August 2009

Honey’s Big Night

  • Nectar of the gods: Seidenwurm’s private-label reserve
  • Honey vinaigrette–drizzled greens with beets, Gorgonzola and walnuts
  • One bee-utiful day: The chef for a day savors her culinary adventure.
  • Honey-glazed pork with Maker's Mark, corn cakes and buttered carrots
  • Goat cheese and nectarine tart with honey gelato

A Beekeeper's Passion Crests with a Guest Stint in Canelé's Kitchen

Amy
Seidenwurm

Photo by Coral Von Zumwalt

I make honey—or rather, my bees make honey, and I enjoy the fruits of their labor by sharing it with my nearest and dearest. I love to give jars of our rich, complex, ridiculously delicious nectar as gifts. Still, I yearn for other outlets.

Long before my husband and I began keeping bees last September, I’d had a crush on Canelé, a bistro in Atwater Village. It’s everything I find appealing about a neighborhood restaurant: friendly, simple, fresh, creative and reasonably priced. The food is in no way trendy, but it isn’t predictable either. You expect salmon or Caesar salad on the menu, but instead you find whole branzino and dandelion salad. I like a place that challenges me in subtle ways. A host offers diners a mini canelé—a pastry with a soft custardy center and caramelized crust—on their way out, and the treat is a fitting end to a generous and graceful experience.

So, smitten with the restaurant, I did what I do: I cyberstalked it, learning from the place’s Website that there’s a program called Friends Cook at Canelé, described as an opportunity for “the sort of friend so in love with eating that she must share some childhood gustatory obsession with the world...When we find such a friend—whether experienced cook or absolute newbie—we want nothing more than to offer him or her a stage on which to shine.”

Yes! Sign me up! The site is cryptic about how one gets to be one of these “friends,” but I am known to be very persistent. I boned up on chef and co-owner Corina Weibel and resolved to meet her the next time my husband and I went in for dinner.

I’ d worked in the music business for much of my life and am used to meeting rock stars and actors. But put me in front of a chef I admire, and I get goofy and shy. I gathered all my courage and approached Corina to ask how someone can be one of these special friends. “Well, you need to submit a menu,” she said. Friendly enough, but she certainly didn’t go out of her way to encourage me. I beat an intimidated retreat.

A lot happened in the year that followed. I quit my soul-sucking job at an Internet startup. I spent a week learning to make cheese on a dairy farm in North Carolina. My mom died. My mother-in-law died. I started a great job that does not suck the soul out of me. And most important to this story, my husband and I started keeping bees. Then it dawned on me: The honey was my ticket to becoming a Canelé friend. So, with a jar of our finest in hand, I approached Corina again and explained my vision of a honey-driven menu, with each of the three courses featuring honey from organic beekeepers around L.A. A few emails later, I was in, and we had agreed on this menu:

• Mixed green salad with roasted beets, Gorgonzola, honey-roasted walnuts and honey-champagne vinaigrette.
• Honey-glazed pork tenderloin with Maker’s Mark reduction, corn cakes and buttered carrots.
• Goat cheese and nectarine tart with raw-honey drizzle and honey gelato.

I had made my pork tenderloin with Maker’s Mark bourbon ever since a friend left a half gallon of it at my house after a particularly sodden poker game. It adds a woody, complex flavor that works great with a honey glaze. But the rest of the recipes needed work.

5 LESSONS LEARNED
1. Great chefs make cooking look easy, but it isn’t.
2. I don't know as much as I thought I did.
3. Things are more delicious cooked with butter.
4. Always bring your knives.
5. When someone in the kitchen says "behind you," don't back up.

To perfect the dishes, I started cooking like a maniac. Counter to my usual practice, I wrote down recipes before testing them. I made sweet walnuts and spicy walnuts and walnuts with smoked paprika. I decided that, in early summer, yellow corn is sweeter than white corn. I arranged a barter with Silver Lake’s Pazzo Gelato, giving them a bunch of honey that they turned into incredible gelato. They gave me half and sold the rest in the shop.

I emailed Corina to ask if we could meet to figure out logistics. She replied that we would work it all out the day of the dinner. What? How would she know what supplies to get? How would the crew know what to do? My inexperience made me want to hammer out every detail to ensure it would be flawless. We finally spoke by phone, and I realized I was being an idiot. Corina had an answer for every one of my questions and was way ahead of me on the specifics. It should have occurred to me she would handle this dinner with the same attention to detail she gave everything else at her restaurant.

Big Tuesday came (all of the Friends dinners are on Tuesdays), and I arrived hours before the 5:30 p.m. opening. I was first-day-of-school nervous, as I didn’t want to look like a poseur—the office worker playing cook for a day. With my knife skills and speed lacking, I hoped that a sense of humor, some humility and a general tough-guy attitude would earn me a little respect.

I needn’t have worried. Everyone in the kitchen at Canelé was beyond sweet and skilled. They gave me tasks and managed to make me feel like I wasn’t holding them up. We chopped and prepped everything. We made all of the dishes once and tried them. Corina taught me how to do that nifty pan flip chefs do—possibly the most exciting new skill I’ve learned since mastering the Rubik’s Cube in seventh grade.

Before I knew it, we had customers. The first wave was mostly friends, and they looked like they were having fun. People who had only met a couple of times were pulling their tables together to hang out. Compliments started coming into the kitchen.

As my friends finished up—seeming to have honestly enjoyed their meal—the next wave arrived. The Friends menu is in addition to Canelé’s standard fare, and I found myself annoyed when people dared to order anything other than my offerings. Then suddenly the place was full, and we were “in the weeds”—an old restaurant expression I’d heard and read and seen on TV but was now strangely excited to experience. I finally got into the rhythm, and we cranked through 50 or so dinners in a couple of hours.

Customers stopped arriving at about 9:30, and Corina suggested I sit down and eat. I suddenly realized I was dead tired and hadn’t had any sustenance for many hours. I took a place at the community table with my husband and close friends and savored the meal—truly my meal in more ways than one. The spattering from the corn cakes left me with burns up and down my arms and a nice one on my face. I kind of like them, which I know is weird. Don’t judge me.

AMY SEIDENWURM is a fan of bees, food, dogs, wine, music, typography, technology and basketball. In her professional life, she is a digital marketing geek.