Articles in Restaurant
What can a home cook take away from the Modernist Cuisine’s food movement? Personally speaking, I have not bought a Pacojet or a whipping siphon, though I know one or two home cooks who have done so. I did find a kit online that included lecithin powder (for foams), agar agar (a forerunner of gelatin made from seaweed), calcium lactate and sodium alginate (for balloons). One hilarious afternoon was spent concocting Balsamic Pearls and Mojito Balloons, but that was as far as it went.
A two-part series
It has inspired in me a new Modernist “Ten Commandments,” motivated by the version that journalists Henri Gault and Christian Millau laid out more than 40 years ago on the fundamentals of nouvelle cuisine. My first five Modernist commandments appeared in Part 1 of this series. These are the final five:
Rule VI: Explore fantasy. Symbolism is a recurrent theme in Modernist Cuisine. Modernist chefs love to turn the world upside down and you never know what you may find. Ferran Adrià’s giant white globe, when cracked, shatters like an edible eggshell, but what looks like white chocolate proves to taste of gorgonzola cheese. At Alinea restaurant in Chicago, ayu tuna is perched on a giant, dense black morel mushroom, the ocean and the earth. Amid the drama and intrigue of Modernist dishes, appearance is often left to speak for itself. You can take or leave Adrià’s desiccated Braque-like skeleton of a real fish on your plate; it has no garnish at all. (“Ugh,” a friend said.)
Rule VII: Be inventive. Modernist Cuisine is certainly amusing. Who could not smile at Alinea’s bottomless “plate” supporting a liquid truffle ravioli, a single, earthy bite that explodes in the mouth. Often in Modernist Cuisine, things are not what they seem — at the U.K. restaurant The Fat Duck, a trio of tiny retro lollipops proves to be an apple sorbet with walnut and celery; a chilled mousse of foie gras; and oddest of all, a striped ice cream of avocado and salmon flavored with horseradish. Modernist cooking implies a sense of adventure. I cannot honestly say that I enjoyed Red Cabbage Gazpacho with a Grain Mustard Ice Cream at The Fat Duck, but it sure made me pay attention.
Rule VIII: Play with temperature. Only in the last 100 years have chefs been able to play with hot and cold when cooking and serving food. Today’s precise temperatures and timings have opened a whole new world. Professional kitchens have become laboratories demanding a new approach to cooking. This leads to playful presentations such as Adrià’s white chocolate soufflé that evaporates into thin air within five minutes, or the Roca brothers’ anchovy stuffed olives dipped in caramel.
Rule IX: Avoid static presentation. For Modernist chefs, presentation can be a challenge. The landscaped plates of nouvelle cuisine, and the towers on the plate that came later, are gone. Today’s eyes are sated with the movement and color we see on all sides at all times. In the dining room, the solution seems to be a return to nature with wood, slate, green leaves, trees, rocks and pebbles; glass is a strong component that extends to the table itself and the general surroundings. Many chefs opt for simplicity, with small plain white plates (often in curious shapes) geared to tiny portions that speak for themselves. At Spain’s elBulli (sadly now closed), even the flatware was miniature.
Rule X: Keep the diner busy. Finally, expect to participate in a Modernist meal. You will be asked to stir, crush and crack the food in front of you, and often to eat it with your fingers. You may be blindfolded, or asked to lick the anonymous purées in an array of tiny spoons. At Alinea a balloon floated to my table and it was an effort of will to pop and devour the sphere of apple taffy tied with a fruit leather string, as instructed. I’ve always been an inflator, not a popper of balloons.
Reflections on the Modernists
The Modernist Cuisine’s practitioners are an odd lot. Most stay behind the scenes, sometimes greeting at the door, more often leaving a more personal relationship to be established by the server.
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In Europe, service tends to be discreet, so on a recent visit to Alinea I was touched that chef Grant Achatz himself created a chocolate pie with a sweet pastry crust on our tabletop. This gave us a chance to talk, a pleasure he repeated for every table, not just for special guests.
Just three days after my visit to Alinea, I heard the grand master of them all, Adrià, speaking in Chicago. He is credited with originating the whole Modernist movement and has trained many of the younger exponents. Adrià is a communicator, a ball of fire on the podium and in the kitchen, and he is the inspiration behind an online culinary encyclopedia to be called the “Gastropedia.”
What is there to be taken from all of this? Just as nouvelle cuisine is now long forgotten, it may turn out that the abstract, technically tricky concepts of Modernist chefs never have wide application. But right now, their vision and enthusiasm is trickling down to the tables of every hot spot in Hollywood. Their small plates and global ingredients are already creating a new world of cooking and eating. We are more adventurous and more curious. We are better informed about food. Cooking is becoming more a part of our lives, and a mom or pop actually cooking in the kitchen is coming closer to reality. Or so I would like to think.
Main photo: Lollies from The Fat Duck restaurant. Credit: La Varenne archive
It was almost 40 years ago in Paris that I opened La Varenne Cooking School, and the nouvelle cuisine movement was sweeping France. Today we’re in the midst of similar radical change, and novelties are exploding, literally, on our plates in the movement called Modernist Cuisine. To be asked to taste pop rocks in the palm of your hand that turn out to be Parmesan cheese is really very odd — and provocative. So is a pocket watch, marked with the hours, that is designed to dissolve in a bowl of hot consommé.
A two-part series
A dozen top chefs around the world — José Andrés and Grant Achatz in the U.S., Heston Blumenthal in England, the Roca brothers and Ferran Adrià, the father of them all, in Spain, together with a handful of others — share the same culinary principles, and often the same ideals. The original fundamentals of nouvelle cuisine were laid out by two journalists, Henri Gault and Christian Millau, who named them the “Ten Commandments.” It inspired me to consider the Ten Commandments of Modernist Cuisine. Here, in Part 1, are the first five, and in Part 2, we’ll look at the final five.
Rule I: Appeal to all the senses. You can count on a Modernist chef to tickle every sense. Tastes roam freely among such favorite ingredients as sea urchin, anchovy, olive, wild game, liver, blood, lemon and honey. At the table, we’re kept busy, mixing and matching mysterious seasonings, dried powders, foams, marinades and dips. Our Modernist noses tingle as casserole lids and glass bells release the pungency of fresh truffle or the lemon vapor from a single whole scallop in its shell. We listen too to the crack of a breaking crust, or the snap of shattering ice. At Achatz’s Alinea restaurant in Chicago my ears perk up at the trickle of water beneath the mini-iceberg sheltering foamed-topped Kumamoto oysters. The same multi-sensory appeal is true of our favorite traditional foods. Modernist cooks are simply exploring more ways of doing it.
Rule II: Explore the global cooking landscape. Modernist chefs are global players; they seek ingredients, staff and, most important, inspiration from all over the world. Often they themselves have trained away from home, gathering knowledge of new techniques and multinational styles of cooking. Top kitchens welcome bright young people who are willing to learn new ideas and work hard, and many have waiting lists of applicants.
Leading chefs have always enjoyed passing on their knowledge to the next generation, but today it is different. The students come from all over the world, they are younger and half a dozen languages may be used in the kitchen. This means that culinary knowledge — techniques, ingredients, cultural backgrounds — is now flying around the globe. At the very top restaurants, the diners too come from a multitude of countries, lining up for a year or more for a table.
Rule III: Create another world. All four of the Modernist restaurants I’ve visited pulled me into their own world before I’d even stepped inside the door. In a couple of cases it amounted to a long, featureless entrance corridor cutting off the outside from the splendors to come. Britain’s The Fat Duck lives in its own environment, surrounded by cottages in an archetypal English village. The now-closed elBulli in Spain involved a minor pilgrimage up and over a deserted hillside (except for the sheep) to arrive at an unobtrusive seaside villa on the Mediterranean.
Rule IV: Escape into a new landscape. The Modernist menu is formless with little sense of beginning or end and you will have no written list as guide. In a while, after say eight courses of what may become 15 or even 30, the meal becomes a timeless fugue, an ebb and flow of blending and contrasting dishes. In principle, fish comes first and sweets last, but this pattern is interrupted all the time. Japanese kaiseki banquets follow a similar theme. Indeed there are many parallels with the Japanese and Modernist tradition, particularly with the unobtrusive decor, designed to focus on the food itself.
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Rule V: Take advantage of technology. New techniques are so much a part of the Modernist movement that it is often referred to as scientific cooking — or even less accurately, molecular gastronomy. Both terms are nonsense, Blumenthal and I are in agreement here. “Science is not the point,” he declares. “Today’s cooking has not come from nowhere. Everything has roots including science in the kitchen. For instance, there was a Futurist Cuisine movement in Italy led by Filippo Marinetti in the 1930s and today’s Modernist Cuisine has clear links with that.”
In contrast, Blumenthal is completely at home with the term “Modernist Cuisine.” The successful chefs of today are far more than scientists. They may use modern techniques such as slow cooking in a vacuum pack, controlled dehydration, or the low temperatures created by liquid nitrogen, but they display the same originality as Futurists and other innovative cooks of the past.
Main photo: A beautiful rose is shaped with a knife from a single apple at elBulli. Credit: La Varenne archive
La Vie en Rose: Our Café French™ lesson takes place today at Le Sélect in the former bohemian stronghold of Paris, Montparnasse. Where better than at this legendary literary cafe to consider the linguistic and aesthetic connections between cuisine and art? The list of the cafe’s celebrated patrons reads like a who’s who of literary and artistic Paris going back to the 1920s. Le Sélect may be the only cafe in Paris with its own biography, “Paris Café: The Sélect Crowd” by Noël Riley Fitch.
My guests (or should it be ghosts?) of honor today are the great novelist, dandy and gourmand, Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), and the Sélect’s most celebrated alum, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). We are gastro-philologists, exploring via my Café French learning system a love of words and texts about art and food and the art of cooking.
La Vie en Rose
One in a series of graphic explorations of French language, food and culture
The cook (le cuisinier, pronounced qui-zee-nyea) observes the materials arrayed on his work surface, just as a painter (le peintre, pan-truh) views the pigments on his palette (la palette, pah-let). The cook “sees” the possibilities before he even begins to chop, mix, sauté and roast.
As the cook engages with his culinary palette, his anatomical palate (le palais, pah-lay) anticipates taste – le goût (pronounced goo) — via the physiological mechanism of anticipatory arousal (salivation and memory). This parallel between the artist and cook, the palette and the palate, was noted by Balzac when he commented on the practice of that inscrutable 19th-century urban type, the flâneur.
The gastronomy of the eye
Balzac described flânerie (la flânerie, flan-er-ee) as “the gastronomy of the eye.” The flâneur was the ultimate urban observer, not merely a stroller, who would emerge at mid-century as the bohemian artist, an ironic dandy roaming the commercial arcades and grand Haussmann-designed boulevards of Paris. Drinking in its novelties, the flâneur, like a cook, served forth his aestheticized observations as poetry, prose, music and art. The poet, Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), was the archetypical flâneur, and perhaps the first modern Paris artist.
Balzac understood flânerie (he shared a social circle with Baudelaire) but fancied himself a flamboyant dandy and even wrote the first philosophical study of the type, “Treatise on Elegant Living” (1830). More gourmand than dandy — he was described by one critic as a binge eater — Balzac’s slovenly corpulence always gave him away.
Gastronomy was in the air in Paris and in the restaurants that flourished after the French Revolution. The City of Light was becoming the gastronomic (and art) capital of Europe. Balzac was 26 years old when Jean Anthelme de Brillat-Savarin’s “Physiologie du Goût” was published in 1825.
The cook as artist
If, in Balzacian terms, the observing flâneur practices the eye’s gastronomy, the cook as artist operates as gastronomy’s eye — he/she sees/tastes something we don’t. The ingredients on the cook’s culinary palette are transformed through aesthetic expression and registered on the eater’s palate much as the painter’s colors, poet’s words or musician’s notes are transformed and registered on their respective sense organs.
Interesting to note that the French word for palate — le palais (pah-lay) — is also the French word for palace. Of course! The palate is our palace of gustatory pleasure. Before the discovery in the late 19th century of taste buds — les papilles gustatives — distributed throughout the oral cavity, especially on the tongue, it was thought that the human palate (soft and hard) was the sole site (or seat, as in “the seat of government”) of taste. Run your tongue along the roof of your mouth — it is a pleasure dome, no mere roof, and we are the kings and queens of the realm.
Back at Picasso’s palace
The haunted ambiance at Le Sélect is palpable today. Squeezed into a cozy booth, I am reading now about the “select crowd” in Fitch’s homage to the cafe and its resident ghosts, including Ernest Hemingway, Luis Buñuel, Henry Miller and, most famously, Pablo Picasso. You can almost taste the history of 20th-century modernisme at Le Sélect, or at least its mythology.
The cafe’s resident cat (chat), a long-haired bohemian fellow, is asleep on the bar, adding a je ne sais quoi (a little something, or literally, “I don’t know what”) to the cafe’s ambiance. Perhaps it’s a soupçon (a little bit) of domesticity, the cafe in its historic role as an extension of the home.
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The servers are scurrying from table to table, like penguins in their black and white garb. I glance out the window at the passersby, expecting my friend, the food writer, cookbook author and now French pastry expert, Martha Rose Shulman, who will be joining me for lunch today.
I have important questions for Martha — about Picasso not pâtisserie. She spent the 1980s living in Paris and operating her “Supper Club chez Martha Rose.” While there, Martha grew close (and still is) to her landlord, Christine, who she soon discovered was the widow of Pablo Picasso’s son, Paulo. Martha is my connection to the real, historic Picasso, Picasso outside the myth.
I’ve read a lot about the palette of the artist Picasso, but I know little of his palate. Señor Picasso was an Andalusian Spaniard, and I presume that he loved garlic, peppers, sherry and grilled sardines, a specialty of his native Málaga. Martha will know. We will sit at Le Sélect and, like good gastro-flâneuring bohemians, observe the action on Boulevard du Montparnasse and the action at our table – salade niçoise, croque-monsieur and café crème. I will drink in Martha’s stories about le palais de Picasso and the cafe’s nosy ghosts will be all a-twitter.
Main illustration credit: L. John Harris
“Snowday,” the first food truck from the social enterprise Drive Change, showed up this spring at Brooklyn Bridge Park for the annual NYFEST soccer tournament. The sky was blue, relief from the unremitting winter finally in the New York City air, and the soccer players and their families were famished. I bought grilled maple cheese sandwiches for my son and granddaughter and found the food inspired, with what Drive Change calls “a side of social change.”
Drive Change hires and trains formerly incarcerated youth to prepare and operate the nonprofit’s food trucks. “Our values are rooted in the belief that young people with criminal histories can live crime-free, bright futures full of opportunity,” founder Jordyn Lexton said. “Our trucks are our vehicles for social justice — allowing young people to have hands-on experience and develop transferable skills to become leaders in today’s society.”
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Lexton went to college at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. During her spare time, she volunteered at Middletown Correctional Training School, a juvenile detention center. After she graduated from college, she went on to teach English to adolescent men at Rikers Island’s East River Academy high school in New York City. She worked in difficult facilities known as “the Sprungs,” four trailers housing youths who were not yet sentenced. “So many of these kids were full of such potential,” Lexton said. Yet she saw a cycle: New York is one of the states that automatically tries 16-year-olds accused of committing crimes as if they were adults. Of the 13,000 students she taught, 67% of them returned to jail or prison three years after release.
Against that wearying backdrop, a culinary arts program stood out. “It was remarkable to witness how much pride these young people felt being able to cook and present food they had made. And within that devastating environment, feelings of this kind were hard to come by.”
That got Lexton thinking about food as a way of reentry for young people who rarely can find good jobs during parole, and when they do, find it difficult to hang onto them because they are untrained.
Lexton began to research ways to reduce recidivism by working in the reentry world at the Correctional Association of New York, the Center for Employment Opportunitites, CASES and Work For Success, a Gov. Andrew Cuomo jobs initiative aimed at lowering the rate of unemployment for formerly incarcerated people. She took a job as manager of a Kimchi Taco food truck. Two years later, Lexton started to piece together a plan of action. While traveling in Canada, she tasted a taffy-like maple confection called sugar on snow. “I’m going to open up a sugar on snow truck,” Lexton recalled thinking. “A food truck can hire, train and empower” formerly incarcerated young people, she thought. The program also had an opportunity to turn the spotlight on New York City as one of the few regions in the U.S. that automatically incarcerates and treats 16-year-olds as if they’re adults.
Culinary artists among the team
Lexton then composed a top-notch team that included Annie Bickerton, who oversees operations, and two culinary artists, Roy Waterman and Jared Spafford. The team developed an eight-month mentorship program, including two months paid training, four months (higher-paid) employment and a two-month transition with continued employment and a job placement strategy for young people coming home from the system. Training covers small business management, accounting, social media marketing and essential licensing such as a mobile food vendor’s license, a food handlers’ license and a G-23 license to operate propane for mobile cooking. Other New York City food trucks have already expressed interest in hiring program graduates.
Drive Change, which is still seeking funding, recently received a good-sized grant from the mayor’s office and the city of New York. The grant subsidizes some of the wages, which cover $8 an hour for each employee. Drive Change adds $3 to bump the hourly wage to $11.
As of this spring, eight young men (seven of whom are home after having been incarcerated) have been hired to head up and brainstorm the operation:
Spafford, who comes to Drive Change from Marlowe and Daughters and Flying Pigs Farm, had no background inside corrections but was looking for a more meaningful contribution to society. His working title is culinary arts director, developing the menu, and sourcing and prepping the ingredients.
Waterman serves on the front lines as a mentor and chef. He knows from his own experience how hard it is to get a job after having been inside. “Everything looks great until I have to fill out the infamous question on the form, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”
Roles change daily, but one worker is in charge of the maple grilled cheese. Two more take care of the kitchen prep. Another, who has been home since 2009, is a mentor in charge of developing curriculum for Drive Change. Still another, who came to Lexton’s program from the Doe Fund says, “There’s nothing that brings people closer than food. Food transcends everything and doesn’t hold anything against you no matter what your history is.”
Why call the truck “Snowday”?
“Snowday to us reflects the liberty of a day that integrates community, a day where folks don’t go to ‘traditional’ school or work but still get out in the world and explore — connect with nature and each other — and learn,” Lexton said. “Snowday is bliss, it is freedom.”
On the subject of sugar
All of the food on board the truck has a maple syrup component to honor Lexton’s first inspirational taste of sugar on snow. How about sugar being the object of food activists’ ire?
“The menu may not be health food targeted — we are not serving juice and chopped salads — but everything is locally sourced directly from New York state farms,” Lexton said. “Sustainability and healthy product are central to our mission — even maple syrup, which one could argue is high in sugar, is a natural sugar that has proven natural health benefits. Schools may avoid sugar, but they are mostly avoiding processed products and trying to get folks to learn about how to cook better for themselves and learn about where their food comes from — two things we pride ourselves on at Drive Change.”
On this particular Saturday, the inviting menu included:
Maple grilled cheese sandwiches, with the cheese from Hammond Dairy; little skievers with greens from Hudson Valley duck farm; apples from Migliorelli Farm; and bread from micro farming sourdough starter at Last Chance Foods. Even the water was locally sourced.
All summer long, the Snowday truck will be on Governor’s Island in New York on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Main photo: Drive Change founder Jordyn Lexton on the Snowday food truck. Credit: Tal James Luther
It was the knife work. The way he smeared a dab of sauce across the plate with the back of a spoon. Jon Favreau’s moves were too smooth. The actor-turned-screenwriter-turned-blockbuster-director, is also a professionally trained chef? No way. I began looking for the “tells” of a body double.
“Chef,” Favreau’s new film, shot in one month, is a trip back to his indie-film roots when 18 years ago the work-a-day actor wrote himself out of that rut with the cult hit “Swingers.” Directing “Iron Man” catapulted him onto Hollywood’s A-list, wattage that is evident in the “Chef” cast, which includes Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson and Dustin Hoffman.
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But what makes this fairly predictable father/son feel-good road trip so engaging is the authenticity of the kitchen scenes and those chefy moves. Unlike most food flicks, “Chef” is not food porn. Favreau’s chef Carl Casper handles food with skill and respect — and you leave the theater desperate for a melty Cuban sandwich, sweet plantains and a cold beer.
“Ever since I read [Anthony Bourdain’s memoir] ‘Kitchen Confidential,’ I have been intrigued by the chef world,” Favreau told the sold-out audience opening night at Hollywood’s ArcLight Cinemas. He dashed off the screenplay in a couple of weeks, congratulating himself for such an original story — a celebrated chef, trained in the French culinary tradition, who decides to chuck it all to cook the food he loves out of a food truck … and ends up with a rock star career.
Favreau soon learned his “original” idea mirrored the life of Los Angeles chef Roy Choi. One afternoon, Favreau stopped by the raw space in Koreatown where Choi was pacing out a new restaurant, Pot, his ode to Korean cuisine. Favreau’s plan was to make Choi a consultant on the film and avoid a lawsuit for stealing his story.
“He just showed up by himself,” said Choi, who joined Favreau for the opening night Q&A. After they talked, “he got in my car — which surprised me because it’s a beat old car — he just followed me around all night.”
Six hours on the town with Choi
Kogi BBQ trucks made Choi a Los Angeles hero and paved the way for his other places in the area: the college casual Chego; 3 Worlds Cafe in South L.A.; the neighborhood bistro A-Frame; Caribbean-flavored Sunny Spot; and his late night lounge, Alibi Room. That night, Favreau made the circuit with him. “I just showed him little bits and pieces to see if he thought what we were doing was interesting,” Choi said. “I was just trying to show him what I was about. Chefs are really transparent. We’ve got nothing to hide.”
Favreau agreed, saying, “Roy showed me everything. We were out for six hours that night. I tasted a lot of food. And it was amazing food. That’s the thing, you want to eat it all.”
Favreau sent Choi the script. “You know, I’m a fairly successful director and Roy started going after it,” Favreau said. “He red-lined the whole thing.” Chefs don’t wear their whites to the farmers market, Choi chided him. “And here you have the chef smelling the ingredients. You’re not Belle in ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ ” Choi said.
Choi insisted on more than script changes. He would sign on to help only after Favreau went to cooking school. “My first day studying at the culinary academy was learning how to tie your apron. It is almost a martial art. Where you tie it, how tight,” Favreau recalled. “Roy told me you can tell whether you are a chef by how you hold a towel. And the whites. Keeping the whites clean.”
On the set, Choi showed up every day that involved cooking. The food couldn’t just look good; it had to taste good too. Choi created every dish that appears in the film and insisted that his food not be treated as a prop. The cast and crew would eat it. “Nothing was wasted,” Favreau said. “He kept everything up to restaurant standards. That pig we cut up? We parceled it out and gave it to the crew. Respect for the food permeated the culture on the set.”
As an actor, Favreau schooled himself in Choi. “I watched Roy and emulated everything he did. Every tattoo on chef Carl was approved by Roy,” he noted. The makeup artists added “burns” on his forearms, the mark of a working chef. “I worked from the inside out,” Favreau said.
Favreau’s last chef test
His final exam: joining Choi’s prep crew when he did a three chef tasting menu with Wolfgang Puck and David Chang. “No one knew I was there,” Favreau said. “At the end of the night they noticed me and they were busting my balls. David Chang noticed my whites were dirty.”
Slowly, Favreau found his way from acting like a chef to feeling the part.
“Once I realized his heart and his mind and his soul were open to [being a chef], that’s half the battle,” Choi said. “His movements changed once he got down with how a chef’s mind is working with so many different things going on. We have eyes in the back of our heads. By doing that, his body language changed.”
There was no body double.
Main photo: A scene from “Chef” with Emjay Anthony, left, and Jon Favreau. Credit: Open Road Films
Tourists, particularly food tourists, are easily fooled by Los Angeles. They stuff themselves on the obvious Hollywood and Beverly Hills dining bling, missing what makes the locals smack their lips.
This city of 10 million souls wrapped within a dense-pack region twice that size sustains immense immigrant populations. Along with their dreams, L.A.’s newest citizens arrive with treasured recipes. Restaurants serving authentic dishes from China, Japan, Iran, Russia, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Brazil, France, Spain — you name the country — are scattered throughout the Southland like so many diamonds tossed out a car window.
Grand Central Market’s gems
You need more than a map to track down L.A.’s hidden culinary treasures. And now, against long odds, the city has that missing piece. Grand Central Market has become a showcase for the culinary diversity of Los Angeles, the old and the new. When all 50-some spaces are filled this summer, it will house an eclectic collection of restaurants, market stalls and artisan purveyors — without the too-cool-for-school attitude that diminishes some other city food emporiums.
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A kombucha peddler, artisan cheese monger, a deli serving house-cured pastrami, a butcher selling acorn-fed pork, a wood-fired pizzeria? Absolutely. But here, the tattoo-and-suspender crowd shares a cavernous cement hall with family businesses hawking Armenian kebabs, Michoacán tacos, Oaxacan moles, Hawaiian barbecue, Japanese bento boxes and a fresh fruit market with piles of gingergrass and cactus pads alongside a towering stand of green sugar canes.
Saturday afternoons at the 100-year-old landmark market are buzzing. Young families, gaggles of teenagers and downtown’s elderly residents rub more than elbows as they push to the front of the crowd at Tacos Tumbras a Tomas. Young hipsters wait an hour to order breakfast sandwiches at the Eggslut counter. Guatemalan grandmothers and their families commandeer folding tables and chairs to feast on a spread from Sarita’s Pupuseria.
“A year ago, Saturdays were dead,” says David Tewasart, working the counter at his popular Sticky Rice Thai Street Food. “I was the first new place to sign on. It was risky. They had a hard time finding the early people.”
When owner Adele Yellin and her husband Ira bought the market and surrounding buildings in 1984, “the core of the city was rotting away,” she says. “Ira believed if we invested in the core, we could revitalize the whole city.”
When Yellin’s husband died suddenly in 2002, Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall was shining brightly on nearby Grand Avenue and economic development had started to spread throughout downtown. Grand Central Market, however, remained a gritty warren of food stalls on a stubbornly ungentrified stretch of Broadway lined with inexpensive tiendas (stores) serving Spanish-speaking immigrants.
“We weren’t serving the food that the new people wanted,” Yellin says. Revitalizing the market without turning out the family businesses that were her legacy tenants seemed impossible.
Redeveloping without losing its roots
Well into her retirement a decade later, Yellin gathered her courage to redevelop the market without losing its traditional flavor. She gambled on a pair of local food artisans — Joseph Shuldiner, founder of The Institute of Domestic Technology, and Kevin West, author of the preserving book “Saving the Season” (Artisan) — to be her talent scouts.
“The market was Adele’s vision,” West says. “We just made the introductions to chefs and other food artisans to help her realize that vision. L.A. is crawling with food talent. There was a tremendous response to her idea of a gathering place for the many cuisines and cultures that make up the city.”
Yellin championed emerging food innovators and entrepreneurs instead of established businesses, and has emerged a hero to the local food movement. She still has yet to spruce up the place beyond a utilitarian coat of white paint. She wants no “fancy schmantz,” she says.
Valerie Gordon was the second new arrival at Grand Central Market, opening a salad and sandwich lunch counter featuring the petit fours and chocolates that have made Valerie Confections a favorite at L.A.’s farmers markets. (Her cookbook is a finalist for a James Beard Award.) In keeping with Yellin’s mission of uniting the old with the new, Gordon created a brownie made with mole sold at Valeria’s, a neighboring Mexican spice stall.
Wariness from the original vendors vanished as business boomed for everyone, Sticky Rice’s Tewasart says as he dishes up his spicy Tom Yum Goong shrimp soup full of big chunks of mushrooms and fresh bamboo shoots. I sighed with my first bite of Crying Tiger skirt steak; just the right balance of vinegar and spices. His sticky rice? Chewy and sweet, washed down with coconut water sipped from a straw dropped into a freshly cut coconut.
“It’s been wild,” Shuldiner says with a hint of sadness that his work is winding down. This summer, with the opening of the last few new stalls, the market will inaugurate evening hours for the first time in its history. Cocktails will be served.
Asked whether the market is finished, Yellin smiles. “There is the basement. I’d like to bring artisan food production into the city,” she confides.
Main photo: Adele Yellin, Grand Central Market owner, left, with Lydia Clarke, one of the owners of DTLA Cheese. Credit: David Crane
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.
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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.
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.
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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.
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, 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.
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