Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Kitch Lit Series: Building a Restaurant

Restaurateur Danny Meyer’s book Setting the Table is touted as a business book. True, sprinkled throughout there are some fantastic nuggets on management and hospitality that make the book required reading for all people in a position of leadership or, really, anyone, anywhere who has a job, coworkers and a boss. But in reality, Meyer’s book could easily be shelved with kitch lit because it’s a tour through the burgeoning New York culinary scene in the 80s and 90s. 

Founder of such legendary restaurants as Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern and Shake Shack, Meyer is a decent writer and conveys his journey and that of his restaurants in a very readable way. Meyer shares some personal aspects of his journey from a food-loving Midwesterner to an aspiring chef to restaurateur but is mostly focused on letting the reader in on what he has learned over the course of his career. As a recovering manager of people I identify with and appreciate his management style and as a graduate of Disney’s Approach to Quality Service his approach to hospitality and service is on point. 

But for those of us reading Setting the Table for insights into the culinary world there is no shortage of interesting tidbits. The glimpse into the creation of now legendary restaurants with up and coming chefs such as Tom Colicchio and Kerry Heffernan is fascinating and the twists and turns, many of them unexpected and foundation shaking (losing an executive chef a week out from opening) provide for some colorful narratives. The opening of Blue Smoke is particularly interesting, who knew there were so many complexities to opening a barbecue joint in the middle of Manhattan?

Setting the Table is fun to read after Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires because her time with the New York Times coincided with some of Meyer’s timeline and the different points of view are an interesting dichotomy. Read them one after the other in any order.

Setting the Table is a breezy read. Highly recommended from both a business and culinary perspective.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Order Up

The musical Waitress, based on Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 film of the same name, tells the story of Jenna, a waitress at Joe’s Pie Diner who uses baking as a distraction from her loveless marriage. When Jenna finds herself pregnant and then unexpectedly falling for her gynecologist a pie contest and its’ prize money offer a true opportunity to escape.

It is challenging to write about the show because it wasn’t bad it wasn’t excellent either. Most well know for having an all-female creative team with music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles the show has a decent book and good music but one is left wanting more. 

Jenna does not always feel like a fully formed character. We learn in flashbacks about her difficult childhood and see that she still hurts from the loss of her mother but we don’t learn much else about her. When asked why she puts up with her abusive husband she simply responds that he was not always like that. Are we to believe that she accepts his actions because she was witness to that behavior between her father and mother? Perhaps, but something about the way the story unfolds feels doesn’t feel authentic.

Where the show excels is in the music. Bareilles refreshingly blends several musical styles, none of which feels like a traditional Broadway score. “Opening Up” has the most pop sensibility of the songs and nicely underscores at the outset of the show that Jenna herself is completely closed off while the reprise at the end of the show illustrates how much Jenna has changed. There are several other standouts. “When He Sees Me” sung by Jenna’s friend and fellow waitress Dawn, perfectly illustrates the personal anxiety of the human race and “Bad Idea” features some killer handclaps  - I am a sucker for handclaps.

The current tour cast is respectable. Leads Desi Oakley (Jenna) and Bryan Fenkart (Dr. Pomatter) have good chemistry. Charity Angel Dawson and Lenne Klingaman prove excellent sidekicks as Jenna's friends and coworkers; both have exceptional comedic timing and serve the necessary purpose of provider lighter moments in a show that touches on darker themes.

Waitress is a well done show. You may not walk out of the theater ready to put it on you top ten list but neither will it be a completely wasted evening. The music stands alone pretty well so give it a listen and if you have the means to see the show give it a try - at the very least seeing the music performed live will be worth it.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

One Wish

If I had just one wish it would be that more people get to know and appreciate the music of Josh Ritter. I know I’m supposed to wish for world peace but this seems more realistic.

Josh Ritter’s ninth album, Gathering, was released last week and I had the pleasure to attend the release concert and signing at The Electric Fetus. Ritter played many of the songs from the album and proved that his artistic prowess has not dimmed. 

Ritter is a masterful storyteller, his lyrics are quite often a literal mouthful because the storyline and character development he accomplishes in a two or three minute song requires that the words fly by. Good luck learning the lyrics for "To The Dogs or Whoever." Ritter has certainly evolved as a songwriter; portions of Gathering feel very introspective compared to earlier albums (The Beast In Its Tracks being an exception). And his last couple of albums have a relaxed, looser vibe in contrast to the tight, studio sound of his earlier albums. And praise be! Sermon on the Rocks and Gathering feel closer to his electric live performances than, say, Hello, Starling. A fantastic album sure, but one that lacks the electricity present on Rocks and Gathering

While his personal and professional evolution seems to be on display on Gathering, what has not evolved, at least from the perspective of an audience member, is Ritter’s enthusiasm for performing. I have been attending Ritter concerts for a decade and have repeated the same refrain for ten years: no artist more genuinely enjoys performing and sharing music with his fans. I honestly cannot recall having ever seen him perform without an ear-to-ear grin plastered on his face the entire set and last week was no exception. Ritter and Zack Hickman brought down the house. Their encore performance of "Getting Ready to Get Down" with the entire audience singing along was one of the most fun concert experiences I have ever had.

As if that wasn’t enough, Ritter then talked with, hugged and signed albums and posters for everyone who showed up. I personally waited 2 hours and would have gladly waited longer. The general consensus amongst those of us waiting was ‘what a nice guy.’ So maybe it’s not world peace. Then again, if the world learned to understand, accept and empathize with all different kinds of people the way Ritter's music does maybe we would inch a little closer.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Kitch Lit Series: The Mind of a Chef

Anthony Bourdain received hordes of attention upon the publication of Kitchen Confidential. Much of that attention focused on the debauchery of the bad boy chef culture and some less than appealing practices within the restaurant industry (I’ll probably think twice before biting into that slice of complimentary bread). As entertaining as those tales are I was more thrilled to get a glimpse inside the mind of a professional chef. 

The operation of a professional restaurant kitchen is like a complex dance with the chef acting as a combination of choreographer and principal dancer. Menu planning is a delicate balance between demand and product availability. Use fresh product today and plan ahead to use it when it may not be quite as fresh anymore. Bourdain preaches: never order fish on Monday. Product is not the only limitation, equipment can be limiting as well. Depending on what’s on the menu and how many diners order it simultaneously can the kitchen physically accommodate the orders – will there be enough burners available? As someone who has only ever been a diner, I find it fascinating to learn about the rhythm of the kitchen, the delicate timing required to ensure that the product will be cooked and delivered to the diner along with the product ordered by the rest of the table.

If you have any interest in what happens behind the scenes in a restaurant, Kitchen Confidential will definitely keep you engaged. And if you’re a vegetarian, just know before you start reading that Bourdain does not hold your lifestyle in the highest regard.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Kitch Lit Series: Food Fiction

While a majority of books about the culinary world, at least those that gain any kind of traction, are written by chefs, restaurateurs or critics there is a plethora of fiction centered on the culinary world just waiting to be devoured.  

For me, Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal kicked off my obsession with kitch lit. Well-written and highly engaging, KOTGM tells the story of Eva Thorvald. We meet Eva in her infancy, follow her through a difficult childhood where her unique palate begins to reveal itself and relish her journey to becoming the country’s most sought-after chef. Stradal expertly shifts the point of view throughout the book and, as a result, we end up with a smart, unbiased portrait of a woman for whom there was always only one destiny.

Another great entry in the genre is Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler. Sweetbitter sometimes delves into millennial ennui a bit more than necessary but her story of back waiter work at an established New York City restaurant is captivating. Danler herself worked in a restaurant and one can’t help but presume that most of the novel is drawn from those experiences. The restaurant staff’s reaction to the surprise health department inspection is both fascinating and a bit unsettling.  

Kitchens of the Great Midwest and Sweetbitter both nicely balance the features of a traditional novel – exposition, character development and conflict – with tales from the kitchen, something a book written by a chef may have difficulty achieving at the same level.

Of course, if the science of baking is more your style, books such as The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living by Louise Miller and How to Bake a Perfect Life by Barbara O’Neal will fill that void. Both border on the edge of so-called chick lit, each relies heavily on a romance for the central character, but they also give us a glimpse into bakery life. The smell of baked goods wafting through the kitchen is always appealing and both are charming, breezy reads.

All of the books mentioned here are relatively recent works but there are decades of books I have yet to try. In the meantime, if you haven't had a chance to sample any of these books then head over to your local library or favorite online shopping emporium to check them out.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

An American in Paris: Who Could Ask For Anything More?

Stage adaptations of popular films have run rampant on Broadway for many years now and it has not always proven to be a recipe for success. When I had the pleasure of seeing An American in Paris a couple of weeks ago I was reminded that it can, in fact, be done right. An American in Paris is a breezy adaption that takes the strongest parts of its source material, builds on it and brings it to life before your eyes. With a charming story, beautiful design, wonderful music, strong choreography and one of the strongest touring casts out on the road today An American in Paris is one for the ages. 

Based on the 1951 film of the same name, An American in Paris tells the story of American Jerry Mulligan and his romantic entanglements in post-war Paris. When Jerry, an ex-GI and aspiring painter, meets the beguiling Lise the spark between them is instantaneous. But while initially the flame burns bright and quick their courtship is fraught with complication. Some of the plot points are easy to spot but there are just enough twists and turns to keep the story from becoming a predictable mess.

Just as important as the story itself is telling the story against a fitting backdrop. One can imagine that recreating post-war Paris on stage is no easy feat and thankfully the designers behind An American in Paris are up to the task. The show uses projection to great effect; Jerry’s paintings come to life and lend the show a wonderful fairytale patina, as if we have just taken a peak inside a painting whose subjects have come to life. Instead of seeming to compensate for a no frills set, the projection provides depth and dimensionality, particularly for exterior scenes.  All of the other design elements from the lighting to the 1950’s era costumes and makeup lend the show great authenticity.
McGee Maddox and Sara Esty

The authentic tone of An American in Paris is drawn not just from the set design but also from the musical elements. The show brilliantly utilizes George Gershwin’s tone poem (also called An American in Paris) and surrounds it and its’ themes with several other Gershwin standards. Hearing songs such as “I’ve Got Rhythm” performed on stage feels like reminder of a bygone era. And of course there is the dance. Dance does not often take center stage in modern musical theater. Several recent musicals use dance to great effect (The Book of Mormon’s “Turn It Off” comes to mind), but very rarely is dance as an art form leaned upon to express emotion. An American in Paris does so beautifully. Ballet carries a reputation for being difficult for audiences to interpret but weaving it into a show with elements that match that of traditional musicals is a very clever way to make ballet accessible.

All of the design and production elements would be lost if the story was not delivered by a group of capable performers. The cast of An American in Paris is top notch. Sara Esty, as Lise, is the very definition of  ‘ingénue’. Spritely and petite, Esty shines. Sweet but not cloying so she is a talented singer, actor and dancer, a true triple threat. McGee Maddox, as Jerry, is a supremely talented dancer if a little bit stiff as an actor. Etai Benson, Nick Spangler and Emily Ferranti round out the lead roles and all are pitch perfect. Benson, as pseudo-narrator Adam Hochberg, hits it out of the park with spot on comedic timing but also imbues his character, an injured GI, and the show itself with a sensitive soul.

An American in Paris exemplifies everything that is enduring about musical theater: great music, impressive dancing and a compelling story that balances humor and heart. Adam's Act II realization says it best, “Life is already so dark, if you’ve got the talent to make it brighter, give people joy and hope, why would you withhold that?” Thank you, An American in Paris for making life brighter and sending joy and hope into the world.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Kitch Lit Series: Reading Ruth

My first introduction to Ruth Reichl was through her fiction. Best known as the former restaurant critic for The New York Times, Delicious! was her first foray into fiction and I can only hope she returns. Delicious! tells the story of Billie Breslin, a young woman with an innate culinary acumen, who moves to New York to work for a food magazine. When the magazine is shut down she stays on to answer the magazine’s infamous reader hotline and, while leafing through archives in the empty office, discovers past correspondence between a young girl, Lulu, and famous chef James Beard. While uncovering Lulu’s story Billie begins to come to terms with her own. Bille’s weekend job at a local Italian food shop is a delicious (pun intended) subplot. 

After Delicious! I was hungry for more and decided to sample her memoirs. What a splendid decision that turned out to be. Reichl’s Tender at the Bone has been on the list of great culinary reads since it was published and both it and its’ follow up Comfort Me With Apples are wonderful journeys through her life told with an eye to the food she avoided, loved and cooked. Reichl has lead a life filled with varied experiences and from boarding school in Montreal to a kitchen collective in Berkley to the finest restaurants in Los Angeles and New York, dining, cooking, appreciating and enjoying food remained a constant. Whether tasting a dish for the first time or cooking her dad’s favorite meal Reichl appeals to the reader’s conflicting want for discovery and familiarity in food and in life.

Of course, no matter how interesting the life or how appealing the food these books would be laborious if poorly written. Luckily, Reichl was born to write. She has a gift for readability, a talent I love in a writer. I so appreciate writers that structure sentences, paragraphs and chapters in a way that flow so easily that the pages practically turn themselves. Her descriptions are never forced or overcomplicated and her characters jump off the page. Like a perfect meal, Reichl crafts beautiful books from soup to nuts.

If you love to eat, cook, read or write and have not yet read Ruth Reichl now is the time to start.
My favorites:
Tender at the Bone
Comfort Me with Apples
Garlic and Sapphires