Here is the interview that Chef Garbo did with me for the Personal Chef magazine:
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The island feast

It’s always hard to come back from a vacation, especially one so perfect and food-centered as this one. Here are a few pictures from our South Pacific island feast.

Our destination was Tonga, an island kingdom located between Fiji, Samoa, and Cooks Islands, a short three-hour flight from New Zealand. From Auckland we took an Air New Zealand flight to the Tonga capital Nuku’alofa, then a charter flight in an antique 1944 DC3 airplane to the Vava’u island group, where we chartered a sailing catamaran to sail between the islands.

Picture a perfect tropical island, with a coral reef, a sandy beach, and coconut palms swaying in the warm breeze, surrounded by deep blue waters, full of fish, dolphins, and whales. Now picture sixty of these islands, a few of them with little native villages or fishing resorts, most of them uninhibited, within one-hour sail from each other. This is Vava’u island group.

Tongans love their food, and are very proud of it. The local diet is based on tropical vegetables (taro, sweet potato) and fruits (coconut, pineapple, bananas), with a lot of fresh fish and shellfish, and some pork, with some potatoes, tomatoes, chili peppers, and lettuce thrown in. At the farmers market in the main town Neiafu you get a large basket of coconuts for $7 paangas ($1 paanga roughly equals 60 US cents), and a bunch of bananas or a pile of pineapples for $3 paangas.

Farmers market in Neiafu:

This is what we were using for snacks while sailing. Our regular afternoon after diving and snorkeling snack consisted of New Zealand cheese, salami, and crackers with bananas and pineapple slices, and a drink of an unripe coconut with a shot of rum poured in.

For breakfasts, I made simple omelets with bacon and cheese for those who were hungry in the morning; those who were not subsided on instant porridge, bananas, Turkish coffee and green tea.

Our divers and fishing lines proved to be useless in the South seas: the fish shied away from the divers, and it never got the lure. I had to go fishing at the farmers market. Fortunately, the local fishermen they sell them (cheap) at the farmers market: spiny lobsters, barracuda, Pacific snapper, grouper, parrot fish, jacks, etc., come in fresh every morning. We grilled the snapper and trevally on board on our gas grill, and I pan-fried parrot fish fillets with fresh coconut flakes – all delicious, accompanied with a rice and vegetable pilaf, green salad, or boiled potatoes.

Parrot fish:

Cutting up a trevally:

Spiny lobster:

The highlight of the island cuisine is ota ika – raw fish – bite-size pieces of firm white fish, marinated with lemon juice, coconut cream, and vegetables, served with potato fries. This is addictive! Their fish soup is also coconut-based and delicious.

Ota ika:

Fish coconut soup:

Back to New Zealand, it was a completely different food experience. The country’s main feature is rolling green hills, where they raise sheep, cows, and deer. New Zealand lamb feeds the world, but it tastes the best in New Zealand in spring. Beef and venison are fresh and tender. Even in the most touristy places you get a tender cut of meat, cooked to perfection and plated beautifully.

Rack of lamb:

Lamb chops:

Venison cooked on a hot stone:


Fish and seafood:

In Auckland, fish and seafood are great, and they do mind the presentation.

Street sushi is a Southrn Hermispere exotic, and, surprisingly, they are edible, and tasty.

Breakfasts and snacks:

Our captain’s birthday falls on December, 1st. The International Date Line is set up all crooked and twisted in the South Pacific, to make sure that all the island nations are on the same time and date. So, after celebrating our captain’s first ever summer birthday in Auckland by bar-hopping, we got on the plane to San Francisco on December, 2nd, and we flew into December, 1st and back into December 2nd, three more times. The turbulences didn’t allow for a proper celebration on the plane, but we held tight to our wine glasses, and we toasted every one of our captains birthdays in and out!

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Location:Kingdom of Tonga; New Zealand

Pictures from my cook date today

Chicken with peppers, sweet onion, and Meyer lemon, seasoned with salt, pepper, chili flakes, thyme, oregano and bay leaves, ready to go into the 400 degree oven:

Chicken is ready. I added olives during the last 5 minutes of cooking, just to warm through:

Poaching black bass in aromatic broth made with white wine, lemon, carrot, parsley and parsley root, garlic, bay leave, and black pepper. The head of the fish adds body to the broth, character to the photo, and makes a good snack for the cook afterwards:

Spinach and feta quiche. Does it look like a little sun to you?

Note: the pictures were taken with my iPhone during preparation of 5×4 with side dishes plus soup and baby food family meal package in their relatively small kitchen. Please forgive the picture quality, I’m doing my best.
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Location:Cupertino, CA

Today’s menu, with pictures

Lentil soup

Fennel and orange salad

Sautéed Chilean sea bass, yogurt sauce
Turkey and pumpkin chili
Coq au vin
Lamb chops with figs and rosemary

Cauliflower gratin
Baked mixed winter vegetables
Quinoa with mushrooms
Sautéed sweet potatoes

And from yesterday, the result of my day’s labor, a finished 4×6 menu, individually packaged, with calorie counts:

I have to apologize for the quality of the photos – they were taken by my iPhone, in a mix of natural and artificial light, while preparing all these dishes at the same time (hands permanently wet, something is threatening to burn), and trying to keep out of the way of the housecleaners; then quickly processed with Photoshop Express on my iPad while recovering from a busy day in the kitchen with a glass of wine on the sofa 🙂
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Location:Burlingame, CA

What I love about being a personal chef #3: hanging out with other chefs

For this month’s meeting of our Bay Area Chapter of US Personal Chefs Association, we went on a foodie tour, exploring food places of West Marin County. As often happens in our business, many of the chefs got busy at the last minute, and only five of us made it to the meeting, turning it into small, casual family gathering.

We started with an oyster farm tour at Hog Island Oyster Company. The farm manager showed us how they grow their oysters in submerged wire basket, told us about oyster’s life cycle, science and technology that go into farming oysters, and seafood safety. We were amazed to learn that even a simple Pacifica oyster takes two years to reach market size. For the tiny delicate Kumamoto oyster it’s three years. I will never complain again about the price of fresh oysters.

Then we sat at a rustic picnic table by the water, and were served fresh sweet water Pacificas, Kumamotos, BBQ oysters with the farm’s signature chipotle-bourbon-garlic butter, Cowgirl Creamery soft-ripened cheese rolled in fresh herbs and edible flowers, and Carneros Brut Rose sparkling wine.

Our next stop was Point Reyes Winery. We tasted their well-aged, medium-bodied wines made of grapes grown in cool coastal areas. One of my favorites was 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon, and then I was tale that the winery gets it’s Cabernet grapes from a friend, who grows them in a small vineyard in Terra Linda, just blocks from where I live!

After unsuccessful attempt to engage the cows at the nearby dairy farm in a photo session, we proceeded to downtown Point Reyes Station to do our grocery shopping at the delightful Palace Market, and then to chef Garbo’s charming Inverness country house, to cook our dinner.

The menu was:

Chef Garbo’s Side Car cocktails
Crostini with fig jam and Brie by chef Dawn
Shrimp skewers appetizer by chef Kara
Wine-marinated cedar plank grilled salmon by chef Greg
Chef Greg’s green beans
Grilled butterflied leg of lamb with chimichurri by chef Polina
Chef Dawn’s sweet potato and wild mushroom gratin

We had to abandon all our dessert ideas, since no one had room for the dessert anyway.

We enjoyed cooking together, talked business and food, exchanged tips and tricks about grilling, knife sharpening, using kitchen gadgets, admired chef Garbo’s food styling studio and a beautiful collection of vintage styling props, and generally had a great time.

The next morning my boyfriend and I traditionally missed the chefs breakfast chez Garbo, and instead had coffee and last nights leftovers for breakfast on the beach in front of our hotel room. Then we went for a hike in the hills overlooking Point Reyes seashore, where we saw large herds of elk, a few deer, a coyote, and where I almost stepped on a snake.

On the way back I stopped at a butcher shop on Marin Sun Farms to get grass fed steaks for the grill.

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Location:Inverness, CA

Shooting vegetables: Garden photography class

On a beautiful August day, when summer vegetables look their best and the vineyards are heavy with grapes getting ready for the harvest, Kendall-Jackson winery  invited a local nature photographer Leagh Wachter to teach a photography class in their extensive vegetable garden and on the demo vineyard. The garden photography class was designed for those who are not content with just sipping wine and sampling fruits and vegetables, but who also want to capture their beauty. Of course, I am one of them! Having found out about the class at the last moment, I managed to get in.

I said it was a beautiful August day. Well, it was a good day for photography: the morning fog lifted a little by 9 am, but the sun never came out; it remained overcast (and cold!) all morning, giving us perfect diffused light for the duration of the class.

I arrived partially frozen in my convertible, and was greeted, together with other students, by Leagh, winery’s estate manager Robin, and Jack the cat, who, despite his impressive size, moves very fast, and is difficult to convince to pose for a picture. It wasn’t a wildlife photography class after all.

Behind the tasting room, on the outdoor patio, the kitchen staff had just started fire in their pizza oven. Later on I watched the chef taking temperature of the oven – it was 880 degrees then. In the morning it was just hot enough to help thaw my frozen fingers in front of the wood fire.

The day started with a sip of Kendall-Jackson new partially un-oaked Chardonnay, Avant, which they pare with fried green tomatoes topped with goat cheese, to highlight the tart and creamy aspects of the wine.

Then Leagh gave us a short lecture on specifics of outdoor lighting, sharing tips on when to shoot (early morning and early evening light are the best), how to select the light angle, use a diffuser (a cardboard frame filled with semi-transparent parchment paper) to tame harsh afternoon light, and a sheet of white paper held in front of the subject to fill in. He handled us printouts illustrating the same subjects photographed in different lighting, with different depth of field, and different composition.

After that all 25 of us, with our iPhones, point-and-shoot cameras and SLRs, were released to roam the garden and the vineyard. Leagh would go from one student to another, giving advise and ideas what to try.

Two hours later, we gathered for another wine and food pairing. The winery’s culinary staff pair their Monterey county Pinot Noir with brick oven pizzas with roasted tomatoes, either vegetarian Margherita, or topped with sausages, artichokes, and mushrooms.

Kendall-Jackson people are obsessed with heirloom tomatoes. Half of the vegetable garden is taken by 175 varieties of them, arranged by color, and the next weekend they have their annual heirloom tomato festival. Sadly, this cold year was not the best for tomatoes. Most of them, except the cherry varieties, are just beginning to turn colors. The rest of the garden is organized by flavor profile, grouping together vegetables, fruits, and herbs that would compliment the same wine.

After the class some of us went for a complimentary wine tasting that the winery threw in with the class, others continued experimenting with picturing vegetables and grapes.

It felt like a very relaxing experience, and i was delighted by the opportunity to see and picture my favorite foodstuffs in their natural setting, but I was nearly exhausted after all the hours of hauling my heavy zoom camera around, kneeling, crawling, bending and twisting, trying to get close-up and the best angle.

Now I am looking forward to the next class in fall, when the vines will turn colors. Please, don’t let it rain then!

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Location:Santa Rosa, CA