Epiphany (noun): an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure
Ask any food writer how they became interested in food and they will point to an epiphany, or perhaps several, that spurred them into a life of obsessions. Here are a few of mine:
People are always saying Antoine’s (est. 1840) isn’t as good as it used to be…which is something people have been saying since the Civil War. Be that as it may, this New Orleans institution gave a 12-year old his first taste of extraordinary cooking when it placed a bubbling, sterling silver oval, about the size of a large candy dish, in front of him in the mid-60’s. Filled with lump crab meat it was, spitting and gurgling sherry-tinged butter from its elegant confines. “Why don’t you cook like this?” the 12-year old asked his mother. They all had a giggle, the butter gurgled, and the boy gulped it all down. You never forget your first time, he has often thought to himself in the ensuing half-century — with booze, drugs, sex, or crab meat bubbling in sherry butter.
Before there was Antoine’s, though, there was fresh-baked bread and apple butter at Grandma’s knee. In Wexford, Pennsylvania, just north of Pittsburgh, where yours truly first entered this mortal coil, he often visited his grandparents as a mere tyke. Sometime, as a little shaver (probably not more than 6), he recalls standing beside a huge white stove, his grandma (a big woman) standing there with her giant arms, slicing him a piece of bread right out of the oven, and slathering it with her homemade apple butter. Growing up in the 50s and 60s, bread was something with the texture of cotton balls you got out of a plastic bag. My grandma (Hazel Brennan Schroader) taught me that it wasn’t, but it would be another 20 years before I would taste bread as fresh or as good, and back then (the 70s) I had to make it myself.
“This is the best tasting thing I’ve ever put in my mouth,” is what the young pre-teen thought when he first encountered barbecuesauce — that heady mix of ketchup, brown sugar and assorted spices which is as common as ketchup now, but was a rare and exotic thing back in the day, outside of the barbecue belt. To this day, after eating ‘cue across the country, and making everything from brisket to hot vinegar sauce from scratch, we still hold a special place in our heart for the standard, Kraft-level, sugary stuff. P.S. Stubb’s make a fine one.
One wouldn’t think a pumpernickel rollcould make such an impression, but the one’s at Ronnie’s in Orlando, Florida set a standard that is yet to be equaled. About the size of a small woman’s fist, these dark-brown, double-folded beauties were filled with finely-chopped, melted onions, and possessed that malty, dark-roasted tang most brown breads can only dream about. And dream about it to this day I do– with smiling thoughts of eating them at home or in this booth (below), which my dad commandeered for our family of six almost every Sunday.
(Where we ate in 1958)
Her name was Syndie and she was small, cute, fair-skinned and raven-haired and I was totally in love with her for about twelve minutes in 1968. On one of our first dates we went to Arby’s. Yeah, that Arby’s — the one with sandwiches made with a compacted brown substance having more in common with cardboard than actual meat. But this wasn’t always the case. In fact, the case at the early Arby’s were filled with actual roast beef, from which they would finely slice and pile high the ribbons of rib eye that would make this place a success. Like the original McDonald’s, or the smashed, caramelized steakburger of Steak n’ Shake fame (two other epiphanies), the original Arby’s sandwich was a revelation in tasty fast food. Alas, they all have as much in common with the edibles that put them on the map as a cafeteria has with haute cuisine.
My first experience with oysters was with a college buddy named Bill Bardoe at a place called Lee ‘n Rick’s Oyster Bar in Florida, if memory serves. Don’t know what happened to ole Bill, but still thank him for turning me on to these beauteous briny bivalves back in my college days. Try them steamed, Bill advised, and he had a point. To this day, it is how we prefer oversized Gulf oysters. Oyster epiphany #2 happened in Brussels two decades later — where the small, flat, coppery Belons (above) were so fresh they contracted when hit with a drop of lemon juice. These have been my holy grail of ‘ersters ever since. Only in Paris have I come close to re-creating such perfection.
Nantucket seafood is its own thing: straight from the boats onto your plate, at a phalanx of restaurants with the coin and clientele to treat it right. Nowhere in the United States have I found the bounty of the sea as succulent…although on a good day the Pacific Northwest comes close.
Carnegie Deli corned beef — piled higher than a B-52, served by mock surly waiters — taught me more about New York eating than the Union Square Cafe and Lutèce ever did.
Unlike most oenophiles, I don’t consider great wine with the reverence usually afforded it. Having had them all — from the classified growths to the Grand Crus to vintage champagne to the rarest of Rieslings — I have always kept it in perspective. Wine is a fermented grape beverage designed to be enjoyed with food, not fetishized like fine art. Screaming Eagle and DRC don’t taste that much different from bottles costing hundreds (thousands?) less. That said, a private Grand Cru tasting of Chablis in NYC, back in 1988 with winemakers named Dauvissat, Raveneau and the like was quite the palate opener, spoiling me for mediocre chardonnay forever.
(With LT in Gay Paree)
For the epiphany of all French epiphanies, I heartily recommend spending two weeks in France with Laurent Tourondelsometime…eating in nothing but Michelin 2 and 3-star restaurants (see above). Gained 11 pounds. Was totally worth it.
Christmas at Duran’s Pharmacy has nothing to do with the holiday season, and everything to do with red and green New Mexican chile (above). New Mexican food is its own thing: an amalgam of Native American, Mexican, and Southwestern cooking, and the lady Latino cooks at Duran’s do it as well as anyone. Sitting at the counter, and watching them work, is almost as lip-smacking as polishing off their definitive carne adovada.
Our days of enduring marathon tasting menus are deader than Craig Claiborne. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak for things like a four hour dinner at Le Grand Vefour. When we go haute cuisine hunting in France nowadays, it’s more likely to be at lunch than dinner. But way back when we were up for it all…including three-hour lunches followed by feasts that would make Lucullus blush. I’ve been back to LGV several times since that first meal in the early 90s, but it has stayed with me, right down to the perfume of truffles wafting from within a Bresse chicken, and slab of goose foie gras so silky it was like an Hermés scarf for your tongue.
(Canocce – Mantis shrimp)
Our first sojourn to the original Harry’s Bar in Venice was love at first taste — that taste being of Venetian seafood that seems to attain an unworldly sparkle from the Venetian Lagoon and surrounding waters. Croatians may carp, Norwegians say nay, and the Japanese take umbrage, but the simple creatures of Venice are, to my mind, the greatest seafood on earth, perhaps because of the elegant, elemental way they are prepared.
Maison Troisgros is the finest French restaurant I’ve been to outside of Paris. So good I once accomplished a lunch-dinner-lunch hat trick there in a single 24 hours. Haven’t been back since, to my everlasting regret.
That croissant outside of the Gare du Nord train station in Paris — 7:00 am on a freezing day and starving (after a night of carousing at Brasserie Flo), waiting for an early train back to Germany, I spied a lightedboulangerie a block from the station, just opened it seemed, with a few folks lingering outside in the morning chill. With time to kill I wandered over, drawn by the smell of fresh baked goods and patrons jockeying inside to get pastries directly from the oven. When it came my turn it was an easy order: “Un croissant et un pan au chocolat, s’il vous plait.” (Pretty much the limits of my French at the time; pretty much the limits of my French to this day.) The pastries were still warm when I took them out of the bag on the sidewalk. Their crusts were as thin as tissue paper, as brittle as spun sugar, with a bronzed sheen of uniform perfection. They shattered with the lightest of bites, scattering shards of butter-soaked mille-feuille all over my jacket and pants. I can still see the little spots of butter soaking into my clothes. Never had a croissant since that was as satisfying.
The French practically invented the word epiphany (actually, the Greeks did), so it’s no surprise many of mine have come at their hands, including:
L’Auberge de L’Ill’s carte des fromages. Getting engaged to The Food Gal at this venerable Alsatian 3-star was nothing compared to jaw-dropping, heart-fluttering effect of first seeing this multi-level cheese cart in 2005. Did I try one of everything? You know I did.
Guy Savoy’s wild turbot, Lièvre à La Royale, and buckshot in the grouse. “I told you eet was freshly keeled thees morning, ” he beamed as we showed him the BB.
Daniel Boulud’s masculine/feminine tasting menus, along with roasting a woodcock’s brain over a candle at Daniel. Yes, you hold it by the beak until the thimble-sized cerebrum starts bubbling. (Sorry, no pics, this happened during the Stone Ages – 2002.)
Lexington, Texas has one of the best briskets in Texas at Louie Mueller’s; Lexington, North Carolina is chopped pork heaven with a host of local joints specializing in a simple sandwich. The whole hog rules in Ayden, N.C.. Until you make a pilgrimage to all of them (or at least one of them), don’t talk to me about your weak-ass, set it-and-forget it ‘cue.
And then there were the Alpine cheeses of the Savoie at La Bouitte — Comte, Gruyère, Beaufort — whose nutty, creamy, concentrated fruitiness can only be fully appreciated when you’re gazing upon the pastures where the cows once grazed while you’re eating them with a glass of vin jaune. Prosciutto slices at Sabatini in Rome, where the slicing of each piece is treated with the delicacy of a straight-razor shave. Tortellini en brodo in Bologna, a dish so deceptively basic it almost comes as a shock when its soul-satisfying qualities threaten to overwhelm your senses. And finally, Cecilia Chiang’s minced squab lettuce cups, at the Mandarin in San Francisco, when you were but a neophyte feinschmecker, but one smart enough to know you were at the epicenter of a sea change in thinking about Chinese food.
A lunch with John Mariani at the Ritz in Paris — the ideal gastronomic experience, where it was all about the conversation, the company, and the cuisine, with nary a false note on any front.
Epiphanies come fewer and farther between as you age. As with sex, the ground doesn’t shake so often. But as with all life-affirming events, they stay with you.
I suppose, that’s what these are all about: events seared in your memory as something so ethereal you can never forget them. An epiphany is always there, pulling, nagging, worming, tickling our thoughts with the sublime as we struggle with the corporeal and prosaic in our daily lives. Epiphanies give comfort that way — comfort and private little joys — soothing our souls while giving us the inspiration to carry on.
(Keep drinking and carry on)
I once flew to Paris just to have lunch
To Paris I went without care, without crunch
I once flew to Paris just ’cause I could
On a plane, on a whim, on the hopes of meals good
To Paris I flew, alone as it were
Leaving the wife to her toils, don’t think me a cur
A fantasy it had been throughout my manhood
To fly just for lunch, thinking I should…
Learn French, eat France, explore all things Gaulois!
My fate I once thought, it wistfully was
Today on this day, I thought of such things
And the swings of good fortune which enabled such flings
To meet Mariani, a gastronome friend
Paris did beckon us fellow curmudgeons
On landing that morn, I rubbed out the sleep
Where I’d dreamed to myself of lambs, ducks and geese
(Duck confit with summer vegetables)
To the Ritz as it were, did we travel that day
Where a meal was awaiting the French call déjeuner
The difference you see, is one of degree
For in France you can feast, and here we just feed
A pity it seems, so to France I did fly
To eat like a king and kiss troubles goodbye
How much do you ask, would be this repast?
Expensive it is, too much for mere mortals
But walking is free among these luxe portals
This is insane, I thought on the Seine
To travel for food so many disdain
But undaunted I was, so to lunch I did go
For dining so fine it sets me aglow
The Ritz is The Ritz, as ritz as they come
As were our courses, one after one
So beautiful they were, elegant, precise
Both John and I could’ve eaten them thrice
And the bread, oh the bread, for which French are so famous
Rising and baking Français are not aimless
Crusty, yeasty, with softness yet crunch
One travels an ocean to have it for lunch
(Pan-fried Dorade with mussel tortellini and artichoke purée)
And while we’re at it, did we mention the fish?
Nowhere on earth, is it found this delish
The French have a way with all things that swim
While America flounders with fins the most grim
(Raisin Einset en compotée et sorbet, crème montée et meringue croustillante)
(aka grapes in vanilla cream sorbet in meringue crust)
And it goes without saying that desserts reign supreme
Anywhere the French are whipping some cream
The Ritz, as you imagine, is kingly of sorts
When it comes to sorbets, meringues, tarts and tortes.
An art form lunch is, in France like no other
With wine, with cheese, with friends or a lover
I once flew to France just for a feast
On food so sublime all troubles did cease.
(Crab “Napoleon” with lobster sauce)
(Tomate stracciatella, crémeaux basilic poundré à l’olive noire – but you knew that)
The destiny of nations depends on how they nourish themselves. – Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
As clichés go, the one about Americans falling in love with France is an old one. It probably started around the time they helped us win our independence from England, gained more currency when noted Francophile Thomas Jefferson was in the White House, and gathered full steam when the literary lions of the Roaring 20s (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, et al) took France to their bosom and spent most of the mid-20th Century living there and writing about it.
When I began traveling there in the early 1990s, France was still the ne plus ultra of dining. The rise of Spain in the early aughts might have eclipsed it for a while (as did the mercifully short New Nordic fad), but the French gastronomic meal (an official UNESCO cultural heritage icon) is still the standard by which all western dining is judged.
More accurately, the progression of how we eat our formal meals — from light to heavy, fish to meat, soup to nuts — is based upon culinary rules set down hundreds of years ago. They’ve lasted this long because they make sense — both from a taste and digestion standpoint — and because:
The gastronomic meal emphasizes togetherness, the pleasure of taste, and the balance between human beings and the products of nature. Important elements include the careful selection of dishes from a constantly growing repertoire of recipes; the purchase of good, preferably local products whose flavours go well together; the pairing of food with wine; the setting of a beautiful table; and specific actions during consumption, such as smelling and tasting items at the table. The gastronomic meal should respect a fixed structure, commencing with an apéritif (drinks before the meal) and ending with liqueurs, containing in between at least four successive courses, namely a starter, fish and/or meat with vegetables, cheese and dessert. Individuals called gastronomes who possess deep knowledge of the tradition and preserve its memory watch over the living practice of the rites, thus contributing to their oral and/or written transmission, in particular to younger generations.
In other words, there’s a reason you don’t start dinner with ice cream and steak, proceed to chocolate cake, and then end with a hunk of sautéed skate, and those reasons were first codified by the French when native Americans were still throwing rocks at each other.
(It’s tough to clam up about GS)
From a food writing perspective, that same period (deep into 1990s) was dominated by the French. From M.F.K. Fisher to Richard Olney to Elizabeth David to Julia Child, if you were “into food” back then, you were into France. Couldn’t help it. Whereas these days the food media goes a ga-ga over obscure Asian soups and South African street food, then it was pot au feu or bust.
Fifteen years before I actually went there, I immersed myself in French cooking. Pierre Franey, Julia Child, Craig Claiborne and Jacques Pepin were my guides (as were two subscriptions to Gourmet and Bon Appétit magazines), and I soaked up information like a baguette in bouillabaisse.
Reading about French food is nothing like tasting it, though, and tasting it in France is incomparable to eating it anywhere else. This I had to learn the expensive way.
French food is about technique — French chefs are drilled with military precision into masters of slicing, dicing, braising and plating. Their repertoire is vast and their training so thorough they can break down chicken or fish with the ease of a blindfolded Marine dismantling his rifle.
The French spend more time thinking about steaming a bundle of asparagus than an Italian thinks about vegetables his entire life. And when it comes to sauces, no country can touch them. A Greek’s idea of a sauce is squeezing a lemon over something; the Japanese don’t have them at all. A Gaulois will massage a demi-glace for hours.
(Ex-cepe-tional Parisian eats)
French food gets a bad rap because it’s complicated — and it is — in the same way all worthwhile things are. Do you refuse to listen to classical music because too many instruments are involved? (Too many notes!) Do we avoid art museums because studying all those pictures hurts our eyes? Should we disdain books because they overload us with information? Criticizing French food for being multi-layered, richly-textured, and densely fascinating is like knocking Mozart because you can’t dance to him. The old triticism about La Cuisine Française being too heavy — another insult tossed about by those challenged by anything beyond a meatball — hasn’t been true since 1972.
Modern French cuisine really began with Escoffier over a century ago. It was further lightened up by the nouvelle cuisine revolution of the 1970s — spearheaded by Paul Bocuse, Jean Troigros and others — and settled into post-modern form (if you want to label it thus) around the time Guy Savoy received his second Michelin star (back when they actually meant something) in 1985. Thirty-five years later, he is still cooking some of the best food in Paris…which means some of the best food in the world.
French restaurants continue to dominate any list of the world’s best, and at the time of the Covid shutdowns, Savoy was riding high atop (or near the top) of many of them.
Having spent forty years with this food, we don’t place a lot of stock in the opinion of others. Nor do we cotton to the idea that there a “best” restaurant anymore than there is a best concert, movie, or book. The “best” of anything really can’t be measured unless a score or finish line is involved. At most what you have is a continuum of quality, and at the pinnacle (as with art, literature, and music) there is a level of excellence only a select few ever achieve. All the rest of us can do is sit back and enjoy the show.
The show at both Guy Savoys is always on the plate. No one and nothing seems to be trying too hard, and the effect is one of seamlessness — like a virtuoso who is barely breaking a sweat. As the audience, we soak it all up, blissfully unmindful of how much training and repetition goes into making it look so easy.
(Sweetbreads and peas in Gay Paree)
Many months after my last meal there, the details are still vivid: the petit pois with sweetbreads (above); woodsy cèpes — tasting of good clean earth — folded into a flower around an onion-bacon marmalade; San Pierre with the sweetest razor and baby clams; bread and butter to die for; a langoustine seemingly dropped from a Norway fijord onto to your plate; les fromages; les desserts…as I sit here writing it all comes flooding back, haunting me like Proust ruminating on a madeleine:
(The world’s greatest soup)
(Tomato “carpaccio” and sorbet)
(The French know ducks like a Korean knows cabbage)
(My usual at GS Caesars)