Life Behind the Party

Wine & Spirits event at the Palace Ballroom

After enduring 9 months of rain, Seattleites relish summer. With clear skies and temperatures hovering around 80 degrees, we make the most of our short, blissful summers. To celebrate, there are an endless number of events throughout the season.

I work with one of the nation's hottest new chefs. Along with his rise in fame, he is approached to participate in every event imaginable.

Trust me.

It's positively staggering.

Typically, the requests roll in months in advance. In February, events are placed on the calendar for August. In the equivalent of restaurant time...that's light years away....

In contrast, for the event coordinators, there's a considerable amount of leg work that takes place months in advance. In one of my past lives, I was a party coordinator, so I understand this perspective. A smooth event depends on a million details, and it's key that each person fulfills their assigned task in a timely manner. Things go sideways in a hurry if they don't.

Juggling between all the players is a huge challenge. I'm sure this list is in no way comprehensive, but a typical event will include considerations for: the main event coordinators, sponsors, board members, patrons, donors, employees, a slew of volunteers, restaurants or caterers, valet & parking lot attendants, entertainers, photographers, sound & electrical technicians, equipment rental companies, health department officials, the liquor board, and in some cases...grounds keepers, auctioneers, film crews, and assorted media.

Behind the scenes for every event, there are a number of "go to" people who make things happen. They are the glue that holds everything together...and it is no easy feat. An event may last just a few hours, but it's mind-boggling to consider the amount of work that goes into one. (If you've ever planned your own wedding... take your guest list, multiply it by 20, have 10 or more restaurants preparing the food, and just for it all under the spotlight of the media. You get the idea.)

For my part, I'm the middleman between the chef and the event organizers. A few weeks beforehand, event coordinators will request the chef's head shot, bio, recipes, written statements, etc. It's a test for me to manage all the deadlines, which usually have printing schedules behind them. Miss a deadline and your copy does not get included in the printed material.

Not only does he depend on me to manage the details, but I'll also nag the chef to write the recipes for publication. And remind him write another recipe when I receive one for rabbit and for this event, we're actually doing fish. (I suppose it's no secret that most chefs hate writing recipes...)

I'll also try to identify what our needs will be in advance. I like to get a visual picture of the space where we'll set up. Will there be two for display and another table behind it where the food will be prepared? Or will chef need to prepare food on the same table as the display? Are the tables rectangle or round? (Depending on the set up, different linens are required.) Is there room for a banner? Behind or in front of the table? What's the clearance? How can we hang it...tape, clamps, or wires? Will the event organizers provide flowers or will we? Who is providing the plates, napkins and utensils? Will they provide ice or hot stations? Will we have access to a kitchen? Will we have power and will it be shared? What's the lighting situation? Where is parking and how close can we get? It's an endless number of details that set other tasks in motion. Of course, you can't plan for every situation, but I try.

This that once seemed so far off in the future, suddenly came in quick succession. It nearly pushed my social-loving self over the edge! Not only did we participate in FIVE of these events, but back at the restaurant, there were the usual large parties, VIP reservations, and a wine dinner.

Here's a peek at the event schedule, with individual servings for each:

Friday: 1200*

Saturday: (early) 1200

(late) 400

Sunday: 1000

Wednesday: 600

*Yes, that means 1200 portions of heirloom tomato gazpacho with avocado oil that some how, miraculously, made it to the event. You see, it was transported on a cart through the crowds at the Pike Place Market. And since the interior gates were locked, we were forced to take gallons of gazpacho over deeply rutted cobblestones in the street. That's typical of the many joys that can happen during off-site events...

But now...the parties are over.

The big hurdles are behind us.

Reflecting on the blur of events, I'm still in awe. I walked away with a deep respect for both the people who organize these events and those who work in restaurant kitchens. They are the hardest working people I know. It truly takes an artist's passion because, honestly, the money is insignificant for most of these folks. (Don't even get me started on the fact that the brainless guy who bags my groceries...makes a higher wage than most of finest cooks in this country. That's for another story...)

I'd like to raise a glass.

To all those who earn their livelihood...making sure we enjoy the party.

I celebrate you.


Perfect Pairings

Friends of mine, Henry and Lorna, met through the food chat forum, eGullet. Dating now for 5 months, theirs is a fabulous story filled with romance, multiple border crossings, and forays with food.

This week, Henry and Lorna are writing a joint blog entry that has been a joy to read. I highly recommend you check it out:

From their dinner Sunday night, Henry shared this beautiful story...

"The story of the Amuse Bouche is related to a speech I gave at a wedding comparing the bride and groom to foie gras and Sauternes:

'When I think of the bride and groom, two things immediately come to mind... goose liver and rotten grapes. (pause for laughter)

You see, the French take the fattened liver of a goose, and call it foie gras. To taste it is to know that it is one of the most extraordinary culinary experiences known to man.

The French also use grapes that have been infected with something called botrytis, also referred to as noble rot. What noble rot does is dehydrate the grape, greatly increasing its sugar to water ratio. So when that grape is pressed for juice, the liquid that comes out is immensely sweet and complex. The wine that is made from this juice is called Sauternes, and is one of the rarest, most expensive, and complex wines on Earth.

Now, the incredible thing about both foie gras and sauterenes is that each of these things can stand individually as a remarkable thing. They would never need anything to add to the greatness they've already achieved own their own....

However, if you take a bite of foie gras, and then a sip of Sauternes, something remarkable happens. They each bring something out of the other that you didn't know was there before. Creating a whole which is somehow greater than the sum of its parts. This is a phenomenon many chefs refer to as "a Perfect Pairing."

There are so few perfect pairings in this world that I feel honored and privileged to take part in another such perfect pairing.'

So that's the story of the Amuse Bouche."

As I've come to know Henry and Lorna (and I'm sure you'll see on their blog)...there's no doubt about it...Henry and Lorna are another perfect pairing.

Not for the Faint of Heart

WARNING: The following post contains graphic content not suitable for those faint of heart...or stomach. If you are happy not knowing where your meat comes from, please do not scroll down. Seriously.

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to work in Porcella's kitchen. To say that I was nervous and filled with apprehension is an understatement. You see, on the agenda for the day's prep was head cheese.

Before I arrived on Saturday, I'd never even had the stuff. As if the name alone wasn't repulsive enough, my only exposure to head cheese was behind Oscar Meyer molded plastic containers hanging in the grocery store. One look at the chunks of unfamiliar bits assured me, I wanted nothing to do with it. Although, I did wonder...why is it called cheese when it was clearly displayed in the meat section?

In all honesty, I couldn't even bear the sight of head cheese. Back in the day when I actually ate packaged meat for the masses, I was happy to choose the safe and more familiar bologna. Maybe the ingredient list for bologna included things I'd rather not think about, but at least the manufacturer had the courtesy to grind the contents unrecognizable!

When I ran into Noah and he agreed to let me come play in the Porcella kitchen, I had visions of a French bistro experience--making sausage, terrine, or confit. No, instead, he took endless amusement telling me we'd be making head cheese. Every part of my girly self screamed, "Ewww...."

I have been known to be quite gullible and part of me hoped this was a big joke. I searched his face for the tell tale sign of a prank. Nothing. He was serious. HEAD CHEESE. There was no getting out of this. After all, I'd been bugging Noah to let me come for weeks. We had a few beers and then he said, "I won't blame you if you don't show up tomorrow." That sealed the deal. The gauntlet was thrown. This was about honor now! I had to go.

That morning, I dragged myself out of the house. I decided to skip breakfast--the thought of making head cheese was already gross enough. No need for me to add any drama by loosing my breakfast over this.

When I arrived at the shop, it was clear there may have been a wager placed on whether I'd show up. I faked it with my best bravado, "Of course I'd be here!!!"

Once I stepped into the kitchen, Noah wasted no time getting started. He emerged from the walk-in, triumphantly holding the pig's head like a prize. (Drum roll....)

Unwrapped and resting on the cutting board, I studied the head. I'd never been this close to any whole animal I consumed on a frequent basis. While Noah gathered together his giant saw and splitter, I made my peace with the pig. Then, at some point, my universe shifted and the pig became an object rather than a being. Why, I'm not really sure. I'm still pondering that point.

Breaking the moment, Noah arrived at the prep table with his tools. The saw was at least 3 feet long! Adding to the surreal experience, the saw resembled one I vaguely remember my dad using to cut firewood. The splitter was a tool I'd never seen before but it had the hefty look of a hardware tool--clearly invented for another purpose.

The pig was in a sad state from the beginning. It was missing an eyeball and around both sockets, for some reason, the eyelids had been removed.

Swiftly, Noah set to work (and thankfully spared me the task of actually doing the sawing). He explained, "There's no waste here. The only things we don't use are the eyes and the brain. They both give off a bitter taste, so we remove them. Other than that, everything gets used." He removed the sole remaining eye and set it aside.

With his thumb wedged into the pig's ear for leverage, he began sawing, straight through the middle.

Once the head was split, the brain was removed. It was in two segments, both encased and easily removed intact. The two lobes of the brain were approximately 4 oz. each--roughly the size of the palm of my hand.

Finally the head is clean and ready to be cooked--ears, skin, teeth and all. (Notice Noah's skull and coffin tattoo.)

The two halves of the head were put into a large pot. Added were trotters (hooves), carrots, celery, and a cheese cloth nest of spices. The pot was filled with water and let simmer for 6 hours.

After I left and the simmering was complete, Noah let the head cool down and then picked it clean. What is remains is packed into a mold with the cooking liquid, which was reduced down to about 8 cups. According to Noah, no gelatin is needed because of the addition of the trotters.

I stopped in the store a couple days later and sampled his handiwork. For all my anxiety and trepidation, the head cheese was really anti-climatic. It really didn't taste as strange as I expected. Noah served it with vinegared onions, coarse mustard, and bread. I have to admit, it was quite tasty.

As an added bonus...Noah was kind enough to send me the process of those onions...which were amazing. Here's what he said, "Red wine pickled onions are a pretty standard pate condiment, I make mine with red wine, red wine vinegar, sugar, salt, bay leaf, coriander seed and mustard seed. Bring to a boil, add onions , cook for about 5 minutes, turn off heat and leave onions in pickling juice until cool. Strain and use. "

In all honesty, this experience was one that left me with more questions than answers. I was surprised at my reaction...both in approaching something so completely new to me, and of the shift in my thinking. When did the pig simply become a "thing" to me? At what point did I become desensitized?

Now I realize how far removed I am from the food I eat. In countries around the world, what I witnessed is a normal part of life. Yet in my Western idealized world, without putting a "what if..." in motion, I could have lived my whole life never getting up close and personal with the food that reaches my table. I'm grappling with what that means, and what I'm going to do about it. Stay tuned.

Charcuterie, part I: Click here.

Be Careful What You Ask For

Sometimes my "What if..." moments don't necessarily turn out the way I imagine....

Noah Mellich is the guy behind the amazing charcuterie at Porcella--and since their opening, he's been giving the more well-known Salumi a run for their money!

Coincidently, I happen to have a budding desire to learn how to make my own sausages and confit. In one of my a classic "What if..." moments, I asked if Noah would let me come play in his kitchen. Who better to learn from but a master, right?

Noah agreed, but somehow, we never connected. Weeks went by. Either he didn't need to replenish his stock or the time wasn't right. Last night I ran into Noah and happily, my luck took a turn for the better.

Finally, the moment was ripe and he relented. "Come in tomorrow at 10:00am."

I was so excited...I totally jumped at the chance!

We talked a little bit more and then I learned about THE CATCH.

With a wry grin, he said "Yeah, I'm making head cheese."


Clearly enjoying my girly squeamishness, he offered, "I'll let you saw the pig's head open."

Oh God.

"It makes a fantastic sound when you crack through the skull."

Oh dear God.

Then he goes on to explain, "It's a two day process, but you get to do the best part."

I rally and think, "Hey, I could really learn something here." I start to get excited again.

"You can scoop out the brain!"


With such a sweet boyish face, a ready grin....and a biblical name to boot...who knew Noah had such an evil side? Okay, seriously, I'll admit...the guy does have a full tattoo sleeve of skulls. Somehow, I managed to overlook that. (Note to self: pay attention to the clues!)

A few short hours's the day. Even though I didn't get home until the wee hours last night, I woke up long before my alarm went off. I'm unbelievably grossed out by the thought of this.

However, I believe in trying everything once. I am going. Carpe diem, right???

While I decide whether or not to eat breakfast--wish me luck.
Today I just might become a vegetarian.

Charcuterie, part II: Click here.

S'more Memories

Years ago, my friend Lisa and I would get together for girl's night in. Those nights never failed to involve great food, long discussions and lots of laughter. Time easily slipped away, leaving our carefully selected chick movies for another day.

My friend Lisa is also famous for creating really special moments. One night, after a trip to Whole Foods, she showed up at my house and said, "Grab a candle." As I searched, she called after me, "Make sure you get one you don't care about!" I laughed...only girlfriends would know you have "special" candles and others that are less worthy.

With a big green post-Christmas sale candle in hand, I joined her in my living room. She was busy setting up the coffee table with her Whole Foods treasure: really good chocolate, graham crackers, and the famous house-made vanilla and chocolate marshmallows. With the winter rain drizzling outside, we hovered over the candle's dim flame with chopsticks. Yes, chopsticks. Roasting marshmallows with chopsticks proved to be an art form--trying to properly toast the marshmallow without actually burning the chopsticks. It sounds rediculous now, but hey, that's the stuff of long lingering memories.

Photo from Recchiuti Confections

Today, my dear friend Lisa is getting married. Her beau, Grant, is one lucky guy. I'm sure Lisa will fill their years together with many special memories.

Thanks to the amazing chocolatier, Michael Recchiuti, I have found them the perfect gift....a S'mores kit!

As I filled out the order form, a poetic moment swept over me. I sent the kit with the following message:

May your life together be…like good chocolate with the bitterness balanced sweetly…marshmallowed with moments of sweet bliss…optimally sandwiched together to build delicious memories…and always best enjoyed with a burning flame.

Do you know Vixen?

I attended a dinner where each course was paired with champagne and sparkling wine. Since then, I've been shamelessly enjoying more than my share of bubbly. Now I'm normally a red wine girl, but I've discovered the best of both worlds: Vixen from Fox Creek. This is a sparkling Shiraz (yes, that's right!) and it's fabulous. I love pouring it into a glass...watching the line between liquid and effervescence shift in color from dark plum to a bubbling magenta. At just under $20 a bottle, Vixen is a steal. The only problem is trying to track it down. One wine shop I visited was sold out and at my neighborhood Whole Foods, I snagged the last bottle. Like searching for a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, it makes me smile to think...I'm on the hunt for an elusive Vixen!

Nosh from the Bivalve Bash

Throughout the year, Taylor Shellfish runs a brisk business--supplying restaurants with a variety of locally harvested clams, mussels, goeducks, and oysters. Around Seattle, you can also find Taylor Shellfish goodies at the farmer's markets. In the summer, the annual Bivalve Bash is held at the home "office" of Taylor Shellfish Farm.

What festival could be complete without some great food? Forget the typical American festival offerings of corndogs and elephant ears! At the Bivalve Bash, they served up the best of the Pacific Northwest--including wild harvested salmon with fry bread. Prepared by a local Native American tribe, the salmon is grilled on sacred skewers.

Next up were the smoked oysters featuring a global selection of toppings: chipotle, plum sauce and ginger, plain or lobster aioli, or a combo of spinach, bacon, garlic and parmesan . With a never ending line, these folks went through hundreds of oysters. No wonder...they were fabulous!

While they didn't serve goeduck this weekend, the chef I work with serves this raw...sashimi style. Burrowed deep in the sand, I learned goeduck are harvested by shooting powerful jets of water to reveal the coveted bivalve.

Forget calling out S.O.S....send wine...and leave me to enjoy the incoming tide!