No writer has spent more time working and hanging out with great chefs than Andrew Friedman. So when I heard that his long-awaited book chronicling chef culture in the US—Chefs, Drugs, and Rock & Roll—had finally been published, how could I not invite him on Special Sauce?
It's been several days since the Oscars, and I'll admit it: I was keenly disappointed when Knife Skills didn't win for Best Documentary Short. But now that I've had a few days to reflect on the Oscars as a whole (go, Frances McDormand, go!), and now that I've listened to part two of my interview with Knife Skills filmmaker Tom Lennon and Cleveland chef-restaurateur Brandon Chrostowski, I've realized that it was a winner regardless of Sunday's outcome.
We don't usually make a big deal about the Oscars on Special Sauce, but when I saw the brilliant Oscar-nominated documentary short Knife Skills, I knew I wanted to talk about it. The film shows what happens when Cleveland chef/restaurateur Brandon Chrostowski opens Edwins, a white-tablecloth French restaurant staffed almost entirely by recently released convicts who are reentering the workforce. As I previously
Back in the day, we used to say that Serious Eats was a website focused on celebrating and sharing our enthusiasm for food with the online community. In Part 2 of my interview with fellow food enthusiast Phil Rosenthal, he reveals that Somebody Feed Phil, his new Netflix show, is really about the same thing, if you just added "travel" to food and substituted "family" for the online community.
Food, travel, and family are at the heart of the show; in each episode, we see Phil interacting with a family he's met in whatever city he's exploring. And, for good measure, Phil's elderly and utterly hilarious parents make appearances in each episode via Skype.
Phil tells me, "What I learned from [Everybody Loves Raymond] is that every show is about a family, and what I mean is, your news broadcast that you tune into every night, that's a family of people that you enjoy being with. Right? That's another reason why my parents are in the show...because that's what makes a television show."
Phil explains that one of the reasons he loves travel is that it forces him out of his comfort zone. Like the time he found himself in Thailand, sandwiched between two elephants as he was trying to leave their habitat. After a few tense moments he was able to leave unharmed, though not before one of the elephants swatted him with his tail. Phil explains, "Once you're through that moment, it's the best experience of your life. It's one of the highlights of your life that you will never forget, and you are so happy that you took that step outside your comfort zone. It's the only way we get anything in life. When you see the pretty girl across the room, will I ask her to dance? If you didn't, you wouldn't have the dance. Maybe you wouldn't have the girlfriend. Maybe you wouldn't have the wife. Maybe you wouldn't have the family...we all have to go outside our comfort zone sometimes."
Then there's the vicarious thrill viewers get when Phil makes a food discovery. Like the crab omelet made by Jay Fai he ate in Thailand. "This is somebody, she's been venerated as one of the best street food vendors in the whole world. She makes a crab omelet, there's a pound, pound and a half of fresh crab meat in this omelet, which she's cooking over a hot wok. It's just again, street food, on the side of the street. She has a few tables beside the stove, but [the] fire is going, real fire. The wok is on the fire. She pours the crab into the eggs that are in the wok, with butter, then as she starts turning it, and the omelet starts to form around the crab, she starts ladling fresh egg over it and turning that. So, it's tender, layers and layers of egg, until you have, really, a football filled with crab....This lady, right after we filmed...she got a Michelin star. For a shack...and just this week, she wants to give the star back. There's too many people now. She's 73 years old."
To hear Phil elaborate on the crab omelet lady, to hear more about the elephant walk and other hilarious situations in which Phil found himself way outside of his comfort zone, check out part 2 of his Special Sauce interview and the full transcript on Serious Eats.
My friend Phil Rosenthal, the creator and host of the new Netflix show Somebody Feed Phil is as much fun to talk to as he is to eat with. When I asked him how the show ended up on Netflix, he replied, "The way I sold the show...I said, 'I'm exactly like Anthony Bourdain if he was afraid of everything....I mean, I'm the guy watching him, not really wanting to go to Borneo and have a tattoo pounded into my chest with nails.'"
When I sit down with Phil no subject is off limits. We revisited (admittedly at my behest) the moment in 2006 when I asked him to invest in Serious Eats. I just thought that the food-obsessed creator of Everybody Loves Raymond would leap at the opportunity to get in on the ground floor. "By the way," he said, laughing, "my business manager told me not to give you money then. I was ready. I was like, 'This sounds good.' But he said, 'No, no, no, no, don't, don't.'" That's four "nos" and two "don'ts" for those of you counting at home.
If you listen, you'll find that the Phil Rosenthal you hear on Special Sauce is the same guy you see on Somebody Feed Phil. He's funny–really funny–smart, and generously spirited (he always picks up the check, on the show and in real life). And, oh yeah, Phil's also a great storyteller who has somehow managed to maintain an optimistic but realistic outlook on life. Why? Because as his friend Ed. Weinberger, the legendary sitcom director and creator, told him when he was shooting the Everybody Loves Raymond pilot, "Phil, you might as well make the show you want to make because at the end, they're going to cancel you anyway." As Phil pointed out, "Isn't that a great philosophy of life? We all get cancelled one day. Live your life."
So enliven your life, Serious Eaters, by listening to Part 1 of the Special Sauce interview with Phil Rosenthal. You'll be laughing in the first minute. (And for those of you who prefer their interviews in written form, we've included an edited transcript of the conversation on our website.)
My guest this week on Special Sauce is chef and cookbook author Joseph "JJ" Johnson. When I say he gravitated to kitchen work at an early age, I mean really early. He started cooking with his grandmother when he was four: "I didn't really watch cartoons...I'd step on like a milk crate. She would give me a peeler, which was probably like a phony play peeler, like Fisher-Price, and I would peel vegetables or I would scoop things out." Five years later, when he was nine, he saw an ad on television that sealed the deal: "So I saw a commercial back then for [The] Culinary Institute of America, when they used to run commercials, and I just said one day...I'm going to go to that school." Now that's what I call a really, really early decision application.
After graduating from the CIA and doing a few stints in serious New York kitchens, JJ appeared on an episode of Rocco's Dinner Party, which led to an unlikely introduction to Alexander Smalls, the seminal African-American chef/restaurateur and Tony Award-winning opera singer (that's quite a combo, isn't it?). Smalls invited JJ on a trip to Ghana, and gave him an education on the food of the African diaspora, which was both foreign and familiar: "It also was a lightbulb moment for me because I grew up in the diaspora...So there was these things that would happen and I would say, I remember that flavor or I remember that scent. It really helped me develop who I was."
JJ would go on to open The Cecil with Smalls, and although it is now, sadly, closed, it was named America's best new restaurant by Esquire Magazine in 2014. Since then, J. J. and Smalls have co-authored the cookbook Between Harlem and Heaven: Afro-Asian-American Cooking for Big Nights, Weeknights, and Every Day, and he's done a whole lot more, including cooking for Beyoncé. To find out just what those things are, you'll have to check out both this week's and next week's episodes of Special Sauce.
Here's how the delightful and brave Jenny Allen describes the food at her family table in Part 2 of her Special Sauce interview: "Such bad food...and so little of it."
As that quote can attest, you can be sure there's no shortage of pithy insights or jokes as Jenny and I talk about everything from the food at gallery openings ("Please, don't invite me to an art opening with the only food being peanuts....I resent that. Terrible. How hard is it to get a little cheese and crackers there?") and our shared love of Mounds bars to the topic of eating alone as a woman, which she writes about in her new book Would Everybody Please Stop: Reflections on Life and Other Bad Ideas: "A lot of women are shy about going out to eat alone. They think they look needy or sad, or they just feel unprotected or something. I don't feel that way."
We also managed to talk about subjects other than food, such as the way Jenny has watched in amazement as her actor-playright-television writer daughter Halley Feiffer has fearlessly blazed her own creative path with no hesitation. For those unfamiliar with her work, by the time Halley turned 21 she had already starred in The Squid and the Whale and won the National Young Playwrights' Contest. Since then, Halley has had her plays produced in leading theaters all over the country, has starred on Broadway, and has written for Mozart in the Jungle. Jenny wants someone to write a book about mothers and daughters in terms of the work they do in large part because she thinks that the fearlessness she sees in her daughter is echoed among her peers. "I feel like, among my friends, more than several of our daughters are doing the things that we do, only sooner, better, braver," Jenny says. "It's just wonderful to watch."
Just as it is wonderful to listen to Jenny Allen talk about anything at all–it's a treat that Serious Eaters won't want to miss.
Jenny Allen, the humorist and author of the guffaw-inducing new book <em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/Would-Everybody-Please-Stop-Reflections/dp/0374118329/?tag=serieats-20">Would Everybody Please Stop: Reflections on Life and Other Bad Ideas</a></em>, derives as much pleasure from eating as anyone I know. Consider this anecdote she shared with me about her food-loving stepmother: "One day she said, 'I made you something. I thought you'd like it.' It was an entire mixing bowl full of chocolate mousse...It was a huge bowl, and I just took it up to my room and just read and ate it all afternoon. I'm sure I felt sick afterwards, but it was...oh, my God, the best present ever."
The <em>New Yorker</em>'s Andy Borowitz, who is no slouch in the humor department has called Jenny one of the funniest writers alive, and so I had to ask her for the one piece of advice she would give to aspiring humor writers: "Something I say sometimes, which is I think even true for me is, when you think the piece is so eccentric or so idiosyncratic or so neurotic or so weird and so personally your own peccadilloes and anxieties, just when I think, boy, I'm gonna send this in, and my editor's gonna think, this woman is really nuts. That's when it's ready to send. And not before that."
Jenny also happens to be one of the bravest souls I've ever met; her hilarious and moving one-woman play <em>I Got Sick Then I Got Better</em>, which describes her experience as a cancer survivor, is a testament to that. And I think anyone who listens to her in Part 1 of her Special Sauce interview will come away with more than a little inkling of her humor and her wonderful character, and will be left wanting more.
(But that's what Part 2 is for.)
When Resy's Ben Leventhal, who has been involved in at least five food-related start-ups, speaks about entrepreneurship, I am all ears. Here are just a couple of the pearls of wisdom that came out of our in-depth conversation:
"What I do try to say to people that haven't been through a couple of cycles is you got to understand how hard this is about to be. People say, 'Oh, I want to start a company. I want to do that. I want to go out on my own.' I say, 'That's great, but it's really fucking hard.'"
"It's gruesome. Every day of a startup is gruesome. If it's not gruesome, something is wrong. Something is off...Every day is a battle."
And here's Ben on putting together a team: "Well, look, I mean, you got to understand that you have to have the long view. You're building something from scratch. The people that you're lucky enough to have working with you, the people that take a risk with you, the first ten employees, they're taking almost as big a risk as you are, and in some cases, they're taking a bigger risk because they got to trust [you]...That's really important, and you have to make sure that those people feel almost minute to minute like they made the right choice."
Ben talks about how he's applied these hard-earned lessons to Resy, a two year-old start-up that so far seems to have successfully taken on OpenTable, the granddaddy of online reservation systems. How exactly did he and his partners do that? You're just going to have to listen to find out.
The members list of the non-existent Digital Food Entrepreneur's Club would be quite small, but it would have to include Ben Leventhal, who is both this and next week's guest on Special Sauce. Ben cofounded Eater in 2005 and is now one of the cofounders of Resy, the popular restaurant reservations app. On this week's episode, he and I reminisce about the good and bad and definitely crazy old days of both Eater and Serious Eats. And even though we really weren't direct competitors then (or even now), it was fun to talk about the battle scars we both suffered in the early days of what was called the Web 2.0 era.
I love what Ben has to say about risk: "I think risk tolerance has got to be one of the three most important things you need as an entrepreneur. I think you have to be willing to take risks. You have to have a real understanding of what you're good at and you should take risks on the basis of what you're good at, and you need enough self-awareness to know what's not going to work. And, as Ben and I discuss, you have to have a real optimistic streak. As he puts it, "You've got to have a strategy to get through those days where it looks like it's the last day."
If you love to go to restaurants (and who doesn't?) or you've ever thought about taking the entrepreneurial leap into a food-related digital business, this episode of Special Sauce is made especially for you.