JPL Senior Research Scientist Bonnie Buratti talks about traveling to the great beyond.

Bonnie J. Buratti was working in Rome when we called to chat on International Women’s Day, which celebrates women’s accomplishments. She is certainly among Arroyoland’s (and the nation’s) superbly accomplished women. Buratti is a planetary astronomer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she is a senior research scientist supervising the Comets, Asteroids and Satellites Group.
She is currently analyzing data from the completed Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn, for which she earned NASA’s Exceptional Achievement Medal. She’s also working on the agency’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and its moons, and is the U.S. Project scientist for the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission, the first spacecraft to soft-land a robot on a comet. In 2014 Buratti, who advises NASA, was elected chair of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences, and she’s a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union. The International Astronomical Union even named asteroid 90503 “Buratti” in recognition of her work.
In addition to all that, Buratti recently wrote a book for nonscientists who yearn to learn about what’s happening out of this world and in the great beyond. Worlds Fantastic, Worlds Familiar (Cambridge University Press) is a densely packed compendium of modern space exploration throughout the solar system — explaining Mercury, Venus, Mars, comets, asteroids, exoplanets and more — while describing what it all looks like, how they evolved, how we found out about them and who were the people involved. It’s also peppered with wit, personal anecdotes and historical oddities, zooming back to the ancients and into the future as new discoveries alter our understanding of Earth’s place in the universe and the possibilities lurking that we are not alone.
The Altadena resident has been married for 36 years to Cal Poly Pomona physics professor and author Kai S. Lam. They have three grown sons. Buratti holds numerous degrees — a B.S. and M.S. in Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences from MIT and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Astronomy and Space Sciences from Cornell University. We asked her to talk about her life and work.

At 65, you seem to be speeding up instead of slowing down. In many corporate settings, there’s a lot of ageism, especially toward women. Have you experienced that in the science world?
I’ve never thought about it. I know it exists elsewhere, but I would say in science, that’s not true. In science, as you get older, whether you’re a man or a woman, you just gain more knowledge.

So it’s acknowledged that a competent scientist becomes more competent with age?
Exactly.
Some publicity for your book mentions that you write about science from a woman’s perspective. What has gender to do with how a scientist works?
You’ve hit on kind of a controversial subject. Women are perfectly capable of doing science the same as men. That’s very important. There’s no particular women’s way. The most convincing argument in that arena is that women, because of their upbringing, quite often are more cooperative. We tend to be able to work as a team; whereas men might want to get credit, women more easily cooperate together. This is based on our training. It has nothing to do with our ability, but with the way it’s implemented.

You’re in Rome for Cassini, which ended its 20-year journey to Saturn in 2017. What are you working on there?
We’re still doing research, focused on archiving and on legacy, getting everything we’ve learned packaged. I have overall responsibility for the moons of Saturn. My particular interest is in what they are made of. Like, if you were standing on the surface, what would you see? What is their shape, their composition, what is the physical nature of these moons?

Two of those moons seem to have astonished scientists because they are so unexpectedly Earth-like in geology and climate. Do they
enlarge the possibility that there are other worlds where some form of life might exist?
Yes. Before the mission we simply saw the moons as pinpoints of light. The Cassini mission turned them into real worlds. On the small moon Enceladus, for example, we discovered a plume of water, a geyser, basically. We discovered lakes on Titan, not of water but of methane and ammonia — the only place in the solar system other than Earth where there is a standing body of liquid.

Elon Musk recently sent a cherry-red Tesla into space blaring David Bowie and carrying a mannequin named Starman at the wheel. That caused scientists at Purdue University and elsewhere to worry that the car might not be “clean” enough, and might contaminate Mars with earthly bacteria. NASA deliberately crashed Cassini into Saturn when its mission ended so it wouldn’t roam uncontrolled and perhaps contaminate areas that should be kept pristine for further exploration. Is NASA concerned about contamination from Musk’s Tesla and other potential privately-owned space launches?
NASA has a very strict protocol for what’s known as planetary protection. Anytime you put anything into space, you have to do rigorous planetary protection analysis. Musk and SpaceX are not working for NASA. Theirs are not NASA activities. I think NASA was concerned about it and I think the possibility that it might affect Mars was small and unlikely. But they did not do the analysis that NASA would have done. I really can’t comment on all that. There’s another concern that many scientists have, and that is that putting a Tesla in space is an advertising event, whereas we would have liked to see a scientific payload instead, something that had instruments and could study the space environment.

You’ve worked on so many different projects. Do you have a favorite planet?
Good question. It’s a really close call between Titan and Pluto.
Is Titan a planet? I thought it was a moon of Saturn.
Well no, it’s not a planet. Neither is Pluto, technically, for that matter. The International Astronomical Union downgraded it to a dwarf planet in 2006. But we scientists don’t think in terms of what we should call [a celestial body]. We’re not concerned with that.

So why are Titan and Pluto your favorites?
Titan is the most Earthlike of celestial bodies. It has lakes. It has evidence there were glaciers in the past. It has running rivers, a thick atmosphere and a lot of landforms that look like Earth’s. It has clouds and seasons and very interesting objects. And Pluto is so much more than we expected. It is the first object in the solar system on which we found active geysers. We see evidence of something melted, and what looks like something flowing over it that we don’t understand yet. It looks like snow has occurred.

Similarities between Earth and other planets is one theme of your book. Can you talk about that?
A lot of phenomena we see on Earth are replicated on the planets. Take, for example, the greenhouse effect, the warming of Earth’s climate due to the influx of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. That happened on Venus already. Venus had oceans in its history. Because of the unconstrained accumulation of carbons, a runaway greenhouse effect evaporated all the oceans. They all disappeared. It became a very hot world. So that is kind of an extreme case of what is happening on Earth right now.
Mars is also similar to Earth. It started out wetter. There were oceans in its early history. We think the origin of life on Mars may have been similar to origins of life on Earth. So the search for life on Mars is part of the search for life as it would have been on early Earth.

Are we any closer to discovering the origins of human life?
We really aren’t. We’re putting a lot of effort into that because it’s one of the greatest questions to be answered.

Your book has some nail-biting moments of tension and excitement, as various missions make fantastic discoveries. It’s a kind of Indiana Jones tale that takes place in space. You also write about the poetry of science. How would you explain all this to an ace science student who’s trying to decide on a career?
The book isn’t for scientists. It’s for the public to help explain space science, which is a heritage of the American people and belongs to all of them. I also really wanted to show younger people — those who are high school level and above — how much fun science is, and motivate them to do the kinds of things I do. It doesn’t have to be space science, but any of the other types, like engineering or helping to solve the climate problem.
Science is poetic in the sense that it’s about having a new idea, a great idea. When we get that flash of insight, it’s very similar to the insight flash you get in any artistic or creative endeavor. I’d say to be a great scientist, you really have to study everything, not just science. I think it was the Greek philosopher Terence who said, “Let nothing that is human be alien to you.” You have to just expand your mind to take ideas from every area you can take them. Of course, it’s 99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration. But at the moment you finally make that sublime discovery, you know it has all been worth it.

Any comment on President Trump’s idea for a space force, a branch of the military trained to fight wars in space?
The U.S. is a signatory to the Outer Space Treaty, which states (Article IV): “The Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used by all States Parties to the Treaty exclusively for peaceful purposes. The establishment of military bases, installations and fortifications, the testing of any type of weapons and the conduct of military maneuvers on celestial bodies shall be forbidden.”

With all scientists now know, do you believe there’s a possibility of intelligent life somewhere out there in space?
I just don’t know. We shouldn’t be the only ones, but we haven’t found any evidence of any life elsewhere, let alone intelligent life.

Coffee pods are bad for you, your wallet and the planet.

Ihave a coffee problem. I love it. I drink too much of it. And I most surely have a caffeine addiction. But today I’m not talking about me (for once). My coffee problem has to do with you. You, America, and your obsession, addiction and love affair with the Keurig.
Perhaps you thought that, since it is April, this might be some sort of jokey column. Sorry. Coffee has been banned throughout history — in Mecca for stimulating radical thinking, at the Vatican for being satanic and in Sweden for interfering with beer profits. But today it is the second-most-traded commodity in the world (after oil). Which is why I feel it is my civic duty to warn you:
Single-serve coffee pods are evil incarnate.
This is not an April Fool’s joke. This is deadly serious. This is a red alert. Here’s why:
Save the Planet
I will start with the obvious: Those plastic pods are killing the planet. The company responsible, Keurig Green Mountain Coffee, produces about 9 billion K-cups (each making only one cup of coffee) every year. Stacked up, they would circle the earth more than 10 times. Even if you personally use the 5 percent of K-cups that are recyclable, there are still 95 percent out there that aren’t. And you know where they end up, don’t you? In the fast-growing Great Pacific Garbage Patch with the rest of the world’s plastic, swirling endlessly in a gyre, slowly breaking down, but never disintegrating. Actually there are now two patches in the Pacific, and they are each the size of Texas. Even the inventor of these pods, John Sylvan, has admitted he feels bad about that. Plus, because pod waste has a mix of aluminum, plastic and ground coffee, even if they do make it into the recycling bin, most municipal recycling plants are not equipped to process them. Even well-intentioned reuse of the pods is ridiculously difficult. Why even bother using a canvas grocery tote if you’re filling it with these planet killers?
Save Yourself
Even if you don’t care a fig about the planet, those K-cups are making you sick. They are made from #7 composite plastic, which, although BPA free, have tested positive for estrogenic activity, which interferes with natural hormonal cellular function. (I’m not a scientist, but I think that probably means you’ll grow extra boobs.) Plus, although composite plastic #7 is a secret proprietary product, we do know that it contains styrene, which is harmful to your nervous system. And don’t forget the aluminum top of each pod, which creates health concerns of its own, including links to a spectrum of neurological diseases.
Save your Money
Using K-cups is stupidly expensive. The average machine costs around $100. A typical drip machine is about $40. But worse than the pots are the pods, which The New York Times has calculated are costing you $50 per pound of coffee. Even the best coffee at the hippest coffee bar is not $50 a pound. (There is that $600-per-pound Sumatran kopi luwak coffee. But that’s because it’s fermented in wildcat poop. I am not making that up.) And what do you get for your buck? Most pods are two parts coffee to one part packaging, which makes it seem like you’re paying for garbage. Oh, yeah — you are.
Save the Coffee
You only want one cup? Three things:
• What’s wrong with you? Coffee is so delicious! I just sip it all day long. This is, I’m pretty sure, how I am going to die.
• You can buy single-serve drip makers (see Mr. Coffee) which use loose ground coffee and cost around $30.
• You can use leftover coffee in a number of delicious ways (see recipes below) including just chilling it and drinking it later.
Save Time
“But K-cups are so convenient.”
This is the part where my head explodes and I cry for humanity. Brewing coffee is not hard. You don’t have to grind your beans anymore. You don’t even have to boil water. Brewing a pot of coffee is literally the easiest thing there is to cooking. College kids can do it. Blondes can do it. Trump can do it. You are saving, at most, eight minutes with your planet-killing, money-eating pods. Of course, maybe you are using that eight minutes to save the world in some other way, like recolonizing honeybees or harassing the NRA. But chances are you will waste at least eight minutes staring at your phone later today, so I am not impressed.
Save Your Arguments
Sure, everything is plastic. Toiletries, tools, electronics, toys — they are all made and packaged with plastic, and we are drowning in it. But why opt for a product that exacerbates the problem, when there is a perfectly wonderful, tried-and-true method already in use? Using a K-cup is a corporate money grab that you have been sucked into because it’s cool, and that is just silly. Let me also mention that the company is testing K-cups for instant soup, which, if true, will mean an entire stupid system of products to create a food that no one voluntarily eats unless they are sick or broke.
So join me in shunning the K-cup trend. Stick it to the man. Just say no. Don’t be a sheep. Stand up for what you believe in — civic responsibility, smart consumerism and good coffee.

LEFTOVER BREWED-COFFEE IDEAS
Coffee Pot Roast and Brisket
Replace the water in your favorite pot roast recipe with brewed coffee. The acidity will balance the rich, fattier meats.
Coffee Braised Chicken
Same as above. Coffee added to braising birds will not make it taste like coffee. Rather, it will add a layer of flavor complexity that will be your little secret.
Coffee Marinade
Tired of your usual marinade? Mix coffee with soy sauce or Worcestershire, garlic and herbs for a delicious alternative.
Coffee BBQ Sauce
Similarly, a good BBQ sauce perfectly balances sweet, salty, acid and bitterness. Use it in place of water.
Coffee Chili and Baked Beans
Use coffee in place of water in your best chili and bean recipes. That touch of acidity eases the richness.
Coffee Truffles, Frosting and Sauce
Replace half the liquid in your ganache recipe. The combination of chocolate and coffee is a tried-and-true pairing. And for bittersweet chocolate lovers, the coffee accentuates the bitterness in the chocolate.
Coffee Chocolate Cake and Brownies
As above, adding coffee to your cake recipes in place of the liquid makes the cake taste more chocolatey.
Coffee Pudding
Use cooled coffee for half the liquid in your favorite pudding mix.
Coffee Oatmeal
Use it instead of water, then add a little cinnamon, nutmeg and some chopped nuts. It’s the breakfast of champions.
Coffee Granita
Your guests will be blown away when you serve them refreshing granita for dessert. Just freeze the coffee in a shallow pan and stir it every 30 minutes or so, as the ice crystals form. Topped with a little whipped cream and a crisp cookie, it is a showstopper. (I confess; this is also a guilty-pleasure breakfast food for me.)
Coffee Ice Pops
When the summer swelter arrives, imagine how happy you’ll be when you remember you have iced-coffee pops in your freezer. You can use fancy popsicle molds, or the time-honored Dixie-cup method.
Coffee Caramel Sauce
Adding coffee to your caramel sauce recipe, or stirring it into ready-made sauce, makes it taste like toffee.
Make Tiramisu
Coffee is the most important ingredient in this Italian classic.

Feed Your Garden
For plants that crave an acid-rich soil, coffee fits the bill.
Clean Your House
Acid helps cut through caked on grease, and coffee works great on ovens, stovetops and outdoor grills.

The president’s budget proposal will have a big impact on the elderly if Congress adopts it

Apresidential budget is a statement of principle, a road map to an administration’s policy goals and its ideal funding levels for specific departments. And President Trump’s budget priorities would have a big impact on seniors in the coming decade if adopted by Congress. Here’s what you need to know:
Trump’s proposal would reportedly cut funding to many departments the elderly depend on. It would cut the Health and Human Services Department, which oversees all federal healthcare programs, by 20.3 percent, which would cut 30 percent of the budget for food stamps (now known as SNAP), introducing “food packages” instead of the current debit cards that can be used at markets. Also targeted for cuts of hundreds of billions of dollars are Medicare and Medicaid (which benefit one-third of all Americans); much of the federal healthcare budget would become the responsibility of individual states, which are already struggling to meet residents’ needs.
The proposal would also cut multiple programs many financially challenged seniors currently count on, such as heating and housing assistance. It would slash certain prescription drug benefits and prohibit Medicare from fully negotiating directly with pharmaceutical companies, which experts agree is the most effective way to bring prices down. Millions of older people could wind up paying more than they currently do for prescription drugs, analysts say, and fewer medications might be covered.
On the plus side, Trump’s proposal would eliminate the 5 percent co-pay for sick seniors who reach the “catastrophic” drug-cost threshold. But it would also become more difficult to qualify for that level of coverage, and those just under the threshold would reportedly pay more than before. Social Security’s retirement and survivor benefit payments would not be cut, although the department’s staff would be slashed at a time when 10,000 baby boomers a day are reaching retirement age. And for those staffers who remain, the overtime allotted to keep up with that increased demand has been cut to less than one-third of what was allowed in 2017. Senior advocates worry that the staffing decreases signal a goal to eventually dismantle or completely privatize the Social Security program.
The president’s plan would also make it more difficult for physicians to refer Medicare patients to other providers, some analysts say, making it harder for some seniors to access care their doctors recommend. And the proposed 2019 budget includes elimination of community development block grants, a program that helps local governments take on serious community-wide problems, such as affordable housing and meal delivery services to the housebound and isolated, including Meals on Wheels.
Americans across the political spectrum have spoken out against the proposed cuts, which seem to herald a change in America’s basic policy toward its seniors, who are living and working longer than ever before and may be counting on their country to deliver on its promises. Conservative writer Jennifer Rubin, whose Right Turn blog appears in the Washington Post, has written: “Despite having become the governing party, Republicans still show little interest or competence in governing with a broad-based vision of what quaintly used to be called the ‘public good.’” The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C., has also denounced the administration’s proposed budget.
Trump’s proposal likely won’t be enacted this year since Congress just passed a two-year spending program. But the CBPP says it “shows what he would seek to achieve over the remainder of his administration” (although Democratic inroads in the 2018 midterm elections would likely pose a big obstacle). Seniors would be among the millions more Americans who would lose health insurance coverage under the proposed health-care cuts criticized by the CBPP, increasing hardships for low- and moderate-income families.
Millions of seniors and those approaching retirement have amassed enough assets to assure themselves a financially comfortable old age. Many more millions who may have worked just as long and hard are financially insecure. Half of Medicare recipients live on incomes of under $26,200 a year and lack the resources for their basic needs, according to the National Council on Aging based in Arlington, VA. In the perfect storm of more deregulation, skyrocketing costs for housing, food and medical care, many middle-class Americans face a troubled financial existence once they are too old to work, analysts say.
Here are just a few random facts that highlight the costs of survival for American seniors: The national average annual rate for a semi-private room in a nursing home was $81,030 in 2012, according to the MetLife Mature Market Institute. That does not even include all the extra therapies, medicines and special care often required during such a stay. Basic Medicare does not cover hearing aids or dental work, both of which are costly and afflict the elderly more than any other group. About 5 million older Americans rely on SNAP for food while making ends meet. Most live alone, and on average receive $108 per month to help put food on the table.
The question becomes one of basic national philosophy rather than one of political party preference: How should we treat our oldest citizens? Do we penalize those who have worked all their lives, but not been able to amass the funds needed to survive a lengthy illness — or simply survive? Some respected analysts say such questions are irrelevant. They contend that it’s economically unfeasible, given the tremendous rise in older Americans now flooding the population, to continue providing seniors with the traditional entitlements. Others assert there’s enough money to continue and even improve support for old people, if only we set different priorities than this budget’s authors do. They say the government has faced similar challenges over the years, but with both parties working together to make changes that assure the programs’ solvency, those problems have always been solved. They say the same can happen now.

The Rose Bowl’s dynamic landscaping duo talk turf

It may be only 2½ acres, but to Will Schnell and Miguel Yepez, the Rose Bowl is a constant obsession. Tending this plot of land is a never-ending cycle of checking embedded soil sensors, monitoring hot spots, repairing damage, aggressive weeding and meticulous trimming, not to mention late-night worries and early-morning visits. But in the end, their attention to detail produces a joy that farmers and gardeners revel in: a thriving plant.
Schnell and Yepez’s plant, however, is a mega-collection of green blades that make up the famed Rose Bowl turf, the kind of immaculate lawn that would spark envy in any residential neighborhood.
These two longtime turf pros share a love of sports, plants and working outside. Schnell, 55, has been the Bowl’s stadium superintendent for more than 18 years; Yepez, 41, has been his assistant for 16. With the help of a small team, they cultivate and maintain the verdant field at this 96-year-old athletic stadium which hosts an almost nonstop schedule of football games, soccer tournaments, location filming, concerts and other big events. It’s used about 300 days in any given year. There is no off-season.
At this time of extreme drought, when many lawns are being removed and replaced with xeriscaping, this field is a reminder that there’s splendor in the grass. The Rose Bowl’s identity is so intertwined with its emerald lawn that it would be anathema to do anything but present the real deal. “I remember how pristine it was,” 1981 Rose Bowl MVP Butch Woolfolk said of playing on the famed field. “You didn’t want to mess it up when you fell down, and when your cleat dug out some, you’d want to replace the divot.”
“We’d usually do a walk-through at the stadium the day before,” said 2013 Rose Bowl defensive MVP Usua Amanam. “Guys were on the ground smelling the grass and picking up pieces of the grass and lying on the grass.”
Some sporting fields are landscaped with artificial turf, and Schnell acknowledges that there are good reasons for that. “I truly believe there is a place for synthetics,” he said. “If you have guys running on a [grass] field 10 hours a day, that’s not going to be successful. That’s the last place you want to invest in a real grass field. You have to understand the limitations of grass.” The Rose Bowl doesn’t experience constant wear and tear, so it doesn’t need the durability of artificial turf, and real grass looks better on camera.
Schnell has understood the complex nature of grass since his days growing up on his family’s 1,200-acre farm in Missouri. At a young age, he was raising plants and operating big machinery, activities he still does today. While attending high school he played sports and began maintaining athletic fields; by the time he graduated he had racked up three years’ experience — and an athlete’s appreciation of what makes a good playable field.
Armed with a degree in turf grass management from Central Missouri State University, Schnell worked at sporting venues around the country, starting with minor league baseball and eventually landing gigs with the Cleveland Browns, the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers. He arrived in Pasadena in 2001. “I’ve worked the longest here at the Rose Bowl,” he says with a laugh. “They haven’t kicked me out yet.”
Two years after he started, Schnell brought on board Yepez, a Pasadena kid who went to work for American Golf, a national network of public courses, right after graduating from Blair High School. Yepez worked as a turf mechanic at Brookside Golf Club for six years before meeting his partner-in-turf, Schnell, and landing his Rose Bowl gig.
When it comes to big events and games (about three a year), the field is completely redone, and it typically takes the Rose Bowl staff and 20 workers from four to eight days to replace. Machines rip the grass up to its roots, soil is prepared with strengthening conditioners, a sand base is laid down and irrigation is positioned — and all that happens before the new sod even arrives. A fleet of 17 semi trucks hauls 3,000 pounds of it to Pasadena from the Bowl’s sod farm in Palm Springs, where sunshine and heat quickly mature grass. The cost averages about $250,000 a pop. Schnell regularly visits the desert facility to see how the grass is growing. Over the years, he experimented with grass cultivars until he settled on a mixture of bluegrass and rye grass. “It’s an aggressive turf,” he says.
Through the years, the two have learned various subtle tricks of the trade. “We talk about smoke and mirrors, how to divert people’s attention when there is a problem out there we can’t address in time,” says Schnell. Maybe there’s an unsightly sod seam, so a unique mowing pattern may redirect people’s eyes. “Sometimes you’ll have to do that and people will never know the difference,” he says.
One innovative way the team controls costs and time is by employing erasable paint on team logos on the field, a practice Yepez spearheaded many years ago. “We used so much paint we’d kill the grass,” he explains.
In their time on the turf, the duo has weathered many storms, tight turnaround schedules and everyday emergencies. Their devotion to the Rose Bowl field and what it represents is fierce and heartfelt. “People ask me to come and look at their yard and I say, ‘If it doesn’t have a goal post or bases, I don’t do it,’” says Schnell with a twinkle in his eye. “This right here is mine. I get to farm some of the most visible turf in the world. I’m so grateful every day. This is a big enough yard for me.”
Likewise, Yepez describes an almost mystical connection between gardener and plant. “I’m a sports fanatic and so being around a stadium is exciting,” says Yepez. “All these people are here to see these players, but they are also here to see my field. I love that I’m part of the game itself.”

Pasadena may emerge relatively unscathed by tax reform’s negative impact on California’s housing market.

tax law

President Donald Trump may have dented the growth of California property values when he signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act into law last December, experts say. The new law sharply reduces deductions of mortgage loan interest and property taxes, and also caps other local and state tax deductions — gutting many financial incentives for home ownership. The state’s more than 6.9 million homeowners are grappling with the new law’s impact on their tax bills — both immediately and over the long term. The big question is, what will the tax hikes do to the housing market and property values?
“The 2018 tax reform bill is going to have an adverse affect on housing sale prices and housing supply in California,” said Oscar Wei, a senior economist for California Association of Realtors (CAR). “It may not be a significant impact, but it will have an impact. Prices will continue to grow, but the tax reform bill lowers the price growth.”
Both home prices and appreciation are expected to take a hit from the new tax bill. Before it passed, California home prices were predicted to grow 4.2 percent by the end of 2018, Wei said. Factoring in the slashed deductions, CAR has lowered its growth rate prediction to 3.2 percent, he added. By contrast, he noted, single-family home prices in 2017 grew at 7.2 percent. The median projected price of a California house in 2018 is $555,600 — $5,400 less than the median predicted before the new law. The 2017 median house price was $538,500, said Wei. (These projections don’t include condos, townhouses and new construction.)
Nationally, home prices are predicted to be 4 percent lower than they would have been without the new tax legislation, with the impact peaking in summer of 2019, according to a report by Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody Analytics, a New York– based economic research company. “Any longer-run benefit from the lower marginal tax rates will be washed away by the fallout from the bigger budget deficits and government debt load,” Zandi, a critic of the tax reform plan, wrote. “Good tax reform is very difficult to do.” And the tax reform bill lawmakers passed did not get it done, he added.
Still, some real estate experts and economists expect house sales in Pasadena and other hot markets, where demand outstrips supply, to sell as briskly as before tax reform. “I have not seen any impact on the market yet,” said Shel Downing, a Keller Williams Realtor, who sells property all over Southern California. “I am seeing a slowing in outlying areas such as Upland in the last two or three months. But in the hubs like beach cities and Pasadena, I have not seen it.”
But tax reform may still impact demand for moderate-priced homes because some potential buyers may find that renting is preferable with the new increased standard deduction, said Wei. “The impact is small to this price segment, because the supply in this sector is extremely short,” he continued. “Since there is more demand than the supply can fulfill, the impact on sales is very minimal.” The most competitive housing sector is lower-to-middle-range homes for any given neighborhood, said Wei. The new law is not expected to impact that price sector because there are far more buyers than available houses.

The pricier, higher-tax communities, where homeowners have jumbo mortgages and big property tax bills, are going to take the biggest hit in slowed price growth under the law, said Zandi and Wei. “The impact on house prices is much greater for the higher-priced homes, especially in parts of the country where incomes are higher, there are a disproportionate number of itemizers and where homeowners have big mortgages and property tax bills,” Zandi noted in his report. “The Northeast Corridor, South Florida, big Midwestern cities and the West Coast will suffer the biggest price declines.”
Affluent housing markets throughout California — including San Marino, San Francisco, West Los Angeles, coastal communities and Pasadena, where the median home price is $930,000 — will likely absorb the brunt of the bill’s impact, but lack of housing in those markets may soften the blow. For New York City, Moody predicts a 9.5 percent drop in Manhattan home values, whereas in Brooklyn and Queens prices could fall by less than 2 percent. Fifteen of the 30 counties hit hardest in the U.S. are in New Jersey, where housing is projected to lose one-tenth of its value, according to the Moody report.
There is a possibility that the pace of home sales where demand sharply outstrips supply may slow down, according to experts. Home owners could hold onto their houses even longer than planned because of tax reform, diminishing supply even further. For those who still want to sell, there should be plenty of buyers. “I just met with clients from the Northwest who are buying a house and they are pretty savvy about buying and selling houses,” said agent Steve Clark of Clarkliving in Compass real estate’s Pasadena office. “They are not happy about [the tax reform bill] but it is not a deciding factor in buying a house. People who want to sell their house and move to southern Oregon will be okay. But if you are trying to make a lateral move, where are you going to go? The real issue is lack of inventory.”
Here’s a summary of the new law’s measures and how they could affect home values, sellers, buyers and the overall housing market in your community.

Slashing the Mortgage Interest Deduction Threshold
People who want to buy or improve a home between now and 2026 (when the tax measure expires and the law reverts to pre-2018 provisions — barring new legislation) can deduct the interest paid on mortgages of up to $750,000 — down from $1 million. The lower threshold impacts all homes bought after Dec. 14, 2017. But buyers who secured a mortgage on or before Dec. 14 can still deduct interest on up to $1 million in loan debt, the previous cap. The new tax law also killed the deduction for home equity loan interest, including that on existing home equity loans, as of Jan. 1. But the interest for 2017 home equity debt can still be claimed on 2017 taxes. In 2026, the law returns to previous provisions: Mortgage interest on up to $1.1 million in and home equity debt, alone or combined, will be eligible for deduction, once again, as long as no new legislation is passed.
The law is expected to put homes worth $750,000 or more out of reach for some home buyers. The mortgage interest deduction is a prime selling point played up by real estate agents and described as a government subsidy to home ownership at a cost to the government of about $100 billion a year, according to housing experts at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington D.C.–based think tank. Reducing the tax incentive to buy a home is expected to rattle the market. When added to the sharp cuts in IRS deductions for property taxes and for other state and local taxes, the tax spike may cause some homeowners to gasp come tax time next year. The new law will also make selling homes worth more than a $750,000 potentially unattractive to many homeowners, who might hold onto their properties longer; the prospect of upgrading to another presumably even more expensive home without the traditional deductions may be too costly. All of this will tighten an already constricted housing supply.

State and Local Tax Deductions
All property taxes paid to state and local government agencies used to qualify as an itemized deduction, unless the homeowners paid the alternative minimum tax, which would preclude itemization. The old law also allowed deductions for state and local income taxes or sales tax. The 2018 law combines these state and local taxes (also called SALT) and caps the deductions at $10,000 for both individual and married couples.
Many homeowners in high-cost, high-tax states, such as California, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and Maryland, pay far more than $10,000 in property taxes (in addition to income taxes). Nationwide, more than 4 million Americans nationwide pay more than $10,000 in property taxes alone, according to ATTOM Data Solutions, an Irvine-based property data research firm. Los Angeles County is among the U.S. counties with the greatest number of home loans topping $750,000 (i.e., 9,197) for 2017, according to ATTOM. Overall, 9.2 percent of L.A. County homeowners pay more than $10,000 in property taxes each year, ATTOM says.
Though some homeowners rushed to pay their property taxes for 2018 early, assuming their property taxes could qualify for deduction from their 2017 taxes, the IRS stated that only 2018 taxes that had been assessed would be eligible. Homeowners who made the early payment and were not assessed before this year will not benefit from the deduction.

Standard Deduction
The new law doubles the standard deduction to $12,000 for people filing taxes as an individual, and $24,000 for married couples filing jointly. For some couples, the increase in the standard deduction will outweigh the benefit from itemizing deductions; that would apply to homeowners whose combined mortgage interest and SALT deductions do not add up to $24,000 for married couples filing jointly or $12,000 for individuals (although adding other deductions, such as medical expenses, may put them over the top).
But the standard deductions may offer more of a tax advantage to renters than to many buyers, said Wei. “When the law increased the single deduction to $12,000 to an individual and $24,000 for a married couple, for many renters, it created a disincentive to buy,” said Wei. “People may decide to rent for a little longer so they can take advantage of the tax savings, and they may not think they need to be a homeowner now. That affects sales a little. Even though there will be a disincentive, there will still be a good amount of home-buying activity because of the limited supply and high demand for houses, say, that are priced $500,000 and under.” Wei said renters in the market for lower-priced property — a house for $350,000, for example — would likely be better off continuing to rent and taking the standard deduction.
A report released by Zillow, a home search and data website, found that 14 percent of U.S. homes have high enough market value and tax bills that a new buyer borrowing 80 percent of the home price would benefit from itemizing. But under the previous tax law, 44 percent of homes were pricey enough (the prior cap was $1 million) to warrant buyers itemizing deductions.

Federal Reserve Interest Rate Adjustments and Higher Mortgage Interest Rates
The Federal Reserve raised interest rates in December, the third time in 2017, due to a growing economy and improved labor market. The Federal Reserve sets interest rates — the amount banks will be charged to borrow money from Federal Reserve banks — in an attempt to control inflation and stabilize the economy.
The new tax legislation will result in higher mortgage interest rates for two reasons, Zandi noted in an email. “The Federal Reserve will need to raise interest rates more aggressively given that the deficit-financed tax legislation will lead to a temporary pick-up in growth, and since the economy is already at full employment, increasing price pressures,” he noted. “Second, because the federal government must borrow more to finance the tax cuts, the [U.S.] Treasury will sell more bonds, pushing interest rates higher.”
The higher mortgage-interest rates, combined with the greatly reduced mortgage-interest and property-tax deductions, will increase the true cost of buying a new home, Zandi added. The increased costs will weaken housing demand and drag down price growth, especially in communities where those deductions are important incentives for home buyers.

Capital Gains Taxes
Greatly reducing the tax incentive to buy a home is sure to rattle the residential real estate market, but the industry breathed a collective sigh of relief when the final bill didn’t tamper with the exclusion for capital gains tax from the sale of a primary residence. Homeowners selling their primary residence may exclude up to $250,000 of the profit from taxation — $500,000 for married couples filing jointly — as long as they have lived in their primary residence for at least two of the past five years.
Earlier versions of the bill would have increased the requirement of living in the primary residence to five out of eight years. That draft of the bill would have had an even more negative impact on an already tight supply of houses for sale, said Clark. Homeowners who need to sell a house after a couple of years due to circumstance (including relocation for a job or relationship changes, such as divorce or marriage) would likely sit on their property longer, said Clark.
About 6,943,000 California homes are occupied by homeowners, according to 2016 National Association of Realtors (NAR) research, and most of those homeowners are just now coming to grips with the new law’s effect on their after-tax housing costs. Certainly, these are volatile political and economic times and the housing market is intertwined with the overall health of the economy. Whether predictions and projections for 2018 are realized is yet to be seen. For now, the consensus is desirable housing markets are likely to stay desirable and there will be people with enough money to buy in those markets, but the rate of price growth is expected to slow. In other words, California’s out-of-control housing prices might just reset to slightly more affordable numbers — by California standards, that is.

WHAT YOU GET FOR…

Area real estate experts say the seesaw stockmarket and bouncy consumer confidence stats have not affected the housing market here. They predict that the good times (for sellers) will continue to roll. Housing inventory and interest rates are at a low ebb; with so little on the market, multiple offers on desirable homes keep prices escalating. They’re not talking about McMansions, which take longer to sell, but about quality moderate-size homes in quality neighborhoods. In Pasadena’s leafy Linda Vista neighborhood, for example, there’s virtually nothing under $1 million, and even the smallest homes there can cost a few hundred thousand more than that. So it’s still a seller’s market, Realtors say, because there are so few properties to choose from and so many competitive offers. (For tax reform’s negative impact on housing prices, see page 13.)
Many hundreds of people have visited a meticuously upgraded midcentury modern house in Glendale’s Whiting Woods area, says Realtor Valerie Levitt Halsey of Berkshire Hathaway Home Services. “We’re really in no hurry to sell,” she says. “We want everyone to get a chance to see it, and we’ve set a date on which all offers should be submitted.” Interest is exceptionally high in an area like this, she says, because so many buyers are seeking well-built family homes in the peaceful woodsy residential neighborhoods the area is noted for. In Whiting Woods, she says, the setting is bucolic, schools are good and homes rarely come on the market. “People tend to buy their forever homes there, and settle in for decades. It’s a big challenge under current market conditions, especially for those trying to set themselves up to get a good education for their kids. There’s so little to choose from, and so many more buyers than there are properties. And that keeps prices going up.”
Would-be buyers who already own a home and want to move to a bigger or smaller one face the trickiest situation, Realtors say. “It’s hard to figure out how to sell your current home and buy your next home successfully in this market,” Halsey says. “If you need the equity from selling your home in order to buy your next home, you have a problem. The great properties that people want are so competitive that if you haven’t sold your house yet, you can’t make an offer competitive enough to buy the new home. Someone else will snap it up. And if you sell your house before buying a new one, you have no idea how long it will take to find that right new home, and then make the winning bid. You’re faced with having to rent for an unknown amount of time. This is a problem we’ve been seeing and lots of us are talking about.”
While most top Arroyoland residential neighborhoods have remained architecturally intact thanks to Pasadena’s fervent preservation community, there are signs that is slowly changing — already massive homes are being enlarged or torn down and replaced with something even larger, introducing architectural styles that are anything but the hallowed traditional style of the neighborhood. An example is a newly constructed home in La Caňada Flintridge, which Rita Benelian, a Realtor with Keller Williams’ West Hollywood office, calls “an entertainer’s dream home,” with one level that’s an extraordinary “man cave” that would have suited the Rat Pack. The upper levels are traditional in design, the kind of home you might find in Beverly Hills or Doheny Estates, she says. But “it would be about $20 million if it were on the Westside,” she adds. Because it’s in La Caňada, it’s what she calls a real bargain.
Condominiums with spacious open floor plans are having a heyday in Arroyoland, Realtors say, not just because prices can be more affordable, but also because increasing numbers of people are deciding to embrace the freer lifestyle that comes with owning a condo. Realtor Ryan Sarkissian, with Compass Pasadena, says that much the same situation exists for condos as for private homes. “There’s not a lot on the market now in an affordable price range, in good condition and that has a nice, spacious layout,” he notes. “Prices are escalating for condos, because so many buyers have so little to choose from.” And when something good comes on the market, he notes, the bidding competition will be stiff, the price will go up and it will go fast.
Following is a sampling of what you can get for your money:

What you get for…

$500,000

1127 E. Del Mar Blvd., #334
Pasadena
2 bedrooms, 2 baths, 1,283 square feet
This light-filled corner condo is on the building’s top floor. It has an open floor plan, a fireplace and a balcony. Windows are dual pane and energy-efficient, and the common areas of the entire Casa Pasadena complex are being updated with new landscaping and hardscaping. The complex has a clubhouse, pool, spa and gym. Pets are permitted with some restrictions on dog size. This condo was listed at $540,000 but went under contract for $585,000, as Arroyo went to press.

Why are women chefs – instead of simply chefs – still a thing?

chefs

Iwas thumbing through the Los Angeles Times a couple weeks ago when I came across Jonathan Gold’s article listing the top food trends of 2018. My heart immediately sank. The number one trend of the year is women in the kitchen. This is possibly the worst timing ever. After a 30-year career I get trendy just as I am transitioning out of the job. But being a chef is like being a parent — you may not be actively participating in the work, but you still get the title. So I have no qualms about expounding on just how insulted I am to be called a “trend.”
Calling something a trend is pinpointing a general direction in which change is happening.
Jeez Louise! It is my understanding that women have literally been cooking for crowds since the Paleolithic epoch. But I see where you are going with this. Women becoming famous and important chefs is trending. Except, wait! To illustrate the point, the article used photos of chefs who have been around as long as I have, like La Brea Bakery’s Nancy Silverton. You know what else is a trend? These newfangled horseless carriages I keep seeing around town.
I would argue that trendy is not a thing we want a career to be. Calling something a trend is indicating it is fashionable. I do not relish the idea of people making career decisions based on this. Have we learned nothing from history? When food television hit big, culinary schools trended and the industry was flooded. Most of those poor career fashionistas weren’t cut out for the job and are either back at their desk at the insurance company, or suing the culinary school for false promises. Those who stuck it out are not trending. They are talented.
Remember what else was trendy? Legwarmers. Rainbow bagels. Crystal Pepsi.
But more to the point, can we please stop making gender a thing? I have been fighting against being labeled a female chef my entire career. (See Arroyo, February 2016 and January 2015 at issuu.com/arroyomonthly.) The label puts women at a disadvantage right away. It is tantamount to saying we are “pretty good, for a girl.” Even before we enter this career we are being judged for how we look, how fat we are, how thin we are, whether we are mothers or not mothers, whether we are ambitious or not ambitious enough, or too old, or too young and on and on. It is hard enough to defend one’s work without also having to defend our bodies.
To be fair, Gold is not the only offender — far from it. A recent Zagat article listed “15 Badass Female Chefs and Restaurateurs You Need to Know Around the U.S.” The same article would’ve been completely on point if they had left off the word “female.” Sure, it was a list of great culinary artists. But why-oh-why is being a woman still noteworthy? “Isn’t that cute! She can run a restaurant and have boobs!”
Paul Bocuse, who just passed away, famously said, “I’d rather have women in my bed than at the stove.” And if you saw the crowd of 1,500 mostly male chefs at his funeral in a Lyon cathedral you’ll see that many shared his opinion. That is the attitude chefs of my generation have fought to overcome. But when you point out that being a female chef is remarkable, you are also signaling that it is in some way surprising, and that sets us back decades. Isn’t it time to simply talk about the food, and not the fact that some of us have ovaries?
Perhaps what you meant by your well-intentioned list was to point out that we should be paying more attention to the females of our industry. Like the film industry did with the pro-diversity hashtag #oscarsowhite. If that is the case, may I humbly request that, instead of belittling our contributions as a fleeting fancy, you advocate for pay equity, safe workplaces and decent benefits. Let’s make that a trend — #chefsdeservebetter.
Also on the list of trends was “Fire.” If this is the kind of industry insight that constitutes award-winning journalism, let me add that I’ve heard water can be put into a freezer to get hard.
Boom! I’m a trendsetter.

Strategies for homeowners to protect their assets from the growing threat of wildfires

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.”

That’s how Raymond Chandler described Santa Anas in his 1938 novella “Red Wind.” And when the dry winds arrive, wildfires often arrive with them. Aptly named, they pounce like raging bulls, erratic and unpredictable, depending on wind direction and severity. It’s been happening since long before there were humans here to lament or write about them.

In the beginning, the fires were spontaneous eruptions every 30 to 130 years; they were nature’s way of preserving the valleys’ foothill greenbelts which depended upon fire to regenerate and flourish. Nowadays, wildfires happen every year with increasing frequency and severity, and 95 percent of them are caused by humans rather than nature. Experts predict that extended periods of high temperatures combined with continuing lack of rain will cancel out the seasonal aspect of wildfire danger and replace it with a year-round threat to life and what many count as their largest asset — their home. Governor Jerry Brown recently said that we have to start assuming that fire season will go right through Christmas.

Much of Arroyoland is considered by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) to be in the highest category of risk for ignition. Pasadena, Duarte, Glendale, La Caňada Flintridge and Monrovia are all tagged as Very High Fire Hazard Severity (VHFS) zones. In 1993, 115 homes burned in the Eaton Canyon area of Altadena, with embers from that fire setting off flames that burned a dozen homes in Pasadena and Glendale. In 2009, the Station Fire threatened 12,000 structures, mostly in Pasadena, La Cañada Flintridge, Glendale, La Crescenta and Altadena. It came within one eighth of a mile of Jet Propulsion Labs and destroyed 89 nearby homes and 120 other structures. The cause was arson.

We were lucky to avoid damage from last December’s multiple fires, the largest ever recorded in Southern California history (although a brush fire scorched 50 acres near Mt. Wilson just last October). Such disasters were once attributed to building homes in or near wildfire-prone areas, but that explanation no longer holds true. Stephen Pyne, a wildfire historian who’s written 30 books on the subject, told the Los Angeles Times last October: “It’s no longer just the case that we’re building homes where the fires are. The fires seem to be going where the houses are.”

Financial losses are the least of our worries when we wake in the middle of the night to firefighters pounding on our door, telling us to get out quickly. In the recent fires, some families had minutes or even seconds to evacuate before their homes ignited or exit roads were blocked. We’ve all read stories of those who couldn’t even corral their pets in time to save them. The financial aftermath comes later, afflicting those who’ve lost everything and haven’t fully prepared for such eventualities.

No matter how well we try to protect our property, we’re all somewhat vulnerable. So how do you prepare for such an event, which may occur months or years from now, or may never happen? And what do you take with you if you have to leave in a hurry?

DO THIS NOW, BEFORE DISASTER STRIKES.

Many experts weighed in on this subject after last year’s fires around California. Their suggestions are worth noting — they’ll stand you in good stead whether you’re confronted with fire or any other kind of catastrophic event that requires you to leave your home quickly.

l. Read your home insurance policy carefully.

Don’t assume that your agent, who may be very capable, has covered you correctly.   There are hundreds of sad stories from fire victims of every economic bracket who trusted they were completely covered for rebuilding but found out otherwise — when it was too late. Many were short more than $100,000 in rebuilding costs, some in the hundreds of thousands. Some could not afford to rebuild.

Your policy should not simply cover the value of your home; it should cover all costs of rebuilding it according to current codes. “Roughly 60 percent of American homes are underinsured,” according to CoreLogic, an Irvine-based company that provides data to home insurers. Amy Bach, director at United Policyholders, a San Francisco–based nonprofit representing consumers, calls it “a huge problem.” Consumers rely on their agents, who sometimes rely on formulas that do not cover costs, she says. Sometimes even the most reliable agents simply make mistakes.

Also, if you’ve updated or added onto any part of your home (such as a kitchen or deck), report that to your insurance agent. Homeowners who fail to update after making improvements are in for problems, says Janet Ruiz of the Insurance Information Institute trade group in New York.

2. Pack an evacuation bag (sometimes called a grab-and-go kit) with all your important documents, so you can quickly take them in an emergency.

It should contain birth certificates, passports, social security cards, property titles, home insurance policy, crucial health cards and records, any critical papers. You may think some of these are easily replaceable, but in chaotic times it could take weeks or months, and you’ll need many of them immediately after any disaster. You’ll want the home insurance policy to ensure you get proper coverage if you’re filing a claim with your insurer or FEMA, especially since adjusters will be overworked and rushed.

Digitize as many important documents as you can and keep a hard drive in the kit or make sure they’re available online. If you have old, irreplaceable family photos, you might send them and any important videos to be scanned and transferred to DVDs, which can be stored in a safety deposit box.

Take a video of your home including all furniture, art and belongings. This will be essential for insurance purposes. You might even want to video the inside of clothing drawers and closets if you have lots of stuff. One survivor of the 2003 San Diego fire told the L.A. Times that in order to receive insurance money, “she had to figure out how many T-shirts were in her drawers and what canned goods were in her cupboard.” Paula Baker, whose home was destroyed, told the paper: “It was exhausting. You have to make a lot of very big decisions financially and otherwise at a time when your mind is kind of reeling.”

3. In another kit, keep a change of underwear and clothes, toiletries, a supply of medications, extra prescription glasses or contact lenses and perhaps any small irreplaceable jewelry or heirlooms you would not want to live without.

Make a list in advance of other irreplaceable items you’d take depending on the time you have to evacuate and space you have in your vehicle. If there’s little time, grab your essential kits and go. If there’s more time, grab the items you’ve prioritized.

4. Don’t forget to set aside a stash of cash.

It’s key in times of disaster, and you want to have a good amount on hand in one of your kits.

5. If you have pets, keep a bag of food, pet meds and other essentials near your document and clothing kits.

You can rotate the food and meds, so they don’t become outdated.

6. Plan on exactly what electronics you want to take — phone, laptops, tablets.

And keep extra cords and chargers in your kit.

AFTER THE DISASTER

1. Keep a detailed journal starting the day of the wildfire, flood or any disaster that hits your home.

Consumer advocates say meticulous notes will help the insurance claim process go more speedily and accurately. A diary should be updated daily with the dates, times and names of those you spoke with by phone or met with, including insurers, adjusters and contractors, plus a brief entry of what was said. Keep an envelope with all receipts that document your living expenses from the time you had to evacuate. According to Amy Bach of United Policyholders, receipts for temporary housing and other living expenses will document your additional living costs that are reimbursable.

2. Even if your house has been totally destroyed, it is essential that you take pictures of the damage.

If it’s too painful, Bach says, ask a friend or relative to do it for you. Such photos, even if they show only a remaining foundation, can help indicate the size and shape of the home and damage sustained.

Above all, be vigilant when dealing with the aftermath of a wildfire or other disaster. Remember, when you’re dealing with claims adjusters and agents who are burdened with dozens or hundreds of cases under time pressure, you need to be your own best advocate.

When the Culinary Student Becomes the Teacher…

Facebook is mostly annoying, but it does have some perks — not the least of which is reconnecting with old friends. This is the story of one such incident that happened a few years ago.

A former student reached out via Facebook and invited me to eat at her restaurant. In my past life as a culinary instructor, I had hundreds of students, but this one stood out, as the best ones always do. She was not in love with pastry making, as I recall, but she passed it with a determined attitude.

My husband and I drove out to her kaiseki restaurant, n/naka, in Culver City and enjoyed what was surely one of our top five meals of all time. I was familiar with kaiseki but had never experienced it. It is the most formal type of Japanese dining, blending two culinary traditions — that of the temples and that of the palaces. From the Buddhist temples and tea ceremony comes an economically restrained preparation of food, intended to highlight the natural essence of each ingredient. The more opulent cuisines of the imperial court and the samurai household include multiple courses of ornate, costly ingredients. Modern kaiseki chefs weigh these two principles, mix in a keen awareness of local micro-seasons with a dash of foraging and highlight local ingredients to present a culinary story of a particular time and place. The meal typically hovers around 13 courses presented in a prescribed order, but the chef is free to add or subtract courses based on the season, region and personal style. Portions are small, delicate and presented on special dishes designed to visually represent the terroir. It is widely accepted that French nouvelle cuisine was inspired by kaiseki, and that is certainly possible, although I have never met a French chef as thoughtful as my former student.  Her work is intricate, deliberate and amazing.

After the meal, she came out and asked if I would offer her a critique of the meal, especially the dessert portion. I wrote up a short summary of observations, and we met for lunch. I learned that she was to be featured in a documentary series that was about to drop on Netflix, and she was expecting a surge in business. She was not happy with her current dessert offerings (she was still baking off the notes from my class some 20  years earlier) and, after hearing my suggestions, she asked if I could just come and cook for her for a little while.

I was stunned.

I’d been out of formal fine dining for decades. And although there were a few bakery jobs here and there, none of them featured tablecloths. I had mostly been earning my keep as a food writer and occasional culinary teacher. But I certainly knew how to do it. And it just so happened that I was between gigs, having tried, unsuccessfully, to switch careers with a newly minted masters degree in art history. Also, my nest was recently emptied. So I was happy to have something to do besides sobbing in a fetal position in alternating empty kids’ rooms. I agreed to help, intending to work for a few months to set up a pastry program, then move on.

That was three years ago. This month, with mixed emotions, I am saying goodbye.

I am finally getting a chance to use my new degree, teaching in a real college that gives degrees (unlike culinary schools, whose motives I will forever question). Though I will always keep my fingers (so to speak) in the food business, I am anxious to do something a little more personally meaningful. Not that cooking can’t be meaningful — it’s just that there is a limit to the satisfaction I can get from making fancy food for rich people.

There is another reason I am looking forward to stepping back. I am feeling my age. My feet, back and various bodily joints hurt more and more each month. My flour allergy (yes, a baker with a flour allergy) is getting harder and harder to manage. Also, I’m tired of getting up at 4 in the morning, and falling asleep at 7:30 at night — I basically have no nightlife (that is, it’s night when I never go out).    

My age has manifested also in the work I do. I have become a culinary curmudgeon. I was trained in the ’80s, which is a culinary light-year away from what’s happening on the scene now. I have never wanted to be an overly fussy tweezer chef, I am not interested in newfangled techniques, I fear fancy equipment and I loathe everything molecular and architectural. I don’t need a Thermomix to magically blend and cook my custards; I have a stove and a bowl and a whisk. I don’t need a silicone mat to line my baking sheets; I have parchment paper. I don’t want to use stabilizers or liquid nitrogen in my ice creams; I consider that cheating. I am not a chef who embraces change. I am the Grumpy Old Man of the restaurant world. Get off my (culinary) lawn!

That said, I have learned some things — a little about Japanese tradition, and a lot about myself. I became a faster and more efficient cook. I learned how to be more frugal in my work. I learned to appreciate ingredients in a new way and gained respect for the most mundane elements of my pantry. (I can work magic with rye flour and a lemon now.) I learned that greatness has nothing to do with size, or gender, or ethnicity, or funding; rather it is about heart, empathy, stamina and determination. I learned that I am not alone in my disdain for the “female chef” moniker, and that we’d all just like to be plain ol’ regular chefs. I learned that the student can, in fact, surpass the teacher. Often. And always in the sweetest, most delightful ways.

But most important, I learned that, despite everything, at 53 I can still throw down. And I probably still will. In a month or so I will miss it and have regret, because that’s how I roll. I try stuff, get bored and move on. I’m lucky I am able to do that, and lucky to have always loved my work. I realize most of the world doesn’t live that way, and I am grateful.

I have met my replacement. She is about 20 years younger than I am. She is well trained and well traveled. She has a great attitude and a sunny disposition. She’ll be amazing.

Thank you for everything, Niki-san.


n/naka’s Matcha Sablé

I’ve turned to this recipe time and again, because it exemplifies buttery shortbread while, at the same time, honoring the traditional flavor of matcha. In case you didn’t know, matcha is the powdered green tea used in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. When I started my career, matcha could only be found in Little Tokyo or via mail order. Now you can get it at Ralph’s. 


Ingredients

12 ounces (3 sticks) unsalted butter

1¼ cups powdered sugar

2¾ cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon matcha powder

Method

1. Don’t bother sifting anything. Just combine it all in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, and blend slowly — for 3 to 5 minutes — until it forms a dough. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, press into a disc and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. (Dough can be stored in the fridge for a week, or if frozen, much longer.)

2. To bake, preheat oven to 350° and line a baking sheet with parchment paper (or a silicone mat — for you modernists). Remove the dough from the fridge, and knead it slightly until pliable. Roll out on a dusted work surface to a quarter-inch thick, and cut into desired shape. (Alternatively, you can roll the dough into logs, chill for an hour, then slice into coins.) Set onto prepared baking sheet a half-inch apart (they don’t spread much), and bake for 20 minutes, turning the pan halfway through baking for even browning. Cool completely before removing from the tray. Serve with a cool glass of milk, or a not-too-sweet dish of vanilla ice cream. Simplicity is delicious.


Leslie Bilderback is a chef and cookbook author, a certified master baker and an art history instructor. She lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.

The only university museum of art from Asia and the Pacific Islands reopens after extensive renovations.

Many have passed the two-story Chinese-style building on North Los Robles Avenue in Old Pasadena and wondered, What’s behind those thick beige walls topped with a green-tiled roof, curled up at the edges? A mural on the side wall provides clues — a large dragon with a twisting body, red stalks of bamboo and a seal-shaped sign containing the words “Pacific Asia Museum.” Now under the auspices of the University of Southern California, the Pacific Asia Museum (PAM) is the only university museum dedicated to the arts of Asia and the Pacific Islands, and it reopened in December after a year-and-a-half of seismic retrofitting and renovations.

I enter the reception area through an arched portal, and Christina Yu Yu, the museum’s director for the last three years, comes down from upstairs offices to greet me.  We start our interview in the first gallery of the current show — Winds from Fusang: Mexico and China in the Twentieth Century, running through June 10 as part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time LA/LA initiative focusing on Latin American and Latino art. We talk about some of the changes that have taken place, including the most obvious one: the removal of the old gift shop — it used to be in the large space where we are now seated — to make way for exhibition space.  (But don’t worry; a smaller gift shop will be installed by the entrance desk.) 

“Our mission is to promote cross-cultural understanding, through arts and culture,” says Yu Yu, a former curator of Chinese and Korean art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “How to make it happen, I think there are different strategies: before, we were very much a community-focused museum, and that is something we are still very committed to — we want to introduce Asian arts and culture to Southern California.  Now that we are part of USC, [we want] to be integrated into the curriculum, that is something we’ve added.” One thing they’re working on, for example, is an augmented reality experience for visitors, possibly involving their cellphones. This collaboration with the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Information Technology Program will be “like a treasure hunt.”

The building itself has long held a special place in the cultural history of Pasadena. It was built in 1924 for Grace Nicholson, an art collector and dealer who specialized in Native American and Asian art and artifacts. The architectural firm of Marston, Van Pelt & Maybury designed it in the style of a Chinese nobleman’s mansion, replete with a central courtyard containing a garden and a small pond.  To ensure authenticity, Nicholson ordered some of the materials — including ceramic tiles, stone and marble carvings — directly from China; other architectural details were made by local craftsmen who studied photographs of Chinese buildings. When the building opened, the downstairs rooms functioned as an art gallery and shop, while the second floor was Nicholson’s home.

In 1943 she donated the building to the City of Pasadena, retaining the right to live there until her death in 1948. Later it was occupied by the Pasadena Art Institute, which in 1954 became the Pasadena Art Museum.  In 1970 that museum moved to Orange Grove and Colorado boulevards and became part of the Norton Simon Museum.  The following year, the Pacificulture Foundation moved into the Nicholson building, starting the Pacific Asia Museum and eventually purchasing the property.

Small museums are notoriously difficult to sustain financially, unless they have a hefty endowment, and this one did not. After years of financial struggle as a nonprofit, the museum came under the umbrella of USC in 2013, a move that brought in more than $1 million to help underwrite the museum’s operating costs through its transitional period. USC also paid for an overall evaluation of the physical facilities, which led to the recent retrofitting and renovations; those cost another few million (the museum declines to reveal exactly how much).  In addition to the retrofitting, the university also improved collections storage spaces, reinstalled the permanent exhibition and began a thorough inventory of holdings. Ultimately, the museum is expected to be self-sustaining.

Visitors enter the museum building from the north wing, where the admissions desk and reception area are located. (The special exhibition galleries are in the south wing.) From there, a series of small galleries introduces visitors to Pacific Island, South Asian and Southeast Asian art, with the large galleries at the end of this wing dedicated to China, Japan and Korea. “We have 15,000 items in our collection,” Yu Yu says. “Geographically we cover all the regions in Asia, and chronologically, our oldest pieces are from 4,000 years ago. We have Neolithic pottery, and we also have contemporary art.” While museum officials will eventually pursue more acquisitions, their immediate focus is on exhibitions and programming.

There are a number of outstanding items on display in the permanent collection, and Yu Yu highlights them during a walkthrough. From India is a medium-size second-century sandstone sculpture showing a “loving couple,” as the label says. “This is actually one of the earliest stone sculptures in Southern California,” she points out.

In the Chinese section, her attention veers toward a blue-and-white plate, with a qilin, a lion-like mythical animal, painted in the center. It dates from the late Yuan to early Ming periods (i.e., the early 14th century) and reflects a Persian influence in its decorative border and use of cobalt blue. “It’s one of the most important pieces here,” says Yu Yu. In the Japan section, there are several classical woodblock prints, including the iconographic South Wind, Clear Sky by Katsushika Hokusai. This is the close-up of Mt. Fuji under a lacy canopy of clouds, part of a famous series depicting the majestic mountain from different angles.

The temporary Winds from Fusang exhibition explores a little-known topic — the interchange between Chinese and Mexican artists that occurred in the 1930s and then again in the 1950s, after China had become a Communist nation. The show was co-curated by Yu Yu and guest curator Shengtian Zheng, a veteran Chinese art scholar and curator based in Vancouver.

During an exhibition preview, Zheng explained the show’s inspiration. “Fusang is not a real place,” he said. “In Chinese mythology, it’s a mysterious place in the East.” For the Chinese in the 20th century, Mexico seemed a faraway and exotic place. In the 1930s Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias visited China twice, and several of his stylized illustrations are in the show, as well as works by Chinese artists who emulated him. Then in 1956, the touring exhibition National Front of Plastic Arts of Mexico: An Exhibition of Paintings and Prints introduced more than 60 Mexican artists to a Chinese audience, starting in Beijing. The show included works by Diego Rivera, Xavier Guerrero, Leopoldo Méndez, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. That year Siqueiros himself made a trip to China, meeting important officials such as Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, as well as a number of Chinese artists.

The exhibition shows their correspondence and pamphlets, actual artworks included in the 1956 exhibition, as well as art by Chinese artists influenced by the show. “This exhibition had a strong impact on Chinese muralists,” says Zheng. One was Yunsheng Yuan, who designed a major mural for the Beijing International Airport in 1979. Yuan had visited the minority Dai people in Yunnan Province, and his mural showed them celebrating the Water Splashing Festival, much as the Mexican muralists had celebrated the life and culture of indigenous peoples in their own country. The Chinese mural turned out to be a controversial one, since it showed nude figures.