Guess Who Came to Dinner?

Tony Bourdain, author of "Kitchen Confidential", "The Nasty Bits", and host of
Travel Channel's "No Reservations"

Sometimes my "What if..." moments go deliriously well....

I had a new client.

This time last year, I was working as a guest chef booker for a local cooking school and their secret underground restaurant (shhhh...).

Rising to the challenge, I wanted to put Seattle on the map...and draw in some big names. (True to my nature, I never think small!)

So I sent out several e-mails...and invited some culinary superstars to our little corner of the world.

What did I know????

In hindsight, not much.

Certainly not enough to be intimidated....that would come later!

I sent the following e-mail to Tony Bourdain's people:

"Flying under the radar of the authorities...this (underground restaurant) is where Seattle chefs come to play! The clientele is sophisticated foodies who appreciate all the chef's creativity--no worrying about profit margins or what will sell. Two nights a month, this crowd gathers, underground at an undisclosed location, for pure culinary magic! Would Tony like to come out and play with us?"

Two months later, I received this response:

"I'm the segment producer for the series 'Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations'. We're actually planning on shooting in the Pacific NW in June, and I'd love to look into the possibility of organizing a shoot at one of the 'underground' restaurants in Seattle. Let's talk."




Astonished, I stared blankly at my computer screen...and read the e-mail again. When it finally sunk in, I whooped and hollered...and did a little jig in my living room!

I couldn't believe it!!

Seriously, it took me two days to regain my composure enough to respond, "Yes, I'd love to discuss this opportunity...."

Fingers crossed...and after months of planning, this dinner finally came together.
Even better? Tony had some friends in Seattle and he wanted to make sure they were there too...a former Iron Chef Challenger, and the owner of one of Seattle's legendary restaurants.

It was too good to be true!

Without a doubt, it's a night I'll never forget and luckily, I had some friends in on the experience too. Yes, my pals in the kitchen kept peeking their heads in...and making faces at me off camera! Thanks to you all (D, D, & B) for easing my nerves...and reminding me this was supposed to be fun.

Well, who knows what will make it through the editing process, but the Pacific Northwest episode airs for the first time tomorrow:

Monday, January 15th on the Travel Channel (10:00pm ET/PST)
To view photos from the Portland, OR segment, click here.
Dream big, people. Sometimes they really do come true!

Eatery Annals

Disclaimer: None of these stories reflect the restaurants I'm currently associated with....

When you see an elected official take office, a movie premier, or even the grand opening of a new can be assured...there's more to the story than meets the eye.

Trust me.

I've been there.

Every large scale project is riddled with someone's blood, sweat, tears...and multiple compromises.

The restaurant business is no different.

In fact, in all my years working in restaurants, I never stopped thinking that restaurants were more like theater....the show MUST go on.

And there's plenty of blood, sweat, and tears.

But no matter what happened before, during, or after your shift, if well orchestrated, the customer never knew what happened.

That's the goal.

Seasoned pros make it look flawless.

Ah, but if you ever gather restaurant folks together over drinks...and start swapping restaurant tales, things digress in a hurry. It doesn't get any better! Inevitably I laugh so hard, serious injury might occur...or at least loss of bladder control.

I've been reading a fabulous blog...written by an American woman working in a French 3 star kitchen. The working conditions are brutal...the shifts are long...and the chef is a tyrant. Her experience brings back a flood of memories for me.

No, I didn't work in the kitchen of a 3 star restaurant, but I've been out front, dealing with the public in plenty of restaurants.

Tyrannical chef vs. general public.

I couldn't tell you which is worse.

All I know is, when you work front of the house, you have to deal with BOTH!

So when I'm sitting down with the restaurant folk, laughing in our beers....what stories do I tell?

Well, for starters...several years ago, I worked for a restaurant out in the 'burbs. During that time, there was a ton of condo development. Every scrap of land was being built on....and it stirred up the local rat population. Rats would run for cover...and find new homes.

Almost daily the prep crew would come in and find a rat trapped in the stainless steel sinks (once the rats fell in the sink, they couldn't get out). The kitchen guys maintained a BB gun for "rat removal." This went on for months...

It got to the point where, eventually, the guys got a little jaded about it. I mean they killed a lot of rats during those days....And boys, being boys, they'd start being creative about the bodies. We'd find dead rats hidden in our purses, or punt kicked back by the dumpster, or some rats purposely wouldn't get thrown the guys could study the decomposition.

Um, yeah.

It wasn't long before I transferred to our other location.

Inevitabley, when we're swappin' restaurant tales...there are a hundred stories about:

* reoccurring "waitressing nightmares"

* the days you work double shifts and your legs are so fatigued they don't stop shaking long enough for you to sleep

* how you pop Advil like it was candy just to mask the pain at the end of your shift....then you realize it's even better if you load up before your shift....

* the owner who wouldn't fire his worst employee...because the 17 year old snowboarding punk was actually his drug dealer.

* the bartender who claimed his eyes were red because he went swimming before his shift. Truth is, he was really smokin' pot out in the parking lot!

* traveling salesmen with expense accounts...who treat waitresses like prostitutes, "Hey honey, wanna have a drink after work?" It's always the young servers who are flattered by the pursuit of a Vice President from Some-Company-You've-Never-Heard-Of.

If we ever meet over drinks, I could tell you about the time we called the police on my customers.


Grandma's birthday party...and three squad cars!

Needless to say, I didn't get tipped from that table....but whatever money I lost that night, paid for the doozy of a story I can tell today!

In Kitchen Confidential, Tony Bourdain revealed the restaurants' underbelly to the masses. The reality is, if you've worked in the business long enough, we all have stories like Tony's.

Frosting the Devil in a Winter Wonderland

It snowed in pellets last night...a proverbial sea of white...more like dip n' dots than flakes of snow. The mini snowballs fell from the skies, creating a winter wonderland....and a hell of a commute home.

Taking a cue from the weather, this devil's food cake with fluffy white frosting called to me....

Believe it or not, this is the first cake I've made since my Easy Bake Oven days.

Sure, I bake a lot, but cakes are not my thing. My sweet tooth has leanings towards the more dense...and preferably naked...cookies and brownies. I'm all for gilding the lily, but not with cookies. I'll take mine unadorned...and unfrosted, thank you.

There lies my problem with's the frosting.

The American standard often includes a cloyingly sweet frosting that, for me, is downright inedible. Whenever I do eat cake...weddings, birthdays, or other causes for celebration, I'll often bypass the frosting altogether. An unattractive heap lies at the side of my plate, validating my usual dessert motto: ABC or, Anything But Cake.

But this is the New Year, and I'm branching out. I'm taking my own culinary road less traveled.

Destination: C-A-K-E.

First stop...Devil's Food Cake with a Cloud of White Frosting:

This is based on a Godiva recipe featured in Chocolatier magazine. The layers are built with moist devil's food cake and a mortar of bittersweet ganache. Topped with an egg white-based frosting that is heated and whipped, this is my kind of cake!

Sitting in front of a blazing fire with the snow falling softly outside...this frosting brought back a flood of childhood memories. Something about it was strangely familiar...and I couldn't get that sense of nostalgia out of my head.

Then it hit me: Marshmallows!

The next morning, I broke out my torch and toasted the frosting. Bruleeing adds a delicious kiss of caramel.

This cake will have you yearning for a blazing fire...and a tall glass of milk!

Devil's Food Cake with a Cloud of White Frosting

Adapted from Godiva

For the cake:

2 1/4 cups granulated sugar

1 3/4 cups cake flour (not self-rising)

1 1/4 cups Dutch processed cocoa powder

2 1/4 teaspoons baking soda

1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 large whole eggs

1 large egg yolk

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

1 1/2 cups buttermilk

1 tablespoon of instant espresso mixed with 3/4 cup warm water, then cooled


For the Chocolate Filling:

2 bars (8 oz, total) Ghiradelli bittersweet chocolate bars, broken in 1/2" pieces

1 cup + 2 tablespoons heavy cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract


For the Frosting:

5 large egg whites (room temperature)

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

1/3 cup water

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract


For the cake:
Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter bottom and sides of two 9-inch round cake pans. Dust pans with cocoa powder and tap out excess.

In large mixing bowl, sift together sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

In medium mixing bowl, whisk together whole eggs and egg yolk until combined. Whisk in vanilla extract and melted butter. Whisk in buttermilk and coffee. Pour buttermilk mixture into dry ingredients and whisk just until smooth. Pour batter into prepared pans, dividing it equally.

Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until edges of cakes pull away from sides of pans and a toothpick inserted into center of each cake comes out clean. Cool cakes on wire racks for 20 minutes. Invert cakes onto racks and cool completely.


For the filling:
Place chocolate in medium bowl. In medium saucepan, heat cream until it comes to gentle boil. Pour hot cream over chopped chocolate. Allow mixture to stand for 5 minutes to allow chocolate to melt. Stir mixture until it is smooth and chocolate is completely melted. Stir in vanilla extract.

Set bowl containing chocolate mixture into larger bowl of ice water and stir mixture constantly for about 5 minutes or until it is a spreadable consistency. Remove bowl of filling from ice water and set aside until ready to fill cake.


For the frosting:
In large, deep bowl, combine egg whites, sugar, water and cream of tartar. With hand-held electric mixer, beat mixture until foamy, about 1 minute.

Place bowl over saucepan of simmering water, making sure that bottom of bowl does not touch water. Beat constantly at low speed until mixture reaches 160°F., about 7 minutes. Remove bowl from heat, add vanilla, and beat frosting at high speed until it holds stiff peaks, about 7 minutes.


Assemble the cake:
Using long serrated knife, cut each cake layer in half horizontally to make 2 layers. Place one layer cut-side up on serving plate and spread with generous 1/2 cup rich chocolate filling (I used less...). Repeat twice and top with last cake layer.

Using large offset metal spatula, spread the frosting first around sides, then over top of cake, piling it in dramatic swirls. Serve immediately or refrigerate and bring to room temperature before serving.


To brulee the frosted cake:

Use a kitchen torch or a plumber's blow torch. The sugar in the frosting will caramelize much more quickly than you might expect. Start with the flame about 6" away from the frosting and proceed to brown. Go for patches of brown instead of an all over color to avoid burning.


Note: For the cake pictured above, I did not use all the frosting or the filling. I had about 1 1/2 cups frosting left and 3/4 cup of the filling.

To use up the frosting: Spread thickly on a Silpat and toast with your kitchen torch or plumber's blow torch. It's a softer, more moist alternative to marshmallows. Toasted or not, this is a perfect topper for hot chocolate.

For the left over filling: Make truffles out of it. Roll portions of chocolate in small balls (I prefer mine the size of large grapes), then roll again in your choice of cocoa powder, coconut, or crushed nuts.

Gold Medal Pancakes

Now that the winter rains are in full swing, the damp Seattle air drives me inside. After the crazy pace of the past few months, I look forward to home cooked meals and catching up with friends. Braises, soups, and breakfast goodies signal a slower pace of life, if only for a little while....

My friend Lisa D. and I both gave up conventional employment this year and so, in the middle of the week, she arrived at my home for brunch. It felt quite decadent. Outside, a slow drizzle of rain soaked the fallen leaves. Inside, Lisa's warmth and energy lit up the room.

Good fortune has smiled on me. Counted among my closest friends are some ridiculously talented people...and Lisa is one of them.

In her younger days, Lisa was a competitive swimmer. In fact, she qualified for the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow.

At that time, Cold World tensions with Russia were high. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter led a multi-national protest. The result?

The U.S., along with 64 other countries, boycotted the Moscow Olympic Games.

All of Lisa's training and sacrifices were meaningless in the face of politics.

Then, as it so often does, life got in the way. She was unable to compete for the next Olympics. Eventually the pattern of day to day living and other obligations moved her away from swimming.

When I first met Lisa, she was emerging from a 20 year hiatus...and finally started swimming again. It wasn't long before she got serious about training and entered a couple local meets.

Each race fueled her desire to win.

She hired a nutritionist, worked out in the gym for hours every day, and swam even more. Success in the pool spurred multiple positive changes in her life.

At 45 years old, Lisa is now the World Champion in Master's Swimming.

She is currently seated:

- 1st in the 50 meter butterfly
- 2nd in the 50 meter freestyle
- 1st in the 200 meter freestyle relay...AND set the world record!

I couldn't be more proud of her.

So on that rainy Tuesday, Lisa arrived a very different woman than the one I first met. Over fruit and pancakes, we laughed about our blunders in the past...and looked at the future with limitless possibilities.

Blueberry Cornmeal Pancakes
adapted from Cafe Beaujolais by Margaret S. Fox

In this recipe, whipped egg whites create a light and fluffy pancake. The addition of cornmeal adds a bit of tooth, followed by buttermilk, which provides a slight tang. A sprinkle of sugar before flipping, caramelizes the pancakes ever so slightly.

1 1/4 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
3 1/2 Tb sugar
1/2 Tb baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup cornmeal (I used 1/2 fine, 1/2 medium grind cornmeal)
2 cups buttermilk
3 eggs, separated
3 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1 cup blueberries (fresh or frozen) additional sugar, if desired

Note: You can use frozen blueberries. Add them partially defrosted; the heat and steam will thaw them.

Sift together all dry ingredients. Mix together buttermilk, egg yolks, and butter with dry ingredients. Beat egg whites until stiff but not dry, and fold into the batter.

Pour 1/4 cup batter onto a hot griddle and top with about 2 tablespoons blueberries on each pancake. Sprinkle top with a light dusting of sugar.

Cook until bubbles form and start popping on top.

Flip cakes with wide spatula and brown the other side. The sugar will caramelize slightly.

Turn pancakes only once, and take care not to press down on them to accelerate the browning process.