As I mentioned in my first Reflection “Where It All Started,” I graduated from Wake Forest University in 1993 and went on to culinary school at the New England Culinary Institute (NECI, pronounced NEH-kee) in Montpelier, VT. Upon graduation, I moved to Portland, OR and the Napa Valley, CA where I was extremely fortunate to work in world-class restaurants for truly fantastic mentors. They introduced me to approaches to both work and life that continue to influence me today — principles that go far beyond the kitchen and cooking.
There came a time, though, when I felt the call to return to my home state of North Carolina to be closer to family. A fringe benefit was to also be closer to hometown friends who had scattered across the Tarheel State, and to some of my closest college friends who lived in nearby South Carolina and Georgia. Shortly after my return to NC in 1997, my college friends and I convened for a reunion weekend in Greenville, SC. I was tremendously excited to show-off my cooking skills for my college friends, who hadn’t seen me since our Demon Deacon Days … or, as I jokingly refer to as my days, “B.S.” (“Before Spoon”) NECI students refer to themselves as “Spoons,” inspired by the NECI logo of a very graceful, sleek spoon.
I designed an elaborate, multi-course menu and spent the afternoon prepping the food: premium ingredients, prepared simply, as my mentors had modeled for me. Utilizing interesting textures (al dente organic sugar snap peas, paired with sautéed mushrooms with the juices sealed inside the perfectly browned exterior, along with soft roasted red peppers, together in a vegetable medley); incorporating different temperatures within the same dish to entertain the tastebuds (a cool local peach salad served underneath a triangle of pan-fried pecan-crusted polenta); and perfectly sautéed chicken breasts — the pride of any NECI student lucky enough to have been trained by one of the school founders, Chef Michel LeBorgne.
The time arrived for dinner to be served! All of us gathered around the kitchen, drooling over the food and giddy with anticipation. I placed it all in a low oven to keep warm while we snuck outside to have a champagne toast. One of us (was that you, Eli?) had blessed the reunion weekend with a magnum of champagne. Now, as good Wake Forest grads, where they handed out cigarettes with your tuition and where you attended classes in buildings named “Reynolda” after RJ Reynolds and the land of Tobacco Is King, we were all at least social-smokers. So along with the champagne toast we decided to have a cigarette. And one cigarette and one glass of champagne turned into us retelling stories from Theta Chi House … and walking by moonlight across Polo Field … and the house on Henning Road … over an entire *pack* of cigarettes, while we finished the bottle of bubbly goodness.
Starving … and majorly buzzed … we went inside to feast on DINNER! You can imagine my utterly naive disappointment at what happens when you leave food in a “low oven to keep it warm” for entirely too long! My bright kelly green, al dente sugar snap peas were now army green and withered. My mushrooms had become almost stewed. The chicken was _bone_dry.
I was mortified. 🙁
To this day, when I retell that story among those college buddies, they don’t remember how awful I thought the food was. What they remember was how much fun we had. Tears-streaming-down-the-face-laughingly-funny-good-times. 🙂
So that’s my goal every time I entertain — to be able to sit with my friends and family and enjoy the precious time we have together. I dislike being that host who is vacant from the gathering, while in the kitchen prepping. I MUCH prefer to be *with* my people, so I choose foods that can be prepped ahead, and that actually improve as they sit simmering on a stovetop, flavors melding together and filling the air with tantalizing aromas.
Stay tuned and I’ll share my favorite “Entertaining Menus” so that you can do the same. Prepare delicious foods AND be able to enjoy yourself and your company. And I’ll even share what I prepared for a dinner party on a Sunday evening, that I hosted after being out of town for three days prior. It’s all about the make a lot, freeze some, and then go play!