Depictions: Eat, Drink, Boy, Women

Five Thoughts about The New York Times Magazine Food and Drink Issue

NYT-Magazine-Food-Issue-Flynn-McGarry

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:

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…. 

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Feeding Frenzy

The New York Times Ghostwriting Story Saga Just Won’t End

Last week, when I found myself featured in the New York Times story on cookbook ghostwriting, I never could have imagined what was about to transpire: outrage from Rachel Ray and Gwyneth Paltrow, a confusing follow-up post, and then–this afternoon–mere moments after I posted a Huffington Post opinion piece about the politics of ghostwriting, a sudden request for me to rush into Manhattan to tape an interview for a Today Show segment set to run around 8:10am tomorrow (Wednesday) morning.

They kept running around behind the segment producer while he interviewed me. Damn kids!

The invitation was so last minute that I had to suddenly cancel my son’s weekly tennis lesson to accommodate, then insist that the show’s booker let me bring the family along to make it up to them. She couldn’t have been nicer about it, sending a car to bring us in from Brooklyn, then letting the kids romp around the studio before, during, and after my camera time. To be honest, I loved every minute of it–nothing will keep you from taking things too seriously like having your son try to crack you up over the shoulder of a Today Show producer.

I have no idea who else is being interviewed for the story, or how many more legs this thing has, but it’s been an interesting week for anybody who engages in the craft of collaboration. Will be keen to see how long this particular beach ball keeps getting batted back up into the air.

- Andrew

 

Commentary: Don’t Rate Restaurants… Grade Them!

A Proposal for a New Way of Judging Where We Eat That Reflects Today’s Ever-Changing Dining Standards

Should Restaurants Make the Grade in More Ways than One? (photo by Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com, via creativecommons.org)

February 23, 2012 — There was a noteworthy aside in Wednesday’s New York Times review of Shake Shack. Reviewer Pete Wells awarded the establishment one star, which probably struck most readers as fair. But I couldn’t help but wonder how exactly to weigh it because, since Wells took over the most scrutinized restaurant-reviewing position in the country, he’s doled out two stars for Parm and three for Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria, both of which raised some eyebrows.

In the past, Shake Shack couldn’t have hoped for more than one star and, given some quibbles Wells raised about such issues as consistency and the quality of the fries, might have wound up with no stars, signifying “fair,” “satisfactory,” or “poor.”

At any other time in the last twenty years, I’d have assumed that Shake Shack proprietor Danny Meyer and company were thrilled with their evaluation, but given current context, I wondered if they were disappointed. Were they expecting or hoping for two stars? If they were, you couldn’t quite call them crazy. Not anymore. Because we’re at that time in the cycle again: Diners and industry folk feel the critical ground shifting beneath their feet and they don’t like that sense of disorientation and vulnerability. Every Tuesday night brings a defensive crouch as they brace for the next paradigm-shattering review.

Wells himself seems aware of the chatter, and made the following comment in his piece yesterday:

To answer two obvious questions right away:

Yes, I would give stars to a hamburger stand.

No, probably not four stars.

For my money, the key word in there is probably. (He was joking, right?)

The tension between stars and the modern dining world is nothing new. Decades ago, when “serious” restaurants were defined by a formality of food, service, and customer, the star system made perfect sense. Besuited or tuxedoed maitre d’s, white tablecloths, French words etched in a roller coaster of script on the menu, and French cuisine on the plate–these were the stuff of three and four stars. But with the rise of New American Cuisine (we really need a new name for that) and the ever more casual settings and standards it ushered in, the categories became clouded…. 

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