Today was a day of writing. It is such a relief to type those words to be completely honest. The past few weeks have been a blur of work and school, catering both to the completion of my own academic year and the completion of Brown University’s at the same time. In the process, I have worked more hours than I ever thought personally possible, consumed probably far too much caffeine, and shucked more oysters in one weekend than I have eaten (although that may be up for debate as I can’t imagine ever getting tired of eating oysters). It is good, therefore, to get back to writing.
The interesting part is, that this is the first “pleasure writing” I’ve had the opportunity to do today. Recently, I sought out a few writing opportunities through freelance journals online, ⅔ of which happily accepted my spur of the moment proposals for pieces on Eastern European food. At the end of the day, when prep at the restaurant has failed me entirely, or I’ve been crushed by the onslaught of multiple graduation parties, thank God that I will always have those in the back of my head to fall back upon. The writing is an intriguing work in progress as, thankfully in some cases, no one edits this blog (although Michael Ruhlman did during a random post on foie gras that I wrote, a simultaneously humbling and exciting experience).
There is, of course, the urge to be retrospective at the moment regarding my year of culinary school or nearly a year at New Rivers. It would be unfair of me, however, to comment on all of these feelings at the moment. In less than a week, I have gone from waking up at 5:30am to waking up more or less whenever I want. I have also gone from finishing class at 1:00pm to hop in the car and go straight to work, only to work until 11:30pm or later. Although this theoretically represents a “change in life,” it seems that those come quite frequently these days. I will wait a bit to figure out what it all means.
As for now, I suppose, I will keep on writing and cooking and see how it all progresses. Hang in there.
The scene was strangely reminiscent of Chekhov’s Sviat’iu Noch’ (Paschal Eve). “The weather seemed to me magnificent. It was dark, yet I could see the trees, the water and the people…The world was lighted by the stars, which were scattered thickly all over the sky. I don’t remember ever seeing so many stars. Literally one could not have put a finger in between them…They had come out of the festival procession, every one of them, little and big, washed, renewed and joyful, and every one of them was softly twinkling its beams.”
We were standing outside of the church at St. Tikhon’s Monastery and Seminary, a small community of Orthodox clergy in the hills surrounding Scranton, Pennsylvania. At roughly 3:30 am, the services of Pascha (Easter) had just finished and a large group of cassocked seminarians, Russians, and other Orthodox believers gathered in the trapeza - the church dining hall - awaiting the blessing of the agape meal. The clergy walked quickly, black robes scraping the ground under multiple layers of bold, red vestments, clouds of incense following behind. The whole congregation sang, joyously, the hymn of the Paschal celebration: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”
Pascha is the holiest night of the year for Orthodox Christians, a celebration that makes Christmas seem like the secular observance of Labor Day in comparison. As Great Lent is a period of intense fasting and reverent, seemingly somber church services, Pascha is the polar opposite - a massive period of rejoicing and feasting that lasts often days after Easter Sunday itself. The Paschal season is also an incredibly familial event, drawing relatives together for not only church, but also, a great deal of food.
Not unlike the traditional Jewish seder, the Orthodox - the Russians in particular - enjoy a number of very specific foods during the Pascha celebration. The aforementioned agape meal consists of blessed items from one’s Easter basket. While in a secular sense, this implies candy, the Orthodox Easter basket consists of the foods one is supposed to abstain from during the Lenten fast - mainly meat and dairy products. Particularly in the Eastern United States - a veritable melting pot of Eastern European nationalities - this can mean anything from Polish kielbasa, ham, and slab bacon, to farmer’s cheese, dairy-enriched breads (the Ukrainian kulich for example) and hard-boiled eggs. While there is a certain degree of religious symbolism to each item in the basket, these foods have become almost as integral to the celebration of Pascha as the hymns and processions of the services themselves.
As it is our first year of marriage, my wife and I found ourselves both relatively far from our homes this Pascha, and therefore, far away from the family traditions so familiar to the both of us during the holiday. Although we still constructed an Easter basket, we noticed that we forgot or otherwise missed a number of foods that our mothers normally would bulk up on in the days preceding Pascha. Furthermore, as our family at the seminary was leaving not long after services to visit relatives in Ohio, we discovered that during the agape meal, we were somewhat on our own to celebrate. Fortunately, my wife alerted me that we had been invited to the home of the former metropolitan (the high-ranking bishop overseeing the churches of North America) and his assistant - my wife’s uncle.
We drove down a dark path on the edge of the woods past a small lake to a series of ranch houses behind the seminary. To describe the area as “dark” would be an understatement: if the house had not been illuminated by the lights from within and a small porch light, it would have been engulfed by the surrounding woods and hills. My wife rang the doorbell, and a small man in a black cassock hustled to the door and opened it with the traditional Paschal greeting: “Christ is risen!”
As we sat, we were immediately offered drinks: I gladly accepted a glass of cognac, the warming sensation reminding me of Russia, where Armenian cognac presents one with an excellent alternative to the expensive French classic. A pot of fresh chicken soup bubbled away on the stove, not unlike our grandparents’ kitchens. The patio door slid open and the room was filled with the thick smoke of the grill, as my wife’s uncle entered with a platter of crisp thick bacon and sizzling kielbasa.
Even though the sun was slowly peeking over the mountains, my mouth watered as piles of food formed in front of me. As we laughed and joked, the Metropolitan silenced the table momentarily as our glasses were refilled. “To your health,” he invoked, offering cheers to the whole table and taking a long swig from his glass. Although we were far from our homes, the mere gesture of food, drink, and good company offered us a small taste of family. Even without a full basket of blessed foods, or my mother and grandmother’s stuffed cabbage, that was all we really needed at the end of the day.
A few weeks back, I read an article – allegedly about Philadelphia’s culinary fray with New York. Essentially, this is an imagined battle not unlike Philly’s rivalry with the city in nearly every forum. The idea I assumed the article would be attempting to get across was the question of which city has the superior restaurant scene. As a Philadelphian, I would naturally side with Philly as it is a city I can take in both large and small doses. New York City is to Philadelphia as the Library of Congress is to, say, the Dickinson College Library. The former might contain everything the consumer might desire and more, but the latter feels more like home – a less overwhelming collection of similarly high-quality items. The entire question, then, is somewhat silly at the end of the day.
The aspect of the article that caught my eye, however, was the fact that the author opted to both a) not discuss the above argument at all and b) bash the very idea of culinary school. Oddly enough, he did so while pitching a new foodservice professional program started not long ago at Philadelphia’s Drexel University.
To dispense with the irritating factual issues from the get-go, allow me to break apart one of his arguments: the idea that Johnson and Wales is essentially only good at “churning out Applebee’s managers.” If, I suppose, you consider James Beard Award-winning chefs like Matt Jennings, Chris Cosentino, and Sean Brock or Michelin winners like Graham Eliot (to name a few) to be Applebee’s managers, then sure, I suppose the author is right. The point I suspect he was attempting to make is that, overall, JWU strongly promotes its connections to corporate-affiliated companies in the culinary industry. One is more likely, for instance, to receive an email from the Office of Internships advertising kitchen openings at the TD Garden or Epcot Center than say, The French Laundry or Alinea. It is far easier, however, to generalize when the majority of your readership – unless they are or have been culinary students – will simple ignore or agree with this idea to focus instead on the not-so-subtle references to working with Marc Vetri (a chef who did not attend culinary school).
What the article highlights (whether it intended it or not) is, instead, a far more pervasive issue with the culinary field, and thereby, culinary education on the whole. The issue begins with the misconception that education itself – or a highly-regarded educational institution – will inherently produce a successful individual. Using the case of Johnson and Wales, the equivalent of this thought process would be the following: If Cook A goes to a top-tier culinary school (The CIA, JWU, Le Cordon Bleu – France), it will make them a successful chef. Or, because Chef B attended Culinary School X, it made them the chef that they are today.
Of the two, the latter at least approaches the truth of the matter. Rather than a culinary school offering an individual success (or failure, I suppose, from the author’s point of view regarding JWU and the Applebee’s scenario) it offered them the tools and the controlled environment in which to fine-tune the use of these tools.
School is not a success factory, no matter how renowned the institution may be. But it does the hardworking and talented chefs that spend hours crafting classes and putting their own experience to the test a monumental disservice to imply that they are simply cogs in a lackluster machine, capable only of producing quick-service restaurant managers. Even if such a thing was true, isn’t it somewhat pretentious to assume that a manager of such an establishment would be any less skilled than a manager at TGI Fridays or Applebee’s? I strongly doubt that managing dozens of workers and a restaurant that does hundreds of covers per day is any easier than doing the same at a five star restaurant.
The other level of this conflict is one that has come into focus in one of my most recent classes. There are some skills – particularly life skills – that no teacher, no matter how talented or skilled – can make students learn. Through simple and often tedious repetition, one can teach even the clumsiest of knife-wielders to tourner a potato. Inefficient or sloppy mise en place can be corrected through gentle instruction or with all the fury of a made-for-television Gordon Ramsay. It is impossible, however, to teach someone to be passionate about food and cooking. One can read Michael Ruhlman’s books or The French Laundry Cookbook until Thomas Keller’s paeans to farm-raised lamb are as familiar as one’s own favorite songs or film quotes. But that same person may never know the love that Keller and the farmer mutually feel for product of that quality. One can reproduce a family recipe, measuring each ingredient to the very gram, yet never achieve the flavor imparted by a cook that made the dish their own by actually cooking.
This type of cooking is pure – unblemished by senseless codification in recipe form – the work of someone who has experienced the food with their sense and altered it accordingly. This is what mold a chef – a molding which even the most proficient of culinary instructors cannot accomplish with any curriculum. It has to become part of you.
[I apologize in advance for a completely non-food related post, but the situation in Ukraine has been occupying me mentally in any free time I’ve had away from work or class recently. Stick with me - food will return soon.]
It is normally somewhat complicated to talk about my ethnicity. As an American, I am naturally a grab bag of different ethnicities, but primarily, I am Eastern European. Normally, my family identifies as “Russian” - a label which is far easier to opt for than explaining the actual situation. In reality, my mother’s side of the family is Russian, Czechoslovakian, and Austro-Hungarian. That alone is somewhat confusing as there is no longer an Austria-Hungary, nor is there a Czechoslovakia to speak of. “Russian,” however, is an equally difficult term as my maternal great grandfather wasn’t actually from Russia per se.
On his immigration papers, my great grandfather is listed as hailing from “Usherpie,” allegedly a part of Russia at that time. It is safe to say that it took me roughly five years to locate the village. Primarily, this is due to the fact that Ellis Island officials didn’t know - or care - how to transliterate Russian. The village would be better rendered as “Ushcherpye.” The other reason is that the village itself is pretty small (Google Map: Russia, Bryanskaya oblast, Ushcherpye). Roughly speaking, it is about 2 sq km in size compared to the entire country’s 17,075,200 sq km. So needless to say, it is easy for a village that size to get “lost in the shuffle.”
But to complicate matters even more (why would it ever be easy?) the village may not have physically even been a part of Russia (proper) at that time. The village - currently located in Russia’s Bryansk Oblast (similar to a province for the sake of simplification) - is only about twenty miles from the Ukrainian border. As Ukraine was at that point part of the Russian Empire, the borders changed with the wind, making the small bump that is Bryansk Oblast extremely vulnerable to country shifting every time an Empire-wide census rolled around. Most likely, this probably didn’t matter one bit to my great grandfather. As historian Orlando Figes recognized, at the time of the 1917 Revolution, the vast majority of Russian peasants simply knew that they were either Orthodox Christians (or not) and that they were from whatever village they occupied.
Now fast forward one hundred years. The complexities I have described so far concern one family in one miniscule village on a border that only truly began to mean something after the Russian Revolution. Ukraine has been the recipient of ceaseless changes over time coming both from within and without. Russia - and then the “Soviet Union” - has dealt with the country in a variety of ways - everything from absorbing it forcefully into its Union/Empire, altering its borders, or purging its people to name a few. Ukrainians are mixed - to say the least - when it comes to ethnically or nationally identifying ranging from those who consider themselves Ukrainians, to Crimean Tatars, to Russians.
The current revolution is - as is typical with any Russian or Eastern European revolution - not boiled down as simply as “revolutionaries versus the police state” or “coup versus the establishment.” The Crimea alone contains numerous ethnic groups as well as many competing interests, all hoping that this revolution is an opportunity for their voice to be heard in opposition to the only recently disrupted status quo. The events in Kiev, although often portrayed as occurring between the Yanukovich government and an exhausted, oppressed Ukrainian people, displayed the sheer variety of opinions relating to the country’s past, present and future.
The country’s future is uncertain - a fact no doubt exacerbated by the recent Russian dispatch of troops to the Crimea. Although the ethnic Russian population allegedly requested Russian military aid, the rhetoric is much murkier, with even Moscow-based news agencies (http://www.echo.msk.ru/news/own/) using terms like “voina,” “bor’by,” and “bojna” with (war, warfare, and slaughter) increasing frequency. Large portions of the population welcome the Russian incursion while numerous others see it as nothing short of military aggression and invasion from a country run by a president with aspirations for restoring Russia to the “glory” of its imperial past.
The only easy thing to do at this time is sympathize with the Ukrainian people facing these incredibly difficult times. This is not a statement regarding any national identity or ethnicity, but one concerning all of the country experiencing this revolution and the results of Russian military presence within its borders. Regardless of your opinion of what is going on, it is safe to say that these are troubling days for Ukraine. It is hard to see a region that you identify with and have held close to you for so long dealing with something so terrifying.
Green cabbages from my parents’ garden this past year.
Last night, Facebook reminded me (yes, Facebook is apparently a person with the capability of speech) that one of my good friends from Culinary is, somehow not surprisingly, also of Eastern European descent. Additionally, like me, she has moments where she attempts to do the most difficult of tasks: duplicating old school Ukrainian/Russian dishes made by her grandmother.
For anyone who grew up with a Slavic grandmother who cooked (now that I think about it, the idea of a Slavic grandmother who doesn’t cook is pretty farfetched) they grew up with the ultimate in comfort food. Naturally, Italian-Americans also experience this, but unfortunately, people of Eastern European descent don’t have hundreds of restaurants dedicated to producing their ethnic dishes dotting the American landscape. If they’re lucky, they live in Northeast Philadelphia or Brighton Beach where small mom-and-pop Slavic restaurants exist. Generally speaking, though, we rely heavily on our grandmothers for the ethnic treats that make us take pride in our nationality (especially when identifying oneself as “Russian” raises a few eyebrows or makes a crowd of reactionaries harangue your background like a half-baked version of the McCarthy era).
As a quick aside on terminology, I will use the term “Slavic” here a lot. I only use it because the food cooked by my family - and many others with immigrant roots - is not actually “Russian” or “Ukrainian” at all, but a mish-mash (my grandmother would call it zameshanny - which means “mixed” - or “all mixed up”) of nearly every Eastern European culture’s contribution to food. Areas like Pittsburgh attracted numerous immigrant groups whose descendants now refer to themselves as “Russian” or “Carpatho-Russian.” In reality though, many of the early immigrants of this area were like my family - from Russia, the Ukraine, the Carpathian Mountain region, Czechoslovakia, and Austria-Hungary. In the process of immigrating to the United States, they came in contact with Poles, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Belorussians, and Jews from all sides of Eastern Europe. Once they ended up in America, they exchanged traditions, languages, and foods in an effort to coexist and understand one another in a country thousands of miles from their own.
As is always the case in such situations, the food that resulted was rooted in comfort rather than tradition. Bliny, for example: while bliny are a major food in Russian culture, the Russian style is thicker, traditionally made of buckwheat flour, and filled with any variety of ingredients. My family, however, makes bliny more similar to the Jewish-style blintz, with a far thinner “pancake” and the traditional filling of farmer’s cheese (or cottage cheese). My family is not Jewish, but quite simply, the likelihood of coming into contact with Eastern European Jews in early-1900s Pittsburgh was incredibly high. Traditional cooking methods rubbed off at one point or another regardless of ethnic origin.
The stuffed cabbage roll is another one of these great Slavic comfort foods. Unfortunately, at culinary school, stuffed cabbage is a common preparation for classes that focus on both braising and steaming (the cabbage leaf is seen as a nice porous vessel for containing a filling). I say “unfortunately” because it would take five minutes in my grandmother’s house around Easter or Christmas to prove that the culinary version is, at best, a pale shadow of the Eastern European golubtsy/holubki. More often than not, students are instructed to use Savoy cabbage leaves - the veiny, rippled version of the green cabbage. The trouble is that when blasted with heat, the Savoy leaves wrinkle and the veins become the prominent feature, offering the diner a bit of chloryphyllaceous floss to go with their overcooked filling and overdone red sauce.
There are a few simple ways to make stuffed cabbage. The cabbage needs to be green - just plain green. The darkest green leaves are normally chopped as a base layer and mixed with sauerkraut while the interior lighter leaves are briefly steamed or boiled. The thicker vein on each leaf is trimmed to make it pliable, filled with a mixture of boiled rice, ground meat, and onion, and rolled. Typically, the rolls are lined in a large roasting pan (the old-school black and white speckled variety is the best), covered with tomato product (literally, any tomato product including canned tomato soup and/or ketchup diluted with water) and cooked for an eternity. I mean cooked for an eternity - my family terms it “cooked until the oven door blows off” (translated: braised until its done).
Yet here is the catch: despite all of my waxing fantastic here about cooking method - no one, myself included, can truly duplicate my grandmother’s version. Hell, no one can duplicate my mom’s version, but somehow, despite containing the same ingredients they aren’t the same thing. My mom and I made it for family a few summers back and it provoked an argument between siblings over the proper way to “make grammy’s stuffed cabbage.” It’s just never the same. It is the ultimate predicament with comfort food: all you want is to make it, yet no one does it right except the person who made it comfort food in the first place.
Nerding out a few years ago on our back porch, enjoying sub-par wine, new Birkenstocks, and a little Tolstoy on the first nice day of spring.
Writing is a difficult craft to maintain. If it is “one of your things,” then it is a craft woven into the fiber of your being - impossible to contain at times and difficult to release at others. When you’re busy and tired, worn out from another week of back-to-back 7am, six-hour classes and nine hour work shifts, it is exceedingly hard to put pen to paper no matter what inspiration is fluttering around in your mind. This, of course, sucks, because as someone who has always enjoyed writing - both for fun and for the simple release of putting my thoughts into words - nearly everything of personal importance that occurs on a daily basis inspires the desire to write.
The ongoing psychological drama of the kitchen, for instance, is particularly torturous to me as a writer (I mean this in the most unpublished of terms, even though I have one published article and one hard-bound thesis available to anyone who would be interested in reading some academic meanderings on nineteenth-century Russian literature). While the daily goings-on of the kitchen are largely repetitive for consistency’s sake, a minor blip in activity might make me want to immediately find a piece of paper or my laptop to start jotting down thoughts. A chef’s angry demand to fix a dish that came out less than perfect will receive the army-like retort of “Yes, Chef,” while internally, I may be working out the entire situation in my mind, thinking “I’m trying, but goddammit I’m just so tired today.”
Making my way through another manifestation of schooling is naturally also a source for serious writing inspiration. Naturally, the culinary world seems to attract “personalities” - from the mildly eccentric to the militantly insane - all worthy of at least a few Gogol-esque vignettes per chef. On top of that, there is the constant struggle as a former teacher and academic to understand the mentality of the young student - particularly young students that chose so specific of a trade to approach. I know and understand why I am attending culinary school, but can’t entirely grasp why one would voluntarily go to a school based on food and hospitality while simultaneously being picky and standoffish as a person. I have watched instructors withdraw students from their class for the simple act of missing two out of nine days of a given segment, only to watch the same students repeat this same act only weeks later in the next segment. The mentality so completely escapes me that it is often nearly impossible not to just stop taking notes on class material in exchange for taking notes on the extreme anthropological investigation that is attempting to understand a modern 18-year-old mind.
As I see it, however, to stop writing would be to stop thinking - much as to stop cooking would be to stop living, sustaining, or existing. I find myself from time to time drifting off and binging on writing. This past week in between classes, I sat with the most archaic of tools - a pen and notebook - writing down random ideas concerning food, eating, food cultures, and restaurants. Frankly, I was almost just scribbling thoughts. As I wrote, a younger female student approached me and said the following: “Excuse me, but what are you writing? I’ve seen you here for a while now and wasn’t sure if you were writing for a book or novel.”
I thought for a minute, a little taken aback at first, and responded that no, I was just writing. Nothing in particular, just putting thoughts on paper. She said that she understood and showed me a slightly tattered moleskin, tucked under her arm only inches away from her knife kit. The moment allowed me to think a bit more about my writing - particularly when it is focused writing like on this blog. So often, I try to perfect a topic, hoping that dozens read it, or some top chef or food writer sees it and passes it on to other interested parties. Writing - not so different from cooking - is an imperfect craft, one that needs to be continually approached in order to become better. Why not, then, ramble from time to time? Perhaps the rambling may lead to something more interesting - a well thought out piece that, for a change, becomes the piece others want to read.
One of the chief issues with Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential is that most people read it for its more scandalous snippets - the portion of the book professing to describe “adventures in the culinary underbelly.” I am guilty of this too, but primarily I first picked up the book to figure out what life in a kitchen was like without necessarily having to experience it firsthand. After all, I was a grad student at the time, and the concept of “giving that all up” to pursue eventual chefdom was far-fetched. I guess everyone can be proven wrong.
The trouble with reading the book this way is that it becomes increasingly easy to glamorize the very lifestyle that Bourdain now lists as having always kept him from any true success as a major chef in New York City. Although an overused cliche, “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” is only one part of the pre-TV star/food authority/social commentator Bourdainian lifestyle. But it all sounds kind of fun, right? If you read a little deeper - which is to say read the subtext of his first two books or just read Medium Raw, his more recent book - it’s not hard to find that while this characterized the majority of kitchens back then (and still many now), this is not the path to Le Bernardin or The French Laundry. The wildman lifestyle of a 1980’s and 1990’s Anthony Bourdain is not the model for opening the next Blue Hill at Stone Barns or Alinea.
This isn’t to say that kitchens aren’t a bizarre environment. I am hardly the first to say it (nor is it the first time I’ve written it), but cramming a group of people in a small, windowless room for numerous hours of fast-paced work is bound to bring out some weird personalities - whether that means incredibly off-color jokes, playing around with kitchen tools or ingredients to create amusing videos to send the cooks who aren’t working that night, or, in Bourdain’s case, cocaine-fueled moments of lighting the line on fire pre-service is all up to the kitchen itself.
Some cooks tend to miss the point and revel in the Bourdainian machismo of the somewhat less glorious moments of the book. The old “my personality is bigger than yours and I can’t wait to show it” game. One of the biggest issues that I have with Bourdain’s “glamorizing” (either intentional or untintentional) is the notion of injury in the kitchen. His cooking cohorts were the type to lop off a section of finger, get it stitched - or even worse, cauterize the wound using some heated kitchen device - and continue working.
Admittedly, we sometimes get hurt in the kitchen. Burns happen most frequently: my right arm is becoming a patchwork of light sears as our new cold side oven is just enough out of reach that I get a quick wake-up call every so often while baking pastries or breads. Cuts aren’t as frequent of an occurrence, but when you’re wielding a knife for much of your day, things happen.
Last night, I had my worst kitchen injury to date. While halving a few lemons in the middle of service, rather than slicing through the peel, my knife rolled and slid straight into my left hand which was bracing the lemon. I could tell pretty quickly that this was not a simple “fix it with a Band Aid, cover with a glove” sort of cut as the first paper towel I covered the cut with was soaked in blood in a few seconds. My chef’s wife drove me to the hospital and three hours later, I walked out with five stitches - my first, now that I mention it.
You know what? It doesn’t feel all that goddamn glamorous or macho. This took hours to type because I can barely feel my left hand, and when I can, it’s not too agile to say the least. It aches a lot as, well, I buried an 8-inch chef’s knife in it point-first. While I’m sure that I’ll eventually do the equivalent of Quint’s USS Indianapolis speech when describing the scar at some point in the future, that hardly seems like something worthy of a gold medal at the moment. I can’t prepare food right now, so it doesn’t make me much of a cook now does it?
Unfortunately, this sidelines me from the kitchen for a few days. I don’t know what half-assed doctor stitched up Bourdain back in the day, but it sure as hell didn’t leave him with doctor’s orders to not prep food for a bit. Plus, considering I was bleeding profusely about twelve hours ago, I don’t think I want to be near anything someone would pay to eat at the moment anyway. So while this heals I can, I guess, just think about food for a while. Cook safe and cook smart. Have a blast in the kitchen. But think about where you’d rather be: in the hospital getting stitched while someone else is filling in for your wounded ass on the line or doing that thing you loved to do in the first place - cook.
Alan Richman is a tough act to deal with. Bourdain has famously called him many things, including a “douchebag” and a certain c-word that I’ll refrain from using at the moment - when Bourdain uses it, his readership goes from 1,000,000 to 500,000; when I use it, I run the risk of no one ever reading this blog again. The trouble is that Richman - food writer for GQ - is curt at best and downright bitchy and trite at his worst. Following the outright disaster that was Hurricane Katrina, for instance, Richman took it upon himself to dissect the culinary makeup of the Louisiana gulf, insinuating that the culturally unique groups that populate New Orleans are about as mythical as leprechauns or fairies.
It should come as no surprise then, that his recent rating of Philadelphia’s top ten cheesesteak-making shops would ruffle a few feathers. The more difficult part to grasp is that I agreed with his number one choice - Sonny’s on 2nd and Market.
The cheesesteak is a sandwich that will cause even the tamest of Philadelphians to conjure up a somewhat nationalistic bloodlust comparable only to Bill the Butcher or Braveheart. I am guilty of this, no doubt. First of all, it doesn’t contain peppers. It also doesn’t contain any vegetable other than onion. Cheese is a far dicier topic better left to preference rather than city-wide mandate (I, for instance, think Cheez Wiz is a bit gross and opt rather for Provolone while others go for plain old American Cheese).
Once we start talking about location, however, we’re into far shadier territory. Some go for Pat’s or Geno’s. I’m not a big fan of either to be honest as their endless lines scream “tourist trap” and have become something akin to a visit to the Rocky Statue (the statue sits about 100 yards from a museum full of priceless art that far fewer people visit than a monument to a mythical boxer). While both used to be unassuming competitors, they are now endowed with signs as garish as those speckling the Sunset Strip, famous more for their unorthodox stance on foreigners than their quality sandwiches.
My particular problem with this whole issue is that I see Philly as a sandwich town rather than a city of cheesesteaks. First and foremost, I see the Pork Italiano as a far superior sandwich to the cheesesteak. Also a Philadelphia original, the sandwich combines spice, savory, sweet, and bitter in one big package with slow-cooked pork, sauteed broccoli rabe, and sharp provolone cheese. But beyond that, it only takes a quick ride down 9th Street to find numerous sandwich shops selling creative yet all-around rustic sandwiches. George’s in the Italian Market sells the “TNT” or the tripe-and-tongue, a sandwich that speaks not only to the modern fascination with “nose to tail” eating, but also to the old school notion of simply using everything and making it amazingly tasty. Down the street is Paesano’s which serves a sandwich of deep-fried chicken liver topped with orange marmalade - casually called the “Liveracce” that is complex in flavor yet so comforting to eat at the same time.
Richman’s choice, then, hit home for a number of reasons, but mainly because of something central to the choice itself. While I was in high school, my friends and I used to go downtown to wander South Street - a street long past its prime as far as I’m concerned, but one that maintains its status as a counter-culture block for both tourists and locals alike. On the way down, however, we would always stop at Sonny’s for cheesesteaks. The combination was the same every time - recommended by one of our fathers at some point - provolone and onions. No “Wiz wit!” or some other such branded nonsense that has infiltrated the Pat’s and Geno’s scene in the past few decades. Just plain and simple. And you know what? They were phenomenal. They made me feel like I was at home on a weekend, watching my dad fire up the griddle to cook off a bit of “chip steak” - the cheap cut sold by our butcher - to make our own homemade version. Everything was the quality you would want if you made them for your own family.
Maybe that’s what Alan Richman was trying to get at in his article. I can’t really tell. But as territorial as Philadelphians can get about the sandwich, the point is that there is a place for everyone in the city to get their favorite cheesesteak - and I think we can all guarantee that they get it right no matter what our personal preference.
Christmas season is a wonderful time for food. Nearly everything is unapologetically rich with fat (either milk fat, butter fat, or animal fat), herbs and spices (the in-your-face ones like rosemary, allspice, clove, and nutmeg), and more than likely, a healthy dose of fortification (what better holiday tradition than the German Feuerzangenbowle - mulled wine finished with the ignition of a liquor-soaked cone of sugar?). It’s great stuff, and I pity anyone who opted to use this time of year as the moment to try the new miracle diet or some 22-day vegan thing if they’re a celebrity with too much free time and money. There’s too much tastiness to the holidays, and I am a firm believer that one should indulge when the opportunity presents itself.
The nice part is, someone saw it fit to give me two weeks off. To be completely honest, while I’d hate to characterize myself as a workaholic, I rarely know what to do with myself when I’m not busy. While I’m sure that many of my fellow students from culinary are taking this opportunity to do anything but cook, I can’t find it in myself to do the same. After all, I did get into this business because I love food and cooking. Fortunately, that leaves me with a lot of free time to mess around in the kitchen and create things that I typically don’t have the opportunity to make. Plus, as it is the holiday season, it’s socially acceptable to have a borderline excessive number of delicious things in one’s household at the same time. So I’m in luck.
Last year, I took a major leap while home for the holidays in Philadelphia. I not only made my first roll of pancetta, but also successfully created my first foie gras torchon. Now foie gras is jaw-droppingly good on its own, but torchon is something truly special. The lobe of foie is deveined (turning it essentially into duck Play-Dough) and soaked in milk overnight to assure that any remaining blood is removed. The next day, the pieces are cured and compressed overnight to put it all back together again. Then, it is rolled in cheesecloth or a towel, poached, and hung for yet another several hours until finally, the foie is resolidified into a compact, sausage-like roll. When you finally serve it, torchon is typically sliced thick, topped with some variety of fruit-based sauce, and sprinkled with fleur de sel. It’s obscenely good, and, if it gets to the point where you only have scraps, those can be pureed and spread on toasts the next day.
I love processes like these - the type that cause you to disappear for a few hours at a time per day to tend to your culinary creation while the rest of your family is concerned for your sanity and sense of holiday cheer. This year, of course, I have chosen two projects to keep my restless cooking mind busy during my time off: a roast duck and a panettone.
The duck is an interesting experiment as I’ve cooked duck before but never roasted it whole. Duck is a lovely bird, one that I’ve seen chefs cite as being “almost as versatile as a pig” - a huge admission considering the veritable army of pig-crazy chefs out there. The breast is - in my opinion - tastier than even the best cuts of steak, capped with a skin that exudes one of the best fats known to modern man. The legs braise perfectly and are the central ingredient of the ever so delicious duck confit. The heart and liver, when properly prepared, have the potential of getting even the pickiest of eaters to consider offal an under-recognized treat. The carcass makes exquisite stock. But I’ve never roasted the whole thing in one go.
Fortunately, I’ve got help. I had the opportunity to order through D’Artagnan meats, ensuring that the bird I purchased will be incredibly high-quality. Not only did I get tips from my chef on “aging” the duck, but also, it turns out that a lot of chefs are doing the same in preparation for the holiday (Rene Redzepi, for instance!). My intention on Christmas Day is to roast it with an old Joel Robuchon recipe, but the possibilities are pretty endless.
Finally, there’s the panettone. Last year, I had the fortune to go to Vetri for New Years with my family, a meal that definitely ranks high on my list of all time bests. A few weeks earlier, my dad bought a panettone from Claudio’s in South Philadelphia in preparation for a french toast recipe my mother planned to make on Christmas Day. As if Vetri’s meal wasn’t already a culinary awakening, he left each customer their own personal panettone at the end of dinner. Suddenly, my family found itself with a supply of delicious Italian Christmas cake/bread akin to the PeeWee’s Playhouse Christmas Special - hardly a bad position to be in.
I won’t be going to Vetri this year unfortunately, but who says I can’t have a delicious panettone all the same? That one is definitely in the “experiment” category as it requires several days of preparation, a lot of flour, and a fair amount of patience. I’m excited for it though, so hopefully you all stick with me and wait to see the results! Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
Thanksgiving duck prep
I’m going to get this out of the way in order to shatter your collective Thanksgiving happiness: I’m not a big turkey fan. Honestly, though, the more I talk with people around this time of year, the more I become aware that the only reason that they serve turkey is for some mystical, Fiddler on the Roof-like adherence to TRADITION! Don’t get me wrong, I do like the traditions of the holiday season, but I find almost yearly that chef blogs, cooking websites, and newspapers spend the majority of their time practically begging holiday cooks to not screw up traditional preparations.
For starters, there is the old “stuffing the bird” thing. In advance, I admit that I have never contracted salmonella from eating my mother or grandmother’s stuffing. Very simply, though, in order to cook poultry to doneness, it needs to register at 165F. The last part of the bird to experience this doneness would naturally be the tougher legs and thighs, and particularly, the innermost cavity. Think prime rib: the outside might be 200F+ while the center might be a beautiful medium rare. So chances are, if you are placing raw stuffing in a raw bird, the stuffing will not be finished while the bird is carrying over into a state of Christmas Vacation-esque dryness (movie reference #2). The better option is to cook the stuffing on the side (technically “dressing”) and stuff the bird with aromatic elements like mirepoix, citrus fruits, or really anything that will flavor the bird without being an edible side dish.
When roasting a turkey, it is not in fact best to just throw it in and roast for all eternity. Think of it instead as a large roast chicken: truss it, season the hell out of it, and roast accordingly until the thick part of the thigh registers at 165F. Ignore that red springy thing: it’s typically lodged in the breast - the part of the bird to cook (and therefore, overcook) first. It might be done, but the legs and the thighs will not be (and after all of that Thanksgiving cooking, who wants to be reheating legs?). Ruhlman has a cool roast/braise method that might be totally worth a shot, but I’m sure that the venerable Julia Child and Jacques Pepin have a few methods that are equally awesome.
But my biggest hangup is with something people probably don’t even think of: the carcass. Normally, for a substantial pot of chicken stock, you need a few carcasses. If you’re breaking down the birds yourself, that’s a lot of chicken to have sitting around the freezer at once. Yet here you have a pre-roasted carcass - and most likely a giant roasted neck - ready to go. Turkeys are big, angry-looking birds with a lot of large bones and a collagen-rich neck. That’s stock paradise. Plus, you only need one carcass for a pretty big pot of stock. I made about 2 quarts from around 2 lbs of necks alone (thanks, Whole Foods for carrying random animal parts!) and it is almost pure gelatin (the sign of a very hearty stock). Plus, you most likely have a ton of leftover turkey - how about some turkey noodle soup with actual turkey stock? Sounds good to me as the blustery New England winter approaches.
So while I won’t miss having a giant bird that I typically only eat once per year (we are instead opting for the smaller, much tastier duck) there are some practical things that I feel anyone still abiding by the traditions can do in order to get the most (both festively and physically) out of their turkey dinner. The best bet though is to simply think like a cook: prep. Instead of losing your mind at 2:45 this Thursday, bracing for the apocalypse as your guests start to arrive, how about prep intelligently and just cook? The holidays are crazy enough as it is. Why not start them off with some casual, smart, and delicious home cooked food?