The Chef and the Politician: Lunch with the Weiner Brothers

The siblings dish on hard-boiled eggs, local yak, and what Chez Panisse has in common with White Castle.

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Mama Weiner clearly raised her boys right. Anthony grew up to be Democratic congressman for the city’s 9th district, while his brother, Jason, younger by two and a half years, is the chef at the seasonally inspired, modern American restaurant called Almond, on East 23rd Street, and its sister out in Bridgehampton. Edible Manhattan sat them both down in Jason’s Flatiron restaurant to talk-or in the Weiners’ case, cheerfully bicker-about the very different ways these two approach eating.

ANTHONY: Can we eat while we’re having this thing?

JASON: Dude, you’ll eat afterwards. I’ll make you something to go.

ANTHONY: (Sizing up his brother’s casual outfit) Did it ever occur to you that they might want to take pictures?

JASON: That’s why I shaved.

ANTHONY: (Ordering from a waiter.) Just some meat on bread. The steak sandwich. No, the burger. Can I get the ragu of veal? Does that sound like a good choice, the ragu of veal?

JASON: It’s a little heavy for midday. (To us:) Anthony’s attitude to food is essentially that it’s a calorie delivery system.

ANTHONY: I am gonna try the veal pasta thing. And also the steak sandwich to go.

JASON: He doesn’t need anything to go. We’re gonna be here for about 20 minutes, right?

ANTHONY: I am getting a real chump treatment here. You know why I am doing this on my busy day? To promote what a great place this is. When I’m in town I try to get here once a week or something like that. It’s usually an excuse to visit Jason, and also this is as close as I get to eating in a cool place. I appreciate good food when I am eating it, but it’s not as important a part of my life as it is for some people.

JASON: What’s in your fridge right now?

ANTHONY: Well, there’s ketchup. Last night I had a weird schedule, so I made egg salad. Here’s the thing about hard-boiled eggs: You want to put it into cold water so it doesn’t shock it, and a little vinegar makes it easier to peel. I didn’t have any of the stuff around that I’m sure you’d like to have-like celery, you know, that kind of stuff-so what I did, put mustard and mayonnaise, salt, pepper, Tabasco. Tabasco I keep around, that’s something you taught me, the Tabasco fetish.

JASON: You have to have it in your suitcase, just in case.

ANTHONY: I do have seasonings, but I don’t have any actual food. [The bread was] some whole-grain thing with nuts and trail mix. I might have at some point bought a loaf.

JASON: There are many different ways to cook a hard-boiled egg. Your method is sort of a hybrid method. Next time, start in cold water. After it comes up to the boil, eight minutes and then ice water.

ANTHONY: Right.

JASON: And the vinegar thing-that’s for a poached egg. It helps the whites coagulate.

ANTHONY: This was the, the … um, yes. Well, here’s the other thing now, this was the real directive. My fridge was too cold, so a couple of the hard-boiled eggs exploded. So I wanna ask you this: Can I still use them?

JASON: As long as you haven’t defrosted and frozen them again, you’re OK.

ANTHONY: It’s an egg rock. I want to know, can I get in there?

JASON: It’s in your fridge? Your freezer must be like the deepfreeze. There’s some Kelvins going on in there.

ANTHONY: This doesn’t reflect on my freezer at all. It reflects on the fact that we’ve had the same fridge from like 1950. It is still a Frigidaire. So um, what was the answer?

JASON: If it’s still in a frozen state, I would say go ahead.

EM: How did Jason become a chef?

JASON: For whatever reason, we were in a latchkey kind of situation, and I was doing the cooking even though I was the youngest.  I was actually banging out some pretty whiz-bang little things when I was like, six.

ANTHONY: It was purely, you would come home and you were hungry, it wasn’t a creative outlet for you, was it? Is that how you’re rewriting the story?

JASON: Well, I was just saying that I was a six-year-old cooking dinner for three boys.

ANTHONY: You weren’t raised by wolves. I don’t remember that. I remember him coming home after school and him whipping up something for himself.

JASON: I think my natural generosity-you are giving it short shrift.

ANTHONY: I do remember Jason would take al dente to high, high levels. He would, like, parboil the pasta, so it would still have a certain crunch.

JASON: You’d rub your stomach emphatically, and say “mmm.” And keep eating.

ANTHONY: No, I remember biting into that and grabbing my side and saying “agh.”

JASON: The table we used to eat on, I mean it’s no bigger than this, it’s amazing that five of us could fit around this thing. Anthony’s kind of culinary tastes, they’re straightforward.

ANTHONY: I don’t have to listen to this. I like your good food here.

JASON: Mom and Dad did try and expose us to things like sushi.

ANTHONY: I don’t even think I was around for that; was that after I left? See, I was a relatively low-maintenance eater. I would pretty much, whatever you threw out there I would get in there on it.

EM: What was your favorite meal ever?

JASON: Me and my (restaurant) partner Eric, we lived up in the Bay Area for a number of years and we were poor, just starting out, getting it together, and every Monday at Chez Panisse, I think back then the price was $35, now maybe on Monday it’s $65 or $75, but, every couple of months, we would throw it together and get in there.

ANTHONY: Well a lot of it is context for me, but White Castle on Pennsylvania Avenue in D.C., ’cause it’s on the way home after a really long, tough day. You know, five or six sliders, it’s pretty good. I think most of the best meals I’ve ever eaten, Jason has fed me. Maybe it’s because I have pretty low expectations. The best soups that I’ve ever eaten in my life. His soups are just sublime.  We got that from my mom, from Grandma Finkelman: great soup people. He does some killer summer soups. He made gazpacho, that was just out of this world. And one year, I think it was Thanksgiving, what’s that poor farm food where you throw everything into it? I think it was a cassoulet. Some holiday and you entertained a bunch of people, and it was a big hash, but you called it something fancier than hash, what was that, a cassoulet?

JASON: It was kind of like a hunter’s soup.

ANTHONY: A couple of Thanksgivings ago, Jason was cooking, and Jason and I were engaged in what we usually do, which is some kind of pointless argument, something political, no doubt. And I was in a panic because there’s cooking going on in the kitchen that Jason doesn’t seem to be paying attention to, he’s kind of nonchalantly yelling at me, and so I dial back thinking, “Oh, my God, we’re gonna ruin the dinner,” cause Jason’s not paying attention to it. And miraculously, just with a wave of the hand, without even breaking a sweat, everything just kind of fell into place. All I remember about that dinner is misgivings about Hillary: “How about this guy Barack Obama?” And you’re like, “just go for walk.”

EM: How do your politics impact your eating habits?

JASON: I mean certainly-the Bay Area-that’s where I kind of formed my culinary ethos, you know that kind of farm-to-table vibe that has sort of become the default setting for so many restaurants and young chefs. It obviously started off in California back then. I talk to Anthony about farms when I can.

ANTHONY: He actually does, and he makes a point, take at the Hamptons restaurant, of having everything brought from fairly close.  He’s got an informal rule that it’s going to come from within a few miles. So I assiduously study the menu to see how well he’s holding up on it. Sometimes I’ll order foods I know he can’t possibly get, like yak. I know there’s no way he can bring a yak from within 10 miles.

JASON: There is a farm in the North Fork of Long Island, they’ve always done goats but now they are adding yak.

ANTHONY: I am fascinated by that kind of thing. It informed the work I did on the Farm Bill. I was focused mostly on hunger policy, but you know the perverse incentives that are built into our agricultural industry, we over-sugar things and travel too far with them. We made some changes in (last year’s) farm bill to make it possible to eat with food stamps closer to home and to eat at the farm stand as well. It’s even informed my views on energy. You know the amount of energy corn needs, for example.

EM: Food policy aside, any favorite snacks?

ANTHONY: This is off the record. You know Klondike Bar now has a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup outside? I guess you can use it, but I’m afraid everyone is gonna go buy it. I mean, leave enough for the rest of us.

Photo credit: Jennifer Becker

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Rachel Wharton is the former deputy editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. She won a 2010 James Beard food journalism award, holds a master’s degree in Food Studies from New York University, and has more than 15 years of experience as a writer, editor and reporter. A North Carolina native and a former features food reporter for the New York Daily News, she edited the Edible Brooklyn cookbook and was the co-author of both Handheld Pies and DiPalo's Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy. Her work also appears in publications such as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Saveur.