A solid year had passed without making good on my promise to get together with Neil, a personal chef. Between his hectic schedule and my own tangled commitments, we finally struck upon an idea: Why don't I follow him to work, that is, shopping at a farmers market?
Grown-up lives demand grown-up sacrifices, even for social outings. We agreed to meet at the Hollywood Farmers Market shortly after it opened at 8 a.m. Sunday, when I'm rarely awake. Chefs may work all hours, but they rise early to get the best selection. Neil had already scoped the entire scene, a strategy that made sense of the bountiful selection.
With the precision of a surgeon, Neil worked through the market's scarcest treasures first: morel mushrooms, baby vegetables and a vertical rosemary plant -- the stems make great grilling skewers. Clearly, this wasn't going to be just grocery shopping, but a cooking and gardening lesson. At every stall, Neil shared recipes (morels over scrambled Araucana eggs), shopping tips (select uniform-sized vegetables so they cook evenly) and tales of working for high-powered clients (how he taught himself wood-fired pizza cooking for a movie star).
We sampled strawberries before laying out $8 for three pints, rejected the limp kale and marveled at the varieties of mint plants to tuck into our gardens. In Los Angeles, there may be no better place to experience spring than a farmers market, where our region's seeming lack of seasons is erased by the bounty of fragrant blooms, berries and baby asparagus. Everything appears fresher, even the market's vivid cross-section of humanity -- the freaks, hipsters and hired entertainers.
Having worked up an appetite shopping for food, I led this refined gourmet to the resurrected Hollywood institution Schwab's, now a high-style restaurant near the market. Neil read the menu with a professional's insight, and I prayed for a respectable meal. Success! He liked the omelet, potatoes and strong coffee.
You can gather tremendous insight into people by observing them in some aspect of their professional calling. So our trip through the aisles of the nearby Borders allowed me to hear his opinion on cookbooks. As he mourned the misguided update of "The Joy of Cooking," I realized that good food is built on many of the same things as a good relationship: honest ingredients, straightforward technique and instinct. Fancy garnish just gets in the way. I guess when it comes to food -- and friends -- sometimes you just have to trust your gut.
Farmers market $19.75
Where: Hollywood Farmers Market, on Ivar between Hollywood and Sunset boulevards, (323) 463-3171
Where: Schwab's, 1521 N. Vine St. (323) 462-4300