Chef, December 23, 2004 — Being on the edge of legitimacy
means that while food bloggers are typically not considered
professional journalists, they are sometimes considered worthy of
press freebies. Here’s how it works: someone has a product to
promote, they give that product to journalists hoping they’ll write
something favorable about the product or at least mention it. I’ve
started to get more and more press releases over time. I could
probably get even more freebies if I really wanted, but who has the
time. I don’t mind paying the $7 (are movies still $7?, I think I’m
woefully out of touch) to see
A few months ago I agreed to check out
Super Chef, The Making of the Great Modern Restaurant Empires,
by Juliette Rossant. I generally avoid spending a ton of time
writing about things I don’t really enjoy, but I feel like there are
some important things to learn from Super Chef. More on those later.
Firstly, the title. Super Chef. Already I’m slightly irritated as I
don’t really know what it means. It’s not that I have a problem with
calling out certain chefs as superlative. Certain chefs deserve
those accolades. It may just be my perception, but calling the top
celebrity chefs “Super Chefs” seems slightly affected, and feeds
into this notion that a) you have to be a celebrity chef to make
great food, or b) all celebrity chefs make great food. I admit this
may just be me being oversensitive, but I can’t help the way I
reacted to the title.
The book covers several chefs: Wolfgang Puck,
Charlie Palmer, Todd English, Milliken and Feniger, and Tom
Colicchio. The first thing that struck me was that I’d eaten at five
of these chefs restaurants (Chinoise and Wolfgang Puck Express,
Border Grill, and
Craft) and had
mediocre meals. Now I have no doubt that each of these Chefs in
their own right can cook up a storm. But this is in fact the point.
These chefs create food experiences with their names on them, and
yet the quality of the food (that I experienced) paled in comparison
to what the namesakes of the restaurants can make with their own
hands (I assume). And ironically, this really was the theme of the
book for me. Read on as Juliette Rossant tells the story of six
chefs who used to make great food and now are too busy running their
“modern restaurant empires” to do any actual cooking. These chefs
swear up and down that their contribution to their empire is strict
There are passages describing how meticulously the
“super chefs” train their chefs who cook under their name in other
cities. But after a) eating in some of their restaurants, b) reading
sections describing the details of Wolfgang Puck lending his name to
a line of canned soups, and c) hearing about chefs show up once or
twice a year to train staff on a cruise ship, or making airline
food, the entire affair simply sounds unappetizing. I'm not saying I
have a problem with canned soup, or food on cruise ships. I just
started to wonder, what really was the Wolfgang Puck "experience" if
you could put it in a can? In some ways the book reminded me of the
tv show “The Restaurant”. It was contrived but fun “drama”, but most
disappointingly, the food did not look appetizing. Though I watched
the show I had no urge to go eat at Rocco’s. The same was true of
the book. Though I read it, I had no desire to eat at any of the
restaurants described in its pages.
So halfway through reading the book and thinking
about how uninterested I was in eating any of Wolfgang Puck or Tom
Colicchio’s “fast casual” food, I realized that Juliette Rossant was
a business reporter. This book wasn’t about food, it was about the
business of food. Fine. I like reading about business. I reframed my
expectations for the book and read onward. And again, I was
disappointed. As unappetizing as the food sounded, the business
practices of many (not all) of the “Super Chefs” in question often
seemed random and dopey. None of the chefs seemed to be super
impressive business people from the descriptions in the book. Many
of them, Milliken and Feniger and Todd English specifically, seemed
to make every step in the restaurant business a painful misstep.
From growing too quickly, to making naïve decisions about personnel,
to getting enamored with their own celebrity, etc. I'm not saying
they are bad business people, I'm saying that this is the impression
I got from the book.
Super Chef was neither an exciting behind-the-scenes
look at the food that built these careers, nor was it a particularly
illuminating view into innovative and consistently successful
businesspeople. I read the whole thing, so you don’t have to. I wish
the book had gotten either more hardcore about the detail of the
food (and the quality of that food) that it described, or focused on
people who really were business leaders you could look up to. I
suppose since I have yet to either cook or run a business as well as
any of the people covered in the book, people may question my
judgment. That said, I can read, and from what I read, the book did
seem neither a food book nor a business book to me. In the end,
whether it was the awkward writing, the impression that I got that
the author was trying to sound objective but was really enamored of
her subjects (pick one please), or the fact that I never knew
whether I was supposed to be excited about the food or the business
of food, the book felt to me like the food and chefs it was
describing – a lot of stuff thrown together to see what would stick.
It's funny but if only the premise had been
different, I might have actually enjoyed reading the book. The theme
that kept hitting me over the head as I read the book was how
incompatible expertly hand-crafted food and large-scale business
seem to be. I would really have loved to understand not just how
chefs have failed to scale their business while maintaining quality,
but understand much more about some of the successes (if there are
any). Now that would be interesting, and understandable.
Here's a shameless plug.
The Accidental Hedonist
is hosting voting on the best food blogs of 2004. Anyone can vote,
so please do so -
here. Especially as we've been nominated for "Best Food Blog -
Restaurant Reviews". Thanks!
I'm not a huge chocolate-mint combination fan, and
while it may be the wonderful photography,
these cookies do look
A la Carte
Odds and Ends - a collection of recipes that didn't fit into any
other articles. I love how understated the text is on this site.
"Oh, here are a few recipes I had lying around." What you get is a
gorgeously produced, beautiful collection of recipes each not only
with back stories, photographs, and detailed instructions, but in
this case, each dish has its own logo. It's own logo!!! Some days
you have to take a moment to marvel about the wonder of what is
available for free on the internet.
Definitely check out the saucisse de Montbeliard
(wait for the logos to change until it gets to this one), the
sausage looks delicious.
Mountain Strawberries, Rome, Italy, March 19, 2004 — Our
second day in Rome found us wandering around an outdoor market. We
happened upon something I'd never seen before. I know there's tons
of produce I've never encountered, but I expect to find that in
Asia, not in Europe. I figured in Italy maybe there would be a bunch
of cool new breeds of tomatoes I'd never eaten. Maybe some zucchini.
Instead I got to try Mountain Strawberries - Fragoline di Monte.
Not a huge amount to share about these other than
they were adorable, and while they were fresh and delicious, they
tasted almost like strawberry flavored gum. Almost fake. Weird and
neat at the same time.
We're taking a little break from Italy today for
some comic relief.
I've linked to this site before, but it bears
repeating. I refound this site from
www.iheartbacon.com who had
a link. The site is
thesneeze.com. The Sneeze is not a food site per se but it is
absolutely hysterical. That said, Steve, its author does have a
special subsection called "Steve,
Don't Eat It!" which is what garnered it a mention on this site.
Or at least, that's the pretense. The real reason I'm linking to it
is that it's funny as hell. Some choice quotes from the food-related
entries (where Steve eats gross stuff and let's you know how it
- On Beggin Strips (bacon-flavored strips for dogs): "And
somehow these Beggin' Strips also managed to smell just like
bacon. Oopsie. Typo. I meant to say 'the smoky puke of a
- On Natto (Japanese fermented soybeans): "Actually, the
little pile inside looked kinda like baked beans. It also
smelled kinda like baked beans. If they were baked in the filthy
heat of Satan's asshole."
- On Ralph's Potted Meat Food Product: "Okay, here we go--
Pulling back the lid (not recommended) lets loose an odor that
punches you in the nose like a stinky fist. If you've ever
smelled a can of dog food, it's just like that. Only imagine you
are opening the can while your head is wedged in a horse's ass."
It gets even better when you read the entire
writeups, which I wholeheartedly recommend.
Mariotti Caffeteria Gelateria,
Rome, Italy, March 18, 2004 — I suppose it's naive and
borderline silly to get super excited about the first gelato I ate
in Italy. However, I don't think my senses completely left me. And
this stuff was fantastic.
I still am not 100% sure about the
technical definitions of gelato and sorbetto. This
takes a stab at some definitions. Needless to say, technicalities
Mariotti had (roughly)
billion different flavors to choose from.
had a nice strong flavor filled with smooth lemon goodness.
It was slightly tart. The Chocolate was rich dark amazing (so good
in fact that
eaten by the time I tried to snap a picture of it). The
Cassata alla Ricotta
was a bit freaky and chock full of candy bits. I really enjoyed the
Hazelnut Chocolate. It was like a
gelato. Finally, we tried the strawberry. I truly contained the
essence of a perfect fresh strawberry. Weird. So odd for a fresh
fruit flavor to come through so quickly in a frozen form. OK. Maybe
not weird per se, but certainly atypical.
We're only a few hours into our trip to
Italy and we've already had a fantastic home cooked meal at an
unmarked back alley restaurant, and we've proven that this country
takes it's ice cream very seriously. Dense, creamy, delicious. I'm
excited for what tomorrow brings.
da Alfredo e Ada,
Rome, Italy, March 18, 2004 — We'd landed just a few hours
earlier and needed to go somewhere for dinner in Rome. With ten short
days in Italy I'm not one to leave anything to chance. (OK, even
when we spent a month in London I planned all our meals ahead.) I'd
heard through folks that there was this tiny little unmarked
restaurant run by a pair of grandmother's. I heard the kitchen was
tiny, cooking was done on hot plates, and they stopped accepting
customers when the fantastic home cooked food ran out for the night.
This was the place for me.
e Ada was a significant challenge in itself. And surprisingly,
it wasn't because I'd never been to Rome, or the taxi drivers drove
like maniacs down the narrow streets. It was because there's
sign in front of the restaurant. The light was warm as we
entered and after we confirmed that we were in the right place (in
our broken Italian) we were immediately seated at a long table.
Within seconds a cask of the house-made wine showed up. I'm not
entirely sure how to describe this wine. It was like someone made
wine from concentrate. I almost imagined that after I took a swig
might burst through the far wall. The wine was a weak white wine,
that tasted slightly diluted, but was served cold, was slightly
acidic, and actually ended up being a good balance with the food we
Speaking of the food, it started coming. Big plates
with heaping portions of pasta and meat. There were no menus so we
waited for the night's dishes. First was
Macaroni con Itsubo Involtini. (I apologize if I spelled it
wrong. In my eating frenzy, sauce and cheese flew in all directions
including the spot I wrote down the name of this dish.) Basically it
was big rigatoni in a super light tangy sauce. It was super cheesy
and studded with big chunks of a fatty (in a good way) meat.
While we were eating
darted around the restaurant moving from the kitchen to various
tables making sure everything was running smoothly. As best I could
Alfredo in "Alfredo e Ada" had passed away. But Ada didn't miss
a beat. She had help from two other women,
one who also looked like somebody's grandmother, and a younger
woman running food out to customers. As we were waiting for the next
course, Ada caught our eye from across the restaurant and waved to
DebDu to come to the kitchen.
Debdu made her way over and
returned with her plate of food. One by one we all went to the
came back with our dishes and big smiles on our faces.
Half of us got
Veal with Pork Sausage, Kale, and Peas. The other half got
Beef Brisket Roulade with Red Beans and Red Sauce. Given how
rustic the dishes were they were surprisingly light in touch when it
came to flavor. This is not to say they didn't have flavor. They had
plenty. It's just that the flavors were surprisingly lithe in the
dishes, dancing around each other distinctly. The veal was (as they
say) like butter and almost sweet. The sausage had a slight and
enjoyable spiciness on the finish. The red sauce on the beef was the
same as we had on the pasta and we were happy to see a repeat
performance. The dish had interesting islands in its own complex
While the pseudo-professional responsibility that
comes with this food blog was certainly a factor, I was really just
dying to really check out where all this great food was coming from.
Sure enough, the
kitchen was tiny. And yes, there were
hotplates in the corner. Tell that to people who need Viking and
Wolf ranges in their houses. The night's
food sat in the kitchen waiting to be served. And there wasn't
much left. We were lucky we got there when we did. Three women made,
served, and cleaned up 30 dinners. Wow.
Finally, Ada delivered some
sugar ring cookies to the table. She demonstrated that we were
dip the cookies in our wine. The combined flavor was sugary,
crispy, light, and yummy. DebDu said it was like dunking graham
crackers in apple juice. Ada came and
wrote the bill on the "tablecloth" along with what appeared to
her trademark caricature of herself.
Is it too much to ask that grandmothers' across the
United States open up small, unmarked restaurants where they serve
their wonderful homecooking honed over decades of making people
happy to happy customers? American diners are way too concerned with
the "scene" and mojitos.
It was our first meal in Italy and I was happy.
Netherlands, March 18, 2004 — There wasn't really a non-stop
flight option from Seattle to Italy so we had to pick a spot to
stop. We ended up flying on Northwest/KLM through Amsterdam to Rome.
I have tried to be disciplined about not asking you to spend your
valuable time listening to me complain about airline food.
Anyone who deems themselves good enough to get on stage at amateur
night in their local comedy club has already covered that material
in detail. However, when you eat something good on an airplane you
should call it out.
Airline meals are constrained by a series of challenges.
You can't really cook anything on the plane, so all food must be made in
advance. And then the airline equipment for cooling and heating food
appears to have only two settings - frostbite cold, and corona hot.
Invariably the wilted lettuce of your salad has some crystallized ice on
it, and your hot "entree" looks like the surface of another planet. Just
wait a few minutes and both will arrive at a more reasonable
temperature. Unfortunately the food doesn't get any better in that time.
And sure enough, our flight from Seattle to Amsterdam on
Northwest had absolutely vile food. For some reason, despite the
limitations, airlines insist (or customers demand) facsimiles of meals
that should only be cooked in a real kitchen. Not warmed in an airplane
galley. And yet, why is it that with non-U.S. airlines, I always have
(and am often rewarded with) better quality plane food? I can't help but
suspect it has something to do with the American obsession around
quantity over quality. But whatever the reason, I always expect it to be
better on flights originating outside the U.S. Not great food, but at
least not completely atrocious. Our flight from Amsterdam to Rome didn't
They served us a simple breakfast. There was a
box with pre-packaged fruit, yogurt, and muffin. O.K. The fruit was
gross, and the cold muffin was too, but the yogurt was fine. But that
wasn't the highlight, they also handed out from a basket what they
called "cheese blintzes". In actuality they were smaller than fist-size
medium brown soft rolls covered with a variety of yummy seeds
(sunflower, pumpkin, etc.). In the middle of the bread was a slice of
good tasting cheese. And the entire thing had been melted. Basically a
simple grilled cheese sandwich, without the grilling, with a half-decent
cheese, and a roll with nuts on it for flavor contrast to the cheese.
Now this was something the heatboxes on an airplane could cook well. And
these simple sandwiches were absolutely delicious. Why airlines think I
want some horrifying approximation of pancakes, western omelet, and
sausage instead of a simpler dish that might actually taste good, I
don't know. Airlines should go with the strengths of their environment
as opposed to trying to mask its weaknesses. And by the way, if my
flight had departed from an American city, then my "cheese blintz" would
have been a slice of orange American Cheese molten between two soggy
pieces of a cheap variation on Wonder Bread. Yuck.
One summer at summer camp at a certain point
we got sick of the food being served in the cafeteria. We had a popcorn
popper in our bunk. This wasn't an air popper, but the old kind that had
a hot surface onto which you put oil, and then your unpopped kernels. We
improvised and used it as a frying pan to make tuna melts. After
stealing butter, bread, cheese, and tuna fish from the kitchen, we had
some of the most golden and perfect tasting tuna melts I have ever
eaten. All made in our popcorn popper. Bottom line: go with your
strengths, and something edible may emerge.
March 11, 2004 — I don't like doing anything half way. And
when I'm going to have an experience that I'm really looking forward
to, I really want to savor it completely. I'd rather wait awhile to
do it, than do it part way now, with a promise of more later. This
was the case for me when it came to going to Italy.
The land, the language, and most of all the food
have been calling to me all my life. And every time I have had an
opportunity to go, it's either been for not very long or under
circumstances that I felt wouldn't allow me to really enjoy my
visit. Finally we had the opportunity to go for over a week, and
decided it was time to go.
There was a lot of debate about where we should go.
South? North? Rome? In the end we decided to head to the region most
famous for food (of course) Emilia Romagna. The thing that put me
over the edge in deciding to target that region is that it's home to
three of Italy's most perfect food: Parmigiano Reggiano from Parma
and Reggio Emilia, Prosciutto di Parma also from Parma, and Balsamic
Vinegar from Modena and Reggio Emilia. The trifecta!
Finally, I decided to do a little reading up on the
region. I got
Emilia Romagna, Flavors of Italy,
Eating In Italy: A Traveler's Guide to the Hidden Gastronomic
Pleasures of Northern Italy,
Italian Cuisine: A Cultural History (Arts and Traditions of the
Table), and Al Dente: The Adventures of a Gastronome in Italy.
They helped a bit, but ultimately there's no substitute for being
there. We flew through Amsterdam so we could have a little
mini-vacation on the way back.
What follows is over 20 entries spanning our trip
from Rome through Florence to Bologna and the countryside of Emilia