Archive for December, 2011

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What I Have Learned This Past Year

December 31, 2011

Good evening friends, this is my 14th annual New Year’s reflection and I hope you have a few laughs.

In Walla Walla at the end of a fantastic meal of short ribs, great wine, and hardy conversation, I slipped the winemaker we were having dinner with my business card. I told him that if he thought his daughter and I would be a good match, that he should pass on my contact information to her. And he did. And the winemaker’s daughter and I went out for a glass of wine. While we didn’t fall in love, we did have a great evening together and I dreaded the day when I would see her father again. And when I saw him a few weeks ago, he put his hand on my shoulder, smiled broadly, and I could tell in his eyes that there were no hard feelings. In the winemaker’s deep, raspy voice he said, “Nick, how the hell are you doing?”

Like any year, this past year was filled with many laughs and a few missteps — both figuratively and in my dance class at Century Ballroom. In between the clouds of this past year there a few sun-filled days of relaxation and maybe an evening or two of rain soaked disappointment.

See a few days after I sent this annual reflection out last year, I foolishly sent it to Hillary, a girl I once dated (and who was mentioned last year), and she wrote back to me saying that she wanted to see me. And what I thought was maybe a glimmer of reconnection or reconciliation turned out to be an evening where she told me that she was engaged. Engaged to my friend and former colleague at the University of Washington, who had also received my annual reflection. Awkward. They were getting married in June and they wanted to tell me before I found out in some roundabout way. I was devastated, maybe devastated is too strong but hurt nevertheless. Weeks before their wedding in June, in a moment of self loathing, I looked at their registry online and through all the plates, wine glasses, and bath towels, I glimpsed into how my life could have been.

For me it is easy to remember this past year through food and drink. There was the forgettable burger and Bud Light at the racetrack in Vancouver, B.C. But that burger tasted as if it had been prepared by Jesus himself because the Sounders came from behind and won 3 to 1 at the last game in Empire Field (we also took home the Cascadia Cup). There was the backroom lunch at Salumi where we paired a grilled pork loin roast (among other dishes) with a 1967, 1974, 1982, and 1988 Barolos. And I wouldn’t want to forget the room service I ordered the next day after the PNDRI auction — undercooked sausage and overcooked eggs never tasted better.

And of course there were the meals around celebrations and birthdays. Katie’s fried chicken. Dungeness crab at Monsoon. The 18-course meal at The Willows Inn on Lummi Island. The sliders at Meghann and Josh’s wedding. The chicken and Brussels sprouts when Tia came home. The Dick’s cheeseburger(s) at the end of my birthday. The old bottles of Leonetti over at Ben and Kasa’s. I definitely had a strange feeling knowing that perhaps the last of the 1983 Leonetti Reserve anywhere in the world was in my glass.

And I will never forget the chicken salad I made for my second date at Volunteer Park with Emily. After the play ended we stood for hours talking as the summer evening transitioned into twilight and as twilight turned into darkness. She walked me home and I kissed her on the steps of my apartment building.

This past year I got a date because of Twitter (her Tweet and mine). We tweeted back and forth and finally met in person at a wine event. But it turned out we were more compatible when we kept it to 140 characters. Then there was what I thought was a second date with someone else. That was quickly shattered when she arrived holding hands with her boyfriend. Or the best yet happened when I asked someone to be my plus one to an auction. We spent the evening laughing and hanging out and I knew it wasn’t a date. But that didn’t stop me from leaning in to kiss her while waiting for a cab — in a freezing cold apartment vestibule. She backed up, gave me a puzzled look at my advance and said “Really, Nick? … Really?”

You might think that with all of these dating stories over that past few years that I must have dated every eligible woman in Seattle. It turns out that I have. This past year, my friend tried to set her co-worker up with me. My friend then begins to describe me to her co-worker: he works for a diabetes research institute, he’s Asian, he loves the Sounders, and blogs for the Seattle PI. Her co-worker then asks, “Wait… what’s his name again?” We had already gone out — a year ago. But we went out again. And a few more times. But it never really worked out.

I always find it difficult to sum up a year. How do you put into words how it felt when the Sounders won in Portland? How do you capture the moment, on that early July morning, when you stepped onto that crowded bus and rode three hours south? Or explain coherently the rush of self-doubt that happens right before you grab your partner’s hand in West Coast Swing? Or that rush when she compliments you after a good sequence of moves. Sometimes a moment of joy is forever captured. Sometimes your closest friend is helping you recapture a fond moment from the past. Sometimes your favorite moments from the past year are only known to you.

I often think about what my friend Brian wrote in my high school senior yearbook. He said that I reminded him of a quote by Thoreau, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.” This upcoming spring I’m boarding a plane bound for France. To hopefully stay there for a month. I am hoping to see Eiffel Tower, attend a soccer match in Lyon, and taste some German inspired wines in Alasce. I may have, in my weakest moment of 2011, allowed myself to glimpse into a life I could never have. And that was foolish. But I am going to try to stay true to that quote for 2012.

This past year I was a babysitter, a dancer, and an iPhone video editor. There were ambiguous relationships and first dates. There was a fantastic summer lunch at Lake Quinault and great cocktails in Capitol Hill. There were three auctions and a conference. And rowdy moments at Starfire and schlepping wine at Full Pull. But perhaps my favorite moments of 2011 were in Walla Walla — tasting and spitting wine and seeing how grapes go from the soil and the vines, to the barrel to the bottle. I will remember eating too much food at Brasserie Four and getting into trouble with Paul and Becky at the Green Lantern. Driving to wineries and getting lost in the fields. It is amazing to see a place reinvent itself. Over ten years ago Walla Walla was most known for having “The Pen.” Now it is known as wine country that almost rivals Napa. If a place like Walla Walla can transform itself anew — then anything is possible. Alright my friends, I hope to see you again soon and we’ll toast the new year together.

Remember to live life to the fullest, dream, wonder, and explore because, you never know. To everyone, Happy New Year!

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Drop the Mic and Exit Stage Left — My Dinner on Lummi Island

December 20, 2011

The receptionist floated on top of the three-foot-high stone hearth in black heels and bright pink tights. Her silver earrings swayed back and forth as she picked up a comically large piece of wood, bent down at her knees, and threw it into the fireplace. She stabbed at it a couple of times with the rod iron poker before she replaced the metal screen. The fire popped with new energy. She hopped down in one swift motion and didn’t break stride as she leaned the poker against the wall. This was certainly not the first time she had done this. With my mouth agape, I was in love, and I needed a drink. Something strong. Whiskey.

See The Willows Inn on Lummi Island did something amazing. It went from awesome to unbelievable. From great to world-class. It went from local to hyper-local — before it was popular to do so — and before everybody shamelessly promoted it. And you can see this transformation thanks to the Internet.

In a 2006 Bellingham Herald article, then chef Craig Miller claimed that the Inn was about 85 percent self-sufficient. They were producing local meals every night before it was popular. Before it was the next thing. Most of their dishes were sourced from the Island and from their farm just a half mile away.

So Miller leaves and here comes chef Blaine Wetzel from Copenhagen. Who ran a place that specialized in slow and hyper-local food. They change the menu to prix fixe. They add several courses. They become even more self-sufficient (Wetzel told us that he had four things on his grocery store list and one of them was kitchen gloves). The rest comes from the Island or very close to the Island. For example, the fish comes from members of Lummi Nation. The beef, from a producer on the Island. The table arrangements, white winter berries, are picked from the bushes that slope the beach. And the service? Well it rivals Canlis. Sure, they don’t have a numberless valet or coat check, but when your dining room seats less than 40 people, why should they. Frank Bruni called The Willows Inn one of the 10 restaurants in the world worth a plane ticket. For us, it was merely a long drive on a cold Sunday morning.

The Lummi Island Ferry

The island is only accessible by ferry.

Salmon smoker.

The first course (I counted a total of 18) was a small bite of smoked salmon, which is smoked all day in the above smoker. It is served in a personal cedar box and when you lift the lid, smoke erupts out revealing your first bite.

Greens

Mean chicken

I felt like Lord of the Chickens. They would all run to me when I got near the fence.

Fennel

Fennel

Garden sign

Greenhouse

Shells

A year’s worth of shells from dinner.

You can visit the farm from which all the herbs and vegetables (and chickens) are grown and that you will eat later. Seeing the farm made me think about a paragraph Mark Bittman wrote in the New York Times in March:

In 1943, 20 million households (three-fifths of the population at that point), grew more than 40 percent of the vegetables we ate.

Local was king. But local was necessity. In the latest book I am reading, Adam Gopnik’s The Table Comes First, he references that it was once considered low-class in French culinary circles to serve local, in-season, food. If you couldn’t import strawberries in winter, that restaurant wasn’t worth the schilling in your pocket. Life always seems to be on a pendulum.

Sunset

Dish

The food was amazing. My words, with my limited vocabulary would never do it justice. And the presentation for each one was unique and awesome. Local oysters on a frozen river rock bed. Herring in a sardine can. Chicken jous with homemade bread. Wicker basket filled with farm vegetables and dipping sauce served in a terracota flower pot. You get the point. Over the top? Perhaps, a bit. I tweeted from the bathroom between courses that I was having the best meal of my life.

Paul brought champagne. And three other bottles of outstanding wine. See we came to Lummi to celebrate. To celebrate another successful year at Full Pull. A very (very, very, very) nice thank you dinner for all of the work this past year. I always tell customers that I have a day job and I joke that I come down to the warehouse simply to hangout and drink wine. Sure, that happens. But I come to be a part of something amazing. Something that is just starting and becoming a great success.

When our stunningly beautiful bartender popped the cork on our bottle of champagne, every head in the place turned around and looked at us. The fire crackled. Whispers filled the room. And we raised a glass in celebration to the end of a pretty good year. Best meal of my life, maybe. But it is one that I will remember always.