Since I live for food and wine and spend a substantial amount of my free time tinkering about the kitchen either creating new recipes or tweaking old recipes, I occasionally will ponder my career choices, thinking about what would have been if I had selected the culinary arts instead of the health sciences.
Mind you, I fully realize that for every Thomas Keller, Alice Waters and Michael Chiarello, there are hordes of culinary school graduates still workin’ that line, never making it to celebrity chef or even executive chef. Add those extremely long hours gettin’ up at the crack of dawn to procure the freshest seafood and bread, then headin’ off to the green grocers for the freshest produce, then spending hours prepping for breakfast, lunch and/or dinner service, only to spend another hour or two after meal service cleaning the kitchen … Whew! I know it’s hard work! But that doesn’t stop me from occasionally wonderin’…
Well, several months ago mon ami Monsieur K also pondered a venture into the culinary arts (he’s a contractor by trade), and what started as a semi-joke eventually materialized into a full blown pop-up dinner. I refer to him as Monsieur K, as we often will converse with one another in our pseudo Francais accents (our spouses and friends probably think we’re simply imitating Maurice Chevalier, and would refer to it as BAD pseudo Francais accents). However, since pop-up dinners are still the rage in the 50th, we figured, “why not us?”
The Planning Stage
First and most importantly, where are we having this dinner? The Tatsumoto abode cannot accommodate 30 or so diners. Ditto for the K’s home, unless diners will be seated on the floor. What about Hank’s Haute Dogs? The Pig and the Lady held their pop-up dinners there. Of course, about half the seating was at counter tables and Chef Andrew Le and his family bring all of their own plates and silverware. Neither the Ks nor the Tatsumotos planned on purchasing 30 sets of dishes. OK, how about Eat Café (within the Gentry Pacific Design Center at 560 North Nimitz Highway, Suite 102, Honolulu, 808-538-0597, email@example.com, www.eathonolulu.com)? They can seat up to 40 and will also provide plates, silverware and wine glasses. Sounds like a plan beginning to gel.
For some reason, we independently and immediately decided on a five-course meal. It might have been due to the fact that The Pig and the Lady always did five-course meals, or that five-course meals seem to be the standard prix fixe menu in established restaurants. Plus, while three courses seemed too little and seven courses seemed overwhelming, five courses was like that Baby Bear compromise, “juuust right.”
But now what to serve? Monsieur K knew that he wanted to do a cold soup as a starter and selected a chilled carrot soup served in either coffee cups or demitasse. He also knew that he wanted to serve a tartare dish, and since Whole Foods occasionally has fresh bison in their meat department, he pre-arranged purchasing fresh bison top round, sirloin and tenderloin for his bison tartare. Finally, he decided to end the meal with panna cotta, and not just any panna cotta, but the buttermilk panna cotta from Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc restaurant in Yountville, Calif.
The big question was: What am I serving? I initially thought of some variation of bacon and eggs, since every restaurant has a version of pork and eggs, like Bottega’s soft boiled egg rolled in panko and deep fried served with house cured pork belly confit. I envisioned the Gochiso Gourmet’s bacon and eggs with slow-braised shoyu pork belly (ala rafute or slow-braised Okinawan shoyu pork belly) wrapped in a cilantro bao served with soft cooked quails egg with green onion and ginger pesto, steamed in a shumai wrapper. Then, reality hit. The first trial of my steamed cilantro bao was less than fluffy, and the steaming process left it an olive green hue, even with the addition of Vitamin C powder to inhibit color oxidation. And when I actually thought of the logistics of soft boiling 30-plus (you have to account for breakage) quail eggs, it left little to be desired. On to Plan B, a deconstructed BLT with slow braised pork belly (again, ala rafute), but seasoned with bourbon, maple syrup and smoked ham hocks (the “B”), with salad greens (the “L”), and heirloom tomatoes (the “T”), served with a sundried tomato bread and two types of dressing — a bacon tomato mayonnaise and a Green Goddess dressing. Sounds more like a doable plan to me!
But what about my other course? A no brainer! I’ve always wanted to make the Gochiso Gourmet’s rendition of that local classic, the loco moco. Traditionally, it’s a hamburger patty served on white rice, smothered with brown gravy and topped with a sunny-side egg. My version started with a base of mushroom risotto … What?!? Isn’t risotto one of those difficult to time starches that a lot of restaurants actually avoid, since cooked rice takes at least 20 minutes (and most diners aren’t willing to wait 20 minutes between courses)? Well, I’m an amateur, and that’s why I’m “all in,” even if I only have a pair of deuces in my hand! In place of the hamburger patty, I substitute braised short rib and instead of brown gravy, I braise the short rib in “gravy” of a different kind, sauce Perigueux with Madeira, beef stock and truffles! And in place of a sunny-side egg, I add a slow scrambled egg (ala Daniel Boulud) with loads of French butter and green onions.
T-Minus 2 Weeks
Two weeks before the big event, we had a trial run at the K’s that actually provided valuable information for tweaking the menu. For starters, we realized that the serving sizes were super sized (not that we reduced them to proper portions at the big event). We also were able to suggest wine pairings with each course as we uncorked at least a dozen bottles (OK, we didn’t finish every bottle) and since we plated each dish as it would be served, we had an idea of the logistics involved for plating 30 dishes. I also had an idea of how long my risotto could “rest” before it started getting “gummy.”
Ni French Brothers Pop-up Dinner Menu
First Course: Carrot Soup
Second Course: Bison Tartare
Third Course: Deconstructed BLT
Fourth Course: Nocoeaux Mocoeaux (aka Loco Moco Palaka-style)
Dessert Course: Buttermilk Panna Cotta
Invitees were also given potential wine pairings (it was a BYOB dinner) and also informed that there was a $50 charge (we debated whether to even charge a fee for the food portion, but decided that if diners actually paid for dinner, they would be truthful in their evaluation/criticism of the meal). We did invite two local food writers (and their spouses) but sadly, both couldn’t make it that evening. However, Hank Adaniya of Hank’s Haute Dogs (and formerly of Trio in Chicago) did attend, and provided valuable feedback.
Monsieur K served an amuse bouche to start the meal, consisting of a corn custard served in the egg shell topped with duck fat sautéed corn and red wine vinegar that was actually served in the egg cartons themselves. And I ended the meal serving chilled Tsukasabotan Yamayuzu sake to all of the diners, since I enjoyed the pairing during our preliminary trial dinner.
For starters, it is satisfying when you can cross off another item from your bucket list of t
hings to do in life. In reality, some of these bucket list items take a lot of preparation. LOTS! I’m not sure how many trials of tomato bread I prepared, along with countless versions of that Bay Area creation, Green Goddess dressing. Tweaking the flavor of the slow simmered pork belly also required countless trips to the local market for just another tray of pork belly. The logistics of plating 30 dishes at once also made me lose eyebrows and eyelashes (since I’m lacking on the scalp), but in the end, Monsieur K and I are still friends, and we received positive comments from many diners, so it was worthwhile! Do we plan on going professional? Definitely not! Will we attempt it again? Highly likely, though we’ll probably give it at least a couple of months of rest … until those creative juices start surfacin’ again …
The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the Univ. of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.