In Search of Food

I’ve been driving around town the past couple of days, through lovely and lively neighborhoods, in search of something to eat, and it hasn’t exactly been that successful an endeavor.  I walked into and out of a number of shops and stores without buying a thing.

I did get very lucky with Pepe Beppe.  It’s a new Italian-American grocery store that also serves sandwiches, and it’s located in Davis Square, Somerville.  I got in yesterday.  I’d driven there Sunday, but they had closed at 5 P.M. and I was there at six.  I returned on Monday, but they are closed Monday.  Hey, folks, it’s retail, and retail, at least here in the U.S.?  Retail stays open AMAP (as much as possible).

What I got yesterday was very good.  The bread is first-rate: As good as Sullivan Street Bakery in Hell’s Kitchen.  The chicken cutlet was juicy and breaded perfectly and had just the right # of salt.  The slice of pizza: OK, not great; the dough was too think and the pepperoni was not top quality.

The staff at Pepe Beppe is lively, pleasant, and engaging.  One guy, he and I talked about the C’s getting swept: “All heart.”  And you could say the same thing about this place.  The retail prices on imported ingredients ought to be lower, the ricotta from New Haven shouldn’t be 30% higher than other competitors, and it would be nice to see the very best in cured meats.

But for now: This is a store that deserves your money and interest.  It’s light years better than most retail food stores in Boston.  The food looks good and tastes good.  You will find things to eat.

Saturday Night!

I checked the listings, and maybe it’s people gearing up for May or June, but there wasn’t much happening of interest in NYC or Boston so I decided to stay in.  First, I drove over to the Queens of Boston, which is a lively and wonderful stretch of road between North Beacon and Comm. Ave. in Allston.

It’s there and around there that you’ll find just over a dozen Chinese, Korean, and Japanese restaurants and cafes.  Sakanaya, which is a fish store, sells first rate sashimi; the owner used to work at Tsukiji.  Bon Bon is a terrific outpost of a Korean fried chicken company.  Jo Jo Tapei is a very good Taiwanese restaurant.  And recently Totto Ramen came to the city from NYC.

But I was in the mood for BBQ.

You can’t do any better than Soul Fire. $17 gets you half a rack of juicy, perfectly marinated and slow cooked pork ribs with two sides.  Delicious baked beans and coleslaw, fresh as can be.

I drove home, was able to find a movie, and sat down with dinner.  “Desperately Seeking Susan,” which I hadn’t seen since it first came out in the mid-1980’s is terrific.  Madonna was the embodiment of a new type of woman, and NYC looked nothing like it does today.  The movie showed a woman who was feminine, fearless, and independent.  It depicted a city where performers who had day jobs on delivery bicycles had loft apartments in Murray Hill with views of the Empire State Building.

Now the action is elsewhere: Brooklyn, Queens.

How To Be A Chef

Most writers aren’t poets and most cooks aren’t chefs.  Similar to the proliferation of MFA programs that teach people how to write or refine their writing, culinary schools got way popular in the last couple of decades.  The idea is to provide skills that lead to publishing or employment.

What has emerged are published writers and employed cooks, but rare examples of memorable work or meals.  It makes sense when you think about it: How many books or articles leave any impression?  How many meals are worth paying for and are satisfying?

Never mind the debt that writers take on to earn an MFA.  Or the charade that the MFA makes them a bona fide writer.  Well, do mind: It’s not just the $120,000 for the three years of tuition, it’s the $54,000 for rent, $72,000 for living expenses, and loss of income on the three years.

Culinary schools offer comparable debt.

Your best bet as a chef who wants to be successful is to develop a simple business model that will create a flow of income that can be used for more advanced projects.  (Good luck with the advancement.)

Take burgers.  Shake Shack just went public to the tune of $1.6 billion.  That’s pretty good for ground beef.  Start there.  You can get a food cost of about 30 cents per burger.  You can pay six workers $10 each per hour.  Sell 500 burgers an hour times ten hours at $6 each.  You have $2100 a day in labor/food costs and $30,000 from the burgers.  Throw in the fries that cost next to nothing and you’re up another $15,000.  Total net profit (minus rent and utilities): $42,900 per diem.

No wonder we see more and more burger joints opening across the country.

It’s poetry.


Dr. Oz is in Big Trouble

The NY Times reports in today’s Business section that Dr. Oz is receiving rather frank criticism by ten physicians from Columbia University, the institution with which he is affiliated, for (among other things) his, “baseless and relentless opposition to the genetic engineering of food crops.”

This isn’t Dr. Oz’s first time facing criticism.

The article goes on to note that: “And in December, BMJ, the British medical journal, released a report that said about half of the claims made by Dr. Oz’s show were not supported by evidence.”

I suppose that entertainment has a value and I really like Dr. Oz’s name since it reminds me of the wizard.

But I think the Columbia doctors may have a point, too.

Meanwhile, back here on planet Earth, science and food have always had a marriage both conflictual and splendid.  From systems that make reliable use of methods to increase yield to poisonous pesticides, there is never one path.



The Weekend is Over, the Week Begins

Every day brings new sights in the neighborhood, from more screeching blue jays to tiny green buds on the birches.  When you walk a dog five to six times each day, as I do, it’s natural to take things in.

Indoors, the menus change, too.  Fish, fish, and more fish.  Cracked open the Buick-sized grill last week, and last night grilled 1/2 pound of sword.  First you roll it in a smidge of canola oil, then roll it in bread crumbs.  Wait until the coals are gray.  Grill seven minutes on one side, nine on the other.  Mind, the length of time depends of course on how thick your cut is.  Yes, it’s pure, old school Sicilian, my nonna Sylvia would be proud.

Grazie Sylvia!

Meanwhile in a cast iron frying pan put in about four tablespoons of top grade olive oil.  I use Stone House from CA.  Low heat.  Add some pine nuts and capers.  Add a few asparagus cut into inch long pieces.  Crank up the heat.  Lower the heat.

Remove fish from grill.  In a bowl, mix some lemon juice and mirin.

Crank up heat.  Add a handful of chopped ramps.  Stir.  Plate.  Put fish on top of vegetables and pine nuts.  Pour the mirin-lemon juice mix on the fish.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

Beats eating out.

The Weekend Is Here!

Crack open the Templeton’s!  Open the jar of cherries!  Measure or don’t.  Fill a glass with ice.

Better yet, eschew the ETOH and focus on serious cooking.

Why, it’s the time of year for white asparagus from Peru–$7.99 a pound @ Savenor’s, $3.99 at Whole Foods–that’s greenhouse grown, but which is a healthy attempt to replicate the thick, real things from Belgium, France, Germany, and Holland.

Or go for morels: $35 a pound at Russo’s, $49 a pound @ Savenor’s.  Unfortunately, at those prices the fungi sit a long time and by the time you have them in your hands are a funny shade of black and are long past their prime.

Where does that leave us?

You’re best off with fava beans, green asparagus from Mexico or California, and a rainbow beet or two.

Protein?  Did someone mention protein?  There’s fresh tofu from local factories.  Great chickens from D’Artaganan.  And fish up the wazoo.

Spring is here!


Out in Boston, Again!

One of the many things that attracted me to Boston when I first moved here many years ago was its scale: It’s a manageable city, a great place to walk, and the size and range of its buildings are small and varied enough to evoke surprise and pleasure.

It’s also a place, I found at first, where people tended to talk about stuff and read about things rather than seek what’s a trend or current.

Last night it was a walk from Downtown Crossing and through impoverished Chinatown to the South End.  Beautiful, new condos crowd out homeless shelters, old bars, cheap convenience stores, and families.

Coppa was the destination: It was my third visit, and the best yet.  It’s a corner restaurant with a nod to Italian cooking, which means here pastas and pizzas and cured meats.  The room was wonderfully lively with a mix of locals, new residents, and visitors spending time with the first two groups.

The appetizers of meatballs and asparagus were very good and so was the branzino.  The pasta was overcooked and over sauced.  The bill was $118 for two, which included two appetizers, one entree, one pasta, one cocktail, two glasses of wine, tax and tip.

Overall, what we’re talking about is food, service, and atmosphere that are a cut above most restaurants of this kind in Boston, but nowhere near as good as restaurants of this kind in other cities.

A great choice before hearing Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea down the street @ the BSO.

Dining in Boston

Now and then I drag myself out of my house, get on the subway, and walk the rest of the way to a restaurant.  Last night, for example, it was Bar Boulud.  Sixth visit, the place gets better and better, it’s finding its groove, the room now has rhythm.

Raw oysters, gougere, risotto with ramps and porcini, boudin blanc, lobster.

The room was packed with visitors and some locals.  The bar was completely jammed.  Drinks and cocktails are pricey ($17 average), so drink less, OK?

It’s really the kind of restaurant that the city benefits from enormously: Uncompromising French cuisine using local seafood, in-house charcuterie, and service that is anticipatory and not obsequious nor tentative.

There are places all over town that call themselves French.  We’re not going to name names, you know who you are.  But that makes me think of Chico in one of those old Marx Brothers movies–Abie the Fishman asks him, “Hey, since when are you Italian?”

People Only Cook What They Know

Certain cities have certain restaurants and these businesses offer a range of delicious foods.

In places like Tokyo, the traditional way of doing things exists alongside super modern restaurants.  Either way, it’s a lucky combination of reasons that makes dining there so darn good: Access to first rate ingredients, few homes with ovens, inexpensive options for eating, fierce competition among restaurants, and a cultural desire to assuage sadness and fear through silent eating or noisy drinking.

But let’s look at chefs for a moment.

I go to many restaurants and find huge imbalances in the menu and in the level of service.  Let’s stick to the menu for now.

If a chef knows what he or she knows from studying it in school or working brutally hard for years in one place, the result when he or she cooks can be focused and precise and deeply flavorful.

But it also can exclude flavors from other experiences.

One of David Chang’s great achievements was to denounce Escoffier and urge chefs to look at the flavors of China, Japan, Korea, and the nations of Southeast Asia.  He is kind of like the Junot Diaz of the culinary world.  Diaz is quoted in tomorrow’s NYT magazine in a piece about the very great Toni Morrison–Diaz speaks of, “the unbearable whiteness of American literature.”

You can apply the same thinking to what happens in many professional American kitchens.

Take a look at the restaurants that have have opened recently in certain cities: High fat foods, huge plates, tasting menus that are very inconsistent, and either a Western mix of flavors or some hodgepodge, half-baked attempt to integrate a flavor from Asia.

Little emphasis on vegetables, little use of steaming, little use of broths, little use of noodles.

It’s tough, but if chefs traveled more and inculcated what they taste while on the road maybe the food would taste better.  At least it would taste different.


Food News

It’s dizzying to read the top stories in food just about any day.  Today we hear of the under-funding of the F.D.A. Which leads to poor food safety, which causes food borne illnesses.  Alongside that broad story, which affects most North Americans, we hear about the elite, bawdy, Byronesque figure of Chef Marco Pierre White.

Here’s a quote from White in today’s NY Times: “Any chef who says he does it for love is a liar,” Mr. White said. “At the end of the day it’s all about money. I never thought I would ever think like that, but I do now. I don’t enjoy it. I don’t enjoy having to kill myself six days a week to pay the bank.”

Which leads to an interesting column by Mark Bittman in the same paper about McDonald’s.  The company is falling behind in global sales and just settled with workers to increase wages.

What all three stories have in common is, of course, money.

If you want to know what’s really happening in food, follow that.  You have Shake Shake valued now at over $350M.  You have wages below $10.