CRYPTO KINGPIN - Calvin Ayre is Back

ROB Magazine

Crypto kingpin

Calvin Ayre gained vast riches and notoriety as a gambling mogul, but ended up a fugitive from U.S. law. Now he's made a big bet on bitcoin, the world's most explosive cryptocurrency. Will this adventure have a happier ending?

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I have to hand it to him. Ten years since the last time I saw him, and he's the same Calvin Ayre. Does his gym time, I'll bet; eats well. His eyes are a little bleary, maybe he drinks a few more than his doctor wants. But at 56, he still comes off like a young guy, a rebel, a force of change. He walks into Scott's in Mayfair—fanciest fish joint in London, unless there's another place selling Dungarvan oysters for $32 a six-pack. The place is pure London bling, with a tricked-out bar with tiled pillars and a mountain of ice studded with lobsters. There are paparazzi parked out front 24/7, waiting for Ronnie Wood or Elton John, Tamara Ecclestone, Tom Hanks. Scott's is where Charles Saatchi grabbed Nigella Lawson by the throat a few years back. It's that kind of posh.

Ayre strolls in wearing torn jeans and a grey T-shirt. His hair is shaved close on the sides, long down the back. Soul patch, glint of mischief in his eyes. The waiters swarm in their sharkskin suits, pulling out chairs and smoothing the tablecloth. They don't know he's the most famous son of Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, the only Canadian Prairie export to make the cover of Forbes's billionaire issue. They're thinking he's a star they haven't yet quite recognized.

"How ya doin'?" Ayre says, a big paw extended for a shake. I feel like I'm meeting up with a favourite eccentric uncle.

Last time I saw him, the mood was strikingly different. We were on the Playa Tambor in Costa Rica, Ayre sitting on an elevated chair, flanked by sullen models, watching a mixed martial arts tournament. He was an online gambling mogul back then. His Costa Rica–based website, Bodog.com, which he wholly owned, had revenues of more than $7 billion (all values in U.S. dollars unless otherwise indicated). Ayre had a mansion outside San José and a penthouse apartment in Vancouver worth $6.2 million (Canadian) at the time, easily double that today.

But there was also a distinctly dark air about the man back then. Bodog's money was coming almost entirely from American gamblers, which put Ayre on the far wrong side of U.S. law. He wasn't yet a fugitive from the Department of Justice, but he told me he was about to flee Costa Rica for extradition-proof Antigua. And the whole atmos-phere of our meeting had an end-times edge. All those fighters standing around flexing their muscles, girls in Brazilian bikinis smoothing lotion on one another's shoulders. When I went to his mansion later, I was buzzed in at the front gate by security hiding behind one-way glass. I passed through the abandoned courtyards; the pool, with its swim-up bar; the barbecue pit; the outdoor gym. I found Ayre being photographed in a back room, spread out in a suit on a bed covered in red satin alongside a model in lingerie. Scarface came to mind, the final act. And when we spoke in his office afterwards, he was gruff, referred to the press as pigs, didn't look me in the eye once, leaving that job to his framed portrait, unnervingly mounted on the wall over his shoulder, which menacingly stared at me throughout.

 

All gone. I mean the mob-boss bits. The bulletproof Hummer. Even Bodog itself is mysteriously distant—licensed, he says, to independent regional operators. Ayre himself disavows any current involvement. "Bodog is the name of my boat," he tells me with a shrug. "I honestly don't think about it otherwise."

He's still Calvin Ayre, make no mistake. And he's still conscious of projecting a badass image. So he parades down Mount Street in Mayfair looking like one of the grizzled mechanics from Discovery Channel's Vegas Rat Rods. He enters trailing a PR person and a Filipina named Candy, who sits opposite him throughout our lunch and utters not a single word. But his eccentricities have a distinctly lighter shade. If he had one eye over his shoulder before, he's staring into the future now. So he really doesn't want to talk about Bodog. He really doesn't want to talk about his 10 years on the run from the DOJ, the last five of which he essentially couldn't travel outside Antigua or Canada.

He wants to talk about his new thing: bitcoin.

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Ayre may be reticent about the gambling backstory, but it's important for understanding his position within the Wild West of planet Earth's most explosively popular virtual currency. Bitcoin is either the biggest commodity bubble in the history of financial assets, or it's going to revolutionize global payment systems and make somebody the world's first trillionaire along the way. Or possibly both. But whichever description you're drawn to, you can find confirmation in bitcoin's near vertical trend line (it trades as BTC on dedicated online exchanges). Now there's a chart that either ends in tears or tracks the biggest gold rush we've ever seen.

Ayre's stint as a target of U.S. law enforcement underpins his interest in this realm. Back in 2006, 95% of Bodog's business was reported to be with American customers. And while he claims to have backed out of online gaming shortly after, the DOJ wasn't going to forget the billion dollars he'd amassed while he was still in it. United States prosecutors initially indicated that he could avoid indictment if he was willing to part with $350 million in fines. Ayre declined.

"He didn't do what he was expected to do," says Patrick Basham, director of the Democracy Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Washington, D.C., that has spent years tracking the online gaming sector. "The point of the U.S. action was to get Ayre to throw up his hands to avoid having his life taken away." Ayre himself explained his demurral in a 2006 magazine interview when he paraphrased Sun Tzu's The Art of War: "I'm going to win this war without fighting battles."

Ayre may not have wanted a fight, but the DOJ did. It indicted Ayre in 2012 on charges of operating an illegal online gambling operation that engaged in international money laundering. But the low point came shortly thereafter, when Ayre's associates in the Philippines decided they could exploit his weakened position. Basham hinted at violence, so I probe Ayre for details at lunch.

"What was that all about in the Philippines?" I ask, as ceviche and potted shrimps, shellfish cocktails and scallops arrive.

Ayre puts down his fork and wipes his mouth with a napkin. "That was all about unscrupulous people trying to take advantage of my situation with the U.S. and steal my shit, basically."

But what did they do? I press.

"Oh," Ayre says, realizing I don't know the details. He picks up his fork and starts eating with enthusiasm, talking with his mouth full. "They tried to kidnap me. A few times. But they…ah…they missed. So, lucky me! Candy, have you tried these? They're yummy!"

 

Ayre was finally cleared of U.S. felony charges this summer. After 10 years of legal wrangling, it seems the government blinked. Maybe it was because Ayre really was out of gambling, as he claimed. Maybe it was the World Trade Organization rulings that repeatedly said the U.S. couldn't go after Antiguan gambling interests, which is where Ayre was by then based. Ayre pled guilty to a single misdemeanour of being an accessory after the fact to the transmission of wagering information. The penalty was a year of unsupervised probation and a $500,000 fine. The end of the ordeal came in a conference call hosted by his lawyer in Vancouver in July 2017. But Ayre doesn't view it as the key moment. That occurred shortly thereafter, when he arrived in London, free to cross borders without fear of being extradited for the first time in five years.

"That was cool," he says, remembering. "Very cool." Then he laughs. "London is the epicentre of online gaming and the epicentre of bitcoin. And that's not a coincidence."

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Ayre's bitcoin eureka moment came in 2010. He had already given up the Bodog operation, and a technology specialist working with him on a new venture (which he declines to name) presented the idea of a currency exchange for bitcoin. Ayre was only vaguely aware of the virtual currency, which had no commercial applications and negligible value at the time. But once he had the details—an international payment system involving encryption, distributed accounting, pseudonymity and no centralized control—Ayre started paying attention.

"I was like, this technology does what? Like, seriously, what?" Ayre recalls. "From the first moment I had it fully explained, I knew it was going to be huge."

Given that Ayre was in the crosshairs of the most powerful government in the world, the fit was clearly good. After all, bitcoin is a fundamentally libertarian idea. The technology emerged from online discussions between a group of American cryptographers and a mysterious person (or possibly several people) known as Satoshi Nakamoto. Satoshi first formalized the bitcoin concept in the November 2008 white paper "Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System." Then, following an online posting warning against using bitcoin to send donations to WikiLeaks, he abruptly disappeared. Speculation about Satoshi's identity has become the digital-age equivalent of trying to uncover Deep Throat. In 2014, Newsweek famously found someone with the same name and turned his life into a circus before realizing they didn't have their man. A couple of years later, a blustery Australian crypto-enthusiast and businessman named Craig Wright stepped forward, claiming to be Satoshi. GQ magazine hired cryptographers of their own and busted his hoax. But Satoshi's spirit—a will to invisibility, to a perfectly preserved individual autonomy, to an absence of centralized control—informs the whole bitcoin project. And it has always appealed to people who have reason to distrust such control in the hands of government.

But Ayre was also starting to understand why others were talking about this currency like it represented a revolution. "You have to look at bitcoin as not just a payment. Payment is just the first usage," says Shone Anstey, a Vancouver entrepreneur whose company, Blockchain Intelligence Group, designs software that law enforcement agencies use to track cryptocurrency transactions. "Bitcoin adds a trusted transaction layer to the Internet itself. It's a very fundamental shift in the world. Once you understand it from that perspective, you start to see how big it's going to get."

The original motive of bitcoin's inventors may have been to evade governments, banks and especially law enforcement, but in recent years the currency has been making inroads into mainstream consumer markets. This year saw an explosion in the number of users, which now hovers around 12 million. Today, dozens of companies offer software and hardware "wallets" to securely store the coins and exchanges on which to trade them. And companies ranging from Microsoft to spaceflight business Virgin Galactic will sell you their goods and services for bitcoins.

To appreciate the scale of this growth, consider that in mid-2010, the trading value of BTC was fractions of a penny. Users were mostly cryptographers experimenting with the protocol formalized in Satoshi's white paper. In the most famous story from those days, Florida developer Laszlo Hanyecz paid 10,000 BTC to have a couple of pizzas delivered, just to prove that the currency could theoretically be used in commerce. A few months after Hanyecz's experiment, BTC took off. Within a year, it was trading at $30, making those pizzas worth about $150,000 apiece. But the steepest run-up is happening this year. As of early November, the value of 10,000 BTCs stood at $70 million. That makes Satoshi Nakamoto's reported position of one million bitcoins (his founder's stake) worth $7 billion. No wonder people still want to find him.

This growth may exhibit "irrational exuberance," as Alan Greenspan famously characterized the dot-com bubble of the 1990s. It has also created a problem—the same one that plagued the early Internet, when its user base went from geek specialists to commercial entities: scalability. How do you grow the thing without breaking it? If you're old enough, you'll remember that some developers never thought the Internet would be able to handle images. Then it was video. And on it went. But techies—often working in porn, gambling and other shady reaches of the web—devised ever new ways to accommodate user growth and the emergent demands that those users put on the system.

In bitcoin's case, as for any cryptocurrency based on "blockchain" technology (see "Crypto cheat sheet," below), the growth will be constrained by the system's capacity to process transactions. The exploding user base is already slowing down the BTC exchange systems, which leads to higher costs for those who maintain the system, which leads to higher transaction fees to users. Roger Ver, a Tokyo-based entrepreneur whose early championing of bitcoin has given him cult figure–like status and the moniker "Bitcoin Jesus," tells me that the fees have gone from fractions of a penny per BTC transaction in the early days to about $10 now. Key BTC proponents are talking about average fees reaching $100 or even $1,000 per transaction, he says.

 

That reality has caused a proliferation of competing cryptocurrency platforms, such as Litecoin, Ethereum, Zcash, Dash, Ripple and Monero. Think of these nascent digital tenders as alternate routes people start to seek out when the highway becomes gridlocked. Some cryptocurrency enthusiasts—notably Calvin Ayre, Roger Ver, Craig Wright and anti-virus software pioneer John McAfee—have been voting with their feet by abandoning BTC and embracing a new currency launched on Aug. 1 of this year. Called Bitcoin Cash (trading as BCH), it is expressly designed to speed up payment validation, lower system maintenance costs and ultimately reduce users' transaction costs. According to its proponents, BCH is a bid to get bitcoin back to Satoshi's original vision: fast, easy, cheap and reliable peer-to-peer transactions, with privacy for users and no central control.

Ayre grows animated as the topic of BTC scalability and the schism with BCH comes up. As the wine is poured and our mains arrive—lemon sole on the bone with sauce Béarnaise, monkfish and tiger prawn masala—the judgment he renders is unequivocal.

"For bitcoin to be successful, you need to have massive scaling, increased velocity of transactions and low transaction fees. I firmly believe that. And so do the people we're working with in this industry. BCH is bitcoin. BTC might survive off in the wilderness as something else. But it's not the real bitcoin."

Those appear to be more than words. In what may be the biggest gamble of his career, Ayre has pulled his cryptocurrency investments entirely out of BTC and put all that money into Bitcoin Cash. "You know what you should do?" he says, knife and fork in hand, getting ready to dig in. "Twenty-five percent of your net assets. Put them in BCH. Don't even let yourself look at it for a year. Then see what you have."

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So Ayre's all in BCH. Or so he says. It's hard to quantify his bet, since he won't say anything about his net worth or where his money might be otherwise invested. For what it's worth, when I ask Ver if Ayre is a big player in Bitcoin Cash, he laughs out loud. They've never met, but the first thing Ver wants me to know is that he's honoured Ayre even knew enough about him to mention him positively in our conversation. That's coming from Bitcoin Jesus. Then he says, "Any time a billionaire gets involved in your area, they become a big player. Yeah. Calvin's a really big player."

Ayre's description of his battle plan suggests he's moving on multiple fronts. He's investing in fintech startups that relate to the cryptocurrency arena. He's developing the capacity to verify BCH transactions (see page 38 for more on the process, known as "bitcoin mining") and seeking cheap electricity to support the massive server farms that endeavour will require. He needs less than 5¢ a kilowatt hour, he tells me. Russia is looking promising. Ayre has also built a private commerce platform, based in Antigua, that processes cryptocurrency transactions globally, both as a currency exchange and an intermediary for commercial entities.

"I've become one of the biggest private bitcoin processors in the world today," he boasts, leaning back as a waiter ghosts in to peel the skeleton out of his lemon sole in a single deft motion. "And when I say 'private,' that means I process only for people that I want to process for."

The last part of his plan, Ayre tells me, is to become a spokesperson for Bitcoin Cash. With the DOJ shackles off his travel, he can move around and talk to people. He's purchased CoinGeek.com, a site devoted to cryptocurrency news, so he has a platform from which to get the BCH message out. And, of course, he's here in London eating lunch with me. "Yeah," he says. "Part of the reason I agreed to this is that I want to work on polishing my own personal brand in the bitcoin space. Our group needs more people like me, like Roger Ver. People willing to step forward."

He has a habit of drumming his hands on the table to emphasize a point that particularly excites him. He does that now, on either side of his plate: badabadabada bum!

Certainly, there is evidence of street-level excitement about Bitcoin Cash. Ver remains diversified, he tells me, holding a range of virtual currencies, but he now owns more BCH than BTC. Even more telling is his willingness to wager on the success of Bitcoin Cash, which he did recently with Wang Chun, owner of the mining pool F2Pool and prominent supporter of original bitcoin. At the 2017 Shape the Future Blockchain Global Summit in Hong Kong, Chun suggested that BCH "will be short-lived." Ver put $1 million on the table and gave Chun a two-year time frame. Chun demurred.

Others are also stepping forward to back BCH. A couple of weeks after my lunch with Ayre at Scott's, Craig Wright—the one-time would-be Satoshi Nakamoto—appeared in London to speak about cryptocurrencies at an event held in the basement of a pub. In a rambling, wine-fuelled address to a room packed with more than 100 people, mostly young men, Wright extolled the history-shifting virtues of BCH. "There is no need for a gold and silver of bitcoin," he said. One investment grade will do: "We only need Bitcoin Cash."

If Ver's wager and Wright's zeal carry the day, then Ayre's big gamble comes good. But it's worth considering what might stand in the way. BTC market share has eroded with the emergence of BCH and other virtual currencies—Ver says it's down from 99% three years ago to less than 50% now—but there are still more proponents than critics of the original bitcoin.

Shone Anstey of Blockchain Intelligence, whose software helps law enforcement agencies prevent money laundering or terrorism financing using cryptocurrencies, thinks BTC will prevail. "It has more computational power behind the network than BCH by a long shot." More importantly, Anstey argues, BTC has reached the tipping point of broad acceptance. He reminds me of the acrimonious debates of the early Internet, which also relied on an open architecture. "But the Internet just kept motoring along and getting bigger, and eventually…there was so much momentum that it became impossible to kill." He believes that's where bitcoin is now.

Investors choosing between BTC and BCH might do well to also consider which variant is more likely to garner the support of regulators, who are eyeing the currencies warily. While the culture of cryptocurrencies in general remains inherently hostile to surveillance, original bitcoin may be safer in this regard. Anstey's confidence in the original bitcoin is based partly on the fact that BTC transactions can be analyzed using software tools of the type his company develops, which untangle the encryption and link individuals to suspicious transactions (the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is a client).

Supporters of Bitcoin Cash, in contrast, claim that one of its advantages is that it makes tracking activity more difficult. First, by increasing the size of the transaction blocks, the currency greatly raises the volume of data authorities must sift through, Ver explains. Second, with BCH's much lower transaction fees, users can afford so-called mixing services that scramble transactions and make them harder to trace to individuals. And if these features disrupt efforts to curb money laundering or terrorism financing, or complicate taxation and the setting of national economic policies, so be it. "People having more control over their money is a good thing," says Ver. "So it's bad that al-Qaeda will have more control over their money too. But the genie is out of the bottle, and there's no putting it back."

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As our lunch draws to a close, Ayre ends up echoing Ver's point almost exactly. Bitcoin Cash is better at eluding centralized control, which he views as a net gain. He brings up Russia again, as the government most likely to support the cryptocurrency ideals. "People talk about Russia shutting this thing down," he says. "They won't. Because it's the one thing they have as a hedge against American control of the global financial system."

So who invented bitcoin? I ask. Who is Satoshi? Could Russian intelligence be involved?

 

He smiles at that, leans back. The waiters have cleared the table. Candy sits in silence, waiting for this long conversation to be over. The noise in the restaurant has been rising steadily since we arrived, all of posh London seemingly crammed into the same place, laughing, talking and clattering silverware. I can't tell if Ayre had previously considered that Russia might be behind this most recent disruptive technology. It wouldn't be the first time Western libertarian impulses received support from those who used to peer at us over an Iron Curtain.

But no. He shakes his head. Satoshi was a group of people, that much is true, he tells me. To explain, he comes back to his new bitcoin commerce platform—that private service he claims makes him one of the largest crypto-transaction processors in the world and which he offers only to chosen clients. Like who? I ask. He leans in, lowering his voice. "Gaming sites," he says. "Non-U.S. facing, of course. But here's a little story."

Satoshi: People say the big idea came out of the market crash of 2009 and the subsequent frustration with Wall Street. Not so, he says. "Bitcoin comes out of the gaming industry. The people who created it were online gaming companies responding to aggressive governments. There's actually poker code writing in the original bitcoin code. Did you know that? It's there if you know where to look."

Ayre is pleased to share this detail. There's no way for me to confirm it, of course. And it certainly fits the narrative Ayre seems eager to spin: of gaming companies as the heroes of independent enterprise, ingeniously overcoming hurdles erected by Big Government, just as Ayre himself has rounded the track, taking hurdle after hurdle, outlasting his pursuers and ending up in a new place that can yet be seen to have emerged from the old. In orbit again around the planet Chance. Bets down. Outcome pending. A crooked smile on a gambler's face.

Lunch is over. Ayre is on his feet. The expensive Burgundy he ordered has hardly been touched.

"We gonna take this?" he asks Candy. "We can drink it later." And with that, he's off and out into Mayfair, bottle in hand.

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To read this on the Globe & Mail website, subscribers can go here: <!--[if gte mso 9]> Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE MicrosoftInternetExplorer4 <![endif]-->

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Posted: Friday, Nov. 24, 2017 11:49am
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The Rule of Stephens is coming...

It takes a long time to write a book. It takes a lot of solo hours.

Once, very early in my career, I told an interviewer that the novelists special skill was "being able to sit by oneself in a chair in front of a computer for very, very long periods of time."

That remains basically true, that simplification. But by now I also know that there comes a time when the writing is done and the process moves from solo to communal. Agents and editors get involved. A conversation starts that isn't confined to your brain. A book takes shape, a cover, jacket copy.

It feels like spring. It really does.

The Rule of Stephens is my fourth novel, my fifth work of fiction, and my eight book total if you include my very first one, the anomalous "Internet Handbook for Canadian Lawyers" that I wrote way back in 1997 with M. Drew Jackson for the legal publisher Carswell. Back when people still used Gopher Sites.

And now, number eight: The Rule of Stephens.

The Rule of Stephens. The Rule of Stephens is an axiom holding that the observable universe works in one of two mutually exclusive ways: (1) strictly in accordance with materialist principles such as advanced in the work of Stephen Hawking, or (2) by rules providing for the paranormal aberrations manifest in the work of Stephen King.

It's 2017 at the time of writing. The world has had a bracingly weird quality about it lately. Political and cultural winds blowing in freakish bursts and swirls, direction changes and sudden eddies. Are we still in the land of Hawking, as I have for so long been committed to believing? Or are we slouching our way down the slope a ways, shuffling and stumbling lower into the murky world of King?

Just so happens, my main character has similar questions, arising from the confusing truth that she survived tragedy when by any rational calculation, any reasonable human math, she shouldn't.

"The significance of being a survivor, in the case of Air France 801, for a long time lay in the simple fact that there should have been no survivors."

 

More to come soon...

Posted: Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017 2:49pm
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Anna Lena

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When Chef Michael Robbins auditioned for Top Chef Canada, he stressed in his audition video that he was an “extremely competitive person”, like a promise of what might come. All the more painful an irony that he ended up cut first, before even preparing a complete dish. That was a loss for the judges and show. I was convinced of that at the time, having eaten at the Oakwood Canadian Bistro, where Robbins had a relaxed neighborhood room that still produced plates with high-volume flavours and high-wire techniques.

I’m even more convinced now, having eaten at Robbins new place in Kits AnnaLena (named for his two grandmothers). There’s a playful and welcoming quality to this room too: rec-room chic bar, Lego light fixtures, Darth Vader alarm clock, casual but attentive service. Robbins himself has described his food as Modern Comfort Food. But cast your eyes upwards and note a crucial detail: high on a shelf, as if to say that direct reference to them is no longer required, a copy of the NOMA cookbook and all five volumes of the 2500 word mega-gastrotech-tome Modernist Cuisine.

That’s your cue that dinner will likely be more modern than comfort. And while I am almost invariably more comfort than modern myself, Robbins has nailed it at AnnaLena. Every plate pushed the boundaries, and in almost invariably the right way.

We started with a table of small plates. The grilled octopus is first sous vided, giving each bite a creamy tenderness with a background note of char. Finished with fingerling potato, sauce gribiche, dill fronds and lobster mayonnaise, it’s an umami wow. The buttermilk fried chicken has a similar complexity, with the twice-fried chicken thighs perfectly cooked, combining crunch with a sharp sweetness from the horseradish maple aioli, and the fantastic finish from salt and vinegar chicken skins. Every time I looked up, it seemed that three more of these were on the pass and whisked away. I sense a neighborhood standard being born.

Other small plates evoked that same approachable inventiveness. Cured tuna is combined with crisp sweetbreads, papaya salad with puffed wild rice, all this nestled down in a lime coconut broth with cilantro oil. Combine with wild garlic torn sourdough for dipping and there’s a taste of what modern comfort means.

 

None of these plates overly genuflect to their localness, an interesting choice on Robbins part at this moment in culinary history. But there was a spot prawn special. And Robbins had them whole peeled, tossed with pickled jalepenos, black garlic, toasted sesame seeds and nasturtium leaves. It’s a neat trick to pull off the overlay of saline ocean flavors with earthy and peppery notes. Great dish.

 

The larger plates extended these themes. Wagyu short rib is sous-vided and seared, served with peppercorn jus over sun choke puree, with peas, sun choke chips, radish and pea shoots, and tiny potatoes carved into tinier mushroom shapes, proving someone is still rocking the old school techniques back there. And if there were a climax to the meal, I’d name the pork belly. A potential gastro-cliché, here it is gets the Robbins treatment and is artful, surprising and complexly delicious from beginning to end. The grilled pork belly is marinated for 24 hours in tamari and served with roasted beets and pickled mustard seeds. And in a nod – unwitting or otherwise – to the similarly personal and innovative spirit of Dave Gunawan’s Farmers Apprentice, Robbins here elects to bind the elements of the dish with an oat porridge. What sounds horrifying is warmly comforting indeed.

 

Don’t skip desserts, because this team can do sweet with the same sensibility as the plates described above. Black pepper thyme ice cream is superb with the texture of nut crumble and meringue, and a spike of acid from the rhubarb compote and rhubarb gel. The salted caramel ice cream will be too salty for some – it was for me, not for my son who licked the plate – but combined with the chocolate custard, the sponge toffee and the lemon/bitter chocolate dust, you get again that surprising roundness in every bite for which this kitchen will soon be well known.

In another cooking show called My Kitchen Rules, the Australian judges like to comment on whether the dishes served really rose to the standards of a “competition dish”. For a guy who didn’t get his due on Top Chef, Robbins is knocking out exactly that at AnnaLena. Each dish vying for the top of the list.

 

 

Posted: Sunday, Sep. 18, 2016 11:52am
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Chicha

Continuing with my repost of restaurant reviews written for my friends at Vancouver Magazine... I confess that I'm torn about posting the bad ones. There have been a few. But I don't know many food writers who enjoy speaking poorly of a place. And if you have to - because a place is pretentious or over-rated or just poor quality - then you do it once, and don't necessarily want to repeat yourself.

As luck would have it, most of the new places I've tried in Vancouver in the past couple of years have been great. So I'm nowhere near running out of positives.

So I'll stick with that, for the time being. Here's my thoughts on the "modern Peruvian" restaurant Chicha, on Broadway over near Main. Excellent little place, well worth trying if you are in town.

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The term “white table cloth” as short hand for “fine dining” doesn’t mean much anymore. In keeping with roughly everything else going on in Western society, there’s no longer any agreement on the ceremony of the great meal. At the VanMag restaurant awards last month (2014), none of the restaurants shortlisted in the “Best New” category use table clothes at all. And one of them specializes in currywurst which is to German cuisine roughly what the Timbit is to ours: loved but not lofty.

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Chicha on Broadway is the kind of eatery that happily flourishes in this liberalized dining space. Billed as “modern Peruvian tapas”, the Broadway & Main 40-seater is a category pioneer, and the décor gives few clues as to the dining experience in store. The room has a Lima backstreet feel with its Peruvian textiles, turquoise and black walls, cutlery wrapped in paper napkins and green tinted bottles of Pisco stacked behind the bar. But the Bin 942 legacy of chefs Shelome Bouvette and Allison Flook suggest a more polished culinary sensibility which is brilliantly manifest on the table.

These are approachable street-level dishes, make no mistake. Cassava fries with spicy Huancaina sauce (thickened with saltines traditionally, with bread here). Classic ceviche with lime, cilantro and corn. Antichuco skewers, smoky from the grill. Causa potatoes and empanadas in flakey crust with savory chicken filling. And service is impressively fast. We ordered a table of food on a night when the restaurant was slammed. Large extended South American families to our left and right. The housewives of Cambie Corridor crowded in around the bar drinking Margarita Patadas infused with jalepeno and Chilcanos made with ginger. Our food started arriving and didn’t seem to stop, a happy parade of bright flavours and fresh, colourful presentations.

 

And here’s where the meal steps above its street-level inspirations. Those causa? It’s a cold mashed potato dish served with canned tuna in its most common form. At Chicha the potatoes are whipped to an airy texture, infused with herbs or beetroot or Aji Amarillo, topped with crab or black sesame crusted fresh tuna. Papas rellenas come perfectly crusted, paradoxically light for the carbohydrate payload, stuffed with fragrantly seasoned ground beef. And then the sliders. You could go to Chicha just for the Pan Con Chicharron and emerge with a full stomach and a solid idea what this place is all about. Not strictly Peruvian but deriving from the country’s long Asian associations, a sweet mouthful of glazed pork belly on a soft bun, red onion, a spray of radish sprouts: explosive culinary simplicity. That is one hell of a bite.

In the end, Chicha succeeds in marrying the aesthetics of the high and the low and in a room that buzzes with energy and enthusiasm. Here’s a menu of nailed flavors and innovations that rarely draw attention to themselves. Delicious and unpretentious, more or less my highest praise. Is the flavor profile of this food narrow? You could probably winnow these plates out to three main flavor groups: those deriving from red chili, those from Aji Amarillo, and those from a green herb described to me as the “Peruvian basil” which in fact bears resemblance to mint. But that would be to miss the flexibility of the trio as its used with different proteins and in different preparations. Those are the base notes of Peruvian flavor there. The melody and harmonizing is all Bouvette and Flook. And what a song they make together.

The name chichi may derive from the cocktail chichi morado, made with  purple corn, spices, pineapple, and citrus. I prefer the alternate explanation offered by the chefs themselves: “feminine and fun”. And who needs a white table for that?

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Posted: Monday, May. 25, 2015 8:27am
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The Farmer's Apprentice

I started as Food Critic over at VanMag last year. I'll be posting my reviews here periodically after they're published.

Chef David Gunawan's restaurant Farmer's Apprentice was my first assignment on the job. He captures perfectly the inversion of culinary values in the foodie west over the course of the past 30 years or so.

In high end rooms, it used to be an almost unswerving devotion to three ideas:

1. Adherence to continental and North European culinary tropes.
2. A muted elegance of flavours.
3. The exotic foreign ingredient.

In contemporary foodie rooms, we now see an almost perfectly inverted set of values, derived I'd argue from the originals:

1. Innovation in technique and aesthetic.
2. Bold, bright, surprising flavours and combinations.
3. The exotic local ingredient, foraging, 100 mile etc.

So if you want to eat the contemporary culinary moment, so to speak, and you also happen to be in Vancouver, you won't got wrong at The Farmer's Apprentice, even if you will almost certainly be perplexed by some of what you're served.

FARMER'S APPRENTICE

When Chef David Gunawan spoke at Pecha Kucha last year, just a couple of months after opening The Farmer's Apprentice with partner Dara Young, he made a comment that got nervous laughs. He'd been talking about his desire to eliminate the ego in cuisine, to do away with pretension and fussiness -- the crumb removal and expensive cutlery -- and get at something more surprising. And he said: "We don't want you to like everything about us. I find it boring to love all dishes. I'd rather have you like one, hate another, and find two okay, then have a dessert that's amazing!"

Maybe chefs aren't supposed to say that, but Gunawan did and good for him because The Farmer's Apprentice is packed. Forty seats, including every available inch at the bar, and I was there twice and could hardly see the floor. An interesting room: equal parts hole-in-the-wall comfort station and mad scientist's lair. There are simple wood tables, jars of pickles on shelves, a warmly lit sidebar with a turntable and a stack of vinyl. But then there's the kitchen, which is so open that you feel like you're eating in it. It pulses with energy as Gunawan and his cooks and dishwashers square-dance around the Rational oven and Kamado grill and a single prep table stacked with what would appear to be 800 plastic tubs of mise en place.

Keep reading here.

Posted: Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015 11:14am
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Ai Weiwei's New York Photographs

This is the transcript of an address given 13 Nov 2014 at the Belkin Gallery in Vancouver.

--

Thanks everyone for being here. And thank you Shelly Rosenblum and the Belkin Gallery for inviting me.

I've only been full time faculty here for 18 months or so. And one thing I didn't know to anticipate were these cross-disciplinary conversations that were possible on-campus. Last week I enjoyed listening to novelist Camilla Gibb talk at the Peter Wall Institute about empathy and anthropology. Today I get to talk with UBC History professor Carla Nappi about Ai Weiwei. This is a great pleasure.

I’m going to avoid saying anything that might be mistaken for art criticism today. It’s not my field. What I’m going to do instead is draw on my own practice area – both in journalism and writing novels – and talk about the narrative that these images suggest to me.

I feel encouraged to do this by Ai Weiwei himself, who didn’t really consider this collection of photos to be a work of art in themselves. This will seem counterintuitive, I realize. Ai WeiWei is one of the most recognized contemporary artists in the world today. He curated this selection from 10,000 original pictures and took the time to put them in a particular order. And of course it’s hanging in an art gallery, so it must be art.

But what he actually said about this collection is: “I would not consciously have called it art. It’s just the activities in my life. Becoming more conscious of my life activities, that attitude was more important than producing work.”

The attitude Ai Weiwei was speaking about was the conviction that he was indeed an artist, a belief that everyone who wants to practice in the arts must somehow attain. Not trying to be an artist. Not planning. But being. With these photographs, Ai Weiwei seems to be telling us, he wasn’t making art, he was making himself as an artist, which is never easy.

As a storyteller, I find that very interesting. Narrative comes to life when three elements first combine: (1) character, (2) desire (for concrete or abstract outcomes), and (3) obstacles that prevent the character from merely claiming what is desired. That’s the juice of narrative right there.

And as I look at these photographs, that’s what I find myself seeing. The beginning of a narrative about Ai Weiwei’s movement towards an objective. He may be a superstar now. But these pictures offer a glimpse of Weiwei at his crucial moment of becoming. 25 years old, out of China for the first time, and for the first time also engaged in a fully autonomous way with his own dreams and desires.

So who was this young man, before becoming the famous man?

History is relevant here. Born in 1957 in Beijing, Ai Weiwei arrived just a few months after his father, the well-known poet Ai Quing, had been denounced by authorities, banned from writing or publishing. And the family had been sent to a work camp in Northeast China. The cultural revolution in 1966 arguably made things worse for them. And without dwelling overly on this history, just consider that Ai Weiwei as a nine year old boy saw his father publically and ritually and repeatedly humiliated. He saw posters with his father’s image and defamatory statements. He saw his father force-marched through the streets, chanting confessions to crimes he hadn’t committed, while children threw stones. In a particularly vivid memory, the artist remembers when his father was denounced as a “reactionary novelist” by people who knew nothing about his father's writing – he was a poet, and had never written a novel – and these people then doused his father’s face in black ink. Since the couldn’t afford soap, his father’s face remained black for many days.

The end of the Cultural Revolution didn’t heal everything either. “After 20 years of injustice,” he said. “We were given only these words: it was a mistake.”

They were back in Beijing however, and more free than ever before. Ai Weiwei joined the Beijing Film Academy in the Set Design department, where he was going to learn how to paint. But almost immediately he began producing work so outrageous to his instructors that they declined even to consider it for grades. Ai Weiwei eventually quit and applied to study abroad in the US.

So that is the young man who arrived in the East Village in 1981, working part time jobs and by his own description, not really having any solid idea what he was doing there. He speaks of just leaving his apartment in the morning and wandering, without direction or agenda.

But he did have a vision of himself as an artist. And so a crucial triangle takes shape: a character, desire, and all the many obstacles that you might imagine for a broke, new immigrant, shortly to be an illegal immigrant, who has this most impossible of dreams.

Luckily for us, he also had a camera with which that narrative beginning might be captured.

Not immediately however. But it seems that around 1985, or 1986, the photos really started to accumulate. This documenting of himself doing the thing he’d dreamed of doing.

Here’s the son of a poet who was forbidden to write for twenty years. Here’s an artist declaring himself to be subject to no such powers.

“I started my own life, in which I was very clear about my own decisions. Before that, I was a student and all the decisions were made by common requirements – you study at school, finish your studies, and then try to become an artist. Then I realized that I am an artist and that it’s my life and that’s the way I choose to live. So I started to take some photos… excited about this new life and this kind of attitude.”

No surprise then that Ai Weiwei developed what you might think of as the proto-selfie. Here he is at the MOMA


Here he is on West Fourth Street, where Ai Weiwei and other Chinese artists would paint the portraits of passersby.


The artist here is in the process not so much of examining himself as gathering the supporting evidence to prove himself, something this shot into the mirror really captures.

That’s Ai Weiwei recording Ai Weiwei in the process of becoming Ai Weiwei.

In the Facebook era, there is a tendency to dismiss this as self-promotion: fatuous and transparent. But here is a man raised on the edge of a northern Chinese desert, exposed for the first time to the possibilities of the individual. I find this mirror shot makes a lot of sense in that context.

Of course, it's important to understand that he wasn't an isolated loner as these images might suggest. Selfies run the risk of suggesting total self-absorption. But this doesn't appear to ahve been the case. In fact, Ai Weiwei seems to have been a social magnet during this time, constantly in touch with people, exploring, listening, exchanging ideas. One imagines the conversations to have been very lively.

Artist and intellectuals:

A film student from Taiwan.


Here’s the well known Chinese poet Bei Dao visiting with Ai Weiwei in 1988.

Bei Dao is the most notable representative of the Misty Poets, a group of Chinese poets who reacted against the restrictions of the Cultural Revolution. Dao would go on later to write a book of essays about his time in New York called Midnight’s Gate which includes a cloaked reference to Ai Weiwei.

In a piece in Artforum, Philip Tinari writes: “Everyone in Bejing knew that his basement apartment on East 7th Street had become an unofficial embassy for the avant-garde in exile.”

As you might expect, in that case, he was friendly with Allen Ginsberg and Harry Smith

Smith was one of the Godfathers of the beat movement, an artist and experimental filmmaker and bohemian mystic. He was also a fanatical collector of paper airplanes, Seminole textiles and Ukrainian Easter eggs. He would have been living with Ginsberg at this time, having run out of money, an arrangement Ginsberg’s doctor eventually put an end to, the story goes, because Smith was giving Ginsberg high blood pressure.

 

 

Ai Weiwei met Ginsburg at a poetry reading at St. Marks In-the-Bowery. Ginsberg knew Weiwei’s father and had met him in Beijing. In the New Yorker, Weiwei describes Ginsberg reading his poetry aloud including White Shroud, which Ginsberg wrote for his mother. “I didn’t quite understand it. But he loved reading it.

If there was a kind of narrative bump, or turning point in this material, this collection of photographs, to me it seems to be the Tompkins Square Riot photos of 1988.

 

As some will remember, New York had a series of riots in 1988 relating to housing and public parks access. Tompkins Park had itself become a squatters camp which then Mayor Koch famously criticized for being filthy before acknowledging he'd never been there. A curfew was imposed. And on August 6 and 7, police tried to clear people out of the park in what was later referred to as a "police riot".

This is the front of Christodora House, which is on Avenue B on the east side of Tompkins Park. This is kind of ground zero for the whole dispute. Originally part of the American Settlement House Movement, Christodora House was built in 1928 to provide “low-income and immigrant residents food, shelter, education and health services.” It had a pool and a gym, and was sort of like a private rec centre with social housing. It was in financial difficulties by the 40’s and was sold to the city, who seem to have more or less left it for a couple of decades. During the 60’s it was full of squatters and was reportedly the National HQ of Black Panthers as well as serving as a set for porn films. Wiki tells me that both Iggy Pop and Vincent D’Onofrio at one point lived here.

In 1975, the city sold the property for $62,500 and within a decade the developer began to convert the building to condos, which cause further friction in the area. During the Tompkins square riots crowds broke in and trashed the lobby yelling “Die Yuppie Scum”.

Imagine how angry people would have been if they’d known that in another 20 years, 25 years, a 1400 square foot one bedroom in Christodora would run around $2 million.

Later there would be other protests in Washington Square Park Protest 1988, and Ai Weiwei would be there too.

And the following year would be the year of ACT UP AIDS protests.

 

 

I think what we’re seeing here is the shaping of a world view, shaping of a sense of skepticism about power. Here’s a young man marked by the cultural revolution, adrift in America, in the process of proving himself to be what his imagination told him he could be… It is probably critical to note that these protests here would have been followed in months by events in Tianamen Square.

Here’s an artist intensely, ferociously engaged I think. Taking stock.

“We were young at the time and soon identified with the values of the free world because of our recent history. We hated totalitarian society very much and longed for the so-called free world. Later, we  became more critical of the US when we found out the country didn’t have as much freedom as it claimed.”

Did Ai Weiwei feel hopeless though? One suspects not. Because woven through the difficult images are always people acting, people (like Weiwei, but in their own ways) claiming themselves.

For every act of suppression, and act of expression.

 

 

After 1989, although I haven’t counted them, it seems to me the selfies begin to get less frequent. Ai Weiwei is still present in all of these, but we sense the process of self-discovery is now past its beginnings, that something like conclusions or at least convictions are shaping themselves in this young man.

The future beckons.

The Godfather of Beat Generation, Harry Smith dies

Smith had a heart attack in Room 328 of the Hotel Chelsea. He died in the hospital later in the arms of a poet friend who reported that he was “singing as he drifted away”.

I find myself thinking that Ai Weiwei had an ironic glint in his eye as he selected this as the last of the series.

End credits. Cue the violin. The artist has left the building.

“My experience in the US was the most important experience of my life. There I learned about personal freedom, independence, and the relationship between the individual and the state, as well as the power structure of that society – and art, of course, I learned a lot."

I want to return to the poet Bei Dao for a moment to close.

This is a short excerpt from Bei Dao’ book Midnight’s Gate about his time in New York. Note that he does not name the artist friend that he meets, but you be the judge who he’s talking about…

“The first time I visited New York was in the summer of 1988. We went to the East Village to look for W...

He’d been living illegally in New York for eight years. People have different reactions to living illegally. Some people live as if they’re walking on thin ice, while others take to it like a fish to water. New York remakes people like no other place.

This man who was a good student – a sophomore in film school – had completely transformed himself. His eyes were gloomy, his face fatter, and his ears bigger.

He was now full of New York slang. As he walked down the street all sorts of people walked over to greet him, their faces full of respect. At that time, the East Village was a land of the homeless, drunks, drug dealers and those suffering from AIDS. He would always grunt a response, but would not say much, just pat them on the shoulder, or stroke their bald heads, and miraculously, their enraged, crazy spirits would calm instantly.

I asked him how he made a living, and he said he painted people’s portraits on the street. He then got out his painting tools, hailed a taxi, and dragged us to a section of West Fourth Street, where a number of other Chinese painters were already trying to drum up business. Unfortunately, luck was not with him that evening as he waited two hours with no one even inquiring about prices. When someone suggested he go to Atlantic City for a little gambling, he immediately closed up shop and sailed off.

I’ll let Ai Weiwei have the last word, a quote which I find resonating in each of these photos. It seems to me that if these photos do one thing, taken all together, it is to show Ai Weiwei reaching this conclusion:

“Creativity,” Ai Weiwei wrote in 2008, twenty years after that visit with Bei Dao… "is the power to reject the past, to change the status quo, and to seek new potential. Simply put, aside from using one's imaginationperhaps more importantlycreativity is the power to act."

 

Posted: Friday, Nov. 14, 2014 9:27am
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The Achievement Square Fridge Magnet Game

In the middle of the night, early in the third week of UBC classes, Fall 2014, a strange installation appeared in the new square that's being completed out front of the University Bookstore and across the way from the soon-to-be-completed new SUB.

It looked like a billboard.


 

But it wasn't advertising anything.

Instead, it depicted the space right in front of the board, but completely empty of people.

That space, the University has decided, will be called Achievement Square. And it's intended to be a high traffic zone where people can congregate and express themselves.

The billboard wasn't advertising Achievement Square, however. It was asking passersby to envision the space as they might like to see it in the future.

 



Fridge Magnet Game. Wha...?

But on the other side, it became pretty clear. Dozens of little people, fridge magnet style, campus citizens in minature, available for you to arrnage in patterns of your choosing, doing whatever you think they would be doing, in combinations or by themselves.

People didn't need instructions. Fridge Magnets is like a universal language.

A day or so after install, the new square had been envisioned over and over again, hundreds of times.

Some visions were just what you'd expect:

Romantic congress. Observation. Critical distance. That's pretty much campus life right there.

Go visit The Achievement Square Fridge Magnet Game out front of the UBC Bookstore, a collaboration between UBC Creative Writing, the artist Byron "Cameraman" Dauncey, and the UBC SEEDS Program (social economic ecological development studies), which is itself part of UBC Campus and Community Planning.

Come down and play the Fridge Magnet Game. There are no rules. There are no age restrictions.

 

 

Posted: Friday, Sep. 19, 2014 10:05am
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Foodville

Foodville by Timothy Taylor
Print length: 47 pages
Nonvella

Buy the ebook on Amazon here ($2.99 US, $4.29 CAD). Print editions available on Amazon, June 26th ($9.99).

In this nose-to-tail culinary confessional, the acclaimed novelist behind the bestseller Stanley Park, Silent Cruise, and The Blue Light Project makes a three-course meal out of our food-obsessed culture. When and how did we all get so hyped up about food? What is driving our fixation?
Calling on Taylor’s fascination with food critic culture, his recollection of meals miserable and meals sublime, and his experimentation with cooking at the cutting edge and in the deepest recesses of the out-of-fashion, Foodville feasts its way through the dining rooms and restaurants of our era, evoking a telling, affectionate and yet critical portrait of what we really talk about when we talk about food.

Excerpt:

I FELL FOR a girl over a meal in the Top of the Horizon once, the restaurant on the 31st floor of the Blue Horizon Hotel in downtown Vancouver. I was five years old, maybe six. Some Danish friends of my father’s were in town and they had a daughter around my age. Her name may have been Bridget, or Heidi, I don’t remember. She was this perfect doll: straw blonde, green eyes. I remember she wore a white dress with a red ribbon around her waist. The adults put us across from one another at the end of the table, so it was like we had our own little dinner date going on by the window, sipping Shirley Temples and eating those 1970s shish kebabs of skewered cubes of meat and green peppers.

The food probably wasn’t great. But the dining experience was seminal, because I think even at that age I sensed what magical things were possible with the right person and the right meal. The right view. The right rays of orange sunlight sloping off the shoulder of Stanley Park. When that little girl caught me gazing at her, she smiled back sweetly as if she’d been thinking exactly the same thing. And at the end of the evening, she gave me a blue-lacquered wooden horse that she’d brought all the way from Copenhagen.

Fast forward 20-odd years. I was newly married, and had just taken a job with the Toronto Dominion Bank in Vancouver. My wife and I had moved from Toronto, but in the weeks before we finalized our apartment, the bank put us up at… the Blue Horizon Hotel. We didn’t eat at the restaurant. These were our La Bodega years, and I’m not even sure Top of the Horizon was open at that time. But while unpacking, we came across an old scrapbook my wife had kept as a girl. And tucked into its pages was a photo of her when she was five. I hadn’t seen the picture before or any other one of her at that age. Which allowed me to discover—in a strange temporal rush, that feeling of a vortex opening and connecting you to a very particular moment and set of feelings from the past—just how firmly that long-ago meal had stayed in my subconscious. How seamlessly woven into memory it had been. Because looking at that picture of my wife, I realized that at five years of age, and right at the same time, she and Bridget/Heidi had looked exactly alike.

***

SEMINAL MEALS, FORMATIVE meals. The plates and flavors we never forget.

I’ve been poring over old menus and recipe cards from the mid-1970s, trying to push myself back in time. It’s one thing to understand how our long-ago evangelists changed the food world in unexpected, even unpredictable ways. But can we the diners and review readers push ourselves back? Can we ever really understand what came before, what food was like before the revolution hit, before we surrendered it to the tossing of fashion’s seas?

I’m suppose I’m the kind of food lover who would try. I have an obvious fondness for the old school. My heroes Barber and Pepin are guys who both published recipes for a stuffed whole head of cabbage. (You don’t see that on many menus, these days…) I always appreciated how settled they both seemed to be in their own culinary practices. Not much would change about either of them from the beginning to the end of their public cooking careers.

Want more? You can buy Foodville over at:
Amazon.com ($3.99) or Amazon.ca ($4.29)
 
 

The Way Things Are: Fred Herzog's Art of Observation

I'm very proud that my piece on Fred Herzog for Canadian Art has been nominated for a National Magazine Award. It was one of the very view pieces I worked on and published last year for various reason including a change in my mix of work as I moved to UBC full time.

Canadian Art has given me a couple of the richest assignments I've had in recent memory, and I'm grateful to Rick Rhodes for the editorial relationship we've developed.

THE WAY THINGS ARE: Fred Herzog's Art of Observation

At 82 years of age, photographer Fred Herzog doesn’t move quite as quickly as he used to. But then, few people ever did. In his younger days, Herzog was the kind of guy who’d jump on his Norton motorcycle after lunch and ride back roads to the top of Mount Baker, 180 kilometres south in Washington state, then motor home in time for supper. “Not always at the speed limit,” he says now, with a sly smile.

When he wasn’t making a literal blur across the landscape—and when he wasn’t working full time as a medical photographer at the University of British Columbia (UBC) or raising his family—he shot pictures on the streets. And rather a lot of pictures, we now know, as a result of a series of high-profile solo shows in Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, New York and Berlin over the course of just the past five years. Asked to estimate the total number of pictures he’s taken in his life, Herzog will admit to more than 85,000. Of course, those are only the ones he’s kept.

“I suppose I’m a bit of a workaholic,” he says, with a self-deprecating chuckling and a glint of mischief in his eyes. But then, immediately, he’s back to scanning the world around him. “Here,” he says, voice low. “Let’s look up this alley. There are often things here.”

- See more at: http://www.canadianart.ca/features/2012/12/12/fred-herzog-art-of-observation/#sthash.CDuRBWOD.dpuf

At 82 years of age, photographer Fred Herzog doesn’t move quite as quickly as he used to. But then, few people ever did. In his younger days, Herzog was the kind of guy who’d jump on his Norton motorcycle after lunch and ride back roads to the top of Mount Baker, 180 kilometres south in Washington state, then motor home in time for supper. “Not always at the speed limit,” he says now, with a sly smile.

When he wasn’t making a literal blur across the landscape—and when he wasn’t working full time as a medical photographer at the University of British Columbia (UBC) or raising his family—he shot pictures on the streets. And rather a lot of pictures, we now know, as a result of a series of high-profile solo shows in Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, New York and Berlin over the course of just the past five years. Asked to estimate the total number of pictures he’s taken in his life, Herzog will admit to more than 85,000. Of course, those are only the ones he’s kept.

“I suppose I’m a bit of a workaholic,” he says, with a self-deprecating chuckling and a glint of mischief in his eyes. But then, immediately, he’s back to scanning the world around him. “Here,” he says, voice low. “Let’s look up this alley. There are often things here.”

See the rest of the story here.

At 82 years of age, photographer Fred Herzog doesn’t move quite as quickly as he used to. But then, few people ever did. In his younger days, Herzog was the kind of guy who’d jump on his Norton motorcycle after lunch and ride back roads to the top of Mount Baker, 180 kilometres south in Washington state, then motor home in time for supper. “Not always at the speed limit,” he says now, with a sly smile.

When he wasn’t making a literal blur across the landscape—and when he wasn’t working full time as a medical photographer at the University of British Columbia (UBC) or raising his family—he shot pictures on the streets. And rather a lot of pictures, we now know, as a result of a series of high-profile solo shows in Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, New York and Berlin over the course of just the past five years. Asked to estimate the total number of pictures he’s taken in his life, Herzog will admit to more than 85,000. Of course, those are only the ones he’s kept.

“I suppose I’m a bit of a workaholic,” he says, with a self-deprecating chuckling and a glint of mischief in his eyes. But then, immediately, he’s back to scanning the world around him. “Here,” he says, voice low. “Let’s look up this alley. There are often things here.”

- See more at: http://www.canadianart.ca/features/2012/12/12/fred-herzog-art-of-observation/#sthash.CDuRBWOD.dpuf

At 82 years of age, photographer Fred Herzog doesn’t move quite as quickly as he used to. But then, few people ever did. In his younger days, Herzog was the kind of guy who’d jump on his Norton motorcycle after lunch and ride back roads to the top of Mount Baker, 180 kilometres south in Washington state, then motor home in time for supper. “Not always at the speed limit,” he says now, with a sly smile.

When he wasn’t making a literal blur across the landscape—and when he wasn’t working full time as a medical photographer at the University of British Columbia (UBC) or raising his family—he shot pictures on the streets. And rather a lot of pictures, we now know, as a result of a series of high-profile solo shows in Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, New York and Berlin over the course of just the past five years. Asked to estimate the total number of pictures he’s taken in his life, Herzog will admit to more than 85,000. Of course, those are only the ones he’s kept.

“I suppose I’m a bit of a workaholic,” he says, with a self-deprecating chuckling and a glint of mischief in his eyes. But then, immediately, he’s back to scanning the world around him. “Here,” he says, voice low. “Let’s look up this alley. There are often things here.”

- See more at: http://www.canadianart.ca/features/2012/12/12/fred-herzog-art-of-observation/#sthash.CDuRBWOD.dpuf

 

Posted: Friday, May. 2, 2014 7:46am
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RIP Paul Walker

Not a lot of RIP Paul Walker posts in my various feeds this morning, despite the Fast and the Furious lead having died a grisly death on Saturday. I guess Walker doesn't have big profile in the literary scene. His films were middle brow. His acting wasn't overly nuanced. So he died in the burning wreck of a Porsche, I can hear the collective consciousness murmuring. Wasn't that kind of in the script?

Maybe. I don't know. Who knows anything about death but the dead? But I did meet Walker once. So I can talk about the guy I met, who surprised me.

I was working for Toro Magazine at the time, Canada's upstart Esquire clone that burned through a few million of a prominent Toronto real estate developors dollars before everybody came to their senses. They sent me to LA to interview him in early 2006, just pre-Flags of Our Fathers. Some PR genius set up the meet at the Peterson Automotive Museum (cars, get it? Fast and the Furious? Like a theme-interview.) We walked around looking at old cars owned by other actors for awhile, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen. Walker was unimpressed because he raced cars himself. He'd piled a GT3 into the wall at Willow Springs the week prior. No big deal because he'd use it as a parts car. (Chilling a bit to note that he was passenger in a GT when he died, but I digress.)

I gave him a break from cars and we found a booth in the deserted museum cafeteria. We got talking and were there for a couple of hours. And a very interesting person emerged: a guy who hated Hollywood, disliked being a public person, and spent half his time plotting an escape from both that he never ultimately made.

You can read the article here and decide for yourself what you think about him. But one part of the interview that didn't make the article sticks with me most. It was the moment Walker realized that I didn't cover Hollywood for a living, that I wasn't part of the machine, and that was the moment he suddenly got very candid.

We were talking about the film he'd just produced called The Death and Life of Bobby Z, staring Walker and Laurence Fishbourne (who Walker hugely admired)...

Walker: Everyone was rock solid. And I just hope to God it comes out all right. Because it was just good people all around. Olivia Wilde is just awesome. She was on OC, she played what’s that Misha Barton… Is that her name?

 

TT: I don’t know.

PW: You’re worse than me. Even I know her name. But I don’t watch any of her shows. You watch TV at all?

TT: Nah.

PW: (Long pause.) Me either. Do you have a TV set up?

TT: Yeah, it's set up...

PW: But you don’t watch it.

TT: No.

PW: You watch movies?

TT: I do watch movies.

PW: (laughs, shakes his head) You’re like me. I don’t know who anybody is. You don't know who anybody is down here. (laughing)

TT: No I don’t know Hollywood at all. I didn't know who you were. I had to look you up.

PW: (really laughing now, long pause) That is awesome!

[At which point Walker started to open up and eventually we get talking about life in Hollywood.]

 

PW:Honestly? I like my job, but I can’t stand the people. I hate LA. It’s misplaced priorities. Everyone’s got their head up their ass. No one gives a shit about anybody. Relationships are disposable. They play like they want to be your friend, but only because you’re the hot piece of ass.

 

TT: I suppose it’s because there’s a ton of money involved.

PW: Sure. Yeah. Wherever there’s money involved it's gonna be like that. In big corporate America it’s probably the same thing. You know they want to be buds with you and shake your hand, but there’s no real loyalty. It’s pro sports. It’s anywhere. And I don’t want to live that life.

TT: But let’s be honest, you're involved.

PW: Yeah but who wants to live that life? You can’t go anywhere without people going hey, hey, this or that. You lose your anonymity.

TT: So what's it like for you walking down Wilshire.

PW: It drives me crazy! It’s bad. I mean you hear these stories about how certain people are such assholes. And there such pricks when it comes to it. And I find myself doing it sometimes. I’m doing the same thing. Earlier today, when somebody came up to me. I’m just eating my damn burger and it’s like I don’t want to be bothered, I’m sorry. I gotta run. I gotta go meet this guy. Dude, I had 25 minutes. I was just down the street. I thought, surely I can just get this and get out. But you want to know why I was late. Because the entire staff of the [burger joint name] had to come out. And I just wanted to go [throws up his hands]. But the only reason I didn’t is because I don’t want to be known as the Dick. That’s the only reason I stayed. But what I wanted to do is go: leave me alone I gotta go! I’m running late, you understand?<!--[if gte mso 9]> 800x600 <![endif]-->It’s such a weird deal. It’s not grounded in anything.

 

TT: Does this underscore your desire to get the fuck out of Dodge?

PW: Yeah. But then no. It’s like: can you have a normal life and still do it? Can you eliminate all the pricks. Can you surround yourself with people you know are good people. Every one of those guys I worked with on Bobby Z? What comes first and foremost? Their families. They’re out there the whole shoot, and they’re not banging the hair stylist and then fucking an extra the next day. There are morals. There’s a morality. You know? But there are still certain days when I really feel, I can’t do it. I can’t do it.

***


RIP Paul Walker. You got away, only not in the way you wanted and no in the way I had hoped you would since our now-long-ago conversation. Peace to the Walker family.

 

 

Posted: Monday, Dec. 2, 2013 11:52am
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