Thursday, June 1, 2000

Three Madison Chefs

Around the world in Madison: Lao Laan-Xang, Sole e Sapori, and Nadia's
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
In Isthmus Annual Dining Guide, 2000

For a mid-sized city in the heart of the Midwest, Madison is lucky when it comes to dining out--and it’s not just because we have so many diverse restaurants serving dishes from all around the globe. It’s the exuberance and creativity of the people who run them. In bringing us their foods, they also bring us their heritage, their skill, and their personal zest for life.

Earlier this spring, I visited some of Madison’s favorite international restaurateurs, folks who dish up everything from home cooking to haute cuisine from the far-flung lands where they used to live.

I met Salvatore (Sam) Vitale, who, with his wife Celina and their three sons, opened a second Sole e Sapori at 2827 Atwood Avenue about a year ago--a sequel to their popular Sicilian ristorante on Main Street in Mount Horeb. Closer to downtown, Christine Inthachith and her mother, Bounyong, recently re-opened Lao Laan-Xang at 1146 Williamson Street after a two year hiatus, and now Madison once again boasts a restaurant that’s exclusively Laotian. And then there’s Abdul Bensaid, who runs two restaurants on the 500 block of State Street: Oceans Brasserie, with specialties from his native Morocco, and Nadia’s Restaurant, serving the Mediterranean cuisine of the south of France.

They shared with me their philosophies of food and of life--elements as inseparable as the ingredients of a fine sauce.

When a sales representative from a food service company came calling on Sole e Sapori one day, he found Vitale in the kitchen, cooking marinara from scratch. Vitale relishes telling what happened next: “He says, ‘Geez! Why do all that work? We sell this stuff.’ So I say, ‘Okay--if your sauce is better, I’ll buy it.’ The guy tastes my sauce and says, ‘I better get out of here! I can’t compete with you.’”

In fact, Vitale makes not one but three separate marinaras at Sole e Sapori: chunky for spaghetti, smooth for pizza, and a third variety for good measure. Each takes three to four hours to make, by the time all the fresh veggies are prepped, sautéed, and simmered. Pasta, too, is handmade, using a small hand-cranked chrome gadget. Scalloped squares ready for stuffing are cut out with a single handheld ravioli cutter not much bigger than a date stamp.

Why go through all this trouble, when there are so many shortcuts available these days? For Vitale, “everything that’s part of life is an art. Whatever you make, you’ve got to have class. Style.” But, he says, many Americans are conditioned to pay little attention to quality where food is concerned. “The priorities are confused. People buy the canned stuff. Of course it’s not as good. You go to some restaurants, and the food is just flat. You see,” he says, lowering his voice almost to a whisper and leaning forward in his chair, “that’s what I’m trying to fight for. Piato de vesere gustoso. A rich, flavorful dish.”

That's often accomplished by balancing strong flavors with milder ones. “Anchovies,” he says. “People don’t want them, or else they put them on a pizza with green and black olives. But anchovies are strong and salty, so you have to think how to tone it down. You add tomato, onion, oregano, and olive oil--mild tastes--and that’s the best pizza there is. The soul from the anchovy comes out.”

Making me a pizza de mare, or seafood pizza, Vitale pulls a handful of dough from a five gallon bucketful and works it into shape. He ladles on some fragrant red sauce, then adds fresh mozzarella, capers, bell peppers he’s roasted and then marinated, and a crumbly blend of oregano and grated parmesan. Using a well-worn wooden paddle, he slides the pizza into a blazing hot oven--but he’s not done yet. Vitale steps down to the back kitchen and reappears after a minute, a sizzling pan in one hand. Opening the pizza oven, he arranges shrimp and spinach leaves sautéed with olive oil and garlic over the partly baked pie.

The finished product is incredible--full of complex, vigorous and yet harmonious taste. I see what he means about balance: the zingy capers and garlic seem to enliven the milder shrimp, spinach and cheeses. “What you make, it’s got to be ...up,” Vitale says, waving his hands for emphasis, “Cheerful.”

To my surprise, this artful dish isn’t on the menu. “I like creating,” he says. His favorite order? An open-ended request for something to eat. “Just ask--I’ll make you something special,” he promises.

The secret of good cooking according to Vitale: “With food, the point is, you gotta like what you’re doing. You gotta like what you’re making. Enjoy the customers. It’s not to make money--it’s to make people happy.”

Willy Street’s Lao Laan-Xang is also family business, rooted in a culture where good cooking is pivotal to life. “Food is everything,” says Christine Inthachith. For Inthachith and her brothers, Sone and Son, who were children in 1980 when the family arrived in the United States, food is also a way to stay connected with their Laotian heritage: “The whole family cooks. We love it.”

Bounyong, Christine’s mother, does most of the cooking, while her daughter creates the menus and manages the business. A graduate of the UW-Madison in Southeast Asian studies, Christine Inthachith is still a student, working on a Master’s in educational administration, with a full time job as a UW admissions counselor. Still, she comes in to cook for a few hours each night. “It sounds crazy, but I think of it as a hobby,” she says, “It’s fun cooking and watching people finish everything that’s good.”

Lao Laan-Xang’s dishes are prepared individually, and except for a few preserved specialty ingredients, everything is fresh. In summer, the Inthachiths buy much of their produce--hot peppers, lemon grass, Thai eggplants and more--locally, from Hmong vendors at the Farmer’s Market.

Inthachith takes me into the kitchen, warm with the comforting aroma of sticky rice freshly steamed in traditional woven baskets, where her mother is preparing kang som taley for us--it’s a seafood soup in a broth flavored with Thai basil (the leaves are smaller, narrower, darker, and more pungent than the herb you’d find in an Italian kitchen), galanga (a rhizome like ginger, but with a mild taste), citrus leaves and lemon grass.

Meantime, Inthachith helps me make tum som, papaya salad. She hands me a deep aluminum mortar and a wooden pestle. In goes what appears to my uneducated eye an improbable combo: a hunk of garlic; some sugar; a few tiny (but doubtless murderous) hot peppers; dark, earthy-smelling shrimp paste; tamarind juice; fish sauce (a fishy kind of soy sauce); a little salt. After I pound these into pulp, Inthachith slivers in fresh lime, cherry tomato and minature Thai eggplant. Finally, she scrapes a handful of strips from huge green papaya (it’s used as a vegetable when green; a sweet fruit when ripe), and we toss them in, making a salad a little like cole slaw in consistency.

Moments later, we’re eating the traditional Laotian way: squeezing little balls of sticky rice in our fists, using them to scoop up papaya salad and shreds of marinated, fried chicken into delicious fingerfuls of flavor. The salad is...spicy, fruity, fishy, garlicky. And heavenly. “If you can eat this, you can survive in Laos,” says Inthachith, “You can buy this on every street corner. Kids compete to see who can eat the spiciest.”

Not all Laotian dishes are spicy hot, but those that are can be positively incendiary. Diners specify their individual preference, from “timid” to “native Laotian.” “We warn people, but a lot of people want to try 'native'.” What happens when someone overestimates their ability to take the heat? “I think they’re too embarrassed to admit it,” she says, “They say, ‘Yeah, this is really good--I’ll just take it home with me. With lots of rice.’”

Opening his own restaurant was Abdul Bensaid’s dream since he was a boy growing up in Asilah, near the international port city of Tangier in Morocco. At fourteen, he got his start washing dishes, and he worked his way up from there, studying at Morocco’s premier culinary institute, interning with great chefs in France, and working at the Royal Overseas League in London, a private club owned by the Queen of England (Though Bensaid never met Her Majesty, he still remembers what he cooked for her: Andaluse rack of lamb with fresh mint sauce).

Marriage to a UW student (now his ex-wife) brought Bensaid across the Atlantic to Madison, where he eventually opened Oceans Brasserie, serving Moroccan and Andalusian dishes, colorful and varied: A saffron yellow sauce flavored with preserved lemons served over chicken and calamata olives infuses slices of potatoes with a savory tang; a rich brown cardamom and cinnamon sauce enriches caramelized prunes and chunks of lamb.

Nadia's southern French cuisine is more labor- and ingredient-intensive. The stocks, for instance--chicken, beef, pheasant--take up to four days to make. Bensaid shows me a huge, barely simmering pot of water, fresh herbs, chicken, vegetables. "We keep reducing and reducing until it becomes like jelly. He shows me a gallon of finished stock cooling in the walk-in: "This started as twenty gallons."

Why two restaurants? “Why not?” answers Bensaid. Creating food that’s different and exciting is important, he says, and that’s why there’s always room for something new.

And Bensaid offers a philosophy of food and of life for cooks and diners alike to share: “Food is a passion. You have to have that passion to really taste it."