A Celebration of Chefs
I’m not really a baker. I make perfect oatmeal cookies (once every three years), perfect chocolate chip cookies (if really bored – Laraine Newman thinks the Joy of cooking recipe is the best, I just use the one on the back of the Nestle’s chocolate bits bag) The secret to chocolate chip cookies is fresh nuts, if you ask me, the quality of the pecans or the walnuts, changes the equation. Sometimes, if I’m feeling really wild, I’ll make butterscotch chip cookies, same recipe, but butterscotch bits instead of chocolate and totally delicious.
I went through a phase where I made bread (when I was at boarding school in Vermont and there was a Country Store down the road that sold 100 varieties of flour from the grist mill down the road) so it was sort of hard to resist. And we didn’t have a television, but we had a kitchen in our dorm with a sweet old Wedgwood stove and somehow, the smell of bread, and an occasional roast chicken, made it feel somewhat more like home. But I can’t really find good flour any more and fresh baguettes abound.
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.
Living in LA is easy. Eating out here is hard. Sure you can wear whatever you want, and reservations for most places aren't necessary, but the high prices for ho-hum food and lackluster service by kids waiting on you while waiting for their big break (this is not a myth) mostly keeps us at home where the food is at least warm, the company enjoyable and (for us) the wine cellar filled with lovely selections. When we want a fix of beautiful, inventive food, we just turn on Top Chef and watch the pans fly. That's where we discovered Nyesha Arrington.
A contestant on the recent season in Texas, we couldn't help but root for her and Chris Crary, another LA chef to win the top prize. They both seemed, not only genuinely talented, but to be decent people as well. Which is not, by the way, a requirement for a chef, though it probably helps in the kitchen and certainly when you're on reality TV. Unless you want to be cast as the villain. They say all publicity is good publicity, but that is surely a double-sword when you're "playing" yourself. Regardless, we would be able to taste their food and, yes, the fact that we saw them on TV did sway us to go to their respective restaurants. Actors are a dime a dozen. Someone who can cook perfect pork belly truly has my attention.
We met Nyesha at LudoBites 8.0 while she was waiting to be seated. We felt a bit silly, nervous and dorky approaching her to chat, but she was incredibly gracious and I think a bit surprised to be recognized. (She was not eating yet. We would never be so rude as to interrupt someone in that manner.) We told her how impressed we were with her kitchen skills, especially during the Last Chance Kitchen segments, and promised to come into Wilshire soon. (She's the executive chef.) We had been there once - before she took over the kitchen - and enjoyed the experience, so now we were doubly excited.
I just drove by the sweetest scene: an elderly couple picnicking in Palisades Park on Ocean Avenue, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Elderly, I say, when they are probably only ten years older than me. I am eternally drawn to the romantic notion of al fresco dining. (Al Fresco sounds like the name of a gangster gunned down while dining in Little Italy, though not necessarily outdoors.)
I have a fantasy of serving meals outdoors to be eaten on a long picnic table with a vintage French tablecloth and beautiful cutlery and cloth napkins. I also have a fantasy of hiking Mount Kilimanjaro, but it ain’t gonna happen anytime soon.
While I might like the idea of eating outdoors, I hate fighting the elements and the insects. So I never serve a meal outside and don’t really enjoy outdoor dining unless, perhaps, it’s on a screened-in porch. I like a barrier. I will, however, contradict myself and tell you I choose the patio at most restaurants because it can be infinitely more charming. Like, say, at The Ivy. Ivy at The Shore is safer from wind and flying bugs because it’s covered, so that’s the patio I prefer. But the charm of the patio at The Ivy in West Hollywood cannot be beat.
A very romantic, picnic-throwing person lives somewhere deep inside me. But she appears only every twenty years or so. Like a cicada. That’s how often I will organize (I use the word organize loosely, more like throw together) a picnic lunch. I was once obsessed with those terribly expensive picnic baskets that come with plates, napkins, thermos and all. OBSESSED!! Had to have one. Put one on my bridal registry.
Steve Plotnicki and Opinionated About Dining are proud to announce the list of Top 100 Restaurants in America for 2012 as determined by the Opinionated About Dining Survey. Over 3,000 people, including many of the top food bloggers in the country, registered for this year’s survey and contributed more than 70,000 reviews.
The Opinionated About Dining approach to rating restaurants relies on tapping into the experience and opinions from diners who are passionate about where they eat and who describe how strongly they would recommend a restaurant and why. The methodology further gives weight to different kinds of restaurants and survey participants based on factors such as price point and number of restaurants reviewed. The surveys that form the basis of the ratings are open to the general public and can be accessed via Opinionated About Dining.
“If these survey results have shown me anything, it’s that 2012 is and will continue to be an incredible year to dine at some of the most progressive and thoughtful restaurants in recent memory,” says Plotnicki. “Take the number one restaurant of the year, Manresa by David Kinch, a perfect example of a chef and restaurant that are pushing the boundaries and encouraging the culinary industry’s creativity and advancement.”
“Please don’t wake me from this dream!” I said out loud to my husband while eating the brilliant meal in front of me, prepared by my live-in chef. Uh-huh, you heard correctly. My private chef.
Let me take you back five days. I received a late-night email. It was from an old friend, Olivia. She told me her son was here in Los Angeles from London (where they live) and that the minute he arrived, he had a bust-up with his girlfriend. She said that he could use a friendly face. I answered immediately: “Of course, have him call me.”
First call the following day was Oscar, whom I’ve never met. In fact, I have not seen his mother in thirty years. Since he was already in Venice, I asked him to meet me at one of my favorite restaurants, Gjelina on Abbot Kinney. My husband Michael agreed to join us. Oscar, looking lost and forlorn, told us he had planned to take his now ex-girlfriend to Valentine’s dinner here at this same restaurant the following night. We offered our home to Oscar for the rest of his vacation. I didn’t think we would be too intriguing, but later that day he told me that eating lunch with us was the most fun he had had so far in Los Angeles. And when he told us he was a chef, I nearly screamed. Actually, I did, but only internally.
My daughter has the kind of relationship with her grandmother that I envy. I have only one memory of my maternal grandmother; she’s lying in a hospital looking small and old offering me Schrafft’s sourballs out of their clear glass jar. At 55, after birthing 13 children, she died of breast cancer. My paternal grandmother lived with us for a year when I was a girl so I have more memories of her. In each one she is wearing black from head to toe and in all of them, clutching her rosary beads.
Besides the black outfit and the constant Hail Mary’s, I remember my mother describing her as “straight off the boat.” (From Ireland) I also remember the nasty “game” my sisters and I played on her the year she lived with us. We would steal her eyeglasses, hide them and then collect a dollar from her for finding them. That’s it, my pocket full of grandma memories.
My daughter, Siena, though, has a grandmother who, at 93, is very much alive and kicking…and getting awards! Lucky girl, not everyone gets to have the famous recipient of the James Beard Lifetime Achievement award, Cecilia Chiang, for a granny. More of a rock star, Cecilia was never the kind of grandmother who knit booties or baked cookies. She gave gifts of green jade and cooked dim sum!
And I was never the daughter-in-law she could relate to. Back tracking a bit here let me say I’ve had three mother-in-laws and all three have been pretty much the same person only with different cultural backgrounds. A coincidence? In therapy it’s called a pattern!
Millions of people all over the world will open a restaurant menu
today. They will look at menus for the food and the price and make their
selection, then the menu will lay on the table, ignored, an annoyance
taking up elbow space.
Not so for Jim Heinmann, whose new book Menu Design in America: 1850-1985 (Taschen) asks that you set aside the hunger pangs and examine the menu, admire its design. Heimann’s book made its appearance at one of the best-catered signings in recent history. Delicacies and drinks provided by Taschen’s Beverly Hills store’s glamorous neighbors: Mr. Chow, Spago, The Cheese Story Beverly Hills, Vosges Haut Chocolate, The Spare Room and Remy U.S.A.
The dress code was country club casual. I was struck by a number of women with seventy-year old hands and faces as smooth as river stones in pretty summer dresses, light layers of lavender and other gentle shades of purple daringly accented with a coral pink or chartreuse accessory. Their hair was sparse with age but coiffed into cotton candy halos. It was all very Palm Beach or Palm Springs on Easter Sunday, or Beverly Hills before black became de rigueur. None of them smoked, not upstairs at the open-air bar or out on the clean, expansive sidewalk, but their hushed, hoarse voices betrayed a secret habit, some sweet vice recently abandoned.
I think it must be old age. Once upon a time, when a new restaurant opened, my wife, Peggy, and I were the first in line. We would fight for a reservation, make sure to try the newest new thing, and then tell everyone we knew about our latest dining adventure. We just don’t do that all that much anymore. Maybe we have gotten old.
What we like to do now is eat with friends – the chefs, owners, waiters and bartenders who we have gotten to know because we eat so often at their restaurants.
We have made many friends at restaurants over the last few years. One of our friends is Eric Greenspan, the chef and owner of The Foundry on Melrose and The Roof on Wilshire. Peggy and I met Eric when we were taking a walk on Melrose one Sunday. We saw The Foundry, which was closed at that hour, but as we were looking through the window we heard a “May I help you” boomed from up the street. It was Eric coming to start prepping for the night.
We introduced ourselves and told him we were fans of his cooking from when he was at Patina. We used to go there when it was on Melrose, and we were lucky enough to twice sit at the chef’s table, where we got to watch Eric run his kitchen. Far and away the best theater experience we have ever had.
Spending 14-hour days in command of a restaurant kitchen can take a toll, both physically and emotionally. So when it’s time to move on, where do chefs go?
It turns out, not very far. In most cases, successful chefs do not retire in the traditional sense. Instead, they often begin a second act, where they re-invent themselves – in classrooms, lower-key kitchens, or at different kinds of food-industry jobs. Rarely does a dedicated chef completely shut the door on the culinary world.
“There’s definitely an addictive aspect to the restaurant business,” says Richard Hanna, an instructor at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Pasadena.
Hanna, 47, has been an executive chef for restaurants and owns Mission Bistro, a corporate food service company, but a high point of his second act is teaching. He finds students are eager to learn from an experienced chef, and “I’ve been doing this so long I have 3 different ways I can show them” any cooking challenge.