The calm before the IFBC storm [UPDATE]

International Food Blogger Conference 2013 Seattle 

It’s almost here; IFBC 2013 is this week and I, for one, am giddy to attend. When we last convened about IFBC, final details were in flux. That is no longer the case. The attendees have been finalized, the agenda is set, and the afterparties are awaiting. What’s left from now until then? Order new business cards. Get a haircut (I should look presentable for this, after all. Which reminds me; do laundry) Stretch out my stomach for all the eating by eating. Raise my tolerance for the volume of booze flowing. Reserve transportation to get to the events. Figure which sessions to attend. This should be fun. Look forward to meeting my fellow food bloggers. Cheers to that.

UPDATE – The folks at IFBC have released a conference app. Whee to new media!

Travel Channel’s Chowdown Countdown

Or it could be titled “Places to eat in Texas, New York, California, and a sprinkling of other places”. But I get the Travel Channel’s title; short and catchy.

A few weekends ago, the Travel Channel re-aired its series of shows touting its Chowdown Countdown. This has replayed every so often since its original airing a few years ago. It’s a mesmerizing collection of entertainment. They feature various eateries in their 101 Tastiest Places to Chowdown from hole-in-the-walls to renowned restaurants coast-to-coast.

But, the thing I notice about Travel Channel’s Chowdown Countdown is that they don’t disclose the criteria for making their list. Yeah, it’s cool to have a countdown, but by numbering these restaurants you imply the best, which they didn’t quantify or explain the reasons why. Well, dear reader, I did the viewing for you and after watching the five hours of programming, I’ve found that the chief criteria to place is to have a calorie-laden, protein-heavy dish that wallops you with enough fat to survive winter hibernation. Some of these things are gastronomic wonders, and in some cases it isn’t a good thing

That said, I was entranced with the show and always had it on in the background as it aired. And I got some ideas for new places to visit. But there were some places that I would avoid. Sorry, but a five-pound burrito isn’t my idea of fun. I barely even stand some of the mega-burritos we have locally in Seattle, so there is no way I’ll go out of my way for that 80 ouncer.

It’s an odd show, sometimes they’ll provide context to a place; tell a backstory, give sense of appreciating the people. For others, they zoom right by. And the show often leans heavily on certain states and cuisine. Texas, New York, and California are frontrunners. Are you from Virginia and think you have some hole-in-the-wall gems? Well, the Travel Channel doesn’t really agree with you, because Virginia is amongst the states that don’t have a single entrant. As for food, if you love barbecue, pizza, or fried chicken, you’re in luck. There are a ton of those types of places. I would’ve loved to some of the history on these places, learn more about their staff and why they are iconic. Alas, it wasn’t to be.

For many of the restaurants that made the list, bigger isn’t better. Some of these places were jokes. When it comes to what I eat, I want to know the why, not just the what. The Travel Channel did a great job with the what. In many cases they just featured the dishes that were preposterously massive. But my main squabble is that they never talked about flavor and context. Why should I care about a 6 lb burrito? Or a 12 patty burger? Outside of horror, much of the list included places that had over the top dishes. Sorry Travel Channel, you had a window to shine a proper spotlight on cool places across America, but you reduced many of them to a gimmick. Not cool. If you can’t tell already, I’m conflicted with the show. It’s American to love lists. And to gripe about them. So yeah, well done Travel Channel, you got me talking about your show.

As a proud Washingtonian, I had major beef that our state’s few representatives were Paseo and Beth’s Cafe. Paseo, I’m cool with because their sandwiches are delicious. As for Beth’s? Because it’s TV and cliched, they focused on Beth’s 12-egg omelet. Whoop-de-doo, it’s been featured before. And there are other mediocre overrated breakfast places in Seattle, so they went with the most obvious. Darn Texas took all of our other spots.

Food, blogging, and food bloggers – IFBC 2013

International Food Blogger Conference 2013 Seattle

In my eyes, in late summer/early fall 2013, there will be an inflection point in the world of food for this year. The Pacific Northwest will be the basecamp for this sea change. It also just happens to be on the same weekend. There is the delightful and decadent Feast PDX, presented by Bon Appetit; this will be the celebrity chef event driven down the I-5 South corridor to Portland. Here in Seattle will be IFBC 2013 (International Food Bloggers Conference), presented by Amazon.com. Hundreds of food bloggers will visit the Emerald City to network, eat, and converse about, well, food blogging. I’ll be attending IFBC this year and can’t wait to partake in all what the con has to offer.

Though I would love to attend both Feast PDX and IFBC; alas, my X-Man alias is not Jamie Madrox, so I won’t be attending the Portland event. My physical self will be at the W Hotel in Seattle; the home base for this year’s IFBC. This is the fifth year of IFBC and I’m still kicking myself that I didn’t attend the inaugural in 2009. That year was crazy. At that moment in time, Twitter was truly cresting among food bloggers in the Seattle area. That summer was a whirlwind of meeting fellow food lovers in person. There was a camraderie, openness, and inclusion amongst fellow like-minded food lovers that I hope will happen again. And I remember from my fellow food friends that IFBC was one of the moments where food became culture here in Seattle, fully fleshed out with faces attached to names.

While I can hope this wave of excitement will happen again for IFBC 2013, I’m instead thinking of the value that I hope to get at the conference. The agenda is great; a keynote from Dorie Greenspan, talks on relevant topics, and the opportunity to meet other great food writers is always exciting. To hear what drives other writers. What their angle is and what they focus on. What inspires them. What they hope to share from their writing. I’m looking forward to IFBC 2013 and the next steps of what results from it.

As we get closer to IFBC 2013, I’m going to zero in and blog about this event in further detail. This should be fun, stay tuned.

If I were Danny Meyer, where would I open a Shake Shack in Seattle?

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First off, this is not to say that the rumor line is purporting that a Shake Shack is in the works for Seattle. Secondly, there isn’t a Shake Shack on the West Coast. Thirdly, this is all speculative and meant to be fun. Lastly, Shake Shack is awesome and would be welcome in Seattle. Where they may open is what we’re pondering.

I first learnt of Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack about four years ago. I was asking my friends for suggestions on places to eat in Manhattan. Amongst the usual suggestions one gets when going to the city (the Momofuku restaurants, Balthazar, Katz’s, etc) was this suggestion of a little burger joint in Madison Square Park. It was called Shake Shack and was one of the many restaurants from Danny Meyer. My knowledge of Danny Meyer (and his Union Square Restaurant Group) was nascent, but I had heard of him; that he was a restaurateur of the highest order, he wrote the book Setting the Table, and that was it. But Shake Shack was the place that I wanted to check. It was a burger stand in Madison Square Park. The lines were legendary. And their burgers and ‘concretes’ (milkshakes) were purported to be delicious. We were staying nearby and knew we had to go.

Of course it was tasty. But it wasn’t just the quality of the food at Shake Shack that made it great; it was the experience. The park setting was idyllic. The lines were long but were part of the experience and was managed well by the Shake Shack staff. The staff itself was professional and courteous. It was that experience that I keep returning to. A lot of people that try Shake Shack often say that they don’t understand what the big deal is. Which is an opinion they’re entitled to, but taken with just the burger is missing the point. When Shake Shack opens up new locations, it’s part of a cultural zeitgeist and can revitalize and energize the area near where it opens. And that is why we’re going to list out places in Seattle that I think would make sense if Danny Meyer would open up a Shake Shack in Seattle.

Let’s talk about the criteria. The first Shake Shack opened up in a park. The recent openings have used existing storefronts. I’d like to take the park formula as there are a few Seattle parks that could use a shake-up. Also consider nearby food options, walking traffic, available parking, and area revitalization. Yeah, we could theorize that Ballard or Capitol Hill would make sense, but that’s too easy. And besides, this is all food nerd make-believe so we’re going the park route and what it would mean for the area. Continue reading

The price points of wine

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Imagine this scenario; you’re at the store and want to buy a bottle of wine for dinner at home. You’re having steak and you want a red wine. This is the extent of what you know. There are a ton of varieties, regions, and styles of wine to choose from. And where your head spins are the price points. Is this $12 malbec not as good as that $25 syrah? Why is this cabernet sauvignon $9 while that one is $90? There is some noise to filter when it comes to price points, but here is a guideline of expectations as you go up in pricing tier.

<$10 – The domain of Three Buck Chuck, large volume wine, and hidden gems. The wines at this level are often value-oriented. They can play in this field because the wines can be a bunch of variables that can drive the price down. The wine can come from a winery that has massively huge volumes of wine. Or it comes from regions that can support large scale production. Or the winery owns all their capital goods and can afford a lower margin (often in Europe). At this stage, you can find good wine, but it will be tough to find a great wine. Good, however, is the pricing bar that many want to find in the wine they buy. It’s not too expensive and won’t be a hit on the wallet.

$10-20 – This is a magical level that plenty of consumer wants to play with. But here’s the thing; generally speaking, the quality bar is different at the $15 mark. Below, you’ll find good stuff. Above, you can come across great wines. How so? Because this is the sweetspot that the modern wine consumer wants to play in, so pricing has adapted. In this field you’ll start to find more layers, nuances, and subtleties in a good bottle. You’ll also have the opportunity to discover new regions that you may be unfamiliar. Portugal, Spain, Chile, and Argentina beckon.

$20-30 – This is a level where you can find some really interesting wine. Many in the industry feel it’s a growing category. Great wine can be had. A wine drinker has almost all of the wine regions of the world at their disposal. You’ll be able to get bottles with more aging, single vineyards, more fruit and provocative flavor notes.

$30-50 – We are now getting to the price category where wine nerds start to surface. Take all of the good that was mentioned at the previous tiers and now amplify them. The wine can border on magic. You’ll start to believe that notes of bacon fat or elderflower are present.

$50+ – You really love wine at this point. Or you want to impress someone.

$100+ – You and wine are soulmates. Or you want to impress someone’s parents.

$500+ – You probably read The Robb Report. And you probably have tasted a DRC. Most of us have only read about a DRC. Even more have no idea what a DRC is.

Disclaimer: wine pricing is a fluid and complicated area. Supply and demand is in play. Location has a hand in pricing. Know this; really good wine can be hand at any price point; it just requires a bit of know how to weed through it. And besides, it’s your palate, enjoy drinking with your tongue planted firmly in your cheek.

Porcine Party – Cochon 555 returns to Seattle

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Imagine a party. With a decadent and debaucherous vibe. A lively hum of conversation. All sorts of interesting people. Plenty of food and booze to revel with. And amongst the food, a focus on pork. And the people cooking are some of the best in the biz. The pigs they’re using to cook with are prized for unique fat and flavor. The booze has a local slant of buzzy wineries and distilleries that are so hot right now. Have that picture in your mind? Good. Because it’s real. And it is awesome. Cochon 555 makes its return to Seattle after a hiatus in 2012. The food lovers of Seattle couldn’t be happier.

We last touched on Cochon 555 in 2011. At that Cochon, the focus had the ’555′ format; five chefs, five types of pork, and five wineries. I remember Ethan Stowell’s pork zeppole, Holly Smith’s maltagliatti, and John Sundstrom’s pork belly. And strips of bacon stuffed into Mason jars dotting every table as a snack. There were epic lines to each of the chef’s table. It was like Disneyland, but instead of waiting for Space Mountain, you waited for the swoon of pork fat. It was awesome and the Prince of Porc in 2011 was Chef John Sundstrom. And I couldn’t wait to the next Cochon 555.

Alas, it wasn’t to be as Cochon didn’t swing through Seattle in 2012. But the porky people at Cochon are returning to Seattle this weekend and they’re turning up the volume. They are referring to this year’s event as the 5th Anniversary Tour (pdf). This time there will be even more chefs featured; instead of the five of years past, there are no eight that’ll do their thing. They are:

A highlight of Cochon 555′s is to see what the chefs will do with their pigs. Be assured that each dish is unique from one another and taking it further; because of the various breeds of pigs, the flavor and texture will be different from one to the next. To get a gauge of the types of pork you’ll taste, check out what each chef is making and be mindful of the fat levels and richness from each one. Some pork will have a real milky fat, while others are very full and rich. God, I love pork.

Here is the breakdown of the event; it’s this Sunday, March 17th, with VIP starting at 4pm, and general admission at 5pm. The host for this pork gitdown is the Cedarbrook Lodge in South Seattle near Sea-Tac Airport. This page will give you all of the information you’ll need. And if pork isn’t your thing (impossible), there are a bunch of other things going on: butcher demo, bourbon tasting, mezcal tasting, a ton of wine, lots of beer, and so much more fun to celebrate with pork. In fact, if I was a playwright, I’d write a sequel to Die Fledermaus where pork is the source of all the fun.

Look forward to seeing you around the table, I’ll be the guy stuffing my face with crispy skin, pork fat, and trotters. Oh yeah.

The 2013 Piglet: Food 52′s cookbook tournament of champions

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Cookbook nerds. We are everywhere. We frequent bookstores that only carry cookbooks. We think we have enough cookbooks. But we never have enough. We sometimes forget which ones we have and find ourselves doubling up on copies. And we love them. We love our cookbooks. Their stained pages. The stories they can tell. And like sports fans have March Madness, we have our tournament; The Piglet. There is even a bracket (PDF). From the fine folks at Food 52, this is their fourth annual cookbook tournament and it launches later this week. I heart the Piglet. You should too.

I wrote about the Piglet last year and touched on why I loved this series. The varying ‘judges’ that weigh in on the winners. The books that were the ‘competitors.’ Last year was particularly entertaining because of the championship round. On one side was the book of decadent indulgence from the Joe Beef crew from Montreal. On the other side, was the mad scientist baked goods book Momofuku Milk Bar. And it was judged by Alice Waters. Alice Waters. The chef that raised the bar for thoughtful, seasonal, and considered California cookery. The chef whose highbrow nature didn’t exactly jive with the debauchery of Joe Beef or the addled sweet tooth of Momofuku Milk Bar. The chef whose recap of the championship was dripping with disdain for the two books. Can there be a reluctant champion? Because that is the crown that Alice Waters bestowed Joe Beef.

As with any new year, things start anew and we are onto the next Piglet. Of the 16 books in this tournament, I have five of them. Of the judges, I’m only familiar with a handful of them. Which is a big reason why the Piglet showdown is entertaining. Different voices, different books. While I couldn’t fathom the bile Alice Waters had for last year’s finalists, at least she stayed on brand. And I’m curious to see how the judges insert themselves this year.

I’ll be sure to follow the tournament along. In fact, I’m betting on Canal House Cooks Everyday by Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer. It was one of my favorite books of the holiday season. We’ve been fans of the Canal House and their thematic food volumes for a few years. We were fortunate to have conversations with Melissa and Christopher on their recent visit to Seattle, where we got to hear their stories and how much fun they had with compiling all of their Canal House lunches. Which is the emphasis of Canal House Cooks Everyday. I particularly enjoyed the weather reports sidelining the recipes. Their writing has a way of welcoming us into their world. And now with the Piglet, cookbook nerds have the chance to feel a little closer to a bunch of new cookbooks, their recipes, and the chefs behind them.