A Day in Champagne Country

moves, travel, what I'm drinking, where I've been, wine
Trésors de Champagne’s illuminating ceiling in Reims, France

It is time, my friends, to talk about Europe.

There’s no real explanation on why I’ve held off on telling you all about the beauty that is France, Switzerland, and Italy, but that writer’s block has passed, and I’m ready to tell you all about the Old Country.

I’ll start off with Reims.

When roundtrip tickets to Paris are only $400, what do you do? You book tickets to Paris, that’s what you do. After a memorable study abroad trip, l’Italia era nella mia mente and I finally found an inexpensive ticket to get there. (I may have booked first then told my boss after I was going to be gone for two weeks. YOLO.)

I knew I had many options of how I was going to travel, but I knew my best bet would be by train. After all, there’s fast trains that take you all over Europe. I knew the one from Paris to Florence would take a day at least, so we decided to make a trip out of it. Starting with a little break to ease our jet lag in Reims.

Reims, France

Pronounced RAHMs, this quaint little town’s main attraction is being in the heart of Champagne country. I know that the meaning of “Champagne” has been lost in translation as some of you consider it as any kind of fancy white bubbly. NO. Erase that debauchery out of your head at once. In French wine country, wines are known and honored by region, and Champagne is no different. Only wine grown and bottled in Champagne can be called Champagne. The perfect trifecta of the grape varietals Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay, Champagne used to only be exclusive to the elite and royal.

Reims was relatively easy to get to by French TGV (their fast train line) from Charles De Gaulle Airport as they have a train station at the airport. We exchanged trains at Marne la Vallée Chessy (aka Disneyland Paris) which then took us to Champagne-Ardenne. From Champagne-Ardenne, we took a quick regional train to Gare de Reims, only a ten minute walk from our Airbnb.

Reims was quiet at night, but by morning was bustling with pedestrians and bikers who, I kid you not, seemed to all be carrying loaves of crispy fresh baguettes. We ate at Maison et Tartine, which also doubled as a boutique decor shop, making our breakfast super homey. We made the mistake of thinking we could just go to these grand Champagne houses and pay a tasting fee like we do in the States but no. You must make a reservation or book in advance. Honestly, I didn’t really plan our day in Reims as it was only a stopover, but we did want to drink bubbly as what else are you supposed to do in Champagne country?

Champagne tasting & history lesson in Veuve Clicquot’s crayère cellars

We snagged an English-speaking tour at Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin where we ventured down into crayère (chalk) caves that Champagne bottles are stored and rotated. As we sipped on flutes of their peachy vanilla Yellow Label Brut, our lovely tour guide told us the story about widow Lady Clicquot, a business woman who made the best of her circumstances after inheriting a dwindling vineyard in 1805. After, we checked out their Insta-worthy boutique shop and personalized airstream trailer.

Our tour guide then pointed us in the direction of this amazing growers champagne tasting room called Trésors de Champagne. In the past, Champagne houses such as Veuve Clicquot, G.H. Mumm, and Moët & Chandon would collect only the best harvests from surrounding French vineyards, but in the last fifty years, those same vineyards are making a name for themselves by developing their own concoctions of bubbly. At Trésors, you could opt for a flight, glass, or bottle from their library of only growers champagne. Needless to say, after an afternoon of Champagne, we passed out at our Airbnb (only to wake up at 10 p.m. and cure our bubbly coma with moules frites or steamed mussels and fries at l’Édito).

Trésors de Champagne’s interactive tasting room had informative bottles you could pull from the ceiling that coincided with its library and regional map of Champagne, which took up the entire floor.

Next on the blog: The Swiss Alps

What to Do in New Orleans, Louisiana

moves, travel, where I've been

It had been awhile since I had been back in the Bayou. I went in 2014 to visit my aunt and uncle who worked as teachers in Belle Chasse, just 10 minutes southeast of the city. I’ll never forget the end of that 11ish hour drive when we arrived to a feast of crawfish, oysters, and shrimp étouffée.

I’ll love New Orleans forever because of that.

I went back this past Labor Day weekend to celebrate Danielle, someone who has become a soul sister to me for the past five years. We bonded over breadsticks and margaritas and Southside karaoke during our time at Mizzou and have stayed close ever since. It’s so nice to have someone in your life that you will always just click with no matter how long it’s been. The same goes for places like New Orleans.

Without further ado, here’s what I recommend doing if you’re ever in NOLA:

THE FRENCH QUARTER

I can still hear the thunder rumbling in the background as this violinist performed. The French Quarter is one of the most interesting places I’ve ever visited the States. Not only is it steeped in colonial history, it’s one of the most diverse corners of America that continues to celebrate its multiracial roots. There’s Spanish, French, Creole, Natives, and Africans who have all contributed to La NouvelleOrléans in some way, shape, or form. We took a Saints and Sinners Tour with Justin, who knew his shit while getting shit at the same time from the locals (seriously, someone give this guy a raise). He told us about General Bienville, who I imagine to be this hot 19-year-old French military man who tattooed himself with local tribe marks to get along with the 40+ native tribes who inhabited the area. He also tricked the British to not attack the rising French settlement. New Orleans history is as wild and scandalous as you could imagine it to be as it was a port of entry for many immigrants during the start of the New World. Home of Bourbon Street, Royal Street, Jackson Square, and the best freakin’ food I’ve ever had.

EAT & DRINK

New Orleans cuisine is a whole other level of Southern home cooking. I would fly across the country for its aforementioned seafood, along with seafood gumbo, shrimp po boys, and some of the best sweets I’ve ever had in my life here.

These cookies from Willa Jean were probably the best cookies I’ve ever had. Sea salt, peanut butter, and chocolate chunks with a glass of milk AND cookie dough on the side. God bless.

Must-Go Spots: Cafe du Monde (sit down wherever there’s an open seat and your server will clean your table and bring you treats!), Palace Cafe, Saint Cecilia, Riccobono’s Panola Street Cafe, Willa Jean, Cafe Beignet on Bourbon Street, Fat Catz, Pat O’Brien’s, Saints & Sinners

SHOP

Mosey on over to the corner of French Market Place and Barracks Street to start the demise of your credit card… just kidding. Bring cash. There’s an open air French Flea Market that sells everything such as local art, clothing, and jewelry. I found lots of little trinkets to take home, plus there’s food stalls at the end so you can cool down and refuel.

ART

Pink Satin and White Fur by Daniel Bilodeau at Red Truck Gallery

I highly advise spending an afternoon strolling through Royal Street. I was invited to check out the Red Truck Gallery (who’s hosting a brilliant exhibit curated by ThinkSpace at the moment) and its sister gallery right across the street. I found this amazing piece that gives me all the Alice in Wonderland vibes, as well as art pieces that reflect the modern revolution of sex, feminism, and the environment.

Jackson Square used to be where prisoners met their executioner, but now is lined with tons of local art, shops, and the occult. I met an artist who actually grew up in Leadville, CO but is now happily selling portraits of silly animals. 🙂

From the Heart

restaurant confessions, words
Untitled No. 5 by Mickalene Thomas

I love writing.

Really, I do.

However, it doesn’t pay the bills (not yet anyway).

Working in the hospitality industry lets me do both. 

What is my relationship with restaurants, anyway? For one, I grew up in one — my late Lola Sally’s bakeshop, just down the road from my Lolo’s house in Cebu. I probably learned to walk by propping myself against stainless steel tables and dining chairs. My first real job was in a casino outside of Columbia, hosting and bussing tables at 18. When I was 21, I traded blackjack for breadsticks at the Olive Garden so I could support myself in journalism school, using my friends as story ideas, adding guests to my network. And then, lucky for me, my major developed into a focus on food and wine. It was all one motion after the other, which didn’t make much sense at the time, that wrapped into a beautiful synchronicity. 

And for awhile, I did feel stagnant after my newspaper and magazine gigs, as I retreated from the dining scene to actively working in it to figure out my next move. I was over waiting tables but I was also over being in an office. I had turned into a social creature by habit. I loved being around people, learning and helping them, even if in the smallest of ways. 

I applied at different jobs – the library, the national renewable energy lab, cannabis companies – already knowing it was a “no” as I submitted my resume. I was a journalist with a restaurant background. How does that fit into human resources? 

I spent about six months like that. At a crossroads, wondering whether to bail on what I love, without even realizing that the answer was right in front of my face, a profession by accident and instinct, but held the stark truth for me the whole time. 

I remember the first time I walked into the Art, with its twinkling lights racing along the ceiling before I stepped inside. 

Before I ascended to the fourth floor, a blue neon sign catches my eye. 

“I can feel your smile,” it says. 

When I crossed the main lobby — an airy, sunlit landing with floor-to-ceiling windows and wooden floors that I twirl and kick on every day — I am greeted by the bronze sculptures of Singer and Otter. I sat on a high-top close to the terrace, as it was raining outside yet the fire pit continued to burn. I surveyed the restaurant, its own art a collectable mix of old and new, from spinning holographic mylar structures from behind the bar to the billboard-esque “Ocean View.” I knew at once that this was the place for me. 

My friend had told me about this job and the kind of money it entailed. Fine dining had its perks, especially because of the location and most especially because of its clientele. I remember the days I would slave away to make ends meet; it was all paying off now. I serve all sorts of people — politicians, musicians, movie stars — as well as tourists and locals. Being surrounded by all this magical art and finally making money was the perfect formula to let go of all the words that had been locked up inside me. How was I supposed to write stories when I desperately needed to write my own?

I started to remember. 

My childhood was quite drastic, moving from one extreme to the other, being exposed to not-so-kind people, held down by the traumas of everyone, as I struggled to write and sing and dance and play music and sports to get through it all. And after that, I dragged myself through college, knowing that this was the right step for me, achieving my lifelong goal to become a published writer. However, I had no real plan for the future. Who knew that the answer was as simple as that I wanted to travel and write? I survived it all (barely) and at 25, finally felt comfortable enough to sit down and re-evaluate who and what I was.

Five years ago, I never would have imagined that the restaurant industry would save me in such a way that I could be free and creative and happy again, as that’s all I was searching for during my education. A way to write and travel and help others the best way I could. I’m on my feet a lot, sure, but I wouldn’t trade it for all the laughs, smiles, and hugs I’ve been given in the past year. In exchange, I’ve written so much poetry and fiction and essays, and I’ve spent the past years traveling all over Colorado and beyond, that I’ve achieved a level of contentment I didn’t think I could ever get to. I know that others won’t be as lucky as me to find my career path so crystal clear in front of me, but maybe that’s what you should look at the most: What is right in front of you?

My Favorite Breakfast Spots in Denver

Denver living, food

Denver, CO — Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day. Here’s a list of my favorite restaurants to hit up in the Mile-High.

The French Press Cafe and Bakery — Five years ago, I stumbled upon the French Press when it was still part of a strip mall in Lakewood. I fell in love with their zucchini pistachio pancakes then and still order them often to this day. Everything else is delicious at this New Orleans inspired cafe such as the breakfast burrito with pork green chile or their own version of a Monte Cristo (please please please bring it back). Special shoutout to the candied bacon which is hands down the best bacon I’ve ever eaten in my entire life.

The breakfast burrito from the French Press Cafe and Bakery

Sassafras American Eatery — I’m not a huge “bennie” person but Sassafras’ “Deep South” Benedict takes me straight back to Nawlins. Pulled pork, pepper jam, and jalapeño cornbread makes this the perfect protein packed breakfast. Sassafras also has a killer bar game with its mimosa flights, spiked milkshakes, and lavender-infused cocktails. *Sigh* Can I just be there already?

The Cajun Benedict from Sassafras American Eatery

Prosper Oats — Sometimes I just want to start my day off with an açaí bowl, is that okay? I like stopping by the Prosper Oats in LoHi and building my own, topped with dates, granola, cacao nibs, and crystallized ginger. (If you don’t know what you want, Prosper Oats has plenty of other combos for you to choose from.) Other times, if I’m craving a smoothie, I’ll get the “Pearls for Eyes,” a blendy blend of kiwifruit, grapefruit, banana, and coconut milk.

Green Seed Market — And sometimes, all I want for breakfast is fresh-pressed juice, and one of my favorite spots just happens to be located in none other than the Denver Central Market. I’ve eaten probably everything here (don’t quote me on that), and I could still never get bored of this place. Juices range from charcoal lemonade to blends like “Detox” or “Immunity 2.0.” I don’t really drink it because of the fancy names, I mainly drink it because it’s actually really good.

Butcher Block Cafe — When I want a home cooked breakfast, I will drive into the mess that is RiNo and face the potholes to dine at the good old Butcher Block. I always order the #1 Breakfast Special, which comes with eggs, bacon, and French toast soaked in pancake batter (!!!) It’s serious comfort food, and I regret even letting you in on this. I take it back, it’s awful, don’t go. 😉

Araujos — Para desayuna, toma los $2 breakfast burritos y una horchata, para llevar.

Black Eye Coffee — You might get a haughty barista and glares from the work-from-homers when you come in to Black Eye, but I don’t care. You can trace their arrays of roasts back to the bean and they know how to make a mean cup of java. Don’t forget about its food menu though! I occasionally crave the homemade brioche topped with apples, bruleed goat cheese and honey. ‘Tis divine.

June 12, 2019

Syrup — I’ll admit, I’ve never been to City Park West before but I’ll go for Syrup. An expanding Denver breakfast chain, Syrup is a delicious spot perfect for brunching. I fell in love with their coconut French toast, covered in crunchy coconut flakes and coconut syrup, which tastes every bit as good as it sounds. I paired it with a tall pint of house nitro cold brew, because who doesn’t like the caffeine and sugar jitters?

Crema How on earth did I forget to add Crema to this list. Located in the heart of RiNo, Crema is another one of those breakfast spots I’d risk my life going into the neighborhood for. They serve the freshest juice, coffee, and delicious quiche that everyone should start their day off with, at least just once. P.S. If there isn’t any room to sit up front, sneak off to the back patio to get away from the hectic morning crowds OR alternatively, head to its Denver Central Market bodega.

September 21, 2019

Waste Not, Want Not

Boulder Weekly, news

We all love those prized Palisade peaches that are so easily devoured, crate after crate, at the end of summer every year. But did you know that one out of four peaches doesn’t even make it out of the orchard? Or that after 253 miles of transporting them to Boulder County (about 10 gallons of gas per truck, round-trip), there’s no guarantee that any particular peach will even hit the shelf before it’s discarded to make room for the next day’s shipment? If the peach bruises or over-ripens in your kitchen, do you know what your options are, besides (God forbid) the trash?

Thankfully, Boulder is home to a slew of proactive efforts dedicated to save foods like the very peaches we love (and tons of other produce) to create an overall better environment and community for future generations. Jamie Harkins, sustainability coordinator for the City of Boulder, says decreasing food waste is increasing in priority for the local government. By updating the City’s Climate Commitment and Action Plan, continuing educational projects and expanding the Food Waste Awareness Week program this September, things are looking bright on Boulder’s food waste reduction horizon.

But locals are also leading the charge: Here are three Boulder County organizations and businesses helping the City reach its zero waste goals.

Boulder Food Rescue

In 2011, Hayden Dansky kick-started a food recovery program named Boulder Food Rescue, which bridges the gap between problems in Boulder’s food infrastructure and food insecurity. “There’s food waste on all levels,” Dansky says — the farm, transportation sectors, distribution systems, grocery stores and, ultimately, consumers, who contribute 60 percent of overall food wasted, according to the 2016 City of Boulder Food Waste Audit. Dansky, who is the program’s executive director, endorses the EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy, which pinpoints “source reduction” and “feed hungry people” as the top two prerogatives when it comes to managing a more sustainable food system. After finding out that 40 percent of food produced ends up in a landfill, Dansky began to reach out to grocery stores and restaurants to see if businesses would donate any excess produce. Grocery stores such as Sprouts, Lucky’s and Whole Foods now participate in the program, resulting in 1,200 pounds of produce that’s redistributed to low-income communities every day. These businesses benefit by reducing trash collector fees and receiving an incentivized federal tax credit, and the community benefits from the nourishment.

Looking ahead, Boulder Food Rescue plans to create a more engaging environment for the people they serve by sharing the community’s stories about food insecurity. They also plan to continue educating businesses about food donation policies and working with the City of Boulder to develop strategies to reduce even more local food waste.

Eco-Cycle

In the summer of 2015, the City of Boulder, along with the green minds behind Eco-Cycle, passed the Universal Zero Waste Ordinance that requires all restaurants, businesses and schools to reduce waste by recycling and composting. Eco-Cycle has been in the pro-environmental game since 1976 — when founders Roy Young and Pete Grogan started to collect recyclables on an old school bus — and the organization has helped create recycling facilities and conduct research programs for Boulder County ever since. Nowadays, Eco-Cycle focuses on educating the community about composting and how they can dispose of organic waste both curbside and in their own backyards. 

Communications Director Harlin Savage says businesses have many questions and obstacles to address when first learning about the logistics of composting, such as space constraints, but the long-term benefits to composting have sparked interest in working beyond these hurdles. Composted soil adds nutrients to the land, it’s more resistant to erosion and grows plentiful produce. “By diverting waste, it prevents methane gas’ heat trapping power,” Savage adds, a toxic emission that is many times more powerful than carbon dioxide. 

In the next 11 years, Eco-Cycle envisions Boulder achieving their zero-waste milestone and continuing intensive compost research within the county.

The Stone Cup

The Town of Lyons has committed to becoming a zero-waste community and The Stone Cup’s owner Mindy Tallent is fully on board. While it’s a costly practice for the restaurant and a continual process of educating customers, Tallent says it’s worth it because the country’s astronomical food waste needs to be addressed. Within her shop, Tallent uses ceramic ware and stainless steel silverware for dine-in guests and compostable to-go containers. Customers are encouraged to bring in their own mugs. She also use an in-house composting and recycling program through Eco-Cycle.

The Stone Cup hopes the current government will address climate change and pass legislation that causes change in manufacturing, production and purchasing so it will be more affordable to be environmentally responsible. “Our hope is that folks become more educated about how our environment is impacted by our decisions and actions,” Tallent says. “As business owners, we will continue to do what we can in educating [others] and leading by example.” 

Written for Boulder Weekly. Original article here.