“I am the most stupid cooker of eggs.”
A confession from the man in the red tee shirt. All morning, thick-framed eyeglasses slid down his Gallic nose as he spoke. With every punctuation mark, he’d scrunch his face to put them back in place. This time a hearty chuckle gave them an extra little push upwards. Our host was laughing at himself, and we giggled along with him.
“Just do new things, day after day. That is it.”
This French chef’s philosophizing might easily have created a motto for the event. It’s also French, and they call it Omnivore. Created back in 2003 as a forum for the “young, free, and open-minded” in the world of food, last month marked its third bite out of the Big Apple. That morning’s chef-led master classes shared the playbill with a series of collaborative dinners that paired New York toques with their counterparts from abroad.
“There was an old lady living there. Yes, right there. You’re standing in her bedroom.”
A bearded man in chef’s whites and a blue apron motioned toward the corner of the dining room. His dining room. An old bird had been cooped up in an apartment they’d annexed to increase the size of the restaurant. She eventually flew south to Florida, making the chef project his voice now to reach those of us standing where her coffee table might once have. He showed us how to prepare a truffle-stuffed, salt-baked onion. Perhaps just like grandma used to make (for VIP tables only).
“Everybody knows oysters are good for lamb.”
Riiiiiight. And every chef that presented their oeuvre that day did six complex dishes in the span of just half an hour. Oh wait… This slick-haired great Dane was quietly killing it, sharing plates with a purpose, cuisine with a story, and lamb with (duh!) oysters. His name is Mads. His presentation was captivating. And while I didn’t make it to Copenhagen in time to visit his old restaurant, there’s no question I’ll be at his new one, set to open later this year.
Shame on me for brushing over so much food like that, though. The agony of watching beautiful dishes constructed for several hours, and waiting like pigeons at the park for the occasional scrap, can not be overstated. Mads Refslund kindly let us taste some funky stuff — green almonds and green strawberries, tiny pickled mirabelle plums, cattail, his laborious dried-mackerel-and-Icelandic-seaweed “dashi.” But John Fraser allowed us only a peek at his truffles; Jean-François Piège just let us smell his bacon. That last one really hurt.
Meanwhile Giovanni Passerini tossed us each a single raviolo, and Carlo Mirarchi, sensing a certain pathetic stupor about me, thought I could be appeased with a single strand of charred cuttlefish. He was correct.
With these last two I was more understanding. I’d see both of them again at dinnertime. Their crews from Rino in Paris and Roberta’s here in New York would collaborate on seven courses. I could wait.
It was with trained taste buds that I approached Carlo’s dishes that night. I’d had, for example, his cuttlefish before — tattooed, like him, by a fiery hot pan. Once it wore a pork trotter ragu; another time, citrus seeped into the narrow slits he cuts down the length of the tubes. On this evening, the season dictated a dressing of blood orange. Carlo’s masterful sense of balance dictated that fish sauce, anise hyssop and opal basil get thrown into the mix also.
Of his Hokkaido sea urchin with stracciatella and caviar, little needs to be said. It’s beautiful, a pure but fleeting pleasure, the kind you close your eyes to see more clearly.
I spend a lot of time at the table with eyes wide shut, actually. Not because I’m already caught up in an instant of delight, but to allow myself to focus more intently on the food, and experience those feelings in the first place. Focused on Passerini’s ravioli, I experienced Rome. Or rather, a kiss from a beautiful girl in Rome. There was something elusive, something sensual about the dish. It was all in the tongue, all in the anticipation of when the cacio e pepe filling would stop playing hard-to-get and show itself. It was the crunch of snap peas, the surprise of licorice powder grated on top. It was lovely.
Carlo followed with a scallop, seared hard and served with some melty pig head. Oh yeah, also rhubarb and some snap pea juice. But the testa was the trick.
Passerini countered with sweetbreads, soured nicely with a bit of buttermilk. Then Carlo shared some of his roasted, dry-aged beef — to me, consistently the best available in New York City.
His dessert was something different, perhaps even a bit weird — watercress gelato with a superb olive oil called Pianogrillo from the same hills of Sicily where my girlfriend grew up. Passerini’s was sweeter and more aromatic, a creamy rice pudding with tiny macerated wild strawberries and crunchy dabs of lavender meringue. With every dish that night, drinks were paired. A Japanese ale with sea urchin, and Hungarian tokaji sec with the ravioli were, to me, the most successful.
Collaborative dinners like these can, with the wrong conductor, be dissonant. With Omnivore founder Luc Dubanchet at the podium, we heard great music. Passerini’s cuisine is one imbued with Italian spirit, prepared with French products. Carlo’s shares the same soul, but he reaps much of his produce from his Brooklyn backyard (and rooftop). At Rino, which I visited for the first time a few months ago, and Roberta’s, a consistent haunt of mine, they each create something at once satisfying and gutsy, nuanced and graceful. You can think about it as much or as little as you want.
It is thanks to festivals like Omnivore that one might realize that cuisine works in much the same way. For his last dish, Mads Refslund put together a dessert of two basic elements — fruit and ice. A satisfying, summery end in and of itself. The fruits he chose were overripe cherries; the ice, a wheatgrass granité. “What happens when overripe fruit falls from a tree?”, he asked us rhetorically. It lands in the grass. It oxidizes, and it begins to rot. You can either step on it — smashing it underfoot — or stop, examine it, and realize that the world is trying to show you something.