Cooking for Odessa

What the hell do you make for dinner when your guest is a famous chef (and your former boss)?

Holy crap!” I said to Tara. “What was I thinking? I invited Odessa to dinner as a nice gesture. I never imagined she’d say ‘yes’—wouldn’t she rather go to some fancy restaurant than eat in our apartment? I’m doomed. What the hell am I going to make her?”

Odessa Piper was the chef-owner of L’Etoile in Madison, Wisconsin, for almost thirty years. She has an extraordinary palate but she’s even more widely known as a tireless proponent of local, seasonal, and organic food. Almost everything she served was grown or gathered near Madison—even in the depths of the long, tough Midwestern winters, when she conjured deliciousness from stored roots and hard fruits, preserves from summer, and small batches of greens grown in hoop houses. I cooked on the line at L’Etoile for about a year, starting in mid-winter, and I remember my first trip to the root cellar as vividly as my first electrifying bite of our crêpes with house-smoked trout. The thought of cooking diner for her was terrifying in part because she’s so rigorous and discerning, and in part because I wanted to show her that the investment she’d made in training me had paid off.

So what to cook? From having cooked so many of her recipes, I have a pretty good idea about what ingredients Odessa likes and how she likes them prepared, but cooking her own dishes for her didn’t make sense. And, of course, the meal had to be made with seasonal and local food. The latter constraint, at least, could be easily satisfied even in December by shopping at the Union Square Greenmarket.

What I settled on was a menu that showed off the winter Greenmarket and made use of ingredients Odessa likes but prepared in ways she doesn’t typically make them. L’Etoile’s winter time amuse-bouche (a warm purée of potatoes, celeriac, and Jerusalem artichokes with truffle butter) became a silky-smooth winter root soup, thickened with egg yolks and topped with citrus-infused olive oil. I also improvised a little in her honor: I had planned to serve scallops for a fish course, but instead bought the beautiful first herring of the season, which got a quick cure and a spicy salad for a riff on a very New York appetizer. The main course was a little bit of bravura: home-made boudin blanc, a smooth white sausage made of chicken, pork, and cream that relies on a certain amount of technical skill and a confident hand with seasoning, balanced with sweet-and-tart, brilliantly red slices of roasted quince.

The dinner came off fine, of course. Good hosts know how to be good guests too. And that salty herring was so delicious I’ve been eating it for breakfast.

Menu for Odessa Piper

  • Canapé: Oven-roasted squid with fresh oregano and aioli
  • Velouté of Jerusalem artichokes and celeriac with grapefruit olive oil
  • Quick-cured herring with roasted cipolline, capers, tiny spicy greens, and sprouted radish seeds
  • Boudin blanc with braised cabbage and oven-roasted quince in a cider gastrique
  • Apple galette, salty caramel ice cream, and ginger snaps
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