Eating With Ed: On Tipping, Texas Barbecue, and Rich-People Food

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Editor's Note: Welcome to Eating With Ed, in which we head to a great New York restaurant with Serious Eats founder Ed Levine to see what's on his mind.

The Date October 24, 2015

Where We're Eating
Osteria Morini, Michael White's SoHo restaurant specializing in rustic foods from Italy's Emilia-Romagna region
What We're Eating Ed: Eggs in Purgatorio (baked eggs served in tomato sauce and topped with Parmesan) Keith: Tagliatelle with ragù antico
What Ed's Thinking About Rich people, tipping, chicken sandwiches, apple pie, Texas barbecue, and why the makers of Cheerios might help usher in the future of food

It's a chilly autumn afternoon when Ed Levine and I head out from the Serious Eats offices in Little Italy for lunch at Osteria Morini. This is my second time eating at the SoHo restaurant, the first being a month ago, when Ed officially offered me the job as Senior Features Editor here at Serious Eats. After a lengthy interviewing process, and an edit test that kept me up until 3 a.m. one morning, he invited me to lunch here, and kept me waiting well into our first course before letting me know I'd landed the gig. While the outcome was everything I'd hoped for, it wasn't the most enjoyable meal of my life: My stomach was churning so hard that I found little comfort in Michael White's celebrated Italian comfort food. This time is different, though. The interviews are over. The edit test is done. Now I can just relax and indulge in some great food and a conversation that doesn't involve talk of qualifications, health care plans, and paid vacations.

You ordered the eggs in purgatory last time we were here, too. What's the attraction? It's just a beautiful thing. And this is a great cheffy version of the Italian classic, made by placing the hot marinara sauce in a terra-cotta plate, cracking the eggs into it, sprinkling parm on top, then baking it in a brick oven before sprinkling on some bread crumbs. I do it the cheater's way at home. I heat up a jar of Rao's marinara sauce, and, when it's bubbling, I carefully slip in six cracked eggs until they're poached. I don't put them in the broiler, so it doesn't have the nice crust this one does; I just shred some Parmigiano on top and eat it. One of the things about Michael White's restaurants—especially Osteria Morini—that I really love is that they are not trying to do anything too fancy. They're just trying to do food well. They make all the pastas themselves, and everything I've had here, whether it's the seafood salad or the gnocchi, is all very carefully done, and the care is shown in how it tastes and how it's presented. I don't think he's trying to reinvent anything, not at this restaurant. Anyway, Keith, there are a lot of things I want to talk about today.

Such as? So I curated this event for the Young Presidents' Organization, which is made up of very successful, very wealthy young people (under the age of 45). They wanted me to select regional foods that they would order from around the country for everyone to try. To me, it was a reminder that, as great a food city as New York is, there are some things that you still can't get here. For example, we ordered this apple pie that is baked in a paper bag, from a place called The Elegant Farmer in Mukwonago, Wisconsin. I've tried a lot of mediocre mail-order pies in my time, but this one was a surprise. When I had it in Mukwonago, I didn't regard it as memorable—I mainly ordered it for the YPO event because I thought it would be a fun thing for people to try. But when I tasted it again, I was like, "Damn, this is a really good apple pie!" It's double-crusted with what's obviously a handmade crust. And the apples are perfect—not too mushy, not goopy at all. I loved it. I think everyone did.

Why do you think it tasted better in New York than it did in Wisconsin? Was it simply because it's something you normally can't get in the city? The first time I tasted it, I was on a food tour of Wisconsin. And you know how it is when you're a food writer and you go on these tours: You might taste 20 things in a day, so foods that would normally stand out get lost in the shuffle sometimes. Normally, I have the opposite reaction. I find that food tastes better when it's enjoyed in its place of origin.

Are there some foods that should just stay where they are? Foods that should only be enjoyed in their "place of origin"? Calvin Trillin wrote a whole book about that. It's called Feeding a Yen: Savoring Local Specialties, From Kansas City to Cuzco. He talked about how certain foods are meant to be eaten only in the places where they are from. So you're from Cincinnati, right? I'm guessing you might feel that way about Cincinnati chili. And there's a reason why boudin is best eaten in Louisiana. These foods are of a specific place; they have what winemakers call terroir. And while they can be shipped, something gets lost in the shipping. I was at a party the other day, and a writer from Louisiana brought some boudin. I was delighted to be in New York eating boudin. But was it the same as eating boudin in Lafayette? Of course not. That said, if I can't eat boudin in Lafayette, this is still a pretty damn good substitute.

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

The other thing we ordered for the YPO was this great brisket from Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, Texas. The Muellers are one of the old Central Texas barbecue families. They've been smoking meats forever, and came out of the Czech-German butcher tradition that exists down there. Their brisket is really well marbled, just so tender and smoky, but not so smoky that it loses its intensely beefy flavor. It's the kind of thing that's really hard to find in New York. But it was nothing like the experience of eating it in Texas. You walk into Louie Mueller and, well, first of all, it's this huge place where they offer you a slice of the brisket to try before you even order. There's a big open fire in the restaurant, and they take a hunk of meat out, put it on the cutting block, and slice it up for you. And the smell of the place is just incredible. You'll have that smell on you for hours, days even. The people at the YPO event weren't going to have that experience, they weren't going to leave with that great barbecue smell on them.

What went over well with the YPO-ers and what didn't? I think most of them really loved what they were eating. But there were some things that challenged them for sure. Cracklins, for instance, did not go over well. I think most of the people there thought they were just pork rinds, but these were different—they were these really delicious versions from Louisiana, and some people were turned off by them because they were much fattier and porkier than your average pork rind. The gumbos were a challenge, too, which was interesting. There were duck and chicken gumbos from Prejean's in Lafayette, so it was, like, you know, the real deal, but people seemed afraid of them for some reason. The Kansas City barbecue we ordered from Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue went over really well, though.

I guess what I'm wondering here is this: What do rich people eat these days? What constitutes "rich-people food"? I think that, no matter what financial state you're in, people are attracted to foods that connect them to human beings and places. Rich people are no different. They crave authenticity, and they crave an emotional connection—something that resonates. The people who attended this event knew what they were in for. This wasn't a foie gras and caviar affair, which I'm sure they have; there's no shortage of opportunities for them to celebrate their status. But this was about celebrating something else that I hope is inside all of them.

[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

I'm surprised that some of the foods you mentioned above, especially the ones that were ordered from the South, weren't at least somewhat familiar to the YPO set. New Yorkers seem to have an obsession with Southern food these days, especially... Southern fried chicken? Could there be more fried chicken sandwiches available in New York right now? I mean, there were people waiting in line overnight when Chick-fil-A opened here last month. That is perverse to me. I get it, though. Fried chicken is now a part of so many cultures. First there were the fast food chicken sandwiches, which were adequate. Then there were the really good fast food chicken sandwiches, like Chick-fil-A. Then, of course, chefs discovered them. I remember meeting David Chang many years ago, and he was obsessed with fried chicken. And then he started serving his fried chicken at Momofuku two ways, which included a cheffy version of twice-fried Korean chicken, with a Southern fried version alongside it. He was the first chef I remember really paying attention to fried chicken. And now he's got Fuku, which only serves chicken sandwiches. I get the obsession, though. It's a deeply satisfying alternative to red meat, namely the hamburger. Maybe there's some burger fatigue happening out there, though you could hardly tell that from Shake Shack sales.

Just about every food publication in the country has been discussing Danny Meyer's decision to eliminate tipping from all of his restaurants. Care to weigh in? The whole tipping story is totally fascinating to me. I do think it's a big story in the context of the larger battle being fought over income inequality in this country. It just seems cruel that somebody at a very fancy restaurant is working insanely hard for $10 or $12 an hour. The hope is that eliminating tipping will lead to the sea change we're all wishing for, but I think the jury is still very much out. There are restaurants around the country that have launched similar experiments and gone back to the old tipping model because they were losing servers and facing taxes on their service fees. I think what we're seeing—and this is part of what makes covering the food culture so interesting—is that food culture touches on all the issues that people are talking about in the presidential election. Income inequality, immigration—what was the famous Anthony Bourdain line? [Ed reaches for his phone to look it up.] Here it is: "As any chef will tell you, our entire service economy—the restaurant business as we know it—in most American cities, would collapse overnight without Mexican workers." I think one of the most interesting things about the food culture as a whole is that there are issues coming up and being reported on every week that have profound implications for the workplace.

Kenji recently wrote a story about a $65 knife he loves that is being funded by a Kickstarter campaign. How is crowdsourcing, as well as social media, changing the food and restaurant landscape overall? What's great about crowdsourcing and social media is that they have a profound effect on something like raising money to make a good, inexpensive knife, or resurrecting a cherished restaurant after a fire, in a way that you couldn't do before. Before the internet, there were around a dozen gatekeepers that controlled the flow of information. Now there are hundreds, if not thousands. Someone with a big Twitter following who tweets about how to raise money so that a restaurant can be opened or resurrected becomes a powerful leveler, and I think that's great. I also think it's great that someone like Carla Hall from "The Chew," who is a lovely, lovely person and has spent a very long time doing advocacy work, will be able to open her own hot chicken restaurant in Brooklyn using Kickstarter money. She raised $260,000 from around 1,550 people. How much equity did she give away? Zero? She is honoring contributors by placing their names on a wall of fame in the restaurant.

So it was reported last week that food giant General Mills is introducing a new venture capital fund for small, fledgling food companies, citing that they are seeing more innovation coming from the little guys than the big ones these days. Your thoughts? It's fascinating to watch companies like General Mills try to grapple with the changing food landscape. It's always been easier for the big guys to buy other companies with products that have already gained a foothold in the marketplace, rather than develop them on their own. For example, right now all the soda makers are freaking out, wondering what happened to all those people who used to drink soda. Now they're drinking tea and coconut water. Most big companies have R&D departments to develop new foods that people are trending toward, but now General Mills is taking it one step further. They're thinking, "Why don't we get in on the ground floor?" Instead of paying $10 million or $20 million or $40 million to acquire an established company, they're going to give the smaller guys a million or two and accept that, while a bunch of them won't make it, a lot of them probably will. That's what venture capital is all about.

Finally, the World Health Organization recently came out with a report that made a connection between processed meats and certain kinds of cancer. You're a bit of a bon vivant when it comes to food consumption. Will this change your eating habits at all? I have to admit to myself that, yes, it probably will. For example: I went through a period a couple of weeks ago where I started eating a sausage, egg, and cheese sandwich every other day at Gray's Papaya. Damn fine. But when I read that WHO thing, I thought that maybe, especially now that I'm getting older, I should only have it once a week. I think the idea of total abstention is just stupid. It is a matter of everything in moderation. So maybe you can't have bacon every day, but should you have bacon or sausage once a week if it gives you great pleasure? I say yes.