Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Fired Up Foodie

Photo by: Michael Giatelli
That’s right I’m fired up, which those that know me are not surprised about at all. I can go from zero to ten pretty quickly, especially when it involves food, rudeness or moronosity (Yes, I made that word up. I like it. Deal with it).  If it happens to be some unfortunate combo platter of those three triggers well, you better put on your seatbelts. 

So what’s got me all in a lather now? It’s the way that people think about our Capital Region Food Scene right here in the Capital Region. I’m not talking about City-folk who think that Albany and Buffalo are both Upstate NY. I’m talking about the folks that are the self proclaimed local foodies. You know the ones I’m talking about. 

Part of my job is to read the food blogs, every day, every post. I read everyone that I consider relevant to the food scene locally, read all the comments from the public and watch the interactions. It’s very informative actually. I learned a lot about what engages our local public, which media outlets are the best advertising sources for my clients and which ones to totally disregard. It’s interesting to see how different the perspective of what matters to the people that are the dominant voices on the blogs are from the people I know in the industry and those people that I consider foodies.  And by the way, IT DRIVES ME INSANE! 

First off, the conversation is rarely about food. How is it that we can spend more time in grammatical tiffs, name calling, suppositions, and gossip then we do about food on food blogs? Seriously, I don’t get it. Secondly, I really want to know where these people actually eat. Could we get a poll on each of the food blogs asking people what are top 5 restaurants that they actually patronize on a regular basis? From what I’m interpreting most of them are looking for value options; while there is a strong anti-chain faction, it seems that the majority think that is their best option. When I read what they think good restaurants are, I usually cringe because for the most part they are places that I really won’t go to after trying once. Why, because the food at the places they are referencing is simply not that great. So my thought is maybe they just don't know what's out there. 

Then invariably these same people cry out that there is no food scene here and more that there is no good food in Upstate NY. It makes me go apeshit! For real, I end up pacing around my house muttering to myself.  No we are not NYC. We are not LA or San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, Boston, or Baltimore. I understand that, but just because we are not a culinary metropolis doesn’t mean that we are a wasteland. 

The Capital Region is an emerging food scene. We are a place of innovation, experimentation and learning that has access to great local produce and products. We have chefs that care deeply about sourcing and about honing their craft. They are both fiercely competitive when in competition and in their businesses while still maintaining wonderful friendships. They are invested in the community and in education.  

One of my favorite meetings that I have each year is the menu planning meeting for the Albany Chefs’ Food & Wine Festival Gala Dinner. It’s simply awesome to sit at the table with the top chefs in our region and watch their minds at work. The conversation is circuitous at best, laced with a touch of booze and full of food. Their eyes light up, the conversation takes a dog leg as someone remembers a dish that someone else did at a dinner three years before, the others chime in, everyone gets happy and that leads to some other memory of some other dish. I reel them back in , truly it’s like herding cats, and put someone on the spot asking for a course description and we’re off again on another food tangent. It’s so much fun to be a part of that. 

More than having fun and the camaraderie, what excites me and I think them, is the exchange of knowledge and the shared passion for the craft.   Sometimes I wish that those people that think there is nothing going on here could be exposed to what I do, because they would see how off base they are. They would be excited like I am and they would believe in these chefs like I do. 

The other thing that really strikes me is the spirit of mentorship. Back in the beginning in this area, from what I understand, it was just Yono, Jimmy Rua, Dale Miller, Angelo and Jack’s. There wasn’t a whole lot going on 30 years ago aside from that, although what those 5 were doing was pretty darn good. What I like though as that each of those guys has mentored and guided so many of our successful Capital Region chefs. Then we have in addition to those guys Ric Orlando, Jaime Ortiz, Mark Graham, AJ Jayapal, Larry Schepici, Brian Molino, Rachel Mabb, Michael St, John, Kevin Everleth, Jason Baker, John Marzilli and Dominique Brialy (some of whom are transplants) but have all been on the scene for a long, long time. Now, how many of them have mentored younger chefs coming up, taken someone under their wing and helped them grow? All of them.  

Then you get to the next grouping of chefs and this is by no means a ranking or anything of that nature, just trying to think of how our scene has evolved. Chefs Marla Ortega, Courtney Withey, Elliot Cunniff, Steve Kerzner, Brian Bowden, Willie Brown, Frank Tardio, Roslynn Zechinni & Fabrizio Barzini, Ryan Huneau, Jim Kavanaugh, Justin Engineri and Paul Ozimek that are all making their mark, establishing themselves as new forces to be reckoned with on the culinary scene. Yes the Culinary Scene.

Then we have the up & coming chefs. Vivian Brammer talk about innovation, what this woman can do in pastry will blow your mind. Sarah Fish, the self taught savant, doing everything form scratch. Nick Foster rocking the vegetarian world.  John Grizzaffi, Ian O’Leary, Michael Niccolli,  Zach Welton, Alex Ursprung (even though he left us for Daniel, damn him), Michael Cohen, Chris Faraci, Brendan Horn, Robb Ryan, Michael Pallozzi, Dave Gibson, Ken Khen, Mike Mastrantuono, Andy Hurd, Eric Tsjai, Devin Ziemann….the list goes on and on. 

Let’s talk specialty foods. Have you been to the Cheese Traveler. Go talk to Eric Paul at the Cheese Traveler (and don’t you dare come back and tell me that he is haughty about cheese. The man knows more about cheese than me, the collective you, Steve Barnes, and all the chefs on this list combined. For real, he knows cheese.).  Want more cheese, go to the Honest Weight Food Co-Op and talk to Gustav. How about hand-crafted marshmallows? Go see Ginny O’Neill at Dreampuff. How about Food Trucks? How many food trucks do we have here? Or as Steve Barnes pointed out our abundance of Farmer’s Markets. How about Bakeries? Have you seen what Mrs. London or Crisan are doing? Artisan pastries that’s what. Or Linda over at Bake For You and her ridiculous cookies and cupcakes? Oh cupcakes, how many cupcakeries do we have, five? Oh have you have had the maroons that Joan Dembinski makes for the Co-Op. Do you know how many capital region chefs are making their own charcuterie? A ton. Go talk to Ian O’Leary or Brian Bowden about that, or Rachel Mabb about the upcoming Pork Store that she will be the chef of. Do you know how many chefs go foraging, and I don’t mean farmer’s market foraging. I mean going into the woods and having secret chantrelle and morel spots. 

I will have to write a whole other blog post about what’s going on in Troy to fully cover that. Holy smokes, that place is on fire. I can’t say enough good things about Vic & Heather and the Confectionery, their plans for the Grocery and other new developments. That alone is worth talking about, we have a mini Eataly coming in right here under our noses. That’s something to be wildly excited about. It's not just Vic & Heather ether, there is exciting stuff happening all over the place and you can find a place to park.

Oh and I forgot about coffee. I only know about the tip of the iceberg with coffee culture here. When I started working on Barista Albany for the Festival I was blown away by how many awesome coffee houses we have, the baristas that staff them and how much they care about coffee. I will need to get George Shoemaker to guest write a post about that. 

Food & Wine Festivals and Competitions – Well of course there’s the ALBANY CHEFS FOOD & WINE FESTIVAL which includes the Signature Chef Invitational, The Rising Star, Barista Albany and Slider Slam. Then there are the SPAC Food, Wine & Ferrari Festival and Romancing the Grape at Proctor’s. There’s Ommegang’s Hop Chef, The Food Pantries Chef Challenge, The March of Dimes Iron Chef, the Times Unions & Adirondack Appliance Grill Games, Culinary Cornucopia, Cuisine Magic, the Mac & Cheese Bowl, The Troy Pig Out, Altamont Winery’s Hallowine, and Harvestfest at the Desmond. Ok that’s off the top of my head, there are literally dozens more. 

There is a serious culture of food here, a commitment to quality, artisan products, are we getting that now?

I know the Governor left the Capital Region out of TasteNY, but that was an oversight.  Yeah I know, that set me off too. We have 11 breweries making craft beer in the Capital Region. We have restaurants with aggressive craft beer programs. Are they all fancy, no but if you know anything about craft beer culture you know that they don’t have to be. Go sit down and talk to Dave Gardell about beer. If you can’t get his ear talk to Fuj, talk to Erik Budrakey. Or go talk to one of 20+ chefs I know that are crazy passionate about beer. Craft Beer is huge up here, go forth and explore it’s awesome. 

And then we have distilleries like Albany Distilling Co, Saratoga Distillery, Harvest Spirits, and a few others. We have bars like dp an American Brasserie and The Speakeasy that are making craft cocktails and that have cocktail programs that rival some of the top bars in the country. 

So this has been the longest post that I’ve ever written for the blog (if I missed any of our awesome chefs I apologize writing top of mind here.)  It’s a little wild because it definitely went in a direction different from what I had intended, but that’s ok. 

What I really want to convey is that we’re lucky to be a part of an emerging food scene.  It has layers and layers of talent that are growing every day. I wish the general public could experience it the way I do….Oh but wait, you can. It’s very simple, this is exactly what I do: Go out and dine. Dine at these restaurants, be adventurous, do it often.

The Capital Region has a Food Scene and it has nothing to do with mozzarella sticks and fish fry. I don’t call that unhealthy boosterism, I call that knowing what’s good.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Single Best Bite

I've been holding off writing about Yono's and dp an American Brasserie for a while because I was waiting for the right moment. It's a hard spot to be in because I write with my heart and I'm passionate about not just food and wine, but my friends as well. So knowing that I might be criticized as being preferential or overly effusive to people that are very close to my heart I waited.....for what Foursquare tells me is more than one hundred visits. 

Yes I have eaten at dp a lot and Yono's on several occasions, so much so that it's my seven year old son's natural first thought of where to eat. It's where I hold most of my meetings, celebrated birthdays, pre-holiday dinners, entertained friends from out of town...in fact it is one of the few places I will bring people from New York. I have had some fabulous dinners, and lunches, and many a great cocktail, a scotch or two, and countless wonderful memories. 

So why, aside from my great adoration for the Purnomos, do I keep coming back. Let's start with the single most important thing. Consistency. This is it folks, whether you are in dp or Yono's it is consistently excellent from the food to the service, from the first person that greets you, to the bartenders more aptly called mixologists (although I've heard that term has become passe), the servers, the chefs, and we mustn't overlook the brilliance of the sommerlier. It is all excellent, every day, every time. The only way to achieve that is by caring and throwing your heart into your business, by living and breathing it day in and day out. That's what Donna, Nick and Yono do, each in their own way and it is wonderful to watch and even better to be on the receiving end of. 

After eating so many meals, and I have to give nods to my birthday dinner because that was pretty off the charts amazing and to Alex Ursprung whom last year gave me one hell of a spectacular tasting menu for his Rising Star evaluation, I had a moment that was just extraordinary. I looked at my dining companions, each very much an experienced diner, and proclaimed that I had just had the single best bite that I had ever had at Yono's. 

It was a simple dish, that Dominick and Chef Steve Kerzner had sent out, just a little something in between courses.  A Spring Creek Oyster with a Chili Ginger Beurre Blanc and Tsar Nicoulai Caviar.  It was one bite of simple perfection, truly like tasting heaven.