Grub Street’s State of the Food Union

Michael Nagrant / 08.31.09

The kind folks at Grub Street and NYMag were kind enough to allow me to play in their sandbox and share my thoughts on the state of American dining. Most of my opinions made it in, but for those who are interested, here is the full transcript of my responses.

1. Who are the three most important chefs today, and why?

Rachael Ray, Jamie Oliver and Guy Fieri.

Guy Fieri has more frat boys wearing sunglasses on the back of their heads at a single Dave Matthew’s concert than Thomas Keller has served meals in his lifetime.

Go to any non-foodie cocktail party in the nation and I’m willing to bet 7 out of 10 people won’t even know who Ferran Adria or Grant Achatz are. The road to eating at Robuchon for the majority of people goes through Rachael Ray.

Ray and Fieri are the culinary versions of marijuana, the food TV gateway drug to eating and cooking either bigger, better, and badder food, or for lazier folks, a lifetime of the cooking equivalent of smoking really bad weed.

Thankfully with guys like Oliver who’ve consciously chosen to cook in an unfussy appealing way while featuring super-fresh ingredients, and promoting reasonably healthy eating, people will hopefully be doing more of the former.

2. Who is the most overrated chef today, and why?

There no way to say this without sounding like a douchebag, especially when I appreciate what he does, so I’ll let David Chang implicate himself as he did in last year’s New Yorker article…

“Getting these awards freaks me out—the last thing I want is a Michelin star—because I know I’m not the best…”

More than any other chef, Chang has a level of fame that’s disproportionate to what he does. However, when you consider a guy like Tom Cruise is one of the richer men on earth for being a mediocre actor who employs a shallow toolbox filled with only shades of outrage and smugness, is any chef really overrated? Cooking is still one of the last honest professions. At least David Chang is a great cook and he feeds people.

3. What is the most important restaurant city in the country right now?

Portland, Oregon. Here you have a progressive semi-urban setting nestled in the cradle of agricultural milk and honey. The cooks who are innovating and feeding people here have every tool at their disposal and they’ve done it at a relatively accessible and diverse cultural level. I really believe Portland has everything at hand to be the model for how everyone in the nation can eat well. Places like Chicago or NYC are undeniably influential, but there’s an artifice to the locality and sustainability because even the closest good farms are still hundreds of miles away and everything has to be trucked in. There’s also a general cost inaccessibility to everything that happens in those places. Portland is the god damned fertile crescent. If they can’t make it work, we’re all doomed.

4. What current trend is least deserving of the hype?

Chalkboard menus. I’d rather you burn down a forest of trees printing menus instead of invoking cheap Parisian brasserie or Italian trattoria inspired lemming-like interior design nostalgia thus forcing me to crane my neck and squint to see the night’s specials.

5. What is the last restaurant to which you voluntarily returned?

The Bristol in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood (which ironically has a chalkboard menu). I returned because I’d been super hard on it in an early review and felt a responsibility to see if anything had changed (God strike down any critic who relishes knocking a place down) and also out of a piqued curiosity spurred by an one particular dish of pork liver, maybe the best thing I ate in 2008 that I had on one of those early visits. Doing so, I was rewarded with the finest hunk of tender grilled pork heart swimming in a smoky chili broth that was one best things I’ve eaten this year so far. Chris Pandel may be one of the best organ meat cooks in the country right now, a Yankee Fergus Henderson on the rise.

6. When and how will fine-dining rebound?

If, by fine dining, you mean the growth of jacket required temples of preciousness filled with tight-ass-cheeked self important maître d’s, Michelin starry-eyed pseudo-perfectionist chefs, and their sham-foodie sychophant groupies, hopefully, never.

7. What should be the next big ethnic food?

What do they eat in Darfur refugee camps? And by that I mean any cuisine that can raise awareness of a particular region and celebrate and communicate the honest fact of the culture and its people, is alright by me. Imagine if instead of pulling your shiny Hummer up to the take out window and stuffing the front passenger seat with gigantor buckets of soda and empty carbs, the order taker said, due to today’s mass genocide we only have rations of rice.

8. What’s the best thing you’ve eaten this year for less than $10?

For $8.23 (based on $140 for a 17 course meal), Curtis Duffy’s (of Avenues) King Crab, Steelhead Roe, Kalamansi, and Togaroshi. It was as revelatory and ultimately as fun and satisfying as Thomas Keller’s Oysters and Pearls and Grant Achatz’s Black Truffle Explosion
The conceit of the dish is that you bust through a sugar crust larded with garnishes like kalamansi orange purée and salty steelhead roe, sending the thing plunging in to a cucumber consommé filled with plump buttery Alaskan king crab chunks.
Intellectually it’s almost a metaphor for busting through the ice to get to the springtime bounty of the sea. On a visceral level, it mines the delight of cracking through crust of a creme brulée. Like Oysters and Pearls and Black Truffle, it’s also a killer balance of texture and tastes, a rush-inducing one where each pop of salty roe and greedy bite of sweet sea kissed crab flesh dances on your tongue until your brain explodes.

9. What and where should Dave Chang do next?

a) See #2.

b) In all seriousness, he has the skill, the platform, and the tools to reinvent how we eat in America. If anyone can open up a fast casual concept that’s tasty and responsibly executed, Chang can. He should consider doing so and not feeling like he’s sold out, but that he’s brought something good to this country besotted by greasy manufactured filthy fast food ways.

10. Which foreign chef would you like to see come to America?

There are so many talented American chefs sweltering on lines, breaking their backs, and risking carpal tunnel in restaurants in this country just waiting for a shot, that I’m with George W (only regarding cooks – I’m ok with immigration in general) on this one when I say, stay the hell in your country, we don’t need you.