His view of things has edge

Food critic favors American food that's `sensible'

May 22, 2002|By Rob Kasper | Rob Kasper,SUN COLUMNIST

NEW YORK -- As James Villas stood in the majesty of Le Cirque preparing to address the crowd of well-wishers gathered to celebrate the publication of his memoir, Between Bites, he was a man in his element.

Villas was turned out in a magnificent vested brown suit and yellow bow tie. His sandy complexion seemed to emit the same burnished glow as the chandeliers hanging in the L'Orangerie room in the fabled Manhattan restaurant.

In the crowd was his mother, Martha Pearl Villas, who is in her 80s and still bakes her own biscuits. She had flown in from the family's hometown of Charlotte, N.C. Also there was Le Cirque's imperial owner, Sirio Maccioni, who stated bluntly that he didn't care for most food writers, but he liked Villas, a man who some say was among the first critics to take American food seriously.

That night, the appetizers being passed around the room, including sauteed soft crab, were what Villas would call "sensible food," dishes rooted in tradition. Moreover, mixed drinks made with real hard liquor, not just glasses of white wine, were being poured at the bars. This meant Villas would not have to tap the flask of hard liquor he often carries to modern-day, so-called cocktail parties.

Yet when Villas spoke to the crowd, in his mellifluous North Carolina words, his message was not all honey and happiness. As he offered his overview of the American food scene, there was an edge to the remarks, and to the man. He sneered at sushi as a snack; he stressed the value of "bucking fatuous trends." He stood up for recipes that "explode with butter, eggs, rich cheeses and all the other sinful but glorious ingredients that the Good Lord intended us to eat."

He praised hedonism, saying his unbridled approach to gastronomy was "the pulse that throbs" through his life.

It was a stirring performance, one that caused Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman, who happened to be at the gathering, to remark that Villas could portray one of the Southern characters in her latest play, The Last Dance. It was also a sampling of Villas' views on American food, views that are set out in rich, flowing chapters in Between Bites: Memoirs of a Hungry Hedonist (John Wiley & Sons Inc., $24.95).

Many people comment on the American food scene. But what makes Villas worth listening to is his experience, his depth and his voice. Villas, who is 64, has written 10 books on food. As free-lance food editor of Town & Country magazine for 27 years, and restaurant critic for the magazine, a post he recently relinquished, and as a free-lance writer for Esquire, Food & Wine, Holiday, Gourmet, Bon Appetit and the New York Times, he has visited what he calls "the culinary fleshpots" of the world.

Educated at the University of North Carolina, where he earned a doctorate in comparative literature, at the University of Missouri, where he taught for three years, and in universities and restaurants in France, which he visited on a Fulbright scholarship, Villas is primarily interested in food's place in the culture.

And he can write.

Here for instance, is a Villas tirade on what went wrong in this country when the "virus" known as California cuisine spread across the land:

"Hordes of pubescent, brash, superstar chefs jumped on the pretentious bandwagon of mache, cuttlefish ink, organic blue potatoes, exotic chili peppers, goat-cheese ravioli, raw duck breast, tabbouleh and cutesy pizzas. The health gestapo initiated its campaign against a host of culprits threatening the very future of mankind. Top food critics and cookbook publishers embraced any new culinary idea, any unfamiliar ingredients and any offbeat cooking technique. And meanwhile American food was being transformed into muck -- all in the reckless name of novelty, novelty, novelty."

Instead of the trendy, Villas champions the traditional. American cuisine, he believes, must evolve slowly and sensibly from its regional roots. He sees more value in writing about the virtues of good fried chicken than the "creations" of a hot chef. By his own admission he can be difficult.

"Over the years, I've worked for -- and with -- some of the most brilliant magazine and book editors in the business, most of whom have respected my refusal to provide what amounted to one hundred ways to prepare chicken cutlets and do a laundry list of the hippest sushi restaurants in America, and who actually encouraged me to establish a distinctive platform, explore charted and uncharted territories, and produce material -- no matter how unorthodox or unfashionable -- that I felt would appeal to everyday readers."

For example, his idea of a successful restaurant is one run either by "veteran impresarios or family members" determined to stick to one big vision, and safeguard tradition. New York, he says, is full of such establishments, and he ticks off Felidia and Maccioni's Le Cirque as examples.

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