My NAME IS…

I just heard a politician say that he is reintroducing himself. (He had recently been released from prison.) “What a good idea!,” I thought.

I’ll do the same thing: the introducing part, not the prison bit.

To begin at the beginning, my name is not Ilona Chompers. It is Irena Chalmers.

I began my professional life as a British nurse and have been caring about the food and the people who eat it or need it for many years.

I’ve worked in and around restaurants, and recreational and professional cooking schools for what seems like forever. Continue reading

2013: The A-Z Food Year That Was

A

Airline food: There was no more pie in the sky. High in the clouds didn’t translate into haute (cuisine).

Amuse bouches were crafted to be picked up with our eyelashes. Mini morsels of oxtail perched on a sliver of sardine, topped with two petunia petals were presented as an itty bitty “gift” from the chef. A tasting menu in deed!

All socially responsible consumers and food companies hailed appetite for Fair Trade.

B

Bacon became the next sizzling fad. Bacon lipstick, bacon (de)oderant, bacon dental floss, bacon ice cream and other bizarre foolishnesses streaked along the highway of absurdity.

Bees buzzed off. Many feared there would be no more almond joy.

Broccoli was not adored properly. Continue reading

Goat Cheese Cheers

goat cheeseIt’s fair to say that New American Cuisine was based on charismatic goat cheese.

It is served warm, with a flourish of baby lettuces and rolled in fruitwood ash and floated upon sea-green virgin oil. It is sliced into medallions and garnished with nasturtium petals. It is topping fancy pizzas. It’s crumbled into pricey salads and mounded onto crisp baguette slices to accompany ultra-cool chardonnays and fumé blancs.

How odd it is that we swoon over this creamy, tangy cheese yet curl our lip at the notion of eating the meat of goat from whence it comes.

I’ve been wondering if the problem lies with the goat beards that are known as goatees?goat2

We have always been suspicious of beards, on account of their connection with intellectuals and other dangerous left-wing subversives.

Another clue to our disdain may stem from saddling them with the name “Billy Goat” and calling their offspring “Billy the Kid.”

Billy – and Tom – as in Tom Cat, implies a tendency toward night prowling and the kind of lascivious behavior that leads to such wanton tendencies as begetting.

Naturally, thoughts about ‘right and wrong’ made me think the image problem might have something to do with goat’s hooves, which you will have noticed, are cloven. This anatomical anomaly, coupled with the dreaded horns mounted on their heads, leads to worrisome comparison with the Devil, the Greek goat god Pan, satyrs and yet other symbols of bawdy naughtiness, that have largely fallen from favor in the current climate if modified Puritanism.

And, of course, we all remember the Bible’s forecast of the Last Judgment, during which we will be separated into sheep and goats, and receive our long-term assignments accordingly.

capricorn constellationThe probable origin of the phrase, “getting our goat,” is the French expression prendre le chèvre, meaning, “to take the milch goat,” which could well be a poor person’s sole source of food or livelihood.

Today the goat association would prefer we cease to think of a goat as a disagreeable small, horned ruminant animal and instead come to regard it in astrological terms as it pertains to the constellation of Capricorn.

Even so, I am pretty much convinced that goat meat could provide us with another fabulous fad to distract us from the hard economic times that threaten to engulf us.

The young superstar chefs are rapidly approaching middle age and urgently need to come up with something fresh to capture our attention.  They could offer us roasted goat with octopus salad or maybe fricassee of stir-fried goat haunch with smoky chipotle and Armagnac-infused dried plums–formerly known as prunes–or even goat tortellini with lemon grass and rhubarb crumble.

The possibilities are infinite. Imagine if the nutritionists teemed up with the advertisers. Pretty soon we would be urged to have ‘an oat with our goat’! And there is plenty of work for farm-to-table birthers, rearers, milkers and artisanal goat cheese makers too.

As I was thinking about goats, I had quite forgotten that goats are also the source of MOhaiR and CASH$mere, our softest, costliest wools. We could consider combining the MO   R with the CASH. When this item appeared on the menu, we would cry out with one voice:

“What we want is MO—R  CASH!”

 

 

 

Fries

French Fries (Photo by Robyn Lee, Serious Eats)

This is a short excerpt from “The Trouble with Fries” by Malcolm Gladwell that appeared in The New Yorker.

“We like [French] fries not in spite of the fact that they’re unhealthy but because of it.”

“That is sobering news for those interested in improving the American diet. For years, the nutrition movement in this country has made transparency one of its principal goals; it has assumed that the best way to help people improve their diets is to tell them precisely what’s in their food, to label certain foods good and certain foods bad. But transparency can backfire, because sometimes nothing is more deadly for our taste buds than the knowledge that what we are eating is good for us.”

By gum! He’s right. To my mind, Malcolm Gladwell has ascended to the pinnacle of original thinkers of our time…

Sign seen at a Zoo in Budapest: “Please do not feed the animals. If you have any suitable food, give it to the guard on duty.”

Windows on the World Remembered

When Governor Clinton invited the owner of the Fraunces Tavern to prepare a dinner in honor of General George Washington on November 25, 1783, the population of New York City was 4,000 people.  Almost all were of European origin.

In 1976, The opening of the World Trade Center changed the economy of downtown Manhattan. By then the population of New York City exceeded eight million, uniting virtually every nation on earth.

The Twin Towers invigorated the economy of the entire region and became a vibrant vertical city so large that it had its own zip code. Fifty thousand people were employed within the walls of these buildings.

Joe Baum and the Windows on the World team, 1976

The Windows on the World restaurant complex occupied the 106th and 107th floors of the North Tower. It employed 1,500 people at every skill level.

Windows on the World was launched on the day the Tall Ships sailed into New York Harbor. Gael Greene, New York Magazine restaurant critic, described it as: “The Most Spectacular Restaurant in the World.”

“It took 54 seconds to ride the elevator to the 107th floor

On a clear day you could see 90 miles in every direction

In a high wind the  Twin Towers had an 11-inch sway.”

On the day Windows on the World opened its doors, this singular restaurant engaged a full-time staff of 30 to handle the 2,500 calls from guests seeking dinner reservations.

It was an extraordinary enterprise, unique in its capacity to handle the complexity of supplying first-rate food to each of its 22 eating spaces, and in its ability to serve 25,000 meals a day. Its construction budget exceeded $26 million. The money was well and wisely spent.

“Windows” as it was affectionately called, became the largest grossing restaurant in the world.

 The First Catastrophe

The restaurant closed after the first terrorist bombing in 1993 which destroyed its subterranean commissary.  It was completely architecturally re-conceived for its reopening on April 15, 1996. It cost another $26 million to rebuild Windows on the World

 The Triumph

4,800 candidates were interviewed for the 500 staff positions.

Just 18 weeks from opening night ( with the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s holidays slowing the work schedule), the creative team completed the following tasks:

  1. Make sure the custom-made tables, chairs, china, glass and knives, forks and spoons got to the restaurant on time (and worry desperately whether six 10-7/8″ plates, six bread and butter plates, 12 forks, 12 knives, six glasses, salt and pepper and flowers would fit on a 27″ table, bearing in mind orders, with hefty non-returnable deposits, had already been made for the china, glassware and tables).
  2. Hire the waiters, and order 600 pairs of custom-made pants, shirts, dresses, jackets, and other articles of clothing for 500 new employees, who had never worked together before and spoke a total of 23 languages. Buy extra jackets and ties for guests who arrive under dressed.
  3. Find four executive chefs who would operate the restaurants day and night.
  4. Create menus for The New Windows on The World Restaurant, Cellar in the Sky, Banquet Rooms and The Greatest Bar on Earth. Plan to change the menu for each location at least twice a day, each season and for all holidays and special events.
  5. Create a wine list. Order the wines, spirits and beer. And 1,000,000 (ONE MILLION!) bottles of champagne — and some tea and coffee.
  6. Hire experts to buy 20,000 pounds of prime beef to be delivered each week. Also 7,000 pounds of bread, pastry and cake flour, 4,000 pounds of fish, 2,250 dozen eggs, 3,000 pounds of poultry, 3,200 pounds of salad greens, 650 pints of strawberries.
  7. Hire the dishwashers, floor polishers, furniture movers and window cleaners. Hire four full-time florists.
  8. Take reservations for parties and banquets though there was not a piece of china or a stick of furniture to show to anyone…because the view is terrific though…
  9. Reassure guests that there are no terrorists within 500 square miles but still build the coat check center on the ground floor as a security precaution.
  10. Install emergency lighting and other security measures that had to be put in place without saying the word “safety” or suggesting that there may be danger of any kind.

And once the lights had been installed, remember to turn them off when the night staff leaves at 3 AM and before day staff arrives at 6 AM.

View from the Windows on the World

 ”The new WINDOWS ON THE WORLD is a kind of architectural jazz, full of syncopation, its essence a series
of allusions to design themes that are played out in a lighthearted, yet never too whimsical way. It is
an architectural riff about cities, about urban energy, about the pleasures of texture and
color and light and about recollections of American design from the 1950’s and ‘60’s.”

Paul Goldberger, The New York Times, June 19, 1996

 It was Marcel Proust, who wrote Remembrance of Things Past.

The Rainbow Room Lights (Almost) Out

The Rainbow Room at Night

The dazzling, venerable Rainbow Room has been in the news again, sadly…Former colleagues have wept to learn of its current demise.

Today, I remembered when I was working at The Rainbow Room, there were hardly any reservations for the big New Year’s Eve gala dinner one year. We were all terribly worried.

A full-page ad was designed for placement in The New York Times. It listed all the fabulous goodies the guests would be receiving–free champagne, gorgeous food, top flight entertainers, big bands, dancing, fantastic view of the fireworks on the East River and a lot of other impressive stuff that I’ve now forgotten.

CEO Joe Baum reached for the designers’ proposed advertisement.

Across the entire page he wrote:

SOLD OUT!!!

“Run it,” he demanded.

We gasped.

“Wait,” he instructed. He left the room, leaving us to think that he had gone quite mad.

The moment the ad appeared in the paper, the phones rang non-stop.

Callers told the most incredible lies: “I am the chef’s mother,”  “I made my reservation six weeks ago,” “I’ve been coming to New Year’s Eve every year for 35 years…”

The reservations desk responded: “I’m so sorry…we’re sold out…but we can put you on a waiting list. It’s an additional $25 per person cost.”  (I might have made up that last bit.)

No problem!

The room filled immediately.

The lesson I learned was that Joe Baum knew to whom he was speaking.

In Manhattan, if a place is sold out, you’ve positively got to go there.