Those are John’s hands on the mandoline in the picture above with the rainbow radishes. John is 15. John has floppy, curly dark hair and a warm smile. John is 15. John has done four (I think it’s four, though it may be more... I had a few glasses of rosé) different stages at amazing restaurants in both New York and Los Angeles. Did I mention that John is 15? John was a volunteer helper on Sunday for “L.A. Loves Alex’s Lemonade Stand”, a beautifully done food event benefiting childhood cancer. John is 15 and he is going to be a great chef. Hell, he’s already a whole hell of a lot more effective passing out food stuffs and assembling a salad plate at an event than I am. But whatever. John is 15.
John was in charge of slicing the radishes because Chef Kenobi thought a 15 year old could and would do a better job of keeping their digits in tact than I would, which is, actually, all too true. I would like to see my hands continue to be full of fingers, tips and all. But just a shout out to John, my new favorite up and coming chef, I loved working next to you on Sunday and I cannot wait to eat in your restaurant in a few years.
Before I had the pleasure of meeting John, Sunday started like any other Sunday for me as I picked up Chef Kenobi and his adorbs sous chef, I’ll call him Bar-Bearded, and we headed off to Culver Studios. OK, It wasn’t like any other Sunday at all except that there was food. And people. And booze... all to benefit a cure for childhood cancer, which is something I think we can all get behind. Before I forget, please go to Alex’s Lemonade Stand and donate your time, your money or get your kids’ schools involved, please do something. This organization is AMAZING. And Alex’s story is heartbreaking and inspiring.
On Saturday Chef Kenobi, Bar-Bearded and I had hit the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market and loaded up on gorgeous Japanese eggplant, herbs, heirloom peppers and micro greens (actually, I just acted as a curious sherpa, asking all sorts of inane questions while lugging economy portions or marjoram from tent to tent). The menu for Sunday: grand aioli, beautiful fresh, local produce, herbed micro green salad seasoned with olive oil, lemon and salt and lightly fried eggplant and baby potatoes.
So the first order of business upon arriving at the event site on Sunday, aside from the hollowing out of a pumpkin to serve as the grand aioli vessel, was to fully investigate the dude manning the grill at the tent directly to our left. Let me break this one down for you: me, trying to look official, not like a food poseur in my Ray-Ban sunglasses, lemon patterned apron and Peter Pan boots (I did); him, all 6’ 5’’ of dude, curly black hair and vans, grilling a beautiful wagyu skirt steak wearing an apron from... wait for it... Macelleria Cecchini. Let the swooning begin.
I made a sincere effort to sublimate my inner-douche to a tolerable level; I smoothed down my bangs and sidled (tripped, to be honest) my way to his grill-side chanting “This is about the children, not your totally disastrous lack of a sex life, Melissa” in my head. Let me tell you: it’s never a good sign when you refer to yourself in the third person, especially in your own inner monologue.
“So, I tried to buy that apron from Dario when I was in Panzano and he flat out denied me. That must mean you’ve either worked for him or he isn’t an ass guy.” Smooth, indeed. Ass guy? Really?! It was like I was looking at myself from above, fully aware of the awkward cougar I had tapped into and yet still completely powerless to stop the bilge (not to mix metaphors or anything) from escaping my lips.
Thank god he laughed and offered up that he had a stack of the aprons at home in Seattle after completing several stages with Dario and other artisanal butchers around Europe. He handed me a plate of perfectly grilled skirt steak and bread with a chimichurri piled on top and told me to “enjoy”. Which I did.
And with that bit of embarrassment behind me, I set about to accomplish my grand tasks for the day: to stay out of the way of the professionals, to not cut off any fingers, portion of fingers or other necessary appendages, to help raise money for childhood cancer and to not drink to the point where I might start waxing poetic about my dating history, my thoughts on the Tea Party or on golden vaginas to complete strangers. Remember Decorum, Melissa? Yes, you met Decorum once.
We served up the vittles, John, Bar-Bearded, Chef Kenobi (who at one point was drinking a beautiful rosé straight from the bottle as he was deep frying) and myself. Lots of people asked to take pictures with Obi Wan (the Asian girls LOVE him, not to be all about racial profiling or anything) and one really nice lady asked me if I had a cook book. I’m pretty sure she wasn’t a foodie and she was pretty sauced.
The Contessa di Mozzarella was also donating her time and magical abilities, decked out and gorgeous in Marni, naturally, offering selections of her famous gelato (not her famous pizza). And it was lovely to run into her companion, Morty Goldstein, as he tried to hitch the Contessa’s gelato refrigerator onto a trailer attached to his Volvo (or was it a Saab?) at the end of the event. And then there were the vegetable (floral) designs by the wildly creative artist André Jackson, whose neck I threw my arms around before he had the chance to figure out exactly where he knew me from. It made me really miss Bossy, because every one of the people that I knew at the event (Kenobi included, thus my invitation) have been introduced to me by her, and they’re all so generous and fascinating. Still I wasn’t going to get too sentimental about it since that lucky duck is picking olives, partaking of the olio nuovo (“it’s absolutely throat burning in the best way”), hiking with the famous shedding mini Labradoodle and writing books in Umbria at this very moment. It’s kind of hard to feel bad for her.
After all the aioli was eaten or spilled onto my tablecloth, we moved to the after party at Tavern, hosted by Suzanne Goin (as was the entire “LA Loves Alex’s Lemonade” event, FYI those are my hands, all intact, in slide #4 of that link), and we ate from the Border Grill truck and the Gastrobus outside the restaurant and from Gualaguetza, Pink’s and passed food from the restaurant inside.
Bar-Bearded and I were in matching gingham shirts (and yes, that was totally his bad, since I’d been wearing mine ALL DAY and he knew it yet still felt compelled to change into his), stuffing our faces when I saw the grill guy from earlier in the day all by himself. Naturally, I thought it was time for me to make an ass out of myself again, so I walked over to him; but as it turned out I had nothing stupid, embarrassing or snarky to say to him, shockingly enough, so I dug into my purse, fished out a business card and handed it to him after a nice little chat about butchering, Dario and motorcycles. I was on my best behavior.
I got a text message later that night from some weird 425 area code:
“Ciao bella! Pleasure to talk with/ meet you! Hope to see you again. Willing to trade cecchini apron for smith lesson or a good time eating & drinking :) xoxo J-”
I programmed J- into my phone as “Joey Aprons”, since I don’t know his last name and I like to think of him as part of the hot, artisanal butchery mafia. I’ll teach him a little goldsmithing if that’s what it takes to get that coveted apron.
Here’s the recipe I’m offering up today, based on Chef Kenobi’s dish:
Herbed salad of local greens with aioli and fried eggplant and fingerling potatoes
5 oz mixed greens (arugula, mizuna, romaine or other winter mix from the Farmer’s Market)
2 TBSP fresh marjoram, finely chopped
1 TBSP fresh mint, finely chopped
1 cup rainbow radish (or plain radish), thinly sliced on a mandoline
pinch sea salt, fresh ground pepper to taste
juice of one lemon
2-3 TBSP olive oil, drizzled
1 red pepper, seeded and julienned
1 orange pepper, seeded and julienned
2 cups yellow wax beans, blanched or lightly steamed
2 cups baby fennel, thinly sliced on a mandoline lengthwise
Add chopped herbs and radish to greens and season with salt, pepper, lemon and olive oil.
Reserve peppers, wax beans and fennel for final presentation.
2 garlic cloves, pressed
1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
1/4 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon Sherry wine vinegar
Mash garlic, Aleppo pepper, and 1/4 teaspoon coarse salt to paste in mortar with pestle or in small bowl with back of spoon. Whisk in remaining ingredients. DO AHEAD: Can be made 2 days ahead. Cover and chill.
fried eggplant and fingerling potatoes
2 eggplant, chopped into 1/4” slices crosswise
1 lb fingerling potatoes, chopped in half, lengthwise
canola oil for frying
batter for eggplant
1 cup all-purpose unbleached flour (or, for lighter batter, 1 cup rice flour)
1/2 cup sparkling water
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 TBSP sea salt
pinch cayenne pepper
In a deep fryer, heat canola oil to 375 degrees (if using a large sauce pan, heat 2 inches of oil)
In a separate boil Add water and white wine to flour, salt, and cayenne. Mix until smooth.
Dredge eggplant into the flour mixture and add to fryer, cooking a few pieces at a time until crispy, about 3 minutes. Remove from fryer and place on paper towel to drain.
Fry potatoes, without batter, in the same manner. Drain on paper towel.
Place a portion of the mixed salad on a plate, spooning some aioli over the top.
Add a handful of peppers, wax beans and fennel on sides of the plate.
Top with fried eggplant and potatoes