Forty-seven-years-old and I could not remember the last time I cracked an egg. So it was a bit surreal to find myself standing with Ludo Lefebvre, a top chef, and have him ask me to separate dozens and dozens for a multi-course dinner for 80 people. I took a deep breath and secretly hoped I would not be the reason my wife’s nightmares about this evening would actually come true.
It started as a crazy idea. Why not add a kick-off dinner in Paso Robles for The Garagiste Festival - that my wife coordinates – and ask Ludo to be the guest chef? This event, which promotes artisan winemakers from all over California, was in its second year and they decided to expand the schedule. Three days of seminars, tastings and parties were planned to celebrate 48 wineries who for the most part are making wine in such limited quantities they're hard to find, never mind get your hands on. Since so many of the attendees were coming into town for the weekend, adding events to help keep the wine flowing seemed obvious.
When we initially discussed it with Chef Ludo and his wife Krissy, we weren’t sure it would actually happen. They were excited to see the Central Coast and loved the idea of the Festival, so we got a date on their calendar. Then came what could easily be the busiest time in his life as he released his cookbook his cookbook LudoBites, began filming The Taste and planning for his first brick-and-mortar restaurant, along with the pressure of pulling off the last of his famous pop-ups, LudoBites10. In the midst of it all, Ludo was still excited to come to Paso and help make our winemaker dinner a night to remember.
His pop up restaurants have become must “try to attend” events and we’ve been lucky enough to get seats at 5 of them over the years. If anyone could pull off a 6-course dinner in a tiny kitchen with barely any prep space it would be Ludo. The logistics of making it happen rested on my wife and it was definitely out of her comfort zone. (Krissy warned us that “pop-ups” are not easy. It’s a constant balancing act where quick thinking and flexibility are necessary ingredients to success.)
When the first day of prep came I decided to take some of the weight off her shoulders – she had three other days of events to deal with - by doing whatever was needed to help Ludo and his sous chefs get it done. I figured my personality, knowledge of Paso (in case we needed something at the last minute), and dishwashing skills would be the extent of my help.
Chef Ludo had other ideas for me. Mainly because he had no idea how green someone could be, at my age, at even the simplest kitchen tasks. He was a bit horrified when my total lack of skills was revealed. A few things I had going for me was my unwavering enthusiasm and my excitement at watching a true master at work. Plus I was a volunteer, so he couldn’t fire me.
I spent the next two days helping put together the pieces of what would end up being the desert, Lemon Meringue. This just happened to be one of our favorite “bites” at LudoBites 8, which made it even cooler. I will never have a chance to perform on stage with Eddie Van Halen or caddie for Tiger Woods, but here I was being shown how to make meringue from a master chef who had completely changed my perspective on food forever.
After quickly showing me how it was done, I handled the first few eggs with the Chef watching. Once he was satisfied, he was off to more important things. I did have my share of oops moments as a couple of yolks dropped in the whites, but I quickly scooped them out hoping no one noticed. Chef moved me from task to task all day long, showing me the next step and entreating me to keep my area clean. A kitchen necessity. That I could do no problem. Cleaning is my job at home in the kitchen.
Watching Chef Ludo and his two amazing Sous’, Greg and Joon, work as a team and literally read each other’s minds was fascinating. With all the stress in a kitchen it was great to see that the screaming - all in an effort to bring out your best - was followed by winks, jokes and smiles to then set you at ease and make the hard work go by easier. I might not have had so much fun if I actually understood French, though “Oui Chef!” became a new addition to my vocabulary.
After I left the guys to do their final prep, I got to put my people skills to good use with the dinner guests, who were ripe with anticipation. As one of the only people in the room who had ever had Ludo’s food, I knew they were in for a night to remember. I had great fun talking about my recent culinary adventure and got immense pleasure in watching as everyone was blown away by each dish and the wines that were paired to match. It was an amazing night where I witnessed that sometimes the food that leaves the kitchen is truly magical…and gained just a bit of personal satisfaction knowing I helped. (To see pics of the entire dinner go here.)
Since that time I’ve learned to give thanks at restaurants to the entire staff (two days on my feet had my back out of whack for weeks) and I’ve tried to help out a little more at home.
For Christmas, I tackled one of the recipes from Ludo’s book, Spicy Chocolate Mousse. I still have much to learn on final presentation, but my mixing skills are vastly improved. It was because of my brief time as a member of Team Ludo that I learned just what “beat until light and airy” meant and could make it happen in my own kitchen. It may not mean much to some people, but it’s a huge step forward for me. If only I had a French spoon. Damn quenelles.
I couldn’t be more excited that Ludo is going to soon become a household name. For the next few weeks on Tuesday nights I will be watching “The Taste” with a new appreciation for not only his food, but also the man - who is generous, hard-working, funnier than you’d think and, yes, a bit loud…but only when he needs to be. America is in for a real treat.
Thank you Ludo for an amazing experience I will never forget. Go Team Ludo!
SPICY CHOCOLATE MOUSSE WITH ORANGE OIL
1/2 cup whole milk
2 tablespoons piment d'Espelette
10 ounces bittersweet chocolate, (70% cacao) chopped
4 large eggs, separated
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 1/3 cups confectioners' sugar
1 1/3 cups heavy cream
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Grated zest of 2 oranges (use a Microplane)
To Make the Mousse:
Combine the milk and piment d'Espelette in a small saucepan, cover, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Remove from the heat and set aside for 30 minutes to infuse.
Stir the chocolate in a large heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water until melted and smooth. Strain the milk mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into the melted chocolate and stir to blend. Set the chocolate mixture aside until cool to the touch, about 15 minutes.
Using as electic hand mixer, beat the egg yolks, melted butter, and 2/3 cup of the confectioners' sugar in a medium bowl until light and airy. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites with the remaining 2/3 cup confectioners' sugar until soft peaks form. (You may also use the hand mixer with clean beaters.)
Using a large rubber spatula, fold the egg yolk mixture into the cooled chocolate mixture. Gently fold in half of the egg whites to lighten the chocolate mixture, then fold in the remaining egg whites.
Beat the cream in the mixer bowl until soft peaks form. Fold the whipped cream in the chocolate mixture, making sure not to overmix the mousse, so it retains a light, airy texture. Cover and refrigerate until cold, at least 3 hours, and up to 1 day.
To Make the Orange Oil:
Combine the oil and orange zest in a food processor and blend for 1 minute. Transfer the oil to a container and store in the refrigerator; bring to room temperature before using. This could be made in advance.
Spoon the mousse into wide shallow bowls. Drizzle the oil over and around the mousse.
-Recipe courtesy of LudoBites: Recipes and Stories from the Pop-Up Restaurants of Ludo Lefebvre. ©2012 Ludo Lefebvre. All Rights Reserved. Printed by HarperCollins.