Aspen Times Weekly: Street smart in Southeast Asia | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Times Weekly: Street smart in Southeast Asia

by Amanda Rae

ON THE BEATEN PATH

Despite falling in love with Southeast Asian street food during an April tasting trip, the Caribou Club staff recalls a number of traditional restaurant experiences fondly: 22 courses of molecular Indian cuisine in Bangkok; an international breakfast bar at the Hotel Sofitel So Bangkok featuring tiers of bamboo steamers stuffed with different dumplings and charcuterie sliced-to-order on Italian machines; cocktails made with pineapple squeezed à la minute at the 1901 Hotel Metropole Hanoi’s stunning bamboo bar; and ripe watermelon chunks rolled in dried fish seasoned with sugar and spice.

MILES ANGELO’S first evening in Bangkok was a buzzkill. Despite dining at a chic, modern Thai restaurant located in an acclaimed five-star resort and decorated with a Michelin star, the Caribou Club executive chef left the meal with an unsettling and unexpected sensation: hunger. Dishes were either too salty, too sweet, or a combination of both, and service was spotty. The entire experience fell flat under an April heat wave that saw city temperatures topping 100 degrees—made nearly unbearable by the fact that Angelo’s luggage was lost en route from Minneapolis, leaving him with a single set of sweat-soaked clothes for the next two days. Throw in a case of jet lag after traveling across the globe for some 20-plus hours and well, you’d be cranky, too.

But the night was young, and Angelo was determined to find the kind of food he’d been daydreaming about all winter long. He set off with three colleagues from the Caribou staff trip crew of 14 and discovered gustatory bliss blocks from Bangkok’s hip downtown.

“We found this rat- and cockroach-infested alleyway, sat down at a table, and I had a bowl of spicy chicken feet and blood sausage,” Angelo says. “It was one of the best dishes I’ve ever had in my life.”

Successive courses—massive, sweet clams in curry; shrimp noodles; pork with mushrooms—were revelatory. “All were so spicy that I used a roll of paper towels mopping the sweat off my brow,” Angelo says, laughing at the memory. “I drank about eight beers. You put an ice cube on your tongue and it just melts. I’ve never had food that spicy—the more you ate, the more you wanted, the more you’d sweat, the more you could deal with it.”

Price for their four-course, late-night snack? Thirty bucks—a fraction of what the lackluster tasting menu cost a few hours earlier at the westernized hotel.

The Caribou Club staff has embarked on these annual tasting trips for the past decade, hitting domestic and international locales such as Napa, Nice, Copenhagen, Madrid, Barcelona, Sydney, Las Vegas, and London. Ask Angelo how these jaunts influence his cuisine back in Aspen, however, and the answer is a bit more elusive.

“It’s a very romantic idea that you’ll visit a place, come home, and cook that food,” Angelo says. “The reality is that traveling to a different country for the first time and the cultural impact, [seeing] the way they cook so differently from how we prepare food in America…it takes a few months for it to really sink in. Most Thai food in America isn’t anything like Thai food in Thailand. It’s [about] understanding combinations of flavors and textures that aren’t super popular in contemporary cooking.”

Angelo and company found the best fare on the streets. “Especially in Hanoi, the restaurants were really trying to impress the French/European tourists,” he says. A morning street tour of Vietnamese markets—controlled chaos scented of skewered meats, snail noodles, fermented wild rice with yogurt, egg coffee—was one of the most memorable experiences during the two-city, nine-day voyage.

“I come back from this trip completely inspired,” says Jen Hartley, Caribou Club director of events and marketing. “The colors and textures and spices—even the bonds we all make—are invaluable. We pride ourselves on remaining innovative and creative with events and food.”

As such, Angelo has been dabbling with recreating standout dishes. One he hopes to feature in some form on his summer menu consisted of leftover, stuck-together noodles (think tortilla chips that become chilaquiles) mixed with shredded daikon radish, cilantro stems, fresh crab, and sweet hoisin, then wrapped in rice paper and tied with bamboo string and deep-fried until browned. The crunchy packets were served with various lettuces and chile- and cilantro-infused fish sauce.

“They cooked them for so long that the oil made its way inside and turned the noodles into a creamy crab mixture,” Angelo raves. “It’s one of the greatest things I’ve had.”

Later, a lady with baskets balanced on each shoulder unpacked a wok, utensils, and ingredients to whip up an omelet laced with dozens of fresh, native herbs and dressed with tangerine nuoc cham. “It’s like a four-alarm fire: Holy cow! What the hell was that?” Angelo marvels. “The tangerine juice…your cheeks just wanted to cave in. I’m looking forward to trying to duplicate it.”

The legacy of Caribou Club culinary adventures during shoulder season began, of course, with the late, great founder, Harley Baldwin.

“He wasn’t happy with a dish I was making or a menu I was proposing, and he basically told me that the food I was serving was not world-class,” Angelo explains. “It was a big transition for me to go from Manhattan doing modern Southwestern food to one of the greatest wine cellars in America. I remarked, ‘I’m not certain, sir, that I understand what you mean by world-class or what world-class means to you. I can only draw on my life experience.’ The next week we were on a plane to London and Paris.”

Baldwin then sent Angelo to stage in Australia with acclaimed chefs Neil Perry and Tetsuya Wakuda in Sydney and Geoff Lindsay in Melbourne. In London, he cooked alongside Marco Pierre White at Mirabelle—reportedly the first American to infiltrate the legendarily gifted yet volatile Brit’s kitchen. After Baldwin passed away, his partner and current owner Richard Edwards and COO Billy Stolz invited GM Louie Velasquez, Angelo, and a sous chef to join them in the South of France and Paris. The group has grown every year since.

“That (first) experience gave me the courage to keep learning cuisines,” Angelo says. “These trips inspire everybody who’s a part of them, and on different levels. My chef de cuisine, Mike (Ziemer), and I have been on these trips together now for 10 years. It’s the ability to look at your chef and say, ‘Remember that black-foot bird braised in Chinese five spice master stock with anise, ginger, chile, and scallions, cooked in a Coke can?’ and having him know exactly what I’m talking about. That partnership through experience has changed the way we cook cohesively.”

Instead of hitting tourist traps, Angelo would venture to city outskirts in search of “dark, tented, sweltering areas where hundreds of locals would eat,” says the chef, who was mesmerized by the self-taught cooks who would whip together dishes in minutes. “The technique and talent they had was astounding. Any one of these people could be a line cook at Le Bernadin in NYC. There were certain patterns and systems they seemed to use.”

One guy taught Angelo to prepare a traditional dish of coconut curry pork with lemongrass, kaffir lime, straw mushrooms, bean thread noodles, and “a lot of bok choy, to cool it down.” Having met a homeless group camping some 10 blocks from his hotel, Angelo delivered extra orders to them daily. “Every afternoon, it cost me a buck fifty, two dollars,” he says. “As a result, they gave me the local flavor and where to find (more). It was very difficult to see the way (these people) live, but the way they cook inspired me. They make world-class, delicious food out of coffee cans and pieces of charcoal. It is cooking at its most basic and fundamental, and that’s why it’s so spectacular.

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