Reading Calvin Trillin’s delightful and mouthwatering paean to all things gustatory, “Alice, Let’s Eat: Further Adventures of a Happy Reader” left me wondering if his wife and the title’s namesake, Alice Stewart Trillin (whom he humorously laments limited their family to merely three meals a day—but never missed dessert) had ever met the other Alice, Alice Waters.
The Alice Waters, who, according to some food historians, single-handedly invented modern American cuisine in Berkeley California, circa 1971. In most circles, this is considered a good thing, because after Alice corralled French food, subsequently making things like pistou and arugula part of every aspiring gourmand’s vernacular, good things started to happen. Like, a few hundred thousand restaurants and cookbooks spawned, small family farms reinvigorated, and—why stop now—on the sixth day, Alice invented the Food Channel.
No, before Alice there really wasn’t much left to eat in America the Beautiful besides Captain Crunch, frozen waffles (inexplicably named Eggos) and this thing called a Big Mac. OK, there was corn on the cob and milk. But not much else was fresh and wholesome. It had been taken away by the post 1950s industrial high that came from winning the war and reinventing the wheels of commerce so that it all rolled straight to the garage on Easy Street in the new suburbia, on roads made of golden grain grown with not only the goddess, but scientists, chemists and a helping hand from a man named Diesel.
(And now, a moment of silence and reflection on what life would be like without organic foods, produce isles larger than a small airport concourse and heritage breeding of farm animals may now be observed… )
So, certainly, Alice Waters is deserving of the many accolades and awards she has received, but is it true that by 1970, America had been taken over by Jiffy Pop popcorn and the Pillsbury Doughboy? Not according to Trillin.
Reissued this year, “Alice, Let’s Eat” is considered a food essay classic, consisting of a series of vignettes and anecdotes published in The New Yorker from 1973 to 1976, and compiled originally in book form in 1978.
Trillin giggles and regales with travel and food memories, searching out the best each region offers—from barbecued mutton in Kentucky (as a flimsy excuse to seek out illegal country hams in a town called Horse Cave) or, pre-Federal Express, air freighting crawfish pies from New Orleans to Manhattan—all with his beloved wife playing the straight gal to his food-obsessed clown bent on crazy culinary adventures. The musings themselves are entertaining—especially if you would gladly spend the better part of your vacation sussing out the perfect taco while your wife lays on the beach—or, in Trillin’s case, obsessing over dinner on Martinique, then gently cajoling his wife from the beach with the phrase that became the book’s title, “Alice, let’s eat.”
The book has aged well and, with the sharp focus of hindsight, is at times interestingly prophetic. He does gas a bit regarding environmentalists “going on about our dependence on electricity” and “mad-dog” vegetarian schoolmates corrupting his children, which can sound a bit provincial taken out of context, but the barbs are in good spirited jest. By far the most compelling portions of the book are the pearls that lie in the food yearnings and descriptions. Trillin then uses these stops to make wry comment on the state of the culinary union.
There is one soliloquy regarding the diligence and passion needed to make great fried chicken and mourning joints long (even in 1975) closed. The author then half-jokingly chides what he calls the “vertical integration of the chicken industry by which one mass producer controls everything from hatching to marketing, keeping strict control on tastelessness.”
In another chapter he makes augury observations of the burgeoning ubiquity of fast food outlets and subsequently coins its opposite, Slow Food, (the name now taken by an organization founded in 1989 to preserve cultural cuisines throughout the world). Likewise, his reference to “franchisers and décor mongers” beating the culinary landscape into one homogenized lump of Super Americas serving flat pop in paper cups coast to coast seems strangely apropos.
Not to let such matters become the too-heavy anchor, Trillin’s trademark gentle humor buoys such gloomy and misty nostalgia. In fact, it is now known that his wife, who passed away in 2001, was gravely ill during the writing period for these essays, yet nowhere is there a trace of bitterness—perhaps that is the real joy of reading Calvin Trillin. Perhaps knowing that makes the best line from the book, “Thank God for capacity.”
I first heard of Michel Richard in 1994 when a job candidate listed on his résumé that he worked at Citrus in Los Angeles. The pastry chef saw that, kicked and squealed and commanded that this guy get hired immediately. And Joan Ida wasn’t usually prone to histrionics. The guy, Brian, did get hired and was great. He worked hard and spoke reverently of his chef, Michel Richard, and all of the great things they made at Citrus. He showed us how to roll up tuna pieces in plastic wrap and lightly poach them so the proteins bound together, turning it into one piece again. Then we would roll them in sesame seeds and sear them for an appetizer. Before that, it would have been a staff meal or the bin. That was just the beginning. Over the convening years, I have amassed a pantheon of cooking heroes, but Michel Richard is special—he was the first. Now I get to interview him. Let’s just say that I was enthused.
The phone rings, I look at the telltale 202 area code. I know who it is. I hit “answer” and mutedly say hello in a little boy sotto voce. A big, Brittany-accented voice on the other end of the line says, “Hall oh! Thees is Me-Shell Ree-Shard.” My mind goes fuzzy and I get goose bumps. I know that I am supposed to say something but I don’t. I am star struck. I feel a little panic in my throat. Now, not only do I need to say something, I need to say something clever. Instead, I remember my friend telling how, as a child, he shook hands with the Pope and it was as if he had stuck his finger in a light socket. A cartoon image pops into my head of being “electrocuted” with one of those joy buzzers you ordered from the ads in the back of comic books. “Earn Extra Money Selling Grit!” Even as a dreamy 10-year old whacked out on Kool-Aid and the Fantastic Four wasn’t gullible enough to fall for that one. I can still see poor Bobby Algers trying to peddle those at the hardware store. I did order a chameleon though, and who, by the way, came up with the name Joy Buzzer? Joy buzzers neither bring joy nor buzz.
I realize now I have yet to reply, the phone useless in my hand. Here I am, talking to the best chef in America! Except I am not talking, I am thrilled speechless. I take a deep breath. My mouth opens and the sweet little pearl that pops out is, “Thank you.” There is a slight pause and that French-inflected voice laughs and says, “No, no, thank you!” Clearly I am not used to talking to my heroes. Out loud anyway.
Michel Richard came to America in 1975 as a pastry chef for the famed Lenotre, migrated from New York to California via Santa Fe and transformed himself from talented pastry chef to the talk of tinsel town. His first restaurant, Citrus, opened in 1987 to rave reviews. Ruth Reichl, then the food critic for Los Angeles Times wrote that, “… (Citrus) has captured the city’s imagination.”
Michel Richard was The Godfather of New American Cuisine. Chefs everywhere copied his French-meets-California cooking. He was also the proto-celebrity chef; by 1993 he wrote a cookbook and operated nine restaurants on both coasts and in Tokyo. Then Mr. Richard made some unexpected moves. He started closing his restaurants. He said that he was not happy, that he did not want to be an entrepreneur; he wanted to be a chef. He scaled back and chose Washington D.C. as his city and Michel Richard Citronelle as his home.
More than ten years later, the world has changed. There are chef-run empires spanning continents, reality television shows about or hosted by chefs, and an entire cable channel devoted to all things culinary. Richard says that he has nothing against the Food Network or its stars and underscores this by stating, “Today, (compared to 1987) you can now get much better ingredients, and people everywhere are more aware and open to the experience that a place like Citronelle offers. And the quality and commitment of chefs in America and Japan now is incredible. This is exciting.”
He sees his niche as being “a man who loves to please his guests.” If the James Beard Foundation Awards are any indication of that mantra’s success, then 2007 certainly is a red-letter year for Chef Richard. Not only was he was awarded the top prize of all—Outstanding Chef in America—but the restaurant, Michelle Richard Citronelle, won Outstanding Wine Service (along with sommelier, Mark Slater).
I inquire about this and he demurs, “Just lucky this year.” Then he giggles a little and says, “Maybe because I am so old.” (He has been nominated five times and is nearing 60). When asked why he is gaining more notoriety and collecting accolades when other chefs his age are selling pizzas in airports or writing memoirs of the glory days, he enthuses, “To me, the kitchen is like magic. It makes me happy. It is my life.” I ask about the impact that his exceptionally beautiful and inspired cookbook, “Happy in the Kitchen,” has had, and he agrees that it certainly helps bring new eyes to his restaurants.
But why wait 14 years for another book? Richard admitted that the first one did not sell well because it was not the best concept and was poorly promoted, so he shied away from another. Then he became envious of his friend Thomas Keller’s “French Laundry” book, and called the publisher, Artisan Books. His lobbying was unsuccessful until he appeared on the cover of Gourmet Magazine in October 2004. “They became…more interested,” he said with no hint of irony. I could almost hear the smile cracking.
And what a book it is. Even a cursory look at “Happy in the Kitchen” will tell you that this is a serious cookbook filled with clever and inventive cooking techniques to delight both the professional and amateur chef. It is laid out beautifully, and the recipes are not truncated with missing steps or ingredients—going so far as to add a kind addendum on a slip of paper inserted on page 151 stating that the tuna recipe “should use one and a half pounds of tuna, not one half as stated in the recipe.”
Many of the more unusual techniques, for example dicing potatoes on a Japanese mandolin, are illustrated with step-by-step photographs. Others give instructions for mimicking high-end restaurant trends (like sous vide cooking using plastic wrap and a meat thermometer) to great effect. Richard told me that his inspiration comes “from everywhere,” but that he wanted recipes simple enough to make at home but interesting enough to inspire other chefs. It took seven months and five trips to Napa where the recipes were tested, styled and shot. He made 20-plus recipes for each section, then picked the items he like best. Interestingly, he told me he created each one alone (with an assistant to transcribe) because, as he put it, “your wife drinks the wine and you do the cooking, right? So you have to be able to make the recipes with two hands only.”
“And,” I add, “a lot of plastic wrap.” Finally, something witty.
For the next hour we talk and I ask questions and I listen and I learn. He tells me not to be so afraid of failing, try using conjac and vegetable jus instead of stocks and not to simmer mushrooms for so long—they should taste like mushrooms, not wine and stock, that flavor is more important than creativity, to let the process of cooking entrance you, go to the markets everyday like in France, treat the kitchen like a beautiful woman, believe that anything is possible, never work for a bad chef or for the money only. I realize that I am no longer nervous. Just happy and inspired and I want to go into the kitchen and cook clever inventive food, I want to make food that is beautiful, food that tastes as sweet as the dew on the vine, food that inspires. Food that inspires like Michel Richard inspires me.
Steven Brown wants to make the best hamburgers in America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org