Archive for July, 2012|Monthly archive page

SKIP WHALEY: the journeyman.

In articles on July 22, 2012 at 10:50 am

Skip is my friend John’s dad. I know John from my time living in Tokyo back around the turn of the millennium. I was looking for someone to interview as part of a series for Fork magazine, where this interview was first published in issue #24. Skip lives in South California so this interview was carried out, after quite a few tech fails, over Skype.

Skip Whaley

The Great Food Revival. We hear about it all the time with the next up-and-coming chef reinvigorating another traditional skill. I’ve become more and more curious about who they’re learning these skills from, so over the next year, I’ve decided to find out. I’ll meet six people, food veterans, if you will, who have worked in their chosen trade for my whole life or longer. 1975 is the line drawn in the sand and an idea takes shape.

I found my first, Skip Whaley, through an old friend John who I haven’t seen in over a decade due to the tyrannies of geography. “My dad worked as a meatcutter all his life,” John told me, clearly excited about seeing his dad in print, “he must have started way before 1975.” Skip lives in deepest Southern California, but after much concerned checking of timezones and some technological hiccups, we settle down for a chat.

“It was 1961 when I started out in the meat business as a clean-up boy. I was 15,” Skip has a honeyed Californian accent that makes me feel self-consciously British, “I moved on to Country Boy Market a couple of years after and learnt to break beef. Dad and granddad both sold poultry across Southern California. They knew a lot of people and got me an ‘in’ at Stater Brothers in October ’66.”

Stater’s is a family-run, Southern Californian grocery store that started trading in 1935 and is still going strong. Skip worked there until retiring 9 years ago.

“I drove 45 miles each way in my old Renault,” Skip chuckles, “gas was only 18¢ a gallon so the round trip cost me 86¢. Driving that far would cut deep into your pocket these days. We still live miles from anywhere – it’s two miles of dirt track just to get to our mailbox. I had experience but still, I had to start as a union apprentice and couldn’t cut anything without a trained journeyman present. Stater’s and a store called Michael’s were the only places with a meat counter and they still have the slogan ‘It’s the meat that made us famous’ up over the counter today. Get the first cut wrong and you have to re-cut every piece, so we went to school once a week to learn the trade and how to make the most profit out of every cut. Every one of us had the skills to start up his own business.” I ask Skip if he was ever tempted to go it alone. He pauses. “Well, sure I was. There was a time back in the 80s when we had the idea of a restaurant with a meat counter – choose your cut and we’ll cook it for you. It’s been done successfully since but the truth was, the hours would have been long, the pay would have been too little and the risks would have been high. Looking back, I chose well.”

Over the years, Skip worked his way up to backroom journeyman, taking on the responsibilities of the manager when he was away. “The stores changed drastically over the years,” he tells me, “when I first started, we put sawdust down at the beginning of the week and picked it up at the end of the week. We raked particles out of it daily, so I guess it was semi clean!” he laughs. “In the 70’s, sawdust became concrete and wooden blocks were replaced with fibreglass. Now you spray everything down after every job, maybe five, six times a day. The job’s changed too.” Skip describes a process of consolidation with the small, highly-skilled onsite teams gradually replaced with general clerks and skilled workers concentrated into large off-site warehouses. “Put a skilled breakman out in the warehouse and replace him with a clerk and things get hectic. It’s tough! In my later years, I did the early shifts from 5am till 2pm. I was in before it got busy, did all my cuts and cleaned down my area before lunch. Then I could make sure everyone got home on time. We worked as a team and Stater’s runs a tight ship.”

Skip has a self-effacing manner and I wonder if he considers himself an expert. “Yeah, I probably do, but I’m still learning. If you’re neat and tidy and work well together, it all falls into place.” He pauses, “You know, the most gratifying thing is training someone with a great work ethic who makes it to backroom man. I’ve learnt a trick or two from some of those young guys but it’s good to impress them every once in a while.” He laughs, “‘Oh look!’ they think, ‘this old guy can do something in 45 minutes that takes me 90!'”

I ask Skip if he ever got sick of all that meat but he answers ruefully, “I’m not supposed to have red meat any more but I just love a BBQ. At Thanksgiving, I cook a 20lb turkey if the kids are about. I recommended allmy sons to follow in my footsteps but they got smart on me and went to college,” the pride in his voice is palpable. “Sometimes, I walk up to the counter at Stater’s and say ‘You know, I used to be a meatcutter,'” I can hear Skip’s eyes twinkle all the way from Southern California as he anticipates his punchline, “and they sigh, ‘Yeah Skip, we know'”

We say goodbye and I’m left with the impression of a kind and humorous man who firmly believes in a right and a wrong way of doing things. It strikes me that it takes a vast amount of dedication to devote a lifetime to a trade and I realise I’ll be meeting a group of people with that very special something in common.

This interview is an extract from issue 24 of Fork magazine. Fork is a bi-monthly magazine beautifully designed and filled with interviews with interesting people, reviews of the best places to eat and travel to, plus a few recipes for good measure.

BECCA ROSE: mayonnaise queen

In articles on July 6, 2012 at 1:54 pm

This article for Fork Magazine came about during the very first Full Moon Feast – our bring-your-own-and-share full moon supper that we hold every month in a different location in Bristol. Becca was so generous on the day, made us a lovely meal that we ate in some unexpected sunshine in her garden. The original article was called ‘amayonnaising’ which was Becca’s idea and we took a stack of photos that didn’t make it into the magazine. We talked about so much more than mayonnaise and she’s another most wanted to reinterview and dig a little deeper.

becca rose chopping

I don’t notice the jam jar on the table at first, such is the hustle and bustle of our monthly bring-a-dish, welcome-one-and-all supper. Imagine my delight when I realise what it contains.

Home. Made. Mayonnaise!

O mayonnaise! I could go into raptures about you! Floppily languid stuff, sliding off my spoon with the suaveness of a confidence trickster I don’t mind being conned by. Oily dictator in my fridge, imposing yourself with impunity on every culinary choice I make, turning yesterday’s pizza or lasagne into the perfect breakfast (yes, really) and making even iceberg lettuce edible.

I open the jar and spoon some of the happy wonderful creamy contents onto my plate. It’s a perfect 3.5 on the mayonnaise scale, the loose slippery yellow stuff being a 1 and Helman’s Mr Whippy weirdness at a queasy 10. One taste, and I lurch to my feet. “Who made this?!” I demand, brandishing my oversize silver spoon and swooning from the jar’s slight garlic whiff. A shuffle follows the silence and Becca Rose, renowned for the best tortilla española in Bristol and puppeteer extraordinaire, steps forward, chin defiantly aloft. “I did,” she says, “what of it?”

“Teach me!” I proclaim, fervour burning in my eyes.

So, just a few days later, I find myself in Becca Rose’s sunny kitchen, notebook at the ready. Verduras a la plancha are already prepared while shrimp and squid wait to make acquaintance with some hot oil and garlic. One of those famous tortillas taunts us from under a square of kitchen paper.

“I first learnt to make mayonnaise 10 years ago from a French chef named Bruno,” Becca tells me as she assembles the ingredients. “I use this,” she pats a blender that would do Wallace and Grommit proud. “You can make it with just a fork, but I prefer it a bit firmer.” She cracks an egg into the basin. “Don’t think you can double the ingredients and make twice as much,” she tells me, “it doesn’t work. If you want more, you just have to make it twice.” Next comes a clove of garlic, crushed, a teaspoon of Dijon mustard and a tablespoon of Sherry vinegar. “A friend’s mother in Valladolid made the most amazing mayonnaise – and she made it with pure olive oil! Usually, if you make mayonnaise with just olive oil, it tastes horrible. But with Sherry vinegar, it’s a thing of beauty.”

There’s something arcane about mayonnaise making. As everyone who has ever tried it knows, sometimes, despite getting the ingredients right, getting the process perfect, even clutching your lucky rabbit’s foot won’t make it right. Sometimes the damn stuff just won’t emulsify.

“It happened to me once,” Becca’s face is haunted, “I knew it was coming. I was in Toulouse and I offered to make mayonnaise and then before I knew it, there were five people watching me!” With some cause then, Becca’s hand trembles as she flicks the switch. I gird my loins and pour the oil. As more and more oil goes in, we peer inside, waiting. Then, about a quarter of the bottle in, it happens! The consistency isn’t quite right yet, it’s too slithery, but there is no denying that we have emulsification. I realise I haven’t been breathing. I add yet more oil. The oil content of mayonnaise is prestigious – for a jar of mayonnaise, you need about a jar of oil. Many people lose their nerve and scarper off to buy a ready made jar instead, but it’s a Pyrrhic victory – there’s just as much oil in shop bought mayo. And, of course, it’s shop bought.

We taste and adjust, adding a little more of everything until neither egg, oil, vinegar nor mustard predominate. Each flavour is subsumed into the totalitarian state of amayonnaisingness.

Of course, we sit in the sunshine. Of course, the tapas are amazing. Of course, it is one of those days when you leave, hugs akimbo, all effusive with thanks and all aflush with wonderful memories. Of course it is. With mayonnaise that perfect, what could possibly go wrong?

Becca Rose’s Amazing Mayonnaise

  • Add one whole egg, white and all, to the basin
  • Add a perfect clove of garlic, crushed
  • Add one teaspoon of Dijon mustard
  • Add a generous tablespoon of Sherry vinegar
  • Breath deeply, be brave, commence blending
  • While blending the ingredients, pour in a steady stream of sunflower oil
  • Suppliment the sunflower oil with olive oil if desired
  • Cross fingers until emulsification happens
  • Continue blending and adding oil until the mayonnaise is thick enough to cling to the sides of the basin
  • Add more vinegar, garlic or mustard until desired taste is achieved

Though heaven knows how they make it last that long, it is said that fresh mayonnaise will keep in the fridge for up to one week.

This interview is an extract from issue 23 of Fork magazine. Fork is a bi-monthly magazine beautifully designed and filled with interviews with interesting people, reviews of the best places to eat and travel to, plus a few recipes for good measure.

NAJIBA MRAKADEH: daughter of Damascus

In articles on July 6, 2012 at 10:06 am

I met Najiba in a meditation class. She is tiny, smily and very friendly. She came over to my house and we cooked together. The interview was published in issue #22 of Fork Magazine. While her English isn’t perfect, she is one of the most expressive people I have interviewed and put all sorts of technicolour pictures in my head. Given that all we hear these days about Syria is horror, I felt priveleged to see another side to it.

Najiba and me

When Najiba Mrakadeh talks, she effortlessly conjures up colours, smells, and sounds, and she talks with her hands and the expressions on her face as she does with her words, “I lived my first eighteen years in an old house in the old city of Damascus. Imagine a small door, just big enough for one person to fit through, and then a long corridor,” she smiles and her eyes sparkle, “and then, at the end of the corridor, you see heaven. Lemon trees, jasmine, Seville oranges and a fountain in a high stone basin.” Syria is one of those places we hear about all the time, but most of us know very little. “We serve the oranges as a delicacy. You cut them into quarters, roll them and sew them on a thread, then you boil them in a very thick syrup. When you pull the thread off, they roll into spirals. My friends still bring me them when they come from Syria to visit.”

She chops up an enormous pile of onions with her own sharp knife she has brought with her. I gallantly try to help but by the time I have chopped one onion, she has finished three. “The house is a classy hotel now, well half of it. They knocked down the other half to widen the road … they wouldn’t get away with it these days.” The onions go into a hot pan with plenty of olive oil, “We need to cook these until they caramelise.” We’re making mujaddara, a dish of lentils and bulghur and cumin, and of course, the caramelised onions. She sits and sorts through the dark red lentils, picking out the black lentils and bits of grit. “We would spend hours doing this when we were children, sitting in the courtyard and chatting. Mujaddara is a winter dish because it has lentils and it’s something we would eat on a Friday. I’m Greek Orthodox Christian and my father was a priest. We didn’t eat meat on Fridays and there is a whole vegetarian cuisine based around Lent.”

The lentils go into a heavy pan where they simmer in time to the sizzle of the onion. We’re also making fatouche a vibrantly coloured salad with deep fried flatbread pieces on top. “When I was young, the baker’s boy would come and deliver the bread every morning and then anything that was left over was left out to dry and then you make fatouche with it. The salad is a summer food. Of course it’s different now – you can get everything all year round and people make things to freeze. In those days, we had an enormous pantry in the house and all summer, we prepared for the winter. We would get big drums of olive oil. We dry tomatoes and apricot on the roof and make a concentrated paste. You can’t get anything like that here! Or there’s makdous, small aubergines, boiled and stuffed with walnuts and garlic and then pressed and dried for storage for the winter. In summertime, it’s all about the fresh vegetables that grow in the valley around Damascus. We’d make labaneh too, a yoghourt so concentrated you can roll it into balls and preserve it in oil. In the winter it’s bulghur, rice and lentils. In different parts of the country, they just used to eat what was available – in the north, just mutton, yoghourt and aubergine with bulghur and in other parts, they eat camel.”

Once the lentils are done, the bulghur goes in and we chop tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce for the fatouche. Syrian food, like the Syrian Arabic dialect, forms a continuum with Lebanon on its southern border, there is much that is familiar here from Lebanese cuisine and Najiba tells us that the Lebanese are famous for making successful restaurants, but the food is only half the story. “My favourite is tabbouleh. It’s the most colourful food you can imagine and when I think of it, I think of friends,” her smile is warm. “We chop big piles of parsley and chat and laugh. It’s like when we make stuffed vineleaves, you spend hours making them the day before you eat them with the whole family or your friends.”

When I ask her if Syria has changed, she looks up from the lemons she is squeezing with the help of the handle of a knife and nods vigorously. “You know about this,” she says to me, “you have lived abroad. When you leave somewhere, you put it under a glass jar and it doesn’t change for you. But if you stay, it changes and you don’t even notice it. If you want to go back to the old ways, you have to find it elsewhere, like in some parts of the USA there are Syrian communities that have kept all the old ways.” Najiba understands about being an outsider. Even though she was Syrian, her mother grew up in Haiti and came to Syria to marry her father. “Like me, she went abroad for love. When I was young I didn’t understand how much of an interesting woman she was. I just wanted to fit in and for her to be like the other mothers. But she read French and she was interested in politics, she didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to look a man in the eye or touch people without thinking about it.” She laughs out loud, “‘Mum!’ I used to say, ‘why can’t you understand that we don’t do that here!’ And now my daughter says the same to me here. Now I know that being an outsider is a quality, a blessing. It means you really see things with your eyes and you can appreciate them more. You understand that, no?” I agree. It’s only through living away from this country for so long that I can really appreciate what a wonderful place it is.She looks wistful, “I can imagine going back there. One day. I do miss it but when I go back, I’m a beloved guest. It’s been 21 years! I’m not a part of it anymore.” She shrugs.
When I ask her if she usually cooks Syrian or British food, she tells us she cooks British food but in a Syrian way. “We don’t have broccoli in Syria, but I cook it the way we would there – a bit of oil, a bit of garlic, a lot of cumin and a little water.” She stirs the lentils and adds in the bulghur and a hefty dose of cumin and turns the heat down low. She then arranges the maqali, deep fried thin sliced aubergine and blanched cauliflower florets into a bowl and begins to assemble the salad. “These are turnip pickles,” she says, pointing out the violently pink slivers in another dish, “the colour comes from beetroot.” She checks the onion, it is dark brown and string like. Once the bulghur is cooked and the water all absorbed, she spoons it with the lentils onto a flat plate amidst clouds of steam and arranges the fried onions over the top. “If my mother was here,” she chuckles, “she would be shocked. ‘Where is the meat?!’ she would say. This is poor person’s food. As soon as you get money in Syria, you get meat and always give the best to guests. Even if there isn’t enough for yourself.”

Talk of not enough seems academic as the table is laden with beautifully coloured food and the kitchen filled with smells of cumin, onion and freshly squeezed lemons. We tuck in, spooning great mounds of it onto our plates. “I teach Arabic now,” she says, helping herself to a little more salad and some pickles, “but when I came here, it wasn’t the language that was so difficult to learn. It was the culture! We’re so used to the way we do things and we all use these codes, you know? In Syria, we eat brains and tongue and liver and hearts and some people say ‘Oh, how could you!’, but then I think you make the blood of a pig into a sausage ‘Oh, how could you!’. You see?” I realise as I listen to Najiba how much in my life has gone now. How much of the things I used to take for granted aren’t anywhere to be found any more and that more is lost in time than can ever be lost in distance. But she’s right. We adjust and we change. I smile and I shrug, Najiba style, and I help myself to another big spoonful of steaming lentils.

This interview is an extract from issue 20 of Fork magazine. Fork is a bi-monthly magazine beautifully designed and filled with interviews with interesting people, reviews of the best places to eat and travel to, plus a few recipes for good measure.