Choices Made By Chefs

I was reading an interview with Alain Passard recently; he’s the chef-owner of L’Arpege, which is located on a small hard-to-find street in central Paris.  He noted that he had not been to New York, and I found this puzzling, amusing, and oddly inspiring.

Passard’s food is first-rate.  He switched from a varied menu a few years ago to one that is chiefly driven by vegetables.  I’ve been twice to his restaurant and was dazzled both times by his ability to coax flavors from food that has no fat in it.  (OK, he adds butter.)

I began to wonder if the busy plates of most North American chefs–on which one ingredient after another is piled on, showcasing the chef’s ability to use things–are a cultural artifact.  Meaning that the desire to draw attention to the food and the person who led the team to cook it are bold in the way that other things around us are bold.

Like the big, noisy novel I am reading now by Atticus Lish.  So much happens in it!  But the depth isn’t there.  We get distracted by the excitement and forget perhaps that in life not much happens at all, and that this not happening is at the heart of storytelling.  Ironically.

Maybe it’s a good idea to keep things simple:

Desire & Dining

It’s interesting how the cultural shift and obsession with food takes place among certain people and places during a time of aimlessness and despair.  I sometimes wonder what the people who open restaurants/cafes/bars with no talent for food or hospitality would be doing years before the work became socially acceptable and a way to make a living.

Probably in sales.

And the writers, I’m guessing, would be teachers or bookstore managers.

At the end of the day, food is meant to sustain.  But it can also serve to distract.  And that’s a good thing because life is tough, but another question might be: What is tough and how do we make it less tough?


24 Hours in Boston

My Hyatt credit card gives me each year a free anniversary night at a range of its properties, from the luxe Park Hyatt’s in Toronto and Saigon, to ordinary hotels in many cities.  They used to include a motel-like building off of 5th in the Twenties, but that stopped last year when they must have found that they could charge $200+ for the room.

So that left, for me, Boston and also Portland, Maine.

We stayed at the Grand Hyatt in Downtown Crossing, behind Tremont Street, in Boston.  It was magical from the outset to be a hotel guest in a city I’ve called home for three decades.  I saw the city with fresh eyes and pretended I was a visitor who had not been here before.

Everyone was friendly.  The new and old architecture was beautiful and clean.

We walked to a hidden bar, Wink & Nod, in the South End.  It is inside the old digs of Icarus, a lovely restaurant at one time.  Wink & Nod serves as a pop-up for itinerant chefs who stay a few months.  We weren’t there for the food.  We sat at the bar and had good classic drinks: Manhattan, Martini.  First-rate.  But word to the bar: Stir the drinks, don’t shake them.

Then we walked to Bar Boulud, which is inside Mandarin Oriental, in Back Bay.  Delicious starters of a trout pate, gougeres, and tete du Cochon, followed by cassoulet and a cod dish with clams.  This is French food that is better than anything, bar none, I’ve eaten in Boston the entire time I’ve been here.  There are/were “French” restaurants here that are actually French in name only.

Bar Boulud is what you find in Paris, NYC, or Tokyo: Straight ahead bistro type dishes prepared with the best ingredients at prices that are meant to make regulars out of guests.  And a service-driven model that is unpretentious and flat out fun.

The next morning we walked through Quincy Market inside Faneuil Hall.  I hadn’t been since I lived in the North End in the 1980’s.  The food portions were huge: It was like being in a children’s movie where kids see everything as BIG.

Coffee at Paradiso in the North End.  You could have been in Italy.  Great veal from Sulmona Meat Market, great buffalo milk ricotta from Salumeria Italiana, and slices at Galleria Umberto–Ralph asked me, “How you doin’?” and shook my hand, which I still have not washed.

Back through Haymarket–a buck for a quart of strawberries, and then through Government Center to Park Street for the subway ride to Cambridge.

What Lies Ahead

I’ve wrapped up the six stories on Japan from recent trips in January and February, sent my new book out to my agent, and am about to return to developing narratives for the eighteen interviews I did with prominent Indian-Americans for my book on that subject.  Both books ought to be published next year.

Meanwhile, just this morning, the four blood oranges I squeezed for juice yielded about three ounces.  Why is that OK?

Up ahead: Bar Boulud in Boston.  The restaurant opened in the Fall of 2014, and I want to get in as often as possible before it closes shop.  You can get a table there most any night within a day or two of trying and while it’s clear that the food and service are the best this city has ever seen, no joke, it won’t last.

It will join Market, Rocca, Om, and others the names of which don’t come to mind.

It’s unfortunate that restaurants with well-defined, small menus that focus on small plates of high-end ingredients just don’t make it in Boston.

On a positive note, this means more time at home getting work done.

What Are Restaurants Today?

Assets in hedge fund accounts or investment portfolios.

It’s true.  We’re at the early to middle stages of a financial “revolution” in the hospitality industry that is a lot like what took place in the entertainment, healthcare, and sports industries about forty years ago.  Investors have identified correctly that the hospitality industry is undervalued and in need of business models that will generate profits that maximize the value of the asset.

And there you thought it was about food.  About GMO’s, sustainability, humane slaughter, and organic produce.  Nope, those are marketing terms.

What this means pragmatically is that most restaurants that want to survive and have a future will join up with investment groups that will create for them the capital to expand, save for the future, and allow the chef to develop projects that are not immediately profitable.  That is the real meaning of sustainability.

Those restaurants that do not get financial backing at that level will become like small record labels or indy music bands.  Some will attract investors–think of the bands, “Beirut,” or, “Arcade Fire”–and benefit from investment.

What this means for cooks emerging from culinary schools or years of on-site training in restaurants is that unless they can get attract the attention of the hedge fund managers or big investment groups, they’ll be broke most of the time.  Cooking good food maybe, but broke.


What Chefs Talk About

I just finished writing up a long piece about a very famous chef who visits a very famous city.  I sent the piece to a magazine that wanted it, and now we have entered negotiations.  The editor had thought that chefs, this one in particular, talk about food.  But they don’t, and he didn’t.

The big chefs I’ve met and spent barrels of time with talk to me about their families, the difficulty of making a living, staying in business, staying in shape, keeping a staff for years, how to stay both current as well as loyal to traditions of service and prep, and the challenge of expanding their presence globally while maintaining the brand.

Sort of like most people: Trying to be loved, stay loved, be healthy, stay healthy, and plan and hope for the future.

It’s a lot like what musicians write about.  In the memoirs I read the past couple of years–Hancock, Richards, (George) Clinton, Osborne, et. al., music factors in, but what the authors note most of all is the enormity of the task of the work, and how that focus erodes relationships in their marriages and friendships.

Same with chefs.  It’s not about the food.

East Boston: The Queens of New England

I decided to spend about an hour in East Boston yesterday in the early afternoon before picking up L at the airport, which is in East Boston.  (I never thought that the day would come when I would write, “East Boston,” twice in the same sentence.  Yet that day is here: Who among us can know the future?  Especially when it comes to proper nouns.)

I love Santarpio’s: It’s one of the top ten pizzerias in the United States.  But solo the idea of wolfing down an entire pie was obviously not a good one.

There are numerous Mexican, other Central American, and Brazilian restaurants in East Boston, and many looked good and probably are very good.  In fact, it seems to be a community in which immigrants, like long ago, open up simple places where food is sold.  In Boston and Cambridge, the rents are too high for this level of entrepreneurship.  That’s too bad.  These places add a lot both from culinary and social perspectives.

I settled on Meridien Food Market.  It’s a storefront restaurant with a few tables in front and a deli counter in back.  The chicken parm sub I had was first-rate.  The staff was friendly in that curious, confident neighborhood kind of way.

It’s good to discover a neighborhood like East Boston.  I wish it wasn’t cut off by the bridge and tunnel.  Few places have its ability to convey identity through food.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, Presenting Family of the Year”

My new book is out the door, in the hands of my agent, and if it knocks on your door, let it in.  I promise: once you start reading, the dishes will pile up, the emails won’t be answered, the phone will ring and ring and ring.

With the book out, searching for an editor who wants to feed and be fed by it, that leaves me free to finish up pieces on eating in Kyoto and being “backstage” with Chef Rene Redzepi and his crew and families of NOMA while visiting Japan.

Between writing I’m waiting for some more dramatic signs of spring beyond one day of higher temperatures, a few dazed robins, one befuddled bunny, melting snowbanks, March Madness, and morels shipped from Oregon.

Wait: I’ll take the morels.

Three Square Meals

Back in the day, I loved eating breakfast out, it was the one meal I could afford as a student and later as a new employee.  Bottomless cup of hot coffee, two eggs sunny-side up, a side of crispy bacon, whole wheat or rye toast.  I don’t think I’ve been out for breakfast in decades.

Dinner soon made more sense: With little kids, it was fortunate and good to step out a couple of times a month for what I thought of as a fancy French dinner.  In retrospect, those dinners were chiefly service-driven: We were being taken care of after taking care of children, and the food?  It didn’t matter much, and although it tasted good at the time, it wasn’t very good.  It just wasn’t.

Nowadays I’m on to lunch.  I don’t get out much when I’m home: It’s work in clinics and hospitals, the gym, the dog, and the kitchen.  Most of the time I’m writing or reading.

So it’s good to have a break mid-day.

Yesterday was a first-rate chicken pam sub at J. Pace & Sons in Saugus.  The past few weeks have seen soup and a sandwich at Flour.  Noodles at Santouka.  A slice or two from T. Anthony’s.  I hear Night Market is open now for lunch Thursdays and Friday.

It’s a nice concordance: Lunch is what Boston excels at.  Good, simple, inexpensive food.

On the Plate

I’ve finished a solid version of my new book, after five passes through it, and by Friday it will be out of the house and into the able hands of my agent who will then send it soon to editors, some of whom will get it right away while others will wonder.  The trick is to get it into the hands of decisive editors with authority to sell the book to the publishing team.  Abracadabra!

Meanwhile my pieces on Japanese cheese production, micro-brewing in Japan (which really only took off when the tax laws changed in 1998), and Kyoto.  Done and done.

And look for this article in Gastronomica, published by University of California, out in May or June:

Hashiri, Sakari, Nagori: Toward Understanding the Psychology, Ideology, and Branding of Seasonality in Japanese Gastronomy