Notes on the Week In Toqueland (January 20 – January 26, 2018)
Hi, everybody, and welcome to our first week-end wrap. I’m still tinkering with this new recurring feature, but couldn’t be happier to be back posting regularly and hope you’re enjoying it, too. Here you go:
The great scripted chef movie remains at least as elusive as the Great American Novel. Movie after movie seems promising, but each successive one leaves a trail of dashed expectations in its wake. For my money, Jon Favreau’s Chef was, despite its title and largely favorable reviews, actually a movie about a middle-aged man’s struggle to master Twitter; and Burnt, for which I had high expectations, was a two-hour wallow in every tired bad-boy-chef-as-tortured-artist-and-brutal-taskmaster cliché. There have been glimmers of hope in the documentary realm, such as For Grace and A Matter of Taste, and of course there’s the fine work of David Gelb in Jiro Dreams of Sushi and, now, as director-producer of Netflix’s Chef’s Table. But all too often there’s something missing (see notes on Michael Phillips’s article, below, for some insight on this front).
But now, as of last Monday, we have an Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Short set in a restaurant in Thomas Lennon’s Knife Skills, about Edwins, a combination restaurant-hospitality school in Cleveland, Ohio, that doubles as a social experiment: Founded by an ex-con who himself was saved by restaurants to give fellow ex-cons the same precious opportunity. The film has screened enough to be eligible for its Oscar nod but is, at this moment, painfully unavailable to the masses. I’ve been lucky enough to see it, and can vouch that it packs more emotional peaks and valleys into its lean 40 minutes than most films manage in a feature-length running time, and also makes several poignant observations about the restaurant trade, both the front of house and the back. When it gets its now-inevitable (knock wood) theatrical release and finds its way to streaming services, I urge you to seek it out.
I may actually write more about this movie in a stand-alone post, but for now suffice it to say that Knife Skills celebrates one of the less savory but simultaneously beautiful aspects of pro-kitchen life, namely that many people who wind up as cooks were spared a life of crime by a lucky break or twist of fate that landed them, often in the nick of time, in their chosen profession. Having interviewed hundreds of chefs, I can safely say that more of them describe their childhood selves as “misfits” than don’t, and that a large percentage of them engaged in some kind of illicit behavior in their teens; I’ve lost track of how many biographical interviews I’ve conducted include a moment when the chef makes passing reference to “getting into trouble” or “hanging with the wrong crowd” or something to that effect in their adolescence, and I usually get a strong vibe not to probe any deeper. Those moments occur just before they find the kitchen, and those who don’t, I’ve often thought, end up continuing on a road to nowhere. On a recent episode of my podcast, Curtis Stone and I had a long talk about this, in which he described his restaurants’ one-year commitment to Chrysalis, which helps people find second chances with jobs. In our conversation (you can listen here, starting around the 39:30 mark), we got into this aspect of the profession and how (perhaps unsurprisingly) well his cooks, many of whom hail from Michelin-level kitchens, got along with the employees who came to his restaurants from prison or homelessness via Chrysalis.
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But back to Knife Skills: The film depicts the months leading up to the opening of Edwins. We watch the cooks and servers train against the clock, starting from scratch to learn how to run every aspect of a restaurant. Kitchen team members are shown how to butcher fish, cook classic French preparations, turn vegetables, and carve tomato roses. Waiters and waitresses are taught how to describe the food and deliver it to the tables. Interspersed we get moments of wide-eyed wonder as one team member discovers a love of cuisine, marveling at potato-wrapped cod, or another realizes he’s a natural with the guests (“I never knew I was so nice,” he gushes.) A group banters before service and we understand in that passing instant that they have become a surrogate family. And then there are the inevitable disappointments (an early title card ominously informs us that two-thirds of ex-cons return to prison and that the first year out of jail is the most tenuous). There are arrests and arraignments and other moments of quiet drama played out in drab settings that bring the reality of them home.
We get to know some of these people very well, very quickly, thanks to Lennon’s exquisite selection of footage: Brandon, the founder–who did time for drug possession and evading arrest–is all smiles and accommodation in his besuited dining room personna, and a scrappy, t-shirt-clad, f-bomb-dropping hustler with a heart of gold the moment he leaves the service floor. (In one priceless scene, he shifts between the two during an on-camera interview to answer the restaurant’s reservation line in a way that made me laugh out loud.) Brandon knows who he is: Restaurants saved him and he wants to pay it forward, but he also has weaknesses and unresolved pain and it comes out in small and large ways before we’re done with him, which is remarkable given that he’s just one of the handful of people we come to know and care about during this short film. (When he confesses, “I know I’m a piece of shit,” you want to hug the self-loathing out of him.) Another is Daudi, a one-time armed robber whom I would go out of my way to have describe a cheese course to me if I’m ever within driving distance of Edwins.
In the background is Gilbert, the chef, a Frenchman and master technician who–for reasons we aren’t told–has taken on this mission impossible, but figures what the hell: “Even with professional people it’s always a mess to open a restaurant,” he muses in another instance of gallows humor that cracked me up. He and his sous chef Gerry are the fail safes, the lethal weapons; if the kitchen goes down, the plan is simple: they will jump in, and save the day.
There’s so much more that as I reflect on it, I can’t quite believe it, including a standoff involving a humidifier that reveals as much about all characters involved, with breathtaking economy, as a great screenwriter could manage in a scripted scene. I could go on but will leave it with this: At a moment when certain people, and aspects of the profession are being–rightfully–exposed and vilified, Knife Skills reminds us how many souls restaurants have saved and how generous a heart beats within most chefs and restaurateurs.
Remembering Paul Bocuse
There were no shortage of Paul Bocuse remembrances this week, and rightfully so. Among the more moving I read was chef Peter Hoffman’s wonderful, deeply personal piece in the Washington Post. And Gael Greene, who reported on much of the great man’s influence in real time, helpfully posted some vintage pieces on her Twitter feed, just to remind the rest of us how it’s done, such as her coverage of his Dinner of the Century and his 1974 Dinner for Women. His funeral was this morning in Lyon; as the sign over his restaurant kitchen says, let’s have a moment of “Silence en Cuisine” (his play on filmdom’s “quiet on the set”) for this most influential of chefs.
A by-no-means comprehensive list of worthy reads from the week:
Review Board: Philadelphia’s Craig LaBan publicly grappled with a question facing many critics: How much, if at all, should murmurings, accusations, and/or convictions of sexual misconduct/harassment/assault factor into the decision of whether or not to review a restaurant? It’s a fascinating question and I like how LaBan basically lets us more or less simply witness his (ongoing) thought process. In Tweeting about it, Pete Wells raised, I think, an important aspect of this conundrum:
There have been a lot of interesting conversations taking place behind the industry curtain these last few weeks. A few summations of the ones I’ve been involved with or privy to (not naming names since this was all just banter among friends): (i) The argument that denying a confirmed harasser’s restaurants any media attention, or business, is unfair to the employees of their restaurants doesn’t really hold water, say many professionals, because there’s such demand for solid cooks and servers right now that anybody worth their salt should be able to find another gig; (ii) I know more chefs and food writers (me included) who won’t patronize, say, the restaurants of the Friedman-Bloomfield empire than I do “civilians” (my term for non-industry people); I’m not sure why this is the case given that the Louis C.K.’s of the world have lost their audiences, but it’s a question that demands examination; (iii) I continue to be perplexed by how infrequently the subject of harassment even came up in the more than 200 interviews I conducted for an upcoming book. I’ll be exploring all of this in depth with a series of interviews in a special report on my podcast that I’m proud to be co-producing with Allison Robicelli, who will be joining me as a co-host for that edition; I’ll post here when it’s ready in March or April
If You Build It …: It’s always fun when a journalist connects the dots to point out a genuine movement to the rest of us. Priya Krishna’s New York Times piece about pastry chefs who hail from the world of architecture is such a story. Personally, I was amused that Ron Paprocki, pastry chef of Gotham Bar and Grill, comes from that background. As many readers probably know, Gotham’s chef Alfred Portale’s (savory) food was once hailed as architectural and became known (to his everlasting chagrin) as “tall food.” He tells a funny story that when he was staging as a young cook for the French chef Michel Guérard, he found himself playing with a salad one day during prep time, leaning the leafy greens against one another to prop them up, prompting Guérard to ask him if his father was an architect. He wasn’t: Alfred’s style grew out of his background in jewelry design, and his childhood membership in the Japanese Bonsai Society of Greater Buffalo New York (that’s not a joke). But it’s nice to know there actually now is a former architect in the basement at 12 East 12th Street. Now if somebody can just explain to me why two of the best pastry chefs in the country have turned to Mexican food; that can’t just be coincidence, right?
(More) Chefs on Film: Michael Phillips of The Chicago Tribune (and my favorite recurring guest on the excellent podcast Filmspotting) takes a look at a trio of films centered around Chicago restaurants and points to what’s missing from them all–namely taking a cold, hard look at what drives chefs to perfectionism and certain patterns of behavior. A smart, unsparing take by an industry outsider that many of us who are perhaps too close for objectivity could learn from.
The Road Back Home
This week’s episode of my podcast features a revealing interview with chef Hooni Kim of Danji and Hanjan restaurants in New York City. Hooni’s story has an epic sweep–by the age of ten, he’d lived on three different continents, and he got quite a bit down the pre-med pathway before turning–to his mother’s everlasting dismay–toward a life in the kitchen. Before discovering who he was on the plate, offering up his own distinct take on Korean food–he had worked in two three-Michelin-starred restaurants (Daniel and Masa) and run a private dining room out of his mom’s apartment in Manhattan. It’s a long, leisurely and–I think–fascinating interview with a refreshingly self-effacing chef; hope you’ll give a listen.
One Last Thing: A Hollywood Ending
Heads up, LA readers: The title, and a concept that required much fine tuning, for my new book Chefs, Drugs, and Rock & Roll: How Food Lovers, Free Spirits, Misfits, and Wanderers Created a New American Profession came to me at a traffic light in Palm Springs, California, during the Indian Wells tennis tournament more than a decade ago. It’s been a long and winding road to publication next month, but it was almost worth the wait for this moment alone: Ruth Reichl, a writer-editor who helped shape the chef-centric world I’m lucky enough to inhabit, has graciously agreed to interview me, in Santa Monica (home of Michael’s, the restaurant featured on the book’s cover), on stage as part of Live Talks LA on Thursday, March 1, at 8pm. Info and tickets now available. A signing will follow the talk. See you there?
Was there anything you wished I’d discussed this week, or would like to see touched on in future recaps? Please get in touch by email or on Facebook or Instagram; links to all of that at the top of the page.
Thanks for reading; see you next week!