Fast Track: Cars and Food

In my 35 years as a professional chef, I have come to know a lot about food. But I know nothing about cars and so was especially interested in the riveting juxtaposition of great chefs and great cars at a dinner celebrating the 125th anniversary of the automobile. In 1886, we were probably eating many of the same things cooked for us at the Beard House on Nov. 8th, 2011 -- fresh beets, gulf shrimp in courtbouillon, tapioca, suckling pig and turnips, and some version of chocolate cake -- but for the lucky us at this Grand Prix dinner, both food and cars were re-imagined. The event, hosted by Mercedes Benz USA, brought together some of the country's most illustrious chefs to cook a hi-test dinner for a crowd generally unknown to me. Who were they?  Men and women who write about cars!  Some, like me, who write about food, were tickled pink to talk about motor oil instead of olive oil. To discover what drove people to drive the cars that they do; to share memories of first cars instead of first meals, and to revel in the knowledge that cars and food are inextricably linked. How exactly?  Matthew Rudy, one of my dining partners for the evening, put it pretty eloquently:  "Great cars and great food are the same in an important way. They both give this immediate, visceral pleasure. You know you're not just getting to point B, or eating because it's dinner time. You get pulled out of every day for an hour or two." He went on to say that he had "tremendous respect for people with the skill and craft to build cars and meals with such sophistication and attention to detail."  Rudy, who is a senior editor for Golf Digest, including its monthly Long Drives automotive travel column, has written dozens of cover stories, ghostwritten 15 books about golf, business and travel, and is hankering to open a wine store any day now.

Another bridge between food and cars?  According to Christine Quinlan, deputy editor at Food & Wine, car companies are becoming the largest advertisers in food magazines! Last year, the Association of Magazine Media posited that, "Automotive manufacturers are continuing to invest in magazines because magazines and the Internet are considered the most influential source of information for brands especially in the final stages of purchase decisions." And who was the biggest winner of those auto ads in 2010? Food Network Magazine.

There is the obvious connection, as I see it, to lifestyle and aspiration, but whereas Nascar says fast food to me, Mercedes Benz says "slower" food --  hence the all-star line up of languorous dishes and libations. Even the cocktails were custom-designed by renowned mixologist Julie Reiner from Lani Kai in Soho, and the revved-up wine pairings were inspired -- from the 2007 De Forville Barbaresco (from Piedmont) to accompany Dan Kluger's Roast Pig with Smoked Bacon Marmalade and Braised Turnips (from ABC Kitchen), to the not-too-sweet 2003 Chateau Pajzos Tokaji 3 Puttonyos to partner with Karen DeMasco's remarkable Chocolate Brown Butter Cake with Roasted Pears and Hazelnut Brown Butter Gelato. Karen is the beloved pastry chef at Locanda Verde, with good reason.  (I wonder what she drives.)

For several years, Mercedes Benz has partnered with the Beard Foundation in an effort to preserve and celebrate America's culinary heritage as it seeks to link the idea of culinary innovation with automotive innovation. Aha! Clearly there's a precedent:  Michelin tires are "hand-in-glove compartment" to the famous Michelin restaurant guide.

So what else did we eat as we chatted like Car Talk hosts around our table? A first-class first-course from Daniel Humm (11 Madison Park) of "wheels" of perfectly poached and lightly pickled beets with chevre frais and caraway and John Besh's extraordinary Redfish Courtbouillon with Gulf Shrimp and Blue Crab Pearls, made from little tapioca orbs soaked in crab liquor (from restaurant August in Louisiana.) The hors d'oeuvres were pretty nifty too:  including Kluger's now-famous kabocha squash and ricotta bruschetta, and egg shells filled with chive oil and smoked sturgeon foam from four-star chef Daniel Humm.

There was a gorgeous Mercedes convertible parked outside the Beard House on West 12th Street that evening. But in case you were wondering, I took a yellow taxi home.