Observations While Drinking and Watching a Professional Chef
My wife & I hosted this event last week at Magnolia Gardens in Sherman Oaks (aka our house).
This was a precursor for a business we are hoping to launch with Chef Christian Navarro of L.A. pop-up kitchen Starry Kitchen (and previously, Hella Fraiche & Haute Skillet). We had a small gathering of friends to serve several purposes:
1) utilize the literal ‘garden to table’ technique
2) verify that our home could sustain larger events in the future
3) enable another medium for my wife to expand her reach with decor, design & table settings
4) enjoy a summer kickoff featuring fresh, awesome food
5) to see whether or not I could forsee myself evolving from a cook to a chef
While I consider myself an urban gardener with some substantial produce yields to prove it, my kitchen skills are that of a cook, not a chef. As Michael Ruhlman accurately states, All cooking comes down not to recipes but rather to techniques. I can follow a recipe with the best of ’em, but I really don’t know what I’m doing in the kitchen. Not in the sense of an Iron Chef or even an Aluminum Chef. . .maybe a Tupperware Chef.
While I realized this through my incessant readings (Buford, Bourdain, Ruhlman, Gabrielle Hamilton, McGee) and all-over-the-map recipe following (cilantro pesto, succotash, flatbread pizza, ahi poke, turmeric tortillas), it never really became fact until I was able to Work in (observe) the Kitchen with a Professional. These are some of the key takeaways & learnings from my experience with Mr. Navarro:
Come Prepared: Christian showed up with no less than three coolers, one five-gallon bucket, four grocery bags, a mini-refrigerator, a litany of pots, pans & plates, and some of the coolest ingredients he could find at farmer’s markets and ethnic grocers. This was after a full six hour evening of prep work (which included some sauteeing, braising, slicing, pre-heating and chopping, as well as herb gathering). Here is a sample of the prep work after the prep work, and how the inside of one of coolers looked. Easy recognition & access for ingredient uses when its game time.
Materials: use what you have, and the best you can find. One of the coolest aspects of the evening occurred before he began cooking. Christian took one look at the beautiful slate floor my wife had installed in the kitchen and immediately asked, do you have any slate/tiles that I can use? Sure enough, we did – and below was the dish that was presented utilizing the tiles AS the serving vessel. Striking, unique, useful. . .and it received a wonderful reception. Gorgeous usage, great thought.
Preparation of food: I can’t fathom attempting to recreate or explain the numerous styles & techniques used by Mr. Navarro, but one example that was so simplistic yet sui generis was his seared avocado dish. Apologies for the poor picture (below), but as an avid avocado fan that believes the best avocado was a natural avocado, I am now a convert to this preparation. Maintaining the core flavor profile & texture of avocado while adding additional layers of subtle flavor and a slight crunch enhanced what I heretofore believed was a perfect food item.
Pre-plating: Some of this food was gorgeous before it even hit the plate. Take a look at the lamb chops below; herb smothered, seared, broiled, aerating on a grate. Almost pulled a Homer Simpson with the drool coming out of my mouth on this one. Look but don’t touch was a common theme in the kitchen here. And we’re not even discussing the smells yet. . .
Stay Organized at all Times: managing 11 courses in different phases of finishing simultaneously is more than a juggling act; it’s a Venice Beach bowling ball/chainsaw/marble caliber sideshow. It sounds simple, but clearing out space and keeping ingredients for particular ingredients confined in an area
Drinking is Bad: Okay, okay – drinking is great. That said, I pounded about nine of these Session Lager beers throughout the evening – which explains my lousy picture-taking – and also clouded both my ability to Sous Chef and recollect. While the evening was enhanced by the buzz (and surprising smooth Lager flavor of this Oregon-based microbrew), my skillset was severely depleted.
Three Words – Foie Gras Butter: unfortunately I was in another mental state when Christian introduced this amazing concept/ingredient, and thusly don’t have a photo. The yellow, smooth, heavenly substance was probably the richest single spoonful (yes, I begged and pleaded to try it raw) of food I’ve had. Apparently, it’s the fat that comes off of the seared foie gras prep, colllected and coagulated and utilized to infuse love into a dish. My goodness. Amazing.
I Don’t Know Sh*t: This, my friends & readers, is a true professional. Note the preciseness, the approach, the aforementioned observations and the eye for detail. . .on the other hand, I was best served to. . .
Stay Out of the Way: Simply put, do not bother a craftsman with his art. Christian was & is a true professional, and the entire evening – from prep to plate, from creation to cleaning, from timing to temperament – was awesome, no thanks to yours truly. In short, the less I tried to help, the better off we all were. And that’s the way it should be.
Again – amazing thank you to Christian Navarro, Mr. Hella Fraiche, Mr. Burgers & Beats and soon to be Mr. Dinnerfor15. Stay tuned, follow @hellafraiche, and keep Magnolia Gardens in mind when you need an amazing event for your closest culinary compadres.