Tuesday, November 23, 2010

F&C Rewind: Let There Be Music!

(originally posted on 12/9/09)
It's really hard for a chef to post at this time of year.  But, when it's in ya, ya gotta get it out.   And so, I want to talk about an important part of dining (to me anyway), and while I'm at it, I'll try to tie it into the season.

I have yet to speak openly about my absolute passion for music.  No- I'm not running out of ideas for posts early on in the game.  But, I'm so devoted to music- my music- that like food, when it is in short supply, I grow cranky.  I need food, I need wine with my food, and I need music with my food and wine.  Period.

I am that guy.  I bring my Ipod to dinner parties.  I "suggest" music when it's not there.  When it's bad- I change it.  When it's soft, I turn it up.  When it's off topic, I steer back.  See- somewhere along the line, the same way that we integrate food into our memories, I've skipped a rail or two and now the three- food, wine and music- are inseparable, interchangeable, indispensable.  Some of you may think this is hype- I assure you, it is not.  

This "merging of the passions" got serious with the advent of the Ipod and digital music.  Not that my front of house experience kept me from getting my fingers sticky.  But, when it became possible to create a playlist, without building a 90-minute mixed tape, without having to stick to 80 minutes of CD time, without any limitations on what plays, in what order and for how long- well- it's ON.  

You have to get, first, that I link the culture of music to the culture of food.  For example, as cheesy as it may be, when I'm at a real Japanese restaurant, I wanna hear music that makes me think of Japan.  I don't want to hear classic rock.  I don't want to hear house and trance.  There is so much awesome music out there, that, yes- I actually do have music that is both culturally correct and cool to quaf sake and slurp sashimi to.  That said, I like to hear music when I'm eating that at least equals the rate at which I am chewing, and doesn't exceed it.  There are all kinds of statistics I could give you about intensity of music volume and even brightness of lighting in restaurants that directly affect the rate at which you eat.  But, I don't wanna ruin it for you.

Then, there's Pandora.  The space-age, intelligent music service that is the closest thing we have to a free-thinking, non-sentient DJ.  It is nothing short of brilliant.  Once you get past the novelty of typing in a song or artist and hearing what comes out, then try to really challenge it;  add other artists, limit content, give it encouragement and reprimand it for being bad, and you've got the closest thing to a musical clone of you possible.  It's one step better than having someone take over your Itunes, because it resources music you don't necessarily have access to.  But, I digress.

Can there really be a more quintessential holiday musical compilation than "A Charlie Brown Christmas?"  I argue, not.

This incidental collection of music from the TV special is one of dozens of albums produced by the great pianist Vince Guaraldi.  He also has solo albums, he's recorded with his quintet, with an obscure, but ultra-talented Brazilian guitarist, Bole Sete- and of course, his trio.  But, no matter what recording, we all know the sound of the bubbling beat that begins the Charlie Brown theme.  We can picture Chuck and Linus hoofing through the snow to buy a tree while the trio lazily laments to O' Tannenbaum.  And of course, the chain of characters catching snow flakes on their tongues and sliding about the ice to Skating.  

The lazy melancholy we can all connect to at this time of year is captured in every bar of every song.  But it's not all a downer.  Just like the holidays, we relate to the highs and lows we experience in a time that is charged with emotions, memory and life.  

This is the cultural connection I'm talking about.  They're musically indelled images from memory.  It's hard, therefore, to be in a bustling bistro where classic French country cuisine is the fare, and they're playing the Gypsy Kings.  But, forget my cranky complaints- how much more ENJOYABLE would it be to hear some gypsy swing or Charles Trenet and Josephine Baker while finishing off a steak frites and a Stella Artois or carafe of beaujolais?  

When you sit down to crack a bushel of crabs open and sip some frosty longnecks- do you pop in the Carpenters anthology, or do you work in a thoughtful playlist of Bruce Springstein, Blues, Nina Simone, 70's pop and the Stones?  I think I've made it clear which I'd choose.

Yes, for those who know me well, this is for serious.  I'm willing to bet that for each of you out there who can name their top three restaurants ever, the one that is #1, you can also tell me about the music they play.  Even if you don't know the artists, you could say for certain there is a recognition.  Now, what about the rest?  *Come on- think aout it.*  See?

Funny thing is, when you dine in Europe, the lights are turned up and there is no music.  WTF?  Where did all these dimly lit, cozy restaurant images come from in our heads with romantic period music lilting in the background? I'll tell you where:  AMERICAN CINEMA.  Because, sitting in a real, classic Italian pizzeria in Verona or a boisterous brasserie in Paris, there simply is no music- and the lights are like the DMV.  

One of the more surprising recommendations from Thomas Keller's recent cookbook, Ad Hoc at Home, is to make sure music is a part of your kitchen experience.  Chef Charlie Trotter is also an avid fan of music- he likes everything from Portishead to John Coltrane- and even modeled one of his cookbooks after the concept of the jazz improvisations of trumpeter extraordinaire Miles Davis.  What more appropriate way to describe a menu that changes daily, relies on the classics, but provides combinations that are artful, modern and thought-provoking?  Self-indulgent? Yes.  Accurate?  Absolutely.
So, get in touch with your inner DJ.  Poke around the internet.  And, when  you hear music at a restaurant you like, someone has made great strides for you to notice, even if you don't notice.  Ask what it is.  Search engines these days, like the ones from Pandora, Amazon and Itunes are so advanced, you're bound to find music you enjoy while dining, cooking or just throwing back some cocktails.  Now I like the sound of that.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Chef Quote of the Week: Guy Savoy

"Cuisine is an art, and I believe that cuisine, much as it cannot be understood without an understanding of the ingredients, cannot be appreciated without a convivial atmosphere. A well-filled plate is no longer enough. If you want people to have a good time, there needs to be other parameters, from the d├ęcor and the atmosphere to the people and the relationships that they create. There is no magic formula. Alchemy is personal." - Chef Guy Savoy

Friday, November 12, 2010

Martini Hour

This Monday, November 15 at The Grand in Wilmington, one of the funnest (and my favorite) bands playing today, Pink Martini, will perform.  Start your weekend early with a video from the 1951film that inspired their cover of the song "El Negro Zumbon".  And, see you at the show on Monday!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Thanksgiving 2010: Musings, Tips and Advice for the Wary

Last week, President Obama used a term to describe his impression of the outcome of the mid-term elections.  He said the Dems took a "shellacking" (personally, I liked Baby Bush's description in '06- "We took a thumpin'!"- better).  I thought immediately of the type of photo above and how much disdain I have for food magazines that depict the stereotypical, impossibly glassy roast bird on their November covers when there are so many other non-literal and beautiful foods that make the holiday memorable.  But, hey- sex sells.  More apropos would be a king-sized bottle of Xanax next to some cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.  So, irrespective of my pet peeves, I've decided to lead off my holiday post anyway with the Turkey as imagined by Rustoleum.

Here are some thoughts on the upcoming holiday.

Today, I read an interesting piece in the Los Angeles Times about how food affects moods, notably, the chemical reactions that take place in the brain- and which ones are real and which are myth.  Among the ones that didn't surprise me (coffee improves energy and mental performance- um, duh.), there were a couple that did.  Eating turkey, for example, it is shown does not induce sleepiness.  
"...each molecule of tryptophan has to compete with many other amino acids to get into the brain, says Elizabeth Somer, a registered dietitian and author of Eat Your Way to Happiness. A Thanksgiving feast will make you groggy, but tryptophan isn't the reason..." 

Or how about chocolate as the cure-all, aphrodisiac, natural-high?  Not so much.
"...chocolate contains many components with the potential to enhance mood, but the chemical effect of each of them is small. It does have low levels of stimulants, but you can get a lot more from other substances," she says. The caffeine content is very low, so coffee is better for that kind of kick (see?). The sugar might give a temporary lift, but it's subtle. And the phenylethylamine that people say is supposed to make you feel in love — well, many foods, including salami, are much higher in phenylethylamine." 

Got that?  Salami, folks.

While we're on the subject of turkey, one of the age-old Autumn quandaries is, "When is the bird done?"  I can tell you that any turkey that comes with a pre-inserted pop-up belly-button is going to be drier than Regis Philbin's jokes.  It's set to pop at 170 F.  This relieves the producer of anyone getting sick if they may have pulled it early.  But, in reality, you can pull it at 160 F and it'll carry over a few degrees, be safe, tender and moist.  That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. You don't want to know what temp I pull it at.  And, all my family is still aliveDo yourself a favor: get yourself a probe- instant read-out, easy to clean, digital thermometer:  they're twenty bucks. 

Are you cooking for 10 or more?  Just as prized as the second dishwasher has to be the second microwave.  Think about it.  You get everything together early, seasoned and ready to rock- and it's time to pull the trigger on dinner.  You actually have more plates than people, and by the time you get them all to the table some are warm, none are hot.  Letdown.  Load 'em on, zap 'em up, send 'em OUT! Yahhh!!

We're approaching Beaujolais Nouveau time, that third Thursday in November when we're treated to one month-old wine which is usually drunk within two.  I like to think of it as headache in a bottle.  Because it's only barely been fermented 6-8 weeks, comes from the lowest quality vineyards in Beaujolais and is produced in excess of 49 million liters each year.  With Thanksgiving falling so close to the release, consumers typically pay $1-2 more a bottle because stores know they need to have it, and the French know it.  JUST SAY "NO".  

Gamay, on the other hand, the principal grape producing the historic crus of Beaujolais as well as the swill in clown-colored bottles, is ideal for the multi-flavored meal in mid-November because of its versatility.  This isn't really to get you away from drinking other suitable wines for Turkey Day, as much as it is to say- "Hey, if you're gonna drink gamay, why not drink a good one?" The Domaine Ricard Le Clos de Vauriou from the Touraine is one I'll be sipping- or I should say, one I have been sipping for the last six months. Always served with a slight chill on it, it was a great red for a grilled Tuna Nicoise salad in the heat of summer, not to mention a nice bridge to the heartier and earthier foods of Fall.  And now, with everything from pumpkins, mushrooms and turnips on the buffet, to Turkey, salmon, apples and sage- gamay, especially this one, is my choice for Turkey Wine 2010.  And, how does $12 a bottle sound?

The next part is...uncomfortable.  It involves the subject of multiple desserts. 

I enjoy desserts just as much as the next person.  I appreciate the time and effort put into a nice homemade pie or torte, or miniature cakes and cookies.  But, I gotta tell ya' when there are six or more choices for dessert, I can only eat one, maybe two of those choices after all that other food before I approach hemorrhage stage.  And I FEEL BAD for those people who made them when only one piece is taken or, God forbid- NO ONE has touched them because they lost the popularity contest or simply because the desserts have outnumbered the guests.  HOST and HOSTESSES this falls squarely on you Now, I know you're going to say that everyone gets to take them home- yadda, yadda, yadda.  Yes, this is true; but, perhaps part of the overindulgence we experience from Thanksgiving is perpetuated by the "more is more" maxim.  We can break the chain now!

Or, maybe I just feel bad about the uneaten desserts.  Pass the Xanax, please.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Chef Quote of the Week: Gray Kunz

On what he looks for in hiring cooks: "I don't necessarily need to see the resume. For me, it's the character the person has. Maybe that person doesn't have all the technical skills, but I can teach technical skills. The skills I can't teach are character, determination, goodwill, persistence. Someone who wants to learn has a very good, positive attitude in the profession. These are things that will come as a package to a person."  
Chef Gray Kunz
Cafe Gray


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