Slice of Life: Enzo and Elvis

My Lost Morning with Charlie Trotter

ENZO AND ELVIS - My Lost Morning with Charlie Trotter

Charlie Trotter and the author, minutes before saying goodbye. June 2012. (Photo © Table 12 Productions, Inc)

BROOKLYN, NY—On November 5 of last year, reports that Charlie Trotter had died, at the tragically young age of 54, ripped through the restaurant industry.  In a quirk of timing, I was interviewing Jeremiah Tower in the lobby of the Stanford Court Hotel in San Francisco that morning.  When he had to take a phone call, I sneaked a peek at my iPhone to see that my wife, Caitlin, had texted me the news.

Tower called it “a shock.”  I agreed. It was shocking, but not as shocking as it should have been.  I had visited Trotter in Chicago for an interview sixteen months earlier, in June 2012.  He didn’t look well.  I won’t speculate as to why because it would be just that–pure speculation–although on the heels of his demise, friends and the media pointed to both a heart condition and a brain aneurysm; a few weeks later, the Cook County Medical Examiner ID’d a stroke, resulting from high blood pressure, as the cause of death.

When I heard the news, and for days afterward, it wasn’t to my actual interview with Trotter that my mind traveled.  Rather, it was to what had happened on its margins, our personal interactions when the recorder wasn’t running.  It was an odd, at times infuriating, and ultimately heartening twenty-four hours, but it was none of those things for the right reasons.

I started writing this piece that fateful week in November, then set it aside; it didn’t feel right to share it then.  But I couldn’t get it out of my head, and enough time has elapsed that I wanted to now.  Having finished it, I wish I had posted it back in the fall, because at the end of the day, it’s a positive yarn:

A few months before Charlie Trotter shuttered his eponymous restaurant, I had been invited to interview him for this website and made the trip to Chicago to do it in person. He was granting a great many audiences in those months, and I had just sold a book project about his generation of chefs and had been meaning to ring him up anyway, and to visit the restaurant before it served its last supper.  Nevertheless, I was a bit hesitant to invest time and money in the trip because he was the only chef who’d ever stood me up for an interview, albeit just a phoner.  I’d also had an uncomfortable encounter with him at the Bocuse d’Or tryouts in Orlando, Florida, in 2008. Nonetheless, having been repeatedly assured that a last-second cancellation — or, worse, a no-show — was out of the question, I bought a ticket and made a date via his publicist.

Part of the reason I decided to go was that I’d long been fascinated by what I referred to as the Two Trotters.  Even those who were close to him, or admired his gifts from afar, acknowledged or had heard that he could be difficult. This was not a secret in the industry. On the other hand, he was a chef of great passion (see clip below) and relevance; counted among his best friends two of the most amiable guys in the industry, Norman Van Aken and Emeril Lagasse; was relentlessly philanthropic; and many people who once cooked in his kitchen—Marcus Samuelsson and Graham Elliot Bowles to name just two–cherish their time with him as invaluable and formative.

My plan had been to have dinner at Trotter’s during my Chicago visit, and to interview the chef while in town.  By the time the trip came together, two chef friends from New York–one a peer of Trotters, one a contemporary of mine–had decided to come along for the ride.  When Trotter heard who would be joining me, he invited us to be his guests for lunch.  The plan, I was told, was that we’d dine at the restaurant and then the chef and I would spend the rest of the afternoon interviewing at his home around the corner.  It wasn’t until I arrived in Chicago that I realized Charlie Trotter’s wasn’t open for lunch.  I called the publicist, who explained to me that we’d be dining in the kitchen.  This was just hours before our lunch, so I also took the opportunity to assuage my lingering doubts and re-confirm that the interview was on.  Etched in stone, I was told.

It was an insanely generous meal at the famous kitchen table.  Each chef de partie cooked a dish for us, personally presenting it.  Veteran sommelier Larry Stone, back in his old stomping grounds for the final summer, was also on hand.  Trotter himself joined us for a spell, sitting at the table’s fourth chair, then disappeared.  It was a splendid, marvelous time, almost surreal in both setting and service.

It was after lunch that things got strange: The three of us were led on a tour of the wine cellars, then ushered to the front door.

“Is Chef meeting me here, or at his home?” I asked.

None of the be-suited staff knew what I was talking about.  I explained about the interview.

“He’s going to call you on your cellphone,” somebody bluffed.

“He doesn’t have my number,” I said, gradually realizing that history was repeating itself and that I was about to be stood up once again.

A lengthy, awkward silence followed.  Not wanting to shatter the halo of our lunch, I said goodbye and left.  Outside, I called Trotter’s publicist and explained the situation.  She was shocked, and hung up with me to try, fruitlessly, to find him.  I told my friends to push off and that I’d meet them for dinner, then called the publicist, told her — among other things — that I was going to plant myself on a bench in a nearby park and not move until I heard from somebody.

And there I sat, in a suit and tie. In the June sun. For two hours.  Periodically, the publicist called to update me:  Nobody could find Trotter, not even his wife.

Finally, my phone rang.  A private caller.  I answered it.

“Andrew, it’s Charlie,” came the voice on the other end, excited and happy…. 

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Amuse-Book: Gramercy, via Aspen

Gramercy Tavern was Born at the Food & Wine Magazine Classic at Aspen. Tom Colicchio Remembers.

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Tom Colicchio (photo courtesy Craft Restaurants)

[Welcome to a new feature I’m introducing here on Toqueland: Amuse-Book.  Basically these are a quick way for me to share a nugget from interviews from the book research trail that seem especially timely or relevant and that I don’t want to sit on until publication day. – AF]

NEW YORK, NY – I had the chance to spend a few hours interviewing Tom Colicchio yesterday. It was a far-ranging conversation that turned up a timely tidbit for this day, on which Food & Wine Magazine announces its Best New Chefs for 2014, and fetes them at a party in New York City tonight:  Gramercy Tavern began life at the Food & Wine Magazine Classic at Aspen.

As Tom tells the story:

“In 1991, I got a phone call saying, You’re going to be a Best New Chef.”

Was it a big deal?

“Oh, yeah.  It was one of the big [four]:  Getting reviewed in the Times, getting reviewed in New York Magazine, Food & Wine Best New Chef, and the Beard Awards.  These were all good things.  You checked the boxes.”

[Note: For Toqueland’s thoughts about the early importance of Best New Chefs, posted at the time of the 2010 inductions, click here.]

“It was the same year we got three stars [at Mondrian restaurant, from the New York Times].  They announced it in Aspen then; it wasn’t the same as it is now … so you had to keep your mouth shut until you got to Aspen.

“I remember the dish I did [in Aspen]; in fact, I’m cooking Tuesday, so I’m doing the same dish Tuesday that I did in Aspen:  a squab dish with soubise … I had ramps then– there are no ramps yet, so I’m doing baby leeks tomorrow – pickled chanterelles, honey-glazed onions. So it’s essentially the same dish I did then.

“It was great.  This was awesome stuff.  I remember going there.  I brought Kerry [Heffernan, his sous chef at Mondrian] with me.  And another chef named Jeff Perry, who was a sous chef at Mondrian, and it was, like, ‘road trip.’”

Those were heady days for Tom.  In addition to being named a Best New Chef, his three stars from the New York Times came at a time when only about a dozen restaurants could claim that distinction.

But the truth was that Mondrian was under-performing, and Colicchio was beginning to think about shutting it down.

“In 1991, Michael Romano [of Union Square Cafe] won Best New Chef so I had met Danny [Meyer] there.  Plus he’d been coming to the restaurant, so I knew him there, but spent more time with him in Aspen.  In 1992, I went back and I was having lunch with Danny [in Aspen].  I said, ‘Danny, in about a month you’re going to hear I’m closing Mondrian.’

“He said, ‘Why are you telling me?’ I said, ‘Well, maybe we should do something together.’… 

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Depictions: Eat, Drink, Boy, Women

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

NYT-Magazine-Food-Issue-Flynn-McGarry

The New York Times Magazine Food and Drink Issue broke this weekend, with wunderkind Flynn McGarry on the cover and a terrific profile of Barbara Lynch, among other pieces, inside.  Herewith, a few thoughts and observations about the most cheffy articles of the bunch:

1.  The Kid Stays in the Kitchen.  Did it bother you that there was a teenage chef on the cover of the food issue?  From a purely business standpoint, it made sense to me.  If I were an editor or publisher looking to generate some attention, I’d stick the kid with the Alinea-inspired kitchen in his bedroom, a talent agent on speed dial, and an Uber account on my cover over just about anybody else. Nevertheless, I gather from some Twitter action over the weekend, that an anti-Flynn wave has commenced:

Personally, I’m not hopping on the backlash bandwagon.  Quite the opposite: In our home, my wife showed the magazine to our twin 9-year olds as evidence of what you can accomplish if you put your mind to it.  Both of them have aspirations–our daughter to be a graphic or fashion designer; our son a professional athlete–and their eyes were just about popping out of their heads when they saw McGarry there. I know there was disappointment among some friends of mine that Barbara Lynch and Kristen Kish weren’t on the cover (indeed, they might have at least been mentioned there) but in our home, children of both sexes found inspiration there based on age and accomplishment, and that’s got to be worth something.

I’ve wanted to meet Flynn McGarry for some time, having known about him for a while.  But much as I’d like to make his acquaintance, I’m even more curious to taste his food.  Carina Chocano’s story was an interesting, though coincidental, follow-on to Alan Richman’s piece this week about “egotarian cuisine,” which I must say I found timely, refreshing, and important. (Lost in much of the naysaying was that Richman didn’t dismiss all of the food out of hand, just the stuff that isn’t enjoyable and/or satisfying to eat–is it actually a radical thought that those should be the baseline standards for any dining experience?)

Truth be told, though I’m rooting for him, I’m a little worried for McGarry.  Not because of an outsized ego; I know many people who have met him, and he is very well liked, hence the invitations to stage in major kitchens.  No, I’m concerned about what appears to be a narrowness of experience, and I don’t mean kitchen experience, because he’s obviously got that in spades.

The story–and it’s not the first one I’ve read about this prodigy–reminded me of a conversation I once had with the head of the Columbia University Film School.  I was a first-year student and interested in a program Columbia had at the time in which you could earn an undergraduate degree and a masters of fine arts in a total of five, rather than six, years.  I met with the head of the film school to ask what he’d be looking for when the time came for me to apply.

“Don’t just come to me with a bunch of film classes on your resume,” he said. “If that’s all you have, then what are you going to make movies about? Show me you knocked around Europe for a year, or worked some crazy job in Alaska.”

When I read Sunday’s article, I felt tremendous admiration for McGarry and also a twinge of concern.  (I didn’t realize before this particular piece that he was home-schooled.)  It was the same concern I felt when I saw an episode of Master Chef Junior last fall:  that the technique being developed by these wonder-whisks is astonishing, but what vision do those who have done little more than cook bring to their craft?  Professional cooking, like many arts or art-like pursuits, expands with the worldliness and curiosity of the individuals who practice it.  A related point is made in Rosie Schaap’s bartender article in the magazine, which reveals that, like many of America’s first “celebrity chefs,” whose groundbreaking food was informed by their pre-culinary lives, many of our top celebrity bartenders are career changers, and bring a world of non-food reference points to their work.  For example, Todd Maul, of Boston’s Clio, is a former furniture maker, and references that craft in relation to his provided cocktail recipe in the piece. I just hope that McGarry makes time in his young life to get out of the kitchen and away from the media to be — you know — a kid, and to bring that life experience to the plate.

It’s probably none of my business what McGarry and the other young toques out there do with their lives, but this was my personal response to the story.  There are too many cautionary tales (Andre Agassi comes to mind) of childhoods prematurely surrendered to the hard-to-deny combination of talent and ambition.  The kitchen will always be there; one’s sixteenth year comes and goes, in hindsight, in a millisecond…. 

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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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