Thanks to Salvatore Rizzo of De Gustibus for capturing this for-the-time-capsule image of me and Paul Liebrandt prior to our class the other night:
On the Occasion of Barbuto’s 10th Anniversary, a Few Thoughts about Jonathan Waxman
For Chefs on the Road, Every Meal Means Something More
Falling in Love with the State I’m Supposed to Hate
A Day (and Night) in the Life of Brooklyn’s Most Celebrated Open Kitchen
The First of a Multi-Part Conversation with the Author of the new book Skirt Steak
A Working Session Reveals Where the Chef Ends and the Collaborator Begins
Thanks to Salvatore Rizzo of De Gustibus for capturing this for-the-time-capsule image of me and Paul Liebrandt prior to our class the other night:
Clyde Frazier’s Wine and Dine is set to open tomorrow, March 16, at 485 Tenth Avenue (corner of 37th Street) in New York City. Named for a basketball superstar, it’s on the mind of most Toquelanders because of the presence of David Waltuck, executive chef and co-owner (with his wife Karen) of the late, great Chanterelle, where I got to know them both when David and I co-authored the restaurant’s cookbook. (The New York Times detailed CFW&D’s backstory on Friday.)
Today, as executive corporate chef for Ark Restaurants (a position once held by Jonathan Waxman), David has been consulting on the menu at CFW&D and will be in the kitchen for an indeterminate amount of time after opening, along with the dedicated team. However long he’s there, and in whatever capacity, it was great to see him amongst the burners again:
Though CFW&D is not yet open, my wife, Caitlin, our kids, and I had dinner at there Friday night as part of the restaurant’s Friends and Family. For non-industry readers, Friends and Family is a restaurant tradition in which the owners and chef invite–you guessed it–friends and family (and investors and anybody else whom they either feel obligated to include or whose feedback they value) to come into the restaurant as guests (i.e., gratis) as they whip the dining room and kitchen teams–and the synchronization of the two–into shape.
There’s a tacit understanding during Friends and Family: if you’re a guest, you come ready to patiently endure all the kinks that might be present at any dress rehearsal: long waits between courses, poorly conceived or wrongly seasoned food, and anything else that might go awry. It’s also customary to tip big, since the waitstaff are being paid, but are serving far fewer customers than they would were the place officially open. In other words, it’s a win-win, made memorable by the feeling that you’re seeing people you care about off on a big adventure and possibly playing a small role in their success by offering useful feedback.
A big congratulations to The Ahwahnee’s Percy Whatley, who nabbed the American Culinary Federation‘s Western Region Chef of the Year award last night in Reno, Nevada.
Whatley, who twice competed in the Bocuse d’Or USA, and is training hard for the Certified Master Chef (CMC) exam, began documenting his training for the CMC on Toqueland last month, and has been putting the finishing touches on the next installment of his journal for us. (He was also featured in my Huffington Post piece “The Real Top Chefs” about the largely unknown world of traditional culinary competitions.) We’ll ask him to share a little about this event in his next CMC post as well, if he has any energy left to spare.
Frequent visitors to this site will notice that something has changed. No, we didn’t get our hair done. This space, which used to house a dozen links to Recent Posts has been replaced by a more conventional blog scroll titled Toqueland Wire. (If you’re reading this via a subscription email, you’ll need to visit the site’s homepage to see what I’m describing; if reading on a mobile device, have a look on a tablet, laptop, or desktop computer when you get a chance.)
Going forward, this is where you’ll find both the feature articles and essays that have defined Toqueland since its launch, as well as shorter, sometimes newsier bits (i.e., traditional blog posts). The slideshow up top will continue to highlight a mix of the most recent articles and those dearest to our hearts, and–in a day or two–we’ll have a Greatest Hits section stacked up in the right margin as well. If you follow us via email subscription, or on a mobile device, never fear; all posts will be shared there, just as articles have been since our inception.
Toqueland Wire will give me a place to share more information with you, more often, and more spontaneously. Accordingly, you might want to start checking in more frequently, or simply follow us by any means you like . .. you might even win a prize.
See you in this space tomorrow.
One Year, 50 Pages. Why Book Proposals Are Worth the Trouble.
[Editor's Note: This piece--about writing a book proposal with Paul Liebrandt--first ran May 18, 2010 on the original, short-lived, 1.0 version of Toqueland. As I'm teaching a class on cookbook proposals tonight at the Institute of Culinary Education (if you missed it, no worries, we'll be doing it again in July), and co-presenting with Paul tomorrow night at DeGustibus, it seemed like a good time to re-post it. The story has a happy ending: Clarkson Potter will publish the book in 2013. You can read a little about it at the top of this site's book page, and stay tuned for frequent updates as the project comes together.]
NEW YORK, NY. MAY 18, 2010 — Having just introduced this site in December, on the occasion of the publication of my last book, I’ve only been able to speak about writing in the past tense. But this past weekend, as I tweaked a proposal for a new collaboration, I thought it might be interesting to spend a little time in the future tense and share a bit about the great unknown for a writer like myself who primarily makes his living in the book world . .. the next project.
For about a year now, I’ve been engaged in an ongoing dialogue with Paul Liebrandt, the wildly talented chef of Corton restaurant in TriBeCa, about writing a book together. Usually proposals come together much more quickly for me, but this was a unique relationship because unlike the other chefs I’ve worked with–most of whom I’d known pretty well socially before we became business partners–Paul and I had never met until a mutual friend took me to dinner at Corton for the purpose making a literary match and sending us off down the book path together. (It also took a while because we connected while I was barreling down the homestretch of penning Knives at Dawn, so meetings were few and far between at the outset.)
The Living Legend Reflects on the Meaning of California Cuisine, Los Angeles versus San Francisco, and Early Encounters with Fellow Luminaries
If you’re just joining our interview with Jeremiah Tower, whom we connected with in person during his visit to New York City this week, you might want to read Part 1 of our extensive conversation before reading on. Herewith, the balance of our dialogue:
TOQUELAND: California cuisine. Do you like that term? Do you feel like it was, in hindsight, the right term for what it describes?
TOWER: California cuisine is not the right term because it wasn’t a cuisine; it was a mindset which was the only one I knew because I grew up in Europe, where the menu is done from the marketplace. .. it was really restating what was completely obvious to every French grandmother for the last 500 years. It was an approach to cooking. ..
And then, a couple of years later, with things like [Michael McCarty's] Michael’s [in Santa Monica]. Actually, before Michael’s it was Michael Roberts’s Trumps restaurant. They really started the look of the new restaurant. Looking around here [Editor's note: This interview was conducted at Ai Fiori], this all started in Los Angeles, in two or three places, where you put the approach to cooking with a design look, white and beige and simple and everything. .. that attitude towards design and what you could do, what you could get away with, making it exciting, plus the approach that you just cooked whatever you could find that was excellent in terms of ingredients. That’s really what it was about.
TOQUELAND: Do you think Los Angeles has been undervalued as people look back on the evolution of American food and restaurants in the 70s and 80s?
TOWER: Completely. This is why I made the point, because people don’t know the story. And the writers who came later were so focused on Chez Panisse and San Francisco and everything. But really Trumps –it was Michael Roberts who had that. There was the West Beach Cafe in Venice; it was just a little building and it was all white concrete and white and steel, you know? Really early on. And then came Michael and Trumps and one or two others. Cecelia Chiang came to me one day and said, “Jeremiah, you’ve really got to see what’s happening. You’re not going to believe what’s happening in Los Angeles.” And without that, I wouldn’t have known.
The Living Legend on the Perils of Celebrity, What Tweeting Did to His Heart Rate, and “The Barrier”
There are but a handful of people who can lay legitimate claim to having forged the world in which we dine today. Jeremiah Tower is one of them.
For readers for whom Tower may not be a familiar name, not only did he help (re)define American cuisine in the 70s and 80s, first at Chez Panisse and later at Stars in San Francisco, but he was one of the first celebrity chefs, as we understand that term today: Way back in the mid 1980s, he was the star of a $100 million Dewar’s ad campaign, and was one of the first chefs to export a refined dining concept such as Stars to multiple locations and countries. His name belongs alongside those of such fellow luminaries as Wolfgang Puck, Jonathan Waxman, and of course, Alice Waters.
For the past decade or so, Tower has famously lived in Mexico, where he restores houses (before turning to chefdom, he was trained as an architect), SCUBA dives three or four times a week, and writes. On hearing that he was bound for New York City, Toqueland tracked him down and invited him out for a drink–make that drinks. He obliged, making time for us shortly after his arrival. We caught up with him last night at Ai Fiori and peppered him mercilessly with questions.
As is only appropriate to this larger than life personality, the interview cannot be contained in one write-up, so here’s Part 1, with the second installment to follow later this week:
TOQUELAND: First of all, please just orient me: You’re here in New York for how long and for what purpose?
TOWER: I’m in New York for five days. I leave again on Saturday back to diving in Cozumel. And I’m just here because it’s been a year since I came to New York, and to see a lot of people and find out what’s going on.
TOQUELAND: When I think Jeremiah Tower, I think, “He’s a very important chef.” But it’s been a long time since you had a restaurant. Do you still consider yourself a chef?
TOWER: I don’t really see myself as a chef because I don’t put on my whites. I mean, I get to go out to dinner instead of cooking it. So, no, I don’t see myself as a chef so much anymore. I would be again the moment there was a restaurant and I put my whites on. But that’s not my identity now for myself.
My Last Supper’s Melanie Dunea on Photographing Chefs and What Their Food Choices Say About Them
Melanie Dunea and I met for coffee a few weeks ago at La Colombe in Tribeca to do an interview for Toqueland. We hadn’t seen each other in quite a while, so the coffee ended up being just a coffee. Then, we decided to pop in on our mutual friend Paul Liebrandt over at Corton, just around the corner.
We went through the staff entrance on White Street and found the kitchen brigade, just about a half hour before service, hushed and intensely focused on their work.
My usual MO at a time like that would be to tiptoe around the team and up to Paul. As I began to do just that, Melanie piped up, shattering the silence:
“This is some serious kitchen!”
A few cooks smiled. A few chuckled. Paul looked up, deadly serious for a moment, then realizing it was Melanie, let down his guard and smiled. His entire being seemed to relax. He waved us over and we stepped into the dining room for a visit.
That moment right there, I believe, is about as good an illustration of the difference between a photographer and a writer as you are apt to encounter. As a writer, I see it as my place to observe, to disappear into the woodwork, to allow people to simply behave as they would were I not there.
The Chef de Cuisine of Thomas Keller’s New York City Fine Dining Temple on New York vs Napa, the Value of a Centrifuge Machine, and the Moment He Got “The News”
A member of Per Se’s kitchen brigade from the time the restaurant opened in 2004, Eli Kaimeh became Per Se’s chef de cuisine in 2010, when Jonathan Benno moved on to Lincoln Ristorante. Prior to working at Per Se, Kaimeh, a native New Yorker, cooked at Restaurant Daniel and Gramercy Tavern. Kaimeh recently returned from two weeks in Yountville, California, where he served as chef de cuisine of The French Laundry as part of the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group’s first-ever “exchange program” between the two restaurants. (Our recent interview with French Laundry chef de cuisine Timothy Hollingsworth about his time at Per Se here.)
We sat down with Kaimeh last week to discuss his time in Yountville, along with other topics related to Per Se and the Keller empire. Herewith, our dialogue:
TOQUELAND: First of all, can you tell me a little bit about yourself. You’re from Brooklyn. Which part?
KAIMEH: I am born and raised in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. I am a first generation American. My parents came from Syria about 35 years ago. Grew up in a very food-rich and culturally rich family. Had quite a big family in kind of a small space where we all lived together. Food was something that we shared and looked forward to every single day. After high school I experimented with college a little bit. Shortly thereafter, I knew that cooking was something that I wanted to pursue in life. I went to the Culinary Institute of America. I graduated in 2000. I worked mostly around New York. I worked in some small kitchens around the country, nowhere too crazy . .. I am very much in love with classical and French cuisine, and the style of it. I began at Per Se from the first day the restaurant opened, and I have been here ever since.
TOQUELAND: So your first cooking within the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, or what we now call the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, was at Per Se?
KAIMEH: Yes, correct.
TOQUELAND: The occasion for our sitting down today is this exchange program. You are just back. You got back on Monday night [February 20]. When you think about the couple of weeks you just spent out in Yountville, what are the first things that, if I don’t ask you to organize your thoughts in any way, what are the first things that just float up to your mind?
KAIMEH: Well, I think the first thing that really comes to my mind is the creativity behind what we did.
TOQUELAND: You mean the exchange program itself?
KAIMEH: Yeah. How wonderful it is to work for Chef Keller who would sponsor that. And really work with us and just the sheer idea of thinking of it and executing it and then actually doing it. It started off as just an idea. We were all in Champagne, France, at Traditions & Qualite, which is sort of like an annual summit. Me and Tim [Hollingsworth], Nicolas [Fanucci, GM of The French Laundry] and Antonio [Begonja, GM of Per Se]. We were having a glass of Champagne and the idea sparked and we sat Chef Keller down and brought it to him.
A Proposal for a New Way of Judging Where We Eat That Reflects Today’s Ever-Changing Dining Standards
February 23, 2012 — There was a noteworthy aside in Wednesday’s New York Times review of Shake Shack. Reviewer Pete Wells awarded the establishment one star, which probably struck most readers as fair. But I couldn’t help but wonder how exactly to weigh it because, since Wells took over the most scrutinized restaurant-reviewing position in the country, he’s doled out two stars for Parm and three for Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria, both of which raised some eyebrows.
In the past, Shake Shack couldn’t have hoped for more than one star and, given some quibbles Wells raised about such issues as consistency and the quality of the fries, might have wound up with no stars, signifying “fair,” “satisfactory,” or “poor.”
At any other time in the last twenty years, I’d have assumed that Shake Shack proprietor Danny Meyer and company were thrilled with their evaluation, but given current context, I wondered if they were disappointed. Were they expecting or hoping for two stars? If they were, you couldn’t quite call them crazy. Not anymore. Because we’re at that time in the cycle again: Diners and industry folk feel the critical ground shifting beneath their feet and they don’t like that sense of disorientation and vulnerability. Every Tuesday night brings a defensive crouch as they brace for the next paradigm-shattering review.
Wells himself seems aware of the chatter, and made the following comment in his piece yesterday:
To answer two obvious questions right away:
Yes, I would give stars to a hamburger stand.
No, probably not four stars.
For my money, the key word in there is probably. (He was joking, right?)
The tension between stars and the modern dining world is nothing new. Decades ago, when “serious” restaurants were defined by a formality of food, service, and customer, the star system made perfect sense. Besuited or tuxedoed maitre d’s, white tablecloths, French words etched in a roller coaster of script on the menu, and French cuisine on the plate–these were the stuff of three and four stars. But with the rise of New American Cuisine (we really need a new name for that) and the ever more casual settings and standards it ushered in, the categories became clouded. Expand