July 16, 2011

Reno, Nevada: Casinos, Meet Farm-toTable

Despite dire predictions of bad eating in Reno, a recent trip there turned up some interesting watering holes. Turns out there’s a burgeoning food culture centered on local ranches, farms and some small, family-run dairies that are struggling to gain a foothold. One of those, Laca’s Vacas Dairy, is owned in part by a descendant of a Basque shepherding family. Many Basques still live in the area, and their culture and customs have left a mark on the region’s culinary landscape.

Beautiful fava bean crostini at 4th St. Bistro
The area even has its own member of the edible Community of magazines, edible Reno-Tahoe! When I discovered the magazine online, its “Eat Local Guide” (nine pages covering the region between Carson City and Fallon) became my dining search engine. After a great dinner at a place called The 4th Street Bistro, I saw a wooden crate in the foyer that I was sure was supposed to hold edible Reno-Tahoe. It was empty. Just then, a woman entered the restaurant carrying a thick stack of magazines. As if I had wished her into existence was Jaci Goodman, publisher and advertising director of edible Reno-Tahoe, carrying the new summer issue of the magazine.

Jaci took us out to the back terrace of the restaurant, where she had been having dinner with the magazine's publisher, Amanda Burden. Since I’m a contributor to edible editions in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Hudson Valley, I was excited to meet the minds behind Reno’s version. Jaci and Amanda introduced us to 4th Street Bistro Chef Natalie Sellers, who’s put in time at some top San Francisco kitchens. All had gravitated to Reno for its smaller size, friendliness, and the chance to make a mark on a community that’s opening up to the idea of local and sustainable agriculture.

The next night we had been planning on eating at Louis’ Basque Corner, one of the few restaurants I could find that was open in Reno on the Sunday of Fourth of July weekend. Jaci set us up with a table, and  owner  Brian Elcano was on hand to greet us. After he and co-owner Chris Shanks took over in March, they replaced the old vinyl floor with hardwood, and added all new kitchen equipment. The new equipment alone, Jaci had told us, resulted in a leap in quality at the 44-year-old restaurant. Like many Basque restaurants, Louis’ occupies the bottom floor of what used to be a boarding house for shepherds. Meals are still served family style, and are hearty, multi-course affairs.

Loved the braised oxtails at Louis'
Also the crispy sweetbreads
So if anyone tells you Reno is just a faded pioneer town full of casinos, washed up gamblers and anomie, you can raise a skeptical eyebrow. “Scratch the surface here, and there’s a lot going on,” Jaci told me. “People here are friendly; we look out for each other.”  

July 7, 2011

Chef Bill Telepan and Friends Cook for Tohoku

Telepan, center, and event volunteers.
Photos courtesy of  Bill Telepan

I happened to speak with Chef Bill Telepan yesterday, who was full of news about his recent trip to Japan. He was one of eight New York chefs who traveled to Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, one of the areas most devastated by the March 11 Greater Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The team's mission was to cook a heartwarming Fourth of July weekend lunch for an estimated 1,000 people in this city.

“It was an amazing event, and it went perfectly,” said the chef, whose eponymous Upper West Side restaurant is known for its artful presentation of seasonal and local ingredients. “The day before, we were told that only 400 people might show up, and we felt really bad for the people who had organized the event,” he said. In fact, the visiting chef delegation, which cooked their version of Japanese and Western comfort foods, ended up serving between 2,000 and 2,500 guests.

The plan for the dinner was first hatched in May, when two businessmen, one from XCoal Energy & Resources and one from Nippon Steel, were dining at restaurant Daniel. XCoal, explains Telepan, provides coal to Nippon Steel, which has longstanding ties in Kamaishi. When chef Daniel Boulud stopped by to chat, the men discussed the trials residents of the quake- and tsunami-wasted area were still facing and decided that this goodwill gesture would not only lift the spirits of a community that has suffered much, but also show off the safety and quality of Japanese ingredients.

The all-star chef team
Boulud rounded up his all-star team of chefs, which, besides himself and Telepan, included David Bouley, Floyd Cardoz, Craig Koketsu, Tadashi Ono, Fran├žois Payard, and Michael Romano. Telepan recalled one woman at the event who came up to him and told him that she had not been able to afford a cake for her daughter’s birthday; this lunch was their celebratory meal. Another guest told Telepan that the event provided the first reason for her to put on make-up since the disaster. About 20 percent of community residents are still homeless, the group, which also toured the area to witness the damage first-hand, learned.

The chefs sourced their ingredients with the help of chef Patrice Martineau, a Boulud alumnus who now cooks at the Peter restaurant at Tokyo’s Peninsula Hotel. “I made miso stir-fried vegetables and a miso- and kasu (lees that result from the production of sake)-marinated hamachi and tuna that we seared,” reported Telepan. “It was fun, because I haven’t cooked Japanese food since I was at the CIA (Culinary Institute of America).” Telepan, who graduated from the CIA in 1987, figured out the recipe beforehand, tested it in New York, and also consulted with another chef on the trip, restaurant Matsuri’s Ono.

Patiently waiting in line.
“The truth was, we weren't going to serve a high-end dish, we wanted comfort food with a twist,” Telepan explained. Pastry chef Payard brought 3,000 macarons with him (a favorite of Japanese diners), sourced some “incredible peaches,” for a peach tart, and baked an equally awe-inducing chocolate roulade made with tofu. Another dish that Telepan liked was one made by Chef Craig Koketsu of The Hurricane Club, a fresh summer salad of tomatoes cucumbers and corn. Except for the macarons, the food was all from Japan, Telepan added; “Part of the deal is that we were there to let people know that Japanese ingredients are still good.” For local residents, still reeling from the loss of family, friends and property, the meal must have been a soothing balm to their psychic wounds.

The t-shirt to prove it really happened.
Telepan was amazed by the Japanese guests’ famously rule-abiding natures. The community facility where the event was held was the size of a football field, he says, “where I was about midfield, and the line went around the track. It stayed that way for about half an hour, and at one point people thought there was not going to be enough food. So they told everyone they were only allowed one dish. It was insane,” (here he let out a bemused laugh) “because they listened, and nobody complained. I had a lot [of food] so I kept telling them, it’s okay, you can have whatever you want from me. But they were reluctant.”