May 11, 2016

25 for 25: Musings on Food

A fanciful dish from Noma

September, 2015: We had just come back from dinner at Pujol, in Mexico City, and were sitting in our hotel room, talking food.  And service. And writers who write about food.  In the past few weeks there had been two scathing indictments about “fine dining”.  One, an Op-Ed in the New York Times, was a thinly veiled account of Eleven Madison Park, as told through the eyes of a former employee; the other, in Harper’s magazine, a biting lashing of three Michelin starred restaurants in New York, including, yes, Eleven Madison Park.

In “Dinner and Deception,” the NYT Op-Ed, the writer confessed that “serving elaborate meals to the super-rich left me feeling empty.”  The Harper’s writer was even more pointed about her EMP meal:  “It is weaponized food, food tortured and contorted beyond what is reasonable; food taken to its illogical conclusion; food not to feed yourself but to thwart other people.”


Had the art, the science, the magic of inventive cuisine been reduced to weapons to be fed to the super-rich?

It was a depressing thought.  We were on our quest to eat at the world’s 25 best, not because we were super-rich, not because we wanted to approach each meal like a battlefield, but because we really believed that what is being created in these restaurants is its own kind of singular evolution, an art form, newly elevated, that deserves to be celebrated and experienced.

It got us thinking and talking.  About the evolution of food; about the nature of service and the theatre of dining; about food writers and whether this is all still relevant.  Here’s part of that conversation.


It’s like the pigments that Van Gogh was sent and used. 

What do you mean he was sent the pigments? I don’t know this story.

His paint supplier had these new yellow pigments and Van Gogh was so taken by these pigments; every time he mixed them he had new colours – colours that didn’t exist before.  So he did this whole series – all of these sunflowers – and they’re all experiments – they’re worth millions of dollars today – but they were just experiments. And each new painting opened another door not only for him but generations after.

So what does that have to do with food?

Well, it’s exactly the same thing. You’re taking ingredients and you’re decomposing them, you’re recomposing them, you’re taking them a step further – it’s evolution.  Rene Redzepi, Escoffier, The French Laundry, Thomas Keller. He influenced a ton of other chefs that didn’t necessarily go on to open French Laundry-like restaurants.  But it just evolved and the key to humanity is evolution – without evolution the planet stands still and we die.

What I’m really beginning to understand about these restaurants is how much theatre there is, performance art.  There’s definitely a style of service at all of them and in some cases you and I have observed there’s such a degree of formality…it’s not what I would call a fun dining experience. What about that?

There’s something to be said about tradition. There’s a proper way of showcasing, of putting the spotlight on what this is all about and in this case it’s food. So they’re honouring the food because really - what if it was just thrown at you?

What about this other thing we’ve experienced where the server is the intermediary between you and the food, between you and the chef.  The reality is whether it’s a 3 Michelin star restaurant…

…or your local pub

Yeah, exactly – well, you’re usually not meeting the person who’s making the food. So the server is the face of the food, the face of the chef.  What happens when you don’t connect with the server or when the service is perfunctory or they’re just reading their script? Because frankly, they’ve said the same thing …”be careful the plate is hot”…they’ve said that a hundred times tonight, so how can they get excited about it and then how do they make a connection with you, the diner?

That’s almost irrelevant.  It’s like walking into an art gallery.  What if you don’t connect with the art…

Let me interrupt you here because you are shown the art the way the artist created it.  You talked about Van Gogh earlier? When I see his Sunflowers or his Starry Night or a self-portrait, I see it the way he imagined it.  Now, in a restaurant I see the food the way the chef imagined it but there’s someone who’s an interpreter for the chef.  Unlike the artist or the painting where it’s left to my imagination.  So the skill of the server is really important, for me anyway, because I want that server to tell me the story behind the dish, to care about it as much as the chef did when they created it.

When you stand next to a painting and the gallery owner comes explains to you the history of the artist, or the technique that they’ve used and all of the sudden you see a completely different painting than you originally saw…

I think we’re saying the same thing. What I’m talking about is when that server doesn’t have that skill or the passion or the…

But that’s what I’m saying too. If the gallery owner doesn’t answer your question or answers your question so that you absolutely don’t understand what he or she is talking about, you’re on your own.  The connection you’re craving is almost irrelevant; it will never be a perfect experience. Somebody eating tonight at Pujol probably had a bad experience, and that’s unavoidable.  Someone here at the hotel may not have a good experience because they don’t like this kind of architecture, the room décor, whatever.   

Are you saying that we’re taking this all too seriously?

Not you and I, or certainly not me…

I think I’m taking it too seriously.


And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It reminds me of those articles we were talking about.  What is the point of these articles? They’re not constructive at all and at the bottom of it they’re trying to stop evolution.

Explain to me what you mean by that.

From what they’re saying, questioning the importance …

Or belittling it.

Yeah. It’s like questioning Andy Warhol’s relevance in the history of art.

Well that’s a good example because there’s people who would maybe say he’s not really a “serious” artist.

Yet he’s had such a huge influence on other generations after him. He’s completely opened a door that was not even open before. I question these kinds of articles. What is the point? That these restaurants are irrelevant?

I don’t know if they’re saying they’re irrelevant. It’s about that they’re too self-important, that they take themselves too seriously, that everything about them, from the style of service to the price that you’re paying, to the ambiance, the list of ingredients is oh so overwrought that it can drive you crazy.

Doesn't have to be highbrow to make it
on to Instagram, as long as it's food
You know what I think it is, frankly? It is absolutely a moment in time.  I mean, food has never been more popular.  I think the underlying thing behind this obsession that we have with food is an analog reaction, actually, to everything else that’s around us. The fact that we’re on our phones all the time. The fact that technology has inserted itself fully into our lives. When we eat we can’t do anything but take the fork and put it in our mouth. That is a tactile experience. It is immediate. We’re trying to photograph it or Instagram it, or do whatever to it but that moment exists in the here and now. And I think there is this underlying or maybe now overt desire for people to connect with something real. And food is perhaps become the object of that.

And that’s another layer of the onion. If it’s important for someone to go to a restaurant just because it’s on their bucket list – so what? Some women will buy an Hermes bag because they know that it took a hundred hours for some craftsman to make and that woman appreciates that, where at the other end of the spectrum there’s a woman who buys it because it’s a fricking Hermes bag and it’s worth $20,000 and that’s her motivation.  But who cares?

I mean food is the topic de jour and I’m actually surprised that this food trend has gone on as long as it has. We had these supermodels, which we never had before, and all of the sudden we have these super chefs, which we’ve never had before. 

I’m sure that chefs are wishing they could say that they don’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day

I think you’re on to something when you say it’s a way for us to reconnect – and I don’t mean to sound clichéd – reconnect with the world, with our earth…Because these fricking phones – we drop them, oh well; we lose them, oh well. A new one comes out, we throw out the old one. But food - it does feed our souls, it’s a social gathering.  All this social media has sucked the social – funny that it’s called social media because it’s anything but social – it has eliminated our need to really interact with people that we care about. Your phone doesn’t do that; it doesn’t provide you with that. But food…when you sit down with another person - whether it’s your spouse or your child or your best friend or a group of colleagues – it’s an experience that no technology has replaced – none.  So perhaps that’s why it’s even more important today than ever before.

When I see chefs like Grant Atchaz at Alinea...whether I appreciate the food or not, whether I think it’s worth the money or not, just the brain behind it, the science behind it, the creativity behind it…how I can produce X or Y, what can I do with this orange? These writers who are writing these articles – you’re actually telling me that you would kibosh what these people are doing? I come back to Van Gogh’s pigments – that all of the sudden he could do a 100 shades of yellow when in the past, a week before, he could only do twelve shades of yellow.

A journalist is to determine that we should only have the equivalent of twelve shades of yellow? How ridiculous is that…how limiting is that? Because we’ve had some amazing meals not spending hundreds or thousands of dollars for them.

You know, you almost have to break it down the way Miranda [Priestley in The Devil Wears Prada] – does  - that’s her name, right? The number of people employed. It’s a business, it’s not just one person’s little fanciful thing.
It’s not about a $500 dinner.  How many people are  in that kitchen? How many people does it employ? All the artisans that make the plates that perhaps somebody ends up buying – what about that? And how many people who work in the kitchen end up going and opening their own restaurants?  And then they employ people…it’s huge! It’s not that one meal. It’s not that green sweater or whatever she’s talking about.

And then we finished our wine, and realised we had stayed up way later than intended.  But just before we went to bed, we watched that great monologue from The Devil Wears Prada one more time.

Yes food, like fashion, is at its heart a business, as Miranda says; it's also still magic, still mystery, still theatre and genius. "Weaponized food, food tortured and contorted beyond what is reasonable"? That's eating without imagination and a willingness to be whisked away on the chef's journey, wherever it may take you.

Next up: putting on a show at Eleven Madison Park

NB to our readers: Yes, we are still continuing on our quest!  Eleven restaurants down, 14 to go. While we're way behind in posting about our adventures, please visit back soon to continue reading about where in the world Liz and Rich have dined next.

August 17, 2015

25 for 25: A Fine Kettle of Fish

It took me all my life to learn how to salt a tomato 
Chef Eric Ripert

T.S Eliot may have thought that April was the cruelest month, but I’m guessing he never visited New York City in February.  Short dreary days; snow and slush at every step; a damp that can seep into your bones and settle in to stay until the spring thaw.

But there are ways to make even a New York February weekend transcend the elements.  Take one opera, two stellar restaurants, three days and four fabulous friends, stir, season liberally with laugher and healthy helping of libations and you have it: our next adventure in our quest to eat at the top 25 World’s Best restaurants (you can read about that here).

New York is that miracle of a place – so many not just good but really great restaurants that your head can spin trying to decide where to eat. Luckily our options were pre-determined: of all those restaurants, Michelin stars, Zagat rankings and NYT four star reviews notwithstanding, only two were on the “list”: Eleven Madison Park and Le Bernardin. 

The weekend was going to be hectic. I was flying in from Shanghai on Thursday night, and meeting up with Richard, Silvia and Jeff at the hotel.  We’d grab a late dinner somewhere.  Lunch at Le Bernardin on Friday, Carmen at the Met on Friday night, Eleven Madison on Saturday night.  In between, squeezing as much out of New York as we could, weather and energy permitting.   

Friday dawned brisk and crisp.  Coffee for breakfast and barely much more…we wanted to be ready to savour our lunch at Le Bernardin.  A luxury indeed: the whole afternoon ahead of us, a rare treat to have a gourmet meal on a weekday.  

The restaurant is tucked away on 51st Street between 6th and 7th, the sign subtle, easy to walk by and miss.  Once inside, however, the atmosphere could not be more welcoming. Le Bernardin is a soothing, beautiful clubby space with old school glamour and sophisticated details.  Gleaming wood in a rich coffered ceiling, a silvery wall lit from below that has the shimmery effect of gently lapping waves, artfully arranged cherry blossoms towering over delicate orchids, all exuding a Zen-like calm and a measured cadence. 

Chef Eric Ripert, he of the silver hair and dazzling smile, has been at the helm of Le Bernardin since the age of 28. Within a year, the New York Times gave the restaurant four stars, an honour it has maintained in the 20 years since, repeating the feat four times. A man of seemingly singular focus, Monsieur Ripert is that rare celebrity chef – one who is still cooking in the kitchen. He's also a Buddhist, and perhaps it is that which seems to create an air of complete serenity at Le Bernardin.  

We opt for the eight course Chef’s Tasting menu. As with Arpege, the singular focus on a family of ingredients creates a special kind of mastery. Here, seafood is the star.  Subtlety shapes every dish, delicate flesh translucent and raw, or perfectly cooked with a restrained sauce that lets the sea shine through.

And so begins the meal.

A crudo of bay scallops and sea urchin done ceviche style with a Granny Smith apple 
and Meyer lemon vinaigrette

 Warm king fish sashimi, generously topped with Osetra caviar and 
finished with a light mariniere broth

Sautéed langoustine, topped with a perfect shave of black truffle and sprinkled chanterelle mushrooms, unexpectedly paired with an aged balsamic vinaigrette

 White tuna and Kobe beef, with fresh kimchi, Asian pear and a soy-lemon emulsion

As the meal progresses, we notice a prevailing theme of earth and sea; whether in the use of the black truffle or chanterelles, the umami flavours complement but never overshadow their oceanic plate mates.   

With the arrival of each dish, there is a reverent pause and then a collective groan of approval from the four of us. Around us the restaurant is full, the steady hum and laughter of diners well satisfied.  So deeply are we into the meal and our lively conversation that Richard’s sudden refrain “There he is” “There he is”  “THERE HE IS”, said in an increasingly loud and urgent whisper, take the three of us a few minutes to register.  And indeed, there he is, the Chef himself, making his way quietly to the captain’s station, and then, impossibly, towards our table, stopping for a brief gracious moment to say hello. 

Our friend Silvia is never at a loss for words.  But as Chef Ripert quietly shook our hands, and we thanked him for a wonderful meal, she could only nod silently in assent.  At such times the moment crystallises and becomes perfect, a memory captured that is fleeting but never forgotten. Words become irrelevant when the gift of a great food experience is this good.

It seems only fitting that the final dessert is distinctly Canadian in character: a maple candy cap cremeux with huckleberry confit.  

The captain approaches our table, asking if perhaps we would like to see the kitchen?  Bien sur!  Lunch service has wound down and the kitchen team is busy preparing for the evening's onslaught, each stainless steel surface wiped clean and gleaming.  Although Chef Ripert is not in the kitchen, that same air of watchful calmness prevails and we can imagine that even at the height of service, there are no raised voices or crashing plates.

If we had to sum up this, our second in a list of 25 world class meals, all of us agree that there are three words that spring to mind to describe it: subtle, sophisticated and refined, executed with an intense concentration and precision.  I'm thinking it's the same precision that led Chef Ripert to learn how to salt that tomato perfectly.

Two down, 23 to go.  If Arpege and Le Bernardin were numbers 25 and 23 on the list respectively, how great could good get?

Stay tuned for more...

Elizabeth and Richard

Next up: A Big Apple showstopper

Eric Ripert's Fish Fumet (Fish Stock)
from the Le Bernardin Cookbook
Makes 3 cups

I suspect a whole ocean of fish fumet has flowed through the kitchen at Le BernardinThis recipe, like everything at Le Bernardin, is simple and delicious.

2 lbs. heads and bones from black bass, red snapper or halibut
2 tbsp corn oil
1 medium onion, peeled and very thinly sliced
1 leek, very thinly sliced
15 white peppercorns
½ tsp fine sea salt
1 sprig fresh Italian parsley
1 bay leaf
1 c dry white wine
3 c water

1.  Remove the gills and the eyes from the fish heads or have your fishmonger do this for you.. Cut the heads and bones across into 4-inch pieces. In a shallow pan filled with cold water, add the heads and bones. Cover, and let stand for 1 hour, changing the water twice.

2. In a large stockpot set over medium heat, add corn oil, onions, fennel, leeks, peppercorns, salt, parsley, and bay leaf. Reduce the heat to medium low, and cook until the vegetables are soft but not browned, about 4 minutes.

3. Transfer heads and bones from water to the stockpot; discard water. Stir periodically until bones and flesh around bones turn from translucent to white, about 12 minutes.

4. Add the wine and 3 cups of water; bring to a boil over high heat. Boil fumet 10 minutes, skimming off the foam as it rises to the top. Remove from heat; let rest for 10 minutes.

5. Strain the fumet through a fine-mesh sieve or chinois, pressing firmly on the solids to extract as much of the flavourful liquid as possible. If you have more than 3 cups of fumet, place the liquid in a clean saucepan over high heat, and boil until it reduces to 3 cups. Store, tightly covered, in the refrigerator up to 3 days, or in the freezer up to 2 months.