Every January Tao shuts down for a month to give our weary bodies a chance to catch up on sleep, to give the staff an opportunity to travel and see friends and family, and to escape some epic snowstorms (especially important to those who plow out Tao’s parking lot). Cara and I have taken advantage every year, and have had amazing adventures driving through Thailand and Italy, touring though Gaudi’s Barcelona, and stuffing our faces with Stilton at Borough Market in London. We’ve eaten chicken grilled to rare in Japan, drunk Sauternes in Sauternes, France IN the field where the grapes were grown, and crushed Bahn Mi sandwiches every night we were in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Obviously our travels tend to be very food focused. My dad has said that anyone who travels with us is guaranteed to eat well. The other side to eating is the food production; seeing the incredible amount of energy that goes into the item that you chuck into your cart at the grocery store. In Emilia-Romagna, we watched wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano created from hundreds of gallons of milk (160 gallons of milk yields two wheels of Parm). The whey left over feeds the pigs that will become prosciutto. The wheels follow Italy’s DOC guidelines and age at least 12 months. They are rotated, cleaned and tapped with a hammer. A trained ear listens to the sound of the cheese when tapped, and decides when the cheese is ready to be opened. The Parmigiano must be perfect inside, and any holes will mean the cheese is sold under a different label and with a lower price. As someone who cooks for a living, I would imagine it’s disappointing to find imperfections after all the time and energy that goes into each wheel (not to mention the financial hit—people, not machines, do the bulk of the work). However, an imperfect cheese does not even touch the story that was a crucial part of our tour: the tragedy of Northern Italy’s 2012 earthquake, which shook the warehouses that stored thousands of wheels—approximately 300,000 fell to the ground and cracked. Now remember that 80 gallons of milk goes into each wheel. Standing in that room surrounded by all that cheese put that number into perspective.
Italy’s earthquake was not the only story we heard about nature disrupting the plan. While we were trilling our Sauternes and reveling over the deep complexity of flavor in our glasses (and how much foie gras we were going to buy later that day) we learned why Sauternes is so expensive. One vine will produce 1/5 the amount of wine of other varieties. The grapes become infected with “noble rot,” which produces the distinct prized flavor. However, the amount of rot has to be carefully monitored, and the grapes are picked by hand, and too much late rain or an early frost will devastate the whole crop. There have been whole years where nature has prevented a vintage. YEARS. I appreciated my glass that much more after hearing that fact.
Our jobs are very rewarding, I think, partially because there is a beginning and an end. You start with raw ingredients, prep all day, and turn out dinner for up to 90 people. The kitchen is hot and sweaty, and when you sometimes cook dinner for that many people, it’s easy to think to yourself “this is totally crazy.” And it is. But then you remember all those people you met who work so diligently to make the Parmesean that we microplane on our tuna poke (don’t be too shocked at this sacrilege of cheese and fish—it’s an umami bomb of delicious). And when your morning starts on a wharf looking at fat Maine scallops right off the boat, or combing through quince trees for the roundest most golden fruit, or picking up a thousand kinds of hot peppers from the Farmer’s Market that were grown with your restaurant in mind—it levels the crazy of the day. At the end of the month of vacation, I think everybody is ready to get back to work. Not only are we eager for a little structure to our days, but after watching people creating beautiful product, we want to share what we’ve learned and follow suit with our own creative spirit.
— Saskia Poulos, Chef, Tao Yuan restaurant
8 oz Sushi grade tuna, cubed
2 Tbs Scallion, chopped
1 Tbs Cilantro, chopped
1 Tbs Thai Basil, chopped
2 Tbs lime juice
A scant 1/4 c Macadamia nut pesto (recipe follows)
Mix everything together, adding more or less pesto and lime juice depending on your taste. Adjust seasoning with salt and/ or fish sauce. Microplane more Parm on top, and serve with shrimp chips.
Macadamia nut Pesto
3 ea red Thai bird chilis, blackened
1 clove garlic, smashed
225 g Macadamia nuts
50 g Parm, microplaned
50 g EVOO
Fish sauce to taste
In a blender, pulse nuts to a smaller size, then add the other ingredients and blend until pesto consistency. Adjust to taste with fish sauce.