Category Archives: Food

Dark chocolate for dark moments

Last night was my last night in a week of travel in France – 3 days in Paris and 5 in La Rochelle. La Rochelle smells and feels a bit like home, Palo Alto. The air is always fresh; the wind comes straight from the Atlantic, and the temperatures are mild even in the summer. The sun seems to shine a little even on the cloudiest days. And there are little ports weaving in and out of the old town. It is a beautiful place to spend a week in a conference, even though I didn’t spend a lot of time outdoors.

But on my last night I needed dark chocolate, dark chocolate hot cocoa. Traveling alone is not easy. I don’t like walking into restaurants with only a big fat novel as my travel companion. My hotel was not in town as I was led to believe by the hotel website. It was 15 minutes away by taxi. So I was even less tempted to take the long ride into town only to talk to myself. Each night I ordered room service and ate in my room. The large windows of this renovated castle were open and the gentle breeze rustled the leaves in the trees outside. Last night, the second time in a week, I was told by the receptionist that room service wasn’t available. Come on, I said, there is a card sitting next to the bed which reads “room service menu!” I ordered in the room last night! Why offer room service if it isn’t really available? Oui, madame… but tonight the restaurant is fully booked. I wasn’t asking to eat in the restaurant. But madame, the chef is too busy. It took arguments with three different people to get something sent up to my room, and in the end it was a simple omelette with no seasoning and no accompaniments. What a pitiful dinner in country known for its cuisine. This what triggered my little depression. And my need for chocolate.

I was doing something very hard for me to do this week, challenging myself. So I needed comfort. And food is what I look for whenever things are hard. Yet, in a week here I didn’t have one amazing meal. And I really tried. Even in Paris! Well, there was one exception – my favorite Italian restaurant in the Marais, l’Enoteca. Italian food is pure comfort. France is kind of my second home after London. I spent years living here so I shouldn’t be so surprised. My feelings are just hurt. I feel like a jilted lover. I’ve been down this road before, and should have known better, but I’d been so hopeful.

If I’m honest, the food on this trip wasn’t all bad. I loved my bread, butter and jam each morning. And, of course, the hot chocolate, something I’d never have ordered unless I’d been truly desperate. But the next time I come to France I think I’ll rent an apartment and bring a separate little suitcase filled my spices and things I can’t live without. Life is hard enough without being challenged by unexceptional food, especially when you’re trying to earn your bread and butter. Next time I take the Nomad Chef on the road again with me.

All the way back home

I’ve been home a few weeks now, but somehow it took until now to really feel like I’m home. Last night we hosted our first dinner concert at the Nomad Chef. We often have live music and have even done a house concert where we served canapés. But this one was special. It was a magical evening, one that inspired me in so many ways. We were packed, 24 guests, sold out days before the evening.  There were three musicians. Two of the artists came from the US to do a 10 day tour with the friend who organized it, a friend they knew from New York. It was day 2 of their tour.

HERE IS A CLIP OF THE CONCERT!

A Gig with Alex Berger, Chrissi Poland and Caleb Hawley @ Nomad Chef Music from kozue nagano on Vimeo.

The menu worked well, or so say the guests, a typical fusion of multiple cultures. We started with guacamole and chips served with Dirty Soho Mojitos, what I may start thinking of as our signature cocktail (Soho Lychee liqueur, Zacapa dark rum, lime juice, mint, sugar and sparkling water). And then we started the meal with clams with spicy black bean sauce (Chinese). I tried to get razor clams, and in fact called all over London for them. Sadly there were none. I think that those nameless people who normally dig for clams were too busy enjoying the sun on the weekend to bother with the digging. My loss… their gain. Anyway, even though the little clams weren’t exactly what I wanted, I’m sure my guests didn’t notice they were missing those elegant, long tubes that look so lovely on the plate. Next was another Mexican component, a vegetarian enchilada casserole with our signature salad dressing (grated garlic and ginger, fig balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, lemon juice and olive oil). And then a lamb Mrouzi that simmered for hours with no less than 15 freshly ground spices and tons of onions and raisins, among other typical Moroccan ingredients. And last, but not least, the pudding – crepes made with some of the lovely (and very expensive) Zacapa rum, with a hot toffee sauce and chantilly (otherwise known as whipped cream) served with the same rum, but this time served as it should be, neat.  Yummm…. You heard it here first!

Tonight was day 3 for the “US and Brit” tour, which included the same incredible musicians that graced the Nomad Chef dinner: Alex Berger, Chrissi Poland and Caleb Hawley. I’m not sure if the “US” is meant to mean the United States or just simply “us” as in “us or them” but it kind of sums up my own identity. I’m an American girl living here in the UK, a kind of honorary Brit – US and Brit. Tonight was a kind of reunion for me with them, a 24 hours later reunion where this time I got to sit and listen and watch without thinking about the food I was either cooking, plating or serving. And musically their gig tonight was a fusion of culture and genres. The little red headed wonder white girl, Chrissi Poland, sings soul music as if she has lived the pain of all of my African American ancestors. Alex Berger sings something that is pretty cross-genre but in some way reminds me of the kind of music that only legends like Barbra Streisand can pull off, and he does just that but with his own original sound and style. Then Caleb Hawley plays the frets off his guitar with one hand that seems like 2 (or more) and a voice that matches the wizardry of his instrument (the wooden one). The music tonight was a lovely dessert for me. I took a few friends and some others met me there. Though English, Alex Berger somehow feels like an American to me. He gives the best hugs of anyone I know in this country, something I imagine him learning during his 6 years in New York. So when his two friends, Chrissi and Caleb arrived and gave me a hug I felt transported into the arms of my birth country, California, where hugging is as instinctual as breathing… not so in my adopted country.

And this is where it gets a little emotional for me. There are advantages to being the busy chef and hostess when this kind of music is being sung in my beautiful conservatory, when I can hear it but don’t have the time to react. Tonight I was fully present to the words and the music. I cried a lot. Chrissi sang, “Trying to hold your heart in your hands and all it does is bleed,” and I felt she was speaking the words I feel so much of the time, “Angel Weep For Me.” My own heart is bleeding from the surgical removal of my son from this life, from my life, and there is no one who can hold the blood that pours out of my wounded heart, least of all me.  “So you call on the angels….. And you say, ‘angels wait for me,’” and that is me… asking my son the angel that he is now to wait for me. I heard this song last night, but saved the feeling and crying for tonight when I heard it for the second time.

And then, Caleb sang these words in Other Side of It, “Ever since the world began, when people go down they get right back up again.” I’m not sure that it’s true for me. I always used to get back up but I haven’t gotten right back up again from my latest and biggest blow ever, but I am sincerely trying. Maybe ‘right back up’ isn’t meant to be taken literally… maybe a space of a few years still counts as getting back up again, or maybe going out and being in the world counts too, even if it is not always completely standing. And, “I know that it’s hard to imagine, But it’s gonna happen – and I’ll see on the other side of the all.” It is hard for me to imagine getting beyond my loss, but I’m going to trust this lovely young man’s faith because I’ve lost my own.

I grew up around a lot of musicians and there were often jam sessions in my house. So it is kind of a full circle kind of thing that I now have a house where there are lots of musicians coming to play and eat; like mother, like daughter. While I was listening to the music tonight I realized that I once had a family of two, that was zeroed out when my son died. 2-1 does not equal 1. He was the whole that was greater than the sum of the parts and I was left with zero. Yet I feel the tiny little green shoots of a new family. I saw them tonight. I’ve adopted Alex into my new family and through him some of his friends. I saw many of them tonight at the North London Tavern. I need this new family. It’s one of the reasons I opened the Nomad Chef – to meet the strangers who have yet to become my friends. There will never be a replacement for my irreplaceable, beautiful, bright, creative son. But I felt his arms around me tonight, a big, tight, California hug.  The music embraced me. I cried but felt something or someone holding me.

Caleb sang another song, a Randy Newman cover, with what I could almost imagine singing myself:

A window breaks down a long dark street
And a siren wails in the night
But I’m alright cause I have you here with me
And I can almost see through the dark there is light…

Feels like I’m all the way back home where I come from

And the evening ended with the three beautiful musicians singing James Taylor’s, You Got a Friend…“You just call out my name and I’ll be there.”  I wondered who was really singing to me tonight? Was it my very own little angel, my son, who wanted me to know that he’s always here with me even when I can’t feel him? Sometimes I have to listen to the music to hear him between the notes. For a little while tonight it felt like I was all the way back home where I came from and that he was here with me.

Home again

I’m home from about a month away – back from the Nomad Chef road trip. I guess I’m no good at doing more than one thing at once. Can’t walk and chew gum. Can’t travel and write. Well, I’m a bit of a disappointment to myself in that regard. I should have been writing and posting little vignettes the whole time. But I was too busy traveling, cooking and eating….er, umm… and drinking too. But I’m back! And I’ve got a whole new perspective.

The Nomad Chef: Mouths Wide Shut (dinner) was a revelation. Two days before the dinner only 7 people had reserved seats, probably 6 of them my son’s friends and the 7th perhaps a friend of one of my co-chefs. But by the end of the flight (yes, Virgin America has internet and powerpoints!), a 5 hour flight, the number climbed to 22! I rushed to turn off the ticket registration function. Sold out! Wow, what a difference a few hours and the anticipation of failure can make! As I was driving from the airport to the beautiful house I rented for our week in Beverly Hills, I made a few calls (of course, on my hands free!) and somehow managed to organize the rental of more tables and chairs. I love how things work in California (or at least in LaLa land) – last minute incredible service. And I reopened the ticketing function on our website. In hours we were up to 35 people. Who were all of these people? No doubt, friends… of friends, and strangers who had yet to become my friends. In the end we had about 40 people! And I personally knew less than 10 of them! Now I know them all!

The house was truly amazing. An old school Beverly Hills home set on tree lined Rodeo Drive. It was purchased by the current owner’s father in 1941, from Joseph Kennedy (yep, JFK’s dad!). And I doubt anything has changed since then. Beautiful paintings on the wall are the only ones who can still remember the titillating conversations that must have been had there in the 30s and 40s among icons that included Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Frank Sinatra and John Kennedy. We felt like film stars and famous producers ourselves in this magical home. And the owners were on hand to lend their hands for every step of our new, if temporary, life in LA.

Lovely appetizers were prepared by a beautiful actress and co-chef; European influences to complement the mostly Asian fusion repas. Then raw oysters and oyster pie were the first course of this erotic dinner. (Side note: Earlier in the week I was forced to wonder at some of the reactions of would-be dinner guests. Apparently a few had asked the friend’s of friends who’d invited them about what to expect with a theme that was clearly a nod to Kubrick. “It’s just a dinner party where girls get to wear high heels,” I responded a little too forcefully (due to shock). Were they really expecting me to invite my son’s friends to some kind of fettish party? Hmmm… There are certainly some differences between Beverly Hills and London.) I’d carefully prepared and frozen the Nomad Chef special green curry paste which I used for the 2nd course (Thai green curry with shitake mushrooms); not exactly erotic but one of our standards that I wanted to share with my new friends. Next was either steak au poivre or tofu with a peanut mole sauce and assorted side dishes. But the crowning glory was prepared by one of my co-chefs: a chocolate trio of dark truffles with sea salt, home made chocolate ice cream with chipotle peppers and a chocolate cookie. These provided a truly orgasmic end to a dinner that lasted into the wee hours of the night.

So, I’m home again, jiggity jig. And happy to be here. It is only by leaving that we often appreciate even more what we’ve left behind. In true Nomad fashion I will look forward to future road trips. The next one will include Napa Valley. Although I came home to a house that is still empty of my son’s physical presence, I felt him in all of his old haunts. While struggling in LA as an actor he had even cooked for someone who lived right around the corner from the house I rented in Beverly Hills. I felt his presence everywhere. Now that I’m home again I will be conjuring his spirit in all of the Nomad Chef dinners here. I’m sure his spirit is as nomadic as he was, just as I am. We were both happy on the road and happy at home.

Losing things, and finding others

The Nomad Chef road show, road movie prep continues. On Tuesday I flew with a cameraman and all of his beautiful equipment, to capture some footage of Susana, my beautiful fellow traveler on this journey. Tools are a very important part of the trade – whether cooking or shooting a film. In a screenplay, this part of the film is called the set up. It is where we see the characters in the world where the story takes place. It is how we, the audience, get to know the characters. And for the first 10 minutes of a film we get an idea of what the theme of the film is about. Sometimes there is a slow start. Life is in balance. But we know that something is coming. The rug is pulled out from under the protagonist. That’s me. Not even a week into filming and a rug was pulled out.

Some films start with a big action scene, like in James Bond movies. But how dramatic can a documentary about two women of a certain age trying to re-invent themselves on a road trip be? We’re not talking about Thelma and Louise here. Susana is rebounding from a relationship where she put her singing career on hold for 5 years, and I’m trying to find a way to fill the hole that was created with the loss of my son. I thought I’d document our journey to New York, Los Angeles and Silicon Valley – the destinations providing wonderful backdrops for what is really an inner journey that sometimes for one, and often for the other, is a bleak and lonely trek. The trip is supposed to be fun, a reward for having survived difficult things. We’ve gathered a few minor characters into the mix, a couple of people who heard about the adventure and wanted to visit these iconic locations. I am, by default, the tour guide.

After Berlin, where Susana is hoping to live at least half time and where she has found a new manager, our plan was to meet again in Madrid, her birth home. I’ve never been there and neither had the cameraman. Susana was our host. Day 1 of the 3 of us being together. The first day of a 2 ½ day trip – simple prep (in food speak, but translate to flim speak, i.e., cutaway shots)… a little background. Two hours after we’d arrived and had eaten at a little restaurant on a beautiful square where I was assured that I could find something vegetarian (a much bigger challenge in Spain than in most other southern European countries), we jumped into the cab. Next stop, Susana’s recording studio.

The cameraman leaps out of the cab to run into a little shop for batteries for the microphones. Susana pays the taxi driver and she and I leisurely get out. Just as it was driving away the cameraman shouts, “Hey, where’s my equipment?” We thought he had it with him. He assumed we were guarding it. The taxi thinks (perhaps) he might have found a hidden treasure in the trunk of his car. Cut to CHASE SCENE: The cameraman runs down the street screaming after a white taxi (they are all white in Madrid). Susana jumps into another taxi to take chase. And I am left standing on a street corner in a city I’ve never even visited before.

Two days later, after a visit to the police station, 50 calls to taxi companies and the lost objects number, there is still no sign of the equipment. It is all insured, but not likely to be replaced by Monday when leg two of our journey begins. I have a plan B and a plan C, but no one likes to lose their stuff even when it is insured. We lost about 24 hours of what was meant to be a lovely tour of Madrid, good restaurants and a chance to see how well we hang out together. I know about loss. There is no insurance for what I’ve lost. But that doesn’t make anyone else feel any better.

The only short-term solution I can think of to lighten the mood is a good meal. It always works for me. Food is love and comfort. I needed both. We ate at ESTADO PURO, “pure state” where  Paco Roncero is the chef. He is a former student and business partner of the famed El Bulli’s Ferran Adria. Great food is my secret remedy. These nuevas tapas (nouvelle cuisine in tapas) righted for me most of what was wrong. My cameraman was still feeling the loss of his stuff, but even he laughed and smiled while we ate. I’m sure it helped a ton that we sat at the bar next to a beautiful young French actress sitting all by herself. She’d just finished a day of shooting for a TV commercial. We lost some tools but found new friends – nuevos amigos. And she wants to find a house in Paris for the traveling Nomad Chef to do one of our traveling dinners. It is true that some losses are irreplaceable. But there are others that are not as serious and can lead to surprising encounters and lovely new friends. All good films, like lives, include losses. We just started having them at the very beginning of the journey. I guess it is all about how we tell our stories that is important, how we find something to hold onto. Maybe the rug was pulled out from under us, but we’re on a magic carpet ride and… we’re flying.

My road movie

Perhaps I should start at the beginning of the end of the last blog post? So much has happened since then I can hardly catch my breath. The Nomad Chef celebrated its one year birthday on the 14th of February. But instead of having a dinner on Valentine’s Day as we did for our very first dinner as the Nomad Chef, I organized the celebration dinner around 2 friends who flew into town for the weekend from California. They deserved a great party, and that is exactly what we had! The Nomad Chef: no-Mad Men (and crazy women) themed dinner was amazing. Everyone came dressed in their beautiful 60s personas. Beautiful women and gorgeous men sipped whiskey sours and raspberry Soho Mojitos. I’m told the highlight of the evening was the steak au poivre (incredible marbled filet mignon from Jack O’Shea’s butcher at Selfridges), that we nearly burned down the house with as we ignited the brandy! The evening ended at around 1 am, when those of us remaining shot over to Camden where we danced into the wee hours of the night. February 14th was also Alex Berger’s (our wonderful entertainment for the night) album’s (Snow Globe) 1 year birthday as well. What a great night of celebrating both of our birthdays!

We had our Chinese New Year’s dinner on the 2nd of February. At the dinner I met Daniel Bucher. I had no idea he was a professional chef, a molecular chef no less! Glad he didn’t tell me until after the dinner, at which point he mentioned that he was having a pop up dinner in Berlin on the 25th of February. Would I like to come? Hell yeah I wanted to come. A complete stranger invites me to a dinner in an unknown location in Berlin… that epitomizes the fun and spirit of this secret dining experience. Lucky for me a Spanish friend of mine was moving to Berlin 2 days before, so I’d have someone to go with. I got the date wrong and ended up flying in just in time for the dinner… or so that was the plan. But in my excitement I left my passport at home and my boyfriend had to drive it to me in my Smart car, a little putt putt that didn’t putt nearly fast enough for me to catch my plane. So I took a 2 hour train ride to another airport, and finally arrived at the dinner at 10 pm. Perfect timing – the only thing I’d missed were the meat appetizers, and everything after that point was vegetarian. Perfect timing!

I love Berlin. It represents so many things, only some of which are visible whenever you see that amazing wall. Old world and modern fuse so seamlessly in this city brimming with creativity but minus all of the noise and traffic of London. Daniel’s pop up was difficult to find. After a few false starts, I found it through a courtyard on a street filled with galleries and up a glass lift. There was sign whatsoever of what I might be walking into. Daniel took the modern open plan office to a whole other level by building a movie studio like set filled with bistro tables and self made lamps, making this incredibly modern space feel cozy and intimate for the 40 of us who were there. The food is impossible to describe but mouth wateringly delicious. According to the chef, “The emphasis is not on the menus, but on the guests.” The guests were great and the experience was wonderful. I have now dubbed Berlin the California of Germany. There were so many hugs, and I was astonished to learn that Daniel had told people the Nomad Chef was coming all the way from London to dinner. I felt like a celebrity, but the honor was 100% all mine! He is a freelance chef and has very big plans for Pangram’s Kitchen. What is a pangram, you might ask? I had to look it up myself: it is a piece of text which uses every letter of the alphabet, usually in one sentence. Like this one: “Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs.” Daniel is my new friend, as are so many I have met in my Nomad Chef adventures.

Another adventure began in Berlin as well. I will tell you more about it as it unfolds. But here is the teaser – the Nomad Chef is on the road. I will be cooking Madrid, Los Angeles and New York. I am traveling with my friend Susana as I attempt to re-invent my life. Again. The Nomad Chef was the first step. The next will include a documentary I am making about how I survive the most difficult challenge in my life, my new life without my son, and how others bounce back from difficulty and achieve their dreams.Cooking has been my great escape and at the same time a healing potion.  My son had a similar, but maybe even more intense relationship with food. And we both had travel in our blood. So what could be better than combining food and travel? On my trip I will be retracing some of the adventures of the original Nomad Chef, my son, while creating some of my own. And in so doing, I am sure my little buddy will be whispering recipes and encouragement in my ear. The Nomad Chef, my life and travels and this documentary are my hommage to him.

I look forward to posting little video clips here so you can follow our adventure. Next stop – Madrid. My road trip, road movie has begun. If you are in LA on the 26th of March, then join us!

Cinnamon

Last week I cooked for our Nomad Chef: Sensuous, Sexy, South Beach dinner… drawing on my old Latin lovers … Cuban, Mexican and a new one, brought along by a new friend (Jaime, a Peruvian, who came with a dish that had a Portuguese and Brazilian twist). It was hot, hot, hot and spicy… and very warm – these strangers who are my new friends.

And the next day the Nomad Chef catered for 200 people who attended the book launch of a woman who I met for the first time two months after my son died. Looking for something that would really feed my actor/writer/chef’s creativity (though at the time he was disguised temporarily as an internet evangelist working for my company), I found a 2 week writing workshop in Croatia and gave him that for his birthday present. His last birthday.  He was thrilled at the chance to travel to Eastern Europe again, where he was convinced lived the prettiest girls in all of Europe. I wanted to support  his talent… It was a chance for him to re-ignite his writing passion. Anne Aylor was the writing coach for this two-week sojourn. I remember hearing she and her husband tell me about how he turned up at the boat that would ferry the writers to their little island tranquility at the very moment the boat was about to pull away. He’d fallen asleep on the beach. They told me stories about how he was the highlight (I think they used a word like sunshine) of the writing group that was dominated by women of a certain age and a couple of misfits like my tall, gorgeous son and a young man just a little more than half his age. I didn’t know his bonds with these strangers were so strong – not until they reached me at my office 2 months after he’d died. He hadn’t answered their email. How could he? He was gone by then.

So I adopted this lovely couple that were much closer to my own age. They came to visit me in my empty office, filled with 20 or so beings – but missing the sunlight of my son – bearing poetry and tears. What do you call the borrowing of the almost friends of someone who is already gone? Adoption doesn’t quite capture it. Maybe a better word is “appropriated.” Yes. I took them as I did a few of my son’s other artifacts: his ipod and iphone and box of writings, along with the hat he left on the coat rack when he last left the house. This couple were now mine, part of my inheritance. I slowly got to know them, inviting them to big and small dinners. They remind me of the self I am working on, the inner, hidden creative. And they remind me of how great and loved my son was. I’m the writer now in my family of one. Did I inherit that too? Or did I give it to him only to have it given back to me? Anyway… Anne and her husband wanted the Nomad Chef (moi!) to cater for Ann’s book launch. And I did it with so much pleasure, realizing that I had succeeded in working my way into their lives as my son had done, although he had done it instantly with his sunny smile and warm heart. It was a family affair. I felt him there with me in the menu planning, the two days of cooking and then the 5 hours of serving.  I follow in his footsteps even though my path is in a different world.

One of the things I cooked for both of the dinners last week included cinnamon. I didn’t even think to check whether I had enough of it. Ground cinnamon was one of 17 spices that were to go into the stuff I rubbed on the chicken before grilling it on skewers; 250 skewers. But the jar was almost empty. This was a jar, one of many, that I’d inherited from my son’s spice cabinet. I count on these spices to help me feel connected to him when I cook. His fingers have touched these spices. But the jar of memory had run out. It was a little death, a jolt. I couldn’t face going to the spice shop on Portobello Road to replace something so full of memory, something that, when missing, had nearly emptied me out. It was then he came to me. Yes, “he.” I’m sure of it now. I’d purchased some cinnamon sticks a few weeks before. And it suddenly hit me that I could take them and grind them into powder. Relief.  Though there were little bits of imperfection in my freshly ground cinnamon powder, it blended perfectly with its new friends – just as I try to do with the strangers who are becoming my new friends. Unrefined ingredients are somehow so much more intense. And maybe a little difficult. Yet they can leave a strong and lasting impression… like my son. I may be a pale reflection of him as the second Nomad Chef, but he has passed on his legacy to me in the form of spices. And I pass them on, like a Nomad who finds great stuff and passes it on.

Curation of culture and cuisine

Our next three dinners will be:
26 January (Sensuous, Sexy South Beach)

2 February (Year of the Rabbit Dinner)

19 February (noMAD MEN & Women).

Driving through London today I couldn’t help but notice all of the museums. This got me thinking about this idea of curation. In a museum or gallery a curator is responsible for the study, acquisition and care of objects, these works of art being presented to the public. The history and cultural heritage of the pieces created by the artists are important in the communication of their work, the pleasure given to the observers of their work. While I am not responsible for the design and placement of of great works of art in museums, I recognize the importance of the knowledge that goes into their selection and am happy that there are those more suited than I to present them in ways that allow me to get a glimpse of what the artist had in mind, where he or she was living at the time and the cultural context or their work.

It doesn’t take much to realize that the images carefully inserted above have nothing to do with each other. It would make more sense that the curator has a funny sense of post-modern humor. But in fact, while the themes of our dinners here at the Nomad Chef seem to have little to do with each other, the dinners themselves are carefully curated. Tomorrow’s dinner, for example is called Nomad Chef: Anti-antebellum, a lovely play on words to evoke a sense of rebellion (the root of the word ‘bellum’) and rebellion against the plantation culture of the South (in the US) during slavery. But for all of our horror at the thought of slavery, we cannot help but celebrate the food that came out of the South during that time, with its many cultural influences (French, English, Caribbean, African and more). So while we will be serving some traditional fare (gumbo with crab, shrimp, oysters and squid), we will spice it up with some totally unexpected treats from France and Southeast Asia.

The attention to detail paid to our seemingly random fusing of cultures and cuisines is just as important when curating the ambiance. The strangers who come are as important as our frequent visitors, and the conversational lubricant is the carefully cultivated aperitif where people and the fragrance of food mingle. We are lucky to have amazing musicians who sing for their supper, singer songwriters who try out their new material on us in exchange for the opportunity to eat and talk with the self selecting adventurers who choose to travel the world while sitting at a table at the Nomad Chef.

Museum curators may be partial to particular artists or particular works, but I am as passionate about each dinner theme as I am about each dinner and dish. But I am even more passionate about those who join us in our culinary adventures. I am not sure we have something for everyone but for everyone who comes through our doors we have a tremendous appreciation and delight. The stories they tell and the lives they lead are the artifacts they leave behind. And as urban nomads, we find the best stuff and pass it on. Our pleasure comes from finding the culture and cuisine that we love and passing it on to you with love, giving you a greater appreciation of the art of food.

Holiday hunger

What was the tallest tree in Palo Alto

There is something so insatiable about the holidays, all the waiting and wanting. Maybe it comes from our childhood wishes and dreams, and the disappointments when we didn’t get what we wanted – materially or emotionally. Our amped up expectations fueled by family and fantasy. And so many of us wobble into the holidays not at all sure of what to expect, missing those who left us way too soon, and missing our families. We enter the season hungry for something.

Mine was not a traditional family, so Christmas was as unconventional at my childhood home as was Thanksgiving. My mom brought home all the strays she could for any of our many Christmas meals. Most of all thought, I remember that we made all of our presents. I honestly can’t remember any store bought gifts. Some of the stocking stuffers might have been purchased; I remember little things like toothbrushes, small games, and packs of cards. But the presents that went under the tree were few and were all made with love by us for each other. We did have a father and grandparents, but they lived far away and we rarely, if ever, saw them and never for Christmas. We were a little family and grew it around the holidays by adding strangers and friends.

A few days before Christmas my mom always organized Christmas caroling in the neighborhood. This might have been before photocopying worked the way it does today because I remember the worn carbon copy looking carols we’d typed up and distributed to those few carolers who didn’t remember the words. Our neighborhood was 2 blocks wide and about 8 or 10 blocks long – College Terrace in Palo Alto – we covered most of it. All of the streets there were named after universities in the US. We’d go out in groups but there must always have been someone tending the stove at our house because the mulled wine and mulled non-alcoholic cider were always hot when we came back.

And then there was the food. It might just be my aging memory, but it seems as if Thanksgiving kicked off an entire month of cooking lots every day for a month, and Christmas was just the culmination. We had Mexican food, especially enchiladas, Chinese food, borscht with potato pancakes and all manner of other wintry food… plus the traditional turkeys, cranberry relishes, biscuits and more. But as much as I loved our food, I loved this funny little tradition our family had – pop-calling! It must come from the expressions “to pop in” or “to call on” people. I will never know the roots of our expression since all of my ancestors are gone, but on Christmas Eve or even Christmas night (after we’d done all of the presents and cooking at our own home) we’d get in the car and just pop in on people. I’m not sure who started this in our family, but we certainly programmed our friends and neighbors to expect these surprise visits from us. We didn’t usually stay long, or not at the first houses we visited in the evenings, but we were offered egg nog and whatever was left of their desserts. This was the best part of Christmas for me, another way to extend our family – being welcomed even when we weren’t expected.

I hope the holidays for you bring you the joy you deserve and the comfort you need. If you are in the neighborhood between Christmas and New Year’s pop into the Nomad Chef. We are waiting to welcome you the 27th, 28th, 30th or 31st of December (yeah, New Year’s Eve!) with a cozy, warm drink of something warm and a lotta love. Seriously! We don’t want you to be hungry for anything (just email if you plan to stop by one of those evenings). And if you want to sit down to our holiday anti-holiday dinner, come to dinner on the 29th for a more traditional unconventional Nomad Chef dinner! Hope to see you soon!

Thanksgiving 2010

Two Nomad ChefsYesterday I wanted to write about Thanksgiving and what it means to me. But I was too busy cooking for the 25 adults and 6 kids who came to dinner last night at the Nomad Chef. This was the first time I’d spent it with as many complete strangers. It is usually a day spent with family and extended family. I imagine there are many Thanksgiving traditions in the US, but in my childhood there were three of us: my mom, my sister and me. It was a day where we did whatever we could to expand our little universe. My mom would typically invite everyone she knew who had few if any local family members. It could be neighbors or her work colleagues, and yes, even complete strangers. I remember one in particular where she was doing last minute shopping on the morning of Thanksgiving and met a young man in the grocery store. He was one of many who turned up later for our afternoon meal that lasted well into the small hours of the morning.

This particular stranger had a big afro, which was the fashion in those days. “Why,” I asked her, “did you invite him?” My mom was known for her honesty and directness. “Well, because he looked nice and he was all alone on Thanksgiving.” She later told me (a few years later, when this young man had finished Stanford University) she wanted to make sure my sister and I had some exposure to black American culture. She was a single mom, white American, and our father was black; he lived far away and we rarely saw him. She thought it was really important that we mixed race kids see the world beyond our little ivory towered life in Palo Alto, 200 meters from Stanford University. So the strangers she brought home for Thanksgiving, and even week day dinners, were carefully curated by her to give us to the whole world, right in our living room. Life was always filled with surprises when my mother was alive. And these strangers became our extended family.

When I grew up, or barely, I had my own child, my son. I was 19 years old when he was born. My mom died two years later, so I carried on the tradition of creating a big “family” for every Thanksgiving. We both needed family. It is no surprise that this holiday was my son’s favorite. Food and family, even though the family members were constantly changing, are all we need to be happy.

I was worried about this Thanksgiving. My first Thanksgiving in a world that no longer included my son, two years ago, was only a few weeks after he died. I was there, but not really there. I cooked for 35 people that day, mostly his friends. It was kind of an extended memorial service. We danced and danced, and some of us cried. I have good memories of this sad day. Then last year, many of the same people, many of his friends, and some of my new friends – the ones who know me as a family of one – came for dinner. Loads of little kids, some of whom were, or were to be my son’s godchildren. I felt so surrounded by love. And I always feel his presence when I’m cooking on his favorite day.

But last night was different. In my secret restaurant, founded in his honor, I open my doors to anyone who wants to share in the nomad experience. Last night there were people from many countries, speaking many languages, and even a few Americans. There were a few people who’ve come here before, a couple of my newest friends, but the majority I’d never met before. I was so happy to share my family tradition of inviting complete strangers into my home, feeding them and enjoying their pleasure as they discover some of the artifacts of my past: my son (through his love of this day, and his presence in my heart as I cooked and served), a room filled with strangers, a meal curated to share my whole world with my guests, and the oyster pie that my grandmother taught me how to make as a child. I no longer have a legacy to share with my son, but he has left his with me. These two photos are of one of our last Thanksgivings together. In one, I was his sous chef. And in the other, his friend and partner in the original Nomad Chef.

The Day of the Dead

Dancing away the dark

Today is Dio de los Muertos, the holiday celebrated in Mexico to honor the dead. Although I’ve never celebrated it before, I will do so today as I cook and prepare for the Nomad Chef: Day of the Dead dinner that I am hosting tomorrow. This holiday now has special meaning for me. My son, the original Nomad Chef, died just over two years ago, and I am thinking of him today. The wound is as fresh as if it were yesterday and yet I feel his presence and his arms around me when I cook. I am still using many of the spices he left behind and feel his soul, the spice of my life, when I smell coriander, cardamon, ginger or any of the hundreds of spices that fill my cupboards.

We both grew up in California; and my son was born there in my adopted home. I was 19 years old when he entered my life. I don’t have any adult memories without him until now, the two years since he left on a grander voyage than either of us could have imagined. We grew up together. We moved countries together. We cooked together. Once we were nomads and cooking warriors but now there is only me.

In California Mexican food is the equivalent of fish and chips in the UK, although much more diverse. Instead of sandwiches, we Californians eat quesadillas (grilled flour tortillas with cheese, avocados, salsa and many other combination) as a snack at home when we don’t have time to prepare a whole meal. When running out from the office for a quick lunch we pick up burritos sold off the backs of trucks in almost any urban neighborhood. Not all Mexican food is either quick or easy. Each year my son and I would spend a day making Oaxacan mole sauce – it takes an entire day to create the delicious layers of sophisticated flavors in this sauce that can be served on meat (or in my case tofu). Our mom and son activities all revolved around food.

Also inked to the Aztec festival is the Braziilan Dia de Finados. My son loved Brazil. He went there with his friends who were producing, filming and recording Giant Leap. He wrote beautiful essays while he was there. I have them all, and many others;  they make up part of his legacy. In Spain they have similar festivals for the Catholic All Saints and All Souls days. My son spent one of the best years in his life living in Deia (Mallorca, Spain) where he was the chef and creator of a lovely fusion menu in this tiny little village filled with a mix of English and Mallorquin speakers. My nomad son fit so much into his short life as actor, writer and chef.

So today and tomorrow I will think of my son and all that we did together and all that he left behind. In opening the Nomad Chef I have opened a channel to my son, through which I’ve had the great fortune to meet the most wonderful strangers. One lovely Italian woman who came to eat here a few months ago (when I served the last of the mole sauce my son and I made together the year before) sent me the most beautiful note today and a quote from Sant’Agostino:

“The dead are not absent, they are the invisible who keep their eyes full of light, in our eyes full of tears.”

Yes, my eyes are full of tears thinking of my invisible son. But his light is ever present here at the Nomad Chef and for that I am grateful. Tomorrow we will drink, eat and dance to those who have left us behind.