A Celebration of Chefs
...It wasn’t the hot time in Paris that caused the shift, though. It was Michael, my friend Michael Roberts, who I loved so much and miss so dearly. There are times, even though I detest making phone calls, when I just want to call him up and hear his voice. He had a lilt to his tone, happy, like a young boy, and genuine. Surprised and happy you were calling him and ready to have a laugh with you. He was my first chef. He was the man who set me straight as best as any man can. He was my first chef, the first I’d really ever met, actually, so let’s hear it for starting at the top.
My friend, Michael Roberts was “The Chef”, a pioneer on many levels and a dear and wonderful man. It’s only fitting that I begin my series on chefs and what motivates, inspires, nourishes and continues to ignite their fires, with my dearly departed pal Mikie, as some people could call him, but not too often! It’s with love, humility and gratitude I share my friendship with Michael Roberts, partner and chef of the Los Angeles Restaurant, Trumps, the place to see and be seen, at lunch, dinner and high tea from 1980 until 1992...
Race, don’t walk, run, or hop to the movie Spinning Plates. To quote the director, Joseph Levy, “It’s a food movie not about food.” That’s putting it simply.
Going in I had no preconceived notions of what the movie was about, just vaguely thought it would be a day in the life of a few busy restaurants, and was excited to be at a 10 am movie all by myself, cappuccino and bagel in hand. What I wasn’t expecting was to have my heart squeezed and to be mesmerized for an hour and a half.
This is a wonderful movie that people should see for many reasons. It should be mandatory for all teenagers, so they can learn that one needs to work till it hurts if they expect to achieve anything. It is a movie about going for your dream, daring to create and working hard to make it happen, told through three completely different restaurant concepts.
Joseph Levy who started out at USC studying music before switching to film, tells the stories of three restaurants and their chef/owners, weaving in and out, dipping and diving deeper as if orchestrating a complex classical composition. He seamlessly flows from tamales in the Tucson desert to slabs of beef in the heartland to food sculpture and haute cuisine in Chicago.
Director/producer/writer Levy’s ethos and political consciousness are showcased in choosing venues representing the current class system in America.
I once had a large collection of cookbooks. This was back in the days before every recipe by every chef in every language was available at the flick of a mouse. In those days we had books. When I’d buy a new cookbook I would read it cover to cover, like a novel.
From page one I was hooked into the intriguing cast of characters; then I’d fret over them as they were crushed, peeled, pounded and quartered and then unceremoniously plunged into hot oil or boiling water. Imagine my delight when they emerged, reborn, reshaped by their trial by fire, to make the world a richer, tastier place to live. We had books in those days.
Now I keep just a few relics that reside on two small shelves in my kitchen. I have only the beauties, the books that hold more than recipes, the ones that document — stain-by-stain — my development as a cook and a human. I kept Julia, of course — although I rarely open it; Feasts For All Seasons, by Andries De Groot, which was my first cookbook and still a source of inspiration; and then there is Marcella, whose books are as vital today as when I first discovered them.
I bought Classic Italian Cooking in 1976 — the first Knopf edition. No, I take it back — I didn’t buy it; someone gave it to me and I can’t remember who it was. Anyway, thanks, you changed my life.
I set my tool bag down, tip my granny cart back to its resting position, brush the city off my face, and ring the bell. It is two hours before the guests arrive. My client opens the door, clearly grateful that I do exist - that I did show up - and studies me for a second. I always wonder what image they had of me after only chatting with me on the phone or email. I bet it’s very different than my grinning, artistic, fake-redheaded appearance. Were they thinking gorgeous Giada would arrive? Or, god forbid, some female version of Chef Curtis Stone?
I bet the granny cart throws them for a sec - because it seems like there should be a higher form of transportation for a professional chef and caterer. I’d like to be effortlessly wheeling a stainless steel fridge into their apartment, but New York elevators being what they are… my granny cart is the only way to go. They show me into the kitchen and I survey the immaculate area. Oh, this poor little room doesn’t even know what’s about to hit it. I thank my client, pull a few bags from my cart, and crank the oven on full blast. It’s go time.
The menu for this cocktail party is a progressive pass, which means that, while all the apps are easily eaten while standing, they will become more and more filling as the evening progresses. We’ll start the pass with something light, like a bruschetta with drunken fig paste, fresh ricotta, and red pepper flakes; or nori handrolls filled with an edamame, spring pea puree and topped with avocado mousse and pickled ginger.
There are many reasons great barbecue tastes so mouthwateringly amazing, but the main ones are experience, time and passion. Adam Perry Lang is bringing his extensive knowledge, years at the pit and love of all things smoked and grilled to Hollywood for a 6 week pop-up to showcase what authentic barbecue is all about. Not your usual temporary restaurant, Lang is lodging behind the El Capitan Theater in an open air parking lot thanks to his good friend and fellow food-lover Jimmy Kimmel.
As the author of "Serious Barbecue" which he's currently re-releasing himself, Lang is sharing his time-tested techniques with the people of LA and any lucky tourist who happens to be drawn in by the smell. His expertise with meat has been sought out by many other top chefs like Mario Batali and Jamie Oliver, but he's recently moved to Los Angeles with the hope of settling in for the long haul. The Backlot BBQ is a way for him to get in touch with the local community and learn the ins and outs of this sprawling city without having to commit, quite yet, to a more permanent location.
Real barbecue takes special equipment and a lot of time, so taking over an existing space was not an option. Here, just south of Hollywood Blvd. off an alley on Orange Street, Lang has created his own little sanctuary of smoky goodness with an Airstream to catch a few winks in the wee hours, along with his 2-ton, custom-built pit smoker and a Texas burn pit to make their own charcoal from cords of split pecan wood imported from the Longhorn State as well. Sleeping in a parking lot? Talk about devotion.
I always measure bliss in minutes. Our 220 minutes ticked away at the restaurant on Rue de Bac in Paris. We were meeting our friend, Nicolas outside of the closed restaurant on a Saturday afternoon where he worked. He was the ‘Chef of the moment’ in a city where that accolade can be very fleeting. We had made plans to have dim sum and afternoon tea with dessert at one of his favorite secret places. We would spend the afternoon walking and talking about food, like we often did.
When Nicholas met us he flung open the door of the closed restaurant. He was panicked. Perspiration dripped off his forehead, his scent equaled his stressed appearance. “Come in, I have a big problem” in an unusually loud voice. My sister and I immediately asked what was the problem and how could we help.
Being the chef of the moment, he had caught the attention of a wealthy Japanese investor who planned on opening a 3 star restaurant in Paris. The investor’s secretary called Nicolas and announced that he was to create a lunch for Mr. X and 5 other guests in two hours. This was his interview, death by fire or not. What can we do? “I need someone to serve and help me cook.” He was beginning to yell.
Forty-seven-years-old and I could not remember the last time I cracked an egg. So it was a bit surreal to find myself standing with Ludo Lefebvre, a top chef, and have him ask me to separate dozens and dozens for a multi-course dinner for 80 people. I took a deep breath and secretly hoped I would not be the reason my wife’s nightmares about this evening would actually come true.
It started as a crazy idea. Why not add a kick-off dinner in Paso Robles for The Garagiste Festival - that my wife coordinates – and ask Ludo to be the guest chef? This event, which promotes artisan winemakers from all over California, was in its second year and they decided to expand the schedule. Three days of seminars, tastings and parties were planned to celebrate 48 wineries who for the most part are making wine in such limited quantities they're hard to find, never mind get your hands on. Since so many of the attendees were coming into town for the weekend, adding events to help keep the wine flowing seemed obvious.
When we initially discussed it with Chef Ludo and his wife Krissy, we weren’t sure it would actually happen. They were excited to see the Central Coast and loved the idea of the Festival, so we got a date on their calendar. Then came what could easily be the busiest time in his life as he released his cookbook his cookbook LudoBites, began filming The Taste and planning for his first brick-and-mortar restaurant, along with the pressure of pulling off the last of his famous pop-ups, LudoBites10. In the midst of it all, Ludo was still excited to come to Paso and help make our winemaker dinner a night to remember.
Living in LA is easy. Eating out here is hard. Sure you can wear whatever you want, and reservations for most places aren't necessary, but the high prices for ho-hum food and lackluster service by kids waiting on you while waiting for their big break (this is not a myth) mostly keeps us at home where the food is at least warm, the company enjoyable and (for us) the wine cellar filled with lovely selections. When we want a fix of beautiful, inventive food, we just turn on Top Chef and watch the pans fly. That's where we discovered Nyesha Arrington.
A contestant on the recent season in Texas, we couldn't help but root for her and Chris Crary, another LA chef to win the top prize. They both seemed, not only genuinely talented, but to be decent people as well. Which is not, by the way, a requirement for a chef, though it probably helps in the kitchen and certainly when you're on reality TV. Unless you want to be cast as the villain. They say all publicity is good publicity, but that is surely a double-sword when you're "playing" yourself. Regardless, we would be able to taste their food and, yes, the fact that we saw them on TV did sway us to go to their respective restaurants. Actors are a dime a dozen. Someone who can cook perfect pork belly truly has my attention.
We met Nyesha at LudoBites 8.0 while she was waiting to be seated. We felt a bit silly, nervous and dorky approaching her to chat, but she was incredibly gracious and I think a bit surprised to be recognized. (She was not eating yet. We would never be so rude as to interrupt someone in that manner.) We told her how impressed we were with her kitchen skills, especially during the Last Chance Kitchen segments, and promised to come into Wilshire soon. (She's the executive chef.) We had been there once - before she took over the kitchen - and enjoyed the experience, so now we were doubly excited.
I just drove by the sweetest scene: an elderly couple picnicking in Palisades Park on Ocean Avenue, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Elderly, I say, when they are probably only ten years older than me. I am eternally drawn to the romantic notion of al fresco dining. (Al Fresco sounds like the name of a gangster gunned down while dining in Little Italy, though not necessarily outdoors.)
I have a fantasy of serving meals outdoors to be eaten on a long picnic table with a vintage French tablecloth and beautiful cutlery and cloth napkins. I also have a fantasy of hiking Mount Kilimanjaro, but it ain’t gonna happen anytime soon.
While I might like the idea of eating outdoors, I hate fighting the elements and the insects. So I never serve a meal outside and don’t really enjoy outdoor dining unless, perhaps, it’s on a screened-in porch. I like a barrier. I will, however, contradict myself and tell you I choose the patio at most restaurants because it can be infinitely more charming. Like, say, at The Ivy. Ivy at The Shore is safer from wind and flying bugs because it’s covered, so that’s the patio I prefer. But the charm of the patio at The Ivy in West Hollywood cannot be beat.
A very romantic, picnic-throwing person lives somewhere deep inside me. But she appears only every twenty years or so. Like a cicada. That’s how often I will organize (I use the word organize loosely, more like throw together) a picnic lunch. I was once obsessed with those terribly expensive picnic baskets that come with plates, napkins, thermos and all. OBSESSED!! Had to have one. Put one on my bridal registry.
Steve Plotnicki and Opinionated About Dining are proud to announce the list of Top 100 Restaurants in America for 2012 as determined by the Opinionated About Dining Survey. Over 3,000 people, including many of the top food bloggers in the country, registered for this year’s survey and contributed more than 70,000 reviews.
The Opinionated About Dining approach to rating restaurants relies on tapping into the experience and opinions from diners who are passionate about where they eat and who describe how strongly they would recommend a restaurant and why. The methodology further gives weight to different kinds of restaurants and survey participants based on factors such as price point and number of restaurants reviewed. The surveys that form the basis of the ratings are open to the general public and can be accessed via Opinionated About Dining.
“If these survey results have shown me anything, it’s that 2012 is and will continue to be an incredible year to dine at some of the most progressive and thoughtful restaurants in recent memory,” says Plotnicki. “Take the number one restaurant of the year, Manresa by David Kinch, a perfect example of a chef and restaurant that are pushing the boundaries and encouraging the culinary industry’s creativity and advancement.”