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Tater Chic

Patti and Hans Rockenwagner host a Sunday gathering with potatoes as the guests of honor

November 06, 2005|Barbara Thornburg

On his day off, Hans Rockenwagner is at command central in the house in Mar Vista that he and his wife, Patti, recently renovated. It's Sunday and they're about to have a party: cocktails--and potatoes--for 20. The gregarious chef is whipping up batches of sweet and Idaho mashed at the 12-foot-long kitchen island and talking about the root vegetable that, not surprisingly, is a favorite of the native of Schliengen, Germany.

When he was 12 and apprenticing in his family's restaurant there, spaetzle, a characteristic Black Forest dish, was one of his specialties. "You can eat potatoes with practically anything," says the now 44-year-old Rockenwagner, a tall, tousle-haired blond whose eyes are fanned with laugh lines.

He is an award-winning chef, tapped in 1984 to be top dog at Chicago's acclaimed Le Perroquet restaurant. He moved west a few years later ("Chicago's climate reminded me too much of Germany," he explains) and opened his popular eponymous restaurant in Venice, moving in 1991 to the Frank Gehry-designed Edgemar complex in Santa Monica. This year, Rockenwagner celebrates its 20th anniversary, a notable accomplishment in a town famous for its fickle diners.

The chef's innovative fusion of classic European and California cuisines, often with whimsical presentations, has won him a reputation for, as one Zagat survey put it, "creating fun, down-to-earth food that dazzles." In one dish, crab, asparagus and bell peppers cut at angles and assembled en pointe resemble a mini skyline, while a mushroom appetizer is shaped like a tepee.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 27, 2005 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 6 Lat Magazine Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
The Resource Guide for the Nov. 6 home entertaining story "Tater Chic" should have credited several items: Bowls by Marie Torbensdatter Hermann, at Matin in Beverly Hills, and dishes by Lilith Rockett, Maria White Mebane and Robert Brady, all from Flux Gallery in Chinatown.

You get the idea.

As if running a busy restaurant and preparing to open a second in Venice (it will be called 3 Square Cafe and Bakery) weren't time-consuming enough, he and his wife, a vice president of communications at Comcast Corp., are involved in charitable and political events throughout the year. Recently, two post-Hurricane Katrina dinners raised money for New Orleans restaurant workers as well as the American Red Cross. Among other nonprofits that have benefited from the couple's largesse are Share Our Strength, Planned Parenthood, Meals on Wheels, Westside Children's Center, the Koreatown Youth & Community Center and a slew of Democratic Party events.

But then comes Sunday. This is the day when--to relax--the Rockenwagners invite their friends to their new digs, a contemporary two-story home with an outdoor kitchen, swimming pool and tennis court.

Typically, the house is filled with more than the aroma of Rockenwagner's cooking: There also is the scent of fresh wood shavings. His avocation is making furnishings for both his home and restaurants. "It's as effortless for him to make a piece of furniture as it is to create an exciting dish," Patti says.

On the Thursday afternoon before the party, he begins building a new dining table. "At one time in my life I thought about being an architect," he says. "Making furniture is a lot like creating a recipe--you use the best ingredients and search to combine new things. The main difference is that furniture lasts."

When entertaining at home, Rockenwagner keeps the menu simple and fun, and makes sure his guests are fully engaged. To that end, he's conjured up a number of participatory events. To inaugurate the outdoor wood-burning oven he built in August, he set out pizza dough, rolling pins and various toppings and let guests assemble the pizzas of their dreams. An annual Christmas cookie bake follows the same pattern. Friends are left to their creative devices under the chef's friendly supervision. "It's great fun seeing the combinations people come up with. You can really see their personalities emerge."

As a gustatory warm-up to the holiday season, this Sunday he challenges the guests--from the worlds of film, music, food, publishing and design--to create the ultimate mashed potato "martini."

Atop his walnut-and-finn-ply dining table, bright orange, green and blue Le Creuset bains maries hold the purees. The potatoes are "the vehicle," the chef says, for the two dozen toppings: duck confit and truffled eggs, caviar and smoked salmon, wasabi mayonnaise and romesco sauce, to name a few.

"The more the better," says Rockenwagner, who suggests arranging the toppings by color ("Don't put all the red things in one area"), flavor ("Scallions next to caviar, cheeses next to salsa, things that would be nice together") and texture ("Soft next to crisp--duck confit and bacon bits, mmm. I like dishes to play off each other--crunchy and soft, hot and cold, sweet and spicy--so you have these little explosions in your mouth.").

He encourages friends to return for several tastings. "At first people are a bit timid," says Rockenwagner. "They just try one or two ingredients--a little potato with caviar, a dab of sour cream." As they return--no doubt empowered by one of his lingonberry vodka martinis or limoncello-basil champagne cocktails--they become surer of their culinary skills.

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