Drink in Life

As animals we know instinctively that eating is vital to our existence. Hunger is a primal urge. Without food our bodies can't sustain themselves. As human beings, however, we may suspect that dining out, and writing and reading about dining out, is somewhat less important. And in the wake of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., I'm trying hard to think of something that is more insignificant than what I do for a living.

Like many of us in South Florida, I grew up in the New York metropolitan area. My hometown of Livingston, New Jersey, is a bedroom community for the city, and a large number of the adult inhabitants commute via the PATH trains and Port Authority to and from the financial districts. My father, a broker, does. Until last year or so, he worked in the World Financial Center. My sister, a financial broadcast journalist, spent a large amount of time in the same building, reporting for Wall Street Journal Television. My brother trades bonds from midtown. He was on the phone with a close friend of his who worked in the World Trade Center, when the first plane hit.

And like most of us, I have been not only patriotically but personally affected by these horrifying tragedies. My two oldest friends from childhood have had a tough time. CJ, who lives in D.C., couldn't locate her husband of only six months; he was in the Pentagon. Amy, a New Yorker, watched the Twin Towers crumble from the school in Brooklyn where she teaches, realizing seconds later that her brother was on the 99th floor of one of the skyscrapers. CJ's husband, Tim, made it out of the Pentagon. Amy's brother Jeff is missing and presumed dead. Knowing that he is probably only the first victim with whom I had ties, I did what any sane woman would do: I called my mom.

My mother is a counselor. She is as numb as anyone else, waiting for the list of victims from Livingston to be released. But she is able to help my father, brother, and sister, all of whom have lost good friends and colleagues. She has also told me: Take comfort in the trivial. Continue the everyday routine. Do what you do. In short, while I may not have the stomach for fine dining at the moment, and you may not have the heart to read about it, we're going to do it anyway, if only for escapism.

Ironically, perhaps, on the day when our nation's fabric and democracy seemed irreparably torn, a few gastronomes were about to sew the initial stitch in making a whole cloth out of the South Florida dining community. A small number of us were going to attend the first of a new event, which for lack of a better term we'll call a wine exchange dinner, at Nemo. There, chef-proprietor Michael Schwartz, using a palette of Terrazas de los Andes Argentine wines, would create and serve a multicourse dinner. The purpose? To better his acquaintance with another area chef, Willis Loughhead from Tantra, who in turn would use the same wines but come up with his own menu and present it to Schwartz in a couple of weeks. The hope is that this kind of chef outreach will result, if not in some true friendships, then at least in some friendly alliances. The NATO of fine dining, if you will. Or the formation of a new Mango Gang, with the equivalent potential for friendly competition and capitalistic gain.

All of this is not to say that our South Florida chefs are always at odds with one another. Some of them have, over the years, formed great attachments. Take former Wish chef Andrea Curto and her fiancé, Gaucho Room toque Frank Randazzo. The relationship between these two South Beach chefs, who are planning to open a restaurant together, is obvious, but it's even more gratifying to the casual observer that another hot young chef, their good friend Michelle Bernstein from Azul in the Mandarin Oriental hotel, will be presenting the fare at their wedding.

Unless they meet in a restaurant kitchen, however, chefs don't always have the opportunities to get to know one another, especially those who work in different South Florida counties. Even when they band together to donate time and energy to multicounty charity events like the Allen Susser-chaired Share Our Strength, they're generally too busy preparing their offerings to do much socializing. Pretty much the only time they get to taste each other's food in a restaurant setting is during their down time. And a lot of chefs, particularly those with partners or families, like to take advantage of that one night off to hang out at home.

Needless to say arranging wine exchange dinners was a bit tricky. We had to schedule them on the chefs' respective nights off -- Loughhead at Nemo on a Tuesday, Schwartz at Tantra on a Monday. We also had to work around their prior commitments; for instance Schwartz was in the process of opening his third restaurant, Shoji Sushi, in South Beach, and Loughhead was writing the menu for his James Beard House dinner in New York, which was supposed to take place on September 20. (As of press time, it looks as though this event may be postponed.) So while the idea was devised back in early summer, it took two months to find copacetic dates and plan the dinners. When the catastrophe occurred, we debated all day whether to delay the Nemo dinner. But in the end, we decided to follow my mom's advice: Take comfort in the trivial. Do what you do.

What we did was shake hands and kiss cheeks -- chefs, critic, publicist, those of us who are sometimes on opposite sides of the culinary issues. What we did was sup on Schwartz's crispy duck confit with whipped parsnips and his grilled leg of lamb with risotto and fig jam. What we did was not only pour some silky malbec and sturdy cabernet but get purposefully drunk and remind ourselves that, as an e-mail pal of mine recently put it: "The pleasure we get from fine cuisine is a big part of our lifestyle.... Don't let them kill our lifestyle ... make sure we don't forget [the good things]."

At the moment it is impossible to predict the success of our experiment. That will depend on whether other chefs will now be willing to participate in the project. I hope they will.

Of course there is another case to be made for gastronomically inclined Americans to continue to do what we do. By dining out we pump funds into the flagging economy. Even before our culinary way of life was so dramatically interrupted, experts in the restaurant biz had already made some predictions: (1) that the downturn in finances will cause more diners to stay home or take leftovers home and make another meal out of them instead of going out again or buying lunch during the workday; and (2) that the loss of formerly secure, so-called white-collar jobs will send more workers back to the restaurant industry, effectively ending the shortage of service employees we've been experiencing in this realm for the last several years. If we stop dining out altogether -- out of survivor guilt or just plain distaste for the idea of stuffing our faces while friends and neighbors continue to suffer -- we will be effectively and exponentially increasing unemployment rates.

To my mother's gratification, I will listen to her. I will do what I do. Eat. Drink. Write. And encourage the food community, from chefs to diners, not to forget the good things in life.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick

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