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Bite Me

If seeing the special Spargelfeier menu got me excited about grabbing a table at Chinook Tavern (see review), then hearing Clemens Georg talk about it made me realize I had to grab that table now.

"Do you know about white asparagus?" he asked.

Yes, I know plenty about white asparagus. I've been in love with the stuff since the day it first made an appearance in one of my own kitchens years ago. My chef at the time (a Frenchman of indeterminate culinary pedigree, with a penchant for drinking all the line's cooking sherry when he was in a mood) had ordered an entire flat from some specialty purveyor one spring and then never bothered to tell us, his crew.

The asparagus was ugly, the huge stalks packed in dirt and straw. They didn't look white so much as gray and filthy. And they smelled so strange, like rich earth after a lightning strike, like mud and battery acid.

So we stashed the asparagus away in coolers, the way we generally treated the chef's odd purchases -- flats of edible flowers, langoustines, Black Sea salt -- and went back about our business.

Come dinner service, Chef rolled back in and took his place at the pass. With just a glance, he was able to see every inch of our mise, and he noticed right away that there was no white asparagus anywhere. He asked what we had done with all those beautiful stalks, and we told him that we'd stuck them in the cooler because no one knew what to do with them.

He acted like he'd been shot. He gasped. He reeled. He looked like Redd Foxx on Sanford and Son faking a heart attack. (The French have never let a dramatic moment go by without milking it for all the rage and pathos it's worth.) He called us every name he could come up with in two languages, then stomped off into the cooler, came back with a fistful of the asparagus, kicked my grillman out of his post and proceeded to invent the night's special right there in front of us, even as the first tables of the evening were being seated.

I'd never seen anyone work with white asparagus before. His gentle washing, trimming, oiling and grilling of the stalks, the red-pepper aioli and rouille he made, the way he plated -- patting the stalks dry of any oil again after grilling, then bundling them together and tying them with a slip of leek -- looked brilliant to me. It was so simple, so classic, so pure and unadulterated. What's more, he'd pulled it off in about three minutes flat.

"Now you," he said, slapping at the grillman whose responsibility this had become. "And don't fuck it up."

We served maybe three of those specials that night; I don't think our customers knew any more about white asparagus than we did back then. And the next day, after seeing how badly his special had flopped, Chef dipped into the sherry early, leaving us to our own devices. We all ate white asparagus for lunch -- pounds of it. We played with the stalks, experimented, tried peeling, tried blanching, attempted all the abuses that we had customarily heaped onto plain green asparagus. It was like a hundred years of culinary trial and error packed into one afternoon, and when we were done, we decided that Chef had it right in the first place.

Except for the leek ribbon, of course. That was just way too French.

At Chinook, the Georg family -- and chef Markus, in particular -- have had a decade to perfect their recipes, and they run them all during that brief seasonal window when white asparagus is at its best. But while I had some very good asparagus there, I had some pretty bad asparagus as well. This had much less to do with Markus's skills than it did with the sad fact that white asparagus is a tough bitch to love in the kitchen. Much more delicate than green and, from the start, already slightly more bitter, a stalk of white asparagus can go from sublime to absolute acidic shit in the space of just a few seconds. And it does nothing to tell you it's turned. A perfect stalk and a bad one look exactly the same, smell almost identical, have the same texture. But cook a stalk just thirty seconds past its prime, and it becomes almost inedibly nasty.

At Chinook, I had one plate where every stalk, tip to tail, was excellent -- bathed in a lemony hollandaise and just wonderful. Then I had another where three of the six massive stalks were perfect, one was marginal, and two I had to hide in my napkin. Still, the three good ones were worth it, and since Chinook's white-asparagus stock will start running low any day, as the season draws to a close, I'll take what I can get.

 

Cook's shelf: The Perfectionist, by Rudolph Chelminski, is an absolute gut-punch of a tome, with 344 pages leading up to the moment that sent shockwaves through the worlds of both gastronomy and criticism: the shotgun suicide of three-star Michelin chef Bernard Loiseau.

"This was not just some local notable," Chelminski writes, "a mere political, ecclesiastic, captain of industry, or other such inglorious personage. This was Bernard Loiseau the chef, arguably the most famous in France (and therefore the world), a man whose name recognition score among the French general population -- nine out of ten -- was of presidential proportions. He was a cult figure of worldwide reputation, one of the gods of the trade, a man in the prime of his life at the top of his profession, one of only twenty-five in the country then holding the coveted honor of a three-star rating in the Guide Michelin, the sole and true arbiter of the restaurant business. His hotel-restaurant complex at the gateway to the great Burgundy vineyards was more than luxurious. Simply put, it was perfection, or as close to perfection as our poor human condition allows.... All this and he does away with himself! How could this happen? It was simply incomprehensible."

Thus begins a book that strives to answer just that question: How could this happen? In the days and weeks immediately following Loiseau's death, the theory was trotted out that critics had killed the obsessive, manic-depressive bear of a man. "We can say, we can even affirm, that they killed Bernard Loiseau," wrote Jacques Pourcel, president of the chef's trade union, and by "they," he specifically meant the guide GaultMillau that had recently (and for no readily apparent reason beyond shock value) downgraded Loiseau's restaurant, Le Cote d'Or, from nineteen points (out of what should have been an unattainable twenty) to seventeen; meant Francois Simon, the "enfant terrible of gastronomy, restaurant critic for the Paris daily Le Figaro," who'd written in his column of the rumors (likely started by Loiseau's own paranoia) that Le Cote d'Or would be losing a star in the newest edition of the Michelin red book; meant the Guide Michelin itself and its own critics, who -- by dint of their secrecy, uncorruptability and longevity -- swing the weight of a papal edict in France with every word they write. Pourcel believed (and his opinion was seconded by many of the top chefs in the business) that the pressures of getting and maintaining a three-star Michelin rating had killed Loiseau, that the thought of losing one star -- of getting bumped down to the workaday two-star level, where expectations are merely of brilliance, not inhuman perfection -- was enough to put him over the edge.

But Chelminski insists that such a simplistic theory is ridiculous. "Finally," he writes, "when all the coals have been raked over and all the jealousies, rancors, and self-serving ambitions have been appeased and the pettiness swept away, there are only two real culprits to be blamed for Bernard's death: the twentieth century and his own tortured psyche."

Chelminski presents The Perfectionist not as a eulogy, but rather as a study of the life and times of one of the food world's most famous golems. He shows the brilliance of Loiseau, the man's monstrous enthusiasms, and every bit of his dark side, too. More important -- and the thing that separates this book from all the other grandstanding chef biographies currently jamming the shelves -- Chelminski knows what it takes to get and keep three Michelin stars. He understands the impossible pressures of haute cuisine, the real inside workings of the kitchen world, and he maintains friendships with some of the biggest names there are. So when he talks of Loiseau's formative years as an apprentice under the inimitable Troigros brothers, he can quote them. When he talks about the chef's lifelong battle to become Paul Bocuse, he can interview Bocuse himself. And when it comes time to pass judgment (which he does, and does well), his is an opinion to trust.

Leftovers: In the years just prior to his death, Loiseau ran three smaller bistros in and around Paris. These places were supposed to serve simple, almost farmhouse versions of le cuisine Loiseau, and so had names that evoked that sense of family and comfort: Tante Jeanne, Tante Marguerite and Tante Louise.

Tante Louise (under its pre-Loiseau ownership) was the inspiration for Denver's restaurant of the same name. Corky Douglass, owner of the local Tante Louise, tells me that back in the day -- back when Denver's culinary scene was high-flying and globe-trotting, and foodies hopped gleefully back and forth across the pond at a moment's notice -- he used to offer a house account to regulars. This was just a little card that friends of the house could slap down at Tante Louise as a way of signing for dinner; the tabs were tallied, then bills mailed out every month.

 

"We had this joke," Douglass says. "Just this thing that we used to laugh about. Let me see if I can explain it to you quickly." And then he does, telling me how some of his more worldly customers would head off to Paris, have a meal at the original Tante (which had been around since the 1920s) and then drop their Denver Tante Louise cards on the table, just to see what would happen. "For years, I would hear about this from our friends in Paris," he adds.

Sadly, though, I wasn't calling Douglass to trade jokes. I wanted details on the coming closure of his 32-year-old restaurant. According to him, the decision to sell Tante Louise "wasn't planned." His friend, Ed Novak (of Broker fame), had come to him, looking to pick up a piece of property, "and Ed just said to me, 'What do you think?'"

Douglass thought it was perhaps time to make a graceful exit -- at least temporarily -- from the industry that's been his obsession for most of his life. "I'm an anal operator," he says. "I'm here all the time. I didn't know how to do it any other way." His presence has been the secret to Tante Louise's success: an owner-operator always in the house, on the floor, every night, personally overseeing every table.

Plans are for Douglass to hand over the keys at the end of the month to Novak and Jerry Fritzler, general manager at the downtown Broker. "I'll be taking a vacation," he says. "You know, I haven't had more than maybe three days of vacation in the last fifteen years, so I'm excited about it." Meanwhile, there will be a couple of weeks of remodeling, and then the space will reopen as the Cork House, a wine bar and restaurant featuring New American-leaning cuisine. One of the reasons he was so comfortable with the deal, Douglass says, is that Novak and Fritzler are "committed to maintain as many of the staff as want to stay." Whether one of those staying will be chef Marlo Hix has yet to be determined.


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