In the 1970s, ’80s, and part of the ’90s, Italy’s Soave wines used to have a bad reputation as cheap, insipid, mass production whites, the kind you definitely want to avoid. But in the past couple of decades, a determined younger generation has been reviving the region’s even older tradition of quality. This crisp, almondy 2011 Inama Soave Classico, with its combination of smoky minerality, spicy fruit flavors and mouth-filling texture is a great everyday bianco that’s widely available at a very good price.
The Veneto region around the city of Verona, in the northeast of Italy, is Soave country. The wines are named for the town of Soave, and the best ones, like this Inama, come from rugged surrounding hillside vineyards of mineral-rich basaltic rock in the Classico zone, the original Soave area mapped in 1927. Only wines made in this zone can use the word Classico on the label.
The grape is late-ripening Garganega, which very much reflects where and how it’s grown. Soaves made from grapes grown on the flat valley floor outside the Classico zone tend to be pretty neutral. Though up to 30% of a Soave can contain Trebbiano or Chardonnay, Stefano Inama sticks to 100% Garganega, from old vines, which he believes give wines more richness and complexity.
Giuseppe Inama, the estate’s founder, began assembling a patchwork of small top vineyards in Classico zone in the mid-1960s, but sold his wine in bulk. Starting in the mid-1990s, his son Stefano shifted to organic viticulture, cut yields and started bottling the wines.
Climbing the Soave ladder
Inama makes three different Soaves; this is their basic, entry-level bottle, fermented and aged in stainless steel. The other two, which come from special parcels and single vineyards on Monte Foscarino, are fermented in barrels.
If you’ve dismissed Soave as just white plonk, it’s time to try again. This 2011 Inama Soave Classico is a low-cost introduction to the good stuff.
Simplicity is ubiquitous: if you — like I — get sucked down the gorgeous wormhole that is Pinterest, you know what I mean. Click on the DESIGN tab, and there they are: hundreds of rooms painted a dull monochromatic gray/beige/ecru. A single, long Forsythia branch stands imperfectly perfect in a chipped wabi-sabi bud vase, which is set upon an ancient pine side table chinked with time. Click on the FASHION tab: passels of tranquil, doe-eyed models dressed in dull, monochromatic gray/beige/ecru. They’re wearing loose-fitting overcoats, and modern and expensive versions of their grandfathers’ 1930s cordovan wingtips. Click on the FOOD tab: chipped, matte-finished Heath coffee bowls in gray/beige/ecru hues, filled with variations of the same thing — grains, beans, usually some kale, a drizzle of olive oil, a tangle of lemon zest — and set down on askew cream-and-red dishtowels that have seen endless washings and line-dryings. The image, or any number of versions of it, has been re-pinned a thousand times which, in Pinterest parlance, is a really good thing.
Oh, the simplicity, a work-harried friend wistfully whined to me one morning while we were on the train, commuting two hours to our Manhattan jobs from rural Connecticut. I really want to live and eat like that, she added, looking over my shoulder at my iPad — simply and quietly.
And, apparently, so does everyone else these days, so much so that a new crop of magnificently-produced, nearly wordless, expensive magazines — maga-Tumblrs, really — has arrived on the scene, promising vicarious calm, conviviality and aspirational serenity of the sort that Thoreau went to the woods to find 159 years ago. Instagram-softened images of meaningful dinner parties abound; young flannel-shirted men in their 20s — Smith Brothers look-alikes — smoke vintage Meerschaum pipes as they gaze across placid ponds at tire swings swaying in the distancewhile their ladies thoughtfully pour local herb-infused gimlets into authentic 1930s Ball canning jars. You read the sparse text. You swoon. You study. You wonder if these people have day jobs.
The message is clear: You – yeah you, with the three kids in daycare and the divorce, getting off the IRT and running into Starbucks for your McVenti before hunkering down in your cubicle under those fluorescent lights for eight hours while the jackass next to you yammers on his cell phone about the great sex he had last night — you, too, can live a simple life.
That is, if you work hard enough at it.
If you wear the right authentic clothes and drink the right authentic drinks out of the right authentic vessels. If your food is unfettered and unfussy and thoughtfully produced and served in the right coffee bowls of the right color, and was perhaps procured from the right CSA or the right farmers market.
For those of us who have suffered through the fashion of anxious, nervous food — inauthentic, tall, overwrought — such simple, gastronomical style is exactly what we’ve been breathlessly waiting for. But has the style of living and eating this way, with its gorgeous prepackaged rusticity and come-hither appeal, just become exigent fetish? Are our attempts to be “simple” so self-conscious and superficial that the benefits of real simplicity, peace, mindfulness, thrift are lost? Will being simple — eating simply, living simply — go the way of the Pet Rock?
Trends are a direct reflection of our ever-changing cultural and socio-emotional needs. In the greed-is-good 1980s, everything was big — shoulder pads, hig hair — and the contrived food of the time, unnatural vertical and architectural, was an extension of that style. In late 1988, I was served an elaborate, human fist-sized chocolate piano at a restaurant in Beverly Hills. A scaled-down replica of a Steinway baby grand, it had eighty-eight black and white chocolate keys, and strings fashioned from spun sugar. After the grim 1970s, life was suddenly all about the frantic quest for the elaborate and ornate, and the food on our plates reflected it. In the 1990s, everyone declared themselves a home-schooled chef — the Food Network went on the air in 1993 — and we all went out to buy kitchen blowtorches and home foamers and timbale molds. After 9/11, we craved peace and conviviality, and the next big thing was comfort food. The sale of crockpots and Creuset casseroles took off like they’d been shot from a cannon.
So what created this fraught mandate for the ancient saucepan — dented to perfection — that we spend hours searching for at Goodwill? Why the farmhouse tables laden with elemental dishes and the longing gazes serene as stone? Desperation for simplicity and authenticity smacks of a sort of psychic exhaustion, and the stark realization that living and eating in a complicated overdone way will take a toll on our souls. It compels us with an almost furious hysteria to return to preconceived notions of what’s real, even if what’s realis nothing more than an often fetishized metaphor for ever-elusive safety, and a commodified yearning to bind our frayed connection to equanimity and control.
In a world of constant digital connectedness, of nebulous relationships and jobs that disappear before our eyes, of an often fraudulent and dangerous food system, where we feed our children pink slime and anyone can slap a green label on their over-processed product and pretend it’s organic, we’ll pay anything we can to get simplicity, or some semblance of it back.
But if simplicity really is just a fetish, what will happen when the fetish fades and the trend is over? What will we eat and how will we live?
I first tasted St-Germain in 2010, while attending a wine and spirits trade show in London. There, amid hundreds of booths offering samples of every conceivable alcoholic elixir, a statuesque Belle Epoque bottle caught my attention. Once I tasted the delicate elderflower liqueur inside, I knew I’d stumbled onto something truly different.
St-Germain is made in France, but the idea for the liqueur was born in England. While visiting London on business in 2001, a young American named Robert Cooper tasted a cocktail made with elderflower syrup, and became intrigued by its unique flavor. As it happened, Cooper was in charge of marketing for Chambord, the French raspberry liqueur, which was developed for the U.S. market by his father.
Cooper returned to the States with the idea of creating an elderflower liqueur, but soon found that the process was more challenging than he’d imagined.
“I began vigorously working on the project in 2003, and it was not in marketing until early 2007,” Cooper said. By then he’d left the family spirits business to launch his own operation, Cooper Spirits International. “It was quite difficult to make the macerations from something as volatile as a fresh flower.”
St-Germain is made from the blossoms of wild elderflowers that bloom on the hillsides of the French Alps for just four to six weeks in early spring. Once the flowers have been hand-harvested, the race is on to process the fresh blossoms before they lose their delicate aroma and flavor.
Mixologist Mike Henderson of Denver’s Root Down loves the versatility of St-Germain. Credit: Root Down
They’re immediately macerated to preserve their freshness, and each day’s macerations are successively combined until the blooming period is over.
“We make the maceration once a year, much like a wine, surrounding the elderflower harvest,” Cooper explained. That means there’s only one chance each year to get it right.
The ‘bartenders’ bacon’
Cooper’s dedication has resulted not only in a wonderfully delicious liqueur, but something of a cocktail revolution.
Each St-Germain bottle has the “vintage” of the elderflowers used to make the liqueur. Credit: Cooper Spirits International
In the six short years since its release, St-Germain has become a key player in U.S. artisan cocktail movement.
“St-Germain came on the market when the whole mixology and cocktail scene was really starting to catch fire,” said mixologist Mike Henderson of Root Down, an upscale Denver restaurant known for its creative cocktails.
“I think one of the reasons it’s been so successful is that it’s got a unique ability to go with just about everything,” he said. “It works equally well with vodka, gin, rum, tequila, whiskey, scotch and Champagne. It’s joked about in the cocktail community as being ‘bartenders’ bacon’ – it just makes everything a little bit better.”
Henderson includes St-Germain in three of Root Down’s signature drinks, including the Hummingbird (with Prosecco and sparkling water), the Spanish Estate (with rum, sherry vinegar and bitters) and the Pepper Blossom (with vodka, jalapeño syrup and citrus juices).
The complexity of St-Germain’s flavor, he said, is the secret to its versatility. “When you taste it, you get a lot of notes of lychee, pear and tropical fruit, and there’s some citrus in there,” Henderson said. “Because it’s got that depth and variety of flavors it has the ability to bring out whatever flavors it’s mixed with. For example, if you make a cocktail that’s got pear in it, St-Germain has this ability to bring out more pear. If you make a cocktail with kiwi in it, it has this weird ability to bring out more of that kiwi flavor.”
Global domination on the horizon
The wild popularity of St-Germain among cocktail devotees on both sides of the bar led liquor giant Bacardi to buy the brand from Cooper Spirits earlier this year, with the intention of turning it into an international brand “icon” à la Grey Goose vodka, purchased by Bacardi in 2004.
Although Cooper continues to work with Bacardi as St-Germain’s “brand guardian,” I can’t help wondering if global domination will mean a compromise in the liqueur’s artisan production process.
“I have been working diligently for the past three or four years on growing our capacity,” Cooper told me. “So long as we can procure the flowers in sufficient quantities, we can make more St-Germain.”
The Pepper Blossom is one of Root Down’s most popular and creative cocktails. Credit: Tina Caputo
This spicy-sweet cocktail was created by Mike Henderson of Root Down, in Denver.
1¼ ounces vodka
1¼ ounces St-Germain
¾ ounce lemon juice
½ ounce grapefruit juice
½ ounce jalapeño-infused simple syrup*
2 basil leaves
Combine all ingredients except basil in a cocktail shaker with ice and shake vigorously for 10 seconds.
Strain liquid into a lowball glass and garnish with basil leaves.
*To make jalapeño-infused simple syrup, add 1 cup of sugar, 1 cup of water and a fresh jalapeño (cut in half with seeds removed) to a small saucepan. Simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until sugar dissolves. Let syrup cool and remove pepper before using. Will keep in the refrigerator up to four weeks.
Top photo: Elderflowers bloom in the French Alps for only four to six weeks each spring. Credit: Cooper Spirits International
Roy Choi is having a moment eating fiery Soondubu, on CNN’s “Parts Unknown,” appearing live with Anthony Bourdain at the Pantages Theatre, releasing the cover of his upcoming memoir, “L.A. Son.” He’s already beloved by Angelenos for his Kogi BBQ truck, and the restaurants Chego, A-Frame, and Sunny Spot.
So a new chef enters the machinery of fame. Maybe he’ll succumb to its poison allure. But maybe, just maybe, he’ll sail through. It’s not just his rough roots, his street smarts, his attitude, his culinary eclecticism, his populism, his Dadaist tweets, his skills, and not even his way through and around flavors, that inspires hope. It’s the way he’s using food to think and feel in new ways about culture, high and low.
Good food with a bad boy image
Full disclosure: I was introduced to Choi because I was asked to write a bio of him for speaking engagements at ZPZ Live. But we talked about many things that don’t fit into a bio. It was oddly inspiring. “People are fascinated by the nature of who I am, but they haven’t gone all the way,” Choi said. “There’s the bad-boy image, but they’re not listening to what I’m saying all the way through. I cross worlds, and I don’t pass judgment on anyone.”
His fame arrived through his Kogi BBQ truck, selling $2 Korean barbecue tacos, marketing via Twitter ( “the first viral eatery,” said Newsweek). At the Pantages event, when Bourdain remarked that he’d turn away a homeless person from a restaurant he ran, Choi countered that he’d proudly serve anyone “whose money was green,” according to LA Weekly. “Skaters and rappers and homeless and jobless” is how he described the young people he’s teaching to cook when he volunteers at A Place Called Home in South Central Los Angeles. The goal: Empowering them to open their own local food-based businesses.
He’s not taking them out to farms in a yellow bus to learn about “real” food. “That would just reinforce the message that they have to leave their community to be better human beings,” he said. “I want to do the reverse, to enlighten them that they are beautiful human beings, and they are responsible to making the community better.
“They look me up online and say, ‘You famous, dude? What are you doing here?’ I tell them, ‘Just because I’m famous doesn’t mean I have to change what I am.’ ”
The kids can’t cook. “You have to open their hearts. They don’t want to admit they don’t know this stuff. I tell them, you can f**k things up. Mash things together, like hip-hop, like a skate trick, you can fall down and scrape your knees. Use your swagger. Don’t listen to others,” he said. He shows them how to hold a knife, how to peel, how to heat a pan and render fat; to follow a work ethic; the core value of cleanliness.
Roy Choi’s Kogi trucks are cherished on the streets of Los Angeles. Credit: Wikimedia / Kogi BBQ
“I teach them how to blanch and cook asparagus, but it doesn’t have to taste like white people food! Vegetables don’t discriminate. They can char it, squeeze lime over it, hit it with chilies and cilantro, and make it taste like they like to eat.
“I show them how to create a food cart, how to honor their Latin heritage, to use umami flavors, yogurt, coconut milk, a little chili and lime — to make it taste like their palate. So they know ‘my flavors are valid, my palate is valid, I can do anything I want.’ ”
He demonstrates how to “build” fried rice: “Start with aromatic vegetables, layering flavors as you go — ginger, garlic, scallions, that’s your trinity — maybe onions, bell peppers, chilies, cooking them, adding rice, cooking it through, deglazing, finishing with butter, eggs, mixing, layering.
“Even simple things like a hamburger, butter the bread all the way around, toast it completely, slow their steps down. Even if it’s just bread and a piece of meat, notice the difference in texture in toasting the bread, seasoning the meat.”
Forever food exploring
In his own cooking, Choi is exploring flavors of the Caribbean, including Jamaica, Trinidad, Puerto Rico and Cuba. He’s jumping into, of all things, Korean food, “wild sesame, and all these really pungent deep viscous flavors,” making his own fermented chili pastes.
“I’m looking for ways to really intensify vegetables, making them really simple with lots of flavor, like Korean side dishes,” he said.
So here’s a toast to Choi’s new fame: Don’t ever change, Roy, and keep changing. “Whatever I’m doing, it has nothing to do with putting anything else down. I love fine dining. It will always exist. I don’t want to squelch what is already thriving. I want to focus energy on things that aren’t existing,” he said.
Here are three fruit-based recipes that Roy Choi has taught his South Central students. When we asked Roy about the title for the last recipe, he replied, “I named it Boba Fett because of the boba (tapioca balls), which a lot of young kids drink.”
For the spice mix:
⅔ cup kosher salt
½ cup organic all natural sugar
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
2 teaspoons ground cayenne pepper
¼ cup chili powder
Mix in a bowl and store in a shaker top container with a perforated top.
For the paletas:
¼ cup frozen mango chunks
¼ cup frozen pineapple spears
Put slightly thawed but still cold fruit into a 4-ounce plastic cup, store on ice. Sprinkle fruit with ½ teaspoon spice mixture, add 1 lime wedge, serve with fork.
Coco Nuts Smoothie
For the coconut agave mixture:
3½ cups (28 fluid ounces) coconut milk (shake before opening)
3½ cups (28 fluid ounces) coconut water
½ cup organic agave nectar
Thoroughly mix and pour into pitcher and keep cold.
For the smoothies:
¼ cup each of frozen fruits (sliced strawberries, mango chunks, pineapple chunks and peach slices) thawed but still cold. (Use four different kinds of fruit to make one cup total.)
1 cup coconut/agave mixture
Place one cup of the frozen fruit mixture in blender. Pour one cup cold coconut milk/agave mixture over fruit and blend. Serve with a straw.
For the pineapple cinnamon mixture:
1 can (46 fluid ounces) pineapple juice shaken and cold
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Mix well and pour into pitcher and keep cold.
For the fruit mixture:
2 tablespoons frozen pineapple cubes
2 tablespoons frozen mango cubes
2 tablespoons frozen banana slices
2 tablespoon frozen diced strawberries
1 cup cold pineapple/cinnamon juice mixture
Spoon fruit into plastic cup. Pour one cup pineapple juice/cinnamon mixture over fruit. Serve with big boba straw.
Sangria is a simple concoction of fruit, sugar, water and wine and a staple in sunny, tapas-minded Spain. Grown-up fruit punch, it’s refreshing and versatile, taking on more savory lemon and lime tones if that’s the fruit you choose, or slightly sweet if peaches are your preference.
But if you can’t be bothered to make your own, increasingly bars are making inventive versions, and good bottled versions abound.
Eppa SupraFruta is a bottled sangria, available in both red and white versions, made from organically grown Mendocino County wine grapes.
The red combines Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah with a base of organic pomegranate, açai, blueberry, blood orange and lemon juices, while the white mixes Chardonnay with mangosteen, white peach, mango and blood orange juices. After the wine and fruit juices are blended, the sangria is left in stainless steel tanks for a few weeks before bottling.
Slices Sangria is the new creation of Mike Kenton, the founder of OFFbeat Brands. Kenton spent much of his career at Codorniu in Spain, where he fell in love with the traditional drink.
He uses wine made from Spanish grape varieties such as Tempranillo and Verdejo, blended with fruit juices such as orange, lime and blackberry (for the red); or lime, lemon and pineapple (for the white).
“Sangria has been on my family’s dining table for as long as I can remember,” said Slices’ Spanish winemaker, Miguel Gúrpide.
Gurpide also makes a sangria rosé (the fruit used includes lime, lemon and strawberry) and two sparkling sangrias, one rosé and one white.
Relatively light in alcohol (usually under 9% alcohol by volume), sangria is an easygoing cocktail to make for one or for a crowd, doused in club soda or given a couple of cubes of ice.
Courtesy Eppa Sangria
2 to 3 cardamom pods
½ ounce lemon juice
½ ounce simple syrup
1 ounce fresh pineapple juice
2 ounces Eppa SupaFruta Sangria
Pineapple leaf, for garnish
1. In a tin, muddle the cardamom pods.
2. Add the rest of the ingredients.
3. Shake vigorously for 30 seconds.
4. Double strain over ice in a wine glass.
5. Garnish with a pineapple leaf.
Courtesy Tara and Les Goodman, Adafina Culinary
2 onions, Spanish or sweet, sliced ⅛-inch thick
6 to 7 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled, sliced into ¼-inch rounds
2 cups Spanish olive oil
6 large farm eggs
Kosher salt and pepper to taste
1. Place the onions and potatoes in a medium mixing bowl, and toss with a couple pinches of kosher salt.
2. Place a 10- to 12-inch nonstick pan over medium-high flame, adding the onions and potatoes.
3. Pour in the olive oil and stir to coat.
4. When oil begins to bubble, reduce heat to medium-low and cook, turning frequently, until potatoes are fork-tender but not browned, about 15 to 20 minutes.
5. Remove pan from heat and strain the oil from the onions and potatoes.
6. Set aside oil and reserve for another use.
7. Cool onions and potatoes to room temperature, and adjust for seasoning, adding salt and pepper as needed.
8. Beat the eggs and add them to the cooled potato mixture.
9. Return pan to medium heat and stir the tortilla mixture as it cooks until eggs are slightly set.
10. Spread mixture out evenly and reduce heat to medium-low.
11. Cook until bottom is golden brown and eggs are set, about 10 to 12 minutes (you can place pan under the broiler for 2 to 3 minutes if needed to set the top).
12. Remove pan from heat and let cool for 10 to 15 minutes.
13. Place a plate face down over the pan and flip tortilla over — bottom side up. Let cool for a half hour or so, and slice into wedges.
14. Serve with Spanish pimenton (paprika) aioli, crunchy sea salt, and a glass of chilled sangria — or a sangria cocktail.
Swiss chard is botanically related to beets. It grows well in sandy soil, and it originated on the coasts of the Mediterranean. In fact, the Andalusian seaport of Málaga offers a delightful Swiss chard recipe for acelgas a la Malagueña that utilizes the golden raisins and paprika from the region. The Spanish word for Swiss chard, acelgas, comes from the Arabic word al-silq, meaning Swiss chard or beet greens. Although the coastal port of Málaga is known for its seafood, the local cooking is also favored with some appetizing vegetable preparations such as this.
As large leafy greens are famously nutritious, Swiss chard is an excellent vegetable to cook with for nutritional reasons, culinary reasons and palatable reasons. The following is the recipe I usually use when I teach classes on leafy green vegetables and want to introduce a vegetable. Many people know what Swiss chard is, but few have cooked it. Here’s your chance and you won’t be unhappy.
Acelgas a la Malagueña. Credit: Michelle van Vliet
Acelgas a la Malagueña
2 pounds Swiss chard, heavy central stem ribs removed, washed well several times and drained
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
¼ cup golden raisins
1 tablespoon paprika
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
1. Place the Swiss chard in a large steamer and wilt, covered, over high heat with only the water adhering to it from its last rinsing, 4 to 5 minutes. Drain and chop coarsely.
2. In a large sauté pan, put the Swiss chard, olive oil, garlic, raisins, paprika, salt, pepper and vinegar and turn the heat to medium-high. Cook until it begins to sizzle, about 3 minutes, reduce the heat to low and cook until the mixture is well coated and blended, about 15 minutes. Serve immediately.
Top photo: Red Swiss chard. Credit: Aspen Rock/iStockphoto
Several special prizes were given out during the April awards ceremony, held in London’s magnificent medieval Guildhall, which rocked with loud music and pink lighting for the occasion. The prizes included the Sustainable Restaurant and Best Asian Chef awards to Tokyo’s Yoshihiro Narisawa; the Highest New Entry to Australian restaurant Attica; and the coveted Chef’s Choice Award to Grant Achatz.
“Cooking is like art, it stirs the emotions,” she said as she smiled out across the sea of chefs and food professionals. “Like poetry and music, it creates a harmony of soul and mind. Food is the best way to meet and enjoy the world.” She also mentioned cooking’s need for team spirit: Since her marriage in 1974, Nadia Santini has cooked in her husband’s family’s restaurant alongside her mother-in-law, Bruna, who at 84 still helps with the daily food preparations. Antonio Santini, Nadia’s husband, runs the dining room and its outstanding wine cellar. Nadia Santini was first awarded three Michelin stars in 1996 and has retained them ever since, a record in Italy.
A few hours before the 50 Best dénouement, an intimate champagne lunch was hosted in Belgravia by Veuve Clicquot to honor Nadia Santini. It was held at Ametsa restaurant in the Halkin Hotel, across the street from Buckingham Palace. The clean-lined dining room overlooks a leafy garden and was a fitting setting for the meal’s modernist food. The restaurant, whose full name is Ametsa with Arzak Instruction, is under the guidance of Juan Mari Arzak and his daughter, Elena, of the award-winning Arzak restaurant in San Sebastián, Spain. They have entrusted the London kitchen to three chefs who worked at Arzak in San Sebastián.
Elena Arzak won the Best Female Chef award in 2012. I asked her whether we really need a separate award for female chefs today.
“There are two things,” she explained as we were served a signature Arzak dish of langoustines with crisp rice noodles and corn salsa that went beautifully with Veuve Clicquot Vintage 2004 — part of a flight of five rare Champagnes. “Madame Clicquot, who lived 200 years ago, was a pioneering business woman and innovative visionary before her time. So it’s an honor to receive an award in her name.” (The Champagne house also honors women in other fields of achievement: Their Business Woman Award this year went to architect Zaha Hadid).
“I’m Basque, and we live in a matriarchy where women have always been the mainstay of our families and society,” Elena Arzak continued. “Our restaurant, which opened in 1897, was in the hands of women cooks until my father took over in his generation. Most of our chefs are women, too.” Her father asked her advice about food and created dishes with her from an early age.
Nadia Santini accepts the award for Best Female Chef at London's Guildhall. Credit: Carla Capalbo
“I’ve been lucky to grow up in an environment in which women are respected even if they are sometimes behind the scenes, working as well as bringing up children. I cooked alongside my parents and never felt discriminated against because of my sex. I wish it could be the same for all women,” she said. “However, I am sure it’s just a question of time before there will be more young women in lists such as these.”
She was sitting across the table from just such a woman. Duangporn “Bo” Songvisava is a young Thai chef whose restaurant, Bo.lan is in Bangkok. She recently won the Veuve Clicquot Best Female Chef in Asia award, when the 50 Best produced its first all-Asian list. Songvisava works with her husband, Dylan Jones, and features only locally sourced, seasonal produce in their menu.
“In Thailand, women are known to be great cooks, so it’s not hard for us to be accepted,” she said. “Perhaps the biggest difference between men and women is not their imagination but their strength, as professional kitchens can be very physically demanding.”
Nadia Santini agrees. “Cooking is hard work, but I’ve always been very happy to be in this profession. It’s important for women to express their own sensibilities and bring these differences to what is, after all, a universal love of food.”
Top photo: Chefs Elena Arzak (left), Nadia Santini and Bo Songvisava celebrate. Credit: Carla Capalbo
We’ve gathered around a rustic wooden table at Don Alfredo Pollos al Pastor, a country restaurant sitting 7,000 feet in the Nahuatzén Mountains, an hour west of Morelia, Michoacán, in the colonial town of Pátzcuaro, Mexico. The wait for the Mexican food is a torment. Aromas of grilling meat hit us hard and make us pant through the thinner air in anticipation of what’s to come.
I sip an amber Victoria beer and drift into memories of the restaurant in the late 1980s, when the place was nothing more than a roadside shack with a dirt floor and corrugated metal roof. Then we sat at wobbly metal tables on rusted chairs boasting Cola-Cola logos for decor.
We were there for the food. We didn’t have to think about it. The menu was simple: chicken, handmade corn tortillas, soupy pink beans and a fresh table salsa made with the local heat-packing chile manzano (Capsicum pubescens), onions and sour oranges. If we were lucky and there on a weekend, they’d have a few baby lamb legs over a fire. As time has passed, the lamb has become so popular the restaurant’s simple terracotta serving plates now boast a new hand-lettered name: Don Alfredo Pollos y Borrego al Pastor (chicken and lamb over coals).
Before entering the larger space today — now with a real concrete floor and solid roof — we gape at the main attraction, a trench 20 feet long and 4 feet wide filled with a long, center mound of glowing embers of white mesquite. On either side of the trench are a few dozen 4-foot spiked metal rods, each impaling three chickens, lined up in two neat rows. The bright yellow flesh of the birds comes from their diet of fluorescent orange marigolds. Combine this and the high temperature of the coals, and you have incomparable flavor and beautifully charred crisp, golden skin.
A flamenco twist to a Mexican surprise
The biggest surprise lies at the far end of one row — 10 additional steel rods with a few kilos of marinated pork hanging from each rod, pouring out aromas the way only pork can. The chunks of meat appear dark from the mesquite, but not a speck of blackened pork is anywhere in sight. Roasting meat is in the blood of these cooks; they rotate and swivel the rods like turns of flamenco, flourish and sizzle, flourish and sizzle.
The popular Michoacán chile manzano is Mexico's only chile with black seeds. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky
It has been a long, dry season for lovers of flesh in this part of the world. Pork is celebrated after a Lenten stretch and the Easter lambs have all been eaten. I’ve had my share, perhaps more than my share, of succulent carnitas over the years here in Michoacán, the carnitas capital of the world, but this young pork is primal perfection. These pigs are Mexicans, raised to be fat and placed upon a hot fire, not like their American cousins bred to be lean, mean and articulated muscle machines. Their flavor comes from mesquite smoke and bubbling fat-basted meat cooked lowly and slowly to achieve a moist interior and a mahogany-colored, stunningly brittle skin.
As orders fly in, the cooks select chicken or pork from the spikes and transfer it to a chopping block. A few precision hacks with a machete, a squirt of sour orange juice over the crunchy spitting skin, a sprinkle of salt and the platter is on its way to the table. The torture is over, the waiting is complete and satisfaction is imminent.
Not more than 10 minutes and a half bottle of beer have been swallowed since we passed through the doorway, but they were slow Mexican minutes and we have the patience of hungry Americans, which is to say none.
We ravenously descend on our platters. The waiter has brought pork, chicken and warm corn tortillas. There is a growling silence until, one by one, tortillas are piled with copious quantities of meat and that sweat-inducing table salsa to make perfect tacos. One bite says everything; the wait was worth it. Full grinning mouths smile at each other across the table. We are reduced to happy noises, for there are no words worth the pause.
Fresh Chile Manzano and Sour Orange Table Salsa
You may substitute one juice orange and one Mexican (aka Key) lime to achieve a similar flavor to Don Alfredo’s sour orange, a type of Seville orange primarily used in marmalade. A chile manzano, rocoto or perón (Capsicum pubescens) looks like a huge habañero, so to be sure that you have the right chile cut it open, manzano seeds are black.
Makes about 1½ cups
1 white onion (3 inches), peeled and finely chopped
½ chile manzano, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped
2 Mexican sour oranges, juiced
Sea or kosher salt to taste
Stir all the ingredients in a serving bowl. Serve at room temperature.
Don Alfredo Pollos y Barrego Al Pastor, Tanganxuan intersection on the Periférico (aka the lower end of Libramiento, before it enters the Glorieta opposite the Bodega Aurrerá supermarket), Pátzcuaro, Michoacán. Telephone: (434) 342-3151. (The original location, and still the best.) A second spot is on the autopista Morelia-Pátzcuaro, Km. 6. Telephone: (443) 132-5975.
Top photo: Pork and chickens over mesquite in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, Mexico. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky