Last week I took a few days off and a hiatus from posting. This interview was to be posted last Sunday but due to the Labor Day weekend I felt with all the long weekend vacations this blogger in the spotlight wouldn’t get his fair share of the read so I postponed it one week. For the past ten years the name Bill Citara has been synonymous with regard to food and wine in South Florida. Mr. Citara is a freelance writer who has written a lifetime worth of food and drink and the people and places that make it all happen. Food and Wine is Bill Citara’s life. His stories are exciting, informational and humorous you cannot help but live vicariously though him and yet Bill keeps it all in check by not taking this lifestyle or himself too seriously thus the answer to “What is the best food advice you have to share?” I am beyond delighted to present Bill Citara as this week’s Blogger in the Spotlight:
South Florida Food and Wine: How did you start food & wine blogging/writing?
Bill Citara: Short, snappy answer: I applied. Long, boring answer: I was living in the Sonoma wine country in the late 1970s-early 1980s when the food-wine revolution that hit the country was starting to pick up steam. I met a lot off winery-restaurant people and learned as much about food and wine as I could, which eventually led to a job editing a wine magazine in Berkeley. When the mag went away I made ends meeting catering out of my own kitchen, mostly for friends and local wineries, and when that didn’t bring in enough dollars took a job cooking for a friend of a friend at his Cal-Ital trattoria and later at his more upscale California-French restaurant in Santa Rosa. That led to burnout (double shifts of 12-hour days for $7 an hour with no benefits gets old quick) and another gig doing PR for Sebastiani Vineyards. When that job went away I decided I wanted to be a restaurant critic, so every week my wife and I would go to restaurants in the wine country and San Francisco on our own dime, then I’d type up and copy my reviews (this is the days before that Internets thing, kiddies) and snail-mail them to a dozen newspapers all up and down California. After a few months, one of the local Gannett papers hired their critic as a full-time reporter and me to replace him. I used that job to leverage several other freelance food-wine-restaurant writing positions, a couple of restaurant talk shows on San Francisco radio and three years as food-wine critic for the (pre-merger) San Francisco Examiner. Then in 2000 we moved to South Florida and started the whole process all over again. No wonder I’m tired.
South Florida Food and Wine: Do you do anything else other than blog/write about food-wine?
Bill Citara: You mean besides eat like a pig and drink like a fish? Writing about restaurants, food and wine has been my full-time career (and life) since 1987, most of it freelance with an occasional pit stop for a “real” food writing job. Other than that I’m attempting a second career as a novelist. I have two novels with an agent in New York. One is a Carl Hiaasen-esque novel about someone killing all the restaurant critics in San Francisco, the other is a very James Lee Burke-ian story about the decline and fall of California. Unfortunately, neither has been sold yet but I’m halfway through writing a third on the terrible economic and political state of the country. I’m hoping the third time really will be the charm.
South Florida Food and Wine: What is the most challenging thing about blogging/writing?
Bill Citara: Trying to keep your enthusiasm after doing it for many years, also maintaining your girlish figure. . . Oh, and figuring out how to describe your 10,000th Caesar salad without boring the shiitake out of everyone.
South Florida Food and Wine: What is the greatest opportunity that has come from blogging/writing for you?
Bill Citara: Two things. One, the chance to travel, to meet some amazing people, eat the cuisines of different countries and get a tiny taste of their cultures. I’ve been lucky enough to take many memorable trips. . . to France, Italy, Spain, South America, St. Barts and more, plus all over the U.S. Every one of those experiences is precious. The other great opportunity is to work in a field with people whom I consider to be artists. A great chef to me is no different than a great musician or painter or sculptor or writer, and I’ve had the chance to meet and occasionally get to know some of the best chefs in the world.
South Florida Food and Wine: What is your most memorable blogging/writing moment?
Bill Citara: You want a book? For me, it’s all about the people, and there are very many, but I’ll narrow it down to three. One is an interview with Wolfgang Puck very early in my career as he was launching Postrio in San Francisco. It was scheduled for 45 minutes and wound up lasting three hours; he told me stories about himself that to this day I’ve never seen in print. He was completely down to earth and very charming, a great interview. Another was an interview that evolved into a lengthy conversation with Paul Prudhomme in his office in New Orleans. It started out on all the usual food-restaurant topics and quickly developed into a fascinating conversation that touched on politics, culture, the arts and just about anything else we could think of. He is one of the most intelligent, thoughtful and gracious people I’ve ever met; it was really a privilege to spend time with him. The third was a long conversation, not an interview, with his late wife, K Hinrichs (the “K” in “K-Paul’s”), over many glasses of chardonnay on the patio of a Marin County restaurant where Paul was inside cooking a benefit dinner. It was right before they left for Europe on the last trip they took together before she died. She was truly a lovely woman.
South Florida Food and Wine: It’s your last day on earth, what would your final meal be?
Bill Citara: I’d start with an amuse of Beluga caviar—no egg, toast points or any of that stuff—just a bucket of fish eggs and a shovel, washed down with Veuve Clicquot Le Grand Dame. For an appetizer I’d have seared foie gras with fruit compote and brioche toast, and going against wine type, Billacart-Salmon rose champagne. Entrée would be a simply grilled A5 Kobe New York strip, with truffled potato gratin and buttered haricot verts. For the wine? What else but Petrus. . . any vintage would do. For dessert, since I’m not much into sweets, a selection of cheeses, which would have to include Epoisses, Affinois, Humboldt Fog, Parmigiana-Reggiano and Gorgonzola dolce latte. . . any maybe a few slices of Jamon Iberico Bellota and some Marcona almonds. To wash them all down I’d choose the finest dessert wine in the world, Chateau d’Yquem. And since every once in awhile I do crave something sweet, tarragon-grapefruit and cardamom nougat truffles, one each, from the incomparable Michael Recchiuti. And a snifter of Germain-Robin brandy. After a meal like that, the calories and cholesterol alone would likely kill me.
South Florida Food and Wine: What super-action-hero would you like to be and why?
Bill Citara: Confit Man, because nothing says unabashed gluttony like duck cooked in its own fat.
South Florida Food and Wine: Do you have any wacky cooking habits?
Bill Citara: (Blush) I’m too embarrassed to say. . .
South Florida Food and Wine: What is the best food advice you have to share?
Bill Citara: You have to learn to embrace this essential dichotomy: On one hand, food is a wonderful, sensual, hugely important thing. It connects us to the earth, to different cultures and different peoples. It’s a common language that can bind us all together. On the other hand, it’s only food. You put it in one end, it comes out the other. In between, enjoy it. Now shut up.
South Florida Food and Wine: What is your one obsessive kitchen habit?
Bill Citara: Avoiding cross-contamination. . . I treat raw meat and chicken as though they are nuclear waste.
South Florida Food and Wine: If you could choose to be any food, what would it be?
Bill Citara: Good.
South Florida Food and Wine: If looked in your refrigerator, what would I find?
Bill Citara: A dozen different mustards, La Rustichella white truffle paste, several artisan cheeses and fresh-squeezed OJ.
South Florida Food and Wine: What is the one “staple” food you always have in your cupboard?
Bill Citara: Canned San Marzano tomatoes.
South Florida Food and Wine: What is your beverage of choice?
Bill Citara: Wine, specifically Burgundy/Pinot Noir. . . and rose champagne and the incredible Germain-Robin brandy.
South Florida Food and Wine: What is your favorite comfort food?
Bill Citara: Judy Rodgers’ (of San Francisco’s Zuni Café) dry-brined, high-temp roasted whole chicken with panzanella.
South Florida Food and Wine: What is your culinary claim to fame?
Bill Citara: I don’t know about fame but after much practice I do a damn fine version of Judy’s chicken and an excellent risotto—Carnaroli rice and stirring, then letting the rice rest, despite what they tell you in cookbooks, are the keys.
South Florida Food and Wine: What is in your kitchen junk drawer?
Bill Citara: Everything. More than can possibly fit.
South Florida Food and Wine: What is the best culinary gift you ever received?
Bill Citara: A trip to New Orleans from my wife.
South Florida Food and Wine: What kitchen chore do you dislike the most?
Bill Citara: Cleaning up, which is why I try to do it as I cook.
South Florida Food and Wine: What is the most exotic food you have ever eaten and where?
Bill Citara: I haven’t eaten that much “exotic” food, unless you consider all types of offal, which I adore, to be exotic. That said, the one item that sticks in my mind (and stuck in my throat) was a platter of enormous squid about the size of the Jolly Green Giant’s condom that was served to me as a special treat by the owner of a Japanese restaurant in the Bay Area. I managed to choke down a few bites to avoid insulting him. Luckily, he was distracted by something else and I stashed the rest in a potted plant behind my table. I’m sure it died shortly thereafter.
South Florida Food and Wine: What is the most extravagant food or beverage item or culinary tool you spent money on?
Bill Citara: I’ve dropped obscene amounts of money (most of which I couldn’t afford) on far too many extraordinary meals, but the splurge that most stands out is ordering a $400 bottle of Chateau Lynch Bages with my wife at Christmas Day dinner at the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco.
South Florida Food and Wine: Where was the best meal you ever had and why?
Bill Citara: Another impossible to give just one answer question so I’ll have to give you two. One was lunch at one of Freixenet’s wineries in the hills above Barcelona. It was a press trip with several very cool people (including Al Franken’s photographer brother) that took us way up in the mountains away from absolutely everything on roads so steep and narrow and winding we actually couldn’t just turn into the winery driveway but had to go a mile or so down the road to make a U-turn and then come back. The winery staff wanted to cook a big, elaborate, fancy-ass meal for the hotshot food writers from the U.S. but one of the Ferrer family who runs the Gloria Ferrer winery in Sonoma (the family also owns Freixenet) managed to convince them that we ate big, elaborate, fancy-ass meals all the time and what they really should do is prepare exactly the same meal they would eat. So on this beautiful fall day we sat outdoors at picnic tables on the top of a mountain with a view of hundreds of miles in every direction and ate freshly made sausages grilled over vine clippings, platters of pan Catalan, Spanish cheeses, jamon Serrano and all kinds of olives, and drank cava until we peed bubbles. All the foie gras, caviar and truffles in the world never tasted any better.
The other memorable meal was at a tiny enoteca on the outskirts of Rome called Al Bric. I had met my wife in Rome the day before at the end of another shameless press trip, and we took a crazy Italian cab to this obscure place on a street so narrow that a car and a pedestrian couldn’t go down it at the same time. We ordered a bottle of Tignanello (which I had been drinking like water all trip but she had never tasted) and the most incredible fonduta con tartufi, molten fontina cheese that was like liquid love covered with shaved fresh white truffles. I don’t remember anything else we ate after that but it doesn’t really matter. Why was it memorable? Great wine. Great food. My lovely wife. Rome. Do you have to ask?
South Florida Food and Wine: What is the most bizarre thing you have ever done with food?
Bill Citara: I refuse to answer on the grounds it may tend to incinerate me.
South Florida Food and Wine: If you could have dinner with anyone who would it be and why?
Bill Citara: Again, impossible to name just one so I’ll have to pick three, in no particular order. John McLaughlin, because at heart I’m a jazz guitarist (though, sadly, one with no musical talent) and his knowledge and chops are otherworldly; Frank Lloyd Wright, because I’ve always dreamed of being an architect and I admire both Wright’s work and the way he lived his life without giving a damn what other people thought; and Hunter S. Thompson, because he was my early literary inspiration and because anyone who can begin a book with the sentence, “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold,” is my kind of writer.
Follow Bill Citara’s musings online at Boca Raton Magazine or Clean Plate Charlie for the Broward Palm Beach New Times
Click here to read previous great food and wine bloggers in the spotlight