YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections
(Page 2 of 6)

CELEBRATING AMERICA'S MOM : For Marion Cunningham's birthday, 100 cooks, bakers, writers and restaurateurs threw a surprise party at the Robert Mondavi winery


Waters, who takes no shortcuts even when cooking for 125, sends one group off to shell three crates of infant peas. This turns out to be a chore that takes hours and yields only one tiny bowlful. "Those would be $500 peas if we were doing them in the restaurant," sighs Jean-Pierre Moulle, a former head chef at Chez Panisse. "We barely managed to persuade Alice that killing the chickens ourselves for the pot pies would be messy, smelly and ugly."

"I wish we'd done it anyway," chimes in Waters. She has finished shelling the shrimp, and Moulle chops them while Waters plucks watercress for the salad dressing. Later they will make gallons of mayonnaise--entirely by hand.

The tale of the 12 suitcases turns out to be a complicated one: On a trip to China with Cunningham and Waters, Chiang, founder of the Mandarin restaurants and a force of nature in her own right, was outfitted with a dozen bags. "Marion was amazed," says Waters. "When it turned out that one of the bags contained nothing but bolts of cloth to be made into clothes, Marion was incredulous. Marion always carries her own luggage."

Billy Cross marches into the kitchen carrying one of the pots of ruffly pink orchids that he has had grown for the occasion. The magnificent flowers preen in their pots. "You'd expect Marion to like more modest flowers," he admits, "but I know that pink orchids are her favorites." He puts the pot down and takes a fingerful of crab. "Do you think Marion has any idea about the party?" he asks. It is a question that is asked again and again as the day wears on.

By 7 p.m. the relaxed camaraderie in the kitchen starts to fray as it becomes clear that there is still a lot of work left to do. The oysters have been opened and the shrimps shelled, chopped, pressed into little pots and covered with melted butter, and the meat has been taken from the shells of two dozen crabs. But the legs of 100 chickens wait to be cooked, beets need to be peeled and pickled, and there are still mounds of vegetables to be dealt with. Then there are the crates of iceberg lettuce; Waters looks at them with definite disdain.

"I really thought we had to have iceberg lettuce," she sighs. "You know how much Marion loves the stuff. But I figured we could make it palatable with the world's best Green Goddess Dressing."

Waters says she chose the menu by considering Cunningham's down-to-earth tastes, the best foods of the season, and the exigencies of feeding a crowd this large. "Chicken pot pies seemed obvious," she says, "and then we just built around them."

The pot pies themselves will be assembled tomorrow, but tonight the chicken is being roasted and the meat removed from the bone. There are periodic calls from chef Paul Bertolli: "Don't throw out the roasting pans," he pleads from his post at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. He will arrive in the morning, and he wants to be sure he'll have pans to scrape to make stock.

He'll bring the dough for the pie crust with him. "We tested three different kinds of crust," says Waters, "and although butter was good, we decided that suet was best. It makes an incredible difference." What will also make an incredible difference in these pies is the quality of the free-range chicken, the tiny, tasty vegetables from the Chino Ranch, and the black and golden chanterelles that are standing in for ordinary mushrooms.

At the moment, though, Waters is looking at a mountain of chicken. "We must get all this chicken ready," she sighs wearily. It's pushing 9 p.m., and the crew is starting to look ragged. "There's so much to do tomorrow."

By 8:30 a.m. the Mondavi kitchen is in full swing. Yesterday there was room to move, but today there is constant jostling for work space. Bertolli has arrived with an entire crew from Chez Panisse, and the first of the volunteers have started to straggle in. Before the morning is over, Zanne Zakroff, food editor of Gourmet, and Jerry Di Vecchio, food editor of Sunset magazine, will be up to their elbows in chicken stock. Clark Wolf, New York restaurant consultant, will be mincing mushrooms, and Marion Burros of the New York Times will be feeding sustaining slices of buttered bread to the cooks. As chefs and bakers arrive--from New York, Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles--they will wander into the kitchen to chop, slice and fry. Long before the party out front gets rolling, it is rocking back here.

Now the pastries are beginning to arrive. Waters has asked 18 bakers to bring a birthday cake each. This, everybody knows, is the heart of the meal, for Cunningham would happily forgo dinner for dessert any day of the week.

Los Angeles Times Articles