What to learn from customers

Is El Bulli closing permanently after 2011, or reopening after two years as an institute, or has Chef Ferran Adrià even planned that far in advance? Stories are all over the place, including speculation over how such a coveted reservation (estimates range from 300,000 to 2 million for how many people apply for one of the 8,000 annual seats) could lead to a restaurant losing half a million euros a year (a fact reported in a handful of articles).


In this synposis of an HBS case on El Bulli, Adrià offers a hint as to his restaurant's financial situation when he says, "I should charge 600 euros [for a meal at elBulli] but I do not cook for millionaires. I cook for sensitive people."


The article ends with HBS professor Michael Norton noting, "Adrià says he doesn't listen to customers, yet his customers are some of the most satisfied in the world. That's an interesting riddle to consider."


That's not actually puzzling. At Amazon.com, Jeff Bezos used to say that you can't build a product just by listening to customers. They're good at telling you what they don't like, but not so good at telling you what they want. As an entrepreneur you have to innovate on their behalf. We knew at Amazon that perhaps the most significant barrier to buying online was shipping charges. Customers would tell you again and again that they hated to pay shipping fees, even when they were offset by not having to pay sales tax. But they couldn't tell us what solution we could offer since shipping is not free.


That's where Amazon innovated on behalf of the consumer, first in the form of Super Saver Shipping, then in the form of Amazon Prime. We traded in some of the gross margin efficiencies of the business model to subsidize shipping and offset it with revenue volume from the increased orders that resulted from removing the massive psychological hurdle of shipping costs.


The case also highlights the distinction between understanding and listening to customers. "Adrià's idea is that if you listen to customers, what they tell you they want will be based on something they already know," Norton observes. "If I like a good steak, you can serve that to me, and I'll enjoy it. But it will never be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. To create those experiences, you almost can't listen to the customer."

Bits

The stretches between my posts here are lengthening. Perhaps the best way to ease back into things is in the new year is in bits and pieces. Repetition of small victories, perhaps it's the rough sketch of a resolution?



  • The single best thing I tasted over Christmas break in New York was the Crispy Frogs Legs appetizer at Veritas. The legs were encased in a crunchy, stringy crust and served with butternut squash gnocchi, pork belly, chanterelle mushroom, parsley coulis, and parmesan foam. Spectacular, one reason being that it combined the three primary food textures: crisp/crunchy, meaty, and soft.

  • I learned about the three primary food textures from a book I read over break: Knives at Dawn: America's Quest for Culinary Glory at the Legendary Bocuse d'Or Competition. It took me a day of intermittent reading to plow through it on my Kindle. It appealed to me by combining many of my interests: food/cooking, contest/competition I've never heard of (shall we call that the Bloodsport factor?), obsessive people (Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, among dozens of others), long odds/underdog story (can the Americans finally medal at Bocuse d'Or, long dominated by the French and, surprisingly, the Norwegians?), a true story, and heavy doses of conflict. My only complaint is that the author Andrew Friedman telegraphs the outcome by interspersing hindsight quotes from many of the key players. You can do that in a way that doesn't give away the ending; any modern reality TV show that sprinkles in post-event interviews has to deal with the problem. If you read reviews of the print edition, the spoiler issue is worse; the photos in the center of the book depict the ultimate winners. That amateurish mistake aside, I still recommend the book. The world's leading chefs are all borderline psychotic and reading about their obsessive natures put in the mood to cook sous vide and scrub my kitchen to a sparkle.

  • Back to Veritas, they are known for their world class wine list (PDF). Martin stopped by and treated us a bottle of the 1995 Eisele Araujo Cabernet. That's not a bottle of wine one drinks every day, the price tag will incinerate your credit card, so many thanks, Martin. It was a true California cabernet fruit bomb. If you are an oenophile in search of a good meal in NYC, Veritas belongs on your shortlist.

  • I have a MOMA membership so I was able to bypass the massive line outside and walk right into the Tim Burton exhibit. But there was no avoiding the mob inside, and even had it been empty, it would have failed to hold my interest, consisting mostly of old sketches. You have to be a fanatic of someone's work to want to see their early sketches. I appreciate reading about people's processes, but I mostly enjoy seeing their final products. It's like watching deleted scenes on a DVD, you rarely find one you want to undelete.

  • Obama should hire Bruce Schneier to be our nation's security czar. I love his term "security theater," and his summary of U.S. aviation security in light of the Nigerian terrorist plot on the flight to Detroit will sound maddeningly sensible to every air traveler standing in their socks in a U.S. airport this holiday season.


I wasn't looking at my watch last night and so my passage into the new year slipped right by. And we're off.



Thank-full

I had just landed in Chicago for Thanksgiving and was strolling through the O'Hare concourse towards baggage claim when my phone rang. It was my sister Karen's fiance Kevin.


"You know how Karen was going to pick you up from the airport?" he asked. "She can't. She's been in a car accident."


He sounded calm which reassured me, especially since he'd already spoken to her. But then he told me their Prius was in bad shape. My gait quickened even though I had nowhere to go. She might be fine physically, but mentally an accident of that severity had to be a shock.


I called my other sister Joannie to fill her in on the situation, and after an hour or so of phone tag, one car was dispatched to get Karen from the place where they'd towed her car, another to get me from the airport.


When we finally all gathered back at Joannie's, the story had been reported and rereported multiple times, the truth coming together like pieces of a puzzle. Two guys in a sedan had the right rear corner of her Prius, sending her into a spin that ended at the center median of the highway. The sedan, meanwhile, somehow ended up flipped on its side on the other side of highway, on the shoulder.


As Karen got out of the car to gather herself and as various people stopped to help, the two guys somehow made it out of their vehicle. One of the two stumbled a few steps and vomited all over himself. The two of them were drunk.


The police took the two men to the hospital to draw blood, but they'd already failed the onsite sobriety test. The legal system will, I assume, deal with them. But in the meantime, I felt firsthand the anger of those hurt by the stupidity of those who get behind the wheel of three to four thousand pound machines under the influence of alcohol. There is nothing courageous or admirable about someone who manages to drive from point A to point B drunk; it's merely dumb luck.


It's also luck that helped Karen get out of the accident unharmed, save for a stiff neck and bruised knee. My flight arrived late, and so traffic on the 90/94 was light, so no cars were close behind that might have run into her during or immediately after her spinout.


The story has a happier ending as most of our family spent the rest of the week together celebrating Thanksgiving. We didn't dwell on the subject of her accident, especially the hypotheticals. To do so would seem morbid, and I sensed a need for us all to move on lest we cede the happiness of the entire holiday weekend to those two drunken idiots.


This was my first time in charge of preparing a Thanksgiving meal. I did a lot of research on how to prepare a turkey having had many a dry and unappetizing bird in Novembers past. My first big decision was to go with a heritage turkey over the breed commonly found at the grocery store, the Broad-Breasted White. Though they cost more, up to $10 a pound, heritage turkeys are known for their higher proportion of dark meat and a more guilt-free narrative: they tend to be raised on organic feed, on small farms where they're allowed to roam freely. If it lived up to the taste, then paying around $160 for a turkey that would feed the entire group on this once-a-year holiday would be worth it.


The next question was how to prepare the turkey. I consulted most every foodie I knew about their past experiences, and the number one technique mentioned was brining. I thought I could stop there, but it turns out there are different brining techniques. The one I'd heard of most often involved soaking the turkey in salt water. But then, while I waited for my take-out lunch one day, I saw a front page story in a section of the LA Times on the bar counter about dry brining.


It sounded too good to be true; just salt the turkey a few days in advance. Not only was it less messy than a wet brine, it supposedly produced meat of a superior texture.


The best laid plans were nearly derailed by a FedEx delivery person who couldn't distinguish a one from a zero. I spent all of Tuesday checking FedEx online, and mid-afternoon, I got the note that the turkey had been delivered to the front porch. I wandered outside, around the side of the house, poked in some bushes, looked out on the back deck, behind the garage...no turkey. I called FedEx, they tried to call the driver, but he was gone for the day.


Just as I was ready to call FedEx back to tell them they'd ruined Christmas for a group of orphans, a guy in a grey station wagon pulled up out front and walked out with a box. I was standing out on the front porch with such a look of consternation on my face that he must have put it together all at once.


"Are you Eugene? I found this on my porch when I got home just now."


Whoever you are, guy in grey station wagon, I salute you.


After letting the turkey thaw for a couple hours in a cold water bath (it was still vacuum sealed), I brined it inside and out with a mixture of kosher salt and minced parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme, a the Simon Garfunkel of seasonings. I put it in a baking bag and we put it in Joannie's basement fridge, breast-side up. The next day I massaged it and flipped it over, the salt having sucked some of the liquid out of the turkey as I had read it would.


Wednesday we spent the afternoon prepping a few dishes in advance, a batch of creamed corn pudding, garlic mashed potatoes, and the turkey stock. Spices at the grocery store are not sold loose but in plastic containers that always contain too much for any one dish, I used the excess thyme, rosemary, sage, and parsley to make a compound butter and stashed it in the fridge to use as a rub on the turkey the next day. Compound butters are handy to have around in the kitchen and a great way to not waste all that spice.


Making stock, like ironing shirts, alternates between soothing ritual and exasperating burden from one minute to the next. I love the meditative pace of the process, the way the scent sneaks up on you as the liquid absorbs some of the character of all that's in it, the turkey giblet, heart, and neck bones, the mirepoix of onions, carrots, and celery, the sprigs of rosemary and thyme, the parsley and stray chicken parts. But with seven other dishes to worry about, I was tempted, at moments, to reach for canned stock, like a monk tempted by the sins of the material world.


Thankfully I had Karen as my faithful partner chef in crime, and we had enough time to get enough prepared that we could let the stock just simmer while we dined on some Chicago deep dish pizza.


On Thanksgiving Day, I thought about using a turkey bag for roasting, but some articles I'd read suggested that the steaming it would encourage would deprive us of trying a more traditional roasted texture and flavor. My decision was made when we couldn't find the turkey bag we'd set aside.


I contemplated two other methods of adding flavor, one being injection and the other being a rub. Since we didn't have a turkey syringe and I'd made the compound butter the night before, we went with the rub.


Heritage turkeys don't require as high a finishing temperature as regular turkeys as they're free of antibiotics. That brings with it another benefit: a shorter stay in the oven. I gave it about a half hour at 450 degrees to brown the skin, then lowered the temperature to 350 and covered the breast with aluminum foil. One of the chief problems with in preparing turkeys is the fact that the white breast meat tastes best at a lower temperature than the darker leg and thigh meat, thus the selective application of foil. Ultimately, I had to remove the legs and thighs and give them an extra ten to fifteen minutes alone after the rest of the turkey was finished, about two and a half hours later.


Fast forward to the taste test: dear readers, it was good. Damn good. The best turkey I've ever had. Was it the dry brining, or the rub, or the heritage of the turkey? I don't know, but the white meat was moist like a roast chicken, and the dark meat tasted almost like duck. But it was still undeniably a turkey.


A few years back I ordered a turducken for Thanksgiving, and while it was fine, there didn't seem to be any real synergy among the three meats. Stuffing one inside another inside another seemed to offer simply an advantage in carving efficiency, but the flavors simply added up to the sum of the parts, nothing more.


The heritage turkey, with its mix of different meat textures and flavors, seemed to fulfill the vision of what a turducken was trying to be. But whereas the turducken resorts to the culinary equivalent of plastic surgery, the heritage turkey is au naturel, a product of good genes and healthy living.


Thanksgiving day, one soon-to-be-convicted drunk driver was probably pondering a grim future at the hands of the law. Meanwhile, my little sister may have been without her new Prius, but that day she was celebrating Thanksgiving with loved ones over a great turkey she helped prepare. Sometimes the lessons of Thanksgiving come as simple as that.



Miscellany

Google Reader asked some notable folks what their top picks were for Google Reader. Good idea, but I find it a bit offputting that so many folks chose their own website as one of their short list? Their sites are already listed and linked under their names, are we to believe they really spend time reading their own writing in Google Reader?


***


This past weekend, I was driving home on the 405 and saw a massive, odd-looking cloud standing alone in a clear blue sky, like a single head of cauliflower poking its head up through a bed of smog. Then I realized it was smoke from the fires in the San Gabriel mountains. It looked like a scene from 24, as if someone had dropped a nuclear bomb on LA. Here's one tightly-cropped time-lapse video of the smoke from the fires.








To truly appreciate how terrifying it looks, watch this wider-framed time-lapse which will give you a sense of the magnitude of this latest SoCal conflagration.


***


Hitchcock is a storyboarding app for the iPhone that can use photos. You're limited to the fixed focal length lens of the iPhone, but I could see it being a handy tool on set. We were shooting our Alec Baldwin Super Bowl commercial earlier this year in NYC, and the director Peter Berg grabbed my iPhone at one point and used the camera to help us visualize a shot he envisioned. He mentioned offhand that he wouldn't mind having a simple tool on the iPhone for quick previz.


It's $19.99, but there are more specialty tools coming to the iPhone that aren't intended for mass audiences, and those can justify higher prices.


Incidentally, I wish the iPhone app store had a way to put apps on a wishlist, or save them for later view. I often see apps that I think I might want to buy later, and I never have a way to remember them. Like this one cool app I saw last week, what did it do again, it was something about...oh, forget it.


***


A BMW concept diesel-hybrid. As with all concept cars, it looks absurdly futuristic, but it's heartening to see higher end manufacturers committing to the sustainability movement. Design can lift up the mundane and make it desirable, and having manufacturers like BMW or Tesla pushing the high end of this market can only help.


***


On Japanese simplicity.




In just over 30 years Hello Kitty has become a multibillion-dollar model of resourceful minimalism within the global juggernaut of Japanese pop culture. From Tokyo to Tehran, her expressionless, barely sketched visage adorns key chains, backpacks, toiletries and even a Hello Kitty-themed airline jet. Late last year an entire maternity hospital with Hello Kitty imagery adorning bedspreads and birth certificates opened to great fanfare in Taiwan.


But why is she mouthless? Because when you look at Hello Kitty, or “Kitty-chan,

French Laundry

On the last night of a week and a half vacation I took earlier this summer, a trip that covered Hong Kong, Tokyo, and San Francisco, I ate at The French Laundry. Diners there self-select into a specific crowd. Given the restaurant's reputation as one of the, if not the best, restaurant in the U.S., the difficulty of securing a reservation, the average cost of a meal there (four or five dollar bill icons next to certain restaurant names should be put in quotation marks, this being one of them), and its rather out-of-the-way location, a meal there feels like a pilgrimage.


Years ago I had made about a month's effort to secure a reservation, with no success, and then I forgot about it for a while. Back in that day, French Laundry was not listed on OpenTable.com. Two months before the day you wanted to eat there, you had to submit yourself to 15 minutes of frenzied speed dialing each morning at 10am PT and hope for the best, like trying to get through to Ticketmaster to purchase tickets to a Radiohead concert. Eventually you'd get through, just in time to hear that all tables had been booked. It is perhaps fortunate that two months would elapse before anyone fortunate enough to secure a reservation could actually dine there; in that time, the unpleasant and barbaric reservation scrum would have faded from one's memory rather than taint one's overall experience with the restaurant.


While I was planning my vacation, I saw San Francisco sitting at the end of my itinerary, and I may have been hungry at the time, but the thought of trying to tack on a trip to The French Laundry just popped into my head. I didn't think I'd have any luck securing a reservation given I'd only have one day to try to score a reservation, but lo and behold, I called the very next morning, and a table for 2 opened up for me, albeit at the late hour of 9pm PT. When, a few weeks later, I tried to switch my reservation to a party of 3 (it would be a meal to celebrate my friends Howie and Tram's upcoming wedding), they were able to accommodate me, even apologizing for having to move my reservation up to 7:45pm, a far more desirable time. Viva la recession!


Over the years, I've talked to many people who've eaten at The French Laundry, and I couldn't help factoring their reports into my expectations for the meal. Most had nothing but praise, but the few accounts of disappointment hung out in the back of my mind. I was three parts anticipation, one part anxiety.


Even on a weekday, with San Francisco traffic, it only took about 45 minutes to drive there, across the Golden Gate Bridge and out to the town of Yountville. The GPS told us when we were near, but not knowing what it looked like and given its somewhat understated signage, we drove right past the restaurant the first time.


The French Laundry

French Laundry


We arrived early, just before sunset, and the hostess welcomed us to take a tour of the garden across the street or to spend some time in the garden/patio outside the front door. We did both.


Walking through the garden across the street is a unique experience. I've been on many a kitchen tour, met many a chef, sat at many a table watching sous-chefs and line chefs mid-task, but this was the first time I'd seen the raw ingredients on the vine. While we were strolling and admiring the gorgeous produce, someone from the kitchen came out to pick some ingredients. I'm fairly certain he wasn't sent out just to impress us.


Leeks in the French Laundry garden

Leeks in garden


Howie loves snow pea vines

Howie likes snow peas


Greenhouse

Greenhouse


Back at the patio, we snapped a few photos on various benches, in front of different plants, standing in archways...no matter how our meal turned out, it would be well-documented. Our hostess came out to grab us and ended up offering to snap some photos of the three of us together.


Inside, we were led to our table on the second level. The interior layout recalls an expensive home converted into a restaurant dining space. To one side of us was a group of three older diners. They had the look of foodies about them. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what that is, but it's a way one carries oneself, with the ease of a lifelong Red Sox fan strolling to his seat at Fenway, for example as opposed to the wide-eyed anxiety of a virgin on prom night fumbling with a bra strap, say.


To the other side of us was a table of about eight young male investment bankers in navy suits, a pack of wild dogs with a client's expense account to pillage, the hint of date rape hanging in the air over their table. They were, at that moment, still sober, but I tried my best to turn my chair away from them. More on them later.


We had the choice of two nine-course tasting menus, the chef's or the vegetarian. Both were $240 each, service fees included, with the option to have the foir gras en terrine for an extra $30 on the chef's tasting menu. No disrespect to the vegetarians of the world, but for that price, my meal was going to include some animal flesh. Tram and Howie concurred, and we split up our choices so that we'd have the chance to try both choices for those courses where two items were offered.


I had just begun collecting wine a short while before this meal, and even with my limited knowledge of some of the more famous wines in the U.S., it only took a minute or two for the French Laundry wine list (PDF) to stagger me. Just about every hot boutique winery and big name wine I'd heard of was represented. It's a world-class all-star wine list, the most storied wine list I've ever looked over. The lofty roster had prices to match. High end wines typically don't support more than a 100% markup given the high starting price, and that seemed to be the markup here, but 2X a high price is, well, a higher price. But if you're going to splurge on a meal at French Laundry, digging into their treasure chest of a cellar for a bottle you might not be able to find on the open market is one of the treats.


For those looking to sample a flight of wines, The French Laundry has a great selection of half bottles, of which I picked out two reds, both of which are no longer on the wine list, so quickly does their wine list rotate. The standout to me was a reasonably priced pinot noir from Skewis Winery, the 2006 Bush Vineyard, Russian River Valley. A few weeks after my meal, I ordered a lot of bottles of that gem from Skewis after finding out that it would be their last year of producing the Bush given the passing of the owner of that land. I usually don't enjoy California pinots as they aren't earthy enough for my taste, but this was a beautiful drinking wine, with a long and complex finish.


Here was our menu (many special characters were pillaged from France in its making). I won't linger on every dish, but will call out the standouts afterwards.



"Oyster and Pearls"



"Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters

and White Sturgeon Caviar


_________________________



Salad of Hand-Rolled "Orecchiette"



Cauliflower Fleurettes, Sweet Peppers, Fava Beans,

Spanish Capers, Marjoram and "Piment d'Espelette"



Moulard Duck "Foie Gras en Terrine"



Gros Michel Banana "Génoise," Belgian Endive,

Hazelnuts and Madeira-Vanilla Reduction

($30 supplement)

_________________________



Wild Columbia River Sturgeon



Fennel Bulb, Niçoise Olives, Navel Orange, Pine Nuts,

Arugula and Orange-Saffron Gastrique








Tartare of Japanese Bluefin Tuna


Tokyo Turnips, Broccolini, Ginkgo Nuts,

Perilla and Salted Plum Coulis







_________________________







Sweet Butter-Poached Maine Lobster "Mitts"


Golden Corn, English Peas and Black Truffles from Provence






_________________________







Wolfe Ranch White Quail


Spring Onions, Pickled Blueberries,

Red Ribbon Sorrel and "Sauce Dijonnaise"






"Confit de Cœur de Veau"


Pumpernickel "Pain Perdu," Toybox Tomatoes Celery Branch,

Marinated Red Onion and Jidori Hen Egg Emulsion






_________________________







Snake River Farms "Calotte de Bœuf Grillée"


Cèpe Mushrooms, Green Asparagus, Yukon Gold Potato "Rissolée,"

Garlic Pudding and "Sauce Bordelaise"

_________________________



"Timanoix"



Ibérico Ham, Toasted Walnuts,

Collard Greens and Blis Maple Syrup



_________________________



Nectarine Sorbet



Ginger "Gelée," Puffed Quinoa

and Boysenberry Purée



_________________________



"Gâteau Saiant Nizier Au Manjari"



Mango-Chili Relish, Mast Brothers Chocolate Cocoa Nibs,

Lime Foam and Coconut Milk Sorbet








Lemon Verbena "Vacherin"



Tellicherry Pepper Panna Cotta, Garden Lemon Verbena Sherbet

and Chilled Silverado Trail Strawberry Consommé



_________________________



Mignardises



This is California cuisine, yes, but not the type content to surround two fresh beet halves with five niblets of corn, two asparagus spear heads, and three peas in a miniature tableau and call it a dish. I love fresh ingredients as much as the next gourmand, but in this day and age, when I can visit the same farmer market the local high end restaurant visits for super-fresh produce, the premium I'm willing to pay for such food has shrunk.


Anyone who has perused chef Thomas Keller's French Laundry Cookbook knows that attempting to conquer any of the recipes therein is no task for the average home chef. It will end up more of a coffee table book for most of its owners: inspiring, yes, but a bit like a weekend warrior reading about Lance Armstrong's workout routines. Me, I'm happy to pay for this type of meal because I won't at any point in the meal wonder if I could prepare that dish myself, let alone at a reasonable cost in terms of time and equipment.


Take, for example, the first official course (the first amuse bouche was unlisted and was the same as the one I had at Per Se, Keller's New York sister to French Laundry: cornets of salmon tartare with red onion crème fraiche), one of Keller's signature dishes, "Pearl and Oysters." Served with a special mother-of-pearl spoon, it's a dish whose preparation is a delicate and complex chemistry experiment. If the end justifies the means, then it's worth it, because the dish is brilliant. I don't have the culinary vocabulary to describe it, but in its flavors and textures it's something wholly unique, a creation all Thomas Keller's.


[Note: It was really dark in the restaurant, I did not want to use flash and bother the other patrons, and so the photos are a bit grainy. I would have preferred to shoot with a bit smaller of an aperture to increase the depth of field, but these pics were the best I could manage.]


"Oysters and Pearls"


The butter-poached Maine lobster "mitts" tends more towards traditional Californian cuisine, but the butter poaching and black truffles added just enough dazzle without distracting from the simplicity of its mix of flavors.


Sweet Butter-Poached Maine Lobster "Mitts"

Sweet Butter-Poached Maine Lobster Mitts


Perhaps the most memorable dish of the night was Confit de Cœur de Veau, literally the confit of a veal heart. Rather than serve the heart in one piece, Keller wisely chose to shave it thinly, and it came out arranged like a bouquet of pastrami for the gods. Rich, dense, and unforgettable. I'm not even sure where you could buy a veal heart to work with, so I took my time eating this one.


"Confit de Cœur de Veau"


One last dish to highlight, and that is the Snake River Farms Calotte de Bœuf Grillée. It is one of the best pieces of beef I've ever had in my life. If I were to become a vegetarian for the rest of my life, I'd want to stash the flavor of this beef in my memory to serve as the canonical flavor of beef for the rest of my days.


Snake River Farms also supplies Wolfgang Puck's fantastic LA steakhouse Cut with its American Wagyu, and if you fancy yourself an expert in the preparation of beef you can purchase direct from them. Best of luck if you go that route: 4 10 oz ribeyes will run you $199.


Snake River Farms "Calotte de Bœuf Grillée"

Snake River Farms


The only thing marring our meal was the company to my left. By this point in our meal, the investment bankers had a few bottles of wine in them. The volume of their voices had turned up, and snippets of conversation from their table drifted over.



"You could tell, just looking at her, she was a little sexpot."


"Oh yeah. If she was a year or two older, what was she, seventeen? My god."


"Hell, even if she wasn't."


[bawdy laughter]



To my relief, the American Psycho crew left by the time our desserts came.


The name of the restaurant comes from the fact that the building was once actually a French laundry. In keeping with that theme, the napkins are held in clothespins when you arrive, the bill comes on a laundry ticket, and the lampshades have ironing icons on them.


French Laundry lampshades

French Laundry lampshades


By the time we finished dessert and nibbled on the mignardises (the little candies and cookies that follow dessert at finer dining establishments, like a post-dessert dessert), I was suitably full. Not sickeningly gorged, but content.


If you drink wine, figure on $300 a person for dinner. After we settled our checks, I mentioned to the waiter that I'd seen the French Laundry kitchen once before, on a plasma TV in the kitchen of Per Se. The two sister restaurants stay connected via webcam. Without my asking, the waiter said once he'd run our credit cards he'd give us a kitchen tour.


The kitchen is not massive, it's smaller than the one at Per Se. By the time we walked in, the kitchen was almost spotless already.


The kitchen

French Laundry kitchen


Two things hanging in the kitchen impressed me. One was a sign over one doorway with the definition of the word "finesse." The other was a clock over a doorway, under which was a sign that read "Sense of Urgency." After having completed our meal, these didn't seem like empty decorations but a fitting summary of two of the qualities that make The French Laundry a world class restaurant.


Finesse

Finesse


Sense of Urgency

Sense of Urgency


And so ended our journey to one of the world's culinary meccas. I thoroughly enjoyed the meal and recommend the journey for those who can drop that much for a meal and not regret it. You know who you are.



Knives and thumbtacks

Oh, what I wouldn't give for a Bob Kramer chef's knife (his knives are used by some of the most famous chefs in the world, like Thomas Keller of French Laundry fame). I'm on Kramer's waiting list, and I hope to make it to the top of it while I'm still in my cooking prime.


I received an e-mail from his mailing list saying he'd just put one of his knives up for bid on eBay. It sent a brief surge of excitement through me that lasted until I followed the eBay link and saw the current bid price.


***


Some famous people share their favorite places on Google Maps. Not a very long collection of people, though I was curious to see what places Ferran Adria of El Bulli picked out.



Slimming Centers in Hong Kong

While riding on moving walkways and escalators in the subways of Hong Kong, I couldn't help but note the many posters featuring attractive female models in bikinis smiling cheerfully, rather than seductively, back at me (though I didn't snap any photos of them, modesty being one reason, and my disinterest in fishing my big camera out of my bag in the extreme humidity being the other; my way of combatting the humidity was to stand as still as possible in an effort to sweat as little as possible). I didn't recall such ads the last time I'd been in Hong Kong, I remarked to Esther.


"They're for slimming centers," she explained. She was right. I looked closer at the fine print on the ads and noted, in small print among all the Chinese text, the English words "Slimming Center".


This shocked me because of one important fact, and that was that I didn't recall seeing a single obese person in Hong Kong. I mean that literally. I did not see one person in my three and a half days in Hong Kong that appeared significantly overweight. In fact, most of the women I saw were thinner than even the models in the slimming center ads. In fact, my week of travel through Hong Kong and Tokyo convinced me, finally and unequivocally, that the United States is the fattest country on earth. When my sister Karen and I spotted our first obese person in our travels, a huge guy in Tokyo, we couldn't help but shoot each other a wide-eyed glance of acknowledgment and surprise. Of course, he could have been a sumo fighter in training in which case I'm not sure if he'd count as a naturally occurring specimen of obesity.


There are many possible reasons for the disparity between the U.S. and other countries, but a few seem most plausible to me:



  • Having recently finished Michael Pollan's fantastic two book series, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals and In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, the high volume of processed food in the American diet is highly suspicious. The government subsidizes corn, and so a huge portion of the American diet is corn or corn products like high fructose corn syrup.

  • Hand in hand with that is that in the rest of the world, more of the diet consists of what Pollan, in In Defense of Food, calls real food, that is, things your grandmother would have recognized as food, like vegetables, fruits, and meats. One of Pollan's healthy eating rules of thumb is "eat ethnic food." He notes that the citizens of almost any country other than the United States, subsisting on their country's base diets, remain slim. In the U.S. we've tried to reverse engineer Mediterranean cuisine or Japanese cuisine to try and find some magic health bullet, like olive oil or omega-3 oil from fish, but Pollan says the real solution is likely some complex interaction of many things which can't be pinpointed to one substance that can be reduced to some magic pill. Instead, he urges people to just eat more ethnic food to try and benefit from all that brings, from the lighter reliance on processed food to any magical interactions among the ingredients of that cuisine. I was glad to read that; it's one more justification for my love for eating my way through my travels, Hong Kong and Tokyo being two of my best cities in the world for indulging that weakness.

  • Portion sizes in the rest of the world are not just a little bit smaller than those in the U.S., they're much tinier. This was especially noticeable in Tokyo where the plating itself is often so elaborate, each plate like some miniature assemblage by Joseph Cornell. Calories are cheap in the U.S., but eating cheaply is not the same as eating healthy.


Of course, I could be misreading the correlation and causation equation here, and it's possible that the slimming centers were the source of the successful nationwide weight management, but I doubt it.



H1N1

The fear of swine flu is much higher in Asia than in the United States. Even on the flight over, I noted many Asian travelers and several flight attendants wearing microfiltration masks, On my arrival into Hong Kong, I had to fill out a health form noting if I had any of the symptoms, a cough, a headache, a fever. The attendant scanned my head with some sort of thermal imaging device that looked like a handheld barcode scanner.


In elevators throughout Hong Kong, elevator car button panels were covered with saran wrap and/or marked with signs indicating how often the panels were disinfected, the lowest frequency I saw being every two hours. One night, I went with my hosts Jae and Esther to the Kowloon side of the island for dinner at a restaurant called Hutong, and before we were allowed into the elevator up, we had to pass another thermal imaging checkpoint.


Given Hong Kong's urban density and the sheer number of its people who cross paths each day on subways, on streets, and through one of its many retail centers, it makes some sense that they'd take H1N1 more seriously than we do on this side of the Atlantic. Still, the heightened paranoia was such that I felt apprehensive any time I had to so much as sneeze or blow my nose in a public place.


What's more, many in Asia view Americans as irresponsible for traveling abroad as possible carriers of H1N1. Jae and Esther took me to get a foot massage after a long day on our feet sightseeing, and my masseuse, realizing I spoke Mandarin, struck up a coversation with me. Though I felt more inclined to dive into an English-language celebrity gossip magazine I'd found on the table next to me, it felt rude not to indulge someone who had to sit there kneading my sweaty feet.


She asked where I was from, and when I told her, she immediately noted, "Ah, that's wear the swine flu comes from." But she named it in Cantonese so at first I didn't know what she was saying. It wasn't until I heard a snippet that sounded like "H1" that I realized what she was referring to. She asked if I knew anyone who had swine flu or had died from it, and I told her that I did not. I tried to explain that it wasn't really as bad an epidemic as the news had made it out to be, but she may have interpreted that as one more sign of how irresponsible Americans were for treating something so serious with such casual disregard.


The effect of the swine flu scare in Asia much worse on my friend Mike, though, who, on a flight to China, sat a row ahead of someone who had swine flu. As soon as they tracked Mike down, he was put into quarantine, and thus began an ordeal that he, for our entertainment benefit, chronicled in a series of fantastic blog entries that made him somewhat of a press celebrity once the local bureau chiefs picked up on them. He received a link from James Farrows of The Atlantic Monthly and did an interview with the LA Times.


Highly recommended:




Anna Netrebko

The Asian leg of my vacation is complete, and I miss Hong Kong and Tokyo already. It's never a fair comparison, pitting the hometown where you've spent years living and working versus the places you visit for just a few days with an itinerary set to plunder the destination's peak offerings. The allure of the new and mysterious almost always overwhelms the mundane and the familiar, especially given how many vacations come after long stretches of work which have whittled your creative energy down to a nub.


I had many more days of exciting discoveries left in Tokyo. It's such a massive city that my four days there were just enough for me to feel comfortable there at the exact moment I grasped, in a very physical sense, its sheer density and magnitude. I left with a feeling that there were more things I hadn't visited that I would love than I had crossed off the list. That's rare for me, being somewhat of a travel completist.


But more on Asia later. Today I come to speak of the Russian Anna Netrebko, widely considered the world's greatest soprano and its preeminent diva, that term being a great compliment in the world of opera.* I heard Netrebko this afternoon in the final performance of her short run with the San Francisco Opera performing the role of Violetta Valery in Verdi's La Traviata.


I will preface my thoughts by saying I am no expert on opera, so those looking for a review of the finer points of Italian diction and an assessment of where she took her breaths will be disappointed.


I first heard of Netrebko from a friend who'd seen her perform early in her career, and then I lost track of her until a cover story profile in the NYTimes Sunday Magazine. She was most well-known for two things, not often paired in an opera singer: her voice and her beauty, both sensual and captivating. If you were a baseball scout grading her voice on the traditional 20-80 scale you'd give it a 75. As for her looks, I showed some friends her CD covers today after the show and one compared her to Monica Bellucci, an apt comp in that she does recall in many ways the full-bodied Italian starlets of old.


I don't often go out of my way to see certain performers live, but I make an exception for generational talents: Michael Jordan, for example, or Roger Federer, and in this case, Netrebko. When I saw her calendar for 2009 included two stops in the US, one in NY at the Met and one in SF performing La Traviata, I snapped up tickets almost a year in advance for a weekend date of the later and knew I'd plan some way to attend. As I noted before, I'm at best an opera dilettante, but I far prefer a good opera to a musical, and that makes me a rarity among my generation. I'm just as susceptible to being bored to slumber by a pondering German opera, but the best of the ones I do love have an otherworldly musical beauty that lifts me up in a way no musical can.


One of the problems with opera, and one reason I think it struggles to connect with a younger generation, is the deadly pairing of plot implausibility with wooden acting. The cartoon parody of opera, not entirely inaccurate, is of an overweight woman in a Viking helmet, her diminutive male counterpart barely the size of her thigh, screeching so loudly that windows shatter, said immense woman playing an ageless young beauty despite sporting the looks of a fifty-something housewife.


It's a gross objectification and simplification, but I have left many an opera wondering what would have been lost by closing my eyes throughout and just listening considering that the stage choreography consisted mostly of a singer walking to and fro on stage, all facial and bodily expression an afterthought in the pursuit of accurate diction and musical phrasing.


Netrebko arrived on stage in style, in the backseat of a classic Buick. She is a bit heavier now than in photographs I've seen of her, but that's understandable considering she had a baby not too long ago. The voice is still the voice. What's amazing to someone like myself, who can't sing along to more than a few songs at a concert without losing my voice, is how effortlessly she can generate a massive, rich sound. At times she barely appeared to be opening her mouth and yet filled the house with her voice. The ease of her vocal power was such that if I didn't know who se was I'd think it was some odd form of lip synching. This incredible vocal power is a huge advantage when acting out more tender emotions. A lesser singer who'd have to contort her body and strain her face to generate the same output is much less likely to convey emotion than sheer physical exertion.


Netrebko actually matches her vocal expression with acting. No one will confuse the work that can be accomplished while vocally navigating passages of coloratura with the type of method acting Meryl Streep accomplishes in a close-up shot, but Netrebko makes it easier for those who don't understand Italian to understand what she's feeling. There were several moments where I missed the text on the prompter because I was peering through binoculars, but as long as I kept my eyes on her I never lost track of the emotional or plot throughline of the scene.


Having just arrived back in U.S. timezones less than 24 hours earlier, I was worried I'd succumb to jetlag during the show, this being a Sunday 2pm performance that was 6am Tokyo time. But a quick powernap and a rare espresso before the show, combined with the excitement of seeing Netrebko live in a fast-moving La Traviata kept me sharp throughout.


I've never seen La Traviata live, and my lack of knowledge of the finer points of opera preclude any other thoughts on this particular rendition. Two other memorable moments from the performance: at the first intermission, I saw a sign that said Netrebko would be in the lobby after the show signing her CDs and DVDs. At that precise moment I knew that about half the cash in my wallet had just been lit on fire, and I felt a pang of regret that I'd left my SLR at my friend's apartment and would have to rely on my iPhone camera in the underlit lobby. Second, at the end of the performance, when Netrebko came out to a standing ovation, she put a hand over her heart in appreciation and blew kisses to her adoring SF fans, here at the site where she'd made her US debut many years past. As the curtains fell for the last time, just as they were halfway down, she suddenly threw inhibition to the winds and hopped up and down like a young girl, waving her arms frantically overhead, as if sending off departing friends from summer camp. It was a youthful, exuberant expression of joy that I just couldn't picture coming from someone like an Angela Gheorgiu or a Jessye Norman, for example.


I waded through a crowd in the giftshop and picked up some $70 worth of Netrebko CDs for the signing, then jumped into a long line that wrapped around the corner of the lobby inside to wait for her to appear. After twenty minutes in which I saw opera house staff running back and forth with some distress, I felt a hand pull me sharply back to clear a gap in the line to a side door to the orchestra seating of the hall. I looked up to see an older man with a staff badge, and who should walk up from behind him than Anna herself, a young female assistant in tow. The old man rushed to open the side door to give her a shortcut through the hall to get to the autograph table in the lobby, but Netrebko took one look at the door, discerned his intentions, and turned away without breaking stride to walk down the hall past her waiting fans instead.


The old man finally popped back out, puzzled as to why she hadn't come on through. By then Anna was halfway down the hall, waving and clasping hands with fans as they greeted her with shouts of "Anna!" and other phrases in Russian and a variety of other languages.


The line did not move quickly, and while we waited a woman from the opera house came walked down the line with a post-it note pad writing down patron names in block capital letters so we wouldn't have to teach Anna how to spell our names. Good idea, but when she came up to us she also said that we could only give Anna one item to sign. Having purchased four CDs at significant price premiums to what I could have paid on Amazon, I was not pleased. If it were an opera I would have burst out into a fiery aria.


But Anna had already defied the opera staff once, and so I held out hope that she wouldn't adhere to such arbitrary house rules. As I turned the corner and saw her, I understood why the line wasn't moving more quickly. While the staff tried to hustle her fans through, Anna would look each fan in the eye, listen to what they had to say to her, respond, often in their native language (I heard her speak in English, Spanish, Russian, and French to various fans), pose for photos, and sign each CD or DVD with the same deliberate pace.


When I reached her, I chose a double disc set of her performance of La Traviata from Salzburg as the item most worthy of her signature, and she signed it right on the cover of the case. I mumbled something about having been honored to hear her sing, and she thanked me with a warm smile. I turned to leave, but then she saw the other CDs in my hand and reached out her hand.


"Here, let me sign those for you," she said, grabbing the stack. She signed each of them on the cover, but when she reached the last CD, she paused, furrowed her brow, then opened the case and signed the back of the paper insert instead. Then she grabbed the CD of La Traviata back from me.


"I am not sure if this will stay,", she said, rubbing her finger across the ink of her previous signature on the plastic CD cover. But the ink had already dried and did not smear.


"Oh, it is okay!" she beamed.


I usually dread meeting famous people, especially those I admire. The imbalance in relationship of worshipper to hero is so severe as to lead to disappointment more often than not. What can be conveyed in a single autograph line encounter of any substance or genuine emotion between a fan and a celebrity who doesn't know that fan as much more than one of an adoring throng of millions? The usual exchange of pleasantries:



  1. Fan expresses admiration for celebrity.

  2. Celebrity thanks fan, then asks what the person's name is and what they'd like to have signed.

  3. Celebrity signs item while fan perhaps gushes a bit more, perhaps elaborating on the earlier admiration to name a specific moment or instance of the celebrity's work that particularly struck them.

  4. Celebrity thanks fan for that more specific example in which his/her work has touched the fan, hands back the autographed item, and then turns to the next fan.

  5. Rinse, repeat.


I've just recently met two celebrities to have items signed, one being another classical music performer I've followed for decades now, and the other being one of my favorite movie and music video directors. In both cases, the celebrities were brusque, borderline cold, and the encounters left me feeling like a silly fanboy who'd wasted their time by forcing them to indulge in such banal and forced interactions with the ungifted masses.

What Netrebko conveyed in our short encounter was subtle but, given my previous two hero encounters, momentous. She showed genuine appreciation for my appreciation of her work, and she displayed a thoughtfulness that, amplified by the previously noted disproportionate one-way admiration that is typical of fan-to-hero relationships, bordered on genuine intimacy. This ability to convey a genuine warmth and caring in short interactions with complete strangers is something I'd only read about from skilled politicians like Bill Clinton. Netrebko has it in spades, and one has the sense that if she could spend even more time meeting her fans she'd have a relationship with them that not opera critics or vicious opera bloggers could mediate. She can be the people's diva, and more than that, she seems like a genuine person, and so she brings a realism to the flawed operatic heroes she plays on stage.

My friend who was with me said afterwards that Netrebko's charms seemed particularly tuned towards men, but I didn't hear her at first, I was so engrossed in flipping through my stack of autographed CDs with a big smile on my face. If opera is to survive and thrive in the next generation (I could not help but notice, once again, that the median age of this crowd was likely in the late 50's), there is something to be learned from the Netrebko's of the classical music world, and it is not about selling out with sex appeal or crossover albums.




* The term prima donna comes from Italian. Prima is the feminine form of primo--"first"--and donna means lady. The prima donna is literally the first lady of an opera troupe. It's not a coincidence that the term is more often used in English to describe a vain, temperamental person. But the operatic sense of the term looks at the glass half full and connotes someone able to fill the seats of a massive opera hall and satisfy patrons paying hundreds of dollars for the privilege of witnessing a performance from someone with a personality and stature to match the ticket prices in scale. At least that is my layman's interpretation.







The Wi-Fi High Club

This post is being written from 30,000+ feet on a Virgin America flight from NYC to LA. The PA announcement was fuzzy, but I think it noted that this was one of 3 Virgin America planes outfitted with a wi-fi service they've dubbed GoGo.


Unfortunately my power outlet isn't working, so my online time may be limited. But for now, I've got wi-fi on my laptop, ESPN on Dish Network on my seatback entertainment system. Just connect my cellphone and my overstimulation is complete.


Speedtest.net - The Global Broadband Speed Test - Mozilla Firefox 3.1 Beta 2



Ah, youth

Having come in a night early for a morning meeting here in Boulder, Colorado, Christina and I strolled around University of Colorado campus tonight. Being around a university reminds me of the happiest time of my life, as an undergrad.


We walked into one building, saw signs for a performance, and walked out to find a play being put on in an open-air theater. I stood to watch a scene--given the many references to D'Artagnan I assume it was The Three Musketeers--then walked out with a smile on my face.


Nothing like mannered student theater acting and eating disorder brochures in the hallways to remind one of college.


blah blah blah

I'm not picking sides on the debate about the impact of the web on journalism, but I do venture to say that stories like this would not have made the news prior to the rise of the web.


American Airlines to start charging $15 for the first checked bag. That's great, because I just adore flying those roomy coach seats. I I look forward to being charged to use the bathroom, charged to do the crossword on the in-flight magazine sudoku, and charged to rent an overhead bin for my carry-on luggage, too.


Eating vegetables raw is not always the healthiest way to consume them. Thank goodness. Also good news: eating vegetables with a bit of fat, for example in full-fat dressing, may help you absorb more vitamins.



Misc

Who is Jimmy Carter endorsing? Seems pretty clear it's Obama.







***


Is it possible to go out both with a whimper and a bang? This may be the business equivalent. RIP ATA and your dirt cheap airfares which I've taken advantage of a few times over the years.


***


One of the cooler hacks I've encountered recently: hack your portable Canon digital camera to enable new functionality like RAW file formats, live historgram displays, unlimited interval shooting, high speed shutters, and much more. I'm so going to do this once I can track down a card reader.



Some really cool free things

Work has been so busy recently I haven't had time to pass along some great free Internet services I've been using for a while now.


Sandy, the virtual assistant. I don't have a real-life assistant of my own, but Sandy sometimes makes it feel as if I do. I have a fondness for command-line interfaces, and being able to fire off a quick e-mail to Sandy saying "Remind me to pick up dry cleaning at 9am tomorrow" and having "her" e-mail and text me at that time the next day is very handy. Besides the simplicity of the service, the other thing I enjoy is the pseudo-personalized nature of Sandy's replies. I asked her to remind me of something earlier, and Sandy began her reply, "Wow! You're up late!"


Tripit - Where Sandy's abilities end, TripIt takes over. Most people I know book their travel online, and in the process receive all those oddly formatted travel confirmation e-mails. Then you have to sit there and enter the information into your calendar. It's a pain in the butt, and don't ever do it again. Instead, just forward those e-mails to plans@tripit.com, and TripIt merges all of them into a master itinerary, adding maps and driving directions and weather and all sorts of other useful information. You can print it, send it to your calendar, send it to your phone, forward it to friends and family, or even enhance it with custom information. Ingenious.


Instapaper - Like many people who've grown up with the web, I exhibit symptoms of Internet-attention-deficit-disorder. I regularly have 20+ tabs open in my browser, and I've long searched for a simple way to save a tab to read later so I can close it out for the time being. Instapaper is the simplest solution yet. Add a simple Read Later bookmarklet to your browser, click it when you want to save the web page to read later, and you're done. Visit Instapaper later and all your saved articles are there to read.



Holidays 2007 in Scottsdale


Free wi-fi at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. Boo-yah. (I wrote that back on Dec. 30, when I started writing this post, and now, weeks later, I'm still trying to finish)


With the addition of so many little kiddies to the family, we tried something different for the holidays this year and rented a vacation home for a week in Scottsdale. The four bedroom house had a pool, a hot tub, a grill, a pool table, a home theater room, and lots of flat screen TVs. My favorite was the home theater room. It had six plush, reclining, leather theater seats with cupholders, arranged in two rows of three, the back row raised off the ground slightly in a stadium seating configuration. A small and somewhat middle-of-the-road projector hung from the ceiling, shining its picture on a screen flanked by theatrical curtains. The kicker was an old school theater-style popcorn machine.


James and Angela had said before the trip they planned to rent a Toyota Solara convertible. So as I stood curbside waiting for them to pick me up from the airport, I thought it odd that a flaming red Mustang pulled up next to me, the passenger waving at me. A second glance revealed that it was Angela sporting her giant movie star sunglasses.


"We decided it was too cold for a convertible," she explained. So we drove back from the airport in a cousin to the future KITT (Knight Industries Three Thousand). The engine makes a suitable American sports car growl, a low, menacing rumble.


That car is no friend to the environment. "I can see the fuel gauge needle moving!" Angela said as she drove.


We all have our natural roles at the holidays. Mine are chiefly around entertainment: I'm responsible for bringing lots of movies on DVD, bringing by Nintendo Wii, and taking photos or video. The parents did most of the cooking. James and Angela bought most of the groceries. Joannie was our liaison to the vacation home owners. Karen looked up info for our social outings into Scottsdale, like the location of hikes and downtown attractions. My dad was responsible for playing with the grandkids in a semi-educational manner.


I brought two movies from the past year for people to watch: The Bourne Ultimatum and Once. James bought Pan's Labyrinth. When the kids weren't watching the Pixar Short Films Collection in the home theater room, those three movies occupied most of that room's screening time.


Usually we'd put on a movie after the kids had gone to bed and the dinner table had been cleared, dishes washed. That meant starting at 10pm some nights, so it took some people a few days to find the time to watch a movie start to finish without having to run off to collapse in bed.


Every one enjoyed all the movies, especially Once.


Our family has just the right mix of personalities to escalate things, so the day someone mentioned the durian, the so-called "king of fruits," and discovered that most people at the table had not eaten it before (come to think of it, that someone was probably me), it was inevitable that we'd end up buying one from Ranch 99 and forcing every one in the family to take a bit on video camera. See, the thorny-skinned durian is famous for its polarizing taste and odor. Those who enjoy it worship it and, I suppose, are the ones who dubbed it the "king of fruits." Those who find it revolting describe the odor as similar to that of rotting sewage or trash. I count myself among the latter.


The durian we bought was not as malodorous as the ones I'd encountered before in China. I remember the scent of raw durian to be so revolting that I couldn't bring myself to eat it raw. I was only able to consume it after it had been incorporated into a pancake, which was actually decent. But under the glare of my father's video camera, there was no escaping it this time. My dad chopped it open and scooped out the yellowish flesh onto a styrofoam plate.


Durian


James, the most curious one of us all, stepped up first. Or perhaps it was Sharon. Either way, both found it neither tasty nor awful. I was next and spooned a generous heap into my mouth.


Big mistake.


The taste of it reminded me of its smell and nearly made me gag. It took me about a minute of stomach-turning chewing and mental fortitude to swallow it without coughing up my dinner. I seem to recall breaking out into a sweat as I tried not to heave in front of my family, a sign of weakness that would be recounted at family reunions until my funeral. Karen, Joannie, Mike, and Angela had similar reactions.


My dad was convinced our revulsion was merely in our head, that we had prejudged and condemned the fruit without giving it a fair trial. To prove his point, he took two large bites and chewed away with no reaction. I'm convinced, however, that my dad has lost all feeling and taste sensations over the years. I've seen him slice his finger open nearly to the bone and have minimal reaction, and I thought his nonchalant reaction to the taste of durian was related, somehow, to his indifference to pain. Still, he pitched out the rest of the durian, giving our trash that evening the smell of, well, trash.


Some random holiday notes:


  • Most played song: No One by Alicia Keys. By the end of vacation, was I sick of the song? Probably. But for the one week before you reach saturation with a catchy tune, it's toe-tapping good times.

  • Most listened to local radio station: Phoenix's Movement 97.5. Like the music they'd play at a dance club that you're just slightly embarrassed to admit you like (think Tone-Loc, Timbaland, Fergie). Driving around in the Stang, blaring 97.5, I realized that James, Angela, and I were a parody of suburban cheesiness.

  • Some random food consumption stats: 4 boxes of Gobstoppers, two bottles of Scotch (one Macallan, one Glenlivet), two gallons of Tampico (my brother's private equity firm owns them, so drinking this was a show of solidarity), about twenty bottles of wine, somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty dozen eggs, maybe six cases of water. Last chance for some fun before the New Years resolutions kicked in.

  • Most watched movie: Once. That scene in the music store? I've seen it about 28 times now. Best scene of the year.

  • Most played video game: Wii tennis. I'm impressed by how hard and flat my four-year-old nephew Ryan can crack the ball in Wii Tennis. Wii sports is the great equalizer. Young children who have infinite patience can, through repetition and immediate feedback, can develop some wicked skills in sports like Wii tennis and bowling. I discovered this the hard way when I ran into a six year old girl who nearly dropped a 300 in bowling on me. I was not amused.

  • Number of kisses planted on my nephew Connor's cheeks: 389.


Connor and Auntie Angela


Some personal highlights:


  • Scoring 100 in pop-a-shot at the Sugar Bowl ice cream parlor in Old Town Scottsdale. I'm pretty good at pop-a-shot, but for one transcendent moment, I entered the zone. The rules are simple: 45 seconds to shoot as many baskets as possible. Each basket counts for two points, except in the final 10 seconds, when they count for three each. You shoot with a cantaloupe-sized basketball at a smaller than normal basket. I think I missed two shots the entire round, breaking 100 on my last shot. I felt like Michael Jordan in that first half against Portland, or Reggie Miller at the end of the game against the Knicks. "That will be your opus," said James. If so, then that will have been one sad life.

  • Scoring a birdie on hole 10 at Troon North. On a good round, I usually shoot one birdie out of sheer luck. But not having played golf in a while, I wanted to snap my clubs over my leg while hitting on the driving range before the round. I thought I had a better chance of actually killing a bird than scoring a birdie during the round (hundred of wild guinea roamed around the golf course, apparently oblivious to the dangers posed by amateur golfers like myself). But by the last several holes, I started to slow down, and my swing started to come around. On the last hole Alan and I played, I hit a drive about 270, a pitching wedge to within 5 feet, and toilet-bowled a putt for my birdie.

  • The craziest moment of the holiday, by far, occurred on the third hole of Monument Golf Course at Troon. This par 5 hole is known as the Monument hole for the massive rock sitting right in the middle of the fairway about 260 yards out. Just past that hole, as I walked towards my ball to play my third shot, I spotted what appeared to be a small tiger sitting on the hill. The golf instructor who was riding with us was strolling up the fairway. James and I asked him what it was, and he said it was a bobcat. I stood my ground, expecting it would wander off, but our presence didn't faze it in the least. Soon it wandered into the fairway, past my ball. I took a couple steps back, but it didn't even look my way once, even when our instructor tried to shoo it away. The bobcat was gazing across the fairway. I followed its line of sight and realized it was looking at a rabbit sitting just off the fairway. It crept slowly across the fairway. I couldn't believe the rabbit didn't spot the bobcat which was now within 25 or 30 feet. Though the bobcat was now crawling on its belly, it wasn't hard to spot against the green fairway, and its tail wagged expectantly. And then, just as I thought it might be sitting there for a half hour, the bobcat shot towards the rabbit which dashed off through the bushes across the cart path. The bobcat didn't go after the rabbit but hurled itself into a bush. A narrow escape for the rabbit, I thought. But I was wrong, on both counts. First I spotted the bobcat coming out on the other side of the bush, another rabbit in its mouth. Then I heard our instructor Ryan hitting the brakes on his golf cart. The first rabbit I'd spotted had run across the path just as Ryan was cruising by in the golf cart, and Ryan had hit it. I walked over and saw the rabbit's cotton ball of a tail sitting on the cart path, and we found the rabbit nearby, limping around, one of its back legs broken. Rabbits are pretty damn cute, and we all felt awful, but I wasn't about to pick up a rabid rabbit and try to fashion a splint for it or anything like that. I thought it would be dramatic if I took an 8-iron to it, put it out of its misery, tears in my eyes, screaming "Damn it all to hell!" as I brought the club down again and again, but I didn't. Life, death, the circle of life, and a three putt bogey, all in the course of one hole. Only in Arizona.

  • Seeing Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West. I've seen Taliesin in Wisconsin and Robie House in Chicago, and both were inspiring. Now I just need to get out to Fallingwater. Many Heloise Crista sculptures adorn Taliesin West, and they're great.


Most mornings, I'd be woken around 6 or 7am by the sound of my nephews running around. This would be after I'd stayed up until 3am by myself, maybe watching 30 Rock - Season 1 on DVD in the home theater room, or reading The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, or something else. So I'd spend the day sleepy. But not tired. The thing about vacation that keeps me running on so little sleep is the thought that I could get sleep at any time. When you're working, you're never sure how much sleep you'll get from one night to the next, and that worry is more mentally exhausting than anything else.


Most awkward moment of the holidays. Just as we were about to wrap a book I'd bought for my nephew Ryan, he burst into the room and surprised us. He grabbed the book, looked at the cover, and said, "Don't get me this book. I already have it." Then he ran out.


I went running with James and Angela and even Alan a few times. There's a budding movement to try and get as many of us together to run the NY marathon this year as possible. Will it happen? I'm not sure. It's a new year, though, the time to resolve such things.


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Dark

Via Eric and Christina: the latest branch of a unique restaurant opens in Beijing, China. These so-called dark restaurants put a twist on the dining experience: you eat in complete darkness, guided to your seat and through the meal by visually-impaired waitstaff wearing night-vision goggles.


The goal is two-fold. One is to increase employment opportunities for the visually-impaired and raise awareness of the challenges they have to overcome. A second is to enhance your appreciation of the taste of the food by shutting down one of your other primary senses.


Add that to the list of novelty dining experiences, like Ninja Restaurant. There are Dans Le Noir restaurants in several major cities around the world.


The bathrooms, wisely, are brightly lit. There are some affairs one should conduct without the help of a spotter, for the benefit of both parties.