Depictions: Prune

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


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 must 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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Depictions: Back to the Future

For Three Days, A Bunch of Philly Chefs Relived the Restaurant Trends, and Kitchens, of the 90s… on Twitter

Kevin Sbraga, whose Tweet started the epic

Kevin Sbraga, whose Tweet started the epic. (Photo courtesy Spraga restaurant)

I thought my Saturday night was over. Drinks at Il Buco Alimentari, dinner at Gato, more drinks at Pearl & Ash. It was past midnight, and I was fighting for consciousness in a taxi crossing the Brooklyn Bridge.  What more could one ask of the weekend’s apex?

As it turned out, things were just getting warmed up:  Checking my Twitter feed from the cab, I saw that Philadelphia chef Kevin Sbraga was engaged in a virtual romp down memory lane with some fellow whisks from the City of Brotherly Love.  It all started with the following exchange.


That doesn’t seem like much does it, especially given the typo in the very first tweet, which should read “portion sizes and plating back.”

But that exchange sparked a spontaneous nostalgic combustion as Sbraga, David Katz, Justin Swain, Matt Levin, and Michael Falcone began listing a nonstop hit parade of trends, dishes, restaurants, and chefs from the 90s, much of it laced with inside cook humor.

I called Kevin yesterday and he explained to me that his first tweet was inspired by a dish he saw go by in a restaurant, “an eight-ounce portion of salmon, dry and overcooked, on lentils with beurre blanc. ‘Oh my God,’ I thought, ‘It’s the 90s all over again.'”… 

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Depictions: Eat, Drink, Boy, Women

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:

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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The Waiters

Two Decades Later, a Short Film with a Restaurant Punchline Still Brings the Funny

The other night, I had dinner at Carbone, one of the biggest openings of the season in New York City. I loved the food at this Mario Carbone-Rich Torrisi paean to Italian-American restaurants, in the former home of Rocco’s on Thompson Street. Early in the experience, while sitting with the skyscraper-sized menu (wish I had a photo) listening to the litany of specials from the tuxedoed waiter, I was reminded of a short film that ends with a deadpan, endless riff on the exact same type of recitation, complete with two (unseen) diners holding similarly gargantuan menus.

The film, The Waiters, isn’t about restaurants — it’s an extended play on its title, an absurdsit, at times David Lynch-like look at various “waiters” that ends with the restaurant variety (that bit begins at the 5:10 mark).  Enjoy:

I first saw this movie about 20 years back, when I organized a short-film series at Cascabel restaurant, in the space that is now home to Michael White’s Osteria Morini.  The film was made at NYU, written by Thomas Lennon, who went on to a successful career as a comedic writer and actor, and directed by Ken Webb. Though I hadn’t seen or thought of it in ages, it came right back to me at dinner. Guess it was there in my memory all along, just – er – waiting to be triggered.


Depictions: The Odd Couple, Fine Dining Edition

A Fascinating Encounter Between Marco Pierre White and Raymond Blanc

I’ve had Marco Pierre White on the brain lately, mostly because I’ve been working with Paul Liebrandt on a book project. Coming of age when he did in London, Paul was heavily influenced by Marco, who towered over the dining scene there in the 1980s and 1990s. The first book that ever moved Paul was Marco’s classic and brilliantly titled White Heat, and for his second “proper” cooking job, Paul tried, and succeeded, in snagging a job at White’s celebrated The Restaurant Marco Pierre White at the Hyde Park Hotel (now a Mandarin Oriental).

Before opening that eponymous establishment, Marco made his name at Harvey’s, and while there, the BBC shot and aired a fascinating miniseries of sorts in which the chef cooked for, and then dined with, four kitchen masters for whom he had once worked: Pierre Koffman, Albert Roux, Nico Ladenis, and—most memorably to my mind—Raymond Blanc, the eternally childlike optimist who ran then, and still runs today, Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons.

Featured below is the third and final segment of the half-hour episode. The first two segments are here and here, and mostly concern Marco and his brigade preparing dinner; in other words, for two-thirds of the program, it’s a cooking show. But then, about 1 minute 15 seconds into part three, Raymond comes to lunch and you could cut the tension with any one of the knives just off camera in Marco’s kitchen. (The episodes featuring the other chefs are easily found on You Tube as well, and I recommend them all.)

Here’s the clip, with my time-stamped commentary below… if you can watch this just once, you have a lot more discipline than I do:

:38: Historical footnote: That plate is the Villeroy & Boch basket weave that become a darling of chefs in both London and the US around this time. Prior to its popularity, you’d have had a hard time finding oversize plates, so common in restaurants today, anywhere in the United States, not even at a restaurant show.

1:23: Sign of things to come: Raymond, full of enthusiasm, lifts his glass for a toast. Marco corrects him: “You’re supposed to do this at the end, Chef.” And away we go…. 

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