city to identify trends in the burger industry and explore what consumers are looking for in an indulgent dining experience. Over the course of six hours, we visited five burger establishments that could easily boast best burger in town and several other concept restaurants that further proved just how many options consumers have.

I ate my way from Umami Burger, to Shake Shack, to Ramen Co., to Jeepney's and finally to Whitman's, from midtown, to downtown, to the East Village, and along with a very full belly, I came across some consistent themes.

First, New Yorkers are willing to pay a hefty price for a good burger.
Second, although my company invented branding, these new fast casual competitors have reinvented it in unique, artistic ways. 
Apparently, there are a whole lot of unemployed Millennials in New York City - or at least quite a few who have enough time to wait for a made to order burger at Shake Shack at 3:30 in the afternoon.
Service with a smile goes a long way. 
Deliciously messy burgers are not so much stacked up with ingredients, as melting together with fresh flavors. The delineation between cheese, sauce, and glaze is absorbed into the enhanced juices of proprietary beef blends, ground and molded in-house. And when you bite into something that looks a lot like a shard of bone, you are willing to forgive it because the rest of the bites thereafter were so scrumptious. 
Burgers with noodle buns are weird and not craveable / one bite was enough. 
Filipino gastronomy is delicious. And according to New Yorkers enables the best burger in the city. Ingredients like banana ketchup, kamote fries, kewpie mayonnaise, sugarcane vinegar, and longaniza sausage were heavenly discoveries. 

Service by stoners is a less desirable. But we decided to give the folks at Whitmans a break because of their proximity to a rather odd herbal shop who was shuttering its doors for a 'class' right around the time we peaked in. 
Noodle shops can be the perfect palette cleanser for someone who has red meat pulsing through their veins. And Momofuko was packed with clean eaters. 
I also learned that dining with chefs is awesome; their knowledge of the ingredients, preparation, and history that contribute to a good dish enlightens the whole meal.  I quickly came to the conclusion that tattoo removal is really painful; that burger patties made up of sirloin and longaniza sausage are incredible; that New Yorkers are spoiled rotten when it comes to food; that I will be fasting for the rest of the week; that baby Bobby is going to love red meat; and that I could always use more time in Manhattan.

Monday, November 10, 2014

My Friend Kate

When Molly told me that her sister Kate was looking for a job, I told her to apply to my restaurant. I knew her but not well. She was Molly's younger sister; the second of the Quinlin girls who lived up the street. She was the girl who looked a little bit like Natalie Portman and a lot like Geena Davis, the League of their Own years. She was the pretty sophomore with an attitude. And the appointment before mine with Anne that seemed to take an extra amount of time. I figured she knew the who's who of Pittsburgh, in her interview she confirmed a higher understanding of food culture or at least how to eat, and as an Ellis girl, she could dress the part. Naturally, I hired her.

Like me and so many others before us, she had turned to the restaurant industry as a pivot point in life - as an I'm trying to figure it out, but need money in the meantime gig. We immediately bonded over a lack of direction, good clothes, better shoes, a fear of tipping scales, Chef McDreamy, and the need to get out of Pittsburgh stat. 

In the year or so that we spent as much time together as possible, she taught me some of life's most important lessons. 

That black is best; and that a five pound weight gain can easily be covered up with big hair. 

She taught me how to gracefully dismount a simulated motorcycle ride in Vegas while covering up the giant comprising hole in the jeans that ripped on said attraction. 

She showed me how to laugh off a fall, even when the blood dripping down your knees is staining your four inch heals. 

She let me know that girls had just as much right to unbutton their pants after a big meal as guys. 

Her narcoleptic attacks gave me the confidence to flirt with the boy at the next table, or at least they positioned me as the only available one. 

She showed me how to be a professional by day and a party girl by night. 

She demonstrated that I deserved better. She showed me a reflection of myself that I had failed to see. And she proved that you could look just as good alone as with a guy by your side.  

Kate was the kind of friend I needed. Real and raw. But with the most thoughtful, kind, and caring center. And I continue to feel blessed to have her perspective, sense of humor, and loyal friendship in my life today. 

When we went our separate ways after serving Pittsburgh's fine diners, I wondered, but never worried about where she would end up; I knew she was bound for great things. 

Turned out, she landed a dental residency, then partnership, boyfriend, and condo an expressway away from me in Chicago. And when she told me that the boy loved her, that there was going to be a ring (a big one) and a wedding, I let her know how happy I was. 

On Saturday, Mary and I watched her walk down the aisle, say 'I do', and became a Mrs. And I showed my little girl just who can put the pretty in princess. Kate looked more radiant than ever - sure it was the hair and makeup, the dress and the shoes - but mostly it was the glow in her eyes as she looked up at her husband - on the altar, around the dance floor, behind her tiered burnt almond torte, and in front of all her guests. 
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And ironically, I found myself applying several of Kate's life lessons on Saturday; I wore black to cover up my six and a half month large baby bump, I made my hair a little bigger to compensate for a hearty weight gain; and I found a way to laugh after stumbling down the stairs of Heinz Chapel, skinned elbow, crying baby, and all. 

And Steve, like me, I'm sure you already know that when fall, there's no one who can pick you up and still make you feel fabulous better than Kate. 

Congrats Mr. and Mrs. Brown. Looking forward to your eventual move to the Burbs ...   
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Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Open House

At the end of our block on Bartlett Street, at the peak of the hill I used to scale and fly down on my bike, was a ruddy red brick, Georgian Colonial house. The Spolar Family lived there.

Mr. had a mustache, a beard and a hearty laugh. He was slightly shorter than Mrs. who was tall, thin and the first Marathoner I knew. They were really nice, had three cute kids, and went to the same grocery store, ballet teacher, and dynamo soccer field that we did. They were the only other family on the block who decorated with a Christmas tree instead of a menorah in December. And every year, I looked forward to their holiday party.

The Spolars were one of the only couples to send an invite addressed to the whole family. My mom, dad, brother, sister and I were all invited to their annual Open House. Kids were welcomed with open arms. Santa came. The food and liter Cola were great. And Mr. and Mrs. were cordial, gracious, and unphased by children running around their home every year.

I can still see my route upon entering their house. First, to the buffet table in the dining room which hosted the minty layered brownies that I had waited 365 days to bite into again. Then to the kitchen for a Coke. Next, upstairs to check out the action in the playroom. In my red smocked jumper I wasn't dressed for indoor hoops, so back downstairs to grab more brownie bars and cozy up under their Christmas Tree, waiting for Santa and a candy cane. I always felt at home in their house. And I don't think I ever really appreciated their hospitality until recently.


On Sunday afternoon, Peter and I were getting ready to open up our backyard and ultimately our house to some neighbors, friends and family for some good old fashioned fun. Peter had schlepped a truck load of apples back from Southern Illinois, Double G's famous press was getting a scrub down, and my pregnant belly was grumbling for cider.
A couple weeks ago, when I sent out the family-friendly invite, I neglected to do a count. And I kind of forgot that all of our go-to guests have kids of their own now. So on Sunday morning, when Peter asked me how many we were expecting, I started to panic. I ball parked. 20? 25?

By 3:30, we were nearing 40. Children were running around playing hide and seek in our back yard; there was ample man power quartering apples, smashing them, and pressing them into fall's sweet nectar; kids were lined up under the spout of the press to drink cider from its source; apples flew, crackers crumbled, and little hands got a little messier with each chocolate chip cookie. Even when the party and some leaves flew inside, I found myself just taking it all in and smiling. Mostly, because I saw how much fun all the kids were having, including Mary. And I thought this was just the way Grandpa Barry would have wanted it.

After this weekend, I'd like to think that I have a little Spolar in me. And I believe I have uncovered one of the secrets to a really great fall party - inviting the kids. The novelty of fresh apple ciders is made just for them.