January 2019

Morsels & Memories

My Conversation with Elizabeth Blau

By Jason Harris

The sentiments were all the same after she died. My grandmother Shirley was as close to as perfect a grandma as one could get. If she wasn’t my grandma, I would have thought her made up. This ideal lady affected us all similarly, judging by the speeches from her children, her cousins, her friends, and her husband. It was like we wrote in unison about what made her so special: her warmth, her sense of humor, her caring nature. And every story seemed to involve food. Grandma Shirley loved to put out extravagant - though not haughty - spreads for guests, no matter if it was a couple of neighbors or a family reunion with her four kids, their spouses, and her seven grandchildren.

Food memories have become more than just about the food nowadays. They are about stories and distinct points and times in our lives. We can so simply remember how important the food was to the situation and how it all tied together.

For Kim Canteenwalla and wife Elizabeth Blau, the restaurateurs behind such fine Las Vegas establishments as Andiron Steak and Sea and Honey Salt, these ideas recently surfaced in their release of a collective cookbook. What I found most interesting about the tome is that it plays with the traditional form of the genre – it’s less a collection of recipes and more a collection of food memories, of stories detailing why the foods they present in the pages mean to them what they do.

In telling me of the project, Honey Salt Food and Drink: A Culinary Scrapbook, Blau says “We didn’t set out with that idea. It was as we were compiling the book, we realized that you’re also telling your life story. When we thought about doing the Honey Salt cookbook, we thought we had to talk about my background and Kim’s background and the people that were integral in our lives. What’s unique about a scrapbook is that you have these embellishments and these side notes. I’m an avid scrapbooker so it was a natural metamorphosis to say, ‘It’s going to have all the regular components of a cookbook but it’s going to be more personal so it’s going to be a scrapbook of the story.’”

The pages are filled with tales of the culinary super team’s journey and what food has meant to them both as a professional unit and as a couple. Summers in Cape Cod not only recount the family’s adventures in the Massachusetts coastal resort town, but also what they picked up along the way to make them better at their craft. What you are getting with their recipe for New England Fry or a lobster boil is a setting, a mood and an experience that you can hopefully transform and make your own.

The book includes similar chapters based on their voyages to Vancouver, Kelowna, Santa Barbara, and Italy (they are the team behind Buddy V’s Ristorante, after all). One tip Blau offers in our conversation is to get off the beaten path. She explains:

“I have bad jet lag when I travel, so in Europe I tend to wake up really early. It’s great to walk a city and find their markets and farmers’ markets and often times there are restaurants near those markets. Ask some of the vendors for their recommendations. Go local. This last trip that we took as a family to Europe, our son Cole is not going to sit through a three-hour Michelin starred experience, so we just went to local places. There’s a time, if you want to have that extravagance that’s a 3-4 hour dining experience. I think you get so much more out of the country when you just make it up. Get some charcuterie. Go to a bakery. Grab a few little things. Make a picnic. Some of those have become as memorable as the meals I’ve had in the big, fancy restaurants.”

I understood her. A couple of months ago, with my brother’s help, I took my dad with me on a food finding trip to Vancouver, BC, exploring the abounding culinary scene. This trip was important to me, to show him he did well. It was a celebration of what he accomplished as a father. Dad and I spent a half day on Granville Island (a location which is also mentioned in the Honey Salt Scrapbook). It’s a man-made artisanal haven, featuring a stunning public market with local purveyors showcasing everything from pickles to bagels to Asian vegan soups to desserts. Much of the cuisine is made right there and it’s both easy and fun to get lost in the vibe for a few hours. That half day, in a location that was seemingly made up for a movie but that actually exists, was as much fun as any fancy restaurant we experienced on the trip.

One other commonality that Blau and I have with food memories is the involvement of grandparents. She tells me this story:

“A funny memory I have is when I was a kid, we lived in Connecticut and my grandparents lived in New York City. When we would go to the original Four Seasons for special occasions or birthdays, they had this big purple cotton candy with candy violets that they would bring out and my grandfather told me that they only made it for me. And I think I was like 21-years-old and still believing that. And then I saw another one and I was like, ‘What?!’ So that’s where my love of cotton candy comes from and that ties into how Kerry Simon and I did it with Simon junk food. We were one of the first to do it other than The Four Seasons.”

And as for food scrapbooks in my family, one year for Grandma Shirley’s birthday, my mom put together a homemade book. Every two pages had a recipe from Shirley on one page and a story from a family member or friend about Grandma’s food on the adjoining page. There are pictures of all of us in the book, but more important than the pictures and the recipes are what the stories bring with them, the memories.

These memories can help express romance - before I had officially asked out my first love, we were at a late-night dinner together, going through that awkward but enjoyable part of getting to know one another. At one point, without warning, I loaded up a spoonful of ice cream and flung it at her, which at first was met with shock, but then it seemed to act as a tension breaker. From that point on, things were easy for us...for a while anyways.

They can express disappointment - one of the worst dates I’ve ever been on, I can still recall us eating wonton nachos at the Palms cafe. As mediocre as this attempt at culinary fusion was, it was still levels ahead of this attempt of the fusion of two people.

Back in Vancouver, they expressed appreciation. As my dad and I sat in The Victor, the upscale eatery at Parq Vancouver, Kim Canteenwalla, the James Beard award winning chef himself, cooked tuna on a hot stone for us tableside. It was a microcosm of the entire restaurant. The excellence of the cuisine matched by the attention to detail. As my dad chomped down on this high-grade fish, he asked me how often I get to dine out like this. I told him as a food writer, it’s not uncommon for me to do this a few times a week. He responded, “This is a once in a lifetime experience for me.” Making memories – That was the entire point of the trip, old man!

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