Claypot Rice with lap cheong and bbq pork (on a random street in Beijing, China)
What constitutes an amazing meal?
What makes a meal the best meal you’ve had? Is it the quality of the product that you receive? Is it who you eat it with? Is it the location?
One can surely understand that a beer is going to taste a lot different in the middle of winter in Canada than it does sitting on a beach in Mexico.
The best restaurant meals I’ve ever had always were a combination of excellent technique and flavour, a sense of innovation and creativity, the company I was with, and the circumstances in which those meals were had.
Norwegian Scallop marinated in sourdough bread and rose hip seed (108 restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark)
108 in Copenhagen, in its infancy and before it even had its own physical location (at the time doing a pop up in the noma building while the noma team was in Australia) was the setting for a near perfect meal. I had just arrived in Copenhagen in 2016, less than a year after my stint as an intern at noma. I was there to trial for the sous chef position at 108. Some of my closest intern friends from noma were on the opening team, and I was dining with Lars Williams, my mentor in the fermentation lab and someone who I would later work for on his distillery.
The food was innovative yet comfortable. The dishes were executed flawlessly. There was balance, there was surprise. The care and attention to detail of constructing a dish that Kristian Baumann had showed his maturity and his experience. And it was just simply delicious.
But what added more was that my friends were coming out to serve us, explaining the dishes, saying hi, giving hugs and showcasing what they were making. And I was dining with someone who I deeply respected, someone who I wanted to sit down and have a conversation with.
An assortment of Baklava (Istanbul, Turkey)
Benu also comes to mind. In 2013, it had two stars and was pushing for its third. I wanted to know what a French Laundry alumni with an Asian background would do given full control, and I had deep respect for Corey Lee from what I had read.
I flew down for that meal specifically, and it didn’t disappoint. In that scenario, the magic of the genuine care of the staff, the wine, beer and sake pairings for the dishes, and the tiny attention to detail on every course was what made it special. At the time, I was a fanboy, seeing these calibre of chefs as gods, as untouchable, and I felt privileged to be able to bask in the glory of their creations.
The Garden at Amass Restaurant (Copenhagen, Denmark)
Another is again in Copenhagen, at Amass. Matt Orlando is a chef who I really admire for his leadership philosophy. His restaurant, which serves impeccably delicious food in a room that plays hip hop and has graffiti on the wall while giving near perfect service that’s professional and personal, is amazing. I ate there at least 7 times over the course of 2017-2018. One time in particular will stick. A friend wanted to understand my world, and so I brought her to this restaurant. After the main course, we decided to take a bit of a break. It was August and we had the late seating, which meant we had perfect timing to go outside and finish our wine while watching the sunset in the garden. As we were talking, Matt comes out holding two wine glasses and two bowls, and says, “I’m so sorry for bringing this out here, but I really wanted you to have this before I got tied up.” He had a conference call to attend to shortly. He described the first dessert of the evening, which used a kombucha glaze that was a byproduct of one of the spirits I was helping to make at Empirical Spirits nearby, and he wanted us to see how they were using it. That moment will forever be seared in my mind as an act of perfect thoughtfulness. I couldn’t have felt more appreciated and looked after in a restaurant. It was done with such a genuine spirit.
Bun Cha on the side of a random road (Hanoi, Vietnam)
But what about outside of the restaurant? As a chef, do I truly enjoy the food that I cook at home? To be honest, not really. I don’t like cooking for myself. That becomes a chore, and one that ceases to be exciting. I like cooking for other people. Is it satisfying to butcher a pig and take your first crack at making charcuterie? Sure. But what’s more satisfying is being able to share the process and the end product with friends.
Fire cooking has always been one of my favorite ways to cook. Your clothes are dirty, you have bare essential equipment, and you have a fire that you tend to. It takes a lot of attention. Finding the right heat, having the right smoke, gauging the ambient temperature and the weather. But what makes it rich is that you’re around people, and you’re talking, having a beer, and hanging out while cooking together. I would never cook on a fire for myself. And surely if I did, I’d have way too much food.
What about mom’s cooking? My mother was a great cook. And she cooked for us quite a lot when we were younger. I love her udon, it’s great. She makes great broth. But my dad was a chef by profession. I still remember a meal for Thanksgiving one year, where he roasted a cornish game hen for each of us in the family, and we ate it with rice, cabbage and ponzu. Another time, on Vancouver Island, we got dungeness crab, and he simply boiled them and we got a crab each. Those memories stick, but I think it’s because as a kid, it’s a bit of an interesting experience getting a whole animal to eat all by yourself.
I often think about how much the other factors of a dining experience affect the overall impression of a meal other than the food itself. Surely with wine pairings, as you become intoxicated, your memory serves as less of a reliable source for accurate information. But does that matter? Does the memory have to have accurate information to be meaningful?
If you had just gone through a divorce or lost a friend, most meals no matter how masterfully prepared are not going to have the same effect.
I think that most of the time, good food is like background music. You can really hear it when it’s bad. But when it’s good, it just plays a part in the facilitation of a memorable experience, which largely depends on the environment you are in, the company that you may or may not have with you, and the authenticity of the caring nature of those who you come in contact with throughout the meal. And in the case of having a pig roast over a fire? Surely the pig is important, but it’s the act of being around friends and hanging out together over an act that might just bring us back to our ancestral roots that will surely last in our memories.
Getting the fire ready for a winter pig roast (Hope, BC, Canada)