Sunday, August 21, 2016

On Being a Boss in the 20's

"It was unfortunate, but did not matter too much, if the boss was a bastard, a skinflint, a cheat, a no-good, so sharp with his men that one might--God forgive us--doubt he was a Jew.  All that was to be expected of him, was of his very essence as a boss--for a boss, as my mother offhandedly defined the type in a sentence that lighted up for me our instinctive belief in the class struggle--a boss was a man who did nothing himself, sat by idly, enjoying himself, and got rich on the bitter toil of others.  It was far more important to us that the boss be successful, full of work to give out.  Let him be mean, let him be unspeakable, let him be hateful--he kept us alive."

From "A Walker in the City", Alfred Kazin

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Babies, Dogs, or Workout Clothes: Taproom Culture 2016

The burgeoning NC beer scene is getting bigger, thanks to some new taprooms and breweries. The Summer round-up:

- Ponyasaurus is the new hot shit. It's official.

- Some strong moves are being made in Raleigh. Lynnwood Brewing has put out a couple of good beers. Nickelpoint has a good IPA. Gizmo has been getting some good press. There are a bunch of undrinkable things mixed in, but who's complaining?

- Looking forward to Starpoint Brewing coming to Rockwood Plaza (near Thai Cafe). This could potentially be the best beer Durham has ever seen!

Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn't note the new taproom culture. The whole Fullsteam family drinking escapades circa 2011 has now morphed into a culture all its own.  I visited two taprooms in two cities last weekend, and we played a game of punch buggy where you threw a punch every time you saw a baby, a dog, or someone in workout clothes. Let it be known that bruises were suffered for the humor of this new taproom culture. In Belgium and California and beyond there exist breweries and taprooms, but I have yet to see anything quite like the Triangle with its hot mix of beer nerdery, capitalism on steroids, and child rearing. Now who wants to play an life-size game of Connect Four?!

Bonus link: Best article ever on bar culture: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1940/04/13/the-old-house-at-home

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Chef and Forager

In the dozen years since [Bill] Smith pioneered his honeysuckle sorbet, based on a centuries-old Sicilian recipe for "jasmine ice" and his own trial and error, he has taught his employees and their spouses how to pick the flowers. He pays them fifteen dollars for eight softly packed cups. This year, though, thanks to spells of cold and wet springtime weather, he's been largely on his own, forced to forage in thin patches that aren't booming with the typical blooms.

- From the Indyweek

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Denatured Dessert

“I happen not to like sweets,” he [Alex Stupak, pastry chef of WD-50] said as we sat down after dinner and he began to explain his work. “It’s an idiosyncrasy of mine. I decided to become a pastry chef because it gave me autonomy. Whether you think your desserts are manipulated or not, they are! When you’re conceptualizing an entrĂ©e, a protein, you generally expect to get a piece of that thing intact. In pastry, it doesn’t occur. Pastry is the closest that a human being can get to creating a new food. A savory chef will look at puff pastry not as a combination of ingredients but as an ingredient in itself. Pastry is infinitely exciting, because it’s less about showing the greatness of nature, and more about transmitting taste and flavor. Desserts are naturally denatured food.” He looked at me sternly. “Birthday cake is the most denatured thing on earth.”

-- Alex Gopnik, From The New Yorker

Dessert circa 2011

It was as if the dessert chefs had given up on dessert, too, and produced something else in its place. At even a moderately upscale establishment, you would invariably get what I had come to think of as the Portman Plaza plate, since it so closely resembled the model that a developer would have proposed for the center of a crime-wracked mid-sized city in the seventies: three upright cylinders—small towers of something wrapped in something—with the tops sliced at an angle; a crumbly landscape of some kind; and a reflecting pool running around the edge. The plate would be advertised as, let’s say, a chocolate-peanut-butter mousse cake with walnut-balsamic crumble and a sesame sorbet with Concord-grape foam. But the effect was always the same: not enough of a cakey cylindrical thing, too much of a crumbly thing, far too much of a gelatinous thing, and an irrelevance of an off-key runny thing. Without surrendering sugar, dessert had surrendered all its familiar forms—the cake, the soufflĂ©, the pudding—as the avant-garde novel had surrendered narrative, character, and moral. Losing our faith in art is, in a secular culture, what losing our faith in God was to a religious one; God only knows what losing our faith in desserts must be.

-- Alex Gopnik, From The New Yorker

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Jewish Desserts

click to enlarge
"Mandel bread is Jewish biscotti in a universe where people are always saying, 'Hey, you know the problem with biscotti? It’s too thick and flavorful.'"  From Lucky Peach

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Sonny's, Old City, Philadelphia

Crushing cheesesteaks with EJT; the shop was so packed we ate on top of the car

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Chef Stretches Out

We are seeing a phenomenon now where chefs have become minor celebrities, and with celebrity comes the investor that would like to capitalize on fame by building a fiefdom of profitable restaurants for the chef. Where 20 years ago fame might have meant a cooking show and a set of signature pans (e.g. Wolfgang Puck), now the chef in question can expand from the one heralded restaurant to several, often with different conceptual culinary programs.

In New Orleans, I saw this phenomenon at work recently. At John Besh's August, one can eat a fancy, expensive meal conceived by an expert in Southern Cooking. The problem was that most of the food wasn't very good. It wasn't for lack of trying. All of the frou frou ingredients were listed, along with thoughtful mashups of southern cuisine served on small plates that might have been seen on a lesser episode of Iron Chef. It was just that with the actual Chef Besh not at the helm (and who would expect him to? He now owns eleven dining concepts in New Orleans alone), the execution was poor, the etoufee dish was not hot temperature-wise, the spicing was off, and the dessert was stale.

For the entreprising restauranteur, there is no concept not to be explored or exploited: the high cuisine spot; the food truck; the ramen noodle shop; the mozzarella bar; the dessert and bakery concept; the pizzeria.  Who wants to be the next Batali?  But being Batali would mean not physically being there.  The Chef has left the building.

So when I say the Chef stretches out, what I mean is the Chef stretches him or herself too thin. In any kind of operation, especially one with "artisanal" food processes, you can see this happening. Ideally, you want the creative chef to leave his or her imprint on every dish, and for that dish to be unique in a way that speaks to the diner. But this may not always be possible, even with a relatively accomplished and well paid staff.

The staff, the workers that are doing the cooking for the Chef, are only as good as their training.  The U.S. gastronomy movement, being so new compared to Europe, is experiencing a severe shortage of well-trained cooks.  If the cook's training is rushed and not thorough, the end result will be below the quality of the celebrity chef.  But in the effort to both please the investors and keep the ego fed by expansion, a cruel facsimile of the Chefs' cooking gets into the public mouth. The thoughtful restaurant is not something replicable and franchisable like a McDonald's, yet the average McDonald's is doing far better in the consistency department than a restauranteur stretched thin.

An organization has the tendency to replicate the traits of its leader.  So if the restauranteur is overambitious, so will the restaurant be.  And if ambition and skill is diluted by a score of dining concepts, what remains for the customer to enjoy?

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Moogfest Recap

GZA at Motorco 
(this should be his Blue Note cover)

Let me first say that Moogfest was dope. With all the skepticism surrounding its virgin year in Durham, all the money issues chattering around, all the shit talk vis-a-vis Art of Cool, let me just say that Moogfest brought the pain. Should it be renamed "Durham on Drugs"?  Maybe.  But I will say that the sheer scale of the artists, venues, technology, and beautiful people that came to visit our little hamlet of the South was nothing short of deeply flattering.  I never thought I would seea a nighttime East Chapel Hill Street chock full of hipsters holding maps.  The Bakery Cafe, as you could imagine if you didn't visit, was hellaciously busy, posting our three busiest days ever. We look forward to next year with excitement and trepidation.  My favorite show?  Mad Professor at Bull McCabes.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Delicatessen circa 1870

"Hungry city-dwellers visiting their local delicatessen could choose among the following: meat pies, smoked beef shoulder, smoked tongue, smoked fowls, roast fowls, smoked, pickled and salted herring, fresh ham, baked beans, potato salad, beet salad, cabbage, parsip, and celery salads, in addition to all the usual wursts, breads, and cheeses."
-- From 97 Orchard by Jane Ziegelman

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Snapshot Capsule: American Fried

School yourself in ecstatically funny food writing. Calvin Trillin, longtime humorist, food writer, and New Yorker columnist collects essays here on barbecue, phoney French restaurants, the best hamburgers of the Midwest, the crawfish festival of Breaux Bridge, and how to diet down while owning a venerable pizza chain. Recommended. From 1974.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Bellegarde Bakery, New Orleans

After hearing much from my old friend Alex Ruch about Bellegarde Bakery of New Orleans, I was finally able to visit to watch him bake and even help out one morning.  A polymath and Duke Lit alumnus, Alex works part-time for Bellegarde when not professing at Tulane. Bellegarde's breads were inspiring, much in part due to the vision and zeal of owner Graison Gill.  Graison has to be one of the most principled, intense bakers I have ever met.  Read his statement of philosophy on their website, and you will get a small impression of his focus and drive.  He is currently milling two varieties of wheat on site.  It was a thrill to hold just-milled soft fine wheat, still warm from the grinding stones.

Alex loading the hearth oven

Alex cutting epis
video

Those baguettes doe