It goes without saying that many, if not most, of us have some extra time on our hands these days. As a food and travel writer, I haven’t been able to review restaurants (aside from takeout) or do any extensive traveling in the past couple months.
However, I have used some of that time to catch up on reading a pile of books about food and eating, as well as watching some great shows on television about cooking, dining and such. Here are a few that I think are real standouts.
Do you know who Ed Levine is? Ruth Reichl called him “a missionary of the delicious.” And if you’re looking for a delicious read, I can highly recommend Levine’s Serious Eater: A Food Lover’s Perilous Quest for Pizza and Redemption.
Serious Eater documents – with great humor and accounts of countless meals – the creation and turbulence surrounding Levine’s creation of the food blog Serious Eats, and the struggles he faced, financially and otherwise, making a success in the (then) new social media universe that he was new to. It’s the story of a business startup, but one that is thoroughly peppered with accounts of great meals mostly in and around NYC – from tuna salad at Eisenberg’s Deli and dishing at Silicon Alley’s power breakfast spot Balthazar, to coal-fired pizzas at John’s Pizzeria in Greenwich Village and Korean barbecue at New Wonjo – “one of the only restaurants in New York’s Koreatown still using buckets of live charcoal for grilling instead of gas.” Serious Eater is serious fun from a truly serious eater.
Another fine book for food lovers is The Book of Eating: Adventures in Professional Gluttony by Adam Platt. As the son of a diplomat, Adam Platt grew up eating around the world, living in places like Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong. His background reminds me somewhat of mine, as I too grew up moving from various states in the U.S. to Japan, Spain, Labrador and elsewhere. We both became food writers, I think, because of our mutual exposure to exotic foods and world cuisines when we were young.
Platt would wind up as the restaurant critic for New York magazine and has also written for The New Yorker, Esquire, Conde Nast Traveler and other prestigious publications. He’s the only restaurant critic I know with degrees from the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and the Columbia School of Journalism. The Book of Eating follows Platt’s career, beginning around 2000, as one of the last of the old school, white male, print publication food writers. The restaurants he looks back on run the gamut from now defunct NYC food havens like Lutece, The Four Seasons, Le Perigord, Hamburger Haven, and DBGB, to more modern spots like Per Se, Eleven Madison Park, Momofuku and many others. The passages wherein Platt recounts feuds with chefs such as Mario Batali, David Chang and Mario Carbone – the latter of whom tossed him out of his ZZ’s Clam Bar – are priceless and appear in humorous, self-effacing chapters called “Adam Platt Is a Miserable Fuck” Parts 1 & 2. Those familiar with the New York City dining scene circa 2000 to the present will find The Book of Eating especially delectable.
And speaking of chef-restauratuer David Chang, founder of Momofuku, if you haven’t seen his non-fiction food series on Netflix called Ugly Delicious, you’re in for a treat. More than just another series with endless shots of pretty food and the chefs that make it, Chang approaches each episode and each topic as a sociologist or anthropologist would. He examines themes such as “Tacos,” “Pizza,” “Fried Rice” and the like, placing them within a cultural and historical context.
In “Fried Chicken,” for example, he tackles the sometimes uncomfortable history behind this ubiquitous food – one that is sometimes tied to racist stereotypes that can be traced back to African slaves, who cooked fried chicken for their owners. In doing so, he enlists the likes of food historian and writer Lolis Eric Elie, African-American chef Edourdo Jordan (Seattle’s Salare restaurant), African-American Studies professor Psyche Williams-Forson, and a slew of others to help us understand the historical and cultural underpinnings of one of America’s (and the World’s) favorite foods. Ugly Delicious is one of the few food shows on TV that actually makes you think.
Another excellent Netflix offering for foodies is Chef’s Table, a documentary series about, yes, chefs. It was created by David Gelb, who directed the award-winning film Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Gelb and his crew travel the world to give viewing audiences insights and behind-the-scenes looks at some of the world’s finest chefs and their restaurants. Unlike say, Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, The Layover, and Parts Unknown – which focused on the out-of-the-way and exotic – the Chef’s Table series mostly highlights eateries where much sought-after seats can take months or more to secure.
There are six seasons of Chef’s Table episodes to binge on, plus a new spinoff called Chef’s Table: France, featuring the likes of Alain Passard and Michel Troisgros. Among my favorite episodes was the one featuring Grant Achatz, chef-owner of Chicago’s 3-Michelin starred Allinea, who in 2007 was diagnosed with stage 4 tongue cancer (he has since recovered). Other engaging episodes feature chefs as diverse as Slovenian chef Ana Roš (Hiša Franko restaurant, Kobarid); famed Argentine chef Francis Mallmann, who is known for gourmet cooking with live fire; Nancy Silverton (chef and founder of La Brea Bakery); forward thinking avant garde Spanish chef/restaurateur Albert Adrià (Barcelona’s Tickets, Enigma, Pakta); chef Gaggan Anand, who opened his eponymous restaurant in Bangkok saying with the intent of creating an Indian version of Spain’s renown El Bulli; and many, many more fascinating chefs and restaurants. The cinematography is eye candy for viewers and this is the perfect series to sip Champagne while watching.
Here’s another fun distraction I recently stumbled upon. Miles Broadhead, manager at Punch Bowl Social and formerly of Alamexo and the University Park Marriott, created a fun Facebook page/group called What Have You Been Cooking. The page invites cooks – amatuer, pro, whatever – to post photos of whatever they’ve been cooking. It’s an inclusive group where one person might post the first pizza they ever made and another will share an Instagram worthy, eye popping food photo. I posted a photo, for example (above), of a complete fail at Roasted Chicken with Mole in which I applied the mole sauce way too soon. But, What Have You Been Cooking is not about competition; it’s about a community of cooks with all levels of talent, simply sharing glimpses of what they’ve been making in their home kitchens. It’s very comforting in this time of COVID-19. Check it out.
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Culinary quote of the week:
“Condiments are like old friends – highly thought of, but often taken for granted.” — Marilyn Kantor
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Originally trained as an anthropologist, Ted Scheffler is a seasoned food, wine & travel writer based in Utah. He loves cooking, skiing, and spends an inordinate amount of time tending to his ever-growing herd of guitars and amplifiers.