Maine Men

In October 2009, two twenty-something guys opened up Luke’s Lobster— a seafood shack in New York’s East Village. Less than a year later, they expanded, setting up a second, larger Luke’s on the city’s the Upper East Side. Here, in a new GQ blog series, Ben Conniff reveals why he and Luke Holden quit their day jobs to dive into the shark-infested waters of the N.Y.C. restaurant business—and how they’re scrapping their way to the top of the heap

from GQ, July 29, 2010

One afternoon in July of 2009, my cell phone started buzzing. I had recently sent an article to a popular food magazine, and my editor’s name was blinking on my screen. I’d been freelance writing for some decent publications in New York, but money was still tight. My editor was writing to say she loved the story. She was even going to pay me this time. As soon as the story ran. Sometime in 2010. Exactly one year ago today, I opened my laptop and turned to the place where everyone goes when they discover something missing in their lives: Craigslist.

I was ready to stop writing about food and start making it. But no restaurants were looking to hire an Ivy League keyboard pecker whose only food-service experience was seven teenage years spent eating the merchandise at a Connecticut doughnut shop. Surfing Craigslist was a real Hail Mary, and that day it paid off: I came across an ad for a nascent lobster-roll business looking for someone smart, talented, and hardworking to help create something special. I was none of those things. But I was sure I could learn.

lobster-roll-in-hands.jpg

Luke’s Lobster roll

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Ship Shape

Cooking on a vintage schooner takes skilled and steady hands.

From Saveur Magazine, April 2010Image

By the time the first of the six passengers aboard the American Eagle, a 92-foot schooner based out of Rockland, Maine, emerged from his sleeping berth, the boat’s cook, Robin Pietila, had been busy in the tiny galley for hours. She’d gotten up at four o’clock to feed kindling into the firebox that fuels the cast-iron oven and stovetop. It can take a long time for the stove to heat fully on a chilly morning like this one, and hot water needed to be ready for coffee and tea when the passengers awoke. Working a system of vents and flues, Pietila had channeled the heat from the firebox, now loaded with burning logs, to the stovetop. As soon as the water was boiling, she closed off the flue, forcing hot air into the oven, which she needed for today’s breakfast, a lobster frittata. After a few minutes, she opened the oven and stuck in her hand, holding it there for several seconds before yanking it out. “If I can keep it in there for just five seconds, I know it’s about 425 degrees,” she said. The oven is the same kind that was originally installed on the boat, almost a century ago, and has no temperature gauge.
 
I’ve seen chefs perform miracles in cramped restaurant kitchens, but I’ve never seen any cook do as much with as little as Pietila, a 52-year-old former teacher from southern Maine with no formal culinary training, does here on the Eagle. She and other galley cooks provide one of the paramount pleasures of sailing aboard a vintage schooner off Maine’s rocky shores, where a number of historic boats like the Eagle ferry paying guests up and down the coast. On a four-day sail from Rockland, I marveled at the dishes Pietila produced in her kitchen: from the fluffy, perfectly golden frittata to a delicious porcini-and-shiitake focaccia to fruit salads, turkey chili, and corn bread.
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Sails and Tails

Throw a proper Maine lobster bake–anywhere

from Tasting Table Everywhere, Jun 23, 2009

windjammer-lgThe water in New England is still a bit chilly for swimming, but no matter: When Yankees get sand between their toes, their first thoughts are not of sunscreen and snorkels, but of lobster and lemon butter.

Well-timed to coincide with the recent plunge in lobster prices, a new cookbook features a lobster-bake tutorial from the masters: schooner captains from Maine, the lobster capital of America.

Windjammer Cooking, by Jean Kerr and Spencer Smith, is a collection of recipes from the state’s windjammers: old fishing schooners that have been repurposed for passenger cruises. On every cruise, the captain anchors at a swath of sand and fires up an all-you-can-eat lobster bake.

Here’s how it’s done:
1. Cover the bottom of your largest pot or a galvanized-steel kettle with 2 to 3 inches of seawater (or lightly salted water). Position the pot over an open fire. Bring the water to a boil and add lobsters. Pile clams, mussels or other shellfish on top. Next, add a layer of onions, garlic and potatoes. Cover with a thin layer of seaweed and add corn (in the husk, but with the ends trimmed to save space).

2. Cover everything with a thick layer of seaweed, cover the pot and let steam for about 20 minutes. When finished, the potatoes should be tender, the shellfish should be open and the lobster meat should be white and firm. Serve with melted butter and lemon wedges.

Out of the Ashes

A winemaker turns disaster into a delicious barbecue sauce

from Tasting Table Everywhere, May 22, 2009

In October 2005, an arsonist set fire to a wine warehouse in Vallejo, California, ruining $100 million worth of wine from 92 wineries. Most winemakers left their bottles to the bulldozer; Julie Johnson just couldn’t let go.

So Johnson, the owner of Tres Sabores, an organic winery in nearby Rutherford, threw on a Tyvek suit and gloves and rescued all the wine she could. Her wines were “cooked,” as they say (though quite literally this time), and undrinkable, but she took about 5,000 bottles home to see if she could do anything with their contents.

She boiled down some Zinfandel and added produce from her farm. A few trials later, she emerged with a sauce, ¿Porqué No? Fire-Roasted Zinfandel Marinade and Grilling Glaze.

Named after one of her perished wines, ¿Porqué No? has the berry aroma and smoky pepper of the Zin, complemented with pureed persimmon and pomegranate and a spicy dose of serrano chile. Johnson left sugar and tomato out of her recipe, so the flavor is tangy and complex–and not at all cloying.

As its name suggests, the sauce has multiple uses: Johnson likes to marinate pork or chicken in the mixture, then brush it on again as the meat grills. Or you can try it in her homespun recipe, a lusty, blue-cheese-stuffed, bacon-wrapped burger (click here to download).

¿Porque No? Marinade and Glaze ($14 for 500 ml) is available at tressabores.com

State Plates: Connecticut/Yankee Pride

from Saveur Magazine, May 2009

THINK CONNECTICUT is one big suburb? Think again: its diverse immigrant communities, fertile farms, and vibrant university towns full of forward-thinking chefs add up to as rich a culinary landscape as that of many states three times its size.

Connecticut’s bounty is deliciously apparent on the menus of its most innovative restaurants. At the Dressing Room at the Westport Country Playhouse, the chef Michel Nischan offers classic dishes crafted with local ingredients. Our favorite: the chicken pot pie with jerusalem artichoke sauce.

LIFE AQUATIC

Whether hooked in the state’s rivers or coastal bays, Connecticut’s fish and shellfish draw crowds. Native delicacies include quahogs, the hardshell clams that star in New England clam chowder; plump bluepoint oysters; and bluefish from the Long Island Sound. In spring, Connecticut River vally residents welcome the season with shad bakes, at which the spawning fish is deboned, spread on oak planks, and roasted with salt pork over an open fire.

pepesAPIZZA!

New Haven’s Wooster Square has been synonymous with pizza (or as locals say, “appiza,” pronounced ah-BEETS) since 1925, when an Italian immigrant, named Frank Pepe opened a pizzeria that turned out thin-crust pies topped with just tomato sauce, oregano, and anchovies, perfectly charred in a coal-fired oven. In time, Pepe’s pies (shown above) became the gold standard in Connecticut (and, depending on whom you ask, the world); today, the signature version is topped with clams and chunks of garlic. Read more »

Mexican Chocolate

from Saveur, April 2009

ibarraTraditional Mexican chocolate, with its intensely tannic, spicy flavor, is an essential ingredient for complex moles, or sauces, like the ones chef Rick Bayless makes at his Chicago restaurant Topolobampo (see page 70; a recipe for his pork with mole negro sauce appears on the previous two pages). Unlike European-style baking chocolate, traditional Mexican chocolate is never conched (rolled together with vanilla, sugar, and cocoa butter until it becomes smooth). Instead, the cacao beans are coarsely ground, toasted, and combined with cinnamon and ground almonds; then the mixture is molded into cylinders or disks. While the best Mexican chocolate is still handmade on a grinding stone, there are several good commercial brands widely available in the states. The most popular is Ibarra ($4.25 per 18.6-ounce box). -Ben Conniff

Agenda: Delmonico’s Opens

from Saveur, April 2009

1902December 13 Anniversary: Delmonico’s Opens

New York City, 1827

Italian immigrants John and Peter Delmonico helped introduce fine dining to America when they opened their first cafe, Delmonico and brother, at 23 William Street. Their Empire grew to nine locations but could not outlive Prohibition. The restaurant was raided by “dry” agents in 1921 and 1922; by 1923 it could no longer afford to operate.

Randy’s 50th Anniversary

from Riffin.com

randysFor fans of Reggae, Ska, Dance Hall, and Dub, there’s no better way to trace the lineage of your favorite tunes then with the recently released Randy’s 50th Anniversary from VP Records. The album mines the best recordings to come out of Vincent “Randy” Chin’s iconic Kingston record shop in the 1960′s and 70′s. The fifty tracks paint a clear portrait of the process by which Jamaican artists melded American pop music with Caribbean rhythmic sensibilities to create genres all their own that have continue to flower into new manifestations to this day.

The influence of U.S. pop recordings is clear in early tracks like Alton and Eddie’s “Let Me Dream,” a fairly straightforward doo-wop, covers like Bob Marley’s laid-back, matured (and overall better) version of the Archies’ bubble gum hit “Sugar Sugar,” and later Alton Ellis’s bright, syncopated cover of “Too Late to Turn Back Now,” originally by the Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose.

But a clear Caribbean vibe is also present from the start. The appropriate opening track, “Independent Jamaica” glides atop Caribbean percussion. A heavy Ska backbeat propels Rico Rodriguez’s “Rico Special.” By the end of the first disc, the social critiques of Peter Tosh and romantic plaints of The Gaylads are set to a rhythm like nothing to come from the U.S.
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The lighter side of badass

eastwood

from Uinterview.com

The last thing you’ll learn from Gran Torino is that Clint Eastwood is not a good singer. But on your way to this less-than-stunning revelation you’ll learn many more pleasurable lessons. You’ll find out that even at the age of 78, Eastwood is still an uncompromising badass. You’ll also see that age has brought even deeper introspection and a good deal more humor than he typically puts on display.

Gran Torino is not a comedy. Yet for the majority of the movie I was laughing. The plot centers on a crotchety, stubborn, conservative racist whose good old white neighbors have all fled an incursion of Hmong immigrants. At the start, we see him as his children, grandchildren, and neighbors see him: as a bastard. But he quickly reveals that the old donkey is in fact quite smart, quick with a joke, and shockingly not petty—he befriends the teenager who tries to steal his beloved classic car. While many of the movie’s jokes are at the expense of Eastwood’s character, Walt, at least half feature him as the comedian. Read more »

An epic that won’t weigh you down

from Uinterview.com, 12/29/08

buttonThe sweeping Pitt/Blanchett Christmas blockbuster is generating big Oscar buzz, but most of the buzz I heard during the show was generated by a uniformly gray-haired crowd, striving to explain to one another what was going on. As the show progressed, they inched ever closer to the screen in hopes that they might catch Benjamin Button’s curious reverse-aging disease (or at least their spouses would).

But you don’t have to be geriatric to enjoy Button’s saga. Even the pure visual spectacle was enough to hold my attention for the 2 hour and 55 minute running time. If no one else is a shoe-in for the Oscar, Pitt’s makeup artist certainly has it nailed down. He presents us a very convincing 70-year-old Pitt at the start and subtly freshens him, taking him past the youthful lad he was in 1992’s A River Runs Through It to a scrawny teenager (who, being Brad Pitt, still gets laid). Cate Blanchett’s aging is almost as impressive, and the cinematography is full of sweeping historical panoramas, softly lit, but not quite to the schmaltzy saturation of Titanic.

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