Friday, October 22, 2010

Culinary Tour of San Francisco

I had written this for a non-fiction piece while I was attending Dixie State College in St. George Ut. It was well received, but too long. I cut it down and changed a few things, but this is the original. I hope you enjoy.

It was going to be a long drive, just me, a carton of Camel Wide Filters, and my
i-pod, all taking the trip from Las Vegas to San Francisco. I left early in the
morning in hopes that if I were to get lost or stuck in California traffic, I
would have more than enough time to check into my hotel, let my family know
that I arrived safely, have dinner and drinks with a friend from Le Cordon Bleu
that now lived and worked in San Francisco, and have enough time to get a good
night’s sleep. I left Las Vegas on a mission, and I wasn’t going to leave San
Francisco until I had achieved my goal. I was going to be “The Next Food
Network Star.”

I was driving through the vineyards and the orchards, watching as the bright colors of the leaves on the apple, orange and avocado trees started to change colors in late July. Being saddened as I saw the newly sanctioned “Dust Bowl” in Southern California. Knowing that hundreds of jobs had been lost, as well as thousands of dollars worth of the California vegetable industry blew away in the wind. Tumbleweeds crashed into my car, my front bumper obliterating them to hundreds of little pines and stems joining the economy in the median of the freeway. Volume up, and windows down, a cool but dry breeze tousled my freshly cut pompadour. Thank goodness for Murphy’s hair oil and my black comb, a simple fix to a possible disaster. I looked good; I felt good. Positivity and exuberance oozed from every pore on my body. The Food Network had no idea what was going to hit them the next morning.

When I arrived at my hotel, The Motel 6 in the middle of San Francisco’s financial district, dinner was
weighing heavily on my mind. Lina and I were getting ready for a night out on the town. I was looking forward to the grand tour I was about to receive from a local, let alone the food, the street food. Succulent kebabs and falafel that is crispy on the outside doughy on the inside. Spicy house made hot dogs and sourdough pretzels are the best on “X” Street.

We tried every kind of food, stopping at bars for a cocktail after the falafel and a beer before and after
the hotdog. Local wines flowed like rainwater gushing down the avenue. The best that Sonoma County and Napa Valley had to offer were all within arms-reach. I was in gastronomic heaven. Our last stop of the night was at a dessert bar aptly named “Candy Bar.” There were low, dark stained cherry wood tables and plush burgundy-colored velvet sofas. Checkers and chess boards, card games and other games are available to play. The drink menu was extensive, domestic and imported beer, wine and inventive cocktails. The dessert menu was simple and eclectic. There were five dessert offerings, which changed almost nightly. Lina and I both enjoyed lavender infused vodka drink, mixed with a local sparkling chardonnay, garnished with a candied lavender flower. We each chose a dessert
from the menu and shared with each other. I chose the beet mousse in a dark chocolate tuile, spearmint ice cream and crumbled chocolate cake. The smooth beet mousse served at room temperature to contrast the icy spearmint ice cream. The crisp chocolate tuile was a wonderful contradiction to the moist crumbled cake. Lina ordered the nachos. Crispy baked puff pastry cut into triangles to
resemble tortilla chips; sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, topped with strawberries resembling tomatoes, kiwi like jalapeños, mango to look like shredded cheddar cheese. A sour cream sorbet and a local avocado ice cream served on top, finished with a candied jalapeño slice, slightly sweet with a
punch of heat. I still can’t decide which one I liked better. The room-temperature beet mousse was a bit of a turnoff. The nachos were bland and slightly boring. It was a short bus ride to an amicable mid-way close enough for both of us to walk in our separate directions to get to our individual resting
places. I loved to see Lina and to tour this great culinary megalopolis with her.
While taking a shower the next morning, cleaning off the nine hour drive and the four
hour culinary tour of San Francisco, I realize it’s actually the day. The day of the casting call. I should be nervous. I should be a wreck, but I’m not. I’m relaxed. I’m content. I’m happy to be doing this. I stopped at a Starbucks on the way to the casting call where I got a large quad-espresso latte with a
bagel or a muffin, maybe a breakfast sandwich of some sort. I put on my earphones, click over to my “Next Food Network Star” playlist. It had happy music; it had inspirational music with a little Johnny Cash thrown in for good measure. I walked the ten blocks north, and the five blocks east, drinking my
coffee and munching my blueberry muffin. There was nothing that was going to get in my way.
I arrived at the W at 7:30 a.m. there was plenty of time to spare. The casting call is scheduled to begin at 9:00. I stopped outside the W; they had a few comfy couches and a coffee table outside under a balcony. I sat down and lit a cigarette, took in the scenery of the Museum of Modern Art across the street, the people walking to work, people biking or running, getting in their daily
exercise before the heat of the July afternoon. My coffee was running dry and I knew that it was going to be a long day. I looked for another coffee shop. Seattle’s Best is just inside the MoMA. I added another large quad-latte to my relaxed and comfortable state.
I went inside the W and looked for signage, for direction to the casting call. Many people were walking around inside the lobby. Some employees, some guests, some were also auditioning for “The Next Food Network Star”. Up to the fifth floor and to the left. I saw a table with a pretty girl, tired looking, drinking a large Seattle’s Best coffee. Water bottles, stacks of papers and cups overflowing
with pens littered the table. She took a bite of a bagel sandwich, an asiago cheese bagel, with scrambled egg and ham, or maybe bacon. It had cheddar cheese seductively melting over the nooks and crannies of the bacon and the perfectly round scrambled eggs. Yes, it was definitely bacon. Toasted and steaming. She wiped her mouth with a napkin, ridding herself of crumbs and butter. She had a bit of melted cheese stuck to her upper lip. She took a deep breath and blew onto her coffee, cooling the top then taking a big swig. She winced. It burned her tongue. She wiped her mouth again. She smiled prettily as I approached the table. Maybe a forced smile, it seemed too early to be that cheery. Maybe she needed a second coffee, like the one I had in my hand. She gathered one of each
large stack of paperwork and handed them to me, giving me directions for each stack.
“Like this?” I asked. I had printed off all 37 pages of the application and typed my answers in. She seemed intrigued, and yet possibly annoyed that I had done it all without direction.
“Did you remember to bring headshots?” she asked as she grabbed a Polaroid camera from under the table.
“Like these?” I asked, she looked slightly more annoyed.
“Well, I guess you have everything. Sign in here, you are number 27. Have a seat inside the waiting room. We will begin the casting call at 8:00 instead of 9:00.” 
I sat at a table where two women seemed to be having a light-hearted conversation. Slightly laughing with each other, and slightly sizing up each other as competition. Toni and Anne are two very different people. Toni is eclectic; wearing a green “Mario Bro’s” one-up t-shirt with khaki capri pants and a sock monkey beanie. Anne was conservatively dressed in long black pin-striped slacks, shiny red kitten heels, and a black blouse with white polka-dots. Her blonde hair recently dyed and pulled back with a black headband with a large rhinestone flower neatly attached with copper wire.
The three of us talked and people watched, making fun of others in the room. There was the flamboyant queen who stated that he was going to “be the flamboyant one that everyone loves to hate.” The health-nut basketball star in a white chef’s coat and basketball shorts. The recent culinary graduate with a picture taken with Emeril Lagasse, which he was shamelessly using as a headshot. We looked around the room and found the token girl from India, who wants to teach the world Indian cuisine.
Anne was called in first. She quietly gathered her application and headshots.  She stood, straightened her blouse and slacks and a quick swipe of the tongue over her teeth to ensure she doesn’t have any crumbs in the cracks in her gum line. A few minutes passed, Toni and I continued making fun of others who had joined in.
Toni was called in next, Anne hadn’t yet returned. I perused my application, making sure it was in order. Anne returned with a warm smile and a calm demeanor. She gathered her things; bid me farewell and good luck. A warm hug and a silent goodbye, we exchanged emails and Face Book names. Toni returned, slightly angered and a little defeated. She said a curt hello, left me her business card and a quick goodbye. I handed her my card with my Face Book name scribbled on the back.
“Justin. Justin Lewis.” The time had arrived. It was my turn. Gathering my application and headshots, smiled and stood with definition. I followed the woman into the hallway, was asked to sit in a little room off of the hallway, but not yet in the conference room where the interviews were being held. Calm and collected, jittery from the eight shots of espresso, it seemed like an eternity, but was just a few short minutes. The door opened, a mousy girl exited the room. It seemed as if she was going to cry. She had pale skin and hundreds of freckles. I could see her face getting more and more red with every step. A tear began to swell in her left eye, shortly followed by a much larger tear in her right eye.
“Justin. Justin Lewis?” A cheerful woman in her mid-twenties appeared through the large oak door. Her hair pulled back into a loose bun being held by a white Stylo pen. The end had been chewed on, wrinkled and beaten. A nervous habit of the cheerful woman. I followed her to the far end of the large mahogany table. It was a corner room with large windows overlooking the MoMA people still walking to work, running or biking. A single folder sitting at each end of the table with an empty schedule affixed to the outside. I sat to her right, she to my left. She removed the pen from her hair and it fell over her shoulders. A single strand fell on top of her left hand, she didn’t notice it, but I did.
Who am I? What is my culinary passion? Why do I want to have a show on The Food Network? How am I different from the rest of the applicants? Why should they choose me? What is my background, culinary and personal? What is my favorite memory of cooking? She asked a barrage of questions that I was prepared for. I knew the questions that she was going to ask before she asked them. I was in the right mindset, my energy; my emotional and mental state was in complete harmony. She knew it too. I was asked to come back the following day for a callback. I had to prepare a dish and bring it with me. I had to prepare a training technique for video. I had checked out of my hotel when I left for the casting call. My hotel room didn’t have a kitchenette. Not even a coffee pot or a microwave. How would I cook something deserving enough of my own Food Network show? We set up my appointment for 9:00 a.m. the following morning. I walked out of the conference room, down the hall and into the waiting room. I gathered my belongings and left the W for the first time. I would be back the next day.
I called my Mom to tell her the good news. I had to find a place to stay one more night; I had to find a place to cook a meal. Chevy’s Tex-Mex Grill right across the street. They have a kitchen; maybe I could use it. I called Lina to ask for help. I need a place to stay, I need to find groceries. I need to come up with a recipe that inspires them to choose me. But first, Chevy’s.
The front door is unlocked; a manager is standing at the podium talking on the phone. I describe the situation. I ask for help. She chuckles, but humors me and goes to get the Chef. Chef James, a portly man with a goatee and his hair pulled back into a pony-tail, greets me with a coffee cup in his hand, and a pencil stuck behind his ear. The manager described my situation on the way to the front; he half-smiled as he was walking through the restaurant. He looked at me, grinned and without saying a word I knew I could use the kitchen. We discussed a meeting time; he told me about a farmers market close by, handed me his business card, and wished me luck.
I called Lina and she gave me directions to the farmers market that Chef James had told me about, and agreed to meet me there in 30 minutes. The time it would take for her to arrive by bus, and for me to walk there. It would also give me time to come up with a dish to prepare.
The market spanned a city block, fresh fish and smoked meats greeted me as I walked in from the east. Live music was being played somewhere in the middle. I tasted a fresh white peach; the meat of the peach was white as snow with faint yellow-orange fuzz. They were larger than my fist, perfectly round and symmetrical with the dimple of the peach ever so slight, but evident that it was supposed to be there. The aroma was sweet and tart at the same time. I grabbed five of the peaches, a couple jalapeños, and a head of garlic, a bunch of mint, lemons, and onions. Lina and I then headed to China Town.
While in China Town, we had the most wonderful pho, authentically served with Thai basil, sprouts and lime wedges and washed it all down with refreshing Thai iced tea.
I had decided to prepare mojito marinated shrimp, served over lemon pepper fettuccini and topped with white peach salsa for the callback. In China Town I bought a beautiful white bowl with graduating sides, the back of the bowl being higher than the front. A pound of whole prawns and some rum for the mojito marinade. When we arrived at Lina’s house, I prepared the marinade, and made the fettuccini. Lina and I made dinner for ourselves and her roommates, then I retired to bed for the evening, Sunday was going to be a longer day than Saturday had turned out to be since I had to drive back to Vegas after it was all done.
6:00 a.m. Sunday Morning, the day of the callback. I quickly got ready for the day, gathered all my ingredients, and brewed a pot of coffee. I headed back to Chevy’s to meet with Chef James and to start preparing my dish.
Chef James showed me where I could work. I quickly cleaned the prawns and started them marinating. Shrimp doesn’t take too long to marinade or to cook, so I started a pot of water to boil the pasta I had prepared the night before. Chef James checked in on me and brought me some coffee. I diced the peaches, finely minced the jalapeño, and did a quick chiffonade of the mint for the peach salsa. I had saved a couple peaches for my breakfast.
I thanked Chef James for letting me use his kitchen. He wished me luck as I headed out the door. Before going to the W, I went to the MoMA to get some coffee. I crossed back over to the W, sat on the same couches as the day before, lit a cigarette, and people watched. I watched the same people as the day before walking to work running or biking.
I looked at the time; I had just about 15 minutes before I was scheduled to meet with The Food Network Casting Staff, and I lit another cigarette, said a little prayer took a big swig of coffee. I called the casting staff to get directions to the room where the interview was being held. She said she would meet me in the lobby at 9:00, I had five minutes. Do I smoke another cigarette or meditate? I lit another cigarette, three in fifteen minutes I think that’s a record somewhere. I smoke as fast as I can; I put half of it out in the ashtray. There are fewer people inside today, the same staff, fewer guests and me. I meet with Sheri, the pen-chewing girl who interviewed me the day prior; she led me to the elevator and up to the 27th floor down the hall and to the right. It seemed like The Food Network had rented a set of interlocking suites for the casting staff and for the interviews. I was introduced to the rest of the staff, and then we started.
First we filmed the mojito shrimp, lemon pepper fettuccini and white peach salsa that I had prepared. I had to give quick details on how I had made it. I told the story of Chef James and Chevy’s restaurant, the farmers market, the delectable white peach, making pasta without a pasta roller, rolling out the dough with a wine bottle, and of course my trip to China Town. Then I had to do my technique. I decided to show how to make pie dough. I started with flour and salt in a bowl, adding cubes of butter and breaking down the butter with my fingers till they were the size of hazelnuts, slowly adding water a little at a time then mixing and mixing.
“I hate having dirty hands,” I said “my Mom has a picture of me when I was younger standing at the bathroom sink covered from head to toe in mud, washing my hands.” Then we began the question and answer segment. We pulled the table out of the way, and brought in a barstool.
“Sit as comfortably as you can, but with poise.”
“Answer the question like “What is your favorite color?” “My favorite color is blue.” Just like that, okay?”
She asked the same questions as yesterday, and even more new questions. Tell me about your inspiration for cooking, inspiration for wanting to be on Food Network? Who is my favorite Food Network Chef, and why? Tell me about your family, and what they mean to you. Which city would you like to go on a culinary tour of, which foods would you try and why? This one was simple; I had
just done one two days prior. The Q&A session lasted for just about an hour, then I was asked to go into the next room, there is a test on the table, I have 45 minutes to complete it, please wait in the room until they come get me. A test? I had to do a test? The questions were simple, they were all culinary questions, temperatures, major ingredients in “X” cuisine, my favorite dishes and how I prepare them, favorite dishes family made and how they prepared them (being descriptive at all times of course) the test was nine pages long, and I had to write on the back of most of the pages to complete
some of the answers. Sheri opened the door, collected my exam and showed me out. She really liked me, and looked forward to seeing me again.
Next I had two days to email six pictures and ten original recipes to The Food Network. I also had to prepare a video of me cooking something, showing me outside of the kitchen (hobbies, family etc) being energetic and of course, in three minutes or less. That was due in two weeks. I would be contacted by the end of November if I was selected to continue on with the selection committee. I completed my video in ten days with help from my family of motorcycle riders, and from the IT guy at Le Cordon Bleu in Vegas, it was awesome. I was ready to go to New York and show them what I am made of.
I am still waiting for that call. They started filming in the middle of January for season six. I’m going to try again next year, maybe “seven” is my lucky number after all.

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