Visiting Toqueland

Saturday, February 18, 2012 /by

TOQUELAND Badgeby Pete Bodo

Mornin'. Feel free to use this as your thread to follow the action in the far-flung corners of the tennis empire today and tomorrow. Today we'll take a little detour that will be of interest to many of you.

A few weeks ago, we celebrated the publication of new books by friends of (and contributors to) TennisWorld, Jay Clark and Sam Starnes. Today, I'm happy to publish another Q and A, this time with a fella whose name might be even more familiar to many of you, Andrew Friedman. You know, co-author of James Blake's bestselling autobiography, Breaking Back. Frequent contributor to both Tennis magazine and TennisWorld, especially during the U.S. Open.

What many of you may not know is that Andrew is one of the most successful food writers - a guy whose idea of a fun Tuesday afternoon is swinging by the house of some famous chef and screwing around with recipes in the kitchen. He's written numerous books, the most intriguing of which to me, who's never been accused of being a foodie, is Knives at Dawn - a fascinating account of team USA's quest to win the Bocuse d'Or cooking competition - the culinary world's answer to Davis Cup.

Andrew recently started a website, Toqueland, which is the main reason I'm writing this post. If you're any kind of a foodie, or are interested in the world of the chef, you will want to bookmark it. Andrew's intent is to create a great new website that goes beyond the typical menu-and-review grind. Andrew has promised to drop by the website now and then over the weekend, and he'll be happy to answer any questions you may have; I suggest getting them in before most of the tennis action starts, so the questions won't be lost in the comments.

And yes, Andrew has promised to take me out to dinner for writing this post. He suggested Papaya King, on 72nd and Amsterdam, where the "recession special" is two hot dogs, with mustard, kraut, onions, ketchup - or all of the above, no extra charge! -  and a signature pina colada drink goes for $4.50.

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Andrew Friedman C Harvey WangQ - Why did you decide to start Touqeland, what does the name mean, and what are you bringing to the foodie's world that may not have been there before?

 A: First of all, for non-foodie readers, let me explain the name: a toque is a chef’s hat, one of those tall, cylindrical, fluted deals that you wear in cooking school and old-fashioned kitchens. The truth is, and this isn’t just idle flattery – both the name and the site were kind of inspired by TennisWorld.

As for what I offer, the point of distinction for Toqueland is that it’s a chef site, not a food site. I won’t be doing slideshows of restaurant menus, or recipes, or cooking tips; plenty of people already do that and do it just fine. I’m exclusively interested in what makes chefs tick, what their daily and nightly life is like, and how they express themselves on the plate. That kind of thing.

I think I’m uniquely positioned to do this because I’m somebody who participates in that world but isn’t truly of it. I’m not a chef. I’ve never cooked professionally. But I’ve collaborated on more than 20 chef books, which has allowed me to really get into the heads of a wide variety of chefs and also to be on a fly on the wall for every aspect of their lives. On the site I try to bring that intimacy to bear in profiles, interviews, commentary, and what have you. I think I ask questions that few others would ask, and so get answers that are very revealing. A good example is the interview I just did with Timothy Hollingsworth, chef de cuisine of The French Laundry, that went up on the site Friday; parts of it are more of a dialogue than a strict Q&A.

The other thing I’m doing, although I have to be careful about it, is write about my social and personal life with chefs. Most of my friends are chefs, which is a perfectly natural thing given that they are basically my coworkers. But one day it occurred to me that going out to dinner for me is a different experience than it is for most people based on who I’m with and how we experience the meal. On the site, I’ve begun writing essays under an umbrella I call Slice of Life that capture some of these moments – they’re very personal, especially one I wrote about Marcus Samuelsson this week, so I have to watch out that I don’t give up any insider information or become somebody who people won’t want to hang with. But so far, friends who have been in my posts really like them.

Lastly, in addition to being a site for chef fans, I’d like Toqueland to be a place where chefs themselves come to learn about each other. Last night, one of the best chefs in New York Tweeted my site’s name with the simple message “great website” … that made me very happy.

Q - Which were you more interested in first, food or tennis?

A - Tennis. . .by a mile. It’s been a lifelong thing for me. I still remember where I was and who I was with for the McEnroe-Borg Wimbledon final in 1980. I played tennis as a kid in Florida, though not seriously, and used to go to the US Open all the time, way before I was lucky enough to work for TENNIS magazine.

I always wanted to be a writer, but stumbled into the chef thing. I was making a living as a publicist and the firm I worked for represented one of the best restaurants in town, Gotham Bar and Grill. The chef, Alfred Portale, and I had a rapport and he asked me to write his first book. It was a case of right place, right time, and that book was so well received that I saw a chance to parlay it into the beginnings of a writing career. I never thought it’s what I’d be doing for, the way it looks, the rest of my life. But I love being around the cooking profession, and once I figured out what really interested me – the chefs themselves rather than the just the food – it’s become a sincere passion.

Knives at Dawn coverQ - You've written a lot about the Bocuse d'Or food competition; is that because you just have an innate interest in competition? And are there any parallels between the way chefs and tennis pros react to pressure or competition?

A - I have to give my agent credit for that one: I had never given a moment’s thought to the Bocuse d’Or, and he called me up one day and said, “Have I got a book idea for you!” Boy was he right: the intersection of cooking and sports was a natural for me.

Working on that book, by which time I was also writing for TENNIS magazine, provided a moment of clarity: To be able to write about the chefs in that book as characters, I interviewed them in great detail about their lives, and not just their cooking lives, and realized that I was interested in them as people, not just within the confines of the food they cook and create. In many ways, that book was the beginning of Toqueland.

As for the parallels between chefs and athletes, there are some pretty big ones: Both rely intensely on muscle memory. Just as tennis players hit the same shots over and over in practice, so that it’ll be there for them under pressure, chefs perform the same tasks ad infinitum early in their careers, so that they don’t have to think about them during the heat and frenzy of a dinner service.

Completeness is also a big topic in the chef world, though it’s rarely discussed in those terms. Just as the best tennis players don’t have holes in their games, the best chefs have no weaknesses in the kitchen because they took the time as young cooks to develop all the skills that might be required on any given day.

Q - Who are more interesting to interview, famous chefs or famous tennis players?

A - I’m going to say chefs because their stories are more varied. Ultimately, the biography of most tennis players is very similar. Chef come in all shapes and sizes, and it’s not an unusual thing for somebody to first get interested in cooking when they take a job in high school or college. For a tennis player, they’d already be playing tournaments by that age. So the backstories are more diverse.

Now, if you asked me: Would I rather watch (or play) a great tennis match or eat a great meal, I’d go with the tennis match. Other than the people closest to me, there’s nothing I love as much as tennis. I’ve never laid in bed at night obsessing over food, but I have laid there thinking about a great slam final, or how I’m going to try to beat somebody the next time I play them. I actually do that all the time.

Q - It seems that the number of tennis fans among foodies and food-types (you, chefs, food critics, etc) is pretty high, Is that an accurate perception and what might explain it?

A - I do think it’s accurate. I know a lot of chefs who play tennis and I run into an awful lot of them at the US Open every year. And there are plenty of people I’ve met through TW who consider themselves foodies.

Because I enjoy both so much myself, I’d like to just say that “great taste” explains the connection. (kidding) The best answer I’ve managed to come up with is that both tennis and food (and winemaking, for that matter) are very expressive; the best practitioners of each are stylists, and it makes sense that somebody who appreciates the beauty of, say, Roger Federer’s game would also delight in tasting the food turned out by a chef with a definable sensibility. The former is absorbed through the eyes, the latter through taste and smell, but both are appreciated by the same part of the brain.

 

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