Tasting Tennis

Before the US Open Begins, Chefs Take the Spotlight

Chefs Burke, Morimoto, Mantuano, and Abbey at the US Open tasting last week.

[Note: As some readers know, I’m a passionate (read: addictied) tennis player and fan, as well as an editor at-large for TENNIS magazine. For the next two weeks I’ll be part of the publication’s website coverage team at the US Open. As time allows, I’ll also post here on Toqueland during the tournament. In the meantime, a little ditty about a food-focused day at and around the Open last week. – AF]

The penultimate day of the US Open, dubbed Super Saturday, is one of the biggest days in tennis, on which both men’s semifinals and the women’s final are played. Last week came the food and drink equivalent, let’s call it Tasting Thursday, which brought both a sampling of food and drink that will be available during the tournament, and an annual benefit event, BNP Paribas Taste of Tennis.

The tasting of US Open offerings was held at lunchtime in Aces restaurant in Arthur Ashe Stadium, one of five on-site restaurants operated by Levy Restaurants, who hold the coveted US Open foodservice contract.

As it has for a few years, the event consisted of a photo op, tasting, and the shepherding around of chefs to journalists for impromptu, tableside interviews. It was an impressive show of force: In addition to Levy’s Executive Chef for the Open, Jim Abbey, Tony Mantuano, the big-hearted founder of Chicago’s Spiaggia restaurant, which is today owned by Levy, was there to represent his longtime Wine Bar Food concept at the Open. This year, the centrally located, open-air watering hole and cafe has added a supremely runny burrata from local Brooklyn Cheese Company to its menu. As he did last year, Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto (appropriately enough, a former athlete, although his sport was baseball) took the floor to promote his US Open sushi. The new kid in the kitchen in 2012 is the ever-mischievous David Burke, whom Levy has brought on board to add his playful touch to Champions restaurant which will function as a sort-of steakhouse this year. (One of the items passed to seated journalists were vintage Burke: a cheesecake lollipop tree with a bubble gum-whipped cream dipping sauce.) LaFrieda’s Mark Pastore, butchery’s Vince Vaughn, was also in attendance to support to his proprietary US Open burger; LaFrieda is having quite the month, having just introduced their sandwich stand at Citi Field, across the street from the Billie Jean King USTA National Tennis Center, earlier in August.

Usually the Open tasting draws a crowd primarily composed of food bloggers, but this year the organizers shrewdly tethered it to the tournament’s draw ceremony, enticing many tennis reporters to attend: for me, it was a chance to chow down with good friends Pete Bodo, one the deans of American tennis journalism; Tom Perrotta, who writes for the Wall Street Journal and TENNIS; Ted Loos, there under the auspices of Newsday; and Karen Pestaina of TennisPanorama.com. Now that the action is underway (the Open kicked off about an hour ago), you can bet the five of us will not enjoy such a semi-leisurely meal again until the tournament is wrapped, hopefully on Sunday, September 9. (The last few Opens have had Monday men’s finals due to rain.)

Quiet Before the Storm: The last meal of its kind for at least 2 weeks

My favorites of the food I sampled were Burke’s Ash-Crusted Prime Beef Carpacio, the Pesado a la Plancha from Mojitos restaurant, and that burrata that Mantuano is serving up. To be honest, my favorites here at the Open are populist grub such as the sausage and pepper sandwich, but I’ll be trying other, more fancified dishes during my two weeks out here, and if the spirit moves me, will report back on occasion.

Michael Russell, left, and Kerry Heffernan

On Thursday night, a few hours after the Open lunch, I hit Taste of Tennis, an annual benefit event at the W Hotel on Lexington Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. It’s like most tasting events—a few contiguous rooms with tasting tables around the perimeter–but with a twist: tennis players are paired with the chefs, in theory to help them cook, though it doesn’t always work out that way because many players simply move dishes from the prep area to the pass. (In many cases, the players themselves tell me, this is for the best.) And so, huge props to Michael Russell, a veteran American player (best known for coming within a point of dethroning Guga Kuerten at the French Open many years ago) who earnestly helped Kerry Heffernan plate. The gesture was was much appreciated by Kerry as he and his wife had just welcomed a new baby boy the day before. On a personal note, it was terrific to see James Blake, whose book Breaking Back I had the distinct pleasure of coauthoring in 2007. James was working the Meatball Shop station, with his fiancée and their new baby girl, hanging out nearby. Other chefs on hand included Dan Holzman and Michael Chernow of The Meatball Shop, Chris Leahy of Lexington Brass, and Landmarc’s Marc Murphy. (Barbuto’s Jonathan Waxman was in the VIP Lounge downstairs, serving the glitterati behind closed doors.)  Top Chef‘s Gail Simmons was also there to conduct a drinks demo with the great US doubles team the Bryan Brothers.

All in all it was a fun, indulgent interlude before the tournament devours journalists and players alike for the next two weeks. By this morning, my concerns couldn’t have been more different than they were on Thursday: at the gym at 5:30am, out at the Open by 9:30, already writing. For players, obviously, the shift is even more dramatic. James Blake is out on Louis Armstrong Stadium right now, up a set up against his opponent. Think I’ll go out and see how he’s playing. The focus is all on the court now, the food relegated to the sidelines once again.


The Toqueland Interview: Charlie Trotter, Part 2

The Chicago Chef on the Food-Music Connection, His Preoccupation with Vegetables, and the Politics of Foie Gras

Charlie Trotter

Here’s part 2 of our recent interview with Charlie Trotter, who’s closing up shop at the end of the month. If you haven’t read Part 1, you might want to have a look before proceeding.

TOQUELAND: So, you’re not going to have the restaurant.


TOQUELAND: But do you think you’ll keep a toe in the water of the industry over the next several years?

TROTTER: Oh, I consult for some companies and I’m working on some other projects. I love food, you know? Of course I’m going to be involved in a number of ways in the world of food and wine . ..

TOQUELAND: You also told me that you’re going to travel. Is there an itinerary on your mind?

TROTTER: I’ve got to take care of my wife. I’ve got to take her on a few trips. Well, we’ve traveled extensively anyway. We’ve had a chance twice to go around the world for three weeks at a crack. One time we went one way; the other time we went the other way.. . I’m going to take Mrs. Trotter on a number of trips this fall.

TOQUELAND: You’re going to keep the property, is that correct?

TROTTER: I’m not sure yet. I may sell the two properties that house the restaurant, both built in 1908 as single-family homes, twin buildings. I’ll have to see what makes sense. .. People ask me often, “Why are you doing this?” And my response is very simple. And I don’t want this to come off the wrong way, but, “Because I can.”

TOQUELAND: There were a lot of firsts in the history of this restaurant.

TROTTER: We were the first restaurant in America to ever have a kitchen table other than one or two places that had a table that was reserved only for the chef’s friends but not for the public. First restaurant to literally go no smoking. We only allowed smoking in the bar for the first two months, then I just said no more smoking. And then I’d get calls from the Chicago aldermen saying, “Oh, gosh, this is great. We’re trying to legislate that we should have no smoking sections. .. and we want you to come and testify that it hasn’t hurt your business.” And my response was, “If I come down and testify, I’m going to testify the other way. The government can’t get their grubby hands involved.” I made this decision. Clients can decide if they want to come or not come. Employees can decide if they want to work there or not work there. We can’t legislate everything.

We were the first restaurant to offer a vegetable degustation menu. Back then if you even saw a vegetable or vegetarian dishes, it might be at a hotel and there would be a heart next to it like a “heart-healthy” dish. And my rationale had nothing to do with health. Health, it’s a byproduct of serving exquisite vegetable items, or non-vegetable items, but it’s going to be healthy anyways because we use virtually no cream or butter. We serve mainly organic product, natural product.

TOQUELAND: Was there a revelatory moment when you got turned on to vegetables, or realized you wanted to focus on them to the extent that you did?

TROTTER: I’ve always loved vegetables and I think I was one of these guys, like maybe even yourself, who went through one of these phases in college where I was a vegetarian for, like, six months. I liked to eat everything, but I’ve always thought that vegetables are the most interesting element of food and gastronomy.

TOQUELAND: Because?… 

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Happy (Belated) Birthday, Bouley

Charlie Trotter Wasn’t the Only Chef Celebrating 25 Years on Friday

David Bouley (photo via www.davidbouley.com)

David Bouley (photo via www.davidbouley.com)

Last Wednesday, the food sections and Twitterverse were ablaze with tributes to Julia Child on the date she would have turned 100, as well as to Tom Colicchio, who shares the birthday with the cooking icon. (Poor Tertulia restaurant, which tuned two-years old on the 15th, nearly got lost in the shuffle.)

Then, as well all know, on Friday, Charlie Trotter’s turned 25. In addition to our own interview,   profiles and blog posts proliferated like mad, all building up to Sunday night’s gala dinner.

Turns out, another chef celebrated a silver anniversary on the 17th, but in much more modest and subdued fashion: The following Tweet went out Friday night, from David Bouley’s account “At 5:30pm, August 17th, 1987, I started my TriBeCa restaurant, 25 YEARS AGO!”

There followed something of a virtual party as various chefs and admirers exchanged Tweets with Bouley: Kerry Heffernan reminisced that “I was there as Chef Garde Manger.” Richard Blais Tweeted “thanks 4 the inspiration.” Harold Dieterle chimed in “congrats on 25 years…. I had the best meal of my life there in 1999. It was that moment, I realized I wanted to be a chef.” We at Toqueland took it as an opportunity to offer our congratulations and props to old pal and current Bouley chef de cuisine Brian Bistrong. And so on.

The best and longest exchange was between Bouley and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who took the moment to sing the praises of a dinner he had recently at Bouley, which prompted the latter to invite Vongerichten to have dinner again in a few weeks when “my garden will be in full bloom, & I want to make you a vegetarian meal, all organic, 100% grown w/my own hands!” Vongerichten suggested they cook in tandem to which Bouley responded, “That’s like when we all cooked together and no one knew what the hell we were doing!” (Ah, it’s memories like that which helped inspire our forthcoming book on the chefs of the 70s and 80s.)

Congratulations to David Bouley on reaching this milestone. We look forward to hearing about the Alumni Dinner planned for October 11 in the Bouley Test Kitchen as part of the New York City Wine & Food Festival.



Jeremiah Tower Returns?

Ex-Stars Chef Part of Proposal for New Rochelle Restaurant and Food Complex

Jeremiah Tower, headed to the East Coast?

Back in the spring, legendary chef Jeremiah Tower told Toqueland that the next time he had an idea for a restaurant, he was just going to do it.

Well, it looks like he’s followed through on that promise, or would like to, if the town of New Rochelle selects the proposal he’s a part of, one of two in contention for the “adaptive reuse” of the former Naval Armory on East Main Street, near Echo Bay.

The backstory of this development is summarized nicely on the website of New Rochelle mayor Noam Bramson. In brief, the town’s city council solicited proposals for the space in May and there are two contenders. If you want to know everything there is to know at this point, there’s even a link to the proposal itself, which–if you’ve never seen a business plan/prospectus for this kind of thing–you might find a fascinating read. There’s also video of the presentation that was made to the city council last week.  (The proposal with which Tower and company are vying is centered on the performing arts.)

A useful, succinct history of the Armory and its environs, and enthusiasm for the Tower proposal, is offered in this Westchester Magazine blog post, which compares the project to Seattle’s Pike Place Market and Philly’s Reading Terminal Market. To us, it sounds like a cross between those landmarks and New York City’s own Chelsea Market, or maybe even Eataly.

A Rendering of What the New Armory Might Look Like

Good Profit, the team with which Tower is affiliated, is an impressive lot that includes architects and designers who have been involved with projects ranging from the London Olympic Stadium to New York City’s High Line.

According to the proposal, Good Profit’s vision for the Armory is as follows: “[I]ts primary use [is as] an indoor open market that will function under the expansive existing barrel vaulted roof. An assortment of vendors and restaurants preparing, serving and selling locally raised and harvested foods will occupy the Main Hall of the Armory. Additional uses in the Annex may include the local chapter of the American Legion, commercial office space and a bicycle repair facility.”

The proposal goes on to say that “The anchor of the Armory will be new restaurant experiences orchestrated by award-winning chef Jeremiah Tower [emphasis Toqueland’s], our executive culinary director. Situated primarily inside the former drill hall (our proposed Market Hall), with views into the kitchens, these dynamic spaces serve as meeting places for the enjoyment of regional food prepared to the highest quality. Above, on the Mezzanine and its Terrace, there will be a wine and oyster bar with seating, both indoors and out overlooking Echo Bay and the Long Island Sound. To the outer edge of the Market Hall, the East Hall will house additional vendors and casual seating. Prepared food will be available throughout the Armory at different price points.”

With no disrespect to the other proposal, we at Toqueland couldn’t be more excited by the prospect of Jeremiah Tower getting back in the game so close to our New York City home, and applying his legendary sensibility to the bounty of this region. We’ll be following the city council’s decision with bated breath and a whetted appetite.



The Toqueland Interview: Charlie Trotter, Part 1

On the Eve of His Restaurant’s 25th Anniversary (and Imminent Closing), a Conversation with One of America’s Pioneering Chefs

Charlie Trotter, at his home in Chicago (photo copyright Andrew Friedman)

It’s been a busy summer here in Toqueland—two weeks overseas with Michael White, and a family vacation that just wrapped up a few days ago. It’s caused quite a backlog of interviews and features that are in the can, but not yet fully edited and ready for public consumption.

But there are two events that demand attention as the end of this sultry August approaches: As most readers no doubt know, this Friday, August 17, Charlie Trotter’s will mark its 25th Anniversary, and at the end of the month, the chef will shutter the restaurant in order to pursue a degree in philosophy.

In June, at his invitation, I sat down with Charlie Trotter at his home in Chicago. The interview was conducted following a memorable tasting lunch at the Chef’s Table in the restaurant’s kitchen. (Full disclosure: I was his guest, along with New York chefs David Waltuck and Rob Newton.)

It was a long and far-ranging interview conducted over a bottle of white Burgundy on the sprawling back patio of his townhouse. (From what I gather from blog coverage, it has some overlap with Jay McInerney’s Town & Country feature, which I just learned about the other day and have made a point of not reading. As that one isn’t available online, figured I’d run my piece as is, and then read and enjoy Jay’s.)

Herewith, Part 1 of my conversation with Chef Trotter, with Part 2 to follow between the anniversary and closing.

TOQUELAND: Can you please orient me as to where you are now? I would imagine that it’s a very heady time, a very emotionally interesting time for you. What feeling or feelings are you experiencing right now?

TROTTER: Well, some people say to me, “You must be emotional. Do you have any second thoughts? Any regrets?” And it’s the opposite of that. This is a decision. I’ve long been a guy that’s willing to jump over the side of a cliff without knowing what’s on the other side, whether it’s a grassy rolling hill or jagged rocks, and figure out how I’m going to land when I jump over the cliff.

I can’t believe I’ve been doing this this long. I’ve always been an impatient sort and have wanted to do different things. I forget what he was talking about, but it was one of the great writers who said, “If I had many lives to lead, I would devote one of them to you; however, I don’t, so I have to move on.” That’s what I feel. I mean, I pinch myself all the time saying, “I do this and make a living?” And this is unbelievable. And you meet the most interesting people. You drink the great wines, you eat food, you travel. But in the end, that’s not enough. I have to do other things. I almost did this at the 15-year mark and I really almost did this at the 20-year mark.

TOQUELAND: For the same reason you’re doing it now?

TROTTER: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. Exactly. To go back to academia and read books that sit unread still by my bedside, many, many, many of them. .. I mean, what’s the worst that can happen? If I go back to college and they flunk me out after a couple of months, I can always go back to the restaurant business. So there is no down side to this.

TOQUELAND: You said today at lunch that you may very well find yourself back in the business at some point?

TROTTER: I think ultimately I will be back in this field, this line of work, because I love it too much. But I do need a roughly three-year hiatus period to decompress, look at things differently, read the books. And frankly, there’s an ego element in it for me because I want to see if I can still hang academically with supremely cerebral 26- and 27 year-olds and then go from there.

TOQUELAND: I would think academia is one of the few places where you might feel an advantage being older.

TROTTER: Well, maybe. I remember being inspired by the Saul Bellow work, Henderson the Rain King, where the protagonist went to medical school at the age of 54 or so, and then by the time he was 60 and earned his medical degree, he went off to Africa, did his work. When I read that at 19, I always thought, “Hey, it’s never too late to try something like this.” I have no other agenda. People keep saying, “Oh, you want to be a professor, or teacher?” That’s not really my idea. It’s more of just learning for learning’s sake.

TOQUELAND: I’m struck that you as a chef are doing this. Because I’m writing a book about the chefs of the 70s and 80s, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the time when you came up. So many chefs of that era, including yourself, were to some extent what we would today call “career changers.” Two things strike me about that: One, it seems to me there was this real purity about it. People were getting into it because they loved cooking.They weren’t getting into it because they wanted to be a television star, or even really for the money in most cases. They just loved doing it.


TOQUELAND:  The other thing that strikes me is that they were people who had followed another kind of education or professional track at some point so I think they tended to be very well rounded. Now, you know, now you have these kids who see people cooking on TV at a very young age. It’s more of a food culture.


TOQUELAND:  Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but they’ve just always known they want to be in the kitchen, often to the exclusion of other interests. Do you feel that the men and women who came up when you did have an advantage in how they see the world, how they understand their customers, how they go through life?

TROTTER: That’s a big question. I think if you were to ask the top ten chefs in the world that all are, if you will, from my peer group–let’s just say Alain Ducasse, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Daniel Boulud, David Bouley, Thomas Keller, Tetsuya Wakuda. There are others. I’m just throwing off a few names. And if you ask them all, “All those many years ago, what was your ambition?” I think across the board they would have all said, “Well, I love this craft. I love this art. Maybe one day if I’m lucky, I might be able to open up a restaurant.”

I don’t think any one of these folks would have said, “I hope to open nine restaurants. I hope to have a TV show. I hope to have five cookbooks. I hope to endorse a product line.” And on and on and on. Along the way those things have happened. Today, it’s a little different. I interview people and they say, “Well, in five years I think I’d like to have a few restaurants and I hope to have two TV shows on the Food Network and this and this and this.” And I think the chefs that are kind of in their fifties today may have eight, ten more restaurants, may have TV shows, may have multiple cookbooks, and on and on, consult and other things, but that’s not why they got into this world that we’re in, this line of work.. . some things come your way and you can take advantage of those things, but you’ve got to have a pure kind of approach to all of it.

TOQUELAND: Can you take me back to when you started? One of the things you’re known for is bringing the tasting menu, the degustation menu, to America.

TROTTER: I thought you were going to say one of the things I’m known for is being an asshole.

TOQUELAND: Is that something you prefer to talk about?… 

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