When I auditioned for "Hell's Kitchen" three and a half years ago and didn't make the cut, I never imagined that a few years later I would end up as a guest dining on the set of the love-to-hate chef's reality TV restaurant in Culver City, Ca. with a renowned California chef. At the time of my audition, holding the dubious distinction of being the first restaurant critic in the state of Florida to be sued for having an opinion may have precluded me from becoming a contestant, but it certainly didn't stop me from taking the opportunity to become the Gordon Ramsay of food critics a few years later. "Sweet dreams are made of these" as Annie Lennox once sang.
Drum roll and a little background. Enter chef Josiah Citrin.
Josiah and I met in the Louvre back in 1987. I had left the cruise industry (for the first time) and decided to take a year off and bought an around the world trip ticket to rethink my life plan. I got as far as Paris. Dressed like Maddie Hayes' character from "Moonlighting", I had no business parading around France with perfectly coiffed hair, high heels and a wardrobe that belonged more in New York than in Nepal.
I made (and still make) a terrible tourist; I almost deliberately miss the landmarks and highlights of every destination until the very last minute. I want to taste the raw ingredients of every country I visit by getting to know the people; I'm less interested in the finished "product". Seeing the Mona Lisa was no exception. Getting into the room where the famous painting hangs is like standing in line at Disney World for some ride. I hate standing in line and I don't go on rides.
Throngs of tourists were filing out as I tried approaching her from the opposite direction. Josiah (who was then 18) and his father were the only two people who noticed my desire to fight oncoming traffic. They parted like the Red Sea so I could make my way through. Twenty minutes later, satisfied that I could say that I had seen the Mona Lisa (but frankly thought to myself, "yeah, so?") I crossed paths with father and son while sitting in the cafeteria having coffee and minding my own business. They could have chosen at least a dozen tables to sit at alone. Instead they walked over to mine. Josiah's father Michel delivered the greatest pick-up line ever.
"Sorry I'm late," he said apologetically with a disarming smile.
"Don't do it again," I replied with equal charm.
We were off to the races.
Our relationship ended about a year later but Josiah and I were and are bonded forever. At the time, Josiah was peeling potatoes and carrots in a small restaurant for almost no money and returning to our apartment exhausted and degraded (by the chef) every night. Josiah was determined to be the "best chef" in the world. He had vision, will and determination. It paid off. Twelve years later, I read a review by John Mariani in Esquire magazine about a restaurant in Los Angeles called "JiRaffe" of which Josiah was the partner with his childhood friend, Rafael. I called to congratulate him and he informed me that he had just been voted one of Food and Wine magazine's best ten chefs in America in the upcoming July issue. He also told me he was coming to France and would like to see me. It just goes to prove that even when a relationship ends, it's always good to keep the friends.
Josiah had decided to branch out on his own and open a new restaurant. He brought his two sous chefs to France that summer and wanted them to learn firsthand that French kitchens operate completely differently than those in American restaurants. Translation: virtually every real kitchen in France is ruled with an iron fist by a temperamental chef whose job it is to break down every person who works in it until they understand that perfection can't be achieved, it's only something to strive for.
I was living in the south of France at the time supplying vegetables to the Gordon Ramsey of our region; a large, colorful chef named Bruno Clement. He has a booming voice, fierce temper, enormous appetite, secret sources for truffles and a very short fuse. A cross between Pavarotti and the Pillsbury dough boy, Bruno scares the pants off his staff and charms the customers that enter his hallowed one star Michelin establishment "Chez Bruno" in the village of Lorgues, France.
Bruno is a dear friend and I arranged for Josiah's sous chefs to live with us and do a "stage" at Bruno's restaurant for one month. Those boys came home defeated every night, feeling as if they knew nothing about cooking at all at the end of every service. I assured them they didn't but by the end of the month, they would know more. They did and they do, but not as much as Bruno and Josiah.
Fast forward to the present. Josiah has received numerous awards and the respect from publications such as Conde Nast Traveler, Food and Wine, Gourmet and Wine Spectator as well as patrons . His restaurant "Melisse" is a coveted Mobile 4-Star and Zagat award winning restaurant in Santa Monica. When Michelin decided to venture into the United States and award stars, two (out of a possible three) stars were awarded to Melisse. Bruno who?
I flew out to LA a couple of weeks ago and had my belated 50th birthday dinner at Melisse with a friend. We were treated to an extraordinary tasting meal that included:
Creamless creme of broccoli, with burrata cheese raviolini, argan oil
Egg caviar: poached egg, lemon chive, creme fraiche, and American osetera caviar. You dip the spoon in and find three layers of flavors exploding in your mouth.
Hamachi with potato blinis, leeks and salmon roe
Fennel flan with Valenica orange gelee and cashew froth. Yes, you can make froth from cashews. Who knew?
Foie gras three ways with dated confiture and tarragon. Pure bliss.
Seasonal vegetable salad with a pomegranate vinaigrette that turned the plate into an abstract painting when it was finished.
Truffle crusted Dover Sole fillet. Divine.
Wild Norwegian salmon (available for the first time in 25 years). Exquisite.
Liberty Farms Duck breast and confit with lentils, turnips and ruby red grapefruit. How duck should be made. (More about that in Part II)
Sonoma rack of lamb "persillade" with salsify and barley risotto
A selection of French cheeses
That these food were all splendidly paired with beautiful champagnes and wines goes without saying. There was dessert but I think I was too food drunk to enjoy more than one bite. My mind and palate had already exploded; I didn't need my stomach to do the same.
Josiah’s temper has calmed down (although several of his staff of 40 admitted that he still can yell with the best of them) even though his passion still remains. His kitchen runs like a well-oiled machine and the décor was inspired partially by my friend Bruno’s restaurant. Josiah is still a perfectionist (the butter plate was sent back twice when he saw that it wasn’t perfectly centered) and he watches everything like a hawk. He came out and sat with us through several courses as we discussed the merits and flavors of each dish. That I had sent clients from Paris to his restaurant the same evening (whom I had met earlier in the day) reminded him why we have remained such close friends. The perfume inventor and his wife were floored by their meal. Impress the French and you must be doing something right.
A couple of days later, while having dinner at Josiah's house with his lovely wife Diane and their two children, August and Olivia, Josiah asked me if I would like to accompany him the following day to a "Hell's Kitchen" taping where we would be among the dining guests. He thought I would get a kick out of critiquing the food with him. What he didn't tell me until we were driving to Culver City the next afternoon was that the winners of the most recent challenge had been in his restaurant with Gordon Ramsey the day before for a meal that was prepared by Josiah and was supposed to serve as an inspiration for their next menu, which we would be tasting.
They don't call it a challenge for nothing.
Tomorrow: Heading into "Hell's Kitchen".