Sunday, February 12, 2012

Boba Fett #10

It's been 30 odd years since I built a pinewood derby car.   In my prior 2 years of pinewood derby experience, I did pretty well.  That was thanks to my dad, who did most of the work while I sat back and watched.  The first year we took the trophy for best design with an Indy style race car that, as I recall, got smoked in just about every race it was in.  While a cool looking car was great, and I got a nice trophy out of it, it's not so much fun to see your car struggle across the finish line long after the winners had already claimed their prize (maybe that's a slight exaggeration, but I wanted to win).  So, the next year we built the car for speed.  And it was fast.  It wasn't much to look at, just a wedge shape on wheels, but it flew down the track. That year I took home the trophy for fastest car.  It was much better than winning best design.

Now, it's my, I mean, now it's my son's turn to build a car.  We got our kit months ahead of time, and placed into some pile or another so that we'd have to search desperately for it the week or so before the actual race so that we could begin working on it.  I asked my son what kind of car he wanted to build.  'Boba Fett' was his reply.

Ok, so we are starting off well.  In fact, there just might be no better answer to that question than Boba Fett.  We began making plans for a Boba Fett car.

We sketched out a pattern on the side of the block for the car.  I gave my son some safety glasses and made him stand back while I used the scroll saw to cut it out.  I showed him how to sand the car.  He sanded it for a while, then decided he was done with that.  I finished the sanding up.

Next up, we had to add weight.  They make plates that you can buy to glue to the bottom of your car to add weight. This seems crude and also expensive.  I remembered back to what my dad had shown me and we began hollowing the car out.  This was mostly me with a drill and various sized spade bits while my son stood back and watched again.  Once we had a decent sized cavity we weighted the car along with a handful of wishing weights to get us up to the 5 oz. mark.  5 oz. does not sound like much.  That is, until you are trying to fit 4 oz. of lead fishing weights inside what I had now determined was way too small of a hole on the bottom of the car.  Now, when I was a kid, we took those lead weights and melted them down to better fill the hole.  I considered this for a while.  Even started planning how to do it.  But in the end, I chickened out.  I wasn't quite ready to teach my son how to melt down lead weights.  Maybe next year.

So, we got out the drill again and set to making a bigger cavity in the car.  Now, here's the problem.  There's only so much car to begin with.  At some point that hollow cavity in the bottom of the car becomes a hole in the top of the car.  I can report that we found this point.  So, I taught my son about spackle, and decided to retire the drill from this project.

Unfortunately, there still wasn't nearly enough room for all of the weights. Since the drill was now out, I decided we'd use the chisel set and a box cutter.  Mostly because I had a chisel set and a box cutter nearby.  So we slowly but surely increased the cavity until all the weight would fit.  We filled the bottom with the weights, then filled it with wood glue to hold them all inside.

2 days of glue drying later, we weighed the car again.  Now we were over weight.  I'd not accounted for the weight of the glue in my calculations.  So we pried out a few of the weights to get us below target, then filled in the rest of the cavity with a little more spackle.  After it dried, we did a quick final sand and were ready to paint.

While this was drying, we went to work on the axles.  We stuck them in the drill chuck and I filed off all the burrs.  I gave my son some sandpaper and showed him how to hold it while the axle turned in the drill and finally we polished them up with a paste of pumice and water. 

My son had picked out a dark 'camo' green spray paint for the base, and we put a couple base coats on the car.  We then finished off the Boba Fett look with a black windshield and red trim.  Then we added yellow fins on the rear tail and an approximation of the Boba Fett insignia on the rear of the car (that was my idea).  Once these had dried, we got out the silver paint and flicked it all over our other work to give him some battle scars.  I thought the effect turned out pretty well.   


The weigh in was the next day, and we were running out of time so we let the paint dry for an hour or so and then sprayed the whole thing down with a gloss coat.  Unfortunately, the paint had not quite dried enough and began to run.  But there was nothing I could do about it then.  The next morning, we ran some steel wool over the gloss coat for a final sand and more Fettlike matte finish, then we put the wheels on added some graphite and were ready for the weigh in that evening.

Race Day:

My son was extremely excited especially after he saw the trophies and believed that he was going to win.  I tried to temper this enthusiasm in order to prevent the likely eventual disappointment ( crushes his sons dreams).   

The first year scouts started off the day, and we were in the first heat.  We took 1st place in that heat.  Then we sat and waited through about 9 more heats until we were up again.  We won  that one as well, and the next and the next.  For the tiger cub class, we were undefeated and took 1st place.  My son got a nice size trophy.  We'd also be moving on along with the 2nd and 3rd place boys to race again in the finals against the older scouts cars.

After a long morning of watching the other age groups race, it was on to the finals.  There were 16 cars (due to a 3rd place tie in one of the age groups) and each car would race 4 times, once on each lane of the track.  The winner would be determined by total time.

We were in the first race.  We were paired off against two cars we had already beat, and the 3rd place car from the next age group up.  We lost.  We were beat by the 2nd place car from our own age bracket.  How does this happen?....I don't know, but it wasn't looking good.

Then we had to sit down as we weren't back up until the final three races.  Our second race we took 2nd place again.  3rd race, we were again facing the same tiger cub car that had beat us in the 1st race.  Same result, we took 2nd.  With one race left and again facing the car we had so handily beaten on our own age group, we took second once again.  I don't know what happened.  Apparently they got faster or we got slower.

The final race completed, they went to tabulate the results.  My son was very anxious, but at this point I realized we were out.  Apparently the wheels had come off in the finals (figuratively I should add...though I had feared the wheels would literally come off at some point during the day, they did not). 

They announced the 3rd place first.  As they called out the car, I was shocked to hear them call out Boba Fett.  My son had taken third place overall.  He was ecstatic and got an even larger trophy. Although he'd taken 2nd in every finals race, the 2 cars that beat him in those races took first and second overall.   Those two cars were remarkably similar in design, and turns out they were made by brothers.

I find the concept of the pinewood derby sort of interesting.  Although it is a kid competition, much of the work is, really by necessity, performed by the parent.  I was certainly not prepared to let my son handle the scroll saw by himself.  Judging from the cars, neither was anyone else.  And it was the same way years ago when I was a kid.  But what I realize now, is that even though my dad did much of the work some 30-odd years ago on my cars, I learned a lot along the way.  Clearly it stuck with me, as we did ok this time.  Hopefully my son also learned something.  He provided a very detailed explanation of how we polished the axles to another parent who asked him how he made his car so fast.  Maybe some 30 or so more years in the future, he'll be able to pass all this along as well.

And if nothing else, of all the possibilities out there, my son chose a Star Wars theme for his car.  And from all the myriad of characters out of all of Star Wars, he chose Boba Fett.  Even more than winning the trophies, that makes his dad proud.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Déu salvi el Bulli

A word about my motto:  About a year and a half ago, I became obsessed with a small restaurant in the coastal town of Roses, Spain by the name of elBulli.  Before this time, I had been oblivious to it's existence, but once I found out about it, I knew that I wanted to go.  The only problem was, so did everyone else.  There were only about eight thousand seats each season for the several million reservation requests they received.  Only, that wasn't even the only problem.  elBulli had just announced that they would be closing their doors for good on July 30th, 2011.  They would not be taking any more reservations.  If you did not have a seat already, you would never have one.  As you might imagine, this was distressing.

So, I adopted a slogan.  A motto if you will.

Déu salvi el Bulli

That's Catalan, or at least I meant for it to be.  I'm not completely positive that it is correct use of the Catalan language, but I like the way it sounds.  God Save elBulli.  It may not be much of a plan, but I didn't have anything better. 

I also created a logo.  I took an image of the elBulli sign and overlaid my motto.  It was supposed to be reminiscent of the Sex Pistols cover for God Save the Queen.  No one got it. But I still like it.

I had a T-shirt made up with my logo.  I wear it proudly all over the place.  No one has any idea what it means, but lots of people ask about it and it makes me happy when they do.  So I begin to explain:

elBulli is the best restaraunt in the world, and it is closing.  People don't understand.  They think I'm talking about some cafe down the street.  I patiently, of all the restaurants in the world, elBulli is THE best.  Certainly you could make the case for other places, and I am sure that they are all very good as well, but you would be wrong.  This is the point when people begin looking at me like I'm insane, or just start walking away altogether.

So....I came up with a plan.  If elBulli was closing, and I would not get the opportunity to eat there, I would recreate the experience myself.  I would create a dinner in the style of elBulli.  I would invite friends and we would have our own elBulli experience.  This is the point where I started to think I might be insane.

Let me step back for a minute: 

The menu at elBulli varies, but a dinner there is typically somewhere in the neighborhood of 35-45 courses.  Yes, 35-45 courses.  That is a lot of courses.  So think spherification, reverse spherification, foams, airs, liquid nitrogen.  Savory sweets and sweet savories.  If you were lucky enough to dine at elBulli, you went into a database so that if you were even luckier to get the chance to return, you would not see any of the same courses on your menu that you had previously seen.  I could go on, but let me just say, this is not homestyle cooking.  To even attempt this at home was (and is) beyond my feeble culinary skills.

So, I tried to enlist help.  If I couldn't do this alone, perhaps I could con others into helping me.
Now you might think I'd look for cooks and chef type people, but I had a better idea.  A chemist, an innovation guru, and best of all, a magician.  This was my wishlist for fellow cooks.  I even tried to recruit them.  The response was mostly wary.  "Um, what is it you want to do?"  So I would explain.  They sort of got that I wanted to do a big dinner party and wanted help with the cooking.  To say they were enthusiastic would be a stretch.  To a one, they had never heard of elBulli and when I started to explain, they quickly thought I was nuts.  I got vague responses of interest, but really no commitments.   

Undeterred (or at least still under the belief that this was all somehow possible) I started conceptualizing the dishes for my menu.  I had some solid ideas that I knew I could pull off, and a few that might be tricky but at least seemed reasonable.  I had a running list of ingredients I wanted to use, but didn't quite know where or how yet.  Then I had all kinds of ideas that seemed interesting, but I didn't even know where to start if I wanted to actually make it a reality.  They were contradictions and impossibilities, but I wasn't going to let that keep them off the list.  I worked on the menu, refining the ideas, adding more, combining ideas and ingredients into finished dishes.  I worked the menu up to 18-20 dishes and still had some ingredients I wanted to incorporate.   

Alas, it was not to be.  I'd like to say that I had a good excuse, but mostly I just failed to get it together in time.  July 30th came and went.  I started thinking about the logistics.  25 dishes (I thought 35 was probably unreasonable) at the rate of 1 every 15 minutes becomes 6 hours of service.  Even with my help (who still wasn't committed to actually, you know, help) that seemed like it might be difficult to manage.  Also, you know, I wanted to also enjoy the meal with my guests.

And on July 30th, 2011, elBulli closed its doors.  I never got to eat there.

I have tried out a few of the dishes on their own for family and friends, and while they were usually pretty ok, I don't know that I could pull off 25 of them in a single evening.  Though someday I might still try.

I had almost moved on.  I still thought about it, but not regularly.  I wasn't adding new dishes to my menu (though continued to produce some of them every so often).  And then, I found out that someone else was working on the same thing, only, unlike me, he was actually in position to pull it off. 

Unbeknownst to me, Grant Achatz, of Alinea fame (and a one time elBulli stagiare), had started a new restaurant in Chicago.  It is a brilliant, if  somewhat crazy concept for a restaurant.  Pick a theme, develop dishes, create a menu, open the restaurant, run service for about 3 months, and shut it down.  Then do it all over again.  3 completely new restaurants per year. No reservations.  Tables would be sold like a Broadway show.  You buy your table in advance.  Meal, beverages, tax, tip, all prepaid.  No out of pocket on the day of the meal for the diner, no last minute cancellations for the restaurant. 

The restaurant is Next.  The first season (or year if you will) was Paris 1906, then Tour of Thailand.  I would have loved to do both, especially Paris, but somehow this was not on my radar at all.   I first heard about the concept during the final performance of the season, Childhood.  Again, too late to get tickets, but it piqued my interest.  Then I heard the announcement for the 2012 season.  Up first, elBulli! 

I started waiting and watching for tickets.  So did everyone else.  I was checking daily, looking for announcements, hoping I'd be one of the lucky few to score tickets.  Today, those tickets went on sale.  Sometime after 8PM elBulli time said the announcement.  At 1:00 central time (8:00 in Roses, Spain) I was at my computer frantically refreshing the facebook page for Next, waiting for word that tickets were up.  When I saw the update about 10 minutes later, I was ready to go.  There were less than 1000 tickets to be had.  I was in mere seconds after it went live and secured my space in line.  #654.  When I reached the front of the queue, I'd get an email, and would have 1 hour to buy tickets.  I began to wait again.  At 5:56 I got the email.  2 minutes later, I had my table.

Ok....breathe.  I have a table.      

Now, I'm waiting again.  I can't wait!