May 21, 2015

Yo, Ho, Ho... The Swashbuckling History of Rum...

No matter in what form you have enjoyed it, no tropical vacation of Caribbean destination is quite complete with out some form of exotic rum concoction. Pina Coladas, Rum and Coke, Bahama Mamas, Daiquiris, Mojitos, or any other variation of the beverage, it is truly the 'Nectar of the Islands. So let us begin our journey to discover the true essence of rum, from its humble beginnings to the present day, when it is now being offered by a variety of companies in all forms and flavors, including the high end versions now available to be sipped like a cognac.

Rum is produced in a variety of styles. Light rums are commonly used in cocktails, while golden and dark rums are appropriate for drinking straight, as a brandy, or for use in cooking as well as cocktails. Premium brands of rum are also available that are made to be consumed neat or on the rocks.

What is Rum?
First and foremost, let's define what rum is and what distinguishes it from other alcohols.Rum is a distilled beverage made from sugarcane by-products such as molasses and sugarcane juice by a process of fermentation and distillation. The distillate, a clear liquid, is then usually aged in oak and other barrels.

The origin of the word rum is unclear. Some believe the name was derived from rumbullion meaning "a great tumult or uproar". Dutch seaman used large drinking glasses known as rummers or from the Dutch word roemer, a drinking glass. Saccharum, which is the Latin word for sugar, or arôme, French for aroma, are also different possible origins of the name. Regardless of the original source, the name was already in common use by May 1657 when the General Court of Massachusetts made illegal the sale of strong liquor "whether known by the name of rumme, strong water, wine, brandy, etc., etc."

Currently, the name used for a rum is often based on the rum's place of origin. For rums from Spanish-speaking locales the word ron is used. A ron añejo indicates a rum that has been significantly aged and is often used for premium products. Rhum is the term used for rums from French-speaking locales, while rhum vieux is an aged French rum that meets several other requirements. Some of the many other names for rum are Nelson's Blood, Kill-Devil, Demon Water, Pirate's Drink, Navy Neaters, and Barbados water.

The History of Rum

Dating back to ancient China and India, a drink of fermented liquids produced from sugarcane juice is believed to have first occurred and spread, from there. An example of such an early drink is brum. Produced by the Malay people, brum dates back thousands of years. While in what is now modern-day Iran, Marco Polo records that he was offered a "very good wine of sugar."

The first distillation of rum took place on the sugarcane plantations of the Caribbean in the 17th century. Plantation slaves first discovered that molasses, a by-product of the sugar refining process, can be fermented into alcohol. Later, distillation of these alcoholic by-products concentrated the alcohol and removed impurities, producing the first true rums. Tradition suggests that rum first originated on the island of Barbados. Regardless of its initial source, early Caribbean rums were not known for high quality. A 1651 document from Barbados stated, "The chief fuddling they make in the island is Rumbullion, alias Kill-Divil, and this is made of sugar canes distilled, a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor".

Rum's association with piracy began with English privateers trading on the valuable commodity. As some of the privateers became pirates and buccaneers, their fondness for rum remained, the association between the two only being strengthened by literary works such as Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island.

The association of rum with the Royal Navy began in 1655 when the British fleet captured the island of Jamaica. With the availability of domestically produced rum, the British changed the daily ration of liquor given to seamen from French brandy to rum. While the ration was originally given neat, or mixed with lime juice, the practice of watering down the rum began around 1740. To help minimize the effect of the alcohol on his sailors, Admiral Edward Vernon directed that the rum ration be watered down before being issued, a mixture which became known as grog. The Royal Navy continued to give its sailors a daily rum ration, known as a "tot," until the practice was abolished after July 31, 1970.

A story involving naval rum is that following his victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, Horatio Nelson's body was preserved in a cask of rum to allow transport back to England. Upon arrival, however, the cask was opened and found to be empty of rum. The pickled body was removed and, upon inspection, it was discovered that the sailors had drilled a hole in the bottom of the cask and drunk all the rum, in the process drinking Nelson's blood. Thus, this tale serves as a basis for the term Nelson's Blood being used to describe rum. It also serves as the basis for the term "Tapping the Admiral" being used to describe drinking the daily rum ration. The details of the story are disputed, as many historians claim the cask contained French Brandy and other claim the term originated from a toast to Admiral Nelson.

Rum became an important trade good in the early period of the colony of New South Wales. The value of rum was based upon the lack of coinage among the population of the colony, and due to the drink's ability to allow its consumer to temporarily forget about the lack of creature comforts available in the new colony. The value of rum was such that convict settlers could be induced to work the lands owned by officers of the New South Wales Corps. Due to rum's popularity among the settlers, the colony gained a reputation for drunkenness even though their alcohol consumption was less than levels commonly consumed in England at the time.

When William Bligh, became governor of the colony in 1806, he attempted to remedy the perceived problem with drunkenness by outlawing the use of rum as a medium of exchange. In response to this action, and several others, the New South Wales Corps marched, with fixed bayonets, to Government House and placed Bligh under arrest. The mutineers continued to control the colony until the arrival of Governor Lachlan Macquarie in 1810.

Until the second half of the 19th century all rums were heavy or dark rums that were considered appropriate for the working poor, unlike the refined double-distilled spirits of Europe. In order to expand the market for rum, the Spanish Royal Development Board offered a prize to anyone who could improve the rum making process. This resulted in many refinements in the process which greatly improved the quality of rum. One of the most important figures in this development process was Don Facundo Bacardí Massó, who moved from Spain to Santiago de Cuba in 1843. Don Facundo's experiments with distillation techniques, charcoal filtering, cultivating of specialized yeast strains, and aging with American oak casks helped to produce a smoother and mellower drink typical of modern light rums. It was with this new rum that Don Facundo founded Bacardí y Compañía in 1862.

Types of Rum
The grades and variations used to describe rum depend on the location that a rum was produced. Despite these variations the following terms are frequently used to describe various types of rum:

  • Light Rums: also referred to as light, silver, and white rums. In general, light rum has very little flavor aside from a general sweetness, and serves accordingly as a base for cocktails. Light rums are sometimes filtered after aging to remove any color. The Brazilian immensely popular Cachaça belongs to this type.
  • Gold Rums: also called amber rums, are medium-bodied rums which are generally aged. These gain their dark color from aging in wooden barrels (usually the charred white oak barrels that are the byproduct of Bourbon Whiskey).
  • Spiced Rum: These rums obtain their flavor through addition of spices and, sometimes, caramel. Most are darker in color, and based on gold rums. Some are significantly darker, while many cheaper brands are made from inexpensive white rums and darkened with artificial caramel color.
  • Dark Rum: also known as black rum, classes as a grade darker than gold rum. It is generally aged longer, in heavily charred barrels. Dark rum has a much stronger flavor than either light or gold rum, and hints of spices can be detected, along with a strong molasses or caramel overtone. It is used to provide substance in rum drinks, as well as color. In addition to uses in mixed drinks, dark rum is the type of rum most commonly used in cooking.
  • Flavored Rum: Some manufacturers have begun to sell rums which they have infused with flavors of fruits such as mango, orange, citrus, coconut or lime. These serve to flavor similarly themed tropical drinks which generally comprise less than 40% alcohol, and are also often drunk neat or on the rocks.
  • Over-proof Rum: is rum which is much higher than the standard 40% alcohol. Most of these rums bear greater than 75%, in fact, and preparations of 151 to 160 proof occur commonly.
  • Premium Rum: As with other sipping spirits, such as Cognac and Scotch, a market exists for premium and super-premium rums. These are generally boutique brands which sell very aged and carefully produced rums. They have more character and flavor than their "mixing" counterparts, and are generally consumed without the addition of other ingredients.
The Making of Rum
Unlike some other spirits, such as Cognac and Scotch, rum has no defined production methods. Instead, rum production is based on traditional styles that vary between locations and distillers.

Most rum produced is made from molasses. Within the Caribbean, much of this molasses is from Brazil. A notable exception is the French-speaking islands where sugarcane juice is the preferred base ingredient.
Yeast and water are added to the base ingredient to start the fermentation process. While some rum producers allow wild yeast to perform the fermentation, most use specific strains of yeast to help provide a consistent taste and predictable fermentation time. Dunder, the yeast-rich foam from previous fermentations, is the traditional yeast source in Jamaica. "The yeast employed will determine the final taste and aroma profile," says Jamaican master blender Joy Spence. Distillers that make lighter rums, such as Bacardi, prefer to use faster-working yeasts. Use of slower-working yeasts causes more esters to accumulate during fermentation, allowing for a fuller-tasting rum.

As with all other aspects of rum production, there is no standard method used for distillation. While some producers work in batches using pot stills, most rum production is done using column still distillation. Pot still output contains more congeners than the output from column stills and thus produces a fuller-tasting rum.

Aging and blending
Many countries require that rum be aged for at least one year. This aging is commonly performed in used bourbon casks, but may also be performed in stainless steel tanks or other types of wooden casks. Due to the tropical climate common to most rum-producing areas, rum matures at a much faster rate than is typical for Scotch or Cognac. An indication of this faster rate is the angel's share, or amount of product lost to evaporation. While products aged in France or Scotland see about 2% loss each year, rum producers may see as much as 10%. After aging, rum is normally blended to ensure a consistent flavor. As part of this blending process, light rums may be filtered to remove any color gained during aging. For darker rums, caramel may be added to the rum to adjust the color of the final product.

Classic Rum Drink Recipes

Originally the drink was served in a tall glass packed with cracked ice. A teaspoon of sugar was poured over the ice and the juice of one or two limes was squeezed over the sugar. Two or three ounces of rum completed the mixture. The glass was then frosted by stirring with a long-handled spoon.
Mai Tai (the original Trader Vics recipe)
2 oz of rum over shaved ice. Add juice from one fresh lime, 1/2 oz Orange Curacao, 1/4 oz Trader Vic's Rock Candy Syrup, 1/2 oz French Garnier Orgeat Syrup. Shake vigorously. Add a sprig of fresh mint.

Piña Colada
The Caribe Hilton Hotel in Puerto Rico claims that their bartender, Ramon "Monchito" Marrero created the Piña Colada on August 15, 1954 after spending 3 months perfecting the recipe. Another version of its origin is that in 1963, on a trip to South America , Mr Barrachina met another popular Spaniard and bartender Mr. Ramon Portas Mingot. Don Ramon has worked with the best places in Buenos Aires and associated with 'Papillon', the most luxurious bar in Carcao, and was also recognized for his cocktail recipe books. Pepe Barrachina and Don Ramon developed a great relationship. While working as the main bartender at Barrachina (a restaurant in Puerto Rico), Ramon mixed pineapple juice, coconut cream, condensed milk and ice in a blender, creating a delicious and refreshing drink, known today as the Piña Colada.

The Mojito
Cuba is the birthplace of the mojito, although the exact origin of this classic cocktail is the subject of debate. One story traces the mojito to the 16th century when the cocktail was known as “El Draque,” in honor of Sir Francis Drake. If this is indeed true, the mojito could be considered as the world's first cocktail. The mojito was made with “tafia,” a primitive predecessor of rum, with the other ingredients used to hide the harsh taste. The drink improved substantially in the 19th century, with the introduction of copper stills and the aging process that led to the modern form of rum.

When preparing a mojito, lime juice is added to sugar (or syrup) and mint leaves. The mixture is then gently mashed with a muddler. The mint leaves should only be bruised to release the essential oils and must not be shredded. Then rum is added and the mixture is briefly stirred to dissolve the sugar and to lift the mint sprigs up from the bottom for better presentation. Finally, the drink is topped with ice cubes and sparkling water, and mint leaves and lime wedges are used to garnish the glass.

"So, now ah'm goin ta put on me Tommy Bahama shirt, sunblock an' Maui Jim's then go relax wit' a cold cooool Caribbean libation. Ahh, when me got a cold rum drink in me's olways da same 'ting...nooo problem mon!"

Bon Appetit!

Sources bartending-school.comv

March 17, 2015

A St. Patrick's Day look at Irish Spirits

Irish Pubs
In Ireland there is no shortage of good pubs. They are famous the world over for their rowdy and vibrant atmosphere, good music, good drink and good food. You will find pubs to be very community orientated and a great way to meet the locals, learn some history and really experience the culture. You may even find an Irish pub that's actually the front living room of someone's house, with one or two pumps, a couple of bottles of spirits and maybe some chairs, although these kind of pubs are usually found in remote villages.

The custom of imbibing alcohol on St. Patrick's Day comes from an old Irish legend. Legends like this abound throughout the Irish communities and provinces and I cannot attest as to the veracity of this next tale. Nonetheless, as the story goes, St. Patrick was served a measure of whiskey that was considerably less than full. St. Patrick took this as an opportunity to teach a lesson of generosity to the innkeeper. He told the innkeeper that in his cellar resided a monstrous devil who fed on the dishonesty of the innkeeper. In order to banish the devil, the man must change his ways.
When St. Patrick returned to the hostelry some time later, he found the owner generously filling the patrons' glasses to overflowing. He returned to the cellar with the innkeeper and found the devil emaciated from the landlord's generosity, and promptly banished the demon, proclaiming
thereafter everyone should have a drop of the "hard stuff" on his feast day. Known as "drowning the shamrock" because it is customary to float a leaf of the plant in the whiskey before downing the shot, this custom is known as Pota Phadraig or Patrick's Pot.

Brewed from apples, this alcoholic drink has become very popular in recent years and is drunk by the pint like beer. Its higher alcohol content makes it more "effective" than most beer, while being served ice-cold as a refreshing drink. Drinkers beware! The most popular Irish cider is Bulmer's, named (for trademark reasons) Magner's in Northern Ireland.                         Cream Liquor
Apart from the well-known "Bailey's Irish Cream," several similar liquors are available and targeted mostly at the female market. While the ingredients are basically the same, their proportions vary and so does the taste of these liquors. Normally drunk moderately cool, they are also available on ice or as a shot in black coffee.

In 1759, Arthur Guinness leased the St. James's Gate Brewery and soon after began brewing the popular London porter. He and his family have never looked back. Hence, the porter or stout is synonymous with the family name now. No longer given away free to new mothers as a lukewarm restorative in Dublin hospitals but available on tap everywhere, Guinness is the quintessential Irish beer. And an acquired taste.

Irish Coffee
This beverage was invented shortly after the Second World War by an enterprising Irish barman as a means to revive the flagging spirits of transatlantic air passengers. It combines a good shot of Irish whiskey, steaming hot and strong black coffee, topped with thick double cream poured over the back of a spoon. An excellent restorative after a few miles of vigorous walking on a windswept beach.
Gone out of fashion slightly since the Viking raids, mead has made a comeback in the last few years as an alternative drink somewhere between beers and liquors. Combining the sweetness of honey with the bite of alcohol, meads are popular after-dinner drinks. The variety can be bewildering, some meads are similar to wine or beer, others are medium-strength liquors.

Other Beers
The Irish love their beers - every pub will serve a wide variety on draft or in bottles. Popular Irish beers are Murphy's Stout, Kilkenny and Smithwick's. English and Scottish "lagers" are preferred by the less discerning drinker in a hurry.

This is the most Irish of drinks and could be described as a neat spirit distilled from whatever was at hand. More specifically the word refers to a strong spirit (on par with German schnapps) made from potatoes. Produced for centuries in moonshine stills up and down the country by tax-conscious enthusiasts. Today poitín (or poteen) can be bought legally and with fewer associated health hazards in most off-licenses.

There are several types of whiskey common to Ireland: Single Malt, Single Grain, Pure Pot Still and Blended. The Irish in turn learned about it, according to the Irish at least, from missionary monks who arrived in Ireland in the seventh century. Barley-based whiskey (the word derives from uisce beatha, the Gaelic interpretation of aqua vitae) first appears in the historical record in the mid-1500s when the Tudor kings began to consolidate English control in Ireland. Queen Elizabeth I was said to be fond of it and had casks shipped to London on a regular basis. Irish whiskeys, both blended and malt, are usually triple distilled through both column and pot stills, although there are few exclusively pot-stilled brands.

Irish Pure Pot Still Whiskey is generally labeled as such. Otherwise, Irish whiskeys are a mix of pot and column-distilled whiskeys. Irish Malt Whiskey is likewise so designated. Standard Irish Whiskey is a blend of malt and grain whiskeys. Popular both in neat and mixed forms. Several well-known brands are available, the most popular being Old Bushmills, Tullamore Dew, Power's, Paddy's and Jameson's. Whiskeys are available in blended form or as single grain and single malt pure produce. Tourists should take note that high taxes make Irish whiskey more expensive in Ireland than in a lot of other countries.

Irish Wines
That's right you read that correctly. The European Commission has now officially listed Ireland as a wine producing country. David Llewellyn’s Lusca Vineyards, on the north Dublin coast, is growing cabernet sauvignon, merlot and several other grape varietals along with the rondo grape, a hybrid cross of Zarya Severa and St. Laurent. His vinyard originally planted German vines, bred especially for cooler climates, including Madeleine Angevine and some Pinot Noir. Llewellyn thinks that while the denizens of Burgundy and Bordeaux might not be trembling, there is real potential for a serious winery in Ireland. The Lusca wine range includes a red made from a blend of David’s Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes, and two crisp, dry varietal wines from Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay. The whites are refreshing and youthful, while the red can be drunk at around two years, but has the capacity for aging on to produce a much more sophisticated taste.
Well there you have it. I hope that you have enjoyed our trip through Ireland and its spirits. Don't forget when enjoying yourself this St Patrick's Day, be careful and drink responsibly.....Bon..Appe..What? What's that you're on about now...? Oh, okay....Tis' a yarn you'll be wanting to hear now, eh ? Well then, I'll be leavin ya with this:"

A Texan walks into a pub in Galway, Ireland and raises his voice to the crowd of drinkers. He shouts, 'I hear y'all Irish can really drink. I'll give $500 American dollars to anybody in here who can drink 10 pints of Guinness back to back.' The room is quiet and no one takes of the Texan's offer.

From a table in the back, Paddy Murphy gets up and leaves the bar. Thirty minutes later, he re-enters the pub and taps the Texan on the shoulder. 'Is your bet still good?' asks Paddy. The Texan answers, 'Yes,' and he orders the barman to line up 10 pints of Guinness. Immediately, Paddy downs all 10 pints of beer, drinking them all back to back. The other pub patrons cheer and the Texan sits down in amazement. 

As he hands the Irishman the $500, he asks, 'If y'all don't mind me askin', where'd you git to for that 30 minutes you were gone?' Paddy replied, 'Well now laddie......I wanted to take yer bet when ye first asked..........but just to be sure..............I went to the pub down the street to make sure I could do it before I said yes.'

Bon Appetit & a very Happy St. Patrick's Day to you all.


February 25, 2015

Up Close & Personal with The Chew's Carla Hall

They say life is a journey of discovery. Some of us find ourselves early in life and we spend our time focused on goals we set at an early age. For others, the journey takes us down diverse paths as we search for who we are, trying to find the passion or direction that finally fulfills. For The Chew's Carla Hall, her inspiration and passion came later in life, transforming and shaping her into the lovely lady who graces our television sets each day. She is full of joy, laughter and an infectious enthusiasm for life and things culinary.

Carla grew up in Nashville, Tennessee. Her influence early on with regard to food came from her two grandmothers, Thelma and Freddie Mae. Carla explained, "Back in the day, we did not eat out very much, we ate at home. I remember every time we went to my grandmother's house for Sunday supper. We went there after church every Sunday and to this day those are still my favorite foods. She made a lot of food. But, I was not interested in cooking. I was into the eating," she laughed. "Being from the south, every holiday or life event is all around food. Weddings, births, deaths, what we did is eat." As an Italian, I fully understand that philosophy. For southerners, as well as for folks of my heritage, the heart of the house is the kitchen. I asked Carla what her favorite food her grandma made and without hesitation she answered, "My Grandmother Thelma made this amazing fried chicken. Her recipe was so simple, just a bit of salt and pepper, but it was so tender and juicy.
Nowadays we'd probably call it organic. But back then, everything we ate was more simple and good."

"Thelma was the one who cooked lots of food," she continued, "and we would eat with her during the week. Grandma Freddie Mae's house is where we went on Sundays. That was more of an 'event' with more of the 'holiday foods'. She would make this corn bread, but she would never put it into the oven until we were on the inside of the door to her house. Now, we came to her house every Sunday right about the same time, but she would never make that cornbread until we were all inside that door. She would never start it before, no matter what. For me, as a kid, it was torture actually because we knew that we wouldn't eat for another 20 minutes and it seemed like longest 20 minutes of my life. I used to wish that my parents could call her and say we were on the way, so it would be ready when we got there. It wasn't like it was a surprise party or anything," she laughed, "she knew we were coming, but it was about her always wanting things to be perfect, with the bread coming fresh out of the oven while we were there."

In high school, when picking a career direction and major in college Carla chose accounting. She explained that she really liked her accounting teacher, which influenced her decision on a major. But, her true passion was for the theater and the performing arts. She loved performing. "I did theater and performed from 12 to 17. I loved it. I was on track to go to a conservatory and major in theater. I wanted to go to Boston University and it was the only school that I applied for. Unfortunately, they were going to defer my admission. I was shocked!" she exclaimed. Hall then followed her sister with a late admission to Howard University, where she received a degree in accounting. Interestingly enough she has been quoted as saying, "I knew as soon as I passed my CPA exam, I wasn't going to be an accountant." She decided to go to Europe and model and it was there, traveling through Europe, that awakened her passion for food and inspired a new career path. I asked her to expand on the experience. 

"My whole thing with the accounting was that I did not want to wake up one day and find I hated my job." She explained, "I really did not know what I wanted to do. People asked 'were you afraid?' I was actually, but I was not afraid of going to Paris. I always knew I could come home. I was afraid of waking up at 40 and hating my job. I was on a quest, on a journey to figure out what I wanted to be, what I wanted to do. When I was at Howard I had done some modeling and I had some girlfriends with whom I had modeled when in college. Looking back," she continued, "my intention was to figure out what I wanted to do and modeling was that bridge between what I didn't what to do, and what I would eventually do.

It was during this time in Europe that the seed and love of culinary was awakened in Carla. I asked her to explain. "First of all," she offered, "I was in a foreign country and there were a lot of American models. On Sundays, we all got together and we would do this big brunch. It was all about the food and making food that made us all feel at home (America). We would make things like Buffalo Wings, or Macaroni and Cheese. I remember running to the market to get turnip greens before they would throw them away, because they would cut them off and sell the turnips, but would throw away the greens. It was all about  a reminder of home. The girls would all compare 'my mom made it like this,' etc. and I had no idea how anything was made because as a kid, as I mentioned, I was just waiting to eat the food, not paying attention to how it was made. I became fascinated. I started buying cookbooks. I gave myself the time to figure it out. Not having to worry about a job allowed me to really figure it out at my own pace. I was having an experience and I realized it at the time. Yes, I was running around, looking for modeling jobs but, I knew this was not going to be my career. I allowed myself the time to really learn about cooking. I got to travel and make food, taste and explore the food of Europe. When I came back to the States, I lived with friends, not having my own place, so I started making food and cleaning. My way of paying them back was to cook for them."

Carla then moved to Washington, D.C. to be with her sister and it was there that she and a friend opened a lunch delivery service as a fluke and, as she put it, "I became 'The Lunch Lady' for 5 years. I made sandwiches. Lots of sandwiches," she remembered chuckling, "I made cakes and biscuits. I had this whole little concept. Mostly turkey, no beef or pork. Healthy salads and such and on Fridays I would make something special. We called it 'The Lunch Bunch.' It was originally The Lunch Basket, because that's how I originally delivered the food. I started with a few clients which then turned into more clients and at its height I probably had about 25 regulars. I bought a used mail truck for about $200. It had one seat and a cooler in the back. It was hard work." 

Fueled with a new passion for culinary, Hall then attended L’Academie de Cuisine in Maryland where she completed her culinary training, going on to work as a sous chef at the Henley Park Hotel in Washington, D.C.. She also served as Executive Chef at both The State Plaza Hotel and The Washington Club, and has taught classes at CulinAerie, Sur la Table and her alma mater, L’Academie de Cuisine. I asked what she took away from those years working the line and she explained, "I liked the action. I also liked that at the end of the night you felt like you had accomplished something. You made it through. Being a morning person, I never experienced the culture of hanging out after the shift though. I was older. And," she laughed, "I was tired. I went home and went to sleep."

This is where Hall explained to me that she knew she had finally found herself, her direction and her career path. "I knew because it was hard work, yet I still wanted to do it. I still was enthusiastic. That was truly when I knew this was it. I did not spend many years on the line," she offered. "I went from the restaurants to catering quite quickly. Now that I am planning on opening my own restaurant though, it's a different mindset. It will be my name, my concept, so I really want to make sure that I know every aspect of the business; front of the house and back. I won't necessarily be the chef, but, they will be my recipes, my name on the door and I want to be able to jump on that line anytime they need me to. In any capacity. If my name is on it, there is no way I am not going to be involved in every aspect."

The conversation finally came around to her 'big break,' television and Top Chef. I asked her how it all came about and she explained, "When I did Top Chef, I really wasn't thinking about a career on television. For me, it was a personal challenge that happened to be on television. I didn't do it to get my name out there. None of that was on my mind. It was game, a personal challenge." I asked her if she thought that she was at a disadvantage as a contestant, coming from a catering background while most of her competitors were coming with years of experience on the line in a restaurant. She immediately replied, "A lot of the chefs, when you look at the challenges, the advantage that they had as a restaurant chef was that they had a lot of dishes on their menus that they do over and over again, day after day. They have the muscle memory of doing those same things over and over again. The advantage to a catering background when you have a challenge is, you have to move the food all over the place. You never know where you'll be cooking. You constantly have to be prepared for change, cooking in a different location. Catering gives you that ability. I think that it basically evened the playing field." She continued, "For me, catering is about service, thinking on your feet, on the fly, talking to the client. Many of my competitors were surprised that I was still there, that I stuck around. Top Chef is not only about the food, but how you handle the pressure as a person. How you dig deep and keep going."

We then moved to The Chew, which, as I write this, is one of the top shows on tv. With fellow hosts Mario Batali, Michael Symon, Daphne Oz and Clinton Kelly, the show has taken America by storm. I asked Carla to bring us through how she came to be one of the hosts and she explained, "Folks think that I just got The Chew because of Top Chef. The reality is that right off Top Chef All Stars I was one of 170-200 other people who auditioned. They were looking for 5 people. They put us all together for twenty minutes and we had great chemistry instantly. It's so popular now that people actually get upset sometimes when we take long breaks in between shooting the show, but we really need the time to rejuvenate. To do a daily show, the energy and intense focus we have to bring to keep it fresh, funny and interesting is daunting. It takes a lot out of you, so we do it in what we call semesters, so that on breaks we get to recharge the batteries."

With such a intensive shoot schedule, coupled with personal appearances, a new book tour and working on a new restaurant concept, I asked if her schedule takes a toll on her family. She lives in Washington, DC with her husband, Matthew Lyons, and stepson Noah. "It's hard, we live in D.C. and my husband is there, he works for the FDA. I am here in NYC. We try to see each other as much as possible, mostly on the weekends. We take turns. He comes up here (to NYC) every other weekend. I go to D.C. unless I have appearances."

I then broached a subject that is a bit controversial and I gave Carla the option of discussing it or not. Recently, she had launched a Kick Starter campaign to help raise money for kitchen equipment for her upcoming restaurant opening and throughout the industry and public it was met with mixed reactions. Some approved while others thought it was not appropriate. As this is Up Close and Personal, I wanted to give Carla the chance to respond in a neutral atmosphere. She graciously
offered, "I definitely would not do it again. I was shocked at people's reactions. I was shocked that people assume that because you are on television it automatically means you are rich. I was shocked that folks also believe everything that they read. There are these websites, solely for entertainment purposes, that supposedly tell you what your favorite tv or film stars are worth and they had a ridiculous number claiming I was worth millions. For instance one of those site lists me as white," she laughed, "I mean to look at me, do I look white?" She continued, "It was a surprise to me, that with my new found celebrity, the public believes that they really know you. And frankly, they don't. I had to get used to that."

It was here that Carla and I discussed why I do these interviews. You see, there is a persona that tv presents to you all that sometimes gets confused with reality. Now that's not to say that the personality or person you admire on tv is being disingenuous. I just mean that  tv doesn't always allow, depending on the format, the opportunity for all of our favorite tv stars true personality and all the info about them to be presented. Here with these interviews, my hope is that you get to know a bit more about the true person, behind the persona. She explained that though she has discussed it here, at the time she chose to remain silent about it and not respond publicly to her detractors. To me that was a sign of class. "It was hard not to respond, but I felt it was the right way to handle it. Another lesson I learned was there were many people who were actually supportive and understood why I did the campaign and I said to myself, 'Why should I let the 1% who had something negative to say, overshadow the 99% who were positive about it.' I really believe that when you do something you have to analyze the lesson that may be presented, take the reactions from the source and either dismiss it or pay attention to it. The choice is ours. But that is easier said than done." She continued, "It did hurt to hear and read the negative comments. I think that sometimes people forget that you are not just this persona on tv but you are a real person with real feelings. I think that what Social Media has done is given a voice to a lot of anonymous people without a face. I doubt some folks would say what they said online to my face. I had to remind myself that an opinion offered without facts is just someone name calling." I have to agree with Carla here. As one who's public life, from and now this blog and twitter, has revolved around social media. We have to realize that there are folks online, trolls they are now called, who are out on social media just looking for opportunities to hate or make fun. It's become part of the game, as it were.

I then moved the topic to something a bit more sweet, Carla's commercial endeavors. In addition to her cookbooks, Carla's Comfort Foods and Cooking With Love, Comfort Food That Hugs You, she has a line of baked goods available on her website and stores in 8 states. Bite-size cookies that look like a snack, but pair boldly and beautifully with beer, wine and tea. Here you’ll find familiar flavors with a surprising twist, such as the Pecan Shortbread with Vanilla Salt and Goat Cheese with Dried Cranberries with a hint of rosemary. Carla's artisan cookies are made in small batches, packaged by hand and contain only the finest ingredients—European-style butter, unbleached sugar & flour, couverture chocolate, artisan cheeses, fresh nuts, premium spices. I asked about her expansion into the restaurant business. She explained, "We are currently looking for space and hopefully late spring early summer we'll be launching Carla's Southern Kitchen."

To sum up I asked Carla about the whole experience, from Top Chef to The Chew, what's on the horizon and what has been her biggest lesson and had the biggest impact on her. She thought for a moment and answered, "Remembering who I am. My prayer everyday is about my keeping my authenticity. Regardless of people knowing me or not knowing me, it's about who I am and making sure I don't change. Fortunately I came into this notoriety later in life, at age 42. I think it's really hard to grow up in the public eye. If I have one advantage it's that, I hope, I grew up well before the tv fame came, I know who I am and I try to make sure that the person I am is who I present to the general public. I am who I am and I feel that's a blessing.  Being older, I also take it all with a grain of salt. This (fame) can go as quickly as it came. What's also important to me is to maintain something of my own. I think that's why I maintain the cookies because if The Chew went away today, I have the cookie business to fall back on. If I did not, I have to say I'd be really nervous."

We who know Carla also know how much she loves to dance. It is almost as signature to her as her Hootie Hoo! I asked if she could choose what the soundtrack to her life would be, her answer summed up everything I have come to respect and expect from this vivacious lady. "Anything with a beat, especially R & B, something that keeps my feet moving, especially forward."

I hope that you have enjoyed reading this in-depth chat with Carla as much as I did in bringing it to you. I look for more fun, frolic and great culinary things from this lady and I know we'll all be watching and enjoying as she brings us along on her adventures.

To find out more about Carla, her products, cookbooks and where she might be appearing live near you, visit her website at and connect with her via social media here; Facebook, Twitter, Instagram

Till next time,


January 23, 2015

It's Chefs Cycle for No Kid Hungry 2015! Join the ride to end Childhood Hunger! #ChefsCycle

This post is a special shout out to all my chef friends, restaurateurs and hospitality people out there. As a proud member of the food community, one of the things I'm most proud of is that the hospitality industry is the number one industry when it comes to philanthropic outreach. It has something to do with the fact that the definition of hospitality is; the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers. In other words, service. To that end, I'd like to talk to you all about a great initiative that I am involved in with No Kid Hungry/Share Our Strength, my good friend Chef Jason Roberts, along with a number of chefs and hospitality professionals that have stepped up with us. It's called Chefs Cycle for No Kid Hungry. 

The first pilot ride was held in May of 2014 with between 11-20 riders who rode their bicycles 300 miles from NYC to Washington, D.C. over a three day period. It was a huge success, raising a little under 25k. This year I'm counting on you all to help No Kid Hungry get the word out about this great cause, or, step up to ride, help recruit or become a sponsor.

For 2015, NKH has expanded your opportunity to join us as a rider, sponsor or donor. There will be two rides on each coast. The West Coast ride will begin in Santa Barbara ending up in San Diego. The East Coast ride will retrace it's 2014 miles, beginning in NYC through Philadelphia and Baltimore and ending in Washington, D.C.

 For many of you that have read my musings over the last 8 years, you all know of my efforts and support of food related charities and organizations. More than 16 million kids in America struggle with hunger. For those not aware, this year over 45 million people in America will be food deficient at some point and over 16 million of those who are going hungry are children. With their Cooking Matters, School BreakfastDine Out, Taste of the Nation, Bake SaleNo Kid Hungry This Summer programs and proper nutrition initiatives, No Kid Hungry is committed to making sure that our children get the food they need to grow, be healthy and lead productive lives.

NKH's goal is to have 50 chefs, 25 on each coast raise vital funds and awareness by committing to raise $10,000.00 each by riding all or a portion of either ride.  They are seeking chefs, servers, teams, sous chefs, bartenders, owners or office teams from food and culinary companies who would like to join the ride to make sure kids have access to food where they live, learn and play. For those who may not be able to ride but would like to sponsor a team, rider or, just donate as these riders put their pedals where their hearts are, we are asking you to pledge $1 for every mile they ride. Every $1 you donate can help connect a child with up to 10 meals! Help us make No Kid Hungry a reality. Donate here.

Most of you who read me and follow on twitter are foodies, chefs, hospitality professionals, pr firms and culinary media. This is OUR event! I am asking you to step up and help it be a success. I am not, as many of you know, one to ask for favors or financial help, but this cause is too important and the needs of these children who go hungry or are food deficient are too great to not speak up.

To my corporate friends, they need you to step up and commit needed dollars, supplies, expertise, to support the ride and show the way. They need help with food, lodging, media coverage, social media exposure, as well as gear, energy snacks, bike kits, medical and safety kits. I'm asking you to step up for the kids and get involved.

Every dollar counts! If you are who I call, one of my chefs, a restaurant or hospitality/culinary company that has been involved with me over the years, I'm specifically asking for your love and support. If you would like to find out more about riding, please contact Deb Shore at All others can help by donating, re-tweeting, re-posting, sharing and any other way you can help us get the word out and get involved.

I am counting on all of you to step up with those chefs that have already committed and the rest of #TeamNKH and help us in the fight to eradicate childhood hunger in our lifetime. Together, we can make sure that we leave NO KID HUNGRY!

Visit the website to find out how you can help:

Thanks for your support and please share this with as many as possible!


January 18, 2015

Up Close & Personal with The Sandwich King, Jeff Mauro

There are those of us who were born to entertain, imbued with a certain sense of timing, personality, drive and love of people that compels us to be the center of attention. It's a burning desire to make people laugh, or to somehow make an impact on an emotional level. Whether our preferred method of delivery is word or deed, song, painting, or plate of food, the desire to seek a public audience is something we are born with. As an entertainer most of my adult life, I understand. Some of us just have an innate need to bring joy, laughter, tears, or in some cases any type of emotional reaction from those around us, or in the audience. Something about type A personalities. Certainly my friend Jeff Mauro has it. Most of us with this affliction know early on what we want in a career. For me it was writing, music at first, and now well, here you are. For my friend Jeff Mauro, this was true at an early age as well.

I met Jeff back in 2012. We spent a few days together at the Fabulous Food Show in Ohio. We talked about careers, hopes and what the future might hold. He'd won the Next Food Network Star, and now into the 2 season of his show The Sandwich King, had gained attention, his momentum presenting a career upswing that would possibly propel him to household name status and bring him to a next level of public awareness. He was aware of the opportunity and it was very clear in our casual after-hours conversations that he was determined to work hard and take advantage of it. 

Flash ahead to December, 2014. Jeff Mauro is now the star of Food Network's Emmy-nominated Sandwich King, $24 in 24 hrs, and the immensely popular, The Kitchen, with co stars, Geoffrey Zakarian, Katie Lee, Marcela Valladolid and Sunny Anderson. He has appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, The Steve Harvey Show, Chopped, Cupcake Wars and The Rachael Ray Show. When not making TV, Jeff  spends a great deal of time with his wife and first love Sarah, and roughousin’ with his five-year-old son and co-star, Lorenzo. I also hear that he plays above average blues guitar. If you know me at all, you know THAT was music to my ears. 

The thing about Jeff that I admire the most though has nothing to do with fame. It's the fact that no matter how overwhelming his schedule of TV shoots, live show appearances, as well as the frequent appearances on TV, his family stands hands above all the rest of his priorities. We'd talked for some time about him sitting down for an Up Close & Personal and the chance finally presented itself during the 2014 holiday season. His schedule is, to put it bluntly, insane. "Dude, it's crazy," he laughed. "I just got back from the Palm Beach Food & Wine, then flew out to NYC to film The Kitchen, it's nice now over the holidays I can slow down a bit. I'm going on vacation with the family, my wife and son, right after Christmas. But yeah, I basically live to get on a plane." 

Family, to most Italians, including Jeff, is most important. Born in 1978 in Chicago, IL, he was a ham on a roll from the very beginning. As one of 4 kids, he was the family comedian, making the whole family laugh.

Jeff’s flair for the stage was discovered early on in Roosevelt Jr. High 3rd grade's legendary production of "Let George Do It!" From that point on, he immersed himself in the performing arts and flourished. "I was always decent in sports, I kinda liked it, but between you and me, I hated moving. I didn't gravitate toward physical activity. If you see pictures of me I was a chubby kid."

He explained, "It started in the 3rd grade with that play. I went for the part, we all had to audition. I played King George IV. I was like, 'I can do a British accent!' I don''t know where I got it, TV, nursery rhymes, who knows...but I nailed it. Got the part." He continued, "My mom and dad had no idea I had the ability to perform, after all it was third grade. I went out there in the first scene, and breaking into an English accent, quoted lines, ('What ho, what is this nonsense..etc,)' in a Shakespearean manner. My parents from that point on encouraged me into that world. I took Youth Second City classes, was in all the schools plays. I was the funny kid at home and in class. I just wanted to make people laugh from a very young age."

Jeff graduated from Bradley University in Peoria, IL. I mentioned that I had an uncle who had attended Bradley and he replied, "Two of my three siblings, my wife and my sister-in-law all went to Bradley. Out here, everybody goes to Bradley. We don't stray far." Since he was talking about staying in the area close to his roots, I asked him about his keeping things local to his hometown, Elmwood Park and Chicago. He explained, "The only time I lived away from this area, this literal square mile, my whole life, was when my wife and I moved to LA. I was hustling back then, trying to get a cooking show. I went to culinary school out there, but this neighborhood, it always pulls me back. I'm six miles from downtown Chicago, the third largest city in the country. There really is no reason to leave. I notice that folks who've made it in this market (career wise) leave and go to New York or LA. I wanted to stay close and raise my kids here. Have them go to the same schools I went to."

Right after college, armed with a degree in communications, Jeff naturally opened up a deli called Prime Time with his cousin, a fellow chef. Because that's what you do with a degree in communications, you open a sandwich shop. It was there that he honed his people skills and fell in love with cooking and crafting sandwiches. I asked him about graduating top of his class from culinary school. He answered proudly, "Yup, top of my class; never was late, never missed a day." Jeff graduated Valedictorian, packed up his Honda and returned to Chicago. "I felt I needed to legitimize myself, especially if I wanted to be on camera as a professional cook. Practically, if this whole entertainment thing didn't work out, cheffing would be a
fallback." He expanded, "I was 25 or so, it was my second round of school, so I knuckled down....I didn't want to blow it. I showed up early, I cooked harder. I cleaned harder. I was yelling at all the 18-year old students, 'Let's hustle.'"

I asked him what from culinary school had the biggest impact on him as a chef. He answered immediately, "The fundamentals. You can learn from another chef at a restaurant, but I got a good, broad foundation, doing a spectrum of different foods correctly." Instead of going right back to pursuing his TV career, Jeff put in his chef time, as a culinary instructor and successful private chef, while still finding time to be a local comedic performer. "I answered an ad for a corporate chef, for their cafeteria. I went there and the place was a disaster." He remembered, "They had this cafe, the guy doing it all wrong. I transformed it into this destination for people in the offices. I was prepping and cleaning and cooking and interacting all day with all kinds of people. It was great training, steady work and I did my comedy at night."

After 3 unsuccessful audition attempts, he finally landed himself on Season 7 of Next Food Network Star, which he totally won. He offered, "The third time trying out I sent a video. It started because my wife had a premonition. She simply said, 'Send the video, it's going to change our lives,' and she was right." I then touched on his inclusion of his family into his TV show, speaking about the support of his family and especially his wife Sarah. He replied, "My wife was a nurse, I was a cook. We'd known each other since I was a freshman in college. We've been together since we were 21 years old, and she knew I had these dreams. She supported me. She came to LA with me. She was one of 3 people at a comedy show. I want to honor that commitment. I think a lot of people shy away from that, putting their kid, or family in front of the camera, I get that. We're all growing in this together. My son has done 30 episodes of television," he stated firmly. "My wife, my parents, aunts, uncles, they've all been on the show. I want to share this with them. I was approached to do a reality show, cus my family is a bunch of nutzos," he laughed, "but that's where I draw the line."

We talked about his success and accolades for his show Sandwich King and The Kitchen, but I wanted to step back a bit and asked why he stuck to his guns arguing 'sandwiches will sell,' when he won The Next Food Network Star. "It was authentic to me," he explained," I didn't want to change who I was. I think I embody what the sandwich represents, it's an extension of my personality; ya know, kinda fun, loose and creative. I'm not the guy whose going to do farm-to-table, or funky crazy food. Sandwiches was one of the only things not being done on TV that I thought could sustain a series."

Five years later, and a few Emmy nominations would prove Jeff was right. "Luckily I was never persuaded to veer off. I think I gave them a lot, I spoke my mind in those interviews, I hammed it up during the cooking portions." He remembered, "My goal was to show that I could make good television. To show I was producible. That is at least half of the equation, half the job requirements." Jeff brings something to the table that is part of the chemistry of good entertainers. Not only are they producible and able to follow direction, but some like Jeff, have an ability to self produce. They have a certain instinct for where the camera is, the timing, and an overall awareness of the bigger picture that the audience sees.

That brought his new show The Kitchen to the conversation "I love the puzzle of it (television). That's why I like The Kitchen so much, I sit back. I know who's talking when, when to jump in. We're getting into a rhythm now. Geoffery and I are very good friends. He and his wife were one of the first to welcome us with open arms, our wives are good friends." He laughed, "Even though we couldn't be more opposite, he laughs at my crap. We play off each other. When he and Sunny came along to the cast, all of us already had a history, so we were all glad to be working together."

I asked him about his little sidekick, Lorenzo. Does he know who dad is? How does he handle the notoriety, people coming up to Dad all the time, the cameras etc.? He replied candidly, "Oh yeah, he gets it. He's unaffected by it to a certain degree. We never talk about it. If someone brings it up we're honest and open about it. It's all about how we conduct ourselves," he continued. "We teach him you don't act all cooler than everyone else just because you're on TV. I raise him to believe that you work for your stuff. You bring your dish to the sink and clean it for yourself. We live in a normal house, I mean, we live in the same neighborhood I grew up in! We're ten feet from the sidewalk. We sit on the stoop. We are the same. We're normal. He goes to the same catholic school I went to. C'mon , I mean that's amazing! He goes to the same kindergarten classroom I did," he proclaims proudly."It's funny though. When we were out one time and he wanted quicker service, he said, 'you know my dad is The Sandwich King,' and we'll were' like...'Lorenzo!' He laughed, "Needless to say he's a typical Chicagoan. He'll grease a couple of palms, or drop a few names when he has to."

We talked blues guitar, my band days and his collection of guitars and there was some talk of my coming out to play a little blues. Seems Jeff, who's played since freshman year in college, gets together with some of the crew between shoots of his show and they jam. Here is just another example of a constantly creative mind, ever at work trying to find avenues of release. "Instead of sitting there in-between shoots, staring at my phone like a dolt, we play music. It's changed my motivation. The music settles me." With regard to what's coming up in the near future, he mentioned a possible book and some irons in the fire that he is considering, but was very close to the vest. To me, he seems content with the balance and direction of his life right now, and it's clearly evident he's in a good place, content to ride the wave and see where it leads. In wrapping up, on behalf of you my readers, I posed Jeff some questions on a series of topics I thought you might find interesting.

On his most embarrassing moment: 
"It was season two of Sandwich King," he remembers. "We had a brand new set, new production team. It was the first scene, of the first movement, of the first was the first everything. To raise the stakes a bit higher for me, the head of the network stops in to supervise, Bob Tishman. All new crew, all new director, everything new. I'm prepping for the first scene, chopping parsley and I cut off a good chunk of my thumb. Brand new knife, so sharp you could use it as a razor. Shut down production for three hours. Bob said, 'Don't worry, the  same thing happened to Rachael Ray so maybe it's good luck.'

Jeff's go to kitchen gadget at home:
"I would have to say my flat bottom griddle pan," he offered, "No ridges. You can do like 4 pancakes, 4 eggs, grilled cheese."

Favorite food his mom made growing up: 
"Without question, we would get this on special occasions, like birthdays, Christmas, etc.. Her Braciole. So good. So rich. So delicious."

I finished up and asked him what it's like coming full circle. Judging when he sits in on Chopped vs back when he started, being judged, his immediately response was "It's much better to judge than to be judged, let's get that straight right out of the box. But I love doing this. I sit there and think 'this is
the greatest thing in the world, what I do.' Between shooting episodes on the set, as I sit there it hits me and I can't believe that I'm doing this. It's surreal." With regard to his even more hectic TV and appearance schedule, he added, "I get in and I get out. Once the work is done, my priority is to get back here to my family. Home. As long as I can do that, I'm ok with it."
It's apparent that hard work and dedication pays off. Especially when you've got your priorities right.

I hope you've enjoyed this glimpse into the man behind the sandwich. You can get more information about Jeff on his website: Follow him on Social Media: twitter, facebook, instagram.

Til next time, 
All Photos courtesy of Jeff Mauro