Revisiting the epochal meal that 35 years ago served as the Big Bang for American fine dining
Polaroids, pay phones, classified ads, two vast and trunkless legs of stone — the past is a back catalog full of shit the internet made obsolete. Am I of the last generation who remembers what it felt like to be alone? To be in a room with no one to chat with, no one to snap at, with no hangouts and time gone slack? And if so, then is that generation the last to feel the hot-shower sigh of relief when, by the caroming of cosmic bumper cars, we find our people and realize we are not in fact alone? Today it seems so easy to connect. There are so many apps, so many platforms, so many places to log into.
If the gerrymandered channels of social media are to be believed, today’s chefs — and today’s eaters — are woven together in the warp and weft of likes, emoji, and hashtags. Never have the chefs been so united. Yet never has their unification felt so transactional.
On a recent spring evening at Loring Place in Greenwich Village, this state of affairs is on display. “There are probably three dinners like this somewhere in the city tonight,” says Andrew Friedman, the bright-eyed, bearded author of the new book Chefs, Drugs and Rock & Roll: How Food Lovers, Free Spirits, Misfits and Wanderers Created a New American Profession, a voluminous oral history of American chefs in the 1970s and ’80s. We are gathered in the downstairs dining room of chef Dan Kluger’s quietly bonkers-good restaurant on West 8th Street to celebrate two things.
The first is the publication of Friedman’s book. The author is an exhaustive researcher and a deliberate writer. He runs a blog called Toqueland, subtitled “Inside the World of Professional Chefs,” and has a podcast, Andrew Talks to Chefs, in which he talks to chefs. Friedman is an inveterate story collector, the Studs Terkel of the culinary world, the Legs McNeil of fine dining. His new book is a 480-page, in-the-weeds birth story of American cuisine, with all the mothers and fathers and doulas and midwives accounted for.
The second thing we’re celebrating at Loring Place is the 35th anniversary of the legendary (to some) Stanford Court Dinner, an event that, to quote Friedman’s book, “changed everything and brought rising chefs from across the country together for the first time.” The original dinner took place in San Francisco on May 4, 1983. It was organized by Michael McCarty of the restaurant Michael’s, in Santa Monica, California, with help from his chef, a young hippie named Jonathan Waxman who looked like he stepped from a Pontormo painting. Alice Waters made a garden salad, natch; Jeremiah Tower made a pecan pastry with chocolate-and-sabayon sauce; Larry Forgione, of Brooklyn’s River Café, made a terrine of smoked American fish “with their respective caviars.” The Southeast was present in the person of Paul Prudhomme, who cooked his signature blackened redfish on piping-hot skillets over charcoal grills on the fire escape, sending smoke into the San Francisco air; Mark Miller, of Fourth Street Grill in Berkeley, made quail; and two guys from the Midwest — Bradley Ogden of American Café in Kansas City, and Jimmy Schmidt of London Chop House in Detroit — stuffed a rack of lamb with greens from Missouri and made a gratin of wildroot vegetables, fiddlehead ferns, and cattail sprouts. It was the first time in the history of American fine dining that chefs so far-flung had conclaved, the first time they had poked their heads above the plains to see the other prairie dogs. It wasn’t like there was no American culinary vernacular developing. But, as Friedman puts it, standing in front of the room and conjuring up a distant past, “The coasts didn’t know much about the other coast, or care.”
Save for the yellowed paper and serif type, the menu — copies of which are distributed tonight along with the book — wouldn’t look out of place today. The chefs, however, have aged and flourished, each having gone on to make a mark in the annals of cuisine. At the dinner tonight are the wizened, thicker versions of the young men who were part of that first dinner. Michael McCarty is here with his wife, an artist named Kim McCarty. We New Yorkers may recognize Michael’s as the feeding trough for the last of the media tycoons. Back when magazines were swollen with tumescent mastheads, it was where the top names ate, and the fourth estate liked to play a parlor game, like tasseomancy or Kremlinology, to divine the internecine power struggles of the media by observing who sat where.
But in its hometown of Santa Monica, Michael’s has been known not so much for its crowd or courtyard but for its ambitious menu. And 35 years ago, McCarty was a young restaurateur, fresh from training in France with the idea that, fuck it, American cuisine should be celebrated. (At the time, everyone slouched toward Escoffier.) In 1981, McCarty, along with Julia Child, the winemakers Dick Graff and Robert Mondavi, and others, had founded the American Institute of Wine and Food in order to promote and — let’s face it — build a market for American product. It took two years to organize the dinner that would be called “An American Celebration,” and it fell to Waxman, McCarty’s chef, to corral the kitchen talent. Tonight at Loring Place, it’s hard to imagine Waxman as anything but the grizzly éminence grise sitting at the end of the table. But he was young once too. “We had no fucking clue if the dinner was going to be a success,” he says of his efforts at the time. “We had to send letters, that we wrote on typewriters, through the postal service!”
According to all those present, both the postal and dinner service came through. That epochal meal had introduced the 400-odd gourmets — who had paid $150 in 1983 dollars for nine courses paired with American wines (about $380 today) — to the emergence of American fine dining cuisine. More importantly, all the prairie dogs came out and saw they were not alone.
Today, so much of what and how we eat is presaged by that two-page menu, from Waters’s nonchalant “garden salad” to the locavore organic veggie-forward forage-friendly wildroot vegetables and cattail sprouts of Ogden and Schmidt’s dish. I think all those present would agree that there would be no Loring Place, with its cheerfully resolute focus on ingredient extruded through the American culinary vernacular, without the contagion sparked that night in Nob Hill. And that would be a damn shame, because Dan Kluger has made this one of the best restaurants in New York City.
In Kluger’s hands, Forgione’s terrine is reimagined with cured salmon and foie gras; Waters’s salad becomes a salad taco — salad taco! — with a guajillo and tamarind hot sauce. “I’ve never totally loved blackened fish,” admits Kluger, so he turned Prudhomme’s blackened redfish into a brown butter–basted sea bass with a blackening spice. It sits pretty on a Dungeness crab salad. And so it goes: Miller’s marinated quail becomes wood-grilled duck with Indian warming spice; the rack of lamb becomes a loin of lamb with the Missouri greens transmogrified into a hazelnut and mustard green pesto. The fiddlehead ferns abide. Tower’s dessert arrives as a delicate chocolate mousse with shavings of candied orange. It all feels very now and tastes very good. The dinner’s title is “Food Memories Dinner Series With Andrew Friedman.” That’s a mouthful but you don’t need the memories to enjoy the flavors; you don’t need to know the roots to savor the fruit.
What’s so striking about the mythology of the evening recounted — Genesis 1:1 of American Cuisine — is how much the whole thing hinged on these chefs, working in isolation but in tandem, having found one another. And how much the difficulty of finding one another endowed the relationships with special hard-earned import. McCarty, Waxman, Waters, Tower, Miller, Ogden, Schmidt, and Prudhomme had finally found their people. They were no longer lonely prairie dogs. I thought about that, and about how, 35 years later, there’s not a motherfucker on this earth that I can’t find pretty easily. But though, as Friedman says, this type of collaborative dinner at Loring Place is common enough now, I doubt there will be a dinner like that at the Stanford Court again anytime soon. Because even though everyone is searchable, reachable, and findable all the time, now that trends are fast-moving waves and collaborations as transient as an Instagram story, being alone has never been harder but being lonely never easier.