Not Saying No (Featuring Short Ribs)
“So how do you know the bride and groom?” Misty, the highly recommended server from The Historic Anchor Inn in Lincoln City, Oregon, asked me as she loaded the dish sanitizer rack with lipstick smeared wine glasses.
“I knew the bride years ago in Los Angeles. She asked if I could lend them a hand and… well… here we are.”
“You got bamboozled, huh?” she said, laughing.
I had known Misty all of an hour, but she had me figured out quickly.
“Bamboozled”, I repeated quietly, as it’s not a word I would have thought to use. “You never know where life is going to take you.”
There aren’t many things I won’t do as a chef. I’m kind of a whore when it comes to work. So long as you’re paying me, I’ll cook whatever you’d like as perfectly as I possibly can. But there is one thing that I won’t do: weddings. It’s just not worth it to me. You’ve got too many people, all starving for food at the same time; you’ve got tons of tension in the air mixed with too much booze; you’ve got people demanding very high-end food and service but very little money to pay for it; and you’ve got the pressure of bridezilla (or groomzilla) counting on the best meal after the best day of their new life together. I’ve worked weddings as a free-lance chef and found the whole thing to be kind of passionless from the kitchen side. It’s more of an assembly line than a personal creation. And I’m not a party planner, I’m a cook. Weddings aren’t my forte. I can admit I don’t do everything perfectly, so I just keep that door closed. I say, no.
I knew Rebecca years ago when we both lived in Los Angeles. She is hilarious and smart and beautiful in a classic way that takes your breath away every time you see her. She had moved out of LA to Portland and I caught up with her a year ago when I was still living in New York but visiting Francis in Portland frequently. We had lunch, we shopped in thrift stores, we ate ice cream. Sometimes you say that you reconnect with old friends like no time has passed, but this felt like we had both taken huge leaps in our lives and were able to be friends on a whole new level. It was good. It was honest.
Rebecca emailed me this past January, five days before I officially moved to Portland. She told me she was getting married in Lincoln City at the beginning of April and asked if I would be interested in helping out. My head was pretty far up my ass with the move, but I said sure, I’d love to lend a hand. What she said was that I’d be responsible for slicing the chicken and meat that was being delivered. That was hardly wedding catering. That was just me and a knife—easy peasy.
But here’s the thing… I can’t leave well enough alone.
In February, Rebecca and I made a plan to meet for dinner to talk over what she needed for the wedding. Coincidentally, she posted on Facebook that she was meeting with the caterer that night. Was she talking about me? I know this sounds daft, but I was hardly thinking of myself as the caterer. I was more a carver than a chef. I brought a notepad to the restaurant just in case.
Rebecca explained again that they were planning on buying some roasted chickens from the supermarket in Lincoln City and that they had found a steak joint that would deliver pre-grilled steaks for 55 people at $4.56/guest.
For four dollars a person.
I… just… couldn’t let that happen.
“Look,” I said, “I’ll roast the chickens. Chickens are easy. I make a mean roast chicken, stuffed with lemons and sprinkled with rosemary. And the meat, well, I mean, I think you should let me do that too. I can do short ribs the day before the wedding (because that extra day is the key to great short ribs). I’ll roast some veggies and bake some bread and it’ll be great. No worries at all, ok Becca?”
Wait, did I just convince a bride that I should cater her wedding? I think I bamboozled myself. Crap.
My particular mental illness is that I love what I do so much I can’t stop myself from promising the world. I get so excited thinking about the culinary possibilities because when you’re a chef there are no limitations. You can do anything. It’s a game of self-control, which has never been my strong suit.
There are a few other factors I need to mention though—things that made saying yes to my first wedding job easy. Rebecca and Nate had secured a very special venue, different from any place I’ve ever been, for the entire weekend. The Historic Anchor Inn is floor-to-ceiling tchotchkes. It’s like walking into a prop rental palace, with nautical memorabilia everywhere. Mermaid mannequins and plastic hanging fish and mismatched furniture fills every room. No, really. FILLS EVERY ROOM. You just can’t help but laugh. I knew that the normal bride/groomzilla monsters couldn’t rear their ugly heads when there was a plastic shark head rising up through the middle of the garden right next to a old-timey Texaco gas pump and a life size Batmobile boat. It’s different here, in the outskirts of Portland than, say, the upper east side of Manhattan. Rebecca and Nate had picked this location very specifically. This type of wedding I could cater.
The other factor is that I really needed this job. After taking the leap of moving away from my successful catering routine in New York, I couldn’t quite grasp how it would come together here. I vacillate between two out of proportion and distorted personas: the unstoppable girl who can do absolutely everything; and the quivering, terrified puppy hiding under the bed. One of the only times those two personalities of mine settle is when I’m actually cooking food. I need work. It regulates my swings. I am no more present than when I’m in the kitchen multi-tasking 50 different things. And I didn’t know how long it would take for me to find work in this new city of Portland. I could feel my fears gather strength. I needed someone to trust in me, to put blind faith in my ability—and then Rebecca asked. Just like that. I needed it and it appeared. I’m very, very lucky.
So I would like to thank the gorgeous couple, Mr and Mrs Rebecca and Nate Ayling. They are magnificent hosts and revelers. I wasn’t able to witness their ceremony, but I wholeheartedly enjoyed every single moment of cooking and serving and celebrating their love. I laughed the whole weekend long. Thank you for teaching me that saying no isn’t always the best choice.
And last, but not least, thanks to the tireless Misty, who kept me laughing as she spoke her mind while serving and clearing dinner and then brunch for 55 wedding guests. That’s not easy stuff and she did it flawlessly.
Oh yeah, I forgot to mention. I offered to cook brunch too. I have a mental illness for which there is no treatment. I’m a chef.
Now here’s a treat for you. Every single time I cook short ribs, I get asked for the recipe. They are not difficult but they have one special trick… you cook them a day early, stick them in the fridge, and then pop the layer of fat that has risen from the very fatty cuts of meat off the top of the chilled sauce. This makes all the difference.
- 6 bone-in beef short ribs (they are about a pound a piece)
- Salt and pepper
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, separated
- 1 large onion, cut into 1 inch pieces
- 2 carrots, cut into 1 inch pieces
- 2 celery ribs, cut into 1 inch pieces
- 3 garlic cloves, skinned but left whole
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 ½ cups dry red wine
- 1 14 ounce can of San Marzano tomatoes
- 2 cups chicken stock
- ½ ounce dried porcini mushrooms
- 10 fresh thyme sprigs
- 5 fresh oregano sprigs
- ½ bunch of fresh Italian parsley, chopped
- Aggressively season the short ribs with salt and pepper and then place them to the side for 20 minutes.
- Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
- Heat a large oven-safe saute pan (preferably a deep one with a lid) on the stovetop over medium-high heat. Swirl a tablespoon of olive oil in the pan and when it’s hot (almost smoking), add the well-seasoned short ribs 3 at a time so as not to crowd the pan. Cook for about 5 minutes a side until the meat is browned.
- Transfer the browned short ribs to a plate.
- Pour the fat out of the saute pan but do not wash. Add the remaining tablespoon of olive oil and heat over medium heat. Add the onion, carrots, and celery and season with salt and pepper. Saute for about 10 minutes until the veg have become tender. Add the garlic cloves and stir. Add the tablespoon of tomato paste and stir. Add the wine and let simmer for 7 minutes. Add the canned tomatoes and the chicken stock. Stir in the porcini mushrooms.
- Put the short ribs and any juice from the plate into the saute pan, bone side down. Nestle the thyme and oregano into the pan.
- Cover the saute pan tightly with aluminum foil and the lid (or just the foil if that’s all you have) and place in the oven for 3 hours.
- Remove the pan from the oven and take the lid and foil off. Let it cool for at least 30 minutes.
- There will definitely be a layer of fat that has risen to the top of the pan. Skim as much as you can off the sauce at this point and then transfer the short ribs with sauce and vegetables into a bowl or Tupperware container. Put the short rib container into the fridge for one day.
- When you open the fridge the next day, you will find that the fat you were not able to skim off the top has hardened and is floating on top of the meat and sauce. Now all you have to do is pop that fatty layer off the top. You can also pop the bones out of the ribs easily at this point (I like to serve them boneless).
- About 2 hours before you’re ready to serve the short ribs, preheat your oven to 350 for 20 minutes. Place the short ribs with the sauce and veggies into an oven safe pan and cover with foil. Roast the meat for 45 minutes and then remove the foil. Roast for an additional 45 minutes and then let cool at room temperature for 20 minutes. Sprinkle chopped parsley over meat and serve with gravy.