A dreamy trip to California

As many of you know, I worked at Bouchon Bakery in The Time Warner Building in New York City for over three years. It wasn’t always easy working for Thomas Keller but I did learn a lot about food, service and hospitality.  Chef Keller is obviously very talented with food and also in the industry of making the guest’s needs come first.  To this day, when I am cleaning I often think if he would approve of the appearance of my shop.  Some days, I would love for him to walk in and see what I am doing and on other days, I might hide behind the table stacked high with boxes of chocolate.  The Thomas Keller ‘Empire’ is based in Yountville, California and during my three years at Bouchon Bakery I tried and tried to get sent out to California to work, but to my disappointment, never got on that plane out west.

This past weekend, my husband surprised me with an early birthday present… a trip to Napa Valley with three friends.  This was my opportunity to recharge, drink some wine and eat some amazing food.  There was definitely talk of going to The French Laundry for dinner but I decided that is a once in a lifetime meal and I want to experience it with my husband.  We did have an amazing meal at Single Thread Farms but I’ll save that for another time.  We made a reservation for Sunday Brunch at Ad Hoc.  Ad Hoc is likely the most casual of Thomas Keller’s restaurants, serving a single meal, family style for weekend brunch and nightly dinners.  I started brunch with a Bloody Mary(a true sign of a vacation without kids!) and it only got better from there.  Our meal consisted of a simple spinach salad filled with pickled red onions & grapes and topped with a creamy avocado dressing.  The main course was Chicken Fried Steak topped with gravy along with roasted potatoes.  We added a Spanglish Sandwich which was the best combination of  a fried egg, toasted bread, cheese, tomato and lettuce I’ve had in a long time.    Feeling very satisfied, we were presented with a Red Velvet Cupcake with Cream Cheese Frosting for dessert.  It was rich, tangy and sinfully sweet.

After brunch I wanted to explore the rest of Yountville and check out the rest of Thomas Keller’s restaurants.   A walk down Washington Street took us past Bouchon Bakery with a line winding down the block for their fresh baked goods and coffee.  Next was Bouchon  the bistro famous for classic French dishes and finally we stumbled into the garden at The French Laundry.  I’m not sure we went in the proper entrance to the property as I never saw the famed Blue Door but the garden was amazing.  We passed diners in a small dining room which opened out into the garden and the beautiful fall afternoon.  The setting was magical and I look forward to returning one day to experience it for myself.  We meandered back down the street to where we started our walk and got in the car to drive back to the airport.

The trip to California was exactly what I needed. It was a chance to catch up with old friends, catch up on my sleep and catch up with dreams of the past. I am so glad I was able to play ‘hooky’ from my life for a few days. I have returned refreshed and ready to take on the busy season ahead.

Happy Friday,

Julie

Entertaining Made Easier

Entertaining can fun but also overwhelming, especially when you have kids.  For example, this weekend I’m hosting a brunch for my family which happens to be 20 people. Over the years I’ve discovered a few tricks that allow me to actually enjoy the celebration instead of feeling like I am slaving away in the kitchen or as the clean up crew.

Divide and conquer: This means get some help. At my house, I typically take care of the food while my husband takes care of the beverages. That means everything from selecting the wine to stocking the bar with ice, cups and garnishes, and ensuring the champagne saber is handy(usually just for New Year’s Eve).

For brunch on Sunday, my husband is in charge of picking up at the coffee at Dunkin Donuts and also responsible for picking up the bagels and smoked fish the day before. It isn’t a big drinking crowd so he should be able to handle both!

DO NOT try to make everything from scratch: I’ve learned that having 1 or 2 homemade items mixed in with some open and serve items creates the impression that you’ve done a lot of work and your guests will be really impressed.

For the brunch, I’m making my favorite Sour Cream Coffee Cake and an egg casserole.  We’re serving those along side bagels & lox with all of the fixings and a fruit tray.  My two amazing dishes show I put some effort into the meal but I wasn’t cooking for days to have it ready.

Preparation is key! I learned this when I was working in restaurants. You never know what you are going to walk into at the beginning of your shift so the more you can prepare ahead of time the better.  I also select menu items that require little hands on attention. For our New Years Eve Party we serve a large selection of cheese and I always make a brie en croute.  The brie looks really impressive and all I have to do is pop it in the oven and serve.

This weekend the casserole is the only item that needs to bake the day of. Everything else will be ready and waiting the night before.

Paper and Plastic are okay. This one really came into effect when my second son was born and since my third son was born it is the rule, not the exception. I just don’t have time anymore to wash all of those dishes.  Of course if I am serving a fancy sit down dinner for 6 or 8, I’ll pull out the fine china and silver but when it is a party with kids present, disposable is the way to go!

Luckily, I live down the block from Party City. We’ve already purchased our Thomas the Tank Engine Plates, disposable tablecloths and everything else we’ll need for the party.

I hope you’ll put my tips to good use next time you are entertaining. Please let me know if you have tips you’d like to add.

Happy Friday,

Julie