Monday, July 7, 2014

Bye Bye Bistro

I am no longer chef of Bistro 7 1/4. Its been a fun and exciting 8 years, but its time for new things. During this time I have met lots of great people, made some good connections and cooked some good food. I like to think that my our little bistro has had a positive impact on the Winnipeg food scene.

I'd like to thank all of you who have supported the bistro over the years. I especially want to thank my friends, my family and especially my lovely wife, BistroGal.

I wish the new owners great success.

I have a new opportunity starting up soon, but I can't talk about that yet. Stay posted.

Thanks and Farewell,
Chef Alex

You can follow me on Twitter @ChefAlex

Saturday, March 29, 2014

I am getting in a hullabaloo with MAFRD (Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development) over the way they seem to be targeting small, artisanal food processors. I will write more about this in the future, but for now, I just want to post a copy of a letter that the Harvest Moon Food Society sent their friends and customers. This group of farmers, to my mind, exemplifies the ideal way to approach farming and eating in a sustainable, humane and socially responsible way. Yet, because they don't fit into one of MAFRD's narrowly drawn categories, their ability to market eggs and chicken has been cut off.

Here is the letter they sent:

Dear Harvest Moon Local Foods Supporter,
As you navigate our web site to place your order this month, you are likely to notice that several items you are used to purchasing are no longer listed for sale. This letter is provide you with some background information on the reasons why we have had to remove some products.
In Manitoba, the 2 most common ways for farmers to sell their products directly to consumers are through a farmer’s market, or from the ‘farm gate’. Each method of selling has certain rules on what can and can’t be sold.

We have always believed that Harvest Moon Local Foods most closely aligns with Farm Gate sales, but because of our unique approach to selling food direct from farmer to customer thorough a web site alongside other farmers, there has been a lack of clarity on whether or not this is the case.
Our web site makes it clear which farmer a product is being purchased from and that farmer packs and delivers the product to a central point where it is delivered to the city on a single vehicle with products from other farmers.
In addition to these ways of selling, there are also different classifications of products depending on how they are processed. These products can only be sold farm gate.
  • Ungraded Eggs are eggs that have not been processed through a federally licensed grading facility. All eggs that were previously sold through Harvest Moon were ungraded.
  • ’Uninspected’ Poultry - this refers to poultry that has been processed at an abattoir that is a licensed food handling facility, but does not have provincial meat inspector on site to inspect the carcasses. There is currently only one abattoir for chicken in the province providing this inspection service that is accessible to small farmers. This facility is in Niverville, several hours drive from most Harvest Moon Farmers.
It is important to note that provincially inspected abattoir facilities for meat such as pork, beef and lamb are far more common and easy to access. All of these types of meat products for sale on our site come from inspected facilities and all our producers possess a ‘meat hawkers’ license.
There are a separate set of regulations that govern Farmers Markets. Some products found on our web site (processed foods such as jams, jellies and preserves that are made in a home kitchen) are able to be sold through farmers markets. Several of our farmers sell the same products that are available on our web site at Farmers Markets.
Earlier this year, we engaged provincial health inspection officials to seek clarity on our status. After reviewing each farm and what was for sale on our website, we were told that we did not fall under the ‘farm gate’ category and items such as ungraded eggs and uninspected poultry could no longer be sold. We have also been informed that we are also not considered a farmers market and therefore items such as the jams, jellies and preserves not produced in a commercial kitchen cannot be sold, even though these same products are able to be sold at farmers markets.
Here is our take on this outcome:
  • The inspectors are doing their job by interpreting regulations as they are written. While we disagree with their interpretation, we will respect the decision and hope to continue a constructive dialogue with them going forward.
  • The current regulations, in particular the definition of farm gate sales, have not adapted to ways of doing business in the 21st century. They present a barrier to small farmers and consumers who wish to do business directly with each other, they limit consumer choice in food purchasing and undermine the development of strong, sustainable local food system. Regulatory barriers such as these also discourage the entry of new small farmers into the market.
  • Food safety is a paramount concern for each of our farmers. No one in our group would ever compromise the well being of their customers or their own livelihood by improperly handling food or providing substandard product.
  • Our system is a model of cooperative marketing and pooling of resources that efficiently links farmers and eaters in a way that would be difficult for individual farmers to accomplish on their own. Instead of 15 farmers individually delivering products to the city or hundreds of eaters travelling to farms to purchase products, one vehicle travels to the city on one day.
  • The sale of product through the Harvest Moon web site and the transport of farm products in a single vehicle in no way compromises food safety, nor the transparency of which farmer the product was purchased from.
  • With over $120,000 in sales over the last year, our model promotes community economic development in rural Manitoba, the growth and stability of small farms and the promotion of local food choices. 2014 is the International Year of Family Farming and government should doing everything in its power to facilitate the growth and development of small family farms.
  Our plan moving forward:
  • For the time being, products such as eggs and uninspected poultry (any chickens that are for sale will be inspected) will not be available for sale from our web site. We strongly encourage you to contact farmers directly if you wish to purchase these products as they are still available from the farm gate.
  • We intend to work with government to modernize the existing regulations to accommodate these new ways of doing business.
  • We will keep you up to date as we make progress in our efforts.
We welcome your feedback and questions regarding these issues. Please visit the ‘Contact Us’ page on our website and select the subject box that says “Feedback regarding farm gate sales’, or email

Sunday, December 1, 2013

24 Days of Beer

24 Days of Beer

Those of you who know me, know I like beer. All beer, any beer. I can be all sophisticated and sip wines that have been expertly paired with the meal I am eating, but if I had to choose, I'll always choose beer. I like cold, crisp clean beers on a hot summer day and I love rich, dark malty beers on a cool winter evening. I love them hoppy, bitter and strong. I love the skunky smell you get from some beers and the citrus kick from others. I love them all.

I feel pretty happy at the bistro these days. I have a lovely selection of beers on tap. We have two perennial favourites from Half Pints, the St. James Pale and Bulldog Amber. We have a tasty bitter from Russel Brewing, the Blood Alley. I have a tasty wheat beer for the wheatiest province in the confederation, the Saskatcheweizen from Paddock Wood. And the newest member of our craft beer family,  we have the Paper Maker Pilsner from Lake of the Woods Brewing in Kenora, ON. This is a German style Pilsner made in the Krozenen (sp?) style which makes for a particularly smooth beer through an extra round of fermentation.

Today, December 1st, I am particularly lucky. My lovely, and thoughtful wife, gave me a Craft Beer Advent Calendar. So, for the next 24 days, I get to enjoy a variety of Craft beers from Across North America. And you know what, I am going to share them with you.

Well, not actually share them. I like you just fine, but not that much. I am going to drink the beers all by myself, and then tell you all about them.

Day One: Maple Porter from Nickel Brook.
I  can't figure out why this brewery has two names, It is Nickel Brook, but the company is called Better Bitters Brewing, but I am enjoying this beer. Brewed in Burlington Ontario, this beer is a rich, dark, chocolatey stout. The first thing you notice when you pour it, is that is has a substantial, very rich and frothy head. Pour it carefully. The maple syrup used is a dark syrup and it is added at the beginning of the fermentation process to give the beer a distinct maple syrup flavour with out adding the unpleasant sweetness you can expect from other maple beers. You can taste coffee, molasses, burnt caramel notes. This beer is bitter, but not the same bitterness you have been tasting in over hopped IPA'S. It is more the bitterness you get from coffee that has been in the pot too long. This Maple Porter is a very tasty and well-crafted beer. If you like Young's Double Chocolate Stout or the Localy brewed Stir Stick, you will enjoy this one.

I am excited for day 2.

Day 2: Kudzu Porter from Back Forty Beer Company.

Back to back porters, this is probably the first beer I've ever tried from Alabama. It's fun to compare these two porters side by side. This one still has the burnt sugar, molasses tastes, but is a much lighter/thinner beer than the Nickel Brook. Only half a percent less alcohol at 5.5% than the maple stout, this beer goes down much quicker. Although I think I prefer the richness of yesterday's beer, this one I could drink a couple where yesterdays I would stop at only one. In addition to the dark caramel notes, the Kudzu has a nice toasted nut flavour as well as a hint of orange zest. Very enjoyable, this makes me want to try other Back Forty Beers with great names such as Truckstop Honey and Naked Pig. While yesterday's beer had an excess of creamy "Guinness style" froth, the Kudzu poured with almost no head. Kudzu is a very tasty beer, can't wait till tomorrow!


Day 3: Cucapa Obscuro

They describe this beer as an american brown ale. It actually reminded me of our own Fort Garry Dark. It is dark in colour, but not overly heavy in taste. It is quite easy drinking, not very bitter, and quite refreshing. The Obscura has some pleasant nuttiness, some brown sugar and a nice woody finish. The bottle describes it as "cerveza robusto de cuerpo mediano". They describe their beer as the "only Mexican beer that doesn't need a lime to taste better." I  didn't need a lime to enjoy this one.

Day 4: 39 1/2 Foot Pole by Yukon Brewing

Named after a line from the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, "I wouldn't touch you with a 39 1/2 foot pole", this seasonal ale is infused with black currant. What I like about it, is that the black currant is subtle. I am not usually a huge fan of fruit beers, but Yukon Brewing handles this well. You catch the fruit in the nose and in the first sip, but then it fades away to clean beer flavour. I like the brightness of this beer with refreshing acidity and just a hint of sweetness. Although it is a strong beer, at %6.7 it goes down real easy. This beer will warm your heart, even if it is two sizes too small.

Day 5: Hurricane Amber Ale from Newport Storm

Remember when  Starbucks first came to town and we all got excited because finally a chain coffee shop was providing us with the rich flavour of a dark roast coffee? And then we realized they were over-doing it, the coffee all tasted burnt.  I feel the same way about the new trend towards super hoppy IPA's. We are all happy that they are taking us away from ice-filtered cold-brewed beer with no beer flavour beers, but sometimes I feel they are just overdoing it. I can enjoy one, but i feel its just too much. This is why I really enjoyed this amber ale from Rhode Island. The Hurricane, their flagship beer, was their first and still their best seller, is an exercise in balance. It has enough hoppy bitterness to make the IPA fans happy, but it balances this with the creamy maltiness of a great british ale. I really enjoyed this beer. On a cold winter day, I feel that a nice malty beer, resplendent with caramel and toasted nutty notes, is like a warm blanket beside the fire. This beer, would definitely provide shelter from the storm.

Day 6: Moose Knuckle Winter Porter

Okay, once you get past the funny name, this is a serious beer. This seasonal beer is from Grizzly Paw Brewing in Canmore, Alberta. Grizzly Paw started its life as a brew pub, and quickly became a microbrewery, outgrowing its space a couple of times in a quest to keep up to its demand. This almost black porter is rich with lots of dark roasted flavours; Dark coffee, burnt almond, bitter chocolate. I would have liked a little more weight to it and a little more creaminess to adhere to all those nice roasted flavours.

Day 7: Existent, American Farmhouse Ale

Probably the only beer that quotes Nietzche in its description, "and if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you". At %7.4 this is a strong beer from Stillwater Artisanal Ales in Baltimore, Maryland.  This beer is quite dry, has some dried fruit notes, toasted malt and just enough hops.

Day 8: Spark House Red Ale

So far, I think this is my favourite beer in the set. I really enjoyed this beer, from first sudsy sip to the bottom of the glass. This Irish style red ale brewed by Lake of Bays Brewery in Baysville, On. This beer pours a rich dark red colour with a thick creamy head. This ale has a subtle smokiness, delicious english toffee, a pronounced malted barley balanced with hoppy bitterness. This is definitely a beer I will try to find more of and I would like to try more beers from Lake of Bays.

Day 9: Tap It India Pale Ale
This craft brewery out of california sponsors a nascar car. That should be enough to earn it some cool points. The website is loud and agressive and could probably cause seizures in some poeple, but the beer is easy to drink. Tap It IPA lands right in the middle between the aggressively hoppy IPA's the hipsters and beer geeks love and the bland, but easy drinking IPA's that some people refuse to even call IPA's. (I'm looking at you, Mr. Keith) The hops in this beer take on a more citrus flavour, with orange and grapefruit notes. The citrus taste, makes this beer go down easy. But its not a simple beer. It has enough bitterness and complexity to make beer lovers happy.

The Problem with writing a nightly blog about beer is I find I am running out of ways of saying "toasty" or "hoppy". I feel that all good beers display similar characteristics. The best beers are made from the same few ingredients, hops, barley, yeast and water. They employ different types of hops and different yeasts, how dark they malt the barley, how they ferment or how long they age the beers, these factors all effect the taste, but they are still using the same basic ingredients and the same basic technique. So, in describing the beers, I find myself repeating the same words, over an over again.  This does not make for good writing. However, what I find most fascinating about this project, is that even with this limited palette of ingredients and techniques, the craft brewer is able to make wildly different beers. In each beer, the way in which the small set of flavours interacts, is what makes the beers unique.  Each beer on this list, has been wildly different, even though they all contain the same ingredients and the same tastes. So, I guess its a failure of language, or my ability to use language, so my best advice, is to seek these beers out and try them for yourself.

Day 10: Truck Stop Honey

Nothing complicated about this beer from Back Forty Brewing. Tasty, easy drinking. You can taste the honey, but it doesn't make it sweet. Nice barley flavour, this medium brown ale tastes like a beer should taste.

Day 11: Newport Storm IPA

Another very tasty IPA, but I can't figure out why they called it India Point Ale instead of "Pale" ale. I checked their website and I tried using the google, but no luck. If you know, please comment. This one is nicely balanced with a good hop presence. Perhaps the most remarkable feature, was the nose of this beer was filled with flowers.

I did learn something interesting the other day from the bartender at Barley Brothers. Apparently this style of beer originated when British brewers needed to export their beers to India. In order to survive the lengthy journey, they fermented almost all of the sugars out of the beer, and over hopped it as a way of preserving it. Today, in England, the term IPA is generally used for beers with lower alcohol content. In Canada and the US, the tradition of hoppy IPA's has survived and these days are the biggest trend in craft beers. There is a style difference between the east and west cost IPA's. East coast IPA's have a stronger malt presence, where on the west coast, they go heavy on the hops. North American IPA's tend to use american hop varieties.

Day 12: Cameron Auburn Ale

This beautifully red brown ale is brewed in Oakville, ON. Their website claims it is "Brewed by a connoisseur, not an accountant". I suppose that might be the very definition of a craft beer. I've enjoyed this brewers Deviator Dopplebock before, but this auburn, their flagship beer, was new to me. It was exactly what I want in a beer when I am sitting down for a little relaxation. Well balanced, nicely malty,  but with enough going on to keep you entertained. Citrus notes and toasted nutty notes trade places as you sip this beer. No rough edges here, this beer is smooth.

Day 13: Peak Organic

Sometimes a label oversells a beer that under delivers. This is a righteous beer, fair trade certified, organic, you can feel good about drinking this beer from Portland, Maine. And although it wasn't a bad beer, it wasn't a great beer. Medium body, medium colour, the promised espresso flavour tasted more like diner brewed coffee. The coffee, instead of adding a richness, like it does in Mill Street's Coffee Porter or Half Pint's Stir Stick Stout, just gave the beer a harsh edge. This brewery has a wide range of products and I would like to try other beers in their family.

Day 14: Bolshevik Bastard

My teenage rebellion was to claim I was a bolsheviek. My family had to flee their homes when the Russians marched in, so being a communist was probably the worst thing I could be. Although I still lean left, the longer I am in business the more I tilt right. My uncle would be proud.

This beer, from Nickel Brook, is aggressive. It is thick like molasses and strong. It is called an Imperial stout, which I have learnt means double fermented. This accounts for it's high, %8.5, alcohol content. Getting through this beer requires stamina and moral fortitude. I enjoyed it, I am always up for a challenge, but I would only ever want to drink one of these bastards. This beer makes Guinness look like bud light.

Day 15: Hollow Point

My first reaction to this beer's guns and ammo motif was that it was quite funny. Then, maybe when I realized that this brewery was in Connecticut, I started to wonder whether such a motif was appropriate coming from a place so recently dealing with a tragic act of gun violence, coming from a society that seems to be plagued by daily acts of gun violence.

However, I didn't let my political musings prevent myself from drinking this beer. Neither do I believe that the brewers are making any pro-gun statement in how they label their beer.

This is the strongest beer in the set so far. At 10% alcohol, this beer has fumes coming off of it when you inhale. Hollow Point is quadruple distilled; I have never heard of that! This beer tastes like someone dropped a shot of whisky in it before they handed you the glass. Don't drink this beer on an empty stomach, it will burn.

When I first tasted the beer, I used the whisky analogy to describe the strength of the beer, but as I sipped (and it is a sipper), I began to feel that this is a beer that tastes like a whisky. More rye than bourbon, this is a beer for whisky lovers.

My friend Kevin Bailey ( said that this was "easily the most impressive beer so far in the #AdventBeerBox".

Day 16: Crosswind Pale Ale

Another beer from Baysville, ON. This is the lightest beer we have had so far. When you pour it out, it looks like a Keiths or a Standard. However, looks can be deceiving. This beer is far from simple. This beer has a strong hops presence that moves from citrus to earthy to floral. Not overly aggressive, this pale has enough bitterness to keep the beer geeks happy, but is definitely sessionable and would not feel out of place in an ice filled cooler on a dock by a lake on a beautiful summer day.

Day 17: Hedonism Red Ale

Ruckus brewing makes three beers, Hedonism, Euphoria and the brilliantly named "Hoptimus Prime". This brewery makes no bones about the fact that they are all about hops. This is a red ale, made in the Irish style, with a nice creamy head, but has a solid kick of bitter hops. Red or amber ales tend to have a little sweetness and creaminess, this one, kicks all that out of the way and showcases hops to rival any craft IPA. If you like lemon peel, not the nice yellow zesty part, but the nasty white pith, you will love this beer. I also catch some burnt almond. The bitterness is like the bitterness of radicchio. This is not a beer for everyone, but if you like bitter hops this is the beer for you.

Day 18: Cameron's Cream Ale
Another fine beer from Oakville Ontario, this one a tasty cream ale. Light in colour this beer has a thick creamy froth. There is nothing particularly remarkable about this beer, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with it either. Enjoyable, went down in about 2 sips.

Day 19: Newport Storm Blueberry

I have to admit when I saw the word "blueberry" on the label I panicked. I am not a big fan of fruit flavoured beers. (unless its that crazy grapefruit beer that goes down super quick on a hot day on the beach) I was also a little disappointed to see another bottle from Newport Storm. Its not that I dislike the brewery, in fact I have enjoyed the beers from Newport very much. However, with the number of craft breweries available in North America I am not sure why in a twenty four beer collection we have to have repeats. They should have been able to find twenty four distinct breweries. I get the feeling that this calendar was put together by a broker and the beers are all beers he represents. But anyway, back to this beer.

So, its a blueberry beer. I was surprised how light in colour it was, I expected it to be a little more... well... blue. The nose was incredible. It was like sticking your shnozz into a basket of freshly picked blueberries. The blueberry flavour was a lot more subtle. Which I appreciated, and the beer was not at all sweet, which I also appreciated. But you kept coming back to this incredible blueberry aroma. I must say this beer was well done.

Day 20: Lighthouse Winter Ale

This beer from Victoria BC is made in the classic british "Winter Warmer" Style. Dark and smooth, this beer has christmas-y flavours without being overly "spiced" and has notes of dark rum.  There are enough nice figgy dried fruit flavours to make you feel like you are having a piece of christmas fruit cake. I would have liked it if it were a little more frothy. This brewery uses sustainable brewing practices.

so... christmas happened and I dropped the ball... 4 beers to go!

Day 21: Hop Noir by Peak Organic

This was a much better offering from Peak. A rich, malty black ale with a very thick and creamy suds. Heavily hopped, this beer is balanced out with a delicious roasted sweetness. I was catching all kinds of interesting spice notes. You know those flavors that you recognize but "just can't put my finger on it?" This beer was full of those.

Day 22: Tap it American Ale

Just not very good at all.

Day 23: Evil Twin, Low Life

Under-promise, over deliver.

"A clever woman once said; ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’. On that note we threw in a young, unacknowledged hoppy pilsner gave it a limp, wrinkly flavor and finished it off with an insulting high price that will give you a foul feeling in your mouth. That’s why we name Evil Twin Brewing’s Low Life the Golddigger of Beers."

It was actually very tasty. It was like the craft beer version of a "standard". Tasty and fun.

Day 24: Dunham Black IPA

Seriously people, Black IPA? Who thought up this name? Black India PALE ale. Clearly, a contradiction. Maybe the first person to do this thought it was funny, but the second person? I get it, it is a black ale made in the hoppy style of an IPA, but couldn't we call it a India-style Black Ale?

Anyways, this Black IPA was delicious. Maybe the best Black IPA of the set. Ridiculously creamy, thick and frothy, toasty malty notes. I enjoyed this in the middle of the afternoon before heading off to church for the Christmas Eve service. It was the perfect little respite in a the busy maelstrom of Christmas.

This Beer Advent calendar was lots of fun. On the whole, lots of very tasty beers. It was so much fun to discover a different little gift each day. It also made me want to change the way I enjoy beers. Instead of sitting down with a six of Lucky, I want to make each beer I enjoy a special moment, a new experience. So now, when I go to the LC, I pick out a couple nice craft beers and really savour them. (ok, sometimes I'll still grab a six of lucky)

I suggested that my next blog would be 365 Beers: A year of tasting craft beers. This plan was vetoed.

Looking forward to next year's Whisky Advent Calendar.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Kids these days...

Kids these days.

I have always put a lot of faith in teenagers. I have always  employed them, I have tried to develop their skills, I have tried to help them grow into healthy adults.  Recently, my faith in our youth has been tested.  I feel myself wanting to give up on them. And so, I feel the need to talk about my challenges with these kids, maybe as a way of processing, but how do I write about the problems with our teenagers without sounding like an old man, an old codger complaining about “kids these days”.

It drives me crazy when I hear people my age or older talking about how much better things were when they were kids. “We would never have done that!”  Every generation has had its problems, and every generation of kids have been a part of that. We get freaked about youth crime but ignore the fact that crime rates have been dropping since the 70’s. We talk about drugs and alcohol, but ignore the fact that we were all skipping school to get high or drinking southern comfort in the park when we were their age.  In fact, I think that most of the kids I meet are better behaved than I was as a youth. Kids take school more seriously, have a better work ethic, are more concerned about the enviroment and their political life, are less racist and less sexist and less homophopic than my peers. And many of them get involved in all kinds of interesting and creative projects. I just read an article about a young woman who is making chain maille clothing using pop-can pull tabs. One of the things I find surprising about teens these days is that they actually go to school on a regular basis. I would go weeks sometimes without seeing a teacher or a text book. (and i graduated!) So, I have always rejected notions that kids these days are so bad.

In my work I have always employed teens. They start as dishwashers and bussers. I draw great satisfaction when I can train them and see them rise up the ranks to become cooks and servers. I feel that we are giving them real life usable skills. Wherever they wind up, they can always find employment. Restaurant work puts people through school. It facilitates travel. And it gives them something to fall back on if plan A falls through.  For some of us the restaurant industry becomes our plan A.  We have servers pushing 50 who have houses on the river, two vehicles, travel regularly and have no desire to “find a real job”.  Years ago, I ditched my Plan A of a PH.D in Philosophy and Religion in favour of what has become a pretty good day job.

For a lot of teenagers, the best thing you can do for them is give them a job. People do more growing up when the get their first job than they will ever do at school. At work we don’t treat them like kids. I don’t talk to their parents and I expect the same level of responsiblity from them that I would for any of my adult employees. At school, kids get stuck in a very artificial setting where everyone they have to relate to is of the same age. At work, they will build relationships with people who are younger and much older than them. This, I feel, is very healthy for a growing mind.  And at work they learn real responsibility: responsibilty to the employer, responsibility to each other and responsibility to the customer. 

Working with teens, particularly teens with questionable backgrounds and difficult family situatuations can be challenging. Many of them just don’t understand the rules. they have no one teaching them that if you have a scheduled shift, you show up for it. On time. Ready to work. They have no one to teach them that if you want to quit, you give proper notice. They have no role model to show them that it is not okay to drink or do drugs before work.  I had one kid, when I was lecturing them about drug use, say to me in his defense, “I always smoke an hour before work, so that I am all burnt out for when my shift starts.”  I hire lots of kids who don’t last very long. But sometimes you hire a kid who you want to put effort into.  There is something about them that you like, or you see promise in them. These are the kids that I give a lot of chances to. They screw up, we talk, they come back, they do a good job, they screw up again, we talk... These kids, my wife calls my “projects”. There is nothing more rewarding, then when I see one of my “projects’ turn out successful; when I can take a teen with sketchy history and give them a skill and teach them how to be a good employee.

I love working with teens, and I think very highly of this generation of teens, but recently my faith in them has been challenged. I can talk about the kids who I gave a lot of chances to, the kids I tried to work with who let me down, the kids who unleashed anger on me when I finally gave up and stopped giving them more chances. I have many of those stories. But I just feel that those are the risk of me taking on my “projects”. Sometimes they will be successful, and sometimes not.  And when we finally part ways I might feel dissapointed or sometimes even betrayed, but that goes with the territory. However, recently I have had to deal with two incidents that have really shaken my faith. 

One Sunday morning, at 4:20, I got a call from the Liquor Inspector. “I just locked up your restaurant, did you know it was full of kids smoking and drinking? You better come down and make sure everything is okay.”  Turns out, a former employee had shown up, bullied or cajoled the dishwashers on shift to let them come in to “wait for them”. They turned this opportunity into a party.  My dishwasher says ‘I tried to get them to leave’, but he also joined in on the festivities. Had my inspector not shown up for a random check, they would have partied all night. The next day I was given a big long list of violations, I had to fire two employees, I took legal action against the former dishwasher, and we changed a bunch of policies. We have always operated our business from a position of trust. Unlike a lot of restaurants, we don’t have cameras to watch our staff. We feel that if you give people trust, they will repay it in kind.  On that day, trust was eroded. And the policies we enacted said “I don’t trust you”. And that hurt me.

This past week, I had a similar event at my home. My daughter, sweet and a bit naive, told one of her young friends that we were going away for three weeks. He told a few friends, and they told a few friends. My mother in-law who lives with us, was out at the lake with us, was not planning on staying out at the lake. She arrived home to a house full of teenagers. She should have been frightened, but she stormed into the house full of anger. “Who the F’ is in my house!?” They weren’t just partying, they were drinking my liquor, including my Veuve Cliquot, smoking my cigars and butting them out on the furniture, rummaging through all our stuff, stealing jewelry, much of which had sentimental value, such as grandma’s cameo, and trying to steal our tv’s. Had ‘Nanny’ not come home, I am sure things would have been much, much worse.  We called the police and rushed home from the cottage. We hung out with the cops until 6 am that morning. At one point we were asked “what do you want to do?” Do you want to press charges?  We debated this for a while, we were pretty angry, but decided there would be no benefit to putting a bunch of 14 yr olds into the system. We opted for a “caution”. We asked the police to go talk to each of these kids parents and to ask that they come apologize to us. At 5 am, the police came back and informed us that their mission didn’t go well. The parents seemed ineffective, “what are we to do? the kids are out of control”. So the police encourage us to press charges. Maybe the kids would learn from this. The police also suspected that they had done this before. But the piece that kept coming back to us was how could a group of teens do something like this?

So my faith in teens has been shaken. The three themes I come back to, and the three ideas I worry about are 1) the lack of respect for other peoples property and livelihood 2) the lack of concern for consequences and 3) the inability to take responsibility for your own choices. We all make stupid choices, but when we do, It is important to own them.

As I am writing this, I think that these three concerns are not just concerns for “youth today”. They are issues we had to deal with when we were kids and issues that adults have to deal with today.  I make many poor choices and I am not always good at taking responsibilty for those choices. (I am working on it) I am thinking about successful adults fighting “speed trap cameras”, and I think “you were speeding, just pay the fine, its not the camera’s fault.” And so maybe its not a teenager thing, and maybe it is not a generational thing, maybe it is a common struggle that we all must engage in every day of our lives.

So, I will continue to put faith in our teenagers. I will continue to hope for good things for the future. I will have many moments of satisfaction and joy as I see them grow up and be successful and I will have disapointments and heartbreak when they slip.  It is important for me to not become the old codger complaining about “kids these days”. I must believe in these kids and their ability to overcome their own challenges, to become happy and stable adults and maybe even to make our world a better place.

Part Two: August 29, 2012

So, as if someone wants to test my faith in teens, I have a few new stories over the past few weeks.
I had an employee take a personal check off my desk and write himself a check. He had another buddy cash the check at a bank machine for him. When the check didn't clear, cause it looked sketchy (he even got the date wrong) his buddy was out $450.00. Screw your boss, sure, but screw your buddy as well? Then I had one of my recently released teens bust into my restaurant one night to steel the cash from the cashouts. Silly boy, didn't realize that these days no one pays with cash. busted into the bistro but left empty handed. Then, sunday night, one of my cooks and two of my former dishwashers let themselves in to the bistro, drank my cooking tequila and took my truck for a joy ride.  Monday night, someone, busted the windows of two cars, busted the door of the apartment next door, started to bust my door open. They vandalized, but didn't take anything.

I never thought I would have camera's in my restaurant, but I am giving them some serious thought.

So, I am looking for some new cooks. Responsible adults only please.
I am officially fed up with teenagers.

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Bee and the Pozoles

Bees are highly evolved creatures,

with intricate social structures,

they build complex buildings

they have elaborate systems to collect, store and distribute resources,

yet they are defeated by window panes

I was sitting on the front balcony of our little casita

the balcony overlooked the beautiful Bay of Banderas

thick foliage of palm branches, banana trees and vines partially obscure the view.

there is a high wall dividing our house from the neighbour’s.

covering the wall is a thick tangle of vines

decorated with large, open, purple flowers

which may or may not have been morning glories.

I was sitting on the balcony of our little casita

coffee in hand, watching a honey bee.

The bees down here are much bigger than we have at home.

This one had the body of a honey bee, but was bigger than our native bumble bees.

I watched her as she flew from flower to flower collecting nectar

she would approach a flower, give it a sniff,

If it was a good one, she would crawl in and drink in the sweet nectar.

only one in about every five blossoms was good enough for her.

I know from school that she would then take the nectar back to her hive

it would be stored in wax containers that other bees had built

the nectar would be sorted, stored and distributed as needed

I know that there is an intricate social structure

which is rigidly maintained to preserve the hive.

I am thinking about this as the bee flies through a wide open door into my room.

When the bee turns around, she bumps into a clear window pane.

She keeps bumping and buzzing into the window pane trying to get through

less than 3 inches from where she is flying, there is a wide open door

which would allow her to escape.

yet this bee keeps hitting the clear glass

not understanding what she is hitting

not understanding how to get away.

Bees are highly evolved creatures,

with intricate social structures,

they build complex buildings

they have elaborate systems to collect, store and distribute resources,

yet they are defeated by window panes

I wonder, if there was someone watching us from a distance

would they think they the same thing?

Would they think that we are a highly evolved species

with a well developed civilisation

with intricate social structures

that builds complex buildings and cities

with elaborate systems to collect, store and distribute resources,

yet we keep flying into a window pane.

Would this observer wonder why we don’t see the window pane?

Why do we keep buzzing and bumping into the same window pane?

I wonder, what is our window pane?

Why can’t we see it?

why do we keep bumping into it, not understanding what it is?

I am thinking all these “deep” thoughts as I go down for breakfast

Bruce has made poached eggs on tortillas with

refried beans and salsa verde.

I offer to do the dishes after breakfast.

As I wash up, I am drafting this piece in my head.

I decide to make pozoles.

I have been trying to think of how to connect the pozoles

with the bee. I felt that I should write about them together, but having written,

I don’t know why they are connected. Maybe it is about how I sort out the panes of glass in my life. No matter what is going on, how stressed out I become or how difficult life gets, I can always find solace in cooking. Cooking is therapeutic. But more than that, cooking is how I work stuff out. Cooking makes connections for me, gets my brain working in different ways, helps me see all the different levels and structures in my world. I am not conscious of it, but cooking is how I think. Maybe making pozoles is how I will see and understand the window panes in my world.

Corn and No Meat Pozoles

I figure a pot of pozoles on the back burner would be a good thing today

we decided we would stay close to home, saving energy to party on the Malecon tonight.

Sunday night is the night when the locals enjoy the boardwalk.

I read the bag of corn for the pozoles, the recipe calls for 1kg corn and 2 kg of meat.

Because we are staying with one vegan and two vegetarians I decide to make a vegan version. The pozoles itself is corn, but not like the corn we know from home. It is hard and woody. It is the type you would grind to make tortillas. It is treated with lime to break it down to make it edible. This corn came in bags, pre cooked, and stored in plenty of the water it was cooked in. This preserves the starch from the corn that will thicken the soup. The closest you will probably find to this in canada, unless you have a really good latin grocer, is canned hominy corn. Feel free to use canned yellow corn, or corn fresh off the cob for this recipe. In this recipe I used a local squash that looked similar to a zucchini, but was considerable woodier. It held up well in the soup. Use zucchini or whatever squash you have available. I used 1 whole ancho and one whole guajillo chilie. These are both fairly mild. Feel free to use whatever chilies you prefer, just be aware of their different properties and levels of heat.

1 tbsp olive oil

4 small spring onions with white bulbs and greens, sliced. (or one white onion)

2 cloves garlic, chopped coarsley

1 jalepeno, minced

2 carrots, slices

2 zucchini like squash, diced

2 large tomatoes, diced

1 dry ancho chile

1 dry guajillo chile

1 kg pozole corn (hominy corn) with liquid

1 litre of water

salt and pepper to taste

lime and cilantro to garnish

  1. in large heavy pot, sautee onions in oil. add garlic and jalepeno. sautee.
  2. add carrots, zucchini and saute some more.
  3. add tomato, corn, water and chilies. bring to a boil.
  4. reduce heat and simmer for an hour, add salt and pepper to taste
  5. serve with lime wedges and fresh chopped cilantro.

A note on authenticity:

As I am writing this recipe, I can hear all the food purists out there questioning its authenticty. There are people out there who feel there is only one right way of doing things. They feel that authentic is more inportant than tasty. This recipe may or may not be authentic, I don’t really care. I am comforted by Bruce Springsteen’s words from his speech at South by Southwest: “We are living in a post-authentic world” “There is no one right way of doing, no pure way of doing, there is just doing.” Having said this, this recipe is as authentic as the recipe of any grandma in any village in Mexico, because like the grandma’s pozole, this one was made with love.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Too many rants, not enough recipes

Bistro 7 ¼ Braised Beef Shortribs

2 lbs English cut beef short ribs (from the shoulder)

2 tbsp canola oil

1 large onion, diced

1 dark beer (I use fort garry dark)

1 tbsp chili powder

2 cups beef or chicken stock (you can use canned)

2 cloves

S+p to taste

  1. season short ribs with chili powder
  2. brown on all sides in canola oil
  3. add onions, cloves, beer and stock.
  4. cover and roast for 6 hours at 225F (or put in slow cooker)
  5. cool in the liquid.
  6. Skim fat, reheat in liquid. Reduce liquid until it is saucy. Check seasoning.

Serve with mashed potatoes and vegetables

White Bean and Chorizo Soup

1 chorizo or other spicy sausage

1 small onion, diced

1 stalk celery, sliced

1 clove garlic minced

2 l chicken stock

2 cups cooked white beans (or one can)

1 potato, diced

2 cups chopped kale, or spinach or any other dark leafy green

1. 1) slice the sausage, sautee

2. 2) add the onion , celery and garlic

3. 3) add stock, potato and beans, bring to a low boil. Simmer until potatoes are cooked

4. 4) add greens and simmer until cooked. (kale will take a few minutes)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

An open letter to a customer on the subject of foie gras

I received a letter today on the subject of foie gras. A customer chose not to come in to my restaurant because I have Foie Gras on my menu. This letter is quite timely, as the debate is heating up in California. I wrote her a lengthy response, which I decided to post. Some of the themes in my response you will see reflected in previous blogs. I have posted a link to a letter from Incanto on the subject of foie gras.

This customer chooses to eat a vegan diet. For those of you don't know this about Bistro 7 1/4, we do an excellent job of accommodating vegan clients.

Her letter:

Dear Chef Alex,

I was recently disappointed to find out that your restaurant menu features foie gras. I'm sure you are aware the controversy behind this dish, but I would just like to provide you with some further information regarding the production of foie gras, in hopes that you will seriously consider removing this item from your menu, and set an example for other restaurants who also feature this cruel dish.

Ducks and geese used to produce foie gras are kept in tiny cages or sheds and have pipes jammed (roughly and painfully) down their throats three times per day so that grain and fat can be pumped into their stomachs, causing their liver to bloat (about 10 times its size!). The birds suffer a great deal of pain as well as injuries and infection in the process. The birds often develop foot infections, kidney necrosis, bruised and broken bills and tumours in their throats so that this unnecessary 'delicacy' can be eaten. Production of Foie Gras is so cruel that it has actually been banned in California and force feeding has been banned in several countries around the world. As a vegan and animal rights activist I wish that all meat could removed from the menu as cruelty and pain is involved in all farming methods. I understand that your clientele eat meat and the majority are neither vegetarian nor vegan, so all I am asking is that you please consider removing the foie gras from the menu. It is cruel, inhumane, painful and unnecessary. In fact, I know many people (omnivore) who refuse to eat at any restaurant that serves foie gras, so I believe removing foie gras from the menu would have only positive effects.

Here is a video exposing the cruelty and torture involved in the production of foie gras, if you are interested in seeing exactly what goes on:

Thank you for your consideration,

my letter:

Thank you for your letter. I appreciate hearing your concerns.

I feel that any time you make a decision about what to eat, you make a series of ethical choices. Are you content with factory farmed pork or do you seek out pastured pork? Do you eat meat or stick to vegetable proteins? Do you buy organic from california or uncertified produce from down the road? Farmed fish or wild? None of these decisions are simple.

You can buy organic produce from california, but it is wrapped in plastic and shipped 200 km in diesel trucks. And do we ever consider the plight of the migrant workers that harvest the produce?

As a chef and restaurant owner I daily make ethical choices about the food I serve. Sometimes, for practical or financial reasons, I fall short of the standards I set for myself. This being said, I think I do a very good job of buying sustainable fish, locally and humanely raised meats, naturally farmed or organic produce, and I feel the need to support small local producers.

But beyond that, I feel it is also my customers place to make ethical choices about their own dinners. I oppose most attempts to restrict or regulate our freedom to make those choices. Most of my customers enjoy meat, so I am happy to provide this. Some choose to only eat meat from small, local producers that are humanely raised, I do my best to provide that. Some of my customers choose to eat no food from animal sources, I feel I do a very good job of providing food for those customers.

As for Foie Gras, I feel there is a lot of misinformation and sensationalism. The language used colours the debate. No one says that the ducks an geese are not force fed, but the anti-foie movement will colour the description by saying the birds are "painfully force-fed. There is little evidence to support the claim that the birds feel pain in this process. The videos that the anti-foie activists use are quite horrific, but these videos are made to shock. The process of force-feeding happens for a very short period of time and is very quick the rest of the time, these birds live quite peaceful and happy lives. Ducks and geese being raised for foie are free range and are treated better than any factory chicken. Most egg producers will raise their laying hens 3 to a cage, in cages barely big enough for one of them.

But ultimately, the choice to eat foie or not to eat foie lies with my customers. If my guests feel the same outrage that you do, or are simply turned off by the idea of foie, then they will stop ordering it. If my customers stop ordering foie gras, I will stop supplying it. My menu is filled with many great choices. If you choose to not eat foie gras, you are welcome to make that choice. If you choose not to meat at all, you are welcome to make that choice as well. But please remember, that even those who choose to eat vegan are still faced with many ethical food choices.

I just received a link to a blog posting on this very subject. This is from Incanto restaurant in the San Francisco. Incanto is probably on the forefront of sustainable and ethical dining in the US. Their position is interesting and well researched. It is worth a read, if only to further the debate. Check out

Again, I thank you for your letter. I feel that food, and the choices we make around food, is not something we should take lightly. Healthy debate and discussion is always a good thing.


She responded to my letter with the following:

Dear Alexander,

Thank you for your reply. I wholeheartedly agree with you that one makes an ethically driven decision whenever they choose to purchase or eat food. Meat vs. vegetable, local vs. imported, etc. However, the truth is that the majority of people do not know or understand exactly what is involved in bringing their meal to their plate and are not aware of many of the issues such as animal abuse and torture, environmental damage, etc. Reform needs to start somewhere, which is why I chose to write to all restaurants in Winnipeg serving foie gras. It is a small start - I understand that removing all meat from your menu would definitely affect your clientle, but foie gras seemed like a small enough opportunity to make some change and prevent some suffering. Before someone can make an informed ethical decision, they need to know the facts, and sadly most don't. I don't think the people who choose to order foie gras off your menu are monsters who would knowingly support the gruesome torture of innocent creatures. I think that they are individuals who maybe aren't aware of the exact processes and vast amount of suffering and abuse involved in the procurement of their meal. If someone had to sit down and watch beginning to end the process behind foie gras and then eat the end result, I highly doubt that most people would (on the same note, I feel that if most people actually witnessed or knew completely what goes on in a factory farm, most people would be vegan).

I understand that business is ultimately about profit and customers, but animal abuse of any kind is never tolerable and I do disagree with your stance on providing this option to the customer as long as they keep buying it. Although your customers may dictate specific tastes and demand in your restaurant, ultimately as the restaurant owner and chef, the menu is up to you and the decisions you make as to what goes on and is removed from the menu is completely up to you. As an animal rights activist I know the importance of standing up for what you believe in and if no one ever did that - or educated people on the implications of their decisions when they are not aware of them and therefore able to make an informed ethical decision - no progress would ever be made. It's never good to take an all-or-nothing attitude. We can never make the perfect ethical decision ALL of the time - but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't do everything we can to try to make the best ones we are able to in any given situation. Because you serve meat on your menu which means the suffering of millions of animals, doesn't lessen the impact of a simple and single decision like choosing not to support one form of cruelty (foie gras).

Thank you for the link - I did check it out. I have heard that argument in a few different articles and books before - that because animals are not physiologically the same as humans we should not anthropomorphize them. Equality doesn't mean treating two beings exactly the same (we would never allow a duck to vote because they are not capable of reasoning) - it means viewing their life and wellbeing as equally important to another's. The thing is, we cannot ever fully have a sense of how any creature other than ourselves feels pain. I can't even be sure that you feel pain in the same way I do - I have never felt it from your point of view and therefore I cannot say I know what it would feel like. But, since we do not know for a fact that animals do feel pain in the same way we do, we need to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they do. To assume otherwise would be cruel. I find little validity in the statement that tube-fed birds in foie gras production appear "unstressed". While in each and every case it may not necessarily be the "tube" that is the thing causing pain and suffering to these animals, certainly having one's liver expanded 10 times it's size and suffering infections, breaks and bruises is undeniably painful. Farms and production sites are all about turning a profit - very little to no care is taken in ensuring that each individually animal is healthy, comfortable and not suffering - that's not profitable. I'm not saying all farms operate exactly the same, but largely most farms do not have the resources to ensure the wellbeing of each animal. I recently wrote to the Minister of Agriculture on two particular foie gras production sites in Canada - birds were witnessed choking on their own blood, suffering infections and broken bills, unable to move, kicked and thrown about like pieces of garbage and beaten to death by being pounded against the ground while fully conscious. No one can even try and tell me that these birds are "unstressed" and pain-free!

You mentioned that the videos made by anti-foie gras activists are made to shock, but unfortunately they are shocking because what is witnessed is shocking! There are many large organizations who produce these videos; they are not contrived or set-up - they are actual footage. I'm not sure where you heard that the birds live painless, peaceful lives - their lives are anything but painless and peaceful. If you look up information and laws regarding "free-range" you will see that the term actually means very little. The term is not clearly defined in Canada and is often open for interpretation amongst farmers - a small piece of dirt for animals to run around in, a window in a shed - the birds often live in filthy conditions with a variety of bacteria and parasites - I have read a number of studies done on "free-range" animals in both Canada and the U.S and am disappointed that so many are deceived by that term actually denotes. Most people think that free-range looks like the idyllic farm - red barn with animals happily grazing and running around the field, but that's not the way it is. Please do not think that free-range means peaceful - it is not.

Anyway, yes, debate is always healthy and welcome! I did receive your request to post my email on your blog and I did check out your blog (I was very happy to see you take an interest in vegetarianism and veganism - it is such a peaceful way to live and I commend you for that!). You have my permission to post my initial email to you on your blog, but only if this reply is posted as well and my last name is omitted. Also, if you could send me the link to your posting that would be great!

If you want to reply to this email that is ok, but I will not reply back again. I have contacted quite a few restaurants and am anticipating on replying to all of them at least once. I just don't have the time to keep a debate going with each one (as fun as it would be!). I do really want to thank you for taking the time to read my email and for responding - I'm sure you are very busy, but it does mean a lot to me :) I have heard wonderful things about your restaurant and your food, and I also do appreciate you accommodating vegans and vegetarians on your menu :)

Thank you and have a great day!