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clark wolf

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  1. clark wolf

    The role of culinary education

    It's certainly true that the deep and broad ranging supply of real, trained and educated talent now available in this country has and will contribute to the growth of good professional and non-professional cooking. That's really good news, and accomplished in less than 20 years. Cooking schools are profitable and seem fun to own so they are an appealing new venture, especially for crossover technical school owners who lost Federal funding about a dozen years ago. This, along with more specialty food retail (Whole Foods leading the way) and a busier, more urban life, even in bedroom communities just make the explosion that much more sustained. And one you eat well for a while it's hard to go back to frozen junk. As to the chefs all cooking the same thing, I find that statement truly odd and just a little impolite. Recipies used to be exchanges at quilting bees and church socials. Food is good gossip. The guy at the restaurant's back door has other back doors to visit and a truck full of farms greens to unload. I mean really, when I hear people complain about seeing too many beet with goat cheese on arugula salads on menus I just laugh. Wanna get locked in a TGI Fridays for a month? People try things but everything can't and shouldn't be new. Judy Rogers of Zuni Cafe says that some people like to cook something new every day. She likes to cook the same things over and over and see how different they are each time. Seems like there's room for both. In the not-too-distant past, an American chef almost by definition had not gone to culinary school. Now, fine restaurant kitchens all over the world are populated by students trained at dozens of American culinary academies. Culinary education seems to be booming, with existing educational institutions adding culinary programs (not just cooking, but also academic programs related to the study of food), new cooking schools opening and the established cooking schools expanding. Surely, this helps to raise the standard. It may also be the reason why the menus at most second-tier fine-dining restaurants are interchangeable. What does the future hold?
  2. My hope for the near future is to see the rise of more celebratory and what some call refined dining that includes the flavors of India, Greece, the Middle East and many points Latin, at the very least. It's a good step towards tipping our vestigial hats to other cultures and including the world at our table. I guess I also hope that special cooking and dining will come back into the American home, at least from time to time. If children get to learn where food actually comes from and how it gets magically to a transcendent state at the table their lives will be enriched, and so will ours. Savoring really good food and feeling so totally alive, do go well together. Life is short and crazy and difficult enough without ignoring the gifts in front of us. I'm so thrilled and humbled by a perfectly ripe peach or a wonderfully roasted chicken. Yes, truffles can be extraordinary - hey, they smell and taste like sex - and so can a briny sweet oyster. What I love about the entire endeavor is how it can engage us so fully physically, viscerally, sensually, and indeed politically, emotionally, intellectually and socially. What else does that and fills our stomachs to boot?
  3. clark wolf

    Dumbing Down of Dining

    I'm glad to read much of this. What we're all talking about is culture, which is a living, growing, changing thing. Each element has it's place. Chains are not monolithic. They are very different from each other. Starbucks has been good for American in a lot of ways. It has taught a whole new generation or two that serving food can include personality (and maybe blue hair and an eyebrow pierce...) and that being warm and friendly can actually be a smart choice. They also happen to support a lot of good movements. Micky D can empty a forrest if it chooses a new paper product. Starbucks can make fair trade food practices popular and viable. And it's still better coffee than in most other places. Not the worlds best perfectly every time but really very good. At it's best. "dumbing down" can actually be offering more broadly, which is less exclusive but certainly not dumb. I really hae no trouble sharing. We have plenty, and it's good, and a real and critical part of dining, past and I hope future - to share.
  4. clark wolf

    Define Gourmet

    Gourmet, as James Beard used to say, is a magazine. He was poking fun but he had a point. Being a gourmet has long been seen as a leisure class pass time sometimes best enjoyed as a bedtime read of exotic far away gastronomic adventures. For some it's more the idea, the image than the food itself. Really knowing and enjoying good food seems, happily, to have more depth and more solid value these day, one of those trends that I hope will hold steady. The showoff connoisseur is really rather passé'. We regard them fondly, pat them on the head and wish them well. Then we open a bottle of something really good from someone we know and like that goes for about 12 bucks.
  5. People who like lots of sound vote with their credit cards. They go a lot. Lower light just makes people look younger and smoother, which can often be a nice change. But these are certainly not top restaurants. They're expensive hot spots. After the 80's indulgence people went to clubs less but still wanted the club feel. And while nightclub food had historically been less than wonderful - or often awful - it was time to upgrade and crossbreed. The result was fairly clubby restaurants where the food was better than expected. Good restaurants have light enough to see. You're talking about "fancy" restaurants, which often have no connection with being good. I think time and space and comfort will always appeal and while some may be intimidated into accepting certain discomforts, calling it chic, people with experience and confidence will opt for a long Friday lunch at Per Se, Saturday mid-day at the Grill Room of the Four Seasons (restaurant) or supper on the Terrace at the Splendido in Portofino. In fact I see major meals as super indulgence moving some to daytime, or mid-day, where they've been in many cultures for thousands of years. We like living longer and want to be comfy and healthy a (sometimes) trim so my idea of heaven is 3 1/2 hours at the French Laundry followed by an afternoon nap, a light supper and then to bed. Anyone care to join me?
  6. I hear the concern but do not share it. If by artisan we mean servant then it's certainly time to end that run. Alain Senderens and other greats have come to realize that it is neither economically possible nor culturally necessary to stay at the stove for a lifetime. Western culture celebrates the talented and those stars in turn expect to make a good living and have a nice home, life, third wife... And after all, who would you rather have as owner of a slew of restaurants? A wildly talented and accomplished chef or a real estate or money syndicate of greedy thugs? A really good chef, like those listed, can create wonderful places for people to gather and enjoy and learn and grow - in the dining room and in the kitchen. Food is a birthright and a responsibility. This is just a logical evolution. Marion Cunningham - author of the magical Fanny Farmer and other cookbooks - used to say the home made bread (so popular in the 70's) the was lousy is still simply lousy bread. Artisan, hand made, small bunch and all that is romantic in concept but actually needs to be really good to be worth our time and tummies. Some cheffie globalists will crash and burn (Rocco...). Some will bump a bit but continue to thrive (Jean George Vongerichten, Ducasse...) And some will stay in Chicago where they belong (like the terribly self important but deeply limited Charlie Trotter). This is a series of individual efforts but all, I think for the better, as more good food and good cooking goes to an ever widening audience.
  7. On Monday evening I hosted a panel in San Francisco about the History, Dynamics and Ethics of Luxury Dining. Its part of a series I’ve been doing bi-coastally for a few years. My favorite line came from a wonderful woman, a Culinary Anthropologist from India and a heck of a cooking teacher. Her name is Niloufer King. She addressed this whole globalization thing by saying something like “perhaps we’ll have globalization of ideas and a localization of food.” It was kinda swell. When I complained about chefs cooking in baggies and not sharing good kitchen smells with line cooks, Harvey Steinman of The Wine Spectator said “yes, but those cooks get to open the bags…” Then Michael Bauer, Executive Food and Wine Editor of the SF Chronicle said “…those bags which might give you cancer…” to which someone added “isn’t grilling carcinogenic?!” and on and on. It was a wonderful hour which could have been a satisfying weekend. They all did mention that a scootch of formality or at least dress-up has crept back in to high-end dining. Jackets, if not along with ties, are being requested – even required – in same spots again. I admit I think its pretty medieval that woman can dine sleeveless in open-toed strappy Jimmy Choo’s but if I wear a $700 pair of Gucci flip flops I can’t always get in. So much of this is about having a social order under control, which is why knowledge, appreciation, palate, and real personal refinement are important to me and are, to me, more valuable than fancy pretense.
  8. Food and the world of professional cooking, which seems to be at the heart of our discussion, is an intimate act between human beings. It’s the largest industry in the world and the one most often ill described or little understood. This is not entirely a bad thing as much of it is instinctual, visceral, physical, critical (as in, I gotta eat or I’m dead) and offers such possibilities to delight, satisfy or disturb as to be wildly enlivening or comfortably – (or painfully) dull. Dining, at its best, as Alice Waters has often said, is “more than the sum of its parts” (so too for cooking, if you get it right) – but to say that a past achievement is irrelevant misses the point. Unlike a book or a film, the first night of a restaurant is the beginning, not the end. Like a well written or produced and acted play, it is immediate. It can be vivid and memorable or an hour or two of valuable time – and calories, never to be refunded. I argue with my journalist friends all the time when I feel them start to suggest or I force them to say right out loud “well, it’s only food”. Yeah, well politics and law and culture and real estate will all be buried and forgotten pretty quickly but the need to eat, and all that goes with it, is so fundamental to our existence on every level that, I argue, we’re pretty often simply afraid to know too much about it. That said, I watch all of this for a living and don’t often write these sorts of things down – don’t usually tell the whole story aloud, unless I get paid a whole lot, or trust or passionately believe in the effort, the community and colleagues served. I’ve been short – term predicting for years. It’s like colors in fashion, and the only place trickle down really works. That is, when the high – end restaurants play with something it often makes its way out and around and down to more casual spots, then maybe on to mass consumption. Case in point is mesculin, that lovely, peppery and sweet mix of young greens gathered all year long and piled on a lovely plate next to a warmed mound of fresh goat cheese at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Some years later it can be found as a “green salad” at the Bronx Zoo. Trends build to trends, and a lot of this comes with a culinary adolescence. Take US in the ‘80s, London in the ‘90s, Spain now. We did Blackened Redfish and snail caviar. We recovered and moved on. (Not so lucky, the redfish and, it seems, the caviar have not). In the ‘80s people used to ask me what the next croissant was going to be. Now it’s “what’s the next Starbucks?” I tell them to look back a couple hundred years and roll forward. Look back again about 20 or 30 years, and then order lunch. (With low - rise jeans). In fact it’s completely necessary to take a look at what’s in a sandwich to understand any future (or past) of more refined dining. Looking at “haute” only is like examining the teat of an elephant while ignoring it’s big fat ass, (or checking out what’s in the trunk…). All of this vacuum - packing and plastic – bag - boiling was all the rage in the early “90s (mostly on French trains) but emerging American gastronomes were offended by the notion. That may be why Thomas Keller doesn’t much like to talk about that aspect of his kitchen. But having it happen in a romantic little Spanish town, paired with an ethereal foam, somehow connected to Gerardet has allowed for yet another, this time Western European, culinary adolescence. This sort of hyper chemistry - set cooking, where chefs are actually pleased about keeping the evocative olefactories of cooking in a bag, sharing none with the nostrils of the brigade, smacks of meanness and desperation. There is certainly a globalization afoot, but it’s really from the bottom up. Plain and local had gotten so bad, so off the back of a truck and out of a can, that the “Big City’ or “New York Style” restaurants had to move in and upgrade to what may in fact be lesser food than long ago. Ingredients do travel well, Thomas Keller should know (because little besides wine grows in Napa). But the major movement is at a high level of ambition that competes on a world stage, (Thomas) and at the vaguely upscale that wants to charge plenty, without real understanding or major talent (what are often called “trendy” spots). Americans travel, come home with a sack of magic beans and start to play. But real luxury is grown just down the road, thoughtfully gathered and lovingly prepared. Trends, like feelings, co-exist. A lot will happen in the years ahead. Some will represent various arcs, towards or away from this or that, or be a cultural response – like roast chicken and mashed potatoes after the ’87 market crash, or Pinot Noir after Sideways. I can’t wait to see what’s next.
  9. While I think the piece was fairly well done (collage book report style) but I find the entire topic smacks of desperation: on the part of these chefs who find it easier to focus flavor in a baggie than to find really good ingredients and bring the flovor forth naturally, on the part of AH and the Times Mag trying to catch up and join the conversation that their own Dining section has long led. Those "lost smells" are actually a priceless part of the whole experience of cooking. The kitchen should provide it's own magical rewards to those in it. I really don't want to eat lab food. And when you see David Burke in the Post spraying on 'flavor' I would hope you'd want to, well, loose your lunch. So sad. Wne the tool or process becomes more important than the goal or experienc for which it was designed them something, or all, is lost. Go eat a peach Amanda.
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