Holed Up

I’m in the home stretch of my book about the psychology of chefs and restaurants.  Three times a day, Maurizio, one of the guards, slides a tray holding food through the narrow, horizontal slot at the bottom of the locked, steel door to my cell.

I will say this: The food here is good!  This morning I had three slices of Father’s bacon, which is super crispy, and combines just the right amount of sweetness and salt, three slices of toasted rye bread, a tall glass of fresh squeezed orange juice, and a small pot of Vietnamese coffee.

Maurizio, who speaks no English, but communicates instead in a language unfamiliar to me, which sounds like Maltese or perhaps Provencal, definitely has a knack for service!

For the remainder of the day, I am allowed no direct phone communication from the cell, but the warden, whose name is unknown to me, and appears only in a gray suit and a Zorro type eye mask, permits me to return phone calls, answer and send emails, and text messages.  He is a laconic gentleman.  He said: “It’s part of the process.”

Typically, the writing ends around two PM. and then I am transported in a sealed, armored car to The Building That Once Was The Armory.  Scary then, less forbidding now.  Now it is some sort of facility called, ominously, Fitrec, where I am required, along with other inmates, to run three miles and lift weights while listening to DMX and Kanye and The Stones.

It is torture.

Between the activities mentioned, the prison has me escorted for terrifying and mandatory walks by two enormous, black dogs, Bello and Beau, whose eyes betray no fear, and whose postures indicate trouble.  Neither dog goes slack, and their jaws hold rows of shark-like teeth.

Dinners are very good here.  So far, I’ve been served pizza, a bacon cheeseburger (Father’s bacon, Beeler’s cheese, waygu style beef), Sichuan style chicken, and veal parm.  Tonight I’m told it’s a spicy arrabiate with Venetian bignoli.  Except for the pizza, the warden requires that I do all the cooking.

At the end of the day, Maurizo’s evening replacement, Karl, brings me to another cell where a series of movies is shown each night.  So far, Karl has shown me “50/50,” “Incendies,” “Higher Ground,” and “Ides of March.”  None of these movies were particularly good, which may be part of the plan to break me.  I turned off both “Incendies” and “Higher Ground” before they had ended; the former because it was voyeuristic and the latter because it was repetitive and shallow.  “50/50” would have been better had I been 30,000 feet in the air.  “Ides of March” is well written.

The last thing that happens here?  I am put to bed and given a copy of the new Himmler biography.  It is 800+ pages long.  I keep reading it because I can’t wait to find out how it ends.




You Tube is the new Food Network

In yet another sign that America’s preoccupation with food is, um, all consuming, the NY Times reports in today’s Business Section that YouTube is hiring Bruce Seidel to start a new food channel.  Mr. Seidel is not a household name, but the shows he produced for The Food Channel are: “Food Network Star” and “Iron Chef America.”

Look, he helped changed the landscape of cooking, the restaurant industry, how people think of chefs, and how chefs think of themselves.  This may not seem like much to some people, but when perceptions shift about one profession, especially this huge one, it means that perceptions about other jobs change, too.  The way media is viewed, the way food at home is understood, the ways we relate to one another on the street and in offices.

“Change, change, change!”  (Shout out to the Queen of Soul.)

Plus, this is big business.  Look who’s behind Mr. Seidel: “Electus, the multimedia studio formed by Ben Silverman, the former co-chairman of NBC Entertainment, will announce on Monday that it has recruited Mr. Seidel as chief executive of the channel, which has not been named.”  Further: “Mr. Silverman said that when he was recruiting Mr. Seidel for the online job, they discussed how the new channel could ‘discover new stars and galvanize the niches that are driving the Internet food conversation.'”

This move?  It signals the start of a new era.  Ignore it at your peril.

Here’s the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/30/business/media/food-network-executive-to-run-youtube-food-channel.html?ref=business


Neapolitan Pizza

See, there’s this organization, based in Naples, that has established strict, unyielding criteria for what they consider to be Neapolitan Pizza.  Naples, they assert, is the home of pizza, the mother oven, and what with all the versions of pizza on the planet, from pulled pork toppings on pies, etc., the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana decided to step in.  Basta, as it were.

Pizzeria Posto, in Somerville, and Eataly, in NYC, are both producing pizzas that adhere to the standards of the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana.  These are the pies I remember as a kid from Conca d’Ora in Plainfield.  Before the race riots, before downtown was a wasteland.

We’re talking thick pie shells, house made mozzarella that still has a creamy and milky taste, chunky tomatoes, good olive oil, and a baking time of under 60 seconds.

If only life itself was as perfect as these pies!

As the train rolled through Connecticut, I enjoyed four slices of Eataly’s pie and a cold Heineken.

Ode to Joy!

Did Someone Say Cheese?

Cheese is not part of my daily or weekly diet.  Why should it be?  The animal fat and salt are bullets to the heart.  I will say, however, that cheese makes a wonderful treat.  Small portions, now and then, are delightful.

I recently published a long piece in Gastronomica on the microbiology of cheese: The science behind the art.  Through that work, I spent time with Rolf Beeler, Switzerland’s preeminent cheese maker, whom I met about 14 years ago when he was manning a showcase booth on the Reuss River at Luzern’s weekly market.  The booth is still there, as Rolf is sometimes, but the core of his operation is vaster than that, what with being a supplier to stores and restaurants and corporations in Europe and the U.S.

Of note is the fact that his cheeses are difficult to find in Boston.  That was not always true.  Back in the day, a store, that shall go unnamed, carried many of them.  When I asked the store owner why that’s no longer the case, he fibbed and told me that Beeler’s cheeses were no longer any good due to poor cellaring.

I visited the cellars, I spoke to his U.S. importer.  The truth?  The truth is that Rolf refuses to lower his wholesale price so that the store owner can charge his usual 400% mark-up.

Anyhow, I went ahead and purchased cheeses directly from the importer.  That would be Caroline Hostettler.  She’s kind of a genius when it comes to cheese.  A former journalist, Caroline knows her cows, farms, and cheeses, and brings pleasure to the table.

The freight costs were unanticipatedly steep, but, oh my, what wonderful cheeses!  The flavors, textures, and aromas!  The depth of taste is such that I can eat a small amount and be deeply satisfied.  The value is that this is dinner and lunch for several weeks.

What arrived were: Gruyere, Jersey Blue, Chardonnay Truffle, The Kiss, and Millstone Beeler.  The Gruyere is simply the most flavorful on earth, no joke.  The Chardonnay Truffle had flecks of black truffle that had flavor and texture.

Did I mention that Willy Schmidt’s cheese was in the batch?

Amazing stuff: Happy, happy, happy!

The Frank Bruni Report

A fascinating op-ed by the very estimable Frank Bruni in yesterday’s NYT: http://topics.nytimes.com/top/opinion/editorialsandoped/oped/columnists/index.html?scp=9&sq=frank%20bruni&st=cse.

Mr. Bruni exposes the shenanigans, falsehoods, and pure silliness behind the scenes and in the front of the house when it comes to food.  Using Paula Deen’s belated admission of a diagnosis of diabetes, which was apparently told to her three years ago, Mr. Bruni goes on to fault food writers and chefs for promoting food that is high in sodium, fat, and calories.

It is so true.  The fast food folks get pilloried for their food, but any restaurant dining and so many cookbook recipes promote food that is simply unhealthy for you.

I’ve been writing about this for years.  Restaurants should be a treat and not a form of regular entertainment.  Salt, butter, cream, and routine use of animal fats at home create unnecessary risks.  The way I think of it: Writing about the pleasures of food without noting the risks is like having sex without a condom.  Well, not really, but you get the point.

Mr. Bruni notes that many chefs work out regularly, but that will have insufficient impact on the effects of sodium.  I’ll tell you this: One famous chef, who will go unnamed, told me that he does not eat the food he serves in his restaurant.  (He tastes it.)  Why not?  Unhealthy.  What does that tell you?  He is not alone.

I say: Cook at home, enjoy what you eat, and deal with life rather than its distractions.


OK, so it wasn’t textbook snert, but it sure enough hit the spot.  We’re talking Dutch pea soup, that’s right, and what better remedy for the cold weather and strong winds than a bowl of snert?  Rhetorical, I know.

And with the new pressure cooker, we’re talking snert in just minutes!

Here’s what’s what:

Saute sliced kielbasa in about a tablespoon of canola oil.  After a couple of minutes, add a cup of dried, split green peas, one chopped onion, one chopped celery stalk, 1/2 a chopped and peeled carrot, a small handful of chopped parsley, freshly ground black pepper to taste, and three cups of water.  Turn the pressure cooker to high pressure, seal it, and set the timer for nine minutes.  You don’t need to add salt becase the kielbasa has plenty.  After the timer goes off, release pressure and open the lid when you hear it click.  Place in bowls.  Done.

Prep: 3 minutes.

If you can get kielbasa from Chicopee, MA, do so.  The commercial brands are dreadful.

This dish should be accompanied by fresh rye bread from a local bakery, a blazing fire, and Buffalo Trace white dog corn mash.

As they say in Holland: Het eten is klaar!

Line Cooks of the World Unite!

“Line Cooks of the World Unite!  You have nothing to lose but your drains!  Join servers, prep guys, dishwashers!  Back waiters, we welcome you!  Embrace one another and struggle forward!”

–Anonymous Line Cook from an upscale restaurant in NYC

I was wondering–was it just the other day, I can no longer be sure–when the groundswell of discontent among the malcontents in the industry known ironically as Hospitality would rise up and bite the hands that feed them.  Wouldn’t it be a sight?  Can you see the restaurant workers, spoons and spatulas and knives in hand, crossing the line, leaving the line, and saying: No mas, boss!

The heat of the kitchen, the pace on the floor, the demands in the front of the house, the give and take-take-take in the kitchen…

I’m inviting restaurant workers to express their points of view here.  Right here!  Right now!

What are the psychological tensions of working in the industry?  When will things change?

As George Clinton said: “Do fries go with that shake?”


Worried About Friends

Do you ever worry about your friends?  What?  Me, too!  I worry about their secret lives, the limited comfort they get from food, the noises they hear in empty passageways of big houses and companies built large enough to accommodate business that never materialized, and about preoccupations they can’t share with others.

I have so many examples.

I think of a friend who I suspect of having an affair.  Does her husband know?  If he knew, would he care?

I think of a dream with bread in a girl’s lap.

I think of Himmler’s edicts on eating more vegetables.  See?  Good things can come from bad people!

I think of waking up this morning with this song in my head:

“You can shine your shoes and wear a suit
You can comb your hair and look quite cute
You can hide your face behind a smile
One thing you can’t hide
Is when you’re crippled inside.”

Back to comfort food, right?

That friend: Why, I’d make her a big bowl of white beans from Italy, grilled fassano steak from Montana, and some good red wine.  I’d say to her: Tell me everything!

But would she?  Of course not.

Different Types of Restaurants

“Why are there so few good restaurants?”

I think that may not be the right question to be asking.

It depends on what the restaurant’s purpose is, and on what demand it is meeting.  Arguably, it can be said that a restaurant is good when its customers determine that it is good, and when it is turning a profit. Who’s to say, otherwise, whether the food, service, and ambience are good?  It’s relative.  Again, when customers like a place, keep it busy, and enable the owner to turn a profit, it’s a good restaurant.

I was thinking, as someone who prefers not to eat in restaurants unless I’m in a place where I cannot cook, what others want from restaurants.  Few people prefer cooking at home, few people know how to cook restaurant quality food, and few people can cook so efficiently that eating at home is easy.

The frequent diners I know have helped a variety of restaurants profit.

You have the restaurants that cater to a business crowd: Service is swift, unobtrusive, and VIP driven.  The food is costly, the setting has exclusivity in product and seating.

Then there’s the romantic restaurant of which there are three types:

First or early dating: Cocktail driven, lots of wine, beers from microbreweries and Belgium, appetizers, and often raw fish or unusual ingredients.

Night Out/babysitter places: Quiet, big entrees, familiar service.

Long-term relationships: Comfort food, good wine list, long dessert menus.

Finally, there are fast food establishments.  To paraphrase the great Willie Sutton: Get in, get the food, get out.  The aim is immediate satisfaction, not creating memories.  It’s the working class version of the Here and Now, which I crave.

Missing in the equations of each place are restaurants driven by a need to surprise, raise the bar, and cook food that has its own importance.  Not to say that doesn’t happen in the restaurants described, but, believe me, foods isn’t the point at these places.  They wouldn’t stay in business if they followed a business plan where food is center stage.  I know, ironic, right?  But the most important restaurants of the past few decades in the U.S.–Chez Panisse, Zuni, The French Laundry, Daniel, Esca, Le Bernadin, Babbo, etc.–are not good by the standards noted.  They are great.

A Hectic Week

It has been a hectic week in The Haas Test Kitchen and our ancillary outfit, The Haas Road Show, what with The Day Job soaking up nearly every ounce of energy.  Still, Time Management is our M.O. here at THTK, and our motto–Efficiency Without Pain–is emblazoned on each of our employees’ uniforms.

The highlights were night after night of fresh, delicious fish culled from the eponymous department at Atkins Farms.  What fish were doing on an apple farm is anyone’s guess but mine.  Whatever the reason or happenstance, I was glad to add salmon, sole, and sword to my basket that already held Chicopee manufactured kielbasa and Millie’s potato stuffed pierogi.  Never mind that the “lemon sole” was not so secretly flounder.  Well, OK, the fish is the same or similar, I said never mind, and I meant it.  The pierogi, by the way, were first rate.  Boiled and smacked with sour cream that Manuel, our prep cook here had made, they went down nice and easy.

On Wednesday, eager to see Dallas torment the aging Celtics, I went to The Fleet Center.  The joint is Vegas like: Noisy, colorful, filled with drunk fans (two of whom sat behind me and made homophobic comments until I hit one with my man bag), and the Celtics dancers, whose leader Paula Pudenda, made some shocking turns better suited to pole dancing at Carousel on Route One in Beverly than at a sporting event where men with itchy fingers and boys, easily susceptible to fantasy, are present.  For goodness sakes, it’s basketball!  Glad I got that off my chest.

Meanwhile there was Scampo, pre-game: Good Elephant’s ear and good lasagna with cotechino meatballs.

The very next night, I stopped by Pizzeria Posto for their first-rate meatball pizza.  That’s living.