Thursday, May 30, 2019

RIP Wimpy's

Be a Conduit for the Ingredient II

On October 26 2016, I made an enigmatic post with a title only, "Be a Conduit for the Ingredient".   Nearly three years later, I think I am ready to expand on that.

"The common, recurring image of our present moment: a person sitting in a parked car, with the engine and the air conditioning running, using a smartphone, drinking a soda and/or eating fast food."

This was the first line written and read aloud in August 2017 by Adam Sobsey (link) in reference to everything he did not want our pop-up supper project (it was the anti-pop-up in many ways), Manifest, to be.  In the modern consumerist model of gastronomy, everything is disposable.  As a longtime bartender at Nana's of Durham, Adam saw the magnitude of food waste, not just in the uneaten things from diners' plates, but the peelings, scraps, and tops that were discarded, the plastic packaging, the cardboard, the gasoline used by the vendor trucks, etc.  At its best, each ingredient speaks with the clarity of a bell through the dish.  At its worst, it is a muddle of a McDonald's cheeseburger that is engineered by a massive agribusiness system to deliver sugar, salt, and hormones, not to mention a post-meal stomachache.

Like the economy of the aphorism in the post title, a carrot has a spiritual life that we can either evoke or deaden through food preparation.  When I think of respect for the ingredient, I think of Alice Water's rediscovery of the majesty of the garden salad in the 1970's.  Lettuces and greens have a fragility and tenderness, not to mention bitterness, that is alive in a way very few people get to eat or appreciate.  Like a spiritual medium, we can all become mediums for what an ingredient is saying if we slow down, listen, extend our palates, and finally, taste.

Trust the Chef

Our landlord is Self-Help Credit Union, and our rental point of contact is a gentleman who has been with Self-Help for years named Malcolm.  He knew Frank, the ex-owner, and has seen all the changes to the Bakery since I took over ownership.  Early on in my tenure, he told me that I didn't need to do a lot of things well, I just needed to do one thing very well every day.  His model was a small cafe in Greensboro, NC where the daily special was called, "Trust the Chef".  I can appreciate that.  As a result, soon after speaking with Malcolm, we instituted two weekly sandwich specials that rotated (now we usually run four).  This way, there is some weekly variety, but enough of a condensed menu such that the customer knows that the ingredients are turning over quickly and the items are not staling or expiring in a steam pan for days.  This ethos also animated the cooking of the Michelin-starred Parisian restaurant, Spring, where American Daniel Rose came to prominence in a small 18-seat restaurant that used an affordable prix fixe menu that changed daily with the green market offerings.  Listen to his work patterns and philiosophy here.  Later, as Adam Sobsey and I developed the 10 Commandments of Manifest, our pop-up supper, prix fixe was central to both food cost control and also affordability for the guests (our ticket price was never greater than $25).

There are other advantages to prix fixe as well.  When a guest selects their food, their agency in that decision is often mediated by the choices they have, good or bad.  When the restaurateur selects through prix fixe, they are implicitly saying, "let me take care of you, I know what you'll like, and I will give you the best of what I found today at the market or what I dreamed about last night."  There is a modicum of hospitality at work which serves to ensconce the guest in a cocoon of intentionality on the part of the chef, much as when you arrive at a friend's house for dinner you expect to eat what he or she has to offer, without a thought to making a special request or ordering from a menu.  In fact, the idea of the modern restaurant with a menu is actually a relatively recent bourgeois invention dating back to France of the 18th century.  We must not forget this, and must furthermore trust good chefs and restaurants when they select the menu for us because behind that plate of food is in fact thought, beauty, and if we're lucky, maybe even a little art.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Good Ale, Raw Onions, and No Ladies - Old Bill

"He was a big eater. Customarily, just before locking up for the night, he would grill himself a three-pound T-bone, placing it on a coal shovel and holding it over a bed of oak coals in the back-room fireplace. He liked to fit a whole onion into the hollowed-out heel of a loaf of French bread and eat it as if it were an apple. He had an extraordinary appetite for onions, the stronger the better, and said that “Good ale, raw onions, and no ladies” was the motto of his saloon."

Joseph Mitchell, "The Old House at Home", 1940