Cooking for Those Racing to the Bottom

1 September 2010

I got the call way too early for my taste [ed. note – the way my insomnia manifests varies, but lately it has me finally finding sleep just after sunrise. So calls before 9am are highly unpleasant.] Her voice was way too perky for pre-caffeinated discussion. However, she quickly identified herself as a new client, so I rallied my attentions to have a good conversation. We coverec her planned date (last Saturday,) how she came to contact me (referral from this client,) the number of guests, style of food, and then I heard the two words that stir concern in the heart of any service industry professional:

Bachelorette Party

I have long considered the pre-marriage descent into bacchanalian excess to be to be in the same category as tequila shots, dates with ex’s, and Kevin Costner films*. That is to say: things that have the patina of a good idea but whose shine quickly fades leaving nothing but the dull hue of impending regrets.

Against better judgment, and all prior experience, I took the gig anyway. Mostly because it was a referral from a good client, but also because August is too slow of a month to turn down business. I did have a couple of conditions:

  • I will not be making anything in the shape of a penis.
  • I will not use any cheesy double-entendres in the names of any dish, cocktail, or wine.
  • Should there be any strippers involved in the evening, they may not appear until after the dessert course had been cleared.

…and I still knew that it was a bad idea.

The second indication that I should have rejected this gig, was the host preference that I not hire an assistant for service and prep (six guests are not too much for me to handle solo, but the evening goes so much more smoothly with another set of hands.) I certainly should have expressed more concern when the wine order included double the booze that I would have stocked for my hard-drinking friends.

The host, the bride-to-be, and two bridesmaids were already there when I arrived four hours before the cocktail hour. The first hour of prep proceeded without a hitch… then they all came into the kitchen. I don’t mind questions while I cook but after the second bottle of champagne was popped, their queries took a decidedly more lurid tone. It was the laziness and insincerity of the flirtations that bothered me most. None of them were truly directed at me as much as they were intended for an objectified me – I was simple a placeholder representing any man in their proximity. The pack dynamic was fully displayed with each of these woman trying to one-up the others. It was unseemly.

By the time I served the Prosecco Poached Berries with Hazelnut Whipped Cream I had endured a handful of inappropriate touches, too many flaccid innuendos to count, and overheard a baker’s dozen of suggestions about ways to use “any sauce [I] had left over.”

[ed. note: I am not suggesting – even for the split second it takes to over-poach an egg – that my experience is in any way comparable to what too many women endure in the presence of undignified men.]

As I was cleaning, the host and the maid of honor came into the kitchen to thank me for my efforts, and to “apologize if the girls got a little too rowdy.” The host, followed that by placing a handful of bills in the back pocket of my jeans as a tip.

I was almost done packing my things when she came into the kitchen once more.

Refugee, everything really was lovely, I’m never cooking for a dinner party again. Are you available the first Saturday of October for another dinner of about the same size?”

No, I’m not” I replied with a full stop that I hoped would prevent further inquiry.

Oh, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that you’re booked that far in advance” the host said with a slight slur.

I should have left things there, but my lessor demons shouted down the better angles so I responded “I didn’t say I was booked, just that I’m not available.”

*exceptions made for The Untouchables & Bull Durham… and maybe Dances with Wolves too


Sunday Morning Mashup

23 May 2010

I ran into the worst clients and most awful couple ever the other day.

I was taking advantage of a lovely afternoon and spent a few hours on the patio of one of my favorite swanky hotels.  My only table companions were a cigar, an open bottle of champagne, and Todd Kliman’s new book The Wild Vine.  Sam and Toni breezed by me on the way to their own table on the opposite side of the courtyard.  My first thoughts of gratitude for having gone unnoticed were soon eclipsed by dread when I saw them waving at me and beckoning me to come join them.

I knew I should have just ignored them, but I try to be civil even with people this obnoxious when they used to be clients.  There was mindless chitchat that lasted about two excruciatingly long minutes.  There was a request for me to check my schedule for availability to do a dinner party for them.  There was general obfuscating on my part.  Just after we were said our perfunctory and worthless goodbyes but before I had actually turned my body to walk away, Sam said “Say Refugee, Toni has allergy problems, you mind putting out your cigar.”

It was all statement, there was no trace of request or favor, and it was said through that smug and entitled smile.

I had no pithy comeback, no well timed soliloquy on their pernicious sense of privilege, I just stood for a pregnant moment, returned the entitled smile and said “Absofuckinglutely I would mind, have a good day.”

******

Artie Shaw would be celebrating his 100th birthday today.  He was a brilliant player of several reed instruments, a prolific composer and big band leader, and by just about every historical account, a really stand-up guy.  He also happened to be the first musician to put a black singer, Billie Holiday, in front of a white band… and toured the South no less.

His most famous recording is Begin the Beguine and is considered by anyone worth their dancing shoes to be among the greatest big band songs ever.  Go ahead and listen… I dare ya not to bop your head.


Confidentially Forgotten

4 May 2010

I’ve done it dozens of times – spent 40+ hours planning a menu, writing specifications for said menu, sourcing and shopping, writing the tick-tock of event day, and then finally cooking for twelve hours.  For some strange reason, each time I do it I will forget more than a couple of things.  One recent weekend the “I Forgot/Didn’t Finish List” included the following:

  • I didn’t finish the tick-tock of the days events – a schedule of each activity that needs to be completed in each 15 minute segment for things to happen smoothly.  I blame the Happy Hour I happily attended because the lovely Paige was in town from Philly.
  • I forgot that even the best plans collapse under reality’s weight the first time something goes to hell.
  • I forgot that something always goes to hell inside of the first hour.
  • I forgot a couple of random kitchen tools and left one key ingredient on my kitchen floor because I didn’t get to print my final checklist.
  • And for the first hour after I picked up the woman who would be assisting me in the kitchen, I most certainly forgot to breathe.

Lexa and I have been friends for a while now but this was the first opportunity that we have had to work together.  I wasn’t presenting the calm, everything’s-under-control image that I would have liked.  I drove and shifted gears like a man in a hurry, mumbled about traffic, rainy weather, and general frustration, before Lexa dissolved my tension by saying “Refugee, you know I don’t like having to be the positive one!”

That comment was enough for me to get my swing back.  The rest of the trip to get the rented glassware involved some clown car like moments with all of the supplies and four racks of wine glasses crammed into a Jeep… and I might have been uncharacteristically directionally challenged too.

After finally arriving at the client’s home, there was another key moment that added copious amounts of levity to the afternoon.  After unloading two armfuls of supplies and sundries, I was returning to the Jeep and walked right into the glass screen door just like one of those birds in the Windex commercials.  Lexa may have laughed hysterically for a few moments.

We quickly settled into our rhythm and began cooking.  About an hour before service, The Pistol arrived to help with final prep and to be the primary server.

The menu was a Standing Degustation with 11 courses:

  1. Caprése Salad Skewers with 10 year Aged Balsamic Vinegar and Shallot infused Olive Oil
  2. Guacamole Mousse with Lardons of Black Forest Bacon
  3. King Salmon Tartar
  4. Blue Cheese and Jalapeño Beignets
  5. Mini Asiago Cheese and Mushroom Frittatas with Baby Spinach
  6. Gazpacho Soup Shots
  7. Chicken Confit Tacos with Hot Pepper Butter and Arugula
  8. Truffled French Fry Cones
  9. Petite Grilled Cheese with 4 Year Cave-Aged Cowgirl Creamery Cheddar, Prosciutto and Hot House Heirloom Tomatoes
  10. Pork Tenderloin Sliders with Roquefort Butter, and Fried Shallot Rings
  11. Mint Chocolate Mousse with Frozen Peppermint Patty Crumbles

Except that it was only ten courses because right at that moment in the night when several courses had gone out and with a few more to go, Lexa dropped the whole try of the mini grilled cheese onto the floor and open oven door.  This was my turn to repay the calming favor.  I moved over to Lexa, gave her a big hug, kissed her on the cheek and said “It’s not a big deal, seriously, not a big deal, we gotta move on.”

That was the only food-hiccup in a night that began with more than a couple of client induced hiccups.  None of them mattered, however, because the food was inspired, and great food erases a multitude of sins.

After we had fed all guests into submission and before we started cleaning, I grabbed a couple of beers and Lexa, The Pistol and I went outside for a quick break and that’s when I realized I’d forgotten a couple of other things too:

  • Cooking for twelve hours is physically exhausting… like, no other frame of reference exhausting
  • Cooking for twelve hours is exhausting but when the food is great, and you know the food is great, the client knows the food is great, and the guests are giving you insane compliments that they cannot possibly mean literally, it’s also kind of exhilarating too.
  • No beer I’ve ever had in my life could taste better than the one I have at the end of a night… unless I shared the experience with friends.

And the Winners Are? Valentine’s Day Contest

2 February 2010

When I announced the Valentines Day Chef Contest, my ambition was to donate a bit of time and provide a memorable experience for someone who deserves it.  Hopefully it would be one of the things that my friend Brad calls The 100 Ways.

Thank you to everyone who sent me an email or left a comment to nominate someone – there were more than 40 of them nominating more than 60 recipients.  Reading them touched me in ways that made me want to do even more.  So instead of using Random.org to select one name to receive one dinner for two, I used the site to draw two names to each receive dinner for four.

While the increase in the dinners and diners necessitates some changes in scheduling, I will work that out with the winners. Who are:

Winner #1 nominated by I’m Gonna Break Your Heart: I’d like to nominate my friends S&B. S is a special ed teacher at a DC Charter school. B works for a non-profit that connects homeless people to city services. In short, B spends his days walking the streets of DC, rain or cold or heat, seeking out homeless and making connections with them. They are the most compassionate couple I know.

Winner #2 nominated by Mese: Let me tell you a little bit about Nicole
She is a fighter- after years in foster care she decided to work in the child welfare field to make sure other children don’t have to struggle with no support from a loving, permanent family.

She is tried and true- when given the opportunity, Nicole has ditched vacation and forgone sleep to write, speak, teach, lead- anything to help spread the word on the reasons no child should go to bed in fear or without a home.

She is committed- friends and family have been welcomed into Nicole’s home as a refuge from hardship without anything expected in return, despite her no-profit salary.

I’ll be contacting the winners via the people who nominated them and I look forward to updating all of you with stories of the dinners and hopefully a recipe or two.

Thanks again to everyone who reads, comments, and generally make this place worth populating with my scribbles.


An Idea, A Notion, Some Inspiration, A Contest, and Dinner?

8 January 2010

If I can’t use this blog to do something for others, then what is the point of having it?  That was the question, the notion that was in my head when I was having a beer and a burger with the irrepressibly funny LiLu and her boyfriend B.

I told them of a rough idea I had about offering my private chef service to a couple who couldn’t ordinarily afford to hire me.  Valentine’s Day weekend is a very busy and profitable period for me and I explained that I was feeling this desire to reserve that Friday night, 12 February, for some teacher, or social worker, or Hill Staffer, or really anyone who has a heart of gold but not the bank account to match.  I just didn’t know the best way to find that person.

B gave me the perfect idea: have people nominate someone besides themselves and then do it as a raffle.

And with that, the RR Valentines Personal Chef Raffle begins.

The Rules:

  • You cannot nominate yourself.
  • You can nominate as many people as you want.
  • Nominations can be made via a comment in this post, or by sending me an email (restaurantrefugee at gmail dot com.)
  • All nominees must reside in the DC metropolitan area.
  • Nominations must include your email, a brief description of why your nominee should be included (i.e. My friend John is a really terrific teacher who would never do this for himself but really deserves it.)  You should also feel free to be as verbose as you deem necessary to fully elucidate your reasoning.
  • Nominees should not be fully identified to protect their privacy.
  • Nominees do not need to be a couple in the romantic sense (i.e. if you have two good friends who are meritorious and they don’t have plans for Valentines Day.)
  • Due to other commitments, the date is largely inflexible, but some reasonable accommodations can be made.
  • You may nominate vegetarians – you may not nominate vegans.
  • I may reject any nominee if the reason for nomination trips my bullshit sensor or seems otherwise insufficient.
  • Each nominee will be assigned a number.  All numbers will be placed in a bowl and one will be pulled at random by a third party – someone with a webcam and a penchant for making videos (LiLu, thanks for volunteering) and will be posted on the web.
  • Nominations will be accepted until 26 January.  The drawing will take place within 48 hours of the close of the nominating process.

p.s. in case you’re wondering what type of dinners I prepare for my clients (and don’t have the inclination to sift through the archives to find them,) the following menus are my favorites of the past year:

A Summer Anniversary Dinner for Six:

Canapés

  • Big Eye Tuna Tartar in corn tortilla cups
  • Caprese Salad Skewers drizzled with 10 year aged Balsamic
  • Mini Grilled Cheese: gorgonzola, prosciutto, and tomato on grilled baguette

Amuse Bouche: Sweet Corn Velute with olive oil poached lobster and Parmesan Beignet

First Course: Pork Cigars

Slow cooked pork and mascarpone cheese in a tissue paper potato shell with a spiced apple cream sauce and petite arugula and micro green salad

Soup Course: Shrimp Bisque

North Atlantic Prawns in a tomato based bisque with a six hour roux

Third Course: Beef and Potatoes

Braised Beef Short Ribs with a spinach and artichoke cassoulet, truffled French fries, and reduction of braising jus

Sweet Course: Apple Slapple Sweet

Cinnamon and sugar glazed apples in a deep fried spring roll with cognac & caramel sauce.

Cheese Course: Cheese and Accoutrements

Selection of Cowgirl Creamery Cheese with slivered almonds, wildberry compote, and truffled honey.

Cajun Themed Holiday Dinner for Ten:

Amuse Bouche: Shot of Guacamole Soup with essence of Black Forest Bacon

Canapés

  • Cajun Sushi Roll with Andouille Sausage, Pimento Cheese and Anaheim Peppers
  • Blue Cheese Gourgeres
  • Shrimp and Jalapeño Hush Puppies

First Course

Seafood Gumbo Or Chicken and Sausage Gumbo

Entrée Course

Tagliatelle Pasta with Jambalaya style Sauce Or Red Snapper with Heirloom Tomato and Basil Sauce

Dessert Course

Mint Chocolate Mouse topped with frozen and crumbled Peppermint Patty Pieces

Fall Dinner for Four*

Salad of Asparagus “Linguini” with Wild Mushrooms, Pancetta and Poached Quail Egg

Pumpkin and Roasted Pine Nut Bisque with Garlic and Truffle Au Jus

Lamb Tenderloin Medallions with Lamb Shank Confit Spring Rolls and Spinach & Artichoke Cassoulet

Cheese Course: Cheese and Accoutrements

* they didn’t get an amuse bouche because it was this couple


And the R-Cubies Go To…

29 December 2009

Shameless Solipsism and a Couple of Wet Kisses have arrived in the form of the first annual (probably never do this again, but whatever) Restaurant Refugee Rewards or R-Cubes for short.  They are a collection of some of the posts of the last twelve months that had particular meaning to me, or got me in trouble, or simply had subjects that lent themselves to making another joke.  There are also a few other people’s work receiving awards today – though not nearly as many people as should get them so there maybe another installment of this tomorrow.

And the R-Cubies go to…

The Carrie Prejean Award for Pretty but Vapid Restaurants goes to Bar Dupont.

The What Would Happen If Dr. Ruth Looked Like Ginger Award for Sexpert Advice in the blogosphere goes to City Girl Blogs.

The Hallmark Award for Best Invention of a Holiday goes to National Crush Day

The Carl Lewis Sings the National Anthem Award for Shoulda Stuck to What you Know goes to All of my Attempts to Write Memes – Except this one which I thought was really good.

The James Lipton Award for Seemingly Simple but Terrifically Textured Questions goes to Megabrooke of Skrinkering Hearts who asked me “How Much is Too Much” in that interview meme that was going around at the beginning of the year.

The Infield Fly Rule Award for things you Should Know but Maybe Didn’t goes to Advice for Black Tie Galas and Capitol Hill Style’s Ball Tips and Tricks for Ladies that inspired it.

The Cowbell Award for Things I Need More of goes to Jimmy & Sophia.

The Urban Dictionary Award for Teaching me my Favorite New Phrase, Skin-Hungry, goes to I’m Gonna Break Your Heart.

The Oscar Wilde Award for Booze as Creative Lubricant goes to My Weekend as Three Rounds of Jeopardy.

The Max Roach Award for Consistently Leaving Comments Better than the Post that Inspired Them goes to my friend Brad.

The Joe Isuzu Award for Forcing Me to Be Creative with Truth goes to the Unnamed Woman Who Inspired This Post.

The Sarah Silverman Award for my Favorite New Funny and Irreverent Blogger goes to –The Fooler Initiative–.

The Don Imus Award for Unintentionally Causing Controversy goes to The Open Letter to a Few Women and the Subsequent Follow-Up.

The Snuggie Award for Ideas that Seemed Fun Conceptually but in Reality Not So Much… goes to Blog Reader Bingo.

The If Dr. Phil Wasn’t Such a Tool Award for Good Advice Given goes to A Guide to Fighting Fairly.

The Jennifer Tilly Award for Fiction Inspired by both Women and Poker goes to Playing Poker with an Old Foe.

The Donald & Ivanka Trump Award for Being Married to Each Other and Not Inflicting Themselves on Anyone Else goes to Sam & Toni.


Giving Help, Giving Thanks

27 November 2009

As I was doing kitchen prep on Wednesday evening, I realized that I didn’t have enough of a couple of things.  Not a big deal, I figured I would swing by the market on my way to my friends place on Thanksgiving.  That morning, like any day when I plan to cook for nine hours, I put on my chef coat.

Walking into a grocery store on thanksgiving morning in a chef coat was not my best idea ever.  It took me almost an hour to buy three bulbs of garlic and two shallots.  There was the question about if a turkey could be over brined (yes but it would take days,) and the one about how long a bird should rest (depends on weight,) a couple about stuffing, and one or two about things I can’t remember.

Yes, I was running late, but only a particular kind of asshole wouldn’t help someone on Thanksgiving morning.  I am not that kind of asshole.

Ten minutes after I finally left the store I went to a coffeeshop near my friend’s house.  The gentleman handed me my large coffee and said “You’re working today too, the coffee’s on the house.”

Sometime’s karma is instant.


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