Chefs on Chefs on Chefs Cameo In Season Three of ‘Treme’

On HBO’s post-Katrina drama series Treme, creator David Simon highlights the struggles of many New Orleanians in the creative professions, among them novelists, DJs, musicians and chefs. And for the latter, especially, he’s done his homework, bringing on actual New Orleans chef Susan Spicer (Bayona, Mondo, Top Chef) to serve as a consultant on the show—the character of chef Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens) is loosely based on her—and Anthony Bourdain is one of the show’s writers.

During Season 3, in which Janette tries her hand on the culinary scene in New York, a number of extra-extra Special Guest Stars drop by for an all-star benefit dinner that feels more Bravo than HBO, including David Chang, Wylie Dufresne, Tom Colicchio, Eric Ripert, Jonathan Waxman and Alfred Portale. It’ll be interesting to see how Janette and her kitchen-mates react, as that sounds like a fairly terrifying situation for even the most seasoned chefs. The show’s casting director, interviewed in the behind-the-scenes footage, agrees.

“The gathering of great chefs isn’t the kind of casting I normally do,” casting director Alexa Fogel says in the HBO video. “And it fills your heart with complete terror when you see one of their names on the script.”

The show’s production team had some help crafting the complex and prep-heavy classic French dishes for the dinner, including salmon coulbiac and hare a la royale, a stewed hare dish that requires insanely precise butchering and what Dufresne calls “an acquired taste.” Soa Davies, a former member of the menu development team at Ripert’s Le Bernadin restaurant, served as the food stylist for the episode. In the video, she recounts her experiences trying to get various pâtés and terrines through airport security, a rather Herculean task for even the most seasoned of culinary experts. 

Treme returns to HBO this Sunday, September 23, but in the meantime, you can watch the production team cook up some classic French dishes and share them with celebri-chefs below.

Last Man Standing: How Gwynnett St. Beat The Odds

Even today, there are parts of Williamsburg, Brooklyn that aren’t that popular. The stretch of Graham Avenue where Carl McCoy’s Gwynnett St. is located has proven to be one of those spots, but in the last year as places around it like Motorino shut down (for alleged building issues) or concepts got completely flipped like the chef changes at Isa and Extra Fancy. The 10-month-old Gwynnet St., however, has remained strong. I went to the restaurant to find out how McCoy and his chef Justin Hilbert do it. The first step in successes, well, was McCoy’s decision to open up in Brooklyn.

“I think Brooklyn is the next kind of scene,” he said on a recent Friday night in the dining room. “I wanted to do a Manhattan-style restaurant with really good food, decent prices, and a neighborhood setting. With a lot of hard work and a really great professional team, I think we have accomplished that.”

Of course, he added, the good reviews helped. Hilbert agrees, and said, “I am thankful for Pete Wells’s review for The New York Times, people didn’t know who we were or where we were before that.” Now, the modern, sleek-lined room fills up most nights and critics continue to rave about the food and concept.

“We try to make food that tastes good and is a good value,” said Hilbert. “We are here to make food people enjoy and not just show off as chefs, though we do use some esoteric ingredients—but, they make sense.”

This means on any given night you can find a rotating list of dishes including one composed of carrots done in numerous ways from roasted, shaved, pickled, and made into flour. “Essentially, it’s bowl of carrots, but it’s elevated,” said Hilbert. “Our focus is to create dishes understandable to everyone, but a little more fun.” Hilbert, who trained under molecular gastronomist Wylie Dufresne at wd-50, tries to think about food through a different angle, and, like his mentor, he likes to play with textures and flavors most people wouldn’t think could work. Soon, he said, look out for his next creative dish revolving around sea vegetables.

Even though Hilbert has his fun with some of the menu items, another thing that keeps Gwynnett St. going strong is the comfort side of the menu. This can easily be seen in the their staple whiskey bread, which comes from a modified recipe Hilbert got from his friend’s Irish grandmother. It’s so good that every reviewer has raved about it, and it’s the one thing that they won’t take off the menu as long as they are there.

“We have had good receptions,” said McCoy. “People come in not knowing what to expect, and so far, we can sort of wow them.”

Industry Insiders: Chris Cheung, Chinatown Native

Chris Cheung, executive chef of East Village resto/lounge China 1, was raised in Chinatown and describes himself as “fixated on Northern Chinese cuisine with an American sensibility.” He’s worked in the kitchens of celebrated chefs such as Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Wylie Dufresne, Daniel Angerer, and Jehangir Mehta.

Describe your gig at China 1. I come up with the menu, manage the kitchen, make good food, keep the costs down and quality up, keep the space clean, manage people well — not just in my own department but in every facet of the restaurant — and create the profile for China 1.

How’d you get your start? I worked in a couple of restaurants here and there before I went to the Culinary School in New York. I wound up doing an internship at Vong, and it opened up a world of things for me. Jean-Georges and Nobu had a lot to do with changing my life. I worked at Judson Grill until the owner had problems, and he referred me to Nobu in Tribeca. When I got there, I found it was run like nothing I’d ever seen, and for a young line cook, it was great to share in the success of the restaurant and be able to create new and innovative things for our guests.

Where do you go out? I always go back to where I grew up: Chinatown. Hop Kee on Mott Street is nothing fancy, but it’s old style Cantonese. I like steak, so Peter Luger’s is the old-school paradigm. I haven’t been to the new Daniel because it’s not an everyday affordable place, but if you want great food, Daniel Boulud knows how to do it.

Who do you look up to? Drew Nieporent is one of those guys who can light up a room, always remembers who you are, always instills a good feeling when you meet him. He’s one of the best. Believe it or not, I seriously respect Steve Hansen. The business model he has worked for many, many years is great. Having worked for him, I know how to reduce costs and run a restaurant through systems that work.

What are your expectations for the hospitality industry now? Obviously, nobody can tell the future, but I have a hope it will get better than it is now. I’ve grown up in a lot of fine dining kitchens, and I definitely think that the trend is towards the more casual, further from formal dining. At least in New York. Becoming a little casual can be more healthy.

Anything you dislike about your industry these days? People in the spotlight who know they have the power to put a restaurant on the map with lots of media coverage sometimes take it too far. One mistake or even a misunderstanding can lead to taking it over the top with a bad review, and the next thing you know you have five bad reviews in five publications with the restaurateur not being able to have his side of the story explained in the same space. On the other hand, there are lots of people into great food who support restaurants, so you have to take the good with the bad.

Something that no one knows about you? It’s about exposure. New York seems to be a big town, but as far as talented chefs go there are a lot of us out there. When you’re below the level of notoriety like Jean-Georges, you really, really fight for recognition. There’s so much competition that you can get a little bit lost, so you have to stay on course.

Guiltiest pleasure? Baseball. The Yankees. You try to catch the games with time constraints, and I’ve done it since I was a kid.

Any non-industry projects in the works? Everything I do has to do with the career, food, the restaurant.

Le Fooding Takes Over NYC

The French are better than we simple Americans at many things (staying thin, being fashionable, appearing cultured), but most importantly, the French know their food. Alexandre Cammas took his inherent French penchant for dining to new heights when he founded the gastronomic movement, Le Fooding, in Paris almost a decade ago. On September 25th and 26th, Le Fooding invades New York for their first stateside appearance. Le Fooding d’Amour Paris-New York is centered upon 6 renowned chefs from New York and 6 from Paris cooking for charity (Action Against Hunger) at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center. Tickets are inexpensive, the idea behind the event is monumental and with the talent in the cooking arena — Yves Camdeborde (Le Comptoir de la Relais), Inaki Aizpitarte (Le Chateaubriand), William Ledeuil (Ze Kitchen Galerie), Alberto Herraiz (Fogón), Stephane Jego (L’Ami Jean) and Christophe Pelé (La Bigarrade), plus David Chang (Momofuku), Julie Farias (General Greene), Daniel Boulud with Olivier Muller (db Bistro), Wylie Dufresne (wd-50), Sean Rembold (Marlow & Sons) Riad Nasr (Minetta Tavern) — it’s physically impossible for the food to be anything less than superb. Alex and his event coordinator, Zoé Reyners, give BlackBook a sneak peek.

What is Le Fooding, the movement? Zoé Reyners: It started 9 years ago in Paris while Alex was a food writer. He used the term fooding in an article to rhyme with fueling. It was unintentionally expressing what he felt about gastronomy at the time in France. Back then, it was a very regulated, very serious matter. Alex was fed up with this and wanted to inject some feeling into it. That’s why he ran with fooding. The idea was well-liked by the press and people started talking about that word. With a bunch of his food writer friends — who had the same feelings about food at the time — Alex decided to use this word “fooding” as a banner for what they were thinking. They held the first event with friends. It was a casual thing to do with new chefs, but the media attention surrounding the first event showed that this was something necessary, and something that people agreed with. Events were organized more often. The website was founded, a phone line, and an office were set up. Step by step it became a real company. There is now a team of 50 writers working for the annually distributed Le Fooding guide. The first completely independent issue was put out last year. Before that, it was as a supplement for larger magazines.

When you got started, what was the reaction of your target audience? Alexandre Cammas: The young French people responded very well and quickly to what we were doing, but it was more difficult to get attention from the old-school chefs and old-school food writers because Le Fooding was different and new. We weren’t just food writers … we started to be involved in concrete things. Normally food writers don’t take risks and straight criticize what’s good and not good. For the first time, we took some risks, and we organized events.

How do you decide on restaurants to review for the publication? Alex: The criteria to select a restaurant in our guide, or for our events, is after we have dinner, we ask ourselves if we want to come back to a restaurant. If so, that’s a good restaurant. You can explore this question, not only with three-star Michelin-guide restaurants, but you can ask the same question for pizza parlors, for bistros, for cafés.

Who are the people who explore this question? Alex: Naturally, it’s the people who are curious, who are open-minded to the taste of the time and to tastes of the time. If you’re straight-minded, if you just like one sort of cuisine, Le Fooding doesn’t much care for your type. We make the guides and the website for people who are curious, like we are.

Why did you choose to introduce this concept to New York? Zoé: The question people usually ask us is, “What’s new for New Yorkers because this spirit already exists here?” I think the event is actually very different from the kind of events organized in New York.

Alex: A guide is a guide, but we’re pairing our guide with the charity event. It’s quite different from TimeOut or from BlackBook.

Is advertising in the guide created in-house? Zoé: We don’t create the advertising, but we have graphic designers handling much of the advertising so that it’s not completely different from our illustrations, the text, or the spirit.

Alex: There’s definitely a spirit. The guide is funny, and you can just read it for pleasure. You aren’t supposed to just want to look in it for an address of a restaurant. For the events, it’s the same. We started in Paris with events. Therefore, we decided to come to New York and start with events too.

What do we need to know about the event? Alex: The event we produce in New York City will be very different from the events that you know surrounding food. It’ll be at P.S.1. We usually do our events in art centers. The spirit is linked to the idea that food is not only food. It can be about the atmosphere and the culture that surrounds it. Also, it’s not only star chefs that you have to pay lots to eat their food. We don’t come with the most famous chefs of France, but we come with the ones who are alive in Paris.

Zoé: I think people know them, but they aren’t the mythical chefs. They’re active, innovative, creative chefs.

Tell me about the graphic design aspect. Alex: We’ll create a collector’s menu. Each chef will be represented by one graphic designer. The chefs of Paris will be represented the best graphic designers of Paris; and the New York chefs will be represented by designers from New York. Some of the designers are: Ich & Kar, Change is Good, Gianpaolo Pagni, Helène Builly, Vanessa Verillon, Nicholas Blechman, Tim Tomkinson, Jan Wilker, Paul Sahre, Jeanne Verdoux, Christoph Niemann, Andre and So Me.

Will the chefs contribute any ideas to the design of the menu, or is it completely up to the designer? Zoé: The designers meet the chefs. They’ll taste their food. They try to understand their spirit, their way of being, their humor, and then they are inspired to create a design in which they are completely free to do whatever they want.

When will people start buying tickets? Alex: The other thing that is different is the price. It’s a price accessible for all the people who like food and who like this sort of party spirit, and not necessarily for the people who have a lot of money. They’re $30, alcohol not included.

And once inside? Zoé: Guests have the choice to go to 6 different chefs each night, and taste amazing food. It’s a huge meal for $30 and it’s a distinguished chef’s meal. From 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., the venue will be open only to VIPs on the guest list and for around 200 people that will have $60 VIP tickets, with Veuve Clicquot champagne included. The VIP space will be open from 6 p.m. to 11:30, whereas the rest of the venue will be closed at 10 p.m. Besides approximately 100 tickets each night, all the tickets will be available on the 15th of September on the Le Fooding website. Before that day, some tickets will be available if you have a secret code. Alex: We’ll also have DJ’s spinning in the VIP area and in the general admission area, including Paul Sevigny and Kolkhoze from Le Baron in Paris.