Monday, November 24, 2008

When is a celebrity chef too much of a celebrity?

November 24

I created a bit of hubbub a couple of weeks ago, when I restated my dislike for Top Chef or, more accurately, since I don’t watch the show, my dislike for its fans — or more accurately still, since I have many friends who are fans and respect many others who are fans, some of its fans who have helped to bring the art of sycophantic idol worship and groupie-ism to the world of chefs.
I said it was bad for the restaurant industry, because it takes the focus away from the food.
New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni suggested I was being “a tad too grumpy.”
I was definitely being grumpy, and really the main point of that blog entry was not to criticize Top Chef but to offer a link to an interview I did of Jamie Lauren, a contestant in the current season, in case her fans wanted to read it.
And Top Chef’s not the only chef-related show that takes the focus away from the food. Hell’s Kitchen has introduced Gordon Ramsay to the mainstream world, but not as one of this planet’s greatest chefs, a reputation he enjoys within the snooty food world to which I belong, but as one with an extreme potty mouth. I’m sure many of the other food shows contribute to this as well, and in a way maybe they have to: Food is the only art form that uses all five senses, and television can only convey two of them. Unlike reality shows looking at other art forms — fashion in Project Runway, for example — the viewers of food shows can’t really have informed opinions about what the contestants are creating.
I've spoken to a bunch of people about the celebrity chef phenomenon, and about Top Chef. Some people defend the show, some say “I don’t like it either.”
But of course I can’t legitimately say I don't like it because I don’t watch it. I watch the throngs of glazed-eyed fans at food events hoping that Sam Talbot will raise his arms high enough that they’ll see his exposed belly. I know that when I hear and read people discuss the show, they don’t discuss the food, they talk about what a bitch Lisa is. The fact that I know about Lisa but not about her food illustrates my point.
“What about Perilla? Perilla’s good for the restaurant industry,” someone insisted a couple of nights ago.
Yes, I had a good meal at Howard Dieterle’s West Village restaurant, and his performance on Top Chef no-doubt helped make that restaurant happen.
Great, and I would never deny that Top Chef is good for the people who participate in it. But one restaurant (or even several — certainly I wish all of the Top Chef alumni who have opened restaurants all the success in the world) doesn’t make up for changing the tenor of dialogue in the restaurant world.
For years chefs have complained that kids coming out of cooking school think they’re ready to be the next Bobby Flay rather than to start training to be a line cook, and Frank Bruni said Top Chef could add fuel to that fire. Frank’s a better writer than I am, so I’ll just quote what he said: ”The show is yet another promise to young cooks that they can use, and should see, the role of chef as a road to celebrity. It gets them thinking more about mass-media glory — about big, quick fame — than about disciplined professionalism, dedication, sacrifice.”
Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio has taken umbrage at that, saying that the show is, in fact, a tough competition. I’m sure it is, but surely it can’t compare to the years, or decades, that chefs generally put into foodservice to really succeed.
I spoke to Iron Chef Cat Cora about this last week. She was in town promoting a new line of Simplot side dishes called Upsides. There she is on the right, doing a cooking demonstration with them.
She said that it was important to manage the expectations of culinary students. "I try really hard to stress that to a lot of teens,” she said, and pointed out that even the ones lucky enough to get on a reality TV show might not come across that well.
“There are instances when it can work well, but some kids go on reality shows and get beat up ... It’s rare that you’re going to be a megastar.”
If nothing else, you better have a Plan B, she said.
But maybe my whining is all for naught. After all, Americans are certainly getting more interested in food.
On the other hand, at some point in human history, actors were not celebrities. They were court jesters, traveling minstrels, Passion play performing missionaries. Now, actors seem to be the most important figures in the lives of many people who don’t even know them. Entire magazines, television shows, gossip columns and blogs are devoted to tracking their every movement. They get paid huge sums of money not just to appear in movies or on television, but to show up at parties or car dealership openings or whatever.
For the celebrity actors, I guess that’s great. It’s certainly lucrative, and if they didn’t want the fame they could be like Johnny Depp or Keanu Reeves and stay out of the public eye when they're not acting.
But since actors have become famous, has acting become better? Has the art itself improved?
I’m just asking.

PSA for a former colleague

November 24

Yesterday I said my next blog entry would be about celebrity chefs, but first I’d like to hand you a link to my former colleague Peter Romeo’s new blog, Restaurant Reality Check.
Peter headed up the Nation’s Restaurant News web site until last Tuesday, and he was the first guy to suggest that some of us should write blogs (he wrote The Scoop). I asked him what on earth I would write about that anyone else could possibly be interested in.
“Write about where you eat every night,“ he said. And that’s mostly what I do here.
So thanks, Peter, and best wishes.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

working weekend

November 23

I'm sorry for my week of silence. We had some staff cutbacks at the magazine, as you do during times of recession, and so the work loads of those of us still standing have been adjusted.
And so here I am, on a Sunday morning, working. I've been working all weekend here at the Inn at Palmetto Bluff in South Carolina, right near Hilton Head, covering the resort's second annual Lowcountry Celebration, hosted by celebrity chef Tyler Florence.
I've just come back from the spa, making sure the massage therapists are up to snuff. They are.
Okay, so this weekend hasn't been such a hardship. I'd agreed to come down here many weeks ago, and there was no reason to cancel my plans despite the layoffs in the company.
Layoffs are horrible, and if you currently have a job in the United States at a company where more than one person works, chances are good that you've already seen layoffs this year, or will see them sometime soon.
There's not a single nice thing to say about layoffs. If you're one of the people whose job was eliminated, well, you're out of a job. If you've kept your job, you'll be expected to get the same amount of work done with fewer people while dealing with survivor's guilt and the sadness that a bunch of your friend just lost their jobs. Add to that the awarenes that your job might be next and, well, it makes a temporary escape to a resort to eat and drink that much more worthwhile.
Palmetto Bluff is a four-year old community near the town of Bluffton on the banks of the May River. Nearly half of its 20,000 acres has been set aside for conservation projects, and the rest has been turned into a golf course, a spa, an equestrian center, a canoe house, plots of land on which people can build homes (plots go for $250,000-$3 million, with most in the $350,000-$1 million range). And then there's the resort, which consists of a lodge where reception, a lounge, the restaurant and a big porch are located, and a bunch of cottages stretched along a little pathway suitable for golf carts to drive down.
My particular cottage, #15 (picturd above), has a back porch and a very pleasant back yard that stops at the river.
I would be on that porch now (the view from it is on the right), but it has been un-seasonably cold during my visit — colder than I had expected. So last night during the traditional oyster roast I was wearing a t-shirt, a turtleneck, a button-down shirt, a cashmere sweater, a light pullover jacket and my new Inn at Palmetto Bluff fleece.
But the food was extraordinary. Bluffton is known for its oysters, and I'm told that the May River has both blue crabs and stone crabs.
But really the side dishes were the amazing part, and a reminder of how good southern food is -- nothing fancy, just food intended to taste good without any bullshit. It tasted like my paternal grandmother's food. She raised my dad in North Carolina and everything she made tasted like she meant for you, personally, to have a happier life for having eaten it.
That's what the food at Palmetto Bluff tasted like. So we had biscuits and gravy and squash spoonbread and the most delicious sunchoke & rainbow chard gratin, among other things. My favorite feature, because it was so obvious and yet I've never seen it before, was a chop bar, featuring venison chops, pork chops and wild boar chops. It should be a feature at every wedding.
The night before was possibly even better. It was a block party featuring straight-up southern food ranging from gumbo to she-crab soup to this sweet potato cornbread that you'd have to taste to believe. The editorial staff of Coastal Living, one of the sponsors of the festival, whipped up a batch of Southern-style cassoulet that did, indeed, taste like cassoulet, but with Southern-style pork.
Tyler Florence cooked the only really refined dish: a light yet creamy oyster stew.
I was actually wondering what the celebrity chef was doing there. The festival looked like it would have gone on just fine without him. But I later learned that he's actually a big fan of the resort, having been married there and, he speculates, made two children there.
The festival also featured a tasting tent and cooking demonstrations and late night campfires with marshmallows for making s'mores.
The weekend gave me a chance to ruminate more on the state of chefs these days and on how their celebrity is affecting the industry.
The day before I left for South Carolina I happened to meet another celebrity chef, Cat Cora, and I asked her about the phenomenon. I'll tell you what she said in my next blog entry.
But now I have to pack.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Leveraging social networking

November 14

I’m not big on instant messaging. It is to e-mail what a snap of the fingers in your face is to a gentle waving of the hand across a room.
But sometimes I like it. A few weeks ago when I was checking messages on my Facebook account, the IM bubble opened up and my old friend David Peters, whose wife just had a baby, wrote: “Bret, you’ve been online for more than a minute and haven’t told me how beautiful my daughter is. What’s wrong?”
There’s not much that’s sweeter than a kvelling father.
And yesterday when I was checking my Facebook account BLT Steak sommelier Brett Feore appeared in the IM bubble and asked me to check out his new blog. He’s trying to find the right style for it, so I gave him feedback and we chatted about other things.
And guess what? It turns out he’s not the sommelier at BLT Steak anymore. No, that position is now occupied by Rachael Rakes, a Philadelphia native who spent a number of years in San Francisco, first at Mecca (in The Castro), and then at The Last Supper Club (in The Mission).
She was a captain at BLT Steak when it opened in 2004, learned more about wine from Fred Dexheimer, who’s BLT’s national wine & beverage diretor, and then worked in Brooklyn at Marlow and Sons (that would be Williamsburg).
Then she went to college to get a degree in Middle Eastern Studies before coming back to BLT Steak after Brett Feore left.
So you see, social networking can be a good way to get news for your blog.

John Critchley’s new job

November 14

I didn’t meet John Critchley back in 2006 when I was at family-and-friends night at Toro, Ken Oringer’s tapas place in Boston, but I met his dad. John was in the kitchen, as Ken had tapped him as the restaurant’s chef de cuisine. But his dad seemed like a nice guy, so I figured I’d write a profile of his son.
I just happened to be in Boston for work that day, and so Ken’s publicist had suggested I stop by Toro.
I took my friend Michael Gerber and learned that, although Michael is a good New Englander who will pop any sea creature into his mouth with alacrity, he doesn’t really take readily to things like blood sausage and veal cheeks and tripe.
Like Michael, John Critchley is a native of Massachusetts. He has spent much of his career (relatively speaking — he’s only about 31) as a private chef for rich people. His love for the energy of professional kitchens brought him back to restaurants and under Oringer’s wing.
But he’s going off on his own now, to head up the food at Area 31, a restaurant scheduled to open in mid-December on the 16th floor of the Epic Hotel in Miami. The cuisine will be Mediterranean-inspired local seafood — specifically food from Fishing Area 31, which is basically the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and the waters off of Florida’s east coast. John shouldn’t have any trouble handling that.

Lamb brain &c.

November 14

I was at Bloomingdale Road to check out chef Ed Witt’s new chef’s table — a long 10-seat communal table close to the open kitchen, where Ed serves a six-course tasting menu for $55. Wine pairings start at $40.
Ed, whom you might remember as the executive chef at Varietal, likes playing with unusual ingredients, particularly weird cuts of meat, like lamb brain and pork neck. Actually, he said the bit of pork he cooked last night was a well-marbled cut between the shoulder and the neck. The way he described it, it sounded like the pig equivalent of beef’s top blade, also known as the flatiron.

What I ate and drank:

Raw Tasmanian salmon with porcini purée, pickled apple and fried rosemary
2005 Leopardi Cava Brut Rose

Concord grape-braised lamb cheeks with arugula, sunchokes, peeled grapes, braised lamb tongue and crispy lamb brain
2006 Domaine Lafond Lirac Blanc

Mackerel poached in duck fat and served on celery root purée with tarragon and macerated red onions
2006 Murphy Goode Chardonnay

Gray Horse Farm laying hen braised in red wine and served with pumpkin farfale and baby Brussels sprouts
2006 Estancia Pinot Noir

Spice-rubbed, slow roasted Clinton Corner Farm pork neck (or shoulder — in between, really), with chestnut, quince and escarole
2006 Argiolas Costera

Olive oil pound cake with cranberry ice cream and country ham (very small flecks of it).
2004 Arrowood Late Harvest Reisling

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Whither Tony Aiazzi?

November 12

Avid followers of the New York City restaurant scene have known for more than 30 hours that Christopher Lee is leaving his post as chef of Gilt to take over the kitchen of Aureole. It’s big news. Chris is an alumnus of Oceana from when Cornelius Gallagher was executive chef there, and then he built a name for himself in Philadelphia at what at the time was one of that city's landmark restaurants, Striped Bass.
He recently picked up two Michelin stars at Gilt, where he replaced Paul Liebrandt, and got other good press for himself there as well. Still, Aureole has one of the most respected kitchens in New York City and it’s a big move for Chris, who also has a newborn at home to take care of. Exciting times for the chap.
But I wondered what was going to happen to Aureole’s current executive chef, Tony Aiazzi, and so when I got the press release this morning — long after The New York Times broke the news online, the blogs went nuts and the scoop in print media for The Times was assured — I asked the publicist what Tony was going to be doing.
My question apparently cost him a bottle of wine, because he had bet the publicist that no one would ask.
Turns out he’s going to be taking some time off and traveling. He said he hopes to check out North African cuisine, as it has always interested him. He also expressed an interest in getting back to Paris, though, so if you happen to know of any restaurants there looking for an over-qualified stagiaire, let me know.

I talk turkey, literally

November 12

What a strange place Paris Commune is — a French bistro owned by a Chilean, an Englishman and a South African that for more than 20 years has managed to stay afloat in the West Village, largely, it seems to me, through robust weekend brunch business (which it recently started serving the other five days, too) and a neighborhood base whose loyalty transcended the 2004 move to a new location.
For the past six months, the restaurant’s owners have tried a new, long-term marketing scheme: The Red Rooster Club.
The concept was explained last night, at the sixth Red Rooster Club dinner, by the restaurant’s British owner, Laurence Isaacson.
Mr. Isaacson was once a multiunit restaurant operator, owning a bunch of British restaurants that specialized in steak frites. Back then he realized that it was very difficult to get press for a restaurant that isn’t doing anything new, so he created a Carnivores Club. He held regular dinners and showed up on television arguing with vegetarians and so on.
Seeing a similar dilemma for Paris Commune — an old place whose focus is more on having good rapport with its guests than on serving extraordinary food — he started the Red Rooster Club, to which an eclectic array of press and amusing people are invited for a brief lecture on poultry and a meal.
For the first such meal I attended, last month, Josh Ozersky gave a brief and entertaining analysis of duck in the American zeitgeist.
The second such meal I attended was last night, and I was the featured speaker. It being November, I had been asked to talk about turkey.
So I found Benjamin Franklin’s quotation about turkey, which he famously wanted to be our national symbol rather than the bald eagle, and I shared my own observations about turkey and our dual image of it as the centerpiece for our most decadent feast and also as the protein of virtue that we have instead of beef or pork in turkey burgers, turkey bacon, turkey sausage etc. And I concluded with the story of when I made Thanksgiving dinner for my American classmates as a student in China. If you’re good, I might share that story with you someday, too, deer reader [or rather, dear reader; sorry, Mark (see comment #1 below)].
This is what Benjamin Franklin said about turkeys, in a letter to his daughter, after disparaging the bald eagle as a scavenger and “a bird of bad moral character”:
“The turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America. … He is besides, though a little vain and silly, a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.”

What I ate:

Cranberry foie gras brûlée with toast points
Butternut sqush soup with cream, almonds and cinnamon
Orange-glazed smoked ham with creamy honey mustard sauce, oven roasted turkey with homemade gravy, stuffing and sweet pumpkin with candied walnut
Individual pecal tart with vanilla, Cognac and whipped cream

NASCAR at the Beard House

November 12

Did you know that NASCAR originated as a group of moonshiners trying to out-race law enforcement officers?
That’s what Peter Grills, food & beverage manager of Ballantyne Resort in Charlotte, N.C., told me the other night. I have no idea if it’s true, but isn’t it a great story?
And it makes sense, really.
Isn’t Peter Grills also a great name for an F&B manager?
The chefs of Gallery restaurant at the Ballantyne Resort, executive chef Kirk Gilbert and chef de cuisine J. Kelly Morrow, were cooking at the James Beard House. In an unusual move, the only wines served at the event were from Childress Vineyards, a North Carolina wine company that grows all of its own grapes and was founded by NASCAR star Richard Childress.
It’s not unusual for a Beard House dinner to be sponsored by a wine company, but I’ve never seen one from North Carolina represented, so that was cool.
In another interesting move, Childress Vineyards is mentioned all over the menu and is also mentioned on the invitation that was sent to me, but the chefs’ names are nowhere to be seen. I had to look them up on the Beard Foundation’s web site.
Also on the menu, the wine was mentioned first, in bold, followed by the food, in plain text. But I’ll list it as I usually do.

What I ate and drank:

Neapolitan of parsnip with roasted baby beets, English peas and butternut squash
House-made cheese and charcuterie, including pork soppresata and Long Island duck coppa
Chicken liver mousse truffle with branded cherry and spiced pegan
Tayler Bay Scallop and Langoustine “Rockefeller”
Gallery’s house cocktail, which is Prosecco, Aperol and soda

Checkerboard of ahi tuna and hamachi with jalapeño and kumpquat escabèche and micro cilantro
2006 Childress Vineyards Signature Series Reserve Chardonnay

Duo of Barbecue glazed squab breast, Grateful Growers pork ham hocks, white stone ground Anson Mills grits and caramelized Vidalia onion preserves
2004 Childress Vineyards Allegro Shiraz

kaffir lime & coconut pâte de fruit, and Valencia orange and cream pâte de fruit

Pot au feu of beef short ribs, lamb merguez and poussin torchon with beta sweet carrots, cipollini and salsify
2005 Childress Vineyards Signature Series Meritage

Roasted Forelli pear with cardamom cake and Poire William sabayon
Pear-star anise ice cream
Pear crumbles with black mission fig and muscovado sugar
2007 Childress Vineyards Polar Late Harvest White Wine

Petits fours, coffee and Childress Vineyards Starbound Red Dessert Wine

Tuesday, November 11, 2008 does a nice thing

November 11

Given the economic hard times, has declared a moratorium on its “Deathwatch” feature, in which it predicts restaurants that will fail.
Here in New York, that particular restaurant blog has become so influential that, so chefs and publicists tell me, Deathwatch can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, like when the popular 13-year-old girl declares that some other 13-year-old girl isn’t cool anymore.
Eater’s commenters are an unruly lot, and some have accused the people running the blog of wimping out. But I’ve always thought Deathwatch was unnecessarily mean and am glad to see the moratorium.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Fred said right

November 10

I wore my black pinstripe suit on the plane flying home from IFEC last Thursday, because that evening I was going to the Opera as a guest of the marketers of Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Both the ham and the cheese come from the Italian city of Parma, which was also the adopted home of Giuseppe Verdi, whose opera La Traviata was being performed at The Metropolitan Opera House that evening.
Fred Plotkin, who has the unusual quality of being an expert on both opera and Italian food, says this is the best performance of the Verdi masterpiece he has ever seen, and so he was commissioned to talk to us over dinner about both of them as well as the history of The Met, where he was the performance manager for a number of years. Actually, he spoke specifically about the food of Emilia-Romagna, the region where Parma is located, and about the life of Verdi, as well as how food should be consumed before watching opera.

I’d met Fred awhile back at San Domenico restaurant. I don’t remember why. He thinks we might have met when he was there to talk about the wines of Friuli, but I don’t recall.
At any rate, Fred is a very gracious man, but a particular one. He insists that Parmesan cheese be served not on his food, but near it, so he can add it as he likes. His prosciutto, when served uncooked, must not touch anything else on the plate until he is ready to combine them.
He approaches opera at The Met sort of the way I was taught to approach the silent Jewish meditative prayer known as the Amidah. For that prayer, it is common to take three steps back (small ones, as you are likely standing at a pew), symbolically removing yourself from mundane life, and then three steps forward to enter the world of prayer.
Fred says that at The Met, the custom, as the 12 chandeliers rise and dim to announce the beginning of the performance, is to take a moment to adjust your mindset to put it completely in the world the opera that is about to unfold before you.
So he’s a dramatic guy, but really in a low-key way, and he’s a very engaging speaker.
In a moment I’ll list the menu that was served at The Met’s Grand Tier restaurant, which Fred said was a typical pre-opera meal in Emilia-Romagna, and the visitors from the two hosting consorzi, both from Parma, didn’t disagree.
But first I’ll comment, as I did during Fred’s lecture — from which he paused as each course arrived so we could eat it, another sign of his gentility — that the wines served were not from Emilia-Romagna, but from farther north, in Friuli and Piedmont. From my limited experience in the region, that did, in fact, seem typical for a (fancy) pre-opera meal in Emilia-Romagna because, I said, although the people of that region are extremely proud of their food, they willingly say that their wine isn’t that great.
I really loved that about my visit to the region: That the people were proud enough to admit their shortcomings.
Both Fred and the Italians kind of protested. They all insisted that the region’s wine was getting better. But that wasn’t my point. Local Lambrusco — a sparkling red wine that is widely dismissed as “unimportant” — is delicious with the rich food of Emilia-Romagna. There’s no need to go defending it.
I restated my point: What I liked was that people in the region had the dignity and confidence to admit that they weren’t perfect.
No really, they said, there’s some much better wine coming from there now.
Whatever. Great ham and cheese, “unimportant” wine, mediocre listening comprehension skills.
Or possibly jet lag.

What we ate, drank, watched and listened to (notice that we didn’t have dessert until after the first act — the idea being that you eat relatively lightly so you will be energized and ready for opera, and then get an added pick-me-up midway through):

Parmigiano-Reggiano soufflé
Pinot Grigio 2007, Livio Felluga, Friuli

Prosciutto di Parma with sliced seasonal fruit (fresh figs in this case, but I liked that they kept it vague on the menu to allow for optimal seasonality)

Risotto Violetta with a mélange of mushrooms (Violetta is the title character’s name in La Traviata)
Barbaresco 2004, Produttori del Barbaresco, Piedmonti

Salad of field Greens with piquant lemon dressing

Parmigiano-Reggiano morsels with Aceto Balsamico (which is to say balsamic vinegar, although if you want the real stuff, the vinegar that people really fork over the cash for, that’s been aged for 15 years or more, you have to get Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, with this was not)

La Traviata— Act 1
with Anja Harteros and Massimo Giordano

A trio of desserts — including a little rum-heavy custard that I really liked
with Coffee or Tea

La Traviata — Acts 2 & 3

And after that Fred took us backstage where we sat in the green room and briefly met the exhausted performers, who greeted us graciously and then, I presume, went out for dinner.

Still not playing hard-to-get

November 10

Regular readers of this blog will notice that I go out a lot. If someone asks me to go to something — nearly anything, really — and I can squeeze it into my schedule, I go.
Some of my more elitist acquaintances have told me I should be more circumspect of the invitations I accept, and recently I, too, have started to wonder if maybe I should play more hard-to-get.
You don’t see my friend Andrew Knowlton hanging out at Lower East Side bar openings, do you? You certainly don’t these days, as his wife Christina just had a baby, but for years appearances of the guy, whom I met nearly a decade ago when he was a young whippersnapper cutting out press clippings for his bosses at Bon Appétit, have been pretty rare. And now he’s, like, a famous guy, with a fan page on Facebook and a Wikipedia entry. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he looks like Andrew Knowlton, but I wonder if his aloofness has helped.
Do you think my attention would be more sought after if gave it less often? Should I stop being such an event-slut?
The problem is that my job is to be out there, spotting trends, tracking down stories, getting scoops, and you just never know when something that sounds like a dud might be interesting.
Still, last week in Cleveland, during the IFEC conference, I despaired of picking one of the food tours to go on. I’d been to The Chef’s Garden many times. I didn’t particularly want to see the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame (although I do hear that it’s great). Michael Ruhlman’s speech from the night before convinced me that the West Side Market was worth checking out, but that was followed by a tour of Nestlé Foodservice’s kitchens.
Seriously, kitchen tours are something I can resist. That and wine cellars. Do I really need to see where the wine is aged? And how fascinating is a kitchen unless you have some sort of funky new equipment I haven’t seen before.
The West Side Market was cool, if for no other reason than the third-world prices of its meat and produce ($1/lb for blueberries, and I am not kidding), especially since pastry prices were sort of standard for the United States. And like Ruhlman said, you could find lamb heart and sheep head and all sorts of things there. I also liked the fact that the salespeople referred to all females as “girls.” I didn’t know that was allowed anywhere in the West anymore.
The Nestlé kitchen tour didn’t start well. They showed us a very brief high-tech promotional video with a bunch of buzzwords about providing its customers with various “solutions,” but nothing concrete. It was like watching a music video.
But then they split us up into teams and sent me into a kitchen with the food scientists, who taught me how to make lobster base.
They briefly showed us the ingredients for lobster stock — shells, mirepoix etc. — and then took us around the corner where they sautéed pre-cooked lobster meat (cooked on the lobster boats) with tomalley (that green stuff that’s the lobster’s liver) and roe in (unsalted) butter, making sure they held it at at least 180 degrees Celsius for ten seconds. Then they puréed that mixture with onion powder and the like, along with oleoresinated paprika, which is all the oil-soluble components of paprika, concentrated and used for flavor and color. That paprika was mixed with dendritic salt — scientists' way of describing the shape of a very fine salt — and added to the mix.
Then we put a little bit of it into a machine that tested its “water activity," to make sure it was low enough to have an acceptable shelf life.
Then we measured, if I remember correctly, 7.1 grams of it to be mixed with 230 grams of hot water to make lobster stock. We compared it to conventionally-made lobster stock, and it still needed more work. It needed to be redder, and I think I would have added more salt, although I suppose less salty is better than more salty.
From there we added cream, food starch that is stable when repeatedly frozen and thawed, chile pepper (I added more than our supervising chef wanted, but too bad for him) and brandy. We thickened it and poured it over chunks of cooked lobster, garnishing it with Chef’s Garden beet microgreens, and it was a passable bisque. I would have tweaked it a bit, and probably tossed in some more base, but chacun à son goût.
I love stuff like that, because the lobster base is how most restaurants make bisque these days (demiglace, too — I know fine dining chefs who order it, because the recipe’s basic enough and big food companies can do it much more cheaply and with more consistency), and it’s useful to understand that. I also like the precision of the whole thing, followed by a free hand with cream and brandy (but a rigid one with the starch), and whimsy with the garnish.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Oh Jamie, Jamie, Jamie

November 6

I’ve gone on the record more than once as saying I don’t like Top Chef, not because I think it’s a bad show — to be honest, I haven’t watched it enough to judge — but because I think the fans it cultivates are bad for the restaurant world, shifting the focus from food to personalities and drawing a lot of annoying, tittering idiots into my line of vision. But it does provide opportunities for its contestants, so I can’t blame them, or its judges, for taking part.
I hope that Jamie Lauren comes across well. She came across as unusually cool when I met her last year during a trip to San Francisco. Here’s a Q&A I did with her shortly thereafter.

Monday, November 03, 2008

IFEC in Cleveland, night I

November 4, 2:20 a.m.

I have eaten too much food on so many levels.
I'm at IFEC, the annual conference of the International Foodservice Editorial Council. This year it’s in Cleveland. Don’t laugh, Cleveland’s a nice place and quite an accomplished food city, and tonight it proved it.
IFEC joins foodservice trade publication editors and publicists who want our attention. We meet for what are basically a series of 10-minute speed dates in which editors sit at a table and publicists pitch us. We get a lot of work done in a relatively short period of time, and then we go out and eat and drink.
Tonight, after an opening reception at which I skipped the food and just drank coffee, we had a keynote speech by Cleveland native Michael Ruhlman. For half an hour or so, he told us of why Cleveland was such a great food city, gave us restaurant recommendations, took a phone call from his 13-year-old daughter (“Honey, I'm in the middle of a presentation”) and called his friend Anthony Bourdain names. I forget what adjectives he used to describe Bourdain, but I’m pretty sure “degenerate” was one of them. “Deceitful,” too.
That was followed by “meet the press” at which each of the couple of dozen magazines represented talk about themselves so publicists know what we want from them.
Then there was the “Chef Showcase” at which local chefs served up their food, including ingredients provided by sponsors. Restaurants represented included Sergio’s, Lola, Moxie, Dante, Parallax, One Walnut, Fire Food & Drink, CROP Bistro & Bar, Bar Cento and Fahrenheit. It was all far more delicious than it usually is at such events, and I will single at Jonathan Sawyer of Bar Cento whose smoked hog jowls with mustard on toast was extraordinary in its simplicity and deliciousness, the Dijon mustard balancing just right with the pork’s smokiness. And his potato soup that had the same pork, but diced as part of a brunoise that also included all of the other components of the soup (some raw, some blanched), was, well, imagine smooth, creamy potato soup with little crunchy bursts of flavor. How much fun is that to eat?
I didn't know Mr. Sawyer, but he used to be my neighbor, having lived on Seventh Avenue and Lincoln Place when he worked in New York, once cooking in Charlie Palmer’s Kitchen 22, and another tine cooking at Parea, Michael Symon’s short-lived Greek restaurant.
So I was full when we headed to the suburb of Valley View to eat have dinner at Dante, the restaurant of former Aureole executive chef Dante Boccuzzi (who before that opened Nobu in Milan and who was at Silks in San Francisco before that). He’s originally from Cleveland and decided last year to head back home. His wife had their fourth kid, a little girl, about two weeks ago, so congratulations to them.
From there we went to an after-party at CROP, which is research chef Steve Schimoler’s latest venture. The name stands for Controlled Research Operating Platform, but also means, you know, crops. The place has won all sorts of awards in Cleveland, but Steve also uses it as a test platform for products that can be rolled out on a much larger scale. Instead of paying focus groups to try his food and say what they think, he just sees what customers like to buy. But the thing is, he makes food using various high-tech starches such as those the molecular gastronomers are getting into (and that food manufacturing companies have been using for decades) to make dishes that taste great in restaurants, but that can also be made in batches of 800,000, packaged, frozen and sold at Target (which is in fact what he’s already started to do). We sampled a couple of ice creams, including one called ”hot coffee,” which was coffee ice cream with just the right amount of capsaicin added to it that it didn’t have chile flavor, but simply tasted warm.
By the way, Michael Ruhlman pointed out that the country’s first celebrity chef was from Cleveland. His name: Chef Boyardee.
I don’t mean this in a derogatory way, but Steve’s continuing the tradition.

What we ate at Dante:

Cloudy Bay Kiwi Cocktail: Rum, lemon grass simple syrup, house-made sour mix, Fee Brothers rhubarb bitters, and foam of kiwi and chartreuse

citrus king crab arancini
tiger shrimp and green kiwifruit skewers with spicy lime mayonnaise
tempura green kiwifruit (can you guess which fruit sponsored the dinner? Philips Foods sponsored it, too)
Non-vintage Ca’ Tullio Prosecco (Friuli)

Parfait of blue swimming crab, avocado and green kiwifruit, lime jalapeño foam and crisp rice crackers
2007 Riesling, Kabinett, Dr. Thanisch, Bernkasteler Badstube (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer)

Ricotta cavatelli with cauliflower, anchovy and confit of garlic
2005 Lavradores de Feitoria “Tres Bagos,” mad with Tourigo Nacional, Tourigo Franca and Tinta Rariz grapse (Douro)

Charred skirt steak with yuzu neri, shiitake tempura, ginger braised bok choi and clamshell mushrooms
2005 Volver Tempranillo (La Mancha)

And for dessert, by Dante’s new pastry chef, Russ Wheeler, formerly of Mustard Seed Café:
After School Special — chocolate and peanut butter crunch cake, concord grape sorbet and a crispy sesame treat
2003 Select Late Harvest Vidal, Pillitten Estates, Ontario