Calling all hedonists

Our new food guy wants you.

click to enlarge THE CHEESESTEAKS OF HIS DREAMS: Big Jim’s in Largo makes ’em right. - Shanna Gillette
Shanna Gillette
THE CHEESESTEAKS OF HIS DREAMS: Big Jim’s in Largo makes ’em right.

[Editor’s Note: We’ll publish Jon Palmer Claridge’s first regular restaurant review in our June 28 issue. But first, he wanted to explain what he’s bringing to the, um, table.]

Your mother warned you about folks like me, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be trusted. I am your new…

Food critic.

I’m an acolyte of that old Teutonic philosopher, Goethe, who, when the lights were low, famously proclaimed in a seductive whisper, “We are formed and shaped by what we love.” This is especially true for foodies; we are smoldering hedonists — and it usually shows in our love handles. Let me just say that my almost kinky obsession with pulled pork is something that Puritans might not approve.

My main man Goethe asked three questions when critiquing food (or was it art?): 1) What were they trying to do? 2) How well did they do it? And finally, 3) Was it worth doing? I’ll use those queries each and every week — an anonymous gastronaut in search of the freshest ingredients, locally sourced artisanal creations and exotic rarities from foreign shores (thanks to FedEx).

I’ve spent a huge chunk of my adult life working in the theater, where I learned many lessons that inform another passion: throwing killer dinner parties. The same strategies and attention to detail on stage that make the hair stand up on the back of your neck are what make a dinner party, or a restaurant experience, sing. My real fascination of late is wine as food — and how the art of careful pairing can take a dish, and a meal, to the next level.

I’ve recently returned to the Bay area after a long hiatus, but I spent my formative years here and have vivid memories of a particular Philly cheesesteak from some nondescript shop in a long-gone strip mall. The juicy ribeye, caramelized onions, and sharp Provolone were almost creamy, perfectly co-mingled on a crispy Amoroso roll. When I visited Philly a few years back, I made a pilgrimage to Geno’s and Pat’s, the dueling cheesesteak pioneers, in search of that remembered boyhood taste. Geez, was I disappointed; they were nothing like the hoagies I remembered so fondly. Was I romanticizing the past, as we often do? I had given up, when I happened upon Big Jim’s in Largo. After only a few bites, I had to catch my breath as disorienting sense memories flooded my brain; OMG… this is the taste of my youth, finally rediscovered after a decades-long search… and my eyes filled with tears of joy. Memories are funny things — and meals, like music, can serve as important markers that embed themselves in our brains.

And I can’t tell you how much money I’ve spent on “gastro-tourism.” Every vacation is geared toward a food mecca, so I’ve been lucky to dine at a number of the world’s greatest restaurants, from Paris to Mexico City, acquiring traditional skills from acclaimed chefs, exploring modernist cuisine first hand, sipping great wines in vineyards from Champagne to Chianti, and now back by the Bay exploring craft beer in Dunedin. Along the way, I’ve also been seduced by street food, won over by sidewalk chefs in Buenos Aires or Athens who aren’t afraid to offer something rich and savory at popular prices. Global cuisine is astonishingly varied (as we suggested last week), yet our default is often to eat the same food at the same chain restaurants. There is so much to explore — an entire world of food is at our fingertips.

Unfortunately, I’m finding that many folks watch the Food Network and other cooking channels for amusement, and don’t change their entertaining or dining habits. As we settle in, I’m going to do some columns encouraging you to expand your home cooking repertoire. Everybody loves to eat, but it seems only a tiny group cooks seriously; the majority of folks just want to get food on the table as quickly as possible. I’m hoping to convince those of you in group two to jump in, a bit at a time. Remember, revolutionary change is incremental, and sublime home cooking is not rocket science. You’ll be surprised at what you can do. And don’t forget the sage advice from Roman general Martial in 95 A.D. that’s painted on the wall of my home kitchen: “Givers of great dinners know few enemies.”

Whether at your home or a restaurant, great food has an element of surprise. Great service anticipates your every desire. Great décor and ambience set the mood. Together, they combine for a thrilling meal that arouses all your senses. So, as I begin this new venture where the need for anonymity precludes me staring in your eyes, I invite you to come along — and in the process, hope to convert you to my personal mantra: “Peak Experiences Now.”