In part two of my interview with Andrew Friedman, the author of Chefs, Drugs, and Rock & Roll, he and I take a really deep dive into the book. Here’s Friedman talking about the origins of the American chef culture:
“If you were an American kid [in the 1970s]…it was all but unheard of to come from a “good home” and turn to your parents one day and say, ‘Hey, you know what, guys? I think I might want to be a cook’…The reaction of their parents was concern, fear, anger, horror, they thought their kids were throwing their lives away, they thought they were basically entering basically a blue-collar profession, very often having paid for college, or in many cases law school, or something like that.” One prominent chef told him, “Cooking was not respected. It was the first thing you did after the Army, and the last thing you did before you went to prison.” In fact, Friedman pointed out that in the 1950s the US Labor Department still designated chefs as “domestic” or service workers.
Although the book names lots of famous names and it’s full of revealing details about the many power struggles that went on between restaurateurs and chefs (chefs were supposed to be neither seen nor heard right up to the late ’60s), there isn’t much salacious gossip in the book. While sex in the walk-in is referred to as a commonplace occurrence, Friedman made a conscious effort not to overdo it with the details. “I didn’t feel the need to be specific about who was having sex in the walk-in. Now if more people had offered that up, or answered my questions very directly, I would have put it in.” He points out, “This book opens up with [seminal LA chef] Bruce Marder, who I never met in my life, telling me about dropping acid in this van in Morocco. I’m very grateful to Bruce. There’s a lot of people who wouldn’t have even told me that story.”
Though Friedman conducted hundreds of interviews with fancy-pants chefs for the book, he admitted to me that even he can’t resist the siren call of some of the not-so-finer things in life: “I mean I eat all kinds of garbage. There are nights when presented with the choice between a Big Mac, fries, and one of those disgusting sundaes at McDonald’s, I would pick that over anything else on planet Earth.”
For more revelations and trenchant observations about the chef culture in America, take a listen to this episode of Special Sauce.
Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce we talk to some of the leading lights of American culture, food folks and non-food folks alike.
Andrew Friedman: In 1983, Mark Miller, Jeremiah Tower, Alice Waters, Jonathan Waxman, Paul Prudhomme from New Orleans, Larry Forgione from New York City, Jimmy Schmidt and Brad Ogden from the Midwest did a collaborative dinner to show off what was happening in American restaurants at the time. A lot of the chefs who came to that dinner had never met. Now that today would be unimaginable. Some of them had not heard of each other until they saw the roster for the dinner, and these are people who in their own localities were famous. They realized that they were part of something big.
EL: We are back with Andrew Friedman, author of the brand-new book, “Chefs, Drugs and Rock & Roll.” Great title dude.
AF: Thank you.
EL: I think there’s a little bit of a misnomer in there, and you may have meant it metaphorically, but we’ll get to why in a moment, but first of all congratulations on the book.
AF: Thank you very much.
EL: It’s comprehensive, and you make a reader a fly on the wall of American chef culture, which I think is not easy to do. How many interviews did you do?
AF: A little more than 210.
EL: You’re like the Studs Terkel of chefs.
AF: I’ll take that, I’m not going to wear the hat though.
EL: These are not 10 minute interviews.
AF: Most of them no, many of them were two, three hour interviews.
AF: Some were even longer. I have tens of thousands of pages of transcripts.
EL: This is the ultimate sauce reduction.
AF: It’s funny, I always say I’m a chef writer, not a food writer. It would never occur to me to say that, but yes, that’s perfect.
EL: Tell us how the book came about, right? You have this terrific career ghostwriting chefs’ cookbooks.
EL: You wrote this tennis book, and it’s funny what you said about tennis, and now I may be too old to take you on, because I feel like back when we talked about playing, it would’ve been close, but now I don’t think so. Anyway …
AF: You never know.
EL: You did the James Blake book, which is really good, I read it.
AF: Thank you.
EL: You’ve done all this work, your tennis Jones [NO IDEA WHAT THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE] is part of your work life.
EL: Your chef Jones is part of your work life, this book is not anything like any of those.
AF: No, well.
EL: How did it come about?
AF: Well I’ll start telling you, and if I get too long-winded you’ll tell me to fast forward.
AF: By the way, I just have to quickly say that right after I sold this book, I sold it shortly before the annual Food and Wine Best New Chefs party, and I went to the party that year …
EL: What year was that?
AF: I sold the book in ’12.
EL: Got it.
AF: You came up to me across this jam-packed room, and you said, “I can’t wait to read that book.”
EL: I did.
AF: I’m sorry I kept you waiting six years, that was six years ago.
EL: I’m a little annoyed with you.
AF: I’m sorry, well you should be my publisher, imagine if you’d written me checks, so I did all these collaborations with chefs as you said, and then I had an epiphany. In 2009 I wrote a book called “Knives at Dawn,” which was my first solo nonfiction book. It was about the Bocuse d’Or competition …
EL: It had a narrative thread.
AF: That was a narrative story, I was very lucky, Daniel Boulud, and Thomas Keller, and Jerome Bocuse, who’s Paul’s son who’s here in the US let me come be a fly … I was embedded as I say with the American team, and Tim Hollingsworth, who was the sous chef at the time at the French Laundry, was competing for the US. Timmy was developing the platter he was going to present in the competition, and I was spending tons of time interviewing him and getting to know this guy who I had never met before, watching him figure out what he was gonna serve in this competition. Somewhere along that process I realized, “Hey, I’ve been collaborating with people, which I’d always just looked at as a way to make a living, but I’ve gotten to know a lot about chefs, and I’ve gotten to know a lot about this world, and I can really speak to this guy in his own language.”
I’m watching him develop in front of me almost like a Polaroid, and that was a turning point in how I thought about my career. That’s when I thought about my blog, which I have, which is about chefs, and I started thinking about myself as what I call a chronicler of chefs, cooks, and kitchen culture. I felt like that was something that fascinated me, that I always had taken for granted just having been around it for so long, but which most people aren’t around, but are interested in. These are the people who read Tony Bourdain’s stuff, right?
I started to see a specialization there for myself. This book in particular came about because there are a couple of books that I personally love. One of them, I used to be in the film business as I’ve mentioned, one of them was called, “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.”
EL: Great book.
AF: That is a book by Peter Biskind, it is about the American film directors of the 70s. It is about how old Hollywood became new Hollywood, it is about people like George Kruger, and Vincent Minnelli, and Billy Wilder, and Martin Scorsese, and Brian Depalma, and George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg. There is another book called, “Please Kill Me,” which is an oral history of punk rock also set during this same timeframe.
EL: Who wrote that?
AF: Legs McNeil.
EL: Legs McNeil who was the chronicler.
AF: Yes, correct.
EL: He was the Andrew Friedman of punk rock, because …
AF: Maybe you need to flip that, I think he gets preferential placement in that construct.
EL: McNeil was literally this presence on the punk rock scene.
EL: I was a publicist at Warner Bros. records for the B-52, and the Talking Heads in the 70s.
EL: I knew those guys.
AF: I love that book, there’s a book called Live From New York, which is an oral history of Saturday Night Live, which was about how comedy changed. These books are all set during the same years as my book, and this is again my revelation that I was not a food writer, but what I call a chef writer. I looked at this time period and I thought, “Well where’s the book about chefs that will go on the shelf with Easy Riders, Raging Bulls; and Please Kill Me; and Live from New York; because this is going to sound like a weird comment, but I think it makes sense. Anything I’d ever read, we’re sitting here, you have a copy of David Kamp’s book on the table here.
EL: United States of Arugula.
AF: Yeah, how we became a gourmet nation, right? All the books I feel like that have been written about this era, are about the transformation of food, and I don’t feel like anyone had ever written a book about the transformation and evolution of the chef profession in the United States during these same years, during these same years that music changed, movies changed.
EL: Late 60s.
AF: Yeah, late 60s through the 80s.
AF: I feel like the same cultural and societal forces that were swirling around that gave rise to those other things I just talked about drove people into kitchens and changed what they cooked when they got there. I think it’s all of a piece, and I just felt like nobody had written that story. I feel like chefs were always subsumed into the larger narrative of how food changed, right? It was never just a book that put the chefs front and center, and even now with the book out there, and even with people who’ve read it, it’s still a little bit of a struggle sometimes to convey this. People have said to me like, “Why isn’t there more about Joe Baum?” Who was this big restaurateur.
EL: Right, who was a famous restaurateur, and then consultant who did Windows on the World, and the Rainbow Room.
AF: Forum of the 12 Caesars, and what we would call now concept restaurants.
AF: Super important person, but my focus is American chefs, or how come you don’t have more about Jean Banchet in Chicago, well, because my books about American chefs.
EL: Who had the restaurant in Wheeling.
AF: Le Francais, yeah, yeah, so I mean these are all people I revere, but I think it’s all been so intertwined for so long, even with the book now in front of us, I still sometimes have to almost insist on what it’s about.
AF: Fight for that a little bit. I will tell you thought, the Wall Street Journal reviewed the book a couple of weekends ago, and it was a wonderful review, I loved it. Eugenia Bone wrote the review who I’ve never met, and in the review she said, I don’t know if she used the term food porn, but there’s very little food description in the book. If you’re looking for Chuy [AGAIN, NO IDEA] something whatever you need to look elsewhere, and when I read that, I don’t know how she meant it, but when I read that line I thought, “Yes, mission accomplished.” I didn’t want … There is food in the book.
AF: Enough to give … These people are cooks.
AF: I give a sense of it, but no I don’t go on about dishes, I don’t lovingly describe them. I don’t get into taste description, I really don’t. I describe them as the product of these people’s vision and creativity.
AF: I’m much more concerned with the people than I am with what was on the plates.
EL: It’s true, now that you’re talking about it, the book isn’t about sharing food enthusiasm. So much of my writing is about sharing my enthusiasm, and telling the stories of the people that make food that I’m enthusiastic about.
AF: Sure, yeah.
EL: You have a very different perspective, the other thing that makes the book so interesting to me, Thelonious Monk used to say, “It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play.”
EL: Teasing out the story of the American chef culture.
EL: I didn’t realize it until you just said it, what that meant for the narrative, but it really gave you a super tight window, which is helpful as a writer.
AF: You asked about how many interviews I did, I mean I had to do something to whittle this thing down, it was really hard.
AF: There’s chefs who … The example I gave in the author’s note, most people would point to André Soltner and Lutèce as the pinnacle of French dining, which basically meant the pinnacle of dining in the United States, right? At that time.
EL: Lutèce we should say for people that didn’t know, in the what? 50s, 60s, and 70s.
AF: Yeah, maybe later than that.
AF: Soltner is the nicest guy you will ever meet in your life, but did not hire very many Americans. He would tell you it’s because he had a very small kitchen, and people stayed there forever, whatever the reasons were. Then there was a guy named Jean-Jacques Rachou, whose much less well remembered, had a restaurant called La Côte Basque.
EL: Right, and many Americans came through … Todd English used to talk about it.
AF: Todd English came through there, Rick Moonen came through there, Charlie Palmer came through there, it goes on and on. In this book Rachou is a much bigger character than Soltner, right?
EL: It serves your narrative.
AF: He would hire Americans at a time when most French, not only wouldn’t hire Americans, but laughed at them, thought they had no culinary foundation, thought their pallets were lame. If they did hire them, they treated them like garbage, and Rachou did not do any of that. He was really great to them, and those people still love him today.
AF: That is why, I point to that example as what this book is really about, and that’s why Rachou gets more real estate, more ink than Soltner. It’s not out of disrespect to André, who I love, it’s because in this story Rachou is really freaking important.
EL: Yeah, so your book starts with chef culture in America in the 70s.
EL: Late 60s.
EL: What was chef culture like before then? I mean you talk about it, and I was fascinated the way you delineated chef culture pre-1968.
AF: Well, so in this country, first of all I mean any chef that was accorded any respect in this country was French, or at least European. Those were the people who were known, these people who came over. There’s a whole history we don’t need to get into, but a lot of them came over for the World’s Fair in 1939. When it was time to go home, whoops France was occupied.
AF: They stayed here, and they started opening these legendary restaurants. If you were an American kid, so chef culture from the American standpoint, it was all but unheard-of to be an American kid from a good home and turn to your parents one day and say, “Hey, you know what guys? I think I might want to be a cook.” You talked about how many interviews I did, in the overwhelming number of them, Americans who told me about that moment, the reaction of their parents was concern, fear, anger, horror, they thought their kids were throwing their lives away, they thought they were entering basically a blue-collar profession, very often having just paid for college, or in many cases law school, or something like that. Mario Batali has this great line in the book where he says, “Cooking was not respected, it was the first thing you did after the Army, and the last thing you did before you went to prison.”
AF: Jan Birnbaum ,who’s a pretty well-known chef from the Bay Area, said “You would never be seen in your uniform going to work, you would wear your civilian clothes.” What could be cooler now than when you’re in the streets of New York City, or San Francisco, and you see a chef. I remember years ago testing recipes with Tom Valenti when he had West restaurant on the Upper West Side. I’d be wearing a chef’s jacket when we were testing, just to keep my clothes clean, and once in a while I’d have to run out to a grocery store to get some frisee, or something we didn’t have for testing, and you could feel people checking you out in your chef clothes.
EL: Yeah. You could have been walking a dog, you were a chick magnet in your chef’s jacket.
AF: I wouldn’t go that far, but it was cool, but there was a time when you would not walk down the street in your chef uniform literally.
AF: Literally, and that was something obviously that during these years changed dramatically.
EL: You talk about the US Labor Department actually designating chefs as domestics.
AF: Domestics, yeah, service workers, yeah.
EL: Wow, which is amazing.
EL: By the way, that feeling that you talk about parents having still exists to this day. Kenji López-Alt, who is at Serious Eats, and has this incredible best-selling cookbook, “Food Lab,” went to MIT. Had a father who taught at Harvard, or Columbia, or I think he used to go back and forth between the two institutions, and when he told his mother after he graduated from MIT with a degree in architecture that he wanted to cook and be a chef, his mother said “We paid for you to go to MIT so you could flip burgers at McDonald’s?”
EL: Obviously it has persisted, obviously there are many fewer case, even today there’s still …
AF: Yeah, I totally agree. Hooni Kim who has Danji and HANJAN restaurants here in New York had been pre-med, and he said to this day … He’s got two very successful restaurants, he came up working for Daniel Boulud, and Masa, and all these acclaimed chefs. He said to this day in the summer, if he comes out of his kitchen sweaty and his mom is in the dining room, she’ll still say to him, “I raised a son to work in an air-conditioned office. I raised a son to be a doctor, or lawyer.” She’s still not over it.
EL: Yeah, so the book is incredibly revealing without being gossipy, or snarky.
AF: Thank you.
EL: Was that because you were friends with a lot of these people, or that just wasn’t interesting to you?
AF: I love that question. I wanted to write to, be honest, a much more salacious, revealing book. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which is a very serious book, and really explains what happened in Hollywood.
EL: Yeah, but he pulls no punches.
AF: There is unbelievable detail, you’re like, “Oh my God, how did he get these people to tell him this,” right? The citations were amazing, like if you go to the notes in that book, every quote, he was really anticipating probably lawsuits and whatever. It is so supported.
AF: Now this book, I really thought my book ends 20 something years ago. I really thought statute of limitations, everyone’s going to tell me these amazing wild stories, and they just didn’t. The line for me, to be honest about it, is just I had what I call a no-outing policy. There’s people in this book who are widely known to have done all kinds of stuff. If they themselves were not going to cop to it in our interview, I was not going to out them now. I’ve been through legal reads on other books, if I had three people on the record saying they did X, Y, and Z, I probably could have put it in. Why? I didn’t see the point. I think it’s very clear from the book that there were plenty of substances around. I think it’s pretty clear from the book how hard the work is. I did …
EL: There was a lot of sex in walk-ins, but you didn’t feel the need to elaborate.
AF: I didn’t feel the need to be specific who was having sex in the walk-in, I didn’t. Now if more people had offered that up, or answered my questions very directly, I would have put it in. This book opens with Bruce Marder, who I never met in my life, telling me about dropping acid in this van in Morocco, I’m very grateful to Bruce. There’s a lot of people who wouldn’t have even told me that story.
AF: I don’t get it. After this long, people were very guarded about that stuff. Not to be stereotypical, but they were way more guarded on the East Coast than in California.
EL: That’s funny.
AF: I was actually offered marijuana in a couple of interviews in California, always offered wine, always.
AF: The California interviews were … It was great going out there, I really felt like I got to know especially LA pretty well.
AF: That’s the reason I just had no interest or stomach for outing people who … I had a friend who wrote a book a few years ago just full chockablock with all this stuff, and was getting angry phone calls from people like, “I have grandkids, I can’t believe you said what I did in my office under the desk.” I don’t want those phone calls, it’s not what the books about. I did want there to be more of that texture, because I think it was a pretty wild time. There’s also, to be honest about it, there’s a part of me that respects, and I don’t want to phrase this wrong, because we’re at a very important moment in this industry and other industries, the reckoning.
AF: I’m not talking about that, but there is a part of it to me of what happens in the kitchen stays in the kitchen. Yeah, my chef was doing a lot of coke, I’m not going to be the one who gives that to you. He was working hard, he did what he had to do, whatever.
AF: There’s a part of me that grudgingly respects that, and it’s fine. The friends of mine who read the book early, one of the first things I said to them was, did you feel like I wimped out on how much cocaine was around? They said, “No, I got it, I get that it was around.”
EL: Yeah, no, I actually think you did it really deftly.
AF: Thank you.
EL: It’s funny, because I’m writing this book about Serious Eats as we were talking about, and one of the first things that I realized, because when I was first writing, I was doing a lot of score settling. Then I was like, nobody ever has heard of any of these people, what’s the point? It’s not really the story, and also Frank Bruni said something to me about his memoir when he was on Special Sauce, he said he vowed that the only person he would embarrass in his book was himself.
AF: That’s interesting, well there are people in here who probably are seeing things about themselves that they’re not happy with.
AF: Look, I get into the breakup between Wolfgang Puck and Patrick Terrail who was his boss at a restaurant called Ma Maison.
EL: It was a seminal power restaurant in Los Angeles.
AF: It was, and I believe that the shift of Wolfgang as an employee, a very unheralded employee there, to being the owner of his own place, Spago, is the story of what happened with American chefs, even though he was not from the United States. There is a lot of the headbutting in there, there’s a lot of the headbutting between Michael McCarty and the original chef of Michael’s, Ken Frank. There’s some stuff about how the extreme volume and pressure of the dining room affected Alain Sailhac’s kitchen at Le Cirque, right? There’s some …
EL: Seminole French restaurant in New York.
EL: Owned by Sirio Maccioni.
AF: Yeah, now I’m friendly with Alain, and his wife Arlene, and I’m very fond of them. There’s some very unflattering detail in there. To me, I thought it was important, I thought it showed that to a generation of Americans who grew up deifying the French, that they weren’t these infallible people, and ultimately there was an important change that happened when Daniel Boulud took over that kitchen. The stuff that’s in there that I think would be displeasing to some people, it’s there for a reason, it’s there because I think it makes a historical …
EL: It serves the narrative.
AF: Yeah, so that’s where I netted out on some of this stuff.
EL: You mentioned Wolfgang Puck and Patrick Terrail, I think the reason you honed in on that relationship, is that it represented a moment where the power was shifting in restaurants from restaurateurs to chefs, would you say that’s accurate?
AF: 100%, yeah, and I feel like the owners didn’t see it coming. It was like they were mugged. It was like they were jumped in an alley, they didn’t see it coming.
EL: Right, right, because the restaurateurs were the impresarios, right?
AF: They were the impresarios, they were the front guy.
EL: They were literally the front of the house guys.
AF: They were the front of the house, it was their money, they were the ones schmoozing the customers, and the chefs were these anonymous people in the back of the house who didn’t come out, who generally … Now sometimes on a menu you’ll even see sous chef’s named.
AF: They weren’t generally named, they weren’t generally known, and that all started to change in the late 70s.
EL: You correctly say that it changed with Wolf, and what was interesting to me in reading the book was that Wolfgang Puck was reluctantly dragged to the front of the house. It wasn’t like he want to be a star.
AF: Most people I interviewed for the book will tell you that they at that time were getting into cooking simply because they loved cooking, right? They couldn’t see the celebrity thing coming down the pipe, they couldn’t see the product lines and the cookbooks and the television shows. Jonathan Waxman, who I adore, I made that comment to him, and he said, “Andrew, that’s manifestly untrue, because we all have the example of the nouvelle cuisine chefs, the Paul Bocuses of the world who were getting very famous in France, who were on the covers of magazines in France.”
I think Jonathan speaks more for himself on that front than for a lot of these people, but I did ask Wolfgang directly if he, because he came from Europe at that time, if he had the example of the nouvelle cuisine chefs. These are the people who broke away from traditional French cuisine, into a much more personal style of cuisine, which is the beginnings of what we all take for granted now, of a chef having their own voice, or style.
AF: That was a new concept, and I asked Wolfgang if he saw the potential for celebrity in that, and wanted that for himself, and he very convincingly to me said, “No,” he said obviously he had seen it, saw what it did for those guys, but that it wasn’t anything that was really a goal of his.
EL: Yeah, no, that was clear, that was interesting to me.
EL: The book goes into great detail about these markers in the evolution of chef culture in America.
EL: What would you say were the key moments? What were the markers?
AF: Well, I will always point to Spago, the opening of Spago to me that Wolfgang … There’s a film producer named Marcia Nasatir in the book who ate once a week at Ma Maison where Wolfgang had been, and I said, “What were your impressions of Wolfgang there,” and she said, “I didn’t know there was a Wolfgang.”
AF: You go from that to Spago, where it’s an open … what Barbara Lazaroff, his ex-wife who designed those restaurants, calls an exhibition kitchen.
AF: He was on stage.
EL: Yeah, and now it’s like we just got through with the Academy Awards.
AF: Yeah, and he’s still doing that.
EL: Wolfgang Puck is one of the stars of the Academy Awards.
AF: Yeah, so to me Spago, just the fact of it, what it represented, where the chefs were positioned, that to me was a huge thing. I would probably point to the arrival of Jonathan Waxman in New York City, and a restaurant called Jams that he opened.
EL: Where he forced us to pay 20 some odd dollars for really good …
AF: Chicken and fries.
EL: … Chicken and fries.
AF: Yeah, in 1984.
EL: That’s true, I had them. I saved my pennies.
AF: What to me is interesting about that, is this is again taken for granted, but the way the book is written, right? There’s what I call the primordial swamp intro that talks about what was going on in the country, and politically, and culturally and all that. Then the first chapter proper is about Los Angeles, and then you turn the page at the end of that, and suddenly you’re in New York, and there’s three chapters about different factions of New York City, okay? The reason for that, is they were different worlds.
People have a hard time understanding this today, there was very little coverage of chefs, there was very little coverage of restaurants. There was very little cross-pollination between the coasts, and I’m actually going to go back on what I just said. I’m going to take a half step back from Jams. In 1983, and I have a whole chapter about this in the book, there was a dinner at the Stanford Court Hotel …
EL: Right, which was basically an All-Star chefs dinner.
AF: Well, it’s the thing, there’s probably three of these dinners happening in the US tonight, it had never happened before.
AF: It was I think eight chefs: Mark Miller, Jeremiah Tower, Alice Waters, Jonathan Waxman, Paul Prudhomme from New Orleans, Larry Forgione from New York City, Jimmy Schmidt and Brad Ogden from the Midwest, and they did a collaborative dinner to show off what was happening in American restaurants at the time. All the wines were American … Michael McCarty of Michael’s restaurant, this was his brainchild, and a lot of the chefs who came to that dinner, first of all most of those people had never met. Now that today would be unimaginable for these chefs of this prominence.
AF: Some of them had not heard of each other until they saw the roster for the dinner, and these are people who in their own localities were famous. They realized that they were part of something big.
EL: Bigger than themselves certainly.
AF: Yes, and something national, and that was a moment at which they all started seeing their destiny shift. There were people like Jeremiah Tower who had been drifting a little since he left Chez Panisse, who was already working on what became his masterpiece, Stars. Jimmy Schmidt who came to that dinner from the …
EL: The Rattlesnake Club.
AF: Well it became The Rattlesnake Club, he came from the London Chophouse in Detroit.
AF: Ended up partnering with McCarty on The Rattlesnake Club. Jonathan Waxman sees what’s going on, decides it’s time to leave Michael’s and strike out on his own, comes to New York and does Jams, and on, and on, and on, and on. Also an emancipatory moment, a moment when those people saw there’s strength in our numbers, we can be calling the shots, we can be owning our own restaurants, so that was big. The other moment I’d point to, and it’s a slight spoiler, but hopefully not too bad, toward the end of the book there is a conflict between the gathering chef culture, which to me was exemplified by Blue Ribbon, which was the late night …
EL: The hang, the ultimate hang.
AF: If you were a chef in New York City in the early 90s, and you got off work, and you wanted to hang with other chefs or cooks, you went to Blue Ribbon on Sullivan Street, the original Blue Ribbon.
EL: You were wired from service.
EL: You couldn’t go home and go to sleep.
AF: No, no, we could have a whole thing about how misunderstood the party culture …
AF: A lot of these people just can’t … You’ve been working flat out for five, six hours, you don’t know how to come down from that.
EL: That’s like actors in Broadway plays, they can’t go to sleep at 11 o’clock.
AF: It’s like that, it’s like why at the end of a marathon you see people who just ran 26 miles still jogging in circles trying to come down. That aside, those people were all there every night hanging out with each other, and hovering on the horizon was the Food Network, right? I think the chefs who were at Blue Ribbon, this is an amazing moment in time, you had Bobby Flay, you had Mario Batali, you had David Burke, you had Daniel Boulud, you had Jean-Georges Vongerichten, all of these people who all have empires now, they had all just come from cooking on the line, or expediting in their own restaurant.
This was when chefs were in their restaurants five, six nights a week, and I don’t say that in a punitive way, it’s the way it was. They had one restaurant, they had just come from working there, and they wanted a couple of beers with their colleagues. Batali, it’s weird to reference him now, because he basically a nonentity now, but Mario referred to it as the Knights of the Round Table, the vibe in that place. Hovering in the background was the Food Network, right? I would argue that’s what really started to change the industry, and you fast-forward to five, six years later, and that scene with those people, it was unimaginable.
AF: I think those people thought they were going to spend the rest of their lives like that, and I think it was actually the end of something. I think it was the end of what I describe in this book. I think it was the end of that time period, and another thing was about to take over.
AF: Those are the moments I would point to.
EL: Let’s talk about woman chefs for a second.
EL: You interviewed many women in the book.
EL: You’ve written books with Michelle Bernstein, this great chef from Miami who is a remarkable woman in many ways.
EL: What did you find out about the treatment of women in the kitchen? You talk about a coastal divide in that regard.
EL: Talk about it now, because it’s pretty relevant given everything that’s going on.
AF: Well, I’ll take the last thing you said first, okay? I will maintain, until somebody proves otherwise to me, this moment that we’re in right now, whatever you want to call it, the reckoning, the MeToo movement, not just about the restaurant industry, it’s about every industry really. I believe that this moment is much more of an education for what I’ll call well-behaved men, than it is for anybody else. Once these stories started breaking, and I started having open discussions about it, there is no woman I know who was surprised. There’s no woman I know who either didn’t have a horror story or more herself, or many close friends did.
I was shocked, for all the time I’ve spent in kitchens, I’d never seen any of this behavior. When the Besh story broke, when the Mario story broke, I’d never seen any of this, and the joke I made I said, “It must be like Hogan’s Heroes, when they saw me coming, they put the bunk down over the tunnel, and they turned the credenza around.”
EL: It’s totally true, as journalists …
AF: I never saw any of it.
EL: None of us did, I remember Daniel, I’d walk into the kitchen, because I was friends with Alex Lee, the chef at cuisine at Daniel, and used to play squash with him.
EL: I would walk into the kitchen to say hello, Daniel would be screaming at everyone in the kitchen, why don’t you go cook at a Greek coffee shop.
EL: Then he’d turn to me, “Ed,” and I’m sure you’ve had so many of those moments, so I think you’re absolutely right about in terms of women, and what you saw …
AF: Even her disgust. I mean I would hear vague references, “So and so is a pig,” I would hear stuff like that, I didn’t know it meant criminal behavior, or verbal and criminal behavior. When it came to the book, this is what I did not learn, and then I’ll talk to the other issue, just the kitchen culture. I am always wary of any question that puts anybody in a cubbyhole, okay? People who listen to my podcast know I always say the same thing, I don’t believe anyone gets into cooking to be a woman chef, or a gay chef, or a black chef, or a minority, you just want to be a chef, right?
If you try to put yourself as someone who empathizes with people you’re interviewing, I think there are people who are happy to be spokespeople for their community and that’s fine, but I think I’ve had people sit down for interviews with me on my podcast, and before we start say, “Just before we start, can we just talk about cooking, like I don’t want to talk about women stuff,” women chefs have said this to me. I totally get that, this book because of the time period that it took place in, I did always ask with some qualifier, or apology, what was it like to be a woman in the kitchen in this era, okay?
Now people would say to me it was really hard to get it into a kitchen. Mary Sue Milliken has this story the guy …
EL: Great chef in Los Angeles.
AF: Yeah at Border Grill and other restaurants, but when she was trying to get a job in Chicago as a young cook, the chef said, “Oh you’re too pretty, you’ll drive my staff crazy,” and he offered her a job as a hat check girl, right? Lots of women told me that as women they could only be garde manger, meaning cold preps and salads or pastry, that was a very traditional thing, in European structured kitchens they encountered that. A lot of women chefs, and also there’s a phrase that came up more than once, several gay chefs had said to me, some version of they had to prove themselves twice.
First they had to prove themselves as Americans, and then had to prove themselves as a woman, or as a homosexual, and then once they did that they were accepted. What’s fascinating to me is nobody, there’s two stories that would even be in the category of sexual harassment or assault, and they’re very minor, one of them is verbal, and one of them is Helen Chardack, who’s the ex-wife of Alfred Portale, who was a terrific chef in her own right, said when she was at the Culinary Institute, you wouldn’t go into the walk-in alone. Yeah, and that’s it, that’s it.
I, to be honest, thought this book was put to bed when these story broke. I didn’t know to ask something more pointed than that. I’ve since gone back to some of these people, and they’ve said, “Look, it was unfortunately part of being a woman at that time, it’s something I really don’t want to talk about. It’s something I don’t want to talk about in the context of my career. I’d rather tell you about my triumphs, and what I did.” I wish that the timing were a little different, because I would’ve, very not happily, but I would’ve had no hesitation to explore it, and this isn’t a plug, but I will tell you, Allison Robicelli, who’s very outspoken on this topic, she and I are co-producing a special episode of my podcast.
We’re going to do four or five complementary interviews with people, journalists and women cooks and chefs on this topic.
EL: That’s great.
AF: Honestly I had a blind spot, I had a blind spot.
EL: Now it’s time for the Special Sauce All You Can Answer Buffet, Andrew, so who’s at your last supper? No family allowed, and in your case only one chef allowed.
AF: How many people am I allowed?
EL: You’re allowed five.
AF: At my last supper?
AF: Living or dead?
EL: Yeah, living or dead. People you think would be great to break bread with.
AF: Scott Fitzgerald.
EL: F. Scott Fitzgerald.
AF: Alfred Hitchcock.
AF: John Cheever.
EL: John Cheever, woo.
AF: Elvis Costello.
EL: Okay, and you gotta have a woman.
AF: I’m about to.
AF: I’m about to, Dorothy Parker.
EL: That’s an awesome table, all right, so what are you eating?
AF: Can chefs that I like have cooked the meal?
AF: I’m eating dishes that represent different times in my life in the chef world.
AF: I’m having Alfred Portale’s farfalle with prosciutto and pea leaves.
AF: I’m having Tom Valenti’s braised lamb shank.
EL: Which is one of my favorite all-time dishes.
AF: On from there.
EL: Okay. Do you have a guilty pleasure?
AF: Yeah, I mean I grew up eating Wendy’s. I mean I eat all kinds of garbage. There are nights when presented with the choice between a Big Mac, fries, and one of those disgusting sundaes from McDonald’s, I would pick that over anything else on planet Earth.
EL: That’s awesome.
AF: I’m not joking, there are nights where that would be heaven.
EL: Who do you imagine you could acquire the most wisdom from at a one-on-one lunch? Like a non-chef living or dead, like just someone who like if I could spend two hours with this person …
AF: It’s going to happen, it’s going to happen.
AF: Yeah, I had a mentor when I was in the film business named Marcia Nasatir. Marcia was the first ever female vice president of a major studio. She worked for Mike Medavoy in the 70s at United Artists. She is now 91, she’s unbelievably vital, she is an amazing person, someone just made a documentary about her called, “A Classy Broad.” She threw me a little reception for my book when I was in LA last week, she was horrified that nobody was throwing a party. She threw me a party, and we are having dinner at Maude restaurant, which is one of Curtis Stone’s restaurants.
Justin Hilbert came and made some of the canapés for my little reception, and she and Justin adored each other. It was the cutest thing ever, and Marcia and I are going to Maude, and I’ve already decided that I’m going to tap as much wisdom from Marcia Nasatir who’s been right there in my life for 30 years, but who I have never just picked her brain about life and all that, and she probably doesn’t listen to the podcast, so she won’t be able to prepare for that having I don’t think she’ll hear this.
EL: That’s awesome.
AF: When we made the dinner date, I said I am gonna take advantage of my three hours with Marcia at this tasting dinner.
EL: Perfect, it’s been declared Andrew Friedman Day all over the world, what’s happening on that day?
AF: All the TVs in the world, it’s my birthday, which always takes place during Wimbledon.
AF: Every television in the world is tuned to Wimbledon.
AF: Everybody tweeting is tweeting about Wimbledon.
AF: This happened years ago, Elvis Costello was playing a concert that night, so I watched Wimbledon all day, and then I went to an Elvis Costello concert. Elvis Costello’s playing a concert televised around the world.
EL: That’s so great.
AF: He’ll end with “Just About Glad,” which is my favorite Elvis Costello song.
EL: Well thank you so much for sharing your special sauce with Andrew Friedman.
AF: This was great.
EL: Serious Eaters, do check out Andrew’s book, “Chefs, Drugs and Rock & Roll,” and also his blog Toqueland and his podcast, “Andrew Talks to Chefs.” I do detect a certain through line in your work.
AF: A little bit.
EL: We’ll see you next time Serious Eaters.