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I'm a guy who likes to cook, eat, and drink, but not necessarily in that order. This blog is nothing fancy; just my random thoughts about anything that can be baked, roasted, or fried. Enjoy!

Monday, May 18, 2015

Please Place Your Tray in the Upright and Locked Position

©2015 Chris Terrell
We’ve heard it before: “air travel ain’t what it used to be.”  This appears to be especially true when it comes to airline food. It gets worse and worse, assuming you get anything at all.   

But are we expecting too much from the airlines when it comes to food? They are constrained by weight and space and so don't have a lot to work with. There’s also the issue of heat. One can’t exactly sauté mushrooms on an open gas stove in a Boeing 767. Even so, the food could be better.

Of course, it wasn’t always so. I’m old enough to remember the days when even in coach (a/k/a “economy class”), the stewardess (dated myself!) would serve lunch or dinner with real silverware and linen napkins. And she did so with a smile on her face and the kind of attention that you sometimes get in business class on a transatlantic flight. Why? Because out of the 160 seats on that Boeing 727 from New York to Miami, only 120 of the seats were occupied thanks to regulation.

In the early to mid-70s when I began my flying career, airlines were regulated by the federal Civil Aeronautics Board (“CAB”). Since 1938, the CAB had regulated all domestic interstate air routes as a public utility. The CAB set the fares, routes, and schedules. The CAB also was obligated to ensure that the airlines had a reasonable rate of return. In other words, the airlines were guaranteed a profit, albeit not a big one, but a profit nonetheless. This meant that Eastern Airlines could afford serving lunch with silverware in a less-than-full airplane.

In 1978, this all came crashing down with the passage of the Airline Deregulation Act. This law abolished the CAB and removed government control over fares, routes, and market entry. The goal was to increase competition, which would mean lower prices for consumers. Believe it or not, the law actually worked. After adjusting for inflation, it is generally cheaper to fly today than it was in the 1970s. (I'm not sure about the competition part because we have about the same number of airlines as we did in 1978.) Of course, cheaper fares mean more people flying. And therein lies the rub when it comes to airline food. With increased competition and no guaranteed profits, the airlines have had to cut costs. And the first thing out the window was the semi-decent food. 

These days, we’re lucky if we can get a diminutive package of pretzels or peanuts. (Southwest may be the only airline left that offers free peanuts.) About the only time you are going to get meal on a plane, much less a decent one, is on an international flight. But at least it sometimes gets interesting. 

Several years ago, I was on a Delta flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg, South Africa, when breakfast arrived at hour 13 of a 15 and a half hour flight. To this day, I have no idea what I was served. It was some kind of orange, yam-like thing.  I also have no idea why it was breakfast food. I guess it made sense because we were flying to South Africa. (The food on the return flight was much more "American.") 

But perhaps the best example of food following the route was an Air France flight I took from Atlanta to Paris. Even though we were in economy, the flight attendants walked up and down the aisles with large baskets full of french bread. Later in the evening, I walked to the back for another glass of French wine. I pointed at the bottle on the drink cart, and the female flight attendant, without saying a word, and with a classic Gallic  shrug, told me “sure.” Vive La France!

What I find interesting is that, as the quality of airline food has declined and essentially disappeared, the quality of food in airports has increased, especially in terms of variety. I’ve had great wine and food at a wine bar in Dallas’s Love Field; a really good Cuban meal at the airport in Miami; and my home airport in Birmingham now has some pretty good barbecue. Hope springs eternal.

The only downside is that, because there’s no food service on airlines anymore, people bring food onto the airplane. This has created a different set of problems. Have you ever sat next to a fellow passenger with an order of garlic rice and falafel? 

But oh well, air travel is still pretty amazing. We can now travel distances in hours that took our ancestors weeks, if not months. As the comedian Louis C.K. once said, “You’re sitting in a chair, in the sky!” Good point. So, maybe we should all just relax, wait until we land to get a good meal, and leave the falafel at home.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Yes, Of All People, I Ate at Applebee's!

©2015 Chris Terrell
How the Mighty Have Fallen!
I’m not a big fan of chain restaurants.* The food is generally uninspiring and pretty much the same. There are but so many ways one can deep fry something or slap a Bourbon barbecue sauce on a slab of meat. I guess my biggest compliant is one of value, which is interesting because the marketing departments for places like TGI Fridays or Applebee’s have convinced people that they offer good food at a good price. But by the time, you’ve had a couple of Summer Squeezes (real drink from the Applebee’s bar menu) and some Churro S’mores (real appetizer from Applebee’s menu), and….

OK, I have to stop here. This thing called Churro S’mores is a real appetizer, or “app” in Applebee’s-speak!  It consists of some kind of bread with a toasted marshmallow and chocolate dipping sauce. This is listed in the “bar snacks” section of the menu. Really?! Why the hell would I get this at a bar?! What full-grown, gainfully employed, self-respecting American male is going to drink a martini and eat this concoction?

OK, sorry about that digression…..

And so you order the Bourbon Street Steak and the Bourbon Street Chicken and Shrimp (both real items—these guys obviously love New Orleans!), Triple Chocolate Meltdown (real) for dessert, and now you are out about $60 for a party of two after tip. You’d be better off to go to a local mom-and-pop restaurant. The food would be better, and you’d be helping the local economy.

But the more important question is how did I end up at an Applebee’s on a Sunday afternoon? The short answer is: soccer. This past weekend, I fulfilled my annual paternal duty of taking one of my sons to the state soccer tournament in Decatur, Alabama. If you’ve ever been to Decatur, well you’re not missing much, and this comes from someone who lives in Alabama, so I’m used to being under-whelmed. Our team did better than expected, but after the last game on a Sunday afternoon, we were hungry. Someone suggested Applebee’s. I could have easily protested but my food-snobbery is well established amongst the soccer parents. I relented mainly out of curiosity. I saw this as a sociological experiment. What makes people go to Applebee’s? Am I missing something? Can it really be that bad? Maybe it has improved since the last time I went to one on a business trip on April 23, 1997.

The staff was pleasant enough and the beer was cold. But the food? It is what it is. I got the Thai Shrimp salad, which was not too bad after I added a bit more salt and pepper. More importantly, the kids enjoyed it and had a good time.  At the end of the day, I was not completely disappointed because my  expectations were met. I mean really, I don’t go to McDonalds expecting seared foie gras and black truffles.

By now, I’m sure the casual reader of this blog is thinking, “this guy’s a real snob,” and I probably wouldn’t blame you. But I’m not. I eat in hole-in-the-wall BBQ joints; Mexican restaurants, hot dog stands and love every bite. The difference is that these are restaurants owned by real people who love what they do. Not some homogenized chain restaurant with a menu created by marketing lackeys. 

But then again, chain restaurants are as American as apple pie. It all started in 1940 along the Penn Turnpike, where motorists could turn off the Pike and pull up to a building that resembled a New England town hall with a painfully bright orange roof and turquoise blue cupola. Howard Johnson’s or HoJo for short. This was arguably the first franchised restaurant, founded in 1925 in Quincey, Massachusetts, by Howard Deering Johnson. It was famous for its fried clam strips, chicken pot pies, “Frankforts” (HoJo’s version of a hot dog), and 28 flavors of ice cream (including peppermint stick). I grew up on HoJos. No road trip to Florida would be complete without dinner at HoJo’s, where my mom would invariably order the fried clam strips, while I quivered in anticipation of the peppermint stick ice cream that came with a sugar cookie shaped like a delta wing jet plane. They also had a birthday club, and I recall going to the local HoJo’s for my annual complimentary birthday cake. 

At HoJo’s peak, there were over 900 orange roofs across America. Today, only two restaurants remain.  

How the Mighty Have Fallen Too
I really have no way of knowing if the food at the HoJos of my youth were any better or worse than your local Applebee’s today. I do know that they just felt different—full of youthful promise. Only in that optimistic era could you have a restaurant as garnish as a HoJos. There’s a reason, Howard Johnson’s figured prominently in an episode of Mad Men. The title of that episode is Faraway Places. How apropos. 

So here’s a modest proposal to myself. The next time I’m asked to go to an Applebee’s, I won’t complain or make some snarky comment. I’ll just squint and pretend it’s 1975, and I’m five years old eating a chocolate birthday cake with some peppermint stick ice cream. 

That sounds pretty inspiring, don’t you think?

* Fast-food joints are excluded from my definition. Who doesn’t like a good fast-food burger now and then? And besides, we all know these are not really restaurants.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Ramp It Up For Spring?

When it comes to vegetables, spring is the redheaded stepchild. Summer gets all the blockbusters like tomatoes, corn, cucumbers, and zucchini.  Even fall and winter veggies get more attention: pumpkin, beets, carrots, leeks, broccoli, and brussels sprouts  With the exception of asparagus, spring doesn't have too much, and what it does have doesn't seem to stick around for long. (In Alabama, we hold onto spring like a dog with a bone. We are lucky to get a few weeks past the A-Day game in Tuscaloosa before summer starts in.)  But perhaps the ultimate, short-lived spring vegetable would have to be ramps. It is also the most over-hyped, hyper-obsessed vegetable out there. In case, you've never heard of ramps (a/k/a allium tricoccum), they are nothing more than a wild onion.

Every spring I buy ramps, but I can never cook them before they go bad. This year, I vowed not to let that happen. I asked the guy selling ramps at the local market—who frankly didn't seem all that enamored with them (which should have been a clue)—how he prepared them. With a shrug, he said simply that he just cooked them chopped up with scrambled eggs, like his momma always made 'em. "Really, that's it?" I asked. Surely, I thought to myself, there must be more to these things than that. After looking through the 36 cookbooks I own, all of which say nothing about ramps, I took to the Internet.  Most of the recipes I found there were nothing more than ones where ramps substituted for onions, leeks, garlic, or some combination thereof. Eventually, however, I found one recipe that looked promising. It claimed to bring out ramps' pungent simplicity.  Here is recipe I found on The Crepes of Wrath:

Caramelized Ramps


2 bunches ramps, cleaned well
2-3 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
pinch red pepper flakes


Cleaning ramps is a bit of work, but it's worth it! Fill a large bowl with cold water, then place your ramps in the water. Swish them around to remove as much dirt as possible, then remove them from the bowl and give them a second rinse under running water to remove any remaining grit. Change the water and do the same with your second bunch of ramps. 

Place the ramps on a dry paper towel, then top with another paper towel and pat out as much water as possible.

Clean the ramps by removing the tip of each stalk. Set aside (don't slice them - they're perfect as is).

In a heavy bottomed skillet, heat your butter over medium-high heat. Swirl around until browned and nutty, about 3-4 minutes. Add the ramps to the browned butter and cook over medium heat, turning occasionally, until the ramps are lightly charred and wilted. Serve with your favorite protein as a side, or enjoy them on their own.

And after much anticipation, we sat down for dinner and held our forks above these delicate spring denizens, quivering with anticipation. We all took a bite. Wow! Talk about being underwhelmed! The ramps had a decent flavor but their consistency left a lot to be desired. I thought they were a bit tough and stingy. Maybe these were simply not very good ramps. Perhaps I waited too long to cook them. Maybe I can't cook ramps. Or maybe, just maybe, ramps simply suck. 

At least for the next 365 days, I'll have to let the mystery be because ramp season is over. I'll try again next year. In cooking, try anything twice or, in the case of ramps, three times.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

It's All In the Wrist

Not another day goes by that one doesn’t read or hear about the importance of provenance when it comes to food: Is it organic? Is it sustainable? Is it locally sourced? But what you don’t hear about too much is technique—also known as the actual mechanics of cooking. But during a recent trip to France, I discovered that technique is alive and well when my son Forrest and I took a pastry class at Le Cordon Bleu, the 150-year-old French cooking school in Paris. (The same one that helped launch Julia Child’s career in 1949.)

©2015 Chris Terrell
Our Mise en Place
At precisely 12:30PM, Forrest and I, along with 12 other students, were escorted into the kitchen and took our places around a long work table with Chef Olivier Boudot at the head. I wasn’t sure what to expect, as I’ve never attended a cooking class. I figured it would be more of a demonstration for tourists, and not very sophisticated. Boy, was I wrong! This turned out to be a very intense, hands-on class. At one point, it felt like I was on Top Chef because Chef Boudot was maniacal about staying on schedule. 

©2015 Chris Terrell
Chef Boudot
A few words about Chef Boudot.  If you were going to make a movie with a scene in a French restaurant kitchen, and you needed a French pastry chef,  the actor you would get from central casting would look like Chef Boudot. Chef Boudot was big and imposing, made more so by his toque. He was serious and intense, but had a good, dry sense of humor, punctuated by that infamous Gallic shrug.    

At each of our stations, we were given an apron and towel (both of which we were allowed to keep), a rolling pin, butter, yeast, and a dough scraper. Through a translator, Chef gave us the day’s scheduled, precisely laid out in 20-30 minute increments.

Our goal that day was to make croissants, pain au chocolat, and brioche.

©2015 Chris Terrell
Forrest Gets Started
We learned to roll the dough in a precise manner and at a precise thickness, and to fold the dough in  a certain way, as well as the proper time and temperature for proofing the dough. (At least when it comes to cooking, the French are very, very precise.) At one point, Chef Boudot even used a ruler to measure out the pieces of dough for the croissants! The last thing we learned that day was to make our own dough, which we took home with us.

©2015 Chris Terrell
The class lasted almost six hours, with a brief 20-25 min coffee break around 3:00PM. So needless to say, Forrest and I were exhausted by the time we left, but we had six boxes of fresh pastries that we proudly shared with the family. As we walked out with our day’s work, we passed a class of advance students waiting outside the kitchen. They seemed pretty proud too, though I detected a slight trace of dread on their young faces. Perhaps, Chef Boudot was more gentle with us tourists than with his students.

©2015 Chris Terrell
A few days later, in our little gite in Normandy, I realized that I had forgotten to pick up a baguette for dinner—obviously not something any respectable Frenchman would have done. We also had finished all those pastries we had made back in Paris. Thankfully I had the dough from the Codon Bleu class! 

It was 7:30pm and obviously I had no time to proof the dough for two hours, thinking that this proofing thing was overrated, right? I rolled the dough out, shaped the croissants and threw them in the oven.  (I did manage to get an egg wash on them.) What came out of the oven bore no resemblance to those delicate, flakey croissants we had made at Le Cordon Bleu. Rather, what came out of the oven were these smallish, somewhat dense rolls, like Pillsbury crescent rolls. I guess all that precision about timing and temperature for proofing made all the difference in the world.
©2015 Chris Terrell
The Finished Product (At Le Cordon Bleu)

But as we sat there with our bowls of potato, leek, and mushroom soup that I had made from scratch, listening to the Norman wind rattle the windows, I realized that learning to cook and do it right is hard and takes effort. In other words, there’s a reason that people go to schools like Le Cordon Bleu and then open great restaurants. However, I also learned that there is a certain margin of error that allows us amateurs to make pretty good bread. After all a homemade crescent roll is still better than loaf of Wonder Bread, and even Wonder Bread is better than no bread at all!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Long and Low

We all get stuck in a rut from time to time. I know I do. After all, I try to write a new post about every seven to ten days and frequently I have a hard time coming up with something new to write about. Cooking is that way too. Life gets in the way. Between work, the daily schlep to school, homework, soccer practice, and everything else in between, it becomes harder and harder to avoid the temptation to pick up the phone and order a pizza. And when one does summon up the energy to cook dinner, it is very easy to throw a piece of chicken on the grill or open a box of Kraft mac-n-cheese—not that there’s anything wrong with Kraft mac-n-cheese!

But there’s a way of cooking that has been around a long time that results in a good meal and allows for a bit of relaxing. I’m talking about braising. Braising is a cooking method that uses a little liquid and barely simmers at a low temp on the top of the stove or in the oven. In other words, long and low. The great thing about braising is that it gives you time to help the kids with homework, grab a cocktail, or if you are sans kids, play a quick game of Assassins Creed.

Braising is a very old method of cooking that has changed over time. Originally, braising was carried out directly on the hearth, cooking food slowly in hot embers. Fortunately for your local fire department, braising no longer requires an open hearth. While braising was typically used for tough pieces of beef, it also works well with tender chicken or fish, especially turbot or halibut. Braising can occur on the stovetop or in the oven. I prefer the stovetop, but either way you should use a good heavy bottom pot. A Dutch oven (Staub or Le Crueset) is a must.

Going back to life getting in the way of a good meal…

I keep a Costco-sized bag of frozen chicken breasts in the freezer for quick night dinners. Now, I know that nothing is more banal in our modern, homogenized world than skinless, chicken breasts. But they are convenient. And here’s where the braising comes in handy. With this technique, you can transform that boring chicken breast into a pretty decent meal. Of course, skin-on chicken thighs or chicken legs are the bomb when it comes to braising! But in a pinch, at 7:00PM on a Monday night with fractions and spelling practice closing in, the chicken breast will have to do.

After I’ve thawed the chicken breasts in a bath of hot water for about 15 minutes, I pat them dry and season them with salt and pepper and lightly coat them with flour. Then it’s time for a good sear in the Dutch oven using about two tablespoons of olive oil. (Maybe if no one is watching, I will use a bit of butter! Like Julia Child, I love butter!) After browning the chicken breasts on both sides, I remove them from the Dutch oven and set them aside. I then add some onion, garlic and mushrooms, and sauté until browned. I’ll then de-glaze the  Dutch oven with some white wine, vermouth, or white port. (If you’ve never cooked with vermouth, you’re missing out!) At this point, I add chicken stock, fresh thyme, parsley, and maybe a bit more white wine or vermouth. The amount of liquid should cover half or 3/4th of the chicken. I braise on the stove top at very low heat for about an hour to an hour and a half. 

When finished, I remove the chicken and add some flour to thicken the sauce. Another approach is to strain the liquid and remove the excess fat and reduce if necessary. Beurre manié (roux) can also be added, but this seems to defeat the whole purpose. 

What do I call this concoction? French chicken, of course!  But you could just as easily think of it as your easy working day meal, simpler to prepare than you think and more rewarding than another pizza delivery.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Happy Birthday!

© 2015 Chris Terrell
Yeah, that's a big flask!
Today is my 45th birthday. And like last year, I was fortunate to celebrate my birthday over an entire weekend, highlighted by a wonderful dinner at The Inn at Little Washington
But mine was not the only birthday worthy of celebrating this past weekend. On Saturday, March 7, this blog survived its second year of operation. (Let's hope the terrible twos apply only to children!) 
And like last year, I wanted to list my ten favorite blog posts, with a brief intro about the post and my favorite passage from it. But unlike last year, these are not ranked. Rather, I listed them simply in chronological order. That way, you can put them in what ever order you wish. (Click on the title for a link to the full text of the post.)

This post addressed how food in America has changed since the 1970s, including my relationship with food since my childhood in the 1970s.  

I still remember my first “fancy” meal. My family had recently moved to the outskirts of Washington, DC, from a small town in southeast Virginia. This was my first foray into the big city. (Before that I had confused Richmond, Virginia, with New York!) We went to lunch at a now-defunct chain called The American Cafe. In keeping with its name, this restaurant sought, with typical American exuberance, to reproduce Parisian brassiere food for the masses. Being a 12-year member of the American masses, I thought this place was the bomb! I ordered the crepe suzette and discovered that there was more to food than bologna sandwiches and cheese doodles.

Meatloaf: Score! (March 5, 2014)

If my blog posts this past year have a common thread, it is probably nostalgia. There seems to have been a lot of writing about comfort food. Well, this one is about the ultimate comfort food: meatloaf! 

I must admit—I love meatloaf. No, not the early 80s arena rocker, but the other meatloaf. Yes, that much maligned all-American dish. How many times did we hear the refrain in all those family sitcoms from the 60s-80s in which one or more children is heard moaning: “Oh no! Not meatloaf…again!” But I think the hatred for meatloaf is urban legend; a falsehood; a conspiracy by the Broccoli Growers Association. Kids really like meatloaf. Why? Because it tastes damn good and it has ketchup in it; that’s why!

Cooking In French (April 6, 2014)

The next best thing to eating in Paris is strolling through her markets for your next meal.

It was a mild evening, so we kept the windows open. Candles, flowers, jazz on the stereo, and the rhythmic sound of the Parisian police car completed the scene. At one point, I thought: “How Parisian!”  But it wasn’t really Parisian, any more than it was Italian, Spanish, American, or even Russian. We were doing what everyone likes to do: have a nice meal with loved ones and talk about the day. This time, the day just happened to have been in Paris.

History Is Not Even Past In a City Like Paris

In 2014, I was fortunate enough to make another trip to the City of Lights. This is one place I'll never get tired of writing about, especially the cafes.

What makes a Parisian cafe such an institution, however, is its pace. While the waiters hustle about, the guests sit and eat and drink and talk deliberately. Time seems to stand still.  And of course, a demitasse of espresso is a down-payment for a long-term lease to sit on the sidewalk and people watch throughout the afternoon.

Medium Rare (May 5, 2014)

More nostalgia...more comfort food...

When I hear the word "steak," I recall memories of Saturday nights in the summer when my dad would fire up the charcoal grill, and my mom would make a wedge salad with her homemade dressing of mayonnaise and ketchup. I don’t remember the rest of it because I never got the recipe before it was lost. 

Play Ball! (May 15,201

OK, there's nothing gourmet about ballpark food, but the lowly deserves its share of the limelight from time to time, especially when it relates to America's pastime! 

The list goes on and on. These days, major league ballparks seem to be in some kind of gastronomic arms race—each trying to out do the other in the variety and “gourmet-ness” of the dishes offered. But for me, nothing beats a simple hot dog on a warm spring night, peanut shells piling up at your feet, and the crack of a baseball bat. 
Ground zero of the Republic my friend.

I did a lot traveling in 2014, and I discovered there's a strong connection between travel, food, eating, and memory.

On the flight back to Birmingham later that day, I got to thinking about the connections between travel and food and memory. Without traveling too far by modern standards, I had had lunch at a deli that served pimento cheese, reminiscent of home; an Indian restaurant thousands of miles from India that reminded me of a long-ago trip to London; and brunch at a French restaurant that brought back memories of leisurely strolls in the 5th Arrondissement. This notion of travel and memory was captured recently in a great travel article in The New York Times by Liesl Schillinger (Read article). In it, she returns to a small village in central France where she had stayed one summer as a young girl. She states that “[i]n the mind, geography converges; beloved landscapes, villages, cities, countries, all become one, in the borderless scrapbook of memory.”  

Her sentiments are equally true when it comes to food. And just like my memories of my travels will be no less idealized than Schillinger’s, I will also one day do the same about the meals I had one weekend in Washington, DC, in the late spring of 2014. As Anthony Bourdain once said: “Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one’s life.”

I’m already journey proud for the next course!

Eggs Were Definitely First! (July 31, 2014)

I picked this post because it's about one of my favorite foods; its zen-like perfection; and its Miagi-esque complexity. 

At one point in his book Medium Raw, Anthony Bourdain lists several things that everyone should know how to cook. One of these is the omelet. I couldn’t agree more, but I would add one more item: scrambled eggs. Scrambled eggs are deceptively complex. Because of their simple preparation, there is little room for the aspiring chef to hide mistakes. And what is the most frequent mistake made by a home cook? Overcooking. Most folks scramble eggs until they are devoid of any last ounce of moisture or silkiness, leaving dried tasteless clumps better served to the condemned. Simply put, scrambled eggs require a lot more attention than most would think. As M.F.K. Fisher noted: “This concoction is obviously a placid one, never to be attempted by a nervous, harried woman, one anxious to slap something on the table and get it over with.”

This was one of my more self-deprecating entries—needling the foodies of the world (including me). 

The increased culinary emphasis of authenticity is a blessing and a curse—the product of the increasingly diverse nature of culinary options in America today. Thirty years ago, we couldn’t have talked about an “authentic” Indian or Vietnamese restaurant because we were lucky to have a third-rate Chinese restaurant serving lo mien. Now, we have cafes offering banh mi sandwiches with southern style barbecue sauce. But does that make that banh mi any less authentic than one served from a truck in Hanoi? 

And no blog about food would be complete without a post about the uniquely American insanity that is Thanksgiving!

Our journey had begun propitiously enough in Birmingham when we sailed through a hassle-free, friendly TSA screening, with an on-time departure. After a smooth flight with prompt drink service, we landed early in Charlotte! As we walked off the plane into Concourse E, with its all-too-expected smell of fried jalapeño poppers from Chili’s Too, we were hit with the cold reality of modern air travel, posted in white Helvetica type: FLIGHT DELAYED! 

Our flight was at least an hour late, though it turned out to be more like an hour and a half. But the real kicker was that there was only one bar in Terminal E, obviously added as an afterthought. It had about as much square footage as an Airstream camper and a line of about 25 people waiting for over-priced, precisely-measured, cheap well drinks. After waiting without success for about 10-15 minutes for the privilege of commandeering a mere 18 square inches at the bar, I gave up.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Hero Worship

It’s not every day that you get to meet one of your heroes. 
My day arrived on the evening of Thursday, February 19, 2015, when I met Eric Ripert, the chef and co-owner of Le Bernardin in New York City. I had dined at Le Bernardin once before, several years back, and it was the most sublime meal I’ve ever had. I’ve been trying to get back there ever since. 
I have several credit cards with airlines and hotels so I can earn frequent flyer points. Like all credit cards, they are always sending you myriad emails touting the latest and greatest promotions. I usually hit “delete” immediately, but the one that arrived on January 21, 2015, caught my eye. I opened it, and here’s what it said:
Spend an evening experiencing the cuisine of internationally celebrated restaurateur, author, and television personality, Chef Eric Ripert. This culinary event hosted by Chef Ripert will take place in New York City at Le Bernardin's new private space.
CALL TO RESERVE: 1-888-xxx-xxxx
I called immediately and, for once, I didn’t mind being placed on hold. When the lovely lady from Visa answered the phone, I realized that I had left my work iPhone back at the office so I had no idea if I could do this thing on a random Thursday night in February. Rolling the dice, I bought two tickets for the event. Risky move, I know, but it all worked out in the end. Now, I just had to get to New York in the dead of winter!
If you live on the East Coast, you know that this has been a particularly harsh winter. Maybe I’ve been a good boy lately. Maybe, just maybe, I’ve racked up some extra Karma points because my plane from Birmingham to Washington left on time. (The plan was to fly to Reagan-National and meet Laura and then take the shuttle to Laguardia.) Unfortunately because of high winds at Laguardia, our flight was delayed. We were given the choice of getting off the plane and booking another flight or staying put and waiting until we could leave. We decided to stay and were rewarded when our flight left earlier than expected!
After an uneventful cab ride from Laguardia to the St. Regis, we chilled out before heading out to La Bernardin. 
The evening started with cocktails and canapés. It was a diverse crowd. Some were New Yorkers who were clearly regulars of Le Bernardin. Others were out-of-towners. I think one couple had traveled all the way from the West Coast.
After about 20 minutes, Ripert walked out from the kitchen and began to mingle with the crowd. I tried to “act like I had been there before” when I reached out and shook Ripert’s hand, but I’m sure the glazed foodie-groupie expression on my face gave it away. 
Before dinner, Ripert gave a brief cooking demonstration, showing how he made his famous tuna carpaccio. And while I consider my knife skills pretty decent, this guy never even looked down as he cut chives into perfectly symmetrical pieces!
Ripert is honest and unassuming when he talks about food. In fact, he’s almost shy. For him, cooking is a real creative endeavor. And unlike a lot of his contemporaries, Ripert has resisted the urge to open up restaurants in Vegas; Branson, Missouri; or Concourse D in Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport. 
Toward the end of the meal, Ripert made himself available for a Q&A session. I grabbed the mic for the first question. Here’s my question as best that I can remember: “Considering all that France has offered America and the world in terms of cuisine and culinary technique, what could the increasing number of American chefs in Paris offer France?” This was a loaded question of course, which my fellow diners responded to with nervous laughter. Ripert, however, answered it with grace. 
He said that the issue is no longer about one country versus another. Rather, it is about the whole world because chefs (including Ripert) learn from other cultures. For example, Ripert mentioned how he wants to incorporate Korean temple food into his menu after a recent trip to Korea. 
When Ripert did talk about the difference between American chefs and French chefs, the point of departure he chose to discuss was interesting. He said that working under a French chef can be brutal, if not abusive. He recalled many literal kicks in the derrière and demeaning language. If I recall correctly, Ripert said that his nickname was the French phrase for “bruised shoulder” because of the number of times he had been punched by the chef. In contrast, he said Americans were more constructive in their criticism and more collaborative in their approach. 

Ripert is a successful, classically trained French chef, with all the tradition and conservatism that that implies. Yet, he continues to create recipes that are both traditional and new—no easy feat. At the end of the night, we were all given a swag bag which, among other things, contained a signed copy of Ripert’s cookbook Avec Eric (With Eric). The recipes are built around themes, such as “Big Flavor,” “Artisanal,” “Craftsmanship,” and “Tradition.” In the introduction to the chapter titled “Tradition,” Ripert says “Traditional recipes are important maps to follow in order to create something new.” For anyone who has ever cooked anything—either their mom’s less-than-perfect chocolate cake recipe or the latest “it recipe” from The Food Network—this is good advice indeed.