Sunday, August 12, 2018

A year among years: Part One

If BC and AD demark the history of the world as we know it, 1968 demarks the post-war United States that was and what it is today. For anyone born before 1950 that tumultuous year divided our callow youth from our wary adulthood. When I think back to the late sixties and early seventies I tend to think that every historic event happened in the tsunami of 1968. Nationally we were overwhelmed by psyche shattering events and as young adults we were stumbling through the early milestones of adult life; marriage, births, and first real jobs.

Christmas 1968

On the very first workday of 1968 I reported for work at Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream’s headquarters on Burbank Boulevard in beautiful downtown Burbank, California. It was January 2. My road to becoming an exempt clerk (code for no overtime pay) in the Store Planning department at Baskin Robbins was paved by losing my position as Manager of Food Operations for a chain of drug stores in Tucson and the pressing need to support a wife and four-month old son. California beckoned. The Golden State was and will always be the land of possible dreams.

In late November of 1967 I traveled to Los Angeles to look for work and wound up walking into the Ame’s Employment agency at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue. I was a 26-year-old married father of one and a recent graduate from Arizona State University on its eight-year work release program. My resumé boasted a list of food service jobs; pizza cook, singing waiter, bartender, assistant restaurant manager and former Manager of Food Operations at Ryan Evans. Not on the resumé was a lot of living, none of it easy.

The position as a store planner at Baskin Robbins Ice Cream is the only one I remember pursuing and, certainly, the only one that led to an interview. There was, however, a small catch. I had to be a draftsman to fill the slot. I was told that I had to draw the floor plan of a typical Baskin Robbins store and bring it to my first interview. “When?” I asked.  “Tomorrow” they replied. I had helped design and remodel seven Ryan Evans stores during my truncated employment there and may have had some inkling about laying out a retail business. In less than a year at Ryan Evans I had performed three roles starting with the remodeling of the stores, handling advertising for a few months and, finally, operating our lunch counters. I upgraded the menu and renamed them Sunburst Cafes. Sales doubled but they were still little more than lunch counters new name or not.

Being a veteran of jobs that I wasn’t equipped to do, I figured I’d become a draftsman overnight. How hard could it be? Fortunately, Peggy had majored in architecture and owned the basic tools; a drafting board, a straight edge, various triangles, mechanical pencils and, importantly, erasers. Under her watchful eye I finished my floor plan at dawn. To award my effort with a D would be over-grading.

In the morning I was interviewed by four people; Larry Tate, the general counsel (don’t ask me why I had an interview with a lawyer); Ross Roeder, the VP of Human Resources; Kurt Kornreich (who pronounced it Cornrich to head off assaults on his moniker) and Frank Merlino, a construction guy and the long-time Store Planning Manager at BR. I’ll start with Merlino who did not guffaw at my amateur drafting attempt. At best, he saw that I was no pretender to the throne. Or so he thought. Both Tate and Roeder had told me that Merlino had threatened to quit on two occasions and that, if I could learn how to draft and get a handle on the department, they’d accept his resignation the next time made the threat.

In three months they accepted his resignation, I became store planning manager and my career trajectory tilted upward. Three months after that Merlino put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. His son Frankie found him.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Out of the Dark

Far beyond the sales growth, profit and awards I’m most proud of what didn’t happen during the Black Out of 1977. I was home in New Canaan at 8:27pm on Wednesday, July 13 when the first call came from Bruce Raba, our District Manager in Brooklyn, telling me the borough had lost power and things were going to get ugly fast. Restive crowds were gathering on the corner of Bedford and Lafayette and at Nostrand and Atlantic. I turned on the television as a lighting strike tripped circuit breakers at Buchanan South on the Hudson River. A second strike caused the loss of two 345kV transmission lines and the loss of power at the 900MW nuclear plant at Indian Point. At 8:55pm there was another strike at the Sprain Brook station in Yonkers and things went downhill from there. By 9:36pm the entire Con Edison system had shut down, almost exactly an hour after the first strike. A surreal light glowed across the Hudson from New Jersey but the sky over Manhattan was dark enough to see the Milky Way.
My first concern was that we would lose hundreds of thousands of dollars of product. I called our Area Managers and asked them to call our major suppliers and to lean on them for refrigerated trucks so we could keep the chicken and produce cold until power was restored. KFC chicken was shipped fresh and packed in ice but not frozen making it especially vulnerable. Before morning a million dollars of product had been saved in the trucks thanks to our quick thinking and the unflinching support of our suppliers. We lost absolutely nothing. We had conceived and executed a rapid response on the fly. Most of our inner-city managers, often middle aged black women, stayed in “their stores” throughout the night and through the next day. The ownership they took for their stores was extraordinary. I couldn't respect them more.
New York was dark for 25 hours. The steaming streets became war zones where, according to the NY Post, “Even the looters were being mugged.” By the time the lights came back on arsonists had set more than 1,000 fires and more than 1,600 stores had been looted. None were KFCs.
I believe that because we had rejected the carpetbagger mentality that had prevailed before 1976, that we had demonstrated respect for neighborhoods of color and that our locations were managed by people who were pillars of the community and who took ownership of the situation we were spared.

The Blackout of 1977 was “a metaphor for the gloom that had already settled over the city. An economic decline, rising crime rates and the panic-provoking (and paranoia inducing) Son of Sam murders had combined to make the late 1970s New York’s Dark Ages.” according to Time Magazine. Some saw unrelenting poverty and institutional neglect as the fuel that ignited the explosion. The head of the National Urban League said, "The underclass in a crisis feels no compulsion to abide by the rules of the game because they find that the normal rules don't apply to them." 
This is one of two stories from my forty years operating restaurants of which I most proud, and both come from places of mutual respect and a measure of caring and humanity.
KFC stores in the inner city were often the only national brand businesses in their neighborhoods. One store in the Bronx comes to mind. It was literally the only operating business within six square blocks. Each time I visited the store it felt like it was the last living thing amid the burned-out hulks of apartment blocks and tenements. It looked Hamburg after the bombs. Its manager was a proud Egyptian PhD in Chemistry who had tried teaching high school in the South Bronx and had been unable to stomach the utter disinterest and lack of respect he was shown. To hear him tell it, a teacher in Egypt wielded absolute authority in his classroom. In the Bronx it was worse than babysitting. He was better off, he decided, to manage an ordinary KFC store where he could expect and demand performance from his employees. He did just that and was named one of the ten best managers in the country at the convention in New Orleans in 1977. One of ten from 1,000. I wish I could remember his name. I’m embarrassed that I can’t.
Of 68 store managers in NYC, maybe half a dozen were Anglo males. KFC in New York was a true United Nations, operated by immigrants from around the globe. Another top ten manager whose name I can remember was Deepak Patel in Manhattan. Deepak, a slight, soft-spoken gentleman with a college degree and a commitment to excellence was a first generation American from Pakistan. When I Googled Deepak Patel four names popped up, three were medical doctors in the United States and the other was a retired New Zealand cricketeer of Pakistani descent.
Without immigrants we couldn’t have operated those New York stores in 1977. 

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Top Ten and a Hat

The hat, July 29, 2018
It felt like we won everything in sight at the Top Ten Awards during the 1977 national convention in New Orleans. The top ten store managers, area managers and district managers from across the company were chosen based on sales growth, profit and QSC; Quality, Service and Cleanliness. "QSC, QSC, QSC" was the battle cry at KFC throughout my tenure. Our full court press to improve the customer experience arose from the realization the we had been tanking for years. No amount of marketing was going to right the ship unless guests wanted to come back again. There’s an adage that says that the repeat customer is the best customer. That little nugget puts the true back in truism.

The cornerstone of our big QSC push was unannounced inspections of all of our 1,000 company owned stores across the nation. The 100-point inspection was really tough, some said too tough. There was carping from the old timers who had mailed it in for, well, forever. Most of our middle managers were lifers who were mechanics who could fry the hell out of a chicken but couldn’t manage other managers if their lives depended on it. Most were hard drinking ex-college football players who had formed a University of Kentucky Boy’s Club at our headquarters in Louisville and in Detroit, Dallas, LA and South Florida. John Y. Brown, the former Kentucky Governor and previous owner of KFC hadn't helped. He didn't give a lick. Phyliss George's husband, the man who almost killed the Boston Celtics, was a slovenly con-man without a scruple to his name. Come to think of it, he had a lawyer fixer like what'shisname. 

KFC's death rattle meant that two new vice presidents replaced two neanderthals. Joe Johnston, a preppy thirty three year old from Tulsa took over Region Three in the center of the country and I inherited Charlie Rogers' Region One. Look up "good old boy" in your Funk and Wagnalls and you'll find Charlie's headshot. Really nice guy out of his depth.

Joe wore three button suits from Southwick and heavy starched Gant button downs. I wore fitted Italian 140s and too much hair. A little self-awareness would have helped. We were part of a Fortune 500 conglomerate not the fucking Cosa Nostra.

I remember the Red Carpet at the Windsor Court like it was yesterday. 

“Who are you wearing, Steve?” asked the host.

“I’m wearing Lubiam and Bruno Magli." The crowd went wild.

After a year Region One led the company with a 96-point QSC average across its 200 plus stores. The other regions scored in the 80s. When the QSC scores were combined with our sales and financial numbers the case could have been made that we had won all thirty of the Top Ten awards. As it is we won four of the top ten District Manager awards and would have won a fifth but Bill Roquemore, the District Manager in Columbus, had become a Regional Manager at Pizza Hut and he was denied his due. Jim Willey seemed embarrassed when he told me that Bill wasn't selected. “Anyway, this way we can give the other regions a chance.” Meh.

Our final tally was something like fifty-five percent of the awards from twenty percent of the stores. Hair or not.

On the night after the Top Ten Awards and a dirge of mind numbing speeches we staggered to the Old Absinthe House by way of the Acme Oyster House and Preservation Hall. We pounded adult beverages till the sun came up; we being Peggy and me, Bob and Jeanine Buxton from New York, Gary and Brenda McCain from Tidewater and Billy Genovese from Delsaco in Paramus. Delsaco, short for Delicious Salad Company, made our cole saw and book. As the clock ticked 3am a couple of cowboys ambled in from Central Casting. I made 'em for East Texas owing to their hats and brims. Hat crowns and brim shapes are as regional as a South Boston accent.

I exclaimed to nobody in particular, “Man, I want that hat.” “Which one?” Billy asked. “The brown one with the high crown. The tall guy.” I answered.

At that very moment the tall guy with the coffee colored lid went to the men’s room. Billy Genovese followed him in. I thought nothing of it till he came back to the table. “No luck. He won’t sell it.”

“You mean you tried to buy the hat right off his head? You didn’t need to do that.” What I meant was, “Next time I give you a job don’t come back empty handed.”

Don't cry for me, Argentina. Four months later a large package arrived at my Greenwich office. It was from Bob Buxton in New Jersey. When I opened the box, there was the hat. Well, not the actual hat from the Old Absinthe House, that would have been epic, but it was the identical twin of my beloved cognac New West by Bailey in the size of huge.

The hat in 1978

The hat in 1984
Bob, a long time horseman in central Jersey, had trailered a horse for the owner of Jack’s Barn in Farmingdale in trade for an exact copy of my treasured sombrero. I still have the hat and the pictures to prove it. I’ve changed the crown over the years. I learned to steam cowboy hats when I was ten. I did not learn, however, to make it a huge plus. Who knew that heads and feet continue to grow while the rest of us shrinks?

Last thing I heard Bob Buxton is training horses in Oklahoma and I am not a cowboy in Taos, New Mexico.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

New York New York

It wasn’t all cocktail hours and bar crawls in New York in 1976 and 1977. Facing me was the seemingly Quixotic mission of turning around the worst of KFC’s five national regions. My new region was headlined by Metropolitan New York, but also included New York’s southern tier; the Tidewater area of Virginia, Columbus, Pittsburgh, a sliver of West Virginia coal country and one down at the heels city in Massachusetts. 229 company owned stores all told. Region One, anchored by its comatose 68 store NYC district, was the doormat of the nation by every measure; sales growth, profit and operating standards; the thing we called QSC, Quality, Service and Cleanliness. We possessed none of the above.

Just six years has passed since I had been demoted from being Director of Operations of Four n’ 20 Pies, a company I had co-founded, and had been banished to Queens to fix one ailing restaurant. When informing me of my fate my boss, Kurt Kornreich, told me, “I don’t think you’re a top guy.” Those words and the punch they delivered have stayed with me. Yet here I was, a wunderkind on his white horse, riding into New York to save the day.

My entrance on Manhattan’s main stage was an crowd pleaser that’s for sure. The day before I was to take over the market, Colonel Sander’s toured a handful of our Manhattan stores with Mimi Sheraton, the bitch goddess food critic of the New York Times. When she and the Colonel visited the unit on 6th Avenue between Greenwich and Waverly the Colonel came unhinged. The chicken wasn’t fresh. It was supposed to be pressure fried every two hours. You could tell long it had been sitting by its internal temperature which should hover around 170 degrees. That chicken hadn’t seen 140 since day before yesterday. But the gravy, God help us, was mucilage and Harlan Sanders was the original gravy Nazi. The gentleman from Corbin, Kentucky carried a silver tablespoon in breast pocket of his white suit for heaven’s sake. When he tasted the paste, he erupted into an expletive filled tirade which was faithfully recorded by Mimi’s able sword, I mean pen.

Her byline ran in the Times the next morning. And that very afternoon I was to host a press conference at the 21 Club to welcome the Colonel to New York. I couldn’t have wished for a more auspicious start. What does a 34-year-old pup say to Colonel Sanders, whom he has yet to meet, in front of 100 slathering jackals? Let’s just say he deviates from the script he wrote the week before and prostrates himself before the great man. “Thank you, Colonel Sanders, for pointing out our myriad shortcomings. Next time you visit you’ll be happy with the gravy.”

After the press conference when I was finally introduced to the Colonel. I said, “An honor to meet you, sir.  I’m sorry you had such a disappointing experience yesterday.” He paused a moment, looked me in the eye, touched my arm and said, “So you’re the new man. Good luck to you, sir. I know you’ll take care of it.”

When I accepted the promotion from executive vice president of Pewter Pot, the 22 unit coffee shop chain I’d been operating in Boston for three years, somebody in HR told me, “If you can fix that train wreck they ought to give it to you.” The situation was so dire that nobody thought it could be fixed. My calculated risk was the third in a ten-year foray into fixing broken restaurant chains. If the company was on its last breath, I figured, the easier it would be to turn around and look like a star. It worked most of the time. 

The lynchpin of the whole deal was obviously New York. If I couldn’t fix New York it was game over.

As in three earlier turnarounds, the first thing we did was the thing that didn’t require a brain. We spruced up the stores so that they were places you’d want to work, maybe even be proud of. We called it “Paint Up-Fix Up” and it wasn’t much more than that. They weren’t big dollar improvements, certainly, but it was enough to provide a working environment where we could require performance. It meant that we could plausibly convey our expectations for food quality, store cleanliness and service. We came to lead the nation in all.

After we completed the rudimentary paint-up fix up and had made our expectations clear, we held rallies with every employee in our New York market in attendance. The rallies were held in the auditorium of the New York Hilton and featured high end audio visuals including the television advertising campaign we were about to launch. Glossy TV ads and big sound always get the audience going. 

Because we needed to drive traffic into our improved stores we blitzed the market with the famed “Buck a Meal Deal.” That’s one piece of chicken, mashed potatoes and a biscuit for one single dollar. Thank you very much. It didn’t pretend to be elegant, but it rang the cash register and gave us some breathing room. But the Buck a Meal gambit almost cost me my job. I had acted unilaterally on the promotion as I was prone to do and Tom Frank, KFC’s senior VP of marketing, gave me a proper dressing down despite its success. I told him that I thought that kind of call was within my purview. He grudgingly accepted my apology saying that, “If I thought you knew better I’d have you fired.” I may or may not have known better. Managing up was never my strong suit.

The sexier and equally true story of the Miracle on 42nd Street was the first ethnic advertising ever done at KFC. Contemplate that for a moment. You have a product that hews sharply to the black and Spanish communities and you’ve never acknowledged their existence except to put your stores in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the South Bronx and Harlem. The “inner city” stores were operated to an entirely different and far lower standard than Midtown or suburban locations. A wall separated the customer and the customer service worker, a wall with a bulletproof glass window and what appeared to be a bank teller mechanism. I had them removed immediately.

My two area managers in Harlem, one black and one Puerto Rican, packed heat. Street punks with a capital P. When I called them in to my Herald Square office to inform about our new rules of engagement they responded with unsuppressed giggles. I didn’t miss a beat, “You are fucking fired. Give me your gun and badge.” Well, maybe not the second part.

With a modicum of momentum under our belts, we introduced two new marketing campaigns in rapid succession. The first, “Welcome to New York” was television commercials aimed at the black, Hispanic and Jewish audiences. They were simple confections which featured likeable Hispanic, black and Jewish women welcoming the Colonel to New York. The Hispanic one was actually in Spanish. We were really welcoming New Yorkers back to KFC with the Colonel as a beacon of finger linkin' goodness.

But we really hit the big time when we hired a spanking new, black owned advertising agency, Mingo Jones and Guilmenot, to develop a major campaign for us, one that went national after its epic success in New York. Frank Mingo, the first black vice president and account executive at McCann-Erickson where he managed the Miller Brewing account, was 36, Carolyn Jones and Richard Guilmenot both former vice presidents of BBD&O were 33 and 29, respectively. The 6’6 Mingo had a creative vision as imposing as his stature. Frank was a great storyteller with a profane streak. I recall that one time when he referred to someone he didn’t like or trust as a “jamf.” I asked him, “What the hell’s a jamf?” He replied, “Jive ass motherfucker.” A bullshitter. Frank Mingo wasn’t one.

KFC had been running a yawner of a national campaign “It’s so nice to feel so good about a meal” and Mingo, supported by copious research, concluded that KFC with New York as its test piece needed to get back to promoting the product itself. So, we employed billboards featuring Gladys Knight’s 1,000-watt smile and radio commercials where she sang our new slogan, “We do chicken right.” Between 1977 and 1980 KFC’s New York sales increased by 70% and KFC adopted the theme for its national campaign.

By 1981 Mingo Jones, Guilmenot had left the firm, was the second largest African American owned advertising agency in the country. Sadly, Frank Mingo died in 1989 at 50 and Carolyn Jones in 2002 at the age of 59. Guilmenot has a consulting firm on Long Island. He’s 70. Jesus, we were young. And I'm still ambulatory.

After the success in New York and throughout the region I was offered the presidency of KFC’s Mexican fast food chain Zantigo. I turned it down the twice. I knew I had a good thing going, the number one region in the country by wide margin, an idyllic home in the perfect New Canaan, Connecticut and the autonomy of distance. I would soon learn how key that is. First, Jim Willey the president of KFC, tried to sell me on the promotion and, though I liked Jim and saw him as something of a mentor, I demurred. Then he told me if I took the job I’d be the next president of KFC. I declined again. 

No is no until it isn’t. I was summoned to Santa Barbara by Hicks Waldron the president of Heublein, KFC’s parent corporation. There on a terrace in Montecito overlooking the blue Pacific the persuasive Waldron said, “I need for you to do this.” It sounded more like a command than a request. I said "Yes.”

It was not a stellar career move. I found myself at loggerheads with senior management over the strategic direction of Zantigo from the get go. And, though our numbers were astounding, and we received the best qualitative evaluations in the history of KFC, Willey died, and I did not become the next president of the company. That was a drunk named Bill Reidy.

I went back to Boston to start Pizzeria Uno. Zantigo was sold to Taco Bell within a year.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Vatican of Saloons

PJ Clarke's at Hapy Hour
In the New York years, I drank at P.J. Clarke’s every time I was in the city at the end of the business day. I’d say it was “one and go” but according to my co-worker Erv Hall, that‘s not humanly possible. One evening after work Erv and I went to the bar and I said, “Let’s just have one and go.” He replied with a grin, “Steve, there’s no such thing as one and go.” Those words proved prophetic.

It was at the old saloon on the northeast corner of 55th Street and Third Avenue that I first learned the 80-20 rule. That’s the adage that says 80% of a bar’s business comes from 20% of its customers. The regulars. In my beer o’clock visits I always saw the same half dozen guys at the front end of the bar by the window overlooking Third Avenue. I figured that if they were always there at 5:30pm and I was just an occasional customer, they must be there every single afternoon. Extrapolation is my middle name.

I first visited the joint in 1970 when I was banished to Rego Park, Queens to fix an underperforming restaurant that I had opened a year before. I lived in a basement apartment in Forest Hills Estates where I could walk to work and take the subway to the City for recreational purposes. The floundering restaurant was right across from Lefrak City, a huge apartment complex, and 2-1/2 blocks from the long gone Alexander’s Department Store at Queens Boulevard and 63rd Road. The little pie shop was the first place where a newly fired employee threatened me. “You won’t make it through the week,” he warned. That's 2,486 weeks ago. I'm feeling good about my chances.

How I stumbled on P.J. Clarke’s escapes me, but it became a haunt, the first step on a bar crawl up 1st Avenue to Yorktown and back down 2nd to 57th Street. My guess is that I learned about the bar in a bar, the way I learned everything else I know. My neighborhood bar in Rego Park was in Elmhurst or was it Corona? It’s confusing. Anyway, take a left out of my place, walk to Queens Boulevard, hang a right at Alexander’s, walk another couple of blocks and Walsh’s Pub was across the street.

Among the many things I learned at Vinny Walsh’s establishment was how to process 35mm negatives to get prints that looked like they were made with 4x5 sheet film. I was tipping Half and Halfs next to an older guy who, it turns out, was a local portrait photographer. We began to compare notes. I told him that I wanted to produce prints with as little grain as possible. He turned to me and said, “Go to 47th Street Photo in The City (that's what you call Manhattan if you're in the know). Ask for Seymour. Sy knows everything there is to know about the darkroom. He’ll tell you what to do.”

Sy did. On my nightly, I mean next, sortie into Manhattan I walked into 47th Street Photo and asked for Seymour. I told him some barfly in Elmhurst told me to look him up and that I wanted to know how coax creamy acuity out of a 35mm negative. He told me, “Kid, you gotta use Edwal FG7 developer not that Kodak crap. Use it 15:1 with a 9% sodium sulfite solution. Prints like nothing else, I’m telling you. And here’s the kicker, you can push the film. Take Kodak Plus X film that’s a 125 ASA and push it a 400, 500 ASA. I did it and it did. So, when I got back to my darkroom in South Pasadena a couple of months later I started shooting Plus X at 400 or 500 and getting prints that looked they came from a Hasselblad at 100 ASA. That Edwal FG7-Sodium Sulfite hack is the process I used till my darkroom days ended in the 2002.

I also learned about the Irish bar circuit at Walsh’s which, New York being New York, was epic. My favorite barkeep at Walsh’s, one Jack Kearns, tutored me on the midweek ritual called “busting balls” which isn’t quite what it sounds like. It’s drinking tour of Irish bars. On a barkeep’s night off, say Tuesday, he would hit all the bars on his circuit and “be taken care of.” Meaning he’d be treated like royalty by his brethren of the brew. He’d wouldn’t pay for a single drink. On Jack Kearns’s Irish bar circuit were, Peter’s Back Street in Bayside, Patrick’s Pub in Douglaston and the John Barleycorn in Manhattan. Only the John Barleycorn survives.

Back then it was protocol for your favorite mixologist to “buy” every third drink, and in a clearly understood quid pro quo, you’d tip him the full amount of that beverage. All of this was done with the full knowledge of the proprietor who understood the game. The IRS not so much. If Vinny didn’t tolerate the larceny his star bartender would move down the block dragging his regulars with him.

PJ Clarke’s has been called “the Vatican of Saloons.” PJ was Patrick J. Clarke, an Irish immigrant who tended bar at Duneen’s Saloon which opened its doors in 1887. Ten years later he bought Duneen's and changed the name. The venerable establishment is famous for its longevity, that it hasn’t been replaced by a skyscraper, its celebrity clientele, and for its pews, I mean urinals.

The urinals at PJ Clarke's

You could park your car in those things. They were chest height with an ice block covering the drain. They say you can tell how busy a shift is by the size of the melting block. Easier than counting the drawer I guess. "O'Shaugnessy, go measure the ice."

Wilt Chamberlain walking south on 2nd Avenue between 46th and 47th Streets in 1977 

On one occasion after half a dozen black and tans I stepped into the men’s room directly behind me. When I opened the door to go back to the bar I walked into Wilt Chamberlain’s ass. I do not exaggerate. The man was so big that at 5’-11” I was eyeballing the big center’s pockets. Unlike most “big men” of the day who were storks, Wilt’s 300 pounds was distributed perfectly on his 7’-2” frame. Imagine Lebron James but half a foot taller. Wilt employed a handler to fend off male patrons. I watched his body man collecting head shots from all the women queuing up to meet the man who scored 100 points against the Knicks in 1962 and, according to Chamberlain, 10,000 women. I’m afraid to do that math.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

La La Land and other fables

While I tend to look askance at chain restaurants I'm compelled to award an honorable mention in the best steak sweepstakes to Morton’s Steakhouse. Morton’s is notable because their steak is cooked on a flat top not a wood fired grill, a char-grill or a broiler. A strong case can be made that cooking a steak on a flat top or griddle, called “a la plancha” in the Spanish speaking world, is the superior method. The sizzling surface sears the meat so all the juices and fat are sealed in. And on the plus side Morton’s slathers the steak with butter. It’s affront to your arteries but you’ll die happy.

Morton’s in Boston was the scene of several bacchanalian orgies of steak and wine in the waning days of my restaurant career. One of my partners was an oenophile and that’s the nicest thing I can say about him. His best friend was one of Boston’s biggest wine distributors and importers whose company had discovered Guigal wines and had become the importer for the whole country. Bob had his own million-dollar wine cellar at home and, as such, you knew he’d bring one hell of a bottle to the party. You also knew that you didn’t have one as good or that you could afford.

The price of entry to these bleary nights of indulgence was that each participant, of which there were four, had to bring a worthy, read old, bottle. The fraught task brought on the cold sweats. How will my pathetic offering stand up? I didn’t have much of a cellar and the oldest, dubiously drinkable wine I owned was a standard issue, $6.00 when released, 1968 Louis Martini Cabernet. At least it got bonus points for being part of illustrious class of 1968, one in which Napa Valley cabs were deemed the equal of those from Bordeaux. The wine had been stored with no adherence to the strictures of proper wine storage, to wit a humidity controlled 55 degrees. The sad little thing had been kept in a pantry next to the Smucker’s apricot jam.

My erstwhile partner brought one of Guigal’s La Las, La Landonne specifically. Our resident wine maven brought a legendary 1968 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. That’s the famed wine redolent of menthol from the eucalyptus trees that surrounded the vineyard.  And I brought the cowering little Louis Martini. I don’t remember what our fourth member contributed, or care.

As protocol requires, we began with the wine most likely to fail. Namely mine. We opened my thirty-year old relic, a gift from a friend in 1981 when we opened a restaurant on Lombard Street in San Francisco. Thanks Lenny. It poured light, more like pinot noir than cabernet. But, to our amazement, the lyrical little wine filled our stems with floral notes and lithe elegance. The Martha’s Vineyard from the watershed 1968 vintage that had proved that California could make world class cabernet was full bodied and fresh with menthol notes and pure expressive fruit. 1968 was deemed the best year since 1947. 2016 tasting notes that I found online glorify the 1968 Martha’s Vineyard this way, “Definitely the first time I’ve seen this bottle, and probably the last. This was stunning in every sense of the word! With good color, chocolate mint, cherry, tobacco and earthy nose that got you going and kept you going as well. Full bodied, fresh, deep and long, the fruit had beautiful purity.This is definitely one of the best, mature, classic California Cabernet Sauvignon wines I've ever tasted.” Today the regal beauty will set you back $1,294 smackeroos.

What's his name's La Landonne was as advertised, stupendous. The biggest, most tannic of Guigal’s Cote Rotie wines, it showed firm minerality along with blackberry, spice and tobacco. 

You can still pull the cork on a 1968 Heitz cab or a 1982 La Landonne and be left murmuring superlatives to express your awe. The 1968 Louis Martini, alas, has left the building.

At this moment the La Landonne retails for $669 and the Martini is a paltry $170.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

After Bourdain: The Steak Issue

El Churrasco in Cordoba

As I reflect, the appearance of red meat in my food memories is prominent. I am an unabashed carnivore though beef no longer plays a big role at home. But when dining out, especially during travel, the steak looms large. So much so that I’m compelled to list my all-time best steaks and the place and circumstances thereof.
While I was still in college on the vaunted eight-year program there was a cowboy steak emporium called Pinnacle Peak way the hell northeast of Scottsdale. The joint is still there but is very pale iteration of its old self. By the late sixties the steak had become more Sizzler than Pinnacle Peak but, apparently, the cowboy scene keeps it afloat.  Anyway, I had a buddy, Jim Walters, whose wife Sandy was a waitress there. She introduced me to the place. I wound up singing and playing guitar in the “Sweet Tooth”, the adjacent saloon. Pinnacle Peak, a sprawling open-air affair, was renowned for two things:  a 32-ounce porterhouse steak and that they’d cut your tie off and staple it to the rafters if you had the temerity to wear one. As to the mammoth steak cooked over a mesquite fire, I can report that it was big.
We moved to Minneapolis from LA in 1971 when I began operating a small chain of family restaurants called Betty Crocker Pie Shops. Yes, that Betty, the mythic exemplar of 1950’s family life. But, more importantly, there was a steak. And what a steak it was. Lindey’s Steakhouse in Arden Hills northeast of Minneapolis had a simple beef centric menu led by the stellar Lindey’s Special Sirloin. The thick cut steak that had been aged and butchered in house was at that time and maybe still, the best steak ever. I’ll get back to you when I complete my steak research in approximately never. Is never too soon for you?
Lindey's Special Sirloin

The Special Sirloin came with a forgettable salad but with savory home fries that are worth an article. Lindey’s was the first place where a menu described what properly cooked steak is and the veracity of its descriptions have stayed with me since. It said, and I paraphrase liberally, we don’t do well-done. If you do order that offense to God and womanhood, we’ll drop it in the deep fryer and you can take your hockey puck home for breakfast. As to rare, Lindy’s was equally emphatic. Rare means red and cool in the center. That steak could make a grown man weep. It was brought out on a sizzling iron platter then cut in half and fanned before your eyes, so you could approve of its doneness or, ideally, the lack thereof. That was a steak.
One time we took Harold Bissner, a southern California visitor, to Lindy’s on a forty below night. We drove our brand new yellow Volkswagen Beetle.  It was our first new car and cost a princely $2,600. We expected the restaurant to be quiet since it was a blustery February Tuesday, but being Minnesota, it was as busy as a Saturday in July. Those Minnesotans are hardy folk and they do love their steak. On the flip side, you couldn’t buy a fresh vegetable in the Twin Cities in 1971.

In 1976 I became a vice president of a national fast food chain. I won’t say the name, but its spokesman had white hair, wore a white suit and sounded like he was from Corbin, Kentucky. There are many stories to be told about that heady time in my life. Some of them true. We led an idyllic life in muy rico New Canaan, Connecticut. I had an office in Greenwich, and another at Herald Square in Manhattan. I was king of the world or as close as I would come. 

My boss, Jim Willey, the president of KFC, visited my New York market on occasion and on his second visit he took my fellow vice presidents and me to Peter Luger's in the very sketchy Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. The neighborhood was a rich blend of Hasidim and hoodlum. Back then you risked losing your car if you parked it in Williamsburg. If you did have the, umm stones, to bring your wheels you had to duke some kid a ten spot to watch it.
The hard drinking, chain smoking Willey had the presence of mind to have an account at Luger’s and it's a good thing since they didn’t accept credit cards. Even now they take just one card, their own.
Peter Luger’s had been there since 1887 and so had some of the waiters. It was last redecorated in 1952. I’ve noticed that in a lot of the classic steakhouses, that the more dated the decor the better the steak. Of course that's just a theory.
Family style at Peter Luger in Brooklyn

Everything was served family style by graying lifers wearing starched white aprons that hung below the knee.  Platters of sliced New Jersey truck farm tomatoes and onions, scrumptious home fries and sliced porterhouse steak made the groaning table sag. It was a quintessential New York dining experience. I remember it so vividly that eating at Peter Luger's again is high on my bucket list.
Lomo de Buey at El Churrasco.

Nearly forty years passed by before another steak joined Lindey’s and Peter Luger’s atop my best steakhouse list and it was in Cordoba, Spain. It was April of 2014 when we chanced upon El Churrasco. We picked the restaurant by its welcoming appearance and because it had, well, steak. On the left in the small lobby were three grills where the steaks were cooked over charcoal. Under the front counter was refrigerated case where the beef was being aged. To the right of the grills enormous slabs of meat leaned against the tile wall. When we took our first tender juicy bite of the “Lomo de Buey” we exclaimed in unison, “This is best steak I ever had.” Loosely translated “Lomo de Buey” means back of the steer or oxen. New York Strip to me. When I spoke to the manager as I was leaving I learned that El Churrasco bought all its beef from a ranch an hour north of Cordoba and had done so for decades, that it was aged for two weeks at the ranch and another two at the restaurant. It was melt in your mouth tender and the fat, of which there was plenty, was sweet and soft as a kiss. I was so in lust that I made another trip to Cordoba just for the steak.
There’s a back story to visiting Spain twice in a year. It has something to do with the computer eating three weeks of images while we were in Madrid. The culprit shall remain nameless. When we were in France in October I convinced myself that I had to retrace my steps through Barcelona, Madrid, Seville and Cordoba to replace the irreplaceable photographs, I was, after all, so close. I quickly learned that you can’t replicate 5,000 moments in time. But at least I got another Lomo de Buey.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

After Bourdain: Serendipity

Via Appia

Memorable meals and extraordinary food discoveries happen by chance.  With just three nights in Rome and a forgettable Michelin one star meal at the Hassler Hotel we hired Mimo, a driver we had met at the airport, for a truncated tour that would hit he usual suspects, as in the Colosseum with the car running and throwing coins into the Trevi Fountain from a moving Mercedes. He drove a Mercedes wagon. Later we meandered south along the Appian Way in mid-afternoon July. Rome in July was a rookie mistake for which we may be forgiven. Dusty, humid and hot are among the adjectives that come to mind. You may stay at the Hassler, one of the great city hotels in the world, tomorrow night for the munificent sum of $1,500. If you have to ask the price, Binky, you can't afford it.

Pollo al Mattone

As we came abreast of an unprepossessing stone farmhouse Mimo asked if we wanted to have lunch. Famished and hallucinating by this time we gave him a hearty thumbs-up. We were seated in a capacious interior courtyard with just one other party, a besotted Italian couple. We ordered a bottle of Fontana Candida Frascati from the namesake town nearby. I knew the label since it was the house white at Davio’s back home in Boston. We enjoyed the bracing wine and watched as a whole butterflied chicken was placed in a cast iron skillet, weighted with a large brick and pushed into the 800-degree wood-fired oven. The chicken arrived russet brown and so crisp it seemed pan fried. The skin was caramelized, yet the meat was supremely moist, even the breast. The contrast was extraordinary, like a  charred steak with a cool red center. The juicy bird was served with a simple salad, potatoes roasted in the pan juices and a platter of halved figs which were in season. It was Italy. It was perfect. I was happy .

I won't forget that chicken, the rustic setting or Mimo’s company. Which speaks to my axiom that great meals are comprised of what you ate, where you ate it, how you were treated, and who you were with at that hallowed moment. When the whole is greater than the sum of its parts it will be etched in your mind forever. 

Being a service guy, the most important component, the one without which it can’t be a great meal, is and will always be how you are treated. I opened fifty restaurants during my forty years in the restaurant business and service was my obsession. Some would say it still is. In every one of those fifty I trained front of the house staff on the sweet science of service. While I covered the pillars of a rewarding dining experience; giving the food, the drink and the atmosphere of the place their fair due I lingered and lingered some more on hospitality. I expressed my belief that you may forget the specific menu item you ate even if it was outstanding, as I have sometimes done, but you’ll always remember how we are made to feel.

A decade later I learned the name of the revelatory chicken at the osteria with no name on the Via Appia. I was seated next to the Executive Chef of the Sheraton Boston Hotel on a flight from LA to Boston. We were talking about restaurants and great meals and I began describing the unforgettable chicken dish we'd eaten outside Rome in 1984. He told me it was called Pollo al Mattone meaning chicken under a brick.

A year ago, miracle of miracles, Chicken Under a Brick appeared on the menu at Andy Lynch’s Common Fire, one of our go-to restaurants here in Taos. Same iron skillet. Same brick. Same wood-fired oven. Same Pollo al Mattone only closer.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

After Bourdain: Essays on food, drink and life

The passing of Anthony Bourdain left a jagged hole in the middle of my chest. It was a like a brother from a different mother departed this earth. 

As an “essayist”, the title he gave himself, he was peerless. Superficially a food writer or a travel host he was much more than either. He gave us a window into the greater world, with food as the catalyst for knowing our brethren better. His efforts prompted countless people to get passports and to become world citizens. He recently said, “I wish more people would get passports.” I'm pretty sure he meant that folks would benefit, would grow, if they visited other places and discovered that people are more alike than different, everywhere. As our country turns inward, that revelation is essential.

Bourdain started travelling in earnest at 43 though he had spent some summers in France as a boy. It was there that he slurped his first oyster, marveled at its briny sweetness and was changed forever. We, also, travelled to Europe for the first time in our early forties. We inhaled it deeply and became citizens of that greater world, empowered but with a twinge of regret that we hadn’t done it much earlier

On that adventure, one that happened during a three-year sabbatical, we travelled first cabin, stayed at four-star hotels and reveled in memorable meals such as the unforgettable dining experience at the Priory in Bath, England. From the swank Royal Crescent in Bath we drove to a manor house in the midst of manicured gardens. We sipped champagne while waiting to be seated, selected a magnificent 1966 La Fort de la Tour Bordeaux, Chateau La Tour’s second label, had a sumptuous meal with dishes I don’t remember, and repaired to the library for brandy and cigars. The event, the only appropriate word for it, was so historic that it stands as “our best meal ever” after 34 years perhaps because it was our first such extravagance. A 2011 lunch at Alain Ducasse's Bastide de Moustiers does challenge for the title, I grant you.

Yet other meals in that exploratory voyage of 1984 are also etched in our minds, meals not riven with pomp and pretense. They were of simpler sensibilities and, as such, more warmly remembered. Bourdain spoke to this contrast in a recent interview. His words were, in effect, that as he got older the less interest he had in the self-congratulatory fine dining performance and craved unprepossessing restaurants and food carts where he could eat with the people in their places.

Breaking bread with a stranger or, for that matter, toasting them with good Irish whiskey brings you closer to them. Connecting with another human being is what makes us tick. As Bill Maher says, “I don’t know it for a fact. I just know that it’s true.”

No one makes friends with the front waiter or sommelier at The French Laundry or Le Bernardin, but you might if you met them as equals in the taqueria of their choice. Barriers of position and class disappear and you’re just a couple of swells enjoying fish tacos and icy Negra Modelo.

Anthony Bourdain was doing what a lot of us dream of doing, travelling the world, immersing ourselves in exotic cultures, digging beneath the surface and striding brashly across the television screen while reporting in bold, expressive prose what we saw and what we believed it meant in human terms. It’s certainly my dream job. Which is like wishing I’d written a best-seller about the dark profane crazed underbelly of the restaurant business but without the descent into addiction.  I’d call it “Kitchen Confidential” but I think that title has already been used.

Food is thread with which my life has been woven. Every milestone moment in my long life is punctuated by a dining experience or a “food epiphany”, a magical taste of something so different it’s life altering.

This is the first in a series of essays about food, places and people.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Yippee Ki Yay

As I drove back from my Sunday run (I use the term loosely) I saw a sign advertising El Rodeo de Taos that will be held June 22 and 23 this year. It’s a dusty affair that brings out the cowboy and cowgirl in all of us. It takes me back to my first rodeo in Salinas, California about 1946. Yes, that’s more than seventy years. The Salinas spectacular began in 1911 at Sausal Park Race Track and was loftily called The California Rodeo from the get-go. The grandstand was expanded to seat a robust 14,000 in 1935 and is the venue I would have visited at the ripe age of five. The California Rodeo is still the biggest and most popular in the Golden State.

Rodeo started in the days of the Spanish rancheros. Its name come from the Spanish word for round up or “rodear” a factoid I didn’t know till this very day, proving that I’m never too old to learn something of no importance.

Suffice it to say, I look forward to cowboying up in two weeks. Yippee ki yay.

These teasers are from last year’s Rodeo de Taos and the National Day of the Cowboy at the Mortenson Ranch Arena in Santa Fe.

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Tubular, man.

The cylinder is elegantly strong and simple. Here a towering Saguaro near Tucson, one of the three stacks at the shuttered Dynergy natural gas power plant in Morro Bay, California and grain silos in sleepy Sudan, Texas vie for airspace.

It's a marvelous form, the way its shape gathers volume from the shadows that caress its roundness. Soft porn descriptions aside, the camera does love the cylinder.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Morada Libre

There’s not a whole lot to say about these two images. The first is a rather traditional (hackneyed) shot of a ladder against an faux adobe wall the other is a (hackneyed) window and real adobe vignette at La Morada de Nuestra Señor de Guadalupe. So, the connection is either adobe or hackneyed.

Come to think of it, there is a story lurking beneath the surface of image two and is that of access or lack thereof to the aforementioned morada. My understanding has been that the rights of the public and, specifically, of artists and photographers to visit and depict the morada was guaranteed in the agreement that conveyed the morada from the Taos Historic Museums to the archdiocese of Santa Fe about ten years ago. Rebutting that belief is a conspicuously placed sign on the entry gate to the morada which says that painting and photography are not allowed. I have conspicuously ignored said sign, the evidence of which is flaunted above.

The last time Peggy and an artist friend attempted to paint there they were told to cease and desist by an officious member of the Penitente Brotherhood who said that the morada is a sacred place which would be defiled if memorialized by camera toting barbarians. I paraphrase liberally.

After a short interchange which culminated by Peggy saying. “I don’t want to debate it with you anymore.” she and her friend departed the scene. I, on the other hand, will photograph the morada this very day as a matter of principal.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Form follows Function

Of late, especially on Instagram, I’ve been posting photographs of ordinary mechanical things; wires, conduit, pipes and the like. I've referred to this series as "The backside of the frontside." To my surprise, the images of things that are not in the least artful have been among the best received. Go figure.

I will surmise that the appeal stems from the geometric designs that are a product the efforts of engineers, electricians and plumbers who, generally speaking, try to install these functional things in a trim, straight and plumb fashion (except for the wires which are a nightmare of tangled webs) and that order creates tempting patterns like these.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

We don't need no stinking camera

Of late I’ve been ducking into alleys and behind the monotonous blur of postcard scenes that abound in Taos. If you who follow me on Instagram you've seen plenty of these since our visit to Pueblo, Colorado back in March. All of those Instagram pics were shot with my iphone 7 which is always at hand and which boosts I mighty fine onboard camera. As my friend John Farnsworth jokes, “It’s a camera that’s also a phone.” 

The backstreet images here were made with an honest to gosh camera, my Canon 5D Mk lll. The mighty unit is the third most used camera among the professional class behind a couple of Nikons. Truth be told, the iphone performs some kind of alchemy and has left me wondering whether a big megapixel camera is even necessary. I say that barely in jest.

Señor Farnsworth has already reached that conclusion. At this very moment the boy is wending his way back to Taos after some four months in his beloved Antigua.

Bien venidos, Juanito.