At first I wasn’t nervous. Or, at least, I told myself I wasn’t nervous. My friend Barrett Foa, who agreed to come on The Clean Plate Club, told me that his dream food guest would be Suzanne Tracht, the celebrated chef at Jar here in Los Angeles (also, a Top Chef Master). Before I knew it, Chef Tracht agreed to come over and I found myself in a position I’d never been in before: I was going to cook for a chef. I’d never cooked for a chef before. What would I make? How should I serve it? The night before the dinner, I was wide awake in bed, unable to fall asleep.
Earlier that day–Tuesday, the day before the dinner–I made up my mind that I was going to serve staples, foods that I knew how to make and loved to eat. That would be Caesar salad, spatchcocked chicken with cous cous and salsa verde and, of course, my favorite almond cake for dessert. Instead of cooking on Tuesday, then, I spent the day cleaning. I figured a clean apartment would do more for the experience than a dish that you have to start a day ahead.
But that’s why I was wide awake Tuesday night. Should I have been more ambitious? Could I have cured some pork shoulder? Pickled some cauliflower? Fermented some cabbage? I had a whole lead-up day to cook and I spent it cleaning!
Wednesday morning, I shook off my nerves and faced facts. I couldn’t rewrite the menu now, but I could execute it better than I had before and maybe throw in a few twists. As with all of my dinner parties, I started with dessert. The almond cake came out better than any I’d ever made before because I actually followed the instructions, this time, and sifted the flour before measuring it.
Also: I was very aggressive with the butter when buttering the pan.
Next up? Seasoning the bird. In a small skillet I poured in a healthy amount of cumin seeds, coriander seeds, fennel seeds, a few pequin chiles and some black peppercorns. I toasted them until fragrant and then poured them into my spice grinder:
When cool, I ground them up coarsely. Meanwhile, I cut the backbone out of a chicken, flattened it on a foil lined cookie sheet, patted it with paper towels, and sprinkled it all over with salt. Then I sprinkled it with my spice mixture (I didn’t use all of it; I set the rest aside and used it to flavor the couscous).
Speaking of the couscous, I used the chicken backbone to flavor the water that I’d use to cook the couscous later on. That and an onion. See?
Just turn up the heat, bring to a simmer, skim every so often and cook for 2 or 3 hours until you have a concentrated broth. Nothing goes to waste.
For my Caesar, I decided to use a twist I learned writing my cookbook. Hugue Dufour at M. Wells taught me to use smoked mackerel in place of anchovies for a unique flavor; I couldn’t find mackerel at Gelson’s, but I did find smoked trout.
Put one fillet in the blender along with your other usual Caesar ingredients (an egg yolk, garlic, some mustard, some Worcestershire sauce and lemon juice):
Oh and don’t forget the Parmesan:
Blend and emulsify with olive oil.
That’s a killer Caesar dressing.
But we’re not done with that blender! After cleaning it out, I decided to make my salsa verde in there, even though I like the texture better when I use a mortar and pestle. The problem with that is that it never makes enough; in the blender, somehow I always get more.
I started with garlic, capers, mustard and lemon juice:
Once those were blended, I added lots of parsley and lots of mint:
Finally, I added more oil to emulsify:
This came out creamier than I expected (too much mustard? Too many capers?) but it was super tasty.
As dinner got closer, I popped the chicken into the oven and made my couscous. Just remove the bakckbone and the onion from your shortcut stock and measure out however much you need to cook the whole box. Then flavor it with golden raisins, toasted almonds, chopped parsley, chopped scallions, and some of that spice mixture you have leftover. Olive oil and lemon juice work nicely too. You can let that sit for a long time; the flavors only get better.
Time the chicken so it comes out 20 minutes before you want to serve it (so it has a chance to rest). At this point, my guests were there, drinking wine and getting used to the fact that they were being recorded. It was time to plate the Caesar.
Despite buying three heads of romaine, I quickly realized I should’ve made croutons and roasted some cherry tomatoes to give the salad more verve. As it was, I tossed the romaine with the dressing and topped with lots of Parmesan:
Ignoring the less-than-sexy look, the flavor was really unique with that smoked fish in there. Suzanne said she liked it (you can hear that on the podcast; Barrett takes offense that I don’t care as much what he thinks. I do care but that would be like him singing a song to Stephen Sondheim and Mario Batali. Whose reaction would he obsess about more? I rest my case.)
At last, it’s time to plate the entree. I get all fancy pants and do a sauce swoop on the plate with the salsa verde. Then I pile on the chicken and scoop on the couscous. Take a gander:
Nice, right? Suzanne is all compliments though, when pressed, she tells me (and I don’t think this made the podcast) that next time I should scatter everything with fresh herbs. “Just for presentation?” asks Barrett. “No, it gives a fresh flavor too,” explains Suzanne. (And I really took that tip to heart: last night, I cooked a dinner for our friends Emily and Christie and when I plated the chicken–this time, Thomas Keller’s roast chicken with root vegetables–I scattered everything with parsley and it did make a big difference).
Finally, it was time for the almond cake.
Here’s the happy crew (Suzanne, my friend Diana, filling in for Craig, and Barrett):
Only the almond cake had some competition. Suzanne brought each of us a butterscotch pudding with salted caramel sauce from Jar!
Holy crap, that was insanely delicious.
When it was all over, Suzanne said she had a great time and that the meal was a great success. “That was a perfectly roasted chicken,” she said and I believed her. The takeaway, then, is the following. When cooking for a chef:
* Make the food you love to make, not food that you think a chef will be impressed by; they just want to have fun.
* Don’t obsess over every detail because chefs aren’t scrutinizing you the way they would their employees; a home cooked meal is a chance for a chef to kick up their heels and relax. If you’re stressed out, they’ll be stressed out too.
* Wine makes everything go down smoother.
That night, I slept like a baby. Turns out the hardest part about cooking for a chef is just thinking about the fact that you’re cooking for a chef. Once you let go of that, it’s really just like cooking for a normal person–a normal person who happens to own and run one of the most successful restaurants in Los Angeles.