Tuesday, April 29, 2008

It's Monday. Invite A Chef to Dinner

All of us foodies who regularly dine out must know at least three or four chefs on a first-name basis. But how often do we think to invite them to dinner on Mondays -- the night that fine restaurants are usually dark -- or their alternate off nights, Sundays or Tuesdays?

"Most people are afraid to have us for dinner," one chef told me a few months ago on his visit to the front of the house as the night's traffic waned. "Or they assume we don't eat on Mondays."

We entertain a lot, but Ella and I qualify only as competent cooks. Nevertheless, a few years ago, when she was constantly on the road and I was left at home to run wild in the kitchen, I decided to invite a chef and her husband, who ran the front of the house, to our place for dinner with another couple. Reckless and fearless, after having wine and hors d'oeuvres away from the table, I served quadrucci in brodo as a first course because it looked so lovely in Giuliano Bugialli's excellent Foods of Italy. But at my table, it was a disaster -- the fresh green herbs leaves pressed into small squares of pasta looked lovely, but the dough was chewy, and the limp broth showed the inexperience of someone unschooled in making stocks. Fortunately, the rest of the courses were fine, and I'm told that the fact that the two of them decided to separate soon after had nothing to do with that dinner.

But the experience did provide me with the first two tenets of Roger's Rules for Entertaining Chefs:

Rule One. Plenty of good wine will go a long way in covering up the sins of the kitchen. By the third course and a few empty bottles, the bad brodo was, shall we say, no longer a laughing stock.

Rule Two. Don't over-reach. Chefs are seldom impressed by attempts at advanced, Cirque de Soleil techniques, especially if they spent months learning to slice and dice at the CIA or somesuch. So if a dish seems especially tricky, don't be tempted to try it -- unless it can be prepared (and sampled) in advance.

Rule Three. Concentrate on great ingredients. Fresh, local, simple will take you a long way towards a great evening. Last night, for example, we had a local chef and his wife over for dinner, and the hit of the meal was a simple amuse bouche of small morels gathered yesterday in our side yard. Ella sauteed them lightly in butter, served them on dry toast points, and garnished them with edible purple violet flowers and leaves (her photo, above). What could be easier?

Rule Four: Spread the trauma. Several of our friends frequent this particular restaurant and we all have become friendly with the chef and his partner. As a result, we started a monthly get-together of four couples, including the restaurateurs, and rotate the dinner from house to house so that we all share the cooking challenge. In other instances, guests who like to cook have volunteered to bring a starter or a dessert when we are having a chef over -- both positive examples of collective courage.

Rule Five: Take your cue from the chef. Some chefs who are guests like to stroll into the kitchen and volunteer as sous-chefs. Others are equally happy to be free-of-ranging for a night and chattingly await, wine glass in hand, to be served. It's their call.

It should be admitted that there are probably chefs out there who live in fear-and-trembling of being invited into some amateur's dining room like ours. So, just for the record, Thomas Keller won't be getting a call from me. But most chefs I've talked with love to have someone else cook and profess to being able to eat almost anything.

At least none of them has ever sent anything back to the kitchen.

If you've had interesting experiences -- good or bad -- in cooking for chefs, please share them in the "Comments" section below. And if you want to become part of our nascent "Invite a Chef to Dinner" movement, pass this post along to your foodie friends and tell them to clear their Monday calendars.

Until the next time....

Roger Morris

1 comment:

Paulette said...

I actually love being invited to dinner now that I explaned that I love simple food when I go out to dinner. Yes, I am also a chef. It took a long time for me to get invited out since I'm always the one to entertain. Everyone was afraid to make mistakes. Since then, I get invited more often and friends even learn new dishes to prepare for me. Great that I have inspiried people to cook!
Yeah for Chefs
Chef Paulette