Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Master is Dead...

Carmel lost a huge part of its cultural heritage this weekend. And…most people won’t ever have noticed the loss. Perhaps atypically for Carmel the people most obviously affected are split evenly between the artists and the aficionados……and probably with the artists the worse off. And…..more typically for Carmel, the people most seriously affected are the young people and the workers.

The Masters of Food and Wine has closed its Carmel doors after 21 years. The Masters has brought us a weekend of the best of the best in food and wine in the world for almost a generation. Picture the Bach Festival closing and moving to Weimar. Picture the Westons and Ansel moving to Taos in 1936…..No, your real estate values won’t be affected, but Carmel’s already tenuous claim on being a real place with real people has definitely suffered.

Actually, in food terms…..The Masters has been around for more than a generation. Back in 1987, the Sardine Factory had not yet completed its transformation into a pathetic cartoon joke. Well, it had, but the public hadn't noticed yet. Jeremiah Tower was still King with his rock fish paillard with black beans and ancho chili aioli…..Ancho chili aioli was huge. Baby lettuce had to be hand picked and carefully washed....Myra and Drew of Earthbound were still hiring stoners instead of Mexicans on their acre at mid-Vallye. Things were yet to be served “on a bed of…..” And you needed small skills and small training to run with a “Concept.” How about plural noun named restaurants? Jeremiah had "Stars"; I had "Secrets". Neither one is still open. People still did cocaine…and places like Jimmy’s American Place and the General Store accommodated them. Anesthetics and food……what a perfect match if your chef and your clientele drink too much and don’t notice the odd nosebleed…..

The Masters started in 1987 at The Highlands Inn.....but came to full flower under the guidance of David Fink in the early nineties. David’s mastery of networking brought us the truly great chefs and winemakers of the world…and helped parlay David into his three Carmel restaurants….. All the rest of us got twenty years of dining experiences we would never have had outside of France, Italy or Spain. David brought the American wackos as well….Michael Mina did a soccer fundraiser for us just to secure his place at The Masters for his new place, Aqua…. Williams and Selyem came as well, and mixed it up with the Comte de Lur Saluces: he in his sash and tuxedo, the Sonoma crew in overalls……

Since David’s departure, Chef Mark Ayers of the Highlands….and Rob Weakley, the front of the house manager….have taken the ball and run for touchdowns every year. The task is almost inconceivable. Nowhere outside the NBA All-Star Game will you find egos as titanic as you find in the great kitchens of the world, and the task of balancing them and creating a working machine that feeds hundreds of guests at hundreds of dollars a plate is something Condi Rice could never do. I have stood two feet away from Mark as a Michelin three star chef rejected $4,000 worth of paid for, unreturnable American caviar as “tasting of the bottom of the sea….I must have Iranian…..” This year, I watched him unpack a $2500 standing rib roast from Japan…..and stand there as another Frenchman boned it out into little medallions for 25 people. Mark blushed bright red and made it work.

Also, Mark had a crew under him that was like the ’77 Yankees. Greg Lopez controlled all the insane ingredients from a refrigerated trailer on the back deck. Twenty kinds of micro greens, crazy fish flown in from Egypt, the truffles, the chanterelles, the Wagyu, the Kobe, the foie…..Sous chef Niel ran interference and managed all the volunteers….and physically produced all the food in the best tradition of English Army master sergeants.

Despite charging crazy, outrageous money for the events at The Masters (The Rarities topped out at $5,000 per head, plus tax and tip……) the event lost money. So many important chefs and winemakers came with their entourages for comp rooms that occupancy dropped to 4%, supposedly. Plus, the hotel let the chefs order whatever the fuck they wanted…..hence the Kobe short loin at $100 per plate raw cost. It is hard to understand the motive for continuing the event. When the Highlands was a privately owned destination resort, you could see it. But the Hyatt? I enjoyed The Masters most years…..and I have never stayed in a Hyatt. Well, not true.....Carolynn paid for a night at the Genoa Airport sucked.

Working at the Masters at the top end was always by invitation. The event always had a good international reputation, and there was even some competition to take part. There were always Michelin three-star rated chefs…..and always crazy Bordeaux, Burgundy, Italian and New World winemakers. At the bottom end, it was an open call. Anyone could come and work with the Masters…..and anyone with a brain did so.

Working at The Masters was like being able to hang in the dugout of the Yankees during the World Series. Virtually every great chef working in the world today has been through The Masters…..and all of us locals have been able to chop side by side and become informed by their artistry and skill. The only entrance qualification was: “Can you hang?”

“Hanging” meant a lot of things. One was personal contact. All the big guys seemed to know each other, and it was a select club. Another was dress: what kind of coat do you wear, with what kind of decoration; what kind of apron. Sometimes the biggest guys wore cheap coats with plastic buttons, or dishwasher shirts like David Kinch from Manresa. Other times, discreet tailoring let you know that the guy in front of you was a badass….or the gaudy, over embroidered idiot was a corporate hack sent by Hyatt. We had our Cachagua Store coats especially made and embroidered by an old school uniform place in San Francisco….and only Tom Nash ever got the joke….

Mostly, “hanging” meant diving in and doing what needed to be done. What skills do you have and what ideas can you bring to the table. How do you work under pressure, with 40 super skilled peers watching over your shoulder. Everybody prepped…..even the three star guys peeled carrots. I taught a three star French chef how to peel pearl onions the way they do in Visalia. I was taught…..well, two thousand things.

Everybody jumped in on the line to send out plates. It was an egalitarian atmosphere, but completely and utterly overcharged with testosterone. “Are you pushing the sauce on this course? I am just dropping the half roasted beets in the channel left when you push the sauce. Is your angle perfect every fucking time? Do you dribble? Is your channel the right width for my beets? Are my beets perfectly aligned, right side up on every plate? No, Yes, No, Yes, Yes. Well, motherfucker, I am pushing the sauce next time… go stack plates. And don’t even think about leaving a thumbprint on the plates when you are stacking them! No, you are wiping plates? How did you roll your cloth? Did you remember to splash some vinegar onto the cloth to cut the grease from the thumbprint of the failed sauce pusher who is too dumb to stack plates right? Oh, you own two famous restaurants in Maine? I am sorry…..I guess people in Maine like thumbprints on their plates…….”

(This year I worked mostly for a three star restaurant from France. My helper boss was the chef from Bernardus. The testosterone was so thick I would take breaks and go stand next to the woman pastry chef from Babbo in New York and just breathe the air and give her a hug…….)

It was interesting to watch the local chefs show up and try to deal. Some people never came, and you knew they were shit….but you already knew they were shit. Some people came and proved they were shit. Some people came, like the Rio Grill chef, and were so offended at not having their ass kissed that they left in a huff. Peel carrots? I am a CHEF!! Trust me, the Sardine Factory was never represented. Or Merlot, or Portabella, or any other singular noun-named joints. Those guys don't need to learn, you see. They already know all they need to keep their clientele happy. Montrio did come, and we all wish they had stayed home. None of David Fink's people came.....well, his old crew that just quit did.

The Masters was a great leveler. One year I worked for this Japanese guy, prepping all day, making anal little veggie garnishes, constantly freaked out about my knife skills. Each cut scared the shit out of me, and I made 10,000. The guy’s English was not great, and I guess my cutting was not horrible, so he had me help him out in the dining room during the big first night cocktail party. All the locals came up and thought it was my table….”Hey, who is the Jap you got helping you?” “Uh, his name is Nobu…..and I am helping HIM. I think he has a sushi place in LA?.”

Last year I spent the day cutting perfect little brunoise cubes of carrot, onion and leek for the garnish for a lobster consommé for some famous guy named Jasper from Boston. I had to vibe out and take over from a dickhead who was not making every cube perfect…..he could not deal with the chaos of the fennel. On the way out to the dining room, the guy carrying my garnish tripped, and dumped 10 hours of detail work on the carpet…..Oh, well. Welcome to the Big Leagues….A day wasted? Well, I watched a guy combine glucose, maltodextrin and hibiscus tea….dry it in sheets and create a gorgeous red Bolivian flake mica-like substance that tasted wonderful and looked like jewels on the plate.

Two years ago I worked for French three-star guys who were doing the Rarities Dinner at a nearby house in The Highlands. Despite the fact that they had never worked outside of a commercial kitchen, and I do it three times a week….they treated me and Brendan like shit, and never noticed how we saved their ass ten times. They had us spend 10 hours, and go through 100 pounds of carrots and zucchini to make little triangles for 24 people, which they cooked a day in advance of the dinner. Meanwhile, the Spanish guy doing the other Rarity courses (Andoni Aduriz of Mugaritz) noticed us. He sent Brendan out to show his assistants where the edible wildflowers were on the cliffs….and the gooseneck barnacles. He explained to me that he needed his plates to be within one degree Celsius of a given temperature for his courses, and had me deal with it. He cooked his meats to within a tenth of a degree Celsius with remote thermometers on the barbeque at the house…..and changed my life. And hired Brendan as a line chef at his place in Spain.

The Masters did not discriminate by youth or experience. My son came in two years ago as a bat boy in that culinary World Series dugout….and wound up pitching in the Majors in Spain in a year’s time, first-name friends with the top four or five chefs in the world. You don’t get this at Carmel High. I have seen twenty-something wine stewards blossom like roses and go on to careers that never would have been in their grasp. This year I watched a covey of young chefs from our local culinary school work in the kitchen….and one super-star young woman from Bonny Doon emerge from the pack and be noticed by thirty international chefs as the real deal. The prize of the week was Joseph Buenconsejo, a recent ex-David Fink guy with magic skills at age 22. We took him around with us to parties last week and everyone thought we were gods......I wish I could by stock in these guys......

This year, along with the young stars we worked with more three-star French guys, and David Kinch from Manresa, and Wylie Dufresne from wd-50, and a dozen other great chefs. Brendan made best friends with Michael Ginor, the foie gras guru....and played golf and hunted chanterelles with him. We bonded, we were uplifted, and we realized that our food is right up there with the best. Maybe not starting line-up…but certainly early game subs. We can hang with anyone. Anyone. Anywhere.

And, most of the important discoveries we have made came as a result of The Masters….or from people we have met at The Masters. I give undying thanks to David Fink, the Hyatt, Mark Ayers, Greg Lopez, Neil, Ram……you have informed my life, and my customers' lives.

I really am at a loss. How long until the spell wears off? And I am just a chef. I really wonder what all you Carmel diners are going to do…..

Well, there is always the Sardine Factory. Or Montrio. Hey, and I hear Portabello has an early bird senior special.......


Blogger Bennie Spiedel said... write and cook with the same passion and flair... you understand
the entrepreneur’s motto, written into the legend of Sand Hill Road: "Great risk, great reward. No risk, no reward."

I am honored to read it and lucky enough to be at the store, far too rarely to eat...

With respect and awe

2:17 PM  

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