03/10/11

Pouring it on in Paris

During my last trip to Paris, I spent an afternoon sipping wine in Les Caves du Paradis, the former private wine cellar of Louis XV, at Ô Chateau. Our charming sommelier, Lionel Médoc, took a group of us through the in’s and out’s of identifying a wine’s clarity. He was a charming host, very knowledgeable about the French wines he was pouring that day. After obtaining a degree in oenology from Toulouse, Lionel told us he traveled the globe studying New World wines, trekking to Sonoma, Mendoza, and Australia. Even though his last name could pin him as a pure Bordeaux man, Lionel is actually the son of a Burgundian mother and he grew up on Reunion Island, near Mauritius. His charm during the several hours we spent swirling and sipping in the cellar with its graceful stone archways is evident in this video. Owner Olivier Magny has just opened a new wine bar, so be sure to stop in if you are in Paris anytime soon! Details are on the web site. À votre santé on this #WineWednesday, everyone!

02/25/11
Gordon Ramsay (left) and chef Alessandro Delfanti in Contrada at Castel Monastero

Where in the World is Gordon Ramsay?

Gordon Ramsay (left) and chef Alessandro Delfanti in Contrada at Castel Monastero

One of my favorite trips of 2010 was a jaunt to Italy in late September/early October. During my tour of the beautiful country I had two amazing days at Castel Monastero near Sienna where I caught up with the renowned chef and television bad boy Gordon Ramsay, who heads up the cookery program at the resort and is the visionary behind the restaurants there. I was impressed with the refreshing honesty the Hell’s Kitchen host brought to the interview and enjoyed getting a glimpse behind the scenes of the rocking-and-rolling life of this intrepid adventurer.

RBD: Has anything surprised you about your career?

GR: Yeah, all the crap I get! Behind all the shouting, aggression and swearing is a passionate individual who is very focused on getting it right. I think I’m the luckiest chef in the world and I love food so much that I never stop; I literally never stop. I went out last night in Sienna and I tasted rabbit prepared in a way that I thought was inspirational, and I will use that. I suppose I’m like a magpie: I love traveling all over the world and picking up these shiny little bits of magic that are put out in restaurants—not just food but service as well.

RBD: Is there anything you are particularly excited about right now?

GR: I recently came back from Vietnam where I was filming for my new show called Gordon Ramsay’s Great Escape—it’s almost like Tony Bourdain meets Planet Earth. I thought about the gloabal domination of supermarkets because here I was in Vietnam living with the locals, and buying fresh vegetables and meat twice a day—in the morning for lunch and in the afternoon for dinner, spending 75 cents to a dollar per person per day. I cooked with no dairy—no cream and no butter—and everything was fantastically fresh. The experience was a huge eye opener. Sometimes when you’re traveling at this pace, you don’t take anything for granted but you forget what it’s like right when you’re at the very beginning of your career. I had a limited budget. It was a fascinating time because I was stripped of everything—from my exemplary knives to my chef’s jacket—and I was just there in tee shirts and shorts in 100 degrees, living locally, which I recommend to every chef in the world.

I always get asked about striving for the highest level of perfection and I say to other chefs, “Come out of your comfort zones. Become vulnerable. With the base of knowledge and excitement you’ve got about food, the level of creativity multiplies ten-fold the minute you become vulnerable because you act on instincts.” There’s a huge soul-searching dilemma going on when you haven’t got the most amazing chopping board, you haven’t got fresh ingredients arriving on your doorstep delivered by artisan producers, you haven’t got the most amazing baked bread twice a day, and nobody is making ravioli and tortellini for you: get out of your comfort zone and become self-sufficient!

After Vietnam, I went straight to Cambodia and that was seriously mind-blowing. It had nothing to do with Michelin Stars, Zagat, the Good Food Guide or food critics, and yet some of what was served in these villages was better than you could get in Cambodian and Vietnamese restaurants anywhere in the world—it was exquisite, I mean really exquisite.

RBD: Speaking of Michelin Stars: you have what is becoming an embarrassment of riches, no?

GR: I’m very lucky to have an amazing team. I suppose the criticism we come under is that I can’t be everywhere at once. Well, I’ve never portrayed that I cook in all of these restaurants. There are two restaurants bearing my name: Gordan Ramsay at Claridges, which means an awful lot to me, and Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in Chelsea. Next year we celebrate ten years at Claridges and we have so much talent behind it: from Angela Harnett to Mark Sargeant to Marcus Waring to Mark Askew to Claire Smith to Jake Hamilton—these are thoroughbreds who’ve been with me for ten years. When they leave the nest, it’s a natural level of progression where it becomes a rite of succession. It’s almost like in government in that you’re roosting the nest with food, and you’ve got peers and prodigies that are coming back to stamp out their own sort of uniqueness. What’s wrong with them going further afield? This level of succession has always been my forte: always, always.

RBD: Do you think it’s your passion that allows you to foster people to this level? I ask because I would think some chefs would be a little more selfish than you’ve been in supporting people to go out on their own?

GR: I’m an over-generous guy and so when you’re in the fold it’s anything and everything. I’ve always believed in sharing and the level of manners that my mum taught me from an early age. It makes no sense to compare chefs for their styles: I love Joel Robuchon; love what he’s done for formulaic menus, but I’ve got a different style of setting up a business and my menus are different. Clearly Robuchon has the same menu in Paris as in Tokyo as in New York as in London. What I want to do is to support the chefs that are driving my restaurants behind the scenes, backing me up for years. At some point, they’ve got to go out and take the next step on their own. I enjoy financially backing them—personally but quietly—and unfortunately that always gets misconstrued in the press because it’s said that another chef leaves Ramsay, but we know what goes on “hand on heart” behind the scenes. I know how important it is for these guys to strike out and become individual, and I’ve never been anything less than caring as a father figure to push them to the extreme. And I’m not done yet. That’s what I constantly tell myself. It’s not that I want to spend 16 hours a day behind a stove; I’ve done that! I’ve served my apprenticeship and I have the fascination of that next new discovery.

I have a series of new restaurants opening—the new Savoy Grill, which we’re all incredibly excited about; the Bread Street Kitchen in St. Paul’s Cathedral; and the restaurant in Borough Market opening up in September 2011 ahead of the Olympics.

RBD: Your energy is quite remarkable. To what do you attribute your verve?

GR: It’s a vibe for me: I’m more nervous when I stand still.

RBD: How has being a Scotsman made an impact on your sensibilities as a chef?

GR: Scotland, as you know, is not renowned for its phenomenal food! Great produce but sadly enough we don’t keep any of it for ourselves—we send it all abroad, which doesn’t make sense! I remember my early days in Paris when I was working for Guy Savoy and I’d see these amazing Scottish Langostines come through the door. The French were so arrogant they would be ripping the Scottish flag off the side of the box because they couldn’t quite believe all this produce was coming out of Scotland. I get it, because here was our country with a reputation for deep-fried Mars Bars and deep-fried pizza: it didn’t make sense. But think about it: hand-dived scallops from the west coast of Scotland were being shipped out to Paris. It was frustrating. Then when the venison arrived, it was like another stake in the ground. With fingers up to the French, I’d say, “Here we go—that’s three, four, five amazing kilos of produce that you haven’t got in your country.” So, yeah; I love that battle!

RBD: Do you think the drama of your career prepared you well for television?

GR: That’s a very good question. When you’re cooking at this stake and it’s under this level of pressure, you push the boundaries and, no disrespect, but there’s never going to be a time when you politely say, “Please be so kind as to pass me the bass!” When the shit hits the fan, it’s going to hit the fan or I’d be flipping burgers or dressing Caesar Salads while high-fiving everybody and running a chain of TGI’s! I’m not. I decided to go to the very, very top so I demand the best. In terms of the genre unfolding, there’s no script. If I give you seven identical ingredients, myself seven and Chloe seven, we’d come up with three different dishes: that’s the exciting thing about food. So chefs are notorious self-motivated insecure little fuckers: we’re always looking to please; looking for that big hug because we’re constantly striving to be the best! But when we are the best, we never realize we’re the best so we continue to be incredibly insecure!

RBD: People are always surprised at how nice you are in person compared to your television personae; is that something you set out to do or is it a natural process of the show?

GR: I’ve been in Marco White’s kitchen and Guy Savoy’s kitchen and Daniel Boulud’s kitchen, and I’ve seen the shit hit the fan. I have seen them rip somebody’s head off and absolutely cane someone and then 30 seconds later, I’ve seen them glide through the dining room to shake hands with their amazing customers—like a swan with such character, and amazing elegance and grace. Then they walk back through that door and if there’s something wrong with a dish—the ribeye is overcooked or the scallops are like rubber—then they blow off. I’ve learned from the best!

So if anyone tells you any different when they get to a certain age and condemn that level of ambitiousness by 35- or 40-year-old chefs, you must remember it’s how they made their names. God bless him, Daniel Boulud—one of the most amazing chefs in the world—I would not like to ever get on the wrong side of him. But very few chefs have that brutal honesty, whether they do it in front of the customer or in front of the camera. With me there’s no agenda. My biggest problem is the brutal honesty because if there’s something wrong there and then, I’m not going to wait to see if the cameras have stopped rolling before I let go: I let go. The unfortunate thing when you get into your 60’s and 70’s, these chefs then start to feel guilty about how mean they’ve been so they start philosophizing. I’m 43 years of age; I’m not going to start thinking, “You know what: we really shouldn’t get upset at sending an overcooked pigeon to the head inspector of Michelin! We should just relax and open a bottle of Bordeaux!” Uh, no! That doesn’t quite work out, now does it?

RBD: It feels to me like one of your greatest talents is nurturing people; does that come out of your nature, maybe your upbringing?

GR: From the early days when I was playing soccer, I was always the captain of the team so today’s role I play is a coach because I’m not done with cooking. I’m certainly not bored with it but I just need that level of stimulant to keep me excited about it and nothing gets me more excited than raw ingredients still, even though I look for the experience that will hit all of those notes on the back of the experience—exposure, what I’ve done for food, how many kings and queens I’ve cooked for and the amazing dinners I’ve prepared during my life. Last year was a seminal year cooking for Nelson Mandela twice in one year—once for his 90th birthday. That said, I never started cooking to become rich and famous in the first place. God forbid, if it all stops tomorrow, you’re still going to see me in my restaurant.

RBD: You’re fascinating to interview!

GR: I suppose I keep it real; unfortunately, the bigger you become in this industry, the more you get baby-sat because they see me as too fucking dangerous! I’ll admit I’m a naughty boy so I just watch as they crap themselves when they are afraid I’ll say something detrimental! I’m not that stupid! Also, you’ve made an effort to be here so if I can’t talk to you in an open and honest way, then I’d rather not do the interview!

RBD: Do you have a favorite dish? If so, why and who cooked it?

GR: There’s never been one dish on my agenda—there are thousands because I think there’s no such thing as the greatest soccer player in the world; there’s no such thing as the greatest chef in the world because it depends upon that particular time and temperament, and I never liked things to be set in stone—I like to keep on moving the goal post. One of the most sought-after dishes I’ve ever had in my entire life was when I sat with this family of eight on the river in Vietnam on this houseboat. It was braised pork belly done with fenugreek and star anise, and it was this amazing broth I just couldn’t, couldn’t stop eating. It was done with noodles, braised pork, their equivalent to sea spinach picked from the side of the river—it was mind blowing!

I’ve come across nothing along those lines in the last four months. In six-month’s time you ask me that and it will be something completely different. But, if I wanted to take something to bed, it would be my mum’s bread and butter pudding. When we grew up, she made it with plain bread, but as we became a little more successful, she changed to baguettes. Now she makes it with croissants—Mum’s gone up in life! She changes her recipe every decade! How cool is that? She went from bread to baguettes and now in the 21st-century she finally makes it with croissants. She volunteers for the WI, the Women’s Institute, which is an organization against domestic violence. Now when she makes it, she glazes it. We had no glaze in the first phase, then she went to brown sugar, now she has an apricot glaze! Isn’t it great that she makes it with croissants and an apricot glaze for these houses of single parents?

RBD: She’s been inspired by her boy?

GR: Oh yes! It’s traveling down; food is going back down!

RBD: Is she proud of you?

GR: Yeah! Well, she never, uh, overindulges. She comes to Claridges once every 18 months or so with her neighbors but it’s tough to get her out on the town because she’s obsessed with bingo! It’s nice in that she looked after me for twenty years of my life so now I look after her—I mean, I try! We bought her a house, I try to send her on holidays or on cruises, but she’s not easy to manage! She passed her driving test five years ago on the eleventh time! I said, “Mother, it would be a lot easier if I just get a driver for you!” She said no, so god bless her that she passed it! I got her a mini for Christmas, but I think it’s so terrific that she’s real and completely unspoiled.

RBD: Tell our readers what you feel makes Castel Monastero so special.

GR: I suppose no matter what happens after me, after you, this place is still going to remain the same—it’s unchanged, it’s steeped in history and it’s something that’s being brought back and put on the map but it’s still part of the local village. What I love is that it’s not a hotel, it’s a retreat; this is a gem, ever involved as part of the community where they make those who live here as important as the visitors. They hold onto that ritual; they hold onto that service on Sunday. The village is part of them. That’s not fake or any sort of put-on; that’s real. I don’t know if you heard the church bells this morning? God bless them I was sleeping above those bells! No need for an alarm clock or for any of my three daughters to ring me this morning at 8 o’clock! I’m teasing, of course; that’s what’s so beautiful here. The personality of place is being nurtured and preserved. (For Ramsay’s three choices for rock-star chefs of the future, see my piece in Delta Sky magazine this month.)

03/22/10
Flowers at George V

On Elegance

The Eiffel Tower

As I nestled into my seat on the Air France flight to Paris, the word elegance came to mind and never left it during a six-day trip that was one of the finest adventures of my life thus far. I don’t fly business class often so when the stewardess handed me the printed dinner menu and I saw that the airline’s sommelier had handpicked wines to accompany the meals—from champagne and Languedoc Blanc to Bourgogne Rouge and Bordeaux Rouge—I thought to myself, “Thirty-thousand feet isn’t heaven but it’s seeming pretty darned close!” It wasn’t just that I was seated in the front of the aircraft that made it an elegant experience. I have been in business class on other carriers and had yet to be served Camembert and Brie on a beautiful cheese leaf onboard an airplane! The tiny bottle of olive oil on my tray was shaped like the Eiffel Tower. I actually kept it as a souvenir because I’m a total sap for such finely considered aesthetic details. The steak, served with horseradish-spiked potatoes, was pink and tender, and the crunchy asparagus tasted earthy as if it had just been plucked from the ground. This was only the first physical manifestation of the truism “the French really know how to live.” [

The Louvre

From the stately beauty of its neoclassic architecture to its shockingly clean and chic arched metro stops clad in white subway tile, the city lived up to its sophisticated reputation. So did the experiences that unfolded during my time there. Sometimes it was the grand gestures that stood out, but often it was the subtleties of an experience that made an impression. I was traveling with my friend Patty Otis Abel, who began her every-six-hour-pink-champagne rule our first evening there. We were ensconced in a settee at the beautiful Bar 228 at Le Meurice on the rue de Rivoli across from the Tuileries Garden. A crisp Sancere in my glass and Rosé Champagne in hers, we toasted our good fortune at having one of the most luxurious settings possible for our first drinks in Paris—being bathed in soft candlelight, nestled into sumptuous leather and treated like royalty by the bar’s manager William Oliveri was simply the cream.

Flowers at George V

The next afternoon—while strolling through the lobby of another storied property, the George V—we marveled at the floral arrangements created by the hotel’s artistic director Jeff Leatham, who orders 9,000 blooms each week from the Netherlands to make his fragrant creations for the public spaces. The attention to quality and freshness truly showed. That day, tall clear and jeweled-green glass vases were filled with white orchids and bisque-colored heather, the intermingling of which created an interplay of whispery, texturally-rich paleness against the intricately veined marble of their surroundings.

Another experience at the hotel came to symbolize the pinnacle of elegance, as it brought with it the realization that the French understand the art of making a meal into an event worth savoring. After our tour of the George V, we had the exquisite pleasure of feasting on Chef Éric Briffard’s tasting menu at Le Cinq (where we had watercress soup that was dreamier than I could ever have imagined). The variety of flavors and the ways in which they were combined during the meal had us wondering how the next dish could possibly top the ones that had come before, but they always did. We also dined at Le Relais Plaza in the Plaza Athénée, which was nostalgically beautiful with its interiors designed after the ocean liner Le Normandie.

Chef Phillippe Marc’s interpretations of Alain Ducasse’s lauded fare were served in sensual waves of tasteful abundance within the buoyant setting. To be honest, I had expected these meals in two of Paris’s “starred” restaurants to be among our finest experiences but whether we were eating dishes prepared by a Michelin-tapped gastronomic luminary or in a corner café sharing a ham and cheese sandwich on a crunchy baguette, we didn’t have an unmemorable meal.

Museo Carnavalet

During our only weekend there, for example, we decided to spend Sunday morning at the Place des Vosges, which had been one of Patty’s favorite haunts when she lived in Paris. We left our apartment at around eleven, stopping in to visit the Musée Carnavalet, which was once the home of Madame de Sévigné, France’s first woman to collect and publish her letters. This was a pilgrimage for me, as I’d read biographies of her and most of her letters, which were written during the reign of Louis XIV. The museum held a retrospective of French history during her time, and I loved seeing the artifacts and knowing I’d walked along the pavers where her elegant slippers had once trod. With a buoyed feeling of having touched history, I strolled beneath the expansive colonnades that surround the park at Place des Vosges.

The moment turned magical when I heard the stains of one of my favorite Django Reinhardt numbers wafting across the plaza. We followed the sound to a trio of musicians named Borsalino and stood listening to their cocky renditions of the French jazz artist’s tunes. After stopping in at a few shops that caught our eye, we came across a brasserie with cheerful red café chairs and tables on the sidewalk. The energy was lively but intimate inside so we decided it would be the perfect spot for brunch. [

A colonnade at Place des Vosges

We ordered the prix fixe and were delighted when the waiter placed pale plum-colored kirs in front of us. Our courses began with a delicious lentil salad and a half bottle of wine. As we progressed through the fresh, flavorful fare, we lingered in the cloistered atmosphere—talking, laughing and, as it turned out, crying our way into the afternoon. No one reached for our plates before each of us had completed our courses, no one offered us the check before we asked for it and at no time did anyone make us feel as if they needed our table for another guest, though the restaurant was teeming with customers. This, I believe, is the hallmark of a civilized, cultivated culture.

Patty remarked as we were leaving: “You’ve just had a true Parisian Sunday afternoon!” The brasserie was La Place Royale; it was simple and elegant, and I was in love with every moment we spent there! I’m guessing you might be asking, “Why in the world would two women with Paris at their disposal be crying on a glorious Sunday afternoon?” We were remembering the person who had introduced us. My first next-door neighbor in New York City and Patty’s decades-long best friend was Steve Hogan. From the minute he met me, he said he had a friend I simply had to meet because he knew we would hit it off. Needless to say, we did. Patty and I knew we’d be thinking of him as we made our way through the adventures that Paris offered us, but we didn’t know just how present his essence would be.

The relization began as soon as our first day there. Fresh from the airport, we dropped our suitcases at our apartment in the 2nd and, literally, hit the ground running. Our first task was getting to the Centre Pompidou, which we decided to do on foot. We were on our way to see an exhibition by one of Paris’ hottest designers Patrick Jouin, who was meeting us there. I have no idea why, but about halfway there I blurted out that the song “Volare” was running through my mind. We laughed because not only is it not a French song, it is a pretty corny Italian one at that! As we frantically searched for the next street sign pointing our way to the Boo Boo, which seemed to appear and disappear in no orderly fashion that we could tell, Patty remarked that if Steve had been with us, he’d have known the etymology of the word Volare, the cultural significance of it and quite possibly why it had popped into my mind!

Bar 228 at Le Meurice (photo by Guillaume de Laubier)

That evening, while we were sipping our drinks in Bar 228, we were reminded of that moment when an ensemble of musicians gathered around the grand piano and suddenly began playing “Volare.” Patty and I froze in stunned silence as they sang the word Volare, then abruptly stopped and moved on to another song. It would have been so much less remarkable had they continued the song through its rhythmic end, but they didn’t. It was as if they simply changed their mind without further ado!

These seemingly small but powerful occurrences happened again and again while we were there. The thing is, I would never have thought of Steve in the context of elegance had I not written this, but it is fitting. Yes, he was always the first one to knock a drink over at any given get-together because he loved to talk with his hands, and his gestures were sweeping and expressive. He also had a loping gate that made me run to keep up with him when he was excited, which was most of the time. But there was something groundedly ethereal about him, if you’ll forgive me the made-up word and the oxymoron.

Flowers at Au Jardin de Mexico Fleuriste Decoraeur

During one of my first weeks as his next-door neighbor in New York, I heard a noise in the hallway. When I peered through the ocular eye tamped into my door, I saw him leading an elderly woman up the flight of stairs to our floor. When they reached our landing, he smiled at her and handed her a bouquet of flowers. She smiled back, saying thank you in an odd-sounding accent, as he led her into his apartment. He later told me she was a Russian linguistics coach. Of course, I thought. He was eternally learning a new language—could, in fact, master one in about a week. He was simply that brilliant. But it was the fact that he’d taken the time to buy this elderly woman flowers that touched me. Who does that for a language teacher? I never did.

As it turns out, he bought her a bouquet every week, explaining when I asked about it that he did so because she’d lost her husband not long before the two of them had met and she felt alone for the first time in her life. So I bring these memories of Paris to a close by celebrating that among the treasures I found in The City of Light are happy memories of Steve and a remarkable time with his best friend, whom I now count among my cadre of closest compatriots.

[I was comped airfare and some of the meals reviewed in this article during my trip to Paris, though the consideration received no special treatment in terms of coverage.]