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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Consider The Radish

Jimmy Bradley and the Role of Confidence in Being a Chef and Creating a Restaurant

[Note:  This is our monthly sister post to the Kitchen Time Machine series on Eater.  Click over there to read our interview with Jimmy Bradley.]

Jimmy Bradley, in front of The Red Cat, which recently turned 15.  (photo courtesy Jimmy Bradley)

Jimmy Bradley, in front of The Red Cat, which recently turned 15. (photo courtesy The Red Cat)

NEW YORK, NY — A few weeks ago, during a quick visit to the Napa Valley, I caught up with Brian Bistrong, chef de cuisine of Michael Chiarello’s Bottega restaurant in Yountville. As we were talking, our mutual friend, Jimmy Bradley, chef-owner of The Red Cat and The Harrison in New York City, came up.

Brian had cooked for David Bouley before he became executive chef of The Harrison, Red Cat’s sister restaurant in TriBeCa, where we got to know each other. He then returned to Bouley as chef de cuisine after Braeburn, his own restaurant in downtown Manhattan.

We kicked around some stories about Jimmy, then I asked what it had been like collaborating with him.

“I learned a lot working for Jimmy,” he said, without hesitation.

The swiftness with which the answer came made me think that it was something Brian had spent some time reflecting on in the intervening years.  For me it was actually a surprising comment because, with no disrespect to Jimmy (who’s one of my best friends), given Brian’s professional pedigree, I wondered what Jimmy could have shown him, culinarily speaking. I asked Brian what he meant.

With zero hesitation, he said:  “Jimmy’s very sure of himself.”… 

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Milestones: All The Right Moves

Gavin Kaysen, Executive Chef of Cafe Boulud, is Leaving New York City. Those Who Think He’s Crazy Haven’t Been Paying Attention.

Gavin Kaysen.  (photo by Gary Payne, courtesy Gavin Gaysen)

Gavin Kaysen. (photo by Gary Payne, courtesy Gavin Kaysen)

“I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all–Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.”

- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

NEW YORK, NY — Which is worse: having cancer or moving to Minneapolis?

OK, that’s a rhetorical question. Clearly the former is a less desirable fate.  But if you were Gavin Kaysen, you might be growing confused. Ever since announcing that he would be leaving Manhattan, and a coveted gig as executive chef of Cafe Boulud, to return to his Minnesota hometown and open Merchant restaurant later this year, Gavin has been met with unconvincing smiles and artificial optimism that rival those that greet sufferers of potentially terminal illness.

“It makes me sad to think that people look me in the eye to say ‘congratulations’ and turn around and say, ‘Why he is doing that?'” Gavin wrote me during an email exchange the other day. “I know it is going to happen, and I knew it was when I made my decision to do this. But I have a hard time understanding why people ask ‘Why?'”

It’s the restaurant industry’s version of the old, myopic Saul Steinberg New Yorker cover: You don’t voluntarily leave New York, goes the conventional wisdom.  You leave when you have no choice.  You leave when the city’s used you up, and vice versa. When you’re too old and creaky to hack it on the line, and your ideas reek of a bygone culinary era. That‘s when you leave; not when you’re just thirty-five-years old and the favorite son of one of the world’s most successful fine-dining moguls…. 

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Highwire Act

Le Cirque’s New Chef, Raphael Francois, on Moving to New York, Auditioning for the Job, and Pleasing All of the People, All of the Time

Le Cirque's new chef, Raphael Francois, moved to New York in January.  (photo by Evan Sung; courtesy Le Cirque)

Le Cirque’s new chef, Raphael Francois, moved to New York in January. (photo by Evan Sung; courtesy Le Cirque)

NEW YORK, NY — Just a few months ago, Chef Raphael Francois took on a task both flattering and perhaps unenviable when he assumed the toque at New York City’s storied Le Cirque restaurant.  Le Cirque, a New York institution with a rich heritage of great chefs including Alain Sailhac, Daniel Boulud, Sottha Kuhn, and Sylvain Portay, has been engaged in a Sisyphean enterprise since being taken down (shockingly at the time) from four stars to three by Ruth Reichl in 1993.  Since then, in the Times‘ estimation, the restaurant has dipped down to two stars and back up to three during Frank Bruni’s tenure, then down to one star by Pete Wells in 2012.

With that backstory, there would be no shortage of pressure on whoever took over the kitchen next to restore at least some glory to the forty-year-old Le Cirque, and you could almost hear the thundering of white-horse hooves as Raphael arrived in New York City, most recently from Hélène Darroze at the Connaught in London, where he earned two Michelin stars in 2011.  Raised in Belgium and France, Francois has cooked at Le Giverny in Tournai, Chateau du Mylord in Elezelles, Le Sea Grill in Brussels, and Four Seasons George V and Hôtel de Crillon in Paris.  His working relationship with Hélène Darroze began in 2006 when Francois worked with her at her Restaurant Hélène Darroze, and several of her city-based projects.

We recently sat down with Chef Francois to discuss the unique nature of the task before him, and the delicate balancing act required in his position. (Two notes:  In the full-disclosure department, Le Cirque’s legendary ringmaster Sirio Maccioni, recent recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award, graciously insisted we join him for dinner as his guests to try Chef Francois’ food; as the meal was gratis, we’ll refrain from detailed praise here and stick to the interview. Also, a special thanks to Toqueland pal Evan Sung for the images.)

TOQUELAND: Before you came here for this job, had you visited New York City much?

FRANCOIS: Yeah. I had to come to New York for a few events, so I came a couple of times.

TOQUELAND: Had you spent much leisure time here?… 

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Anthony Bourdain: The Toqueland Interview

The Kitchen Confider on Life-Changing Moments, the Nature of Fame, Meeting His Heroes, and New Projects

Anthony Bourdain (photo courtesy CNN)

Anthony Bourdain (photo courtesy CNN)

NEW YORK, NY — Where do you begin when it comes to Anthony Bourdain?  There are no shortage of options, but I’ll start here:  As far as I’m concerned, with Kitchen Confidential (2000) he more or less created the interest in chefs’ lives and the inner workings of professional kitchens that gave rise to the audience (at least in the United States) for everything from books by authors such as Gabrielle Hamilton and newcomers like Michael Gibney to shows like The Mind of a Chef (which he narrates) to myriad other toque-focused entertainments, this blog included.

All of which is to say, I was delighted and humbled that Tony — whom I’ve met a few times over the years — graciously accepted my invitation to do a Toqueland interview. We connected on Tuesday, two days after the wonderful Lyon episode of Parts Unknown debuted, and one day before he took off for China to film an upcoming installment. He’s a busy man, who in addition to all of the above, oversees his own line of books under the Ecco imprint and is developing a food hall in New York City, among many other endeavors.

The interview took place over a leisurely lunch at The Breslin during which we covered a wide range of topics.  He also casually gifted me some news about previously unannounced upcoming projects, featured in our dialogue, below.

I may run some other bits from our conversation next week, but for now, here’s the meat of it:

On How We Got to This Point

TOQUELAND:  OK, so you write, you’ve got the show, you’re developing a food market, oversee your own line of books, among other things you’re involved with in some way or another. And this all started with a New Yorker article that grew into a book.

BOURDAIN:  [laughs] Right.

TOQUELAND:  When you think back to when things started to snowball, what was the tipping point when you really started to understand that your life was beginning to mutate into what it’s become?

BOURDAIN:  About six months after Kitchen Confidential happened. I was on the best-seller list. I signed for the television series A Cook’s Tour.  People were calling and offering me all sorts of wonderful things. But I was still very much working under the assumption that it was all bullshit and it would all vaporize and that I should keep my day job.

TOQUELAND:  When you say “it’s all bullshit,” you mean you didn’t trust it?  Or you thought people were full of it?… 

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Milestones: The Long Haul

On the Occasion of Gotham Bar and Grill’s 30th Anniversary, A Few Thoughts About Alfred Portale

[Note:  This is our monthly sister post to the Kitchen Time Machine series on Eater.  Click over there to read my just-posted interview with Alfred Portale. – AF]

Alfred Portale in 1985, the year he took over Gotham's kitchen (photo courtesy Gotham Bar and Grill)

Alfred Portale in 1985, the year he took over Gotham’s kitchen (photo courtesy Gotham Bar and Grill)

NEW YORK, NY — Alfred Portale once told me:  “There are two ways to become great.  One is to be born brilliant; the other is to work harder than everybody else.”

He paused for effect, then added:  “I did it the second way.”

He has a point: The history of Gotham Bar and Grill, which celebrated its 30th Anniversary with a gala benefit Monday night, followed by a late-night industry party, is dotted with evidence of Alfred’s constant striving. (He became chef there one year into the restaurant’s lifespan.) In our Eater interview, we discuss how he and his partners have periodically shepherded their prized possession through several of what Alfred calls “restorations,” revamping everything from the restaurant’s logo to its color scheme and artwork to keep Gotham from developing a middle-aged frumpiness…. 

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TALKING SHOP: Jody Williams (Buvette, New York City)

The Buvette Chef and Author on Her New Cookbook, Loving Vague Recipes, and Why Intentions Matter

Jody Williams (photo courtesy Grand Central Life & Style)

Jody Williams (photo courtesy Grand Central Life & Style)

Jody Williams’ new cookbook Buvette: The Pleasure of Good Food (Grand Central Life & Style; $30) debuts today.  Written in collaboration with Julia Turshen and with an affectionate foreword by Mario Batali and exquisite photography by Gentl & Hyers, the book is a real charmer.  It shares not just a number of mostly simple and high-utility recipes fashioned after the European fare served up at Williams’ West Village restaurant, but also pantry notes and essays on savoring food and drink that help explain the mindset that makes Buvette such a respite from the madness of Manhattan.  With a recently opened Paris outpost and the mother ship on Grove street in a state of perpetual bustle, Jody’s pretty busy these days, but took time out last week to to sit at the long communal table just outside the kitchen door at Buvettte, and chat with us about her debut book.

TOQUELAND:  The book really conjures a sense of place and what this place is all about, largely through you just talking about the food. It’s transporting.  Was it a goal to create a mood as much as to share recipes?

WILLIAMS: I wish I was capable of consciously creating a mood. If there is a mood or a sense of place, it came out of this body of work subconsciously, and it makes sense for me that it would because the food that I’m cooking really is tied to a place.  It doesn’t really change much when I learn a dish in Rome or I learn a dish in France and I bring it back here and try and cook it. I love the culture.  I love the language.  I love where things are from. Maybe that’s why it feels that way.

How long had you had it in mind to do a book?  Is that something you’d always wanted to do? … 

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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.

90sConversation1

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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Bon Voyage

Boulud Sud’s Executive Chef Travis Swikard on His New Dinner Series, Working with Daniel, and Moving Up the Kitchen Food Chain

Boulud Sud Executive Chef Travis Swikard (photo by Evan Sung; courtesy Dinex)

Boulud Sud Executive Chef Travis Swikard (photo by Evan Sung; courtesy Dinex Group)

At just 30 years of age, Executive Chef Travis Swikard is already a young veteran of the Daniel Boulud empire, having spent five years with the company here in New York City, first at Café Boulud under Executive Chef Gavin Kaysen and now at Boulud Sud, where he was promoted to Executive Chef in the fall.  On Monday night, Travis introduced a Voyage Dinner Series through which he’ll present the cuisine of a different Mediterranean country or region one night each month. This week explored Israel and the next three dinners will serve up Greece (Monday, May 12); Sicily (Monday, June 16); and the Côte d’Azur (Monday, July 14).  All dinners are at 7pm and the cost is $95 per person, exclusive of tax and gratuity.  Tickets are available at events.danielboulud.com.

We sat down with Travis the morning after the Israeli dinner this week to discuss his career, and the series:

TOQUELAND:  How did you first get interested in cooking?

SWIKARD:  I grew up in between my parents’ houses.  I lived with my mom most of the time and my dad every other weekend.  My dad was a really good cook. I loved to cook with him and cook for my family. I think I was four years old, five years old and my dad was making a steak Diane in the house and he put the cognac in the pan and almost blew up the house.  I looked at him and I said, “I want to be a chef.”

How did you start cooking professionally? … 

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