Friday, June 20, 2008

Seattle trip - FareStart

If you've been in suspense since Rebecca, FareStart's donor relations manager commented on my post last week, you'll be happy to hear that I e-mailed her back telling her not to waste her time on a penny ante blogger from across the continent, she insisted and, since it's her time to waste, I accepted her offer of a tour.

So Rebecca spent a half hour showing me around FareStart's facilities and explaining the operation. Basically, what FareStart does is give homeless, or nearly homeless, people a 16 week course in the kitchen skills they need to start a career and the life skills they need to keep it going.

They spend the first few weeks in the basement kitchen working on simpler prep skills creating family-style meals for local childcare centers and shelters using donated ingredients and in the classrooms learning getting basic kitchen knowledge and life skill counseling, training and services.

In the middle weeks they move up to the ground-level kitchen that serves lunches on weekdays using a deliberately widely varied menu to work the skills needed in a variety of different sorts of kitchens and the Thursday night guest chef dinners which also each week. A student will work with five different guest chefs before graduation to get a sampling of different cuisines and kitchen work styles.

In the final weeks they move on to catering work giving them another range of cooking challenges. I think I've got all that right. I'm sure Rebecca will pop up in the comments with corrections, clarifications and elaborations.

Fifty-nine students graduated the program last year out of 102 entering (most dropouts are after the first week) with an 89% job placement rate which seem like pretty good numbers to me.

As you can see in the photos, the kitchens are large and nicely appointed. I've seen plenty of worse teaching kitchens. The dining room is pretty nicely designed, too. The community table in the middle is a nice touch and tonight it was filled with the actual FareStart community including a new graduate, a hostess and admin staff. I had the option to sit there as I was dining by myself, but honestly I would have felt like a complete jackass sitting there taking notes on the food.

So, how was the food? I'm happy to say it was pretty good.

The appetizer was a grilled Japanese eggplant drizzled with sesame ponzu and topped with crunchy tempura bits and little shreds of shiso leaves. I really liked how the eggplant came out, with the thinner slices chewy and the thicker slices creamy. My favorite thing about eggplant is how it can take on both textures (although I've never quite been able to work out how to do it myself). The ponzu and shiso are a trendy pairing, but they work well adding complimentary citrus and herbal notes.

The main dish was tuna tataki, rubbed with wasabi and lightly fried in panko bread crumbs with a pair of spicy mayos, yam fries, a cabbage salad and taro chips. I've got to admit that I didn't care for the tuna, but my main problem with the dish is conceptual; I don't like treating fish, even tuna, like a chunk of chunk of red meat so preparing and presenting it like tenderloin irks me. Also, it really wasn't quite high enough quality tuna to be serving in thick raw slices so the texture wasn't terribly nice. But during my tour I saw chef Dews telling the cooks how thick to slice it so it's all her fault, not theirs. On the other hand, the fries were well done (a vital cook's skill at any level) and I really liked the cabbage salad. I've had trouble making cabbage salad myself so I'd like to have the recipe. The texture was just right with a bit of bite, but not actually crunchy and the seasoning managed to highlight the cabbage's natural flavors without overwhelming them. The taro chips were toasty and crisp but mine had a bit too much finishing salt.

Dessert was chocolate lavender mousse with a candied lavender wand. The mousse was well done; I saw some pretty good folding technique as I walked through the kitchen. There was enough lavender to round out the chocolate flavor but not enough to be identifiable on its own if you didn't know it was in there. The lavender wand was a fun little accessory and pretty tasty on its own. I probably should have resisted the temptation to stir my coffee with it, though.

So, on the whole, a pretty successful meal. The service was lousy, but they were volunteers so I didn't expect much and the place was filled with people enjoying themselves and supporting a good cause so if you've got to sit around waiting for your entrée it's a fine atmosphere to be doing it in. If I lived in Seattle I could easily see myself coming every week, but since I'd probably still be a jerk critiquing the food on my blog, perhaps it's for the best that I"m not.

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