Food Informants is a week-in-the-life series profiling fascinating people in the food world. We hope it will give you a first-hand look at the many different corners of the food industry. Know someone who would make a great Food Informant? Tell us why.
David Wondrich was educated -- in between stints as boatyard worker, bass player, process server and a dozen other things -- at New York University, where he earned a Doctorate in Comparative Literature in 1997. After a brief career as a Shakespeare professor and a briefer one as a jazz critic, he fell into a job writing about drinks for Esquire magazine, an occupation he has happily persevered in ever since. Widely acknowledged as the world's foremost expert on the history of the cocktail, Dr. Wondrich is the author of countless newspaper and magazine articles and five books, including 2007's Imbibe! (which won a James Beard award) and Punch, which was released to wide acclaim in late 2010. He frequently lectures on drinks and their curious history and is a founding partner in Beverage Alcohol Resource, the nation's leading training program for bartenders and other mixologists and a member in satisfactory standing of the Yerba Buena No. 1 chapter of E Clampus Vitus.
Monday, March 12
7:40am: Breakfast. Corn Chex, 1% milk; coffee, black (Illy/Melita filter, for those who want to know such things).
8:45am: Upstairs to the home office for a day of writing (my wife Karen, my daughter Marina and I live in an old wooden row house in Brooklyn). There is very little that's exciting about a working writer's average day: type, type, type. Stare off into space. Check email. Check Twitter. Stare off into space. Come up with new idea. Check it on Google. Try again. Type, type, type. Etc. Today's assignments are a review of Richard Zacks' excellent "Island of Vice" for the Wall Street Journal, which occupies most of the day. But there's also some work on edits for Gourmet Live and Liquor.com and on my monthly column for Esquire, this time on mezcal. This is relieved with a little event planning, in this case choosing drinks for a lecture on French cocktails with liquid examples.
12:45pm: Lunch is leftover pasta e fagioli that I made for family dinner last night. Too much flour in the roux, I think. I'd add a picture but I forgot to take one. I don't usually document my doings with pictures.
1:15pm: Back to the computer.
5:30pm: File book review.
6:15pm: Down tools. It's cocktail time. Usually I just make something up from the bottles on hand. Since there are several hundred of them, tucked into almost every corner of the house, that poses few restrictions. Tonight's choice: equal parts Vida mezcal and Sandeman Armada sherry stirred up with ice and a couple of dashes of orange bitters. Karen made dinner: lamb chili, based on a recipe by our old friend Julie Farias, now chef at Goat Town, plus a vegetarian chili for Marina, who's in ninth grade and hasn't eaten meat in almost a decade. Karen develops and tests recipes professionally, so the chili did not disappoint. She made a simple salad to go with it and I had a Brooklyn East India IPA alongside; Karen, as is her wont, had wine.
8:45pm: Packed a suitcase, since I was off to Chicago in the morning. Read George V. Higgins' 1981 The Rat on Fire -- small-time Boston hoods getting themselves into trouble.
Tuesday, March 13
7:00am: Taxi to JFK. The security at the JetBlue terminal takes so long that my 8:20 flight is boarding by the time I get through. Breakfast, therefore, consists of half a Rittersport dark chocolate square I pick up by the gate plus a little sack of mixed nuts and a cup of execrable coffee courtesy of JetBlue. Most of the flight is spent working on my Esquire column. I hate writing on airplanes -- I think flying takes 30 points off my IQ; probably the lack of oxygen -- but sometimes there's no choice.
11:00am: Land in Chicago. Train to downtown. I never take airport taxis in Chicago, after spending an hour and a half in one on the expressway and missing my flight.
Noon: Check into my hotel, the Park Hyatt, drop off my stuff and go for a walk. It'a a lovely late-Spring day.
12:30pm: Lunch at Portillo's, the cavernous Italian beef/hot dog emporium on Clark. One dog with everything -- tomatoes, sport peppers, onions, a pickle, relish and God knows what. I used to live in Chicago as a kid, so the dog is powerfully nostalgic. With it I get a frosty schooner of Hacker-Pschorr lager and a small order of onion rings. I ate only three or four of those, not because they're bad but because they're too good. I forget to take pictures.
1:15pm: Back in the hotel, working on my Esquire column.
3:00pm: Cab to The Aviary, Grant Achatz's unique cocktail restaurant (chefs make the drinks and they're served from the kitchen) for the first of two nights hosting punch parties, featuring punches from my book on the subject, imaginatively titled "Punch."
3:30pm: Sign a large stack of books. Every attendee gets a copy, and with their characteristic attention to detail, the Aviary folks have asked everyone in advance whom they'd like them made out to.
4:30pm: Supervise punch preparation with Craig Schoettler, the Aviary's head chef/bartender, and Micah Melton, his right-hand man. And by "supervise" I mostly mean saying "and what about . . ." only to hear "yeah, that's done." Usually, at this time before an event I'm up to my elbows in lemon peel and sugar and trying to come up with work-arounds for things that are missing. Not here.
8:00pm: Showtime. We've got seven punches, six of mine and one of Aviary's. I introduce each, talk some about their history and ladle them forth. Some highlights:
Meriton Latroon's Bantam Punch (1668): A very, very antique combination of Batavia arrack (Indonesian molasses-palm sap-rice rum), palm sugar, lime juice, water, nutmeg and ambergris. That last, of which only a touch is used for spice, comes from whales.
James Ashley's Punch (1731): Ashley, a London punch-house keeper, is the world's first famous mixologist. The peel and juice of Seville (sour/bitter) oranges, sugar, cognac, nutmeg, water and ice.
Whisky Milk Punch (ca. 1750). You combine single-malt Scotch (we used a smoky, but not too smoky, Bowmore 12), sugar, lemon peel and lemon juice and pour hot milk into it. The milk curdles, you filter out the curds and you're left with a sort of smooth, clear liqueur which you can bottle.
Charles Ranhofer's Punch a la Romaine (1894). A ridiculously complex recipe from Delmonico's, the pioneering New York restaurant where Ranhofer was the head chef. A lemon sorbet is whipped together with a meringue made with egg whites and molten sugar and then champagne and rum are stirred in. Achatz's wizards made it by using liquid nitrogen, poured spectacularly right into the bowl, rather than an ice-cream maker. I've never seen a punch go as fast as this one.
Moby Dick Punch. The Aviary's own creation. An exceedingly suave mix of bourbon, huckleberry juice, champagne and a bunch of other things, served in a half bourbon barrel.
Wednesday, March 14
12:30am: I'm spent after a long night of talking and hosting, so it's back to the hotel. But with all the ladling I only had three or four of the delightful passed hors d'ouevres, so I find myself needing something before bed. Downtown Chicago at 1:00am on a Wednesday is no place to get a late-night bite. I finally find Dublin's, a pub that has the great advantage of being open and serving food. Rice, beans, roast chicken, pint of Guinness. Off to bed.
9:30am: A Starbucks Grande (black) and the other half of yesterday's Rittersport bar are breakfast. Then it's wrestling with an edit for my Journal review and getting recipes out for next week's event.
11:30am: The El to Ashland Avenue, where I meet my brother Nick, who lives to the west of the city and manages a couple of heat-treating plants, for tacos at La Pasadita. I have two carne asada tacos, half a chile relleno taco and a grapefruit Jarritos. Again, I forget to take pictures.
1:00pm: I stop at the fine Dusty Grooves and buy a couple of CDs (African funk from the 1970s and The Soft Machine, 1960s British prog-rock) and then walk back to the Hyatt, about 3 miles. It's 80 degrees and sunny and technically a winter day in Chicago.
2:00pm: More writing. File revised Journal piece and pull mezcal piece mostly into shape.
4:30pm: Brain tired. Time for another walk. I've been eyeing Downtown Dogs, a promisingly seedy-looking hot-dog stand across from the hotel, since my arrival. Mindful of my late-night ramble, I have one with everything, which is pretty much the same stuff as at Portillo's and pretty much as satisfyingly evocative of the dogs of my youth. Then it's a cab over to the Aviary for night two.
6:30pm: Since most of the preparation was done yesterday, there's even less for me to do, but once I'm done signing books I help "chef" -- as everyone here addresses Mr. Schoettler, quite accurately -- taste through bourbon samples for the barrel of Buffalo Trace Aviary will purchase.
8:00pm: Showtime again. Tonight is a repeat of last night, with tweaks and more people -- 80 plus, to last night's 60-odd. Tonight I leave the ladling to the staff, which means I've got more time for sipping punch and nibbling on hors d'oeuvres (the savory little bites of pork belly or duck and the divine potato puffs are my favorites) and chatting with the patrons.
Midnight: The end of the event comes quickly. Once the last patron has been sent on the way we gather all the remaining punches and hors d'oeuvres and have a tasting for the staff.
Thursday, March 15
8:30am: Train to the plane.
10:15am: Through security. I have a full breakfast -- eggs sunnyside up, sourdough toast, bacon, tomato juice, coffee -- at O'Hare's Goose Island pub. I eye the pints and Bloodies on the tables around me with some envy, but it's too early and besides I've got writing to do. I'm not one of those Hemingwayesque types who can sit down with a pitcher of Martinis and rise up again with a piece of writing. When I drinks, I drinks; when I writes, I writes.
11:30am: Jammed into my window seat, 10,000 feet safely reached, I open my laptop only to get the dreaded black screen. No writing. The rest of the flight goes to Olen Steinhauer's new "An American Spy" on the Kindle.
4:00pm: I'm home.
5:45pm: I finally file my copy with Esquire and then dash out for parent-teacher conferences at my daughter's school.
8:15pm: Home. Tanqueray Martini made 50-50 gin and vermouth with a couple of dashes of the new Fee Bros. Gin-Barrel Aged Orange Bitters that were waiting for me when I got home from Chicago. Exactly what I needed. Karen made a lovely linguine with white clam sauce. After dinner, I have a splash of Castarède Hors d'Age Armagnac, which is like a brain massage, and then it's off to bed.
Friday, March 16
8:45am: Writing, email.
Noon: A walk around the neighborhood -- Boerum Hill -- to order my thoughts and a perfectly reasonable falafel from the truck at 4th Ave and Atlantic (as usual, no picture).
3:30pm: Spend a couple of hours researching the history of Bill's Gay Nineties, the glorious old speakeasy on East 54th St that has just lost its lease after at 81 years (or 88, depending on who's telling it).
7:15pm: Karen and I arrive at Bill's for a farewell dinner with some of its fans -- Dale "King Cocktail" Degroff and his wife Jill, Jordana Rothman of Time Out New York, Robert Simonson of the New York Times, the great saloonkeeper and mixologist Julie Reiner and too many others to mention. I have the chicken and too many Rob Roys. Dale Sings with Elliot Paul, the piano player. I speak about its history and find myself getting choked up. The irony is the glitzy restaurant that will inevitably replace it will only last two or three years.
Saturday, March 17
12:15am: After last call at Bill's some of us float across the street to the Monkey Bar, where Julie did the drinks. I have a genever-based thing and then it's back to Brooklyn.
9:15am: I go out to get a baguette and a cup of coffee (a large from Building on Bond, who do a nice cup) and get back to Marina's excellent scrambled eggs. The morning is spent catching up on email and puttering. Then a walk.
1:00pm: Lunch is some of the Tomcat baguette with a slice of cheese and a couple of slices of turkey. Simple.
1:30pm: I spend an hour or so playing bass. Karen and Marina got me a practice amp for Christmas, something I haven't had in years, so I've been playing more. (I spent the 80s playing in various bands; sometimes I miss it.)
4:30pm: I sit on the stoop with a glass of Guinness (in honor of the day) and read Steinhauer.
6:30pm: Karen, Marina and I get on the Q train for dinner at Los Mariachis on Coney Island Avenue. Unfortunately, there are no mariachis playing tonight, but the food -- I have the chicken mole -- is fine, the atmosphere fun, the michelada frosty and the tequila fine.
9:30pm: Karen and I watch Spencer Tracy, Maximilian Schell, Marlene Dietrich and Richard Widmark in the melodramatic but ultimately powerful "Judgment at Nurenberg" and then off to Bedfordshire, as they used to say.
Sunday, March 18
9:15am: Breakfast is a bold mix of Honey Bunches of Oats AND Corn Chex. Coffee. Most of the day is spent organizing the two or three thousand CDs that are tucked into corners all over the house. I was a jazz critic for a few years, so there's an awful lot of swing and 1920s New Orleans music, but there's a whole lot of just about everything else, too. Lots of hauling things up and down stairs.
5:30pm: Off to our local Key Food to shop for dinner.
6:30pm: Tonight's cocktail: a Santiago Sour (Chilean pisco, lemon juice, sugar and a float of Chilean cabernet).
6:45pm: I make dinner. I've been kinda half-assedly teaching myself to make Chinese noodles in the wok, which is a lot like bartending: you have to have all your prep done first and then assemble things in the correct order, working quickly. My previous attempts I've followed recipes but stumbled through the steps. This time I get the process right but don't use enough seasoning. The noodles, with green pepper, scallion, snow peas and curry (and shrimp and ham for Karen and me) look right but end up too bland. Next time, more curry.
See more Food Informants below: