‘Most Influential’ Food-Wine Critic John Mariani To Address Other Influential Journalists At New York Produce Show’s ‘Connect With Fresh’ Luncheon
Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, December 1, 2014
Located in the media capital of the world, The New York Produce Show and Conference serves the interests of the trade by running a substantial media outreach program. The program has various aspects. One element serves financial journalists interested in the business of produce. Another aspect serves journalists with culinary, shopping or homemaking interests. A final element is an outreach to consumer influencers of non-traditional types, such as those who blog, tweet or maintain Facebook presences speaking about food, restaurants and how people should eat.
The umbrella under which these media/consumer influencer programs function is called “Connect with Fresh.”
At the center of the program is a Media Luncheon. In the past we have had keynote speakers such as Florence Fabricant, Sara Moulton, Maricel Presilla. This year, we are honored to host the noted author, John Mariani. By a fortuitous circumstance, pundit sister publication PRODUCE BUSINESS has a Contributing Editor — and noted author himself — by the name of Paul Frumkin. Paul is a CIA-trained chef and has known John for many years and so we asked him to fill us in about Mr. Mariani and talk to him about his take on today’s New York food scene:
For the past 35 years, author and journalist John Mariani has traveled the world writing about food, wine, restaurants and culture. A columnist for Esquire magazine and Bloomberg News, Mariani has covered everything from the rise of nouvelle and American cuisines to the best pizza in Naples, the best barbecue in Texas and just about everything else that impacts restaurants. Over the last three decades he has been responsible for selecting the Best New Restaurants of the Year for Esquire, and for the past five years, he has written a wine column for Bloomberg News. He also publishes a weekly blog, Mariani's Virtual Gourmet Newsletter.
Called “the most influential food-wine critic in the popular press” by the Philadelphia Inquirer, Mariani began his writing career in 1973 with an article that appeared in New York magazine. Since then he has written numerous articles and books. His first book, The Dictionary of American Food & Drink (Ticknor & Fields, 1983), was celebrated as the “American Larousse Gastronomique” and was chosen “best reference book on food for 1983” by Library Journal.
His other books include Eating Out: Fearless Dining in Ethnic Restaurants (Quill, 1985); Mariani's Coast-to-Coast Dining Guide (Times Books, 1986); America Eats Out (William Morrow, 1991); The Four Seasons: A History of America's Premier Restaurant (Crown, 1997; revised 1999); Vincent's Cookbook (Tenspeed Press, 1995), with chef-restaurateur Vincent Guérithault; The Dictionary of Italian Food & Drink (Broadway Books, 1998); Grilling for Dummies with Marie Rama (IDG Books); and his latest book, How Italian Food Conquered the World (Palgrave-MacMillan, 2011).
Recognized as one of the country's pre-eminent food writers, Mariani will be a speaker at New York Produce Show's “Connect With Fresh” media luncheon at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, on December 3.
Esquire and Bloomberg News
Q: What are some of the most notable changes that you've witnessed in the restaurant industry over the course of your career?
A: The major and most important shift in both American and global cuisines is the availability of better ingredients and more variety. The fact is, 30 years ago you couldn't get wild mushrooms of any kind. Now you can get everything — chanterelles, shiitakes, portobellos … as well as balsamic vinegar, truffles, fresh foie gras, extra virgin olive oil and all of the products that come in from Asia. That changed everything. You can't cook well without good ingredients.
Also, I would say the willingness of American chefs to adapt and invent has had a striking effect on kitchens everywhere. By being open-minded, young American chefs were willing to travel and learn and express their own American exuberance, whereas cuisines of other countries often stultified, and had little reason to change until American chefs led the way.
Q: How has the use of fruits and vegetables on the menu evolved?
A: We're seeing a lot more variety. Who would ever have heard of kale 15 years ago, or Broccolini? The wide varieties of squashes you can get now, or radicchio, simply weren't available outside of Europe, and even then that was regional. Now you can get available products with 24 hour’s notice and shipped fresh. And any American chef can just go to FedEx and get Dover sole in its prime as opposed to 4-days-old.
Q: Have you noted many changes at vegetarian restaurants during your career?
A: I don't think vegetarian restaurants in the United States have changed much, except to become more varied. Greens in San Francisco said it all. You can eat vegetables that are stunningly delicious. The big news is that many restaurants in France now have vegetarian sections or vegetarian tasting menus that once would have been unthinkable outside of a sanitarium there.
Q: What are some of the most significant trends you've observed lately?
A: If I speak to members of the media who don't get out that much, they would like you to believe that there is a “Brooklynization” effect on a wide scale. That means brick walls, exposed pipes, no tablecloths, waiters in T-shirts. But there have always been restaurants across the country like that. They've just come to the fore. It's also that the media has fallen in love with the hipster attitude of food.
Also, for those who say people are cutting back on protein, I say not around here! There's been a tsunami of new steakhouse openings in the last year. Ten expensive prime steakhouses have opened in New York City alone. It's astounding. Those places are packed with diners willing to spend $50 for a slab of protein, and there's not a vegetable to be found on the plate.
Meanwhile, more American restaurants are offering vegetarian selections and are getting gutsier and more calorie-rich and robust than ever before.
Q: What are some of most innovative produce-based dishes you've tasted lately?
A: Everybody seems to have kale now. But it's not innovative anymore. I've seen vegetables chopped like Cobb salad and roasted in a ceramic dish — cooked vegetables that have lots of spices and seasoning and cheese that make them palatable and delicious.
Q: What dishes or ingredients do you think are overdone?
A: Beets and goat cheese, certainly. They're on every menu everywhere from here to San Francisco. They're passé.
Also, pizzas are on a lot of menus they shouldn't be on. And tilapia is a joke.
Farm-raised salmon is almost ubiquitous and not very good. And non-American-raised lamb. People get lamb from New Zealand, which is a slap in the face of the farm-to-table movement ... which itself is a farce. It's admirable but nearly impossible to do and egotistical to think you can do it all year-round.
Q: Is it more difficult to be creative with produce than protein?
A: The contrary is true, because vegetables in and of themselves have very little flavor without being toyed with. You have to be creative. You need to add texture, nuts — anything to spike them up. Chefs from India have known this for centuries. Let's face it — nobody wants to eat okra on its own.
Q: What is the difference between Baby Boomers and Millennials when it comes to dining out?
A: The Millennials have the attention span of a fruit fly. They're the ones who are lining up to get a cronut. They follow fads and want to get into the latest hipster restaurant. They care what Gwyneth Paltrow says about food, and follow all the food shows on TV.
Baby Boomers, on the other hand, were the ones who discovered that dining out and food and chefs were wonderful. We went to Spago and Gramercy Tavern, while Millennials go to hipster restaurants and wind up spending the same amount of money.
Q: What changes can we expect to see in restaurants in the future?
A: I am very optimistic that not only will fine dining not go away in the future... but you'll see more restaurants that are all about the fine-dining experience — those that pay real attention to every detail and make people feel special and pampered. That ain't going way.
Restaurants agreeing that amenities like tablecloths and wine glasses have to be the best, servers must be nicely dressed, the bartender knows how to make a classic cocktail... Those standards haven't radically changed.
Q: What changes would you like to see?
A: I would like to see better-trained, more appealing waitstaff. I want to see a reduction of noise from unspeakable, ear-shattering playlists to the pleasant hum of people dining out. Possibly the worst thing that has happened at restaurants is the introduction of the chef's personal play list. It's the worst thing.
Q: What are your favorite types of restaurants?
A: James Beard used to say the ones where he's treated best. The fact is most people return to the same six restaurants. My favorites are the ones where I'm treated well, love the food and am not surprised by anything garish.
Q: What's your take on Superfoods?
A: I really haven't been paying any attention to them.
Q: What do you think of the trend of chefs opening multiple restaurants?
A: I think it makes good business sense, but dilutes the product. A few chefs can do it. Alain Ducasse is in control of his restaurants; Michael White has done it so far, too. But in most other cases, it really just comes down to management contracts. You throw a general manager in, and it is what it is.
But everybody's favorite restaurant is where they see a familiar face like the owner or chef or maître d' who has been there for 20 years. It really makes an enormous difference. If I walk into a restaurant where the owner has no plans to be there, it just isn't the same.
It's like going to a Broadway show and seeing the understudy is on that night and paying the same $100 for tickets.
Q: Do you think that farmers are the new celebrities?
A: I wouldn't go that far. Seriously, names like Mario Batali and Tom Colicchio bounce around in peoples' heads, but how many farmers can you name?
So many trends get started in the restaurant scene in New York that growers, distributors and restaurateurs would be foolish to not keep a careful eye on the trends.
Of great importance, though, is how these trends will translate into the lower-price-oint zone that feeds most of America. In fact, the restaurants of scale can’t just go to FedEx and pick up fresh Dover Sole because the price point is beyond reach.
Tilapia may well be a culinary “joke,” but the Nielsen Perishables Group says it accounts for about 25% of all “finfish” sales in supermarkets.
One key question for public health: How can we take booms of interest, as with kale, and turn these into opportunities to increase produce consumption? All too often, an increase in interest in kale simply means that spinach gets removed from the menu and replaced by the hot vegetable, but the net effect on consumption is zero.
It is good for the industry and the media to hear Mr. Mariani’s tell-it-like-it-is approach when it comes to things such as the boom in steakhouses. All too many in the industry and the media treat the rise of produce – because of its health and environmental attributes -- as inevitable. But the reality on the ground is different, and those who want to see a more plant-based diet have a lot of work to do.
The Connect with Fresh program and Mr. Mariani’s presentation are only open to registered members of the program. But these types of efforts are part of the broader eco-system of The New York Produce Show and Conference.
The student program, the culinary program, the university interchange program, the Global Trade Symposium, the “Ideation Fresh” Foodservice Forum, the Perishable Pundit’s Thought Leader Breakfast Panel, the Regional Tours …. even the Opening Cocktail Reception all are part of a larger effort to create a place for the industry to advance, to exchange ideas, build connections, and simply become better. Having brilliant authors and attentive journalists all focused on produce is a win for us all.
Please come and join us, you can register for the event right here.
If you need a last-minute hotel, just let us know here.
Don’t forget The Global Trade Symposium on Tuesday, ask about it here.
And the “Ideation Fresh” Foodservice Forum here.
We have five regional tours you can sign up for here.
Come by plane, train, bus, subway or walk, but come join us in Celebrating Fresh at The New York Produce Show and Conference.