On the Shoulders of Giants (featuring Chicken Makhani)
Long before I became a chef, I frequented the Farmer’s Market on Third and Fairfax now known as The Grove. After grabbing a cup of coffee at a counter not called Starbucks, I would walk around finding inspiration in the fruit and vegetable stands, ogling the cheese counters, and flirting with the butchers. That was before farmer’s markets were all the rage– before organic produce and outrageous prices. That was before Third and Fairfax became a mega-mall too. It was just an old market where people would grab a few things while their tour bus was refueling or they waited to play “The Price is Right” at CBS Television City down the street. I liked it because it didn’t feel like Los Angeles. It felt authentic. It felt like I imagined markets in France or Italy would feel. Nothing was more exciting than to fill a sack with a few fresh things from each stall and then take it home to create and explore a new cuisine. I don’t know if I would have ended up a chef if I hadn’t had stumbled into the Farmer’s Market twenty plus years ago.
I developed a relationship with one of the fruit/ vegetable purveyors there. They were called Lopez Produce and were run by a small family; the plump, grey-haired matriarch of which would sit out in front and tell you how much the unmarked items were with a heavy Mexican accent. Her grandsons spoke clearer English and would smile when they recognized my repeat patronage. It was those smiles that kept me coming back. I would bring my basket of veggies up to the counter and they would say “I think I have a fresher one in the back” and run behind the stall to find a shinier plum or greener beans. I don’t actually know if the things they had in back were better than the things out front, but I loved to feel special enough for them to make the trip (or work that angle) and I shopped there until the day I left Los Angeles. I loved that human connection.
2013 was a great year for my small business. My client list has almost tripled and, though many hurdles were thrown in my path, I gained momentum as I jumped over each one. But this “my business” and “I jumped” perspective is only half the story. The reason I was able to triumph last year was because of the kindness I received in the places I least expected. In this monstrous city, in a time where public-relationless corporations rule everything, it was the interactions with people who fearlessly showed me I’m not alone that made me successful. I stand on the shoulders of giants and they deserve recognition.
So without further adieu, let me thank:
*The Polish checkout lady who told me once that she was a cook until it became too much for her body. There are days when you look longingly at me grinning at my crossed off shopping list and days where I almost go fill out an application for your job. In truth, your job is much harder than mine and you are always kind and always smiling when no other cashier is. Thank you.
*The hairstylist from Hong Kong who looked as though I had stirred something he had long ago put to sleep when I asked him about serving only the crispy skin in Peking duck vs. the American tradition of serving the meat and skin. I saw 30 years disappear from your face when you talked about the food you grew up with. Thank you for sharing that with me.
*The bus driver who held the bus when he saw me waddle-running with about 20 heavy bags. You must have seen me from a block and a half away and not only waited but smiled and said “Everything is going to be ok.” when I stumbled onto the bus. You were right, everything was ok and it was mostly because of your energy.
*The cab driver from Mumbai who asked what smelled so good when driving me to a gig I was very nervous about. I told him I was a chef and he asked what I liked to cook the best. I said I liked to cook Indian food- chicken makhani specifically, and he excitedly rattled on about the difference between tikka masala and makhani. I was so nervous that day that I didn’t hear everything you said but your enthusiasm to get back in the kitchen inspired me to walk fearlessly into a new client’s kitchen that night and nail it.
*The butcher who got short with me when I asked him why the lamb chops had almost tripled in price. When you came and found me 10 minutes later and apologized personally, I was blown away. I knew it wasn’t your decision to raise the price. We’re all at the mercy of big business but your personal attention is why I keep coming back. Thank you.
*The cab driver who carried my heavy granny cart through a foot and a half of ice water in the middle of that downpour. When I told you you were a hero, I meant it.
*The deli man that leaned over the counter and slipped me a piece of prosciutto. “Here you go, sweetie.” he said. It was New Year’s Eve morning and I was in Fairway just a few minutes after it opened– bedheaded, under-makeupped, coffee-breathed, and half asleep. You woke me up– nourishing me with thinly sliced meats and a warm smile the way you did so many times last year. You didn’t make me feel hit on or wary or your kindness. You were just reminding me how grateful I am to have found human connections in a world like this.
“Happy New Year!” I replied. “Happy Holidays to all of you!” I bellowed to the whole deli team, reinvigorated like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life”.
“HAPPY NEW YEAR!” they whooped.
They know me. They’re my support. Without them, I’m nothing.
Last, but not least, I thank my incredible staff who make me laugh when my tense shoulders have almost swallowed my head. Brad, Emily, Laura, Vadin, Jared, Katie, Chloe, Casey, Corrie, John, Tuck, Laurel, and of course, Shannon—what you do for me, time and time again, is immeasurable. To be surrounded by people I respect and trust makes my job feel like play. I think it’s going to be a great year for all of us!
Remembering that conversation I had with that Indian cab driver made me think it might be time to share one of my favorite recipes. This is my version of chicken makhani, also known as buttered chicken. It is the cure for the common seasonal affected depression, combining comfort with spice. You will have to pick up a few special ingredients but once you have them you’ll find a million ways to use them (or you’ll just make this over and over again). This is another recipe that is great to add a few things into such as sliced mushrooms, chopped kale, or fresh baby spinach.
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 onion, chopped
- 2 teaspoons ginger, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- 3 teaspoons brown sugar, separated into 1 teaspoon and 2 teaspoons
- 6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1 inch cubes
- 1 tablespoon cumin
- 1/8 cayenne pepper
- 1 teaspoon red chile powder
- 1 15 ounce can tomato sauce
- 1/8 teaspoon saffron
- 2 teaspoons sweet paprika
- 1 tablespoon garam masala
- ½ cup half and half
- 3 tablespoons cilantro, chopped fine
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Heat butter in a large sauté pan until the foam subsides. Add the chopped onions and a dash of salt. Saute until the onion becomes soft and translucent. Add the ginger and garlic and 1 teaspoon of brown sugar and sauté for another minute or two over medium heat.
- Turn the heat up and add the chicken, stirring to make sure all the flavors become intertwined. Season with a bit more salt and then add the cumin, cayenne, and chile powder. Lightly cook the chicken over medium high heat, stirring to make sure the flavors are released but not burned, for 3-5 minutes.
- Add the tomato sauce, the additional 2 teaspoons of brown sugar, the saffron, the paprika, the garam masala, and the half and half and simmer for 15 minutes on a medium high heat. Stir in the cilantro and season with salt and pepper.
Enjoy over rice.