Chef on Call

The Boss's Wife Raises the Stakes for Dinner

Hostess-to-be Shana Smith gets a lamb lesson from chef David Hagedorn as they check the progress of the roasting meat.  The dry run took place three days before the dinner.
Hostess-to-be Shana Smith gets a lamb lesson from chef David Hagedorn as they check the progress of the roasting meat. The dry run took place three days before the dinner. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 14, 2007

When attorney Shana Smith invited her new boss over for dinner, she felt up to the challenge; when she discovered that his wife owns a baking company, she went down for the count. As an amateur in the kitchen, how could she cook for a professional?

She needed more than mere help. She needed a chef on call.

Shana and her husband, Stuart, are my friends, and they had called before. They're a working couple with a 2-year-old son, and when they decided a couple of years ago to polish their entertaining skills, they turned to me for lessons. I taught them to prepare a Sunday brunch for six ("Dining Disaster: This Brunch Needs a Makeover," Oct. 12, 2005) and a roast chicken dinner for four. This latest tutorial would follow the previously established scenario: I'd develop a menu, teach the lessons on a Wednesday afternoon, and provide the recipes and tips necessary for the Smiths to reproduce the dinner that weekend.

This time, though, the stakes were higher: Hosting casual get-togethers for co-workers is one thing; throwing a formal dinner party for a supervisor, let alone one married to a pastry chef, is another.

Before Sprint Nextel senior counsel Richard Montfort and his wife, Mary Lee, had children, Mary Lee was a line cook at Seattle's venerable Union Bay Cafe. When the family moved from the West Coast to the East, she turned to baking, and now she runs Mary Lee's Desserts out of their Vienna home.

Mary Lee's credentials upped the ante, but I wasn't worried. Soon enough, neither was Shana. I had her repeat my mantra of entertaining, the one from which all other strategies flow: When the guests show up, the house will looks as if the party -- and the cleanup -- had taken place the day before. And it did.

But first, the lessons. Although Stuart had been the focus of the brunch tutorial, Shana was the one learning new techniques for this dinner-for-the-boss. I taught her to skin and debone a side of salmon, cure it in slices, trim a rack of lamb, prepare a stock-based sauce and bake a cake to rival the best in town.

By the time the dinner party in the Smiths' Crestwood home began, only one pot remained on the stove, the dishwasher and sink were empty and the counters were clear. Earlier in the day, Shana had thought through the serving pieces and utensils, set the table and readied the coffee service. Stuart had loaded the CD player. The two of them assembled cocktail nibbles of spruced-up store-bought delicacies just before the Montforts were due to arrive.

All was in place, except for the guests, who had gotten lost and were a half-hour late.

No matter. The chosen menu did not depend on such variables as punctuality. Shana had made the dinner almost entirely in advance and put it on hold, leaving the final preparation to take place quickly after the guests arrived, whenever that would be.

"I used to be afraid to do things ahead of time, because I didn't think they could taste fresh," Shana said later. "But now I know better."

The morning of the dinner, Shana put together the main-course sauce (Smoky Jus) and side dishes (Sauteed Swiss Chard and Two-Potato Gratin), none of which demanded more than minimal last-minute attention. She seasoned and seared racks of lamb in preparation for their 12-minute roasting at dinnertime. And in the afternoon, she got the first course out of the way by laying out slices of salmon on plates, then wrapping and refrigerating them. (Garnishes, to be added just before serving, sat at the ready.)

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