Participation (featuring Ricotta Gnocchi with Sweet Potatoes, Mushrooms, And Corn)
I think Yelp is like a terrible dating app.
I felt a kinship with this client immediately when she sent me a message through my catering business’ Yelp Contact Me page. She was funny, respectful, and enthusiastic.
“Oh my god,” she wrote when we progressed to the next stage of business emailing, “you’ve got so many mouth-watering menu choices! You’re amazing. We want them all!!!”
I’m a sucker for this kind of response and I sat blushing and grinning, thinking of how I would wow her with my hand-crafted, regionally-influenced, locally-sourced esculents. She told me that she and her friends were renting an Airbnb for a night to celebrate one of their birthdays, that they hadn’t been able to spend time together in over a year, and that they were all foodies and were so excited to have found me.
She confessed that they were more concerned with the overall price of the meal than with its formality. They did want each course professionally plated and served, but they could take care of sharing bottles of wine on the table (rather than waiting for a server to refill glasses). They were also fine with having a leisurely pace of service. We set a date and I agreed that I would play the roles of both chef and waiter to save them the extra money on hiring a server. This is a double-duty that I perform flawlessly and completely without resentment when I’m sitting, say, at my computer emailing prospective clients.
On the afternoon of the party, I arrived at the Airbnb an hour before the guest of honor was expected. When the woman who’d hired me opened the door my first thought was that neither she nor her friends looked old enough to drink, but I know that’s more about where I am in my life than where I am in this story. I digress.
As I unpacked foil pans, quart containers, and squirt bottles full of my prepped ingredients, the ladies blew up pink and silver balloons and taped a sparkly “happy birthday” banner to the wall.
“Is this ok with you?” a blonde in a cropped t-shirt and faded jeans asked as she draped a tinselly pink metallic curtain between the open living room/ kitchen and dining room.
I envisioned myself walking from the kitchen into the dining area, arms laden with plates, the tinsel dragging through the arugula, endive, and radicchio salads, pulling through my carefully crafted puttanesca sauce and then tragically slithering through the whipped cream rosettes balanced on ramekins of peach crisps, but I replied through a labored smile, “Of course! I love it! It looks great!!!”
Satisfied with their decorations, the ladies disappeared upstairs to change into their party attire and I resumed the prep I had begun earlier that day. Appetizers of prosciutto-wrapped shrimp with a honey garlic vinaigrette dip; watermelon, feta, and basil skewers with a balsamic drizzle, and an artichoke Tarte au Soleil would be served in the living room along with a pitcher of some mysterious bright pink premixed cocktail they had placed in the fridge.
Through the doorway between the kitchen and the living room I saw the ladies reenter, all three inches taller than before, wobbling in expensive heels and short dresses of many flavors but the same taste.
“Sorry, I just want to grab this. Smells great!” a brunette with pointy peach-colored nails sang to me as she grabbed the carafe of pink drink from the fridge.
“Yes ma’am, thank you!”
I never know what to call clients, especially ones that are young enough to be my daughters (a fact I remain in complete denial of). I err on the side of cautious respect with “ma’am”. It feels less patronizing than “miss” which would also make me feel incredibly old and sad if I said it.
The doorbell rang and the ladies cheered.
A spaghetti-strapped, inky black tube dress clung to the slender figure of the birthday girl. Her long chestnut hair cascaded over her pointy shoulders, eyelashes the length of feather dusters fluttered in constant overreaction to average stimulus, and her small, inconceivably round breasts seemed to float support-free like two moons over planet Goddess.
After the drinks had been poured and the ladies had settled into couches, I situated my white serving platters with appetizers on the coffee table with a fan of cocktail napkins. They momentarily oohed in unison.
I had 45 minutes to finish preparing dinner and disappeared back into the kitchen.
The dining room table at their Airbnb was too big for the room it had been placed in. Protip: A 6’ x 3 ½’ Ikea dining table doesn’t work in a room that’s 10’ x 6’, no matter how convenient it is for your rental. “Dining room fits 12 people!” isn’t true if the people can’t move their arms. The end of this table was flush against the wall, with no room to walk behind the chairs once guests were sitting.
I preset the tri colore salad with caramelized fennel dressing, walnuts, and shaved parmesan on the table and then announced dinner was served. Three of them sat on the far side, two at the end, four more on the side closest to the entranceway. It was tight, but they didn’t mind. #besties
When I came back to clear that course, most of the ladies handed the plates down family-style, stacking one on top of the next. The birthday girl, who was sitting in the middle position on the far side, refused. Well, not refused so much as she became unresponsive. She acted as if she could no longer see me. And, unless I made the choice to walk on top of the table or crawl under it, I could not physically reach her plate without her help.
My truth is that I’m not a good server, never have been. I’m a back-of-the-house only girl as I’m awkward with a lot of strangers and normally covered in drips and splotches of whatever I’ve been cooking. Normally I rely upon my incredible staff to interact with clients during the meal service, but on this night I was alone. I stood there passively pointing at her plate, whimpering, “if you could just pass me your plate…” hoping that I would suddenly become visible and she would engage. But no. She looked from left to right, right to left, her eyes never landing on anything redheaded in the middle. It was actually impressive.
I know you think I’m penning an invitation to the trope of trashing a beautiful/ wealthy/ young/ fill-in-the-blank person who has slighted me (us) yet again.
I’m taking a moment to examine the relationship between serving and being served. It’s bigger than “waiters deserve more respect” or “you should tip more,” though both of those statements are emphatically true.
The heart of the issue is about the very nature of the task. I’m a little amazed we’re all still ok with the terminology of “server”. Maybe it’s ok for the literal serving of food, but obviously not in the tone of servant.
I used to believe that clients of mine would be happier if I were more subservient; if I kept my eyes down, my posture withering, my voice so soft it was inaudible. And some of them were happier. I thought that those clients justified my actions, even though they were clients I loathed. I hadn’t honestly given it a thought until my boyfriend at the time witnessed me at a gig with the demeanor of a kitchen wench, and became enraged.
“It’s like you have no self-respect!” he bellowed. “I can’t believe you won’t stand up for the food you’ve created.”
“Now hold on, this has nothing to do with my food!!!” I responded defensively. “I’m just trying to get clients the…I just want to… I’m…”
I couldn’t continue because I knew he was right. I was basing my service attitude on some old-timey Disney princess fantasy where the beautiful wilting kitchen servant is suddenly recognized, mid-shift, as having value by the handsome prince she is passively serving. Did I know better? Yes. But I was unconsciously revealing my discomfort with the server/ servee relationship. I didn’t expect respect because I hadn’t thought it was mine to deserve. And that’s insane.
It’s even deeper than that because sometimes clients act as if they suddenly don’t remember ever being served a meal in their life.
“Oh my goodness, you didn’t have to do that!” they’ll exclaim as if they haven’t hired me to bring them food. Then we fall down some codependent waiter/ guest rabbit hole where everyone is apologizing for making the other do more than they feel comfortable doing.
My point is that it’s a two-way street. Participation is required. You have to accept that it’s not humiliating to serve people, it’s an incredible skill and that being served is an honor. Every great moment in service has involved two or more consenting people. I know that, but my sheepishness made me as guilty as the birthday girl.
The ladies that I served that night were lovely. The birthday girl didn’t ever acknowledge my existence, but her friends picked up the slack (and probably didn’t even notice her disregard of me). They ate and drank and were thrilled with everything.
It was a good date in the end, and I would definitely see that client again.
And on a more serious note, I’d like to personally thank every single server I’ve had the honor of working with over the many years I’ve been a chef. You have taught me more about who I am and who I could be than anyone. Without you, I’m nothing.
One of the items on the menu that night was ricotta gnocchi from Suzanne Goin’s book, Sunday Suppers at Lucques. I love her recipe but find it a little lacking in umami, so I set out to make it my own.
Here’s what fall food means to me:
Ricotta Gnocchi with Sweet Potatoes, Mushrooms, And Corn
For the Gnocchi
- 1 cup ricotta, drained if very wet
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 egg
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon pepper
- 1 teaspoon mushroom umami seasoning from Trader Joes (I use this all the time) or 1/4 teaspoon MSG
- Put the ricotta and flour into a bowl and then mix the egg into the mixture with two knives. Add salt, pepper, and umami. Work into a ball (it will be sticky) and then place in the fridge for a half-hour.
- Bring a pot of salted water to a boil.
- Dust a cutting board with flour (having more flour nearby just in case the dough gets sticky). Cut the gnocchi dough into quarters and then roll into 4 long tubes. These should be thick as an old man’s finger. With a knife or a pastry scraper, cut the long tubes into inch-long pieces. Roll the tines of a fork over the dough pieces to make them round and slightly indented. This takes a little getting used to but, as with everything in life, when you get to the very last piece you’ll be a master.
- Place gnocchi pieces in boiling water and boil for 3 minutes. The pieces will float to the top of the water when they’re cooked so if there are any pieces at the bottom of the pot give it another minute or two. SAVE ½ CUP OF THE WATER YOU’VE BOILED THE GNOCCHI IN. Sorry, I’m yelling, but you’ll just dump that water out if I don’t.
For the sauce:
- 1 sweet potato, peeled and cut into ¼ inch cubes
- ½ pound crimini mushrooms, sliced
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 teaspoon thyme
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 shallot, fine dice (about ¼ cup)
- Another 3 tablespoons butter
- Another 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 teaspoon sumac
- 1/4 cup frozen sweet corn
- 10 sage leaves, chopped fine
- Soak the cubed sweet potato in water for 10-20 minutes while you get the rest of the ingredients ready.
- Melt 1 tablespoon butter with 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large saucepan. Add the mushrooms and cook without moving them for about 7 minutes. When they start to brown, stir them gently. Add the thyme and the salt and saute for another 5 minutes until they’re nice and brown. Transfer them into a bowl. Don’t wash the saucepan.
- Drain the sweet potatoes.
- Melt the 3 tablespoons butter with the 3 tablespoons of olive oil. When the bubbles have subsided, add the shallots. Cook for about a minute and then add the sweet potatoes. Cook for 5 minutes and then add the corn, sumac, and sprinkle with salt.
- Stir the mushrooms into the sauce with the sweet potatoes and sprinkle half of the sage in. Stir the gnocchi into the sauce with a bit of the starchy cooking water you’ve reserved. I added about ¼ cup of water into the sauce when I added the gnocchi and it brought the flavors together marvelously. It’s not too saucy so if you accidentally drain the water away don’t stress, but starchy cooking water is always helpful in melding the sauce with the pasta or gnocchi.
- Sprinkle with the rest of the sage and
tip your servers!