Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Farewell to Argentina's Famed Beef?

by Nancy Shute

When I think of Argentina, I think of beef from cows that graze on the endless pampas, tended by watchful gauchos. That grass-fed beef has been the centerpiece of Argentina's most famous dish, a slow-cooked asado on the parilla.

But while in Buenos Aires last week, I discovered that the pampas-raised beef of my reveries is practically a thing of the past. Today, most cattle in Argentina are raised in feedlots, just like in the U.S. That transition has been driven by soaring prices in the global grain markets over the past decade, making it far more profitable to raise soybeans, wheat and corn than herd cattle.

That may be good news for grain farmers, but it's not a welcome change for the chefs of Buenos Aires. "It's politics, not gastronomy," says Javier Urondo, chef and owner of Urondo Bar and Restaurant in the Parque Chacubuco neighborhood.

Urondo would much rather buy grass-fed beef, but says it's impossible because the industry doesn't identify meat by production method. "There's no way of knowing," the affable 54-year-old told me over a late lunch at Bar Seis in the Palermo Soho neighborhood. "Even my butcher doesn't know."

And because the change has been gradual, Urondo says, most customers don't notice the difference. (That thought was seconded in a September report on Argentina's beef production by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service.)
  Dan Perlman, an American chef and writer living in Buenos Aires who runs his own "secret" restaurant, Casa SaltShaker, has also noticed the difference. "When I first came to Argentina, I said, 'This is what beef is supposed to taste like!' Now, it's just steak," Perlman says.

 How exactly does grass-fed beef taste difference from grain-fed beef? As NPR's Allison Aubrey has reported, the meat from cows that dine on grass may be chewier and less fatty. She also cites a recent analysis from the Union of Concerned Scientists that found that grass-fed steak has about twice as many omega-3s as a typical grain-fed steak.

The flavor used to be a selling point for Argentina, which has a long, proud history as the world's great exporter of beef, starting way back in the 1800s. But in recent years Argentina has ceded that crown to Brazil.

Government policies are also helping shrink the country's beef exports. For years, the price of beef was kept artificially low to encourage domestic consumption.

But that didn't suit the cattlemen too well. "The producers have responded by saying, 'we're going to switch to producing grains'," says Michael Boland, director of the Food Industry Center at the University of Minnesota. He's been following the transformation of Argentine beef closely, both as a researcher and as someone who loves to eat. "The Malbec and the beef," he recalls wistfully. "That, to me, is Argentina."

Read the rest of the story here.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Turning Star Chefs into Must-See TV

At a recent meal at Jean Georges restaurant in New York, Charles Pinsky pushed a dish of foie gras on brioche with spiced fig jam toward his dining companion. "You eat mine. It's delicious, but I've had it about 200 times," said Mr. Pinsky, shrugging. Describing dining at El Bulli in Spain shortly before it closed, and attending the restaurant Chez Panisse's 40th-anniversary party, he waved his hand, muttering, "Yeah, yeah. I'm over it."

Being cynical about star chefs and immune to the glamour of haute cuisine may sound like the kiss of death for a producer and director of food television. But being easily bored may be Mr. Pinsky's greatest asset.
Throughout his 20-year-plus career, which has included four James Beard awards and dozens of public television cooking series and specials—with chefs and celebrities like Mario Batali, Jacques Pépin and Gwyneth Paltrow—Mr. Pinsky, 61, has been on a continual search for the "the next new idea."

Before he takes on a project, Mr. Pinsky said, he asks himself how it will be different from what he has done before. This principle pushed him into a series that he is developing with Phil Rosenthal, a comedy writer and the creator of the television show "Everybody Loves Raymond." The attraction to Mr. Pinsky is figuring out how to combine comedy and food.

 To flesh out an idea, Mr. Pinsky schedules many long conversations with a potential collaborator, often over restaurant meals. In late August, he went on a four-day eating journey through Los Angeles and San Francisco with Mr. Rosenthal, whom Mr. Pinsky describes as "a skinny guy who can out-enthusiasm and out-eat just about anybody." The pair began at Mozza restaurant in Los Angeles, then flew to San Francisco to eat eggs with pork and kimchi at Boulette's Larder. Over the next couple of days, they came up with a series idea in which Mr. Rosenthal will accompany famous chefs as they live out their ultimate food fantasies, while providing comedic, direct-to-camera narration.

 Each series begins with a scouting trip. As he scouts, Mr. Pinsky takes pictures with his BlackBerry of interesting characters or scenes, and writes a two-to-three-line description about who and where they are. Then he emails these mini-portraits, sometimes one or two per day, to a list of about 20 friends, including chefs Mr. Batali and Gary Danko, cookbook authors Mark Bittman and Julia Turshen and Mr. Pinsky's two sisters. There's little science to this method—Mr. Pinsky doesn't count votes—but he said that a big cheer from his list will usually lead him to shoot the story.

Scrolling through his BlackBerry, Mr. Pinsky landed on a picture of an elderly Korean woman in traditional dress stooped over a cauldron. She was demonstrating how to make cabbage and pork soup, a combination of ingredients that Mr. Pinsky's star, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, grew up eating in France. Mr. Pinsky said that his email panel loved the image and the idea that a world-famous chef and an old Korean lady had a comfort food in common. These scenes became a high point in a show he produced in Korea about the chef, his Korea-born wife and actors Heather Graham and Hugh Jackman.

Read the rest of the story here.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Kitchen Ink: Tattoos A New Part of Culinary Culture

Stephanie Izard looks like the girl next door, all T-shirt and curly pony tail. Until she wipes the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. And then you see it.

The fish tattoo.

“Cooking is an art and tattoos are another form of art,” says the chef-owner of Chicago’s acclaimed Girl and the Goat restaurant, showing off the delicate drawing on the inside of her wrist. Roll up her pants and a pea tendril struggles up her calf, a tiny plant becoming strong. A bright green gecko sits on one hip. A dolphin resides somewhere unshowable. And across her back, the piece de resistance — a blossoming basil plant encircled by cartoonish flying pigs.

“People come into our restaurant and say ‘Do you only hire line chefs with tattoos?’” says Izard, the first and only woman to win Bravo’s “Top Chef.” ‘’No, we just happen to have lot of them covered in them.”

Once considered the province of sailors, bikers, ex-cons and, of course, college hipsters, tattoos have become standard attire in professional kitchens, a symbol of culinary culture as surely as a toque. Whether the drawings are egg beaters, lemon meringue pies or ancient tribal motifs, body art in the kitchen is now so mainstream that everyone from lowly kitchen rats to celebrity chefs proudly display their work on television, magazine covers, high-end catalogues and in the pages of their cookbooks, making culinistas ever more like rock stars.

“It used to be those cockamamie chef hats that denoted an expertise with a spatula,” says Rocky Rakovic, editor of Inked magazine, a publication dedicated to tattoo culture and that has featured several chefs. “But now time in many kitchens is represented by the amount of tattoos one has.”

Meat cutting diagrams — the different cuts of a pig or cow denoted by dotted lines — and kitchen knives done like daggers are popular with chefs, tattoo artists say. Cupcakes, hot dogs, pies, equipment — a stand mixer showing a reflection in the stainless steel bowl receives raves from tattoo connoisseurs — are standard when you’re talking food tattoos. Food Network chef Duff Goldman, also known as The Ace of Cakes, has a whisk.

Hugh Acheson, chef-partner of three acclaimed Georgia restaurants, who has four tattoos himself, including the names of his wife and children, as well as a Mayan god he got during a trip to the Yucatan peninsula when he was 16 (he swears he was sober). His favorite is the radish on the inside of his left forearm, which commemorates the first plant he grew at his house more than a decade ago, and which gets the spotlight in his new cookbook’s food photos.

But lots of chefs make little or no reference to their profession. In those cases, the ink — and the reasons for getting it — are as individual as the chef.

Bryan Voltaggio, the 35-year-old chef-owner of Volt Restaurant in Frederick, Md., and a finalist (along with brother Michael) on season 6 of “Top Chef,” has six tattoos, including a nautical star to guide him. The names of his children and their Chinese zodiac signs celebrate their births. And his lightening bolt — a tattoo he shares with even more heavily tattooed Michael — celebrates their friendship with childhood buddies (who also have the same tattoo).

Marc Forgione’s eight tattoos represent turning points in his life or career: the Navajo art that inspired him to open his own restaurant; the “1621” on both biceps documenting his recreation of the first Thanksgiving, the meal that cinched his 2010 win on the Food Network’s “The Next Iron Chef”; the tribal infinity symbol his parents gave him on his 18th birthday.

“I use them almost like a roadmap of my life,” says the 32-year-old chef-owner of Restaurant Marc Forgione. “They all have their own little story. It’s a badge of memory.”

Chefs with tattoos are nothing new, Rakovic says. What is new is their emergence from the bowels of restaurant life onto television and into the spotlight. But industry watchers like Dana Cowin, editor-in-chief of Food & Wine magazine, say the volume of ink has definitely increased during the past five years or so — and it should be no surprise.

“If you look at a chef with beautiful tatts you might also be looking at a chef that presents very beautifully plated food,” says Cowin, whose July 2009 cover featured the elaborately inscribed arms of chefs Nate Appleman and Vinny Dotolo and drew fire from a few readers who thought it was in poor taste. “So the opposite conclusion can be drawn: not ‘They’re heathens,’ but, ‘They must be appreciators of art.’”

Which is exactly why chefs like them. “Chefs are artistic people who get inspired by things and that has a lot to do with tattoos,” Forgione says. “We’re kind of artistic, rebellious, a little crazy.”

Read the complete story here.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

George Washington's Thanksgiving Proclamation (1789).....Happy Thanksgiving

WHEREAS it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favour; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me "to recommend to the people of the United States a DAY OF PUBLICK THANKSGIVING and PRAYER, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:"

NOW THEREFORE, I do recommend and assign THURSDAY, the TWENTY-SIXTH DAY of NOVEMBER next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed;-- for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable to establish Constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted;-- for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge;-- and, in general, for all the great and various favours which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

And also, that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions;-- to enable us all, whether in publick or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us); and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

GIVEN under my hand, at the city of New-York, the third day of October, in the year of our Lord, one thousand seven hundred and eighty-nine.

Monday, November 14, 2011

No Need to Gripe About Tripe

The French term jolie laide translates to "pretty ugly," and refers to the striking beauty found in what would conventionally be deemed unattractive.

Bandied about in the fashion world, the phrase has a place now in food too. Suddenly, the ugly ducklings of ingredients, such as odd meat cuts, are the gourmet swans. Case in point: tripe—a word with sour enough connotations. Calvin W. Schwabe's "Unmentionable Cuisine" describes it as "the beef stomach…actually all four stomachs of cattle, sheep and other ruminant animals."

Among the four digestive chambers hoofed creatures possess, it is the cow's reticulum lining that is getting all the culinary play, particularly its protein-rich "honeycomb" lining (shaped and textured like the bee variety).

Recently, Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi of Manhattan's Torrisi Italian Specialties teased the cow tummy into a calamari-like state. "It is very thinly sliced tripe that has been boiled for several hours," said Mr. Carbone. "We toss it with currants, peanuts, fermented chili and an emulsion of lemon peel."

Andrew Carmellini, chef of the Dutch in Manhattan, serves Barrio Tripe, cooked "low and slow with a lot of love and attention," he said. Simmered in beer—then garnished with avocado, lime and a Fritos dusting—his tripe dish has a Mexican foundation.

Meanwhile, in Oxford, Miss., John Currence of City Grocery Restaurant Group, is cooking tripe like chitterlings, frying the whole piece and serving it with either a Creole-spiced romanesco or a Southern-spiced harissa. (Chitterlings, or "chitlins," are pig intestines.)

San Francisco's offal overlord Chris Cosentino takes tripe still further. "We grill it, fry it crispy, even make dessert with it," he said.

In Italy, according to Jacob Kenedy, chef of London's Bocca di Lupo, tripe is an omnipresent cut served distinctly in each region. From Lazio, in central Italy, his is one of the most straightforward preparations -Trippa alla Romana balances the gut's strong taste with tomato, guanciale, mint and pecorino.

The cardinal rule of "tripery"? Pre-cook it for at least two hours. (Fill a stockpot with water, add lemon juice, some salt and turn on the gas.) A savory, warming bowlful proves the sumptuous ends justify the malodorous means.

Find a great tripe recipe here

Friday, November 11, 2011

Say Goodbye to 'One of the Good Guys"

The message dated Nov. 6 was simple and poignant: "Your Neighbor's Garden is closed."

The email and Facebook post made the rounds of the local food community following the death of Your Neighbor's Garden owner Ross Faris after a bicycle accident last Saturday.

As the message explained, "The family and staff have decided it best to end our season early and close the market as we take time to grieve."

It's OK. We understand.

We're grieving, too.

Anyone who met Ross at a local farmers market or stopped by Your Neighbor's Garden over the years can't help but feel the loss.

The City Market's Stevi Stoesz certainly does. She met Ross in 1996 when he helped her develop plans for the popular Downtown farmers market.

"He was my very first vendor and biggest cheerleader," said Stoesz, "for not only the farmers market at the City Market, but all the great area markets."

Local food activist, writer and consultant Wendell Fowler said simply, "I'm heartbroken. Ross was one of the good guys."

And R Bistro's Erin Kem spoke for all local food fans when she said, "I can't imagine a growing season without him."

Read more of Jolene Ketzenberger's tribute to this amazing and inspirational man here.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Good Old American Cooking — the Way the Native Americans Used to Make

For years, unless you lived on or near a reservation — or happened to be visiting the cafe at the National Museum of the American Indian — you were unlikely to be able to go out for Native American food. 

But now, residents of Denver, Colorado, are able to feast on Indian tacos, green chile stew, wojapi (a thick berry dessert) and more, thanks to Osage Indian Ben Jacobs and his restaurant Tocabe: an American Indian Eatery.

"I want native food to be much more in the public eye," says Jacobs, 28. "Feasting is a big part of our culture, and eating together is important to us, just like for many other cultures." Judging by Tocabe's success, Jacobs is getting his wish for many more Americans to experience indigenous eats.

Read the complete story here.

Top Military Cooks Embrace Week at Culinary School

When Sgt. Arturo Torres joined the U.S. Marine Corps five years ago, he wanted to be an infantryman. After all, the Marines' reputation is largely built on the expertise of its infantry.

But the 18-year-old's mother didn't like the idea one bit - especially in wartime.

When Torres explained that to the recruiter in his hometown of Dallas, the recruiter made a suggestion: food service.

At first it didn't seem that exciting. But when Torres was deployed to Iraq three years ago and got to cook for then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, food service took on a whole new shine.

Air Force Senior Airman Ashleen Cacciatore thinks her last name might have had something to do with the reason she's now feeding 500 people a day at McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, a joint military base in Trenton, N.J. The 26-year-old originally wanted an assignment in mental health but was sent to the kitchen. Now, getting told "35,000 times a day that Air Force food is so much better than any of the other armed forces' grub" has more than convinced her it was the right decision, she said.

Torres, Cacciatore and 23 other cooks from the Marines, Air Force and Air National Guard were selected by the Hennessy Travelers Association's Educational Foundation for the annual Armed Forces Forum for Culinary Excellence at the  Culinary Institute of America Greystone campus in St. Helena.

For a week the military cooks hone their skills at the venerable chefs school, learning everything from chopping techniques to how to prepare healthful meals. And Hennessy, an association of volunteers from the food-service and hospitality industries that raises hundreds of thousands of dollars from private donors each year, is picking up the entire tab, said Carmen Vacalebre, a Connecticut restaurateur and president of the group.

The group's mission is to promote educational opportunities for members of the armed forces serving in hospitality as well as help military cafeterias run more efficiently and effectively. The organization also helps former military cooks pursue careers in food service in the civilian world.

"These 25 individuals chosen for the forum have been identified as the cream of the crop," said Jack Kleckner, a Hennessy group member.

The hope is that the young cooks will go back to their mess halls and motivate others with their food and proficiency, said Art Ritt, an officer with the association. "We're trying to teach them how to think out of the box," he said.

One day this week, they were learning how to tart up leftovers, with Greystone instructor Tom Wong showing them how to use up yesterday's tomatoes by making salsa.

"It's a chance of a lifetime," said Jamie Schoewe, a staff sergeant in the Air National Guard in Milwaukee who spends one weekend a month cooking for the troops. "I can take everything that I'm learning back and teach everyone else."

Schoewe, 24, said she requested her kitchen assignment, which sometimes involves cooking meals for as many as 1,200 troops a day.

"There's something about preparing a meal for the people around you," she said. "It's nurturing."

She got some kitchen training in the Air Force's technical school, "but it was nothing like this," she said about the courses she's attended at the Culinary Institute.

Read the rest of the story here.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Food Trend Alert:: Ancient recipes

Had enough bacon ice cream and Korean barbecue? The next food trend-in-the-making may be for you—Ye Olde Recipe.

Chefs are raiding ancient Roman texts, Renaissance manuscripts and 19th-century American cookbooks in search of authentic old recipes with which to tempt jaded foodies. Many of the recipes call for unfamiliar—and somewhat unappetizing—ingredients like songbirds, veal brains, the ancient herb hyssop and "preboggin" (pray-bo-ZHAWN), a fancy name for wild greens, also known as "weeds."

Some chefs have an insatiable appetite for recreating really old, hard-to-get recipes. An Italian restaurant in Chicago prepares a meal inspired by a 4th Century gourmand. Is history really worth resurrecting? Alina Dizik has details on Lunch Break.

With food-truck cuisine, Asian fusion and other blockbuster trends starting to feel a bit stale, adventurous foodies are drawn to the back stories and unusual ingredients of historic cuisine. In many cases, the trend overlaps with the slow-food movement's interest in unprocessed, home-prepared foods. For restaurants, recipes unearthed from the past are a fresh way to attract attention and boost sales.

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, open since January in the Mandarin Oriental in London, specializes in dishes from Britain's past: Rice and Flesh (c. 1390), Savoury Porridge (c. 1660), Roast Marrowbone (c. 1720) and Spiced Pigeon (c. 1780). At Next, a creation of Alinea's Grant Achatz that launched earlier this year in Chicago, a rotating prix fixe menu features dishes such as Duck with Blood Sauce, in which duck parts are put through an antique duck press. The dish is based on a 1906 Paris preparation inspired by August Escoffier's 1903 text Le Guide Culinaire.

At Pensiero, a modern Italian restaurant in Evanston, Ill., chef Brandon Baltzley is putting together an historic menu for a 10-course, $140-a-person dinner later this month. The inspiration is the 10 tomes of Apicius, a collection of Roman recipes believed to date from 4th and 5th centuries. "[People] are bored," says Mr. Baltzley who found the books in a university library. "They like to do something they can say no one else is doing."

So far, Mr. Baltzley has confirmed he'll prepare the Meat Mincer, a gory second course of langoustine sausage, spelt and veal brains. For other dishes, he wants to experiment with pig udders and pig wombs—although they are highly unlikely to appear on the final menu because they aren't inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and farmers can't sell them. "You need to find a crazy farmer that will give it to you," Mr. Baltzley says.

One recipe he won't bother to explore: Stuffed Dormouse.

But with historic-menu ingredients costing as much as double those of a regular meal, chefs are pursuing the trend mainly in reservations-only tastings and other events during hours when a restaurant is usually closed.

Sarah Lohman, founder of Four Pounds Flour, a blog devoted to "historic gastronomy," recently posted recipes for Baked Alaska and a tamale recipe dating from 1890s New York. "We want to be eating the food that our forefathers ate," Ms. Lohman says.

If some old recipes sound less than scrumptious, here's why. People "ate more parts of the animal and more parts of a plant that today we'd throw away," says Francine Segan, author of "Shakespeare's Kitchen," a 2003 book of updated Renaissance recipes. The idea that cinnamon and nutmeg hid the taste of old meat isn't true, she says. "They wouldn't put expensive spices on top of rotten meat."

Marco Frattaroli, a Portland, Ore., chef, recently hosted a dinner inspired by the Renaissance at his restaurant, Bastas Trattoria, where he spit-roasted pig, rabbit and quail, rather than the robins and other songbirds specified in the old recipe. He is basing future menus on dishes from the Roman era and the Jewish Diaspora in Italy.

Read the complete story here.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Grilled Chicken, That Temperamental Star

by David Segal

THE sauce will not behave. 

It is supposed to drip twice, on cue, from the bottom right-hand corner of a forkful of tortellini — first as the fork is lifted above the plate and, second, after the fork pauses briefly in the air and starts to rise again.

Two drips. A sequence that lasts a second and a half, tops.

A dozen men at MacGuffin Films, a studio in Manhattan, are struggling to capture this moment. For more than an hour one recent afternoon, they huddle around a table rimmed with enormous stage lights, fussing over a casserole as if it’s a movie star getting primped for a close-up.

“Lights. Roll. Action. Drip!” shouts Michael Somoroff, a veteran commercial director who has shot television ads for Red Lobster, Burger King, Papa John’s and dozens of other fast-food and casual-dining chains. A specialist in the little-known world of tabletop directing — named for the piece of furniture where most of the work is set — Mr. Somoroff is hired to turn the most mundane and fattening staples of the American diet into luscious objects of irresistible beauty.

If you watch television, you’ve seen his work, and the work of the five or six other major players in this micro-niche of advertising. These men — yes, they’re all men — make glossy vignettes that star butter-soaked scallops and glistening burgers. Their cameras swirl around fried chicken, tunnel through devil’s food cake and gape as soft-serve cones levitate and spin.

Few outside the business know their names. But given the more than $4 billion in television air time bought by restaurant chains and food conglomerates each year, these directors arguably have some of the widest exposure of any commercial artists in the country. In a typical week, tens of millions of viewers see their work.

“Aside from movie directors,” Mr. Somoroff says during a break in shooting, “I don’t know anyone with an audience as large as mine.”

On this particular afternoon, he is filming a commercial for a chain that did not want to see its name in this article. And you can sort of understand why. If you’ve ever been to a restaurant and thought, “This does not look like the dish in the ad,” here’s the irony: The dish in the ad doesn’t look like the dish in the ad, either.
This casserole shot, for instance, is an elaborate tango of artifice, technology and timing. The steam wafting over the dish comes not from the food, but from a stagehand crouched under a table with the kind of machine that unwrinkles trousers.

The hint of Alfredo sauce that appears when the fork emerges from the pasta? That’s courtesy of tubes hidden in the back of the dish and hooked to what look like large hypodermic needles. Moments before each take, Mr. Somoroff yells, “Ooze!” That tells the guy with the needles, standing just outside of the frame, to start pumping.

As for that quarrelsome drip from the fork, it is the responsibility of Anthony DeRobertis, a special-effects rigger who holds his own hypodermic of sauce and is having a hard time synching with a hand model, a young man with a military haircut who is clutching the fork.

“Anthony, the second drip is about 10 minutes after the shot is over,” says Mr. Somoroff after five or six takes, sounding faintly annoyed.

“I’m right on it,” Mr. DeRobertis says.

“You’re on it, but it’s not dripping when it has to drip.”

A break is called and a tube is attached to Mr. DeRobertis’s sauce injector, which is then taped near the bottom tine of the fork, in a way that’s invisible to Mr. Somoroff’s immense Photo-Sonics camera.

Sauce and fork are finally in unison. After a few more tries, Mr. Somoroff has a take he likes enough to show to reps from the client and its ad agency, a group of whom are waiting in a nearby room that is decked out with a large high-definition TV. The pasta appears moist, the steam organic and the minuet of drip and hand nothing more than a diner on the verge of a blissful bite.

“I make my living basically taking food and painting a reality with it,” says Mr. Somoroff, leaning back in a chair in his office as the team preps another set-up. “And if I succeed in a given moment, you’re going to go buy that dish because you’re going to identify with the experience we’ve created. To do that with something as banal as food is the challenge. I mean, it’s easy to go out and shoot a beautiful sunset or a beautiful girl. They’re beautiful, O.K.?”

He gestures toward the middle of the studio.“I’ve got a noodle over here.”

THIS is a good moment to be a tabletop director in the big leagues, particularly if you specialize in food. Low- and mid-priced chain restaurants are one of the few segments of the economy that decided, during the recession and in its aftermath, to spend as much or more on advertising than they did in the years before.
Fast-food, casual-dining and pizza chains, as well as what are lumped together as “doughnut and coffee restaurants,” spent $300 million more on TV ads in 2010 than they did in 2007, according to Kantar Media, a market research firm. If patterns hold, the numbers will be even larger this year.

“Generally speaking, restaurant chains spend about 3 percent of revenue on advertising,” says Michael Gallo, an analyst at C. L. King & Associates. “Because these restaurant systems are large and have density, television is an easy way to reach customers in a cost-effective way.”

And any restaurant chain that forswears TV ads is in serious trouble.

“If you come off television, when your sales dip, it takes a long time to get them back to where they were before stopped advertising,” says Michael Branigan, vice president for marketing at Sizzler. “There are a ton of studies that show this. You lose brain share of your customers, and it is expensive to get revenues up again. If I stopped advertising, Sizzler’s revenue would be down, minimally, 10 to 15 percent for the year.”

Typically, companies use television commercials to introduce new products or to remind consumers about old ones. Regardless, the goal is the same: show the product, and do it in a way that makes people want to eat the TV.

Tabletop directors don’t handle the part of the ad where the family walks into the restaurant, or where Mom looks for a whisk. That’s farmed out to someone else. But say you’re the Checkers chain and you want to unveil “Chicken Bites,” a fried-chicken offering. You need to distinguish these “poppable” treats from a few dozen others on the market. And you need to give a hint of what they taste like.

“It’s breaded, seasoned chicken, so to the naked eye you can’t really tell,” said Kris Miotke, senior director of marketing at Checkers. “The question was, How do you define a fun, bite-size product in a way that shows both the inside and the outside?”

How about a hand tearing open a Chicken Bite? “Me, personally, I don’t want hands in my shot. I want the food to speak for itself.”

To solve this problem — how to create a hands-free, fried-chicken reveal, if you will — Checkers hired Michael Schrom. For 11 years, he has worked in 16,000 square feet of space in silvercup Studios in Long Island City, Queens, in the same building where “30 Rock,” "Gossip Girl" and other shows are filmed. Nearly all his clients sell food or beverages, among them Domino’s, McDonald’s, Applebee’s and Smucker’s.

“That took about 40 takes,” says Mr. Schrom of the Chicken Bites shot. There was no sleight of hand; each bite was cut open, pushed back together, then dropped on a table. The goal was to see moist white meat when it bounced.

“It’s far harder to get a cookie break with chocolate chips,” Mr. Schrom says. “We went through 100 cookies for Nestlé’s on one shoot. We knew when we got it because we could hear the clients in the other room, applauding.”

Mr. Schrom has the eyeglasses of an architect and the relaxed, contented air of a man highly entertained by his job. On this day, he is filming for a national chain — one that also requested anonymity — capturing what he calls “flavor cues.” In one shot, a stagehand pours chocolate syrup over a sheet of caramel. (You can almost hear a voiceover purring, “Chocolate.”) In another, cream bubbles up in a cup of coffee. In real time, these moments barely register. In slow-motion playbacks, with a digital camera that shoots up to 1,600 frames a second, the images are almost erotic. Which is no accident.

“You’re using the same part of your brain — porn, food,” Mr. Schrom says during a break. “It’s going in the same section; it’s that visual cortex that connects to your most basic senses. What we’re trying to do is be the modern-day Pavlovs and ring your bell with these images.”

He has several food stylists who work in a huge kitchen next to his set. They start with the very same food and recipes used in the restaurants and stores.

In part, this is a truth-in-advertising issue. Everyone knows that in 1970, the Federal Trade Commission settled a complaint against the Campbell Soup Company after its ad agency slipped marbles into a bowl in ads featuring its vegetable soup, apparently to force more veggies to the surface. That put a scare into the industry that endures to this day.

Anything that flatters the food, of course, is fair game, and that includes gimmicks you’re unlikely to find in a fridge. Glue is used to keep spaghetti on forks and pizzas in place. The ice in a beverage might be made of acrylic and cost $500 a cube. The frost coming off a beer could be a silicone gel, mixed with powder and water.

The difference between enhancement and fakery, though, becomes a little murky, and some directors tiptoe right up to, and well past, the marbles-in-the-soup line. If the tomatoes in a client’s red wine reduction aren’t visible, some fresh ones may be sliced up and tossed in. On rare occasions, the food you see on screen is merely a facsimile of the product.

Read more about the production of food porn, a.k.a. food styling, a.k.a."tabletop directing" here.  (N.Y. Times, tiered subscription model)

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Chef Paul Bocuse Harks Back to His Youth

At Age 85, the French Icon Reflects on the Traditions, Influences and Events that Have Shaped His Expansive Culinary Career

As we enter a vast hall in Collonges-au-Mont-d'Or outside Lyon, France, a fairground organ booms into action, its high-pitch circus tunes almost deafening. Paul bocuse, short, with a slow gait and clad entirely in black, shuffles toward a towering contraption at the end depicting brightly colored carnival scenes. All at once, four other organs in the room bearing the name "Bocuse Circus" start, creating a surreal, discordant, almost dream-like air. Mr. Bocuse, considered one of the finest chefs alive today, spreads his arms in wonder and is reduced to a childlike rapture.

It is a somewhat bizarre setup for one of the world's most traditional chefs, yet Mr. Bocuse explains that like much in his life, the brightly hued organs are rooted in his childhood. "When I was a child, the fairground was very exciting in the village, so when the chance arose I bought the lot," he says.

At 85 years old, Mr. Bocuse now has the time to indulge his childhood passions. Although he still oversees his three-Michelin-starred restaurant L'Auberge du Pont de Collonges, as well as seven brasseries and a small hotel in Lyon, he isn't in the kitchen anymore. He also has restaurants in Tokyo, New York and Disney World Orlando.

His food continues to inspire others; for its 20th anniversary, D&D London's restaurant La Pont de La Tour will run a tribute menu from Oct. 12-31 that will include some of Mr. Bocuse's most famous dishes, such as his truffle and foie gras soup and Bresse chicken.

Mr. Bocuse talks a lot about his origins and growing up in the same house that is now L'Auberge du Pont de Collonges. Times were hard, even before the war, he says, but the family never starved. His father came from a long line of chefs, and the first thing Paul Bocuse cooked as an 8-year-old boy, under the watchful gaze of his mother, was a rognon de veau with a potato puree—the type of food he still serves today.

"I had a very free childhood," explains Mr. Bocuse, who still sleeps in the same room he did as a child. "We lived by the river and loved it. I was always playing outside, hunting, fishing. When I got bad marks at school, I would go fishing and cook it straightaway."

Mr. Bocuse still cherishes the role the river played in his life. "Whenever I go to bed, wherever I am in the world, I always want to know which side is the Saône. It is my savior river. This river has been the rhythm of my life."

He was conscripted during World War II when he was 18. After being wounded in Alsace, he ended up in a U.S. Army hospital, where a blood transfusion saved his life. And since 1944, he recalls, "I have always had a U.S. flag flying outside my restaurant."

Read the rest of Chef Paul Bocuse's story here.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Michelin Stars Align for Seven NYC Restaurants

According to the latest edition of the Michelin guide, dining in New York got a little finer over the last year.
The city is now home to seven restaurants that earn the French dining guide’s three-star designation, its highest rating. Last year, the culinary guide said that five New York restaurants merited three stars.

Restaurateur Danny Meyer’s Eleven Madison Park, which has made dramatic changes to its menu under chef Daniel Humm, is arguably this year’s biggest winner, jumping from one to three stars in Michelin's view. The new guide, to be released Wednesday, also bestowed three stars on Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, an 18-seat restaurant that is part of a Downtown Brooklyn grocery store. Chef’s Table was last year’s sleeper surprise when it earned two stars. Other restaurants in three-star territory include Daniel, Jean Georges, Le Bernardin and Masa.

Now in its seventh edition in New York, the guide’s anonymous inspectors review hundreds of restaurants. This year 62 city restaurants received stars, up from 57 last year. The guide is closely watched by chefs and food-world insiders. While chefs frequently grumble about the guide’s sometimes arbitrary designations, celebrations nearly always ensue when a restaurant receives a star.

Read the complete story here.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Celebrity Chef Restaurants: The Rise Of The Emperor-Chefs

by Joe Satran

In September 1991, chefs Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Todd English looked unstoppable. English had just been named the James Beard Rising Chef of the Year after leading his restaurant Olives in Charleston, Mass., to two years of wide acclaim. Jean-Georges had just opened his first solo restaurant, JoJo, a bistro on New York's Upper East Side, after over four years as the chef of Lafayette, where he'd earned a rave four-star review from the New York Times at the age of 31.  JoJo, meanwhile, was quickly becoming a smash hit. Times restaurant critic Bryan Miller said that the dining room was so packed that it often evoked "Epcot Center during spring break," and declared the food, light on cream and butter, "cooking for the '90s." They were young, good-looking, prodigiously talented chefs cooking in a country that was just starting to grow taste buds -- why would anyone even want to stop them?

Twenty years later, they have become household names, received further accolades and thickened their wallets considerably. Jean-Georges now owns 27 restaurants, and English owns 20. Dishes they've invented -- Jean-Georges's molten chocolate cake and foie gras crème brûlée, English's fig-prosciutto pizza -- have become industry staples. They've made inroads to becoming a part of the mainstream, each releasing guides to home cooking this fall, and being featured in People magazine. They are celebrities and restaurateurs, rich and famous -- but are they still chefs?

That's the question that has haunted English, Vongerichten and the whole coterie of "emperor-chefs" since their ascension. (By "emperor-chef," we mean to exclude celebrity chefs, like Giada de Laurentiis and Ina Garten, who are more TV personalities than restaurateurs.) Pretty much everyone knows that, if you go into one of the 23 restaurants owned by Gordon Ramsay or the 13 owned by Bobby Flay, your chances of eating a meal actually cooked by the chef are slim to none. So the question of what the job of "emperor-chef" entails -- beyond appearing on TV, writing memoirs and cashing a fat check at the end of every month -- is a salient one.

It's a question that has been known to raise tempers. Alan Richman, the restaurant critic for GQ, is an especially harsh critic of empire-building by talented chefs. "Cooking is one of the most individual enterprises in the world," he told the Huffington Post. "There's nothing that lends itself less well to franchising than cooking."

Richman argues that the emergence of the emperor-chef -- a phenomenon he traces back to Wolfgang Puck, now the owner of 92 restaurants -- is a product of cooks' material aspirations. "For most of history, nobody got rich being a chef. Then they figured out a way to get rich -- it was TV and franchising," he said.

English and Vongerichten rose in parallel for most of the '90s. English won his second Beard Award when named Best Chef in the Northeast in 1994. He opened branches of Olives in Washington, Las Vegas and Aspen. He wrote cookbooks and launched other restaurant concepts: Figs, a more casual version of Olives, in Boston and La Guardia Airport; Kingfish Hall, a seafood eatery in Faneuil Hall; an Italian restaurant, Tuscany, in Connecticut's Mohegan Sun casino.

Meanwhile, Jean-Georges used JoJo as a platform for other ventures. He opened an NYC Asian-Fusion restaurant called Vong in 1993, then another in London in 1995. He waited until 1997 to return to haute gastronomy, with the eponymous Jean Georges restaurant in the Trump International Hotel. It is, to this day, his flagship, and one of the most highly-acclaimed restaurants in America. It won both four stars from the new York Times and the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant just months after opening. In 1998, Jean-Georges also received the Beard Award for Most Outstanding Chef in the Country.

It could be argued, though, that the two chefs' success in the '90s bred a kind of gastronomic hubris. There have been missteps.

Jean-Georges may have started to expand too quickly, as he began opening restaurants and building his empire both inside and outside New York. A few restaurants he'd opened such as Vong's Thai Kitchen in Chicago and New York's 66 and Matsugen closed after just a few years. More stingingly for a chef of such wide acclaim, Frank Bruni stripped stars from Spice Market, Vong and Mercer Kitchen in a blistering series of reviews in the Times.

"You couldn't see his name and say, 'Yep, that'll definitely be a great restaurant,'" Bruni said in an email to The Huffington Post. "You had to be a more informed, discerning diner than that, and to know that some Jean-Georges was 100 percent reliable, some not. ABC Kitchen, one of his newest, can be terrific. But that doesn't mean all of his new restaurants will be."

Read the complete story here.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Department Store Fine Dining Lives On

by Michael Martin

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (MainStreet) -- The Broadway, Lord & Taylor, Macy's and more prospered and grew into 19th century shopping empires and centers of fashion commerce in cities such as Los Angeles, New York and London. Many of these grand department stores remained social epicenters through much of the early 20th century with legendary restaurants frequented by the creme de la creme of society. But through business consolidation and urban change, many of these restaurants are gone.

Others lived on to become fashionable -- and delicious -- reminders of shopping's gilded age.

Founded in 1907, Neiman Marcus has been a fixture in downtown Dallas for more than a century. On the renaissance-revival structure's sixth floor is The Zodiac, the store's flagship restaurant -- a gathering point for dapper businessmen and ladies who lunch. The design mixes terrazzo concrete floors with a modern design aesthetic of pale blue walls adorned with whimsical white plaster-framed mirrors with art nouveau detailing.

Today at The Zodiac, a lunch-only service begins with convenient half-bottles of Krug Grand Cuvee or a San Francisco bloody mary followed by fresh-baked popovers with butter. Texas-sized portions of salads follow -- Asian ahi tuna or steak, with heaping filet mignon and crumbled blue cheese. Executive Chef David Crow also serves a classic croque madame with truffle fries, or a heartier braised pot roast that's a dining room classic.

In New York, there's no shortage of showy department store eateries, including David Burke at Bloomingdale's and the epic BG Restaurant at Bergdorf Goodman. But Fred's at Barneys New York manages to remain a New York City standout. Named after the son of company founder Barney Pressman, the company's Madison Avenue flagship ninth-floor restaurant offers lunch and dinner. The space offers a more relaxed style than other upscale department store eateries; its walls are festooned in black-and-white photography and the crowds always includes some of New York's most eccentric fashionistas.

Divided equally among those that came to be seen and those looking to eat over business, this popular power lunch spot offers top-notch tuna tartare on mixed greens, lobster bisque and Neapolitan-style pizzas, including a signature "Wise Guy" with hot and sweet sausage. The Italian theme continues with pappardelle pasta in a beef ragu and carrot tortellini with ricotta cheese. The entrees offer a more American theme, including a lobster club, sauteed filet of sole and Angus sliced steak. The menu gets regional substitutions at Fred's locations at select Barneys New York stores in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Chicago.

One of the most famous department store dining rooms in the country is now known as the Walnut Room of Macy's State Street, once Chicago's famous Marshall Field's department store. Opened in 1907, the famous eatery is a downtown tourist stop for those looking to dine in a fabled setting preserved to feel like another time. The grand dining room occupies a showcase spot under a dramatic ceiling, and there's an elaborate marble fountain, opulent display of Austrian crystal chandelier and white-clothed tables, all ensconced in vintage walnut paneling. 

Newer elements of the Walnut Room include a wine bar with communal table, opened in the store's centennial year. Open for lunch and pre-theater supper, the restaurant offers a menu mixing old-time classic such as a peach nest salad with chicken in a nest of shoestring potatoes with peaches, grapes and strawberries or Mrs. Hering's chicken potpie. Newer dishes have been dreamed up by Macy's own Culinary Council, a group of chefs consulted from around the country and resulting in such dishes as Tim Scott's farmers market chop salad and Tom Douglas' crabcake BLT.

In California it's been a tough history lesson for fabled dining rooms at legendary department stores such as I. Magnin & Co. in San Francisco, Los Angeles' Bullock's Wilshire -- now the attic of a law library -- and Robinson's, whose shuttered Beverly Hills location may be demolished. While dining rooms still exist at top departments stores, finding one here with the buzz of yesteryear is a tough prospect. One exception is Charlie Palmer at Bloomingdale's South Coast Plaza, which since 2008 has occupied a starry dining room that wouldn't look out of place on New York's Upper West Side, even if it is in one of California's poshest shopping malls.

Read the complete story here.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Chef Curren: Cooking Basics Don't Change

I grew up fascinated with food and cooking. This seems strange now, looking back; no one in my family worked in the industry. My father did a short stint as a dishwasher and short-order cook at Howard Johnson’s while he was in graduate school, but as far as careers in the culinary world were concerned, I was oblivious.

Despite this, I found myself as a youngster concocting God-knows-what anytime I was allowed near the stove. I thought my creations turned out well, but I doubt I would feel the same now. I’ve always been a creative person, and for whatever reason cooking became my medium of choice.

I can remember watching shows like “The French Chef” with Julia Child, “Yan Can Cook,” “The Galloping Gourmet” and “Great Chefs of the World.” This was back before the Food Network and the phenomenon of celebrity chefdom. These people had raw talent and an incredible knowledge of the basic principles of cooking.

I was enthralled and would write down recipes that I saw on the shows so that I could try and re-create them. The 10- and 11-year-old version of me could never quite manage to get them right, but still, I tried.

Today we all follow the media frenzy that was created by the Food Network, and the TMZ-esque nature of the current culinary scene. Not many of us realize the hard work, dedication and understanding of centuries-old techniques that go into actually being a chef today. I promise you it is not at all a glamorous lifestyle. 

Everything we do in professional kitchens can be linked back to Auguste Escoffier. He revolutionized cooking. He introduced the brigade system (the basis for how modern kitchens work today) and honed cooking techniques for pretty much every ingredient imaginable. He truly is the father of modern cooking.

What drives me is the idea that cooking is a craft to be learned and perfected, though true perfection is almost unattainable. Today we all use technology to make our lives easier. We have tools like blenders, vacuum sealers, immersion circulators, ISI foamers — the list goes on and on. We use these at Blue 13, but I always strive to remember the basic principles that make a great meal.

What creates flavor? Acid, salt, heat. There is a need for texture in a dish. There are flavors that work together. All of these principles were set up by Escoffier. We can put all the “magic” we want into a dish, but at the end of the day, it just doesn’t work without the basic techniques executed well.

There is something to be said for a perfectly cooked piece of fish, which is not an easy task. I am sure many TV personalities would have a hard time doing that. We run around following those we read about or see on TV, those with the newest, craziest restaurant opening this month. But what really matters are those who have talent and ability, and are working hard to perfect their passion. The two are not mutually exclusive, of course. There are many talented chefs who are well-known and who are very much a part of the media craze.

Trends come and go, but the basics in cooking will always remain the same. Take away all the smoke and mirrors that restaurants use and at the end of the day, all modern cuisine is rooted in Escoffier’s principles. 

Read the rest of the story here.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

America Discovers the Sweet Potato

Bouncing down a dirt road, past emerald fields thick with sweet potato plants, farmer Robert Garcia hunched over the steering wheel of his pickup truck and grinned with glee.

It's the beginning of harvest season and, once again, his bounty of orange- and yellow-fleshed roots is looking promising.

"You used to see cotton fields and grapevines out here," said Garcia, 54, whose family grows and packs sweet potatoes out of their Central California farm operations.

"Now the talk is sweet potatoes, sweet potatoes, how can I get more sweet potatoes?"

Forget the marshmallows and the Thanksgiving buffet table. The sweet potato has become a year-round food.

Over the last decade, Americans have more than doubled their consumption of the thin-skinned vegetable, according to the United States Sweet Potato Council: U.S. consumers, per capita, now wolf down 6.2 pounds of sweet potatoes each year.

Diners overseas, too, have developed a fondness for it. U.S. farmers exported 200.3 million pounds of sweet potatoes in 2010, up from 38.5 million pounds in 2000, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service.

Here in the U.S., sweet potatoes are showing up at presidential state dinners and on White Castle's menu. They're cropping up in soup bowls, eating up shelf space in grocery store chip aisles, and piling up high in French fry baskets. At Umami Burger, a fast-growing Los Angeles chain, cooks can barely keep up with the demand for their sweet potato fries dusted with cinnamon and salt.

"It has a nice sweetness but is still savory," said Adam Fleischman, chief executive of Umami Restaurant Group. "That combination, the sweet-savory, is really popular right now."

Besides, Fleischman said, "they're familiar to people, but still something different to try."

Garcia, the central California farmer, sees nothing but potential for growth. Ten years ago, he and his family farmed 240 acres of sweet potatoes in Turlock and surrounding areas. Today, they've expanded that to 400 acres and opened a packing plant in Livingston.

Inside the facility, the air smells sweet and earthy as workers gently drop the potatoes into a washing station and hand-sort them as they move down a conveyor belt. Nearby, boxes of potatoes sit waiting for trucks to take them to Costco and other grocery retailers in the U.S.

"People love them, and farmers notice that," Garcia said.

That growth was driven in part by a shift in nutritional and culinary circles. Although traditional white potatoes still dominate the potato market, doctors and weight-loss groups touted the benefits of whole roasted sweet potatoes — which are higher in fiber and Vitamin A than traditional white potatoes, and lower on the glycemic index.

Yet it was cooks' slicing up sweet potatoes and dunking them into a deep fryer that fed the public demand.

The number of restaurants offering sweet potatoes has grown 14% in the last three years, according to a survey of 704 restaurant menus conducted by Chicago-based market research firm Technomic Inc. Much of that increase comes from restaurants featuring sweet potato fries.

Packaged-food giant ConAgra Foods, seeing a lucrative market, opened a new $156-million plant in Louisiana this year devoted to processing sweet potatoes into frozen fries and other products.

"If you're in the restaurant business, you know the country is changing to healthier selections, or selections seen as being healthier," said Harry Balzer of the NPD Group, a market research firm that has been tracking U.S. eating habits for more than three decades.

"So restaurants are looking for a new version of something the public already loves: the typical French fry.... If companies can set up the same infrastructure for processing sweet potatoes that they have for [white] potatoes for French fries, the market could be huge."

Read the rest of the story here.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Sea Change: Ever Finer Cruise Dining

Cruise ship dining once conjured images of gluttons bellying up to the buffet. Now gastronomy trumps gluttony: A more discerning generation of foodies is selecting ships and itineraries based on culinary allure. In response, cruise lines — from mainstream to luxury — are going overboard to meet the more refined tastes of passengers.

The number of food-themed cruises, food-based shore excursions, and food market and galley tours is growing. Presentation has been upgraded too, with meals served on designer china, flanked by silver flatware and crystal, on tables sporting imported linens and fresh flowers.

"At every price point, cruising has never been as food-oriented," said Chuck Flagg, a frequent cruiser who owns a Cruise Holidays franchise near Atlanta.

Once upon a time, there were two choices: the main dining room or the informal, all-you-can-eat buffet. That landscape has changed considerably. On virtually all lines, cruisers can opt for open or reserved seating.

"You can pretty much choose when you want to dine, who you want to dine with and how you want to dress for dinner," said Naomi Kraus, cruise editor for Frommer's Travel.

"Food is so wrapped up in culture that it's an integral part of travel," added Bruce Good, public relations director for the Seabourn Cruise Line. On Seabourn's 200-person sister ships, Pride, Spirit and Legend, the 48-seat Restaurant 2 offers a "small plates" tasting menu at no additional charge. For those who prefer privacy, dinner can be delivered to your cabin piping hot course by course.

On the Queen Mary 2 and the Oceania and Regent Seven Seas lines, guests can choose from a health-conscious menu designed by Canyon Ranch. Royal Caribbean added seven new food venues when it relaunched the refurbished 2,500-passenger Radiance of the Seas.

Imagine eating a special meal hosted by the executive chef in the ship's galley during the busy dinner hours. For $75 per person one or two nights per cruise, as many as 10 Princess Cruises passengers enjoy a multicourse chef's table menu paired with wines.

The 1,250-passenger Oceania Marina has two private dining rooms (with surcharges) among six gourmet restaurants. La Reserve is an intimate 12-seat venue offering food and wine pairings by Wine Spectator ($75 per person). Privee, an ultra-contemporary small room, offers a chef's table with a seven-course tasting menu designed with the chef, for a flat fee of $1,000 for as many as 10 people.

Celebrity chefs also are lending their names and expertise to the trend. Jacques Pepin, executive culinary director of the Oceania Cruises line, has a French bistro called Jacques on the Marina. He is one on a long list of celebrity chefs linked to various lines. Cunard has a Todd English restaurant on two of its Queens; 

Seabourn's menu is designed by Charlie Palmer, and the menus of Nobuyuki "Nobu" Matsuhisa are served in Crystal's Sushi Bar and Silk Road.

When a celebrity name isn't associated with a ship, guest chefs join certain cruises or replicate award-winning menus onboard. On Regent Seven Seas, television chef Michael Lomonaco conducted demonstrations, gave talks and led a wine tasting on a 10-day August cruise. Holland America has an exclusive agreement with Le Cirque to re-create the legendary eatery's whimsical experience on the 15 ships in its fleet.

Read the rest of the story here.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Preaching a Healthy Diet in the Deep-Fried Delta

by Campbell Robinson

HERNANDO, Miss. — Not much seems out of place in the Mississippi Delta, where everything appears to be as it always has been, only more so as the years go by. But here in the fellowship hall of a little Baptist church on a country road is an astonishing sight: a plate of fresh fruit.

“You get used to it,” said Arelia Robertson, who has been attending the church for almost eight decades.

Despite a dirge of grim health statistics, an epidemic of diabetes and heart disease and campaigns by heath agencies and organizations, the Delta diet, a heavenly smorgasbord of things fried, salted and boiled with pork, has persisted.

It has persisted because it tastes good, but also because it has been passed down through generations and sustained through such cultural mainstays as the church fellowship dinner. But if the church helped get everybody into this mess, it may be the church that helps get everybody out.

For over a decade from his pulpit here at Oak Hill Baptist in North Mississippi, the Rev. Michael O. Minor has waged war against obesity and bad health. In the Delta this may seem akin to waging war against humidity, but Mr. Minor has the air of the salesman he once was, and the animated persistence to match.

Years into his war, he is beginning to claim victories.

The National Baptist Convention, which represents some seven million people in nearly 10,000 churches, is ramping up a far-reaching health campaign devised by Mr. Minor, which aims to have a “health ambassador” in every member church by September 2012. The goals of the program, the most ambitious of its kind, will be demanding but concrete, said the Rev. George W. Waddles Sr., the president of the convention’s Congress of Christian Education.

The signs of change in the Delta may be most noticeable because they are the most hard-fought.

A sign in the kitchen of First Baptist Church in Clarksdale declares it a “No Fry Zone.” Bel Mount Missionary Baptist Church in the sleepy hamlet of Marks just had its first Taste Test Sunday, where the women of the church put out a spread of healthier foods, like sugar-free apple pie, to convince members that healthy cuisine does not have to taste like old tires.

Carved out of the fields behind Seek Well Baptist Church in the tiny town of Lula is a new community garden. The pastor, the Rev. Kevin Wiley, is even thinking about becoming a vegetarian, a sort of person he says he has never met in the Delta.

Many pastors tell the same story: They started worrying about their own health, but were motivated to push their congregations by the campaign that began in Mr. Minor’s church.

“I’m not going to say it has to be done by the church,” Mr. Wiley said. “But it has to be done by people within the community. How long is an outsider going to stay in Lula, Mississippi?”

Certainly, others have been trying to help.

Mississippi finds itself on the wrong end of just about every list of health indicators. It is first among states in percentage of children who are obese, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. It is first in rates of heart disease, second in the number of adults with diabetes, second in adult obesity, near last in the percentage of adults who participate in physical activity, near last in fruit and vegetable consumption and dead last in life expectancy.

Read the rest of the story here.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Amid Economic Unease, Demand Climbs at U.S. Food Banks

Washington (CNN) -- Feeding the hungry is the mission at Manna Food Center, a food bank in the suburbs of the nation's capital. This year, officials here are seeing more and more people who need their help.

America's slow recovery from the worst economic crisis in decades has left families across the country struggling to put food on their tables, whether or not they have a job.

With an unemployment rate stuck above 9 percent and millions of people working part-time jobs because they cannot find full-time positions, a record 45.8 million people -- one of every seven -- received food stamps from the government in May. Demand for this kind of federal help has risen in all 50 states.
Manna helps people who get food stamps and thousands of others who do not qualify for them. The center says the number of people it serves has risen dramatically in recent years -- from 82,683 in fiscal year 2008 to 172,627 people in 2011.

On a recent Friday morning, trucks arrived at the warehouse to drop off food the organization rescues from 40 area grocery stores, items that are reaching their sell-by dates but are still safe to eat. Volunteers worked to retrieve the deliveries from the loading docks, while others went from shelf to shelf filling boxes with goods or helping wheel them out to clients' cars.

In the office, people began lining up around noon to receive the 70 pounds of fresh produce, canned goods and other items Manna hands out to each family every 30 days. Old and young. White, black and Hispanic. Some came alone; others brought their children or other family members.

The economy is adding jobs, but not quickly enough to trickle down to the families the food bank serves.
"Any growth that the economy is feeling, the folks here at Manna are not feeling that yet," said Natalie Corbin, Manna's development director, during an interview in the center's main warehouse in Gaithersburg, Maryland. "In fact, our numbers, from year to year have continued to trend upwards. So until we see a dramatic change in the economy, we're going to continue to see a dramatic increase in folks who are coming here.

"We're expecting this winter to be the highest in history of Manna for folks needing food assistance."
Even people who have jobs are having a hard time feeding their families.

Read the complete story here.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Healthy Food Startups Avoid Recession's Bite

By Deborah L. Cohen

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Cleetus Friedman is convinced consumers will continue to pay a premium for healthier, locally sourced food, despite the sluggish economy that has many watching their wallets.

"You're not paying $12 for a sandwich, you're paying for an experience," said Friedman, who runs a Chicago-based catering company, City Provisions, where he makes his own smoked meats, condiments, organic desserts and fresh cocktails. "Everything is made by hand from farm-fresh products."

The effort requires constant education of staff and customers alike. But Friedman has survived the downturn, all the while learning to be more selective about new business, willing to turn away catering clients that won't pay enough for him to make a profit.

"If you're doing a wedding and you have $50 a person (budget)… that's not going to work for me," Friedman said, adding he targets food-savvy clients who understand the importance of fresh, local ingredients and are willing to pay for it. "When you put everything in - food and drinks - you're probably going to be $150 to $200 a person. Is that 20 percent more than competitors? Probably."

Friedman launched his catering firm in 2008, just as the recession was taking hold. He managed to land some funding to add an upscale storefront deli in 2010, building more awareness for his products and additional revenue.

"Our mission is to connect our community with food," said Friedman, 40, a vocal advocate for sustainable eating. "Local artisans, brewers, winemakers, cheesemakers, distillers - we know who makes it, where it comes from."

Read the complete story here.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Culinary School vs. On-the-job Chef Training

Cole Dickinson, the chef de cuisine at Michael Voltaggio's soon-to-open West Hollywood restaurant, Ink, got his culinary education the old-fashioned way: in the kitchen.

That might sound obvious, but it makes him something of an anomaly as the number of culinary schools multiplies, drawing legions of novice cooks with the promise of turning them into top chefs.

Yet the less-touted, less-glamorized path of working one's way up through the restaurant kitchen ranks is starting to sound more appealing. At a time when for-profit professional cooking schools are coming under more scrutiny, some of L.A.'s rising chefs — like Dickinson — are succeeding without ever having stepped into the classroom.

For-profit schools across the country are facing a flurry of lawsuits claiming fraud; they're accused of misleading students about tuition costs, job placement rates and how much they'll earn after graduating.

The cautionary tale of a would-be chef goes like this: A starry-eyed youth dreams of helming a restaurant kitchen and enrolls in a $60,000 culinary program but upon graduation still qualifies only for a job as a $10.50-an-hour line cook and struggles to work off crippling school loans that, with interest, can balloon to nearly $100,000. Dream crushed.

Meanwhile, Dickinson has a coveted gig at one of L.A.'s most hotly anticipated restaurants. He was a 17-year-old bussing tables for Charlie Palmer in Healdsburg, Calif., when he first considered culinary school. "I didn't have the money. I had a single mom," Dickinson says, "so I got it in my head that I'd ask Charlie if he'd sponsor me and I'd come back and work for him. He basically said, 'Don't be an idiot. Work for me for a couple of years and I'll get you in wherever you want to go.'

In a year and a half, I'd worked my way around every station of that kitchen.... I don't regret not going to culinary school at all."

Besides his time with Palmer, Dickinson, now 27, worked at the Fat Duck in England, for Laurent Gras at L2O in Chicago, then for Voltaggio at the Tavern Room in West Virginia and at José Andrés' Bazaar in Los Angeles.

In interviews with a dozen chefs and restaurateurs, few recommended culinary school; none said it was necessary. "We get asked all the time," says Karen Hatfield, who, along with her husband, Quinn, owns Hatfield's in Los Angeles. "Quinn and I don't recommend it to anybody ever. It's such a huge financial burden now." (She went to cooking school; he didn't.) And yet all but one of the restaurant's kitchen staff of about 15 attended culinary school.

Palmer, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., who grew an empire out of his Manhattan restaurant Aureole, isn't so adamant. He advocates cooking school "if the person has the resources. But there's an enormous range as far as the quality of cooking schools. It's something especially younger students don't really understand."

Even at well-regarded not-for-profit colleges, such as the C.I.A., it might not make economic sense. A two-year associate's degree program at the Culinary Institute of America costs $50,000. A bachelor's degree is more than $100,000. According to the latest data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual wage of a restaurant cook is $21,990. (That's about one-third the cost of tuition for the culinary arts program at the for-profit Art Institute of California in Santa Monica.)

"Is it true that graduates [have to] pay their dues?" says Bruce Hillenbrand, vice president responsible for admissions at the C.I.A. "Absolutely, just like other graduates initially going into other careers." He points out that a C.I.A. survey shows that its graduates can expect to double their salaries within the first five years.

According to the C.I.A., the student loan default rate among its graduates since 2008 is less than half the rate at for-profit schools.

There are now several hundred culinary programs in the U.S., many operated by for-profit companies such as Art Institutes and Career Education Corp., the parent of Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, which has 16 locations in the U.S. More culinary schools keep popping up. Last year, Triumph Education Group launched the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts in Chicago and Austin, Texas, with plans to expand.

Enrollment in culinary programs at Career Education was 13,100 at the end of 2010, up 20% from 2009 — though new student enrollment was down 3% in the fourth quarter. The Pasadena Cordon Bleu is one of the company's schools slapped with a class-action lawsuit alleging fraud. A $40-million settlement of a class-action suit against San Francisco's California Culinary Academy, also a Career Education school, is pending.

"Learning the same foundational cooking techniques taught at the original Le Cordon Bleu in Paris affords opportunity," says Career Education spokesman Mark Spencer. "But as with all education, it's no guarantee of success."

Regarding the lawsuit against the Pasadena Cordon Bleu, Spencer says that "the plaintiffs' attorney trying to assemble a viable class-action case has met with several setbacks…. We're confident the school will prevail on the merits of the case."

Charlie Lucas, 22, has worked at Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica, staged at the highly acclaimed Benu in San Francisco and now has a starting position at Daniel Boulud's Café Boulud in New York. He also skipped cooking school.

Two years ago he wanted to try cooking professionally but had no experience and no money for school, so he went knocking on doors for a job. "I made a list of the best restaurants in L.A. from a 2004 Zagat and started handing out my résumé," he says. He landed at Rustic Canyon because, executive chef Evan Funke says, "he had great heart."

"I went home and practiced dices on potatoes," Lucas says. "Funke gave me a lot of books to read. I was cooking out of Alain Ducasse's encyclopedia for six months trying to understand the recipes, the flavor profiles.... In my two years [at Rustic Canyon] I mastered every station.

"By the time I knew I wanted to be a chef, I had learned what people learned in school. And I don't have student loans, and it's a really fortunate thing."

Funke, who is a former instructor at Pasadena's Le Cordon Bleu, says, "In 10 years he's going to be the guy to beat."

Disillusioned by his teaching experience, Funke is no proponent of culinary school. "I don't know what's behind this meat-grinder mentality of cooking schools," he says.

"I rarely hire culinary students right out of school," he says. "It's like buying a computer and doing DOS to tell it how to do commands. They're missing information — knife sharpening or even how to hone a knife. They don't know product ID, kitchen etiquette, meat, fish, chicken butchering. Ninety percent of this job is time experience."

Meanwhile, schools are "doing the same thing to culinary students that they did in the housing market," says Funke, pushing too much borrowing for what might be a mirage. "Nobody tells you that you're going to be somebody's prep monkey for a year picking parsley in some subterranean humid kitchen making minimum wage."

Read the rest of the story here.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Oprah, You Are Making Your Biscuits Wrong!

“Beloved,” based on Toni Morrison’s novel, takes as its subject the impact of slavery on the human soul. Mystery, violence, sex and supernatural apparition are all part of the story.

There is also a brief sequence in which Sethe, Winfrey’s character, makes biscuits in her dark little farmhouse.
Biscuits are what take us into the kitchen today to cook: fat, flaky mounds of quick bread, golden brown, with a significant crumb. Composed of flour, baking powder, fat and a liquid, then baked in a hot oven, they are an excellent sop for sorghum syrup, molasses or honey. They are marvelous layered with country ham or smothered in white sausage gravy, with eggs, with grits. Biscuits are easy to make.

When the film ended, Raskin said in a recent e-mail, Winfrey took to the front of the theater to take questions about race, gender, oppression and literature.

It did not work out that way. Raskin: “The first audience member to speak said something like: ‘Oprah, y’all made your biscuits wrong. Don’t you remember how we make our biscuits round here?’ I believe the biscuit-making scene lasted about 20 seconds, but the roar of the crowd suggested the speaker wasn’t alone in her outrage.”

Biscuits are like that. You need to make them right or not make them at all, and most people will tell you most of the time that however you are making biscuits, you are making them wrong. This is true especially if you are not from the South or if you are from England, where biscuits are hard and dry and sit on the dividing line between cookie and cracker.

Some people mix their biscuits in a wooden bowl handed down from Grandmother. Some drop biscuits onto a cooking sheet, rather than cutting them out. Some people use lard as the fat, others butter. For some, a biscuit must be huge. Others say small. There are people who beat their biscuits or add salt to them and others who press sugar cubes into the dough. Liquids added to biscuit flour may include buttermilk, heavy cream, flat beer, sour cream or cola. Cream of tartar can make an appearance in a biscuit recipe, as can baking soda.

For Yankees, the principal biscuit issue is flour. Proper Southern biscuits (as proper Southerners will tell you) are made with soft red winter wheat flour, low in protein and gluten — traditionally White Lily brand or Southern Biscuit brand. These are only sporadically and expensively available in the North and West of the country, where the more traditional all-purpose flour is made from sterner spring wheat, with more protein and gluten in it, better for making yeast breads than tender, flaky biscuits.

Some Southerners believe that it is not possible to make a good biscuit north of the Mason-Dixon line. Nathalie Dupree, a biscuit doyenne out of Charleston, S.C., whose “Southern Biscuits” cookbook provides enough biscuit recipes to fill a lifetime, disagrees. “Any biscuit is possible for a Yankee,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Extensive testing in Brooklyn bears her statement out. Cake flour, a low-protein flour that is available in supermarkets from Boston to Chicago, north to Seattle and down to Los Angeles, makes a fine biscuit. Standard Northern all-purpose flour does as well, especially if you allow the dough to rest for 30 minutes or so before cutting it out and baking.

What follows are two simple recipes for biscuits, one made with cake flour and lard; the other with all-purpose flour and butter. The first results in a biscuit with a delicate, silken texture that does well with syrups and runny fried eggs. The second provides a crumbier result, with a density appropriate to the flour, that is marvelous with thick, creamy sausage gravy, heavy on the sage and black pepper.

Neither takes long to put together. Christopher Kimball, the professorial leader of Cook’s Illustrated, Cook’s Country and television’s “America’s Test Kitchen,” said in an interview that this feature is crucial to biscuit excellence. “The secret of biscuits is that they are dead simple, and you should be able to make them in your sleep or even in the midst of a blind-drunk hangover,” he said. “To hell with the gourmet stuff.”

All y'all (that's southern plural for "you") can read the rest of the story here.  (N.Y. Times  tiered subscription model).

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Ketchup Goes Artisanal?

There's a seasonal shift going on in the condiment firmament. Ketchup, the big red staple of American pantries, is catching up with the cool crowd as chefs and food entrepreneurs seek new inspiration.

"It's a very exciting time to be making ketchup," says Scott Norton, who with Mark Ramadan founded the recently launched Sir Kensington's Gourmet Scooping Ketchup.  

Organic ketchup, spicy ketchup, gourmet ketchup, curry ketchup, all have blossomed in recent years, a development that James Oseland, editor-in-chief of Saveur magazine, has noted with approval. "Who doesn't love a good catsup?" he points out.  

About the whole ketchup vs. catsup thing — like tomato vs. tomahto, this seems to be a matter of personal choice. Oseland uses both depending on his mood.  

The big tomato in American sauce, of course, is Heinz, which launched its ketchup in 1876. Interestingly, this wasn't the company's first venture; Heinz began with a horseradish sauce in 1869. Today, more than 650 million bottles of Heinz ketchup are sold worldwide, adding up to more than $1.5 billion in annual sales.

Tradition is part of the appeal of Heinz; this year the company brought back the classic glass bottles for a limited time in stores. This is the bottle with the "57" on the neck denoting the "sweet spot" one taps to get the ketchup to exit at maximum velocity of .028 miles per hour. But Heinz, the market leader, also has been part of the changing sauce scene, expanding its products to include a no added salt version, organic ketchup, a Hot & Spicy bottle with a kick of Tabasco sauce, and Simply Heinz, which uses sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup.  

Hunt's and Del Monte are two other big names in U.S. ketchup; additional brands that have found a place on the shelf include Annie's Naturals Organic Ketchup, Muir Glen Organic Ketchup, Organicville Tomato Ketchup and Stonewall Kitchen Country Ketchup, a product described as "ketchup all grown up."
Norton and Ramadan's ketchup chronicles began about three years ago when they started cooking homemade tomato ketchup as economics majors at Brown University.

"We love ketchup," explains Ramadan. They thought it was curious that there only a few dominant brands of ketchup, as opposed to mustard, for instance, and thought, "wouldn't it be fun to try to make something in our own kitchen."

They held tasting parties and came up with two flavor profiles, classic and spiced, now available online and in stores including Williams-Sonoma and Whole Foods Market. The ketchup, billed as having less sodium and sugar than leading brands, is sweetened with agave nectar, honey and raw brown sugar and includes apple cider vinegar for a tangy kick. Other ingredients include coriander, lime juice, allspice, cilantro and cayenne pepper.

In some ways the concept of gourmet ketchup sounds slightly oxymoronic. Ketchup, a burger's best friend, is unabashedly of the people and a product that tends to stir strong opinions.

Read the rest of the story here.