Q&A with David Rosengarten

In addition to being a food and wine expert, television personality, and theater aficionado, David Rosengarten is also an incredibly nice person to talk to. Funny and genial, he absolutely delighted the GoGoMix studio with tales of his academic past, the origins of The Food Network, his favorite country for cuisine, his favorite restaurants in the city, and his future in the food biz. We've published an abbreviated video of our conversation before; now you can read the whole thing below!

GGM: Before you became the wine and culinary expert you are today, I hear you were involved in the theater!

DR: I was! But first, I never say I’m an expert. I say I’m just a guy who eats and drinks a lot and tries to remember as much possible! But yes, I love the theater. I grew up with my Dad who was an opera fanatic. I was a director for a while, directing in New York. But then I retreated into academia, got a doctorate in theater history, taught theater for three years. I started teaching cooking classes during that time, and thought “Wait a minute… this is what I really like to do!” And that’s when I switched over.

GGM: Before you switched over, did you have a favorite musical or play?

DR: Interesting question… I think my favorite play has to be Shakespeare. There’s no doubt to people who love classical theater that the best is Hamlet! I did hear a story from a couple people in an academic department about a guy who had just been hired to teach in the theater department. He mentioned he’d never read Hamlet and was fired!

GGM: Going back into the kitchen, where do you enjoy going grocery shopping in the city?

DR: I go to all the big names, but I have to say, and I have no commercial obligation to them, but I wrote the Dean and Deluca cookbook about 20 years ago! I go to Grace’s, Citarella which has very good fish. If I’m preparing a very special dish, I try to cook Italian American, and on that day, I go to Arthur Avneue in the Bronx! Amazing street for Italian shopping!

GGM: You’ve worked on multiple cookbooks. Do you have a favorite you’ve written?

DR: I do! You’re not supposed to say because it’s like picking a favorite child, but my favorite is called It’s All American Food. It won the James Beard award for Best American cookbook of the year! It takes a look at what you might call the “hyphenated” cuisine. At some point, foods like Italian-American and Chinese-American became distinctly unfashionable, but I say if you cook that food well, that can be great food!

GGM: You also are the pioneer of the Food Network. You had the first show with them! What was that like?

DR: It was strange. I had no idea what I was getting into at the time. It was like being part of the video club in high school! It was in a really dinky studio out of the way. I had an agent who was telling me I had to get myself on TV, and I called Charles Pinsky, who is a famous producer. We meet at my apartment, and I showed him a pilot I’d done. He said he was meeting a guy names Reece Schofeld who was starting something called The Food Network, and I hadn’t heard of either at the time. The next day, I got a phone call from The Food Network, I walk in, and suddenly I’m talking to Donna Hanover. “Well Donna, what’d you have for lunch?” “Oh, I had a tuna salad sandwich,” and the executive producer comes walking out of the shadows like “We’ve got our co-anchor!” and voila, I had a job for two years! It was crazy!

GGM: Do you have any favorite cooking shows now?

DR: I do. I like Anthony Bourdain! I like how smart he is when he talks about food. Anthony will give you a whole cultural history as his mouth is filled with chicken feet. And on the Food Network, I have a strange taste for Guy Fieri! I love that kind of food he started to make popular. Some years ago, we were all very stuffy about food, and here’s this guy slamming pork fat on a bun with mayonnaise, and I like looking at it!

GGM: So you travel all over the world. Do you have a favorite country?

DR: I’m a food and wine guy. Guess what’s my favorite country? GGM: Italy? DR: That’s number 2 actually! Number 1 is France. There are Italy people and France people, but there’s something about France for me. It probably has something to do with how the France are deeply, deeply psychotic about food. They’re so nuts, that almost everyone I know could make an extra 20,000 euros a year on their cheese! People have a collective stake in keeping the quality of food high.

GGM: In the city, do you have a favorite restaurant?

DR: Hm… I think it would have to be a place where the owner is obsessed with quality. I know one. His name is Costas. The restaurant is Milos, in the 50s on 6th Avenue. Every night on his small island in the Aegean sea, he has fisherman catch fish to deliver to the dock at 5 AM, by 11 AM it’s in Athens, and by 3 PM it’s in New York! The other thing he has is called “The Milos Special” which is very thin slices of eggplant and zucchini, lightly battered, and deep fried, served with a garlic-y yogurt. It costs like 36 dollars! Why does it cost so much? Because it’s always perfect. He has two chefs working on only this!

The Famous

GGM: Do you have a favorite dish? If this was your last dish on earth, what would it be?

DR: Oh, I have that one all prepared. It would be French. I need that French Joie de Vivre. I want a platter of shellfish, preferably raw oysters. A little bit of crisp white wine. Then a big pile of sauerkraut with multiple types of sausage. Then, some very smelly French cheese. And for dessert, an upside down apple tart called Tart Tatan. Then I’ll die.

GGM: You’re making me so hungry!

DR: That’s my job, man!

GGM: Now you are also a bit of a sports fanatic. Who is your team?

DR: I have a special obsession: New York Rangers. I love hockey. I think it’s the best team sport. The cool thing about following the Rangers is that they never win, so like New York Jews, we feel sympathetic to people forever struggling! The other thing is that in New York, we’re underdogs as hockey fans. Almost no one in New York knows anything about hockey! It’s not a hockey town. When there’s an important game, 20,000 maniacs gather at the Garden and scream for the Ranger, and when we walk out, no one knows what we’re doing! We’re like the hockey ghetto, a small band of brothers in New York where the rest of the world is indifferent. I kind of like that!

GGM: Now you’ve worked with some incredible women in your life, including one named Julia…

DR: Ah yes, my good friend Julia Child. She changed everything in America about food. I got to know her as a food writer in the eighties. I was lucky. My best Julia story involves a visit to her house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was publishing a newsletter at the time. In each newsletter, we would pick a dish, then discuss which wine was best to go with that dish. We would pick a person who was famous for that dish and do a tasting with that person. We got a “What’s the best wine with omelets” story, so we called up Julia, she made 30 omelets, and I brought 30 wines. So we go there and I have my wife and baby daughter, and when Julia answered the door, she didn’t even say hello, just looked at the baby and said “Is she gonna need milk or is she on the ‘home dairy’.” I thought that was great.

GGM: What’s next for you?

DR: A couple years ago, I got a bee in my bonnet that a good thing for me to do in my career would be to get into the food and wine business! All those people who I came up with at the Food Network opened restaurants, but I’m not a restaurant person. I think this will be a good way to leave a little legacy for my kids. So I’m finding foods and wines from all over the world and importing them here. Every bottle in my line has a sticker that says “A David Rosengarten Wine for Food.”

GGM: Now, you also enjoy a bit of barbeque food. What are some of your favorite barbeque spots in the city?

DR: I should tell you that there’s a very important distinction between barbeque food and grill food. My Dad used to say “Hey, let’s have a barbeque,” and then he would throw some hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill. Not a barbeque. That’s grilling. Barbequing has meat far away from the fire, and the fire is very low, so the cooking is very slow. Barbequing takes 18 hours! It makes meat go from tight to velvety. Ten years ago, we had nothing in New York that came close to Southern Barbeque. BrisketTown, Mighty Quinn's, Hill Country. New York’s gotten really good at barbeque over the last ten years. Check out what David is up to on his website, here!

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