Tweezer cuisine, tattooed chefs and American dyspepsia
Maybe I should become an influencer? Influencers don’t wake up sweating in the middle of the night after bad dreams of editors chasing them down dark alleys, yelling deadlines at them.
Ag nee man, blêrrie hel. I’m sitting here writing a new column and it’s still summer in Chicago. WTF. I signed off my last column smugly saying I’ll be back in deep winter. Well, I was wrong.
You’re probably wondering what happened. Well, my editor happened, demanding a new column even though it feels as though my last column landed a mere 48 hours ago. And it’s not winter, I pleaded, so what am I supposed to write about? Food, came the terse reply. Speaking of words falling on deaf ears.
If you’re an aspiring column writer, let me tell you something about old-school editors, the ones who cut their teeth in newsrooms, back when newspapers still had newsrooms and printing presses. Speaking of cutting teeth, they thrive on writers’ blood, so don’t say I didn’t warn you. How to identify these nefarious creatures hiding in plain sight, you ask. Easy. First, ask them to show you their hands. If they have black ink under their fingernails, be on guard. And second, if you spot blue and red pencils on their desk, make with the feet, baby, and get your ass out the door, ASAP.
Of course my new assignment came with a warning to keep in mind that I’m writing for the food page and NOT the arts page. I will try my best. Funny enough, a few days ago I read something very snide about food influencers, calling them totally knowledge-free as far as cooking is concerned. I sat up. I certainly qualify to be an influencer. Time for a career change, maybe? Influencers certainly don’t wake up sweating in the middle of the night after bad dreams of editors chasing them down dark alleys, yelling deadlines at them. Problem is, nobody has offered me a free meal or sent me cool stuff. Perhaps I’m missing something, like the fact that you have to be cool and under 25. I could have been a contender, 45 years ago, maybe. Oh well.
Anyway, as luck would have it, after my last column I happened to dine in not one, but two fancy restaurants, something I hardly ever do. I don’t know, I just don’t feel like eating fussy food lately, apart from the fact that my bank account is not that of a CEO or a politician. And I’m even less inclined every time I see a picture of some famous tattooed chef, hunched over a plate containing a very minute portion, frowning and clutching a tweezer. Like they’re doing brain surgery. I’ve started referring to it as tweezer cuisine. Whatever happened to the joy of cooking?
The first tweezer food dining experience happened at a fancy restaurant opened by a highly respected chef just a couple of blocks from our house in what used to be a German eatery that I really liked and you can be damn certain they didn’t need tweezers to grill bratwurst. After a few months of trying, Jill managed to snag a table at the new place.
I was a little pissy from the get-go, but once the server asked us if we’d dined with them before and that they recommended sharing to experience the chef’s journey, things took a bad turn. We’ve dined in restaurants before and I’m sure we’ll manage, I muttered. I had suddenly developed a full-on bad attitude. Small plates, I said. No. Okay, is one portion big enough as a meal? We recommend sharing. Okay, small plates. How many portions do you recommend per person? Two and a half. You do half portions? No, all the portions are for sharing. Yes, you mentioned that. And on it went. By this time I was getting quite a few not-so-subtle kicks under the table. Be nice.
The food was good but most of the plates we shared I didn’t really feel like and the few I did feel like, I had to share. At least it was with family so I could be rude and grab stuff before anybody else could react.
A sharing menu with friends is another ball game though. Right up there with brunch with friends. Can’t do it. I’d rather go hang out with the gluttons in Dante’s third circle of hell. So you’re a party of four and a little plate arrives with three meatballs on it. Cringe. Or a party of six, and five meatballs arrive. Odds are, at least one person is a vegetarian. But what if two are vegetarians? So four people and five meatballs. Cringe. Usually one meatball ends up going back to the kitchen because nobody wants to be impolite and spear the last meatball. Maybe I’m cynical but I wouldn’t be surprised if that meatball ends up on another plate with four other meatballs on their journey back to the dining room, only to cause more dining anxiety. Sorry, it’s just stuff I think about in restaurants.
The second time was last week in New York, a Mediterranean place that gets rave reviews and where everything is cooked on open flames by heavily tattooed individuals. Okay, no tweezers, to be fair. I have no issue with tattoos but they were really trumpeting the open flame thing. Like they just invented the wheel. Fact is, people have been cooking on open flames since they crawled out of their Cradle of Humankind caves, right there by you okes, between Johannesburg and Pretoria. Then again, this was New York where open-flame cooking is probably a novelty.
The food was perfectly fine but I wasn’t exactly bowled over. My dad used to braai on an open flame a few times a week from when I can remember. He even made breakfast a few times a week on the fire, before school. For that he used one of those plough things, forget what it’s called, but like a huge shallow pan that our neighbour welded some legs onto. So he could do bacon and eggs and tomatoes on the fire. And this all happened at six in the morning because we had to start riding our bikes to school at seven.
This might be too much personal information, so skip this paragraph, but that night after the New York Mediterranean dining experience, I had some serious indigestion. At some point after midnight I went downstairs searching for a 24-hour drugstore near our hotel in midtown Manhattan to get some Alka Seltzer. No idea what those people did with their food but I suffered. It was really oily and rich, not something you would expect from open flame cooking. Who knows what they did.
Indigestion is one of the reasons I never eat curry in America. I spent many years in Cape Town eating Malay curry for either lunch or dinner, not to mention the rotis at two in the morning at an all-night joint strangely called Formerly Known as Zippies, after clubbing at 1886 or Scratch. Did a lot of theatre work in Durban and ate curry or Portuguese just about every day. I’ve had curry in London, even Berlin. No problem. But here in the USA? Instant dyspepsia. And I’ve been to the best curry places in New York and here in Chicago. Can’t figure it out.
Okay, one exception. We do a lot of work in northern Michigan, where wealthy Chicagoans have summer mansions. One guy we worked for even had his own car wash, underneath his five-car garage. This in a vacation home that they spend maybe three weeks a year in. Not kidding. Not your little wooden cabin by the lake. To get there is quite a drive, however. Two hours around the southern tip of Lake Michigan and then another six or seven hours up the eastern shore to Leland, a cute little town on a peninsula jutting out into the lake. From there it’s still a few hours to the most northern tip of the lake and the Canadian border. We’re not talking Hartbeespoort dam here. And it’s really gorgeous up there. Birch forests and pristine little lakes right next to the big lake. Think Chekhov.
We stayed in a rental house on a small lake and drove by this little corner store for a few days until one day we stopped to pick up some fizzy water and I realised that the owners were Indian and that they had a whole freezer full of their homemade curries, so I got a few tubs of curry and it was delicious. And no midnight heartburn. Everything was homemade so I stopped there every few days after work to pick up a tub of curry and some samoosas. Way up in far northern Michigan. Who would have thought.
Enough heartburn. A client recently commissioned me to do a mural based on the murals in the famous Bemelmans bar in the Carlyle Hotel in New York. Probably the most charming bar that I’ve ever had the pleasure to be in. The Carlyle is a gorgeous pile of Art Deco magic and Ludwig Bemelmans painted the murals in 1947. Bemelmans is the author and illustrator of the delightful Madeline children’s books. One of the things I miss about the years when Willem was a tiny tot is reading Madeline to him at bedtime. The first Madeline, published in 1937, has one of my favourite opening lines.
In an old house in Paris
That was covered in vines
Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.
And the smallest was Madeline.
Ring a bell? Anyway, the Bemelmans bar is also famous for its Martinis so of course we had to go there and do some research for my project. There’s a catch though. The Martinis cost $33 a pop. So, two drinks with a tip came to nearly 100 bucks. (Billable to the client as “research”, though.)
If you think that’s outrageous, how about this. After mentioning our Martini sticker shock to someone, they suggested we try the pasta with truffles at Nello’s. I’ve walked by it a few times on Madison Avenue but never paid it any attention. Determined not to be played for a sucker, I Googled it first. Good thing I did. Turns out the pasta with truffles at Nello’s is listed as Market Price on the menu and can cost anywhere from $200 to more than $300 per serving (and a glass of tap water $15). Yes, your eyes are not deceiving you. Pasta with olive oil and shaved truffles. Three hundred and fifty bucks. Not to mention that a bottle of fairly decent wine can set you back thousands. And the place gets bad reviews on top of it. Go figure.
Apparently the owner of Nello’s got into trouble because he tends to forget to pay his staff. Probably too busy standing outside the front door smoking a cigar, smooching with his A-list patrons, something he’s famous for. A popular hangout for the Ivankas of this world. He also caused controversy for a rule that prohibits women dining alone from sitting at the bar counter. Apparently he’s worried that they might be hookers and on the Upper West Side that’s definitely relegated to the shadows. Not sure a hooker is going to cough up $300 for a plate of pasta and end up with truffle breath, but hey, what do I know? Men dining alone are okay at the bar though. No such thing as a male hooker apparently.
Jeez, I’m sounding like a gossip columnist. Things are getting a little unseemly so time to change the subject. But first I have to mention that I Googled Nello’s again while writing this and they appear to be under new management. New subject: meat pies. One of the things I really miss about South Africa. Interesting how you crave something when it’s not available. And meat pies are just not available here in the US. There are plenty of Mexican and Argentinian empanadas available, but they just don’t do it for me.
As luck would have it, I was working in Palm Beach, Florida a few months ago and noticed a place called British Depot on my way to work. After a few days curiosity got the better of me, I dropped in and they had meat pies! Frozen, but still. And the real thing. Steak and ale, steak and kidney, pepper steak, chicken and mushroom, the lot. And they were delicious.
After a few visits the owner started urging me to try the Aussie pie. If you’re as pie deprived as I am, you don’t feel like experimenting, but eventually I relented and I wasn’t impressed. It was somehow over-flavoured and just didn’t taste like my idea of a meat pie. Too much going on. Like they were trying too hard. Keep it simple, I say.
Then, a few weeks ago I came across a Brit grocery store in the East Village and they had, yes, meat pies. Very disappointing meat pies though. As a matter of fact they sucked. Strange because Palm Beach isn’t exactly a culinary paradise. But this one lady got her pies right. Florida doesn’t deserve her.
Wish she’d move to Chicago. I’ll keep her in business.
I’ve been spending a lot of time working in Florida and oh man, what a dump that place is. Mainly in Naples on the Gulf Coast and Palm Beach on the Atlantic side but they are totally interchangeable. Huge mansions along the coast, blocking all access to the beaches, then across the highway, swamps inhabited by all the poor suckers who cater to the super-wealthy in their mansions. Actually, Florida is mostly low-lying swampland soon to be swallowed by a rising ocean if the climate scientists are to be believed. I shouldn’t gloat.
And the supermarkets are absolutely dismal, probably because the wealthy don’t shop at supermarkets. Huge as airplane hangers with a few lost souls pushing trolleys. And mostly processed, packaged food. Even all the fruit and vegetables come in plastic-wrapped packages. Unlike here in Chicago, where you can pick out your own produce. And unlike Chicago none of the supermarkets has butchers behind meat counters that you can actually talk to. Just miserable chunks of plastic-wrapped meat, most of it frozen.
And the dining scene is equally dismal. Mostly overpriced Italian, but not what normal people would think of as Italian, more like the salty, creamy, saucy stuff that would have passed as fancy Italian back in the early 1960s in Pretoria. Kind of like Nello’s, as a matter of fact. And then you cross the highway and it’s all seedy fast-food drive-thrus. Nothing in between. In Naples, or was it Palm Beach, I decided to try a famous seafood restaurant and it was really weird. Not a diner under 65. Made me wonder if they had an age restriction, admitting only 60 and over. And everybody was already on their second or third Martini so those old folks were getting pretty raucous. To be honest, I was so fascinated, I can’t even remember what I ordered.
On the subject of raucous old folk, the property we’re working on in Palm Beach is three blocks north of Mar-a-Lago, current residence of a former US president, and one block south of the former residence of the no-longer-dining-with-us Jeffrey Epstein. Sleazeball central. Wow, this has turned out to be my lowlife column. Wouldn’t be surprised if it gets an R rating slapped on it.
Just a reminder to ignore food writers when they tell you to use flat-leaf Italian parsley. Be a wild person and go for curly parsley. Curly parsley is king. And it will be winter in Chicago next time you hear from me and this time I mean it. (We’ll see about that – Food Ed) DM