White House Chief of Staff Threatens Food Critic
BY DAVID S. LEWIS
It was such a beautiful evening—who would have thought I’d be in such big trouble? Being a food critic, it turns out, can get you on the White House enemies list. Here’s how it went down.
Driftboats pulled up along the Yellowstone deep in the long shadows of cottonwoods, as fly fishermen anticipated the day’s final catch (Napa Valley cuisine and wine adapted to Montana’s Paradise Valley by Chef Josh Pastrama) beneath a panorama that drops gently toward the bank over a vast green plain then rolls skyward in the distance, climbing foothills toward the hovering peaks of the Absarokas. It’s a lovely spot, to say the least, and where the elite eat, it turns out.
Dining on the patio, or kicking back at one of the lodges along the river in evening’s muted radiance, takes a person into another world—just a few miles south of Livingston, Montana, a place known for fly fishing, scenic beauty, and high powered celebrities like Jeff Bridges, Tom Brokaw, Michael Keaton, Peter Fonda, and (this week) John Cusak. Last year, Barack Obama stopped by for a brief stint on a nearby river, and the list goes on—Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan, Robert Redford, Johnny Depp.
“There’s something to be said for looking out the window from the open kitchen—boats coming down, a landscape that uplifts you and influences your work, your passion,” Pastrama told me.
And it’s all about passion—a motive translated into the culinary art that draws many by word of mouth to the banks of the river, to the Paradise Valley Grill, and for days on end to the adjacent Yellowstone Valley lodge. Pastrama’s endeavor has, in fact, become the thing locally over the course of the season. Business has been brisk. Walk-ins usually find the place booked for the night, so call for reservations.
Hearing about the PVG from its inception, though, I wondered how it would work down there in the valley, not exactly next door, but when both a local wine connaisseur and a chef referred to the food as the best around, I found out why. Pastrama’s practically nuts about getting it right. And so he has drawn steady praise all spring and summer for his eatery on the river. And for those wishing to stay longer, the Yellowstone Valley Lodge offers relaxing getaways, fly fishing, float trips, and of course world class cuisine close by.
Recently, not the first time, I stopped in for dinner thinking I might attempt to convey my experience in words and pixels. Yet evenings there, all along the river, conjure ethereal moods not easy to capture with a camera, though I thought I’d give it a try. There’s the esthetics of the sunlight at that time of day, and aromas wafting over the patio (all the better if you’re appetite is strong), and so I slumped into my outdoor chair before dinner, low enough to find the skyline, and snapped a few shots of the water and mountains. Would need some shots of the restaurant too, maybe a few diners, and perhaps a shot of a bottle of wine from the Napa Valley, Pastrama’s home. Just then, as if on cue, a dinner party came walking down the sloping willow-shaded path to the Grill, and I noticed a guy on point, relaxed, smiling, sauntering with a bottle of red in his hand. Just what I had in mind.
At first glance, with his suntan and pearly whites, the point man looked like Robert Downey, Jr. I called out in jest, saying to him he looked like Downey, and the guy gave me a quick smile and said Thanks, buddy. I knew the guy was super important. But what I really had my eye on, photographically, was his bottle of red wine, at least that’s what I kept telling myself, because a paparzzi I am not.
In the interest of story telling, I’ll juggle for a moment the sequence of events enough to say that dinner went quite nicely, starting with the Lamb Pops, sliced from a rack of lamb, tossed in olive oil, garlic, parsley, then grilled and served with a yogurt cucumber cumin sauce, Greek style. Tasty stuff, really tasty—pick them up with your fingers like a lollipop, no one cares. I’ve actually sampled various appetizers at the PVG. Some come and go as specials, but particularly memorable were the lamb tenderloins (most succulent lamb ever) and the Asian cucumber salad, cut lengthwise, seedless, and served like a filet—an unexpected achievement for something as potentially mundane as a cucumber.
The Grilled Salmon, a deep orange sockeye filet from Alaska, came with avocado corn salsa over a mash potato scallion purée. The scallion oil blended with the potatoes forms an intriguing intensely green outline around the purée and adds flavor. For meat eaters, try the exquisite Grilled Bison Tenderloin with blood orange oil wrapped in proscuitto.
For snacking, finger food, or dessert French style (as you dine in muted brilliance giving way to dusk), sample the Charcuterie or Cheese Platter—artisan cheeses from Italy, France, and the U.S. that go well with a wine such a Napa Valley’s Cuvaison Pinot Noir.
Pastrama’s Napa roots, while we’re at it, are never far away. Raised in the valley (Napa, not Paradise), food and wine sensibilities took hold just after birth, he told us, and then professionally when at age 19 he worked as a cook at the Napa Valley Country Club. From there, seeking formal training, he attended the New England Culinary Institute, having already attended boarding school in Bozeman, a connection that brought him back to Montana, Paradise Valley, and the PVG.
If there’s a drawback here (it’s hard to find one, even the prices are right), it’s that at first it seems too few entrées appear on the menu. Those offerings are complimented though by off-menu dishes that reveal the versatility of the Chef. Sous Chef Sugiarti, as well, who got along rather well with Anthony Bourdain when he turned up here last year, brings to Montana and the PVG an exotic array of flavors and expertise deriving from her culinary work in Europe and Asia. An Indonesian, and also involved in the culinary arts since childhood, her background as a chef/restauranteur catering to westerners in her home country (the Spice Islands), and then in Portugal and Holland, brings special benefits to this culinary adventure along the Yellowstone.
Now back to the patio, where I sat with my camera, and noticed that bottle of wine perched upon the low wall at my back, and the Napa label. Perfect, I thought, and took a quick shot, having decided already that the Napa/Paradise Valley connection would be the theme of this review. As it turned out, not only was the bottle from Napa, but the vineyard whence it derived is associated with, I am told, a part-time Paradise Valley resident. And that bottle of wine I was attempting to photograph, a gift for the Chef, had found its way to the PVG by way of that same resident through the fellow I had “mistaken” for Robert Downey, Jr. As it happened, his profile filled the viewshed just behind the bottle, the object of my intention (see cover). In effect, the guy ruined my shot, and for that I apologize, but I guess I can’t blame him for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, though at the right restaurant.
But now it gets interesting—the guy looks over at me and says: “You better not put that [photo] anywhere, or you’re in big trouble.”
Wow, I thought, what’s with this guy? Either he’s awfully protective of his wine, or maybe he IS Robert Downey, Jr., all strung out, bug eyed, light sensitive, though I didn’t use my flash.
I responded, kind of confused, saying—not anywhere? Why, after all, would anyone object to someone taking a photo of a bottle of wine?
I mentioned to the guy just before he walked away, not knowing what to say, that the PVG is a great spot, because I believe that to be the case, and he seemed to agree. And there’s more that can be said about the place—that Pastrama uses Paradise Valley lamb, pork, and produce, local goat cheese from Belgrade (as well as Italy and France), and that you never know who might show up for dinner. Not that we’re unaccustomed locally to whoever happens to be the celebrity du jour visiting or residing in the area.
By the way, the guy in my shot with the bottle of wine? As it turns out—White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.
As for his threat that I would be in “big trouble” if I published his photo, puh-leeze. What’s he going to do, tell Barack Obama on me? And the man is the White House Chief of Staff—what did he think would happpen when he took the job, that nobody would take his picture, that somehow the First Amendment would not apply? And just exactly what did he mean, that I would be in “Big Trouble?” Would he use the power of his taxpayer funded office against a mere food critic?
In fairness to Mr. Emanuel, who seemed to be truly enjoying himself at the PVG that evening, I don’t think he himself took his threat all that seriously. He was having a lovely time in a remarkably beautiful spot, when I happened to take his picture (innocently and quickly). Issuing threats may simply be one of his more habitual modes of communication. We all heard about his episode in the Congressional gym this spring, when Emanuel, stark naked, threatened fellow Dem Eric Massa in the shower, poking him in the chest with his finger. But in the aurua of the mountains and river, and that of an evening illumined by the gods , even Emanuel seemed to appreciate the folly of his remark. His parting glance was hardly antagonistic, and it seemed that he had, for a moment, begun to realize just how far away he was from his nine to five. This is, after all, Montana, not Washington, DC, or more to the point Chicago. Should his threat somehow materialize though (it won’t) the dust up, the flap, the crisis that would ensue, would be for this reporter a terrible thing to waste.