My respect for food and the professional kitchen was born on E28th St. between Park and Lexington Avenues when I was 19 and just starting out my career in NYC. Within eyeshot of “Curry in a Hurry” was a restaurant named, “Joanie’s.” I’d knowingly bounce checks at the railroad station for my monthly pass into NYC but I’d always have funds for a glass of wine and anything that came out of Chef Marcel Agnez’s kitchen.
You have to understand, I was raised on anything that had a cellophane wrapper and came from the fridge. My family shopped from the interior aisles of the grocery store, not the produce section or meat departments, which every food writer will tell you, the peripheral is key. We didn't go to a butcher and get our fish from a fishmonger, in fact we rarely if ever had fish growing up, my parents would simply not know what to do with it. A nice meal at home would be a London broil cooked gray throughout with McCormick seasoning, mashed potatoes from a box of processed flakes and gravy from a can.
Joanie’s was pure luxury to me and was to most of Manhattan, rated 27 on Zagat’s for food. The food was brought up in a converted two-story townhouse in Kips Bay by a Eastern European or French waitress. I had crushes on them all, just never all at the same time. We used to ask Chef where his microwave was and he replied with his French Normandy accent, “my mother would kill me,” pronouncing the word kill as if was saying, “keel over.” He infamously wore Coke bottle glasses and smoked like any French chef I’ve ever crossed paths with. He was a kind man and always happy to see his patron smile ear to ear. He didn't need the accolades but sought them nonetheless. At the end of the meal he’d ask if all was well and we’d laud him with praise, he replied with an unsure question, “so I can come back tomorrow?”
He was a true talent. I remember vividly the flavors of his large shrimp cooked with grand-marnier with a touch of mustard grain, and his special, which occasionally graced the menu, ‘Rabbit Two Ways,” braised and grilled. He drew from his French roots and never disappointed, seriously nothing ever got sent back.
People came for the food, the ambiance, the sophistication and the naked sketches on the wall with the gold leaf ceiling but the show stopper was the name sake of the restaurant, a tall blond from the fashion industry turned restaurateur named, Joanie Kearnan. Marcel and Joanie were a couple in the front of the house while in the back of the house, arguing, collaborating and making it work at over 100 hours a week. Her infectious smile, her “knickerbocker attitude,” even the air around her being, her elegance towered over all. She passed away last year in the saddest of ways and it took me time to reflect on our relationship over the past 20 years to put things in perspective of how much she influenced me.
When I met my then girlfriend, who soon became my wife, I was more concerned with Joanie's candid real life opinion of her over my own mother’s. We made the long drive out to Shelter Island where they were a staple on off days escaping the city to have a meal and have Joanie meet the newest but most important prospect. At the end of the meal, with her Cheshire cat smile and said, “she's a keeper,” that's all I needed to plan the next few months to the point where she said yes. The more we were friends with them the more time I would spend in both their kitchen at home and in their professional kitchen, all while marveling at the line cooks and chef Marcel doing what he did best.
At Joanie’s, I had a nameplate as many of the regulars did, mine might have been really someone else's (actually it in fact was) but when the real, “Maverick” was not in town that was mine and I wore it proudly at my favorite seat at the bar. Joanie called me privately, “master of the universe,” because she expected so much from me, almost like a mother seeing her son grow up before her and exceeding her expectations. Little did she know that I would be just years away from developing my technique, palate and to eventually have the resources to cook beyond my humble beginnings and imagination. I’m just grateful that toward the end of her life, we were able to discuss food so many times in the professional setting, share a few more meals outside of the restaurant and have countless meaningful conversations over the phone.
It’s connections you make with people like Joanie and Marcel in younger years that mold you into who you are. As a young adult you know nothing but the small nucleus that is your family so being in a big city, living at home with not many expenses and making a decent paycheck, a lot can change and rapidly at that. I’ve always lived by, the world is your oyster. And Manhattan had everything. You want to explore Ethiopian food during your lunch break? You probably have two options within walking distance. Vietnamese or Thai? Even more! I literally ate through my paycheck for the first two years of working in the city. I quickly realized that food and cooking, the act of putting food on a plate was, in my opinion, the highest form of art.
My mother was an artist with a sketchbook or canvas, my father was an artist with a guitar or a microphone. I always had an itch to express myself, I'd run around my house as a child thinking I was Pavarotti, annoying my sisters and more than likely my neighbors. I’d go to great lengths to express myself, writing graffiti on my bedroom wall, with the permission of my parents and at one point prolific poetry on the other.
With cooking, a chef can hit all the senses using a plate or a bowl as a canvas, using whatever “medium” is in season or fresh. We can dilate the pupil at first glance with vibrant colors from vegetables or sauces that jump off the plate. Scents from the kitchen can tickle the nostrils and bring back memories with one quick sniff. A sizzling steak coming out from the kitchen or the crunch you hear from a baby gem salad as the fibers break between your teeth stimulate the sense of hearing. Touch, with food, is all about mouth feel, you’ll remember a properly cooked risotto or al dente pasta for a long time and judge all others against it or a luxurious and properly executed velouté or bernaise sauce as it coats your tongue. Lastly, and perhaps the most important sense we relate to food is taste. You can have salty, sweet, bitter and umami (savory) all on one plate with levels of cool, hot and spicy.
A good dish is a balance, similar to what any good musician does composing. A symphony can’t have too much percussion or it will drown out the other instruments just like spice can take away from the other flavors in a dish and be overbearing. A painter can't keep adding paint or the art will look too busy or using a paint term, “painterly,” unless that is the goal. Every artist needs to know how to balance their work for the person enjoying it and knowing when to stop.
I knew I loved this form of art just as Chef Marcel did. He'd always look at his diners as I do even if it’s just having family or friends over. I'll always be the last to pick up my utensil as I wait for them to take their first bite. You know at that very moment if you have wowed them or intrigued them as they were studying the flavors of something new.
It's all theater, some of the best restaurants in the world know this and do it to perfection, it's not just the food, it’s the experience. From the minute you walk in and get seated to the time you get the bill. That’s why people spend so much money on places like Noma, or any of the other top 50 restaurants in the world. In almost all cases besides a nicely cooked madeline or an after dinner mint you walk out empty handed with considerably less money in many cases then what you walked in with. What you leave with are those five senses indelibly etched into your memory. I can still remember every detail of meals I've had around the world, and if I had realized they would last this long and the fact I'd judge many meals against them, I would have paid a far higher price.
With the classics we keep the same recipes, and arguably some French dishes have been perfected and will never get better, but some recipes can always be embellished or changed for the better.
As the world gets smaller we benefit from the fusion of cultures and foods. For instance, we wouldn’t have salsa if Afro and Latin Caribbean cultures didn’t combine many decades ago. One of the best dishes I had in 2021 was a scallop dish, cooked in a Peruvian-Japanese restaurant with Matcha tea, coconut and some amazing spices with raw scallop. It blew my mind and I could’ve bathed in it. There are limits, however, molecular gastronomy takes it to another level but in my opinion, after so many different meals like that it’s too much theater and less about the food. I always say give me a bowl of Ramen that is properly cooked with passion and I’ll call it a day.
As I reflect on my creative influences, it’s all about the memories that I have that make me who I am today. Joanie was an integral part of my upbringing and a massive personality that you cannot forget and shouldn’t. She brought a smile to any room that she ever walked into, especially the one with the gold leaf ceiling where it all started. Her constructive criticism and encouragement are things that I now cherish and even now I thirst for her guidance and approval. There are just some personalities that you will never forget, they tower above all the others that you’ve come across in your life. Cheers to you Joanie, I'll always remember you at your best - breaking bread, drinking a nice French red with the most inviting smile.