American writer, editor and food cognoscente Colman Andrews “grew up in restaurants,” and his new memoir, My Usual Table, eulogizes the dining establishments, and their casts of characters, that evolved his palate and his insatiable hunger for the world's cuisines.
Raised in West Los Angeles, Andrews wasn't the child of chefs or restaurateurs, but his mother didn't cook and his father's salary afforded them the luxury of eating out at “all the best and smartest places in Los Angeles.”
Unlike Alice Waters' daughter, Fanny, who as a small child could be found sitting in an empty stockpot eating scraps from the cooks in the kitchen of Chez Panisse, Andrews spent his earliest evenings “perched in a booster seat in a red or green leather booth at a table covered in thick white napery and crowded with silverware and glasses, and being waited on and fed and plied with Shirley Temples and told to sit up straight.”
His rich and candid memoir – pieced together from memory, as well as journal entries and notes about restaurants, bits of conversation, menus and more dating all the way back to his teenage years – details his experience as a relentless diner, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Saveur, and columnist and reviewer for Gourmet, Met Home and The Los Angeles Times, and provides a colorful textual topography of his own culinary landscape. ]
Each of the book's 16 chapters revolves around one or two restaurants that seduced him, starting with the early years of his postwar childhood spent eating ground sirloin with a side of potatoes in banquettes at the glamorous, celebrity-strewn Chasen's in Hollywood, and falling for “Chopped New York Steak Hawaiian Style” (a burger on a toasted English muffin with a fried banana and a pile of shoestring potatoes) at the iconic Trader Vic's, which steered his preteen lust toward the South Pacific.
Andrews takes us along on luxurious explorations of France and Spain, through places that defined him and his work – such as Motel Ampurdan, where he discovered the food of Catalan, a formative subject for him that helped position him as an expert in the food world and inspired his first cookbook, Catalan Cuisine.
My Usual Table is something like an adult version of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but with a lot of famous friends grazing alongside.
In lieu of apples, oranges, pickles, salami, and cupcakes, Andrews makes his way through rabbit brains and oysters; a hundred tiny snails; cream of artichoke soup; roast partridge; sardines and lamb chops; “a whole black truffle as big as a golf ball, coated in foie gras, then baked in a flaky pastry covering and moistened with an intense brown sauce in which there were additional truffle pieces, just to make sure you got enough”; beef consommé with little cubes of foie gras floating in it; and “plump asparagus spears drizzled with thick, dark, umber drops from a little vial of aceto balsamico artisanale, artisanal balsamic vinegar.”
He has tasted the lips of many women, too – he's been married three times – and while Andrews' eloquent food writing might as well be its own romance language, his romantic encounters don't go down quite as easily; his multiple references to times he “necked” with Ruth Reichl, then his colleague at New West magazine, might be the least appetizing descriptions in the book.
Necking aside, the relationship Andrews has with restaurants and the comfort and thrill he experiences each time he sits down at the table – akin to an actor taking the stage – will make you want to join him.