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.

Gainfully Employed

I  have some great news to share! A few weeks ago, The Arizona Republic offered me a full-time position. I am now officially gainfully employed. I had no idea what was coming when I met both my editor Stacy Sullivan and Executive Editor Nicole Carrol at Arizona Center for coffee and a chat back in March. I’m pretty sure my jaw dropped to the floor when they told me what they had in mind. Like Sally Fields, I nearly blurted out a shocked “You like me!” As a freelancer, you’re never quite sure.

When Howie called to congratulate me, he said, “You’ve gotten the last journalism job of the 21st Century.” And he may be right. Within that same week, Raymond Sokolov left The Wall Street Journal (uninterested in accepting their offer for a food trends beat) and here in town, dining critic and reporter Jess Harter was laid off at the East Valley Tribune, a move Harter says he knew was coming. At this moment, I feel lucky, lucky, lucky. Grateful too.

So here’s the scoop. The Valley will now be divided into territories or beats. Howie will have Phoenix and Scottsdale, Barbara Yost will cover the West Valley and I will cover the Southeast Valley, meaning Tempe, Chandler, Ahwatukee, Mesa, Gilbert and Queen Creek. I hope (no, plan) to become the SEV expert, the person who keeps abreast of everything happening there in a restaurant and food-related way and reports it to you, dear readizzle.

The cool thing about my beat is how quickly it’s growing and how ethnically diverse it seems to be. In recent months, I discovered a Venezuelan gem called My Arepa, a sweet Caribbean outpost called Hot Pot Caribbean Cuisine and terrific dim sum at Phoenix Palace.  I look forward to finding more small, sincere independents such as these three.

So if you all learn of great Southeast Valley spots or juicy news I should know about, please contact me here at Wild Lavender or at the paper. I don’t have an email set up there yet, but it should be in place in the next few days.

Question is: With so much good food in my future, how in the world am I going to shed 15 pounds (heck, I’d settle for 10) by summer?

I went to Estate House yesterday afternoon to meet with Gio about our first Wild Lavender cooking class, coming up next Saturday, February 27th. We went back in the kitchen, and while Gio (it’s pronounced “Joe,” not “Gee-Oh”) prepared a bunch of peppers for roasting for the next day’s Simple Sunday Dinner, we loosely mapped out what he’ll demonstrate and what we’ll talk about next week. I learned at least a half dozen cool tips about cooking in the course of that conversation, and then it hit me why I’m so excited about these classes. Gio is a generous, funny, knowledgeable guy (in short, the perfect teacher) and I am a perpetual student. I’m going to learn a ton of stuff right along with everybody else, and frankly, I can’t wait. People always assume that because I’m a restaurant critic, I cook a lot, but here’s a picture of my fridge’s interior — aka International House of Leftovers.

I do not cook. But I’m guessing all that’s about to change. I’m going to want to practice what Gio preaches. And I can tell you, this is a man who isn’t going to just stand there and do a boring old demo. He’s going to teach us the general principles of cooking so that we can apply the techniques we’ve learned and not just try to duplicate a single recipe. It’s like the old Chinese proverb: “Give a man a fish, you have fed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” So, yeah, we’ll all learn to fish.

We’re going to have so much fun! I’ll be there without the ratty-looking wig (unveiled, as it were), and ready to answer any questions you might have about good restaurants and what a life of perpetual eating is like. We’ll kick off every class with a special Wild Lavender cocktail (don’t worry, teetotalers; day-drinking is not required), and we’ll also learn about wines, cocktails and other appropriate beverages to pair with the foods Gio and other visiting chefs make each week.

So here are the goals Gio and I have for the class:

1) Get to know each other
2) Learn a lot
3) Eat well
4) Have fun

If you have any questions about the class, ask them in the Comments below. See you soon!

Wild Lavender Cooking Classes
Every Saturday (Starting 2/27)
11am-1:30pm
Includes multi-course lunch and wine pairings
RSVP at 480-970-4099
> View the class schedule online

Croissant Savant

Raspberry Macaron

If you’re a true food-lover with a serious sweet tooth, you’ve probably already tried Essence Bakery Café’s elegant Parisian sandwich cookies called macarons (one “o” and NOT a coconut-y American macaroon). Right? Tell me you have.

As you can see here, they look a bit like cute little hamburgers, only in this case, the dome-like “buns” are made with almonds, egg whites and powdered sugar, and the “meat” in the middle is usually a thick, rich schmear of buttercream, jam or ganache.

Oh my, they’re exquisite. One bite and you’ll know that Eugenia Theodosopoulos, the École Lenôtre-trained chef who creates them, is a perfectionist . . . which leads me to the croissants she’s recently started making. Another yummy, yummy example of the care she takes in everything she does.

Here, they are: butter croissants, raisin croissants, pan au chocolat (chocolate-filled croissants) and croissants aux amandes (almond croissants).

Before she was ready to roll them out, so to speak, she invited Jean Louis Clement to visit Arizona and offer her his best advice — once he’d analyzed the flour, water, butter, Arizona climate, her oven and kitchen temperature, you name it. Eugenia met him when she was a student and a French-English translator at Lenôtre (Clement was one of her instructors there), and he soon became her mentor and friend.

This talented but humble guy consults for people like Joel Robuchon and Alain Ducasse, charging them thousands of bucks for his genius. For Eugenia, the advice was free. She and her husband Gilles took him to the Grand Canyon. And get this: he canceled his visit to the king of Morocco to come help her. Now, that’s a friend — or a guy who really, really wants to see the Grand Canyon.

Clement has a title — Meilleur Ouvrier de France — that roughly translates as “one of the best craftsmen of France.” The French hold a competition every three years for craftsmen competing in various fields, everything from chocolate making and patisserie to window making and cabinetry. Some years, as many as 150 people enter the competition and NO ONE wins the title. Clement is one of 32 living people who have it.

Anyway, he spent a week with Eugenia, who said the man “oozes passion” and has a gift for teaching. Eugenia translated everything he said to her staff (some of whom are Hispanic, so there’s a double language barrier) but sometimes, Clement would simply grab their hands and have them feel the laminated dough as he explained what they needed to understand about the arduous process of making it.

For the croissants, Eugenia imports a special butter from Normandy, which contains 84% fat (most premium butters we see top out at 82%). But of course, these are just statistics. You’ll want to taste the croissants for yourself. They’re amazingly buttery and super-flakey, just little layers of butter and crunch and air. The powdered sugar-sprinkled almond croissant is my favorite, a textural wonder that’s nutty but not too sweet.

Most of the time, Eugenia’s gorgeous pastries, cakes and cookies sell out by the end of the day. This week will be more crazy than usual, so get in there early for something as adorable as these mini-gift boxes.

Essence Bakery Café
825 W. University Drive, Tempe, 480-966-2745
http://www.essencebakery.com

I got my voice back. I wish I could tell you precisely what this blog is going to be about, but the fact is, it’s going to evolve as I write it. Naturally, my focus will be food and restaurants, a little newsy stuff thrown in for good measure. I suspect there’ll be more of the philosophical rambling found in my first post (not to mention the occasional rant), and I plan to shine a light on chefs, ingredients, techniques, beverages and dishes that knock me out. I think, more than anything, Wild Lavender will be an informal platform that allows me to interact with fellow food-lovers and to say as much or as little as I want to about topics for which there’s often no room in print.

Star-Craving Mad

Although I enjoy everything else about my free-lance gig at The Republic, I’ll admit, I dither unto insanity when it comes to assigning stars to restaurants. I reviewed restaurants for 21 years (give or take) without ever bestowing a single star. I just wrote my little reviews and somehow, my readers divined whether I thought the place I was talking about was crappy or fantastic or somewhere in between. And do you know why they were able to do this? They could read, God bless ‘em. They could read and they did read and they discerned what I was saying.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand the requirement. People are in a hurry and they want a bottom line, everything summed up neatly, no real reading comprehension required. I can appreciate the whole need-for-speed thing, but I’m an English major, a word person, and I’ve never liked math. Stars represent quantification, and numbers are something I naturally resist. How do you assign a number to so many disparate factors?

Seriously, it drives me crazy. First of all, my stars and Howie’s stars are two completely different things. Given my beat (Everyday Dining), I’m often reviewing inexpensive, family-run operations that have put very little money into their décor.

Does my four-star review of an ethnic hole-in-the-wall equate with his four-star review of a high-end restaurant owned by a celebrity chef? Of course not, and I realize that most readers are smart enough to know the difference. Still, it makes for big discrepancies.

When I first started my current job, my editor suggested that I consider the restaurant’s décor and service when I assigned the stars, but in many ways, that has served to confuse the issue for me even further. If I’m in a barbecue joint, eating a yummy rack of ribs, do I care if the décor is nonexistent, and should I let that become a factor when I’m passing out the stars? Couldn’t there be a five-star rib restaurant based on food alone? The best rib joint in town, and who gives a hoot what it looks like?

Then again, what if I’m in a sweet, sincere little restaurant where the owners have poured time and money into making the ambiance lovely but the food isn’t stellar? Let’s say the food is just average but the setting is adorable? Do I adjust for that—because the place is likeable, even if the food is just so-so?

And what do three stars mean anyway? Our key says that five stars=excellent, four=very good and three=good. Well, I’m a former school teacher, and when I had five grades to work with (A,B,C,D,F), a C (which is roughly equivalent to three stars) meant an absolutely average job. Not horrible, not wonderful, just average. Does “good” mean the same as “average” to you? Do you see how stars are devoid of nuance?

And what about prices? Should I be comparing week to week? If I’ve had something exceptionally good for $15, should all other $15 entrees that fall short of THAT $15 entrée suffer for the comparison?

And then there’s the whole history of stars I’ve already given out. I say to myself, “Wait a minute. I gave such-and-such-a-place three and a half stars. Isn’t this place as good as that one?” Then I worry about “grade inflation.” Sigh.

I’ll tell you straight up, I can think of about a dozen restaurants to whom I was probably either too generous or too stingy with stars. I’m human, subject to moods and anything but infallible. So here’s my suggestion: just read the danged review from first to last and decide if the restaurant in question is one you’d like to visit based on my words, mmmkay?