I have never wanted to run a temple of gastronomy, the kind of restaurant people come to solely for the food, the conversation limited to present culinary creations or past gastronomic pilgrimages. There is a narrowness to this kind of experience that makes me uncomfortable. Cooking delicious food for my customers is only part of what I love about being a chef. I love stimulating their intellectual appetites as well.
Behind each dish on the menu in my restaurant lies a story. I try to tell these stories with each plate that leaves the kitchen. Some are told explicitly in menu descriptions, such as Grass-fed Beef à la Fiorentina with Cranberry Beans and Summer Savory, while others are conveyed visually: a salad of roasted new potatoes, sprigs of wild purslane, and grilled octopus tentacles, suction cups intact, drizzled with a spicy olive dressing. Some stories are about a particular ingredient; others tell the cultural history of the dish.
Thus, I have come to see myself as a chef/storyteller. I had never applied the term until writing this article, though I have known for years that this is who I am. In retrospect, my education has involved not only acquiring skills and techniques, but also learning about food in the broader context of cultural traditions, history, and production methods. Some of the stories I want to tell, though, require a setting wider than just the rim of the plate. It was out of this need that the Dinner Series grew and developed.
The Dinner Series began in the fall of 1994. Through it, I have hosted almost fifty guest speakers, including farmers, winemakers, fellow chefs, writers on food, culture, and agriculture—even scientists and poets. The speakers have celebrated an ingredient—garlic, mushrooms, chocolate, and vanilla—or have discussed such topics as the importance of biodiversity and the shifting meaning of global cuisine. We sit at a common table, which encourages a feeling of community and an interchange of ideas. The atmosphere is salon-like, as if the diners had been invited into my home. The stories are told with wine and food as props, so the evenings never get heavy or pedantic. It is dinner, after all, not a lecture series.
The Dinner Series has given my kitchen crew and me wonderful opportunities to develop menus that involve traditional cooking techniques and to try out new products. Were it not for the Flavors of the Riviera evening with Colman Andrews, I would never have had the occasion to find stockfish on 9th Avenue, to watch it being cut up on a band saw, to endure the stench while it soaked for a week, and then to serve it to paying—and raving—customers. Our Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest dinner brought chef Greg Higgins into our kitchen for three days, where he taught us sausage-making and dry meat curing, both of which we’ve now incorporated into our cooking. Local Beef with Dutchess County farmer Stephen Kaye began our education about the seasonality of beef production and the ongoing challenges of small-scale meat production.
At least once a year I try to invite a literary guest, often a poet. The first of these was poet Galway Kinnell, who had, in fact, suggested the idea during a special Game dinner as he extracted buckshot from his plate of wild hare civet. The following fall we put together an autumnal feast, which featured a selection of Kinnell’s favorite autumn poems. We dined on wood-grilled guinea fowl with porcini and leeks and drank inky Syrah from the Northern Rhône. No moment has better conjured the spirit of the season than that evening: we were awash with wine and words, awed supplicants to the autumn gods. Another literary evening featured Mark Singer, who read passages from Joseph Mitchell’s The Bottom of the Harbor, bringing one word-smith’s deep appreciation of another’s work into the dining room. Singer used Mitchell’s words to transport us to rotting piers thick in muck and eels and to forgotten Staten Island cemeteries tangled in wildflower overgrowth. Jellied eel, Hudson shad with shad roe, and local Long Island wines constituted the evening’s fare.
Never having read Proust but wanting to know his work, I proposed a dinner with poet and translator Richard Howard. While we paid homage to the brasserie cooking of fin de siècle Paris, Howard shared beautiful, apt passages about food, art, sex, and the nature of creativity. Proust’s profound artistry escaped no one. During another evening, The Raw and the Cooked, Katherine Alford gave us a crash course on the thinking of Claude Lévi-Strauss, while in accordance with his ascending order of food and civilization, we ate foods that were grilled, boiled, and pickled.
The bigger story I continue to tell is that of where our food comes from and the critical role diners and cooks play in the tangled human food chain. Fall evenings have served to celebrate heirloom vegetables. Michael Pollan has hosted many of these evenings, and together we have explored not only specific issues—the differences between open-pollinated seeds and biotech plants—but also the more general theme of what foods get grown and why. And we keep revisiting the agricultural landscape. We have heard Wendell Berry read from Jayber Crow and farmer Michael Ableman describe the sprawl that now envelops his southern California farm. Slowly, over dinner, we make comprehensible what had before been murky and indecipherable.
I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched or broughamed,
many-lettered, one syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry eating in late September.
“Blackberry Eating,” from Mortal Acts, Mortal Words. ©1980 by Galway Kinnell. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
I have always wanted the food at Savoy to prompt conversations that extend beyond the confines of the dining room. Dining together at a communal table in the company of an expert allows us to consider as a community what we value in our lives. This sort of dining is a rare and vital experience. It is what the Dinner Series is really about.