Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Why they served French wine at an Italian luncheon

November 15,

I had a fun lunch today at the David Bouley Test Kitchen, which is a place that Bouley set up in Tribeca as a sort of food lab for visiting chefs to play in, but it also has become an event space. 

The lunch was thrown by Legends From Europe, a three-year marketing campaign by the Italian consortia representing three Italian cheeses — Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padano, and Montasio — and Prosciutto di Parma and Prosciutto di San Daniele. Since those consorzi are traditionally enemies, it’s something of a political breakthrough that they’re all working together.

The Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano people announced their partnership a couple of years ago with press conferences and a big party at Madison Square Garden (Magic Johnson inexplicably walked through the party, causing macho Italian-American men to become giddy) followed by a VIP viewing of a basketball game in the fancy boxes at the top of the Garden (Knicks vs. Nuggets, which the Knicks inexplicably won). 

Here’s what nobody ever says about those two cheeses, which come from similar parts of Italy and are part of the same family of cheeses known as grana (hard, aged cheeses that cleave in a particular way): Parmigiano Reggiano is more expensive than Grana Padano, it’s generally aged longer and is widely regarded as being more complex in flavor and, well, better. 

That’s not bad for Grana Padano, which is suitable for cooking or grating and serving over pasta. Parmigiano-Reggiano would be wasted if used in that way, and it’s too expensive for non-rich people to use as anything other than a special-occasion cheese. 

I understand why saying that is politically sensitive, but they really need to get over that. Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano are not natural competitors. They are different products at different price points to be used differently and eaten on different occasions. I think they’ve decided to work together to stress that they are different from generic Parmesan cheese, and consumers should know the difference.

Bringing two kinds of prosciutto into the mix just makes it better all around. And Montasio, well, why not? It's delicious and melts good.

So, we had five food products, all from Northeastern Italy. So what wines did they serve during the pre-lunch reception? Two sparkling German wines. At lunch, the wine was French — a white Bordeaux and a red Burgundy.

We asked the Test Kitchen's manager why he did that, and he said he was instructed that he should by no means use any Italian wine, because members of the different consorzi would never agree on which wines were suitable to be drunk with all of their products. The Montasio and Prosciutto di San Daniele people would likely have been happy with a Tokai Friuliano, but the other three groups might have been irked by such a choice. And I can't imagine the Friulians doing anything but smirk if they were served a Lambrusco from Emilia Romagna.

What I ate:
Slow-poached Connecticut farm egg with Prosciutto di Parma and a Parmigiano Reggiano cloud

Fresh sardine with tomato-saffron broth, fingerling potatoes, Prosciutto di San Daniele, Grana Padano crisp

Melon soup with ricotta ice cream

Hot caramelized Anjou pear with chocolate, biscuit Breton, hot truffle sauce, lemon verbena and Tahitian vanilla bean ice cream.

Friday, October 28, 2011

On pizza, authenticity and fire

“Oh, uh, hey, you're on fire there,” I said.

Nonchalance probably isn’t the best approach to take when you see flames start to spread behind a person, but the guy standing next to the woman whose coat and bag had drifted too close to a candle was on top of it. He let out a sort of masculine scream, grabbed the bag and coat, threw them to the floor and beat out the flames.

“Sorry,” he said.

People say New Yorkers are rude and uncaring, but we’ll totally let you know if you catch fire, help you to extinguish yourself and apologize for making a commotion. What more do you want?

I was at the opening of Forcella, one of a growing number of Neapolitan-style pizzerias popping up in New York City.

Really, there are a lot of them: Chipp in Sheapshead Bay, Capizzi in Hell's Kitchen, Donatella in Chelsea, Keste in the Village. I could go on and on. That’s kind of strange considering New York has a delicious type of pizza that the locals love and that has little in common with its Neapolitan cousins. I wonder why we’re seeking out some sort of authenticity from Naples when we have our own kind of authenticity right here.

It's not like people in Georgia are clamoring for St. Louis barbecue.

Then again, authenticity is a weird and slippery notion. Last night I had dinner at the James Beard House, because Frank McClelland from L'Espalier in Boston was cooking, and I was sitting next to journalist Charles Passy, a New York native who recently returned home after a prolonged sojourn in West Palm Beach, Fla.

He said he had encountered a visitor to New York who had heard that the Big Apple was a great bagel city, and so she was disappointed and outraged that you can't find asiago cheese bagels here.

Which of course you can’t because we have real bagels here.

Anyway, the Forcella opening was a good party. Kind of weird — one of the owners decided an opening party also would be a good occasion for Open Keyboard Night — but good.

Margherita pizza and pizza with arugula and truffle oil were passed around, along with the restaurant’s signature deep-fried pizza and little arancini. I also had a slice of a dessert pizza stuffed with a chocolate-hazelnut spread that shall remain nameless and whose charms elude me.

It went well with the Lambrusco I was drinking, though.

The crowd was good, too: Many well-dressed Italians with great bone structure who seemed to be talking about important things and didn’t seem to know that, at crowded restaurant openings, you’re supposed to get your drink at the bar and then move away so other people can get to it.

Still, good bone structure. And editors from Travel + Leisure, Food + Wine, Every Day with Rachael Ray and so on were there, too.

As I was heading out, actress Stephanie March arrived with her husband Bobby Flay in tow. And as far as I know nobody else caught fire.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Chain restaurant workers really can cook

I’ve spent the past four days or so at two conferences thrown by Nation’s Restaurant News. The first was the Multi-Unit Foodservice Operators conference, better known as MUFSO (rhymes with STUFF-so, not GOOF-so).
The second was Menu Trends & Directions, which I don’t think is better known as anything — possibly as “the one where Nancy Kruse drops a bunch of knowledge about food trends on your head.”
They’re terrific conferences where people who know a lot about what they’re talking about enlighten the audience with ways to run their businesses better.
The conferences have to be great to get people to show up, but, like pretty much any convention, people really go to them to network.
Where else can the owner of a fledgling grilled cheese sandwich chain pick the brains of the CEOs of Domino’s and Panera Bread? Where else can marketers responsible for naming new ice cream treats share ides with the head of culinary development for Baskin-Robbins?
And where else can I hang out with the country’s corporate chefs and figure out the next thing that’s going to transform eating in America?
Of course we had extended panel discussions on that topic for all to see, but one interesting fact emerged as I talked to these chefs between sessions: You know those kitchen workers at chain restaurant that no one thinks about? The ones who are occasionally mentioned as data points when calculating turnover, or the nameless mass for which restaurants must decide how much medical insurance they can afford?
It turns out that many of them are really good cooks.
Some of the corporate chefs charged with developing menu items at their chains’ headquarters told me that the cooks who have to actually prepare those items are being underutilized. Many of them cook at casual-dining chains for one shift and fine-dining restaurants for the next — and they say if you can successfully work the line during a lunch rush at Chili’s, you can jam during dinner at a white tablecloth establishment.
One corporate chef at a big casual-dining chain said he thought the next frontier for his segment was unleashing the skills of their cooks. Not only would they make better food, but by handing more responsibility to their cooks they would improve morale in the kitchen and possibly clean up the foodservice industry’s reputation as a place loaded with dead-end jobs.
Food for thought (sorry, but it is).

Read more: http://nrn.com/article/chain-restaurant-workers-really-can-cook#ixzz1ZS2omEHP

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Times Square kiosk awardees come forward

August 25

I just got off the phone with my friends at Rickshaw Dumpling Bar, who I think were bursting with desire to share the news that they’re one of four restaurants that have been granted the right to set up a kiosk in the unbelievably high-traffic area of Times Square. 

The other three are international empanada stand Nuchas; Snack Box, a creation of Jonathan Morr of Republic and Bond St., which will be serving espresso, milk shakes and gourmet hot dogs; and panini stand Salumè.

They told me Salumè would open this week, and the rest will open in the coming weeks. Rickshaw's targeted opening date is late September or early October.

All of the kiosks will be opening on Broadway Plaza, the pedestrian zone that Broadway has become.

A press release the Rickshaw folks forwarded to me from the Times Square Alliance said construction of the Salumè stand would start tomorrow, between 46th and 47th streets, and that it would open by mid-September. 

But of course a restaurant’s not open until it’s open.

And once these particular spots are open, I suspect they’ll be mobbed. 

So, congratulations all around.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Family & Friends night at Frankies 570 Spuntino

August 19

That picture on the left is what the outside of Frankies 570 Spuntino looked like last night. You really need to be confident that you’re in the right place to open that door.

It struck me as being very much in the style of Franks Castronovo and Falcinelli, who own and run the restaurant and who, if they didn’t invent the current fashion of Brooklyn grunge chic that dominates large chunks of that borough (and maybe they did), they’re certainly the poster boys for it in the food world.

They have that we’re-so-cool-we-don't-need-to-shave-or-even-trim-our-beards-and-we’re-certainly-not-going-to-try-to-impress-you-because-we-don’t-care-what-you-think vibe that, damn it, is quite alluring.

I was invited to family-and-friends night at their new West Village restaurant, which isn’t even slated to open for another month, hence all the construction materials and building permits and hidden entrance. Eventually it will have a perfectly nice and conventional entrance with big windows letting natural light into the restaurant.

But last night, with the walls boarded up, it was dark, and I could barely see the food at my candle-lit table.

But the cool insider people were there. Life and Style reporter Juliet Izon swung by my table to say hello (we periodically eat together on expeditions organized by New York Post reporter Max Gross to iconic or merely awesome restaurants in the outer boroughs, such as Pirosmani in Brookly and Hunan Kitchen of Grand Sichuan in Queens).

I ran into Food & Wine editor in chief Dana Cowin on my way to the bathroom. Andrew Knowlton of Bon Appétit, who I never see anymore, sat down at my table and snacked on the cheese from my antipasti plate while we mused about changes in the food scene. His two-year-old daughter Julep snacked on my salumi, which is fine. There was plenty to eat.

What I ate:

three crostini: sungold tomato and basil; white anchovy, avocado and setti anni peppers; and rocotta with speck and honey

saffron arancini stuffed with bolognese sauce

vegetable antipasti including broccoli raab and a variety of olives

farmhouse cheeses

cured meats including capicola and two types of sopressata.

baked clams

heirloom tomatoes and pickled market beans

fennel, celery root and parsley salad

grilled squid with pickled peppers

cavatelli with hot sausage

meatballs with pine nuts and raisins

egg yolk & cauliflower ravioli with brown butter, almonds and anchovy

Mast Brothers chocolate ganache tart

red wine prunes and mascarpone

Friday, August 12, 2011

What to do with an oversized zucchini

August 12

I've spent the week visiting family in Denver, which is always fun. I've played Guitar Hero and run around at Chuck E. Cheese's, had my breakfast burrito at Pete's Kitchen and calmed my stomach with a Colorado Smashburger after indulging in the rides at Elitch's. I've examined the local beer just to make sure it's still awesome. I'm somewhat despondent that the peaches are not yet in their prime, but I'm working through that heartache.

I've even done some cooking.

We had some family over for dinner and mostly had it catered: We drove to Tacos y Salsas and bought 30 assorted tacos. But I thought some sort of vegetable was in order. So I looked in my mother's refrigerator and was confronted with a giant zucchini from the garden.

My eyes narrowed. When I was growing up, the family custom was to slice zucchini into rounds and saute them with onions, peppers and tomatoes. The mushy centers of those rounds still haunt me.

So I started by peeling the thing, slicing it into quarters and scraping out that damn mushy middle. Looking at the seeds that came out with the gunk I was instantly reminded of making Jack o'Lanterns, and the side activity of toasting pumpkin seeds.

I'd never heard of toasting a zucchini seed. But I separated them out and set them on a cookie sheet to dry.

I decided to dice the zucchini flesh and blanch it in salted water, mostly as a delaying tactic while I thought of what else to do. But actually it blached beautifully. I dropped it into salted boiling water and then drained it and rinsed it in cold water as soon as the water started boiling again.
The zucchini was tender, but still had body. And it tasted fresh and green, like an August evening.

I had thought of making a salad out of it, but I didn't think it needed to be buried in vinegar and olive oil, so instead I just picked some basil from the garden, tore it and added it to the zucchini, along with black pepper and some salt. Then I stuck it in the fridge because it seemed like something that should be served ice cold.

I had dried the seeds in a 200 degree (Fahrenheit) oven, and they already started to get crunchy and nutty. I heated the oven to 400 and promptly burned most of them. But the ones that survived were very much like smaller versions of the pumpkin seeds of my childhood and would have been a great addition to my zucchini dish, but we ate them beforehand.

Anyway, the zucchini was a hit. Next time I'll add some blanched, diced garlic, as well as toasted seeds, which I'll toss in a dry wok instead of trying to toast them in an oven. They cook really fast.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Bluefin jerky

August 8

Not everything I learned about bluefin tuna could fit into the feature aboout that fish that appear's in this week's issue of Nation's Restaurant News. Feel free to e-mail me if you'd like to talk more about the different bluefin fisheries or the different farms and ranches that are raising the fish.

One thing I wanted to share was what Troy Guard, chef-owner of TAG in Denver, learned to do in Hawaii, where he trained under chef and restaurateur Roy Yamaguchi.

There the chefs would save the blood line of the tuna that runs along the fish's spine.

They'd sprinke it with local salt and dry it in the sun. They's serve it as a type of jerky.

"We called it something coo and crazy, like 'sun-dried tuna blood,'" Guard told me.

Guard orders a ranched bluefin tuna to cook at TAG most weeks, but he hasn't tried serving the bloodline there yet.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Cheesecake war

July 30

Davio’s, a northern Italian steakhouse in Philadelphia, wanted to prove to the world that the City of Brotherly Love had better cheesecake than New York City. 

So its owners threw down the gauntlet in front of ’Cesca, an Italian restaurant on New York’s Upper West Side. ’Cesca picked up that gauntlet, and a cheesecake war was declared.

It was a reasonably friendly war. Both restaurants exchanged recipes and worked with each other to replicate the desserts in each other’s restaurants, with the crew at ’Cesca learning to make Davio’s vanilla bean cheesecake with blueberry compote, and Davio’s staff whipping up ’Cesca’s mascarpone cheesecake with orange cream and orange brittle.

The two restaurants served half portions of both cheesecake’s side by side from Tuesday, July 26, through Thursday, July 28. The Cheesecake War Dessert special was offered at both restaurants for $10, and customers were asked to pick their favorite.

The loser of the war will have to post a photo of themselves eating the winner’s cheesecake in the the winning city's baseball jersey.

Above is a picture of the two desserts as they were plated at Davio’s.

I was asked as a neutral party to post the results today, which I'm told is National Cheesecake Day.

They are, well, actually they're mixed:

Votes from Davio’s customers
196- Davio's
42- Cesca

Votes from 'Cesca customers
65- ’Cesca
11- Davio's

Davios: 207
’Cesca: 107

That’s to say that customers in both cities preferred the hometown cheesecake by a wide margin. Although Davio’s sold more cheesecake overall and got more votes, a larger percentage of ’Cesca’s customers preferred that restaurant’s cheesecake, voting 6 to 1 in favor of the local dessert, compared to 4.7 to 1 from Davio’s customers.

Maybe Davio’s wait staff should be given an award for selling 238 orders of cheesecake in three days. 

Davio’s has about 150 seats in its dining room, ’Cesca seats around 125.

In any case, it seems like it was a pretty smart promotion, and a great way to sell more dessert in the middle of the week during a slow, hot summery month.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

How to get rid of invasive species: eat them!

July 6

Don’t want invaders in your home Why not kill them and eat them?

That’s the approach that consumer activist group Food & Water Watch is taking with three species of fish and a crustacean that have encroached on American waters.

In the picture are, from top to bottom, Asian carp, blue tilapia and lionfish, as well as green crabs.

Lionfish actually look much more sexy before their exotic and poisonous spines have been removed, but Kerry Heffernan, the executive chef of Southgate in New York, had already removed them by the time I got to the James Beard House, where Food & Water Watch was doing a presentation on ”exotic invasive species” and how to eat them.

I don't think their point was actually to eradicate the invaders. Indeed local sport fishermen in the Northeast like green crab, because it's good bait for blackfish.

I think what they really wanted to point out was that there’s lots of tasty seafood in our waters, and it would make sense if we stopped overfishing the popular ones and to rely less on imports — which Food & Water Watch said accounted form more than 80 percent of the seafood we eat — and instead chow down on the stuff we have in surplus.

Ironically, the fish wasn't easy to procure and Heffernan had roughly 27 hours to figure out what to do with what they gave him. 

They had to charter a boat in North Carolina to catch the lionfish. A seafood supplier actually told them that wild, or blue, tilapia wasn't available in the U.S., but they managed to find it at Fulton Fish Market for $1.75 a pound. 

The green crab was provided by New England fisherman after they finished scratching their heads wondering why anyone would want them.

But the results were good. Heffernan used the carp to make a tasty escabeche, pictured here. It was a labor-intensive preparation, though, because, as Heffernan said, “It's almost like the fish was designed not to be able to get at the meat.”

Loopy bones arched out from the spine into the flesh, and then looped off in other directions, making for a labor-intensive process. I asked Heffernan if the labor in preparing the fish would make it cost-prohibitive in restaurants, and he said that if the fish itself were inexpensive enough, it might be worth it.

My favorite was the green crab, which Heffernan made into a light bisque. He was impressed with the flavor of the meat, which to him tasted crabbier than blue crab. There was a preparation challenge for that animal, too, as there’s not a lot of meat per crab, so picking out the meat is a time-consuming process.

There was no problem with the lionfish, as long as you remove the poisonous parts.

But Heffernan’s favorite was the tilapia, which was firm enough that you could slice it after cooking it, and it had great body and flavor.

Eating under-utilized fish isn’t a new concept, but it is catching on. At the International Corporate Chefs Association summit that I went to in Seattle last week, one of the speakers was John Sackton, editor and publisher of seafood.com. In the face of rising seafood prices and less-than-stable supply, he recommended to the chefs at chain restaurants and onsite operations who attended the summit that they be flexible in the choice of seafood they put on the menu, changing those choices as supply and price demanded.

He wasn’t talking about Asian carp or lionfish, but he was advocating for a flexibility to which chain restaurants are becoming increasingly accustomed. 

Skeptics might want to remember that monkfish used to be considered unfit for consumption, and that, decades ago, North Atlantic fisherman threw away bluefin tuna as useless until the Japanese pointed out that they actually enjoy eating them, possibly more than anything else.

Of course, now bluefin appears to be on the verge of extinction. But that's another story.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Aspen: Day 1

June 17
I’m in Aspen for the 29th annual Food & Wine magazine Classic. It used to be the classic AT Aspen, but they changed the name a few years ago to make it less pretentious.

I’m not sure it worked, but despite the need to periodically run the gauntlet of celebrity chef groupies to do the networking I’m here to do, it’s a fun event — basically a three-day party, sponsored by many beer, wine and spirits companies, interspersed with cooking demonstrations and panel discussions.
During the kickoff reception on Friday night I ran into Belinda Chang, whom I’d just met during the James Beard Foundation Awards last month. She won the award for best wine service as sommelier of The Modern in New York, and then, her mission accomplished, she quit.
“I’m a sprinter, not a marathon runner,” she told me last night.
I ended up hanging out with her and her friend Justin Warner, who was a captain at The Modern and left to open his own place, Do or Dine, in the decidedly ungentrified Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Justin says his new place is a dive American izakaya, which is to say a bar with great bar food (as opposed to a gastropub, which is a bar with good food that’s not necessarily intended to facilitate drinking).
Do or Dine doesn’t have a liquor license yet, so for now it’s BYO, but Justin, whose beverage people come from PDT and Pegu Club, plans to offer delicious cocktails priced at less than $10.
So that should be fun.
The big post-reception party in Aspen is a barbecue sponsored by Wines from Spain and hosted by José Andrés, but Belinda, Justin and I instead went to Isis, where there also was a barbecue but with fancy American wines and the added appeal — always desirable at Aspen — of not being where the masses were.
It’s probably obvious, but Belinda and Justin are in the picture that accompanies this blog entry.

Monday, June 13, 2011

A Matter of Taste

June 13

Oh shoot! The people at HBO were nice enough to send me a copy of A Matter of Taste, a documentary on Paul Liebrandt that I wanted to watch, and I’m late.

The film airs on HBO tonight (9pm EST), and I'm on the road, visiting family in Denver, while the DVD is sitting on my desk in New York.

So, what can I say? Paul Liebrandt’s a hell of an interesting chef. I’ve always found his food simultaneously weird, delicious and incredibly well-balanced. Most striking: Each component of each dish seems to express itself with intriguing clarity and precision.

The Bouley alumnus had a brief and critically tumultuous tenure some years ago, back in 2000, at Atlas, where then-Times critic William Grimes gave him a glowing three-star review, placing him squarely on the map as one of New York’s most avant-garde chefs. Then a review in Gourmet skewered him, uncharacteristic behavior for that magazine.

At the time, some people wondered if the review had anything to do with the fact that Gourmet’s editor-in-chief, Ruth Reichl, was Grimes’s predecessor.

Liebrandt, who was something like 24 years old, left the restaurant shortly thereafter.

But that’s ancient history.

Liebrandt went on to run the kitchens at a genuine variety of New York City restaurants — Papillon, One Little West 12th (I kid you not), and Gilt — before finding a home partnering with Drew Nieporent at Corton, where he has once again received adulation from critics and customers.

And also a documentary on HBO, airing tonight.

That network was nice enough to provide me with the pictures in this blog entry, which were taken by Sally Rowe.

Friday, June 10, 2011

In the foothills with the food scholars

June 11

Montanans apparently like to put letters on their mountains. That’s what I’m told. The M in the picture is in the city of Missoula, but it stands for Montana — not the state, the university, where I’m attending the joint annual meetings of the Agriculture Food and Human Values Society, the Association for the Study of Food and Society, and the Society for Anthropology of Food and Nutrition.

There’s a big concrete L on the next mountain over, which might lead you to believe that Montana has alphabetized its mountains, but a server at the reception last night told me that the L stands for Loyola Sacred Heart High School, which also is in Missoula.

There’s a concrete B on one of the Mountains near Butte, she said.

I’m at the conference because I was asked to participate on a panel about possible careers for people with graduate degrees.

I don't actually have a graduate degree, but they wanted a journalist on the panel, I guess so I can tell them how to be a journalist with their graduate degrees, which I don’t really know. But I do have some thoughts on the topic which I’ll share. It should be a good panel.

The first day of the conference was fun. I sat in on four sessions in which people presented papers or updates on their research or similar academic things.

I spent the morning mostly listening to people talk in some way or another about animal welfare, except for one presenter who talked about using sheep to clear “noxious weeds,” which, believe it or not, is a technical term for non-indigenous vegetation that’s a threat to other plants.

Sheep will eat them in some cases, to very good effect, she said.

Three vegetarians, one whose first name was actually Seven, discussed their research into the “caring-killing paradox” that they experienced and researched as student volunteers on a university’s experimental organic pig farm. It was actually a very interesting presentation.

Then some other sociologists discussed, through narrative, the notion of using a narrative approach to develop a greater understanding of the complexities of animal husbandry — in this case once again involving pigs.

A third sociologist in their group was asked if she ate the meat of the pigs once she witnessed them being slaughtered, and she said “yes, but not without gratitude.”

I don’t think anyone was accusing her of ingratitude, but maybe they were. I can’t say for sure.

In the afternoon I watched people present papers mostly on studies of obesity or eating habits, although I also attended one on how the Philippine delicacy balut — unhatched baby ducklings still in their eggs — was being co-opted by the Western media as an extreme food, simplifying it and presenting it out of context.

I asked him how it tasted, and he said it was sort of like a gristly hard-boiled egg, except the part that's liquid. You drink that first and it tastes kind of like egg drop soup, he said.

One group of researchers found indications that if you use menu-design techniques commonly used for marketing specific items — putting the items in colored boxes, or placing them at one of several key places on the menu where the eye tends to linger, or by using appealing-sounding jargon (hand-picked, chef's special, etc.) they could get senior citizens to order more healthful items.

Displaying calorie and other nutritional information had no effect, they found.

Another study indicated that chefs live unhealthy lives that lead to overeating and excessive drinking. That seems obvious, but, you know, you do need to quantify these things.

Actually, they’re still analyzing their data and it probably won’t be ready until next year.

I haven’t decided what to attend tomorrow. "Anthropology of Wine" looks promising. So does "From Food System Assessment to Food Policy: Indicators That Make a Difference.”

Ooh, and I might start a fight in this one: “Pursuing Poultry Practicalities: Adaptation and Innovation for Sustainable Eggs and Chickens.”

I think I’ll keep my options open.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Food Writer’s Diary’s returning to the mother ship

May 20

Food Writer’s Diary has a new home at NRN.com. Please visit it, so that your page views can be added to those of Nation’s Restaurant News’ other readers, helping us to impress our bosses with our awesomeness.

If you like RSS feeds, you can get Food Writer’s Diary’s here.

I’ll keep cross-posting here for awhile, and of course my 18 gajillion previous blog entries will stay here. But I think you’ll like this blog’s new home. And while you’re there, you might want to click around and see what else is on offer at NRN.com. I think you’ll particularly like the Food and Beverage section, which has all sorts of information on the latest trends and a whole lot of stories written by yours truly.

While I’m doing this shameless self-promotion, I might as well also point you to our Cool Plates feature, which showcases menu items that catch my eye and that I hope will inspire chefs’ creativity.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Beard Awards: press room or audience?

Well, it could be argued that I should hang up my hat as James Beard Foundation Chef and Restaurant Award predictor. Of the 19 categories that I predicted two months ago, I got four of them right: I predicted that Per Se would win for outstanding service, that Eleven Madison Park would win for outstanding restaurant, that Michael Solomonov would win for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic and that Tony Maws would win for best chef in the northeast.

I got everything else wrong.

But that’s all right. The awards were interesting. Portland, Ore., picked up two awards — for Gabriel Rucker of Le Pigeon, who won Rising Star Chef of the Year, which goes to a promising chef aged 30 years or younger; and for Andy Ricker of Pok Pok, who won for best chef in the Northwest.

For best chef in New York, Gabrielle Hamilton beat out Michael Anthony, April Bloomfield, Wylie Dufresne and Michael White.

Cynics would say that she won because she wrote a book, an argument that would have added weight because the winner for best chef in the Southeast, Andrea Reusing of Lantern in Chapel Hill, N.C., also recently had a book published.

We also saw what I think was the first tie in a chef and restaurant award, between Saipin Chutima of Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas and Tyson Cole of Uchi in Austin, Texas.

I was told that Cole was less than gracious about being part of a tie, but I wouldn't know, because I decided to spend the awards in the press room.

I had a ticket to be part of the audience, and I was told I’d have to choose where to go. I could either sit in the audience for more than three hours while awards were handed out and speeches were made, or I could be in the press room, eating meatballs and cheese and drinking cocktails and Champagne and coffee and talking with my fellow food writers while the awards played on monitors in the rooms.

It didn’t used to be like that. These were my 13th Beard Awards, and I remember when you used to be able to move back and forth between theater and press room whenever you liked, watching the ceremony, running back to the press room to interview chefs, running back to the ceremony.

Ultimately I settled for watching the proceedings from the press room, but over the years that room has taken on a life of its own.

It used to be that only about a couple dozen members of the press cared about the Beard Awards — maybe fewer. The press room was a tranquil place. The video feed broke sometimes, or they'd forget to show us the videos of the humanitarian award winner or the who's who inductees, but it wasn't that big a deal.

Now the press room has maybe a hundred people at its most crowded moments, some socializing, some live-tweeting, many asking me who just won as I scampered back to the press room's entryway, where the loudspeakers were located so I could actually hear the results of the awards over the din of the crowd.

It’s a fun party, but the Beard Awards could be on another planet. And now that the Beard Foundation is live-tweeting the results, we don't really need to be there at all.

Still, should I be hanging out with the collegial group of people in the press room, ranging from reporters from Reuters and the Wall Street Journal to representatives from web sites like Eatocracy and Eater and blogs I’ve never heard of, or should I be sitting in the audience and reporting on the Zeitgeist of the ceremony, getting a grasp on what the leaders of the Fine Dining world are thinking about and understanding with my own eyes and ears how Tyson Cole behaved?

A bunch of people don't go to the awards at all, but show up at the afterparties, of which there are many.

After the awards and the reception that followed it, I started across the street from Lincoln Center, where Daniel Boulud's Bar Boulud has new neighbors, Boulud Sud and Epicerie Boulud, which hosted a raucous celebration for which Boulud opened a Balthazar — that's 12 liters — of 1998 Bordeaux.

There I ran into my friend Jennifer Watson, a devoted customer of Daniel’s, but also a devoted customer of The Modern, whose wine director Belinda Chang won the award for Outstanding Wine Service. So we went there next and drank Champagne while I spoke with the writers, chefs and publicists in town for the festivities.

We then took a quick swing by Eleven Madison Park and then on to ABC Kitchen before stopping in The Spotted Pig for a Pimm's Cup and commiserated with the family of Dahlia Narvaez, pastry chef of Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles, who didn’t win the award for best pastry chef. Instead, that award went to Angela Pinkerton of Eleven Madison Park, which also won the award for Outstanding Restaurant.

I think conversation got philosophical, and Jennifer wanted a hamburger, but The Spotted Pig's kitchen had closed, and so we ended the evening, as food-oriented evenings often end, at Blue Ribbon, where I spoke with Christopher Hastings, chef of Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham, Ala., who had lost the award for best chef in the South to Stephen Stryjiewski of Cochon in New Orleans, about the merits of setting up a foundation for the Bocuse d’Or.

Chris Hastings was with Gavin Kaysen, you see, who quite apart from being chef of Cafe Boulud represented the U.S. in the Bocuse d'Or some years back.

But soon Jennifer and I got a table and so instead of continuing the conversation, we had fried chicken.

Then we shared a taxi, which dropped me off in the office before taking her home, and then I wrote this blog entry.

And now I'm going home, too.

Good night.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Chefs’ Night Out, 2011

May 9

What can I say? Chefs are in town for the Beard Awards, last night many of them went to Chelsea Market, some of whose merchants handed out free food, and we ate, drank and were merry.

Well, there are a couple more things to say.

This year’s Chefs Night Out was much more of a James Beard Foundation-sponsored event than in previous years. As far as I could tell, Bon Appétit has stopped any sponsorship of it, which makes sense since they were holding an event on Saturday in Las Vegas. Instead, Gilt, the Food Network and the Cooking Channel were listed as sponsors, and Gilt threw the afterparty, which was also in Chelsea Market, but a different part.

Servers at the various food stations were wearing James Beard Foundation T-shirts with the word “Eat” printed vertically on them — clearly a move at more aggressive branding on the part of the foundation. Good for them, I say.

I took some pictures, which are available for your viewing pleasure at nrn.com.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Incident at the CIA

May 6

Did you know that if you cut your finger at the CIA, it’s an incident?

I don't mean the Central Intelligence Agency. Obviously if you cut your finger there it would be an incident. I mean the Culinary Institute of America, where practically everyone is wielding knives, and a lot of them don’t have much experience doing it.

I figured I’d just grab a band-aid, apply it to my left index finger and get back to work.

But no. I had to sit there with a paper towel wrapped around my finger while a security officer named James came and applied first aid.

“Apply pressure and hold the finger over your head to control the bleeding,” an administrator told me. She seemed concerned that I would bleed out.

All I had done was bring the knife down hard enough on my left index’s fingernail to break it and draw a little blood. I hadn't severed anything. I’d cut myself worse when I was in culinary school. Since that was in France in the 1980s, my chef-instructor wondered why I had stopped chopping apples.

“Because I’m getting blood in them,” I said.

Chef Pétrof agreed that I could wash my finger and apply a bandage to it if I wanted to. Which I did and then finished chopping my apples.

I think I was making a charlotte aux pommes, but I don’t really remember. It was 1986.

Last weekend I was at the CIA's Greystone campus in St. Helena, Calif., for the inaugural Pork Summit.

That event replaces the Taste of Elegance, a the finals of a national competition among chefs to make delicious pork dishes.

In the past, winners of regional competitions would be flown to the semi-finals for a second round of competition, and then the top eight performers in that contest would have to get back into the kitchen to do it again.

Members of the trade press like me were invited to hang out, meet the chefs and learn more about pork.

I guess the National Pork Board decided that it was the hanging out, meeting and learning that was valuable, because they got rid of the national competition. Instead they flew all the regional winners to the Napa Valley for a demonstration on how to butcher half a pig, followed by cooking demonstrations by celebrity chefs.

The next day we were all split into teams to butcher and cook half a pig.

I’m not sure why they decided to have the journalists cook, too, but hey, I'm a team player. I’m no chef, but I do cook, and I'm good at fetching spices and whatnot. I was happy to be a helper.

Our team leader was Philadelphia chef and restaurateur José Garces, who, as you probably know, is also a star of Iron Chef America. He seemed like a good choice for team captain.

“Are you comfortable in a kitchen?” he asked everyone on the team, which included several chefs who won regional competitions, but also me and Plate editor Chandra Ram, both of whom had been to culinary school.

Michigan-based chef Steven Grostick, who was a butcher before he became a chef, volunteered to handle breaking down the pig half.

“I’m a food writer,” I said, and volunteered to fetch things and be a prep cook and slave as they saw fit.

So the next day, José handed me lists of spices and ingredients to fetch. He had me put eggs in the immersion circulator and track down a terrine mold for him to put his scrapple in.

Then he asked: “How are your knife skills?”

Compared to what? I thought. Because, you know, they’re better than my 11-year-old nephew’s but I would presume considerably worse than an Iron Chef’s.

I shrugged and tried to indicate as much trepidation as I could when I said they were okay.

That was good enough for him, and he had me chop mushrooms and julienne onions.

It was interesting to watch José manage everyone. He seemed aware of the need to respect the skills of the other chefs, with whom he spoke with great diplomacy but generally left alone, and he also gave me increasingly challenging tasks, as though he were automatically training me.

I mean, they didn't get too challenging, but I did graduate from chopping mushrooms and onions to finely chopping parsley and chives. I think that’s a little bit harder.

At any rate, it was while I was chopping chives that I managed to smash the fingernail on my right index finger and cause an incident.

Seriously, I thought I just needed to wrap the thing up and keep chopping, but James the security guy rubbed it with an antiseptic ointment and applied one of those fingertip band-aids to my finger — really expertly, I might add; it covered everything perfectly. Then he gave me what he called a “finger cot,” a sort of (non-lubricated) condom for my finger, to keep me from bleeding into the chives. I give him a business card so he could spell my name right in the incident report that he’d have to file.

I apologized to José for the delay in finishing my chive chopping, grabbed some parsley from the walk-in, washed it off and chopped it up.

He had no interest in the fact that I'd chopped up my finger, and I appreciated that.

It made me feel like a grown-up.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

CEOs at Soul Daddy

May 4

Did you know that a cabal of restaurant CEOs get together several times a year to scheme and plot?

Okay, maybe that’s not exactly true. They don’t really plot. They get together and talk about the restaurant businesses and visit restaurants in different cities.

And I guess I wouldn’t call them a cabal. “Some guys” is probably more accurate.

But I don’t really know. Which Wich chief executive Jeff Sinelli just told me about them. They’re in New York now, and Jeff asked me to join some of them at Soul Daddy, the winner of America’s Next Great Restaurant, for a quick bite.

So I went to the South Street Seaport and met Abe Ng, president, CEO and chief sushi officer (so says his business card) of Sushi Maki in Miami, and David Goronkin, who doesn’t have a business card because he’s between jobs. He used to be the boss at Bennigan’s, and on June 1 he starts as CEO of Real Mex Restaurants, which operate the Chevys, El Torito and Acapulco chains.

We picked at the food, and then Jeff asked for a manager and quizzed him about the restaurant.

I didn't have to do anything. I just sat there and sampled the wild rice salad while Jeff interviewed the guy.

It turns out that America’s Next Great Restaurant was filmed last year, and the winner, Jamawn Woods, didn’t know he won until it was announced on Sunday. But in the meantime, Steve Ells and the other investors in this next great restaurant got to work hiring staff and securing real estate and generally making the restaurant happen in three places at once — Los Angeles, New York and Minneapolis.

That they kept the restaurant’s identity under wraps all that time is amazing.

The manager confirmed that the New York restaurant was packed on its first two days of business. But it was pretty quiet when I met the CEOs there at 5:10 on its third day of business. It was a crappy, rainy day, which might have had something to do with it.

The food is supposed to be soul food that's good for you.

We tried the ribs and the chicken and the pulled pork sandwich, the black-eyed pea salad and the wild rice salad and the sweet potato salad and the cabbage slaw. We had a cornbread waffle and some cheese grits.

The manager told us that the menu items were developed based merely on their names, which the investment partners gave to their development team in Denver.

And I don’t like to badmouth a place, so I’ll say I liked the waffles and the cheese grits. The rest of it tasted like it was good for you.

It would be harsh to say it’s soul food without soul, but, well, I guess I just did.

Jeff, Abe and David had dinner plans with Drew Nieporent, who was going to show them Tribeca Grill, Nobu and Centrico, so that was probably fun.

A new Rickshaw’s coming to town

May 4

I just got off the phone with Rickshaw Dumpling Bar owner Kenny Lao, who’s opening his second location in Manhattan next week.

Or maybe it's his sixth location. It kind of depends on how you look at it. 

The new restaurant is at 459 Lexington Avenue. That's the northwest corner of Lexington and 45th.

“We're aiming to open early next week,” Kenny said. That's when the butcher paper you see in the picture will come off of the windows.

He already has one brick-and-mortar store on 23rd Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues, and he also has a fleet of four food trucks.

It was what he learned from his food trucks that told him where to open his next restaurant. 

“We realized with our trucks that there was a large base of customers here in Midtown who loved us. We responded to how well the trucks do parking around here, as well as to requests from customers, and we started looking for a new location.”

Kenny’s optimistic about the restaurant’s prospects.

“We think it’s going to be fantasmo,” he said.

That would be an improvement over the last store he opened, on Eighth Street, near NYU. It failed to thrive and closed after the economy went south.

The health inspector has been by, the permits are in place, but Kenny’s still trying to figure out his new magnetic menu board, which you can see in the picture. He says keeping all of those letters in a straight line is a lot harder than it looks.

The denizens of Midtown East have gotten familiar with Rickshaw's classic pork, chicken Thai basil and edamame dumplings, but at the new shop they’ll have the whole gamut to choose from, including Peking duck, kimchi beef, Szechuan chicken, and mustard green veggie dumplings, along with steamed buns, three salads instead of the single one that's available at the trucks, a bunch of sides and four different noodle soups.

Some new items are being added with the new opening, too, including warm sesame noodles.

Those are made from fresh Shanghai noodles and what Kenny calls “a really creamy sesame paste sauce with scallions and cucumbers.” 

He’s also adding a cucumber wakame salad and herbaceous Vietnamese spring rolls — not the fried kind, the other kind — with a peanut dipping sauce.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Poll results: fries should be replaced on kids menus

April 19

The bulk of this blog's poll takers — 67 percent — think French fries should be replaced on kids' menus, and a solid plurality — 42 percent — would do the same thing with adults' menus.

That’s not to say fries should be banned, just that they shouldn’t be the default option. Why not live it up with some artichoke or mango from time to time?

Twenty-eight people voted in the poll, which really isn’t terrible, but it’s not great, either, so my next poll is a poll on what sort of polls you’d like to participate in on this blog.

You can view the results of the most recent poll below:

  7 (25%)

Yes, and on adults' menus, too
  12 (42%)

  4 (14%)

I don’t care
  3 (10%)

  2 (7%)

Votes: 28

[April 28 update: never mind — clearly you’d like to leave the poll choices up to me.]

My personal taste
  1 (16%)
Beard Award nominees
  0 (0%)
predicting trends
  3 (50%)
Social or health issues
  2 (33%)
I want to read your blog, not take polls
  0 (0%)

Votes so far: 6
Poll closed 

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Biryani and mangoes in Hyderabad

April 14

On the left is a picture of what biryani is supposed to look like, so I'm told. I took it with my cell phone, so it's not of the best quality, but according to the menu at Paradise restaurant in Hyderabad, the grains of rice in a biryani should all be separate — no sticking together.

Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh state, claims to be the birthplace of biryani, and the best place to eat it. And Paradise, by several accounts, is as good a place as any to get it. So while the franchisors on the trade mission were having their late morning speed dates, I hired a driver to help me find mangoes and to take me to Paradise.

When I worked in Thailand, a place with very fine mangoes as far as I and the Thais are concerned, my Indian colleagues would snigger and laugh at the local fruits, declaring them to be inadequate shadows of real Indian mangoes.

My pre-trip research indicated that mangoes were in season now in India, and although the people of Mumbai told me it was a bit early for the prized fruits yet, they agreed that I might have better luck in Hyderabad, farther south.

The Hyderabadis laughed at me — about as politely as you can laugh at someone, but they laughed — and suggested I wait a couple of weeks before trying mangoes.

I pointed out to them that I was in India now and would not be in a couple of weeks, and suggested that perhaps with Indian mangoes being so good, even those that were not at the peak of season might possibly be the best I’d ever tasted, and they agreed that that might be so.

So I had my driver take me to the fruit market. To see what we could find.

There weren’t a lot of mangoes, but there were some, and after wandering around for awhile the driver recommended a stand to me, and I bought a kilo of mangoes for 40 rupees — about a dollar.

They had the great floral aroma of a good mango and the promise of a complex and nuanced flavor that I would expect from an excellent piece of fruit.

Delighted with my purchase, I headed to Paradise for lunch and had mutton biryani.

What can I say? All the Biryani I’d had in the past was basically rice pilaf with meat in it, and so was this. The distinguishing characteristics were very long-grained basmati rice that didn't stick together and a strong but not overpowering cardamom aroma. This being Andhra Pradesh, which claims to be the state with the spiciest food (although I’m told that some people in Tamil Nadu would beg to differ), there was also plenty of chile in the rice.

It was tasty. I suppose it might have been the most delicious biryani I'd ever had. I don't know. It was hardly worth a trip to Hyderabad to eat, but since I was there already I was glad for the experience, and to have a benchmark for what is considered great biryani.

Back at the hotel, I had the staff peel and slice my mangoes for me, which they did with alacrity.

And let me tell you, they were terrible. The flesh had the right orange color, glistening sheen and slippery texture of a good mango, but it was soulless and sour, and I was sorely disappointed.