Articles by L. John Harris
We are told there are four, five, six, even seven basic nutritional food groups, but there are really only two basic food-consuming groups, at least at the top of today’s fine dining food pyramid: the tasters and the eaters.
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The tasters are driven by consumerism and connoisseurship — they collect culinary experience; and the eaters by hunger and old-world gourmandise — they crave culinary experience. Both lay claim to the gastronomic high ground. And they have gone to war, at least in the media.
Pete Wells of the New York Times, a partisan in the battle, cleverly placed these two feuding foodie factions into a class perspective last fall in his Times article, “Nibbled to Death”:
… the elite who now fill these [tasting menu-only] dining rooms are a particular kind of diner, the big-game hunters out to bag as many trophy restaurants as they can. Another kind of eater, the lusty, hungry ones who keep a mental map of the most delicious things to eat around town, may be left outside.
Are tasting menus taking us to the cleaners?
Wells appears to have at least made peace with the best of the tasting menu-only restaurants, the ones that have captured most of the Michelin stars across America — like Alinea in Chicago, Atera in New York, Saison in San Francisco and, of course, the mother of all tasting-menu meccas, The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif.
But Corby Kummer in Vanity Fair (“Tyranny — It’s What’s For Dinner”) is taking no prisoners:
The entire experience they will consent to offer is meant to display the virtuosity not of cooks but of culinary artists. A diner’s pleasure is secondary; subjugation to the will of the creative genius comes first, followed, eventually, by stultified stupefaction.
Thomas Keller’s French Laundry takes much of the brunt of Kummer’s explosive salvos. Kummer’s snarky gibes about the Stalinist tyranny and torture of contemporary tasting menu meals must have gotten Keller’s free-range goat.
In a recent interview in HuffPost San Francisco, Keller responded with careful disdain:
It’s fine. I can’t control what people write and Corby has to make a living … His argument was that diners don’t have a choice when they come to French Laundry, but as Michael Bauer pointed out [Inside Scoop SF], you make the choice when you make the reservation.
I’m not sure that Bauer, the San Francisco Chronicle’s veteran restaurant critic cum blogger, has the requisite firepower to go up with Keller mano a mano against Kummer and Wells, but I think on this point the Keller/Bauer team wins the skirmish if not the war.
A French Laundry I could love
Keller also scores big when he comments in the interview that Kummer had not been to The French Laundry since 1997. A more recent visit would have revealed that the 40-course menu Kummer remembers so clearly has shrunk at the Laundry to just 12 courses. Not particularly overwhelming as tasting menus go.
Which is precisely why I made a pilgrimage to Yountville in March for a birthday lunch at The French Laundry. I had had a disappointing meal there in 2010 — you know, the usual complaints: too many dishes, food too fussy, nothing served hot, etc. — but didn’t want to rely on impressions from the past.
Of the dishes served this time, half were still either not to my liking (the raw-ish room temperature morsel of Hawaiian big-eye tuna was rather flavorless even with its quirky ”everything bagel” crust) or unnecessary (a pretty standard potato salad), and the other half surprisingly good, like exotic culinary jewels glittering with serious flavor.
If those delicious little dishes were repurposed on a prix fixe eating menu (see illustration), and portioned accordingly, it would have been one of the best meals of my life. Imagine an optional menu at The French Laundry that flips the traditional French dégustation menu on its head — more food per plate, fewer plates, same price ($270).
Looking back in hunger
When I decided to enlist in this battle of the tasters and the eaters, I assumed I’d take a few pot shots of my own at tasting-menu tyranny. But truth is I’ve found the media brouhaha overwrought and critically myopic. Would I have held with the Fauves when Cubism ascended to the throne of 20th-century painting? I might have found Cubism too drab and analytical compared to the wild color symphonies of the passing Fauvism; but the glory of art, real art in any medium (even food), is that it’s ultimately, and endlessly, expansive, never reductive.
Foreshadowing our current foodie feuding in his 1976 essay, “The Eaters and the Eaten,” John Berger, the English art critic and novelist, got it spot on, I think, when he identified the two basic kinds of eating in our post-modern, post-consumerist world — peasant vs. bourgeois:
… the peasant way of eating is centred on the act of eating itself and on the food eaten … Whereas the bourgeois way of eating is centred on fantasy, ritual and spectacle. The first can complete itself in satisfaction; the second is never complete and gives rise to an appetite which, in essence, is insatiable.
Fifty years from now, I don’t want to sound like one of those 19th-century critics who wrote about Impressionist painting as amateurish and unfinished, if not outright evil. Contemporary tasting menus, for all the technical nonsense and extravagant excess, are far from evil, Stalinist or merely culinary. At their best, these meals are like going to the opera or those large multimedia art installations museums love to exhibit these days — a once-a-year adventure.
On the other hand, eater’s menus that present a simple food aesthetic paying homage to a traditional cooking and eating style (local, seasonal foods prepared well and served without fuss in standard courses to hungry eaters) can in fact bring greater satisfaction, as Berger suggests, than the most brilliantly avant-garde tasting menu spectacles. Cassoulet anyone?
Top graphic credit: L. John Harris with PNR Graphics
Considerations of last meals range from the poignantly real cravings of inmates on death row, to the effete flavor fantasies of famous foodies like Anthony Bourdain. Bourdain reportedly wants only roasted bone marrow with sea salt on toasted baguette slices for his final feast, while most sorry souls facing judgment day in prisons across America request simple comfort foods like burgers, pizza and, most common, fried chicken.
Though I love roasted bone marrow as much as the next guy, my last-meal fantasy falls into the death row inmate’s camp. But what levels all perspectives on final cravings is the blunt reality of death’s humbling universality, immortalized by John Donne in his “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII”:
“And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Meaning that we are all, foodies and felons alike, in the same boat, heading for the same port. “No man is an island … ” is another famous line from this same meditation.
Julie Green’s blue plate specials
I began to plan my own last meal after reading about Oregon artist Julie Green, whose series of more than 500 ceramic plates titled “The Last Supper” depicts the meals eaten by death row inmates before their executions. Each of Ms. Green’s white plates features a glazed cobalt blue painting of the documented foods along with the date of the meal (no inmate names appear on the plates). With charming, folkloristic images and an elegant blue-on-white theme reminiscent of Dutch Delftware, the plates are at the same time a bit on the creepy side.
Green’s mission — part aesthetic, part gastronomic, part political — is to continue the series until capital punishment is outlawed in the United States. A noble proposition. But what I find so provocative about her plates — as art — is that while indeed lovely to look at, they are so darkly conceived and, yes, executed. How does one reconcile the pleasure in life of delicious nourishment with the awareness of life’s eventual, sometimes imminent, ending? Ms. Green seems to be saying, in part, that great art, if not great food, can bridge the existentially fraught gap.
Famous last meals
Perhaps the most legendary depiction of a last supper in any art medium is “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci. A pretty picture that presents a not-so-pretty story: a radical Jewish rabbi, at a table with his apostles, has threatened Rome’s power in Jerusalem. He is arrested after the meal, tried, convicted and executed. Each of the characters in Leonardo’s mural reacts viscerally to the horror of Jesus’ predicament, and yet the overall effect of the painting is one of harmony via a brilliantly unified single point perspective.
From my cell in Berkeley’s city jail
It must be noted that Jesus’ last meal was consumed before his arrest, trial and conviction, though apparently he foresaw what was coming, as did Judas who betrayed him to the authorities. My own last-meal fantasy, like most last meals served to prisoners post-Calvary, takes place after my conviction, while awaiting execution.
Considering that the scene is set in a local Berkeley jail, my last supper features not just one of my favorite foods, as with Mr. Bourdain and his precious marrow bone, but a whole menu of Berkeley dishes I have enjoyed over the years. All of these are donated gratis, as my fantasy would have it, by some of the East Bay’s finest (and obviously civic-minded) purveyors of fine food.
I wonder how Green would capture my last-meal choices on one of her plates?
Top illustration credit: “For Whom the Bell Pepper Tolls” by L. John Harris
The Greeks seem well on their way to a fate akin to the Dodo. Or so one gathers from media reports on the southern Eurozone countries known as PIGS — Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain — and the economic free fall that has threatened the survival of the Eurozone.
Of the Eurozone’s southern-tier PIGS, the Greeks are the real tragedians, an Homeric tale of hubris, greed and corruption that has pushed the feta capital of the world to the brink of self-destruction that would make America’s Great Recession look like a picnic.
So how can we help, we who believe in Greece more, perhaps, than the Greeks? We, that is, who grew up loving tzatziki, moussaka, spanakopita and “Zorba the Greek.” I’m thinking gastro-tourism and its twin, agro-tourism. And I’m proposing a new airline, CULINAIR, and we are going to save Greece and the Eurozone one cuisine at a time. Yes, a UFO invasion, waves of 737s filled with Urban Food Obsessives, aka foodies, descending on Greece to plant dollars in the fertile fields of the Peloponnese.
Meanwhile, back on planet Earth
One recent headline in the Wall Street Journal puts Greece’s tragedy this way: “For Greeks, Crisis Reverses A Generation of Progress” (Nov. 19, 2012). The article focuses on the stories of several nouveau bourgeois Greeks forced to leave Athens and return to their ancestral villages and family farms and to lives of hard labor and poverty.
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Or, as journalists Gordon Fairclough and Nektaria Stamouli put it in their Journal article, “Families that had clawed their way into the middle class in the decades after World War II are slipping painfully backward.”
Painful, of course, but backward? Sad that Greeks raising goats to make cheese and harvesting olives for oil, two things they do as well as any country in Europe, consider themselves losers. “For many people my age growing up in Athens,” says a former plumber featured in the article, “they wouldn’t ever imagine doing something like this.”
“This” refers to milking a goat.
Ironic that these same food-production tasks, laborious and low-paying as they may be, are considered career choices today by young middle-class urbans around the world hungry for a more authentic life connected to the land and the production of first-class culinary products.
Gastro-tourism to the rescue in France
To be sure, the forced return to difficult rural lifestyles by tens of thousands of Greeks is not a particularly happy choice. But what they don’t seem to see is the silver lining that their farming neighbors to the north are discovering: that there is gastro-tourist gold in them thar Eurozone hills. Have these Greeks lost touch with their inner Zorba? He was, after all, a chef, not just a chronic dancer and philandering lush.
Witness, for example, regions like France’s Dordogne where the agriculture sector is being supported by creative refugees from France’s urban middle class. Case in point: The Brusquand farm in this southwest region of France (also known as Perigord) and its four generations of farming women — Isabelle, Ginette, Marie and, now, Charlotte, the 20-something daughter of Isabelle and husband Christophe — who have opened a restaurant that features the special products from their duck and goose farm such as foie gras, patés and confit.
I first heard about the Ferme du Brusquand and its new auberge last fall at the Bay Area’s Mill Valley Film Festival. Premiering was the documentary “After Winter, Spring“ by Judith Lit, an American living part time on a small farm in the region. Over the course of three years, she focused her camera on her neighbors, farmers who have come up against forces that threaten a way of life that has evolved since Neolithic times: encroaching suburbia, industrial farm competition and decreasing subsidies.
The farm’s new restaurant — Auberge de la Ferme du Brusquand — is managed by young Charlotte who has returned home from Paris to join her family. Her father, Christophe, is the chef. Good reviews of the auberge and two new rental cottages on the property have sparked an invasion of UFOs that make it possible now for the older Brusquand women to enjoy the fruits of their labor without the fear of losing the farm.
Crooked labels and crooked books
It may seem naïve to think that a surge of Greek pride in its gastronomic patrimony will help turn around the Greek economy, let alone the Eurozone. Corrupt business practices, fuzzy regulations and even crooked labels on Greece’s upscale gourmet products don’t help matters. And the truth is that Greece’s most popular products, like feta cheese and olive oil, have never caught on outside Greece on the scale of equivalent products produced by European competitors to the north.
According to Bay Area entrepreneur Peter Damm, whose former import-export company, Peloponnese, had moderate success in the U.S. back in the 1980s: “Even superb Greek products from small family farms, such as delicate olive oils and handpicked herbs, couldn’t compete with French and Italian offerings. There was a perception that Greece was just not a refined culture, so these products just couldn’t be good.”
Oink like a pig, WWOOF like a farmer
Despite the perceptual and actual obstacles, it’s possible now to at least consider a turnaround for Greece driven by its menu of classic delights. Worldwide trends in gastro- and agro-tourism may in fact be the key — like farms in France, Great Britain and elsewhere that are making room for authenticity junkies to participate in, or at least watch, the daily routines. Dude farms, it turns out, are cash cows.
Then there’s the international organization known as WWOOF, or World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, that puts volunteers to work — really work — all over the world. Imagine young nouveau-poor but land-rich Greeks repurposing their family farms and producing products with the free labor of UFOs dying to get their hands dirty in the name of righteous agriculture and gastronomy.
The more I think about it, saving Greece and the Eurozone through gastro-tourism is no fantasy. All that Greece and its fellow PIGS need, and all CULINAIR needs, is the capital — culinary, political and financial — to make it happen. Are you listening Angela Merkel and Sir Richard Branson?
Top illustration credit: L. John Harris and PR Graphic Arts
If it’s true that we are what we eat, then did my feasting on poulet rôti in Paris last summer render me more French or more chicken? Based on the sheer volume of roast chicken consumed, I would have to say “more chicken.”
Part 1: Do labels equal liberty for France's best birds?
Part 2: A chicken-tasting tour of Paris.
Back home in Berkeley, Calif., there is so much really good traditional roast chicken available in restaurants and takeout shops — with French names like Poulet, Café Rouge, Bistro Liaison and Nizza la Bella (“Beautiful Nice”) — that I’m not sure whether my Paris binge was an homage to the gallocentric traditions in France that helped shape my passion for the humble roast, or merely a transatlantic extension of a preexisting culinary condition.
Granted, our farm-raised (poulet fermier) chicken production in the Bay Area (and the U.S. generally) does not yet measure up to France’s Label Rouge poultry program (See French Chicken, Part 1). And we are about 15 years behind European standards for animal welfare, according to advocates I’ve talked to.
But if Paris beats Berkeley in the overall quality of its poultry, not so in the roasting. Parisians seem to be taking their well-bred birds for granted these days, at least in their bistro kitchens if not in their homes and outdoor markets.
A tale of two birdies
At celebrity chef Guy Savoy’s L’Atelier Maître Albert in Paris’ 5th Arrondissement, the handsome wall-sized rotisserie had two enticing birds (from the les Landes region) twirling away on their spit, just waiting for me, right? Wrong.
About 25 minutes after ordering the 22-euro (about $28) Volaille fermière rôtie, my two small so-so-tasting chicken pieces, a small leg and quarter breast, arrived nestled against a typical mound of buttery bistro purée.
Those love birds, still spinning as I left, were apparently all show and no go.
So where had my chicken pieces come from, the stork?
French chicken loves garlic
Equally disappointing was the Provençal-style roast chicken with thyme and whole cloves of garlic touted at La Bastide Odéon in the 6th Arrondisement. The traditional Provençal combination of chicken and garlic was popularized in the U.S. by folks like James Beard with their variations on the classic poulet aux quarante gousse d’ail (chicken with 40 cloves of garlic).
Either Beard was dreaming, or there was a garlic harvest blight in France last summer because my skinless chunks of white meat and a small leg were served with just one clove of garlic! It hadn’t even caramelized into that soft, sweetly nutty puddle of garlic heaven one expects. And what was with the skinless breast meat? Poulet rôti sacrilege!
The best chicken in the world?
Of the many poulet rôtis I gobbled down in Paris bistros, the only real standout was the 85-euro (about $108) whole chicken for two at Chez L’Ami Louis in the 3rd Arrondissement. This is the notoriously high-end, old-school bistro that food critics love to hate — including A.A. Gill who labeled it “the worst restaurant in the world” in his rather hilarious 2010 Vanity Fair thrashing of the place.
Inducement enough for me to go! I’m a bit of a rubbernecking ambulance chaser when it comes to hatchet-job restaurant reviews — I like to see (and taste) the damage for myself. On occasion, like this one, I even write rebuttals.
Not only was L’Ami Louis’ bird (a black-legged Label Rouge “noir” bird from the Challans region) moist and flavorful and its delicate skin crisp, but the bird was graciously served (Gill found the servers at L’Ami Louis “sullen”) in two brilliant courses — white meat first, then dark — both accompanied by ladles of perfect jus. If anything at L’Ami Louis was sullen, it was the limp mound of pommes frites served with the chicken.
Adding to the pleasingly retro pomp at L’Ami Louis, our server had first brought the whole roasted bird to the table for our inspection before carving, like a proud father showing off his newborn.
I have experienced this kind of poultry love ritual — usually reserved for home-roasted turkeys at Thanksgiving — only once before. Counterintuitively, it was at Wolfgang Puck’s upscale steak house, Cut, in Los Angeles, where the server shows off a small, locally-grown and brined poussin before carving and plating. Was I envious of the person at the next table with their $150 Japanese Wagyu rib eye? Well, just a little, though my $38 chicken was plenty good.
All you need is love, love, love
One of the tastiest, and surely the most love-infused roast chickens I had all summer was at the home of my American friend David Jester and his French wife Evy. Our Label Rouge plein air “jaune” bird (yellow skin and feet) purchased from Boucherie Dumont near Place Monge in the Latin Quarter, was raised in the Ain region in eastern France, where celebrity Bresse chickens come from. After 90 minutes in the oven, the coarse salt-rubbed five-pound bird had deliciously crisp skin and juicy, rosemary-scented meat. Evy served the bird with the pan juices and the caramelized carrots, garlic cloves and lemon rind that had roasted alongside the bird for the last hour in the oven. Heaven.
Evy says that the secret of her chicken’s succulent flesh and crisp skin, learned from her mother, is to start the bird out in a cold oven set at 400 degrees F. An interesting technique to be sure, but I can’t agree. Evy’s real secret, I believe, which I think too many Parisian chefs and restaurateurs have sadly forgotten, is that you must — and I say this at the risk of sounding pathetically Berkeley — love poulet rôti, love making it well and love those you are serving to do gastronomic justice to an honored bird, whether in Paris or Berkeley, or anywhere else.
Top illustration credit: L. John Harris
The French take their chicken, like their freedom, very, very seriously. In fact, they appear to equate the two. The national symbol of France dating to the French revolution is the rooster, le coq gaulois. And the most acclaimed chicken in France, prized for its depth of flavor, is still, after centuries of careful breeding, the white-feathered poulet de Bresse, which sports a red coxcomb and blue legs and feet. Patriotism in France is bottom up.
Part 1: Do labels equal liberty for France's best birds?
Part 2: A chicken-tasting tour of Paris.
No surprise, then, that the signature French cigarette brand, Gauloise, features a highly stylized chicken logo on its blue package. The national motto of France — liberté, égalité, fraternité – was printed on that blue package back in the day when the New Wave movie star Jean-Paul Belmondo was often seen on screen with a Gauloise hanging from his full, pouty lips. Well, does a French chicken have lips?
As staple food and cherished symbol of freedom, the humble (sometimes comedic) chicken is at the very foundation of French culture and identity. King Henri IV knew this well when, in the 16th century, he called for a chicken in every peasant’s pot.
I came to appreciate the special place (and price) of chicken in French culture this past summer while eating an awful lot of poulet rôti in Paris bistros and cafés. I plucked roasted chickens from twirling rotisseries at boucheries (butcher shops) and marchés (outdoor markets) all over town. There was a wonderful home-roasted chicken too (see description in Part 2), as one might expect from a culture that gave us the simple but delicious comfort food tradition known as cuisine de bonne femme.
But getting a handle on France’s highly evolved farm-raised poultry industry (poulet fermier) and its exhaustively (and sometimes confusingly) labeled products seems to require an advanced degree in agricultural science, if not French culture and linguistics.
Among the most pampered chickens in France, perched at the pinnacle of France’s poultry hierarchy, are birds élevé en liberté or “raised in liberty.” This term is proudly printed on the colorful labels attached to pricey packages of poultry sold under France’s prestigious Label Rouge certification program.
It’s no accident that the term adopted for France’s premium birds appears first, ahead of both “égalité” and “fraternité,” in its national motto. It took almost the entire 19th century for the revolutionary tripartite motto’s terms and sequence to become fixed. Extending the term liberté to identify and market France’s finest poultry was set in motion in the 1960s when the Label Rouge program was launched.
French chicken a little less free
The liberté-raised birds are allowed to roam outdoors without fences or time restrictions. “Totally free” is another translation for “élevé en liberté.” Accordingly, these birds command the highest prices in French shops, save for organic (bio) poultry and specialty birds like those from the region around Bourg-en-Bresse in the east of France, which are AOC protected and produced, it is claimed, under conditions even more demanding than Label Rouge.
But there is no one-term-fits-all label in France for free-range birds as in the U.S. An existential notch below élevé en liberté chickens are those élevé en plein air, or raised out-of-doors. These plein air chickens (and ducks, geese, turkeys, etc.) are required under the Label Rouge program to have ample time to range outside their coops within a fenced but generous area of no less than 21 square feet per bird. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s more lax standards require only that free-range poultry producers give their birds unspecified and unverified time outdoors with no space requirements. Home, home on the range? Well, at least once in awhile, if they are lucky.
Note that plein air is the same term used to describe the Impressionist landscape painting style of the late 19th century when French oil painting was liberated from the confines and subject matter of academic studio painting. Free-range painters.
From a French existentialist perspective
The freedom- and chicken-loving French may be all about liberty for themselves and their winged comestibles, but no matter how strict and humane the regulations under a certification program like Label Rouge (and several programs in the U.S. that emulate the standards), the chicken in France is far from free, existentially speaking. Modern chickens and all their related galliformes, whether free-range or factory-farmed, are bred, raised, slaughtered, labeled and consumed at the complete whim (and profit) of humans.
As one butcher put it to me when I asked a lot of questions about the chicken I was investing in (a lovely plein air bird raised just outside the Bresse appellation, and at a more palatable price), “If chickens were really free to range they would take off and never return.” I laughed and shot back a gallinaceous variation on Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous line from his existentialist play, “No Exit,” “Yea, hell is other chickens.”
But after all the existential considerations of French poultry and the euphemistic terminology used by compassionate (and clever) carnivores to market it, one still has to cook the bird, and cook it well to fully appreciate its culinary virtues.
In Part 2 of this report, I present critical findings from my chicken-tasting tour of Parisian restaurants, shops, farmers markets and homes. The results may surprise you, as they did me.
Top photo: Chicken labels in a Paris shop window. Credit: L. John Harris
Imagine a tasty rosemary-scented, seven-hour lamb with tender flageolet beans while dining with a revered art hero at his regular table at his favorite restaurant. This summer in London I got my chance.
Yes, I imagined chowing down on this braised lamb classic in the company of the late, great painter Lucian Freud at the Wolseley, the popular eatery next door to the Ritz Hotel in the fashionable St. James neighborhood.
Freud, the grandson of Sigmund Freud, grew up in London after he and his family fled Hitler’s Germany in the early 1930s. He is acknowledged as the greatest realist painter of his generation, and perhaps one of the greatest of all time. Yet painting was only Freud’s day job. At night, he morphed into some version of a member of London’s smart set, and the Wolseley was his regular dinner venue for several years before his death in 2011.
Truthfully, after visiting the Wolseley nine times in six days, I started to believe that I was Lucian Freud. I even figured out how to secure Freud’s table No. 32, which was “booked,” according to the vigilant receptionist, even when not actually in use. In other words, reserved for VIP regulars.
There’s no name plaque in honor of Freud affixed to the massive black marble column that butts up against table No. 32, nothing like those tiny brass name plates on the banquettes at the two-centuries-old Le Grand Véfour in Paris. (I once sat in George Sand’s seat at that two-star Michelin icon.) But the Wolseley restaurant is only a decade old, albeit housed in a vintage British building with dramatic architectural bones and finely-crafted finishes. These things take time, like seven-hour lamb.
Sitting at Freud’s table
Facing the Wolseley’s theatrically-draped entrance doors, Freud’s table is front-row center. From this vantage point, anyone entering the Wolseley will see you seeing them. Freud, the obsessive portrait painter, must have loved that.
And how did I score Freud’s much-coveted table? Well, by making a nuisance of myself with one of the Wolseley’s hosts, Lucio, an elegant Sidney Poitier look-alike. After several visits, during which I always requested table No. 32, Lucio finally relented at lunch on my fifth day in London. I think he was as relieved as I was.
Seated now at Freud’s table, I wondered what he would have ordered. Perhaps the Wiener schnitzel or Austrian pork belly? I asked Lucio what Freud’s favorite dishes were, and followed up with the restaurant’s public relations firm and one of Freud’s galleries, Marlborough Fine Art. They all turned down my query with more or less the same line: “We wish to respect Mr. Freud’s privacy.” Fair enough, but I don’t really think there is an issue with privacy where Freud is currently “living.”
For my lunch that afternoon I picked the half salt beef sandwich (tender, flavorful corned beef) served alongside a bowl of golden and rather good chicken soup. The soup’s bland (under-salted) and defiant (dense) little dumplings (matzo balls) were what Jews back in the states refer to as “sinkers.”
The principle of downward dining
A rather obscure 18th-century French philosopher named François-André-Adrien Pluquet once commented on the function of the restaurant at the historical moment when restaurants went from serving restorative broths (“restaurants”) to whole meals:
“The need to eat unites all men, and creates a sort of bond…all the guests form a single body, and have but a single life.”
In Lucian Freud’s case, I think the impulse to make the Wolseley his regular spot went deeper than social bonding. At the Freud retrospective in 2010 at Paris’ Centre Pompidou, where I first encountered Freud’s painfully graphic work, some of his quotes were mounted on the walls next to the paintings. One of them, à propos his views on travel, caught my attention:
“My idea of travel is a downward travel really. Getting to know where you are better, and exploring feelings that you know more deeply. I always think that thing ‘knowing something by heart’ gives you a depth of possibility which has more potential than seeing new sights, however marvelous and exciting they are.”
This was, I thought, not only a brilliant comment on travel, but also a view into Freud’s painstaking approach to portrait and figure painting, which would take him months in front of his models to complete. Freud’s paintings are like deep journeys into his subjects’ flesh and spirit.
And couldn’t Freud’s idea of downward travel also apply to food, as in, downward dining? I wrote in my journal that day: “Downward dining is going back over and over to the restaurants you love, connecting ever deeper to the place, the food, the staff, the crowd.”
My last meal at the Wolseley restaurant
Back at Freud’s table on my final day in London, this time for breakfast, I ordered the Wolseley fishcakes with poached eggs, topped with Hollandaise sauce and served on a bed of spinach. Well made, though a bit on the heavy side, the dish was more than enough for two people.
It would have been grand to share my breakfast with Lucian Freud, but I realized afterwards that I hadn’t really been thinking about him. After six days of downward dining at the Wolseley I was finally on my own.
I did, though, have the feeling that the Wolseley’s jolly breakfast crowd and I were, in the words of Pluquet, “a single body.” But was I now one of the Wolseley’s VIP regulars like my hero? No, not yet. These things take time.
Top illustration credit: L. John Harris
I hadn’t flown to London last month just to eat at the hot new Tramshed, an homage to my two favorite animal protein sources — chicken and beef — and, it appears, to the fine art of moneymaking in the restaurant trade during a bad economy.
No, I was en route to my summer eating sabbatical in Paris. Back home in California, I had read the extensive media coverage of Tramshed’s exalted opening in May, the latest recession-defying venture from chef/restaurateur Mark Hix. Much has been made of the connection between Hix and his artist buddy Damien Hirst, who installed in Tramshed’s dining room one of his notorious formaldehyde-preserved whole animal vitrines, this one called “Cock and Bull.”
So I was happy to delay my Chunnel connection to Paris long enough to experience both — the dual fuel dishes at Tramshed (chicken and steak are the only main courses on the menu) and Hirst’s post-minimalist oeuvre on view both at Tramshed and at the Tate Modern’s current Hirst retrospective.
On both fronts, food and art, it’s a popular, if often silly, debate in the media these days whether Paris or London takes the respective cake. London, for my tastes, has clearly pulled ahead of Paris on one of these fronts — art. I can’t think of a French artist today that interests me as much as the abstract master Howard Hodgkin, or the late, great figurative painter Lucian Freud, or Damien Hirst himself, the most talked about and richest artist of our time.
As for London’s food, it’s still, at least for me, an open question. In a recent article in the Financial Times, the art and food writer Peter Aspden quotes France’s master chef Joël Robuchon’s claim that London is the gastronomic capital of the world “ … because it’s only in London that you find every conceivable style of cooking.” But does London truly excel at all of them? After a somewhat perplexing meal last summer at Fergus Henderson’s highly regarded nose-to-tail restaurant, St. John, including a main course slab of pork served next to a plain boiled carrot and a mound of garlicky aioli (British cuisine epiphany or Provençal nightmare?), I had to wonder what all the fuss was about.
Tramshed or Tramsham?
So I approached Tramshed with modest expectations. On arrival I was indeed bowled over by Hirst’s “Cock and Bull” towering over the dining area in the dramatically cavernous former electricity-producing facility for London trams. My guest, a food writer who had already eaten at Tramshed, suggested that she order the “Mighty-marbled Glenarm sirloin steak,” that I order the “Roast Woolley Park Farm free-range chicken,” and that we share. What she didn’t share until after the meal was her lukewarm opinion from her first visit.
The only steak on Tramshed’s menu is the sirloin, which my dining companion ordered rare. The menu states that the beef is dry-aged “… in a Himalayan salt chamber on Peter Hannan’s farm on the Glenarm Estate in Northern Ireland.” What? I attempted to get details on Himalayan salt chambers back in my hotel room after the meal, but I mainly found references on the web to the healing properties of Himalayan salt when people are exposed to it at special salt spas. Puts a new spin on the age-old technique of salt-curing meat.
Our steak arrived on its wooden carving board overcooked the first time and almost raw the second. Actually, the first round was, for me, perfectly cooked, an American (circa 1950s) medium rare — pink, not red, in the center. Unacceptable, however, to my guest. As our server apologetically picked up the overdone sirloin, which he had started to carve, I was able to skewer a slice as he raced the board back to the kitchen. I was hungry. It was good.
When the second round arrived, I could see we were in even bigger trouble — the steak was gray, with scarcely a grill mark. As the server began carving the almost raw piece of meat, he asked whether it was done properly, to which my stoic companion replied, “Yes.”
As for my shriveled “spring chicken for one” served upside-down, as if diving into its little pool of jus, it too was sadly wanting. If not officially overcooked, it had been surely sitting around awhile. An inserted mini wad of stuffing was tasty but the chicken’s skin was deflated and the meat dry. If you can kill a chicken twice, here was proof.
Build it up expensive and they will come
It’s never easy for an ambitiously conceived restaurant to deliver on the ecstatic hype that builds around its opening. But in London, where media-identified darlings become sacred (and, in this case, preserved) cows, it seems rather easy. The template is, of course, the British monarchy, which, over the centuries, has survived a multitude of indiscretions. The British can be, I’m reminded, a fiercely loyal and forgiving lot, and Hix and Hirst apparently can do no wrong.
So it doesn’t really matter in London’s blooming art and food culture whether Hirst’s “Cock and Bull” installation is brilliant art or just over-the-top restaurant décor spun off from his 1980s natural history series on display at the Tate. Either way, and I’m not entirely sure which, it attracts herds of artsy eaters to Tramshed’s gentrified Shoreditch neighborhood.
But it apparently does matter to me that three out of two of Hix’s dishes (yes, chicken once, steak twice) were painfully short on precision, if not well-sourced ingredients. Of course there are terrific-sounding fine dining options in London I will visit next year, like Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner, offering modern takes on historical British food, and Mikael Jonsson’s Hedone, which channels new Nordic ingrediocentricity. But after my meal at Tramshed, I was hungry for Paris, the world’s most underrated over-the-hill eating mecca.
For all of culinary London’s exciting diversity, it’s still my Paris amuse-bouche, a very entertaining warm-up act.
Illustration: Two-and-a-half cock-and-bulls down for Tramshed. Credit L. John Harris
To be honored with a dish named after you in the 19th century, when France was emerging as the showcase for Western gastronomy — the haute cuisine of Antonin Carême and the cuisine classique of Auguste Escoffier — you would have needed to be a reigning monarch, a victorious general or a wealthy aristocrat.
Hence, the savory beef Wellington and the sweet Napoleon. These are among the most popular examples of the type, though the dishes have, ironically, little if any direct historical relationship to their namesakes. The power of these two heroic figures, Emperor Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington, to capture our imaginations almost 200 years after their epic confrontation at Waterloo renders historical fact almost irrelevant.
I began musing about the heroic (and often apocryphal) dimension in gastronomy after a visit last summer to Apsley House, Wellington’s museum in London, set within the residence gifted to him after his stunning defeat of Napoleon. It’s odd how the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, one of the most violent spectacles in the history of warfare, can be reduced to elegant museum vitrines exhibiting the “material culture” of its participants: swords, medals, letters, portraits, uniforms and, in this case, boots.
The Iron Duke’s leather boots, or “wellies” as they later came to be known in their fashionable rubberized form, were commissioned by Wellington based on a Hessian military boot far superior to what the English soldiers of the period were hobbling around in. They are said to have been the inspiration for beef Wellington, or at least the dish’s name. Apparently, the tubular shape of the preparation, an English version of the French boeuf en croûte, and its dark glossy color when cooked, reminded people of Wellington’s shiny boots.
True or not, history has cemented the connection between this somewhat leaden dish — a beef tenderloin coated in mushroom duxelles and fois gras, then wrapped in puff pastry and baked in the oven — and the hero of Waterloo.
Seldom served anymore on the American side of the pond, the dish had its day — pre-American food revolution — as a sophisticated favorite on the dinner party circuit of the 1950s and ’60s. Joyce Goldstein, a cookbook author and restaurant consultant, used to demonstrate beef Wellington in her 1960s’ cooking classes before opening her late lamented Square One restaurant in San Francisco. Now she describes the dish, respectfully, as ” … an old war horse of a dish … too heavy to fly today.”
Is it mere coincidence that both the French mille-feuille pastry known as the Napoleon and beef Wellington are multilayered puff pastry creations with, again, sketchy links to their namesakes? I don’t think so. While the sweet confection’s name is said to be based on a corruption of the French adjective napolitain, meaning “from Naples” where the tradition of flaky pastry desserts is very old, both dishes seem today as fated and inextricable as their respective heroes.
This idea is powerfully reinforced at Apsley House, where there is nearly as much material associated with Napoleon as Wellington. Leave it to the little emperor to attempt a takeover of the duke’s museum! There is even a full-sized statue of Napoleon at Apsley House that assumes, in the words of the museum’s tourist brochure, “pride of place.”
Maybe the real genius of Napoleon was to have succeeded in having his name attached to so many (mostly) good things — from the French Revolution itself, to a ground-breaking new civil code (the Napoleonic Code) and even, posthumously, to an internationally-adored dessert confection that is not even French in origin.
The new heroism of farmers and foodies
Scholars today sum up the downfall of Napoleon at Waterloo as the end of a heroic era of revolutionary change in Europe. Arguably the end of military heroism itself and its remaining chivalric niceties, Waterloo marked the symbolic beginning of a new, and some would suggest anti-heroic, modern era.
Certainly today’s heroes differ from those of the 19th century, especially our gastronomic heroes living and working in California. They don’t conquer territory on horses, but in roving food trucks. They don’t invade countries, just pop up in far-flung neighborhoods with delicious new products. The followers of these heroes, the armies of consuming foodies, eat and cook simply, more like hungry peasants than power-hungry emperors, generals and aristocrats.
I was struck by this shift in the nature of our culinary heroism at a recent dinner at Oliveto Restaurant and Café in Oakland, Calif., during one of their very popular Whole Hog dinners. I was seated at a large communal table that included Oliveto’s owners, Bob and Maggie Klein, and the farmer (and sculptor), Mac Magruder, whose Magruder Ranch in Sonoma, Calif., had produced the hog we were eating that night. It was a cross, I was told, between a Gloucester Old Spot and a California wild.
One memorable dish from the meal, and from Magruder’s hog, was Pappardelle con maiale di latte, or pasta with milk-braised pork. Diners at other tables were evidently raving about it, and several came by to express their pleasure. Surprisingly, they aimed their praise not at the restaurant’s owners, nor at Oliveto’s talented young chef, Jonah Rhodehamel, who had emerged from the kitchen to greet his guests, but at Magruder, the man behind the animal.
It’s true that our white tablecloth restaurants today, especially in the land of California cuisine, generally avoid history’s grand dishes named for heroes like Napoleon and Wellington. But if our contemporary neo-peasant cooking is “simple” compared to the complex creations of France’s cuisines haute et classique – and its dazzling (and dizzying) contemporary extension, molecular gastronomy — it can still cost a king’s ransom.
I wonder what form of heroism will arise in our gastronomic future to revolutionize that?
Illustration at top: “Waterloo gastronomized.” Credits for both illustrations: L. John Harris
Zester Daily contributor L. John Harris is a food writer, filmmaker, artist and the former owner of Aris Books, publishers of cookbooks in Berkeley, Calif. Harris’ most recent book is “Foodoodles: From the Museum of Culinary History,” a collection of his food cartoons and texts about America’s culinary revolution. (www.foodoodles.com)