Notes on the Week in Toqueland (January 27 – February 2, 2018)
Hi, everybody; hope you had a terrific week.
Before putting a lid on the last seven days: Since I’ve recently returned to blogging in earnest, please permit me a moment to encourage you to subscribe (it’s free and only takes 10 seconds, literally) so you will receive posts by email as they go up; it’s the best way to keep up with Toqueland, and I promise not to send you any junk or share your address with anyone. All you will ever receive is my posts, with the option of reading in your mail program, or clicking through to the site.
Thanks for that. Now, here’s what caught my eye this week:
You Can Take the Man Out of the South …
I met my pal Caity Moseman Wilder, also my podcasting overlord as executive director at Heritage Radio Network, for drinks at Maysville restaurant in Manhattan the other night, and noticed Shane McBride‘s name on the menu. Shane’s been honchoing kitchens in New York City for years, but it’s possible many of you don’t know his name or his work, because he’s mostly contentedly played second fiddle to a number of big name chefs and institutions, including Craft Steak and Colicchio & Sons, and most recently stewarding the ship at Balthazar and other Keith McNally restaurants. (He also spent several formative years cooking for Christian Delouvrier at the late, great Lespinasse.)
Turns out news of McBride’s Maysville appointment was breaking, in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it mentions, at Eater and the New York Times as I was chowing down on his crispy grits croquettes, country ham toast with black truffles and smoked ricotta, and other flavor-packed dishes at the bar. I asked a mutual friend of mine and McBride’s about the appointment, and he said that despite the chef’s high-falutin’ credentials, “he’s a Southern boy who’s very happy to be cooking what he wants to cook.”
A Southern boy who’s very happy to be cooking what he wants to cook … what chef writer could resist that angle? So the next day, I got Shane on the phone as soon as lunch service simmered down at Maysville for a quick interview. Turns out we’re fellow Florida boys and that he does indeed feel unleashed to do his own thing at Maysville.
McBride, who’s also a partner in Pig Bleecker and its Brooklyn cousin Pig Beach, doesn’t like the term Southern to describe his food because he thinks it conjures “gloopy barbecue and steam tables” to big-city diners. (For example, he insists on labeling Pig Beach a “smoked meats” restaurant, not a barbecue joint.) But his personal palate definitely skews southward, and always has. While he worked for Delouvrier or for McNally at his bistro classics, he’d find ways to sneak in little glimpses of his culinary soul, like working grits into dishes at Lespinaisse or serving them with his beef Bourguignon at Balthazar.
But he never had the room to fully express himself except in his gig as executive chef at the forgotten Oceo, which became 7Square, where he was executive chef for a time in the mid-aughts.
Just three weeks into his tenure at Maysville, McBride’s enjoying himself, resurrecting old personal favorites like a gumbo he picked up in New Orleans and a dirty-rice risotto from 7Square that was a favorite of our mutual and dearly departed pal food writer Josh Ozersky. He’s also improvising his heart out with the inventory remaining from his predecessor, chef Kyle Knall; the other day he whipped up a butternut squash tortellini with brined-and-smoked-ham-hock broth and turnips that did double-duty: he made a pesto with the greens and pickled the vegetable itself. Just imagine what he’ll do when he’s stocking the pantry and walk-in himself.
He’s also bringing some family recipes to bear, such as his grandmother’s mayonnaise cake. Have you ever heard of that? I hadn’t. It’s a chocolate cake made with mayonnaise instead of eggs. (And in case you’re thinking, as I did, “Hey, wait a minute: Doesn’t a fancy chef like you make your own mayonnaise … with eggs?” the answer is “No way, not for this. I use Duke’s.” Just like grandma did. How can you not be happy for this guy?)
Shane had a matter-of-fact way about him on the phone, not sounding particularly ebullient or giddy, but his words, and his food, are doing the talking: “I spoke to some restaurant groups and what-have-you,” he said of his brief limbo after leaving the McNally empire, during which he did some consulting while pondering his next chef gig. “Maysville was the most refreshing, a restaurant where there’s one-hundred seats and I could step back and just have fun.”
Were the Vegas bookies taking bets on the James Beard Foundation’s choice for its new CEO? Did you have Clare Reichenbach as your pick? If you did, then–congratulations–you must be a millionaire!
There’s been a guessing game afoot in the industry for the last year as the JBF sought out a new chief executive to replace outgoing president Susan Ungaro, who just wrapped up an 11-year tenure.
Everybody had a pick, but nobody had it right: The foundation selected the British-born, Oxford-educated Reichenbach,44, a former AMC and BBC exec who most recently founded a consultancy in New York City. She has no professional roots in the culinary world, which I find super-intriguing–no baggage, no axes to grind, no professional myopia … and presumably able to take a clear-eyed, objective view of the foundation, the industry and–as a native Brit–the country. I’m generally a believer that change isn’t necessarily good, but can often be great, so have instantly morphed from a yawning bystander expecting the same-old same-old, to somebody who’s most curious to see how this plays out.
The powers-that-be at the Guide Michelin have consented to allow chef Sébastien Bras’ (son of the legendary Michel Bras) to “forfeit” (if that’s the right word) the stars from his restaurant Le Sequet. Bras has said that the pressure of knowing that one imperfect dish could damage his three-star reputation took the joy out of the work for him. Personally, I think it’s an admirable move, and not just because stars and the threat of losing them have factored into at least two stories of chef suicide, but also because I’ve heard from too many chefs that the air is just too thin to breathe properly at the summit of Mount Michelin. There’s a sense of accomplishment up there, but little joy: If you have two stars, you’re striving for three; if you have three, you live in fear of losing one, or more. The happiest Michelin gamers I know are the chefs who don’t aspire to high-stakes dining, do a solid job in modestly scaled restaurants, and have one star, which they are reasonably confident they can hold onto. The larger debate is one that’s been going on for years: Why are chefs, who are already under enormous pressure to deliver day after day, graded with something as un-nuanced as stars when so many other creative efforts (art, music, theater) generally are not?
“I just want the guests to be happy.”
This week’s episode of my podcast Andrew Talks to Chefs features a biographical interview with Loring Place’s Dan Kluger, whom most of you probably first got to know when he was executive chef of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s ABC Kitchen. I’d never really spoken to Dan before and I have to say, I really like the guy–he’s direct, honest, self-effacing, and seemingly without ego on the plate. He also worked for some of the best restaurateurs and chefs around on his way up the food chain: Danny Meyer (for whom he started in the front-of-house), Floyd Cardoz at Tabla, Tom Colicchio, and then Jean-Georges. Dan’s a fellow Westchester County resident, so we met at my house, in the dining room, one morning as he was on his way into the city, and the interview was accordingly low-key and intimate. Please give a listen:
One More Thing: For Your Consideration …
Last week in this space, I raved about Knife Skills, Thomas Lennon’s documentary short film that just snagged an Academy Award nomination. At the time, it was not possible to see the movie, but it’s now available for purchase/download at iTunes. Invest $2.99 of your money and 40 minutes of your time; you will be glad you did.
Thanks for reading; see you next week!