An Interview with Erik Cosselmon, Kokkari, San Francisco | Janet Fletcher

from Gastronomica 11:3

Janet Fletcher: Let’s start with your upbringing in Michigan.

Erik Cosselmon: I was born in Flint, and then we moved out to the country, to Grand Blanc, where I spent a large part of my childhood. We had a small farm. My father was a bit of a hippie, or wanted to be. We raised chickens, ducks, geese, and rabbits, and every year we had a big garden.

JF: What was food like at your family table?

EC: My mother had her schedule of what she cooked. It was all substantial, but nothing stands out. My father was more of a gourmet. He had cookbooks from all over the world, and he would invite people over for Chinese food or bouillabaisse. He taught me how to make omelets and how to use a knife. He used to make goose for Christmas, and one year he put the goose in the oven, went outside to work on his boat, and burned the kitchen down.

JF: Literally? Your mother must have been happy about that.

EC: It was completely destroyed. The whole house was full of smoke.

JF: Do you recall when you made the decision that cooking was what you wanted to do?

EC: I decided when I was nine or ten. When I finished high school, I moved to New York City and stayed with my uncle. I had gone through the restaurant listings in the back of Gourmet magazine and circled the ones I wanted to apply to. Each one sent me to another, until I ended up at Tavern on the Green, which wasn’t the best restaurant in New York, but it was something. The chef said, “Show up tomorrow at 6:00 a.m. and we’ll do a tryout.”

JF: Do you recall the tryout?

EC: Yeah. I’m all excited. I walk in. I’ve got my little chef’s knife. He gets me a cutting board and goes into the walk-in and comes out with this fifty-gallon trash can with a lid on it. He rolls it up to the counter, opens it, and it’s full of onions, big onions. He’s like, okay, dice these. I said, how many? He goes, all of them. That was my first job. I was there for two years.

JF: That was the heyday of Tavern on the Green. They must have done a huge volume.

EC: We would do three- to four thousand brunches on weekends, and upwards of four hundred and fifty just for pre-theater dinner. It was crazy.

JF: Well, the place is gone now so you can speak freely. What was it like back in that kitchen?

EC: It makes anything I do now look easy. We had one guy that just made butter curls and picked parsley all day.

The chef helped set up a three-month stage for me at La Bonne Auberge in Moustiers, France. The kitchen staff there was like a family. We would do lunch service, then prep for dinner, then take a break. When we came back to work, we all sat down in the staff room and had an early dinner. The waiters would smoke cigarettes and play cards and drink coffee, and we would clean mushrooms or whatever. Then we’d start dinner service. I miss that here in the States. It’s not such a team. We have to go, go, go.

JF: After France, you got a job at Le Bernardin. How did that experience affect you?

EC: It was just so simple, and it relied on the purest, freshest ingredients. If it wasn’t absolutely perfect, they wouldn’t even consider it. We would get scallops and shuck them and make a consommé with them. The chef would slice more scallops to order and put them in the bowl, and they would still be moving. Then he would pour the hot consommé over them, with butter and chives, and that was it. Doing as little as possible to the ingredients was important.

JF: What advice would you give to other young cooking school grads about how to structure those early years of a career?

EC: Don’t get too comfortable. Try on a lot of different cuisines. Work with a lot of chefs. If you work for somebody who really doesn’t care, you need to move on, because it’s all about the passion. If that’s not there, you’re not going to have a good experience.

Erik Cosselmon in the kitchen of Kokkari. Photograph by Sara Remington ©2010

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Castagna: Portland, Oregon | Matthew Lightner

from Gastronomica 11:2

I remember being told as a child to “Keep your head up,” “Watch your step,” “Pay attention to the road,” “Don’t touch that,” and “Be careful.” Those admonitions came to an end when I started eating weeds. Now a simple walk to work, a hike in the woods, or even a stroll on the beach turns into a serious hunt for all things wild and edible. I can’t remember the last time I went on a walk or a hike and just admired the sky, the birds, or the way the leaves blow in the wind. I no longer see normal distractions like billboards, signs, cars, or people. I’m looking for oxalis, chickweed, wild carrot blossom, yarrow, and woodruff. I am constantly astonished at how a little walk through my neighborhood can become a botanical quest. Once your eyes have been opened to these amazing plants, it becomes difficult to focus on much else.

Matthew Lightner foraging. Photograph by Susan Seubert © 2010

Non-foodies may not understand when you excitedly present them with a handful of wild salmonberries or wood sorrel. “What do we do with those? Are they even edible? Are you out of your mind?” they may ask. But for me and my team at Castagna, we are simply partaking in the rich culture of the wild world, one that has largely been lost to modern generations. When I try to come up with new ideas and dishes, one of the first things I do is to research, especially Native American history: what the indigenous people ate; how they ate; how they utilized local ingredients; how they maintained a spiritual connection that stretched from the seeds, nuts, and fruits to the people who harvested them, and continued on to the animals that enjoyed these edible pleasures as well. To the Native Americans there was nothing other than local and sustainable. Foraging, harvesting, cooking, and eating, they took the Earth into themselves and created a bond with the soil and its riches.

These days there is a lot of talk about the importance of what is known in chef parlance as “product”—what it gives you, what you do with it. Product is treated in isolation from its environment. But at Castagna we see product as a cycle of abundance: when you eat it you become part of the cycle, and if it has been artfully prepared you can taste it, feel it, smell it, hear it, see it, and we hope understand it. For instance, at Castagna we serve salmon that have fed on beautiful shrimp, which give the fish its rich color and flavor. So we serve this salmon in a shrimp broth with freshly harvested seaweeds and wild herbs that grow on the banks of rivers. That is how we tap into this cycle of nature. With a little imagination, our diners can feel as if they are the fish feasting in waters on the shrimp, swimming among the abundant green plant life.

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An Interview with Yoshinori Ishii: Umu, London | Corky White

from Gastronomica 11:1

Yoshinori ishii is a prominent kaiseki chef. Kaiseki is a meal that epitomizes Japanese taste and aesthetics. It is never the same twice, changing with the seasons, the locality, and the chef’s creativity. Ishii has cooked at two fabulous Japanese restaurants: Kitcho, the ultimate kaiseki restaurant in Kyoto, Japan, and Iron Chef Morimoto’s Morimoto in New York City. He is now the chef at Umu in Mayfair, London.

Corky WhiteHow did you get involved with food? Were you interested in it when you were a child?

Yoshinori Ishii: As a child I loved making things with my hands, and I loved fishing. When I caught a fish, I ate it. That was the first sashimi I made. I love to fish; the eating came second.

CWYou became a cook, though, not a professional fisherman. How did that happen?

YI: I went to high school in Saitama Prefecture [near Tokyo] and liked working in kitchens, so I entered Tsuji [Osaka Abeno Tsuji Cooking School] directly from high school, in 1989. Over a one-year course I learned kaiseki and Japanese cooking, Chinese, French, and Italian food. I learned how to use the finest ingredients and the techniques to bring out flavor. For example, if you make a French-style fond and use sake instead of wine and negi [Japanese scallion] instead of onions, you have the very best base for a sukiyaki. You can learn from all cuisines. I also worked at night in an ikesu kappo restaurant, a place where the customer chooses a fish from a tank or pond at the restaurant. I was chef for deep-fried dishes.

CWYou went on to cook at Kitcho in Kyoto. That is probably the Japanese restaurant best known outside of Japan, and probably one of the most expensive. It serves kaiseki food, which may be among the most demanding of cuisines.

YI: I continued to learn at Kitcho. It is a place where they pursue perfection — and I mean perfection. Let me tell you a story about Kitcho. They emphasize perfection in the service as well as in the food. The waitress pays attention to the customers so she can tell the kitchen when the next course should appear, never rushing the customer and always serving food at the perfect moment. One time a table of guests took their time before the rice course. They were talking and relaxing, so the waitress told the kitchen to stop making the rice. The cooks waited until the waitress signaled them to start a new batch, but she had to stop them again. This went on eleven times before the last batch was finally served, so important was it to deliver the perfect rice at the perfect time.

CWCooking at Kitcho with such an agenda must have been difficult. What was the trajectory of learning?

YI: My first year at Kitcho was spent learning to cut sashimi and to boil foods. I also learned about organic farming and local Kyoto vegetable varieties—like the round tama eggplant and the long, brightly colored carrots. Every morning I went to the fields to choose the vegetables for the day. My favorite jobs were arranging the display of scrolls, ceramics, and tea utensils for the restaurant’s rooms. I learned to love traditional ceramics, and I myself now make dishes and bowls. If I weren’t a cook I would be a potter.

The second year I was tsukemono (pickles) chef. I also helped prepare off-site dishes for ocha kaiseki (the tea ceremony meal) events, and I maintained the tea rooms at the restaurant. I loved cultivating the mountain land owned by Kitcho. It was a mix of activities.

In years three through five I was chef for main dishes. I also continued all the other activities, especially flower arrangement. During my last three years, I was kitchen manager and loved learning calligraphy to create the menus (I’m second danlevel) and other traditional arts. Through it all, I fished. When I am traveling, I am so fanatic about fishing that I pack my fishing rods in my bags before I pack my kitchen knives.

Grilled pigeon with Kobuyaki-Artichoke in “Bizen” pottery designed and crafted by Yoshinori Ishii. Photograph by Charmaine Grieger © 2010

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An Interview with David and Karen Waltuck, Chanterelle | Melissa Seley

from Gastronomica 10:4

Husband-and-wife team David and Karen Waltuck ran Chanterelle, one of New York City’s most influential restaurants, for thirty years, first in SoHo, then in Tribeca. At a time when all-male wait staffs and strict adherence to French renditions were ubiquitous, the Waltucks pioneered something else: a fine-dining restaurant where customers could feel comfortable and eat locally sourced food. In 2009, when the economy plummeted, Chanterelle’s investors decided to back out rather than proceed with a scheduled renovation. The Waltucks sold off all of Chanterelle’s inventory, from the famous oak wardrobe to the chandeliers and forks. Now David consults at Robert, the restaurant in the New Museum of Art and Design, while Karen ponders their next move.

Melissa Seley: What early influences helped shape Chanterelle?

David Waltuck: From a young age I was very interested in nouvelle cuisine. I’d read about it, thought about it, tried things. Gault and Millau, the early proponents of nouvelle cuisine, published a journal I liked, Gault et Millau, which listed the rules you had to follow. I also collected a fairly cheap series of cookbooks, very much thrown together and all in French, by Troisgrois, Chapel, Girard, Verger.

After Karen and I fell in love, we went to France and at least twice to Alain Chapel’s and Fernand Point’s restaurants. I’ve always had a romantic and romanticized idea about restaurants and cooking. Certainly about La Pyramide and the chefs who came out of there—Chapel, Bocuse, Girard, the Troisgros brothers. Essentially, you’d drive along this suburban, gritty Lyons road with lots of traffic. You’d come to a rather nondescript place and realize you had stepped into a beautiful garden. It’s cloistered, serene, and quiet.

Matthew Barney, Drawing Restraint 9, 2005. Menu cover for Chanterelle, 2005.Production still © 2005 Matthew Barney. Photo: Chris Kinget. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York

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An Interview with René Redzepi: Noma, Copenhagen | Ursula Heinzelmann

from Gastronomica 10:3

UH: The spirit at Noma—this very warm, welcoming, relaxed feeling the minute you step in—is that a Danish thing or something you have especially worked to create?

RR: In Denmark we’re not so formal, we don’t have an upper class, which is in some ways good. But in Denmark we tend to be withdrawn, so I’ve tried to create a more open atmosphere, to update our way of being.

UH: At Noma the chefs themselves come out and serve. That’s the first time anyone has really broken down the barrier between kitchen and dining room, them and us. Did you do that from the start?

RR: Yes, but not as intensely as we do it now. I’ve always felt it’s a matter of getting the job done. If the food is ready, don’t just stand there and shout for a waiter. Serve it yourself! Over the years of course I’ve tried to develop the kitchen and the concept, and to train the chefs to be better chefs. One way to do that is to make them serve. Also, the more famous you get, the more expectations people have, and the more nervous they become—dining at a place like this a big deal for them. So it’s also a way of showing that we’re on the guest’s side. When an awkward chef comes out…

UH: Oh, they are not awkward!

RR: They’re wonderful, but instead of having some kind of butler you have a person with rough hands and a little sauce on the apron coming out and saying “Welcome!” That is a very different approach from your usual waiter. The big thing with serving is psychology. It’s about confidence, and it’s about understanding people.

Quail eggs at Noma. Photograph by Andrea Thode/ © 2010

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