The Boss

In A Chef-Centric Age, Restaurateur Drew Nieporent Has Stayed as Famous as His Toques

[Welcome to the second in a series of monthly symbiotic posts I’m presenting in partnership with Eater New York under the Kitchen Time Machine banner.  Read my two-part interview with Drew Nieporent over there. – A.F.]

Drew Nieporent, Tribeca Grill, February 28, 2014 ( © 2014, Table 12 Productions, Inc)

NEW YORK, NY — A former employee of Drew Nieporent once told me that, in his opinion, the restaurateur broke things off with David Bouley at Montrachet, in part, to assert his independence. This was in 1986. Ten years prior, owners were king. But things had changed: chefs—mostly anonymous  just a decade earlier—were dominating the limelight.

I asked Nieporent about the comment in a recent book interview. Had that indeed been a motivation, to make it clear that it was his joint at the end of the day and that, regardless of the consequences, he wouldn’t subordinate himself to a chef, even one of the best and most exciting ones in the country?

He thought about the question for a moment, looked me straight in the eye, and said, simply and emphatically:  “Yeah.”

Drew’s been at it for a while: He graduated Cornell University’s School of Hotel Management in 1977 then worked on cruise ships and at such New York hotspots as Maxwell’s Plum and Tavern on the Green before opening Montrachet in 1985. His company, Myriad Restaurant Group, has launched more than three dozen restaurants around the globe, among them Tribeca Grill, in partnership with Robert DeNiro, in 1990, and the first Nobu, with Nobu Matsuhisa and DeNiro, in 1994.  (The latter has, of course, spawned a worldwide restaurant collection.)

In our Kitchen Time Machine interview over on Eater, Drew insists that he has always put the chef front and center, but he’s also, over the years—whether intentionally or not—created businesses that were in some regard, chef-proof; of them all, only Nobu bears the head whisk’s name on the awning or shingle, although he ultimately decided that Corton wouldn’t be Corton without Paul Liebrandt.

Many of the restaurants launched by Myriad have come and gone but the honor roll of chefs who have passed through its kitchens is extraordinary:  In the wake of Bouley, Montrachet was run by Debra Ponzek and, later, Harold Moore.  Then, when the space became Corton, it was the home of Paul Liebrandt’s career resurrection. Don Pintabona lorded over Tribeca Grill for many years.  Traci Des Jardins ran Rubicon in San Francisco.  Pat Williams helmed the hearth at City Wine & Cigar and Berkeley Bar & Grill.  The list goes on and on, and when you factor in now-famous chefs who did a turn on the line in those restaurants, the number multiplies exponentially.

And, yet, nearly thirty years after Montrachet served its first meal, Drew has managed to keep his name and punim in the limelight as much as any of those who have run or worked in his kitchens…. 

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Talking Shop: Sous Chef Author Michael Gibney – Part 2

In Which We Discuss Smoking Breaks, Selling Books, and the Chef as Unattainable Ideal

Here’s part 2 of our interview with Sous Chef author Michael Gibney.  If you’ve not yet read part 1, you might want to click over and check it out before reading this installment.  The book publishes today, and can be ordered here:

Sous Chef debuts today.

Sous Chef debuts today.

On Smoking Breaks

TOQUELAND:  There’s a real rhythm to the book: Obviously service is depicted in a very intense way.  But there are also moments of solitude that create a Yin-Yang effect, like the smoking breaks, time in the office, that description of the kitchen that opens the book. Those become intense in their own way.  And then there are intimate, one-on-one exchanges with the chef or the other sous chef.  The rhythm of the day is very interesting because you’re constantly moving between a kind of solitude to one-on-one to group activity.  Was that something that was deliberate for you or did the day just take you there?

GIBNEY:  Some readers are really pissed off that the chef smokes, or that the narrator smokes. Readers in the online communities. “I stopped reading this because I don’t think chefs should smoke.”  Well, it is a reality.  Many of them do.  But the reason it’s included in the book is to get some of your own space and time, five minutes of freedom of thought that’s similar to going out to the bar after work.  If you’re really stressed or you’re feeling down or you’re feeling really hung over or you’re sick or lonely or whatever it is, that bright light and all the ambient sound and all the people and the clanking of the pots and the heat and the fire is only going to exacerbate whatever negative feelings you’re having, so you do need to step away and clear your head from time to time.

It was important to me to include all of those because they do exist. Sometimes some people go into the walk‑in box and just hang out for a minute and have the cold air blasting on their face.  Some people don’t need that; some people like the intensity.  But the point is that little moments of that sort are, in real life and also in the book, deliberate escapes from that atmosphere.

TOQUELAND:  Some of my favorite verbs in the book are the way guys flick their cigarette butts.  That was such a true thing for me because the least wimpy disposers of cigarette butts I know are cooks. “He rockets it into the middle of the street.”

GIBNEY:  Yeah. “He fires his butt into the gutter.” In the beginning I include this anecdote about meeting Marco Pierre White and it’s true that when I saw him I was, like, “Hold on.  I know this guy.”  It had to do with the way that he carried himself.  And in the bar scene, the narrator sees the three other guys coming up the road and there’s a connection. I don’t know if it’s macho; I don’t know what precisely it is, but there is some sort of confident and finessed way that cooks carry themselves, and that’s included in everything.

The Chef as Personal Goal

TOQUELAND:  The chef character in the book is presented as this almost perfect professional. Maybe more than almost any real chef is.  He’s an unattainable ideal.

GIBNEY:  Some people would disagree with that.  Thomas Keller, for example. There’s no cursing allowed at Per Se, and people aren’t going on smoke breaks. I mean, they still do have different versions of it, but in his mind this is probably a shabby kitchen that we’re talking about in the book. So there are certainly higher ideals.  This particular chef, the first thing he says is something vulgar and immature.  So in other people’s eyes it might seem like there are chinks in his armor but his finesse is ubiquitous: he’s the best butcher, the best baker, he does this perfectly, he does that perfectly.  And that is the idea:  Whether or not it’s actually true of that person, wherever you’re working — unless you’re not satisfied with where you’re working — you have respect for the chef, that’s the sort of pedestal that you put him or her on.

The physical inspiration for this particular chef is a guy who was my first sous chef gig, a guy that I worked with seven or eight years ago.  And he did look that way and I looked up to him so much.  I learned loads from him about how to think, how to invent things, the sort of confidence to have.  And now, I probably have learned many more skills, and I wouldn’t look at him the same way that I did at that age, but at that age, that person was that way for me.  That’s true for just about every chef that I’ve had in my life. I just look at that person as what I want to achieve.

I think that’s the attitude you need to have in order to put up with the work that you have to do. You have to idolize the people who are better and more experienced and higher up the food chain than you are.  And the chef is as high as it gets.

Adventures in the Publishing Trade

TOQUELAND:  What was the process of finding an agent and then selling the book like?… 

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Talking Shop: Sous Chef Author Michael Gibney – Part 1

Our Newest Chef-Scribe on Dual Disciplines, When to Break Out the Second Person, and Maintaining Relationships

Sous Chef Author Michael Gibney

Sous Chef Author Michael Gibney

“The kitchen is best in the morning.  All the stainless glimmers.  Steel pots and pans sit neatly in their places, split evenly between stations.  Smallwares are filed away in bains-marie and bus tubs, stacked on Metro racks in families — pepper mills with pepper mills, ring molds with ring molds, and so forth.  Columns of buffed white china run the length of the pass on shelves beneath the shiny tabletop.  The floors are mopped and dry, the black carpet runners are swept and washed and realigned at right angles.  Most of the equipment is turned off, most significantly the intake hoods.  Without the clamor of the hoods, quietude swathes the place.” *

So begins Sous Chef, the debut book from Michael Gibney.  Subtitled “24 Hours on the Line,” this memoir turns a day in the life of a New York City toque into the stuff of high drama and introspection, and not incidentally packs an awful lot of detail about the kitchen life into its 240 pages.  It also successfully walks the second-person highwire, using that unusual format to great effect.

In my humble opinion, the book catapults Gibney instantly into the very small club of chefs who are as adept at the keyboard as they are on the line.  (Unsurprisingly, he has devoted time to both pursuits, cooking at such restaurants as Tavern on the Green and Governor, and graduating Columbia University’s MFA writing program.) It’s an exceptional, commanding piece of work and I can’t recommend it highly enough, especially to readers who enjoy what’s on offer here at Toqueland.  Its official publication date is tomorrow, Tuesday, March 25, but you can hop online right now and order it up, and I suggest you do just that.

I should mention that I’m not saying any of this to hook up a buddy.  When I began reading the book, I hadn’t yet met Michael.  We did, however, have a chance encounter at an after-hours Christmas party in December, when I was mid-read.  And, after our interview for this site, I jumped at the invitation to dialogue with him publicly at The Strand on April 14.

In the meantime, here’s part 1 of our recent interview, with part 2 to follow later this week:

TOQUELAND:  Which came first for you as an ambition:  Writing or cooking?

GIBNEY: I don’t think either of them really came first for me; they’re both things that I happened into.  I’ve always been interested in creative things.  I went to school for painting. I was originally involved in theater, set design.  I’ve just been allured by all the different sort of creative disciplines.  And I’ve enjoyed reading my whole life.  When I was 16 I had to get a job and I got a job at a restaurant and started doing that, and I took to it.  I enjoyed it.  But I still had other things in mind. I suppose they’ve always existed simultaneously for me.

They’re both things that I appreciate for similar reasons, and things that suit me well, particularly the cooking because I think the lifestyle and the work ethic and the attitude and the respect that go into cooking are marvelous.  And then writing because it’s a chance for you to collect your thoughts about things, share them with people more readily.

TOQUELAND: A lot of people who end up cooking professionally didn’t really take well to school. I’m always a little surprised when a chef is a great writer because at some level – this is an over‑generalization — there seems to be an incompatibility between the two lifestyles and disciplines. When you were growing up, what kind of student were you?

GIBNEY:  I think I was a good student. I got good grades.  I was in the National Honor Society.

But I understand what you’re saying because there are in the cooking community loads of people who couldn’t spell but they were really good at creating this one thing and that was where their intelligence resided. Strangely, in cooking there are also kids who have only a high school degree, some who don’t even have a high school degree, who are still incredibly intelligent in a particular way; not just intelligent in a cooking way, but intelligent in a way that you would expect that they had gotten a rock star degree somewhere.

People go this route because they don’t necessarily excel in other areas. They get bored or don’t have interest in other areas of study, but I think in order to be a great chef, you have to have this thirst for knowledge and this ability to learn a lot of stuff.

TOQUELAND:  Not just food.

GIBNEY:  Yeah, not just food.  Or, even if it is just food, within that category there are so many subcategories like science and history and physical kinesthetic ability and technique.  So you need to have a level of learning to be a good chef.

Writing Sous Chef

TOQUELAND:  Tell me how this book came to be. Did you write the book on spec (i.e., without a publishing contract)?

GIBNEY:  I finished the book then got an agent, having written the book.

TOQUELAND: How long did that take and what your schedule was like?… 

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Anita Lo: The Toqueland Interview

The Newly Crowned Three-Star Chef on Learning to Love the Camera, the Hazards of Labels, and Asking the Right Questions

anita_headshot

Anita Lo (photo courtesy Annisa restaurant)

Anita Lo, who’s been presiding over her own restaurant, Annisa, since 2000, studied French Literature before turning toward the professional kitchen and cooking at such landmark New York City restaurants as Bouley and Chanterelle.  As readers probably know, she recently received three stars from The New York Times for the first time in her career.  Over the past few years, Anita has also published a cookbook, Cooking Without Borders, and appeared on two of television’s most popular culinary competition shows:  Iron Chef (on which she defeated Mario Batali) and Top Chef Masters.  We recently caught up with Anita at her home in the West Village, where she was rehabbing from knee surgery, and discussed a variety of topics:

TOQUELAND: Can I ask about the knee? Is it work‑related?

LO: I think just being a chef is hard on the body.  Everyone’s body is different but my knee didn’t take very well to it.

TOQUELAND:  Had it been a longstanding thing?

LO:  It had been degenerating for many years.  I think just standing on your feet all that time and running up and down stairs carrying heavy things is not good.

TOQUELAND:  Do you think that’s an aspect of the kitchen life that people who get into the business young don’t appreciate until they’re in it?

LO:  Oh, yeah.  Absolutely.  I mean, that article in the Times with Mark Peel? Ouch. But anyone you talk to that’s my age and that’s been in the business as long as I have, has injuries.

TOQUELAND:  Is this something nobody tells young cooks? It seems like something that doesn’t come up. I guess when you’re young you don’t think you’re ever going to have problems like that, no matter what you do.

LO: No, you don’t. Even if someone tells you.  It’s hard because someone has to lift it, but if it’s something heavy, I’m like, “Get help.  Two people should do that.”

The Intersection of Entertainment and Promotion

TOQUELAND: What was the experience of your book, Cooking Without Borders (written with Charlotte Druckman), like?  Was it something you thought a lot about doing throughout your career?

LO: I had been wanting to do that book for decades.

TOQUELAND:  That very book?

LO:  Actually, the original concept was going to be a little more academic.  I wanted it to be a book about American cuisine and multiculturalism.  Of course, no one would buy that.

TOQUELAND:  Did you try to sell that book?

LO:  I tried to sell that to an agent and I couldn’t even get an agent.  And then I had an agent and we were trying to sell it to a writer.  At this point it had gotten a little more watered down, but the writer said, “Why don’t you write something on Asian street food?”  I was, like, “Are you listening to me at all? You’ve got to be kidding me.  There’s no way I’m going to write something like that. You just missed everything I was trying to say about multiculturalism and identity and what it means to me.  You’re part of the problem.”

TOQUELAND:  So eventually this mutated into ‑‑

LO:  A cookbook.  I think I got my message across, at least in the intro.  At the end of the day writing a cookbook, for me, was about having a promotional tool for the restaurant.  Everything’s about the restaurant.

9781584798927

Lo’s first cookbook debuted in 2011.

TOQUELAND: This dovetails with something else. I’ve only met you a few times, and I hope this doesn’t seem like an odd question to ask, but do you consider yourself shy?

LO:  I’m absolutely shy.

TOQUELAND: You strike me as a little bit shy, which I don’t think is a bad thing.  You’re not a show-boater.  You don’t have a shtick.  And yet you’ve done television a few times.

LO:  It’s part of the job.

TOQUELAND: Is it an unnatural thing for you?… 

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Catching Up with the Joneses

A Visit to the Legendary The Chef’s Garden in Huron, Ohio

Lee Jones talks shop with Chef Skyler Golden in the offices of the Chef's Garden

Lee Jones talks shop with visiting chef Skyler Golden in the offices of The Chef’s Garden

HURON, OHIO – Bob Jones, Jr., whose family owns and operates the legendary The Chef’s Garden in Huron, Ohio, turns to me from the front seat of his dust-encrusted truck.

“When we have visitors—especially writers like you—we worry about what they are going to think about our packing facility.”

It’s a frigid, windy day in mid January, and Jones is about to escort me and visiting chef Skyler Golden of the Driskill Grill in Austin, Texas, into a newish packing and shipping facility that just went live in November.

The comment inspires some anticipation, and also apprehension. I am there as a guest of the Joneses, who flew me out for a tour and put me up at the guest quarters of their nearby Culinary Vegetable Institute, a multipurpose venue with an open professional kitchen, library, adaptable event space, and more intimate dining room. (It also hosts special programs such as a coming benefit for the Bocuse d’Or USA this Saturday night, March 15.)  There were no conditions on my reporting, nor was I asked to show the family or their team this piece before posting it. Still, the prospect of an unpleasant obligation loomed before me.  I have enough complexes being a New Yorker in the heartland, the last thing I want to be considered is a backstabber.

I needn’t have worried, and neither did Bobby. The shipping facility, surprisingly, turns out to be my favorite part of the tour, and Skyler’s as well, and for the same reason: It was the least expected.  In the winter, produce is harvested daily from a network of greenhouses, according to what’s been ordered on the day, funneled to this facility, and then boxed up by each department.  The boxes are gathered on racks based on delivery method—truck, FedEx, and so on—each of which carries its own hard deadline.  An average of about 175 orders of varying sizes ship out to destinations all over the world every day, with new orders flowing in right behind them by email, phone, and fax, and the orchestration of the groups that make it all happen is comparable, it seems to me, to that required to run, say, a small regional airport.

Orders start to gather at the packing and shipping facility.

Orders start to gather at the packing and shipping facility.

Indeed the thing that most impressed me about The Chef’s Garden during my whirlwind visit is the thing about which the Joneses are most self-conscious:  The technology required to power their operation.  Ironically, what most impresses me is the breathtaking devotion to cleanliness, safety, and quality, evidenced as much at this facility as it is in the greenhouses:  feet are stomped in a sanitizing agent before one enters the facility,  substandard specimens are tossed into gargantuan bins, greens are bathed in a sanitizing liquid then dried before being packed up, and each individual crop is assigned a bar code that allow any food safety issues to be tracked to the source (thankfully, The Chef’s Garden has never had to do that).

Bar codes that track crops from the soil to the customer.

Bar codes that track crops from the soil to the customer.

Great attention is also paid to the packing itself, as staff members fuss over the contents of each box like florists.  Their coats bear badges that say WOW TEAM.  Is it an anagram?  “It’s a reminder of the reaction we want from the chefs when they open the box,” says Bob.  “We want it to be like Christmas morning for them.  We want them to say ‘Wow.’”

THE FIRST TIME BOB, JR’S BROTHER, LEE JONES, BROUGHT zucchini blossoms to an Ohio farmer’s market in 1983, he did it surreptitiously. He didn’t want his competitors to see him peddling such dainty little curiosities.  His family, hit by a one-two punch of high interest rates and a hailstorm, had lost just about everything that year, and were rebuilding.  They’d suffered enough humiliation at auction; they didn’t need to be seen selling “flowers” in an industry defined by conventional commercial crops such as cabbage, sweet corn, peppers, and eggplant.

But Lee had recently met a chef who had trained in Europe, and had been making the rounds at the farmer’s market, asking farmer after farmer if they could get her the same delicate blossoms she’d come to know and love in Italy. She’d been laughed away at every turn.  Even the Joneses—Lee, his father Bob, and brother Bob, Jr—thought she was “crazy.” But Lee decided to give it a whirl.

The chef was overjoyed, and mentioned to another chef that she had met a farmer who was willing to entertain custom orders. The national network of chefs taken for granted today hadn’t coalesced just yet, but there were chefs out there, many of them, who had staged in Europe and were desperate for farmers who could produce ingredients of the caliber they’d become accustomed to overseas, as well as more and more specialty items that they sought out to add dynamism to their plates.

The Joneses began accommodating more and more special requests for items such as baby carrots, baby beets, breakfast radishes, even edible flowers, until they reached a crossroads.  “The chefs were two percent of our business and eighty percent of our aggravation,” says Lee Jones today, repeating a story he’s told so often that it’s honed to a well-crafted monologue.  The family decided they had to either jettison the toques or else shift their focus entirely to chefs.  They went with the chefs and, in the late 1980s, Farmer Jones Farm became The Chef’s Garden, and before long some of the most influential chefs of the day—Charlie Trotter, Jean-Louis Palladin, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Thomas Keller—were customers.  Framed snapshots of the Jones family with these and other luminaries, past and present, line the walls at key buildings at both the office and the Culinary Vegetable Institute…. 

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Kitchen Time Machine: Jonathan Waxman, Part 2

The Chef Discusses American Food Pioneers, the Perils of Celebrity, and the Camaraderie of Chefs

Jonathan Waxman, Yosemite National Park, January 2013. (© 2014 Table 12 Productions, Inc.)

Jonathan Waxman, Yosemite National Park, January 2013. (© 2014 Table 12 Productions, Inc.)

In case you missed it over on Eater, Part 2 of my interview with Jonathan Waxman–the first in a series of conversations with iconic New York City food personalities–was posted earlier today.  In it, Waxman discusses the changing nature of the relationship between chefs and the media, how he “got street cred without earning it,” and reveals an unlikely  guardian angel from his early days in Manhattan.  (In part 1 of the interview, Waxman discussed the history of Barbuto restaurant on the occasion of its Tenth Anniversary.) Please click over and have a look.

- Andrew

 

Milestones: Beard Papa

On the Occasion of Barbuto’s Tenth Anniversary, a Few Thoughts about Jonathan Waxman

[Note: This is the first in a series of symbiotic pieces I'll be posting with Eater as I round the homestretch on my forthcoming book about the American chefs and restaurants of the 70s and 80s, due out from Dan Halpern's Ecco Press in 2015. Periodically, Eater will feature an interview between me and a seminal figure from the era under the banner Kitchen Time Machine (click over to Eater to read my interview with Jonathan Waxman), and Toqueland will feature a complementary sister post. If you're visiting for the first time, please consider signing up for a (free) email subscription to Toqueland, following us on Twitter, and/or “liking” us on Facebook. - A.F.]

Tom Colicchio, Jonathan Waxman, and Mark Vetri at the first of three nights celebrating Barbuto's 10th Anniversary.  Monday, February 10, 2014.

Tom Colicchio, Jonathan Waxman, and Marc Vetri at the first of three nights celebrating Barbuto’s 10th Anniversary. Monday, February 10, 2014.  (© 2014 Table 12 Productions, Inc.)

NEW YORK, NY — The first time I met Jonathan Waxman was at Washington Park, his long departed restaurant on lower Fifth Avenue.  I was working on a cookbook with Gotham Bar and Grill’s Alfred Portale and, as was customary for us, we’d grab a bite somewhere near Gotham after we finished the evening’s interviewing.

As soon as we were seated, Jonathan approached our table and visited with Alfred for a minute. Amidst the bustle of the dining room, he exhibited a singular, chill demeanor befitting his California roots. He seemed to be operating on his own rhythm rather than that of the room, and the city, around him, a stark contrast to the wound-up personalities that usually materialized at the table when we were out in Manhattan.

“You in for dinner,” Jonathan asked.  “Or –”

Alfred was expert at cutting off the possibility of an unwanted feast, always a possibility for a chef of his stature.  “We’re just looking for a bite.”

“A snack?” said Jonathan.

“Exactly.”

Jonathan swept up our menus with an impish smile that I knew meant a mere snack was out of the question, then moseyed away.  Minutes later came two identical plates bearing reddish rectangles of rib-eye steak, sauteed escarole, and golden roasted potato coins.

Two things struck me about that evening.  First, of course, was the food.  It was as simple as can be, but I can still picture, smell, and taste it today.  Simplicity has always been a hallmark of Jonathan’s style, but of course it’s harder to attain than most people realize, which is why his chicken, a version of which was first introduced at Michael’s restaurant in Santa Monica (that’s a young Jonathan in the upper left corner of the black and white picture in the margin of this webpage) remains a standout more than thirty years later.

The other thing that lodged in my memory was the image of Jonathan mingling along the bar, hugging and kissing more than a dozen patrons.

“What’s up with all the people at the bar?” I asked Alfred.

“That’s Jonathan,” he said.  “Those are friends of his.”

All of them?”

“Yes,” said Alfred.  “He stays in touch with people.  It’s admirable.”

Jonathan’s latest restaurant, Barbuto, turns ten today.  When it first opened, nobody quite knew what to make of it.  Jonathan had wandered a bit after his wildly successful runs at Michael’s and Jams in the 1980s, then emerged with this place, the name of which means “beard” in Italian, a nod to the style of food and to the fact that Waxman and his business partner, Fabrizio Ferri, both sport facial hair. It seemed like a bit of a career afterthought at the time: it didn’t quite make sense that Waxman was cooking Italian, and the location was in the way West Village, across the street from Tortilla Flats.  (All of this is discussed in my recent interview with him.)  But it built slowly over time, and has developed a loyal following, including a number of chefs and industry figures, both local and long distance. On various evenings there I’ve sighted everybody from Ruth Reichl to LA’s John Shook, of Animal and Son of a Gun. (Of course, Jonathan’s 2010 stint on Top Chef Masters didn’t hurt the cause.)… 

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Food for Thought

For Chefs on the Road, Every Meal Means Something More

Tasting everything at State Bird Provisions.

Tasting everything at State Bird Provisions. (photo by Jennifer Olsen, courtesy Chefs Feed)

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — A meal is never just a meal for chefs on the road.  Every trip is a mission to try places they’ve read about, or that are owned by friends and acquaintances; explore movements; and seek inspiration.  Those factors drive every dining decision, from where to eat breakfast or grab a slice of pizza to what table to book for Saturday night dinner.  Meals aren’t just nourishment; they are research and development.

It’s the same for the writers who cover them.  A few days away from home is an opportunity to actually taste all those Twitter teases and, of course, to meet the chefs behind them.

We are in California, New York chefs Jimmy Bradley (of The Red Cat and The Harrison), Harold Dieterle (of Perilla, Kin Shop, and The Marrow), and I.  We have just returned from a few days of cooking demonstrations at Chefs’ Holidays at The Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park, and now we are in San Francisco for the weekend.

Here’s how a typical food-obsessed day, a Saturday, goes:  Harold and I dive in early. We are staying at the Hotel Vitale, on the Embarcadero.  By 8:30am, we’re crossing the street, glorying in our surroundings: the Bay Bridge over our shoulders, the Ferry Building across the street, and the cerulean sky overhead. Our destination, the bi-weekly Farmers Market that wraps around the Ferry Building is already throbbing.  We walk the stalls: citrus, herbs, aromatics, and just about anything else a cook might desire are piled high on tables or artfully displayed in baskets and bins.

“Back East, it’s apples and onions,” Harold says, evoking the tundra we left behind last weekend.

“Squash,” I add. “And gourds.”

In the small-world department, we bump into NOPA’s chef and co-owner Laurence Jossell who was up at the Ahwahnee with us just a few days ago.  Laurence has a rolling cart in tow. He’s calling one of his restaurant kitchens to tell them he’s got grapes. Harold and I both taste one from the crate, sweet and juicy.

IMG_3759

East Meets West: Harold Dieterle and Laurence Jossel talk shop at the Ferry Building Farmers Market.

We buzz through the Ferry Building, our eyes catching on a display of mushrooms, their colors as diverse as a box of Crayolas; I’m especially drawn to the pink oyster ‘shrooms, which I’ve never seen before.  We also ogle a nearby selection of the filled Italian doughnuts bomboloni. Completing our lap, we decide it’s time for breakfast: Harold scores a porchetta and greens sandwich from Roli Roti, I get a breakfast sausage sandwich from 4505 Meats and an order of Gamja fries from Namu Street Food–crispy fries topped with kimchee, kewpie mayo, and a graffiti of additional condiments.  We take a bench alongside the bay and chow down, then its New Orleans-style iced coffees from the least jammed of the three Blue Bottle Coffee stations, and a dip back inside the Ferry Building for one of those bomboloni.

Another small-world moment:   A woman walks by.  She looks familiar.  I think it’s Sue Conley from Cowgirl Creamery.  We’ve never met, but I’ve been brushing up for an interview we have scheduled for Monday, so recognize her from her photo. Her red tote, Fromagerie, stenciled up the side, is a dead giveaway.  I introduce myself.  “What are you doing today?” she asks. I gesture around the market. Food is what I’m doing.  That’s it.  It seems a bit ridiculous to be so one-track in a city as robust as San Francisco, but there you go.

We connect with Jimmy and take a walk. Even the conversation is food-centric: He’s been reading California Dish, Jeremiah Tower’s no-holds-barred account of his years atop the food world.  Jimmy mentions to Harold that there’s a technique described in the book where Tower debones and trusses a duck before roasting it. There’s nothing unique about the cooking technique, but he’s intrigued by the butchery.

“I want to try it,” says Jimmy.”

“For the Red Cat?” asks Harold.

“No, I just want to learn how to do it.”

I mention the pink oyster mushrooms from the market but Jimmy waves me off: “Ah, the pink pleurotes,” he says.”  They look beautiful, but then you cook them and they turn grey, like all other mushrooms.”… 

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Confessions of a Closet Californian

Falling in Love with the State I’m Supposed to Hate

Golden Gate Bridge © Rich Niewiroski Jr. via Wikimedia Commons

BROOKLYN, NY — To be a New Yorker means many things, and one of them is to despise California. That predisposition comes with the territory. It’s not enough to love our concrete canyons, clogged sidewalks, and cutthroat pace–one must also disdain the sunny, happy way of life on the other side of the republic. I mean, the nerve of those people to thrive on all fronts without having to endure the obstacles and obscenities that hurtle our way like a never-ending meteor shower.

Well, as longtime readers know, I’ve been researching a book about the American chefs of the 70s and 80s. Much of the interviewing has happened right here in my home base of New York City, but my attentions have been equally allocated to The Golden State. And, after several recent visits, this New Yorker has a confession to make: I love California.

It shouldn’t come as a shock. I was caught at a vulnerable moment. This month begins my 29th year in the Big Apple. It’s a fun and rewarding existence, but I’d still characterize myself as a striver. The inconveniences and the unkindness of strangers wear on me in ways they never used to. In 2009, we moved to Brooklyn for a spacious duplex and access to an above-average public school, and with twin kids in their tenth year, and all that entails, life can be Sisyphean.

And so, my seduction by the West Coast has been swift.

It began with the people. California interviews have been unexpectedly warm and social affairs.  Before I know it, drinks have been poured, or meals are being shared, sometimes cooked by the chef-interviewee’s own hand. Extra time, follow-ups, and other support have been excitedly offered. Appointments that were booked with assistants end with the revealing of private cell phone numbers and email addresses.  More than a few people, strangers at the outset, have hugged me tightly as we said goodbye. (Of course, many of the same things happen in New York City, but I’ve known people here for 20 years.)

Joachim Splichal, following an interview at his home.

Patina Restaurant Group’s Joachim Splichal, following an interview at his home.

The tone was set over an October lunch in Los Angeles with restaurateur Marvin Zeidler, outside at his Brentwood Cafe.  Not only did Marvin make the time to sit down, but he generously provided a list of contact information for key historical figures he thought I should meet. Over two weeks split between Southern and Northern California, and two subsequent visits in November and December, more than 40 chefs and restaurateurs followed suit.  Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger invited me to raid their vault of press clippings and photographs;  Mark Franz of Farallon and Waterbar encored a decadent lunch with a sit down at his home that lasted for hours;Valentino‘s Piero Selvaggio arrived at our second sit-down with a stack of books and magazines he thought might help me, personal keepsakes that he’d amassed  over the years. “Keep them,” he said, shoving the mountain of paper my way. Joachim Splichal, John Sedlar, Nancy Silverton, Ken Frank, Cindy Pawlcyn and many others–none of whom I’d met before– extended and/or shared of themselves in ways that I will expand on in a coming post of highlights from the research trail.

"Keep them." Piero Selvaggio, outside his Valentino restaurant.

“Keep them.” Piero Selvaggio, outside his Valentino restaurant.

It hasn’t just been the toques. Random characters, as if engaged in a Truman Show-worthy conspiracy, continued to woo me Westward. Chief among these was the hirsute barista at Blue Bottle Coffee in San Francisco’s Mint Plaza who suggested their New Orleans blend to me. (It’s made with chicory, and a little sugar, and was engineered to be served over ice.)  I sipped it, nodded my approval, and stayed in line to pay. He turned to the next customer, then back toward me: “You know what, man?” he said. “It’s on me today.”

“What did I do to deserve this?” I asked.

“I just feel like it,” he shrugged, then smiled brightly and added, “Cheers!”

To put it mildly, things like that do not happen in New York City…. 

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The Ultimate Chef Wear

Sam Hazen’s Prized La Côte Basque Souvenir

Just interviewed Sam Hazen of Veritas restaurant for my forthcoming oral history about the American chefs of the 1970s and 80s.  I’ve known Sam since he took over the kitchen at Cascabel restaurant (in the space that is now Osteria Morini) in the mid 1990s, and have flitted in and out of touch with him over the years.

It was a fun interview: Sam attended the Culinary Institute of America in the early 1980s, and went on to cook at La Côte Basque and the Quilted Giraffe, among other New York restaurants.  When I first walked into Vertias to meet him, he surprised me with a bag of keepsakes from his line-cook days, just for fun. The highlight was this jacket, which Jean-Jacques Rachou (one of the first French chefs to welcome young American cooks into his kitchen in those transitional days), gifted his brigade for Christmas 1983.  When the old gang reunited in 1995 for the shuttering of the restaurant’s original location (it reopened in a nearby home a few months later), Sam asked a number of them to sign the jacket–an all-star line-up that included Rachou himself (“JJ Rachou,” right under the restaurant’s name), Charlie Palmer (just under Sam’s embroidered name), Rick Moonen (under Charlie), and Waldy Malouf (lower right corner).

Sam Hazen's La Côte Basque jacket

 

Sam’s fondness for Rachou and La Côte Basque was plain.  He worked there for five years, an almost unimaginable length of time by today’s standards.  When I remarked on how emotional he seemed when discussing those days, he whipped out his cellphone and showed me that La Côte Basque’s phone number was still in his directory, even though the restaurant has been gone for about a decade.

“You can’t erase that one,” I said, thinking of my own policy of not deleting the phone numbers of the deceased.

“No, that one stays forever,” he said.

We didn’t get through all we had to talk about today and Sam promised to bring some more “fun stuff” to our follow-up interview.  I can’t wait.

- Andrew