I was sad to learn that one of America's greatest restaurants, located in Chicago, is closing its doors this month. Charlie is a brilliant restaurateur, inspired chef, cookbook author, tv host, and loyal, generous friend. Over the years, whenever I was in Chicago on book tour, he hosted a party in the classroom adjoining the restaurant, making recipes from the latest book. Once he even made a special lunch drawing recipes from several of my books.
I'll never forget the special dinner I arranged at his restaurant during the International Association of Culinary Professionals. I invited Harold McGee, Shirley and Arche Corriher, Elizabeth Karmel, Sarah Leah Chase, Steve Raichlin and there may have been others. We were treated to the dinner of our lives with amazing wines to accompany it. When I was presented with the bill, to my total amazement, all that was written on it was: "For Rose and friends, from Charlie." To tease Arche who often complained that my annual dinners were a bit too steep, I said: "Arche, you won't believe this bill!" To my delight his response was: "What ever it is it was worth it!" We all went down to the kitchen to thank Charlie and staff. Charlie, I love you for all that you are and look forward to your next incarnation. Another of the most delightful and memorable experiences I had chez Trotter's was when I got to see what it was like being in a chef. I wrote up the experience 20 years ago for the monthly column I wrote at the time for the LA Times Syndicate.
MY LIFE ON THE LINE, June 1994 Chef! What an image-laden word for lovers of fine food. But the literal meaning of this French term is merely chief. It relates to food only when used as the title "chef de cuisine." In English, however, the word chef has come to imply a fine restaurant cook and that is why I have never described myself as chef. Before a year ago this April, I had baked and cooked in many places including a windy street corner at the Miami Book Fair, but never actually "on the line" in a restaurant kitchen. I have also enjoyed my share of meals in the calm ordered elegance of the world's finest restaurants. But behind the scenes, I discovered, is truly a world apart. The closest analogy I can offer is that of a war zone but this may be because I have never worked in an O.R. The tension, excitement, and life or death attitude, not to mention near manic joy, that pervades a great restaurant kitchen was beyond my imagination.
It was Charlie Trotter of Charlie Trotter's in Chicago who gave me the opportunity to participate in this living drama of "working on the line" by inviting me, along with 10 chefs from around the country, to be part of his annual Sunday night James Beard birthday fund raiser dinner for over 100 guests.
The weekend started with a dinner at Charlie's for the visiting chefs and spouses or assistants who arrived Friday night, which, coincidentally, happened to be my birthday. The dinner was held in a special upstairs room; the mahogany table laid with the finest French porcelain, but it was the number and array of wine glasses that offered a glimpse of the extraordinary tasting to come: 7 savory and 5 sweet dishes beginning with monkfish liver (I never even realized they had livers) on organic yellow currant tomatoes, organic ennis hazelnuts and foie gras with 25 year balsamico brown butter vinaigrette, and ending with warm liquid center bittersweet chocolate cake with vanilla hazelnut and cinnamon ice cream.
Early Saturday morning we visiting chefs began to invade Charlie's kitchen, which was already in progress bravely producing their regular Saturday night dinner menu. My personal challenge was to produce a dessert that would be both light and tantalizing after 11 other courses prepared by Charlie, Mark Baker, Elizabeth Terry, John Sedlar, David Waltuck, Geoff Felsenthal, Elka Gilmore, Christopher Gross, Jean Louis Palladin and Jean Joho. Whew! I chose an ethereal Lemon Snow with Golden Grand Marnier Sauce accompanied by my signature cake: Lemon Poppyseed Pound Cake, baked as madeleines. An hour wait for the citrus reamer to produce the 6 cups of required lemon juice for my dessert gave me a chance to get acquainted with the kitchen staff and visiting colleagues. It also set me way behind producing over 100 desserts but pastry chef Michelle Gayer assured me that she would stay and finish them for me even if it meant staying all night (another friend for life)! By the end of the day we were all very ready for cocktail's and sunset at Jean Joho's Everest Room and dinner at the glorious estate of Tubby and Julie Bacon*. (It was truly a weekend in wonderland!)
Early Sunday morning back to the kitchen for another day of mad activity and prep. By serving time, the action had reached a feverish pitch, deftly orchestrated by sous chef Guilliermo. Meanwhile, in the calm oasis of the dining room, a mere few steps away, my husband Elliott joined David Waltuck's wife Karen, to greet and seat the guests.
Back to the roar of the kitchen, as each course readied for launching, everyone stopped what he or she was doing and focused full intensity on the dish at hand: plating, garnishing, shouting out orders and passing it "down the line" to the waiters poised for flight. The very air was charged with palpable energy. Most delightful, was the realization that though most of us had started out the weekend as interested strangers, we had all by now become a team of very supportive friends.
After the final act, my Lemon Snow, Charlie brought all of us visiting chefs into the dining room to introduce us to the guests. We all felt the event was a resounding success. Not only did it raise money to contribute to our profession, it also served to connect 11 captains of our own ships in one common endeavor. In the after glow of our success, we sat at last, joked and relaxed and by midnight celebrated with the universally beloved leveler: take out pizza. * Julie gave me a recipe for Java crisps, which were her favorite cookies. They will be in my upcoming book The Baking Bible. They are indeed marvelous.
SNOW PUDDING WITH GOLDEN GRAND MARNIER SAUCE
This dessert is light and refreshing--the perfect ending to a heavy meal. When fresh raspberries are in season they make a delightful addition and garnish.
Makes 8 servings
1 envelope unflavored gelatin (2-1/4 teaspoons)
3/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest (yellow portion only)
1/4 cup lemon juice, freshly squeezed
1-1/4 cups boiling water
1 large egg white In medium bowl
Stir together the gelatin and sugar; add the lemon juice and boiling water and stir until sugar and gelatin are dissolved. Chill, stirring often, until mixture mounds when dropped from a spoon. (Mixture may be refrigerated or placed over a bowl of ice-water with a little salt added to speed chilling.) Add egg white and beat until doubled in volume and mixture mounds when dropped from a spoon (5-10 minutes on high speed). Fold in lemon rind and spoon into large wine goblets or dessert dishes. Chill at least 3 hours to set. (Keeps 5 days)
Golden Grand Marnier Sauce
1/4 cup sugar
3 egg yolks
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup Grand Marnier
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
In a small, heavy saucepan, stir together sugar and salt. Add yolks and stir to blend.
Scald 1/2 cup of the cream with the milk and, whisking constantly and vigorously, gradually add to yolk mixture. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly until just before the boiling point (170°F. to 180°F.) 7-8 minutes. (Steam will begin to appear.)
At once stir in Grand Marnier and vanilla and strain. Chill until cold.
Shortly before serving, whip remaining 1/2 cup cream and fold in. Spoon on top of snow pudding (3 tablespoons per serving). Garnish with raspberries if desired.
Pointers for Success The temperature and consistency of the gelatin mixture is crucial to achieving a fine foam, which will not separate on chilling. To prevent separation, it must be beaten only when the mixture is thick enough and mounds when dropped from a spoon. If too thick, it will not form a fine foam. If the gelatin mixture begins to set before beating, briefly place the bowl over a bowl of hot water and stir constantly until it begins to soften. Set the bottom of the bowl directly in cold water to stop the heating immediately. The sauce mixture must be heated adequately (at least 160°F.) to thicken and prevent thinning out on setting; but for a silky smooth sauce that does not curdle, the mixture must not be allowed to boil.