Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking

The Book of the Week is “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking” by Anya Von Bremzen, published in 2013. This volume recounts the food-related details of the lives of the author (born in 1963) and her mother, who, up until 1974, lived in the former Soviet Union before moving to the United States. As can be surmised, they suffered many hardships from successive oppressive regimes that gave rise to hunger.

Under Vladimir Lenin in 1918 Russia, “The very notion of pleasure from flavorful food was reviled as capitalist degeneracy.” Millions died of starvation under Stalin in 1927 when he took over the means of grain production. The author’s grandfather, possessor of exceptional survival skills, was an intelligence officer under Stalin, so Von Bremzen’s family had access to the food of the wealthy. The author’s mother raised her to be a food snob. Stalin’s personal culinary expert Anastas Mikoyan visited America in 1936. “Unlike evil, devious Britain, the US was considered a semi-friendly competitor – though having American relatives could still land you in the gulag.” That attitude had changed by 1952.

The author’s mother celebrated the anniversary of Stalin’s March 1953 death, with a dinner party. She wed in 1958 at a government office and “…moved into her mother-in-law’s communal apartment where eighteen families shared one kitchen.”

The Soviets recycled mayonnaise jars all the time for many purposes, including medical samples; the jar itself was expected to be provided by the patient. When the author and her mother moved to the U.S., “Ahead of us was an era of blithely disposable objects.” Von Bremzen’s culture shock arose while food-shopping not from the dizzying array of products, but from the inability to show off those products to less fortunate people, such as Soviets. All Americans took such cornucopia for granted. She was disgusted that American food appeared to be phony and lowbrow, like Spam. At Christmas, Von Bremzen was grossed out by Oreos: “…charcoal-black cookies filled with something white and synthetic. A charcoal-black cookie! Would anyone eat such a thing?”

Mikhail Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign ired many Soviets, as “Getting booze for the holidays ranked at the top of everyone’s concerns.” All the Soviet intelligentsia drank excessively. It was unpatriotic to not drink. Everyone had a drinking partner. Proposing toasts and making conversation with the partner was mandatory. Drinking alone was anathema, socially unacceptable.

Read the book to learn more about the Soviet culinary culture and history through the decades, and even see some authentic recipes.

Cathedral of the Wild

The Book of the Week is “Cathedral of the Wild” by Boyd Varty, published in 2014. This ebook is the autobiography of a member of the family who owned the Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa.

The Reserve was started by the author’s father and uncle. As is well known, the bushveld of South Africa is fraught with sources of life-threatening injuries and illnesses. In the 1970’s, the founders braved these, plus primitive conditions, to regenerate life in the biosphere on land overgrazed by cattle, to build infrastructure and a business. They felt a close connection to the environment. Their endeavors were ecologically friendly in nature. However, they were trying to introduce a concept before its time, so people criticized their making money from realizing their vision. A “…classic Varty Brothers project… was outlandishly ambitious: vast in scope, freighted with complicated logistics, and therefore irresistible.”

During the author’s childhood, his uncle’s focus on his then-project, such as filming wildlife documentaries or preventing species extinctions, took priority over protecting himself and others from dangers. From a very young age, Varty and his older sister Bron were obligated to assist their uncle with various challenging tasks, such as operating the sound system in the presence of wild animals, shooting a rifle (when necessary), driving a Land Rover, etc. When Varty was about ten, their parents pulled them out of boarding school and assigned them a tutor, Kate. “Bron, Kate and I were crossing the Serengeti [in Tanzania] with about two million wildebeests… hundreds of thousands of gazelles and zebras, travels twelve hundred miles…”

Varty recounts morbidly fascinating stories about an elephant’s charging at the Land Rover (a common occurrence) and various other traumatic episodes in his life. He rambles on a little too long about his and his family’s psychological healing from these occasions when they could easily have died.

Nevertheless, read the book to learn of these episodes, plus about the celebrity who visited the Reserve, and why.

All or Nothing

The Book of the Week is “All or Nothing” by Jesse Schenker, published in 2014. This suspenseful, eloquently written ebook tells the exceptional life story of a member of America’s “Generation Y” who has beaten the odds for survival, considering his situation.

“I had two jobs and no place to stay, but I literally cared more about having drugs than even a roof over my head… at night I slept outside, swathed in a blanket of newspaper… ”

The author describes in vivid detail his ordeal in connection with substance abuse– of his own making– and how he got through it. He wrote that in Fort Lauderdale, sellers of illicit drugs diluted their wares with “… laxatives, Benadryl, sugar, starch, talc, brick dust, or even f–g Ajax” and how all junkies commit thievery against each other.

Schenker also recounts his experiences in the restaurant industry, where he encountered other addicts in the kitchen. The culture is also one of an abusive hierarchy; the justification for this is that everything must be perfect. On more than one occasion, when the author’s food preparation was less than perfect, he was loudly berated and had a tray with his creations violently thrown at his chest.

Read the book to learn how Schenker transferred his skills at manipulating other people, from getting high to getting his career in gear. Malcolm Gladwell would categorize him as an “outlier.”

Sirio

The Book of the Week is “Sirio, The Story of My Life and Le Cirque” by Sirio Maccioni and Peter Elliot, published in 2004.

Sirio, born in spring 1932, came from a poor family in the resort city of Montecatini in Tuscany. His immediate family members could read, unlike most other people his family knew. His father had been a multi-lingual concierge who worked long hours at a hotel. His uncles worked long hours on the farm. Since he was orphaned at an early age, and was short on education, he felt his career options were limited. He therefore fell into the role of waiter at a hotel restaurant. In the 1930’s, waiters were required to dress elegantly, be multilingual and actually prepare food in front of diners at the table.

In the 1950’s, Sirio was receiving training the traditional French way as a hotel chef. But he was part of a trend later labeled “nouvelle cuisine”– meaning preparing food creatively– putting a regional, personal touch on the food. “…And they [the chefs] refused to treat people badly… Paris was still ruled by the hotel mentality.”

The French had an elitist system whereby the trainees slaved away long hours and were bullied unmercifully so only the most dedicated ones survived. If they were courageous, they started their own restaurants and repeated the cycle with their underlings. As was common for aspiring chefs of his generation, Sirio paid his dues in a few different European cities. In the 1960’s, he basically played the role of greeter at an upscale hotel restaurant in New York. He was skillful at this job, given his diplomatic temperament with the rich and famous diners.

Sirio has these words of wisdom for the reader: “There’s a saying, ‘The customer is always right.’ Not true. Not always. The customer always gets what he wants. Very different. All I do is try to understand what they want.” and “You know, if you talk to a real man, not a phony, they tell you where and how they learn things… So many chefs I know just pretend to know things… Many times in the kitchen they don’t want to learn anything at all, especially not from an owner…”

Read the book to learn how Sirio finally got to run a restaurant of his own; of the chefs he employed (including his falling-out with Daniel Boulud who behaved  unprofessionally at the end); his adventures in the business; and how Sirio’s co-author gets a bit full of Sirio when he boldly proclaims, “By 1981 Le Cirque was the most famous restaurant in the world.”

Work is My Play

The Book of the Week is “Work Is My Play” by Wallace E. Johnson, published in 1973.  This is the career memoir of a lifelong workaholic.

The author discusses his passion for doing business. In the 1950’s, he co-founded Holiday Inn on the concept of offering an affordable place for families to stay while they were on a road trip, with accommodations and dining that were superior to those of Howard Johnson’s (no relation to the author), the only other option at the time.

The author fondly describes the opportunistic personality of one of his business partners with a memorable anecdote. The partner grabbed his wife before she had finished her lunchtime pie (she was used to that) in order to punctually attend a government auction of land parcels in an undeveloped area. He then proceeded to win the bid on every single parcel because he knew real estate prices would rise in the long term.

Read the book to learn how the author had fun working nonstop and making lots of money.

Four Seasons

The Book of the Week is “Four Seasons, The Story of a Business Philosophy” by Isadore Sharp, published in 2009. In the early 1950’s, in his early 20’s, the author worked with his father, a construction contractor. He served as construction manager, rental agent, salesman, and financier. He parlayed his experience into building hotels in later decades.

The first Four Seasons opened in Toronto in 1961. It was a motel. Because the location of the second Four Seasons (actually called “Inn on the Park”) was less than ideal– the Toronto section of North York– it had to offer a few unusual features and amenities, such as smoking and nonsmoking floors, a restaurant and a fitness center, in March 1963. The property manager got a famous sports trainer to run the fitness center. In 1966, the trainer was accused of pushing performance-enhancing drugs. “He later died of lung cancer, from smoking.”

In the late 1960’s, London already had five five-star hotels. But Sharp wanted to build another one anyway. He and his business partners “…signed an 84-year lease at 210,000 Pounds Sterling a year, to be renegotiated every 21 years. He insisted on having air conditioning, unlike the competition. The hotel, opened in January 1970, ended up costing 700,000 Pounds. The lease was modified to allow a renegotiation every fourteen years.

Over the course of four years prior to the building of the hotel, the author’s London contact engaged him in social interaction to make sure he was trustworthy. The foundation of business is trustworthy relationships. The author said of certain of his major investors and his brother-in-law, “There was complete trust. Once we shook hands on a deal, there was no need for lawyers and signed documents.”

The author established an investing policy due to skyrocketing inflation in the mid 1970’s: putting a ceiling on his share of ownership at a small percentage of equity. No more than $3-5 million per property. This was based on a simple calculation of the maximum hotel fees he would collect over the first five years; Four Seasons became a property manager, rather than a real estate developer.

The Four Seasons hotels offer high-end luxury, targeting exclusively wealthy Americans and business executives. As its culture has evolved, it has identified a set of values to which its employees adhere and by which it does business: respect, fairness, honesty and trust. Sharp sought to make it a companywide habit.

Sharp knew that employees whose jobs include direct guest interaction are the ones who directly generate most of the hotel’s revenue, and the experienced ones are “… storehouses of customer knowledge, role models for new hires and advisers for system improvement…”

The author claimed that hotels other than Four Seasons face the major competitive challenge of easily accessible reservations data due to technological advances. The Web “…put every week’s best hotel deal at every traveler’s fingertips, raising the specter of unusually lethal periodic price wars… We didn’t compete on price… we were the one hotel company that could take full advantage of the new [economy] without any problems.” Right.

The last quarter of the book was a brag-fest. Nevertheless, read the book to learn of Sharp’s unpleasant episodes with regard to: Sheraton in Vancouver, attempts to open hotels in Italy, India and Venezuela; political unrest in Indonesia, ownership of The Pierre Hotel, and much more.

Bonus Post

This blogger skimmed the book, “The Story of The Waldorf-Astoria” by Edward Hungerford, published in 1925. The Waldorf-Astoria was originally “The Astoria,” built by the Astors, a super-rich family.

For most of the 19th century and before, Broadway was the favored location for hotels. However, the 1880’s saw congestion from a street railway and cars. The thirteen-story, 450-guestroom Astoria was therefore originally located at 35th Street at Fifth Avenue. Construction started in 1891. “From the first the idea was to create a hostelry with as little of the typically hotel features in evidence as humanly possible… Haste was not permitted… The house was well-builded. And thoroughly. This ideal became an obsession on the part of the men who built it.” It opened in March 1893. In 1895, construction began on another hotel next door, of sixteen stories. In November 1897, the completed complex became known as the “Waldorf-Astoria.”

The hotel’s restaurant served partridge and lobster. Its general manager, George C. Boldt, believed in “management by wandering around.” In the summer of 1898, he commissioned a classy steam-yacht, the “Calypso” that could be booked by up to 25 guests for a day. He also offered car rides around town before common people drove. Boldt trusted all the guests, even those who asked to cash personal checks. No other hotels were so trusting.

The hotel boasted a number of “firsts.” It was the first building to have a passenger elevator in the United States. Boldt had the brilliant idea of carving a street at the rear of the combined hotels to ensure no one could ever take away their light and air rights between 33rd and 34th Streets. The Waldorf became the first hotel in Manhattan to take up a whole city block.

In 1776, in order to collect extra revenue, government official Peter Stuyvesant established the liquor license for taverns. “It was especially forbidden to sell strong drinks to Indians.” The hotel obtained a liquor license. Unfortunately, the passing of Prohibition cost the hotel lots of revenue. It re-purposed its bar. The Waldorf also offered a roof garden, which became an ice skating rink in the wintertime.

The author wrote, incredibly (italics added by this blogger), “Upon the broad open desk lie the registers, three or four of them so that in a pinch, as is frequently done, guests may be received and assigned rooms at the rate of sixty to ninety to the hour.”

Read the book to learn further details of the hotel’s existence through the mid 1920’s.

Yes, Chef

The Book of the Week is “Yes, Chef” by Marcus Samuelsson, published in 2012. This is the autobiography of a famous chef. He was born in Ethiopia at the start of the 1970’s, but when he was three, he and his five year old sister were adopted by a Swedish couple.

Samuelsson grew up in Goteborg, Sweden. He enjoyed the suburban lifestyle of an industrialized country, including youth soccer. There were three posters on his bedroom wall: Michael Jackson, the king and queen of Sweden, and Pele. After ninth grade, Swedish schools channel students into a career-oriented or a university-oriented curriculum. In early 1989, after graduating, Samuelsson went to work in one of the fanciest restaurants in Sweden, “Belle Avenue.” At 21 years old, he supervised ten interns at a restaurant in Switzerland.

Because he was dark-skinned, Samuelsson encountered discrimination all his life– in the schoolyard and in employment. When he approached the restaurant “Bouley” to ask for a short-term internship, he was summarily turned away. The only famous black chef he had heard of during his training was Patrick Clark, who was ever rated only two stars by the famous restaurant guides Michelin and Zagat. Samuelsson writes, “When I had my own restaurant someday, I thought, I would never rule out someone based on race or sex or nationality…” He would hire all walks of life, due not to aiming for impartiality, but because he would achieve maximum cultural diversity.

To pursue his dream, Samuelsson thought he needed to continue to “pay his dues” in France. In order to get promoted, an aspiring chef has to “…completely give yourself up to the place. Your time, your ego, your relationships, your social life, they are all sacrificed.” In France, there were no intermediaries between farmers and chefs. The former were direct suppliers to the latter. In Switzerland, “We relied on shipments of shrink wrapped or frozen specialty items and that resulted in chronic separation between our product and seasonality.” The traditional French chefs’ training included brutal bullying of underlings by the upper echelons–who were the only employees who had job security.

In February 2008, Samuelsson opened his own restaurant, Merkato 55, which had an African theme. This blogger thinks it’s an insult to people’s intelligence to use the name “African” to describe an eatery, or use it in a book title, for that matter. This blogger theorizes that the labeler thinks people are too ignorant to recognize the name of an individual African country. African countries are all different, regardless of stereotypes.

Samuelsson and his business partners were pursuing a growth strategy. “In less than twelve months, we were scheduled to open eight new restaurants…” There were nine hundred guests at Samuelsson’s wedding in Ethiopia. Read the book to learn about Samuelsson’s take on cuisine, his successes and failures in connection therewith, and his unusual familial relationships.