The phone rang and the caller ID showed a singular name - Roberts. It was my one of my heroes and mentors in BBQ, David Roberts from Sam and Dave's BBQ in Marietta, GA. A call like this promised only one thing - good eats and good people. David was calling to ask if I'd like to assist him with a private wine tasting and dinner that was to be led by Chef Todd Immel from Table 1280 at the Woodruff Arts Center and High Museum in Atlanta, GA. The fare was not to be BBQ, but we would be cooking from the Table 1280 menu. I jumped at the opportunity, knowing that there would be a tremendous opportunity to pick up some new tricks, see some new dishes, and maybe grab an idea or two that would further me in my quest for Frou-B-Q (maybe New-B-Q?).
The dinner was an auctioned at a charity benefit for the Woodruff Arts Center. The basic premise was that each course, five in total, would be accompanied by a complementary wine from a designated wine supplier, giving them a chance to showcase their wines along with dishes from Table 1280. Our location was a beautiful house in the Peachtree Battle area of Atlanta. Before setting off to the dinner location, Roberts and I agreed to meet at Table 1280 in the early afternoon to go over the battle plan with Todd and then help transport the goods to our destination.
When we arrived, Roberts gave me a quick tour of the Table 1280 kitchen. The 1280 kitchen exceeded every expectation I've ever had of any commercial kitchen. It was enormous by any measure. The lower level had 3 or 4 walk in coolers, a chilled meat room, and a massive prep area (presumably used for the large catering events held at the Woodruff center). The second (restaurant) level was a somewhat open kitchen design, with the primary line viewable to the dining area of 1280. The dining room was quite large and stark and the decor somewhat reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick's Clockwork Orange .
Todd graciously asked us if we were hungry and quickly called out several orders to his appetizer cook. Within a couple minutes, plates began arriving and I began to get happy. We were treated to the following: prosciutto with a salad of fava beans, tomato, and red onion, then a crab cake with celery root and hazelnut, followed by a Copa salad with frisee and raddichio, and finally thinly sliced hamachi with lemon preserve and olive oil. Completely satiated, Roberts and I headed to the garage with a few of the servers that would be accompanying us to the dinner to begin to load up for our event.
We loaded the truck and headed off to our destination. Upon our arrival, I was reminded that, despite my dreams to the contrary, I am not Rich. These digs were plush. Very, very plush. We were going to be serving 30 diners outdoors. Luckily, it was a beautiful April day in the ATL and the temperatures were just right for such an event. The kitchen in this house was equipped with the finest hardware I've ever seen in a private residence. We would be working on a stunning Viking range and hood and there was a beautiful cabinet depth refrigerator and freezer. The kitchen was all arranged in galley style and that it made our job that evening tremendously easy. The host family were fantastically gracious to our staff and made our job as pleasant as cooking for family and loved ones.
After we unloaded our stuff, we began to get to work. Todd oversaw the basic prep of the first couple courses, which I prepared with assistance from Chad, the pastry chef from Table 1280. Roberts took charge of organizing the wine service (naturally). The first course was to be citrus (lemon and lime) cured sturgeon, served with pummelo grapefruit, pink peppercorn, champagne vinaigrette, olive oil, and microgreens. The accompanying wine was a 2005 Oakville Ranch Chardonnay. We sliced the sturgeon very thinly and arranged four to five slices on each plate. When I got a chance, I snuck a taste of the fish. It was deliciously scented with citrus, but not in an overpowering way. Light and refreshing, it struck me as a great way to start out our service. We wrapped each serving individually and placed it in the fridge to await service.
The next course to prepare was the duck braciole. Prepared in advance at Table 1280, the duck braciole was a deboned duck leg stuffed with parsley, olive oil, orange zest, and bread crumbs. Chad and I were tasked with slicing the braciole into quarter inch thick slices and arranging them on a plate. Just before service, the plates were to be finished with a fava bean salad and shaved peccorino cheese. Throughout our prep, Todd hung back overseeing our work, but never using a heavy hand, guiding us as we needed it. I began to develop a respect for Todd as a leader who has learned to trust his staff until it was time to not trust them.
Having completed prep for the first two courses, we had a brief respite as we tried to get our diners to take their seats. Any seasoned private party veteran can tell you that getting folks to sit down is by far the roughest part of the night. While we were waiting, Roberts made the transition from Sommelier to Lentil-King. Our third course that night was to be beef short rib served with lentils, beef stock, and a horseradish gremolata. Everything had been prepared in advance except the lentils, so the heat was on Roberts, but he rose to the occasion as only a veteran of a five star kitchen could. As we were plating, I took a second to sample the goods. Delicious, I thought, but somewhat out of season. I would expect this dish on a chilled November evening, but not on a springish April night.
I could tell from the rise in volume that our diners were enjoying the wine as much as the food. Up to this point, I had not had an opportunity to get in on the vino, but our host came through the kitchen and ordered that we MUST try the red wine. I elected for the '02 Barbour Cabernet Sauvignon and it turned out to be a wise choice. Yum. The timing turned out to be perfect, as our next course was a cheese course featuring Gorgonzola Naturale, fresh rosemary raisin bread, saba jelly, and pecans. This I could have eaten all night. The cheese was succulent.
Now flush with wine, it was time to finish this puppy up and head for the hills. Desert was all that remained. The fifth and final course was a vanilla panna cotta served with a hollowed out meyer lemon stuffed with lemon sorbet and finished with a mint salad. Being the newbie foodie that I am, I really hadn't had an opportunity to enjoy a Meyer lemon to its fullest extent. Chad had prepared this dish and was quite happy to walk me through how it should be properly consumed. I started with the panna cotta. Light and airy, with just a hint of vanilla, this pudding was what every commercial pudding mix dreams of being. Then Chad layed the heavy stuff on me as I began to take a spoon to the Meyer lemon sorbet. "Put that damn spoon down!", he screamed at me. He told me that I should eat it, skin and all, to really enjoy it to the full extent. And damn it all, he was right. There was no bitterness. No nasty pithiness. Just delicious citrus - cold citrus - but DAMN it was good.
As the servers began to clear the tables and the diners began to head to their respective homes, the accolades began to pour in. There's nothing in the world that measures up to the the praise a cook receives from a gracious diner. It's why most cooks cook. We're a needy bunch and praise is the name of the game. Todd had quarterbacked us to a major win and we soaked it up. As Roberts and I got into the truck and headed back to 1280 to unload, the evening washed over us and I thanked him for including me in this event. I was clearly riding his coattails and I thought to myself how lucky I was to have been there. He handed me an icy cold Bud Light and said, "Good job". For me, it was the biggest compliment of the evening.