Surf’s Up

On a spring day in 1998, I sat down at the bar in a restaurant in the Cooper-Young neighborhood and wrote a check for $10,000. I had never written a check that large in my life. My hand was shaking and I was nervous that I would place the comma in the wrong spot. “How many zeros in ten thousand?” I had to ask myself as I scribbled my name on the check. The money was for the purchase of the furniture, fixtures, and equipment from a restaurant called In Limbo. It was in a space that would eventually be home to Tsunami Restaurant.

In December of 2016 I sat down in virtually the same spot, albeit with a different bar top, and wrote another check for $10,000. Only this check was earnest money towards buying the building that has housed Tsunami Restaurant for more than 18 years. Here’s why I decided buying the building was a good idea.

When I nervously signed that first check in 1998, I had no idea where this ride was going to take me. I knew I desperately wanted my own restaurant. I had worked long and hard to put together a comprehensive and well researched business plan. I graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1986. I’d worked in New York, California, Australia, and Hawaii in a wide range of hotels, bars, restaurants, catering halls, and resorts. And one horse ranch. In the years leading up to school I had served as a bus boy, a bar back, an oyster shucker, and a dishwasher. I cleaned a lot of plates in Memphis. Indeed. I felt I was well-rounded enough in experience to give restaurant ownership a go. I figured I could make it last a few years, then maybe sell out and go work in the tropics again. With that in mind, I decided to selfishly develop a menu that featured the kind of food that I liked to eat using the ingredients that I liked to work with. I hired the kind of people that also wanted to work with those ingredients and eat the food that I liked. I filled the dining room with pieces of art made by local artists and craftspeople. I told myself that if my restaurant was only going to have a lifespan of a few years, it might as well be in a space that I felt at home in, working with people that enjoyed cooking and eating and serving the same kind of food and drink that I enjoyed. I convinced myself that if Memphis diners didn’t understand or appreciate what I was doing, that it would be a clear sign that it was time to leave my home town again and continue the peripatetic lifestyle of a vagabond chef.

But something changed in me during those early years of nose-to-the-grindstone days of running my own restaurant. I found that people did appreciate what I was doing, even if they didn’t always understand it. My determination to present a menu that did not cater to the current local tastes was actually paying off, even if black Thai rice was a hard sell at first.  I was inspired to challenge my clientele in other ways. I brought in the most obscure seafood items I could get my hands on: onaga, opah, opakapaka, kajiki, nairagi, uku, walu, and a fish called Patagonian toothfish, which some marketing genius renamed seabass. I started offering our Small Plate menu as a way to get people to branch out and try these new (to them) fish. It was easier to sell these strangely named items in smaller portions at more accessible prices. Here I was in a city known for serving meat-and-three plates, heaping mounds of slow smoked pork meat, and fried chicken, washed down with gallons of sweet tea. And I was serving small portions of unheard of fish, black rice, mussels drenched in Thai red curry sauce, and freakish amounts of Gewurtztraminer and Riesling. Somewhere in all of this I lost my wanderlust. I realized that I was reliving my travels through the food I was serving. My menu was sort of a culinary slide show of my itinerary. A slide show that people actually enjoyed. And I decided to stay. And stay. And stay.

Writing that second check for $10,000 was a bit easier than the first one. I am painfully aware of how many zeros are in ten thousand now. And I have a little bit clearer vision of where I am going with my business. But this moment is also tinged with a generous dose of apprehension and anxiety. It’s an entirely different economy now than it was in 1998. There are a lot more restaurants to choose from in Memphis. A lot of really good restaurants. My purchase of this building represents a renewed commitment on several levels. It is a vote of confidence for the positive direction I think Memphis is moving. It is a pledge of dedication to my loyal staff who have energetically and enthusiastically supported my dream for so many years. And finally, it is a renewed challenge to myself to dig deeper into my creativity and ride this wave to the next level.  unnamed

My Culinary Library

IMG_1559No matter if it’s a stack of well-worn basics that they carry with them from place to place or a vast collection of never-cracked coffee table tomes, every chef worth their salt has a cookbook collection. Some people collect these books simply for the sake of collecting. Other people attain cookbooks to amass a culinary reference library. I guess I fall somewhere in between. I have a friend who has collected so many culinary books that he has dedicated an entire house solely for his books. There’s simply no room for anything else. I peruse my collection on a regular basis for inspiration, confirmation, or just for the random pleasure of thumbing through a book on my favorite topic: food. I have been collecting cookbooks for some years now. I go through spells of purging and splurging when I will either get rid of a few books or buy a lot of new books at one time. I’m not fanatical about hanging on to every book I procure (with the exception of the handful of books signed by the author). I have books in my collection that, honestly, I haven’t opened since the day I got them. Then there are the books that I find myself coming back to again and again. And again.

This is the current list of those books that I cannot seem to stay away from for too long. Subject to change, of course.

My top 10 culinary books (for now…)

The Joy of Cooking

Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker

First printed in 1931 and in continuous print since 1936, this book is a valuable reference for basic recipes. Any chef who tells you he doesn’t have this book is probably lying.

On Food and Cooking

Harold McGee

Total culinary geek reading. The in-depth science behind nearly everything food and drink related. A book that any chef will tell you is in his or her collection. A very small fraction of those chefs have actually read it in its entirety.  Admittedly, I am not in that small fraction. Still, there is some absolutely fascinating information here.

Kitchen Confidential (personally signed copy)

Anthony Bourdain

This is the book that gave justification to the decadent, drug and alcohol-fueled lifestyle of line cooks everywhere. All of a sudden crisp, clean chef jackets were out and filthy t-shirts and tattoos were the uniform of the day in kitchens. It was also the “I’ll-Never-Cook-Lunch-in-This-Town-Again” book that actually launched a new career for Bourdain.

M.F.K. Fisher’s translation of The Physiology of Taste or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

Published in 1825.

Brillat-Savarin was an 19th Century French lawyer and politician. He was also a huge gourmand who liked his drink. He was responsible for such delicious quotes such as:

“The destiny of nations depends on how they nourish themselves.”

“Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.”


“Animals feed themselves; men eat; but only wise men know the art of eating.”

This book is a fascinating period piece, laced with personal anecdotes of culinary indulgences. I’m not sure if it is that Brillat-Savarin is a gifted writer or the M.F.K. Fisher is a gifted translator, but either way, I find myself re-reading this book often.

The Art of Eating (personally signed copy)

M.F.K. Fisher

The Art of Eating is a collection of five gastronomical works by Miss Fisher. It remains the benchmark for all other culinary prose. My brother gave me my first copy of this book for Christmas when I was 15 or 16 years old, before I knew I wanted to cook for a living.

Upon graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, I moved to Northern California to stay with my brother until I could find a job. As a surprise graduation gift, my brother had arranged to have a copy of The Art of Eating signed by the author. He sent a letter to the publisher explaining the story of my love for cooking and for Miss Fisher’s writing, but didn’t hear back from them for a while. Right before I arrived in San Francisco, he got a hand written letter from M.F.K. Fisher. Her publisher had forwarded his letter to her. She said in the letter: “I see from the postmark on your letter that you live nearby. Why don’t you bring your brother to visit me at my house in St. Helena and I will sign all the books you want.” We did. And we were welcomed into her home like old friends. After a long visit, with lunch included, we were politely, but firmly ushered out, but not before being invited back. We visited numerous times and met some truly amazing people in her home.

Years later, when I was living in Hawaii, I received a short, hand written note from her with a little sketch she had made. Not very long after that she passed away.

I have a hardbound, first edition copy of The Art of Eating which was signed by Miss Fisher on one of our many visits to her home. To this day it is one of my most prized possessions.

What to Drink with What you Eat

Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page

Dornenburg and Page are the authors of a handful of books related to the culinary industry, one of which (Chef’s Night Out) mentions Tsunami. What to Drink is one of those books that I refer to often. It is set up so that you can reference it from either a wine perspective or a food perspective. Stumped on what wine to pour with dinner? Refer to the What to Drink with What You Eat section. Have a bottle of wine, but you’re not sure what food to serve it with? Turn to the What to Eat with What You Drink section.

In Defense of Food

Michael Pollan

“Eat food. Not much. Mostly plants.”

This is the first line in the introduction of this book and it pretty much sets the tone for what follows. This is one of the books I turn to for confirmation. So often in my restaurant (every day) customers will tell me what I should have (or not have) on my menu. I have never fallen into the “meat and three” philosophy of putting a menu together. I’ve always put more of an emphasis on regional and seasonal ingredients over trendy ones; smaller portions over gut-busting servings; minimal presentation over overly garnished, every-adjective-in-the-book presentations.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery said “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” This is the crux of my food philosophy. Whenever I feel dogged by customers who tell me what I should have on the menu I turn to this book and feel better about my smaller portions of seasonal, local, un-fussed with food.

Setting the Table

Danny Meyer

Managing a kitchen is different from managing a dining room. Chefs tend to be highly creative and good tactical planners, but not always good communicators or managers of personnel. This book has helped me hone my skills in communicating with and inspiring my staff. Meyer’s management philosophy puts his staff first. And he lays out a good argument for why a content staff is an integral ingredient in ensuring a satisfied clientele.

The Food Lover’s Companion

Sharon Tyler Herbst

Often referred to as The Bible in our industry. I have never worked in a restaurant that didn’t have a copy of this in the kitchen or the chef’s office. Not only is it a handy reference guide for chefs, it is an indispensable tool for training your front of the house staff. It’s also great for an impromptu game of culinary trivia.

The Oxford Companion to Food

Alan Davidson

This heavyweight of a book (865 pages, not including the index or bibliography) is the ultimate culinary reference book. It is basically The Food Lover’s Companion on steroids. I have spent many hours with my nose in this book, referencing, cross-referencing, and cross-cross-referencing. To put it another way, The Food Lover’s Companion is like a quick meal eaten out-of-hand on the run, while The Oxford Companion to Food I is a sit-down, multi-course meal.

On Tsunami Turning 16

IMG_1431My restaurant is a teenager. If my restaurant were a person, it would be getting it’s driver’s license this year. If it were human, it would be asserting it’s independence and rebelling against it’s parents right now. It would be resentful of authority and insist on doing things it’s own way. It would be experimenting and dappling in all sorts of new and interesting (and sometimes risky) things. It would answer to no one. But it would, even in it’s state of adolescent angst, realize that the greatest potential still lies ahead.

But then, with the exception of the drivers license, all of these things are true of Tsunami. In our 17th year of business now, the restaurant has begun to rebel a bit. It doesn’t always do what we want it to do. The menu has seen numerous changes over the years, much of it well received, but some of it perhaps ill-conceived. Risky? Restaurants are always risky. Just like teenagers. Because I have been blessed with amazing and open-minded business partners, I have never really had to answer to anyone. And even as we celebrate another double-digit anniversary of doing business in Cooper Young, I still feel like the world is our oyster.

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines success as “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose.” Other definitions include words like “profit” or “prosperity”. I prefer the former definition, because it more closely resembles my ideal. When I opened Tsunami in July of 1998, my number one motivation was not money or recognition. No, my number one focus was self-employment and self-expression. I felt that I could not achieve my full creative potential as long as I was working for someone else. It was a big leap. Going from a situation in which I had to submit menu proposals to the owners for their approval (or, quite often, their rejection) to having complete creative autonomy took some getting used to. The Buck Stops with Me now. But the buck doesn’t linger. There are bills to pay and payrolls to make and repairmen to support. Like I always tell people when they ask how business is: I’m making a living, not a killing.

Early on, I did have a few “creative differences” with my original business partner, the late Thomas Boggs. Starting early on with the Why-the-Hell-Would-You-Want-to-Name-it-Tsunami conversation before we even opened. That issue, by the way, was eventually solved once and for all one afternoon in the space that was soon to be Tsunami. Thomas and I were standing in the dining room holding the ladder for the HVAC guy who had half his body in the ceiling inspecting the air vents. Thomas brought up the name thing again. “I mean, who the hell knows what a tsunami is, anyway!?” he asked me. That’s when the guy on the ladder, the HVAC guy, withdraws the upper half of his body from the ceiling, looks down at us and says “You mean the big wave?”
I looked at Thomas and just smiled. He said something which may have involved profanity. But he never brought the subject up again with me.

A friend told me over lunch recently that I missed a great opportunity by not making a big PR push last year on our 15th anniversary. “Fifteen just sounds better than 16” he said. Or something to that affect (but much more eloquent.)
Of course he is right. But my response was “If you’re doing something for the attention, you’re doing it wrong.” Don’t get me wrong, my business absolutely depends on recognition and attention. But my main motivation continues to be what I have been doing for the past 16 years, and that is staying focused on the food and ingredients that I love to eat and work with. I hope that it manages to captivate people’s attention for many more years.

Happy Birthday, Tsunami. I’m proud of you.

The Thanksgiving Turkey Sandwich

IMG_1069It’s November again already?! I know that it is because all of my food magazines have the same photograph on the cover, a gorgeous, golden brown roasted turkey. Are we that predictable as a society? Every November issue of every food magazine for as long as I have been reading food magazines has had the obligatory roasted turkey food shot on the cover. Doesn’t anybody eat ham any more? What about lamb? Or is that the officially designated Easter food? And what does the turkey industry do for the rest of the year? How many of you roast a turkey in July? Or April? Or any month, for that matter besides November and December?
I’ve got nothing against turkeys, mind you. Indeed, turkey is a wonderful bird. I think it is under rated for ten months out of the year and over rated for two.
So what will I have for Thanksgiving dinner this year? Turkey, of course. But not for the reason you might think. In my estimation, the whole hours-long process of roasting a turkey is completely justified by one thing: the midnight turkey sandwich. Face it, Thanksgiving Day is a real buzz kill. You’ve got a whole day off work, for crying out loud, and you spend it slaving in the kitchen!
We all have the dozen or so family recipes that we drag out every year and prepare for the occasion. We all stress over getting the right turkey and thawing it out in time and getting it in the oven on time and getting the oven temperature right and getting it nice and brown on the outside and moist and juicy on the inside (just like the cover photos). We get so bent out of shape about getting all the various casseroles and dressings and relishes and rolls and pies prepared and rotated in and out of the oven, ever mindful of the bird, that by the time we sit down to eat we are all exhausted. How can you enjoy the old sideboard buffet when you’re suffering from a stress headache that no amount of Wild Turkey, I mean roasted turkey, will get rid of? Sitting down at the dinner table to partake of the fruits (and vegetables, etc.) of your labor is not the justification of all that work.
No, the real reward on Thanksgiving day, the big payoff, the Great Relaxing Moment of the entire holiday comes much later. Long after the dishes are cleared, after all the football games are over and the bets are settled. After the tryptophan-induced nap on the sofa. After all the distant relatives have departed or are safely tucked into the spare bedroom. When nobody else is around. This is the most glorious moment of the day: Turkey sandwich time. Oh what a moment! Oh how I savor the sweetness of it. What a beautiful thing the Thanksgiving night turkey sandwich is. It is a moment that is best enjoyed by one’s self. You’ve spent all day with people, it is fitting that you have a little alone time with your turkey sandwich.

The Thanksgiving Night Turkey Sandwich

2 slices commercial sandwich bread, preferably whole wheat
Several thick slices of Thanksgiving turkey, breast meat
Hellman’s mayonnaise, a lot
Fresh cracked black pepper to taste

Tiptoe into the kitchen on Thanksgiving night just before midnight. Open the refrigerator and remove the aforementioned ingredients. Assemble your sandwich by the light of the refrigerator in the following sequence: slather both slices of bread with copious amounts of mayonnaise. Grind a generous amount of black pepper on top of the mayonnaise. Place the slices of turkey on one piece of the bread overlapping them slightly. Top with the other slice of bread. Close the refrigerator door (this is very important) after grabbing a cold beer or a glass of milk. (These are the only two acceptable beverages to drink with this sandwich, don’t even try anything else.) Retreat to the most comfortable seat in the house. Eat half of the sandwich. Down half of the beer (or glass of milk). Repeat. Go to bed.

Trick or Treat

Soup of the day
Soup of the day

Tricks We Play on Servers

Don’t get me wrong. I have a lot of respect for the servers of the world. But sometimes they treat the kitchen mis en place like their own personal employee buffet, dipping bits of bread into soups and sauces, snatching up tidbits of food that just so happen to be integral parts of the night’s dinner specials. This is rude, disrespectful and absolutely infuriating to the cooks. This is why, from time to time, we treat the servers to a sweet little dish called “revenge”. Best served chilled.
(Mind you, I have hardly ever played any of these tricks on my servers at Tsunami. They are far too professional and respectful of my kitchen staff to deserve such treatment.)

Espresso “cookies”.
You know that plug of compressed coffee grounds that comes out of the filter basket after you pull a shot of espresso? Remove that in one piece and save up 6 or 8 of them. Place them on a nice plate with a doily and sprinkle them with powdered sugar. Place them in a conspicuous spot where servers are sure to see them and walk away. Whenever someone is pilfering a bit of food, it is usually done quickly and in one bite. This is what makes this a fun one, because people will put an entire one of these “cookies” in their mouth and start chewing frantically. It’s hard to get rid of a mouthful of fine coffee grounds.

Chocolate covered fish eyeballs.
This is one of my favorites, because there are absolutely no guilty feelings involved. You are being completely honest. You can’t help it if the servers don’t believe you, can you?
When filleting whole fish, pluck out the eyeballs and set them aside until you have a dozen or so. Dry them off then dip them in melted chocolate. Allow the chocolate to harden and repeat the process until you have a decent sized chocolate truffle. Place them on a nice plate in a prominent place in the kitchen. Make sure it is in a place where you can keep an eye on it. If servers can’t snatch food on the sly, then they will always ask. When someone does ask “What’s this?’ you simply tell them “Chocolate covered fish eyeballs.” They won’t believe you, of course and will keep asking. “No, really, what is this?” You will keep insisting they are chocolate covered fish eyeballs. Invariably their desire for chocolate will overcome whatever small inkling of doubt is in their minds and they will ask “Can I try one?” Whereupon you will try to respond in the affirmative without laughing. Once they’ve popped the chocolatey eyeball goodness in their mouth (and regurgitated it into the nearest receptacle) they will probably start screaming “WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?!” Whereupon you reply (all innocent-like) “Chocolate covered fish eyeballs. I told you three times.”

Pickled jalapeno juice “lemonade”. Fill a pitcher with ice, top with the juice from a jumbo jar of pickle jalapenos, add some lemon slices. Set it out somewhere with a few glasses on the side. Serves them right for not asking if they can have some of your “lemonade”.

Garlic “applesauce”.
Okay, this one I actually did pull on a Tsunami server, but it was many years ago. I had just prepped a really finely minced batch of garlic and put it on the line with a spoon in it. One of the servers walked by and looked at it. “What’s this?” he asked. “Fresh applesauce” I said without missing a beat. “Try it if you like.” It was totally spontaneous, and I never imagined he would actually eat an entire spoonful of raw garlic. I figured he would get it right under his nose and the pungent aroma would give it away. I was wrong. This guy shoved a heaping mound of raw garlic into his mouth and started chewing it. He never spoke to me again. Ever.

Garlic butter “vanilla icing”.
Make a batch of garlic butter. Whip it until it is really fluffy. Put it in a bowl and walk around with a spatula and ask anyone if they want to taste the icing you just made. I pulled this trick on my wife before we were even dating when we worked together at another restaurant. She married me in spite of this. She married me in spite of a lot of things, actually.

Other tricks:
Meat glue: This used to be a classic, but it is obsolete now that meat glue (aka transglutaminase) actually exists. But before there was meat glue it used to be fun to send one of the severs on a frantic and fruitless search for a tube of meat glue in the dry storage area.
The entire staff gets involved with this one. It usually starts with someone cutting steaks or some other protein who suddenly shouts “Damn, I screwed this up! I need some meat glue! (It should be duly noted here that no chef in the known realm of cuisine would say “damn” and “screwed”, but would use much more colorful language as a general rule.) Turning to the newest member of the staff, the meat cutter says “Quick, run to dry storage and get me the meat glue!
Now most people we’ve pulled this trick on go through a sequence of typical emotions starting with mirth, as in “Ha ha, that’s a good one!” Then, when nobody else laughs self doubt sets in. “Oh crap, maybe there really is such a thing as meat glue. How is it that everyone knows about meat glue but me?” Then a sort of panic begins to creep in, especially when the chef yells “Meat glue! We need the meat glue now!” The entire success of the night depends on getting the meat glue in a timely fashion! Then, finally, a sense of determination washes over the poor victim. “Yes! I will find the meat glue and save the day!” And off they dash to find the meat glue.
What’s great is how quickly the rest of the staff picks up on the joke, even when they weren’t present at the onset. “Oh you’re looking for the meat glue? Yeah, that’s in dry storage.” Or “I’m pretty sure I saw a tube of meat glue in the salad station.”
As the clock ticks, the searcher becomes more panicked and frantic until they reach the dreadful decision that they have to go to the chef and say “I can’t find the meat glue. I’m sorry!”
That’s when the chef says “Meat glue? There’s no such thing!”

Empty all of the water out of the coffee maker.
Anyone who has been in the restaurant business for more than 30 seconds knows that the coffee machine is tied into the water line.It’s amazing, though, how many people fall for this. I heard tell of a server that drained three 5-gallon buckets out of the coffee maker before everyone got sick of the joke and started feeling sorry for him.

Sometimes you pull a prank that you know you will never pull again. Such was the case with the snake in the cloche.
Cloche is a French word that means bell. It is also a type of hat. But in the culinary world it refers to those domed plate covers that are used in fancy restaurants and hotels. I worked in a hotel in Hawaii that used cloches in the formal dining room. Before service each night we would have a line-up with the wait staff and present the nightly specials. On the staff was a waitress who was deathly afraid of snakes.
So, naturally, we taped a rubber snake to the underside of one of the cloches and asked her to unveil the specials that night.
There are no words in the English language to describe this poor girl’s reaction. Nothing can verbally describe how badly she freaked out. Even the most hard-core, ragamuffin kitchen pirates involved with this prank sort of slunk away from that scene with their heads down. And there were some black-hearted bastards in that kitchen.
In a related story, I have a friend who once pranked a (former) friend of his who had severe ophidiophobia (yeah, I had to look that up). He put a rubber snake in the sun visor of his truck, thinking the guy would pull the visor down, the snake would land in his lap and laughter would ensue all around. Well the guy did pull the visor down. And the snake did fall in his lap. But he happened to be driving down the highway at the time. He jumped out of the truck at 60 miles an hour.

Top 10 Reasons Why I Will Never Be a Vegetarian

1. Bacon in general, but the BLT sandwich in particular. Because it’s damn good. And it contains all the food groups: grains (in the  bread), vegetables (lettuce), fruits (tomatoes are a fruit, botanically speaking), meat (the bacon), and dairy…..well, you’ll just have to drink a glass of milk with it.

2. Sushi and sashimi. Fresh, raw fish. I could eat it every day, with or without the rice.

3. Beef. Because textured vegetable protein bourguignon is just never gonna catch on.

4. Tacos al pastor. Have you ever had a vegetarian taco? I rest my case.

5. Barbecue. When I say barbecue I am talking about pork. Y’all can go on back to Texas and Kansas City with your beef brisket. Nothing against brisket, mind you, I just prefer it corned or pastami-ed.

6. Fried Chicken Skin. If it were an option, I would buy an entire bucket of chicken skin at KFC. And eat it. Alone.

7. Duck Fat. Need I say more?

8. Corned Beef. Because without corned beef ,  cabbage is just cabbage. With corned beef it’s corned beef and cabbage. Big difference.

9. Hot Dogs. Charred on a grill. Blistered over a campfire skewered on a green stick. Floating in dirty water on a New York cart. It doesn’t matter. Except when you put ketchup on it, then you’re f***ing it up.

10. Foie Gras. Umami  personified. Each palate-coating bite is almost, but not quite, too rich. Foie gras, it’s what’s for dessert. Because once I eat it I know nothing else will come close to being that good, so I might as well eat it last.

Izakaya: Asian Influenced Small Bites

We have been offering an izakaya menu at Tsunami for several years now, but I still get the question “What is izakaya?”. I used to launch into a lengthy explanation of the history and traditions of izakaya and how the concept has grown and morphed over the years. How it has begun to permeate the American food culture. I would make correlations between izakaya offerings and Spanish tapas, Mediterranean meze, and Chinese dim sum. Then I would segue into a rant about how pathetic our culture of snacking is here in America and that we should drop our notion of “meat and three” gorging and adopt a more civilized concept of grazing like other countries. But I soon realized by the way my guests cut their eyes at each other that I was getting on my culinary soap box.

Lately I have been simply telling people that the izakaya menu is like Japanese tapas. But I feel like I am short-changing the concept. That’s why I was glad to run across this article in the New York Times. If you take the time to follow the link and read this piece, you will have a much better appreciation of these small bites.

Tako Poke

I received some beautiful madako tako from my friends at Honolulu Fish Company recently.

Madako tako is octopus that has already been cleaned and cooked. I have cooked octopus from the raw state on numerous occasions, but since I discovered this product I have never gone back.

Octopus can be a hard sell in the Memphis market. I usually reserve it for when I have a cooking class or a special dinner when I have a captive audience and they have to eat it. It gives me the opportunity to talk about the differences in perception that different cultures have about textures in food. Americans probably have more hangups about the texture of foods than any other culture in the world. How many times have you heard someone say “I just don’t eat (fill in the blank). It’s a texture thing.”?

Admittedly, octopus does have a texture issue. It is chewy. In our culture “chewy” has negative connotations. As a chef, the way you deal with dense or tough or chewy items is through a long, low-temperature braising or smoking. Or through creative cutting, i.e. thinly slicing or slicing across the grain.

Octopus can be braised into a state of tenderness. But for me, and many other fans of octopus, part of the enjoyment is the texture. You do have to spend some time masticating. And I happen to be a big fan of mastication.

Here is a recipe that I picked up from my friend Al “Tako Man” Alboro when I was living in Hawaii.

Tako Poke

  • 1 pound cooked octopus
  • 1 small red onion, finely diced
  • 1 bunch green onions, green part only, chopped
  • 3 ounces toasted sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon dried red pepper flakes
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • Hawaiian red salt or sea salt, to taste
  • juice of one lemon

Slice the octopus legs crosswise into thin rounds. Toss together with the remaining ingredients until well mixed. Allow to marinate for several hours before serving




Beef Carpaccio

I was rooting through the freezer at work the other day and I was both happy and sad to run across a tenderloin of beef from Neola Farms. Happy, because this is about the finest piece of beef I’ve ever gotten my hands on. Beautiful deep red coloring, amazing marbling, clean flavor. But sad, because Neola Farms no longer exists, due to the untimely death of Michael Lenagar, the driving force behind the business.

I first met Michael at the Memphis Farmer’s Market in 2008. He was selling his beef out of the back of a refrigerated truck. I started talking to him and I was immediately struck by his enthusiasm and commitment to his trade. He spoke of his cattle as if they were part of the family and not just a commodity. He had a real passion for what he did and it showed in the way he marketed his beef. He did not want to be in all of the big name markets. He didn’t want to provide beef to all the restaurants in Memphis. He wanted to do business with other folks who understood and appreciated the history and the principals of his business.

I left the market that day with an armful of free beef samples, a newfound respect and appreciation for the burgeoning local food movement, and a new friend. Over the next few years Michael, and his wife Charlene, kept me well supplied with amazing beef. The untimely passing of Michael in July of 2011 was devastating to the Memphis restaurant and market community. The rigors of running the business without Michael were just too much for the Lenagar family and the operation was dissolved.

Michael and Charline were a testament to the old-fashioned notion of running a small business with integrity, respect, and humanity as the guiding principals. Neola Farms was a shining example of how things used to be done, and an inspiration for those of us who believe that those principals are not entirely gone from this business. We miss you, Michael.

Neola Farms beef was so good that I didn’t even want to cook it.
One of my favorite preparations was a simple beef carpaccio.

Beef Carpaccio


  • 8-10 ounces fresh center cut beef tenderloin, preferably hormone free and locally raised
  • 1 small red onion
  • juice of one lemon
  • 1/4 cup mayonnaise
  • soy sauce
  • toasted sesame oil
  • 1 ounce toasted sesame seeds
  • Fried wonton chips

Wrap the beef in butcher paper and place in the freezer for about an hour. Remove from the freezer and slice paper thin on an electric slicer. This is the most efficient and easiest way to slice the beef. However I know that not everyone has a commercial slicer sitting around the kitchen. The next best technique is to slice the beef as thinly as possible, then lay it between two sheets of butcher paper and either gently pound it thin, or use a rolling pin to carefully roll it thin.
Lay the slices of beef in a single layer on four chilled plates.

Slice the onion into rings as thin as possible. Toss the onions in the lemon juice and allow them to marinate for several minutes. Whisk together the mayonnaise with soy sauce to taste and just a couple of drops of sesame oil.
Place the mayonnaise in a squeeze bottle or in a small baggie with the corner tip cut off. Drizzle the mayonnaise across the top of each carpaccio portion. Portion the marinated onions evenly on each plate. Sprinkle with the toasted sesame seeds.
I like to use wonton chips but you could just as easily use a crostini of toasted baguette. I also like to add a little lightly dressed greens to the plate, especially arugula. The idea is to place a bit of the beef and all of the garnishes on a crusty bit of something and eat it that way.
This is a fabulous start to a summer meal.