Crystal Caves, Wisconsin

On our way from Michigan to Minnesota, we stopped at the Crystal Caves in Spring Valley, Wisconsin.  We took a really neat 1 hour tour down 7 stories under the earth and saw bats, interesting rock formations, and crystals.  An interesting fact we all should know…the reason these underground caverns form is because the softer earth and bedrock is eaten and rinsed away by carbonic acid.  The same stuff in our soft drinks!  No wonder dentists don’t like soda (or pop, as it’s called out here). 

Published in: on July 31, 2007 at 10:39 pm  Leave a Comment  

Town Talk Diner


Traversing Minneapolis is much easier than getting around Burlington. The streets run N-S or E-W so finding Town Talk Diner at 2707 and a half (which has a reason, I just found out) was easy. We actually stopped right in front of the Diner while discussing where we were going. It was noon, well before service which begins at 4 at the bar and 5 in the dining room, so we rapped on the front window and waited to be let in. Chef Tor Westgard greeted us and began giving us his “5 cent” tour of the restaurant. The original diner was built in an alley way, hence the “half” in the address. It used to serve 2 pancakes, bacon, toast and a cup of coffee for $2.99. The diner (for the obvious reason) went out of business, and lay dormant for four years. I may be off on my facts, so don’t quote me, maybe until 18 months ago when Chef Tor and his partners purchased it.

Anyway, they are all chefs with a vision. What do NYC bistros, Paris cafes and New Orleans bbq shacks have in common? They all bring people together. That is, ultimately, what food is for, isn’t it? How do they at Town Talk Diner bring together people of all different ages and backgrounds? They offer a relatively inexpensive and eclectic array of dishes. From grilled cheese to pan seared salmon with lentils. Some come in for soup and a salad, while others consume 3 courses with a bottle of wine. Each and every item prepared is given the same value and uses the same procedure and skill, regardless of what it is, grilled cheese, burger, or salmon. There’s even a Fried Egg sandwich on the menu, and you can throw in a 40 oz Mickey (yes, that’s beer) and it comes in its own champagne bucket! Another unique feature of the Town Talk Diner’s menu is the way the chef-owners have incorporated diner food with trained French techniques. The “frickle” for example is the old fashioned fried pickle of the 20’s fair era, but with a culinary twist. Chef Tor definitely shows enthusiasm for his restaurant. His “5 cent” tour lasted until 5 as he prepped and talked about his business with Marcus. Chase & I ducked out after 10 minutes and headed to the Mall of America.

Chef Tor and his partners run a very organized and clean restaurant from the top to the bottom, from the kitchen to the bar. Tor does all of the ordering himself and personally checks in all items. Tonight, actually, was the first night in 18 months there was no chef in the kitchen, as he took a night off. We dined at 6 and I will say that the staff did a great job.

We (Chase & I) joined Marcus and fellow NECI alumni Dan Zelle (’04 Montpelier) for dinner at Town Talk at 6. We began by ordering the frickles, cheese curd, and onion rings. The “frickles” are normally done at the state fairs in spears, or even whole, which is what I envisioned. Town Talk pickles 4 cases of cucumbers in house each week, and slices them thin, then batters and fries them and serves them with mustard dill sauce. They were sweet butter pickles and delicious. The cheese curd is also lightly battered and fried. Chase had a hard time sharing these. When we ask what he wanted for dinner, his response was “this” as he held up the cheese. We eventually talked him into a weiner. Marcus had the Kitchen Sink Burger, Dan the braised lamb with quinoa and cucumber tabouli, and I ordered the seared salmon special with carrots and lentils. It was all very good. And we are all very full.

Marcus enjoyed his stage…thank you Chef Tor and Town Talk Diner.  www.towntalkdiner.com

Published in: on July 31, 2007 at 1:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

Warren Dune’s Park, Michigan


As we headed out of Michigan on our trek WEST, we took a brief detour and visited Warren Dune’s State Park on Lake Michigan.  We entered the park at 5 pm, paid our $8 entry fee, and proceeded towards the beach.  Now, the road we were on looked like any ordinary state park road, lined with trees and picnic tables, and what I expected was a beach similar to, say, North Beach on Champlain, or even Lake Ontario’s cool, rocky beaches.  What we saw as we rounded the last corner surprised us all.  A long fine sand beach with crashing waves to our left, and to our right enormous dunes. (I prefer to call them Mountains!)  Way at the top of these mountains were tiny little figures.  Many of them were bolting down.  We parked the NECI camper, and while Marcus prepared dinner, Chase & I eagerly tried to race to the top of the largest dune.  With a little encouragment from each of us, we finally made it to the summit.  This may not have been Mount Everest, but let me say that this made the 206 step Daytona Beach, FL lighthouse which we climbed last November seem like a one story building.  The view from up top made the trek worth it.  Chase hollered out to Marcus “Hi Daaaad” a few times, and I assured him that there was no way he could hear.  But, to our surprise, Marcus came out of the matchbox sized NECI camper and waved! (He said later that he couldn’t see us, but heard Chase yelling.  Some lungs, eh?)

We decided it must be time for dinner, so we flew back down.  The trip up was worth every hot step just for this few second sprint down this very steep sand dune.  Chase lost his shoe, and yelled back to me that he wasn’t stopping to pick it up.  Sand spit off the back of his feet and flew almost as high as his head;  I don’t think he’s ever moved this fast.  (Or me, for that matter.) 

As we sat on our sandy beach patio and ate, we watched many people walk by.  Each and every one of them had a very interesting trait in common.  We just smiled at first, then our couriosity got the better of us.  We decided to go for a walk in the direction these strange people were all coming from.  We hiked up sand dunes, through the woods, and then down onto a river bed.  There were adults, children and teenagers all laughing and enjoying themselves and completely and utterly covered in greenish grey sticky clay!  The three of us stepped into the shallow, luke warm river and slid our feet along the slimey clay covered bottom.  I felt like I was in the Amazon River.  One boy commented on how he felt like an elephant.  We concur!  We even saw one family (with not a speck of skin showing under all that clay) taking turns riding their snowboard down a sand dune and into the clay river.

After playing and decorating ourselves in the clay for a while, we raced (now for a second time) up to the tippy top of the highest peak, hung out and rested and enjoyed the view of Lake Michigan below us for a while, then flew to the bottom, letting gravity do the work. 

This was definitely a fun detour.  Now it’s off to Minnesota…

Published in: on July 30, 2007 at 6:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

Rocks…

We’re staying at an LDMA (lost duchman’s mining association) property in Athen’s Michigan.  Chase and I were out digging in his claimed “canyon” when we came across an odd looking rock.  Upon further examination, this isn’t a rock, after all.  It’s a fossil of some sort.  We all have our theories as to what this once was, Marcus thinks it look like a nut, I think it looks like a butterfly chrysalis, and Chase thinks it looks like a leaf print.  Pretty neat to find something so old and mysterious.  We’re headed back over to explore our paleontologist sides once more.  I’ll try to get some pictures of our finds and get all of your ideas of what they might have once been.

We plan to pack up later on this evening (it’s too beautiful out right now to waste the day driving) and make our way towards Minnsota.  It’s a good 9.5 hours from here, so we’ll break it up into 2 days.  Drive late tonight, park at a Walmart for free, and finish up tomorrow.  Once in Minneapolis, we hope to meet with NECI alumni, do a demo or two, and stage at a few restaurants.  

Published in: on July 29, 2007 at 11:12 am  Comments (1)  
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Elephant Ears, Michigan


We dug in the dirt on a hunt for gold yesterday afternoon.  It was hot!  Steamy.  In the stream wasn’t so bad, but as we walked along in the fields and apple orchard with the metal detector, it got hotter and hotter (Chase is the only one of us to find anything…a 1988 dime).  As we headed back toward our camper parked on the edge of the field, we could hear music drifting across from town.  We changed and went into Athens to investigate.  There was a mini-village fair going on!  Maybe 200 people, vendor tents, carnival games, bounce houses and slides…even Elephant Ears.  What’s an Elephant Ear, you ask?  It’s fried dough, Michigan style.  The local fire department boys were stretching dough, frying it in vegetable oil, and serving huge, elephant ear size portions of cinnamon and sugar coated tasty fried dough.  Yumm and Uhhgg.  Marcus and I each ate one.  Sharing only one small bite each with Chase.  He wasn’t too interested.  He did 6 trips down the giant blowup slide tumbling and somersaulting down.  There was a 13 year old desert tortoise which we feed leaf greens to, and  alligators!  Chase held onto one of the 2 year old gators (they had rubberbands around their snouts) whose name was Einstein because he could get out of his rubberband when no one was looking.  These gators were only a foot or so long.  Can you imagine just how old the 12 footers we see in South Florida are?  I never knew they took so long to grow.  We had a whole lot of fun checking out this small town fair…which was called the Athens Summer Homecoming  (complete with dressed up teenagers named homecoming queen, court and all), but we couldn’t help but feel like we were crashing the party.  I’m sure we looked out of place, as well.  Oh well, ’twas fun!

Chase and Dad gathered firewood for a great fire last evening.  We sat around it, waiting for dark, or, waiting to have smores.   This is the first night I’ve realized the time difference.  We are still in EST, same as Vermont, but because we’re west, the sun comes up later, and goes down later.  It was almost 10 before it was dark!  I came inside to get our smores ingredients, and was shocked when I looked at the clock.  Oops.  We still happily enjoyed our chocolately creations.  Chef Marcus added sliced banana to his…

Today is overcast, light breeze…we’ve made a list of things to get done, including laundry.  Guess it can’t all be fun and games. 

Published in: on July 28, 2007 at 11:12 am  Comments (1)  

Hershey PA,


chocolate, chocolate, chocolate.  The entire town smells like it.  We rolled in with the NECI camper into Hershey’s Highmeadow campground on Monday afternoon and began to eat it.  A kiss here, a hug there.  Next thing I know, I can’t stop.  What do they put in this stuff, anyway?!  We took the Hershey’s Chocolate Tour on Tuesday, got some free kissables (little candy coated kisses) and spent the rest of the day in the amusement park with our friends Ed, from PA, his two boys, and Regina, from Baltimore.  It was wonderful to see them both.  Chase bought a large Hershey bar with nuts in it and some more kissables with the $5 Beema (my mom)(hi mom!) gave him.  He ate half of it last night, barely touched dinner, and had a bite first thing this AM.  I made pancakes for breakfast this morning and Chase gave me his bag of kissables to add to them.  Yummy!  And, just because there may not have been enough sugar in this all, we topped it off with fresh Vermont Maple syrup from Marcus’ family sugarbush.  Uggh.  I brought Chase down to the pool after and couldn’t get in because I’d had too much sugar.   We’re now on the road (just entered Ohio!!!) on our way to Michigan to dig for some gold.  This is the first time any of us have ever been in Ohio.  Got here via the Penna Turnpike, route 76.  Would you believe they charged us $17.25 just to get off?!  What are they doing with all that money?  They’d better have “beam-me-up-Scotty’s” when we come back this way!!!

Published in: on July 25, 2007 at 9:49 pm  Comments (4)  

L’Espalier & Boston, Mass.


We set up camp 30 miles outside of Boston at Winter Island Park in Salem, Mass. It was still foggy, just as in Portland, the perfect setting for exploring this town with its grim history. The following morning, we packed a backpack, parked in the commuter lot, and took the T into Boston’s North Station. Chase then got his first experience with a big city subway system. I almost missed our stop…not realizing that there are 4 different green lines. We did pretty good, though, having not traversed Boston’s underground before. We stopped into the Prudential Building’s food court for a quick bite and then over a block to 30 Gloucester Street, the home of L’Espalier, sister restaurant to Sel de la Terre. Through an old and fancy looking iron gate door, down beautifully polished marble stairs, and back up a winding stair case, we met with the Chef de Cuisine, James Hackney. His English accent and blue bandana made us feel instantly comfortable. He invited me back into his kitchen later during service to take some fun action shots of the restaurant. Chase and I then headed back to the harbor area to explore the aquarium and Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market area while James introduced Marcus to his crew. The garde manger chef turned out to be a NECI student on his first internship, Jonathan Till…He seemed quite surprised to have a NECI chef/instructor there.

After a fun (and all-too-short) day, (Aquarium, balloon animals, a street act, pizza and lemonade, oh, and ice cream, and lots of walking and subway rides and a peek at Fenway- there was a game going on- we could feel the energy from 3 blocks away) and and and…

Where was I? Oh, after an all-to-short day, Chase and I walked back into L’Espalier with our Tee-Shirts on, and were warmly greeted by the hostess and Matre’d and led up two flights of stairs to the kitchen. Marcus and the staff all seemed very much to be enjoying themselves… Laughing and exited about the intimacies of the food they were plating (as the chef plated the item, the entremetier would veg, the sous chef would garnish, the server would wipe the plate…there seemed to be total-kitchen interest in each and every plate served). I took a few pictures and listened to Marcus tell me of his night. The menu starts at 2 courses, $75 and goes up from there. This is a very high end French fine dining establishment. Each plate is put together meticulously and skillfully. Most ingredients are brought in daily from fresh local vendors. There is even a garden on the roof with fresh herbs, mixed baby greens and cucumbers! How cool is that! There’s a smoker up there as well for any house-smoked items. Each chef is responsible for the prepping and ordering of each of (their) own stations. If they miss something, it’s on their shoulders. Marcus got to cook and plate on the line tonight, something that he greatly enjoyed judging by the smile on his face. He had to opportunity to view (and sample some) such treats as Italian caviar, rich Hudson Valley Fois Gras served on “dirt” (crumble dark chocolate), Vermont rabbit ravioli, fresh striper bass, fresh whole lamb, and Grilled Tenderloin with morels and amazing homemade onion rings in which they substituted vodka for the water in the onion ring batter…what a concept! There is a cheese tray which is offered a la carte…they work directly with the farmers to get what cheese they want. Marcus even was asked to check-in the mushroom order…an hour long adventure in itself. He saw black truffles the size of his fist and fresh shitakes that looked like button mushrooms their caps were so full and many more exotics I can’t remember the names of. A statement made from James Hackney which stuck with Marcus was (and this was announced to the kitchen) that NECI students are more prepared for the industry than CIA graduates because they already know how to cook.

Just as I say my night ended all to soon (it was after 8), Marcus said the same. He certainly enjoyed working in L’Espalier’s kitchen with James and Alex (the sous chef) the NECI intern and the rest of the staff. Thank you, L’Espalier, for a wonderful stage…Please visit them online at www.lespalier.com and in person when you are in the area. L’Espalier is moving to a new location nearby within the year complete with a brand new commercial kitchen with a center island to give the chef more control.

And thank you, Boston for a fun day in the city. Tomorrow we leave New York where we are visiting my family, and drive down to Hershey, PA to see a friend whom we haven’t seen in 7 years. Can’t wait………

Published in: on July 22, 2007 at 4:36 am  Leave a Comment  

Another Portland adventure…

While Marcus was enjoying himself at 555, Chase and I were walking around (okay, maybe wandering around) Monument Square in downtown Portland (the site of the farmer’s market earlier in the day), an interesting little coffee/gelato shop by the name of “Other’s” caught our eyes.  The man behind the counter was dressed in a business suit and cleaning out files, not at all who’d you’d expect to be there.  He greeted us with a warm smile and happily indulged our taste buds with a sample of almost every flavor of gelato (homemade on site).  When Chase finally decide on a flavor to order (chocolate, of course), our conversation turned toward the business side.  Brad, the owner, used the term “social return on capital” as his reason for this business.  He uses only FairTrade Organic coffee and teas, buys beans raw and roasts onsite, and has a slide show running on the wall in the background with information and pictures of Sri Lankan woman picking tea for pay (most not involved in the FairTrade program are unpaid, and treated unfairly).  He is a financial advisor by day(with an office upstairs of the shop) who felt that giving to charities was not enough, he wanted to be directly involved in helping support fair labor and fair trade.  You can learn more on this subject by checking out www.transfairusa.org  or, if you are in the Portland area, visit Brad McCurtain at Other’s.  May we all learn something from this “social return on capital” philosophy and look to better our world directly, beginning here at home through our business and buying choices. 

Chase, as many of you know, is quite an entertainer when he’s feeling so inclined.  He had just gotten a new magic set from the Children’s Museum of Maine.  Brad was a great audience for both his newly learned tricks and many of his jokes.  Thanks Brad!  Good Luck with everything.

Published in: on July 20, 2007 at 6:22 pm  Leave a Comment  

555, Portland, Maine


WOW!!!  There is a reason this great chef has been named one of the top 10 up and coming chefs…

When we arrived in Portland for Marcus’ stage at 555, we walk around downtown to check out the city for a few minutes.  There was a farmer’s market just being broken down right in the center of the city square.  This very central location for such a market shows how significant a part the local food and farmers play in the city of Portland.  555, just up the street from the market, sits quietly on the corner awaiting the evening’s hustle.  As we approach the restaurant and begin to marvel over the menu items posted in the front door window, we are waved in by a mellow mannered and calm Steve Corry sitting at the bar with his work.  After some introductions and chatting, Chase & I head off for the Children’s Museum of Maine and a walking tour of downtown Portland while Steve shows Marcus his business.

Chef says:
For the first time in 4 years, I had the chance to stand back and watch the workings of someone else’s kitchen.  And not just any kitchen- Stephen Corry is a 2002 NECI graduate and one of Food & Wine’s America’s top ten chefs.  His kitchen is one which is perfectly orchestrated with food prepared with the utmost care, everything was tasted and seasoned to perfection.   I think what impressed me most is how well-trained and focused his kitchen staff is.  They work together as a serious team, 6 sometimes 7 cooks on the tight line, each with their own four or so pickups, and helping the next station out.  For all you NECI students who think the Tavern line is small, it’s half the size, serving 150 a night fine dining.

I sampled the lobster knuckle sandwich (this is the dish which was featured in Food & Wine) which was amazing and so creative, a tower of two slices of green fried tomatos, with a peabody lobster stuffed in between and an avocado aioli and topped with a full lobster claw.  I am also impressed and amazed at the grilled ceasar salad(I was so excited about this I’ve called Chef Dave and left him a message about it) .  Hearts of romaine sliced, oiled, salted and quickly grilled (yes, grilled) with ceasar dressing zigzagged across the top with shaved parmesan and peppered croutons.  complete with itailan white anchovies.  Phenomenal!

The waitstaff is very organized and attentive to guests (it’s an open kitchen and hard not to notice everything that’s going on) No food sat in the window for more than 30 seconds.  Oh, and I should mention… Everything possible on the bi-weekly changing menu (with some signature items staying) is purchased locally at the farmer’s market.  The same one we saw when we came to town!

We even had NECI grad Thomas drive up from Old Orchard Beach to see me and dine at 555.  (Thank you TJ and Erika)

We were invited to sit down and dine, something we so badly wanted to do, but we had Chase and it being 8:30 already (555 was having a very busy night, with 70 on the books and I’m guessing they’d already done 90 and at least 15 pp in the bar waiting for tables), we sadly declined.  I was fortunate enough to have been able to taste so many of the dishes.  Steve, thank you.  I would absolutely encourage anyone traveling through Portand to stop in and see Steve Corry and his amazing staff at 555 Congress Street, Portland, Maine.   www.fivefifty-five.com

Published in: on July 19, 2007 at 8:26 pm  Comments (1)  

New Hampshire Pics

Published in: on July 19, 2007 at 4:50 pm  Leave a Comment