Hurry will not be part of the equation. Only two of the dishes are finished, with one underway, and that is more than enough to make a visitor anxious. The scene is far from party-ready. But host and cook Daniel Phoenix Singh has choreographed the moves in his head. They are purposeful and unhurried. He hadn’t shopped for ingredients before 1 o’clock; otherwise, they would have taken up too much space in the refrigerator he shares with five housemates.
“It will all come together,” he says with a serene smile.
Singh bought the Petworth rowhouse 11 months ago, and he’s just getting around to having a housewarming. Seventy-five friends from his overlapping worlds have RSVP’d: longtime friends; colleagues from the Association of American Colleges and Universities, where he’s the full-time IT guy; and dancers and supporters of Dakshina, the modern/Indian dance company he founded in 2003.
All of them are aware he can cook.
“I expect he’ll have the best food,” says Patrice McMath, the receptionist at AAC&U, who arrives well before showtime. “This is special.” Singh politely asks her to run to the store for drinks and paper goods.
Meanwhile, he has acquired a pair of helping hands in the kitchen. They belong to Steve Wamhoff, the legislative director for Citizens for Tax Justice. He has known Singh for 12 years, and it’s obvious the pals are used to staying out of each other’s way in the small space. A bit of a pas de deux, not bumper cars.
Wamhoff says his peeling and chopping jobs are secondary to his main task: “I’m the meat taster.” Almost on cue, the sauce for the meatballs gets a spice adjustment.
His Indian-born friend hasn’t eaten meat for more than a decade. Singh, 38, originally from a small village near Mumbai, was motivated by a book he read that described how animals are processed for food. For his annual large-party buffets, though, he chooses to accommodate omnivores.
As intense and precise as Singh is onstage or during 16 to 20 hours of rehearsals each week, he seems to wing it in the kitchen. A cupped palm cradles a heap of Indian red chili pepper. Is it one tablespoon, or three? He uses a stemless wineglass to gently slosh water into simmering lentils. Like his mother, he never reaches for a measuring cup or spoon. In fact, he doesn’t own a single one.
“I learned most of what I know... from watching my mom and dad cook. No recipe books. Just going on instinct and often figuring out the taste they’d like to tease out by adding a pinch of this and a dash of that,” Singh says. “That’s the good thing about Indian food. You can keep adding spices and ingredients until it’s balanced.” It’s why he cops to “cooking some mean Italian food,” because “the cuisine allows doctoring along the way” as well.