Archive for October, 2011

Chef Massimo Bottura Observed

Posted 21 Oct 2011 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining, Food Alert Trends, Full Service

Massimo Bottura is hustling back and forth in front of a draped stainless steel work table just minutes before his presentation is to begin.  The scheduled start time arrives and passes and, after another few minutes, he looks up. It’s obvious that Bottura is improvising and riffing in the kitchen and that he runs on his own schedule. My purpose is to spend the next 90 minutes with fifteen other participants observing Bottura’s mastery and getting into the head of one of the leading avant-garde chefs in all of Italy. This is the next best thing to dining at Bottura’s two Michelin star Osteria Francescana in Modena. Lucky for me his English is excellent.

There is no introduction on his part or any sort of overview of where we are headed. Instead he launches right into philosophy illuminating his emotional connection to Cotechino sausage with lentils, the traditional New Year’s Eve dish in Italy. His expression softens as he explains that lentils, according to tradition, represent the coins of wealth to be won in the coming year and how the dish triggers emotional memories of his youth and grandmother in particular. I am curious where he is headed with this. He turns, looks my way, stops and lets out his first nugget “you have to learn everything and then forget everything to create something incredible.” Bottura has one culinary hand connected to the past and one reaching toward the future.

He suggests that his dishes are an evolution rather than a revolution. They are drawn from many things including prior experiences in life, from his youth, from emotional events, from love. I connect the dots and realize that his passion for food started in his youth and that everything he envisions in rooted in this past. When you pair emotion and passion with mastery of fundamental and modern culinary technique the avante garde origin of Bottura’s cuisine is found. Evolution requires that you feed your heart, feed your soul and engage in tradition while redefining convention.

At this point Bottura lifts a small yellow ball between his thumb and index finger. It’s an immature egg found only in the visceral cavity of a dressed laying hen. When he was young, Bottura and his brothers would compete to secure the immature eggs inside hens being prepared for their family meal. He was fond of eating these little golden gems and today experiments with them as a receptacle for containing flavors. In a startling display of elegant simplicity Bottura’s assistant places an immature egg on a tiny white porcelain pedestal and draws out the liquid in the center using a large stainless steel syringe and replaces it with a fresh injection of Prosciutto di Parma ham broth ~ ham and eggs. They are delicious and representative of Bottura’s approach. Start with an item with deep significance, one that when eaten evokes memories and emotion, and innovate from there.

Next Bottura begins making ravioli with lentils and Cotechino while explaining that the ravioli is nothing more than a vessel for serving ideas.  He explains that questions are constantly flowing through his head “how can I make this, how can I do that?” He is constantly grinding and processing ideas and this is part of why Bottura is so different. He has mastered the techniques of critical reflection and problem solving and uses them both to create and innovate. Are these the skills of the modern chef?

Handing me ravioli, Bottura explains that his final point is leadership. A great two Michelin star restaurant like his runs on the backs of a large group of people committed to his vision. He is nothing without his team and assures that his success isn’t about him, it’s about his team. His point is sound; a great chef can’t do it alone. A chef must be able to lead and have followers willing to join or all the mastery of technique, professional experience and emotion are lost.  I suck down the ravioli and it is delicious. Bottura looks me in the eye, scans the rest of the people standing with me and explains that the ravioli reminds him of the ones he learned to make when he was a young boy.  Then he lets out his final snippet of philosophy:  “modern cuisine is about emotion as much as it is technique. For this I put my grandmother between meand Adria.” How cool is that.


Chef Massimo Bottura

Osteria Francescana

Via Stella 22, Modena 41100, Italy

Jean Georges ~ NYC

Posted 06 Oct 2011 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining

Sitting here at Jean Georges I can help but think about the impact a three star award from the Guide Michelin has on a restaurant and its chef. It’s a timely thought as this past Tuesday the Guide Michelin released the 2012 dining guide for New York City. In deep Michelin thought I peer around the room and notice again how beautiful and formal Jean Georges is. The walls of glass create a modern feel and I love the soft lighting, sharp linen and the little alcove table for two recessed into the wall. The restaurant radiates simplified luxury and quality in every corner. Taking it in, I consider what may be a fading edge in formal fine dining with the 2012 edition of the Guide Michelin. That the Guide has awarded three stars to the informal and playful Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare is proof enough that fine dining in general is loosening up and proof again that Michelin’s criteria is changing too. The American dining public is becoming less formal putting its energy and cash into food, service and comfort with decreasing concern for formal décor a frills. Maybe this shift is influencing Michelin as much as the outstanding food at Chef’s Table is. Perhaps this the dawn of the demise of the formal classically French three star restaurant in place of a new less formal genre?  I am torn.

One force that may be driving this shift is the gain in financial returns that occurs when moving from formal to casual. Simply put casual dining costs less to deliver and doesn’t require a sacrifice in food quality. I recently heard Bill Kim of Belly Shack and Urban Belly rave about the double digit margins he is earning in the fast casual segment claiming that his retail market is nothing more than his inventory on display and for sale thus serving as another conduit for profit without additional labor. This is the same model Brooklyn Fare follows with Chef’s Table, all without a wine list or liquor license. Even Michelin is shifting to casual.

I couldn’t help but think about this while I soaked in the action in the dining room at Jean Georges. It makes me wonder if Jean Georges, Eric Ripert, Daniel Bolud, Thomas Keller, Masayoshi Takayama and, as of this week, Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park (another new three star) are disappointed that a restaurant as informal as Chef’s Table earned a nod. Having dined at Jean Georges multiple times, I have never had a meal where I couldn’t find a great wine and progression of courses to satisfy my cravings. That Vongerichten and the others have spent millions on wine cellars, remote storage, liability and inventory insurance, staffing and training only to be placed in the same category as a restaurant like Chef’s Table with no wine or liquor service (or inventory expense) must be frustrating. I can only imagine what Jean Georges would be like if the restaurant had none of these expenses and was solely focused on the food. This is even more frustrating when you consider the other outstanding restaurants with great food and extensive wine and beverage lists in New York (a prime example is Del Posto) that Michelin seems to ignore. I take another bite of Spicy Tuna Tar Tar and think WTF. Enough about Michelin, it’s time to settle in, change my focus and enjoy dinner.

My table is attended by three servers. Their performance is absolutely smooth if not a bit inefficient. More than one hot course placed before me waits while the captain runs back to the kitchen to pick up a sauce boat and deliver a pour of hot sauce à la minute. It would have been better if the sauce immediately followed the plate drop. But these are little details that most people probably fail to notice and service doesn’t really suffer. The service ware (I love the JG plates), linen, décor, and cleanliness are nearly flawless and the silver cloche over the butter dish and tight bouquet of fresh roses on the table make for a classic still life on the table. This is the image that comes to mind when I think of three Michelin stars. It’s about more than just the food. Or is it?

You can see from the images below that the food at Jean Georges is well prepared. Aside from a problem with repetition (two courses repeated shrimp and two courses repeated saffron) the food is as good as ever. The egg toast with American caviar and sea bass with roasted Brussels sprouts and apple jus are absolute stand outs. Even better are the desserts prepared by rock star pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini. Each dessert plate feature four distinct section with unique elements married together by season, flavor or theme. Iuzzini sends out all four examples on his menu and follows with fresh marshmallows from a giant jar and nine different friandise. That our server can identify and describe in detail each of the nine chocolates before us is impressive. Maybe, in the long run, restaurants like Jean Georges will survive along with newer stars like Chef’s Table. Better yet, the selection of Chef’s Table to the three star club may be just the kick Jean Georges needs to go to the next level.


#1 Amuse of Shrimp with Peach, Yellow Pepper Gazpacho, Jalapeño Popper


#2 Egg toast, American Caviar, Brioche Toast, Tender Egg Yolk


#3 Spicy Tuna Tar Tar with Black Olive and Cucumber


#4 Charred Corn Ravioli, Cherry Tomato Salad, Basil Fondue

#5 Shrimp with Chipotle, Kabocha Squash, Saffron Broth

#6 Crispy Skin Black Sea Bass, Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Spiced Red Apple Jus


#7 Poached Lobster, Saffron Tapioca, Gewurztraminer Foam


#8 Minted Rack of Lamb, Autumn Mushrooms, Red Curry Emulsion


#9 Autumn Dessert Tasting One


#10 Autumn Dessert Tasting Two

#11 Autumn Dessert Tasting Three


#12 Autumn Dessert Tasting Four


Macaroons on Flying Saucer Plate



Jean Georges

1 Central Park West

New York, N.Y. 10023