Oysters, Ostrich and Jazz Flute

Joshua David Stein

An afternoon at the Museum of Food and Drink fund-raiser included nine courses, nine cocktails—all inspired by millennia of culinary history—and one poor boiled ostrich at Del Posto.

At some point on Sunday afternoon, I descended the staircase to the catacumbal dining rooms of Mario Batali’s Del Posto. It might as well have been a rabbit hole, and I Alice, if not for the ornate marble staircase and the trays of Perrier-Jouët, Plymouth gin, celery and lemon cocktails that were proffered on arrival. It was a curiouser and curiouser afternoon I was in for. Eat me! Drink me! Holy what?!?!

The reason I and about a hundred other guests had assembled was to raise funds for the Museum of Food and Drink, an ambitious museum that exists, at the moment, only in the mind of Dave Arnold, head of the Culinary Technology department of the French Culinary Institute.  But what a mind it is! The museum, when it opens, says Arnold, “will rival the American Museum of Natural History.” A tall order, but in a city like New York—where eating out is itself an Olympic sport and provides fodder for millions of conversations, arguments, friendships, love affairs and marital dissolutions—it’s not impossible. The museum will host classes, and rotating exhibitions.

The invited chefs—among them David Chang, Wylie Dufresne, Carlos Mirarchi from Brooklyn’s Roberta’s Pizzeria (Chang is from Momofuku; Dufresne from WD~50 and if you didn’t know that, well, now you know.)—were each given a specific period from which to draw inspiration. To a man, they geeked out.

Arnold started things by dwelling upon food as medicine with an amuse-bouche he called Rhubarb and Mummy. The thing, served on a tongue depressor, was a play on mummy powder—powder made from mummies—which medieval doctors thought was a panacea after thoroughly misunderstanding traditional Egyptian medicines. Fools. Arnold’s dish—strawberried rhubarb, mummy powder yogurt, pine nuts, cucumbers—had no mummies and was good.

Next up was Nils Noren, whose assignment, “Fad Diets,” prompted him to Google “fad diets.” Gastronomy by Google. The top result was “South Beach Diet,” so Mr. Noren—whose birthday it was, Happy Birthday, Noren—deconstructed cabbage soup and a Cuban sandwich, served one in a bitsy cup and the other, sans bread, beside it.

More things came and went, and I should hasten to mention each course came with a cocktail, wed to the culinary offering by theme. Damon Boelte served Martell VSOP with oranges as an homage to the cocktail life of New York City, 1784; Thomas Waugh served a Cave Man cocktail of Perrier-Jouët Champagne and Lindemans Pêche Lambic Beer to accompany Wylie Dufresne’s Bone Appetite (bone marrow, scallops, potatoes, beets, powdered genius) inspired by Cave Man food.

There was a jazz flautist.

There was also a silent auction at some point later on when we were all soused, for which I think I bid $800 for a private pastry session by Brooks Headley, Pastry Chef of Del Posto, and $700 for an immersion circulator (which looks like an ATM but allows perfect sous-vide). Thank God I won neither. My wife would have killed me.

David Chang, always a pleasure and a provocateur, was assigned “American Food, 1491.” He called his dish “It’s a Shame We Know More About Dinosaurs Than About What Native Americans Ate,” which is funny and then, wait ten seconds, really sad. He served very large oysters—“Indians prized large oysters,” he explained, “so when we knew we were doing this dish, we asked the oysterman to allow his oysters to grow. These are a year to a year-and-a-half old”—with acorns and berries with some scorched hazelnut breading.

But the pièce de résistance belonged to Mark Ladner, Del Posto’s executive chef. Inspired by Ancient Rome, Ladner presented boiled ostrich. He called it “BIG BIRD.” In fact, he prepared two, ostentation being very much a part of ancient Rome. One was chopped up and served on a bread plate, meant to be eaten with one’s hands. It was okay. But the other—a huge, raw thing—was decorated with fake yellow feathers and was wheeled out to be gawked and gaped at.

I flashed back to Don’t Eat the Pictures: Sesame Street at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Remember that special from 1983? Big Bird goes on a field trip to the Met, then Snuffy gets lost—typical—so Big Bird looks for him and is left to roam the halls of the museum at night. Then the others look for him and Cookie Monster tries to eat the pictures. [Not Allowed.] Anyway, if Big Bird thought he had it bad at the Metropolitan, he should steer clear of the Museum of Food and Drink when it opens. The rest of us, though, should show no such restraint.