Several years ago, I made a choice to stay away from spotlights.
Though my twenties had me writing plays and stomping stages, I had never been a “LOOK AT ME!” kind of actor – I was in it for collaboration and the joy of working on words and pulling history to life. I did find the kind of spotlight that job gave me somewhat empowering, but when several life changes inspired a shift to chef writing I embraced the chance to stay behind the scenes and give someone else focus. But last week I was asked a question in front of a hundred or so onlookers, and learned how different kinds of spotlights can feel on the skin.
“Is there such a thing as New York City cuisine?”
That’s the question that would pit me against some of New York City’s food icons: restaurateurs Drew Nieporent and Michael Whiteman, writer David Rosengarten, and New York Magazine restaurant critic Adam Platt. We were onstage at the New School for their Gotham on a Plate “What New Yorkers are Eating Today, Tomorrow, Together…” panel, on which I was a speaker for the first time.
When we were asked to briefly explain how we got into the jobs we’re in, I drew out the timeline of “stage actor + playwright + food allergies + blogging becomes a thing + gluten-free eating becomes a huge trend + knowledge and skill set lead to blogging about allergy eating + missing being a storyteller = focusing on stories about chefs.” I was never nervous as an actor; I never got stage fright. But that’s because I had the words of someone else to embody, and the surety of having spoken them hundreds of times. On Friday, the thoughts were my own, and vulnerable to the ears and eyes and spotlight upon me.
When moderator Rozanne Gold (the esteemed chef, writer and according to me “Grand Dame of the New York Food Scene”) posed the question, “Is there such a thing as New York City cuisine?”, Drew proclaimed with authority, “Absolutely not.” I had decided on this question in advance. I believe there is. And, seated between four men who have been in the industry since before I was born, I said that out loud.
“New York City cuisine” is a term I personally first used when developing the idea for my book, which shares first-person narratives of New York chefs. I landed upon it when listening to the five chefs who would be the samples in my proposal and pondering the 200 others who I’ve worked with locally in the past few years, wrapping my brain around what dining in New York means now compared to what chefs are producing nationally. I don’t think “New York City” cuisine is one definitive kind or style of food. But when the vastness of our represented ethnicities and cultures meets the skill set of our talent, melding American sensibilities with international flavors, “New York City cuisine” takes shape. Much of our restaurant cuisine is a melting pot of cultures. “Fusion” elsewhere is “food” here. That’s why I adore it so.
I held fast in my opinion, created not from decades of experience but five years of those hundreds of discussions with people who are making food in New York City right now. When David and Michael disagreed, too, I listened.
Did speaking my opinions publicly make me feel ashamed or empowered? Neither. I’d come into the experience knowing full well that my expertise is a fraction of what would be around me, and my history a blip comparatively. Is there anything I regret from my first experience on the other side of the panel? Other than maybe learning how to put on a “game face” in the future when my accomplishments are listed rather than being shy about them (as suggested to me by a friend who was in attendance and who knows me well), not really. I’m not foaming at the mouth to be on a panel anytime soon again, but I’m not running from it, either.
As someone who over-prepares for interviews and such occasions, I appreciated the pages of potential questions Rozanne had sent over a few days before the conference. They got me thinking in a way I hadn’t had to thus far. Since we were a chatty bunch with only an hour on the clock, 95% of them weren’t addressed. So, below, are my pondered answers to some of my favorite.
QUESTIONS TO ME:
JACQUELINE – YOU ARE THE SPOKESPERSON, THE POSTER GIRL, FOR TODAY’S MILLENIAL FOODIE. WHAT’S HAPPENING OUT THERE? FOOD IS THE UNIFYING LANGUAGE FOR YOUR AGE GROUP. WHAT MADE THIS A REALITY? SMALL APARTMENTS? LONELINESS?
Breaking bread together is obviously timeless and crosses cultures. But firstly, it’s less about small apartments and loneliness and more about the instant transmission of information and therefore the possibility of instant gratification. Just like food television put chefs and cooking and ingredients and food cultures around the world on our radar, so now blogs, Twitter, Instagram etc. bring everything right to our fingertips.
When I was a teenager, admiring a friend’s pair of shoes didn’t equate to the ability to have them delivered to my door via Amazon Prime in two days. Now, I open my Instagram and immediately see what Sarah Simmons is cooking up at Birds and Bubbles, or what’s coming out of Amanda Cohen’s new kitchen at Dirt Candy or, this weekend, how many chefs I know are partying down in Pebble Beach. And for the most part I can get my hands on those things. When we’re introduced to something new we want it, whether it be shoes or smoked salmon from Russ and Daughters. Our generation can get it faster, and then share it again.
Secondly, there’s better food out there at a price point we can (sorta) afford. We live in a more casual restaurant world than the generations before us; we can trace the desire for comfort foods back to September 11th and the financial meltdown. Restaurateurs like Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who once only did 5-star fine-dining concepts, successively opened casual concepts, so we can experience their expertise without wiping our bank accounts. Seamus Mullen and Daniel Holzman and scores of chefs care about where their products come from, so we can get their thoughtful, healthful, delicious results at a price point we can meet. I’m a judge for the Specialty Food Association awards this year and, when asking about their target audience, was told that the majority of people buying specialty foods (and, in my mind, eating quality restaurants) are those in their late twenties through forties, who don’t technically have the income to invest as much as they do in dining and cooking, but do so anyway.
Yes, millennials are “food obsessed.” And it’s because we can see it, find it, and buy it. And, of course, “it” is really delicious.
WHEN DREW, MICHAEL, ADAM AND DAVID GOT STARTED, OURS WAS THE FIRST FOOD REVOLUTION IN THE 1970S. YOU ARE AN IMPORTANT PARTICIPANT IN THIS NEW REVOLUTION. WHO ARE YOUR COMRADES?
Honestly, editors. The Internet and blogging have been around for long enough now, and quantity of content is no longer the most important thing. Yes, audiences need to be constantly engaged. But rather than publishing the same quick stories on every blog, I see editors honing their site’s content. The past year several sites I write for have gone through major shifts, redesigning and honing in on where they fit in the food journalism circle online. Editors are getting more specific, and requiring their writers to dig deeper with authority. These are the people I’m proud to work with. Other sites I read are getting smarter and smarter. It’s a really exciting time for online journalism. Adam remarked that he sees this happening already, and since he’s someone who’s seen so many writers and publications come in and either make it or fold, that made me psyched, too.
YOU AMPLIFY THE VOICES OF CHEFS AND WRITE FOR MANY PUBLICATIONS ABOUT CHEFS AND WHY THEY COME TO NEW YORK. WHAT ARE SOME FAVORITE STORIES? FAVORITE CHEFS? IS THERE A THREAD THAT CONNECTS ALL THE NARRATIVES…?
The thread I seek is, again, quite timeless and universal. I love origin stories, and those are my favorites:
Daniel Holzman of The Meatball Shops sharing how he wanted to make fresh pasta with his Jewish mom as a kid, the result being worm-sized strings of spaghetti hanging from broomsticks all over their kitchen; Stephen Collucci of Colicchio and Sons rolling meatballs with his grandparents as a young child for Sunday supper; Floyd Cardoz of White Street choosing to follow his passion and become a cook – an extremely looked down upon profession in his native India – then returning decades later as a heralded chef of international renown; Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune on growing up amidst a large, creative food family who celebrated by roasting whole animals on spits; Catch pastry chef Thiago Silva’s mother immigrating from Brazil without him and his sister for years, working at everything she could so that she could bring them over and give them a new life, he in turn working hard to make her proud.
These chefs all grew up in or came to New York to share a passion or a skillset engrained in them by their families. As someone who misses being a storyteller on the stage, this is why I focus on writing about chefs rather than food. I look for the essence of being a human being and how we connect to our families, our history, the earth and whatever our form of faith. These intrigue me more than anything.
WHO ARE THE IMPORTANT CHEFS OF YOUR GENERATION?
I clicked through the Dropbox folder of chefs I’ve worked with solely in New York, looking for passion, hard work and innovation from those in their mid-thirties or younger. I largely saw pastry chefs. Of course I very much admire Alex Stupak’s shifting from pastry to challenge himself with Mexican cuisine at Empellon (huge fan of all three restaurants) and I know he’s already one of the top of our generation, and I’m excited to see what Shane Lyons is doing at Distilled and how his palate, plates and creativity are still developing (I’d forgotten that Drew is a partner in the restaurant – props).
But when I think of future innovation and how things are going to be five and ten years from now, I see a rebirth of the pastry chef. There are so many talented people out there, but the focus in media has been on dwindling pastry departments. Adam wrote a piece titled, “Why This is the Dark Age of Dessert” for GrubStreet, tracing “overpriced sundaes” and “stale” layer cakes to his opinion that “…the grim reality is that for lovers of the old-fashioned, sit-down restaurant dessert, this is the Dark Age”.
I disagree. I can see their plates when I see their names: Tracy Obolsky at North End Grill; Stephen Collucci at Colicchio and Sons; Thiago Silva at Catch; Anna Markow at Amali; Amanda Cook at Cookshop; Ashley Brauze at Café Boulud; Miro Uskokovic at Gramercy Tavern; Jenn Yee at Lafayette (pretty much all of Andrew Carmellini’s pastry chefs, really); Brooks Headley at Del Posto… a short list amongst both established and burgeoning talent.
Yes, they’re not inventing pliable ganache or new modernist techniques or pushing kitchen science in an overt way, like Adam mentions of the former Iuzzini-Laiskonis-Stupak generation (whom I also hugely admire). But when I think of passion for their plates and dedication to a progression of skills in the younger generation, I think pastry. I see a turnaround in restaurateurs investing in the potential of pastry departments, and eaters eager to order their last course. And that makes me excited to see what will be said “our” generation when I’m looking back 20-some odd years from now.
QUESTIONS TO THE PANEL:
WHAT ARE SOME IMPORTANT TRENDS YOU SEE HAPPENING RIGHT NOW?
We did discuss this to an extent, and I join in with the other panelists in feeling the word “trend” is controversial and old and frustrating to be asked. I don’t write trend pieces, as I stated at the conference, and I’m aware that what we may consider “trends” now are often nothing that hasn’t been seen before.
That said: I’m sick of “cauliflower is the new kale” and “avocado toast” popping up constantly in headlines and images, and I think it will be a long time before eating crickets transfers from the exotic to the everyday. Kale and cauliflower and smashing an avocado and spreading it on toast are nothing new, and if I have to see those things in and on every publication and menu launch I read, my eyes may roll so far back in my head that I’ll soon be typing via a keyboard set with braille.
But I can get on board with the “trend” of vegetables taking much focus. Menus in New York have become more vegetable heavy in general, and people across the spectrum are focusing on vegetables – who’s growing them, where they’re coming from, and how we can use them more. I’m excited by that. Our generation is increasingly concerned with the effects of our choices on the environment, so when it comes to our food we’re looking to see how we can invest in growing with as little herbicides/pesticides/GMOs as possible, produced by small businesses that we can support sustainably. This is a “trend” I can easily get behind.
HOW HAVE BLOGGERS AFFECTED YOUR LIFE? JACQUELINE, AS A BLOGGER YOU CAN ANSWER THIS IN ANY WAY YOU LIKE.
I believe blogging has been both a good and bad contribution to journalism and the food scene in general.
It’s good in that the public is better educated about what’s out there, and that gives more people the chance to have a voice and create an audience for themselves without the traditional confines of an established publication. I have this site to express things that I might otherwise not be able to say, and I appreciate and am indebted to blogging because of that.
Now, the negative. When I was in theatre the phrase “anyone who can speak thinks they can be an actor” was thrown around. Now, anyone who can type thinks they can be a writer, and anyone who can eat thinks they’re qualified to be a food critic. I take writing seriously, and improving my skills and storytelling is a constant focus as I hope for longevity and to be better in the future than I am now. Reading the work of “writers” who can’t handle basic punctuation skills, let alone dynamic storytelling, infuriates me. Reading the work of “critics” whose criticism lacks a breadth of knowledge or even a strong opinion – whether I agree with it or not – is equally frustrating. I love and completely support the idea of people trying out new, creative fields, but I believe in hard work, dedication, educating oneself to the fullest and investing in longevity. These aren’t always associated with blogging.
WHAT WILL BE THE NEWEST ENCLAVES OF FOOD AND DINING? HARLEM? QUEENS? A YET UNDISCOVERED STREET IN BROOKLYN?
My vote’s for Harlem! Not only because I live on its northern border, but because there’s an ingrained eating and dining culture there that is dynamic and delicious… and threatened. Massive amounts of investment are going into Harlem during its “second Harlem revolution.” This means that heavier food traffic and money coming uptown is potentially nigh, but also that those dollars may support new businesses coming in rather than what’s there already.
I attended the Harlem Culinary and Hospitality Conference a few weeks ago, and a big focus by panelists was businesses coming together to brand what’s happening now and share it with the public in an easily accessible way, so that new businesses won’t threaten those that have supported the community for so long. I’m backing my support by throwing my spending dollars their way, and trying to bring more attention to what’s happening in Harlem dining now (Harlem EatUp coverage to come). Yes, Harlem.
A NUMBER OF HIGH PROFILE RESTAURANTS AROUND THE COUNTRY HAVE ELIMINATED TIPPING AND, FOR THE MOST PART, INCREASED PRICES OR ADDED SURCHARGES TO THEIR MENUS. WHAT’S YOUR FEELING ABOUT THE FUTURE OF TIPPING?
I was more interested to hear what the gentlemen had to say on this potentially affecting their business than share my perspective, as my work is largely unrelated.
But in a nutshell, as an eater and human being I’m on board with the potential of removing tipping in favor of an increased menu cost. Despite having been a bartender and having friends who are still currently servers, I see the disparity between front of house and back of house financially as part of a larger political issue. This was embodies clearly in the young student who, during the Q&A part of the session, stated that aside from having a culinary degree (that cost him around $40,000) and working on a second degree in food at the New School, he recently moved from back of house to front because he couldn’t make a decent wage to pay for the basic and extremely high cost of NYC living. I touched upon this briefly with Chef Ned Elliot a few weeks back and, while I don’t have a definitive opinion on this huge, dynamic issue, I’m certainly curious as to how things will evolve.
IS THE IDEA OF SEASONALITY A POETIC CONSTRUCT? THE BEST PEACH I EVER ATE WAS FROM COSTCO IN FEBRUARY. IT WAS FRESH, JUICY AND DELICIOUS. SHOULDN’T FRESH FROM ANYWHERE TRUMP ALL?
First off, I love the phrase “poetic construct.”
I think there’s a time and a place for everything. When I was a private chef, Costco was my lifeline. I bought hundreds of dollars of kosher meat there, along with huge bins of avocados and mangoes and grains and oils and lamb ribs, driving them out to feed the masses at the family’s summer home in the Hamptons. But, once there, I got deep into finding local: Costco wasn’t going to beat fresh-caught fish or corn and tomatoes pulled that day from the earth. Last week, I went to Seamus’ recently opened El Colmado Butchery and bought a rack of lamb that had been butchered only minutes before. It was the most beautiful cut of meat I’d ever cooked:
I prefer to eat seasonably and as locally as possible. Not because I think modern bodies can’t adjust to other ways of eating, but because of the whole food + earth thing. No matter how much black I wear or how long I’ve lived in the city, I’m a hippie earth child: I chant and stare at (and hug) trees, and watch the seasons with wonder and joy. Part of that joy is keeping food close and timely. And that makes me more excited as a diner and writer of people who make food, too.
ONCE UPON A TIME WE ALL KNEW THE NAME OF THE RESTAURANT OWNER OR FRONT OF HOUSE PERSON. TODAY WE KNOW THE NAME OF THE CHEF. LET’S TALK ABOUT THAT DANCE: WHO IS MORE IMPORTANT?
In my mind, obviously, the importance of the chef is key. Not just because the chef is the person I work with professionally, but because what I am able to learn about them gives me an idea of what kind of food I can expect, and what kind of experience I may potentially enjoy.
I appreciate knowing that Seamus Mullen, who’s undergone a huge personal struggle with Rheumatoid Arthritis in the past few years, uses primarily grass-fed proteins and many gluten-free grains, as he learned (as I have) what foods best support the body. I appreciate knowing George Mendes’ personal journey with Portuguese cuisine, as that informs the dishes I eat at his restaurant and how I might connect with them on a different level, being from a Portuguese family. I appreciate knowing Amanda Cohen’s vegetarian origin story, because knowing about her spunk and humor means I can relax a little more in her presence, since I’m nothing close to a vegetarian.
As an eater and storyteller, the more I know about a chef the more I can connect with their food, and the more I might be patient and supportive of their continued striving to improve should something about the menu or ambiance not thrill me. Is this knowledge required for eating delicious food? No. But I can cook delicious food at home, thank you very much. When I dine out, I want the theatricality of experience, too. I want to know the story behind how the space was designed or how a chef learned about a specific vegetable or technique. What I steal from them I apply to my own kitchen and, sometimes, as unrelated life lessons. To me, yes, this makes the food more delicious.
I HAVE OFTEN SAID THAT IT IS THE ‘DEATH OF GASTRONOMIC EXPERIENCE’. WHERE IS THE PLEASURE, THE SWOON FACTOR, THE NEXUS OF GREAT FOOD, GREAT SERVICE, GREAT DESIGN? DOES A RESTAURANT WITH NO DÉCOR AT ALL, OR SITTING AT THE COUNTER, DESERVE THE SAME FOUR STARS OR ATTENTION AS A PLACE THAT INTEGRATES (AND SPENDS A WAD OF MONEY) ON ALL?
I agree to a certain degree that this is a problem. If I see another restaurant ‘design’ of refurbished chairs and Mason jars and wagon wheels or whatever I might pull a few more of my Nice-and-Easy-covered gray hairs out. There is great food at these places, yes, and many are opened by the millenials in which Rozanne includes me. But should they be considered alongside restaurants with thoughtful, creative design and ambiance concepts? I’m not quite sure. Media coverage, yes: good food is good food. Star potential? That I find myself grimacing and shaking my head at. A restaurant doesn’t have to be expensively designed to be honestly creative.
But as far as the swoon factor? I swoon constantly when dining out.
In one night recently, I dragged a friend around town: we popped into Virgola Wine Bar on Greenwich Ave and downed a dozen fresh, briny oysters; had a glass of wine and a handful of yeasty, salty/spicy popcorn at Distilled; and then went to Belle Reve and mauled Paul Gerard’s “Starving Artists Steak” slathered in herb puree and roasted chicken amongst kale (yes), cauliflower (I told you…), marrow-splashed fries, and broccoli with lemon and capers. These three restaurants and our eating choices were all incredibly simple in intent and superbly executed. They all have smart and unique yet not over-the-top design concepts. My eyes rolled back at all three in the most satiated of ways.