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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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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Vins of the Father

Chef Bruce Marder plays Godfather to Son Max’s New Restaurant Marvin, Which Opened Last Week in Los Angeles

Bruce Marder and his girlfriend, Shelly Kellogg, at Buvette.  May 23, 2014.

Bruce Marder and Shelly Kellogg, at Buvette restaurant, New York City. May 23, 2014. (photo © Table 12 Productions, Inc.)

NEW YORK, NY — A new restaurant called Marvin “officially” opened in Los Angeles last Wednesday, after quietly welcoming walk-ins for several days. According to co-owner/operator Max Marder, when we caught up with him a week ago today, despite some issues with the phone lines and website, the restaurant itself had been performing to his expectations.

Whether or not it is running according to another man’s expectations is another story: That man is Max’s father, Bruce Marder.  If you live and dine in LA then you probably know him as the man behind such fondly remembered restaurants as West Beach Cafe and Rebecca’s, and more recently Capo and Cora’s Coffee Shop in Santa Monica, as well as Brentwood restaurant and its adjacent cafe.  If you don’t reside in the City of Angels, then it’s quite possible you never heard of the guy.  That’s, in part, because Bruce is famously introverted (some would say antisocial) and completely uninterested in the PR/marketing game that has become de rigueur among professional chefs…. 

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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.


Slice of Life: Ciao, Centolire

My Last Lunch at Pino Luongo’s Upper East Side Restaurant

Pino Luongo, at “our” table at Centolire

A few weeks ago, I went up to Centolire on Madison Avenue, for a last lunch there with Pino Luongo.

I’m about the last person capable of writing an objective sentence about Pino. Not only was I briefly his publicist a lifetime ago, but we’ve written three books together and he’s been an exceptional friend to me: the year that I became a professional writer, he gifted me an office in his corporate headquarters over Le Madri so I wouldn’t have to spend all my waking hours in my cramped apartment; when he heard I was going to propose to my then-girlfriend on a trip to Italy, he arranged all of our Tuscany accommodations; and, last year, when I was rocked by a family tragedy, he was among the very few who picked up the phone and made one of those excruciating, supportive calls that nobody wants to make.

Of course, if you know anything about the New York City restaurant business, then you know that this isn’t necessarily everybody’s relationship with Pino. In an affectionate chapter in Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain famously summed up that Pino was “.. . a man envied, feared, despised, emulated and admired by many who have worked for and with him” and acknowledged that much of what his fellow chefs who’d been through “Pino’s wringer” had to say about him was “undoubtedly true.”

I’ve always found those sentences especially memorable, apt, and fair: Pino has his detractors and his enemies, but he also has his fans and friends, a small and strangely silent group of journalists and chefs who will privately tell you that they admire and learned a lot from him. For my part, I’ve generally made it a policy to go by own experience with people, adopting an “innocent until proven guilty” approach. It was with that orientation that I began my working relationship with Pino, and we’ve been tight for more than a decade.

I knew that Centolire’s closing was coming, having had a window onto Pino’s feelings about what he had long considered exorbitant rent, and of his deteriorating relationship with his landlord over the past several months.

And so, there we were at lunch. We only ever sat at one table: the deuce at the top of the stairs to the second floor, from which Pino could thank diners as they left, or urgently wave over a floor manager to tend to them as they arrived. We interviewed for two of our books there and caught up over dinner regularly when we weren’t engaged in a collaboration.

It was a spectacular June afternoon, and the downstairs cafe was full. Upstairs, in the main dining room, the crowd was sparse, as it usually was at lunch. For this momentous occasion, I wanted a pasta and selected the Bolognese, robust and soul-nurturing as ever.

It wasn’t exactly a mournful meal, but Pino was clearly a man with a lot on his mind, because news of the restaurant’s imminent closing was about to break, though we had no idea how soon that would happen. Although he still runs the modest Morso, on East 59th Street, Centolire was the last in a string of grand restaurants that went back to the mid 1980s and included such juggernauts as Le Madri, Coco Pazzo, Mad 61, and Sapore di Mare in East Hampton. Centolire opened at the tail end of Pino’s ill-fated takeover of the Sfuzzi restaurant chain in the late 1990s as well as his personal Everest, Tuscan Square, a combination restaurant and retail concept in Rockefeller Center that never quite found the substantial traction required for such a gargantuan enterprise.


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Prove It All Night

Kitchen Indifference at Gran Electrica, Late Night Redemption at Arthur on Smith

Thanks for coming, now get out (Day of the Dead-inspired artwork on the wall at Gran Electrica)

“Dana Cowin asked me to name the three warning signs that you should get up and leave a restaurant before it’s too late.”

That was Josh Wesson, the legendarily witty, charming, flirtatious, and knowledgeable wine authority, co-author with David Rosengarten of the classic book Red Wine with Fish, and founder of the retail chain Best Cellars.

Josh and I were sitting not twelve hours ago with Red Cat’s Jimmy Bradley. We were catching up for the first time in years in the spacious garden behind Gran Electrica, in Brooklyn’s DUMBO, when Josh recounted the question that Cowin, Food & Wine magazine’s editor, asked him onstage during the annual Food & Wine Classic at Aspen last weekend, where Josh is a longtime attraction (if you ever get the chance to hear him talk about wine, don’t miss it).

His answer: “A lousy reception at the door; a lag time of more than five minutes between being seated and either getting a drink order in or between the order and the arrival of said drink; and a bad bread basket.” On the last point, he elaborated that he’d never had bad bread followed by good food. Can’t say I could argue with that, or any of his criteria.

We didn’t have a lousy reception at the door at Gran Electrica, and there’s no bread basket, but the lag time between ordering a bottle of wine and its arrival was in considerable excess of five minutes. (Josh also caught an error that most wine mortals would have missed on the list: Channing Daughters Rosé was listed as being made from Refosco grapes on the by-the-glass list and Syrah on the bottle list. It also irked him that nobody could speak to the relative merits of the two bottles he was torn between on the relatively short wine card. .. make that a fourth warning sign.)

The menu consists of small plates and not-so-small plates, all suitable if not necessarily intended for sharing. We ordered tongue tacos, fish tacos, coctel (mixed seafood cocktail), carne cocida en limon (a sort-of beef ceviche), and a few others. As would be the case with many diners accustomed to the small-plate format, we intended this as a first strike, with plans to take stock and order more food and drink after devouring and imbibing what we’d so far committed to.

We detected an air of inflexibility bordering on the inhospitable when Josh asked to “supersize” an order of tacos, which come in sets of two, by ordering a third.

Our waitress was charming and quick-witted–when Josh asked if she’d had to personally stomp the grapes for our slow-to-arrive wine, she replied, with coquettish irony, “I prefer to keep my grape-stomping habits to myself, sir.”–but she didn’t have a snappy retort to the taco query: “Sorry,” she said, with the weariness of somebody who’d been in this awkward position more than a few times in the recent past. “They only come in orders of two. The chef is adamant about that.”

This didn’t go over too well with Josh or Jimmy, two old-school sorts who’d pretty much do anything to make a customer happy, certainly something as easy as letting them buy one measly taco à la carte. Warning sign number five?

The food was fine, no more or less than what you’d expect from the brief menu descriptions, and I likely wouldn’t have written about the experience at all except that when we tried to order more food, we were told that the kitchen had closed, but for desert. You would think that a restaurant like Gran Electrica, on a Thursday night, in a thriving Brooklyn neighborhood, with a pulsating bar scene, that takes your name at 8:30, doesn’t seat you until 9:30, and doesn’t get your first order in until close to 10pm, might keep the kitchen open until later than 10:45, or at least give you fair warning that a second round of small plates was out of the question. But there we were, feeling hip and hungry in the middle of an otherwise fully functioning restaurant.

The funny thing was that it was just a few hours earlier that I’d had a conversation with a restaurateur friend about the relative merits of dining when you’re known to the house, and when you’re not. “I’m starting to like it more incognito,” he said to me. “You get the real experience that way, really see what the place is about and how they’re doing.”

Not knowing anybody at Gran Electrica, we were surely getting the “real” experience, but Josh and Jimmy were sufficiently miffed by the refusal of more grub, that Jimmy felt the need to out himself, asking our waitress to: “Tell the chef Jimmy Bradley says thanks for nothing.”

I have to say, I felt the same way: Much as I love this borough I’ve called home for the past several years, and though I’m a fan of many of its restaurants (Char No 4, Seersucker, Prime Meats, Black Mountain, Franny’s, and the brilliant Brooklyn Fare, to name but a few that do it right), there are times when our eateries validate everything Brooklyn’s critics say: doing-you-a-favor attitude, poor table management (i.e., the providing and replenishment of silverware, water, and so on), and the notion tonight that it was perfectly acceptable to stop offering food at what amounted to mid-meal.

[Update 6/22/12, 7:10pm: Gran Electrica’s chef de cuisine Sam Richman and I just had a nice email exchange. He says that he doesn’t have a hard-and-fast two-taco policy and doesn’t know why the kitchen was closed when we were still eating. He did all anyone could ask of a chef in his position: got in touch, explained as best he could, and didn’t begrudge me my experience. Outreach like this makes all the difference; I’ll try to give the place another chance before the summer’s out.]

Arthur on Smith, after hours

On the Other Hand … 

Serving into the wee hours isn’t a problem for a new Cobble Hill restaurant that I like quite a bit, Arthur on Smith, where chef Joe Isidori just launched a late-night menu that will be offered from 11pm until 1am Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. I first met Joe a few months ago when he opened the joint, and I’m an unabashed fan, both of his food and of his unassuming demeanor.

We might not have made it over to Arthur on Smith last night for the informal soiree they were throwing to kick off the menu, except that we were suffering from dinner interruptus, and were hungry.

Arthur on Smith was full of friends of the house and local business owners, there as Joe’s guests to sample the food which was brought out as it was prepared and arrayed on a long, banquet-style table at the back of the dining room where we all helped ourselves.

There were sandwiches of lamb, pork, and perhaps most memorably and originally thick-cut mortadella, the pistachios within whole and crunchy, slathered with mustard, the best, high-class bologna sandwich you could imagine. We also enjoyed pasta carbonara, gnocchi with (I think) short rib sauce, and salads of beets and tomatoes. We washed these snacks down with Lambrusco, about which Josh uttered one of his signature throwaway gems: “It’s delicious and doesn’t have too much alcohol; a surgeon could have it for lunch and not mess up in the afternoon.”

I’m not exactly sure in what sized portions this will all be offered on a (late) nightly basis, but in a neighborhood that shuts down surprisingly early, even on the weekends, this is a great new option to add to the itinerary.

Beyond all that, we had a fun time in the cool, relaxed, midnight-in-summer vibe, joined at one point by Don Pintabona, the original chef of Tribeca Grill and an old pal of the lot of us, including Joe. There was a touching moment when Don mentioned that he was part of the Hayden’s Heroes benefit being hosted this Sunday at Colicchio and Sons in honor of chef Gerry Hayden, a veteran of such kitchens as Aureole, who’s been in the throes of ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease) for the past several years. (The event, as I understand it, is sold out, but you can donate here.)  Jimmy, who’s not one of the headliner chefs at the event, immediately offered to help out in the back of the house, a spontaneous gesture of solidarity between him and Don, all in support of their fellow toque. After the indignities of our first stop on this night, the second couldn’t have been more reassuring.



Hasta La Pasta

Michael White Shoots for a Little Old School Industry Camaraderie Monday Nights at Osteria Morini

Cappelletti at Osteria Morini (photo copyright by Nick Solares, courtesy Altamarea Group)

Tonight, Michael White’s Osteria Morini (218 Lafayette Street) will kick off what the chef hopes will become a regular stop on the late-night culinary circuit: “Industry” pasta nights. The restaurant is offering all its pastas for $10 from 9:30pm until closing every Monday night. You’re supposed to mention that you’re in “the industry” but nobody’ll check your working papers or ask you for the secret handshake. So if you’re a toque on a night off, or enjoying an early push-off time on one of the quieter nights of the week, or just a pasta-loving New Yorker or visitor to our fair city who enjoys pasta, you might want to stop in and end your day with a bargain bowl of top-notch noodles, or carbo load for the long bar crawl ahead.

I spoke to Michael about this new promotion over the weekend and he says he started it in hopes of conjuring a little of the community he enjoyed as a young cook–he has especially fond memories of  late nights at Blue Ribbon–but which he feels has gone out of the biz in recent years. He’ll be on hand this evening, and I plan to drop in myself.


Friends and Family: David Waltuck is Back in the Game

Clyde Frazier’s Wine and Dine is set to open tomorrow, March 16, at 485 Tenth Avenue (corner of 37th Street) in New York City. Named for a basketball superstar, it’s on the mind of most Toquelanders because of the presence of David Waltuck, executive chef and co-owner (with his wife Karen) of the late, great Chanterelle, where I got to know them both when David and I co-authored the restaurant’s cookbook. (The New York Times detailed CFW&D’s backstory on Friday.)

Today, as executive corporate chef for Ark Restaurants (a position once held by Jonathan Waxman), David has been consulting on the menu at CFW&D and will be in the kitchen for an indeterminate amount of time after opening, along with the dedicated team. However long he’s there, and in whatever capacity, it was great to see him amongst the burners again:

David Waltuck at Walt Frazier's Wine and Dine (photo © Toqueland 2012)

Though CFW&D is not yet open, my wife, Caitlin, our kids, and I had dinner at there Friday night as part of the restaurant’s Friends and Family. For non-industry readers, Friends and Family is a restaurant tradition in which the owners and chef invite–you guessed it–friends and family (and investors and anybody else whom they either feel obligated to include or whose feedback they value) to come into the restaurant as guests (i.e., gratis) as they whip the dining room and kitchen teams–and the synchronization of the two–into shape.

There’s a tacit understanding during Friends and Family: if you’re a guest, you come ready to patiently endure all the kinks that might be present at any dress rehearsal: long waits between courses, poorly conceived or wrongly seasoned food, and anything else that might go awry. It’s also customary to tip big, since the waitstaff are being paid, but are serving far fewer customers than they would were the place officially open. In other words, it’s a win-win, made memorable by the feeling that you’re seeing people you care about off on a big adventure and possibly playing a small role in their success by offering useful feedback.


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Slice of Life: Grains of Sand

A Visit to Red Rooster Harlem, and Entirely Too Brief Encounter with Marcus Samuelsson

Marcus Samuelsson at the Bar at Red Rooster Harlem (photo by Paul Brissman)

More than anything, Red Rooster Harlem reminded me of the sand.

About ten years ago, I asked Marcus Samuelsson, then the chef of Restaurant Aquavit, if he’d grant me an interview for use in a proposal for a book I had in mind. He happily obliged, inviting me to the one-bedroom apartment in the West 40s where he lived at the time.

I had first met Marcus during my short, unhappy life as a restaurant publicist in the 1990s. Aquavit‘s owner, Hakan Swan, had recently appointed him, then just 24, the chef, then hired the agency for which I worked to rep the place. Marcus’ celebrity is such that nobody thinks anything of his name anymore; his story–orphaned in Ethiopia at age 3, adopted by a Swedish family thereafter–has become common knowledge. But when he first turned up at Aquavit in Midtown Manhattan, he was incongruity personified: a skinny black kid with a Swedish handle cooking Scandinavian cuisine in a townhouse once occupied by Nelson Rockefeller. Customers who didn’t read the food section flirted with whiplash as they panned along with him whenever he passed through the dining room and it slowly dawned on them: “That’s the chef!”

I’d say that Marcus and I came up together except that it’s a pretty absurd statement given how far he’s ascended. But that’s how it felt at the time, and still does in retrospect, in part because he was so supportive of my own trajectory. It’s not easy making the switch from publicist to professional writer; generally speaking, people want to keep you in whatever box you shipped in. But it can be done; just ask Peter “Lucky Peach” Meehan. When I was first going for it, Marcus was immensely and uncommonly supportive. After my first foray into professional writing, the next few times I saw him, he’d flash a warm grin and say, “You’re a writer now, Andrew.”


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Postcard from San Francisco: Where’s the Beef?

Talking Meat, Eating Veggies, at Nopa Restaurant

Jimmy Bradley, left, and I at Nopa restaurant.

When I relaunched this site a few days ago, one of the things I wanted to do was give you a seat at the table for some hang time with chefs, which inevitably produces something worth sharing, whether it be a nugget of industry insight, or simply a war story, anecdote, or memorable quip.

So, here’s the first: I spent Saturday in San Francisco with my good pal Jimmy Bradley, chef-owner of The Red Cat and The Harrison in New York City. During an evening divided between drinks at the Hotel Huntington bar and dinner at Nopa restaurant (both with a civilian friend along for the ride) we lapsed into a running discussion of the distinct challenge of cooking meat to its proper doneness, and the madness to which it can drive toques.

Can’t remember how or why it came up, but Jimmy told the story of how, years ago, while working the sauté station at a midtown Manhattan restaurant, he tried to warn the kid on the meat station next to him that he had been cooking various cuts to the wrong degree of doneness all night long.

And how did Jimmy, standing several feet away, know this?

“As with anything that’s blue collar and repetitive in nature, you learn things over the years,” he said. “Meat starts out red and ends up gray; in between, there are shades of both, and of brown.” But the answer goes beyond that: Most seasoned chefs will tell you they can just look at a piece of meat and tell what doneness it is, or at a piece of fish and know if it’s cooked through or not, but none can quite put words to what they see, beyond color cues, that reveals this; it’s an intuition that must be earned personally.

Anyway, the guy didn’t heed Jimmy’s warning, and put up three pieces of overcooked filet mignon, their shortcomings as apparent to the chef as they had been to Jimmy. Already reeling from the mounting pressure of an intense service, the chef went ballistic, chucking piece after piece of meat right at the cook’s head.

This, in turn, reminded me of a story, witnessed firsthand while trailing in a South Beach, Miami, restaurant many years ago, that involved a customer who couldn’t get no satisfaction with a rack of lamb. After it had been sent out to the dining room, a waiter returned the lamb to the kitchen, reporting that the guest wanted it more well done. Though slammed, the meat cook was happy to comply, slipped it under the salamander (broiler) for a bit, and sent it back out…. 

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