By Jonathan Shikes
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By Cafe Society
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Short was making squab sauce when he talked about his past -- from Bozeman to architecture school to the Culinary Institute of America to the Laundry -- and Ruhlman noted how he strained the sauce as he spoke, pouring it from one steel bowl through a chinois into another steel bowl, then getting up, washing the bowl and chinois, and repeating. By the time Ruhlman's account ended, Short had strained this single sauce more than twenty times -- until it passed through the chinois without leaving a single trace of sediment. Until it was perfect.
Ziebold -- who'd eaten at Alain Ducasse in Paris, done a stage at Taillevent and was Keller's sous -- was cleaning cutting boards and picking up cigarette butts in the parking lot while he gabbed with Ruhlman. It was his day off. And what he wanted to talk about was wiping down the oil bottles every night.
"Oil bottles? So they've got oil on them -- does it matter?" Ziebold asked. "You just pour oil into a pan; it's not going to affect the food. The bains in the sink with the spoons and whips -- does the water need to be clean? No. And pretty soon you start to do it with the food."
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But he wiped down the oil bottles because Keller wiped down the oil bottles, because it mattered, because if there was oil on the bottles, the oil got on your hands and then on the plates -- greasy little fingerprints baked on by the heat of the top broiler or warmer.
Ruhlman, once more: "I had been by this point in numerous kitchens, spoken at length with scores of chefs, cooked with and for some of them. Many, when you got them really engaged and excited about what was important, talked about exotic foods like foie gras, truffles, or clever preparations such as sauces made from reduced vegetable juices and spices, and infused oils. At the French Laundry -- which served a ton of truffles and foie gras, which reduced carrot and beet juices to use for sauces, which made a dozen or more infused oils -- the best cooks in the kitchen talked about cleaning oil bottles, how to cook a green vegetable, how to strain a sauce, and the effects of chopping shallots for your station by hand."
The details always matter, but especially when you're talking about New American -- this upstart cuisine, this essential refutation of the accepted truth that all great food in the States begins and ends somewhere else. So whether you're assembling a PB&J sandwich in Littleton, prepping fish and chips in Yountville or botching a goat-cheese-and-orzo salad in Lakewood, the little things count. For New American cuisine to survive, it cannot simply be good enough. Just to be taken seriously, it must be better than everything else out there.
Yeah, that's rough, but like the man says, war is hell.
Write stuff redux: I eat a lot throughout the year, and during Best of Denver season, I eat like a man possessed -- chasing off after barbecue in West Crested Bumblefuck and eating more tamales than can possibly be healthy for a man of my stature and ethnic biology.
But John Mariani, food editor at Esquire, puts me to shame. When the last thing I want to do on some rainy Saturday is drive an hour and a half to some joint with a reputation for having the best duck liver in the state, I think of Mariani and realize that things could be worse. I could have to get on a plane and fly to Radium Springs or Hog's Knuckle or Omaha looking for that duck liver, only to discover that it's not really very good after all, but just another example of obsessive local boosterism.
For this month's "Best New Restaurants" issue of Esquire, Mariani ate 356 meals across the country. That's a meal a day, every day, all year, in dozens of cities, with only nine days off. That's insane. And what's more, the list was eventually winnowed down to just 21 restaurants deserving of Mariani's praise (plus a few mentioned in sidebars, including Pat's Roosterante in Craig, which made the list of "Best New Restaurant Names"). In comparison, I am a total pussy.
Fortunately, this year Mariani's travels took him to Denver and to Table 6, which ranks among the year's 21 best alongside such hot boîtes as Rathbun's in Atlanta, Megu in New York and Philly's Bliss. "This small neighborhood restaurant has charm to burn" quoth the big man, singling out Table 6 chef de cuisine Aaron Whitcomb -- the protegé of Adega chef/owner Bryan Moscatello -- for his menu of "pure homemade goodness." And bingo, Whitcomb is now a star in his own right.
In addition to praising Table 6's beet bisque, apple-brined brisket and artisan s'mores, Mariani also offered a canonical sidebar on all things culinary that should be subject to a thousand-year ban: low-carb pasta, communal tables (my own nightmare-dining scenario), raw food, beet-and-goat-cheese salads, crème brûlées made from anything but crème and, of course, Rocco.