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.”

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