Top | Reviews

Glamour in the kitchen

(article, Christina Eng)

[%adInjectionSettings noInject=true] [%pageBreakSettings nobreak=true]

In cooking, as in Hollywood, it can take years to become an overnight sensation. 

Govind Armstrong, the executive chef and co-owner of the Table 8 restaurants in Los Angeles and Miami, began his professional career at Spago when he was 13. He apprenticed there in the early 1980s, learning what he could from chefs Wolfgang Puck, Mark Peel, and Nancy Silverton, among others. 

“While I was trembling inside, I also felt good, even comfortable in that wild energy,” he writes in the intro to his cookbook Small Bites, Big Nights: Seductive Little Plates for Intimate Occasions & Lavish Parties. “It was a very cool moment in my life. The stress, the buzz, and the chaos intrigued me.”

In the decades since, Armstrong has honed his skills at Postrio in San Francisco as well as numerous Southern California eateries, including City Restaurant; Campanile, which Peel and Silverton opened in 1989; Jackson’s in Beverly Hills; Pinot Hollywood; and Chadwick, which Armstrong opened in 2000 with business partner Ben Ford.

Table 8, his current venture, is named for the table at Chadwick where he and investors met to hash out details for another place. It features a seasonal, market-driven lounge menu, the primary inspiration for his new cookbook.

Divided into broad categories, such as sauces and comfort foods, the recipes are tailored to ordinary kitchens and casual entertaining. Impressive but not entirely pretentious, the recipes seem to translate well from the restaurant to the home; their suggestions for substitute ingredients come in handy, too. 

The chapter “Dinner for 8,” for example, provides ideas for relatively simple meals with friends. Endive and beets get artfully presented with toasted walnuts and Saint Agur blue cheese; Armstrong notes that Stilton or Roquefort would substitute nicely for the Saint Agur. Prawns and cherry tomatoes make another lovely appetizer; the Pernod used to sauté the shrimp could easily be replaced by white wine or dry vermouth. 

In “Cre8: Secrets of the Kitchen,” Armstrong pulls together more challenging and time-consuming dishes; foie gras turns up here, for instance, as does onion soubise, a deep, concentrated stew simmered for at least three hours and then puréed. These entrées look and sound good on paper. Realistically, though, they seem far too intricate for the everyday cook.

(Nearly all chapter titles play with the number 8. The section “From Grill to Pl8” focuses on grilled items. “S8” highlights comfort foods. “D8” includes “sexy savories” — omelets with morel mushrooms, for example, or oysters with a Champagne granita. Substitutions get listed under the heading “Altern8”; educational factoids fall under “Educ8.” Somehow, the device works.)

Armstrong complements the food with cocktail recipes aplenty. The Tangerine Scream would be a perfect start to any evening, for instance, with the Kona Coffee Kicker terrific toward the end. The first combines tangerine juice with rum, Triple Sec, and a splash of sweet-and-sour mix. The second marries coffee liqueur, brandy, and vodka with hot Kona coffee and a dollop of whipped cream.

[%image promo-image float=left width=400 credit="Photo © Culinate" caption="Beet and endive salad."] 

By the time Armstrong started at Spago, chef Jonathan Waxman had already apprenticed in France, cooked at Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Michael’s in Santa Monica in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and opened Jams in New York City, a restaurant often credited with bringing so-called “California cuisine” to the East Coast.

These days, Waxman runs Barbuto, an Italian-inspired bistro in New York City’s West Village, and West County Grill in Sebastopol, California, in Sonoma County. He owns the latter with Stephen Singer, also a Chez Panisse alum.

In his first cookbook, the somewhat awkwardly titled A Great American Cook: Recipes from the Home Kitchen of One of Our Most Influential Chefs, Waxman turns away slightly from the professional kitchens in which he has spent much of his adult life. 

He focuses instead on rustic dishes prepared at home for himself and for friends and family. He offers ideas for everyday foods — when there are “no time restraints or the need to be fancy,” as he writes in the intro — including soups and sandwiches, pizza and pasta, and lamb and poultry.  

A former jazz trombonist, Waxman demonstrates a musician’s talent for improvisation and experimentation. He creates a variation on a Mediterranean seafood stew, for instance, using fresh cod and calamari, along with orange zest to infuse his fish broth. 

For a different take on the beloved BLT, he cooks shrimp in a cast-iron skillet and piles them high atop bacon, lettuce, and tomatoes. He dices and scatters bacon, scallions, tomatoes, and freshly grated Parmesan atop pizza dough scented with honey for a pair of killer pies. He replaces lamb for the traditional beef in his version of a French daube, braising the meat in the oven for hours before serving it with thinly sliced fried shallots.


h1.Featured recipes


Unlike Armstrong, who seems to pay scant attention to sweets in his collection, Waxman shares recipes for more than a few tasty end-of-the-meal treats. “I’m not partial to fancy desserts,” he writes, “and I’ve never quite mastered pastry bags. \[But\] I do have a knack for mixing fruits, different chocolates, and nuts in uncomplicated ways.”

He tops fresh fruit, for example, with chopped walnuts and almonds, flour and butter for an apricot-mango crisp. (He notes that apples and Bosc pears, for example, would go nicely together in a fall or winter version of this dish.) He tops moist gingerbread with brandied plums for an extra punch, and poaches pears in Beaujolais.

Both cookbooks succeed on several levels, with recipes that are appealing and relatively accessible. Look to Armstrong when good times beckon, when the mood for unusual flavors and mildly sinful cocktails hits. Look to Waxman, however, when true hunger strikes hard.

p(bio). [ "Christina Eng"] is a writer in Oakland, California.

reference-image, l

promo-image, l

feature-image, l