Thursday, August 28, 2008

A meeting of the pastry and agricultural minds: Yard, Nathan and Pudwell stir our food passions

I recently attended a Farmer's Market lecture at the Santa Monica public library that featured pastry chefs Sherry Yard of Spago, Zoe Nathan of Rustic Canyon, and farmer's market vendor Py Pudwell of Pudwell Farms. It's difficult to put into words the amount of genuine energy and life that surrounded these people. Perhaps my perception had to do with the fact that two of my most favorite worlds, the farmer's market and the world of baked goods, were being celebrated in union-- a great meeting of the pastry and agricultural minds. But just as I was accusing myself of having overly romanticized notions about the entire event, Yard, Pudwell, and Nathan started to define for me, in their own words, how they wholeheartedly appreciate the intangible "magic" that is the farmer's market community. Between the panel of food lovers, they all described the genuine relationships built between farmer's and chefs. They talked about buying local from good people, people whose kids you see running around the market, people who can give you a vision of where the food you are buying originated--and then transforming ingredients from the market into a dish with real heart behind it.

Since working a stint at the Laguna Beach Farmer's Market, I had felt a sense of this farmer's market family, an idea of what goes on behind the scenes of a market and of the relationships that are built between local families, farmers, and chefs. It is something that seems both familiar and essential to me, but something I have never heard verbalized with such respect and reverence. Perhaps the most inspiring parts of the lecture surfaced when the three speakers reached harmonious agreement over the joys of their work: the satisfaction of making something with your hands, whether this meant growing nourishment in the soil you own, or taking the simplicity of a flour, sugar, and butter trio and transforming it into a complex and beautiful creation.

Perhaps the reason Pudwell, Yard, and Nathan were so engaging has to do with the fact that it is undeniably apparent they are in love with what they do-- they are busy, hard- working individuals, excited about the collaborations and creations of life and with good intentions for those around them. For example, one woman in the audience asked Yard how she would go about accommodating a dessert request for someone with a severe food allergy. Yard talked a lot about a la minute cooking, about the spontaneity and quick actions that are a part of her style-- and expressed a willingness to adapt her creations with this light-hearted response: "For the difficult, give me a second, for the impossible, give me a few minutes."

They all talked about how building relationships through the farmer's market has helped them at different times in their careers. It was inspiring to hear Pudwill talk about the success he has found as a farmer, starting out with a few acres of land and growing it into a thriving business supported by the Santa Monica community. In particular, he expressed his gratitude towards chefs such as Nathan and Yard that have continued to support his business and champion the farming community.

Yard, as down-to-earth as can be even with a few James Beard awards under her belt, reminisced humorously about her Brooklyn childhood during the lecture and stayed after to answer as many questions as possible, to the point that library officials ushered both her and adoring fans out the door-- including the book signature request fan, the very persistent pastry student seeking reassurance in her profession, and yes, even the bakery blogger that simply observed and took it all in while keeping her identity a secret!

While Yard had a magnetic draw, Nathan was equally as charming as she described her beginnings in the pastry world, her love for butchering in the early stages of her culinary career ("I loved butchering, and I was fast. If they could cut a chicken as fast as me, they got the job"), and her love for the market. According to Yard, Nathan's baked goods during Rustic Canyon's Saturday morning cafe style breakfast is a best kept secret in town. Fun, spunky, and passionate about food, it was fun to watch Nathan and imagine how it felt to sit on a panel with Sherry Yard, who it seems she admired from afar early on in her pastry days.

The only downside is that, for the good of the blog, I was so intrigued to observe the conversations happening around me that I missed the boat on most of the samples outside afterwards. I was hoping to try the cookies Yard mentioned but I should have known better, considering the audience at an event like this, that sampling ethics or niceties of any kind were out the window. I can't blame them for feasting...

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Food geekery and Sherry Yard

My jaw almost dropped to the ground when I saw the sign.  I was strolling along at the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmer's market, when I discovered a posting for a free pastry discussion at the Santa Monica Public Library.  Entitled "Sweet Treats-- the Passion of Pastry," and featuring Sherry Yard, among other pastry chefs, I knew that somehow, someway, against all odds, I had to find the time to go to this.  Stay tuned for more about this adventure-- will she be doomed to sit in traffic as she commutes from her faraway office?  Will she meet other like-minded pastry fiends? Will she know the glory that is this free public library discussion for food geeks?  Join us next time for the conclusion of this riveting tale!

Friday, August 01, 2008

late July culinary wanderings

After a few days off from work, I've ventured all over the map for some summer bakery hunting. A visit to my hometown brought me to Marukai, our local Japanese market. Though I was there to investigate baked goods, I had to resist the strong temptation to take advantage of Daikokuya's new Orange County location. If you have not yet sampled their food, know that they produce the ramen dreams are made of-- pure ramen magic if I've ever tasted it! For those of you wanderers who food hunt back and forth between San Diego, Orange County, and LA, their location in Little Tokyo is no longer your only option! Tucked into a strip mall off the 405 freeway, Marukai also offers a food court that includes Beard Papa's notoriously indulgent cream puffs. Beard Papa's is also attached to MamMoth bakery, which features a truly cavity-inducing honey bread among other treats. I could write more about their offerings, but blogger ChubbyPanda has already done so for me in his very thorough blog post.

During my visit home, I took advantage by utilizing the ample kitchen space of my parent's house for a baking opportunity! It's much more spacious than my little studio. After thumbing through my mom's arsenal of cookbooks, I went for an obvious, but classic choice-- recipes from New York's Magnolia Bakery.
While whipping up a batch of chocolate chip almond cookies, I listened to my brother talk about the ten year high school reunion he just attended the night before. The night was full of nostalgia coupled with the reality of ten years passing by-- i.e. classmates faced with a plethora of marriages, trouble with the law, good fortune, high paying salaries--the unpredictability and predictability of life all at once, the stuff of Romy and Michelle. As the stories continued, I thought to myself "This calls for another recipe." Ten years of marriages, jailtime, childbirthing, and career opportunities could not be captured with brevity. I eyed a molasses jar and decided to whip up some random molasses cookie recipe from the label on Grandma's molasses. These cookies were simply delicious and unsophisticated in all of the right ways. (Perhaps a nod to the three for $1 cookies my brother and I once enjoyed from our high school cafeteria. Often slightly undercooked, you could taste the sugar granules in those chocolate chip cookies, but there was something so perfect about them. Grabbing a few at the end of the day meant you were on your way to freedom. It was a little bit of decadence in our bland world of rigid dress codes-- a sweet break from the khaki, navy, collared shirt monotony.)

Walks down memory lane aside, I eventually headed back to my apartment. In efforts to check out a new bakery, I traveled towards Brentwood to give the Belwood bakery a try. Sometimes when I stray from Santa Monica towards Brentwood, I'm a little unsure of what I'm getting myself into. Such was the case that day, when I sat down with my pastries and listened to two stockbrokers arguing over their stance on cell phone etiquette, talking business, and complaining about the youth "with their long hair." Pigeons circled around our crumbs, also noticeably irritated by their loud argument. Can't us Santa Monicans enjoy our pastries in peace?

At least I had happy reading--As I was nibbling on some fluffy bread with chives, I caught an article about Paris bakeries in LA Times magazine, a literal ode to bakery hunting across Paris.
Oh, to be a sweetheart of the freelancing world! If only I could jet set to any pastry of my choice. If only!