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A Thin Line between Yum and Yuck

Four intrepid eaters—Mario Batali, Lidia Bastianich, Fergus Henderson, and Gael Greene—reflect on the gustatory glory of cock's combs, pig's trotters, and other dishes for the daring. It's agreed, offal isn't so awful.

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Last week at the 92nd St Y, legendary chefs and intrepid eaters Mario Batali, New York City’s first lady of Italian food Lidia Bastianich of Felidia, and Fergus Henderson of London’s St. John restaurant (author of the cult cookbook The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating) convened to share their thoughts on “adventurous eating” with veteran New York food writer Gael Greene.

Is nose-to-tail eating more moral than vegetarianism? “We have to eat the whole animal if we respect the world of the living,” Bastianich said early on, and Batali agreed. He wanted to make a statement at Babbo: “The animal isn’t something you just kill and take the chops from.”

Batali described New York City’s diners, the greatest he has ever fed, as “gastro-Olympians” who are eager to try unfamiliar dishes.

Why then, asked Greene, had brains dishes fallen off the menu? At one time French restaurants showcased them in endless varieties. The panel lamented that classic French restaurants are out of vogue. With the notable exception of Le Bernardin, creative American and Italian chefs are now at the forefront.

Greene, a self-described foodie before there were foodies, asked whether cholesterol was an issue when serving items like kidneys or cock’s combs. It was agreed that they are healthy in moderation. Said Batali, “It’s not measurable by science, the pleasure a good pig’s trotter can give you.”

“Should we talk about balls?” asked Greene. Batali serves prairie oysters in the late summer, “when they’re at they’re ripest.” Greene fondly recalled a dish Daniel Boulud made for her called rooster balls, involving chicken parts in a cream sauce.

Bastianich recalled an Italian tradition: on Sunday, her family would kill, pluck, and clean a chicken, then use the head, feet, and wingtips for soup. The unborn eggs were gathered and used in a frittata of kidneys and intestines (a dish she now serves at Felidia). In this way, a single chicken yielded a variety of dishes for a family of eight.

When asked whether they had ever eaten anything alive, the chefs professed their love for live raw shellfish. Greene described a plate called drunken shrimp: live shrimp are immersed in wine until they are happy enough that they don’t mind being eaten.

"You have to bite on them before they bite you."

Greene is also a fan of the live lobster sashimi at Jewel Bako: a Japanese coldwater lobster (a sweeter, more flavorful, clawless version of our own) is decapitated alive, then its translucent meat is extracted and placed in shockingly cold salt water where it whitens and blooms as if cooking. The lobster meat is returned to the shell on a bed of shizo and the head is reattached so that the lobster still appears to be alive.

And Greene touted crisp-fried baby crabs, another Japanese dish. During a recent dinner with Barry Wine of the old Quilted Giraffe, she ate from a jar of live ones: “You have to bite on them quickly before they bite you.”

Batali admitted, when pressed, that durian, a round, spiky fruit that “smells like bad locker room,” was the worst thing he had ever tasted. (Mammal eyeballs also cause him distress, although he has tried rodent eyes.) He was almost convinced to sample the durian ice cream at Spice Market but in the end the smell was too much. Bastianich defended the fruit, describing it as a complex combination of passion fruit and mango, but Batali wouldn’t have it: “I put it right up there with squirrel ass.”

Throughout the talk, Henderson, a wiry, soft-spoken man hiding behind professorial spectacles, took a backseat to the tv personalities. He did, however, offer that the strangest thing he had ever tasted was an old Danish cheese he had to pour rum on to tame. Asked to name a food he would never eat, the champion of jellied pigs ears and braised raw spleen (“a well-behaved organ”) confessed: “Raw celery.”

How did the chefs feel about radical experimentation in the vein of Ferran Adria, the madman behind El Bulli in Spain, where dishes on the 32-course tapas menu include aerosols of chocolate and barnacles with tea foam? (At WD-50, for instance, Wylie Dufresne, serves anchovies with chutney and cocoa nibs.) Although Batali admitted that provocation was an integral component of any great meal, he thought that many of Adria’s punky imitators would eventually, like Adria himself, mature and return to the basics. Bastianich sympathized that such chefs were often trying to reintroduce diners to tastes that have been lost due to the antiseptic nature of modern food production— for instance, the ideal taste of fruit, just as it turns.

At one point, Batali talked about his forthcoming restaurant Il Posto. He promised relatively classical Italian cooking in a spacious environment: 120 seats in the 22,000 square-feet dining room and 60 seats at the bar. The meals will be relatively affordable: it will never be easy to pay over $60 for food at one of his restaurants. “I can’t charge more than that. I’d be embarrassed.” Asked about the escalating prices at other restaurants, Batali wondered, “What’s expensive? Spending $300 for sushi at Masa or spending $1,200 to go to a basketball game?”

What was their ideal last meal? Batali dreamed of taking a slow boat to the Amalfi coast in Italy and enjoying an alici marinate, linguine out of the ocean and chilled white wine. Henderson wanted to go out with a sea urchin dish, and Gael agreed that she would top it off with a sea urchin dessert. Bastianich’s last meal was more ambitious: crust bread, a slice of prosciutto, crackling figs, pasta, oil, garlic, seafood, lots of vegetables. "All that and more."


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