Living the dream: "Chefs, Drugs and Rock & Roll" is a terrific history of chefs in America

Toiling in a pro kitchen is like working in a submarine that is on fire, so why do so many people want to do it?

By Manny Howard
March 12, 2018 12:00PM (UTC)
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Chefs, Drugs and Rock & Roll by Andrew Friedman (Harper Collins)

When I was in my mid-twenties, I landed a job as the third chair on the restaurant desk at New York magazine. I’d been hired by the new editor-in-chief, Kurt Andersen, who had been tasked with returning the storied weekly to its former must-read glory. In our meeting, I got the distinct impression that his top priority was not the restaurant desk. Still, I knew a little bit more about food and restaurants than he did — which wasn’t very much — and I was arrogant and ambitious and nominally charming, so, as this was the coin back in the golden age of magazines, I got the job.

Above me on the ladder loomed a pair of New York restaurant and food world luminaries, the legendary critic Gael Greene and the exceedingly well-connected writer and stylist Gillian Duffy.


I was very eager to please.

They were not the least bit impressed.

On my first day on the job, I resolved to walk from my home, over the Brooklyn Bridge to the magazine’s offices on Second Avenue below 42nd Street. My desperate plan was that every day I would peek in on any restaurant that appealed and introduce myself, hoping to gain some meager understanding of this exciting, dynamic and, I was convinced, heroic industry. “Hi. I’m the new restaurant guy at New York magazine,” I said a dozen times that first day, before meeting Mario Batali outside Pó, the restaurant on Cornelia Street in the West Village that he and his partner Steven Crane had opened just the week before. Along with the espresso offered during each conversation with chefs and owners came the realization that I knew very little about food and even less about the restaurant business. The founding institutions and pivotal people these engaging folks spoke about in reverential tones, in what was in 1993 the culmination of restogenesis in America, may as well have been Inca citadels and dynasties.


I nodded, smiled, took notes and tried to keep up.

If only I'd had Andrew Friedman’s Chefs, Drugs and Rock & Roll, published last week by Ecco press, an imprint of HarperCollins, as a reference text. Friedman has written an impressively researched, if achingly polite, chronicle of the creation of the restaurant business and, by association, modern food culture in America that begins predictably enough in Berkeley in the 1960s with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse. Friedman’s dedication to his story is so complete, however, that he digs deeper still, to the arrival of a community of French chefs, who, in 1939, traveled to the World’s Fair in Flushing, New York, to showcase haute cuisine in their country’s pavilion, only to be stranded in America by the Nazi invasion of France in 1940. Most of them waited out the war in New York. The leader of those chefs, Henri Soulé, opened Le Pavillon, a restaurant that spawned vaunted offspring (including André Soltner’s Lutece) that would become the foundation of fine dining against which American chefs would begin their rebellion in the mid 1970s. Friedman's narrative broadens to include chefs in that revolt on both coasts and a number of cities in between, from 1969 to the early 1990s, and trundles along, in red states and in blue, to this day.

Friedman insists on being described as a chef writer, and that might be his intention, but what he has achieved is the most complete and approachable history of America’s awakening to and conquest (if momentary) of fine dining and the incidental rediscovery and reintroduction of fresh, or real, food into the American diet.


What follows is an interview with the author (lightly edited for clarity and, occasionally, concision).

You’ve collaborated on nearly a dozen cookbooks; what inspired you to write this book that is not really about food?

I always refer to myself as a chef writer, not a food writer, and I've always found that almost everything that had been written about this era was always about the food. I chose the phrase “Follow the bouncing goat cheese” to describe who was doing what first and where they were doing it, and it was all about what was on the plate. To me, all the reports about food were general. I actually never read David Kamp's “United States of Arugula,” but you know that book is about the food movement. I just didn't feel like anyone had ever written a book that looked at this movement of young Americans into professional kitchens, which was something that never happened here before, what drove them there and how this profession really evolved over the 20 years from the early '70s to the early '90s.


It's much more fascinating than the food. For all the cookbooks I've collaborated on and as much as I like going out to dinner, I'm really not that interested in food. But I do get very excited when I have an opportunity to talk to a chef like Bruce Marder, the guy who opens the book, Who I'd heard about for years, never had a chance to meet him. I never had a chance to sit down with Wolfgang Puck or Alice Waters before. That, for me, is way more exciting than any restaurant that I could possible go to.

I will tell you when I would sit down with these people and kind of give them my little preamble before we started recording, all of these chefs got it, immediately. They got exactly what I was talking about; they agreed that no one had really done it before except maybe in an individual sense. Like Jeremiah Towers has written his book, contributing to his memoir. So, you have these individual tales, but the other thing about this for me is, no one ever connected the dots around the country. I think this book really gives equal time, or close to it, to the major hubs: the Bay Area to LA to New York and New Orleans. I tell the origin story of the Southwestern movement in Texas -- you know, the Dean Fearing, Stephen Pyle, Robert Del Grande, Anne Greer, [and then there's] that whole crowd in Florida.

Florida was a surprise to me.


Florida? Well, you know, I think Norman Van Aken is a very underrated person, historically. He was a guy who, on a whim, went down to see what was going on. He was very disenchanted with the country, with Vietnam and Nixon, as were many people in this story. He went down to Key West and felt like he was accepted down there; he was kind of a long hair, a hippie, and in the beginnings of these things that would find the way into his food, like Cuban food and ingredients that are indigenous to Florida and started in the kitchen in some all-night restaurant. It was just a job. He found a passion for it and then started weaving in these local influences into a fairly sophisticated style of food. That is all very new. What he was doing really wasn't that different from what somebody like Jonathan Waxman was doing in Los Angeles or Larry Forgione was doing in New York.

So in the 1960s there is this discontented crew of people who are redefining themselves and and reexamining the country and saying, “I don't want to be a lawyer, I don't want to do what my parents expect. I don't know what I want to do,” and then they all gravitate toward the restaurant kitchen and they all change the kitchen when they enter it because it's not the default job it has historically been in America. What happens next?

What is Mario Batali's line? “The cooking industry used to be the first thing you did after the army and the last thing before you went to jail.”


That really was the old view of cooking in this country.

You talk to people who went to the Culinary Institute of America in the late '70s, early '80s, and there was this mixed population there. You had the people who were there for the reason they used to be there -- just to pick up a tray, right?

Then you had the young, like the young Alfred Portales of the world or the Charlie Palmers of the world, who had greater ambition, who had their eye on the French chefs — who wanted maybe to emulate those chefs and maybe some of them were already, or soon would be, thinking about becoming owners. That was the transition. It is the moment in the book where Bill Telepan is talking about being in the kitchen where everyone there was American and they all wanted to be chefs and it was amazing. That's a given now, but back then that was new. That was brand new.

What do you think these guys had in common, this first generation of accidental professionals in the American restaurant business, the guys who were making it up as they went along?


For me, the common stuff in these three hubs I talk about in the book -- the Bay Area, LA and New York -- I think in the Bay Area there were these Berkeley student protesters, sometimes grad students, there was [this] real culture of food in that area, a lot of dinner party culture, a real serious protest sensibility and a lot of those people, and wholesome food was an extension of their lives. It was not about technique. To me LA food was also that way in the late '70s, early '80s -- the restaurant world was almost like a community of artists.

He wasn't really the chef but you look at Michael McCarty [owner of Michael’s] and the fact that his wife was a painter and still is and that he decorated Michael's, which opened in 1979, with all that modern art; and that Bruce Marder, who opened the West Beach Café about a year earlier palled around with all these Venice Beach artists. He put their stuff on the wall; that doesn't seem like a big thing these days. That was really new. The design of the restaurants in LA, how they stopped being sort of dark, drab continental places and they started opening up the dining room. Michael‘s actually had outdoor seating; West Beach Cafe had big windows and blonde wood, and it started to look like “California,” right?

Marder’s second restaurant was called Rebecca's, which was a modern Mexican restaurant designed by Frank Gehry. I mean, this is in the 1980s. That's the kind of thing that would be typical today. That was a big deal. That to me was the LA sensibility; there was also the creativity off the charts, it was very much anything goes -- Wolfgang Puck at Spago, it was such an innovation to set out to create a nice restaurant and be able to serve pizza or creative pastas, but that was very much Wolfgang.

And what about New York?


There are two populations in New York; there were what I call the five couples, these sort of middle class, upper middle class -- amusingly a lot of people who graduated law school and either practiced for 10 minutes and never really even got around the practicing. These people were not formally trained, and opened restaurants; often times they had a chef or a sous chef who was sort of the technical piece of it and the owner was more of the creative driver.

I have this chapter in the book called The French Resistance, which is very much about the majority of chefs at that time; the cuisine was very much meat-driven and they very much wanted to master all of the French classics, wanted to work in French kitchens, were perfectly content for several years to just be cranking out what I call the Escoffier playbook. And a lot of these people — most of them from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, for whatever reasons — hadn't really spent time as diners in critically acclaimed restaurants; they were really just kids who got a high school job as a dishwasher and fell in love with the kitchen before they fell in love with food.

How were they different?

Northern California was much less technique-obsessed; a lot of college students or grad students -- a lot of the Tri-state kids I just talked about -- a lot of those people weren't particularly good students, didn't really connect with school, took [these] high school jobs. 


Right, and I was struck that this revolution probably couldn't have come together the way it did unless, as you chronicle, the five wealthy couples who focused on the experience in the front of the house and could afford to go to France and could tweak the dining room while these kids were coming through the back door into the kitchen with great ambition and no baggage at all; is that wrong?

I think of those groups as two totally distinct populations. Some of the people who came into the five couples’ kitchens were more formally trained for sure, but there were also a lot of kids who didn't have the means to open their own restaurants [and] also weren't necessarily Culinary Institute grads but guys who had worked around and picked up skills.

Guys who could be impressed by the kind of information and the theatricality that the five couples offered?

Susan Wine, who owned The Quilted Giraffe with her then-husband Barry Wine, said their dining experience was their super weapon. She felt that was the leg up they had on the French guys -- and this is why I think eventually most of these young people, like Charlie Palmer, whose food evolved at The River Cafe -- his food became very American but it just took him a little longer to get there. I think that ultimately all these people kind of moved past the French.

I was also very struck as you talk about it, because it’s been my experience in Europe that kids working in kitchens are just doing what their parents were doing so that when you enter a professional kitchen in Europe, it's not an exciting adventure, it's the thing that you were born to do. There was an assumption that you were good at it because your father was good at it, but that sort of passion wasn't there -- that American newness and unburdened enthusiasm. Is that what made change possible in the kitchen?

Yeah, and it comes up all the time. I could only mention it a couple of times because it gets redundant, but there's a moment that Bobby Flay talks about: waking up one morning and realizing he couldn't wait to get to work. And that comes up with all these people; they just ate, drank, slept thought food -- it was all they would think about. They’d go home, look at cookbooks, come back to work, kick around ideas. That was their life. They were consumed by this stuff.

I do think it was very much just the fact of coming from a "good home" and going into a kitchen that was rebellious. I'd say probably 95 percent of the people I interviewed, their parents were not on board with that; they thought they were throwing their lives away, and in many cases they thought they were throwing away college degrees or law school degrees. This is less so for the blue-collar agricultural crowd, but it was people who went to college and grew up middle class, upper middle class, and went into a kitchen.

I think just the fact of doing that was defiant and so rebellious. I get it. I get it as a writer who spends time with a lot of chefs, who comes from a similar background. I'm just like those five couples. After years of being around these guys there are nights where I'll be out with friends and it does feel exciting. I enjoy that. I always jokingly say, “I'm Richie Cunningham and all my friends are author fans around me.”

But it’s not an easy life. Years ago, I'll never forget this, I was working on a cookbook with somebody, a collaboration. I was at their restaurant, we were doing an interview and out of the corner of his eye he saw one of the cooks come in for work. He says, "Oh, excuse me, I'll be right back,” and he left and he returned in like a minute and he was shaking his head. I said, “Everything alright?” He goes, “Oh, yeah, I just had to fire that guy.” He was gone for like 60 seconds and I just remember thinking, “Man, this business can be cold.”

I just did a podcast interview with Hillary Sterling, the chef at Vic’s, and she was telling me she'll take someone in off the streets, which is a very old-school notion; someone will knock on the door and she feels like they have passion and they are going to be driven. She will take somebody who's never worked in the kitchen before and bring them up in an entry-level position, and I think that's amazing. But there are people out there who simply don't get it. You know there are signs in every Thomas Keller kitchen and in these restaurants that say “A Sense of Urgency.” There are people who don't understand the sense of urgency and, to some extent, maybe some people can't be taught that; they just don't grasp it.

If fire and knives are the tools, you'd think you could associate urgency with both of those things, right?

Well, also there are people waiting for the food. I went to a restaurant the other night and it was 30 minutes between my first course and my entrée. That's like the kiss of death.

Thomas Jefferson had a French-trained chef; it was always the aspiration here. In the modern era, 1939, French chefs got stranded here and became the standard, and from there comes this germinating of awareness that French food might not be the stopping point for the modern kitchen. Do you think that's right, that by 1975 Americans pick up the ball?

I think it was the start of what most people think of as the standard of mid-20th-century French dining.

Then there is this awkward World War II and then in the '50s it starts to pick up, right? Momentum, in terms of money for dining and also people. It seems everyone always talks about these family trees that grow at a restaurant -- there were all these people who worked in the place like Le Pavillon and then eventually started moving on and opening their own places. Eventually other chefs did get curious. André Soltner came over, he saw the product and almost turned around and went back.

What a time to arrive, right? If you were looking for something fresh, America was so pleased with our industrial food at that moment, right?

I mean it was crazy. Then I just think it's really hard to understand that that's all there was in this major metropolitan area in the United States; if you were going out for a fancy dinner, it was a French dinner. That was it.

Because the red sauce was Italian peasant food, it was immigrant food and it didn't rate?

Yeah, I don't want to say ethnic food but those weren't fancy restaurants. They didn't have respect. The food might have been delicious, the service might have been really warm, but the only thing that was really seen as serious and sophisticated was French. I remember interviewing Thomas Keller and he very pointedly corrected me because I said haute cuisine was either French or Italian and he said, “No, French.”

Do you think that's because of the technique? First of all there's a canon when it comes to French food, but also, the techniques are daunting to this day and it really does require training. Is that the outward face of French food -- it must be good because it's so hard to master?

A huge piece of this was the American cultural inferiority complex where the French are concerned. You go to France and there's the way they will treat you if you can’t speak French. There was this sense that they kind of owned cuisine; we were willing to go to restaurants, not all these restaurants, but a lot of them in New York City, right? And be treated terribly by waiters and maître d's.

With menus written in French.

I think there was this sort of middle-brow notion that they had to be better than us and that we deserved to be treated like garbage because we were just lowly Americans who made meatloaf at home. That's just my own summation after years, because how else do you explain it? Maybe not at the moment, but historically this is a very proud country, right?


Look what we did; we are putting people on the moon and we were winning World War II and all this stuff, and yet really there are no greater signs of sophistication than going to a French restaurant and being treated like a dog. How else do you explain that? I think it's an inferiority complex; I think it's crazy.

Let's move to food sourcing, because that's such a revolutionary change, a necessary pivot for the restaurant world and eventually American food. It was the River Café that started creating a network of sources in a time when it was very difficult to do that.

Yeah, well this to me is such a funny coincidence. You had Buzzy O’Keeffe, who owned the River Café and eventually hired Larry Forgione, who had been working at the Connaught Hotel in London, but grew up spending time on his grandparents’ farm on Long Island, and had this epiphany: “How come we have this great big beautiful country and there's all this food here, but we are not getting it in our restaurants?"

And Larry just started — it's hard for people today younger than a certain age to get this; if you wanted a phone number you either called directory assistance or you whipped out your white pages and that was it, there was no internet — Larry was just calling around the country looking for mushrooms, for hickory nuts, for everything.

He was like a detective. He’d call around the chambers of commerce trying to track down farmers, right?

Yeah. This was the 1970s; the stuff would get shipped to JFK airport several times a week. Forgione would send a van to JFK to pick up the stuff that had come in. When he started, if you had a restaurant and you wanted produce, if it was on the purveyor’s sheet you could get it; if it wasn't on their sheet you couldn't get it and that was it. That was how restaurants worked. He changed that.

I want to talk about reviewers because you mention briefly the New York Times critic Bryan Miller being recognized in a dining room. There is a sort of ancillary industry that's developing around this new energy. Initially it is the written press, and then ultimately television seizes on a new opportunity to tell stories. I know you don't really go into this in the book specifically, but restaurant reviews become a big part of the business just as money, investors and investment begins to play a much more important part in the opening of restaurants, let's say 1985?

I think '84, '85, yeah. Ruth Reichl and Colman Andrews are the first to arrive on this scene, and I think you just said people outside the food world were pushing it on, but what's so striking to me is that the kinds of battle lines that are drawn today in a lot of ways did not exist back then. I think, especially out West . . .  I don't think, I know, Ruth and Colman and people like Wolfgang Puck and Alice Waters, they were all part of this food movement together. They were the chefs and they were the writers and editors, and there was this food thing happening in the United States, and they were all doing their part to push it along. I think there was a lot less concern with church and state issues than there is today.

But I do think it was a different time . . .  and I feel I'm really lucky just because in this weird place I occupy in this world, I have the access I have to chefs, but I'm insanely jealous of Ruth and Coleman, insanely jealous of these guys.

For having? . . .  

For having a world where there were no publicists, almost no publicists, no managers, no agents, no marketing people. The comparison I think about all the time is, they talk about years ago, sports writers used to go down to spring training in Florida, and at the end of the day they'd be hanging around the motel pool with all the baseball players, drinking beer and sitting there with their spiral notebooks and doing interviews on the pool lounge. That to me is what Ruth and Coleman were at that time. The access and the amazing profiles, like the piece that Ruth wrote about the opening of Michael’s [in Los Angeles], which she spent a year on, I think she got paid 500 bucks. There's a profile she wrote for the LA Times on Wolfgang where she went on the road with him for a week.

I think the lines were much more strict in New York, where there were people like Gael Greene and Mimi Sheraton, and they didn't fraternize with chefs. They wanted to be anonymous so they could pull it off. I think that's the way it should be for critics. I think it's important to distinguish between critics and writers in general.

Then I think there were these people who served as gatekeepers. They were these very powerful people on the edges of the restaurant scene. That would be like the James Beards and the Julia Childs; these were the people who had the power to almost anoint you, if you were a chef.

But I think the power of somebody like James Beard, the power of somebody like Julia Child was formidable. It wasn't like the New York Times, where a great review could make you and a bad review could put your lights out. Which it could back then. Now it's more diluted. Their power, I think, was very benevolent. I think they were cheerleaders, they were proselytizers, they were unofficial promoters, they were enthusiasts. I think people like those two were so excited about what was happening here and had an ability to really turbo-charge peoples' careers.

All the same, I bet it would suck to get on their wrong side.

I'm sure it would. But I have to tell you, I never . . .  in all the interviewing I did, and I'm not saying there aren't stories out there. I heard stories about one or two instances of very minor inconsequential pettiness on the part of James Beard. I don't think I heard anything but adoration for Julia Child. I really don't. But by and large, I didn't hear any stories of them having vendettas at all. I'm not saying it's not possible, but I didn't hear that stuff. Even off the record I didn't hear any of that stuff.

And so many chefs are dedicated to her work, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” -- so many “cooked the book.”

Yes, that was, for so many of them, their cooking school.

There’s a great moment in the book when Larry Forgione visits James Beard in Greenwich Village at his house, and you describe this almost monastic pursuit where he spends time in Beard’s library. The magic of received wisdom in a time before everything was available on the computer. Can you describe that?

Yeah. That's that Larry Forgione story, which, again, to imagine all this happening when there is no Instagram picture of Larry and Beard sitting in Beard's home doing this, right? 

Larry didn't know how to meet the guy; somebody suggests looking in the phone book; Larry looks him up, he calls him, says, "I'd love for you to come to dinner sometime." He starts sending him these little baskets of ingredients that he was getting from all over the country. Then Beard comes to dinner; they develop a friendship -- Larry is trying to mine regional American stuff, on which Beard is an expert -- and next thing you know, Larry is periodically visiting James Beard in his home on West 12th Street, which is now where the Beard Foundation is, and they're sitting in a library poring over books together and Larry's getting ideas for his restaurant. Talk about two people with a common goal! That was an unbelievable moment in this history. There's no documentation of it; Jim is gone and it kind of only exists with Larry, and I'm glad. I guess it exists in the book now, which is sweet for me.

It makes me feel good, a sort of immortalized moment like that. But I also feel like the last of a public eye on a lot of this stuff. I've talked to people recently; chefs really feel scrutinized in a really bad way right now. You talk to someone like Jon Waxman about Los Angeles and the late ‘70s or early ‘80s, and how open people were to him making mistakes. They were so open to new stuff; there was such an excitement about what was happening with food. They were willing to eat and experiment that was going wrong.

I know so many young chefs today who are so afraid of a misstep, so afraid of saying the wrong thing and having it go viral. Of putting on a dish that doesn't work and having it make the rounds on Instagram in a bad way, or being written about and scoffed at on social media. I think there's a reason why everyone's doing avocado toast and kale salads. It's safe. People don't want to screw up, and back then it was just this completely unleashed, unbridled creativity. I'm not saying people weren't thinking and trying to make the best dishes they could, but there was so much less fear of a misstep.

I don't know if this was your intention, but Jonathan Waxman comes across to America and he unifies California and America in some accidental way. That he makes the California and New York restaurant scene -- which don't know each other very well -- he makes it possible for them to know and understand each other. Do you think that's right?

You know what's funny? A friend of mine read the book recently, and he goes, "Jonathan is kind of the linchpin in the whole book." I really hadn't thought of him that way, but I guess if there was one — if you had to pick one person in the book who is that, and in the coast-to-coast way you're talking about, I think in a lot of ways that's probably true, but I think it's also true that history is written by the victors. So, Jonathan came into New York with Mel Master and they had this huge success, six years of success at Jams, but there were other people who came, like Nancy Silverton and Mark Peel, and then turned tail and went back about a year after they arrived. Now maybe somebody has, but very few people of that era went through east to west. I think Jonathan had this happy accident of him connecting with Mel’s and Jannie Master when they needed a chef and he was headed east. It was brilliant what they did. There again, I compare it to the excitement around the place like [chef Wylie Dufresne's restaurant] WD-50, that California cuisine almost had the mystique that Molecular does now. It's so crazy to think that,"Oh, they have a grill and it's baby vegetables," would be a draw. That was a big deal. It was real. There was media interest; that place was a huge thing when it opened. So yeah, I don't know who else I would give that crown to. I'll put it that way.

Maybe Waxman is the person you point to for the reasons that you've mentioned, which is that he got himself very plugged in to New York City very quickly. But there was this moment of, "Let's make the country much smaller.” Because the book then very quickly gets us to the restaurant Blue Ribbon. What was Blue Ribbon's role in all this?

I'll tell you a funny story. I was just starting to be around the business in '93 as a PR guy. So, that's the height of Blue Ribbon. In later years, I've been to Blue Ribbon many times, but in its heyday, I was too intimidated. I didn't rate; I never was there personally in the years that I write about in the book.

It was like being at the Oscars.

Yeah, every night. But that social element preceded all this; the chefs were finally getting to know each other, to drink together, to build a community. This was before the television, the young chefs with the résumés with the stated object to get on television. And that was the last moment of the Golden Age. It’s funny; I always knew the book was going to end at Blue Ribbon.

I thought maybe that was the case.

Yeah, because to me it kind of coincides with the Food Network, which I talked about in the book. There's this great thing that Bruce Bromberg, one of the brothers who started Blue Ribbon, said to me about those days. “Mario wasn't Mario and Bobby wasn't Bobby. We were all just cooks.” All those guys in that restaurant, Daniel Boulud and David Burke, Jean-Georges [Vongerichten] -- they all just had one restaurant, and they had all just came from cooking there.

I think they all thought that was going to be their lives, and it was 10 minutes later basically that they all started opening places all over country [and in some cases the world], being on television and getting pulled in all these different directions. And I always want to be clear about this: I don't begrudge anybody their empire. I have this talk with older chefs all the time now; things change, you have to accept it. Things change and it's okay; it's a different thing than it was.

Manny Howard

Manny Howard is the author of "My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard into A Farm." @mannyhoward

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