(Sort-Of) Live Blogging Two Days at the Ahwahnee with Chefs Rick Moonen, Jesse Cool, and Jimmy Bradley
Having written a single, summary piece of my first session at the Ahwahnee this week, I’ve decided to try something different for the next two days: As the chefs (Jimmy Bradley, Jesse Cool, and Rick Moonen) conduct demos and Moonen prepares a five-course dinner for Thursday night, I’ll periodically update this post with glimpses of the cooking demos, socializing, and cooking as it all unspools.
(NOTE: I’m not sure which version of this will be sent out to email subscribers by the automated system, so if you’re reading this post via a subscription, you might want to visit the actual site page for the latest update.)
Wednesday Morning, 10am: Stalking the Green Papaya
We actually begin our adventure with a little ingredient drama from Tuesday, when Rick, who showed up a few days early with his girlfriend Roni Fields and his chef de cuisine from rm seafood in Las Vegas, Chris Starkus, realized that there wasn’t enough green papaya in the house for both his cooking demo today and the gala dinner tomorrow. (Hey, these things happen: happy diners who were moaning over Chef Peter Chastain’s dinner last night would be shocked to learn that the perfectly poached and chilled lobsters we were chowing down on at 7pm hadn’t been delivered to the kitchen until 4:30pm. These kinds of things happen to chefs, and are recovered from, every day.)
The Ahwahnee, located as it is in the middle of a national park, couldn’t procure the necessary papaya on such short notice, so the other toques did what any respectable chefs would do in the same situation: they broke out their cell phones and bailed Rick out.
The final solution: Emily Luchetti, who was part of the Chefs’ Holidays session that wrapped up last night, had her San Francisco restaurant Waterbar order a crate of the precious cargo, which was set to arrive by 9am today in the city. At 10am, Jimmy Bradley, of The Red Cat, is to swing by the restaurant on his way out of town, put the crate in the trunk, and haul it up here for arrival this afternoon. (Can you hear the Mission impossible theme as you read this? No? OK, maybe it wasn’t that dramatic.)
Meanwhile, Starkus picked up around 9am today where he and Moonen had left off with their prep yesterday: I caught up with him as he was filleting Arctic char that will be brined, cold smoked, seared crispy, served over onions, and finished with horseradish cream and paired with crispy potato at Thursday’s gala dinner. (That’s tomorrow night’s second course; the first is the green papaya salad.)
During the day Tuesday, Moonen and Starkus did some other prep work: the green papaya salad for today’s cooking demo, the fennel silk (a sauce for the cod dish that will be course number three tomorrow night and the second dish Rick will demo this afternoon), the above-mentioned horseradish cream, and dessert: sticky toffee pudding, as well as the rum sauce that will infuse it and the coffee-caramel sauce that will finish it. They also made vanilla ice cream to go alongside.
More soon; I’m off to interview Peter Chastain, who’s recovering from cooking last night’s sensational feast but has allowed me to join him for breakfast.
Wednesday Afternoon, 12:15pm: This Chef’s Holiday Has Truly Begun
Just wrapped up a two-hour interview with Peter Chastain, a fascinating chef with a proud and not unhealthy aversion to the spotlight. I found Peter, who pulled a marathon day in the kitchen here yesterday, sitting in the center of the dining room, a bloody Mary before him, steak and eggs on the way, the very picture of decompression. We had a long and wide-ranging discussion of his life and career, which has taken him from Berkeley, California to the East Coast to Japan, Europe, and back to the Bay Area. Along the way, he worked for Ferdinand Metz (who would later go on to become a legendary president of the Culinary Institute of America, leading its transformation into the school we know today), and alongside a young Michael Mina and Mario Batali at the Four Seasons, San Francisco. Over the years, Peter has developed a strong sense of who he is and the kind of restaurant he wants to live and work in, which he’s created for himself at Prima Ristorante in Walnut Creek, CA. All of that will turn up in a profile post sometime in the near future.
Meanwhile, in the kitchen, the Ahwahnee’s executive chef, Percy Whatley and executive sous chef Simon Lewis (who’s leaving the hotel next month for Joël Robuchon’s Las Vegas outpost) have joined the charge, and all three are busily butchering and portioning fish for the coming demos and tomorrow’s dinner:
At 2pm, Rick Moonen will be kicking off this session of Chefs’ Holidays with a live demonstration; I’ll be moderating. Write up to follow.
Wednesday Afternoon, 4pm: The Man in Black
Rick Moonen took to the stage here at 2pm, and was in fine form, a well-tuned demo machine who makes a moderator’s life remarkably easy. Rick’s been cooking in front of live audiences for a long, long time starting at schools like De Gustibus at Macy’s in New York City back in the 1980s and for a network of representative chefs enlisted by Cervena Venison in the 1990s. More recently, of course, he’s been a presence on both Top Chef and Top Chef Masters and has learned to funnel his restless energy and strong point of view into a thoroughly entertaining stage presence.
Rick, decked out as he always seems to be these days in a stark black, tapered chef’s jacket, broke the ice by making a joke out of the central irony of his professional life: that he runs a fish restaurant in the middle of the dessert (rm seafood in Las Vegas). But what’s a guy to do? Rick rose to prominence at Oceana, which for years was one of the preeminent seafood temples in New York City, then relocated to Vegas about seven years ago to plug into the thriving restaurant scene there.
Well, actually, here’s something a guy can do: turn sustainability into a personal cause, which Rick has done. Each of the hundred or so spectators today found placed before them, along with the chef’s bio and promotional material for his restaurant, pocket-sized cards from the Monterey Bay Aquarium titled Seafood Watch (visible online as well), that offer guidelines for best practices when it comes to choosing fish that’s (a) farmed in environmentally friendly ways and (b) isn’t at immediate risk of being over-fished out of existence. As Rick pointed out, not everybody defines sustainability quite the same way, but this is the one that he adheres to, and he’s pushing its tenets to anybody who’ll listen.
Rick spent the first five or ten minutes of the presentation describing all this with an expert’s ease, and then launched into the cooking, for which he blended science, technique, and detailed explanations of the different flavor and textural marks he tries to hit in a dish. He demonstrated how to quick-brine fish to firm it up and delineated what goes into fish sauce and other ingredients, and then encouraged guests to not be too bound to his recipes; for example, you can top his Thai green papaya salad with shrimp, or sliced scallops, or whatever you damn well feel like. Although the house was full of foodies, questions were scarce; not for lack of interest but because Rick’s done enough of this to anticipate what his audience is wondering.
Afterwards, Rick and Chris returned to the Ahwahnee’s main kitchen to pick up on their prep for tomorrow night, retrieving their cod from its brine and smoking the Arctic char. At 6pm, we’ll meet the attendees of the Chefs’ Holidays series up close and personal at a welcome reception, then a few of us are having dinner. It ought to be a fun night: we’ll be joined by Jimmy Bradley and the hotel’s executive chef Percy Whatley. If I don’t refresh this post again until the morning, you’ll know where I disappeared to.
Thursday Morning, 8am: One Hundred Folds Edition!
Chefs Jimmy Bradley, Jesse Cool, and Rick Moonen met the dining public last night in a welcome reception. After mingling for a bit, we all ascended a spiral staircase to a second floor landing from which we each said a few words. Rick Moonen showed Toqueland a little love by asking the audience if they knew what a toque was.
“A chef’s hat,” yelled about half the people in attendance.
“Right! Do you know how many folds it has?”
There was a long silence, before a voice piped up: “One hundred.”
“Right!” said Rick. “Do you know why?”
“Because that’s how many ways you can cook an egg,” said the same voice.
Turns out the savvy guest down below wasn’t a guest at all; it was Percy Whatley, the executive chef of the hotel. Guy knows his stuff; in fact, he’s studying for the Certified Master Chef exam, something I hope to write more about in this space in the months to come.
A short while later, I was to interview Rick, but ended up with Jimmy Bradley in tow. No way that interview was going to happen: We visited Rick’s guest suite here, where he and girlfriend Roni Fields where hanging and sipping wine. The visit soon turned into a reminiscence session about chefs and restaurants back in New York, some still in business, some long gone. Get two guys like that together and the number of cooks, owners, restaurant spaces, and other assorted history they have in common can be staggering. Fun fact: Rick once ran the kitchen at Chelsea Central, in the space that is now home to Jimmy’s The Red Cat. As Rick himself said the other night, “The older I get, the smaller the world is.”
We all made our way to dinner downstairs, by which time our group had grown so large they had to set a new table: Along for the meal were Jesse; Percy; Rick’s chef de cuisine Chris Starkus; Carlos Canada, the chef of Jesse’s Flea Street Cafe (clearly very sweet guy who I scarcely got to talk to); and Peter Chastain, who was still at the hotel and now flying solo, his crew having headed back to Walnut Creek.
It was a fun dinner, with surprisingly little shop talk. There was however a running gag: Jesse is in love with the hotel’s sticky buns, which are only available here in the bar, which serves as a cafe by day, and she mentioned them every chance she got. Because the hotel picks up our meals, I’ve been maxing out the arrangement by breakfasting from the buffet in the main dining room, where there’s everything my heart could desire waiting for me every morning; little did I know what I was missing.
The meal passed quickly, and before knew it, the waiter was asking: “Would anybody care for dessert?”
Nobody took him up on the offer. “Typical chefs,” laughed Jesse. “Nobody wants dessert.”
We did want something else, however, and a bunch of us found our way to the hotel bar for a nightcap. The place, just an hour removed from closing time, was empty, save for the waitstaff. Espying an elevated platform at the back of the room, Rick demonstrated that you can take the man out of Vegas but you can’t take the Vegas out of the man: “Can we sit in the Champagne Lounge,” he asked. “Or is that bottle service only?”
Gotta run. Jesse’s demo is up in an hour, and I need caffeine before taking the microphone to moderate. And, of course, I gotta get me a sticky bun!
Thursday, 12:30pm: Eye of the Storm
The guests for this session of Chef’s Holidays have it pretty swell: they were treated to Rick Moonen’s high-octane demonstration yesterday, and this morning they enjoyed the hug-like warmth exuded by Jesse Cool, the queen of Menlo Park’s dining scene. Jesse’s the one chef here I’d never met before, although we’re going to make up for lost time with an interview this afternoon. Known for her adherence to organic food, sustainability, and the like, she’s also a one-woman wrecking ball to the stereotypes many people attach to “hippy chefs,” as she describes herself: yes, she wants you and everybody else to buy locally sourced food, eat “real” ingredients (not that processed junk), and to not waste anything (e.g., availing yourself of all usable parts of vegetables and animals). But she also loves herself a good piece of meat, a gin cocktail, and–of course–sticky buns.
In other words, Jesse’s a prophet but not a preacher, and that was the underpinning of her entire presentation this morning. She’s also a seasoned teacher, and knows enough to keep it simple when taking to the demo stage. “All my recipes are dump and mix,” she told me when I leaned in for a pre-demo powwow.
Jesse’s been coming to this event on and off for more than two decades and I’m sure it says a lot about her and the regard in which she’s held up here that a posse of area chefs, women all, showed up to watch her demo and visit with her afterwards.
Meanwhile, here’s what two days of advance prep work will get you: Moonen and Starkus are locked and loaded for the big dinner tonight, which I discovered when I headed into the kitchen to check on their progress and instead found Chris in his civvies, headed out to do some sightseeing. They’ll get back in there after lunch, and not come out again until the last course has been served, some time around 9:30 this evening.
I’m off to get a coffee and catch up with Percy Whatley, and then to Jimmy’s demo. After that, it’s an interview with Jesse, over gin cocktails, naturally.
Thursday, 3:30pm: We’ve Been Slimed!
Jimmy Bradley took to the demonstration stage at 2pm to teach two of his dishes: a pork sausage and clam stew dish inspired by the Portuguese fishermen of his hometown of Narragansett, Rhode Island, and an Arctic char tartar. Both are highly versatile: The components of the pork and clam mashup (featured in our The Red Cat Cookbook) can be served up individually or together, and the tartare can be presented on the chips that adorned the plated version as a passed hors d’oeuvre.
The demonstration stopped for a spell when Jimmy, expanding on his expression that “to be a good cook, you have to be a good shopper,” described how to select a fresh piece of Arctic char at the market. Unlike most fish, he explained, char’s skin should be a little slimy. This caused a bit of a stir among the audience, who wondered if maybe he meant to use a different word. He didn’t, and to illustrate his meaning, Jimmy sliced off a piece of the fish and sent it round the room on a plate so people could drag their finger through the filmy coating for themselves. They were a little grossed out, but edified, and the tasting that followed the demo had everybody singing the praises of both the product and its preparation, including the servers in the staging area who let no morsel of it go to waste.
Thursday Afternoon, 4pm: T-Minus 150 Minutes
I dropped by the Ahwahnee’s kitchen shortly after Jimmy’s demo to find Moonen, Starkus, and the Ahwahnee cooks going full steam with final preparations. You need to know when to stay the hell out of the way in a kitchen, so I snapped a few pictures and made for the exit:
(Note: Amazingly, Rick made a few minutes to give me an interview before the dinner; write up to follow later this week.)
Thursday Night, 9:30pm: Shift Drink!
Rick’s dinner was served up in the Ahwahnee’s cathedral-like dining room. The five-course feast: green papaya salad topped with shrimp; seared Arctic char with cucumber salad and horseradish crema; Alaskan black cod with citrus ragu, fennel silk, and shaved apple; venison with Brussels sprouts, wild mushrooms, stuffed cippolini onions, and pear butter; and that sticky toffee pudding for dessert.
After the dinner, all the guest chefs and their friends, along with Percy and his cooks, gathered in the hotel bar for a decompression session. Bottles of wine were out in the center of the table and visiting chefs and hotel staff hung out and drank together for a good 90 minutes. It was a terrific demonstration of the camaraderie among cooks; some of the people at the table were television personalities, others toil anonymously at a kitchen in the middle of a state park, but everybody was on equal turf:
Thursday Night, 10:30pm: Flop Chef
One of the organizers of the Chefs’ Holidays series showed up with a big smile on her face, having just secured the last of the chefs for the final two sessions of the series. Of course, the roster had been set months ago (I committed back in July, for example). The final two sessions were to feature chef-testants from Top Chef, but guess what happened? Three of the six pulled out, leaving the organizers high and dry. This is the height of lame: if a guy of, say, Rick Moonen’s stature and schedule can manage to keep his commitments, I’d love to know how these guys justified the pull out, to the hotel, but also to themselves. (To their credit, the show’s season 5 winner Hosea Rosenberg is keeping his word, as are Top Chef alums Tre Wilcox and Ariane Duarte. I’m sure it’s no accident that these three chefs all run businesses or restaurant kitchens of their own rather than simply marking time on the party circuit.)
Ultimately, this works out to the benefit of those who will attend the last session of Chefs’ Holidays who will get to soak up the wit and wisdom of some bona fide chefs including Adam Mali of the Pat Kuleto Group in San Francisco, Parke Ulrich of San Francisco’s Waterbar, and Brandon Miller of Caramel, California’s Mundaka.
Thursday Night, 11pm: Et Tu, Jimmy?
After the bar shut down, Rick and Roni invited me and Jimmy to join them and Starkus up in the suite the three of them were sharing. With a fireplace roaring, the three of us killed a bottle of Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant. Jimmy and Rick dropped right back into their New York state of mind from the day prior, talking about a place I hadn’t thought of in years, the Chefs Cuisiniers Club, a spot on East 22nd Street that Rick opened back in the 1990s along with his buddies Charlie Palmer and Frank Crispo, in part so toques would have a place to hang after hours.
Rick also treated us to some memories of Le Cote Basque, where he worked early in his career, when a growing number of Americans were becoming interested in serious professional cooking.
Rick has a jumpy energy (he often seems like a man itching for a fight) and he was getting into a real lather as he recalled how few French chefs were open to yanks working in their kitchens when he and his contemporaries first started out, Le Cote Basque being a notable exception.
“Jean-Jacques Rachou!” he bellowed, naming the establishment’s chef and shifting around on the sofa. “He was the only one. The ONLY ONE. THE ONLY ONE who said, ‘YES, the Americans, the young Americans can cook. Hire them!” He turned to me: “That’s the truth! And you should look into it!”
Then Roni, a professional photographer, treated us to a slideshow of nature shots from the morning she and Rick spent in nearby Mariposa. At one point, Rick made a mildly crude and hilarious joke that a scribe like myself can’t help but want to share with the masses.
“Can I have that for the site?” I asked.
“You want it?” asked Rick.
“YOU WANT IT???”
“I WANT IT!”
“YOU REALLY WANT IT?”
“I REALLY WANT IT!”
We were so worked up that I half expected him to reply, “You can’t handle the truth!” but instead, he said, “You can have it! On the record! You got it!”
I can’t lie: This made my night. But then Jimmy, who I consider one of my best pals, showed that the bond between cooks trumps the one between cooks and writers.
“Rick, man, you’re better than that,” he said. “Why do you want that joke out there?”
“Naw, it’s fine,” Rick said.
“No,” said Jimmy. “You’re Rick Moonen. You’re a badass chef. Why do you want people quoting that?”
At which point I waved them both off and said not to worry about it, not wanting to be a drag on the evening, something Toqueland has to be careful of, lest we alienate our friends.
Friday, On the Road Again
The next morning, I meet up with Jesse for a breakfast interview (life got in the way of our planned meet-up on Thursday), then packed up the SUV and headed down to San Francisco with Jimmy.
We had dinner at Park Tavern, a North Beach hotspot owned by Jimmy’s old friend Anna Weinberg, who used to work for Jonathan Waxman at Barbuto in New York City. The meal was terrific, the perfect way to end the week. When it was time to head for the airport, a violent rainstorm had broken out. The ride to SFO was harrowing, to say the least. We thought about sticking around another night, but Saturday flight options were limited so we recognized that it was time to go. This trip, like all good things, had come to an end.