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.


  1. I would like to add a note of kudos for the talented team at SCCC's School of Hotel, Culinary Arts and Tourism who are training the next generation of chefs and restaurateurs. Visit the Casola Dining Room when it opens in October for the Fall semester, and check out our annual special fundraising event, Food For Thought and All That Jazz, in April.

    1. Hi Aunt C! Great big shout out to SCCC! Please make sure to send me along info to post about your fundraiser!

  2. Thank you, Michelle, for the shout out for our little shop and for taking the time to acknowledge good things going on in the Capital District.

    1. You're welcome and thank you! You're doing an awesome job, I just love chatting with you about cheese and all the wonderful unique ones that you bring in!

  3. Michelle, I'm probably one of the naysayers you're talking about. I know I've been a bit down on the local scene in recent posts and I resolve to try harder to look on the bright side. I've also done positive write-ups on All Good Bakers and the Saratoga Food & Wine Festival, among others, and just this week was noshing and praising Stewart's Deli Dog. Check out http://www.burntmyfingers.com and use the keyword "Saratoga". Otis

    1. Hi Otis, I wasn't talking about you or any one person in particular actually. The whole thing was in response to the comment stream on Steve's post from a week or two ago. I've just been so busy that I haven't had time to get it done. Anyway, I'm just trying to do something good here and this blog is all about accentuating the positive. Sure I've had bad meals or dishes, or rude service but I don't write about that here. I usually just give constructive feedback right to the chef so that they have the opportunity to improve whatever the issue was. I am fortunate in that I have had exceptional dining experiences throughout my life, some of them here, some in NYC, Paris and other parts of the world. I love great food and sharing those experiences. We all have enough crap in our lives, so why not have a place of positivity too. So happy that you have resolved to look on the bight side :) (by the way, I am now whistling the tune from Monty Python)

  4. The Capital Region's food scene, in fact, does have a little to do with mozzarella sticks and fish fry.

    1. Dave I would love the opportunity to dine with you sometime to pick your brain so that I might try to better understand where you're coming from.

  5. Michelle - I would agree with you on most points. There are some components in place for a good food scene. I have had some amazing food in every corner of the capitol region. Once I took some time to eat at some new places, I was a believer. I was proud to see the locally sourced ingredients taking precedence to the Syscos of the world. When restaurants do business with local farmers there is a circle that makes things complete. Sadly, there is really no street food in the region. Take Albany and Troy for example - No street food in Troy aside from a couple spots for food trucks in Riverfront Park M-F during lunch. Albany has capitol park and the Empire State Plaza Vendors for lunch half of the year. If you go to any thriving food city, an integral part of that scene is street food. Coming from the West Coast, you can eat amazing food from the trucks day and night. The cities understand food trucks play a vital role in the food scene and the economy. Be honest, how often do you order food, then go walk around and check out the shops in the neighborhood? Increased foot traffic is what every retail district prays for - Food trucks bring that traffic naturally. Sadly, after 8 PM in the capitol region the food gets very "Chain Driven." Many people don't eat dinner between 6 and 8 PM, what are they left to do? This is where great food scenes are full of street options that are chef-worthy. Many of the food trucks in the capitol region are lobbying to get more support from the cities to provide service more often and in more areas. Imagine a day when 3 or 4 trucks are parked at various locations in the capitol region serving fantastic food. Until that happens, I have a hard time saying the capitol region of NY has a complete food culture.

    1. I know where you're coming from, Gotta Love Winos, but I think part of this isn't the problem with the food truck culture in this area--it's with the "shops in the neighborhood," which you mention. Not including Saratoga--and Troy, where the shops are mostly closed early--there really isn't much of a market for this. Certainly not in Albany. It's one of the things that surprised me a lot about this area, that there aren't more pedestrian-friendly parts of town.

    2. I agree with you both on the pedestrian-friendly bit and also agree with MM that this is more of an urban development issue than a food scene issue. I wish that we had great little shops and such to wander about in my area, but geez I live in Latham and I don't even have a sidewalk let alone shops where I am. That's one of the things I miss about living in NYC. I used to walk to work, take the subway to ballet class, then walk the 73 blocks home. I used to love to pop into the little Thai place one day or a bistro the next or the deli the day after. By the way, I love NYC deli coffee in a blue cup. LOVE. Oh speaking of coffee I had this great place called Puerto Rico Imports on the home that had Jamaican Blue to die for. Then there was Rafettos to get home made pasta, not to mention Zabar's, Balducci, Joe's Dairy, Sullivan St Bakery and a million more places. But that was NYC not here. NYC is the mecca of the food universe to me.
      Anyway, in the 10 years that I lived in Manhattan and the countless visits I've made since moving, I have to say I've never eat fro ma food truck, gotten a pretzel or a hot dog, or taken food and walked about with it. Actually, the Wandering Dago was the first food truck that I had ever experienced and absolutely LOVED it. They make seriously good food, but I already wrote about that so you can take a read if you like.
      My thought is yes, we certainly could use more high quality food trucks, but also that is just one component of the food scene/culture. I agree with GLWs that it is awesome to see the commitment to fresh, local food by our chefs here . I only wish more people knew how pervasive that is (oh wait, damn it I think that might be my job...note to self).

  6. Mingle. Chef Un-Hui. Kimchi Jigae. Korean Tacos (beef). Great food and an under represented genre in Albany.