Peacocks and culatello

This was a nice little boondoggle: I was flown over to be on a roundtable on the future of Italian cuisine in the world, but thanks to my digital bocca grande no one apparently really wanted me to say much. And no wonder. As I kept thinking, I went to an Italian forum and a hockey game broke out; I only managed to toss a crottin in the punchbowl. Emotions were running hot, on whether Italian is overpriced in Asia, whether Michelin ratings are skewing things (or is it the internet?), whether sushi is mucking everything up, whether emigration has actually done the most to unify Italy (as the left-behinds cling to their regional styles). I did enjoy the strident push-back once someone in the audience brought up “molecular cuisine.” The best response was that it’s not a cuisine but a technique — if you can produce a better bollito misto with sous vide and mirrors, WhyTF not? And I’d say the Herbaceous Chef made the smartest point: Technology has been very, very good to winemaking. You could still do it in amphoras, but why not avail yourself of science? Dinosaur piss is an elusive elixir.

“Suck packet-stock soup”

And my brain is still fried, so I’ll step out temporarily by reTweeting myself, with new resonance after being asked in Parma why I was not invited on the helicopter gangbang: Leonardo would have died from exhaustion trying to paint the last suppers at elBulli. How many are there going to be, for Christ’s sake?

No Rocco, please, we’re English

Apparently only outsiders read the hometown paper’s public editor’s lament about trash-tracking, which noted that three different sections had run silliness about a non-story. This week readers were subjected to back-to-back gluten-free BS. Of course, this is the pinnacle of journalism that sold the world the connection between yellowcake and WMD. But still. Would a better story not focus on whether this trend should even be a trend? Humans have been eating wheat/wheat products for millennia. Why the pushback now? Has everyone gotten lactose-intolerant to oat bran with pomegranate juice? A few years ago I met a woman in Tuscany whose brother’s guts were being corroded by celiac disease, and I have taken it seriously ever since. Still, I somehow doubt half of America could be similarly afflicted. But I am looking forward to Nivea in Thursday Styles . . .

Serpent and quince

I hope no one who believes Jesus rode a dinosaur caught up to Jasper White’s review of a couple of lobster books I’m glad he read (and liked) so I don’t have to. Did he really state, unequivocally, that the Red Crustaceans “today are in fact very similar to the original members of their biological family, which appeared about 250 million years ago”? If the chain’s namesake is older than Earth, how is any creationist going to be able to eat mislabeled fish while stiffing the server again?

Dispirit in the diet aisle

One of many things that amaze me about Al Gore’s invention is how huge it is and how niche it is at the same time. Fud people wanna talk fud, that’s it. Luckily, political types can eat and think at the same time, so you get great links that put fud frenzies into perspective. I have said before that I was paid to consider the cookbook from Molto Ego’s traveling companion in Spain, which could very well have skewed my judgment. But really, it is any more ridiculous that she’s on the cover of a magazine targeted at Middle America when you remember the King of Siam also got his “own” recipe collection in bookstores? And without even including her banhi mi and other Asian accents.

18 pounds, 5 feet 7 inches

The latest “goddamn, is it time to fill up a page again?” from the pen wielder formerly known as Mr. Cutlets was beyond amusing. Whom shall we blame for obesity? Why, chefs, of course. As if all of waddling America could be flocking to real restaurants to gorge these days. I’ll just repeat one thing that came back to me over and over in the 15 days I was immobilized in a hospital in Torino, repenting at leisure for my bad eating: I did not get fat at Daniel. Even if you were privileged enough to eat there every night, you’d still be doing better than the average consumer of Crunch Wrap Supremes washed down with HFCS water. From a drive-through.

Once were Bohemians

No matter how much a chef gets paid in this life, he will pay again in the next for actually coming up with a recipe for guacamole that calls for the most unlikely ingredient: beer. What is that, a streamlined way to scarf and barf? Why not hold out for the big bucks and get a tequila deal? Make that yawn truly Technicolor.

Slither and yon

And I’ve had more than a few regrets, but not eating at elBulli is definitely not among them. I’ve written about this before, but the hostage situation my consort and I endured at Tetsuya in Oz was the tipping point for that sort of experience — we were begging the waiters to let us skip courses, and not because the food was underwhelming. Even with the most dazzling creations, even a trained palate has limits. There’s titillation. And then there’s Spanish fly.

Escort to the bathroom

What took us back to the consort’s boyhood home was a supposedly fun thing I’m not entirely sure I’d do again. I was lured up to be a judge for the local variation on Tin Chefs, and it was far more stressful than I’d anticipated. It’s one thing to sit in my little office and fire off digital darts. It’s quite another to have to contemplate shooting a dog in the head in front of a crowd. Luckily, the food was, overall, so impressive I didn’t have to either lie or be a total bitch. The closest I came was in saying Mae West might have been wrong in thinking too much of a good thing is never enough. And of course I only made it worse by saying one Course II would sell very well in Buffalo, where there seems to be a rule no diner is ever allowed to leave less than stuffed. As the chef who won pointed out, there’s no way he could produce a dish like that and make money (duck egg raviolo with sauce Choron and, and, and, and etc.)

Afterward I also pissed off the chef who didn’t win by saying he could open a restaurant serving what he had just cooked up for us judges. He contended he already does, but I strongly suspect his very good gastropub would have a tough time selling a savvy reinvention of floating islands, while a fresh start in the Wright/museum location would find huge demand for that retro dessert tweaked. His other dishes were also exceptional in showcasing the “secret ingredient,” which was duck eggs from Painted Meadow Farms: Course I featured a perfect deviled egg, a Scotch egg and a pickled egg paired with a little Bloody Mary. His II delivered the eggs baked over duck confit and shiitake mushrooms, teamed with toasts spread with chicken liver paté. (Try dunking those on camera, let alone slipping a bite to your consort in the audience.) Overall, Escoffier would have been proud.

But the chef who won seemed hellbent on dazzling, and he did, at least first and last. He, too, served up three twists to start: the yolk breaded and fried and laid over asparagus tips with tarragon vinaigrette to evoke sauce bearnaise when the fork broke the yolk and it spilled out, plus a little pig’s trotter brodo served in an eggshell to pour over the yolks to make a sort of egg-drop soup, and a Ramos gin fizz using the white. (These are, of course, Cliffsnotes — many adjectives and nouns have been omitted because flavors/details flew by in a blur.) His main may have been a letdown, but he came out swinging with his dessert: What arrived looking like a fried egg alongside a strip of bacon turned out to be a nice schmear of coconut meringue topped with a “yolk” of pineapple curd and accompanied by a chocolate biscotto. It really seemed and tasted like something you’d experience in France or London or, with luck, NYC. A near-skirmish broke out when I passed a taste over to Bob; some guy in the audience actually grabbed it to share.

But at least that was not as uncivil, apparently, as a previous competition at which one attendee reportedly got so hammered he staggered downstairs and puked in an office. And that made me wonder something the next night, when we were in Toronto watching the premiere of “Top Chef Canada” and amazed at how many repeated takes of the food were repeatedly shown. Come on, fools — shoot the audience.

Desperate in Normandy

Finally for now, I’ll admit I do wonder if I, too, would be piling onto the Goop trashwagon if I had not been paid to take a look at “her” cookbook for a bit of a listicle on celeb recipe roundups and been rather impressed. For all its glitz, the book is solid. I would recommend it for any cook just starting out because it makes sophistication look accessible (there’s a reason she’s publicly whacking the ducks for ragu; you’d never mess with pork or beef in bolognese again). Sure, it can seem pretentious and silly and easily mockable. But what celebrity book does not? Does anyone really believe any “real” chef with 14 restaurants actually cooked up the type wrapped around “his/her” recipes? That was my point when a WSJournal reporter called to interview me about the “new” phenomenon of celebrities daring to do food books. I’m so old I remember Vincent Price had a cookbook. But mostly I said let anyone who has written alone cast the first stone. And not at Sheryl Crow. Chefs everywhere should be cheering that celeb for doing her book right by hiring a pro first in real life and then getting the book deal. Two ghosts may be better than none.

Tell it to the blog

While I await that correction on “dumpling holes,” I’m joining the hordes scratching their pates over the hit job on one of the good guys. How do you say “what was the point?” in WTFese? Of all the chefs in all of this overcheffed country, why pick on this one? Or at least: Why pick on this one without pegging the pick-on to any news? And there is very definitely a back story. Or two. Bring us the head of Larry Forgione. Or Patrick O’Connell. (No Vegas outlet? Loser!) Or just find us a guy selling his soul in a spa in the desert. . .

Plum’s on me

I’m not going to say where or who, but I was at an event where the star chef didn’t show and the organizers wrote it off to a presumed rush of business in the wake of a rave review. But he did arrive, very late, to sprinkle his stardust over the room. By coincidence, we rode down in the elevator together, along with one of those cellphone natterers who was all “oh, there must be a party on 20 yappity-yappity.” Clearly wanting to be recognized, he shoved a copy of the publication of the evening into her hand, but she didn’t seem awed, so I said: “Good job. Glad you were able to make it.” And he responded: “The subway. The subway is the key.” Which dazzled me into thinking: “What a man of the people.” Then we stepped off the elevator and he went barreling out of the building . . . and into a waiting Town Car. Either he’d summoned it on the elevator ride up. Or it was his own private A train.

Jamaican memories of Belize and Gstaad

I don’t often look at the free papers that litter the subways, but my consort forced me to confront an issue that had one of those Iron Clowns on the cover because he noticed the guy’s mouth and beard looked like a hirsute anus. Once we both figured out it was not the cover but a wraparound ad, I got sucked into a typical carrying-water-for-the-overlords story on “concierges” who provide whatever the super-rich desire in NYC. Of course the reporter swallowed the notion that the new austerity means flying in the In-and-Out burgers not on private planes but commercial jets. Which must be why he or she did not comment on the other big phenomenon in this Bushwhacked economy: Ferrari says it had its best sales year ever in the USofA. Sad to think obscene bonuses are going to people who don’t realize real luxury is the kind of foods children don’t eat.

Maybe one from the City of New Orleans

Meant to write this after my magical ride to/from Buffalo by train to avoid the cancer boxes and grope theatrics at the airports: Amtrak should rip a page from the airline playbooks and hire a celeb chef or two to “reinvent” its “cuisine.” Said celeb would not have to actually do anything, just show up and make some noise about sous vide and cupcakes etc. and let the media dutifully regurgitate the “news” of stars on the rails. Then the cafe cars, like the airlines, could continue punching out microwave sandwiches for drunks (in the immortal words of Rosey the halibut fisherman in Kodiak), but at least people might realize there’s food on board with no radiation or security kabuki. And tables at which to eat it.

Halibut, pounded through a pie hole

Lost-in-translation of the week: One of the British papers dutifully reported on the made-for-denutted-media outburst by Wasilla’s own Taco Crunch Supreme but didn’t realize she wasn’t reaching for “some more ingredients” in trashing the regal Mrs. O. I guess I can’t blame the reporter and editors for not knowing what marshmallows, graham crackers and Hershey bars add up to. Whenever I read a hed using “pud” from their side of the Atlantic, I want to spell it out, too.