A Visitor From Lyon

I was 9 years old when Christiane arrived at JFK airport. My mom and I anxiously awaited her arrival. We held a sign that read “Bienvenue Christiane!”

Passengers, eager to be on foot after a long transatlantic flight, rushed through the terminal. Several long minutes passed. A middle aged, thin woman with short, blond hair, wearing a white blouse and grey jacket, approached us.

She spoke in a thick, French accent — the “J” in my name sounding like a letter I had never heard, a combination of “G” and “Z” in one.

“Debbie? Jared?”

Little did I know the enormous influence this woman standing before me would have on my life.

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Europeans typically take four or five week vacations. Christiane contacted us through a mutual coworker of my mother, searching for an American family to spend a summer with. The proposal: she would help take care of my brother and me in exchange for a place to stay.

Christiane was born and raised in Lyon, France, also know as the Gastronomic Capital of the world. She is mother to two sons, Sadry and Karim. Like many French mothers, she is an excellent cook, though baking is her specialty.

The first crêpes I tasted were Christiane’s. On weekend mornings I would wake up to the smell of butter, flour, and eggs — the foundation of any good crêpe. Paper thin, light and buttery, to this day they are the best crêpes I’ve ever tasted.

I would peer over her shoulder watching her work, sometimes taking on the role of apprentice. I have a vivid memory of the time spent at our family cabin in Maine: my brother and I picked wild blueberries, then gazed at Christiane as she turned them into the most beautiful blueberry tart I’ve laid my eyes on.

Christiane visited us three times. It wouldn’t be until 12 years later that we reunited.

Though her time with us was short, her presence in my life was more powerful than either of us realized at the time.

Potlucks and Garlic Knots

I’ve always disliked the word “potluck.” It sounds like something the school PTA puts on annually, or an excuse for a dinner party with tons of lame, store-bought foods paired with 1,000 pasta dishes. “Potluck” doesn’t implycool — especially when you’re 15 years old and trying to throw a party.

Food reentered my life several years after Christane’s last visit in the form of potlucks, which I insisted on calling “food parties.” I was a junior in high school. Guests were encouraged to bring homemade foods, though I would reluctantly allow those who arrived with Stop & Shop brand snickerdoodle cookies and fruit platters to enter.

As the host, I went to town. Ginger shrimp rolls, fried cheese ravioli, cookies, assorted cheeses, more cookies, cakes — oh the things I got away with when my parents paid the grocery bills.

These “food parties” took place bi-annually, usually over summer and winter breaks.

I’m proud of what I did in the kitchen during those years, though the crowning achievement of my teenage cooking career was the garlic knot.

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New York City, December 2007. It was cold but the warmth of Christmas was in the air. I was on a double date with two high school friends, and we couldn’t decide on a location for dinner. We wandered the streets of Times Square looking for the best non-chain restaurant we could find.

We walked up W43th street, passing several mom-and-pop joints. As we passed a tiny Italian restaurant called Bella Vita, I immediately doubled back, bringing my face to the window.

Inside, past some tables by the takeout counter was a display case of massive proportions. This case was filled, two feet high, with little baked balls of dough that were buttery, crispy, and warm. Though I was still outside, I could tell their aroma was mouthwatering.

I didn’t know what they were.

“Hey guys — we’re going here.”

Forty five minutes later we were seated. Before we even ordered drinks, I pointed to the case and inquired.

“They’re garlic knots,” our waitress explained.

“I don’t know what those are, but we’ll have a few rounds of them,” I declared.

The rest is history.

My mission after that evening became to recreate Bella Vita’s garlic knots. They tasted exactly as they looked: doughy, buttery, oily, and most of all, so garlicy that you didn’t want to think about kissing anyone for days. It was an epiphany. How could something so simple taste so good?

“These must be easy to figure out in the kitchen,” I thought.

I was wrong.

Most garlic knot recipes have two distinct steps: (1) roll the dough, cut, tie, and bake, and (2) make the garlic sauce and toss as the knots come out of the oven.

It took several weeks in the kitchen, a lot of homemade and store bought pizza doughs, and the prolonged stench of garlic to figure it out.

Time after time the knots were too crunchy. They tasted like pizza dough ends smothered in garlic sauce. They weren’t light and fluffy like Bella Vita’s.

One day, in an act of frustration, I decided to drench the knots in garlic sauce before they baked — almost like a marinade. It was worth a shot, right?

Boom.

The solution was so simple!

Today I’m known among my friends as the garlic knot connoisseur. For a while it was the only thing I’d bring to parties, make at dinners, and occasionally make just for the sake of making.

Most recently I’ve developed the double sized garlic stuffed garlic knots, as inspired by Pizzaria Mozza in Los Angeles: several strips of dough knotted together between roasted garlic cloves. For garlic lovers only.

College interrupted my cooking escapades for a few years. It wasn’t until junior year that food swung back into my life in full force.

And Then Boston Happened

My eyes quickly became wide open to Boston’s insane culinary scene. I spent more money eating out than a responsible college student should. Never before had I had access to such a wide variety of restaurants in just a few square miles.

While pledging my junior year, my fraternity sister Sarah took me to what became my sweet tooth obsession: Flour Bakery. Sarah was a regular at Flour and without her, I might not have discovered it. My first visit with her was eye-opening.

The counter tops at Flour are decadent works of art, displaying every kind of pastry anyone could ever want or need: pain au chocolat, croissants, muffins, gigantic cookies, homemade oreos (yes, oreos), poptarts, quiche, banana bread, meringue, and don’t get me started on their sticky buns: brioche dough layered with a sticky pecan caramel sauce, rolled up tightly, sliced, and topped with the same sauce.

Flour Bakery is pure bliss. I fell in love.

The bakery’s two locations were, thankfully for my waistline, health and well-being, considerably out of the way from campus and my Fenway apartment. I frequented Flour just often enough to keep myself in check.

Life took a turn the following year when the bakery’s owner, Joanne Chang, released her first cookbook.

I baked so many recipes from it that I got my first cavity. Ever.

Even today, it’s the only baking cookbook I use. Joanne’s hazelnut-almond dacquoise makes me question my faith and place here on earth. Consisting of three hazelnut-almond meringue layers sandwiched between espresso buttercream and dark chocolate ganache, covered with ganache, and garnished with both types of nuts, it’s a stunning piece of art that even those who are gluten intolerant can indulge.

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The semester after discovering Flour, I was walking down Boylston Street on a lazy, hung over Sunday morning with my friend Steve when we stumbled upon my next culinary fixation: Sel de la Terre. Steve was an up-and-coming foodie at the time, and we often found excuses to have meals together.

What caught our eyes was the sandwich board outside that read, “3 course prix fix brunch: $20." I’d been wanting to try Sel de la Terre but it always seemed out of my budget. For $20 it was a no-brainer.

The interior decor struck me as modern meets upscale restaurant. The downstairs bar was hip with many high tops and mirrors. The upstairs dining room also featured mirrors, contemporary art work, exposed wooden beams and a panoramic view of Bolyston Street.

Sel de la Terre means salt of the earth in French, and salt certainly had a presence in Chef Louie Dibiccari’s dishes. Favorites quickly became the steak frites served over a cabernet sauvignon reduction, the famous burger, served with spicy aïoli, pancetta, and Vermont cheddar, and the house cured charcuterie boards presented with an assortment of mustards and grilled breads.

The kicker may have been the dessert platter: an assortment of every dessert on the menu. I became such a regular that the manager would frequently bring it out to our table without asking. Despite always being stuffed from dinner (and the cheese or charcuterie boards they’d occasionally comp us), we always made room.

I was spoiled.

The concept of French cuisine meets local New England ingredients was new to me. Sel de la Terre inspired me to expand my boundaries in the kitchen. It showed me the potential of locally grown foods. Though it closed it’s doors shortly after I left Boston, Sel de la Terre excited me for the possibilities at my disposal in the world of cooking and dining.

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Somewhere along the way I took my newfound friend Kevin to dine at Sel de la Terre.

I was introduced to Kevin by my long time friend Kirk years earlier. Kirk joined the garlic-knot train early on and to this day probably makes them more than I do.

It wasn’t until Kevin and I began discussing food that we really hit it off.

Our conversations quickly turned into actions. Our first major endeavor was my 21st birthday party. We threw together a four course dinner for a dozen friends. Days beforehand we shopped and prepped at his apartment in Somerville. I remember tediously creating several dozen butternut squash ravioli by hand and then transferring everything to another apartment on the other side of the river in Dorchester.

On the menu that evening: garlic knots (of course), salade verte, assorted cheeses from Formaggio Kitchen in the South End, a choice of baked honey mustard crusted salmon over asparagus or butternut squash ravioli with a butter sage sauce, and crêpes aux pommes for dessert. Looking back, it was a hodgepoge of a menu with no real rhyme or reason. But it was my birthday, and I made what I thought was delicious.

Kevin and I collaborated on several other large culinary undertakings that year, notably a 25 person holiday dinner, a slider party, and a pizza dinner. For our pizza undertaking, we purchased dough from a restaurant in Davis Square called Flatbread.

Pizza is a culturally hot topic. New York vs. Chicago… East Coast vs. West Coast… deep dish vs. thin crust. When I first moved to the West Coast I made a swift decision that all Los Angeles pizza was crap. While there is a lot of shitty pizza to be found in LA., once I took the time to explore I discovered some remarkable offerings. I’ve had some of the best pizza of my life in L.A., though it’s still different than it is on the East Coast.

If I had to choose the best pizza I’ve ever tasted, though, that honor would go to Flatbread.

The reason is simple: Flatbread sources all of its organic ingredients locally. And you can taste it. The cheese, vegetables, meats, and dough all taste incredibly… fresh. Flatbread bakes its pizzas in what they call “earth mounds,” or giant clay stoves heated with a wood fire. Their slogan, “real food served by real people” embodies everything the company stands for.

Kevin and I took a stab at making Flatbread inspired pizzas on our own and they were comparable to the real thing. The most memorable part of that evening’s prep was assigning a friend specifically to chop garlic — five or sixheads of garlic. Kevin shares my enthusiasm for the stinking rose.

Though he currently lives in Brooklyn, Kevin and I keep in touch often, exchanging ideas and making plans for our next endeavor.

The City of Angel(ic food)

I used to think the food in L.A. was shit.

A lot of it is. It turns out most big cities have their share of cheap garbage restaurants.

The opposite is also true.

It took several months, but I slowly discovered restaurants and farmers’ markets with some of the most incredible foods I’ve had. It turns out you have to know where to look, do your research, and have friends with the inside scoop.

I make an effort to try new places as often as my budget allows. As I scroll through a list of the nearly 400 food establishment I’ve tried in California, I notice a trend among my favorites: they’re all small plates style.

While eating out, the issue I always run into is I want to try everything. Friends describe me as an indecisive diner. You’ll often find me trying to convince the table to split full sized entrées.

The concept of small plates solve this problem perfectly. Lucky for me, L.A. is crawling with them. And most of them rock.

Bäco Mercat is my all time favorite, a rustic downtown restaurant owned by local chef Josef Centeno. Their cuisine is Western and Eastern Mediterranean influenced. Like many L.A. restaurants, emphasis is placed on local ingredients. Bäco Mercat’s star player is a sandwich of the same name: a doughy flatbread wrapped around your choice of chickpeas, crispy shrimp, chicken escabeche, pork and beef carnitas, beef tongue, oxtail hash, or lamb meatballs, with an assortment of fixings and sauces. The flavors are unlike anything I’ve tasted before.

When not eating out, I try and sharpen my cooking stills at the house with my close friend and comedian Matt. Matt has over 10 years of experience in the restaurant industry and is an invaluable resource in the kitchen. The two of us throw various events centered around food: typically brunches, multicourse dinners or cocktail parties. My friend Jacquie and I will host an intimate cheese and beer tasting next month. Jacquie is a beer lover who recently started brewing her own creations. I helped with her very first batch last spring.

The idea of partnering with friends to try new things, push boundaries and combine skill sets is exciting. Two heads are better than one.

I like to cook because I like to make people happy. Bringing friends —old and new—together over a meal, cocktails, or wine and cheese are events that, as we lead busier lives and work more hours, don’t happen as often as they should. Meals on the go, frozen dinners from Trader Joe’s and prepackaged, preservative filled junk foods are becoming ever more present in our lives. Friends have joked that I must eat well all the time but the truth is there are days I get home from a long day at 8:30 and though I try and avoid it, I’m guilty of taking a Digiorno pizza out of the freezer and calling it “dinner.” Even on a good day, quinoa with a sad excuse for meat sauce is sometimes my go-to because it’s easy, cheap, and semi-nutritious.

But that’s okay. I don’t need to cook all the time. If I went all out for every meal it would become the new normal. It wouldn’t be as special. Also, I’d be broke.

Food brings us together. It connects us to this planet and to each other. I’ve had some of the best conversations of my life over a meal or a beer. From inside the kitchen, it can push us out of our comfort zones and force us to try new things, to impress, and even to fail. I’ve made plenty of bad meals and that’s okay. It’s a process, and failure is necessary for growth.

My friend and coworker Jasmin has proposed that people who like to eat are usually fun and interesting. “If you like to eat, it probably means that you’re adventurous,” she therorizes. I agree. There are nearly limitless ingredients in the world, and both professional and hobbyist cooks have a mission to use these ingredients to do something remarkable. If you’re into that, either on the creating or consuming end, you’re definitely adventurous.

A Visitor In Lyon

Last September I traveled to France. It was my first time in Europe.

Three of my 11 days in France were spent in Lyon staying with Christiane’s son, Sadry, and daughter-in-law, Rosamund. Sadry and Rosamund own a groovy coffee shop in Lyon’s First District called Cafe Mokxa. They source and roast their own beans in a facility just outside of the city, where I spent a day watching them roast a week’s worth of beans. The smell was incredible.

Before meeting up with Sadry and Rosamund, Christiane picked me up at the train station. It had been 12 years since I’d seen her. The day before she emailed me:

You have to go downstairs and I will be there. I may not recognize you but you will recognize me I am sure: a very thin old woman with white hair!! I will wear jeans and a brown jacket.

As I walked down the platform at Gare de Lyon-Part-Dieu I thought about how she must have felt as she walked through JFK all those years ago.

We had lunch at Le Marronnier in the Place Bellecour district of Lyon. It was my first French meal with a local. It was fun listening to her criticize the slow service that’s apparently standard at most restaurants in France.

Christiane had fish quenelle and I had chicken liver gateau — I wanted to be adventurous. Dessert was a praline tart. My mentor was critical of the crust:

“It is not good,” she said in her thick French accent as she shook her head.

After lunch we walked through Parc de la Tête d’Or, the Central Park of Lyon. I explained the impact she had on my life since we first met. It was our first real conversation in years, other than an occasional email from time to time.

As did research for this piece, I logged into a Gmail account I created for my trip that I hadn’t checked in months. In my inbox was an unread message from Christiane:

I hope you will come back to France and spend more time in Lyon and stay at my home. Rosamund and Sadry told me about your meal: you are a Chef, Jared.

You know what? I’ll take it.

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This piece was originally published on Medium.

 

 

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