Ian Parker wrote about the NY Times’ restaurant critic Pete Wells for the New Yorker this week.
Wells is generally a well-mannered critic, if not an overly respectful one. In his first years on the job, he was sometimes faulted in the food press for being too generous in his appraisals; he had made a point of publishing fewer one-star reviews than his immediate predecessors. “No one likes one-star reviews,” Wells told me, in a conversation at his apartment, which is in a Clinton Hill brownstone. “The restaurants don’t like them, and the readers don’t like them. It’s very tricky to explain why this place is good enough to deserve a review but not quite good enough to get up to the next level.” He added, “I’m looking for places that I can be enthusiastic about. Like a golden retriever, I would like to drop a ball at the feet of the reader every week and say, ‘Here!’”
Parker covers Wells’ most notable reviews — Per Se, Fieri, Senor Frog’s, Momofuku Nishi — as well as the reactions of the restaurants to the reviews.
“I can’t ever read that review again — I’ll get so fucking angry I’ll die,” Chang said. “I made a lot of that food! I tasted it! It was delicious. And… fuck! I believe in the fucking food we make in that restaurant, I believe it to be really delicious, I believe it to be innovative, in a non-masturbatory way.”
I love David Chang. Never change. But back to Wells, I had a conversation last night with a friend who worked in a restaurant that Wells reviewed and he said that Wells is perhaps not physically suited for undercover restaurant dining — “he’s an odd looking dude” was the quote. And I have another friend in the restaurant industry who, after living in Clinton Hill for a few months, told me, “I think Pete Wells is my backyard neighbor.” Several months later: “Yeah, Pete Wells definitely lives behind me.” We joked about Wells talking over the fence in the style of Wilson, the neighbor in Home Improvement whose face is always partially hidden.
In Situ is Corey Lee’s new restaurant in the recently refurbished SFMOMA. Like the museum does with art, In Situ brings culinary masterpieces from chefs around the world and presents them to guests. The current menu, which provides the name of the chef and the date the dish was first made in the style of the info cards next to artworks, includes Shrimp Grits from the now-closed WD-50 (Wylie Dufresne, 2013), Spicy Pork Sausage Rice Cakes from Ssam Bar (David Chang, 2007), Meyer Lemon Ice Cream and Sherbet from Chez Panisse (Alice Waters, 1980), and Wood Sorrel & Sheep Milk’s Yogurt from Noma (René Redzepi, 2005).
This sort of thing is not exactly without precedent. From the very beginning of Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas’ Next, one of the ideas was to present the menu from the French Laundry from Achatz’s first day on the job there in October 1996 (which is happening this fall) and the Chicago restaurant has already featured menus with dishes from El Bulli and Trio (Achatz’s first restaurant as head chef). Ssam Bar used to have cocktails from other places (Milk and Honey, Death & Co., etc.) on their beverage menu, properly credited. But as Pete Wells explains in his positive NY Times review, In Situ takes the concept further:
Would any chef have dreamed of building a restaurant like this 25 years ago? Would anyone have gone there? In Situ probably requires a steady supply of customers who care about restaurants in Lima and Copenhagen enough to have seen some of these dishes in cookbooks or at least in the Instagram accounts of the chefs in question. Mr. Lee depends on, and caters to, a class of eaters who pay attention to the global restaurant scene the way certain art hounds follow the goings on in Basel, Miami Beach and Venice.
One thing In Situ proves, just by existing, is that certain chefs are now cultural figures in a sense that once applied only to practitioners of what used to be called high culture: literature, concert music, avant-garde painting. A Redzepi dish can be visited in an art museum in 2016, and nobody finds this very strange.
What In Situ is doing also underscores how context and the renown of an artist can affect our perception of what is creative appropriation versus theft or plagiarism. That In Situ is helmed by one of the best chefs in the US and affiliated with a world-class museum matters. The similar work of an unknown chef might not get the same treatment, as Robin Wickens found out in 2006, when he presented dishes from WD-50 and Alinea on the menu at his Australian restaurant:
That’s what happened three months ago on the eGullet.com Web site. Sam Mason, a pastry chef at WD-50 in New York, set off an international dust-up when he posted a link to the Web site of Interlude, a restaurant in Melbourne, Australia, and asked: “Is it me or are some of these dishes strikingly similar to a few American restaurants?” Interlude’s site showed photos of such unusual fare as noodles made of shrimp and a glass tube full of eucalyptus jelly and yogurt, dishes pioneered at WD-50 and Chicago’s Alinea, respectively. Interlude’s chef, Robin Wickens, had worked for a week at Alinea as a stagiere, or unpaid intern, and had dined at WD-50 while visiting the U.S.
EGullet’s administrators then juxtaposed Interlude’s images to nearly identical ones from WD-50 and Alinea. Within a few days, restaurateurs and chefs from around the country and dozens of eGullet members added to the thread, many branding Mr. Wickens a plagiarist.
Mortified, Mr. Wickens says he removed the dishes from his menu and his site, and sent letters to the chefs whose work he’d copied explaining that he only wanted to utilize what he’d learned on his travels. “I never tried to claim them as my own,” says Mr. Wickens, who says he told many patrons that the dishes had originated at the American restaurants.
I wish I had San Francisco travel plans…In Situ is the first new restaurant I’ve been excited about visiting in ages (for obvious reasons). Soon, hopefully.
Chef and Momofuku founder David Chang spends a lot of time thinking about food and he’s arrived at what he calls the Unified Theory of Deliciousness.
My first breakthrough on this idea was with salt. It’s the most basic ingredient, but it can also be hellishly complex. A chef can go crazy figuring out how much salt to add to a dish. But I believe there is an objectively correct amount of salt, and it is rooted in a counterintuitive idea. Normally we think of a balanced dish as being neither too salty nor undersalted. I think that’s wrong. When a dish is perfectly seasoned, it will taste simultaneously like it has too much salt and too little salt. It is fully committed to being both at the same time.
I’m not sure his observations are exactly unified, but they are interesting and also why I enjoy eating at his restaurants so much. A meal I had at Ssam Bar shortly after they switched away from the initial Korean burritos menu is in my top 5 meals of all time and a pair of dishes at Ko (both somehow simultaneously familiar and new) are among the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten.
Lucky Peach, the publishing arm of the Momofuku restaurant group, recently launched their new web site with a bunch of online content. Among their offerings is a series of videos featuring David Chang making various foods, including this omelette flavored with an instant ramen seasoning packet:
See also Chang making tonkotsu broth and gnocchi from instant ramen noodles.
2004 was a pretty good year for the NYC food scene. Among the openings were The Spotted Pig, Per Se, Momofuku Noodle Bar, and Shake Shack.
If there was a movement taking shape, its key players admit they didn’t notice until after the fact. And many of them spent the year struggling. Mr. Chang was desperate for customers in the early days at Noodle Bar, and kicking himself for having failed to apply for a kitchen job at Per Se or Masa. “I remember thinking very clearly, ‘What am I doing?’ ” he said. ” ‘This is stupid. I should be working at Masa!’ “
In some cases, 2004 was an outright fight. At the Spotted Pig, Mr. Friedman and Ms. Bloomfield, who had arrived from England, envisioned the vibrant boite as “a really cool bar that happened to have food as good as any restaurant in town,” Mr. Friedman said. “Who made the rule that you can’t have a real chef instead of someone who defrosts the frozen French fries?”
Instead of getting his own TV show, David Chang is making a series of iPad apps and printed journals (published by McSweeney’s no less).
Mr. Chang said that he had talked to television networks about doing a program, but that this offered more freedom and more possibilities, as well as providing research and development for his restaurants. “We were able to go a little deeper than we could have on TV, without being constrained by the networks,” he said. “They wanted yelling. They wanted everything but education.”
Your move, Kokonas.
Call it overrated if you’d like, but Ssam Bar is still the only place in NYC (or perhaps the world) where you can eat, using chopsticks, German-inspired cuisine served to you by a native Spanish speaker while drinking a glass of sparkling red wine and listening to 90s hip-hop in a restaurant conceived by an American junior golf champion from Virginia whose parents were from Korea.
I mentioned on Twitter last week that I made slow-poached eggs using a technique from the Momofuku book. A few folks asked about a recipe so here are the details:
Fill your largest pot with water and put it over super low heat on the stove. Put something in the bottom of the pot to keep the eggs off the bottom…you want them to be heated by the water, not the flame underneath. Use a thermometer to heat the water to 140-145°F and slip the whole eggs in (no cracking). Let the eggs sit in there for 40-45 minutes, maintaining the temperature the whole time. I found that turning the heat on for 30-45 seconds every 10 minutes or so was enough to keep the temperature in the proper range.
To serve, crack the eggs and discard any clear whites. If you’re not serving them immediately, chill the whole eggs in an ice bath and store in the fridge. To reheat, run under hot water for a minute or two.
This takes a little longer than making poached eggs in the traditional way, but you can do several eggs at once (like dozens if you have a big enough pot), this technique is less messy and fussy, and results in a poached eggs with a super-creamy white. The whites on my first batch were a little too runny for my taste, so I’m going to try a slightly higher temperature next time to (hopefully) achieve something between soft boiled and poached.
That’s it. There’s a lot more context and advice in the Momofuku book (which is excellent and includes a technique for frying your slow-poached eggs); I’d suggest picking up a copy if you’re interested.
I was all fired up to make eight from-scratch servings of ramen last night after looking through the Momofuku book, but ulitmately the book is a Trojan horse for enticing people into the restaurants. As in: “Konbu? 5 pounds of meaty pork bones? Fuck that, let’s just go to Noodle Bar.”
Get yer clickity fingers ready: you can pre-order the Momofuku cookbook on Amazon. Publication date is October 27, 2009. It is likely to include the several recipes that David Chang shared with Gourmet magazine in Oct 2007 like the brussels sprouts and the still-amazing pork buns. (via serious eats)
Update: NY Times food critic Frank Bruni also has a book coming out soon: Born Round (weird title).
Remember the fun we had reading about this root beer tasting a few months back? The #1 root beer from that tasting, Sprecher (from Wisconsin), is now available on the root beer section of the menu at Ssam Bar. My Moscato d’Asti-addled brain forgot to get a bottle to go when I was there last, but I’ll be back for you soon, Sprecher.
This week’s New Yorker has a profile of David Chang, chef/owner of the Momofuku family of restaurants. The profile isn’t online but Ed Levine has a nice write-up with some quotes.
Just because we’re not Per Se, just because we’re not Daniel, just because we’re not a four-star restaurant, why can’t we have the same fucking standards? If we start being accountable for not only our own actions but for everyone else’s actions, we’re gonna do some awesome shit. […] I know we’ve won awards, all this stuff, but it’s not because we’re doing something special — I believe it’s really because we care more than the next guy.
Reading the article, it appears that Chang is using Michael Ruhlman’s The Soul of a Chef as a playbook here. Caring more than the next guy is right out of the Thomas Keller section of the book…with his perfectly cut green tape and fish swimming the correct way on ice, no one cares more than Keller.
Profile of “radical chef” David Chang and his restaurants, Momofuku Noodle Bar (one of my favorite restaurants) and Momofuku Ssam Bar, an Asian version of Chipotle. After a vegetarian customer threatened to sue Chang for not offering vegetarian broth, he took all but one of the veggie options off the menu. “We added pork to just about everything[…] Fuck it, let’s just cook what we want.”