Posts tagged ‘culinary adventures’

January 22, 2013

Finding Ramen in Tokyo

by Jen Wanous

The guidebook weighed heavily in my hand as I attempted to navigate Tokyo streets. I couldn’t read a single sign, but thanks in part to my gumption but mostly to the overwhelming generosity of the people in my host country, I always found my way. Food destinations topped my itinerary. I planned to hit the Tsukiji Fish Market, the Ramen Museum, a Michelin star-rated sushi restaurant, and any Seven-Eleven I came across. (They have the most interesting snacks and sell cute socks too!) Sure there were temples, shrines, and architectural gems to pursue as well, but these were mere cultural diversions to fill my time between meals.

Turning off the main drag onto a crowded street, I found myself wandering through a maze of market stalls selling various aquatic creatures. The Tsukiji Fish Market is the largest in the world. I had to stay on my toes, dodging speeding forklifts, flying fish guts, and rushing merchants. I had expected a pungent olfactory experience but every smell I encountered was fresh and salty like the ocean. The busy scene was all very “Where’s Waldo” and I fit into it all perfectly with the camera strapped around my neck and the big goggling grin on my face. The fish lay out on ice in all of their clear-eyed glory. Crabs were neatly tied together; salmon roe was bright popping orange. The tuna was the most remarkable though. Fetching the prettiest penny (well, yen) in these parts, tuna is sold in an early morning auction. But the steep price comes as no surprise. If you’ve ever had sushi, you know how special taro is. Melty, soft, yielding—there is hardly any better sensation in your mouth.

I had heard that this fish market was the best place to eat sushi, but as much as I wanted to rally, it was 9am. I just couldn’t bring myself to breakfast on slices of raw fish, no matter how fresh. Plus, the temperature hovered around 35. I needed something warm. I decided to ask one of the fish merchants wearing a full rubber jumpsuit where to go. “Ga,” I said—which means “where”—and then gave my best try at “eat” in a universal gesture (One hand cupped, the other going from hand to mouth with a chomping motion and a big smile.) Seeing his puzzled look, I squeaked out, “Ramen!?” This he understood. Laughing a little, he said something in Japanese. I looked at him earnestly (but probably a little blankly), desperate to get his recommendation. He repeated but I obviously had no clue what he was saying. Taking mercy on my poor hungry tourist soul, he motioned for me to follow and I trailed along behind him. He hopped in a forklift and motioned for me to get on back. Without hesitation, I jumped on and, heeding his safety advice, grabbed on to the back metal pole. It was ice cold but I held on tight as he sped off and we zipped around the market. I was laughing at the absurdity of the moment and somehow managed to snap a picture while riding. We zoomed over to an outdoor ally where he stopped abruptly and exclaimed, “Ramen!” I hopped off, patted him on the back and said “Arigato!” He nodded and off he went.

I stood at the mouth of a row of small eateries. A piece of fabric with Japanese characters flagged each short entrance.  After passing several sushi places, my gaze caught on a steamy window bustling with activity. Inside I found a low diner counter and stools enough for ten. The customers, all men, sat in front of steaming bowls of ramen, quickly slurping up the noodles. I saw one stool open, so I went in. The waitress and all three cooks in the back welcomed me with a resounding, “Irrasshaimase” I took my seat in the quaint throwback of an eatery and when the waitress came over to ask what I wanted, I pointed to what the man next to me was eating. She said, “Oh, pork ramen?” I said, “Hi” (which means “yes”). It still was early in the morning, but I could handle soup.

When she brought out my breakfast, the intermingling of language, cultures, and eras seemed to coalesce into the giant bowl of ramen before me—like some sort of holy cultural moment had found me there and I partook by slurping up the sacrament.

The trip was far from affordable but when I find myself subsisting on ramen of the instant variety at home in the coming months, at least I’ll have plenty of fond culinary moments to look back on and savor.

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October 15, 2012

When Directing a Culinary Event for 3,000, Try This

by Jen Wanous

With walkie-talkie in hand, I entered the raw space that took up an entire city block, as ready as I could ever be. The task at hand: to set-up a three-day culinary event for 3,000 people. Set up included: six kitchens for 140 chef presenters, seven different workshop rooms, one main stage that seated 400, two walk-in refrigerators, one freezer, a tradeshow floor room for 50, two pop-up restaurants, 24 different food cart chefs, electricity and plumbing to it all…and two days to do it.

When the opening day hit, like meat in a grinder, time crunched down hard. With a year of planning now behind me, hours transformed into minutes as every request that came in needed immediate action. Crises were near boiling points around every corner. Everyone needed solutions and I was in a role to give them. Like being a chef in a kitchen, this was trial by fire. My mind ran at a fevered pace as names and schedules flew around. There was no time to write down notes; everything was one long mental note demanding immediate action. Bruises on my toes told of my speedy pace, just shy of running for the 100 hours I worked that week.

With problems popping up left and right, I honed my skill of bringing solutions. Here are a few examples.

Problem: Chef Morimoto (read: uber famous chef, aka: “The Iron Chef”) needs wasabi powder in 15 minutes.
Solution: Instruct assistant to go to the nearest store stating, “Seriously, like Super Market Sweep style, run and get it and run back now.”

Problem: Your boss, and CEO of the company (during the second hour of the event), screams at the top of her lungs at you, bursts into tears citing a myriad of crises. Problems like a sign that is not hung and a walkway that is not wide enough. Oh and also during this moment, she threatens to fire you if you take another Instagram picture.
Solution: Fix all noted problems (it takes five minutes) and definitely hold off on posting Instagram pictures until after the event. (Discovering that deep place of compassion for her helps, but may take up to a week to attain.)

Problem: Your only dishwasher breaks.
Solution: Pray.

Problem: Unions threaten to blow up the rat in front of your event and set up a picket line.
Solution: Hire a union member to be your liaison (aka: Wonder Woman) and have her negotiate the union labor needs so that everyone is happy.

Problem: Upset stomach.
Solution: Don’t eat a doughnut covered in peanut butter, thinking you’re getting more protein that way. Eat a Clif Bar instead.

Problem: Your production assistant decides to drink and then has a diabetic crash, passes out cold on the floor, and refuses medical attention then insists on going to the drug store to get meds. You don’t think that’s a good idea but then a few minutes later, you realize he’s already left. Having visions of him passed out in the street, you leave your event and run after him.
Solution: Get an umbrella (it had to be raining), call your mom (because she always knows what’s best), follow your mom’s advice to go back to your event (he can take care of himself) and then when he returns, put him in a cab home and tell him not to come back. (Did I mention cry? Crying is definitely a factor in the solution.)

All in all, I was given a job to manage something that was unmanageable. This was a three-day culinary event for 3,000 people in a completely raw space on a shoestring budget with very little infrastructure. This gargantuan feat was only made possible by the amazing talents of the team I had assembled. I gave them my trust and they gave me their absolute best.

As the Event Director, I could sure sling a walkie-talkie, but what good was that if the people on the other end were not ready on the draw?

If this were a novel, this would be my page of thanks: Candy, the kiwi intern who worked for free (free!) and added value beyond measure. Jacquie who made more than her fair share of super-market sweeps. Amy–another stellar volunteer–caught the pieces before they hit the ground. Sam was the saving grace and saving sass of this event. Layla, was the backbone of the event, her victory (and mine) lied in not needing anti-anxiety meds! Renata, Renata!, my mentor and confidant. Her grace under fire inspires me like none other.

The whole Wizard crew including, Dana, Matt, Sarah, Caryn, and the redheaded guy John. You all bolstered our faith when you helped come up with solutions and powered through each day. To the electricians, the dishwashers, the carpenters, the film crews, the security guards, the cleaning crews, the volunteers, you all are the foundation of this event.

And to the StarChefs crew, everyone rallied! Thank you for humoring me, trusting me, and helping me.

This has been one wild ride of a culinary adventure. Oh, the highs, you ask? Well, eating a deep-fried pizza made by a chef from Naples, *just* happening to be there when the wining pastry champion passes around his cake for a taste; getting Richard Blais his liquid nitrogen (and getting his cell phone number); and tasting and interacting with 140 of the worlds best chefs. Amazing. These are the things that will feed me moving forward.

Check out the official event wrap up here: http://starchefs.com/cook/events/icc/2012/wrap-up

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