It was April 1960. Wriggling through my aquatic cocoon I entered the world on the threshold of the New Frontier. JFK proclaimed it so at the DNC in Los Angeles two months later. America, and the world remembers and yearns for his leadership. He challenged us; his words resonate 60 years later.
“We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier—the frontier of the 1960s, the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats. Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.”
After winning the presidency in the closest election since 1916, he inspired America. Delivering the greatest inaugural speech in our history. His bold statement rings truer today than it did on January 20, 1961. “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”
The Cold war was heating up overseas while civil rights toiled on in the homeland. Yet, JFK was the beacon America needed. He beamed optimism, vigor, and hope. Not just for Americans, but the world. Along with his wife, First Lady Jacqueline they brought an unparalleled sophistication, grace, and class to the White House. They also introduced haute cuisine by hiring French Chef René Verdon. Verdon had immigrated to the US from France in 1958. While working at La Caravelle in NYC, he was offered the White House Chef job by the First Lady. His salary was $10K a year including room and board. Let that simmer for a moment. A French immigrant comes to America, and in less than 3 years becomes the Executive Chef for the Leader of the Free World. That is just one of millions of reasons that makes America great.
JFK had his warts and pitfalls, womanizing, sending troops to Vietnam to fight a jungle war against an unseen enemy, the Bay of Pigs disaster. But he was adamant on civil rights, he desired to lift impoverished nations via Peace Corps. He stood up and stared down Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis when it seemed certain we were heading for nuclear annihilation. His greatest achievement was challenging US. He summoned the citizenry of this nation, to put a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth before the end of the decade. Sadly, JFK never witnessed the fruition of his vision. But on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong took that small step for man along with a giant leap for mankind. America was inseparably united, as the world watched in awe.
The decade ended with a bang as the counterculture gathered at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm for Woodstock. Half a million strong attended this Aquarian event. The power to the people philosophy was a watershed moment demonstrating radical social change through peaceful coexistence by all attendees. They shared, food, beverage, shelter, and drugs, all with the absence of any forms of authority.
Speaking of food, the big hits of sixties were, onion dip, which the must have ingredient was Lipton Onion Soup mix. Seriously easy, two ingredients, one envelope of onion soup mix and 16 ounces of sour cream, and poof, you were a kitchen goddess. The omnipresent Jell-O mold. This turned every homemaker into an at home Garde Manger Chef. Armed with a box of Jell-O and a palette of apples to zucchini these post June Cleaver moms got their technicolor game on. Multi-layers of fruits and veggies were artistically placed into a mold which became that jiggly wiggly astonishing centerpiece. We could not get enough of that colored collagen concoction. Encasing desserts and salads in gelatin became a bona fide trend. Swedish meatballs, Chicken à la King, Beef Bourguignon fancied up our dinner table. In large part thanks to the Grand Dame of Cuisine, Julia Child. She demystified French Cuisine and Graham Kerr galloped into our living rooms. These two were pivotal influences in what would become the birth of the American Chef. For more on this, I encourage you to read, Chefs, Drugs and Rock & Roll by Andrew Friedman. America was hooked on fondue too. While it was introduced earlier than the sixties, it jumped to popularity in this decade. There was no Williams Sonoma or Sur La Table. Folks had to shop the houseware department of K Mart or Sears Roebuck to purchase a fondue pot.
The Sixties were like no other decade America had experienced. The assassination of JFK caught live on the Zapruder film. Five years later MLK was murdered in Memphis and two months later RFK was slain in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. There were scores of race riots. Dehumanizing and violent acts with fire hoses, canine units and weapons used against the protesters.
If the Sixties were the peace and love decade, the we decade, the Seventies were the me decade. It started off on a sad note, for the UK and the world. In April of 1970, those long-haired lads from Liverpool, the Beatles, broke up. Then, horrifically on May 4th four students innocently walking to and from class on the campus of Kent State University were gunned down. Murdered in cold blood by Ohio National Guardsman who were called in by then Governor Rhodes to quell an antiwar protest. That sparked the Neil Young to write Ohio, becoming the anthem for a generation. Young directly called out Nixon in the song. That was unheard of in that era, in fact David Crosby said it was the bravest thing he had ever seen. The Vietnam War waged on, made all too real on the 6:00 evening news. The revolution was being televised in America’s living rooms from a tiny Asian nation 8,000 miles away. America entered Vietnam in 1959 in an advisory role with just under 1,000 military advisors. It escalated in 1963 to 16,000 advisors. By 1964 it increased to 23,000. Later that year we deployed 184,000 combat troops.
While napalm incinerated grass huts to nothingness, in America men were fleeing to Canada to avoid the draft as babes burned their bras in the Womens Lib Movement. The unpopular war ended in 1973 which is when Nixon found himself in the war of his life. Tricky Dick and his band of dirty doers decided to break in the DNC HQ at the Watergate Hotel. It did not end well. On August 9, 1974, Nixon resigned in disgrace. Among other 70’s highlights, Houston had a problem, Earth Day was created, people had rocks as pets and would display their mood with a ring. Rubik had a cube, rock royalty died as the King succumbed on his throne. The King is gone, but he’s not forgotten, long live the King.
Without question one of the biggest contributions to American food, specifically California Cuisine was the opening of Chez Panisse in Berkley in 1971. Alice Waters, a Jersey girl took that ride to the Cali side. Her Garden State roots and travels to Europe prompted her to open a restaurant which at its core would be a hospitality hang out. It started out as a gathering place for friends. The concept was simple. Ingredients first, technique second. That is truly where it starts, with ingredients. She built a network of farmers, fishermen, ranchers, and artisan producers to source the freshest possible ingredients. Farm to table isn’t anything new, not now, not in 1971, not ever. It has been around since there were farmers and people cooking. The term is simply overused and overblown. Please stop. I grew up in the Heartland, we grew our own vegetables, shopped farmers markets for local produce. Went to Polansky’s Meat Market for beef, pork, and poultry. Family owned and operated since 1940 and still open today. The trip to the grocery store was ancillary.
In 1974 I began my career in the culinary arts. Working at McGarvey’s Nautical Restaurant in Vermilion, OH. I cut my teeth there learning under one of the best in the business. Eddie Solomon, and old school restaurateur. Hospitality ran through his blood. I have an endless debt of gratitude to Cap’n Eddie as he was known. He taught me the importance of service. That it is an honorable profession, along with, the answer is yes, what’s the question? Just two of the countless lessons I learned from the Cap’n.
Disco ruled, Disco Duck, disco sucks, the punks revolted. Frampton came alive. The Boss on the cover of Time and Newsweek in the same week. Every chick had Farrah hair, and every dude wanted Farrah. White guys wanted afros, they got perms, I was one of them. Platform shoes, bell bottoms, leisure suits, hot pants, miniskirts, maxi skirts, halter tops and hip huggers. Jesus Christ became a Superstar, long after John Lennon remarked the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. John, who in the world do you think you are?
We went to a galaxy far far away and fell in love with a princess, a Wookie, two droids and went for a ride in Millennium Falcon well before Y2K. Mickey went to Orlando and the Miami Dolphins were undefeated. Remember Pong? Music became mobile thanks to Sony Walkman. The ERA was passed too, what, no Walkwoman? Were you a Beta or VHS? Still afraid to swim in the ocean. Thank you Jaws, the first summer blockbuster. Produced for $8M, it took in $7M on its first weekend. They needed a bigger boat to haul away all the profit. In 1978, I along with Rod, my best friend from kindergarten joined the Navy. We agree, it was the best thing we ever did. My patriotism escalated on November 4, 1979 as Iranian radicals stormed the US Embassy kidnapping 52 American diplomats and citizens holding them hostage for 444 days.
Quiche became the rage in the seventies, part Julia, part Joy of Cooking, which was the first cookbook I bought. Betty Crocker created Hamburger Helper, bless her heart. A 7-ounce box of processed goodness. Comprised of elbow macaroni, dehydrated sauce, and seasoning packet. Home cooks browned ground beef, added seasoning and sauce mix, pasta, H20 and away we go. Voilà, 30-minute meal, ala Rachel Ray, oops, wrong decade. Hamburger Helper was a hit, followed by its cousin’s tuna and chicken. There are now more variations of Hamburger Helper than Heinz has varieties. Fondue was holding on strong, stretching into the seventies like a strand of leftover mozzarella that you can’t shake not matter how hard you shimmy. Pasta Primavera burst on the scene like daffodils. Rightfully so, primavera means spring. Created at the famed NYC restaurant Le Cirque, and its ringmaster Sirio Maccioni, RIP. It was nothing more than tagliatelle, butter, cream, cheese, and fresh seasonal veggies. Hardly a culinary stroke of genius, the Italians have been eating that for centuries. Regardless, it won the hearts, minds, and bellies of the masses. In kitchens across America it brought a level of sophistication to the home cook, the oh la la factor when it was presented.
Tex-Mex slowly rolled onto the scene. Yet the original TexMex, no hyphen was the Texas Mexico Railroad riding the rails in the 1870’s. Mariano Martinez invented the frozen margarita, and this ice-cold cocktail was the reason people flocked to Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants. The burrito took a back seat to the booze. On May 11, 1971 with a repurposed soft service ice cream machine. Martinez lifted the lever. A convolution of green sorbet, brain freezing cold swirled its way to the salted brim. The tequila bit like a rattler. Happy hour, and hangovers were forever changed. That original frozen margarita machine is on display at the Smithsonian.
Another boozy addition was Black Forest cake. There was nothing new about this chocolate cherry confection from Germany. It dates to the 16th Century. But it had its heyday in the 70’s. Personally it’s one of my favs. Chocolate cake saturated with cherry brandy, layered with cherries, and whipped cream, what’s not to like? Carrot cake sprouted out of nowhere with its cream cheese icing and tons of sugar. People thought they were eating a healthy dessert because it had carrots in it, uh, what’s up Doc?
Alongside the Jell-O mold, still holding its own, appeared the cheese ball, and its evil twin, the cheese log. We continued our food fetish with molded food and obsessed over the mass of rounded fermented milk covered in nuts. Talk about cheesy. What in the fromage were we thinking? Where is Pete Schweddy when you need him? Travel to Hawaii was a dream vacation and popular to many. Travelers returning to the mainland brought the Aloha spirit and cuisine back with them. We were pumped for everything pineapple. Including a crazy upside-down cake dotted with maraschino cherries. The war still wages on about pineapple on pizza. I say yes, but hey, you do what tickles your taste buds. The Hawaiian spirit came into our culture via Don Ho, Elvis, and don’t forget Five-O, everybody was saying “Book em Danno”
February 1980, Lake Placid, NY, do you believe in miracles? The USA Hockey Team did. Our collegiate amateur blades men outskated the heavily favored professional Russkis. This was the peak of the red-hot cold war and the underdog Yanks pulled off 4-3 upset over the USSR who had won gold in the last 4 Olympics. The win captured the hearts of us all and remains one of the greatest stories in Olympic history.
For the summer games, the Soviet Union prepared to play host on the world stage for the XXII Olympiad. Due to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan President Jimmy Carter decided to sit this one out. Along with 64 other countries, America boycotted the games, including China. I found that shocking given they are a communist nation. I remember feeling angry at the decision by Carter and empathy for the athletes who trained for years to compete at the highest level for Olympic glory representing their motherland. Four decades later, I remain empathic and reflect, a shoddy decision by the president to politicize the Olympics, prohibiting and dishonoring dedicated athletes from competing.
That peanut farmer from Plains lost to Reagan. I like Carter, he is a great man, but not the greatest president. But there was a genuineness and sincerity in his heart. He is to be commended for his work to achieve peace in the Middle East. He held talks with Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat for 12 days of secret negotiations at Camp David. That is simply unheard of, then, or now. He attempted to utilize human rights as a diplomacy tool for international policy but had little success. As a Naval Academy graduate and member of the submarine service, he was one of the more intelligent occupants of the Oval Office.
In a tit for tat, General Secretary of the Communist Party, Konstantin Cherneko decided to boycott the XXIII Olympiad in Los Angeles. Again, a damn shame a head of state would play politics with these goodwill games, especially given their ancient history, dating back to 776 BC.
CNN was birthed by Captain Outrageous, Ted Turner. The Mouth of the South is responsible for a global news network and started the progression of media consolidation. Ronnie Ray-Gun took the oath to become the 40th POTUS on January 20, 1981. Coincidently, 56 Americans held in captivity in Iran for 444 days were released on the same day. Just minutes after Reagan had been inaugurated. As the first black late-night talk show host Arsenio Hall would say, “Things that you go hmmmm.” Personally, I’m sickened if there was a back room deal to release our brothers and sisters on inauguration day to make the president elect look good. Did you want your MTV? What was the first video ever played on the network? Bonus points if you name all the original VJ’s? For all those future gamers, Pac Man was born, no not Manny Pacquiao, that little yellow chomping sphere. Followed by Miss Pac Man. Manny was born in 1978, making him two years older than the yellow gobbler.
The eighties weren’t all fun and games. In 1981, America saw the first outbreak of HIV/AIDS. It exploded into our world creating hysteria toward gays, however, just as we battle COVID 19, a virus does not discriminate. Reagan did not address this national health crises publicly until 1985. Rock Hudson, the iconic actor died from complications of HIV/AIDS. Being close friends with the Reagans, Hudson contacted them for help. But Nancy Reagan just said no. As CeeLo Green would say, “Ain’t that some shit.” We wrapped ourselves in the AIDS Quilt. A colossal living memorial to those who succumbed from AIDS related causes. Tipping the scale at 56 tons, the quilt is the largest display of community folk art in the world. Over one million people are HIV positive in America, including Magic Johnson and Charlie Sheen. Sad it takes a person of fame and fortune to get infected before things are taken seriously. Regarding COVID19, Tom Hanks, Chris Cuomo, Prince Charles, Pink, Placido Domingo, Andy Cohen, Nick Saben, POTUS, FLOTUS and Baron too have become infected. While we are over 215K deaths in America, one death that hit home was Floyd Cardoz. Winner of Top Chef Masters Season III and Chef Owner of Tabla in NYC. It hurts just writing this. Such a wonderful man who hungered to serve and make people happy.
Compact Discs hit the market, Hooters opened its first breastaurant and Vanessa “TheUndressa” Williams became the first women of color to win the Miss America Pageant. But a magazine posted some nude modeling photos thus tainting her tiara. She resigned, laying down her crown amidst pressure from the Miss America Organization. Huey Lewis and his News wanted a new drug. They got it, crack. It took over like Gordon Gecko on greed. As did famine in Ethiopia, killing over one million people. The eighties were disastrous. The Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India leaking toxic gas killing over 15K. Later that same year, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her own bodyguards. Anwar Sadat was brutally slaughtered in a brazen attack during the annual victory parade held in Cairo to celebrate Egypt’s crossing of the Suez Canal. Killing 11 other officials and wounding 28 others.
Chernobyl melted like butter on a red-hot skillet. Radioactivity rained over the EU resulting in 4,000 cancer related deaths and counting while 600,000 were exposed to radiation. It is now deemed safe and opened as a nuclear ghost town, I will pass. Reagan stood at the border of East & West Germany and challenged Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall.” So why in God’s name is 45 hell-bent on building one here?
Did you know Mother Earth is still licking her wounds from the Exxon Valdez? That was 10.8 million gallons of crude defecating the pristine glacial gorgeousness of Alaska. Polluting hundreds of miles of untouched shoreline. This personally stings. I lived there, in what the locals call the Great Land. The black stain that soaked the snowy spotless shore was the worst oil spill worldwide in terms of environmental damage. Prince William Sound is where the Valdez ran aground. It is remote, accessible only by boat, plane, or helicopter. Thus, compounding the cleanup efforts.
There were droughts too, to the tune of 17,000 dead and $60B in damage. We watched with pride then gasped when giant plumes of smoke swirled in the sky as the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff killing 7 of America’s best and brightest. A crack pot named Chapman killed the peacenik Lennon. Eyes were fixated on Dallas. Who shot J.R.? Don’t know, didn’t care, but 83M people in the US and 350M worldwide tuned in. I liked Larry Hagman on I Dream of Jeannie. He was the affable astronaut, not the amoral oil baron. George H.W. Bush is sworn in as 41, marking three straight victories for the GOP. One man makes a difference capturing the world’s attention. With only courage as his weapon he brings a row of tanks to a halt in Tiananmen Square.
The eighties brought us goat cheese a gazillion times over. Thank you Laurel Chenel, you were the first, my last, my everything. Oh, would you like some raspberry vinaigrette on your arugula, beet, and walnut salad? We are making it by the tankerful. If you’re tired of raspberry puree, the kind you find at the Whole Foods store. Try poppy seed vinaigrette the other dressing of the decade. May I offer you some spinach dip in a pumpernickel bread bowl? This was pre-carb gluten free days. Sun dried tomatoes were everywhere, sold dry or packed in oil. Out with Jell-O molds, in with Pudding Pops. Sushi hit with the force of a tsunami. Even folks in land locked Kanas were hooked. Forever changing the dining scene for landlubbers. Drowning the notion that the only seafood in town was Red Lobster. Comfort food blanketed us like LL Bean woolens on a wintery Vermont night. Meatloaf and mash, fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, sloppy joes, mac & cheese a hundred ways along with creative chowders. Next level lasagnas enjoyed their height of success. Let’s not forget, or shall we, free range chicken. Again, I refer to my Midwest upbringing. There were no other birds but yard birds. We didn’t call it free range, we called them dinner.
Italian restaurant or not, everyone and their Godfather was serving tiramisu. Meaning pick me up in Italian, from the caffeinated combo of cocoa and coffee. Lady fingers soaked in java, creamy mascarpone, a healthy shot of rum, beaten egg yolks to a voluminous state, sugar, heavy cream, a dusting of cocoa powder. Damn, just rub that all over me and call it a day. I will absorb it, slowly, into my bloodstream thereby blessing my entire being with this divine dessert. I’d change the name from tiramisu to transcendent. When properly prepared, that’s exactly what this heavenly delicacy is. Do we not want to feel extreme satisfaction? To go beyond the range of a normal human physical experience. Food is the transport and tiramisu is the Rolls Royce of desserts. Hand crafted, with the finest materials, in the hands of artisans, it truly is one of the world’s greatest sweets. Chocolate decadence and lava cake erupted. Along with crème brulee. Brought to America via Le Cirque by none other than my friend, Dieter Schorner, RIP you beautiful soul. A book of titled The Pope of Pastry detailing this extraordinary man’s life is in the works by Ray Mulvey. Watch for it, a must-read for any dessert lover, or for those whose appreciate a life well lived. Overcoming obstacles, rising to the top and all the while humble as a monk with an omnipresent twinkle in his eye. Glimmering, Dieter was a human nonpareil. Those shimmering beaded metallic accents speckled over cakes. From the French translation, it means without equal. That is exactly who Dieter Schorner was. The crème brulee trio burned bright for 15 minutes. A presentation of 3 petit ramekins, each a different flavored custard and obligatory caramelized crust.
The 80’s was blowing up creatively. It was the decade of huge restaurants and dinner as theater. Some compared Manhattan to ancient Rome, debauchery, decadence, and drunkenness. Servers wore custom designed uniforms and Chef Wear was born. Freeing American chefs forever from their houndstooth pants and broadcloth coats. Thank you, Rochelle Huppin. Monstrosity warehouses converted into enormous eateries such as Café Seiyoken, America, and Bar Lui, which stretched the width of the block from Broadway to Mercer St. These rambunctious restaurants were grandiose. Right down to their swollen menus, so large in content you were reading a gastronomic short story.
A young buck named Danny Meyer left his native Missouri and opened Gramercy Tavern. The boy from the Show Me State is still showing New Yorkers, and the nation how it’s done as the CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group. Union Square Café, his first restaurant opened in 1985, is still standing today churning out progressive cuisine. Alfred Portale at the Gotham Bar and Grill was dazzling diners with his mile-high food and still is. The man is a culinary architect. No one gets higher than Alfred. If they do, they are smoking herb not chopping it. We went crazy for penne with vodka sauce. Please, pour my glacier cold vodka in a martini glass and hold the pasta.
The Cadillac Bar in Houston opened its sister in Chelsea. A two story 22,000 square foot restaurant. It could sit 650 with room to saddle up at the bar for 300. Serving up sizzling fajitas, shots, and slammers. Fizzy bumps of tequila effervescent with Seven-Up. They were served by Shooters, yep, rhymes with hooters. These hotties were selling shots faster than Speedy Gonzalez. Sporting a black leather bandolier of shot glasses crisscrossing their sombrero sized casabas. With bottles holstered as six shooters, they were armed and dangerous. These shot slinging sweeties were cocked, locked, and loaded. A slam of the shot glass to combust the agave and soda. An ear-piercing scream of Arrrrriiiba, and the liquid courage passed down the gullet of a twenty something who became so borracho they would be carried out by his amigos. They burned through 70 cases of tequila a week, that’s 195 gallons, Ay Caramba! Food was hardly the reason to go. It was the biggest meat market east of the Rio Grande.
Coming from far across the pond, Gilbert LeCoze and sister Maguy arrived from Brittany and opened their seafood sanctuary, Le Bernadin. These siblings singlehandedly sanctified seafood and service. Stimulating gourmands galivanting the gastronomic galaxy. Now, with Eric Ripert at the helm, it remains one of the greatest seafood restaurants in the world. Jerimiah Tower an East Coast blue blood Harvard graduate with a master’s in architecture, with no culinary training got a job at Chez Panisse. He became a driving force there, and a partner with Waters. He left over philosophical and operational disagreements. He opened Stars in San Francisco. It was wildly successful, one of the top grossing restaurants in the city by the bay. He opened two more Stars outposts in Northern Cal and one in Singapore and the Philippines too. Waters, Wolfgang, and Towers were the triumvirate of California Cuisine.
A crazy Austrian with an accent thicker than peanut butter started putting caviar on pizza at Spago on Sunset Strip. He turned the dining world on its ear. Wolfgang Puck is the top toque of an empire with over 20 fine dining restaurants, premium catering services, more than 80 Wolfgang Puck Express operations. Kitchen and food merchandise, including cookbooks, canned & frozen foods, equipment, and coffee products. He is the official caterer for the Academy Awards Governors Ball. Puck is just one reason of millions that make America great. Another incredible immigrant success story, from France, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, chef owner of 41 restaurants spanning the globe from America, Bahamas, Brazil, China, UK, France, French West Indies, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, and Singapore. JGV is an influencer, not only with his various styles of cuisine, French, steak house, Asian, vegetarian, seafood, but also in the stunning and meticulous design of his restaurants. He did not blaze the trail. He ignited it, an inferno of passion, creativity, knowledge, and ambition. Living proof that anything is possible in America, and hence the world once you make it here. Drew Nieporent and David Bouley brought fancy French food downtown with downtown prices opening Montrachet in Tribeca and creating a gateway for other restaurants to follow. We, American chefs were beginning to beat the French at their own game. In the words of that crooner from Hoboken, I did it my way. Opening Tribeca Grill and Nobu, Nieporent is one of the most successful and influential restaurateurs in America. Chefs like Larry Forgione, Charlie Palmer and David Burke, while trained in classic French, forged new paths with American Regional Cuisine, and all served as head chef at the illustrious River Café, the vanguard for progressive American cuisine.
Southwestern cuisine was birthed too, thanks to Mark Miller, a Chez Panisse alum, Dean Fearing the Father of Southwest Cuisine and Stephan Pyles. They are the Three Amigos of Chili. Toasting, roasting, grinding, smoking, soaking, drying, frying everything from arbol to puya. Building layers of flavor deep as the Grand Canyon, rustic as a chuckwagon, piercing like a cacti and bright as a Western sunset. These culinary brothers took the three sisters and adopted them as their own. Paving the way for an intensely rich, vibrant, and authentic regional cuisine.
Talk about authenticity, was there anybody more legit than Paul Prudhomme? He was the master blackener. Had his own spice line, several cookbooks, and was the first American Chef at Commanders Palace. Consider that restaurant opened in 1893, it took nearly a century for an American to become the Exec Chef. Commanders became a must stop restaurant in NOLA and a world class destination under his leadership. Chef Paul Prudhomme trademarked Turducken and we were all over it like a Cajun on crawfish.
He was the guru of gumbo, the king of crawdaddies, the emir of etouffee. Cooks stand on his broad shoulders absorbing his humility, kindness, generosity, and knowledge. We embrace his cauldron size spirit wafting away in the heavens. We are better cooks because of Chef Paul. Just as Louis Armstrong put jazz and NOLA on the map. Brother Paul put Cajun Creole on that spot right next to Louis. Two astounding ambassadors, masters of the craft who pushed boundaries, remained modest, and made us smile. They filled our hearts, and bellies with joy.
The 80’s was the anything goes decade with food. We were crazy cooks, experimenting. We didn’t have rules like the French, whom Escoffier our spiritual granddaddy dictated. Americans don’t know what it means to start working in a kitchen as a dishwasher at age 10 with double duty as a receiver. Checking in the raw ingredients, identifying the quality and freshness of each item. Then becoming a prep cook, a line cook, a saucier, a chef de partie, a sous chef. With the goal to become a chef of your own establishment, ideally owning a duplex. The first floor was the restaurant and the second floor served as the chef’s residence.
In Europe chefs are revered, like aristocracy. There is a reason Escoffier is referred to as the King of Chefs and the Chef of Kings. The world view of American food for decades was hot dogs, hamburgers, McDonalds, and Pizza Hut. We, the men, and women in white blew up that Euro notion of culinary royalty. We took our cue from our own King, Elvis. We rocked that book of French rules and got all shook up. Returned to sender in search of something new, something unique, and unequivocally American. We all had a burning love to do it our way. Sure, culinary schools taught classic cuisine, or one worked in the Le or La restaurants. Le Cirque, La Cote Basque, Le Bec Fin, or Le Francais to learn classic French cuisine. Or daring souls went to the source. To France working with the greats. Bocuse, Trogrois, Verge, Ducasse, Robuchon, Guérard, and work for free. American chefs are not royalty, but they are rock stars. They party like them too. Chefs became notorious, more than B.I.G. himself. There was no bigger American chef than Charlie Trotter, RIP. His namesake restaurant in the Windy City was serving mind blowing multi course meals for 25 years. His maniacal obsession with quality, ingredients and the pursuit of excellence put Chicago on the map, America on notice, and became world renowned. The destination for global gourmands.
Like a lot of great chefs, Charlie was self-taught. There are many who didn’t go to culinary school or didn’t go to France. People like me, who had a keen sense of cooking from an early age. My first teachers were my mother and grandmothers. Both grandmas were from the old country, Italy, and Hungary. They came to America with little material goods, even less money. They were the living precursor to the lottery ad campaign. All they had was a dollar and a dream. What they, and most immigrants brought to the land of opportunity, besides a few clothes, photos, and mementos of a past life were cooking implements and their cuisine. Recorded in their native language on a soiled worn notebook. Some edges may have singed getting too close to the flame. Coffee stained as their morning cup spilled while planning that evenings meal. Weathered, tattered, and torn their ragtag cookbook was only second to the family Bible. One supplied spiritual glue, the other, the adhesive of sustenance. Passed down from generation to generation. Departing a war-torn land of castles, chateaus, a caste system, a failed feudalism, dictatorships, or communist regimes. Onto a nation where big dreams and hard work paid off for a better life. A life where in the land of opportunity the only limit is your imagination. Welcomed by Liberty’s light, they fled to America. Each soul a unique story. Collectively representing millions of narratives that built this country and made it great.
Our moms, grand moms, and great grannies are the guardians of gastronomy. From matzoh ball to meatballs, pierogi to pancit, tortilla to tzatziki, cous cous to coulibiac, baba ghanoush to baklava, from pozole to paprikash. Be they Michelin starred, mom & pop shops, street vendors, butchers, bakers, or shish kebab makers. Here in rests the secret ingredient that separates American chefs from any other man or women in white. This special inclusivity of immigrants that came here wave after wave is still rippling. My wife Doti is one. She hails from an archipelago of 7,641 islands, better known as the Philippines.
The matriarchs were the genius and the genesis of the incubation period that lead to the explosion of American Cuisine and the meteoric rise of the American chef. This great big melting pot known as America, is simply not a country, but a country of countries. We are home to the UN, a governing body of 193 nations. This God blessed land has inhabitants from every one of those nations. I know of no other nation that can claim that fact. Every immigrant was expected to assimilate in the American Way. Just what is that way? Along the way we went from melting pot to salad bowl. No longer an amalgamation of nations, ethnicities seek to maintain their identity while still being American. Hence the salad bowl. These individual cultures, characteristics, and cuisines contribute to the amber waves bringing their unique flavor to the fruited plain.
The last decade of the 20th Century reunited Germany from 45 years of separation. Nelson Mandela became the President of South Africa after being incarcerated for 27 years. President Bush built a coalition of the willing and drove Iraq out of Kuwait in a matter of days. A resounding victory and display of a united front against dictators and global terrorism. There is strength in numbers and our relationships with our allies needs to be protected for what is just and right in the world. Rodney King was beaten worse than an animal. The police were acquitted. LA burned for three days. Can’t we all just get along? The World Trade Tower was bombed by a blind sheik.
After a nearly a two-month standoff with federal agents the Branch Davidian Compound ignited like a toothpick depot. Lorena Bobbitt became every women’s superhero, and the information superhighway was well under construction. Cell phones were cumbersome as a WWII walkie-talkie. Johnnie Cochran rapped, if the glove don’t fit, you must acquit, and the Juice flowed out of the court. Beavis and Butthead entertained or enraged us. Like bleu cheese, you loved them or hated them.
Timothy McVeigh made a bomb out of fertilizer and blew up the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building killing 168 people and injuring nearly 700 more. We cloned a sheep, arrested the Unabomber, but never found JonBenet’s killer. Bubba wagged his crooked finger and declared, “I didn’t have sexual relations with that woman.” He was impeached for perjury, but not removed. The Euro made its debut, Y2K was a whole lot of nothing, and Panama got their canal back. We lost John Jr, Camelot’s sole heir. Columbine began what would become repeated school shootings shattering lives forever as the left and right fight over guns. Yet we are unable to stay centered and pass common sense gun legislation. I fully support the Second Amendment, I also believe background checks should be mandatory, have a five-day waiting period and ban assault rifles. Why does anybody need a military style weapon? You want to protect your home? A shotgun will do fine. I guarantee you, firing a 12 gauge in the general direction of an intruder will sting like a thousand Asian giant hornets. The invader will leak blood like a sieve. Just the psychological sound of a pump shotgun will stop them dead in their tracks and stain their trespassing trousers.
While the 80’s were big and bold, and the unofficial birth decade of American Cuisine. The 90’s were more refined, a settling down period. Innovation remained the driving force, refinement was its co-pilot. Following the greed decade, the grandiosity, flowerily prose on menus. The 90’s reversed engines, we became obsessed with organic. Yet there was nothing that mandated what organic really was. We soaked up the Mediterranean diet like sun worshippers in Saint-Tropez. Households were munching on Bagel Bites, Pizza Rolls and Hot Pockets. We got wrapped up in wraps, Atkins shunned carbs promoting protein. Farm to table was rolling in like a tractor full of shitfaced chefs on a hayride. Just stop with that please! Fork you with your farm to fork fabulousness. You are not doing anything new and stop thinking you are for the love of Mr. Green Jeans and all things agriculturally sacred.
Thai hit us with their exotic spiciness as scores of mom and pop Thai joints are popping up all over America. No longer on the Eastern seaboard and left coast pad Thai has noodled its way into the breadbasket. Giving an option to all those corn-fed meat and potato Midwesterners. Pacific Rim also had its place in the sun for a hot minute. Encompassing California, Hawaii, Japan, Polynesia. Roy Yamaguchi, Alan Wong, and Sam Choy were the main contributors of this movement. Common ingredients included abundant seafood, tuna, dried shrimp and shrimp paste, cuttlefish. Exotic fruits, dragon fruit, jackfruit, guava, passion fruit, and rambutan.
Fusion made its way into our bag of tricks. Those who did it, did it exceptionally well. Like Gray Kunz, RIP, Susur Lee, Ming Tsai, Masaharu Morimoto, Nobuyuki Matsuhisa Those who did not execute it well, who have not mastered the craft and understanding of ingredients created a bastard version of fusion, known as confusion. Let me be clear, there is nothing new about fusion. Fusion is as old as humankind is ancient. When armies invaded lands and established massive empires such as the British Empire, they seized the food and beverage from those conquered lands as well. Why do the Brits love tea and curry so much? Well they colonized India for 200 bloody years. Or conquering armies brought their food with them. An army travels on its stomach as Napoleon said. Seriously, what would the Brits bring to India? Bangers and mash, steak and kidney pie, figgy pudding. The Umayyad Caliphate stretched from modern day Afghanistan as far north as what is now Russia westward to Spain for which they controlled for 800 years. Known as the Moors, Latin word evolving from the “Maurus” to describe a person from the Roman province of Mauretania, in North Africa. Once the Moors defeated the Christians in Spain, two of the most important raw ingredients they brought with them was rice and saffron. No rice, no saffron, no paella, the national dish of Spain. Let there be no confusion about it.
Conquering GI’s rode into Italy in WWII. Upon entering Sicily, they discovered a green pungent herbaceous weed. Oregano tickled their nose and their fancy. It was the returning GI’s who had a hankering for the herb and in large part helped changed the American palate. Oregano was darn near unheard of before the war broke out. Now it’s as common as salt & pepper. We consume 14 million pounds of it annually making it the number one imported herb in America. From the Greek words oros (mountain) and ganos (joy), it certainly brings us a Himalayan height of happiness.
Floribbean Cuisine came on cooler than Miami Vice. A fusion of Florida and Caribbean. Snapper, pompano, conch, mahi mahi, beans and rice, goat, plantains, cilantro, rum, sugar cane, sour orange, tropical fruits especially citrus, yucca, taro, yam. The influence of Latin, African and Indian are in the mix. There was a group called the Mango Gang. Allen Susser, Norman Van Aken, Robin Hass, RIP, Douglas Rodriguez, Mark Militello, and Cindy Hutson. They were the movers and shakers of brightly flavored and sunshiny cuisine. Bold flavors, innovative marinades, salsas and sauces and wow factor eye popping presentation.
Van Aken went onto coin the term New World Cuisine. In 1992 Van Aken wanted to honor and celebrate Columbus coming to the New World. There was such untouched bounty of food to be discovered by the crew of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. While Columbus never set foot on CONUS, they set up shop on Hispaniola. Along the way, they and other explorers discovered the three sisters, corns, beans, squash. Grown together and sacred to the Indians. Avocados, blueberries, cranberries, chocolate, allspice, artichokes, turkey, chili peppers, wild rice, vanilla, sweet corn, potatoes, tomatoes all New World raw ingredients. Tomatoes, and corn, two cornerstones of Italian cuisine, tomato sauce and polenta, are born in the USA. The new world began to influence the old world with its newfound bounty. Continuing the evolution of fusion.
We all partied like it’s 1999, after all Y2K was going to send the computer world into a massive terabyte meltdown. It was Doomsday. Shutting down the information superhighway from Ashtabula to Zanzibar. But with a nod to the ultimate chick anthem, I will survive, we weathered the digital scare as we hit alt control delete and kissed Y2K goodbye. We were high on the hog for bacon, it was in everything. Including milkshakes, that’s where this pig lover draws the line. Cupcakes, we loved them as kids. Then we sexed them up, different flavors, frostings, and fillers. We were cuckoo for cupcakes especially petit ones, super cute. You know cupcakes became big time when Sprinkles opened in that posh 90210 zip code. The heart of Beverly Hills Golden Triangle just off Rodeo Drive. You need to make a lot of dough to pay that monthly nut. That’s why just one of their cupcakes is five bucks.
We got serious with smoothies, not the green kelp healthy type, but the fruit flavored variety. Smoothie franchises such as Jamba, formally Jamba Juice, Smoothie King, Planet Smoothie, Tropical Smoothie Café, just to name a few. There are at least 25 different smoothie franchise opportunities in the USA. Just an indicator how popular this ice-cold fruity beverage is.
Sliders, what’s not to love about a mini burger? They are the savory solution to cupcake cuteness. One could make the argument White Castle was the original slider. Then, those crafty American chefs amped up their angus and everything else. All sorts of sliders, pork, veggie, oyster, crab cake, tuna. What’s better than a slider? A trio washed down with your favorite craft beer at the local microbrewery. It began in the 60’s & 70’s with simple home brewing. But once the millennium arrived it became microbrew madness. It was full-fledged from coast to coast. It’s not about just making great beer. Like cuisine, it evolves and involves innovation, ingenuity, and creativity. There are over 7,000 microbrewers/craft brewers in America who sold 15.5M barrels, accounting for 8% of all beer sold. While Bud, Colt 45, PBR, and Miller have their loyal fan base. Boutique beers brewed by such favorites as Sam Adams, Dogfish, Great Lakes and Deschutes have found their niche and continue to put a dent in those banal big bland beer behemoths.
Watermelon and feta salad was everywhere, as it should be. A fabulous combo of salty, sweet and textures. The moisture laden pink melon marrying the white dry crumbly saliferous feta. Indeed, a match made in heaven. I love Castelvetrano olives from Sicily. They are fresh so no additional salt, big, green, meaty yet buttery. Add fresh chopped mint and flat leaf parsley and were talking gastrogasm. That’s a party in your mouth.
Cake pops were popping. Round balls of cake on a stick. Who knew? David Burke, among others as well as your friendly neighborhood Starbucks. Like its cupcake cousin, it was cuteness overload. A one bite cake ball with endless possibilities of flavors and toppings smashed the old saying, you can’t have your cake and eat it too, or two or three. Roasted beet and goat cheese was on every frekin menu in town. Like the stain of the crimson root it was inescapable. Super-Size Me, Morgan Spurlock’s documentary film put the kibosh on Mickey D’s enlargement menus. So put that in your happy meal and smoke it! Walmart jumps on the organic bandwagon and charges just 10% more than conventional grown produce. Annual sales for organic produce in the USA is over $50B! In 2007 Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma hits the shelves. Want to know what Big Agri and the food industry are doing? Read this book, it will wake you up and scare you senseless, as it should. The word locavore was born from this publication. The grain rage began, we still can’t get enough. Andeans have been eating quinoa for millennia, now its chic, and chic isn’t cheap. Comfort food came back again in 2009, only the name was changed to Recession Recipes. People were eating out less, and brown bagging became a thing. With brick and mortar restaurants shuttering, chefs took their show on the road with food trucks. The trend is still popular and certainly gained notoriety with the movie, Chef. If you have not seen it, rent it.
Technology took over. Everyone is a critic now, Yelp, Trip Advisor, Open Table, Zomato, again, please watch Chef. Many restaurants have done away with paper menus, you are handed a tablet. So much for snagging the menu like the days of old. Cameras are employed in the high-end restaurants. The chef can keep a watchful eye over his guests from his culinary command center at his uber expensive restaurant. Tech is great, it can streamline operations. Create and publish content with a few keystrokes. It supplies lightening quick information, digitizing operations, and processes. Certainly, all great advantages in the evolution of food and hospitality. Yet, the heart and soul of cooks, the smile of the server, the passion of service will never be replicated by Apple or Microsoft.
The year 2010 continued to be a back to the basic’s mentality. Not only for restaurants but home cooks too. Still stinging from the Great Recession, people discovered the benefit of a well-stocked pantry. Crazy American chefs still experimenting. Kimchee quesadilla anyone, or the sushiritto, sushi rolled like a burrito, sans tortilla, nori instead. Are you more croissant or doughnut? Hey, how about a cronut? Only in New York baby! We have Dominique Ansel, owner of his namesake bakery in Soho to thank. Flaky buttery layers of pastry dough shaped like a doughnut and deep fried. Even TIME Magazine couldn’t refuse naming the cronut one of top 25 inventions of 2013. The bakery would sell out immediately and scalpers were charging $40 for the $5 hybrid doughnut. I tip my toque to Dominique for combining Yankee ingenuity with the finesse of a pâtissier, and the New Yorkers who know a good hustle when they see one.
Grocery stores have been and continue to make their move. Generic is all but kicked to the curb as grocery store chains have their own in-house brand label. What is the prestige of a brand name, unless of course its Heinz or Hunts? Grocery stores have upped the game big time with deli, chef prepared foods, expansive gourmet selections and bringing back the lost art of butchery. It’s no longer your mothers Kroger. They have just launched Chefbot. An astonishing AI powered tool. Consumers take a photo of food they have on hand in their home. They tweet to Chefbot. Chefbot identifies photos and scans thousands of recipes on Kroger.com. Chefbot then tweets back to the consumer recipes based on the photos it received. Now were talking Kitchen Magician!
Food sourcing or inspecting is becoming popular. Knowing where our food comes from is good not only for our physical health, but our overall well-being. That goes back to being a locavore. COVID 19 has certainly put a dent in our food chain. Grocery aisles barren, restaurants boarded up never to reopen. Dairy farmers dumping milk, large bottlenecks at beef and pork processing plants which will take time to recover. Slaughterhouses will get reconfigured to install robotics. All of this will create long term changes on how families eat. If that means more fresh fruits and veggies and growing your own, I’m all for it. Pass the organic chocolate please.
COVID 19 has certainly grabbed Mother Earth and all seven billion plus of her children into a chokehold of apprehension and uncertainty. We will get through this; we shall overcome. It’s one day at a time, one foot in front of the other. Make good decisions and do not be ruled by fear. It is mastering the latest dance craze, the Pandemic Pivot. Go ahead, get on the good foot and do the bad thing. Thank you, James Brown, and Jimmy Buffett. Speaking of which, it’s time for a Margarita. Cheers, stay safe out there,
Taste the Freedom!