Tag Archives: restaurants

Why the Beard Awards Matter

11 May

Daniel Boulud and friend at the 2012 James Beard Awards Photo Credit: Daniel Krieger

A very good friend — a force in the food world — was watching television in the early evening hours of Monday, May 7th when she saw Beyoncé, on the red carpet in front of a bevy of paparazzi, being interviewed. “Wow,” exclaimed my friend. The James Beard Awards have come a long way. Beyoncé?” We both laughed as she found out that the carpet beneath Beyoncé’s feet actually paved the way to the high-society Costume Ball at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that same night. But at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall across town, there was a similar buzz as chefs, restaurateurs, sommeliers and TV food stars had their own tomato red carpet to walk upon. At the end of that carpet? Hope, anticipation, excitement and desire to go home with a ribbon and medallion to mark one’s importance in the food world hierarchy.

The beloved gastronome James Beard might have actually enjoyed the evening, smack in the center of New York’s cultural hub, offering hospitality, as any great restaurant might, to the nominees and their fans who trekked great distances to be part of culinary history. This year marked the awards’ 25th anniversary. Often called the Oscars of the food world, they were created to honor the memory of iconic cooking teacher and author James Beard, whose broad inquisitive face appears on the ribboned award. I know. I have four of them. It is a thrill to win. It is also impressive to be nominated as the food world expands at a pace commensurate with the rising tide of obesity (might be interesting to look at that).

If the first food revolution presaged the awards by a decade, the second coming is surely here. Whereas, once the culinary tide went from France to New York, then shifted from East to West, it now glides from Farm to Table. This younger generation, very much in evidence that night, are blogging their hearts out and are, perhaps, even more passionate than we were in the mid-70’s. (That’s the 1970’s.) But to my way of thinking, it’s not the glitter and fanfare that makes the James Beard Awards important, it is one of few institutions that helps bind, like forcemeat, the past to the present and provides a historical anchor to the future — one that is often spinning out of control as younger chefs vie for fame and fortune, and in some cases, hone their rhetoric to be sharper than their knives. The older generation of chefs and restaurateurs, on the other hand, have chosen restraint and judgement as their path and watch in amazement (and perhaps amusement, as Beard would have done) at what some of the newly-initiated cooks are calling “cuisine.” And that’s where context and craft come into focus.

Last year I wrote about the awards and highlighted the ascension of women in the ranks. The piece was called “Women with Beards” (with an alluring jacket cover from the Italian singer Mina), for that’s what stood out to me then. But as women have seamlessly woven themselves into the fabric of the industry at many levels (although there is still work to be done), the greater attraction for me now is the food COMMUNITY. It felt like that the other night. A great happening, based on fellowship and nourishment — a large sangha of men and women devoted to an industry that has had its own coming of age — complete with glamour and glitz.

Do yourself a favor and google the award winners — from cookbook authors to satirical journalists, from TV stars to rising stars, from lifetime achievers to who’s who-ers, from beloved old restaurants to best new restaurants. And there’s a nice photo of Daniel Boulud and “friend.” That friend is me. More fan than buddy, I will cherish the photo, always, as he represents all that is good in our industry.

Kudos to all the winners, to all the nominees, and to the James Beard Foundation for continuing to raise the bar higher and higher while keeping us all rooted in our culinary history.

Tastes of the Week

7 May

April 30 through May 7, 2012

Embedded in this week of extraordinary tastes was a “gourmet safari” conceived by my friend and colleague, Rashmi Uday Singh from India. Rashmi writes for The Times of India and the Robb Report and was intent on discovering the newest, coolest, trendiest restaurants in the city to write about. It began one beautiful night when Rashmi met me for the 100th birthday celebration dinner at Benoit NYC (more about that later).  We hightailed it to Salinas to experience the imaginatively delicious food of Chef Luis Bollo, who hails from San Sebastian, Spain, considered by many to be a gastronomic mecca. We drank the essence of spring from the end of our spoons with the chef’s Gazpacho de Temporada, silken from green tomatoes, cucumber and spring onions.  Then on to a signature offering of Rossejat Rapida , crisped noodles cooked like rice, and studded with chicken, fava bans, chorizo, cockles & saffron aioli.  Deep intoxicating flavors and a compelling texture from this unique method of cooking pasta. Dessert was a mesmerizing portrait of white and dark chocolates topped with manchego foam. I want to go back just to eat this!  From there we went to RedFarm to sample most of the menu, including an awesome sampling of the city’s best dumplings — including the first-rate Pan-fried Lamb Dumplings – from chef Joe Ng, and what has to be the world’s most beautiful salad!  Take a look at the RedFarm website!

The 100th Anniversary dinner at Benoit Here is the beautiful menu, linking the past with the present. Duck foie gras terrine with toasted Parisienne brioche (prepared by Alain Ducasse and Philippe Bertineau); Spring vegetable “pot-au-feu” in duck consomme with fleur de sel (by Chef Michael Anthony); Olive-oil poached east coast halibut in brodetto di crostacei (by Chef Michael White); Larded filet of beef with crispy bone marrow (by Chef April Bloomfield), and an amazing Nougat glace of pistachio ice cream and passion fruit (prepared by Alain Ducasse and Jerome Husson.) I will be writing more about this — my past memories at Benoit in Paris and the meaning of the new “French restaurant” today — on the Huffington Post.

A wonderful inexpensive lunch at Aldea:  How do they do it?  A beautiful three-course menu for $24.07. Rustic pork & duck terrine with muscat wine gelee and market greens, skate wing “a la plancha” with slow-roasted cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and caper-butter emulsion, and walnut date cake with mint-infused citrus, vanilla sauce, and lemon sherbet (loved seeing the word sherbet on a menu…so recherche!)

Another beautiful lunch, also reasonably priced at Ciano:  My lunch market menu consisted of a crisp, ultra-fresh Shaved Vegetable Salad with mixed greens, fennel, peppers and ricotta salata, penne with ragu of braised veal, prosciutto and smoked pecorino, and a sorbet of Bosc pear with biscotti.  Perfect.

Lunch today? At my house…with wine expert Carol Berman. We’re having a fanciful salad of ten-spiced yogurt chicken, moroccan carrots, blue cheese, charred red peppers and a garam masala vinaigrette. Homemade wine cake (made with lemon, red wine and rosemary.)   Wonder what we’ll be drinking?  Maybe fresh mint tea with mint pulled from my window box.  (Although I do have a nice bottle of gewurztraminer chilling right now.)

Enjoy your own tastes of the week.  Be mindful and enjoy!

A Chef Among Chefs

28 Apr

I’ve been around the New York restaurant scene for more than 30 years and few names come up with as much respect and affection as that of Floyd Cardoz. I couldn’t believe I never met him until I went to North End Grill a few days ago to celebrate the birthday of a great friend. It was a girl’s lunch out — white wine (one from Greece and another from Austria), a torchon of foie gras with rhubarb-tangerine preserve and grilled brioche; soft-scrambled eggs with bacon and ramps, a salad of escarole, endive and radicchio tossed with blood oranges and Marcona almonds, linguine with flaked halibut, fava leaves and citrus gremolata. There were outstanding “Thrice-Fried Spiced Fries” peppered with mango powder, paprika and cumin, and, for dessert, an awesome butterscotch pot de crème with chocolate streusel and “single Maltmallows” (homemade marshmallows perfumed with scotch), and a sexy rendition of chocolate mousse coupled with candied macadamia nuts and black currant sorbet.

So why am I telling you all this, other than to make your mouth water? It’s because the menu tells the story of a chef’s journey — from the bold, iconic, three-star, Indian-inspired Tabla, to the new American-style grill recently opened in New York’s Financial District, by Chef Cardoz and Danny Meyer. It isn’t an easy act to follow — your own — and even harder when you know all eyes are upon you: Those of the most jaded New Yorkers, and maybe more importantly, those of your disciples, including some of the city’s bold name chefs including Ben Pollinger from Oceana and Dan Kluger of abckitchen. This is a chef who is “totally present” to his new surroundings and his new-style cuisine: Nary a nod to the pantry he left behind except, perhaps, for that dusting of mango powder on those addictive fries.

I admire this move. It is risky and rewarding. It is not yet perfect but that’s the magic of all of Danny Meyer’s enterprises (Danny is the owner of Union Square Hospitality Group and the creator of Gramercy Tavern, Maialino, Blue Smoke, Union Square Café, and Shake Shack, just to name a few). He and his chefs “work it” and work it until whatever it is they’re doing becomes a “prime number” in the infinite realm of experiential dining.

Many chefs, like many artists, apply their creativity to a singular modality (a particular cuisine) that comes to define them. But today, the emphasis is on the craft of being a chef, allowing for expansion beyond one’s own culture or culinary training. Floyd Cardoz began his life in India and graduated in biochemistry. He understands why food does what it does. He has worked in the best kitchens in India and Switzerland and spent five years in the celebrated kitchen of Gray Kunz’s Lespinasse. Whether Floyd’s “Cod Throats Meuniere” or his “Grilled Clam Pizza” become the next big thing doesn’t really matter. Most important to him is the camaraderie, respect and competence he has bestowed upon each person who has ever worked for him. He is a “chef among chefs,” they’ll tell you, a true Top Chef Master.

Tastes of the Week/Tastes of the Future

20 Feb

Feb. 12 thru Feb. 19th, 2012

As I blabbered about being excited to go to RedFarm for dinner, the “happening” new restaurant owned by Chinese food maven, Ed Schoenfeld, I can tell you that the excitement turned into happy eating delirium. The tiny 40-seat restaurant located at 529 Hudson Street (bet. W. 10th and Charles) is darling — a kind of farm-to-table environment with long communal tables and cozy booths-for-two. Eddie says they turn down at least 500 diners a night (they don’t take reservations) but have found a way of “farming” people out to local bars and then texting them when a seat is available. I think the system is working! I fell into the arms of fellow-diner chef Todd English (we’ve been friends for years) and hung out at the tiny bar, drinking a yuzu caipirinha, until our table was ready.  The chef, Joe Ng, is an urban dumpling legend and we ate a few that were other-worldly — especially the Black Truffle & Chicken Soup Dumplings that squirt into your bowl, and totally cool green vegetable-chive dumplings. Apparently Chef Eric Ripert and the adorable Bobby Flay also like them since they are frequent RedFarm-ers! Ditto Gael Greene and the rest of NY’s food cognoscenti. But there are lots of nice, normal people, too — including a couple who came all the way from Boston just to eat there. And while the kabocha squash & ricotta bruschetta at abckitchen is one of my favorite “tapas” in all of New York, I have found another favorite in Eddie’s smoked salmon & eggplant “bruschetta.” Truly fabulous. As was the crisp-skin chicken with garlic sauce, the okra & Thai eggplant yellow curry with flatbread for dunking, and the wok-sauteed conch with scallops and jumbo shrimp which was a special that night. The fresh fruit plate was a work of art (how do they do this in such a small kitchen?) and would you believe the chocolate pudding was first-rate! The food is “new Chinese” with so much style and grace that you may never order in again.

And my husband took me on a date to Patroon — the beautifully, clubby restaurant in midtown (160 East 46th Street), owned by another of New York’s great restaurateurs, Ken Aretsky who used to run the “21 Club.” We hadn’t been in years and heard that Patroon was recently spruced up! It’s fabulous looking (an impressive photography collection graces the walls) and the service is the most professional and affable that we’ve had in a long time. Not a snooty moment, but it was precision-perfect. The very nice chef, Bill Peet, worked at Lutece for years and remains a close friend of chef/legend André Soltner. It’s “the” place to go for Dover sole (filleted tableside) and steak au poivre, and the oyster pan roast was luscious. The “Simply Grilled Fish of the Day” was perfectly-cooked cod over a tangle of the most delicious “roasted” broccoli rabe we’ve ever had. The place is all-class and feels like the “new 21.” Good mango sorbet. Be sure to visit their roof-top bar as soon as the weather gets nice. We hear it’s the place to be.

Tastes of the future: Every so often I peruse the events booklet published by the James Beard Foundation as to the “goings-on” at the Beard House (located on West 12th street in NYC) and locations around the county. It provides a snapshot into current “chef thinking” — re: new flavors, tastes, combinations, and techniques —  a “look-see” into what my peers are cooking these days! Here’s a glimpse of hot new ingredients in the March/April issue:  rutabaga sauerkraut, bok choy kimchi, squash butter, tongues, black cod, pork cheeks, hake cheeks, toasted cherry leaves, almond milk, pressed palm seeds, goat milk cream cheese, “beet” steak, tomato “chicharrones,” bellies (pork and lamb), freekeh, rabbits, pigs ears, vadouvan spice, and fresh curry leaves. Coming soon to your plate.

Enjoy your own tastes of the week.

Tastes of the Week

31 Jan

Jan. 23 through Jan. 30, 2012

A week of big, bold, beautiful, bi-coastal tastes.

Lunch at Manzo with Lidia Bastianich. Just the two of us chatting for three hours about everything:  raising children; imparting wisdom to younger women who long to be in the food business; her career path and new tv shows; my career path and new projects; food, wine, friends, our hopes for the future.  It was my first time at Manzo (located on the main floor of Eataly on 5th Avenue in NY) and it was wonderful. The best “tartare” I have ever had; voluptuous sweetbreads; a lovely unusual pasta dish of tajarin (thin egg noodles) with a roasted meat jus; a roasted ribeye with succulent sauteed cavalo nero drenched in sticky meat juices; wines from the Bastianich vineyards, and a plate of freshly-cut blood oranges for dessert. We enjoyed a brief visit from Baronessa Cecilia Bellelli and her sister. Cecilia is Arthur Schwartz’s business partner in their cooking school called Cooking at Seliano in southern Italy. Espressos all around. Ciao ciao and grazie mille to Lidia.

The BEST raw yogurt and sour cream from Triangle Farm and Health Foods in Aaronsburg, PA. This was a gift from a new friend who frequents the Park Slope Co-op and cares deeply about the quality and provenance of her food sources. The sour cream was indescribable and much more like French creme fraiche than anything we are used to in the states. I encourage you to find out more about them. I know I will. Am savoring every spoonful and am enjoying it tremendously with a dab of my homemade carrot marmalade. Thank you to Anne Weisen who brought these wonderful products to me.

Many great meals in Vancouver and one of them was world-class! A superb Thai meal cooked by Angus An who worked for the revered David Thompson at Nahm in London (the only Michelin-starred Thai restaurant.) Angus’ Vancouver restaurant is called Maenam:  there we had a Thai dinner party for four — including fried oysters with “nahm jim” sauce made with green chilies (they call them scuds), garlic, coriander stem, galangal, fish sauce and lime juice; hot and sour mussel soup with holy basil; Muslim beef curry with Thai curry paste; a spicy salad of seared tuna, mint, cilantro, nuts, & chili; and of course, pad Thai (the ubiquitous noodle dish.)  Wish this restaurant existed right here in New York.

We had lunch at the sister restaurant to one of the world’s most well-known Indian restaurants “Vij.”  His smaller place is called Rangoli and it, too, is special.  Especially the “naan” pizza topped with roasted crickets!  I didn’t touch it and neither did my daughter who ordered it. What possessed her?  But my husband thought it was awesome. He also enjoyed his lamb, chickpeas and potatoes in yogurt-date curry and our friend loved her goat and jackfruit in creamy curry with coconut cabbage salad, rice and naan. Endless glasses of credible (and authentic) chai made a chilly gray Vancouver day very welcoming.

Another meal was actually mine (!) and prepared at Vancouver’s famous book store called Barbara Jo’s Books to Cooks. At my cooking class with 18 wonderful students around the eating bar/open kitchen, we cooked a meal from Radically Simple tiny walnut-onion muffins to accompany a glass of prosecco; my jade soup with crab and dill (made with heaps of Dungeness crab from Vancouver instead of the usual lump crab I generally use — it was fabulous); chicken ras el hanout with fresh tomato-ginger chutney sitting on a swirl of milk carrot and parsnip puree, next to a timbale of coconut-pistachio rice, a “pre-dessert” of whiskey-laced warm carrot marmalade served on silver spoons; and the “little black dress chocolate cake” strewn with fresh raspberries and dolloped with creme fraiche.  It was such an exercise in radical simplicity that the happy guests were stunned and a good time was had by all.

A lovely brunch overlooking one of Vancouver’s most beautiful parks and lakes at The Boat House. Delicious eggs benedict atop a grilled cheese and lobster sandwich! Yes! A glass of terrific local BC pinot gris. 

But the most extraordinary meal of all — perhaps the best, and most inventive I’ve had in years, was at Diva @ the Met (Metropolitan Hotel) in Vancouver.  More about the menu, the wine pairings and the chef later in the week.  But suffice it to say, it is deserving of at least 3 Michelin stars and the chef, Hamid Salimian is a gentle genius.

Not easy to leave Vancouver but I bring home a basket of taste memories to last a long while.

Tastes of the Week

30 Oct

October 23 through October 30, 2011

First taste treat goes to the mushroom pizza I had last night at my high school reunion at Sue Schwartz and Howard Muchnick’s beautiful apartment on East End Avenue. For take-out, it wasn’t bad. Rather great, really. But maybe it was the wine, or the nostalgia, being with friends I haven’t seen in 42 years. Friends from Fresh Meadows, Queens, New York –where I spent my childhood. Fresh Meadows is the subject of a marvelous new book called “Fresh Meadows” — part of the “Images of America” series created by Arcadia Publishing. Written by Fred Cantor and Debra L. Davidson, it pays homage to what Paul Goldberger called “the quintessential suburban housing complex.” Thirty years prior, Lewis Mumford hailed the community as “perhaps the most positive and exhilarating example of large-scale community planning in this country.” It was where I cooked at my mother’s knee for almost 50 years.

And here’s a vicarious taste experience. My husband and his best friend Bob Kern had lunch at Ciano this week. They loved it and thoroughly enjoyed the food, the focaccia gently warmed in the fireplace, and the human warmth of the maitre d’ who chatted them up, poured their wine, and brought them more good bread. Three excellent dishes:  a casserole of Tuscan beans, smoked fennel sausage and garlicky breadcrumbs; fusilli with broccoli rabe and sweet sausage in a creamy sauce of that broccoli; and  a thick slab of roasted eggplant “Amatriciana” topped with cured pork cheek, tomato and pepperoncini.  Super-star chef Shea Gallante is the man at the stove. Prix fixe lunch (for three courses) is an awesome $20.95. You just can’t beat that.                           

That same day I was having lunch with my good friend Robin Adelson Shinder, executive director of the Children’s Book Council and the Every Child A Reader national program. We had lunch at the newly opened Kibo restaurant on East 18th Street. Kibo is another flag in the kingdom of Steve Hanson’s restaurant empire — which include eateries such as Blue Water Grill, Atlantic Grill, Bill’s Burger Bar and Dos Caminos . Our waiter, David, was a rock star who was so professional at orchestrating our meal and sharing a bit about himself. He had just passed his bar exam (no, not a mixologist but to be an attorney) and his positive energy added lots of fun to the experience. We began with spicy, salt-licked fried shishito peppers, a refreshing japanese cucumber appetizer, and good-enough ramen noodles in a porky broth that needed a bit of the chili paste that accompanied it. The items from the robata grill were the real thrill, however, and I wish there were more of those on the menu! We had the filet (steak), chicken, and huge perfectly-cooked shrimp with a dab of
kimchee aioli. I could easily put the chicken on the very top of my favorite tastes this year.

Desserts were Japanese-inspired, yet decidedly American, and very delicious. A green tea panna cotta with smoky almonds, and a wonderful pumpkin tofu cheesecake with bananas and salted caramel ice cream anchored by what looked like crushed malted milk balls. The consulting chef on this lovely, big project was, unexpectedly, one of the most respected chefs in the world, Joel Robuchon, who has more Michelin stars than any other chef in the world. Amazing, really. And while the essence of Robuchon is French, he does own a Japanese restaurant in Monaco, called Yoshi. There is a simple price-fixed lunch offered at the remarkable price of $14.95 for two courses. The front-of-the-house personnel, btw, are better-trained, and more charming, than most anywhere. At night, I hear, Kibo becomes an energized, public/private club with DJ and all, and lots of people popping champagne corks. I, myself, will stick to the affordable, thirst-quenching, chilled sake on draft, and go again for lunch.

Bargain breakfast at L’Express on Park Avenue South and 20th street. For almost 10 years now, I use this wonderful bustling French bistro as my “city office.” I order a “tartine” — which is nothing more than a 1-1/2 foot long slender slice of well-toasted baguette.  Butter and orange marmalade (which you must ask for), on the side. It reminds me of the days in Paris when I stayed near the Sorbonne at the Hotel Pierwige for $9 a night. They too served well-toasted baguettes in the morning. Unlimited pour of very good coffee. See you there.

Late afternoon snack at abckitchen — in the back parlour — where they offer a limited menu and lots of interesting things to drink between regular meal times. Very nice to sip fresh mint tea (Moroccan-style), drink coconut water, share their famous roasted carrot salad, and nibble on cookies. It’s like eating in a museum cafe; there is just no store like abc home in the whole wide world.

As promised, last Sunday, our pot luck dinner with friends, including Susy Davidson, exec. dir. of the Julia Child Foundation, at the home of Pat and John Duffy, included copious amounts of smoked salmon and sturgeon from Russ & Daughters, espresso-sized cups of chilled beet soup with creme fraiche and grated lemon, coffee-and-chipotle braised shortribs, a creamy potato gratin, roasted Brussels sprout with bacon, a yummy salad with toasted walnuts and pickled onions, and a beautiful apple tart in a shortbread crust, made by Debbie Freundlich (editor, with Susy of American Express’s Briefing Magazine who just happens to be the mother-in-law of Julianne Moore.)

Wishing you good tastes this week.

Tastes of the Week

16 Oct

October 9 through October 16, 2011

As promised, below, is the recipe for the salmon dish featured in Al Hashulchan — Israel’s number one food mag. It was chosen as the best of the 100 recipes offered in this month’s issue. Lovely with a glass of sauvignon blanc to integrate all the flavors.

A lovely vegan carrot cake at GustOrganics on 6th Avenue between 13th and 14th Streets. Good coffee, too. It’s an interesting place — an open-to-the-street cafe — full of plants and wooden tables with an appealing full menu if you happen to be in the neighborhood; or happen to be a vegan!

Lunch with the beautiful Ellie Krieger of Food Network fame at Boulud Sud. It was a wonderful meal that made me wistful for the first New York restaurant that fused the flavors of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. It was actually a restaurant I created for a client more than 25 years ago when I was chef/director of the Joseph Baum & Michael Whiteman Co. The restaurant, which still exists, was called Cafe Greco and Tom Valenti (of upper west side fame) was our first chef. Times have changed yet my prediction about Med-Rim cuisine is happening. Daniel Boulud did a masterful job incorporating the flavors of za’atar, ras el hanout, tahini, eggplant, chickpeas, a baccala-inspired falafel, and much more, into his beautiful French style of cooking.

We had one of the best and most celebratory lunches imaginable at the Four Seasons restaurant on East 52nd Street. We hadn’t been for so many years and wondered why. The Grill Room at lunch is “the place to be and be seen.” While Kissenger and I.M. Pei were clearly out of town, there were power-broker tables for sure. But the real pleasure was the food. It felt contemporary yet nostalgic, for its essence reminded me of the food I have been longing for.  Extraordinary bay scallops (the real ones!) on polenta with a truffle sauce; grilled octopus (so tender it melted on your tongue) with a lovely bean and tapenade salad hidden under a tuft of arugula; a fabulous lobster bisque (when was the last time you had that?), a beautiful offering of striped bass with autumn vegetables in a chorizo-mussel broth, and much more to be shared in a future story.

And I was “gifted” today with a steak from our friend Erica, who bought it at the brand new, everybody’s talkin’ about, butcher-shop, Fleischer’s on 5th Avenue and Union Street in Park Slope. It is their signature steak, “sirloin top.” And my brother brought me a box of the best pignoli cookies made this side of Rome, from Giorgio’s bakery in Hoboken, New Jersey.

If you’re at a farmer’s market this week, look for the tiny heirloom eggplants that I spotted at the market near Lincoln Center. Some of them were round and bright red, all different colors and tiny shapes and sizes. They looked like marzipan. Exciting times for vegetables!

Okay, this blog is so long, please look for the recipe tomorrow on this site — with a photo!

Marc Vetri: A Culinary Bodhisattva

11 Oct

Credit: Vetri Gallery

In this world of bug-chomping, mean-spirited, limelight-loving chefs, comes a new breed of nice, clean-shaven, family guys with no tattoos — who actually feel good about themselves and their customers. Ben Pollinger, the Michelin-starred chef of Oceana in Manhattan is one such guy. His buddy Dan Kluger, of abckitchen, recently deemed New York’s best new restaurant, is another. This new crop of chefs cook for the pleasure of their guests (and thereby themselves) and whose goal is for others to experience culinary enlightenment rather than mirror their own hype. These chefs create a kind of dining “sangha” (community) where all participants feel interconnected, whether to some intrinsic food memory, to the earth, to nature, or to other sentient beings. And while I’m certain there are many who fit this description, cooking under the radar in kitchens all across America, by chance I met the kindest, gentlest chef of all.

Just last week, at a small press dinner in New York entitled “Sounds Good, Tastes Good,” I met Marc Vetri from the city of brotherly love, Philadelphia. Vetri is the real deal:  a philanthropic, guitar-playing, accomplished, brilliantly modest chef who owns three restaurants, has two cookbooks, runs a million dollar foundation, and by happenstance embodies the “six perfections” that a Bodhisattva must generate — hence the title of this piece. These are:  generosity, ethics, patience, effort, concentration and wisdom. Never mind that Marc met his wife at a yoga class (he summoned the nerve to talk to her after one year) and has been known to meditate, but his divining attributes shown brightly through the food that night. We ate the intangibles that separate one guy’s food from another’s. More soul, than craft. More you, than me.  Food Network TV producer and host, Marc Summers, a Philadelphia neighbor, who often has holiday meals at Marc’s home, says “Vetri is the sweetest, most generous soul I’ve ever met. I love the guy. And while you couldn’t pay me to eat a liver, I love his rigatoni with chicken livers.  I wanted to dive in the bowl and swim around.”

Marc’s three Philadelphia ventures — Vetri Ristorante, Osteria and Amis — are considered among the best Italian restaurants in America. A new place, called Alla Spina, is on its way. Mario Batali has called Marc the “best Italian chef in the country.” (Big praise from the buddha himself.)  Dana Cowin, editor of Food & Wine Magazine, has said when it comes to Marc’s hospitality and philosophy, “It’s all about the cooks and the cooking. No pretension, just genius food.”   James Beard award-winning Vetri, whose grandmother is Sicilian, trained in Bergamo, Italy and himself has trained several chefs who went on to win their own Beard awards. He treats his restaurant family and home family with equal compassion.

Last week’s dinner was a fabulous throw-back to experiences of another generation.  Hors d’oeuvres (homemade fennel salami and artichoke mostarda, gutsy caponata, and even gustier bread), were served “family style” as guests meandered with a glass of wine getting to know each other. The seated dinner was served around one long, farm table that sat 24 generously, in a West Village dining spot owned by The Little Owl group. The meal was one of the most authentically Italian imaginable — both rustic and perfect. Ethereal tuna-ricotta fritters, lusty meatballs, the aforementioned pasta with chicken livers, and the best “plin” — a stuffed pasta from Piedmont — I’ve had.  The roasted lamb shoulder tasted like it came from a salt marsh, the fish braised in olive oil was an exercise in radical simplicity (my mantra), and dessert — an olive oil cake with amaretti semifreddo and chocolate sauce — was a crowd-pleaser. Thankfully, all of the recipes can be found in Marc’s new book, Rustic Italian Food from Ten Speed Press which is hot off the press this month. But the real dessert was the music that followed. Singer/song-writer Phil Roy sang his heart out while Vetri played “sous-guitarist” to his good sounds.

But perhaps it is Marc’s charitable efforts that affords him the Bodhisattva award. Just this past summer, Marc gathered some of the country’s best chefs to come to Philadelphia to raise $800,000 for Alex’s Lemonade Stand (for children’s cancer research.) In 2009, he founded the Vetri Foundation for Children, whose mission is to “support the development of healthy living habits for underserved youth.” The foundation recently launched the “Eatiquette” program whose destiny is to have every school in America serving a fresh, family-style lunch. A kind of eating “sangha” (community) for kids. You see, for Marc, it’s never just about the food. It’s about the people who eat it.

Joe Baum’s Nasturtiums: A Tribute

4 Oct

It was the mention of nasturtiums on a trendy menu recently that reminded me of Joe Baum. Considered by many to be the greatest restaurateur of the last century, it is hard to imagine that he died thirteen years ago, in 1998, October fifth to be exact, during summer’s last gasp.

This razzle-dazzle man who created no fewer than fifty restaurants, including the world’s largest-grossing and most legendary, who launched a thousand trends and inspired four decades of chefs, is slowly forgotten by a younger generation who, in blissful ignorance, still eat and drink his dreams.

Sitting wistfully at my desk, I marvel at a menu Joe created more than 50 years ago for New York’s Four Seasons restaurant in midtown New York. On it is a curious salad of nasturtium leaves, presaging by three decades America’s fling with edible flora. Also in its startling repertoire are foraged wild mushrooms, a beefsteak tomato carved tableside, fiddlehead ferns, acid-tinged calamondin oranges (today called calamansi), and those now ubiquitous but then obscure cherry tomatoes and snow peas.

Even with foraging, Joe was ahead of his time, sourcing wild mushrooms picked by John Cage, noted avant-garde composer and celebrated mycologist. If it wasn’t just right, or fascinating somehow, it wasn’t for Joe.

The menu was peppered with Joe’s sensibility:  “Our field greens are selected each morning and will vary daily“. Unloved and humble vegetables were heralded with: “Seasonal gatherings may be viewed in their baskets” – offering 16 side dishes including Farmer’s Sprouts with Bacon, Beets with Rosemary, a dish of Braised Lettuce with Marrow and Almonds.(Twenty years later, he would install a “vegetable sommelier” in the three-star Market Bar & Dining Rooms at the World Trade Center and turn a steakhouse into the country’s first market-driven restaurant.)

More important than any individual ingredient, however, was The Four Seasons’ culinary conceit:  A freewheeling amalgam of great dishes from around the globe that foretold the emergence of a “world cuisine” that, in this new century, defines who we are and how we eat.

With The Four Seasons, and the nearby La Fonda del Sol, which was the country’s first pan-Latino restaurant, Joe began a trend that ultimately broke the strangle-hold that French restaurants held on gastronomy. At the outset both lost serious money and were misunderstood. Notorious for nouns and verbs that tumbled into incoherent sentences, Joe remarked years later:  “I was too previous”.

Joe developed icons you could ingest. His restaurants embodied discovery, pleasure, and sensate experiences, and he brought to every level of dining a theatricality that obliterated stodgy orthodoxies.  He wrote menus in English (instead of stodgy French) – and insisted that people feel comfortable – rather than intimidated – in their surroundings.

Almost 30 years ago, at the Hors d’Oeuvrerie on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center, Joe broke all the rules by merging small plates of sushi, quesadillas, bunderfleisch and Thai spring rolls on a single menu that foretold the ultra-relaxed “grazing” craze.

And he introduced New York to two new types of restaurants that he called by their forms:  Trattoria and Brasserie, the latter still alive on East 53rd Street.

Joe created the world’s first fast food court – The Big Kitchen –  and changed the way developers built shopping centers. And he made rooftop dining respectable – the Tower Suite, Rainbow Room, and Windows on the World shone in the sky like romantic spaceships, with interior lives rich enough to outperform a foggy galaxy.

Twenty-seven years ago, I celebrated Joe’s birthday on the first day of my job. He had hired me, a tall, slightly neurotic Jewess with notably sensitive food radar and commendable connections, to be his culinary sidekick.  I had already worked for several brilliant, blustery men – as chef to Mayor Wagner at his law firm, as first chef at Gracie Mansion for Mayor Ed Koch, and personal chef to Joe Brooks, Chairman of the Board of Lord & Taylor, while in charge of 38 restaurants nationwide. I even cooked for a President and Prime Minister.

But nothing could have prepared me for the “University of Baum,” as one Disney executive put it after attending one of Joe’s “master classes” – an endless colloquy of screaming, drinking, discovery and creation, that would influence, once boldly and now posthumously, the spirit of dining and the spectre of hospitality forever.

But that morning, I selected two dozen ripe figs, caressing each as if to ascertain its inner perfection, and brought a celebratory cake I’d baked from a distant memory.

It was an intimate affair, just the four of us, Joe, me, and his partners, Michael Whiteman and Dennis Sweeney, in an office overlooking Madison Square Park. Biting into every fig to find the most succulent, Joe growled “What’s in the cake, Gold?”, miffed that his exquisite taste buds had faltered.

“Olive oil, red wine, lemon zest and a bit of rosemary,” I answered with an apprehension that must have been obvious.  “Something I tasted once in Venice.” He looked at me and said, “Smile.” It was his shorthand for affection.

On that lovely August morning we chatted about Joe’s current projects. I’d been hired to help an upscale supermarket chain rethink how food would be sold in the years ahead. The answer? To cook restaurant-quality food in open kitchens and hire real chefs in starched whites to interact, nose to nose, with customers. We made supermarket food respectable, too.  

At the same time, there was restaurant Aurora in midtown Manhattan, named for the goddess of dawn, which Joe created for himself, rather than for clients.  No project could have been more excruciating for a man who was terrified of criticism. His defense was to brand himself a perfectionist, endlessly tinkering, redesigning, piling up costs and refusing to declare a project finished. One detractor quipped that “Joe could exceed an unlimited budget” — which occurred at Aurora, a three-star dining temple that eventually sank under its profligate excesses.

And what of his $26 million re-do of the Rainbow Room in 1987? One Rockefeller executive grumbled, “America bought Alaska for one-third of that.” But Joe rescued an American icon from obscurity and had his revenge by resurrecting Baked Alaska on the menu. In short order he turned the place into the country’s largest-grossing, and most magical, eatery.

Earlier, Joe created the outlandish Forum of the XII Caesars where potatoes came baked in hot ashes, pheasant was served forth on a soldier’s shield, and where oversized silverware and wine buckets fashioned from upturned warriors’ helmets reflected the obsessively designed lighting. This time the menu had a short preamble: Cenabis Bene…Apud Me.  “You will dine well at my table”. It was the essence of Joe.

By today’s standards it was high-class kitsch complete with food on flaming swords, but restaurants and hotels around the country noticed that Joe had stopped “doing the continental” and imitated his every move.

He detested being dubbed the “father of theme restaurants” although had created a German sausage emporium, a Latino showpiece, an Irish saloon, an English pub, a Hawaiian restaurant with hula dancers, and quintessential “New York” dining spots.

Working beside him for 14 years, Joe showed me how – given enough design strength, merchandising razzle-dazzle, sizzling menu language and great marketing – it was possible to replace the personality of an owner with the personality of a concept.  Which is why no one looks any more for a Danny or a Mario or Emeril at the door; the idea of eating in one of their places suffices.

Eventually Joe trusted me to create concepts for his company: “Hudson River Cuisine” for the three-star Hudson River Club; Café Greco, the city’s first “Med-Rim” restaurant; Little Meals at the Rainbow Room (with a James Beard award-winning book dedicated to him); the food program that helped win back Windows on the World in 1996, and The Greatest Bar on Earth. I was consumed with his teachings.

Joe was an epicure: a hedonist with a drink in one hand, a cigarette in the other and, usually a forgotten cigar smoldering nearby. He perfected a language of food that could make guests swoon, yet his own unruly syntax produced such howlers as “don’t push a dead horse,”  “someone threw a monkey into the works,” and “there’s a flaw in the ointment.”

A few years before he died, the man who rocked the world of fine dining and pleasure got tangle-tongued one last time.  Accidentally conflating two separate thoughts, he uttered the words “sustainable cuisine”, leaving all of us scratching our heads. If Joe said it, it presumably meant something.

A new idealism was born – a concern that today links how chefs and restaurants can support small farmers and regional agriculture so that future generations will dine well at the table.

“Smile,” I heard Joe say, as I bit the nasturtium flower and its peppery leaf. Joe, you are missed.

Women with Beards

12 May

Mina is one of my favorite singers and I have always loved this album cover. I wonder if she cooks.

There is much chatter about women in the restaurant industry or, rather, the lack of them.  Since my early days as one of the few women chefs in New York (late 1970’s/early 1980’s), this has been a subject that rears its head every few years.  Has the glass ceiling been shattered?  Have women earned a competitive place alongside their male peers in upscale restaurants?  Is it possible to differentiate food created by women from that of  men?   It depends who you ask, but swirling speculation and empirical evidence aside, Monday night’s James Beard Awards showcased women in the brightest of lights.   A terrific article by Sumathi Reddy in the Wall Street Journal, posted moments after the awards, summed up the “women wins”:  Gabrielle Hamilton, the chef of Prune (in New York’s east village); Saipin Chutima of Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas (best chef Southwest), Andrea Reusing of Lantern in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (best chef Southeast), Angela Pinkerton of Eleven Madison Park in New York City (outstanding pastry chef), and in the wine category, Belinda Chang of Danny Meyer’s Modern (outstanding wine service).

With a note of sarcasm in her acceptance speech, Ms. Hamilton said “Wow, I didn’t know you could win a Beard Award for opening a can of sardines and serving it with Triscuits.”  Hmmmm.  Would a guy say that? Prune has a one-star rating from the New York Times as opposed to the numerous two and three-star offerings from the other nominees, including the very awesome April Bloomfield — whose simple brilliance is in evidence at the Breslin, the John Dory, and the Spotted Pig daily.  But a perusal of all the restaurant and chef categories at the Awards shows some statistical shortcomings.  Out of five choices in each category, there was only one woman, Barbara Lynch of Menton in Boston, who was a nominee for Best New Restaurant.  One woman, Suzanne Goin of Lucques in Los Angeles, for Outstanding Chef Award, one woman as Rising Star Chef — Christina Tosi of Momofuku Milk Bar, and, out of 50 nominees for regional best chefs, there were only six women* represented.  And true to the industry’s norm, there were three women out of five nominated for Outstanding Pastry Chef Award.

Many more women (including me) were represented at the media and book awards and there were lots of women “guest chefs” cooking for the receptions.  And there were wonderful women chefs on stage, including Traci des Jardins and Susan Feniger, and major kudos to Emily Luchetti who organized the entire outstanding event. As past president and a member (for three decades!) of the first professional organization of women in food, wine and hospitality, Les Dames d’Escoffier, I can faithfully say that we’ve come a long way yet still have a long way to go.   But first we must continue to celebrate the industry’s extraordinary women — for our contributions are womanfold.

*Krista Kern Desjarlais of Bresca in Portland, Maine; Maricel Presilla for Cucharamama in Hoboken, New Jersey; April Bloomfield, The Spotted Pig in New York City; were nominated, three of the six won in their categories.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 15,490 other followers

%d bloggers like this: