Darth Malort and The Force

“Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in.” Michael Corleone, Godfather III

“Choice. The problem is choice.” Neo in the Matrix

“But Master Yoda says I should be mindful of the future.” Obi-Wan

“But not at the expense of the moment.” Qui-Gon Jinn

Opening night at Eat Retreat was exploratory. It started off wonderfully enough, open fire grilled lamb, copious amounts of red wine, and good conversation; three things that make me happy. 

My mood began to change after the introductory campfire and the brief circle of personal stories. I had flashbacks of grammar school, high school, college, and financial industry conferences. Equal parts summer camp, high school football after-party, frat party, and conference hotel bar all combining together among a crowd of 20 somethings all the way through 40 somethings (although there may have been a quinquagenarian or two in the group)

To be perfectly honest, part of me didn’t know where to fit in. I certainly drink. Heaven knows I’m a big eater and love food. I’m reasonably social. I’m happy to drink grappa, amaro, or some local firewater late in to the evening. I don’t shoot the stuff down like I used to, but rather sip it these days. I’m even known to enjoy a cigar.

I’ve got plenty in common with other Eat Retreaters, like food. So what was my hesitation late in the evening? I think a large part was nearly 20 years of going to financial conferences and knowing exactly what to do, how to act, what to say and more importantly what NOT to say. Big Brother is always watching. Human Resources is a phone call away. Some Managing Director may begin to question me at 11pm about the firm and its macro position on the European debt crisis, knowing I may have had a little too much wine. And remember, I'd have to be up, shaved, suit on, ready to rock at 7am each morning.

It’s the training. The programming. The discipline.

So when a bottle of unknown Mid-Western hooch with dubious origins and product slogans tailored to head-sock wearing hipsters who chase said product down with PBR at 11pm was presented to the crowd to swig straight out of the bottle, a danger sign went off in my head. 

Photo by Mike Lee

The name of the hooch was Malort. The individual responsible for bringing it? Rachel Adams.

 “Kick your mouth in the balls” The official slogan of Malort

“Because these pants aren’t going to shit themselves”

“It smells like a tire fire and” something else, but I was laughing so hard I totally didn’t hear the other thing Malort smells like.

“Northern Discomfort”

Rachel, with eyes wide open and ‘all-in’ on every bet that weekend, began passing Malort around. Rachel does not come from the institutional investment world as I have. I watched Rachel shoot her first oyster, eat her first chicken foot, and drink her first Cabernet Franc with absolute enjoyment and excitement I rarely see these days. I’m sure Rachel did plenty of things for the first time at Eat Retreat. Rachel is what makes Eat Retreat a retreat, a chance to get away from it all and live your life, a moment at a time. But my guess is, Rachel lives this way outside of Eat Retreat as well. Enjoying the moment.

Photo by Mike Lee of Rachel Adams

Enjoy the moment, right? Yes, I was. But, I also enjoy sleep, no hangover, and making sure a Mystical Malort Cat didn’t take a shit in my mouth while I slept. Yes, I’m restrained. But I can’t disregard the life I’ve lead for nearly 20 years with high-quality results. The last time I chugged Jack Daniels out of the bottle was in college.

I chose the quotes to start this article with care. Even after Michael Corleone  went “legit” in Godfather III, the past had a way of catching up with him, pulling him back into his old life, despite his best efforts to leave it. We all have a choice, we all look to the past and the future, but shouldn’t waste the moment. (I love movies).

My old life is still part of my present life, but in a different way. I’m still the product of training, lifestyle and environment. But these days I’ve given myself choices. I still won’t choose to chug dubious spirits from a bottle that has touched 15 other mouths or stay up till 4am. I no longer choose to stay in hotel rooms 200 days and fly 100,000 miles a year as part of my job either. A lot has changed for me by choice in the last couple years.

In recent years, I have chosen a different path. For instance, enjoying a moment with Rachel Adams to shoot her first oyster and take in her anticipation, excitement, and desire to shoot her second oyster immediately after her first, is something worth being a part of. Sorry Rachel, chugging Malort is not my thing anymore. Downing oysters, anytime. Other 'moments' included

When conducting the wine tasting, having Mike Lee and I simultaneously say “petroleum” while sampling a Finger Lakes Riesling, is a moment I’m looking for.

When Chef Samantha shouts, “how we doin’ Chef?” to ME on our Sunday Brunch crew, is a moment I was caught up in.

Chatting with Chris on Sunday about life in our late 30's and early 40's, versus our 20's. Wait till we're 60 my friend.

Creeping out Stephen at 6am Saturday morning while he slept on the couch in the Grand Room. Never thought someone would be up that early, eh Stephen? By the way, anyone with a handle like @_terroirism_ on twitter, you've gotta get to know. Also, thanks for keeping me caffeinated that weekend.

Taking my first look at Mirit’s Sunday Brunch presentation and thinking, “Damn, that’s good!”

There were several moments at Eat Retreat that I will enjoy for a long time to come. I'm still processing all the stuff that went on; the conversations, the food, the moments in time that I've been able to write about. 

It's experiences like Eat Retreat that I'm chosing to find these days, rather than simply experience. Maybe I should end it with one more quote that I can relate to..."Unlearn, what you have learned." Master Yoda.

Ninjas, Knives, and Cameras

“Fear causes hesitation,

and hesitation will cause your worst fears to come true.”

Bohdi as played by Patrick Swayze in Point Break

Heather doesn’t appear to be a cold-blooded killer. She talked about the Act of Killing, hopefully, a disturbing thought for humans. She spoke of the Ninja Master who taught her. She described the steps. She followed the playbook. She thought about it, planned it like a First Degree Murder, told each and every one of us how it was going to happen. The victim was in her right hand, the knife in her left. And no one was going to stop her.

Photo by Heather Irwin

Of the entire Eat Retreat weekend, the most impactful session had to be the chicken slaughter. Yes, I’m using the term slaughter specifically now, rather than kill as I did before. Heather has slaughtered hundreds of animals without hesitation because of the purpose involved, providing food. But the first chicken she slaughtered Saturday morning, October 27 2012 a little after 10:42am, may not have gone as methodically as she was used to.


She talked about the slaughter at length before she committed the act.  If memory serves, Heather continued talking about the act of slitting a chicken throat after she placed the chicken upside down in the aluminum cone, (despite the editing job we’ve seen online). With the knife in her hand, she talked about involuntary muscle response, chicken poop, reminding us to be swift and act without hesitation. As she stretched the neck of the chicken, discussing the motion of the knife preparing for slaughter she says two things,

{quietly} Calm down {to the chicken as it struggled}

{then to the crowd} Alright, I’m just going to do this and we can talk about it later.”

Change the circumstances and the purpose for Heather, such as describing in detail what happens when you slit a chicken throat and the moment changes, the emotion changes, the purpose changes and it was clear to me in Heather’s speech; when she spoke to the chicken and then to the crowd. Heather was technically slaughtering a chicken, like she does on a daily basis for work. However, the emotion, mood and crowd changed the conditions to the pejorative; killing rather than slaughtering a chicken, describing the gory details for the crowd in front of her.

Photo by Heather Irwin

I’m guessing she doesn’t have a crowd of by-standers with digital video cameras when she does her day-to-day job.

The description of the slaughter seemed to resonate with a lot of spectators.  The expressions on faces, the talk leading up to the act of cutting, the quiet reverence in the semi-circle, and the discussion around the table that night all affected the simple act of slaughtering a chicken for food.

I’m a hunter. I’ve been a hunter for 27 years. Hesitation in hunting can lead to poor results and missed opportunities. 2000 years ago, hesitating to dispatch your objective could lead you to go hungry and die. These days, I’m more likely to kill myself driving to the grocery store than being attacked by a lion or bear.

I first shot an animal when I was 14 years old with a shotgun. As I wasn’t that great of a shot or hesitated or aimed poorly, sometimes I only wounded birds and therefore, had to wring some necks when I chased down the birds to finish the job. Poor shooting is disrespectful to birds or any other animal.

I’m a lot better shot these days.

I also don’t “think” about the act of shooting or describe shooting to people while hunting. Hunting is often a reaction to the situation. If I actually had to think about drawing the weapon, aiming, and pulling the trigger, much less describing what I’m going to do; like Heather describing how to wield a knife, I’d probably miss the damn shot. 

My brother and I shooting pheasants

Additionally, when I was the youngest member of the hunting party and as a right of passage, I had to clean all the birds shot that day by everyone, probably 40 birds on a 102 degree afternoon in Fresno County. Stinky, messy, bloody, warm, gross, but eventually tasty. I’ve only missed 3 seasons of hunting since I was 14. I’m not the youngest guy at the hunt anymore, but I still clean the birds I shoot and make sausage with the scraps of deer.

In the end, birds or any other animal are simply meat to be cooked later that afternoon or evening. I didn’t think anything of shooting birds when I was a teenager, other than I was carrying on a long held tradition of eating what I shot. I don’t think much of it now as a 41 year old adult either, whether by knife, shotgun, or rifle.

I’m hunting, slaughtering, and butchering the animal to eat it.

No hesitation. No fear. No detailed descriptions. 

Honor the animal by cooking it properly.

Photo by Mike Lee, Heather and David marveling over guanciale

Heather, you’re carrying on a long-held tradition of craftspeople, doing the job most modern people don’t have the temperament, fortitude, or discipline to do. You’re an example of what’s best about Eat Retreat, leading by example. I have the utmost respect for your craft, talent, and strength.

The Mathematician, The Butcher and The Artist

“Have no fear of perfection, you’ll never reach it.’ Salvador Dali

The “Corner Table”, near the wine counter in the Hidden Villa Hostel dining hall on opening night of Eat Retreat was a special place for me to eat. I was meeting new people, drinking wine, and eating grilled lamb. The night was going well.

Photo by Jessie Friedman of Andrew Plotsky, Butcher

The Corner Table of Tina, Kristen, Andrew and I begin to dig a little deeper into food and philosophy, as the Napa Zinfandel I poured lubricated the wheels of thought and conversation. 

At some point, Andrew asks Tina “What does a food stylist do?” (I find the most innocent of questions to be the best). With numerous follow up questions from Andrew in an attempt to define “food stylist” with the specificity and exactness of, well, a skilled butcher cutting up a lamb.

Photo by Heather Irwin of Andrew Plotsky, Butcher

My gut said that defining a food stylist might not have an easy answer. Like asking an abstract painter to define their profession. How does the abstract artist describe their trade or skill? How is a food stylist described and where do I apply for that job?

If someone asks Andrew what he does for a living; the answer is both obvious and practical to both the butcher and the by-stander. Butchers cut up lambs, pigs, and cows into edible cuts of meat for people to consume. The job of Food Stylist probably wasn't around 4000 years ago. 

Tina did her level-best after the initial question salvo from Andrew to describe the challenges of “styling food". At this point, I didn’t know if I should have felt sorry for Andrew or Tina.

I’m a numbers guy, not an artist. I’m logical. I like process. As the by-stander in this question and answer period to define a food stylist, I tend to side with Andrew by asking basic questions, cutting to the bone, if you will, on how to define the process and expose the edible muscle of the food stylist.  

Then Tina said something that helped me (I won’t speak for you Andrew). It was Mathematical. Tina talked about dimensional space. Not only did Tina speak of the dimensional aspect of plating food, but translating color and atmosphere to the 2-dimensional observer. Taking photographs of a 3-dimensional product in the kitchen and translating dimension and depth into a simple, flat picture in a magazine or on the internet.


Arrangement on a plate, light, shadow, and color.

That's physics! All tangible, all mathematical.

So part of the answer on what a food stylist does is mathematical (thank heaven!). But part of it is art. Look no further than to Justice Potter Stewart regarding (food) pornography  “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.”

I suppose we all know what well styled food porn is these days…we know it when we see it. And no manner of questions or answers will begin to explain what we see. But, I thank you Tina for saying, indirectly, that mathematics has something to do with it. And since I looked at your website when I got back home, your food is styled very well because it makes me, well...hungry. 

Photo Below from Teaspoon Styling, Tina Bell Stamos

My second story is entitled, Ninjas, Knives, and Cameras.

Eat Retreat Digestif

"You have your way. I have my way.

As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way,

it does not exist."

Friedrich Nietzsche

The nature of the Eat Retreat weekend is to combine various personalities, backgrounds, and skills that often work complementary, and at times, incongruently. Retreats by their construction are meant to challenge the participants. Eat Retreat wasn’t meant to be a day spa, filled with relaxation, cucumber water, and 10 hours of sleep. Far from it. 

Photo by Jessie Friedman

Taking part in the conversation, the dialogue, the backdrop of the retreat weekend was important to me. Listening and taking part in the conversations at the dinner table after a few glasses of wine is as important as listening to the silence of a sober crowd just before a chicken head is cut off. Each moment speaks of place, personality and emotional content. 

It’s not my nature to simply gloss over the weekend with superlatives and praise.  Although I will use this conclusion for a bit of levity. I made the Eat Retreat quote wall with reference to that oaked Chardonnay I poured, “That’s Cougar Juice”. Hell Ya over-oaked Chardonnay is Cougar Juice! 

I made some new friends. I watched some real artisans explore their craft. I’m sharing a few stories as I recall them, when I was caught up in the moment, as both participant and spectator. 

My first story is entitled, The Mathematician, The Butcher, and The Artist.