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Thursday, April 9, 2015

Q&A with Esquire's Josh Ozersky, For Meatopia Pebble Beach

Posted By on Thu, Apr 9, 2015 at 2:00 PM

click to enlarge PEBBLE BEACH FOOD & WINE
  • Pebble Beach Food & Wine

Tomorrow marks the first Friday since the end of Lent. For most San Franciscans, that means nothing, because we’re atheistic heathens, despite the connection to a friar from Assisi. But for the Catholics out there, it means you can finally start eating meat on Fridays again without fear of getting sent somewhere below. This is perfect timing, since this Friday night is also Meatopia, taking place at Eighth Annual Pebble Beach Food & Wine event. In other words, you can finally trek down south and join in with the rest of us for a night of carnivorous bacchanalia.

Created ten years ago by Josh Ozersky, Esquire’s new Editor-at-Large, Meatopia focuses on food and restaurants, bringing chefs chosen by Ozersky together to use wood, coals, and fire to transform lamb, beef, goat, pig, and prawns into dishes worthy of offering upon an altar of meat. For the Pebble Beach version of the NYC-based event, which is held on the beach, Ozersky has tapped chefs from all over the country, including SPQR’s Matt Accarrino, Gunshows’s Matthew Gillespie, Amada’s Jose Garces, and Seamus Mullen from Tertulia. Throw in beer by Firestone Walker and Jack Daniels cocktails and you’ll be thankful the next day is a Saturday. Tickets are $175 for all you can drink and eat.

Josh Ozersky's Meatopia hits Monterey this Friday. - PEBBLE BEACH FOOD & WINE
  • Pebble Beach Food & Wine
  • Josh Ozersky's Meatopia hits Monterey this Friday.
Additionally, SF Weekly was able to ask Ozersky a few questions about Meatopia and his thoughts on the foie gras ban and the death of fine dining. Here's what he had to say:

Meatopia typically has a name and theme, what is it for this incarnation at the Pebble Beach Food & Wine?

This year it's just "Meatopia Pebble Beach" but we can call it "Meatopia by the Sea" or something if you want.

Are you surprised by how well-received Meatopia has been?

No. Meatopia was conceived to be the biggest, most ambitious, most lovingly curated and mounted meat event in the world. The boundless enthusiasm it created was what we hoped for and what we got.

Have you gotten any grief from animal rights groups or vegans? Any insane threats or anything that you’ve had no choice but to take very seriously?

Some militant vegans once picketed one of our New York Meatopias, and mounted a social media campaign against us as well. I actually was really sympathetic to their point of view. The abuse of livestock animals is an atrocity, and their activism against it is heroic. But one of the whole points of Meatopia is to promote cruelty-free, all-natural meat. We have never served Smithfield pork, Tyson chicken, or food of that kind. And we never will.

How do you feel about the possibility of lab-grown meat? Would you ever allow it at Meatopia if it was perfected?

No. Never. Not under any circumstances. Meatopia is an all-natural event. It's about animals and fire and the art of putting them together. We don't even allow propane, much less frankenmeat.

You’re known for picking the chefs for each Meatopia. Did you have to pick from the line-up of chefs that were already appearing at Pebble Beach Food & Wine or were you allowed to invite the chefs you wanted?

I picked the chefs myself, all of them, as I always do in all Meatopia events. Part of the deal is that I have total control of the culinary side, including the chefs. One of the great things about the event is that it allows people to try food by chefs in areas far distant from them. Even in this relatively small event, you can see that only two of eight chefs are based in the Bay Area. Obviously, nothing could have been easier than to just have all eight of them from here; it's the greatest culinary talent pool in America. But we went to great lengths to bring in chefs like Zak Pelaccio from New York, and John Tesar from Dallas, and Kevin Gillespie from Atlanta — all true titans of meat cookery.

In the history of Meatopia, have there been chefs that have expressed a desire to cook at it that you’ve rejected? 

Because Meatopia is a platform for really elite meat cookery, most chefs that are into it want to be a part, which means I have to say no to most of them. It sucks. They want to part of it and give their time and their energy, without getting paid — the chefs all volunteer for it.

And is there any chef that you would flat out refuse to have cook at Meatopia?

The only chefs I would flat-out refuse are ones that have let us down in the past — divas, drama queens, and the like. I will say that I try not to invite celebrity chefs or TV personalities. Meatopia is a chef-centric event, the only major food event created by a food person, so to speak. From the very beginning it's been about chefs who are good people and who do good work and aren't fame whores. That's why you see a lot of guys who have been doing the event for years, like Seamus Mullen, at Meatopia. They are artists but also they have absolute integrity, and loyalty goes both ways.

What’s the single best Meatopia dish you’ve had?

God, that's tough. There have been so many great ones. The one I actually remember most fondly, my favorite, was a spitted lamb cooked by Seamus when the event was still an invite-only VIP thing in New York. It was glazed with a cocktail of smoked lamb fat and Pedro Ximenez vinegar that he buzzed up with a hand mixer. I can remember how it dripped onto the fire and created tiny explosions of perfume, and how that juice sizzled and screamed in the fire. It was so amazing. But so was PJ Calapa's beef cheek raviolo. So was John's skirt steak with kimchi butter from Miami. I'll never forget Johnny Hernandez, in San Antonio, cooking twenty baby goats on vertical spikes and making tortillas from flour on the spot. I could go on and on.

How do you feel about these huge food festivals?

I have nothing but admiration for them. Meatopia is a single event, seldom more than four hours long. Putting it together takes months of work, armies of dedicated people, endless hassles and hiccups, before it can happen in the seamless, elegant way its guests see. Doing fifteen or twenty events over a three-day period? It's like the Normandy invasion. Just doing a few Meatopias is a strain on my central nervous system.

Do you think they’re good for chefs? Are they good/worth it for consumers who are spending hundreds of dollars to get in?

I think they're great for chefs, like Zak Pelaccio or Kevin Gillespie, who are at their creative peak and want to express themselves to people who may never go to their restaurant. For celebrity chefs on the festival circuit, the kind who see the inside of a kitchen as rarely as a fire inspector, I think it can be bad; it and other public venues — morning TV shows, book signings, and son on — leach their soul and skill and vitality, leaving them empty husks in starched white chef coats and razor-crease Prada trousers.

With your new position at Esquire, there seems to have been a shift away from recognizing restaurants that are traditionally formal and over to restaurants that are more modern and boundary-pushing. Do you think formal
dining is dying?

It's not dying; it's dead. You might as well ask about the viability of AM radio or home dictionaries. A handful of restaurants still serve old-school tablecloth cuisine and as a result are cherished like the precious relics they are, or should be. Complaining about haute cuisine restaurants in the grand tradition is like complaining that there too many Art Nouveau subway entrances in Paris, or expressing alarm at the world becoming overrun with giant pandas.

In your travels, is there a cuisine or style of cooking you would like to see taken more seriously or become more popular?

It's a good question. I think that American gastronomy, at least of the kind that people like me cover, is trendy by necessity; tastemaker types go gaga over the latest fad, like fermenting or Southern "lardcore" cooking or Asian street food or whatever. The best cooks, though, have their own voice. The more creative and original they are, the less easy they are to categorize — and to imitate. It's always easier to be Lana Del Ray or Dave Eggers than it is to be Amy Winehouse or David Foster Wallace. There are always more Donovans than Dylans. It's that way in the chef world. That's why I treasure unclassifiable talents like Matt Acarino or John Tesar more than the latest manufactured hotshot that spends three weeks washing dishes at Noma and then comes home to flash his tweezers at the pass. Just because you have a garden doesn't make you David Kinch.

California recently overturned the ban on foie gras. Do you think it is ridiculous people keep trying to outlaw foie gras?

No. If foie gras were as brutal as people think it is, they would be right to outlaw it. But it isn't. If they want to outlaw something, they should outlaw veal. That "milk-fed" white veal comes from a process infinitely more cruel than gavage.

What is your most disliked word/phrase being used in the world today by chefs, writers, on in press releases?

There are so many. George Orwell said once that if you see a phase in your writing that you are used to seeing in print, you should strike it out. So stock superlatives like "insane," "iconic," "life-altering" and etc. for sure. I guess the one I hate the most at this point is the invariable claim that Chef X "believes in letting the ingredients speak for themselves" or "is all about the ingredients." It's almost never true, especially for chefs that say that. It's like "I'm not mad at you" and "it was good" and "I'm not gay" as a statement that almost always means the opposite.

To prove to reader’s that you’re not always about meat, what’s the best vegan/vegetarian dish you’ve tried?

Let's limit it to vegan, since technically, Waffle House hash browns and Di Fara pizzas are vegetarian. Maybe the the sunchoke and white truffle lasagna that Mateo TK made at SD26. A carrot soup Naomi Pomeroy made at Beast last month. Orhan Yegan's cold mezes at Sip Sak in New York. And a lot of the best stuff I've had here in the bay area, like Eric Tucker's food at Millennium. The minestrone at Tosca. A couple of the salads at The Commisary at the Presidio.

Imagining slabs of meat being cooked has me feeling morbid and hungry, so what would be your “Last Supper” dish and drink(s)? And where would you want to enjoy it and what music (or TV/movie) would be playing in the background?

You want to talk morbid? I think about that question every three days. The end has to be contained in the beginning, though, so I would have to go back to the happiest/saddest hours of my lonely childhood. So I guess we are saying the palomilla steak piled high with limp, oily, delicate shoestring french fries at Rio Cristal, in Miami, paired with a tall glass of Fox's U-Bet chocolate milk, while watching the "space hippies" episode of Star Trek onscreen.

Meatopia, Friday, April 10, 6:30-10 p.m., at the Monterey Beach House, 285 Figueroa, Monterey.

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