Chef in da House with Chef Big John
Friday night I attended a small dinner/wine tasting that has been dubbed "Chef in da House" by the host, David LeClaire. For those of you active in wine tastings and events in the Seattle area, even if you don’t know David the chances are very good that you’ve attended an event he’s organized. If you’ve recently attended the Rose Revival or plan to attend the Pasa Robles tasting next Monday, those are his events.
Periodically he hosts a wine tasting at his home and invites a chef to cook dinner. There is a fee but it basically covers just the cost of the materials. I think this was the second or third version of Chef in da House, and when I noticed the Chef for this evening was Chef Big John Caudill I immediately sent in my reservation!
I used to regularly attend Thursday night wine tastings at Seattle Cellars with my friend, L. During that time we got to know all of the staff at the store. Over time I learned who had tastes similar to mine and came to rely on them for recommendations and information. At that time Big John was working at Seattle Cellars and he was someone I always counted on. Over the years I got to know him and his wife, who also regularly attended, pretty well. In fact, I got to know the whole family as his sister also worked at Seattle Cellars! They’ve been to parties at my house, I’ve been to their parties but a couple years ago they moved east of the mountains and so our interaction has been limited to fortuitous meetings, mostly at wine events.
Seattle Cellars sponsors wine dinners and special events in addition to the Thursday night tastings. In those days they often partnered with The Painted Table, the now closed restaurant that was in the Alexis Hotel. David was the wine director and ran many promotions at the restaurant and that was how I got to know him. Both men have since gone on to other adventures, Big John having graduated from culinary school, now runs his own catering and events company and, as previously mentioned, David has his wine events company. So I was looking forward to this dinner that was also a bit of a blast from the past.
Friday night was a very warm night in Seattle. When I arrived at the house Chef Big John and his wife, Kimberly, were already busy in the hot kitchen and had been for a few hours, having spent the early part of the day shopping at The Market. David was opening chilled white wines to start our tasting. Some of the tastings he does are pretty formal, where he takes you through bottle by bottle, but this was going to be more informal – lots of choices and up to each person to pick what looked good to them and talk to him about it, if they wished. He gave us the ground rules and started pouring.
Since the kitchen was right in the heart of things, this was also an informal cooking class. There were too many of us to watch every step of every process, but people were free to come and go as they desired, spending some time in the kitchen, watching and listening to the ongoing dialog or asking questions about something, helping out if they wished, then wandering out to the living room or deck to sip some wine and cool off.
In the meantime, Big John and Kimberly were working on the first offering, Chevre dipped in Herbs de Provence, then baked on (toasted) crostini until warmed and slightly melted. The mixture of herbs with the cheese was wonderful. The fragrant rosemary and lavender with the tart Chevre was rich, yet not overwhelming. A perfect bite to start the night. They plated up 20+ portions, guests helped get them distributed and everyone was soon happily munching.
Next up was Wilted Greens with Lardon sprinkled with crumbled Goat Cheese. This dish included three types of greens: Frisee; Escarole; and Arugula. Each was prepared separately, as they have different sautéing requirements, and then combined. Both the Frisee and the Escarole were sautéed in the rendered fat from the Lardon. The Arugula was not cooked but was blended in with the first two which provided enough heat to wilt it. The greens were plated, topped with crispy lardon and a little crumbled goat cheese added for good measure. The combination of greens was great and, personally, I am all for warm lardon rendering being used as dressing!
I am sad to say that for the next course I was spending my time cooling off outdoors and so I do not have a single picture of this lovely, lovely plate. :-( But I can tell you how good it was and what was in it! The star was duck, specifically, Confit (cooked in its own fat) of duck leg over Salade Americanes (the French version of Waldorf). Granny Smith apples, toasted walnuts, celeriac and freshly made mayo were combined into a refreshing contrast to the richness of the duck. The celeriac was a nice little surprise in the salad – along with the apples there was a great juicy, crispness in every bite. Now by this time I’m feeling pretty happy but we were not yet done!
Next up was lamb. Lamp chops were trimmed and frenched then marinated in olive oil, rosemary and garlic. Lots of garlic! The racks were pan-roasted, finished in the oven, then cut into individual chops. Also on the plate were: blanched asparagus, that had been oiled and seasoned and then roasted in the oven to warm through; and mushrooms marinated in extremely good olive oil and vinegar, tarragon, salt and pepper and then sautéed until tender. (These can either be served cold or at room temperature.) I loved the tang the vinegar gave to the mushrooms. And the lamb, well it was perfectly cooked and tender.
At the beginning of the evening we had been warned that dessert most likely wasn’t going to turn out as originally planned. On the menu was chocolate pot de creme. With the heat of the day, the heat of the kitchen, the refrigerator full of wine (even the reds were spending a little time in the refrigerator as the temperature was over 80 F that evening…) the proper cooling and setting most likely wouldn’t happen. But we were promised one of the best cold mochas in it’s place! :-) And that’s exactly what we got. Lovely, rich, velvety- smooth, drinkable chocolate. I didn’t hear anyone complaining that we had to sip it from a cup instead of eat it with a spoon!
Throughout the evening guests mingled and met, talked about the wine and the food, helped out when they wanted to, poured wine for each other, sat on the deck, exchanged contact information, and just generally had a great time. It was a fun group of people and I’m sure I’ll be seeing many of them at other events around town.
Both David and Big John are available to help you plan an event of your own, or you can sign up for David’s email newsletter to hear about the latest public events he’s working on.