I ate at a “B” health-rated restaurant . . . and I liked it.

So what does it mean if you see a “B” health rating on the front door of a restaurant, bar or other food establishment?

IMG_5268Laddie-da, hoopla and fanciness abound in this Los Angeles community of West Hollywood, CA also known as “Westwood”. Lots of money here and lots of money being spent here. Nice cars, nice stores and nice restaurants. Well, that’s if it doesn’t have a “B” health rating in the front door; or is it just all of that . . . or lack there of?

I was embarrassed at the fact that I didn’t notice on Yelp (I think they have just begun posting the health ratings) while looking up the restaurant our party was planning to fulfill reservations this evening; trying to get a heads up on the menu and trying to get a heads up on the restaurant. I had felt great pride in mentioning some of the menu offerings and some of the review highlights during the car ride over there, but I also didn’t notice that Yelp has begun to pulish health ratings. I am convinced that had I been more dilligent and prudent in my reporting, to include the “B” rating, we would not have had the opportunity to visit the restaurant (a first for all 5 of our party), and not had the opportunity to be a Westwood sheep following each other into a culinary abyss of a “B” rating.

This evening, I was one of those sheep, just following the others into the wolf’s den along with all of the people following what everyone is saying about this popular eatery. But nobody is leaving. My bet is that none of the patrons this evening had become aware of the “B” health rating that has been at the front entrance prominently displayed for two months now. But what does it mean? How common is it? Is it a show stopper for the business?

I have a son who had refused to eat at  a “B” rated restaurant in his past. He was the one that saw the sign displayed at a restaurant we visited, at the time, in Palmdale, CA. But what does that mean, really? I even had to do the research and revisit what I had learned sometime ago while attending culinary school and getting my “Serve Safe Manager” 40-hour training certification. At the time it was of the first courses I took. I knew there was a system from the Department of Health for the rating, but I could not totally remember all of the factors involved, as there are many, like training and competency of employees all the way to refrigeration and holding temps. It was a good refresher.

I had begun to discount the “B” rating as possibly something simple. Something simple like a few minor violations (2 points each) that reduced the overall score from 100 into the 80-89 point range. But how many minor violations? Or was it a couple of major violations (4 points each). But then I saw that the rating has been there for two months and I remembered back when I was just a young lad working in my first delicatessen. At the time when we first opened and we recived a “B”; but our score was upgraded to an “A” in just several days, certainly not prolonged over the course of a couple of months as is the case with the restaurant in question. So what gives with this snooty-clientele restaurant? Why do they have such a poor rating . . . or is it really considered poor?

The Department of Health gives this explanation:

1. Each violation on the Food Inspection Report is assigned a point value depending on its importance. For example, a Major Risk Factor is worth four points, a Minor Risk Factor is worth two, and a Good Retail Practice is worth one.2. Once the Specialist completes an inspection, the points are added up and subtracted from 100. The resulting number is the inspection “score”.

3. A letter grade is assigned to the facility based on the inspection score. An “A” grade means the facility earned a score of 90 to 100 percent and is in satisfactory compliance with state law; a “B” means the facility earned a score of 80 to 89 percent and needs improvement; a “C” means the facility earned a score of 79 percent or less and is a failing grade.

4. The grade card must be displayed near the public entrance during hours of operation. (https://www.sandiegocounty.gov/content/sdc/deh/fhd/ffis/intro.html.html).

Another determination of scores and valuation of inspection were found here in an adjacent county:

A grade (A, B, C) or score card will be issued to each facility at the end of all routine inspections. The card issued will be based upon the score received on the Retail Food Official Inspection Report. The grading is calculated as follows:

90 to 100 points A Generally superior in food handling practices and overall food facility maintenance.
80 to 89 points B Generally good in food handling practices and overall food facility maintenance.
70 to 79 points C Generally acceptable in food handling practices and overall general food facility maintenance.
0 to 69 points Score Poor in food handling practices and overall general food facility maintenance.

A facility receiving a score less than seventy percent (70%) will be issued a score card and not a grade card. The score card will indicate the actual score received.

The grade/score cards must remain posted until the next routine inspection, at which time the inspector will issue a new grade/score card.

All food facilities that have a critical violation may be subject to closure regardless of the score received on the inspection report. Food facilities that score below seventy percent (70%) twice within a twelve (12) month period are subject to closure and further legal action. (http://publichealth.lacounty.gov/eh/misc/ehpost.htm).

So as you can see, there are several factors that come into play on the health and sanitation ratings at the places that you eat. I showed you the explanation from two different and adjoining counties (not directly next to each other) in the same general location of the state to show you that they are basically the same.

Now, being familiar with different regulatory agencies because of my environmental position I understand that there are other factors that come into play with those regulatory inspections. They are all supposed to be based on an inspection checklist, and they are: but different personalities (not supposed to, but they do have some minor bearing) can and do also come into play. I hope they didn’t piss off the inspector, but cha never know.

I mentioned that the heath score card letter grade had been in place for a couple of months at this particular establishment. Many regulatory inspection cycles will be conducted on a calendar year cycle of every six months or every quarter based on the significance of the program being inspected and whether they are a Federal, State, County or City inspection. Some programs may only receive inspections once a year like the Food Establishment Waste-Water Discharge (FEWD) permits that control the grease traps for establishments facilitating kitchen equipment like grills and deep-fat fryers. That may be the cycle used in your county, but it may also be more or less frequent depending . . .

Anyway, if the inspection cycle is quarterly then holding on to their B permit for only 3 months seems to be possibly not that long, especially in Los Angeles, but even that seems very short for that enormous population. Could this restaurant actually have to hold that posture for longer than 6 months? That’s like torture for the owner.  If you had a good relationship with the regulator then you could possibly get them to return earlier unless there are restrictions to maintain that rating in your particular municipality. Just remember, thay don’t come around that often so protect your permits and health ratings.

Another rule of thought is they have a new inspector and this particular establishment hasn’t yet learned the particular inspector’s habits and what or where they normally look and what they normally test. Yes, I know that the restaurant is always supposed to be on top of their game and sanitation should always be a paramount process in the kitchen, but sometimes things fall through the cracks . . . literally. Possibly it’s a new guy and ‘new guy’ is making themselves known as being a hard-ass or something like that. Maybe the restaurant is just having a bad day. They kinda know when the inspector is coming based on the last inspection cycle, so they should have all of their employees training and certifications current, but cha never know . . .

Another thing I have learned after all of these years doing environmental stuff along side of regulators is they will see something upon arrival at the beginning of their inspection, like fresh food or eggs being on the counter. They will perform the remainder of their inspection and return to the container on the counter after they have looked around the entire place. If that container is still out and in the same spot, then they give you a violation based on their finding of fresh food being left out and not properly held. You have got to be on your toes and understand the habits of your inspectors . . . and your employees.

I figured out what it could be . . . a combination of incidents that all lined up at the same time. You know, ‘the old Swiss Cheese’ model. I know that from my safety-guy days. Maybe it was several team members not having their health cards, but I doubt that it would actually be ‘like everybody’. I just think it was a bit of this and a bit of that. But how common is that B rating?

The “B” rating is far less common than the “A”. It’s a numbers game of sorts. We eat and eat and eat. We rarely look at the health signs unless we have some kind of compulsive, reactive disorder or something like that. I may now have that since my recent heightened awareness of the rating signs in the door . . . and on Yelp.

We are now aware of the meanings of those rating signs, but I wouldn’t personally search out those establishments to ‘test’ the cuisine. I can’t say that I would avoid one if I knew of it ahead of time; but I think the fact remains that it is not necessarily a show stopper for a business. Possibly a small black eye at best for an established restaurant. Possibly a bit more of a concern in a prominent neighborhood with many well-to-do establishments; but if the clientele has been patronizing the chef, then they probably have a trust and will continue to return without hesitation. Possibly a small dent for them, but what about those new places, like the one I had worked at many moons ago that had just opened their door? What about the effects of Dicks like me that find this stuff and write about it. What about this day and age of social media and Yelp. Information travels much faster and is far more wide spread. It can be a show-stopper but it doesn’t need to be if the restaurant’s leadership is committed to sanitation standards and communicating with their clientele. People do understand, but they sometimes also follow the others (sheep) into some of the hatred found on such media.

We now understand how that rating has been assigned. We also understand that the rating has a chance of being reversed and the effects it may have on clientele returning to your establishment. But we also have learned about habits of diners. People continue to enjoy food wherever they have become accustomed to patronizing. They rarely look at the health signs, but understand they may become a laboratory animal of sorts. It’s not all that either. We are human and we do like to eat, even pushing aside something that doesn’t look or smell good. I just hope that look and smell is not where I’m eating.

How often will I find that B rating now that I am aware of it. Why am I now aware of it? Because I ate at that restaurant . . . and I liked it?


A good movie soundtrack

When was the last time a song or several of the songs in a movie soundtrack made you feel good? The kind of good feeling that makes you want to run out right now and buy the movie or the soundtrack? The kind of good feeling that makes you dance in the kitchen?

A Friday evening for my family usually includes dining on a slice of pizza somewhere . . . or two slices somewhere; whether dining on a pizza made at home, a pie from one of our favorite pizza parlors, trying a new pizza place or even reaching into the freezer for the “ol’ Friday night standby”. I call pizza, “the devil’s pie” because every Saturday morning the scale seems to be about 3 pounds high. Then we work hard and go without some of our other favorite foods all week to get those pounds back to where they belong. Then, about Thursday or Friday morning later in the week, just when we begin to see hope, we start the whole game over again.

This last Friday evening included relaxing on the couch and watching a movie. I didn’t feel like going out, ordering out (only one place delivers to us so far after 14 years), or otherwise making a dough and everything else that goes into a homemade pizza. We also had a decent brand of frozen pizza in the freezer as a back-up, but we decided to go against our desire and be strong-willed about it. We wanted a bit of something to munch on, but didn’t want to wreck our week’s work on this Friday evening and the movie we chose was something that we had seen before; so going down the same pizza highway this evening wasn’t working for us either.

We began to watch the movie and soon I found myself somewhat bored. Given this slow Friday evening, I felt the need to entertain myself in the kitchen where I can still glance at the flat screen in the other part of the ‘great room’. I have a fairly good surround sound system in the family room area and I found myself stopping work in the kitchen, to occasionally glance at a recognizable scene based on the audio. I then found myself rocking out to familiar songs being played on the soundtrack of the film, all while preparing whatever I could find that has been in the freezer for too long.

The view from my kitchen bar counter

Luckily I found some simple pre-formed burgers and some Brioche buns (don’t know where those came from). And, behind the six pack of beer that I was working on this evening, I also found some complimenting produce in the fridge. I didn’t want to make a huge mess this Friday evening so I decided to pan fry the burgers instead of using the outside gas or charcoal grill or even opting for the infamous ‘George Forman’ on the counter. The burgers I found were re-wrapped in cellophane so I could not give you any specifics about the brand, or even if someone in my house had pre-formed them. The only thing I found is that I believe they were 100% beef.

Before I forget, I was told by my 25-year-old son and self-proclaimed burger aficionado (5 Guys and In-N-Out) that tested the burger, that it was an incredible burger unlike anything he has ever had at home. That’s a huge claim since I often attempt but never accomplish greatness (his rating) making a burger at home.

Anyway, I had a refrigerator beginning to emit a peculiar smell of off-gassing produce ripening before our very eyes. So, before the smell made things ugly, I decided to use what I could before it had to get tossed into the composting pile. For some reason (we don’t normally have this) I found a head of the nutritionally challenged Iceberg lettuce that was beginning it’s Navy-vessel browning routine in the back corner of the fridge. Luckily I found a couple leaves yet preserved with a light-colored white/green tinge so I knew that would be perfect to obtain the crunch portion of the bite into the burger. I also found some cherry tomatoes that would make a nice tomato marmalade after cutting each of the little buggers in half and gently squishing them flat. To ensure there was nothing short of everything California in this burger (bacon is not Californian), I smeared a bit of local ranch-grown avocado and placed a few slices of mellow Monterey Jack Cheese, yellow onion, mustard and mayonnaise before placing the toasted Brioche top-half aloft. I also found a half bag of tater-tots and crinkle-cut fries that I baked in the toaster oven to add the finishing touch for enjoyment.IMG_5101

All of this while jamming out to the good tunes from the movie’s soundtrack, occasionally finding myself breaking into my best Michael Jackson dance move and sipping on the last sip of beer that has made a six pack start to look like a 4-pac. I finally plated this concoction and presented it to the wife so she didn’t have to move from her front row movie seat. Now, what had happened next was exactly the same thing that happened recently after passing a McDonalds in a casino lobby and heading back to a hotel room one night. Once inside of the hotel room with a Big Mac in the bag, I had slipped into the bathroom only to return to approximately three bites of the burger remaining. WTF? The wife said nothing, she had her mouth full and just handed me the burger . . . or what was now left of it. All I could say is, “WTF is this?” And now all she could mumble, with her mouth full, was something like, “It’sth threally gudd”.

So when you are looking for a change from the ordinary and don’t feel like going to the local watering hole and hearing the same Willie Nelson cover band. Or if you just don’t feel like going anywhere to get just anything to eat, then reach into your own fridge and get your best “Chef” on and make something creative using whatever it is that you have available. It’s actually interesting and fun. And, if you still decide that delivery isn’t going to cut it tonight, you can still have DiGiorno.


The Joy of American Food

How true and yet so funny – found this and had to repost.



How To Eat Like A God-Damn American (Just In Time For Thanksgiving)

4 months ago by

US-Food-girl-hot-dogDJ-BBQ-US-headerOur resident food columnist, DJ BBQ, tells us why it’s time us Brits started eating like Americans:

“As far as I’m concerned American food is about passion. Look at the success of Man Vs Food. What makes that show great is the enthusiasm people have for the food. And it has nothing to do with gourmet ingredients.

Sure, in Britain you over-indulge with the occasional kebab or fish and chips. But you’ve got some real catching up to do. Get a proper fridge, for starters. Secondly, your portions are tiny. Our bags of potato chips are roughly 20 million times the size of yours.

Go to a supermarket in America and you’ll see we have three whole aisles just for corn chips and salsas. And your extra-large pizzas are like the size of our small pizzas. I once ordered a pizza in San Diego and we had to tilt it to get it through the door it was so big.”

Let’s get started…


The Goober Burger & Rodeo Burger

goober-rodeo-burgerWhat is it?
Think you know burgers? You’re a beefy-beginner until you come face to face with one of these meat-monsters. First up, the mighty Minnesotan goober (see previous page): a cheeseburger enhanced by a fried egg and a generous portion of melted peanut butter. Then there’s the rodeo burger (above). Another mutant, the rodeo is achieved by cramming a load of deep fried onion rings on top of the meat and then slathering the whole thing in BBQ sauce. Yee, and indeed, haw.

Christian Stevenson’s Burger Bonus:
“These guys still aren’t cheesy enough for you? Rock some cheese from inside, it will be oozealicious! Make two burger patties, then put a couple of Monterey Jack cheese squares folded up in the middle. Seal the cheese in between the two patties. Crack some fresh pepper and salt onto the burger and give ’em a good BBQ or grill. You can also pop a jalepeno pepper inside to party with the cheese.”


Bad-Ass Buffalo Wings

bad-ass-buffalo-wingsWhat is it?
“A lot of restaurants refer to their wings as ‘buffalo’. But they’re not,” says Darul Rahman, the owner of StickyWings in Lewisham, London. Buffalos don’t have wings – we’re talking about chicken, here. Darul’s wings were recently recognised as being the best in the UK. “They have to be exactly how they cook them in America,” he says. “People get addicted to my wings. They tell me that they wake up at two in the morning craving them.”


Darul’s four steps for making perfect wings
01  “Season a bowl of uncooked chicken wings with salt, pepper, garlic powder and a little flour. Place them in a fridge for 20 minutes.”

02  “Prepare a blue cheese dip by mixing up a few hunks of blue cheese, a dollop of sour cream and some mayo in a bowl.”

03  “Deep fry the wings for 12 minutes at 190ºC. Be accurate with the time.”

04  “Melt some butter in a pan. Take the wings out of the oil and toss them in a bowl with the melted butter and some Frank’s hot sauce. Enjoy.”


The Double Down Burger

double-down-burgerWhat is it?
A semi-mythical food, the Double Down was originally a Photoshopped April Fool’s joke until a few particularly unhinged branches of KFC in the southern states decided to make it a reality. Essentially it’s a bacon and cheese filling inside a “sandwich” of fried chicken. The fact people are willing to burn their fingers to eat it is testament to how delicious the Double Down actually is.



Krispy Kreme Chicken Sandwich

krispy-kreme-burgerWhat is it?
Fried chicken is America’s most popular home-cooked food. Therefore it was only a matter of time before some bright spark had the genius idea to combine it with that other staple of Stateside snacking: the glazed jam doughnut. Americans love three things: freedom, guns and deep-fat friers. The thinking is simple: if something tastes good then it stands to reason it’ll taste even better dunked in boiling oil.


Pile Of Pancakes

bacon-pancake-stackWhat is it?
A teetering tower of starchy goodness, the traditional pancake stack is one of America’s greatest innovations. Yeah, the French might go on about how they perfected the crêpe, but whose idea was it to pile them up to the height of a small child, drench them in maple syrup and garnish the whole thing with delicious crispy bacon? U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!

It’s not hard to make your own from scratch either. Mix together some self-raising flour, two eggs, a bit of icing sugar and a large glass of milk. Pour some of the mixture into a frying pan on a medium heat and once it starts to set (after a few minutes) flip it over. You’re done.


Arctic Nachos

arctic-nachosWhat is it?
Americans take sports seriously. How seriously? The arenas where their college teams play American football are bigger than most Premier League stadiums. When it comes to game-day snacks they don’t mess about either. We don’t know whose idea it was to combine nachos with ice cream and chocolate sauce, but we’d like to buy them a drink.



Deep-Fried Butter Stick

deep-fried-butter-stickWhat is it?
What do you mean, “What is it?” It’s a deep-fried chunk of full-fat butter, drizzled with a cinnamon glaze. And before you accuse us of making this stuff up, the Dream Stick (as we call it in the FHM office) is absolutely real. Scotland produced the first telephone. China invented gun powder. Italy was responsible for momentous breakthroughs in painting and sculpture. But only the United States can lay claim to the deep-fried butter stick. God bless America.


Philly Cheese Steak

philly-cheese-steakWhat is it?
Get a big roll and cram it full of onions, beef and lots of cheese. The key to a good Philly cheese steak, according to Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, is cheapness. “The first mistake people make is that they use good meat,” he said recently. “You need the fattiest, stringiest meat to get a proper taste.” And as for the cheese: “You have to use Cheez Whiz,” says Ed. “Real cheese doesn’t melt right.”


The Ultimate Deli Sandwich

ultimate-deli-sandwichWhat is it?
Katz’s Deli in New York, owned by Luke Katz, is the best place in the world to eat pastrami and corned beef in a sandwich. Katz’s get through 15,000 pounds of pastrami every week. “I’m a traditional deli guy,” says Luke. “I like pastrami. I like it on rye. I like mustard. That’s it. But if someone likes our meat so much they want to pile it all into the same sandwich? It’s an honour.”

How to do it yourself
The meat: “Both corned beef and pastrami are cured, but only pastrami is smoked afterwards. That’s what makes it pastrami. It’s important you make sure yours has been smoked properly. Otherwise your sandwich is going to suck shit, excuse my French.”

The mustard: “Don’t use yellow mustard. What colour is mustard? It’s mustard colour. It ain’t yellow.”

The bread: “It’s gotta be rye. It lets the meat flavours shine. You need a tough bread. Do not make this sandwich with white bread. When I hear someone order white bread I just wanna slap the shit out of them.”


Photography: Dan Matthews / Conor Sheehan
Typography: Joel Holland

The night I met Billy Blazes. Joe Torrillo. A story about 9/11.

billy blazes

I met this guy on 9/11/2015. I happened upon him at The Gopher Hole that is directly next door to Tuscany Hills Retreat/Resort . . . or whatever it’s called just off the 15 freeway at the Castle Creek Country Club. His friend (another retired fireman from NY) tells me to get my recorder ready. In less than 2 minutes I was in front of this guy, and all I can think of is to use my video, so I shoot. The video is completely dark, but listen to Joe’s story. Much of the story is about why Joe was there that day when the towers fell.


If you make it down this far, you probably wonder . . . ok why was I there at my local watering hole, The Gopher Hole?

The Gopher Hole has been hosting several Americana musical artists from around the globe. Americana music (genre) is about living life, with a country, blues, folk and rock influence. It’s a genre that has meant so much to me lately as my stories unfold . . . about my recent trip to Oklahoma, or nights like this.

This evening I met Bex Chilcott (Ruby Boots) and her guitarist Lee Jones. These amazing artists were visiting from Perth, Australia and played a show in Los Angeles the night before (9/10), and the next evening at The Hole (9/11). Kinda ironic, that these Americana artists are not from America. Bex and Lee were on their way to Nashville, TN to play shows at the Americana Music Awards. Cattle Call Events https://www.facebook.com/CattleCallLLC  intercepted them and brought them here to North San Diego County; and my jaw was open in awe as this 9/11 evening progressed. Once we (Bex, Lee, Jimmie of Cattle Call and I) had realized the significance of who was amongst us on this 9/11, none of us could keep our mouths closed.

It all started with meeting Bex. She’s a feisty gal from Perth Australia. Hey, I have been there. So we immediately hit off our conversation. I told her I was an American Sailor and there began the multitude of things she and I discussed. Perhaps those stories at another time. http://www.rubybootsmusic.com.

Bex is a very warm-hearted interesting gal that has found herself on a brink of success since sobriety. She admittedly says 3 months; and this new clarity has helped her realize that she’s a very talented individual and been given this great opportunity of success from Australia. She needs to think clearly to seize the moment. Not that she was a heavey drinker but she might have a couple before a show. She admittedly said that she realizes her performances have changed dramatically from her perception because she is more able to perform at stellar levels, like tonight. I think Bex is going to find that success here in America this trip.

And Bex can tell a story or two . . . she even finished next to her end of set with “Middle of No-where”. I later told Bex that song is her money song as it talks about dejection and should be sold for most any movie.

Lee is a remarkable guitarist (now on steel) that helped her flawlessly send a chill my way. I think the whole crowd, for that matter. The applause she received this evening was the most pleasant full-house whistling and coo’s that seemed to fuel her more and more with each song. Lee would yank strings once in a while to help set the off-beats of her very unique style of Americana. I spoke with Lee later about his obvious “Telecaster” and the Ernie-Ball strings; his quick and constant tuning (un-noticeable to most, then I caught him . . . he’s fast) perfections never missing his riff or cue as each song played through to the next. These guys were great, I mean awesome as evidenced by driving dancers to the floor. Lee had an obvious advantage of his snappy licks emitting clearly to blend their flair of sound. Then it even got better as Sumbucks joined in toward the end of the show. IMG_3444

As the Sumbucks were kicking off their additional set I happened upon Tom, a retired FDNY (I just learned) fireman that I never got his last name; and once he found out I was a writer, he immediately set me up in front of Joe Torrillo in literally 2 minutes. I had my video to record the event, but didn’t know how to just do voice, so I just started the completely dark (except for one or two moments) video above. At the end I bought them a drink and they were gone back to their  room at Tuscany Hills. Before they left I questioned as to why they were there at The Hole. Tom and Joe do shows across America with a message to bring pride back to this great nation by allowing Joe to tell his story. Another significant feather in this evening’s cap of significance.

Tom and Joe are from New York, Tom wore this medalion. and had the nice thick Bronx accents and attitude. I bet they could tell me where to eat in NY. Anyway, after hearing Joes story personally and thanking them both, I asked them, “how did you find The Gopher Hole?” Tom replied by explaining that they were next door at Tuscany Hills, as Tom held his flashlight up . . . meaning, he’ll find it. A couple of great firemen from New York that made me say . . . “the night I met a New York fireman”. Wow, what an evening. Give a listen, your life will never be the same. Just remember, I met him after Ruby Boots performed and I was dying to tell Bex and Lee. What a damn shame we missed his opportunity to really have set this 9/11 performance from Bex and help promote Joe’s quest as an American Warrior.IMG_3445

FDNY Rocks!


Viking Ocean Cruises vs. the others.

I was somewhat surprised when I saw so many wheel chairs and walkers being escorted by so much grey hair in the cruise ship terminal. I knew this was an adult adventure, but I never cruised aboard Viking, and I don’t quite know what I was expecting, so I explained to my wife that “we” could join the kids club once on board because we were aged 65 years or less. That kinda set the tone for our next 7 days of adventure aboard our Viking Ocean Cruises ship to Cienfuegos, Cuba.

Having found a number 5 boarding pass sitting atop a chair next to my wife, apparently left from another waiting boarding member that got up to use the restroom or something, and my wife and sister-in-law having a number 9, I decided to board. “See ya”, I said and ascended aboard the escalator in the Miami embarkation terminal.

I thought it a bit odd that I had entered the ship and not a photograph had been taken celebrating the occasion and the atrium area of the ship had a pianist or three-piece string ensemble playing as I checked in . . . I don’t remember; but the staff member that assisted me obtaining a, semi-constant throughout the cruise, Wi-Fi signal was the first part of exceptional service for the next seven days aboard Viking Sun.


My first mission aboard the vessel was to secure some dining arrangements at Manfredi’s Italian Restaurant for the second night underway, and The Chef’s Table for our Thanksgiving day meal aboard and also my birthday. The Chef’s Table offers a pre-fix menu paired with wine, if you paid the extra $137 per person (mandatory both persons pay within a cabin) to have basically unlimited access to all beer, wine and booze while aboard. I was told by one of the ship’s staff that it covered 99% of all the alcohol on board with the only exemptions include one champagne by the glass and other extra curricular drinking events . . . to be explained later. We ended up eating at Manfredi’s twice. It was quite good. The dining aboard the Viking Sun was unlike what we had experienced aboard other cruise lines in that there was no assigned seating and the dining at the specialty restaurants (Manfredi’s and The Chef’s Table) were included other than the wine pairing as mentioned above. I’m learning that Viking Cruise are mostly “all inclusive”. adfh

I finally made my way to the Lido deck . . . or the 7th deck. It was not called the Lido Deck on this ship, where the pool, buffet, burger grill and the constant flow of umbrella drinks being served by eager staff await along with the gently rhythmic Reggae music being played by a live band on the pool deck stage. Nope, it was called . . . the seventh deck, with just some gentle tunes playing modestly through the pool area sound system. I did find the bar on that deck and quickly ordered a double to get me through my next tasks.

Shortly after that I heard over the ship’s P.A. system that all bags have been placed in all of the staterooms. This was at about 1:30pm and I’m used to finding our luggage looming outside of our, and everyone else’s, stateroom at around 3:30 to 4:00pm on Princess and Carnival Cruise Lines. Although those were much larger ships with three to four times the passenger capacity, the service never seemed to be insufficient or excessive either way except for few details like having the luggage not in the hallways . . . ever, . . . even on debarkation.

Soon after getting my drink on the ‘Lido Deck’, as it will ever be referred to by my wife and I, and taking a couple of pictures and sending a couple of texts to the wife still in the terminal, I found our room, and our balcony. Balconies are a very important mandatory feature of our (the wife and I) cruising criteria and every room on this ship had a NON-SMOKING balcony, on a trip to Cuba, … really. This was a very small ship; in fact, it was the smallest of six ships currently docked at the nine-ship capacity (I think they are claiming) Miami cruise ship terminal. Very impressive ship terminal although you’d think you were lost driving around in circles (by design) on the terminal roads. Anyway, for smoking, there was one small area on the starboard side, mid-ship, a deck above and aft of the pool area for all those Cubanos to be tested once we first arrived in Cienfuegos. But I don’t know about the first night, because we had traveled to Havana and back on a reasonably (it was good) comfortable tour bus line for our first days in port.

The food aboard the Viking was decent as was the food aboard any one of the other cruise vessels I’ve been on as an average. I actually felt the foods served aboard the Sun’s buffet dining area was rather limited and just mediocre; there just wasn’t a whole lot of excitement in the food arena. The same layout format throughout the ship of the newer lines that have been coming out of Italy; everything down to the two watering stations next to the mostly unused, on this vessel, shuffle board and miniature golf sports deck. This ship did have a very nice spa and gym area on the 2nd deck (?). It included a steam bath and ice bath rooms that were kinda neat. I can say we did it. The spa area also had a bucket plunge device that drops a bucket of cold . . . not on this ship . . . cool . . . possibly room temperature water over your head. It also had a very impressive bubble machine (that’s what I call it because that’s all it was doing) large Jacuzzi-style tub that was about 92 degrees and a much smaller hot tub that was about 94 degrees. Don’t forget about the iceless water that is served with each meal. Not a whole bunch of excitement aboard this cruise line . . . and not a bunch of stimulation either.

In hindsight, I think I am beginning to realize the quality of the Viking Cruise Line vessels and vacations. They are what I call, “very Hiltony”. Meaning the quality, simplicity, comfort and expectation is very much like the Hilton hotel brand. I have asked myself and my wife several times if we would ever chose Viking again. Our answer is ‘never say never’. We may be looking for this level of cruise line in a few years. Also in hind sight, since witnessing a few things while in Cuba, Viking Cruise Lines seem to do everything with the highest level of perfection toward their brand standard. All of their ship tour adventures seemed top be planned out to the “t”, and everything was always inclusive. We never had to tip or pay for anything . . . and the cruise personnel would tell us that the tip is taken care of and to only tip if you feel it necessary.

The seven days aboard Viking was nice, clean, calculated, anticipated and comfortable. The staterooms were very nice without the towel animals on the bed and the stateroom steward kissing my ass every visit back to my room. Our steward did miss a very important ‘ice in the room every day at 4pm’ request, and I never saw him around that hour to ask him for it again. All I know is that we looked for it many of the days we were on the ship. So when it comes to tipping the steward staff, as was very common on other cruise lines we have traveled on, Viking stewards seemed to be less forcibly social with the traveling guests. The wife and I would rather our room not be visited other than minimally to refresh towels every couple of days. We hang the “Do Not Disturb, sign on the door knob with expectation that the stewards are to remain clear . . . . unless I need ice! The bath area, bed area and closet storage in the room was very accommodating and there is storage below the bed to put your luggage. The balcony area is a decent size with adequate privacy from any next door snoopers.

Since we were of the youngest 10% of the occupancy of the ship, and we usually always had a drink in hand, the bartenders, soon new our names and our drinks . . . and our room numbers. Every staff member, that I had witnessed, would use a personal ‘cell-phone’ styled device to enter all information about drink, food ordering or retail sales in the stores. Our picture was taken upon embarkation for our ships identification badge that was used to access our stateroom and both embark and exit the ship in ports. The ships crew would just verify our picture with our purchase as it was placed on our stateroom final bill. I thought the use of personal data devices for this purpose was convenient for the ships crew.

The Viking staff had everything figured out for the guests. Even when we got to Cienfuegos, Cuba, the ships own 220 passenger life/tender vessels were used to transport us to and from the terminal in that port as we anchored in the harbor off of the docks. This ship also had a fairly new crew, so some things (evolutions) didn’t quite go as planned. Like retrieving of the anchores when leaving Cienfuegos had set us back for about 2 hours due to them being fouled and the ships engineering crew chasing the anchors  around like monkeys chasing around a football. Just below my balcony . . . it was great entertainment.

As for Viking Ocean Cruise lines being compared to other cruise ship lines and how it all comes into play with the overall enjoyment of a ship-board cruise, I’ll have to check out more lines to compare. I did find another writer that does just that, compares the cruise lines from within. I look forward to reading some of his stories as well when I get ready to make my final cruise destination plans aboard another cruise line.


The beer bong. An emotional education about water conservation.

A recent walk with a workmate . . . while enduring extremely tough working conditions (I hate these days), we had entered a discussion about creating yet another course for educating those persons in our work structure about environmental programs. It’s what I do, so I’m usually always inviting the creative ways of thinking, educating and learning.

morning walkThis morning’s picture was on another hike out in the field at an extremely vulnerable opportunity to witness the various endangered species I am entrusted to protect, and educate those that use this environment, to help protect it, and the species that are already there.

Yes, I work in the environmental field and I write training lessons about environmental programs to hopefully educate those that use the land to help protect it so others can use the land the way we use it today.

So the question came up about educating individuals about water and energy conservation. Simple stuff some may say. Shut off the faucet and turn off the lights, right? The discussion continues toward the reason why we don’t spend time educating individuals about such seemingly logical tasks.

Well, we live here in Southern California and water is often times always an issue; at least it is in San Diego since we are actually a costal desert. Now I’m not going to go deeply into what our environment is and the landscape structure and whether we really live in a desert or whatever. At my workplace I am surrounded by scientists, engineers and specialists that can answer all of that for me. I am hired as an Environmental Protection Specialist; but more so, my specialty resides with knowing a lot about all of the programs enough to write training for them and manage an information website. I follow all these people around to try to learn what I can so I can teach people about the environmental programs thus freeing up the scientists and engineers to do the science and engineering stuff. It’s actually fun when I can get the scientists (very analog thinking) and engineers (very digital thinking) together in the same room and throw a conversation instrument out on the table. These folks go on for days . . .

Now back to my dilemma. During our morning walk, I had brought up the point about teaching students about water conservation and potential methods to successfully accomplish that task. Remember, water conservation is thought to be a simple subject with some simple answers resulting in the final outcome of “turn off the faucet”. I then looked to my scientist (the guy I’m on the walk with) for suggestions. oak3

I pointed out that most of my students may not really know how water gets to the faucet and how the use of pressure is created from a water tank located atop a hill or tower somewhere nearby. The water is pumped into the tower from a lower level stream, lake or river. Ours is mostly reservoirs supplied by the Colorado river. Needless to say, our water here in Southern California comes from somewhere else and it costs money to get it here . . . thus some of the charges on your water bill. I then pointed out to my scientist the wasteful behaviors of even some of those individuals in our work area, as I had witness several of them washing their lunch-time dishes in the office kitchen one day. I would watch them open the faucet up full blast to rinse them. I would also watch them open the faucet full blast to rinse out a recyclable plastic food container. Now, over the last couple of years I had begun to wonder about the benefits or detriments of recycling since it is a necessity to clean our recyclable containers to prevent odors and vectors (varmints). I continue to ask if it is as beneficial to recycle in areas needing strict water conservation  efforts like San Diego County in states such as California. Seems like we are always in drought conditions. Beer bong

As I watched these workmates of mine washing dishes and recyclables with forceful amounts of water going down the drain, I would ask them if they knew how water gets to the faucet and if they could just put water in the largest dish or bowl already in the sink, add some soap, do a little scrubbing then rinse it all off. They would usually feel bad at first but often times would say, “it’s not my water bill”. They would turn the  faucet down a bit, and hurry their way through their dishes so the next person could mount up and clean up, turning the faucet on full blast once again. I thought to myself about how I could strike emotion into these educated individuals.

I mentioned I work along side of scientists and engineers. I’m guessing some of them had been to college based on the various degrees they hold. We even have a PhD in our office. Now I know from my life long learning, that with college comes partying. With partying comes a bit of drinking. College students are always looking for a new game to free their minds from the rigors of the classroom and continually come up with things like beer pong and I had even recently found a beer bong in my RV. Friggin’ college students! Yeah I have a feeling that the beer bong got left behind from my eldest son (a college graduate) and his friends one evening. That gave me the idea about teaching these scientists and engineers (yes one of them is responsible for the water conservation program) about conserving water and drinking beer.

I asked one the guy I was on my morning walk with about how a beer bong works, and explained that it is similar to the way water is stored in a water tower. If the valve on the end of the beer bong is opened, the water comes out full force. If we close the valve a bit, just like shutting the faucet off a bit to conserve water, it takes longer for the beer to come out. He warned me about using that example in class. I said to him, “that’s what is missing in education today, the emotional bond between teaching, understanding and learning”.

I’m probably going to use that in class someday, just as I have already used that example in the kitchen with those scientists and engineers. I mean, who doesn’t understand the beer bong. Close the valve a little.




Just when are you supposed to read the menu?

Just when are you supposed to read the menu? You’ve made reservations at a premier spot. You’ve heard and read so many positive reviews of the place and have researched whatever you can find about the menu and what to expect of your dining event.

You arrive and your initial expectations have been met with the very polite, knowledgeable and attentive host person. You’ve been seated at a comfortable table with you’re friends and have much to look at with your positioning to all of the goings on. You immediately begin to converse with the others at your table and your server approaches with perfect timing sporting menus and greetings while taking the first of the drink  orders

img_5147You continue your initial conversations and glance down at the menu. Suddenly the bus person arrives to bring water to fill the glasses on your table. Your conversations continue as each napkin is unfolded and floated across your lap. You, somehow wilding the menu above the table, try to pretend you are reading it. You have only made it past the first of two attempts at a visual eye scan of the menu and only noticed four possible  items, none of which match any of your immediate likes. You continue your conversations and place the menu back down because your first round of drinks just arrived and the ol’ . . . “salud” begins a dinner celebration to remember.

As a food writer and culinarian, I spend my fair share of time researching and reading food stuff on the internet. Food stuff is defined as anything I may have possibly learned in my education and everything that I also possibly missed in my education. When I get ready for a hot date at a good restaurant, especially one that I know has a seasonal menu, I try to get ahead of the service by learning a thing or two that may be expected once I get to the restaurant. Then, the menu is often similar and my time preparing makes for a bit of swiftness come ordering time. But even with the added preparation of researching your options, when is the right time to read the menu? I mean you don’t want to miss anything that is being offered and you also don’t want to miss any of your conversations without being distracted away from anything gluten or lactose free. So, just when are you supposed to read the menu?

While this may be something to ask of the overall experience with a particular restaurant, being prepared when the server arrives to take your food order can prove to be detrimental if your delay throws off your server’s timing. Now you may not see your server for a while until she rounds the turn the next time. This preparation can still be challenging and possibly something you want to parlay with a swift ordering of an appetizer, that should or could have been done with the initial drink order; and in some establishments, this may prove to be a carefully timed service with ordering of the main entrees’ as well.

“Wait, I still haven’t had enough time to really read the menu.” I mean carefully read the composition of some, if not all, of the offerings. In such haste, I can only hope the menu is small enough to get through possibly 5-6 appetizers, 7-10 main entrees and then selecting sides to accompany everything. Yes this whole process can be accommodated by a well trained staff to explain each item when taking the order; but you also don’t want to be the guy that     s l o w e s     t h e     w h o l e     p r o c e s s     down for the server to have them leer at you wanting to say, “to- to- to- today junior”. And the first ordering trip of the server to your table shouldn’t be the ‘warning shot across the bow’ either. The server has other tables that need to be attended to, not just you. You are not the only person in the restaurant today and don’t throw the server’s pace off. So, just when are you supposed to read the menu?

Of the several rude table methods that can possibly abound like texting on your phone inside of the open menu on your lap; or, the very offensive, holding the hand in the face of someone trying to ask of your conversations saying. “I’m trying to read the menu”. You can always wait until the server comes by with the warning shot. Perhaps you can break up the conversation happening at the table by saying, “let’s stop for a moment to prepare our order”. That’s just like putting a hand up in conversation, but is not as ‘in your face’ as the whole hand thing. Just remember, you don’t want the server returning with the warning shot.

Here’s something else to remember when preparing for your order and minimizing the time actually reading the menu, is to use time to your advantage. While arriving slightly late may be considered fashionable for you or your guest, arriving early can give you an opportunity to read the menu posted behind the restaurant storefront glass in the showcase. Arriving early also may allow you to borrow one of the menus from the greeter’s desk to view while you are seated in the waiting area while waiting upon your guests to arrive. Take a moment to read the ‘chalk board’ on the front door step as well where you’ll often times find the ‘special’. A couple of things to remember about the special. One, not all establishments believe the special should be truly ‘special’. Two, don’t ever order “the ‘rock-fish’ special” at a BBQ rib house. Something to think about, ordering fish at a BBQ house.

image_542595516671984Well, if you are like me, finding the peaceful moment to actually read the menu falls somewhere helplessly between conversations at the table. Unfortunately, only a few of those moments are focused on the menu compositions and ingredients because you just don’t have time to read everything. Having a well planned and well designed menu can help this process by simplifying the eye scan and the amount of time it takes for the customer to find the menu items of their desire . . . or the menu item of the restaurant’s desire (Menus 101).

Here’s another way to read the menu, and to get more coverage of the menu items in short fashion, is to guide your table conversation around the menu. Point to the Chateaubriand with Red Wine reduction and ask if anyone at the table would care to share the plate, and possibly share the Beet Salad appetizer. Now you’ve asked the table to start reading the menu, included some suggestions and other items to be cosidered and scanned in the short time you want to spend reading it. But listen to what others are saying at your table, because they may just point out the “espresso rub” on the rib plate you are about to order at 9pm. You don’t want your evenings mishaps to be replayed at 2am in the morning.

One of the things I learned in school was to learn to begin reading menus. I find it is not that easy to really read the menu, even at the basic level. There is so much information on there already, then trying to read and salivate at the same time is something that just wasn’t taught.


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