Photo by Jon McAllister

Elevated Comfort

The cardinal rule of restaurant work, with respect to post-labor revelry and general socialization, is as follows:

Never make plans for after work.

This rule is predicated upon the rule that there is an inverse relation between the duration of a cook’s shift and the relative attractiveness of his after work itinerary. Put simply, the night that you plan to do something fun or important you are almost guaranteed to get your ass handed to you. (If this sounds superstitious, know that it is based on years of empirical evidence. The restaurant jinx is real and it is not to be flexed with.)

Knowing this, I was hesitant to accept an invitation to a recent Slow Food Columbus dinner, a tasting that saw some of the city’s best chefs exploring the culinary possibilities of many native and heritage Midwestern ingredients.

The source of my hesitation was easy to place: I had to work that evening. But it’s a Tuesday, I thought, I’ll be out in plenty of time to make the dinner. What’s the worst that could happen?

And of course, when Tuesday rolled around the restaurant did a Friday-night’s-worth of business in under two hours. Brutal.

And that’s how I found myself an hour late to a two-hour tasting, not-so-fresh from the kitchen, wearing a dirty chef coat and non-slip shoes, toting my knives up the steps to Gallerie Bar & Bistro, my gracious and capable hosts for the evening.

When I finally arrived, disheveled and out of breath, the hostess’s eyes said that she was surprised to see me. I told her who I was and choked out a quick “I’m sorry” regarding my tardiness. She handled the situation with aplomb and escorted me to one of three long tables, where a lively family style dinner was taking place.

Of course my seat was the last unused place setting at the very head of the table and thus any hope I had of slipping in unseen was quickly dashed. A waiter deftly poured me a glass of wine, the pre-approved pairing for the course that was about to be served. I don’t recall what the vintage was, though I remember it being white. Mostly I remember feeling very glad that it was there, within arm’s reach.

Reflected in the convex rim of my wine glass, I noticed the other diners, that is to say, the immediate four flanking my position, two men and two women, were all eyeing me with a look of bemused curiosity. Between belts of wine (I would need a refill before the course for which the wine was intended would arrive) I introduced myself and quickly explained why I was late. Being “foodies” they found the tale of the rushed and labored chef a pleasant and appropriate compliment to their dinner and I was quickly folded into their conversation, a rousing and intellectually stimulating discourse on Columbus, food, and Columbus Food.

I wish I could relay some colorful and descriptive notes about the food, but, due to my almost White Rabbit-ian behindhandedness, I missed half the meal. I applaud Chefs Bill Glover and Devon Morgan (Gallerie Bar & Bistro), Chef Seth Lassak (Wolf’s Ridge Brewing Company), Chef Marcus Meacham (formerly of Kraft House #5, currently on tour as the 36th member of The Wu-Tang Clan), Chef Tyler Minnis (Angry Bear Kitchen), and Chef David Tetzloff (G. Michael’s), for their combined effort in crafting a menu that showcased the breadth of the Midwestern dishes and ingredients, both iconic and those a bit more obscure. But, alas, a tasting menu is to be experienced in its entirety, and as I missed almost half, I don’t feel right in writing about the food. I will say that Chef Morgan’s dessert, a pawpaw sherbet popsicle, was truly inspired and inspirational. Morgan’s plate showcased a healthy respect for the pawpaw, Ohio’s only native fruit, as well as her keen sense of textural gestalt, with crunchy bits of French meringue topping the impossibly soft pawpaw panna cotta.

The other reason I can’t write too much about the food, the first being my aforementioned respect for culinary continuity, is that I enjoyed the dining experience so much—the food, the drink, the conversation—that I kind of forgot that I was supposed to be there in a critical capacity.

The dinner was so good, it made me forget that I had a job to do—or any job for that matter.

And while this may all be well and good, it did not change the fact that I had 1,000 words due. Little did I know, that what seemed like the random fortunes of restaurant life, that culinary cosmic wheel forever spinning, given structure by the spokes of the great jinx and the great meal, was not a coincidence. As I would come to learn, this losing of oneself in the act of eating was not happenstance—it was the point. At least that’s what the Bear told me.

****

Bear Braumoeller, much like the animal for which he is named, is a big dude. And like America’s favorite pants-less, anthropomorphized member of genus ursa, Dr. Braumoeller is smarter than average, too. He is the Associate Professor of Graduate Studies in the Department of Political Science at OSU, and was previously on the faculty at Harvard and University of Iliinois at Urbana-Champaign, respectively. When he isn’t waxing academic, Dr. Braumoeller is also the Governor of Slow Food Ohio as well as the president of the Columbus convivium of the same organization. We are seated on the patio at Till Dynamic Fare, enjoying one of Ohio’s rare, long fall evenings. A few days have passed since the tasting, and Bear has agreed to share some of the Slow Food ethos with me, in an attempt at unpacking what I had seemed to miss in my dining-induced state of onset hedonism.

By way of an introduction to Slow Food, Bear related the story of the Spanish Steps, the iconic Roman passage between the Piazza di Spagna below and the Piazza Trinita dei Monti above, and the ill-fated attempt to construct a McDonald’s there in the 1980s. The ever food-loving Romans couldn’t bear the thought of their beloved cultural landmark becoming sullied with the stain of American culinary commodification; the industrial nature of mass-produced, non-regionally specific American food was anathema to the storied history of Italian gastronomy. The protests and activism kept The Clown at bay, at least on the steps, and from them was born the International Slow Food Movement.

“Slow food is a reaction to fast food,” Bear informed me. For Bear, and other Slow Foodies, this isn’t simply an emphasis on food that takes a substantial amount of time to prepare, but also a conceptual slowing down of the mechanism that underlies our food choices. Fast food is an almost rote process; we tend to order the same thing every time we hit the drive-thru. This well-rehearsed scene is a part of what makes the process so fast. (As a thought experiment I’ll wager you already have an answer to the question, “Hot chicken! Hot chicken! What combo you pickin’ ?!”) Slow Food’s aim is for people to slow down and really think about what they are eating, where that food came from, in both cultural and geographic contexts.

To that end, Slow Food Columbus, and the larger national and international organizations, see themselves, at least in part, as educational groups. Professor Braumoeller describes one of the facets of their educational outreach as “taste education.” The curriculum takes the form of dinners that focus on a theme, like an ingredient or cuisine. This would include the dinner in question, with its Midwestern theme, as well as one previously manned by Chef Avishar Barua (see page 50), which introduced students to the myriad possibilities of the seemingly commonplace peppercorn.

Bear went on to explain that Slow Food is also akin to a consumer group, which helps diners “use the leverage of the market to their advantage.” The crux of this leverage, the fulcrum, if you will, is Slow Food’s “Ark of Taste” initiative, which according to slowfoodcolumbus.com is “Slow Food’s ongoing effort to enhance biodiversity by locating and promoting delicious, sustainable foods that have been left behind by the industrial food system.” The Ark is basically a repository for Ohio’s cottage and artisan-made food products as well as native and heirloom agricultural artifacts. The Ark of Taste is a way for people to discover their area’s unique culinary history and advocate for the adoption of specific products in stores and restaurants. (For example, see Glover’s use of the Buckeye Chicken, an heirloom breed native to Ohio. I’m told that the bird, with its long legs and small breasts, is the chicken’s answer to Taylor Swift.)

According to Bear, “at the center of the movement is pleasure. Taste Education, Slow Foods in schools, The Ark of Taste, and a focus on conviviality are all facets of that pleasure.”

Hearing this, that the movement is grounded in sharing the pleasure of food, finally brought the experience of the Midwestern dinner home for me. I thought I had missed the point—that I had missed the one exemplary dish that bespoke the true intention of Slow Food. The whole time I was afraid that I had gotten so wrapped up in the conversations about heritage animals and obscure regional food variations that I had missed the boat. But, at least according to Bear, this was the point; people coming together to enjoy a meal steeped in history and with a sense of place. A truly enjoyable course in what we eat and its connection to ourselves and our collective understanding of what food is and can be. Knowing this, I’ll be sure to never be tardy to Professor Braumoellers class again.

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