Friday, January 30, 2009

Alpha males take a break

January 30

A couple of weeks ago I was talking to my friend Kenyon Phillips over dinner at Dhaba. Kenyon is my only vegetarian friend with whom I will eat dinner, an indication of just what good company he is.
While munching on lasoni gobi, a stir-fried cauliflower dish that’s part of India’s distinctive Chinese cuisine (every country has its own Chinese cuisine, as immigrants from China have adapted to local tastes), as well as a variation of palak paneer, plus a lamb stew for me, we were talking about human beings’ natural desire to be liked.
“It’s a survival instinct,” he said, which of course it is.
A common theory among biologists is that young mammals are cute — with disproportionately large heads and big eyes — so that their parents will take care of them rather than eating them or selling them into slavery.
Even as cute as babies and puppies and bear cubs are, it doesn’t always work. Just imagine what would happen if we looked like caterpillars.
I think being likeable is also a tactic of non-dominant beta males. If we can’t beat people up to get our way, we can try to cajole them into it, and that works a lot better if people like you.
These days, as the economic winds blow ever-colder, I’ve found that I’m getting nicer. I’ve always been kind of a yes-man in the office, but these days, I feel like I’m being even cheerier, more accommodating, kinder to publicists, more fun at parties.
I think my colleagues are getting nicer, too.
I think we’re responding to these dark times by turning up the volume on our survival tactics.
Not too long ago I read about a troop of baboons whose alpha males, being the aggressive creatures that alpha males are, forced their way onto a garbage heap, ate tainted food and died. All of them.
With only betas left, that baboon troop behaved the way betas usually do. They worked collaboratively and helped each other out, in stark contrast to most baboon troops, which work pretty much like dictatorships.
When new would-be alphas came along and behaved like they were in charge, they were rebuffed and shunned until they learned to play nicely.
I wonder if that’s going to be going on here in the United States, where our alpha males didn’t die from food poisoning, but a lot of their companies died from toxic debt, and a lot of them lost their jobs, because firing a high-ranking alpha saves you a lot more money than letting go of a measly beta.
I wonder what kinds of effects that will have on corporate culture.

Of course, if you’re not careful when making your staff cuts, you run the risk of losing valuable corporate memory, and I was reminded of that at a book party I went to just before I met Kenyon for dinner.
The book is Dirty Dishes: A restaurateur’s story of passion, pain, and pasta by Pino Luongo and Andrew Friedman.
Florence Fabricant, who writes a column both for The New York Times and Nation’s Restaurant News, was at the party, too, and during all the speeches she pointed out Pino Luongo’s unique qualities as a cookbook writer, including the fact that he doesn’t include measurements in his recipes.
I like that, because I’ve always thought that recipes gave cooks a false sense of security. A list of ingredients and instructions on what to do with them is no substitute for knowing how to cook. It’s like any art form. Imagine getting a recipe for how to paint a picture of a tree, or how to write a song.
Don’t get me wrong, recipes are useful, but they’re not all you need, and I think encouraging people to cook creatively, and to taste the food, by not telling them exactly how much of something to use, helps them to become better cooks.
And you need someone who has been around for as long as Florence has to explain that that’s what Pino Luongo has always done.
I was also reminded of the need for a corporate memory by my cousin Leonard Kamsler, a freelance photographer specializing in instructional golf pictures who for several decades now has done work for Golf Digest. I had dinner with him, his partner Stephen Lyles and Stephen’s mother, Pete (yes, Pete, just let it go). While I ate Stephen’s delicious garlicky tilapia and Pete’s equally yummy rice dish, a sort of pilaf, but with a lot of spinach mixed in (trust me, it was a lot better than I just made it sound), Leonard reflected on John Updike, who had just died. He remembered that Golf Digest had sent Updike to the Masters tournament one year and had him write a thought piece about it. Leonard was pretty sure that no one currently on staff at Golf Digest would have any idea that Updike had ever written for them, and so they wouldn’t know to track down the article and maybe run it again in tribute to him.
He said he’d give them a call.

It’s the food, stupid

January 30

Time for a new poll.
For the last one, I asked you to give the main reason you pick the restaurants you choose to eat in.
One guy responded via my Twitter account with a whole list, presumably ranked in order of importance: Location, taste, price, value, staff, cleanliness. But of the 21 of you who responded on the blog, 57 percent said you went to restaurants because you like the food. Nineteen percent of you helped justify the adage that the three most important things a restaurant needs to succeed are location, location and location.
Here, for the record, is the full list of responses to the question: "When choosing a restaurant, what is usually the most important factor?"

Location: 4 (19%)
Whether I like the food: 12 (57%)
The amount of time I’ll have to spend there: 0 (0%)
Quality of service: 1 (4%)
Whether I know the owners or people who work there: 3 (14%)
Price: 0 (0%)
Ambience: 0 (0%)
Coupons or other promotions: 0 (0%)
I go where my dining companions want to go: 0 (0%)
Other: 1 (4%)

You’ll notice that 14 percent of respondents said they choose a restaurant based on whether they know the owners or people who work there, an indication that many Food Writer's Diary readers are industry insiders.
And that leads to our next question, about this blog’s parent, Nation’s Restaurant News, the paper of record of the foodservice industry.
It’s really a three-part question: Do you read NRN? Do you read it in print or online? Do you read it at work or at home?
Answer as much of it as you like. Click away. Go crazy. Feel free to comment below if you feel like elaborating.
And thank you for your time.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Doherty’s leaving the Waldorf

January 27

John Doherty is hanging up his chef’s toque, leaving the Waldorf-Astoria after working there for 30 years — 23 of them as executive chef.
It’s hard to know for sure, but it looks like he’s leaving of his own freewill and has hired a PR company (Hall) to announce the formation of his new restaurant development company, JCM Hospitality Group.
John’s really one of the nicest chefs I know, and he’s partnering with a couple of interesting guys.
One is Mark Wood, who has worked with both culinary wunderkind-cum-vegan and raw food enthusiast Matthew Kenney, and with hard-nosed restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow.
The other, Christian Palikuca, worked at Sign of the Dove and then Daniel (he was director of operations at both) before falling in with the Marlon Abela Restaurant Corporation (aka and dba MARC), which owns A Voce, becoming its chief operating officer.
John also will apparently be working on a book on leadership, producing a television project, and going on leadership speaking engagements. He plans to do consulting too, but who doesn’t?
Meanwhile, back at the Waldorf, executive sous chef Peter Daledda is running the show.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Things that are from Brittany, and things that aren’t

January 23

I wish I looked like my name. Because, seriously, Bret Thorn is a dead sexy name. It's the name of a romance novel character or a porn star. If I looked like Bret Thorn, I swear I’d never wear a shirt.
Thorn is the German name for Torún, the Polish city that my paternal grandfather’s side of the family claims to come from. When they left Poland they lived in Krakow, but they said they were from Thorn, which is weird because Thorn is in Pomerania and Jews weren’t supposed to live in Pomerania.
So who knows if my last name is accurate.
And my first name means “from Brittany,” which I’m not. I’ve never even been to Brittany. As far as I know, none of my ancestors ever set foot in Brittany, either.
But chef Cyril Renaud is from Brittany, and so I was happy to check out his new restaurant, Bar Breton.
I suspect that places like Bar Breton will be the ones that succeed in New York in the near future: focused without being hokey, casual yet distinctive, restaurants that have something to say for themselves that isn’t “you’re going to have to sell a kidney to eat here.”
I went with my friend Birdman, aka biology professor David Krauss, and as we drank pear cider out of what looked like oversized teacups (our waiter said Cyril said they were traditional cups for drinking cider), we spoke of things that annoy us.
I had been annoyed at a restaurant opening the night before — a crowded affair whose door was being manned by the staff of a PR firm that, in my experience, is always stressed out in that way that a certain class of New Yorkers always are: Put-upon, with too much to do to be bothered with the niceties of civil behavior.
“Hold on,” the publicist said to me, her hand up to halt me, as though she were directing traffic.
"Come on in,” she said to a cluster of statuesque blondes who, to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, I’m just going to assume were important friends of the restaurant.
With the VIPs taken care of, she turned to the rest of us, so I introduced myself and she was all goodness and light, sweetness and smiles, as though that would make me forget that she had just stuck her hand in my face.
It’s true that I’m not an important person to that restaurant. I don’t make or break restaurants by reporting on food trends. I can give them press or not, but regardless of what I do, the restaurant won’t be transformed, and whether I like the publicist has little to do with what I’ll write. If there’s something interesting to say about a restaurant I’ll say it even if the publicist is a simpleton who doesn’t understand that you’re supposed to treat everyone with respect, if for no other reason than because, even if you don’t know who they are, that doesn’t mean they’re not someone important, and if they're not someone important now, that doesn’t mean they won’t be important someday.
It was another reminder that, just because someone has a job, it doesn’t mean that he or she is good at it.
Anyway, Bar Breton had a good crowd. Former Times critic Mimi Sheraton was there, too, and a couple of other food writers whose faces I remember but whose names I forget.
What Birdman and I ate:
Denise's sardines with white pepper and cornichon vinaigrette
suckling pig & foie gras terrine with apple & breakfast radish
braised lamb shank galette (that’s a Breton buckwheat crêpe) with roasted winter vegetables
Roasted baby vegetables and parsley butter
French fries
Black sea bass, endive, bacon, chervil, walnuts and balsamic reduction
Pot de lait with chicory gelée
Far Breton Brûlée

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Many Food Writer’s Diary readers count calories

January 20

Apologies for my silence over the past week. I’m not ignoring you, just, you know, meeting deadlines and stuff. But I have many exciting stories of blowfish and book launches, casseroles and sheet cakes.

But if nothing else, I need a new poll, because the old one has closed.
I asked Food Writer's Diary readers if posting of calorie information on menus would affect what you order.
If you don’t eat at chain restaurants in New York City, the question is theoretical, but here in the Big Smoke such information has been on menus and menu boards of chains with 15 or more units (nationwide) since mid-July. Similar laws are likely to sweep the nation sooner rather than later.
Thirty-two of you were kind enough to participate in the poll. These are the results:


Yes: 15 (46%)

No: 9 (28%)

Maybe: 8 (25%)

If you feel like participating in a new poll, I'd like to ask why you pick the restaurants you do.

Thank you.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Tom Colicchio gave us omelets

January 13

I wonder if breakfast press conferences are a new trend. The running joke among us trend spotters is that you can call something a trend once you see it three times, and I’ve only been to two breakfast press conferences in recent memory.
The first was at the end of September, when Tom Colicchio summoned us all to Craft’s private dining room to announce that every other Tuesday the place would be transformed into a fine-dining, tasting-menu-only restaurant called Tom: Tuesday Dinner. Very exciting!
This morning, Eric Ripert called us all to Le Bernardin at 9 a.m. to announce that he was going to be donating a dollar for every patron that ate in his restaurant or private dining facilities, and for every book he sold, to City Harvest, which is New York’s food bank.
Perhaps you’re thinking, as I initially thought: “A dollar? One dollar? Big deal!”
Except that it is. I imagine that Le Bernardin is doing reasonably good business, but restaurant margins are tight at the best of times, and M. Ripert said he expected he would be giving $100,000 to the food bank in the first year.
Perhaps you’re thinking, as I initially thought: “Le Bernardin gets 100,000 customers a year?”
But then I did the math. That’s just shy of 274 customers a day.
Besides, Ripert already does his share for City Harvest, donating his time at charity events, allowing himself to be auctioned off to make dinner for people and donating 16,000 lbs of food — mostly good stuff like fish, vegetables and fruit.
He has a refrigerator at Le Bernardin dedicated specifically for City Harvest.
He’s also a board member of the charity.
The chef pointed out the dichotomy of Midtown Manhattan, where some of the richest and most powerful people in the world live and work, but where there is also a fair number of destitute people, especially in the Rockefeller Center area. And their ranks are growing.
At Tom Colicchio’s press conference, we had a full breakfast buffet, plus omelets made to order — in fact, some of the best omelets I’ve ever had.
Eric Ripert’s breakfast was Continental, which is fair — he’s Continental, too.
And I can’t very well complain about eating Michael Laiskonis’ pain au chocolat. They were small, and at the server’s prompting I took two. We also had delicious, light yogurt parfaits and fruit cups.
No omelets, but it would be petty to complain, wouldn’t it?

Recommendation for anyone holding a press conference: Serve pastry.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Who are you?

January 8

Thanks to the 48 readers who participated in my survey of who you are. A quarter of those who responded are amateur food enthusiasts, slightly fewer than that are chefs. The amateurs all chimed in when I reminded my Twitter followers of the survey. One respondent is a self-proclaimed celebrity chef. One of those who ticked “other” commented that he or she was a sommelier.
Participants were allowed to pick more than one answer, and a lot of them did, which is why there are 65 responses from the 48 participants.
And now I’ll put up a new poll, about one of the hot-button issues in foodservice these days: Posting calorie information on menus and menu boards.

The question was, Who are you?
The answers were thus:

Chef at an independent restaurant: 5 (10%)
Chef at a chain: 3 (6%)
Fine dining chef: 3 (6%)
Chef at a non-restaurant foodservice operation: 1 (2%)
an NRN subscriber: 5 (10%)
Celebrity Chef: 1 (2%)
Journalist: 9 (18%)
Foodservice supplier or manufacturer: 1 (2%)
Amateur food enthusiast: 12 (25%)
Food Writer’s Diary fan: 5 (10%)
Publicist: 12 (25%)
unrelated in any way to foodservice: 4 (8%)
Other: 4 (8%)
Total voters: 48

Monday, January 05, 2009

The best restaurants are the ones where they know you

January 5

You might remember that I spent the day after Christmas waiting to have dinner at The Spotted Pig.
The day after New Year's, I walked right in to Kurve and got a table immediately
Well, of course I got a table at Kurve; the place is pretty much always empty. It’s a good thing to remember if you’re looking for a place to eat, because remember the chef and owner is Andy Yang, who also is chef-owner of the delicious Rhong-Tiam.

Andy had e-mailed me:

“Hi Bret
I have a new duck menu and couple of appetizer and also a new Steak pruveyor
would like your opinion. Come in bring friends...
Let me know....
C u :)”

A week earlier, my great friend Jonathan Ray had called. He was going to be in town for a historians conference and would like to hang out.
So I combined the two opportunites and invited Jonathan and his wife Michelle to dinner at Kurve.
Boy, was it empty. I arrived on Saturday at 7 — teeth-clenchingly early for the East Village, it’s true, but there wasn’t a single person in the restaurant besides me who didn’t work there.
I’m not sure why Kurve is empty, It has gotten lousy reviews but that’s not usually enough for a place to be completely deserted. Of course the retro-futuristic decor doesn’t really fit with the East Village.
“Really? It would fit better in Midtown?” Jonathan asked. "Tell me, in what neighborhood would this fit in?”
Jonathan gets passionate about architecture. He does. You should drive with him sometime past some of the McMansions in his native Westchester County (Jonathan’s not a spoiled rich kid; he comes from middle class Mount Kisco).
He agreed that a place with Kurve’s design might be suitable in the Meatpacking District, but suggested Miami would be better.
But the drinks are by Sasha Petraske, the desserts are by Pichet Ong, and the food by Andy himself. That's good pedigree.
I always get great food there, but as Anna Teresa Callan loves quoting James Beard as saying: “The best restaurant is the one where they know you.”
I don’t know if James Beard actually said that, but Anna Teresa does pretty much every time I see her.
So Jonathan, Michelle and I just sat there and let Andy send out food and drinks until we’d tried everything he wanted us to try, discussing Top Chef (Jonathan’s a fan), and the state of Medieval and early modern Jewish historiography, because Jonathan, whose PhD thesis was on Jews in 13th Century Spain, is now working on a book on what happened to the Jews who were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula at the end of the 15th Century.
Apparently that book hasn’t been written yet.
Michelle doesn’t talk about history much, but she does talk about her genius students — she’s teaching gifted 11-year-olds in the DC suburbs — and global politics, and how much she loved Andy's wagyu beef burger, which she said was the best burger she'd ever had.
She gushed over all the food. She really did, and she’s not a gusher.
We also had chicken laab served in little cucumber cups; tiny little shrimp cakes; corn soup with apple wood bacon; beet soup; chicken wings wrapped with pandanas (a Thai classic, except they usually use cubes of thigh meat); tuna kratong-tong (an amusing play on a Thai classic appetizer that might be over the heads of most white diners); garlic skate wing; daurade served with the classic Thai sauce of vinegar, chile and fish sauce; beef tenderloin with a whole bunch of dipping sauces, but I focused on the jao, which I think is a Northeastern Thai sauce, although it could be Northern, sprinkled with ground, toasted rice.
Oh, we also had roasted lobster, and foie gras torchon topped with red currant jam, and I think I’ve forgotten some things.

I forgot the duck.
I thought that would be impossible: honey-roasted duck with fig sauce. I think it was Jonathan’s favorite, although he also claimed great affection for the burger.
Honey-roasted duck is a Sino-Thai specialty, typically served in a sweet soy-sauce based sauce with young ginger.

For dessert, Andy sent out Pichet's butterscotch pudding with baby bananas, caramel popcorn and salted caramel; dark chocolate devil's food cake with kirsch Chantilly, brandied bing cherries, shaved chocolate and cocoa pearls (I don’t hear Chantilly mentioned much — it’s just whipped cream, with some powdered sugar and vanilla of course); and green tea tiramisu with pink rhubarb and raspberries.
We were there for about three hours, on a Friday night. A few people had come in for drinks by the time we left, but it was still pretty quiet.
I’d say you should check the place out, because it’s conveniently located, you’ll have no trouble getting a table and the wagyu burger’s just $17 (a good price for wagyu burgers in New York), but I’m not in the business of recommending restaurants and Andy’s a friend of mine, so I probably get better service than you would, and maybe better food.
Maybe you should go in and introduce yourself, say you read about Kurve in Food Writer’s Diary and thought you’d give it a try.
It’s worth a shot.