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.