‘Steal the Menu: A Memoir of Forty Years in Food’

Alfred A. Knopf
May 6, 2013 · 9 min read

The following is an excerpt from Raymond Sokolov’s Steal the Menu: A Memoir of Forty Years in Food, out from Alfred A. Knopf on May 14.

“What will you be doing here?” asked the nice young woman in personnel whom I went to see after my welcoming lunch with Craig Claiborne and Charlotte Curtis.

“I’ll be handling food,” I replied.

“Well, I’ll put you down as an N2.”

I shrugged. As an elite news staffer, I had been put on the so called publisher’s payroll, which brought with it special, if largely ceremonial, privileges at the bank down the block, and saved me the indignity of dealing with the weekly paychecks that were the lot of less illustrious news slaves. I was to be paid each month.

When I finally received my first paycheck, it was suspiciously tiny, much less than the salary I’d been offered. I inquired. The nice lady in personnel had taken me at my word. When she’d seen that I was young and I’d said I was to be handling food, she’d made me an N2, an assistant salad handler in the cafeteria. We sorted it out.

In fact, I had inherited a little empire several floors above the New York Times newsroom. The phrase “splendid isolation” might have been coined to describe the food department. While the newsroom was making history by printing the Pentagon Papers, a leaked official study of the Vietnam War and its failures, I luxuriated in my peaceable kingdom. The most splendid of all its appurtenances was the test kitchen, whose professional- style Garland range, immaculate expanse of butcher block counters and forest of heavy- gauge copper pots came with an English test cook and a Polish maid to clean up after her.

The test cook, Jean Hewitt, was handsome, a diplomate in home economics from London, and quietly furious that I’d gotten the job she thought, with some real justice, she deserved more than I did. My staff also included a secretary, Velma Cannon, a very refined black lady of late middle years devoted to the white southern gentleman who’d previously occupied my desk. Last, but crucial to our ability to respond to the flood of mail that rolled in every day, was the stenographer, Anita Rizzi.

When the phone rang in that office my first day, I reached for the receiver at my elbow, but Anita beat me to it. Part of her job was to be the first responder. And if she was already on the line, Velma picked up the next call. If Velma and Anita were both busy with calls and still another rang, Jean took that one. I was last in this inverted pecking order, answering the phone at my desk only if the other three were already handling our ever- inquisitive readers. No one ever explained this to me. But I soon figured it out and fell in line. And like the others, when I answered a call, I said, “Food news.”

I thought it was funny. Downstairs, where the real reporters were, they covered the news. We “covered” fast- breaking recipes and the policy decisions of chefs.

My irony was misplaced. Even though a great deal of what the Times food editor wrote about was not newsworthy, a crucial part of it, as Claiborne had defined the job, really was food news. My respect for him grew as I read through his old articles in the office files. He had discarded the old food- page model of recipes handed out by food- product companies and restaurant “reviews” redacted from press releases or based on meals eaten on the cuff. Instead, Claiborne had hunted down fresh developments in the food world (a concept he was instrumental in inventing): new chefs and newly arrived ethnic cuisines; and, when the opportunity arose, he did actually cover the news in his field. For example, when Albert Stockli resigned as executive chef at Restaurant Associates in 1965 to open his own restaurant in Connecticut, Craig wrote about it, and the article was an early example of the sanctification of a celebrity chef in the major news media.

It was easy to miss the journalistic core of Claiborne’s work, because he was so careful and clever about folding it into the epicurean format he’d invented for himself. In a given week, he would contribute a food feature, most often about an interesting home cook, to the Thursday women’s page, euphemistically rebranded as “Food, Fashions, Family, Furnishings”— or in Times- speak, the four- F page— and, later on, as Family/Style.

On Friday, he would review restaurants, places he’d visited several times with three or four guests. These reviews were the reverse of impressionistic, filled with expert calls about ingredients and flavors, lapses in authenticity. To make things easier for the reader, he graded each place with from one to four stars. Very few restaurants got the maximum four stars, and the list barely changed from year to year, which was an accurate reflection of the placidity of the tiny world of elite food in New York from 1957 to 1971.

Also on Friday, there were brief recipes. And on Sunday, Craig would collaborate with the in- house photo studio on an illustrated recipe for the back pages of the New York Times Magazine.

This was a job description that fitted Craig to a T but nearly flattened me.

Toward the end of my tenure, I sat on a committee to discuss the future of Family/Style. Soon after, the section was parceled out into separate daily sections, with many journalists working on them. This redesign, which I favored, because it broadened food coverage and presented it more coherently, divided the food editor’s superjob into slots for a principal restaurant critic, for other critics covering budget restaurants, for food reporters and a recipe writer.

I continued to perform all those functions while the redesign went forward. I did it all without training or contacts in the food community, and, worst of all, I had to operate in a depressed economy that hammered the luxury restaurants that were my basic “story.”

A critic in any field needs lively new work to judge. If publishers stopped publishing books, book critics would have to stop writing reviews. This, of course, will never happen, even if and when all books are electronic. But in the New York restaurant world of the early 1970s, new restaurants of consequence rarely opened. Instead, several famous eateries were closing their doors. In my first few months at the Times, the city’s most famous restaurant, Le Pavillon, served its last meal. So did the regal Café Chauveron, with its glittering array of copper pots, where I’d interviewed W. H. Auden for Newsweek in 1968, the winter following his sixtieth birthday. The Colony, an evolved speakeasy with fancy French food for a high- society clientele— pressed ducks and the like—also went out of business.

In journalistic terms, I didn’t have much of a story, but that wasn’t obvious to me or anyone else reading my pieces during my first few weeks at the Times, because I was able to make news all on my own.

Really, I didn’t want to cause a commotion. I didn’t suspect I was going to. Coming from Newsweek, which no one I knew ever read, and whose several million readers almost never raised a peep over anything I wrote, I did not dream that a short article about a Chinese restaurant in suburban New Jersey could spread frenzy throughout the tristate area and beyond.

But it did.

In my defense, I will stipulate that Craig and Charlotte made me do it. At the purée mongole lunch on my first day at the paper, far more important than Craig’s grandstanding about the cafeteria chef ’s heavy hand with bay leaf was his offhand announcement that he would be leaving the city for his East Hampton dacha without supplying copy for that week’s Thursday food feature. It was Monday. There was no time to get to know my staff or plan my debut article with my editor.

Craig wished me well, with a smile I can be excused for thinking faintly malicious, and Charlotte sent me off to personnel to become a salad handler and then to walk through an obligatory tour of the Times building for new hires.

What should have been an unchallenging bit of institutional tourism— a swing through the newsroom, a look at the acre of linotype machines that filled an entire floor of 229 West Forty- third Street and the presses in the basement— turned into a distracted, panicked perambulation during which I occasionally interrupted the tour leader’s spiel to transact real business on the fly with the photo department or the Family/Style copy desk. Eventually, I found my way to the food news department, introduced myself to my very curious staff, and gave Jean Hewitt the recipe she would have to test under exigent circumstances, which included shopping for hoisin sauce in Chinatown.

For my first article as food editor, I chose the tryout piece I’d written about a Chinese restaurant tucked into a filling station on Route 1 in New Jersey, five miles north of Princeton. A Kitchen was a thirty- two- seat dining room attached to Sam’s BP Gas Station. There was no Sam in sight, but instead Alex and Anna Shen filled you up with regular for thirty- one cents a gallon and also served “celestial banquets” to clued- in Rutgers and Princeton faculty members.

One of them, the sinologist John Schrecker, had stumbled on the place with his wife, Ellen, and discovered that the Shens served much more than the hamburgers, chop suey and chow mein on their regular menu. They were ambitious and authentic practitioners of “the same northern and Sichuanese dishes that have been appearing in New York City restaurants over the last few years,” I wrote.

John and Ellen had for some time been introducing me to this exciting food as it emerged, elusively and without fanfare, in Chinese restaurants ostensibly devoted to the Cantonese dishes that had, until the late 1960s, been the only form of Chinese cooking available in America. But with the reform of racially restrictive immigration laws, non- Cantonese Chinese had begun trickling into the country, bringing the foods of their native regions with them. This new wave of Chinese immigrants often arrived on student visas from Taiwan, more educated and self- confident than the Cantonese laborers who had preceded them to work on the railways in the nineteenth century. Craig Claiborne had already noticed what was happening.

David Keh was the epitome of this trend. Born in Anhui Province, in eastern China, he had moved with his family to Taiwan after the Chinese revolution. From there, he came to America in 1964 to study at Seton Hall University, in New Jersey. He worked as a waiter at the Four Seas, which was one of the first, if not the first New York restaurant to feature non- Cantonese dishes, notably the spicy foods of Sichuan Province. By the late 1960s, he had opened the first fully Sichuan restaurant in town, Szechuan Taste, near Chatham Square, then at the edge of Chinatown.

The Schreckers, who had discovered Sichuan food in Taipei during a study year there, followed the American career of their favorite Chinese cuisine avidly. In fact, they were eager to hunt down new restaurants run by recent immigrants who cooked authentic Chinese food of any style, instead of the Americanized and adulterated dishes so prevalent in Cantonese Chinatown. So when A Kitchen appeared almost at their doorstep on Route 1, they called me, a pal from their Harvard days, and invited me to join them at an extraordinary banquet.

This was the meal I ended up describing in the tryout piece that eventually ran in the Times on Thursday, May 13, 1971, under the headline “Drivers Who Stop Only for Gas Don’t Know What They’re Missing.” Inset into that article was the announcement of my appointment in italic type:

Mr. Sokolov, who has reviewed books, covered cultural affairs and been a Paris correspondent for Newsweek magazine, takes over this week as food editor from Craig Claiborne. Mr. Claiborne is leaving The Times after more than 13 years to pursue his culinary interests independently.

“A Kitchen,” I wrote, “is not just a kitchen, but, preposterous as it sounds, one of the most authentic and dazzling Chinese restaurants in the New York area.”

My new readers hearkened. Fiercely. In the hope of tasting the Shens’ unchastenedly hot Sichuan bean curd, their handmade dumplings and their genuine “Peking” sweet- and- sour pork, they called (201) 329- 6896, called it again and again, and if they were lucky enough and persistent enough to get through and book a table, they crowded into the little dining room on Route 1 in a frenzy of food lust.

Jean tested the Shens’ recipe for eggplant with shrimp, while I watched. With the suspicion I would come to know well over the ensuing months, she told me she thought the recipe called for too much oil— two cups for two medium eggplants— but relented when the dish came together just as I recalled it.

And I was launched.

Excerpted from Steal the Menu by Raymond Sokolov. Copyright © 2013 by Raymond Sokolov. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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