Here’s the first episode of “California Matters,” a 10-part webseries I developed with the Berkeley Food Institute. To do it, I ranged throughout the state, talking to people about issues in food, from labor rights to pesticide exposure, the history of Chinese-American cooking, ocean acidification, and more. This first one — in which I roam the streets of Oakland with Berkeley professors Tom Carlson and Philip Stark — is about urban foraging and wild edibles: weeds.
Food-wise (and otherwise), what happens in California affects everyone in America (get it? California Matters), so I’m excited to share the series, and looking forward to telling more of these stories. Here’s a conversation I had recently about how and why we made the series, plus a couple podcasts for more info. Stay tuned, and click here to subscribe.
It’s the equivalent of jamming with the Stones or feeding a bounce pass to Michael Jordan. I’m in Las Vegas, where I’ve been invited to cook with not one, two, or three, but seven of the country’s top French chefs–the best in the business.
The seven-course meal, replete with suitable wines (including three first-growth Bordeaux and the renowned Chateau d’Yquem), is being held to benefit the New York-based James Beard Foundation, and is taking place in the Rio Hotel and Casino’s ultra-swank Napa Restaurant. Napa, the jewel of the Rio and one of the best-appointed restaurants in the United States, is run by Jean-Louis Palladin, former chef at the Watergate and generally acknowledged to be the guru of the current generation of French chefs cooking in America. More than 100 people have paid between $200 and $250 each for the meal of a lifetime; by the end of the evening, that seemingly steep price is generally agreed to be a bargain.
From my perspective, the event really began with the over-the-top meal prepared the night before by Palladin and his staff for the chefs and their hangers-on. To fully comprehend that meal, which began at about 11 p.m., after the restaurant had closed, you must understand that one top chef never hosts another without trying to blow him away. Since impressing a four-star chef with your cooking is not easy (note: don’t try this at home), and since among his guests were seven such chefs, even Palladin had been worked up for weeks in advance, planning the menu and procuring ingredients that you can’t find at Safeway.
The meal’s luxury level became apparent the minute the waiters began pouring a ’63 Port, generally considered the vintage of the century and almost never served as an aperitif. This accompanied a soup based on fresh porcini, the most coveted of the world’s wild mushrooms, and “garnished”—chefs use the term very loosely—with an incomparably creamy marrow flan. The meal went from there, with rare wines accompanying rare ingredients, such as a cold steamed Dungeness-like crab from Brittany that had the chefs in up to their elbows.
The piece de resistance was a pair of suckling pigs that Palladin had boned and stuffed with a mixture of porcini, $200-a-pound truffles, sweetbreads, foie gras (the liver of force-fed ducks), and other delicacies, then roasted to a perfect crispness. Slices of the pig were perfect mosaics, so beautiful it was difficult to mar them with a knife. We managed.
The chefs began to trickle in to work about six hours after dinner ended. They first checked in with their sous-chefs about the status of ingredients and any last-minute needs, then consulted with Palladin about the plate on which their given dish would be served. Since much of the food would be prepared a la minute (just before serving), the day would be spent in “prep”—washing, drying, cutting, peeling, dicing, shredding, boning, mixing, and so on.
For me, the morning work is straightforward; I can’t mince like Martin Yang, but I can get the work done. During these hours, I dice leeks with Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the chef at Restaurant Jean Georges, minced truffles and foie gras with Daniel Boulud (Restaurant Daniel), and assembled a sample plate of Spanish mackerel tartare with caviar with Eric Ripert (Le Bernardin). I am in good company: The restaurants run by these men comprise three-fifths of New York City’s four-star establishments.
After a quick break for lunch, the serious work begins. I check in with Michel Richard, the cherubic, ebullient chef of Los Angeles’ Citrus and a number of other restaurants. Richard had agreed to prepare the dessert, the most difficult dish at this event because, unlike the six savory dishes, it stands on its own. He had taken the challenge seriously, preparing an apple charlotte with poached pear and chocolate-Port sauce, along with a host of petits fours, each of which was a mind-blower.
Richard’s reputation precedes him; he’s known as a wizard of technique, able to create dishes that would not even occur to others. Incredibly, he puts me to work using beaten egg yolks as glue in cementing pairs of small pastry circles together. That done, he demonstrates how to deep-fry them, splashing their tops with hot oil until they puff into small balloons. (These, in turn, will be rolled in butter, sugar, and nuts, and baked until crisp. Impressive as they are, they are essentially another “garnish.”) Fascinated, I try a few, and although I screw up plenty, my success rate is evidently high enough, for he leaves me alone. I work at producing these small miracles for about an hour.
By now, some of the other chefs are being forced to apply themselves, and my labor—unskilled as it may be—is in demand. I join Hubert Keller (Fleur de Lys, San Francisco) in putting the finishing touches on his foie gras with herbs and black pepper. It’s a terrine, or loaf, that makes beautiful slices. Although the cutting could be done at the last minute, Keller prefers to do it in advance, so that he can spray each slice individually with a liquefied duck aspic; chilled, this will put a lovely glaze on the meat. I proceed to spray 130 slices (we’re making extra, figuring either the crowd will grow or the cooks will eat) while he turns to the garnish, a radicchio salad with truffle vinaigrette.
For some of the other chefs—Ripert, Vongerichten, Keller, and the lone woman, Ariane Daguin—most of the hard work is over by late afternoon. They walk around checking out each other’s dishes, and stand in awe as Michel Richard works his magic. Richard generously allows me to demonstrate how to make a few fried pastry balls, and for a moment I feel a bit like part of the gang.
At about 7 p.m., everything is calm. The chefs are joking and even the cooks—who do the real grunt work, who sweat and get yelled at—are relaxed. This is so brilliantly organized that momentarily there is little to do. Daguin sends out her assorted charcuterie; her company, D’Artagnan, supplies meats to many of the chefs here, and she specializes in the earthy cooking of southwestern France. Her platters contain all the parts of the duck on one plate: salt-cured duck, which is akin to prosciutto and taken from the breast; smoked breast; smoked wings; the meat from the legs cooked down to a rich spread called rillettes; and her showy specialty, the “French kiss”: prunes, marinated in Armagnac and stuffed with foie gras and truffles.
Since her food is served at room temperature, Daguin was ready hours ago and needs no assistance. But I have offered to help each chef finish his dish, and as we swing into action and the mood turns deadly serious, I realize this is no joke. (If I had not already realized it, the dressing down Palladin gives me after hearing me make a wisecrack—”You don’t make jokes during service”—clued me in.)
Perhaps, like me, you have never considered what it means to serve 120 plates containing the same food all at once. If you have, you certainly haven’t thought about what that means when all the plates must arrive hot and look beyond beautiful, all the way to perfect. This is not a school lunch assembly line. For the cold dishes, the plates are lined up on the tables in an unfinished cement-block room behind the kitchen; the hot ones will be dealt with right at the stove.
So, as Daguin’s charcuterie circulates with cocktails, I help Ripert assemble his small cylinders of Spanish mackerel. We have 125 molds, and fill them all with the mackerel mixture, top them with caviar, and place each on a tray. Then we move the trays to the back room and carefully plate each one, gently sliding it from its mold and topping it with a spoonful of the caper-laced vinaigrette known as ravigote.
Suddenly there’s a crisis: The food is ready but the waiters are still seating the guests. Since the tartare can’t sit even for a few minutes, Ripert begins to freak out. Fortunately, the quick-thinking Vongerichten seizes the day and announces that we—the two chefs, two sous-chefs, and me—should start carrying the dishes out. As each of the other four men grabs five or six dishes, I take two—there’s no way I can handle any more than that.
That crisis resolved, we immediately cover the long tables with another 120 plates and begin doling out slices of Keller’s foie gras terrine and garnish. Foie gras is so delicate that it begins to melt if you touch it with your warm finger, so you must slide it onto the plate with a fingernail. Like the mackerel tartare this cannot wait, but now the waiters are ready. Everyone–this includes Ripert and Keller, now done for the night–breathes a sigh of relief and moves over to the stove where chef Jean Joho is working.
Joho’s Everest Room is probably the best restaurant in Chicago, featuring his assertively personal but distinctively Alsatian style. He’s serving lobster with an intensely flavored meat, red wine, and marrow sauce–an unusual combination to say the least–on a bed of cabbage braised with bacon; it amounts to the most complex peasant food imaginable. Unfortunately, with its “garnish” of shallots braised in red wine, this dish is not easy to assemble.
The action becomes furious. There are two cooks working on each stage of Joho’s dish: plating the cabbage, adding the roasted lobster, saucing the dish, garnishing it and, at the end of the line, Joho and…me (!), making sure that each plate is properly assembled and that no stray drops of sauce land where they should not. At this moment, it feels like the most important job in the world.
Boulud’s magnificent dish—squab stuffed with foie gras, porcini, pig’s foot, and truffles, with a “garnish” of shallots, porcini, squab liver, truffles, and a touch of garlic—follows the same pattern, and, again, I find myself in the position of quality assurance.
At this point I have evidently gained some trust, so for Vongerichten’s elegant lamb loin dusted with black trumpet mushrooms on a bed of leek puree—a gorgeous combination of red, black, and green—I am given the job of “working the line.” This means searing each lamb loin, transferring it to the oven as it browns, and keeping an eye on it, while seasoning the garlic-scented meat sauce and heating the leek puree. I work with Vongerichten’s sous-chef Chris Beischer, while the chef himself explains the assembly of the dish to the waiting troops. Beischer, of course, is accustomed to moving searingly hot saute pans in and out of 700 degree ovens; I am not, and burn myself twice—once while rescuing the leek puree from scorching, another while frantically grabbing a pan to remove it from the oven while the lamb is still rare. In the heat of battle there is no time to dress wounds, so I do my best to ignore both.
When the lamb is done, Beischer and Vongerichten turn to slicing it and I am directed to the head of the serving line. Here, I am given the all-important job of saucing each dish, then sprinkling it with a tiny bit of fleur de sel—$50 a pound sea salt from France. (And, since you asked, yes—it is worth it.) Halfway through the service, the chef comes around the counter to check on the amount of salt I’m using. It makes me nervous; too little, and he considers the dish underseasoned. Too much, and the customers might begin to gag. Evidently he approves, because he gives me a smile and a pat on the shoulder. It’s all been worth it.
Technical wizard Richard needs no help; his team has been working steadily since early afternoon, and their plates, pastry balls and all, are ready to go. So as the last of Vongerichten’s lamb is being cleared, I wander out into the dining room to ask a fellow journalist how the meal was from the diner’s perspective.
He looks glazed, dumbfounded, starstruck. He sighs and says, “You guys did a great job.” Us guys. I love it.
The essence of a crisp — sweet, tender fruit and a crunchy buttery topping — done quickly on the stovetop. Soft fruit cooks faster, but you can use firm fruit like apples: Just sauté them a bit longer, but it won’t take much more time.
Skillet Fruit Crisp
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) butter
2 pounds peaches, bananas, berries, or any combination
1/2 cup walnuts or pecans
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/4 cup shredded unsweetened coconut
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Just about everyone agrees that we need more farmers. Currently, nearly 30 percent are 65 or older, and fewer than 10 percent are under 35. The number of farmers is likely to fall further with continuing consolidation and technological innovation.
But displacement of farmers is neither desirable nor inevitable. We need to put more young people on smaller farms, the kinds that will grow nourishing food for people instead of food that sickens us or yields products intended for animals or cars.
The problem is land, which is often prohibitively expensive. Farmland near cities is prized by developers and the wealthy looking for vacation homes, hobby farms or secure investments. Many farmers have no choice but to rent land for a year or two before being asked to move and start all over, because the purchase of even the smallest plot is out of their reach.
Read the rest of this column here.
Whether you’re cooking it, eating it, growing it, or reading about it, food brings people together. Welcome to #BittmanTopics: a place where we can all share ideas about a different food-related topic each month. In case you missed the first installment, here’s how it works, and here’s what we talked about in April and May.
Summer is the easiest time of year to eat locally, especially if you garden. This month on #BittmanTopics, I want to hear about your local food scene—from gardening and foraging to preservation or raising animals—whether you produce food yourself or know or live near others who do.
Even little things count. You don’t need much of a green thumb to keep a pot of herbs alive. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the folks—and there are more and more of them—who build raised gardens or keep chickens and bees. (I got my start somewhere in between, with some tomato plants in a 6-inch strip of dirt.)
We can discuss all of this in a tweetchat I’m hosting on June 10 at 3:00 ET (noon PT) in conjunction with the launch of California Matters, my web series produced by the University of California and Berkeley Food Institute. It premieres on June 8, and the first episode is all about foraging. Follow along with #BittmanTopics and come with questions.
How and what do you raise? What techniques have you found particularly successful? Why do you garden (or forage, raise animals, keep bees…)? Got any ideas for making the most of bumper crops? Do you have family, friends, or neighbors who share their bounty? Stay in touch this month—on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and in the comments below—and I’ll feature my favorites back here in a few weeks.
I can’t tell you how many times in the last month someone has come up to me and said something like, “Do you think I should stop eating almonds?” or “I really miss almond butter, but I just can’t bring myself to buy it anymore.”
It’s typical: We focus on a minuscule part (almonds) of a huge problem (water use in California) and see it as the key to fixing everything: If only we stopped eating almonds, the drought would end! (If only we stopped eating “carbs,” we wouldn’t be overweight.) But there are parts of the state where growing almonds makes sense. Using dry farming techniques that take advantage of residual moisture in the soil and rainfall, there is some ideal almond country in California.
When it comes to so-called luxury ingredients, wild mushrooms are among the most accessible, for a couple of reasons. One, if you have the energy and a guide and the right location, you can forage for them. O.K., very few of us are going to do that. Alternatively, you buy them, and in those places where the foraging is local the price isn’t at all outrageous, especially because a little can go a long way.
This spring I’ve taken advantage of frequent appearances of morels in our markets (contrary to the popular media, it does rain in California some of the time) at about $30 a pound. The price may sound scary, but I buy a quarter-pound at a time. With this $8 worth and another springtime ingredient, I make among the best fast dishes there is: pasta with morels, real peas, Parmesan and butter.
Read the rest of this column and get the recipe here. Photo by Rikki Snyder.
I introduced #BittmanTopics as a way to share ideas about what—and how—we’re eating, and this month, we focused on grilling. Many of you were proud to announce you have year-round cookouts while others in colder climes are just now getting back to the fire. Most of us associate grilling with meat, but throwing some vegetables on the barbecue is actually a great way to practice “less-meatarianism”:—I shared my recipe for Mexican-style corn and you all shared your own favorites here and onFacebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Below are some things you had to say and eat last month—check back tomorrow for June’s topic.
The question of the month: “Currently raising my own pork, lamb and beef, looking for best all purpose combo grill/smoker – suggestions?” –@vpfarming
One colleague, Daniel Meyer, built his own smoker, which worked well until it burnt to a crisp. We like Webers, Big Green Eggs, and old-school campfires. But I’m eager to hear what you all use.
“My grill never hibernates.” -Kathleen Harold, Facebook
“Hibernate? Nay!! I grill year round. Yet another gift of So Cal life.” -Rachel Wooster Gangsei, Facebook
“Made Grilled Broccoli With Chipotle Lime Butter for some friends a few weeks back. There was a look of despair on one guests face when I revealed there was not enough for seconds…” -Phil, markbittman.com
“I enjoy grilling Veggies after marinading and rubbing them with Himalayan pink salt, fresh napoletano basil, savory, lemon juice and Fresh lime basil.” -Bonnie Hiniker, Facebook