City of Gold: A Food Writer’s Portrait of Los Angeles

 

jonathan-gold-1In City of Gold we ride in the cab alongside Jonathan Gold as he cruises LA avenues pointing out small community cafés, strip-mall hideaways and taco trucks. The film is a splash of colorful plates we drink in with our eyes, it’s an audio mix of eighteenth century opera (Gold was trained as a classical cellist) and punk rock, it’s a sidewalk that shimmers in evening light where he parks his truck and climbs out to peer into a food wagon. We see kitchens big and small, some with woks ablaze, others with tattooed chefs serving up lamb bites, and toward the end of the film, even a hot dog off a grill in South LA. We watch him eat, sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of food writers, editors and novelists. We see him from the inside, from the point of view of the cook who takes his order, we see him sit at his dinning room table and watch his fingers meander aimlessly over a computer’s keyboard with an empty screen, we see books piled up on each stair all the way to the second floor of his modest LA home. The film tells the behind-the-scenes story of the cultural food mosaic hidden under LA’s bright sun, of the kitchens where immigrants carry out the full power of their culinary creativity, of the back-story of Jonathan Gold’s food writing as he procrastinates (though he publishes 150,000 words a year) by reading a book or two before he starts. It’s a film whose main purpose is to shine a very bright light on the power of the word.

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His words translate the cultural meanings of food, they map LA neighborhoods and their histories, they describe the dance of diversity that allows readers (and now, viewers) to see LA in an entirely different light, even though this documentary also grounds itself at one point under the huge white Hollywood sign on the hillside. While it illuminates the brilliance that won Gold the first Pulitzer Prize for food writing in 2007, City of Gold captures the tastes of LA so vividly you can almost smell them. It’s a full sensory experience.Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 10.05.58 AM

In a film as much about Gold as the LA Food scene, the narratives converge with great uplift at times. A review by Gold can rescue a small eatery from financial disaster, such as the Ethiopian restaurant Meals by Genet whose clientele fell off disastrously after 9/11. One review by Gold and it thrived. (But viewers are left to wonder about negative reviews.)

Gold’s environmentalists brother Mark, finally convinces him to help save endangered sharks. When he does, California passes legislation banning their sale. This is the text shown highlighted on the screen;

But as much as you may love conpoy, dried flotation bladders, crab eggs, braised fish cheeks and the other esoterica of Cantonese seafood cooking, it is hard to work up an appetite for the bitter taste of extinction.

In a year when Hollywood lost itself in glaring whiteness, City of Gold explodes with tastes and color and an unlikely hero who writes it all down.

The New York Times Says St. John is No. 4 on Top Places to Visit: And It’s Better At Concordia Eco-Resort

 

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By the time The Virgin Island’s Daily News carried the front-page story from the New York Times listing Coral Bay in St. John no. 4 on its 52 places to go in 2016, we had already discovered the magic of the place. We were here to get far, far away, and very close to the sounds, smells and feel of a small Caribbean island. So we booked into a cliff-side eco-resort with screened tents, low lights, solar showers and unimpaired ocean vistas.

Getting There

After a flight from New York and a journey across 2 islands, we arrived at Concordia at dinnertime with grumbling stomachs and big appetites. Hot sun and sea breezes hit us on the deck of the ferry from St. Thomas to St. John. From Cruz Bay the open-air, Soca-blasting taxi hugged steep cliffs along the coast road—at times the wide truck body occupying both lanes of the narrow mountain switchbacks. When oIMG_4319ur rolling adventure descended back down to sea level, views of the perfect Coral Bay crescent shimmered in the sunlight. Back up the hill we continued on to the eastern reaches of the island.

After checking in at Concordia and leaving bags in our eco-tent—all the while marveling at the stunning seascapes from seemingly every point on the property—we headed straight for food.

Open Mic Night

By some cosmic good fortune it was Monday night at Cafe Concordia; open mic night—misnamed because the local musician who host the night, John “Johnny B” Bullock and Lauren Magnee, are anything but amateurs. They play here with lots of friends once a week and are so accomplished they effortlessly jam with musical guests visiting the island.

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Café Concordia

We settled in at one of the high 2-tops that looked straight into the kitchen and perused menu offerings of appetizers and specialty cocktails, keeping an eye on the chef as happy hour segued into dinner against the rhythms of rock and soul. The chef’s name was Treva, and he moved in the kitchen with unruffled confidence, managing sauté pans on open flames, pulling roasted fare out of the oven, and ladling generous portions of rice from aDSC_0211 huge pot. The low sun cast long rays of light across Salt Pond Bay, through the dining room, and straight into the kitchen. Treva hit the bell for each dish in sunglasses. Without them the old-fashioned paper tickets would have been back lit and unreadable.

So good was the food and varied the offerings, I was eager to find out more about the café and the people who created this extraordinary delight in a remote corner of the Caribbean. I got a sense of it when Joe Feraco the manager, ended the evening by thanking each of the staff by name. They worked together as a team, that much was clear. And Joe was not a stand-around kind of guy; he bused tables and worked the floor every night we were there, taking a seat only after most of the guests had walked off into the star-filled night.

Joe Feraco, hands-on manager of Cafe Concordia

Joe Feraco, hands-on manager of Cafe Concordia

Everything about this place was as surprising and extraordinary as the musicians and the food.

The Chef

When I got a few minutes to chat with Treva, he told me he was cooking for roughnecks on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico when he got a call from his friend Kim, who organizes Concordia’s daytime food and beverage. She told him Joe was looking for a new chef.

Treva’s first job in a restaurant was washing dishes. Then he moved on to waiting tables and ended up at Arnauds in NOLA setting Bananas Foster aflame. My guess is he would have stayed in the Crescent City, even with the steep competition for all positions food related, but as he said, “Katrina happened.” Migrating north like so many, he eventually ended up in the kitchen of the Chicago Marriott, where he learned from a talented team how to deliver massive amounts of specialty meals at break-neck speed. There he added sashimi to his growing culinary repertoire.

Concordia General Manager Wayne Lloyd and his wife Roxanne  dining at the Cafe Concordia

Concordia General Manager Wayne Lloyd and his wife Rosanne dining at the Cafe Concordia

 

Chef Treva Porche's Beef Tenderloin Tower with Potato Galette

Chef Treva Porche’s Beef Tenderloin Tower with Potato Galette

Watching Treva serve up Shrimp Creole, Po’boys, red beans, rice and Andouille sausage, I wondered how such southern classics came to share the menu with Tamarind Chicken Wings, Tempura Coconut Shrimp and Beef Tenderloin Tower with Potato Galette. Treva told me he came from the deep south, a Louisiana parish called Terrebonne – he spelled it for me. Googling it I saw what he meant. It’s a little outpost sitting on the edge of the gulf coast. His time in New Orleans

Roasted Beet Salad with tomatoe, fresh mozzarella, balsamic reduction, and Josephine's local organic greens

Roasted Beet Salad with tomato, fresh mozzarella, balsamic reduction, and Josephine’s local organic greens

had been a later stop on his culinary journey—the tastes and smells of southern cuisine had left an early craving on his pallet.

 

 

 

There is much more to be said about the character and attitude of this island hideaway. And the rest of Concordia Eco-Resort is as creative, innovative and satisfying as the Café. I’ll tell you about all of it in future posts.

Salt Pond Bay is a short hike down the hill from Concordia Eco-Resort and is wonderful swimming!

Salt Pond Bay is a short hike down the hill from Concordia Eco-Resort and is a wonderful place to swim!

Hiking California’s Anza Borrego Desert in Bloom

 

DSC_0972We got our first glimpse of Anza Borrego winding down the steep 7-mile grade of Banner Pass that takes you from the mountains to the desert floor. The blooming desert lilacs shed a light blue hue over the surrounding hillsides as we descended. It was the middle of March, the time when wildflowers create fields of color at the base of the mountains, DSC_0126and grab your attention as you hike in the many canyons on a quest to see the desert in bloom.

Arriving in the late afternoon, we took a swim in the hotel pool and ate an early dinner on the veranda. The fronds on the tops of the tall palms rustled in the breeze that

One of five refreshing pools at La Casa Del Zorro

One of five refreshing pools at La Casa Del Zorro

cools the hot daytime temperatures of the desert. There are few pleasures lovelier than sitting in that breeze with a cold drink at the end of a long, hot, arid day.

When I told my friends we were going to the Anza Borrego Desert for spring break, no one knew where that was. Not surprising for Northeasterners. After all, it lies east of San Diego and is part of the Senora desert ecosystem, all the way across the country and an hour or 2 away from a major airport.

Blooming Brittle Bush and Beavertail Cactus on the way to Big Spring in Tubb Canyon

Blooming Brittle Bush and Beavertail Cactus on the way to Big Spring in Tubb Canyon

I visited the place a couple times in college and wanted to share it with my partner who was born in Oxford, England and loves the sense of space not possible on a small island; only a large continent offers that. And a desert is full of space—especially this one. It’s big sky country too. Borrego Springs is one of only 9 international “dark sky” communities. The lights are muted and low and the effect is dramatic; at night the sky is alight with constellations.

Hiking on the many trails in this expansive 600,000 acres protected area reveals vast landscapes and stunning vistas. It is the second largest state park in the “lower 48.” (The 6 million arches of “forever wild” forest in Adirondack State Park makes it the largest publically protected area in the contiguous United States.)

A moment of Zen as hikers listen to the chattering desert wrens and the traveling waters of Big Spring in a desert Oasis.

A moment of Zen as hikers listen to the chattering desert wrens and the traveling waters of Big Spring in a desert Oasis.

But the experience of Anza Borrego is truly unique; an area called a desert, yet so full of life.

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Though they look real, these  horses are just some of the many fanciful animal sculptures by artist Ricardo Breceda in Galleta Meadows. His work turns Borrego Springs into a magical landscape.

Creating an Eco-lodge for Divers on Grand Cayman: Arie Barendrecht Knows How to Do It.

(author’s note: I covered Cayman for Frommer’s last year and found many wonders that didn’t fit in a guidebook! Here’s one.)

Arie Barendrecht has agreed to talk to me about what it takes to run his popular dive lodge, the Cobalt Coast on Grand Cayman, as a Green Globe certified ecolodge.DSC_0873

We sit in the shady breezeway of the lodge, perched on the iron shore of West Bay as the sun glistens on the sea. The Dutch-born owner with the piercing blue eyes pats the large three-ringed binder on the table. “This is my green book,” he says. The over-stuffed binder is filled with receipts, documentation, calculations, and all his notes about what he’s done to, what we might call—go green. After all, he’s been on the cutting-edge of earth-friendly initiatives on the island for years. He started recycling, using non-disposables, cutting energy use, and saving water long before others ever uttered the words, sustainable travel.

Cobalt Coast Diver Lodge, Green Globe Certified

We just get chatting and he jumps up to bid a guest a safe trip home and help load luggage into a van. Arie’s really an old fashion hotelier who seems to have a calling for hospitality. But for years he’s also been figuring how to overcome any number of hurdles to make this place green. He’s had to become an expert in what might seem to be mundane trivia like how to combine the best non-phosphate laundry detergent with fabric softner, because he says, “You know conditioners and whiteners don’t mix.” He’s not one to give up easily. He’s found a powered detergent that seems to do the trick. Who would have guessed such little things would make a big impact.

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After another break for Arie to greet new guests, he explains the complicated procedures of saving water by recycling and reusing every little drop, even drip water, and using it multiple times. He talks about changing incandescent bulbs at the inn with LEDs. This is not a cheap process; some cost as much as $13 a piece. Nor is he content to stick with the cold-feeling blue-light bulbs, now known to be missing the warm yellows of the light spectrum. The good ones are a bit more expensive, but he found them. On the bright side he says, the new bulbs last longer and he doesn’t have to walk around with the ladder as much as he used to. The light at the Cobalt Inn is warm and saturated, just like the sea and the overall feel of the place.

Changing light bulbs seems like a small step, but together, his small steps constitute a considerable lowering of energy use. Of course he is well aware that the shallow reefs of the Cayman Islands are particularly susceptible to the bleaching that comes with warmer water temperatures cause by climate change.

At times he does get discouraged about the problem of endless waste, but he usually DSC_0863finds a way to deal with it. Take for example paper recycling—there is none on the island, yet. He knows how much ink is in a phonebook and how toxic it can be, so he’s found a repurposing for old books and other paper by taking them to the local animal shelter where they are used again.

Recently the government of Grand Cayman recognized his efforts with a Governor’s Conservation Award. He and the staff of the inn sponsored an aluminum can recycling drive at the local Primary School. He describes working with the children and how motivated they get about the work. His example has inspired local gradeschoolers, as the award states, “to become lifelong stewards of the environment.”

 

I complain that the website doesn’t have any information about the award, and maybe it needs an update. But he’s a graceful European not given to boasting. He’s concerned with other things. Every detail of this cozy, ecoldge has been carefully planned, from the architectural design of the intimate 2-story structure with huge windows, to the imported Finish textiles that decorate the rooms.

Cobalt Coast Diver Lodge, Green Globe CertifiedAccommodations such as these with the upscale resort feel attract a wide range of clients and about a third of the guests are non-divers. As a Green Globe certified lodge, it is also a favorite of international travelers of the green persuasion.  I grill him on his many names given for the Cobalt Coast—an inn, a hotel an ecolodge, a resort, and tell him in my overconfident way, that he’s diluting his brand. I ask if he’s thought of settling on one description, but he gives me his knowing grin and shrugs. He cares little for such marketing nonsense. He knows what it takes to make it all come together in unconventional ways. After all, if he stuck to conventional ways he never would have tried, or succeeded, in passing the stringent certification standards required by Green Globe, something other have tried and failed to do. Arie wrote the book on green, or at least he put it together in a large green binder.

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A Farwell to HBO’s Treme: The Series About Post-Katrina New Orleans Brought Us Music, Food, & Friends

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Last night was the final episode of Treme after 3 seasons. The 5 final episodes, a shortened season 4,  aired in December and wrapped up some of the story lines. In an interview in New Orleans just before the premier of season 2, creator and executive producer, David Simon told me he needed 5 seasons to develop the characters and tell the story of post-Katrina New Orleans. There are no doubt multiple reasons for shortening the series, but 2 weeks ago he joked that HBO has an odd idea that their programming needs viewers. I’ve joked for some time, when asked what I’m working on, that I’m writing about the best TV series no one is watching. Treme is destined to become a cult classic, and may live a long and fruitful life in syndication. I hope so. This series deserves to be watched.

I have no doubt that we will continue to talk about the unique space the city of New Orleans occupies in American culture in a post-Treme television universe. The final song of the final episode expressed the sentiment I already feel; to Miss New Orleans.  I will miss this raucous indulgence in food and music (and other things).

Featuring food and music as major characters on television wasn’t easy, though they DSC_0031made it look that way. The variety of bands and performers, clubs and buskers that appeared on the program was a musical phenomenon in itself. Some of the most stunning sequences on Treme were performances shot on location at many of the smaller music venues, most outside of the well-known tourist spots on Bourbon Street. Frenchmen Street is currently the place to go for some of the most vibrant music and the jazz at Snug Harbor and other clubs took the program to creative realms wholly different from the confines of ordinary television. This kind of on-location TV that collects vast amounts of talented local musicians (and extras) is expensive and complicated to film and choreograph. Treme was quality television of the first order.

DSC_0314Many NOLA musicians appeared on the program, and their lives and music were major inspirations for key fictional portrayals on Treme. The character of Delmond Lambreaux (Rob Brown) is loosely based on New Orleans saxophone player Donald Harrison Jr., who like Delmond, divides his artistic life between the Big Easy and the Big Apple. Harrison is also the son of legendary Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr., long-time leader of the Mardi Gras Indian Tribe, Guardians of the Flame. Harrison consulted on costume design for Chief Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters)DSC_0076 and offered instruction on how to move in the magnificent suits that can weigh over 150 pounds.

There is so much more to say about the music, and the culture of Mardi Gras Indians, and I will linger there in future posts, but food also played a major role in evoking New Orleans DSC_0036as a place and a culture, and deserves a mention in this tribute.

Speaking at the 92 Street Y on December 13, 2013, David Simon and executive producer Nina Noble, explained how food is central to the unique identity of New Orleans. Just as music took the series to new creative heights, so did the presentation of food. In visually rendering New Orleans cuisine, its chefs and restaurants, the writers, directors and cinematographers advanced the art of presenting food on camera, and food took its rightful place in narrative drama.

There was much to learn about filming real food. The use of fake food would have been, well, fake. If scenes took too long, the dishes would have to be replaced. In the first few episodes shot in kitchens where dialogue and interactions were also occurring between characters, the camera focused on the people and the food sometimes didn’t make it on screen. But by the second-to-last episode when chef Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens) shares an extended moment with D.J. Davis (Steve Zahn) in her kitchen, the scene is an intoxicating blend of food and visual storytelling. The sequence ends when Janette offers Davis a perfect omelet for his 40th birthday. We see every aspect of her preparation and when she handed him the plate, I could almost smell it. Food as an extension of character and expression of emotion reached it full impact at that moment.

That December night at the 92 Street Y, one of the most renowned BBQ chefs in NOLA, the author and story editor for Treme, Lolis Eric Elie, joined in the discussion and talked about the important role New Orleans’ cuisine played in the series. He spoke lovingly about food, his family’s recipes, and the sense of identity that comes from cooking, from simple rice and red beans, to gumbo. If you’ve ever eaten in the city, you understand, and you will certainly miss New Orleans until you can get back for another plate of gumbo.

Related:

Mediating the Past: Treme and the Stories of the Storm

By Robin Andersen