Tom Corbett

magnify Click image to view more.

Pilot Light: Remembrance of Things Past

Ariane Batterberry - January/February 2014

As you can see from our cover, Dan Barber and Wylie Dufresne are joining us for a celebration, and it’s for the 25th anniversary of Food Arts. They are both chefs who have defined our industry’s past and will help in defining its future. And that gets me thinking about the past. After my late husband Michael and I and our partners sold Food & Wine (which we had founded) in 1978, our friends in the restaurant industry kept saying, “Why don’t you create a magazine for us?” Frankly, we couldn’t believe there was no trade publication for restaurants as we knew them, so we looked into the matter and discovered that there were restaurant trade publications, but they all focused on fast-food service or feeding at institutions. In 1988, there was not one magazine for chefs.

The restaurant scene in the United States in those days was very different. To begin with, it was very unevenly distributed. The New York City restaurant world was wide-awake and ready to go. The Four Seasons and La Grenouille were already institutions, and Danny Meyer had just opened the Union Square Cafe in 1985, making Union Square an eating destination, while Drew Nieporent had done the same for TriBeCa with Montrachet that same year. In New Orleans, Paul Prudhomme was packing them in, and Commander’s Palace was hiring cutting-edge chefs. In San Francisco, Alice Waters had assumed the role of high priestess, and Jeremiah Tower starred at the aptly named Stars.

But elsewhere the scene was slow to heat up. If you were in Chicago, you were dependent on Gordon Sinclair’s deliciously surreal Gordon, or Ambria, if you wanted to know what the term “nouvelle cuisine” meant. Charlie Trotter and his father had not yet emerged. In Miami, the pink and blue paint was just drying on the first “South Beach” conversions, and some of the ancient inhabitants of those reconfigured 1940s retirement hotels were still tottering about. Mustards Grill and Domaine Chandon (now Etoile) had already proven that restaurant life was possible north of Berkeley.

Remember, there was no Food Network, no James Beard Awards, little to buy from local farmers, and no artisanal anything. There were few tarte Tatins, no molten Valrhona chocolate cakes, and no crème brûlées. Wines were by definition from France, Italy, or California. No one had heard the word “mixologist.” And if wine was served, your restaurant was identified as “white tablecloth,” that amenity being assumed.

Food Arts was born just in time to witness, report on, and encourage the explosive expansion of our restaurant world in the U.S. We were there for the earthshaking events, like the rise of Las Vegas as a world-class restaurant town and the moment when the U.S. at last embraced its regional cuisines, just before they might have been lost forever. We were there for the downs, too—September 11, 2001, when one of our finest restaurants was obliterated and much of its staff was lost, and when New York City restaurateurs showed their mettle by supplying free meals to responders and workmen on the site. And we reported on the depredation of Katrina that washed away much of one of our greatest restaurant cities. We also tackled the controversial questions, like the smoking ban, foie gras ban, and the business entertainment tax deduction.

We reported on the many transformational events of this past quarter of a century. The rise of women chefs, and the chef-farmer collaboration; science and technology in the kitchen; artisanal, organic, and heirloom everything; microgreens and microbreweries; baking your own bread; smoking and barbecuing your own meats; creating your own charcuterie. We recorded everything from the advent of sushi to the wood-burning oven. And there are names that you probably heard first from us: Anthony Bourdain, Emeril Lagasse, David Chang, Ferran Adrià, and José Andrés. We tried always to be the frontline reporters. And new words appeared in our pages: fusion, nuevo Latino, locavore, spa cuisine, kaiseki, forager, predessert—an entire vocabulary that didn’t exist 25 years ago. We learned together.

And with our Silver Spoon, we honored the greats who made history when they were still with us: Craig Claiborne, M.F.K. Fisher, Joe Baum, Julia Child, Jerry Berns, Paul Kovi, George Lang, Jean-Louis Palladin.

And I want here to honor our staff: Barbara Mathias, Beverly Stephen, Kelley McClain, Jim Poris, Gary Tucker, Jacqueline Sainsbury, Abbe Lewis, C.L. Woodward, Caroline Hedaya, Philippa Riley, Nancy Karamarkos, Fanny Li, Sarina Finkelstein, and Nicole Warren.

The press, of late, has been full of nostalgia. The New York Times Style Magazine recently published an article entitled, “Under the Spell of Old Restaurants,” claiming, “…there is something wonderfully enchanting about old restaurants that seem preserved in amber—white tablecloths, old-fashioned menus and all.” And in New York Magazine they recently listed “Vanishing Endangered Foods…” among them steak Diane, pike quenelle, baked Alaska, and Charlotte Russe (all so long out that it’s time they came back in). And they are right, some things are sorely missed—the lively buzz that has recently become a hideous cacophony in many restaurants, and the luxuriously buffered feel of a soft cloth on a table (in the old days, a checkered cloth was the sign of a less expensive restaurant. Bare tables were for fast food). But here at Food Arts we are excited about looking into the future and reporting it to you before you hear it anywhere else!

Ariane Batterberry, Founding Editor/Publisher