Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Chefs on Exhibit

There’s nothing new about our local chefs showing up to help other organizations. They are the backbone of benefits, generous contributors to every kind of charity gig, and the reason that many are willing to purchase tickets and attend these events. But it’s the food rather than the inspired, conceptual thinking behind it that usually gets all the attention. But it was quite a different story last Saturday night in the galleries at the Palate/Palette fundraiser for MOCA Cleveland.

The artistry of five chefs was the centerpiece of the evening rather than the backdrop. Each had chosen one of the five senses to express and fashioned a unique presentation environment for their dishes. Instead of just grazing mindlessly, we encountered intentionally designed sensory worlds that awakened and heightened perceptions, challenged assumptions, and engaged the mind in the act of eating. All the chefs seemed thrilled with the opportunity and clearly had fun with it. “Creating experiences and stimulating the senses is what we do,” Brandt Evans told me. “It’s wonderful to see that being celebrated.”

I was totally taken with the idea and wowed by the execution. Here’s a brief chef by chef recap of their food-meets-art offerings.

Brandt Evans, Blue Canyon, Sight:
Knowing that we eat with our eyes first, Evans hung big food photos behind his table, cuing up anticipation by adding a word to each image: luminosity; lush: stimulating. Big glass vessels willed with asparagus, limes, and basil decorated he staging area. So we were primed and ready for his scallop ceviche with lime and ginger. There was a kind of visual trick to it- the burst of flavor, full of exciting unexpected elements, was so much more than the sum of what could be seen.

Karen Small, The Flying Fig, Smell:
We entered a small windowless dimly lit room with seating for 20, 25 people at tables arranged in a squared-off u-shape. Each place was set with two small cups: in one a ricotta dumpling with onions, chives, and scallions; in the other slivers of grass fed beef short ribs and mushrooms. As we watched, steaming broth was poured on top- smoked pork for the meat, something gingery for the dumpling. Small urges us to inhale deeply before we open our mouth or pick up a spoon. It is a revelation- so much information coming in through the nose.

Jonathon Sawyer, The Greenhouse Tavern, Touch:
We filed in eight at a time, sat down, removed our shoes, and stepped up to the bar, as instructed, positioning ourselves on a marble square. Heat flowed up through the soles of our feet as Sawyer passed us a bowl of warm miso based broth. We cupped it in our hands and drank. Then we moved to the other side and stood on icy cold stones to sip chilled ramp vichyssoise. For both, Sawyer told us to close our eyes. It was like kissing- blocking out visual impressions intensified what the body felt.

Sergio Abramof, Sergio’s and Sarava, Sound:
He’s got a passion for percussion, so Abramof brought some drumming pals in to create beats to back up his Brazilian shrimp and rice. But instead of their usual selection of instruments, these pros pounded out rhythms using kitchen equipment: whisks, spoons, pots, strainers, skillets. It was impossible to hold still. Sergio was swaying and sautéing, people waiting to snag a plate looked like an impromptu conga line. The dish had a mouth music of its own- together they made a dance party.

Doug Katz, fire food and drink, Taste:
His chocolate truffles were the good bye gift. Four were packed in a clear box divided into sections with a paper insert featuring a different photo to accompany the list of primary ingredients and character descriptions for each bite. It was fun, clever, inventive. Like what the best chefs do. The candies were equally original- bittersweet chocolate peppercorn; white chocolate tarragon; milk chocolate rhubarb; and my personal favorite unsweetened chocolate laced with sea salt.

The event looked like a financial success. There was a nice sized crowd that paid $250 per ticket and big bucks were bid for original artwork during the live auction. But staying true to its mission of exploring contemporary culture, looking beyond the conventional and acceptable, and showcasing originality, MOCA is to be commended for also using their fundraiser as a vehicle for raising awareness of the exceptional talent in our culinary community.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Is Cleveland coddling LeBron?

Are we coddling LeBron James, trying too hard to get him to re-sign with the Cavs? Jim Rome thinks so. The radio host says the city's embarrassed itself with the new "Please Stay, LeBron" video -- and ruined our chance to keep the NBA MVP.

Rome's rant:

Look, Cleveland; I’m not here to pile on. I’m on your side. I want the guy to be there. ... But dropping some crazy, cheesy, embarrassing video with a few politicians, a weatherman and a Real Worlder begging him to stay is going to push him over the edge. And if he hadn’t decided already, he has now; he’s gone.

LeBron is like the hottest girl in the school; if you’re to have any shot, you have to step to her with confidence and swagger and own it. You roll up on her like that, all beaten down, and begging and she will crush you.

Lebron's biographer, Buzz Bissinger, says LeBron is "too loved," "too coddled," and "too easily forgiven" in Cleveland. In an op-ed in today's New York Times, he argues that LeBron needs to leave for New York to grow. He points to the debacle that was Game 5 against the Celtics:

In missing 11 of the 14 shots he took, he simply looked as if he had given up, astounding not only for James but for any professional athlete competing at the level of the playoffs. It was inexcusable, whatever the circumstance.

In a place like New York, the tabloids would have screamed “LeBomb James!” In Cleveland, there were a few boos, but they amounted to nothing compared to the desperation of the fans to keep him for next season and beyond. In such an atmosphere, human nature inevitably takes over: you stop constantly pushing yourself because there is no real incentive...

No one in Cleveland talks like this. We assume LeBron wants a championship as badly as the city does, and we figure that's motivation enough. Does LeBron need someone to challenge him? A tougher coach? An entire city?

Or an owner? I wonder what Dan Gilbert will say to LeBron as free-agent negotiations near: Only what LeBron wants to hear, or some version of his challenge to the team after Game 5?

Our entire franchise has done everything in its power to put all of our players and its coaching staff in the best possible position to execute when it counts. And to deliver to the highly supportive fans of Cleveland a proud, intense, impassioned all-out drive to achieve a championship. The last two home playoff losses and the manner in which we lost these games does not come close to being anywhere near the high expectations all of us have of our organization. Our fans and supporters deserve more.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Hiking for Winers

Forget mowing the lawn or running errands this Saturday morning. Instead rise, shine, hike and drink. Sounds like my kind of good time. The unlikely pairing of activities is organized by The Ohio Wine Producers Association and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. The two organizations are sponsoring a series of guided explorations of nature preserves and forests not open to the general public followed by visits to nearby wineries.

Meet up at 10 AM for the May 22 outing at the North Kingsville Sand Barrens, about a half mile from Lake Erie in Ashtabula County. The protected area is what’s known as a fossil beach, and I hear that this time of year its rolling savannah and surrounding swamp forest are alive with migratory birds and blooming wildflowers, including purple lupine.
After two hours of walking, everyone will caravan to MarkkoVineyard for lunch, a talk by winemaker Arnie Esterer, and a sampling of the Chardonnay, Riesling, and Cabernet Sauvignon that he produces.
Cost is $35 per person, and you must be registered to participate. Sign up here or call 216-231-1177. Once you're on the list, you'll get directions and details. Space is limited. If you like the concept but get shut out or are unable to clear your calendar for this weekend, three more trips planned for July, September and October.
Winemaker Arnie Esterer

Friday, May 14, 2010

Back away from the baby animal

When I was in 6th or 7th grade, my mom committed infanticide.

Surveying our yard after a tornado passed nearby, she spotted an overturned nest, flipped it upright and placed three tiny, bruise-colored birds back inside. Then she remembered the myth that once you touch a baby animal, its mother will refuse to raise it. So she brought them into the house – nest and all.

Sadly, like most baby birds scooped up and swaddled in blankets by people with good intentions and milk-filled eyedroppers, my mom’s trio of early-risers died on the kitchen counter. But even if she’d been able to raise them to adulthood and release them, says Lake Erie Nature & Science Center wildlife director Dave Wolf, they’d have lacked the survival skills that animal parents teach their young.

“When a hawk flies over, and [the baby] sees what mom or dad does, it learns what it should do,” Wolf says. “And, we humans don’t like to think of it, but when a cat pounces on one of [the bird’s] siblings, that’s invaluable learning. That cat means big-time danger, and I, as a baby bird, will do everything in my power to avoid the next cat that comes around.”

The belief that animals won’t raise their young once humans touch them is completely unfounded, according to Wolf, who’s been with the nature center for 15 years. “Our common birds have no sense of smell. In programming, I often make a bad joke and say you could probably dust garlic powder on that baby bird, take it back, and its parents wouldn’t care.”

Mammal mothers, with a keener sense of smell than people, will approach a human-tainted nest more warily -- “but that level of danger is not nearly enough to cause her to go against all those hormonal chemical signals telling her to be a mother and do mother behaviors.”

So what should you do the next time you stumble upon a palm-sized tuft of feathers with big brown eyes seemingly pleading for help?

First, says Wolf, ask yourself if the bird is a fledgling or a nestling.

A fledgling, hopping all over the yard, talking like a kid on a sugar high, doesn’t need human intervention. But a quiet, pink, featherless nestling should be placed back in its nest if you can reach it. If you can’t, place the baby in a flowerpot – or cut holes in the bottom of a margarine tub so it doesn’t fill up with rain water – and hang it from a branch. The mom will hear her child chirping and come to its rescue.

When in doubt, says Wolf, call the nature center at 440-871-2900 or download its baby wildlife fact sheet (pdf). Each year, the center examines 1,000 baby animals, three-quarters of which are suburban birds like robins and sparrows.

Tomorrow at 3 p.m., the center, located at 28728 Wolf Road in Bay Village, hosts “The Ins and Outs of Wildlife Rehabilitation,” when a wildlife specialist will tell you why bunnies, possums and other babes in the woods can survive just fine without you, thank you very much.

(Photo from

Flower Power

Lately, I have been asked several times from people that I would consider pretty chic dressers how to wear the floral fashion trend that has so colorfully taken over local boutiques and major department stores alike. I myself am not a big fan of the flower prints for they remind me of my grandmother's old upholstered sofa from years back, but I completely understand the dilemma many may have with trying not to appear too whimsical while being decked out in floral duds. Being the true fashionista that I am, I will not dare shy away from the power of flowers and have slowly (very slowly) warmed up to the idea of adding simple floral touches to my outfits here and there as a way to stay on trend. A great way to sport the fashion forward floral idea is to keep it simple. Floral embellished accessories such as shoes, handbags and jewelry will give your outfit a pop of color and keep you on trend with out overwhelming your sensibilities. For a bolder approach, try a floral sheath dress or a floral circle skirt paired with a solid colored blouse or summer tank top and cardigan. However, when flaunting your floral boldness, make sure your shoes and accessories are chic yet simple so that the focal point of your outfit is the bolder floral piece. You can also pair floral prints with edgier pieces such as weathered skinny jeans, black leather and platform sandals with metal embellishments to give off the nonchalant rocker vibe that will definitely turn heads and fast forward you to fashionista status. So, whether you decide to wear the floral trend, just remember to stay to true to your own personal style. Fashion trends will come and go, but personal style is yours forever.

Fashionably yours,


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Rockin' Cooks

Super successful chefs are often described as rock stars these days. But a surprising number have admitted- in public and privately to me- that they have musician alter egos, or confessed that next time around they’d choose to come back as real rock-n-rollers. Some limit their licks to air guitars or drumming out rhythms on tabletops, but others actually get out there and play.
You can catch a few of them serving up their music June 13 for Chef Jam 2010 at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Bands made up of local chefs and restaurant staff from Melange, Happy Dog, and Greenhouse Tavern will take the stage, and Crop's Cream of the Crop will do a star turn with Todd Rundgren. (Rumor has it that they are actually rehearsing for this gig in an attempt to nail down a few key Todd tunes).

A Cleveland Food Rocks event and fundraiser, this is not your typical benefit graze. Each restaurant- 26 have signed on to date- is drawing culinary inspiration from a particular band, performer, or musical genre. Karen Small says that The Flying Fig is going with Delta Blues- think Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters. So she and her crew will do Southern country cooking. Momocho’s Eric Williams is going all literal, making braised wild boar tacos with pickled jalapeno mustard in homage to Satan Gave Me a Taco. No doubt his will be much better than the ones in Beck’s song! Steve Schimoler of Crop is Grateful for the chance to let his inner Deadhead out. He might do Jerry's Jubilee, but isn't ready to commit. "Since they were the quintessential jam band," he says, "we're gonna improvise."

But that’s not all. For this gig, the chefs are also playing dress-up. They’re supposed to look like the musicians they’re celebrating. Initially it struck me as a goofy bordering on lame idea. Then I started to consider the possibilities.

Brandt Evans of Blue Canyon is drawing his cues from the Jamaican reggae group Burning Spear (so don’t be surprised if he’s spooning goat curry onto your plate). The thought of see the big man sporting dreadlocks like the band's lead singer Winston Rodney is too delicious.

Michael Herschman of Menu 6 told me he’s going on a psychedelic trip, doing wild mushroom rolls with scallion chili dipping sauce and 'strawberry fields forever'-strawberry gelle, melon mint puree & marcona almond praline mascarpone. So I expect him to show up in bell bottoms, tie-dye, and love beads.

Questions abound. Will Jonathan Bennett don a shaggy haired wig and set aside his usual clean white jacket for something a bit more flowery? I think there’s a chance since the Moxie chef has decided to celebrate Pink Floyd with some Dark Side of the Moon Pies.

Tickets went on sale to the public Monday. $50 lets you sample all the food, wine and beer, plus explore the Museum. Click here to buy yours and see the list of participating restaurants. Proceeds go to education programs at the Rock Hall and towards a Culinary Arts scholarship for a Tri-C student. The price is a bargain, especially considering that there’s a chance to catch the usually dapper Zack Bruell in full rocker drag.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Capone author’s tour hits brewery, thanks to Ness

Seventy-nine years ago this spring, Eliot Ness’ squad of “Untouchables” bashed down the doors of Al Capone’s brewery in Cicero, Ill. and took an axe to 14 vats filled with thousands of gallons of Capone’s beer. This Friday, Jonathan Eig will pay a much more polite visit to Cleveland’s Great Lakes Brewery. Over lunch and some Eliot Ness Amber Lagers, the author from Chicago will talk about his new book, Get Capone, and its portrayals of the famed Prohibition agent and history’s ultimate gangster.

Eig’s vivid, fast-paced account of the rakish crime boss’ rise to power reveals how federal officials struggled to find some way – any way -- to put Capone in prison. Ness, who spent seven years crusading as Cleveland’s safety director, appears on only about 15 pages.

“I was struck by his intelligence and his honesty,” Eig says -- but he argues that during the Capone investigation, Ness “was well-meaning but mostly ineffective.” His brewery raids didn’t contribute to the tax charges that did Capone in. Ness’ early investigations of Chicago Heights bootleggers didn’t impress the author either. “He didn’t really have the character for undercover work,” Eig says. “He was better at public jobs: getting interviews, getting attention.”

Even in Cleveland, where Ness fought police corruption, racketeers, gamblers and the Mob, “He was a troubled man in many ways,” Eig says. “He had very high standards for himself as public figure, but his personal life often got in the way.” He’s referencing Ness’ failure to solve the Torso Murders, his public drinking, and his two divorces, which eroded his reputation.

Cleveland knows the real Ness: Complex, sometimes tragic, and more interesting than the squeaky-clean mythic hero. Clevelanders “knew him in the mature years of his career,” Eig says. “They saw him at times as a flawed person. In Chicago, nobody really knew him until he was gone.”

Eig will include Ness in his noontime Friday talk at the brewery and his more sober appearance Thursday night at Joseph-Beth Booksellers. But he’ll focus on Capone, whose voice leaps off the pages of his book, his wit as quick and piercing as tommy-gun bullets.

“He was a jovial guy,” says Eig. “People enjoyed his company. He was a man’s man. He liked going hunting and fishing and going to the track. People really enjoyed being with him.”

Capone still fascinates us because he pursued the American Dream, Eig says. “He did it with machine guns, which isn’t the traditional way, but he was an immigrant kid with an amazing opportunity to rise from mediocrity to greatness.

“He does this with a certain flair. He doesn’t just want to be the meanest, toughest gangster. He wanted to have style, wanted to dress elegantly. That makes him intriguing.”

(Photo from Cleveland State University's Cleveland Press collection.)

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Stories of People and Produce

Maury Feren is not your typical 94 year old. He’s as engaged, busy, and productive as when I first met him. That was 1993 and I interviewed him for a story that appeared in the Plain Dealer Sunday Magazine (remember when the PD had a real Sunday mag?). I admired his energy then, and I am even more in awe of it now. The guy’s had multiple careers and been successful at all of them. He spent thirty years as a wholesale produce merchant, started and ran a fruit basket company, published a guide to fruits and vegetables, and appeared regularly on radio and TV, eventually hosting his own shows. Not content to call it a day, Feren, nicknamed Cleveland’s Produce King, just self-published his autobiography.

Called Wheeling and Dealing in My World, (Windjammer Adventure Publishing, $15.95) it is the classic American story of a self-made man and a true Cleveland tale. He talks about neighborhood life as the child of immigrant parents in the early years of the 20th century, the Depression, and his service in World War II. It’s sure to evoke memories for others who grew up here around the same time and those who like him went off to fight in Europe. But the heart of the book is the collection of behind the scene stories from the produce business and the characters that populated the Northeast Ohio Food Terminal where he worked. It was a tough world filled with rough men willing to sweat- and fight- for every dollar. The last section of the book reprises his anise to watercress primer with tips on selecting, storing, and using fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs.

The book is intensely personal and idiosyncratic; a sort of extended conversation with the man and the voice is pure Feren. What he’s written is a memory collection, a love note to his wife, and a long thanks to mentors, friends, and all who helped him along the way. The author will be signing copies of his book this Sunday, May 9 at Miles Farmer’s Market from noon to 4 PM, and on Tuesday, May 11, at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, at 7 PM.

Monday, May 3, 2010

ESPN's Chris Broussard seems to think LeBron is staying

Forget the Elbow. Following LeBron's Game 1 performance and the Sunday afternoon love fest during which the league's top player accepted his second-consecutive MVP award, talk has once again turned to what'll happen to LBJ when the 2009-2010 season is over. writer Chris Broussard seems to be sold on the idea that LeBron will be wearing wine and gold when the 2010-2011 NBA season tips off in the fall. Aside from the fact that LeBron would leave $30 million on the table by packing his bags, Broussard says it makes no sense to stage a public ceremony focused on loyalty like the one that happened at the University of Akron's Rhodes Arena on Sunday if in a few months you are going to walk away from your team and a city that loves you.

Sure, LeBron used the obligatory "No matter what might be ahead for me, this will always be my home" line he first unveiled at the start of the season, but he also talked a lot about loyalty. And let's face it: Being loyal to Akron means being a Cleveland Cavalier.

If you weren't there, here's what happened ...