December 10, 2009

About Me: A (very lengthy) Profile of Mattatouille

I'm asking the questions to myself. If this seems to postmodern for you, well, I'm sorry in advance.

How did you get into food?

This is invariably the first question I am asked as a "foodie" or rather, someone who's into food. I guess a discussion about the merits (or demerits) of the term "foodie" might be in order, but maybe I'll talk about it at later point in this interview. Back to the question, I have not always liked food. No, I didn't grow up dreaming of my mother's cooking as a young boy, and I certain didn't have the luxury of my grandmother's cooking. Sure, I had some delicious meals from mum, and occasionally from halmunee (grandma, in Korean), but my journey into the world of food really began about six years ago. Our family had just returned from a vacation in Maui and we had dined at the celebrated restaurant Longhi's. It's a luxe restaurant featuring pastas, seafood, and steaks. We'd been suckered into purchasing the restaurant's cookbook along with our fabulously expensive meal (what's another $30 bucks on a $200+ meal?). I remember bringing the Longhi's cookbook home and browsing through it, utterly intrigued by the owner's thoughts and musing on each recipe. This was really my first encounter with food writing.

Mr. Longhi (I forget his name) waxed about how to make the perfect penne arrabiata, or how good ingredients produce great dishes. He talked about how he loved having a restaurant in Maui because it allowed him to procure ingredients from all over the Pacific Rim (how very un-Michael Pollan of him!). Then again, this book was written years before Mr. Pollan and the producers of Food Inc. had a chance to tell us about the nefarious effects of such ingredient-procurement.

Either way, I started cooking some of his very simple, Italian-based recipes in my dingy college apartment, which had been inadequately renovated to cover up terrible condition. This was the heart of South Los Angeles, on the west side of the USC Campus. Still, I had the resolve to start cooking these simple pasta dishes and was very satisfied by how simple things like seasoning the pasta water, or allowing the garlic to properly brown before proceeding to add the pepper flakes and tomatoes to the sauce. I learned that cooking was something created out of a combination of proper technique, timing, and attention-to-detail.

I continued like so until I turned on my TV to the Food Network and watched a rather beautiful woman making some of these same dishes. Yes, like most college-aged men in the country at the time, I was completely smitten by Giada Di Laurentiis. Sure I watched Julia Child, Martin Yan, and even the early days of Ming Tsai on East Meets West on PBS while growing up, but I'd never seen such blatant, shall we say, food porn on TV. And although I'll be frank and say that her shirt is probably too low most of the time, providing a worth (or unworthy) distraction to the cooking, I can't argue that her recipe-making is both easy, reliable, useful, and fun. I became engrossed in food television and proceeded to watch as much of the stuff as I could.

I remember my junior year of university, where most savvy business students would obtain a top-level internship at a reputable corporation. Well I dumped that grand idea and sat around at home, watching the daytime cooking shows on Food Network. Then I'd head over to Whole Foods and fill up my credit card with premium ingredients, all in an effort to invite my friends over to my guinea pigs. Sometimes my buddies were happy guinea pigs, relishing in delicious, perfect pasta or risotto, and other times they had to deal with the stress of my inexperience in cooking or the fiascoes that eventually made their way to the plate.

Then I picked up a copy of Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, at that time easily over 5 years old, and I was hooked. I hadn't encountered such hilarious, compelling, visceral food writing, and I realized how intriguing the whole world of restaurants and cooking was. I immediately went on to buy dozens of cookbooks, and start consuming every week's issue of the LA Times Food Section.

Well, I'll skip to the end, now that I'm already forced you to read 1000 words into my first answer and say that my shelves are now chock full of cookbooks and food memoirs, from MFK to Larousse to Steingarten. Harold McGee sits next to my Bible (the actual one) while a second edition of Rick Bayless' Authentic Mexican sits next to The Essential Cocktail by Dale DeGroff.

Though my collection might be just slightly impressive, I've learned over time that nothing replaces the experience at the table (or street, if I'm on that type of cuisine). And so I've dedicated the better part of my life with filling my hours with the tastes, smells, and joys of food and cooking.

What got you into food writing?

I've been writing ever since Geocities invented the personal web page and Xanga decided to offer simple blogs. Yes, I grew up with the Internet and figured out that it was kind of cool when other people read your thoughts, as small as that audience would be. I remember placing a snazzy site counter on the bottom of my site, just to be satisfied to learn that 1000 people had visited my site in its history.

I've always loved writing, and it always came to me naturally. Ever since instant messaging taught me to think at the speed of my typing, I figured out that this was the best way to record my thoughts. I confess that the prose isn't as smooth as it could be, so I'm learning to be a better proofreader and fix my mistakes along the way.

To me, food writing became like story telling. Yelp made it easy to have a venue for these stories, and gave each of the stories a context, but ultimately I turned to writing a blog for my food writing, because I could have creative control of the content and its presentation. Also, I could emped photos along with my writing.

I believe the best food writing comes from the heart, from one's delicious descriptions of meals and experiences which whet appetites and conjure dreams for readers. The best food writing makes me laugh or cry, just like the best literature.

I'm still a novice at this, and I'm willing to keep learning. It's a lifelong process that gives flavor (ha) to each day and week and year that passes. Life's a lot more fun when you have food involved, and even more fun when you can talk about it, or write about it.

Why do you like food photography?

A picture's worth a thousand words. A good food photo's worth a thousand words and a few stomach growls. I love photography in its own right, but mostly of the journalistic and realistic type. There's a certain beauty with the staged photos of Roland Bello's spreads in Gourmet, but since I don't have that kind of expertise, I like to capture what the ordinary person sees and experiences on a regular basis.

I'm currently in the market for another digital SLR camera, but for now I've been adopting some other point-and-shoot cameras, including my camera phone, for the job. I think anyone can take a good photo with any camera, as long as the person has the right eye and perspective, and proper control of the light conditions. To say that one needs a particular level of camera is hogwash to me.

Another reason why I like food photography is that it helps me remember what I ate. I think I have a pretty good memory about certain things I eat, but nothing can replace a photo. If I could draw better, I'd just draw out what dishes looked like, which a blogger friend of mine had to do while she was dining at Momofuku Ko, but my drawing skills are pretty poor. I have trouble with stick figures.

What would your last meal on earth be?

A bowl of yook heh jang or spicy Korean beef soup. It's my perfect comfort food. I love when after you eat, you've got these tiny red speckles all over your shirt and sleeves because you've been slurping up this bright red broth. I'd also consider a tasting course done by Grant Achatz and Thomas Keller done in my kitchen, with me helping them and learning how they do their magic along the way. Lastly (and this is a newer one), I'd love to be with my family and eat a dinner in a late summer afternoon, grilling Brazilian barbeque. My parents were raised in Brazil, so churrasco would be our default celebratory meal. There's nothing like hulking cuts of meat, freshly sliced, juicy, perfectly seasoned, and going straight into your mouth, followed by garlicky, sauteed collard greens (kolvi), feijone (black bean stew), buttery white rice, and simple tomato-onion salsa. All washed down with guarana.

What makes you passionate about wine, beer, coffee, and cocktails?

Though I do believe that drinks complete a meal (see previous question and its answer), I don't think they are utterly necessary. I just had a 24 course meal at Alinea and had mostly water as a beverage, though I did get a taste of Alsatian pinot gris for one course. Still, I love wine because it offers so much complexity and delight to a meal. Beer does the same thing, but with a different spectrum and effect (thanks mostly to the effervesce and bitterness). Coffee is compelling to me because of its complexity of production, transportation, roasting, and preparation. It's the one beverage the requires a machine of some sort to be served. There's an artistry involved with making the perfect cup of coffee, much like the artistry of cocktails, which are my final frontier of beverages. To me, cocktail represent the best of all the previous beverages: complexity of flavor (in the spirits), pairing with food, and finally the various stages of preparation and service. I love that they're an undeniable history in cocktail making that adds character to a meal (or any occasion for that matter).

Why do you care about restaurants and what makes them relevant?

Well, first of all, restaurants give you delicious food, or at least you hope for it. I think restaurants are such an intriguing, modern creation that came about from industrialization. As a business person, I'm also very interested in how to optimize the operation of a restaurant. Finally, I love restaurants because they're a version of theater in whatever culture its presented in. A restaurant in Jakarta has its set of rules as does the one in Madrid or London. Another restaurant in rural Korea has its dynamic, as does the one in Odessa, with a view of the Black Sea. What makes restaurants compelling is that they involve an immensely complex interplay of people: chefs, cooks, servers, managers, customers, and sometimes critics. In our modern, and especially urban American culture, we have so many expectations about what a restaurant should be that we're sometimes taken aback when those expectations aren't met. Say for example our water isn't refilled the moment it becomes empty. We get agitated and start calling for our server. But in our culture it would be rude to hollar at the server and ask for a refill. If you're in a busy restaurant in Seoul, don't be bashful about yelling to the server for whatever you need. Restaurants are a microcosm of culture waiting to be experienced by its customers, from the kitchen to the table. And heck, it's just fun when you eat good food, especially with people you like to be with.

What's your philosophy of cooking?

Ok, this is totally a question that I have very close to no capacity of answer since my name doesn't end with Robuchon or Keller. But since I'm asking the questions, I'll say that cooking should be artful, passionate, and as precise as you can be. Oh, and make sure it tastes good. Things taste good most of the time when they look good. If you ever get served something at my house, I really tend to care about presentation, because I know that that element is so important to how something tastes. I also think it makes up for my inability to produce something that's a great chef or cook will create. Until I truly get proper training and learn the fundamentals of cooking, I don't think my cooking will reach a level anywhere near "great." So in the meantime, I focus on making it look good, because that I can work on. If I had the capacity to practice and hone my cooking skills (with the benefit of working in a commercial kitchen), then that would be a different story. Until I get there, I'll just make it taste as good as I can, and present it just like a restaurant would, with sauce streaks, sprinkled garnishes, fancy knife cuts, and overdone plating. Maybe my next cookware investments will be in test tubes, spritzers, wires, and other weird (but cool) items they use at Alinea.

What's great about ethnic food?

What's ethnic food? Eating "ethnic" food implies that there's some sort of culinary hegemony and that one particular cuisine is "regular" food and all others are ethnic. Funny that Italian food was once considered ethnic cuisine though no one would consider that to be true now. But I think what you (or really I) mean is the bounty of different cultural cuisines around the world, then on that note, I am completely and utterly committed and sold. See, a person with a cultural heritage that's apart from the WASP (white-anglo-saxon-protestant) variety (a sociological and cultural term that is really imprecise), you see the world in a completely different set of lenses. To me, the norm is not meat and potatoes, but rice, soup, and banchan. A meal's basic units aren't bread, but noodles. I think having that paradigm allows me to look at most, if not all cuisines, equally. Well, with the exception of Korean food.

Where do you want to go from here?

I've always had a keen eye on the business of restaurants. Right now I'm consulting on a small food venture that could be a very basic model for me to work with in the future, but eventually I'd like to be a proprietor for some food based business. Although I've had aspirations of writing professionally about food, I can see that the world's just not going in that direction. There just seems to be too many cookbooks and food books out there and not enough people reading them. Of course, I still have dreams to publish books about food (of which I have various concepts in the works), but rather than being a flavor-of-the-month type author, I'd like to write seminal work in the tradition of Richard Olney. I'd like to do what he did for French cooking to regional Korean cuisine, the foods that I was able to recently rediscover on a trip to Korea. And, if I can swing it, maybe hit some regional cuisines in Japan as well, since that's just a stone's throw away from the Korean Peninsula.

Name some of your favorite utensils/ingredients/general things about food?

I can't cook without my Sabatier chef's knife, cast iron skillet, All-Clad pans (they are awesome), Williams-Sonoma spatula, OxO tongs, and Pyrex bowls. I'd like to collect a massive collection of various salts - I currently have two kinds of kosher salt, grey salt, peruvian pink sea salt, and Lawry's seasoned salt (just for kicks). I never cook without a kitchen towel. I'm obsessive about this one. I need something to wipe down surfaces of plates or my hands after washing or whatever.

I love proper stemware and glassware for wines and cocktails. I'm also a huge collector of oddball mugs for coffee and tea. I like to check out thrift stores and see what kind of cool gadgets and gizmos they have in the kitchenware section. I once found this gray Bauhaus-like mug that made me feel like a techie in Silicon Valley.

I'm a stickler for the small things in restaurants - the kind of tablepieces or flatware. I like something ergonomic or interesting. I think the layout of restaurant floors is fascinating too since I studied that stuff in my Operations class in business school. I'm keen on feeling the table linen and making sure it's comfortable. Bourdain will be famous for remarking on the quality of chairs in the restaurant; I'll take nice linens and flatware. Of course chairs are important too, I wouldn't want to sit on plastic.


Food, she thought. said...

So fascinating to hear about others' pathway to food obsession. We love some of the same foods, Canele, LGO's chile burger, etc. However, I think all food has an ethnic provenance. American food is food from the USA that typically has other influences, where many ethnic foods are far more regionally focused, such as Japanese or Lebanese. A fun read, thanks!

Tsz said...

Fantastic post—wholeheartedly agree photos are definitely worth thousands of words and stomach growls!

I must admit I've been following your blog for quite some time because of your photos and it took a while for me to even start reading your posts. As a designer, I'm drawn by color and composition and yours fill the bill on both counts.

I've since then jumped on the bandwagon and started my own blogs:

Cataloging moments of food induce eurphoria:

My journey to Paris 2010:

They're still at a beginner's level, but I'm pushing myself to write better. Thanks for being my inspiration and can't wait to read your next post.


Joshua Lurie said...

This is long overdue. We've discussed food dozens of times, but I still learned a lot. You chose some good questions to ask yourself. Any chance you'll expand upon this as different questions arise?

ila said...

for cameras - if you have an iphone, the toy camera app does wonders! there are a few P&S's out there that are perfect for food photography, but I've been enamoured by the Vivitar lately ;-)

as of late, i've been thinking about the format of my blog posts as well, especially since photo quality really swings readership nowadays. i lurv luxirare's format, but i'm not sure if it matches my writing voice (it's a bit too serene, whereas i'm very excitable).

mattatouille said...

Liz, I do agree that American food has it own unique stature. I consider myself pretty well versed but at the same time lack many essential experiences for me to truly understand "American" food. I need to trek to true barbeque in the South and Midwest (Kansas City), New England seafood, and so much more.

mattatouille said...

Tsz, thank you very much for your encouraging words! You've got a wonderful blog in the making.

mattatouille said...

Josh, I could easily ask myself more questions. It's just a matter of when I'll get around to writing them :)

mattatouille said...

Ila, Luxirare's blog is super-high concept. I think it's almost impractical because the photos are so large. It wouldn't be something you could access from a netbook or iphone. That said, I think there's a place for that on the internet. I think your new blog format and photos are very good so I wouldn't worry about it. I'm going to look into Vivitar :) I think I might have a super old P&S 35mm somewhere.

burumun said...

It is intriguing to hear about other's personal journey into and in food writing. Very postmodern of you to ask questions to yourself, but it's definitely a more fun format than a lengthy essay :)

PS. I'm happy to see Warung Doyong on your "best" list! I still need to write that up ...