Tale of the $9 Dog.

September 22nd, 2014

I ventured afar recently with my mother, now 88.  We stopped for lunch at a restaurant that has been getting lots and lots of ‘blog press’.  I had a crab cake, moist with a crust, that was quite good, served on a piece of toasted thick bread.  $14, no sides.  But hey, good crabmeat is not cheap.  Heck, bad crabmeat is not cheap.

My mom wanted a hot dog, which luckily they had.  It claimed to be a Kobe dog, which meant nothing to Mom.  She wanted a hot dog.  It was brought out on a bun, on a plate.  No garnish, no chips, no pickle, just a naked dog on a bun.  $9.  When Mom asked for some diced onion she was told they didn’t have any.  Any what?  No onion in the kitchen or none diced?

Oh, and the waitress took our order while holding a stack of dirty dishes from another table.

Is there a lesson here or is this just what’s become of our industry?  As I told one stunned magazine owner, you do more harm praising a poor restaurant than you do dissing a great one.  The great restaurant will continue putting out great food and service at a fair price while elsewhere the standards get lower when you heap praise on mediocrity.



When asked how his day was going, he replied

“I’m sorry to say that today, mediocrity rules.”

Chef Rene Ryckenbusch 1979

Hot Dog

My Uniform of Choice

July 15th, 2014

Most people wear some kind of uniform at work.  Or school.  Maybe it’s a suit, a white shirt and a length of colored ribbon knotted around the neck, maybe it’s high heels and makeup.  For me, it’s jeans and Lucchese boots (although I have recently begun wearing Birks.  So sue me.)

I’ve been wearing jeans pretty much exclusively for over 45 years.   I got married in jeans in ’76.   In fact, it’s probably not a stretch to say that being able to be myself and not having to wear a suit or tie was a major factor in my choosing to become a cook.  It was definitely a factor in my choosing Memphis State for my freshman year of college as the other schools I applied to back in 1970 did not allow jeans on campus.  Seriously.

But I digress.

I wear jeans and do not own a pair of ‘slacks’.  It has become a point of pride.  So when I went to Las Vegas to interview for a job there I wore jeans.  I met the Executive ‘Chef’ and the vice president of Food and Beverage, then the Vice President in charge of restaurant development,  and then I met the President of the entire operation, all the while wearing jeans.  Finally I was invited into the inner sanctum to meet the owner.  I was wearing jeans.  And so it went.  I got the job.  In fact, I got a restaurant named after me.

A couple of months later we moved to Las Vegas and I reported to work at an off-site office building, as the hotel/casino was under construction.  On my first day the chef comes up to me and says “Sorry Jimmy, but you can’t wear jeans here”.

I felt as if my whole world was crumbling.

I noted that in seven interviews I wore jeans.  His reply: “When you open the restaurant you can wear jeans.  But here in the offices, you can’t.  Simple as that.”

So I went home to tell Stacey not to unpack our shit:  It looks like we’re going back to the East coast.  “You are not quitting this job over jeans!”  There was a tone in her voice that I had only heard once or twice in our marriage.

This sucks.

So I compromised on my scruples, my integrity and my identity and bought a pair of black Dockers.  For seven months I would ride my motorcycle to work wearing my jeans, go to my cubicle, open the drawer, pull out my Dockers and change, hoping nobody important would walk by.

I’m still trying to understand why that job didn’t work out……

Say it Ain’t So, Joe

July 1st, 2014

Joe thinks I’m a dick.

He’s wrong.

Joe is the chef/owner of a nice little restaurant in town.  My wife and I had dinner there a few weeks back.  Joe came out to say hi, which was nice since I had never met him before.  Or so I thought.

Joe noted that I had done a few guest dinners at the Ryland Inn in White House, NJ where my friend Craig Shelton was the chef.  (Side note: the hostess was a teenager from Williamsburg who became the opening hostess for me at The Frog and the Redneck, and later married my chef, Dale Reitzer.  They now own Acacia).

But, I digress.

Joe was one of Craig’s line cooks and had the great fortune of being assigned to work with me on my dish for the big dinner.  Lucky guy.  Noting that was a long time ago, I jokingly asked if I was an asshole to work with (a recurring theme in my blogs).  The answer I got back was “total”.

Assuming he was joking, I moved the conversation forward.  Then, we agreed to have coffee together the following week.  Coffee turned into lunch and it was obvious that this guy was serious about food, and serious about our profession.  Real potential.  I’m gonna keep my eye on this one.

Then I reminded him of his response to my question.  He informed me that he had gotten so mad at me that evening that he walked out of the kitchen into the parking lot ready to quit his job rather than finish the evening with me.  wtf?

“I was there to help you”, he began.

Whoa.  Stop right there.  No wonder you didn’t like me, you silly goose.

You weren’t there to help me.  You were there to work.  You were there to work hard and learn.  You were there to do what was asked of you.

You see, I have very little time in a strange kitchen to put out a course of food for 200 people that will blow them away.  If you listen to my instruction I will very clearly convey exactly what I need you to do.  Your best response would be “Yes Chef” to everything I say for the next three hours.  You are not there to ‘help me’.  You are there to work, learn, and be part of a small, productive team.  If anything, I was there to help you.

I don’t think he got it.

This wasn’t my first rodeo.  I spent many years ‘helping’ put out great food for chefs over the course of my career.  As the years passed and young cooks began to see themselves as future TV stars, it became harder and harder to identify the ones dedicated to becoming the best cooks they could be: few and far between they are.

I recall one high profile event at Universal Studios a while back.  There were plenty of ‘famous’ chefs like Wolfgang Puck, Hubert Keller, Cal Stamenov, Thomas Keller and so on.  As we gathered for our booth assignments, we were offered a slew of culinary students from which to choose as many helpers as we needed.  I needed three and asked for volunteers who were willing to work hard and learn.  Three stepped forward.

“Ok”, said drill sergeant Sneed, “take off your sunglasses, button your coats up to the top, one fold of the cuff and no drinking, smoking, autograph hunting or wandering around until we are cleaned up, packed up and ready to go at the end of the night.  You will see plenty of your co-students walking around with a glass of champagne, a cig in their mouth, and an air of arrogance.  That will not be you.  Everybody still on board?”

Yes Chef!

Good, let’s get busy.

First, I need someone to slice the baguettes.  Here is how you hold the knife, here is the motion.  Do not push the knife, let its weight do the slicing or the bread will squish and the slices will be misshapen.  I’ll show you.  With your first motion you make a small cut on top of the bread, ¼” from the end.  Then, with long slicing motions you will let the weight of the knife do the cutting.  Do not push down on the knife. I know, it’s a lot of motions for once slice but do you see how nice they are?  That’s work you can be proud of.

Now, I need 600 just like those.

Returning a couple of minutes later I find that Sara has been following her instincts and pushing the knife thru the bread.

Stop!  I will show you one more time how to do this.  Use 8 or 9 slicing motions for each slice, just like this!

An hour later, Sara had turned 15 baguettes into 600 perfect, thin, symmetric slices.  “Now, toast them lightly, turning them over so both sides dry a bit and get a slight crunch.  Here, I’ll show you the first batch…..”

So, I hope you see, Joe, that there was much to be learned that night.  If you chose to be offended by being shown what to do, and criticized for not listening to my precise instruction, then I have no apology to make.  I want every cook that I work with to become better and I want to become better with every event I work.  But this I promise you.  I would never intentionally demean, degrade, or humiliate you, or any cook.  It’s not who I am.

That does not mean a cook won’t feel humiliated, but that would never be my intent.  It’s a crazy element of human nature that you can say something to one person, who acknowledges it and moves on, and say the same to another person who takes great offense.  As Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”.

WRIR? Never heard of it.

June 16th, 2014

Until now, that is.  My daughters each have a WRIR  T-Shirt that they sport.  I never really noticed.  Then I started following journalist Chris Dovi on Facebook because 90% of the time he has great commentary on important subjects, 5% of the time I don’t know what he’s talking about, and 5% of the time he’s just plain cuckoo.  Then he asked if I wanted to do an interview on this all volunteer low wattage FM station.  Sure, I said, even if I mess up there’s probably only a couple of listeners anyway.

First I decided to give them a listen.  There was this hour long African drum beat and chant that pretty much made me want to go out and cut the grass.  Another time it was an elderly woman from Appalachia that performed mountain music singing that sounded like she caught her big toe in a bear trap.

Then I caught some NPR type interviews, revealing stuff.  When I heard some local interviews, also enlightening, I started listening more and more:  when I could get reception that is.  It turns out to be my station of choice now.

So I gave my interview and talked about the dining scene; more, actually, about the lack of professionalism in so many restaurants.   Afterwards Chris asked if I’d like to do a regular ‘show’ focusing on Richmond’s growing world of restaurants.  It seems I have a face made for radio.

Thus was hatched “Product, Passion and Salt”, a 20 minute interview show.  My first one aired yesterday Friday at around 4:20 p.m. where I interviewed Michael Byrne, former owner of Richbrau, about the Virginia ABC, its role and the distinction between restaurants that serve alcohol and bars that serve food.  You should be able to catch it by going to their website (WRIR.org — Opensource, Friday June 13th).  It airs again today around the same time.

So, if I don’t screw things up I’ll be doing this the second Friday of each month.  But really, have I ever screwed anything up?




I take it that you’ve indulged in eating some soft shell crabs already this season.  But do you really understand how the crab got that way?  It never ceases to amaze me when customers, and other chefs, watch a blue crab molt for the first time.  Although they have all eaten their share of soft shell crabs it’s evident that they never really understood the process.  I admit to my own lack of understanding in the beginning.  When I first moved to Urbanna, Virginia, over twenty five years ago, I became totally and utterly fascinated with the entire crab shedding process, from capture to digestion.  The local crabbers were more than generous in sharing their knowledge with me.

Now I would like to share with you some of what I have been taught .

The molting, or shedding, process begins with a ‘peeler’.  Actually, it all begins with the blue crab, callinectes sapidus.  In order for it and all crustaceans to grow it needs to molt, or ‘shed’ its shell.  In the days before it is ready to actually shed, it develops a ‘sign’ on its backfins that indicates it is a peeler.  The color of the sign tells the crabbers just how close it is to shedding: a white line tells us that it is a ‘green’, a pink sign tells us that it is a ‘ripe’, and a dark red sign tells us that it is a ‘cherry ripe’ or ‘rank’ and shedding is imminent.  The discovery of the art of reading the fins was the key to making this a viable industry. Read the rest of this entry »

“Good service can make up for bad food but good food cannot make up for bad service”
Ancient proverb (1960’s?)

I just read an opinion piece about the state of restaurant service in this town. I think the point was missed. You see, the writer was lecturing the servers: don’t bring the food if one of us is in the john, don’t grab my glass mid-swig to refill it, and don’t ever, ever…….

Many factors play into why the server doesn’t know good service, not the least of which is that, in my experience, very few of them have had the opportunity or wherewithal to witness it firsthand. They haven’t dined at Daniel, Le Bernardin, The French Laundry, The Inn in Little Washington or a hundred other great restaurants. Who can afford to?

So what about good restaurants, instead of great? Honestly, I’ve gone militant. Read the rest of this entry »

Greatest Chef of our Time?

March 3rd, 2014

(Written for the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of Food Arts)

I’m writing a book, trying to decide a title and direction. You see, I spent five and a half years working for what I think are the two greatest chefs of our time: Guenter Seeger and Jean-Louis Palladin. Which one was better? You’ll have to read the book.

But this is about Jean-Louis. I just read Bryan Miller’s gentle tribute to Jean-Louis in Food Arts. One thing is true: every cook, chef and food lover in America owes much to what Jean-Louis brought to the table, so to speak. When I began working with him in 1982 he had been open a scant two years at the Watergate.

I got the job, not because I was a talented cook (I wasn’t) but because I speak French. I wanted to learn from a master. And I was willing to do whatever it took. As my friend Chef Jeffery Buben advised me, “Stay with him as long as you can stand it, because there’s not a better chef anywhere.” So it was that I spent five miserable years in his kitchen. I wouldn’t change a thing. Read the rest of this entry »

Assholes and Cowboy Boots

February 26th, 2014

It turns out that Richmond’s premier dentist also happens to be an extremely talented watercolor artist. Extremely talented. Baxter Perkinson is so good that he has been able to raise millions of dollars for charities by auctioning off his works.

To make it interesting, he would get some local ‘celebrities’ to help, serving as guest auctioneers. He was a fan of folks like former Governor George Allen, Grammy winner and sausage king Jimmy Dean, cosmetic magician Dr. Joe Niamtu, local anchor Lisa Shaffner, and his favorite chef, hopefully me.

We would take turns going to the podium and chattering up the price of his works. Over the years I ended up owning three of them myself. Baxter is a very generous guy, even if his politics are a bit misguided.

At the end of the auction we all went onstage to take a bow at which time a gentleman who, unknowingly, happened to be sitting next to my wife. As he surveyed the scene of the Governor, the Singer and the Chef he noted a common thread: “Look at that” he said to my wife, “the three biggest assholes in Richmond all wear cowboy boots.

An Open Letter to My Daughter

January 2nd, 2014

So, you became a vegetarian. If memory serves, it started when you were 9 and Mom took you to Fuddruckers where you saw a side of beef hanging on a hook. It just didn’t seem right to eat another animal, did it? As the years passed you became more involved in the moral issue and eventually became vegan. As did your sister.

Good for you both.

Then I partnered with Carena to open a Jamaican restaurant replete with oxtails, curry chicken, beef patties, and goat. I then went on to other opportunities leaving you to manage the restaurant. How hard it must have been at times. I know.

So I sold my interest and we opened a nice, friendly, health oriented bistro serving food that I can only describe as, well, fucking awesome. For lack of an exhaust hood we relied on a tiny, hand build, double deck stone pizza oven and proceeded to make all of our pitas to order for the sandwiches, amazing pizzas, crazy good cookies and cupcakes (thanks to your mom). Oh, and the tapioca pudding. Add soups and salads and you have a restaurant to satisfy even hard core carnivores.

I was one. Carnivore, that is. Still am. But I remember working there the first eight months and realizing how seldom I ate meat. Not for moral reasons, mind you, but because the food was so good I didn’t miss it.

That’s behind me now. Today I’m taking your grandmother to O’Toole’s for a burger. But your mission continues. Feeding healthful food to people that ‘get it’. I know a day doesn’t pass that customers don’t shake your hand and say “thank you”. Your food is every bit as good as anything I have served in my restaurants.

Yet, there’s a fly in the ointment. While you’re trying to make pennies on the dollar, Five Guys gets $2.49 for $.17 worth of cola flavored corn syrup and $3.69 for two potatoes, cut and deep fried. Two burgers, one fry and two sodas cost me $22. You could pay off your mortgage and buy a new car at those prices.

Something’s terribly wrong here.

So, to make money you need to jack up your prices to reflect your costs and you need a soda fountain. OK? Call Coke today and have it delivered. And no more of this “I don’t want to serve chemical additives and genetically modified food” baloney. Suck it up. Serve a hot dog.

Or, stand by your principles. Sure, you’re helping make people healthier. Look how many of your customers come in 2, 3, 5 times a week. And new ones every day who apparently “just heard about you”. You’re not only doing the right thing, you’re doing it very well. I’m more than proud. I stand in awe.




Here’s a story I found while cleaning up my files:

A few years back I was asked to give a speech, in Las Vegas, for 350 chefs, during Super Bowl week. Now, January isn’t a very busy month for us, and going to Vegas had its appeal. But what really intrigued me was the chance to speak to 350 of my peers. Heady stuff. I agreed to do it.

There was, however, a catch. I also had to oversee the luncheon, and serve a dish featuring turkey. No problem. I’ll do the boned leg and thigh, stuffed with Edwards’ Virginia Ham and Shiitakes. That, with our awesome stone ground grits and some candied ginger carrots should rock their world. It’s a lot of work, but they promised that the hotel would provide plenty of staff to help.

The deal was that I would talk from 10:00 a.m. until 12:00 noon, and then put out the lunch (with plenty of help, remember?). Well, it turned out that the hotel, which I shall not name (rhymes with Leo), didn’t provide any cooks to help except for one very hard working exception (thanks Mora). Something about a staff shortage. Never mind, you learn to expect these inconveniences. By coincidence, my mentor, and good friend, Jean-Louis Palladin, has a restaurant in the Rio. His chef, Michael, was more than happy to help me bone and stuff turkey legs, for 20 hours, non-stop! (Apologize to your wife again for me, will you Michael?)

When I finally got to my room, at midnight, my wife gave me the message that my speech was rescheduled. I was now supposed to give a 45 minute talk, during lunch! No way! I was promised two hours! Besides, who would put out lunch??

“Don’t worry,” I was told. “You’ll have plenty of help.”

The next morning I had a friendly chat with the organizers, and they agreed to give me 1hour to talk, maybe a little more. But the hotel would have to dish up the lunch we cooked.

I started my talk at 11:45, and boy, was I funny. I mean, really, really funny. I talked about the good old days with Jean-Louis (whom I lovingly refer to as ‘the asshole’) and Guenter Seeger. I talked about the years of unbridled screaming in Jean-Louis’ kitchen, and the frightening precision, and cleanliness, of Guenter’s kitchen. I talked about naked chefs, holding their blender. I talked about the turkey dish I was demonstrating and serving, and how I ‘invented’ it for Julia Child’s TV show. There’s nothing like speaking to a ballroom full of chefs, in Las Vegas, and having them laugh hysterically at your stories. God, was I funny. Or so I thought.

It seems that one older couple took offense to my language, and said so to the organizer. For christ’s sake, it’s LAS VEGAS! If you can’t use the ‘f’ word here, where can you use it? And besides, I got a standing ovation. They flooded the stage, took pictures and asked for my autograph. Now I know how Elvis must have felt, except he was fatter and on drugs.

Anyway, the sponsor of the conference, an itty bitty, little, insignificant publication called ‘Chef’ took issue with my speech. (By the way, I’m no longer bitter.) The editor, Brent Frei, went so far as to write his editorial in the April issue on ‘yours truly’. He announced that he was twice appalled. The first thing was the speech itself: “I was taught that a chef is not to use the f-word in public, nor swear at all, really, nor should he or she make disparaging remarks about other chefs, even in jest”. (Did he just say that chefs don’t swear?)

As for the ‘f’ word, I offer no apologies. It’s just a word, and by elevating it to the unspeakable you make it more than it really is. It has its place, and that place is Las Vegas. As for the disparaging remarks, I spent five miserable years getting screamed at by Jean-Louis. The kind of screaming that you will never, ever hear in your lifetime. Times ten. Referring to him as an asshole is my minuscule revenge, and it’s done with much love and respect.

The second thing that appalled Mr. Frei was the attendees’ response:

“When I got back home to Chicago, a deluge of mail praised Jimmy’s presentation as one of the best, if not the best, event at our conference. The writers loved everything he had to say, and as I recall, he had most of the attendees rolling with laughter. Virtually everyone who commented on Jimmy’s presentation requested we ask him back next year.”

Go figure.