I remember a conversation I had with my podiatrist back in 2007. And no, it wasn’t about my feet. We were standing in my parents’ living room during a party. He told me about his daughter my age, and I told him about my move from Los Angeles to San Francisco. And I remember he almost talked me out of it.
I’d been working in feature film development for seven years and Hollywood was pretty much on hold while the unions figured out what they were going to do about the writer’s strike. Nobody was hiring for the jobs I wanted, because the studios weren’t sure when there’d be material to develop next and producers weren’t about to start spending their own funds to finance projects. The WGA was on lock down. You couldn’t even get a starving writer to cross the picket lines and do a polish on a script, or address a set of notes, out of fear they’d lose their guild status (or potential guild status as it were in many cases). For the jobs that were available, I was over qualified, and as much as I needed rent money, I wasn’t about to step down to a lower rung on the Hollywood ladder. I was done getting coffee, and getting yelled at for 14 hours straight, just to do it all again the next day for less than $400 a week. Restaurants were going out of business, because studio execs and agents weren’t “doing lunch” anymore, and after two months of waiting for the strike to end, I’d said enough already!
I was tired of the uncertainty of it all. Of living in a world where rich people bickered with other rich people about how rich they were going to allow other rich people to get. Which is pretty much what the strike was all about. Writers wanted more money in the form of residuals, and producers and studios didn’t want to set a new precedent that properly compensated the talent, who ultimately keep everyone in Los Angeles employed. I’m sure it was more nuanced than that, but I’m paraphrasing.
I figured I had to do something brash, and as hard as this may be to believe, that isn’t very characteristic of me. So I made the decision to work for my brother in solar energy, and move to San Francisco to do it. I needed a new challenge, hopefully one more fulfilling than reading scripts and critiquing movies. Southern California had been my home for 26 years and it was time to move on.
In the City by the Bay is where I’d have to find new favorite restaurants and make new friends. I have to figure out shortcuts across the city, and how to jump on and off cable cars as they go by (doesn’t happen). I figured I’d grow a beard, and learn how to climb redwood trees. I’d wear a North Face fleece at all times, learn to cook Rice-a-Roni, and fall in love with brown rice sushi (hasn’t happened). Making new friends would be a challenge, with everyone so obsessed with recycling, protecting the environment, and politics, but it would all get easier once I figured out how to vote, and started listening to NPR. The prospect of becoming a better version of myself, like when you start a new school year after a transforming summer; all seemed so exciting and yet overwhelming at the same time.
And there I was, talking to my family’s podiatrist; about how big a deal this all was for me. It was the first time I’d ever moved so far from home, and with few roots already planted where I was going. Being a former resident of San Francisco, I figured he might have some words of encouragement for me, maybe some suggestions of places to go and recommendations of things to see. But instead, he just said:
“I hated San Francisco.”
I was speechless. I had just pulled back the bandage of an emotional wound to share with a family friend, a doctor (yes, podiatrists are indeed doctors), a former resident of San Francisco, and all he could say was how much he hated it. I was hoping he’d be supportive and proud of the decision I’d made to leave the shallow world of entertainment behind for a career that would hopefully lead to me having a positive impact on the world, but instead he was shooting it down.
“There are so many homeless people in San Francisco.” He said. “Too many if you ask me. It’s such a small city and yet they’re so good to their homeless, they come from all over the place to live like kings.”
At that point, I’d stopped listening. I mean the truth is, I don’t like homeless people all that much either. In most cases, they smell bad, they’re sad to look at, they defecate in public, and say crazy things that I’m not sure if I should engage and respond to or not. But what person in their right mind can’t be happy about living in a city that doesn’t give up on its homeless population? The way I look at it, it’s better to have someone else dealing with the homeless than having to deal with them myself. Besides, having homeless people around, can be a good thing. They make us feel better about ourselves, right? And remember, their being homeless is usually the result of some bigger issue that on some level involves us all.
Jump to six year later. I’m living in San Francisco and think it’s the greatest city in the world—homeless population and all. I’m having dinner with Jonathan and a friend in Hayes Valley. We’re sitting under some heat lamps at small table for two, outside a popular French restaurant. We’d just corrected the bill, because the waitress accidentally charged us for the salad nicoise that came with an olive tapenade when we asked for it without. The hostess had brought us the already made salad to take home anyways, because they couldn’t very well serve it to someone else. She figured someone would probably eat it and from the look she gave my belly, she correctly figured that someone was me.
A homeless man walks up and asks if we can spare some change. The man is tall, covered in a layer of soot and grime, and looks like he hasn’t eaten in days. He sees the three of us, bundled in layers of warm clothing with our wallets out as we’re making change for our friend who only has a fifty-dollar-bill. We decide to ignore him, because that’s what you do. The homeless are woven into the fabric of San Francisco, but that doesn’t mean locals show them any more kindness than they would a complete stranger when they interrupt a meal.
“Sorry, we don’t have any change.” Someone in our group says, and we all just look at each other in silence, hoping the man will get the hint and walk away.
“How about a dollar?” he asks, having just seen a few single bills get shoved into our wallets and purse.
“Sorry, we can’t help you.”
The man walks away and we continue to talk about our favorite Bay Area restaurants and the issues we have with our smartphones being too convenient. I glanced towards my feet and noticed the paper bag with the salad nicoise wrapped and ready to go. I leaned and arched my back against the chair to look down the sidewalk and see if the homeless man was still nearby. He was panhandling about half a block down and I wondered if it was worth the effort to run and give him the food. I was looking forward to eating the salad myself when I got home, but figured two dinners in one night was a little excessive. A moment passes and I decide it’s totally worth the effort, because not only is the guy starving, but the salad is fresh, completely untouched, and I’m probably going to forget about it in the fridge before having to compost it a few days later. This was one of those moments I thought to myself. A chance to do a good deed, and one that would take very little effort on my part, which is exactly the kind of good deed I’m good at. I grabbed the wrapped salad and ran towards the homeless man, watching him get rejected twice as I approached. He looks up at me with a glimpse of a smile, as if I’ve single-handedly restored his faith in the human race.
“I still don’t have any change,” I said, holding out the large paper bag, “but this is an untouched full order of a salad nicoise.”
“I don’t want it,” he said, his smile turning dark and angry. “Give me a dollar.”
“They’re not leftovers,” I said, “they made a mistake and it’s a full order.”
And the guy turned away as if I didn’t just hold out a $20 plate of food for him to eat for free. And in that moment, I was immediately brought back to my conversation with the podiatrist, and finally I understood what he meant about how good the homeless live in San Francisco. And yet it’s one of the many reasons why I love this city.
Thai Salmon en Papillote with Curry Mashed Potatoes
*You’ll need parchment paper for the pouches. At least 24 inches in one direction and probably 18 in the other…you can always have larger squares or rectangles of paper.
- 1 lb salmon filet (with or without skin cut into two equal pieces)
- ½ medium leek (sliced lengthwise and then in quarter-inch half moons)
- 1 bunch collard greens (trimmed and deveined)
- 2 tblsp soy sauce
- 1 tblsp fish sauce
- 1 tsp chopped fresh ginger
- 1 tsp rice wine vinegar
- ½ tsp Sambal chilli paste
- 2 tsp agave nectar
- 1 tsp grated orange zest
- 1 tbslp minced fresh chives
- 1 tblsp chopped fresh dill (optional)
- black sesame seeds (optional)
For the mashed potatoes
- 2 russet potatoes
- 3 tblsp butter
- 1/3 cup heavy cream
- 1/8 cup chopped chives
- a dash or two of curry powder
- 1 tbslp good quality olive oil for finishing
- salt & pepper to taste
Fold your parchment paper in half lengthwise. With a pencil trace half of a heart-shape on the paper, using the seam for the middle of where the heart would be if you unfolded the paper. Make the heart as big as possible, trying to maximize the shape on the paper.
Cut along the drawn lines, discard the scraps and set aside.
In a small bowl, whisk the soy sauce, fish sauce, ginger, rice wine vinegar, chilli paste, agave nectar, orange zest, chives and dill. This is the sauce that will be used when you assemble the packet and can be made up to several hours in advance.
Cut your leeks.
Devein and chop the collard greens into large pieces.
Fill a medium bowl with water and ice cubes. Place a strainer inside and set the entire bowl aside. This is called an ice bath.
Preheat the oven to 400°
Bring some water to a boil over high heat in a medium saucepan on the stove. Add a handful of salt to flavor the water, and cook the collard greens for two minutes until they’re starting to soften.
Immediately pull the collard greens out of the boiling water and shock them in the ice bath to stop them from cooking any longer. Now you’re ready to assemble the packets.
Drizzle some olive oil in the middle of the parchment paper and fold it in half to squish the oil around, spreading it on both halves of the heart, near the seam. Open the parchment heart again, and season the area where you’re going to place the salmon and veggies (to one side of the seam) with some salt and paper.
Place a quarter the chopped leeks on each heart, and top each with half the partially cooked collard greens. Then top each with the remaining quarter of leeks and drizzle about a tablespoon of the soy sauce mixture over the mound of veggies.
Lay a filet of salmon on each mound of veggies (skin side down if there is skin) and then top them with a drizzle of good olive oil and another teaspoon of the soy sauce mixture.
Fold the top half of the heart over the salmon and starting from the top of the heart, fold the parchment paper over itself, about 1-2 inches at a time, along the edges, until you reach the bottom of the heart. Once at the bottom, twist the edges together. If you need to use a stapler, that’s fine. The goal is to make sure no air or liquid will escape during the cooking process.
Place the salmon en papillote packets on a baking sheet and into the 400° oven for 20 minutes. Take them out and let them rest for 2-3 minutes before opening the packets, and careful you don’t get burned from any steam.
For the mashed potatoes. Peel the russet potatoes, and chop them into large pieces to boil in salted water. When they’re tender (a knife inserted into the potato goes in and comes out easily) they’re done. The timing will depend on how large you cut the potatoes. Drain them in a colander, shake off any excess water, and put them back in the pot you boiled them in. While mashing the potatoes, cook them over medium heat, releasing any additional liquid. Then incorporate the butter, cream, curry powder, salt and pepper. Add more butter and cream if the potatoes are too dry. Just before serving, add the chopped chives and mix together, and drizzle the good olive oil over the top.
To assemble the dish, place a mound of the curry mashed potatoes on each plate. Carefully tear open the papillote packets, and with a spatula, lift the salmon and veggies out and onto the potatoes.
Pour the reserved liquid from in the packet over the fish and potatoes and enjoy. Garnish with a sprig of dill and black sesame seeds (both optional).
- You can use white pepper instead of black pepper in the mashed potatoes if you don’t want to see the flecks. But then again, you’ll still see the green from the chives….so it’s your call.
- I find seasoning the bottom side of the parchment packet is a good way to make sure there’s seasoning underneath your ingredients.
- If you want, you can add garlic to the soy sauce mixture, and use lemon zest instead of orange zest, or lime if you’d prefer.