Wednesday, December 7, 2011

An interview with DONALD LINK, latest ragin' Cajun to bring local and sustainable to town

James Beard Award-winning Chef Donald Link was inspired by his grandfather to start cooking at a very young age. His path led through San Francisco kitchens and a stint as sous chef for Susan Spicer’s Bayona to establishing a group of innovative, acclaimed restaurants in downtown New Orleans including Herbsaint, Cochon, Calcasieu and Cochon Butcher. Cochon had been a lifelong dream for Chef Link, who seeks to keep true to his roots in the Cajun prairie west of Lafayette. Cochon features the foods and cooking techniques he grew up preparing and eating. Link has won many awards including Gourmet’s “America’s Top 50 Restaurants” and two from the James Beard FoundationBest Chef: South and Best New Restaurant (for Cochon). He opened a second Cochon in Lafayette in September. His cookbook is the real thing: Real Cajun: Rustic Home Cooking from Donald Link's Louisiana.

Q: The Southern Foodways Alliance in Oxford MS gives a Ruth Fertel Keeper of the Flame Award to people who, like Memphis pitmaster JC Hardaway, have spent a lifetime pursuing their culinary specialty. You’re a bit young for that yet but that seems to be the spirit behind your work: keeping the flame burning. Tell us about your roots in Cajun country and some of the traditions you are keeping alive in your restaurants.

A: My dad’s family emigrated from Germany in 1881 bringing their sausage traditions with them. To this day they still hold communal sausage making days where several members of the community come together to make large batches of smoked sausage to split amongst themselves. They were also very instrumental in developing the rice business that Louisiana has today. My mom’s family was from southern Alabama. I had the privilege of growing up with my Grandparents’ cooking as they lived a half mile from each other. So I grew up with Cajun food from Granny and Southern food from Granddad. I watched how they grew their own food, hunted, and fished, and turn all that into amazing family meals. What most people talk about today as sustainable, local and all the other catch phrases being thrown around, is simply how I ate growing up. It was the only way. Those traditions of southern and Cajun home-cooked meals made with real local food is what we do at our restaurants now, it has always stayed with me that this style of cooking is real.

Q: Herbsaint is a Creole restaurant and Cochon a Cajun restaurant. Can you explain the difference for us? And, btw, for the non-locals, can you explain those names, Herbsaint and Cochon? 

A: I like to think of Herbsaint as a Louisiana restaurant with country French and Italian roots, or a country French style with Louisiana roots, either way. Herbsaint is named after the liquor Herbsaint which, before the turn of the century, was Absinthe. We chose this name for the era of New Orleans that it represents, a place where all walks of life came for the excitement of what New Orleans was. Cochon is more rooted in deep southern and Cajun traditions but not straight versions of them. Cochon (French for pig) uses old world techniques like whole hog butchery, smokers, wood burning oven, and of course all using local products.

Q: You're just opened a Cajun restaurant in Lafayette. Coals to Newcastle? Are there major differences between Lafayette cuisine and Lake Charles (the city between Lafayette and Houston)? And since everyone prefers the way their momma or grandmomma, dad or granddad, parrain (godfather) or marraine (godmother) made gumbo or sauce piquante, how do you plan to overcome that built-in resistance?

A: Lake Charles leans a little more toward Texas style when it comes to cooking, but still has plenty Cajun dishes: boudin, crawfish and gumbo. Lafayette is considered the heart of Cajun country. I think the best way to overcome any resistance is to create dishes their mom didn’t make. I by no means think I can compete with someone’s grandmother. No matter how good I make something, someone is going to have their way of doing it that they like. We are serving a smoked boudin that I think is phenomenal. I personally like the idea that there are so many different versions of boudin and gumbo. It would get boring real quick if they were all the same.

Q: Tell us about the new restaurant. Pretty setting, I hear.

A: The new place is in River Ranch area of Lafayette on the bank of the Vermillion River. We have lots of outdoor deck seating overlooking the river, and a terrace lined with salad greens and citrus trees. Inside we have high ceilings and lots of windows. And a very large bar. 

Q: You seem to be having a lot of fun on your internet project, Taste of Place, which takes you all over the country to hang out with pig farmers, fishermen, foragers and chefs. Something tells me this project, with all the other stuff you’ve got going on, helps keep you fresh and sane. For you, what’s the best part of doing Taste of Place

A: The best thing about doing the show is the people I get to meet. I’ve learned more about food in the last year than in the last 10. I’ve been able to incorporate a lot of what I have learned into our menus and what we have our farmers here grow. I’ve even gone so far as to start my own hog breeding. We have seeded 4 farms with Mangalitsa-Berkshire crosses and plan by early to mid next year to have a permanent supply of hogs for all the restaurants. All pork we sell will come from our hogs. On Taste of Place I’ve been able to eat the best of the best, from salmon in Seattle, to black sow hogs in Virginia, to fresh American Red snappers off the coast of Florida.

Q: Winner of the 2011 James Beard Foundations "Best Chef South," Stephen Stryjewski is the Chef and co-owner at Cochon. How did you meet? When did you realize, and how did he prove to you, that a New Jersey boy could carry on the South Louisiana traditions so important to you? 

A: Stephen brings to southern food what a southerner can’t, which is a new perspective. He really understands the soul of southern and Cajun without making replicas. Steve started out as a grill cook at Herbsaint, then on to sous chef. I knew right away that Steve had a special talent, so we started to look for locations to go into a restaurant together and eventually opened Cochon.

Q: You’ve been a big supporter of the Edible Schoolyard New Orleans at the Samuel J. Green school. Tell us about your involvement and experience there.

A: The best thing about the project is it teaches kids where their food comes from, something I think is lost for most children. I had the benefit of parents and grandparents who had gardens and I ate very well growing up. Most kids only know what they see in the grocery store. We all know that nutrition in this county has gone down significantly. Getting our next generation to be aware of what real food is and how to respect that will increase the well-being of everyone. Food is a powerful thing. Good food makes people happy, it’s one of the only common threads that everyone in the world shares.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

From an interview with Poppy Tooker, a star in the New Orleans culinary scene

Poppy Tooker has contributed to both Fine Cooking and Louisiana Cookin’ magazines; she has become a mainstay at the Jazz Fest Food Heritage stage; she has taught cooking classes in Turin, London and all over the United States; she has been on various television shows, produced her own TV series, and even made an appearance on Food Network's Throwdown with Bobby Flay. Her gumbo beat the Iron Chef's in a crowd taste-test. 

Q: Your new radio show on New Orleans and Baton Rouge public radio, Louisiana Eats, highlights all things culinary in South Louisiana.  How did you come to your obsession with food?  I'm guessing it had something to do with your mother’s and grandmothers’ tables? Who were the great cooks in your family? And at whose apron strings did you learn to cook?
A: I was very fortunate that both of my great grandmother’s were alive until I was ten years old.  Both were great cooks, which was a lucky thing for me as my mother equated cooking with the worst sort of housework, so all my favorite foods were prepared by out housekeeper, Ellen and the great grandmothers. My happiest memories include beautifully laid, laced clothed tables gleaming with silver and crystal; Sunday dinners at Mamman’s that always included green cream de menthe frappe – even for the five year old me! Once the housekeeper quit and the family matriarchs died, I became a self-taught cook – learning from Miriam Guidroz in the Times Picayune and watching Julia Child on WYES.

Q: I guess I'm hoping for a portrait of the family culinary scene: big family dinners? Favorite dishes? Restaurants? Food traditions? 
A: Although no written recipes were left behind, my father, Tom Tooker who grew up at my Mamman’s table was blessed with good taste buds and the same acute taste memories as I. By trial and error, I recreated per his approval, Mamman’s landmark family dishes – chicken stew, dark with a Louisiana roux and thick with chewy dumplings; petite pois peas simmered in the same dark roux, just a little naturally sweeter and spicy with black pepper. Family Christmas Eves meant a rollicking open house, with cold lobster from Lenfant’s served skewered with colorful, frilled toothpicks, snowy sugared pecans and every petite fours and cake square ever imagined from Gambino’s Bakery.
Q: I know you have a camp in Grand Isle and never miss an opening day of the shrimping season.  Did you grow up fishing? Where? Tell us your favorite fishing story.
A: I spent much of my childhood at my best friend’s camp, Chitta’s Child situated in the middle of Grand Isle, learning to love life on the water from earliest memory.  Luckily, I married a man with a love for sports fishing who taught me how to pull a shrimp trawl in the early spring and eat salty oysters straight from the bay. Together we’ve fished the rigs on sunny warm days in late December when the Gulf is so crystalline, the schools of fish in the depths below appear aquarium perfect.

Q: What lost New Orleans restaurant do you most miss?  And, to use Calvin Trillin’s technique for ferreting out a person’s favorite restaurant, if you’d just spent 2 years on MREs (perish the thought!), what’s the first restaurant you’d go to when you got back to New Orleans?
A: For the most part, the New Orleans restaurants I miss the most are the ones that have dramatically changed over the last decade for various reasons, which, naturally include Hurricane Katrina, but also because of changes in management and family vision.  Those caused by the storm include the visual and atmospheric changes at Mandina’s and the total loss of ALL of lakefront seafood restaurants that I loved – most especially Sid-Mars, Brunings and Fitzgerald’s. And most of all, I miss that crazy, rosy pink sanctuary on St. Charles Avenue, Flamingoes Café – the first place in uptown New Orleans where it was cool to be gay and where the party never ended – until the AIDS epidemic brought the fun to a screeching halt in the mid 1980’s.
Q: And would you share with us your favorite-of-the-moment New Orleans recipe?
A: Today, in the week of Thanksgiving, my favorite recipe is something I’ve been teaching this month in my classes at the New Orleans Cooking Experience and that I’m looking forward to serving next week at my Thanksgiving dinner – my great grandmother’s Oyster Rice Dressing.

Serves 10 - 12
1 quart raw oysters
3 cups raw rice
4 stalks celery, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 stick butter
1 bunch green onions, sliced
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1/3 cup Lea & Perrin sauce
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Melt butter in a heavy Dutch oven type of pot. Sauté the celery and onion until tender but not browned. Drain the oysters and reserve the liquid. Coarsely chop the oysters. Add the rice to the seasonings in the pot and toss until the rice is translucent. Add the oyster liquid, Lea & Perrin and enough additional water to equal 6 cups in total. Bring to a full boil and then reduce the heat as low as possible and cover. Cook, undisturbed for 20 minutes. Add the oysters, green onions, parsley and salt and pepper. Toss together with a fork, cover and cook an additional 5 minutes.

For the sake of comparison, you’ll find Ruth Fertel’s Plaquemines Parish Oyster Dressing on the Chef John Folse & Company site.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

An interview with DR. KAREN DESALVO, a national leader in health care reform

Dr. Karen Bollinger DeSalvo has spearheaded the recovery of the health care system in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, making it a model for community-based medical service. She is at present on leave from Tulane, where she is professor of internal medicine and vice-dean for community affairs and health policy with responsibility for implementing the school’s mission to build healthier communities, including oversight of community health center programs. Under her leadership, Tulane University School of Medicine won the top award for community service from the American Association of Medical Colleges in 2011. She has become a national leader in the drive for sensible and sustainable reform in health-care delivery systems.

Q: The city has seen a transformation of health care delivery since Katrina and you’ve been at the center of it. As Vice Dean for Community Affairs and Health Policy at Tulane you oversaw the development of neighborhood health clinics throughout the city that delivered better primary and preventive care at less cost. You’ve said that changes in medical care since Katrina have “put New Orleans ahead of the curve” nationally. It’s a complicated story but can you give us an overview? It’s often said that New Orleans is “incubating the future of education in America.” Can the same be said of medical care? Where’s medical care in New Orleans going next?
A: The widespread devastation of the healthcare infrastructure gave New Orleans an unprecedented opportunity to redesign a major American health sector from the ground up. We began our work on a new policy and system framework in the days following the flooding even as we were working to restore basic services like 911 and providing first aid on the streets. What we imagined was a high quality, cost-effective health system founded upon a distributed network of community health sites that used health information technology to improve the safety and efficacy of care. It would be supported by a sustainable, flexible financing model that would support community based primary care and give even the most vulnerable better access and choice.
In the ensuing 6 years, New Orleans has seen the successful development of that envisioned health sector. We now boast an innovative, modernized community health network providing neighborhood-based access to quality care for everyone, including the most vulnerable populations in the region. The transformed system has been recognized by the US Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and the National Committee for Quality Assurance as a best practice and innovation others should follow.
The next chapter of our transformed, model health system is still being written but it will involve weaving together the component parts of the health “sector” we created in the last six years – neighborhood based primary care, health information technology and our quality efforts — into a health “system” that is more accessible and more seamless for patients and able to direct people not only to the best quality health care, but also to services that will improve their overall health.
Q: There’s still a lot of anger in New Orleans about the closing of the Ruth’s Chris Steak House at Broad and Orleans. But the corporation that now owns the restaurants gave the building to Tulane to move the Covenant House Health Clinic there. I think there’s great karma in this: my mother left a cardiologist’s lab at Tulane Med School to buy Chris Steak House — turning from a cardiologist’s lab to becoming something of a cardiologist’s nightmare. [Forgive me, Mom, I know not what I say]. And I love the fact that, Karen, you love to fish almost as much as Mom did. I’ve heard you say regarding the anger about the Broad St. building that "People are grieving for a wonderful past. Our job is to create a wonderful future." What are the plans for Broad and Orleans? When might it open?
A: We are thrilled that we will be able to put the Ruth’s site back into operation for the community as a health center. The building became available at just the right time for us. We had outgrown our current location and were looking for a permanent home. We will relocate from our current site a few blocks away and be a source of quality health care for everyone, especially those most in need including the uninsured. The health care services will be a more efficient and effective version of what we offer at our current site. These include primary care for all ages, mental health services, and women’s health. Because we are a part of Tulane School of Medicine, we also train doctors and others who will be part of the future health care workforce. We will be ready to serve patients there in April 2012.
Q: So much can be saved when preventive medicine is practiced – money and lives. I know that y'all have been doing creative things to draw the community into your care. Tell our readers about the drum circle that brings culture bearers like Mardi Gras Indians to the clinic, and about other creative programs.  [for some of my pix of Mardi Gras Indians go here]
A: Preventing diabetes or treating it early saves lives and money. The same is true across a host of other acute and chronic illnesses. With that focus in mind, our clinic team aims to identify people at increased risk and empower them to be partners in managing their own health. For a town with a culture as rich as New Orleans, this simply cannot be done without taking in to account important cultural legacies such as the Mardi Gras Indians. If we open our minds and healing options to include innovative solutions such as drum circles, we are not only more effective but also more integrated in to the community we serve.
Q: Tell us the story of how the Covenant House clinic began. I know it started just a few days after the hurricane…
In the days after Katrina, a group of volunteer Tulane faculty and doctors in training came to New Orleans to provide basic health care for first responders and New Orleanians who had not evacuated. They set up makeshift first aid stations around the City including on Rampart Street at the Covenant House complex. Word spread quickly and within days up to 150 people were coming by for tetanus shots, diabetes care, and other basic services like treatment of rashes and cuts. We moved in to a building on the campus to establish a permanent site of primary care for the neighborhood and have been there ever since. I always say we "jumped off the cliff and built our wings on the way down" since from that first day we were on the street, we weren't certain what the future would bring for patient need, service delivery or funding. And somehow, we have been able to do more for our patients, the neighborhood, and build a model of care and health care training now recognized as one of the best in the nation by the American Association of Medical Colleges.
Q: There are a lot of untold heroic Katrina stories. Your husband Jay DeSalvo, an emergency-room physician, stayed after Katrina to work the ER, to empty the refrigerators of fifteen friends and neighbors, and to climb roofs to help repair them. And there is heroism is dealing with the aftermath of Katrina now 6 years after. Can you tell us some things about the everyday heroism you’ve been witness to?
 I see the heroism in the everyday actions of everyone who has stayed in this city, or come to help her stand up again. We were knocked to our knees in a devastating blow. It takes a mix of everyday heroism and resiliency to stay and be part of the rebuilding after such devastation. I am proud to have been part of a larger community, including my husband, who chose to stay and bring back one of the great American cities.
Q: You’re a native of Austin TX who came to New Orleans for medical and graduate school — two cities where “there is a there there.” What do you miss about Austin? What do you love about New Orleans that Austin doesn’t have?
Austin is a wonderful town that was the ideal place to grow up. I was raised by my very poor single mother and Austin gave us access to advantages like education, arts, and recreation a no or low cost. It was also very safe. This allowed my sisters and me to grow and develop our intellectual curiosity in a way that most children in poverty do not get to experience.
What I love about New Orleans is that it has a rich history, a rich culture and soul that runs brightly through the lives and institutions here. As a city it has its own life and we are merely interacting with it. It gives me energy and inspires creativity. And the water all around us makes for a magical feeling of connection with not only nature, but with the rest of the nation and the Caribbean.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

An interview with DAVIA NELSON of NPRs Kitchen Sisters

Davia Nelson is one half of NPR’s Kitchen Sisters (with Nikki Silva). The Kitchen Sisters have produced over 300 stories for public broadcast. They chronicle hidden bits of history and subjects who have shaped our diverse cultural landscape. Their current series, The Hidden World of Girls, is hosted by Tina Fey, and airing nationwide on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Their other NPR series include: Hidden Kitchens and Hidden Kitchens Texas, narrated by Willie Nelson and Robin Wright Penn; Lost & Found Sound, narrated by Francis Ford Coppola; The Sonic Memorial Project, narrated by Paul Auster; Waiting for Joe DiMaggio; WHER: 1000 Beautiful Watts; and The Nights of Edith Piaf.

The Kitchen Sisters have received, among others, the duPont-Columbia Award, two Peabody Awards and three Audie Awards.
Their book, Hidden Kitchens: Stories, Recipes and More from NPR's The Kitchen Sisters, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 2005 and nominated for a James Beard Award. A tie-in to the NPR series Hidden Kitchens, it explores street corner cooking, kitchen rituals and visionaries, legendary meals and eating traditions. The audio book is narrated by actress Francis McDormand.

Q: Davia, thanks for taking the time to share some thoughts about New Orleans and food culture, two things which I know are close to your heart. When did you first visit New Orleans and what was the occasion? Tell us about your most memorable New Orleans meal.

A: My first trip to New Orleans was in 1974 or was it ’75? I was immersed in the world of criminal justice at the time, part of a program where people did community service instead of going to jail or paying fines, and there was a conference in New Orleans on alternatives to incarceration that I decided to attend. The fact that Jazz Fest was happening at the same time only slightly influenced my decision. CB radios were big at the time and we got completely immersed in CB radio culture as we drove across country in a little red Datsun. Breaker, breaker, etc, etc.
What hotel were we in? I can’t tell you that. I remember we got immersed in a hot debate about Own Recognizance the minute we hit the conference. And the first night in town someone took us across Lake Pontchartrain. And then out to dinner at Dooky Chase. I just didn’t know food could taste like that. I had been to Dixleland Square in Disneyland and had a beignet there, but that was about all I really knew about New Orleans. When Leah’s cooking was before me, and the room just came alive, I was smitten. The magic of the meal, the name, the hospitality stayed with me.  Dooky Chase was one of the first places I thought about when I heard about Katrina and the flood.
That weekend we went to Jazz Fest and fell in with a bunch of guys from the local pipe-welders union. They knew how to live. They could see what greenhorns we were and decided they needed to teach us how to eat crawfish. Hadn’t had them before that set of the Wild Tchoupitoulas Mardi Gras Indians. “Come on, girl, suck the head,” they urged. I can’t eat a crawfish today without thinking of that.

Q: Have the Kitchen Sisters done any New Orleans pieces? If not, give us your New Orleans “bucket list”: Whom would you most like to interview (or whose story would you most like to tell)? Mind you, through the magic of the Internet, you’ve just been given a time machine and can go back in time.

A: The Kitchen Sisters tell a New Orleans story any time we can. Our first was part of our NPR Lost & Found Sound series. We were looking for lost audio artifacts, recordings that captured a century in sound, unusual ephemeral moments in the culture that were one of a kind and had a kind of magic. When we were at the Rogers & Hammerstein Library of Recorded Sound at Lincoln Center researching a story for the series, we asked the librarian about the most compelling lost recordings that were hidden in the collection, the ones only he knew about. He said, “Well, there is that home recording of Angela Lansbury auditioning for Mame, and those eight cardboard discs recorded by Tennessee Williams and his lover Pancho at the Pennyland Arcade in New Orleans in 1947. Needless to say, we made a beeline for Louisiana and the story we produced “Tennessee Williams and The Pennyland Recordings” is one of our favorites from the series.
One of the most powerful Hidden Kitchens stories, “King’s Candy: A New Orleans Kitchen Vision” also comes from there. Orissa Arendt called the Hidden Kitchens hotline and told us the story of Robert King Wilkerson, a man who had been in Louisiana’s state prison Angola for 31 years, 29 of them in solitary. He was basically a political prisoner, having founded a chapter of the Black Panthers. “Somehow,” she explained, “in solitary confinement, he managed to create a kitchen — and he did it out of a stove made of coke cans, and he burnt toilet paper rolls to get heat. And he made pralines, which we love in New Orleans. He made these delicious candies and perfected the recipe, hidden in prison. Eventually, they decided they had made a mistake for locking him up for so long. 'King' had a new trial, and he's out now, and he sells his candies which he calls "Freelines." He does it as a way to help raise (consciousness) about political prisoners.”
We found King in Austin after Hurricane Katrina, where he re-located and has continued making Freelines and working on behalf of Angola prisoners. Almost any time we present our stories in public, we play the story of King’s Hidden Kitchen and serve his candy and carry his message with us. 
The King story led us to Boudin and Broncos: The Angola Prison Rodeo, about Louisiana’s state prison, a former 18,000 acres plantation where inmates grow most of the food they eat. During the Angola Prison Rodeo, inmates’ offer local fare at food concessions stands. Dozens of traditional Louisiana dishes are prepared and sold. The man selling snow balls, as they call “snow cones” in New Orleans, is in for rape. The man selling pigtails kidnapped his girlfriend. The guy selling the Tornado Potato is in for life. Now that’s a “hidden kitchen.”

Q: Your new NPR project is The Hidden Life of Girls. Can you tell us about it? Any New Orleans girls in the offing? If you could go back using that time machine again and interview my mother, at what age would you choose to interview her? When she was licensed as the first woman Thoroughbred trainer in Louisiana? Just before she bought Chris Steak House? Just before she won the Horatio Alger Award? You’ve read the book: what do you imagine was her hidden life?

Ruth Fertel is a woman at the confluence of Hidden Kitchens and the Hidden World of Girls. They don’t make them much like her anymore. If I had a time machine I would join Ruth for a game of cards, learn how to do accounting like she did, ask her to teach me to cook a steak, and show me what to look for in a horse, and find out what made her so tough. I would need a lot of tape and a lot of time to crack the case. A pistol, a firecracker, a kitchen visionary. All those terms come to mind.

Q: You were at the first meeting in New Orleans about the birth of the Edible Schoolyard project at Samuel J. Green School. Why do you think projects that teach kids about food and culture are important?

A: The world is going to hell in handbasket. In these complicated times, the power of food – of cooking, of growing it, of tending even a small patch of land, and making things grow, of being nourished and nourishing each other, of sitting at the table together in conversation over good food – is revolutionary. It ties us to the earth and to each other.

Q: You’re a close friend of Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters (who just marked its 40th anniversary). Impossible question, but can you tell us about your favorite Chez Panisse meal? Who was at the table? What did you eat?

A: My favorite meal at Chez Panisse?  The night I turned 50. When Harry Belafonte was at the table and sang me “Happy Birthday” and then we harmonized on “Jamaica Farewell.” Who can remember what we ate?

Q: Can you share one or two of your favorite New Orleans stories, food related or otherwise?

A: My favorite New Orleans night happened at your house around your table. It was just after New Year’s, and right before the Epiphany, the year after Katrina. Everyone was still reeling, still in shock, and a meal cooked together, friends and family gathered around a table, still recounting the story of the storm and the massive levels of destruction and neglect and kindness, was such a powerful thing. You and I sat next to one another and began to talk about Alice Waters and her ideas about edible education and her thoughts that New Orleans might be a powerful place to create an edible schoolyard in the wake of Katrina. Since so many things were being rebuilt and starting from scratch. I said one or two lines to you, you jumped right in, had so many thoughts about the very issue, you knew just the school and just the principal, and within moments we had Alice on the telephone and you and she begun The New Orleans Edible Schoolyard. I know you cooked something delicious. I remember being in wonder in your big kitchen on the edge of Audubon Park watching you cook, but it’s the birth of the Schoolyard that I carry with me.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

An interview with HAM FISH, American publisher, social entrepreneur and Academy Award winning film producer

Co-founder with yours truly of the Ridenhour Prizes for Courageous Truth Telling, Hamilton Fish ("Ham" to friends and associates) is an American publisher, social entrepreneur and film producer. He broke the ranks of a long line of Republican ancestors when in the seventies he teamed up with Victor Navasky to revitalize the venerable Nation magazine, and later ran as a Democrat for Congress in New York's Hudson Valley.  Ham produced two of the epic films of Marcel Ophuls, including Hotel Terminus, winner of the Academy Award in 1989.  I worked with him for a decade at The Nation Institute on whistleblower protection and recognition issues, a project we developed under the name of my friend the New Orleanian journalist Ron Ridenhour.  Today Ham is publisher of The Washington Spectator and is helping to lead a citizen-based effort to close the dangerous Indian Point Nuclear Power Station, located less than thirty miles north of New York City.
Q: You’ve got roots in Canada and deep, deep roots in New York, but New Orleans seems to have snuck up on you. Watching you soak up New Orleans at your first second line on Rampart Street reminded me of Jesse Winchester’s lyric: “I want to live with my feet in Dixie and my head in the cool blue north” (which of course is how I want to live). Tell us what enchants you about New Orleans.
A: I didn't make it to New Orleans until after Katrina, and so everything I saw and felt was through the prism of that staggering event.  Everything post-Katrina seemed heroic; always the back story was about overcoming overwhelming odds.  By the time I first drove through it with you, the Ninth Ward was already indelibly imprinted on the national consciousness. But even the familiarity that one now gets from the media blizzard didn't begin to capture the sense I had of visiting sacred ground.  The closest parallel I can think of was Cambodia in the early eighties, where like New Orleans the devastation had forced a reordering of reality. 
Everywhere in those early months the city was scarred by the water lines across the lower sections of the homes and schools and businesses. Of course even by then the legendary pulse of New Orleans had started to revive, and everything about that aspect of New Orleans life to an outsider is enchanting. But I think from the start what reached me was that feeling of a tiny, erratic heartbeat at the core of unthinkable pain and loss, getting stronger each day and willing itself back to health.
Q: You helped create the Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund, which broke the story of Henry Glover, a man who was murdered during the hurricane by a rogue police officer and whose body was burned by other officers as part of a cover-up. What other stories has the Investigative Fund taken a lead in? Any others in New Orleans?
A: I did create the Investigative Fund, but the credit for establishing its credibility and importance in the world of journalism goes to Esther Kaplan, the editor, and in the case of the path-breaking story we ran on the Henry Glover case, to A.C. Thompson, the award-winning reporter. Esther and AC spent nearly two years on that project, and even to the point of filing suit in New Orleans court under the public records statute.  The two Thompson pieces that were eventually published in The Nation led to the FBI's involvement in the case and were cited by the US Attorney as the catalyst in their investigation.  They also inspired a PBS Frontline piece on police corruption and brutality in New Orleans, and a Spike Lee documentary on the role of race and class in the long history of police misconduct in the region.
We also ran a story about the toxic emissions in the FEMA trailers, published an anthology of writing on Katrina, and helped produce a wonderful documentary called Crepe Covered Sidewalks, a very personal story of a New Orleanian woman's return to her hometown and her family in the wake of the storm.
Q: Some of our New Orleans readers may remember Gambit and City Business investigative journalist Ron Ridenhour for whom we named the Ridenhour Prizes for Courageous Truth Telling co-sponsored by The Nation Institute.  Please share a bit about the importance of the prizes. And what does Ron mean to the world of investigative reporting and whistleblowing?
A: Ron of course was well-known during his lifetime among journalists and whistleblower advocates around the country for his historic role in releasing the My Lai massacre story during the Vietnam years and his subsequent and very distinguished career as an investigative reporter in Louisiana. But I think what has happened with the success of the Ridenhour Prizes program is that the name of Ron Ridenhour is now the defining standard for having the courage to speak out on unpopular truths, often at personal risk.  The fact of these awards has elevated the status of whistleblowers and whistleblowing, and has alerted the media and the public to the importance of whistleblowers to a functioning democracy. 
Q: Your family has a distinguished history in politics, perhaps a little more distinguished than my own family’s.  You know that my dad ran for mayor on the platform that the zoo needed a gorilla – perhaps in the spirit of Jimmy “The Rent Is Too Damn High” McMillan’s run for governor of New York last year.  What, if anything, do fringe candidates like these contribute to politics, aside from their entertainment value?
A: Hard to say.  Some remain marginalized and are not taken seriously even by an electorate that is accustomed to low standards in public life, while others seem to touch a nerve and speak for people who feel — usually with justification — that they don't have a voice.  I do feel the two major parties have an unhealthy lock on the political process and that we frequently don't get much variation among the candidates.  And, of course, when you do vote for a third party candidate, the system is rigged so that the worst candidate in the field usually benefits.
Q: You’re now President Emeritus of the Nation Institute, which you founded.  I know your hand is stirring a lot of different pots. What’s next for you?
A: My children are still either in college or about to enter, so like everyone else I feel I need about six jobs.  I continue to publish the Washington Spectator, and encourage everyone to subscribe by going to — we are unveiling a re-design of our print edition later this month.  Our new website should be live in January, and we'll be launching a new e-book imprint soon.   I maintain my life-long affection for The Nation and have been overseeing preparations for the magazine's 150th birthday coming up in a few years.  And I'm slowly working through the early stages of several for-profit social ventures which will I hope one day offer examples of how to succeed in business without causing harm to the social or environmental life of the country. 
Let me add one last stipulation – don't forget to read Randy's splendid new memoir (after you've subscribed to the Washington Spectator).

Thursday, October 27, 2011

An interview with GARLAND ROBINETTE, the voice of post-Katrina New Orleans

Garland Robinette is a long-time New Orleans journalist. Host of "The Think Tank" on New Orleans radio WWL (AM), he is perhaps most renowned for his continuing coverage of the situation during and after Hurricane Katrina. He was on the air at WWL virtually constantly, broadcasting from a closet during the height of the storm, and becoming the voice of New Orleans outrage ringing strong and clear throughout the land.
Robinette was a news anchor and investigative reporter for WWL-TV in New Orleans from 1970 until 1990. He headed public relations for Freeport-McMoRan in New Orleans before starting his own firm. He returned to the media in 2005 on WWL (AM) as a fill-in for David Tyree, a popular afternoon talk show host who had been stricken with cancer. The position became permanent when Tyree succumbed several weeks after Hurricane Katrina. Garland is also an accomplished artist, whose credits include the 2011 Jazzfest poster featuring Jimmy Buffett. You can see his work by clicking here.

Q: Garland, thanks for taking the time to share your New Orleans with our readers. You hail from Boutte, upriver from New Orleans, where Louis Armstrong’s mother was from. Can you give our readers a bit of a picture of life in Cajun Louisiana? Kinda like the Des Moines, Iowa of the bayous, no?

A: I didn’t move to Boutte until I was 14. Lived my earlier years in the swamp, over the RXR tracks, behind Des Allemands [upriver from New Orleans about 30 miles and once settled by German/Alsatian immigrants, hence the name. And famous for Des Allemands catfish and the July Catfish Festival — y’all come!]. It was a Humble Oil camp of blue-collar workers. 12 houses all exactly alike, everyone driving a pickup truck, everyone with a small pirogue. Everyone earned the same paycheck and there was little chance of advancement in the money market. There was no racism because we were the only race. We had no crime because it wasn’t a good idea to rob your family. We were oblivious to the scary world surrounding us. It was communism. We loved it.

Q: As TV reporter and anchor, you probably covered some stories that took you to the dining room of the flagship Ruth’s Chris, first at Broad at Ursuline, then at Broad and Orleans. Can you tell us about that political scene? Ever witness some outright shenanigans there?

A: I never covered anything of any consequence in the political arena, so I was oblivious to the political beehive I entered when I went to Ruth’s. I do know that being married to my co-anchor made it very difficult to dine without being bothered. But Ms. Fertel made sure the couple suffering from small fame had only to worry about pushing away from the feast….and nothing more.

Q: Right after Katrina, you were one of the few radio hosts that were able to continue to broadcast and famously interviewed Ray Nagin [view that extraordinary sequence from Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke” here]. You’re not known for mincing your words. Nor am I. Is there a shred of truth in Nagin’s self-published Katrina's Secrets: Storms After The Storm (Volume 1)? Do you think he’ll make good on the threat in that subtitle? — will there be a volume 2?

A: I didn’t read his book. Although I paid little attention to politics before Katrina, after six years of radio-talk (mostly involving politics) I experienced a revelation! The word politics means multiple blood-suckers. I had enough trouble getting rid of them in Vietnam.

Q: We lose a football field of wetlands south of New Orleans every 45 minutes. You’ve been reporting on the destruction of the wetlands for decades. What caused it and how can we stop it?

A: We caused it. We didn’t want to flood, so we built levees, therefore we denied the river sediment to the wetlands. We wanted cheap gas in our cars so we allowed the oil companies to cut canals through the wetlands, which allowed salt-water to kill more wetlands. We also ignored a TV guy [named Garland Robinette — he’s kinda shy, you know, cher] who did a documentary a year for 16 years, warning us that the city was going to be destroyed. We yawned and called him Mr. Gloom and Doom. We did it. To stop the carnage, we would need to be given between 30 and 50 billion dollars…….ain’t gonna happen. I say grab some beer and crawfish and move to the “sliver on the river” and hope the next big “H” won’t arrive in our lifetime.

Q: On your WWL radio daily show The Think Tank you’ve interviewed just about everyone involved in rebuilding New Orleans. You’ve had an insider’s look at New Orleans’ rebirth. How are we doing? What do you most regret about the new city and what are you most proud of?

A: Forbes magazine says we are the number one destination for entrepreneurs in America. I agree, young people are flocking to New Orleans. So far, I think we have a very good mayor (I say so far, because I’ve said that at least twice over the past 40 years and I was wrong) and our police chief seems to be smart and innovative. My main regret is that we haven’t found a way to fully restore the black culture that was the backbone of “unique city”…….but we still let Les Bon Temp Rouler!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

An interview with ALON SHAYA, chef/owner of Domenica Restaurant in the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans

As a little boy in Philadelphia, Alon Shaya spent most of his time in the kitchen with his mother and grandmother, which instilled in him a passion for cooking. After training at the Culinary Institute of America, Alon interned at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, too young to gamble, but ready to take on the casino kitchens. In 2001, he opened Antonio's Ristorante at Harrah’s Casino, St. Louis. There he met Octavio Mantilla, general manager and co-owner of Besh Restaurant Group, who lured him to New Orleans. As chef de cuisine at Besh Steak in Harrah's Casino, New Orleans, Alon worked closely with Chef John Besh. In 2007 Louisiana Cookin’ showcased him on its cover and in a corresponding feature about five young "Chefs to Watch." Alon and Chef Besh forged a partnership in 2008 and decided to open Domenica, a family-oriented, authentic Italian restaurant in New Orleans’ Historic Roosevelt Hotel.  Alon also played a line chef in a recurring role in HBO’s Treme.

Q: Domenica salutes the food of the Piedmont where you studied. I was amazed the first time I enjoyed your salumi plateau finding those amazing savory beignets.  I thought for sure they were playing off our famous beignets from Café du Monde but I was told they were authentically Italian.  Can you tell us about them? What area of Italy eats their salumi with deep fried savory donuts?!?  And do I want to know what you fry them in?
A: Those beignets are called Torta Fritta in the area around Parma located in the region of Emilia Romagna. Further south in Modena they are referred to as Gnoccho Frito. They are essentially fried dough, that are typically fried in strutto, or rendered pork fat. At Domenica, I fill a deep fryer full of pork fat and we reserve that one for torta fritta only. I’ve seen many recipes for it, but they always will contain a little grappa or vinegar in the recipe. That adds an acidic kick that blends well with the fatty salumi they are always served with. Some of my greatest memories of eating in Italy was sitting at long wooden tables with my adopted Italian family, drinking Lambrusco out of ramekins, and rubbing hot crispy torta fritta with soft gorgonzola cheese and topping them with silky culatello or prosciutto. They have now become a staple at Domenica. Some of our best customers stuff them with Tallegio and prosciutto and call them Italian hot pockets. Why not?

Q: I know you and John Besh are raising a lot of your produce and pork. Tell us about that operation and especially about Mangalitsa pig. What makes Mangalitsa so special?
A: As a whole our restaurant group has unofficially named the mangalitsa pig as our mascot. It is served in all of the BRG [Besh Restaurant Group] restaurants in some form or fashion. We use it many different ways at Domenica, especially for our salumi, porchetta and pizzas. The reason the pig is so amazing is in part to how the fat is developed in that breed. It is higher in Omega 9 fatty acids which results in the fat melting at a lower temperature, and in turn feels lighter on the palate then other types of pork fat. I boast that our cured meats made with mangalitsa melts on your tongue like room temperature butter would. Most people seem skeptical until they try it. My favorite way to eat it is to roast an entire shoulder in the oven, and right before I pull it out, I scoop the fat off the top with a spoon and eat in on ciabatta with a little sea salt. It’s my guilty pleasure.   

Q: You’ve been a big supporter of the Alice Waters-inspired Edible Schoolyard NOLA at the Samuel J. Green school.  Tell us about your experiences with the students.
A: I have always been a fan of the Edible Schoolyard since I was introduced to it. I believe it can truly change the way children learn. Maybe most importantly, change the way children eat to help resolve some of the childhood obesity problems we are experiencing in the US. I’ve had the pleasure of discussing it in detail with Alice Waters and to see how passionate she is about the future of the program is inspiring to me. I become inspired to work more with the students and teach them recipes that they can use with the ingredients they grow. 
 I was asked to be a guest chef with a group of third graders one year in an Iron chef competition. We were given a secret ingredient of Quinoa. None of the students had ever heard of it, and I hadn’t cooked with it since I was in culinary school 12 years ago. So we had to prepare it with items we found at the market that day. It was summer so there were tomatoes and cucumbers everywhere. I tapped into my Israeli roots and we made Quinoa tabouli. The kids hadn’t heard of tabouli either, so they were very confused. But in the end it turned out so good, that I added it to Passover menu last year at Domenica. We all learned something that day.

Q: The whole district surrounding the Roosevelt is rich in history as you know.  As a Rumanian Jew with roots in Israel, you do an incredible Passover menu. I love your matzo ball soup, which to my mind rivals 2nd Avenue Deli’s. Are you aware that just a block away from the Roosevelt, the Orthodox Jewish quarter once dominated South Rampart Street? The Fertel Loan Office was on the next corner, Rampart and Common.  And that much of early jazz history was born there? [See my recent piece in Tikkun on “The Birth of Jazz and the Jews of South Rampart Street”] What are some of your favorite Roosevelt stories?
A: I don’t have a lot of Roosevelt stories because of the 8 years I’ve lived in New Orleans, the Roosevelt had been closed for 5 of them due to Katrina. I’ve read a lot about the orthodox Jewish neighborhood surrounding the Roosevelt. I think that somehow the stars have aligned and it allows me to cook Israeli food at Domenica once in a while and get away with it. Our Passover menu has gotten so much attention and people have come from all over to try it during the holiday. I’ve had people call me from New York and say that their child is a first year student at Tulane and they have never been separated during Passover Seder. They ask if they can hold their family Seder at Domenica so they wouldn’t break family tradition. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about how one menu can impact someone’s life so significantly, which in turn may create new Roosevelt stories that will be told to the next generation.

Q: So, in parting, tell us what a Rumanian, Israeli, Philadelphian loves about New Orleans.
A: I love so many things about New Orleans. The food and music of course, but more importantly the people that have become my friends and family. I love how small the city is. It allows me to believe that I can actually make an impact if I stay true to my beliefs and craft. I have never felt so needed as I did in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. I felt like if I wasn’t here cooking for people, they may have not had access to a hot meal at all. That has created the loyalty that I have to the city. I feel like I would be doing something morally wrong if I left. 

Q: Tell us about your experience on HBO's Treme set. How did you come to be in Treme? Who sought you out? Did it involve a lot of time away from Domenica? Most important, is there a role for Alon Shaya in Season 3?

A: I was approached to be on the show because they wanted some experienced cooks from new orleans playing some of the roles. I was a little hesitant because I've never acted a day in my life. I was such a huge fan of the show that I jumped in and glad I did. Such amazing people involved in the project. Kim Dickens especially gave me acting tips and helped me not make a complete fool of myself. I really had a great time. It only involved a few sporadic days away from the restaurant so it wasnt too bad. I dont think I will be back on the show. One thing I know for sure is that I'm keeping my day job making pizzas for a living.

Q: Regarding the Treme narrative, you played a sous chef under a incredibly abusive, at least half-mad chef. I know that the Gordon Ramsey style chef de cuisine attitude is not the spirit that reigns in John Besh's kitchens. But in your travels in Europe, in Las Vegas and elsewhere, have you served under chefs like that? Is there a place for that style in contemporary kitchens?

A: I have worked under maniac chefs in the past. I learned quickly its not what I want to be and would not expect my cooks to want to for with me if I was that way. Those days I believe are over. I think the best chefs these days are the ones who are true mentors and respect the people they work with. I believe if a cook respects and likes the chef they work for, their food will taste better.