Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Providence Indeed

Providence, the city name, is said to have been dubbed by none other than north-of-the-border carpetbagger Roger Williams himself.  Even if he was the first arrogant Masshole and an opportunist of the highest order, Governor Williams was onto something with that name.  Providence.  We use it today to mean good fortune on the horizon, or divine guidance, but it should adhere more to its true Latin roots, which it shares with the verb "provide" and its nominal cognate, "provision".  "To prepare for the future" might be the best definition;  e.g., "Investors' providence will be rewarded."  Not only is it a cool name for a city, but it's also apropos in today's amped-up, televised gastronomic world.  Providence the city--based on my recent thirty-six hour junket with Denise, sous chef Mike and his sweetheart Rebecca--appears to be paving the way for the future of how Americans will eat, and it appears we will eat well.  Yes, that is a confusing and loaded statement, but relax, because I'm telling a story here.  This means, if history be the judge, that I need a tangent right about now...

Easter Sunday of 2010, Denise and I closed the restaurant, thrilled to give our staff a rest after a wonderfully busy Restaurant Week.  We were supposed to rest, too, but that wish changed when the sacrificial spring lamb of our Christian holiday (perhaps angry for being superimposed on the pagan rite of vernal equinox) went up in literal flames just a few inches from our noses.  Totally unexaggerated truth here.  Stay with me.  More on that in a New England minute.

Easter is a good holiday.  I still believe that.  I believe that because (A) Easter is the Christian word for Spring, and (B) I like to eat lamb.  For many years, wherever I was living in the universe, I traveled to Sherborn, MA (my hometown, if I have one) on Easter Eve, spent the night at my Mom's, and woke up an hour before dawn to watch the sun come up on Easter as part of an annual ritual affiliated with the church of my youth.  I did this more than a few times in my teens, twenties, even into my thirties.  This is such an obscenely unthinkable feat to me now, I marvel at whatever impetus (neither Judeo nor Catholic) drove me to perform this strange pilgrimage all those years.

While living in Mexico, we would often have to stop on a desert highway in our station wagon to let several hundred people--many of them barefoot--cross the road to get to their religious destination, which was often several hundred miles away.  Peregrinacion, it was called, and occasionally the ladies who worked in the kitchen would ask me for three or four days off to participate in such a thoroughly exhausting devotion.  Awed by their strength and commitment, I always said yes for fear that the bloodied, horrific Mexican version of Jesus would bring a little wrath my way.

Like most Easters, this one started out fine enough, our two children joined by cousins visiting from the Carolinas, the lot of them canvasing our tick-strewn woods for strategically placed neon plastic eggs filled with little capsules of corn syrup, artificial color and chocolate.  (The Easter Bunny, I thought, has never been clued in to the childhood obesity epidemic in this country).  By noon, the air temperature clocked in at a preposterous seventy degrees in the shade.  Undiscovered chocolate eggs all over New England were now muddy puddles of their former selves.  By two o'clock, my assiduously rubbed leg of American lamb, impaled on a new rotisserie my dad picked up for the grill, took on a little too much heat, dropped a little too much fat, and burst into Hollywood-caliber flames.  I noticed this while looking lazily out the bathroom window during a moment of micturative meditation.  I think my fly was still down while I tried desperately to remove the carbon-crusted lamb from the wall of flame that had engulfed it.  The new rotisserie was sticking and a quick release of the skewer proved impossible, so I wrestled with the black sheep and the flames as Denise arrived on the scene to point out that the deck railing behind the grill was now also on fire.  I finally freed the crisp meat from its bonds and Denise doused the flaming deck.  Our family devoured that leg of lamb, a few hours later, after some strategic carbon removal and a conciliatory oven treatment.  Safe to say it tasted better knowing it almost burned our house down in the process.  We were almost, in effect, the lamb's own sacrificial lambs.

OK, so Providence is the theme, and you, the reader, are still trapped in Maine.  What gives? you ask.  Just rambling, as usual.  So, as radioman Paul Harvey used to say, here's the rest of the story...

A few months ago, Michael Honig--acclaimed Napa winemaker and sustainability spokesman whose vinous juice is synonymous with greatness--was asked to present his wines at Gracie's, an equally acclaimed restaurant in Providence, RI.  He suggested to the Gracie's organizers, among them Anter (the charming and lovably persuasive GM), that I come down for a guest chef dinner, pairing five courses with Honig's five wonderful wines.  I have done this before, over a year ago, at my own restaurant, so my answer was easy.  Of course, I would love to come down to Providence to cook a few dishes for a wine dinner featuring Honig wines at someone else's restaurant.

Gracie's is the kind of restaurant diners travel for.  It is truly a destination around which one should craft a vacation.  A growing minority of us in the US do this kind of thing nowadays; the food comes first, and the rest will follow.   That's our mindset for travel  planning.  If you put Providence on your map, Gracie's has to be part of the experience.  Here's why:

Gracie's is owned by a woman whose own grace makes us mortals feel clumsy.  She holds herself in such a way, with such finesse and elan (only French words can describe this kind of person), that you might wonder if her surname is a pseudonym.  Ellen Gracyalny has managed to raise a family while also running a star-studded restaurant in a city whose culinary identity has soared in recent years, in large part due to the presence of one of the country's foremost culinary schools, Johnson & Wales.  Ellen, who answers to "Miss Ellen" among her staff, is the consummate host, the kind of person who pampers you and makes you feel special.

Matt Varga, the recently named Executive Chef of Gracie's, has been in the kitchen of the Providence institution for a few years now, having inherited the esteemed role from Joe Hafner only in recent months, and he has the heart and passion--coupled with the respect of his seemingly endless culinary crew--to keep the Gracie's formula going for many years to come.

Matt and I decided to collaborate on a menu (rather than alternating courses), which I enjoyed because it  put my ideas in the brain of another chef with another perspective, and vice versa.  It takes an ego-free chemistry to make this process work, and Matt and I managed to pull off the menu-writing phase of the project in a two-hour phone call, each of us bearing our incoherently scribbled plate map as a guide.

Mike and Rebecca went to Providence on Sunday, when Mike joined Chef Matt and the Gracie's team for an evening of prep, followed by dinner and cocktails.  Denise and I caught the tail end of the cocktails, perfect concoctions at Cafe Noir.  The next day was dedicated to cooking, although most of my attempts to perform any actual culinary tasks were taken from me by the incredibly eager support staff at Gracie's.  At one point, we had a team of nine cooks and a dishwasher plating food for the event.

The timing of the event could have been better, the Monday after Easter not being a night most folks think about going out for a multi-course meal, but other than that, it was unforgettably flawless--a learning experience that didn't come with any hard life lessons.

Rather than walk through each course, I can sum up the evening by saying that technology (something I try to keep out of my kitchen) does have its place.  So many things I have only dreamed of are possible, and are easily executed in a kitchen like that of Gracie's, that I have to envy the regular clientele that gets to play guinea pig to such coolness.

Through Chefs Collaborative and the RAFT Grow Out program last year, I heard a lot of comparisons between the Providence restaurant scene and that of Portsmouth, in the sense that each community boasted a high number of chefs working directly with farmers.  Indeed, even a nightclub we passed in Providence had proudly displayed the names of farmers they bought from on the window by the door, but I have to admit that my most blissful gustatory experience came on the heels of cooking for a lot of people, when Chef Matt and some of his crew met Denise, Mike and me at an Irish Pub with a late night menu that included one of the most incredible grilled reubens I have ever tasted.

The morning we left Providence, Denise and I swung by a small storefront on Federal Hill where we picked out a live chicken from an assortment of caged fowl and took home the dressed bird fifteen minutes later, feet and all.  Our children proclaimed it the best chicken they had ever tasted.

From Gracie's to Murphy's (home of the perfect reuben) to the anonymous chicken store, Providence left me with a sense of hope for the future of American cuisine.  I am proud of what we have been able to achieve in Portsmouth, too, and I look forward to the day when such communities are not so unusual.

Thank you, Gracie's, Honig and Providence.  We had a glorious time.