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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, February 23, 2015

Learning French

Next month I head back to France. As usual, before that trip, I will brush up on my French, such as it is. (Which doesn’t get me too far because, despite the stereotype, everyone is eager to speak English.) I have French language CDs that I listen to during my morning commute, which garners strange looks from other commuters who no doubt are wondering why that guy in the car next to them at the traffic light is talking to himself. I also listen to French Canadian radio, but usually only catch about one word out of ten. The most entertaining method to practice one’s French is to watch French movies, especially comedies. The plots are obviously not terribly complicated, so you can figure out a lot about what is going on without understanding every spoken word. 

And so recently I came across a light-hearted French comedy staring Jean Reno and Michaël Youn titled Le Chef (Trailer). The plot resembles another movie by the same, albeit English, title: Chef, staring Jon Favreau. ( Meals on Wheels)

In Le Chef, Reno plays Alexandre Legarde, a cantankerous and ambitious veteran chef who is on the verge of losing everything because the restaurant owner’s greedy son is in charge, and he wants to force Legarde aside and replace him with a younger chef who specializes in molecular gastronomy. In order to get Legarde fired, the owner’s son plans to have the restaurant lose one star after Legarde (the stereotypical French traditionalist) fails to impress the critics with a molecular gastronomic masterpiece. Of course, Lagarde has no idea how to create such a dish. (The scene where Reno tries to recreate a deconstructed duck is one of the movie’s best.) But along comes Jacky Bonnot, played by Youn, an up-and-coming young chef who worships Legarde and knows more about Legarde than even Legarde knows about himself. 

Of course, the movie follows the predictable comedy plot and vaguely resembles Ratatouille. I was also surprised how—dare I say this?—how American this movie seemed. First, there was the ambitious chef who ignores his offspring, in this case his daughter who is working on her PhD. And then the up-and-coming iconoclast who wants to shake up the staid French culinary world. And finally, the last minute deux ex machina that saves the day. All that being said, however, the movie is fun to watch, and it does take on issues of excessive commercialism in haute cuisine, eating locally, and trendy food vs. culinary tradition.

When I travel to France next month, I can’t say that I will seek out the culinary trend of month or the ne plus ultra of French haute cuisine. But I will be looking for good food, served by iconoclastic and, yes, even insouciant chefs who enjoy cooking not just to obtain stars or critical praise, but for the joy of cooking itself.  Stay tuned for tales of my upcoming dining adventures.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

At Your Service

© 2015 Chris Terrell
The other night while having dinner at a nice restaurant here in Birmingham, I stated, with some certitude, that I would rather dine in a restaurant with below-average food, but above-average service. One of my dinner companions disagreed, insisting that the quality of the food was most important. I was still thinking about this conversation, and the quip that started it, a few days later. Then I realized that I had been a bit too glib,  too clever-by-half. Perhaps I should have said that I would rather have a below-average meal with above-average company than the other way around. (Of course, I don't intend to imply that the company that night was in any way below average!)

And while the food served in a restaurant is important, let us not forget that the word “restaurant” derives from the French word for “restore.” Like eating with family or with friends, dining out is a commensal act that should restore us from a hard day at the office, at school, in the field, or on the factory floor.  The communal and restorative act of eating in a restaurant remains so, even when dining alone. 
I travel a lot for business, and unless I’m dog tired, I will go out to eat, even if in the hotel restaurant or bar. After all, you can always chit-chat with the server and, better yet, the bartender. I’m a big fan of eating at the bar. You don’t have to wait, and bartenders by nature and their profession are ready conversationalists. Strangers also are more friendly at the bar—the bottle instills an easy, natural Hemingway camaraderie.
Going back to the conversation that started all this: have we gone too much to the “food-is-more-important” side of the restaurant equation? As Adam Gopnik points out in his book, The Table Comes First, “Having made food a more fashionable object, we have ended by making eating a smaller subject.” I agree. Eating should be a bigger subject, not only when we talk about restaurants, but when we engage in the larger conversation about food. 
I’m struck by that moment when Julia Child had her first meal on French soil: sole meunière. It sounds fancy to our Anglo-Saxon ears, but this simplest of French preparations is nothing more than fish, butter, a bit of flour, lemon, and parsley. Julia Child never forgot that meal. 
So restaurants really are more than the service-vs.-food dichotomy that got me started a few paragraphs back. They are where we have our first peek as children into that mysterious world of adults; where we have our first dates; where we propose marriage; celebrate births; and console the loss of those no longer with us. Restaurants, good and bad, will change with the times, but I can’t imagine a world without them. 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Cocktails in the Cinema

©2015 Chris Terrell
When writer’s block set in a few days ago—which happens more often than I would like to admit—I thought about how I could incorporate my love of movies into this blog. And as I reached for a sip of my freshly made martini, it hit me! Booze! The only thing better than cinema is cocktails and cinema. So, here it is. My top-ten list of the best cocktail-themed movies (and one TV show).

#10 The Big Lebowski (1998); Directors: Joel & Ethan Cohen; Stars: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, and Julianne Moore.

What it's about according to IMDB: "The Dude" Lebowski, mistaken for a millionaire Lebowski, seeks restitution for his ruined rug and enlists his bowling buddies to help get it.

Best Line: The Dude: [repeated line by The Dude and others] That rug really tied the room together.

A cult classic film that revived an obscure cocktail: the White Russian, though the Dude refers to as the "Caucasian." 

The White Russian was invented when someone added cream to a Black Russian (vodka and coffee liqueur). The drink really has nothing to do with Russia, other than the fact that it contains vodka. There are variations, of course. Two of my favorites are the Anna Kournikova (made with skim milk) and the White Cuban (made with rum instead of vodka).

I actually went through a White Russian phase back in college, though I'm not sure why. This "dude's" fling with the drink ended abruptly when a Kappa Delta asked, "Isn't that a girl's drink?" I've never had one since! 

#9 Lost In Translation (2003); Director: Sofia Coppola; Stars: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, and Giovanni Ribisi. |

What it’s about according to IMDB: “A faded movie star and a neglected young woman form an unlikely bond after crossing paths in Tokyo.”

Best Line: “Let's never come here again because it would never be as much fun.”

This may come as a surprise to a lot of folks, but the Japanese love scotch. What is more surprising is that they make really good scotch. (Yeah, I know it’s not really “scotch” because it’s not from Scotland, but don’t quibble.) More surprising is that Japan has an excellent home-grown scotch industry, with Suntory being at the top. So, I strongly encourage you try some if you can find it. I had to go to Atlanta to get a bottle of Yamasaki, but it was so worth it!

#8 Some Like it Hot (1959); Director: Billy Wilder; Stars: Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon, and Tony Curtis

What it’s about according to IMDB: When two musicians witness a mob hit, they flee the state in an all female band disguised as women, but further complications set in.

Best Line: “Sugar: [on marrying well] I don't care how rich he is, as long as he has a yacht, his own private railroad car, and his own toothpaste."

                   —Sugar [Played by Marilyn Monroe]

“Further complications set in…?” That’s an understatement! This is one of the funniest movies ever! Besides, guys dressed in drag is always, always funny! This movie also shows that Monroe was more that some bleached-blond bimbo. She really did have talent. 

Why is this movie on my list? Because the Manhattan is the drink of choice for both the “men” and the women in the movie. The Manhattan is one of my favorite cocktails and, if done right, is appealing to both men and women. It is slightly sweet but not overwhelmingly so, which appeals to the ladies; it is made from whiskey, which appeals to the guys; and it has a cool name, which should appeal to everyone. 

#7: Absolutely Fabulous (a/k/a “AbFab”) 

What it’s about according to IMDB: Edina Monsoon and her best friend Patsy drive Eddie's sensible daughter, Saffron, up the wall with their constant drug abuse and outrageous selfishness.

Best Line(s): 

Eddie: All right, time for another little drinkie before we go?

Saffie: Where are you going?

Eddie: New York.

Saffie: I didn't think they let people with convictions in.

Eddie: Darling, its not a conviction.

Patsy: Just a firm belief.

Eddie: Yes.

If you have heard of, or used, the phrase “guilty pleasure” then you may have watched at least one episode of Absolutely Fabulous, known affectionately by its fans as AbFab. This BBC comedy ran, on and off, from 1992 to 2012 and starred Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley as two boozy, drug-addled, fashioned-obsessed single women living in London. 

Eddie and Patsy always seem to have a bottle of Champagne in their hands and it always seems to be Veuve Cliquet, which would seem so appropriate.

Here are some clips from some of the show’s more memorable lines: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GOGeTQvVtA8

#6 Casino Royale (2006); Director: Martin Campbell; Stars: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, and Eve Green

What it’s about according to IMDB: Armed with a license to kill, Secret Agent James Bond sets out on his first mission as 007 and must defeat a weapons dealer in a high stakes game of poker at Casino Royale, but things are not what they seem.

Best Line(s): 

Vesper Lynd: [introducing herself to Bond] I'm the money. 

James Bond: Every penny of it.

This is the kick-ass reboot of the Bond franchise. The debate still rages on, but Daniel Craig may…just may…surpass Sean Connery as the baddest Bond ever. Because of arcane copyright issues, Ian Fleming’s Bond novel was never made into a serious movie until Craig’s version. And only someone like Bond could create a new cocktail whilst trying to stay alive, win at cards, and get the girl! That takes talent! 

Here’s the recipe from the novel Casino Royale by Ian Fleming:

"A dry martini," [Bond] said. "One. In a deep champagne goblet."

"Oui, monsieur."

"Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it's ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?"
"Certainly, monsieur." The barman seemed pleased with the idea.

"Gosh, that's certainly a drink," said Leiter.

Bond laughed. "When I'm...er...concentrating," he explained, "I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad. This drink's my own invention. I'm going to patent it when I can think of a good name."

—Ian Fleming, Casino Royale, Chapter 7, Rouge et Noir

#5 Silence of the Lambs (1991); Director: Jonathan Demme; Stars: Sir Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster

What It’s About According to IMDB: A young F.B.I. cadet must confide in an incarcerated and manipulative killer to receive his help on catching another serial killer who skins his victims.

Best Line: A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.

— Hannibal Lechter

This movie scared the crap out of me when it first came out. Anthony Hopkins was perfect in this role. And of course, it was many years before I could even think about having a glass of Chianti at my local Italian restaurant, much less fava beans. And thankfully, I’ve never been much of a fan of liver, except for foie gras. At least, Hannibal didn’t ruin that for me!

#4 Casablanca (1942); Director: Michael Curtiz; Stars: Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman

What it’s about according to IMDB: Set in unoccupied Africa during the early days of World War II: An American expatriate meets a former lover, with unforeseen complications.

Best Line(s): 

Major Strasser: What is your nationality?

Rick: I’m a drunkard.

Renault: And that makes Rick a citizen of the world.

Unlike the other films in this list (with the possible exception of Sideways), this movie does more than simply feature a cocktail. Instead, roughly 80% of the movie takes place in a bar! And one of those drinks consumed in that bar, Rick’s Café Américain, is the French 75, one of my perennial favorites. This is a great cocktail—named after a 75-mm French artillery piece used in World War I—and designed to hit you like a shell from that gun. The original recipe called for cognac, but the English, who abhor all things French, introduced gin into the mix. This drink has made something of a comeback in recent years, as I see it more and more frequently on restaurant menus. 

#3 Groundhog Day (1993); Director: Harold Ramis; Stars: Bill Murray, Andie McDowell, and Chris Elliott

What It’s About According to IMDB: A weatherman finds himself living the same day over and over again.

Best Line(s):

Phil: I was in the Virgin Islands once. I met a girl. We ate lobster, drank piña coladas. At sunset, we made love like sea otters.

Phil: That was a pretty good day. Why couldn't I get that day over, and over, and over...

Bill Murray earned his “stripes” because he made this list twice with two different movies. 

This movie really presents every guy’s dream: fixing  that disastrous first date by replaying it over and over until you get it right. In this case, Bill Murray’s obnoxious protagonist discovers that Andie McDowell’s character’s favorite cocktail is sweet vermouth on the rocks and a twist. During the first time they meet at the bar, Murray orders a manly drink—Bourbon on the rocks—McDowell, a sweet vermouth on the rocks with a twist (yuck!). She waxes rhapsodically about how the drink reminds her of Rome.  And guess what Murray orders the next time, and guess what he talks about? Smart use of that power bro! 

#2 Sideways (2004); Director: Alexander Payne; Stars: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, and Virginia Madsen

What It’s About According to IMDB: Two men reaching middle age with not much to show but disappointment, embark on a week long road trip through California's wine country, just as one is about to take a trip down the aisle.

Best Line(s): 

Jack: If they want to drink Merlot, we're drinking Merlot.

Miles Raymond: No, if anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am NOT drinking any f**king Merlot!

This is the only movie on the list where a particular drink (wine) and drinking that dirnk are at the heart of the movie. If there was an academy award for “Best Actor in the Role of a Self-Loathing, Yet Lovable, Jerk,” then Paul Giamatti would have won it hands down. The best scene in the movie is not the one we’ve all come to know (and which pretty much killed sales of Merlot), but the one near the end in which Miles is alone in a rundown burger joint sneaking sips of a bottle of 1961 Cheval Blanc hidden in a bum’s brown bag. The ultimate irony? Cheval Blanc is made from the two grapes Miles flames in the movie: merlot and cabernet franc.

Of course the real star of the movie is pinot noir, which is the vehicle by which we get to understand Miles and Maya:


Uh, I don't know, I don't know. Um, it's a hard grape to grow, as you know. Right? It's uh, it's thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It's, you know, it's not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and uh, thrive even when it's neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they're just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and... ancient on the planet.


How it's a living thing. I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing; how the sun was shining; if it rained. I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes. And if it's an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I like how wine continues to evolve, like if I opened a bottle of wine today it would taste different than if I'd opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive. And it's constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks, like your '61. And then it begins its steady, inevitable decline.

* * * 
And it tastes so f**king good.

#1 Goldfinger (1964); Director: Guy Hamilton: Stars: Sean Connery, Gert Fröbe, and Honor Blackman

What it's about according to IMDB: Investigating a gold magnate's smuggling, James Bond uncovers a plot to contaminate the Fort Knox gold reserve.

Best Line(s): 

James Bond: Do you expect me to talk?

Auric Goldfinger: No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!

“Shaken, not stirred.” No other phrase is more associated with a movie character or series of movies than this one. Believe it or not, the phrase wasn’t used until the third Bond film, Goldfinger. (While Dr. No uses this phrase when he offers the drink to Bond in Dr. No, Bond himself doesn’t use the phrase until Goldfinger in 1964.) And of course, it became the most well known trademark of the Bond character in subsequent films, with a few notable variations on a theme.  

In You Only Live Twice, the cocktail is offered stirred, not shaken, but Bond graciously accepts it nonetheless. (Smart man! No one never turns down a free drink!) In Casino Royale, after losing millions of dollars in a game of poker, Bond retreats to the bar to lick his wound, and when asked if he wants his martini shaken or stirred, he snarls: "Do I look like I give a damn?” And interestingly, Roger Moore’s Bond never ordered a martini, although he received one in The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker, and Octopussy.