Andrew Zimmern’s Sunday morning seminar at the Food & Wine Classic promised to cover “NYC’s French Favorites” over the course of an hour in Paepke Park.
That was at least half-true (or maybe a third accurate), as the chef and host of Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods” franchise and “The Zimmern List” crafted three dishes with roots in just as many different western European countries.
Zimmern began with moules poulette — an exact recipe from Louis Diat, the chef at the Ritz-Carlton in Manhattan who helped usher in an era of French culinary fanaticism in the mid-20th century — then followed it with two versions of schnitzel, one German and one Austrian. The first iteration came from from the kitchen of Lüchow’s German Restaurant, which opened in 1882 and operated for nearly a century; the second, the Austrian iteration, was whipped up to contrast the first with a method of preparation that might be more familiar to the audience.
Besides, Zimmern said, “old French food is just what the west fetishized for years.” His real intent was to revive foods from bygone eras at New York institutions, and to prompt the audience to think about the ways in which other cuisines, richly elaborate yet historically underrepresented in the culinary reverie, also could be appreciated and elevated through recipes.
Zimmern aims to do just as much with his work by bringing to the forefront foods that have long been “othered” in the cultural zeitgeist. His seminar wasn’t really about following a blueprint for restaurant-quality good eats in the home kitchen — not just, anyway.
“This demo is about what was lost … (and) it’s about what we do moving forward,” Zimmern said.
After a year and a half of pandemic-related challenges that have decimated the restaurant industry, recreating the menu items of old institutions is a way to honor the memory of those eateries long after their famed chefs moved on or their doors shuttered for good; it’s also a way to keep those still standing alive through turbulent times.
Zimmern asked the audience to “live in the moment” and appreciate the restaurants that remain open now.
“All these restaurants are gone, and the way to remember them is to cook from them,” Zimmern said.
But he also was providing a recipe for time travel, a way to be transported a few decades or a century into the past and pass down memories through flavors and techniques.
The schnitzel Zimmern prepared in a tent in Paepke Park could just as well have been served in the 1880s at Lüchow’s, he said; the 19th century diners may have quibbled over the presentation (sides and a main dish all on one plate rather than separated out) but the flavors would be the same.
Other familial foods can have the same effect, Zimmern said. His son never met Zimmern’s grandmother, but he has eaten her food through his father’s preparation of her recipes.
A hiccup or two in the preparation gave Zimmern a few opportunities to joke with the audience and improvise in the kitchen. No whisk? A small set of tongs will do. Stove turned off while hearing a pan of oil? A perfect opportunity to field questions from the audience.
“As I like to say, not a big deal,” he said. “This is just food.”
Yet the ideas behind it are worth so much more, Zimmern suggested.
Take away someone’s mixtape and you might get slugged, he said. But “if you take away rice and you take away bread, that is what revolution is made of.”