Friday, February 26, 2010

C-CAP and other parties

February 26

It has been a busy week. Lot's of parties, which doesn't seem normal for a blustery week in late February.

Before I go into detail, though, let's start with the news: A new pastry chef is starting at Aquavit on Monday. Candice Chia, formerly pastry sous chef at Café Boulud, will be executive pastry chef there. And Marcus Jernmark, who last time we heard, was running the kitchen, but hadn’t been promoted yet, is now executive chef.

That’s all according to Aquavit owner Håken Swahn (Marcus Samuelsson’s business partner). He’s the gentleman in the picture at the beginning of his blog entry, standing next to Rita Jammet, a former restaurateur and very proud mother of Nicolas Jammet, partner in the burgeoning Sweetgreen salad and frozen yogurt chain.

I learned all of that on Wednesday at the annual C-CAP benefit. But the week started, as weeks do, on Monday, when D’Artagnan, supplier of foie gras and other goodies, threw a big party at Guastavino to celebrate its 25th anniversary.

I invited my friend Blain Howard, the ultimate combination of video game geek and cool guy. It was interesting to watch him as he talked about video games with Autumn, a friend of Will Blunt of Starchefs.

She asked him what his favorite video game was, and he said Super Mario Bros. 3, and then went into details as to why, and how that was his favorite of old-school games but his favorite new game was Bioshock, which is apparently a really scary one.

And then he really geeked out on all the details and I lost track.

It’s fascinating to see someone who once worked at Abercrombe & Fitch as one of those models/salespeople talk like that. Such poise and confidence while also being so phenomenally dorky. It’s charming.

So we ate ribs and foie gras and cassoulet while drinking wine from Southwestern France and sharing opinions about Caprica.

On Tuesday I went to the launch of Burger King's new batch broiler during lunch and then stayed at work late to finish writing about sourcing obscure ingredients — a story you'll get to enjoy a couple of weeks from now.

Wednesday, as you know, was the always awesome C-CAP fundraiser, which you can read about here (complete with slide show).

The second picture in this blog entry is of John Fraser, executive chef of Dovetail, and Gramercy Tavern pastry chef Nancy Olson. John gave me the scoop on a big, exciting change underway at Dovetail and then asked me not to tell anyone.

So I won’t tell anyone, but be on the look-out for an excellent announcement from John in early March. Second Monday of the month maybe.

Last night was a really fun party at the Astor Center celebrating the 10th anniversary of Gastronomica, where the irrepressible Dave Arnold, director of culinary technology at the International Culinary Center aka The French Culinary Institute, was making cocktails out of local rye whiskey, and also serving up amazing little passion fruit puffs, made by adding a little bit of one of those methylcellulose compounds to passion fruit purée, puffing them up and then freezing them in liquid nitrogen.

Dave said this was an old trick, possibly developed by Sean Brock, but he wasn’t sure, after the gang in molecular gastronomy world realized that things that didn't contain much moisture were easily eaten even right after they'd been frozen with liquid nitrogen.

So he poured liquid nitrogen over the little passion fruit puffs, popped one in his mouth and then blew what looked like smoke out of his nose. Like a dragon.

Of course it was vapor from the liquid nitrogen, but it was awesome.

Pavia Rosati ate her passion fruit puff seductively and elegantly, blowing vapor out of her mouth like she'd just smoked a cigarette and then French-inhaling it again up her nose.

She’s marvelous, that Pavia. She really is.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Opening the Beard Award selection process

February 22

I spoke with James Beard Foundation president Susan Ungaro this afternoon about the fact that so many of the 397 semi-finalists for this year’s chef and restaurant awards are newcomers to the list.

As I mentioned when I reported on the semi-finalists last week, more than half (the actual figure is 53 percent) were on the list last year, too. But considering how many of the same nominees return year after year, that’s pretty good turnover.

Susan explained that the nomination process has been democratized.

Although just about 400 people — past winners and the media — judge the awards, anyone can nominate a chef. That’s been true since 2008, when the awards went all-electronic. That year more than 9,000 people submitted nominations in the 17 chef and restaurant categories. Last year 15,000 people participated in the process, and this year it was more than 21,000.

Then in most categories the awards committee picks the top 20 names, and those are the semifinalists.

An exception is the Rising Star award, which goes to chefs age 30 and younger, so they have a limited window in which to win it. The awards committee takes that into consideration and lets a few more names slip on.

The result is the ungainly-looking list of 26 names you see meandering down the upper right-hand side of this page.

Susan told me one of her goals as president was to try to alleviate the foundation's reputation as an elitist group focused on the East and West Coasts (I'd accuse it more of being New York-centric, actually), and to extend a hand to the masses.

Has she succeeded?

Well, if you look at that list, only one nominee is from New York, but that was true last year (it was Ryan Skeen from Irving Mill, in case you were wondering).

This year’s list has more chefs from cities in the interior* — Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Des Moines, Denver, Cleveland, Minneapolis and Peoria Heights, Ill. There's also a nominee from Hawaii’s smallest major island, Kaua‘i, Colin Hazama from the St. Regis hotel there. I guess that’s off the beaten path in the grand scheme of things.

But he was also a nominee last year. So was Sameh Wadi from Minneapolis. The rest weren’t on last year’s list and the only other interior cities that were represented were Farmington, Pa., Rochester, Minn., and Memphis, Tenn.

Okay, so this year’s list isn’t that much more geographically diverse than last year's. It’s still dominated by coastal cities, but then again, coastal cities are most of the country's major population centers.

I do wonder why Chicago’s not represented, though. Maybe too many great young chefs split the local vote.

*for these purposes I’m going to classify Philadelphia and its suburbs as East Coast, even though it’s technically not, because it is culturally, and the rest of Pennsylvania as interior; and Las Vegas as West Coast; New Orleans is unclassifiable, but since it has always been considered an important food city I'm going to say it's not interior, but I'll go ahead and say Houston is interior. That’s just how I roll. Chicago is always well represented in the awards, although it doesn’t have any rising star nominees this year, unless you count Peoria as a suburb, and I think that’s stretching it a bit.

What Celina Tio’s up to these days

February 22

The last time, I mentioned Celina Tio, she was planning on opening a restaurant called Julia(n) in Charlotte, N.C.

Well, plans for that fell through awhile back — something to do with a disagreement with the landlord, if memory serves — and it turns out that she’s back in Kansas City and is the proud chef and owner of Julian (sans parenthesis — as a general rule, it’s a good idea when you’re thinking of putting parentheses in your restaurant’s name to think again).

Celina’s billing the food as refined but comforting food made with local, seasonal ingredients, which is to say  that she’s doing what most other fine-dining chefs in the country are doing.

I don’t mean that in a bad way, in fact, I mean that in a good way. It makes sense to respond to the Zeitgeist, after all, doesn’t it?

The full menu’s on the restaurant’s web site, but it includes things like lobster shepherds pie, cassoulet, short ribs with gratin potatoes and Brussels sprouts, a cheeseburger — you get the idea.

There are also "popcorn sweetbreads" for appetizers, and a lobster salad with grapefruit, fennel and argan oil.

Who knew argan oil would get so popular?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Beard Awards season begins

February 18

The James Beard Foundation has released its long list of semifinalists for the James Beard Foundation Awards, following a tradition started two years ago when Josh Ozersky let the list leak when he was the grand poobah of Grub Street. Before then, just the finalists were announced.

This year, that will happen on March 22, and the winners will be awarded in an exceedingly long black tie ceremony at Avery Fisher Hall on May 3.

In the meantime, two rounds of voting are underway. First, starting today, judges will narrow down each category to five (or occasionally six) finalists, who will then be voted on by that same group of judges. The winner will have the opportunity to capitalize on the publicity. It’s generally very good for a chef to win a Beard Award. It doesn’t make him or her a better chef, but it can generate considerable publicity and revenue if the chefs play their cards right.

The nominees are already pretty well-known, at least in their markets, and quite often the same people are nominated year after year – although from what I’ve perused so far of the long list this year, there are quite a few new names, which is refreshing.

Mostly the Beard Awards are a feel-good popularity contest and a chance for the fine dining world to throw a series of big, fun parties. There’s nothing wrong with that.

And I consider two of the awards to be rather important: best new restaurant, and rising star.

The Rising Star award goes to a chef aged 30 or younger and can be a real career-maker. Past winners include Marcus Samuelsson, Andrew Carmellini, Grant Achatz, Chris Lee, Corey Lee, David Chang, Gavin Kaysen and, most recently, Nate Appelman. It’s a good award to win.

And best new restaurant, well, you only have one shot at it, and that alone makes it interesting.

Voting is done by former winners and food writers like me. But I’d like to give you a chance to vote, too.

So my new poll, as you can see in the upper right hand corner of this page, is your chance to make your pick for Rising Star chef of 2010.

Will this vote count in the actual selection process?

No, it will not.

Will it at least influence how I vote?

Again, no.

But it should be fun anyway, and it will give whichever chef wins a chance to promote himself or herself as the Food Writer’s Diary Rising Star Chef. It might not be as prestigious as the Beard Awards, although really, it depends on how you spin it.

And isn’t that true of any award?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Emilia-Romagna and Sicily

February 16

Emilia-Romagna and Sicily tied in this blog's latest poll, which asked readers to pick their favorite Italian region for food.

You can read the full results at

Friday, February 12, 2010

Cocktail news from Pranna

February 12

So much to write about, so little time.

For now I’ll just mention some news I learned last night at a sort of networking party thrown by the New York City Hospitality Group, formed by a dozen people with different types of expertise in the foodservice and lodging industries who want to network with others. It’s a good idea.

They threw a party at Pranna, at which publicist Andrew Freeman spoke briefly but entertainingly and intelligently about foodservice trends.

The party was in Pranna’s basement, and we ate fried and stuffed things and naan, and I drank red wine.

Pranna has a serious Asian-oriented cocktail list intended to go with the cuisine from South Asia (that's the Indian subcontinent) and Southeast Asia (Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia etc.)

But bar manager Eric Greczel says they plan to mix it up downstairs, which Pranna’s owners have told him to turn into a proper high-end cocktail bar, with drinks that take five minutes to make, rather than the 90 seconds they have at the busy bars upstairs.

So keep your eyes open for that.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Bocuse d’Or USA

February 7

I’m going to sleep soon, but first, in case you really need to know who won the Bocuse d'Or USA competition and don’t follow me on Twitter but can’t wait until it’s up on the Nation's Restaurant News web site later this morning, I’ll go ahead and tell you it's James Kent from Eleven Madison Park.

I saved the good pictures for, because I know where my bread is buttered, but this is an outtake, of (from the right), Eleven Madison Park executive chef Daniel Humm, Bocuse d’Or USA champion and today’s king of the world James Kent, EMP general manager Will Guidara (or as people in the chain restaurant biz say, “Frank's boy”) and Tom Allan, who like James Kent is one of EMP’s sous chefs, but James played captain in this competition, so he's the winner. Tom will accompany him to Lyon in January of next year to represent the stars and stripes there.

Tonight, everyone in this picture is probably getting drunk.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Rome on the Hudson

February 5

Maialino is probably the hottest Roman restaurant in New York City right now. It can’t help it; it’s a Danny Meyer restaurant and New Yorkers love Danny Meyer.

But there’s a lot of Roman food out there.

Lupa’s full name is Lupa Osteria Romana.

Sandro Fioriti, currently of Sandro’s on the Upper East Side, has been dishing up carciofi alla giudia and any number of carbonara and amatriciana dishes for the better part of 25 years, and, well, Florence Fabricant recently gave a rundown of Roman restaurants in the Times.

That makes Roman the trendiest Italian regional cuisine in New York at the moment, but there’s a poll on the right side of this screen asking you what your favorite Italian region is for food. Go ahead — pick one. (Rome’s in Lazio, by the way).

Not too long ago I had lunch at one of New York's newer Roman places, Sora Lella. Sora’s slang for Signora, or madam, and Lella was the nickname for Elena Trabalza, the original chef of the original restaurant, on Isola Tiberina, a little island in the Tiber River in Rome.

I went to the New York branch with the restaurant's publicist, which is a good thing, because the restaurant was closed for lunch that day and its owners don’t speak a whole lot of English, except for the chef, Fabio, who, you know, had to be in the kitchen making lunch.

I understand a fair number of Italian food words, but not much else.

Sora Lella’s owners are a nice group, all family members, who said they decided to finally open in New York after visitors from Gotham to their restaurant in Rome had been bugging them to do so for years. They opened their doors in far western SoHo (Spring St., between Hudson and Renwich streets) about nine months ago.

Their business partner, who owns the building, told me about how many new residences and businesses were being established in the area, something I'd been hearing about the neighborhood since Dani opened four years ago two blocks away from where Sora Lella is now. Dani failed to thrive and closed a scant two years after it opened, but a bunch of restaurants have opened around there since then, like 508 — at 508 Greenwich St., a block and a half away.

The owners of both Sora Lella and 508 say they’re doing well and enjoy good followings from local denizens, including the celebrities who live not too far away.

When I had dinner at 508 recently, Thom Filicia, the interior design guy from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, was at the bar, so that’s something.

At Sora Lella, Fabio’s family entertained me and poured me glasses of Roman wine while the chef served me his grandmother's polpettine, which the menu translate”s as “Nonna Lella’s Sliders.”
Nonna means grandmother, and polpettine are actually meatballs. But I guess "sliders” are slightly more trendy than meatballs — although maybe not, according to my friend Andrew Knowlton who I just saw on TV a little while ago declaring meatballs the food of 2010.

I’m afraid I don’t know what show he said that on, because I don’t watch morning TV programs that invite people like Andrew to talk about food, but a tiny clip of it was replayed either on The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, and I saw it there.

Back at Sora Lella, I also had classic gnocchi all'Amatriciana and braised oxtail with pine nuts, among other things.

The Trabalzas have embraced their restaurant’s new American location, and even are offering a Super Bowl menu this Sunday.

Here it is, for $65 (not including tax or tip), including all the beer and wine you can get down your neck (house wine, of course):

Classic Caesar Salad

Polppettine della Nonna Lella
Beef “sliders”, Breaded, Deep Fried and Topped with Tomato Sauce.

Fried Calamari with a Spicy Tomato dipping Sauce

Bite-size Roman Riceballs

Our Pizza is Stuffed with a Choice of the Following:
Broccoli and Sausage; Classic Margherita; Eggplant and Zucchini

Topped with Lardo, Liver Mousse, Classic Tomato, Artichoke

Mixed Cured Olives

Monday, February 01, 2010

Not for NRN readers

February 1

Nation’s Restaurant News, the magazine of which this blog is part, is intended for, and mostly read by, people who own or manage restaurants or are in some way involved in buying or selling things for restaurants.

A lot of food writers read it, too, and many of your favorite consumer magazines and newspapers subscribe and copy liberally from it.

Some NRN readers also read this blog, but a lot of people who read this don’t read NRN (and, as the lackluster number of responses to my poll on MUFSO illustrate, they're not interested in big chain restaurant conventions). They are simply food enthusiasts or restaurant scene voyeurs and the sort of people who might be interested in the casting call announcement I just received, which I will paste below, exclamation marks and all.

Restaurant operators and former operators are not invited.

Thank you for your attention.


Food Network and the producers of The Next Food Network Star are looking for two person teams for a new competition series!

Have you always dreamed of running your own restaurant? Does your wife, husband, brother, sister, mother, partner or friend share that dream?

Do you make restaurant quality meals at home and want to show that you can take it to the next level? Are you a pro in the kitchen while your teammate is a star in the front of the house? Are you ready to prove that you have what it takes to run a restaurant? If so, we want to meet you!


Date: Friday, February 12, 2010
Time: 10am – 3pm
Location: Professor Thoms
219 2nd Avenue, New York, NY 10003
*Please go to to download two applications (one for you, one for your partner). Please bring completed applications along with recent photos to the casting call.*

Two person teams with pre-existing relationships: Husband & wife, ex-husband & wife, father & daughter, mother & son, newlyweds, brothers, sisters, twins, cousins, best friends, etc.

The Skills to Run a Restaurant: Applicants may have no restaurant experience, a ton of experience, or some combination of the two. One member of the team will be the chef and run the kitchen, and the other will run the “front of the house,” so all we ask is that you have the skills to, as a team, actually run a restaurant.

Personality that Pops: Are you and your teammate charismatic and outgoing? We’re looking for lots of energy and charm!

*Please don’t apply if you already own your own restaurant or have previously owned a restaurant.

• If you have any questions, please contact us at
• Applicants must (a) be a US citizen or permanent legal resident with the unrestricted ability to work in the U.S. and (b) be at least 18 years of age.