Wednesday, December 5, 2012


I had a blast reading RESTAURANT MAN (Viking; $27.95), Joe Bastianich’s raucous, deeply personal and entertaining memoir of growing up in the family business.  The son of successful restaurateurs, Lidia and Felice Bastianich, young Joe grew up as an entitled punk in Queens, New York. While his parents were running their first restaurant in Queens, and later as Lidia launched her own fabled restaurant and publishing success in Manhattan, young Joe was avoiding the family business, eventually going to college and landing a job on Wall Street. Unhappy in the world of investment banking, went to Italy instead and learned about food and especially Italian wine. It was Italian wine in particular (he owns his own vineyards in Italy, where he makes excellent wines) that drew Joe back to the family business.  When he returned to New York, Joe was ready to open his own restaurant. Becco, was his first venture, and in partnership with his mother, Becco became a success, a great deal of that success was the Becco wine list, with all of the very drinkable wines priced at an affordable $15 a bottle. Bastianich would innovate the concept of wines in his restaurants for the rest of his career. In a few short years, Joe and Mario Batali, then a hot young chef with his own restaurant and a TV show on the Food Network, teamed up to create Babbo, their brilliantly successful Greenwich Village modern Italian restaurant. It would be the start of a fabulous partnership with a string of legendary restaurants in New York City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Eataly, a multi-million-dollar Italian culinary retail and restaurant enterprise in the heart of Manhattan.

RESTAURANT MAN has often been compared to Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, and the similarities are apt. Joe curses and struts up a storm like a sweaty stevedore but above all he is very  funny. Some have been put off by the crude language, the confidence, swagger and style he employs to tell his story. The restaurant business is a rough and tumble world and Joe gives it all the color it deserves. He captures all the magic, hard work and the headaches that go with running an incredibly detailed restaurant empire with a portfolio of multi-starred, critically acclaimed businesses that are the envy of the restaurant world. Joe also settles scores with grandstanding food critics, greedy landlords, and business associations that went bad. He’s been criticized for his salty language and the score settling he indulges in this book.  More power to him. We have all worked with people we didn’t like or found to be dishonest, or worse, mean-spirited. Getting even always feels good, or as I like to say, "Schadenfreude, baby!" Joe Bastianich is not above giving as good as he gets. 

I had a few quibbles. Joe claims it was Babbo that started the popularity of eating at the bar in restaurants in Manhattan. Danny Meyer’s Union Square Café was serving regulars with style, great food and wine years before Babbo opened. I’m still not sure why Joe decided to share his Bill Clinton story, which I felt was a tad bit petty, rather than illuminating. Those are minor stumbles in a remarkable success story in the cutthroat world. Joe is incredibly generous in laying out his own formula for success from finding a location, creating the vision for the kind of restaurants that Batali and he innovated, hiring the teams of designers and contractors that created their vision, as well as the chefs, kitchen and front-of-house waiters, busboys and managers who helped keep his restaurants humming day in and day out. He’s very detailed about the sort of pitfalls to be aware of and to avoid. RESTAURANT MAN is a true, first-generation story of a young man formed from his parent’s immigrant experience, and their success in the new world. Joe Bastianich is articulate and respectful about his parents hard work, and his own rejection and embracement of their traditions as he created his own path. One of the best truisms from Bastianich is his belief that male chefs cook competitively and females cook to nurture--a truly wise statement. He acknowledges both his mother and his father’s own unique contributions to his success. And in true Bourdain style, Joe keeps you turning the pages. 

By the way, I always liked Babbo, and all the other Bastianich/Batali restaurants in New York, but Del Posto has provided me with perhaps the best restaurant experiences of my life and I dined in New York City's best and most acclaimed restaurants for nearly four decades. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012


My work on The Oregonian Cookbook has kept me away from my blog. That doesn't mean I ignored all the splendid cookbooks that continued to arrive at my door, and in the next few weeks, I'm going to be writing about a lot of them under the heading of...YOU OUGHT TO HAVE THIS COOKBOOK IN YOUR COLLECTION (and give it to a friend for Christmas as well!).  I'm starting with perhaps my favorite cookbook of 2012.

There is a whole new world to explore beyond such popular root vegetables as potatoes, carrots, beets, turnips, radishes and ginger.  Now there's a stupendous resource to this fabulous category with the publication of ROOTS: The Definitive Compendium with More than 225 Recipes by Portland-based cookbook author, Diane Morgan (Chronicle Books; $40.00).  Everything about this new work signals the arrival of something special and significant. Deborah Madison, a great cookbook writer about most-things-vegetable, has written the Foreword. Antonis Achilleos' museum-quality color photos have a physicality and a beauty that is breath-taking. Chronicle Books has generously loaded the book with lots of these photos, and given the whole book a package that gives these gifts from the ground the kind of tribute they have always deserved. Best of all, Diane Morgan has provided delicious, exciting and creative recipes that show off their versatility and deep flavors.

Even five years ago, it would be unthinkable to find burdock root, crosne, galangal, malanga, salsify, and turmeric in supermarkets. Ethnic and farmers markets helped us find our way back to them. Diane Morgan introduces these along with more common varieties, each to its own chapter, covering history and lore, varieties, nutritional information, seasonality, storage, basic uses and preparation.  She then immerses the reader in recipes using each vegetable, some familiar, but more often in surprising and interesting variations.

I don't think I've ever seen wasabi root in my local markets (not that I've ever made much of an effort to find it), but it's a beautiful rhizome and I'm going to investigate further because I love Wasabi Mayonnaise (recipe provided here),  and will even consider making Salmon Hand Rolls with Fresh Wasabi--something I've entrusted entirely to my local favorite sushi chef. I've often ordered Wasabi Mashed Potatoes at New York's popular Union Square Cafe, and now I  can make them locally here in Portland.

Like beet tops, I'm no longer tossing out those pretty green radish tops, which make a spicy and satisfying soup (Morgan suggests using them as soup shots for a "fun and unexpected appetizer"). Smashed Parsley Roots and Potatoes with Crème FraÎche, is both rustic and rich. Brown Sugar-Ginger Ice Cream is an intriguing new flavor to add to my repertoire, and Jewel Sweet Potato Ravioli with Sage Brown Butter Sauce has already made its way to my table (admittedly I'm lazy and used won ton wrappers for these voluptuous pasta pockets). I know dried ground turmeric turns rice yellow and has a mild flavor. Fresh turmeric is used in "Indian, Thai, Cambodian and other Southeast Asian cuisines," writes Diane Morgan, but the fresh stuff can infuse "classic Punjab recipe" of Indian Spiced Cauliflower Potatoes and Peas. We get a lot of halibut in Oregon, so Turmeric-Braised Halibut Steaks with Garlic, is an aromatically impressive use for turmeric and this popular fish.

Of course root vegetables have always been with us, but all too often we forget (and limit our regular use to the same familiar choices) what Europeans, Asians and Latin Americans have always known about these wonderful vegetables. The relatively new revival of the farmers market in cities and towns everywhere has brought many of these forgotten edibles back to us.  ROOTS restores them to their rightful place in our kitchen, and I'm grateful to Diane for rescuing them in a book that is both delightful to read as it is to cook from. This is an absolute must have for all serious cookbook collections.