He Ate What Was Put in Front of Him

SparkyIf you would have walked into a branch of Chase Manhattan Bank in 1971 and asked to see the small-business accounts manager and told him that you wanted to start a cable television channel that was about nothing but food, you would have been shown the door (and not too politely). Today, of course, food seems to have consumed us all (pun intended).

But before the Food Network and Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, there were newspapers and magazines and the people who filled their pages with reviews, recipes and profiles. One of the most intrepid chroniclers of food – where it came from, what it was supposed to taste like, and where it was going – was Ray Sokolov. He was my editor at The Wall Street Journal; he is my friend today. His new book is “Steal the Menu.”
The premise was pretty simple: For the past 40 years, Ray has been at the advent of nearly every new development – good and bad – that made our food culture what it is today.

Today, we take for granted a lineup of star chefs transmuting remarkable ingredients of the highest quality into novel dishes tangentially based on the dusty classics. The closest America had to a TV top chef then was Julia Child performing coq au vin for an audience of home cooks eager to learn to make French dishes correctly. Julia’s breezy, offhand manner enticed a generation away from the stultifying distortions of the home economists who ruled at most food magazines and newspaper food pages. She was also an authentic counterforce to “continental” menus pushing fancy food with no roots anywhere except possibly American hotel kitchens, flaming steak Diane and butter- oozing veal francese.
Forty years later, after the ancien régime in French cuisines gave way to the nouvelle cuisine of Michel Guérard, the Troisgros brothers and Paul Bocuse, and then passed its baton to a global network of master chefs, Daniel Boulud, a classically trained French chef, presides with star quality over a small empire of inventive restaurants that bear his name. The meal I ate in 2010 at his informal Bar Boulud was a model of a modern meal, of a cosmopolitan way of eating that has spread from Paris all across America, and to Lima and Manila as well.
That lunch at Bar Boulud was typical of the radical sophistication of our bustling creative food scene, with its nonclassic ingredients (arugula), lighthearted plating (boudin noir— blood sausage— sculpted into three squat cones), the non-French waitstaff of both sexes, wine from what General de Gaulle might have called “all azimuths.” And yet all of these radical departures can be traced to changes in French restaurant kitchens that radiated around the world and have now been absorbed by “native” cooks from Iceland to Patagonia.”

After growing up in post-war Detroit, graduating from the Cranbrook School and Harvard, and bumming around Europe on a culinary odyssey, Ray became, at a very young age, the food critic at The New York Times. He then wrote books and columns, most notably his dispatches for Natural History magazine on the ethnography of food. This led to his outstanding book, “Why We Eat What We Eat,” which explains how the Age of Discovery impacted cuisine, from the Philippines to Puerto Rico to Pisa. In his final professional days, he was the Leisure and Arts editor at The Wall Street Journal, where he encouraged young journalists like Amy Gamerman, Julie Salamon, Heidi Waleson and me. It was a remarkable career, punctuated by remarkably engaging writing.

If I have a criticism of “Steal the Menu,” it’s that there’s not enough Ray in there. What I mean by that is that he’s incredibly modest about his impact on the food world.

My personal intersection with this historical arc has not been casual. I was in the middle of various revolutions in food, recording them as a journalist, participating in them as a cook and eater.
I had a front seat for all the action: the nouvellisation of French and then other cuisines; the role of television, starting with Julia Child on PBS and exploding into the era of the “top” chef; the emergence of the foodie, educated by cheap jet travel and ever-more-reliable cookbooks; the globalization of food ideas (fusion) and ingredients; the rise of politically correct notions of proper nutrition and ecologically sensitive food production and transport.
My life in food encompassed all of these developments, with a privileged professional three years of residence abroad, and very extensive gastronomic travel from 2006 to 2010, while I was writing a biweekly restaurant column for the Wall Street Journal.
So, in this memoir, I’ll be filtering the unprecedentedly fast-moving history of food since World War II through my direct encounters with it. However, I cannot and would not want to claim to have been a primary actor in the making of these events and trends. I was there, and I ate what was put in front of me.”

Certainly, it could be argued that others could have stood where Ray stood – in nouvelle kitchens in California witnessing the genesis of the locavore movement; lining up outside the mysterious Szechuan restaurants that began to appear in New York in the early 1970s and forever changed the way we thought about Chinese food; and, perhaps most importantly, the truly revolutionary bistros in the outskirts of Paris and scattered across rural France that literally changed the way we think about food. But no one else could have seen what Ray saw, and reported it the way that he did.

Indeed, quite a few people knew by the late 1960s that an upstart young chef in a classic chef’s toque named Paul Bocuse was literally changing the definition of classic French cuisine in his little revolutionary outpost near Lyon. But it was Ray Sokolov who booked a table “at a little place called Le Pot au Feu, in a gritty Paris suburb, Asnières, where another young chef, Michel Guérard, was creating a sensation with radically simplified versions of traditional food.”

I sat in the tiny dining area of Le Pot au Feu for a meal of staggering flavors concealed in dishes of deceptive informality. At another lunch, I ate old- fashioned dishes at Alain Senderens’s L’Archestrate. Some of them, like the fourteenth-century eel stew called brouet d’anguille, had been resuscitated from the earliest days of French cooking. Senderens also revived the intricate classic treatment of head cheese, tête de veau en tortue, and invented a subtle treatment of turnips in cider with a puree of celery on the side.
Paul Bocuse was the most theatrical of these Young Turks, as a person and in the kitchen. He served me a whole sea bass encased in puff pastry that looked like a scaly fish, with a tomato-tinged béarnaise sauce, what Escoffier called sauce Choron. But it was Michel Guérard’s twenty- seat hole-in-the-wall that served the most forward- looking food.
A slice of foie gras des Landes, fresh foie gras from southwest France prepared in the restaurant, had arrived entirely unadorned, without aspic or truffle or even parsley. But this foie gras was of a smoothness and puissance to stand alone. For those who wanted something more varied as a first course, there was the salade gourmande— deeply green beans mixed with slices of truffle, fresh foie gras, chunks of artichoke bottom and an evanescent vinaigrette dressing.
Guérard’s ris de veau Club des Cent presented a sweetbread in one imposing lobe chastely topped with matchstick truffle slices and a clear, light brown sauce.
Some days chicken, some days duck came in a highly reduced sauce made from chicken stock, veal stock and wine vinegar. The light but intense sauces, the minimalist plating, the hyperdramatic focus on a single ingredient, the ironic refurbishing of cliché classics (fricassee, green bean salad)— all the elements of the new cuisine were there at Le Pot au Feu, the future ready to roll out and roar.

Forty years later, Ray intrepid sense of what’s right and wrong with a dish hasn’t waned. If anything, it has only gotten keener with experience.

In 2009, I got a chance to see a real top chef invent a dish, and it was a very different, careful improvisation. With over twenty Michelin stars worldwide, Joël Robuchon is arguably the planet’s most successful restaurateur. Three of his many branches have the red guide’s highest ranking, three stars: one in Macao, one in Tokyo and one in Las Vegas, in the MGM Grand Hotel.
Four times a year, Robuchon visits Nevada to redesign the menu at this fabulous, small pinnacle of gastronomy. I arranged to meet him there and watched him tweak a crab recipe for his new spring menu.
The world’s most decorated chef was drinking a Diet Coke as he entered the immaculate kitchen, followed by a small entourage of underchefs. He inspected a small circular tin of osetra caviar and then pulled apart an Alaskan king crab the size of a puppy.
“Where is the coral?” he asked, setting off nervous scurrying and whispers. Coral, the red, deeply flavorful female crab’s egg mass he needs for the sauce, was found in another big crab. The kitchen had previously prepared cooked meat from king, Dungeness and blue crabs, which Robuchon tasted in different mixtures, pulling out samples with his fingers. In the end, he decided on a mélange of king and Dungeness.
“For me it’s all about the texture,” he said.
The new spring menu was centered on shellfish.
“Americans really love shellfish,” he told me, as if to congratulate me and more than 300 million other compatriots for our good taste.
He went on to build his new dish by layering the crab mixture with strips of yellow-brown Santa Barbara sea urchin, which he extracted from a neat pile. The crustaceans were only the beginning.
Minced raw white cauliflower was also a major ingredient. It would lurk within the crabmeat mix as a stealth carrier of crunch, which Robuchon said he believes makes this dish a no-grain marine cousin of tabbouleh, the ancient Near Eastern salad based on bulgur wheat and mint. To carry the edible metaphor all the way, the chef added mint to his crab creation.
The diner who ordered this crab- and-cauliflower “tabbouleh” at the start of the 2009 spring menu received a small caviar tin, inside which only black osetra eggs were visible. But when he attacked them with his fork, the action unearthed a chamber symphony of crab, cauliflower and mint, the faux tabbouleh concealed under the caviar emerged, and everything merged on the tongue in the most unexpected and beautiful way.
“I just had this idea in my head,” Robuchon explained, without, of course, explaining anything.

It’s a great book. I encourage you to read it. You won’t be disappointed.

About Mark Yost
Mark Yost is the author of the Rick Crane Noir series, published by Stay Thirsty Press. Rick Crane is the classic, anti-hero private eye in the spirit of Sam Spade and Jim Rockford. He works in the unmistakably noirish underworld of Upstate New York, running errands and fixing problems for Jimmy Ricchiati Sr., one of Upstate New York's most notorious crime bosses. But readers quickly learn that deep down, Rick Crane is one of the good guys. "Cooper's Daughter," the first book in the widely acclaimed series, is a fast-moving tale in which a heartbroken father comes to Rick and asks him to find out what really happened to his daughter, who was murdered and the details buried in the Unsolved Crimes File of the local police department. The second book in the series is "Jimmy's Nephew," which begins with the death of Joey "Boom Boom" Bonadeo, an up-and-coming boxer and the nephew of Rick's underworld boss. What starts out as a routine investigation turns into a case that will test Rick's faith -- in the Catholic Church and his fellow man. Book No. 3 in the series, "Mary's Fate" is due out in August 2015. Mark Yost also writes for The Wall Street Journal Arts in Review page, as well as the Book Review section. He is a member of the Mystery Writers of America -- Midwest Chapter, International Thriller Writers, and a number of other author groups. He is also a member of the Amazon Author's Program. Mark lives in the Loyola neighborhood of Chicago, but he and his son, George, call the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn "home."

One Response to He Ate What Was Put in Front of Him

  1. Donna Simonson says:

    Wow, Mark! Great review! Makes me want to cook!

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