“OK, Time to Fly!”

Well, not exactly.  But close.  Very close.

The phrase, “OK, Time to Fly!” comes from a tourist book I came across in Prague when it was still under communist rule, and it captures a forthright if misguided era.

Closer to home, it’s a train to NYC, a night with N there, the new Batali restaurant, a new play by Lonergan, and a late dinner at Il Buco Alimentari.

Then, yes, time to fly: JFK on Monday to Narita.  And from there to Roppongi to meet with K, Ginza the next day to meet with F, then K, and back to Roppongi to meet with K, T, K, and R.  On Thursday it’s back to Sapporo.

 

Ideology of Taste

Ideology of Japanese Cuisine is my latest essay, and it takes a look at the relationship between harmony, fantasy, and reality–delicious food, environmental difficulties, public self and private self, the whole nine yards.

Let’s just say that Tanizaki was right when he wrote, In Praise of Shadows.

Closer to home, there is a strong consumer movement that acts with legislators to try to create laws that might be of benefit.  There isn’t enough transparency, not by a long shot, but the public-private bifurcation is smaller in the U.S., which means that people are often willing to express ideas and observations that disrupt harmony.

Imagine a movie called, Jiro Dreams of Sustainability, and you catch my drift.  And I don’t mean drift net fishing.

So let’s just say that it would be informative, to say the least, if writers about culture and cuisine–any culture and any cuisine–included data on the environmental context of what’s on the plate.  Otherwise, it’s decadent, it’s like enjoying diamonds without acknowledging the miners, appreciating cotton (back in the day) while ignoring slave labor.

 

 

Memorable Restaurants

Good books or pieces of music stay in your mind a long time as do things people said long ago.  How that works is a mix of personal needs and desires and wider appeal of the experience.  Sometimes a phrase spoken decades ago will be recalled and mean something only to you; other times a tune will come to mind, and it’s popular and many people think of it often.

About a couple of dozen restaurants are favorites.  The food, of course, but who I was with, a time in my life, the conviviality of the place.

The challenge for anyone creating experience for others is to stay true, consistent, and empathic.  For artists that can take place over time: When you read a certain book, you may not like it, but on a second reading you may feel and think differently and then consider it a wonder.  For me a book that is like that is, “The Leopard.”

For chefs, it’s different, it’s more immediate–customers want to feel and think positively when they are in the restaurant and not only days or years later.  That task of creating immediately what are meant to be memorable experiences is rarified:

Most chefs aren’t capable of creating memories.  Most chefs aren’t even interested in doing so.  They’re trying to make a living, period.

What that means pragmatically is that most restaurants aren’t especially good.  It’s the rare chef who wants to and can create an experience that is memorable.

Why is creating a memorable experience valuable?

Otherwise we’re just shuffling through life, kind of aimlessly, not progressing.  We are who we are because of what we do, but we are also behaviorally the sum of our memorable experiences.

So why bother to eat in restaurants that don’t inspire memories?

Better to cook at home or eat in your hotel room.  More intimate, and intimacy is often a step towards remembering what just happened.

 

Spring is on the way!

Countdown begins to my return to Japan next week, it’s part II of a secret project about chefs, ryokans, culture, and regionality.  I’ll be back in Sapporo on Hokkaido; did not expect to be there so soon.  And a side trip to Seoul for the night.

To prepare, I’m reading a terrific history of the country written by an environmental historian out of U-Montana.  I’d no idea of the diversity of responses to the Meiji Restoration, which followed the arrival of Admiral Perry’s black ships in 1853.  Nor of smallpox immunity, nor a failed invasion of the Korean peninsula in the 1500’s.

Closer to home, shoots are breaking through the earth, I saw a hawk fly over the Charles River yesterday, and the air and light are changing day to day.

 

February, Boston, Cold and Hot

A brief ride on the Red Line T to Tremont Street, facing the Boston Commons, brought us to, “Hail, Caesar,” a fun, entertaining, quickly forgettable movie.  Then a ride back to Central Square in Cambridge in search of food.

There’s pizza, burgers, falafel, noodles, pizza, burgers, falafel, and noodles, and while I love the feeling of being at college that eating all this stuff inspires, I mean, let’s be honest, it’s not really satisfying.  And the idea of $12 beets and $38 lamb?

So we stopped at Bao Nation, at the back of Shalimar groceries, and picked up good buns and dumplings.  Never been before, won’t be back any time soon.  Buns were lathered in an orange sauce meant to be a kind of Russian dressing in which were thick, brown pieces of lamb.  Dumplings of shrimp were good.

Next to Bao Nation is a little Indian kitchen selling food from every region of India. It’s as if a European restaurant opened that sold food from France, Italy, Germany, and Spain.  I picked up food from the menu section that I’d heard about, but never tried: Chinese-Indian.  The deep fried cheese cubes drenched in tomato sauce and onions tasted exactly the way it sounds.  Then noodles, which looked like spaghetti, where sweet and if they were put in a can would feel at home.

And home it was.  To watch more of, “The Seventh Samurai,” which I’d never seen before.

What Is A Restaurant?

In the U.S., anyone can open a business to feed strangers and call it a restaurant.  Not so in other countries.

In Italy, for example, a person with little experience wouldn’t dare to start a restaurant, but instead would begin perhaps by having a bar that sells food; then an osteria; then a trattoria; finally, if these places work out, a restaurant.  Expectations are linked to the level of establishment.

Same in France: Bar, brasserie, bistro, restaurant.

Or Japan: Ramen, izakaya, yakitori, yakiniku, tempura, sushi, restaurant.

The cool thing about the States is that anyone with financial resources can call himself or herself a chef.  The result is vast mediocrity, a dining landscape characterized by marketing skills and celebrity rather than food that is informed by tradition, skill, and focus.  On the positive side?  Anyone can open a restaurant.

As a result of the huge variability in dining choices, franchises got started.  These established reliable service that eschewed random acts of racism and sexism; products that tasted the same no matter where you were; standards of hiring and firing and work conditions; and, price points that had good enough value to create regular customers.

Early on this was McDonald’s.

These days?  Shake Shack, Starbucks, etc.

It’s a lot like privately managed health care (H.M.O.’s), and the general monetization of everyday life.  Small businesses can exist in this fiscal environment, but it’s a huge challenge given the deep pockets and marketing skills of competing forces.

One possible way out is for cooks to identify what they do best and open places that are unique to those talents.  This would mean far fewer restaurants, which would be a good thing since most of those in the kitchen aren’t skilled enough, and more simple places: Good diners, good sandwich shops, and so on.

Places like Flour in Boston and City Bakery in NYC are good examples.  So are Galleria Umberto and Black Seed Bagel.  (Note that all four places sell dough products–Chefs, the #1 profit items on any menu are pizza or bread-based.)

So word to chefs: Close down the restaurant, open a simple place that sells a half dozen great things.

Less stress, more money.

 

 

 

What We Cook When Mom & Dad Are Away

Back in high school, we’d all pile into someone’s car or bike over to T’s house when his parents went away and left him in charge of the house.  T was given a sum of money meant to last the entire time, and that meant he had to buy and cook stuff within that budget.  He also depended on us, his friends, to bring food over or buy him burgers when we went out.

T was a stoner, a great guy, sweet as sugar, brilliant in school, and an all-around generous guy.  His mom was a big drinker–she died when T was at school, crossing a busy street, drunk–and he took things in stride.

At the house, the fridge was filled with Dannon yoghurt, a bunch of flavors, and competition took place for strawberry and apricot.

Music played on the turntable a lot: From Grateful Dead to Grateful Dead.  Maybe a little Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, but just the one album.

The cooking was a hodgepodge–a daring mix of ingredients scrounged from the pantry and whatever someone brought from the supermarket: Ground beef, chicken wings, hot dogs.  Added to that were sauces from scratch along with ketchup, etc.

I think often of T when eating in certain restaurants in a certain city: When the food tastes as if it has been cooked by kids whose parents are out of town, who have a limited budget, and who create tastes to satisfy hunger brought about by being stoned.  It’s what Burroughs said about marijuana: It creates a euphoria that isn’t connected to an experience.

Food tastes better when repetition, skill, rules, and restraint are evident.

Today in the World of Food

Lovely review of Benoit, Alain Ducasse’s bistro in Manhattan, which appears in today’s NYT.  I’ve been a couple of times, actually interviewed Ducasse there once, and have always been charmed by the pleasures of his food.  His chefs follow straightforward principles and present guests with delicious versions of classic bistro food–this is the kind of dining one could readily enjoy routinely.

So unlike the hodgepodge and noise of what is called French so many other places.

Ironic, therefore, that a chef whose celebrity is so touted has a bistro where it is the food that people come to enjoy rather than a pretense of glamour.

Closer to home, I’ve been enjoying simple miso soup made from dark, expensive miso I brought back from Japan.  This earthy stuff, from Nagano, has so much depth of flavor that a tablespoon is enough for two good bowls.  Last night I also made a haddock tempura and served it with Niigata rice and pickled greens from Tokyo.

On the weekend, M arrives from Yamanaka, and we’ll head over to New Deal to buy lobsters.

The Boston Report

New day, week, month.  Weather like tropics, only fog is missing.  The morning in Roxbury and then several days on the secret Korea project, a draft proposal, and articles on Japan.

M comes to Boston on Friday, via NYC, and originally from Kyoto, for a few days of New England winter cheer.  Where to take her to eat?  To one of the two decent French restaurants in town?  To one of the two Italian restaurant worthwhile?  The French places are about $100 p.p. and the Italian places are booked solid.

So: Cocktails in Harvard Square and lobster at home from New Deal.