A memorable meal doesn’t have to be extravagant. It might be a cheeseburger at dive bar that hits the right spots or even a bag of Fritos on a road trip. That said, the most memorable meals I’ve had in my life have been on the extravagant side.
The first was when I was 11; my dad told my sister and I that we were going out for our mom’s birthday. “We’re going to celebrate at some place prestigious,” he said. My sister and I looked at each other and mouthed that word – “prestigious” – in anticipation.
That place was La Serre, then the fanciest restaurant in the San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles, where we lived. I don’t remember what we ate – it was 53 years ago! – but it was a turning point in my dining life. Knowing the impression La Serre left on me, my parents later bought me a set of its serving plates. I still have them.
In 1978, after training at Le Cordon Bleu in London, I was working at 464 Magnolia in Larkspur, California, and kept hearing about a restaurant in Berkeley called Chez Panisse. So I went. As clichéd as it sounds, Alice Waters’ food that night changed my life. I can vividly remember the quality of the ingredients: be it a snap pea or raspberry, it was clear they’d been selected with the utmost care. I prefer food where ingredients are the star, not the chef. Chez Panisse (chez panisse.com) continues to shine at that.
When a kitchen is involved in what I call “Manipulative cuisine”, the ingredients do not matter as much as the technique. I’m not a technician. I prefer the food to be the star, not the chef. At Chez Panisse, which came along well before manipulative cuisines, Alice has thankfully stayed true to its original path.
Since 2013, during my summer vacation in Italy, I have been having a lunch – planned months in advance – at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana in Modena. Massimo takes traditional Italian dishes and refines them, increasing their intensity without losing the rustic roots. My favourite memory of “OF” was ordering the first time. We were a group of six and spent 30 minutes carefully selecting from the menu. Five minutes later, Massimo appeared. He looked at our order, shook his head and said, “Let me order for you.” We did. It was a wise decision.
At another lunch at OF, I kept saying to my dining companions, “Who the hell does Massimo think he is? He’s making the rest of us chefs look like slackers.” I was having fun, but I wasn’t 100% joking. Check that story out here on Krikorian Writes http://www.krikorianwrites.com/blog/2015/7/23/nancy-silverton-to-massimo-bottura-who-the-hell-do-you-think-you-are
About two hours south of Massimo, nestled amidst the postcard hills of Chianti vineyards, is the realm of the world’s most famous butcher, Dario Cecchini of Antica Macelleria Cecchini, who, by the way, calls me his sister. He does not call the rooms where one eats a “restaurant”, but rather “the home of a butcher.” If you go, make sure Dario is there. He is part of the experience and expect him to hold up two gigantic bisect Fiorentina and, in a booming voice, say “To beef or not to beef!”
If you are fortunate, Dario will tell a touching story about the first time he ever had a bisect Fiorentina. His family was poor, and they taught him the value of every part of the cow, and how the tendons were as good as the loin. I can’t duplicate the story, can’t do the story justice, just go to the butcher shop in Panzano en Chianti and eat his story.
Still, if I had to name a single most memorable meal I ever had in my life it would have to be at the Hotel de Ville, in Crissier, Switzerland, a small town outside of Lausanne. The chef and owner was someone I bet most young cooks and chefs around the world today don’t even know of. Yet, by any measure, in the 1980s and 1990s, he was the greatest chef in the world, a title even Joel Robuchon bestowed on Fred;y Girardet.
Flawless. That’s what the meal was. I’ve had versions of the dishes at other restaurants - seared goose foie gras, lamb loin, pasta with morels and truffles, and so on – but, everything Fredy sent out was the best version I have ever had. The precise Swiss technique combine with a Coltrane creativity, and the almost maniacal search for the best ingredients combined to make Fredy Girardet meal the best dining experience I have ever had.
One quick story form Girardet alumni Daniel Humm who runs Eleven Madison Park in New York City. “We would find these tomatoes, that were magnificent,” Daniel told me several years ago. “And then Fredy would look at them, sniff and say ‘Good tomatoes, but not good enough.”
One more thing at Fredy’s and I’ll finish. The eclairs. You may have seen eclairs with their fillings as bright as crayons. At Fredy’s they brought out these eclairs that had just a hint of hue, just enough tint that you had a inkling of what they were. It might seem curious to end a segment on the greatest restaurant talking about eclairs, but that was part of the thrill of this meal at Fredy Girardet.