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Entering the Great American Beer Festival with a plan of attack is like going to Eataly with a three-item shopping list: Good luck sticking to it. This year, the exhibition hall at the Colorado Convention Center in downtown Denver was packed with more than 600 brewers showcasing more than 3,100 products. Though my editor and I had discussed the recent resurgence of true Pilsners, I realized the second I walked in the door that I could no more limit myself to crisp Bohemian- and German-style lagers than I could pass up white truffles because I need button mushrooms.
Yet a general focus on lighter, low-to-moderate-alcohol styles was not only doable, but prudent if I hoped to leave the festival in one piece. Beyond that, I asked myself, which samples would cut through the palate fatigue with enough panache to warrant further investigation? Now that the fog has cleared, I stand by the following list in all its arbitrariness.
Cambridge Brewing Co. Shadows and Light
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At 10% alcohol by volume, this was an exception to my rule of sticking to more sessionable beers. Described as a “Maderized and Blended Experimental Very Old Ale,” it presents a mesmerizing port-like profile, showing raisins, baking spices and a touch of soy sauce. As brewmaster Will Meyers explains, “Shadows and Light was inspired by the techniques of oxidation and exposure to sunlight as well as extremes of heat and cold. All of these are things you are specifically instructed not to do when brewing beer (or wine, sake, cider, etc.) because ordinarily they’d destroy it, and yet beverages such as Madeira, sherry and Banyuls, not to mention some spirits, are treated in this specific way. I decided to find out if I could incorporate these techniques successfully — and after eight years of considerable effort, I was lucky enough to have achieved my goals.”
Sadly, only those within commuting distance of Kendall Square in Cambridge, Mass., will have opportunity to try it; first released in May of this year, it will be tapped just once more, at the brewpub’s 25th anniversary party the first weekend of May 2014. Boston beer buffs, mark the date.
Elevation Beer Co. Engel Weisse
From a newcomer in Poncha Springs, Colo., this oak-fermented and -aged Berliner Weisse would, as my friend Amy observed, make a fine alternative to lemonade on a hot day, throwing shades of gingerbread and yogurt into the citrusy mix (4% ABV). According to sales manager Alexander Bustamante, it’s named for a snow-pack formation called the Angel of Mount Shavano “that looks over us here at Elevation,” it’s currently available seasonally only in Colorado.
For the record, I also appreciated two other refreshingly straightforward variations on the theme: one from Crabtree Brewing Co. in Greeley, Colo. (4.3% ABV), which garnered a gold medal in 2011, and one from Nodding Head Brewery in Philadelphia, which proved a pioneer when it debuted the gracefully fruity Ich Bin Eine Berliner Weisse (3.5% ABV) in 2000. Brewer Gordon Grubb observes that while the style’s reputation as “the Champagne of the North” might be overstated, “it does have some white wine characteristics, more tart than truly sour.”
Elysian Brewing Co. Great Pumpkin Ale
Sampling this Seattle brewer’s take on the predominant fall favorite at this year’s beer festival media luncheon was a revelation. So many of its peers come across as muddy or cloying; this was anything but. Crisp and sparklingly clean, it showcased its namesake ingredient not by letting it run rampant but by treating it and its baking-spice trappings with restraint. 8.1% ABV.
Logsdon Organic Farmhouse Ales Seizoen Bretta
This haunting saison, which nabbed a gold for its Hood River, Ore. , producer at last year’s festival, spoke to me in fleeting, delicately effervescent tones of musty cider houses, honeypots and savory herb gardens. Bottle conditioned with pear juice to 8% ABV, it stood up remarkably well to the milk chocolate-pumpkin mousse cake it was served with.
The Lost Abbey Framboise de Amorosa
By the time we cut through the crush surrounding the booth, this San Marcos, Calif.-based cult leader was fresh out of the Red Poppy Ale that had just scored a medal in the American-Style Brett Beer category for the second year running. But the barrel-aged sour we settled on instead was hardly sloppy seconds. (Indeed it took a silver back in 2011.) Despite whiffs of its own bretty funk, its raspberry juiciness remained breathtakingly pure from start to long finish. 7% ABV.
New Belgium Coconut Curry Hefeweizen
The name of this brew, released in July as part of the Fort Collins, Colo., giant’s Lips of Faith series, says it all. Creamy touches of coconut and banana combine with spikier, more savory hints of garam masala, yet the effect is surprisingly smooth and relatively subtle. 8% ABV.
Scratch Brewing Co. Carrot-Ginger Saison
Specializing in the use of locally farmed and foraged ingredients, this Ava, Ill., brewer impressed me with the easy balance it struck between warm, earthy sweetness and a cool, clean bite. Of the inspiration for the farmhouse ale, first released in July at 6% ABV (but available only locally), co-founder Marika Josephson says, “Squash and sweet potatoes have obviously been done in a lot of fall beers, and we figured that roasting carrots would give a similar flavor. But we wanted to spice up the carrot a little, so we decided to use wild ginger and a small amount of peppercorns.”
Smuttynose Straw-Barb Short Weisse
If, as my friend Mark suggested, the name of this fruited Berliner Weisse out of Portsmouth, N.H., alludes to shortcake, it does itself a disservice. Rather than conveying any sugary, baked-dessert message, it delivers the floral perfumes of strawberry and rhubarb to back its tartness. Smuttynose enjoys fairly wide distribution on the East Coast, so keep your eyes peeled for the recent release. 3.5% ABV.
Weyerbacher Eighteen Weizenbock
Forgive me for including this dark, malty wheat beer. Not only does it break my style rule at 11.1% ABV, but as a one-off made in honor of its Easton, Pa., producer’s 18th anniversary in June 2013, it will soon be sold out across Weyerbacher’s distribution network if it isn’t already. Should you track it down, though, you’ll be treated to a veritable chocolate-banana milkshake of a pour.
Top photo: A beer being poured at the Great American Beer Festival. Credit: Brewers Association
Back in 2011, in a piece on mountain rums, I briefly provided some context to explain how Colorado had managed to become such a liquor mecca — not just the beer capital it’s best known as, but also a distilling hub. (Granted, my state’s wine industry is still fledgling, but it’s got potential.)
That discussion really hit home just the other day, when I attended the fourth annual Breckenridge Craft Spirits Festival. It surely will again when I hit the Great American Beer Festival — more on that in another story. As a mining settlement turned ski resort, Breckenridge was born to be a hard-drinking town. There were already 18 saloons here in the late 19th century, including the Gold Pan, established in 1879 and still going strong. The city’s Heritage Alliance even conducts a tour on the subject. No wonder, then, that it’s proving the perfect place to showcase local distilleries, welcoming more than 20 of them, along with 600 guests, to the Riverwalk Center this year (compared with eight producers and 100 attendees at its inauguration, according to Ken Nelson, president of the Breckenridge Restaurant Association).
Some of the names may already be familiar to outsiders, including Peach Street Distillers in Palisade, which sources from neighboring orchards and wineries to make fruit brandies, eaux-de-vie and grappa, among other things; the pioneering Denver-based Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey; and Montanya Distillers, whose rums are available far beyond its home base of Crested Butte. Others were new even to me — but if quality alone guaranteed distribution, products like the following would be everywhere.
Golden Moon Crème de Violette
Many present-day spirits producers talk the talk of ancient recipes and Old World methods, but few walk the walk quite so boldly as Stephen Gould’s Golden Moon Distillery (based, of course, in Golden). A “trained saucier” and former brewer, he got interested in collecting old, rare bottles a decade ago. Upon “stumbling across a case of 1950 Spanish absenta and really enjoying it,” he says, “I started doing a little digging — and now I own, I’m told, one of the largest collections in private hands of books on distilling in North America.”
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His wonderfully evocative crème de violette, for instance, is a true distillate of the namesake flower. He hit upon the recipe for it after “studying how French perfumers worked with violet to keep it stable.” The result is higher in alcohol (at 30% ABV) and lower in sugar than any that I could find. Sadly, I couldn’t sample his take on the legendary orange bitters Amer Picon, which he calls Amer Dit Picon, because he’s awaiting label approval. In any case, his version replicates not the current but the original recipe, “with the exception of one ingredient, calamus root, that the FDA has forbidden.” Although there are substitutes on the domestic market for the otherwise unavailable French liqueur, Gould says they’re much less complex than the 100-year-old bottles he’s had occasion to try, compared to which “ours is a little more peppery and a little harder — but then, after a century of aging, it’s natural that they’d have mellowed. I think we’ve come about as close as possible.”
Feisty Spirits Elementals
Unless it’s specified as bourbon, rye, etc., “whiskey can technically be made from any grain. Only four or five are generally used, but there are hundreds out there; why not try them?”
So wondered Jamie Gulden, co-founder of Feisty Spirits in Fort Collins, when he and his partner, head distiller David Monahan, set about experimenting with cereals beyond the blue corn, oats
and rye they use for their single-barrel bottlings. Not all of them worked, he admits — amaranth, for one, “isn’t something you’d want to drink straight” — but four others now compose Feisty’s single-grain line, Elementals: Kamut (aka Khorasan wheat), Millet, Triticale and Quinoa. I liked the roasty, toasty qualities of the Kamut; as for the Quinoa, which wasn’t on offer at the festival, Gulden calls it “a polarizing whiskey: some people really love its grassiness mixed with nuttiness, some don’t.” It may be awhile before non-Coloradans can judge it for themselves; Feisty’s distribution, after only a year in business, remains limited to the Front Range.
Santa Fe Single-Malt Whiskey
Speaking of whiskey, I have to give a nod to one of the festival’s few non-local exhibitors. Santa Fe Spirits is rolling out a single malt in which the barley is smoked not over peat à la Islay Scotch, but rather mesquite. Perhaps I’m swayed by fond memories of Christmas in New Mexico, but its tangy notes of wood smoke yet surprisingly mellow character immediately won me over. (Availability is slowly expanding from the Southwest to the West Coast.)
Dancing Pines Black Walnut Bourbon Liqueur
I first met ex-paramedic firefighter Kristian Naslund a couple of years ago, not long after he’d launched Dancing Pines Distillery in Loveland. Offered samples of his chai, caramel and cherry liqueurs, I was thoroughly skeptical — they sounded like just so much commercial cough syrup. But boy, I was wrong; though certainly sweet, they lacked any trace of sharp artificiality, their profiles warm yet clear. So it is with this newer release, which begs for a fireside armchair; Naslund and crew do distribute out of state.
Billed as the world’s highest-altitude spirits producer (the facility sits at 9,600 feet), Breckenridge Distillery likewise enjoys some presence on the national market, primarily thanks to its well-received bourbon. Its strikingly heather-honeyed small-batch bitters are built on the discovery by master distiller Jordan Via, while hiking close to home, of some plants that turned out to be related to those used in génépi, an Alpine liqueur. Along with the brand’s own vodka, they serve as the foundation for a blend whose 10 other proprietary botanicals make for a smoother, gentler, more rounded variation of the European model — neither quite as bitter nor quite so intensely sweet.
Top photo: Feisty Spirits was one of several Colorado distilleries to showcase its products at the Breckenridge Craft Spirits Festival. Credit: Jessie Unruh
Along the Front Range of Colorado, Mexican food is subtly different from more widespread hybrids born in Texas and California. Closer to the New Mexican style but simpler, our homegrown, green chile-smothered counterpart reigns supreme here — alongside an ever-growing mix of regional cuisines, from Puebla to Michocoán, from the Yucatán to Mexico City.
The cookery of the latter may be best represented locally by Los Carboncitos, a trio of casual, colorful eateries run by the Leon family whose roots are in the Distrito Federal. Recipes for their famously fiery quartet of salsas appear in the newly released cookbook I edited, “Denver & Boulder Chef’s Table: Extraordinary Recipes From the Front Range,” but the following instructions for their gut-busting “surf-and-turf” huarache are exclusive to Zester Daily.
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Named for their supposed resemblance to the iconic sandal, huaraches tend to inspire comparisons (more or less reasonably) to various topped flatbreads from around the world — except that the dough is made from masa, not wheat flour, and the cooking is done not in an oven but on a traditional cast-iron comal (though any type of griddle will do). Better analogies exist in Mexico’s own thick, round sopes and oblong tlacoyos, which the Leons serve at their higher-end destination, Paxia.
In any case, this recipe can serve as a template for all sorts of variations on the theme. Los Carboncitos’ menu lists more than 20 huaraches, with toppings including nopales (prickly-pear paddles), carne al pastor, tripe and, of course, green chile. The Leons have suggested using canned beans for convenience, but you can certainly prepare your own frijoles refritos if preferred.
Los Carboncitos Huarache Mar y Tierra
1 cup instant corn flour, or masa (preferably Maseca brand)
Salt and pepper to taste
Water as directed
1 teaspoon olive oil
4 ounces (about ¾ cup) canned refried pinto beans
3 ounces (about ¾ cup) Manchego cheese, grated
8 ounces beef flap meat, grilled or pan-fried and chopped
8 medium shrimp, steamed
1 ounce (about 1 slice) bacon, cooked and chopped into pieces
2 ounces (about ½ cup) crumbled queso fresco
2 tablespoons Mexican crema
About ⅓ cup chopped cilantro
1. Put corn flour in a bowl, season with salt and pepper, and add water bit by bit (as little as possible) while mixing the flour with your hands until the texture is neither too firm nor too soft, about 5 minutes.
2. On a cutting board, roll the dough into an oval disk about 10 inches long.
3. Add oil to a large griddle over medium-high heat and cook the dough disk approximately 5 minutes on each side; it’s ready when puffed.
4. Leaving the tortilla in the pan, turn the heat to low and spread the refried beans on top; sprinkle the Manchego evenly across the beans. Top with beef, shrimp and bacon.
5. Remove pan from stovetop, place the huarache on a plate, and garnish it with queso, crema and cilantro.
Top photo: A huarache made from the recipe provided by Los Carboncitos. Credit: Ruth Tobias
A few years ago, the national food media began having a field day with goat meat as the next big thing among chefs in major markets.
Though it’s a truism that contemporary American culinary trends move from coastal cities inland — largely as a matter of demographics, whereby more diverse populations are quicker to import traditions and ingredients from other countries — heartlanders in this case had a bit of a leg up. After all, this is ranch country; just as you tend to see more locally raised lamb and buffalo on menus in Colorado than you will elsewhere, I was spotting goat at Denver’s upscale restaurants before I was reading about it in, say, the New York Times.
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While working on an upcoming cookbook, “Denver & Boulder Chef’s Table” (Globe Pequot, August 2013), I had the pleasure of collaborating with chef-restaurateur Mark Fischer, who first rose to statewide acclaim with the now-shuttered six89 in Carbondale and has since gone on to open several restaurants, including The Pullman in Glenwood Springs, Town in Carbondale and Harman’s Eat & Drink in Denver’s Cherry Creek neighborhood. Fischer has been at the forefront of local, seasonal sourcing in these parts — and remains so even at his Southeast Asian-inspired establishment, Phat Thai (also in Carbondale). The goat curry he serves there exemplifies his ability to keep one foot in Colorado, one foot far beyond.
This recipe is admittedly labor-intensive, requiring most of a day to complete — but it’s well worth the trouble. Fischer highly recommends ordering the goat meat directly from a butcher and cooking it all, though you’ll have plenty extra; it will keep frozen, carefully wrapped first in plastic and then in foil, for about a month. Many other ingredients should be available at your local Asian market.
Kaeng Massaman Pae (Goat Curry)
For the goat:
10 pounds goat legs, chopped into pieces with a cleaver
Kosher salt and black pepper
¼ cup olive oil, plus extra as needed
12 garlic cloves, smashed
8 shallots, sliced
4 dried New Mexico chilies, roasted in a dry frying pan until fragrant, soaked in warm water, de-stemmed and de-seeded
2 stalks lemongrass, peeled, trimmed and sliced thinly
1 (2-inch) piece galangal, peeled and sliced thinly
2 cinnamon sticks, crushed
5 cardamom seeds, 5 cloves and 1 tablespoon cumin seed, all dry-roasted in a frying pan and ground in a spice grinder or coffee mill
8 cups coconut milk
2 cups chicken stock, plus extra as necessary
For the massaman curry paste:
12 garlic cloves, smashed
8 shallots, thinly sliced
4 dried New Mexico chilies, soaked in enough warm water to provide 1 reserved cup liquid, de-stemmed and de-seeded
2 stalks lemongrass, peeled, trimmed and sliced thin
1 tablespoon shrimp paste, wrapped in foil and set in a dry pan over high heat until fragrant
1 (2-inch) piece galangal, peeled and sliced thin
20 cardamom seeds, 10 cloves and 1 tablespoon cumin seed, all dry-roasted in a frying pan and ground in a spice grinder or coffee mill
2 cinnamon sticks, crushed
1 piece nutmeg, grated
1 bunch cilantro
For the curry base:
2 tablespoons blended oil
4 tablespoons minced jalapeño
4 tablespoons minced shallots
4 tablespoons minced garlic
¼ cup palm sugar
4 cups peeled, diced sweet potato, blanched in salted boiling water
4 cups gai lan (Chinese broccoli), trimmed, de-stemmed, cut into 1-inch pieces and blanched in salted boiling water
4 cups coconut milk
Good-quality fish sauce to taste
4 tablespoons roasted, chopped peanuts
4 tablespoons coconut cream
4 tablespoons green onion, chopped
4 tablespoons cilantro, chopped
1 cup jasmine rice, cooked according to package instructions to yield about 3 cups
Two large roasting pans
A large wok
1. Preheat the oven to 275 F.
2. Season the goat pieces generously with salt and pepper. In a very large skillet, heat olive oil over a burner on high. Sear and brown the pieces a few minutes on all sides, working in batches (adding more oil as needed) and removing the pieces to large roasting pans as you go.
3. Discard all but a film of oil from the skillet. Add remaining dry ingredients and cook over medium-high heat, stirring until well integrated (a couple of minutes); then add the coconut milk and stock and bring to a simmer.
4. Divide the contents among the roasting pans. The meat should be completely submerged; if not, add more stock to cover. Cover the pans with foil and braise in the oven for about 8 hours, or until the meat is falling from the bone.
5. Remove the meat from the pans and strain the braising liquid into a separate container; let cool.
6. When the meat is ready to handle, pull from the bone and shred by hand.
7. Transfer shredded meat and braising liquid into a large pan and bring to a simmer over medium heat.
8. Adjust seasoning to taste, remove from heat and set aside.
9. Meanwhile, begin the curry. To make the paste, mix to incorporate all ingredients in a bowl. Transfer to a food processor and grind, adding just enough of the reserved chili-soaking liquid to make a smooth paste.
10. Reserve ½ cup to complete the recipe; the remainder will keep refrigerated for a couple of weeks (or frozen for months).
11. In a wok, heat blended oil over a medium-high burner until it shimmers. Add the jalapeño, shallot and garlic and toss until aromatic.
12. Add the reserved curry paste; stir to incorporate. Once aromatic, add the palm sugar and stir.
13. Add 4 cups reserved shredded goat meat, sweet potato and gai lan; toss to incorporate. (You can freeze the extra meat as instructed in the headnote.)
14. Finally, add the coconut milk, stir, and bring to a simmer. Season with fish sauce to taste.
15. Ladle curry into four large bowls; garnish each with a tablespoon of peanuts, coconut cream, chopped scallion, and cilantro.
16. Serve with jasmine rice on the side; Fischer also recommends a simple cucumber salad as an accompaniment.
Top photo: Kaeng Massaman Pae, or goat curry. Credit: Christopher Cina
Let’s face it, fundraising dinners aren’t typically fascinating affairs. But on June 8, I attended a rare exception to the rule: “Black Chefs in the White House: The Hidden History of the White House Kitchen,” presented by the Campbell Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Colorado Black Health Collaborative at the University of Denver’s Tivoli Student Union. It was not only incredibly enlightening and entertaining, but rubber chicken-free.
The traveling event’s success is due first and foremost to its founder, Adrian Miller, executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches and author of the newly released “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine“ (University of North Carolina Press). The intense research he’s done on the history of African-Americans in the White House kitchen from post-Independence onward showed in a lecture that spanned a three-course meal; should he ever reprise it in your city, rest assured it’s well worth the time and fee.
But he wasn’t alone at the Denver installment; also on hand were Jack Van Ens — a local Thomas Jefferson scholar who does presentations in character — and Walter S. Scheib III, who served as executive chef to presidents Clinton and Bush from 1994 to 2005. (Though Scheib is not black, his intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the White House kitchen led to his collaboration with Miller “about two years ago, when he was doing research for his book, and it turned out we enjoyed each other’s company,” as he told me. “We did a dinner together in Washington, D.C., not unlike what we’re doing this evening, and have kept in touch ever since.”)
Kicking things off with the provocative statement that “food is a metaphor for how we view our presidents — consider Clinton’s Big Macs versus Obama’s arugula” — Miller went on to present a vivid chronological account of the topic at hand, starting with the pre-Emancipation “enslaved cooks who basically lived in the basement and weren’t allowed to leave the grounds.” Among these slaves, however, was not the mysterious Sam Fraunces, a restaurateur and steward to George Washington; to this day, Miller explained, there has been “an argument for him being a white guy and an argument for him being a brother.” (He was a free man and a registered voter, but he hailed from the West Indies and “his nickname was Black Sam.”)
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A number of Washington’s successors brought their family cooks with them to the White House, most notably Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Baines Johnson. Jefferson’s slave James Hemings made such dishes as macaroni pudding (which we sampled during our meal) before apparently committing suicide. In Harrison’s White House kitchen, Dolly Johnson “was a headline-making sensation” in her own right insofar as she replaced a bona fide French chef at the president’s bidding. Roosevelt’s assistant cook Lizzie McDuffie “stumped in key African-American districts” — and cook Daisy Bonner was “making a cheese souffle when he died of a hemorrhage: it was due to come out at 1:15, he died at 1:10.” Johnson was “the last president to bring in a black family cook” — namely Zephyr Wright, who reportedly responded to his demand for fattening foods with a stern note: ‘I am going to be your boss for a change.’”
Laura Bush and organic food
Scheib brought his own colorful commentary to bear on the subject, beginning with the amusing point that “presidents have nothing to do with the food. It’s all about the first ladies” — including Laura Bush, who, he told me separately, “was very concerned about organic ingredients, though she didn’t make a public statement about it as Mrs. Obama has.”) As I dined on a main course of layered summer vegetables with lemongrass and red curry, I learned he had created the dish in honor of an official visit by Nelson Mandela, whereby the South African hero of anti-apartheid had shown that he clearly “identified with us working people more than with world leaders.” Scheib also drew a laugh when asked by a guest, “Did the party of the presidents you served make a difference to you?” His answer: “You check your ego and your politics at the door. My father’s own politics are to the right of Cheney and just to the left of Genghis Khan. When he came to visit the Clinton White House, I said to the president, ‘Let me put it this way, he’s not your best friend.’ Besides that, the only difference was that the Democrats asked for alternative menu choices, whereas the Republicans were like, ‘If you don’t like it, don’t eat it.’”
Presidents’ culinary favorites
Later, I asked Miller whether there were any choice tidbits he wasn’t able to touch on in his lecture. For instance, was there a historical correlation between the presence of black chefs and the types of dishes served? As he explained, “For the most part, White House chefs of any color made French cuisine for formal occasions because French food was synonymous with entertaining during the 19th and much of the 20th centuries. But when it came to private dining, the cooks often showed a more homey, regional flair. Southern food was dominant early on, since most of our early presidents were Southerners, yet presidents from other parts of the country made sure to get their regional specialties, too. For instance, John F. Kennedy relished bowls of New England chowder, and Richard Nixon got Cali-Mex food every now and then.”
As for particularly famous dishes created by black chefs, Miller told me, “The preeminent example is one of the past: terrapin, a type of turtle that was an expensive delicacy in the Chesapeake Bay area. The meat would be chopped up, seasoned, cooked and sometimes served in its own shell. The wealthy overate it to the point where terrapin practically disappeared. Another must be the beanless Pedernales River Chili prepared by Zephyr Wright. According to Lady Bird Johnson, the recipe for that dish was the second-most requested piece of information from the federal government in 1964.”
Eleanor Roosevelt’s era
On a sadder note, he told me about the servants’ dining room, “a segregated area created during the Taft administration by housekeeper Elizabeth Jaffray. That Jim Crow policy lasted until Eleanor Roosevelt became the first lady. Her solution was to fire all of the white people on staff, technically ‘desegregating’ the space since everyone was therefore of the same race. I leave you to decide whether or not that was a sign of racial progress.”
Top photo: Dolly Johnson in the White House kitchen. Credit: Courtesy of Adrian Miller
Upon receiving an e-mail out of the blue last week from a filmmaker asking me whether I’d like to screen his latest production, I half wondered whether he’d meant to send it to my significant other, who just so happens to be the artistic director of a film festival here in Denver. Yes, “Trubadeaux: A Restaurant Movie” is about the hospitality industry, and yes, I’ve written an article or two about food on the silver screen. As a grad student in English many years ago, I even taught a couple of classes on the relationship between film and literature. But none of that makes me a professional reviewer.
Still, living with a programmer does mean I wind up watching dozens upon dozens of movies by unknown hopefuls every year — enough to get a sense of what’s worth my time and what isn’t in all of 15 minutes. So despite a bit of skepticism, I figured I had no more than a quarter-hour to lose.
Long story short: I not only watched and enjoyed the whole thing — as you can do on the filmmakers’ website for $5 — but even laughed out loud now and then. As it turns out, this slightly blue, slightly black shoestring comedy about a few days in the lives of a fictional Chicago eatery’s staff of misfits was written, directed, produced and performed by a team with both improv and service backgrounds. And it shows in every last silly, sad-sack detail — from the deadpan exchanges with snobby customers who insist that, say, Sicily isn’t in Italy to the screaming matches in pre-service meetings to the awkward kiss-and-tells of fellow employees. (Shooting took place on location at Edgewater Beach Café.)
“Trubadeaux” stars have restaurant chops
In fact, Group Mind Films managing partner John Berka — who co-created “Trubadeaux” and stars as pitifully piggish general manager Lyle — is in the business even today: “I started at age 15 at Applebee’s, and I’m currently a private-dining manager at the James Beard Award-winning Blackbird. I have done just about everything in the industry — except work as a GM! The one I play in the film is based on a few I’ve known here in Chicago.” Co-star Todd Wojcik — who plays Lyle’s brother, the head chef — likewise based his character on real-life ex-colleagues: “Todd has a ton of restaurant experience,” explains Berka. “We actually wrote a lot of the film while working together in a Rush Street restaurant.”
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That scripting process, he adds, unfolded “very organically.” “Todd and I would meet for our weekly writing sessions and wind up talking about what had happened the night before on the job,” Berka recalls. “My business partner, Jay Sukow, stopped us one day and said, ‘Guys, this is the film.’ From there, we started making a list of all of the weird things that have happened to us working in the industry. Everything was a collaboration inspired by real events, brought to life with the ‘yes, and’ mentality that’s the pillar of improvisation. For instance, the scene about the water main breaking over the sugar supply is one that every restaurant person loves. That was entirely improvised.”
Meanwhile, the supporting cast brought their own experiences to bear on the script: “Duane Toyloy (who plays Jackson) is a very strong server. We wrote his part around his serving ability, while Jyo Minekowa (Blair) is not the best waiter, but has a great personality. Jyo sued one of our former employers; we incorporated that into the scene at the bar where he talks about how Lyle and the chef are stealing tips. And the letter Lyle reads to the staff” — a tirade on lackluster service — “was based largely off a real letter received at a restaurant that both Jyo and I worked at. Rafa the dishwasher (Juan Palomino) is also a local industry veteran; he’s from Puebla, Mexico, and he came up with the idea for his character himself.”
Ultimately, says Berka, the goal “for me, as a longtime waiter, was to show people what waiters go through. The dynamics of a high-stress environment populated by out-of-control egos fuels the natural humor in restaurants” — and also the misery, he admits. “One of the themes of ‘Trubadeaux’ is addiction. Addiction is one of the constants in this life. I don’t think people have a real sense of everything that goes into working in a restaurant. We wanted to show people what happens when no guests are around. That’s the most compelling aspect.”
For other worthy food-and-drink-fueled movies — both narrative and documentary, many lesser known — click this film list. I also heartily recommend the charming “I Like Killing Flies,” a slice-of-life look at New York City’s notorious Shopsin’s; “Blood Into Wine,” featuring Tool frontman-turned-winemaker Maynard James Keenan; and “El Bulli: Cooking in Progress,” a gorgeously detailed account of menu creation under the legendary Ferran Adrià.
Top photo: Todd Wojcik (left) and John Berka star in “Trubadeaux.” Credit: Jason Beaumont