If you found this blog by Googling my name or by following sundry noxious links (you know where), please note that all claims that I was fired from my job are 100% false, as are most of the other things written about me. I don't know the people who are libeling me, but it's clear they have some imaginary axe to grind and way too much time.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas, With an Asterisk

Forthcoming in Chinatownies




The porchetta sparkled. Its skin, lovingly crosshatched, was like some exotic mineral deposit of burnished brown jewels. Raisins, minced pork, pine nuts, and herbs spilled out of its sides – a cornucopia manifest. It smelled like winter in Piemonte.

Joanna, my boss, regarded my quivering, seductively-steaming twenty-pound mass of pork belly and wrinkled her nose. “It smells like Chinese medicine.”

It was winter of 2011, halfway through my year in Nanjing, China, where I had come to learn classical Chinese cooking. But after six months, what I had really learned was that authenticity was an infuriatingly elusive – and elastic – concept in China, especially around the holidays.

The smell - fennel - wasn’t the only problem, Joanna informed me, in the adeptly polite but blunt way that Chinese break bad news. Christmas for most Chinese people was an excuse to eat out, an elaborate date night for couples. I’d figured porchetta would be the perfect locally available, cost-friendly alternative to a Christmas ham, but apparently, pork was “everyday meat” - Chinese people want to eat beef or seafood on Christmas. Moreover, Chinese cuisine is always consumed family-style, so people had come to expect “Western food” in individual servings. Holiday market share was highly competitive, and my porchetta, portioned out, would have looked like a messy pile of mush compared to an elegant filet.

Christmas was the last thing I thought I would be getting schooled on in China. As a young financial analyst in New York, I’d checked the usual foodie destination-dining boxes and came to conclusions often seen on Yelp: that Chinese (and by extension, all ethnic) food in America was a pale, gutted version of its true self. At the height of the recession, dropping out of (or getting laid off from) straight jobs to go to cooking school seemed like the trendy thing to do, but while my peers enrolled at the FCI, CIA, or, if they were adventurous, the Cordon Bleu in Paris, I wanted to be the extra special snowflake who trailblazed China.

I arrived with the lofty goal of mining authentic Chinese cuisine like some anti-colonial Marco Polo, determined to show America what ethnic foods could look like when freed from tired phrases like “hole in the wall,” “secret menu,” and “only white person in the place.” The problem was, my instructors seemed thoroughly unconcerned with authenticity. While I had envisioned old-school hit-over-the-head-with-a-wooden-spoon-style indoctrination, every lesson seemed to be a lesson on flexibility: the Sichuanese don’t use sugar in kung pao, but elsewhere it’s OK; textbook tofu noodles are simmered with duck gizzards and dried shrimp, but every restaurant has its own spin. I was getting a crash course in adaptation, not authenticity. My understanding of these principles would soon be put to the test.

In Nanjing, a second tier city with relatively soft foreign presence, I found expat networks highly pliable. Through connections that would seem incredibly tenuous back home, I found myself consulting for a newly opened, Chinese-owned, Western style lounge, the evocatively named Castle. My mandate was to introduce recipes for classic cocktails and bar snacks, train the bar and kitchen staff on their execution, and generally impress expat and local clientele with food and drinks that were authentic but new to Nanjing. This was a dream job for which I had zero qualifications other than ample experience eating and drinking things in my former New York life.

Thanksgiving was our soft opening and my audition.

I kept it simple. Joanna located an exorbitantly expensive frozen turkey, and I tracked down fixings for stuffing. I knew there would be workarounds – dried rosemary would have to stand in for fresh sage, ground pork for sausage meat. Some things just weren’t available in the one Western supermarket, Metro, which was too French to be reverent over Thanksgiving. I skipped the other sides – green beans too plain, sweet corn and mashed potatoes too KFC. I also steered clear of dairy, not wanting to send our lactase-deficient Chinese guests home with rumbling intestines.

There were a few hair-raising moments – our one oven was an industrial pastry outfit with a tendency of short-circuiting – but Thanksgiving turned out to be a resounding success. Stuffing’s superiority is apparently universal. I was hired.

Over the next month, I immersed myself in the bar’s rhythms, making drinks and befriending regulars. I painstakingly developed a new bar menu, using our expat regulars as guinea pigs. I copied the recipes into Chinese and posted them around the bar for my bartenders. To me, doing things right meant buying crates of fresh orange, pineapple, and lime juice on Taobao (Chinese Ebay) and having them shipped all the way from Shanghai.

But over time, I found myself adding asterisks to my menu. To me, a margarita made from tequila, gin (!), and syrupy generic lime and lemon concentrate (sour mix) was a Frankencocktail to be banished to the pits of hell. But Chinese customers kept telling me I was making drinks wrong because they were so used to sour mix. I also kept getting cocktails sent back because Chinese customers felt the “correct” proportions were too alcoholic. My bartenders knew how to make every beautiful variation of martini, to use giant spherical ice for single malt Scotches, to crush mint without bruising it, to flame orange peels for negronis, but all anyone wanted to drink were long island iced teas - made with, you guessed it, more sour mix.

I had thought availability was my only enemy, one I was prepared to conquer with willpower, a loose budget, and a Taobao account, but I was learning that creating authentic experiences isn’t just a question of what you can do given certain limitations, but how those limitations have already informed customers’ expectations. Inauthentic versions of western drinks and dishes had become, to my Chinese customers, authentically Chinese.

I conceded to lower alcohol proportions, to strange Chinese favorites like the Snowball, made with egg liqueur and Sprite, even to the dreaded sour mix, and in doing so, I found myself empathizing with the long line of Chinese American restaurant owners who made their livings on chop suey and chicken wings.

I may have learned to stop worrying and love the asterisk, but anticipating local market tastes still proved tricky. When our Christmas test run came around, I felt like a genius for coming up with porchetta as the perfect centerpiece. But in my tunnel vision, I had only considered how the food would translate, not how differently the holiday was celebrated here. Authenticity had taken me for another turn: my Chinese bosses didn’t hire me to recreate exact flavors and techniques; they knew customers simply wanted a passable cultural excursion, tableside.

Forced to think, for the first time, about what makes Christmas, Christmas, I realized that the things I considered essential really were just culturally specific flourishes. My notion of the holidays relies as much on time as it does place: in my native New England, where winter holidays don’t get any more Hallmark, Thanksgiving is slowly anticipated by leaves turning color and the nice long lead-up from Halloween, when we first eviscerate Jack and contemplate his flesh.

Similarly, Christmas in the US is a full month of Nat King Cole and Mariah Carey’s Christmas album in every public space. We share these fantastical – absurd - rituals, which can sometimes feel like a perennial self-hazing (Black Friday, anyone?), just to feel like we’re all in it together. And even if I am annoyed by the soundtrack of the holiday, I know I am part of a collectively annoyed we.

Such mass hysteria resists export, and natives aren’t usually confronted with the absurdity of their holiday behavior until outsiders come along to exploit the holes. My first Christmas in the US, Dad and I played chicken for weeks. He would tell me about Santa Claus, and I, a skeptical and devious child, would start sentences with “when Santa gives me a sled and a puppy” to call his bluff. In the end, he won, using the very physical impossibilities I had put on a show of overlooking. I left out milk and cookies. “Santa” left a note saying a sled wouldn’t fit down the chimney and puppies would suffocate in his bag.
All of this is to say that holidays are myths spun from cultural identity, so Chinese Christmas is a wholly different holiday than American Christmas. Stripped of context, holiday rituals are weird and meaningless. How do you explain gingerbread or fruit cake to people who grew up with no ovens? How do you explain a fireplace-transported Santa Claus to high rise dwellers? What country’s folklore do you have to delve into, and how deeply, to do justice to the concept of an elf? (In China, Santa’s helpers are foxy young women known as his “sisters.”) And even if you could explain such things to people, can you make them feel it?

The collective consciousness of a holiday is like a very old soup base or sourdough starter: locally unique, enriched over time.Those who disparage Chinese celebrations of American holidays as inauthentic spending orgies fail to see that consumption is the only universal element of any holiday. Besides, the Chinese have their own rich cultural miasma to work with – why go caroling in the cold when one can simply check into a KTV parlor?

In China, I was a hai gui, a sea turtle returned home to don the mantle of culinary translator. But to succeed I had to understand that my job wasn’t translation - it was adaptation. Once I realized that there really is good no answer to what Christmas should be, it was easy to surrender misguided notions of authenticity.

Last year, at home in Boston, I cooked lobsters for Christmas.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Me So Hung Ry...Not

In the food world, it seems like there is a fine line between having a philosophy and taking yourself too seriously, and another between trying something new and deploying a marketing gimmick. I am constantly trying to parse restaurants along these axes, obsessed with divining the ingredients of success and failure.

When it comes to Chinese restaurants, I am especially obsessed. I feel that ours is a cuisine equal to if not greater than France or Japan's, yet in the United States, Chinese food is pitifully relegated to the lowest rung within the already-peripheral bucket of "ethnic food." We are known for inventing delivery and keeping the MSG market afloat; for tacky menus (accumulating on the floor) and unnaturally glistening stock photos; for cockroaches and grease traps; for corn starch and brown sauce; for names containing the words "garden," "palace," and "imperial" in Wonton font.

So, I think constantly about what makes a good Chinese restaurant because I want nothing short of a complete Chinese food renaissance: high-quality, value-oriented, and accessible. Where are our bistros and brasseries, izakayas and trattorias? People - it was really hard to resist saying "comrades" - we can do better than this bullshit:


So, after reading glowing reviews practically everywhere, I was pretty interested in trying Hung Ry, the new hand-pulled noodle shop on Bond St. I convinced a skeptical Eddie Huang to come along...and all I really ate for dinner was crow.

I should have known that buying Chinatown talent and putting it in Limoges china falls squarely on the wrong side of every fine line.

Certainly, the name is already enough to merit a side-eye. When Eddie tries to work that kind of humor, Racialicious writes a whole post unpacking it, and he’s Asian! Then there was the admission that whiteboy couldn’t learn how to make the noodles himself. Ok, maybe that’s a smart move, maybe even humble, but again, if you’re going to move hand-pulled noodles to NoHo and charge me $18 a bowl (and dammit the actual Chinese guy in this operation, the one actually making your noodles - he better be a partner), you should at least pick up your end of the slack!

Because the noodles themselves were great: masterfully chewy, springy, delightful. Apparently in NYC, this and a foodie-baiting menu (OXTAIL! LIVER! MARROW!) are enough to earn accolades from NYM, NYT, Village Voice, and even Lucky Rice. But noodles alone can’t carry a noodle soup. The broth part of this partnership had no smell, no taste, and no body; everything tasted so flat I dumped a ton of house-made chili sauce into my bowl, and then it just tasted flat and spicy. Then again, you have to stink up the air to make a decent bone broth, and that probably doesn’t fly if you’re trying to do the sexy NoHo open-kitchen thing.

Maybe it was an off night. I only went once.

Still, the bigger problem for me was conceptual. Why would anyone float giant gobs of bone marrow in broth? I didn't think I could not love bone marrow, but it turns out I don’t love eating nuggets of slimy, flavorless fat, which is what the product had been reduced to by such uninspired treatment. So I left them floating there, the sad, misguided marshmallows, which of course hurt my Chinese heart.
Aiya, this is so un-Chinese!

I hate thinking that. Like I said, I get excited when people color outside the lines. I don't even believe in authenticity, because all cuisines are dynamic. But I guess I do believe in staying true to the spirit of things, in sound philosophy. Chinese food, like all great cuisines, is about balance. No discordant ingredients, no spiky flavors. This is not so much dogma as plain logic: cooking is synthesis.
In the end, only the New Yorker got it right by my book:
If you like your macaroni and cheese drizzled with truffle oil, your French fries fried in duck fat, and foie gras in your banh mi, you might make a beeline for Hung Ry"
Hung Ry is a gilded lily that will smell sweet to a certain type of foodie. But it ain't me.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Possibly a Farewell

I thought for a while that I was eventually going to rehabilitate this blog, but I lost most of my desire to eat out once I decided I was eventually going to join the industry - all I want to do is cook! I keep a blog of my thoughts and ideas re: food/life elsewhere, and in writing I've reached certain positions regarding this scene. They can be summed up as such:

1) 95% of food writing, mine certainly included, is profoundly boring. Because you can't yet lick a computer screen, it's inherently the wrong medium.

2) I dislike most foodies, because they also tend to be very boring people. The conversations rarely move beyond "Have you been to so-and-so's new restaurant?" I'm paraphrasing Roger Ebert when I say that food should be ecstatic but still never more interesting than your company.

3) I am not comfortable with the ethics (or lack thereof) of most amateur restaurant blogs. I once was offered a restaurant-review job at a magazine. I wrote two reviews before deciding I was too young and too uninformed to fuck with someone else's livelihood. I don't think I'll ever feel old or informed enough.

4) Most restaurants I see opening in Manhattan feel soulless to me. I am uninterested in trying the vast majority of them, because too often they smell like PR buzzwords and cultural appropriation.

These days, the only places I'm interested in are Chinese places, because someday I'll be part of the young creative force shaping the future of Chinese food in America.

Speaking of which, strangers like me waaaay more when I tell them my next step is cooking school in China - their eyes light up. Most of the people I meet, through this blog and elsewhere, work in finance, and what I've learned is that pretty much everyone in finance loves food, and pretty much everyone in finance has a wildly impractical dream career they're dying to pursue. Obviously, many of us are in this field either because we have to be or feel we have to be, and it can be really hard to leave. I am so grateful that I went to college, grateful that I have a job and health insurance and savings in this economy, and triply grateful that I get to walk away from it and try something else when I so choose. The option to take risks, to invite the possibility of failing spectacularly, is an immense privilege.

As of yet, I have no time frame. I'm not leaving my job anytime soon, which gives me ample time to continue the research and networking I've started. If anybody has any leads on great Chinese cookbooks, let me know. I continue to eat with strangers in New York, so drop me a line. I would especially love to eat with restaurant industry professionals - I'll buy you a drink and pick your brain.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tang


Half of my receipts from Xi'an Famous Foods and my old, old laptop.

I've become a regular at the St. Marks location of Xi'an Famous Foods since its opening two weeks ago. My dad is from Xi'an, and I was always begging for lamb growing up even though my mom, the cook in the family, hated the smell of it.

I was one of the pilgrims who trekked to Flushing regularly just to get a fix of lamb noodles down in Golden Mall's stuffy basement cafeteria. Liang Pi, the proprietor, was always there - bossy, sweaty, genial. After Anthony Bourdain featured Xi'an Famous on his Outer Boroughs episode of No Reservations, I could be heard loudly bitching about the descending hordes of white foodies, but secretly, I was so proud to see a Chinese immigrant restaurateur make it big.

And I sure as hell was happy to hear they were coming to the East Village. I announced to all my friends that there was pretty much no point in me eating anywhere else, and as you can see from the receipts above, I wasn't kidding.

The first night I went, they were selling an unidentified orange drink in those plastic boba cups sealed with little anime characters. People kept asking what it was, and General Manager Jason Wang, Liang Pi's son, kept saying in this gently exasperated tone, "I don't know, it's something my dad made." I bought one, thinking it was probably some weird/tasty Chinese beverage.

It was Tang.

No doubt about it. The same Tang of those obnoxious orangutan commercials you saw during after-school commercials, Tang of the sweet and chemical tang. I thought I'd been hosed like a roundeye until Gaby sent me this essay by novelist Yiyun Li. She writes,
The year I turned 16, a new product caught my eye. Fruit Treasure, as Tang was named for the Chinese market, instantly won everyone's heart. Imagine real oranges condensed into a fine powder! Equally seductive was the TV commercial, which gave us a glimpse of a life that most families, including mine, could hardly afford...Even though Tang was the most expensive fruit drink available, its sales soared. A simple bottle cost 17 yuan, a month's worth of lunch money. A boxed set of two became a status hostess gift. Even the sturdy glass containers that the powder came in were coveted. People used them as tea mugs, the orange label still on, a sign that you could afford the modern American drink. Even my mother had an empty Tang bottle with a snug orange nylon net over it, a present from one of her fellow schoolteachers. She carried it from the office to the classroom and back again as if our family had also consumed a full bottle.
Yiyun Li was born in 1972, making her younger than Liang Pi, but I want to make this exotic Tang narrative fit. I want it to fit because it's the kind of American Dream story I'm still sentimental for (even though my progressive education says I'm not supposed to be). I picture Liang Pi carefully mixing Tang and sealing each cup, preparing to open his shiny new East Village restaurant over Fourth of July weekend. His son Jason, 22, college-educated, and bilingual like me, is not in the picture. Kids like us don't associate Tang with a better life, we associate it with surfing orangutans.
The truth was, our family had never tasted Tang. Just think of how many oranges we could buy with the money spent on a bottle, my father reasoned. His resistance sent me into a long adolescent melancholy. I was ashamed by our lack of style and our life, with its taste of orange-peel water. I could not wait until I grew up and could have my own Tang-filled life.
The Tangy scenario I've imagined feels like the time I watched my dad lug home a case of red wine from a community center wine-tasting class. "Can you taste the butter?" he asked, frowning and sipping, "They said it tastes a little bit like butter, can you taste it?" Children are selfish when it comes to our parents - I don't think we allow them to have fully realized identities, they're just our parents! But this was a rare moment when I saw Dad's life in context: the Cabernet was an achievement, a hard journey ending in a wine-filled, middle-class, American life. And it killed me that he couldn't taste the fucking butter notes.
I had not thought about the boy much until I moved to America 10 years later and discovered Tang in a grocery store. It was just how I remembered it - fine powder in a sturdy bottle - but its glamour had lost its gloss because, alas, it was neither expensive nor trendy. To think that all the dreams of my youth were once contained in this commercial drink!
I hope Liang Pi never realized Tang was just another cheap powdered beverage occupying shelf space between Country Time and Kool-Aid. I hope when he decided to sell Tang, he thought he was giving his customers the best America had to offer.

There was no Tang in the minifridge when I went to Xi'an Famous tonight.
"Did you guys stop selling Tang?" I asked Jason.
"Yeah, it was just something random my Dad did. Why? Did you like it?"
"Yeah, I did. I really did."
"Well, you're definitely the only one. But I'll tell him you liked it."
"Good."

I have a Pepsi with my lamb face salad.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Tip of the Hat/Wag of the Finger

I took the winter off due to time and money constraints, and also because it was exhausting and sometimes boring to eat with strangers all the time. Many things have germinated quietly during the cold months, and I've figured out my next steps, career-wise, as well as a few other projects I want to do, food-wise. Strictly Platonic will probably not be the same blog ever again, but I have too many thoughts to suppress, so I guess I'll write other food-related things here until a better platform emerges.

In the Colbert style, I present two things today in the Tip of the Hat/Wag of the Finger format:

First up, Tip of the Hat to Eddie Huang of Baohaus. Have y'all heard of Baohaus? It's the new gua bao joint that's taken the NYC food scene by storm lately. I haven't been yet, and, being a chink of the uncouth mainlander variety, I've never even had a gua bao in my life. Nevertheless, I've been following Eddie Huang on his blog and I'm digging a lot of what he has to say. Two posts in particular sum up my own feelings on fusion and Chinese immigrant restauranteering.

Every food lover seems to have an opinion of fusion, but when I come across a fusion-y menu item, my question is how they got the idea to put galangal in the beef wellington (not really, that would be gross, but you get the idea). By my reckoning, "fusion" cuisine is the best in the world. Vietnamese cuisine is fusion. Creole is fusion. Pretty much every cuisine in the world is some degree "fusion." The difference in heart (and taste) is that great fusion comes from resourceful people working with what they have in a foreign setting; it comes from diaspora, not some kid out of cooking school with a bag of tricks but no sense of place. Authenticity is not about sticking to a recipe, it's about having a sense of place.

In that way, Eddie Huang and his Baohaus very much "emspiritfy" the type of restaurant I might open someday. I was talking to my friend, the talented Gabriela, about why there's no good Mexican food and very little good Chinese food in Manhattan. In a grander sense, we were also talking about why Mexican food and Chinese food belong in the "cheap ethnic" box rather than "haute ethnic" box (think Japanese food) in the mind of the average white American yuppie foodie.

"The good stuff still lives on in enclaves, serving their own communities," I remarked, "tacos on 116th, Chinese places in Flushing. All places with no real menus, no real ambiance, no English speaking staff, much less any kind of PR strategy. And how many immigrant restauranteurs can afford the overhead in hip Manhattan neighborhoods anyway?"
"Who's going to serve authentic food but make it better, more accessible, then?"
"People like us, I guess. English-speaking, college-educated, social media-savvy."

Eddie seems to be successful because he's done exactly that: kept the authenticity, amped up the quality, and gave it both foodie cred and a dynamic personality. (The words "Niman Ranch" go a long way toward accomplishing two of the above.) So props to him, I'll be interested to see what he does next.

~~~

Next up, Wag of the Finger to Andrea Scotting, who posted this jaw-dropper on The Atlantic today. Here's a test: how many words of that article can you read without rolling your eyes? My eyes met heaven after ten, but let's be honest, the title had me suspicious from the get-go.

Aside from the disturbingly flippant Afghanistan/Haiti allusions, by far the most vapid quote was this one: "But I clearly have a nagging, deep-seated case of something that makes me frame everything in life through food."

Lady, that frame is called privilege, which is clearly something you've never paused to consider very deeply. This is abundantly clear by the lame attempt to claim "equal opportunity" food racism because you also get distracted by New England wasps and their lobster rolls. I agree on one thing: racist is not the right term for you because you can't be racist toward white people. A New England wasp, you see, has never been made to feel Other because of his lobster roll. This is like when Madonna wears a bindi, it's fashion; when an Indian woman wears a bindi, it's foreign.

For you, this must be difficult to understand, because you seem to treat the people of color who provide goods and services in your life like your personal recipe dispensers. I'm sorry, but it's pretty fucking offensive that "dal" lights up in your head every time you see an Indian person. God forbid that person be allowed to exist beyond connoting a foodstuff. Even if it's not true for you, a contributor to The Atlantic who hopefully wrote your article tongue-in-cheek, a lot of people do associate
ChineseAsian people with fried rice/chicken wings/MSG and little else (case in point).

As a person of color, I've come to see food both as a boon and a bane. While it does allow people to connect (and I'm sure that's what you thought you were doing with that call-center employee), boiling people of color down to the bite-sized pieces of their respective cultures happens all too often at the expense of acknowledging the ongoing struggles of the people themselves. Conservatives and liberals alike get to say "look how multicultural we are, all gathered together eating bibimbap," while disenfranchisement and xenophobia remain unchallenged.

And no, cutting a check to the Red Cross does not mean your work is done: if you're going to commoditize, consume, appropriate, "discover," or denounce the commoditizable, consumable, appropriatable, discoverable, and denounceable parts of someone else's culture - most often the foods - at least grapple with the truth that it's because you are white and wealthy that you get to look at the world around you as a smorgasbord.* This is your frame, and you're lucky to have it.

Addendum: Oh good, I'm not the only one who's appalled.
Addendum 2: I read back over some old entries and realized that I've basically said all this before, but in a nicer way.

*You also have to get comfortable with your privilege, because you're not a bad person and at the end of the day, it's ok to keep eating that bibimbap. You can even sing Kumbayaa if you'd like. You just can't write pithy articles about "food racism," because that shit is dumb and pisses me off.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Meatopia!

Thanks to the amazingly generous spirit of Josh Ozersky, I found myself the recipient of an email invite to Meatopia, Ozersky's annual carnivorous fete at Water Taxi Beach thrown in honor of...himself.

In other words, the baddest motherfuckin' birthday party one could have.

My email address, clustered in with the other J's as it was, found CC'd company with big-time industry names like Jefferey Chodorow and Jay Rayner, so I dared hoped the B's contained a Bourdain and a Bruni.

But the first person I recognized was this guy:

"I was rooting for you!" I told him. He looked embarrassed and harried. The man had cooking to do, minions to order around, but he posed for a snap anyways. Call it Asian Love. Here, I am mid-bite in his zingy lamb sausage.

Next person I saw was Floyd Cardoz. "I went to Tabla a month ago and loved my meal!" I told him. This evening was rapidly becoming Zoe's gush-fest. I did not take a picture with him, but I did have a couple of his succulent banana-leaf baby lamb wraps. (Is "baby lamb" redundant?) No pics of that either, because I ate them too fast.

In between sips of sangria and craft bears - my friend Alex graduated straight to Jack Daniels - I roamed, wanting to see everything and everyone.

There were four of five whole lambs being roasted over spits:


Team Philippe Massoud stuffed leg meat from another lamb into grape leaves, and then stuffed the grape leaves into this baby. Served with yogurt sauce, it was tangy and juicy.


Team Michael White (of Alto, Convivio, and Marea) hand-turned their spit the whole time. Respect.

My conversation with Gordon on the right, a sous-chef at Alto, went something like this:

Me: OMGTHISISSOGOODWHATDIDYOURUBITWITH?
Gordon: Sapa.
Me: ?
Gordon: Wine must.
Me: ...

For a second, I thought he said "Grape-Nuts." I am NOT ready to talk shop with the big boys.


Team Fatty Crab's offering was served atop a summer peach salad. ("Fatty Crab is one of my favorite restaurants in New York!" I told Corwin Kove.)


The double-smoker


RUB's amazing lamb stew, served over cheesy grits.

For the ovine-shy, there were Motz burgers:



And an oyster bar...



I think it's a testament to how good the cooking was that the raw bar was kind of an afterthought, tucked away in a corner on the way to the Port-A-Potties.

I didn't get to try even half of the offerings - the lambs were small and each only had about 5lbs of meat. That said, my favorite dish of the night was the lamb by Team Michael White.

Besides the sapa, they encouraged DIY seasoning with Maldon sea salt, chili powder, and an incredible salsa verde that will haunt my dreams forever. Gordon revealed one secret to be anchovies, which "bring out the umami":

video
Someday I'll get over my fear of talking in videos and actually explain what I'm filming

They also gave me the most perfect piece of crispy wine-whatever rubbed skin:



Around this time, I found the birthday boy to extend my thanks and well wishes. Maybe it was too late then - maybe he'd had too much to drink - but he didn't seem to have a clue who I was. Hardly surprising, given the throngs upon throngs of satellite acquaintances and plus-ones, twos, or even threes that showed up. I'm just the girl who won a silly contest.

But the highlight, by far the best part of my night, was meeting Gail Simmons, who looks so young and fresh in real life. (Of course, she is lovely in celluloid as well, but on Top Chef she seems older because she's all judgy and serious.)



My friends had to drag me over to meet her because I was so intimidated (that judgy and serious thing again), but she was super gracious and sweet - she certainly talked to me longer than she had to. Nevertheless, I was not able to pry any secrets re:Top Chef Las Vegas out of her, nor even get her to pick a favorite season ("They all kind of run together by now.")

The takeaway: I couldn't have had a better time at Meatopia. The lamb was cooked so inventively by each chef that it was never boring, the weather at Water Taxi Beach was perfect, the drinks were cold, the music was relaxed, and the crowd was appreciative. (Ok, maybe if Anthony Bourdain had showed up...)

Three friendly sous-chefs from the coming-soon Abe & Arthur's invited me and Alex to their opening party, sure to be another epic bash with the owners of Tenjune at the helm. Hope they weren't just saying that because they were drunk - I sure hope this party chain continues...

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Don't Hate the Player...

The foodieverse is aflame over the announcement of the Vendy Award finalists. More correctly, the foodieverse is aflame over the inclusion of the Rickshaw Dumpling truck in the Vendy Award finalists.

No one is wrong in saying that, at $6 for 5, their dumplings are the most expensive, anemic travesty of a dumpling ever sold, and that they can't be mentioned in the same breath as the most apathetic place in Chinatown or Flushing. In my opinion, they are barely a step above the frozen gyoza from Japanese groceries. (And no offense to the Japanese, but the Chinese jiaozi kicks gyoza ass.)

Hell, I can make better dumplings with these diluted ABC hands tied behind my back.

But I don't have a Warholesque food truck with a chinky-subversive name and puns galore ("Who's your EDAMAME?!"), and neither do any of the authentics in Chinatown or Flushing.



So I am more bemused than outraged by the legions that voted for Rickshaw Dumpling in this popularity contest, 'cuz this is clearly a case of roundeyes getting HOSED. And I kind of have to give props to Kenny Lao for that.