By Ted Kruckel Posted October 6, 2009, 4:59 PM EDT
It’s getting hot in here and the pressure is mounting. I’m in the kitchen with Jacques Pépin and about 20 students who are racing against the clock to complete their stuffed ballotines of chicken. Pépin is perspiring and working furiously as he goes from one student to the next, showing each the main steps that he demonstrated twice onscreen already.
It is 4:15 on a Saturday afternoon at the French Culinary Institute, and I’m sitting in on a New York magazine-sponsored deluxe weekend of instructional cooking, the New York Culinary Experience, with some of the world’s leading chefs. In addition to Monsieur Pépin, fellow F.C.I. deans André Soltner (formerly of Lutèce) and Alain Sailhac (formerly of the 21 Club) are sauntering around the room, assisted by six sous chefs, by my count. In two days, the announcement that Gourmet is closing will shock this community, but today we are all blissfully enjoying Food Month.
We are supposed to be out of the kitchen by 4:30, but not one bird has gone in the oven yet. In fact, not one has even been stuffed. So you’d think with all this talent and experience in the room, we could get this poultry project (literally) tied up.
Well, Pépin did go a little long in his presentation before setting the fledgling students free, but who wanted to stop him? He is fascinating to listen to. But as I flit from grill to grill, I get the distinct, surprising impression that not a single one of the students, who have all paid $1,395 for the privilege of a weekend’s worth of classes, knows the first thing about cutting up a chicken.
I notice about half of the students digging away with their nifty new Mercer Tool knives for their birds’ wishbones—from the wrong end. Only two of the 20 students have remembered that they need to sweat their onions and cook their stuffing concurrent with the deboning if they are going to allow their dressing to cool properly before trussing up their birds. Reminded of the need for this, one student impatiently asks, “Why is it important that the stuffing cool?” I think: Well let’s see, there’s salmonella, to start. All the stuffed, uncooked birds finally get packed in foil to be taken home, the window of opportunity for actually cooking them having long closed. One sous chef points out that it is not a good idea to wait a day before finishing the chickens off, and I hope people are paying attention.
But lest you think that I am describing anything less than a hugely successful event, then let me make it perfectly clear. Every single paying guest tells me they are having a great time, that they would do it again in a heartbeat, and that it is an honor to cook alongside Jacques Pépin. The word that comes to mind in describing the budding gourmands? Enthralled!
And it’s not just here. Somewhere along the way I missed the memo, and maybe you did too, but it is now official: October is now Food Month in New York City, and if you are not part of the action in some way, well, it’s like going celibate at Plato’s Retreat.
In addition to the second annual New York Culinary Experience, which ran from October 3 to 4, there’s already been a weeklong Bon Appétit Supper Club and Café, which closed September 25. There, at the base of the upcoming Buckingham Hotel, up to 1,000 people a day could walk in and buy lunch by a celebrity chef for $10 or less. And 150 V.I.P. guests got a ritzier experience by night—dinner with Clive Owen to celebrate his new movie, say, or the magazine's 12th annual Bon Appétit Awards.
Consider that in the next few weeks, I am also attending:
The second annual New York City Wine & Food Festival, sponsored by Food Network and Food & Wine magazine, October 8 to 11.
The Oyster Festival (in Oyster Bay, natch), October 17 and 18.
The Festival Sud de France, starring PBS’s roving epicure Mike Colameco, at various Manhattan locales, now through October 12.
Saveur’s Taste of Greenmarket event, a 20-chef dinner that includes Tom Colicchio and Bill Telepan, October 28.
New York’s second, and even larger, food event, Taste, on November 2.
And these are just the ones I know about.
I was looking forward to learning how to make brandade by Alain Allegretti at the Gourmet Institute on October 23 to 25, but then Condé Nast up and closed the most prestigious food magazine of them all, casting a dark shadow over the whole monthlong feeding frenzy. Paying guests will receive refunds. Ruth Reichl has tweeted that she’s cleaning out her office by today’s deadline like everybody else. And I’m wondering what will come in my mailbox next month?
Alas, there is still lots of eating to do and, quite honestly, my waistline doesn’t need this. Besides, I already did my time on this circuit years ago (Disclosure: I worked with Food & Wine, represented Rocco DiSpirito, and flacked for more wine and spirit companies than there’s room to list here.) I could just as easily take or leave them.
But there’s a lot going on here. There are huge consumer and professional trends that are blowing through our industries. And all is not exactly as it seems. I’d be lying if I said that I had this all figured out. All is not as it seems in this apparent burst of epicurean excitement.
For example, I got mixed vibes at the Bon Appétit Supper Club. There’s no doubt that the magazine’s executive director of creative services, Terri Smith, is right when she tells me her event, in its third year, is getting “bigger and better.” When I arrive for a lunch with Emeril Lagasse, there’s a line around the block. While hundreds of guests queue up at an attractive setting staged by EventQuest, I can’t help but get the feeling that I’m in a fancy serve-yourself cafeteria. Not knowing which way is up, I skip a line I’m told takes 45 minutes, and head upstairs where I assume the V.I.P. area is. There, a cacophonous crowd enjoys their midday repast while Emeril is visible, in mid-meal preparation, on a set of big screens. I walk around for a minute to make sure my suspicions are correct, and I’m right—not one person is paying attention.
Back downstairs, I find a reserved Bon Appétit platform where Emeril is cooking on an LG set. It’s sleek and professional and everything, but I can’t believe that they haven’t gone to greater lengths to limit the noise while he does his shtick (which doesn’t suffer, despite the din).
See these aren’t Bon Appétit readers, these are just walk-ins off the street, queuing up for a really good meal. I ask why magazine readers don’t get preferential treatment and Smith tells me, “Bon Appétit prides itself on being accessible. We’re for everybody.” Noble, I guess, but wouldn’t sponsors like Santa Margherita wines, South Africa Tourism, and LG prefer that their offerings be presented to an audience filtered by the magazine to guarantee an interest?
And who are these people who pay $1,395 for a weekend cooking course but don’t know where the wishbone is?
At the F.C.I. lunch, where Spotted Pig backer Ken Friedman gloats about his success, the same guests all ask questions that make it sound like a trade event. “What percent of revenue should you budget to cover monthly rent?” “Is the gastropub trend continuing?” And later with the same group, I overhear one woman talking about a “French red chardonnay” she tasted, while a bespectacled man lectures that “While I like chardonnays, I can’t stand Chassagne Montrachet,” which is like saying “I like liver, but I hate foie gras.”
The truth is that while there is a huge surge of interest in certain elements of the world of food, there are also signs that cause consternation. The Food Network has gone from a series of informative and intelligent cooking shows to a bunch of gimmicky, low-brow series. Food festivals are selling out left and right, but restaurant tables at all but the newest and most noteworthy go begging for diners (and Chanterelle is gone for good). Consumers are investing in professional kitchens and Le Creuset enamel cookware, only to let them gather dust.
What’s going on? Unbuckle your belts and join me for a bumpy month.