Saturday, September 30, 2006

Peanuts on my mind

September 23

On the 21st I landed in Atlanta and was picked up by people from the Peanut Advisory Board for a ride to South Georgia in probably the coolest bus I've ever been in. Refrigerator, microwave, sink, tables for eating, seats facing the front of the bus for anti-social time and long couches facing either side of the bus for socializing.
I caught up with former Boston Market chef Bob Karisny, who's now a consultant in Denver. Among other things he tests recipes for the Peanut people. I also caught up with Brent Frei, who used to work with the American Culinary Federation and now is a publicist based in Chicago. I see him a lot, though, most recently at the ACF conference in Philadelphia this summer, so we didn't need to catch up much. Mostly I gossiped instead.
Also on the trip were a couple of other American food writers, four Canadian journalists, including three French-speaking Quebecoises, some chefs, a food historian and a duckling salesman.
I don't remember why the duckling salesman was there, so don't ask. He was a nice guy, at any rate.
In theory we were in the Georgia for a peanut harvest tour, but drought had delayed the peanuts' growth and they weren't ready to be picked.
But we still started the tour with a visit to the farm of David Reed in Hawkinsville, who obligingly used his machinery to lift up, shake and flip a couple of rows of peanut plants so we could look at them. We also brushed some of them off and tasted them. They're good; quite like peas. I can imagine local chefs from the sandy coastal plains where peanuts grow — an area that stretches along the coast from Virginia down the Atlantic and over to the Gulf of Mexico to Mississippi — using them for seasonal specials. Steamed, maybe. I wonder if peanut farmers could market them that way and sell them for a premium. As it is, Mr. Reed said prices for peanuts were so low that it looked like they'd lose money on them this year.
While this discussion was going on, we were being swarmed with gnats, who seemed to be fascinated by our faces and ears.
I found Mr. Reed's son to be fascinating. A former banker, he had a bachelor's degree in finance and a master's in vocal music. He figured he was the only opera-singing farmer in his part of South Georgia. These days he sings at church mostly. The food historian suggested he learn some Jewish songs so he could be a wedding singer. I said I thought that the demand for performers at Jewish weddings in South Georgia was probably not very high, and the opera singer agreed.
Then we visited a peanut-butter factory, where I learned that spectrometers check the color of peanut pieces that go into chunky peanut butter so that their color matches the color of the peanut butter overall.
We checked into our hotel in Albany, Ga. (pronounced al-BIN-ny or all-BEE-nee, depending on who you talk to), and then went to the Peanut Institute — peanut producers' research arm and, after a brief DVD presentation on the health qualities of peanuts, we enjoyed light refreshments and toured the institute, where there was a wide variety of peanut memorabilia and pictures of Jimmy Carter.
But the highlights of that visit were the crab dip, with cream cheese and cocktail sauce, and the pickled okra wraps.
Imagine crunchy pickled okra wrapped in flour tortillas with mild cheese and other flavorings and then sliced thinly. The presentation, including cross-sections of okra, was great.
And I know the crab dip sounds mundane, but it was superb.
My favorite thing to witness was the way one of the Quebecoise journalists managed a food allergy. Looking at the crab dip, she said that, as a Canadian, she was unfamiliar with this food and was curious to know what was in it. I never would have known she was allergic to seafood if her companions hadn't ratted her out, showing they didn't understand the incredible dignity with which their compatriot was avoiding anaphylactic shock without drawing attention to herself or embarrassing her hosts.
It was a great moment in social etiquette ruined by clueless people.
I don't think she minded, but she still got her companions back by convincing them that they had been entered as contestants in a peanut princess beauty contest to be held on Sunday.
For dinner, at AJ's Seafood & Oyster Bar, I had delicious fried catfish and I finally came to understand the point of fried green tomatoes. At AJ's the cook them enough to release some of the sweetness in the tomatoes. Delicious!
The next day we went to Tifton to visit a buying point — where peanuts are bought, cleaned of much of their rocks and stems and suck, graded and sent to be shelled. And in the afternoon we went to a shelling plant in Smithville, where we saw the shelling and sorting machines. Basically, after peanuts are shelled they're shaken and shaken and shaken and shaken to be sorted by size as they drop through various gratings. It's loud, but easier than picking through them by hand.
Between those tours we went to the Coastal Plains Experiment Station in Tifton, where the best thing I learned is how to tell if a peanut is ripe: rub away some of the beige colored hull. It should be dark brown underneath.
But the highlight of the day was unbelievably good barbecue at the experiment station. Pulled pork and ribs and Brunswick stew and so on. Followed by pecan pie.
Okay, I guess the highlight of the day actually was meeting my favorite ex-president, Jimmy Carter, who greeted us at the community center in his hometown of Plains.
We waited outside with him, and were handed little hand fans to shoo away the gnats. I had always thought that when I had seen southerners slowly waving themselves with fans, they were cooling themselves off. A slow wave of the fan is not very effective at doing that, but it certainly keeps the gnats off of your face. The only drawback is that the fans don't actually kill the gnats, something I wanted to do desperately at that point.
President Carter arrived before too long. He posed for a picture with us and then we went inside for sweet tea, lemonade and various peanut products. Shrimp cocktail, too. I'm not sure why.
At the shelling plant they had given us peanut butter pie after our tour, yet we still managed to enjoy the snacks as well as dinner, which we ate at the haunted Windsor Hotel in Americus. Being in Georgia, I ordered the pecan crusted salmon with peach marmalade. It seemed like the thing to do.
The next day was the Plains Peanut Festival — the 10th annual, if I remember correctly. I had lost my fan, so I shooed gnats away with my hand while I sampled sandwiches of barbecued pulled pork. Some VIP bleachers had been set up along the parade route and we were instructed that those bleechers were, in fact, for us.
The parade was fascinating, and lasted for a relentless 35 minutes as car after car of beauty queens in three categories went by. There were a variety of Miss fillintheblanks, as well as junior misses and tiny misses. There were shriners, too, and people from retirement homes, and members of the local ROTC and urban league.
Chris Koetke, the dean of Kendall College in Chicago and one of my fellow peanut harvest tourists, observed that all of the members of the ROTC and urban league were black, and that all of the beauty queens were white.
None of the beauty queens, it turned out, were Quebecoise.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

My Swedish friends

September 27

So many interesting stories, so much non-blog work to do. Tales of my trip below the gnat line in Georgia (where I hung out with Jimmy Carter), of the things I ate at an omasake [sic] dinner at Sushi Samba, of the glorious opening of Porter House New York, of the redacted Roman food I just had at the French Culinary Institute and discussions of New York's plan to ban trans-fats, all will have to wait, but I have news, and the publicists know I have news, so alas it won’t wait until next Wednesday when I'd report it in my little column in The New York Sun. I've already submitted it to NRN online, so you might be able to read it there if our news gods deem it worthy, and it will be in the October 9 issue of NRN, the magazine, but why let the New York publicists leak it to competitors when it's mine? Why should I do that when I can tell New York first?

So here it is:
Nils Noren is not the executive chef at Aquavit anymore (people associate the restaurant with celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, but he's chef-owner and hasn't managed the kitchen on a day-to-day basis in years). Noren is now vice president of culinary arts at The French Culinary Institute, where he's replacing Alain Sailhac who is taking an emeritus position. Replacing Noren at Aquavit is Johan Svensson, who opened Marcus Samuelsson and Håken Swahn's other restaurant, Riingo.
The new executive chef at Riingo is Jimmy Lappalainen, who was a line cook at Aquavit from 2000 to 2002 before returning home to Sweden for a spell (his surname's Finnish, but he's Swedish). Most recently he was chef de cuisine at Frederick's and Frederick's Lounge, both in Midtown.

Thank you.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Secret food section

September 21

What if you launched a food section in your publication and didn't tell anyone?
The Onion has done that.
Really, it's a city section, but there's a fair amount of food in there.
The Onion, of course, is best known for its satire news stories, but its middle section, the A.V. Club, has long been a place of serious reviews of music and books and such. The city section is like that, too.
So if you live in New York, pick up a copy today. It's free, and I have an article on Thai food in there this week.

Chefs Congress

September 20

The United Nations General Assembly has been meeting in New York, which is a real drag for those of us who work in Midtown East. But I've been on the West Side at another gathering, the inaugural International Chefs Congress.
Isn't that a great name? Chefs Congress. How important!
It was a bunch of demonstrations and seminars and a little trade show. But the demonstrations I saw were quite interesting and engaging, all done by cutting-edge, famous chefs (famous for chefs, at least).
Despite the lack of air conditioning, it was a good event, at least what I managed to attend. I had to skip most of today's festivities to finish up NRN's Culinary Currents section.
I was a little annoyed that the guy interpreting for French pastry chef Pascal Barbot refused to say what the chef kept repeating, that the recipes he was demonstrating were all about respecting the integrity of the ingredients. The interpretor wouldn't say it. He just wouldn't. Maybe he thought that notion was just the bizarre ramblings of an overly artistic French prima dona, but if you're an interpretor, you're not supposed to edit (or not much).
Besides, using great ingredients and not doing much to them -- respecting the ingredients' integrity -- is where American food is going (and where Italian food, and to a lesser extent French food, has been for generations).
But I was mostly there to hang out with the chefs anyway. And I met a few that I'd only interviewed over the phone before, like John Critchley at Toro in Boston and Scott Boswell of Stella in New Orleans, so that was cool.
I'd meant to introduce myself to a guy who works for Joel Robuchon and who asked Jose Andres, after his demonstration, about spherification (when you use sodium alginate and calcium chloride to make globules; perhaps the most widespread use of molecular gastronomy, unless you count those ubiquitous foam canisters), but I didn't get around to it. Oh well.
But here's something interesting. Tonight at a big reception -- the Rising Stars Revue, thrown by, which also held the congress -- I chatted with Tony Esnault, the chef at Alain Ducasse at The Essex House. To be honest, one reason I stopped to chat was because at the Beard Awards reception in May I felt like I might have snubbed him, but of course I also wanted to talk to him because this week first and then the New York Post reported emphatically, emphatically, that the restaurant was closing. So I asked him what his plans were. He brushed off the notion of Ducasse closing as a ridiculous rumor, and one that has been floating around since the place opened (which is true).
So if Ducasse closes soon I'll know not to believe Tony Esnault when it comes to business plans, but I'll still interview him about food. He knows his stuff.

One other random thing. In Polish, if people know each other really well, they say they know each other like bald horses. Where on earth could that have come from?

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Lonesome publicist

September 19

Interesting opening party for Lonesome Dove last night, and not because some of us got to brand a cabinet with our initials.
No, it was interesting because the party was thrown by PR company Bullfrog & Baum and one of the first people I saw there was from another PR firm, Baltz & Co.
"This isn't your party," I said.
"We're going to start representing them," he said. "Shhh."
He said "Shhh," to a journalist. I don't shoosh well, and if I wrote for a publication with a name like New York Publicists Gossip Sheet that bit of information would have been in it now, especially since several Baltz folks told me the same story and then shooshed me. Then I was told by one Baltzian that the shift from Bullfrog & Baum was amicable. Who am I to call him a liar?
I don't write for the New York Publicists Gossip Sheet, and I don't know where one goes to read about the New York restaurant PR world, but I think some of the readers of this blog our interested in such things.
So there you have it.

Friday, September 15, 2006

"authentic Pan-Asian street food"

September 15

I wouldn't have noticed today's featured stupid press release at all if it hadn't invoked the name of NoPa, the little section of San Francisco just north of the panhandle of Golden Gate Park where my good friends Craig and Susan Stuart live. I sent the release to Craig without reading it, thinking, regardless of what it said, that he'd enjoy hearing about a new restaurant in his neighborhood. Craig made thoughtful observations about the place, of which he was already familiar and where he had picked up Asian chicken salad for his babysitter, but he hadn't eaten there himself yet.
I gave the release another look.
Here's how it release starts: "A trek North of the Panhandle now doubles as a tropical getaway ... where enlightenment seekers are revitalizing their spirits through authentic Pan-Asian street food, holistic teas, and eclectic music."
To be fair, south of the panhandle is hippie mecca Haight-Ashbury, so if people are starting there, perhaps they are trekkers seeking enlightenment, but the release, of a restaurant that claims to be Balinese and declares that it's serving "authentic Pan-Asian street food," goes on to talk about the Balinese concept of duality and quotes one of the owners, whose surname sounds Indonesian, so he could be Balinese, as saying his eatery (and tea lounge, don't forget the tea lounge) "is more than just a restaurant, it's a notion of living."
I mean, come on.
And how can you be Balinese and authentically Pan-Asian at the same time? How can you be authentically Pan-Asian? Is that like Continental, only a different continent?
Craig and I worked together in Thailand for five years and did a fair amount of traveling during that time and so we are, oh, let's say skeptical, of claims of authenticity at any restaurants trying to invoke pretty much anything Asian. But Craig, being a better person than I, and of much more generous character, was willing to reserve judgment on the food's quality.
But what kind of chicken salad does a Pan-Asian eat? And what's Balinese about it?

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Don’t go out during fashion week

September 14

I mean, who are these people?
I started yesterday evening by going to the opening of Ferro’s, which apparently is a new restaurant at the Kimberly Hotel. I’d just been invited the night before; I guess they were waiting until after the Wednesday food sections’ deadlines to tell anyone but the New York Times that the restaurant was opening. That’s a common practice. The Times likes to have exclusives and restaurants like to be mentioned in the Times. It’s a symbiotic relationship that’s really annoying to everyone else.
Annoying enough that my boss, Pam Parseghian, and I were the only food media I noticed there.
I have no idea, none, who anyone else was but they were all dressed bizarrely: Shiny shirts cut like smoking jackets, Asian women wearing jean short-shorts and tight-fitting tops that for some reason reminded me of Bavarian bräuhaus waitress uniforms. Paris Hilton hair.
I really can’t do it justice, but when I asked the publicist this morning who attended I was told they were “Mostly social people” and was sent a link with captioned photos of attendees. I still didn’t know who anyone was (except for Benihana founder Rocky Aoki and an aged Gina Lollabrigida) so I forwarded it to colleagues who read Page 6 and follow who the hip DJs are and so on. They were no help.
The invitation asked me to “join Robert De Niro” and others at the party, but I guess Bob had other plans.

So 45 minutes of that was enough, even though the stuffed grape leaves and roasted vegetables were tasty, and the cheese was pretty good, too.
I hopped on the subway to SoHo to attend the opening of the Alessi store, because Joe, a coffee house I've been meaning to try, had opened an outlet in the store.
From what I learned at the party between strange conversations with an apparent coke head who claimed to have been partying for the past two days, one benefit of attending the Ferro’s opening was that I missed the long line to get into the Alessi shop earlier on.
Outside, it was a beautiful, slightly cool late summer evening. Inside it was sweltering, and Mr. Coke Head was mopping my brow with paper napkins and periodically holding my glass of Pinot Grigio for me as he insisted I sample another Parmesan crisp or piece of prosciutto wrapped around a breadstick. I tried to explain to him that I had enough experience at parties to hold a glass of wine and an hors d'oeuvre at the same time, but he was uninterested and instead chattered about the rich guy of whom he was the (or perhaps a) kept man. A billionaire, apparently. Maybe I should have accepted his invitation to dinner, but then again maybe not.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Michelin and me

September 13

Just as I'll go to a party simply to go to a party, sometimes I'll interview people just because they're around.
So I didn't tell the CEO of Left Bank restaurants that I'd already written my story on chains using local produce (look for it in NRN's September 25 issue) until after I'd interviewed him. I saved the notes, and maybe I'll be able to write something about the company later.
And I didn't have any particular agenda for my interview with Michelin guide director Jean-Luc Naret today. I mean, if he were going to tell me what restaurants in San Francisco and New York were getting what stars before everyone else, I'd certainly report on that, but Monsieur Naret is not a stupid man.
I did learn that the San Francisco guide covers an area stretching from San Jose to wine country and into the East Bay and features about 350 restaurants, compared to New York's 500. I learned that the New York edition will have a special section of inspectors' favorites — good-value restaurants with average per-person checks under $40.
And I learned that chefs often contact Michelin before they talk to the press about plans to refurbish their restaurants.
Heston Blumenthal, probably the world's #2 practitioner (going by reputation alone) of molecular gastronomy (after Ferran Adrià), wanted to show M. Naret his business plan for The Fat Duck, his 3-star restaurant in Bray, England.

Dubai and the Jersey Shore north of Asbury Park

September 13

I went to the reopening of Picholine last night — it had closed early last August for redecoration — and so, it seemed, did everybody else. Rather than stand in line for cheese I sipped Taittinger rosé and chatted with Josh Ozersky about deckle, also known as calotte de boeuf if you've ever worked for Thomas Keller, and his position as online food editor for New York magazine. His site goes live shortly so stay tuned.
Around the time that the party was scheduled to end I sat down with Melanie Young et al., and shortly thereafter we were joined by an ebullient David Burke, who declared that Dubai and the Jersey Shore north of Asbury Park were major growth areas (he just opened David Burke Fromagerie in Rumson, N.J., and has plans to open something in Dubai).
Later, after the party had officially ended, David Burke pulled our table over to connect with Picholine chef-owner Terrance Brennan's and someone (probably Melanie) asked him what the next hot dessert would be. He said it would have something to do with ingredients that made it easier for you to sleep. Mr. Brennan asked him what his next restaurant would be and he said Hawaiian Tropic Zone was about to open in Times Square. I mentioned that people were surprised that he was teaming up with Dennis Riese on the project and he asked if people hadn't also been surprised when he joined forces with Alan Stillman. He had a point.

What else I learned at the party: the publicists who threw it are going to launch a blog, to be called Bullfrog & Blog.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006


September 6

I think I threw away the invitation to go to the press reception promoting the Bermuda Gourmet Getaway, but then the publicist e-mailed me asking me to stop by, and I had no other plans tonight, so I went, and I ended up having a good time. It was in Gourmet magazine's private dining room, and I met chef Jean-Louis Gerin and got to know Katy Sparks better. It turns out that Katy's a neighbor of mine; we both live on Union Street in Park Slope, though she's in the cool part near 5th Avenue and I'm in the part that's an Upper West Side colony of angry, overprotective parents on political diets ("I only eat sustainable food") near Grand Army Plaza, although she's a former Food Co-op member and I'm not, and she has kids and I don't.
Katy's the corporate chef for Great Performances, a sort of catering company that operates a bunch of restaurants attached to cultural institutions, like museums and the Asia Society. As she expressed pleasure at the accuracy with which Gourmet's kitchen duplicated her food, we talked about the transition successful chefs often have to make as the move from someone who cooks to a manager who develops food for other people to cook. It reminded me of a joke Bobby Flay made that for a celebrity chef, cooking means handing someone a recipe. She said she thinks the restaurants to go to are the ones run by up-and-coming chefs, who still have fire in their bellies and aren't yet trying to brand themselves.
Interestingly in her blog today Jennifer Leuzzi said pretty much the same thing.
So then the speeches started. There were only two, and the main one was from Doctor the Honorable Ewart E. Brown, J.P., M.P, who is Bermuda's deputy premier and the minister of tourism and transport. He was wearing a truly excellent beige double-breasted suit.
Dr. Brown was a young journalist in Washington during the Watergate years, and then he practiced medicine in Los Angeles for 20 years, and finally he returned home and became a government official. Not too shabby.
I ended up closing down the party as I fell into conversation with Steve Mumford, a former journalist who, as we journalists often say, "moved to the dark side" and now sells ads. He transitioned from working for a trade publication (Builder) to a consumer magazine (Better Homes and Gardens) where he went from writing about redecorating to writing about tech (it was the late '90s) and eventually jumped the fence with a move to New York, to Playboy, to sell ads.
And from there he went to Gourmet.
People are interesting.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

As a publicist you make a good ditch digger

September 5

Reviewing some press releases today, I noticed that one misspelled the name of the street of the restaurant it was supposed to be promoting. Another misnamed that oh-so-popular HBO TV series, Sex and the City. The release called it Sex in the City. I know that’s a small thing, but editors can be small people, and very pedantic ones when it comes to things like spelling and, you know, getting names right.
Then again, careless if asinine mistakes like that won’t keep me from writing about something if it’s interesting. What will is a release that doesn’t say anything. I have before me an e-mail about an event that a restaurant is holding. It tells me when the event will be. It says it is being held at the restaurant — it doesn't say where the restaurant is, but I suppose I could look that up on the restaurant’s web site. I won’t, but I could. It says proceeds for the event would go to local charities — vague, but I’ll take it. But it doesn't say what the event would be.


Friday, September 01, 2006

the scent of a psychopathic, totalitarian murderer

September 1

Bringing a scent for a perfume critic to smell at dinner is about as rude as exposing your backside to a proctologist at dinner. And yet I did it last night, and Chandler Burr, the New York Times' new scent critic, with whom I was having dinner at Ruby Foo's on the Upper West Side, didn't seem to mind.
Well, I mean, he didn't mind me handing him the cologne. The cologne itself he minded a lot.
"This is the scent form of Stalinism," he declared. He elaborated about it destroying creativity and repressing freedom and so on.
We agreed it was a good enough description that he pulled out his palm pilot and wrote it down to use in his column.
He further compared it to the scent of a burning oil well in the desert. 0 stars.

My colleagues hated it, too. On-Site editor Elissa Elan tried to spray a little bit on a piece of paper and managed somehow to produce an irredeemably strong smell that spread for cubicles and cubicles. Executive food editor Pam Parseghian said it smelled like a grandmother and wondered if it had gone rancid.

Deputy managing editor Paul Frumkin just spritzed some on his wrist and ran to wash it off.
I still kind of like it.
It did just make me sneeze, though. Placebo effect, maybe.

What we ate:
Malaysian chicken pot stickers
fried shrimp dumplings
barbecued eel, avocado and cucumber roll
smoked and spicy salmon roll with chipotle-garlic sauce
Peking duck, and duck cooked a couple of otherways, too.
Green tea mochi, chocolate mint mochi, and a gigantic piece of chocolate cake.