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Hans Rockenwagner Throws a Pan Party

November 11, 1998|LAURIE OCHOA | TIMES FOOD EDITOR

The mingled scents of frying garlic and onion perfume the afternoon's crisp ocean breeze, and a small tray bearing bite-sized squares of Alsatian onion tart is stripped clean by men and women in the rumpled, rolled-sleeve linen shirts that pass for the Westside's mufti.

Hans Rockenwagner, chef of the Santa Monica restaurant that bears his name, presides over the backyard of his recently remodeled Venice home, looking very much like a dad surveying his kingdom from behind a barbecue grill. But the center of attention today--the reason all these people are gathered around, Champagne glasses in hand--is not a slab of ribs but a huge pan ready to be filled with lobsters, clams, mussels and more. Shallow, broad and still new enough to sport a silvery finish, the focus of Rockenwagner's latest obsession is a Spanish paella, a great flying saucer of a pan that is large enough to engorge a platoon.

It's also a great excuse for a party.

Rockenwagner first cooked with a paella--the name for the pan as well as for the dish cooked in it--in, of all places, Hawaii. He'd rented a Maui vacation house earlier this year next door to Shep Gordon, a Hollywood agent famous for his representation of rock gods and chefs. Gordon had invited Rockenwagner to a weekend party and happened to mention the massive paella Sammy Hagar had given him for his birthday.

"I said, 'Let me make something with it,' " Rockenwagner tells the guests who have gathered around the paella to watch him create this afternoon's main course and hear the story of the pan.

A couple of months before his trip to Maui, Rockenwagner had visited Spain with his girlfriend and had eaten all sorts of paellas--including one made with fideos, angel hair-fine pasta strands that are usually browned in oil before being simmered in broth. Gordon was more than happy to have someone willing to break in his present. The only problem: Rockenwagner had never made a paella before.

"It was pretty bold for me to try it on a whim for 35 people," Rockenwagner says over the sound of sizzling oil. He tosses a bowlful of diced red bell peppers, then yellow and green, into the pan.

Even accomplished chefs, Rockenwagner is trying to tell us, tend to have moments of doubt when they try out something new for a crowd. Of course, recreating remembered dishes, remembered flavors, is one of the things chefs do. And nobody at the party is surprised when they learn that the dish was the center of attention at a party filled with celebrities who, at any other gathering, would themselves be center of attention. Imagine being upstaged by a giant pan.

On the plane back from Hawaii, one thought kept running through Rockenwagner's head: "I've got to get one of those pans."

Needless to say, he did get one of those pans. Actually, he's got two: one that is simply huge and another that is so big you get images of European food festivals where a giant frittata or vast fish fry is served to every farmer, traveler and village dweller within miles. Today he is using the one that is simply huge.

In Spain, the most authentic paellas are made over wood fires, but gas burners are used as well these days. Rockenwagner's paella came with three gas burner rings--small, medium and large--to ensure that the large pan receives heat at several points.

Strands of thin golden fideo, previously toasted with olive oil in the oven, now go into Rockenwagner's paella, along with a good amount of lobster stock. The cooking process at this point is very risotto-like: The noodles, like rice, absorb the stock, and more broth is added until the pasta is tender.

"OK, where are my stirrers?" Rockenwagner asks. The best part of making a party paella is having a supply of willing helpers. Rockenwagner empties a bowl of green-tipped New Zealand mussels into the middle of the paella and begins burying the shellfish under the noodles. Two guests, armed with long wooden spoons, pick up the chef's cue and mimic his actions. A couple others maintain vigil over the noodles, making sure they don't stick to the pan.

Black mussels and clams go in next--the black mussels buried like the green ones, the clams spread over the top like rocks on a beach.

"Guys, here--it's sticking," says Rockenwagner keeping a good-natured watch over his crew. The conversation flows between stirs and sips of beer and RockenKir, a drink of Champagne and fresh strawberry syrup that Rockenwagner serves at his restaurant. His girlfriend, Patti Shin, keeps everyone well-fed during the cooking with tzatziki, a yogurt-cucumber dip, and melitzana, an eggplant dip served with pretzel bread baked at Rockenwagner.

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