My guest on this week's Special Sauce is Chris Bianco, the man who makes my favorite pizza in the world. The pies he puts out at Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, AZ, would definitely be on the table at my last supper. And while Chris is also the author of the new book Bianco: Pizza, Pasta, and Other Food I Like, which every aspiring pizzaiolo should pick up, I invited Chris onto the podcast because he's the poet laureate of pizza, someone who truly connects the dots of food and life in unique fashion.
The centrality of food and cooking to his identity is evident in everything he talks about, from the lesson he learned as a child at the Bianco family table ("Food was really as important as your breath, basically.") to the reason why he thinks he has gravitated toward cooking: "I think that I've been very insecure just in my existence, like where I fit in. I wanted to make you happy...I wanted you to like me, whoever you were."
And while he's passionate about food, he still has a sense of humor. Consider his description of the way he got started making money cooking in Phoenix: "I was making pasta and mozzarella in my apartment, and I was selling to a couple Italian restaurants at the time. They paid me cash. And I was like, if I got busted, how much time can you do for mozzarella?"
Chris also has some sage advice for young chefs: "What I challenge them to do is take everything out of their apartment, their spiritual apartment, and put it on their front lawn, and to see what they have they want to bring back in, and redecorate their life with or their inspirations with." And as for his poetic bent, Chris once told me, "I'm on a mission. I have a responsibility to do something with integrity and dignity. My menu might be small, but to me, it's the biggest thing in the world. Pizza inspires me, fascinates me, and gives me hope."
To hear more of Chris's wise words you're just going to have to listen to both this and next week's episodes of Special Sauce.
In part two of my illuminating interview with French-American super chef Daniel Boulud, he and I talk about—believe it or not—airline food. Daniel has designed some business class meals for Air France, and the airline flew me over to Paris to experience his food in the air. While the food was tasty, it wasn't perfect. (Having worked on airline food as a consultant, believe me when I say that "tasty but not perfect" is about as good airline food is going to get.) I asked Daniel how it felt to work within the constraints of airline food preparation, particularly as a self-confessed obsessive perfectionist. "I enjoy the challenge," he replied. "And I hope people appreciate the fact that I'm just trying to elevate the offering."
Daniel also talks about a remarkable older book of his, Letters to a Young Chef, which he has updated and is being reissued in October. I asked him about the qualities a young cook has to possess to become a successful chef-restaurateur. "You have to have the passion for hospitality, the passion for making people happy," he said, adding that that passion has to come through in a "respectful, intelligent way."
Daniel has a whole lot more to say about his career and his success in the restaurant business, and he also lets me in on how he'd like the world to celebrate a hypothetical Daniel Boulud Day, and on which band he'd like to perform at his last supper. You'll just have to listen to the episode to find out.
My guest on this week's Special Sauce is Daniel Boulud, whom I have known for more than 25 years. We first met when Alex Lee, his longtime chef de cuisine and my regular squash partner, asked me to take Daniel on a New York Eats food adventure (Alex now works for über restaurateur Stephen Starr). Over the course of that afternoon, Daniel tasted everything from Nova Scotia smoked salmon and cream cheese on a bagel at Russ & Daughters to superb Polish ham made by Kurowycky and Sons in the East Village (which, sadly, is no longer with us). I found myself in awe of Daniel's insatiable intellectual curiosity about everything and everybody in the food culture, his devotion to his craft, and his passion for deliciousness. And I think you'll immediately notice all those characteristics on full display in this week's episode.
How devoted is Daniel to his craft? He started cooking professionally at the tender age of fourteen—at a Michelin three-star restaurant, no less. A month later he was plucking pheasants and other game birds in a restaurant basement for 14 or 15 hours at a stretch. Did it phase him? Nah, he'd already been doing similar work at his family's farm outside Lyon for many years.
If you listen to him rhapsodize about learning to make a dish like ecrevisses à la nage (crayfish in a vegetable broth), I promise it will make you hungry. You'll also hear how well his curiosity served him when he ate a breakfast of tête de veau (calf's head) washed down with Beaujolais, with many of France's leading chefs, at the big market at Lyon. That's quite a breakfast, but, then again, Daniel's quite a chef.
I hope all you Serious Eaters will listen to, learn from, and enjoy this week's Special Sauce episode, which is entirely devoted to the culinary education of one of the greatest chefs in the world.
On this week's episode of the Special Sauce podcast, host Ed Levine talks to David Rockwell, the architect and designer behind every Nobu around the globe, as well as multiple airline terminals and the theater in which the Academy Awards are held.
In part two of my Special Sauce interview with Chinese-food and -culture writer Fuchsia Dunlop, we tackle common misconceptions about cooking Chinese food at home. Fuchsia addresses those intimidated about diving in, explaining that "people often think that Chinese cooking is very complicated–that you're gonna need all kinds of weird ingredients–and also there's this idea often that Chinese food's not very healthy; there's a lot of deep-frying and that kind of thing." But, she says, "I think the important thing to remember is that Chinese food is what most people in China just cook at home every night. People there, they don't have a lot of time. They want to rustle something up that's tasty and healthy and within their budget for their family."
The Land of Fish and Rice author also shares how to stock our kitchens with just a few Chinese items, including what she calls "magic ingredients." But she doesn't stop at pantry essentials–you'll hear all about why mud snails are "absolutely divine." They are, I learned, "eaten raw and pickled in rice wine ice cold. You crunch it, complete with its shell."
Even if you're not quite ready to take the mud-snail plunge, though, she has plenty of recommendations for inquisitive minds and palates. She recommends the five-volume Chinese novel that should be required reading for everyone interested in China, and dishes on what famous distant ancestor would be at her last supper–someone I just had to allow, even though I usually bar family from the list. To hear what everyone would be doing on Fuchsia Dunlop Day, you'll just have to listen. I will say that Kenji will be very happy when he hears it.
What a story: A young, food-obsessed British student at Cambridge University named Fuchsia (God, I love that name) heads to China in the '90s to study, and manages to become the first Westerner to attend the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine. After that, she zigzags between China and London and, in the process, becomes one of today's best English-language writers on Chinese cuisine.
That's Fuchsia Dunlop's story, as you'll hear on this extraordinary episode of Special Sauce (part one of a riveting two-parter). Why has she devoted so much of her working life to writing about China and Chinese food, culminating in her latest cookbook, Land of Fish and Rice: Recipes from the Culinary Heart of China? Fuchsia explains: "I really do think that Chinese gastronomy and Chinese cuisine is both an amazing creation as culture and as expression of human creativity and inventiveness and so on. It also has many important lessons for everyone in terms of health. There's no other cuisine, perhaps, that combines pleasure and notions of health and balance like Chinese.... That's something that, in the West, in the whole world, we're struggling with. How do you eat well in a way that's both pleasurable and also good for health and environmentally sustainable? I think we can find many of the answers and solutions in traditional Chinese cuisine."
When you listen, you'll learn, as I did, some Chinese cooking terms that defy easy English translation: zhi jia pian, ma er duo, gu pai pian, niu shi pian. What do they mean? I'm not going to tell you. You'll have to listen to find out.
Welcome back for part two of my Special Sauce interview with Southie street urchin-turned-chef-restaurateur Barbara Lynch. This week we talk a little bit more about her memoir, Out of Line: A Life of Playing With Fire, but Barbara also manages to surprise me with a few additional tidbits of information, like the distinguished company she keeps (one of her "great friends" is an acclaimed presidential historian whose initials are DKG).
Barbara and I discuss what spurred her to continue to open up restaurants ("I get bored easily," she says. "I always have to challenge myself.") And we also touch upon why, despite her expansive success, she's resisted the siren song of opening up a restaurant in Vegas, and the impression she was left with after meeting with mega-hotelier, Steve Wynn.
We also reflect on the pleasures of setting up your employees for future success (for those Serious Eaters who don't know, Kenji first learned how to cook in one of Barbara's kitchens), and on the necessity of keeping a big box of original Cheez-Its in your car at all times.
But if you want to hear about the inspired guest list at her last meal, or about its simple yet entirely appropriate menu, you'll just have to listen.
This week on Special Sauce my guest is the great Southern food chronicler John T. Edge. I've been discussing food as seen through the lenses of race, class, and ethnicity with John T. for almost 20 years now (no one, not even his wife, calls him just "John"). So when I heard that his magnum opus, The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South, had been published, I knew it was the perfect excuse to continue our discussion, but with both of us miked up.
As usual, John T. has plenty to say regarding the issues he has devoted his life to writing about. He describes his work as a kind of settling of debts, particularly with those who have given so much to him, even as they remained nameless. As he says, "The South is a place to parse out racism and its impact. I grew up not knowing the name of the BBQ pit masters who worked the pits at my favorite place just down the road. I loved Miss Colter, the owner, I can tell you what her face looks right now, I can picture that kind of serious gray curls on top of her head. But I don't know the names of the men who actually cooked the BBQ I grew up loving. And that recognition has driven me throughout my career as a writer."
Check out this episode of Special Sauce, which is, in the best Southern tradition, drenched in both redeye gravy and provocative notions, thanks to my friend John T. And tune in next week when he and I take a deep dive into The Potlikker Papers, which is a must-read for all Serious Eaters.
Last week's episode of Special Sauce ended with Michel Nischan and I discussing his groundbreaking restaurant, Heartbeat, and his efforts to serve food that was healthy and actually delicious.
This week we pick up where we left off and talk about how leaving Heartbeat led to Michel becoming a trailblazing sustainable food consultant for major airlines, hotel groups, and corporations looking to develop healthier menus by sourcing better, organic ingredients. It was this consulting work that led him to develop a friendship and partnership with the late actor, entrepreneur, and activist, Paul Newman, with whom he operated the former farm-to-table Dressing Room Restaurant in Westport, CT. Michel and Newman hit it off, in part, because Michel hadn't seen any of his movies. "One day he finally said, 'Have you seen any of my movies?' I said, 'I've seen <em>Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid</em>.'" Newman looked at him a moment and then replied, "I knew I liked you for a reason."
Newman also served as the catalyst for Michel to found his remarkable nonprofit, <a href="http://www.wholesomewave.org/">Wholesome Wave</a>, the goal of which is to increase access to healthy, locally and regionally grown food in underserved communities. Michel discusses the nonprofit's remarkable growth, and describes—with much-deserved pride—its accomplishments, like influencing the 2014 Farm Bill for the better.
There's a whole lot more to our discussion, including Michel's thoughts on ways to get involved in fighting for iamportant food policy issues, and of course the usual grab-bag of Special Sauce questions. I do hope you listen; Michel is doing admirable work.
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.