A Celebration of Chefs

crocs_batali.jpgI have always wanted to cook like Mario Batali.

First, I bought a pair of orange crocs. I figured that would be the first step (ahem …first step!!) toward cooking like Mario.I had to start somewhere – so why not start at the ground and work up. (--- Never mind)

Oddly, that actually didn’t work, so I was driven to consider alternative ways… like maybe buying his books instead.  Mario Tailgates NASCAR Style, for example. I am serious. Consider the great recipes in that book, such as Grilled Tequila and Chipotle Rubbed Lamb or Soft-Shelled Crab Sandwich with Spicy Tatar Sauce! My newest addition, which arrived today, is Molto Gusto: Easy Italian Cooking the perfect summer cookbook. (I love the farmers’ market in Martha’s Vineyard where I can stroll around chatting up friends and selecting the wonderful native grown seasonal produce that I will be able to incorporate into his recipes.)

But, I found an even better way of learning to be Mario. I have had the delicious joy of watching him work – up close and truly personal: An auction item from a most worthy charity – Mariska Hargitay’s Joyful Heart – given most graciously by Mario. Clearly a perfect though pricey opportunity to learn from the master! He made his classic white truffle five-course dinner for ten at our home – and what an experience! What delicious subtle flavors! What elegant homemade pasta! What divine truffles! What a cool guy.

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mister chef“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.

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sirensfeast.jpgI’d just finished writing my memoir Siren's Feast, An Edible Odyssey, a coming of age tale filled with recipes from my Armenian youth, my vegetarian restaurant on the island of Ibiza and various exotic locales I’d spent time in. 

When I first told people I had written an autobiographical cookbook, they offered perplexed looks.    

“A what?” was the usual response.

An editor at a large publishing house told me my combination autobiography/cookbook was not feasible for a large bookstore display.    

“Where would it be placed?” she asked.  “In the cookbook section?  With the travel writing?  The biographies?”

“Put it everywhere,” I told her.  “People will figure it out.”

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grannycartI set my tool bag down, tip my granny cart back to its resting position, brush the city off my face, and ring the bell. It is two hours before the guests arrive. My client opens the door, clearly grateful that I do exist - that I did show up - and studies me for a second. I always wonder what image they had of me after only chatting with me on the phone or email. I bet it’s very different than my grinning, artistic, fake-redheaded appearance. Were they thinking gorgeous Giada would arrive? Or, god forbid, some female version of Chef Curtis Stone?

I bet the granny cart throws them for a sec - because it seems like there should be a higher form of transportation for a professional chef and caterer. I’d like to be effortlessly wheeling a stainless steel fridge into their apartment, but New York elevators being what they are… my granny cart is the only way to go. They show me into the kitchen and I survey the immaculate area. Oh, this poor little room doesn’t even know what’s about to hit it. I thank my client, pull a few bags from my cart, and crank the oven on full blast. It’s go time.

The menu for this cocktail party is a progressive pass, which means that, while all the apps are easily eaten while standing, they will become more and more filling as the evening progresses. We’ll start the pass with something light, like a bruschetta with drunken fig paste, fresh ricotta, and red pepper flakes; or nori handrolls filled with an edamame, spring pea puree and topped with avocado mousse and pickled ginger.

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Alton Brown's 18-Carrot Cake

While the name of this cake is 18-Carrot Cake, there are not eighteen carrots in here, nor does it refer to gold in any way, Alton Brown just liked the name.

I make carrot cake every year for my husband's birthday, it's his favorite.  And every year, I make a different recipe for no other reason than to just try another variation.  Why not? This one was quite excellent with a very refined texture.  I love Alton Brown and the science background he puts behind every recipe.  His cookbook goes into deep explanations as to how and why we mix, stir, beat etc.  If you are interested, it's worth the read and gives you reason for doing the things we do in the kitchen.  I like that.

I have always believed many baking failures occur because of mis-measurement of ingredients and over-mixing errors.  I love that Alton's cookbooks give a weight and volume measurement for every ingredient.  I decided to even weigh my spices this time around and it was eye-opening to see how "off" measuring spoons can be in reference to what a certain ingredient should weigh.

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