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    The Charlestown Cafe – When Success is not Enough

    Within walking distance from my house sits a restaurant that, on first glance, seems a bit nondescript. Built out of the remnants of an old Country Kitchen restaurant, it gives the appearance of an homogenized diner that franchised restaurants such as Denny’s and IHOP are known for. It’s not until you step into the Charlestown Cafe that it starts to feel a little different.

    First off, there’s the awards on the walls. Various official looking documents lauding their Clam Chowder are prevalent. The ever-friendly staff is quick to tell you about their Mayor’s Small Business Award for Excellence. They have been featured on the Food Network and the CBS early show. It’s one of those places where the staff seems to know the regulars by name, and there always seems to be a wait for a table.

    And yet they may have to close.

    As mentioned before, it’s not because of a lack of business. The Charlestown is one of those places that if you don’t get there before 10 o’clock on a weekend morning, you might as well look for other breakfast alternatives, because you will have to wait otherwise. It is very nearly the definition of “local institution”.

    No. They may have to close because the property is far more valuable than it was when they opened almost seventeen years ago, and the property holders can tear down the building that currently houses the restaurant, and rebuild with an eye on charging higher rents. Plans are in place to replace The restaurant and adjoining parking lot with a 13,600-square-foot commercial building, according to Seattle planning department records. Back last summer, when the owners of the Cafe asked the landlord “Why not include us in your new building?” the landlord stated that they already had tenants lined up.

    Since that time it was learned that the new tenants were PetCo, a nationally franchised pet store that has to move from it’s current location a few blocks away.

    I direct this question at the property owners – Is this progress? I don’t mean tearing down the restaurant in order to put in place a six story commercial/residential “tower” of sorts. Most folks in the area will concede that a) Seattle is growing and b) we need places to put the influx of new families. A fair amount of us wish that the new building would be stylish and accommodating, but are cynical enough (and have seen enough examples) to realize that this isn’t likely to happen.

    No. My question is directed at your choice to freeze out a local institution and replace it with a company who’s only interest in your location is how much it affects their profit margins. Is it progress to remove a successful, locally owned restaurant from a neighborhood and replace it with a company whose headquarters is 1250 miles away? How much profit from PetCo is going to be re-invested here in West Seattle?

    Is it progress to replace a successful business who is completely invested in the local community with one who is only marginally invested (pun intended)?

    I’m sure this isn’t the first time in this nation’s history that this sort of battle has been played out. Nor will it be the last. But at some point, we, the consumers and patrons of the businesses in these disputes need to take notice of the fact that sometimes our best interest is to look at success in ways that go beyond (or even exclude) profit margins. Sometimes a value of a business is best determined not only by what they take in, but in what they give back.

    From where I sit, the owners of the Charlestown Cafe are one of the most valuable businesses here in West Seattle.

    * * * * * * * * * *

    Hat tip to the West Seattle Blog who’s been on top of this story.

    If you live in West Seattle and would like to see where this battle is going and perhaps help out, the first place you want to stop is at the Our Town West Seattle Yahoo! Group.

    Soupe à l’oignon au gratiné">French Onion Soup – Soupe à l’oignon au gratiné

    The very first recipe that I cooked for someone outside of my family was in my ninth grade French class. For a project that entailed opening a french bistro (for one day), we had to come up with a french recipe, cook it and serve it. My group of four people made the following:

    Soupe à l’oignon au gratiné

    That phrase has stuck in my head for nearly twenty five years now.

    Soupe à l’oignon au gratiné

    For a child of 15, the phrase rolled off the tongue with joy and ease. In my mind, the primary essences of the French language were seemingly all present. There is the gender distinction of the feminine Soupe. There are the common accents found upon the ‘a’ (à) and ‘e’ (gratiné). There is the abbreviated determiner (l’). And then, my favorite, the word oignon itself, which gave a bunch of college bound children from a blue collar neighborhood to use our newly discovered exaggerated French accents. If ever there were a surreal moment in my life, it would be the time when I sat in a classroom of 25 children, each of us nearly shouting the word “Unh-Yunh!! Unh-Yunh!!

    Yes, in my opinion, there is no better phrase in the French language than
    Soupe à l’oignon au gratiné.

    Say it out loud. You’ll see what I mean.

    • 5 Yellow onions, sliced
    • 3 tablespoons butter
    • 1 teaspoon salt
    • 2 cups white wine
    • 2 cups canned beef consume
    • 2 cups chicken broth
    • 1 cup apple cider
    • 2 oz. cognac
    • 2 thyme sprigs
    • 2 bay leaf
    • 2 parsley sprigs
    • 6-8 slices from a day old baguette (or you can toast the slices as well)
    • Kosher salt
    • Ground black pepper
    • 6 slices Gruyere cheese

    Place a dutch oven or stock pot over medium heat and allow to come to temperature. Add the butter. Once butter has melted add a layer of onions and sprinkle with a little salt. Repeat layering onions and salt until all onions are in the pot. Do not try stirring until onions have sweated down for 15 to 20 minutes. Lower the heat to medium/medium-low. Cook the onions for 50-55 more minutes, stirring the onions every five minutes or so. The onions should be a deep reddish brown.

    Cover the onions with the white wine. Turn heat to high, allowing the wine to reduce reducing (this should take about 5 minutes). Add the beef consume, the chicken broth, apple cider, cognac and the herbs. Reduce heat and simmer 15 to 20 minutes. When the soup is considered done, remove the herbs.

    To serve, place 1-2 slices of the baguette in an oven safe bowl and ladle the soup over top. Top with a slice or two of Gruyere. Place under a broiler long enough for the cheese to melt and brown.

    Serves 4-6

    Burger King’s Baby Step

    Although their implementation is very small (hopefully due to the logistical nightmare that this entails), Burger King has made a major step in announcing their own, albeit minimal, animal welfare policies.

    These policies include:

    • It has begun purchasing two percent of its eggs from producers that do not confine laying hens in battery cages. It will more than double the percentage of cage-free eggs it’s using to five percent by the end of the year.
    • It has implemented a purchasing preference for cage-free eggs. Such a preference is intended to favor producers that convert away from battery-cage confinement systems.
    • It has started purchasing 10 percent of its pork from producers that do not confine breeding pigs in gestation crates, which are too small to allow even ordinary movement. The volume of pork purchases coming from gestation crate-free producers will double to 20 percent by the end of the year.
    • It has also implemented a purchasing preference for pork from producers that do not confine breeding sows in gestation crates.
    • It has implemented a preference for producers that use controlled atmosphere killing of chickens used for meat. This has been shown to cause significantly less suffering than the conventional method of slaughter used by most of the nation’s poultry slaughterers.

    It’s a nice first step, but did you notice which animal was not mentioned in the above list? That’d be the cow, which clearly accounts for a fair amount of Burger King’s business. From my perspective, it’s this segment of the animal welfare debate which is getting downplayed or ignored, even though it’s beef which is the most popular meat product in America. If Burger King (or any other fast food restaurant, come to think of it) wants to provide true actions to their words, changing the beef industry is an absolute requirement, supplier logistics be damned.

    * * * * * * * * *

    As an aside: Is it just me, or does Burger King’s announcement seem more relevant than Wolfgang Puck’s similar one from a week ago? Odd that.

    Via An Obsession with Food

    The Disconnect of Five Star Dining

    Alone on the stage stands a violinist. It is dark, save one lone spotlight casting down upon the musician, which serves to cast them as the singular point of focus for the audience, as well as to create a subtle air of menace.

    The violin in brought to the chin, the bow is raised, and Beethoven’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major begins.

    At this point, members of the audience will surreptitiously and unknowingly divide into several groups. Some will listen to the sum of the performance, ignoring the musician’s technique or skill and base their perceptions of the evening on whether they were in a good mood, , how pleasant or unpleasant the auditorium was, how the audience responded, or whether they knew the musician from previous performances. The music, if enjoyed, will be appreciated from a very personal perspective

    Some will pay careful attention to the music, ensuring the musician does the piece justice. Questions such as “Does the performer have the requisite skills to perform the piece?”, “Are the performer’s fingers heard as they press upon the fingerboard?”, “Does their technique result in unintended noises?”, and “Do they understand the piece they are playing?” are all asked and answered as the piece progresses.

    And still others will remain ignorant of the music or musician, unable or unwilling to understand the history of the music, nor will they be able to appreciate the skill and talent needed to perform the Concerto. The music will be heard the same way that some people hear foreign languages – unintelligible. Their response to the music will most likely be frustration or indifference, due in large part to their inability to understand what they are listening to.

    Then there are those who were unable to get tickets to the concert.

    * * * * * * * * * *

    Some variation of the above is what goes through my mind every time I pick up an issue of Bon Appetit, read an article about Thomas Keller, or listen to someone talk about molecular gastronomy, nouvelle cuisine or any of the other genres of 5 star restaurants out there.

    Over at Ruhlman.com, commenter Maura left the following note in response to Michael’s most recent post about Molecular Gastronomy:

    The days of putting a piece of protein in a hot pan are almost over. Observent cooks will continue to incorporate tools and techniques from other professions into the cooking arena.
    I’m not so sure about this. I hope it’s not true. And it leaves behind millions of people who are neither insiders nor attuned to trends in cooking. It leaves behind people who barely have enough food, or don’t have the resources to engage in these techniques. It leaves behind people who aren’t looking for an exisential experience. To suggest that this will be the only acceptable way to cook and eat is elitist.

    For now, let’s leave aside the notion that “molecular gastronomy” can be defined in several ways (I see it as both a process/philosophy and separately as a ‘cuisine’). Instead, let’s focus on the larger question of whether 5 star restaurant culture affects the more general food culture.

    Quick quiz – when in the kitchen, do you use any techniques made popular by Haute Cuisine? Do you intentionally seek to combine foods and techniques from two or more cultures in order to create a single meal? Is presentation equally important as taste?

    My guess is that a handful of you answered yes to some of the above, less than a handful answered yes to all of the above, and a fair majority answered no to all of the above, with the caveat being that some of you didn’t know what the heck haute cuisine was, nor that presentation is actually a big deal.

    Of course my quiz was full of generalizations that disregarded the many subtleties that may have affected the way some of you cook. But my general belief is that 5 star dining affects regular everyday cooks very little, if even at all.

    The reason is basic economics. Can an average person afford to acquire the tools, product and skills necessary to produce meals equivalent to those found in 5 star restaurants? Unless they have a high income, a fair amount of free time, and the resources required to take care of other responsibilities (such as cleaning the house, raising the kids), then the short answer is “no”.

    If these tools, products, and skills are unable to make it into the core repertoire of home cooks, then it’s unlikely to have a major effect upon the larger food culture.

    So then why the big deal surrounding Grant Achatz, Thomas Keller, et al? Jumping back to the violinist, those who have spent a great deal of time understanding cooking techniques and studying tastes and cuisines have found these guys to be exceptionally talented and innovative when compared to others in the restaurant industry. Their influence can and will be felt throughout the restaurant industry, especially in regard to upscale dining.

    However, their effect upon the food culture as a whole will be minimal. Those of us are unable (or unwilling) to hear the violinist and the music they are playing are unlikely to be moved by it. Anyone who claims otherwise speaks primarily from hubris.

    FDA releases Report on the 2006 Spinach/E.Coli Outbreak

    Well, after all of the people who got sick, the several people who died, the hundreds of thousands spent on investigating the outbreak, and the FDA says that the culprit was…


    …they still don’t really know.

    Because the contamination occurred before the start of the investigation, and because of the many ways that E.coli O157:H7 can be transferred — including animals, humans, and water — the precise means by which the bacteria spread to the spinach remain unknown.

    That’s not to say that they don’t have their suspicions. They were able to identify the environmental risk factors and the areas that were most likely involved in the outbreak. “Contaminated irrigation water, uncomposted manure used as fertilizer, the presence of wildlife and livestock and the hygiene of the workers handling the crops all might have served to transport the bacteria”, they said.

    * * * * * * * * * * * *

    However – Fresh Express has seemingly come to their own conclusions on the causes and is refusing to buy lettuce and spinach from farmers who don’t stop using compost and recycled water.

    This action by Fresh Express is both welcome and needed. At the very least, it will provide an interesting comparison against produce companies who do not have similar requirements.

    UPDATE: As Jack alluded to in the comments, compost is actually preferable to using chemical fertilizers in produce use, something that slipped my mind completely. Personally, I believe that the recycled sewage water played the larger role, and was focused more on that than the compost issue.

    Mysterious Produce of Washington Heights

    According to New York City’s Department of City Planning, between 80% to 90% of my neighbors are of “Hispanic Origin (of any race)” — but anyone who’s been to this part of Washington Heights knows almost everyone here is from the Dominican Republic. As a result, I often run into fruits and vegetables that I’ve never eaten or even seen before.

    Recently, when I saw naranja agria, I remembered enough high school Spanish to know it meant “bitter orange” but I had no idea what anyone would want to do with them. Eat them? Juice them? Pity them for looking like they do?

    you'd be bitter too, if you were this ugly

    My husband theorized, “I’d be bitter, too, if I were that ugly.”


    Wolfgang Puck and Foie Gras

    I know I’ve railed against foie gras bans before, but I have absolutely no problem with Wolfgang Puck removing foie gras from his menu. It’s his menu, and he can do with it as he pleases.

    Those of you sending me e-mails regarding this story, let me remind you that it’s governmental bans of foie gras that cause me gastric concern, not a business owner arriving at a conclusion all on his own and altering his business plans accordingly. The two are vastly different issues.

    Whoa…wait a minute. Let me read this site for a second or so…

    Okay, so maybe he didn’t come to his decision completely on his own, but he’s an adult, and if he wants to be influenced by more militant animal advocates, more power to him.

    What is interesting is his equating the production of foie gras as equally cruel as the practices surrounding crated pork and veal, as well as eggs from caged hens. I think that’s a bit of a stretch, but one person’s animal cruelty is another person’s lunch.