Editor’s note: This is the second in an occasional series about Proustian madeleine moments — childhood memories sparked by a particular dish — of notable people in the food world.
It’s probably fair to say that there aren’t many 7-year-olds willing to even try veal kidneys, much less love them. And to have those kidneys define, in some primal way, the course of both a life and career seems singular. When Angie Mar visited Paris with her parents in 1989, that’s exactly what happened.
Mar is the owner and executive chef of the Beatrice Inn, a historic restaurant in Greenwich Village that went from faded neighborhood Italian to high-toned celebrity haunt under the ownership of Graydon Carter. She became his executive chef in 2013 and, after buying the business, reopened it in 2016 as a carnivore’s fever dream: serving smoked whole rabbits, flambéed whole ducks and cartoon-sized rib-eye steaks aged in whiskey for 120 days. Her meat fixation extends to fish — she bakes a whole branzino in a suet pastry — and to dessert, for which she mixes bone marrow into crème brûlée then cooks it inside a bone. Mar also makes lavish, and unexpected, use of fruit and herbs, butter and cream, and truffles, truffles everywhere.
“When I see a beautiful piece of meat, big and smoky with bass notes, I think of making it lighter with vanilla or jasmine or elderflower,” she said. “I want different notes, high and low. Almost like music.”
The effect of this seemingly profligate, yet original and carefully calculated, excess can be almost hallucinogenic, which may be why Food & Wine magazine named Mar one of its Best New Chefs of 2017. Add to that her championship win on “Chopped: Grill Masters” in 2015 and her tour de force entry in last year’s Cochon 555, an annual event in which chefs celebrate the heritage pig (she baked a red velvet cake with pig’s blood, using lard in the icing, pork neck in the caramel topping and candied guanciale for the filling), and it seems Mar is determined to establish herself as the Willy Wonka of meat.
“I spend all my waking hours thinking about meat,” she said, on a recent afternoon at the restaurant. “I want the food here to be fearless — fun, thoughtful, nuanced. It’s not for the faint of heart. That’s what I like about it, that take-you-out-at-your-knees attitude.”
Which is kind of like Mar herself. She is forthright and direct and something of a tough guy; her stance seems almost like that of a boxer, ready to enter the ring. Braced and game. You don’t quite register that she’s barely 5-foot-3; the tiny kitchen here was made even tinier when she lowered the ceiling racks holding the pots and pans so she could reach them. And when she says of the butchering she does weekly that “breaking down animals is my Zen place,” you believe her.
At 35, Mar is no kid, especially in the restaurant world. The Seattle native didn’t start cooking professionally until she was 28 and had spent 10 years selling commercial real estate in Los Angeles. But restaurants are in her DNA. Her aunt, Ruby Chow, was the first Chinese American in Seattle to open a Chinese restaurant outside of Chinatown, in 1948; Bruce Lee, the son of a family friend, washed dishes there. Mar’s father, Roy, now 89, cooked there before becoming a dentist. He and Ruby were two of 10 children whose parents emigrated from China to the United States to work on the railroads. Their father died when Ruby was 13, and their mother died when she was 18 and Roy was 11. That was during the Depression, and Ruby worked tirelessly to keep the younger children out of foster homes. She sent them to the back doors of Chinatown restaurants, begging for scraps.
So it makes sense that once Roy Mar could afford it, meat became his priority. “Dad always had steaks and prime rib, liver and onions, corned beef,” Mar recalled, sitting at a table near her restaurant’s front door. “Because he grew up during the Depression, everything was always saved. My brothers, cousin and I would race to the fridge in the mornings to see who could get the leftover T-bone or rib-eye and have beef bones for breakfast.”
Mar’s parents split when she was 14. “That’s when I really got into the kitchen to create my own food,” she says. “My dad had Sunday supper no matter what. The pork shoulder braised in milk that’s on my menu here is what I learned to make then. Sunday supper was a big round table with a Lazy Susan holding big pots, and everything was family style. That’s why I serve so many dishes that way here, so people can order a bunch of things and explore the tastes and textures.” She reflected a moment. “I’m forever chasing the feeling of eating that way with my dad.”
Mar’s mother, Nancy, whose family owned a noodle business, was raised between Taipei and England, and she passed her taste for Sunday roasts and meat pies on to her daughter. You won’t find brunch at the Beatrice Inn; there is Sunday roast, instead, prime rib carved tableside, an homage to both parents. “I’m anti-brunch,” Mar says flatly. “Caviar are the only eggs you need on a Sunday.”
Well-said by a woman whose life’s passion was born in Paris. “My dad always tried exposing me to different foods, so he suggested kidneys,” Mar recalled. “My mom thought they were disgusting — she doesn’t even like medium-rare meat on the table — and she said, ‘Don’t eat them.’ Clearly I’m a bit rebellious, as you can tell from my menu, so I said, ‘Yes.’ I remember them being like sausages, the casings snappy with a nice chew inside. I remember the cream being so delicious and meaty, sopping it up with bread. I took the knife and banged the water glass to make a speech, picketing my parents to stay in Paris forever, requesting to go to school there.”
Although they returned home and Mar did not have kidneys again for many years, that drumbeat of meat propelled her, especially when cooking with her father. But she wasn’t thinking about becoming a chef. “I wanted to make money,” she said. “My family wanted me to have the education, get the corporate job, the 401(k), have babies. After Ruby Chow’s, the thinking was, ‘We worked hard so you don’t have to labor over a stove 14 hours a day.’” She shrugged. “I moved to L.A. and sold Class-A office space. But eventually, it felt empty. I realized I wanted to cook.”
In 2010 she moved to New York and enrolled at the French Culinary Institute. After graduating, she worked for Andrew Tarlow at Marlow & Sons in Brooklyn and opened Reynard, another of his restaurants. She then became April Bloomfield’s executive sous-chef at the Spotted Pig.
“Reynard is where I really learned to cook,” Mar said. “And how to butcher. On Mondays when we’re closed here, I come in and butcher my meat, listen to music, be in my own space. For six days a week, this is a 24-hour operation, but that day is mine.” She looked defiant. “Despite what my parents wanted, I grew up by trial and error, learning by doing instead of learning by reading.”
What does her father make of her success? She looked shy, suddenly. “I think he’s really proud,” she said, and started to cry. She grabbed for a napkin as her sous-chef, Ed Szymanski, came up behind her with a question. She snapped her head around. “Don’t tell anyone I’m crying,” she commanded, then softened her tone. “I’m talking about my dad,” she added. Szymanski nodded, got his answer and left.
Mar wiped her eyes. “My dad is such an inspiration, growing up with nothing. He’ll tell us stories about all of them sleeping in one room in Chinatown, keeping the family together. He always said, ‘If you build something, you build it with family.’ My two younger brothers run my website. My cousin is my business partner. I know my father would be proud of me regardless, but that we’re doing this as a family is tremendously important to him.”
We headed into the kitchen so Mar could make the kidneys. Although she offers what she calls deviled kidneys on the Sunday roast menu (breaded and fried with mustard, cream, dates and prunes, served on toast), she keeps her version of the one she ate in Paris for herself. “This is what I’ll do at home,” she said. “I find the one-pan thing comforting and nostalgic.” Her home is actually uptown, though she often crashes in the upstairs apartment here that serves as her office. When I asked if she was in a relationship, she just rolled her eyes. “I work six days a week on the line,” she said. “But at least my friends have a fun place to come.”
For the kidneys, she assembled her ingredients quickly. They were as delicious as her childhood memory, the earthiness of the meat offset by the luxuriousness of the sauce. I was glad she had ignored me earlier when I scanned the recipe worriedly. “Um, I see you have heavy cream, whole milk, butter, olive oil and crème fraîche listed here,” I’d said. “Are you really going to use all of it?”
She looked up from the onions she was cutting. “Why would you not?” she said. And laughed.
Witchel is a former staff writer for the New York Times Magazine and the author of “All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother’s Dementia.”
2 to 4 servings
Serve as a first or main course with a baguette, for sopping up the sauce.
Veal kidneys are quite high in cholesterol. They will come in 1- or 2-pound packages, typically frozen and more likely available at a butcher shop than a supermarket. Be sure to call ahead for availability. You’ll ask for them “cleaned,” which means a large vein and an outer membrane have been removed. Find good culinary lavender via online purveyors or at La Cuisine in Alexandria.
MAKE AHEAD: The kidneys need to be soaked in milk for at least 3 hours, and up to 2 days in advance.
Adapted from Angie Mar, owner and executive chef of the Beatrice Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village.
1 pound cleaned veal kidneys, defrosted if frozen (see headnote)
Whole milk, for soaking
6 pitted prunes
10 tablespoons Madeira
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 good-size cippolini onions, each cut into quarters
1 tablespoon culinary lavender, coarsely chopped (see headnote)
1 tablespoon marjoram leaves, coarsely chopped
3½ tablespoons cognac
⅓ cup plus 2 tablespoons heavy cream
2½ tablespoons unsalted butter
2½ tablespoons crème fraîche
1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon leaves
1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
Remove and discard the kidneys’ hard, white core of fat, plus any fatty connectors between lobes. Cut the lobes apart, into separate pieces. Place in a bowl and pour in enough milk to completely cover them. Cover and refrigerate for at least 3 hours, then drain and pat dry.
Combine the prunes and Madeira in a small saucepan over low heat. Cook for 10 minutes; the prunes should plump up a bit. Remove from the heat and let them sit while you cook the kidneys.
Heat the oil in a medium saute pan over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the onions and toss to coat. Cook for about 8 minutes, shaking the pan several times, or just until they have softened and picked up a golden color. Season lightly with salt.
Season the kidneys generously with salt.
Increase the heat to medium-high; add the kidneys to the pan. Push the onions to one side, and sear the kidneys on all sides until medium-rare (about 145 degrees on an instant-read thermometer); this should take 2 to 3 minutes total. The onions will be browning and crisping during this time, so keep them moving around, too.
Add the lavender and marjoram, letting them crackle in the oil. Turn off the heat.
Add the cognac to the pan, letting it sizzle in the still-hot pan and reduce a bit, down to a sticky consistency.
Turn on the heat to medium-high and add the cream; once it starts to bubble, stir in the butter until it melts to form a thickened sauce that’s bubbling. Add the prunes and their Madeira. Once the mixture begins to bubble again, cook just until the sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Remove from the heat.
Add the crème fraîche and swirl the pan to incorporate. Add the tarragon and parsley at the last minute, then divide between plates and serve right away.
Nutrition | Per serving (based on 4): 490 calories, 18 g protein, 18 g carbohydrates, 31 g fat, 15 g saturated fat, 455 mg cholesterol, 280 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 10 g sugar
Recipe tested by Bonnie S. Benwick; email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
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