08 May, 2015

Game Changer.

Focus. It's what we should all do occasionally, particularly when soul-searching. For a lot of us, determining who we are in this world, and how we want to grow our lives, is crucial.

Not everyone is built that way but I am. I'd be lost without focus and planning--lists, milestones, goals, ideas, projects. I don't always achieve everything I set out to do (still haven't finished that book) but I enjoy the act of dreaming and setting goals. People make fun of me for still doing New Year's resolutions, but I really don't care. Too much of life is unpredictable and I like to plan at least a few things that are up ahead of me (and document what is behind me).

At age 21, before the Internet was a daily ritual, and research was easy, I spent months studying books and maps and travel guides. I went to seminars and planned a six-week backpacking vacation alone in Europe. I hit nine countries and met up with friends and relatives along the way. I planned where to sleep (sometimes on a train, sometimes in a hole in the wall), what foods I wanted to try, and I took 36 rolls of film with me (and used them all). I even planned some spontaneous, "unplanned" time built into the trip. (I wish I could say I was joking.)

In the last few years, life has unfortunately wedged its way between me and the pursuit of my goals. It happens. Like two people who grow apart but stay together. Health issues, insanely heavy workloads, depression, social obligations, and heartbreak have all contributed to an ongoing, low-grade motivation malaise. When I tell people this, I often get scolded with "Jackie! Are you kidding? You are the hardest worker we know, and you are always doing fun things, and you regularly feed your creative side!" But, you know what? It's almost always for "the Man." Always just a cog. A creative cog is still a cog. I rarely create simply for Jackie, because I'm compelled to make something for the sheer joy of it, rather because a company or client is paying me to do something for them. There just wasn't time in my schedule for gratuitous fun projects. I mean, please. I had mouths to feed. (Okay, just two cats, but still.) If I happened to be somewhere awesome, I'd pull out my phone and load a pic to Instagram. That had slowly become the extent of my non-client creative expression.

In March, I left my day-job at Amazon. A change of pace and a new direction is needed. And getting back to creative work was on top of my list of goals. A friend who knew I was itching to do more creative work sent me a link to a photography workshop. On a whim, I signed up for it. It was John Keatley's "Survival Guide" workshop in Seattle. I didn't know John Keatley before this workshop, but I certainly knew his work. That portrait of Macklemore, and the one of Annie Leibovitz clearly stand out. I went into this weekend workshop knowing I was going to be learning from one of the best.

I didn't even pick up my camera the entire weekend. Yes, you read that correctly. I did not take a single photo with my pro gear. I snapped a few iPhone pics (see below), but for three days, we focused not on the craft or the skills--it was assumed going in, that we already had those--but rather the business end of things. And more than simply "business"; when I think of business, I think paperwork, bookkeeping, client management, schedules, taxes. And yes, it did cover these topics. But for me, the standout topics were things like image branding, what to charge, industry types to connect with, finding your unique niche and, perhaps most importantly, working on personal projects. We even talked about how to develop your future style and how to point yourself in that direction.

The mentorship provided was, for me, a game changer. Part of the workshop also came with a one-on-one portfolio review with John and I got absolutely invaluable insight and critique. John and his wife Nichelle could have just been hands-off instructors, and it would have still been successful. But what put it over the top for me is the one-on-one interaction, the camaraderie, the no-holds-barred instruction, and their post-workshop follow-up. They've made me feel like my success is their success. There are very few instructors, or even people in general, who can be true cheerleaders. I'm immensely grateful to have met caring people who have had success in the photography industry and value helping others do the same.

That is not to say the entire workshop was glitter and cupcakes. It was insanely intense. With a very ambitious itinerary, John dove into the hard stuff right out of the gate. The first morning, we were already standing up in front of the others bidding on projects--we had to tell how much we'd charge for what type of shoot, what we'd include in those charges, how long the shoot would be, what we were shooting, and what we needed to do to accomplish that shoot. We got into small groups and we could pick from a list, or make up our own, so I ditched the list and picked a dream gig: shooting for Starbucks. The exercise ended with us pretend-shooting for Starbucks, how we'd go about it, and them licensing three of our shots for a ten-year period. (Starbucks, did you hear that? I'm coming for you!)

There were also peer reviews. So not only were you to use what you learned in the workshop to shape your own portfolio and brand, but you reviewed others' work and helped them shape their focus, as well. There is nothing that helps you "get" something better than diving straight in and having to do it. And not once, but multiple times for others.

The workshop was more than just enlightening; it actually put us in charge of own success, and aligned us with others who are doing the same thing. I absolutely feel that I (and any one of us) could easily shoot for a huge client. The exercises in the workshop gave me the confidence, power, and intimate knowledge to know how to be a high-level pro. Not just the craft behind the shots which I've already been doing for more than a decade, but the whole business end of things, that can seem overly daunting to a creative type. But sorting this stuff out properly allows you to enjoy the creativity that comes from the gigs, focus on landing them, and provide direction for your energies.

And it hasn't waned. I'm still riding the wave of confidence since last month. Not only that, I've come up with some really fun personal projects just for me. (More on those later, when I have something to show.) I've realized--and this workshop solidified it--that creative people absolutely need play time to help fuel their work time.

I'm currently getting my website ready to launch. It's taken longer than I'd planned to set up because the work I did in this workshop actually helped shift my direction slightly (that can absolutely happen when you sit down and scrutinize where it is you really want to go). I'm redoing a few things, and having a lot of fun doing it.

It's almost go time.

Giving presentations on hypothetical gigs
Branding notes
John Keatley is a well-known iPhone portraitist
(His workshops come with wigs. Don't ask.)
A bunch of the guys wore wigs around all afternoon.
At one point, our lesson was interrupted by disco music and a pink
ice cream truck coming in through the garage door.  
John and Nichelle Keatley
Ice cream truck break
More wigs.
Break time.
Fashion photographer, M. Moore
Two guys in glasses. Just because.
The venue: Blackrapid Studios (don't even THINK of parking there)
Taking a quick break to walk around the block.
Lonnie, one of the workshop attendees, freely admitted that he drinks
coffee from 7-Eleven. IN SEATTLE! Much teasing ensued.
Nichelle taught the very important topic of accounting and organization

Also, John is doing another workshop in July--this time in St. Louis. If you need mentorship to help you get to a higher level of pro photography work, John and Nichelle are it.

27 April, 2015

The Gnocchi Files.

I used to live along the Dumpling Belt of Europe. While spending years in Germany, I explored dumplings from all over the neighboring regions as well as the Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, and northern Italy. Some people (even experts) consider gnocchi a pasta since it hails from Italy. However, like the galuskas of Hungary, I consider them dumplings resembling noodles. Either way, both noodles and dumplings have one common and noble duty: to sop up sauce or broth.

My friend Lisa Nakamura, a well-known Seattle chef, has long experimented with varieties of gnocchi recipes, tweaking and experimenting until coming up with some really magical dishes. The gnocchi dishes at her last restaurant were the most popular item on the menu. So she began to dream about opening up a gnocchi bar in Seattle--and last month she did just that.

Gnocchi Bar opened to much local fanfare. It's a great location on 12th and Pine on Capitol Hill with a lot of foot traffic. She does serve a couple of more traditional gnocchi dishes with Italian sauces (spicy meatball and pesto, for example), but also some really lovely comfort recipes like braised chicken, capers, asparagus, and cider butter--and gnocchi filled with curry-roasted carrots on a bed of goat cheese and caramelized onion cream sauce. A friend of mine quite accurately described the latter dish as "quite possibly the best vegetarian dish in Seattle."

To visit Gnocchi Bar, here is their web site with menu and hours: http://www.gnocchibarseattle.com

Raw dumpling | Gnocchi with spicy meatball sauce
Veggie gnocchi | Lisa Nakamura outside her restaurant
Chicken and asparagus gnocchi | Lentil and parsnip salad
Lisa Nakamura in her restaurant | Pesto and peppers gnocchi
Gnocchi with spicy meatballs in tomato sauce
Lisa having fun | One of her weekly specials of bacon-studded, filled dumplings
Dumplings filled with curry-roasted carrots with a caramelized onion
cream sauce and a generous sprinkle of feta cheese
Gnocchi with chicken, asparagus, capers, and cider butter
Gnocchi Bar now serves a light breakfast of biscuits
Strawberry biscuits and coffee | Gnocchi Bar also serves gelato!
Various gelato and sorbetti flavors
Pistachio and Nutella gelato

26 April, 2015


Langdon Cook pulling out the root of a licorice fern for us to taste

I'm biting down on a tiny piece of fern root which has an earthy yet exotic sweetness. I taste a hint of licorice and maybe some maple. I begin to chew it in earnest, and with that, it suddenly becomes very bitter. That's it--one, maybe two, bites of sweetness before the twig turns bitter.

Our guide, Langdon Cook tells us that this is the root of the licorice fern which, if processed properly (infusion, for example), can add an herbal-sweet flavoring to something such as simple syrup. This weed is the most tenacious fern I've ever seen. It grows up the base of a tree, and all the way up each branch of a tree as far as the eye can see, like prehistoric ivy.

We walk on, exploring marshy areas, hills, the sides of long fallen trees, the forest floor. The things you see when you take the time to look up, and down, are magical. The forest, from floor to tree branch, is absolutely littered with edibles. And the bounty changes hands from season to season. I decide on the spot that I must do this again in summer for the berries, and again in autumn when mushrooms abound.

The berries aren't in season, but we still stop and identify them by their leaves, blossoms, or buds. Thimbleberries, trailing blackberries, raspberries, different kinds of huckleberries, Oregon grape berries, salal, salmon berries. I'm impressed by the amount of berry bushes I didn't even know grew wild in the city.

We hike on and come across lady ferns (fiddleheads), miner's lettuce, dandelions, nettles, bittercress, and wood sorrel (oxalis), among others. I marvel that this is all just one small patch of land smack in the city. We don't even go off trail. The veritable cornucopia that must exist off the beaten path would undoubtedly blow my mind.

The symbiotic relationships free-flowing in the forest are impressive--trees sharing nutrients with the plants below it, and in return, the plants giving back to tree roots. In fact, the whole forest is some sort of life-giving-and-taking mechanism. Mushrooms grow on old, fallen trees, until they have used up all remaining nutrients from it. Nature is pure. Wild. Interconnected. Honest.

As I chew on a fruity wood sorrel leaf, I ponder the wealth of flora around us, and feel a sense of profound joy. I live in a hotbed of incredible bounty in the Pacific Northwest and other than blackberry picking, I haven't experienced the joy of foraging for food, or had any sort of real understanding of the surrounding indigenous plants. I plan to change that.

Not only the wild edibles, but the fresh air, the exertion of climbing, and the cool dampness of forested Seattle lingers with me long after coming back indoors.

For more information on Langdon's tours, visit his website http://langdoncook.com.

Langdon standing in front of a Redwood in Seward Park
Showing us a huckleberry bush
This fern decided it was going to be the center of attention here, as weeds do.
The shamrock-looking oxalis leaves taste like fruit (!) and Langdon is
showing us some local leaf variety that he uses in place
of grape leaves for making dolmas
Miner's Lettuce
A Redwood! In Seattle! (Not edible, but mushrooms grow under them)
And another tree absolutely covered trunk to sky in Licorice Fern
Light hiking and lovely greenery right in the city
These may be salmonberries but don't take my word for it
Green for days
Trailing blackberries, which are native to Washington
Gorgeous trails in Seward Park (this was the Huckleberry Trail)
Not a bad way to spend part of the day.

31 December, 2014

Notable Culinary Trends and Favorite Cookbooks of 2014

Once again, I've studied culinary trends closely this year. There have been a couple of surprises, and some other trends lingering over from last year. I am not a culinary expert by any stretch of the imagination, however I tend to spot trends through food photography gigs, cookbooks, local and international chefs and restaurants, food magazines, and social media. This is my summary of the few culinary items that have enjoyed some success this year.

2014 Culinary Trends

Crispy cauliflower from Trove, Seattle
Cauliflower. Cauliflower is the new kale chip. It's one of the biggest trends of the year. This year, I've seen it roasted, mashed, in soup, baked, deep-fried, and a variety of other ways.

Unconventional meats: I've seen a big increase in duck, elk, rabbit, goose, squab, goat, and pigeon on restaurant menus this year. I won't go so far as to say that goat is the new bacon, but it's enjoying a renaissance.

Mushrooms and other foraged foods. People are foraging in greater numbers than I have ever remembered them doing in the recent past. Advantages: it's free, it's fun, and it appeals to locavores.

Farm dinners. It used to be that Outstanding in the Field was completely unique in on-location, farm-to-table dinners. Not so much anymore. Farm-hosted pop-up dinners are rapidly sprouting up (forgive the pun).

Tea. McDonalds has joined in the tea craze, and Starbucks acquired Teavana. Smaller tea shops are opening up all over the country. In particular, flowering teas were a popular gift item this year.

Food and grocery delivery. This year, I've seen edible deliveries take off like gangbusters--restaurant meal delivery, CSA boxes, and grocery delivery. Meal delivery is probably more common in urban areas, but with CSA boxes straight from the farm, and grocery delivery expanding its delivery range, rural areas are likely seeing an uptick, as well.

Gin. The increase in gin interest is notable; it's traditionally been one of the least popular hard liquors in the U.S. I learned to enjoy it, and its many varieties, at the jenever bars in Antwerp, but it's never seemed to have enjoyed such popularity on this side of the pond. However, thanks to a resurgence in interest, between tea and gin, one could reasonably suspect that we've reunited with Britain.

Single-item restaurants. There are restaurants popping up around the nation specializing in one type of food (not just pizza joints anymore). There are restaurants serving all manner of pelmeni, meatloaf, ramen, mac 'n' cheese, frites (Belgian fries), and there's even a cereal bar in Texas.

Vinegar. Whether for medicinal or nutritional use, for use in pickling, in shrubs (the new "bitter" for cocktails), hand-crafted drinking vinegars (popular in Japan), or interesting vinegar infusions for dressings, this appears to just be the next big trend.

Sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes are the new potato! This tuber has appeared all over the place this year (not just in the South) in desserts, fries and fritters, stews, pureed, dumplings, and a dozen other ways. It's packed with nutrients and so it's a shining star in this year's trend list!

Marijuana edibles. With many regions legalizing marijuana, a whole new culinary trend has taken off. Many people who wouldn't normally smoke are buying edibles instead (as are those who do smoke). In my state (Washington), it's a huge new trend.

Digital menus. Ordering from digital menus is a quick and easy way to order your food which minimizes errors and shows you the total immediately. People can order (and pay for) food online, at a tablet near the cash register, or at their tables.

Non-vegetarian Shakshuka
The Fat Hen, Seattle
Shakshuka. This dish of spicy baked eggs is part of the latest surge in the popularity of Middle Eastern food. It's now offered at many (non-Middle Eastern) breakfast restaurants. It's Paleo, gluten-free, grain-free, vegetarian, and super tasty.

Edible Insects. Adventurous restaurants are experimenting with serving up bugs and touting them as the new protein. While it's not quite huge yet, it's gaining lots of traction. Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods will have to find something else to eat!

Coconut. Coconut oil is all the rage, as is coconut sugar, coconut water, and coconut cream. It's a viable alternative to other fats and sweets than is less damaging.

Grain-free cuisine. Paleo, gluten-free, and other types of low-grain or grain-free diets are still on the rise, giving way to all sorts of alternative flours. There are entire cookbooks now dedicated to modern bakers who prefer baking with non-standard flours.

Nordic cuisine. Ever since Noma in Denmark won first place in the World's 50 Best Restaurants, the world has been looking at northern Europe for inspiration. New books on Sweden, pan-Scandinavia, and Iceland this year have catapulted people's interest in Nordic cuisine.

Community seating. This trend has been growing for the last couple of years, but this year, during the times that I dined in nice restaurants with friends, I was more often seated in community-style settings than at private tables.

2014 Favorite Cookbooks

I pore over cookbooks throughout the year and eventually a select few become favorites. I tend to view cookbooks with a somewhat critical eye, looking for a very specific set of criteria which may not appeal to all home cooks.

Favorites usually have more than one of the following criteria:
  • Beautiful photographs 
  • Great writing (yes, I actually read cookbooks) 
  • Unique or specialized topic
  • Daring or interesting concept  
  • Attractive book design--functional and/or artistic
  • Recipes that compel me to want to make them
  • Authors or publishers with whom I have a high degree of trust (either renown chefs, writers or publishers of other great culinary books, or recipe developers who've previously provided flawless content before)

I link to these books on Amazon.com so you can see reviews and view inside the book. That said, I am definitely also a supporter of local bookstores, and bookstores that sell new cookbooks will likely have most of these.

Thailand. This is my favorite cookbook of the year. It's a stunning tome by the ever-awesome Phaidon publishing, replete with gorgeous photos, a wide variety of recipes, and a lovely layout. Top-notch culinary content.

North. Most of you know by now that I have an affinity for northern Europe and its cuisine, so it shouldn't be any surprise that I'm completely enamored with this book of the "New Nordic Cuisine of Iceland." Photography and content portray food, chefs, landscapes, and culture. Definite winner.

Yucatan. This is the largest and heaviest cookbook I purchased this year (which is saying a lot because there were a lot of huge cookbooks this year). This region's cuisine is unique as it was long isolated from the rest of Mexico. Flavors are part Mayan, part Caribbean, part Spanish, and a pinch of Dutch. This book is a veritable encyclopedia of the breadth and depth of those influences on the cuisine of this unique region.

My Portugal. This book has a cornucopia of fantastic photos and authentic recipes. Heavily influenced by an ex-boyfriend, and a trip around Portugal with his family in the '90s, I learned that the cuisine is really part Spanish, part French, part Moroccan. It's a truly fabulous combination of flavors and this is perhaps the best book I have on it to date.

My Paris Kitchen. If you haven't bought any books by David Lebovitz, do it. His recipes, both on his blog and in his books, are flawless. This particular book is a real in-depth look at both his life in Paris and the standard fare you'll find there.

Flour  + Water. I wasn't going to buy this cookbook--like the world needs another pasta book! But a reliable friend and fellow cookbook hoarder shoved it on me, and I completely understand why. This book, from the popular San Francisco restaurant of the same name, has a unique approach, separating dishes out by season. It also showcases old classics among high-brow, elevated, adventurous pasta creations, using exotic ingredients (such as bitter honey and squab).

Golden Chanterelle mushrooms
Shroom. I'm a huge mushroom fanatic so the focus of this book really grabbed me. It's also no secret that the author, Becky Selengut, is a personal friend. You could say I was biased, but the truth is, I've probably grabbed this book off the shelf this year, more than any other. It's also very accessible to the average home cook (more so than her last book "Good Fish").

Slanted Door. Amazon.com picked this book at their Cookbook of the Year, and it's easy to see why. This book of modern Vietnamese food is chock full of truly stunning photographs, incredible dishes, and surprisingly accessible ingredients for many of them.

Sugar Rush. I don't know how Johnny Iuzzini does it, but he is the master of sweets. Not just pastries, but everything from cakes to custards to meringues to candies. There are really interesting recipes, such as Sour Cream Sherbet, Chocolate-Sesame Seed Cake, and Banana Fritters with Tahini Caramel Cream. Great step-by-step instructions and photographs. There isn't anything in this book that I wouldn't immediately throw down my gullet.

Ikaria. The day I received this book, I read it from cover to cover. It's a very interesting culinary story (with a ton of recipes) of the people on the Greek island of Ikaria who have the world's largest population of centenarians. I wanted to know what kinds of foods promote longevity and as it turns out, there are few surprises in this book (a few typically non-Greek staples--the potato, beans, and herbal tea).

Daring and Notable

While these didn't make my "favorites" list, they did catch my eye for their interesting and daring topics.

Bitter. One would not imagine that a cookbook featuring bitter ingredients would appeal to many people. It's a brave concept and I actually really like the food. It features recipes with ingredients such as radicchio, dark chocolate, chicory, lemon peel, and hops.

The Insect Cookbook. Another daring and adventurous book with a potentially small audience. However, as I noted above, culinary insects are on an upward swing. It's a sustainable protein and available in great quantities. There were two other cookbooks on cooking with bugs this year, and my favorite book of the year (Thailand) has recipes with ants. One of my favorite comments on Amazon is: "Shut up and eat it."

Das Cookbook. German food with a heavy California twist. Surprisingly, it works. It's a lovely fusion of German cookery married with Californian ingredients. Sehr gut!

What food trends or new cookbooks have you enjoyed this year?

Happy 2015!