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."
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.
Yes, I'll have another, thank you.
"Bradley, what's on here?" I asked.
"Oh, just a bit of creme frache. Some beluga caviar. Salmon caviar. And fresh chives," he explained.
Oh, Anne? Just one more, please. Or ... six.
"So, Bradley," I continued my inquiry, "last week I was rolling a cart down my local grocer's aisle, and I just happened across a package of some sausages with your picture on them."
"Oh, yeah. You hadn't seen those before?" he asked.
"Try the smoked chicken Parmesan," suggested Tony. "They're the best."
Bradley's own line of gourmet sausages also includes varieties like smoked chicken cherry and Yucatan turkey. Look for them at Molly Stones, Bell Markets, and wherever fine foods are sold.
Finally, Jody invited all of us to take our seats as Anne began opening multiple varieties of wine, including one very special bottle: For the Ogdens' 25th wedding anniversary, just a few weeks earlier, the Dellars had given Bradley and Jody a wine made the same year the couple were married. The 1974 Louis Martine cabernet was ... interesting. Complex. And, as one critic put it, "definitely drinkable."
"This wine should be really kind of leathery," explained Michael. "And cedary. A lot of that old cigar box quality."
The first course arrived: plates of wild watercress with Bradley's dressing and glazed walnut halves. Beside the salads sat our individual twice-baked Gorgonzola souffles. They had indeed doubled in size, as well as browned up crisp on the tops and edges.
Gorgonzola cheese. And cream. And you could never believe how amazing they tasted. As I remember it, we all sat in silence, 11 of us, letting forkful after forkful melt in our mouths, until there was none. Then Daniel's delightful wife, Anna, a maternity nurse, passed around a basket of warm, home-baked dinner rolls and bread. He baked the bread, for God's sake!
The evening's entree was charcoal-grilled tenderloin with porcini sauce. Michael had commandeered the grill outside to bring us a perfectly seared, rare piece of beef. Bradley carved the meat into thick medallions and served us two large slices each, covered in a thick, slightly sweet, brown porcini mushroom sauce. The side dish was an asparagus roast with potatoes and spring onions. The long asparagus spears were so tender and juicy that it was almost impossible to believe they came from the oven. As we ate I asked Bradley about how he'd come to the kitchen in the first place.
"Well, it was really a coup," he explained. "I was with my dad when I was 18, up in Michigan. My dad talked me into going to culinary school. He figured if I learned how to cook, I could always get a job. And he saw this article in the Detroit Free Press on the CIA [Culinary Institute of America]. You know, in Hyde Park, New York. This was like, '71. So he signed us up, my twin brother and I, for chef school."
"So that was it?" I asked.
"Yeah. I started flipping eggs at Bees. Then at the local Holiday Inn. And it's like I've been doing it all my life."
"Is your twin brother still a chef, too?" asked Mara.
"No," answered Bradley. "He quit after four months."
As we sat there, blissfully full of pate, oysters, caviar, watercress, Gorgonzola, tenderloin, and asparagus, topped off with champagne and 25-year-old wine, I thought, "Hmm. I'm full."
That's when Bradley and Anne started moving the dessert our way. Oh, man.
Picture enormous, handled ceramic crocks filled with a bright red mixture of strawberries and rhubarb, a flaky pastry disc floating in each of their centers, topped with scoops of homemade vanilla bean ice cream.
"Cobbler," Bradley called it.
Mara nearly had a heart attack. "Oh my God," she said. "How huge is that dessert? That's not a little dessert. I wouldn't have eaten my dinner if I'd known. That is a very large dessert.
"Yes," I agreed. "And I'm going to eat every bite."
As I attempted to do so, Bradley disappeared into the garage, searching for some dessert wines. He came back with two choices, a dark muscat and a La Famiglia Mondavi Moscato bianco. We chose both.
"Hey, wait a minute now!" exclaimed Jody. "Is that the rare one they only give to the family?"
"Yeah," smiled Bradley.
And it was tasty.
Then, adding insult to injury, or compliment to contentment as the case may be, Bradley produced a box of gourmet chocolate truffles topped with black sesame seeds and nuts. "Oh, good. Because we haven't had enough to eat," remarked Mara.
"These came from a special little shop, all the way from Chicago," explained Bradley. "I called them just for this dinner party."
"Really?" I asked.
"No," admitted Bradley. "They just happened to show up yesterday. But good timing, don't you think?"
Mara's attempt to refuse the truffles was met by collective scorn. "It's kind of a group thing," I insisted. "You have to take one. Peer pressure."
Then, suddenly, the food coma took full effect. In a daze, I was transported to the restaurant scene from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life:
"I couldn't eat another bite."
Luckily, before I could explode all over the Ogdens' lovely dining room table, the group began to rise and make with the thank yous and goodbyes.
As Mara helped squeeze me into the driver's seat of my car I vowed never to eat that much again. At least not until I can get myself invited to dinner at the home of another five-star chef.
By Barry Levine
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