Dispatches: Growing Chefs

American Food Pioneer Larry Forgione Schools a New Generation at the Culinary Institute of America

Larry Forgione in St. Helena, California. (photo courtesy Culinary Institute of America)

Larry Forgione in St. Helena, California. (photo courtesy Culinary Institute of America)

Thanksgiving, one of the most American of holidays, seems the perfect time to share a story I’ve been sitting on for a little while, about what American food pioneer Larry Forgione has been up to the past couple of years.

Historically speaking, Larry’s a titan. But he’s been without a restaurant in a major city for quite some time, so isn’t as well known to younger chefs and culinary enthusiasts as he once was, or should be. But if you care about food, especially American food, you really ought to know about the man, because he belongs on the same pedestal as contemporaries Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck, Jonathan Waxman, Jeremiah Tower, and the rest of the gang he came up with in the 1970s and 1980s.

Larry was the first prominent chef to emerge from Buzzy O’Keefe’s The River Café (which later provided a runway for Charles Palmer and David Burke, among others), before opening his own restaurant, An American Place, in Manhattan in 1983. During his heyday, Larry made several essential, abiding contributions to our national restaurant landscape. Foremost among these was the development of a repertoire that was achieved in part by mining under-appreciated regional dishes from across the USA, at times actually working in tandem with James Beard. (On occasion, the two would leaf through books together in the library at Beard’s house on West 12th Street.) At a time when journalists categorized a wide range of styles under the umbrella “New American Cuisine,” Larry was actually cooking American food, elevating it with world-class technique.

His other crowning legacy was establishing a network of purveyors that was sorely lacking on the East Coast in the mid-to-late 1970s, when he returned from cooking at London’s Connaught Hotel and began plying his trade in New York City, first at Regine’s, then at River Café; the lengths to which he went to procure superlative ingredients would floor today’s chefs, for whom any edible esoterica is just mouse-click away. (The victory lap was his menu, which–as Gael Greene once wrote–included “farm, ranch and geographical credits for every periwinkle and prawn.”) He simply couldn’t understand why a chef in New York City didn’t have access to the same great ingredients he’d cooked with in London, and which his grandmother grew on her farm in Eastern Long Island, which he visited on weekends and summers in his youth.

Here’s a snippet of Larry back in the day; if you think “farm-to-table” is a newish concept, pay close attention to his comments, uttered three decades ago, starting at the one-minute mark:… 

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Ruminations: Secret Handshake

On the Occasion of Spoon and Stable’s Opening, Some Thoughts on the Fellowship of Chefs

Spoon Kitchen Crew

Celebrating Spoon and Stable, November 13, 2014. Front row, from left: George Serra (in blue zip-up sweater), Daniel Boulud, Gavin Kaysen, and Thomas Keller. (photograph copyright 2014 by Bob Grimes)

Thomas Keller–attired in his preferred civilian ensemble of black turtleneck, sport coat, and jeans–entered the open kitchen at Spoon and Stable, Gavin Kaysen’s brand new Minneapolis restaurant, during a pre-opening party last Thursday night, and shook hands with every cook on the line.  To casual observers, if they noticed at all, it probably didn’t seem like much — a friendly, supportive greeting from one of Gavin’s mentors, who also happens to be one of the most acclaimed chefs in the world.

But to anybody familiar with kitchens of a certain caliber, and their history, those handshakes had great significance. At Keller’s restaurants, chefs, cooks, and commis “shake in” and “shake out” with each other every day. It’s such an ingrained aspect of life within the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group that former French Laundry chef de cuisine Timothy Hollingsworth once told me that if a member of his brigade failed to make the rounds at night’s end, he’d phone that person up the next morning to ask if he or she was upset about something.

This is not unique to Keller’s restaurants–the ritual of shaking hands with one’s colleagues is a sign of mutual respect, and respect for the work at hand, that is observed at great restaurants all over the world, including Cafe Boulud, where Gavin was executive chef before decamping for Minneapolis back in the spring.  And shaking hands in another chef’s kitchen … well, that’s a special sign of respect and solidarity all its own.  I don’t know Thomas’s inspiration for doing it, and I was trying not to bug people with journalistic questions the other night, but one of his heroes, the great French chef Paul Bocuse, famously did just that, frequently making a beeline for the kitchen when visiting a restaurant, even sometimes entering via the service entrance rather than the front door.  Many who cooked at Le Cirque in the 1980s vividly recall Bocuse’s frequent visits decades back, and the thrill of shaking hands with him.

… 

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Depictions: Prune

Gabrielle Hamilton Has Written a Masterpiece. Here’s Hoping Everybody Learns from It.

DEPICTIONS: PRUNE

Gabrielle Hamilton’s new Prune is a cookbook that doubles as a Joycean depiction of life in a professional kitchen.

I returned home from a trip last week to find a copy of Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune waiting for me, sent along by an editor we have in common.  I was wiped from traveling and took a cursory glance at it.

My initial reaction was confusion and disappointment. There was no flap or cover copy to explain the concept; no foreword by one of the author’s pals; no introduction by Gabrielle herself. After the title page and table of contents, I was suddenly, jarringly, looking at the first recipe, a recipe that had no headnote and was rendered in nondescript type art directed to look like a sparse notebook page. I leafed ahead.  None of the recipes had headnotes. And the third recipe had no method (i.e., instructions), just a roster of ingredients. There were notes and corrections hand-scrawled around the margins and between the lines, binder holes “punched” down toward the spine’s crevice (not really, but the images look impressively real), and facsimiles of Post-Its, mostly indicating how to scale a recipe up or down, on some of the pages. It seemed a little crazy and unthought-out to me. I shook my head, set it aside, and went on with my night.

Saturday morning, I found myself alone with the book and a cup of coffee at my dining room table. During that meditative early-morning time, I decided to give it another look.  It wasn’t long before I realized that my initial reaction could not have been further off the mark. As far as I’m concerned, Prune is a masterwork. More than that, it’s the book, or a version of the book, a great many of us–independent authors, chef-authors and their collaborators alike–wish we could write, but which most editors would never buy into. If they did, their publishers would probably override them. If that didn’t kill it, well, there’s always the sales and marketing crew to squelch the impulse to break the mold. The reason is simple: there’s a deep-seated belief in American publishing that a cookbook has to adhere to certain conventions or readers will not be able to use it. Put another way, there’s an assumption that many people who cook in this country are culinary imbeciles, incapable of figuring anything out for themselves, and in need of every teaspoon, temperature, time, and taste-cue to be explicitly spelled out for them. … 

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Milestones: The Easterner

Jeremiah Tower Discusses His New Role as Chef of Tavern on the Green and Personal and Professional History with New York City

Jeremiah Tower, far from NYC in Playa del Carmen, 2009 (photo courtesy Jeremiah Tower)

Jeremiah Tower, far from NYC in Playa del Carmen, 2009 (photo courtesy Jeremiah Tower)

The Big News in Gotham this week is that Jeremiah Tower, the legendary chef behind Stars, and onetime Chez Panisse toque, has taken over the kitchen at Tavern on the Green, following Katy Sparks’ unfortunate departure in September, on the heels of no-star reviews from both the New York Times and New York Magazine. Tower, who hasn’t been a regular presence in a major American restaurant since departing Stars in 1999, has been living in Mexico for nearly a decade, but has nevertheless remained in the news: Most recently, he was a featured speaker at the MAD conference, and Anthony Bourdain and Zero Point Zero are currently producing a documentary about him. As I’ve been in regular touch with him in connection with my forthcoming book about the American chefs of the 1970s and 1980s, I caught wind of this development shortly before he and Tavern owners Jim Caiola and David Salama announced their new collaboration, and am pleased to be able to share this interview:

Friedman:  Obviously, most people connect you and your career with California. You also, though, have a long history with New York City, having started life on the East Coast, even though you never cooked here professionally. Can you take us through that a little bit?

Tower:  When I first saw New York it was eating at wonderful restaurants like the old Luchow’s and ‘21’ and stuff like that where my parents would go. And then, when I was in college, they lived in Brooklyn Heights in General Livingston’s old farmhouse, so Gage and Tollner and that kind of New York restaurant was what I remembered. And then all through college they lived there and in graduate school they lived there, and then back to Connecticut. So, I’m a New Englander. All my family is from New England. I was seen as a Californian, but between Boston and New York, I always felt like an Easterner, as some people in Berkeley would be happy to tell you. (laughs)

Friedman: You made some legendary visits to New York City in the 1980s, these nights when you would go on dine‑arounds. What was a typical visit to the city like for you during that time?

Tower: A visit to the city was usually around some special event, especially CityMeals on Wheels at Rockefeller Center. And I would always bring four people and about two thousand pounds of luggage so that we could make a huge display of ourselves. And then we’d get a limo and go and visit ten of the hot new restaurants, spending twenty minutes in each one, so that we would go back to San Francisco exhausted but inspired. New York was the inspiration…. 

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Farm Boy

Ryan Tate, formerly of Savoy and Le Restaurant, May Have Found Finally the Perfect Home at Blenheim

Ryan Tate, in the kitchen at Blenheim (photo © Table 12 Productions, Inc.)

Ryan Tate, in the kitchen at Blenheim (photo © Table 12 Productions, Inc.)

NEW YORK CITY — Chefs’ professional fates can turn in an instant. A restaurant’s shuttering can leave them scrounging for work; a sudden opening or bit of serendipity can prove the first step in a new chapter.

Case in point: Ryan Tate, who honchoed the kitchen at the recently departed Le Restaurant in Tribeca, where he served a daily set tasting menu and garnered stars (one from Michelin, two from the New York Times), experienced both ends of that equation. Le Restaurant’s demise was of the slow, painful variety: Perched on the fringe of Tribeca, despite critical attention (among others, Gael Greene also found much to like there), Tate and owner Kyle Wittels (the two also collaborated on the restaurant’s adjacent sister business, the marketplace and cafe All Good Things), never quite found the customer mass required to keep the joint open.  And so, as June crawled to a close, they made the painful decision to shut it down, and Tate was soon to be a gun for hire … but before he’d served his last meal, another door had opened.

Maybe it was karma: Tate had been committed to cook at Pig Mountain–the upstate “pig roast and veggie fest”–later this month, but with no benefactor, he would have had to go out of pocket for ingredients and transportation, and wasn’t in a position to shell out the necessary coin. So he did the responsible thing and called producer Heather Carlucci to explain the situation as soon as possible.  The call set off a domino effect:  Carlucci told him that the chef of Blenheim had just left two days earlier, at which point Tate called former colleague Jonathan Russell, who happened to be the beverage director at the West Village establishment.  (Talk about quick twists of fate: original chef Justin Hilbert was out of Blenheim in a New York minute, owing to what the owners termed “irreconcilable differences.” The shift forced the restaurant to temporarily close after less than a month in business.)

Within hours, Tate was on the phone with Blenheim co-owner Morten Sohlberg, who also owns Blenheim Hill Farm, which supplies the restaurant with a steady flow of fresh ingredients, and Smörgås Chef restaurants with his wife and partner Min Ye. Continuing the real life fast forward, Sohlberg and Ye dined at Le Restaurant that very night. It was the second to last service, with a scant six souls in the dining room, two in the kitchen, and a solitary server soldiering back and forth between them.  But the couple were able to see past the funereal setting and were blissed out by the food.  … 

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Labor of Love

David Waltuck Just Wants to Cook.  Five Years After Chanterelle Closed, He’s Back in the Kitchen at Élan.

[Note:  This is our monthly sister post to my Kitchen Time Machine series on Eater.  Click over there to read part 1 of my interview with David Waltuck, joined by wife and Chanterelle partner Karen. – A.F.]

David Waltuck. (photo by Michael Harlan Turkel, courtesy élan)

David Waltuck. (photo by Michael Harlan Turkell, courtesy élan)

NEW YORK CITY — Once upon a time, there was a little boy named David.  He grew up in the Bronx, on Eastern European home cooking, but had a fascination with French food and restaurants. On the weekends, he would experiment in the kitchen, at first with elemental preparations like mayonnaise, and then with more ambitious projects such as terrines.

This was back in the mid-1970s and that boy grew up to marry his high school sweetheart, Karen, and together the couple, the Waltucks, opened one of the landmark restaurants of its era in the United States:  Chanterelle.  On Monday, without Karen (but in partnership with former Chanterelle GM George Stinson), David will launch the new restaurant élan, on East 20th Street in Manhattan.

The thing that’s always fascinated me about David (with whom I collaborated on Chanterelle’s cookbook), is that as much as any chef I’ve ever met, all he’s ever really wanted to do was cook, but that’s easier for a little boy in the Bronx as a hobby than it is for a grown professional in New York City, especially these days when real estate costs are driving even the likes of Union Square Cafe to new digs.

But love is a powerful thing, even the love of cooking, and it can drive a man to stay the course until he’s back with his beloved. Like Daniel Day Lewis’ Hawkeye screaming, “No matter what occurs, I WILL FIND YOU!” in Last of the Mohicans, David has always found his way back to cooking, back to a situation that has allowed him to cook his food, even though, most recently, it’s taken years…. 

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Bitters … Sweet!

How a New York City Actor-Waiter-Bartender Turned into a Budding Entrepreneur

Tobin Ludwig.  Upright Brew House, Hudson Street.  June 2014.

Tobin Ludwig. Upright Brew House, Hudson Street. June 2014.

NEW YORK CITY — Presidents issue pardons, tennis tournaments hand out wildcards, restaurants hold tables for VIPs … so call this the blogger equivalent: On this, my birthday, I’m invoking personal privilege and profiling an honorary family member who, though he’s been intermittently involved in the restaurant trade, isn’t a chef.

Tobin Ludwig, one of the trio of young entrepreneurs behind the relatively new brand Hella Bitters, is something of an adopted son, or at least baby brother, to me and my wife, Caitlin, here in New York City. Tobin’s mother Josette, was a dear friend to my late mother in-law, Joan, and when he came to New York to spend a year here before college, we worked our network to help him secure a job, landing him a gig as a barista at The Harrison, which was about to open in Tribeca.

The timing of Tobin’s arrival seems comical now, but wasn’t at the time:  September 9, 2001.

Two days later, on September 11, he was woken by his roommate at the 92nd Street Y.  The guy’s girlfriend had called from Israel, alarmed about the attack on the city that was in progress. Tobin shuffled out onto Lexington Avenue and saw the smoldering towers way down south…. 

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A Tale of Two Chefs

At Home, and in the Kitchen, with San Francisco’s Sean and Reneé Baker

Sean and Renee Baker, outside Omnivore Books.  San Francisco, California. February 2014 (photo copyright 2014 Table 12 Productions, Inc.)

Sean and Reneé Baker, outside Omnivore Books, San Francisco. February 2014. (photo © 2014 Table 12 Productions, Inc.)

I’ve spent a fair bit of time in San Francisco over the past year, researching the chefs of the 70s and 80s. But I’ve also been very much in the present, in part thanks to Sean and Reneé Baker, who have graciously hosted me in the guest room of their Noe Valley home on my last few visits.

As Toqueland readers may know, Sean is a partner in both Gather restaurant in Berkeley, and Verbena, which opened on Polk Street in December, and where he is the chef. Reneé is a private chef who works for a Bay Area family, cooking for them at home and on the road when they travel.

I first met Sean and Reneé during the Chef’s Holidays program at The Ahwahnee in Yosemite National Park two years ago. Over a beer in the pub, we talked about the pluses and minuses of being a two-chef couple. They met in the kitchen at Millennium restaurant in 2004, then cooked together at Google before their professional paths diverged, Reneé finding her current gig when a desired change of pace led her to perusing the possibilities on Craig’s List.

My assumption was that living in a two-toque household must have helped their relationship endure because chefs’ spouses (they were married in 2011) often feel that they come in a distant second to their partner’s work.

Reneé concurred: “If I wasn’t in the industry, I might not understand why he isn’t home for fifteen hours every day,” she said. “Women not in the industry might not get it, or stick around.”… 

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David Kinch: The Toqueland Interview

The Manresa Chef on Staying Grounded, Writing His Book, Being the Subject Matter, and Quitting by Text

David Kinch.  (photo by Eric Wolfinger, courtesy Manresa)

David Kinch. (photo by Eric Wolfinger, courtesy Manresa)

From his restaurant Manresa in Los Gatos, California, David Kinch has evolved into one of the most celebrated chefs in the United States today.  The restaurant holds two Michelin stars, four stars from the San Francisco Chronicle, and David was recently nominated as Outstanding Chef (in the nation) by the James Beard Foundation. It’s a busy time for him:  although Manresa is his lone restaurant, he’s planning a bakery, published his first cookbook last fall, and, along with Cynthia Sandberg of Love Apple Farms, is the subject of the recent documentary The Farmer & The Chef.  David cooked for such influential chefs as Paul Prudhomme and Barry Wine, and consulted to the Hotel Clio Court in Fukuoka, Japan, before moving to the Bay Area.  His first restaurant as chef-proprietor was Sent Sovi in Saratoga, which he opened in 1995 then sold in 2002, the year he opened Manresa.

I hadn’t met David before last November, when he granted me an interview for an upcoming book project. When we connected again last month for a follow up, I asked him if he’d submit himself to a Toqueland interview. Most of this dialogue took place over lunch at Zuni Café, with the remainder conducted by phone the following week.

TOQUELAND: You’ve got just the one restaurant. How tough is that to stick to these days? Do opportunities come your way? Do you constantly have to resist things in order to stay there?

KINCH: There are a lot of opportunities that come my way; none of them really interest me. There’s not one that is a slam dunk. Anything interesting, I’ll entertain. Is it harder just to do one restaurant? No. I like going to work. I like going to Manresa and doing what I do for fifty people a night.

I’ve never really cooked for more than 120 a night. Ever. I’ve never had any interest in it. That’s not why I’m in the business. I’ve always been interested in the bespoke nature of fine dining. I’ve worked in a couple of hotels. They weren’t for me. I don’t know how to do volume.

TOQUELAND: You’re not interested in it or you literally don’t know how to do it?… 

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Ruminations: The Sweet Spot

Eleven Madison Park and Contemporary Fine Dining

The dining room at Eleven Madison Park (photo courtesy Eleven Madison Park)

The dining room at Eleven Madison Park (photo courtesy Eleven Madison Park)

NEW YORK CITY — I’m fond of saying that Toqueland is a chef site, not a food or restaurant site, and that I’m a chef writer, not a food writer. But I had such a wonderful dining experience the other night that I felt compelled to write about it.

The restaurant was Eleven Madison Park, and before I write another word about it, I want to be very clear that I was there as their guest. They didn’t invite me in for the purposes of a review because I don’t write reviews. In fact, one could reasonably contend that I had worked for my supper:  On hearing of my upcoming book about the chefs of the 1970s and 1980s, EMP co-owner Will Guidara and his company’s Director of Strategic Development Aaron Ginsberg invited me to speak at one of the “Happy Hour” talks they sometimes arrange for their staff in advance of the nightly service.  As my book is still a work in-progress, I asked if I might bring along a chef to fill in any holes in my research. They said “of course,” and I asked David Waltuck, formerly, of course, of Chanterelle, where he became the second American-born, Manhattan-based chef to earn four stars from the New York Times, and currently readying his new élan for an opening early this summer.  At the end of the talk, as a gesture of thanks, Will invited us in to dinner…. 

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