Wednesday, July 26, 2006

bad press kit

July 26

Got a restaurant press kit that didn't contain a menu. I threw it away.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

trans fat heads

July 19

I read in the Nation's Restaurant News Daily News Fax today that Chicago Alderman Edward Burke has reworded a bill currently working its way through the City Council that would prohibit restaurants from using oil containing trans fats.
He was persuaded by the Illinois Restaurant Association to change the bill to affect only restaurant companies with $20 million or more in annual sales, the reason being that the change away from trans fats would be too expensive for smaller restaurants.
Now, I think outlawing food of any sort is stupid, but the Chicago City Council is the same legislative body that idiotically banned foie gras. So here’s my question: Why is it okay for small companies to poison people but not big ones?

They couldn’t even wait a month

July 19

Yesterday I got yet another premium vodka. This one's French, and made only from the wheat grown in that country's Brie Champagne region that is then mixed with spring water from the Vosges mountains.
The marketing tactic of this vodka, you see, is to tie itself to the European system of designating food by its geographic origin. Parmigiano-Reggiano can only come from a particular section of Emilia-Romagna in Italy. Sancerre wine can only come from Sancerre, France.
Neither of those items is likely to be consumed with cranberry juice or apple pucker, however.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Sea of white

July 18

During the general session of the American Culinary Federation's annual convention, which just concluded in Philadelphia, education director Michael Baskette commented on the "sea of white" seated before him. He was marveling at all the people in chef coats, but he could just as easily have been commenting on the people in them.
The ACF continues to be one of the whitest organizations I know of; the manliest, too, if that's an accurate way to describe an organization without many women in it.
That's a strange thing in the American culinary world, where the lingua franca is Spanish owing to those who make up the backbone of nearly every professional kitchen in the country.
Just over half of the new students in culinary schools are women.
The New York Times created a kerfuffle earlier this year when it noted how few African American chefs are heading up kitchens. That topic was brought up at the New York Public Library during the question-and-answer part of a discussion among Anthony Bourdain, Mario Batali and Bill Buford. Bourdain pointed out that the dearth of hispanics among the ranks of top toques was an even more obvious travesty.
No one seems to know why this is. Professional kitchens tend to be genuine meritocracies, where you can be a ne'er-do-well, malcontent, illiterate drug addict or whatever else you want to be. If you show up on time and do your work, you're cool. If you have aptitude, you'll be promoted. Labor's in too short supply to do otherwise.
The foodservice industry, which tends to lean rather heavily toward the political right, loves immigrants, and many in it advocate an open-door policy.
Still, only at the convention that just concluded, in 2006, did Ferdinand Metz, president emeritus of The Culinary Institute of America and current head of the World Association of Chefs Societies (it used to be cooks societies, but the name was changed earlier this year), announce that WACS was now launching a program to help develop women chefs "believe it or not."
The ACF's immediate past president, Edward Leonard, did launch some programs that he hoped would attract African American and Hispanic chefs and help them feel at home. He arranged for them to have their own networking sessions, for example.
I don't know how well it worked.
The ACF does have a few Hispanics and African-Americans, and a fair number of Asians. I wonder if one reason for the whiteness of the organization is that most of its recruitment efforts are made at the more expensive culinary schools, whereas minority cooks, even in 2006, still work their way up the ranks by starting as dishwashers and prep cooks.
I did meet the first obviously gay couple I'd ever met at an ACF conference, so diversity is on the march, even if it's a slow march.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

A big stud and the perfect mint julep

July 13

I spent the past couple of days in Kentucky, visiting a bull and a bourbon distillery.
The bull was Prime, father of all the steak served at Primehouse, the Steve Hanson restaurant in Chicago whose chef is steak maestro and generally creative guy David Burke.
On the surface, Steve Hanson and David Burke are an unexpected team. Hanson's B.R. Guest restaurants tend not to be chef-driven. Instead, Hanson seems to run his restaurants from the perspective that, when people eat out, they want to get good service in a fun setting. The food doesn't need to impress, it just needs to meet expectations — to be good enough, as it were. The restaurants of Stephen Starr, Jeffrey Chodorow and other extremely successful operators seem to work on the same philosophy, although they sometimes take umbrage when I say so.
On the other hand, some B.R. Guest restaurants are clearly food- and chef-driven, such as Fiamma, whose chef Michael White has won high praise for his Italian food (I had a meal there for the Bon Appétit Food and Entertaining Awards awhile back and Mario Batali himself gushed over the pasta, and Mario Batali's no idle gusher).
Anyway, with Primehouse, the culinary focus is on its bull.
Prime is a beefcake stud of a Black Angus who spends his days strutting around Creekstone Farms in Kentucky, where his semen is collected three times a day, either to be frozen or inseminated into waiting females of similarly good breeding. In this case, breeding has nothing to do with manners or the ability to sneer with grace at the lower classes (which I guess would be Herefords and Brahmas and Holsteins and so on, not to mention Chianinis, I mean, really), but to marble well — to put on weight in such a way that little veins of fat are distributed evenly throughout your muscles, making for flavorful yet tender meat.
Prime’s children are raised on a mostly-grass diet until they are ready to be sent to Kansas feed lots, where they are fattened up mostly on grain until they're the right weight and size to be delicious rib-eyes, sirloins and filets. Then they're "harvested" and sent to many places, including Prime, where David Burke ages and cooks them.
Prime is the latest and perhaps most extreme example of the trend to identify the origins of foods. Hanson so liked the idea that he was hoping to continue the theme in other aspects of the restaurant. He wanted to get a supply of the straws used to store bull semen and use them (unused ones) as swizzle sticks.
He was dissuaded from the idea, but it took awhile.
In fact, Eben Klemm, who's in charge of B.R. Guest's beverage programs and who was in Kentucky with me, said Primehouse's purchasing manager was instructed to buy some semen straws and figure out how to do something with them.
He ordered them, opened the package, and only then realized that he had been sent not only the straws, but full ones with semen in them.
That bummed him out.
Freelance writer Greg Lindsay, who also was on the trip — nice guy, funny and smart as a whip — suggested quite seriously that bull semen could be an excellent cocktail ingredient, to be offered for a hefty supplement to testosterone-pumped types on the Chicago Board of Trade for example.
Hey, they'll drink Red Bull and vodka.
We also visited the Maker's Mark distillery, whose master distiller, Dave Pickerell, gave me the most detailed recipe I could imagine for a Mint Julep.
Maker's Mark, I learned on the tour, is all about removing bitterness from its brew. It uses no rye in its grain mix, just corn, wheat and malted barley, and it uses a roller mill instead of a hammer one to grind the grain so that no grain gets scorched (scorching creates bitter flavors). Maker's Mark is aged to be only sweet, without sourness or bitterness, and the entire taste experience is supposed to occur in the front of the mouth.
So Dave Pickerell isn't about to mull the mint for his julep. Mulling releases tannins, you see, which are bitter. So instead he creates an infusion, wrapping a bunch of mint leaves in cheese cloth, dipping them in bourbon, and squeezing, dipping and squeezing, dipping and squeezing until he has a nice, strong, minty infusion.
Separately, he combines six parts bourbon with one part simple syrup. He puts that in the freezer, and when it's time to make juleps, he pours it over ice and adds the infusion until it reaches the desired mintyness. He serves the juleps with straws cut short, forcing those drinking them to get up close to the drink to get a strong whiff of the mint.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Commando partying

July 10

Sometimes here in the New York food scene so many interesting-sounding events are going on that I try to make my version of commando raids — arriving, saying "hi, hi," having a drink, learning a fact and leaving for the next event.
Normally, Sundays in the summer are dead and I'm at home doing laundry or playing a computer game (Civilization IV), but the Fancy Food Show is underway, and many companies are taking the opportunity to show off their stuff.
So commando-style party attendance was in order.
That's hard to do, however, when your first event features an Italian product — Grana Padano cheese, in this case — and your host and many of the guests are in another room watching the World Cup championship between France and Italy (Italy won in a penalty-kick tie-breaker, which many people find gripping but I just think is kind of lame). That event was supposed to start at 4:30, so I had no idea that they expected us to sit down for dinner AFTER all the niceties and speaches given by representatives from the Grana Padano consorzio and various trade commissioners and so on — and then translated into English.
That was at Felidia, on the border between the Upper East Side and Midtown, and I had an event way downtown at Tribeca Grill (for Jamon Iberico) that started at 5:30. And I wasn't really at Felidia for the cheese, but for the Franciacorta they were pouring with it. Franciacorta is a sparkling wine I really like that comes, I believe, from the Italian region of Lombardy, which also is where a lot of Grana Padano comes from.
I learned at the event that Padano means "of or pertaining to the Po River," and that Grana Padano comes from several Italian regions in areas north of the Po.
Believe it or not, that will be a useful bit of information somewhere in the future. I know it will be.
My friend Arlyn Blake was at Felidia, too, and she and I finally decided to make a run for it at 5:50, when all we had eaten was three pieces of cheese, all of different ages and made in different seasons to reflect the variety in the world of Grana Padano. It was going to be a long night there.
So instead we apologized and hopped into the car of Arlyn's boyfriend, Sal, who drove us to the Tribeca Grill.
That was the see-and-be-seen party. I'm not sure why. Maybe chefs like Wylie Dufresne and Aaron Sanchez and pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini and writers like Jeffrey Steingarten and Peter Kaminsky and Kate Krader were there to sample the Jamon Iberico that was being presented by chef José Andres (Peter Kaminsky definitely was). Or maybe they were there because everyone likes José and wanted to see him. Or maybe they were there because almost everyone like's Drew Nieporent, Tribeca Grill's owner, and they wanted to see him.
It would have been a good place to hang out, but I had a dinner commitment back uptown near Columbus Circle, at San Domenico. So I walked to the 1 train and ran into Beverly Stephen of Food Arts and a friend of hers whose name didn't quite sink in. They, too, were headed to San Domenico, for a dinner by a chef from Italy's Campania region that also featured Campanian wine.
I sat down at my assigned table and the woman next to me, while doing something with her blackberry quizzed me as to who I was and what business I had being there. Was I in the industry? Did I have a culinary background?
Try not to do that when you go to a dinner party. It's, well, unbelievably bad form.
I thought of being a jerk right back, but instead introduced myself to her and then to everyone else at the table and we ended up having a very nice time exchanging amusing anecdotes. That's why you should avoid being a jerk at the beginning of dinner parties; you have to sit with those people for the rest of the night.
One person cited a "fact" she'd heard at a nutrition seminar that 33 percent of women were not interested in sex (the seminar was apparently trying to correlate bad nutrition with lack of interest in sex and a bunch of other things).
That seems like an awefully high percentage for a species that has managed to survive for even the several hundreds of thousands of years that we've been around. If you have any notion of where that statistic comes from, I'd love to hear about it.

What I ate at San Domenico:
Passato di fagioli di Controne con scuncigli e bottarga
Timbalo di bucatini, patate e provola su salsa di carote
Parmigiana di alici fresche
Filetto di maiale alla erbe con umidi di cardiofi
Fondente di cioccolato con mousse di ricotta
Caffe & piccola paticceria

and what I drank there:
Asprinio di Aversa, Fescine, Cantine Caputo, 2005
Fiano di Avellino, Campore Terredora, 2003
Aglianico Donnaluna, De Conciliiis, 2004

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Alien abduction

July 5

A propos of not much, a question occurred to me after I finished writing a column on animal treatment:

Is alien abduction their form of catch-and-release?

It’s the 5th, so there must be a new organic vodka

July 5

A month ago today I went to the launch party of a superpremium organic vodka. Today, I got two airplane bottles of another one. This one’s from Hawaii and apart from being organic, it declares that a portion of the profits from sales of the vodka goes to “organizations that help to protect and revitalize the ocean’s resources.”
That’s very nice, but, I mean, it’s vodka. How many factors am I supposed to consider when selecting a flavorless beverage?
Then again, although the superpremium vodka craze shows no sign of abating, as the marketplace for the stuff gets more and more crowded, I guess you might as well think up as many distinguishing characteristics as you can.
This vodka, by the way, is made from a combination of rye and corn. Last month's was just rye.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Mystic Coffee II: The Grown-ups' table

July 3

My taxi driver suggested that perhaps the friendly people I encountered in Mystic were tourists.
Maybe, but the guy in the restaurant seemed local.
Anyway, I managed to get to the lighthouse museum lawn in time for Erica and Jono's wedding. In fact, I was there early enough to chat with Will Guidara who, apart from being a friend of the bride and groom, also is one of New York restaurateur Danny Meyer's underlings. He's in management at the foodservice operations at the Museum of Modern Art, which are run by Meyer's company. I congratulated Will on The Modern, the fine dining restaurant in the museum, winning the Beard award for best new restaurant and we chatted about the recent barbecue block party thrown on 27th street, where Blue Smoke, another Danny Meyer restaurant, is located. Will was on staff at that event, too, putting out fires (figuratively) and generally making sure things flowed well. I have yet to attend that party. Will suggested that if they hold it again next year and I decide to go, I should go on day 2, when operational kinks are banged out and the lines move more quickly. Makes sense.
I asked him off the record what kinks needed to be worked out at the museum, and he told me, but it was off the record, so you're just going to have to guess what he said.
Freelance writer Charlotte Kaiser was there, too, with her husband, Ari Weinberg, who used to work for Forbes but quit to go to business school at Harvard (the priorities of some people, I tell ya).
I sat next to Charlotte during the ceremony, but at dinner I was seated at a grown-up table.
I'm something like nine years older than Erica, so it made sense, really, that I was seated with Erica's mother and various godparents of the Pandolfi boys. But I'd never been seated at a grown-up table at a wedding before, at least not at a table earmarked for people a generation older than the happy couple, and it kind of surprised me.
It was a fun table. We grabbed bottles of wine from the bartenders as I talked venture capital with a venture capitalist, and learned clever techniques for raising teenage children from people who had successfully done so: A family friend of the Pandolfis, who also was at my table, has a daughter aged between Chris and Nick. She said that 13-year-olds really do need babysitters, but of course you can't get them a babysitter; they'd kill you or the babysitter or both of you. So Chris was paid $5 an hour to "hang out" with the family friend's daughter, who was later paid to hang out with young Nick.
Nick's about 20 now, and is taking reservations at Gramercy Tavern, another Danny Meyer restaurant, while also being a volunteer slave for Chanterelle chef-owner David Waltuck.
Nick had wanted to go to culinary school but his father insisted that he get a four-year degree first. It seems to be working out well for him.
Sitting with the grown-ups didn't keep me from playing with the kids as the night progressed. We wandered to what apparently was the only bar still open in Stonington at 10pm on a Sunday in the middle of the summer, and then when that place closed we caroused loudly about the beaches of Stonington.
Stonington's a wealthy community, no-doubt well-policed, and so I wondered how closely our moves were being monitored. Were police radios reporting on the movements of the Pandolfi post-wedding party?
"They've left the parking lot and have moved to Lobster Point. Over."
I suppose if we'd engaged in vandalism we would have found out.
Special props to Dan DiSalvo, a college friend of Jono's and a poly-sci professor at Amherst, who gave up his seat in someone's car so I could be taken back to my lodgings at Whaler's Inn in Mystic. Nice guy.
Today I sampled the pizza at Mystic Pizza, you know, from the movie. They should practice cooking their crusts through. Maybe their ovens are too hot.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Mystic coffee

July 2,

"Hi, I'd like a large, black, unsweetened iced coffee, please."
That seems like a really straightforward way to ask for a large, black, unsweetened iced coffee, but it has confused two people in a row, who tried to give me hot coffee. I'm in the Northeastern United States, where iced coffee is an extremely common thing to order in July, so I'm not sure what I'm doing wrong.
The first person to give me hot coffee was in New York's Penn Station. She seemed to be a recent Slavic immigrant, so maybe I was just speaking too quickly or something. At any rate, I thought my train was about to leave so I just took it and got on the train, which sat there for another 40 minutes.
The train was waiting for another train that was nine (9!) hours late, I presume due to flooding. I was on the last train to Boston for the evening, and I guess the conductor or whoever decides when to delay a train thought it was reasonable for us to wait for those passengers. It seemed reasonable to me, too.
But it meant I pulled into my destination, Mystic, Connecticut, 50 minutes late. It was close to 11 when I got to my hotel, and I flipped through the guide in my room to see if anything other than the 24-hour Tim Hortons might still be open. Angie's Pizza Restaurant & Pier 27 serves until 1 a.m. on weekends and was a short walk away, so I took the opportunity to study Connecticut pizza culture a bit.
Don't laugh. Connecticut has a complex pizza culture, most notably in New Haven, where the super-thin crusts of a couple of local pizza places are greatly admired by pizza cognoscenti nationwide.
Pier 27 — the bar side of Angie's Pizza Restaurant & Pier 27, and the only part that stays open after 11, it seems — is a friendly neighborhood place whose mostly-middle aged guests yesterday evening seemed to really enjoy their Jimmy Buffett and Eagles and other music of that genre. Two raucous women were doing shots — one was drinking tequila, the other vodka — although the bartender said the Jagermeister tap got a lot of usage and was one of the most popular shots in the bar.
I shuddered and dug into my small sausage pizza.
Pier 27’s pizza has a pretty thick crust, perhaps midway between New York- and Chicago-style. It was crisp while the pizza was too hot to eat, but it got kind of soggy as the pizza cooled down.
My first and only back-of-the-house restaurant job was as a cook at a three-unit chain in Denver called Pizza Bug (the pizza was delivered in Volkswagen bugs), but I’ve never been a fussy pizza guy. I mean, I had tomato sauce, cheese and sausage in front of me, what was there to complain about?
This morning I had my typical splurge-in-a-diner breakfast of coffee, two eggs over-easy with sausage, home fries and whole wheat toast. Then I walked around Mystic and had lunch of fried clam strips at Sea Swirl. They were mild clam strips, overwhelmed by the tartar sauce that was served with it, so I didn’t eat the tartar sauce.
On the way back to my hotel I stopped by Tim Hortons and ordered a large, black, unsweetened iced coffee. The person at the counter, who seemed like a native English speaker, handed me a large, black, unsweetened hot coffee.
Is it me? I wondered. Am I swallowing my words?
I apologized and said I actually wanted iced coffee. She gave me a "why didn't you say so?" look and gave me the iced coffee I'm still drinking now. It's in a gigantic styrofoam cup called "The Tank" that contains at least a quart of liquid. The coffee itself is a delicious medium-roast so the beans’ nice fruity, acidic nuances are coming through. A+.
I like this town of Mystic. It’s quaint and pretty in the way that many New England towns are, but the people are really warm. They greet you on the street as you walk by, and some random customer at 41 North, the restaurant where I had breakfast, made eye-contact with me as I left and said “I hope you have a good day.” I wished him the same.
This is not typical New England behavior, where people tend to be quite standoffish, and it’s certainly not typical behavior of people in touristy towns. It deserves further investigation.

I’m in Mystic to attend the wedding of my friend and colleague Erica Duecy. She’s marrying jeweler, potter, artist and all-around nice guy Jono Pandolfi, who is a member of quite a talented family. Brother Chris plays the banjo down south somewhere. Other brother Nick, an NYU student, is an aspiring chef. His brothers tell stories of Nick’s gingerbread house with stained glass windows that he made from smashed, melted rock candy. Smart!
Since I’m a food writer, people often (almost always) ask me to pass judgment on the food at weddings. I always say it scores 10 out of 10.