Five Thoughts about The New York Times Magazine Food and Drink Issue
The New York Times Magazine Food and Drink Issue broke this weekend, with wunderkind Flynn McGarry on the cover and a terrific profile of Barbara Lynch, among other pieces, inside. Herewith, a few thoughts and observations about the most cheffy articles of the bunch:
1. The Kid Stays in the Kitchen. Did it bother you that there was a teenage chef on the cover of the food issue? From a purely business standpoint, it made sense to me. If I were an editor or publisher looking to generate some attention, I’d stick the kid with the Alinea-inspired kitchen in his bedroom, a talent agent on speed dial, and an Uber account on my cover over just about anybody else. Nevertheless, I gather from some Twitter action over the weekend, that an anti-Flynn wave has commenced:
Any backlash against @diningwithflynn needs to stop right the fuck now. Kids a hard worker and compared to me at 15 so far ahead of the game
— ari taymor (@AriTaymor) March 29, 2014
Personally, I’m not hopping on the backlash bandwagon. Quite the opposite: In our home, my wife showed the magazine to our twin 9-year olds as evidence of what you can accomplish if you put your mind to it. Both of them have aspirations–our daughter to be a graphic or fashion designer; our son a professional athlete–and their eyes were just about popping out of their heads when they saw McGarry there. I know there was disappointment among some friends of mine that Barbara Lynch and Kristen Kish weren’t on the cover (indeed, they might have at least been mentioned there) but in our home, children of both sexes found inspiration there based on age and accomplishment, and that’s got to be worth something.
I’ve wanted to meet Flynn McGarry for some time, having known about him for a while. But much as I’d like to make his acquaintance, I’m even more curious to taste his food. Carina Chocano’s story was an interesting, though coincidental, follow-on to Alan Richman’s piece this week about “egotarian cuisine,” which I must say I found timely, refreshing, and important. (Lost in much of the naysaying was that Richman didn’t dismiss all of the food out of hand, just the stuff that isn’t enjoyable and/or satisfying to eat–is it actually a radical thought that those should be the baseline standards for any dining experience?)
Truth be told, though I’m rooting for him, I’m a little worried for McGarry. Not because of an outsized ego; I know many people who have met him, and he is very well liked, hence the invitations to stage in major kitchens. No, I’m concerned about what appears to be a narrowness of experience, and I don’t mean kitchen experience, because he’s obviously got that in spades.
The story–and it’s not the first one I’ve read about this prodigy–reminded me of a conversation I once had with the head of the Columbia University Film School. I was a first-year student and interested in a program Columbia had at the time in which you could earn an undergraduate degree and a masters of fine arts in a total of five, rather than six, years. I met with the head of the film school to ask what he’d be looking for when the time came for me to apply.
“Don’t just come to me with a bunch of film classes on your resume,” he said. “If that’s all you have, then what are you going to make movies about? Show me you knocked around Europe for a year, or worked some crazy job in Alaska.”
When I read Sunday’s article, I felt tremendous admiration for McGarry and also a twinge of concern. (I didn’t realize before this particular piece that he was home-schooled.) It was the same concern I felt when I saw an episode of Master Chef Junior last fall: that the technique being developed by these wonder-whisks is astonishing, but what vision do those who have done little more than cook bring to their craft? Professional cooking, like many arts or art-like pursuits, expands with the worldliness and curiosity of the individuals who practice it. A related point is made in Rosie Schaap’s bartender article in the magazine, which reveals that, like many of America’s first “celebrity chefs,” whose groundbreaking food was informed by their pre-culinary lives, many of our top celebrity bartenders are career changers, and bring a world of non-food reference points to their work. For example, Todd Maul, of Boston’s Clio, is a former furniture maker, and references that craft in relation to his provided cocktail recipe in the piece. I just hope that McGarry makes time in his young life to get out of the kitchen and away from the media to be — you know — a kid, and to bring that life experience to the plate.
It’s probably none of my business what McGarry and the other young toques out there do with their lives, but this was my personal response to the story. There are too many cautionary tales (Andre Agassi comes to mind) of childhoods prematurely surrendered to the hard-to-deny combination of talent and ambition. The kitchen will always be there; one’s sixteenth year comes and goes, in hindsight, in a millisecond.
Perhaps this is why, of all the quotations in the article, I related to, and was most moved by Eleven Madison Park’s Daniel Humm, even though he wasn’t making the identical point that I am: “These days, we turn the spotlight onto any young talent, whether it’s an athlete, a musician or a cook, and it could hurt that person’s development. For Flynn, I just want to make sure he takes the time to grow, because he’s already in such a great position to have a bright future if he can keep his focus. It’s more important for him to have a big name in 15 years, not necessarily right now.”
2. The Sisters Are Doin’ it For Themselves. I loved just about every word of Marnie Hanel’s profile of Barbara Lynch, and the way it flowed into a mini-profile of Kristen Kish. Reading it was like watching a well-edited documentary that adds up to more than the sum of its parts. (It’s a scant two pages plus one paragraph in the print edition, but you feel like you’ve read a piece at least twice that length when it’s over.) The timeliness of the article on the heels of the Time magazine “Gods of Food” controversy, and the all-too-rare image of a woman chef who runs her own empire, speak for themselves. In addition to all that, what I found heartening as a writer/interviewer was how refreshingly frank Lynch was about the details of her early life–copping to both pot dealing and acting as a bookie? The truth is that the bigger their empires, the more chefs have to lose, the more they rely on carefully crafted messaging and media training. Many of them become a little less real and a little less fun. Full credit to Lynch for telling her unvarnished story and — I suspect — knowing deep down that the public appreciates authenticity and guts above playing it safe and dealing in platitudes.
3. Refrigerator Raid. I must confess a lack of objectivity/inspiration on this one, having pitched similar stories about what chefs keep in their fridges when I was a restaurant PR guy. But along those lines, I will float a harmless conspiracy theory: I bet at least one of those fridges was near-barren until the phone rang, then was compellingly stocked for the camera. Most chefs just don’t cook enough to have that much food at home. (And, yes, I would have had my clients do the exact same thing back in the day.)
4. The Incredible Disappearing Chefs. In his piece “Not Enough Cooks in the Kitchen,” Mark Bittman makes a point that I have heard in one way or another throughout interviews for my book on the American chefs of the 1970s and 1980s. “Everybody was in their restaurants,” is a lament that comes up often, and often from chefs who themselves sit atop restaurant collections today. I’ve interviewed a number of people about the early days of Blue Ribbon, which was the after-work hang for New York chefs in the 1990s. On a typical night early in its existence, you might have spied Mario Batali, David Burke, Bobby Flay, and others, all of them having just come off the line at their own restaurant. Their lone restaurant. As Bittman writes, you can certainly get great food at these and other toques’ many establishments today. But his illustration of early, indelible Jean-Georges Vongerichten dishes, fussed over by the chef himself at the time, as a counterpoint was powerful. I met a San Francisco chef last year who was quite taken with Rocco DiSpirito’s food at Union Pacific back in the early 2000s. I was, too. We proceeded to rattle off a list of unforgettable compositions from those days, such as Taylor Bay scallops with tomato water and mustard oil or calamari with watermelon and cilantro. It does feel like dishes that memory-searing are fewer and further between now. As to chefs feeling the need to be in their own kitchens all the time, that plate left the pass a long, long time ago, and ain’t nobody sending it back.
I agree with Bittman’s point about the slight but crucial bit of magic that can go missing when the star isn’t home. On the other hand, as he points out, it’s the little nuances that we’re talking about, diminishing returns, really. It’s not like the food goes from great to poor when the namesake chef is on the road or taping his or her show. And most chefs don’t do the lion’s share of the work themselves anyway. Alain Sailhac once told me that when he would visit guests in the dining room at Le Cirque, they would ask him who was preparing their food. “The same people who cook it when I’m in the kitchen,” was his sly response.
For those who crave the sight and taste of star toques actually plying their trade and making a lap of the dining room, there’s an easy way to obtain it: Go between opening day of their next new place and Pete Wells’ review in the Times!
5. Hats off. The food portion of the magazine opened with a piece about toques (not as synecdoche for chefs but the actual hats). Given the name of this site, I’m partial to the subject matter although it left out my favorite bit of lore–that there are 100 folds in a toque because it represents the 100 ways there are to cook an egg. The final lines, about how today’s generation has moved on to caps and wraps didn’t leave me nostalgic, mainly because sartorial evolutions don’t impact what goes on the plate, and into our mouths.