Underground Restaurant: the book

What's Underground Restaurant about?

After cooking 26 dinners in 3 countries over the last 7 years, we finally wrote the story of our underground restaurant!  It's a ten course feast, and all the ingredients are sourced from local farmers and artisan producers. The preparation is simple, to inspire our guests to cook at home. They can wander into the open kitchen to watch, ask questions, and help out. Most of the dishes have a story, of provenance, memory, or family.  The evening includes intimate rituals that remind participants that this is no ordinary dinner. Guests are greeted at the door and promptly hand-fed a bite of food by someone they have never met.

Like the events we host, the book works on several levels. It’s a beautiful experience full of luscious photos. It's about eating and even includes a few favorite recipes. It’s a considered expression of values, and a strategy for manifesting and sharing them, including a how-to chapter with precise logistics. It’s part of a movement, celebrating the creativity and bravado of other underground restaurants and projects.

And the book explains how the successes of the local food and underground restaurant movements can be applied beyond the food system to transform our economies. In the book we tell our own story in great detail. Not because we made a lot of money, got written up in The New York Times, or cooked for famous people. (We haven’t, yet.) But because underground restaurants are not really about cooking for 30 people, or charging your friends for dinner, or having strangers in your house. It's about making space for the things you care about and are worried about and finding ways to celebrate, protect, and grow the kind of world you want to live in. We figured out how to do that as we went along, which is how social movements happen. Two pieces of news make the book even more exciting:

We have seen the local food movement sidestep the cooptation of organic by developing an alternative to symbolic certification. Local Food is a social movement now, which understands food as community, rather than commodity.People want to know their farmer, and not just to reassure them about ecological practices, but to complete a circle of social relations around the production and consumption of food. And this movement has made small-scale farms and the livelihood of farming viable again. It has also made turnips and ham hocks chic, and elevated home cooking to an art happening. People are in fact clamoring to dine on pork tartare cooked by untrained chefs in private homes with maybe not enough chairs for everyone to sit down to eat. Underground restaurants epitomize the interest in a new economics marked by trust, integrity, and connection with strangers.

Table of Contents

1 Not a potluck: is it food? is it performance art? is it democracy? (introduction)

2 inviting 200 people to dinner (The Story of The Viand)

3 From commodity to community (The Local Food Movement)

4 The feast that creates culture (transforming the Economy)

5 Dining with strangers (The Underground Restaurant Movement)

6 From the all-chefs to shop-cook-eat, with a 10-course dinner in between (The How-To)

EAT PIG FAT

I'm so excited I don't know what to do with myself. I've just had the opportunity to interview and photograph Melinda Dimitriades of Farmgate. Her main thing there (surrounded with lots of other goodness) is rare breed black pig meat.

I'm going to be posting the whole interview and maybe even some video soon, but what I'm most amped up about is the PIG FAT, so it's getting its own whole post.

  1. Pig fat is not bad for you, after all. It's a big part of the "Mediterranean diet", where they eat slices of lard on toast and use it as salad dressing.
  2. Animal fat is not bad for you, at all. Indeed the #2 healthiest people in the world (after the Japanese) are the Gascon, who live on Duck Fat.
  3. Animal fat is delicious. Pork fat has one of the cleanest, lightest, tastes, and flakiest texture. This is why our grandmothers (who knew what they were doing) always used pig lard to make pastry crusts (especially pies). That kind of lard is made from just one part of the fat. The rest of the fat can be used as a high heat tolerant cooking oil (roast vegetables, etc.)

Melinda sent me away from the interview with an odd gift, 4 kilos of pig fat that I'd just been filming her trim as she butchered.

I've got a fridge full of this. People are scared of it. They've been brainwashed to believe that pork should be lean. The problem is, I've paid for it when I buy the animal, and in order to make a living I have to get as much value out of the animal as I can. And these delicious rare breed pigs, with the healthy red meat full of iron, carry more fat. They're pasture raised, so they can get a little lazy sometimes, and when it's hot they lay around more. If it weren't for my shop and me buying these pigs, this farmer wouldn't raise them. The big meat distributors won't pay for a pig with more fat.

I'm not scared of fat or pigs, or cooking, so I tried to follow Melinda's instructions. "Put it in a pot with some water and melt it. You're looking for that beautiful snowy white stuff. Once it's melted drain it through a clean cloth (I used coffee filters) to remove any little bits of meat, because those will cause it to spoil. If it's clean it will last for months."

Well I assumed it was supposed to all melt, so I cooked it all day. When it still hadn't melted I consulted the interweb. Fascinating that you can find sooo many recipes for molten chocolate cake, but almost none for making your own lard. Way down the bottom of one of the instructions, none of which were very precise, I found mention of "you won't be able to eat all the cracklings, so feed some of them to your dogs." Is this the cracklings? The pork fat that doesn't melt? Ok, I've now learned from Slate.com's  that I should have cut up the fat. This would increase the surface area so it all gets to melt. And that there's a book about meat fat which covers the topic from health science to recipes by Jennifer McLagen.

 

Well I gave up for a while and when I went back into the kitchen after a few hours, I found the beautiful white stuff!

a history of cool

I joke that my two food groups are kale and ice cream. Truth being always more complicated than the stories we tell, the kale is often chicory, and I sometimes go days without ice cream…

But since I try to eat organic ingredients it often occurs to me that the ice cream I eat rarely is. So I have been considering purchasing an ice cream machine. This is a big decision because I don’t like gadgets. I don’t like them to clutter the kitchen, I don’t like to clean them, and I don’t like how poorly they tend to age.

In considering the considerations, and discussing with friends, I realized that an ice cream maker would enable me to create many different flavors. This seems too obvious to mention, but I've eaten a lot of ice cream in my life but usually only one flavor per city. There seems to be a particular kind of flavor that offers comfort, and I rarely stray from whatever is doing a good job for me. Few cities have offered me more than one flavor that worked. Interested in this recognition, I wrote a history of my life in ice cream.

Childhood in San Francisco was the original Nob Hill Swenson’s Thin Mint (mint chip) ice cream, properly green and itself the subject of another blog post here.

When my grandmother would rescue me from boarding school she always took me to a shop that no longer exists where I always had amaretto.

I don’t remember eating ice cream in college, just really great bran muffins and bananas, cheap Indian food and scallion pancakes. But at home in the summer, seriously anorexic (and cleary anemic as well), I subsisted on Gelato Classico’s Pistachio White Chocolate. One summer I worked for another gelato shop and fell in love with their rice ice cream.

In graduate school I discovered Dreyer’s rocky road. One phase of recovery from anorexia consisted exclusively in allowing myself to eat as much ice cream as I liked (punctuated with sweetened cereal, specifically frosted mini-wheats).

Lonely living in a boring small town during my first job, ice cream was my sole pleasure. There was a Ben&Jerry’s store, and I bought hand-packed Cherry Garcia which had a higher density of cherries and chocolate than the pre-packed pints. I crumbled the store’s fresh waffle cones on top. To replicate this, I used Martha Stewart's vanilla base, dark chocolate chunks, and fresh cherries. But the fresh cherries got too icy frozen, so then I tried soaking them in vodka hoping that the vodka would replace some of the water in the cells and have a less icy texture.

My grandmother’s favorite flavors were butter pecan and maple walnut, which we often bought from 31 Flavors. When she left us, it was all I could eat.

Living in Wellington I discovered a new flavor, Kaffee Eis’ Biscotti (oreo cookies). Like rocky road, it's in a mild chocolate base, which seems to be a theme in my preferences.

The backup flavor, available all over the US, was Häagen Dazs' Rum Raisin. And that’s the first flavor I’m making with the new ice cream machine… I soaked the raisins in rum for a few hours, then used Martha Stewart's vanilla base (skipping the first few steps with the vanilla beans). The flavor was perfect.

And what I've learned so far about making ice cream:

 

My recipe for ice cream base (you need to add flavors):

if you have a compressor machine you can put this directly in, or cool it first and then put it in. if you have a freezer bowl machine you must cool first.

 

The last meal question

Wow. I just joined StudioFeast's mailing list. I knew they asked the last meal question on their website (and do an annual feast of last meals), but I wasn't expecting to have to answer it to get on the mailing list. Heavy question. And evocative.

My answers weren't what I thought they'd be.

First thought, well éclairs, of course. Or... crêpes with whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Anyway, easy.

Not so fast.

Think about those lifetime favorite foods I wrote about not so long ago. Wouldn't it be one of those?

Hmm, nothing grabs me.

Grandma I-ya's fried chicken.

Why that? It's not even on the list.

Sounds comforting.

But wouldn't I want crunchy pastry and whipped cream? Maybe those sfogliatele from Zurich?

Geez, wouldn't I want amazing cheese?

I hesitate. Why?

Sugar ... that's encouragement.

Cheese ... that's a celebration.

Fried chicken, too messy.

Maybe I'd have what I mostly eat ... kale ... well, uh, no need to be so healthy.

The fried chicken comes back. What's up with that?

Ok, come on, think about this. It's a whole meal. That means I get to have savory AND sweet.

But I might be cheating, does each person only gets to suggest one dish?

Savory: Khachapuri from that Russian bakery on Santa Monica Blvd east of Fairfax (south side of Santa Monica, not the one in the Whole Foods parking lot). They make theirs square, about 20cm on each side. No idea what's in there but I know it involves mild cheese and egg, and needs to be eaten with a salad.

Sweet: that lemon-rum coffee-cake from Santa Barbara (the lady who made it stopped).

No. My first favorite ice cream, Thin Mint from the original Swensen's on Nob Hill.

Wow, the food is as much about memory as desire.

I discovered the Russian bakery in 2000, and it was one of the things that made me first appreciate LA (as a San Franciscan LA seemed sort of ridiculous, in an entertaining way). The coffee cake was the food that crystalized my emergence from anorexia. I started feeding myself beautiful food. And the mint-chip, well it was my joy and comfort as a child, for many years. Everything was ok while I was eating that ice cream. And it took a long time, because they made huge cones there.

photo by Kevin Y. (but I wasn't allowed to have sugar cones, so mine was always on a plain cone)