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This appeared as my column in the Toronto Star on June 25, 2005.
Evelyn Smail has been driving her aging, slightly rickety Ford sedan slowly along the bumpy country road for several miles.
I am her lucky passenger.
Bananas are not my favourite fruit. That is, eaten raw.
The window of opportunity for eating a raw banana that’s just at the right moment of ripeness — smooth yet ever so slightly al dente in texture with the hint of sweetness and a slightly sour under-taste — is so narrow that I’ve pretty well given up.
NEW YORK — Pinch me!
I’m on the 18th floor of the famous Waldorf Astoria in midtown Manhattan standing beside the hotel’s executive chef David Garcelon while he makes a Waldorf Salad. (You can listen to my conversation with David here.)
You know that often mis-quoted saying: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” (Misquote: The proof is in the pudding.)
Well, in the case of the new “Epicurious Cookbook,” the proof is also in the making of said pudding — or Miniature Gougeres, Red Wine-Braised Duck Legs, Shaved Brussels Sprouts Salad, Bourbon Chicken Liver Pate and Cranberry White Chocolate Biscotti.
This story appeared in the Toronto Star in October, 1999, after my visit to Cambridge, MA, where Julia Child, who had become my friend and mentor, lived. She invited me for breakfast. There was an incident with some croissants. Read on:
I recently spent four glorious days in midtown Manhattan.
For two of those, I was pretty much closeted in the Roger Smith Hotel attending back-to-back seminars at a cookbook conference.
And apart from a few heart-wrenching hours spent watching the stunning but tragically haunting photos and videos of the holocaust at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, there was no other agenda.
MIAMI – This year’s recent South Beach Wine & Food Festival was a royal occasion, in more ways than one.
“Viva Espana!” was a culinary celebration and key theme headed up by the King and Queen of Spain at this four-day, non-stop, over-the-top annual event packed with noisy parties, glitzy grazing and back-to-back cooking demos by celebrity chefs.
Sponsored by the Food Network and Food & Wine magazine among others, this star-studded feast on the beach is never dull.
This year, things got off to a controversial start when famous New York chef Mario Batali introduced Spain’s King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia at a swanky gala dinner.
Angry at exuberant diners who would not listen when it was his turn to speak, Batali chided them vociferously with the f-word, three times. His and their unruly behaviour was likely the result of alcoholic beverages that flowed freely throughout the sold-out festival.
However, Martha Stewart – the come-back queen of cuisine – was all regal elegance, serenity and charm when I met her two days after the Batali debacle for a one-on-one interview in the green room adjoining one of the giant tasting tents erected on the sand in the heart of South Beach.
Dressed casually in tapered beige pants and a grey T-shirt with matching cardigan, she was a different – and much nicer — woman than the one I’d met in Toronto earlier in her career.
Stewart’s rise to fame began in 1982 with the publication of Entertaining: a glossy coffee-table tome that launched her as an arbiter of taste for homemakers.
By 1987, she was well on the way to becoming a brand and revered guru on the topics of food, home décor and gardening. That year, I interviewed her in Toronto where she was promoting her second major book: Weddings.
That Martha Stewart was imperious, uptight and humourless. She lived up to her reputation as a control freak perfectionist who was driven to the point of obsession. In a nutshell, she came across as a brilliantly capable over-achiever touting a sanitized though stylish lifestyle rife with pastels.
Many, like me, had a love-hate relationship with this fiercely ambitious woman whose career continued to soar in the 1990s.
Then there was the infamous criminal case. In 2004, she was convicted of obstruction of justice and perjury in a stock market scandal. Five months of prison followed; so did five months of home confinement and two years probation.
In a Christmas message from jail, she issued a compassionate plea for rehabilitation and prison reform to help women whose lives were “devoid of care, devoid of love, devoid of tranquility.”
As she stretched out her hand and fixed her dark brown eyes on me in the green room that day, I knew this was a kinder, gentler woman than the perfectly-coiffed blonde babe with the forced smile on the covers of her early books.
She was eager to tell me about her new projects.
No longer allowed to be its CEO, she is still “deeply involved on a day-to-day basis” with Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. She owns a radio channel, is still the marquee writer for Martha Stewart Living magazine, is developing a housewares line for Macy’s, promotes “healthy aging” with Mount Sinai Hospital in New York and has an eco-flooring company called FLOR that makes recycled carpets.
A favourite project of hers is The Martha Stewart Show that airs on Fine Living and on day-time CBC television. It is entertaining and authoritative as per Stewart’s mission: “I want to promote and provide the best how-to information for homemakers ever.”
An avid reader and detail hound who sleeps about five hours a night, she told me this: “I’m very picky, quality-conscious and research-oriented. I’m visual and creative. People trust me – I’m them. If I like something, they seem to like it.”
What Stewart doesn’t like is the trend to reality food shows on TV.
“They drive me nuts,” she says. “I know where the enjoyment comes from but I hate the sloppiness and demeaning aspect.”
I mention Gordon Ramsay. She doesn’t respond directly but does say this: “The violence doesn’t interest me. I don’t have time for schlock art.”
Top-notch chefs like Americans Daniel Boulud, Eric Ripert, Rick Bayless and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, she adds, do interest her. So does Type-A British chef and molecular gastronomist Heston Blumenthal.
She also has plenty of time of time for Emeril Lagasse: the lively New Orleans chef who virtually launched the U.S. Food Network in the early ‘90s with his ebullient behind-the-stove performances.
The two have long been buddies and last year, while he took a hiatus from the spotlight, Stewart bought all Lagasse’s assets except the several restaurants he still owns.
That evening, Stewart was emcee of a tribute dinner honouring Lagasse. She lauded him for being an educator, a passionate foodie and a man who loves to embroider, then announced they had plans to go deep-sea fishing later that night.
Listening to our congenial host, I mused that prison had gently humbled her. And, at age 67, she may be more proof that wisdom comes with age.
Stewart demo’d these recipes after our interview. They are from her super new book Martha Stewart’s Cooking School (Potter; $52).
Stewart advises looking for lobsters that are “not only alive but lively” and purchasing them no more than a day before serving.
4 lobsters (about 1½ lb/750g) each
Fill large stockpot three-quarters full with cold water. Bring to boil. Add a generous amount of salt, at least ½ cup in a 4-gallon/15-litre pot.
Plunge in live lobsters head-first. Cook, uncovered, until they turn bright red, 8 to 14 minutes, depending on size. With tongs, transfer to platter. Let rest until cool enough to handle. Serve with melted butter and lemon wedges.
Shelled meat of 4 cooked lobsters
2 tbsp mayonnaise
½ tsp chopped fresh chives
½ tsp chopped fresh tarragon or chervil
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
8 split hot dog buns
2 tbsp melted butter
Cut lobster meat into small chunks. Add to bowl. Stir in mayonnaise, chives, tarragon, lemon juice, salt and pepper.
Brush hot dog buns with melted butter. Cook in hot skillet until golden brown. Spoon about ½ cup lobster meat into each bun.
Makes 8 rolls.
The annual South Beach Wine & Food Festival took place this year from February 19–22 in Miami.
As usual and even in tough economic times, this glitzy, pricey, never-dull four-day event sponsored by, among others, the Food Network and Food & Wine magazine, was sold out.
Attended by more than 30,000 people and founded by a fellow called Lee Schrager in 2001, it is the biggest culinary celebration of its kind in North America.
Watch this space for news on my interview with Martha Stewart at this annual fest — an event I’ve attended for the past five years.
She and famous New Orleans celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, who are friends and business partners, were front and centre this year.
Martha hosted a tribute dinner honouring Emeril who has been on hiatus for a while. My theory is that his health hasn’t been too good. I say this judging by his bloated appearance. However, he was in fine form at a lively cooking demo during which he wow’d the crowd with his clever antics.
Here are a few spots you should definitely try for specialties I’ve sleuthed when in South Beach:
Devito, 150 Ocean Drive: Yes, you guessed, this is Danny Devito’s restaurant and one of the newer spots on the Ocean Drive strip. I recommend lunch — it’s extremely reasonable — and trying the lobster bisque and/or one of their amazing main-course salads. They serve you delicious, free antipasti and portions are large. The comfortable armchairs on the on the covered patio are a plus.
Joe’s Stone Crab Take-Away, 11 Washington Ave., is a casual cafe and take-out emporium adjacent to the veteran and always-packed restaurant of the same name. This is the perfect place to sample a slice of the best Key Lime Pie I’ve found in the Miami area.
Martinez, 4000 NE 2nd Ave. Located in the Design District — about 20 minutes from by car from South Beach — this is the newer of two Miami restaurants owned by talented chef Michelle Bernstein. I found the welcome warm and ambience extremely pleasant. The tapas dishes featured here were uneven but I would definitely return for the beans with duck sausage and divinely creamy flan (the Latino version of creme caramel) made from her mother’s recipe.
News Cafe, 800 Ocean Dr., is a 24-hour landmark on the South Beach restaurant strip known for its hearty breakfasts, excellent Churrasco Steak and delicious bread pudding. It’s the best place I know to people-watch from a sidewalk or patio table as the friendly staff wait on you. This is where Gianni Versace had his last morning coffee on the day he was murdered — a rather grim claim to fame.
Puerto Sagua, 700 Collins Ave. A couple of blocks from the News Cafe is this cheap-and-cheerful, bustling Cuban eatery. Always busy, it’s a great place for grilled fish, a sandwich or — my favourite — the roast chicken special ($7.95 as I write). This filling meal is a large piece of succulent chicken accompanied by a large mound of white rice, sticky fried plantains and a bowl of black beans. The staff are friendly and efficient.
It took a flurry of e-mails and phone calls between publicists and p.a’s but I finally obtained an audience with Martha Stewart: one of the most powerful women (up there with Oprah, methinks) in North America and now the come-back queen of cuisine.
She was one of the stars at this year’s annual South Beach Wine & Food Festival: a four-day feast on the beach that took place from Feb 19 to 22.
Like everything in Miami — home to the SUV, boob-jobs, tanned abs and obscenely large restaurant portions — the event was a non-stop, over-the-top wing-ding. Celebrity chefs cooked up a storm, the King and Queen of Spain attended celebrations of Spanish food and there were all manner of before– and after-parties at swanky hotels like the Raleigh and Delano. Needless to say, the booze flowed freely.
But meeting Martha was a pleasant, easy-going surprise.
I interviewed her in Toronto in 1987 when she was beginning her rise to stardom with publication of her second glossy book called Weddings. It followed her first book Entertaining which came out in 1982 and to which she is currently writing a sequel.
Known as a perfectionist, control freak and over-achiever, Martha attracted a loyal following and her fair share of enemies during the ‘80s and 90s.
I had a love/hate relationship with this homemaking doyenne, finding her imperious and cold in person. Also, I disliked her message that women can do anything — even sand-blast a house as she did in full gear on one of her TV shows — in the name of creating the perfect home.
But the Martha I met in South Beach this year during our 20-minute, one-on-one conversation was a gentler, kinder woman.
Maybe spending 5 months in prison from 2004/5, then being confined to her home with an ankle bracelet for another 5 months — this resulting from convictions of illicit behaviour on the stock market — has, it seems, humbled and mellowed her.
Whatever the reason, she was affable, polite and even warm as we chatted in the fest’s green room before her cooking demo during which she made sweet-but-simple green and potato salads to go with the lobster she’d boiled. During the demo, she showed a social conscience by asking the audience to buy these crustaceans as the recession has hurt lobster fishermen and processors badly on the East Coast near where she lives.
Her current projects include a radio channel, a line of housewares for Macy’s, a TV show (shown in Canada on CBC), a line of eco-flooring made from recycled carpet and her stalwart magazine Martha Stewart Living.
Her new book, Martha Stewart’s Cooking School, is a kitchen bible that offers step-by-step techniques for everything from making vegetable stock to carving a turkey. I highly recommend it.
She told me she wants to teach budding cooks the basics. She likes to learn and loves to teach. Hence her low opinion of TV reality shows (Gordon Ramsay, step right up) that are “schlock, demeaning and sloppy.“
Martha even spoke out in favour of rehabilitation in a Christmas message during her prison stay — a stay that seems to have elicited compassion and humility in a woman who showed little of either some years ago. Then again, she is 67 years old and they say wisdom comes with age.
U.K. — In January, 2009, I wound up my annual trip to London to visit my mother with dinner at Gordon Ramsay’s newest restaurant York & Albany located at 127–129 Parkway in my favourite neighborhood, Camden Town.
After lack-lustre meals at longstanding vegetarian eatery Manna — bland fare that cried out for seasoning and meat — and the newish Market — bland modern British fare that cried out for salt and oomph — it was a godsend to discover a place in this trendy, gritty part of the city that had all the elements needed for a wondrous meal out.
Our welcome by manager and hostess was warm. The ambience in the downstairs dining room (I highly recommend requesting this rather than the much noisier room upstairs) was womb-like with red tapestry walls, red velvet chairs and curtains, and red table-coverings under glass that exuded a retro coziness aptly described by one British reviewer as “early bordello.“
But it’s the food that takes the cake.
Ramsay’s partner and chief protege Angela Hartnett is in charge of the open kitchen, also downstairs.
She and her team have mastered the tricky task of creating food that’s packed with taste and texture, is unpretentious but imaginative, and is reasonably priced.
A starter of Pumpkin Risotto laced with melted gorgonzola is sublime. Likewise for entrees Roast Chicken with Bread Sauce and Sea Bream with Shrimp and Cucumbery Butter Sauce.
But the high point of our dinner was Rice Pudding with Prune and Armagnac Compote: a divine confection served warm that melded, sweet, smooth, tangy and tart in what is possibly the best dessert I’ve eaten.