One of my all-time favorite activities is spending time with chefs in their kitchens. Usually, however, they ask me to come in at the beginning of the week in early afternoon--as in when the stress of prep and service are fairly low. So, I was gobsmacked when Chef Antonio Friscia of Gaijin Noodle + Sake House in the Gaslamp invited me to come in on a Saturday night. Unfortunately, I couldn't--but we settled on a Wednesday evening. Still, what was he thinking having me in during service?
Then, he surprised me further. He called me that afternoon with homework. I was to pick up some vegetables and fruit and anything else that I would like to make into signature yakitori and signature cocktails with mixologist Lucien Conner. I brought in parsnips, tomatillos, lemongrass, calabaza squash, blood oranges, and fresh curry leaves. Totally random--really a mix of what I could find at the last minute at Sprouts and what I had in my fridge from trips to Himalayan Bazaar and H-Mart.
And, so the fun began. And it was fun. Antonio has a tight kitchen and clearly that enables him to have "gaijin" (foreigners) like me getting in the way without causing too much stress--even during a busy service.We made yakitori with parsnips and tomatillos. His marvelous sous chef, Fern Tran, showed me how to make their pork and kimchi version, and she worked with me on a magnificent green papaya, parsnip, and tomatillo salad.
I'll save the yakitori making and the salad for next week. They deserve their own piece since they're so easy and so much fun to make--something you really want to embrace for parties. And since of the best parts of being a grownup is that you can have dessert first, dessert is what we'll do today.
I stumbled in at 6 p.m. and we traded my groceries for a red Gaijin t-shirt I was to wear for the evening. Once Antonio gave my groceries the once over, he snagged the squash and some of the parsnips and disappeared with them to the kitchen. Beaming, he came out and asked me how I'd feel about making s'mores. The idea was that he'd make a puree out of the squash and parsnips and caramel with the lemongrass, then we'd toast some marshmallows over the yakatori grill and it would all go in between graham crackers. Don't you just marvel at the mind of a chef?
So, while I'm watching Lucien making some very unique cocktails with the curry leaves and blood oranges, then "helping" Fern with the yakatori and salad, Antonio was busy with his s'mores preparations.
First came the puree, made with ginger, brown sugar, sake, and a little salt. The color from the vibrant orange calabaza clearly came through and the texture was creamy and smooth while the flavor sang with the zip of ginger and the warmth of the sake.
Then came the caramel. A little brown sugar melted down and flavored with lemongrass, togarashi pepper blend, fresh ginseng, and fresh ginger.
Then it was time for kid fun. Fern, Antonio, and I stood over the grill and roasted marshmallows like rugrats at a campfire.
Once the marshmallows were sufficiently blackened, we had everything we needed for the perfect Asian fusion s'mores.
Gaijin Noodle + Sake House is located at 627 4th Ave. in San Diego's Gaslamp District.