This past weekend, I emceed the cooking tent at the L.A. Times Festival of Books. It was a pretty exhilarating experience: after the jump you’ll see pictures of me and Jackie Collins, Hugh Acheson and Carla Hall. But the highlight for me, personally, was getting to stand next to one of my food heroes–the author of one of my favorite cookbooks of all time, Sunday Suppers at Lucques–while she made two extraordinary dishes in front of a crowd of adoring fans (myself included). That would be Chef Suzanne Goin and this post is about that experience.
The festival of books took place at USC on both Saturday and Sunday and the crowds were enormous. Saturday’s line-up included Chef Goin and Hugh Acheson, who I hadn’t seen since I cooked with him for my cookbook:
(Not sure what’s happening with my hair there.) He made pickles and talked about pickling because he has a new, very cool book out about pickles. It’s called Pick A Pickle; you should all check it out.
On Sunday morning, I showed up at the tent and the room hushed as Jackie Collins entered with her entourage, trailed by book fair paparazzi. (Really: flashbulbs were going off all around her; and fans were sneaking up behind the paparazzi to get their own pictures.) When that died down, I introduced myself to her as the emcee and she actually asked if she could take a picture with me. !!!!!
Don’t you love her pose? She had such an aura about her: you really did feel like you were in the presence of royalty. And as an author who’s sold over 500 MILLION copies of her books, she basically is royalty. (Plus she recently met the Queen and was honored with an OBE; Order of the British Empire.) She was there to promote her new cookbook, The Lucky Santangelo Cookbook. On stage with her, my favorite exchange was this one:
Me: What’s your favorite recipe for seducing a man?
Jackie Collins: Darling, I don’t have to seduce anyone…they all seduce me.
We need to talk about Scott Conant. I was a bit intimidated to share the stage with him after Jackie, having seen him on Chopped; he’s rather intimidating. So when he showed up, I asked if he wanted me to emcee while he was cooking or if he wanted to go it alone. He said I could be up there with him and I sort of gulped because I knew what was coming. When it started, I felt like the goat that’s lowered into the T-Rex cage in Jurassic Park.
Sure enough, he ate me alive; but in a very loving way. At some point he said to the audience: “People think I’m an asshole because of how they edit me on T.V.” Then after he mocked me for being a blogger, I said: “I think you’re more like your T.V. character than you think.”
The food he made, though, was pretty killer. A rib-eye coated in all kinds of spices that he carefully cooked on the stove top, basting it constantly with olive oil. That was great to see. And watching him make pasta aglio e olio was basically a masterclass. As I mentioned in a recent post, he said pasta water should taste like broth (not the sea; that’s a great tip). He also said you want the pasta water to emulsify with the oil in the pan so it’s creamy; that’s how you know you’ve succeeded. I learned a lot.
I’ve gotta tell you about Carla Hall. It was so great to meet her backstage, she’s exactly what you want her to be. We talked about Edna Lewis (she recently visited Omnivore Books in San Francisco and bought an Edna Lewis cookbook), theater, The Chew, Mario Batali, and everything else you can imagine. Then, when I introduced her, she stepped up on to the stage and positively transformed into a larger-than-life performer. She gave the most entertaining cooking demonstration I’ve ever seen:
The crowd absolutely adored her and what became clear is that when people come to cooking demonstrations, they just want a show, not a lecture. You can even mess up the food (Carla may have added the chiles before the eggplant) and the audience will love you even more. Bravo, Carla. You’re a total pro.
And now we come to Suzanne Goin. (Pronounced “go-in” like “I’m goin’ to the store.”)
The best way to begin is this: when I approached the stage at 2 PM on Saturday, Chef Goin was on it tearing the parsley leaves off a head of parsley. Like, the individual leaves. Leaf by leaf. She was placing them in a little container and I figured: maybe she’s being so particular because they’re for a garnish? No, reader. They’d later go into a blender. She was so particular with something that was going to be blended. Why? “The leaves have a very different flavor than the stem.”
I love this woman.
She was there to promote her incredible new AOC cookbook, and the food that she made from it was some of the best food I’ve eaten in a long time.
First up were pea pancakes made with fresh farmer’s market peas that she blended along with some flour and, if I remember correctly, eggs. She fried those in butter and then topped them with a mixture of Dungeness crab and creme fraiche. Here’s her mixing the crab on the Jumbotron with me next to her:
The finished dish looked so good, I had to gobble up one for myself before offering the rest to the audience:
Because I was emceeing, I couldn’t take careful notes while she made this the way I did when I was writing my cookbook about cooking with chefs. But a few observations:
* She formed those perfectly shaped pancakes with just two spoons;
* She tasted constantly as she went along;
* She’s genuinely inspired by the seasons: the reason these were pea pancakes and not corn pancakes is that peas are in season right now. And that’s why they tasted so good.
My favorite thing that she made on stage was a Farro Salad with Spring Vegetables and Feta. Her farro was the best farro I’ve ever tasted. Her secret? She cooks it like risotto; toasting the farro in oil with garlic and chiles and then gradually adding water. (The recipe’s in the book.) It was so fluffy and zingy with garlic and chile notes. As for the vegetables, she cut them so professionally, she made it all look so easily. The finished plate was a work of art:
While cooking all this, Chef Goin answered all of my overly enthusiastic questions about her life and work. She started her career here in Los Angeles by knocking on the door of Ma Maison and asking for a job. That eventually put her on a path that led her to Chez Panisse in San Francisco, Campanile here in Los Angeles (when Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton were still at the helm) and, eventually, France where she worked at one horrible restaurant (“It was a Michelin two-star and they put ketchup in the sauce”) and one incredible restaurant, Alain Passard’s L’Arpege. No wonder she’s so particular about her parsley.
My favorite story was about cooking for President Obama. The secret service came to her restaurant, Tavern, a full week before to scout everything out, to make sure the sink had a hose so they could spray the president down in case of a chemical attack. With all the build-up leading to the dinner there, you’d think the big payoff would be him eating her food. “But the truth is, the president doesn’t eat.”
“He eats before he comes,” she said, a little sadly. Apparently that’s a thing: the president doesn’t actually eat the food at fundraisers. For his safety? For his convenience? Who knows, but how disappointing! (Except Michelle and “the girls” did come to Lucques a few months later and really ate the food.)
It was such thrill to spend 60 minutes Chef Goin on stage; I was so giddy, I almost forgot that 100 people were watching us while we interacted.
And that was my weekend at the L.A. Times Festival of Books. Now, darling, does anyone have a Xanax? I’m beat.