To say New York's culinary editor, Gillian Duffy, is a food expert is an understatement. The author of two cookbooks, Hors d'Oeuvres, Simple, Stylish, Seasonal and New York Cooks, The 100 Best Recipes from New York Magazine, Ms. Duffy has produced the magazine's Entertaining issues since 1988. After the closing of the epicurean handbook, Gourmet, and as restaurants struggle in today's economic climate, I thought it might be enlightening to ask Ms. Duffy to reflect on the gastronomic landscape of yesterday, today and tomorrow.
LM: You joined New York Magazine almost thirty years ago to run the restaurant and nightlife section. What have been the greatest changes in restaurants during that time?
GD: Thirty years ago chefs had one restaurant and they spent all their time in their kitchen actually cooking, and most of the top restaurants were French. I think it was the Food Network that started to change things and turn chefs into superstars with multiple restaurants, cookbooks and television shows. Nowadays it can be difficult to find these superstar chefs actually cooking in their own kitchens. I remember doing a story on Mario Batali in 1996 soon after he opened his first restaurant Po. Since then I have lost count of the number of restaurants he owns, the cookbooks he has written, his television shows, and now he is into cookware and food products. Now if I want to interview some of the chefs I have to make an appointment as they are on the road so often.
Another big difference was the availability of ingredients - foreign ingredients - French, Italian, Spanish and Asian were hard to find, and you had to go to a specialty store to find cilantro and lemon grass. These items are now stocked in most supermarkets.
LM: In this current recession, Americans are eating out less, but as Michael Pollan points out, they aren't necessarily cooking any more. I sometimes wonder if our fetishization with food and celebritization of chefs is a direct result of the fact that we no longer need to cook--what was once a necessity is now an exotic luxury. What are you thoughts?
GD: While I am a fan of Michael Pollan and agree with him on his astute opinion on where our food is going, I am not sure that I agree totally with him on this particular point, as there are many people without jobs these days, or reduced budgets who can no longer afford to go out and eat. There is a big drive for the family to eat at home together - for many people cooking is not an exotic luxury it's a necessity. Another thing I have noticed recently is the number of people brown bagging their office lunches.
LM: This year's 11th annual New York Taste will bring together more than 40 of New York's best chefs to benefit City Harvest. I feel one benefit of the rising fame of chefs is their ability to use that popularity to support causes they believe in or raise awareness of food issues such as nutrition, sustainability, or whether the food is organic or local. Is there one food-related cause in particular that you personally strongly support?
GD: I am on the food council of City Harvest, which I think it is one of the most important charities as it feeds the hungry, and today the demands are even higher. They are the chosen charity for New York Taste, and many of the chefs who are participating in the event are already big supporters of the organization.
I agree that some of the chefs such as Dan Barber are making us more aware of the food we eat, how it is grown, and whether it is grown sustainably. Sustainability is the word of the moment, organic is already passé, once it went mainstream and could be purchased in Walmart. The definition, and the way it is produced needs re-addressing. Certainly shipping any foodstuffs 3,000 miles is not doing the environment any good, and the nutritional content after several days in transit has been compromised.
When we first started New York Taste 11 years ago, there were very few events like it, and chefs were honored to be invited, it gave them an excuse to get out of the kitchen and party with other chefs, and check out the restaurant scene under one roof. Today we are one of many events this fall featuring a chefs' tasting, it is putting a huge demand on the chefs, especially in this economic climate, and many of them have become very selective as to which events they attend, otherwise they could be at a fund raiser every other night. We are fortunate that we still attract all the top chefs to this event, and we're able to include different people every year.
LM: With the recent closing of Gourmet magazine, many people have taken a closer look at today's food landscape, filled with celebrity chefs, blogs written by self-proclaimed foodies, and user-submitted recipe websites, and predicted the end of epicurean magazines and the traditional restaurant critic. What do you envision as the future of food writing?
GD: I think the loss of Gourmet is very sad, it was the first food magazine, and generations have grown up with it and treasured it, but it has changed over the years, as the competition grew. It had become a very exclusive magazine. But it looks as if the Gourmet world might still exist with Ruth Reichl's new television series, as well as the updated Gourmet cookbook she is promoting at the moment. I am sure other things will be developed. I have a feeling it won't be the last food magazine to go, the total food universe is becoming more populist - it's becoming a Rachael Ray World. The influence of the epicurean internet sites is growing at a great rate and improving all the time. The quality of the information online is more up to date than traditional print media. As far as the critics are concerned, they build reputations, and a following that will always be significant. Adam Platt's reviews are available on nymag.com, even before most people receive their copy of New York magazine.
LM: Have you noticed culinary trends travel faster or permeate culture more thoroughly thanks to the Internet?
GD: Yes, the moment a restaurant opens the self proclaimed "expert" foodies, many of whom have little basic knowledge of food, are all blogging their personal opinions, and if the place is praised it is packed the next night. If it's not, then it's disastrous for the restaurant, as the word gets out there so quickly, and they have no time to rectify any problems. The theatre "first night" mentality does not work for restaurants!
LM: What 2009 trend do you hope will soon die?
GD: The globalization of restaurants, I would like chefs to focus on one restaurant and do a great job instead of becoming executive chefs.
LM: What do you foresee as the 2010 trends?
GD: Even though many of the great French restaurants are closing, (especially sad was the closing of Chanterelle about to celebrate their 30th anniversary), I think it is a good time for smaller restaurants to open, while there are some great real estate deals. Gone are the days of the 10 million dollar mega restaurant, today it is the small neighborhood restaurant, featuring local ingredients, simple good food.
LM: Finally, I know it's difficult to do, but what is your favorite New York restaurant?
GD: Le Bernardin--it is continually evolving and never disappoints.
LM: What contemporary chef do you find most interesting?
GD: Daniel Humm from Eleven Madison.
LM: Ooh, I went there this past week. The gnocchi and duck for two were especially incredible!