The writer Andrew Friedman declares he’s no foodie. “I’m a chefie. I’ll talk to a young cook, even one no one has heard of, and listen to their life story for two hours.”
That is what Friedman did a lot of for his new book, “Chefs, Drugs and Rock & Roll: How Food Lovers, Free Sprits, Misfits and Wanderers Created a New American Profession” (Feb. 27). He also listened to the stories of many influential chefs, famous and not, about how they transformed their profession in the 1970s and ’80s into a respected, creative, even celebrity career. In the doing, this generation of chefs also changed the country’s restaurants and cuisine irrevocably for the better.
How did you start writing about food? I got a job at a PR firm in New York City. All of a sudden I was representing Alfred Portale at the Gotham Bar and Grill, Marcus Samuelson at Aquavit, and Rocco DiSpirito at Union Pacific. I started to become friends with all these people. I ended up coauthoring the “Gotham Bar and Grill Cookbook,” which I thought would be a lark, but . . . did great. That was 30-some books ago.
What inspired you to write your book? For all that has been written about American food and how it changed, no one had told the story of this profession. Before celebrity chefs and the Food Network, how did this become a viable profession in this country? Most people don’t remember how frowned upon being a chef was. It was like someone telling his middle-class parents, “I want to be a coal miner.” Jody Williams, who has Buvette in New York City, tells a funny story about when she told her father, “I have two bad pieces of news. I’m gay and I want to be a cook.”
Who are some of the trailblazers people have forgotten? There was a group of five couples that had restaurants in New York. They all opened in 1979. One of those couples had Chanterelle, David and Karen Waltuck, and another had The Quilted Giraffe, Barry and Susan Wine. All these people were self-taught. Those five couples were very influenced by the nouvelle cuisine, and they were doing some of the most exciting food in the city. The notion that five couples with no training or professional experience among them could open restaurants in New York, that would be laughable today.
A name I’ve known forever but isn’t remembered the way it deserves to be is Larry Forgione. He used to go sit in the library at James Beard’s house and look at books with Beard to get ideas for dishes at The River Café in Brooklyn. In addition to pioneering this modern American food, Forgione [pioneered] finding sources for food, calling all over the US. There was no Internet or FedEx. The River Café would send a van to the airport to pick things up. That is so taken for granted now. A lot of chefs like Forgione came back from working in France and couldn’t understand why they didn’t have the same products available in the kitchen.
How much did France make American chefs possible? The French nouvelle cuisine movement was a more personal, expressive style of food. People began to see cooking as more than a craft, as more of an art. Larry Forgione worked for Michel Guerard in France, one of the top nouvelle cuisine chefs. That freed Larry’s mind enough to come back to the states and start applying French technique to his vision of a new cuisine, which became an American cuisine. A lot of stuff flows from nouvelle cuisine.
Do you think most people realize what an important role Los Angeles played? I feel like both LA and Wolfgang Puck have been sold short. He’s a brilliant cook yet he’s rarely spoken about that way. He’s spoken of as the first celebrity chef. He’s able to execute multiple concepts successfully and one of the first people to do that, to open Spago and then Chinois in Santa Monica, his take on Chinese food. Nobody did that before him.
Have San Francisco chefs gotten too much credit for California cuisine? They didn’t steal the show but there’s such romanticism around Berkeley and Chez Panisse came to symbolize that. Also, whoever keeps their restaurants going the longest goes in the history books. Chez Panisse still thrives. Chez Panisse was a bit of a frustrating topic. Countless people revere that restaurant and Alice [Waters] but there’s a whole other shadow population in the industry who feel its reputation has been inflated, but no one would go on the record.
What did you learn that surprised you? I didn’t realize how little barrier there was between writers and chefs then. Now there are assistants and publicists. Back then these people were all part of this new food movement. Ruth Reichl in California was very forward thinking in how she covered chefs. To write about the opening of Michael’s in Santa Monica, she spent a year hanging out there. She went on the road with Wolfgang for a week to write a profile. Nobody was writing about chefs like that.
You don’t write much about Boston chefs, but didn’t they play a role? There was a fair amount going on in Boston for the era: Lydia [Shire] and Jasper [White] plus people like Jody Adams, Gordon Hammersley, Todd English, Madeleine Kamman with her school/restaurant, and Julia Child in the background. Ultimately I needed to focus on a concentrated group of people to keep the narrative compelling. There were painful cuts, probably more about Boston than any other city.
In the end, which coast had more influence? It’s a tie. To me that’s one of the big lessons of the book. I was speaking to someone who worked at The River Café who had seen the documentary about Jeremiah Tower and said The River Café was far more important than Tower’s Stars. I told him, “What you guys all need to figure out is that you all mattered. You need to quit competing about it.”
Why did you end the book in 1993? There’s a moment at the end where everyone goes to Blue Ribbon brasserie on Sullivan Street at night. Bobby Flay, Daniel Boulud, Jean-George Vongerichten, they each had only one restaurant and they all had just come from cooking there. They all thought they had arrived, but that was the end of a time period. They never had time to spend like that again. Every industry has this moment when a small nucleus of people break this new ground together, and then it gets bigger than all of them.Amy Sutherland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.