NO ONE has more of an appreciation for the edibly incredible than the people who work with food on a daily basis. And for many, it's an ever-present pleasure to make the most decadent dish possible (as evident in trends like adding bacon and foie gras to anything and everything). Every chef has at least one precious memory of an occasion when cost was not an issue—a meal for which they went all out. Here are a few envy-invoking tales of delicious privilege from some of our favorite food-makers—who are obviously in the right business.
From BJ Smith of Smokehouse 21, we gathered a tale of infinite truffles. "Five years ago I went to the Alba truffle festival. We were there for three weeks, rented a castle with maybe nine other people, a bunch of farmers and restaurateurs, and I was the only chef there. We would go to the market in Alba every day and buy a bunch of food to cook. The most decadent dish I made was with this beautiful bread that I crisped up with butter, shaved lardo onto it, poached duck egg on that, and topped with shaved Alba truffles. Each serving must have cost a small fortune... a $300 truffle [about the size of a golf ball] made 12 servings. I just started using lardo everywhere, straight into polenta, or like cardoons with lardo and truffles. We were right there by Barolo, too, so we literally bought cases of [Barolo wine] every night—it was just a shit-ton of lardo, Barolo, and truffles every night for three weeks."
Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton of Ox Restaurant went all out for a special tasting menu at their former restaurant Metrovino: "We did a 21-course tasting menu a while back, which was pretty extravagant, and that was probably the most courses I've ever done for one meal—it's tricky because you have to go from raw courses to maybe a game course to two or three kinds of fish, into sweet... maybe two or three desserts. We did a fried short rib terrine with a frozen pea salad—as the peas warm up, they kind of cook in the drippings of the terrine, and we served that with flowers from Viridian. We also did a duck rillette rolled in a crêpe with strawberry-maple jam and shaved foie gras, and a foie gras torchon served on top of a dashi gelée with a brunoise of pickled strawberry, garnished with saba [a syrup made from grape must]."
From Gabe Rosen of Biwa, New Year's Eve means exotic delights: "New Year's is really our time to go all out at Biwa, to play around within the context of our concept. We have repeat customers that come back every year for the six or seven courses we prepare. New Year's is a huge holiday in Japan, but rather than going out to a nice restaurant people stay home for a big meal with their families. You buy a box of osechi [traditional Japanese New Year foods] every year full of all kinds of delicacies. We usually center the meal around an osechi course featuring everything from foie gras and shellfish to sweetened red bean to our mock chestnut dish, which is a pain in the ass to make: It has a chestnut center that we coat with a thickened sweet potato puree and mimic a chestnut's skin with broken noodles, and then it's deep fried. We get to put an emphasis on making a meal that is visually striking in our normally casual restaurant."
From Cathy Whims of Nostrana, luxury means sharing only the best with the best: "Some things are most special when you only share them with the person you love—they aren't as special shared with a large group. I thought of a couple things I make for [my partner] David and myself around the holidays. When white truffles are around I like to make tortino: layered boiled potatoes, sliced, layered with a generous amount of butter, shavings of white truffle, and shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano. You make several layers, enough for two people, and serve with a nice Barolo or barbaresco. When I have black truffles I make spaghettini alla norcina: Take really ripe black truffles and pound them in a mortar and pestle with garlic and anchovy, then heat gently in your best olive oil. The perfume is amazing."
And finally Elias Cairo, Olympic Provisions' cured meat maestro, describes his favorite holiday treats: "We make two special sausages around the holidays that are particularly decadent: cotechino, an Italian pork skin sausage that is composed of 30 percent boiled skin, 30 percent fat, and lean pork, with spices like nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, and garlic. It's poached, sliced into medallions, crisped, and served over lentils with lots of butter and scallions. It's this great greasy and chewy texture. We also make a Christmas kielbasa, with our sweetheart ham and vinegary mustard seed folded into our normal kielbasa filling and smoked over applewood for six hours. It's a Polish specialty eaten with boiled cabbage and potatoes—each serving gets a whole one and a half pound sausage, crisped up with the drippings over everything."