My most memorable food moments of 2004 - limited to one per month:
January: The cheese cart at L'Arpege. I went to dinner there as a guest of my friend Grace - or rather her dad. This was part of the Catering Course Fund. She was supposed to take the Catering Course at Cordon Bleu - but we decided that it was more important for her to learn how to eat in three-star restaurants than to cook in them. This was our first three-star dinner together. This was also my first three-star dinner with my dog Karli - but it was not the last. The dinner was a trial of endurance - a Chinese water torture of fine French food. By the end of the dinner I was physically hurting. But there was still the cheese cart. And not just any cheese cart - the cheese cart at L'Arpege is legendary. There are cheeses there that you may never find anywhere else - or ever again - in that precious, unique moment of cheese time. We had a sliver - the barest of slivers - of about a dozen. I really don't think Grace or I actually were able to eat any - though I do remember the feeling of the crystals in my teeth of the 24-month aged Comte. The rest we fed to Karli. She had not eaten that much during dinner.
February: Breakfast picnic on the banks of the Seine. I'd been wanting to do this for - oh - about two years - but I was busy - apparently stupidly busy. Right before Grace went back to Seoul I filled a thermos with cafe au lait and we got a sack of croissants and demanded we picnic - even though it was in the dead of winter. We trudged down the street, through the Champ de Mars - the park in front of the Eiffel Tower - and under the tower itself - to the banks of the Seine. With our legs dangling over the water, we huddled over the coffee and ate - and talked and laughed ourselves silly. It was better than any poolside brunch at the Hotel Bel-Air.
March: Dinner with my friend Liz at Robuchon - with Karli. Karli and I had just finally moved out of my apartment - the packing and moving was a stressful nightmare. Just when I thought I was going to be homeless for a few days - because I had to stay in France for a visa appointment - my friend Liz - who should be known as my guardian angel - offered to let Karli and I stay at her place - a gorgeous apartment in the Marais filled with treasures from her travels. Not only did she welcome me and Karli into her beautiful home, but she also had her two cats stay at her friend's place. See what I mean about the guardian angel part? That dinner was my very small expression of thanks to her great kindness. We had the Atelier's greatest hits - the egg, the lamb chops - with the famous mashed potatoes, and the souffle - plus whatever other extras they plied upon us. I remember happily dropping bits of buttered Poujauran bread down to Karli - perched on those high red-padded stools at the infamous bar.
April: My mom's oxtail soup. I finally got home. Or the home that I used to call home. I really don't remember the first thing I ate when I got home. But I do remember the most important thing - a huge bowl of my mom's famous oxtail soup. It's my dad's favourite - and a specialty of Shanghai, where he grew up. It's rich and meaty - fragrant with tomatoes and cabbage. The oxtail is cut into thick - three or four inch high - pieces - with meat cooked so tender it's sliding off the star-shaped bone. This soup is home to me.
May: Making wontons with my mom - and listening rapturously to her epic, operatic, true stories of feast and famine. For the wontons we at first used a pork and shrimp mixture - but then we had extra shrimp - so we made a few trays of very indulgent shrimp-only wontons. My mom told me about the good wonton noodle places in China - where they use the shrimp shells for their broth - and how back in the day, you only had a few wontons - and never all shrimp wontons at that - because what filled you up was the big bowls of broth and noodles.
June: Doing the American food pilgrimages with my sister Annie - almost all drive-ins or drive-thrus - in the American way - thank you very much. Hot dogs, cheeseburgers, donuts, and much - much - more. The thing I miss the most when I'm away is American fast food experience - the other stuff I can make myself. What I can't make is that most American way of dining - OK maybe we'll just call it eating - something you just don't appreciate until you're out of the States for at least a couple of years - and without a sweet ride.
July: Fourth of July BBQ by my brother. My brother's a connoisseur of international eating joints. And man, can he grill. And he does so very well - on his prized, cherry-red, monster Weber grill. It's not just one of those domed things - but a pimped-out, gas-starter model. For the 4th he rustled up some beautifully charred, thick and tender, all-American ribeyes.
August: Old-school Chinese-American delivery with The Cousins. This is a roaming pack of about a dozen or so actual cousins of mine - but not all - but all are part of The Family. Almost all of us grew up in or around our families' old-school, Chinese-American, chop-suey joints - so we know our old-school, Chinese-American, chop-suey joint food - and we like it. We had big, fat, flour-wrapper-wrapped egg rolls - with little packets of sweet-and-sour and hot mustard sauce; deep, dark soy sauce-soaked fried rice; and even crab rangoon. That night my cousin Mimi caught me taking pictures of the food when it arrived - before the pack tore it apart. "What are we doing here!" she asked - or more exclaimed really - as if I'd been caught surfing porn on the family computer. I tried to explain - and in that moment I was reminded that normal people do not routinely take pictures of their food.
September: The chocolate ice cream after family meal at El Bulli. Normally we would not have dessert - but if there was leftover stuff, the pastry people would whip something up. One day we had chocolate ice cream. It's important to note that while El Bulli might go through a thousand pieces of serviceware in a night, there is a shortage of family meal serviceware - so I had to slam back a whole glass of water - so I could just have a glass to fill with chocolate ice cream. I was there first - and right behind me was Ferran. You've just to love this man - racing to the chocolate ice cream - and waiting until someone else got some first. For a second I thought that I should let him go ahead of me. But hey man - we're talking chocolate ice cream.
October: That whole San Pedro fish at dinner at Rafa's in Roses, Spain. Eating that fish - bone by succulent bone - was a simple moment of supreme and thorough happiness.
November: Making Thanksgiving dinner for my family. My dad almost convinced us to order one of those pre-fab dinners. They're from the grocery store - some with ham or roast beef - because he hates turkey. In a daze I almost agreed - until I came to my senses. I shopped that morning - and didn't start on anything for dinner until that night. I ultimately made turkey thighs - deboned and stuffed with sticky rice and scallions; a separate pot of crispy-crusted rice and caramelised scallions; a turkey and white wine reduction; roasted, brown-butter brussel sprouts; roasted, glazed sweet potato slivers; and cranberry jam. We never made it to the Tarte Tatin. My sister later told me that during dinner my dad turned to her and said, "I like turkey!" That was the coolest food moment for me this year.
December: Oysters with Anthony Bourdain in Paris. We'd had a late night of shooting - and were driving by the site of the old Les Halles. Tony really wanted to go to a brasserie that he used to always go to on his first night in Paris with his parents - and he hadn't been back in about 25 years. When we finally got there, we were all thinking something hot and comforting - but Tony wanted a icy platter of oysters too. So we played along - and this is why Tony is Tony - his instincts are perfect. We had clean, cold, and briny Belon speciales - and each one elicited an involuntary shiver of pleasure - well, at least from me - I can't speak for the others. I was too wrapped up in these very personal moments. Which was just as well - because if I really thought about it - really thought about sharing oysters with Anthony Bourdain in France - given what he's written about his first oyster - I would have just had to have left the room.
Like I said - I limited it to just one moment per month. Otherwise I'd be here forever.
But here's one more food moment - but it's not really mine. I heard on the radio last night a story about tsunami relief supplies. I'd always imagined them to be more military-like - blankets, water, basic food, etc. But in this story they said that they were air-dropping packages of instant noodles too. Somewhere in the world right now, a parent who has lost a child - or a child who has lost a parent - or someone who has lost everyone - whose heart is broken - whose body is suffering - is eating a package of instant noodles as though it were manna from heaven.
Please click on the link in the upper right hand corner and donate to the relief. Thank you.
My best wishes to you and your loved ones in the New Year.