An American Chef in London

Union Jack

Last week, my wife accepted a position with her company in their London office, so we’re moving to England. This kicks off the next phase of my culinary career: working abroad as a chef!

The opportunity to work outside the US is one of the three main reasons I changed careers in 2004. One of the other reasons was so that I could have a marketable skill after the zombie apocalypse, but since that doesn’t seem to be happening anytime soon, I’ll have to settle for working internationally.

A lot of things have to happen between now and when we arrive in London, but I’m guessing we’ll be there by the end of January. This is something that we’ve been thinking of for several years now and she’s been actively interviewing over the last six months. For a short time it looked like it might be Sydney where we ended up, but London was the better option in the end.

Right now, I’m filled with all sorts of excitement, trepidation, and speculation. The biggest of which is “can I hang with my British counterparts, or will I be hopelessly out-classed”? What will the differences in culture be like in the kitchen? I’ve only ever worked in Seattle and understand this kitchen culture very well; I know what makes chefs tick, I know the lingo and the trends. Obviously in London I won’t know any of this stuff and will have to figure it out as I go. But I guess that’s part of the fun and the challenge.

I am fairly certain, however, that being a pastry chef in London will be much more competitive than here in Seattle. London is a much bigger pool with bigger fish. A lot of the job postings I’ve already seen list many requirements that even Executive Chef positions don’t require here in Seattle. I’m referring to things like “five years working a Michelin-starred restaurant”, “mandatory 2-year culinary degree”, “high-end hotel experience”, etc. It all gives off the vibe of classic old-school and old-world cooking, by which I mean “pedigree”.

I’ve read that here in the US our default ice-breaking question is “What do you do”, whereas in England it’s “Where did you go to school”. I don’t have a good answer to that second question, and I don’t know how it’s going to be received that I don’t have a formal culinary degree. Here in the US it’s really all about what you can do in the kitchen; Your value is determined by where you’ve worked and what your experience is like. I hope it’s the same in the UK. If not, it could be an uphill battle to break into the industry there.

Another upside to moving to England, however, is the proximity to other countries. I expect to pursue several stages while living in London, and I hope to get the opportunity to cook in France, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, etc. Even if it’s for a long weekend while couch-surfing, this sort of exposure will be wonderful for my experience.

And so it starts. Let the journey begin!

Dyen Sabai – 4 out of 5 stars

Read my disclaimer about restaurant reviews.

Dyen Sabai

Dyen Sabai
No address; East side of Nam Khan River, accessible via a bamboo bridge off Kingkitsarath Road near Wat Siphoutthabath, Luang Prabang, Laos
Facebook: Dyen Sabai
+856 20 55 104 817 (phone)

Date: Lunch on March 8, 2014

The Good: Everything. Great selection of ingredients in the Lao BBQ, clean bathrooms, beautiful venue and atmosphere.

The Bad: A little more expensive than the equivalent meal elsewhere in Luang Prabang, but the quality was better.

My menu: Fresh spring rolls, Lao BBQ with chicken for two, a big beer, and two happy hour cocktails (gin slings – delicious!)

What I paid: About the equivalent of $12 USD.

Value? Quite a value. I was satisfied and full for hours afterwards.

Dine-again status: Yes!

The Story: Dyen Sabai is a bit out of the way, relative to where most of the action is in Luang Prabang. But it’s actually really easy to get to: Cross the bamboo bridge for about 25 cents (USD), climb a short hill, turn left.

Once you arrive, it’s worth any hassle you may have had getting there. The restaurant is actually pretty large, with several levels and little private covered decks. We didn’t think about what we wanted to eat beforehand, but when we arrived and saw they specialized in Lao BBQ, we couldn’t resist. I’m glad we made that decision!

Lao BBQ is essentially a smaller version of Mongolian BBQ where everything is served raw and you cook it yourself on a grated dome over flaming charcoal. It’s pretty popular and common in Luang Prabang, but having tried it at least two other places, Dyen Sabai is the clear master at this menu item.

We received a nice variety of noodles, vegetables, mushrooms, and even two eggs to add to the broth. An order for two was more than enough for lunch!

If I lived in Luang Prabang, I would eat here at least once a week!

Haven – 5 out of 5 stars

Read my disclaimer about restaurant reviews.

Sok San Street (Behind the X Bar), Siem Reap, Cambodia
+855 78 34 24 04 (phone)

Date: Dinner on March 3, 2014

The Good: The food, the atmosphere, the staff, the social mission.

The Bad: Just a tiny bit more expensive than most Cambodian restaurants, probably by about 20%.

My menu: I can’t remember the exact menu items I had, unfortunately, but I do remember really enjoying everything. I ordered off the Asian/Cambodia side of the menu, not the European side.

What I paid: About the equivalent of $20 USD for a starter, two entrees, a dessert, and two big beers.

Value? Absolutely. The quality of the food was fantastic, probably the best I’d had in Cambodia. And that’s a high bar to meet in that country.

Dine-again status: Yes, definitely

The Story: Cambodia has many different social enterprise restaurants in Siem Reap, and I visited several during my week in Cambodia. Haven was the best all-around. Their mission is to provide job training for orphaned Cambodians who have aged-out of the orphanages at age 18. Haven provides room, board, and employment for one year, while these young adults figure out how to build an independent future for themselves.

The restaurant was elegantly but comfortably designed, warm and welcoming. The owner greeted us and offered us a spot on the community table, which was the only seating available at the time, because the restaurant was still packed at about 8pm.

Unfortunately I don’t remember exactly what we ordered, but everything I had was delicious. I do remember that we ordered exclusively from the Cambodian section of the menu, though (The owners are Swiss, which explains the European section of the menu).

We talked at length with the owner about his story, his mission, and how it all got started. One of the things that sticks out the most in my memory is that his business plan called for a profitable and economically self-sustaining operation with in two or three years. He reported that he hit his goal in half the time.

The chef at Haven runs a tight ship: The kitchen is immaculate, the cooks are quiet, and the food is perfect. I know how hard this is all to manage, so I was quit impressed about his accomplishments. After dinner, I just stood near the pass and marveled at the kitchen and his operations.

Haven is a wonderful operation with a noble goal. I enjoyed dining there, and it felt great to support them, if even in just a tiny way.

Yogurt panna cotta

Warning about recipes. Read this first!

Yield: About 7 cups

7 ea Gelatin sheets
1 C Milk
2 C Heavy cream
3/4 C Sugar
1/4 tsp Salt
1 ea Vanilla bean
1 qt Yogurt
1 tsp Vanilla extract

1. Bloom gelatin sheets in cold water. (or substitute two packets of powdered gelatin)

2. Combine milk, cream, sugar, salt, and vanilla bean in a small pot. Bring to a boil and remove from heat. Let steep 10 minutes.

3. Remove vanilla bean, split open, scrape seeds, and add back to cream. Add gelatin to cream and whisk thoroughly.

4. Combine yogurt and vanilla extract, whisk to combine. Temper in warm cream then pour into molds. Let set overnight.

Gelatin – I greatly prefer sheet gelatin over powdered gelatin. I’m one of those weird people who think there’s an odor to the powdered stuff (I can also tell the difference between cane sugar and beet sugar by smell). I find sheet gelatin much easier to use and more accurate in gauging the final gel-set.

Unmolding – I’ve only made this recipe a couple times (as of writing) and I’ve never unmolded it. But based on the resulting set, I would think it could easily unmold if the vessel were gently warmed on the sides.

I originally served this in disposable ramekins (shame on me, I know), drizzled with a little honey and garnished with a blackberry (for F*).

The original recipe source was Smitten Kitten.

Tasting notes from Eastern Washington (Summary)

I had a great time with my father in Eastern Washington for two and a half days, eating and tasting wines. This was our second trip like this; I hope we get to do this together many more times.

The high points of the trip:

  • Obviously spending one-on-one time with my dad. It’s wonderful to be able to hang out together and catch up without any other distractions, over the span of a couple days. No rush, just tasting wines and figuring out where the next meal is coming from!
  • All the wines we plowed through in 2.5 days (14 wineries!)
  • Breakfast at Bacon & Eggs (twice!)
  • Pastries at Collville Street Patisserie (twice!)
  • Dinner at Wine O’Clock

Purchased wines:
Gamache – 2008 Nicholas (Heritage Reserve)
Hightower – 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon
Balboa – Mith
Palencia – Monarcha 2011 Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley Pinot Noir Rose
Palencia – Monarcha 2010 Wahluke Slope Merlot.

I wish I’d bought:
Corvus – 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon
Five Star Cellars – 2009 Quinque Astrum