Bad news out of Dallas. A marvelous fine-dining restaurant is retooling. Nana Restaurant in the (Hilton) Anatole will no longer be the bastion of cutting-edge/bleeding- edge cuisine but a steak house. Shit. In Dallas, steak joints are as plentiful as rain in Portland. What a shame. What a waste.
This is my homage. It is MINE, my experience, my bias, my words.
Nana was special. Not only because the food was always the best available (real diver scallops, Scottish woodcocks, white truffles) but because it was my first restaurant. It was the marquis restaurant for a gigantic hotel complex. Dignitaries, presidents, oil magnates, you name it, they ate there. The regulars were a who's who of Dallas monied elite.
How I ended up with a classy joint like Nana as my first restaurant gig is a story for another post.
I needed three semesters of practical experience to graduate from the El Centro culinary arts program. I was hired by David McMillan, Exec Chef at Nana as a pastry assistant. I guess he figured I'd do less harm in pastry than on the line. I turned 42 on my first day of work and I was scared shitless. A job at Nana? A jewel box on the 27th floor of a fancy hotel?? What the hell was I doing. I was a restaurant critic, a writer, not a cook. At least not yet...
McMillan's cuisine was absolutely French. He was a good guy and a good chef. I remember a whole-lobe fois gras appetizer (about $130 if memory serves). He would make Baked Alaska at the drop of a hat. He also had a food cost percentage that topped 80% one month. He shrugged and said, "It was a bad month."
He was also stoopid enough to leave a nearly-full bottle of Bookers for the three pastry chicks; me, Lori and Angela, to drink. Chef came to the station at the end of service and the bottle was empty. We said it spilled. Oops.
Nana was never supposed to make money. It was a jewel with Fabrege eggs and mother of pearl spoons to serve caviar. Giani Versace china, multiple years of Dom. It was the mistress, coddled and cosseted. Not the workhorse.
McMillan moved on three months after I started. A week later I moved to the hot line. Desserts just weren't (and still aren't) my thing.
Enter Executive Chef Anthony Bombaci. He was the most talented chef I've ever know. His food literally sang. He was also the biggest asshole I've ever known. What a jerk. But, man-o-man could he cook.
My favorite Bombaci story is his telling me to, "stop shaking my saute pan like it was my dick." "But Chef," I answered, "I don't have a dick. Can I continue to shake without one?" He'd also throw out your mies en place if he found a pinch of Italian parsley that wasn't properly (hair-like) chiffonaded. "If you can't cut parsley," he'd say, "what else is fucked up?"
Although I went to culinary school, Nana is where I learned to cook. Bombaci's cuisine was rooted in Spain with a huge dose of Adria (El Buli) added. He made amazing food. Celery root puree with kumomoto oysters and green apple sorbet. Confit suckling pig with a caramel glaze, sour apricot sauce (?) and three perfect tubes of pineapple anchoring the plate. He had a tasting menu with three desserts.
I can't begin to explain the complicated, yet earthy dishes he poured out day after day. At Nana I mastered pasta, gnocchi, sofrito, trixsant, and learned to break down any fish. I made foams, gels, granites, terrines, sausages (using a pastry bag and open tip), and spun a lot of ice cream.
I also learned how NOT to cry at work. Here's the trick: Bite your lip, really hard, and get angry. Controlled, focused angry. Nana was the kind of place that if you clocked in with anything less than 120%, you'd fail. Miserably.
At Nana I also learned to cook while drunk. Very drunk. On New Years Eve, the Veuve Clicquot (champagne) flowed like water. I remember having at least two quart-sized containers on my station (no glass on the line -- we were drunks, not stupid) all night long. Oh my, the food we put out. Perfection.
It was a hotel so every cook had to work every holiday. New Years Eve dinner, New Years Day brunch, Christmas eve, Christmas day etc... I'm still amazed that cooks take time off over holidays. Cooks today, and cooks in Portland, have a right to expect work/life balance. The years I spent at Nana were about excellence, not balance.*
I stayed for two years. When I left, my parting gift was dinner. My husband Jamie and I had the most amazing meal of my life. Forget Jean Louis in the Watergate, or Alice Waters. Bombaci made every course we ate that night. And there were at least 12 courses. It's how he said, "Thanks and hey, no hard feelings."
Thanks Nana (and Anthony Bombaci) for teaching me how to cook and giving me GREAT stories with which to scare young line cooks.
* These days, I'm a total slacker. I've had Saturday's off for ages so I could volunteer at the Farmers Market. Back in the day, I'd rather chop off a finger than be anywhere but a restaurant kitchen on a Saturday night.
** Oh Katie, you're a good woman and I adore you but you taught me how NOT to be a sous chef. When I got my 'jacket' I knew to work harder than any line cook and stay later than any exec. For this, I thank you.