My usual dinner party process goes like this: a day or two before a dinner party, I grab a handful of cookbooks off my towering cookbook shelf and casually thumb through them. The goal is not to frantically search for the perfect recipe, it’s to let the perfect recipe come to me. Usually that happens best when, while flipping, I meditate on who my dinner guests are going to be and, also, what foods I’m most excited to make. Which is why, on Wednesday of last week, a certain recipe from Michael Symon’s Live To Cook positively lifted itself off the page and smacked me in the face. It was a recipe for an indoor clambake and considering that I was going to be cooking for seven hungry guys for my friend John’s birthday on Friday, a more perfect recipe couldn’t have existed at that particular moment. Now all I had to do was ready myself to make it.
This year, on Craig’s birthday, I had a revelation. My usual instinct to take him out to a fancy dinner on the big day (a tradition that began with an epic meal at Per Se back in 2008) really has nothing to do with Craig’s interests or wants and everything to do with my own. Who likes fancy dinners? I do, not Craig. So this year I asked him point blank if he wanted to go out for a fancy dinner on the occasion and he said he’d actually like it better if I made the dinner here at home. I have to admit, that was pretty flattering–given the option of Thomas Keller food or Adam Roberts food, Craig picked the latter. I knew I had to make this dinner special.
You have to be pretty charming to convince David Sedaris to let you turn one of his stories into a movie. But that’s precisely the quality that allowed filmmaker Kyle Patrick Alvarez to adapt the short story C.O.G. into a terrific film starring Jonathan Groff. Kyle’s our guest this week along with L.A. Weekly food writer Tien Nguyen, who not only helps compose the annual Best of L.A. issue but also just co-authored a cookbook with celebrated chef Roy Choi. Here’s a picture of everyone at the table with their artichokes.
Once upon a time, I Tweeted: “Artichokes: not worth it.”
As with all Tweets like this, it had its share of supporters and detractors. Though I was being tongue-in-cheek, I was also sort of being serious. I hate dealing with artichokes. For my cookbook, the terrific chefs Alex Raij and Eder Montero taught me how to make a gorgeous spring vegetable confit with fava beans and asparagus and lots of green things including the dreaded artichoke. In their kitchen at Txikito, Alex showed me how to cut through the top of the plant, how to trim the stem, how to cut out the choke. When we were done, what looked like a bowling ball suddenly looked like a ping pong paddle. Did it taste good after it was confited? Yes. But was this something I’d really want to do in my own kitchen? Not really. When it comes to artichokes, I’m happy to eat them. But prepping them is the pits.
When you’re having friends over for dinner at 7:30, and it’s getting on in the day, time grows precious and you have to prioritize. Do you spend it shopping or do you spend it cooking? More often than not, I spend it cooking. My usual cooking routine goes: rush to Gelson’s, gather up overpriced ingredients, hurry home, make the dessert, assemble the entree, get things ready for the appetizer and drink a glass of wine while listening to “The Music Man” just as the guests show up. But last week I changed my dinner party strategy. Instead of spending most of my time in the kitchen, I spent it on the road, gathering up great ingredients to see if it made a difference. And you know what? It totally did. That strategy yielded better results than if I’d spent that same time stirring over a stove. Here’s why.
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.
One thing that I like about cooking is that even if think you know a recipe, there’s always a better version lurking around the corner. It’s always possible to make something better. So, for example, homemade hummus: I’ve been making it for a while. Generally, I just strain a can of chickpeas (reserving the liquid), toss it into a food processor with some garlic, some tahini, some lemon juice, a splash of olive oil, salt and a little of that liquid. Whir it up and I’ve got hummus. I’m usually pretty happy with the results.
A few months ago–what seems like an eternity ago–Craig’s mom, Julee, asked if I’d be willing to donate a cookbook dinner for a charity auction to benefit the Whatcom Center for Early Learning in Bellingham, Washington, where she and Craig’s dad, Steve, live. I said, “Sure” and didn’t think twice about it. Of course I’d be happy to cook a dinner for charity, no biggie. Then I forgot all about it. Months passed and then Julee reached back out: the auction item was a big hit. Two couples had paid money (real money) for a meal that would be cooked by yours truly for them and four other people (they could each bring two more people) based on recipes from my cookbook SECRETS OF THE BEST CHEFS. This was really happening. Holy crap, what was I going to cook?