By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
Hey, fat man. You've got some explaining to do.
I was just looking over last year's letter to you, and I realized that I got nothing I asked for. Zip. Zilch. Not one Christmas wish fulfilled, not one humble request granted. What's that all about? It's not like I was a bad kid (at least, I wasn't any worse than usual), so why did I get screwed out of all the loot? I ate my vegetables. I remembered to wash behind my ears. I was kind to children and to old people and any animals that I wasn't having for dinner.
Seriously, what did I do to piss you off?
Is it the smoking? Well, I'm trying to quit; it's just not going very well. Was it my extracurricular letter writing that got your holiday undies in a twist? My anonymous campaign of correspondence against the glossy food press and all their foul ilk? I knew that was going to come back and bite me in the ass.
But, okay, in my defense? I was kidding when I threatened to light myself on fire in front of the Gourmet offices if the magazine didn't quit giving all that ink to Ferran Adria. I was just sick of reading about what a genius he is for serving tomato jerky and avocado foam to the food tourists at El Bulli. And challenging Esquire's editor to a duel? I thought that was very gentlemanly. I mean, the magazine's food section is one page, for God's sake! Esquiredevotes more space to how to tie a perfect Windsor knot than it does to how to properly grill a steak -- undoubtedly one of mankind's highest arts -- and I'm supposed to just let that go? This is my business, and I take it very seriously, so I don't think it was out of line for me to go after the New York Times for trying to get Jay McInerney into their top critic's spot. (What is this, 1987? Hasn't anyone over there read a book in the last twenty years?) Besides, the Times didn't get him, so I'm counting that a victory. And when I told the Food Network I was going to rent a dump truck, pack it with rotting foie gras and rabid wolverines, then unload the contents on the cable channel's offices if I had to watch one more half-hour special on how saltwater taffy is made? Well, it was late and I was drunk, so blame that one on the good people at Bushmills.
I know you're a busy guy, Santa, what with those off-the-book elves to wrangle and the PETA crowd getting all in your face about reindeer abuse. And I also know that last year's requests -- although entirely selfless and made only with the good of the entire food community in mind -- were big-ticket: an end to the scourge of chain restaurants, to food served in martini glasses and to the Atkins diet; the resurrection of my favorite old haunts; a cavalry charge of business for some of the good guys in town who were struggling, and punishment for those doing wrong. Still, I asked you to throw a little holiday juju at Clair de Lune, Indigo, Vega and that Korean BBQ place by my house, and what happened? They all closed. I asked for a Denver outpost of the Cream Puffery, and the original in Boulder closed instead. This is beginning to look like some kind of Silent Night vendetta, big guy, because every year when that goddamn pretty boy Bobby Flay hangs up his double-starch apron and beds down on Christmas Eve, he does so with a smile, knowing that he'll wake up the next morning with a big, fat publishing contract for another asinine barbecue book in his stocking. What's he got on you, Santa? Naughty pictures of the missus in bed with Blitzen?
Because I'm still a kid at heart and believe in the spirit of Christmas, though, I'm giving this another shot. This year, I'm keeping my wishes more focused, my requests small. I'm just asking for a couple of little things that I think would improve the restaurant scene, both nationally and here in Denver, and bring joy to my fellow grubniks everywhere. To wit:
1) The chain-restaurant thing. Last year I asked you to make them all disappear, Santa, and I realize now that this was perhaps beyond your purview as a right jolly old elf and the bringer of joy and niceness to all good boys and girls. Also, I have to admit that some of these places gave a start to a lot of the cooks in town whose work I now admire. Goose Sorenson at Solera worked for Bennigan's. Jennifer Jasinski did time at Taco Bell. And back in the day, even yours truly had a gig rolling omelettes for Perkins.
So if you can't make them go away altogether, how's this for a compromise? For everybody out there on the chain gang -- from the chairman of the board at Brinker International, which owns Maggiano's, to the lowliest Olive Garden line cook -- I wish a copy of the Il Fornaio Pasta Book planted under their tree. Il Fornaio (see review) is a chain, too, but somehow it does fine work while still turning a profit, crushing the competition, running local restaurants out of business and doing all those other things that the interstate mega-food conglomerates promise their investors. Filled with recipes from Il Fornaio's chef-partners' menus, it shows what a chain eatery is capable of when the company respects the ideal of having a real chef in the kitchen. Proletarian dining doesn't have to be all Riblets and fried cheese, Santa. Sometimes it can be fresh bread and involtini di melanzane, too.