Tuesday, July 29, 2008


After prepping meats and fish for the restaurant, we began cold smoking our salmon and trout that cured for a few days. Cold smoking adds a subtle smoky flavor and gives an appealing presentation. Chef Janet has been teaching us about cold and hot smoking techniques and the process is not something I would recommend doing at home unless you want firemen crashing through your door.

Chef brought us hickory wood chips and untreated coals. We placed the black coals on a gas burner to heat them up until they were ashy in color. In a cold oven we placed the salmon and trout on racks in sheet trays on the top level of the oven. In the middle level we put down a layer of ice on a sheet pan to act as a buffer to the smoking embers. On the floor of the oven we placed an aluminum container filled with smoldering coals and hickory chips. As the smoke arose it was chilled by the icy tray and then bloomed over the trays of fish.

Chef Janet explained why we would cold smoke instead of hot smoke the fish. In the case of the salmon hot smoking would “cook” the fish and change its texture. The trout on the other hand was cold smoked for the flavor and then it finished cooking in a low oven.

Once the salmon emerged from the smoking oven (mind you we had to reheat the coals half a dozen time to keep the smoke going) we sliced the fish on a bias to obtain long paper-thin slices to enjoy. The smoke imparted a rich flavor and our dry cure gave the salmon a firmer texture by withdrawing all of the moisture out of the fish thus preserving it.

The trout on the other hand was saved to use for the next buffet where it was a big hit and flew off the serving platter. I made a sauce with fresh dill, crème fraîche and freshly grated horseradish to give it a little kick. The creamy dill sauce pared extremely well with the tender smoked white fish.

As I think back to our smoking experience, I am reminded of the amazing scent of hickory wood filling the kitchen – it reminded me of the cozy warmth of a winter fireplace even though it was 90 degrees outside.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Producers

All good things must come to an end, our last night in the Buffet kitchen we cleaned up from the mess we made from producing a bounty of food and rotated to our new role for the coming two weeks in the Production kitchen. The Production kitchen is where all the fish and meat gets prepped for the school’s restaurant, L’École. At the beginning of each class, we go through all of the items that the main kitchen needs butchered or filleted for that evening. I’ve broken down a whole leg of lamb, cleaned squid, filleted mackerel, frenched racks of pork and I am learning all of this under the guidance of an amazing Chef. I met Chef Janet in a lecture class we had very early on when we were all in Level I. She taught us how to sharpen our knives on a whet stone and calibrate our new thermometers. She fascinated me with her stories and excitement when it came to charcuterie. She possesses the kind of excitement for food that is intoxicating and I am thrilled to learn from her experience and be around her fun, excited energy.

Immediately, on our first full night, we got to work breaking down lamb, venison, tenderloins, halibut and sea bass that were so large it required two large cutting boards to fillet them. Once we whip through everything the restaurant needs we go to task on making charcuterie items and learning lots of different techniques. That night Chef Janet suggested we dry cure salmon with Tequila, mint, and salt. We prepped trout with a dry cure to later cold smoke it in another class. Lastly, my partner and I removed the pork loin from a rack of rib chops and Chef Janet guided us in making Canadian Bacon by brining the pork loin in a wet cure of salt, water, maple syrup and crushed sage. All the food items we made needed a few days to cure and we followed the step-by-step process of making dry and wet cures and why you would choose one over another.

At the end of the night, after we labeled and wrapped up all that we were working on, Chef Janet bounced around the kitchen and asked us what we wanted to do for future classes. Before we could even think of an answer she belted out ideas that almost overwhelmed me with anticipation. Thoughts of making your own bacon, duck prosciutto, seafood sausage, duck rillette, foie gras, and smoked meats was so intriguing I almost blurted out, “I want to do it all!”

I’m more fascinated now with charcuterie and butchering than I ever thought I would be. Understanding how curing evolved through the ages as a way to preserve food when refrigeration was not available is ingenious. Lastly, the fear of not knowing how to butcher large cuts of meat is no longer a daunting task – not that I know everything by any means! Just the simple act of buying a whole fish and being confident enough that I could take that fish and make boneless fillets for dinner is a rewarding feeling.


Our second buffet in this rotation had a Latin/Seafood theme. It was our last special buffet to work on so we really wanted to impress with great flavors and a beautiful display.

We had been preparing in the prior two classes for this night, my first drama of the evening was that I couldn’t find the frozen Bacalao fritters in the fourth floor kitchen. I raced around to other kitchens and finally found them in another freezer. It was important to get them out as soon as possible since they had to defrost before being fried. I made a pureed roasted red pepper and tomato sauce to go with the codfish fritters.

My big project for the evening was making a traditional Portuguese dish of Pork and Clams. I had the pork cubes in a marinade for two days and proceeded to dry off the meat and sear it in a large Rondeau. Once I was able to sear the meat in two batches I worked on caramelizing the aromatics that I used in the marinade. Once the Rondeau was deglazed I added the meat back with some flour to coat the meat. I stirred the dry mixture to cook out the raw flour taste and then added hot veal stock to braise the pork covered in a low oven (about 325 – 350 degrees).

After about 1½ hours I removed the pork from the oven, separated the meat from the aromatics and strained the cooking liquid. I began reducing the sauce and time was ticking away. The pork went back into the sauce and then the clams were added to steam open in the covered pot. It is very common to have roasted potatoes with this dish so I cubed Idaho potatoes and roasted them in duck fat in a convection oven.

Finally it was time to get our dishes out, I thickened the sauce with a mixture of room temperature butter mixed with flour. The sauce took on a velvety texture and I tasted it for seasoning. At the end of the night, I was proud of the dishes that I prepared and hoped that I brought a little of myself to the table.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

All in the Family

All of the Assistant Chefs I’ve come into contact with have been great to work with but one in particular is my favorite hands down. Chef Laura, has been with my group all through Level I, II and III and she has become a wonderful confidant and mentor in many ways.

The other day we were happy to see her in our new kitchen since we don’t get to interact with her in our Level IV class. She mentioned that she needed some volunteer help to prepare family meal on a day that I didn’t have class – my cooking pal, Marcela and I signed up on the spot.

The evening we were slated to help out for family meal, Chef Laura told us what main ingredients we had to work and we quickly brainstormed and came up with a plan. We had grilled flank steak, boneless breasts of chicken and whatever produce we could possibly need. We also had to prepare some wraps/sandwiches for the Level VI students who were having their final that night.

We quickly got to work, Marcela decided to make a flank steak salad with cilantro and marinated red onions and a vinaigrette – she also worked on the wraps which looked quite tasty – especially the ones filled with roasted vegetables and goat cheese.

I decided to use the chicken breasts to make the largest amount of Jambalaya that I’ve ever made in my life. Chef and I talked out my recipe and she suggested some very smart ideas to make the recipe work for a buffet-sized portion. Learning to cook in large quantities is very tricky just simply for the mere size and proportion of ingredients.

I quickly cleaned and roughly chopped my celery, onions and red peppers than I ran batches of the vegetables in a giant food processor called a Robot Coupe. I began by sautéing bacon and sweating my vegetables in a pot called a Rondeau that had to be 3½ feet in diameter. Once the all the vegetables were properly sweated, which took about 30 minutes, I added loads of chopped shallots and garlic to give them a quick sauté. Normally, at this point I would toss in my rice, seasonings (including: ground pepper, salt, cayenne, Tabasco, chili powder and a touch of smoky paprika) and chicken stock but here is where we diverted from the procedure. We decided to season the vegetable mixture, add a restaurant-sized can of tomatoes (that were first chopped in the Robot Coupe), and a large quantity of red beans. After those additions I let the mixture sit on the stove barely simmering.

The 8 quarts of rice were started in another Rondeau with hot chicken stock and left covered to absorb all that flavor. The chicken (all three sheet trays) were drizzled with blended oil and then seasoned with salt, pepper, smoky paprika, and chili powder. Chef Laura suggested we roast the chicken in a high-powered convection oven to seal in the juiciness. About 15 – 20 minutes later the chicken was done and allowed to rest. The rice was perfect and ready to be transferred into hotel pans for the buffet table and my saucy mixture was thinned out with some hot chicken stock. For a nice garnish I sautéed more bacon lardons, chopped some scallions and sautéed some shrimp to add to the Jambalaya.

We layered sliced chicken breasts in a hotel pan then covered that with the flavorful Jambalaya mixture and finally added our garnish of bacon, scallions and shrimp. The rice was served plain and on the side which worked out very well. Soon lots of Chefs and kitchen staff filed into the family meal kitchen and started inhaling the food we laid out. The flank steak salad was a big hit as well as the Jambalaya – even one of the pickiest Chefs came in and told me it was flavorful, very good and that he enjoyed it. When it all comes down to it – that type of appreciation is why I love to cook for loved ones, friends and now my new family at the French Culinary Institute.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Cooking with Heart & Soul

I often reminisce about food I’ve enjoyed either from trips abroad or even from my childhood. Flavors and scents will trigger memories for me – from the aroma of Mom’s marinara sauce slowly cooking on top of the stove all day even to the headiness of sautéing onions with dried Italian herbs.

Our second buffet is slated for next week and I’ve been inspired to cook Portuguese-inspired food. Our theme is focused on Latin flavors and my dishes will fall right in line with what we plan to present at the buffet. Chef must have read my mind because the other night when I came into the kitchen he said he ordered some salted codfish (Bacalao – as it is referred to in my home) I smiled and rifled though my papers and pulled out a recipe for Pasteis de Bacalao (codfish fritters) and showed Chef.

Bacalao (pronounced băh-kăh-yēow) is a main ingredient in many Mediterranean cultures. Recipes are found in French, Basque, Spanish, and Portuguese kitchens. It was a prized food in the days before refrigeration was perfected – the cod was preserved in salt and dried and could be held for long periods of time. It was prefect for the time, a product that was not affected by inadequate storage and the opportunity to have fish when fresh fish was not an option.

Growing up in a Polish/Portuguese household, I was exposed to lots of different foods that were not typically American. I think those experiences laid the groundwork for me to have a greater acceptance of food in all its wonderful variety and genres. Bacalao was a common ingredient at the Ramos home. I remember seeing my mom soaking cod for a few days in water to release all the caked-on salt. She would change the water a couple of times a day to ensure that most of the salt would be released.

When preparing codfish, most often we would have them as an appetizer of crisp, fried Bacalao fritters. Other times we would also have a salad of broken cod, with herbs such as parsley, with sliced boiled potatoes and really good extra-virgin olive oil.

I was really excited to work with the Bacalao that Chef ordered and having NEVER made Bacalao fritters I was charged with the challenge. In fact, I haven’t had them in ages so that’s another plus! A few days before class I was on the phone with my Mom asking her how she made her fried Bacalao balls. Then she consulted with our cousins to refine the recipe and double check procedure. Finally a 10:30 pm call from Mom resulted in the recipe and procedure for the dish.

Back in the school’s kitchen, I put a stockpot filled with milk on the fire and added my codfish so it would soften and be pliable. I kept the fish on a low simmer and let it steep in the milk for about 40 minutes. Next, I chopped onion, shallot and garlic in a fine mince and I began sautéing the onion until almost translucent with no caramelized color, then added the shallot and lastly the garlic just to release its flavor. Chef came by and added a healthy pour of extra-virgin olive oil to the mixture and said, “its Mediterranean, we need lots of good olive oil!”

Once the fish was softened, we drained it in a colander, mixed it with the aromatics in the sauté pan and I broke up the pieces of fish and coated them just for a few minutes. Into a large mixer with the paddle attachment we carefully mixed the codfish with some double cream and some more extra-virgin olive oil and some cracks of black pepper. Lastly, the addition of freshly chopped parsley and some cilantro gave the creamy white mixture a nice pop of fresh color.

We all tried the Bacalao and were pleased with the creamy, subtle flavor – Chef had his bite on a slice of fresh bread and remarked that he’d be happy with just that for dinner. My fellow students took charge in shaping and breading the 2 trays of Bacalao with an egg wash and bread crumbs we made that evening while I began two sauces for our cold seafood platter in advance.

Chef disappeared for a few minutes while we were working and came back with a handful of fritters that he had just deep-fried to perfection – I guessed he couldn’t wait any longer to try them!

One bite into the crisp outer shell of breadcrumbs into the warm filling and I was 7 years old tugging on Mom’s apron anxiously awaiting to have the first one out of the hot oil. Waiting for the Bacalao to cool on paper towels seemed like an eternity but it was worth the wait – I guess absence does make the heart grow fonder.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Feeding the Masses

The big night, our first buffet! We all got to the kitchen a little earlier than usual to make sure we met the 8:30 pm deadline. Chef instructed us on some dishes and made each of us responsible for many different items.

I immediately got to work on my pork loin’s stuffing. I mixed pork forcemeat, sweetbreads, apricots, dried plums, golden raisins and spices. The pork loin was sliced into one flat piece of meat, I rolled the stuffing in the middle, tied it off and tackled the pork roast by making a dry-rub that Chef suggested – it consisted of juniper berries, black pepper, all spice, coriander and salt. The aromatic dry-rub perfumed the kitchen mingling with the aromas of bubbling pots of veal stock, and oven-roasted meat.

Once I got the two pork mains into the oven, we seared the meat on a high temperature for about 20 minutes then dropped the oven down to 350 degrees. Since I had leftover stuffing mixture, Chef decided that I would make stuffed red peppers. I doctored the stuffing with some eggs to bind it, breadcrumbs and rice.

My fellow kitchen mates worked on salmon in puff pastry, a delicious rice salad, the Arancini was deep-fried, Marcella made a Tres Leches cake that everybody raved about and were sad when it ran out. It really was delicious and I can still taste its creamy texture and custard-like consistency. We had quail to sear and roast, polenta to cut and sauté to a golden brown, avocado salad, cucumber salad with a yogurt-dill dressing, roasted beat salad, two potato gratins to re-heat, roast veal to braise, fruit salad in carved watermelon baskets, pâté and rillette to slice and plate on large silver platters, a ham glazing in the oven – a lot of food to produce, complete, platter and present.

We worked so hard to get everything done and right about 8:15 pm we were pushing out trays of food to be set up. It really was an exciting rush to get it all done and the response was great. The quail, roast pork chops, Tres Leches cake and pork roast were attacked by the hungry mob of students, Chefs and kitchen staff. I hung around the table explaining to the diners how dishes were made and flavored.

At the end of the night, we cleaned the disaster we made in the kitchen, bowls, pots, sauté pans, sheet pans were everywhere! Lastly, we sat down and started to finalize our plan of action for next week’s buffet. We have a Latin theme and lots of tasty surprises in store, save your appetite, there’s more to come.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Piggly Wiggly

Our second night in the new kitchen still feels awkward. We are so used to coming into class with a set of recipes and a game plan that it throws me off not knowing exactly what we are trying to make for that night.

Our first big buffet is on Wednesday and everything needs to be presented no later than 8:30 pm so we won’t have a lot of time to prep that night. Our goal last night was to get as much as we could done in advance.

I am in charge of all the pork dishes. I’m doing a stuffed roasted boneless pork loin that will be stuffed with sweet Italian sausage, a pork forcemeat, dried apricots, sweet breads, bread crumbs, and herbs. There’s also a rack of Pork that I frenched and will use a dry savory herb rub when I roast it. I made the pork rillette and cooked the pork pâté last night in a bain-marie at 350 degrees until the internal temperature was about 145 degrees.

I started the evening by preparing two potato gratins, one with thinly sliced potatoes, with a layer of dried plums in the center all bathed in heavy cream. The other gratin I made was a potato fennel gratin with parmesan and crème fraiche between layers of potatoes. The gratins were baked, bubbly and set aside to cool so that on Wednesday they will have melded flavors and we only have to heat them up.

Other menu items include: Arancini (risotto rice balls), a roasted beet salad with goat cheese, stuffed quail, salmon with spinach and mushroom duxelles wrapped in puff pastry, veal roast, glazed ham, rice salad, black beans, fresh fruit and a blueberry cobbler.

I’m hoping all the dishes will be a success, we make our “customers” happy and "Th-th-th-that's all folks!"

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The All-You-Can-Eat Buffet

My group moved down to the buffet/family/production kitchen. We are just steps away from being in the real kitchen of L’Ecole – the French Culinary Institute’s own restaurant.

The class is split into three groups, each group tackles food production, family meal and buffet service and we do this in two week rotations. I’m paired with five other students that I’m looking forward to working with and planning our special buffet meals. We can do whatever we want for buffet – this service feeds the Chef-Instructors, Asst. Chefs and Level 5 and 6 students. So, it’s a chance for us to practice our skills, learn some new ones and express our culinary creativity.

The first night in buffet kitchen, we were a little lost – which is the usual scenario when we are placed in a new kitchen. No one knows where anything is, we have to find supplies, figure out where to set up and follow the normal protocols.

Happily, my team is led by our Level III Chef-Instructor – Chef Nic – we all really enjoy working with him. When we go into production and family meal we will be working under the guidance of two other Chefs.

None of us knew what we would actually be doing on the first night until Chef told us that he made some purchasing decisions for our first buffet that will be presented this coming Wednesday. We planned some menu ideas for canapés, butchered some veal, pork and brined a huge ham. We volunteered to take charge of the different entrées. I choose the pork loin and pork roast and will assist Marcella on the quail entrée.

To get us started and prepped for Wednesday’s buffet I made a country pork pâté from start to finish with help from Chef Nic and I also worked on a pork rillette. Starting with the pork pâté I broke down two pork butts and cut them into 2 inch cubes, added some sliced fat back and then brought it over to the professionally-sized meat grinder. Chef instructed me to grind half of the meat and fat on a coarse grind and the other half on a finer grind to add differing textures to the final product. After he left me, I clogged the machine after I put on the second extruder – sheepishly, I had to call him back to help me and we figured out what I did wrong and it was an easy fix.

After the meat was ground we seasoned it with black truffles, French four-spice, salt, pepper, a splash of brandy, Madeira and Port wine. We added diced ham, some more diced fat back and pistachios to the mix and let the flavors meld. Testing a small amount of the pâté was done by making a small patty and sautéing it in some oil to make sure it was seasoned properly – happy with the seasoning I prepared the terrines that the pate would take shape in for Monday.

Lastly, the pork rillette was made by using the same pork butt with other added seasonings and cooked slowly in the oven for a few hours covered in duck fat. The result was a full-flavored pork that melted in your mouth. In a standing mixture with the paddle attachment we shredded the cooked meat and seasoned it some more before I put the mixture into another terrine. By the end of the night, I was more comfortable in our new surroundings, I got my bearings and became more and more excited about presenting our first buffet meal.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Judges' Table

Last night marked the end of Level III, we had a written test and our Midterm practical exam.

First of all, my body clock is totally on Chef’s time – whenever I get home from school I can’t get to bed until 2:30 am because my adrenaline is still racing – last night was no different. After class, I was burning the midnight oil with a celebratory cocktail at the SoHo Grand Hotel with some pals from class after a long, hot night in the kitchen.

Here’s how the night went down. All of my fellow students arrived early to get our written test out of the way, and focus on the main test for the night – rockin’ out two dishes and presenting them to the judges at the exact predetermined times.

When we arrived in the classroom, we were assigned to stations and took the written exam immediately. The written exam had one question: write down all the ingredients to the Consommé (we have been making) and detail the procedure from start to finish.

Finally, we learned what we had to cook for the night – half the students were assigned to actually make Consommé and a seared pork chop with a very involved sauce and the rest of us (including me) made bass steamed in parchment paper and Genoise with Crème Anglaise. I was extremely happy with what I had to cook. I’ve done Genoise many times and I finally understand how to make my Crème Anglaise perfectly.

As for the bass, there is a lot involved to complete the dish, including making a tomato fondue, mushroom duxelles, filleting and marinating the bass, cutting the garniture vegetables (carrots, leeks and celery) into a fine julienne and cooking them each separately, cutting the parchment envelopes and assembling the whole thing prior to getting it into a 450 oven. I really wanted to be exactly on time so knowing that assembly takes a good amount of time I started early and was ready with time to spare.

Each of us gets a number to wear on our hat so when you present your four plates the judges can match you to the food. Out of the oven, my parchment packages were nicely puffed and browned but I was worried that one or two of the fillets might have been slightly over done since they were on the smallish side compared to the other pieces of fish. Out of the four fish dishes presented one judge said hers was a little over done (I was mentally prepared to hear that) but the others were cooked properly. That’s just the tough part of cooking in parchment, you can’t see the fish inside so you just have to guesstimate how long you think it needs to be cooked for and hope for the best. My other critique was that the fish was a little peppery – I was surprised about that comment but took it in stride.

Lastly, my Genoise was “fantastic and beautifully presented and the Crème Anglaise was da’ bomb,” remarked the three judges. Alright, so I hit that one out of the park!

After it was all over, I was dehydrated, a little dizzy and I had to cool off, my T-shirt and Chef’s jacket was soaked in perspiration. I swear I lost 10 lbs. in water weight last night and forget about eating – there’s just no time for that nonsense! Standing by that 450 degree oven all night took its toll on me and at many points during the night I felt sick and slightly nauseous and would lose my balance if I got up to fast from grabbing something out of the oven – being unsteady on my feet was a problem and I tried to drink as much water as possible but I couldn’t keep up. Sweat was beading up on people’s faces, including my own, and the kitchen felt like a sauna.

A few of us ended the night with a round of cocktails and laughter – happy this milestone is behind us. Now on to Level IV were we will tackle production, family meal and buffet meals. So stay tuned – there’s more tales from the kitchen to come!

Side note: Thank you to all that wished me good luck and encouragement, your good wishes were with me all night.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Big Apple

After a long flight from L.A. into JFK I raced home to grab my chef whites and knife pack to get to Monday night’s class. Our last class before our Midterm and you can cut the tension with a paring knife.

My last recipe to practice on for Level III is the Tarte aux Pommes (Apple Tart). It is very likely that this recipe will appear on my Midterm but I won’t find that out until tomorrow’s exam.

So let’s talk about the Midterm for a minute…tomorrow, I will go into our kitchen classroom and learn my fate. Each student picks a piece of paper from a bowl and the letter/number combination is associated with two dishes that are to be prepared. You either get a appetizer and meat or fish and dessert. These dishes correlate with a specific time that they are to be presented to the judges.

For our written exam, Chef chooses one of the 16 dishes we have been making over the past 7 weeks and we have to write down all the ingredients and the procedure to complete it.

I’ll be upfront, yes I’m nervous, one slip up can set me back on the practical exam. Everything needs to be perfect no matter what – no mistakes. Deep breath…I just need to focus and be on my best game.

Back to the tart, I carefully mix my dough which is not the easiest thing to do in a 95 degree kitchen – my pâte sucrée needs to remain cold so the butter in the mixture doesn’t melt. It is a simple dough recipe: 200 g all purpose flour, 100 g cold butter, an egg with 2 tsp of cold water, 30 g sugar and a pinch of salt.

It is vital not to over knead the dough, or it will be tough and glutinous. Also, the dough needs to rest for a good 30 minutes so timing matters – get the dough made first then work on the apple compote filling and then the topping.

With my tart in the oven, I assisted with making the Amuse Bouche – a curried carrot soup puree conceived by one of the team members. Each night we present Chef with an Amuse Bouche made by the team – since we have four team members in our group we each have had the opportunity to drive the Aumse Bouche decision. One night I made a roasted garlic and mushroom soup that I pureed and served in Chinese porcelain soup spoons with bacon dust and chives. Another evening, I was really on the soup kick, and I made a Vichyssoise (cold potato and leek soup) that I served in tall aperitif glasses that were tied with a thin strand of leek that I had blanched.

Once my tart comes out of the oven it needs to cool before I glaze it with apricot jam. The color on the tart is beautiful with the overlapping apples nicely browned on the edges. On the side I made a Crème Chantilly which is basically like a whipped cream but not as sweet. I presented on time which is always a plus and Chef came over to my station to judge the results. He flipped over a slice of the tart and started to tap the crust with his fork. The crust should easily crumble with no or little resistance. Chef had to chisel through the dough with his fork, I rolled out my dough a little too thick which made it a little tough to get through and he thought it might have been slightly over baked.

Overall the tart looked amazing and filling was very nice – nonetheless, all aspects have to be perfect and my dough did not cooperate fully. I guess that’s the way the cookie – or dough crumbles.

LA Story – A cinematic experience

My culinary school schedule makes it impossible for us to take our usual long vacation this year. Anytime I have a holiday off from school I jump on the chance to travel. The July 4th holiday proved to be such an occasion and I was able to stretch the long weekend and go to Los Angeles. L.A., some people hate it, some love it – it is a very interesting place where the entertainment industry drives everything. My very first trip to L.A., I was baffled by the expanse of the city limits it just goes on and on. L.A. is compiled of lots of different neighborhoods each with a character all its own.

Let’s not forget the food, “Californian Cuisine” is a fusion of flavors and cultures influenced by local farm-fresh ingredients. On my many trips I’ve searched for good food in a town focused on body image and appearances. Many talented, ground-breaking (now celebrated) chefs have put LA on the map for foodies such as the culinary talents of Wolfgang Puck, Suzanne Goin, and David Myers just to name a few.

The other night, I was extremely happy to score reservations at Campanile Restaurant headed by Chef Mark Peel. The building was originally built in 1929 for Hollywood legend Charlie Chaplin to use as his office. Unfortunately, Charlie never got to use the space once it was completed since he lost it in an ugly divorce settlement with his first wife – so the Hollywood story goes. When I walked into the restaurant I had no preconceived ideas of what to expect. The restaurant resembles a Spanish-style mission with the main dining room in the center and soaring stone walls and a modern glass skylight to contrast the old and new. Large ceramic tiles give the floor a warm rustic feel and a trickling fountain in the main dining area provides a focal point in a space that one can’t help but want to examine from different angles.

Atmosphere and design are very important aspects that help impart the feeling of a restaurant even before you pick up a fork. As I reviewed the menu I was thrilled and saddened to see so many dishes that I would have liked to order. It is always hard to choose an entrée after salivating over so many choices.

I started with a pear martini to relax from the day and decided on a Roasted Beet Salad with Baby Arugula, Salami, Burata Cheese and Walnuts dressed with a light vinaigrette. The salad arrived stacked with roasted beets and was beautifully composed. An artful dish that had a wonderful flavor that eased me into my pick of entrée.

I couldn’t help myself – when I see duck on the menu I usually always order it and tonight was no different. A seared duck breast served with confit duck leg, polenta and a fig sauce tugged at my heartstrings – I had to have it.

The duck breast was cooked perfectly, a nice medium pink with a crispy skin. The confit leg and thigh had an intensity of flavor that only cooking in duck fat can produce. Creamy polenta and the sweet chewy figs in the sauce complemented the dish. I savored an old-world Pinot Noir from France with every swirl and bite.

I couldn’t pass up dessert because I knew I would be happily sated with a sweet concoction dreamed up by Pastry Chef Nancy Silverton. I couldn’t resist the Sticky Date Steamed Pudding with Crème Fraîche Ice Cream - the tartness of the silky ice cream balanced the sweetness of the steamed pudding – simply delicious.

The sunny warm days are certainly a draw in a town made famous by the glitz and glamour of the movies. Admittedly, I’m not much of a movie buff but there’s nothing like seeing a film in a L.A. movie theater – the whole experience is a walk down the red carpet.