If you want to shop with the chefs, one place you can go is the 99 Ranch Market on Garvey Avenue in Monterey Park. There, you might run into Sara C. Johannes, chef de cuisine of WP24 by Wolfgang Puck. This is where she picks up the makings of the elite Asian morsels served at the restaurant. It's handy, she said, just a quick trip on the freeway from downtown L.A.
Last weekend, Johannes showed up at the market again, not to shop but to lead a group of food-lovers through the aisles.
The tour was set up by Six Taste Food Tours, which conducts food explorations in interesting neighborhoods. This time there were two guides, Johannes and Michael Lu, executive Chinese chef of the Shanghai JW Marriott, who have been exchanging visits to each other's kitchens.
"This is a really cool place," Johannes said, as she led the tourists inside, where they jammed around her in the aisles, unwittingly trapping Chinese shoppers in their midst.
They filled baskets and Six Taste shopping bags with the ingredients that Johannes pointed out, including peanut oil in a handsome bottle, Chinese black vinegar, small jars of XO sauce--"you could make it. I wouldn't recommend it," she said. They picked up jars of chile garlic sauce handy for a quick flavor boost, the Vietnamese coffee Johannes likes for iced coffee and the brands of sesame oil and soy sauce that are used at WP24. Also kochujang (Korean red pepper paste) and oyster sauce, which are other staples at the restaurant.
They learned that shiu mai always has a yellow wrapper, that Shanghai style chow mein noodles are thick and have a lot of bite. They admired Santa Barbara spot prawns alive in tanks and saw the brand of chicken stock base that, according to Johannes, is used in every Chinese restaurant in town.
In the cookware aisle, they picked up lightweight microwave steamers and inexpensive knives that Johannes said were really sharp.
In the produce section, they sniffed Thai lime leaves--Johannes says she's used them in a vodka infusion-- were introduced to fresh lotus root and bitter melon and learned that each type of chile contributes unique fruity flavors, not just heat.
Johannes had prepared a printed aisle-by- aisle tour guide, including "don't miss" items in each section. Among these were mochi ice cream--"one bite of the coffee flavored and you will be hooked for life," the guide warned-- and super fine rice flour "that makes anything you fry light and crispy."
The final stop was WP24, where Johannes had designed a tasting menu of 13 dishes based on ingredients from the tour.
For some it was a first taste of such things as cuttlefish marinated with fermented red bean paste; crisp, sweet pickled bitter melon with dried plum, and crunchy daikon pickles marinated with soy sauce, sesame oil and Thai chiles.
They ate assorted dumplings, prawn toast formed into tiny triangular sandwiches and crisp pork belly in steamed buns.
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Moving on to main dishes, they sampled silky drunken chicken cooked with Shao Xing and plum wines, Hong Kong style steamed salmon seasoned with black vinegar, chile oil and fermented black beans and stewed duck with Tsing Tao beer and ginger.
The last dishes were smoky tasting pork fried rice with Chinese sausage, which was the first ingredient the group had looked at on the tour, and skinny Hong Kong style noodles that had been braised and then stir-fried.
WP24 provided calamansi lemonade and entertainment: not dancing girls or Chinese lute, but sunset over downtown L.A. through its vast stretch of windows and the Notre Dame-Michigan game on the flat screen TVs overhead.
Read more from Barbara Hansen at TableConversation.com, EatMx.com, @Food and Wine Gal and Facebook.