Thursday, February 17, 2011

Pick your own rising star chef

February 17

Well, the James Beard Foundation released its list of 403 semi-finalists in its chef and restaurant categories (not including the design and graphics awards, which don’t have semi-finalists).

It’s a relatively fresh list, with only about half of last year’s semifinalists returning, which is about in line with the number of returning semifinalists last year, too.

For the most part, the Beard Awards are a nice feather in your cap that if marketed properly can help boos sales in restaurants, and that’s about it.

But the Rising Star award, given to chefs aged 30 or younger, can be a real career maker. Just ask Nate Appleman or Marcus Samuelsson or Chris Lee or David Chang or any of a number of other chefs who benefited from that nice piece of recognition.

Nominations of semifinalists for the Beard Awards is open to the public, but now the final determination of the finalists and then the winners will be determined by a few hundred food writers and past winners and other people-in-the-know in the restaurant world.

Except here. I’ll be keeping the poll to the right, listing all of the Beard Foundation’s “Rising Star” semifinalists, open until the day before the finalists are announced. So go ahead and vote.

Last year the winner of the Food Writer’s Diary poll, Jonathan Sawyer, didn’t even make it into the finals of the actual Beard Awards. However Food & Wine magazine did name him one of the country’s 10 “Best New Chefs,” which is arguably better than being a Beard Foundation rising star.

I doubt that had anything to do with this poll, but go ahead and vote anyway. Let your voice be heard.

Monday, February 07, 2011

What The Loop Pizza Grill has learned about Facebook

February 7

I just got off of the phone with Cathy Manzon, director of marketing for The Loop Pizza Grill, a 14-unit chain based in Jacksonville, Fla. Mostly I was talking to her about pizza trends for a story I’m working on for the magazine (available online for subscribers).

But I also asked her about how they get feedback from customers. She said they have comment cards, but people very rarely fill them out.

If they have something negative to say, they generally register their complaints on the web site.

If they have something nice to say, they say it on Facebook.

I thought that was interesting enough that it was worth sharing.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Why Domino’s Pacific Veggie pizza sells so well

February 3

Awhile back I was talking to an official at Domino's Pizza who expressed surprise at how well the delivery giant’s American Legends Pacific Veggie pie was selling. I mentioned that last November in a story on how chain restaurants are changing the ways they develop menu items.

You expect sausage to sell, and of course pepperoni, as this story in yesterday’s New York Times points out. That the Philly Cheesesteak pizza sells well is no surprise.

But Pacific Veggie?

It’s not like it’s even particularly good for you. Domino’s American Legends line has 40 percent more cheese than the chain’s regular pizza (the Wisconsin cheese producers helped to promote the line) — not that actual nutrition and what customers think is nutritious is necessarily related anyway.

Still, Domino’s executives wanted to offer a meatless option, but they didn’t expect it to sell well. Yet it did.

I mentioned that today to Joe Calcagno, the chef-owner of Capizzi Pizza, which opened quietly last October across the street from Port Authority, on 9th Avenue and between 40th and 41st streets, in New York City.

He said “of course it sells well.” Vegetarians make up a large contingent of pizzeria customers.

Think about it, he said. Pizzerias always have good vegetarian options — a cheese pizza, if nothing else, and very possibly pastas and antipasti and all sorts of non-meat things.

I’d never thought about that before.

Capizzi’s a serious little (35-seat) pizzeria. Joe built the oven himself (that’s a side business of his), and he dries his own oregano, crushes his own red pepper, found some sort of heirloom pepperoni.

I’d tell you more about it, but I have to write a story for our magazine in a couple of weeks, and I don’t want to give away all the good stuff.

In fact, that story will be in our subscriber’s-only section of, so if you want to read it, you should subscribe.

Come on, almost all of the cool people already subscribe. Once you sign up, we’ll be all set.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Dantes, celebrities and Jumbos at the Beard House

February 2

Mario Cantone likes my wit.

I know he does because he told me so last night.

“I like your wit,” he said.

That’s right. Comedic performer Mario Cantone thinks I have wit. And he likes it.

I don’t know if he likes your wit because he didn’t say, but he likes mine.

We were at the James Beard House last night, having a dinner that had been dubbed “Battle of the Dantes” — later changed to “Dueling Dantes” which is equally Top Chef-like and not what chefs do when they cook together at the Beard House. Dual Dantes would have worked, or Dante Duo or even Dante Duet.

But when grown-up chefs cook together, they don’t fight. They collaborate, and that was clearly what Boston-based Dante de Magistris and Dante Boccuzzi, from Cleveland, were doing last night.

Mario Cantone doesn’t like Top Chef, by the way, because viewers can’t taste the food, and so they can't judge with any intelligence.

But his dining companion and former work colleague said she enjoys Top Chef. She gets into the food. She was seated between Mario and me. You might have heard of her, because she was Kim Cattrall.

She’s a nice person to have dinner with. She tells stories that are amusing and brief about travel and life experience. She graciously and politely answers questions about being a celebrity without droning on about it. She asks other people about themselves.

So we exchanged observations about restaurants. She had eaten a fair amount of Dante Boccuzzi’s food before because she lives near Aureole’s former Upper East Side location, where Dante was executive chef for a number of years.

“He’s cooked for me many times,” she said, showing an admirable awareness for the fact that it’s good to be a celebrity in a restaurant — although she later said it was a drag to go to places, particularly on Madison Avenue (who knew?) where fans are likely to harass you when you’d just like to have a meal.

Obviously, one must be grateful to fans, so she’s fine with signing autographs, but pictures are a drag because if one person sees someone having a picture taken with her then everyone wants to have a picture taken with her.

Anyway, she was nice. And she can eat.

So the celebrities were on my left. To my right: Jumbos.

Ben Bell, who does social networking at The Huffington Post, was there with Simone Press, who’s in an entry-level job at CBS (as is appropriate, since they graduated from college in, like, 2007).

We bonded quickly, because we all went to college outside of Boston.

No, we didn’t go to Harvard, we went to Tufts. Sure, I graduated 17 years before them, but we can still bond.

Especially since we didn’t just all go to Tufts, we all studied in China.

Well, sort of — they studied in Hong Kong, which was still a British colony when I was roughing it in Nanjing in 1988, but it’s certainly more adventurous then spending your junior year in London, say.

Did you know Kim Cattrall was born in Britain and grew up in British Columbia (Vancouver Island) as well as London?

She says she can totally walk around in London without anyone bothering her. New Yorkers take pride in leaving celebrities alone when they see them, but Kim says we’re not nearly as good at it as Londoners are.

Mario Cantone, a Massachusetts native, was the celebrity who was invited to the dinner, by Dante de Magistris’ publicists [or so I thought — it turns out that he was invited by Dante Boccuzzi’s people, because, like Kim, he became a fan of Dante’s at Aureole; see comment #1 below]. Kim was his guest. When the chefs came out with their crew at the end of the meal, as one does at the Beard House, Mario declared loudly — shouted, really — that he knew that the Dantes had just left their wives and were hooking up that evening in the St. Regis.

Kim bowed her head slightly, appropriately embarrassed.

“Write it up!” Mario said to me of his declaration of the Dantes' mutual love.

Sure, why not?

Consider it written up.

What we ate and drank:

by Dante Boccuzzi:
Truffled mortadella panino (the best bologna sandwich I’ve ever had).
“Caviar in a cloud” (American sturgeon roe in potato foam over cooked egg yolk)

by Dante de Magistris:
“Vitello tonnato“ (but with a piece of raw tuna instead of the traditional sauce made from canned tuna) with caluiflower giardiniera
Candied guanciale and artichoke dip
NV rosé brut Conti di Buscareto, (Ancona, Marche, Italy)
Crudo (by Dante Boccuzzi):
Long Island fluke with octopus garnish, blood oranges, extra virgin oil Toscano, mustard greens
(2009 Anima Umbria Bianco, Arnaldo Caprai, (Umbria, Italy)

Trota (by Dante de Magistris):
Mafalde pasta Alfredo, smoked trout, trout roe and black radish
2009 Grechetto, “Grecante,” Arnaldo Caprai, (still Umbria)

by Dante Boccuzzi: Black pepper seared quail, black quinoa risotto, leeks, rosemary toasted pine nuts
by Dante de Magistris: Chestnut and porcini stuffed quail Milanese with pomegranate molasses and pear mostarda
2007 Montefalco Rosso, Arnaldo Caprai (you know the drill)

by Dante Boccuzzi (who said he’d never cooked boar before): Confit boar shoulder and prosciutto, persimmon compote, green garlic chives, yuzu soy gastrique
by Dante de Magistris: Slow roasted boar loin, peperonata, vincotto, cocoa, hazelnuts
2004 Sagrantino di Montefalco, “Collepiano,” Arnaldo Caprai...

by Dante Boccuzzi: Chocolate hazelnut arancino with caramelized bananas and passion fruit syrup
by Dante de Magistris: Chocolate eggplant pasticcio, amarena cherries, cedro citrus
NV “Cardamaro,” Giovanni Bosca, Canelli (Piedmont, Italy).

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Marion Nestle on the new USDA dietary guidelines

February 1

If you’re an avid follower of the quintennial release of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s dietary guidelines, then yesterday was a big day for you.

Or maybe it wasn’t. The guidelines were certainly released yesterday, but they weren’t earth shattering. At least that’s what Marion Nestle told me. I’m not an avid follower of the USDA’s five-year declaration, in conjunction with the Department of Health and Human Services, of what we should eat, so I don’t really know.

But apparently it was the same perfectly reasonable guidelines that say, basically, that you should eat a balanced diet. That’s stated in 23 specific recommendations — an improvement over the 43 recommendations in the last set of guidelines, according to Nestle, the Paulette Goddard Professor at New York University's Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health (and the department's former chair).

But she was delighted by the press materials that accompanied it, which underscored the fact that obesity is a huge health problem in the United States, with more than one third of children and more than two-thirds of adults being overweight.

The first bullet point in the press release announcing the guidelines: “Enjoy your food, but eat less.”
“That’s fantastic,” Nestle said: Clear, concise, to the point.

She said she wished the guidelines themselves were so pointed.

Indeed, the guidelines themselves don't say to eat less, they say to “control calories.”

Nestle, author of ”Food Politics,” among other books, says politics is the reason the USDA doesn’t come out and tell Americans to eat less. They tell us to eat fewer of certain ingredients (she said “nutrients,” but I think that term could confuse a lot of people in this context), such as sugar, sodium and saturated fat, and more of such foods as vegetables and whole grains.

Foods are only singled out when the USDA says to eat more of them, when it comes to eating less, the guidelines get more abstract.

That’s because the USDA oversees all American agricultural products, including grains that are made into simple carbohydrates and animal products that contain a lot of saturated fat. The corn and beef industries would have a fit if Americans were told to eat less of their food, Nestle said.

I’m not sure she singled out corn and beef in this particular conversation, but I know those are some of the foods she had in mind — we’ve spoken about this topic at length.

The basic thesis of "Food Politics" is that the United States produces far more calories per person than we should healthily consume, and that that fact is a fundamental reason for the obesity epidemic.