Articles in Restaurant

Chef Iliana de la Vega of El Naranjo restaurant in Austin, Texas. Credit: courtesy of Iliana de la Vega.

Sometimes traditional and inventive are mutually exclusive concepts in classic global cuisine, but one Texas chef has found a way to translate traditional Oaxacan food with both concepts in mind.

Chef Iliana de la Vega has created a menu beyond familiar Mexican specialties with innovative dishes at her Austin, Texas, restaurant El Naranjo.

How about chili-rich, velvety smooth Oaxacan moles? Or tacos dorados — tortillas stuffed with potatoes or chicken and served with avocado-green salsa with a hint of jalapeño peppers, cream and queso fresco? Or chile relleno with smoky chile pasilla oaxaqueño stuffed with plantains and light queso panela cheese in a black bean and avocado leaf sauce?

Although steeped in tradition, De la Vega’s cuisine emphasizes distinctive flavors and a balance between the traditional and the innovative. She creates this balance with flavors drawn from the many rich traditions of Mexican cooking. Although De la Vega grew up in Mexico City, her family hailed from Oaxaca and she learned the regional cuisine from her mother, her aunt and other relatives in Oaxaca during her visits.

The real Oaxacan food

She and her husband, architect Ernesto Torrealba, moved to Oaxaca in 1994 and opened El Naranjo in a colonial-era house in 1997.

What she served there was the food she grew up eating at home, traditional Oaxacan fare. Although initially her interpretation of traditional cooking was not well received by the locals, it gained international recognition after being featured in various publications including the New York Times, Bon Appetit and the Chicago Tribune. A handwritten note from the famous chef Rick Bayless — “this is the real food of Oaxaca” — hung in the entryway of the restaurant.

Unfortunately the political unrest and violence in Oaxaca resulted in the closure of El Naranjo in 2006. But Oaxaca’s loss was Texas’ gain. The couple soon immigrated to the United States and settled in Austin.

She accepted a position at the Center for Foods of The Americas at the Culinary Institute of America. While teaching at the CIA she commuted to San Antonio and her evenings and weekends were spent re-creating a new El Naranjo, initially as an Oaxacan cuisine food truck. The El Naranjo food truck was a huge success and was the only food truck included in the Texas Monthly’s list of 50 best Mexican restaurants.

A new start for El Naranjo

In May 2012, after five years, she stepped down from her position at the CIA, and began dedicating her time fully to the new restaurant in the middle of Rainey Street in downtown Austin. Amid converted houses serving as restaurants and bars, El Naranjo stands apart.  The modest bungalow’s pale facade conceals the attractive space inside featuring a bar area, two dining rooms and a patio.

Though many people like Mexican food, most diners haven’t experienced much of that cuisine’s diverse or varied offerings, De la Vega said.

“The public is just beginning to see the top of the iceberg,” she said.  “Mexican food has so much more to offer. … It is growing and people are exploring ‘new’ ingredients, recipes and acquiring more knowledge of the fundamentals of traditional cuisine.”

Velvety smooth moles

She bakes bread and makes tortillas fresh every day. Velvety smooth moles, the signature dish of Oaxacan cuisine, are also prepared in house and are vegetable-based. At least three varieties are always on the menu with a different mole featured every week.

De la Vega’s freshly made salsas are in a class by themselves; fiery hot salsa macha is my favorite. The incredible flan and Mille-feuille of dulce de leche pair with a cup of cafe de olla to make the perfect dessert course. And the chef offers a wonderful selection for vegetarians, an added bonus that you rarely see in Mexican restaurants.

De la Vega and her husband are even considering expanding their business.

“We would love to expand or create different concepts,” she said. “That is an option that we are considering.”

Main photo: Chef Iliana de la Vega of El Naranjo restaurant in Austin, Texas. Credit: Courtesy of Iliana de la Vega.

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Poster for the 1949 film

You can distinguish the little storefront of Cafe Manuel from a block away by its two red Chinese lanterns hanging over the entrance. Its name is hand-lettered in an “oriental” script no longer deemed politically correct elsewhere. The window on the left side of the door tempts with a display of pan dulce, sweet rolls destined to accompany coffee. On the right, lettering affixed to the window offers comida mexicana y china — Mexican and Chinese food. This establishment, which opened its doors in 1934, is a typical cafe de chinos, a Chinese cafe. Only a few authentic ones remain, scattered throughout older neighborhoods of Mexico City.

Fondly remembered by urban Mexicans of a certain age, cafes de chinos are to Mexico what the typical coffee shop once was to the major American metropolis. They usually feature a counter and a few booths, have nominally Chinese décor, perhaps a Buddha and a Chinese calendar. They offer coffee, sweet breads, light food both Mexican and ostensible Chinese; many are open around the clock. They are a part of Mexican urban lore, 20th-century collective nostalgic memory. The “Cafe de Chinos” 1949 film features a lurid mixed-race romance and is set in a typical cafe.

Asian fusion: From the old country to the new

To the outsider, Mexico might seem like a largely homogenous place, lacking in cultural diversity. Of course the majority of Mexicans are mestizo, a mixture of European (principally Spanish) and indigenous. But the fact is that many ethnic groups besides the Spanish have come in to the mix, most notably African, Lebanese and Chinese. Porfírio Diaz, president-cum-dictator of the late 19th to early 20th centuries, made it his goal to bring Mexico up to its northern neighbor’s technological level. Chinese workers, often fleeing officially sanctioned anti-Chinese policies in the U.S. and well-versed in railroad building, were “invited” to construct the country’s rail system. Working under arduous conditions, these people naturally wanted to improve their lives. Many stayed in Mexico, often intermarrying with locals.

In the 1920s, Mexico’s concern over Chinese immigrants’ involvement in organized crime led to the Movimiento Anti-Chino; this anti-immigrant sentiment resulted in the murder and deportation of many people of Chinese origin. Some of them, returning to a politically unstable China or a depressed U.S., eventually made their way back to Mexico, decades later. Those who remained, often intermarrying with Mexican nationals, opened laundries, import businesses … and restaurants.

Slow and fast food

Entrepreneurial Chinese, already versed in American-style “quick cooking,” opened eateries specializing in the kind of light meals they knew how to produce. Breakfasts of eggs, pancakes and pastries, accompanied by coffee served with frothy hot milk were the specialty.

Cafe Manuel in Mexico City. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Cafe Manuel in Mexico City. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Traditional Mexican offerings such as enchiladas and tamales were prepared, as were “American/Chinese” dishes like chop suey and fried rice. These eateries grew in popularity, especially in dense city centers, feeding the new breed of round-the-clock workers who needed breakfast at midnight, or dinner at 6 a.m. They reached their pinnacle of popularity in the 1940s and ’50s. In Mexico City, the streets surrounding the Zócalo, the city’s huge central plaza, were full of them. Calle Madero boasted at least four, as late as the 1960s. Then, inevitably, newer styles trumped old and these small, old-fashioned places, which not only served customers but also provided daytime social centers, began to close their doors. Glitzy chains and U.S.-based fast food venues replaced them.

But traditions die hard, especially in a slower-paced, less-eager-to-modernize Latin America. Cafe Manuel hasn’t changed. It offers two set lunches, one Mexican and the other Chinese. Sweet rolls are made in-house, coffee is fresh, milk frothy and hot. I chose a menú chino, which cost about $5.50. It consisted of a pleasant, vaguely “Chinese tasting” chicken broth with bok choy, flavored with sesame oil. Next came the archetypal fried rice, quickly sautéed with vegetables and egg, its smoky aroma preceding it to table. And the chop suey, the archetypal American-Chinese dish of stir-fried whatever, thickened with cornstarch, turned out to consist mostly of bean sprouts, onion and celery and a bit of chicken in a lightly sweet soy broth. It was all fresh and good, if not authentically Chinese. Dolores, the longtime waitress there, explained during a lull that nowadays customers mostly order the Mexican food. “It’s cheaper,” she reminds me. Few customers are of Chinese extraction; even the cook is Mexican-born.

“But we have many locals who have been coming for years, and don’t expect our menu to change,” she assures me.

Cafe El Pópular

Mexico City’s historic center, now in a felicitous revival, has lost a bit of the old-time quirkiness it had when I arrived in the 1980s. The mid-century past seemed to live: ancient businesses, their facades and interiors unchanged for decades thrived on every block. Today, only a few of the counter-style restaurants served by uniform-clad waiters and waitresses survive.

Cafe el Pópular's bar in Mexico City. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Cafe el Pópular’s bar in Mexico City. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Cafe El Pópular, was established in 1948 as a cafe de chinos by Luís Eng Fui, a Chinese immigrant and his Mexican wife Felícitas. When I started visiting Mexico City, shortly after the devastating earthquake of 1985, I would often arrive late at night and stay in one of the inexpensive hotels near the Zócalo. At that time El Pópular was the only restaurant open past midnight. I would sit at the counter, surrounded by a lively crowd of off-duty working girls and their clients, police officers, drag queens, city workers ending their evening hours, and those about to start the swing shift. The atmosphere was always lively, often raucous — a live-action Ashcan School painting. I didn’t understand the banter, conducted in local chilango slang, but I loved the vibes; I would sit until the wee small hours, savoring a Mexican hot chocolate, while dunking a flaky sweet concha.

The Cafe el Pópular carries on albeit in a newer guise. Run by José Luís Eng, grandson of the founder,  his sister Beatriz, a culinary institute graduate, directs the kitchen. No longer offering anything remotely Chinese — the only obvious connection to its Asian past is a Chinese plaque, designed by Eng’s grandmother that hangs over the bar. El Pópular has become a Mexican restaurant par excellence with prices that remain accessible. Ingredients are for the most part local, some even organically produced. The menu reads like a veritable lexicon of “great Mexican classics” — soups, tacos, enchiladas, roast chicken, grilled meats, it’s all here. While remaining a seemingly slick family-style restaurant, Beatriz makes sure the quality is a cut above its corporate neighbors. And, of course, breakfast is still offered around the clock and sweet breads are still homemade.

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Chicken chop suey at Cafe Manuel. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Nowadays, a  new wave of Asian immigrants are arriving. They’re opening more authentic restaurants that attract an increasingly sophisticated public, that cafes de chinos, the fusion-relic of the past, will disappear entirely. They are the remaining evidence of a neglected and little known segment of Mexican society once slighted, that deserves more recognition.

Top photo: Image of poster for the 1949 film “Cafe de Chinos.” Credit: Nicholas Gilman

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Illustration of Poisson = Fish. Poison = Poison. Credit: L. John Harris

La Vie en Rose: The key to mastering the art of the café lifestyle in Paris is to be vigilant. My Café French™ language system can help. Did your French server just scowl at you because you ordered poison (in French, poison, pronounced pwah-zon) instead of fish (poisson, pronounced pwah-son)? The grammatical rule here is that a single “s” appearing between two vowels — “i” and “o” in the case of poison — is pronounced “zz.” And a double “ss” appearing between two vowels, as in poisson, is pronounced “ss.”

Something’s fishy here

There may be reason enough in our polluted world to worry about being poisoned by fish without ordering it that way! That prompts the question: Where does Paris actually get its fish? All 100-mile locavores take note: Paris is a long way from its Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. Although the River Seine and smaller rivers and streams around Paris were once sources of freshwater fish, this is no longer the case because of industrial waste, especially from nuclear power plants. So even with its spectacular ocean bounty, France is today a net importer of seafood.

But despite discouraging trends in French gastronomy brought on by social, political, environmental and economic stressors — read Michael Steinberger’s book on France’s declining haute cuisine status, “Au Revoir to All That” — much of the gastronomic apparatus that made France the envy of the Western world over the last several centuries remains intact, theoretically, if not always visible on the plate.

The gastronomic reach of Paris

It was the legendary French writer and gastronome Curnonsky — born Maurice-Edmond Sailland in 1889 — who christened Paris a “tentacular” city and the digesting “belly” of France. Gastronomic France was built like a huge wheel with spokes that radiated out from the hub — Paris. And like some gourmandizing Goliath, Paris reached out over La France Profonde (“deep France”) to rake in the regional treasures of its incomparably fertile terroir.

The Gastronomic Reach of Paris. Credit: L. John Harris

Illustration of Paris Gastronomic Reach. Credit: L. John Harris

You might say that culinary Paris was, in the first half of the 20th century, Curnonsky himself. In a 1927 newspaper poll, he was voted by 3,000 Parisian chefs “The Elected Prince of Gastronomy” (Le Prince-élu de la Gastronomie) and was the first modern French food and wine critic powerful enough to make or break important restaurants. It has been claimed that top chefs would keep a table empty just in case Curnonsky should walk in.

The gastronomic wheel of France circa early 20th century was, of course, made of rubber, as in the Michelin tire company. Curnonsky helped usher in the Michelin era and its starred rating system, becoming the company’s first spokesman and the creator of what is known today as gastro-tourism, or back in the day, “motor-tourism.”

Promoting France’s increasingly-accessible regional cuisine was Curnonsky’s real passion. Similarly, a generation later, American food legend James Beard (1903-1985) would advocate for the regional cuisines of the United States, including the new California cuisine that emerged in the 1970s. Curnonsky had divided French cuisine into four hierarchical categories: At the top was haute cuisine (fancy restaurant cooking), followed by traditional family cooking, regional cooking and finally at the bottom, “impromptu” or “camper” cooking. The resemblance of California’s simple, local, fresh-is-best cooking style — discovered and championed by Beard — to the lowest rung in Curnonsky’s French cuisine hierarchy is worth noting.

Forks and rakes

Like Paris raking in the bounty of France, Curnonsky and Beard did prodigious amounts of personal gastronomic raking, as to which their growing rotundity would testify. The French word for a rake or pitchfork is fourche (foorshhh). A dinner fork, fourchette (pronounced foor-shett), is a “little rake.” (Café French™ tip: Don’t forget to emphasize the second syllable in the word fourchette when you ask your scowling Parisian café server for another fork. It’s bad enough you dropped the first one on the floor without asking to replace it with a rake.)

The physical resemblance of our outsized French and American gourmands went well beyond their balding pates, mustaches and signature bow ties. The expansive real estate they each wore around their middles (the French call a paunch a brioche) like suburban sprawl around an urban core, was their professional trademark. Larger than life (obesity became a “problem” only after World War II), Curnonsky and Beard personified the material abundance of the foods and wines they celebrated and gorged on.

There is something both hilarious and poignant in the discovery that at the James Beard Foundation in New York there is a long telescoping extension fork that Beard would use at meals to skewer food from across the table, especially bread I am told.

Historical rakes and rascals

Appearing a century or two before Curnonsky and Beard, the “rake” (in French, un débauché, pronounced day-bo-shay) was a dandy, rascal or libertine whose large, often refined appetites were, from the perspective of a growing bourgeois culture, out of control. Cafés in Paris and tea salons in London of that period were full of rakes.

The character is featured in English artist William Hogarth’s series of devilishly humorous paintings cum lithographs called “The Rake’s Progress.” The social and personal dramas portrayed in Hogarth’s masterpiece reveal the troubles of one Tom Rakewell (a wordplay on “rakehell” from the Middle English “rakel”) whose “… pursuit of pleasure and sensual satisfaction … shows hedonistic, Epicurean, and anti-rationalist patterns of thought,” as Wikipedia puts it.

I wouldn’t necessarily apply the “anti-rationalist” component here, but Curnonsky and Beard certainly shared “rakish” tendencies. Our twin epicures did not hesitate to pursue their “sensual satisfaction” publicly through their gargantuan devotions to the pleasures of the table, and privately, no doubt, through “hedonistic” behaviors not relevant to our Café French™ discourse.

Meanwhile, back at the café

Seated at my favorite corner table at Café de Flore in Paris’ chic 6th arrondissement, I come across an astonishing line in Beard’s 1961 cookbook “Paris Cuisine,” where he comments on the declining post-WWII cafés in Paris and their “ … very mixed crowd of phony artists, haywire poets and every possible nationality of sightseer.”

Muffling my guffaw in a glass of chilled rosé — a Café French™ survival technique — my thoughts shift back to Monsieur Curnonsky. I wonder what he would think about today’s Michelin-endorsed avant-garde cooking and an artsy cuisinier de poisson (fish cook) who serves a purée de poisson poché (poached fish purée) splattered over a sheet of baked parchment paper and calls it “Jackson’s Pollock”?

Top illustration: Poisson = Fish. Poison = Poison. Credit: L. John Harris

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Via 313's Detroit-style pizza is a hit in Austin, Texas. Credit: Courtesy of Via 313

When I was growing up in the Detroit suburbs, there were two kinds of pizza: round and square. The “square” variety was technically rectangular, a deep-dish pizza with a crispy crust and sauce on top of the cheese. Given a choice of shapes, I almost always wanted square.

After moving to California as an adult, I thought it was odd that pizza came in only one shape (round), but until recently, I never realized that the square pizza of my childhood was unique to Detroit.

My pizza epiphany came during a visit to Texas a few months ago. My husband and I were exploring the hipster bar scene on Austin’s Rainey Street when we spotted a food truck called Via 313. (313 is Detroit’s area code.) Sure enough, the truck was serving up “Detroit-style pizza” to hungry bar-hoppers.

I thought this was a fluke until I learned that Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco, locally famous for its regional Italian and American pizzas, also offers a Detroit-style pie.

Motor City pizza in Texas and California? Further investigation was clearly in order. How did this regional style of pizza originate, and why is it suddenly appearing in other parts of the country?

A crusty tale

It all began in 1946 with a Detroit tavern called Buddy’s Rendezvous. Soldiers returning home from World War II had developed a taste for European foods, so Buddy’s owner August “Gus” Guerra created a square pizza based on a Sicilian recipe. Because square pizza pans were hard to come by, he improvised with heavy steel trays used by Detroit’s automakers to hold car parts.

Buddy’s Pizza quickly became a neighborhood favorite, and competing Detroit pizza joints, such as Cloverleaf and Shield’s, adopted the tavern’s unique pizza style. Buddy’s now has 11 restaurants in the Detroit area and still makes its pizza using Guerra’s 1946 recipe.

Wesley Pikula, vice president of operations for Buddy’s Pizza, described the defining features of Detroit’s original square pizza. “We place the pepperoni under the cheese, in part to flavor the crust, and so it doesn’t burn during the cooking process,” he said. “We use brick cheese from Wisconsin (a medium-soft cheese similar to a white cheddar), and we place the sauce on top of all the ingredients.”

The result is a pizza with a light-textured crust and caramelized cheese around the edges.

National recognition

More than six decades after Buddy’s introduced its trend-setting pizza, a Detroit-style pie scored top honors at the 2012 International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas. The Pizza Maker of the Year award went to Shawn Randazzo, a Cloverleaf veteran who launched Detroit Style Pizza Company later that year. Randazzo now owns three pizzerias in the Detroit area.

Although that would have been enough for many restaurateurs, Randazzo has a grander vision in mind. Through his Authentic Detroit Style Pizza Maker Program, Randazzo is helping entrepreneurs across the country introduce their customers to the Detroit style of pizza.

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Shawn Randazzo of Detroit Style Pizza Company shows off his prize-winning pizza. Credit: Courtesy of Detroit Style Pizza Company

“My big eye opener came in 2009 when I entered my first pizza competition at the [North America] Pizza & Ice Cream Show in Columbus, Ohio, which had over 70 competitors from across the country,” he said. “I was just a five-hour drive from Detroit, but I was the only competitor who had a square pizza with cheese to the edge. I couldn’t believe it.”

When Randazzo’s pizza won the top prize, he realized that most of the world was missing out on one of America’s great regional pizza styles.

So far nine pizza makers have completed the Detroit Style Pizza Maker program, and Randazzo has consulted for dozens of others, including clients from Thailand and Korea. Program graduates have opened pizzerias in Virginia and Kentucky, and one is currently setting up shop in Maine.

Making it right

“An authentic Detroit-style pizza requires a dough recipe that has a much higher hydration level than typical pizza dough,” Randazzo explained. “In bakers’ percentage, water content should be around 70% or more, which aids the fermentation process. The high water content also helps produce a light and airy crust.”

Pizzas assembled in the traditional pepperoni-cheese-sauce arrangement are baked at 525 F in seasoned pans made of rolled black steel. (The original Buddy’s pans were made of blue steel, but the manufacturer stopped producing them a few years ago.) If the positive feedback he receives from former students is any indication, the Detroit pizzavangelist’s efforts are working.

“I believe at the rate it’s been going,” Randazzo said, “Detroit-style pizza will become just as popular as New York and Chicago styles.”

Taking it on the road

Around the same time that Randazzo was wowing pizza competition judges in Ohio, Zane Hunt and his brother Brandon were cooking up a Detroit-style pizza concept of their own. In 2010, the Detroit-area natives rolled out their first Via 313 food truck in their adopted home of Austin.

“When I moved to Austin in the summer of 2009, I was on a quest to find foods that reminded me of home,” Zane said. “Brandon was still in Detroit at this point and we often talked about finding that one spot that served the pizza of home. He moved here a short time later and we ate at about 150 pizza places over the course of a year. Along the way it was becoming obvious that the pizza we loved in Detroit didn’t exist here.”

Determined to bring Detroit-style pizza to Austin, the brothers began a trial-and-error process to perfect their recipe. “Our dough mixture changed more than 75 times,” Zane recalled. “We were like mad pizza scientists.”

Less than a year after they launched Via 313, they added a second trailer to the fleet.

“The response has been overwhelming,” Zane said. “Here we are in 2014 and the style has gained serious steam around the country. It makes us proud to know we’re part of spreading the word outside of Detroit.”

A San Francisco convert

Tony Gemignani, 11-time World Pizza Champion and owner of three San Francisco pizzerias, didn’t grow up with Detroit-style pizza. But he has become an enthusiastic convert.

Gemignani serves a Detroit-style pie at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in North Beach, and teaches restaurateurs and home cooks to make it at his International School of Pizza, also in San Francisco. He’s also launching a Detroit-style pizza concept at the D Casino Hotel in Las Vegas.

He first sampled Detroit-style pizza 16 years ago while doing a commercial for a Detroit pizza chain, and his interest in the style was rekindled years later by a student in one of his American pizza courses. Gemignani went back to Detroit to research the type, and ultimately added a Detroit-style pizza to the menu at Tony’s.

When pressed by his students to compare Detroit pizza to other styles, he describes it as a sort of Chicago-Sicilian hybrid. But even that isn’t quite right. “When it comes to the process, everything’s a little different,” Gemignani said.

The best way to show people what makes Detroit pizza unique, he said, is to have them taste it. In a recent class that included two die-hard New York pizza fans, Gemignani added two more believers to the Detroit pizza cause. “They were really skeptics about it, but then after they ate it they said, ‘Man, this is [expletive] good!’ ”

He then asked the students how they would classify the Detroit-style pizza. Sicilian? Pan? “No,” they said. “This is in its own category.”

Editor’s note: Black steel pans and pizza-making kits are available through the Detroit Style Pizza Company’s website. This fall, Tony Gemignani will release a cookbook that includes recipes for Detroit-style pizza.

Top photo: Via 313’s Detroit-style pizza is a hit in Austin, Texas. Credit: Courtesy of Via 313

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Foie and Foi. Credit: L. John Harris

La Vie en Rose: So you want to hang out in Parisian cafés and cultivate the artful, virtually mythic, lifestyle portrayed in films, novels and the media? Bienvenue (welcome)! But indulging in the pleasures of a café lifestyle can be tricky business, fraught with linguistic, social and gastronomic pitfalls. A basic knowledge of what I call Café French™ will give you the simple linguistic and stylistic tools (vocabulary, gestures, fashion tips, etc.) necessary to make the Parisian café your own. With my unique learning system — Café French™ — you can avoid the petty humiliations and disappointments many Americans report after visits to Paris.

The French café as institution

Our first lesson begins, naturally, with the French café itself, a centuries-old social and gastronomic institution that derives its name from the Arabic word for coffee, qahwa, via the Turkish kahve. The oldest surviving café in Paris, Le Procope, dates to the 17th century. Although still functioning in all its romanticized glory as a magnet for artistic types and modern versions of my favorite café character, the 19th-century flâneur, the French café is, like so many French institutions today, in crisis. Crisis (crise in French, pronounced “kreez”) will be the underlying theme of Café French™ Lesson One.

Adam Gopnik, perhaps our most exuberantly articulate Francophile (and an “ex” Parisian expat), has dubbed the French café the “highest embodiment” of French “commonplace civilization.” The café is, he seems to be saying, so embedded in quotidian French life that for the French it simply is. Well, that’s all well and good for the French, but for Americans it’s not so simple.

While the Parisian café itself is arguably, echoing Gopnik, the highest embodiment of the French café, the numbers are sadly dwindling — from as many as 45,000 cafés in the 1880s to something like 7,000 today. Nevertheless, Americans continue to flock to the venerable survivors such as Le Select, Café de Flore, Les Philosophes, Les Deux Magots, La Rotonde and Le Procope.

Crise de foie

It would be an exaggeration to say that abusing the Parisian café can kill you. But for the uninitiated and unwitting it may not be far from the truth. Think about it: All the glorious French consumables associated with the café are either high in alcohol (wine, absinthe); caffeine (coffee, tea); butter fat (croissants and triple-crème cheeses) and sugar (pastries and tarts); or animal fat and salt (charcuterie, foie gras). This is French gastronomic heaven translated into a nutritional version of Russian roulette!

Let’s focus for a moment on foie gras (pronounced “fe-wah grah”), that quintessential Gallic delicacy popular in cafés that means, literally, “fattened liver.” It is made from the livers of force-fed ducks (canard) and geese (oie, pronounced oy, like the Yiddish oy vey). Eighty-five percent of the calories in foie gras are from fat. As delicious as it is, woe to those who overindulge in foie gras!

* Gavage in English also refers to the technique of feeding newborn infants having problems swallowing milk or formula by inserting a tube down their nose and into their stomach.

* Gavage in English also refers to the technique of feeding newborn infants having problems swallowing milk or formula by inserting a tube down their nose and into their stomach. Illustration credit: L. John Harris

Usually found at cafés in the form of a spreadable mixture, pâtépâté de foie gras de canard (or, d’oie) — it is served with slices of toasted bread and, commonly, with small pickles called cornichons. More expensive and richer still is foie gras served whole, either cooked or not – foie gras entier (the “entire” liver).

Like the Parisian café, foie gras is also in crisis. The controversial process of manufacturing foie grasforce-feeding corn to ducks and geese to fatten their livers — gavage (“ga-vage“) — is being challenged, particularly in the United States where animal welfare activists have virtually shut down this age-old technique. But even in France there is growing concern about the animal welfare dimension of the foie gras industry.

Just as stuffing feed into a duck or goose can expand their livers to the bursting point, the same is true for café-goers who gorge on those very same livers. Excessive foie gras consumption can unleash what the French call a crise de foie, literally a “crisis of the liver” (see top illustration). From mild symptoms of dyspepsia (indigestion) to acute bilious conditions, such liver maladies (les maladies du foie) can be serious, even fatal.

Crise de foi

It’s curious, if not confusing, that the French word foie is phonetically identical to the French word for faith — foi. A crise de foi — crisis of faith — is usually associated with a religious crisis, perhaps the belief that God is dead. However, in French existentialisme, the 20th-century philosophical school most identified with the celebrated café Les Deux Magots regular, Jean-Paul Sartre, one’s crise de foi can be totally secular in nature — the feeling that life is meaningless and absurd. This condition can lead to extreme acts of political, artistic and psychological violence, even suicide (in French, suicide, pronounced “Su-e-seed”).

One more fois

One more “fe-wah” to consider: the word for time — fois — as in “for a second time” or “the next time.” So, for example, if your first attempt at suicide fails, you can try for a second time — une deuxième fois. Or, if you are hospitalized for a crise de foie, you might be more modest when eating pâté de foie gras the next time — la prochaine fois.

But not to fear — Café French™ is here! Master the appropriate French vocabulary applied to the social, aesthetic and gastronomic codes embedded in French café culture and you can avoid the potential perils of the French café: rude waiters, snubs from locals, fashion missteps, indigestion and depression.

In my experience over the last several years, spending months at a time (mois à la fois) in Paris studying the art of the café, I have never experienced a crise — existential, gastroenterological or otherwise — only that bittersweet feeling of contentment (le contentement) tinged with nostalgia (la nostalgie) the French describe as la vie en rose — “life in the pink.”

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Selected Vocabulary

la crise            n.f        crisis

le foie              n.m      liver

la foi                n.f        faith

une fois          n.f        time

le temps         n.m      time

un café           n.m      café

le café             n.m      coffee

un suicide      n.m      suicide

le gavage        n.m      gavage

deux/ième     num.    two/second

entier              adj.      entire, whole

existential       adj.      existential

un flâneur      n.m      urban observer

la nostalgie     n.f        nostalgia, longing

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 Top illustration credit: L. John Harris

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“Original Gourmet Ghetto 1970s.” Credit: L. John Harris

Mystique — and hyperbole — surround North Berkeley’s legendary Gourmet Ghetto after almost half a century. The neighborhood, ground zero for a gastronomic explosion that morphed into a California cuisine revolution in the 1970s, seems to get more media coverage today than in its heyday. And sometimes it’s just plain silly.

Consider, for example, the overhyped version of today’s Ghetto portrayed in an October Forbes magazine article by Lanee Lee titled “Spending 24 Hours in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto.

Her mission to spend a whole day eating her way through the Ghetto begins at 9 a.m. But after just nine hours of nibbling and sipping at Ghetto icons such as the Cheese Board and Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, and several of the nouveau arrivé spots such as Philz Coffee from San Francisco, Lee takes off south for downtown Berkeley and even Oakland. She as much as admits the aborted mission when she says about one downtown restaurant, “Technically, it’s not in the Gourmet Ghetto …” Technically? You are either in or you are out (see map).

Lee’s article reveals, however unintended, the unhyped truth that the Gourmet Ghetto struggles today to keep up with its own revolutionary legend, let alone the increasingly vibrant foodie meccas to the south.

The reality behind the hype

Two female chefs-cum-writers who can testify to the true gravitas behind the original Ghetto’s supersized legend are Ghetto legends in their own right — Joyce Goldstein and Victoria Wise. Both cooked at Chez Panisse during its formative years before moving on to their own fame: Wise with her Pig-by-the-Tail Charcuterie (1973-1986), across the street from Chez Panisse, and Goldstein at her Square One restaurant in San Francisco (1984-1996). Since the close of their much-missed showcases they have established themselves as culinary consultants and prolific cookbook authors with national reputations.

Both women have impressive new books out that attest to their continuing commitment to the revolution they served so brilliantly: Goldstein’s “Inside the California Food Revolution: Thirty Years That Changed Our Culinary Consciousness” (UC Press) and Wise’s recipe collection, “Bold: A Cookbook of Big Flavors,” co-authored with Susanna Hoffman (Workman).

With the publication of Goldstein’s book, we finally have a scholarly account of the California cuisine revolution based on hundreds of interviews of the food- and wine-loving souls who made it happen — cooks, artisan food producers, winemakers and farmers. Among them, adds Goldstein, were an “unprecedented number” of women. One of these was Victoria Wise herself. Before she opened “the Pig,” as her shop was affectionately known in the Ghetto, Wise was Chez Panisse’s first chef.

Wise’s new book, “Bold,” presents a collection of full-flavored and full-plated (bye-bye, little plates) dishes that further define the hearty international melting-pot foundations of a new American cooking that has emerged in the wake of California’s outsized culinary contributions.

When legends collide

I had known Goldstein and Wise professionally back in the day. Then in 2010, after publication of my “graphic memoir,” “Foodoodles: From the Museum of Culinary History,” I invited them to join me on an author’s panel at the Berkeley branch of Books Inc. I titled the presentation “Legends of the Gourmet Ghetto” and included Alice Medrich of Cocolat fame (1976-1991) as well as Bruce Aidells, Berkeley’s sausage king who got his start in the Ghetto in 1979 chefing at Marilyn Rinzler’s “still-clucking” ode to chicken, Poulet.

The panelists shared stories and laughs about the early years in the Ghetto and agreed that the revolution, though clearly Euro- and mostly Franco-centric in inspiration, was largely triggered by the lack of traditional culinary arts training in the Ghetto. An autodidact love of fine food translated our European food epiphanies into an ingredio-centric cooking language outside the narratives of haute cuisine and directly relevant to our own time and place.

A new body experience

To be sure, ours was not the first generation of Americans jolted by what we tasted in France and beyond. A generation before Julia Child’s fateful encounter with French gastronomy, The New Yorker’s “Letter From Paris” columnist, Janet Flanner, had her own Proustian moment in France. In the introduction to her book, “Paris Was Yesterday 1925-1939,” a collection of her still wonderfully readable columns, Flanner writes:

I can recall the sensual satisfaction of first chewing the mixture in my mouth of a bite of meat and a crust of fresh French bread … Eating in France was a new body experience.

Yes, a sensual body experience. Very different from the visual and brainy (as in left brain) extremes of fine food so common in today’s haute cuisine world of masculine high-tech art food offered in San Sebastian, Spain; Copenhagen; London; and New York.

And who better than women such as Goldstein and Wise a few generations after Flanner to seduce our sensual bodies with simple, traditional food sourced and prepared right in our own gastronomic region — California.

Cuisine bonne femme

If you study my map of the Ghetto of the 1970s you will note that it was, indeed, the women at their shops and restaurants who were calling the revolutionary shots: Joyce Goldstein, Victoria Wise, Alice Medrich, Marilyn Rinzler and, of course, Superwoman herself, Alice Waters.

I say “Superwoman” because Waters has always had the extraordinary ability — “genius,” Goldstein says — to get people to do her bidding — especially men, I’d add. When she came to the Cheese Board just before Chez Panisse was to open and asked whether I would wait tables, I jumped at the opportunity, as if I had been handed a first-class ticket to Provence. Waters must have memorized Dale Carnegie’s perennial bestseller, “How to Win Friends & Influence People.”

One of Waters’ leading men in those early Ghetto days, Mark Miller, who followed the epic reign of Jeremiah Tower as chef de cuisine, slyly observes in Goldstein’s book that the food emerging at Chez Panisse in the 1970s was far from revolutionary. It was, he notes, heavily influenced by the genre of French cooking known as cuisine bonne femme, the bourgeois home and humble restaurant cooking of French women. He’s right. But wasn’t that, if not the food per se, the Gourmet Ghetto’s revolution, or at least a key component?  Talented and powerful women running the show.

"Off With His Toque!" Credit: L. John Harris

“Off With His Toque!” Credit: L. John Harris

It was an increasingly feminist world we were living in circa 1970 and Berkeley was, of course, one of its capitals. Today, we take for granted women running professional kitchens, though it’s still a struggle for female chefs to get the same media attention as the men.

But back in those early days of the revolution it was, it seems to me, as if a Code Pink version of Mother Nature rose up and shouted out through Ghetto legends like Joyce Goldstein and Victoria Wise, “No more crap food! Off with his toque! You go girls!” And they still are.

Top graphic: “Original Gourmet Ghetto 1970s.” Credit: L. John Harris

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An amuse-bouche from Le Chat Botte, Beau Rivage Hotel, Switzerland, Geneva, chef Dominique. Credit: David Latt

Start a meal with an amuse-bouche, and you’ve gone from zero to 60 in five seconds. Fine dining chefs learned long ago that an amuse-bouche gives a preview to the meal with a palate-pleasing morsel. At home, an amuse-bouche turns an everyday meal into fun.

Strictly speaking, an amuse-bouche is an amusement for the mouth, usually a single bite or small plate served at the start of the meal in an upscale restaurant. The dish is not on the menu, is free of charge and spotlights the chef’s culinary interests.

From Michelin-star kitchens to home kitchens

Doing research for a series of articles about five-star hotels in Switzerland, I was hosted in a dozen upscale restaurants in Geneva, Lausanne, Vevey, Interlaken, Zurich and Lugano. Without exception, every meal was preceded with an amuse-bouche, and they were as different as the chefs who commanded those kitchens.

Some amuse-bouche featured expensive ingredients such as caviar, lobster and foie gras. Others employed labor-intensive techniques that transformed solids into airy foams. All were small plates of luxuriousness and indulgence, like the lemon-scented carrot gelée flavoring a disk of veal tartare at Restaurant Le Mont Blanc at Le Crans, a ski resort in Crans-Montana not far from Geneva.

At the three-star Michelin restaurant in the Beau-Rivage Palace in Lausanne, the amuse-bouche prepared by Anne-Sophie Pic’s kitchen was a single plate with three disks of flavor, texture and temperature, employing ingredients as disparate as avocado, ham, figs, Parmesan cheese, shrimp, tomato and mozzarella.

Get inventive with small bites

In the home kitchen, an amuse-bouche can be as inventive and flavorful as any from a Michelin-starred restaurant, but it need not be as labor intensive. An espresso cup with a fragrant soup of roasted tomatoes and spinach with homemade croutons on the side is a great way to begin a meal but does not require the crew of prep chefs necessary in a fine-dining kitchen.

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An amuse-bouche of a small soup of roasted tomato & sautéed spinach with homemade croutons. Credit: David Latt

The best amuse-bouche are packed with flavor. The point is not to satiate hunger but to stimulate the appetite. Think of an amuse-bouche as a gateway to the meal. A single grilled scallop seasoned with finely grated Parmesan cheese. A shucked oyster topped with a few salmon eggs. A cube of roasted kabocha squash flavored with caramelized onions and shiitake mushrooms.

For a Vietnamese-themed dinner, I served an easy-to-prepare grilled shrimp with lemon grass to tell everyone the meal was taking its inspiration from Southeast Asia.

Lemon Grass Grilled Shrimp With Garlic and Onions

Serves 4

Ingredients

1 stalk lemon grass, washed, root end trimmed

4 medium sized raw shrimp, washed, shelled, deveined, pat dried

1 garlic clove, washed, peeled, finely chopped

1 teaspoon finely chopped yellow onion

⅛ teaspoon turmeric

Sea salt to taste

Black pepper to taste

1 teaspoon olive or sunflower oil

1 teaspoon fish sauce, Nam Pla or Nước chấm (optional)

Dusting of cayenne powder (optional)

Directions

1. Scrape the white end of the lemon grass stalk against a fine grater. Use the first 2 to 3 inches of the stalk and discard the remainder.

2. In a bowl, toss the shrimp, grated lemon grass, garlic, onions, turmeric, salt, pepper, oil, fish sauce (optional) and cayenne (optional).

3. Preheat an outdoor grill to high or the oven to 400 F. If using an oven, place a small wire grill on a piece of aluminum foil on the bottom of a small baking tray.

4. Skewer the shrimp using two skewers to the shrimp to keep their shape.

5. Place the shrimp on the outdoor grill or in the oven.

Turn over after three minutes. Remove when shrimp have grill marks but are not overcooked.

6. Serve each shrimp on a small plate with garnish.

Top photo: An amuse-bouche from Chef Dominique Gauthier of Le Chat Botté at the Beau Rivage in Geneva, Switzerland. Credit: David Latt

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Carolyn Phillips

Not too long ago, I was treated to an authentic Shanghainese dinner by the great cookbook author Florence Lin. We dined at a restaurant in the eastern San Francisco Bay Area, a place that shall remain unnamed for reasons that will soon become obvious.

After we sat down, Mrs. Lin chatted quietly with the chef, and in a few moments we had Nanjing saltwater duck, braised gluten and a warm and perfectly balanced smoked fish appetizer arrayed in front of us. We were soon diving into a tender and flavorful braised pork shank with its creamy skin, fish with pine nuts and flash-fried pea sprouts that were bathed in nothing but fresh oil, a sprinkle of salt and fat bulbs of browned garlic. Dainty desserts followed, an assortment of little handmade gifts presented to us with smiles and hot tea.

It was a revelation. But contrast this with the dinner I was served there a few months back without a famous person beside me to impress the chef: a lukewarm and decidedly inauthentic bowl of hot-and-sour soup, fatty and flavorless pork in aspic and an insipid plate of poached tilapia coated with a gummy sauce. After this sorry repast in the near-empty restaurant, the understandably idle chef came by to complain about how tough business was.

In a way, I understood. After all, it used to be that Americans were satisfied with pseudo Chinese food. But our growing population of wealthy Asian immigrants, coupled with the heightened sophistication of American diners, has changed up the game. Pseudo just doesn’t cut it anymore. As famed restaurateur and author Cecilia Chiang noted recently to me, there is simply no good place (meaning Chinese, of course) to eat around here —  meaning that if these retrograde places wish to survive, they will have to step up to the challenge.

Chinese restaurants shouldn’t be all over the map

China’s culinary traditions are the best in the world, but you would never know it from what passes for the lion’s share of American “Chinese food.” Part of the problems is that too many restaurants serve dishes that are literally all over the map of China, as can be seen in the enormous menus they often foist on their customers; sometimes even Japanese and Thai dishes get thrown into the mix for no good reason. As a result, everything is available and little of it is worth eating, and the kitchen therefore has to depend upon canned foods and an enormous stockpile of ingredients that eventually spoils, even if stashed in the deep freeze. The owner then tries to cut even more corners to mitigate his losses, and an already ugly cycle gets even uglier.

Contrast this with the way you get to eat in Taiwan, China and Hong Kong: Almost every place, from palatial restaurants to the tiniest mom-and-pop stalls, focuses on a distinct provincial cuisine — and sometimes even a single dish — and because of that, the foods are fresh, tasty, honest and absolutely authentic.

On the off chance that some hometown specialties or seasonal delights are offered here in the States, they are often hidden in the Chinese menu or scribbled as afterthoughts on the wall with no English translations. After all, the thinking goes, why bother with customers who won’t be interested anyway?

But the truth is that on eGullet, Chow and other online epicurean gatherings, as well as in knowledgeable restaurant reviews and on Yelp, whoops of delight are heard and long lines suddenly form whenever a terrific Chinese place opens up, while mediocre eateries are treated with the contempt they deserve. There is therefore no longer any room in this urbane digital age for laziness or condescension.

Follow this 12-point guide

As a dedicated worshiper of great Chinese cuisine, I hereby nail the following 12-point thesis on the front door of that hopeless East Bay restaurant in hopes of an epicurean Reformation:

  • For the love of Buddha, cook with pride from a specific area of China.
  • List these dishes in English with no excuses.
  • Do not assume that Americans will not like certain ingredients. Just like Chinese diners, some of us will and some of us won’t, but offer them anyway.
  • Use good-quality peanut or vegetable oil in your cooking, and always use fresh oil for stir-fries. That means that instead of sneaking old oil into your dishes to save a few pennies, you should sell the gunk in your deep-fat fryers to recyclers. Honestly, this stuff tastes disgusting and is very unhealthy.
  • No more MSG or “chicken essence” bouillon in the food. We can taste that too and it reeks of apathy. Instead, use good stock to amp up the flavor.
  • Give us fresh or frozen bamboo shoots and water chestnuts, not canned. Toss out the tinned mushrooms, baby corn and other cheapo garbage, and stop clogging every dish with cornstarch. You don’t cook that way in China, so why do it here?
  • Buy good quality meats and seafood; if cost is a problem, put a little less in a dish or increase your prices a bit, but please feed us well.
  • Offer meatless dishes that are just as tasty as the other items; China has a rich tradition of vegetarian cuisines, so there is no reason not to make them available.
  • Please explain things to your customers. Tell us what is in each dish if we ask. If your waitstaff does not speak English, have the ingredients and description on a list you can show us.
  • Become obsessive about cleaning up the kitchen, bathrooms, dining areas and around the perimeter.
  • While you are at it, put in ambient lighting, consider redecorating, get rid of the cardboard boxes everywhere and invest in some nice background music. This shows pride of place and makes your customers feel welcome.
  • Treat non-Chinese and Chinese customers with equal respect. Courtesy means as much to us as good food, and you will see our happy (and hungry) faces again and again.

Top photo: Author Carolyn Phillips. Credit: J.H. Huang

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