Thursday, July 17, 2014

Movie Review: "Chef" whets appetite for life

In an alternate universe, there’s a version of me scurrying around a film set, directing actors, looking over script sheets, and conferring with cinematographers and producers. In yet another, I’m whirling around a busy restaurant kitchen, chiming “oui, chef!” while methodically chopping, stirring, braising, and plating. Thus--since I am in neither universe--I hold a special spot in my heart for films about food, because they combine two things I truly love.

Chef, Jon Favreau’s newest feature, is my latest obsession. It’s an upbeat story about a frustrated chef who finds a new passion for his cuisine—and his family life—when he buys a food truck.

Plot: Chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) was once the toast of the culinary world, but is now trapped in a creative rut. He’s just as stuck in his personal life, recently divorced and struggling to connect with his 10-year-old son, Percy (Emjay Anthony). Carl’s frustrations reach a boiling point when he’s panned by renowned food critic Ramsey Michael (Oliver Platt), and Carl’s public outburst goes viral on the internet.

With his career in shambles, Carl reluctantly joins his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) and son on a trip to Miami, his old stomping grounds. Inspired by the city’s colorful Cuban cuisine, he buys a fixer-upper food truck. When his right-hand-man, Tony (John Leguizamo) flies out to help with Carl’s new endeavor, Carl, Tony, and Percy embark on a road trip across the US to get the truck back to LA.

Review: This is the perfect recipe for a feel-good movie: flawed-yet-lovable characters, a lively soundtrack, and gorgeous, lingering shots of lovingly prepared food. It’s obvious that Favreau (who also produced, directed, and wrote the film) did his homework to become Chef Casper, and he moves in the kitchen as organically as a dancer does on a stage.

Aside from the all the delicious food, what struck me the most about this film was the father-son dynamic at the heart of the story. Percy aches to be part of his dad’s life, but Carl is too wrapped up in his career (and misery) to see the clever young man Percy is becoming. When Carl agrees to let Percy come with him on the road-trip, not only do the two bond, but Percy proves himself as a valuable member of the team with his social media savvy.

And--odd as this sounds--it was nice to see a movie that was so intrinsically about men and male camaraderie that had nothing to do with violence or macho posturing. Carl and Tony work easily as a team in the food truck, and Percy’s initiation into their world--and into manhood--is filled with heart as well as humor and hard work.

The only complaint I had was the neat way everything came together in the end. Perhaps Favreau saw Carl’s journey as a father as the major arc of the film, but I wanted to see a little more conflict with the food truck and his career trajectory. The ending was just a bit too--dare I say it--Dinsey-eque, but maybe I'm just a little too jaded.

Overall, Chef is not a complex film, but it is a delicious one. In a summer filled with vacant popcorn flicks, Chef is like a hearty grilled sandwich: tasty, filling, and simple. Worth a watch, but make sure you’re not hungry going into the theater!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Turning the Lights Back On

I love films. There's a challenge in trying to tell a good story in 90 to 120 minutes, rather than stretching it out across dozens of hours of television or hundreds of printed pages. There’s an art and a craft to it, and not everyone can pull it off.

I've seen thousands of films at this point in my life, and I spent four years at U.C. Berkeley's Film Studies program. My plan was that I would make a living writing about movies, however, by the time I got out of college in the early 2000s, the internet had made anyone with a computer and an opinion a film critic. I tried to add my own voice in the old-fashioned way, but after four years working a dead-end job at a film magazine, I did the worst thing anyone can do. I gave up.

I’ve realized lately, though, how much I’ve missed writing about movies, sharing my passion and knowledge, and I've decided to start up again.

Perhaps being a new parent has encouraged me. It’s definitely changed my perspective on life, yes, but it’s also taught me something very important—I don’t have time for bad movies anymore. I maybe get to see one feature film a week at home, and perhaps one in the theater every season. So, I have to pick my battles wisely.

Writing film reviews is a way to shake the cobwebs off an old skill set, and help that poor, neglected left brain of mine (there are only so many times it can read the The Very Hungry Caterpillar before giving up hope of stimulation). By sharing my reviews, I can help other moviegoers, because nothing sucks more than wasting your night on a crappy movie.

In all honesty, these reviews will be like my own movie watching: sporadic, not very timely, but hopefully enjoyable. I can’t promise a regular schedule until my son can promise me the same. He's 19 months old now. It’s gonna be a long wait.

My first review will be coming Thursday, where I review the indie foodie flick Chef. I hope you'll join me for it. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Figs and Goat Cheese

My lunch today: smooth and tangy goat cheese spread over a thick slice of hearty walnut bread, topped with syrupy-sweet ripe figs.

I love you, summer.

I honestly don't know when my obsession with figs began. As a kid, I definitely enjoyed Fig Newtons--with their cakey outsides and thick, chewy centers--but I never really had the chance to try the real deal until I was much older. Really, I'm trying, but I can't pinpoint the moment where I went, "holy bejebus, I need me more of those figs!" Like I did a few weeks ago.

It all began when co-worker/friend of the Professor's was throwing a little birthday bash. For the first time ever, we were "those people" with the toddler at the grown-up party.

I spent a good portion of the festivities alone on the back patio in an attempt to keep Bubby away from the lovely snacks carefully arranged right at his eye level. While dashing about after a whiffle ball, I surreptitiously watched the other adults relaxing inside, sipping their microbrews and chatting about science, politics, and travel. My stimulating conversation? "Look, Bubby! Catch the ball! Catch the ball! No! Don't throw it over the fence!"

I was about to throw in the towel when another of my husband's colleagues arrived with his wife, bearing a colander full of beautiful, ripe figs. Apparently, they had a tree just bursting with the little beauties, and they sliced up a dozen figs to share with the party.

One bite of the glistening fruit--served atop a cloud of blueberry-kissed goat cheese on a slice of soft, sweet French bread--and my afternoon was saved. It got even better when I was encouraged to take home a party cup full of figs. They were gone by the next morning.

Those figs haunted me for weeks. It wasn't a constant obsession, but more of a niggling craving in the back of my head. "You know what sounds good right now? Figs and goat cheese." I'm a realist, though, and I knew that a $6.99 basket of figs at the local produce market wouldn't be nearly as good as the tree-ripened fruit that had seduced me so. Or as cheap.

Then, yesterday, my patience was rewarded. The Professor came home from work with a little green basket of figs in hand, compliments of his colleague and his wife. Craving became full-on obsession: "Damn it! Now I need goat cheese!"

It was all I could think about this morning: "Make the Bubby's breakfast. Figs and goat cheese. Pack the Professor's sandwich. Figs and goat cheese. Hey, my friend just had a baby! Figs and goat cheese."

Obviously--from the photos above--this story has a happy ending. A quick pop into Lundari's market provided me the much-coveted goat cheese, and I even splurged to get the thick, dark whole wheat and walnut bread that I knew would be the perfect base. I was right.

My lunch was everything I'd been craving: simple, sweet, hearty, and creamy all at once. A little burst of summer on my tongue.

And you know what's even better? I still have six figs. I think I know what I'm having for dinner tonight.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Outdoor Adventures on the Peninsula

February came and went in a blur. I know in many parts of the U.S., that blur was one of snow and ice. Not so here in (surprisingly) sunny Northern California.

What, you don't have a water temple in your neighborhood?
Since the Professor had Valentine's Day off work (hooray!) we spent the afternoon exploring the landscape of our new Peninsula neighborhood. We live within easy driving distance of some truly beautiful country, so we figured we'd expose the young 'un to a little nature.

First stop was the Pulgas Water Temple. No, fellow Legend of Zelda fans, there weren't any dungeons or puzzles or fairies. Just a nice dome and a reflecting pool.

Unfortunately, little Bubby fell asleep in his car seat right as we arrived, so I did a solo scouting mission to see what was ahead. It's not like we could wait. For some reason, the parking lot is only open Monday through Friday, and only until 4 p.m. sharp, as the sign in the lot says. Oh, and you could only park for 30 minutes. You'd think the city doesn't want anyone to see this!

So, off we went to our second destination, the Crystal Springs Reservoir.

I love this place. Well, what I've seen of it so far. I'd previously taken Bubby on a stroller walk on the Sawyer Camp Trail in Belmont...and it had ended in tears. For both of us. I figured we'd have a better shot at a good time with Daddy along.

Yeah, not so much.

We did manage to enjoy some of the sights after Bubby had an al fresco lunch, though we really didn't get much further down the trail. I think his hands were cold, poor guy, and I'd forgotten his mittens ('cause it was like, 60 degrees).

I highly recommend this trail for anyone looking for a pleasant walk. It's a wide, paved path with plenty of restrooms and benches lining it. It draws folks of all types, from solo bicyclists to clans of families with strollers and tricycles. I hope we can finally get Bubby to enjoy this place!

We've only begun to scratch the surface of what we can find here on the Peninsula. It's been quite a change for us, after living 15 years in the highly urban Berkeley/Oakland area. Though, every time I start to miss it (which is often), I remember that this... just a five-minute drive away, and I instantly feel better.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Crafting a First Birthday Party

Now that February has arrived, I can finally look back at the whirlwind that was November through January. On top of the usual holiday fun, we had an extra-special event that landed smack between Thanksgiving and Christmas: Vinnie's first birthday!

Hooray! We made it!
I was quite excited to put his birthday party together. I've hosted dinner parties, a Halloween baby shower, and St. Patrick's Day parties, but this was the first time I've put together a child's birthday party (even if most of the guests were adults).

As comedian (and father of 5) Jim Gaffigan pointed out, "the baby's first birthday party is not a party for your baby; it's a party for you." So, I didn't get all crazy with a meticulously coordinated theme or blow a bunch of cash on an expensive smash cake (especially since I had a feeling Vinnie wasn't even going to touch it).

Doesn't mean I didn't get crafty, though! I opted for a primary color scheme and some "Baby's 1st Birthday" plates and signage. I got a lot of my gear at Daiso, (a large, Japanese dollar-store) including serving bowls, plates, invitation supplies, and decorations. My favorite were the pre-folded tissue paper puffs; much safer and (eco-friendly) than balloons, and they're re-usable.

Party favors for everyone!
For favors, I made large gingerbread cookies in the shape of a 1. I bought the cookie cutter from an Etsy store called West Tin Works (check them out, they have lots of fun shapes!). My mama and I decorated the cookies with royal icing. We did this pretty late at night, and I think our exhaustion fed into our creativity.

Batman, zombies, vampire clowns...the usual for a 1st birthday, right?
 Mama and I also baked the cupcakes for the party. OK, my mama did pretty much 99% of the work on those, which is awesome (especially since she used to be a professional cake decorator).

I've always wanted a cupcake tower!

For decorations, I didn't want to go too overboard since I had rented a nice space in our apartment's complex. The main attraction were the galleries of photos of Vinnie, which were mounted on colorful cardstock trimmed with decorative-edge scissors. I did one section that was Vinnie at each month, one that was Vinnie with friends and family, and one that was some of Vinnie's "greatest hits." It was a really nice way for guests to see some of my favorite pictures of the little guy, since I don't post many pictures online.

I think my favorite thing we made for the party, though, were Vinnie's birthday bibs. I finally followed through on my threat to applique. I used the same "1" shaped cookie cutter to make a template for the fabric, then attached it to the terrycloth bib using fusible webbing. My mama then sewed it on with a super-close zig-zag. We made two, one for his birthday at home, and one for the party the next day.

Hmmm...wonder which party Vinnie liked better?

Not that I had to worry about my little man getting messy. As I predicted, he didn't even touch his cupcake. It was still amusing to watch.

"You want me to do what with this?"

I had a lot of fun putting this party together. I had a LOT of help from my family--especially my parents, who flew in from out of town--and I feel so lucky to have been able to gather so many people together to help the Professor and I celebrate our little man's first birthday.