Left - Mad, bad, and dangerous to know.
Right - Sane & compassionate commentator on food and culture.
I've been off the air for a few weeks (in more ways than one). I've been taken up with hospitality training and evaluation. I also had a break in Tasmania, but more of that later. But no sooner am I back at the keyboard than I have to deal with the sad loss of another hero. Vale AnthonyBourdain. He died while filming in France, 8th June, 2018. So sad for us that he needed so drastically to be free of his demons.
He had graduated in 1978 from the American Culinary Institute. He was executive chef at the Brasseries Les Halles in New York when he came to prominence in 2000, with the publication of his best-seller, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, a deep-down and dirty story about the parts of a restaurant no-one wants to see and a homage to those who make the place happen, the chefs and line cooks.
It was not a pretty picture. It was also probably the most foul-mouthed book you will ever read. I religiously recommended it to every cook, chef or dishwasher who came through our restaurant kitchen. It was compassionate, unflinching and full of realistic advice for anyone thinking of going into hospitality - and a fare cry from the glory and pretty stories of magazine food pages.
And as a “Little Goody Two Shoes”, while I didn’t (and don’t) relate to the casual and frantic sex in the cool-room or on the stuffed bags of soiled linen in the passage, or the smack or lines of cocaine to get through the day, I grabbed at the plain, sane, essential advice for the kitchen - show up on time, keep your station clean and in order; the kitchen is a dangerous place. Furthermore, I related to his thinking about food and the significance of sharing. Perhaps it’s best to simply offer some random quotes.
“Your body is not a temple, it's an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”
“Skills can be taught. Character you either have or you don't have.”
“Don't lie about it. You made a mistake. Admit it and move on. Just don't do it again. Ever”
“Don't touch my dick, don't touch my knife.” (Sorry about that one, but you get his drift.)
“Few things are more beautiful to me than a bunch of thuggish, heavily tattooed line cooks moving around each other like ballerinas on a busy Saturday night. Seeing two guys who'd just as soon cut each other's throats in their off hours, moving in unison with grace and ease, can be as uplifting as any chemical stimulant or organized religion.”
“Garlic is divine. Few food items can taste so many distinct ways, handled correctly. Misuse of garlic is a crime. Please, treat your garlic with respect. Avoid at all costs that vile spew you see rotting in oil in screw-top jars. Too lazy to peel fresh? You don't deserve to eat garlic.”
“For a moment, or a second, the pinched expressions of the cynical, world-weary, throat-cutting, miserable bastards we've all become disappears, when we're confronted with something as simple as a plate of food.”
“So who the hell, exactly, are these guys, the boys and girls in the trenches? You might get the impression from the specifics of my less than stellar career that all line cooks are wacked-out moral degenerates, dope fiends, refugees, a thuggish assortment of drunks, sneak thieves, sluts and psychopaths. You wouldn't be too far off base. The business attracts 'fringe elements', people for whom something in their lives has gone terribly wrong. Maybe they didn't make it through high school, maybe they're running away from something, be it an ex-wife, a rotten family history, trouble with the law, a squalid Third World backwater with no opportunity for advancement. Or maybe, like me, they just like it here. ”
“The last thing a chef wants in a line cook is an innovator, somebody with ideas of his own who is going to mess around with the chef's recipes and presentations. Chefs require blind, near-fanatical loyalty, a strong back and an automaton-like consistency of execution under battlefield conditions.”
“Our movements through time and space seem somehow trivial compared to a heap of boiled meat in broth, the smell of saffron, garlic, fish-bones and Pernod.”
“If you look someone in the eye and call them a ‘fat, worthless, syphilitic puddle of badger crap’ it doesn’t mean you don’t like them. It can be – and often is – a term of endearment.”
“Having a sous-chef with excellent cooking skills and a criminal mind is one of God's great gifts.”
“Cooking is a craft, I like to think, and a good cook is a craftsman, not an artist. There's nothing wrong with that: the great cathedrals of Europe were built by craftsmen, though not designed by them. Practising your craft in expert fashion is noble, honorable and satisfying.”
“Food had power. It could inspire, astonish, shock, excite, delight and impress. It had the power to please me.”
“Luck is not a business plan.”
His writing and TV programs around the world were brave and revealing. He put so easily into words what I believe (with more expletives that I’ve ever used). His heroes are my heroes, his villains my villains.
“I am not a fan of people who abuse service staff. In fact, I find it intolerable. It’s an unpardonable sin as far as I’m concerned, taking out personal business or some other kind of dissatisfaction on a waiter or busboy.”
“We know, for instance, that there is a direct, inverse relationship between frequency of family meals and social problems. Bluntly stated, members of families who eat together regularly are statistically less likely to stick up liquor stores, blow up meth labs, give birth to crack babies, commit suicide, or make donkey porn. If Little Timmy had just had more meatloaf, he might not have grown up to fill chest freezers with Cub Scout parts.”
“Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one’s life.”
“As incisively pointed out in the documentary Food Inc.," an overwhelmingly large percentage of "new," healthy," and "organic" alternative food products are actually owned by the same parent companies that scared us into the organic aisle in the first place. "They got you comin' and goin' " has never been truer.”
“These are the end products of the Masterminds of Safety and Ethics, bulked up on cheese that contains no cheese, chips fried in oil that isn’t really oil, overcooked gray disks of what might once upon a time have been meat, a steady diet of Ho-Hos and muffins, butterless popcorn, sugarless soda, flavorless light beer. A docile, uncomprehending herd, led slowly to a dumb, lingering, and joyless slaughter.”
“I'm asked a lot what the best thing about cooking for a living is. And it's this: to be a part of a subculture. To be part of a historical continuum, a secret society with its own language and customs. To enjoy the instant gratification of making something good with one's hands--using all one's senses. It can be, at times, the purest and most unselfish way of giving pleasure (though oral sex has to be a close second).”
His life had imperfections and on re-reading “Medium Raw”one senses an unease and depression, even an omen, despite his addictions being safely locked away in the past.
“Only one in four has a chance at making it. And right there, I knew that if one of us was getting off dope, and staying off dope, it was going to be me. Iwas going to live. I was the guy.”
“I'll be right here. Until they drag me off the line. I'm not going anywhere. I hope. It's been an adventure. We took some casualties over the years. Things got broken. Things got lost. But I wouldn't have missed it for the world.”
I will decidedly not be regretting missed opportunities for a good time. My regrets will be more along the lines of a sad list of people hurt, people let down, assets wasted and advantages squandered.”
Of the still prevalent macho kitchen atmosphere and gender inequalities that lurk beneath the glamorous “celebrity” chef culture shown up by the #metoo movement, he said “I think about this daily with real remorse.”
I recommend Medium Raw and give a copy of Kitchen Confidential to that niece or nephew who watches too much Master Chef (with perhaps a warning about the oral sex).
The death of Stéphane Audran in March 2018 (aged 85) prompted many of us of to consider again the impact of the film “Babette’s Feast”. Too young to have seen it in 1987, I urge you to make a date with yourself. View it alone or with an empathetic friend. (I watch it about twice a year and I still fall apart.)
Directed by Gabriel Axel, it was a Danish –French production. “Coming to a theatre near you”, was also “Coming to a restaurant near you”, when thousands of themed dinners popped up around the world, not to mention the private dinner parties. (I've seen a few doozies - check cookingwiththemovies Oh dear!)
The film won "Best Foreign Language Film" at the Academy Awards in 1987, as well as four Baftas, a César for Best Film from from the European Union and "Un Certain Regard" at Cannes.
But anyone who sees the film as just a big, decadent, elaborate feast has certainly missed the point. I leave it to you. For an intense, academic analysis… http://press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago
Some interesting trivia.
It’s based on a short story by Baroness Karen Blixen (pen name Isak Dinesen).The story appears in a collection Anecdotes of Destiny (1958) and was the last work published in her lifetime. (Go to Amazon, if you do that sort of thing.) Two of the stories from the collection have been adapted into film. As well as Babette’s Feast, there's The Immortal Story (1968), directed by Orson Wells. She was a prolific author. Read Out of Africa, about her time as a coffee farmer and see the film with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford.
Blixen was anorexic. She suffered throughout her life from a mercury treatment for syphilis but she died of malnutrition, aged 76. (Her short story gives no thorough description of a meal.)
Axel wanted to shoot the film in Berlevåg, the Norwegian village of the book, the last village before the Arctic Circle. Unfortunately it had become too pretty, with its quaint muti-coloured houses so the setting was transferred to the barren, windswept coast of Jutland in Denmark.
Babette flees France during the violence and unrest of the Prussian siege and the Paris Commune. Murdered communards are buried and commemorated at a wall in the Père Lachaise cemetery. Others were deported to what is now New Caledonia.
The dinner service used in the film was created in 1982 (Havilland Limoges) Impératrice Eugénie. This design is in the Second Empire style (Napoleon III) and being modern, with no gold trim, it’s dishwasher safe! On the other hand, see the beautiful severity of both the Beidermeir style of the sisters' house and the Gustavian mansion of the Lieutenant's aunt.
When Babette comes in from the storm, at her first meeting with Martine and Filippa, they are drinking from these cups (above). (Well not these exact ones, which I found at an auction - Bing and Grondahl.)
Catherine Deneuve was considered for the part, hesitated and Stéphane Audran jumped at it. Undisputedly a great actress, her movements in the kitchen were natural and true and she insisted on real wine in her glass. In private, she was an avid cook.
She was described by the Guardian as the archetypal bourgeois French woman, graceful, aloof, elegant, reserved yet passionate. She displays this in her role. (I might try it sometime.)
She was married for 16 years to the director Claude Chabrol.
The two sisters were played by Danish actors, Bodil Kjier and Birgitte Federspiel, both household names in Denmark. Bibi Andersson, a favourite of director Ingmar Bergman, played Lorens' wife.
Babette is shown how to make Ølebrød (beer and brown bread soup) for the villagers. If you're tempted, there's a slightly more appetising recipe in Magnus Nilsson's massive tome on Scandinavian cuisine. – the-nordic-cookbook-magnus-nilsson (Magnus has the looks of a wild teenage Viking. His restaurant "Faviken", opened in 2008, seats 16 and is booked months in advance.)
And , like Magnus Nilsson, Babette brings life to the food because she forages. So very now!
In the film, when one of the sisters holds up a bottle and worriedly asks “But Babette is this wine?” She answers reassuringly “No, it’s Clos de Vougeot, 1846!” Now, that line could be useful...
Jan Pedersen of "La Cocotte" in Copenhagen worked with two assistants on the food for the film, using 148 quail for the shooting of Quailles en Sarcophages (the one dish that I believe cannot work). With care and attention to detail, you can certainly re-create the dessert (Savarin au Kirsch). Quite coincidentally, friend CM, in Melbourne, did just that as I was writing this piece. His Savarin, (sitting on its Demeuldre-Coché Limoges plate c. 1900,) glows with deliciousness.
Babette’s Feast is the favourite film of Pope Francis. See Pope Francis & Babettes Feast
Her dress was made by Karl Largerfeld (Chanel).
I cry when Babette, switching to French, asks permission to prepare a real French dinner - "Un vrai diner français." I cry at the end of the meal, when tired, exhausted, dignified in her apron and grey Lagerfeld frock, having a final glass of wine, she reveals her past. Aaah - I'm just a Babette tragic!
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Salt rocks - yes it does. Above, I've been breaking up a huge slab of Himalyan rock salt
Back in the day, a million fetishes away, in an innocent world, pre-chia, pre-kale smoothies, pre-manuka honey, during the sizzling Australian, beach-filled summers, when KE Holdens had no air-conditioning, we were warned not to risk a day without taking a salt tablet. Back then, we were told that we lost dangerous amounts of salt through perspiration. Left unheeded, this would lead to muscle cramps, dehydration, brain-damage (and probably ultimately, a change in Monopoly tokens and feminism).
We purposefully added salt to our diet, over and above our tinned spaghetti on toast and hot chips.
What happened? Next we were told we ingested too much salt. We became salt-phobic. The warnings were intended to save us from among other things, high blood pressure. Now dietary studies suggest the salt fear is overblown and that it’s more a high carbohydrate problem (that wonderful crusty, sourdough bread).
I remember when giving cooking classes years ago, I would add salt and the class, in unison, would gasp in horror. (They also gasped in horror when I buttered anything.) But no-one complained when the tasting started.
In her just published book, Samin Nosrat (see review Salt Fat Acid Heat) writes about how to cook, rather than just recipes. She gave lessons to Michael Pollan and any friend of Mr Pollan is a friend of mine. As a young prep cook at Chez Panisse, she watched the chef adjust the salt in a polenta she was working on. (She also gasped, apparently!)
“Cal grabbed spoons and together we tasted. Some indescribable transformation had occurred. The corn was somehow sweeter, the butter richer. All the flavours were more pronounced. I’d been certain Cal had turned my polenta into a salt lick, but no matter how I tried, the word salty did not apply to what I tasted. It was as if I’d been struck by lightening. It’d never occurred to me that salt was anything more than pepper’s sidekick.”
Salt is natural and necessary – for health and for good cooking. It enhances. Purposefully withholding salt leads to bland. (Remember that salt can also come from adding olives, fish sauce, capers, anchovies, soy sauce etc.)
All salt comes from the same place originally, whether it’s fleur de sel from the Ile de Ré (Poitou-Charentes), or Himalayan Pink or basic rock salt at the supermarket.
My friends have not given up mountains of crispy bacon, or mountains of crispy chips or fries – they simply repeat the mantra “I know I shouldn’t but…” Get over it. You know you want to.
So here’s my salt challenge. The optimum “good health” amount of salt a day is 5gm – that is 1 teaspoon of sodium chloride. The salt challenge is for those who eat their own food at every meal. (If you don’t eat your own food, you’re on your own.) Put a teaspoon of salt per household-person in a small bowl on the bench or windowsill to use during your cooking. I challenge you to get through that salt in a day.
(For next time, I’ve been talking to marathon runners and “science” types, tasting black, red and pink salt, and seeking to debunk some fears and myths.)
Meyer lemons are the lemon of choice in North Africa (and lovely they are) but they’re hard to get and I rather like the thicker skins of a common Lisbon lemon.
A measured teaspoon is 5 gm. Use 12 teaspoons of salt for every 5 lemons (i.e. 4 tbsp).
(Just ordinary salt)
Tradition is good but sometimes there’s a more practical way. Some recipes may tell you to keep lemons whole (slitting them lengthwise with two inter-crossing cuts, nearly to the bottom). That’s fine if you’re doing your lemons in huge jars or barrels. It’s much more practical to cut them into 8 crescents. They stack better and come to maturity more quickly and you can put them in manageable-sized jars. (The jars above are excellent having a glass lid which will not corrode. They are wide at top, making it easy to get you hands or food tongs in. (They will be available if you look. I found mine at Aldi. WECK preserving jars.)
Arrange the slices (crescents) in the jar, spooning over salt as you build the layers. You'll soon get the hang of how much, to finish with just enough for the final layer.
Close the jar and set aside for 2 days.
After this time, you will see that the lemons have given up a lot of juice. It the lemons are not covered by juice, be prepared to juice some more to cover. You may find a way to hold them below the surface of the juice. The juice or lemons should not touch a metal lid.
The salt will react with the lemons and make them silky, even slightly oily. This is the natural pectin. My batch is only three days old. If the salt you can see on the nearest slice does not dissolve, I will be annoyed with myself. Salt remaining after a week tells you you have over-salted. This is a waste of salt. Even if you love salt, salt cannot get saltier.
They will be ready in a month.
I'm assuming you're using lemons from an overloaded tree. If buying lemons (and nothing wrong with that) give them a light scrub if they've been polished with wax.)
You'll find many recipes using these (chicken with green olives and preserved lemon is a classic) and they can be chopped or slivered into salads. Take one out of its brine, detach the pulp and discard. You only use the skin.
This also works well with limes but I've not had great joy with oranges. Cumquats (cut in half) are glorious and look very special.
In the photo, you'll see Hawaiian red salt and some handsome looking extra large pyramid crystals (larger even than Maldon salt). More on that later.
Latest home-page is the end of a casual meal (no dessert).
The massively talented and very beautiful Stéphane Audran has died, aged 85 (27th March, 2018). She was best known outside of France for her role in Babette's Feast which won the Oscar for "Best Foreign Film".
This is my third favourite film, after Fellini's La Strada and Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies. As a cook / chef and upholder of the shared table, this film has a deeply significant meaning for me.
More to come - about the film, about the book, about the menu, about the dinner service, about foraging, about the dress, about Karen Blixen.....
It's pretty simple really. Any more than six people and this will be a terrible table to sit at. Seating along either side of the long table may look "neat" in a life-style magazine but that's just it. It's style over life.
I assert that the ends need to be stoppered. How? With some-one sitting at the ends. Simple. Although it's a long table, the guests need to make a circle, with people at each end, giving everyone someone to talk to on either side. If not, the goodwill will flow right out of the table, at both ends, like wine from a bottomless carafe. Sounds "new-age" and it's possibly the only "new-age" thing I'll ever say.
Restaurants do it. If you book, ask for it not to happen. If it's at someone's house, hope you're not at the ends, be pleased at least that you've been invited, grin and bear it and send them this blog.
Check out the table below...
Buckingham Palace State Banquet - Photo courtesy The Telegraph
You can expect Buckingham Palace to know how to set a table. An oval table is very convivial but even at a long table, simply put someone at the end. Happiness all round.
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I've been notified by a friend (painter Don Rankin) that an interesting auction is coming up at Christie's in New York in May. Among other things, it offers 67 dinner services, collected over the years by Peggy and David Rockefeller (Standard Oil) who died recently, aged 105.
Life-style commentators claim that the dinner service is back! We're ditching the "catering look", ditching the white for a mix and match approach. Apparently the Rockefellers used different services over the course of a meal - and they had much to choose from - and David offered that if conversation lagged, one could always talk about the plates! (So get to it and trawl the bric à brac sales, St. Vincent de Paul's and the Salvos!)
Not sure of the maker of the yellow one above and I might sell on the urns. The red service below left, was made for Napoleon I by Sèvres. He took it with him in exile to Elba so it stood up to the travel well enough (and helped make him feel at home, no doubt). The botanical service is by Worcester.
This is expected to be the biggest single sale in history, expected to reach over $650 million (Aust.) with sales all going to charity. It is expected to surpass the previous auction of the Yves St Laurent and Pierre Bergé collection ($600 million), part of which went towards AIDS research.
Hope this inspires you to dig out that service in the back of the cupboard. But damn it - I'm busy on 7th May.
Comments or suggestions below...
I’m in a bind over Phantom Thread. Because I like a nice frock, better still a beautiful shoe, and I’ve been known to ply the needle, I‘ve been showered with “Have you seen…? YOU are going to love it!” My feelings are a bit mixed.
One does have to spend about two hours with a very difficult, not to say unpleasant person, Reynolds Woodcock. It would be shallow however, to dislike a film because the main character has Asperger’s syndrome, is bi-polar or just plain rude. As a superb actor, Daniel Day-Lewis plays it to the hilt. On the plus side, it is visually gorgeous. His suits are a dream; he even polishes his shoes. (Sorry, today that is a big plus. You’re lucky if the trainers get a run in the washing machine occasionally.)
The couture is dowdy - but then again it is English. What were Dior, Balenciaga, Givenchy doing at this time? But as a friend pointed out, he was at the end of his career. For a sewer, it is riveting to see the interior construction of these pieces (e.g tiny pads sitting at waist level to lift the skirt away from the body). And Woodcock does thank his seamstresses every time for their beautiful work.
There are some instances where behavior and dialogue don’t fit this otherwise perfect period piece. Since when does a young girl go for an evening ride with a man on whom she has only waited at breakfast, even if it is a Bristol 405. Anger and arguments are heavily accentuated with the “F” word (never thought I’d have an opportunity to write that) which is as out of place in the late ‘50s as are the Champagne flutes at a posh party they attend.
His sister Cyril should have got the Oscar. I’m practising her manner in dealing with life's difficulties – pause, put down pen, remove glasses, look up, smooth hair behind the ears, then and only then, speak.
Critics have noted that the two main women in his life give as good as they get. I disagree. They speak the truth but he has no intention of changing. Breakfast toast will continue to annoy him.
Food is part of the power struggle (breakfasts are important) and used as an expression of both love and tyranny but I’m not sure we can hail “Phantom Thread” as one of the great food films, even if he has a large appetite. Deborah Ross, film reviewer, describes Woodcock at the country inn.
“He orders Welsh rarebit with a poached egg (not too runny), bacon, scones, cream, jam (not strawberry), tea (Lapsang Souchong). There is a pause: ‘…and sausages’. He had me at ‘scones’, to be honest, but who other than Day-Lewis could make a breakfast order so powerfully seductive?”
But look for the following…
The restaurant treats its guests as adults, not flapping napkins onto laps.
Pudding or dessert is eaten with both a fork and spoon.
You'll be trying Lapsang Souchong again from an iron teapot , sipping from a raku bowl.
You’ll want to move your daily breakfast up a notch in decorum and setting. The Wedgwood service is “Edme”, 1902 – 2014 (although it might be revived in 2018).
But the film is worth another viewing for one scene. I gasped and tears stung my eyes - the plate of simple asparagus. Sublime.
Comment, Question Enlighten below...
More excess this time with our native finger limes. The small tree, planted in a pot, has finally come into its own with around 40 fruit. That's a lot for finger limes. They are rare and expensive so we feel very lucky. They are becoming easier to find at the market, often in stalls selling native ingredients and meat. Like oranges and lemons, they keep well so if you see some, grab a couple.
They are good on oysters or grilled fish, they give a surprise pop to a creamy aïoli sauce, they lift any composed salad (e.g Vietnamese-style chicken, mint and green mango). Endless possibilities.
Left - The fruit (approximately 12cm long) hangs finger-like from spiky branches. This small Australian rainforest tree can adapt to most gardens where the wider citrus family grows.
Right - Inside the segments are filled with juice "vesicles", think lemon caviar or lime crystals. Cut in half, the crystals can be squeezed out, the final ones helped with a small knife. They crunch in the mouth releasing their tart and aromatic juice. Here, they wait to be squeezed onto a herring, apple, pickled beetroot and sour cream salad. (Sorry about the colour.) There were triangles of buttered rye toast, all on a 1910 Wedgwood plate.
Centre - Freshly shucked oysters waiting to be topped with finger lime. Oyster plates (1950s - Villeroy & Boch) show a daring modernity. It took eight years of regular searching on line to gather, one by one, a set of 12. (Indispensable!) Just behind can be seen the twisted stem of an Aquavit glass, to appeal to my inner Scandinavian, the Aquavit syrupy, icy cold served from the freezer.
Plant a tree and if you find yourself with an excess, you can give your guests one each, rather than a half!