Gastronaut: Arts and Crafts

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

I saw this coming years ago. Not because I’m clever or prescient or some kind of unappreciated soothsayer of cuisine, but simply because I was on the front lines. I was a restaurant critic in Denver, Colorado, back during the second boom of New American cuisine.

I saw this coming years ago, but it had no name — not until GQ’s Alan Richman gave it one a few months back. He wrote about young chefs, exclusively male, working “with like-minded discipline, hardly ever haunted by doubts, seemingly in possession of absolute confidence.” He called it “Egotarian Cuisine” — food that is “intellectual, yet at the same time often thoughtless … straddling the line between the creative and the self-indulgent.” More to the point, food that is created solely, and with arrogant singularity of vision, to please the chef. Not the owners. Certainly not the customers. It’s food as memoir and manifesto. And often, it’s terrible.

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Gastronaut: The Meat of the Matter

First off, let me say this: I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to portraying Philly as a mecca for twig-and-berry eaters.

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Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Like just about every other food writer out there, I was won over the very first time I stepped into Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby’s Vedge in Midtown Village. After years of sharkishly eating my way through several major American cities as an itinerant restaurant critic, I’d formed some pretty strong opinions about the depth and limits of vegan cuisine, and all of them were burned away the minute I tasted Vedge’s sweet potato pâté.

This, I thought, is what every vegan restaurant in America should be aiming for. This is a cuisine to be proud of.

Immediately I began telling people about it. Loudly and repeatedly. I brought people to Vedge specifically so I could share the weird sideways joy of finding a groundbreaking and totally unexpected version of something you were pretty sure you were going to hate going in.

And it wasn’t just Vedge. It was the bloody beet steak at the Farm and Fisherman. It was the daily lines outside HipCityVeg, and the vegetarian prix fixe at Le Bec-Fin (which, as things turned out, didn’t go so well), and the sudden explosion of plants on so many menus around town. It was the fact that here, of all places, genius vegetable cookery had become the direct heir of the farm-to-table movement, offering the city’s best chefs a whole new range of flavors and textures to play with. After all, if the people of the city appeared willing to eat turnips and roasted brussels sprouts, someone had to charge them for it.

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Gastronaut: Best of the Best (of the Best)

gastronaut-kagan-mcleod-042014I have absolutely no reason to eat at Dandelion anymore.

I mean, I have plenty of reasons: I like it there, there’s always a seat at the bar, generally a table is available. It’s close to my office. Its new chef is doing an admirable job. I like the beers on its list, and the menu is just deep enough that there’s always something on it I want to eat right then. As far as neighborhood restaurants go, Dandelion has everything I want, which is why I find myself there a lot. Yet I really have no reason to go there anymore.

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The Gastronaut: Philly vs. Manhattan

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

For an ex-lawyer, Mike Traud makes a pretty good cook. Good enough to open Osteria for Marc Vetri and work the line at Zeppoli with Joey Baldino. And for a cook, he makes a pretty good teacher. That’s his gig now—a director at Drexel’s Center for Hospitality and Sport Management. In simpler terms, home of Drexel’s culinary school.

I know, I know. Culinary school? A vain and pointless waste of time and money for anyone serious about cooking. That’s something Traud agrees with, in general terms. He went to culinary school, to Johnson & Wales in Charlotte, and he doesn’t argue when I say JWU is excellent at turning out Applebee’s kitchen managers and not much else. The Culinary Institute of America, the restaurant industry’s Ivy? A diploma mill for over-moneyed kids who think the best thing about being a chef is leaving the kitchen to tape cooking-show pilots or meet with their cookbook agents.
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The Gastronaut: In Search of the Michelin Man

Michelin guide for Philadelphia restaurants

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

In the beginning, there was France—just this dumpy two-bit European country where everyone grubbed around in the mud, ate rocks for dinner, caught cholera and died at 34.

But over time, France became a colonial power. It went all over the globe picking fights. And everywhere they went, the French brought their armies, their ridiculous hats, their whores and, because they were French, their chef’s knives.

Everywhere they went, they pillaged the local cuisine, stole every good idea, then gave them all French names. To the French, codification was tantamount to ownership. The great French cookbook-slash-encyclopedia, Larousse Gastronomique? A world history of plundered cuisines.
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Gastronaut: Getting the Band Back Together

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Back in the day, when I was still cooking dinner for strangers rather than writing about it, there was a kind of running joke that went through all the kitchens I worked in. At the end of particularly long nights, the crew and I would look around and say, “Shit, for a rock band, we’re not a bad kitchen crew.”

The first half of that bon mot would change occasionally, place to place: Shit, for a web-design company … For an artists’ colony … For an architecture firm … The joke was funny because back then, almost no one came to a kitchen as a first choice. Most of us had done something before, failed at it (often spectacularly), then discovered kitchens as places of no-questions-asked reinvention.

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Gastronaut: And Now for Something Completely Different

taste-gastronautThere is something to be said for a steak.

A big one—thick and bloody, perfectly seared, laid on a plate and flanked by a baked potato oozing butter and a desultory mound of creamed spinach that you probably won’t eat anyway. A shrimp cocktail off to one side. A gin and tonic near at hand.

That, my friends, is dinner. So, too, is a big mound of pasta from a kitchen that knows what it’s doing. A perfect bowl of pho. A plate of tacos. The tasting menu at Zahav.

Culinarily, there is so much good going on in Philly right now. So much excellent food. So many incredibly talented chefs. There is, in fact, so much greatness (with more coming, it sometimes seems, every single week) that it led me to wonder …

How does so much bullshit cuisine still survive?

No, seriously. In a time and place where almost anyone can eat phenomenally well on almost any budget, how is it that so many bad ideas, dead fads, ridiculous trends and generalized culinary dumb-assery still pass as acceptable? We’ve grown up, Philly. There was a time when we had to take what we could get and eat the crumbs that fell from the tables in grander food cities. But we’re big now. There’s no longer any reason (other than drunkenness, of course) to eat what the dim, the slow or the overly impressionable tell us is cool.

Here, then, my humble list of Shit That Has to Stop Right Now:

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Gastronaut: Don’t Touch My Junk

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When guilty pleasures become the cuisine du jour, what’s the illicit culinary thrill-seeker to do?

There was a time when fried chicken—really good fried chicken—was something to be coveted. You’d find a place that did it well (often in some dodgy neighborhood, in a place where even paper napkins were too uppity), and then you would tell no one about it. It was your spot, and you guarded the address the way you did the phone number of your weed guy or the place you could go and pay a hundred bucks for an inspection sticker for your car, no questions asked.

Now, fried chicken is cool. Fried chicken is “hip” in the worst sense of the word, and it’s no longer a secret, guilty pleasure, because you can get it everywhere. Restaurants display it on their menus in a way that’s almost braggy. In a way that says, Look how awesome we are! We took this classic American dish and jammed a bunch of lemongrass and pomegranate in it so now it’s cool to eat again! Aren’t we clever?

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Gastronaut: Le Bec Fin Is Dead (Again)

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The death, rebirth, and strange, sad second passing of Philadelphia’s most famous restaurant

We got word early on a Saturday night that something bad was happening at Le Bec Fin.

In phone calls and text messages, sources were telling us that Nicolas Fanucci—the man who bought Le Bec Fin from Georges Perrier just over a year ago, who brought it back from death once and had been the primary architect of Le Bec 2.0—had left. Literally just walked out the front door and vanished.

Thus began the final, shuddering weeks of Le Bec Fin—the restaurant that once was Philadelphia’s pride and joy.

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Gastronaut: No Child Left Behind

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Making kids feel welcome in good restaurants is the best way to guarantee a generational commitment to food in any city. It’s time for more of that in Philly.

I  hate screaming children in restaurants.

I hate it when they run around like small, loud monsters—getting in the way of the staff and bothering everyone in the house while their parents sit by and do nothing.

I hate kids’ menus full of chicken fingers and hot-dog chunklets; parents who use waitresses as free babysitters; and the looks on the faces of other diners when shown to a table within the blast radius of any child brought out to dine.

But you know what bothers me more than any of this? To spend an evening in a good restaurant anywhere in Philly and see no children.

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