Monday, November 14, 2011

What’s on the menu? For Randy Fertel, it’s got to be local

This blog was first published by Durham Foodie.

As the son of one of America’s best-known fine dining entrepreneurs – Ruth Fertel of Ruth’s Chris Steak House – Randy Fertel is understandably choosy about eating at restaurants.

“My mother always avoided the word ‘chain’ and called Ruth’s Chris a ‘family’ of restaurants, but chains pretty much are a deal breaker for me,” Fertel said during a recent call from his New York home. “It’s important to me that a restaurant sources its foods in a local and sustainable way.”

Randy Fertel’s memories of family meals and a flourishing restaurant business – and a life sometimes soured by the eccentric behavior of his charismatic parents – is chronicled in The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak: A New Orleans Family Memoir (University of Mississippi Press).

He will talk about the book in two local appearances: Nov. 15 at The Regulator Bookshop in Durham, and Nov. 16 as the guest of Culinary Historians of the Piedmont (CHOPNC) at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill.

The global Ruth’s Chris empire is no longer family owned, but it did make good use of the abundance of the bayou when his mother bought the 17-table Chris Steak House in 1965. Fertel said New Orleans’ post-Katrina restaurant scene has inspired a resurgent interest in locally-sourced foods – not only among the Crescent City’s best-known chefs, but also its home cooks and youngest diners.

“We lost so much with Katrina, and the impact is far from over, but today chefs and communities are reconnecting with the land and have a real appreciation for what it provides,” Fertel said. “Through the Ruth U. Fertel Foundation, which supports education, I’ve been able to bring Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard to New Orleans. We have five projects and will add another soon. It’s as important that children and families understand where food comes from as it is for top chefs.”

Fertel believes the farm-to-table movement is more than a hip dining trend as it has deep roots in family traditions. “My mother would talk about her great-grandmother, who would send the men out at Thanksgiving to dig up 17 bags of oysters from the bayou,” he said. In turn, the elder cook would create “the best, richest oyster stuffing in the world” – which still graces his groaning holiday table every year.

While familiar with the top spots in New Orleans and New York, where he divides his time, Fertel said that no matter when he eats he seeks out the elements that made the original Ruth’s Chris a legendary success.

“Of course people knew they’d get a great meal, but they also got great service,” Fertel said. “The trend at the time was for the best restaurants to be very formal, and they all had male servers only. My mother hired people like herself: single mothers with spunk who she could count on to work hard. Her dining room was friendly and warm.”

Knowledgeable servers not only see to a diner’s comfort but also ensure that they “see the chef’s hand on the menu.” The deft assistance that helps to define a chef’s inspiration – as well as suggest a satisfying appetizer-to-dessert experience – is the best way to cultivate regular customers, he said.

As for the dishes created in his own kitchen, Fertel described himself as “a typically male cook.” “I love to make classic New Orleans-style foods and things that cook in pots: braises and roasts. There is nothing quite like a good roast chicken,” he said. “I’m an intuitive cook but I find myself using cookbooks a lot more lately. I’ve realized I can stretch myself if I have a great book as a guide.”

There is only one recipe included in Fertel’s memoir, and it’s not a dish made famous at Ruth’s Chris. Instead, it was a meal prepared by the maid he interviewed and hired at age 10, when his mother was too busy to get home for the appointment. Earner (“er-nah”) Sylvain worked for the family for 42 years.

“My mother liked to say she taught Earner how to cook, but she was a terrific cook when she came to us,” Fertel said. “Her crawfish bisque was the best I’ve ever had.”

Fertel shared Earner’s Crawfish Bisque for @Durhamfoodie followers, but be warned: you’ll need about 40 pounds of bayou-fresh crawfish, which is not exactly local or sustainable. This recipe will feed your family plus everyone in your neighborhood.

Recipe Courtesy Randy Fertel, from The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak: A New Orleans Family Memoir

1 sack crawfish (about 40 pounds)

Scald crawfish in almost boiling water for about 15 minutes. Drain and cool. Peel crawfish and save the fat in a separate bowl. Grind the crawfish. Clean about 200 heads to stuff.

For the Gravy:
2 large onions
4 ribs celery
¼ bell pepper
4 cloves garlic
10 sprigs of parsley
1 cup cooking oil
2 cups flour (about)
4 tsp. tomato paste (heaping)
1/2 of crawfish fat
9 cups hot water
2½ cups ground crawfish tails
5 tsp. salt
2 tsp. red pepper
6 green onions

For the Heads Stuffing:
2 large onions
3 ribs celery
¼ bell pepper
4 cloves garlic
10 sprigs parsley
rest of ground crawfish tail
¼ cup cooking oil
rest of crawfish fat
2 eggs, beaten
2 cups dry bread crumbs (or more)
4 tsp. salt
2 tsp. red pepper
6 green onions

To make gravy:
Grind onions, celery, bell pepper, garlic and parsley. Make roux with oil and flour. Stir constantly until browned. Add ground seasonings. Cook on low fire about 30 minutes. Add tomato paste and crawfish fat. Cook about 30 minutes. Add hot water and let cook on low fire. Add ground crawfish tails, salt and pepper. Cook on high fire about 20 minutes.

To make stuffing for heads:
Preheat oven to 400ยบ F. Grind onions, celery, bell pepper, garlic and parsley. Fry crawfish tails and ground seasonings in hot cooking oil; cool. Add crawfish fat and eggs. Mix in bread crumbs, salt and pepper. Stuff heads. Dip the stuffed part of head in flour and place on cookie sheet. Bake for 20 minutes.

Add baked crawfish heads to gravy. Cook on low fire about one hour. More hot water may be added if too thick. Stir carefully.

Serve in soup bowls over rice.

Garnish with green onions.

A jelly good enough for Jean!

This has been a damn good weekend. On Saturday, I drove up to A Southern Season in Chapel Hill, where Jean Anderson -- the James Beard Cookbook Hall of Fame goddess who happens to make her home close by -- was appearing for a book signing event.

I was fortunate to meet her a few weeks ago at a swank event to launch Sandra Gutierrez's wonderful "The New Southern-Latino Table." I'd had a brief exchange with Jean earlier that same day on her Facebook page, where she had posted a photo of a baked sweet incorporating wild persimmons, which will be featured in a book scheduled for 2012 release. I told her that I had been foraging wild persimmons at the time and used them to make jelly, and she kindly wrote back.

I first realized the reach of Jean's influence when her name was reverently dropped by Sara Moulton, on whose live show she occasionally appeared in the early glory days of the Food Network. I was happy to hear Sandra also credit Jean as a gracious mentor and immediately told Tim that I had to find a way to say hello. I eventually made my way to her table, where she was engaged in a lively conversation, and waited for my chance.

Andrea Weigl, Beard-honored food writer for The News & Observer, saw me and asked if I was waiting to meet Jean. "You'll wait a long time," she joked. "She knows everyone."

Andrea leaned in, hugged Jean like a favorite aunt and introduced me. The timing could not have been better. I grabbed a chair and wound up chatting with her for so long that Tim, who had driven separately, decided to head home and let me savor the moment.

I had planned on ordering her new and highly regarded "Falling Off the Bone" for Tim as an anniversary gift -- braising is his favorite style of cooking -- and, on Jean's recommendation, decided to hunt for a copy of her out-of-print "Green Thumb Preserving Guide" as well. I brought both with me to the book signing on Saturday, as well as my stained copy of "The New Processor Cookbook," which I bought in the early '80s when it really was new after buying a gizmo called a Cuisinart.

I also brought a little jar of wild persimmon jelly, which I decided to give her in thanks for the many great meals and inspiration she has provided. She accepted it and allowed me to get a photo.

About an hour ago, I checked my Facebook page and found that she had sent me a lovely message:

Jean:   Great to see you yesterday at A Southern Season, Jill. Your wild persimmon jelly is PERFECT! Had some this a.m. on whole-wheat toast. DELICIOUS! Thanks so much for sharing! ja

Me:  You are awesome! Thank you so much for these kinds words. You can't imagine how stunned and happy I am to read them. Tim was thrilled to have his copy of "Falling Off the Bone" personally inscribed. He made your succulent slow cooker pork shanks today. Can't wait to work our way through the book!

So here I am, giddy with the knowledge that my jar of jelly was on Jean Anderson's breakfast table this morning. Tim turned in early and doesn't know yet, but Graham has been high-fiving me with shared joy. I believe I'm going to have some wild persimmon jelly on whole-wheat toast for breakfast tomorrow.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A life in food: Sustaining tradition and fostering fine dining

This blog was first published by Culinary Historians of the Piedmont (CHOPNC).

Randy Fertel
The notion of sustainable, farm-to-table eating is the hot trend in home cooking and fine dining, but it’s nothing new. It’s how Randy Fertel grew up in New Orleans, and how his parents and their parents – indeed, the whole extended family – made its indelible mark on modern dining.

“My mother was a child of the Depression, but she always said she never realized they were poor,” he said of Ruth Fertel – the Ruth of Ruth’s Chris Steak House, the international chain that his mother established in the Crescent City in 1965. “There was always food available at arm’s reach. Their larder was the most unbelievable Eden. Oysters were there to be grappled from the swamp. Duck, rabbit, red fish, shrimp. It went on and on.”

Randy Fertel’s memories of family meals and a flourishing restaurant business – and a life sometimes soured by the eccentric behavior of his charismatic parents – is chronicled in The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak: A New Orleans Family Memoir (University of Mississippi Press). He will talk about the book as the guest of Culinary Historians of the Piedmont (CHOPNC) at 7 p.m. Nov. 16 at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill.

Fed up with working as a poorly paid lab tech at Tulane, his mother cemented her reputation as a bold risk-taker when she bought the 17-table Chris Steak House – which later became Ruth’s Chris – after seeing it offered in a three-line ad. She parlayed a $22,000 mortgage on the house won in a bitter divorce settlement into one of the most successful “families” of restaurants, a term Fertel always said she preferred over “chain.”

She created a sort of fusion dining experience that paired the abundance of the bayou with the Old World techniques already in use at the restaurant. Its former owner taught her his methods of cooking steak, including a finishing technique that became an icon of the Ruth’s Chris empire.

“The guy she bought it from was from Plaquemines Parish, where she was from, but his family was from Croatia,” Fertel said. “I imagine in Croatia they used oil, but at the restaurant they switched to the butter culture in New Orleans. This tradition of steak with butter poured over it was probably a transformation of an Old World treatment. That became a signature: steak that sizzled with butter.”

Another enduring hallmark of the Ruth’s Chris menu – its decadent creamed spinach – tracks directly to Fertel’s great-uncle Martin. “I was told only recently by a cousin that this was his recipe,” said Fertel, who is as generous about crediting others as his mother was stingy. “If you got sick, that’s what would be made for you. It was our family’s chicken soup.”

Ruth Fertel added another special element to the dining atmosphere that was missing from the era’s high-end haunts. “She hired people like herself: single mothers with spunk who she could count on to work hard,” Fertel said. “Unlike Galatoire’s and other more formal restaurants, her dining room was friendly and warm.”

The promise of excellent food and discrete service proved immensely popular. Regular customers could count on finding their favorite cocktail waiting at their table. Romantics at curtained banquettes could signal a call for seclusion by turning on a tiny light – a classed-up sock-on-the-door, if you will. And politicos regularly booked private rooms to conduct what ordinarily would be termed the public’s business.

“There’s a famous story about Gov. Edwin Edwards – who was known as the Ragin’ Cajun – bringing his entourage in one night and asking for Shirley, a waitress who was famous for telling jokes,” Fertel said. “She joined him at the head of the table and asked him to put his hand in a doggie bag, and Edwards obliged. ‘I told them in the kitchen that once I got you into the sack you wouldn’t know what to do,’ Shirley said. It was typical of the sort of thing that would happen there. You could tell his entourage all looked at him for permission before laughing.”

Not everything at Ruth’s Chris or the Fertel household was so good humored, however. Fertel writes about his parents’ ugly divorce, his mother’s obsession with work over family, and his father’s famous campaign for mayor, which was based on a single-topic platform of getting a gorilla for the local zoo. The so-called Gorilla Man suffered an embarrassing defeat but later made good on his pledge with a pair of gorillas named Red Beans and Rice.

After working his way up from busboy to manager, and watching the family-owned business turn into an international conglomerate, Fertel eventually made the heartbreaking decision to sue his mother after a multi-million dollar business deal went bad. The resulting rift took years to heal.

Fertel said he came to a new, if different, appreciation of his parents in their waning years. He now oversees two foundations bearing the family name: The Fertel Foundation, which celebrates whistleblowers and investigative journalists, and the Ruth U. Fertel Foundation, which supports education in New Orleans. Through the latter, Fertel worked with another legendary female in the food world – Alice Waters of Chez Panisse – to bring the Edible Schoolyard to New Orleans.

“I write in the book about my belief that my mother and Alice Waters are the two women who have had the largest impact on the way we eat in America,” Fertel said. “They did it in different ways, but they both had strong messages and refused to compromise.”

While the Ruth’s Chris empire grew horizontally, and eventually out of control, Fertel said he admires Waters for “expanding vertically.”

“She went down into the real depths of what food means and what it means to use it,” he said. “There’s only one Chez Panisse, but she’s seeded the universe with chefs. Why do we know today where a piece of pork comes from? It’s because Alice started listing it on her menus in the early 1970s.”

Working with Waters, Fertel planted the first Edible Schoolyard in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as a way to help feed and reconnect communities. Five such projects are now flourishing, with another on the way.

“We are going to add one at a school that’s being built with FEMA money. It means a lot to me because it replaces the school I attended as a child,” Fertel said. “It’s all very moving to see what’s grown from the little seed I helped to sow.”