Chef Tom – It’s What’s for Lunch

I’ve cooked a couple hundred lunches already in my just-over-a-year stint as Resident Chef at Couchsurfing. That’s a lot of recipes.  I try and switch it up, keep it fresh and interesting, and only repeat once in a while.

Before Couchsurfing, I was a personal chef for 11 years, and my specialty during that time was cooking for people with food allergies and sensitivities. I know my way around gluten, dairy, soy, shellfish and peanuts (the five most pernicious) and dozens more pesky ingredients. My current customers are millennial techies, and only a few have food concerns, so this gig has been a piece of cake.

Contact Couchsurfing Here

I had to do a lot of sleuthing when cooking for allergenistas, so I’ve got skills when it comes to finding recipes and substituting ingredients, while staying close to the original flavor profile. Because I have had to be creative in my reinterpretation of recipes, I tend to color outside the lines.

I’ve figured out that recipes are like a GPS system. The map in your car will get you from point A to point B but has hardly anything to do with your actual experience of driving: being in your car, interacting with other people and their cars, the weather, road conditions, landscape and so on. A recipe is a simple guide and not to be taken too literally. There are always a ton of variables that can influence the end result—your ingredients, the kitchen in which you cook, your company (if any), your mood.

One thing I like about my current job is asking the young folks for requests. Frees me from having to figure things out. It also gives my age-old people-pleasing wiring a good pluck. Today’s lunch was just such a request. Because technology is the air they breathe, I simply ask for links to any recipes they’d like me to try. They text me links. Done.

Today’s request was something called No-fail Chicken and Rice Soup. I took a look and the ingredients were from the Thai flavor profile (lime, Thai chiles, ginger, peanuts, garlic, fish sauce). Sounded yummy. Needed a few more veggies, though, along with the chicken and rice, to make it into more of a whole meal. I added baby bok choy and made flowers from rainbow carrots. I also grabbed a mix of flower petals and clover sprouts for the crowning garnish. Pretty. You eat with your eyes first, so visuals are as important as flavor.

Last time I did soup that had rice in it, the rice portion was too big, and the bowl turned to mush. Flavor was good, but too much starch. This time, I used only half the amount of jasmine rice, which was supposed to be cooked in the broth, but I steamed it separately. Your choice.

A few months ago I went to my fave restaurant supply store in the “other” Chinatown of San Francisco, Clement Street between 4th and 10th, or thereabouts. I bought 20 large pho bowls, and one-bowl meals have been a big hit ever since.  My aim was to turn this into another one-bowl meal and have it be flavorful and hearty and look really good.

I made an aromatic broth using my new best friend, chicken-bone broth (rather than chicken stock), shredded ginger, whole garlic cloves, and big chunks of shallot. After it steeped a while, I threw in boneless chicken thighs and simmered until they were tender. I removed the meat along with the shallots and softened garlic cloves, which I smashed into a paste with my chef’s knife and stirred back into the broth. Then the bok choy and carrot flowers went in to soften.

The layers in the bowl were jasmine rice, bok choy, shredded chicken, two big ladles of the broth, chopped dry-roasted peanuts, razor-thin slices of serranos (no Thai chiles without going across town), slivered scallions, and a nice pinch of the flower petals and clover sprouts. Then, I finished it with a pungent splash of fresh lime juice mixed with fish sauce. It was a hit. Here’s the original recipe if you wanna give a try:

Thai Chicken and Rice Soup with Green Chiles and Ginger
Serves 4

1 Tablespoon brown sugar

2 Tablespoons shredded ginger

1 pound boneless skinless chicken thighs

6 cups chicken bone broth

2 large shallots

4 large garlic cloves

½ pound baby bok choy, split in half lengthwise

1 large carrot, thinly sliced

1 cup jasmine rice, rinsed

2 Tablespoons fresh lime juice

2 Tablespoons fish sauce (or more)

Kosher salt

3 Thai green chiles (or serranos), thinly sliced crosswise

6 scallions, thinly sliced crosswise

½ cup dry-roasted peanuts, crushed

Combine sugar and 1/2 cup hot water in a small bowl, stirring to dissolve sugar. Add ginger and let cool; drain and set aside.

Bring stock, shallots, and garlic to a boil in a large saucepan. Simmer for 15 minutes. Add the chicken, reduce heat, and simmer until chicken is cooked through, 20–25 minutes. Transfer chicken and garlic to a cutting board and let cool. Discard shallots. Smash garlic to a paste using the side of a chef’s knife; return to saucepan and stir to combine. Shred chicken; set aside.

Bring stock mixture to a boil and add rice. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until rice is tender and has broken, 30–40 minutes. Soup should have slightly thickened. Stir in bok choy, carrot, lime juice, fish sauce, and reserved chicken and simmer for 5 minutes, or until bok choy is tender.

Taste and adjust seasonings with more fish sauce and salt if needed.

Divide soup among bowls; top with reserved ginger, chiles, scallions, and peanuts.

On That Note

From time to time, I come across a music talent I really like and get lost down the rabbit hole of the intertubes, listening to everything available. His name is Josh Turner (not the country music star with the same name). I’ve gone back to this young man multiple times. He’s just so good. Plays multiple instruments, shoots his own videos and produces his own multitrack recordings. I especially love his outtakes. He’s wonderfully nerdy and clearly having a blast with his multi-talented posse. Millennials, the lot of them, but that just gives my boomer strings a twang. All his vids are refreshingly humble; everyone wears shorts, jeans and t-shirts, like they all just stopped by after school. The focus is the music, not the musicians. Refreshing.

Josh looks a bit like Harry Potter. He sings a bit like an angel and plays a lot like a prodigy. He’s gotten quite famous amassing a ton of followers. He also teaches guitar and music production to eager students in person and online. I recommend a nice long journey of exploring his many videos. You will love it.

Speaking of which, here in no particular order are some of my favorites. He does mostly covers. In two of them, “Funky Town” and “Honky Tonk Woman,” he plays all the parts. In others, he’s joined by talented collaborators, including Carson McKee (his main collaborator and the other half of the duet “The Other Favorites”), Myles Pinder and Tanner Walter.

Turn up your volume and give a listen.


Chef Tom is currently Resident Chef for a small tech firm in San Francisco. He also teaches cooking classes, caters small parties and leads overseas culinary tours. His specialty for the last twelve years has been cooking for people with food allergies and sensitivities. His motto is “Food should give you pleasure, not pressure.”

Check him out at

2 Responses to “Chef Tom – It’s What’s for Lunch”

  1. Peter Montreuil Says:

    The only problem that I have with your columns is that I’m always hungry after I read them! Great job, thanks for the tip on Josh Turner.

    • Tom Herndon Says:

      Sorry, Peter. Tell you what. Come Saturday morning, eat a BIG breakfast before reading my column. It’ll help to take the edge off. Lol. Yeh, Josh is a good one.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: