Monday, February 28, 2011

Cooking for the Commander in Chief

As world leaders and celebrities streamed into the White House last month for the highly anticipated state dinner honoring China's President Hu Jintao, White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford had a discomfiting thought: "In five minutes we're going to serve 200 people. This is not the time to fail." She donned her Dolce & Gabbana bifocals, a move signaling to her staff that it's "game on," she said, though in the heat of preparation, her glasses often steam up and she'll wind up casting them aside. (She recently found them in the refrigerator.)

The importance of last month's dinner went beyond its usual social value. When Mr. Hu visited in 2006, he was invited to lunch, which the Chinese took as a slight. So, at a time when the U.S. is pressing Beijing on economic issues like the value of its currency, but relying on its help with thorny regional problems like North Korea, the pressure was on to underscore the value of the relationship by pulling out all the culinary stops.

The Chinese asked for a "quintessentially American" dinner. What does that mean to a Philippines-born, French-trained chef, married to a chef of Irish descent? To Ms. Comerford, quintessentially American "reminds you of home." Her family Thanksgiving table is an amalgam of Mayflower and Manila, some 20 dishes prepared by the couple with baking help from their 9-year-old daughter, Danielle. The chef's sweet potatoes are a presidential favorite: She roasts them with oranges and star anise.

Ms. Comerford, 47, attended the food-technology program at the University of the Philippines. She got her start in Chicago-area hotels, including the Sheraton and Hyatt Regency near O'Hare airport. In Washington, she did a stint at Le Grande Bistro in the Westin Hotel before she was recruited by former White House chef Walter Scheib III to work at the presidential residence in 1995. Laura Bush appointed her to the top job in 2005, making Ms. Comerford the first female, and the first ethnic minority, to hold the position.

Her friendly manner carries an undercurrent of toughness. When her assistant suggested her "spring rolls" are a signature dish, she shot him a look and said, "No, that's not who I am." A Cristeta Comerford meal is known for its Asian spice, colors and "extra garlic," she said. One recent afternoon, she prepared seared lamb loin on chickpea purée for an Obama family dinner, the purée's strong garlic balanced by parsley and mint. The dish was finished with orange zest and streaks of vibrant finishing oil, made by cooking light olive oil with handfuls of parsley until the oil glows a vivid green.

Her starting point for the menu for the state dinner, as with any meal, was a review of the best ingredients available locally, arrayed on one of her stainless-steel work tables. Seeing the items together helps her to draw new lines between them, creating different combinations.

Read the complete story here.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

U.S. Chefs to Honor French Dining at Versailles

Four star chefs from the United States are slated to take part in an international salute to the French way of dining in April at Versailles, the one-time home of French kings, just outside Paris. Thomas Keller and Eli Kaimeh of New York's Per Se, Patrick O'Connell of The Inn at Little Washington in Virginia and Daniel Boulud of New York's Daniel are among 60 "grand chefs" assembled for this dinner by Relais & Chateaux, a global network of about 500 hotels and gourmet restaurants.

This April 6 dinner in honor of French gastronomy marks the inclusion last November of the "Gastronomic Meal of the French" on UNESCO's list of  Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The dinner for 650 guests paying 890 euros ($1,200) each will take place in Versailles' Gallery of Battles.

Read more about the event here.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Just How Much Beef is in Fast-Food Meat?

That question emerged after a recent lawsuit alleged that Taco Bell was passing off mostly meat substitute as real beef in its tacos. The  Yum! Brands Inc. chain swiftly countered the accusations, taking out prominent newspaper ads stating that its seasoned beef was the genuine article, containing 88% beef, 3% added water, 4% seasoning and 5% other ingredients, such as oats and sugar.

The controversy exposed a conundrum for consumers. Despite extensive regulations governing certain areas of food processing, there are scant data available to the public about what really goes into some of their favorite restaurant meals. And what information is available—often on fast-food chains' websites—often omits crucial details.

Restaurants' food-content claims can be difficult to verify. When asked for the composition of several of their own dishes, most of the nearly 20 chains contacted by The Wall Street Journal declined to share numbers, citing the proprietary nature of their formulas. Federal regulations don't require restaurants to disclose such information, and there are no rules stipulating minimum meat content in menu items. While determining nutrient information, such as calories and protein, is relatively straightforward, food-testing laboratories say they can't definitively identify the composition of prepared food because the cooking process blends ingredients in a way that is tough to undo.

Unless a food lab knew for sure which ingredients were present, "there is serious potential to be seriously flawed" in estimating just how much of those ingredients are being used, says Kantha Shelke, an independent food technologist in Chicago. "It's a guesstimate at best."

The Taco Bell flap began with a lawsuit filed by a Montgomery, Ala., law firm on behalf of a California woman who claims that "a substantial majority" of the company's beef filling isn't beef. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, didn't provide supplementary evidence. One of the firm's lawyers, Dee Miles, told National Public Radio and other news organizations that tests found that about 35% of the filling was beef. Through a spokeswoman, Mr. Miles now declines to comment, and his firm hasn't disclosed where or how tests were conducted or provided detailed results.

"The claims made against Taco Bell and our seasoned beef are absolutely false," Taco Bell said in the newspaper ads. The company didn't respond to requests for additional comment.

Read the complete story here.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Ambitious Chefs Buck the Economic and Culinary Trends

February 07, 2011|By Craig LaBan, Inquirer Restaurant Critic

Hold the obituary on fine dining, and pass the 12-course tasting menu, please.

It's a refrain chef Marc Vetri hopes to hear often after March 15, when his signature gem, Vetri, abandons a la carte dining altogether for $135 tasting menus, a decadent splurge previously required only on weekends.

In a move that seems counter to these recessionary times, not only is the city's best Italian restaurant raising the cost of midweek dining, but Vetri is also shaving six seats from the townhouse dining room. At 36 before, it was already a picture of tight-squeeze intimacy.

"When people walk in and just order an appetizer and entree and then leave, they're not getting what we really set out to offer. They're not getting the whole experience," says Vetri.

The upscale moves may foretell a trend on the horizon born of pent-up desire, as other young chefs have plans to open small venues dedicated to gastronomy. Ambitious tasting menus elsewhere are also gaining new traction.

The notion seemingly flies in the face of the most recent currents, which have brought mainly trouble for "whole experience"-style fine dining, as white-tablecloth formality unraveled under the pressure of economic turmoil and a cultural shift toward more casual venues.

Walnut Street's Restaurant Row continues to crumble. Restaurant Week-style bargain menus abound year round. The Four Seasons Hotel has been exploring the potential of an independent operator for its luxurious Fountain Restaurant.

And in a bid to survive two years ago, Georges Perrier's bastion of prix-fixe luxury, Le Bec-Fin, embraced an a la carte menu for the first time in its four decades, even started serving hamburgers at lunch, before announcing last year plans to finally close - moves Perrier has since reconsidered and regretted.
"I think I panicked too early and made changes I should never have done," conceded Perrier, who said his prix-fixe menus, which range from $40 to $185, are now back up to 80 percent of his meals.

Indeed, the irony is as rich as beurre blanc. Perrier's legendary restaurant, of course, began its life at 1312 Spruce St. - the townhouse address where Vetri has now ascended to the hot list of an international dinerati, which sometimes comes in from London, L.A., Chicago, or New York (not to mention Rittenhouse Square) just for dinner.

Achieving that level of fame has been a steady evolution for Vetri, a James Beard Foundation Award winner. Vetri and his business partner, Jeff Benjamin, have since opened larger casual venues (Osteria, Amis) to offer more flexible options to the salad-and-pasta crowd. Thus, the flagship has become a focal point for Vetri's dogged pursuit to craft the nation's ultimate experience in alta cucina.

New Italian china and Venetian vases have been ordered. Snazzy new uniforms for the staff ("nothing formal - but playful!") are in the works. The vestibule is being rehabbed. A new chef de cuisine, former Vetri sous Adam Leonti, is due back from a six-month kitchen stint in Bergamo. And demand for the elaborate tasting meals, with their inventive seasonal dishes and hand-painted menus, has grown over the last two years from weekends only to half of Vetri's midweek meals, when a la carte was still an option.

Read the complete story here.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

French Chefs Team Up to Safeguard Gallic Gastronomy

(Reuters Life!) - Worried that France's global gastronomic influence may be on the wane, 15 of its top Michelin-starred chefs are cooking up a plan to put it back on the menu and enlist the help of the state to promote it.

Critics of French cuisine argue that for too long it has rested on its laurels, not moving with the times to use alternative ingredients and adapt to a changing culinary world order as new chefs push the boundaries.

With that in mind, the who's who of French cuisine, including Alain Ducasse, owner of London's famous Dorchester and 26-Michelin star holder Joel Robuchon, gathered at the Eiffel Tower on Tuesday to unveil the country's first chef lobbying group -- the College Culinaire de France.

"We are in a time when everyone is working for themselves," Robuchon, who operates restaurants in Las Vegas, Monaco, Hong Kong and elsewhere, told Reuters TV. "We wanted to create a group that works together for the excellence of French gastronomy and export it overseas where it is still unknown."

The catering industry alone in France accounted for about 50 billion euros ($68.66 billion) in 2009 and is the fourth biggest private sector employer taking on almost 500,000 people each year.

Unlike other sectors, the chefs argue that the authorities have taken it for granted and left it to fend for itself.

"We want them (authorities) to take note and if possible help economically such as through marketing," Alain Ducasse told Reuters. "We have a beautiful past and we can look forward calmly, but competition exists and we shouldn't forget that."

The chefs' art, once dominated by a French swagger, has changed after thousands of budding cooks learnt their trade in France's top kitchens, only to ply their trade elsewhere and take the culinary experience to new levels.
For Guy Savoy, one of the chefs considered to have nurtured the lighter and more modern French cuisine, part of the problem is a sense of guilt about promoting France's heritage.

"It's not arrogant or pretentious to say France is the global essence of gastronomy ... it's the reality and we have to stop punishing ourselves just because one or two countries have a few cooks that make a lot more noise than a few thousand French chefs. This (association) is an attacking team."

The final straw was perhaps at this year's Bocuse d'Or -- the Oscar's of the cooking world held biennially in France's gastronomic capital, Lyon. French chefs were nowhere to be seen as the top three chefs all came from Scandinavia.

Read the complete story here.