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.

This girl has a bit of a thing for pesto, too. These polpette di bollito would make her swoon. Golf ball-sized, they are crispy just for an instant. Then the breading gives way to gossamer, a thousand skinny fibers of slow-cooked veal meat so tender it seems to melt. The meatballs are doused in a rather punchy Genovese pesto, and I attack them with gusto.

I’m in Italy this time with, or rather for, my family. My role is that of translator, tour guide, and culinary guidance counselor — Virgil to their collective Dante. We’ve trudged past the inferno of mediocre restaurants in the city center tonight to find this one. And since I’ve devilishly ordered all the fried antipasti on the menu, we eat like hell.

After the meatballs come supplì (‘rice bawlz’ in the dialect of my region) and after the supplì,  eggplant croquettes. The latter live in a spicy arrabbiata sauce and have an altogether more homely character than the rest. Coarsely chopped and very loosely formed, they seem to have passed through a grandmother’s hands before they hit the fryer. Nonna doesn’t do quenelles.

Maybe best of all are gnocchi fritti, little nuggets of fried dough I drag methodically and repeatedly through a thick cacio e pepe fondue. Over-saturating them with the sauce seems nigh impossible. And praise the lard! A second serving arrives a few minutes later, just as the first is starting to cool. That is not just thoughtful service — that’s love.

My family and I share everything… kind of. The pastas arrive and my mom corrals the aforementioned carbonara. My dad stains his shirt approximately three times with the bucatini while he wonders what became of the oxtails I promised him. (They’re in the sugo, I tell him. And, oh, what a sauce it is…)

It is a simple fact that Taco Sundays and Gnocchi Thursdays are honored and respected traditions. But tonight we have the latter on the former, and it doesn’t feel so bad. I surreptitiously add on an order of rigatoni alla gricia, and find an edible double rainbow. The noodles are a bouncy, toothsome al dente. The guanciale, pecorino and pepper combine to form a sauce so balanced, so elegant that I forget for a second the assertiveness of those ingredients on their own.

My family’s swan song has been sung by this point, so beef involtini and lamb coratella are mostly a solo effort. That delightful sounding word means lamb heart, lungs and liver. The murky brown stew is a regional, seasonal specialty I could only have here and now. So I try it, dutifully. I am not the biggest fan.

But this is all research, I figure — research for books I’ve not yet begun to write, for debates I may never have. I’m ultimately just very lucky that in spite of my gluttony, plumpin’ ain’t easy. I float through life pretending that I’m the anti-Fat Bastard, eating because I’m happy and happy because I’m eating. But this afternoon, while en route to a bakery, I saw some graffiti:

Felicità è reale solo se condivisa,” it said. Happiness is real only if it is shared.

I poke lazily at the panna cotta and crème caramel on our table now. They were ordered in a state that might be described as a food blackout. And just like the rest of the food tonight, these desserts are excellent. But we don’t need them.

The truth is, they aren’t for me anyway — they’re for her. These are the flourishes on the stories I’ll tell her about the meals I wish we’d have shared. Next time I’d be really happy if she’d help me write them.

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La Vie

People don’t talk anymore. We text. We email. We double-tap to like. We make Facebook a transitive verb.

What a pleasure, then, to sink into the passenger side of this all-black Mercedes SUV and have a conversation with Thomas Bühner. This is not, I should point out, an interview. He’s the chef of Michelin three-starred La Vie and I’m just some guy he has invited to eat there. He’s fifty years old and I’m not yet thirty. He drives.

I pretend I’m just excited and grateful to be here, but I shift about in my seat, anxiously. My legs stop shaking but my teeth start chattering when I open the door. We’ve arrived at the kitchen garden in Bad Essen, today a 4,000 m² grid of snow, ice and twigs. This is nature’s graveyard shift — winter in the upper latitudes of Germany.

A woman named Victoria owns this place. At 600 years of age, it has been in her family since well before its renovation in the early 1800s. Chez Victoria is not, by the way, a cottage or a farmhouse or a cabin. It’s a bona fide castle, and Thomas is not the king of it.

“She asks me what to grow… I don’t say a thing,” he admits.

I look around and realize that I don’t see a thing. Not what Thomas sees here, at least. His eyes find spring and summer, shoots and roots. He pauses in an invisible flower garden, and nearly cries at a barren quince tree I’d have walked right past. “I just feel like when it’s over, it’s over,” he sighs to punctuate a rather emotional description of that tree’s fruit. One can feel his love for this garden, when it’s in bloom and not.

Nearly three years ago, Victoria approached Thomas about growing vegetables for La Vie. He and I talk about those years on the forty-five minute drive back to Osnabrück. He tells me how proud he is of his brigade of fifteen cooks, and how humbled to see his son growing up so fast, now fifteen years old. Being the leader and role model for both is for Thomas life’s biggest challenge, and its greatest reward.

Within a few days, La Vie will close for winter break and Bühner will retreat to an ayurvedic farm in Sri Lanka. I get the sense he’d take the entire staff with him if he could. Since April 2006, when he arrived at a restaurant boasting just one Michelin star and 16 points in Gault-Millau, this has been his family.

Thomas treats me, I realize, almost like a son. It’s dusk now and he’s arranged a tour of historic Osnabrück for me and my friend, just arrived by train from Amsterdam. Already today Thomas has fed me lunch, and she and I will return to La Vie shortly for dinner.

Rebels, we sneak away from the group at city hall to explore the weihnachtsmarkt, or Christmas market, going on in the main square. We sip glühwein and get rained on and laugh and shop for gifts for our families and it all feels very good and also very bad because it’s very cold.

“So what did you buy your mother?” Thomas asks me later. He sounds just like my dad.

Now he’s Chef Bühner and he’s back in the kitchen. In my mind, lunch and dinner merge into a single stream of culinary consciousness, and at first, I drown in it.

In these waters, menu descriptions span three lines like unintentional haikus:

Young leek as salad
calamari, green shiso
radish, Nashi pear
Banana milk shake
coriander, kaffir lime
caramelized chocolate

This poetry reveals a seasonally ambiguous list of ingredients. Where but in its verses would watermelon, pumpkin, tomato, cranberry, sweet potato and sweet corn be cohabitants? I’m not upset about this, just confused by the unlikely December bedmates.

But I don’t give a damn what month, day or even year it is while I devour lamb with comté, sweet potato, and wheatgrass. This is meat and potatoes in twenty different permutations, and each makes the constituents taste more like themselves. I’m happiest using sweet potato chips to scoop up coarsely chopped lamb tartare. I dollop on some wheatgrass foam with the texture of shaving cream, then drag a corner through warm comté sauce.

Besides this I love the snacks, the surprise interludes, the pre- and post-game coddles. These include a sort of terrine of North Sea crab propped in a salty-sweet nori crumble, and shiso sorbet with hibiscus broth under a crispy coil of what looks like ribbon but tastes like cranberry. Best is a palate cleanser served at both meals — warm potato foam that hides a scoop of pumpkin-curry ice cream — a firecracker buried in the ground.

Digging deeper here isn’t always rewarding, though. A scallop dish is perfectly fine until you stab at the kohlrabi “noodles” that snake around it, limp and insipid. Beautifully cooked ribeye (‘merican beef, in fact) suffocates next to sticky discs of over-smoked bone marrow.

Elements of contrasting texture, temperature and flavor predominate to the point of absurdity. Superfluous garnishes have us asking “why?” while someone in the kitchen apparently wonders “why not?” The fresh and the fermented seem attached at the hip; hot rarely shows up without cold. I feel like ice cream appears on every dish.

Maybe I exaggerate. Or maybe Bühner and I are both just writers in need of an editor. We sit together in the lounge now. The other guests are gone. I stuff my gullet with too many bonbons and quaff solera-aged grenache like it’s Welch’s. We talk about dinner, and he listens intently.

He’s listened all day, come to think of it. But have I?

My expectations and the unique circumstances under which I’ve come here are nothing but background noise, I realize. They still rattled in my head as I tried to focus on pastry chef René Frank’s parsley root dessert. But then Thomas sat down beside us, one hand propped on my shoulder, and leaned in to tell me about it.

There’s blown sugar shaped into a hollow parsley root, he said. A filling of that vegetable and coconut. Black garlic-and-chocolate cream beneath. Torn bits of a salty pistachio sponge cake. I saw the dish through a clearer lens now, and admittedly, the combination was masterful. I shut up, and I smiled.

Back home, I’ve struggled to tell this story. To color this prose even a light shade of purple would be disingenuous and discreditable. There were dishes at La Vie that I struggled with, but to highlight only those would be incomplete and insincere. My only hope, then, is candor. The candor to lift the veil that I held over my own eyes in Osnabrück, to see not just Thomas Bühner’s food but also his warmth and his generosity. To hear his voice. Because maybe Rumi was right that one who chooses to live by bread alone is to be left that way — alone.

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In De Wulf

There’s no such thing as trying to eat. One eats or one doesn’t. And half-hearted promises are as loathsome as air kisses and limp handshakes. So when I told a guy named Kobe that I would come to a town called Dranouter, I meant it. Now I’m In De Wulf.

This place is in de middle of nowhere, so we’ll stay the night in the guest rooms upstairs. But this afternoon, ambassadors from France, Spain, China and the US convene in the lounge — a UN of restaurant junkies. Friends old and new have just eaten lunch, while my buddy Jose and I await dinner. 3,600 miles from my house, I am at home.

Tea time turns to tee time, and we are back by the fireplace. I feel like a Lay-Z-Boy in this lounge chair, where my poor posture is rewarded with a wealth of snacks and a flute of champagne. Some are crispy, some are pickled, many are both. Call me plebeian, but the pork rinds (topped with gossamer lardo slivers) and nachos (well, beet chips with yogurt) please me most.

We move through the kitchen to our table to find a plate of rocks. Among them hide crispy shells of burned bread, stuffed with a pungent local cheese called Maroilles. Snails from the French-Belgian border town of Comines have traveled 25 minutes here to meet a garlicky aioli, possibly longer if they’ve walked. With crispy shrimp heads we do a line of vinegar powder.

Up to this point in the meal, our fingers have been our only forks.

The water is only 40km from Dranouter. So it’s no surprise when mackerel, seppia and oysters wash up on our plates like successive waves on the shore. The latter, wedded with whey and sauerkraut, show how just three ingredients can reveal a thousand nuances. Briny, tangy, tart, crispy, creamy, and rich — it is all of the above. But I’ve squandered it, greedily, in one bite.

Ingredients at In De Wulf repeatedly take the stage one by one, and each has time to speak. Roasted leeks get dressed in the mirror, with fermented leek juice and an oil made verdant with their tops. A stagiaire comes by with a couple of sunchokes that the poor bastard has been basting with butter for 5 hours. The inside is like custard; the outside, candy.

Kobe turns up table-side and breaks open a dinosaur egg-sized orb of salt to reveal a knobby celery root baked inside. It’s served in a warm, silky foam of the same, and a slab of celeriac “cheese” on the side whose production sounds so labor-intensive that I zone out during the tutorial.

A masterful wine pairing has me feeling rather toasted toasty. It’s mostly vin naturel: oxidative funk when it is called for, elegance and brightness when it’s not. Far from the “drinking vinegars” of which a chef friend of mine disparagingly tried to warn me earlier this week. Vive la différence of opinion.

Kobe Desramaults and I crossed paths twice in 2011, first in Belgium and later in New York. For two years I have thought about these flavors. Now, of tonight’s proteins and pastries I could opine at length. But doing so would undermine what I believe to Kobe’s greatest skills: those of an editor.

Tonight’s was a meal with no commas. Staccato sixteenth notes that form a song. One that is personal. Persistent. Powerful. Its verses are clear. But its melody changes as soon as you’ve memorized it. It is one that makes you listen. Kobe is one to watch.

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