This week on Special Sauce, I have as my guest my old friend, Michel Nischan, the three-time James Beard award-winning chef, author, and food equity advocate. Michel's a busy guy. Between his work as the founder and CEO of Wholesome Wave, which aims to increase affordable, healthy food access for underserved consumers, and his work with the Chef's Action Network, which he co-founded, he doesn't have a lot of free time, so I'm delighted that he had the time to join me.
Michel has had a long and storied career, so we've broken up the interview into two parts. This week we focus on his origins, and how he went from being a broke, teenager playing music with some legendary names–think The Edgar Winter Band and Rick Derringer–to becoming a kind of savant line cook, due to ample exposure to good cooking at home. At his first job at a truck stop diner, he took one look at the griddle and all the breakfast meats and proposed to the owner that they make biscuits and gravy from scratch. "The guy thought I was stoned or something."
From there, he worked his way through a number of kitchens in the late 1970s and the '80s, moving every time he was given an incremental wage increase. "Two bucks more an hour in 1979 is like, wow. Sold."
But it wasn't until he started cooking at Heartbeat in New York City that he connected all the disparate elements of his life and career and began producing food that was way ahead of its time; healthy, yet still tasty. I do hope you take the time to listen to Michel's incredible story–particularly since he embodies the ideal of chefs who care about the people they cook for. And this week is just about his restaurant career; next week we'll get into how he's trying change the world.
This week on Special Sauce features the second part of my far-reaching conversation with Dan Barber, and he and I cover a lot of ground. He defines each of the three plates that are the subject of his groundbreaking book, The Third Plate. I'll let you in on what the first plate is here: it's meat and potatoes, "the classic American dinner," according to Dan. But to find out what the other two plates are, you're just going to have to listen (you can, of course, read his book, too).
Dan and I also discuss his relationship with the late environmentalist and philanthropist David Rockefeller, who built the restaurant that is part of Blue Hill at Stone Barns. And Dan makes it clear he has some strong feelings about corn cultivation in the country. He calls it "the most inefficient use of land resources in the history of the world."
Finally, Dan reflects on how having two young daughters has changed the way he feels about spending so much time in his restaurant kitchens. "It's very hard to be inspired in the kitchen," Dan says, "I just generally feel a bit angry."
I hope you have the time to listen in on our conversation–it's really Dan Barber as you've never heard him.
I think it's safe to say that Dan Barber, the visionary chef of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, has led an interesting life. I'm sure you'll agree after listening to this week's episode of Special Sauce.
Barber's dad loved good restaurants, so he was exposed to some pretty great places at a very young age. But, on the other hand, his father was also a practitioner of tough love. He used to say, "You're a humble son, Daniel, but you have a lot to be humble about."
His kitchen career got off to a rocky start at Nancy Silverton's La Brea Bakery, where he got fired for forgetting to add salt to 1,200 pounds of rosemary bread dough, ruining the entire batch. Barber overheard Silverton say, "I can't let this kid ruin me." He was 22 years old at the time.
Barber includes the legendary French chef Michel Rostang among his mentors, noting that Rostang has suffered four heart attacks in the kitchen as he's tried to secure a third Michelin star, an achievement that has eluded the Rostang family for three generations. Barber says that Rostang's commitment and drive affected him deeply, even as it made him wonder, "What is it about this whole restaurant, cooking, chef-ing thing that drives people half-mad?"
And Barber admits that he has his own regrettable moments in the kitchen, which is something he's trying to address. "I had one last night that I regret... I let it loose," he says. "And I'm a little bit cruel... I really am trying very hard."
Barber had so much interesting stuff to say about his early career and becoming an award-winning chef that you're going to have to wait until next week's episode of Special Sauce to get the scoop on his groundbreaking book, <em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/Third-Plate-Field-Notes-Future/dp/0143127152/?tag=serieats-20">The Third Plate</a></em>, and wastED, his pop-up restaurant concept, which just finished a five-week run in London. Until then, I hope you enjoy the first part of our fascinating conversation.
Last week, I promised that you'd get to hear why Mark Ladner decided to walk away from Del Posto, which was awarded four stars by the New York Times, to open a fast-casual pasta joint, and this week I make good on that promise. In this week's episode, Ladner and I discuss how he came up with the idea for his start-up, Pasta Flyer, and the challenges specific to figuring out how to make a good pasta that cooks up fast. He also reflects on how the experience is a kind of culmination of all the work he's done and everything he's been through in his life to date, from his first cooking jobs in the 1980s to working for Mario Batali, and how he considers his long and successful career in fine dining "a detour." As Ladner says, "I don't know how I necessarily got here, but this is what I was supposed to do."
But there's more (as there always is on Special Sauce): Ladner lets us in on the answers to some last-supper questions–who'd be invited, what they'd have–and the surprising dish he cooks up for himself after a long day slinging pasta.
In the first of my two-part interview with chef Mark Ladner, we focus on his indirect yet hard-earned path to helming Del Posto, the New York Times four-starred restaurant he ran for twelve years. And why did the only chef to earn those four stars by cooking Italian food leave that palatial restaurant kitchen to open up a fast-casual joint where the pasta cooks in ten seconds? Framed against this cosmic question, he speaks volumes about where food is headed in America in his typically low-key and thoughtful way. You'll have to wait until next week's episode to hear the answer in its entirety, but it's worth the wait.
You probably won't be able to hear it, but I was moved to tears by my interview with dumpling queen Helen You on this week's Special Sauce. Helen is the owner of Dumpling Galaxy, the finest dumpling shop in NYC, and the coauthor of The Dumpling Galaxy Cookbook, written alongside former Serious Eats editor Max Falkowitz. Her dumplings, as good as they are, weren't what got to me, though—it was her remarkable personal story. I won't reveal any more of it here, but my guess is you'll be reduced to tears as well. It's okay. We all need a good cry, especially when it comes with a happy ending.
I have been dying to get Mario Batali, whom I have known for more than a quarter century, on Special Sauce since I first dreamed up the idea for our podcast, more than a year ago. And, when all you serious eaters listen to Mario on this week's episode, you'll know why. The man is funny, smart, hyper-articulate, and both thoughtful and thought-provoking. Mario has so many interesting things to say—enough that we had to make this interview a two-parter. Next week, we'll delve into his accidental television career and chef-restaurateur stardom.
Many serious eaters know the pleasures associated with ordering something delicious from the online food retailer Mouth.com. But not many people know the fascinating backstory of Mouth's cofounder Craig Kanarick. That's where this week's episode of Special Sauce comes in. How Craig went from telling Fortune 500 companies what to do at Razorfish to finding the next great jam-maker at Mouth is a terrific story of risk and reinvention, and you can hear every detail on this episode of Special Sauce.
On this week's Special Sauce I chat with Missy Robbins, the chef and owner of Lilia in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Missy describes her 20-year journey to opening her own place with such sharp clarity that after we finished recording, I was unable to think about anything else for hours. And when we tried to edit our conversation down to one episode we found that we couldn't, so this week's episode is just part one.
In this first of a two-part interview with The New York Times Op-Ed Columnist and former restaurant critic, Frank Bruni, we delve into everything from his earlier days as Rome bureau chief for that same paper, why it feels as if readers of his memoir, Born Round: A Story of Family, Food, and a Ferocious Appetite, have "essentially been in bed" with him, and what he feels are the true qualifications for a restaurant critic.
On this week's Special Sauce, I continue my far-reaching conversation with great cook and ramen master, Ivan Orkin, aka Ivan Ramen. What is his recommendation on the best way to eat ramen, how did he make it as an American ramen chef in Tokyo, why did he return to the U.S. after so much success in Japan, and what non-noodle project does he have in the works in New York City? You'll just have to tune in to find out.
In this first part of a Special Sauce double-header, Ivan Orkin, of Ivan Ramen and Slurp Shop in NYC, talks about life before he became a celebrity in Japan as a gaijin (foreigner) ramen chef: the Orkin family table growing up on Long Island, NY, how a high school job working as a dishwasher in a local Japanese restaurant helped first develop his palate, his early years teaching English in Tokyo, the restaurant cooking experiences in the U.S. that shaped his philosophy on hospitality, and how he was able to overcome tremendous loss.
This week's guest on Special Sauce is chef and school food activist Bill Telepan, who is now at the helm of New York's Oceana Restaurant. Bill shares some particularly insightful observations about why chef-driven neighborhood restaurants across the country are struggling, his mother's reaction to his decision to drop out of college and attend cooking school ("You're kidding, right?"), and why young cooks at a restaurant should think twice before suggesting new dishes for the menu.
This week's Special Sauce features Chef Marcus Samuelsson, whose restaurant, The Red Rooster, is arguably ground zero of the Harlem food and drink renaissance. I found Marcus's story so inspiring and moving that I decided it merited two episodes. In fact, this is the first interview I've done for the show that has brought me to tears. There's so much to Marcus's remarkable story, so tune in to part one of this extraordinary interview.
Chef Daniel Rose of Le Coucou, the best new restaurant in New York City, reflects on his career and kitchen philosophy.
Let's face it: One of the main reasons we look forward to the holiday season is the copious amount of baked goods we get to make and eat. So, with that in mind, I invited our pastry wizard, Stella Parks (aka BraveTart), to take calls on a special holiday baking episode of Call Special Sauce. And I strongly urge serious eaters everywhere to take a listen. Why? Mostly because Stella is so knowledgable and unpretentious. But it's also because no matter what she's talking about–whether it's on the difference between a French tart and a pie ("To me, it comes down to a ratio issue.") or on why she quit making brownies in Kentucky to move to Japan, without knowing a single word of Japanese ("That was when I had my quarter-life crisis.")–listening to her wax down-home poetic on baking and life is as much fun as eating an entire baking sheet of perfect chocolate chip cookies.
In a million years, I would never have guessed Ruth Reichl's guilty pleasure: "Onion rings," she told me during part two of our conversation on Special Sauce. "I can't resist a good onion ring."
That's not the only surprising answer you'll hear on this week's episode from the woman I call the first rock star food journalist. Take a listen to hear her take on the digital revolution in food journalism or her unique choice of guests at her last dinner on earth–you won't regret it.