Category Archives: “Take Five” Q&A

Take Five with Mia Messier, Head Chef for Cirque du Soleil’s “Totem” Show

Crew members touch up the stage for Cirque du Soleil's "Totem'' in San Jose.

Mia Messier was a hotel and restaurant chef in Montreal when she decided to run away with the circus.

Not just any circus, but the worldwide phenomenon known as Cirque du Soleil.

Who can blame her?

Now a veteran of nine years with the Montreal-based entertainment company, Messier has traveled with various Cirque shows through more than 25 countries for anywhere from six weeks to a year and a half at a time.

It’s her job to feed the hungry troupe of 52 performers from 20 countries, along with 68 other crew members, while they’re on the road.

Recently, I had a chance to visit her cafe at Cirque’s “Totem” show, now playing in San Jose through April 15.

The fanciful costumes are all hand-made.

Would you believe this got its start as a piece of white fabric?

Light-weight and stretchy.

A mold is made of each performer's head to create these intricate head-pieces.

I also got a quick peek backstage that afternoon with Cirque publicist Francis Jalbert, as crews were touching up the 2,700-pound turtle carapace that is the centerpiece of this particular show. Behind it, a hydraulic stage is flanked by what look like soaring, solid wood reeds. But would you believe they’re actually inflatable, so as to make transporting easier?

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Take Five with Lauren Shockey, A First-Time Author on Her Adventures Cooking in Top Restaurants Around the World

New York author Lauren Shockey. (Photo by Alainna Lynch)

Not long after graduating from the French Culinary Institute in New York, Lauren Shockey set about plying her skills in four top restaurant kitchens around the globe at the tender age of 24.

Her journey through these four stages or unpaid apprenticeships started at famed molecular gastronomy temple, wd~50 in New York; followed by La Verticale in Vietnam; then Carmella Bistro in Israel; and finally, Michelin two-star Senderens in Paris.

Along the way, she discovered new dishes, flavors and techniques, of course. But more so, she came to realize where her heart truly lies when it comes to cooking.

Now, 27, and a restaurant critic for New York’s Village Voice, Shockey recounts her experience vividly, with plenty of humor and provocative insight, in her debut book, “Four Kitchens: My Life Behind the Burner in New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, and Paris” (Grand Central).

The book, which also includes recipes for dishes inspired by her time in these kitchens, is a delight to read for anyone who’s ever contemplated cooking on the line or only fantasized about it. And I’m not just saying that because I had the chance to meet Shockey last year when we both found ourselves as part of a group of food writers invited to tour Quebec.

Recently, I had a chance to talk with her by phone about how the book came about, some of her more outrageous moments abroad, her famous mentor and what lies ahead in the future.

You also can meet Shockey, 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Oct. 21, at Omnivore Books in San Francisco, when she will be doing a reading from her book, and signing copies.

Q: What was your favorite of the four kitchens you worked in, and why?

A: They were all so different. Wd~50 was a great first restaurant experience. They taught me the right way to do things — how to chop vegetables, hold a knife properly, be methodical and don’t rush, and to clean your station well.

I cleaned crab every day at Senderens. Every day. But a friend of mine who staged at L’Arpege (Alain Passard’s Michelin three-star in Paris) only cleaned the stairs. They never let her touch the food. She said that at least I got to clean crab.

Hanoi was one of my favorites. The chef was very understanding about this being my first experience in Vietnam. He said that Vietnam isn’t just about what happens in his kitchen. He said that I should eat at food stalls and shop in the markets to really get to know Vietnam.

Of all of them, I would go back to the Vietnam kitchen first. I really loved working there and it’s the type of food that I love to eat. I got along really well with the staff there. In New York and Paris, it was very hierarchical, whereas in Vietnam, they were excited to have a Westerner in the kitchen with them.

Q: What was the hardest or most stressful kitchen?

A: New York. I was constantly afraid I was messing up and that I was the world’s worst stage. I thought Wylie (Dufresne) hated me. I couldn’t even look him in the eye the first month. And he’s nice; he’s not a yeller. Being on my feet 12 hours a day was exhausting. It really takes a toll.

Q: Girl, you had some crazy adventures. You ate dog in Vietnam. You know, when I interviewed Anthony Bourdain years ago, he said the one thing he probably never would eat is dog. How hard was it for you to do this?

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Take Five with Chef Robert Sapirman, on His Big Plans for Citrus Restaurant in Santana Row

Chef Robert Sapirman on the terrace of the Hotel Valencia.

Chef Robert Sapirman has circled the Bay Area in the past year, only to wind up not too far from where he once was.

Bay Area foodies may remember him as the long-time head chef of Parcel 104 in Santa Clara. He departed that upscale restaurant in the Marriott Hotel to open Vesu in Walnut Creek, only to see that restaurant shutter a year later.

Now, for nearly six months, he’s been the executive chef of Citrus in the Hotel Valencia in San Jose’s Santana Row, just a few miles from — you guessed it — Parcel 104. The eight-year-old Hotel Valencia, known for years far more for its lively bar scene than its restaurant food, is in for a transformation. By the end of the year, not only will the lobby and other public areas of the hotel get a freshened look, but Citrus will debut a new concept. Sapirman, long known for his commitment to stellar ingredients, was brought in specifically to try to put Citrus on the map for discriminating foodies. Under his direction, expect the restaurant’s current steakhouse concept to give way to a more dynamic one of global tapas.

Recently, I had a chance to sit down with the 37-year-old, New Jersey-born and Fort Lauderdale-reared chef who now oversees the food for not only for Citrus, VBar, and Cielo wine bar, but banquets and room service for the 212-room hotel.

Vietnamese-style caramelized ribs cooked sous vide, finished on the grill, then served with housemade kimchee.

Q: Is your food here similar to what you were cooking at Parcel 104?

A: It’s similar in that it’s ingredient-driven. I try to seek out the best ingredients that I can. My passion now is global tapas. I did a little of that at lunch at Parcel 104 before I left. Vesu also was a great platform for that.

Q: Are you hoping to change the perception that the Hotel Valencia is all about the bar scene?

A: Absolutely. We have a handicap in Citrus in that we’re surrounded by other restaurants. We need to make you come up to the second floor here. Plus, the perception is that restaurants in hotels are not good. I know we struggled with that at the Marriott, too.

I hope to fill this 62-seat restaurant every night and to get people up here to love my food. That’s what every chef wants, right? I hope to make the restaurant as busy as the hotel is, so that when people call for a reservation, there won’t be any.

Q: How will you differentiate yourself from the other restaurants at Santana Row?

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Take Five with “Top Chef Masters” Contender Suvir Saran, on His Upcoming Bay Area Appearance with the Food Gal

New York Chef Suvir Saran. (Photo by Jim Franco)

If you’ve been tuning in to this season’s “Top Chef Masters” on Bravo TV, you’ve probably already discovered not only how charismatic, but candid Chef Suvir Saran can be.

The 38-year-old, executive chef/owner of award-winning Devi in New York City will tell you he’s probably one of the most frank chefs you’ll ever meet. (Wait till you hear what he thinks of Zagat and Yelp.) That forthrightness, coupled with an energetic and telegenic presence, has made him a favorite speaker at seminars. See for yourself when he joins yours truly on stage at 7 p.m. April 29 for a lively Q&A session at the India Community Center in Milpitas. Tickets are $50 for ICC members; and $55 for non-members. Executive Chef Vittal Shetty of Amber India in San Jose will prepare signature hors d’oeuvres inspired by Saran’s recipes.

Saran’s South Bay appearance will be in conjunction with Dining Out for Life Silicon Valley,” which is part of an annual  national campaign, in which participating restaurants raise money for those living with HIV/AIDS. Proceeds from the Silicon Valley event will support the Health Trust AIDS Services, which helps more than 800 people in Santa Clara County with hot meal delivery, food baskets, and housing assistance.

Forty restaurants in 12 Silicon Valley cities will donate at least 25 percent of their food sales on April 28 to that organization. For more details, click here. Saran also will be making a surprise appearance that evening at four South Bay restaurants, so keep your eyes peeled.

Additionally, at 12:30 p.m. April 29, Saran will present a talk about healthy cooking at the Health Trust Food Basket in San Jose. He will be joined by cookbook author and legendary restaurateur, Joyce Goldstein, who was an early pioneer in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Advance reservations are required by emailing Jon Breen at

Devi's mung bean chaat. (Photo by Ben Fink)

Lastly, Saran is not only donating four dinners for two at Devi, but also donating his time to cook a meal for eight at a private home in the Bay Area. These items will be auctioned off online on the Health Trusts Web site to the highest bidders, starting at midnight May 5.

Last week, I had a chance to chat by phone with him about what brought him to the United States at age 20, and what he thinks of the state of Indian food here.

Q: Why is ‘Dining Out for Life’ a cause near and dear to you?

A: I lost many friends to HIV/AIDS. My partner of nine years is a big civil rights person. He’s always yelling and screaming, and I realized that a voice demanding humanity was important in American society.

Most people take it for granted that we live in a democracy and everything is perfect. I have to be a champion of underdogs. I owe it to every underdog to speak up for them.

Q: Devi was the first and only Indian restaurant in the United States to earn a Michelin star. What did that honor mean to you?

A: That I should commit suicide now that they’ve taken it away after two years. (laughs) It was an honor. It was a wonderful thing. We got it at the top of our game. Then, it was taken from us. Since my business partner and I had a separation, we are now back at our prime. Who knows? Maybe next year, we’ll get it back again.

We had it two years in a row. It was a luxury. I don’t take it for granted. I look it as a sweet gift bestowed us on by powers that be. It’s not like those worthless Zagat ratings, which have no value in my mind.

Q: I’m almost afraid to ask what you think of Yelp?

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Take Five with Pastry Chef Rodney Cerdan of the Village Pub, On His Candy-Filled Childhood

Rodney Cerdan, executive pastry chef of the Village Pub, who is never far away from a good cookie.

Rodney Cerdan is a very dangerous man.

If left to his own devices, he will ply you with chocolate honey mousse cake, peanut butter brownie bars with fluffs of toasted marshmallow, chewy almond cookies and bags of homemade sticky caramels to no surrender.

He can’t help himself. As executive pastry chef of the Village Pub in Woodside, Cerdan, 33, has been baking since he was 7, when he’d commandeer his mom’s toaster oven before taking on the full-size one.

After stints at Roy’s Restaurant in San Francisco, Delessio’s Market in Bakery in San Francisco, and Bi-Rite Creamery and Bakeshop in San Francisco, Cerdan took over the head pastry job at the Village Pub in October 2010.

Recently, I had a chance to try a sampling of his newest desserts (about $10 each) on the house that reference homey favorites, but have been reborn with contemporary flair. They included a fluffy, airy chocolate honey mousse cake with spicy ginger ice cream; and a Meyer lemon pudding cake with an ethereal texture made all the more luxurious with dollops of lush white chocolate.

Cerdan's chocolate honey mousse cake with ginger ice cream and ginger chocolate bark.

Cerdan, who is of Spanish-Basque and El Salvadoran heritages, joined me at the table to chat about his failed attempt at an acting career, what it was like to grow up with a mom who worked at See’s Candies, and what his all-time favorite dessert is.

Q: Your Mom wrapped candies at See’s. That must be every kid’s fantasy, right?

A: She used to bring home 10-pound boxes. The fruit-filled chocolates were always my favorite. I used to take a knife to the bottom of each candy until I found the ones that I was looking for.

I got pretty good at identifying them just by sight. But it’s been a while. I’m not sure I could do it now. I’d have to brush up on it.

Q: When you were 7 years old, you wanted an Easy-Bake oven?

A: Yes, but I couldn’t have one. But I found that the toaster oven was better. There was none of that pushing a tiny pan under a light bulb.

I would grab a box of Bisquick and make all the recipes. Then, I’d make my own coffee cakes and pigs in a blanket. I made my own pasta at 9.

I’d watch all the PBS cooking shows, especially Julia Child and ‘Yan Can Cook.”

Q: So was this how your love for baking started?

A: My Mom would come home smelling of chocolate and vanilla. That pretty much did it. (laughs)

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