All of my friends love food and it so happens that several of them are chefs. Having chefs over for a meal is a challenging proposition for me, certainly a ballsy one. As a food writer, I’ve been exposed to enough of them to know that they all possess robust self-esteems (an essential job requirement), and that they keep very high standards.
These three chefs are some of my closest friends. We eat out regularly and sometimes, like today, we’ll get together at my house to hang out. I love being with them because I’m always learning so much from what they know. They literally make my life delicious, and I’m the beneficiary of their generosity. Chef A (CA) is a master at Asian cuisine, and his restaurant is a temple to the synergy of such diverse elements. His wife, N, is also a friend and because she bakes and loves dessert, she and I get along spectacularly. Chef B (CB) is one whose brain doesn’t quit churning out new concepts, all of them resoundingly successful. Only in his early 30s, he already owns 10 restaurants with more on the way. Chef C (CC) is a master at meat, gutsy and experimental. His home food business is on every food lover’s speed dial and I’m excited that his restaurant – a dream come true for him – is finally opening in Q4 of this year.
It’s a motley menu today and CA is at the grill tending to his Korean BBQ chicken. Thigh filets, singed in spots and exuding a pungent-sweet aroma, ignite hunger pangs. CC looks on, and the two of them are shooting the breeze. As is standard when chefs come together, their conversation is filled with the latest restaurant gossip – who’s opening, who’s closing, how the latest restaurants are faring, etc. It’s not just politics and showbiz that have torrid tales to tell.
The doorbell rings and CB joins us out on the lanai. He’s carrying a small paper bag and looking at me rather sheepishly. “Lor, I know I said that I’d bring a brisket but one of my cooks burned it. He cranked up the 200 to 450.” Behind me, CA and CC explode in dismayed howls and chuckles. CB hands the bag to me. “So I made beef belly instead.” Bag opened, it emits a wondrous smokiness. Brisket, belly: it’s all good to me!
Now that CA’s Korean BBQ chicken is done, CB takes over the grill. The thin strips of beef are heavily marbled – no, layered with fat, the meat’s surface lacquered in a sticky russet-colored, root beer sauce. A pop! crackles through the air. “Ooh, do you hear that?” CB grins as he bastes the belly strips. “The fat’s popping. I love fat.”
CC and I nod our heads vigorously. “Mmm, I like fat too,” our replies echo off one another.
“I don’t. Beef belly’s too fatty.” CA’s remark cuts through the air like a bullet.
In unison, we three turn our heads to stare down at he who utters such an offensive remark. We hoot and holler our complaints. CA just laughs.
As the air thickens with the glory of grilling meat and the resultant smoky perfume on clothes and hair, talk turns to steak. Favorite steak places are bandied about to which CC matter-of-factly responds, “Well, I deal with meat so I think the best steak is at my house.” We laugh uproariously and I swat CC on the shoulder. Having eaten at his house several times however, I have to admit that it’s true. Suddenly remembering, I whip out my phone and turn to CC. “Hey, here’s a picture of that steak I bought from that meat shop people are talking about.” My lower lip juts out in dismay at the memory. “It was no good.” CC examines the photo and I’m flabbergasted when he uses two fingers to zoom in on it. “You gotta look at the marbling, Lori. That’s just a 6,” he says. The other chefs crowd around us to look and nod their assent. My mouth is hanging open listening to CC talk about the meat’s marbling level. Like I said, he’s a master at meat.
I get nervous trying to decide what to serve chefs, even if they are my friends. For our lunch, I decide that a baked salmon would balance the meats out nicely. I glaze the fish with a homemade mango-BBQ sauce, nicely tangy. Earlier, CC suggests that I cook the fish low and slow, 250°F. Then CA recommends tenting it with foil so that the sugars in the sauce don’t burn the exterior. Since this is a kitchen and they are chefs, I guess I’m not all that surprised when CA takes it upon himself to check on the salmon as it bakes, even removing the foil tent when he deems it appropriate. Shoot, I would’ve needed a timer to tell me when to do that! And that is why I bake instead of cook, because it’s more precise, hardly any of this guess work. And later, when CC checks in on the fish, he didn’t even need a fork to tell if it was cooked and “flake-tender.” He just looked at it and proclaimed it done! As I said, they’re chefs, and no, I’m not brave enough to post a photo of my baked salmon.
CC’s brought a pork shoulder that he’s smoked himself. The last time he was at my house, he had a problem with my knives — dull, as-seen-on-TV pieces of junk they were. So now that he’s getting ready to slice this hunk of meat, I hand him my new Wüsthof chef’s knife with much flourish. CC takes it, slices a bit of meat, and grins broadly, giving me a thumbs up. No faster way to piss off a chef than to give him a dull knife. Enticed by the magnificent meat on display, CA grabs a slice and pops it into his mouth. Immediately, a muffled groan escapes his lips. “Oh gosh, that’s good!” CB follows suit and soon, everyone in the kitchen is snatching chunks of meat on the way to the table.
To the meats and fish, I’ve pickled some carrots and radish so that we can make banh mi sandwiches, and CB’s grilled some corn. CA’s brought some mixed greens and shiso leaves. We enclose the leaves with portions of the Korean BBQ chicken, a daub of chili paste and some Korean sesame sauce, and it’s a tasty appetizer.
We’re six at the table today: the three chefs; CA’s wife, N; my Bin; and me. When we settle down to eat, the heavy silence is only punctuated by clinking utensils and the sound of a chair being pushed back as one gets up to get more food. Food lovers all, food is – obviously – a matter given absolute attention. The food is abundant and we revel in its glory. When we come up for air, my chef friends geek out on me by discussing the latest food shows they’ve watched, specifically the equipment used. “CC’s got all those toys,” CA remarks cheekily with a wink. I listen but feel more like a student trying to pay attention in Science class – this is way over my head, but I perk up when they start talking about new restaurant and food concepts.
Dessert is – surprise! – courtesy of the chefs. CA and CB have both made ice cream. CA’s brown sugar-pecan ice cream is creamy and flavorful but the other chefs tease CB about his strawberry-cream cheese ice cream, especially since CA has also made the same flavor. “Where’s the strawberry?” “Did you use real strawberries?” We titter and giggle in comfortable camaraderie. Then the chefs start talking about making ice cream with nitrogen versus dry ice. I sit there and notice only later on that I’m listening with my mouth hanging open. Again.
CB’s made a gorgeous chocolate-raspberry pie. Lush and deeply flavored, it has a thin raspberry layer beneath its swarthy surface. Then there’s his chocolate-peanut butter pie that I claim for myself: crunchy-crusted with a peanutty filling like the softest of creams decorated with chocolate curls that only a chef can do. And I could never forget CC’s Banoffee Pie, the best in Manila.
As I eat my fourth (fifth?) slice of pie, the chefs and my Bin begin to talk about the NBA finals. It’s an animated discussion as all sports talk usually is. N and I roll our eyes, so we zone out and zoom into our pie while talking about more dessert.
Later on, as I watch the chefs argue in jest over the leftovers, I realize that they don’t say anything about my salmon. I can’t complain, though. These chefs feed me well — my stomach and my mind, and I’m blessed with their friendship. My life is delicious and good because of them. But for the next get together, I’m going to stick to baking a dessert.