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Scenes from Chefs’ Holidays, Part I: With Sons & Daughters, The Meatball Shop and The Hungry Cat

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, CA — Serene, peaceful and magical. That’s what it’s like here in this winter wonderland.

But inside the grand Ahwahnee Hotel, the national historic landmark that opened in 1927, it’s a hive of activity at this time of year, as some of the most noted chefs from around the country make a pilgrimage here to give demos and to cook gala dinners for the public.

Yours truly was honored to be invited to be the host for two of the sessions last week for the 28th annual Chefs’ Holidays, which takes place each year throughout the month of January.

For the chefs, it’s always a fun time. They bring their spouses and kids to make a working holiday of it. For some of the chefs, it was a return visit. For others, it was their first time to Yosemite.

All of them pulled off their demos like the pros that they are. You’d never know how nervous a few were before they took the stage. One chef said he started prepping extra early because he was so jittery he couldn’t sleep the night before. Another chef said she’d rather cook three gala dinners in a row than do one cooking demo because she always gets so anxious beforehand.

Matt McNamara, co-chef and co-founder of Sons & Daughters in San Francisco, kicked off the session by demonstrating how to make “Squab with Marcona Almond Puree, Pickled Fennel, and Citrus” and “Roasted Baby Beets with Pickled Mustard Seeds and Vadauvan.”

McNamara says there’s probably nothing he hasn’t tried to pickle at his restaurant. In fact, he told the audience, if they ever want to impress a chef coming to dinner, just be sure to have something pickled on the table.

Responding to a question regarding the recent backlash by some food writers about tasting menu-only formats at restaurants, McNamara, whose restaurant offers only tasting menus, agreed they may not be for everyone. But as a chef, he favors them because they allow him to offer what’s best to diners, enables him to efficiently operate a 20-seat restaurant, and gives him more control over all aspects of the dining experience.

Next up, Daniel Holzman of the wildly popular The Meatball Shop in New York, demonstrated his “Mini Buffalo Chicken Balls with Blue Cheese Dressing,” as well as quite “meaty”-tasting “Veggie Meatballs with Classic Tomato Sauce.”

A dutiful son, Holzman, former chef of SPQR in San Francisco, brought his mom on the trip. As he joked, “She’s the only woman I could get to spend three days with me!”

As a moderator, you have to be keenly aware of what’s going on not just in the audience but up on stage. So when I saw that Holzman was preoccupied with digging his hands into a raw meatball mixture while his chopped veggies were sizzling away on the stove unattended for quite awhile, I thought I better grab the spatula to give them a stir lest they burn. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw me and quipped, “Hey, have you ever done this before?” I assured him I cook all the time at home. He came over to inspect the pan intently, smiled, then grabbed me in a huge hug to the delight of the audience. Hey, it’s not every day you get hugged by a chef on stage, right?

Next, David Lentz of The Hungry Cat in Los Angeles. For those not in the know, he’s also the husband of Chef Suzanne Goin of Lucques in Los Angeles, who was scheduled to appear in the following session.

Lentz showed how to make a chorizo-clam-white bean stew with aioli crostini and “Tandoori-Spiced Albacore Tuna with Yogurt and Blood Orange.”

It was amusing to hear the gasps in the audience as Lenz cooked with liberal amounts of butter and salt. Unless you’ve watched chefs cook on the line at their restaurants, you probably don’t realize just how generous they are with the fat. But fat equals flavor, as Lentz pointed out. So, don’t be afraid of it when you cook.

The finale of each session is a five-course gala dinner prepared by the featured chef. In this case, McNamara. It’s served in the soaring, candle-lit Ahwahnee dining room.

Servers brought out bowls arranged with Tokyo turnips and greens before pouring fennel seed soup at the table. The tiny white turnips were wonderfully sweet and the creamy soup alive with the flavor of anise.

A chicory salad with carrots, yogurt and pomegranate enlivened the palate with its welcome crisp leaves and subtle bitterness.

Next, my favorite dish of the night — grilled Monterey Bay abalone with a broth of maitake mushrooms and burdock root. The abalone was tender and smoky. The broth tasted intensely of the forest. We used pieces of bread to sop up every drop.

That was followed by the dish that McNamara had done at his demo — seared squab breast garnished with salty, toasted Marcona almonds and blood orange segments. The citrus added a lightness to the rich dark meat of the tiny bird.

If you like chocolate and mint together, the dessert that evening was sure to please. Chocolate cremieux (like a very thick, smooth pudding) was infused with eucalyptus and served with a dollop of mint ice cream. The chocolate was just dark and complex enough to stand up to the vibrant menthol-mint.

After a good night’s sleep, it would be time to start the show all over again the next day with a new cast of chefs.

Tomorrow: Scenes From Chefs’ Holidays, Part II

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