Sunday, February 18, 2007
Rock Star Chefs
Celebrity chefs nowadays get treated like rock stars nowadays. In some ways there are some similarities. Both work long hours, often at night, and wear funny clothes. Both also do things that normal people do, cook and sing. Just much better than mere mortals.
A contributing factor to this cult of personality is The Food Network. While many of their hosts like Rachel Ray, Giada DeLaurentis (who shares my taste in Venice Beach lunch spots), and Chris Cognac are just pretty faces, many are real working chefs with their own restaurants. Like my blogfriend, Madame Courtney Whiny Complainy Pants, Esq., I am guilty of stalking celebrity chefs just because they are famous. Some are over-rated and some are worthy of the hype.
One of the toughest reservations in New York is Mario Batali’s Babbo. In order to get a table, you have to wardial the reservation line exactly sixty days ahead of when you want to eat. The “must eat” menu item is his five course pasta-tasting menu where increasingly complex dishes are brought out. Batali also tends to favor obscure ingredients that you would be upset to find in your hotdog. For the money and the hassle, we expected better service. We never quite knew who our waiter was and felt a little hurried. A few years later we had a very nice Easter brunch at one of Batali’s other restaurants, Lupa, where the food was little more conventional.
Another omnipresent Food Network chef is the folksy Bobby Flay. One summer, we snagged Restaurant Week reservations to Mesa Grill. We showed up a little before it opened, so they let us sit at the bar until our table was ready. Sitting on top of the bar was the morning mail addressed to Bobby. My wife refused to let me snag a letter as a souvenir or read his Wall Street Journal. Then Bobby walked out with some people and spent several minutes within earshot of us discussing color samples, presumably for one of his newer restaurants. It may have been for the recently opened Bar Americain, which is much bigger and fancier than Mesa, but doesn’t quite have the personal touches that Mesa has.
Some chefs are so famous they don’t need a television show to burnish their reputation. The best meal my wife and I have ever eaten was at a restaurant owned by international culinary superstar Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Nougatine is the less formal (and less expensive) seating area at his New York flagship restaurant Jean Georges in the Trump International Hotel on Columbus Circle. The key concept is that “less” is a relative term. The service was obsequious to the point of intimidating. And the food was superb. The rolls came with both salted and unsalted butter. One guy's full-time job was to keep our water filled and refold our napkins back into pope's hats when we left the table. On the other hand, his thai-french fusion restaurant Vong was a bit disappointing until the fantastic deserts. On a whim one day we had lunch at the nearly empty V Steakhouse. The rather expensive hamburger wasn’t even as good as the much cheaper Burger Joint in the Parker Meridian. V Steakhouse with its Louis XIV bordello décor was closed the last time we visited Time Warner Center’s “food court”.
Time Warner Center also houses Per Se, the east coast version of Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, perhaps the most famous chef currently cooking. While Keller doesn’t do television, Anthony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour spent a long afternoon indulging in Kellor’s whimsical gourmet food. Both French Laundry and Per Se remain fantasies for my tummy. When we were in Yountville, we drove by the French Laundry just so I could take a gag photo of me eating a candy bar in front of the French Laundry sign so I could claim to have eaten at the French Laundry.
When we got back to our train boxcar hotel room, I found out that Thomas Kellor also owned Bouchon across the street. On a random Thursday night, this place had a two hour wait. You would think it was the Ellicott City Outback. Since we had already eaten dinner, we chose to sit at the bar. Here we had some munchies and let the bartender mock me for ordering increasingly complicated girly drinks. If you ever want a sixteen dollar ham sandwich, this is the place to go.
Baltimore is not very high on the gourmet destination map, but we do have a rock star chef of our own. My wife and I went to Cindy Wolf’s Charleston restaurant as an early celebration of our joint birthday. The couple at the table next to us mistook the place for a place for a quick pre-theater dinner. Cindy Wolf came over herself to apologize for the misunderstanding.
Charleston’s high concept gimmick is that is a fusion between low-country Carolina comfort food with French haute cuisine. The menu is a build-your-own tasting menu of multiple courses. The waitress was horrified when I compared the idea to Wolf’s tapas-based Pazo. The food was excellent and over our combined eight courses we had grits, foie gras, snails, rabbit, and venison. The service attempted to emulate those four-star New York places. We got new napkins after each bathroom break and when the couple next to us ran to catch their show, the new tablecloth was steam ironed in place. This was a nice special occasion dinner, but in the future I think I would rather spend the same money on two or three meals at Pazo or Petit Louis.
We were seated at the table closest to the kitchen, so I spent most of the evening overhearing Cindy in her trademark checkered flannel pants and comfy shoes managing the orders like a robotic taxi dispatcher. She apparantly stands there all evening watching the food get cooked. Running a world-famous restaurant may make you a rock star, but there is still a lot of work behind the scenes.
Blatant Comment Whoring™: What is the best meal you have ever had? Or, have you ever run into a celebrity chef?