I Wash Dishes, Too

Three times in the last two weeks someone has inferred that working at Fresca on Addison is somehow beneath me.  One customer asked if it wasn’t below my ‘pay grade’.  A food writing friend suggested, twice, that it isn’t possible to realize culinary greatness in a vegetarian bistro.  Bullshit.  First of all I’m working six days a week with my wife and two daughters.  Second, we’re doing food that I like very, very much.  Third, this concept has legs.  And fourth, a restaurant doesn’t have to be expensive to be great.

Back in the day I had a choice:

  • .   Cook crap in awful restaurants (been there, done that).
  • .   Cook simple food to the best of my limited abilities (btdt as well).
  • .   Cook fancy food for wealthy people.
  • .   Learn fancy food, cook simple food.

My first serious job in a legit kitchen was at the Four Seasons Hotel in D.C., back in ’81.  Then Jean-Louis Palladin, then Guenter Seeger.  I spent six years working with unimaginable product:

  • .    Freshly killed capons, still steaming under a bed of shaved ice.
  • .    Tree sections flown in from Brazil, to be stripped of their bark layer by layer until the heart of the palm was exposed.
  • .   Buckets of live elvers, or baby eel, clear as rice noodles with two miniscule black dots for eyes.
  • .   Truffles the size of tennis balls, filling the entire restaurant with their remarkable perfume.
  • .   Caviar.  Not just caviar, but Royal Golden Albino Osetra from Iran.
  • .   Langoustine from Spain, caught yesterday.
  • .   Olive oil from Chateau Lafite.
  • .   Armagnac that made Louis XIII taste like soap.
  • .   Rabbit livers, turtle eggs, duck balls, kidneys, brains and marrow.
  • .   Forty kinds of mushrooms, all hunted within 100 miles of D.C. (hey Ray!).

I knew this wasn’t the type of food that I would be cooking in my own restaurant one day.  But I certainly wanted to discover it, enjoy it, learn to respect it, if only to be able to use this experience to better appreciate a perfectly ripe tomato, or a great burger.

Will I do another ‘major’ restaurant?  I think about it all the time.  The Frog and the Redneck was a magnificent undertaking, as was Tristan in Charleston, and SugarToad outside of Chicago.  Yep, I probably will.  I’ve even identified some locations, here in Richmond of course.  Will it be ‘better’ or more fulfilling than Fresca?  I doubt it.  But hopefully it’ll make more money.  Hey, I might want to retire someday.

* * * * * * *

Speaking of SugarToad: a real challenge it was.  After all, opening a luxury hotel 35 miles west of Chicago with a 70 seat restaurant?  And to boot, it opened in September of 2008 as the economy was hitting the proverbial fan.  Yet, just 8 weeks open the Chicago Tribune awarded us 3 stars out of four, practically unheard of for a restaurant so far out in the ‘burbs’.  A month later their restaurant critic, Phil Vettel, then named us as one of the “Ten Best New Restaurants in Chicago” and, a month after that, he named our crabcakes as one of the Ten Best Dishes of the Year.  Not too shabby.

The point of this ‘self patting on the back’ is to acknowledge that it happened in no small part because of the efforts of the Chef de Cuisine that I hired, Geoff Rhyne.  Now, two and a half years later, I’m confident in saying that Geoff is as good a cook, at 30, as I have known.  He’s leaving SugarToad and coming back east to be with his wife-of-a-year.  If you’re anywhere near Chicago in the next few weeks, go to SugarToad.  Really.


Am I Awesome, or an Asshole?

A few times a year a young cook will approach me and say something like, “Chef, you won’t remember me but a few years ago I helped you cook a charity dinner……”  (They’re right, I don’t remember but that’s the result of either advanced years or, um, I forgot the other thing.)  To which I reply, “Was I awesome or a total dick”?  A typical answer: “I thought you were awesome.  But a couple of my friends thought you were a dick.”  Fair enough.

Generally speaking, here’s how it plays out:  I arrive at the venue at the same time as 20 other chefs with their staff or, in some cases, entourage.  The organizers offer me a couple of helpers, usually from a local cooking school.  I pull them aside and lay down the rules: button your chef coats to the top, fold your cuffs one turn only, no cigarette breaks and no alcohol until everything is cleaned up and put away at the end of the night.  You’re here to work and not prance around like some kind of prima donna.  Listen to what I tell you; I’ll give you clear instructions as to what you need to do.  Do not ask me to repeat myself.  I hate repeating myself.  I hate repeating myself.  I hate repeating myself.

Example: John, core the tomato like this, make an X on the bottom with the point of your knife, drop it into boiling water for 15 seconds then immediately into ice water.  Peel the skin off, trim the flesh from the seeds and cut into strips, then dices exactly this size (see specimen on cutting board).  I need two quarts of diced tomatoes.  Debbie, take these baguettes and give me 600 slices exactly this thick, use long strokes when you slice, let the weight of the knife do the cutting, don’t push down.  Like this.

So for six hours we slice, dice, sauté, toast, portion, serve, clean up and do it again.  Meanwhile, their buddies are walking around (remember these are culinary students) with their champagne glasses, Ray Bans, open collars and ‘cock of the walk’ attitude checking out all the auction items, and the other chefs.

While my guys are working I walk up to them and say, “Some of your diced tomatoes look like sugar cubes and others look like you stepped on them.  Where’s the example I left you?  I want every dice to look exactly like the next.”

At the end of the night these kids have learned soooo much.  They’ve learned to follow instructions, work clean, symmetry, knife skills, humility and pride.  Holy shit.  No wonder they [love/hate] me.

* * * * * *

Richmond story: I was interviewing a local cook for a position at The Frog and the Redneck 15 years ago.  I asked him where he worked.

I’m the chef at ——- he said.

Who owns it? I asked.

—– —–, he responded, and boy does he hate your guts.

—– —–?  I don’t remember meeting him before.

Oh, said Mathew.  He’s never met you.



It’s true.  In the summer of ’74 and just back from France I got a job as a cook (loose term) at the Watergate Hotel.  One of the room service waiters (Emil?) turned in an order and said it was for those rock stars on the 7th floor.  Who could that be?  Turns out the room was under the name of Stills.  Holy shit, Crosby Stills Nash and Young were staying at the hotel, and ordering room service?  Wow, dam, jeezus.

So Emil asked if I want to deliver the food with him.  Do I ever!  I put on a clean chef coat and went up the room service elevator with him.  As we approached the suite I had second thoughts.  These guys are probably hassled all of the time by fans.  Emil, just get me their autographs, please.

So Emil delivers the food and then asks if he could get their autographs for the chef (loose term) that’s cowering in the hallway.  “Tell him to come in” bellows David Crosby.  Emil waves me in, and there sat Stephen Stills with two young, really young, women on his lap, and David Crosby and Graham Nash at a table playing chess.  Wow, I mean, Wow.

Emil grabs a Watergate envelope and hands it to Crosby, who signs it, and Nash, who signs it.  He takes the envelope over to Stephen Stills, who announces “I don’t sign autographs”.  Jerk.

Emboldened, I approached Crosby and Nash and blurted “Guys, for me there are only three bands.  The Beatles, Poco and CSN&Y at which point Graham Nash asked “What about the Hollies?  Oh, yeah, they were good too.

They then said that they were giving a concert the next night at the Capital Center.  I know, I have tickets!  Well then, come by the suite after the concert, we’re having a get together.  OHMYGOD, I must be tripping!

Went to the concert with four friends, unbelievable.  Awesome.  Headed back to D.C.  Again, second thoughts.  They invited me, but not my four friends, and I didn’t want to abandon them.  Thanks anyway.

The next day hotel security told me there must have been 300 people in the suite.

So what about my near encounter with Neil Young?  Turns out he and Stills were feuding (again) and he got a room on a different floor.  Hey, I almost met him.

* * * *

I need four tickets to his show on April 17th!

* * * *

That’s not the only noteworthy event for me at the Watergate in the summer of ’74.  On August 8th we were herded into the lounge to watch Richard Nixon resign on TV.  If you don’t understand the significance of this, ask your parents.


Say what you want but I am a part of culinary history.  Yep.  Immortalized, you might say.  For, you see, I came up with the word ‘teaser’ when talking about an amuse bouche.  You know, that tiny little morsel that the chef sends out before the meal (amuse the mouth).  My French mentor called his an ‘amuse gueule’, a more crude form of the term as gueule refers to a beast’s mouth.

Anyway, when I went to work for Guenter Seeger (at the new Regent Hotel in D.C. circa 1983) he was pretty adamant that we not use French terms on the menu.  I thought about English options and figured we were ‘teasing’ the diner about what’s to come.

So he introduced it to a group of influential women that had been invited for a pre-opening luncheon to sample what Guenter could do.  As he took out the first tidbit he announced that this was his ‘Teaser’.  At that, the women in the room all began to giggle.  “Vut is so funny?” he asked.  “Well,” said one of the women, “most of us live near Middleburg, horse country, and a teaser is something we use to get the stallions, um, excited, so they’re, um , eager.”

“Yah,” said Guenter.  “That is exactly what I want!”

Teaser it is.


Got Our Arses Kicked!

Who reads the newspaper anymore?  Well someone does.  Times Dispatch gave us a nice review and we served more great people at lunch today than most days lunch and dinner.  Then we got packed again at dinner.  Gettin’ too old for this.  (Nah). Times Dispatch review.

Just got an email from the British couple that write fatfoodtaxi.  They blew thru Richmond late last summer, ending a 2 month culinary odyssey.  I was having my usual cappa-latte at Lamplighter when they came by.   They did a great job of documenting their experiences.  Take a look but don’t just keep watching Jimmy Sneed part one and part two over and over.  Their other stuff is awesome too.

Although for a guy with a “nasty temper” and a “greyhound bus sized ego” I gotta say, I sure look good.

After watching one of my daughters empty a can of coconut milk into the soup and start to throw the can into the recycle bin my cook’s instincts yelled “stop”.  Put it next to the pizza oven to warm up and you’ll get another teaspoon out of it.

Early lesson: back before fire, I spent the better part of a year translating for the chefs at the Cordon Bleu in Paris.  One day Chef Jaurant cracked an egg with one hand and then with great flair and theatrics used the thumb of that hand to wipe out the last drop of egg white sticking to the shell.  “One day” he announced “you’ll understand the importance of this action.”

Being practical, I thought he had spent more time recouping that speck of egg white (time is money?) than it could possibly be worth.

Respect for the product.


I had the great honor of working for two of the greatest chefs of our time, Jean-Louis Palladin and Guenter Seeger.  When Guenter arrived from Germany in 1984 he hired me to be his sous chef, some months before the restaurant actually opened.  So we spent that time establishing our network of purveyors, and bonding.

We went out to dinner several times together.  The first time was at Restaurant Nora.  When the waiter approached to take our order, Guenter nodded toward me and said, “You go first”.  Fine.  I’ll take the smoked salmon with blinis and the rack of lamb with fresh mint, medium rare.  Guenter?  “I’ll take the same.”

Next time was at Galileo.  Guenter says, “You go first”.  OK, I’ll have the grilled calamari and the white truffle risotto.  Guenter?  “I’ll take the same.”

Third time, same thing:  I order, Guenter takes the same thing.  So I ask him what the deal was.

“Jimmy, he said, when you and Stacey go to a movie, do you go into one theater and Stacey goes into another?”

“No” I replied, certain of my answer.

“Of course not.  You’re there to enjoy the same experience and you want a real experience, not a piece of this and a piece of that.  And you order well, so I’m ok with what you’re ordering.  And besides, I don’t like people eating off my plate.”

It certainly got me thinking.  The Chinese put lazy susans on the table so all can share, but they do serve platters of food, made for sharing.  I recall a meal at the French Laundry years ago.  There were four of us and Thomas was really making a name for himself with great food, service and ambiance.  Out came course one, different for each diner.  Then course two, four more apps.  Then course three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine and ten.  That’s forty small plates shared by four people, a bite from each.  It wasn’t a culinary experience so much as a culinary clusterfuk.  Great food it was, but as far as dinner goes it was like going on vacation and doing 20 cities in 20 days.  A lot to see, but not a lot to appreciate.

I’m going with Guenter on this one.

Reviewing the Review

Fresca on Addison got reviewed by Style Weekly a couple of weeks ago.  All in all, a positive review.  “A Big Yes to No Meat.”  I guess I should be happy.  I am happy.  Really, I am.  It’s just that something’s bothering me, something I should probably just let go.  But goddammit, I just can’t.  It’s not in my DNA.


First, let’s deal with some of the, um, incorrections:


  • It’s not that we don’t eat meat.  (Actually, I do.  Jenna doesn’t though).
  • We serve broccolini, not broccoli rabe.
  • Eggs baked at 800° are not ‘uncooked’.
  • What you’re used to is not real pizza (just like chop suey is not Chinese).


Agreed, the quote “We are not vegetarian.  We just don’t eat meat.” is a bit vague, odd, weird.  I grant you that.  According to the reviewer, “This statement, spray painted across the side of the new Fresca on Addison, is confusing at best and seems a bit less than straightforward.”


Problem is, THAT’S NOT OUR QUOTE.  Our quote is “We’re not vegetarian, we just don’t serve meat.”  The whole premise is that we want people to think of us as a great little neighborhood bistro with awesome pizzas, sandwiches, soups, snacks and entrees, not some freaky vegan joint.  We think it’s pretty self explanatory but first you have to get the quote right.  (We see you changed the quote on your web site, but left the snarky remarks.)  wtf?


The reviewer mistook broccolini for broccoli rabe.  No big deal.  For future reference, broccoli rabe is very leafy while broccolini is similar in appearance to broccoli but with long, slender stems.  We use broccolini.  Each is also sometimes referred to as rapini. Or broccoletti.  It can get confusing.


So, the egg pizza threw you for a loop, eh?  Yolks are made to be runny, in my humble opinion.  I like mine sunny side up.  Here the egg is cooked in the pizza at 800° for the entire 90 seconds it takes to cook the pizza.  Note: it’s still runny!  Learn to love dipping the crust into the yolk.  Damn good I tell ya.  And the reason it’s off to one side of the pizza is, um, kinda obvious as well.  If it were in the center then you can’t cut the pizza into slices.  We put it to one side for dipping.  Oh, and when you said “we ended up staring at the slice [with the yolk] for the entirety of the meal” we took a vote and decided you guys needed a hobby.  Just kidding.


Now, about the pizza.  (I love teaching about food).  If you’re going to critique someone’s food, you have to know about food.  That’s really, really important.  Really important.  I know, most food critics in most cities don’t really know food, they know how to write.  But this is someone’s livelihood you’re dealing with.  And readers trust you to give them good information, the ‘scoop’ if you will.  You’re not to be blamed for not knowing about pizza.  Like most people you probably grew up on Americanized pizza, cooked at 550 degrees in a big, steel commercial pizza oven.  Thick crust, lots of cheese.


Here’s the deal:

Brick ovens rock.  The reason they rock is that the brick holds temperature so well.  All 800°.  Naturally only a thin crust pizza can take that kind of temperature.  As any Italian knows, what makes it sensational is when you char the crust without it tasting burned.  Having eaten a shit ton of good pizza, I have to tell you that our oven is magic.  If you want a golden, chewy crust there are plenty of options out there.  Plenty.  And as providence would have it, the NY Times came out just last week with a review of Donatella and said of their pizza it is undeniably good: a thin-crusted and just-charred specimen, beautifully shaped and cooked with great rapidity”. Phtttttt……


So, after years of making pizzas in brick ovens, I’ve finally achieved pizza nirvana, only to have a writer miss the whole point.  It’s important that restaurant reviewers get better or the customers will continue to get average food served to them and cooks will cook down to the level of the norm.  As one of my mentors once said, “It’s a sad day when mediocrity rules.”


I want you to understand that I am not talking about this writer.  I am talking about how casually the media hires people to critique food.  Unless you’ve been a chef or are a chef, it must be difficult to judge.  Sort of like reviewing cars because you like to ride in them, but don’t actually drive.  I don’t blame the writers for taking the jobs, I blame the publications for hiring them.  It seems they care more about writing style than accuracy.  (Uh oh, some of my memory cells are telling me I wrote a very similar article 20 years ago.)  And as a footnote, it does the industry and dining public the same disservice to praise a mediocre restaurant as it does to misjudge a good (or great) restaurant.  And, I have been recently informed that this reviewer is also the blogger that writes winemedineme and vinoveratas which portray a very negative attitude towards the restaurant industry.  And at one point she chastises the reviewer at the RTD by saying “sir, i know you work hard, i do. but can we clean it up a little? you and your cohort dana write THE food reviews in this town. if we can’t count on you to know the scotch bonnet was cultivated from the habanero and they are both chili peppers, who do we turn to”.  (Oh my god.)


Now I’m not saying we’re perfect.  We have our faults.  We’re just glad the reviewer didn’t pick up on any of them.


Here’s my advice:  Love this industry.  Embrace it.  Be its friend.  Help it grow and get better.  Become a food critic that chefs admire.  And above all, know your shit.


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Some years back I had a meal at Full Kee (awesome place) with a food writer who, coincidently wrote for Style Weekly.  I ordered the usual: spicy squid with sour cabbage, live scallop with black bean sauce, tripe with ginger and scallions, you know.   When it came her turn to order she told the waiter she wanted ‘authentic’ Chinese food.

“How about the moo goo gai pan?” she asked.

“American food” said the waiter.

“OK, what about General Tsao’s Chicken?”

“American food” came the reply.

“Well, what do you have that’s authentic Chinese?” she asked.

“Everything he ordered” said the waiter.

“I’ll have the moo goo gai pan”.


Here’s the Style Weekly review.  http://tinyurl.com/4ekd8ts