Every Dish a Story
By Kevin Foley
Shaw 91 opens the door of his Manhattan apartment and almost immediately
hustles back to the stove to check his bubbling pot of potatoes. The mushrooms
are sliced, the Parmesan grated, but his visitors gift of farmstead
Vermont cheese has him thinking. He peels off a sliver with a paring knife,
sniffs, and chews thoughtfully: This will work. Our meal
a teacup layered with cheese, sautéed mushrooms, mashed potatoes
with a just-cooked egg nestled on top is taking shape.
fair, spending the morning cooking dinner food was my idea. But honestly,
it didnt take any prodding. Shaw, whose nom de Internet is The
Fat Guy, made his passion his profession, dropping a flush career
as a litigator to become a food writer and, he writes in his first book
Turning The Tables: Restaurants from the Inside Out, subsidize a
restaurant addiction. Its done more than that. With uncommon
intelligence, rigor and wit, Shaw transformed a hobby into a solid niche
in one of the more glamorous and competitive journalistic arenas, enjoying
an envy-inspiring number of comped $300 meals in the process.
as his audience and opportunities enlarge, Shaw remains a populist (albeit
demanding) gourmand. Hes equally comfortable with a glistening carton
of Als French Frys as he is a seven-course procession of four-star
French. Shaw loves truffles, but his ur food is bacon or maybe
fish-and-chips. Shaws food criticism, like his taste, is wide-ranging
and provocative, whether he is systematically demolishing the ubiquitous
Zagat restaurant ratings for the Jewish intellectual journal Commentary
or offhandedly observing that McDonalds fries match the frites at
trendy Balthazar, but also sympathetic to the difficulties chefs and restaurateurs
face. Diners, too. His book aims to take the mystery out of restaurants
and help readers get the most enjoyment for their money.
the rollicking 20,000-member food discussion community Shaw co-founded
in 2001, lets top-shelf chefs, Food Network personalities, writers, and
regular folks freely exchange tips and barbs. The interplay makes eGullet
both a time sink of continental proportions and the single best place
on the Internet to find out what and where to eat. Shaw is at the center
of a shocking number of discussions; to date, he has contributed 17,910
all-hours discussion posts. Taken collectively, they display a bottomless
appetite and an almost comical range of erudition: A few of the subjects
Shaw is, or at least sounds, authoritative on include the Magnuson-Moss
Act, Chinese black vinegar, lox-freezing technique, birds beak paring
knives, and veal butchery.
appetizer, he explains, is his amalgam of two haute restaurant dishes:
a layering of root vegetable puree, white truffle, and egg from Alain
Ducasse and a haunting mushroom sauce by Jean-Georges Vongerichten. He
wants to suggest the complex voluptuousness of the original dishes
but without the $50 miniature cast-iron serving casseroles and fancy ingredients.
(The sad truth of food writing is that it provides a basically nonexistent
truffle budget.) But even the less-than-glam, a.m. version of the dish
has a story; with Shaw, theres always a story.
the meal, Jean-Georges starting telling me about this special wine that
they cook the mushrooms with, Shaw says. Intrigued, he pressed the
chef for its name. He was telling me, no, no you cant
buy it, they dont import it. There isnt even an English name,
Shaw says. And I was saying, but what is it, can I see the bottle?
chef took him back to the kitchen and produced a bottle of Juran vin jaune, and Shaw had to laugh.
Eight years earlier, he and his wife Ellen Shapiro, also a writer and
a 1991 UVM graduate, had taken a trip to France and gotten lost in the
remote northern countryside. They found a farm restaurant where the proprietors
regaled them with directions and lunch. They left with a few bottles of
wine, one of which they opened with great fanfare back at home. The
stuff was horrible! Shaw recalls. I thought they ripped us
off and we put the rest away and forgot about it.
Shaw discovered that the wine which smells like a weird combination
of sherry and plonk Chardonnay does something magical to mushrooms,
he uncorked the dusty bottle and froze the contents into ice cubes to
be dispensed like pharmaceuticals, one by one. Perfecting a downmarket
but still-exquisite take on the restaurant dishes requires more than wine,
though. In his quest to master the teacups for dinner parties, Shaws
experiments through multiple cooking iterations encompassed the proper
cooking and serving vessels, temperature and timing, the order of ingredient
strata, the logistics of removing cups from a crowded bath of boiling
water (hint: not with hands), and how to suggest the savor of the truffles
without paying $100 an ounce (enter the Parmesan, which Shaw says is rich
in the chemicals that produce the mouth-filling, savory flavor umami,
which the Japanese consider the fifth basic taste, after sweet, bitter,
salty, and sour.)
is for an appetizer.
drive is at the center of Turning the Tables, which attempts to explain
restaurants in 240 pages. Shaw wants to demystify everything: how the
food is grown, purchased, cooked, served, priced, and reviewed; how the
business is managed, decorated, promoted, and operated; and how customers
can get the table, meal, or sushi they want. He also throws in commentary
about the future of restaurants, food criticism, and more. For a writer
with less intelligence, energy, and humor, the book would be a sodden
mess; instead its fun, helpful and has enough heft that the New
Yorker included it pre-publication in a survey of contemporary food criticism.
the Tables is in many ways my answer to Kitchen Confidential, Shaw
says, referring to the biting bestseller by Tony Bourdain that reveled
in shocking tales of bacteria bubbling in hollandaise sauce, forlorn Monday
fish specials, and untoward use of supply closets. My book is a
celebration of restaurants.
acquaintance with restaurants began in childhood, as he and his father,
Peter Shaw, a prominent literature professor and social critic, made the
rounds of New Yorks delis, diners, and Chinese places. The elder
Shaw, whom his son writes analyzed menus with the same intellectual
rigor he applied to the great books, was his sons guide, teacher
and co-conspirator, the kind of man who had diner dishes named after him
and ceremoniously offered favored waiters special tips at the holidays.
(Shaws mother, an intellectual and a superb cook, was his first
cooking instructor.) The food they ate and discussed together was simple,
but deeply influential.
know how a person and cow are separated by only a few genes? he
says. Its like that with restaurants. Every restaurant is
the same species, its just that there are a few little genetic things
that differentiate a fancy French restaurant from a diner.
culinary education accelerated during law school, when he made a fortuitous
discovery about a computerized matching system that arranged student interviews
with law firms. Shaw got the offer he wanted (from Cravath) during his
first meeting, but he didnt stop interviewing. When I found
out that every interview consists of getting taken out to lunch at a fancy
I went to all 50, he says. Between the 50 free
lunches and an expense-account tour of restaurants citywide as a young
lawyer, Shaw rapidly developed a sophisticated culinary knowledge.
from the shining glory of lunch time, life as a 3,000-billing-hour litigation
associate at a white-shoe firm leaves a lot to be desired if youre
interested in living life, anyway. The first danger sign came the day
after his honeymoon, when Shaw received a 6 a.m. call with a seven-week
assignment in Delaware. Things got worse from there, and when his father
died a year later, Shaw dwelled on how his work had separated him from
his loved ones.
In my recalculation of the meaning of life after the death of my father, which sounds very straightforward but in fact took me a long time to even figure out what I was doing, even though it was obvious to everybody else, I started thinking about the long term, Shaw says.
the thing about litigation, as a young guy, it was a lot of fun, it was
a testosterone rush. Ive never competed much in sports, so for me
it was like a sport. But if you stayed with it, you would be doing it
until you were 65 years old. You dont grow out of it, you grow into
more of it. He was out of Cravath and into a smaller law firm in
he worked as a litigator, Shaw had simultaneously begun writing food essays
and reviews. When he struck out with the mainstream media, he began publishing
himself on the Internet, launching www.shaw-review.com in early 1998.
The site attracted an audience, slowly at first and then instantly when
The New York Times praised the 200 reviews and opinions about every
bite and generated a surge of traffic his Web host initially confused
with a hackers attack. Shaw fed on the attention and used his growing
name-recongition in the New York restaurant world to grab new opportunities
of my compulsive personality is that I have this thirst for information
I want to know everything there is to know about a particular discipline,
he explains. I just got more and more into food and it has constantly
fed on itself and never stopped. When it got to the point where as a lawyer
I had eaten at all the top restaurants many times and I had that set of
knowledge, I started working in kitchens and hanging out with chefs and
getting behind the scenes because I kept wanting to learn.
curiosity, and its expression in Shaws part-time, after-hours Web
writing, began leading to paying gigs, including a 1999 polemic in the
online magazine Salon titled Fat Guys Kick Ass. The piece
which begins, Im a fat guy always have been.
Im not big-boned
I dont carry it well,
inspired a huge response from readers, most directed to Dear
Fat Guy. Shaw now had a moniker and a sense of moment. Meanwhile,
life at the new firm was much like life at the old one, except less interesting.
later, Shaw still worries about the rent but is beginning to come into
his own, publishing his first book, and selling his second, the humorous
The Fat Guys Manifatso. He hopes to continue like that for a while,
alternating serious projects with humorous ones and continuing the transformation
of the eGullet site from a forum into a nonprofit public charity advancing
the culinary arts with detailed online classes and offline scholarships.
Maybe he will collaborate more with wife Ellen Shapiro, a professional
photographer and author of four books.
extends his professional range, though, Shaw says hell never leave
restaurants behind. For him, they are microcosms of culture, places where
urban people go to play out little dramas of romance, status, social interaction,
and politics. He doesnt see getting bored by those multiple dimensions,
or the constant struggle to capture them in well-chosen words.
an interesting challenge to write about restaurants and food, he
says. Its very different from reviewing books, where youre
writing words about words: writing about food is uniquely challenging
because you cant actually communicate taste in words. Everything
is symbolic and metaphoric, and meanwhile you have to tell a story that
is interesting to people. Its hard, and I like that.
TO THE TABLE
table finally a tap of the fork releases the egg yolk, covering
the potatoes in a velvety saffron wave. Richness envelops richness, egg
mingles with earthy potato, and underlying everything are the mushrooms,
their meaty taste mysteriously amplified by the funky wine. The cheese
is back there somewhere, adding its tang to the mélange. Three
bucks worth of ingredients, hours of skilled experimentation and a great
anecdote combine into something delicious and resonant.
We eat silently. The story is told, a whole world in a teacup.
to Dine and Why
argues that a four-star meal costs less than Super Bowl tickets and football,
unlike the meal, is better enjoyed on TV. The meal costs far less
than any similarly coveted cultural event, he says. So eat
the dinner and watch the game. But getting a great dinner doesnt
require a two-Benjamin outlay. Shaw offers these tips for getting the
most for any dining dollar:
lunch. Many famous restaurants are quite reasonable for lunch, especially
if you save alcohol for later. You can go to Jean-Georges and have
lunch its now $32 for two courses and dessert, less than
$50, he says. A cab driver can afford that lunch, and some
of them, Ive found, do.
for spin-offs. High-end restaurants are often affiliated with lower-priced
cafes. The room and food is less fancy, but eating at the café
often means getting the same raw ingredients and talented staff for a
research. Newspaper food sections, books like the Zagat Guides and
specialized culinary sites like www.egullet.com and www.chowhound.com
offer opinionated takes on an areas restaurants. Search engines
are well-suited to finding more out about a specific restaurant. Dont
neglect human sources, either. When a car breakdown trapped him in Utah
over a long weekend, Shaw became a reluctant Olive Garden regular. Through
friendly chats with the staff (and a focus on bread sticks), Shaw was
able to divine the Italian chains best dishes, and avoid its worst.
Become a regular and cultivate the staff. Curiosity, basic manners and informed enthusiasm for the food can open a relationship with a restaurant that will make dining there more rewarding. Some places like one of Shaws college haunts, a Chinese place in a converted KFC on Shelburne Road will even tailor their stock dishes to your expectations if they respect you. If you love restaurants for the right reasons, Shaw writes, they will love you back.