Ferran’s Accent

It was the kind of morning where you count the number of minutes you slept rather than the hours, and pretend that one coffee is going to be sufficient. I stood in the hotel lobby with a desperate latte still in one hand, when a man approached to firmly shake the other. “Ferran,” he said. No last name was needed.

We piled into a black SUV and the pinstriped suit in a backwards Kangol cap began to drive. “Es como Roses de Barcelona,” remarked Mr. Adrià. Our two-hour journey from Manhattan to Hyde Park felt like the one that gastrotourists fresh off the BCN tarmac used to make to visit him at elBulli, traffic and terrain excepted. That restaurant is now closed, of course. But since the last dinner service — el último vals — on July 30, 2011, both Ferran and elBulli have evolved. I needed to find out how. Continue reading

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What Does It Mean to Cook Well?

Cooking well is what the little old woman in front of me does. She has approximately five teeth, one good eye, and two hands that orchestrate the movement of nearly sixty gargantuan shrimp on the grill in front of her. Her vocabulary and mine don’t overlap at all, but she knows what I want, and she smiles as I watch her work.

Those are not shrimp she’s grilling, actually, but river prawns plucked from the Chao Phraya River here in Bangkok. From left to right in front of her, the crustacean color spectrum goes from a raw, translucent blue to a charcoal-kissed coral. If the fire gets too low – below what is left of her eyebrows – she grabs a small bellows and blasts it back up. I laugh to myself when I compare her stature to that of the ogres I’ve seen work the grill station back home. And I practically giggle with delight when I taste what she’s made. Smoky, juicy, and plump on their own, the prawns are better still dunked in a fiery sauce that could not have been much more than just fish sauce, vinegar, and some bird’s eye chilies.

It’s a bittersweet moment, for she might not be back in this same spot tomorrow, and I know I won’t be. I’ll be on a plane back home, where the shrimp are a little smaller; the cooks, a little bigger; and the exhaust fumes from the cars and the grill smoke of the sidewalk food vendors might not mingle in the same, beautiful way. Continue reading

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Cesare al Casaletto

The first time I went to Italy was in 2007. I gained thirty pounds in nine weeks.

Quattordici chili,” a pudgy-cheeked version of me would boast, as if saying the words in Italian made them somehow meritorious. I dropped two pants sizes — first 30, then 32 — before the trip’s end. And I ate in my first Michelin three-starred restaurant in jeans, because slacks were by then an impossible dream. Moderation has always been a problem for me.

Over time I’ve learned that in Rome there is no moderating guanciale. Tonight at Cesare al Casaletto I encounter the first piece, thick like tree bark, leaned casually against a plump pile of tonnarelli like the bouncer at a nightclub door — the carbonara gatekeeper. I dodge it at first, not to avoid the precious pork but to skewer it last, with a swirl of noodles. A fine varnish of egg yolk, pecorino and pepper holds it together. The bite looks, I reckon, just about perfect. But it’s not for me — it’s for a girl back home. She loves carbonara. Continue reading

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