Did panic grip your soul as you stared into the whirling hypno wheel of the menu, where adjectives and nouns spin in a crazy vortex? When you saw the burger described as ‘Guy’s Pat LaFrieda custom blend, all-natural Creekstone Farm Black Angus beef patty, LTOP (lettuce, tomato, onion + pickle), SMC (super-melty-cheese) and a slathering of Donkey Sauce on garlic-buttered brioche,’ did your mind touch the void for a minute?
In this regard, the specialization, simplification, and routinization of the fast food model discourages access by nonindustrial local farms. While we smaller local farms may produce a significant volume of product, we don’t normally do enough of any piece of an item to supply such a narrow protocol in such volume. In this respect, the fast food industry has been a driving force in changing the landscape of the food system.
The old combination diner, offering a wider spectrum, nests better into a local food landscape. Another option would be for a couple of narrow-spectrum restaurants to collaborate in a locality, so that one could take a couple of items and the other could take complementary items. This would offer the local farmer a symbiotic marketing option.
If Chipotle, for example, could get Shoney’s to offer local pigaerator sausage and bacon, then more of the animal could get used. On another corner, if a TGI Friday’s would offer the loin, that would just about take care of the whole animal. That’s the kind of collaboration that is really necessary to increase local food penetration in the marketplace — and that’s just one animal.
Opened by Taavo Somer last fall, Isa wasn’t like other restaurants. To get inside in the winter, you had to pass through a hanging quilt by the door that looked as if it had been sewn together by a Bedouin weaver who had lost his mind in the desert. A major portion of the beverage list was dedicated to orange wines, and even the regular old whites and reds were anything but regular; Isa specialized in natural winemakers whose products could get extremely funky.
The menus were written by hand on and around a collage of oddball photos and then run off on a photocopier; if you dropped a lot of acid and then sat down with scissors and glue and a stack of old magazines, and then wrote a lot of food terms and prices, you’d come up with something like Isa’s menu.
As for the food, I wouldn’t call it psychedelic, but it sometimes suggested what would happen if a modern chef spent six months in the wilderness on a vision quest. Mackerel fillet was served alongside the fish’s deep-fried skeleton; plates were scattered with grains and seeds and weeds. At times it was as if the restaurant was trying to create a new kind of cuisine, or perhaps trying to pay tribute to the cuisine of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
Forty years ago you could get a tender, flaky homemade biscuit to go with a fried chicken dinner at any number of meat and threes. Today, most casual dining restaurants use a boxed mix or frozen biscuits. Conversely, homemade biscuits are now made by culinary school–educated pastry chefs in Atlanta’s finest restaurants and are served alongside heirloom, organic, stone-ground grits and pedigreed pastured poultry. Forty years ago Buford Highway was little more than a cow path, certainly not a dining destination for adventurous foodies and ethnic groups in search of exotic dishes like guinea pig tacos, tripe pho, or authentic Bangladeshi lamb korma. Forty years ago the finest restaurants in Atlanta included Nikolai’s Roof, Chateau Fleur de Lis, and the Midnight Sun. Pleasant Peasant was the go-to place for ladies who lunch, and establishments like Pittypat’s Porch and Dante’s Down the Hatch were the “special occasion” places for visiting tourists, nervous prom-goers, and suburbanites celebrating anniversaries in the big city. Now, with a cadre of nationally recognized chefs and an explosion of choices, life is radically different. After 40 years of wandering in the culinary wilderness, Atlanta’s food scene is finding its way.
Hot woks run fast. Minutes after we’d ordered, our table was covered with plates. The ma po tofu that had looked impressive on the menu board was staggering in real life. Ivory cubes of bean curd were sunk deep inside quantities of simmered pork and fermented fava paste under a shimmering lake of chile oil.
It burned and buzzed in the pulsating manner of Sichuan, but in China the meat would be a mere seasoning. Mr. Bowien’s version emphasized and amplified the pork to the point where it knocked you down and left you happily breathless.
Happily for him and for us, Mr. Rembold has something most of those chefs don’t. Reynard’s kitchen was built so that almost everything can be cooked with fire. Sit in the rear dining room, with its tiled floor and soaring raftered ceilings that make it look like the set of a play about Balthazar being staged in an abandoned factory, and you can see the rigs at work.
“We weren’t rich, but we always had enough. Thursday we baked bread, and challah and rolls, and they lasted the whole week. Friday we had pancakes. Shabbat we always had a chicken, and soup with noodles. You would go to the butcher and ask for a little more fat. The fattiest piece was the best piece. It wasn’t like now. We didn’t have refrigerators, but we had milk and cheese. We didn’t have every kind of vegetable, but we had enough. The things that you have here and take for granted… . But we were happy. We didn’t know any better. And we took what we had for granted, too.
“Then it all changed. During the war it was hell on earth, and I had nothing. I left my family, you know. I was always running, day and night, because the Germans were always right behind me. If you stopped, you died. There was never enough food. I became sicker and sicker from not eating, and I’m not just talking about being skin and bones. I had sores all over my body. It became difficult to move. I wasn’t too good to eat from a garbage can. I ate the parts others wouldn’t eat. If you helped yourself, you could survive. I took whatever I could find. I ate things I wouldn’t tell you about.
“Even at the worst times, there were good people, too. Someone taught me to tie the ends of my pants so I could fill the legs with any potatoes I was able to steal. I walked miles and miles like that, because you never knew when you would be lucky again. Someone gave me a little rice, once, and I traveled two days to a market and traded it for some soap, and then traveled to another market and traded the soap for some beans. You had to have luck and intuition.
“The worst it got was near the end. A lot of people died right at the end, and I didn’t know if I could make it another day. A farmer, a Russian, God bless him, he saw my condition, and he went into his house and came out with a piece of meat for me.”
“He saved your life.”
“I didn’t eat it.”
“You didn’t eat it?”
“It was pork. I wouldn’t eat pork.”
“What do you mean why?”
“What, because it wasn’t kosher?”
“But not even to save your life?”
“If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”
Marcus Samuelsson is a supremely important global voice in America, but that shouldn’t give him license to speak for Harlem. By catering to diners outside Harlem and talking down to the ones who live there—promising things like ‘elevated’ soul food—he treats the place like a museum exhibit. He speaks in stereotypes, desperately trying to capture snapshots of villagers dancing, praying, and bespoke-suiting to display in this playhouse of a restaurant.
Eddie Huang, “Marcus Samuelsson’s Overcooked Memoir Makes His Pricey Harlem Discomfort Food Hard to Swallow,” The New York Observer
Food is not meant to be scary. We get a table of City chaps to come in and they say, ‘Who’s going to have the scariest thing on the menu?’ It’s not what we’re about. It’s all meant to be delicious. We don’t want our menu to be scary. And I’ve got this reputation for cooking offal, and that wasn’t really ummm…well, it just seemed like common sense to cook the whole beast.
Still, many immigrant restaurateurs have resisted formulas and won recognition by following their traditions. The chef at the Las Vegas landmark Lotus of Siam, Saipin Chutima, is a Thai-born former domestic worker who won a James Beard Award for best chef in the Southwest, the same year as Mr. Ricker.
It wasn’t easy. Twenty-four years ago, when Ms. Chutima and her husband, Bill, opened their first restaurant, they served food as she had learned to cook it in Thailand. “There weren’t foodies yet,” said Pennapa Chutima, the couple’s daughter and spokeswoman. Customers knew pad Thai, she said, but when the offerings veered too far from that, “they’d say, ‘This isn’t Thai!’ ”
“It was heartbreaking,” she said. “Mom would cry day and night. She opened the restaurant to have more security, not less.”
The family refused to alter the food. Instead, Mr. Chutima talked with customers to discern their likes and dislikes, and helped them order. Eventually, the nationally known critic Jonathan Gold wrote them a glowing review, and the foodies started showing up.
“It was difficult,” Pennapa Chutima said. “But all great things take time to be appreciated.”
It’s a weird stripe of cultural blindness for someone who consults friends at Saveur on fast food matters to refer to himself as “the rest of us” when it comes to eating at Burger King. Honestly, bacon sundaes don’t matter, but this … kind of does. If you call up your foodie friends to discuss Burger King, you are a foodie yourself, which is totally fine! And great! Saveur is fine; it is all about great and meaningful eating experiences and the people who are passionate about them, and those people are no worse than anyone else who is very passionate about something! But when you redefine the universe so that everyone either is a foodie or, at the very least in the case of “the rest of us,” is insulted by being served anything that foodies have declared “passe,” you make it appear that you don’t remember what role food plays in the life of most of the actual humans around you.
In short, while this “not cool, Burger King!” post is obviously meant to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek, it’s actually pretty painful to read. This is the kind of status-conscious cultural commentary that, even if you’re kind of kidding, is so clearly steeped in the limited scope of your own universe that it can make people feel like they’re not part of your tribe if the only things they would ever worry about with a bacon sundae are (1) does it taste good, (2) how much does it cost, and maybe – maybe! – (3) is it terribly bad for you. It pains me a little, just knowing somebody is spending time sitting around talking about whether Burger King is doing something “passe” and eye-rolling over the focus-grouping and “pandering,” as if the money-not-cuisine priorities of a giant fast-food chain have just been identified right this minute.
Linda Holmes / “How We Talk About A Bacon Sundae,” in response to this
Now it sounds as if there will be no more fried fish skeletons at Isa. I can see the arguments for that. One of the problems with Isa was that the menu was somewhat limited, with just a few core items that didn’t change substantially. If I lived in the neighborhood, I’m not sure how often I’d find myself craving, say, the dessert of celeriac purée that Eric Asimov described as “punishing” in his wary but admiring one-star review.
But Williamsburg has no shortage of restaurants serving roast chicken and pasta. Places with a distinctive point of view come along much less often, and kitchens that express that point of view convincingly are rare in any neighborhood at any time.
Blanca is named for Mr. Mirarchi’s mother, as Roberta’s is named for Mr. Parachini’s. (Mr. Mirarchi, discussing the future and speaking of Mr. Hoy, said, “Hopefully Brandon’s mom has a cool name.” It is Linda.)
This may not seem like a big deal, but I’ll tell you… A huge part of the reason I opened Baohaus is because everyone thought Momofuku pork buns were the original and it pissed me off. I’d been eating them since I was a kid, I knew they were from Taiwan and no one stuck up for us so I did. If you don’t defend the things that matter to you, no one will. Why do Asians like myself care so much about their food culture? It’s all we have to be proud of in this country! A lot of these ABCs don’t even speak Chinese, they’ve lost their tongue, all they have is this food. It matters. It matters a lot.
Third, at Polyface, we struggle upstream. Historically, omnivores were salvage operations. Hogs ate spoiled milk, whey, acorns, chestnuts, spoiled fruit, and a host of other farmstead products. Ditto for chickens, who dined on kitchen scraps and garden refuse. That today 50 percent of all the human edible food produced in the world goes into landfills or greenie-endorsed composting operations rather than through omnivores is both ecologically and morally reprehensible. At Polyface, we’ve tried for many, many years to get kitchen scraps back from restaurants to feed our poultry, but the logistics are a nightmare. The fact is that in America we have created a segregated food and farming system. In the perfect world, Polyface would not sell eggs. Instead, every kitchen, both domestic and commercial, would have enough chickens proximate to handle all the scraps. This would eliminate the entire egg industry and current heavy grain feeding paradigm. At Polyface, we only purport to be doing the best we can do as we struggle through a deviant, historically abnormal food and farming system. We didn’t create what is and we may not solve it perfectly. But we’re sure a lot farther toward real solutions than McWilliams can imagine. And if society would move where we want to go, and the government regulators would let us move where we need to go, and the industry would not try to criminalize us as we try to go there, we’ll all be a whole lot better off and the earthworms will dance.