RIP Anthony Bourdain; “Don’t Eat Before Reading This”

What tragic news this morning to learn of Anthony Bourdain’s death. I am going to watch a few episodes of his most recent episodes of Parts Unknown. In the meantime, his 1999 piece “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” in The New Yorker elucidated his thoughts on good food and how restaurants are run. I had not seen or read the piece until today, and it is a fascinating read, which “rocked the entire industry”:

Good food, good eating, is all about blood and organs, cruelty and decay. It’s about sodium-loaded pork fat, stinky triple-cream cheeses, the tender thymus glands and distended livers of young animals. It’s about danger—risking the dark, bacterial forces of beef, chicken, cheese, and shellfish. Your first two hundred and seven Wellfleet oysters may transport you to a state of rapture, but your two hundred and eighth may send you to bed with the sweats, chills, and vomits.

On Bourdain’s favorite foods:

What do I like to eat after hours? Strange things. Oysters are my favorite, especially at three in the morning, in the company of my crew. Focaccia pizza with robiola cheese and white truffle oil is good, especially at Le Madri on a summer afternoon in the outdoor patio. Frozen vodka at Siberia Bar is also good, particularly if a cook from one of the big hotels shows up with beluga. At Indigo, on Tenth Street, I love the mushroom strudel and the daube of beef. At my own place, I love a spicy boudin noir that squirts blood in your mouth; the braised fennel the way my sous-chef makes it; scraps from duck confit; and fresh cockles steamed with greasy Portuguese sausage.

I love the sheer weirdness of the kitchen life: the dreamers, the crackpots, the refugees, and the sociopaths with whom I continue to work; the ever-present smells of roasting bones, searing fish, and simmering liquids; the noise and clatter, the hiss and spray, the flames, the smoke, and the steam. Admittedly, it’s a life that grinds you down. Most of us who live and operate in the culinary underworld are in some fundamental way dysfunctional. We’ve all chosen to turn our backs on the nine-to-five, on ever having a Friday or Saturday night off, on ever having a normal relationship with a non-cook.

RIP, Anthony Bourdain.

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(via @hels)

The New York Times Treatment of Bistro at Villard Michel Richard

Food critic Pete Wells at The New York Times has just come out with a scathing review of the Bistro at Villard Michel Richard, the fancy new restaurant at the newly renovated New York Palace in Midtown Manhattan. It’s worth reading in entirety but these two paragraphs are the best:

Think of everything that’s great about fried chicken. Now take it all away. In its place, right between dried-out strands of gray meat and a shell of fried bread crumbs, imagine a gummy white paste about a quarter-inch deep. This unidentifiable paste coats your mouth until you can’t perceive textures or flavors. It is like edible Novocain.

What Villard Michel Richard’s $28 fried chicken does to Southern cooking, its $40 veal cheek blanquette does to French. A classic blanquette is a gentle, reassuring white stew of sublimely tender veal. In this version, the veal cheeks had the dense, rubbery consistency of overcooked liver. Slithering around the meat was a terrifying sauce the color of jarred turkey gravy mixed with cigar ashes. If soldiers had killed Escoffier’s family in front of him and then forced him to make dinner, this is what he would have cooked.

Mmm, delicious.

What Makes Doritos Chips So Irresistible?

The New York Times on the allure of the Doritos chips:

The inventor of Doritos envisioned this snack in 1964 as a marketing powerhouse that could deliver endless varieties of new flavors. But none of the formulations would surpass Nacho Cheese, whose irresistible taste sent Doritos into the processed food hall of fame, and more recently into a partnership with Taco Bell. I visited Steven A. Witherly, a food scientist who wrote an insider’s guide, “Why Humans Like Junk Food,” and we raided his lab to taste and experiment our way through the psychobiology of what makes Nacho Cheese Doritos so alluring.

On one of the most popular flavors, Nacho Cheese:

The blend of ingredients in Nacho Cheese is given one of the finest grinds in food processing: flour grinding, which creates a powder that fills every nook and cranny on the chip. This maximizes the amount that will contact saliva. Intentional or not, one byproduct is the powder left on your fingers. 

Licking the dust from the fingers in its pure form, without the chip to dilute the impact, sends an even larger flavor burst to the brain.

The notion of “forgettable flavor” is vital:

Despite the powerful tastes in Nacho Cheese, the Doritos formula balances them so well that no single flavor lingers in the mind after you’ve eaten a chip. This avoids what food scientists call “sensory specific satiety,” or the feeling of fullness caused by a dominant flavor. Would you eat a whole bag of rosemary chips? With Doritos, you go back for more.

Read the rest here.

A Nightly Dinner Out as Therapy

Harry Rosen is 103 years old and lives in New York City. He made a fortune in his life in America as a supply company owner, after fleeing the pograms of Russia, having arrived to Ellis Island with his family. These days, he goes out to fancy restaurants in the city, which he considers his therapy:

“I haven’t eaten dinner home in many years,” said Mr. Rosen, who tried singles groups and other activities after his wife of 70 years, Lillian, died five years ago, when she was 95.

But nothing brought him the comfort of a fine restaurant.

“It’s my therapy, it lifts my spirits,” he said Wednesday evening while examining the menu with a magnifying glass at David Burke Townhouse on East 61st Street.

Twice a week, a server there greets him, walks him to his usual corner table and brings his regular glass of chardonnay, his appetizer of raw salmon and tuna, and then the swordfish, skin removed, with vegetables specially puréed for his dentures to handle.

“The food and the ambience, it’s my therapy — it gives me energy,” he said.

His favorite restaurants are Café Boulud on East 76th Street, Boulud Sud near Lincoln Center, and Avra Estiatorio on East 48th Street.

Auto-Brewery Syndrome: Making Beer in Your Gut

A 61-year-old man — with a history of home-brewing — stumbled into a Texas emergency room complaining of dizziness. Nurses ran a Breathalyzer test. The man’s blood alcohol concentration was a whopping 0.37 percent, or almost five times the legal limit for driving in Texas. However, the man denied having had any alcoholic beverages that night. So what happened?

Turns out he has a rare condition in which his gut is lined with an over-abundance of brewer’s yeast, which would make alcohol (ethanol) when he consumed carbohydrates. NPR details:

The patient had an infection with Saccharomyces cerevisiae…So when he ate or drank a bunch of starch — a bagel, pasta or even a soda — the yeast fermented the sugars into ethanol, and he would get drunk. Essentially, he was brewing beer in his own gut. Cordell and McCarthy reported the case of “auto-brewery syndrome” a few months ago in theInternational Journal of Clinical Medicine.

Brewer’s yeast is in a whole host of foods, including breads, wine and, of course, beer (hence, the name). The critters usually don’t do any harm. They just flow right through us. Some people even take Saccharomyces as a probiotic supplement.

But it turns out that in rare cases, the yeasty beasts can indeed take up long-term residency in the gut and possibly cause problems, says Dr. Joseph Heitman, a microbiologist at Duke University.

Fascinating!

On The Joys of Becoming a Restaurant Regular

This is a wonderful piece by Frank Bruni (former restaurant critic for The New York Times) on the joys and pleasures of becoming a regular at your local restaurant:

I’m no monogamist, that’s clear. More of a polygamist, but I dote on my sister wives. I’ve come to see that the broccolini isn’t always greener on the other side of Houston Street, and I’m here to sing what’s too seldom sung: the joys of familiarity. The pleasures of intimacy. The virtues of staying put.

What you have with a restaurant that you visit once or twice is a transaction. What you have with a restaurant that you visit over and over is a relationship.

Great point here about the smiles:

[T]he smiles you get from hosts, hostesses and bartenders who know you are entirely unlike the smiles from ones who are just meeting you. They’re less theatrical, less stilted, warmer by countless degrees.

I love this addendum from Jason Kottke:

This is a totally minor thing but I love it: more than once, I’ve come in early in the evening, had a drink, left without paying to go run an errand or meet someone somewhere else, and then come back later for another drink or dinner and then settle my bill. It’s like having a house account without the house account.

I haven’t yet made any nearby restaurants a regular for me, but now I am really tempted to pick one or two.

On the Origin of the Picnic

I am having one myself this weekend, so it seems apropos to read this short piece in The New York Times on the origin of the picnic:

The word “picnic,” however, is of more recent vintage. An early mention can be traced to a 1649 satirical French poem, which features the Frères Pique-nicques, known for visiting friends “armed with bottles and dishes.” In 1802, the term made a hop to Britain after a group of Francophiles in London formed a Pic-Nic Society to gorge, guzzle and perform amateur theatricals. Participants drew lots to determine who would supply which dish — from calf’s-foot jelly to blancmange.


Read the rest here.
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Why Lobster Isn’t Priced Like Chicken

In 2005, Maine lobster was selling for almost six dollars a pound wholesale. By 2009, it cost just half that, and, in the past couple of summers, huge lobster harvests, believed by some to be a result of global warming, have glutted the market, sending prices tumbling further. This month, lobster off the boat is selling for as low as $2.20 a pound. So why hasn’t the price of lobster come down when you’re buying it at your favorite restaurant?

James Surowiecki explains in The New Yorker that lobster isn’t like a commodity, but rather is more like a luxury good. If it were priced like chicken, people would presumably enjoy it less:

Keeping prices high obviously lets restaurants earn more on each dish. But it may also mean that they get less business. So why aren’t we seeing markdowns? Some of the reasons are straightforward, like the inherent uncertainty of prices from year to year: if a bad harvest next summer sent prices soaring, restaurants might find it hard to sell expensive lobster to customers who’d got used to cheap lobster. But the deeper reason is that, economically speaking, lobster is less like a commodity than like a luxury good, which means that its price involves a host of odd psychological factors.

Lobster hasn’t always been a high-end product. In Colonial New England, it was a low-class food, in part because it was so abundant: servants, as a condition of their employment, insisted on not being fed lobster more than three times a week. In the nineteenth century, it became generally popular, but then, as overharvesting depleted supplies, it got to be associated with the wealthy (who could afford it). In the process, high prices became an important part of lobster’s image. And, as with many luxury goods, expense is closely linked to enjoyment. Studies have shown that people prefer inexpensive wines in blind taste tests, but that they actually get more pleasure from drinking wine they are told is expensive. If lobster were priced like chicken, we might enjoy it less.

Another additional point worth highlighting:

Restaurants also worry about the message that discounting sends. Studies dating back to the nineteen-forties show that when people can’t objectively evaluate a product before they buy it (as is the case with a meal) they often assume a correlation between price and quality. Since most customers don’t know what’s been happening to the wholesale price of lobster, cutting the price could send the wrong signal: people might think your lobster is inferior to that of your competitors. A 1996 study found that restaurants wouldn’t place more orders with wholesalers even if lobster prices fell twenty-five per cent.

Finally, having lobster on the menu is a boon for restaurants because its artificially high price makes other dishes on the menu comparatively more affordable. Cited in Surowiecki’s piece is a fascinating paper by Itamar Simonson and Amos Tversky concerning these context-dependent preferences:

The standard theory of choice-based on value maximization-associates with each option a real value such that, given an offered set, the decision maker chooses the option with the highest value. Despite its simplicity and intuitive appeal, there is a growing body of data that is inconsistent with this theory. In particular, the relative attractiveness of x compared to y often depends on the presence or absence of a third option z, and the “market share” of an option can actually be increased by enlarging the offered set. We review recent empirical findings that are inconsistent with value maximization, and present a context-dependent model that expresses the value of each option as an additive combination of two components: a contingent weighting process that captures the effect of the background context, and a binary comparison process that describes the effect of the local context. The model accounts for observed violations of the standard theory and provides a framework for analyzing context-dependent preferences.

How Climate Change is Changing the Taste of Fuji Apples

Fuji apples were, once upon a time, perhaps the most delicious apples you could sink your teeth into. However, these days the Fuji apples just aren’t quite hitting the spot like they used to, and we might never see them reach their former glory again.

By comparing samples of modern-day Fujis to similar studies from the 70s, a team of researchers has discovered that the formerly glorious Fuji has recently grown substantially mealier and has a lower flavor concentration. The likely culprit? Climate change. Per the abstract:

The effects of climate change on the taste and textural attributes of foods remain largely unknown, despite much public interest. On the basis of 30–40 years of records, we provide evidence that the taste and textural attributes of apples have changed as a result of recent global warming. Decreases in both acid concentration, fruit firmness and watercore development were observed regardless of the maturity index used for harvest date (e.g., calendar date, number of days after full bloom, peel colour and starch concentration), whereas in some cases the soluble-solids concentration increased; all such changes may have resulted from earlier blooming and higher temperatures during the maturation period. These results suggest that the qualities of apples in the market are undergoing long-term changes.

Interesting.

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(via Smithsonian Magazine)

MacDo: On The McDonald’s Franchise in France

Very interesting post at Roads & Kingdoms how the McDonald’s in France caters to local taste:

It’s not quite a bistro, but it’s close. This is McDonald’s as a decidedly more grown-up experience, where hard plastic is traded for leather banquettes, pull-out chairs for angular cushioned stools, and golden arches for burnt sienna and low-lit nooks where couples can steal a quiet moment. You can still find a Big Mac and a box of nuggets here, but they are overshadowed on the menu boards by the bigger stars of the French universe: the McDoo, a warm ham and cheese take on the croque-monsieur, leafy salads that bounce like a Kardashian’s backside, and a line of burgers featuring artisanal French cheeses like Comté and Camembert that McDonald’s rolled out earlier this year.

I had no idea about this trivia:

It may surprise some, but McDonald’s France—called MacDo by the locals—is the highest-grossing McDonald’s market outside of the United States (despite the fact that worker pay, a recent source of controversy in the US, starts around $12—France’s minimum wage). It’s a fun story to tell: the lowbrow American chain that won over the fastidious French. Something about it makes Americans feel like a warm apple pie inside. That’ll show those French snobs! But this didn’t happen by accident. If McDonald’s has found success in France, it’s because in many ways it has become the anti-McDonald’s: The service is warm, the interiors thoughtfully designed, and, above all, the food—from the baguette vessels to the pain au chocolat to the camembert-swaddled patties—is made for French palates.

Next time you find yourself in a McDonald’s in France, make sure to order something else besides the Royale with Cheese.