Please bear with me in this follow up on my letter to the editor in the Daily Astorian, subsequent to the “Mouth of the Columbia’s” mean-spirited and incompetent put-down of Sweet Basil’s Restaurant and Wine Bar and owner/chef John Sowa, one of the most creative and respected chefs on the north Oregon coast.
I was happy to see that the owner of Astoria’s Silver Salmon Grill sprang to John’s defense in the same edition, as did other former patrons.
I’ll begin by stating that I consider the Daily Astorian to be a decent newspaper -much better than the Oregonian ever was – and it’s a pity that you have placed the food and restaurant reviewer job in such obviously immature, ponderous and patently ignorant hands.
Such articles are not particularly important in the world scheme of things in these turbulent times but can do much damage to any given establishment if poorly written and researched, and meanly couched (even the poorest place deserves a tithe of respect, no matter how appalling), as they garner quite a large and seemingly impressionable readership in search of a good dining and/or entertainment experience before parting with their often limited discretionary dollars, especially in this age of celebrity Chefs and the mostly appalling TV food channel -not all of them worthy of their God-like status.
Please know that this opinion is based on professional and recreational cooking, food experimentation experience in different regions of the USA and around the world. I’m not a trained, professional chef from a culinary institute, nor a journalist – my degrees are in Architecture and Fine Arts. My culinary resumé is attached at the end of this letter for you perusal, and to lend a measure of authenticity to my contentions. I’m also being as respectful as I can manage in the circumstances.
As you are doubtless aware, there is a sufficiently clueless demographic that peruses and sends reports to the likes of Trip-Advisor and Yelp, without the situation being exacerbated by an allegedly knowledgeable locally based reporter writing from what looks like a similarly limited knowledge and experience of food.
Anyone who has ever worked in a kitchen of any kind, from the full “Brigade” in a top French Restaurant in which the kitchen personnel often equal, or exceed, the number of paying patrons, to a small mom and pop diner (I’m omitting fast food franchises here), is fully au courant with the sheer, brutal graft, low profit margin and notoriously short life-span of any such enterprise, many of whom last a year if they are lucky, some justifiably destined to bomb, some dedicated but underfunded, some just unlucky or inexperienced.
This is why I’ve never, even when I had the means, wanted to own or even be executive chef in any quality eating establishment -I’ve been everything else from plonger (dishwasher) garde-manger, line cook to saucier and sous-chef, although my late ex-wife and I almost bought a small Hotel in Melrose, Scotland once with a decent reputation but a dining scope that sorely needed upgrading and updating. I have run two successful catering enterprises and may do so again.
That said, I have considerable, quality, hard-won and first-hand experience to draw on, a pretty “Catholic” picky and educated palette based on having pretty much cooked, eaten (and drank) my way around a goodly part of the Globe (not unlike Anthony Bourdain but not gettin’ his kind of money) as an adjunct to my professional travels, cooking sometimes out of passion, fascination and curiosity and sometimes for sheer, poverty stricken survival!
This type of knowledge and experience is clearly missing from “The Mouth’s” culinary declamations from the somewhat lofty peak of being let loose on a seemingly impressionable readership and demographic, having far too much impact and potential power to damage formerly reputable and high-quality establishments and provide unwarranted praise and business to many that are the opposite.
I’ve looked at recent articles by this person and am frankly “gobsmacked” at the shallowness and immaturity of the articles and presumption of status, claiming “some of my disciples” in one piece. This to me, is like an untalented musician or other entertainer claiming and addressing “Fans”.
I’m not writing this just because the “Mouth” attacked a well established and respected fine restaurant, leaving it with one, seemingly begrudged star but to illustrate my point as an example of the opposite, giving an appalling, pedestrian, tacky, themed restaurant four stars and another production-line frozen fish outlet three, becoming almost rhapsodic at one point over a starter plate of such frozen, packaged clichés as Tater Tots, Fries, Potato skins and so on, available in every bar and even gas station snack section that sells any kind of food, but presuming to denigrate and mostly ignore freshly made Tapas as made daily at Sweet Basil’s.
The local press may as well send this person out to Mickey D’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, Quick Stop gas station stores and the likes, for all the knowledge shown or imparted.
Y’know, if you want a kind of immature attack-dog that goes after well-respected and high quality establishments with hard won reputations, it’ll possibly sell papers and ‘zines at the cost of journalistic integrity and besmirch many reputations (there are few enough truly worthy places in the area) but will otherwise be of no intrinsic value to the reader. If this is the case, then I have no more to add but that it makes the publications look cheap and tabloid.
Thank you for taking time to read this and I hope I haven’t been too wordy, as is my wont occasionally when stirred. Feel free to share it with whomever you please.
BRIAN JOHNSTONE; CULINARY RESUME
What follows is a brief summary of my direct hands-on involvement in professional restaurant or catering work in different locations and countries.
My personal favorite foods and expertise are based on: Spanish, Indian, French Bourgeoise or Bistro, Traditional and revival-modern British –especially savory pastries and pies, Indonesian and Greek.
Work experience in brief.
1966 (In college holidays) Routier Les Relais De Gascogne. Saint-Pey-D’Armens. Gironde near Bourdeaux. Plongér (dishwasher) toprep-cook in French “Truck-stop” type restaurant.
1967 “El Caballo Blanco” Carrera de Blanch, Malgrat de Mar, Catalonia, Spain. Cook for bar service, British and Spanish dishes.
167-8 Nou Celer, Calle de Princesa, Barcelona, Spain. Dishwasher /prep cook in family owned restaurant and Bodega.
1974-5. Francois Alean’s Le Caveau, French Restaurant and Wine Club (Scotland’s first wine club and bar). Dundas Street, Edinburgh, Scotland. Part-time Sous-Chef (whilst at Art College).
1975-6. Ancaster Hotel, Callander Scotland. -Breakfast cook and evening sous-chef in charge of periodical specials for groups and parties. Also small catering service featuring Indian and Spanish small plates.
1976. East Mains Guest and Dinner House, Bridgend, Callander Scotland. Part-time breakfast and dinner cook in charge of creating and preparing daily or weekly special featured dishes, including patés and savory pastries.
1977. The Ship Inn, West Second Street, Astoria Oregon. Fish Cook.
1987.Mrs Ramala Saxena’s Indian Grocery and Curry House, Lexington Kentucky. Student/assistant prep cook.
1988-91. B. & T.’s Tapas Catering, Lexington Kentucky. Founder and part-owner of catering company specializing in Spanish cuisine with native Spanish partner. Included the 1991 KY Derby for JP Reynolds hospitality tent.
1992. (Restaurant no longer exists) N.W. Couch and SecondIn old town Portland, Oregon; Graveyard line cook.
Current. Seasonal Grill cook at Chef John Sowa’s Sweet Basil’s Café and Wine Bar, Cannon Beach.
Since coming to the (Manzanita, Nehalem, Wheeler), area I have been a “Guest Chef” at venues as follows.
The SanDune Pub, Manzanita. Special Full-Menu Indian Dinners on different occasions to a packed house each time (approx 100 diners in two sittings). Two Robert Burn’s Suppers (Scottish and NW food) also to a full house.
Occasional private large family dinners by request on a British theme. Roast Beef, Yorkshire Pudding and other British savory dishes.
The Former Orpheus Café and Restaurant, Wheeler. Several full-menu Indian Dinners in two sittings also sold out.
In addition, I’ve watched, cooked and learned with domestic servants and street cooks in many other countries I’ve lived and traveled in.
I do several kinds of pastry, mostly for savory fillings including puff pastry and choux from scratch, and several Indian breads. I have my own mobile Tandoori oven.
I make my own stocks and Demiglace, cull and freeze bones, trimmings and vegetable cuttings, waste nothing and consider sauces and stocks/ soups a personal passion and strength.