Josiah & the giant onion

Josiah & the giant onionTHE LAST TIME I WAS IN VALENCIA I ate an Awesome Blossom. The town of Valencia, which sits off the Golden State Freeway just north of L.A. and south of Magic Mountain, is a community conceived, designed, built, and now tended after by single company, Newhall Land. The Awesome Blossom--a giant onion sliced into neat tiny quadrants, battered, and then deep-fried--is an appetizer conceived, designed, cooked, and then served with a tangy dipping sauce by a single chain, Chili's. I was not alone eating my Awesome Blossom, but I was 1.5 people short of the average Awesome Blossom consumer party, which Chili's has calculated to be 3.5 people. Usually a Chili's employee brings up this fact if you mention that the Awesome Blossom contains roughly 2,900 calories, 222 grams of fat, and is one of the worst things you could possibly ingest, myocardial infarction-wise. At our table in the Valencia Chili's, my lunch companion looked up and asked our waitress, "Did you know these things are pretty bad for you?"

"Well, I've heard that," she smiled. "But an average, of 3.5 people eat the Awesome Blossom, so it's not that bad really."

Josiah Citrin looked back to our table, which, in addition to the Awesome Blossom, also supported plates of Chili's boneless buffalo wings, shrimp pasta Alfredo, spinach salad, citrus-fired chicken and shrimp, and two small bowls of enchilada soup. Citrin put a spoon in his soup, then slipped it into his mouth and made a face. "Ughh--terrible," he grimaced, and then, glancing sideways, raised an eyebrow as a waiter tucked in his shirt beside our table. "I probably shouldn't say this," Citrin began slowly, measuring his words while appraising a food server whose hands were down his pants. "But I don't know why people eat here."

There are 816 Chili's restaurants in the world, including 124 in Texas, 63 in California, 5 in the United Arab Emirates, 1 in Lebanon, and 0 in Montana--the only state in the Union yet to host a Chili's. A new Chili's appears virtually every week in America, on the day of our lunch in Valencia the Chili's in Greenwood, South Carolina, was celebrating its grand opening. Until the week he tasted his first Awesome Blossom, Josiah Citrin owned just one restaurant, Melisse, which along with Patina, L'Orangerie, and Valentino is considered one of the crown jewels of L.A. restaurants. Citrin is regarded as a chef's chef--Melisse is famously patronized by L.A. chefs on their nights off--and also something of a mensch, other cooks seem impelled to hug him or affectionately cuff him on the shoulder when in his presence. He had yet to visit a Chili's before our lunch, but he is not philosophically opposed to the baser taxonomies of prepared food. One of Citrin's favorite things to do is eat at Fat Burger. While the onions are grilling he sneaks around the counter to admire the kitchen's spotlessly clean floor mats. Perfection in food as well as kitchen mats is Citrin's consuming passion, like Saint Augustine following God, he looks for signs of its presence everywhere. He has almost realized it in Melisse, which was awarded four of Mobil's five stars, but as often as not he finds perfection absent. I used to think it would be hard being Citrin in the world--you would notice all the dirty silverware, soggy carrots, and waiters with hands down their pants. Then I realized he is actually a reformer, not a cynic. He is not far in theory from Mice Waters at Chez Panisse, who started with the Revolution, then switched to the perfect risotto as an organizing principle for redeeming the state. Replace the state with the world and you have some idea what Citrin is trying to accomplish at Melisse.

Citrin is 34 years old. He has a ruddy face with features set close together and dark hair he wears slicked back. When he cooks in Melisse's warm kitchen his face flares up and his hair shoots toward the ceiling. Citrin trained as a chef at Wolfgang Puck's Chinois on Main and Joachim Splichal's Patina, yet unlike his former employers, he long held off creating a secondary group of restaurants that featured his name. Then this May, a week before our lunch, Citrin opened Cafe Melisse in the Valencia Town Center, across from a T.G.I. Friday's. Cafe Melisse is a downsized version of the Santa Monica Melisse, closer in theme to Splichal's Pinot restaurants than to Puck's cafes, if Cafe Melisse proves successful, Citrin plans it to be the first of many. As it happened, I had dined the night before my lunch with Citrin at Cafe Melisse, where among other dishes I tasted Hudson Valley foie gras on poached quince, soft-shell crab balanced atop shaved fennel and blood orange, seared salmon nestled in morels, spring ramps, and truffle emulsion, and a perfectly cooked filet sitting on fingerling potatoes. The dinner was like nothing else served in Valencia, in fact, as a food primer, Citrin's line cooks--whom he hired locally--were tasting foie gras for the first time in their lives during my visit.

Inside Chili's, Citrin popped a piece of Awesome Blossom in his mouth, then rolled it around on his tongue. "Everything has the same flavor here," he said, trying to flag the waitress. "It's like the candy version of food, like Jolly Ranchers."

"How are you guys doing?" our waitress asked. "Hey, you guys aren't from the food police, are you?"

"No," Citrin smiled. "I want to ask you something. What is the Chili's taste?"

"The chili? It comes already mixed in a bag, but it goes on the Awesome Blossom, the mashed potatoes, french fries, a lot of the burgers, and some other things."

"The Awesome Blossom," Citrin repeated, eyeing the giant steaming onion like it was a porcupine that had just crawled onto our table. "It's like Jolly Ranchers, like drugs." Citrin thought about what he had just said, then added, "They start training you to eat this stuff at a very early age."

The Awesome Blossom was created in 1990 inside the Chili's test-kitchen complex at the corporation's Dallas home office, a collection of glass-and-steel buildings that dot some property formerly developed by the Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach. The onion, with its signature spice,

has become one of Chili's more successful menu items. Four hundred Awesome Blossoms are sold each month at the Valencia Chili's, 4 million are sold every year worldwide. You can eat an Awesome Blossom in Peru as well as Anchorage. The homogeny of spice flavor in Chili's food--everything pretty much tastes like everything else--is a gastronomical metaphor of the Chili's idea that no matter where you go, if you stumble into a Chili's, the food will taste as it does anywhere else.

The Chili's business model--there are 200 new Chili's planned over the next three years--is in turn a metaphor of how rural America is now commercially developed. No matter where you go, everywhere increasingly looks like anywhere else, especially when it comes to restaurants. The Valencia Chili's, like Valencia itself, sits on former farmland that was once used to grow onions. Exit the front door and you can walk to a Chuck E. Cheese's (one of 469), a Romano's Macaroni Grill (one of 167), a Pick Up Stix (one of 61), a Claim Jumper (one of 29), a Subway, a Noah's Bagels, a Starbucks, and a Wal-Mart McDonald's. Developed by a single corporation, Valencia is dominated by corporate restaurants. You can drive locally to dine out in an Outback, a Sizzler, a Red Lobster, an Olive Garden, a T.G.I. Friday's.

Before Citrin, however, you could count on one finger the restaurants in Valencia owned and run by a single chef. Citrin does not have a test-kitchen complex, a Dallas home office, an Awesome Blossom. Yet the giant onion is what he's up against. Will a community fond of T.G.I. Friday's firecracker crab rolls, Outback's Jackeroo chops, and Claim Jumper's Eureka dessert sampler dine at a Cafe Melisse? Citrin realizes it's a fight as portentous in its nature as it is symbolic of his role in the world's perfecting.

"I know what we have to do to succeed in Valencia," Citrin said at the end of our lunch. "We have it broken down into different scenarios. But if we don't make it up here, if Cafe Melisse fails, no one will make it up here. It's the small towns like Valencia that should be supporting the little guys, and they're not doing that anymore. This is like the battle for America."