WEB EXCLUSIVEFriends Cook at Canelé:
Being chef for a night the first time was a success. Was a second appearance tempting fate?
Last summer, I cooked at Canelé restaurant as part of their Friends Cook program. To recap: Being a Silver Lake beekeeper, I proposed a menu based on my honey to chef Corina Weibel, and she accepted. I freaked out in anticipation of the dinner, but when the day came, sure enough, I cooked on the line with her stellar staff. It was a fantastic experience and one that taught me a lot about the rigors of working in a kitchen and how there is a major difference between a chef (Corina) and someone who likes to cook (me). It seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime experience that didn’t need repeating.
In the year since then, the Friends Cook program has grown in popularity. Nancy Silverton and Top Chef winner Ilan Hall stepped in to test out new ideas, and lots of neighbors and pals have sweated over menus of their own and worked the line among the pros. I was proud to be part of this select club of guest chefs and attended quite a few of these dinners—they’re always festive, inventive and tasty.
But then Corina invited me to cook at Canelé again, and I was reminded of my relationship to skydiving: I got over my fear enough to do it and talk about it, but I’ve never seen any reason to do it again. I didn’t think I had anything to prove after the first dinner. It had been a success and a lot of fun. I learned that while I love cooking, I don’t want a career in a professional kitchen. After a couple more conversations, Corina convinced me to lighten up and just go with it—and it only took a small amount of flattery to get me excited about cooking with her again. Here’s what I proposed:
Feral Honey Dinner at Canelé Part Deux
Honey and pimentón roasted-root vegetable salad
Crispy honey-basted half-chicken with corn pudding and something green
Eastside-honey tasting with cheese and nuts
The day neared. I programmed music for the night, printed menus that people could keep and felt pretty good about our plan. I knew Corina would make sure the food was great. I daresay I was cocky.
My first task at Canelé the day of the dinner and was to mix up 120 portions of corn pudding in giant pans. Up until then, I had made the dish in individual ramekins and hadn’t measured anything. I did my best to get the proportions right and popped the first 40-serving pan into the oven. Then came the inevitable chef’s nightmare: To my horror, it did not rise. Corina asked to see my recipe—and mocked me when she learned I didn’t have one. We put the pudding back in the oven and hoped it just needed more time.
We prepped everything else. Corina showed me how to brown chicken so the skin got crisp and the meat stayed juicy. I washed and chopped carrots and made the salad dressing. We figured out how to plate the honey tasting. To my very great relief, after another 20 minutes, the corn pudding decided to firm up. We were in business.
I felt comfortable, as I had gotten to know a lot of the staff at Canelé. We had a good rhythm, and things were relatively calm.
People started arriving, many of them friends and family. Then a woman with a very familiar face and her beautiful daughter sat down right in front of the kitchen. At first I thought she was one of my more tangential Facebook friends. Then I realized she was über-chef Suzanne Goin: multiple award winner; co-owner of Luques, AOC, Tavern and the Hungry Cat; and author of one of my favorite cookbooks.
It turns out I’m not the only one who admires Corina—Goin’s affection for her goes way back. The two had worked together at Campanile years ago, and when Goin opened Luques, Corina was her sous chef. The nervousness was back—and then some. We fussed over her dishes, and I burned myself several times, as I tend to do when I am excited or nervous (or to be honest, near something hot). When Goin came by afterward to praise the meal and offer to buy some of our honey, I melted like a tween at a Bieber show. I gave her some honey and tried not to babble.
Like the previous time, when I looked out into the dining room, I was thrilled to see so many people I love having fun and enjoying the food. We served a lot of diners that night but managed to keep the pace without getting in the weeds. Eventually, everyone was enjoying the last course—and having a good time comparing and contrasting the different honeys and eating it straight from the comb. My dad and husband were holding court at the communal table and sharing wine with friends. I took off my apron and joined them at the table, where I belong.
Will there be a third time? How could I refuse if Corina asks again next summer?
5 LESSONS LEARNED
1. Always bring a recipe.
2. Pick up a pan with a towel, whether you think it’s hot or not.
3. Sharp knives make a big difference (especially when you're cutting 40 pounds of carrots).
4. Carrots are one of the only root vegetables available in summer.
5. Cooking is not a competition.