NOTES OF HOME: NEW YORK CHEFS ON FLAVOR AND STORY
When it comes to the intersection of flavor and storytelling, Marcel Proust famously had his madeleine, the sweet cake that summoned long-lost childhood mornings. For the celebrated New York chef George Mendes, his Proustian sense memory is much more pungent, unlocked by simmering refogado, the Portuguese base of onion, garlic and bay laurel leaves, sometimes joined by tomato and paprika, that for Mendes brings to mind his mother at the stove.
The takeaway, of course, is that not everyone has embedded memories of provincial village life, but everyone does experience powerful links between flavor, aroma, and emotion. Mendes, chef at New York’s Aldea and Lupulo restaurants, was joined October 2nd by Niki Russ Federman and Mario Batali, two of his peers in the city’s vibrant food scene, for “Flavor Profiles,” a free discussion offered as part of The New Yorker Festival, presented by The Glenlivet. (The event is summarized visually, above, via sketchnote.) In moderating the lively panel, food journalist Julia Turshen, whose cookbook “Small Victories” will be published by Chronicle Books in 2016, drew the parallel between the tastemaking power of The New Yorker magazine (est. 1925) and The Glenlivet as the original tastemaker and standard-bearer, for nearly two centuries, of Speyside whisky.
Aromatics, undeniably, were a theme of the evening. Just as The Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve is expressed in part as the nose picks up notes of sweet orange, pears, and toffee apple, it is the smell of walking into Russ and Daughters that makes Niki Russ Federman feel most connected to the institution’s century-old legacy on New York’s Lower East Side. A “Tables for Two” review in The New Yorker shortly after the opening of Russ and Daughters Cafe, a spin-off from the appetizing store, captured the source of that aroma best. “Diners kvell,” the reviewer wrote, “over salty-sweet chopped liver, dressed with pickled onions and schmeared on matzo toasted golden brown; cool, silky borscht topped with dill and sour cream; and scrambled eggs folded around delicate slivers of sturgeon.” What the feature neglected to note: Diners at Russ and Daughters Cafe do more than kvell; they also Instagram their plates by the thousands, one of the more modern ways we tell stories through our food.
Both Mendes and Russ Federman credited Batali with encouraging them on their journeys to contribute to the city’s varied food community what only they could. In the case of Mendes, that is a deeply personal interpretation of his native Portuguese cooking. For Russ Federman, that is innovating while continuing the work of her great-grandfather Joel Russ, who strolled the Lower East Side with strings of Polish mushrooms slung over his shoulders before he could afford a pushcart.
As for the sense memory that is the most evocative for him, Batali cited the humidity that develops around boiling water. This inspired Turshen to quote a six-word memoir the larger-than-life chef had once written about himself: “Brought it to a boil, often.”
Because chefs often write their memoirs through their signature dishes, the evening’s menu presented offerings inspired by each chef’s specialties. A caviar and crème fraiche tart and smoked trout salad with an everything-bagel crisp and pickled shallot represented Russ Federman. Country pate with fennel mostarda and carpaccio with arugula, mustard and capers represented Mendes. And goat cheese agnolotti with Tuscan kale-walnut pesto and crispy mozzarella with tomato jam and basil represented the flavor profile of Batali.
This range of tastes and textures – from creamy to crisp, sweet to vinegary, earthen to briny – was complemented by The Glenlivet Founders Reserve, combinations that themselves created an intoxicating sense memory of The New Yorker Festival.
Remember to enjoy The Glenlivet’s quality responsibly. And for more on The Glenlivet and its flavor and heritage, go here.