Amy Cortese

 

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September 11, 2009

In the Kitchen with...George Steel

Director of the New York City Opera

By AMY CORTESE

When he was named general manager and artistic director for the beleaguered New York City Opera in February, George Steel, the innovative conductor and performer who ran Columbia University’s acclaimed Miller Theatre for years, was hailed as a savior. Hired away from the Dallas Opera—where he had spent just three months—Steel replaced Gerard Mortier, the provocative former director of the Paris Opera who last fall resigned as head of the City Opera when his budget was slashed. Now, all opera glasses are trained on Steel and his debut season this fall at City Opera’s newly refurbished home at Lincoln Center.


Standing in his Tribeca kitchen with his 10-month-old son, Alexander, the boyish-looking Steel shows no sign of the turmoil swirling in the opera world. He’s relaxed and tranquillo (to use a musical term) as he pulls what will become a Viennese cream roll—a recipe he got from the avant-garde composer and musician John Zorn—from the oven. “John maintains it’s relatively foolproof,” says Steel, who loves to cook but admits he’s not much of a baker.


Fittingly for the director of “the People’s Opera,” Steel’s repertoire runs mostly toward homey classics like roast chicken, brisket, oatmeal for Alexander and 4-year-old Anna, and barbecue. But ask him about eating and he’ ll speak of comedy, tragedy and life itself.


One of the early important food people in my life was Patty Pulliam. I met her because she was cooking for Leonard Bernstein. I was a houseguest of Leonard’s, and he had a lot to do, needless to say, so Patty and I ended up hanging out in the kitchen together most of the time. She was then, and remains, one of the greatest chefs I’ve known. She grows food, keeps bees. She has a sense of generosity. Watching her is where I got my initial ideas about what really matters in cooking


If It Makes You Happy


I love bad ’70s tacos. They make you so happy…the crunchy deep-fried, prefab shell and pre-seasoned beef. But there is no good Tex-Mex food in New York.


The Heartbreak Of BBQ


My friend David Whiteman, who is a wonderful cook and wrote a lot of the recipes for Lobel’s Meat and Wine cookbook, he and I drove our car back from Dallas. We ate barbecue the whole way. He’s written about wine and cheese, but barbecue is far more frustrating, because the odds are much higher that what you get is going to be terrible. Even if you’ve read about it in three books and on the blogs, it’s a crushing disappointment most of the time. That’s the heartbreak of barbecue. And when you find one that’s really wonderful, it is life-changing.


The places that are famous tend not to be good. People are looking for an experience of authenticity and not really using their mouth. One of the only good barbecue ratings is Texas Monthly’s review. It became a little famous because the most recent barbecue rating picked this place no one had ever heard of (Snow’s in Lexington, Texas), and then Calvin Trillin ended up writing about it. Texas sausage is overrated, but the brisket, oh my lord Jesus.


It’s illegal to make good barbecue in New York. Nobody’s invented a way to deal with exhaust. Most places are using a smoker called Southern Pride or one its derivatives, basically a giant walk-in electric oven that has a drawer where you can put a couple of logs. I’m a strong believer that you’ve got to use all wood. So there is no great barbecue in New York. Basically you’re having baked roast beef with smoked flavor.


The Eternal and the Ephemeral


Putting on a great meal is putting on a party, and putting on a great concert is the same. It’s constructing an experience and expending huge effort and passion and soul on that somewhat ephemeral experience. They’re eternal, food and music, and yet they’re ephemeral, like life. That’s something beautiful. The people I know in the music business adore food…. Not necessarily fancy food, but, sure, fancy food, too. I had my first endive salad with Lenny, but at the same time, he liked to go into a cornfield and eat [an ear] right there. That embrace of life, that’s what food and music are both about. I want great eating to be part of the experience at Lincoln Center.


Books Of Life


We haven’t organized our books yet so they’re mixed together: food and music. One of the greatest cookbooks of the last 10 years is Fuchsia Dunlop’s Land of Plenty on Sichuan cooking. I also love Matt and Ted Lee’s Southern Cooking—they are good friends. Southern Belly by John T. Edge is a classic. I also have almost–first editions of S. J. Perelman’s work. I’m crazy about him. Mahler symphonies. This is what life is about.


Shack Sleuth


Architecture and food are the greatest ways into a city. So I have the American Institute of Architects guide. I was just in St. Louis. They have great architecture. I ate at this place called the Goody Goody Diner, and I would bet a thousand dollars that it is the model for Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack burgers. He’s from St. Louis. The burger even comes half-wrapped in wax paper.


Too Few High Notes


We live very nearby Carl’s Steaks, the most persuasive Philadelphia- style cheesesteak in Manhattan. One problem with the Philly cheesesteak, though, is there’s no acidity, it’s all bass, so you have to go with the sweet peppers or the hot peppers for some acidity.


The Almost-Perfect Ham


I like to make ham with raisin sauce. One of the great losses of Manhattan is the closing of Kurowycky Meat Market on First Avenue. Kurowycky was the greatest ham made in New York. I spent years thinking about ham glaze: brown sugar, peaches, bourbon…and I realized you’re barking up the wrong tree. What you want is a sauce to put on the side of ham, not glazed on the outside of a ham. When you focus in, you want a raisin sauce, because it delivers clove flavor very well.


I was trying to simmer raisins and my friend Dave suggested Pedro Ximenez sherry; it’s a type of sherry that tastes like raisins. Then you put them in the food processor and through a sieve, and add orange zest and cloves. That was, like, a mind blower. I had a whole ham odyssey. I found the perfect ham, and then they closed. But the Polish butchers on the East Side are very good. So now I have the almost-perfect ham.


Provence In a Jar

Here’s some lavender honey we brought back from Provence…it’s astonishing. I mean, it’s all lavender fields.


Too Far From Fairway

I’m crazy about black pepper. It’s amazing how much difference there is. I just got these Tellicherry peppercorns from Fairway… God, I wish we had a Fairway down here.


Sichuan Secret


If you’re into Sichuan, this is the secret: Chiu Chow Chili Oil, baby. One of the staples of Sichuan food is a sweetened sort of soy sauce… you mix that with Chiu Chow Chili Oil. It’s the best dipping sauce for dumplings. You go to Chinatown, you can buy these incredible chive pork dumplings…. I mean, this is half a bag, and they’re 10 bucks. They’re gorgeous.


Pickle Supremacy


I’m kind of nuts about Hallo Berlin. It’s a German borscht restaurant. He’s got a cart that won the best cart in Manhattan near the University Club on West 54th Street. You can’t believe how good it is. These are the pickles he serves, Schwabentopf.


Takeout Fantasy


We’re close to some of the best Chinese food in Chinatown, but we have to pick it up. Here are my takeout menus…Alfanoose is a good Middle Eastern place, and here’s one for Carl’s Steak—busted! This is a menu from a barbecue place in Mobile, Alabama. I keep it in the drawer with the fantasy that they’ll deliver here someday.


Caviar Comedy


My favorite highbrow dish in New York City, besides the hilarious Viennese roll, is the tagliatelle with sea urchin and caviar at Le Bernardin, a classic Ripert treatment of urchin and caviar. It is perhaps the greatest single plate of food available on the island.


Ice Cream Tragedy


The greatest villain of ice cream is the omnipresence of guar gum or carrageenan, an astonishing amount of ice cream you buy has it. I used to love Breyers natural vanilla ice cream, which I’ve been eating since I’ve been a kid, and they added guar gum. It has that cornstarchy mouth feel. It turns out Breyers was bought by Good Humor. Ben & Jerry’s, too, is full of guar gum. It’s amazing that they’ve spoiled so much perfectly good ice cream.


 

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