Articles in People

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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Shrimp marinated with shallots, garlic and Italian parsley being prepared for Chef David Padilla's Drunken Shrimp at the Beverly Hills Luxe Rodeo Drive Hotel. Credit: David Latt

After a long winter, summer will be welcomed with open arms. Looking ahead to outdoor parties under sunny, blue skies, chef David Padilla’s easy-to-make Drunken Shrimp sautéed in a spicy citrus sauce is the perfect recipe for lunch or an early dinner.

As Padilla describes what he loves about cooking, he remembers his father taking him to the markets in their small town in the Mexican state of Nayarit, on the Pacific coast between Sinaloa and Jalisco. His father would lead him past the fishermen on the beach and ask, “Do you want oysters today, or fish or shrimp?” They would eat what had been in the ocean’s clear waters only a few hours before. And long before farmers markets were fashionable, he and his father shopped in the mercados to buy freshly picked produce from the family farms outside of town.

Chef David Padilla in his kitchen at the Beverly Hills Luxe Rodeo Drive Hotel. Credit: David Latt

Chef David Padilla in his kitchen at the Beverly Hills Luxe Rodeo Drive Hotel. Credit: David Latt

So when Padilla says he searches out organic, local and seasonal products, he’s not following trends, he’s referencing his childhood in rural Mexico — even if his kitchen is now in a boutique hotel in the heart of Beverly Hills.

Padilla is chef de cuisine at Luxe Rodeo Drive Hotel’s restaurant called On Rodeo Bistro & Lounge. As documented in the recently published “Beverly Hills Centennial Cookbook,” the wealthy city has dozens of restaurants. Surprisingly, only one of those restaurants is on Rodeo Drive, the city’s internationally known, upscale shopping street.

Chef puts a Latin touch on Drunken Shrimp recipe

Given the hotel’s cosmopolitan clientele, Padilla embraces a California-inspired, fusion cuisine. He describes his menu as “a little bit of Asian, Latin, Mediterranean, a little bit of everything because we’re in L.A. and it’s a melting pot of cultures.”

At the restaurant, Padilla pulls together Latin, Asian and French influences. The bits and pieces he takes from many cuisines are melded into a balance of flavors and textures. For him, a meal is a journey. As he says, “I want your mind and taste to get lost and then you get to your destination.”

Padilla puts a decidedly Latin spin on Drunken Shrimp. The well-known Chinese dish has many iterations. One decidedly cruel version tosses live shrimp into a pot of liquor. Most commonly, the shrimp are cooked in wine or liquor so shrimp and diner presumably can share the bar tab. The shrimp in Padilla’s dish are flavored with tequila. Citrus sections and freshly squeezed juices give the dish its bright, summery flavor. serrano peppers add fire, and butter mellows and sweetens the dish.

With such a flavorful sauce, Padilla wants every drop to be enjoyed. He serves the shrimp with a thick slice of a soft Italian ciabatta bread, toasted on the grill. He suggests that rice and pasta would be good companions for the shrimp. I think steamed spinach would also be delicious.

Mexican Drunken Shrimp in a Spicy Citrus Sauce

As with any recipe, quality ingredients increase the pleasures of the dish. Use freshly squeezed citrus sections and juice and the freshest raw shrimp available. To sear the shrimp, a frying pan like one made of carbon steel that can tolerate high heat is very helpful. Quick searing is important for flavor and appearance, and also because searing seals in the shrimps’ juices. Because the flavors of the sauce take several minutes to combine, the shrimp simmer along with the other ingredients. Smaller shrimp and ones not seared can dry out and become chewy.

Drunken Shrimp at the Beverly Hills Luxe Rodeo Drive Hotel. Credit: David Latt

Drunken Shrimp at the Beverly Hills Luxe Rodeo Drive Hotel. Credit: David Latt

While grapefruit and oranges are available year-round, kumquats are seasonal. When they are available, they are a beautiful addition to the dish.

Taste the sauce and adjust to your palate. You may want more lemon or grapefruit juice or less. Do not season with salt during cooking. The shrimp are naturally salty. Padilla dusts the plated dish with a small amount of sea salt crystals to “brighten” the flavors.

Serves 4

Ingredients

12 raw large shrimp (10 to a pound), washed and patted dry

4 tablespoons blended oil, 80% canola oil, 20% olive oil, divided

1 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground

4 tablespoons chopped garlic

4 teaspoons finely chopped shallots

4 tablespoons Italian parsley, washed, patted dry and finely chopped

12 tablespoons sweet butter, plus more for bread

4 thick slices ciabatta

8 ounces tequila

1 cup orange or Cara Cara orange juice

4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

4 tablespoons freshly squeezed grapefruit juice

12 kumquats, washed, patted dry and sliced into rounds with the skin on

4 fresh serrano chilies, washed, patted dry and sliced into rounds

12 grapefruit sections, membranes removed

12 orange sections, preferably Cara Cara oranges, membranes removed

Sea salt as needed

Directions

1. Prepare each shrimp by peeling away the shell, exposing the body. Leave 1 inch of shell covering the tail. Devein and drizzle with 2 tablespoons blended oil, season with black pepper, garlic, shallots and 2 tablespoons parsley. Set aside.

2. Heat a grill. Place a small amount of butter on each side of each piece of ciabatta. Using tongs, grill the slices on both sides. Remove and set aside.

3. Use a large frying pan so the shrimp are not crowded. Place the pan on a burner with a high flame. When the pan lightly smokes, drizzle the remaining 2 tablespoons blended oil into the pan. The oil will smoke in a few seconds. Using metal tongs, place the shrimp into the pan.

4. Each shrimp will sear quickly. Turn to sear the other side. This will not take long.

5. From the marinade, add the garlic, shallots and parsley. Sauté to caramelize.

6. Remove the pan from the burner so the tequila doesn’t catch fire when added. Deglaze the pan with tequila. Stir well to lift the flavor bits off the bottom of the pan.

7. Add the citrus juice and sliced kumquats. Stir to blend together the flavors.

8. Add serrano peppers.

9. Place chunks of butter into the sauce. Stir to melt and mix together.

10. Turn the shrimp over to absorb the sauce. Reduce a few minutes.

11. To plate, use shallow bowls. Place four shrimp in each bowl. Portion out the sauce, covering the shrimp. Garnish each plate with grapefruit and orange segments. Place a slice of grilled bread on the side. Dust with a sprinkling of sea salt crystals. To add color, lightly drizzle the grilled bread with olive oil and dust with parsley.

Main photo: Shrimp marinated with shallots, garlic and Italian parsley being prepared for Chef David Padilla ‘s Drunken Shrimp at the Beverly Hills Luxe Rodeo Drive Hotel. Credit: David Latt

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The recipe boxes. Credit: Deborah Madison

Among the items I brought home with me after my mother’s death were her two recipe files. One was lodged in a long, metal box that I suspect once held part of the town’s library card catalog.  The other was a delicate wooden box that could be hung on a wall.

I was surprised she had squirreled away so many recipes, any recipes for that matter, for she never seemed that interested in cooking, aside from making sweets. She owned only an old edition of “The Joy of Cooking” plus the cookbooks I had written. My mother’s recipe collection was a mishmash of handwritten recipes and a great deal more torn from magazines, mainly Sunset and Gourmet and occasionally Good Housekeeping, which is kind of ironic because my mother, by her own admission, was hardly a good housekeeper.

I’ve mused before about the mystery of handwriting and how it has the power to touch us in a way an email, without its texture and quirks, can’t. But these folded bits of printed paper and yellowed cards, most of them typewritten, introduced me to my mother in a new way, helping me see her as a person I hadn’t known.

Recipe box about the why, not just the how

I had to wonder, why these recipes? And did she ever make them? She didn’t, at least that I know of. Her own handwritten categories weren’t necessarily related to the contents. Filed under “meat,” for example, were recipes for pomegranate jelly, orange jellies, orange breads, cakes, pickles, guava preserves and even a guava chiffon pie — none of them meat and none of them foods we ate. Not once.

The many recipes based on oranges were labor-intensive undertakings that involved taking apart then reassembling the fruit, something my mother would not have had the patience to do. Maybe she wished she had been that kind of person, a woman who would spend hours in the kitchen instead of at her typewriter writing novels or at her easel painting. (I suspect the reason that there were so many orange recipes was because in the 1950s my parents moved from the East to California, where we had orange trees, which must have seemed miraculous.)

But where were the meat recipes? Elsewhere. Here and there. My mother was not a fan of meat and was mostly vegetarian, but perhaps meat recipes were dutifully collected for my Midwestern carnivore father. There was a surprising recipe for roasted lamb neck. That my mother, a person so sensitive to the lives of other beings, would even have such a recipe was shocking. I’m sure we never ate such a thing. The recipe instructs, “Have your meat man cut each neck into 2 or 3 slices about 1¼ inches thick.” Now that butchery is emerging again, perhaps it’s not impossible to “ask your ‘meat man,’ ” or “your meat woman” for that favor.

Meat dishes we did eat were mostly in her “Armenian” file, which also contained Indian recipes — dolmas, shashlik, kebabs a miscellany of curries. There’s a recipe for koefte from the 1950s, long before Paula Wolfert introduced us to more than 50 kinds. One card scrawled instructions for pickled tongue with raisins. Again, I doubt my mother would have made the tongue. We did eat tongue, but my father was the one who cooked it.

A relentless diet

There were menus for dieting that would practically demolish one’s life force, menus that started each day with half a grapefruit and a cup of coffee. Ravenous by 10? Then you might want a cup of very lean vegetable broth. (“Guaranteed to help you lose weight, even if you have to eat out,” the introduction promised.)

Simple vegetable dishes were filed with early weight-watcher recipes. I don’t recall that my mother was ever fat, but she must have thought she was. When her doctor cautioned her, in her 90s, that she was awfully thin, her reply was, “Why thank you!” The diet desserts she collected were based on egg whites, gelatin and, of course, oranges. Although Jell-O was our standard dessert, perhaps she really did intend to make that Frozen Fruit Cake and the Shoo-Fly Pie that appears twice in her collection. A great many of my mother’s recipes were for desserts, some elaborate, some of the more quick-and-easy type, and not all of them diet-related. There was her recipe for cottage cheese pie, a dessert we did eat, which my father meanly scoffed at, saying, “So this is what the rich eat?” A cheesecake would have been prohibitively costly, but there was a recipe for that, too. Maybe one day she was able to make it. And eat it. I hope so.

A reflection of progress

My mother’s recipes also reveal something about how times have changed. “Betty’s Armenian Casserole,” torn from a magazine, calls for processed white rice, a  No. 2 can of tomatoes, Burgundy wine and garlic salt. Teaspoon is abbreviated “teasp.” Many recipes from the 1950s and ’60s call for garlic salt, which made me cringe every time I saw it listed, until I remembered that when I spent summers in the Adirondacks in the 1970s, garlic still came packed two heads to a box, and they were always moldy and unusable. So the garlic salt made sense, at least until really great garlic started to appear in farmers markets starting in the 1970s.

There’s a kind of generalization in many of the recipes — Eurasian Eggplant, Egyptian Stew, Victory Garden Meal, curry — that’s hard to imagine today, with so many knowledgeable cooks writing in great detail about food cultures.

My mother may not have cooked most of these recipes, but she was reading about food and encountering, at least in print, dishes that suggested flavors new and exciting to a transplanted New Englander. A frugal New Englander, I might add, which is one reason why, I suspect, these clippings and cards played a greater role in my mother’s imagination than reality. Maybe it was the taste of adventure she sought, and that was enough.

Main photo: The recipe boxes. Credit: Deborah Madison

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Bittercress is brilliant stir-fried. Credit: Susan Lutz

The concept of foraging brings to mind a post-apocalyptic landscape and survivalist rations, so I wasn’t expecting to start a foraging walk on the manicured lawn of a lush suburban park just north of Washington, D.C.

I squatted on the lawn, watching a bearded man dig through the thick ground cover with a small spade until he pulled up a clump of green by the roots.

“Bittercress,” he said. He pulled off a sprig and put it in his mouth, then passed the rest around to my fellow foragers. “Try a piece. It’s got a little bite, but it’s amazing stir-fried.”

I pulled off a sprig and put it in my mouth, surprised by both its sharpness and its raw freshness. Forager Matt Cohen encouraged us each to paw through the grass in search of our own clump of bittercress, helpfully pointing out the important details: several stalks all growing from a central point, five-to-nine paired leaflets, and a single leaf at the tip of the stalk.

Cohen’s quest expanded into the rest of the park lawn, uncovering chickweed, dandelions, onion grass and garlic mustard. He crushed the leaves of the garlic mustard and encouraged us all to do the same: The aroma is unmistakable. It’s also one of the few clear signs that a plant is safe to eat, Cohen explained. If it smells like garlic or onion, it’s usually not poisonous. In fact, it can be delicious: “Garlic mustard makes an incredible pesto,” he said.

Cohen began his career as a forager 20 years ago, when he abandoned his career as a computer programmer to become a full-time landscaper and avid amateur wild-plant forager. He counsels people to begin foraging as he began, by finding edible plants in the most common areas, suburban lawns.

Cohen supplied us with specific methods for identifying edible plants, but also gave us bigger-picture tips for someone just beginning to investigate wild foraging. Like so many things, foraging begins with the concept: location, location, location.

Matt Cohen’s Top Five Location Tips for Beginning Foragers:

  • Start in your own backyard if you have one. Learn the most common weeds and find out which ones are edible.
  • Next, move on to vacant lots, waste areas and spots that are neglected. There are lots of weeds there, but be careful to avoid possible sources of contamination, such as areas frequented by dogs and dog walkers.
  • Learn about invasive plants, which are usually free for the taking. Public park officials often hire volunteers to remove invasive species from the local ecosystem. You can help the environment while creating a delicious meal.
  • If you live in a city, check out community gardens. Gardeners are often excited to have help with the never-ending task of weeding.
  • Always know the land you want to forage and get permission from the owner.

We walked further into the Maryland woods in search of wilder fare. We passed a large patch of snow, when suddenly Cohen excitedly spun around. “Skunk cabbage!” he said. The foul-smelling purplish plant poking through the snow heralds the coming of spring.

Further in the woods Cohen pointed out a series of small, bright green shoots, spreading out in the undergrowth. He explained that its common name is spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), but foragers have a different name for it. They call it fairy spuds. Cohen revealed why when he showed us the diminutive potato that dangled within its roots. It’s a wild food eaten by Native Americans and early settlers alike.

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Forager Matt Cohen discovers the skunk cabbage, a harbinger of spring. Credit: Susan Lutz

Then Cohen stopped at a bare, leafless birch tree. Using a pocketknife, he drilled a small hole into the trunk, then stuck a small bamboo stick into the hole. We waited patiently, staring at the unmoving stick, until a small crystal drop of  birch sap appeared at its end. We each took a turn touching our fingers to each drop as it appeared, then tasting the wet sweet sap.

Cohen then revealed a steel maple tap he had placed in a maple tree just an hour before. Beneath the tap was a jar nearly overflowing with a clear liquid. We passed the jar around and when it came to me, I lifted the light clear liquid and drank. It was like fresh spring water, with an edge of sweetness. It was one of the most amazing things I’d ever tasted — water from inside a tree.

It brought back to me the recent cross-country move I had made, from warm, always-sunny Southern California to the bare, early-spring chill of the East Coast. The lushness of Los Angeles may seem alluring, but it’s easy to become accustomed to abundance and take it for granted. In a world with winter, the first stalks of skunk cabbage are greeted with pleasure. Tiny clumps in the lawn can become a stir-fried delicacy. And deep inside a tree, gathering all winter, a hidden fountain of water courses through the trunk, sweet enough to turn into pancake syrup.

My new home is full of surprises.

Bittercress Stir-Fry

Courtesy of Matt Cohen

Ingredients

1 tablespoon olive oil

½ cup field garlic (also known as onion grass)

4 cups bittercress

1-2 tablespoons tamari

Directions

1. Heat up the olive oil over medium heat.

2. Chop field garlic bulb and greens.

3. Cook for a few minutes in olive oil.

4. Finely chop bittercress and add to field garlic.

5. Add tamari to taste.

6. Cook another 5 minutes and serve as a side dish.

Main photo: Bittercress is brilliant stir-fried. Credit: Susan Lutz

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Clarissa Dickson Wright

We English love our eccentrics. Clarissa Dickson Wright, the renowned cook, TV personality, author and countryside campaigner, who died on March 15 at age 66, is a case in point.

One of the stars of the BBC’s “Two Fat Ladies” cooking show, Clarissa (always known by her Christian name) was a remarkable, if somewhat flawed, person. Despite the advantages of intellect, privilege and money, she had to overcome a very difficult family background, as described in her 2007 autobiography, “Spilling the Beans.” Her father, a distinguished surgeon, eventually became a violent alcoholic who terrorised and sometimes attacked Clarissa and her mother. Formidably intelligent, she began her career as a lawyer and was the youngest woman ever to be called to the bar, at age 21. But after the death of her beloved mother, she plunged into alcohol addiction and was disbarred for misconduct.

Wright attributed her substantial bulk to damage to her adrenal glands from the quinine in the four pints of tonic water she drank each day during this period (not to mention the two bottles of gin and half a bottle of vodka that went with them). She subsequently swore off the drink, but the resulting damage to her health may have contributed to her relatively early death.

She found salvation in TV presenting, cooking and powerful, articulate support for country life. The launch pad of her recovery was “Two Fat Ladies.” Her partner in this activity was Jennifer Paterson, a well-known figure and sometime cook at the Spectator magazine. They traveled the length of the United Kingdom in a motorcycle and sidecar combination, visiting places that were associated with traditional British food and good cooking, often of a hearty nature.

They would stop, apparently casually, at interesting locations where the TV crew had just happened to be waiting, to cook and present dishes to the camera. The Fat Ladies were far from politically correct, only moderately concerned with hygiene (although nobody ever got ill from their cooking) and were very good, rather than truly outstanding, cooks. The series was only brought to an end by Paterson’s death in 1999.

That series and her subsequent TV show, “Clarissa and the Countryman,” which she presented with Sir John Scott, was at least as much about country values as about food. She was always a passionate believer in, and defender of, good, basic ingredients; sustaining and well-flavoured cooking; the countryside and its traditional values and sports.

Interestingly, she articulated her support for country sports at exactly the time the U.K. was changing into a genuinely multiethnic, multicultural society where so many traditions were being questioned. It appeared she found comfort in supporting a way of life that was coming under fierce attack from some.

She positively relished a fight, both intellectually and physically — she was reputed to have left two muggers who attacked her in an intensive care ward. She was quite unmoved by the hate mail she received from animal rights activists on account of her support for hunting. She even threatened to display the letters publicly — which, as it turned out, discouraged many of the writers.

A magnet for controversy

She certainly provoked strong emotions. In 2012, Clarissa suggested eating badgers, which were being culled because they were believed to carry bovine tuberculosis. Brian May, guitarist with the band Queen and a major opponent of the cull, retorted: “I think we should seriously consider eating senseless people like this Clarissa whoever-she-is. She’s obviously outlived her usefulness. I wonder if she would be best boiled or braised.”

Despite this and her considerable personal eccentricities, most people who met Clarissa liked her. Notwithstanding her strong views, she was extremely open to new people, the most generous of hosts and friends, and paid no attention to whether they were rich or poor. In fact, she herself went from inheriting several million pounds to declaring bankruptcy because of her lack of financial prudence.

Perhaps she was so popular just because she made no effort to fit in with convention. The publisher Tom Jaine, who regularly shared a stall with her at Oxford food festivals, remarked in his obituary of her that each year she wore not only the same skirt but that it even bore the same stains.

She is going to be greatly missed by very many people, including at least some of those who loved to disagree with her.

Top photo: Clarissa Dickson Wright. Credit: Cristian Barnett

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

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.”

La Vie en Rose

One in a series of graphic explorations of French language, food and culture, including:

» Secrets of 'Cafe French': Liver, Faith and Time — Foie, Foi and Fois


More from Zester Daily:

» Following M.F.K. Fisher's Footsteps in Aix-en-Provence, France

» A Coffee Crisis: Paris vs. Berkeley

» Navigating Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto

In Café French, the key to mastering the art of Parisian café life is to be vigilant, especially when considering fish, poisson, poison and James Beard.

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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Susie Middleton and the cover of “Fresh from the Farm.

In 2008, Susie Middleton was looking for a quiet place to chill out from her intense 11-year position as editor at Fine Cooking magazine. She visited Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., in the dead of winter, and there discovered her inner pioneer woman, New England-style. She promptly gave up her job in Connecticut, started raising vegetables on the Vineyard and opened a farm stand at the end of a quiet road. She said, “It’s really rewarding to see the food you grow go directly into people’s hands.”

The author of two previous cookbooks, “Fast, Fresh & Green” and “The Fresh & Green Table,” Middleton chronicled her island experiences on her blog sixburnersue.com.

It blossomed into her newest book, “Fresh From the Farm: A Year of Recipes and Stories,” which includes stories and photos of farm life and 121 recipes. Middleton added diagrams for building raised beds, a farm stand and chicken coop. You might call it a complete recipe book for the good life.

What was the major draw for you to leave a top glossy magazine for life on a small island?

I’d been editor at Fine Cooking for all those years, but I gradually had come to realize that I felt disconnected from the source of my food. I liked the idea of helping people get access to local food and learn to cook farm fresh food. Also, the minute I got my first little vegetable garden out here, I realized that it made me very happy. I am totally charmed by vegetables.

What elements of this lifestyle influenced your decision to start a commercial farm?

I was very fortunate to meet a man who became my life partner, Roy, and he had a little girl who is now just like my daughter. Her name is Libby. Together we lucked into renting an old rustic farmhouse that came with a couple acres of land. We liked it so much that we not only increased the size of our garden, we also built a hoop house and started raising more and more chickens. We’re very small but we raise 500 chickens and have another quarter acre of vegetables planted and a farm stand, which is very popular.

Access to land is one of the biggest barriers for small farmers. It sounds like that was your entry point.

It’s huge. I wrote about this on Huffington Post. We did start very, very small. We were able to be profitable without going into debt. So, if you don’t think you have to get a lot of acreage, you may be able to get started. Considering as a farmer you’re probably going to have to be doing something else anyway, it’s not a bad idea to start small so you can see if you like it.

You’ve been immersed in food for a long time, so how does owning a farm influence your cooking life?

If anything, it’s solidified my approach to cooking: Start with really fresh ingredients, learn some techniques and keep a well-stocked pantry. This book really reflects the kind of food we like to eat and what we like to cook. I want people to have fun in the kitchen and then get it out on the picnic table or the farm table — or the tiny oak table we have in our kitchen — and eat it and enjoy it.

From “Fresh from the Farm” by Susie Middleton (Taunton Press, 2014). Credit: Alexandra Grablewski

I’m crazy about vegetables. Everybody wants to cook more of them, not just vegetarians. So I feel like opening up the world of vegetables to everybody is a good thing.

I’ve always loved high-heat cooking. To me, caramelizing vegetables is a huge way to make them really tasty. I tell people to keep some good olive oil, some good vinegars, plenty of lemons and limes, good Parmigiano-Reggiano, fresh herbs, aromatics — onions, garlic and ginger — and a few condiments from your favorite cuisines, and with that you can make delicious meals.

With 500-plus laying hens, you have to have a good egg recipe or two. So, what’s your favorite?

Gosh, we do a lot of frittatas. We use the eggs in a lot of custards. We make a lot of French toast around here [laughs]. I like to make my Green Island Farm open-faced egg sandwich with some of the early Asian greens, like tatsoi. Greens and eggs are an amazing combination.

How did your first two books lead toward this one?

I started out life as a writer. When I first started doing cookbooks I thought it best to maximize my expertise at the time, which was cooking techniques. I started my blog sixburnersue.com six years ago and it has transformed itself into the story of the farm.

Readers do respond to stories. So, will you do more of this?

I have mixed feelings about food memoirs that have a dozen recipes. I think what I’d like to do is something that does have a lot of writing in it, but also has a fair amount of recipes.

Top photo: Susie Middleton and the cover of “Fresh From the Farm.” Credit: Courtesy of Taunton Press

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At the C-CAP fundraiser, left to right, President Susan Robbins, C-CAP alum chef Brandon Bryan and chef Philippe Bertineau of Benoit, C-CAP founder Richard Grausman. Credit: Sylvia Wong Lewis

“Learning to cook changed my life,” said Kelvin Fernandez, a Dominican New Yorker and graduate of Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP), an organization that prepares public high school kids for college and careers in the hospitality industry. “I followed a girl into a high school cooking class and ended up finding my passion,” Fernandez said.

Fernandez cooked for C-CAP’s 16th annual gala recently, which drew more than 800 guests for a grand tasting benefit scholarship fundraiser. The event raised more than $1 million for scholarships, most of which will help underserved students.

As he put the finishing touches on his signature dish, Fernandez said, “Tonight, everything must be perfect. We are ready and we worked very hard. But in a way, my journey is just beginning.” Fernandez is the new executive chef at Blend on the Water, New York’s hottest new Latino restaurant.

A national nonprofit organization founded in 1990 by cookbook author and educator Richard Grausman, C-CAP has awarded students $40 million in scholarships and donated more than $3 million worth of supplies and equipment to classrooms. C-CAP operates in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Virginia, the District of Columbia, Maryland and Arizona.

The recent culinary showcase featured an all-star roster of New York chefs and restaurateurs including Marcus Samuelsson, Daniel Boulud, Bryce Shuman, Drew Nieporent, Alexander Smalls, Joseph “JJ” Johnson and Banks White.

Tattooed arm of C-CAP alum and executive chef Sean Quinn as he plates a signature dish from Chadwick. Credit: Sylvia Wong Lewis

Tattooed arm of C-CAP alum and executive chef Sean Quinn as he plates a signature dish from Chadwick. Credit: Sylvia Wong Lewis

C-CAP alumni in New York include Mame Sow, The Cecil and Minton’s executive pastry chef; Thiago Silva, who is also known as the baker to the stars of the General and the EMM Group; and Sean Quinn, executive chef at Chadwick’s. Everyone turned out to raise scholarship funds but  most important to work alongside and mentor 60 C-CAP students. This gala was their first step into the big leagues.

Most C-CAP students are from communities where few students can afford culinary training or are aware of culinary career opportunities. An event that promotes diversity in the culinary-hospitality industry is very timely; statistics show the industry is diversifying.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms a 3% increase in black chefs and head cooks from 2012 to 2013, according to a PBS report. It is important to note, though, that minority chefs still face challenges from traditional social and racial hierarchies in professional kitchens.

Going from table to table, some of the event old-timers gave unsolicited pointers. “Check out the Peking duck over there! There are two different quail egg dishes tonight!” Some of the other luxurious food samples included Samuelsson’s signature chicken donut, Mame Sow’s pineapple upside-down cake, and Daniel Boulud and Brian Loiacono’s braised veal shank.

C-CAP ‘set me on an amazing path’

“Once you’re a C-CAP graduate you are always part of the C-CAP family,” said founder Richard Grausman in his greetings to the packed room at Pier Sixty at Chelsea Piers. The live auction, which raised $80,000, was highlighted by bidding wars on private dinners cooked by celebrity chefs.

“The annual benefit is critical in supporting C-CAP’s mission of providing scholarships, education and career opportunities to at-risk youth who are interested in pursuing careers in the restaurant and food service industry,” said Susan Robbins, C-CAP’s president. “For more than 20 years, we have been transforming lives for thousands of qualified students across the country, from culinary education in high schools to career placement assistance upon graduation. We continue to manage the largest independent culinary scholarship program in the nation and, to date, have awarded over $40 million.”

Carlton McCoy, one of the youngest Master Sommeliers in the world, and only the second African American to hold the title, credited C-CAP with introducing him to his career.

Celebrities turned out for the C-CAP Gala to help the next generation of chefs (from left) Banks White, Minton's Chef de Cuisine; Alexander Smalls-The Cecil and Minton's restaurants in Harlem; Tamara Tune, actress ("Law & Order"), and her husband Gregory Generet, jazz singer. Credit: Sylvia Wong Lewis

Celebrities turn out for the C-CAP Gala including, from left, Banks White, Minton’s Chef de Cuisine; Alexander Smalls of The Cecil and Minton’s restaurants in Harlem; Tamara Tunie, actress (“Law & Order”), and her husband, Gregory Generet, jazz singer. Credit: Sylvia Wong Lewis

“My story is known to most of you. I was a high school student in a tough Washington, D.C., neighborhood where I was mugged twice and lived in constant danger,” McCoy said. “My family had no exposure to fine wines or fine dining. Luckily, my high school had a C-CAP program. So, I am especially proud and honored to be with you tonight. Mr. Grausman’s program set me on an amazing path.”

Honoree Michael White is the chef/owner of Altamarea Group, which includes Marea, Ai Fiori, Al Molo, The Butterfly, Chop Shop and Osteria Morini. He praised C-CAP’s mission to reach underserved students.

“The success that I enjoy was not done alone. I received lots of advice along the way from industry insiders. So, I accept this award with a message to everyone to pay it forward and mentor someone.”

Filling a culinary education gap

C-CAP developed its culinary education program just as many public schools were discontinuing old-style home economics programs. Those school kitchen cupboards were bare and many were torn out to make room for computer labs. It was the height of “cookless” kitchens and microwave ovens.

But Grausman aimed to save culinary arts in the classroom. Using his cookbook “French Classics Made Easy,” (previously published as “At Home with the French Classics”) as the basis for the curriculum, he developed the first culinary  enrichment program in the New York City Public Schools, said Joyce Appelman, C-CAP communications director who has worked with Grausman from the beginning.

The program continues to feature teacher development, student job training and alumni resources. A new initiative offers pro bono legal services to help students negotiate contracts and establish their own restaurants.

C-CAP is credited with holding the first cooking competition long before TV’s Food Network existed. At this annual event, students must memorize, prepare and present classic French dishes before a panel of judges in order to receive their scholarships.

Top photo: At the C-CAP fundraiser, left to right, President Susan Robbins, C-CAP alum chef Brandon Bryan and chef Philippe Bertineau of Benoit, C-CAP founder Richard Grausman. Credit: Sylvia Wong Lewis

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