Sophia (featuring Coconut Shrimp with Ginger Tamarind Dip)
He was nervous on the phone. The client told me in a barrage of rapid-fire sentences what he wanted: someone to cook a meal for him and his girlfriend on their anniversary. He’d never done this before, had no idea how it goes. This was pre-vaccine. His girlfriend was very nervous about Coronavirus so he didn’t want to hire a chef to serve dinner.
“Just cook it and leave. That’s all I need. That’s all I want. I don’t know if that’s ok for you, but I don’t want to make her nervous. You’ll just cook it and go. You’ll leave so she won’t be worried.”
“That’s not a problem, sir,” I said slowly, hoping to calm his nerves. “I can come and cook a spectacular meal and then leave before you sit to eat. I’m going to email you some menu ideas and then…”
“Oh good,” as his cadence slowed he sounded older than I first thought. “Good, thank you.”
Through the phone, I felt his shoulders release. Mine did, too.
My job is multifaceted. Sure, I cook well, I have the required skillset to make tasty foodstuffs, but my job is more complicated than that. I’m a future tripper and a logistician. I’m the Marie Kondo of the kitchen. I need to prep food and plan service with such an exacting paranoia that nothing is left to chance. Every moment of a party I’m catering has been accounted for ahead of time. I’ve learned that only when I have full confidence in myself does the client feel they can relinquish control of their evening to a total stranger. Honestly, cooking is the easiest of my tasks.
My nervous client chose a lovely menu, with baked brie tartlets and coconut shrimp to begin, then a roast beet and baby green salad with goat cheese and candied walnuts. The main course was a rosemary and garlic-crusted flat iron steak on a bed of wild rice and haricot verts with lemons and hazelnuts. They’d end the night with a frangipane pear tart.
This is my prep brain in action:
KNEAD BREAD DOUGH,SHOP,MAKE VINAIGRETTE,BRIE SAUCE, DIP FOR SHRIMP, PICK UP STEAK,RUB MEAT, TART SHELLS,BAKE TART, PREP SHRIMP,DON’T’ FORGET FRY OIL, FRY POT, PREP BEANS, BAKE BREAD,COCKTAIL NAPKINS, COCONUT FLAKES, PANKO,SAUTE PAN, SHEET PAN, TONGS, BRIE TART SHELLS, TAKE AWAY CONTAINERS JUST IN CASE, SALT, JACKET, TOWELS,BLACK PANTS, BLACK TSHIRT, HAIR PULLED UP TIGHT TIGHT, HAT IN THE CAR, 4:00 PACK THE CAR, 4:15 LEAVE THE KITCHEN, GO
As I pulled it shut I felt the air pressure shift as though my Honda door was that of a 747 jetliner. My body felt buoyant, like the container of my flesh was evanescent. Suddenly, I am Ram Dass or maybe Timothy Leary. The digital clock on the dashboard had disappeared. I experienced a floating sensation of freedom, of being in the moment. I had entered a pocket of time unlike any other in my world. This is the point of no return. I had planned and prepped to accommodate every possible outcome of this party and at this moment there’s nothing to do but drive. I am here, I have done everything in my power, I have faith in myself to do my job well. I don’t ever let myself off the hook the way I do in this little bracket of time after prep and before the meal. 20 minutes, maybe 30 when the voices in my head are silent.
Plunging my index finger onto my car’s ignition button my radio blasted, “sweet dreams are made of this, who am I to disagree?” Annie Lenox and I belted out together like we were the only people on the planet. “I’ve traveled the world and the seven seas, everybody’s lookin’ for something.” Singing inadvertently filled my lungs with fresh air and I felt almost weepy with joy as I watched the tree tips seem to sway along with random radio tunes.
The dashboard time blinked back to reality 26 minutes later. My mouth turned dry as I signaled to exit the freeway. My black work jeans had become too tight over the pandemic and my hips bulged over the waistband. Pictures of the client conjured by my imagination appeared in my head: an angry, unsettled old man who would find no joy in anything I produced. As I pulled into the parking lot of his apartment complex, my anxiety had returned full force.
The corners of his bearded grin could be seen peeking out from behind his masked face when he opened his door. He was so delighted I’d actually shown up, though he was still quite nervous and fast-talking. I noted the practical, flair-less styled apartment of an older man who lived alone. If you can buy furniture at Costco, I think he did.
I had about an hour before the girlfriend arrived. On the small dining table off the kitchenette, he’d set a bouquet of roses next to the plates and forks with folded paper towels as napkins. He told me he had been married and divorced, he had grown children that lived in other States and had been through a lot in his life. Different from almost every client I cook for, he existed without pretense. No “I’ve got it all figured out” façade, no need to show me that he was the boss. He stood in his plaid button-down shirt and dungarees and grinned as I unpacked my prepped ingredients and started to cook his meal. He explained that if he’d been left to take care of this meal his girlfriend would have eaten a frozen dinner.
I felt I could just be in this moment. I felt a return of the self-confidence I had experienced on the ride over. Then it was me with a hot pan and flat iron steak, me and wild rice, me and brie tartlets, me and coconut shrimp.
I set the cooked plated food in the 200-degree oven and heard the girlfriend arrive. She was a lovely (appropriately aged) woman who was surprised and delighted that her boyfriend had not been left in charge of their culinary experience.
I set some appetizers on the coffee table with a few fanned cocktail napkins and carried my bags of equipment to the door.
He shoved a folded wad of bills into my hand and said, “I think you are just about the best thing around, Alison. You did every single thing you said you were going to do, you were organized and attentive, and the food looks amazing. I know it’s none of my business, but I don’t think you’re charging enough for this high quality of service!”
I have to say, I’ve gotten a lot of compliments on my work before, but there was something so sincere about his words that I heard them differently. I felt seen as a woman- not as a sexual being because he wasn’t hitting on me – but as a competent woman in her field. After packing my bags into the trunk, I turned on my car and Joan Jett sang out, “I LOVE ROCK AND ROLL, PUT ANOTHER DIME IN THE JUKEBOX, BABY!” and I became aware of my hips and my breasts and my shoulders and my stomach. I am Sophia Loren right now, I thought to myself as I sang along with Joan Jett. Sophia Loren of the kitchen. I am enough.
My client’s girlfriend thought my coconut shrimp were outstanding, so here’s the recipe for it. Every time I serve it people go wild.
Coconut Shrimp with Ginger Tamarind Dip
Ginger Tamarind Dip
- 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
- 1 teaspoon tamarind concentrate
- 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- 2/3 cup mayonnaise
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- Mix ingredients together until well combined.
- 16 shrimp– veins, shells, and tails removed
- ½ cup rice flour
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 egg white
- 1 cup sweetened coconut flakes
- ½ cup panko (or gluten-free breadcrumbs)
- 2-3 cups vegetable oil to fry in
- In three different bowls, place the rice flour with the salt in the first, the egg white in the second, and the coconut flakes with the panko in the third.
- Heat the oil up to 350 degrees in a sturdy pot.
- Dredge the shrimp in the rice flour first, then dunk them into the egg white, and then into the coconut flake/ panko mixture.
- Carefully drop the shrimp into the hot oil and deep fry for a minute or two. They cook very quickly and you’ll be able to tell they’re done when the coconut crust becomes golden.
- Skewer the shrimp or just plop them onto a serving platter with the dipping sauce. Since the tails have been removed, they’re like popcorn shrimp and will disappear faster than you can say Sophia Loren!