The Man Who Came To Dinner

What the hell was I thinking? Five months writing this column -- that's 20 or so meals -- and it just now occurs to me to have dinner with ... a chef?

Hello.
And not just any chef, mind you. No, we start at the top. So hang on to your tongues, folks. This week we're actually talking about -- food.

Enter Mr. Bradley Ogden, executive chef and co-owner of the now-venerable One Market, the Lark Creek Inn, and the three Lark Creek spinoffs in Walnut Creek, San Mateo, and Santa Barbara.

"Bring a date," said Bradley, upon accepting my reverse invitation. So that's just what I did. After I swung by my friend Mara's house, we headed across that big red bridge to Marin County, where, in the charming town of Terra Linda, we came upon the relatively modest home of Bradley and Jody Ogden. Through the window we could see not two heads, but nine.

Bradley, in the spirit of fine entertaining, had invited some friends. And there he was in the kitchen, cooking dinner for 11. Making his way around the counter, our genial host (in a long white apron) introduced us to Anne Skeffington, a Lark Creek employee and his assistant for the evening. Jody Ogden gracefully made the rest of the introductions.

There was Michael Dellar, Bradley's business partner, and his wife, Leslye. Tony and Marie Tantillo. And Tony's boss, Daniel Webster, along with his wife, Anna. Tony and Daniel, it turned out, both work for KPIX (Channel 5) News, where Tony hosts the "Fresh Grocer" segment each evening at 5.

Jody offered us champagne, which we naturally accepted. The tall flute glasses were filled from a bottle bearing the Lark Creek's own personalized label.

So very nice to meet you. "And you're with the Weekly?" and that sort of thing. It was cocktail hour, in the traditional sense. And yes, we played along.

Then -- I don't remember whether there was an actual drumroll, but I know there should have been -- from the kitchen came Anne, bearing platters of the most extraordinary things. Hors d'oeuvres, I believe they're called. First up were little brioche toast points layered with a generous slice of foie gras pate and topped with a dab of sour cherry jelly.

Now, I've never been exactly sure what foie gras is. But oh my God, let me tell you -- what it can do for a jelly sandwich!

I headed around the corner to the kitchen to watch Bradley work his magic. "These are incredible," I told him. "And it's páte foie gras, which is made from ... duck liver?"

Bradley shot me a somewhat puzzled look, which seemed to say: You're a food critic for SF Weekly? "It's foie gras pate," he replied.

OK, yes. I could see he'd never read the column either.
As part of my formal pate education, I believe I finished seven pieces. But who's counting?

Bradley presented me with a printed menu for the evening. The title at the top read "Dinner at Home with Oggie." Scanning the selections I turned to Mara to say, "Oh, we're in good shape."

The kitchen itself was surprisingly basic, for a celebrity chef's. No high-end stoves or triple ovens. Just Formica cabinets and a nice big fridge. In fact, as Bradley reached for the oven to retrieve our next treat, the handle came off in his hand. "I've got to get that fixed," he remarked.

Next up were barbecued oysters. The medium-sized shells contained ultrafresh meat bathed in a dark, chunky, tomato-based sauce. Again, it was like nothing I'd ever tried before.

How many were there? Well, five for me.
"We've got a similar recipe, with chili relish, in the cookbook," explained Bradley. "The first one, that is. The new one still hasn't been printed yet." When I confessed I'd never seen the original, Bradley seemed downright appalled, and quickly asked Jody to rustle me up a copy.

"What's going on in those pans?" I asked, noticing some interesting shapes.
"Oh, that's a surprise," answered Bradley. "Those are twice-baked Gorgonzola souffles."

"Twice-baked?" asked Mara. "How do you do that?"
"Well," Bradley explained nonchalantly, "you make like a little cream sauce, sort of. And then you throw that in a blender. And you whip in the cheese till it's well blended. Melted down, right? Whip in an egg yolk. Then you let that cool a bit. Take it out. Fold in the egg whites. And you could do a goat cheese, or morels. Whatever.

"Then you pre-bake them -- which is nice 'cause you can do it ahead. Let it cool. Take them out of their molds, which have been buttered and lightly floured. And then, to reconstitute it, basically I set them in a bath of cream, bring it to a boil, and put it in the oven. And it will absorb the cream and double in size."

Voila!
To Bradley it was like taking out the evening trash. But for me and Mara it was a full day at the Culinary Institute.

Just then Anne whisked by with our final appetizer, buckwheat blini (like minipancakes), topped with a combination of colors -- fish eggs, I thought. I tossed the first one back and was briefly transported to heaven.

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