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A Tribute To Susan McCreight Lindeborg


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#1 DonRocks

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Posted 17 August 2005 - 11:08 PM

On Friday, Chef Odessa Piper of L'Etoile Restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin, winner of the 2001 James Beard Award for Best Chef - Midwest Region, will be here to give her thoughts about Chef Susan McCreight Lindeborg. Chef Lindeborg was Sous Chef at L'Etoile from 1982-1986, and this evening Chef Piper told me that "I learned more from Susan than from anyone else in my entire career."

This thread will be exclusively in honor of Chef Lindeborg, who will be retiring and moving from the Washington, DC area after a long and brilliant career. Look for a brief statement from Odessa tomorrow, and please feel free to follow up with any questions for Chef Piper about Chef Lindeborg.

Cheers,
Rocks.

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#2 Odessa Piper

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Posted 18 August 2005 - 03:56 PM

In today's kitchen speak Susan would be called L'Etoile's "Head Chef," though back in the 80's, (when terms such as 'salad girl ' were still used), Susan preferred to call herself a cook. This modesty and lack of affectation were her hallmarks, leaving plenty of room for her exceptional palette and wicked sense of humor to shine.

Susan had not run a kitchen prior to L'Etoile and neither of us had gone to culinary school . We were blissfully ignorant of the claims attached to the formal culinary education of that time. When we joined forces in 1981, Susan was already a mature woman who had found her culinary organizing principals. She knew how to read the road map to get to delicious. In those early years Susan pretty much directed the savory menus while I did the marketing, baking and some FOH. This was a pattern created out of nessessity. The loss of L'Etoile's opening partner burdened me at the age of 24 with a restaurant whose demands went far beyond my experience . Most of my professional kitchen skills were learned surreptitiously from various cooks I hired over the years, though this was not the case with Susan, who gave generously of her knowledge. In general though, there was never enough time or confidence and our predicament was not without its tensions. With the perspective of time and the confidence, what shines through is the trove of culinary wisdom I learned from her and the deep respect and affection I have for her

Susan had a prediliction for carefully researching recipes. She always attributed them faithfully, which gave L'Etoile's early menus of the 80's a particular grace. There was Sole with parsley sauce 'Michael Roux', 'Simca's' Chocolate cherry cake. Snapper was done in the style of Pensacola , shellfish preps that included Ham were 'Iberian style.' I still modify and treasure recipes that Susan sourced. Our creamy basil salad dressing. Susan's method for Gravad Lax, and her presentation of chèvre, warmed lightly in a fine olive oil infused with herbs and served with tiny firm button mushrooms pickled lightly in house, tapenade and toasts. Oh, this reminds me about toasts. This was her teaching vehicle. She would have every cook practice toasts till she was satisfied. "they must never be hard and brittle, they should shatter upon delicate pressure from the eye tooth!". You see why I love this chef.

Susan was not reluctant to take on flavor extremes. she just knew what had to be balanced. I'll never forget a wonderful lemon-honey confit she came up with. I had recently acquired an entire veal calf in primal quarters from an Amish farm I was exploring as an alternative to confined veal, so as you can imagine, we had a ton of veal and stock. Susan came up with a dozen recipes for every part of the animal. Her one for the fancy cuts was served with this lemon confit. She balanced the sweet/salty lemon jam with lots of caramelized shallots, thyme and rich veal stock reduced to a black hole. The sauce was applied generously. This plate was intense. Guests adored it. This encouraged my own exploration of sweet-savory applications, particularly utilizing local fruits, and has become one of the cornerstones of my cooking. As a chef I have been exposed to countless recipes and concepts. The ones that become beloved contain more than cool ideas or ingredients, but some quality of participation. Cooking with Susan was like this all the time.

Susan had many droll expressions. Valrhona chocolate was "conched to death". When she wanted something to happen she talked about 'the press'. To bolster my tentative management style she would say, "if they're not bitching, you're not doing your job." She 'pressed' me to read Madeleine Kamman. Unlike some kitchens where knowledge is withheld for power, Susan insisted on transparency, every recipe should be shared, every technique could be taught. When it came time to leave she dedicated ample time to help me find the right successor. I learned as much from Susan about integrity as I did about cooking. She is a treasure to our community of cooks, and I hope now that she is retiring from restauranting that she will continue to give her perspectives.



#3 Gillian Clark

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Posted 18 August 2005 - 11:05 PM

I have often called Susan my mother. She has always been more than a mentor to so many of us that cooked with her. No one knows more about food than Susan. Her kitchen is the kind of space that is educational, nurturing, inspiring and full of humor. And even when I left her kitchen (well, she left first) she never really stopped teaching and inspiring. Every cook in DC has a friend, a coach, a shoulder, a brain to pick, and a conscience so long as they have Susan's phone number.
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#4 DonRocks

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Posted 19 August 2005 - 10:17 AM

Odessa, the other evening you mentioned something about Chef Lindeborg doing "girl food." Can you explain what you meant by this?

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#5 Odessa Piper

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Posted 19 August 2005 - 10:55 AM

My husband, the wine importer Terry Theise, came up with an appreciative term for a certain kind of restaurant cooking that we both adore; we call it 'Girl Food'. Susan Lindeborg's cooking personifies girl food. I would describe it as an aesthetic where the chef puts her ingredients in the foreground while keeping her techniques unobtrusive; great technique is absolutely present, and skillfully applied, but transparent, like the 'bonne femme' cooking of culture-based cuisines throughout the world.

To cook the way of the "mother tongue" requires authentic ingredients and a respect for their cultural traits. It comes as no surprise to me that the increasing appreciation for locally grown high quality produce and the increasing population of talented women heading restaurant kitchens is linked. By the way, this is an equal opportunity cuisine; some of our favorite male chefs do great 'girl food'.

Girl food kitchens emphasize teamwork, solicit input and direct through nurture. There is less of the screaming chef. You know the kind- the one who drives terrorized cooks to bury their wounded pride in an excess of perfectly brunoised vegetables. The presence of girl food aesthetics can be seen in vegetables that are sliced from top to bottom to glory in the whole shape, garnishes that are relevant, if used at all. Presentation is un-busy. The beauty of the plate comes from its overall composition. Sauces generally are not over-reduced; you don't get the feeling that the chef is attempting to "take control" of your palate at the expense of subtle nuanced flavors that keep building.

Terry has some wonderful things to say about girl food. I hope he'll weigh in.



#6 Terry Theise

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Posted 19 August 2005 - 05:00 PM

By the way, my definition of "girl-food" is it's not only food you love, it's food that loves you back. It doesn't seek to "impress" though it often does. It wraps you in a nexus of appreciation for the honesty and beauty of ingredients. It's the difference between "look at ME!!" and "Look at THESE!" The first is I-thou, I-the-diner looks at you-the-chef (and is impressed); the second is companionable and collaborative - I-the-diner and she-the-chef look TOGETHER at the beauty she has found and seeks to share. It also lays more emphasis on deliciousness than on dazzling. It's got juicier soul.

#7 liam

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Posted 19 August 2005 - 05:24 PM

Odessa,

Please share your thoughts on either of these topics...

I'm interested in your comments on "girl food kitchens." Do you think that today's celebrity chefs such as Anthony Bourdain, Rocco Dispirito, and the like are having an impact on the composition or conduct of inspiring chefs? Are these guys more the norm or the exception, simply embraced by TV for their eccentricity and brashness? Do you think the fact that these kitchen Mussolinis are almost entirely male says more about inherent gender differences, more about it takes or what people perceive it takes a run a kitchen, or neither?

Also, what are some of your favorite chefs or restaurants in & around Washington (or elsewhere) that prepare and present food in a "girl food" or Susan Lindeborg style?

As an aside, I'm thrilled to be living in Madison, Wisconsin as of 10 months ago. I'm a frequent customer at the L'Etoile cafe. And my wife, Sara, loved taking your cooking class and Farmers' Market tour last fall. Cheers!

#8 Cathal Armstrong

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Posted 20 August 2005 - 02:38 PM

It has been my great pleasure to know Susan a little. She helped guide me through the notorious permit process in Alexandria. Meshelle and I conceived Restaurant Eve at the bar at Majestic Cafe. She opened the door for serious food in Old Town after years of drought. She is like the godmother of modern american cooking in this region and I am shocked to hear that she will be retiring. Her steady hand and almost stoic humor will be sorely missed. I feel as though there has been a death in the family.

My wife, my staff and I congratulate her on a most distinguished career and wish her all the fun of retirement.
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#9 Odessa Piper

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Posted 22 August 2005 - 10:12 AM

Odessa,

Please share your thoughts on either of these topics...

I'm interested in your comments on "girl food kitchens." Do you think that today's celebrity chefs such as Anthony Bourdain, Rocco Dispirito, and the like are having an impact on the composition or conduct of inspiring chefs? Are these guys more the norm or the exception, simply embraced by TV for their eccentricity and brashness? Do you think the fact that these kitchen Mussolinis are almost entirely male says more about inherent gender differences, more about it takes or what people perceive it takes a run a kitchen, or neither?

Also, what are some of your favorite chefs or restaurants in & around Washington (or elsewhere) that prepare and present food in a "girl food" or Susan Lindeborg style?

As an aside, I'm thrilled to be living in Madison, Wisconsin as of 10 months ago. I'm a frequent customer at the L'Etoile cafe. And my wife, Sara, loved taking your cooking class and Farmers' Market tour last fall. Cheers!

 

I've read Bourdain and I put him right up there with the best food writers. When he exposed the craziness of most commercial kitchens with such wickedly compassionate humor, you could hear a sigh of relief from restaurant people everywhere.

I ate Dispirito's wonderful food years ago at Union Pacific, but never caught his TV show. His subsequent struggles certainly provide a moral tale for aspiring chefs everywhere for how these ego driven things can get out of control. I'm sure women have pulled off equally horrifying restaurant train wrecks; its just less likely that they would be televised.

 

It seems like everyone, male or female has his or her extreme kitchen stories, which we wear like a badge of courage. Looking back, I don't think I'd want it any other way.



#10 DonRocks

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Posted 22 August 2005 - 11:22 PM

Also, what are some of your favorite chefs or restaurants in & around Washington (or elsewhere) that prepare and present food in a "girl food" or Susan Lindeborg style?

 

I'm not Odessa, but I'll suggest Power as reigning King of the Queens. Pastan from the glory days, Pangaud when not in a haze. Clark is, in a frying way, Ruta when he keeps at bay. Wabeck is and Trautman too, Gray and all his former crew: Anda, Cox, the Chittums (two), they all left in a giant coup. Armstrong when he shows restraint, Cam is, yes, but Cashion ain't. Greenwood is, in theory, one, and Furstenberg's are on a bun.

Cheers,
Rocks.


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#11 Mark Slater

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Posted 23 August 2005 - 01:33 AM

Rocks,
Truly, you are nuts.

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#12 Odessa Piper

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Posted 23 August 2005 - 12:45 PM

I'm not Odessa, but I'll suggest Power as reigning King of the Queens. Pastan from the glory days, Pangaud when not in a haze. Clark is, in a frying way, Ruta when he keeps at bay. Wabeck is and Trautman too, Gray and all his former crew: Anda, Cox, the Chittums (two), they all left in a giant coup. Armstrong when he shows restraint, Cam is, yes, but Cashion ain't. Greenwood is, in theory, one, and Furstenberg's are on a bun.

Cheers,
Rocks.

 

Don, your poem is going on my refrigerator!

Alas my restaurant forays in the DC area are not comprehensive enough to give a qualified comparative response, but certainly Palena, Nora, Obelisk and Cashion's start my list. Outside DC you see the style in many more restaurants on the west coast, where Chez Panisse, that mother of girl food, helped to create an aesthetic that uniquely fit their premium seasonal ingredients. Tom Colicchio's cooking at Craft in NYC is a perfect example. This might be a stretch (because his food is considered some of the most sophisticated on the planet) but Chef Charlie Trotter in Chicago weaves technique so seamlessly into his ingredients that it falls with in my 'girl food' aesthetic. True, his compositions can be quite complex, but his ingredients consistently reference their cultural context and the resulting flavor, and the way his food makes me feel, transcends technique.



#13 liam

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Posted 23 August 2005 - 02:33 PM

I'm not Odessa, but I'll suggest Power as reigning King of the Queens. Pastan from the glory days, Pangaud when not in a haze. Clark is, in a frying way, Ruta when he keeps at bay. Wabeck is and Trautman too, Gray and all his former crew: Anda, Cox, the Chittums (two), they all left in a giant coup. Armstrong when he shows restraint, Cam is, yes, but Cashion ain't. Greenwood is, in theory, one, and Furstenberg's are on a bun.

Cheers,
Rocks.

 

Don, I'm simply glad my question could serve as some sort of inspiration for such ... dare, I say, poetry.

Odessa, thanks very much for your comments. If you Washingtonians ever make it out to Madison, you'll quickly realize that Odessa is royalty here for embracing seasonal, local ingredients in her cooking and for her support of what is said to be the nation's largest farmers' market.



#14 Kanishka

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Posted 30 August 2005 - 08:48 AM

(am searching in vain for a hyperlink to Joel Achenbach's Rough Draft from Sunday's Post Mag (8.28), which coincidentally also covers the topic of "Girlfood" (with no space for him) and has a different view of the subject. Or is it the same? Unfortunately, the Post's webmasters are not kind....)

#15 tanabutler

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Posted 02 September 2005 - 11:15 PM

By the way, my definition of "girl-food" is it's not only food you love, it's food that loves you back. It doesn't seek to "impress" though it often does. It wraps you in a nexus of appreciation for the honesty and beauty of ingredients. It's the difference between "look at ME!!" and "Look at THESE!" The first is I-thou, I-the-diner looks at you-the-chef (and is impressed); the second is companionable and collaborative - I-the-diner and she-the-chef look TOGETHER at the beauty she has found and seeks to share. It also lays more emphasis on deliciousness than on dazzling. It's got juicier soul.

 

May I please have permission to quote this in its entirety on my blog about small farms?






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