From March 6th – 21st, I’m down in the bay area looking for work as a social interaction designer. I thought it would be fun way to meet people, while down here, to cook for a bunch of Hacker News folk. This is a recording of those dinners.

Hacker News

The Setup

32 people, 7 courses & 7 hours to shop, drive, prepare & cook, just another one of those easy, casual weekend dinners :).

I’ve made it somewhat of a specialty of mine to do very large scale parties within very restrictive time limits. I remember my very first, formal, fancy dinner party was 6 courses for 4 people and I was cooking for a week. After a while, I could knock out 6 – 10 courses for 6 people in an afternoon without breaking a sweat so I was looking for something to really challenge myself with. My 21st birthday provided the perfect opportunity with 21 courses, 21 people, 21 hours of eating, while I was drinking 21 drinks. That took a solid week of prep and made me discover my limit again.

Of course, the obvious sane thing to do would be to try it all again for my 22nd birthday with 22 courses in only 3 days of prep and no helpers and a much smaller kitchen. Did I mention that I was also in the process of moving out of that apartment, had a 20 hour plane trip to Australia the next day, departing at 5am?

Along the way, I also started enjoying improvised dinners like the one’s I’m doing down in the Bay Area. I would arrive deliberately with no idea what I was going to make, plan a menu while shopping and then cook in a foreign kitchen before serving to horde of hungry diners. These improvised dinners really forced me to think on my toes and hone a completely different set of skills. It was more like jazz and less like classical music. These were not dinners where it was wise to try out a brand new technique you just learned or play with flavors that you hadn’t tried before (so, of course, I do both routinely when I do these).

I had one that was 10 courses for 8 people that went from 12 hours to 7 hours of lead time because my plane got delayed due to fog. My host was a bit of a nervous wreck when I landed but we managed to make it happen and I actually managed to sit down and have a civilized cup of tea in the middle of prep because I was ahead of schedule. Another that was 7 courses for 19 people with only 5.5 hours to prepare. I didn’t find out till noon that day whose house I would even be cooking in and the guest list grew from 10 to 17 after I had already bought all my ingredients. However, both were on time, under budget and well executed, much to the amazement of both my guests and also myself.

32 people is, by a large margin, the most I ever cooked though and there’s always a point about an hour before I meet with my hosts when I worry that maybe today will be one where I’m utterly lacking in ideas and won’t have a thing to cook. So even though I had a generous 7 hours of prep time, I still felt in the pit of my stomach as the day was approaching that perhaps, today would be the day I had to tell 32 hungry diners that nothing I planned had worked out and that dinner would be Pizza from Pizza Hut…

A Quick Digression

A lot of people are curious about the logistics of scaling up a dinner party and I think it has a lot of similarities to scaling up a startup. I’m going to spill a lot of secrets here that I’ve never revealed in public before and, in the process of doing so, make my accomplishments a lot less impressive.

  • Value is all about Perception – Cost. It’s always funny to me the lack of correlation between the amount of money I spend on ingredients for a dish and how much my guests like it. Perception is king and none of my diners care about how much it cost to make that dish. Sure, it’s easy to make a ribeye taste good but everyone knows a ribeye tastes good. To bring real value requires taking something which is overlooked and cheap and convince the diner that it’s the most amazing thing in the world. I lean heavily on this principle when I cook for others. Lots of cheap grains, vegetables & fruit and a little bit of meat, deployed very smartly and ingredients that are just exotic enough that they’re considered luxury, even though they’re cheap to buy (polenta, sorrel, duck, lavender…). I take much the same view to startups. I may be intellectually impressed by a company that deploys a difficult technical solution to an obviously important problem, but I get excited by a company that does something stupidly simple and scrappy that has a measurable positive impact on people’s lives because they managed to find something overlooked by everyone else and turn it into something beautiful.
  • Raw execution ability counts for a lot. Although I’ve never cooked with a professional chef before, one thing I notice cooking alongside amateur cooks is that I might not cut as meticulously as them but I can chew through a pile of prep a hell of a lot faster and that’s what’s important when you’re having to deal with scale. When push comes to shove, there are just some people who can simply crank it up much, much higher and that’s a very valuable skill to have, even though it’s only in very special circumstances when you absolutely need it.
  • Vertical scaling is always easier that horizontal scaling, up to a point. Cooking 7 courses is a hell of a lot easier than cooking 20 courses but cooking for 30 people is not all that much harder than cooking for 6 people if you’re smart about it. As long as you have large enough pots and powerful enough stoves, it’s just a matter of throwing more hardware at the problem.
  • Scaling vertically smartly requires astute menu choices. Like products, recipes can require a lot of manpower as they scale up or be relatively scale free. A 10 bone standing rib roast takes almost literally exactly the same amount of effort to cook as a 3 bone standing rib roast. But going for the most scale free recipes is also a mistake because what you end up with is buffet food. Anything that’s easy to scale, restaurants have already seized that market and turned it old hat. Instead, you want to strike a balance by doing something just a little off the beaten path, so that you’re still creating distinctive food.
  • You have to give up control. As an amateur cook, cooking a intimate dinner for 4 is a completely different thing from cooking for 30. For 4 people, you can be everywhere at once, plate each dish yourself and keep control of the entire experience. At some point, as the size of the event grows, you have to be willing to give up control and put your trust in others and let things slide if they’re imperfect. What makes restaurants such a challenging thing to run is to serve dishes to 200 people as if they were all individual parties of 4 and most restaurants succeed on execution, not raw talent. As an amateur, I don’t have that kind of luxury so I have to accept that I can’t deliver a uniform experience and work with it rather than against it.
  • Trust can help you lead people into interesting places. A lot of picky eaters I know have a standing policy that they’ll eat anything I make with the justification that “well, if I don’t like it, at least I’ll know it’s because of the food and not the preparation”. About half the time, they end up a convert and, somewhat ironically, many of them end up preparing that dish better than I can after a few years. Because I earned their trust, I was able to take them on a journey they never would have considered otherwise. Similarly, when I’m cooking with someone new, I make sure to have them taste a dish several times when it’s being made and get them to the point of comfort with the food we’re making. Having a stranger barge into your kitchen and poke through your pantry is a pretty intimidating activity, it’s only when I bring the other people in and have them trust me that they can actually focus on the food. If you want to bring people to truly interesting places, first, you absolutely must essentially gain their trust.
  • It’s all about making people happy. Probably my most uttered phrases of the evening were “are you having a good time?” and “I hope you’re enjoying the food”. In the end, I would guess about 60% of their “enjoyment” of the food wasn’t about the actual food at all but that I was visibly interested in their satisfaction and clearly cared about the quality of what I was making. Really, genuinely caring about your customer can erase a lot of sins. Whenever I hear a startup pitch that starts “we have a technique to…”, I automatically get 50% less interested. Whenever I hear one that goes “We found a lot of people hated…”, I automatically get 300% more interested.

Enough of this tangent, onto the food…

The Plan

I met my host, Tony at the Ferry Terminal Farmers market and I just spent about 20 minutes, wandering around, trying to spot things that inspired me. It was a bright, sunny day which meant that I was drawn to light, clean flavors that really showed off the freshness of the early spring ingredients. The first thing I saw was some really excellent lavender and I immediately started thinking of a dessert soup, crystal clear with the flavors of lavender, lemon and agave syrup (incidentally, something I’ve never used before). Possibly something like a grilled peach or plum in the middle would have complemented it really well but, unfortunately, we were still a bit too early for stone fruit season so that’s where I left off on that idea.

The next thing I saw was some really excellent sorrel with a clean, lemony flavor and I knew I wanted to have that in a salad. Luckily, the next booth over had asian pears that would pair perfectly so that was the core of the salad course locked down.

After that, I saw a booth with all sorts of great mushrooms and mushrooms and duck were unreasonably good together. Tony mentioned he had a ton of leeks at home and I’d been thinking a lot about lasagna the last few weeks and how the base of a lasagna could be tweaked into something much lighter and fresher.

From there, I found a stall selling some really great smelling stone-ground cornmeal which got me thinking about polenta. Tony was already planning to smoke some ribs so polenta was the perfect choice and we stumbled across a guy selling some excellent black kale for cheap so that course was also locked down.

I knew Tony had a lot of butternut squash at home which was perfect for a soup and, I had originally planned to do a Butternut-miso-sesame soup I’ve done a few times before but it wasn’t really fitting in with the rest of my theme so I really wanted to try Butternut with Orange and Chipotle (again, something I’ve never done before).

The final thing was looking for some scallops to go on top of a salsa I’d already been planning to do but we found a really great deal on some Texas Gulf Shrimp so we went with that instead.

First Course

Cumin Dusted Shrimp on a Corn, Avocado & Black Bean Salsa

Unfortunately, I was way too pre-occupied in the kitchen to have any time to take photos of the food (see: giving up control) so, unless someone else comes forward with pictures, these posts will be, sadly, text only.

The Corn, Avocado & Black Bean Salsa is an old, old standby for me. There’s very few dishes that I still cook more than a few times without changing but I discovered this dish in it’s platonic form about 3 years ago and I haven’t been able to tweak a single thing about it since then.

At it’s core, it’s 1 package of frozen corn, 1 can of rinsed, drained black beans & 1 diced avocado. From there, you add cilantro, garlic, cumin, jalapeno, lime juice, olive oil, sugar & salt. The absolute essence of this dish is balancing these different flavors to a harmonious whole. What makes it so special is that you take a bite and flavors dance around your tongue like a complex symphony.

So, really, it’s just a optimization problem in 8 dimensions… except the optimization space is non-convex! Anyone with a palate can find the first local maxima by just progressively tasting and figuring out it “needs more X”. Doing this will get you a pretty good salsa. The flavors will be well saturated and pleasing.

But there’s actually another, hidden local maxima that turns a pretty good salsa into an amazing salsa. I discovered this point completely by accident the first time I made it and it’s had me hooked ever since. The trick is, this hidden local maxima occurs at a point when everything tastes significantly under seasoned. To reach this point requires a certain amount of faith since everything will taste wrong up until the point where it tastes right. You have to resist your instincts and just trust that there exists an island of stability. However, if you overadd any even one of ingredients, you can’t bring it back into balance except to get to the well saturated local maxima. I’ve gotten to where I’m sufficiently skilled to hit that hidden point around 20% of the time. Luckily, this was one of the times and my guests tasted the amazing salsa rather than just the pretty good one.

This salsa is great as a dip with corn chips or as a base for some sort of lightly flavored protein. I’ve done it with scallops, shrimp, lamb chops, pork tenderloin, chicken breast, flank steak among others. This time, there was a great deal on shrimp so I made a cumin dusted shrimp to go along with it. Pro-tip: Brine your shrimp in a little bit of salted ice-water before cooking to make them plump and crisper.

Second Course

Salad of Sorrel, Mustard Greens, Spinach, Asian Pear, Walnuts & Cranberries, Sherry Vinaigrette.

The sorrel and the asian pear at the market really spoke to me and I wanted to really build a salad to highlight those two ingredients. Walnuts were great because they added an earthiness that allowed the clean, sharp flavors of the sorrel and pear to stand out. The asian pears had plenty of crunch so I only needed a nut with a light amount of crunch, otherwise I probably would have added some slivered almonds as well. The mustard greens added a bitterness that would bring out more of the sweetness and the cranberries added another depth of sweetness. Spinach added the astringency that allowed the lemony notes in the sorrel to be expressed. Finally, I noticed that Tony had some of the amazing O sherry vinagrette which I proceeded to steal half a bottle of (sorry Tony). It’s expensive enough that I never worked up the courage to buy it for myself but now that I’ve tried it, I think I need to get my own bottle.

Third Course

Butternut Squash Soup with Orange

Ugh, I don’t want to even go into what a mess this was behind the scenes. Suffice it to say, there is a god that blesses fools and madmen by providing a miraculous recovery of food in the final minutes of cooking. By some stroke of luck, I’ve been unusually blessed by that god. I can’t count the number of times where I’ve been disappointed by a dish and then, literally within the last 5 minutes of cooking, it transforms into something tasty without me touching it. How it happened in this instance, I have no idea but it was OK the last time I tasted it in the kitchen and pretty tasty when I got a bowl of it in the dining room.

Fourth Course

Duck, Mushroom & Leek Lasagna

Edamame, Mushroom & Leek Lasagna

Mmm… This, personally, was my favorite course of the night. I’ve very recently started thinking the idea of a lasagna is great but the traditional manifestation is slightly heavy, stodgy and way too much effort for something that’s comfort food. However, the basic idea of lasagna is one that’s remarkably open to adaptation and can serve as the base for a lot of different flavor pairings.

In this case, some shiitake mushrooms at the farmers market that looked great and that was the original basis for this dish. I’m a huge fan of the duck+mushroom combination and I’ve played around with many different iterations of it. In this case, I really liked the idea of using asian mushrooms, shiitake & oyster, in a western flavor palate. Asian cuisine has a much more nuanced idea of texture compared to western cuisine and so shiitake & oyster mushrooms are both, in my opinion, appealing mainly for their texture rather than flavor. This was great for me because I wanted to keep the flavors toned down and concentrate on the textures.

Lasagna is different from other pasta dishes because it expresses a much larger range of textures. Ideally, you should have a brown, crisp-yet-gooey layer of cheese at the top, the feathered, crispy edges of pasta, the soft, silky core and chunks that add textural interest.

For the duck lasagna, I seared then braised the duck legs in a little bit of white wine and water with some salt and pepper. Then sauteed the mushrooms with the leeks, added a roux and made a sauce from the braising liquid. The duck legs were shredded and added to the sauce and then layered it with fresh pasta. A mix of Parmesan & Gruyere was sprinkled on top and it was baked until I remembered to check up on it again.

The vegetarian lasagna was made a bit more complex to make up for the lack of meat. Every meal I’ve made on this trip thus far has been very vegetarian friendly. I really feel for our poor vegetarian brethren and how they can never, ever, taste something that’s as delicious as the meat version of a dish so I’ve really tried to at least make my vegetarian alternatives at least 80% as tasty (cmon guys, I’m just joking around). Anyway, for the vegetarian lasagna, I replaced the duck with edamame and used milk to add a bit more richness to the sauce.And, just for the vegetarians, I sneaked in a few pinches of truffle salt into the dish that, IMO, completely lifted the dish to another level. You’re welcome, guys.

Fifth Course

Ribs, Kale & Polenta

Tony was the man with the smoker tonight and he managed to smoke a fine set of ribs. All my job was for this course was to build the sides that would make his ribs shine.

Polenta (aka grits) has been a traditional side for smoked food for a very good reason. It’s a wonderfully, rich, creamy base that adds the necessary heft to the dish.The key to polenta is great corn and time. You need at least medium (preferably coarse), stone ground polenta to make something approaching halfway decent, Bob’s Red Mill is at virtually every grocery store in the US and is a good product. Artisinal or heirloom polenta is one of the few things I’m willing to pay foofoo gourmet prices for because even ridiculously expensive polenta is still dirt cheap. The other key is that you just need to leave it alone for a very long time. Keep it gently bubbling on the stove, stir every 20 minutes or so to keep it from sticking and, at the 3 hour mark or so, it transforms into this wonderfully aromatic base, rich with corn flavor.

When I make polenta for others, I stuff it full of milk & butter & cheese because who cares about calories at a dinner party. But for just a private dinner at home, I sometimes just like polenta made with just water.

an actually quick digression on diets

My philosophy on dieting is pretty simple: make each calorie count. There’s food that’s high calorie but just tastes damn good so I feel no guilt about eating it: bacon, that strip of fat on a steak, home made potato chips. There’s also food that’s high calorie which, while still tasty is just not worth it: Mayo, for me, most baked goods, crappy catered food. Butter & cheese adds a tiny bit of deliciousness polenta but I’m also pretty happy eating polenta without it. As long as I make sure each calorie I’m ingesting is pulling it’s weight, I don’t feel much guilt about my diet.

back to the food…

Something bitter is also a classic accompaniment to smoked meats and, for some reason, I’ve been on a kale bent this month. I’ve cooked more kale this month than I have ever in my life. I think everyone goes on one of these streaks once in a while and it can be useful for me to explore a single ingredient in a much more focused way. In this case, I sauteed the kale in the classic way with olive oil, red pepper flakes and crushed garlic. But, at the end, I added just a touch of white wine and maple syrup to add an interesting sweet-sour dimension as well.

Sixth Course

Lemon & Lavender Soda

I was working on some sort of Lavender & Lemon with agave consomme idea as a dessert but nothing was really gelling. As soon as I got to Tony’s place though and discovered that he owned a sodastream, I made a rapid pivot and decided to turn it into a pre-dessert palate cleanser. Of course, I’ve never made a soda and lavender is one of those notorious ingredients that can become cloying and overwhelming if you use even a little too much and I was infusing it into an unknown quantity of liquid so… yay for experimentation.

I first infused the lavender & lemon zest into a tiny bit of vodka that was first warmed up, then cooled down, then heated for a few minutes to let the alcohol boil off. After straining out the bits, I added lemon juice and agave syrup until I think I got a concentrate that was fairly balanced and threw it in the freezer. Just before service, I charged up a canister of water and then added it to the concentrate until there was just the right level of sweetness. I learned from this experience that making soda for the first time without a recipe is a pretty hair raising experience. If you don’t stir enough, the concentrate doesn’t get fully mixed, if you stir too much, you stir all the carbonation out. If it takes you more than 2 or 3 attempts to balance it, you’re soda is too flat from overstirring. If you add just a bit too much soda water, your soda is too bland and you can’t recover from that. It’s a tricky balance to hit. Luckily, we hit it pretty spot on that night.

I served the soda in these cute espresso cups that Tony had and I filled them each individually with about 3/4 oz of soda and instructed each person to take it like a shot. I originally learned from Thomas Keller’s writings that it’s  important to leave the diner wanting more. That they took it as a shot was important because I wanted them, at the end of it, to be left feeling like just one more sip would have been enough to be satisfied.

Seventh Course

Chocolate Pithiviers with Pistachio Frangipane

Luckily for me, I wasn’t in charge of the dessert course. One of the guests is friends with the founder of Bakery Bites, this awesome indie bakery in Berkeley. The concept is every week, they make a different bakery treat and sell them through their website. These were pretty awesome and it was great that I didn’t have to think about dessert.

Reactions

The frustrating thing about cooking for strangers is that it’s very hard to get accurate feedback. Social pressure forces people to only say positive things. I’ve developed a system that I use now that helps in allowing people be more honest about their feelings. After dinner, I go around and first make people to promise if I ask them a question, they have to answer it. Then, I ask them “what was your least favorite thing I made tonight?” Asking this, and forcing people to answer it, makes them open up and gives them permission to move past the standard social politeness. I’ve been surprised since I started doing this how much more honest the feedback has become.

For this meal, the responses were split pretty evenly between the different courses which I take as a sign that I did a good job. Every course had a person who named it their favorite and also someone who said it was good but not on par with all of the rest. Personally, that seemed in line with my own experience. For virtually any meal of this many courses, there’s going to be some that just don’t work. Amazingly enough, this was one of those rare meals where everything came together. I have to say, I’m pretty damn happy with how all this turned out.

A chance to answer some questions

Well, if you’ve read this far, then you obviously have way too much free time you’re trying to waste so this is probably a good place to waste some more of it. Over the last few dinners, there have been some common questions that have cropped up so this is a mini FAQ about my cooking:

  • When did you start to cook? I started cooking simple meals for my family in high school. After I moved into the dorms, there was no kitchen but I was still reading about food so by the time I moved out, I had a giant list of things I wanted to try and went on somewhat of a food bender. I started getting really serious about cooking in 2003 when I spent half a year in Hong Kong on exchange and had access to incredibly fresh wet markets and my own kitchen. So I guess I’ve been cooking somewhat seriously for about 7 years now.
  • Did you ever get any professional training? No.
  • How did you get so good at it? I tend to be somewhat obsessive about my passions. I don’t really know how to do things halfway. As a result, when I got into cooking, I really got into cooking. It’s that whole 10,000 hours of practice thing. If you’re conscientious in always pushing for improvement, you just keep getting better. That being said, I’m pretty good for a home cook but I don’t even try and compare myself to serious restaurant chefs who do this as a full time job.
  • Have you ever considered doing this full time? No
  • Why not? I cook for people I like. To do it as a job would ruin the appeal of it I think. The Food Network has trained us to think of cooking as this sexy glamorous career but, really, it’s stressful, physically demanding and incredibly long hours. Cooking as a hobby allows me to experience the good bits of preparing food without all the drudgery.
  • What cuisine do you prefer cooking? Oddly enough, even though my ethnicity is Chinese, I started off cooking very classical French and that still remains somewhat of a sentimental cuisine for me. Growing up, my mother would be cooking all of these lame authentic home cooked Chinese food while my friends were eating this amazing stuff from Pizza Hut & McDonalds. Cooking at home started as a defensive move as it was the only way to get western flavors into our home. It’s only been recently, after I left Australia for the US that I started seriously exploring Chinese food. Italian food is one that I still have somewhat of an aversion to. Sure, it’s fun to eat, but I, personally as a cook, find the whole “buy great ingredients and treat them simply” ethos kinda boring.
  • When is the next one of these happening? I don’t know. I have another week in the Bay Area and I’m committed to cooking another 3 dinners. There’s definitely going to be another trip down here in a few weeks and a 99% chance that I’ll eventually end up here. Watch this space I guess.
  • What do you do when you’re not cooking? Well, I’m glad you asked that! I’m currently the founder of a startup that’s in the middle of defunctifying itself and looking for the next step in my career. What I do is think very deeply about how we should be designing social software and then using that deep thinking to come up with specific designs that fix specific issue of social interaction. It’s a new approach to looking at software which I think has the potential to completely transform the way that software design is done (I don’t want to oversell it in this venue so talk to me in person and I’ll try to convince you why that’s the case). What I’m looking for is a job that allows me to do a lot of the sort of design work and makes people measurably happier with their lives. If this sounds even remotely interesting to you, email me at [email protected]. Unfortunately, I’m completely booked out this trip as far as meeting for coffee goes but I’m always happy to talk on the phone. If you know of a company that would be interested in hearing me speak about these issues, I have a 30 minute – 1 hour presentation that I give on my approach to designing software called “Designing for Narratives”. More info will be added to the site as I make time to start documenting a lot of the work that I’m doing so, if you subscribe to this blog, either via RSS or twitter, you can be notified as I put up more content.

If you’ve read this far already, please post a comment, even if it’s just to say hi. Writing something this long is a pretty grueling process and finding out that people are actually interested in what I have to say is the only reward I get. Thanks!

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