FORK PLAY: May 22, 2012
Craig's Legacy. Pampered at Primola. Food in Film. Wong Again. Raising a Gourmand.
Dear Friends and Family,
The NY Times woke up one morning and realized it owed a big debt to Craig Claiborne. It was almost 50 years to the day that the fussy, unassuming ex-sailor singled out an obscure Chinese restaurant, Tien Tsin in Harlem, for its fine kitchen, and confirmed what we early foodies already knew, that Marchi's was unique among Italian spots for its fixed no-choice daily menu.
The half-centennial of this quiet launch of Claiborne's "Directory of Dining" in the Times women's pages might have gone unsung had it not been for the imminent arrival of Thomas McNamee's "The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat" (Free Press $27), jarring Craig's heirs with its dark vision.
In his obsessive search for the narrative and interior motivations of Claiborne, nearly forgotten, if not completely unknown to new generations of chefs and those-by-food-obsessed, McNamee found an often bitter and angry man. Craig's intimates who shared his triumphs and the fun he orchestrated had earlier been appalled at the bleak images in "Contentment's Elusive Recipe," Frank Bruni's op-ed piece based on the book. Did Bruni ever spend an hour with Claiborne?
"It was one of the most offensive, presumptuous, disrespectful, and mean-spirited articles I read in a looooong time!" a friend emailed from retirement in Sante Fe. "Shame on the NYTimes."
Pete Wells homage in the May 9 Times Dining along with Jacques Pépin's appreciation and Bryan Miller's memoir of not-much sought to make amends. They could have asked me.
I didn't samba in Craig's kitchen, but we shared many weekday meals in the Hamptons (before our weekend obligations arrived). One Tuesday, he made fried chicken his way for me - no crumbly batter, half a cup of freshly ground pepper was the secret. It was diabolically hot and devilishly crisp. I can't remember how he fried it, maybe it was Crisco, possibly lard. He served fresh string beans too. Haloed in butter and not al dente.
What a thrill to be in the rowdy band of chefs, cookbook writers, and friends, invited to Monte Carlo for Craig's 70th birthday weekend, put together by Alain Ducasse and iconic publicist, Yanou Collart. (They ended up suing each other when he sent her a bill for the dinner and she sent him a bill for her flackery.)
For a man playful enough to hang a photograph in his powder room of Paul Bocuse French-kissing his ear, that delirious weekend must have been a joy. Impossible to feel insecure and angry with all the newspaper brass and Broadway idols cheering him on, the galaxy of Michelin stars joining the feast, and the bouillabaisse brunch on the beach the next day. Look at the joy on his face in the Times photo. He is tickled pink, maybe even pickled pink.
Okay, he did like to drink. He often made me join him for a stinger after dinner in Amagansett. A stinger is a seductive cocktail. Fortunately, or maybe not, I'd rather have a hot fudge sundae. Sex and disco dancing were my drugs.
In the end he was lonely and abandoned. But read McNamee's book. If you were one of his pampered pets, it may make you angry but you might want to know more than you know. If you're recently born and came late to our town's obsession with eating, a little archaeology will inform you. "The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat" was not Ferran Adria. It was Craig Claiborne. Buy it now. And for more on Craig's time and my times with Craig, read my memoir, "Insatiable: Tales from a Life of Delicious Excess." Click here to buy it.
I know it's spring when the fruit crumble or lattice-topped pie is rhubarb and strawberry, our Fork Play colors today.
Eating with the Entitled
An outraged food blogger reports getting a bum's rush at Primola when the maître d' - or maybe it was owner Guiliano Zulian himself - decided he and his companion had lingered too long at their precious table. Not that these anonymous online complainers are necessarily to be trusted. But the story sounds very Primola to me. Zulian puffs up with pride, advertising that you'll find no tourists in his Second Avenue canteen for a covey of Upper East Siders that consider themselves masters of their zip code, if not the world. Zulian starts his day at 11, usually settling at a regular's table to chat, and stays to close the place, specializing in the kind of diplomacy required to handle the seating when two or three of his regulars arrive, claiming the same upfront table.
Much ado, you say. I agree. Still, it was a hoot to be the guest of pampered habitués and a surprise when the veal chop arrived. Should you brave it? Is veal parm and baked clams worth a sentence in Siberia? Read more and decide by clicking here. 1226 Second Avenue between 64th and 65th Streets. 212 758 1775
Food in Film
No 3D glasses needed. This drama is three-dimensional. Inspired by food in film and favorite movie stars, great chefs will gather Monday, June 4 in the Garden at Rockefeller Center for Knives! Camera! Action! It's the 27th annual chefs' tribute to James Beard for Citymeals-on-Wheels, hosted by Nick Valenti of Patina Group with his partner Joachim Splichal. Michael Douglas, Lorraine Bracco, Danny Aiello from "Dinner Rush" and Harrison Ford have said they're coming.
Marcus Samuelson will serve chilled pea-ginger soup with gravlax inspired by "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." Scarpetta's Scott Conant will reproduce the timballo from "Big Night," whose star Stanley Tucci is an honorary co-chair of the evening, along with Michael and Ninah Lynne, Laura and John Pomerantz and Dennis and Randi Riese.
April Bloomfield (of Spotted Pig and Breslin) will produce the Game Pie from "Babette's Feast" and Jonathan Benno of Lincoln has promised Sicilian-style braised spare ribs in the spirit of "The Godfather."
Celebrate the silver screen with 40 imaginative chefs, a host of wine makers recruited by Daniel Johnnes and cocktails from our team of mixologists led by Audrey Saunders. Use my code CMOWGG for a $200 discount on the regular price of $600 or enter an hour earlier as a VIP. Call 212 687 1290. Click here for more details.
I slipped into a postage-stamp-size two-top opposite a friend on a busy Saturday night at Wong. The place was still in red-alert mode since Pete Wells singled it out with two stars for his first review as the Times latest Big Fork. Mea culpa: I called Simpson Wong for the privilege of getting a spot. So much for surprise or anonymity.
Thus it was that Blake Joyal, Wong's devoted and gifted right hand, was on our case. I ordered my favorite shrimp fritters, turnip cake and egg foo young (sic), wanting to dazzle my companion on his first touchdown here.
Without much ado, waiters began to deliver surprises - the evening special, brother-in-law's twice cooked duck egg, simmered and fried and nesting in shredded Russian kale, with intoxicating perfumes of shrimp paste, key lime, lemon and garlic. On its noggin, a candlenut timbale. The soft aromatic cheese on the perfectly cooked asparagus was paneer - setting off a discreet riot of textures.
There was a delicate tile fish too, baked in foil, with radish, onions and clams, their juice stirred into a heady cocktail of lime, soy and fish sauce.
But the dish that haunts me at least once a day since is the soft-shell crab - glorious to behold with its blistered skin, the little salad of spring greens and flowers, and rivulets of brown butter with dashes of liquids from the chef's palette surrounding it. I have never eaten a soft shell crab that crisp, its skin like glass. A few obsessive variations in the usual tempura do it, Joyal says. I haven't been able to order soft shell crab since, not wanting to compromise the memory. Well, of course, it was much too much, but when you think how easily one might be killed crossing Cornelia Street, you don't want to miss anything. 7 Cornelia Street. 212 989 3399
Raising A Gourmand
Growing up in a Velveeta cocoon, deprivation was my education for the gourmand life. But a correspondent with a son who is as fond of food as she, wrote Ask Gael where to take him to taste the best of the best without maxing out her credit card. My first thought was how much a 13-year-old could learn about cured meats, Italian cheeses, properly cooked pasta, and what a modern Tuscan hand might do with soups and salads at Salumeria Rosi. And if Cesare Casella himself were on hand - he has a soft heart for prepubescent connoisseurs - he might bring out a few scraps of his partner Panacotta's various aged prosciuttos to see if junior can discern the differences.
I also sent her to Alain Ducasse's Benoit, where chef Philippe Bertineau has been shaking up the kitchen all to the good. And to La Mangeoire, where Christian Dulouvrier is now fully in charge of the kitchen and the theme has shifted from Riviera fare to country cooking. They both do chicken for two (I suggested Mom bring friends so they could taste more and share the bill) and it might be post-graduate work to compare each chef's foie gras. Click here for my thoughts on raising a gourmand child and get addresses too.
Connect to me at twitter.com/GaelGreene.
The photograph of Craig Claiborne at the Luncheonette may not be used without permission of Steven Richter.
Photograph of Young Craig Claiborne is by Barnwell/NYTimes and may be used without permission.
Dan Wynn's photograph of Craig with his hand inside my blouse and Pierre Franey may not be used without permission.
Photographs of the Freebies at Primola, the Lobster Egg Foo Young and Soft Shell Crab at Wong, and the Foie Gras at La Mangeoire may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. All rights reserved.
Fork Play copyright Gael Greene 2012.