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Christine Collins: The Food Obstructions II champion

The Food Obstructions Cook Off Poster!

The Food Obstructions Cook Off Poster!


Christine Collins won the second Food Obstructions challenge on Sunday, Dec. 6th at The Gutter in Brooklyn.  Her winning entry was Spicy Filipino Beef Brisket served with Rosemary Potato Pancakes.  It was her second consecutive win.

The Food Obstructions Challenge is a food cookoff inspired by the 2003 Lars von Trier movie “The Five Obstructions.”  In the movie, von Trier challenges director Jorgen Leth to recreate one of his movies five times, each time adhering to a different creative obstacle.

Von Trier is an avante-garde art-house filmmaker, which perhaps explains his appeal among the young, white, trendy crowd gathered at The Gutter.  He is known for such luminous innovations as the use of unsimulated sex in his ostensibly non-pornographic fare  (eventually, however, he went for the full monty and began producing hardcore pornography).

Christine Collins smiles while Atticus stands next to her.

Champion Christine Collins smiles while Atticus stands next to her.

What the existence of von Trier meant for Christine Collins, however, was that she was forced to make her spicy Filipino beef brisket while adhering to the following obstructions:

1.  It had to include an ingredient that begins with the letter “K.”
2.  It had to contain rosemary.
3.  It had to include an ingredient with seeds.
4.  It could not contain butter.
5.  It had to contain an ingredient produced or grown in Brooklyn.

Collins went with Ketchup for her “K” ingredient.  (Thankfully the alternative spelling “Catsup” is going out of style.)  The rosemary was used to flavor the potato pancakes. Presumably, an ingredient with seeds was included at one point, along with an ingredient from Brooklyn, and, finally, the dish did not contain butter.  In short, Collins qualified.  For her winning effort she took home $100, which she accepted with the following speech:

“Thanks, Everybooddddyyyyy!  I don’t know – I guess I’d like to thank my mom, for being from the Philippines – she told me to use ketchup when cooking meat, so, there you go!”

Boxer Manny Pacquiao is Filipino

Boxer Manny Pacquiao is Filipino

Collins is half Filipino, which accounts for her dark hair and allure.  Afterward she stood outside The Gutter with her boyfriend Atticus, who is an acrobat, and smoked a cigarette.  Atticus remarked that he would like to be in the movies one day, in a role that required him to hang off a cliff.  He has also thought about joining the circus, but “I met Christine and she hates carnival folk,” he explained.  “I try to tell her, it’s not like what you see in the movies in the 1920s…”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Collins remarked

“She doesn’t want to talk about it,” Atticus said.

Collins is now the two-time reigning champion of The Food Obstructions.  She speculates that along with the recent emergence of Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao (who is the current WBO World welterweight champion, and perhaps the best pound-for-pound boxer alive today), her emergence as a champion food cooker may signal the coming ascendancy of the Filipino people. Or not.

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Brooklyn supper club shakes up traditional dinner party

Brooklyn supper club shakes up traditional dinner party


New York City may not seem like the ideal place to open your home to total strangers, yet Kara Masi does it about twice a month. She even feeds them.

For the past two years, Masi has been hosting the Ted Allen and Amy Sedaris Supper Club (the name is merely inspired by the celebrities, as they don’t actually have any affiliation) where she cooks for the eight or so guests who fill the dining room in her Fort Greene apartment.

Supper clubs are a trend that has been taking place for a while, though people might not be openly talking about them.  A sort of modern take on the speakeasy, supper clubs (also known as guerrilla or underground restaurants) are characteristically covert.  While there are a few different types, the majority of the clubs require an e-mail query from an interested diner, who then waits for an invitation, which includes the location of the event, often held in someone’s home.

For Masi, guests are usually a mix of friends and strangers, people who’ve heard of the club from her Web site.  She alerts people to a date, provides a menu and a recommended price and people can make reservations online. On October 29 she held a dinner in time for Halloween, informing guests about a week prior.

Cathy Erway, author of the blog Not Eating Out in New York, wrote in a post in April that city regulations, such as business licenses and health codes, are why “most supper clubs call their dinner prices ‘contributions,’ and operate on a somewhat hush-hush level.” While not all clubs operate the same way, many have a “recommended fee,”—about $30 or $40—that covers the cost of food and beverages yet isn’t meant to turn a profit.

Masi has always loved to cook and after admitting to her friends that she couldn’t afford to always prepare them the meals she wanted, they quickly offered to pay. As a result, the supper club was born.  “It’s fun to be able to try out new recipes and cook really great food for other people,” she said.

Thursday evening’s event had a Halloween theme, with guests dressing in costume and the “creepy” inspired menu.  The guest chef, Scott Gold, was dressed as a pirate and Masi was decked out in a retro-print dress and an Afro wig that added at least two inches to her petite stature. Gold, a food writer and author of “The Shameless Carnivore”, is a close friend of Masi’s and he had created the menu on the theme of brains and bones.

The six-course meal, which cost $40, included Zombie Brains (pan-friend calf brains served with a bloody mary sauce and lemon aioli), Skeleton Bones  (roasted bone marrow with parsley salad) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (grilled calamari over squid ink linguine).  Dessert was, of course, Devil’s Food Cake.

Redrum punch was the cocktail of choice, a potent and sweet concoction, meant to take the edge off.  “The best idea anyone running a supper club ever had was to start off with a really strong drink cocktail and get your guests nice and hammered,” said Gold. “’Cause then they love the food no matter what,” Masi chimed in.

Liquid courage seemed to be needed by some of the guests, nervous about the meal.  Eliana Menzin confessed that she didn’t eat red meat or poultry and wasn’t keen on the notion of calf’s brains. A private primary schoolteacher, Menzin heard of the club through word of mouth and looked it up online.  Although hesitant about the meal, she didn’t regret coming.  Dressed as an International Woman of Mystery, in an all-black costume with an electric blue wig and a Mardi gras mask, Menzin was into the spirit of the event. “Everyone’s really friendly,” she said. “It’s great.”

Dressed in a flapper girl costume, Marisa Malone commended the meal.  An actress from Brooklyn, she also heard of the club through friends and especially loved the bone marrow.  Moreover, the meal as a whole, she said, “hit all the high notes.”

Despite some trepidation, almost all of the guests tried all of the courses and the chefs were granted rave reviews.

At the end of the night, after the last bone had been scraped clean and the last drop of Redrum had been downed, Masi reflected on the stacks of dirty dishes on the counter. “I loved that everyone loved the food, that’s always my favorite part,” she said.

Masi admitted that her menus usually consist of more traditional fare, such as steak and fish.  However, she likes to experiment. “I don’t feel though that after this experience, I feel converted to having unusual food on my menus.  But I think it was a nice special occasion.”

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‘Tis the (wettest) season: An apple orchard weathers the storm

‘Tis the (wettest) season: An apple orchard weathers the storm


George Vurno lives by the weather. The owner and manager of Masker Orchards, a pick-your-own apple orchard in Warwick, N.Y., checks hour-by-hour forecasts on his computer and turns to the Weather Channel, Channel 12, CBS, and NBC twice a day to answer a question that is constantly on his mind: Is it going to rain?

Whether it is growing season or picking season, he needs to know. Right now, it is picking season at Masker Orchards, located about 55 miles northwest of Manhattan, and people are coming by the thousands to pluck Vurno’s ripened apples.

To keep them happy and fed and spending while they pick, 69-year-old Vurno orders soda, hot dog rolls, hot dogs, cider, ice cream, pizza, and apple pie which he sells at the entertainment square at the bottom of the hillside orchard.  In the entertainment square, a collection of converted barns, visitors can roam a pumpkin patch, ride a pony, walk through a haunted house and gorge on apple pie, cider and strudel.

“The only way to order them,” Vurno says, “is to know what the weather is going to be.”

If it is going to rain, people won’t come, and food orders go to waste.

Vurno is a tall, broad shouldered man with a tanned and stubbly face. When he smiles, he could pass for former New York City mayor Rudy Guliani’s twin brother. He was fooled last week because he expected rain on Sunday and decided to place half orders. It didn’t rain and he was short on supplies. This week, Vurno wasn’t expecting rain on Sunday, so he put in a full order. Now, the weather is telling Vurno that it is going to rain and he doesn’t want to be fooled again.

“Maybe I’m better off only half ordering,” Vurno says, laughing wheezily.

Vurno will be doing a lot of weather watching between now and November, when he will begin pruning the trees in preparation for winter.

Warwick’s official apple season began Labor Day and, on a good weekend, 20,000 cars carry residents of New York and neighboring states through the tree-lined hillsides of Orange County to Vurno’s 200-acre orchard. Masker made the switch from commercial orchard to pick-your-own in 1971 and was the first to do so in New York. For no admission fee, pickers park their cars among the rows of 15,000 apple trees–McIntosh, Cortland, Empire, Red Delicious, Jonagold, and Ida Reds—and eat as many apples as they’d like. Upon entry, they recieve plastic bags that they can pack with apples they pick, but don’t eat, and they must pay $24.95 for every bag they fill as they exit the farm.

Vurno is nervous because the low temperatures in June and July broke records along the northeast, and rainfall is running 50 to 100 percent higher than normal around the region, according to

“It was a lot more expensive,” Vurno says of this year’s growing season. “We had to do a lot more maintenance in the orchard because of all that rain.”

Two of Vurno’s biggest costs were mowing the excess grass and grading the rain-damaged roads that lead customers through the orchard—Cider Lane, Strudel Lane, Pie Lane, and Sauce Lane.

One benefit of a wetter season is bigger apples. They draw customer attention and give Vurno a chance to make back some of the money he lost re-paving roads and repairing damaged trees because fewer of these large apples fit into each of the half-bushel plastic bags customers receive upon entering the orchard. But customers won’t have a chance to be in awe of Vurno’s apples if the rain keeps them away.

It is a lack of control that frustrates Vurno, a former Brooklyn trial lawyer who bought into the farm in 1969.

“When I was a lawyer, I had the illusion that I was in control,” Vurno says. “Now that I’m a farmer, I know absolutely positively I am not in control. The weather and mother nature are in control.”

And so is the economy. Recession-struck suppliers have raised their prices for everything from fertilizer to machine parts to hot dogs. Three years ago, potash fertilizer cost Vurno $425 a ton; this year, he paid $950 a ton for 15 tons.

“That’s $7000 to $8000 just out of one little stinking item,” he says in disbelief.

And  medical insurance has increased for his six full-time employees, three of them named George, which Vurno pointed out means “farmer” in Greek.

The increased costs for Masker Orchards have been passed on to its customers. The price of a half-bushel bag that carries roughly 20 pounds of apples has increased since last year from $19.95 to $24.95. Now, because of higher prices and larger apples, customers are paying more than ever for less fruit.

“We saw $24.95 a bag and thought ‘Wow!’” says Keith Santos, whose family traveled from Brooklyn to visit Masker for the first time last year, and came back this year to picnic among the apple trees.

Keith’s mother, Stella, chimes in, “May as well buy the apple pie; it’s already baked!”

Tom Bakalis, who also traveled from the city to pick apples, says he definitely noticed the prices.

“I think the bags got smaller, too,” he jokes. “I’m going to see how many I can squeeze in.”

Even the price of a hot dog has gone up a few cents. Sean Dolan, who recently lost his job as a roofer and has been coming to the orchard from Pearl River, N.Y., for four years with his wife and two daughters, noticed the change.

“It’s like being at a Yankee’s game;  ”$2.50 for a 30 cent item” he said.

But Vurno insists that he has tried to keep prices low, and prides himself on carrying high quality products.

“We’re trying to hold the line,” he says. “We’re trying to keep it an economical day in the country.”

Vurno’s pies, strudels, and cider are made off-site using Masker apples. He meets cider delivery trucks and takes several gulps before accepting any bottles. Vurno spent years searching for a family that had the best recipe for his apples before offering apple pies at his farm.

“I wouldn’t serve crap,” he says. “I needed something special.”

The customers come back year after year.

“We’ve been coming here a long time,” says Cheryl Cacioppo, of Kinnelon, N.J., who has been returning to Masker with her husband, Paul, for 16 years.

Paul started coming to Masker 30 years ago and now brings his young son and daughter each year to share with them a tradition that was passed onto him. He remembers knocking apples down from the tops of the highest trees with bamboo poles the orchard once supplied.

Nicole Cosimano also started coming to Masker Orchards when she was a child and started working there at age 12. She is now 31 and the office manager of the farm, overseeing 100 mostly teenage workers who direct traffic, sell food, and operate the entertainment square during the picking season.

“We used to just have apples and we had three lanes,” she remembers.

Newcomers to Masker enjoy it, too. Leila Franklin of Patterson, N.J., brought her two teenage children apple picking for the first time this season because she picked apples as a young girl.

“I am teaching them what we used to do,” says Franklin. “There’s clean air, it’s safe, everybody is enjoying themselves.”

At the top of the hill, near where Franklin is standing, you can see parts of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. The orchard is surrounded by green, rolling hills and tall trees blushing red and orange. But at the bottom of the hill, at the corner of the entertainment square, Vurno sits in a little blue house that serves as his office, and he continues to worry. After the expensive, rainy growing season, he needs the sun to shine so that people will come to Masker. But Vurno doesn’t know what to expect this season.

“In ‘05 we had a beautiful crop and it rained every weekend in October,” says Vurno. “We had this one system that kept coming back and forth. It would go out to sea, then it would come back, and it seemed to come back every weekend. We had half the number of cars and a crop that went to waste.”

Vurno’s outlook changes as often as the weather, and there is only one thing that he knows for sure.

“It’s supposed to rain tomorrow and that is going to kill us.”

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The tricks and tips of food styling

The tricks and tips of food styling

Food stylist Brian Preston-Campbell carefully brushes sauce on to lamb chops about to be photographed for Departures magazine. (Photo: Tom Schierlitz)

Food stylist Brian Preston-Campbell carefully brushes sauce on to lamb chops to be photographed for Departures magazine. (Photo: Tom Schierlitz)


Food stylist Brian Preston-Campbell has some words of comfort for those struggling to get their Thanksgiving turkeys looking as plump and brown as the birds in their cookbooks. Those birds, he says, “are still fairly raw on the inside.”

The shiny brown birds that dominate magazines and books every fall are often the work of a food stylist’s paintbrush, one of the many tools Preston-Campbell carries with him in a metal briefcase to studios across New York. He also takes butter tweezers, a scalpel and a butane torch.

The trick with turkeys, he explains, is to roast it quickly at a high temperature. Then, brush the skin with a mix of water, soap and the supermarket-bought browning agent, Kitchen Bouquet. The bird might be Jell-O inside, but its outside is golden, moist and ready for its close-up.

Behind every great, stomach-teasing picture of food, there is a great food stylist and photographer. As models must be primped for the flashbulb, slabs of steak, gourmet cupcakes and martinis must be styled for food magazine pages, billboards and their own packaging. And just as with fashion, there are tricks to the trade.

“People eat with their eyes,” says Preston-Campbell, 38. “One of the first things they teach you at culinary school is that presentation is the first impression on someone when you’re preparing food for them.”

He started styling food a decade ago after 11 years working as a chef. His last kitchen job was as chef de cuisine at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill in the Flatiron District, and he found the work grueling. “I had 18 employees and they were a pain in the arse,” he says.
The difference between presenting food to eat and food to be photographed is that “you need to think of how the camera will view the food,” he says.  An overhead shot is styled evenly, he explains, while a shot taken from 45 degrees above the dish, the angle at which most people view their food, will be less even.

On a trip through Chelsea Market, shopping for the ingredients for a chicken hash and lobster bisque he will be styling for the New York Times magazine, Preston-Campbell describes his job. “You’re more or less shopping for, preparing and cooking idealized food for the media, whether it be magazines, newspapers, TV shows, commercials, or anyone else who needs food in their production,” he says.

For a job like that the New York Times shoot, a stylist is booked for “shooting days” and “prep days.” The client sends through recipes and the stylist offers feedback. The stylist then shops for the food, stores it at home or the photographer’s studio – most food photographers have studios with large kitchens, tables and refrigerators – and cooks and presents the dishes to be photographed on the day of the shoot.
“I think what differentiates a food stylist from a prop stylist or a wardrobe person is that we don’t just go and buy the thing that’s being photographed,” he says.  “We have to buy the raw materials, prepare it properly and make sure that it looks good – usually with only one chance to get it right.”

What looks good in food styling is always changing.

Romulo Yanes, for the last 26 years the only staff photographer on the recently closed “Gourmet” magazine, says magazine food was styled in a “very commercial way” in the 1980s. “It was lit and styled to look in the past more plastic,” he says over the telephone from his home in Morristown, N.J.

Preston-Campbell describes the old look as “over stylized, as if everything’s placed exactly and you can tell there’s been five meetings for each carrot stick placed on the plate.”

In a nod to all things organic, local and slow, food is styled today to look unfussy and realistic. Preston-Campbell calls it “making it look accidental when it really isn’t accidental.”

Ingredients are laid out on Preston-Campbell's prep table. (Photo: Tom Schierlitz)

Ingredients are laid out on Preston-Campbell's prep table. (Photo: Tom Schierlitz)

Kirsty Melville, head publisher at cookbook publisher Andrews McMeel, says photographers are increasingly using natural light. A native of Melbourne, Australia, she says Down Under cookbook queen Donna Hay’s simple, natural photography is having an influence on current US styles. “It’s brighter, with strong colors, but still very natural,” she says.

Hay, in an email from her office in Sydney, says she strives to create food that the reader can easily reproduce. “The way we style at the magazine is straight from the kitchen to the plate,” she writes. “We’re not about reviving cold food for a shoot – we work fresh and fast and we don’t use tricks, paints or colors.”

Yanes likes the move towards reality. “When I am most successful in photography is when I can make a dish come to life for people, like it’s sitting on your kitchen table. One of my biggest things is to have the food be believable and natural so someone doesn’t look at the food and say, ‘It looks so good, it’s fake.’ That would not be a compliment to me.”

The change has been far-reaching. “The other day I passed McDonald’s and they had photography of hamburgers that actually looked good,” says Yanes. “It wasn’t those pristine, perfectly placed lettuce leaves, and the buns, and the super, super juicy burgers that were beyond real.”

Melville says a publisher is ultimately looking for the style of the photography to match the food in the recipes. “Photography is an expression of the style of the food, which is in turn an interpretation of the voice of the chef or food writer,” she says. A particular challenge for her was Andrews McMeel’s book, “The Amish Cook At Home.” Melville wanted pictures reflecting Amish family life, but could not show faces. Instead, she and the photographer decided to use hands, rolling dough and cutting vegetables, in the images.

Hay agrees that the image must match the story. “Each story we do is thought out from the theme to the color palette, background and story,” she writes. “And because food is one dimensional on the page – you can’t touch it or smell it – it needs to have what we call ‘yum factor.’”

Glossy or gritty, the job of the stylist and photographer is to make food look good – no matter what – and photographer Yanes has his own turkey story to share.

Shooting outdoors in upstate New York, Yanes and his team discovered that the oven they were supplied with was not large enough to fit the turkey they had to cook. Luckily, they had one they prepared earlier: a shriveled bird cooked three days before to use as a stand-in.

The team “doctored up” the ageing turkey, already stinking in the July heat, and singed the skin with a butane torch to get rid of wrinkles. “The skin just kind of perks up right away,” he says, laughing. “You would never have been able to tell in the photograph and it wasn’t retouched or anything.”

The only other time Yanes has ever faked it was while shooting a mango rice pudding on a beach in Hawaii for “Gourmet”. Missing the bottle of cream he needed to finish the dish, he substituted sunscreen.

Such substitutions are common in styling. Steam, difficult to capture on camera, is commonly faked with cigarette smoke; garment steamers with a hose attached to steer the vapor and, notoriously, soaked tampons, microwaved and placed behind the dish to be shot.

There are even those who devote themselves to such fakery. Tom Trengrove, who sells everything from fake sushi to blackberries made from resin from his Trengrove Studios Web site, says his company has developed “products that make photographing transitory kinds of things, like ice and foam, more stable.”

Preston-Campbell used carved acrylic ice cubes from Trengrove, for a recent Grey Goose print campaign. The shop’s most popular products are ice, ice powder (used to put a frosty surface on a can or glass) and “Foam Booster,” added to beer to keep the foam from going down. You can even buy a small droplet of solid water for $12. “In this business, reality is defined by whoever’s paying,” says Trengrove.

But stylists, photographers and the mad scientists who assist them, have increasingly fewer reasons to use their tricks. While cookbook sales are up, with many economists suggesting people are cooking at home, magazine sales are down and people like Yanes and Preston-Campbell are finding work scarcer. “It’s much easier and cheaper to get it on the Internet than to go and buy a glossy magazine for $6,” concedes the stylist.

Yanes says the closing of his longtime home, “Gourmet,” which defined food styling trends since it launched in 1941, is devastating. “I think it was a mistake,” he says. “They were the first American publication to cater to gastronomy and it just seems like a terrible loss. You don’t close “Vogue”, “Vogue” is fashion. “Gourmet” is food.”

Preston-Campbell stays hopeful. “There will still be a demand for food stylists in the future even if all the editorial content and food advertising move to the web,” he says. “Food imagery still needs to be created regardless of the medium.”

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At Mary Manning Walsh Nursing Home, food is therapy

At Mary Manning Walsh Nursing Home, food is therapy


On a recent Friday afternoon at the Mary Manning Walsh Nursing Home, a petite Arlaine Bruce cut up slices of homemade apple, sweet potato and pumpkin pies for the Harvest Moon Ball. There were also sugar-free oatmeal and chocolate chip cookies for the diabetic patients and cups of ginger ale for all. Guests kept rolling in. Many needed help with their wheelchairs; a few wheeled themselves in. Even fewer walked.

At Mary Manning Walsh, food plays multiple roles in the lives of its residents—the more than 350 patients are 80 years old on average (and a lot are waiting to get in). The Upper East Side nursing home organizes special events such as the harvest ball, where food is used for socialization and normalization among its patients. Generally though—whether special events or regular meals—it is about “trying to get them to be happy with what they’re eating,” said Joanne Gaffney, 61, clinical nutrition manager. “Trying to feed them what their mother made them.”

Food and nutrition make up just one part of the nursing home’s comprehensive services, which also include 24-hour nursing, physician, laboratory and even, religious services. Arlaine Bruce said most of the residents are covered by Medicaid and Medicare and a few pay out of pocket.

Bruce, 46, director of recreational therapy, organized the harvest ball: a show with two lithe dancers, a keyboardist and a singer. She often uses food to get her patients to socialize. At the start of the show, one elderly lady, smartly dressed in an autumn leaves pattern, waved to a friend and wheeled herself over to the table where they chatted amid bites of pie and sips of ginger ale. Most of the 120 patients, however, stayed quiet, eating and responding to the show with occasional applause. They could not be identified nor interviewed, according to the nursing home’s policy.

Music therapist Sue Dennis, 40, says the food also normalizes things for the residents. “It might orient them a little,” she said. “It’s fall. We’ve got pie.” For Christmas, there are cookies, eggnog and hot chocolate, and the Passover seder presents its usual menu. The food reminds the patients of “what they would normally be doing.”

Bruce has also organized Saturday morning Doughnut Hours in which she and her patients talk about the news and play trivia around doughnuts and coffee. At monthly birthday celebrations, Bruce hands out cake and ice cream. The nursing home also hosts Travel Club meetings, in which a country and a typical regional food would be presented. Those who had visited that country would start reliving how good the food was there. Both Bruce and Dennis mentioned the apple strudel and sweet plantain, which have been featured in past meetings.

“They get together, eat and talk,” said Dennis. “It’s stimulating. They start reminiscing.”

For regular meals, Gaffney said the nursing home’s food service is not that much different from a restaurant’s. “We do cater to the needs and preferences of the residents.” The nursing home provides balanced meals that contain all food groups, adjusting the dishes or giving alternate sustenance for the patients with liquid restrictions, tube feedings or controlled carbohydrate diets. But she emphasized that, unlike a hospital, the nursing home does not adhere to a specific therapeutic diet. “You want to strike a balance,” she said.

Patients have individualized menus that adhere to their taste preferences and dietary needs. The menu, which varies daily, is planned weekly at the dietitians’ office. Breakfast usually comprises orange juice, oatmeal and a hard-boiled egg. Lunch and dinner include an entrée, starch and vegetable sides and dessert. All three meals come with bread and butter and coffee or tea with milk or creamer. The dinner menu that included beefaroni or tuna salad, mashed potatoes, creamed spinach and apple cobbler. There are additional off-the-menu dishes such as honey soup. Crab cakes, goulash and Philly cheese steak appear on the menu for upcoming weeks.

Gaffney added that food provides oral stimulation for some patients who are not tube feeding, and “for people that are seriously, terminally ill, we are more liberal with their diet because it’s one of the few things they can enjoy.”

Every day, it’s up to Andrea Reid, 58, assistant director of food and nutrition, to supervise the kitchen’s tray line: One person calls out the resident’s dinner selection — “two scoops, no mash” — and places a dish on a heat conductor plate, alerting the next two people on the hot or cold foods sides to place food and beverages on the dish. One person then adds coffee or tea, and the final person checks for accuracy. Beefaroni, mashed potatoes and creamed spinach lay steaming in baking pans. Tuna salad lay cold and yellow digital thermometers stuck out from roasted chicken.

After stacking up the trays of food, the staff members cart the meals to the nurses, who then deliver the food to the residents’ rooms. Some patients elect to eat at the dining room, where they have assigned seating. “They’re territorial,” said Bruce.

At the monthly Food Committee meetings, the nursing home allows its patients to issue complaints — most concerned cold food and a desire for new food.

Gaffney said the staff tries to remedy the issues the best they can. “You want to keep people happy here. This is their home.”

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Amateur cookoffs heating up and slimming down in Brooklyn

Amateur cookoffs heating up and slimming down in Brooklyn

A plate at the Food Obstructions cookoff in Williamsburg (Photo: Winnie Andrews)By WINNIE ANDREWS

Amateur cooks get ready, Brooklyn has yet another cookoff that encourages both economic and culinary resourcefulness.

This cooking competition is called the Food Obstructions, named after five arbitrary rules that cooks must follow. The arena is the Gutter, a dark, cozy bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Under the melodic music of pool-table clatter, 15 amateur cooks compete to impress about 50 tasting participants. Unlike other competitions, cooks are restricted to spending $25 on ingredients.

The competition is part of a booming cookoff craze in Brooklyn. In recent months, amateur cooks have simmered, stirred and baked their way through several different competitions including hot pepper and chocolate, macaroni and cheese, lamb, cassoulet, and risotto, to name a few. At $5 per plate, The Food Obstructions promises glory for the cooks and cheap eats for the judges.

“It’s like a pot-luck, but we decided to have a little fun twist, and have a little competition,” said Cathy Erway, the organizer of the event.

Ingenuity was encouraged at the Food Obstructions in ways other than the $25 limit on ingredients: cooks were required to use something purple, a fruit, a vegetable and a locally sourced item, and could not use bacon. The cooks came up with dishes such as pepper blintzes with blueberry jam, biscuits covered in figs and fondue, and Thai curry butternut squash soup.

Food Obstructions judges at the Gutter (Photo: Winnie Andrews)

Che Flowers, 27, a receptionist from Astoria, Queens, was one of about 50 participants who came to the Gutter to judge and socialize. After filling his plate with small portions of the 15 different items, he sat down at the bar with his score card and a friend. Flower’s vote ultimately went for the bread pudding. “Combined with that pickled grape, every little bite had a different layer of complexity,” he said.

“It was an incredible amount of food for $5,” said Michael LeVasseur, 27, who came with who came with Flowers and also lives in Astoria.

This new style of cookoff attracts urbanites in their twenties and thirties. Joann Kim, 25, a food writer living in Greenpoint, said she runs across cookoffs all the time. In the past month alone there have been at least five cookoffs in Brooklyn. “It’s a great way of bringing folks together and sharing some good food and good energy,” she said.

The cooking aspect draws a crowd as well, “it’s so much fun to just roll up your sleeves and have a long project ahead of you,” said Erway, 27, a freelancer writer living in Crown Heights who organized the Obstructions competition.

The urban cookoff can be traced back to 2005 when Matt Timms organized his first Brooklyn Chili Takedown in Williamsburg.  One hundred people attended that first event. Since then, Timms takedowns have expanded. Timms, 35, said his bacon takedown in March drew so many people he had to turn several hundred away. Timms is now hitting the road and taking his cooking competitions to Nashville and Boston.

Lamb loving crowds at Matt Timms Lamb Takedown in October (Photo: Matt Timms)

Before starting the Chili Takedown, Timms participated in the International Chili Society’s chili cookoffs. There, chili meant only one combination: meat, red chili peppers and spices. No beans, no vegetables and definitely no tofu.

That wasn’t broad enough for Timms. After discovering a recipe for peach and jalapeno chili in his Marlboro cookbook, Timms decided to expand the definition to just about anything, including a chili made entirely of candy.

Nick Suarez is one of the cooks making a name for himself today on the New York cookoff circuit. A recent Saurez success was a casserol of duck confit, butternut squash, potatoes, fried and caramelized onions, bacon and parsley. He entered the dish in a casserole competition in Greenpoint and took home first place.

Suarez began competing last November at Timms’ fondue takedown in Williamsburg, where he won second place, and has been hooked on competing ever since. The 27-year-old Dumbo resident works for a wine magazine, and spends much of his free time cooking. Since his competition debut, Suarez’s kitchen has been filling up with prizes; he now has more aprons than he knows what to do with, he said.

Cooking for competitions requires a certain strategy. “You essentially have to over-season your dish,” Suarez said. “The judges and the audience are only getting one bite, so you have to pack as much flavor as you can into that bite,” he said.

Another of Suarez’s tricks is to include a lot of salt and butter, that’s what our tongues respond to best, he said. He also cooks and seasons the ingredients separately to bring out flavor.

Big taste doesn’t always come cheap and amateur cooks usually foot the bill for ingredients. Suarez spends between $50 to $100 for each competition. He puts in the time and money because he’s addicted to the competition. “It’s the culinary glory that keeps me coming back for more,” he said.

Both guests and cooks can learn a thing or two at cookoffs. Flowers said that after eating at a sandwich competition, he realized how easy it could be to spice up a chicken sandwich with some cherry tomatoes, balsamic vinegar and cheese. “It changed the way I made sandwiches for a month,” he said.

Cooks also learn from the competitions. Christine Collins, 26, a first-time cookoff competitor from Caroll Gardens who participated in the Food Obstructions event, can now give one important piece of advice: don’t replace wine with wine-vinegar where heat is involved.

Collins made this mistake while concocting a plum sauce for the Food Obstructions; it resulting in a burned pan, a smoke-filled kitchen, and a very stressed-out cook, said Collins.

But despite the mistake, Collins still pulled together a ginger-garlic soy sauce and peppercorn beef in time for the cookoff. The judges approved, and she took home the $100 first prize.

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Author on avoiding dinner battles

Author on avoiding dinner battles

Michelle Maisto (Photo: Michelle Maisto)


Michelle Maisto is a self described food lover. She likes eating, cooking and writing about food. So when she got engaged to her food-loving boyfriend, the dinner table was the last place Maisto expected to encounter relationship problems. But after moving in together, what had once been a pleasurable activity became a nightly battleground for cultural identity, division of labor and food preferences.

Maisto began recording everything she and her fiance ate for a year to try to analyze the problem. Those notes turned into Maisto’s first book, “The Gastronomy of Marriage – A Memoir of Food and Love,” which came out last week.

Maisto is a petite, dark-haired woman in her early thirties who grew up in New Jersey. She now lives with her husband Richard Chang in Park Slope, Brooklyn. She is a freelance writer and does food writing on the side.

Maisto met her husband 11 years ago while living and working in Los Angeles. Common interests helped draw the two together; they both loved writing and food. On one of their first dates, one of the things that most impressed Maisto was Chang’s instinct to order a specially offered soufflé, despite the extra wait.

“Food was such a fun part of our courtship. I never thought it would be an issue,” said Maisto.

But it was. After getting engaged the couple decided to move in together in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. That’s when the question of what to cook for dinner started creating nightly gridlock.

“It was relentless!” said Maisto. “Within the context of our home, food became a big problem for us,” she said.

Maisto began to wonder if this was a warning sign for deeper troubles.

“It was like, man! This is such a stupid thing and we’re having trouble with this!” she said.

There were several road blocks. Chang liked meat. Maisto was a vegetarian. He preferred lighter options like steamed fish. She loved rich, Italian pasta dishes.

The Gastronomy of Marriage, A Memoir of Food and Love by Michelle Maisto

And then there was the question of who would cook. When Chang took on extra freelancing work to pay for their upcoming wedding, Maisto agreed to do most of the meals. Despite enjoying cooking, this arrangement conflicted with Maisto’s desire to feel like a modern couple.

Many food issues arose from cultural differences. Maisto came from an Italian family and Chang from a Chinese one. For both, meals were a way to hold onto culture.

“We were both just trying to put a stake in the ground for our identities,”said Maisto.

Though Maisto chose to live with her meat-eating boyfriend despite being vegetarian, others prefer to live and date only people with the same dietary preferences. Jason Das, a vegan and the founder of the Web site SuperVegan, prefers dating fellow vegans.

“It’s simpler,” he said.

Das became vegan seven years ago. He prefers having a vegan-only kitchen, which makes living with a non vegan difficult.

Rynn Berry is an author of six books about vegetarian, vegan and raw diets. He is a rawfoodist and eats mostly fruit. Berry said he only dates vegans because he doesn’t want any physical contact with someone who eats meat.

Berry said being a fruitologist eliminates many food preparation issues because there is no cooking involved.

“One of the great appeals of being a fruitologist is that both men and women are emancipating, there’s no dish washing, no scrubbing of pots,” he said.

For Maisto and her husband the dinner table conflicts have subsided over time. Maisto now adds meat only to her husband’s portion of the meal while keeping her own vegetarian. A repertoire of quick dishes they both enjoy – like frittata, fried rice and risotto – also helps reduce the dinner-time stress.

Maisto said the key to a couple’s success at the dinner table is “being open to eating different things and to looking at eating as an adventure.”

For Maisto, the initial struggle to eat with her husband resulted in “The Gastronomy of Marriage” rather than the end of marriage. After five years of living and eating together at the same table, the question of what’s for dinner is no longer so combative.

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Former rocker sees the light in food art

Former rocker sees the light in food art

Painter Robert Box sells his food art paintings on weekends outside the Met.

Painter Robert Box sells his food art paintings on weekends outside the Met. (Photo: Courtesy of Robert Box)


It was the way that the early morning sun glinted off his coffee mug that inspired painter Robert Box, 58, to take his art in a new direction. From small-time rock-star and abstract artist, he has become a painter of food.

Born in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park in 1951, Box’s interest in painting stemmed from an early fascination with color. Among his favorite artists is painter Jackson Pollock, whose signature paint-splattered canvases emphasize the marriage of color and motion that Box strives to use in his own work.

Box enrolled in Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts in 1969, but cut his education short after the shootings at Kent State University in 1970, when he and some friends dropped out of school in protest against the war in Vietnam. “I had to ask myself, ‘What am I doing, doing art? People are dying,’” he recalled.

Without a degree or a job, Box — then known as Bob Racioppo — and friend Artie Lamonica moved into a storefront in Brooklyn and started a punk-rock band, for which Box played the bass guitar. A chance meeting with acquaintances Annie Golden and Johnny “Zeeek” Criscione at a local bar led to the formation of a 9-member band called “The Shirts.” From the beginning, The Shirts sets themselves apart from the era’s army of cover bands with original set lists and a fun, pop-punk sound.

“We did our own stuff during a time when few bands were really doing that,” Box said. After a friend posed as the band’s persistent manager, The Shirts landed their breakthrough gig at CBGB, a popular club on Bowery Street in Manhattan. The band developed a devoted fan-base, which by 1977 included a talent scout from EMI Records.

“They came in, saw potential, and just went with it,” Box said. “We became small-time rock stars, flying all over the place for shows and getting per diem money for food and clothes — whatever we needed.”

5 years and 3 albums later, The Shirt’s punk-rock popularity had dried up. The band’s third album tanked, selling only 10,000 copies. Box and his band returned home to New York, defeated. “We went from having everything taken care of — bills, food, travel arrangements — to starting over. It was a weird transition,” he said.

With little money in his pocket and ample time on his hands, Box returned to painting with a newfound fervor. He continued to develop his colorful, abstract style and hit the New York art gallery scene hoping to show his work somewhere — anywhere — but with little success. He bought Gallery Guide magazine and began working his way down the list, “But no one was interested. It was hard to even get through the door for an actual rejection.” By the time he gave up his search, Box had been turned away from more than 30 art galleries.

Despite the troubles in his professional life, Box’s personal life was thriving; he married and had two children. His rock and roll lifestyle gave way to a busy family life.

Unable to afford studio space, Box took up residence at his kitchen table. Gone were the nights spent painting into the small hours of the morning under artificial light, trying to shake the night-owl schedule he had adopted while on tour. Box was now forced to paint during the “quiet time between 6 and 7 am, before the kids woke up.” The change in timing made all the difference.

One morning while he was sitting in his small kitchen, a blank canvas and a cup of coffee in front of him, Box was overcome by a sudden appreciation for the way the morning light illuminated the edge of his coffee mug. Before the light could shift, he painted the simple scene, producing what he would later recognize as his first piece done in the “Pop Realist” style. “It was such a departure from my earlier abstract work,” he said. “But it was refreshing. I needed a change.”

Box experimented with the effect of natural lighting on food in this recent corn on the cob study.

Box experiments with the effect of natural lighting on food in this recent study of corn on the cob. (Image: Courtesy of Robert Box)

Box began to experiment with all sorts of food and kitchen items — from tomatoes to salt and peppershakers — always positioning his subjects in the same glow of the early morning light. A trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1998 for a Vermeer exhibit proved to be the final push that Box needed to bring his foodie paintings to the masses.

“I left the exhibit and saw all of the artists outside the front steps [of the Met], and I thought ‘I can do this!’” He began by spreading out a blanket in front of the museum, arranging a few of his pieces right on the sidewalk. His first customers were a pair of Swedish flight attendants, who bought a painting each for a total of $40. Soon, Box invested in an aluminum table on which to display his wares, followed by a pushcart to bring the paintings from his car to his table on weekends.

The colorful paintings, which range in size from 8 inches by 7 inches to 16 inches by 16 inches, have been a hit with tourists and native New Yorkers alike; Box regularly sells to five or six customers per day, and his paintings cost $15 to $500. The success finally stimulated sales in galleries across New York as well, and led Box to rent studio space in the Brooklyn Artists Gym, a cooperative for artists of all mediums.

With his transition from abstract studies to food art, Box has aligned himself with some of the world’s most celebrated painters: Vermeer, Matisse, and Picasso, all of whom created masterpieces featuring food in still-life. “Some people look down at you,” said Box of selling his paintings on the sidewalk from what he calls a “gallery sans roof.” However, he added, most people appreciate it. “It’s accessible. I mean, who doesn’t like food?”

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Gourmet Magazine is finished, but the (food) party goes on


At the Chelsea Market After Dark kickoff of the New York City Wine and Food Festival in early October, the chatter seemed at first to be as much about Condé Nast’s announcement that it was shutting Gourmet magazine as it was about the event itself. But as the hours passed, attendees happily moved on to drinking, eating, and dancing — the announcement of Gourmet’s demise could only do so much to dampen the festivities.

Gourmet, started in 1941, was the nation’s oldest food magazine and had a circulation as high as almost one million. But its reputation and prestige couldn’t keep it from sinking along with its ad revenue — ad pages were down 50 percent from the same quarter last year.

The reaction to Condé Nast’s announcement reveals how important the magazine was to both readers and the food and wine industries. More than 1,000 articles filled with shock and sadness were written since the announcement in publications from the New York Times to food blogs, and Twitter was abuzz with the news for days. Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl’s tweets took on a somber tone: “We’re all stunned, sad”; “Hard to believe it’s over”; “I am losing my family.”

The sentiment was the same among many of the Chelsea Market After Dark’s guests lined up outside the market and around the corner of Ninth Avenue. After all, those in line for event were paying $95 for the privilege of discussing, eating and celebrating food.

“I hate to see any magazine shut down,” says Julia Therese, “and all the food magazines are so good. Helps the home cooks. Helps you experiment and try new things.”

Therese, who flew from Florida to attend the Wine and Food Festival, had been a Gourmet subscriber for five years. Now, she says, reminiscing about the times that she and her friends would use the magazine for ideas, she will rely on, Bon Appétit and Food and Wine Magazine.

“A lot of times we couldn’t do it right because in the  ’70s you couldn’t get all of the ingredients you can get now as easily, but we would try them,” she says. “It was good fun and the photography was wonderful. You know, it’s sad so many things are going by the wayside with the economy.”

Sharon Hurd traveled from Tennessee to attend the festival. She says she used Gourmet as inspiration for her restaurant, the Mezzanine Tea Room, in Kingsport.

“It’s like we’re going to lose a part of us,” Hurd says.

She says she doesn’t know where she will turn to now for recipes and food ideas; she just hopes that Condé Nast will change its mind.

Tammy Jones couldn’t get a Gourmet subscription at her home in Bermuda, but she would buy the magazine religiously, she says. As a food blogger, she spends much of her time on food Web sites and heard the bad news on

“I was absolutely dumbfounded,” she says. “I have Gourmets dating back to the ’60s and ’70s. I was going to get rid of my magazines and I’m not now. They’re mine! I need to cherish them because it’s not going to be around anymore.”

Jones says she will continue reading Bon Appétit and Saveur; and when the final issue of Gourmet is released in November, she will “get one to read, one for plastic.”

Her funereal mood turned, though, when the doors opened at 9 p.m. As the line outside began to move, Jones reached into her purse, put on a blond, spiky wig — in honor of Guy Fieri, one of the event’s hosts — and laughed excitedly.

Inside the Chelsea Market, Mary J. Blige’s popular party song “Family Affair” played loudly, and and towers of wine glasses stood like beehives throughout the room, which was decorated in Food Network colors, orange and white.

The crowd made its way through the doors dancing, and most of them danced straight to the bar. Others moved through the market and helped themselves to cupcakes, cookies, chocolate, bread and soup. Many hovered around the fluorescent lights that spelled “Sandra Lee,” and waited to be photographed with her.

Lee, a Food Network personality with a show called Semi-Homemade Cooking, was also disappointed when she heard about Gourmet.

“When I found out, I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “Gourmet Magazine did a feature on me and Semi-Homemade before I was on the Food Network. They identified that Semi-Homemade would be a big hit and that there was a new way of cooking that people could use when no one else would. And it’s just a shame. It’s heartbreaking.”

When asked where she will turn to now for recipes she said, “My own magazine,” laughing.

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The unlikely recession-proof item: The oyster


Shouts for “Luis,” the gloved four-time champion, reverberated off the basketweave ceiling, as a hundred enthusiastic onlookers filled the subterranean Grand Central Oyster Bar.  As part of the annual Oyster Frenzy shucking competition, oyster-lovers craned their necks to watch the master shuckers and their bloodied fingers last Sunday while busy bartenders and waiters warned customers of a 45-minute wait for oysters.

Sandy Ingber, executive chef, delighted in the festivities. But he had more than the festival to be happy about. While most U.S. restaurants have suffered from the current recession — 68 percent of restaurants reported a yearly sales decline in August, according to a survey by the National Restaurant Association — the Grand Central Oyster Bar’s sales rose 3 percent over last year, he said.

On the supply end of the oyster chain, Robert Rheault, the president of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association, which represents 1,000 shellfish farmers, said production in New England “has been increasing at double-digit rates for a decade.” (He included Long Island in the New England sector, the main oyster source for New York restaurants.)

Recent government grants have restored oyster cultivation in the Northeast, and unlike many fish, the oyster can better sustain environmental changes and has adapted well to the region’s turbid waters and polluted coastal estuaries. Oyster farmers can thus produce a steady supply at relatively stable prices for restaurants. Rheault, who manages his own boutique oyster farm, said “Speaking for myself, demand has been surprisingly strong through the downturn.”

Ingber made some changes in his menu to lessen the recession’s impact. “Through this bad economy and the crisis we just went through, we’ve tried to hold our prices down,” he said. “One of the great things about our menu is it’s a daily written menu.” As such, he is able to respond to the changing prices from his suppliers — an oyster farm in New England or a wholesaler at the Fulton Fish Market — and fills his menu with less expensive items if necessary. “My menu is a little more fairly priced throughout the economy. And it shows.” He said the restaurant sells approximately seven to nine thousand oysters weekly, a small increase from last year.

In the Flatiron District, Jay Shaffer has also seen “a small upward trend from last year” at Shaffer City Oyster Bar and Grill, which he has been operating for 12 years. “I think it’s more of a recession-proof item out there,” he said. Like Ingber, he saw customers buying less expensive oysters, and has introduced a more cost-friendly alternative for his diners, such as a happy hour at the bar from 4 to 8 p.m. from Monday to Saturday when $3 oysters are half price. The restaurant sells between  3,000 and 10,000 oysters per week, he said.

Oyster lovers have created a cult of loyalty that withstands economic troubles. Peter Slatin, associate publisher and editorial director of Real Time Analytics, said: “The recession has cut my salary by one-third. Nonetheless, I continue to eat oysters.” In the past year, he has had to close his business and take on a lower-paying job, yet he could not give up his oysters. “In fact, I believe I ate oysters three nights in the past week,” he said.

On a recent Saturday night, Lara Zibners, a pediatrician and oyster devotee, sat at the bar of Shaffer City with her husband, Gernot Lohr. “On the level of what we spend in our budget, oysters are a small blip on the numbers,” she said. “For us, oysters are such an enjoyable blip in that budget that we’ve never stopped.” She said she and her husband eat between two to eight oysters about two times a week at the average cost of $1.50 to $3 per oyster — a weekly range of $6 to $48.

Zibners praised the oyster’s health benefits. One oyster contains a gram of protein, six calories and the most concentrated dietary source of zinc, according to the National Institutes of Health. But the most salient point of the oyster for her is its “sexiness.” She was not referring to the oyster’s supposed aphrodisiac quality but rather its ability to stretch out the dinner date with her husband. “It’s not a quick fix. You choose it, enjoy it, talk about it.”

Shaffer also extolled the experience of eating an oyster. “They’re an escape from an everyday eating experience,” he said. “You don’t see it at home. People see it as a difficult thing to acquire on their own. And for people who love oysters, they see it as extra special. You have to keep eating them.”

Back at the Grand Central Oyster Bar, Luis Iglesias, who holds the record for opening 15 oysters in one minute, became a five-time shucking champion and picked up his check for $1,500 as the audience slurped away.

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