Movie ‘Chef’ Captures a True Love of Food

After working long hours on Mother’s Day, my son, a cook at a respected restaurant chain, told me he hated it.

“Well, would you want to do something else?” I said.

He looked shocked. “Are you kidding?”

That exchange came to mind as I watched “Chef,” Jon Favreau’s charming and funny movie about a chef who quits his restaurant job and winds up happily selling Cubanos from a food truck, reconnecting with his 10-year-old son in the process.

Cooking is one of those professions that require a huge helping of passion (or  insanity).  You stand on your feet for long hours in a hot kitchen, work like a fiend, routinely get yelled at, suffer cuts and burns regularly, and work nights and holidays.

Unless you own your own place and you’re at the top of the food chain (Grant Achatz of Alinea, for example), you have to cook what your boss and the customers want rather than what you’d really like to cook. In “Chef,” chef Carl Casper quits his job at a prestigious Los Angeles restaurant when the owner (Dustin Hoffman) insists he continue to cook what’s on the menu and what keeps the seats filled: “Be an artist on your own time.”

Thanks to a Twitter war with a prominent food critic, Casper can’t find a restaurant job and ends up buying a food truck. Cubanos, the tasty Cuban pressed meat and cheese sandwiches, are a far cry from what he’s been cooking, but he’s happy to sell them because they’re the best Cubanos, and that’s all that matters.

“Chef” is a movie, not real life, so the kitchen seems to be staffed by a grand total of four or five people, and Casper seems to magically acquire permits in short order in various cities for his food truck. But it’s intensely realistic in the way it captures the love of food that drives every chef. Whether it’s an upscale version of carne asada, barbecue in Austin or beignets in New Orleans, the chefs rhapsodize, close their eyes, drink in the taste and smell of what they’re eating. We can practically taste the food as well, given that “Chef” serves up a healthy dose of food porn alongside its humor and heartwarming story. Don’t go see it if you’re hungry; your stomach will start growling 15 minutes into the film.

Eating Like Hypocritical Toddlers

I had a friend whose 4-year-old son would eat only white foods. As many mothers can relate, this is not an unusual phase for young kids to go through. For a year, she gritted her teeth and served him nothing but pasta, rice, potatoes, white bread, and chicken breast.

I was thinking of this recently when I encountered yet another rant against “white” foods, the evil food du jour. You know, that whole glycemic index thing. Avoid white bread, white potatoes, white sugar, pasta, white rice. They’ll make you fat and lead to heart disease and foggy brain and no sex and who knows what else.

It’s like toddlerhood in reverse.

I love whole grains. Always have. I actually prefer whole-wheat bread and whole-grain pasta. (I do confess to a weakness for sugar, white and otherwise.) For diabetics, refined carbs can indeed pose a problem. And people in America and the rest of Western civilization probably eat way too many refined starches. (I do have to wonder why there aren’t more fat people in eastern Asia, given the vast quantities of white rice they eat.)

But I can’t help but notice that even as the diet books trumpet the glycemic index and your sister-in-law refuses to eat any vegetable with eyes, the “frozen treats” aisle in the average American supermarket keeps getting bigger. And bigger. And bigger. Any day now, “ice cream novelties” will engulf the entire store. Call me suspicious, but I have the sneaking feeling that maybe just a few of the folks who shun white aren’t counting the white sugar in Fudgesicles.

Come to think of it, the friend’s kid who would eat only white foods did make exceptions for things like, say, chocolate and red licorice.

I guess we never really outgrow toddlerhood.

Steamed Up Over Espresso

I got an espresso machine for Christmas and I’ve had fun playing with it ever since.

Reading up on the art of espresso making has left me a tad dizzy, though. Espresso lovers make wine snobs look tolerant. The laws of espresso leave little room for forgiveness:

  • One must have the proper amount of cream (froth, not the dairy product) atop the coffee.
  • One must never drink milky espresso drinks (cappuccino and lattes) after noon. Actually, one should never drink lattes at all, since they’re a crime against the universe.
  • One must produce espresso that is full-bodied but not bitter (good luck with that one).
  • One must grind the coffee just right, in a grinder with burrs, not blades.
  • One must use a pump-powered espresso maker, not, heaven forbid, a steam-driven machine.

I break just about all of these laws, starting with the one that forbids lattes after noon. But then I’m not an espresso purist, just someone who likes strong, flavorful coffee with a lot of sweet frothy milk.

There is a certain comfort to the ritual of making espresso. But what really attracts me to this method of coffee making is the steam. I love that high-pitched cry when the steaming wand meets the cold milk. I stare in fascination when the machine hisses and belches steam, like a classic train locomotive pulling into the station. It’s awesome.

Let the aficionados argue over the art and science of making espresso. To me, it’s just fun.

Funny Brownies

I run a cookie recipe site and was doing some research to see what keywords and phrases people are searching for in the cookie recipe realm. Researching “brownies” was an eye opener.

It seems that a whole lot of people out there are searching for recipes for brownies that carry an extra payload in the form of a plant that is, shall we say, a prized member of the hemp family. My, my.

Personally, I don’t know why anyone would want to adulterate good chocolate with pot—or for that matter, why anyone other than a horse would eat grass rather than smoke it (not that I admit to any personal experience, mind you)—but hey, different strokes and all that. If you are looking for illegally enhanced brownie recipes, just hit Google and you’ll find plenty of them. If you just want great brownies, minus the mind-altering substances, try my Classic Chocolate Brownies recipe.

Oddly enough, I do have a genuine cookbook recipe for a pot-enhanced dessert, though it’s for fruit and nut fudge, not brownies. It is from The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, first published in 1954 and reissued in 1984 and again in 1998. Yes, that Alice B. Toklas, the secretary and lifelong companion of writer Gertrude Stein. Tucked in amongst the reminiscences of life in France and the recipes for chocolate mousse and oysters Mornay is a recipe for Haschich (sic) Fudge. I offer it here purely as a historical curiosity, since bringing this to the family potluck could get you arrested in the United States (and many other countries).

Toklas explains wryly that her fudge “might provide an entertaining refreshment for a Ladies’ Bridge Club or a chapter meeting of the DAR: “Euphoria and brilliant storms of laughter; ecstatic reveries and extensions of one’s personality on several simultaneous planes are to be complacently expected…”

Her recipe: “Take 1 teaspoon black peppercorns, 1 whole nutmeg, 4 average sticks of cinnamon, 1 teaspoon coriander. These should all be pulverised in a mortar. About a handful each of stoned dates, dried figs, shelled almonds and peanuts: chop these and mix them together. A bunch of canibus sativa can be pulverised. This along with the spices should be dusted over the mixed fruit and nuts, kneaded together. About a cup of sugar dissolved in a big pat of butter. Rolled into a cake and cut into pieces or made into balls about the size of a walnut, it should be eaten with care. Two pieces are quite sufficient.”

I don’t know. I think I’d stick with brownies.

The Skim Milk Scam

“Things are seldom what they seem
Skim milk masquerades as cream.”

–HMS Pinafore, Gilbert & Sullivan

I loathe skim milk.

There, I’ve confessed the truth, in all its nutritionally incorrect squalor.

They always say that if you eat or drink something long enough, you’ll get used to it. Sure, skim milk doesn’t taste as good as full milk (a.k.a. real milk), but just drink it, they said, and you’ll get your calcium without all that nasty saturated fat.

Let’s toss aside for the moment the argument about whether milk is really essential for strong bones. Let’s talk about flavor. Skim milk has none. It tastes like an amnesiac’s memory of milk.

My grandmother, who came of age in the days when milk was delivered right to your door, with the cream on top and the skim milk on the bottom, used the cream in desserts and her wonderful creamed vegetables, drank the milk, and reserved the skim milk for stuff where its lack of flavor wouldn’t matter: in pancake batter, maybe, or as slop for the pigs.

I tried to be a good girl. Really I did. OK, skim milk was a bit too much, but I drank 1% milk, which is almost as low in fat. I drank it for years, actually. I poured it into my coffee and watched it turn the coffee gray. I used it in pancake batter and in smoothies. I ordered the skim lattes at Starbucks. Once in a while I held my nose and drank it straight.

I never got used to it. Ever. One day I looked at my husband and said, “Screw this. Get me some milk that tastes like milk.”

My conscience pricked me just enough to compromise on 2% milk rather than the full-fat stuff. Reduced-fat milk doesn’t taste quite as good as real milk, but I tell you, next to skim milk, it’s the creme de la creme.

The Food Safety Net

The E. coli-tainted spinach that killed three and sickened 200 people in 26 states and Canada has again focused attention on whether food safety oversight in the U.S. is too fractured. The National Academy of Sciences, the government’s General Accounting Agency, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest and other consumer groups have long called for one central agency to oversee food safety. So have at least a few members of Congress.

I think they have a point. If you and a bunch of other folks who ate burgers at the Grease Palace USA chain get sick, your doctors will report it to the Centers for Disease Control. The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates meat, so the burger patty falls under its jurisdiction. The Food and Drug Administration will get involved because it regulates the bun, lettuce, tomato and mayo. Your state health agency regulates restaurants. If toxic substances are involved somehow, the EPA will be called in.

The spinach case was actually a simple one, relatively speaking–the FDA regulates produce, packaged or otherwise.

To be fair, the regulators involved in food safety cooperate remarkably well considering they’re government agencies. Food safety experts tracked down the source of the E. coli contamination in the spinach to a certain area, and finally to cow manure from ranches in that area—an impressive feat. And the agencies involved point out that reported illnesses linked to E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria declined significantly from 1998 to 2005. (The CDC estimates foodborne illnesses sicken 76 million Americans every year, killing 5,000 of them and putting another 300,000 in the hospital.)

But in a world where the food you eat comes from everywhere and is combined in ways not even dreamed of 50 years ago (who could have predicted a burger on a doughnut?), the detective work needed to track down the source of an outbreak is difficult enough. It seems to me it would be easier if one agency was in charge.

Julia Child and the Love of Cooking

I recently read the late Julia Child’s memoir, My Life in France, which was published earlier this year. It’s a quirky book, a series of often disconnected vignettes, but it is an entertaining read, opinionated and charming and endowed with a sense of humor, like Julia herself. You can hear her relating the anecdotes in her distinctive, warbly voice. You can taste the Champagne and roast chicken and heavy cream as she and husband Paul Child enjoy an endless series of leisurely Parisian lunches.

[Read more…]