Photo by Angela Dimayuga.
Danny Bowien and I have a similar taste in music. That's something that we share that's not really about food, which is nice, because Jean Adamson from Vinegar Hill House once told me, "Make sure you have some other hobby besides cooking, because when you're doing this 90 hours a week, you're going to be really sad if you don't have anything else in your life." It's good advice, and I take it seriously.
I feel like that's probably a big reason why Danny and I are tight. When we have a crazy day, Danny will be like, "Let's go check out this show." He took the staff to a Nine Inch Nails show last year. I had no idea it was going to be so amazing—this tour in particular was all about the light show. Trent Reznor is a huge workaholic, and very much a perfectionist. There were all these strings of lights hanging in various parts of the stage, in between band members. Remember how back in the day Nintendo had Virtual Boy, and you would wear these weird grey and red goggles—these shitty goggles that you put on your face but it's kind of like you're playing Pong or something in 3-D? That's what it felt like at the show. I zoned out because it was overwhelming my senses. But I was getting ideas for food, and I've never had that before.When I saw Philip Glass on 9/11 this year, the same thing happened. It was set in two parts, and the first part was Steve Reich. I guess their ensembles would play together years ago, and they were getting together for the first time in 30 years. It was solemn, because the topics that the songs and compositions were about were mostly related to 9/11, but I got super into Philip Glass's performance. He had all of these xylophones and grand pianos set up in front of each other, and the ensemble all took turns playing different instruments during the set.
I became really entranced by it. I know I was watching something visually, but it was obviously all about the sound. I spaced out and got all of these crazy ideas for new menu items for the new Mission Chinese, and how I can incorporate certain ingredients. I wish I'd had access to a little table lamp I could just turn on and take notes—like a dream log, where you want to write it all down before you forget. I know it sounds corny, but that part of my head, the part where I get food ideas from, is like that sensation of doors opening, like if someone was on psychedelic mushrooms—that holy shit feeling. It was just happening and rushing out of my brain.
We got keys to the new Mission Chinese space a week ago. For a build-out, you have to be available during business hours, and then on the weekend you have to dedicate your creative side and talk about menu development. If I have people or friends in there, it's pretty inspiring for me to talk about my new ideas, and if I'm talking to a chef or a friend or an artist I get some crazier concepts. Now we have a sick kitchen, which I'm super excited about. At this new restaurant, we have access to a wood oven, which I love because it ties things together for me as a chef. When I worked at Vinegar Hill House, we had a wood oven, and we did a lot of proteins and veggies in it there.
During the Philip Glass show, I had this idea for using Sicilian olive oil, seasoned greens, and really nice baby bok choy—little ones that are two inches big, which are awesome because they're watery and juicy—or baby Chinese broccoli. I'd throw them in the wood-fired oven with a little bit of salt, and get a char on there, and then do an aioli kind of thing. I do an aioli that's egg-based, with maybe some white soy sauce which has a really nice umami. It's usually just a neutral oil and egg yolk, but sometimes I throw some seaweed in there—some aonori—and make it really bright and green. I'd squeeze it on top of the greens with a fancy egg salad. It would be really cool to pickle regular chicken eggs in beet pickling liquid, so the outside is bright pink, the inside is white, and the yolk is a really vibrant yellow. I'd grate that over the greens with the aioli along with soy-pickled long beans, which are really salty but still have some heat, and just finish the dish with some nice olive oil.
And that's what I came home with after that amazing show. I can' t believe it gave me so much cool inspiration for food. I could enjoy the music sitting in my chair, and my mind could just go off on other tangents. I got goosebumps afterwards! I'm still gushing over it.