March 18, 2012
One day this fall, a Canadian started pummeling me with international calls before I work up.
"You're going to get me fired" they went. "Take the blog down now."
I had several reactions: One, what could be so damaging about my latest food blog? (It appears below.) Two, I don't want to get anyone fired, at least undeservedly. And three, just exactly when did this caller off my editor and declare herself chief?
The call came from a production assistant from Tricon Film & Television, Allison Brough.
She was both surprised and sure: Surprised that my report from the pop-up restaurant she engineered—and invited me to—was so detailed and thorough (er, thanks, I think), and sure that what it revealed about the TV show to come would get her axed.
I ultimately agreed to take it down temporarily—to prevent a heart attack more so than any job loss. After all, the TV pilot—starring local fishermen, traditions, ingredients and materials in a pretty fresh and flavorful way—wasn't scheduled to air until spring. I still wrote it up in print, albeit with far fewer pictures.
With the show now airing on the Cooking Channel, here's a look at the very lively evening from the inside, including a buffet of insights you won't see in the episode, which runs again 2pm today (Sunday, March 18) and 6am Saturday, March 24:
There were sardine escabeche salads, abalone schnitzel and artichoke-liquor cocktails.
There were Monterey Mayor Chuck Della Sala and Congressman Sam Farr (above). There were from-the-cradle fishermen and farmers from Monterey County and a chef, sommelier and TV crew from Canada.
But the pop-up wonder that appeared last Friday, down at the end of industrial Wharf Two in Monterey, dripping a chandelier and Carmel Road wine, was more about what wasn't there than the incredible things that were, suddenly and seemingly out of the brisk wind.
That missing piece: our lost fisherman.
The Toronto-based Tricon Films & Television team that put together the event was searching for a pilot to pitch The Food Network’s Cooking Channel when they came across a July story by the Weekly’s Joel Ede describing the efforts of Elizabeth Pennisi-Nozicka and her husband Jiri Nozicka (above left and center) to raise funds to create a monument to local fishermen lost at sea, in large part inspired by the 2004 loss of Elizabeth’s brother David “Rowdy” Pennisi at age 43 to the ocean.
“The Pennisi family (above, with the TriCon crew) has been a cornerstone of the Monterey fishing industry since the early 1900s, and the tragic story of Captain Rowdy and The Relentless has since become local lore,” Ede writes. “Pennisi-Nozicka says since her brother’s accident, memorializing the lost fishermen of the Central Coast has weighed heavily on her heart. Monterey is one of the only major fishing ports on the West Coast without a dedicated memorial to commercial fishermen. ”
TriCon’s Allison Brough pitched the idea of a dinner that would honor both that cause and our area’s richest reservoirs of produce and plunder—Pezzini artichoke fields, valley vineyards, Monterey Abalone Company farms and the Monterey Bay itself. They built the pilot around a trio of young, 6’4”, good-looking, fun-loving Toronto friends who each own respected restaurants: from left to right, a designer (Brad Denton, Le Petit Castor) a chef (Cory Vitiello, who owns Harbord Room), and a sommelier (Anton Potvin, Niagra Street Cafe).
They’d take those local inputs and inspiration and spin an odyssey of taste on a tight time table, and a veteran team would film it all, creating a template for future collisions of local cuisine, plot and personality. The pilot will air in 2012 and, pending numbers, continue from there.
The transformation of the commercial, cement-and-corrugated-tin Royal Seafood space on Wharf Two into “Gino’s Fish Market” was nothing short of head-spinning, as crews hustled to capture on the faces of the VIPs, family and friends as we walked in knowing very little of what was going on.
Raw cement and stinky fish baskets disappeared behind reclaimed white batten board and maritime-style mirrors.
Fridges and stoves appeared in an open kitchen...
...flanked by farmers market-style displays of fresh fish, squid, artichoke and lettuce.
Next to a beautiful wood bar, a chalkboard revealed scrawled menu items like “Cap’n Curt’s Ice Cream Sammies.” Next to it hung an understated, framed list of local fishermen lost, scores all told.
The fact that they found virtually all the props (OK, not the chandelier) around the dock, at Last Chance Mercantile and spots like Cannery Row Antique Mall as recently as minutes before the dinner only added to the awe.
A taste of a bitter shooter made with an Italian Cynar artichoke spirit on a beautifully illuminated outside patio preceded a three-hour dinner at big tables and booths the team assembled last second, though they felt like they'd been there for years.
Then came the Canadian takes on some of our most famed ingredients. Tasty (albeit bony) sardine salad with clever artichoke chips, roast tomato vinaigrette and garlic croutons.
Artichoke “fries” inspired by a Pezzini recipe.
A victorious California white sea bass tostada and some iffy baked artichoke hearts “stuffed with good times.”
The dinner involved plenty of not-so-made-for-TV drama, though. The temp bartender they hired was wildly overmatched by a simple task of pouring over ice and adding orange peel and walked off. A shelf collapsed behind the bar. The abalone “schnitzel” (above) was a crime against those who hold the expensive shellfish dear, almost inedible because it was cut too thickly, left unpounded and overcooked.
That will likely be edited, those great moments a less nefarious sort of bycatch. Which is probably a good thing, because the adventures in materials, fishing and farming alluded to during a round of toasts sounded like fertile fields for TV—including the principal three’s six-hour shutout on the seas, which was redeemed at the 11th hour by a sea-bass catch by one of our local poles.
I’ve known Gino Pennisi (above left, with designer , who is assuming the Royal reins more and more each day, for 15-plus years (and his market remains my favorite). Same for another guest there I once rode the school bus with, a man named Mike Christopher Jones.
What I didn’t know was they had both had lost family members to the Pacific. It took a colleague from Fresno (Ede) and some Canadians with TV cameras to help see what wasn’t there.
I’d say Tricon succeeded on a mission Brough outlined via email: “Whatever it is, it’ll be something that will exist on location for a week but create a vibe that will live long past the day they pack up.”
Like the fishermen who helped forge an identity through place and food.
Gone, not forgotten.