Colman Andrews looks back on a ‘life in restaurants’

Cover image of "My Usual Table: A Life in Restaurants" by Colman Andrews
Cover image of "My Usual Table: A Life in Restaurants" by Colman Andrews Photo submitted

Food editor and author Colman Andrews returns to the region with his new memoir, "My Usual Table: A Life In Restaurants."

Andrews, a cofounder of "Saveur," a restaurant columnist for "Gourmet," and the current editorial director of thedailymeal.com, is the recipient of eight James Beard awards and author of seven books, including the "Catalan Cuisine," "The Country Cooking of Ireland" and, most recently, "The Country Cooking of Italy."

Andrews recently talked to The Day about his new memoir and a life lived in food in advance of his upcoming appearance at the Oyster Club in Mystic.

Q. How did you settle on the book's 16 chapters and 20 restaurants and chronologically weave them into your personal story? Was it difficult to structure this book compared to other books you've written?

A. It was a whole different thing, although there have been autobiographical elements in some of my other books. A publisher had asked me about writing a memoir and I thought, 'Yeah, but how would I structure it?' and (I realized) some of my earliest memories are of restaurants. But it really occurred to me that restaurants have always been a part of my life and there was probably one restaurant or a couple restaurants that I went to a lot and were typical of that period of my life.

I write about the fact that my whole approach to food and what I know about food really comes from sitting at a restaurant table. I learned about food from the other side. It gave me a different view than many people. I probably know a lot more about restaurants and restaurant service than I do about actual cooking, although I've learned a lot about cooking, subsequently.

Q. How have restaurants changed over all the years you've spent in them? What is missing today when you go to a restaurant from your earlier experiences?

A. The biggest difference beyond the particulars of the food, which have certainly changed, is that restaurants used to be restaurateur restaurants, not chef restaurants - meaning that restaurants had a consistency and a personality that reflected that of the man or woman or couple that owned it. It was their personality and taste that was reflected. And I can guarantee you that 30 or 40 years ago, the chances that you would know the name of a chef at your favorite restaurant were very slim. And when the chef left in those days, the food might have been a little better or worse because of the talent of the chefs, but it didn't change fundamentally. Whereas today, when a chef changes, everything changes because a chef today wants above all else to express his or her individuality and doesn't want to cook someone else's food.

Along with that there was a great premium put on hospitality by the restaurateur. So you were made to feel welcome and comfortable, which is sometimes, but not always, the case today.

Q. Why do you think the restaurants you frequented in your childhood left such a lasting impression, felt so special?

A. Part of it, as you say, was a treat; it was something special to go out with mom and dad or one or the other and also, at that age, most of us had limited experience of restaurants. We didn't go to them every night, so the few of them we went to made a bigger impression. Today we may be a little more jaded because we go more often.

Q. In your introduction you say, eventually, almost accidentally, you found a way to turn your love of restaurants into a career, into really, a way of life. When did that happen and can you elaborate?

A. It just kind of happened. I realized that I wanted to write for a living because I seemed to have a knack for it and it seemed easier than digging ditches and more pleasant than sitting in an office all day dealing with insurance or something like that. Once I decided to write I thought I'd write about things I was interested in. Originally I wrote a lot about music and other things but then I realized I liked food and restaurants and thought I'd try writing about that. My timing was good because when I started writing a lot about restaurants in the 1970s, it was really the beginning of a new fascination in this country with food as something other than daily nutrition. And in those days there weren't bloggers, and even forgetting the Internet, there weren't a lot of food writers in newspapers and magazines. There wasn't a lot of competition so my timing was good.

Q. Does the Oyster Club have the food and ambience of some of your favorite restaurants? Are you looking forward to the luncheon and the food they'll be serving?

A. I'm very fond of it, and I think the downside of the Oyster Club for me is that it's about a 1-hour-and-45-minute drive from where I live in Riverside and I'd be there much more frequently if it were not because it's unpretentious, comfortable, interesting food which changes all the time. But if I don't want something different and I want oysters and a hamburger, I can get that and it will be very good and they won't think less of me because I didn't order something more exotic. In fact, a couple of New Year's Eves ago my wife and I did exactly that - had burgers and oysters at the bar.

Q. Alice Waters says that in your new memoir you beautifully describe how restaurants have shaped your life and career, and, accordingly, the reader learns how you have shaped the way we think about food. That's quite a compliment. Can you comment?

A. I don't know if I've shaped the way people think about food. I've written hundreds and thousands of words on the subject and hope that some of what I've written has made an impression on people. I think there's a sense because of my journalistic instincts that I recognized good stories in the food world early in many cases, and so perhaps in that way, by writing these stories, I've helped shape peoples ideas.

"My Usual Table: A Life in Restaurants" (Ecco) is $25.99 hardcover.

IF YOU GO

What: Lunch party, book-talk with Colman Andrews

Where: Oyster Club, 13 Water St., Mystic

When: Sunday, March 16

Cost: Tickets are $55 and include a luncheon prepared by the farm-to-table restaurant and a signed copy of Andrews' "My Usual Table: A Life In Restaurants." A free 5 p.m. talk by Andrews follows at the La Grua Center, 32 Water St., Stonington.

Reservations: Required, by calling Bank Square Books at (860) 536-3795.

Also: Andrews will give another talk and booksigning on Tuesday, March 18, at 7 p.m. at R.J. Julia Booksellers, 768 Boston Post Rd., Madison. The event is free. Registration is required by calling (203) 245-3959 or online at www.rjjulia.com.

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