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Why I Love Restaurants


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#1 Daily Gullet Staff

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Posted 11 July 2005 - 12:45 PM

The Daily Gullet is pleased and proud to serve up this, the first of five exclusive excerpts from Steven Shaw's upcoming book, Turning the Tables: Restaurants from the Inside Out (HarperCollins). Called "pure crack for foodies" by Anthony Bourdain, and "a delicious read" by Mimi Sheraton, the unique expose/diary/diner's handbook comes out 16 August 2005. -The Editors.

Special to the Daily Gullet, by Steven Shaw

Some would say I became a food critic to subsidize a restaurant addiction. They would be right. But my condition is probably genetic.

Three decades before the current restaurant-architecture trend of “open kitchen” design (which typically allows customers to see a restaurant’s cooks at work behind glass), before Kitchen Confidential and The Restaurant reality show, and before Food TV was a gleam in its creators’ eyes, my father used to take me every weekend to the original open kitchen: the breakfast griddle at the local diner. We spent countless hours over a period of years watching the griddle man, and all the while my father delivered a ceaseless stream of commentary: “You see, son,” he would say, “he does the home fries the right way -- with baked potatoes. Now, pay attention while he does that big table’s order. He’s got to have all six dishes ready at the same time. Only the best cooks can do that every time. This man was a plasma physicist back in Russia, you know.” My memories of dining with my father have set the tone for my whole attitude toward and passion for restaurants. Dining with him wasn’t only about the food -- it was about people, about ideas, and especially about building an inventory of inside jokes. Once, a little old lady came into the diner and asked for liver and onions.

“Cut it up in little pieces,” she demanded.

“Cut it up in little pieces,” the Russian physicist/griddle man replied, with a bow.

“Cut it up in little pieces,” added my father, gratuitously, from the other end of the counter.

It became an inside joke for us that lasted twenty years. Even as my father lay exhausted on his deathbed, in the final round of his decade-long fight against heart disease, I was able to elicit a smile from him by whispering, “Cut it up in little pieces.”

As he did with respect to all areas of human endeavor, my father had more than his fair share of theories about restaurants. “You can’t get good service in an empty restaurant,” he used to say, since vitality is crucial to a restaurant’s performance. A literature professor, he analyzed menus with the same intellectual rigor he applied to the great books and, through such analysis, was unfailing in his ability to select the best dishes. He was fond of saying, “I’d rather have the Stage Deli name a sandwich after me than win the Nobel Prize.”

Even when eating a hamburger at midnight, an indulgence he permitted himself once a month, my father could be overheard quoting Shakespeare and Melville in his conversation with the fry cook. Waiters at the neighborhood restaurants called him “The Professor.” They would seek his advice on marital problems and ask him questions about the nature of being. My father treated the lowliest bathroom-mopper as an intellectual equal. I used to stare at him incredulously when he would try to explain Dostoyevsky to the Greek ex-con dishwasher at a restaurant on the corner of 69th and Broadway in Manhattan. “This man,” my father would patiently explain to me, “may very well be a descendant of Aristotle (or Confucius, or Leonardo da Vinci). Can you and I claim such honorable ancestry?” My father often spoke like he was reading from a book.

At holiday time, he and I would walk around the neighborhood and, with great ceremony, he would present a crisp twenty-dollar bill to his favorite waiters at each of his regular haunts. The waiters would grasp the bills as though they were the crown jewels. It wasn’t the money they were reacting to -- it was the thought, the fanfare, the connection to a different era and attitude. He always called waiters by name and he always asked a million questions about their homes, their families, and their heritage. And he remembered every answer, because every answer was important to him.

My father never managed to get a sandwich named after him at the Stage Deli, and he never won the Nobel Prize. Years after his death, however, a Greek diner on Columbus Avenue still offers “The Professor Salad,” and you can still order “Professor’s Special Lobster Cantonese” at a local Chinese restaurant. And I like to think that, somewhere out there, the Russian grill man is teaching physics at a prestigious university but still remembers how to make “Eggs Professor.”

We were a family with a middle-class income—both of my parents were teachers. As a teen, my idea of a fancy meal was the monthly visit to Gallagher’s steakhouse in the Broadway theater district with my father and my uncle Paul. By the time I was a teenager, I was cooking dinner for my friends on the Stuyvesant High School debating team -- sometimes ten or more of them at a time. In college I was considered something of an oddball because I cooked so much of my own food and would walk an hour or more in the Vermont winter to visit the only good Chinese restaurant near Burlington, housed in what I think used to be a Kentucky Fried Chicken in an office-building parking lot on a lonely stretch of Shelburne Road. I married the girl who always walked with me.

It was in my second year of law school at Fordham University in New York that I discovered fine dining, courtesy of the many law firms that came to my school to recruit young lawyers-to-be for their summer associate programs. A half-day interview with several partners would be capped off by lunch at a fine restaurant with a group of the firm’s younger associates. The legal hiring process, overseen by an organization called NALP, allowed me to schedule fifty job interviews. Even though I planned to accept an offer from the first firm that had interviewed me, which had been my top choice, I kept the other forty-nine appointments so I could get the free lunches. Whichever fool said there’s no such thing as a free lunch never interviewed for a law firm job.

My first assignment as a commercial litigator at a large midtown Manhattan law firm began the day after my wife and I returned from our honeymoon. My boss, Rory Millson, called the night before: “Shaw, it’s Millson. Come early tomorrow. Bring clothes.”

The trial had me living in a hotel and working out of temporary offices in Wilmington, Delaware, toiling 24/7 for almost nine weeks. True to my nature, though, over the course of my incarceration in Wilmington, I sussed out all the best places to eat and, in what turned out to be the beginning of my next career, I wrote a short Wilmington restaurant survival guide, which became a bit of a cult classic around the New York law firm scene. To this day someone will occasionally e-mail me a copy and ask, “Hey, did you really write this? Your writing used to suck!” As an attorney I was well paid, but if you divided the number of hours I worked each year into my salary I was probably paid less than my secretary. My wife, Ellen, and I, who as students had become accustomed to 24/7 access to one another, now had to schedule “date nights,” and we had a standing Saturday lunch date at a favorite restaurant, the now-defunct Lespinasse.

Lespinasse was one of my formative fine-dining experiences. Most of my fine dining at that time had occurred as a result of my getting involved in big law firm culture, so I was fairly new to restaurants like Lespinasse. Still, I had been to most of the big-name places by then and I thought I understood good food. That was until eight of us, including the head of the firm, went for dinner at Lespinasse, and my eyes were opened. It was an awakening. I was so astounded by the food, the surroundings (Lespinasse looked like a palace ballroom), and the service (I learned years later that our waiter’s name was Karl) that I barely participated in the dinner conversation and, instead, held a hushed dialogue with Karl about each dish, each glass of wine, and each utensil. I knew I would be back.

Over time, and with my meals at Lespinasse and many other restaurants in mind, I realized I was more interested in my business lunches than in my business as a lawyer. I started to write short restaurant reviews and food essays, and I sent them around to magazines and newspapers, hoping to get them published. After about a year of that, during which time I didn’t get a single thing published, I turned to the Internet. It was just around the time when, with a bit of effort and study, any crackpot with delusions of grandeur could create and maintain a basic Web site. This crackpot put fifty restaurant reviews online and waited.

At first, only my friends in the law business, a few hardcore Internet junkies, and my mother read the site. Then one day the New York Times discovered my reviews and discussed the site in a food section article. Overnight, my site went from getting about twenty visitors per day to getting more than twenty thousand. I remember my Internet service provider e-mailing me that day: “We suspect your Web site may be under attack.”

New Media outlets such as Salon.com and the now defunct Sidewalk.com picked up on my work and, later, so did newspapers and magazines. But working full time as an attorney, I didn’t have the time to hone my craft. So I made a choice: I gave up my career as a lawyer in order to devote my life to writing about food.

Over a five-year period, I wrote more than five hundred restaurant reviews. They mostly followed the standard format: a discussion of the various dishes on the menu, plus commentary on the decor, service, ambience, and wine list. Ultimately, though, I found that restaurant reviews were a limited form of expression, because they answer only the most basic Consumer Reports level of inquiry: “Where should I eat?” And they answer it in the most generic way, from a reductionistic dish-by-dish perspective. I felt there were plenty of restaurant reviews out there, but that there was something missing. I began to focus my writing on larger issues, not so much where to eat, but how to dine.

On my thirtieth birthday, Ellen took me to dinner at Gramercy Tavern in New York City, then and now one of my favorite restaurants. Our waiter, Christopher Russell, who went on to become the beverage and service director at the legendary Union Square Cafe, overheard bits and pieces of our conversation and finally asked, “Are you Steven Shaw, the Internet food guy?” It was the first time anybody had ever recognized me as a writer. The chef, Tom Colicchio—who apparently had also been reading my work—came to the table and introduced himself. My moment of glory was cut short, however, by a pronouncement from Colicchio. “You know what’s wrong with your writing?” he asked. “It’s that you have absolutely no idea what happens on the other side of the kitchen doors.”

I blanched. I sputtered. I recovered. I challenged: “So what are you going to do about it?”

“Come in Monday at 9 A.M. Ask for my sous-chef, Matt Seeber. I’ll order a cook’s jacket in your size.” That week in the Gramercy Tavern kitchen, in addition to being murder on my feet, raised my addiction to a new level. I dedicated myself to learning as much as I could about every aspect of the business, from the inside out: all the things one doesn’t see as a consumer. I hit up two other chefs -- Christian Delouvrier and Alain Ducasse -- for kitchen time. I shopped with chefs. I visited farmers and fishermen. I spent time with waitstaff. A lot of time. And not just in fancy restaurants. I’m equally fascinated by temples of haute cuisine and roadside barbecue joints, by the most exclusive Japanese restaurants and the local pizzerias with their “stick men” who manipulate the pizzas with long wooden peels. I’ve spent the past several years investigating every level of restaurant, from New York to Vancouver and from Chicago to the Southeast, from the special-occasion place to the business-lunch spot to the local frankfurter stand. Though restaurants are infinitely diverse, when viewed in an operational sense restaurants at every level appear quite similar. Like any two species of the same genus, the genetic codes of the highest and lowest restaurants in America have far more in common than not.


Steven Shaw (aka Fat Guy) is executive director of the eGullet Society. He has been known to do other things on occasion.

Photograph by Ellen R. Shapiro.

Copyright 2005 Steven A. Shaw. Reprinted by kind permission of the author and HarperCollins Publishers.


#2 achevres

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Posted 11 July 2005 - 01:08 PM

Bravo Steven! I can't wait for the next excerpts and for the whole book. I'm on vacation right now and your book would be perfect. Congratulations.

#3 Megan Blocker

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Posted 11 July 2005 - 01:22 PM

Bravo Steven!

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Ditto! This looks fantastic - can't wait to get my hands on the whole thing!
"We had dry martinis; great wing-shaped glasses of perfumed fire, tangy as the early morning air." - Elaine Dundy, The Dud Avocado

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#4 Grub

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Posted 11 July 2005 - 01:57 PM

Wow, dude... This looks amazing.

#5 Gifted Gourmet

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Posted 11 July 2005 - 02:12 PM

From even this brief and intriguing amuse bouche, I am led to expect even more stimulating, engaging, riveting impressions which you will be sharing of the restaurant industry! Anticipating some highly compelling reading here!
Melissa Goodman aka "Gifted Gourmet"


#6 Pan

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Posted 11 July 2005 - 02:14 PM

I can only echo what the others have written: This is one of the best pieces of writing I've read in some time.

#7 Tess

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Posted 11 July 2005 - 02:19 PM

Great chapter!

Psst... Amazon US is offering a nice discount on the book at the moment, which I'm guessing will go away when it's officially out. (Is it OK for me to say that?)

#8 Dave the Cook

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Posted 11 July 2005 - 02:35 PM

We come here not to praise Steven, but to discuss him -- or his ideas.

No one's more proud of him than I am (well, maybe his mother, and Ellen, and Momo, and maybe his sister and his best friend). The best way for you to let him know how much you liked this is to flood his PM box with congratulations (he has a one-bazillion-message limit). Then, please, come back here and discuss what's in the excerpt. For instance:

- How and what does a teenager cook for ten other teenagers?

- What is Eggs Professor?

- Where are the best places to eat in Wilmington?

- What's wrong with the "reductionistic dish-by-dish perspective" of a standard restaurant review?

- Do you still consider yourself a crackpot? An oddball? Do others?

- How do you talk Christian Delouvrier and Alain Ducasse into letting you cook with them?

- Why doesn't your writing suck anymore?

- What the hell do you have to do to get a Stage Deli sandwich named after you?

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Eat more chicken skin.


#9 Fat Guy

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Posted 11 July 2005 - 02:51 PM

- What the hell do you have to do to get a Stage Deli sandwich named after you?

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The determination is made on a case-by-case basis. For example, "The Dolly Parton" is twin rolls stuffed with corned beef, pastrami, coleslaw and Russian dressing.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)


#10 Fat Guy

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Posted 11 July 2005 - 02:54 PM

Psst... Amazon US is offering a nice discount on the book at the moment, which I'm guessing will go away when it's officially out. (Is it OK for me to say that?)

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I think the Amazon price will remain the Amazon price for the duration of the hardcover printing. Per Dave's instructions above, however, I'll be happy to answer practical questions about the book -- when it comes out, how to get a signed copy, what the name of the typeface is, etc. -- on the "Fat Guy lays it on the table" topic. Thanks!

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)


#11 Dave the Cook

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Posted 11 July 2005 - 02:58 PM

- What the hell do you have to do to get a Stage Deli sandwich named after you?

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The determination is made on a case-by-case basis. For example, "The Dolly Parton" is twin rolls stuffed with corned beef, pastrami, coleslaw and Russian dressing.

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So what would your father's sandwich have been? (When you're done with that, tell us what kind of tree you would be.)

Dave Scantland
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Eat more chicken skin.


#12 Gifted Gourmet

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Posted 11 July 2005 - 03:12 PM

Okay, enough with the praise already .. you are right about this, Dave. He will certainly get a swelled head ... goes with the purchase of the fishpants ...

Question or two:

If you had not spent so many years attaining your law degree and then putting it into practice, what more might you have done with those years which would have led you to the place in which you currently find yourself today (head of a huge food website and author of a new major book in the food world)?

Would you have done more and more food-related things with your life in those years?

Or has it worked out even better by doing the law school-and-practice thing and then finding your path here?

Assuming, of course, that you are quite satisfied with the course in which you took your life and career ... and who would not envy that?
Melissa Goodman aka "Gifted Gourmet"


#13 Fat Guy

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Posted 11 July 2005 - 03:12 PM

So what would your father's sandwich have been? (When you're done with that, tell us what kind of tree you would be.)

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It would have been pastrami, sauerkraut and mustard on rye, with the following restrictions:

- Extremely "juicy" (aka well marbled with fat), warm Romanian-style (very peppery) pastrami only from the deckle, cut by hand in thick slices -- never by machine.

- "New" sauerkraut as is served out of the giant bins at Guss on the Lower East side -- not packaged.

- Old-world grainy East European-style mustard that blows the roof of your mouth off -- not the flavorless watered-down imitators that pass for mustard today.

- Rye bread made from a sourdough starter, firm in texture (not the texture of Wonder as is common today) because it's actually made from a high percentage of rye flour (not white flour with a handful of rye flour per metric ton) and with plenty of caraway seeds.

- Only one half of the sandwich delivered to the table. The other half packaged, along with a fresh slice of bread wrapped separately, to be eaten for breakfast the next morning.

(Edited to add: accompanied by a three-quarter-sour pickle)

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
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Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)


#14 Fat Guy

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Posted 11 July 2005 - 03:38 PM

If you had not spent so many years attaining your law degree and then putting it into practice, what more might you have done with those years which would have led you to the place in which you currently find yourself today (head of a huge food website and author of a new major book in the food world)?

Would you have done more and more food-related things with your life in those years?

Or has it worked out even better by doing the law school-and-practice thing and then finding your path here?

Assuming, of course, that you are quite satisfied with the course in which you took your life and career ... and who would not envy that?

View Post

It's hard to know what might have been, but one thing worth pointing out is that for the most part I enjoyed the practice of law. In particular, the group of people I was around at Cravath, Swaine & Moore was one of the greatest assemblages of brilliant minds and irrepressible personalities imaginable. I have so many fond memories of my time there, working on some of the most important commercial litigation projects of the time (everything from the Time Warner/Turner merger to the Air Products derivatives matter to big utilities and banking cases that aren't well known but are nonetheless important in the business world) with some of the best lawyers in the world (Tom Barr, Rory Millson, John Beerbower, not to mention my contemporaries many of whom are now partners at excellent firms). I also got quite a lot out of law school. I was particularly blessed to have been intellectually adopted by Jim Fleming, a brilliant Constitutional law professor who never stopped challenging me at every level of the game.

No, the problem with the law wasn't that I didn't like it. Some people even thought I was pretty good at it. The problem was that it wasn't possible for my legal career to coexist with the other things in my life that were equally important. Things like my wife and parents and friends and writing. When my father died, after I had been at Cravath for a year or so, I think I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times we had gotten together for lunch that year -- and this was with us living and working in the same couple of square miles of Manhattan. Although it took years of psychoanalysis to figure it out, in retrospect it's pretty obvious that his death prompted me to wake up and get off the treadmill much earlier than most people who make the kind of transition I made. So I wasn't in my forties when I made the change. I was in my mid-to-late twenties.

More to the point, my encounter with the law taught me several things. First, it taught me how to think. In law school as a student, as the writing and research editor of the Fordham Law Review, at Cravath and also at Shereff Friedman and Lehman Brothers and even practicing on my own, I developed a certain degree of mental discipline that I don't think one can get from just sitting around in a room. Second, it taught me about the structure of arguments. While you don't learn to write attractive prose as a lawyer, you do learn (particularly as a litigator) to build compelling arguments. Third, it taught me about research, which is the foundation of truth-seeking in many cases. Fourth, it taught me about business and business relationships -- this knowledge has come in very handy with the eGullet Society, which has a complex management system that would have been totally foreign to me if I hadn't done my time at places like Lehman Brothers.

And, of course, with the practice of law came money, and with money access to fine dining. Coming from a middle class background (middle class in the American colloquial sense of a working class income) there's no way I could have just magically exposed myself to fine dining without some sort of intervening economic leverage.

I was speaking recently to a group of students at the NYU food studies program. This was a class on food writing, and I was supposedly the guest expert. It's a great program in a lot of ways. The teacher, Daily News writer Irene Sax, tells these young people so much stuff I wish I'd known earlier on. But at the same time I can't help but think that they'd all learn more about food working at law firms. Someone who comes right out of college and just becomes a food writer is never going to have the pure experience of being a frequent, high-end restaurant consumer. If you're bred to be a food writer without first living a little of your adult life, the risk is that there will be a bit of a Truman Show aspect to whatever you do from there on in.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)


#15 Fat Guy

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Posted 11 July 2005 - 06:34 PM

- Where are the best places to eat in Wilmington?

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My knowledge isn't current, and when you say "best" in the context of Wilmington circa 1994 you have to do so tongue-in-cheek, but certainly the most memorable place was the Italian restaurant where the servers would occasionally break into operatic arias. On that trial I was what was called the "beachmaster," a term Tom Barr coined based on his training as a U.S. Marine. The beachmaster, well, he (or she, more on that in a moment) secured the beach and directed the rest of the troops. I was the rarest of things, an emergency substitute beachmaster. The original beachmaster on the trial, Elyse, had managed to get pregnant and was at month number seven on the eve of trial when she went into premature labor. Lucky for the trial team, that was the day I returned from my honeymoon. So I was in the right -- I mean wrong -- place at the wrong time and I took over the beachmaster position on the first day of trial.

What that meant was that I was there for the entire duration of the trial, living and breathing it. Other people, like the expert witnesses and various support staff, would come and go to and from New York or wherever, but I was always in Wilmington. I even had a car (a Jimmy, actually) and driver, a genuine local guy named Dave who spoke of almost nothing but crabs and crabbing.

So anyway, what I would do is take people out to the Italian opera restaurant without telling them that the servers were going to sing. And of course it was endlessly hilarious to watch people's reactions when it happened.

Dave also steered me to the one really good crab place, which was called DiNardo's, I think, though at the time on account of red tide or black plague or whatever all the crabs were coming from Louisiana. They were good, though. Also there was the fondue place, which was good for its time and place. And of course there were the elegant restaurants at the DuPont hotel (aka my house), which, if you were on expense account (as we always were), couldn't harm you.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)


#16 LindaK

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Posted 11 July 2005 - 07:18 PM

First, if I can share some "mere praise" without being accused of veering off topic :wink: , let me say that your perspective and self-knowledge about the human side of food--whether it be through the lense of family or the industry--will make your book stand out amongst all the literary drivel out there.

If you're bred to be a food writer without first living a little of your adult life, the risk is that there will be a bit of a Truman Show aspect to whatever you do from there on in.

I have to second this insight--I strongly believe it to be true for just about any true avocation (versus occupation). I won't bore you with my bio but that comment really hits home, and I count myself lucky that I also had the guts to move off the academic track that all my years of grad school prepared me for to pursue what I really love. Now, I have a high-school age nephew who has decided that after much Food Network viewing that he "wants to be a chef" and go to culinary school. Since I've never once seen him putzing around in the kitchen at home. I'm begging him to take a part-time job in a local restaurant to see what he really thinks before he foregoes a college education. I don't need my Ph.D. in my current job but, like your law school training, it has given me skills I wouldn't want to be without. Would your book be a helpful thing for him to read?


 


#17 Fat Guy

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Posted 11 July 2005 - 08:13 PM

Culinary school is the new law school, except when you get out of law school you can earn a living even if you're a mediocre student and when you get out of culinary school you can't make any money even if you're Escoffier reincarnated. That whole issue, however, is not a subject I cover in Turning the Tables -- my subject is restaurants from the diner's perspective. The forthcoming book that I think every would-be chef should be reading is by one of the great young chefs out there, Doug Psaltis, written with his brother Michael Psaltis who is a (my) literary agent. It's called The Seasoning of a Chef: My Journey from Diner to Ducasse and Beyond. The publication date is September 13. Of course Tony's book, Kitchen Confidential is also a must-read in that category, as is Ruhlman's The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute. And there has been some good journalism on the subject -- Steve Klc and Chefette have pointed to some good materials in various discussions here.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)


#18 rjwong

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Posted 11 July 2005 - 08:42 PM

New Media outlets such as Salon.com and the now defunct Sidewalk.com picked up on my work and, later, so did newspapers and magazines. But working full time as an attorney, I didn’t have the time to hone my craft. So I made a choice: I gave up my career as a lawyer in order to devote my life to writing about food.



Steven, could you detail that decision-making process where you gave up your career as a lawyer? What was the reactions of your family and friends? When the newpapers & magazines started picking you up, was that enough money to ... uhh ... pay the bills?? :unsure:

Also, about your father the "Professor": Did he spend much time with his academic colleagues? If not, did you find it peculiar he spent more time talking with "ordinary" people (for lack of a better phrase)??
Russell J. Wong aka "rjwong"

Food and I, we go way back ...

#19 Fat Guy

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Posted 11 July 2005 - 10:08 PM

Steven, could you detail that decision-making process where you gave up your career as a lawyer? What was the reactions of your family and friends? When the newpapers & magazines started picking you up, was that enough money to ... uhh ... pay the bills??  :unsure:


To call it a decision-making process would be to glorify what was more of a confused admixture of emotions, miscalculation, desperation and neurosis. It's possible to paint a certain picture in hindsight, but in the moment I was in crisis in every way. Somehow I emerged on the other side as a writer. More specifically, giving up my career as a lawyer became a fait accompli: it just got to the point where I had to choose between, on the one hand, being both a distracted lawyer and a food writer without enough time to do good work, or, on the other hand, devoting myself completely to being good at one thing. So, you know, one day -- this is when I was practicing on my own, doing consulting and bits and pieces of litigation while trying to write during the downtime -- I got a call from someone who wanted me to handle a piece of litigation (something that was going to require travel and that would have me at the beck and call of the client for months on end) and something deep, or not so deep, within me made me say, you know what, I'm not taking on any new legal work right now. And I never took on any new legal work again. Well, there was actually the time my landlord called in a panic and asked me to defend our superintendent in traffic court. I won. He was guilty, I didn't feel great about it, but we needed him to be able to come to work or the garbage situation would have just gotten out of control. So a guilty man went free as a result of my years of rigorous Cravath training.

Since then it's been a struggle, and not just financially. Of course the money is a big problem from the standpoint of being able to have things like electricity, but money isn't a big emotional issue for me. Ellen and I have sort of made enough to squeak by in most years. We lose a little, we gain a little, things pretty much work out. The couple of years after 9/11 were horrible for freelancers, but the couple of years after those have been pretty good to us. We're not talking about the kinds of incomes that we had when I was a lawyer and she was a marketing manager at a publishing company, but we also don't need as much because the lifestyle is so different. Probably harder than the financial challenges are the actual challenges of what we do, though: motivation, self-confidence, self-discipline . . . it can at times be pretty exhausting.

Reactions of family and friends? I think they all thought I was nuts. Some said so, some didn't. Nor do I think any of them have changed their minds.

Also, about your father the "Professor": Did he spend much time with his academic colleagues? If not, did you find it peculiar he spent more time talking with "ordinary" people (for lack of a better phrase)??


My father stopped teaching full-time (he was an English professor at Stony Brook) when he was 43 years old, on account of his health problems, so for most of the time I can remember he was not working full time at an academic institution. Thus his relationship to academia was not that of a typical professor -- he went off in a much more independent direction and became, for lack of a better description, a social critic -- or rather he let the social criticism aspect of his work (which was already significant) become the focus of his latter years. For the next 15 years, until he died at age 58, he held a series of adjunct positions at places like Barnard, University of Virginia, St. Peter's, and his last position was with the National Council for the Humanities as a council member, but none of that made up the bulk of his work. Mostly he was writing about culture and society, and he was deeply involved in various academic organizations, most notably the National Association of Scholars, of which he was the national chairman and also the editor of the NAS journal, Academic Questions. Academia wasn't something my father commuted to. It was in our home. There was always an eclectic collection of intellectuals hanging around the apartment, planning to overthrow one thing or protect some other thing from being overthrown. So, you know, since I sort of grew up in the live version of a combination of the collected works of Woody Allen and Saul Bellow, it's hard for me to label any form of behavior "peculiar," except for so-called normal behavior, which to me seems utterly peculiar. Why was he so interested in regular people? I guess for the same reason the great works of literature are so often about guys who hunt whales and whitewash fences and such: because regular people can be more interesting than anyone, and certainly more interesting than a lot of academics.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)


#20 Fat Guy

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Posted 11 July 2005 - 10:35 PM

- How and what does a teenager cook for ten other teenagers?

Chili was a big one, as were obscenely large helpings of spaghetti marinara. Also, by some bizarre twist of fate, virtually everyone I was friends with had a penchant for eating breakfast food in the evening, so I made a lot of bacon and eggs. The biggest crowd pleaser, though, which I got from my high school sweetheart, was hot-dogs-in-biscuits: you'd form biscuit dough around hot dogs and bake them in the oven. That's a really good dish.

In the early 1980s, when my father got sick, I took on the task of feeding myself, and this rapidly spread to feeding others. I had always been well fed by my mother, and she continued to cook plenty (she still does), but many meals were prepared by me. Friends -- particularly my debate team peers -- would come over often to work and practice, and I'd provide food. This reinforced the cycle: they came back. It was a real scene, I tell you. My parents, at some point, gave me a book called The Teenage Chef. It had recipes for all kinds of stuff the members of my peer group liked to eat. I started with that book -- it wasn't until years later that I cooked the dishes I had grown up watching my mother cook -- and quickly moved on to grownup cookbooks. There was also a lot of intuitive cooking going on -- nobody ever taught me how to make diner food; I learned it from watching the griddle guy.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)


#21 Fat Guy

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Posted 11 July 2005 - 10:41 PM

- What is Eggs Professor?

The original egg-white omelet, from before egg-white omelets were cool and before Egg Beaters was a meme. The idea was to make an egg-white omelet with every vegetable in the restaurant's mise-en-place, except for green peppers -- never green peppers.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)


#22 JohnL

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Posted 12 July 2005 - 06:31 AM

I am currently reading the biography of Robert Parker by Elin McCoy.
There are a number of interesting similarities between Mr Parker and Mr Shaw.
From both being lawyers influenced by their fathers (though Mr P's dad was not into wine specifically) to the way in which they discovered their passion and followed it and have achieved a measure of success professionally but even more, how this has translated into a level of personal satisfaction.
Ultimately, this passion can impact an industry because these folks impact many of us who share the passion and influence us in our approach to food and wine as consumers.
There are some important keys: integrity and honesty and hard work, that is, it is not that difficult to write about a subjecty one finds interesting but it is quite another to actively explore all aspects of that subject and become "informed"--Parker has these traits (I sense Mr Shaw has them).
They are, I believe the reasons why these "critics" become influential--their writing carries a level of gravitas that sets it apart.--by the way both these guys (Parker and Shaw) are weighty in girth--I suspect the usual combination of genes and a very corrupting career choice.
Maybe we have discovered the "problem" with Frank Bruni here (but I digress).

anyway--
I am enjoying the Parker book and I look froward to the Shaw tome with great anticipation--my favorite restaurants will be going on summer schedules and it is too hot to drink my favorite red wines so it is a great time to at least read about my passions! (what the hell--I have shifted over into barbeque and beer mode so things aren't that bad).

#23 Andy Lynes

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Posted 12 July 2005 - 07:56 AM

Steven - you say you have a restaurant addiction. Do you still get high on the experience, or do you have to keep taking bigger and bigger doses just to feel straight?

#24 Fat Guy

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Posted 12 July 2005 - 08:02 AM

I can quit any time I want.

What's for lunch?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
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Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)


#25 Fat Guy

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Posted 12 July 2005 - 08:26 AM

- How do you talk Christian Delouvrier and Alain Ducasse into letting you cook with them?

It's all about please and thank you. Other than that I try not to pause too long to think about why so many people have been so generous towards me, other than to note that in general there is an exceptional generosity of spirit (Ruth Reichl's description) in the chef community. I just try to pay it forward by being generous with others. There's also a bit of a domino effect. Oh, you spent time in Colicchio's kitchen? Well, let me show you how a real French kitchen works. Oh, you spent time with Delouvrier? Well, let me show you how we do Michelin eight-star cooking. Still, to describe what I've done in professional kitchens as "cooking" is to be overly generous. I think "schlepper-observer-flunky" is probably closer to the mark. It has been invaluable, though.

I wanted to write about my time in the Delouvrier and Ducasse kitchens (that Delouvrier became the chef at Ducasse's restaurant in New York had nothing to do with my timeline -- I was with Delouvrier at Lespinasse and with Ducasse and Elena at Alain Ducasse New York), but there's only one chapter in the book about kitchens (I can't tell you how tired I am of explaining to people that it's not a damn book about people shooting up and throwing knives at each other in restaurant kitchens) and there was only room for one fine-dining-kitchen storytelling episode. For that I chose Gramercy Tavern, because it was so formative for me.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)


#26 Fat Guy

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Posted 12 July 2005 - 08:48 AM

There are a number of interesting similarities between Mr Parker and Mr Shaw.

I can't imagine that any individual -- especially not me -- will ever have as big an impact on the food world as Parker has had on the wine world, but if I can even be compared to him that's good for me. One big contrast, however, is that Parker is what I would call a consumerist -- a consumer advocate in the Ralph Nader tradition that takes as a given the need to protect consumers from sellers -- whereas I do not consider myself to be an advocate for anyone nor am I trying to protect anyone from anything. My only constituency is the cause of excellence in cuisine, and if that puts me at odds with consumers, restaurateurs, farmers, whomever . . . that's too bad. Actually it's good. I enjoy when people in the restaurant business call me a consumer advocate and consumers say I'm an industry apologist. If I'm calling everybody and everything into question, I'm doing something right. Parker's consumerism, informed by a Watergate era view of conflicts of interest that I think is ultimately conterproductive, is evident not only in his attitude but also in the direction in which he has taken his career. He's a reviewer of wines -- he tells people what wines are good and what wines are bad. I would find it mind-numbingly boring to produce those massive tomes of wine (or restaurant) reviews with numerical ratings and tasting notes. I'm more interested in encouraging people to judge for themselves.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)


#27 Fat Guy

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Posted 12 July 2005 - 09:18 PM

- Why doesn't your writing suck anymore?

Sometimes it does suck. I mean, Dave, you've edited plenty of my work and said things like "This is beneath you, Steven." In the early drafts of Turning the Tables there were parts of the manuscript that were so bad I would wake up in a cold sweat thinking "Oh my god oh my god oh my god, this book is going to suck." But, when I do write something good, it comes out that way for a few reasons:

First, there's practice -- and that doesn't just mean writing a lot. It means writing a lot and being aware of what's bad and good about it. It's just like in photography: you have to take a lot of photographs to get good at photography, but if you take a thousand photos and never look at them critically (a process that requires self-criticism and criticism by others) you won't learn anything just from the simple act of pressing the shutter a lot.

Second, there's breaking away from forms of writing that weren't appropriate to my subject matter. A restaurant review isn't a law review article. I know that seems obvious, but it takes some time to unlearn habits of writing and to learn new ones.

Third and, I think, most importantly, there's the thinking behind the writing. Writing itself -- as in the act of putting together readable sentences -- comes pretty easily to me. I mean, I was born in an English-speaking country, grew up with two college professors for parents and spent something like 22 years in elite schools. I don't have any serious learning disabilities or anything like that. So if I couldn't write at least passably I'd have to be considered a complete idiot. But writing well about a subject, in my opinion, requires that you think well about it first. Otherwise you're just stringing words together artfully (most food writing doesn't even accomplish that, and much of what is called good food writing accomplishes only that). This is what I think really marked a turning point in my writing. If you look at the work I was doing up through I guess about 2000, what you can see is a steady progression of improvement in the first and second areas I highlighted above, but a lack of very much in the way of ideas -- I was writing about food for the sake of writing about food because I found food interesting. Then a number of issues presented themselves to me all at once -- the media reactions to the Ducasse opening in New York, my mounting disillusionment with the Zagat survey, the decline (and now I'd say fall) of New York Times restaurant reviewing, the spread of Slow Food and various other movements and ideas that I think are deeply flawed, and of course the founding of eGullet -- and I realized that the next step for me was going to have to involve developing bigger ideas about food and, in particular, about dining and food media. Of course, that makes it possible to do "serious" writing about food, but that's not the point I'm making. The point is that when you have a foundation of serious though about a subject, everything you write about that subject is going to take on depth and dimensionality that couldn't have otherwise existed.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)


#28 SethG

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Posted 12 July 2005 - 09:28 PM

I won. He was guilty, I didn't feel great about it...

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You didn't feel great about it? I wouldn't have felt great about it, either. I would have felt FABULOUS about it! What kind of lawyer were you? No wonder you quit! :biggrin:

Edited by SethG, 12 July 2005 - 09:28 PM.

"I don't mean to brag, I don't mean to boast;
but we like hot butter on our breakfast toast!"

#29 slkinsey

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Posted 13 July 2005 - 07:23 AM

. . . I made a lot of bacon and eggs.

So, nothing's really changed?
Samuel Lloyd Kinsey

#30 Rebel Rose

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Posted 13 July 2005 - 08:30 AM

Steven, how did you decide on the structure of your book? Did the idea come to you fully formed? Or in bits and pieces? Did you write the book from beginning to end, left to right, or did you write the various chapters in an order that made sense to you at the time, and then rearrange them?

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