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 d├ęcor 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?


Ty said...

Hi, Michele sent me!

Hmmm, the best meal I've ever had would have to be at The Narrows restaraunt-Kent Island,MD. I'm a native Eastern Shore girl so I'm very picky when it comes to crab cakes but I have to say The Narrows had the very best I've had. This was 10 years ago though and sadly I've never had a chance to go back.

And no, I've never met a celebrity chef. I love Food Network so it would be cool to meet one of them.

Carli N. Wendell said...

Batali lives in the neighborhood where I work, so I've seen him a coupla times. Once, I saw him walking out of Bigelow Chemists (really old pharmacy) and he said "hi" to a couple of cops standing outside. When he left, one cop turned to the other and said, "Did you see what he was wearing on his FEET?" (He was wearing really ugly orange clog sandals.)

I'm not much into fancy dining; it makes me uncomfortable. But the best meal ever? Probably anytime I get pizza from Lombardi's.

Anonymous said...

Alas, I was hoping your would feel industrious with each upcoming post. Thanks for the Michelle Shocked the other day. You really lifted my spirits!!
Strangely enough . . . the best meal of my life was at a McDonalds after several days of camping and running out of food (just the sheer joy of eating again). I think that just goes to show how completely mood dependent our perception of a great meal can be.

yellojkt said...

I've heard that Batali wears ugly orange clogs. It seems that rumor is true.

And charlotte, I will post more tunes with music-related posts. You have to be patient> I have lots of demons in my head fighting for attention.

Anonymous said...

Hello, Michele sent me.

I better comment now before I start following these links and get distracted.

Best restaurant, I'm not sure. There was a french resaturant on Coast Del Sol, Spain but I forget it's name now.

Elizabeth said...

Best meal would be fresh halibut at the hotel at the end of the spit in Homer, Alaska. Yum! I've never seen a celebrity chef. Those restaurants you went to look pretty fancy, but the food looks amazing! Especially the desserts!

sage said...

Okay, if your going to have Carolina low-country comfort food, you better have a chick-bog (and I don't no fancy chef to make that). I don't remember the name, but I was in a classy Chinese place in Yokahoma once and the chef was doing a big party in another room and brought us all out to sample some of his shark fin soup. I was impressed.

oh, I almost forgot to say hi for Michele.

Mitch McDad said...

The most indulgent meal, and possibly the best I've ever had--certainley the most memorable, was a tasting menu at Le Cinc, at the George V hotel in Paris.

Babbo is definitely on my list: of course I haven't been back to NY in five years or more, which makes that a bit of a challenge.

kenju said...

The best meals I have had recently were in Italy and France last Oct. Very fresh ingredients and the best quality meats, etc., combined to make every meal we had there memorable.

The best breakfast I've had was last year at Balthazar in NYC. Their brunch on Sunday is supurb and it also requires a 60 day advance reservation! I have never run into a celebrity chef.

Michele sent me.

kenju said...

Michele said to come back, yellojkt, and tell you about my dinner. Prime rib with mushroom sauce, baked potatoes fresh asparagus, apple pie and ice cream. The best part was I didn't have to cook most of it - I have a visiting friend who did the honors. She could be a chef!

OldLady Of The Hills said...

Mmmmm. Good Question? But in all honesty, I don't remember a WHOLE meal being The Best Meal I ever had....Now, if I could combine memorable BEST courses at different restaurants....Well, that might be a little easier...
The best APPITIZER I ever had was a Shrimp Cocktail....(I know, no one eats those any more...LOL) at a Restaurant on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles that isn't there was in 1947!!! Truly! I can still taste it.
The Best Salad I ever ate was at a Restaurant in Atlanta and I do not remember the name of it---it was in that Underground place...I can still taste that was a Mushroom Salad...absolutely Sublime!(1971) Best entree...That is harder...But there was a wonderful restaurant in New York on West 55tn street called Maud Chezelle...Superb Superb! Beautiful simple Old Fashioned steak....1963....and the BEST Creamed Spinish used to be at Sardi's, back in the day....!
The Best Dessert I ever ate was at a restaurant in the South Of France near Antibes....(The name escapes me---something like Aubachon....A Chocolate Souflee to die for. (1969) Went back the next night just for the dessert!
Thanks for your visit today...did Michele send you? I kind of think she did....! I love all the restaurants you talked about and the links to them....And no, I have never met a Four Star Rock Star Type Chef, unless the Spago guy counts...!

yellojkt said...

Wolfgang Puck definitely counts. He's all over the Food Network. We ate at his Vert restaurant in Hollywood the night I saw Angelina Jolie.

Anonymous said...

I was flying to Kauai, Hawaii (the most beautiful place on earth) about two weeks ago with a lay over at LA airport and was at Wolfgang Puck's place for lunch and my husband said "Hey, that guy looks like the guy who does "UNWRAPPED" on TV. I said no.
He said go ask him! So I went over to the counter when he was ordering his lunch and said "Has anyone every told you , you look like the guy on "UNWRAPPED"? (I couldn't remember the guy's name)
He said that not only do people tell him that that he IS HIM! Well, I got a picture right away with him, his name is
Mark Summer's! He was the nicest guy I ever met. He ate lunch with us and took pictures with my kids,
he told us all about his new show he is producing (it just started two weeks ago) DINNER IMPOSSIBLE!
He gave me a signed photo. He lives in LA. I told him I liked Paula Deen's show and have been to her two resturants in Georgia, he said the were best friends. He also produces the show her two sons do now. He was such a GREAT guy to lunch with in LA.
But the best dinner I ever had was a lobster tail on the island of ST. JOHN. It was a the Hyatt Hotel over looking the beach, sadly the hotel was ruined by a hurricane about ten years ago. It's now a Westin Resort. GOOD EATS!

yellojkt said...

That's a great story HawaiiGal. Unwrapped is a great show. Glad to hear Mark Summers is a nice guy.

Impetua said...

Best meal ever: anytime my better half grills me a ribeye. She is a bbq savant. If I have managed to whip up some lightly steamed asparagus and some baked potatoes, or mashed preferably, well, who needs to go out?

Best dining experience: Botin, in Madrid, just off the Plaza Mayor. Here I had my first sangria, my first filet mignon, and my first flan. Sadly, if you have really superb flan as your first experience, you will be doomed to disappointment if you try it anywhere else. It was kinda touristy but lots of fun, with handsome young men strolling around in period garb serenading the diners. This restaurant has been in continuous operation since like 1725 or something, but the locals still eat there.

A place in Portland that is sadly defunct used to make the best caesar salad in the known universe. Mmmmm....

Anonymous said...

Oddly enough, I remember Mark Summers from school; he was at my college, and its radio station shortly before transferring to CW Post. He did a game show called, cleverly enough, "The Game Show".

I didn't know him that well but he did NOT have a good reputation with those who did.

Topic? I'd have to break it down into courses as well. Christiano's in Syosset, NY has fantastic baked clams. The Salad course I'd have to cede to my sister. She makes a great homemade dressing. Paesano's in Rutherford, NJ, makes a Seafood Fra Diavolo to die for. For dessert, there is only Finale in Boston. You'll look at the entire menu and say, "I'll take it!"

For the soup course I'm going to blow my own horn. I make a tortellini soup that's remarkably simple and gets rave reviews every time.

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