A Culinary Wonderboy Grows Up – Chef Octavio Ycaza

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Octavio Ycaza. The guy was different. One look at him and you knew as much. Because you could see it in all the little ways: the way he moved through the kitchen; the way he held his knife; the way his eyes sparkled and seemed depthlessly bright with that indefatigable and unrelenting belief in gastronomic possibility and culinary wonder. Yep. The guy was different. He radiated and pulsed at a frequency far deeper than the other cooks I’d yet known in both professional timbre and tone. He was calm at his work, almost Buddha-like and beatific behind the line. And his cooking abilities—even back then, back in those mythical good old days—were preternatural in their ambition and scope. He was the kind of cook every front-of-house manager dreams of—the kind forever ready to meet the chaos and calamity of culinary life with a clear-eyed equipoise that says, bring it on, motherfuckers, bring it on. With this guy in your kitchen, losing would never, ever be an option. With Octavio in your kitchen, triumph was assured.

And this made him a beloved figure in Washington-area gastronomy.

It also made him a figure of some controversy among fellow cooks. Because he was so young. And so talented. And so very, very popular with the girls (his then-uncanny resemblance to singer/songwriter John Mayer did little to dampen the female ardor, let me tell you). And because he pursued—at too young an age, evidently—a populist’s ambition in obliterating the largely false dichotomy between high and low cuisines by desiring to cook all things for all people, some in Washington—those feckless few—were quick to dismiss his work. They pointed to his school-issue knife roll, his incorrigible surfer-boy charm, his palpable irreverence for the tired old tropes of Francophile gastronomy, as vestiges of a professional immaturity that remanded him to occupy that les enfants terribles status bestowed on all young, so-called “industry climbers” deemed too wet behind the ears to be taken seriously.

How wrong they were.

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I met Octavio nearly fifteen years ago on what surely had to be among his first days on the job. I was running dinner service for four hundred guests at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.; Octavio was my chef. And while the details of that particular event have dimmed and gone a bit fuzzy with time, I do remember—with perfect, soul-shuddering clarity—that things in the kitchen went terribly wrong. There was a raging Sterno fire in a Crescore, for one thing. A kitchen prep table collapsed due to a faulty leg, for another. And one of our perennially inebriated sous chefs nearly severed his thumb with an Adams-Burch utility knife while cutting bread—the typical farrago of behind-the-scenes hijinks and culinary pratfalls that attended most catered events in those days. But Octavio wasn’t the least bit phased. He extinguished the fire, bandaged his cook’s badly mangled hand with a kitchen towel and duct tape, then managed to crank out four hundred of the most beautifully composed and catered entrees Washington had yet seen that season—all in just under eighteen minutes, a culinary land-speed record that is still spoken of by Washington caterers to this day.

Dinner service was seamless that night, and our client—a defense contactor whose company then built bombs for a better American tomorrow—was positively over the moon. He hugged us and slapped our cheeks and pressed a hundred dollar bill into each of our béarnaise-stained hands.

Triumph was ours, and Octavio and I celebrated that night in a dive bar on Capitol Hill. We dropped a few jukebox quarters on the Ramones and swiveled on barstools and drank warm PBR out of the can and discussed all the things young food careerists talk about when buzzed on that admixture of adrenaline and beer—food and girls and rock and roll, ad nauseam, ad infinitum, until the bartender kicked us out after last call. In talking to Octavio that night, I discovered I had found a confederate, a secret sharer, a colleague and compatriot in whom I could invest every faith to deliver gastronomic excellence no matter the adversity or peril at hand. The dude was a jedi. A ninja. A chef to the bone.

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But our great culinary Lennon-and-McCartney collaboration never really got off the ground: Octavio disappeared from Washington a few weeks after that event. He left suddenly, Houdini-like, it seemed, and just like that—poof—he was gone. Why? None of us in the industry ever require an answer as to the comings and goings of our brethren (the nature of the business is itself itinerate), but I now think that after our triumph at the Air and Space Museum that night, the world must surely have seemed more alive with possibility to Octavio, while our little town of Washington, D.C. must have suddenly contracted, gotten smaller, more Southern, more narcoleptic and confining to a young titan gifted with such culinary aptitude and drive.

So Octavio lit out for Paris.

He studied at the Gregoire Ferrandi Culinary School and worked under famed Chef/owner of Le Chateaubriand, Inaki Aizpitarte. After Paris, Octavio journeyed to Ecuador, country of his birth, to travel, and cook and study the food his homeland in all its subtle and sublime glory. After three years in Ecuador, Octavio returned stateside, to New Orleans this time (where he had spent part of his childhood), and in 2010, worked under Chef Alon Shaya at the Cresent City’s famed Dominica restaurant. After that, Octavio’s talents landed him as sous chef at Rio Mar in New Orleans’ CBD, where, by sheer luck, I ran into him again in November 2013.

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I had seen Octavio only once in the intervening decade between 2003 and 2013. That meeting was a tipsy, “bromantic” encounter at a 2004 fundraiser for Phuket tsunami survivors at which Octavio was both raising funds for charity (he donated a dinner for auction), and trying to procure lion meat for a group of Russian mobsters in nearby Great Falls, Virginia (a true story if there ever was one; I couldn’t possibly make that up). To see Octavio after a decade’s time, there in his New Orleans kitchen at Rio Mar, was to see a friend who had arrived at the kind of success that only the constant and unrelenting pursuit of one’s true passion can bring: Octavio looked as happy and contented as any fellow culinarian I’d ever seen. Gone was the wonderboy I had known years before. In his place stood a now-fully formed chef at the pinnacle of his craft. And his hair—that fucking hair—was still perfect. We hugged and shook and made vague plans to rendezvous, later, for a beer. But things came up, as they will, and I didn’t see Octavio for another year and a half, until one sunny afternoon this last April, as I was walking down Louisa Street in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans, next to a restaurant called Booty’s. Octavio’s restaurant, as it turns out. Octavio spotted me from the dining room of his restaurant, and came running out to hug me in the middle of the street. He would cook for me, we decided, the very next day, on Easter Sunday, of all the days, and I would sit at his restaurant table as his guest and eat and eat and eat.

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The mission of Booty’s Street Food is simple: to assemble an international playlist of streetfood’s greatest hits from around the world on a single menu. This concept is much maligned in and around New Orleans; detractors point out Booty’s bo-bo, too-cute-by-half and highly-curated menu is a ham-fisted attempt at dispensing the cuisine of third-world culinary cultures (re: the food of poor people) to the white, privileged dining demographic New Orleans with price points well behind the economic reach of the foods’ original progenitors. Co-owner and travel filmmaker Nick Vivion brought the concept to Bywater after eight years of working—and eating—abroad, and has spent the last couple of years defending it. And while local critics might have a point, I say bollocks to the controversy. I say fuck it. Because it was my Ecuadorian-born friend, after all, who was presiding over this enterprise; my friend of many years, with whom I had worked the worst of culinary trenches, and who always, always had had my back. Fuck the critics; eat the food. So at two o’clock the following afternoon, I entered Booty’s, ordered a beer (a can of Jack the Sipper from Southern Prohibition Brewing in Hattiesburg, Mississippi—brilliant stuff), and prepared for a two-hour culinary thrill ride with one of my oldest and dearest industry friends at the wheel.

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The food I encountered—Octavio’s food—was nothing short of miraculous.

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There was Ecuadoran ceviche paired with popcorn. There was Thai lemongrass chicken. There were Amsterdam-style frites with an unlikely and delightful trio of dipping sauces—mayo, chimichurri and curry ketchup. There was an ingenious play on bacon and eggs: Greek yogurt (the egg white) with mango sorbet (the egg yolk) and “sausage” made of Girl Scout cookies and bacon. All of it—each and every dish—was a minor revelation in the elevation of streetfood to something just slightly finer through craft and careful sourcing. But the one dish that stood out more than any other was Octavio’s Balik Ekmek—a simple Turkish-style sandwich of grilled fish rubbed in sumac (and fully dressed in the parlance of New Orleans sandwich making) on fresh bread. All hyperbolic, I-love-your-food-man “bromantic” nomenclature aside, it was the best sandwich I’ve yet encountered in New Orleans. I know I’ve written extensively on the subject of meat-on-bread in that city—the incredibly delicious po boys at Adam’s Street Grocery in Uptown; the mind-bendingly good banh mi at the Dong Phoung bakery in New Orleans East. They’re all good. Really, really, really good. I meant every word. But forget all that. Do, really. Because the Balik Ekmek at Booty’s Street Food is quite simply the best thing on bread I’ve yet to put in my mouth.

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After two hours at the table, I tapped out. I waved my napkin in surrender; I couldn’t eat another bite. Octavio left his kitchen and grabbed a can of beer from the bar and joined me at my table. We talked about his food and menu, then traded industry anecdotes, and spoke of the future, his and mine, and the things we hoped to accomplish in the coming year: Octavio would help open Booty’s sister restaurant, Ursa Major, and continue his good work with Brian Bordainick and the exceptionally awesome folks of New Orleans-based Dinner Lab; I would finish and deliver my own food book. We talked about people we knew, and what had become of them over these past several years. And as we spoke, sitting there at that table, in that magical half-light of a New Orleans spring day, I found myself growing almost misty-eyed with pride that Octavio had done it—he’d become the chef I always knew he would be. A great one.

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Your link to Booty’s Street Food:  http://bootysnola.com

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The Beard House, Gone Rogue

IMG_4233I invited myself.  But who could blame me?  One of our generation’s finest chefs and leading culinary minds, Chef RJ Cooper, was cooking at the James Beard House in New York City, and I wanted to attend.  The prospect of seeing a chef of Cooper’s talent cook in a venue like the Beard House kitchen was, for me, akin to seeing a band like Social Distortion take the stage at CBGB, in that the performers on stage (or in kitchen) and venue are equally iconic.  So I called Chef Cooper and asked for a seat at his table.  The idea that a front-of-house industry careerist and renegade food writer like me would be hanging around his kitchen all day, peeking under pot lids, putting my fingers in the proverbial soup, pestering his cooks with questions about sourcing and technique, must have held all the allure for Chef Cooper of a trip to the dentist.  But Cooper and I have worked together over the last few years (most memorably with Chef-legend Juan Marie Arzak at Cooper’s own Rogue 24) and always with great success, so he likely took pity on me and consented; I could watch his brigade prep the meal as long as I agreed to stay the fuck out of their way.  So I did.  I promised.  But by promising, I was also lying through my teeth.  I had no intention of staying out of the way.  I wanted to peek behind the curtain.  I wanted to see magic at work.  So I lied.  And up to New York I went.

IMG_4224To the uninitiated, and for those yet to enjoy the pleasures of Chef Cooper’s food, know that my meal at his Rogue 24 was among the greatest dining experiences of my life.  It was that thrilling.  And yes, it was that good.  In his adopted city Washington, D.C. (he’s originally from the mean streets of Detroit), Cooper’s culinary sensibility is unique: it’s as relentlessly forward thinking as a Ferran Adria, possessing all the gentlemanly refinement of a Thomas Keller, while being ferociously fuck you and anti-establishment as side one of 7 Seconds’ seminal punk rock album, The Crew.  There is also Cooper’s Beard Award, his appearance on Iron Chef (among other television shows), and an almost cult-like followership of chef-stalkers and food nerds who tweet their Rogue 24 experiences like acolytes reporting the prophecies of some oracle of gastronomy.

IMG_4182But for all the accolades, Cooper is also a somewhat polarizing figure in culinary Washington.  In an age when a chef’s greatness is measured by his television credits and media savvy (think cookbooks, think Top Chef), and when his so-called greatness is expressed through mediums heretofore occupied by the culinary simpleton (think pizza, think sandwiches, for fuck’s sake), Cooper stands out as old school, as a culinary purist, a throwback to an age of gastronomy when each and every dish leaving the chef’s line was the apotheosis of everything he had ever learned as a cook, and everything he ever hoped to be as a chef.  It wasn’t just chateaubriand on that plate; it was his heart, his soul.  And if that plate leaving the line was somehow imperfect, if a line cook was simply phoning it in, and giving anything less than his very best, there would be hell to pay.  There would be yelling.  And yes, shit would be thrown.  Chef Cooper is one of the few area chefs who still strictly employ Escoffier’s strict brigade system, that military-like chain of command that creates (re: demands) consistency in a kitchen’s production, and ensures the line will still run exactly the same way, night after night, like a Swiss time-piece, whether the chef is in-house that night, or not.  It’s how Thomas Keller runs his bi-coastal enterprises, California’s French Laundry and New York’s Per Se, and it’s how Cooper runs D.C.’s Rogue 24 and his soon-to-open-in-Virginia, Gypsy Soul.  Yelpers (the lowliest of all social media life-forms) have mocked the kitchen patois of Cooper’s kitchen, wherein all subordinate cooks are required to rejoin Cooper’s directives by saying “yes, chef,” and nothing more.  The term Chef means leader, of course, and while Cooper is friendly in his work, he’s not working just to be your friend.  His mission is to lead his brigade on a quest that endeavors to redefine American gastronomy as we know it, and nothing less.  That ambition far outclasses and outpaces the prevailing chef-world zeitgeist of get famous by any means necessary, especially when local chef celebrity’s are reduced to pimping pizza for a living.  To misunderstand how Cooper runs his kitchen is to misunderstand how all the great chefs ran theirs.  Jacques Pepin and Marco Pierre White—these culinary titans came of age in kitchens where cooks were beaten, and where bodily harm came as result of over-salting the consommé, or breaking a sauce.  That Cooper’s food has so mightily raised the bar on what chefs should be concentrating on (re: not sandwiches—though anyone familiar with my feelings on D.C.’s Jamie Stakowski or A. Litteri knows I adore a good sandwich), and how hard they should be striving in their craft has no doubt made him a target of area cooks and food writers alike, who routinely smear him with accusations of culinary overreaching, and with wielding the pretensions of “molecular gastronomy” (that now-laughable and near-meaningless term) so they, in their confusion on what Cooper is trying to achieve, might protect that time-honored tradition of dumbing down the gastronomic status quo.  It’s not that each and every plate of food coming out of Cooper’s kitchen is always the best, most savory food every crafted; it’s that Cooper is trying to make it the best thing you’ve ever tasted, each plate, each bite, each and every time.  For me, this unceasing quest for perfection makes RJ Cooper one of the most compelling (if controversial) figures working in American gastronomy today, and it’s the reason I wanted to travel to New York and watch him cook.

IMG_4154So I took the train.  I went.  I arrived at noon, and made my way from Penn Station to the James Beard House on 167 West 12th Street, in the heart of Greenwich Village, where Chef Cooper and crew were already inside, convened in the house’s kitchen, prepping the night’s dinner.  Cooper welcomed me warmly, introduced me to his cooks, and invited me to look around the house.  And while the Smithsonian has faithfully (evenly lovingly) reconstructed Julia Child’s kitchen at the National Museum of American History, the Beard House is the only material museum to American gastronomy of which I know.  It stands as a veritable culinary mecca to legions of chefs, foodies, and food writers the country over in much the same way Graceland occupies the hearts and minds of Elvis fans—it’s that one place the serious culinarian has to cook in, or eat in, before he dies.  But just like Elvis’ Graceland, The Beard House also serves as an adventitious museum to the esthetic predilections of its chief occupant at the moment of his death.  For just as Graceland’s “Jungle Room” for forever be doomed to occupy August of 1977, the Beard House has been remanded to forever dwell in January 1985, when the venerable James Beard shuffled off this mortal coil, and when Robert Mapplethorpe and Patrick Nagel were all the rage.  For as I went from room to room (and of those there are not many as the Beard House is classic Village brownstone), I couldn’t help but notice how, in the dirty dishwater-colored, mid-day light of a snowy New York day in March, the old girl looked tired in the way no amount of paint could revive a splendor that had gone from her for good.  The carpets were thin, the stair banisters sticky, the entire house smelling of bleach.  Whatever I had expected to discover at the Beard House, whatever ocular grandeur I had conflated through long-held fantasies of dining where all the greats had supped, this wasn’t it.  This bummed me out.  Profoundly.  So I returned to the kitchen to photograph Cooper’s team, only to find them battling the same kind of ennui that precedes every big performance, and that necessarily attends every hurry-up-and-wait moment before a potentially career-defining night.

IMG_4122There was nothing to say.  Nothing to do.  So I excused myself and left.  The editor-in-chief for the food blog of the “most trusted name in news” had recommended I try a restaurant on 7th Avenue in Chelsea called Legend, rightly promising it would challenge, perhaps even defeat, my long-held assumptions about Chinese food (almost none of them favorable).  So I lunched on pig intestine sautéed in red chili, Dan-Dan noodles offered Chen-Du style, and a dish called “Red Rabbit,” whose method of preparation—as far as I could gather—consisted of chopped rabbit bones, sans rabbit meat, in a Szechuan pepper sauce, which, measured in Scoville units, might weigh in somewhere between paint thinner and gasoline.  It was good, really good.  And yes, Chinese food had, for me, for the moment, been redeemed.  But for all the fat-content and fire of my lunch, I was still hungry.  So I visited Eddie Huang’s Baohaus on East 14th Street (at 2nd Avenue), for his Chairman Bao (pork belly), and his Birdhaus Bao (fried chicken).  I could write a book on Eddie Huang as fat as the Los Angeles phonebook—what he means to American gastronomy, what he means to the American immigrant experience—but for our purposes today, let’s suffice it to say Eddie’s bao was deeply, even remarkably, delicious, yo, yo, yo.

IMG_4204When I returned to the Beard House, there was electricity in the air; the change among the cooks was palpable.  Chef Cooper’s team was quietly tweaking on adrenaline as the first dinner guests were expected then in just over an hour.  They worked in that most sublime of culinary ballets wherein cooks perform at their stations, sauté and grill, simultaneously together and apart, without ever having to speak, but communicating instead through the slightest gesture, the most miniscule flick of the knife, or tip of the chin.  And while a silent kitchen of cooks operating in perfect congress is rarely—if ever—shown on food TV, it is an extraordinary thing to behold in person, and not entirely dissimilar to the silence that falls over a boxing ring, when all the fighters have stopped the trash talk, silenced their boasts and threats, and have become avowedly bent on defeating that which looms before them.  Chef Cooper noticed this, too.  I saw him put down his knife, step off the line, and watch his cooks for a moment, before allowing himself a single nod, a single smile.

IMG_4119The Beard House service staff soon arrived, and began setting the dining tables upstairs (the dining room sits directly above the downstairs kitchen on the second floor) with stemware and a lost-to-the-ages pattern flatware evocative of a late-JFK/early LBJ era of faded, proto-Occidental glory for the quiet distress of its silvering and the slight bend in blades in tines.  The waiters were an affable gang of good fellas from the surrounding boroughs, who were clearly juiced about serving Chef Cooper’s food (they’d met RJ before and clearly adored the man).  They talked about girls, and sports, and traded neighborhood gossip, blissfully untroubled by the notion that servers, especially here in the hallowed halls of the Beard House, should likely not discuss unpaid gambling debts (there was a Jet’s game from the previous season yet in question), or revisit long-smoldering grudges about which drunk fucking mook grabbed which gumba’s girl’s ass last Friday night—conjecture that quickly devolved into threats of forced fellatio, and who, exactly, was gonna fuck who in the ass; sodomy and buggery at their New York best.

IMG_4193Thirty minutes before service, Chef Cooper called the waiters into the dining room to discuss what food was being served that night, which wines were being paired with which courses, and why.  Cooper sat on a chair in the middle of a circle of nervous waiters and spoke about what each course contained, how it had been prepared, and from whence it had been sourced.  Cooper seemed relaxed, almost philosophical in aspect and beatific about his cooking, like some culinary Buddha, or Brando-like as the actor appears at the end of Apocalypse Now, when the end is nigh, and all the bullshit—in our case, all speculation on high gastronomy—can finally be put away, because gastronomy is the last great meritocracy, after all; the chef can either cook, or he can’t; the food is either good, or it isn’t.  RJ’s performance was mesmerizing.  Every server in the room stood transfixed.  For here was a man, infamous for his hard living, his hair-trigger temper, his motorcycle-riding swagger, speaking softly, even earnestly, about sourcing and technique, as if to suggest every waiter in that room was his partner and equal in the evening’s failure or success.  Then Chef Cooper asked if any of the waiters had questions about the menu.  One waiter dared raised his hand.  What if a guest is vegetarian, or has a food allergy, he asked.  What should we tell them?  Cooper nodded, then pulled off a clog, and unrolled his sock.  We give them corn, he said.  My microplane will shave that forty-four-year-old corn right off that foot.  RJ’s response drew applause.  Waiters laughed and cheered.  Because it was what every waiter in the world always wanted a chef to say about the question of vegetarians in their midst:  fuck ‘em; treat ‘em like the second-class citizens we all know they fucking are, or goes every waiter’s primary response to the meatless.  Chef Cooper had built an army of service professional—just like that—who were now willing to follow him to end of the earth.  And who blame them?  At that moment, I would have followed RJ anywhere, too.

IMG_4206Guests arrived at six, and were shown into the Beard House’s back room, a rather sizable, high-ceilinged, wall-of-windows modern addition, which looks out into the property’s modest back yard (it’s Manhattan, after all), and where Bryan Tetorakis, Rogue 24’s mixologist, and maestro of the potent potable, was offering two specialty cocktails:  Machine Gun Blues (High West rye, Bonal, green chartreuse, apple, and celery), and Resurrection (Barr Hill gin, Cocchi Americano, combier, absinthe, cucumber, and lemon), both of which were equally—even phenomenally—tasty and, yes, ultimately detrimental to one’s own equilibrium and ability to engage in polite conversation without sounding like a tipsy Hugh Grant with a mouth full of marbles; they were that strong.

Waiters soon appeared with silver trays on which canapés had been arranged with Cooper’s signature Marcel Duchamp-meets-Jackson Pollock plating style, that deconstructive form-follows-function of often-familiar foundational ingredients (sea urchin, or foie gras, or Benton’s bacon) whose altogether unfamiliar presentation so neatly expresses the incredible concentration—even distillation—of flavors in a single bite of food.

The Beard House crowd got it.  They knew what Cooper was trying to do.  And they thrilled at the idea that Cooper’s cuisine was a challenge, a provocation, to really and truly engage the food they were being asked to eat.  Because these Beard House waiters weren’t simply passing the obligatory figs-on-a-plate of the scarf-and-barf scene; they were serving food that demanded of its eater a moment of contemplation and study of the culinary craft the food was expressing.

IMG_4202I hid in the dish room.  A thirteen-year industry veteran, I had no idea what to do at an event like this.  I had no idea what to talk about.  No idea what I should say.  So I grabbed one of Tetorakis’ drinks, and chatted with the two dishwashers, scholars and gentlemen both, for sure, but who, as you plainly see, wanted nothing more at that moment than to shank me and dump my lifeless body in the Hudson.  But the fear of having to make conversation with all the pretty people outside that door far, far outweighed any fear of having to take six inches of cold steel to the heart, so I hunkered down with my Machine Gun Blues and waited for dinner.

I wasn’t long in the waiting.  After a few minutes, we were asked to take our seats, upstairs, at any of the five tables in the dining room.  My tablemates were a delightful, and perfectly rowdy mix of middle-aged Manhattanites, some gay, some straight, all monied, and all delightfully devoid of that iPhone-quick-draw foodie/scenester/hipsterism now virtually ubiquitous in most Generation X/Y-saturated eateries across the DC area.  No, these Beard House eaters were serious people truly inent on doing some serious eating.  There would be no Yelping, no blogging, and no taking of pictures for fuck’s sake.  They were there to celebrate a serious chef’s most serious culinary efforts, and as the first courses began to arrive, they did not talk about which new restaurant was hot (or not), or which culinary wunderkind would be the next big thing.  No, these Beard House folks spoke in the present tense only, and in the now.  They spoke only of what they were eating.  Tastes.  Textures.  The thrill of eating the food of a chef clearly at the top of his game.

IMG_4238Needless to say, I didn’t take pictures of Chef Cooper’s food.  To do so would have to debase the chef’s best efforts with bad lighting and megapixels insufficient for capturing what the food was trying—and mightily—to express.  To do so, to try and sneak that quick shot, would be to devalue the gastronomic experiences of those around me while revealing myself—rightly or wrongly—as the one guy who simply cannot live in the moment, the one guy incapable of operating as a sensualist, the douchiest douche bag on the scene.  So I sat back and ate Copper’s food and laughed that special kind of laughter that only a great meal can tickle from the throats of the otherwise deeply serious.  Like the laughter of children.  Table music.  Conviviality to cacophony, then back again.

It was pure magic.

IMG_4178I looked around at my dining companions, all strangers to me at that first nervous sip of wine, now each and all culinary brethren, comrades in arms, secret sharers, and keepers of James Beard’s gastronomic flame.  And I noticed, too, how the Beard House had suddenly changed—transmogrified by candlelight, or by the wine in our heads—from that slump-shouldered, shuffle-footed, tired old trophy of culinary glories past, to a still-vital, still-important monument to all that is great and good in American cooking.

It was among Chef RJ Cooper’s best performances yet.  Like anyone truly great at what they do, Cooper brought his best when it mattered most.  Course after course, Cooper showed us why he’s still among most potent culinary forces in America today.  Love the man or hate his old-school ways, it matters not; the modern student of gastronomy ignores Chef Cooper at his own peril.  Watch this space.  You’ve been warned.

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Eating For The Cause

photo-1[Reader’s note:  Cause has since closed.]

Charlatans and scalawags, curs and rubes.  Such are we, my professional brethren, the we who, daily, prepare and serve your food, the we whom the outside world will not have, and whom we, in turn, forsake by refusing to play by anyone else’s rules but our own.  And proudly.  Bad behavior in the food industry is not just tolerated, it’s encouraged.  Behaving poorly at work is a badge of honor, a point of pride, for a highly dysfunctional workforce that will not, or cannot, abide by the strictures of corporate America, the “real” world, where, say, stabbing a subordinate in the meat of his right hand with a meat fork for irredeemably fucking his Hollandaise sauce, for instance, is a terminal (not to mention criminal) offense, and where diddling that hot new waitron in the walk-in would get you forcibly removed from the building by a man, very likely much bigger than yourself, wearing a gun belt and shiny gold badge.  But we industry folks wouldn’t have it any other way.  We like being bad.  We like the self-governance of abiding to our own credo.  For that heady buzz produced nightly by that always-changing admixture of adrenaline, bodily fluids, and amorality, is what got many of us hooked on the industry, and it’s what keeps us coming back, night after night, year after year, seeking more, always and anon.  Nice people, regular people, they among the so-called well-adjusted, who might, say, regularly practice yoga, or breakfast on Grape Nuts and skim milk, or better, might wake Sunday mornings, clear-headed and bright-eyed, for the pleasures of trumping the New York Times crossword puzzle—goes the prevailing wisdom—need not apply.  We here on the Island of Misfit Toys need to know that you, too, are outwardly damaged, or inwardly and irrefutably fucked, by the very fact that you, my friend, are insistent on being one here among us.  Only then will you be welcomed.  Food nerds can fuck off.

The problem, however, with this post-Darwinian, ego-driven, hyper-testosteroned world of culinary self-selection, is that it necessarily, and almost entirely, excludes all of the nice people of the world, because almost nowhere in the food business is the virtue of non-Machiavellian niceness customarily rewarded with I’m-hugging-you-but-I’m-hitting-you brand of Marco Pierre White-approved hijinks of, say, sinking your bespoke Middleton-made chef’s knife in the grease trap, or, the classic knee-slapper of having your clogs frozen—between lunch and dinner shifts—on a healthy dose of the mixologist’s liquid nitrogen.  Such “hilarities” nice people will simply not tolerate, nor abide.  They quietly hook their aprons to the wall, and walk out the front door, leaving the rest of us to duke it out in kitchens like the feral Lord of the Flies operatives most of us are so proudly are.

So imagine my surprise when I recently met, and dined with, an all-in culinary professional, and restaurant owner at that, who, on first meeting, I knew with the unwavering certainty that one knows the sky is blue and the mountains are high, that the young culinarian before me was wholly, and irrefutably, nice, decent, and good.  And by good, I don’t mean to invoke the semantic relativism of industry-speak, wherein good means someone who is sober most of his waking hours, and has hitherto denied himself the urge to hide dead guttersnipe in the crawlspace of his otherwise innocuous suburban home.  No, when I say good, I mean to suggest someone who rises, daily, with hope in his heart, intent on changing the world in which we live, one sip, one bite, at a time.

photo-2Meet Nick Vilelle and you’ll know exactly what I mean.  Square of jaw, ebullient of eye, with a firm handshake and that unflappable wholesomeness so unmistakably Midwestern, Nick is a veritable poster boy for that Peace-Corps-kind-of-guy (an organization in which Nick served in Africa, naturally), hunky in that Granola Bar kind of way, but outwardly and palpably earnest, as if blissfully unaware of his looks and charm.  Nick co-founded Cause, The Philanthropub, with Raj Ratwani, in an attempt to change the way—as their website puts it—the way the world looks at charitable giving.  They’ve done this by opening what is recognizably a gastropub, The Philanthropub in this case, where 100% of the restaurant’s profits (the money that remains after expenses are met, yo) are donated to charitable causes (they rotate 3 to 6 causes per quarter).  The concept is genius.  You walk into The Philanthropub.  You sit at the bar.  You flirt with the bartender and order a beer.  You drink, you order another.  Then you order, say, a basket of wings.  Some fries.  Salt.  Ketchup.  More beer.  And when you are sated and tipsy, you pay your bill, overtip the cute bartender, and saunter home, buoyed by the fact that not are you only feeling good in the way that wings and beer can, but that all of your money not put to cover the cost of your food and drink has gone to someone who really, really needs it.  Good has been done.  The world is a better place, indeed.

I first met Nick Vilelle and discovered his marvelous Philanthropub upon being invited to a six-course dinner benefiting Common Good City Farm.  That same rock we’ve all been living under hitherto preventing us from discovering The Philanthropub, has likely also kept news of the advent of Common Good Farm from reaching us as well.  Located in D.C.’s long-troubled LeDroit Park neighborhood, Common Good Farm provides its community with fresh, affordable produce, while offering area residents hands-on experience in food cultivation, production, and sustainability.  Kids go there and learn how to grow stuff.  How to garden.  How to eat.  The stuff all kids need to know.  As the progeny of a long line of Missouri farmers, I can tell you there is no calling in this world so noble as that of teasing life out of the cold, hard ground.

To be able to support Common Good Farm and The Philanthropub was almost, for me (a bleeding heart made deeply cynical by widespread charitable ineptitude at attaining effectual outreach, insofar as changing the world through small-scale philanthropy is often akin to pissing up a rope, as we say in Mizzou), too much to bear.  I was like a kid at Christmas, giddy, caught up in the moment, laughing too loudly at the jokes I heard, shaking hands just a bit too excitedly, a bit too long.  But who could blame me; realizing there were charities out there—in my own city, no less—whose outreach really and truly helped the people just outside the restaurant doors made me happy (and hopeful) in ways I too rarely am.

photo-4At the helm in Philanthropub’s kitchen that night was Chef Adam Stein, an accomplished culinarian by any measure, whose work I fondly remembered from a previous kitchen encounter, and who would guide us, the attendees, through a six-course tasting menu of locally-sourced, seasonally-available ingredients.  We sat two to a table the length of the Philanthropub dining room, with most of us paired with a dining companion whom we had never before met.  Call it blind dating for a charitable cause.  My companion was named Stephen, a young man whom I in no way resembled, and with whose antecedents and approaches to life I shared virtually nothing in common but a passion for gastronomy and fondness for tippling until tipsy (or just beyond), and the laughing conviviality that comes from the happy congress of those tangential pursuits.  What follows below are images and descriptions of Chef Stein’s handy work, and the alcohol pairing attending each dish.  Expurgated, however, is the impossible-to-reconstruct, bite-by-bite chronicle of the night’s six courses.  I drank too much, and had way, way too much fun laughing with Stephen to make the kind of field notes that might later bolster this food writer’s often-ruinous memory of the meal.  But I did that on purpose—the not taking notes thing.  To study the fare too closely would have been heterodox to the spirit of the meal, a violation of the compact between chef and diner, and a proverbial wet blanket to dampen the collective mirth of the room.  I didn’t have to take notes, because everything, and I mean everything I ate was delicious, if not downright remarkable (I do recall, clearly, the snakehead on my plate being a culinary  epiphany for me).  Stephen and I ate and drank and laughed in a way patrons in restaurants rarely do, for what was before us, course after course after course, was somehow less a culinary enterprise, and more a celebration of community, of what is possible when people come together deeply intent on bettering the world in ways that are fun and new.  People who know me (three years of boxing long ago have marked my nose and my soul) will likely marvel at the quotient of hippie-love-shit-laden-syntax in that sentence, but my experience at Cause’s The Philanthropub was a revelation to me, and managed to soundly defeat my own long-held opinions regarding the limp, no-pride-in-your-pants impotency of philanthropy in Washington, D.C.

No, my night at the Philanthropub showed me that truly good people yet exist the food industry, people like Nick Vilelle and Raj Ratwani, geniuses both, and who, in my estimation, have completely revolutionized American philanthropy by making the act of giving a proletarian-driven, street-level enterprise, which harnesses the power of American consumerism in ways never before imagined or executed (re:  that Cause runs on free-enterprise, entrepreneurial models), and seemingly impervious to “giving fatigue,” because, hey, who ever really tires of drinking beer and eating chicken wings in a hip, new gastropub?  Only fascists and Barry Manilow fans, both of which are likely eating and drinking elsewhere.

Go to Philanthropub.  That’s not a suggestion, yo, that’s an order.  I’ll see you there.  And the first round is on me.

English Pea Soup, House Pancetta, Garlic Chips with Samuel Smith, Organic Pale

English Pea Soup, House Pancetta, Garlic Chips with Samuel Smith, Organic Pale

Spring Lettuces, Broccoli, Radish, Fennel, and Yogurt, With Cultivate "Wonderlust" Chardonnay

Spring Lettuces, Broccoli, Radish, Fennel, and Yogurt, With Cultivate “Wonderlust” Chardonnay

Spinach & Kale Raviolo, Garlic Custard, Pickled Trumpet & Chanterelle, Sage, With Devil's Backbone Reilly's Red Ale

Spinach & Kale Raviolo, Garlic Custard, Pickled Trumpet & Chanterelle, Sage, With Devil’s Backbone Reilly’s Red Ale

Slow Roasted Snakehead w/ Miso & White Soy, Braised Collards, Bonito Broth, With Lemon-Sage Bourbon, Cider, Lemon, & Benedictine

Slow Roasted Snakehead w/ Miso & White Soy, Braised Collards, Bonito Broth, With Lemon-Sage Bourbon, Cider, Lemon, & Benedictine

Rocky Meadows Farm Lamb Shoulder, Soubise, Pea Shoots, Sorrel, Mint, With Dreaming Tree "Crush" Zinfandel/Merlot Blend

Rocky Meadows Farm Lamb Shoulder, Soubise, Pea Shoots, Sorrel, Mint, With Dreaming Tree “Crush” Zinfandel/Merlot Blend

Angel Food, Rosemary Buttercream, Blueberry Puree, Basil, With House Orange Cream Soda w/ Zaya Rum

Angel Food, Rosemary Buttercream, Blueberry Puree, Basil, With House Orange Cream Soda w/ Zaya Rum

Your link for Common Good City Farm:  http://commongoodcityfarm.org

Your link for Cause:  http://www.causedc.org

How (Not) To Eat On TV – A Day With CNN/HLN

photoIt started with a phone call.  CNN national news correspondent and long-time friend, Jim Spellman, was coming to D.C. to shoot for his new HLN segment, Eat Like a Local, and wanted some advice on which restaurants best represented the soul of Washington-area dining.  So Jim called me.  We spoke at length on the D.C. food scene—which chefs were hot, which were not—and how analogous the food scene of today (characterized by the hipsterization of eating) had become to the D.C. punk rock scene that Jim and I came out of in the late 1980s.  That Jim and I cut our teeth, so to speak, in the angry and blood-spattered mosh pits of Minor Threat concerts, and that the preponderance today’s city-dwelling twentysomethings can now hold forth on ebi kanj or espetada or fiduas, while being all but illiterate in the once-essential and purely-Darwinian skill of reading the signifiers and codes of the punk-rock aesthetic—that encountering a clean-headed white boy shod in Doc Martins laced in white meant, for example, an exponentially increased likelihood that your day would end in a fist fight—surely this meant something for area gastronomy, but what?  And what, for that matter, would the average HLN viewer want to see Jim eat anyway?  Should he visit my favorite taqueria for sesos or chapulines to show how the influx of third-world cooks has profoundly altered Washington’s culinary landscape, or should he stick to more the more familiar foodstuffs of long-venerated Washington institutions, where eating fried whiting or a Maryland blue crab on camera would better delight the demographic of viewers that HLN was targeting with content and advertising?

We spoke for an hour, and having unearthed more questions than answers, decided to continue our conversation when he arrived from Denver later in the week.  I left our conversation happy that I hade been of help to Jim, but happy, too, that I had, in some small, but meaningful way, finally begun to repay Jim the debt I owed him for changing my life.  Melodramatic and suspiciously convenient for the arc of this brief narrative?  Yes.  But true.  Jim Spellman changed my life.

To explain.

photoGoogle Jim Spellman and you’ll quickly discover he is one of the most storied, most interesting people your own good fortune would ever have you meet.  What Google will first reveal about Jim, is that he is a highly accomplished reporter of hard news, dispatched by CNN to cover hurricanes, tornados, and missing babies, for network all stars Anderson Cooper, Wolfe Blitzer, and Nancy Grace.  Jim’s journalism has won awards and it’s all over YouTube; go see for yourself.  Dig a little deeper, however, and you’ll learn that Jim was a founding member of, and drummer for, the band Velocity Girl, who, in the 1990s, were signed to the Sub Pop label (that’s Nirvana’s label, dude), and whose record sales charted into the hundreds of thousands.  That’s right:  before he was a national reporter, Jim Spellman was a rock star.  He made records and music videos.  He played arenas and festivals.  He dated then-A-list movie starlets (I’m not naming names, yo, but if you’re over 30, you’ve seen lots her work), and he lived in the mode of Moon and Bonham, and traveled the world doing it.

Me (left); Atomics (top)

Me (left); Atomics (top)

So did I.  Kind of.  I played bass for The Atomics (dial us up on Amazon or Spotify; we’re there).  We played rockabilly, and we played it well, really well, but as rockabilly is, even on its best day, a deeply-marginal and highly codified musical subgenre, we were signed to Nervous Records, a London-based label, and spent our time playing to significantly smaller—though always violently enthusiastic—crowds across Britain.

Jim and I lived in the same world, but in wholly different orbits, and, as musicians we never once met.  This was highly unlikely.  Look above and left, and you’ll see a flyer of live shows from Washington’s legendary punk rock club, d.c. space [sic] for November of 1990.  Note, please, that Velocity Girl played d.c. space Friday the 9th, while my band, the Atomics, took the very same stage just two weeks later on Saturday the 24th (notice, too, that Courtney Love, ever the embodiment of lady-like nicety, even back then, especially back then, was there on Tuesday the 20th).

It wasn’t until I had quit my job as an academic book editor for a New York-based publisher, and taken refuge—temporary, I thought—on that mighty and turbulent pirate ship known the food business, that I met Jim, and worked with him at a local caterer, the local caterer as it turned out, learning that the highly-nuanced, profoundly rarified, high-wire act of serving the pleasure of the world’s political elite—a service dance of which Jim was expert—required nearly the exact same skill set as performing in a rock ‘n roll band.  I was good at it.  But Jim was truly great.  His ability to charm some of the most powerful and famous people of the western world was as preternatural as it was effortless.  A stage is a stage, he knew, and the high that comes from playing in front of a thousand screaming fans is exactly the same kind of high that comes from serving the President of the United States, or Bono, for that matter.  Working with Jim gave me a taste of the good stuff—the pure, unadulterated buzz-giving adrenaline that performing really well for strangers in the kitchens and dining rooms of the world’s movers and shakers imparts.  He was the Virgil to my Dante, and I would follow him anywhere, and for a while, I did.

But Jim was restless with other ambitions; he had other plans, which took him away from the food business and out to Colorado, where he went to work for CNN, charming the television camera now, and millions of viewers, with the simple act of being Jim Spellman.  The cameras, the viewers—they never had a chance.  Resistance to Jim’s charms was futile.  He was that good.

photoWe communicated through social media, in the intervening years, about motorcycles and vintage guitars—shared obsessions—but it wasn’t until Jim rolled into Washington, with his Eat Like a Local crew in tow, that I saw him for what had to be the first time in a decade.  The years of non-service-industry clean living had done him well.  Always a really, really good looking guy, Jim was now shockingly handsome, grey about the temples, and glasses for the eyes, but better looking with age in the way that George Clooney grows strangely more beautiful, if older, with each passing year.  Jim might have been Velocity Girl’s drummer, the man on skins behind the kit, but now Jim was clearly CNN’s front man with the microphone, and untold numbers of viewers and devotees loved him for it.

We met the night before the shoot in the bar of Jim’s hotel.  He drank soda water.  I drank beer.  We revisited our conversation about Washington’s food scene, and Jim decided—to my surprise and even greater delight—that I would eat on camera with him, playing the foil of dark prince, the industry insider, the local “expert” with a bag full of snark to Jim’s blue-eyed golden incarnation of journeyman eater and world traveler.  We would meet the following morning at the Eastern Market and see what the new day would bring us, and what we might, in turn, bring to the world of food television.

Prior to my HLN appearance, I had hitherto been on television exactly once in my food career.  The crew of ABC Television’s Nightline followed my coworkers and me around for three, filming our preparations—inglorious as they were—for the 2005 Presidential Inauguration of George W. Bush.  What appeared of me was some B-roll footage of me performing the more banal tasks of my job—answering a telephone, as I recall, and pushing a Crescore into the Corcoran Gallery of Art—so bound for glory at the Food Network I was most certainly not.  But the experience of hanging out with the Nightline crew gave me some idea of what it was to make television of that kind, and how it was very much a world of hurry-up-and-wait for a strike of lightening in a pretty blue sky.

photoEven still, I was unprepared for what the run-and-gun, shoot-from-the-hip reporting style of Jim and his CNN team.  They rolled up at eight the morning in a black Suburban, like some wayward Seal Team 6, with cameras for guns, and the same implacable sense of mission and zeal for conquest, now loosed on a sleepy-headed Washington, which, like me, was still trying to wake up.  With Jim was his cameraman and his producer, both based at CNN Headquarters in Atlanta.  The salutations and introductions were perfunctory and brief, with the crew was already sensing trouble with the location:  it was empty.  Shooting the Eastern Market was my idea.  And this was most assuredly my fuck-up.   I have never once visited when the old girl wasn’t overrun with admirers, but I also had never been to the market at eight o’clock on a Thursday morning.  Lesson one:  extolling the charms of an unpeopled building while declaring it a Washington institution does not make gripping, don’t-touch-that-dial television.  This I learned.  My bad.  And owned it I did.  So into the Suburban we went, rolling through southeast Washington, seeking inspiration, looking for other, better-populated places to shoot.  But once off location, once in the comfortable confines of that all-American SUV, the crew relaxed, and the vibe in the Suburban, I can tell you, was pure Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction-era Tarintino, as Jim, ever-hilarious, always-erudite, riffed on Chuck Brown, on Mambo Sauce, and on what bad or otherwise very-punk-rock things had happened to him or to Rollins-era scenesters back in the day, and in the very buildings now passing just outside our windows.  John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson had nothing on Jim.  I laughed until I cried.  This from agents of the most trusted name in news.

We soon bagged the idea of shooting breakfast, and ate our own—just egg sandwiches for Jim and me; omelets and hash for our CNN brethren—in a plain and unremarkable Washington diner you’ve likely driven past a thousand times.  We suffered our food in the way only men intent killing time—an entire morning’s worth, in our case—can, slowly, torturously so, as if by remand to that special culinary ring of Dante’s purgatory reversed for those media and food professionals who have fucked up a shoot, and who require time to meditate on the many ways—including a bland, Tabasco-can’t-save-it egg sandwich—their morning has gone terribly wrong.  Not only was their egg on my face for botching the Eastern Market shoot, I now had to eat the motherfucker between two pieces of dry, white toast.  Just desserts, indeed.

photoSalvation from our culinary limbo came in the form of the long-venerated, everyone-in-DC-has-eaten-there, Ben’s Chili Bowl, whom our CNN producer had scheduled our arrival, and who received us as if we were blood relatives newly arrived in town for the family reunion.  If you’ve not yet had the pleasure, Ben’s Chili Bowl is a Washington eatery serving chilidogs and half-smokes since 1958.  But Ben’s is more than a restaurant, it’s an institution, not just for the sheer popularity of their food, but what Ben’s has meant to the African-American community of DC, and the larger community of District eaters—white and black—since it was spared the riots of 1968.  Ben’s Chili Bowl has been featured on every food or lifestyle program there is, and I expected our presence would be little noticed, or anything but coolly received.  How wrong I was.  Look up “gracious” in your college Webster’s and there is most assuredly a photograph of Mrs. Virginia Ali, wife late-founder Ben Ali, and the sweetest proprietress in all of Washington.  She welcomed Jim like a long lost son, telling him the stories she’s surely told food reporters a thousand times already, and still with all the sparkle-eyed wonder of someone spinning a yarn for the very first time.  Now this was pure television gold.  This is what the CNN crew had come halfway across the country for.  Mrs. Ali was a fucking pro.  The cameraman finished shooting Mrs. Ali, then moved on to shot the B-roll (the “scenery” footage atop which voice-overs are often laid) of how Ben’s chili is made, how the half-smokes are prepared, and with that soon done, it was time for Jim and me to eat—and talk about—and Ben’s half-smoke and chili on camera.  Easier said than done.  I realize that eating food is something we all do several times a day, every day of our lives, but to eat on camera, to suddenly be mindful of eating as an act, while offering a commentary that is equal parts witty and insightful—that is no small trick, friends.  Not only is eating neatly at issue, but so are such profoundly fundamental precepts to conversation as such as speaking and hearing, for you, the eater, are wearing a microphone, which means whatever culinary insights you’re capable of offering are so done in a speaking voice that is actually far softer than what is required to project over the ambient noise of the restaurant, so hearing yourself speak is hard, but hearing your chili-chinned on-camera comrade’s response is almost as difficult as resisting that all-too-great temptation of looking into the camera in the hope that your last snark-infested cut-up had made the camera man belly laugh.  If there were mistakes to be made while eating on camera, I made them.  Again and again and again.

photoI didn’t have to wait long for my shot at redemption, however.  For our second—and final—shoot of the day, Jim and his CNN team chose Room 11, a then-newly-minted eatery in the quickly-gentrifying Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, where, just eighteen months before, local guttersnipe once prowled for smack and Bolivian marching powder, and where, now, bearded hipsters in white belts and slouch hats (to better conceal insipid baldness) flocked for highly-respectable charcuterie and a glass of this-does-not-suck wine.  We arrived largely unannounced to find a deeply dark and incredibly narrow corner building restaurant packed, floorboards to rafters, with a palpably happy eating public made of equal parts just-over-from-the-Hill foodies, and the obligatory local hipsters-in-rut (be the object of their affections the girl beside them, or the cheese plates before them, was never quite clear to me).  This was not auspicious for making good television.  For if Eastern Market represented a kind of Malickean (that’s Terrence, yo) study in the wan morning light of empty rooms and negative space, Room 11 proffered an Apocalypse Now-era Coppola-esque exercise in shooting across shadow and through the lowest of lights.  So our stalwart CNN camera man fixed low-glare lights over the bar and shot his B-roll of happy eaters eating, while I drank a beer, then two, playing a brooding (if far more hirsute) Brando to that heart of hipster darkness until it was time, once again, to eat.

photoTo add a measure of visual tension to the shoot (amid that sea of bad light), we agreed the food would appear together in a “reveal,” wherein Jim and I would register our real—not staged—surprise at what culinary delights awaited us.  Playing ringmaster to the on-camera reveal, was Dan Searing, part-owner/operator (as I understand it) of Room 11, and Jim’s friend way back in the salad days of vibrant D.C.’s punk (or post-punk) rock music scene.  With cameras now rolling, Dan laid three of Room 11’s finest offerings on the bar before us, and with them, descriptions of what the chef had prepared for us to eat.  So Jim and I raised our forks and dug in.  And between mouthfuls of this-does-not-entirely-suck cuisine, we talked.  We revisited our then-week’s-long conversation about how a new generation of restaurateurs and eaters were embracing ingredients (re: offal) that would have been an otherwise unthinkable fixture on menus just two or three years before.

What I remember about eating on camera at Room 11 was a shared meal with a dear old friend, a meal full of reminiscence and portent about where the brave new world of gastronomy had been, and where it was headed.  But what comes across in the final edit (which is even shorter than a Wall-of-Sound-era Supreme’s number) is a badly lit blowhard (me, as if cast for a Yo! MTV Raps video), looking like shit (just over an illness, and carrying the weight of a decade in the business—the toil of the job, the all-too-keen pleasures of the food industry “third shift”—in the hefty bags beneath my eyes) talking, sans snark, in professorial non sequitur (re: editing) about the context of Room 11’s cuisine, all the while trying to surmount the now-familiar television travails of blindness and deafness, and chewing with your mouth closed.

photoThe Room 11 spot aired on HLN during the first week of December, then again, and again in heavy rotation (ad nauseam, ad infinitum), in mid-January, over the course of the Presidential Inauguration.  On YouTube and across my social media pages, the response to Jim’s screen presence was overwhelming positive (as in:  he is so totally hot, and, I wonder if he’s married) while the reviews on my dubious culinary acumen was decidedly mixed.  I was questioned for my use of the term street food (this, despite years of study on the subject and wide international culinary travel eating the shit—cock’s comb from a street vendor in Paris, for example—that poor people the world over eat), and for having the temerity for calling poor people—gulp—poor.  This worried me.  Not because I thought I had misspoken, or was in any way misinformed; I was worried that I had unwittingly fucked with someone’s baby, that I had messed with someone’s kid.  To wit:  for owner/operators, a restaurant isn’t simply a business, it’s the embodiment of years of hard work and sacrifice, the manifestation of their most sacred hopes and dreams for vocation, prosperity, and that all-too-heady concept of the future.  Feedback on what I’d said in the Room 11 spot led me to believe that I had uttered isn’t she pretty in a language I didn’t fully understand, only to discover—much later—I had just insulted the looks and intelligence of a little boy.  So I twice tried to reach out to Room 11’s Dan Searing in email, and twice received what I believe, in the parlance of our times, is hipster-speak for fuck you:  silence.  I can’t say as I blame Dan.  To have a fellow culinarian (me) saunter into your establishment on his day off and wax philosophical on national television (re: off message) about the gastronomic “big picture” of young, white Americans embracing offal (food of the Third World), when all he (me) should have really been repeating (re: on message) were food-TV truisms like wow and bam and orgasm in my mouth, was tantamount to accidently keying Dan’s car.  And that would make anybody mad.

Me and Jim

Me and Jim

Jim and crew lit out for Baltimore the next morning, bound for further television glory; I returned to the loving embrace of the food industry, that cruel and unforgiving mistress I love—despite her many flaws—so dearly.  But as ungainly and ham-fisted as my television debut was, I have a very strong suspicion that I’m not done with TV, or better, TV is not yet done with me.

Watch this space.

You just might be surprised what shows up.

Your link to the Room 11 spot:  Dining like a local in Washington – YouTube

The Ben’s Chili Bowl segment has yet to air.  I’ll post it here when it does.

Click here to check out my other culinary quests:  Manifesto

And above all:  thanks for everything, Jim.

Notes From the Underground – On Toki’s Erik Bruner-Yang

photoRevolutions usually begin in one of two ways.  They either start loudly, with a societal big bang of tumult, upheaval, and blood in the streets.  Or, they start quietly from agents secreted from within, and often ignite on the unseen spark made by a single idea whose time has truly come.  So consider what is easily the most potent and truly revolutionary idea I’ve yet encountered in the brave new world of Washington-area gastronomy:

Erik Bruner-Yang is a chef.

I know, I know.  It’s hardly power to the people.  Hardly eat the rich.  Hardly workers of the world, unite.  But consider the sentence again.  All five words of it.  And each of its eight perfectly round little syllables.  Read aloud, does it ring with revolution?  Does it sing a culinary call to arms?  Does it demand of the reader, inquisition into the very essence of what it means to be called chef?

Not at first.

As sentences go, it’s a no brainer.  A tenth grader could diagram the thing.  Subject.  Verb.  Indefinite article.  Noun.  It is, after all, a simple declaration of fact.  Bruner-Yang is a chef.  He rises every morning and goes to work in a restaurant he owns.  Once there, Bruner-Yang commands a small commercial kitchen of other professional cooks under the managerial precepts of Auguste Escoffier’s brigade system, which establishes culinary hierarchy by rank and duty in a military-like chain-of-command, starting with the chef—the gastronomic swinging dick of any kitchen—and moving quickly and precipitously downward through the sous chefs, for example, the poissonier, the saucier, the commis, all the way to the lowly plongeur.  The brigade system establishes—nay, fixes—order in a kitchen.  Better, it promotes the kind of culinary consistency that results in food looking and tasting exactly the same way, night after night, whether the chef is in the kitchen, or buggering the bus boy behind the grease trap out back.  So how does Bruner-Yang’s embrace of a century’s-old French culinary methodology render him somehow revolutionary?  It doesn’t.  It’s what he doesn’t do that sets him apart from his professional brethren, and makes him the kind of chef I’ve never before seen.

To explain.

photoI met Bruner-Yang two weeks ago at a seated dinner in a private Bethesda home.  He was cooking in partnership with Chef Scott Drewno (of The Source fame, and a true prince among men) for Sips and Suppers, the fundraising brainchild of Alice Waters and Jose Andres designed to raise money for the venerated D.C. Central Kitchen.  My job was to run service.  Translation:  make sure the trains ran on time, while making sure my own waiters didn’t fuck with the chefs, or unnecessarily get in their space.  Dinners in private homes like this are rarely easy.  Chefs are accustomed to their own professional kitchens, their own equipment, accustomed to their own front-of-house teams.  To walk into a wealthy stranger’s home kitchen and crank out a five-course meal is—let me assure you—a very delicate enterprise, no matter how prepared the chef thinks he is, or seems to be.  Home kitchens, with their hanging racks of unused copper pots, BTU-anemic ranges, and never-before-sharpened sets of German knives, are hostile environments for professionals.  For chefs and their cooks, these home spaces more closely resemble film sets than places for working culinarians might be expected to produce earth-shatteringly delicious savory fare out of nearly empty Sub-Zeros.  It’s like trying to fly the Millennium Falcon into actual outer space.  Most chefs anger at the discovery that the rarely-used Viking or Vulcan home range will accommodate only a half-sheet pan of cooking surface at a time.  Some chefs will anger to the point of rage.  They will yell.  Curse their luck.  Throw shit.  Fuck with the waiters.

photoBut not Erik.  Not Bruner-Yang.  He was the picture of beatitude, the poster boy of calm.  He moved ghost-like around the room and spoke only when spoken to.  His serenity was difficult to comprehend.  But more vexing still was the fact that Bruner-Yang wanted absolutely nothing from me.  He didn’t want my fear.  He didn’t want my respect.  And he most certainly didn’t want to be my friend.  His only request of me was to deliver the equipment I’d brought for him—plates in this case—and allow him enough kitchen space in which to do his thing.  This was strange.  Very.  In a decade’s-long career already crowded with representatives of his sour and surly vocation, I have long grown accustomed to (and inured against) the over-testosteroned, my-dick-is-bigger-than-yours posturing for alpha-male status required by most chefs, who would rather gouge out one of my eye-balls and skull fuck me before providing any kind of professional courtesy like feeding my wait staff, or—god forbid—loaning me a knife to cut bar fruit.  For me, the affect of first meeting Bruner-Yang was that of a studio musician bracing for a session with Axl Rose, only to discover he has been rescheduled to jam with Thom Yorke, instead.  No chairs would be broken.  No tantrums thrown.  Gunfire and knife play would have to wait; culinary intelligence and cool heads would rule this day.  So I stood back and photographed and Tweeted those photos as Chefs Drewno and Bruner-Yang produced course after course of the most interesting and attractive food to ever come out of that Bethesda home kitchen.  They rocked it.  People cheered.

photoAnd after service was done, after diners had risen from the table and were high-fiving congratulations to one another at having just experienced such an amazing meal, the chefs and cooks sequestered themselves in a dim side room of the house and spoke of the meal with the cool, subdued confidence of a group of students who had just aced the final exam.  Absent was the wild-eyed rush of adrenaline, the fuck-yeah buzz of testosterone, the mad high of just having come out of some serious shit together, wholly and truly alive.  Gone, too, was the just-out-of-the-weeds rush to get drunk, high, or to loose general mayhem on the world at large.  No strippers would be called.  No drug dealers summoned.  No one in this Bizarro World gang of clean-living culinarians would even accept a glass of wine.  They were pulling the ripcord on the event; they were done.  So I thanked Bruner-Yang and told him to expect me at Toki Underground later in the week.  Bruner-Yang nodded with all the pale dispassion of a man having been informed of something truly banal, like the moon was full, or there were clouds in the sky, and it looked like rain.

I don’t blame him.  I know how he felt.  I was about as excited to visit Toki as Bruner-Yang was to have me, which is to say:  not so much.  It’s not that I ever doubted that Bruner-Yang’s team would serve me anything other than really delicious food.  It’s just that Toki Underground has been the hottest restaurant in Washington since it opened in 2011.  And I don’t mean hot in the hipster-foodie-Yelper kind of way.  I mean hot in the way that Toki Underground has been declared my favorite restaurant by nearly every locally famous chef I know, and some internationally famous culinary titans that I don’t.  That Jose Andres, Gaston Acurio, and Ferran Adria not only dined at Toki, this last October, but also loudly professed their love of Bruner-Yang’s work, was not just life changing for the young chef, but for the city as a whole, no matter what you make of Andres’ or Adria’s “cooking.”  The endorsement of these culinary legends was meaningful, and it put Toki on the international map of world gastronomy.  But having Andres and Adria so forcefully endorse Toki was a problem for me.  How so?  I didn’t want to eat at Toki because it was already way, way too popular; it had already garnered too much acclaim, too much success.  The very same impulse that once guided my musical tastes through adolescence—my preferring Icicle Works to Echo and the Bunnymen, based on sheer obscurity—still informs the way I deign to love (or not) a restaurant.  Heterodox to all reason, and contrary to all common sense, I’m inclined to court restaurants that are about-to-become-famous-though-still-obscure hidden little gems, even if they are inclined to occasionally suck.  For me to embrace Toki at this point, I reasoned, would be like me, now at 43 years of age, in 2013, walking around the offices of my employer, blathering on and on about having just discovered this great new band named Nirvana.

photoMy first few minutes at Toki hardly disabused me of this notion.  Toki opens for dinner service at 5PM.  My dining companion, Justin, and I arrived at 4:45 to find our selves sixth and seventh in line, respectively.  In front of us: foodie-Yelpers fresh from Capital Hill.  Behind: hipsters wearing blankets—not coats—for warmth.  Worse still:  word that Bruner-Yang was off for the night, as he is nearly every Thursday night.  These were harbingers to a dining experience most inauspicious and grim.  But once upstairs and inside Toki, redolent of ramen and five-spice, the food gods favored us with two seats at the counter (there is only counter seating here) and the world was new again, and life in it, good.

photoI ordered pork dumplings.  I ordered kimchi.  I ordered house-made sriracha.  I ordered beer.  For my ramen, I kept it simple.  I ordered the Toki Classic:  tonkotsu triple stock with chasu pulled pork, red pickled ginger.  It came.  I ate.

So how was it?

What I have to say of the food of Toki is in no way earth-shattering, insightful, or revelatory, and food pornographers the world over will be chagrined by my lack of superlatives in describing this hot, hot man-on-food action.  But I can’t do that.  I won’t.  Because I believe simple food should be described simply.  And what I have to say about the food of Toki Underground is this:

It’s good.  So good, I’d call it fucking great.

photoBut know my proclamation of love comes not from any of the orgasm-in-my-mouth reasons you might expect.  The reasons I loved my meal at Toki so much are far, far more elemental to gastronomy than what I tasted at the end of my chopsticks.  Rather, these reasons, my reasons, have everything to do with Toki’s obvious respect for the ingredient, their reverence in preparation and service, their tacit agreement that Toki will not be some chef-driven vehicle to conflate Bruner-Yang’s ego, and land him a spot on next season’s Top Chef.   The fact that Bruner-Yang’s team served me the best egg I’ve ever eaten—poached and served in my bowl of ramen—speaks volumes for the sublime beauty of his culinary accomplishment.  That Bruner-Yang has taken “authentic”—whatever that word means anymore—Taiwanese street food, made it deeply, brightly, and fiendishly delicious, all at an $11 price point, is nothing short of miraculous.  My food at Toki was good enough to make me want to stand up and break shit, smash shit up, grab people and throw them around by the collar in exactly the same way that hearing Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols taught me, for the first time, that things were different now, that everything had suddenly changed, and that I would never be the same.

The revolution was now.

photoBut how?  I sat and drank my beer and tried to think.  Toki Underground was, after all, just a restaurant.  The food in front of me:  just a simple bowl of noodles.  Street food.  The daily dietary staple of millions of Asian poor.  Even Bruner-Yang’s culinary pedigree, however honorable, is that of a journeyman cook—he trained (as I understand it) through an apprenticeship in a Taiwanese noodle shop.  That’s hardly the cut-throat proving ground of the more familiar tale of culinary ambition, where all aspiring cooks sleep with well-thumbed copies of La Technique under their pillows, while dreaming of graduating from the CIA, first in class.  Not even his growing stature as “chef” can, in any meaningful way, compete with reputations like that of Washington area heavyweight, RJ Cooper, whom I have long been on record as declaring among the finest chefs of our generation.

photoSo how did Bruner-Yang and his team at Toki manage to capture the essence of xiang wei, which Eddie Huang translates as the character of a good dish when it’s robust, balanced, and bursting with flavor, while still retaining a magical culinary lightness?  How did Bruner-Yang create such felicity with the I-know-it-when-I-taste-it idea of umami in his ramen, that all-allusive Japanese concept of “pleasant savory taste,” which is about as ephemeral—and nearly impossible—an accomplishment as somehow capturing lightening in a jar?

Fuck if I know.  But I don’t really care about answers in this case.  Because the answers are hardly as important as the questions themselves.

The questions all of us in the food world should be asking ourselves are these:  what does the ascendency of Bruner-Yang mean to the idea of being a chef?  What means the rise and considerable successes of chefs like David Chang, Eddie Huang, and now Erik Bruner-Yang, none of whom are classically trained, lauded for their knife skills, in the way revered, old-guard chefs like Jaques Pepin or Marco Pierre White are?  Has the importance of clarity in culinary vision finally trumped the dubious virtues of toiling for years under an often-cruel chef master while trying to make one’s bones in the business?  Does the rise of Momofuku, of Baohaus, of Toki Underground signal an elemental sea change in what American eaters now regard as great eating?  Has street food like ramen and banh mi finally taken its rightful place in the gastronomic canon of Great Foods next to classics like chateaubriand and duck confit?

photoNote the blankness in my eyes.  Note the slackness of my jaw.  Both suggest a man without answers.  To these questions, I haven’t a clue.

But what I do know is this:  Ho Chi Minh first worked as a classically trained culinarian at the Carlton Hotel.

In Paris.

Under none other than Auguste Escoffier.

Beware the chef.  Beware the revolutionary.

Take heed.  You’ve been warned.

Catch up on my other culinary quests at:  Manifesto

DC Central Kitchen’s Capital Food Fight

It’s Washington, D.C. at it’s best.  The one night a year where my own city so brightly shines as the epicenter of the American culinary world, where the true heavyweights of food celebrity turn out, en masse, to raise money, gobs of it, in crusade for what is easily the District’s best charitable cause:  the long-celebrated Central Kitchen, which, since 1989, has fed legions of low-income city residents, while preparing at-risk men and women for careers in the culinary arts; the homeless feeding the homeless while learning how to cook.  It’s genius, pure unadulterated genius, and it changes lives. Every year a culinary blowout is held at the Ronald Reagan Building in downtown Washington to raise money (did I mention gobs of it) to help underwrite the Kitchen’s substantial annual operating costs.  The extravaganza is one part feeding frenzy, one part Top Chef performed live to a howling (but truly appreciative) crowd, 1,500 strong, of District bons vivants and hipster foodies, all with deep pockets (tickets are $200 a pop, yo), all with an even deeper adoration of the District’s celebrity-chef-driven restaurant scene.

This year, 70 restaurants were there, offering samples of their wares, while four chefs battled, on stage, for the winning nod of four celebrity judges, as two deeply famous hosts drank gin and tonics, told dick jokes, and even cooked an iguana. Competing this year were Chefs Jeff Buben (Vidalia, Bistro Bis), Enzo Fargione (Elisir), Adam Sobel (Bourbon Steak) and Guillermo Pernot (Cuba Libre).  Judging them were food world luminaries Anthony Bourdain, Andrew Zimmern, Jose Andres, Carla Hall, and Padma Lakshmi.  So thick was the culinary and celebrity talent on that stage that had an arrant meteor crashed onto the stage, the surviving Washington dining public would have been remanded to a life of eating Cheez Whiz, nightly, and watching reruns of Different Strokes on television.

I went as a fan.  I went as a ringer.  I went with the sole intention of seeing Chef Jeff Buben, whose cooking I credit with changing my life (as an eater and the way I think about food) long before I had the honor of working with him and his breathtakingly talented and totally-bad-ass Chef de Cuisine, Hamilton Johnson, this last spring.  So I stood in the front row, just below the stage (thanks to the incredibly talented Jacqueline Herrera, patron saint to all lads lost deep inside a celebrity chef man-crush) and screamed and shouted Chefs Buben and Hamilton to victory.  That’s right, friends.  My guys won.  They kicked ass.  They annihilated.  They destroyed.  By why wouldn’t they?  While all the half-baked celebrity chefs of my generation have been busy with their cookbook deals and Today Show appearances (re: busy not cooking; busy not trying to save their own food from the doom of culinary mediocrity), Chef Buben has been quietly been building a reputation as one of the most talented, most important chefs in America.  You didn’t have to be standing in the front row to see the reverence and esteem Bourdain and Zimmern clearly hold for Chef Buben.  It was obvious to all 1,500 attendees in the room that the reigning mac daddy of American gastronomy had won by a mile.  It wasn’t even close.

Below are images I captured (between the glasses of wine and plates food from the likes of Scott Drewno and my friend, RJ Cooper) with my poor, pork-smeared  iPhone.  While imperfect and fuzzy at times, I think they capture the Capital Food Fight for what it really is:  a throwdown, a blowout, a rocking good time.

See you there next year.

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Mr. Bourdain and Me

And.

Chef Buben and I Saluting Johnny Cash