Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Le Coupe de Passion

When a quadrennial world sporting event comes along like the World Cup, it has the power of creating not just elevated enthusiasm and energy in restaurants, but equally vivid memories of passion and allegiance.

In this biz, you had better exorcise all your prejudices early on.  People of all races and creeds have historically made up the bulk of the work force that caters to American travelers, lodgers and diners.  And, given the changing face of our industry, it's probably better they do.  We face such an incredible shortage of qualified service personnel in hospitality that if the anti-immigrant lobby had their way and shipped out all 12 million illegal immigrants tomorrow, quite simply the country would come to a stand still.

But, this isn't one of my political posts.  It's about the fond memories I have from the dozens of people I've had the privilege of meeting and working with over 25 years in the service industry.  And nothing brings out the innate national pride and passion of our comrades like the World Cup Soccer Tournament.

Some 20 years ago at the Hotel duPont, I can remember our executive sous Hans Peter pacing manically in his long apron and clogs outside the Green Room bar hoping for a score from his German team, or shouting when there was one.  Germany won that year.  Housekeeping usually had the best network for catching up on scores.  Most of them carried person to person radios.  The entire structural and professional hierarchy of a hotel can break down during this time, and so it wasn't uncommon to hear a banquet waitress from Jamaica talking smack to a front desk manager from Colombia in the employee cafeteria about whoopin up on them.  On no other occasion could you insult the patriotism of the Food and Beverage director and get away with it.

In Cape May, each season can be cataloged by the majority influx of workers for the summer.  Brazilians, Bolivians, Polish- in the mid 90s it was ruled by the Irish.  The US hosted the Cup in 1994, so there was a good bit of excitement from expats, summer warriors and nationals alike.  Cycling into town to wait tables, I could hear raucous soccer chants coming from the Ugly Mug as the Irish had beaten Italy in an afternoon game, spilling onto the Washington Street mall arm-in-arm (to hold themselves up and avoid falling down drunk.)  Afternoon games involving The Republic of Ireland always reeked havoc on restaurant attendance and sobriety.  It was to be their only win of the tournament, but you wouldn't have known it from the public display of nationalism.

In the kitchens of the US, many a boisterous bet has been made both for and against the US and Mexico teams.  Regardless of the ranking of either team, much bravado leads up to the actual bet, followed by a number of cooks and dishwashers getting in on it as it sweetens.  Previous years have seen the losers having to "pay up" with everything from having their head shaved, to eating multiple habanero peppers and forking over cases of cold Corona.  Wanna see otherwise quiet and respectful dishwashers become animated?  Walk through the kitchen during the World Cup and watch the cook from Peru insult the mother of the dishwasher from El Salvador after losing.  

Somehow the French, despite their strong teams, don't succumb to the obligatory trash talk.  I think it has to do with the fact that even if their team wins a game, the rest of the united nations of restaurant workers find ways to insult the French.  That all changed however in 1998 when France both hosted and took the Cup from Brazil in an explosion of national pride I can rarely ever remember seeing before.  

So, if you follow this blog, you know all about the man behind the Festival of St. Anthony, Aldo the Magnificent.  Four years ago in one of the hottest summers and hottest finals in memory, Italy beat France in a 5-3 shoot out to take the title.  World renowned French player Zinedine Zidane could not have been better poised to end his stellar career on top, until the passions of soccer kicked in.  Zidane was sent off in extra time after headbutting Marco Materazzi following an insult from the Italian concerning a family member.  His sister, if I remember correctly.  In 2010, Zidane said that he "would rather die" than apologize to Materazzi for the headbutt in the final, but also admitted that he “could never have lived with himself” had he been allowed to remain on the pitch and help France win the match.  Maybe that's what they mean when they say America doesn't really get into soccer as much as the rest of the world.  Then again, if there could be a FIFA/UFC Fantasy match up, I'd put the Philadelphia Flyers up against any sports team in the world.  Because in Philly, it's not about whether you win or lose, it's how many punches you get in before it's broken up.

With Zidane out of the game, the rest was history.  The blocks surrounding the Little Italy section of Wilmington erupted into cheers, honking horns and spontaneous celebrations.  No one- and I mean no one- was more elated than Aldo.  In a flash of exuberance, Aldo saddled up into the cab of one of the 18 wheel flatbeds used for the festival and loaded two pavilions on the back with a fork lift.  Those watching the game indoors, apparently, had spilled onto the streets, taking their party with them, mounting the flatbed.  Complete with disc jockey, loaded coolers and streamers and banners, Aldo proceeded to take the party truck up and down the streets of Little Italy, laying on the horn every minute or so to let anyone who wasn't watching the game in on what had just happened.  The truck made stops at all the private clubs, restaurants and taverns, picking up and dropping off anyone who wanted to hop on the makeshift victory chariot.  

This year, the French are back in the headlines, protesting their coach's suspension of a player by not practicing for their next match, which, by the way they lost today, 1-2.  In soccer as in life, choose your battles wisely.  Such is the passion of the World Cup.  Next World Cup, 2014: Brazil.  That should be a boring one, huh?

Saturday, June 19, 2010

How it all Started

"This young man is 11 months old- and he isn't our youngest customer by any means.  For 7-Up is so pure, so wholesome, you can even give it to babies and feel good about it. 
...By the way, Mom, when it comes to toddlers- if they like to be coaxed to drink their milk, try this: Add 7-Up to the milk in equal parts, pouring the 7-Up gently into the milk.  It's a wholesome combination- and it works!"  excerpts of actual copy- R

Friday, June 18, 2010

Who Wants to be a Restaurateur?!

Good evening and welcome to "Who Wants to be a Restaurateur?!"  It's the show that asks the difficult questions when contemplating the long, hard and maddening road to restaurant ownership.

Tonight, please welcome our contestant, Ted from Tampa!  Ted is a Virgo and has seven years of restaurant work under his belt, with "a little catering experience" on the side.  He loves barbecue and "the excitement" of a busy night in the biz.  Ted's lifelong dream is to open his own restaurant- and now- with the help of our jaded- er, um- accredited questioning team, we're going to give Ted his big shot!  Are you ready?  GREAT!  Let's go!

First question comes from Enzo.  Enzo ran two busy trattorias in Brooklyn for 27 years before he sold them and got into home appliance sales. 

Enzo: "Ted- what makes you think you've got the cahones to run a restaurant of your own, eh?!"
Ted: "Whuh- uhh- well- I'm - I like the business.  A lot!  And, I make a killer tiramisu!  Also, my friend's dad is a wicked carpenter, and he said he would help build the bar if I pay him in beer."
Enzo: "You gonna last five minutes, you puton! Pack up your knives and getta the hell out!!"
Ted: "HUH?"
Uhhh- Enzo, you're on the wrong set.  Two doors down, please!  Sorry about that Ted!
Ted: "Did I get it wrong?" 

Okay- just a reminder, on "Restaurateur", scoring is done silently and tabulated after all questions have been answered.  So, with that- let's move on to our next questioner.  Please welcome Tammy.  Tammy is the oldest living server in the US.  She's been around since before Baked Alaska was even a state! Tammy?

Tammy: "Listen, hon;  Server roights have been stomped on for years by young punks like you!  We work hard for our tips and pantywaists like you come along and try to get us to pool our tips?!  What do you intend to do about adding an automatic 20% to the check of anyone with an accent? And most importantly, what are you going to do about making cigarette breaks part of the standard work shift for all?!
Ted: "I'm for it?"
Tammy: "Bulls#*t!"

Okay! Thanks, Tammy! Watch your step, there!
Next question comes from Rain. Rain is a vegetarian from Newport and author of the book, "Eating OUT: The New Feminism, Lesbianism Vegetarianism Manisfesto." 
Rain: "Hello, Ted, if that's your real name..."
Ted: "...?..."
Rain:"...the combined effects of greenhouse gasses, carbon footprints, over-fishing, over-farming, genetically engineered crops, not to mention the use of veal, foie gras and cod sperm on menus is ruining the fabric of our nation!  What responsibility will you take as owner of your new restaurant to ensure a return to the days of hands-off, plain, old-fashioned gathering and gardening?  Preferably naked."
Ted: "Well, let's see.  I've got a great portobello burger that is made with facon? You know- fake bacon?  And- well- I'll make sure we have enough salads, too."
Ted: "Oh- and tofu cheddar fries!"
Rain: "NEXT!!"

Ho, HO! Wow- it's heating up in the kitchen, huh??!  BooYAH! Ted, you look a little perspired.  Everything ok? Would you like a Fresca?

Ted:  "Nah- I'm good, man.  Keep going."
Okay! Please welcome our next questioner! A wine collector from Berkley, Preston is also chairman of the group "Sommeliers with Sass".  Are you ready?  Heeeeere's Preston!

Preston:  "Yes. Hi, Ted.  Love the sneakers.  Very retro.  Anyway, my question is a multiple choice.  Can you deal?  Okay- here goes:  What is the most appropriate choice for beverage with sole meuniere?  Is it:
a.  sauvignon blanc
b.  Cosmopolitan
c.  gin and bitter lemon
d. Zima, or
e. none of the above?"
Ted: "Can I use a lifeline?"
There are no lifelines in restaurants, Ted- just overdraft protection!
Ted: "Damn.  Well, I'm gonna hafta say 'a': sauvignon blanc."
Preston" "EhhhhhT! No silly- it's 'E'!  Sole Meuniere is so 1970s!"

Ahhhhhh- GOOD ONE, Preston! 
Okay- this is where things kick into high gear, Ted.  Our next question comes from George.  George is the president and CEO of the accounting firm of Dewey, Cheetham and Howell.  George is going to test your restaurant math savy.  By telling George some basic information about your dream restaurant, he's going to attach a price tag and performance percentage rate to your future endeavor.  Ladies and gentleman- please welcome George!
George: "Ted, how many seats do you plan on having?"
Ted: "Well, I was thinking like 90?"
George: "LIKE 90- or 90?"
Ted: "90. Final answer- 90."
George: "Fast food, casual, semi-casual, destination or fine dining?"
Ted: "I was thinking on the casual side."
George: *Sigh* Average entree price?"
Ted: "I wanna keep it real, so- probably in the $15 to $18 range."
George:"Okay.  Leasing or construction?"
Ted: "Whatever I can get."
George: "We'll say lease, then.  City or suburbs?"
Ted: "Aw, snap! City- city, all the way!"
George: "Okay- you're going to need a building about 3500 square feet.  Assuming you start from scratch- and most people DON'T- we'll say you need around $100,000 in equipment, bare bones.  You're going to need fryers, range tops, ovens, refrigerators, freezer, grease trap, storage racks, a broiler and heck- throw in a steamer for Rain.  I'll give you a modest food inventory of $10,000.  I assume you're going to do this properly and have a decent wine list.  Inventory: $12,000.  Proper storage and temperature control is a must.  That's gonna run ya!  Bar inventory and construction...$25,000..."
Ted: "Wait, my friend's dad..."
George: "Ok- I forgot.  $24,000.  If you're gonna do table cloths, linens need to be in the budget.  Unless you go the paper placemat route- but, I'll give you the benefit of the doubt.  Table cloths, napkins, aprons and bar towels...what thread count?"
Ted: "Thread- count?"
George: "Poly-cotton blend or Egyptian cotton?"
Ted: "I..."
George: "Don't interrupt. You'll need plates, silverware, glassware and take-out containers.  That reminds me- menus.  You'll need a copier.  A good one.  Color is the way to go.  Do all your printing in-house, save on costs.  Office equipment: computer, fax, phone system, desk- yadda, yadda, yadda. Whatabout reservations?  Are you gonna go with an online system?  Don't answer.  There's a system installation fee, plus the monthly maintenance costs.  Each reservation made on your website cost you $.25, each made on theirs costs $1.  Business cards, letterhead and website design.  You'll need marketing software-  I mean you probably can't afford advertising right off- so, do your own newsletter, but do it right, for Christ's sake!  E-blast, baby.  Opening parties are always free- so count on dropping some duckets on those babies.  I think it's safe to say you're not the polished type when it comes to words, so... I recommend a press agent.  You'll want to join the National Restaurant Association, the local restaurant association, the chamber of commerce, the neighborhood association and the recycling bank.  We'll just put that under "dues".  Plan on writing a check to ASCAP if you intend to play any music whatsoever.  That reminds me: pests.  You can't run the risk that someone will see even so much as a fruit fly, it's instant death; so you're going to have to get pest control.  Landscaping.  Logoed mints.  Floral budget.  Candles or lamp fuel.  Gift cards and high chairs.  Paper and chemical supply.  Garbage pickup.  Security system, point of sale system, soda system, draft beer system and cleaning service.  Refrigeration, HVAC, equipment maintenance, liability insurance, loss of business insurance, terrorism insurance, liquor license, utilities..."

BooYaH!  CHA-CHING, Baby!

George: "Shush.  Loan repayment, rent, payroll, payroll taxes, FICA, SUTA, worker's comp, accountant, lawyer- do you like your landlord? Better get a good lawyer, just in case.  Charities call on you about three times a week for donations; better plan on choosing a "cause" if you don't wanna look like a dick.  Manager, assistant manager, chef, sous chef, kitchen staff, bartenders, servers, bus person, dishwashers- they need to eat, and you should consider a benefits package of some sort.  You're the man, now- so act like it.  Which reminds me, I hope you've got some coin saved up- you shouldn't pay yourself for the first year, at least.  Hey, are you listening?  Comps, theft and breakage- there's THAT ugly side to deal with.  Okay- getting in to the home stretch here, Teddy.  The national average you profit on every dollar you bring in is between .07 and .12.  Now, that said, you'll want to put everything you clear back into the business so you'll be around the second year- if there is a second year.  Oh that reminds me- did you say you have catering experience?"

We're gonna take a short break and be right back after these messages.  Hey, can someone get Ted a Fresca?  He really doesn't look very good.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Sagra! Pt II

The rides disappear overnight, the same way they arrived.  The temporary fence and port-a-potties are gone by noon the following Monday.  An entire workforce descends on the three-block radius of the St. Anthony's Italian Festival the day after it ends.  The streets are swept, the grass is cut.  And most importantly, the orange cones and lawn chairs are retired until the next festival or blizzard, whichever comes first.

Living the Italian Festival each year is different than just going.  If you don't embrace it in your neighborhood, you'd better plan to be away (or at work) for eight straight days.  But, with the recent addition of admission for attendance, it seems to have regained some of its family appeal, even if attendance is visibly down from years past.  June just wouldn't be June without the smell of funnel cakes and fresh cut grass when the festival rolls into town.  Still, a lot of those traditions I could live without.  

The authentic egg rolls, for instance, with their prime real estate right on Scott Street across from the raffle.  Really?  Okay.  I guess.  Two-to-one more people say they can't wait to get a panzarotti, that folded up cheesesteak-come-pizza that is- *urp*- deep fried.  I know everything fried is supposed to taste better, but there are so many other wonderful things offered, including homemade pappardelle from Pomodoro Ristorante this year; the texture was exquisite, the flavor rich and heady.  

Then, there's the parade on the last day.  I'm certain Francis Ford Coppola did a little research right here in Little Italy for the parade of Saints in GFII.  The syncopated drums that echo off the stone buildings and the unintended Doppler effect from the brass section create the feeling of a dilapidated hurdy gurdy inching its way up the street toward what could only be a parade of fallen saints, not canonized ones.  And the heat?  I know, it's not something you can control, but after suffering six years of marching band, I understand the real cruelty of literally parading and marching in 90+ degree heat, wearing black polyester while toting a heavy instrument and staggering your breathing between keeping tempo, keeping in step and keeping from passing out.  As my grandmother would say, "That's a sin!"

And then there's those cones.  The ubiquitous orange construction cone, which is seconded only by a lawn chair, of the folding variety, when you need to simulate a driveway in Little Italy.  The following is a list, in descending order, of what can be officially used as a replacement for "the cone" or "lawn chair" driveway.
  • White plastic deck chair
  • Garbage Can
  • Bar Stool
  • Milk crate
  • Lamp
  • Hat rack
  • 3rd cousins, aunts or uncles seated on said lawn chairs, bar stools, milk crates or hat racks.
In short, anything that could be mistaken for garbage but wouldn't be missed if stolen. 

On the final day of Sagra, locals realize it's their last chance to get that once-a-year pastry, final lemon ice with vodka or dance to one last tarantella before the synthesizer and tambourine get put away.  When she saw the rides gone, my daughter said wistfully to herself, "I love the big ferris wheel."  I know baby, I know.

Last night I retired to my stoop with a glass of wine as I had habitually done for the previous eight days.  It was quiet and sleepy on the streets of Little Italy.  In a kind gesture to the surrounding residents, the church turns off the street lights in the surrounding lots, playground, etc. the week after.  When I went up to bed, I tripped and almost walked into a wall, it was so dark.  And, it was hard to get to sleep before 11:30 with only the sound of the neighbor's air conditioner droning in place of the refrigerated beer truck.  

I'm not a betting man, but I'm pretty sure that Aldo was sitting home with his feet up, a shot of anisette in hand watching the World Cup.  Grazie, Aldo.

Monday, June 7, 2010


It is the season of the local festival, or in Italian, sagra.  

Growing up, we'd normally hit the local church festival in June just after school let out.  It was bodaciously small, but it was just enough to keep a family of six entertained for a few hours.  Once every few years or so, we'd travel to the grand daddy of them all, The Saint Anthony's Italian Festival.  For a child's first experience with large crowds, it's both exhilarating and terrifying at once.  The lights, the music, the people, the sounds- it was quite a scene to take in.  The rides were x10 what we had at our rinky dink festival.  And the strings of lightbulbs seemed to stretch on for blocks.  And they did.  

For as many diverse small villages and towns there are across Italy, there is a unique sagra which celebrates all things unique to that town, especially food.
The festival involves all its local residents, their visiting families, friends, the shopkeepers, the church, the restaurants- in short, everyone.  Depending on where the sagra is, you may be celebrating with specialties as diverse as wild boar or frogs.  Or how about these: "a Sagra della Cipolla (onion) at Cannara, a Sagra della Melanzana ripiena (stuffed eggplant) at Savona, a Sagra della Polenta at Perticara di Novafeltria, and so on. Among the most common sagre are those celebrating olive oil, wine, pasta and pastry of various kinds, chestnuts, and cheese."

It's not uncommon, actually to be visiting a local sagra and see dozens of locals standing in line for what surely must be the best thing being served.  My good friend Dan who was married in Italy was at one such sagra, and he was standing in said line.  After about 15 minutes, he said to one of the natives, "
Che cosa stanno servendo?"  The man replied, "I thought you knew."

Sometimes a pageant of sorts is held, musical concerts are given and some sort of sporting event takes place.  There is a lot of wine and everyone dances.  Did I mention the food?  One of the reasons we love going to the boardwalk in summer is for the combined aromas of french fries, funnel cake and diesel- no wait- barbecue.  Okay, maybe a little diesel to operate the rides.  But, ahhh- the smells! 

What I didn't know some 30 years ago is just how true to an authentic sagra St. Anthony's festival is.  Inside the vaunted halls of the parish of Santa Antonio pots upon pots of fresh pomodoro sauce simmer while hand-made pasta and delicate regional pastries are made.  Members of the parish who play musical instruments play for guests gathered under temporary tents, while pitcher up pitcher of vino di tavola flows.  It is wild, raucous and spirited: everything a sagra should be.

That same festival is in its 37th year and kicked off yesterday here in Little Italy.  There is one man many people outside of Lital don't know, but he is responsible for the entire orchestration of festival set-up, electrical engineering, lighting, restrooms, parking, seating, tickets, and now the installation of a six foot fence that encircles roughly 3 by 3 entire city blocks.  He is Aldo.  Aldo drives the forklift.  Aldo maneuvers the cherry picker.  Aldo makes sure the regional flags are draped and tri-colored pennants are rippling in the summer breeze.  He makes sure the fountains work and the church is in tip-top condition.  He is quite simply the reason there is a festival each year.  

Aldo is amiable as can be, and as strong as an ox.  He speaks his native Italian and is fluent in Spanish and of course English.  He can maneuver an 18 wheel rig up a one-way street in three points or less.  I watched a Coca-Cola truck trying to leave the parking lot yesterday; it took the guy an hour and no less than seven cars had to be moved as he went up the wrong direction of a one-way street.  "Amatore!"

For me, Aldo has come to represent the spirit of the festival.  He has immense pride in his native country, and equal passion for his parish and neighborhood.  I saw him, I think, ONCE during the middle of the festival one year when he was idle.  People were coming up to him and greeting him with "Ciao, Aldo!" and "Grazie, Aldo!" like he was the Cardinal.  In Timberlands.  I love that guy.

Whether you hate it, love it, haven't been in awhile or never been, the annual St. Anthony's Italian Festival is a great spirited tradition in the truest sense.  

end Part I

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Sea Change, Part II

With summer unofficially upon us, an entire catalog of my most cherished memories can be recollected from the foods I've eaten, most notably, from the sea.   Local striped bass begins to move up the East coast, and with it soft-shell crabs in search of warmer weather to shed their shells.  Hard-shell blue claw crabs begin to surface at roadside stands and seafood shops.  Fluke and flounder begin to make local appearances.  And, when the boisterous bluefish arrives, you know it's bbq season.

Food and memory is a common theme.  As I returned from the Jersey shore this weekend (in unprecedented traffic), the melancholic drive seemed a little softer as the smell of local barbecue pits and hibachis carried me home.  Detouring off the main roads, I found myself drunken with the sweet aroma of corn silk and honeysuckle. Passing through a small one-traffic light town with a winding creek, you take in the combination of freshly applied tar and salt water from the docks.  

The rite of crabbing is as pivotal an early life experience in the Mid-Atlantic as kickball or wiffleball tournaments on summer break.  Watching a gaggle of skinny, pale kids toss their lines into the murky water, I am instantly transformed to my days of tying slimy chicken necks to butcher's twine with fishing weights.  The one cooler you brought is for the crabs, and it sits empty.  Swatting green-head flies, you eat your sandwich early, for fear of what it may attract if left in the sun too long.    And, you're pretty certain if the sun gets any hotter, you'll be the first human to watch styrofoam turn into molten liquid.  Square and star-shaped traps can bring in the big haul, but it's the crafty crabber who shows their skills by detecting and successfully pulling a crustacean from the sea floor while scooping it up with the nearby net. 

Whether deep sea fishing, surf fishing, wading in shallow water for sunnies or pulling up a trap of blue claws, catching and eating our own seafood along the coast is part of our DNA.  Surely, our lives would be much different without it. 

So, then what if it's not just for recreation, but your way of life?  What if you rely on the uninterrupted cycle of nature in the nation's waterways to make a living?  In my last post, I referenced the dramatic effect of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that is at this very moment gushing crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.  In today's New York Times, it is reported that in Louisiana, "the oil slick is wreaking havoc on the fishing industry here, which brings about $2.4 billion a year to the state, the state’s seafood marketing board says. At least 27,000 jobs depend directly on the fisheries."  

The more insidious story under-reported is the one where BP has hired away almost all the idle fishing boats to assist with clean up and dispersement. Seafood processors say in many cases, "the biggest hindrance right now is not oil, but a lack of fishermen to haul in the catch in the areas still open to fishing."   

Imagine that:  fisherman who make a living from bringing in their catch are now hamstrung from going out and fishing by the very people who put them out of business because they are strapped for cash.  CNN just broke a story about a fisherman's wife who is going on the record about the dozens of fisherman who are coincidentally sick, presumably from a combination of the oil vapors and the dispersants in use. BP's theory?  "Food poisoning is clearly a big issue...It's something we've got to be very mindful of."  Starting to feel insulted?  Imagine you're a fisherman.  "People don't want to talk. They're scared," one wife says, of repercussions and consequences from BP. "Our financial situation lays in the palm of their hands."

This colossal twist of irony is compounded by the fact that Louisiana's "official biologists" have found that as of right now, there is no indication of contaminated seafood from the spill.  That, will undoubtedly change, but what they face, however, is what the Times described as a "public relations nightmare".  Who wants seafood from a region they see on the news every night with glopped up sea birds and glooped up jetties?  

Here's an example:  would you eat Louisiana redfish if I offered to make it for you tomorrow night for dinner?  Answer honestly.  Most of you would say "no", because of what you've seen and what you've heard.  The reality is that red snapper (and tuna) is caught at much deeper depths than where the spill is located and will spread.  

"'Only 6 of 10 tuna boats are going out now', he said, but 'the ones that are going are banging them up,” slang for a large catch.  Despite the plentiful fish, many boat captains cannot find enough deckhands. 'They are getting paid by BP to not go to work,' he noted."

President Obama was quoted in a Larry King interview today as saying he "is furious" over the spill, but that's "it's his job to fix things...not just yell at people."  Well, let me know when the yelling begins on his behalf.  It'd be a nice change from the Vulcan persona we see all the time.  BP is compounding this national tragedy by throwing money (a perverted form of hush money, at that) at the problem to minimize their own public relations nightmare and make themselves appear to be compassionate.  

So, maybe you knew this, maybe you didn't, but let's recap:  BP has hired away frightened gulf fisherman to perform what they believe is a good cause in cleaning up BP's mess (someone must, right?) and could actually be jeopardizing their health in doing so.  While in reality, the cache of seafood that awaits catch, to date, is uncontaminated; yet there aren't enough deck hands and fisherman to bring the seafood to shore.  Got it?  Imagine the happy scenario at the beginning and tell me, "Now who's furious?"

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Sea Change

"The sea, the great unifier, is man's only hope. Now, as never before, the old phrase has a literal meaning: we are all in the same boat. "
Jacques Yves Cousteau

When I attended the Culinary Institute of America, seven days were devoted to the identification, preparation, butchering, proper handling and storing of all things from the precious waters of our lands.  My instructor was a cantankerous and passionate former Marine by the name of Chef "Corky" Clarke.  He is legend at CIA.  To mishandle seafood in his kitchen was akin to hurling a tomato at a statue of the Virgin Mary.  I emerged from my seven days in a fog, as if I had been smacked in the gob repeatedly with cold mackerel.  I didn't so much have an aversion to delicacies of the sea as I did his abrasive style of teaching.  I didn't understand what fueled his love for the sea, so I was elated then to move on to the next block.  Imagine the irony when I landed my first job out of school as chef of a seafood restaurant.    It took all of one week for humility and reality to sink in:  the sea was my muse.   

On a typical restaurant menu, you'll likely see beef, chicken, lamb, pork and sometimes, veal, as sure as you'll see salads, soup, appetizers and dessert.  When a restaurant includes seafood, you're likely to see salmon, shrimp, crab (in this region) and if you're lucky scallops.  The closer to coastal areas you are, mussels and clams are likely to be available, with lobster the mother of all menu real estate. 

Imagine having an enormous, far-reaching palette of flavors and choices that encompasses dozens of textures and possible preparations.  While working with these various species you daily discover why each must be treated with respect and care to allow the ideal enjoyment.  It's a daunting responsibility.  I don't watch the show, but I heard about an episode when Iron Chef Morimoto chided Bobby Flay for his cavalier handling of a whole salmon fillet.  I get it, now.    

I'm a chef, and I write a blog about food and wine.  As is common, I discuss the symptoms of an industry anomaly, but generally champion the greater cause.  What troubling times these are.  The recent catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico is nothing short of a modern day Chernobyl.  Its effects are environmentally devastating and long-lasting.  Yet, it's only become the focus of the MSM within the last week or so.  We've focused on what we're fed in the headlines, easily distracted by a Hollywood divorce or viral YouTube video.  After over 40 days of hemorrhaging crude oil, the toppled Gulf oil rig has only just made it to the forefront of the news.  And, there are no signs of stanching the devastating flow, which many now acknowledge could continue into late summer.

Occasionally when ordering seafood, there can be a red tide or some other form of environmental threat that puts the availability of say, oysters, rockfish or other forms of seafood on temporary hold.  It passes, and we go back to ordering it again, mildly miffed at the setback.  The current oil spill will not only deplete the region of indigenous sea life, it ends the jobs of those who fish for it, process it, sell it, buy it, cook it and serve it.  And that's just seafood.

The time for thinking outside the box has passed.  This is not a potential threat, it's upon us with irreversible effects, and those effects are not just relegated to a loss of Louisiana shrimp and oil-soaked pelicans.  It doesn't take a degree in marine biology to follow the line of thinking that beyond the seafood industry, there are multiple other forms of collateral damage waiting to unfurl.  Beyond the wildlife, also affected are insects, marshes, beaches, boating, inlets, harbors, turtles, drinking water supplies and tourism; an entire ecology and economy is rocked to its core, not because of a spill, but because of an irresponsibility to devise solutions for inevitable disasters, not potential ones.

It's the duty of someone else other than me to attribute both the financial impact and political blame for this tragedy.  Unfortunately, that is how we rate disasters of this magnitude.  There will be far too few discussions about how this outcome is just one example of how far beyond oil-dependence we are as a planet.  From Chernobyl to 9/11, hurricane Katrina to the Gulf spill- whenever safety and preservation are pushed to the forefront of a national discussion, we continue to do nothing.  We are guilty of repeating the gravest error that man can commit against himself: indifference.

(end Part I)


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