There's a bit of light at the end of our home renovation tunnel: the kitchen cabinets are done and ready to be installed. The area's been re-plumbed. The electrician arrives today to upgrade our circuits.
And I've been reading food magazines and cookbooks -- for fun.
This is something I did when Gareth and I were first married... before I had this blog for my creative outlet. Back then, I would spend hours planning meals and anticipating their outcome.
Somewhere amid the piles of books and boxes piled up in our home is a collection of sauce-stained Bon Appetit magazines going back some 15 years.
Is it any wonder that I packed on 60 pounds in the first 14 years of our marriage?
I admit that in recent years, I hadn't spent a lot of time in our old kitchen. With the kid's crazy schedule and my radical low-fat, low-carb, low-calorie weight loss diet, it felt kind of pointless.
And since our home renovation began, we've been living on nothing but frozen food and take-out.
A couple of times a week, I make it a point to shop at Gelson's. It's pricey... but they have gorgeous produce, excellent service and one of the best take-out counters in town -- including a mini-Wolfgang Puck cafe. My husband and I love the ready-made Chinese chicken salad (which Puck invented at his Chinois restaurant) -- and once you've tasted his Caesar dressing, you'll never buy Wishbone again.
Then, there's his famous pizza. My daughter can't get enough of it, and I am unable to leave Gelson's until we've ordered her a kid's pepperoni -- which she eats in the car on the way home.
Wolfgang Puck has been synonymous with pizza for such a long time that I think people have forgotten how radical it seemed when he left Ma Maison (THE chic restaurant of choice for 1970's Hollywood) and made a pizza oven the centerpiece of Spago -- which quickly became the chic restaurant of choice in the 1980's.
So I guess you could say I'm a longtime fan, and when I was invited to bring my daughter to meet him at a blogger event at his casual L.A. Bistro, how could I refuse? The purpose of the gathering was to taste samples from his line of frozen pizzas, and I was urged to bring a friend along. I invited my buddy, Mary Ellen, whose eldest daughter is one of my kid's best friends.
Mary Ellen is a fan of Puck's, too -- but I got the feeling that our girls would have been more excited if the celebrity chef in question was someone they've seen on television, like Gordon Ramsay.
"He invented the California pizza," Mary Ellen told them. No reaction from our jaded little teenagers.
"He does all the food for the Oscars," I told them. That seemed to make just a little impression; they perked up a little.
I reminisced that one of my biggest regrets about leaving the Tonight Show when I did was that I missed the fabulous wrap party, which was held at Johnny Carson's house and catered by Puck -- who personally served some of the dishes. "If I'd only known he was going to retire, I'd have stuck it out two more years," I sighed.
The restaurant in Westlake Village was nearly empty when we arrived, just before noon. We were led to a long table set up near the exhibition kitchen, and were eventually joined by about a half dozen more bloggers and writers (and their families)... so many of us that the staff had to add several tables.
The kids were each given a chef's jacket with the logo for Puck's food empire. They all looked adorable (especially some of the younger ones).
Wolfgang Puck entered his restaurant with his wife and three of his sons. I was surprised at his youthful appearance (he definitely doesn't look like a man of 60). He apologized for being late and made it a point to shake hands and introduce himself and shake hands with each and every one of us.
"First, we need to clear the table," Puck announced. In an instant, the wait staff was there, removing all the settings they had just laid. I got the feeling they didn't know what was planned for us, either.
"You kids are going to make your own pizza," the chef said. He passed around a small towel and instructed the children to wipe their tables clean. Then, he sprinkled flour in front of each of the kids and instructed them to use their hands to spread it over their tables.
The waiters returned with plates of pizza dough. Puck placed a dough ball in front of each child and showed them how to knead and fashion it into a round for the crust.
I was surprised at the man's energy -- and how well he related to the kids. He had remembered all their names, and chatted easily with them as he spooned a little marinara sauce on their crusts. I couldn't imagine Gordon Ramsay having that kind of patience.
"Who likes their pizza with cheese?" he asked. A number of little hands went up. "Who likes pepperoni?" A few hands remained in the air. "Who likes smoked salmon pizza?" Only the parents' hands went up for that one.
The wait staff whisked the kids' pizzas into the oven and led them to another long table that was now set for them to eat. Mind you, all of this was going on during a normal lunch service. By now, there were lots of diners watching us and wondering what was going on. After all, you don't walk into one of Puck's many restaurants and expect to see the man himself. You certainly don't expect him to see him give a cooking lesson to a bunch of kids in chef's gear.
The pizzas were ready and served to the kids. In the meantime, several full pizzas were placed on another table. These were the frozen ones: We sampled the Four-Cheese Tomato, the Four-Cheese Tomato Pesto and the Barbecued Chicken.
They were GOOD (especially the pesto one). Not as good as the fresh one my daughter made (of course, I sampled that too!) -- but they were really tasty. I would not be ashamed to serve one as an appetizer at a cocktail party... and I just may buy a couple to keep on hand just in case.
I chatted with Stephanie, Puck's publicist who invited me to the event. She wanted to be certain I knew that the company's philosophy of using fresh local and organic ingredients extended to their commercial products (as much as possible). She also told me of his work with school districts to upgrade school lunches to include fresher, more nutritious ingredients.
"How does he get the tomatoes to taste so fresh after being frozen?" asked my friend Mary Ellen.
That , it turns out, is a trade secret Stephanie wasn't about to spill.
We turned around and discovered that the staff had set our original table. Puck invited the parents to sit an enjoy a taste from the restaurant menu: Chinois chicken and Caesar salads (yup - the same ones I buy at Gelson's), and main dishes ranging from steak to goulash to salmon. The meal was finished with a couple of the restaurant's signature dessert -- vanilla bean cheesecake with berries, and a slice of lemon coconut cake.
We walked out of there happy and full - and with a goodie bag that included a copy "Wolfgang Puck Makes it Easy," a cookbook that included recipes for some of the great food we tasted.
"Is the recipe for the pizza dough in there?" my daughter asked.
It sure is. And with the new kitchen (and a nice new range!) coming closer to reality, it won't be long before I can once again spend afternoons putting together a nice meal. Even pizza.
DISCLOSURE: I received no monetary compensation for writing this post. I was fed a fabulous meal and walked out of the restaurant with a can of soup, a pound of coffee, a sample of Puck's iced coffee drink, a restaurant gift card (denomination unmarked), two coupons for free frozen pizza and the aforementioned cookbook. The experience of meeting the chef and observing him teach those kids to cook was priceless.