Best-Selling Author Chef Ming’s Thriving Career and Travel Tips

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Best-Selling Author Chef Ming's Thriving Career and Travel Tips

June 19, 2019

“I love the concept of a restaurant,” says Boston-based chef, best-selling author, culinary TV star and Inspirato Member Ming Tsai. “With great food and service, you can make people happy.” It’s that positive approach to cooking that has propelled Chef Ming, as he’s called, to the top of the food chain in the Boston area thanks to his signature restaurant, Blue Ginger, in Wellesley. It’s also led to the opportunity to cook for heads of state, China’s among them, as well as a private dinner party for the late poet Maya Angelou.

Tsai learned the ropes of the restaurant business from his mother who ran a Chinese restaurant, Mandarin Kitchen, in Dayton, Ohio. Despite a blue-blood education—Phillips Andover and a mechanical engineering degree from Yale—that prepared him to follow in his engineering father’s footsteps, not his mother’s, he spent his summers in Paris cooking, first at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu and then working in area restaurants. It was there that he realized his calling.

headshot-ming-tsai

“There I was, a first-generation Chinese-American, telling my immigrant parents that I want to be a chef,” laughs Tsai. “My mother was supportive, and my father just said, ‘Son, if you’re not passionate, you will not be a success.’ And that was that, I was a chef.”

Tsai earned his masters in hospitality from Cornell and then landed in Santa Fe, New Mexico’s famed Coyoté Café. By 1998, he and his wife had moved to Boston and opened Blue Ginger, which Tsai describes as a mix of East meets West cuisine (think garlic lobster or butterfish in a creamy miso sauce). In 2002, the James Beard Foundation named him Best Chef Northeast, and Blue Ginger has held onto its status as one of the top restaurants in the region.

Why Boston? “Our priorities were to find a city that was big enough to support a Chinatown, so we could easily supply the restaurant with the best ingredients, and had a sizable population that was well-traveled because if you’re well-traveled, you’ll appreciate good food and wine. We loved San Francisco, but the economics didn’t work, and it came down to New York or Boston. As a student, I already had a connection to Boston, so we chose Boston.”

Since then he’s collected an Emmy for his Food Network show, East Meets West with Ming Tsai. In 2013, in the hip Fort Point neighborhood, he opened Blue Dragon, which he describes as an Asian gastro pub (“Try the whole fried chicken,” Tsai says). Driving all his efforts is the deep-seated satisfaction his food brings out in people. “People who appreciate great food and wine will do what it takes to find it, and it’s those people who make being a chef the best.”

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Favorite Vacation Destination

“My family loves to ski, and I can’t wait to get out to Vail in the winter. What I like about vacation houses is that, as a cook, I have to have a kitchen to cook in—that’s why I don’t do hotels. We love Inspirato homes because they do a great job of stocking it with everything I need to feed my family.”

Must-Have Travel Ingredient

“You have to have garlic. In every cuisine around the world, there’s garlic, and the smell of garlic sautéing in butter or oil makes my mouth water and makes me feel instantly at home. Of course, in my opinion, ginger is the equal of garlic for its savory and sweet flavors.”

A Riesling Renaissance

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A Riesling Renaissance

June 19, 2019

“Rieslings at their best and brightest, do tend to be intensely memorable because they hit multiple senses in an utterly eyeopening manner.” If there were ever an onomatopoeic grape in the big, wide world of wine, it is handsdown Riesling. Come on, say it. Rieeeeessssslinggggg. It sounds … tingly. Refreshing. Zingy. Breezy, even. And you know what? That’s exactly what it tastes like, too. So why does everyone treat it like a candy sucker stuck to a floor mat? Well, not everyone—and maybe not much longer. For pretty much all sommeliers worth their salt, Riesling is Darling #1. Why? It’s nature’s perfect little dinner date—generally low in alcohol, with electric food-friendly acid beyond your wildest lightningbolt dreams, and it comes in a range of styles like the ultimate well-stocked wardrobe, from light and crisp to luscious and smoky. There’s an awful lot to adore in those tall, skinny, supermodelesque bottles of beloved Bacchus juice. “The first wine I tried that was inspirational and sort of took hold of my soul was the 1976 J.J. Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spatlese. It was relatively early in my wine drinking days—I was about 20— and my palate was still learning but also accepting of wines with residual sugar; but the fact was that the wine didn’t just stop there—the acid kicked in. And its length and purity of being stopped me and made me pay attention,” says sommelier and oneman Riesling rabblerouser Paul Grieco, who co-owns Hearth restaurant and the trio of quirky, inspiring wine bars: Terroir, Terroir Tribeca, and Terroir Murray Hill. “Twentyfive years later, I’m still remembering this wine. That says something.”

Indeed it does. Rieslings, at their best and brightest, do tend to be intensely memorable because they hit multiple senses in an utterly eye-opening manner. The sight of their beautifully bright hue; the incredible aromatics of everything from flowers to minerals to succulent pear or ginger or citrus; their touch on your tongue, so zippy with laserlike acidity translating into something dancingly light or lusciously mouth-filling; and the flavors, which can range from austere to orchard-ripe. But that’s the secret— that elusive, much touted word in wine: balance. Yes, some styles of Riesling have off-dry to downright sweet flavors. But most of the time, even with the sweetest of the sweet—what you might see on a German label as auslese or beerenauslese or that rollercoaster ride of a wine title trockenbeerenauslese— Rieslings still have this bright, linear current of electricity zipping through them, keeping the wines utterly buoyant and leaving your palate dry after all is swallowed and done. This grape has deep roots in Germany, but late-ripening Riesling has found itself a pretty good home in other parts of the world, too.

 “We revere Old World Riesling, of course, those from Germany and Austria and Alsace,” says Grieco. “But I’m also stoked about the New World and those expressions. The Finger Lakes is a world-class venue to grow world-class Riesling. There’s the Niagara Peninsula, Australia, New Zealand. I’m overjoyed by it all. “Maybe my heart and soul will say, ‘Paul, don’t you want to go back to that ’76 Prüm?’ Maybe so, but as my Riesling world has expanded, I’m just as intrigued by [aged Rieslings] from Victoria [Australia]. Or the Cave Spring 2008 [from the Niagara Peninsula]. Or the Hermann Wiemer Late Harvest Riesling 2009—which is the greatest Riesling produced ever in North America. It’s extraordinary.” Truly, Riesling wears a different dress for every dance. The cool climate Rieslings of Germany’s fine Mosel region take on fresh apple-orchard aromas and the kind of acid levels that make the juice dance in your mouth. In warmer regions, like Alsace, France; Austria; or even the Clare Valley in Australia, the aromas turn peachy, sometimes with a zesty lime quality to them. And the Finger Lakes? Be prepared to sigh over the honeysuckle and floral notes, with bits of orchard fruit and even some zesty grapefruit qualities, all with a backbone of acid that makes you sit up, smack your lips, and say, “Oh hey, what’s for dinner?” If all that makes you lick your lips in eager anticipation—and worry about the stock of your local boutique shop—don’t panic. There may well be more Rieslings coming to a glass near you. In the summer of 2008, Grieco decided that the only way to get wine lovers to drink more Riesling was to, well, force them. “As a beverage director, I would go to a table and suggest a Riesling for their dinner, but all I’d hear was ‘I don’t drink that because it’s sweet.’ From hearing that so many times, I wanted to make some converts. I was going to have to force you to have it if you were going to engage me in conversation,” he says.

Amalfi Coast Italy

For the 91 days of summer 2008, Grieco offered a radical plan: Riesling, and Riesling only, by the glass in each of his wine bars and at Hearth, too. No Chardonnay. No Pinot Grigio. No Gruner. And you know what? It worked. Since then, the Summer of Riesling has expanded all around the country, with about 500 restaurants and wine bars participating coast to coast for summer 2012. There has also been a parallel movement through the International Riesling Foundation to educate drinkers on the sweetness levels. Their biggest contribution: a simple, yet wildly effective taste scale that goes on the back of wine labels so consumers can figure out what to expect from the bottle. “It’s all about trying to re-jig the conversation of wine. You know what we say about Riesling [at Terroir]? When you drink it, you will be a better person. I believe that!” Grieco laughs. “How can you not drink a glass of Riesling, with its complexity and delicacy and balance and yumminess and sense of place, and not feel more in tune with yourself and those around you? It’s a glorious drink but there’s something demanding about it, too—it makes you pay attention, but as soon as it’s on your palate, you smile. You can’t help it. You have joy coursing through your veins.”

Five Fabulous Rieslings 
Perhaps the most intriguing characteristic of this summery varietal is … variety. Grown all around the world, Riesling assumes different personalities reflective of the region where it is produced. From Alsace in France to the Columbia River Valley to the rugged lands Down Under, Darling #1 is sure to surprise.

  1. Finger Lakes. 2008 Ravines Argetsinger: Bone dry. Crisply, bracingly, cracker dry. Lick-a-rock dry. Pleasebring-me-to-dinner dry, but with delicate notes of fresh herbs and honeysuckle, with a peach-pit, almost green-olive briny finish that makes you smack your lips for more, more, more.
  2. 2011 Grosset Clare Valley ‘Polish Hill’: Heady summer flowers and dribbles of nectarine and pear juice fill your mouth, but this lean and lovely Riesling still manages to keep a bit of buttoned-up austerity to its body and serene but long finish.
  3. Germany. 2009 J.J. Prum Auslese Mosel Bernkasteler Badstube: Racehorse acidity gallops through your mouth with a saddle full of Granny Smith apples and honeydew melon on its back, while the long, luxurious finish leaves you with a little spice and white pepper to think on. If you’re looking to age some Riesling, this isn’t a bad place to start.
  4. 2008 Albert Boxler Alsace, Grand Cru Sommerberg “e,” Alsace: Light on its frisky, floral feet but with a great, grounded minerality that keeps this wine from running away with its basket of ripe stone fruit.
  5. Washington State. 2010 Chateau Ste. Michele and Dr. Loosen Eroica Columbia ValleyThe result of a partnership between Washington State’s Chateau Ste. Michele and the famous Mosel Riesling producer, Dr. Loosen, offers great squeezes of tangerine and lime, aromas of orange blossom and zippy minerality.

Cognac’s Timeless Heritage

Cognac's Timeless Heritage

June 17, 2019

Once the drink of kings, cognacs is a storybook spirit that’s often overlooked. Now it is experiencing a renaissance in both culture and character. Inside the cavernous warehouse of the famed Hennessy Cognac brand, the rows of barrels stretch on endlessly, extending far into the dark depths known as Paradis. Paradise: where only the oldest, most delicate vintages sleep. But as I peer closely at the barrels, it’s evident that the history-laden world of Cognac is evolving. Alongside the flowery writing on each barrel—the work of a full-time calligrapher on staff—is a bar code. Yes, modern technology has arrived in paradise.

It seems fitting, this juxtaposition of old and new. Both the region of France known as Cognac and its eponymous grape brandy are steeped in history. And while this amber spirit once known as the Drink of Kings has developed a stodgy reputation, a new generation is innovating with Cognac to delightful effect, building new traditions on top of the old ways, from fresh expressions of the spirit to kicky Cognac-based cocktails.

Cognac’s Heritage 

About five hours southwest of Paris by car or train, the small cobblestoned city of Cognac sits on the banks of the river Charentes. Further south, by about two hours, is the famed wine-producing region of Bordeaux. Cognac owes much to its southwest location since it began life as a thriving river port, trading in local wines and salt from the nearby French Atlantic coast. When 17thcentury Dutch traders arrived, they soon discovered that wine could not survive long sea voyages, and they distilled it into a more concentrated, stable form: brandewijn (burnt wine). Further, delays in sea voyages led to the happy discovery that eau-de-vie improves when it is left in barrels for extended periods of time—mellowing and extracting gorgeous vanilla and caramel flavors from the French Limousin oak. Later, the French would refine the method of double distillation that produces Cognac as we know it today, while Anglo-Saxon merchants would export it to the rest of the world.

Liquid History

Visiting Cognac, it’s clear that the brandy business still drives the town. Everyone I meet is descended from an old Cognac growing or distilling family, or works for one of the 300-plus Cognac brands that surround the town square. These distilleries range from rustic to breathtakingly vast, the product of dynasties handed down from the 18th century. Regardless of size, one experience is universal: the wonderful fragrances that beckon from within the dark, quiet warehouses, where the barrels are racked and left to age. The distillers refer to the portion that evaporates from the barrel as the “Angel’s Share.” Just a few steps into Hennessy’s warehouse—the single largest producer of Cognac—and I realize that I’m inhaling that Angel’s Share. It’s like breathing liquid, boozy velvet.

There are a staggering array of brandies available throughout the region. It’s a collector’s bonanza: the tasting rooms and gift shops, even the bar at the Musee de Cognac (Cognac Museum) offer ample opportunity for sipping (and purchasing) rare and old bottlings that never make it to the United States. For example, most drinkers are accustomed to savoring snifters of XO (Extra Old) Cognac. But in Cognac, it’s not uncommon to see XXO (Extra Extra Old) Cognacs, a relatively new category considered by many to be the ultimate expression of the spirit. After a few hazy days spent sipping Cognac aged 30, 40, even 50 years, frankly, I think I’ve seen it all. “This is what history tastes like,” I muse. But I hadn’t seen anything yet. Back in the Paradis area of the Hennessy warehouse, I spot a dusty glass demijohn set off to one side. The elegant lettering reads simply: 1860. 1860. That means this Cognac was more than 150 years old. “Do you know what America was doing when this was made?” I marvel to a travel buddy. “We were building railroads. We were at the beginning of the industrial revolution.” He continues the thread, with the same awed tone. “We were preparing for the Civil War.” Simply amazing, to be in the presence of so much history.

Cognac 101: A Primer

Cognac is a grape brandy produced in the Cognac region. The rules imposed by the French government for making the spirit are strict: It can be made with only a handful of grape varieties, primarily Ugni Blanc. It must be distilled twice in traditional copper pot stills, and must be aged at least two years in French oak. The boundaries of the Cognac area were set down in 1909 and have been subdivided into seven areas (crus) of varying quality. In order of preference and quality they are: Grande Champagne—where the most prestigious Cognac originates—Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bon Bois, Bois Ordinaires, and Bois a Terroir. A final word, the bubbly we know as Champagne comes from a different area of France altogether, further north, and has nothing to do with Cognac. However, both take their name from the famous champagne soil of chalk and clay in which the grapevines grow.

Artisan Cognac

“Are you afraid of spiders?” Alexandre Gabriel inquires as we enter the Pierre Ferrand warehouse. No—and thank goodness, because the cobwebs run thick between the barrels, while colorful mold carpets the floor. Compared to the warehouses of the larger Cognac houses, this is truly an old-school artisan facility, narrow, dark and humid— an ideal environment for spiders, yes, but also for quietly aging Cognac. Gabriel, president and owner of the Ferrand distillery, produces a tool resembling a giant eyedropper to extract Cognac directly from the barrel, depositing it into a glass. Sipping, it tastes like melted butterscotch.

Emerging from the warehouse we blink into the late-afternoon sun. Just 10 kilometers from the center of town, it feels like deep countryside. To my left, Grande Champagne vineyards fade off gracefully into the horizon. To my right is the 18th-century Chateau de Bonbonnet, once owned by the Martell family; about 20 years ago, Gabriel purchased it and turned it into his home as well as Cognac Ferrand’s state-of-the-art blending facility. In addition to the old-school Cognac, Gabriel has a few newer ideas percolating too. For example, a line of rum finished in former Cognac casks. When bottled, each will be laced with complex Cognac flavor, extracted from its time in the previously used barrels.

Also, he has rolled out a couple of new (but historically accurate) products with mixologists in mind. Advised by cocktail historian David Wondrich, Gabriel now offers Pierre Ferrand 1840, a highly concentrated (90 proof) VS Cognac intended for cocktail use, closely modeled on an extremely rare and well-preserved bottle of Pinet-Castillon Cognac from 1840. (Gabriel has an extraordinary collection of old Cognac bottles in his madscientist laboratory inside the Chateau de Bonbonnet.) Also in conjunction with Wondrich, Ferrand is launching a Dry Curacao—a drier, bitter version of the orange liqueur made in the 1800s. He provides me with a sample: It’s immediately evident that it’s blended with Cognac as the bitter-orange flavor melds with vanilla. I tucked my Curacao sample away. I couldn’t wait to take it home and mix it into a Sidecar cocktail—perhaps one made with the oldest Cognac I’d scored during my visit. It seemed like the only fitting way to toast to Cognac’s past and future.

‘Cognac is a coquette. She has no age’

Buy a bottle of scotch and there’s no question about the age of the liquid inside. It’s proudly declared on the label: 12 years old, 20 years old, etc. But with Cognac, the lines are blurred. It’s typical for Cognac houses to blend together eau de vie of various vintages. Age ranges can vary widely—a blend of 5-yearold to 50-year-old spirits is a real possibility. The lower end of the age range is indicated in an alphabet stew of classifications. VS (Very Special) means the youngest eau de vie in the blend is no less than two years old; VSOP (Very Old Superior Pale) means the youngest is at least four years old. XO (Extra Old) puts the youngest eau de vie at at least six years old. Most of the Cognac sold in the United States is either VS or VSOP. A final word, this point about the amorphous age of Cognac was driven home for me by a monologue from a Remy-Martin tour guide. Roughly 60-something, chic, willow-thin, with cropped blonde hair and a long, embroidered jacket, she was the embodiment of The Real Housewives of Cognac. “Cognac is a coquette,” she cooed. “Cognac is feminine in that it doesn’t give its age directly. ‘Hello, I’m VSOP.’” And although no one asked, she continued, “How old am I? Like Cognac, I have no age.”

Savor the Flavor | Five Rare Cognacs Worth Seeking Out

1. Hine Triomphe. Purported to have been Winston Churchill’s favorite Cognac, this blend of more than 50 old Cognacs includes both fruit and fresh floral notes. Consider trying this served glace, or frozen to a syrupy consistency, as a dessert pairing. 

2. Pierre Ferrand Selecion Des Anges. Made with 30-year-old Cognac, this rich and mellow spirit yields warm flavors reminiscent of dried fruit, toffee, almond and Sauternes with a long, smooth finish. 

3. Frapin Chateau De FontPinot XO. One of the smoothest Cognacs around, with a copper-penny color and complex flavors of coffee, hazelnuts, and bittersweet cocoa, tapering off to an elegant caramel note. 

4. Paul-Marie & Fils Tres Vieux Pineau. Traveling around Cognac, you’ll surely see distilleries advertising Pineau des Charentes, a blend of Cognac and unfermented grape must. In the United States, French restaurants such as Daniel, Per Se and Le Bernardin now serve this food-friendly aperitif rarely seen outside Belgium or France. This version is aged 25 years. 

5. Remy-Martin Coeur De Cognac. A light and lovely interpretation of Cognac with orange peel and vanilla aromas, crème brulee flavors, a creamy feel and lingering finish. Lovely served over ice with a curl of orange peel. Not available in the United States. 

The New York City Chefs You Have to Try

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The New York City Chefs You Have to Try

June 3, 2019

“There’s a lot to learn and the world is getting smaller,” says renowned chef David Bouley as he presides over an eight-course tasting menu at Brushtroke, his elegant Japanese restaurant in lower Manhattan. The chef who transformed French cuisine at his namesake Bouley restaurant has made an even greater leap by pursuing the culinary sensibilities of Japan.

“Hopefully we can indulge in the benefits and learn to share them,” he says. “And if we can find other cuisines that can help us without losing our own identity, then it’s all good stuff.”

The Connecticut-born, French-trained chef and restaurateur Bouley opened Brushstroke in 2011 in partnership with Japan’s Tsuji Culinary Institute. Featuring seasonal tasting menus known as kaiseki, Bouley and his chefs (he oversees Brushstroke but doesn’t cook there) employ classical Japanese techniques to devise food that’s healthy, flavorful and aesthetically pleasing. The autumn menu included a kabocha and butternut squash soup, Alaskan rock fish and smoked duck breast.

“I didn’t shift cuisines,” says Bouley. “I contribute what I think Americans are interested in, so I’m sort of an editor. I work with them in terms of my indigenous ingredients and my techniques, and together we’ve been able to build almost a new cuisine.”

Bouley is just one of many restaurant owners and cooks inspired by the food of another culture. New York is a city of immigrants, so maybe it’s not surprising that the hands-on owners of the sturgeon shop on New York City’s Upper East Side are Chinese brothers from Hong Kong—and that the manager of a century-old smoked fish emporium on the Lower East Side is from the Dominican Republic.

Or that the restaurateur behind one of the city’s most highly acclaimed sushi restaurants comes from an Italian-American background. Or that the brother and sister cooking Southeast Asian-influenced Cajun food in lower Manhattan are Jewish.

Bouley is just one of many restaurant owners and cooks inspired by the food of another culture. New York is a city of immigrants, so maybe it’s not surprising that the hands-on owners of the sturgeon shop on New York City’s Upper East Side are Chinese brothers from Hong Kong—and that the manager of a century-old smoked fish emporium on the Lower East Side is from the Dominican Republic.

New York, after all, is a melting pot when it comes to dining. But what’s remarkable about so many of those bringing another culture’s food to the city’s tables is how open-heartedly and passionately they’re embracing their adopted cuisines, what they’re learning from them and how they’re creating dishes that are refreshingly innovative. From watching  Japanese chefs at work, Bouley learned everything from the proper way to harvest fish to the health benefits of using fermented foods. “I’ve always been a French-trained chef who works from raw ingredients,” Bouley says. “If I can enhance the raw ingredients, I can build a better experience for my customers.”

Which is exactly what Julie and Will Horowitz, the brother and sister from White Plains (30 miles north of Manhattan), are doing at Ducks Eatery, a homey, brick-walled restaurant in a single-story building in the East Village.

They come from a family tradition of cooking: Their maternal grandfather was a fisherman on Long Island (“we source most of our seafood from out there”), and their maternal grandmother was a French-trained chef. Their paternal great-grandparents owned a delicatessen in Harlem.

“Just being here feels very powerful because we are reliving our family’s legacy,” says Julie, the GM and co-owner. The siblings still have their great-grandfather’s pastrami/brisket knife, “so every time we cook a brisket or pastrami, [for a special event] we slice it with his knife.”

What makes the Ducks menu special is rooted in what Will calls “heritage techniques”—drying, curing, fermenting, pickling, smoking and aging—used at delis for generations. They merge these approaches with the flavors of the places they’ve traveled, especially New Orleans and Southeast Asia.

There’s spicy brisket jerky, Rocky Point oysters with jalapeño mignonette and Yakamein soup (brisket and clams with sora noodles), “which I believe is Creole for the ultimate hangover cure,” Julie says. Every week in the summer there’s a crawfish boil with Cajun spices. For dessert, how about a New Orleans favorite with an urban edge? Beignets with dark chocolate espresso sauce.

“People who have eaten here are taken aback by how we look and what our background is,” says Julie, who’s 28 but doesn’t look old enough to drink. “Will [who’s 32] and I enjoy the shock element.”

Recently a customer from Memphis who said he smoked his own meat ordered the hickory-smoked St. Louis ribs. “There’s always the fear of, ‘This isn’t authentic, what are you thinking, Yankee?’” Julie says. But the customer was happy, and “for the most part, we have really great feedback.”

Enthusiastic praise also greeted Alessandro Borgognone when he opened Sushi Nakazawa in the West Village in 2013. An Italian-American, Borgognone had spent years working at Patricia’s, his family’s Italian restaurant in the Bronx. Then he saw the 2011 documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, about Jiro Ono, an exacting Tokyo sushi chef in his eighties who earned three Michelin stars. He knew he wanted to open a sushi restaurant.

Borgognone emailed Ono’s former apprentice, Daisuke Nakazawa, and two weeks later got a call back. Nakazawa was interested in opening a restaurant in New York, “but first he had to get to know me as a person,” Borgognone says.

“My background is: If you have a great idea, I’d say, ‘Come on, let’s do it.’ He wanted to know how many kids I have, the kids’ ages, where they went to school, what they like to do for fun and what I did for fun. He had to get to know me as a person before he would entertain the idea of going into business with me.”

By getting to know one another, as people and through food, the two men found that in cultural and culinary ways they weren’t far apart.

“The main goal is very similar,” Borgognone says, “creating something that’s going to be perfect.” Sushi is “very different from a plate of spaghetti, garlic and oil, but again it’s very similar. Italian cuisine is very simple and minimalistic, and the simpler you are the better.”

Which echoes Borgognone and Nakazawa’s approach to sushi: “The fish is really the highlight, and the rice. It’s buying the best ingredients that we could find in order to make it perfect.” While Nakazawa strives for perfection in his sushi creations, Borgognone has the same goal for the restaurant’s service and ambiance. “I paint every three months,” he says in his strong New York accent. “We keep it crisp; we keep it clean.”

Brash and confident, Borgognone, 34, says running a Japanese restaurant is shaping him not just as a businessman but as a person. “As a restaurant owner, I’ve learned you get more bees with honey,” he says.

Borgognone says he feels a strong kinship with the Japanese way of relentlessly seeking to be the best. “They’re not content with just being good,” he says. “They are looking for perfection. And I think it’s rubbing off on me, not settling. Never settle.”

A similar attitude has made Sable’s the place to go for smoked salmon, sturgeon and pickled herring on the Upper East Side. Brothers Kenny and Danny Sze came from Hong Kong to New York City as teenagers and went right to work at the legendary Zabar’s on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where they learned how to select, trim and slice smoked fish.

“At Zabar’s, we started at the bottom,” Kenny says, but soon he became manager of the appetizer department, a post he held for 12 years. “Zabar’s was like college for us. All the old-timers from Eastern Europe were there; now they’re all gone or retired. They taught us how to make pickled herring, whitefish salad, chopped liver, chicken soup with matzo balls.”

The brothers felt the Upper East Side lacked a great place for the kind of smoked fish and caviar beloved by the city’s Jewish community. “I knew I was good, and that if I opened my own place it would be a success,” Kenny says. The Sze brothers have endeared themselves to their customers by giving out tastes and peppering conversation with the occasional Yiddish phrase, such as Chag Sameach (Happy Holiday).

Sable’s has now been open for a quarter-century. “We’ve got to be good,” Danny says. “All our customers here are mavens; we have probably 80 to 90 percent Jewish customers. If we’re not good, forget it.”

Photos of celebrity customers paper the walls. “Rodney Dangerfield would come in here and say, ‘Hey, how come no taste for me? I don’t get no respect.’ He would stay and schmooze for a while,” Danny says. “Mayor [Ed] Koch was a regular customer, too.”

On the Lower East Side, where so many Jewish immigrants landed a century or more ago, a similar story has unfolded at Russ & Daughters. Opened in 1914, the smoked fish counter on Houston Street has been owned by the Russ family for more than a century.

Yet the man whom fourth-generation owners Niki Russ Federman and John Russ Tupper call “the soul of Russ & Daughters” is Herman Vargas, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic. In 1980, when he was 18, Vargas started there by washing dishes and peeling onions. He didn’t expect to stay too long—he’d come to the U.S. to get an engineering degree—but found the family atmosphere akin to the communal feeling he enjoyed in the Dominican Republic.

Soon Vargas moved up to work the counter, selling everything from pickled herring to white- fish to caviar. A regular customer came in, saw Vargas and asked to speak to the manager. “Now you have Puerto Ricans working here? What does a Puerto Rican know about schmaltz herring and smoked salmon?” the man asked. In the ’80s, Vargas says, “anyone in New York who spoke Spanish was considered Puerto Rican.”

That customer “turned to me and says, ‘Wait on me? Not in a million years,’ ” Vargas recalls. “I was like, wow, how will I break the barrier to let people know that I really want to serve them? I made a conscious decision not to allow rejection to be a hindrance.” Vargas noticed that the manager greeted customers by saying: “Vos makht ir, yid?” (“How are you doing?” literally, “How is a Jew doing?”). Vargas would take a little pad and phonetically write down, Vos makht ir, yid.

“So when a customer would come in, I’d say, ‘Vos makht ir, yid?’ And the guy just cracked up laughing. He says, ‘What is this, a Puerto Rican speaking Yiddish?’ And he would say, ‘Can you cut lox?’ And I would say, ‘Well, if I can speak Yiddish, I can certainly cut lox.’” Vargas practiced the art of cutting smoked salmon very thin because, “I knew it was important for people who wanted the maximum amount of slices out of every pound, and also some people believe that the thinner you cut it the better it tastes.”

Word on the street was Vargas was so skilled that you could read The New York Times through his smoked salmon slices. Calvin Trillin, who wrote about Russ & Daughters for The New Yorker, has a character in his novel, Tepper Isn’t Going Out, called “Herman the Artistic Slicer.” And there are so many more stories: Italian-Brazilian restaurateur Marco Moreira became a celebrated sushi chef in the 1980s when just about every sushi chef was Japanese. He opened the sushi restaurant 15 East and also runs Tocqueville.

Moreira has just returned to his roots, having opened a sleek Brazilian eatery called Botequim at the Hyatt Union Square last September. “I am a Brazilian, non-Brazilian guy learning to make Brazilian cuisine,” Moreira says. “Now that I’m opening a Brazilian restaurant, I feel like a foreigner.”

Leonardo Vasquez left Guatemala 20 years ago and landed in Queens at a deli called Pastrami Queen that has since moved to Manhattan’s Upper East Side. A Puerto Rican manager taught Vasquez how to cook pastrami, corned beef and other Jewish delicacies, Vasquez says. “He could tell us in Spanish how to make matzo ball soup.”

Vasquez, 38, has spent more than half his life working at Pastrami Queen and makes some of the best pastrami and knishes in New York. “So famous the knishes … we sell them every day, so many,” he says. “The pastrami, same thing.” But don’t ask for the recipe. “We don’t give it away,” he says with a smile. “No way.”

And then there’s Marcus Samuelsson, the Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised chef whose Harlem restaurant, Red Rooster, serves African-American comfort food and has helped reinvigorate the neighborhood. Like many great chefs and immigrants, Samuelsson’s ambitions seem boundless.

After tremendous success at New York’s Aquavit, Samuelsson moved to Harlem and spent three years learning about the neighborhood, its culture and culinary traditions. He won a Top Chef Masters competition in 2010 and that year opened Red Rooster, which has brought countless people from other parts of the city and beyond to Harlem.

“You have to have a deeper interaction with the city,” Samuelsson said on NPR’s Fresh Air. “If you can connect the city, you can really change the footprint of dining.” And maybe even the way people see the world.

This Traveling Chef’s Exotic Cooking Show Changed the Game

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This Traveling Chef's Exotic Cooking Show Changed the Game

May 13, 2019

On his television show No Kitchen Required, celebrated Chef Kanye Raymond gives a whole new definition to the term ‘outdoor kitchen.’ When he sees a whale in the ocean, Kayne Raymond doesn’t grab a camera. He jumps in the water. “The captain and I both dove in,” says Raymond, reminiscing about a humpback whale he saw earlier this year. “I’m always jumping in to things, even if it scares me. I just don’t think about it. I have plenty of fears but I have a lot of confidence. When you have a little bit of fear, you get that rush. That’s why I’m a good chef. I feed off it.”

Good chef is an understatement. Midway through the airing of his first television series, No Kitchen Required on BBC, Raymond has just spent 13 weeks filming the reality television show on various islands and in exotic countries around the world. A bit like Survivor-meets-Top Chef, he and veteran chefs Michael Psilakis and Madison Cowan traveled to far-flung locales where they were celebrated by tribesmen and women who they turned around and cooked for the next day. This is no “stocked pantry, mystery ingredient” affair. Part of the challenge was not just cooking traditional fare—with a personal twist, of course—but in procuring the ingredients. And sometimes those ingredients were jungle rodents or other critters.

Meant to be a grueling, boundary-pushing experience, it was something else for Raymond. (Of course it was. Spend five minutes talking to him and it’s easy to see Chef Kayne has a fairly different perspective on life.) Having spent the past five years helping his wife, Linda, beat cancer; raising their daughter, Miela; as well as working full time as a private chef, Raymond was flat-out spent and ready to shake things up.

“It’s been super, super tough for everybody in the whole family,” he explains, talking about Linda’s fight. “But this show—it was great going away because I was drained. I used it as a break to go and find who I was again, so I absolutely flourished.”

The chefs knew vaguely where they’d be heading when they committed to the show, though nothing specific. Everyone received a packet of basic information on local customs before they rolled into the villages, a basic summation of what was and wasn’t acceptable behavior. But other than that, Raymond didn’t study up.

“For me, it was better to go with an open heart, open arms. To just go and learn,” he says. “I think if I’d read up on a lot of stuff, it wouldn’t have gone so well. If you don’t have preconceived notions of how it’s going to work or what it’s supposed to be, then you can just enjoy how it happens.”

He admits it’s a sentiment that translates to the rest of his life. To wit: If you want to go by the book, it probably doesn’t include starting a relationship with a woman who’s in the middle of chemotherapy treatments. He was nervous before his first date with Linda, putting on his best shirt to spruce himself up. He had only seen her at work in her work clothes. When she pulled up in her Barracuda muscle car, wigless and flaunting her tattoos, he looked up to the sky, laughed, took off the fussy shirt and climbed into her car. He was home. They’ve been together ever since.

“I’m surrounded by powerful women,” he admits. Raymond includes his mother in that statement. A single mom, she raised her kids with support and patience—though she did find it irritating that as soon as she would put a plate of food in front of her son, he would lean over and sniff it deeply. To his mom, it looked like bad manners, though all has been revealed now.

Raymond has been on the move since he was 19. Raised in Auckland, New Zealand, he lit out for Australia before cooking his way through Southeast Asia and Europe. He ended up in California when some private clients fell in love with him on their boat in the Caribbean and brought him home with them. He now lives in San Francisco. “I love this city—the ocean, the diversity. It reminds me of Auckland,” he says. Though he digs the road and easily can spend three hours in a coffee shop chatting with whomever walks by, he’s glad to be home for a while.

“The food thing’s easy—I can chef with my eyes closed,” he says. “But I won’t ever be able to watch my daughter take her first steps again. I won’t always be able to watch her being 5. That’s all important stuff, too. It’s about balance, about getting the balance right.”

Miela takes after her father: She jumps off of whatever presents itself, and though she’s a great swimmer (he’s an avid surfer), she doesn’t like cold water, period. “We like going places as a family,” he explains. “Family time is so important.” 

The Founder of the World’s Favorite Vacation Spirit Gives Back

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The Founder of the World's Favorite Vacation Spirit Gives Back

May 9, 2019

The man at the helm of the world’s largest privately-owned spirits company, Facundo L. Bacardi balances his professional life with his charitable foundation, as well as personal downtime. Growing up, Facundo L. Bacardi learned the importance of giving to his community. After all, his family—whose name is synonymous with rum— has been recognized for generations for its altruism and compassion.

“Long before philanthropy was fashionable, the Bacardi family would offer support in Santiago and Havana, Cuba, that eased the everyday burdens Cubans faced,” says Bacardi, chairman of the board of Bacardi Limited, the world’s largest privately held spirits company, still family-owned. “Those values have been handed down from generation to generation.”

In addition to his duties as chairman, Facundo L. Bacardi serves as executive director of the Facundo and Amalia Bacardi Foundation, named for the company’s founder, Don Facundo Bacardí Massó, and his wife. “The foundation is an extension of the family’s core belief of providing for the general well-being of citizens in our communities,” Bacardi says. “It was my great-great grandparents who initiated the development of the philanthropic values we still hold true today.”

Don Facundo distributed food after a devastating earthquake in Cuba in 1852, and he was quick to loan money to his friends to help pay for reconstruction. Bacardi family members in a number of countries have established foundations that reflect their forbearers’ values. The Facundo and Amalia Bacardi Foundation focuses on bettering the lives of less fortunate residents of Florida through assistance in food and housing, education, medical research and health, environment and historical preservation. “Witnessing the deep impact one can make in the lives of others,” Bacardi says, “makes everything else pale in comparison.”

The roots of the family’s philanthropic culture go back to Santiago de Cuba, where Don Facundo, the son of a Catalonian bricklayer, immigrated in 1830. He became a wine merchant and purchased a small distillery with bats in the rafters. Pioneering an innovative rum-making process, he opened the Bacardi company in 1862. Nearly a century later, after surviving war, earthquakes, epidemic diseases and Prohibition in the United States, Bacardi lost all its Cuban assets to Cuban revolutionary government forces.

Subsequently, the company established its headquarters in Hamilton, Bermuda. Today, Bacardi has 27 manufacturing facilities worldwide, and its portfolio boasts some of the most ubiquitous and iconic brands behind the bar, including Bacardi rum, Grey Goose vodka, Dewar’s Blended Scotch whisky, Martini vermouth and sparkling wines and Bombay Sapphire gin. Bacardi says he takes a personal pride in the popularity of the drinks. “We continue to receive awards for the quality, taste and innovations,” he says, “by pursing the same philosophy as my ancestors’.”

Although Bermuda is the company’s adopted home, he says the Bacardi heritage and roots are proudly Cuban. The company’s offices in Hamilton are located in a building designed by German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, which was originally intended for Cuba but is now a landmark in Bermuda. 

Naturally, Bacardi and members of his family understand how a quality product can help create a memorable experience, whether it’s a celebration with friends or a vacation with loved ones. “Everyone wants to experience the best in life, and it is high-end brands—representing the very best in quality—which help achieve this by delivering the very best experience,” he says. He describes a luxury brand as one that can be trusted to consistently deliver top quality. “That can only be achieved through exceptional care, attention to detail and a drive to perfection,” he says.

“For us at Bacardi, it’s about the best ingredients, a process meticulously crafted 150 years ago and the complete experience of that perfect sip.” So what does the complete experience of a quality vacation entail for a man who knows quality when he sees it? “Consumer expectations have risen, leading to a greater demand for a heightened experience,” Bacardi says, noting that vacations are no longer simply two people relaxing in a one-bedroom unit. “The vacation experience is about spending time with family and friends. And in the world we live in today, security is an integral part of any vacation. The destinations that can capitalize on these components will be leaders of the industry.”

Bacardi’s most memorable vacations are often at beaches, with ocean-side accommodations and a stand-up paddleboard ready to hit the water. He’s a big fan of Italy’s Amalfi Coast, Australian beaches, St. Barts, the Dominican Republic and Hawaii’s Big Island. With a hectic schedule at home, he savors every moment of a low-key, relaxing getaway. “My typical schedule is too activity-filled,” he says. “I need some downtime.”

And of course, what’s a vacation without his favorite cocktails? “Without a doubt my favorite beach cocktail is the Original Bacardi Cuba Libre—Bacardi rum, cola and freshly squeezed lime over ice.” And as an aperitif? Grey Goose vodka dry martini, he says. With two olives.

Exquisite Wines You Have to Try from Around The World​

Exquisite Wines You Have to Try from Around The World

April 22, 2019

There are many terrific reasons to collect wine: investment, showcase, commemoration, hobby. Some collect it simply because they enjoy good wine and want to have unfettered access to exceptional bottles. Others collect as an investment because there truly is value in some great bottles from around the world. And others collect because … it’s fun. Whether your cellar consists of a handful of special vintages or cases of futures, there is always room for a few more excellent bottles of wine. But as days lengthen and grow warmer, we think more about enjoying wine in the sunshine rather than stashing it away for a special occasion. Here are some out-of-this-world finds worth drinking right now. Destination Cellars Estate Sommelier Sean Q. Meyer specializes in hand-tailoring experiences for wine lovers seeking exclusive and personalized access to prestigious properties and vineyards around the world.

One of my favorite spring ingredients is the morel mushroom. And my favorite grape to drink with morels is Pinot Noir. There is something perfect about the way Pinot fruit and earthiness work with the mushroom. One of our favorite producers of Pinot Noir in California is the small production, little-known Arista winery, founded in 2002 by the McWilliams family. It is in every way a family-run operation, from the founders whose vision made it possible to their sons who manage the day-to-day operations.

The founding family enjoys sharing their story firsthand with visitors, and you will simply not find a family more passionate about its craft. But the wines speak for themselves. They show profound elegance, complexity and the ability to cellar for several years: three things not always common to California grapes. Arista’s fruit comes from the Bacigalupi Vineyard, which lays claim to its own share of history. It’s the same vineyard that produced the Chardonnay grapes for the famous 1973 Chateau Montelena, which won top prize for white wines tasted at the 1976 “Judgement of Paris.” And some of those vines still grow alongside the Pinot Noir grapes that make this wine. But history or no, it’s an exceptional label and an excellent wine.

Grüner Veltliner is a great wine for spring and summer. There is a spectacular balance of fruity and savory essences, framed beautifully by the natural acidity of the grape. Fruit flavors such as green apple, pear, lime and white peach are interwoven with fresh notes of white pepper, daikon, watercress and tarragon. This dichotomy of flavors provides a tremendous amount of versatility for food and wine pairing. Grüner can often be the perfect wine for all of your challenging pairings such as asparagus, lentils and artichokes. It also pairs well with spring onions, chives, ramps and green garlic.

In the Wachau, the ripeness of grapes and potential alcohol is named on the label using local terms. Steinfeder (a kind of local grass) is the least ripe and lowest in alcohol. Federspiel (a falconer’s tool) rates right in the middle. And Smaragd (an emerald-colored lizard found in the vineyards) is the ripest with the highest alcohol. Hitzberger was one of the first estates to take a “no compromises” approach to quality. In fact, many consider them to be nearly singlehandedly responsible for the incredible spike in quality throughout the region. Sauvignon Blanc is, in my opinion, at its best in the Loire Valley of France. The racy acidity, bright lemon and lime flavors, and profound minerality make it a must-have as either an aperitif or as a first-course wine at any spring feast.

The Vacheron family has had an extraordinary impact on Sancerre from the turn of the 20th century. Currently, Jean-Laurent (the fourth generation to tend the estate) handles the majority of the operations. The winery was certified organic in 2003 and converted to biodynamic agriculture in 2004. Due to the extra care in the vineyard, the wines excel at communicating a sense of place. There is a focus and intensity to these wines, which makes them among the best.

This time of year always carries a certain amount of excitement and anticipation for those in the wine trade. In April, all of the Chateaux in Bordeaux open up their doors to the sommeliers, wine writers, importers, distributors and retailers to show how the wines of the current vintage are developing. The event is known as En Primeur, and most of the production in Bordeaux is sold this way.

Consumers are also able to make a commitment to futures and pay for their wines now and take delivery when they are finished, roughly two years following the purchase. In great vintages this can be a good gamble, as the pricing for futures is often well under the price of the released wine. Most years we attend and often bring groups with us. The stories from these trips are always exciting and sometimes amusing.

Last year, when visiting Smith-Haut-Lafitte, we were hosted by one of the owners, Florence Cathiard. To say she is a woman of profound charm and grace would be an understatement. As her guests, we were shown every nook and cranny of the beautiful estate. As the tour concluded, she brought us to a room where, with a click of a handheld remote, the floor opened to reveal the stairs to a cellar full of wines dating back more than 100 years, beautifully chosen artwork and cool jazz softly playing on an audiophile-grade system.

The tour of the cellar was absolutely magical. As it was time to go to our tasting and dinner, we started leaving the cellar. With nearly everyone out, the doors began to close, seemingly of their own accord, trapping three from our group in the underground cellar. The lights and music were set to automatically shut off when the doors shut, keeping our guests quite literally in the dark. A look of panic crossed our host’s face. Something was wrong with the doors and they would not open. Rather than cries of panic, we heard calls for a corkscrew from our trapped compatriots.

After some fiddling with the controls and the hydraulics, the doors opened and our companions were free once again. After our little ordeal, we were escorted to a dining room at the Chateau and served a delightful meal paired with their wines. Of all of the places we visited, I am certain that our new friends will never forget their visit to Smith-Haut-Lafitte and the great comedy of being trapped in a room full of extraordinary wines.

Artisan Food Marketplace Founder Gives Her Best Travel Tips

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Artisan Food Marketplace Founder Gives Her Best Travel Tips

April 10, 2019

“Food and drink really bring people together and make for long-lasting memories,” says Mindy Schapiro, event planner and co-founder of Emporiyum, an annual marketplace that brings artisan food producers from across the country to Baltimore and Washington, DC. “Some of my earliest travel memories are being in Mexico with my family when I was 10 or 11 and eating the food there.

Even then I loved its freshness and simplicity. Today, eating Mexican food transports me back to those trips. Food isn’t just about eating, but about the whole experience.”

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Schapiro co-founded Emporiyum with Sue-Jean Chun to facilitate food experiences for others. “Visiting Smorgasburg [a food “flea market”] in Brooklyn, it blew me away,” she says. “I saw no reason we couldn’t have something similar, but on a smaller scale, in Baltimore and D.C.” The first Emporiyum debuted in Balitmore in 2014. It sold out with 2,500 people buying tickets to meet and sam- ple food made by nearly 70 different producers, from Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream (from Columbus, Ohio) to Mobtown Meat Snacks (Baltimore), Quin Candy (Oregon) and celebrity chef Bryan Voltaggio. The first D.C. Emporiyum was last fall. Baltimore’s second was in April. And there’s another in D.C. this fall.

How does Schapiro pick the purveyors? “I need to try the product before we let them in,” she says. “We’re not just looking for interesting food, but also great personalities. Meeting the vendors behind the brands—hearing why and how a soda is made or sisters talking about their mom’s chocolate- covered pretzels and why they decided to turn that into their business (Fatty Sundays)—that’s part of the experience.” Traveling to find these purveyors are what Schapiro always looks forward to. “Wherever we go I spend at least one day checking out the local food scene,” she says.

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Mindy on Travel

Will Travel for Food: “The food scene is a huge factor in deciding where we travel. My favorite food cities are definitely Charleston, San Francisco, Los Angeles—Sugarfina there is one the world’s great candy stores—Hong Kong and, recently, Washington D.C. I don’t need fancy—give me a great burger, great fries and a great shake and I’m happy—but as a family we don’t shy away from fancy either. Over Christmas we took our two young sons to the Michelin three-star Flocons de Sel in Megève, France, and it was one of our best meals ever.”

Finding the Most Authentic Food Experiences: “Instead of asking Destination Concierges for the best restaurants, I ask them for good food resources in their city. That’s how I found Edible Excursions in San Francisco; Lisa is amazing, familiar with both restaurants that have been around forever and also the new places that seem to open every week. I also find foodies on Instagram and look for food bloggers in the cities I’m traveling to. In L.A., I go to consumingla. com. In Charleston, CharlestonFoodBloggers’ Instagram feed is an amazing resource.”

Colorado Chefs/Foragers Turn Local Mushrooms Into Exquisite Edibles

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Colorado Chefs/Foragers Turn Local Mushrooms Into Exquisite Edibles

April 9, 2019

Chad Scothorn wears two sets of work clothes. Mornings, he dons hiking pants and a long-sleeved shirt for mush- room-gathering missions in the mountains around Telluride. His pant legs are stained from kneeling on the duff, but the skin-covering, safari-style outfit protects against bug bites. “When the mushrooms are at their peak, the flies are pretty bad,” Scothorn explains.

Come afternoon, the 55-year-old scrubs the soil from his fingernails and exchanges his foraging garb for a starched white chef ’s jacket. On a good day, he will have stockpiled some 40 pounds of wild edible mushrooms that will accent that night’s dinner dishes at Cosmopolitan, the Telluride restaurant he opened after earning national acclaim at Chadwick’s and Beano’s Cabin ( both in Beaver Creek, Colorado). He dusts sea scallops with porcini powder before searing them, and makes mushroom-based vegetable stocks that stand in for beef broth. “People talk about the farm-to-table movement, but this is almost better,” Scothorn says. “You can’t get any more organic than wild-grown.”

With 300 to 400 types of mushrooms growing around Telluride, this mountain town has long been a hub for mushroom-lovers. The Telluride Mushroom Festival started in 1981 as a celebration of all things fungi, including the mind altering properties of some, but now instead showcases their culinary and reparative powers: Experts converge here every August to sup on shrooms (in 2015 La Marmotte chef Mark Reggiannini hosted a multi-course mushroom dinner for festival goers) and share developments in mycoremediation (the burgeoning science of using fungi to clean up environmental contaminants).

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But Telluride holds no monopoly on mush- rooms: The whole state is a hotbed. More than 2,000 varieties have been identified, making it the second-largest concentration of edible mush- rooms in the United States (trailing the Pacific Northwest). And interest in them has never been greater, especially among gourmands.

“Mushrooms are on the upswing,” says Maggie Klinedinst, executive director of the Telluride Mushroom Festival. “They’ve become cool, almost a hipster thing, like pickling veggies and brewing your own kombucha.” Nationwide, more and more people are foraging for mushrooms or growing them themselves. “It’s part of the whole revival of farming and getting in touch with your food,” says Klinedinst. Many proponents are surprisingly young, in their 20s and 30s, Klinedinst says.

Scothorn was 36 when he started scavenging for mushrooms, having found himself in one of the nation’s richest hunting grounds. And with the most esteemed mushroom experts leading educational forays into Telluride’s forests every summer, Scothorn learned plenty. “I couldn’t have found that opportunity anywhere else in the world,” he says, having gleaned identification and harvesting techniques from the likes of Gary Lincoff (author of a host of books, including the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms).

Scothorn collects his treasures in a box or paper bag—never plastic, which steams and smashes the ’shrooms. He cuts the mushrooms at ground level, rather than digging down into the soil and disturbing the sub-surface parent fungus (called the mycelium). And he carries a small sponge, like the ones painters use, to scrub each mushroom before adding it to his crate. By cleaning his mushrooms in the field rather than back in the kitchen, he keeps them from becoming impregnated with dirt and stimulates the next crop. “There’s a saying that if you field- clean your mushrooms, you help spread the spores,” he explains.

That’s key, given eaters’ voracious appetite for Colorado mushrooms. Its chanterelles have an incomparable apricot fragrance, and its porcinis are on par with Italy’s finest. After sampling them in Tuscany and around the world, Scothorn says, “Ours are the best.”

Word has gotten out. On summer afternoons, pickups sit parked along Colorado’s dirt byways. If the truck is muddy, with mismatched tires and West Coast license plates, “it’s probably a commercial picker,” says food writer Eugenia Bone, who divides her time between New York City and Crawford, Colorado. Professional foragers were sparse when she started foraging 15 years ago. Now, says Bone, “They’re really prevalent.” When the mushrooms appear, commercial pickers do, too, like a secondary crop. “They drive mushrooms to restaurants in Aspen or Telluride, or sell them to distributors,” says Bone. “We could be eating Colorado chanterelles in New York City.”

Bone discovered Colorado wild mushrooms before they got popular. One August evening, with remnants of the afternoon’s thundershower lingering in the air, she hiked up Mendicant Ridge east of Crawford. “There were porcini every- where,” she recalls. Having noticed them once, she started seeing them everywhere she hiked. “It’s the excitement of pattern recognition,” Bone explains. “You see nothing, then you notice a few, and boom! You notice hundreds.”

She had eaten porcini in Italy, and as a child growing up in an Italian-American household. Her father often went foraging (the only “outdoorsy” thing the family ever did, says Bone) and later in- cluded those mushrooms in roasted rabbit dishes or pasta with shrimp and mushrooms, which he called mare et monte. “Italians are mycophiles,” says Bone, who wrote about foraging in her book, Mycophilia, and heads up the New York Mycological Society.

Americans, meanwhile, have greeted mush- rooms with more skepticism—at least until recently. Many U.S. kids grew up hearing that they shouldn’t touch any wild mushrooms, and Americans often avoid mushrooms on the dinner plate, too. But, says Bone, “The millennial generation is much hipper to wild edibles than my baby boomer generation. They are really smart about the possibilities, not as fearful.”

One such millennial is Graham Steinruck. The slender 29-year-old led foraging tours for resorts in Aspen and Vail before launching Hunt & Gather Wildcrafted Foods. He still takes inquisitive clients on mushroom hunts; plus, his Denver-based company supplies wild, foraged edibles to restaurants around the state.

“A lot of people think of Colorado as a desert,” Steinruck says. But along with its arid zones, Colorado also contains plenty of snow- and rain-soaked high country. The various elevations create a diversity of ecosystems, which helps explain Colorado’s mushroom bonanza. “More ecosystems equal more mushrooms,” says Steinruck, who’s personally eaten more than 60 species—and counting—of Colorado mushrooms. “There are lots of edibles that aren’t as highly regarded as the porcini but are delicious if prepared in the right way,” he explains.

Along with variety, Colorado also produces great numbers of edibles. That’s because within each ecosystem, there can be great uniformity of species: Vast stands of pure Englemann spruce give rise to thick clusters of porcini (which typically grow beneath spruces). “In the East, if you find a couple of chanterelles, you’re quite happy,” says mushroom authority Lincoff. But in Colorado, he’s encountered bogglingly vast swaths of them. “It looks like the ground is carpeted with gold, as far as you can see,” Lincoff says.

Naughty and Nice: Some mushrooms are delicious. Others are deadly.

“These are gorgeous things,” he continues. Mushrooms’ rich reds, oranges and yellows combine with intriguing surface textures to create truly compelling eye-candy. And unlike birds that fly away when spotted, mushrooms stand still, allowing ad- mirers to photograph them, collect them—and eat them. “There’s a pleasure in this that nothing else compares with,” Lincoff says.

As for mushrooms being dangerous, or that it’s hard to tell safe edibles from unsafe ones—both are misconceptions, says Lincoff. Kind of. “Stick to learning the few edible mushrooms that are easy to know and that have few, if any, look alikes, and that you can find in large quantities,” he says. Then, you can appreciate mushrooms not just by sight, but by their intense, earthy taste. Says Bone, “I look at these mushrooms as being a real part of the Colorado culinary estate.”

Quite a few Colorado chefs forage for mushrooms, though not everyone is willing to share their treasures with customers. Shawn Lawrence, executive chef at Aspen’s 39 Degrees, started foraging as a kid in the Midwest and continues his hunts now that he lives in the Roaring Fork Valley. Each foray is a party of sorts, with friends and family members combining forces to collect chanterelles, porcinis, even morels (though these spring delicacies prefer river valleys, which tend to be privately owned). They rarely appear on the 39 Degrees menu. “They’re too much of a love for me to sell them,” Lawrence says. Instead, he freezes and dries them, and preserves young porcini by turning them into a confit—all of which he keeps to himself.

Other Aspen chefs, such as Chris Lanter at Cache Cache and Tiziano Gortan at L’Hostaria, will occasionally share their foraged treasures with diners. But it’s not as common as you’d expect. Most health department regulations frown on cooking wild mushrooms of uncertain origin. About five years ago, Telluride established a certification program that lets Scothorn and other chefs serve mushrooms. Before any foraged edibles arrive on diners’ plates, Telluride inspector John Sir Jesse (who also leads foraging tours) examines them and deems them safe enough for public consumption.

Few communities have established inspection systems like Telluride’s. In the past, authorities paid little attention to foraged edibles or their regulation. But as interest in wild mushrooms grows, so does the push to enforce public health guidelines, says Steinruck, whom the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has approved as a “Wild Mushroom Identification Expert,” which allows him to inspect foraged, wild mushrooms sold to the food industry.

Regulations aside, wild mushrooms’ limited availability also explains their infrequent menu appearances. They only appear from late July through early September, and gathering them requires a lot of legwork for modest yields. That’s why Vail chef/ forager Jean-Michel Chelain of The Left Bank rarely puts them on his menu, preferring to cook them by special request. “If it’s mushroom season, I usually have a few chanterelles or porcini in the kitchen,” he says.

Also in Vail, Restaurant Kelly Liken boosts its wild mushroom offerings by buying from local foragers. “Some, we have been buying from for years,” says Liken. The restaurant’s chef de cuisine, Matt Limbaugh, is also a dedicated forager and “always finds the best mushrooms,” attests Liken. Consequently, her restaurant is consistently able to feature wild mushrooms on its menu, in such seasonal dishes as roasted duck breast with chanterelles and fig jam, or ricotta and Swiss chard agnolotti with wild mushrooms and peas.

“Wild mushrooms taste like the forest they grow in,” says Lawrence, who prefers not to overpower the distinct character of Colorado mushrooms by smothering them with competing flavors. “Mushrooms that grow here definitely taste more piney than ones from other parts of the world,” he explains. His favorite preparation for Colorado chanterelles, for example, is to simply sauté them with olive oil, garlic and fresh thyme. And when those delicacies have been located and gathered by you and your friends, says Lawrence, “It’s a true umami feeling.”