Last Sunday evening, in an apartment on the Upper West Side, I turned off the burner, dropped a knob of butter into the pan, and swirled it into the red wine, caramelized shallots, chicken stock, and filet drippings. This is my favorite moment in cooking. It’s called “mounting” (a great technique deserves a great name) and is the final thickening of a sauce by adding butter.
Everything becomes richer at that point. Every taste becomes a million times more delicious. It’s magic. I held my breath as I plated the roasted rosemary potatoes, sugar snap peas/ snow peas/ pea shoots in lemon sauté, beef tenderloin, and spooned the sauce on top. These were new clients I was cooking for and, yes, I still get nervous.
I was suddenly transported back to a client I hadn’t thought of in years. He was some bigwig but not famous producer whose name I don’t recall. It must have been a decade ago in Beverly Hills. I had just made the decision to leave the acting profession and pursue a career in the cooking industry. I had been cooking off and on for years but never really thought of myself as a chef. This was that moment of leaping and hoping a net would appear. I enrolled in a cooking school to make sure I knew what I was talking about and started working professionally about a month after class had begun. Thank you, net.
“He would like for you to come in next Tuesday to cook his dinner. This will be a test run. He’s been through a lot of chefs.” The client’s personal assistant had found my name and number through another chef, Monica, that I worked with in a busy Los Angeles catering company. Monica had tried and failed to satisfy him – a fact which terrified me, as she was much more experienced than I. She had said one thing to me, “He has a very rich appetite. Be prepared for anything.” I didn’t know if that meant he was wealthy or liked fattening things, so I assumed both were true.
The assistant commanded, “He would like you to design a menu around a prime, dry-aged, porterhouse steak. He enjoys the highest quality of food and a lot of options so please provide them. I’ll need the menu choices by noon tomorrow.” And she hung up.
When designing a menu, I normally provide three choices in every category that pair well with the protein that the client has ordered. For this man, I listed five: five options of appetizers, salads, vegetables, starches, carbs, and desserts. I included things like baked brie with honey garlic sauce, fois gras toasts with port glaze, truffled potatoes au gratin, triple chocolate cheesecake, and a red wine reduction for the porterhouse. Some of the things I proposed I hadn’t ever cooked, but I knew he liked rich food and I wanted to impress him. What came back to me after my pitch was amazing. He had chosen everything: all five apps, veggies, starches, carbs, AND desserts. He only wanted one salad though- the wedge with blue cheese dressing, of course. The assistant also requested my potatoes be fried in duck fat, and the sauce on the asparagus be made with extra cheese.
When I arrived at his house, high in the Hills of Beverly, I didn’t know what to expect. The door to his Tudor style mansion was opened by a slim housekeeper and a yapping cocker spaniel. The interior of the house was styled with glossy dark maple furniture, mustard colored wallpaper, old fashioned floral curtains, and flickering-bulb floor lamps. This was like what my grandparents would have done had they become millionaires. It was different than any other estate I ever cooked in, or entered for that matter, in California.
He sat in a large leather loveseat in front of the television. The spaniel, Chestnut, jumped into his lap as soon as I walked in the room. To say he was an ample man is an understatement. He was the largest person I’ve ever seen; not piano case coffin size, but not regular coffin either. He was dressed nicely, in slacks and a pressed button down shirt, but was still four or five times the girth of a regular man. I suddenly became acutely aware of the caloric and artery hardening contents in the grocery bags I held.
He shook my hand quickly, not taking his eyes off the television screen. He was not rude, just bored with chef intros.
His assistant led me into the kitchen, fully stocked with top of the line equipment. She opened a very nice bottle of wine which the client drank as I cooked. I dolloped sauce over one thing, while deep frying another- every moment becoming more conscious of the impact each morsel of food could have on this gigantic man. It had never occurred to me that I could be responsible for someone’s life.
The assistant served the food I prepared, which he enjoyed leisurely off of a wheely wooden tray table. He watched a “Law and Order” marathon as he ate and ate. He continuously stroked his dog, who sat happily on his lap nibbling on scraps of beef, liver, or bacon that the man shared. I cooked and cooked, peeking every so often into the living room to make sure his heart had not yet exploded.
I left there shaking, wondering if he would make it through the night.
I called Monica when I got home. “You know, if he dies, it’s a direct result of the food I cooked! Would I be an accomplice? I know he must eat this way all the time but it’s like a ticking time bomb!”
She laughed and told me it was beyond my control. He chose to be this way.
I ate a salad, turned off my tv, and tried to sleep but failed.
A few weeks later, Monica called.
“**y Alis**. You k**w that fat g*** you co****d for****?” (She was driving through a canyon in LA and had horrible reception).
“I can barely hear you. Say that again.” I said.
“That b**time prod***** in Beverly H***. Well I guess hi****died!”
“WHAT???? He’s dead! I KNEW that was going to happen! Oh my god! I told you!!! What are they going to do? Are they talking to the chefs?”
Guilty, sweating, terrified.
“Calm down.” (The reception suddenly clearing.) “The DOG died. Chestnut is dead. The guy is fine, just really broken up because he was so close to his dog.”
I exhaled and realized how much tension I had been carrying around about what I had fed that man. It was like a suicide mission. Not mine- his.
I was never asked to cook for him again and you know what? I was fine with that.
Sometimes I think I have a really strange job. And sometimes I think it’s the most important job in the world. I try not to get too self aggrandizing about this whole cooking thing, but it’s hard to know you could be hurting someone. You really are what you eat.
Speaking of having food change your life, Dex has taken what looks like an incredible turn for the better. In an attempt to boost the iron in his anemic blood, we’ve added beef liver, fish oil, and iron supplements to his already perked up kibble, chicken, and orzo meals (see http://awonderlandofwords.com/when-god-slams-a-door-he-always-breaks-a-window-featuring-kitchen-sink-orzo/). I’m healing him the only way I know how – by cooking for him. In a way, I feel this last little patch of his life is like the moment you swirl the butter into the sauce. Everything becomes richer. I can tell that he’s loving every minute of it.
I could never eat like that man in Beverly Hills- though he’s probably still sucking the marrow out of every newbie chef that crosses his loveseat. I like to watch what I eat, but these past weeks, after blissfully cooking for clients and then for my dog, I’ve decided to mount a bit of buttery goodness for myself. It’s nice to live on the edge.
Pan Seared Steak with Red Wine Reduction
- 2 Boneless Rib Eye Steaks (or steak of your choosing)
- Salt and Pepper to taste
- 1 tabelspoon olive oil, plus more for rubbing
- 1 shallot, chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon brown sugar
- 1/2 cup red wine
- 1/2 cup chicken stock or beef stock or demiglace
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Rub the steaks with salt, pepper, and olive oil.
- Heat a large saute pan on high heat until droplets of water dance quickly off the surface when splashed.
- Swirl a tablespoon of oil in the pan, making sure the pan is coated.
- Place steaks in hot pan and cook 2-3 minutes (this will depend on how thick the cuts of meat are and how rare you prefer them to be cooked). You can always put them back on the heat, so I play it safe.
- Put steaks on a plate but keep heat on the pan.
- Toss the shallots into the pan, scraping up the pan drippings. Add brown sugar and caramelize shallots for 1-2 minutes, making sure they do not burn.
- Add wine and reduce (simmer to reduce amount of sauce) for 2-3 minutes or until sauce has reduced by 2/3.
- Add stock and continue to simmer.
- When a sauce-like consistency has been achieved, turn the burner off and swirl in the butter. Stir until butter has melted and sauce has been thickened.
- Pour over steaks.