Milan, Italy: Summer 2016 Restaurant Top Ten

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I owe you, dear readers, an update on restaurants in Milano, given the number and especially the quality of new openings in recent months. Here’s the definitive Top 10 for this summer according to my trusted sources.

  1. Enrico Bartolini at the Mudec
  2. Essenza
  3. Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia
  4. Contraste
  5. Cracco
  6. Berton
  7. Joia
  8. Langosteria
  9. Innocenti Evasioni
  10. La Bottega del Vino

Please note that if we went 30mins outside Milan, we’d have to acknowledge D’O at the top of the list. Will we one day see Davide Oldani bring his talent into the city?

(Photo: Innocenti Evasioni.)

Milan, Italy: Summer 2014 Restaurant Top Ten

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Fine dining in Milan has never been in such great shape. If you are looking for that special dinner, you have a wide range of choices: traditional or stylish, formal or casual, classical or adventurous. But they all have in common passionate chefs and outstanding quality. Who are the Top Ten? This is the definitive Summer 2014 list from my trusted sources in the Milanese food and wine world.

  1. Enrico Bartolini
  2. Ristorante Berton
  3. Cracco
  4. Innocenti Evasioni
  5. Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia
  6. Vun al Park Hyatt
  7. Manna
  8. La Bottega del Vino
  9. Al Pont de Ferr
  10. Ceresio 7

Photo: Enrico Bartolini’s liquorice-filled raspberries.

Teaching children about money: the Poverty Week experiment

I caught up on Stanford Business magazine today. Let me share a quick story told in the Class Notes written by my classmate John D. Lee. He is a financial advisor, and may have a professional perspective on money that most of us lack. Yet, all of you readers can replicate the experiment with your families, if you wish.

In appreciation for all that we have (and just as an interesting experiment), we attempted to approximate what it would be like to live at the poverty level for one week. We confined ourselves to using one bedroom, one bathroom, and the kitchen as our entire family’s living quarters (though our dog, Nero, chose to ignore those rules). Except for when our jobs required it, we stopped using iPods/iPhones, the internet, and cable TV/TiVo. Our total food budget for the family was $108 for the week, and we made a donation to a local homeless shelter with the money we saved. While none of us particularly enjoyed the experience (and eating so much beans and rice), I thought it was good for our 9-year-old son, Archie, and we all came away more appreciative of our good fortune. Archie’s insight was that the thing he liked the least about the experience was the loss of freedom and choice. Truth!

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: a review

AntifragileYou knew that Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile was in my reading list: having read it, I now owe you a review. Taleb’s The Black Swan was a book I found not only clever and innovative, but engaging and somehow necessary (for reference, here is my 2007 Black Swan review); Antifragile, rather less so.

What is antifragile? Taleb has coined the neologism to describe a class of things that “benefit from shocks”: “thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty.” “Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.” It is a property of living beings that Taleb describes in mathematical form (convexity) and proceeds to apply to ideas, cultures, political systems and much more. He is least interested in the application of the idea to the “vulgar” world of finance, perhaps feeling that the events of the past few years have abundantly proved his point.

Figure 12

Notwithstanding the author’s ambition, scope and breadth of intellectual interests, let me say right away that this would be a bigger book if it didn’t hit the reader in the face repeatedly with bitterness, sarcasm and contempt. The deeply held opinions of the author may not have changed since his previous books; his tone, I think, has – and not in favor of readability. Just witness the ad personam taunting and teasing directed at certain people (Thomas Friedman, Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, Robert Merton) and schools (“The Soviet-Harvard delusion”); the author’s scorn for entire professions, such as academia and management; his rants against large corporations, with the exception of Apple (!), and disdain of corporate leaders, except for Steve Jobs. Passages like this may be occasionally entertaining to the reader, but grow to be too much:

The historian Niall Ferguson and I once debated the chairperson of Pepsi-Cola as part of an event at the New York Public Library […] Neither Niall nor I cared about who she was (I did not even bother to know her name). […] My experience of company executives, as evidenced by their appetite for spending thousands of hours in dull meetings or reading bad memos, is that they cannot possibly be remarkably bright. […] Someone intelligent—or free—would likely implode under such a regimen.

The most convincing arguments in the book are about medicine and diet. Which is somewhat surprising from a non-specialist writer, until you remember that most medical and nutrition professionals have a bias for intervention (medicate, perform surgery, keep you on a diet, sell you supplements), when subtraction (not intervening and removing things instead) would often just work as well. They therefore live an implicit conflict of interest, the paradoxical result of which is “if you want to accelerate someone’s death, give him a personal doctor”. Taleb is right to call the reader’s attention to iatrogenics, the (usually hidden or delayed) damage from treatment in excess of the benefits. His ideas on diet also make sense: our bodies benefit not just from variety of nutrients, but from some “randomness in food delivery and composition” and some stress in the form of periodic deprivations (such as in the Orthodox lent) and occasional fasting. Even here, though, the author’s Levantine superiority complex (and don’t you forget that Steve Jobs’s ancestors came from Syria!) gets to be rather quirky:

I, for my part, resist eating fruits not found in the ancient Eastern Mediterranean (I use “I” here in order to show that I am not narrowly generalizing to the rest of humanity). I avoid any fruit that does not have an ancient Greek or Hebrew name, such as mangoes, papayas, even oranges. Oranges seem to be the postmedieval equivalent of candy; they did not exist in the ancient Mediterranean. […] As to liquid, my rule is drink no liquid that is not at least a thousand years old—so its fitness has been tested. I drink just wine, water, and coffee.

His brief critique of Singularity efforts follows logically from his arguments, but is delivered with the recurring scornful attitude. Well, at least he remembers the fellow’s name:

I felt some deep disgust—as would any ancient—at the efforts of the “singularity” thinkers (such as Ray Kurzweil) who believe in humans’ potential to live forever. Note that if I had to find the anti-me, the person with diametrically opposite ideas and lifestyle on the planet, it would be that Ray Kurzweil fellow. […] While I propose removing offensive elements from people’s diets (and lives), he works by adding, popping close to two hundred pills daily. Beyond that, these attempts at immortality leave me with deep moral revulsion.

The least convincing arguments in the book are those in praise of entire economic systems based on “small is beautiful” (going hand in hand with the author’s love for the Swiss political system). Taleb rightly praises small entrepreneurs for their risk-taking: even if small businesses are individually fragile (as in the example of restaurants) or merely robust, even harboring a bit of antifragility (taxi drivers), their ecosystem (the restaurant scene) becomes antifragile. And he is right to point out that size can make you fragile: it is probably true that large projects are intrinsically over time and over budget due to intrinsic negative convexity, and that “the problem of cost overruns and delays is much more acute in the presence of information technologies”. Yet, one cannot seriously propose the London Crystal Palace (an overgrown conservatory built in 1850-51) as a model of architectural effectiveness, let alone human achievement, today.

It seems to me that in deliberately ignoring that it is mostly large organizations that create large economic surpluses, Taleb gets way too close to the current “degrowth” narrative, a crackpot economic proposition if there ever was one. While he openly despises large corporations and the people who work in them, he seems happy to write up his books on a computer built in a very large factory in China (as long as it is a subcontractor for Apple), to have his writings published by very large publishing houses, and to fly in planes built by large corporations and run by other large corporations (even while pointing out the fragility of air traffic control systems), for example to meet interesting people in Davos, at a large annual World Economic Forum gathering that would not exist if there were no very large corporations to sponsor it. Even the aforementioned New York Public Library is probably a much too large and bureaucratic organization for his taste, given that his model for an antifragile life and thinking is the “flâneur with a large private library”, no doubt acquired via independent (often antiquarian) booksellers.

With the exception of, say, drug dealers, small companies and artisans tend to sell us healthy products, ones that seem naturally and spontaneously needed; larger ones— including pharmaceutical giants— are likely to be in the business of producing wholesale iatrogenics, taking our money, and then, to add insult to injury, hijacking the state thanks to their army of lobbyists. Further, anything that requires marketing appears to carry such side effects. […] There is no product that I particularly like that I have discovered through advertising and marketing: cheeses, wine, meats, eggs, tomatoes, basil leaves, apples, restaurants, barbers, art, books, hotels, shoes, shirts, eyeglasses, pants (my father and I have used three generations of Armenian tailors in Beirut), olives, olive oil, etc.

Eyeglasses? Last time I checked mine, Luxottica had made those – and Luxottica is a very large multinational that has long abandoned its “small is beautiful” stage. Maybe Mr. Taleb orders his glasses from Warby Parker – fine. But do Warby Parker’s owners really not want to grow it into a much larger company? And does Mr. Taleb like a glass of vintage Chateau d’Yquem less than a Greek retsina, knowing that Chateau d’Yquem is owned by LVMH, a large corporation, and not a small artisan?

In summary, Antifragile is a thoughtful book with much to recommend it for, and you should read it if you like the author’s broad, non-academic erudition, share his reverence for ancient history and Mother Nature, and don’t mind his personal quirks too much; but the book’s flaws in tone of voice – and, sometimes, in argumentation – make it less strong than it otherwise could have been.

Eating Animals

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer is an exploration of factory farming, as practiced in America today, and a tale of the author’s decision to choose – not just for himself, but for his young son as well – a vegetarian diet.

You may recall that I think about this stuff a lot. While at times more radical than Michael Pollan in his criticism of supposedly humane animal farming methods (“Polyface Farm… is horrible. It’s a joke”), Foer reaches similar conclusions, namely that — with possible, but in Foer’s eyes impractical, exceptions — meat is not to be eaten. This is for two reasons:

  • The suffering of factory-farmed animals, which is extreme and avoidable, if we only choose to avoid it;
  • The environmental degradation caused by factory farming.

Both points were argued by philosopher Peter Singer as far back as 1975, although, curiously, the only Singer that Foer quotes (while quoting other philosophers, such as Jacques Derrida and Emanuela Cenami Spada) is Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer (who similarly argued that animal rights are “the purest form of social-justice advocacy, because animals are the most downtrodden of all the downtrodden […] Humans are unique, just not in ways that make animal pain irrelevant.”) Peter Singer, incidentally, took a very clear philosophical position on a not-unrelated question that Foer only hints at: “And eating animals is one of those topics, like abortion, where it is impossible to definitely know some of the most important details (When is a fetus a person, as opposed to a potential person? What is animal experience really like?) and that cuts right to one’s deepest discomforts, often provoking defensiveness or aggression.”

Both of what I call the Singer-Pollan motives, in the intervening years, have grown worse (fish farming, by the way, runs into just as many animal welfare and environmental issues as the land-based animal variety). Animal breeds have been further selected for traits that result in vicious side effects (walk? what factory-farmed animal needs the ability to walk?), and environmental and human health issues resulting from factory farming are increasingly well documented.

It is to this last point that Foer adds, it seems, more data than has been widely discussed in the past: studies by the UN and the Pew Commission show that, globally, farmed animals contribute more to climate change than the entire transport sector (cars, trains, planes and ships combined). Animal agriculture is responsible for 37 percent of anthropogenic methane and 65 percent of anthropogenic nitrous oxide: both gases are key contributors to global warming and offer many times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.

As for human health, the impact is not just on the communities who live near factory farms (and breathe, let’s say it, powdered animal shit every day), but could be global and take a heavy toll. Antibiotics are increasingly ineffective, as we know, because farmed animals are fed antibiotics nontherapeutically: in the United States, 3 million pounds of antibiotics are given to humans each year, but 17.8 million pounds are fed to livestock (and this latter figure is underreported by 40 percent, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists). Also, while this past season’s flu was eventually much milder than anticipated, pandemic experts agree that another influenza pandemic on the possible scale of the 1918 Spanish flu is “not only inevitable, but overdue”, and that growing demand for animal protein (and therefore the increasing scale of factory farming) is a primary factor in the emergence of zoonotic diseases. Globally, the problem isn’t just that the Chinese and the Indians will want to build roads and drive cars like we do in the West: it’s that they will want to eat chicken like we do in the West.

Finally, even the meat gourmet’s alibi – the existence of luxury farms, where biodiversity is promoted and animals are grown humanely and slaughtered mercifully (it is notable that finding suitable slaughter facilities is a challenge even for the most committed humane farmers) – seems under threat: witness the departure of pioneer farmer Bill Niman from Niman Ranch in August 2007 after disagreements over animal protocols. It seems that market forces conspire towards the lowest common denominator, and premium brands are not strong enough to survive if they want to do things differently. Yet, at the high end of the market, I am incredulous that the market cannot find a solution, and I don’t want to believe that the market space for these solutions is not destined to increase. You’re telling me that you can buy a $9,000 handbag, a CHF10,000 evening with a call girl, or a $1,000 bottle of wine, but you can’t go to a premium meat store and buy a humanely farmed and humanely slaughtered €55 chicken? That sounds so wrong.

In the meantime, I sit on the fence with growing discomfort. I tell myself: I am eating meat in Argentina, in Switzerland, not in America. It may make some difference, but ultimately not a fundamental difference. And I eat meat in Italy, too, where I know nothing about the production of meat, but I suspect that factory farming isn’t all that different from what it is in America, as documented by Pollan, Foer and others. And I suspect we’ll talk about this again.

An ethical life, the eating of meat and the radical chic cook

In the last couple of weeks, I talked about food with two vegetarians. One, a colleague, has been a vegetarian for 22 years; the other, while not having planned to do so, has remained a strict vegan after ending her month-long Jivamukti Yoga teacher training last month.

I also read Writings on an Ethical Life by philosopher Peter Singer. He seems to be one of the few philosophers today who are easily understandable outside academia, perhaps because he knows that many of the themes he works on are making news headlines every day and therefore he makes an effort to discuss them in plain language. His views on the legitimacy of abortion, as well as on ending human life when it is no longer worth living, are – in my opinion – unassailibly argued. Yet, they are much less discussed than his plea for animal liberation (Animal Liberation is also the title of his best-known book, published in 1975). Coherent with this moral stance is, of course, the practice of vegetarianism, which he personally adopts.

If you accept a moral philosophy that aims to minimize the amount of pain and suffering in the world, and you accept that animals are able to feel pain, then you should not inflict avoidable pain on animals. (As a good utilitarian, Singer always tries a computation of consequences and their weighting: for example, while campaigning for an end to an overwhelming majority of animal experimentation, he does make exceptions when there are no alternatives, or when the experiment you want to perform on an animal is so important that you would perform the same experiment on a brain-damaged human). And an overwhelming proportion of our meat eating entails just such avoidable pain being inflicted on animals.

Not in the reasoning, but in his conclusions, Singer reminded me of a more recent (and very successful) book about food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. Pollan’s search for sustainable food brings him to very similar conclusions to those advocated by Singer (emphasis added):

[…] the issue to focus on is not whether there are some circumstances in which it could be right to eat meat, but on what we can do to avoid contributing to this immense amount of animal suffering. The answer is to boycott all meat and eggs produced by large-scale commercial methods of animal production, and encourage others to do the same. Consideration for the interests of animals alone is enough justification for this response, but the case is further strengthened by the environmental problems that the meat industry causes.

This is where both Pollan and Singer seem to broadly agree that, if an animal has been raised in a way that respects its interests and does not result in unnecessary suffering, and if the manner of killing is painless, it would be acceptable for us to kill and eat it. Such animals, of course, are hardly anywhere to be found; vegetarianism would therefore be a practical choice for adherents of this philosophy.

I eat meat once or twice a week – I’ve never kept track. And I hardly ever eat eggs – I occasionally buy them, but mostly end up throwing them away. For years, I have lived in a household whose meat consumption patterns involuntarily approximates Pollan’s ideal. Not for ethical reasons, not for environmental reasons, but strictly for gastronomic reasons: my husband refuses to buy supermarket meat on grounds of tastelessness.

This drives him, of course, to seek out specialty meats whose provenance is traced to small-scale farms and whose price supposedly reflects its superior quality. In fact, such prices often stretch credulity (he is the only person I know to have ever brought home a free-range organic hen – to make a very superior chicken broth – for the astonishing price of 55 Euros).

Yet, I do find myself thinking about moral challenges. Unless this is wishful thinking, I am reasonably confident that the excellent beef I ate at a rustic Mendrisio restaurant last Friday comes from an organically and very sustainably raised Swiss cow (Swiss farming, as you may have heard, being quite particular about such standards). Yet, when I was in Japan, I ate Kobe beef with delight, not thinking of the deprivation that produced such tender meat.

And what about pork? What do I know about that Spanish pig whose cured meat ended up on my plate as jamon serrano, or the Italian one that resulted in the premium culatello di Zibello? What lives did such animals lead?

My husband rejects my accusation of being a radical chic cook, engaged in inventing a rich people’s diet. He retorts that he is not trying to make a fashion statement: he chooses the meats he chooses not because it’s a hip thing to do, but because he truly can tell the difference and does not want to settle for less. As a good utilitarian, he just tries to maximize the quality of the food he eats, and makes tradeoffs based on his personal preference function.

I don’t mind his approach, as long as it is consistent with the reduction of unnecessary animal suffering. (I do mind it, of course, when our fridge is full of foie gras – which luckily has not happened in recent years). I still have to work out my own. What to eat, what not to eat: the omnivore’s dilemma, indeed. In the meantime, check out the blog of the Artisan Beef Institute by my friend Carrie – an entrepreneur committed to bringing you decidedly non-industrial beef.