Janos' Journal: Tucson Represented in Paris for UNESCO

First day in Paris. Musings from Chef Janos:

And so it begins in Paris. Our first day, jet lagged by long travel in tight quarters bursts open with the beauty, sights and sounds of this enchanting city. Small cobblestone streets built a millennia ago wind their way by shops and cafes, churches and antiquities. And life is exuberant everywhere. Buskers play with a verve as if they were on Broadway as guitars, saxophones and accordions play the soundtrack for break dancers, marionettes and fire dancers entertaining the crowds by the Seine. As it turns out it’s Gay Pride Day in Le Marais – smiles everywhere-a community in full bloom.

Today is for walking around, getting the lay of the land and learning how to Uber, take the train and metro here. Sunday we’ll go to Giverny with Regis, Margaret and Max. We’re told the water lillies are in full regale.

Had a quick meeting with the embassy. We’ve purchased every bottle of Sotol in Paris. My prickly pears, cholla buds, saguaro blossom syrup and chiltepins have arrived in good shape. Monday morning and long days in the kitchen will arrive soon enough. Today is for Monet.

Day two was a day for beauty- in surroundings and food.

Today, Sunday, was a day of inspiration. First found at Giverny, Monet’s home for 40 years. Visiting his ponds of water lilies and his gardens filled with the beauty he created, it’s humbling beyond words to realize that ideas and beauty changed the way we perceive the world. Others could spend a lifetime there without seeing or communicating the vision Monet shared with the world through his paintings.

Later that evening in a very small restaurant, Blue Valentine, on a non-descript street in a room without glamour or glitz we shared a meal that made me remember the clarity and nuance of French cooking in the hands of a talented chef with a single-minded approach. Ooh la la. This was a sublime meal.

Inspiration comes in many forms and has many mis-wives. For Monet it was his obsession with beauty and light and the drive to find a new way to describe what he saw. At Blue Valentine it was a chef’s drive to coax flavor and an original vision from exquisite products.

For me yesterday inspiration was found at the home of two masters.

Thank you to Regis, Margaret and Max for suggesting both and to Max for staying with it ‘til the end of a long day.

And while we’re at it here’s to Devon and his cohorts at GUT who are cooking a meal from their hearts and souls tonight at The Carriage House. If I could be anywhere else it would be there with them where the inspiration is overflowing.

Day 3 Preparing for the event: A trip to a grocery market, unlike those in the US, is filled with bushels of organic produce, just caught fish, aisles of extra virgin olive oils and even the Bellota black foot hams from Iberia to choose from. Needless to say we found most everything we needed, with more smaller purchases to follow today.

It was also a day of bureaucracy and vetting credentials, frustrating credit card and bank transactions and long trips across town. In the end, our kitchen and reception will take place on the 7th floor of the UNESCO building with floor to ceiling views of the Eiffel Tour. Any cooking I do will be in proper perspective.

Today we break out the knives and get down to work. Much to do in a short time. We will strive to be worthy of the moment and the space.

Not Tex Mex! Tuesday, 27 June

You don’t need roller skates to get around the kitchens at UNESCO, though you might want them as they cover a large part of the 7th floor of this huge building and are comprised of a variety of small and large kitchens which serve well over 1000 meals a day. I’m glad I perfected the cook’s duck walk for slick floors. A skill I’m glad I mastered years ago.

Gaining access to the kitchens at 1:00, we were tucked away in a small galley behind the hot line next to their battery of braisers and fryers. There were four of us, Aymeric and Denis, the chefs for the embassy along with Jamile one of their cooks and me. We’re four cooks in a small galley, surrounded by mis-en-place piled around us with about 20 recipes to knock out for the reception for 200 on Wednesday evening.

For all the cooks reading this who may be frustrated when their ovens go out during Saturday night service, or who have puddles of water on the bottom of their reach-ins or have loose rivets on the handles on their one armed bandits: this is the universal condition in even the best kitchens, and yes, even in Paris. For us this is the good life. For the bad life in kitchens read George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London.

The good life for us meant getting about our work braising beef cheeks, poaching bottoms rounds, cooking beans and turning them into frijoles maneados that just absolutely kick ass.

By now all of us have several languages going on in our kitchens, so we’ve long learned to deal with the language barrier. At DOWNTOWN Kitchen + Cocktails, many of our dishwashers are African. Ditto in Paris. Even with translation though, things aren’t quite the same. Asking for a blender I get a Burr mixer and am told that’s all they have. Not quite the same for doing a fine puree on a vinaigrette and tough to keep the emulsification holding. At the end of the day I found their mixer. Much easier. We’ll redo the achiote vinaigrette when I get in Wednesday afternoon.

None of this is new in the chef’s job of answering 20 questions at once while trying to get your own work down and vying for equipment to work on or stepping into the walk-in to immediately forget what you’d gone to get, your mind too full of details to remember the one at hand.

We worked through our list, chopping, pureeing, pickling, making vinaigrettes, sauces and salsas. It’s like doing a new menu from scratch with a new crew. Nothing we haven’t done many times before. My crew is eager, skilled and does not want to work all night so we plow through our list.

Cooks from the UNESCO staff wander over from time to time to lend a hand or just to see what’s up. My Chefs say we’re cooking Tex-Mex. “NO!” I say, “NOT TEX-MEX!” and try to explain where we live and the borderlands food we do. I think the distinction is much too nuanced to get through. Now it’s a running joke.

I go back to the kitchen in a couple of hours. Still much to do, but light years from yesterday.

To Stephanie and Kris, I put eyes on 9 bottles of Sotol from Chihuahua yesterday. To Anyency, Your truffles got here yesterday. Some a bit misshapen, but delicious.

The Event 6-28-17: The Eiffel Tower just outside the ceiling to floor windows, looked so close, I felt I could reach out, grab hold of it, and, like King Kong, swing myself over. There could not have been a more magnificent backdrop. The room was electric, with glasses clinking and air kissing on both cheeks. Motown, celebrating Detroit,was playing loud and soulful. Representatives from all of our Creative Cities: Austin, Paducah, Iowa City, Santa Fe, Detroit and, of course, Tucson, were here, reveling in being in the company of their peers, delighted to be in Paris and to be in that room at that moment.

Herbie Hancock, the cultural ambassador from the US to UNESCO, in town for a concert, gave the keynote speech. With great fondness, I remember hearing him in person for the first time in 1972 in Boulder for a heavy beat, full on funk keyboard concert at Tulagi’s on The Hill. More recently, back in Tucson I heard him playing Joni Mitchell songs sung by Sonya Kitchell a couple of years ago. A musical genius and stylistic virtuoso, I was inspired to hear him and meet him in person. What a gentle, kind man. We could not be better represented.

Most impressive was how interested the crowd was in what we’re doing in Tucson. Jonathan Mabry, Felipe Garcia with the City of Tucson and I were given a chance to speak about why we are a Creative City of Gastronomy. We were warned that these guests quickly bore of speeches. But they were actually listening, curious and now, I believe, have a better idea of about what makes us so unique. Our story resonates.

Ahumado Fresca from the Parish and San Xavier del Bac Whiskey got them in the mood for some Tucson food. From Shrimp Mojo de Ajo on a career batch of Frijoles Maneados with Chiltepin Salsa to the Pork Adobado with Chipotle Black Bean Sauce, Achiote, Vinaigrette and Guacamole to the Beef Cheek Tacos and Salsa Fresca, they loved it all and kept coming back. In my talk I spoke a little bit about the chiltepin, being the genetic mother of chiles. You would have thought I’d said it was the Fountain of Youth. The room was abuzz about it and wanted to try some of the salsa. French cooking and Parisian Haut Cuisine in particular is all about nuance and subtlety. Tucson food,with it’s layers and dimensions of flavors, and contrasts in textures and ingredients playing off each other, is bold and brash. It’s Mariachi not string quartet. They devoured it.

And that is the take away. That is what we can be so proud about. What we have is unique. For 4000 years people have been cultivating and harvesting food on the banks of the Santa Cruz. For as long or longer they’ve been picking cholla buds, and prickly pears, harvesting saguaro blossoms to make syrup and spiking their food with chiles. We saved those seeds and inherited those traditions. The layers of history and culture fold over each other like warm tortillas in a basket. From the desert, somehow those who have come before us have left us with a full land to explore and expand. This is Tucson’s moment and the world is watching us.

As the sun began to set and Eiffel Tour began twinkling with lights, guests were enjoying the flavors of Anayency’s agave laced truffles she had shipped from Mexico. From agave spirit to the spirit of agave the evening was a celebration of the flavors from our home.