Any building process is a bit disconcerting to watch, initial progress is played out like Benjamin Button’s life story starting from old age and ending in infancy. Our space started out a constructed, beautiful restaurant full of equipment and plates waiting to be given life by a human hand and now it is stripped of flesh with bare wires hanging down like a neglected skeleton left to disintegrate into dust. Yet everyday we are one step forward in the rebirth of what will be one of the most beautiful and exciting restaurants in America.
Opening a restaurant is a wonderful and demanding experience. Prior to opening is what I term the dream phase where all your thoughts and passions and ideas are possible. We are creating an entity and giving life to inanimate objects. It reminds me of a quote from Giuseppe Cipriani who once wrote: “Imagine a world made up only of objects, A world of idle tools, A restaurant of nothing but tables and chairs, A large empty theater or a deserted plaza in summer. They cry out for the service of man, the service to give them life. We call on man to display his splendid capabilities. And We observe with undivided attention, Because the little nuances in the quality of his service give a flawless measure of his mind, they tell us frankly what his soul is worth, Because, To serve is first to love.”
Designing a menu is daunting task for any food lover. What to put on the menu? What to leave out? I love food too much to shun certain dishes. Our concept is Mediterranean, literal and abstract. The region encompasses so many different flavors how do I narrow it down and distill it into something cohesive, recognizable and enticing? I have always approached menu writing like an artist may approach painting. I cook with a palette of flavors ranging from Spain to France to Italy to Greece and Middle Eastern influences. Within that framework are ingredients, techniques and a cultural treasure trove of dishes unique to certain cultures. On the literal level, I may do a bouillabaisse that my Marseilles raised mother would say is authentic… on the abstract level, maybe a porchetta that is more French than Italian because I am adding Swiss Chard, fire roasted Red Peppers and freshly ground pork rather than relying solely on the herbed spit roast pork. I do not want to be limited by country boundaries and traditional rules that were formulated because something grew there or didn’t grew there therefore it is not part of the heritage of the dish. An early mentor once told me “Escoffier would have used aluminum foil had it been invented in his lifetime.”
My edible paintings will explain how the history of Mediterranean food and culture is one of conquerors, immigrants and trade. Each wave brought far off ingredients and cooking techniques and a melding of the peoples. For example, Provence has a long history of being colonized by foreigners. Early Ligurian and Celt tribes intermarried with the local people. Phoenician galleys brought Greek traders and eventually founded a trade post in Massalia, the future city of Marseilles. The Greeks gave Provence olives and grapes. The expansion of olive groves and civilization went hand and hand with the expansion of the Greeks and Phoenicians. It has been said that the Mediterranean ends where olives cease to grow. The Romans came to help protect the besieged Greeks. Eventually claiming the region as theirs and forming ‘Provincia’, the first Roman Provence outside of Italy. The Romans built some of their greatest cities, Nîmes, Arles and Orange. Anchoïade, the sauce made from Anchovies, Garlic and Olive Oil is a close cousin to the famed Roman sauce Garum. Salt cod came from the Romans. The Moors at one point controlled 3/4 of the Mediterranean. Only the Roman Empire reached further. The invading Moors brought the habit of serving many small vegetable appetizers as well as a preference of saffron flavored rice to potatoes. They introduced lamb, eggplant and almonds. Many of Marseilles’ residents are descendants of immigrants from Italy, Spain, and North Africa. Marseilles was also a major resettlement point for former colonists who returned to Europe when Algeria became independent in 1962.
The cuisine and culture of the people continued to be influenced by galleys that sailed to distant outposts in the Far East and North Africa. Marseilles and other Mediterranean ports were major points on the trade route which brought exotic ingredients like saffron, olives, tomatoes, salt cod, eggplants, peppers and many other staples to Provence. Immigrants and ship crews brought different techniques and recipes. Salted codfish from the New World was being eaten in France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece and other nations. Tomatoes from the Americas became an important part of the diet. Arab traders brought various fruits and vegetables. Each culture left their own unique imprint on the people, culture and gastronomy of the Mediterranean.
Now back to the dreams, drools and menu writing…