To be this good would be very good indeed

My reading amid my San Francisco flights last weekend was Anthony Bourdain’s Medium Raw, his sequel to Kitchen Confidential. I loved the first book. Thanks to my brother for giving me the second. The newer book was scattered and more of an insider read, but I still enjoyed it.

Best parts for me:

  • The opening chapter found Bourdain and other elite chefs having an illicit dinner of ortolan, the delicious songbird whose deaths made Jonathan Franzen cry. I had no strong opinions on eating the bird — against it, probably, yet might try it — but antagonizing Franzen has come to seem like something worth doing. Toughen him up.
  • The list of things Tony feels everyone should be able to accomplish in a kitchen. “Everyone should be able to make an omelet.” “Everyone should be able to roast a chicken.” “One should be able to roast and mash potatoes.” I can accomplish nearly none of them. Some I could look up on eHow (the next time you argue content farms are useless, think of me in the kitchen); others would be out of reach. I am, however, very good at pushing the cart at the supermarket.
  • The breakdown of how the recession affected restaurant operations.
  • The description of farmhouse cafes in Italy. Drinking “the local red whose rough charms have lately gotten a serious hold on you,” your worldview changes. “You don’t care about the big Bordeauxs anymore. The high-maintenance Burgundies with their complex personalities. The Baron Rothschild could back his car up to the door, trunk full of monster vintages, he’s drunk and offering them for free — and you would decline.”
  • The chapter hanging out with Momofuko Ko’s David Chang and the description of all Chang’s inspired email threads, global and long-running, that turn into tasting and testing and then dishes.

But my favorite part is the chapter watching the work of Justo Thomas, who cuts the fish — an epic amount, beautifully — at Le Bernardin.

He is a man set in his habits. He has organized his time and his space the way he likes them. He has a routine, a certain way he likes to do things. And he never deviates.

“With Justo,” says Le Bernardin’s chef de cuisine, Chris Muller, just arriving for work, “it’s all about no wasted motion.” In a Buckaroo Banzai-like explanation of the universe (“Wherever you go… there you are”), Muller holds up one hand flat, representing a fish in Justo-Land, and says, “It’s here…” then turns the palm over, like flipping a page, “… and then it’s there.” He holds my gaze for a split second as if I should understand that he’s just revealed something profoundly important.

Finding your mise-en-place

Jess, of course, was the one who introduced me to Anthony Bourdain. “Have you heard of Tony Bourdain,” she probably asked in a friendly way, like a party introduction, “Do you know So-and-so,” leading into a conversation involving that person, whom you took to be nice enough and had no idea how they’d once together run the yard at Sing-Sing.

Figuratively, of course. (A statement that somehow feels necessary.)

I began watching No Reservations from there but progressed no further until this Christmas. Sale paperbacks of Kitchen Confidential overflowed a rare Nook-less table at Barnes and Noble, and I got copies for myself and my brother. He read his copy almost immediately and then treated himself to the steak at Les Halles, the restaurant that made Bourdain famous. As Rob and I have similar work-before-life issues (expressed and treated in different ways), I had to give him credit. And catch up.

This afternoon, a month or so later, I did. A reminder had come in the form of talking to friends Wright and Marc about Bourdain’s Fellini-like episode in Rome, and a late New Yorker delivery provided opportunity.

The hungriest I may have gotten was in the descriptions of the bread. The sex and drugs parts were best consumed on cold Metro platforms. Dishes I didn’t recognize came across as shadowy and enticing as the coke-sniffing cooks. My favorite passage, of course again, ate Italian.

And I was dazzled. Remember, I was not a fan of Italian food. But when I arrived that first day at Le Madri, saw that the walk-ins were absolutely empty, saw how tomato sauce, chicken stock, pasta, bread — in short, everything — was made fresh (the tomato sauce from fresh, seeded, peeled tomatoes), I was stunned. Meat, fish and produce deliveries arrived and the cooks would fall on them like marauders, yanking out what they needed — frequently right off the truck — so it would be ready for lunch. The quality of food was magnificent. Orders started coming in and I’d have to run down to the butcher who was cutting meat to order. A short, Ecuadorian pasta maker with nubs where two fingers had been rolled garganelli, cut spaghetti alla chitarra, laid out sheet pasta for ravioli and punched out fresh gnocchi that were immediately sent upstairs to be served. On the line, a truly awe-inspiring crew of talented Ecuadorians made focaccia and white truffle oil-filled pizzas, rubbed fresh striped bass with sea salt, filled them with herbs and roasted them until crispy, sliced translucently thin sheets of Parma ham and speck, and prepared an amazing array of pasta dishes, yanked the fresh-cooked stuff to order out of two simmering pasta cookers and finishing them in pans from a mise-en-place of ingredients so vast and well prepared that I had no idea how they kept them all straight.

Of everything I learned in the book, the “mise-en-place” — the cook’s operating space — was the concept that connected with me the most.

“Mise-en-place is the religion of all good line cooks,” Tony explained.

“Do not fuck with a line cook’s ‘meez’ — meaning his setup, his carefully arranged supplies of sea salt, rough-cracked pepper, softened butter, cooking oil, wine, backups and so on.” Only a little connection so far.

“As a cook, your station, and its condition, its state of readiness, is an extension of your nervous system,” I felt a decent twinge, “– and it is profoundly upsetting if another cook or, God forbid, a waiter,” so many good italics, “disturbs your precisely and carefully laid-out system.”

I understood completely by now. “The universe is in order when your station is set up the way you like it: you know where to find everything with your eyes closed, everything you need during the course of the shift is at the ready at arm’s reach, your defenses are deployed.”

What came to mind: my desktop, its pile of papers, its jar of pens, the one best pen laid just to the left of the keyboard, the volume knob to the keyboard’s right, the notepad ripped apart, the tabs (dupes), the ordered bookmarks, Google, the sliding shelf with a back-up keyboard (sketchy Bluetooth), the Swingline, the jelly wrist pad, the mouse with the cord wrapped the long way around the monitor to keep the wrist straight and relaxed — a fact and arrangement as utterly boring to me as garnish bowls were to a coke-sniffing cook and just as necessary.

Food aside, briefly, I liked what the book said about sustenance.

’13 Places to Eat Before You Die’

On Tony Bourdain’s new list in Men’s Health (via The Morning News), I’m glad to see I once went to two of the list’s restaurants in the same weekend, Russ & Daughters and Katz’s Deli. Granted, they’re two of the cheapest spots on the list, and both are down the street from my brother’s apartment. But still, that counts, right? Just wait til I go to Per Se and elBulli in the same weekend. Then you’ll be impressed.

Russ & Daughters started as a pushcart nearly a century ago, and it now serves some of the last traditional Eastern European Jewish-style herring and smoked belly lox, sable, and sturgeon. And since you’re close, walk down a few doors to Katz’s to remind yourself how pastrami is done right. This is what New Yorkers do better than anybody else. And here’s where they do it.

And we think we know a tomato

We waited 35 minutes for Jose Andres? We spent the first 20 minutes inside the obvious Busboys and Poets, Ben’s Chili Bowl and Chadwick’s and the next 15 on deserving but suburban restaurants? I finally saw Tony Bourdain’s D.C. visit off TiVo last night, and the show only came alive when Bourdain got to Minibar and Andres began talking.

Can we break everything for a second and get me a plum tomato right now? … The tomato, really, has many stories to tell you. But because we are in this crazy world and we never stop, to speak to the poor things in life. And we think we know a tomato. The tomato’s telling me, saying, ‘Why you don’t open a door into my heart? And I will share with you my biggest secret. … And when you talk to the tomato, we are able to find the most amazing gelatin in the history of mankind, which we have to do nothing. Only listening.

The rest of the segment was fun-crazy. The show then shifted to D.C. Central Kitchen and the wharf, both with interesting stories to tell but produced in underwhelming fashion. One got the feeling the directorial team had either not planned the trip well or had planned the narrative too deeply before arrival. But the final conclusion on the city was spot on. The statement was enough to forgive half the disarray.

If you ever watch the Food Network

Via the always terrific but especially recently on fire Pop Candy, food writer Michael Ruhlman hands over his blog keys to Tony Bourdain, and Bourdain doesn’t let him down. If you’re a Bourdain fan or ever watch Food Network, even for a minute before changing the channel, the post is a must-read. He begins:

I actually WATCH Food Network now and again, more often than not drawn in by the progressive horrors on screen. I find myself riveted by its awfulness, like watching a multi-car accident in slow motion. Mesmerized at the ascent of the Ready-Made bobblehead personalities, and the not-so-subtle shunting aside of the Old School chefs, I find myself de-constructing the not-terrible shows, imagining behind the scenes struggles and frustrations, and obsessing unhealthily on the Truly Awful ones.

Chef-by-chef remarks follow, including respect for Emeril, props for my girl Giada, a Triscuits reference for Rachael Ray (I thought I was the only one who found it odd to have her picture on the front and back of the box), and unbridled hatred of Sandra Lee.

To wit: “I would likely be arrested if I suggested on television that any children watching should promptly go to a wooded area with a gun and harm themselves. What’s the difference between that and Sandra suggesting we fill our mouths with Ritz Crackers, jam a can of Cheez Wiz in after and press hard? None that I can see.”

The first time I saw Sandra Lee on TV, I think it was during a holiday appearance she made on CNN, back when I was working there. We all remember how happy I was that season, but the only thing I can remember from that day was pure confusion. What was she making?

With Bourdain, it’s time to read the books. While I came to his work late, finding No Reservations playing the deprived National Geographic role in my life that Dave Attell’s Insomniac once filled, Jess has always touted the books as funny gritty foodie masterpieces. Which, if accurate, fits my continuing love of funny people, gritty movies, eating, and Monsterpiece Theater.

First, to work through the books already in progress….

This person claims there are five pictures of Rachael Ray on a Triscuits box. I don’t remember that many, but it’s possible. Also, Giada turns up in the paper this week. How I missed her chat on the site in 2004, I have no idea.

Finally, the Muppets Wiki has a comprehensive rundown of Monsterpiece Theater episodes, includes synopses, photos and — best of all — YouTube links.

Alistair Cookie also gets his own page, featuring a classic work of description: “Though seemingly more sedate and urbane, Alistair Cookie is still a Cookie Monster, devouring baked goods, props — and in the revamped opening in the 1990s, noisily consuming cookies over the theme, while offering judicious comments on the texture.”