I do not often eat at other people's houses.
Matter of fact, it's safe to say that I almost never eat at other people's houses. It's a weird thing with me, a long-held habit that started as something like a charming personality quirk ("Oh, Jason? No, don't worry. He never shows up for dinner parties.") and became something like a phobia ("Sheehan? No, that sonofabitch would never stoop to coming to a dinner party."). I don't know what it is, but the thought of sitting down and eating at someone else's house has always just made me uncomfortable. I firmly believe that eating food someone else has cooked specifically for you is a very intimate exchange, and it's just something I'd rather do in public. Well, with the anonymity of being among the public, anyhow.
But I do make some (very) rare exceptions, and though I have bailed out on him innumerable times before, I just got back from spending the afternoon under the care of my friend Stephen Crout who, for his 65th birthday, decided it would be fun to cook for me and about a dozen other of his gastronaughtically inclined fellow travelers. The reason I made the exception? Because I'd heard Stephen was a good home cook. Because I know that he knows and loves food and is, possibly, one of the few people in this city who spends more time in the Chinese, Japanese and Mexican markets than I do. And mostly, because it wasn't just like he was going to be doing burgers and beer in the backyard.
No, in honor of his 65th, Stephen (who can be found online at theobsessivechef.blogspot.com) decided to come up with a ten-course menu utilizing 65 ingredients and had spent the last eighteen or so months (by his calculation) planning for this event. Dozens of menus were constructed, likely hundreds of potential dishes tested. Preparations were tried, abandoned, resurrected, then abandoned again.
And in the end (with no kind of soft open, no kind of full-menu testing beforehand), Stephen simply served. Everything was made by hand. Everything was delivered in his own dining room. And let me tell you, it was both a fascinating glimpse into the way his mind works and a rare proof for me that there are actually those out there in the world with the mindset and the passion of the professional chef who, for whatever reason, simply never found their way into a professional kitchen. (See my photos of his Steve's creations at westword.com/slideshow).
Stephen must've been a line cook in another life. Because no one other than a cook would be so mad as to attempt, with no dress rehearsal, a large-party service with this kind of menu. No one but a serious ass-kicking, name-taking and widow-making line dog with duck fat in his veins and a mercenary's heart would've been able to pull it off on time, with short supply, in the space available, and within hollerin' distance of a budget.
So my hat is off to you, Stephen. You made a believer out of me. And happy birthday to you.
I can't wait to see what you've got in store for number 70.