Celebrating What You Accomplish While Looking Forward to Improving

Earlier this month, I wrote a blog post over on Faster Than 20 entitled, “Made of Love.” All I wanted to do was to tell a brief story of a remarkable moment I experienced at a meeting I was shadowing and how that moment made me feel. It turned out to be more complicated than that. I wrote a long, confessional draft that made me feel raw and vulnerable, I asked people I trusted for feedback, then I sat on that feedback for a while, before finally deciding to revise and publish the post.

I’m really glad I did. I got a ton of thoughtful, moving responses from friends and colleagues, which has me thinking and wanting to share a lot more.

For the most part, I’m thrilled about everything I cut and rewrote. However, there’s one tiny story that I wanted to share here, because it’s a bit of a North Star for me.

There’s an episode of the PBS cooking documentary, Mind of a Chef, that follows Magnus Nilsson — considered one of the best chefs in the world — through the process of conceiving and creating a dish with a young protege. (You can watch the episode on Netflix if you’re a subscriber. Oh, how I wish for more open access, so I could easily share video clips. Another blog post for another time.) It’s mesmerizing to watch, partially because of the beautiful setting (a frozen lake in the Swedish countryside), partially because of the creativity and skill of execution.

Two things jumped out at me in particular. First was the delight that Nilsson expressed throughout the process, including when he tasted the final product. He clearly was not satisfied by it, and he methodically walked through how he wanted to make it better. But he still seemed really happy about what he had done. Second was the the relationship between Nilsson and his protege. The latter seemed nervous (perhaps more because he was on camera than because of his mentor), but he also seemed… safe? Excited? It’s hard to describe exactly, but it felt productive and loving.

That’s the balance I personally want to strike for when I create something. I actually think I’m a lot more joyful about iterations than others see, but I definitely could let myself appreciate and celebrate more. More importantly, I can let others see this appreciation and joy. I definitely hold back because I don’t want me or others to get complacent, but I think I can strike a better balance.

Panettone from Roy

Yesterday, I tried my first panettone ever. It was delicious! It wasn’t mind-numbingly delicious, and I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to buy one again, but I enjoyed it, and I’d definitely eat it again.

I had never eaten panettone before, probably because of its reputation as a dry and terrible mass-produced holiday tradition. I was drawn to this particularly panettone thanks to a David Chang podcast, where he interviewed Roy Shvartzpel, its creator. Chang’s podcasts are an acquired taste. They are borderline insufferable, a weird see-sawing act of self-aggrandizement and self-flagellation. I’ve recommended episodes to a few friends, and they all complained that it was too bro-y. Still, I’ve enjoyed several of his interviews for their insights into those who are obsessed about craft and, to some extent, the Korean-American psyche.

This interview almost struck the wrong side of this weird balance. I was intrigued by Chang’s bold pronouncements about this panettone and also hyperaware of his proclivity to exaggerate. I was intrigued by Shvartzpel’s origin story as a hoop obsessive, but put off by his comparing his game to Steph Curry’s. I almost turned off the podcast several times, but when they finally got around to talking about Shvartzpel’s story as a cook, I was entranced. His story about how the Italian panettone master, Iginio Massari, took him in made me weepy. And I’m a sucker for honest stories about the grind, especially when they’re about small businesses.

His story made me interested enough to look into buying one of his cakes. They cost between $30-60, outrageous in comparison to the $5 monstrosities you can find at your grocery store, but within the realm of reason when you compare them to buying a high-quality cake at a good bakery. Still, I wasn’t compelled enough to buy one.

That changed earlier this week. I’m in Southern California visiting family and was shopping for groceries when I saw boxes of his panettone on sale. It’s the holidays, I was with family, and it was right there, so I ended up springing for a box, praying that I would not be filled with regret later.

Last night, after a delicious dinner, we finally opened the box and had a taste. As I said, it was delicious. I could see how it might be easy to overlook the craft required to get it to taste as good as it did. However, it was nowhere close to The New York Times’ assessment, which I found hilarious:

His domed wonders are unworldly in their featherweight texture: the tender crumb dissolves on your tongue, almost like cotton candy, were cotton candy spun from butter. They seem paradoxically rich and ethereal at the same time.

I’ve only had one experience that I can remember where a baked good lived up to its hype. When Arsicault Bakery opened in my neighborhood in 2016, I wasn’t super interested. I’m neither a croissant nor really any baked good fanatic. When Bon Appetit named it America’s best new bakery later that year, I was even less interested. I’m hype-averse, and I’m even more line-averse.

About a year later, I finally tried one, and I couldn’t believe how incredible they were. I’m usually a chocolate or ham-and-cheese croissant guy, but when I go to Arsicault, I always order the plain, because I don’t want any of those other adornments to interfere with the light, flaky, buttery goodness of these masterful creations. For the most part, folks I’ve shared them with agree with my assessment, although, I hear the occasional, “They’re just croissants,” or, “They’re not as good as they are in France.”

There have been studies showing that the more expensive we think a bottle of wine is, the better we think it tastes. The brilliant J. Kenji Lopez-Alt showed that we all think farm-fresh eggs taste better, even though we can’t actually taste the difference. I guess what it comes down to is that we like what we like, regardless of the reasons why. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.

Learning How to Boil Eggs: From Toni Morrison to J. Kenji López-Alt

Deviled eggs courtesy of Dina and Lola. They were as tasty as they look.

I learned how to boil eggs from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, which I first read 30 years ago. Every time I boiled an egg, I could see her vivid imagery in my head:

In the heartbeat of silence that followed his shouts, Pilate laughed.

“You all want a soft-boiled egg?” she asked.

The boys looked at each other. She’d changed rhythm on them. They didn’t want an egg, but they did want to be with her, to go inside the wine house of this lady who had one earring, no navel, and looked like a tall black tree.

“No, thanks, but we’d like a drink of water.” Guitar smiled back at her.

“Well. Step right in.” She opened the door and they followed her into a large sunny room that looked both barren and cluttered. A moss-green sack hung from the ceiling. Candles were stuck in bottles everywhere; newspaper articles and magazine pictures were nailed to the walls. But other than a rocking chair, two straight-backed chairs, a large table, a sink and stove, there was no furniture. Pervading everything was the odor of pine and fermenting fruit.

“You ought to try one. I know how to do them just right. I don’t like my whites to move, you know. The yolk I want soft, but not runny. Want it like wet velvet. How come you don’t just try one?”

She had dumped the peelings in a large crock, which like most everything in the house had been made for some other purpose. Now she stood before the dry sink, pumping water into a blue-and-white wash basin which she used for a saucepan.

“Now, the water and the egg have to meet each other on a kind of equal standing. One can’t get the upper hand over the other. So the temperature has to be the same for both. I knock the chill off the water first. Just the chill. I don’t let it get warm because the egg is room temperature, you see. Now then, the real secret is right here in the boiling. When the tiny bubbles come to the surface, when they as big as peas and just before they get big as marbles. Well, right then you take the pot off the fire. You don’t just put the fire out; you take the pot off. Then you put a folded newspaper over the pot and do one small obligation. Like answering the door or emptying the bucket and bringing it in off the front porch. I generally go to the toilet. Nor for a long stay, mind you. Just a short one. If you do all that, you got yourself a perfect soft-boiled egg.”

Of course, my cooking conditions were never quite the same as Pilate Dead’s, so I had to adapt. For example, I never bothered “knocking the chill off the water.” I figured that my tap water wasn’t as chilly as hers, but mainly, I was too lazy. For a long time, I followed her “one small obligation” rule, but my obligations were too inconsistent, and I often ended up with a harder yolk than I wanted, so I switched to using a timer.

Still, it pretty much worked, and I had the satisfaction of learning how to boil an egg from Toni Morrison. There was only one problem, as demonstrated by my nephew, Benjamin, a few years ago.

The egg white would often stick to the shell when I peeled my eggs. For many years, I thought that it was because my eggs weren’t fresh enough. Then later, I thought it was because my eggs were too fresh. This is what happens when you rely on hearsay and homespun wisdom (which includes much of what you’ll find both in books and on the Internet). Of course, I never bothered attempting to research something that felt definitive or to experiment myself. (See above re: my laziness.) I even own Harold McGee’s classic, On Food and Cooking, but I never bothered checking to see what he had to say. (That worked out in the end, because McGee’s advice and explanation are wrong.)

For years and years and years, I tolerated my pock-marked boiled eggs. Then, a few months ago, I came across the brilliant J. Kenji López-Alt’s debut article for The New York Times, where he chose to tackle this time-honored problem. I finally knew how to boil eggs correctly. (Read the article, and you’ll understand why I trust him so much.)

The water and the eggs should not be on equal standing. The water should take the upper hand. Boil it first, then add the eggs. Better yet, steam the eggs rather than boil them.

I didn’t have an excuse to test this myself until this past weekend. I had to make a butt-load of potato salad for a friend’s party, and there was no way I was going to sit around picking egg white off of the shell. So I gave López-Alt’s technique a try.

IT WORKED!!!

There’s undoubtedly more to say about the nature of epistemology in these times, but that will have to wait for another time. For now, I’m just happy to have solved the final piece of the puzzle regarding boiled eggs. And I’m still grateful for Toni Morrison after all these years. Who else could have emblazoned such a clear picture on my impressionable mind about something as mundane as boiled eggs?

A Taste of How Korean Culture Has Become International… in Southern California


It’s no secret that Korean culture is huge internationally and has been for a long time, whether it’s K-pop, Korean dramas, or kimchi. I love it, but I still find it weird, especially when I’m in Southern California, where I remember (from many, many, many years ago) Korean culture being the exclusive province of Korean people, and everyone else being completely ignorant or suspicious of it.

Yesterday, I had lunch with my mom at Yigah in Garden Grove, which specializes in Korean beef soups. As we left, I held the door open for a UPS delivery man carrying a large box. As this older white man walked through the door, he said, “감사합니다” (“thank you”) without missing a beat, which left me chuckling.

Afterward, my mom and I went to Arirang Market to pick up some groceries. At the Korean barbecue stand, I noticed to my surprise that each menu item had the Vietnamese equivalent written underneath (pictured above). I pointed this out to my mom, who shrugged her shoulders, and said, “Vietnamese people love 불고기 (bulgogi).” (Garden Grove is also known as Little Saigon because of its large Vietnamese population.)

As folks become more exposed to and enamored with Korean culture, I delight in the subtle nuances that most people don’t know. At Yigang, I had 육개장 (yukgaejang), a delicious, spicy, beef brisket soup made with mountain vegetables. I imagine many people enjoy it. What they may not realize is that “개” translates to “dog,” which is what this dish was originally made with. 육개장 was a peasant dish, but when the Korean nobility (양반) discovered they liked it, they started making it with beef instead.

Status Versus Substance

A little over a year ago, I read an item in Sarah B.’s most excellent Richmond District Blog about a French bakery called Arsicault opening up in my neighborhood. I love great bread and have often wished for a bakery like Tartine nearby. But Arsicault wasn’t that kind of bakery, and while I like a good croissant as much as the next guy, I didn’t see the need to go out of my way to visit.

Still, I love living in the Richmond District, and I take great pride in all local successes. So last month, when Arsicault was named America’s Best Bakery by Bon Appetit magazine, I took notice. But I still didn’t go, and frankly, while I knew that national recognition like this was a big deal for small businesses, I had no idea how big of a deal it would be.

I’ve gotten a pretty good idea, thanks to my weekly pickup basketball game. I drive past Arsicault every Sunday on my way to the park. Prior to the Bon Appetit article, I had never once seen a line there. Now, the line is around the corner all the time.

This morning’s San Francisco Chronicle had a great piece describing Arsicault’s story and pondering this most recent chapter:

So what had drawn the crowd — bragging rights? The sense of accomplishment? The chance to taste the best new croissant in America and assess it on one’s own terms? Was that even possible anymore?

There’s a scene in Don DeLillo’s novel “White Noise” when the narrator and a fellow professor pay a visit to the “most photographed barn in America.” They stand in silence, watching people take pictures of the barn.

“No one sees the barn,” the colleague says finally. “Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn. … We can’t get outside the aura.”

Here we were, inside our own sugar-scented aura. The charming neighborhood bakery that Bon Appétit’s editors had stumbled on had momentarily ceased to exist, and in its place was a much-hyped croissant factory that caused otherwise reasonable people to wait in a 30-minute line at 6:55 on a chilly morning.

We weren’t waiting for breakfast. We were waiting to see whether this experience was worth it.

I don’t know how good the croissants are at Arsicault, and I am less likely to find out now than I was before, thanks to the ridiculous lines. But it’s been a good reminder to me about how much I value craftsmanship and the unusual relationship between status and substance.

Regardless of whether Arsicault’s croissants live up to the hype, I love founder Armando Lacayo’s story, how it all began with an incessant desire to bake a croissant that lived up to the ones he ate as a child in Paris, and how he kept working and working and working at it, and how he plans to continue to work at it.