Recounting the history behind Chez Thuy's exquisite cuisine (see page 61), I was reminded of this episode:
During the siege of the French at Dien Bien Phu by the Viet Minh, one of the last cargo drops recorded before the base was overrun included, in addition to the usual ammunition and medical supplies, hundreds of gallons of French wine (and military wine concentrate -- yuck), trained prostitutes with a madam to oversee them, and a chef to cook for the troops who'd lost theirs in the fighting. Since this was an air drop, the chef and working girls were reportedly belted down to a parachute delivery palette and pushed from the back of a plane. On the one hand, it's funny to imagine an airborne hooker delivery service and an army requiring good wine and a professional chef in order to fight effectively. On the other, it's not so funny, because not many people survived the final assault at Dien Bien Phu.
But on the third hand, this tale is a good illustration of the importance of cuisine, and proof that, as MFK Fisher says, when you talk about food, what you're really talking about is love and sex and death and politics and the entire history of the human experience. Food is just the medium. The subject is life and everything in it.
With that in mind, I recently revisited T-Wa Inn, Denver's first Vietnamese restaurant and a place I'd reviewed soon after I moved to town, which was shortly after it had reverted back to one of its original owners, Tuan Lam. I wrote then: "If eating is an adventure -- and to me, it always is -- then that first dish (a sliced, fried pork egg roll noodle bowl) was like standing at the arrivals gate of an unfamiliar airport at the beginning of a long journey. I was a little lost, a little confused, but mostly I felt like the food hadn't taken me anywhere...."
I ate a half-dozen meals there before I got a handle on what the kitchen was trying to do. Lam and his cooks were working toward a Vietnamese cuisine that was truly international, not just traditional, not the historic Franco-Viet fusion. They were trying to pare down a menu that had grown to over 300 items (rivaling the massive heft of Chez Thuy's menu) while Lam was away, and instead concentrate on just a few (dozen) classic dishes with which T-Wa could, presumably, make a new name for itself. In my review, I concluded: "If my initial meal at T-Wa had all the charm of a disappointing arrival in some exotic place, then this -- a catfish in ginger sauce -- was like stepping out into foreign streets for the first time and getting mugged, beaten and rolled for my wallet. Nothing in the bland, workhorse preparation of the noodle bowl had prepared me for the assault and battery I experienced at the hands of that catfish. Expecting the same faintheartedness of flavor and forgoing the civilized decency of chopsticks, I dug right in with my fork, took a big bite and was treated to a sensation I can only describe as being hit in the mouth with a delicate, creamy-pink slice of pickled ginger wrapped around a tire iron. I now knew what I'd traveled all this way to find out. This food wasn't North Vietnamese or South Vietnamese, or even necessarily Vietnamese at all. It was food from everywhere, food from anywhere. Just good food, made by a kitchen that has learned the hard way over the past couple of years how important that one distinction really is."
Even if T-Wa wasn't perfect in the summer of 2002, it had potential. Unfortunately, it still isn't living up to that potential. Last week I stopped by for what was going to be a quick bite of a couple benchmark dishes (spring rolls, the bun cha gio noodle bowl, maybe some Vietnamese coffee), but wound up sticking around for a full dinner and then going back for lunch again because I couldn't believe the cuisine was just as confusing -- just as disappointing -- as it had been two years before. The menu is still incoherent, with no distinct declaration of that "international" flavor Lam claimed he was aiming for.
The shrimp spring rolls were actually worse than they'd been the first time around -- fat things packed with shredded iceberg lettuce rather than romaine hearts or butter lettuce, old mint leaves turning brown around the edges and a half-dozen flavorless small shrimp instead of the two big, tasty ones the kitchen once served. The Sriracha-laced peanut sauce was old and tired, with all the punch of a can of flat soda; the Vietnamese coffee was watery, and chintzy on the condensed milk. And that noodle bowl? As dull as ever. The kitchen might as well have been saving it for me in the cooler for the past two years. And while the vit roti (a duck -- a whole duck -- marinated in Vietnamese seasoning, then pulled apart at the bone, shredded and sauced with something dark and brown and delicious, if a little greasy) was excellent, overall these meals at T-Wa were the same old story: one or two dishes showing a talent and depth of understanding in the kitchen, but none of the others showing the same.
T-Wa has had two years to get things together, but so far it hasn't succeeded. It's not a bad restaurant -- that duck, for example, was simply fantastic -- but it's stuck in a rut. The menu may touch on all the classics of Vietnamese-American cuisine, may make a few attempts to incorporate the French style into certain dishes, but it seems like a culinary anomaly, something done by rote without any understanding of why it's being done.
Those who don't understand history are doomed to repeat it. Sometimes in the kitchen, where tradition and blind obedience to a style are things to be venerated, that can be a benefit. But not when you're talking, as Lam did, about turning a tradition back on itself and finding something new in the interplay between cultures. In a situation like that, you simply have to know your history, and that knowledge has to show. Because if you don't know where you've been, how can your food possibly hope to tell me where you plan to go?
Cooking the books: "One should never make one's debut with a scandal. One should reserve that to give an interest to one's old age." Oscar Wilde -- who knew more than a little about scandalous behavior, thank you very much -- said that, and how right he was. Unfortunately, these days a scandal tends to ruin lives, not liven them up. Especially when the scandal involves misappropriated benevolence, shady bookkeeping and big, stinking gobs of mislaid money.
Such a scandal now stains the venerable James Beard House. As a result of a New York Times investigation into the finances of this NYC culinary institution -- an investigation that discovered, among other things, that the foundation that supports the James Beard House hadn't filed tax returns for the last two years and couldn't account for how hundreds of thousands of dollars had been spent -- both the James Beard House and the James Beard Foundation have gone through a serious overhaul. According to a recent internal audit, while the non-profit, tax-exempt foundation took in $4.7 million in revenue last year, no more than $100,000 was given out in the form of scholarships and tuition assistance -- ostensibly the foundation's primary mission. The rest of the green was apparently used for renovations on the house (including the restoration of the back fire escape, where Mr. James Beard himself liked to shower in full view of the neighbors, because Crazy Jimmy was just 300 pounds of stone-cold freak), management, marketing and throwing the roughly 300 parties a year that the James Beard House hosts, tickets for which generally run about $100 a head.
In 2001, the audit determined, the foundation brought in $4.3 million, with $3.5 million coming from the dinners and other events at the house -- but $3 million of that then went out to fund the year's parties. And that bugs me. When a chef gets tapped to go to the Beard House to cook, he (or she) has to pay his own way. He has to buy the food, pay to have it shipped to New York, buy the wine and pay to have his guys come along with him. Essentially, the chef doing the cooking pays all his own freight -- with the understanding that cooking at the Beard House is one of those things he can put at the top of his resumé. Forever. The chef in question is then kicked back ten or fifteen bucks a head for every guest -- which isn't even close to what it actually costs to feed each person -- but tradition calls for him to donate the cash right back to the Beard House, and most chefs do. So the Beard House winds up getting a hundred bucks from each guest, which goes straight to the foundation's coffers. It doesn't have to put out for the food; it doesn't have to pay for the talent. All the Beard House and its attached foundation have to do is watch the money roll in.
So how the hell did it cost them $3 million to put on the dinners?
"It's ridiculous," says local Beard alum Tyler Wiard, who laughs when I ask about the scandal. "You know, Sean Kelly and I were talking about it the other night and we did some rough calculations. We figured 300 dinners at seventy covers each, seventy dollars a head. That's like 1.5 million dollars in revenue they're bringing in."
When I tell him it was more like $4.5 mil -- the bulk of that from ticket sales -- he groans. "That's a shame," Wiard says. "This foundation was supposed to be helping people. I just wish businesses and corporations would learn to do their accounting correctly rather than depending on the media to find out for them when something's going wrong."
Interesting point, although I don't know if the Beard House board of trustees would consider the Times investigation particularly benevolent. Then again, the Beard House was being run like some exclusive fine-dining club, giving just a pittance back to the industry it claimed to support.
The charities bureau of the Office of the New York State Attorney General also investigated, and determined that there had been no criminal wrongdoing on the part of the paid staff or volunteers. The foundation was poorly managed, but because stupidity isn't a crime, no one had done anything actually illegal. Even so, Leonard F. Pickell Jr. stepped down as president from the post he'd held since 1989, and George Sape, a New York lawyer and Beard trustee, has been named chairman. The board was shuffled, oversight committees organized, and letters and pleas for mercy sent to all the chefs and industry professionals who'd had dealings with the Beard House.
But all that may not be enough to turn the place around. Ian Kleinman, chef at Go Fish Grille and a multiple James Beard dinner veteran, last month learned that his fourth (and final) trip to the Beard House had been canceled. "I didn't even know they could do that, cancel a dinner," says Larry Herz, owner of Go Fish and Kleinman's longtime boss. "They said it was because they couldn't sell any tickets. They'd only sold, like, forty. And that's not so good."
Herz blames it on the scandal and on people being fed up with companies that are unable to handle their books, but he also wonders if something else is involved. "Like, I know if Nobu had a dinner there, they're going to sell tickets and it's not going to get canceled," he says. "But some little guy out in Denver? Yeah, it doesn't look good."
Still, the James Beard folks are putting on a brave front, and insist that the troubles in no way reflect on the awards the foundation has given -- which is good, because I've got one of those medals and would hate to see it devalued in case I ever have to pawn it -- or on the support it's shown to the restaurant community. "Let us be clear," says chairman Sape. "The good work of the James Beard Foundation continues. There is no organization in this country that has had a more positive impact in promoting the culinary arts. We intend to keep it that way."
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