WE TEST THE METTLE OF THE MEAT AT BRASSERIE LES HALLES, WITH THE LOVELY JENNY ROCKETT AS OUR DINING COMPANION
Anthony Bourdain claims he doesn’t know why he’s so popular in Manila. “I absolutely have no idea,” he answers when asked about it, “I gather you don’t have a lot of television channels. Not as many as we do, we have about 500 channels.” The celebrity chef has a local fan base to rival Sandman author Neil Gaiman which includes personalities like writer/poet Lourd de Veyra and Eraserhead Marcus Adoro (the latter was spotted “stalking” Bourdain in his hotel). Apart from the books and the TV shows, could it possibly be because of the man’s cooking?
We met up with the New York-based, Manila-bred Jenny Rockett at Les Halles, where Bourdain served as executive chef for several years and now holds the title of Chef-at-Large. Currently working as a photographer for the United Nations (check out her blog at http://jennyrockett.blogspot.com), she was game enough to talk about New York restaurants, tipping and French fries over dinner.
How would you describe eating out in New York?
New York is a gastronomical paradise. It has an infinite number of food choices that a big foodie like me can probably never tire of, and I love that every restaurant is an all-encompassing experience that goes beyond the food. You walk through some, and you feel like you’re in another city or time, but once the food is over you’re walking right back out the typical noisy and dirty New York streets. It’s a trip.
What do you usually go for?
I’m a big fan of conversation over Matcha green tea or an oversized cappuccino in quiet settings, so I find myself liking cafes or teahouses a lot in the city. I do also enjoy the weekend brunch tradition here where people unwind over French toast and eggs or—my favorite—OJ, a very big frothy mug of coffee and the morning newspaper.
What should you keep in mind if you’re going out to eat in Manhattan? Any advice on tipping?
Be prepared to wait long for a table on a Friday or Saturday night. Even if there are hundreds of restaurants in the city, there just doesn’t seem to be enough tables to seat this food-obsessed city.
As for tipping, it took me years to warm up to the idea that it’s practically mandatory, as I always felt like I was being cheated when I didn’t quite get the same kind of friendly service as you do in Manila. It wasn’t until I worked at a restaurant myself that I realized that 15-20% tip is another person’s college debt payment or rent money. In Manila, restaurants remember you when you tip; in New York, they remember you when you don’t tip!
How’d you like Les Halles? First impressions since it’s your first time?
Though I really enjoyed my meal, I don’t think Les Halles will come to mind when I make future restaurant choices. It’s a wildly popular place, seeing from the number of full tables on a Thursday night. But I much prefer more intimate and cozy settings, even quirky unique restaurants.
How about Anthony Bourdain? Have you watched his show?
I have actually not seen Anthony Bourdain in action. But his name is one I hear among the other celebrity chefs in New York, and I commend him for putting lechon—a personal favorite and something Manhattan does not have—on the international food lover’s radar.
What did you order?
A classic choice: perfectly roasted and sumptuous lamb chops with rosemary.
What did you like most?
Being half-Australian and cooking my grandmother’s lamb chops at home, I am exceedingly particular with my lamb. And I was pleasantly surprised at the generous amount of chops (six, I believe) and how flavorful they were. Lamb is hit or miss because it’s often dry when over or under-cooked, and I applaud
(and so would my grandmother) Mr. Bourdain for getting it right.
What didn’t you like or weren’t too thrilled with?
One complaint wasn’t with the food, but rather the noise level of the restaurant that I had to eat my lamb chops with. Surely it was crowded, but you’d expect a restaurant of a celebrity chef to also consider sound engineering in the design of their venue. The lamb would have tasted better if I could eat it without having to overextend my ear to hear the conversation at the table.
OK, Bourdain’s so cocky about his fries…what’s your verdict?
The fries were impressive, and Bourdain’s cockiness is probably justified. Although I love the reliably uniform and addicting McDonald’s fries, these fries were roasted or baked with absolute perfect crunchiness minus the grease.
Was it worth the price?
Price was a little hefty. I think I’d be happy to cook my own chops at home.
For what occasion would you recommend Les Halles?
Les Halles is a good New York restaurant starter. It’s trendy but not super trendy, formal but not too formal and prices are a little above moderate. Not really charming enough as a venue for a date (unless you knew you didn’t want to listen to him/her), but it could be a good girl’s night out place to grub and catch up.
Brasserie Les Halles,
411 Park Avenue South,
Open 7 Days
7:30am to Midnight
THE BOURDAIN OF PROOF
Last year, Anthony Bourdain came to Manila to film an episode for his show on the Discovery Channel. UNO was invited to dinner with him at the Sofitel. Nursing a hangover, a couple of books and a live Ramones LP (as well as a stray Eraserhead) we sat and down got exclusive tidbits from the man himself.
Chef, you’re drinking water.
No, I’m having a vodka tonic.
So what happened to “Stay as far away from a hotel as possible?”
Ha ha ha! Look where we are.
Your did a show where you went back to Les Halles…
My old assistant is the executive chef but I dared my friend, Eric Repirt who’s a chef in La Bernardin in New York. He’s one of the best chefs in the world; he’s never worked at a busy turn-and-burn restaurant like that. I don’t think he’s gotten his jacket dirty in a long time. I said, hey come and work the grill station at Les Halles and he said, yeah.
Until now, you’ve traveled the world but you’ve always had bad regard for airline food.
I’m talking about American carriers. Other airliners try hard. But, just by virtue, you can’t cook on the plane. They shove food in a hotbox, every minute in the air, the food is dying so really you have to design the food not to be good, but to be least damaged by the process. You’re looking for durability over anything else. You can never make food in the first class of an airplane better than in a mediocre restaurant. You can’t. It’s just airline food at the end of the day. Your cheese will not be served at perfect temperature, you know? But they try and I appreciate it. The threshold is pretty low.
Thoughts on Top Chef.
I love the show. I’m a fan. I’ve judged a number of times. I blog about it every episode for the simple reason that I’m a big fan of the show. It’s like watching baseball games. I’m really into it. It’s a straightforward show. It doesn’t matter how you look, how heartbreaking your personal story is, how dramatic the finale might have been had you stayed, if your food sucked this week, you go home.
Do you still cook at home?
My wife won’t let me; she hates my cooking.
Originally published in UNO June 2009 issue
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