Monday, October 8, 2012

Eating Bugs with Rene Redzepi

Noma is a restaurant in Copenhagen which has won Restaurant magazine's Best Restaurant in the World award three years in a row. It is owned and operated by Rene Redzepi. Tonight's New Yorker Fest event was an interview with him. I remember hearing about the restaurant three years ago and have tried to follow its progress and his rise in the culinary world. He is 34 years old, half Danish, and to say he is passionate about food would be a gross understatement. Although to be more specific, he's passionate about flavor and what can become food. He has taken foraging to new levels and sees nearly everything in the natural world as an ingredient in his next dish. He is a Nordic locavore in a place where the growing season is one of the shortest on earth; he cooks for the here and now, meals that can only happen in that specific place at that specific moment; he cooks of the sea and the soil; and he seemed like a super-nice guy.

And he brought us... samples. Not food, not dishes, not... snacks to speak of, but samples of things that he uses as flavorings in his restaurant. We were each given a little bag with four tiny containers and told not to open them until instructed. During the course of the interview we were asked to first open the container that appeared to hold a quarter teaspoon of some kind of black mush. It was crushed black wood ants with a drop of oil to bind it. I hesitated, I'll admit it, but I did muster my sense of adventure and scooped it up with the tiny spoon and stuck it in my mouth. Lemon. It had a sharp note of lemon-acidity. It was tangy and had a bit of a crunch - that would be the exoskeletons. It was interesting; not bad, not delish, but certainly interesting.

There is a staff of 70 at Noma, representing 22 countries. Rene has traveled extensively and takes inspiration from the world at large. He pointed out that bugs and grubs are eaten all over the world and he is trying to redefine "what is food and what is not food." He talked a lot about the flavors of other cultures while adhering to a menu of locally sourced products. He told us about a beach grass he found, sliced through, tasted, and discovered that there on his wind-swept, rocky, desolate Danish beach which was covered with rotting seaweed and flies, that this beach grass had a distinct back-note of cilantro. He spoke of this discovery with such delight and reverence - the idea that there was a cilantro-flavored plant in Denmark was to him like discovering diamonds in the backyard.

Our second container contained a sliver of something that looked a bit like a cherry stem but thinner and finer, and given the previous item, "please don't let this be a worm... please don't let this be a worm..." was the only thing running through my head. It turned out to be a fermented bit of mushroom. He said it had been soaked in a 2% salt solution and at the restaurant it was made into a paste to put on vegetables to make them taste meaty and on meat to make it taste meatier. It was good - salty and intense.

The third taste was a bright red dash of something wet. It was a rose hip soaked in vinegar. I love the scent of roses and I love the flavor of roses when used sparingly so it doesn't come across as too perfumey. My parents' backyard is lined with rose bushes and when I was a kid, I'd occasionally pop a petal in my mouth hoping it would taste as good as it smelled; it never did and I was always disappointed. This was sharp and acidic but once it was down my throat my whole mouth was encompassed with the essence of a rose. It was lovely and made up for all those rose petals I spit out as a child.

Ellen, being half Danish, and I have talked a lot about Noma and we've even talked about going there someday (if we could come to terms with the cost of a meal, which I'm not sure we could). When I spoke to her this evening I told her that I wasn't sure it was for us. The restaurant looks sublime - modern, sparse, and beautiful; the plates of food look gorgeous - so enticing. But as much as I love food, this is a game played at a different level - one that's essentially over my head, which would make such an expense just kind of wasteful and pretentious, I think. But I absolutely reserve the right to change my mind on that.

And then there was the last little capsule of pureed... something. It looked like a quarter-teaspoon of pea soup and tasted almost exactly like miso. It was crushed fermented crickets, which he told us after we'd eaten it. Crickets are a snack in many parts of the world. I know in Mexico they are fried and dusted with chili and lime and munched like popcorn. I'm sure I've seen them, also fried, at street markets in Thailand. They are plentiful, sustainable, and full of protein. I'll need some time before I start popping them like peanuts, though.

This talk was wonderful, I'm so glad I got to hear him speak about food and his restaurant and his philosophy of eating. He also showed a short video he shot with his iPhone of the restaurant's kitchen, lab, office, and staff eating area. He showed the grills and the smokers and the sheds where they store over 1,000 kilos of preserved ingredients. He was nice, he didn't seem to have the massive ego that often goes with famous chefs, and he seemed genuinely interested in sharing his ideas and of truly being a steward of what nature has provided. He's not trying to shock anyone by serving them bugs, he just really likes the way they taste.

Lisa Kudrow

Last night's NYer Fest event was an interview with Lisa Kudrow. I know it's not hipster-cool to admit to watching Friends, but I did, and I liked it, and I found parts of it really, really funny. So there. I've been wanting to check out Lisa Kudrow's post-Friends projects, The Comeback and Web Therapy, but haven't yet; will now. I have a feeling The Comeback might be too cynical and painful to watch and from her own description, the main character in Web Therapy is "a horrible person" so I don't know how well I'll do with that, but I'll give them a shot.

Lisa is delightful. She's kooky and funny and clearly very smart and very savvy. Her production company made and owns Web Therapy, perhaps a lesson learned from HBO so unceremoniously canceling The Comeback after one season despite is rabid following. Her degree is in biology from Vassar, she said she was the nerdy one in high school, the voice of reason in her social group, and when Henry Alford who was interviewing her (and who seemed star-struck and unprepared, and has a voice that makes him sound like the love child of Richard Simmons and Paul Lynde) asked what distinguished her group of friends when she was growing up, she said, "we all wanted to get into really good colleges."

She was very entertaining and her similarity to, well, to Phoebe was kind of disconcerting. If that makes any sense.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Future of Sitcoms

Emily, Michael, Mike, Nahnatchka, Greg
I've been watching sitcoms my whole life. From The Mary Tyler Moore Show to All in the Family to Taxi to Mork and Mindy to Family Ties to Cheers to Frasier to Seinfeld to Friends to Arested Development to The Office to Parks and Recreation to Modern Family to The New Girl. And all the others in-bewtween. With a few exceptions from the 70s and even fewer from the 80s, sitcoms, in my opinion, are better than ever these days; the laugh tracks are gone; new, clever formulas have replaced the old tired ones; and the acting is top-notch.

Today I went to a panel discussion led by the New Yorker's TV critic, Emily Nussbaum, called The Future of Sitcoms: Laughing Matters where I fell a little bit in love with Mike White who is clearly brilliant and more than a little disturbed (I recall reading that he had a nervous breakdown a couple years ago). The others on the panel were Greg Garcia (created My Name is Earl - watch it sporadically, appreciate the smartness while not being hugely compelled by the show; also created Raising Hope which I really like); Nahnatchka Khan (writer for Family Guy so she's clearly a genius, but still not sure about her own show, Don't Trust the B- in Apartment 23; seen it a few times, has an edge but it's not my favorite); Michael Schur (created Parks and Recreation which I was late to the party on despite Josh's prodding; one of the most delightful shows ever); and Mike White, whose show Enlightened I've heard a lot about but not seen - will track it down immediately when I get home. They didn't really discuss the topic at hand (a reoccuring theme at New Yorker Festival events) but had a lively and funny discussion about their own shows, their past shows, dealing with networks, what's funny, and how they started out in the business.

When I was young(er), I thought I might work in TV someday; I never did, and as George Eliot may or may not have said, it's never too late to be what you might have been... except, as Rebecca Mead pointed out, sometimes it is. But as Mike White wrote for his character Amy in Enlightened, "I will know you when we are both old and maybe wise, I hope wise. I know you now. Your story. Mine isn’t the one I would have chosen in the beginning but I’ll take it. It is my story. It’s only mine. And it’s not over. There’s time. There is time. There is so much time…" except when there isn't. But my regrets are few, and for all the time I have spent comparing my life to a sitcom instead of writing one, I am grateful.

Another October, Another New Yorker Festival: Tales Out of School and Fiction Night

Instead of being the reason for the trip to New York this year, the New Yorker Festival is going to conclude it. I've been here five weeks and now have a weekend of Festival events before heading home.

The first two events were last night; first, Tales Out of School, storytelling by several New Yorker staff writers detailing events or anecdotes regarding stories they've worked on for the magazine. I'm not sure what I expected; what I got was five writers whose New Yorker pieces I recall reading, standing at a mic and telling a story. Lauren Collins told a story about the time she threw up on Donatella Versace on the way to Donatella's villa on Lake Como; she made the comment that Donatella was the "Lyndon Johnson of fashion moguls," having ascended to her position via the assassination of someone much more qualified. Rebecca Mead told a story which started with the question, did George Eliot really say "it's never too late to be what you might have been"? - a quote which has been attributed to her; Rebecca thinks not, and doesn't believe the platitude is true (I agree), but told a lovely story about her attempt to find out, the point of which was, I really, really need to read Middlemarch (something Ellen has been telling me for years). Nicolas Schmidle told a story about why he made a gift subscription of the New Yorker to a Russian arms dealer who has recently been sentenced to and is serving a 25-year prison term; Anthony Lane whose movie reviews I totally enjoy, told a rambling, disjointed, almost manic story about how he once shot a movie (meaning, shot a movie playing on a screen with a gun) in such a manner that I wondered if he had snorted a few lines before hitting the stage; it was an interesting example of someone who is extremely coherent, funny, and sharp in writing but who struck me as obnoxious and rather smug in person. And Lawrence Wright told about what it took to get his epic story on Scientology printed, and detailed the events which led to 47 binders (which took up 7-linear feet of shelf space) being presented to him by the organization's lawyers in response to over 900 fact-checking questions asked by the magazine. Introductions to the stories were made by Andy Borowitz who said some amusing things which I can't remember, and piano interludes were played by Leo Carey.
Leo, Lorrie, Julian, Junot

After Tales Out of School, I immediately made my way to another venue to hear one of the Fiction Night discussion with Julian Barnes, Junot Diaz, and Lorrie Moore, which happened to be moderated by Leo Carey (no piano). I read one of Lorrie Moore's books in the 90s and haven't read any of her short stories because I hardly ever read short stories. That being said, I read one of Junot Diaz's short stories in the New Yorker recently and it blew me away. Julian Barnes won the 2011 Man Booker Prize for A Sense of an Ending which as luck would have it, I read two months ago. The title of their talk was Love and Marriage and it was interesting. I met Mai (who I had dinner with on the Upper West Side a few weeks ago) and a friend of hers at the talk. The talk was interesting and was about love, but not necessarily marriage. Nothing earth-shattering came from it, just a reiteration of what I already know, which is love is the most compelling force in the universe. Not really big news, but interesting to hear those three (mostly those two: Julian and Junot) riff on the subject. Mai's friend knew Junot through her academic circles so we met him and his girlfriend after the talk. He was friendly and personable and did the Latin double-cheek-kiss-hello-thing... his roots are deeply Dominican but he grew up in Jersey. I also chit-chatted with Leo Carey for a few minutes since he was standing next to Junot when I was introduced. I told him I had enjoyed his piano-playing earlier that evening and he seemed sincerely pleased by that and was impressed by my ability to get across town from one venue to the other in a tight window of time; I pointed out that he did the same, although I'm guessing a car service came into play for him, as opposed to the sweaty subway.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Book of Mormon

After two hours of standing in line at the box office and two and a half hours of standing in the theater, I have now seen "The Book of Mormon" on Broadway. My feet are still aching but it was worth every minute. I tried to get a standing room ticket yesterday but the box office sold its last spot to a person three places ahead of me in line, so I got there extra early today, at 4pm, and waited for the box office to open at six. At 5pm there was a lottery for front row and a few box seats; about ten pairs of tickets were given away, alas, I didn't get one, but those of us in line were told that there were about twenty standing room spaces available, and since I was about 10th in line, I was pretty sure I'd get one, and I did. It cost $27 and I was dead center behind the last row of orchestra seats, perfect view of the stage. The show is spectacular on all levels and classic Trey Parker-Matt Stone. It is completely irreverent but somehow also good-natured; it's totally vulgar but somehow also sweet; it is technically offensive, but also so ridiculously funny that you can't help but love it. And Jesus speaks with the voice of  Eric Cartman. I wondered how many senior citizens in the audience (of which there were many) got that one. The sets were great - most of the action takes place in Uganda (that's right, Uganda), the main performers are fantastic but I couldn't help but notice how talented the chorus was too, and the songs and choreography are really top-notch. The dance numbers are energetic and creative - there's even a tap number and I LOVE tap numbers, and the songs are exceptional... they're just great numbers, songs you'd want to learn and sing in the car.
If you only see one musical-comedy about Mormon missionaries, AIDS, genital mutilation, African warlords, bestiality, having a god-complex, and squashing down your gay tendencies... with cameo characters including Frodo, Yoda, Hitler, Johnny Cochran, Jeffrey Dahmer, Brigham Young, Darth Vader, and the aforementioned Jesus who sounds like Cartman... then this is the one to see. Even though I wore comfortable shoes today my feet really do still ache, but I'd do it again in a minute.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Apartment

middle building, third floor
It's almost time to head home from the "home" I've had for a month. I've always loved my place in Seattle and as convenient and [mostly] comfortable as this little Midtown pad has been, I love my place in Seattle even more now than I did before. Here, I'm three blocks from Times Square; at home I'm eight blocks from Queen Anne Avenue, which is more my speed. Here, my living room faces 10th Avenue which is so noisy during the day, that if I'm on the phone, I have to take the call in the back bedroom and shut the door; at home my living room faces - well, a driveway, but that makes it quiet, blissfully quiet. This place is a third floor walk-up through a dark and dank hallway (although it's nice enough when you actually enter the apartment); at home I get to my front door either through my own garage or by walking down a flower-lined path from a quiet, tree-lined street. These are observations not complaints - my Midtown pied-à-terre has been great -- it has been comfortable for guests, the appliances and furniture are new, the fact that there is a washer and dryer is a luxury I didn't expect to find, the shower is hot, and the two HD flatscreen TVs have been perfect, but there's no place like home, and home is Queen Anne.