You Want To Do What?

That’s pretty much the cleaned up version my dad said to me when I told him I wanted to go the CIA — the Culinary Institute of America. Ok I didn’t know how to boil water and yes I’m ashamed to say I never learned from my parents who were AMAZING cooks! So you would say along with dad, “you want to do what?” Let’s back track a bit — I went to a fancy private school in New York City, Horace Mann — which also happened to graduate a famous chef named Alex Guarnaschelli; then went to college in Boston at Brandeis University where I was graduated with a degree in Political Science and a minor in Philosophy. Not natural feeder schools (pardon the pun) for the CIA. Most of my friends went on to be lawyers and doctors and I wanted to go where? The CIA and become a chef; not a usual path for a Jewish girl from NY, we make reservations right?

I originally wanted to go to school in Switzerland, L’Ecole Hotelier in Lausanne, the premier school for hotel management — I wanted to be the next Leona Helmsley you see lol. So dad asked his friend Paul Kovi of the Four Seasons and Joe Baum to write a recommendation for me, because the only way to get in there was to have famous restaurant friends recommend you to the admissions board. First problem was that everyone had this advantage; problem the waiting list was super long; problem I was female; problem I was American and final problem I’d be almost too old by the time I got into the school – there was an age limit. Solution — go to the CIA first then Cornell after. So dad once again called in a favor and since he was a fellow and knew the president very well, they gave me a shot and I went off to become a chef.

On your first day you get your chef’s coat, stunning checkered pants, steel toed shoes and a chef’s hat and neckerchief. All had to be worn perfectly each day or you risked getting kicked out of class. Next they give you knives. A whole set of chef’s knives in all kinds of shapes and sizes. So I walk into class, knives in hand, crisp chefs coat on, itchy pants and really uncomfortable shoes and my Rolex which I always wore. First day I now become Rolex girl — so immediately I ditch that, get the standard Swatch worn through the button hole on my coat and try to blend in. Only problem here is that unlike all the others I couldn’t cook! Next I became known as band aid girl. I think at one point during the first week of classes I had a band aid on every single finger!

I think I worked harder here than ever in my life. This place taught me that I could do anything I wanted if I really put myself into it. And yes at times I was actually into it! Being a bit vertically challenged, that’s the PC way of saying short, I would often be coated in food. Kitchens are really made for tall people! I never backed down from a task, even when my partner got thrown out of the kitchen when we were on the busiest station. My classmates all rallied around and helped and I finished the sautee station in the “E-Room” our nickname for the Escoffier Room.

One day while in the wines class I had an epiphany and realized that I was meant to go into the wine business just like my dad. I no longer wanted to go to hotel school and really wanted to follow in dad’s footsteps. Once again “you want to do what” came out of his mouth. I had always told him that I would never do what he did and now look at me! Now flash forward to graduation. I accomplished all the tasks and classes at the CIA, escaped with minor burns and cuts and gained a full sense of what I can do if I put my mind to it. My amazing grandmother came to see me get my diploma. One of the pre-celebration highlights was taking her to the baking kitchen to see how they made the bread which she couldn’t stop eating. She was in awe and couldn’t believe how perfect each roll was. Grandma I said, they use a recipe, everything is exact and precise. She then responded with her typical “Recipe, who needs a recipe, I use a bit of this and a bit of that” and I said ” that’s why your baking never comes out right!”. If you remember my last blog about her baking, you now know she was not a baker! The joy on her face as I graduated was priceless. And the final surprise was that dad had asked our friend Kevin Zraly, yes that Kevin Zraly, who was also a fellow, to be the commencement celebrity for my graduation!

I now cook for my friends, who are the beneficiaries of my long ago culinary education. I loved cooking for my mom whenever I could; my gift back to her for all the year’s of her cooking for me. Dad, well he was a challenge on many levels and if he were here he’d tell you about the 3 pies I made for him and how they cost him thousands of dollars in culinary education! I never cooked professionally after the CIA but but there’s nothing I love doing more cooking for my friends. Again food, wine, friends the common thread in my blogs and what make me the most happy!

A Sweet New Year Filled With Food, Friends and Love

Happy New Year all whether you are Jewish or not, I’m wishing you all a sweet year to come. The week between the New Year and Yom Kippur is one full of celebration and reflection and of course food. It’s a time when we gather with our families and usher in the year with traditional foods many of which are sweet to usher in a sweet New Year; apples and honey, sweet rather than savory challah, honey cake. We anxiously eat a big feast before Kol Nidre, so that we fill our bellies in anticipation of the fast to come. We wish each other an easy fast and spend the next 24 hours in prayer, repentance and introspection. Sundown comes, the shofar blows and we all join our families for the large break-fast celebration usually filled with “appetizing” and spreads — lox, bagels, kugel, smoked fish salads and so much more.

Notice, food is a common thread, it is again the unifying force that brings us together in celebration. As someone whose parents are no longer here, I am very lucky to have an extended family of friends with whom I spend the holidays. I look back at the amazing meals mom made, having learned many of the recipes from my dad’s mom. My grandmother only knew as she would call it “Jewish food” and my mom learned from her how to make many of these wonderful traditional foods. I am lucky to have found a treasure trove of recipes written on index cards from my mom. Grandma never wrote down a recipe, she said “eh, who does that? I put a little of this and a little of that, cook it for as long as it needs to cook and then it’s done.” Her foods were never what you could call healthy, in fact salad she would say is for the animals; salad for was eaten only when you had appetizing foods and then it was just a slab of iceberg and if you were lucky it had a blob of russian dressing. Chicken fat or peanut oil were the cooking fats of choice and vegetables were never really the color they came from in the wild but rather all took on a grey hue since they were either from a can or just cooked until there wasn’t a nutritional drop left. Yet somehow it all tasted comforting and delicious and we never worried about calories or cholesterol!

For the New Year, dad, who learned from Grandma, would make the most decadent chopped liver. All the ingredients had to be warm he would say, that’s the key. The livers, only chicken, with onions fried in schmaltz, (yes dad would render his own) warm hard boiled eggs, all chopped by hand in a wooden bowl and seasoned to perfection. Here is the recipe

Of course there was chicken soup with matzoh balls, and I’m not sure who made it better, grandma, mom or now me. Grandma’s secret she would say was adding a marrow bone to give it the extra body — and of course chicken feet for that super rich taste. She’d search high and low for kosher chicken feet and towards the end of her years of cooking she gave up using them since it was almost impossible to find. Matzoh balls, light but still with body would sit in the middle of the most wonderful rich chicken soup adorned with carrots and “bissel” of dill and egg noodles. Mom carried on the tradition for me after Grandma and Dad were gone. Her soup was just as yummy and made with care. Her’s was a bit more fancy, very clear broth with beautifully cut carrots, added after the soup was done so they would still be crisp and fresh, and the lightest matzoh balls floating in the middle surrounded by egg noodles. I decided that I would treat myself and make my own batch to celebrate the New Year during the week. Here’s a picture. I can’t tell you the recipe because I cook just like Grandma, a bit of this, a bit of that, done like this and done when it’s done.

Grandma would always finish the dinner with her honey cake. She we all now admit, wasn’t the greatest baker, but her honey cake was always delicious. Her cookies, well that’s a tooth cracking story for another time, but honey cake was definitely worth eating. So tonight I thought I’d take a crack at making one since I have a friend staying here through the holiday. Friends since high school, reconnected over the past few years, and I can’t imagine not having this amazing lady in my life. So I baked us a honey cake so that we could celebrate the coming New Year with a delicious sweet as my grandmother and mother would have done. I put my own touches on it, it’s a bit fancier and boozier than Grandma would have made — for those who know me, bourbon is my thing so it’s laced with bourbon to give my touch. And well I guess this counts as the “drink” portion of this blog, lol.

Food unites us, we celebrate the good, the bad, with family, with friends over a meal. Food is nourishment for the body and the soul. I wish you all a happy, healthy and sweet New Year!

Wine, Food, Friends

After I left Frederick Wildman, I reached out to friends for guidance, insights and jobs. Some friends were friends of my dad’s, most were those I made along the way in my career. I called a friend of mine, who as am I, is a child of a parent who was in the industry (his dad is one of the most celebrated pioneers of our industry). He and I had a long talk. At the end of our conversation, he asked me if I thought of looking outside of the industry and I said in turn, “would you?” We both laughed and said an emphatic no.

I can think of no other industry where not only does our job center around wine and food, but so does our lives. In fact I can think of no other industry where it is so easy to make friends from all over the world. My mom used to remark, each time I went somewhere for vacation, that she was amazed that I usually said I had a friend there.

I am constantly reminded of how welcoming and friendly the wine and food world is. I just returned from an eye-opening trip to Brazil where I was hosted by Wines of Brazil to visit the wine scene. My invitation came via my good friend Waleska (a Brazilian living in Curacao and Venezuela). I met Waleska when we both worked with Trapiche in our respective countries. In fact I met many people through my working with Trapiche and am friends with many still today — folks from Venezuela, Spain, England, Ireland and of course Argentina. What a collection!

On this trip I was surrounded by other wine professionals from all around the world, and again we all bonded and became instant friends. At the end of the trip each of these new friends from Poland, Brazil, Russia, Ireland, England and Belgium invited me to come visit and I of course extended the same invitation to come to NY. We all bonded over our meals, enjoyed the wines and above all enjoyed meeting each other through the commonality of wine and food. I still laugh at the thoughts of the last evening when the wine flowed — of course we brought back bottles from the fair to share for later. As we are sharing and comparing and laughing, we were being served food that the Russians had brought with them. Yes, some how they packed a smoked chicken in their bags along with chocolate bars, and we feasted on them at our last evening together. Sharing culture, laughs, wine and friendship that’s how we spent our last night in Brazil.

My longest standing wine industry friendship is with Elena, whom I met when we were both teenagers. Our dads, both in the industry, worked together and also became friends. I can vividly remember spending time with Elena and her family in Rome and I still make sure that each time I’m in Rome I visit Campo dei fiori for my pizza bianco at Forno. During the summer, when all Romans flee the city, we went to their ancient house by the sea, where I can still taste the ripe tomatoes we’d have each morning for breakfast with fresh mozzarella. Elena, a fantastic artist who creates amazing installations, and I are still friends and I see her every time I am in Rome.

I would almost never approach a stranger in a restaurant or bar scene in my “civilian life”, but in the wine world I have no problem doing this. First night on the trip to Brazil at the welcome dinner, Waleska and I reached out to the table next to us and immediately we became friends. This crew — the English speaking group, took the party back to the hotel and continued bonding at the bar over what else, more wine — except for me, I had to have my palate cleanser which was a scotch.

Food and wine bring people and cultures together. In this industry we all have a unique bond in that we not only promote this concept to the consumer, but also benefit from it on personal levels. Nothing is more gratifying than sharing a great meal, served with great wines and conversation with friends. The wine world is a special industry for sure. We form lasting friendships based on our love of wine, food and life. Today I can count the countries in which I have “wine” friends, let’s see, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Curacao, Venezuela, Spain, Amsterdam, Switzerland, Belgium, Russia, Poland, Ireland, England, Scotland, Israel, Italy, France, (probably missing a few) and of course the USA. Wine and food are the bonding elements; we live it, we promote it, we share it and friendships evolve from it.

My Windows on the World

I used to travel a lot for work and pre-9/11 I remember that I would feel like I was home when I’d see the twin towers from the plane’s window. Post 9/11 it took some time for me to get used to not seeing the towers and knowing that as soon as I saw them it meant I was home. My birthday is September 10 and for the first few years it was hard to celebrate that day knowing what the next day meant. I finally got used to the idea of celebrating and knowing that we had to go on and not let “them” get to us and in our way of being alive.

This brings me to my thoughts and recollections of the famed Windows on the World restaurant. I just attended a get together for the new book called “The Most Spectacular Restaurant in the World.” The book which I haven’t read yet is a compilation of stories about the famed restaurant and the many characters who worked there and ran it.

To me and my family it was like home. We were regulars there and I even had the opportunity to work there for a few summer jobs which I’ll get into in a bit. Windows as we all called it was a sparkling fantasy land of food, wine and scenery. It glittered, it swayed, it sparkled and it enthralled all who went there. My dad with his passion for wine and food became friends with and a bit of a mentor to the famed wine personality Kevin Zraly. As I like to say, I knew Kevin before he was Kevin. Kevin would always let me and dad go to lunch at the club when only members could go. We loved the brunches in the main dining room and would always be escorted to our corner table which had a view where we could see the Statue of Liberty. I would bring friends up to the restaurant just to see the view because the staff would let me go into the closed banquet rooms where the best views of the city could be seen. It was a magical place to be sure.

One year my dad through his wine club called Les Amis du Vin, conducted a wine dinner in which we honored the famed Sam Aaron of Sherry Lehman fame. I wish I could remember the dinner and yes I should not have been there but it was a different time than today and things were not as stringent if you know what I mean. It was a bacchanalian feast, yes that was the theme and we even had our own Bacchus come in to lead the roast. Then there was another dinner which featured the famed Champagne afficianado and ambassador of all things Champagne, Robert Gordin. Robert created a spectacular champagne pyramid with baccarat glasses and then poured Dom Perignon from the top and we watched it cascade down into the glasses like a giant fountain. He topped that off by saboring bottles of DP which had everyone concerned that he’d blow out one of the windows!

While still in university, I spent a summer as Kevin’s wine school coordinator. Kevin ran the famed Windows on the World Wine School. Kevin was all educator and all showman, anyone who as ever taken his class knows this. No one in the business can educate a crowd and captivate them at the same time like Kevin. His book is his class on paper, but seeing him in action and learning from him first hand well, there’s nothing like it!

I even worked in the kitchen one summer while I was at the CIA. Now that was an experience! I had eaten there since the restaurant existed, but being behind the scenes was something else. Because it was so high up, they couldn’t pump the gas up that high and we had to cook on electric cook tops. In fact they were all flat tops which was totally different from what I had ever cooked on before.

Whether it was the main dining room, the small Statue of Liberty room, the Greatest Bar on Earth or the banquet rooms, Windows holds a special place in my heart. At this gathering for the book, we were surrounded by former chefs, captains, servers, sommeliers and family who had lost someone on 9/11. We all listened to the stories and some of us had our own on the side. Kevin put us right to work opening bottles of Champagne for the crowd so we could all toast those past and present and the memory of the Greatest Restaurant that ever was.

The Journey Begins – my life in food and wine

Thanks for joining me!

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

So who would have thought that at the age of 52 I’d be not only an orphan, but unemployed and living in a new home which was my old home! They say that some of the most traumatic things in life are the loss of a loved one; a change of career and moving. Well all of this happened to me within the space of a year! It would be really easy to wallow in self pity but I’m not really sure how to do that. Instead I’ve embraced the changes and have tried to greet each day with a smile. Sounds corny I know but it’s actually true and amazing how good you can feel with a sense of peace within.

What to write that’s the question and why. Well I think that it’s cathartic to write so that’s the first part. Second my journey began with food and wine and will continue with food and wine and I know that I have a lot to say!

Why FKDecanted? Francine Kowalsky (FK), Decanted an homage to my love of wine; and it’s me “exposed or decanted”. So travel with me through my love of wine, food and into a new life. I will talk about how my love of wine and food began; take you on journeys to some of the fantastic places I’ve traveled to in life and during my career in wine; delve into wine and it hope to decant some of its mysteries and wonders.