Feed Your Head

Healthy Staff Meal at Binkley's

Five years ago, the term “staff meal” had absolutely nothing to do with late-night food and restaurant civilians weren’t privy to it. Nope, staff meal was (and 95% of the time still is) just exactly what it sounds like: a free pre- or post-shift meal prepared by a restaurant for its staff.

For obvious reasons, staff meal is humble and low budget, composed of inexpensive meats (lots of chicken thighs) plus a hodgepodge of kitchen leftovers and no-frills ingredients management doesn’t want to go to waste.

Sometimes one designated cook is in charge of it every single day, but just as often, a handful of cooks take turns sharing the responsibility. But, of course, the details of staff meal are as unique as the restaurants preparing them.

Ironically, staff meal may be the only decent meal a restaurant worker eats all day, and in many cases, it’s gulped down in a hurry — especially when it’s offered pre-shift.

So that relaxed scene in the movie No Reservations where the staff gathers around the table to drink wine and leisurely twirl their pasta before the evening gets underway? Pure fiction.

The movie did get one thing right, however, and that’s the sense of community and conviviality that staff meal often engenders. People who work side by side day in and day out sit down in the spirit of “let’s break bread together,” and an atmosphere bordering on familial is the result.

It’s not uncommon for pre-shift staff meals to also become informal meetings and gear-ups for the night ahead, when menu specials and other important information might be shared.

But the guy who takes staff meal to another level entirely is the guy who takes everything he does to another level entirely, and that’s Kevin Binkley, chef-owner of Binkley’s Restaurant in Cave Creek. I’ve sat in on and partaken of three staff meals at his namesake restaurant, each of them wholesome, appealing and delicious. No big surprise there.

What DOES boggle the mind is the mandatory meeting that takes place simultaneously, a freakishly fast-paced confab so rigorous it conjures Jeopardy, not The Waltons. Navel gazing and cell phone fiddling are both strictly verboten. This is serious stuff.

At 4 p.m., staff members gather in the dining room, grabbing plates of food set out on the bar, taking copies of the day’s menu and finding seats. Dining Room Manager Jeannie Hoffman begins the meeting by calling out the day’s date in a loud, let’s-get-down-to-business voice.

Jeannie (turned), Kevin and Chefs

Many staff members, particularly the younger ones (who are never called busboys here), have been studying their menus before the meeting officially begins, trying to get a handle on the dizzying amount of information headed their way at warp speed. The atmosphere is quiet and focused.

The first order of business is discussing which ingredients and preparations are coming off or going on the menu. The progression is linear, beginning with the first course (soup amuse bouche), moving to other amuse bouche, then cold appetizers, hot appetizers, fish, meat and finally, dessert and cheese. The chef de partie (line cook) in charge of each particular area of production talks about his section of the menu, often describing every laborious step of a particular preparation. Everyone but the chefs themselves takes notes, putting down pens to shovel in a few bites of food when there’s time.

Listening, Eating, Taking Notes

Binkley encourages questions, and there’s no lack of them. Where is Perigord? What’s a marionberry? Is the Ivory King Salmon still coming from Ketchikan? What’s the difference in texture between seared and poached fish?  What is tapioca? What’s in the persimmon coulis?

Kevin jumps in often, launching into brief lessons on various types of radishes or mushrooms, describing how he removes the sinew from the ahi or defining and explaining papillote. Someone has googled Perigord on his cell phone (accepted cell phone use) and chimes in with an answer to an earlier question: an area noted for truffles, ducks, geese, foie gras and Bergerac wine, both white and red. Jeannie throws in a few more details about the landscape adding, “ It’s the land of Cinderella,” putting the region in an accessible cultural context. The most frequent question-asker is probably Kevin’s sister Jessica, one of the restaurant’s two captains. Both captains are women (no old-school patriarchy here) and both make sure they know the menu — and everything else about the place — absolutely cold.

The menu discussion, which generally takes at least 30 minutes and often 40, is followed by a mini-tutorial on wine, sometimes conducted by Amy (who does the wine-buying for both Binkley’s and Café Bink) and sometimes by one of the restaurant’s two wine stewards. Only one or two wines are tackled each day. On one occasion, it’s Beaujolais, which prompts a little background info on Burgundy and other grapes grown in the region. Amy explains that it’s the best value on the list and drinking perfectly now, adding that it’s not Nouveau-style, which launches another discussion about Nouveau. The burning question for everyone: with which foods does it pair well?

Now it’s Kevin’s turn to ask the questions. He quizzes the staff about everything that’s been covered so far, calling on people one by one just as a teacher might. What’s unique about trombocino squash? In what kind of wood is the sausage smoked? What’s the difference between Oregon black truffles and Perigord truffles? What’s an empanada, and is it fried or baked? What’s the difference between soft shell crab and blue crab? Where do we get our chevre (producer and town)? What’s a sweetbread? Name the four types of beet on the beet plate. How would you describe skate to a guest? What is foie gras and from whom do we buy it? Everyone does a remarkably good job, demonstrating the same grace under pressure they’ll probably be required to summon at least once or twice in the course of the evening.

But it ain’t over ‘til it’s over, and the next phase of the meeting focuses on service, protocol, duties, overall knowledge of the restaurant and management’s pet peeve of the week.

Protocol: How should the phone be answered? Everyone recites in chorus: Good evening. Thank you for calling Binkley’s.

Protocol: If a staffer and a guest are headed the same way and there’s little room to navigate, the staff member should say “after you.” If the guest encourages the staff member to go first, the staff member must decline again, but if the guest insists, the staff member should accept the offer (avoiding a standoff) and thank the guest.

Service: Drink orders should be delivered within five minutes. Let the wine steward know if guests want more extensive wine descriptions. Drivebys are good; don’t interrupt guests to ask how they’re doing. I’m so happy to hear this one. Is there anything more annoying than a server who stands there ’til you stop your conversation to blandly ask, “Is everything all right?”

Restaurant Knowledge: Kevin makes sure everyone knows which gallery the local art on the walls comes from (Bonner David Galleries) and where that gallery is (Scottsdale).

Duties: Jeannie encourages the staff to check the bathrooms occasionally and to make sure the edge of the toilet paper has been folded in a V.

End-of-the-meeting topics vary. In one meeting, Jeannie talks about each person knowing exactly what his/her job is, (she evens reads a job description), explaining that doing someone else’s job is never actually helpful. Sometimes, a managerial pet peeve is addressed. One of them is “no talking about anything but work during work.”

Next it’s time to discuss reservations and just exactly who’s coming in. Names and party sizes are mentioned as well as birthdays, special occasions and who will sit where. Staff members all seem to know the regulars. Notes are meticulously kept about who ate what and when so that nothing is ever duplicated. One of the dishwashers is coming in with his wife for an anniversary dinner. In an aside to me, Kevin says the staff will treat him like gold — as if I expected anything else!

And One And Two And Three And Four . . .

As the meeting draws to a close, Jeannie asks everyone to stand up for a couple of minutes of calisthenics — some jumping jacks, some stretches — to get everyone pumped (but not actually sweaty) for the night ahead.

Staff meal ends on a high note as staffers rush to get their last-minute duties completed before the restaurant opens.

Kevin is proud of his staff meal-meetings and feels there aren’t many (if any) in the country that match his for thoroughness.

“If we’re not getting better, we’re getting worse,” he says, an attitude that goes a long way toward explaining why an evening at Binkley’s is always spectacular.

May Day in the Best Way

For a generally cautious person who half-imagined leaving Phoenix Magazine with a gold watch in hand, I’m getting pretty good at jumping off cliffs. Probably the riskiest thing I’ve done in a while was leaving my safe, loaded-with-benefits gig at The Republic last year to try my hand at PR.  Moving into a brand new field (similar in some ways but plenty different too) was definitely scary. Seven months in, I was just getting the hang of things at Up Agency (with Ty Largo and Stacy Pearson), when an irresistible opportunity presented itself to me and I jumped again — this time to Aaron May, who invited me to become his in-house publicist.

As you probably know, Aaron is the talented chef-restaurateur who owns (or co-owns) a slew of local restaurants, including Iruña (Spanish tapas), Over Easy (boffo breakfast joint with two locations), The Lodge (a laidback North Woods-style bar), Mabel’s on Main (elegant hideaway with turn-of-the-century décor and a Mid-Century menu), Vitamin T (tacos, tamales, tortas and tequila in a tiny, cute downtown space) and May’s Counter (Tucson’s classy but comfortable new go-to for Low Country Cuisine). His company — Eatwell and Drinkalott— is growing like mad and he’s got a million-zillion things going on 24/7. From what I’ve seen so far, my job is destined to be one part marketing, one part social media, one part PR and three parts gently riding herd.

Aaron and I got to know each other by phone as I interviewed him for two free-lance stories I did back-to-back earlier this year — one a Go-List for Food & Wine, another longer piece on local restaurant empire builders for Where Guestbook (both April issues). In the course of those interviews (particularly, the Where piece), I came to admire him for his intelligence, creativity and drive. More than that, I just flat liked him for being such a charming, funny guy whose interests extend well beyond the kitchen. I guess he liked me too because a few days later, he invited me to the opening at Big Earl’s BBQ (James Porter’s new restaurant), where I met Aaron’s sister and girlfriend and a week after that, he invited me to come on board. After another week of dithering and doubting myself, I accepted the offer. Ty — who will still be my eatin-and-drinkin buddy when I’m 85 (and he’s 35 and holding) — was incredibly gracious about the whole thing, as was Stacy. We still collaborate and help each other whenever possible.

Do I know all I need to know about PR and marketing? Of course not, and I admitted as much to Aaron. But I’ll learn, and that was a big part of the appeal, relying on myself to learn what I need to do rather than leaning on Ty and Stacy, whose PR/marketing/social media knowledge is vastly superior to mine.

But what seems to matter most — both to Aaron and to me — is that we genuinely like and admire each other. He employs a little over 200 people, and from what I’ve seen so far, many of them have worked for him for years. They’re fiercely loyal to him, which says a lot about a person, don’t you think?

The other day, we were having a strategy meeting at Iruña. The group included Aaron’s partner Quinn Goldsberry (another charming, savvy guy), his GM Mark Dow (former chef de cuisine at Deseo and Mr. Suavecito), Iruna’s chef de cuisine Brian Barry (quiet guy, impressive resume, more on this later) and me. When Aaron walked in a bit later, he slapped each of the men on the back, saying, “here’s my chef, here’s my manager, here’s my partner” in an affectionate, glad-we’re-on-the-same-team sort of way. But when he got to me, he hesitated a split second and said, “here’s . . . Nikki Buchanan.” I’m guessing he didn’t want to sound possessive or patriarchal. He wanted me to know that he views me as someone who has earned a name and that he hasn’t’ forgotten it. The gesture displayed boatloads of sensitivity, which I so appreciated. But the fact of the matter is, I’m Aaron’s publicist and damn proud of it. He can say “my” with impunity.

Just so you know, I will still be writing free-lance pieces for other publications, and I swear on a stack of bibles, I plan to get much more focused on this blog. I don’t blame you for doubting me, and I fully expect a snarky comment from a certain big boy who lives in a glass house. But just keep checking back, all I’m sayin’ . . .

Brunch Boss

I love Robert McGrath. He is and always has been Arizona’s best culinary ambassador for the New American West: a ruggedly handsome Marlboro Man who loves the Great Outdoors, walks like he was born in cowboy boots, fishes, drinks, cusses and treats women with the courtly good manners of a real cowboy. Women openly adore him, but I suspect plenty of guys harbor their own little man-crushes too. McGrath is just that charming, a larger-than-life personality who offers up romantic glimpses of a world — and a West — that’s rapidly fading away.

Wall of Renegades

It’s also safe to say this James Beard Award winner and classically trained chef is a bit of a rebel, an outlaw and a renegade (which is how the name of his new Restaurant, Renegade Canteen, was chosen). With his CIA Hyde Park and Le Cordon Bleu background, he could so easily be toqued out in a high-dollar resort restaurant somewhere. Instead, he prefers using his mad skills to transform the traditional cooking of the Old West into something modern, sophisticated and completely accessible. And he does it all in an elegantly rustic environment that says, “Relax. Enjoy. No need to prove your worldliness here.” And by the way, who else so seamlessly melds disparate design/décor elements such as a giant vase of fresh flowers and a center-stage, glass-enclosed wine cellar with rough-hewn wood and cowboy art? Nobody.

In late January, Renegade began offering a weekend brunch (Saturday and Sunday, 10am-2 pm), and  it’s fantastic. I’ve been twice so far, but I won’t be happy until I’ve worked my way right down the menu, which, like McGrath himself, is anything but conventional.

The most interesting section, called Odd Things, features four terrific dishes — odds and ends that don’t fit anywhere else — each priced at $10. It’s here you’ll find bourbon and honey-glossed pork belly with cheese grits, duck confit quiche, green corn tamale with huevo and the Saloon Hot Brown — McGrath’s riff on a sandwich invented at the Brown Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky back in the 20s.

The Hot Brown

Forced to pick a favorite among them, I’d probably go with the straightforward but ridiculously good Hot Brown, a towering open-face sandwich built on a foundation of Texas Toast and stacked with great drifts of mashed potato, thick slices of moist turkey breast, beefsteak tomato, Mornay sauce and a topper of crisp onion strings. Actually I’m torn between this one and the pork belly, which has a lusciously fatty, sticky quality that pairs especially well with creamy golden grits. The presentation is simple but stunning, the ingredients humble but haute — a classic case of making a silk purse from a sow’s ear.

Pork Belly and Grits

The green corn tamale possesses the silky texture, pale color and banana leaf wrapper that characterize tamales of Southern Mexico. Stuffed with panela (a mild white cheese), sided with hot-sweet pineapple salsa and topped with an over-easy egg, it packs a chile wallop.

Tamale and Egg

By the time I get to the springy quiche (so rich with duck confit it seems more like a crispy duck cake), I’m reminded why I’ve loved McGrath’s cooking from Day One. He understands the yin and yang of food and balances the rustic with the refined in a way few others can. He makes guy food women love and pretty dishes that don’t make men feel like eunuchs for liking them. The quiche, accompanied by a spinach, pear and candied pecan salad, lightly coated with bacon-honey dressing, proves my point.

Duck Confit Quiche & Salad

I’ve had so many lousy flatbreads in my life that I wasn’t at all convinced a breakfast version, with a fried egg at its center, would be any different (then again, my friend says I’m a sucker for anything with an egg on top). I ordered it because it came highly recommended and because I wanted to be polite. And man, was I glad to be wrong! Topped with smoked chicken, spinach, roasted green chile, mild cheeses and cilantro, this thing is outrageous. Dunked in egg yolk? Just crazy, crazy good ($14).

Chicken & Spinach Flatbread

Classic Eggs Benedict are flawless too, layered with “peameal bacon” (another word for the ham-like back bacon we call “Canadian bacon”) and poached eggs, then smoothed with a lustrous, lemon-edged hollandaise ($12). Ditto for crunchy chicken fried steak,  ladled with creamy-chunky sausage gravy. Would I order them again? Tough to say with so many other interesting and more unusual dishes vying for my attention. But that’s just me.  Always looking for the next cheap thrill. Next time, I plan to try the fried chicken and waffles and maybe the fried egg sandwich, which, like the Hot Brown, is asterisked as “officially certified hangover cuisine.” Good to know.

Classic Eggs Benedict

Chicken-fried Steak

Technically, the Bananas Foster Waffle isn’t a dessert, but my pals and I treat it like one, saving it for last and eating far too much of it, given all that’s gone before ($11). I love that the bananas are fresh (not caramelized and sickeningly sweet) and that thick whipped cream and caramel sauce are generously applied.

Bananas Foster Waffles

This is the best brunch I’ve had in ages. I loved the live music, a mellow, bluesy trio who covered Van Morrison, Bill Withers, Greg Allman and a bunch of other good stuff I’ve already forgotten. Eating at the bar (the cozy booth was nice too) and sipping Steve Douds’ inspired cocktails (had a screwdriver with Champagne in it, which made it light but no less potent) was also a big part of the fun. But most of all, I thought the food was terrific.


The weekend can’t get here soon enough!

Old Familiar

Good old Los Olivos

Mmmmm. Cheese crisp.

Be honest. There’s probably a restaurant in your regular rotation that you never mention to your food-obsessed friends because liking it might weaken your credibility. It’s not the least bit trendy and that’s exactly what you like about it. It’s also reliable, comfortable and close to home. It’s your go-to, your standby, your old familiar.

In my former North Phoenix neighborhood (a restaurant wasteland), that place was Spinato’s, where my family ordered their thin-crust pizza (topped with our special combo of meatball, green olive and banana peppers with extra sauce) nearly once a week.

Now that I live in Scottsdale again, I’ve happily slipped back into making regular visits to Los Olivos Mexican Patio, which has been tops on my list for Mexican food (the old school kind) for as long as I can remember. In fact, this was the first Mexican restaurant my mother and I visited when we first moved to Scottsdale  and the West’s Most Western Town actually lived up to its name.

Nowadays, a good buddy and I meet there at least twice a month to talk, drink beer and split a cheese crisp, which ranks among the best in town. Okay, IS the best in town.

I love a good cheese crisp with all my heart, but they seem to be harder and harder to come by these days. Why is that? Maybe because the Trend Police have ordained that we must worship only that which is authentic and Mexican food made north of the border doesn’t count. So, like nachos, cheese crisps are now disdained as concoctions made strictly for gringos. What a pity! And I beg to differ. In my not-so-humble opinion, Arizona has its own brand of Mexican food, and some of it’s terrific. It deserves a respected place in the pantheon.

As its name suggests, a cheese crisp should be crispy on the bottom (there’s nothing worse than a cheese limp) and — just as important — sizzling hot and gooey on top, thanks to a generous melt of cheese, which is usually of the orange variety. At Los Olivos, it’s an orange and white mixture, which I’m guessing is mild cheddar and Monterey Jack, nice and stringy.

If my pal and I draw the not-quite-together young waitress who seems to work the tiny, narrow room we favor (even though the acoustics are ridiculous), odds are 50-50 as to whether our cheese crisp is still going to be bubbling-hot from the broiler when we get it. But if we draw any of the veteran mamacitas who’ve been working at Los Olivos since time began, that cheese crisp will be perfect every time: the bottom browned, crisp and almost pastry-like in its flakiness, the cheese looping and drooping as the slices are pulled apart.

What makes this cheese crisp so special, aside from its prerequisite crispiness? Two things: the flour tortilla and the hot sauce, served in a tapered bottle, not a bowl. The sauce is bright red, garlicky, redolent with oregano and plenty hot. Brought to the table first thing with warm, thin, crispy corn chips and a milder, chunkier salsa (good but not in the same league) it’s nearly impossible to leave alone.

Now, about that ethereal flour tortilla, made in-house and bearing the black spots of the griddle: it’s one of the best in town. Maybe not better than Carolina’s but very, very close behind. Thin and pliant, it leaves a trace of greasy residue on the fingers and makes a foldable mop for steak picado (another  favorite of mine). Zora Valenzuela has been cranking out flour tortillas for Los Olivos for over 40 years, and I’m here to tell you, she’s got it down.

Critics generally don’t re-review restaurants that have been around since the earth was flat, so it’s not likely you’re going to read a professional’s opinion of Los Olivos any time soon. And God knows you can’t trust most Yelpers, who are inclined to say things like, “I’m generally not a fan of Mexican food, so this may be an unfair review but oh well.” Yeah. Oh well.

Whether you can trust me on this score is also up for debate, and here’s why. When you’ve loved a person, place or thing for a long, long time, you probably can’t view it objectively anymore. Case in point: many years ago, I asked a longtime boyfriend, “Is that girl prettier than I am?” His reply was “I don’t know. I can’t see you anymore.” Maybe it was his clever way of dodging the truth, but it was an answer I happily accepted. It suggested that his love for me had made him blind to this particular asset or that particular flaw. It is exactly this way for me with Los Olivos. I’ve loved it for so long that I just can’t see it anymore.

P.S. My old standbys are the cheese crisp, cheese enchilada with sour cream, green corn tamale and steak picado. I seldom vary, and this, too, is a great treat for me: eating the same thing every single time, which is a no-no in my line of work.

Los Olivos History —-

Although the physical space has grown considerably since I was a kid (there was no blue room — or at least it wasn’t enclosed — and no great big dining room/lounge back then), Los Olivos feels pretty much the same as it always did — kind of creaky and dim, funky and comfortable. It’s one of the things I like so much about it.

The original building, which was constructed somewhere around 1920, is adobe and in its first incarnation was a pool hall. When the Scottsdale Civic Center was built, there was some talk of tearing it down to make way for the parking lot, which, of course, is standard operating procedure here in the Valley. But Barry Goldwater saved Los Olivos from the idiots. Or at least that’s the way the story goes and I believe it.

The Corral family has owned Los Olivos from the get-go and they’re smart enough to stick with a winning formula. It’s been spruced up a little here and a little there over time — new booths to replace the dumpy ripped ones, shiny silver mirrors and walls that have been painted with cactus and knock-offs of famous Diego Rivera paintings. But somehow, it all manages to look ancient and lived in. Best design feature: the grimacing head that sits atop the restaurant like a Mayan gargoyle.

Second Class, Sunday, 10 am: This week, Joe begins class by talking about cellaring wine, pointing out that restaurants and retail wine shops must cellar it (and therefore learn how to take care of their expensive inventory) and that regular folks might want to for two reasons: some wines increase in value over time and some wines improve (develop flavor or their tannins soften) over time.

We talk about how most American wines are aged 20 minutes. In other words, Americans buy it with the intent of drinking it right away.

Storing wine over the fridge is the very worst place in the world. Temperatures fluctuate, there’s vibration and heat rises, so that’s bad news. I knew that one, just as I also knew that putting it in my laundry room, where it’s too light and gets a little too hot in the summer is no better. And I’ve done it, like an idiot. Joe says dark and cave-like is best, even under the bed!

Some wines require aging: think Barolos, top Bordeaux (like, 30-40 years) and Vintage Ports. Other wines simply benefit from aging: like Napa Valley CS or top white wines, which might age well for 10-20 years.

We talk about how the colors change (reds turn to brick/tawny, white to dark gold/amber), tannins soften and the wines acquire a bouquet.

Bouquet vs. aroma: Aromas are the smells associated with a young wine. They are almost always fruity. A Pinot Noir, for example, may smell like strawberries, while a Syrah may smell like plums. As wines age, the intensity of fruity smells declines and the wines pick up aromas not inherent in the grape. That’s when reds start smelling like leather, tobacco, coffee, dried fruit and licorice. And a white might go from smelling like fresh apple to baked apple, from vanilla to caramel, from creamy to something more akin to cheese. I like thinking about these things, and I’d love to smell and taste a young wine and a mature wine of the same grape back to back. Oh, guess that means I want to do a vertical tasting.

Back to cellaring . . . cellared wines need constant temperature (55 degrees) and high humidity (75%), the latter so that the cork won’t dry out.

After some new language development associated with cellaring (ullage, topping up, chai, vertical tasting, tired, carbonic maceration), we move into wine tasting (yay!).

First, Merlot. I know that Andrea Immer says that Merlots can never truly achieve greatness and I think the folks in Sideways said some downright nasty things about it too. I’m convinced, though, that some of this is just backlash against its incredible popularity.

We went through this with both Chardonnays and Cabs, I don’t know, like maybe 12 years ago. Remember when people would say “ABC,” meaning anything but Chardonnay or anything but Cab? I agree that it’s great for people to go out and try other things, but for Pete’s sake, why knock perfectly good wines because they’ve become popular?

I have a soft spot for Merlot namely because it’s the first red wine I ever took a shine to back in the early 80s. It seemed so much more approachable than Cabernet Sauvignon, so it was a starter red wine for me. Now I like lots of reds, but I could never say a mean thing about Merlot. It sort of got me here. But I digress.

Next, we talk about Cab Franc, which is often a blending grape. Get this: Cab Franc is Cab. Sauvignon’s Dad!! Cabernet Sauvignon appeared in Bordeaux in the late 1700s. It was a wild cross between Cab. Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Always, always wondered about the names. Very cool to have that question cleared up!

Cab Franc is the #3 blending wine, which begs the question: what are #1 and #2? Don’t recall learning yet. Wait. Is one of them Merlot? Crap. Gotta find this out before my test tomorrow.

Next, we sample and talk about Zinfandel, another popular and much maligned wine. In southern Italy, Zinfandel is called Primitivo. Hunh. I’ve had some good Primitivos and some not-so-good Primitivos in my day. If memory serves, they’re earthier than CA Zins, which doesn’t always ring my bell. But then, I’m learning how undeveloped my palate really is. I mean that in a good way. I’m open to learning.

Zinfandel is the grape grown in CA for raisins, which might explain why I like it. And get this: if you can sense different levels of ripeness in a wine, say, fresh fruit and cooked fruit, that’s a Zin indicator. Not that I can do that yet . . .

Later in the afternoon, we move on to Sparkling Wines and Fortified Wines, two categories I really, really like.

First, we do the language development thing (filtration, fining, spirit) before moving into sparkling wine production. There are four methods for making it, some laborious, some quick. The more laborious, the more expensive, naturally, and only Champagne (which is so named because it’s made in Champagne) can use the term “Methode Champenoise.” Sparkling wines made elsewhere usually say something like “Methode Traditionale.”

Of course, the tasting and analysis is the fun part. Joe explains that tiny bubbles typically indicated a good quality sparkling wine. We try a $6.49 Spanish Cava and a $30 Montaudon Champagne. Believe it or not, the Cava is good for the price. You could make a very nice Mimosa, Bellini, whatever with this.

After that, we sip a Moscato d’Asti which is light years from the Asti Spumanti of your youth. The nose is floral and absolutely gorgeous. I could dab it on my wrists. Yummy, yummy, and guess what? It’s terrific with wedding cake. I’m filing this information away, not that I imagine a marriage in my future, but my son is almost 21, so I might need to know this in 7 or 8 years.

Next, we try a sherry, which almost no one likes but Jason and me. I don’t love it, but I think I could if I had it with tapas. And get this: it smells a bit like toasted almonds and briny olives, two ingredients used constantly in Spanish cooking. Isn’t that fascinating?

Next, we do an LBV Port that smells like berries, cream, figs and Red Vines (trust me, I didn’t come up with that last one, but it’s true!). Nice. I love Ports with all my heart, but now I’ve found my new thing — Madeira. Oh. My. God. We try Blandy’s Malmsey and seriously, it’s just scrumptious. It smells like raisins, hazelnuts, malt, almonds and maple syrup. It tastes like chocolate, almonds, hazelnuts, brown sugar and butterscotch. What’s not to love? This one, for me, is perfect.

Class ended at about 4:20, and once again, the day just flew. I know I have miles to go before I’m really good at this, but I sure am having a good time along the way.

Wine Wonk Wannabe

Back Story

A few years ago (okay, quite a few years ago), when I was still hosting a food-related radio talk show on KFYI, Jan D’Atri told me about a wine seminar she had just completed through the International Sommelier Guild. It might be more accurate to say she raved about it.

“Nikki, you have to take this class,” she told me. “You’ll learn so much.” Then she laid out the details: a six-hour class on a Sunday, running for, like . . . 12 weeks. 12 weeks? As in three months worth of Sundays devoted to wine glass swirling and sniffing, sipping, spitting and evaluating? It sounded fun, yes, but also intimidating and maybe a wee bit grueling: learning wine at a gallop and retaining it all? Whew!

Somehow or other, she got me in touch with Joe LaVilla, who is the Assistant Academic Director of Culinary Arts at the Art Institute of Phoenix. Joe, who first earned a PhD in Organic Chemistry, later attended The Culinary Institute of America and worked for a time at Windows on the World, Spago Las Vegas and Tarbell’s.

Now, among his many other duties there, he teaches weekend wine classes at the Art Institute on Dunlap. He’s a great guy, very down to earth, and his cooking background enriches his commentary tenfold. “This would pair beautifully with an apple tarte tatin,” he says, and my mouth waters imagining the combination. Well, or just imagining having a slice of apple tarte tatin period. But I’m getting ahead of myself . . .

Joe and I discussed my taking the class years ago. The idea was that my tuition would be waived if I could write about the experience somehow.  When I lost my job at Phoenix Magazine, the whole thing sort of fell apart and I forgot about it. Recently, Joe contacted me again to let me know that I could take the class and the tuition would be waived if I were willing to blog about the experience. So here I am. Ms. Wine Bloggah.

Last week was my first week, but it wasn’t the first week of the class. I missed the official first class (long story, not interesting) so I’m a bit behind. According to the notes Joe sent me, they started out learning about the history of wine, sea-faring Phoenicians spreading the wine gospel, Greeks improving on it, Romans even more so, yadda yadda. Will get back to that (or not) some other time. So let’s just start with what happened last week.

First Week

10 am: I walk in to a class of about eight people seated at two long tables in the AI’s café. Joe’s up at the front opening wine bottles. “Wow!” I’m thinking, “So we’re just going to start drinking wine at 10 o’clock in the morning? Very provincial of me, I know.

We begin with food and wine pairings, which makes me happy. This is precisely the sort of thing I want to learn, given my line of work. I’m sick to death of people saying, “Oh, just drink whatever suits you. Don’t worry about wine and food pairing. There are no rules.” It’s an anything-goes over-reaction to the wine snobbery of the 70s, when the somms, who wore those little tastevins around their necks, made people feel like perfect idiots. Now, it’s swung way too far the other way (in my humble opinion), creating a kind of reverse snobbism, which still keeps the wine knowledge limited to a select few. Let the heathen drink anything they like, but WE’LL know what’s what. WE’LL still be the true experts. Very condescending.

There ARE guidelines for pairing food and wine. There are matches made in heaven — foie gras and Sauternes, for example, or a big bad Cabernet with a juicy, red steak. And as Joe points out, there are elements in food and wine that can complement or detract from each other. There’s the kicker. When you DON’T know what you’re doing, you don’t enhance (but rather diminish) both the taste of the food you’re eating and the poorly matched wine you’re drinking with it.

One thing to think about: match the weight of the wine to the weight of the dish: light, white fish = light, white wine. Rich, heavy meat = full-bodied red. This is the one old-school rule everybody knows, but Joe points out that it’s not a tried-and-true. Pinot Noir, which he calls a white wine in disguise, often goes well with richer fish (salmon, for example). Sauces and accompaniments play a part too. So it’s not just the entrée you must consider.

Other guidelines:

Wine flavor may echo food flavor

Wine flavor may contrast with food flavor

Complex wines are better with simple dishes

Simple wines are better with complex dishes

Pair regional cuisine with wine from that area (roast pork with Alsace Riesling, for example)

We learn loads more; I just don’t want to start reciting chapter and verse.

Now we do a bit of tasting. Joe has brought in a few bites of this and that to prove his points: tomato slice, peppered mozzarella, baked meringue and lemon slice.

We taste Sauvignon Blanc with a lemon. Hmm! Pretty good! The acid of the one decreases the perception of acid in the other. That’s why Sauv Blancs work so well with salads.

Now we try it with a bite of crunchy baked meringue. Good again!

This time, the acid is mellowed in the presence of something sweet.

Cabernet Sauvignon with pepper cheese is bad news. The tannins in the wine increase the perception of spice and/or alcohol.

Riesling with pepper cheese works great. The sugar in the wine counterbalances the spiciness of the black pepper.

Next we learn some vocabulary related to wine production: must, chaptalization, cap, pigeage, remontage, barrique and more. How on earth will I remember all this?

After lunch, we watch an ancient video of perfect wine service. The towel draped over the arm, always turning the label toward the customer, placing the cork on a plate. Huh? Never have I seen a plate for the cork, not even at Mary Elaine’s back in the day. And get this: the sommelier actually tastes the wine himself before serving. The video was made in Canada, I think, and Joe says they’re more formal about it there. Seems so incredibly old school.

The video was followed by a little slide show — pictures of the various grapes, which is cool and something I never thought much about before: how different the grapes themselves might be.

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are small and thick-skinned, growing in loose, long bunches. Pinot Noir grapes are plumper and relatively thin-skinned, growing in compact clusters.

We talk about when they bud or ripen (early or late), their yields, their susceptibility to mildew or fungal diseases. And now mild panic is really starting to set in. Seriously, this is one hell of a lot of information.

We talk about Pinot Noir and why everyone loves it and of course, the movie Sideways comes up. So I chime in with the line, “Because it’s so f***ing good,” which is a direct quote from the movie, but nobody laughs. Great. So now my classmates think I’m a potty mouth and they don’t know I’m making fun of the overly dramatic “ode to Pinot” made by the chick Paul Giamatti falls for in the movie.

I’ve always liked Pinots for their versatility, but now I have another reason to feel a bit of the same reverence for them that Virginia Madsen so fervently expressed in the movie. The Pinot Noir grape is so good on its own that it’s rarely blended with anything else. Even oak-aging has to be handled delicately so that the oak doesn’t overpower the aromatics of the grape. To me, this means that there is only so much manipulation the vintner can  — or should -— do. He should concentrate on growing the best Pinot grapes he can grow and stop trying to play God.

I was noodling around on the internet and found this guy, who says it far more articulately than I do. Check it out here.

By the time Joe gets to the notable regions for Cabernet Sauvignon, I am hopelessly, woefully lost. The map is too little; I have no idea what I’m looking at and it means absolutely nothing to me.

Does anyone else feel this way? Who are these folks and what do they already know? The two guys to my right are from Cowboy Ciao and Kazimierz, so it’s a good bet they know PLENTY.

A guy behind and to my right owned a restaurant (I think I heard that), so he’s probably pretty well versed too.

When we start swirling and sniffing and sipping and spitting, I can really see how some people are infinitely more comfortable than others, like, ummm, me.

“What do you smell?” Joe wants to know, and people start throwing out answers. We are told there are no wrong answers. You smell what you smell. And man, some people are truly imaginative on this score. Damp leaves, Hall’s cherry lozenges, eucalyptus. To me, a lot of it smells like wine.

Greg, the guy to my left, must be part bloodhound. We’ve got our noses in a Riesling and he says, “You know the smell of an air mattress, like when you’re going camping?” Holy Cow! He’s right! It smells just like that to me too. Is this the power of suggestion? I think not. Well, maybe a little, but it sort of makes sense because one of the characteristic smells of a Riesling is petrol, and rubber (the air mattress) would be made with petroleum. So it’s really not that far-fetched.

Restaurant guy in the back says something else (forget what) smells like the glue you use for papier mache. Jeez, where do they get this stuff? Then Joe riffs on that and comes up with gypsum, which has something to do with the soil in which the grape is grown. I am so out of my league here. But I have faith that things will get better because at some point, I could smell the cedar (and said so) in a Cab, and the peaches (but too chicken to say so) in a Riesling Kabinett. I also smelled black pepper in one of the Cabernets, which I read later was a typical characteristic. So maybe there’s hope for me yet.

I’m going back tomorrow for my second class, and I don’t know how to access my online textbook (my bad, had a week to get it), so I’m already feeling super behind. Not the student I want to be. Will have to cram and taste and cram and taste in the weeks to come, but looking forward to it. Wish me luck!

I realize that one day at a new job isn’t enough time to look back on a former job with any sense of perspective. So I won’t go there. But I do want to say how grateful I am to everyone at the Arizona Republic for showing such warmth and kindness to me. The day I got there, many people stopped by to welcome me aboard and tell me how glad they were to have me. It meant a lot.

The place is huge, so I didn’t get to know all the people I wanted to. Never got to meet Bill Goodykoontz or discuss movies with him (would’ve loved that), or tell Clay Thompson that he’s as much a part of my day as my morning cup of coffee, or tell Suzanne Condie Lambert what a talented writer and truly funny person I think she is. She makes me laugh out loud — often — as she goes about the business of acerbic celebrity gossip, laced with a good bit of American culture-skewering while she’s at it. There’s a book in you, Girl. Remember Laurie Notaro?

As for the people I did get to know:

Howard Seftel: Of course, I’ve known Howie for years. We’ve operated since the early 90s as friendly rivals and just plain friends, calling each other occasionally to discuss news, seek each other’s input or simply commiserate about life as a restaurant critic. The day I left PM, I called him right away, and in a show of solidarity, he wrote a blurb about what had happened. He was outraged by the bald-faced denial of the separation of church and state (editorial versus advertising), a journalistic precept that continues to be eroded a little more each day at other publications.

He’s the person who urged me to call the paper, promising they’d give me some kind of work, if not much in the way of pay. In other words, he treated me like a friend and colleague, helped me get a leg up at a time when I really needed it. I can’t tell you how much that meant to me.

When I came on as a freelancer, writing two reviews per week, our beats often overlapped. We had to confer with each other about which of us got what, but Howie was always generous, never displaying the sort of territorial stinginess you might expect from someone in his position.

When the paper offered me a full-time position, he was my greatest supporter and ally, giving me the 411 on the ins and outs of the job. And when I left so suddenly four short months later, he was again my greatest supporter and ally.

Howie, you know how I feel about you, both as a writer and as a person. I admire your integrity, your restaurant acumen and your bottomless well of hilarious metaphors.

Karen Fernau: It’s crazy that I never actually met Karen until right before I started working at the paper full-time. You’d think that over the years our paths would have crossed. People who knew her and worked with her were always saying to me, “Oh, you gotta meet Karen. You’ll love her.” And they were right. I did, and I do.

From Day One, we were buddies — gossiping and commiserating like old friends. We were invariably on the same page about all sorts of issues, and it was Karen who made me feel at home and comfortable on the 8th floor.  Girlie, I don’t intend to lose you as a friend just because I’m on the other side of the fence now.

Stacy Sullivan, my editor and jefe: Thank you for always being easygoing and infinitely patient with me as I struggled to learn attributes and all the other maddening aspects of that crazy system. I must come off as more of a Nervous Nellie than I think I do. Stacy would always say, “Don’t worry. You can’t break it,” and I would feel better instantly. You’re a sweet, charming guy, and if you ever need someone to watch the place in NO . . . .

Megan Finnerty: My favorite spice girl, very professional but never afraid to crack an insider joke or keep me in the info loop. A wildly fun and funny girl beneath the no-nonsense demeanor.

Linda Vachata: My editor prior to Stacy and one of my favorite editors of all time (and believe me, in 22 years, I’ve had quite a few). She was always respectful of my work, and work-crazed as she was, always took a minute to tell me a story about her dogs or exchange a little joke. We became friends by email, which — sadly — is entirely possible these days. Linda, more face-to-faces in the future, I hope.

Jaimee Rose: Here’s a person I’ve watched grow as a writer over the years. She can tell a compelling story about mixing religions in marriage, or she can write about the arduous process of making perfect croissants — both deliciously. Early on, Jaimee and I formed a little mutual admiration society, which is the sort of boost we writers sometimes need. Here again, lunch is in order.

Rich Ruelas: I don’t think I’d been on board a week before Rich invited me to speak in his journalism class at the downtown ASU. He made me feel part of the team instantly and lumped me in with the writers who show integrity. I so appreciated that! And no, it was nothing you said, Rich. I’m pretty sure we’ll run into each other at FnB or some other wine-centric venue in the future.

Richard Nilsen: Sorry I didn’t get to read your think piece. I’m guessing it was brilliant. Thank you for seeing me as the old-school writer I really am and finding nothing wrong with that. You’re my brother from another mother.

John Stanley: Oh my goodness, what a sweetheart! We could all take lessons from this guy on the phone interview. Thank you, John, for getting down on your knees and helping me figure out the vicissitudes of Citrix, expenses and all the other tasks that sometimes made me want to slit my throat.

Ron Dungan: Another mild-mannered fellow, my cubicle neighbor, who was always friendly and helpful when I needed help (and that was often in the first month). We groaned about the byzantine expense reports together and were probably destined to become great friends.

Wendy Killeen: Information Specialist at the paper. Working with Linda V, Wendy organized tons of info for Calendar and always, always had something sweet and supportive to say to me. Wendy, you’re a lovely girl and I know with your great attitude you’re destined for good things — more writing, maybe?

Brian Berlinski: Do people usually like the person responsible for creating paperwork involving numbers? I LOVE Brian Berlinski, who was cheery and upbeat every time I came to him with a question. What a good, good guy!

And to all the rest of you I’ve failed to mention in this long-winded Academy Award-like speech — Elaine, Celine, Jill — thanks for your patience along the way.

To Randy Lovely and Nicole Carroll, thanks for hiring me in the first place. I’m happy you had faith in my abilities and sorry that choosing a new path may have created headaches for you.

With regard to the Arizona Republic and all the terrific people there, I’m tempted to use George Costanza’s famous breakup line:  “It’s not you; it’s me.”


Cowboy Up, Girl

Timing is everything. When Ty Largo and I became friends in 2008, I had no idea that two years later, I’d be willing to forsake my 22-year career in the restaurant reviewing biz to join with him and Stacy Pearson in our brand new PR firm called Up Agency.

I had been unceremoniously swept out the door by PM in April of that year and I was wondering what on earth to do with myself. By early summer, I was thinking of trying to create my own food, chef and restaurant-related website, not understanding that such a thing probably couldn’t make me any money or that, in fact, everyone was already blogging instead. Looking back, I would say that I was ridiculously out of touch.

I asked Mari Belardi at Cowboy Ciao who might be able to help me with web stuff, and she suggested Ty Largo, adding, “We love him.” I got online first thing and checked out the websites he had designed for Ciao and Digestif. “Cute!” I thought, watching the little graphic of steam rising from a coffee cup over and over again. It was crisp, it was whimsical and I imagined he could make something just as darling for me.

So I called Ty and we met for lunch at Digestif. There he was: black and white-checked glasses, silky black hair standing on end in a faux-hawk, sitting up straight and putting on his best business-like demeanor.  “Cute!” I thought again.

We hit it off instantly, oohing and aahing together over Payton’s farm-to-table yummies, talking about our favorite restaurants and my possible future plans as a web-based food wonk. We promised to get together again soon and did, this time at the bar at House of Tricks, where we drank too much and got to know each other better.

By mid-summer of 2008, I was working freelance for the Arizona Republic, thanks to Howie’s suggestion that I call Jen Johnston, who would become my editor, friend and occasional dining companion. Life felt slightly more stable. I had work. Not enough work to really live on, you understand, but enough work to keep the wolves from the door for a few more months. Ty got busy. I got busy, wrangling as much freelance work as I could find and we didn’t speak for months.

Last spring (2009), we met at Quiessence and over cocktails on the lawn, we commiserated about feeling adrift. Ty raised his eyebrows and looked at me over those crazy glasses and, lowering his voice a bit, asked, “Would you ever consider coming over to the dark side?” That’s PR-speak for journalists who leave journalism for PR.

I laughed . . .  and then I started thinking.

I’d harbored the PR idea for years (as many of my pals will attest) but I could never work up the nerve to leave my career and try something new. Then too, after all that early tutelage at New Times (where publicists were characterized as having “666” tattooed on their skulls) PR still smacked of used car salesman in my snobbish little head.  More importantly, no one in PR had ever actually invited me to come on board before.

I was flattered, but I wasn’t ready.

No sir, I wasn’t willing to give up a single thing after losing so much already. I was hanging on for dear life to whatever I had. After about a month of back-and-forth, I confessed that I just couldn’t do it. Ty was clearly disappointed, but he rallied and with a little help from his friends (see his own blog post at Juxtapalate.com), started carving out an impressive client roster as he transitioned from web development to PR.

We remained friends, and, in fact, became better buds over more shared meals than I could ever remember.

And then, this spring, after starting the full-time job at the paper, something just snapped. I realized I was tired of doing the same thing, or more accurately, the thing that was purportedly the same but that had changed dramatically (but in piecemeal fashion) over time. I had become less enchanted with writing reviews and more enamored with the prospect of PR. Suddenly, working with journalists I knew and liked or chefs I admired sounded pretty fun. And just maybe, I’d have the chance to exercise the sort of creativity I yearned for. I didn’t give a hoot about being Nikki Buchanan, Restaurant Critic, anymore. The title didn’t mean squat. It was interesting, challenging work I wanted in a field that, in the scheme of things, wasn’t wildly dissimilar from what I was already doing.

Ty and I talked. Then, after he met with Stacy (who brings a boatload of her own impressive clients to the table), it all sort of fell into place. Suddenly, I had faith in Ty, Stacy, myself and the universe in general.  I was ready to dive off the cliff.

Well, now I’ve done it. And you know what? The water may be deep in places, but it feels just fine.

Stay tuned for my Goodnight, Sweetheart letter to the Republic.

So I was working in my mom’s garage all day, getting all hot and sweaty (and yes, of course, hungry) in the mugginess, and after a little drop-off at Salvation Army, I was driving back to her place when lo and behold, there was LoLo’s Chicken & Waffles, Scottsdale. I think I may have indicated that I really, really want to lose some weight, and yet . . . here was LoLo’s (imagine that celestial-sounding AAAAAAHHHHH right about now) offering fried chicken at 3 in the afternoon and me so famished, what with the sweating and the hauling and all. So somehow I convinced myself that I actually deserved fried chicken and pulled in.

The place was doing a brisk business, and while I thought I might get take-out, the room was so pleasant I decided to sit down and eat my chicken while it was still hot. The new LoLo’s is a big open room with lots of windows, the walls hung with cute black and white photos of little kids making a mess in the kitchen. The place has a comfortable, homey aura about it, which is so refreshing, given the zip code. I literally bellied up to the massive wooden bar (perfect for solo diners) and put in my order for a soul food platter. Or at least I think that’s what it was called. I was cobbling together what I wanted — two pieces of fried chicken, but no waffle, but maybe some sides — and a friendly woman sitting next to me said, “Give her the soul food platter.” (or whatever she said), so already, I felt taken care of.

I hadn’t had more than a few gulps of my iced tea (served in a Mason jar) and started a conversation with the guy next to me, who was clearly thrilled to have discovered the whole chicken and waffle thing, when my platter arrived: three pieces of fried chicken (two thighs and a drumstick, still sizzling), cheese grits, fried okra and a great big cornbread muffin with a melting knob of butter on top. Your typical light summer meal.

I missed the fried chicken throw-down at Noca, and I love Chris Curtiss’s cooking with all my heart, but I’m telling you, I just don’t believe anybody can make fried chicken better than LoLo and crew. It’s crunchy and greasy and salty in exactly the right proportion. I’m crazy for it. I sat there in front of God and everyone and licked my fingers.

And the cornbread? I don’t remember thinking so before, but I will say now: this may be the best in town too. I’ve never liked a speck of sugar in my cornbread, and LoLo’s does make sweet cornbread. But it’s not sickeningly sweet and the texture is fabulous. Not too crumbly (I HATE it when cornbread falls apart), with just a nice little crispy edge. The grits came with grated cheese on top and another great big hunk of butter. Yum. I’ll be having the rest for breakfast. Good okra too. I wanted a slab of the Red Velvet Cake, a monster of a thing, slathered with cream cheese icing, dotted with pecans and served on an old-fashioned, clear-lidded cake plate. But I just couldn’t do it. Even my belly and I have limits.

Will Not Work For Food

As some of you may already know, I have resigned my position at The Arizona Republic. Although I was grateful to be offered a journalism job at a time when they’re particularly hard to come by, it was time to move on. My last day is August 4th.

It’s hard not to notice that my last post before this one, dated April 5, was my sharing the good news of my recently acquired full-time position as Southeast Valley  restaurant critic at the paper.  And then I dropped off the face of the blogosphere, which was not exactly coincidence.

I counted up how many reviews I’ve written since I started writing for the paper back in June of 2008. You know what number I came up with? 180. 180 restaurants in two years. My God, it’s a wonder I’m not 40 pounds overweight instead of 20. Still, I’m a beast. So there’s that.

And then there’s the aspect of mind numbing repetition: two restaurants a week, two ledes a week, two décor descriptions a week, two conclusions a week, two everything every week. It’s a treadmill, I tell you, and the pace can suck the creativity and enthusiasm right out of you.

Do I sound like a whiner? By all means, take the reins. Then get back to me in six months, a year, 20 years. Clearly, some people are born to this job (John Mariani and other fabulous writers of his ilk come to mind)  and seem content to do it forever. And maybe some people aren’t. Or maybe I just need a little break.

It has been suggested to me that writing a 500-word review is an easy task, something to be handily banged out in an hour, but I beg to differ. In many ways, short reviews are more difficult. There’s less room or time for graceful writing, transitions, jokes and asides, discussing trends, establishing underlying philosophy or creating a solid argument. Much of the good stuff, the little nuggets that make food writing fun get left in the dust for the sake of brevity.

Conventional wisdom holds (although I seriously wonder who dreamed this one up) that people reading on the web are like good old Sergeant Friday, too busy for anything more than “just the facts, Ma’am.” I disagree. It doesn’t matter if you’re holding a book, a newspaper, or a magazine or you’re staring at your computer screen, you still want the writing to be entertaining and brimming with personality. Otherwise, why bother?

Now, that I’ll have a smidge more time, I hope to stay a bit more current here at Wild Lavender. I still love food, and I still have strong opinions. That will never change. Talk to you soon.