Editor's Note: Chef Kandace Davis (above), the retired owner of Cha Cha Chow, an award-winning, innovative food truck in St. Louis, Missouri, is known for her tasty creations. "A Likely Story" is excited to host her here as she writes about what goes on behind the scenes in the mind of a chef. This spring we were co-conspirators with an outstanding team in creating an Italian Wine Dinner for sixty. Insider tip: If she's cooking--or writing--don't miss it! ~Nina Mukerjee Furstenau
By Chef Kandace Davis
Where do broken-down chefs go to die? I think we go into our heads and as we fall asleep at night we remember that spot on bouillabaisse where every seafood item was perfectly cooked--nothing chewy. The pile of leeks, fennel, and tomatoes was vibrantly colored and perfectly saffrony.
For me, I like to lay in the bathtub and theorize why that stacked cobb salad, made in a mold, would never set. It just wouldn’t stand upright on the plate. If I’d just dried the lettuce a little more. Maybe the wet tomato made things slippery. Maybe I’m just inept. The fragile ego of a chef.
I was rusty, for sure, when I agreed to participate in Nina Mukerjee Furstenau’s Italian Wine Dinner for Les Dames d'Escoffier St. Louis last spring. We had visiting wine expert Massimo Coppetti from Florence, Italy, as our sommelier and it was only sixty people. In past decades, sixty people would’ve sounded like a mere Irish Catholic birthday party. A total piece of cake. This was a different decade and several spine surgeries later.
The conversations went like this.
DOCTOR: I don’t really cook, but I can imagine that kitchen work is pretty physical.
DOCTOR: What kind of accommodations can you make for yourself at work? What type of flooring is in your kitchen and food truck?
ME: Concrete. Metal.
DOCTOR: Are you cooking for lots of people?
ME: Sometimes thousands.
DOCTOR: That's a lot of food and a lot of lifting. I’m not telling you you have to stop, but it’s not a good idea,” the neurosurgeon explained, “unless you want more and more surgery.”
I did not.
The thing is, I just can’t resist when I’m asked to cook. Though truly, I think I volunteered for the wine dinner. Nina suggested that maybe I just do one of the appetizers but I wanted the entree! The most work of all the courses. The fragile ego of a chef.
“I’ll make something easy. No problem.” That’s what I told my team members who were all concerned about how I would be able to handle the prep in my home kitchen and also worried it might cause a recession in my recovery. “It’s not like I can’t stand or lift at all. I just need to take it a little easy.”
My intention was a simple beef short rib atop olive oil and potato purée. Easy. Too easy. I suggested we finish the dish with a peppery microgreen. Tasty. Then, it needed crunch. Cocoa nibs! But, how, still, does this relate to Italy? An espresso rub. The three-ingredient beef entree became a multi-component, ten ingredients dish. Why? Fear of failure. The fragile ego of a chef.
When the day of the wine dinner arrived I was confident I could execute. I’d practiced the short rib recipe on several neighbors. I arrived early at the rarely used catering kitchen in the basement of the venue. I was getting pumped with Alyse Scaglione, pastry chef for Meadowbrook Country Club and dessert master for the Italian dinner, with the tunes on KANDACE AND ALYSE’S KILLING IT PLAYLIST. I had it blaring. At 5 pm, we were creeping toward the witching hour so I began making a roux for the beef gravy which would be the base for my entree. This wasn’t a fully equipped kitchen and I had only a thin-bottomed pan with which to work. I vacillated between the roux, furiously whisking, and the warming cabinets in the corner of the kitchen which we needed to get plugged in and up to temp. Alyse, younger than me, and probably deferring to me as the supposed sage culinary professional, very demurely tells me, “Hey, um, this roux might be burning. And I don’t think the hood is on.”
Without the exhaust system running, the kitchen immediately filled with dark, smelly smoke, and soon the fire alarms were blaring throughout the building. I sprinted up the kitchen steps to the main floor and hollered for someone who might have a key to shut off the fire alarm. No one was around. In the pouring rain, I bolted across the parking lot to the main building on the campus of this massive catering compound. A kind soul finally helped me turn off the alarm. I then searched for the main kitchen and the executive who I hoped would loan me more flour and butter for roux number two. Asking another chef to GIVE you a product is about as fun as running a marathon. It usually turns out ok, but the experience is very uncomfortable.
About the time I recovered and began the second batch of pan gravy, five young guys in slickers showed up. In the City of St Louis, there is no complimentary “false alarm” visit. They sometimes charge you for their time. The most humiliating consequence was what the firemen reminded me of as they left. “Hey, those elevators up to the dining room won’t work tonight. They’ll have to be reset.” The servers were going to love me.
It was remarkable that dinner was served on time. Every course was well-received and appropriately accentuated the accompanying wine. Our sommelier, Mossimo Coppetti from Florence, Italy, gave our team high praise. We ended the night exhausted but feeling that familiar giddiness that fills me when guests and organizers are pleased with your performance.
I rarely feel I’ve done my best work. There is always something to criticize in your own food. Mastering any cuisine is like mastering medicine or the law. You can do it for years and feel only that you’ve conquered a fraction of that discipline. Maybe it’s more like golf--belittling, humbling, and addictive. Rusty as I was, maybe I should’ve just taken the appetizer as my dish. But, my fragile ego. So when’s the next Italian Wine Dinner?
Above: Members of the dream team for the Italian Wine Dinner for Les Dames d'Escoffier St. Louis in April (L to R): Bridget Bitza of Butler's Pantry, Liz Kniep Engelsman of Pinnacle Imports, Chef Kandace Davis, Denise Mueller of Mid America Wine School and client hospitality for Hake Investments, Sommelier Massimo Coppetti, Nina Mukerjee Furstenau, and Alyse Scaglione, pastry chef for Meadowbrook Country Club, St. Louis. Not pictured: Martha Kemper and Joan Long