Articles in Restaurant
Looking ahead to hot days when meals must be light and flavorful, home cooks and restaurant chefs alike want light and flavorful dishes to put on the table. One dish perfect for the summer is tuna tartare, delicately seasoned and plated to satisfy any gourmand’s need for luxurious food, beautifully presented.
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Gabriel Kreuther, executive chef at The Modern, the fine dining restaurant at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art is a master at preparing beautifully delicious comfort food. With a dining room view of MoMA’s sculpture garden, Chef Kreuther lets his food take its cue from the art. His plates are mini-sculptures, animated with color, contrasts and meticulous detailing.
Tartare, like sashimi, is only as good as its ingredients and those must be as fresh as possible. Quality seafood purveyors are a good source of the high quality yellowfin tuna and diver scallops required for the recipe.
Adding to the quality of the seafood is the visual design. For Kreuther, the extra effort it takes to make a visually striking plate gives added pleasure to a dish.
Tartare of Yellowfin Tuna and Diver Scallops Seasoned with American Caviar
For the tartare:
12 ounces yellow fin tuna, sushi grade, medium dice (½-inch cubes)
12 ounces diver scallops (8 to 10 of the freshest, highest quality, firm), medium dice (½-inch cubes)
2 tablespoons hazelnut oil
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 ounces American Caviar
3 tablespoons chives, finely chopped
1 lemon, juiced
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 cucumber, not too thick, preferably seedless, unpeeled
2 tablespoons aged balsamic vinegar (or reduction of regular balsamic vinegar made by reducing 8 tablespoons over a low flame), as needed
Baby greens or arugula for garnish
For the chive oil:
Chives, leftover parts from above chopped portion
4 tablespoons grapeseed oil
To prepare the chive oil:
1. Blend the chives and oil in a blender. Strain the mixture and reserve in a squeeze bottle.
To prepare the seafood:
1. Dice the tuna into ½-inch cubes. Place into a bowl, cover and reserve in the refrigerator.
2. Dice the scallops into similarly sized ½-inch cubes. Place into a separate bowl, cover and also refrigerate.
To prepare the bed of cucumber:
1. Wash the cucumber and pat it dry. Slice it very thinly using a Japanese mandoline slicer for better precision or if unavailable, use a very sharp knife.
2. Season the slices with salt, pepper and a bit of olive oil and arrange the slices on a chilled plate in 2 overlapping columns (6 slices each, arranged like shingles on a roof) down the center of the plate. Refrigerate until ready to plate the dish.
To prepare the tartare mixture:
1. Combine the tuna and scallops in one bowl and add the chopped chives, hazelnut oil, olive oil and caviar.
2. Season with salt and pepper and mix all the ingredients together gently. On the final stir, add some lemon juice to taste.
Note: Do not use too much lemon juice, as it will overpower the dish.
To plate the dish:
1. Place several spoonfuls of the tartare mixture along the length of the 2 columns of cucumber, down the center, leaving some of the outer edge of cucumbers to be visible.
2. Season the baby greens with some of the remaining lemon juice and olive oil.
3. Spike one end of the tartare with a few leaves of the seasoned greens.
4. Finally, using the aged balsamic vinegar (or reduced balsamic vinegar) and the chive oil in 2 separate squeeze bottles, make 2 straight lines, on either side of the columns of cucumber (parallel to and approximately ½ inch away from the cucumbers.)
Top photo: Tartare of yellowfin tuna and diver scallops seasoned with American caviar. Credit: Diana DeLucia
Upon receiving an e-mail out of the blue last week from a filmmaker asking me whether I’d like to screen his latest production, I half wondered whether he’d meant to send it to my significant other, who just so happens to be the artistic director of a film festival here in Denver. Yes, “Trubadeaux: A Restaurant Movie” is about the hospitality industry, and yes, I’ve written an article or two about food on the silver screen. As a grad student in English many years ago, I even taught a couple of classes on the relationship between film and literature. But none of that makes me a professional reviewer.
Still, living with a programmer does mean I wind up watching dozens upon dozens of movies by unknown hopefuls every year — enough to get a sense of what’s worth my time and what isn’t in all of 15 minutes. So despite a bit of skepticism, I figured I had no more than a quarter-hour to lose.
Long story short: I not only watched and enjoyed the whole thing — as you can do on the filmmakers’ website for $5 — but even laughed out loud now and then. As it turns out, this slightly blue, slightly black shoestring comedy about a few days in the lives of a fictional Chicago eatery’s staff of misfits was written, directed, produced and performed by a team with both improv and service backgrounds. And it shows in every last silly, sad-sack detail — from the deadpan exchanges with snobby customers who insist that, say, Sicily isn’t in Italy to the screaming matches in pre-service meetings to the awkward kiss-and-tells of fellow employees. (Shooting took place on location at Edgewater Beach Café.)
“Trubadeaux” stars have restaurant chops
In fact, Group Mind Films managing partner John Berka — who co-created “Trubadeaux” and stars as pitifully piggish general manager Lyle — is in the business even today: “I started at age 15 at Applebee’s, and I’m currently a private-dining manager at the James Beard Award-winning Blackbird. I have done just about everything in the industry — except work as a GM! The one I play in the film is based on a few I’ve known here in Chicago.” Co-star Todd Wojcik — who plays Lyle’s brother, the head chef — likewise based his character on real-life ex-colleagues: “Todd has a ton of restaurant experience,” explains Berka. “We actually wrote a lot of the film while working together in a Rush Street restaurant.”
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That scripting process, he adds, unfolded “very organically.” “Todd and I would meet for our weekly writing sessions and wind up talking about what had happened the night before on the job,” Berka recalls. “My business partner, Jay Sukow, stopped us one day and said, ‘Guys, this is the film.’ From there, we started making a list of all of the weird things that have happened to us working in the industry. Everything was a collaboration inspired by real events, brought to life with the ‘yes, and’ mentality that’s the pillar of improvisation. For instance, the scene about the water main breaking over the sugar supply is one that every restaurant person loves. That was entirely improvised.”
Meanwhile, the supporting cast brought their own experiences to bear on the script: “Duane Toyloy (who plays Jackson) is a very strong server. We wrote his part around his serving ability, while Jyo Minekowa (Blair) is not the best waiter, but has a great personality. Jyo sued one of our former employers; we incorporated that into the scene at the bar where he talks about how Lyle and the chef are stealing tips. And the letter Lyle reads to the staff” — a tirade on lackluster service — “was based largely off a real letter received at a restaurant that both Jyo and I worked at. Rafa the dishwasher (Juan Palomino) is also a local industry veteran; he’s from Puebla, Mexico, and he came up with the idea for his character himself.”
Ultimately, says Berka, the goal “for me, as a longtime waiter, was to show people what waiters go through. The dynamics of a high-stress environment populated by out-of-control egos fuels the natural humor in restaurants” — and also the misery, he admits. “One of the themes of ‘Trubadeaux’ is addiction. Addiction is one of the constants in this life. I don’t think people have a real sense of everything that goes into working in a restaurant. We wanted to show people what happens when no guests are around. That’s the most compelling aspect.”
For other worthy food-and-drink-fueled movies — both narrative and documentary, many lesser known — click this film list. I also heartily recommend the charming “I Like Killing Flies,” a slice-of-life look at New York City’s notorious Shopsin’s; “Blood Into Wine,” featuring Tool frontman-turned-winemaker Maynard James Keenan; and “El Bulli: Cooking in Progress,” a gorgeously detailed account of menu creation under the legendary Ferran Adrià.
Top photo: Todd Wojcik (left) and John Berka star in “Trubadeaux.” Credit: Jason Beaumont
We are told there are four, five, six, even seven basic nutritional food groups, but there are really only two basic food-consuming groups, at least at the top of today’s fine dining food pyramid: the tasters and the eaters.
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The tasters are driven by consumerism and connoisseurship — they collect culinary experience; and the eaters by hunger and old-world gourmandise — they crave culinary experience. Both lay claim to the gastronomic high ground. And they have gone to war, at least in the media.
Pete Wells of the New York Times, a partisan in the battle, cleverly placed these two feuding foodie factions into a class perspective last fall in his Times article, “Nibbled to Death”:
… the elite who now fill these [tasting menu-only] dining rooms are a particular kind of diner, the big-game hunters out to bag as many trophy restaurants as they can. Another kind of eater, the lusty, hungry ones who keep a mental map of the most delicious things to eat around town, may be left outside.
Are tasting menus taking us to the cleaners?
Wells appears to have at least made peace with the best of the tasting menu-only restaurants, the ones that have captured most of the Michelin stars across America — like Alinea in Chicago, Atera in New York, Saison in San Francisco and, of course, the mother of all tasting-menu meccas, The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif.
But Corby Kummer in Vanity Fair (“Tyranny — It’s What’s For Dinner”) is taking no prisoners:
The entire experience they will consent to offer is meant to display the virtuosity not of cooks but of culinary artists. A diner’s pleasure is secondary; subjugation to the will of the creative genius comes first, followed, eventually, by stultified stupefaction.
Thomas Keller’s French Laundry takes much of the brunt of Kummer’s explosive salvos. Kummer’s snarky gibes about the Stalinist tyranny and torture of contemporary tasting menu meals must have gotten Keller’s free-range goat.
In a recent interview in HuffPost San Francisco, Keller responded with careful disdain:
It’s fine. I can’t control what people write and Corby has to make a living … His argument was that diners don’t have a choice when they come to French Laundry, but as Michael Bauer pointed out [Inside Scoop SF], you make the choice when you make the reservation.
I’m not sure that Bauer, the San Francisco Chronicle’s veteran restaurant critic cum blogger, has the requisite firepower to go up with Keller mano a mano against Kummer and Wells, but I think on this point the Keller/Bauer team wins the skirmish if not the war.
A French Laundry I could love
Keller also scores big when he comments in the interview that Kummer had not been to The French Laundry since 1997. A more recent visit would have revealed that the 40-course menu Kummer remembers so clearly has shrunk at the Laundry to just 12 courses. Not particularly overwhelming as tasting menus go.
Which is precisely why I made a pilgrimage to Yountville in March for a birthday lunch at The French Laundry. I had had a disappointing meal there in 2010 — you know, the usual complaints: too many dishes, food too fussy, nothing served hot, etc. — but didn’t want to rely on impressions from the past.
Of the dishes served this time, half were still either not to my liking (the raw-ish room temperature morsel of Hawaiian big-eye tuna was rather flavorless even with its quirky ”everything bagel” crust) or unnecessary (a pretty standard potato salad), and the other half surprisingly good, like exotic culinary jewels glittering with serious flavor.
If those delicious little dishes were repurposed on a prix fixe eating menu (see illustration), and portioned accordingly, it would have been one of the best meals of my life. Imagine an optional menu at The French Laundry that flips the traditional French dégustation menu on its head — more food per plate, fewer plates, same price ($270).
Looking back in hunger
When I decided to enlist in this battle of the tasters and the eaters, I assumed I’d take a few pot shots of my own at tasting-menu tyranny. But truth is I’ve found the media brouhaha overwrought and critically myopic. Would I have held with the Fauves when Cubism ascended to the throne of 20th-century painting? I might have found Cubism too drab and analytical compared to the wild color symphonies of the passing Fauvism; but the glory of art, real art in any medium (even food), is that it’s ultimately, and endlessly, expansive, never reductive.
Foreshadowing our current foodie feuding in his 1976 essay, “The Eaters and the Eaten,” John Berger, the English art critic and novelist, got it spot on, I think, when he identified the two basic kinds of eating in our post-modern, post-consumerist world — peasant vs. bourgeois:
… the peasant way of eating is centred on the act of eating itself and on the food eaten … Whereas the bourgeois way of eating is centred on fantasy, ritual and spectacle. The first can complete itself in satisfaction; the second is never complete and gives rise to an appetite which, in essence, is insatiable.
Fifty years from now, I don’t want to sound like one of those 19th-century critics who wrote about Impressionist painting as amateurish and unfinished, if not outright evil. Contemporary tasting menus, for all the technical nonsense and extravagant excess, are far from evil, Stalinist or merely culinary. At their best, these meals are like going to the opera or those large multimedia art installations museums love to exhibit these days — a once-a-year adventure.
On the other hand, eater’s menus that present a simple food aesthetic paying homage to a traditional cooking and eating style (local, seasonal foods prepared well and served without fuss in standard courses to hungry eaters) can in fact bring greater satisfaction, as Berger suggests, than the most brilliantly avant-garde tasting menu spectacles. Cassoulet anyone?
Top graphic credit: L. John Harris with PNR Graphics
The world of gourmet dining can be a high-stakes popularity game. When Chef Ferran Adrià closes his restaurant, el Bulli, the world’s “best restaurant,” because he knows its ideas have run its course, and the next best restaurant, Chef René Redzepi’s Noma in Copenhagen, embarrassingly sickens its guests, it’s refreshing to find an avant-garde young chef such as Massimo Bottura of the Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy.
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In Bottura’s case he has experimented successfully with avoiding the cheater’s crutch of excessive butter, cheese, cream, fats and salt to discover the essential nature of individual foods using the very codifications he has overthrown to reconstruct dishes that respect the old while paving the way to the new. Bottura has received his third Michelin star, and his restaurant just ranked third on the World’s Best Restaurant list by San Pellegrino. His philosophical approach to cooking reconstructs food rather than deconstructs it, blending tradition and modernity, rather than overturning it.
The fascination with chefs and their food is not new. Those of us a certain age remember the “continental cuisine” of the 1960s with its beef Wellington, the nouvelle cuisine of the ’70s, California cuisine of the ’80s, the birth of the celebrity chef in the ’90s, and so on. However, it is easy become jaded too, eye-rolling when we hear of yet a new “best chef.” Bottura himself says “of course we appreciate the accolades that drive people to the restaurant and our food” but it is more meaningful for him that people appreciate and understand what he is trying to do: reconstruction, not deconstruction (read molecular gastronomy).
Dishes that are about pure flavor, not presentation
Bottura brings his native region of Emilia-Romagna, already famous for its foods, into focus by discovering the essence of its food. “It’s all about editing out, taking away to get to the essence. What’s not there brings out the purity of what is left,” he explained as we talked while looking out over the Pacific in Santa Monica, Calif. Bottura’s enthusiasm and passion for his food, his articulate and philosophical approach is infectious and clearly gives an idea of the food to come.
Emilia-Romagna has long been considered the mecca of Italian cooking with its famous balsamic vinegar, prosciutto, Parmigiano cheese, Bolognese sauce and tortellini in brodo. The codification of dishes in Emilia-Romagna places cultural constraints on chefs, but Bottura understands that cuisine is a part of material culture, a living thing, like language. It cannot ossify, but moves forward by virtue of the ingenious creations of chefs as well as home cooks as they manipulate their unique raw products.
An example of Bottura’s exploration is his gastronomic tribute to Sicily in the savory granita he makes with almonds from Noto, Sicily, Lavazza espresso, candied bergamot, capers from Pantelleria and vanilla sea salt.
Bottura is looking for a “clean flavor” by extracting the best from the past. What he means by clean flavor is “pure flavor” where shape is not important beyond creating something beautiful. His search for the essential means the diner eats with his palate, not with his eyes, so that’s why he creates monochromatic plates.
“It’s not about the first bite but the third and fourth bites,” he said.
And why get rid of fat?
“Fat mutes flavors,” he explains. “We get rid of fat. It isn’t about the butter or the cream or the salt, just the flavor of the food.”
Diners who are tired of the recent trend of restaurants serving 30 one-bite courses might prefer Bottura’s approach.
Top photo: Massimo Bottura. Credit: Paolo Terzi
It started on Facebook. One day my newsfeed was filled with chefs and bartenders asking for votes. It was the end of the year, and one of the food blogs had just posted a raft of entreaties to “Vote for your favorite new restaurant!” and “Vote for the best bartender!” Everyone in the restaurant industry was asking friends to vote. At least those categories were based on food.
But the contest that pushed me over the edge was named “The Hottest Chef.”
Not hot as in “rising star” or “making great food.” No. Hot as in good looking. Hot as in, “This Category Has Nothing To Do With Food.”
I couldn’t believe who was asking for votes. A lot of respected chefs — grown men, mostly — who, in my opinion, could really benefit from putting their noses down and concentrating on their cooking, were asking to be picked as the best looking boy or girl at the food prom.
I was an awkward kid and got over the struggle to be popular at a pretty young age. By the time I was 16 I was working in kitchens with adults, and that provided me with perspective: Cooking is about what you do, not what you look like. Cooking is a craft, and it requires attention and dedication. And just as in any artistic profession, if your goal is fame, you aren’t going to achieve your potential.
For chefs, staying hot requires keeping cool
These lists: Best New Restaurant, Best Restaurant, Best Chef, Hottest Bartender, Best … Hottest … They not only diminish the restaurants and the people working in them, but they cannibalize the authority of the publications that produce them.
ZESTER DAILY GIVEAWAY
The best dining in any city is often at that place that has existed for years. In Portland, Caffe Mingo has been turning out delicious rustic Italian food for over a decade. They hit the mark in a way that only a restaurant that has honed its craft for years can do. They haven’t been on a list in years.
Accolades also interfere with restaurant performance. At my restaurants, Toro Bravo and Tasty N Sons, we have always relied on word of mouth. When we get singled out for what we do, I have a meeting with my staff to prepare for the backlash: diners who will be upset their place has been discovered, diners who will be unhappy with the uptick in wait-times. Of course we have our Restaurant of the Year award on display — it’s in the bathroom.
There are better ways for chefs and restaurants to get attention than to beg their friends to vote for their Hotness online:
- Come out swinging! Put everything you can into the craft and service. The people who fill your seats Monday through Thursday are regulars and industry. If you pay attention to craft, they will keep coming.
- Spend more time thinking about the best tomato, and less time thinking about the best write-up. Don’t ask for coverage before your restaurant is ready for the glare. You can’t seek out the public’s attention and then complain if you get reviewed “too soon” — so wait, get it right, and then reach out.
- Keep your mind-set on Year 6, not Month 6. If you work on the craft at the start, you might get to Year 6. At that point, think about a cookbook (“The Toro Bravo Cookbook” is coming this fall), but in the meantime, keep some of your powder dry so that you can bring in new customers when you aren’t the Next Big Thing.
Photo: Restaurateur John Gorham. Credit: David L Reamer photography
Culinarily inclined as I am, when I began planning a New Year’s holiday to Charleston, S.C., I started drawing up my “to-eat” list months in advance. There were the old-time comfort-food fixtures, of course, like Martha Lou’s and Bertha’s Kitchens. And I couldn’t resist making reservations at Husk, given how the name Sean Brock has become practically synonymous with unabashed Lowcountry pride. But in doing my homework, I also sensed a buzz brewing in the Holy City, a desire among the food set to move beyond regional classics and bring the historic city into the culinary here and now. I thought I’d have to sign up for some underground supper club. How wrong I was. Turns out all one needs to do to explore the innovative edge of the Charleston dining scene is walk north from downtown, away from the water and the romantic side alleys and stately homes, to the Upper King district.
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In Charleston, charm has long been the name of the game. The city advertises itself as so steeped in tradition it verges on kitsch. Deep history, old money and a proud sense of place are inescapable in the Lowcountry’s best known, and much beloved, city. But recently, a group of inventive chefs, restaurateurs and cocktail pros have been busy reimagining what constitutes Charleston “charm.” These movers and shakers have been snapping up vacant spaces on Upper King — the stretch of one of Charleston’s main arteries farther away from the waterfront — and transforming the neighborhood into the heartbeat of Charleston’s youthful revival.
We’ve seen this game before — hip risk-takers transform struggling neighborhoods, storefront by storefront, into the next “it” district. (Brooklyn? Oakland? Chicago, anyone?) In Charleston, gritty-cool “dives” like The Recovery Room Tavern now rub shoulders with class acts such as The Belmont; and Charleston’s formal sit-down dinner tradition has been turned on its head by wildly popular eateries such as Butcher & Bee sandwich shop (which also features regular — and regularly sold-out — pop-up dinners) and Two Boroughs Larder.
New Charleston restaurants open to big crowds
I happened to arrive at a fortuitous time. The weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas 2012 offered the opening of three new dining venues on Upper King, each with a unique menu and concept, and all three already in high demand.
First stop: The Ordinary. Just before Christmas, chef/owner Mike Lata (of FIG fame) and partner Adam Nemirow opened the doors to their eagerly awaited seafood establishment. I stopped by my first afternoon in town and found myself swooning over The Ordinary’s dramatic and elegant setting. Housed in a historic bank building designed in 1927 by celebrated local architect Albert Simons, it’s difficult not to be taken with The Ordinary’s 22-foot ceilings, large windows and class-act renovation. (Read: tiled walls, towering flower arrangements and a long, marble bar.) Over apéritifs and an unusual array of local oysters, manager Brooks Reitz stopped by to talk. “Surprisingly, because we’re a waterfront town, there’s no definitive great seafood place in Charleston,” he told me. “The Ordinary is an answer to that.” Diverging from FIG’s reputation as a quiet spot for “casual” fine dining, The Ordinary is “louder, funkier and more ‘detailed’ casual,” Reitz explained. “Our menu layout is very different. Here, you order a bunch, and it comes out as it’s ready, which is shocking for some Charleston folks who are used to regimen.” While the focus is on offerings from nearby waters, Lata’s New England heritage peeks through on the menu — a lobster roll is featured alongside Southern classics like “peel-and-eat” shrimp and gumbo.
Xiao Bao Biscuit
Just a few blocks away, on a sleepy residential block, a young couple has opened a very different kind of a local gem. Hidden behind the unassuming plate-glass windows of an old gas station shop is Xiao Bao Biscuit, the quirky little restaurant that (so far, it seems) could. Like so many restaurateurs these days, native South Carolinian Joshua Walker and his wife and partner, Duolan Li, who’s Mongolian by ethnicity, tested the waters with pop-up dinners before venturing into the world of full-fledged restaurant ownership. The couple met in New York, where they both worked in the business. They married and began to think about where to settle down. But not before dropping all their things with Walker’s family in Charleston and hitting the road for a seven-month honeymoon tromping around Asia. After deciding to make Charleston home, the couple saw their recent Asian experiences as a boon in a city bereft of the ilk of Asian food the couple had grown accustomed to in New York.
Open just a month now, Xiao Bao seems to be settling nicely into its new digs. When I visited, a warm and convivial neighborhood vibe filled the sunny space. I quickly befriended my server, who was happy to keep refilling my glass with the addictively spicy ginger-and-lemongrass house iced tea. After downing an Okonomiyaki (“what you like” cabbage pancake with kale, scallion, pork belly and a fried egg) and a refreshingly clean bowl of cold rice noodles, I spent some time chatting with Duolan, or “Dee,” who shows up at the restaurant to “play hostess” after her day job at a design and marketing firm. While her husband kept his head down in the kitchen, preparing for evening service, Dee told me the couple was pleased with their success so far. Neighbors, she explained, often stop in for a bite and a cocktail in the evening, and the popularity of the couple’s pop-up series has translated into a bustling dinner scene.
And then there’s The Rarebit, a 1960s inspired diner-cum-Hollywood cocktail bar. Sorry to say, I didn’t make it in — this is what happens when one waits too long over a busy holiday weekend. (I kept hoping the packed house would die down. Alas, the joint closed down for New Year’s Day, and I took off for home the next morning.) But a good peek in the window and a scan of The Rarebit’s website gave me a bit of insight into what I was missing. John Adamson, a restaurant vet whose past endeavors include Boylan Heights in Charlottesville, Va., has built out a sassy, inviting space accented by its long elegant bar, leather-backed stools, plaid-printed booths and bold artwork. Hungry visitors can get breakfast all day as well as simple plates Adamson calls “cheffed-up diner fare“: grilled cheese, chicken noodle soup, chicken and waffles and a daily blue-plate special. But the real draw seems to be the cocktails. Brian Sweatman, who was a fixture at Granville’s before it closed, makes all his own bitters and sodas at The Rarebit. And while the components of the cocktails may be obsessively fresh, the menu aspires to perfect the classics rather than erring toward mixologist hipster-fication.
So is the Old Charleston out? Not a chance. The city’s got too much history — and too many people interested in buying into that nostalgic image, be it real or imagined — to let its past fall by the wayside. But with the Upper King renaissance in full swing, Charleston has become the site of an unlikely, intoxicatingly exciting mashup of old South and edgy urban revival. With reverence for tradition tucked snuggly into their consciences but a gutsy hunger for experimentation guiding their menus, Charleston is proving, again, that chefs are at the helm of the (re)invention of the American city.
Photo: A peek from the bar area into the kitchen at Xiao Bao Biscuit. Credit: Sara Franklin
The Greeks seem well on their way to a fate akin to the Dodo. Or so one gathers from media reports on the southern Eurozone countries known as PIGS — Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain — and the economic free fall that has threatened the survival of the Eurozone.
Of the Eurozone’s southern-tier PIGS, the Greeks are the real tragedians, an Homeric tale of hubris, greed and corruption that has pushed the feta capital of the world to the brink of self-destruction that would make America’s Great Recession look like a picnic.
So how can we help, we who believe in Greece more, perhaps, than the Greeks? We, that is, who grew up loving tzatziki, moussaka, spanakopita and “Zorba the Greek.” I’m thinking gastro-tourism and its twin, agro-tourism. And I’m proposing a new airline, CULINAIR, and we are going to save Greece and the Eurozone one cuisine at a time. Yes, a UFO invasion, waves of 737s filled with Urban Food Obsessives, aka foodies, descending on Greece to plant dollars in the fertile fields of the Peloponnese.
Meanwhile, back on planet Earth
One recent headline in the Wall Street Journal puts Greece’s tragedy this way: “For Greeks, Crisis Reverses A Generation of Progress” (Nov. 19, 2012). The article focuses on the stories of several nouveau bourgeois Greeks forced to leave Athens and return to their ancestral villages and family farms and to lives of hard labor and poverty.
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Or, as journalists Gordon Fairclough and Nektaria Stamouli put it in their Journal article, “Families that had clawed their way into the middle class in the decades after World War II are slipping painfully backward.”
Painful, of course, but backward? Sad that Greeks raising goats to make cheese and harvesting olives for oil, two things they do as well as any country in Europe, consider themselves losers. “For many people my age growing up in Athens,” says a former plumber featured in the article, “they wouldn’t ever imagine doing something like this.”
“This” refers to milking a goat.
Ironic that these same food-production tasks, laborious and low-paying as they may be, are considered career choices today by young middle-class urbans around the world hungry for a more authentic life connected to the land and the production of first-class culinary products.
Gastro-tourism to the rescue in France
To be sure, the forced return to difficult rural lifestyles by tens of thousands of Greeks is not a particularly happy choice. But what they don’t seem to see is the silver lining that their farming neighbors to the north are discovering: that there is gastro-tourist gold in them thar Eurozone hills. Have these Greeks lost touch with their inner Zorba? He was, after all, a chef, not just a chronic dancer and philandering lush.
Witness, for example, regions like France’s Dordogne where the agriculture sector is being supported by creative refugees from France’s urban middle class. Case in point: The Brusquand farm in this southwest region of France (also known as Perigord) and its four generations of farming women — Isabelle, Ginette, Marie and, now, Charlotte, the 20-something daughter of Isabelle and husband Christophe — who have opened a restaurant that features the special products from their duck and goose farm such as foie gras, patés and confit.
I first heard about the Ferme du Brusquand and its new auberge last fall at the Bay Area’s Mill Valley Film Festival. Premiering was the documentary “After Winter, Spring“ by Judith Lit, an American living part time on a small farm in the region. Over the course of three years, she focused her camera on her neighbors, farmers who have come up against forces that threaten a way of life that has evolved since Neolithic times: encroaching suburbia, industrial farm competition and decreasing subsidies.
The farm’s new restaurant — Auberge de la Ferme du Brusquand — is managed by young Charlotte who has returned home from Paris to join her family. Her father, Christophe, is the chef. Good reviews of the auberge and two new rental cottages on the property have sparked an invasion of UFOs that make it possible now for the older Brusquand women to enjoy the fruits of their labor without the fear of losing the farm.
Crooked labels and crooked books
It may seem naïve to think that a surge of Greek pride in its gastronomic patrimony will help turn around the Greek economy, let alone the Eurozone. Corrupt business practices, fuzzy regulations and even crooked labels on Greece’s upscale gourmet products don’t help matters. And the truth is that Greece’s most popular products, like feta cheese and olive oil, have never caught on outside Greece on the scale of equivalent products produced by European competitors to the north.
According to Bay Area entrepreneur Peter Damm, whose former import-export company, Peloponnese, had moderate success in the U.S. back in the 1980s: “Even superb Greek products from small family farms, such as delicate olive oils and handpicked herbs, couldn’t compete with French and Italian offerings. There was a perception that Greece was just not a refined culture, so these products just couldn’t be good.”
Oink like a pig, WWOOF like a farmer
Despite the perceptual and actual obstacles, it’s possible now to at least consider a turnaround for Greece driven by its menu of classic delights. Worldwide trends in gastro- and agro-tourism may in fact be the key — like farms in France, Great Britain and elsewhere that are making room for authenticity junkies to participate in, or at least watch, the daily routines. Dude farms, it turns out, are cash cows.
Then there’s the international organization known as WWOOF, or World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, that puts volunteers to work — really work — all over the world. Imagine young nouveau-poor but land-rich Greeks repurposing their family farms and producing products with the free labor of UFOs dying to get their hands dirty in the name of righteous agriculture and gastronomy.
The more I think about it, saving Greece and the Eurozone through gastro-tourism is no fantasy. All that Greece and its fellow PIGS need, and all CULINAIR needs, is the capital — culinary, political and financial — to make it happen. Are you listening Angela Merkel and Sir Richard Branson?
Top illustration credit: L. John Harris and PR Graphic Arts
There are foods we remember from our younger days that, if they are not quite comfort food, they certainly evoke pleasant memories. For many people who grew up in the New York City area there was a kind of Italian-American restaurant that we loved. Instead of what we’ve grown to recognize as authentic Italian cuisine, it served up the Italian-American classic recipes, such as scungilli, that keep a special place in our hearts.
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Its name was the name of the family that owned it: Christiano’s or Brancato’s and so forth. The tablecloths were red-checked, the waitresses were quick, sassy and not struggling actors. They were packed and you would wait for a table, the candles were set in old Chianti bottles wrapped in straw and the walls were decorated with Italian kitsch. Dean Martin and “Volare” played in the background and on the tables were dispensers of dried oregano, dried garlic powder, red chile flakes, Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper. The Parmesan was not imported, I’m sure. Service was nearly instantaneous as hot bread was brought as soon as you sat down.
We remember the food as being terrific. We ordered antipasto. There was no plural. An antipasto was a platter of iceberg lettuce, canned olives, out-of-season tomato slices, wedges of provolone cheese and rolled-up slices of salami.
The Italian-American glory days of spaghetti
There was lasagna and spaghetti and meatballs, of course. There was veal piccata and shrimp scampi. There was no risotto. These were the days before anybody in America knew there was a cuisine from northern Italy. In fact, when northern Italian food first made its entry into the American restaurant scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s, some of those restaurants advertised themselves with the tag line “no red sauce.” My, how things have changed. Today restaurant-goers know about “a little Tuscan place” and they order carpaccio and tiramisu, two dishes utterly unknown in the Italian-American restaurants of old. Frankly, I miss the spumoni.
Our meals came with garlicky garlic bread that was piping hot and we loved it. Sometimes we ordered pizza, but never as a first course. One dish my mom and I were quite fond of was spaghetti with scungilli. She remembered it from her childhood growing up in Manhattan because her Italian father would make it in the 1920s and ’30s. She remembers liking it but not as much as calamari. She rarely made it at home; it was a dish for the restaurants. The restaurants made it just like her father. Nearly all of these Italian-American restaurants were run by families who traced their origins to southern Italy, especially Sicily, Calabria or the Naples area. But not all these families came from a restaurant tradition or even a tradition of cooking, and so many of them weren’t really very good.
All-American Italian scungilli
Scungilli is usually described as conch, and it can be made with conch, but it is actually whelk or murex, which are mollusks found in the waters around Long Island. I believe it is an Italian-American dish. Although scungilli is an Italian-American corruption of the Neapolitan dialect word, sconciglio, spaghetti with scungilli is not known in Italy. At least scungilli is a word that does not appear in any of my Italian dictionaries nor in any Italian cookbook I own except one.
Spaghetti with Scungilli
You will find scungilli in one of three forms: live in their shell, frozen out of their shell, and canned. Fresh whelk needs to be purged of its impurities. Place in a bowl of cold water and keep changing the water until the last change results in perfectly clear water after 2 hours. This process could take 2 days. Frozen conch meat is frozen fresh and purged, so it, and/or the fresh whelk, needs to be boiled for about 3 hours. Canned scungilli only needs to be heated for 1 minute.
12 whelks (2 to 3 inches long, about 3 pounds) or 1 pound frozen conch meat or two 6-ounce cans scungilli
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh basil leaves
4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
Salt to taste
4 cups water
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
¾ pound spaghetti
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, salt, and add the whelks in their shells (or the frozen conch) and cook for 3 hours, replenishing the water when necessary. Remove from the water, drain and detach the small shell-hard “foot” from the opening. Chop or slice and set aside.
2. In a large flameproof casserole, heat the olive oil over medium heat, then cook, stirring constantly, the parsley, basil and garlic for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and salt and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes. Add the scungilli, reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until tender, 5 to 6 hours, replenishing the water if necessary. The final sauce should be a dense sauce. Season with pepper. (If using canned scungilli, cook the tomato sauce for 15 minutes, add the canned scungilli, and cook 2 minutes and serve with the pasta).
3. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly then cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Drain without rinsing. Transfer the pasta to the sauté pan and toss until well coated with sauce then serve without cheese.
Top photo: Scungilli. Credit: Clifford A. Wright