"Sorry, didn't meant to startle," he apologized. I waved it off, knowing that I do the same to him, what must seem like twenty times a day. "Sooo ..." he continued, trying to sound nonchalant, "... do you have a favorite food?"
"Umm .." that's random, I thought, wrinkling my brow, wondering why he'd be asking, fleetingly imagining that someone was going to throw me a party for some reason I wasn't privy to, and then wondering if I did actually have a favorite.
He wasn't actually waiting for an answer, though: "Ah! Your blog. Of course you do. So you know about these chef's dinners ..."
Well, sort of. I'd heard something about the college Master being the center of attention at events featuring passion fruit chiffon pie and Spam, menu items of his choosing (he hails from Hawaii). But what I didn't fully appreciate is that this is a yearly event, at which someone in the college is asked to be a Master Chef for a night, and choose a dish for which they provide a recipe and which they then cook at an assembly station in the dining hall for the entertainment of students, wearing a personalized embroidered Dining Services chef's jacket. Apparently, everyone in the office had collectively decided, without my knowledge, that I would be the
"You can't really say no," he admitted. "You're being set up. But just think about how great this could be for your blog."
Right, I thought. The blog I hardly maintain any more. "Well, if I can't refuse ..."
"Good. It's all settled, then. It's an honor!" he assured me, retreating to his office before I could protest further.
The truth is, I've always thought it would be fun to be a chef for a day. Years ago, there was a company called "Vocation Vacations" that would let you (for a fee) play at another career for a few days, shadowing someone who was well-established in their field. I remember browsing the vacations, imagining myself as an artisan chocolatier, or a sommelier, or a chef. (Unfortunately, there were no writers to shadow; that work was apparently too solitary and serious to share with a mere "vacationer.") I've baked for friends on and off over the years, and when I was home with my daughter, I briefly entertained the thought of opening a cafe, but I happen to know some people who work or worked in the restaurant business, so I never took that option seriously. Besides, I really do love what I do for a living. But a day to try something else, with no strings attached?
Because I take everything too seriously, I pored over my blog and scanned foodgawker for the next few days, having a semi-existential crisis. How could any self-respecting foodie blogger (notice, not "food blogger") not have a favorite food? I needed a main course: what could I propose to make that would feed a dining hall full of several hundred hungry college students? It had to be scalable, not too time-intensive, reasonably priced. It couldn't be something they make regularly. I didn't want pasta. Finally, I lit upon paella. Rice was the answer to the problem of scalability. Not exactly my favorite food, even if I did have one, but a childhood throwback. I built a menu of possibilities around it, and sent an email off to the head chef.
caldo gallego, and a kale salad with a maple cinnamon dressing. They sounded excited, and said that I shouldn't worry; they'd make me "look good." I wouldn't even need to do much cooking, beyond providing them with recipes. That was worrisome enough: what if they were a flop? These were professionals. What would they think?
On the day of my debut, I showed up in the dining hall just before the dinner hour, where I donned my personalized chef jacket and Cordon Bleu hat. The chefs showed me what they'd prepped, and what I'd need to do to make it look authentic. I got to taste everything they'd made; it was all perfect.
Would I do it again?
Just don't tell my boss. Yet.
What would your Vocation Vacation be?
(It doesn't spend hours in a Valencian oven. But it works, and apparently, can feed a cast of hundreds.)
¾ t. salt, divided
¼ t. fresh ground black pepper
3 t. vegetable oil
1 c. chopped onion
½ c. chopped red bell pepper
1 ½ c. Arborio rice
½ c. diced plum tomato
1 t. pimentón (smoked paprika … sweet paprika also works, but is a little less authentic)
¼ t. saffron, crushed
1 garlic clove, minced
1 ½ c. chicken broth
1 ½ c. clam juice (I’ve also made it with only chicken broth in a pinch)
¾ lb. large shrimp
1 c. diagonally cut asparagus
½ c. frozen green peas, thawed
Preheat oven to 400.
Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper, heat 2 t. oil in a large oven-safe pan and cook 3 minutes each side until lightly browned. Remove chicken from pan and keep warm.
Add 1 t. oil to the pan, and add onion and pepper; cook until translucent. Add rice, tomato, paprika, saffron, and garlic, and cook until fragrant (1 minute or so). Return chicken to the pan and add broth, clam juice, and salt. Bring to a boil, and cover the page; bake at 400 for about 10 minutes. Stir in shrimp, asparagus, and peas; cover and bake another 5 minutes, or until shrimp are done.