Sunday, March 31, 2013


 So, what’s been on your mind lately, Geoff?  Well, I’m glad you asked.  Quite a few things, actually.  First I got a comment on an earlier post about Kay and Ray’s potato chips.  The original post is here:
and you’ll see the comment runs:  “Kay and Ray are my cousins, my Aunt and Uncle Charlie and Ruth Heckendorn had this business for a while. Just this past weekend, the news broke that they may be going away!!! Apparently they were made by Martins/Gibbles and Gibbles went out of business. SOMEBODY needs to make these chips!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Well this is sad news indeed.  Kay and Ray’s were fabulous.  The article in Lucky Peach magazine that alerted me to them said the business had passed from family to family for generations, and the name Kay and Ray’s dated to the mid 50s.  The next part of the story, as far as I can piece it together, is that the Heckendorns, sold the business to Gerald Lehman in 1976. Lehman sold it to Donald Carr in 1987. Carr sold it to Martin’s Famous Pastry Shoppe Inc. in 1996, and in December 2012 Martin’s sold the line to Gibbles, owned by Dieffenbach Foods who just announced that they’re closing down the Gibbles snack food line altogether, including Kay and Ray’s, as well as some other favorites I’d never heard of, including Gibble’s Puffys, and the “legendary” Gibbles Red Hot Potato Chips.  Dieffenbach’s say they’ve discontinued these brands to concentrate on other potato chip lines; i.e.  Dieffenbach’s.

So the Loved One and I tried a little desperately to obtain some Kay and Ray’s, or even some Gibbles, going as far as calling the factory, where we spoke to a rather tearful woman, who said the distributor’s truck was on its way to collect the last of the chips, so they couldn’t sell us any.  It appears that people are selling Kay and Ray’s and Gibbles at a premium on eBay, and we were slightly tempted, but we just didn’t want to get involved with potato chip scalping.

The unique selling point of Kay and Ray’s potato chips was that they were fried in lard; and if you don’t find that intriguing and a Good Thing, then I suspect there’s no hope for you.  Anyway we have swept into action (if you can call ordering things on line action) and ordered some other lard fried potato chips – all from Pennsylvania – some Good’s and some Zerbe’s lard fried potato chips are on their way.

Actually certain companies are a bit shy about their use of lard, some use the word “shortening” or they call them home style: this includes Deiffenbach’s (who may or may not be the great Satan in all this).  Most of their chips are cooked in vegetable oil, but they make some called “Old Fashion” which are indeed fried in lard.  For the hell of it we ordered some of them too.  Expect a major tasting in the near future.

Meanwhile the March issue of Los Angeles magazine had an article written by David Hochman (not some literary foodie prank as far as I can tell, though I hope it was) about Totoraku, a “secret beef restaurant” run by one Kaz Oyama, on Pico Boulevard in LA.  The restaurant has no sign outside, or rather it has the sign of a different restaurant (The Teriyaki House Pico), and attempts to get a table there result in multiple humiliations.

Photo by Misha Gravenor

Hochman, having used his contacts and spent a couple of weeks leaving messages at a secret number, gets a call from Oyama:
“Do I know you?” he asks when I say hello. I say no. “Oh, then I cannot let you come. But maybe you can find someone who knows me.”
Hochman adds, “The only way to eat at Totoraku is to call the handwritten cell number on Oyama’s flimsy business card. But the only way to get Oyama’s card is to eat at Totoraku.”
Ah me. Will it surprise you that the foodies and A-listers of LA absolutely salivate at the prospect of this Zen annoyance?  Benicio del Tor is a regular apparently.  The place is unlicensed but if by any chance you get to eat there you’re expected to turn up with a bottle of very good wine.  Hochman says Whoopi Goldberg brought a "vintage magnum" of Chateau Margaux, though my understanding is that there's no such thing as non-vintage Chateau Margaux: the thing we want to know is what year .
The food is apparently wonderful, but I know that if by some miracle I got to eat there I’d be so blazing with resentment that I wouldn’t enjoy it.  On the other hand I do sort of understand Oyama’s point – as a restaurant owner I can see why you might prefer to choose your customers. rather than have your customers choose you; which is obviously why I will never be a customer there.  Stay with me - I’m going somewhere with this.

Photo by Misha Gravenor

OK, then I read an article in Vanity Fair by Corby Gummer, complaining about the tyranny of celebrity chefs in general, and the tyranny of the tasting menu in particular.   No protest from me.  I’ve never been a fan of the tasting menu, and have avoided them where possible.  On the few occasions I’ve had them I come away feeling like I haven’t quite had a meal.  And there was a hideous occasion at a well know restaurant in New York where I ate two consecutive courses of thin, bland, dreary soups.

 I guess I hadn’t realized just how absurd things had got.  According to Gummer, El Bulli used to have 50 courses, and the French Laundry still does 40 plus, though I see their website currently offers just nine, with a few options, such as a choice between asparagus on the one hand, or pea porridge with black truffles on the other, although since the latter comes with a $100 supplement in addition to the basic price of $270 you might think that’s not all that much of a choice.

It always seems to me that the real, and obvious, problem with a tasting menu is that somewhere along the line you’re bound to find something you don’t like much.  Why not, you know, order three things you’re sure you’re going to like?

Worse still, I can never escape the feeling that tasting menus are done for the restaurant’s convenience, not mine.  When the customer has no choice, the kitchen knows exactly what they’re going to serve, and since these fancy restaurants are so always full, they know exactly how many covers they’re going to serve. Makes life easy.   I was going to say no fuss no muss, but I guess that’s not right.  No muss, despite a great deal of fuss.

And so I fantasized that I might develop my own secret restaurant.  Obviously there’d be a rigorous vetting process of potential diners; perhaps based on literary tastes and choice of footwear.  But if you were you’re lucky enough to snag a reservation at Chez Nicholson you’d be given the no choice tasting menu, which would consist of preciely one dish, the lard-fried potato chip sandwich.  Don’t like it?   Go and eat at Totoraku.  Oh that’s right, you can’t can you?


  1. Can I get the bread toasted? Can a customer get ketchup on the side?

  2. Susan - it entirely depends on how I'm feeling at the time. We chefs are creatures of whim, you know.

  3. There was a famous restaurant called Cafe Nicholson in the way-east 50s in New York, which in the 1950s was a hangout for the likes of Faulkner, Gloria Vanderbilt and Tennessee Williams. It was probably easier to get into then than Totoraku but one imagines, by not much. The chef was Edna Lewis, so I suspect the food was very, very good. She may not have served lard-fried potato chip sandwiches, but in her later life she became known for a chicken recipe that involved frying the bird in a mixture of butter, rendered country ham fat and pure lard, which is pretty close.

  4. Yes indeed - the Cafe Nicholson chicken sounds hard to beat - and I'm sure they wouldn't want a Nicholson from the other side of the tracks in there. I always think of the place as a Gore Vidal hangout - - Gore, who famously asked his mother what the 19th century was like and she said, “Well, the food was awfully good.”