As far as food writers are concerned, Melissa Clark is living the dream. She is a New York Times columnist, a culinary mag contributor, and the author of more than 30 cookbooks, including collaborations with top toques like Daniel Boulud and White House pastry chef Bill Yosses.
Clark recently visited Washington to promote her latest work, Cook This Now, a personal record of seasonal recipes she compiled over a year of making her favorite meals for her husband and three-year-old daughter. We caught up with her at KramerBooks & Afterwords Cafe, where she dished about the essentials of good cookbook writing, favorite New Year’s Eve dishes, and which local chef whips up a sauce good enough to be licked off a shoe.
You’ve worked on so many cookbooks. What do you think is essential to writing a good one?
I always say there are so many different paths to dinner. So what I do in this book—which I probably will do in anything I write from now on, really—is to break it down: all the other ways the dinner could have gone. I could have done this if I had this, substituted this, etc. I show people all the roads not taken. I love the roads not taken.
Celebrity chef Eric Ripert is known for his million-dollar smile, and a bidder at last year's Capitol Food Fight was willing to shell out $10,000 for his presence at a dinner held yesterday (the money went to DC Central Kitchen). The Avec Eric star's last trip to Washington—where he oversees Westend Bistro in the downtown DC Ritz-Carlton—involved a whirlwind dining tour with stops at the Source, Graffiato, Zaytinya, Citronelle, and Georgetown stalwart Bistro Francais ("It has this authentic feeling, like it has a soul."), but don't expect too many Ripert-sightings this time around; minus a stroll or two in Georgetown, Ripert says this trip is all business.
We caught up with Ripert as he was taking a break from kitchen rounds. Still wearing a crisp white chef’s coat that bears the name of his New York flagship, Le Bernardin—and his signature string of Tibetan prayer beads—he submitted to our Either/Or questionnaire.
Half-smoke or New York City dirty-water dog?
"Half-smoke—I've been to Ben's."
Who would you press the mute button on—Gordon Ramsey or Elia Aboumrad?
"Can I have a wild card for that? I don't wish anyone something bad like that. But if I'm watching TV, Gordon is out."
The best way to kill a lobster—steaming or knife through the head?
"A 20-inch chef knife."
Major League Eating comes to Washington this weekend with the World Chili Eating Competition, which will be held on Sunday at 12:35 as part of the Taste of DC festival. Ben's Chili Bowl is cooking up more than 30 gallons of its spicy beef chili, which the top competitors will have six minutes to devour by the gallon. The person that downs the most gets a $1,250 prize.
We checked in with Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas, the International Federation of Competitive Eating's highest ranked female, and fifth best eater overall. You wouldn't guess by looking at Thomas that the 105 pound 44 year-old could take down 11 pounds of cheesecake in nine minutes, but she has garnered some of the most prized titles in competitive eating, including winning the female division of the most recent Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Championship. She chatted with us about her job at Burger King, Rocky Mountain oysters, and her goal to eat 15 pounds of Ben's chili.
Yesterday, we interviewed her toughest competition, Joey "Jaws" Chestnut, currently the highest ranked Major League Eater.
Ferran Adrià —the revolutionary chef behind the recently closed El Bulli in Roses, Spain —stopped in Washington yesterday to promote his first-ever home cooking book, The Family Meal, and to give a talk with José Andrés, the DC-based small plates king who got his start in Adrià's kitchen.
"I cannot tell you how I feel having a home right here in this city—this community has given me so much. If I could give back a little bit, it is to have Ferran here in this city," Andrés said as he introduced his mentor to the stage at Lisner Auditorium.
Andrés—who is known for stealing the show with jovial outbursts—was unusually quiet as Adrià discussed the origins of cuisine and addressed perhaps his most frequently asked question of late: why close a such wildly popular restaurant?
"The system doesn't allow us to be successful for too many years," Adrià told the audience. "Robert De Niro can't win five Oscars—and one has to understand that's how the world works. We knew there would be a time to step down because we've been winning Oscars for 15 years."
The restaurant, which shuttered two months ago, will become the El Bulli Foundation, a creative center slated to open in 2014. The sustainably-built campus will host an archive, museum, and kitchen for chefs and thinkers to come together.
"We were reaching the point of routine," Adrià said of El Bulli. "'Routine' doesn't mean monotony, routine is knowing what's going to happen before it happens. Probably we achieved something that was almost perfect … but the worst enemy for creativity is routine."
We caught up with the Pepsi-sipping, jeans-wearing chef at Westend Bistro to discuss—with the help of a translator—traveling, Andrés's early years, and his least favorite interview question.
Where are you eating in Washington?
“Wherever José Andrés takes me. He's one of my best friends.”
Do you have a take on the DC dining scene from either talking to José or your visits here?
“I've been a total for or five times, and obviously I've eaten at wonderful places. But it would be frivolous to give an opinion because I don't know it that well, and I end up being guided by José. To be able to give an opinion you need to experience the restaurants. If there are 2,000 restaurants in Washington, if you have at least 20 percent good restaurants, that's a good amount.”
How is it coming here and seeing your influence on Andrés and his restaurants?
“I'm quite proud of it because José is one of the best ambassadors of El Bulli, and portrays the spirit of El Bulli best.”
Do you have any early memories of working with José?
“That was 23 years ago! So much has happened since that I can barely remember. José has a better memory. I have a very short-term memory. But it was a very different time. At that time there were only seven or eight people in the kitchen.”
How would you characterize him as a chef?
“He's a very complete cook because on the one hand he's a very creative cook, and on the other hand he's an excellent business manager. That's very rare to find those two things in one person. He's capable of doing avant garde cuisine, Chinese cuisine, Mexican cuisine. Obviously I see him in a different way than most people. On my first trip to Washington, José wasn't a famous person and people didn't know him well. For me, he's still that same person.”
When you travel, do you look for more avant-garde eating experiences, or something more like a family meal?
“I basically look for good food. If you're eating seafood every day you'll end up getting bored by it, and if you're eating pizza every day you'll end up getting bored by it.”
I read that you don't get the chance to cook at home often. Will you now that El Bulli is closed?
“One of the luxuries I have in life is to eat out, so why stay in and eat at home? It's not about eating at $200 restaurants every day, but I prefer eating out more than owning a car.”
Your two favorite luxuries are travel and food. Do you have any trips or meals you're looking forward to?
“Those are the only two. I've been to China this summer, and I'm very excited to go back again to get to know more about Chinese cuisine. The other places that are exciting for me are Latin America: Peru, Mexico, and Brazil are doing very exciting things. I think we'll see many exciting developments coming from that part of the world.”
You said in an interview that it's important to ask yourself questions every day. What are you currently asking?
“Lately I've been intrigued about the way we eat, more than the actual dishes or food itself. I'm interested in avant garde, creative cuisine, but I'm interested in cooking and eating in general. So I ask myself often: What is the best time to eat? What is the best number of diners at a table? The way in which we eat, whether we use our hands, a fork, chopsticks, things like that.”
You've done have many, many interviews. Which question do you least like getting?
“I get bored by telling people how I started off as a chef. It's all on the internet.”
There's been plenty of buzz over the chef shuffle at 1789 restaurant, where after three years leading the kitchen, Daniel Giusti is leaving for Copenhagen to work at Noma. His spot was filled quickly: Casa Nonna sous-chef Anthony Lombardo is set to take the helm on August 31. We spoke with Lombardo about the cooking test that landed him the job, Kanye West, and his love of cupcakes.
How did you know Dan Giusti? We hear he tapped you for the job.
“We're longtime friends. We went to the Culinary Institute of America together, and then to a Slow Food designated cooking school in Italy. We were also roommates for a year in Alexandria.”
Your cooking background is mainly Italian—you spent four years as chef de cuisine at Bacco Ristorante in MIchigan and also worked at Galileo here in DC. Is your family Italian?
“I come from an Italian family in Detroit. My mother is first generation from Abruzzo, and my dad from Sicily. Professionally they weren't cooks, but Sundays were always a feast at grandma's house. It's a blue collar automotive-based family, but I always ended up making food with my mother instead of fixing up cars with my dad.”
Brian Miller and Lauren Winter are partners at Edit, one of the most provocative design firms you’ve probably never heard of, as it has no central office or a Web site. Despite its relative anonymity, the firm is behind some of the most visually interesting restaurants in Washington.
The lanky, blond Miller, 34, and the stylish Winter, 35, discussed their business over cocktails on a very bright afternoon in a very dark Gibson. Miller was sitting facing the door to watch the flow of incoming customers, while Lauren arrived later in a flowy, black dress, ordering a non-alcoholic drink on the fly.
The longtime friends from Savannah College of Art and Design started Edit three years ago when Winter lost her job at a design firm and Miller asked if she wanted to start a business. Both had worked in architectural jobs for several years and have ties to the local restaurant industry. They're friends with Eric Hilton, owner of Eighteenth Street Lounge, the Gibson, Marvin, Dickson Wine Bar, and American Ice Company. Winter used to work at his Eighteenth Street Lounge in the ’90s and is now at U Street Music Hall on weekends. She's married to Proof and Estadio sommelier Sebastian Zutant, and they're expecting their first child within the month.
“I had this woman calling me on the kitchen phone asking to meet with me,” says Voltaggio of Hilda Staples, who’s now his business partner. “She was very persistent. I thought she was a little crazy.”
Three years later, Staples has not only helped Voltaggio open his dream restaurant, the highly touted Volt in Frederick, she’s now the financier and business mind behind Mike Isabella (the former Zaytinya chef and Top Chef contestant who’s prepping to open Graffiato in DC’s Chinatown) and R.J. Cooper (the former Vidalia chef who’s scheduled to open Rogue 24 in DC’s Shaw this spring).
Staples, who says she’s “somewhere between 35 and 41,” grew up in Alexandria and went to T.C. Williams High School. After working in corporate public relations for Constellation Energy and Ogilvy PR in DC, she followed her husband, Jonathan, to Frederick when he relocated his business there.
The tension between the three remaining contestants was palpable on last night’s Top Chef: All-Stars. Mike strutted around the chefs’ Atlantis suite, saying things like, “Hey Richard, Wolfgang called to ask how the goulash is coming,” causing us to worry that Richard may finally snap. For most of the hour, Richard appeared to be somewhere between puking and crying. Though he avoided doing either, he did continually remind us that he—and not Mike, damn it!—has won the most Top Chef challenges of any contestant in the show’s history. Someone needs to give that poor guy a drink. Or a Xanax.
On last night’s Top Chef: All Stars, there was a kitchen fire that derailed the Elimination Challenge and required real live firemen to put it out. And somehow, the episode was still one of the most boring of the season.
The five remaining chefs arrived in the Bahamas for the finals. For the Quickfire Challenge, they cooked against the chefs who won each of their seasons. Carla was clearly off her game early on. She undercooked the rice with her lamb dish and lost to returning chef Hosea.
The contestants were told they’d be cooking for Bahamian royalty for the Elimination Challenge. They got to work planning upscale fare to fit the occasion. Richard quipped that he had been preparing so hard for the finals he was willing to hunt down a goat if he had to. We wished he would, just to liven things up a little. Turned out the chefs would be cooking for the King of Junkanoo—a festival sort of like Mardi Gras—and not for actual royalty. Oh yeah, and they wouldn’t be working in a palace, but a small, divey restaurant with apparently faulty kitchen equipment. Basically, then, the challenge was to cook a meal in a regular restaurant for regular diners. Yawn.
Many for-profit educational institutions that are run by private companies have come under fire for promising to prepare students for careers that will enable them to pay off their loans quickly and go on to earn middle-class wages. There have been enough cases in which the situation is the opposite—students mired in debt while working at low-wage jobs—that the Department of Education is proposing to limit access to federal student aid for institutions that don’t show evidence of preparing students for “gainful employment” in their recognized field. (For more information on Gainful Employment, click here.)
While recognizing the need for regulation, Derry and others feel the rule is unfair because it could limit the amount of federal aid available to the people who need it most: minorities, low-income students, and older students with families who need loans and can’t afford the time or cost of attending independent, four-year colleges. In a blog post on the Hill’s Congress blog, Derry writes: “The rule erroneously points to debt-to-income ratios and repayment rates as measures to determine whether or not students who attend a program are eligible to receive financial assistance.”
While Gainful Employment is a blanket regulation, it could negatively affect the food industry because the majority of culinary schools, from the Cordon Bleu to L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, are for-profit institutions. A student can get a technical degree at a state school, community college, or for-profit institution such as ITT Tech, but those looking for a distinguished culinary-arts degree would most likely attend the kind of trade school that the rule targets. We spoke with Derry about her thoughts on Gainful Employment and how it could affect the culinary field.