New Horizon

It has been an incredible experience after getting past the first month and I’m looking forward to what’s coming in Spring. Recently, I have been talking with Kyle Pattison of Hazelwood Farms and we have collaborated on a restaurant-driven CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) to tailor the menu and introduce a few heirloom varieties we have picked from Baker’s Creek Seed Company. This is definitely ground-breaking and the first step towards a chef driven menu that will allow me to play with ingredients and influence flavors that I have been theorizing in my head for quite some time now. I’ve never done anything like this on my own and I’m really thrilled to see how it unfolds. There’re a lot of unique produce that some small-scale farmers have been growing but none of those seem to be “shelf-worthy” for the conglomerate food stores in the city. Often times, these are the heirlooms that are more substantial for our consumption. We need to diversify our choices and invigorate our appetites! It’s about time we look into our own land and live a symbiotic relationship with it. Hopefully, we would like to see this project jump-off to where we can offer the public a different kind of CSA in which Aubergine Bistro can influence the contents of the shares. The thrilling part of this is the discovery of a new ingredient, it’s the best part of what I do! Most of the dishes I create always start from an ingredient rather than a recipe.

I’ve been trying to be vigilant about food insecurities and awareness because it’s an underlying problem in our society. I want to be able to transpose what I learn from this experience unto a platform for the public to better themselves with what they eat. I’ll be honest though, we all fall from the wagon sometimes. I’ve learned that certain compromises must be made in order to get my business where it should be and closer to what I dream of it to be after. It might not be socially driven but in the grand scheme of things it really justifies itself eventually. I like to dream big, and someday I want to see my restaurant on a farm where people feel welcomed and invited. This is the place where food is the focal point. An ingredient is just as important as our lifestyle and the choices that we impose on it. It’s time we better ourselves with the food we eat and raise the awareness to a wider audience.

This is just the tip of an iceberg. the grand scheme of things is to connect the dots between the farmer and the consumer. Our generation is adapting slowly to the constant changes in our food systems; and quite honestly, I think we still have a lot of work to do. My recent involvement with Project Lunch Tray, an after school program that raises awareness to healthy eating in our public school systems, gave me a glimpse of what to expect from the next generation. They will be facing more diseases and illnesses that we can ever enumerate, more allergens that we have to identify and avoid. This is truly saddening if you really think about it. It doesn't sound enjoyable to be eating in this lifetime anymore if we can't even appreciate the most basic of our needs, food! The change starts in us and the choices that we make. We truly are what we eat.

Reflecting pool...

It has been an amazing week both in struggles and successes, I really can't hope for anything better right now. I've reached some high points and low points but I'm slowly getting the hang of managing things around. I'll admit though, I am working with the least resources than I've ever experienced and still headstrong with my creative stretch. Building an array of small dishes are a lot trickier than I thought; compounding into that that simple cooking does not leave much room for error. The rewards are invaluable though when I seamlessly replace one dish to another and I can slowly develop a flow. It allows me to focus more on how an ingredient behaves when I use it for multiple dishes. Let's take flour for an example, basic house staple: I use this to make roux (thickener) into two types, the blonde (white roux) and the brunette (brown like roasted peanut butter). I usually cook the flour in butter but I also save some of my rendered fat from cooking and use that when I have enough. The flavor definitely improves depending on the type of fat I cook it in but I also noticed that long and slow browning has underlying benefits. From there I can apply it to a myriad of dishes and get the desired effect, whether consistency or the delivery of flavor, I can use the same ingredient in multiple applications. And not only that, I also use flour for my pasta and pastry crust, which dramatically changes in behavior depending on the other ingredient that I hydrate it with. When I use eggs almost exclusively, it feels more elastic and wet. Butter has a more soft-firm feel and a beautiful crumbly texture when baked. Milk gives it bounce and density when I use it for spooned dumplings. But that's what I mean when I am more intimate with an ingredient, not in the literal way, and I notice more of it's intrinsic qualities. That ability to focus is such an amazing feeling and it allows me to keep growing in my new environment.

All in all. I am happy that I accomplished so much last week and more people are hearing about our new space, it was busier than I've ever seen it. The energy was exhilarating and the  feedback has been constructive. It's like watching a seed germinate slowly and has broken through the surface. I can just begin to imagine how much more we will grow and the hard work we put into it will pay off. The strive is as strong as the will. Once in a while we should stop to reflect on what's going on around us and inside us. Collect our thoughts and enjoy the ups and downs. From here on the only direction to go is moving forward, and I am happy to be in my element and cooking simple food

Egg salad on Puff pastry with white anchovies.

Egg salad on Puff pastry with white anchovies.

The simple things...

Some of the best things in life comes from the simple things we already have. Even my menu is looking a little slim these days, and honestly, I kind of like it. I've grown to love the simplicity of my menu and offering dishes that are straightforward home-style cooking; the recent addition was Chicken & Dumplings. I've forgotten about this until I was reminded by someone, and this dish definitely evokes classic Americana. Comforting without guilt, reminiscent of Grandma's kitchen. Speaking of old school cooking, the Ravioli stuffed with Ricotta & Kale, also made a debut on the menu. A small plate to slip an introduction at how carefully complicated I take simple cooking, it's not an easy task to say the least. But it is quite enjoyable at the same time, I really do appreciate a compliment when someone enjoys eating my food. An old lady approached me the other day and whispered kindly to my ear, "I'm glad you had a short menu, it made it easier for me to decide." And that was simply it.

I've been working with the same ingredients in my inventory since we opened doors last December and quite a remarkable feat that makes me really happy with what I do. It's also humbling to cook the same ingredient over and over and over... winter is the perfect season to get intimate with an ingredient, when there're very few to choose from. Of all things, Chickens are what I'm finding to be worth more than a staple in the pantry. It adapts to my whim and also flexible on the menu. I did take down a regular item from my line-up, Chicken pot pie, and it was surely missed by many. That's really hard to beat but it also makes an interesting challenge to outdo the popularity of the pot pie.  Regardless, the ingredient is the focal point before the recipe is even written and that's how I mostly change the line-up on my menu.

A word of advise, enjoy the simple things. I realized today that I am lucky to be where I'm at. It's been a rewarding and humbling experience to own my own restaurant but it also takes a lot of energy to keep feeding it. When I'm by myself prepping I can collect my thoughts and enjoy the experience of it all. I am proud of my achievement and I really do hope that it shows on the food that I cook.

Pushing the limits...

Last week was the busiest I have felt since we opened and it definitely felt like a shove! The food is selling out almost every night and I'm receiving great feedback from diners. Actually a good problem to have but a problem nonetheless. Cooking requires discipline and a strong psyche that can sometimes pull me away from the other aspects of running a business. These are the experiences that makes me a stronger chef and business owner. The highlights from last week are the following: 1) Menu planning and development. 2) Customer relations and satisfaction. 3) Employee management and daily operations. 4) Lastly, personal time management.

Let's start with menu planning and development. Originally, I was planning to keep my menu the same for longer than a week. So far I have changed the menu almost everyday since after the first week we were open. This taught me how to choose specific cuts and utilize it for different dishes I can run throughout the week. At the same time, shopping around the strip district has influenced some of the flavors that I'm trying to develop. If I can continue this cycle then I'll be able to tailor the menu to change frequently as needed.

Customer relations has been more personal than any I've encountered in my previous work, ordering from the counter allows me to interact with the person and build a different kind of relationship. Most often, it's the front of the house that establishes the connection between customer and restaurant. It's refreshing to see the person for a change and I've definitely worked on improving my social/people skills. The compliments have been overwhelming and the criticism has been very humbling.

It's never easy trying to cook someone else's food, nor is it easy to even understand how that person cooks their food. Training someone to understand how I treat food has been a challenge lately, there are underlying factors that I'm adapting as I encounter the problem firsthand. But I'm just as strong of a chef as the weakest cook in my kitchen, I have to improve so that they can become stronger on their own.

Lastly, managing my personal time. Not as easily done when I almost eat and sleep at my work. Don't get me wrong, this experience has been invaluable regardless if it's like a roller coaster or not. Amidst the hype and the sudden change of pace in my life, I am grateful that I still have time to spend for myself and enjoy the company of the people who are close to me. I definitely appreciate the smaller things in life, even the less noticeable ones, and keep looking forward to whatever happens next.

Moving forward...

It's been just about a month now since we have opened and everything still feels surreal. The response from diners and their feedback is quite humbling and deeply appreciated. I have always wanted to tell my story through food and it seems that that voice is starting to get loud enough for people to notice.

I have been able to adapt the menu and continually change it based on what little ingredients I have at hand. In a way, I feel more connected with these ingredients and I'm able to translate that into simple dishes that speak for themselves. I've also been able to start some minor fermentation experiments like preserving persimmons in red pepper paste. I've used fruit in my kimchi before but I want to test a recipe for other fruits that are in short season. Now all I can do is leave it in the hands of time until I can test my theory to be right.

This experience has taught me a lot in the very little time I've been immersed in it. I find that I have more room to improve myself both as a chef and a business owner in aspects that I never thought I'd realize. As a chef, I would really like to find an apprentice to teach and hopefully be able to instill respect for this industry and give them the initiative to improve themselves. And as a business owner, I'm still working on balancing relationships as well as improving connections with other people to help promote the burgeoning food scene in Pittsburgh. For now I just have to keep working with what I have and keep moving forward!

CATCHING UP...

Aubergine has recently opened and it feels like the dust is finally starting to settle. The hype and energy felt amazing and I'm excited to start the New Year with a clean slate.

Changing the menu these past few days has taught me something invaluable about the simplicity of an ingredient. It's been a fun challenge thinking creatively on how to stretch root vegetables, but it's also comforting to get know these ingredients personally. This is when we should listen to what the season has to offer, when there are very little to distract us from the value of our food choices.

As sales steadily increase, I am able to tap into more resources that allow me to naturally evolve my menu. Watching people's response to simple food is actually very humbling! I have a deeper appreciation for the enjoyment of eating great food and meeting these people firsthand. I have learned as much from them as they might think they are learning from me and that really makes my day!

 
 

Opening AUBERGINE

 

In the Beginning...

I'm finally realizing how exciting this time is in the food industry and the unique opportunity I have to be a part of a turning point in the city. I sat contemplating how surreal it is to be a start up restaurant and I never imagined this day would ever come. But it is! It feels amazing to manifest a dream that I've been nurturing since I started cooking and to start building it up. 

 

AHHHH!