Bourbon House: New Orleans | Darin Nesbit

from Gastronomica 9:1

My suburban Chicago upbringing was one of Campbell’s soup casseroles and Christmas dinners at the local Chinese restaurant. Like most Americans in the 1970s, my family’s culinary culture was more about convenience than gastronomy. There was little interest in cooking, except to fill our bellies. Our finest dinner was a sliced hotdog topped with mashed potatoes and shredded cheese and then broiled (to this day I have a weakness for Vienna sausages). Living in such an uninspired food environment kept me in the dark. I never knew what “real” food was and never questioned what I was served or expected anything better. Luckily, over the past forty years I have encountered many talented cooks, chefs, and others in the food industry who have offered me gastronomic experiences that have defined my career as a chef. Without them, I would still be that boy lost in the dark.

While growing up, I worked for a couple of restaurants as a busboy or dishwasher. I loved the work and loved earning money, but I learned little about food. On my days off, I’d help my grandpa pull weeds and mow the lawn. One afternoon he shared a vine-ripened tomato with me that he had grown alongside his house. It was the most delicious thing I had ever tasted. I thought, “People actually grow stuff, for real?” As far as I knew, vegetables were packed in cans in the valley of the Jolly Green Giant and could be obtained only in grocery stores. My introduction to fresh, homegrown food continued when I met my wife. Her family lived on a working farm in Wisconsin, where they grew and raised fresh produce, eggs, and livestock—you name it, they grew or raised it. I was awestruck by the farm and motivated to learn all I could about what it takes to bring fresh food to the table.

After I graduated with a degree in hospitality from the University of Wisconsin, my dad took me to Jazz Fest in New Orleans. What a crazy experience that was! I remember sitting with a cold beer and a big pile of crawfish, the seasoning and spices so much more exciting than the bland flavors of my Midwestern youth. Talk about heaven! A whole new world opened up to me. After only one short week I was anxious to discover what else I had been missing.

Darin Nesbit preparing a meal at the James Beard House. Photograph by Krishna Dayanidhi © 2007

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An Interview with Erez Komarovsky, Erez Breads, Israel | Abbie Rosner

from Gastronomica 8:4

Few people have influenced the way Israelis eat as much as Erez Komarovsky, whose bakery, namesake restaurant, and ubiquitous Erez Breads shops and cafés have made “Erez” a household name. In the late 1980s Komarovsky, an Israeli-born classically trained chef, landed in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he embraced the ethnic foods and organic garden-to-table approach that infused the local culinary scene. Back in Israel, in 1996, Komarovsky opened the Erez Breads bakery in Herzliya, just north of Tel Aviv, introducing an expansive selection of artisanal breads that immediately captivated a nation accustomed to standard commodity loaves. Soon afterwards, he launched the Erez Breads restaurant and cafés, as showcases for his highly personal interpretation of California cuisine. For his menus Komarovsky drew from the bounty of healthful, indigenous ingredients and local ethnic cuisines available in Israel, securing for them, for the first time, a place in the contemporary culinary canon.

Today, the Erez Breads bakery produces about fifteen types of whole-grain and organic handcrafted breads, with seasonal offerings that might include fresh garlic in the spring, fig and Roquefort in the summer, and Jerusalem artichoke in the winter. His signature breads, along with cakes, cookies, and a handpicked selection of boutique olives, cheeses, and Israeli wines, are sold in over thirty Erez Breads shops throughout the country. The shops are often paired with Erez Breads cafés that offer light fare, such as a sandwich of lamb kebab, tehina, grilled tomato spread, rashad (cress), and tomato salad wrapped in a large pita; a goat cheese and sabra (cactus-fruit) salad with date honey and pistachios; and a glass of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. His single restaurant, also in Herzliya, is equipped with a tabun (wood-burning clay oven) and offers full meals throughout the day and into the evening. Offerings on last summer’s menu included zucchini/Parmesan fritters with pistachios, sprouts, and goat-milk yogurt seasoned with garlic and mint; and a melon soup with almond cream semifreddo and yogurt sorbet.

Komarovsky recently moved to a small community in the Galilee, at Israel’s northern border, where he cooks, teaches, and tends his expansive organic garden of Mediterranean delights. The morning we met, he was surveying with dismay the damage wild pigs had inflicted on his garden the night before.

AR: Erez, eleven years after opening your bakery, and with branches located in nearly every corner of the country, you’ve left it all behind to move to a mountaintop in the Galilee. What prompted such a pivotal change?

EK: I haven’t entirely left the business, I’m just keeping my involvement to a minimum. I still develop the menus for each season, as well as the breads. We’re just opening a new branch in Beer Sheva, and I’ve been involved in that. But at a certain point other things became more important. I fulfilled one dream, and it was time to replace it with another. The Galilee—with its olive oils, handcrafted goat cheeses, and village markets—has always been the place I drew my inspiration from. I wanted to renew my involvement with food on an intimate level—between me and the cauliflower I pick from my garden.

Erez Komarovsky in his garden in the Galilee. Photograph by Abbie Rosner © 2007

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An Interview with Tony Minichiello, Vancouver | Jonathan Levitt

from Gastronomica 8:3

Tony Minichiello grew up in Montreal, studied theatre at McGill University, and in 1988 graduated from l’Institut de Tourisme et d’Hôtellerie du Québec. In the early 1990s he moved to Vancouver, where for three years he owned My Place, a busy café and catering business. Since 1997 he has been a cooking instructor in Vancouver. At first he commuted to the Dubrulle French Culinary Institute of Canada from his home in Squamish, a mountain town about an hour north of the city, but in 2003 he moved back to town and opened his own school, the Northwest Culinary Academy of Vancouver, in a former metal fabrication shop. Minichiello bought a forty-dollar bike, and now it takes him three minutes to ride to work.

JL: Do you miss the east coast?

TM: I miss Montreal. In Montreal every respectable Italian has a wine cellar. They buy a house, and the first thing they do is go out back and dig a cellar. My father’s was 6-feet deep and maybe 4-feet wide by 12-feet long. We kept cheeses, sausages, jarred tomatoes and pickles, root vegetables and, of course, wine in it. In Montreal every good Italian makes wine or grappa. My parents used to send me down there to grab this or that. I miss the musty, wonderful smell of that place.

JL: Do you miss Squamish?

TM: I miss the simplicity of it. And the wildness. When I was living in Squamish I had a friend who shot a bear. He called me in the morning and asked if I wanted some bear. I told him that I would take a leg. So the guy comes to Dubrulle and gives me the leg. I brined it for a week in wine and spices, then hung it to dry for two days. I cold-smoked it and hung it to cure in the walk-in cooler. Six months later we had bear prosciutto. On Fridays it was our ritual to slice it. The day that we got to the shank was a sad day. To this day it’s the best thing I’ve ever made.

Above: Chef Tony Minichiello with pig’s ears. Photograph by Rita Minichiello © 2007

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Biker Chef: The Red Lion Inn, Stockbridge, Massachusetts | Elizabeth Field

from Gastronomica 8:2

Summertime in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, is a sea of polo shirts, khaki shorts, high-end running shoes, and designer sunglasses moving slowly up and down its historic Main Street. Cars from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and points farther afield inch their way through town toward Tanglewood, Jacob’s Pillow, the Berkshire Theater Festival, Edith Wharton’s Mount, and other cultural venues.

Many of these visitors either stop by or stay at the Red Lion Inn. A rambling, eighteenth-century former stagecoach stop with a long, inviting front porch, it dominates the town, as it does in Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting “Christmas on Main Street.” (Rockwell lived and painted here from 1953 until his death in 1978.) As the centerpiece of a quaint New England village, against a somber backdrop of the region’s stately Berkshire Hills, the building suggests an idealized, enduring America, a sentiment that the town and the inn strive to cultivate.

The inn’s old-fashioned dining room, with its velvet room dividers, flowered wallpaper, and red-jacketed servers, could hardly be more traditional. But Brian Alberg, the Red Lion’s executive chef and director of food and beverage, defies expectations. I wanted to find out how he balances the locals’ desire for basic New England fare with the trendier tastes of the region’s many visitors. So one Sunday morning, after breakfast service, I arranged to speak with him.

Alberg strides in quickly and greets me with a firm handshake. He is a buff forty-year-old, with a massive, smooth-shaved head, hoop earrings, deep brown eyes, a tendrilly tattoo on his wrist peeping out from under his sleeve, and a monster beard—a kind of Hell’s Angels–type in immaculate chef’s whites.

EF: What is the restaurant’s volume?

BA: In summer we do about a thousand meals a day. Off season, half of that. Our season is mid-May through January 1. Labor Day weekend is a little slow with people getting back to school, but then it’s the fall foliage crowd, a lot of bus tours. We do a large Christmas dinner. We usually have five hundred for Thanksgiving. It’s fairly atypical for an inn with only 108 rooms to do so many transient meals.

EF: What is the ratio of local diners to tourists?

BA: I think it’s probably fifty-fifty, and more like seventy-thirty in the winter, because our occupancy drops.

EF: Does this mixed clientele pose any challenges, menu-wise?

BA: Well, I still have to maintain the conservatism of being a New England inn … and of being the Red Lion Inn. That entails more basic fare: roast beef, roast turkey, chicken pot pie, that sort of thing. But we have a broader demographic base here—a large number of transients from New York and Boston. This is a huge arts area, with Tanglewood and the Berkshire Theater Festival and all that. We have both hip, young city folks and an older crowd that prefers the traditional, hearty New England fare … an “Indian pudding–type” clientele. It is sometimes tricky to balance these opposite desires.

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North Pond: Chicago, Illinois | Bruce Sherman

from Gastronomica 8:1

Shortly after I became chef at North Pond eight years ago, a journalist asked me how my food reflected the restaurant’s setting and architecture. I uncomfortably laughed off her question. How had my personal cooking style been influenced by the building’s design? She must have been kidding! I took the job at North Pond because I wanted to be the boss.

And North Pond seemed like a great place to be the boss. Set in a one-hundred-year-old, single-story glazed-brick building, the restaurant nestles into a hillside in Chicago’s picturesque Lincoln Park. The interiors were designed in the Arts and Crafts style, emphasizing the beauty of the materials. From the main dining room’s front doors, and beyond the North Pond, spreads a stunning view of Chicago’s skyline.

A dining room at North Pond. Photograph by Mark Ballogg at Ballogg Photography, Inc., Chicago ©2002

But my first year at North Pond gave me no time to ruminate about how Arts and Crafts windowpanes perfectly frame undulating hills. That first year was my first as an executive chef. I had to learn how to nurture (without coddling), to listen (without condescending), and to support the fragile health of an extended and typically dysfunctional restaurant family (financing cooks between paychecks is now a specialty of mine). Forget about any nobler notions; forget about “personal cooking style.” At the time, I had to concentrate on keeping an aging building upright, an inherited staff cohesive, and an existing clientele happy with the new chef and his menu.

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