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I Was Alice Waters' Grill Chef

August 22, 1996|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ten years ago I accompanied a squad of California chefs (and one New Englander) to Barcelona, where the plan was for American cuisine to encounter Catalan and vice versa. The Americans sampled about 150 Catalan dishes in the course of four or five days and ran around in the great Boqueria marketplace like children on the first day of summer vacation. (Have you tried the pickled caper fruits? Have you tasted the almonds smoked over olive wood? Would you look at this fish!)

Finally, the day came when the Americans were supposed to give the Catalan foodies a sample of our cuisine, which they proceeded to do in an eager, daring, fools-rush-in spirit that I had to hope the Catalans would find charming. Only one of the chefs--the non-Californian, in fact--had brought recipes. The rest were planning to be inspired by whatever was in the market that morning.

They carried it off pretty well, though they were surprised that the Catalans weren't more impressed with the quail, which were the most beautiful the Americans had ever seen in a market. But to the Barcelonans, that was the problem: They were merely domestic quail. Only wild quail are really flavorful enough for the Catalan gourmet.

Though I was not a chef, I had to cook for my supper too. Alice Waters set me to toasting long loaves of Catalan bread and roasting huge red sweet peppers for a garnish.

The event was held in the Gothic Quarter, a neighborhood of narrow streets and ancient stone buildings. The locals managed to scrounge up a charcoal grill--with some difficulty; it was April, not yet grilling season in Barcelona--and set it up in a little alley behind the kitchen the Americans were using.

The Barcelonans know their own weather. It drizzled continuously the whole evening I spent out in that smoky, dripping stone alley. I grilled and flipped and threw on more peppers and loaves of bread for two or three hours.

The next day, I mentioned to Alice that I could now honestly say I'd been Alice Waters' grill chef.

"Open a restaurant," she said pleasantly. "Everybody else does."

The Catalans scrounged up a grill

and set it up in a little stone alley.

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