30 Years Ago…

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Every food writer has their epiphanies.

The earliest ones are the most memorable, and stay seared on your brain and taste buds like they were put there with a branding iron.

There was our first taste of barbecue in the early 60s — from a place we remember as Meyer’s, or Meier’s or Myers in Orlando, Florida — a platter of chopped meat swimming in a sauce we thought was the best thing we had ever put in our mouth. (To this day, ELV has a weakness for even bad barbecue sauces.)

Then, in 1964, an oval, silver dish of crab meat bubbling in a sherry-butter sauce at Antoine’s in New Orleans — a dish so good we remember turning to Marcella Ruth Schroader Curtas (d.o.b. 8.10.24 – The Official Mother of ELV) and asking her: “Why don’t you cook like this, Mommy?”

After that, adolescence and life interceded, and we spent our teens and twenties doing what every red-blooded male does: acting stupid over women.

By 1982 some of that was behind us, and we started concentrating on working our way through Jacques Pepin’s La Technique and La Method cookbooks, and mastering what little we could of Chinese cooking as well. Two years earlier, John Mariani had published an article in Playboy listing the 50 greatest restaurants in America, and since we were starting to accumulate a little cash, it seemed about the right time to start expanding our restaurant education.

True to form, ELV started right at the top with Le FrancaisJean Banchet‘s temple of haute cuisine right outside of Chicago.

Memories are dim of what we had — a bisque was certainly involved, as were sweetbreads, and probably lobster ravioli — but what we remember most is how gracious the staff was to a foursome of dining-out neophytes, how intense the flavors were, and how the whole meal cost $336 for four — an astronomical sum to us in those days.

Somewhere in his boxes of memorabila, ELV has the American Express receipt for the meal…but the sum of the experience needed nothing but a view of this matchbook to bring them all back to us.

The matchbook, you see, was given to us by foodie friend Rod Schiffman, when he was in town last week. Over a tasty lunch at China Poblano, he told us he had read an old post of ours mentioning our seminal Le Francais experience, and it seems he had a very similar one in the exact same year. Rooting around his extensive match book collection, he found the above souvenir and presented it to as a gift and a symbol of how the gourmands of our generation all started (literally and figuratively) from the same place: being taken by the hand by the French masters and shown what superior cooking is all about.

Who knows? We could’ve been there in the same week! It doesn’t matter. What matters is how important it is in a gourmet’s education to experience the best of everything as soon as you can….and how glassy-eyed we both got just thinking about a single meal, in a long gone restaurant, three decades ago.

Merci beaucoup Rod.

And merci beaucoup Mon. Banchet.


4 thoughts on “30 Years Ago…

  1. Stories like these are one of the main reasons I visit this site daily. I would guess that most anyone with a modicum of writing ability could blog about food from a critical perspective, so I’m sure there are plenty of others who ably critique dining experiences. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy the reviews here as well, and I’ve used them extensively over my last several trips to make dining decisions, but the site works for me because of the anecdotes, obscure quotes, pics, and other content that is almost always germane to food, but is also commenting about life itself. As always, well done, sir.

  2. I second that. My first “fancy” dining out meal included a wilted spinach salad and cost, I think, $5–for the whole meal. That was about 20 years before the one mentioned here. The cookbook of the times was Betty Crocker. When I moved to Vegas I looked it over again and the preponderance of recipes included canned soup. In the early ’70s I was an assistant to Rita Leinwand, who taught French cooking techniques for Santa Monica community education. We lived on the Venice Beach boardwalk and my kids remember eating crepes suzette while watching the riots outside. Women from Beverly Hills lined up for those classes beginning at 3am, with their chauffeurs setting up tables for breakfast. Rita became the first food editor of Bon Appetit. She referred me to a gourmand group in Westport, CT, when I moved there, and Mary Ann Esposito made lunch for me. Martha Stewart invited the whole town to bring her their best dishes as she was beginning her catering biz and opening a little takeout inside a menswear shop. I took flourless chocolate cake (and she asked me what it was, btw). And still I managed to avoid a career in the food world. I’ve reached the stage of life where less is more.

  3. One of the food epiphanes that has stuck with me for over 35 years was the dinner my Father treated us to at the Red Lion Hotel in Portland where I ordered the Steak Diane served tableside. We usually could only afford the “Tenderloin Kebabs,” so it was quite a treat to get the nod and order the more showy, and more expensive, Steak Diane.

    It was the height of the “Continental” cuisine era in the mid-1970’s and what a treat it was–a waiter in a tuxedo with a frilly pink shirt wheeling a trolly to the table set with silver and copper saute pans. He, (you remember, only male waiters in the dining room at that time), seared the steak in butter and lit it afire with brandy. What a show. At the time I had no clue as to what Steak Diane actually was other than some sort of dish served to the rich, but that moment left me with this desire to someday, many years later, write about my experiences in food and dining.

  4. I took my parents and my GF (wife today) to Le Francais when I graduated from college back in the 80″s. They helped with the education bill so I picked up a world class dinner. I vaguely remember the food but the service was 1st class and they made it a lot of fun and really understood how to be serious but be “regular guys” eating incredible food. It was awesome start to the world of great dinning for me and the wonders of the Chicago food scene.

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