A dinner with Glen (see review) always unfolds with the same potential for highly public disaster as a live TV broadcast without the comfort of a five-second delay. He is an awful, vile creature, a man born without that essential internal volume control that allows civilized people to interact politely. But he's a good friend and a good man -- big, smart, well-read and fun in a vandalous sort of way, like bringing a half-tame dinosaur to a cocktail party and letting it loose at the hors d'oeuvres table.
Also, Glen's the perfect dining companion for a guy in my position. As a condition of some bizarre, pseudo-psychological diet regime he's pursuing, he keeps no food at home -- not a cracker, not a crumb -- so, like a shark, he has to keep moving and keep eating or he'll shrivel up and die.
But maybe most important, when people see Glen coming, no one gives me a second look. I can simply fade back into his not inconsiderable shadow. Invisible, I have a comfortable perch one step removed from the incestuous social politics of a restaurant scene where it sometimes seems that everyone knows everyone else. In this job, I can't sit down with cooks anymore, can't get drunk with them, can't be there in those excellent moments of transcendence when whole bodies of cuisine are overturned on the loading dock or new dishes created out of spilled beer and cigarette smoke. Now, in my position as anonymous observer, I have to get to know these guys without ever meeting them.
Last week I was talking with industry veteran turned restaurant consultant John Imbergamo about Brasserie Rouge and its chef, John Broening. Google him, and you get Broening's name in reference to his galley in LoDo; queries on the Chef-2-Chef message boards as to where he's cooking now; and links to his reviews of books by John Updike, the works of Rilke and Oates (Joyce Carol, not Hall and), and interviews he did with Anthony Bourdain while slinging ink for the Colorado Springs Independent. "He's just really an interesting guy," Imbergamo said. "I wish you could meet him."
In my own way, though, I already know Broening. I've never met the man, but his food tells me all I need. How could I not like a guy who makes duck confit the way he does: the slow, old-fashioned way -- salty and dark and powerful as heart meat -- in an age when the American palate knows confit almost exclusively in its cheap and shoddy modern translation of duck breast boiled in fat? I know him as the kind of guy who wants to see the way his sausages are made; who loves charcuterie and the sound of a clanging batterie de cuisine echoing through the dining room; who makes the kind of bouillabaisse that, previous to the opening of Rouge, would have required a passport and a plane ticket to taste.
I know Broening without ever having shaken his hand, because when food is your passion and your passion is on offer, every night, at twenty bucks a go, the best and worst of your nature are displayed with every meal.
How could I not know Sean Yontz after three orders of his veal albondigas at Vega? With their contrasts, their powerful flavors, their mix of boldness and traditionalism, those meatballs say more about Yontz than I'd learn about the man during some shared, beery night at Benny's Restaurant y Tequila Bar next door. (By the way, Vega's new menu doesn't include the albondigas -- but I know they'll be back.) Sean Kelly? I knew all I needed to know about him as soon as I saw the calluses on his hands as he worked the kitchen at Clair de Lune. Bryan Moscatello has a great, huge sense of humor hidden beneath his rigorous professionalism; I could taste it in his perfect venison steak and eggs at Adega. Mike Long is one of the smartest cooks in town -- a deconstructionist, a culinary anarchist, a guy who came up hard under tough bosses and finally has his chance to shine on the line at Littleton's Opus. The humor, odd pairings and careful restraint evident in every menu he's created tells me all that.
This knowledge stretches beyond Denver. Cut off from the tight families of commis, grillmen, chefs and insane bakers with whom I once surrounded myself, I now have the leisure to get to know cooks whose acquaintance I'll never make. Jeremiah Tower's menus trace the brilliant arc of a career that dragged a whole generation of foodies behind it like the tail of a streaking comet. In their simplicity, seasonality, luxury and peculiarity, they show a man who -- at his best -- was a crazy-smart sonofabitch inevitably destined for celebrity and -- at his worst -- a champagne-drunk gadfly racked with self-doubt and stinking with the smoke of burned bridges. Thomas Keller? A beatific garden saint who receives his mystical instructions from voices that speak only to him -- but now, with the opening of Per Se in New York, he's on the dangerous edge of selling out his own mythology. Eric Ripert is a neo-traditionalist -- a little bit country French, a little bit American rock and roll. Bobby Flay? A shameless ripoff artist still trying to convince the world that he invented the grill, the mop and the marinade. I'll bet he thinks he was the first kid ever to sit in the back row in nursery school eating paste.
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And Jacques Pépin. Merde, if I ever had to pick a surrogate father, name a mentor or choose a man to be stuck sitting next to on a transcontinental plane ride, it would be Jacques. He's a better French cook than maybe anyone else alive today, a better, more beautiful writer than I could ever dream to be, and his menus and recipes -- pure food poetry -- are more than just a window onto a man whose earliest memories are of Bresse chickens, his father's wine and his mother's mou au vin rouge, but onto pieces of the man himself. The only thing Jacques and I have in common is that in both of us, food and life are one and the same, and I think we'd both end the latter before giving up the former. In all else, he's my better, the kind of man I aspire to be.
And though I'd love to buy Jacques a glass of vin ordinaire, shake his hand and thank him for his newest book (The Apprentice, a memoir of his life in the kitchen, part of which is excerpted between the covers of Best Food Writing 2003, right alongside an undeserving piece of mine), the odds of that happening are long. In the meantime, I have menus, recipes and thousands of dinners to keep me in touch with the world of cooks that I left to join the world of eaters. I have my invisibility. And I have Glen to make sure this new life never gets dull.
Leftovers: I haven't always seen eye to eye across the pass rail with Tyler Wiard. Fifteen months ago, I had a series of very disappointing meals at the Fourth Story while chef Wiard was still its top dog ("Tale Spin," December 19, 2002) and compared the place to a wallowing death ship of geriatric Continental cuisine.
Then Wiard went on an extended vacation, and a few months after that, he was gone. But now he's back, at Mel's, and judging from the new menu, it's time I got reacquainted with Wiard. Chilled Maine lobster with blood orange and sorrel; chestnut ravioli in truffle butter; oxtail campanelle with royal trumpet mushrooms and shallots; pork loin with sweet potatoes and smoked onion jam: This is the work of a chef who fell but landed comfortably, of a man whose head is now the proper distance from his ass. The chestnut ravioli were fantastic paired with a cutting glass of white and some good company at the bar, and I look forward to eating my way through the rest.