Side Dish: Playing with food (December 7, 2009)

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Last week at San Estephe as we were prepping for the evening’s dinner service we had a young visitor in the kitchen: our saucier Steve’s 8-year old son Ricky had stopped by with his mother. In that way only kids can, he announced that he was thirsty so I offered to get him a drink.

“Are you going to use that soda gun thingy?” Ricky asked, his eyes lighting up.

I replied: “I was…unless…you wanted to do it yourself.” You would have thought I had just told him he never had to do his homework again. He was ecstatic.

Ricky insisted on doing the whole thing himself – he took a cup, filled it with ice and then used the soda gun to make a “Secret Recipe” drink, which as far as I could tell, was made by pushing every button on the soda gun at least once. While he was proudly adjusting the ratio of Root Beer to Tonic Water, his mom yelled to him: “Ricky, stop playing with that! We’re leaving.” He secretly squirted the root beer a few more times, took one final taste and proudly nodded his approval to me as he and his mom walked out.

As I went back to work I realized that my own culinary journey was the direct result of ignoring anyone who told me not to play with my food. My earliest recipes were all the result of my wandering into my parents’ kitchen and playing with whatever we had on hand. Even now developing recipes is nothing but a slightly more elaborate and socially acceptable version of playing with my food. And while most of my kitchen accidents ended up in the trash (R.I.P. Citrus Fruit Stir Fry), some ended up on the menu at San Estephe.

When a kid plays with his food he’s called “rambunctious.” When a chef does it, he’s called “innovative.”

Legend says that Coca-Cola, potato chips, chocolate chip cookies, the French Dip sandwich, and even cheese are all foods that came about by chance; by adults who didn’t listen to their mothers growing up.

Even this morning as Kevin and I drove down Wilshire Blvd I came across yet another example of people playing with their food…this time, for a great cause. CanstructionLA is a competition between LA’s leading architects, engineers and designers who built enormous sculptures all out of cans of food.

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The structures were put on display in the building lobby at 5900 Wilshire Blvd for people to enjoy and, after two weeks, all the canned food is donated to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. Last year they raised 62,000 cans and this year it looked like even more. That’s the kind of playing with your food we can all get behind.

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While there is something to be said for having kids (and adults!) being well behaved, there is also something to be said for the brilliant wit of discovery that kids seem to best embody.

So what did I do when I got back to the kitchen?? I picked up a glass, filled it with ice and sprayed every flavor from the soda gun into the cup. Maybe Ricky was on to something. Maybe this drink would be the new Shirley Temple. Of course, we’d have to rename it after a modern child star: The Abigail Breslin? The Dakota Fanning? The Dora the Explorer?

I took a long sip, swirling it in my mouth like the finest of wines and promptly decided it would pair perfectly with my Citrus Fruit Stir Fry. In the trashcan. That’s the thing about playing with your food. Sometimes you invent the potato chip and sometimes you invent a soda combination that could strip wallpaper. But you never know until you try.

Here is a special “treat” that I dug up for you: my stir-fry recipe from when I was 9 years old. I like to think I’ve grown as a chef since then.

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Scotty’s Stir-Fry
Scotty Wandell (at 9 years old)

Ingredients
2 Oranges
1 Grapefruit
3 spoons of soy sauce
1 onion
1 piece of garlic
1 spoon of peanut oil
2 spoons of vinegar
1 packet of powdered cheese from box of macaroni and cheese*
* To a 9-year old, everything will taste better if it tastes like macaroni and cheese. This proves not to be true.

1. Heat the oil in a wok or skillet.
2. Add chopped onion and garlic, letting both sweat out.
3. Throw in cut up oranges and grapefruit (feel free to add other citrus fruits…it will taste like crap either way!)
4. Pour in the vinegar and soy sauce, tossing to coat everything well.
5. When heated through, mix in the powdered cheese.
6. Put it on a plate.
7. Throw the plate in the garbage.

On a final note, as some of you know a lot is going on in my family right now and I need to be there for them. So Happy Holidays and I’ll see you all in the New Year!