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.