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Correction to This Article
This article incorrectly referred to Felix as defunct. The Adams Morgan restaurant changed hands in 2007, but it remains open.
Chef on Call

Chef on Call: Two Non-Cooks Learn How to Turn Out a Sabbath Dinner for 20

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By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A little brisket, a nice slice of homemade challah, some red wine, maybe. What's not to like?

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For Stacey Bran and Jason Adolf, the cooking, that's what. After all, the couple's combined skills in the kitchen max out at peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and tacos. Those are not exactly appropriate offerings for the Friday night potluck dinners they've been invited to since getting engaged and joining the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue a year ago. So they just bring the wine instead.

That was before they decided to step up and take their turn at the helm of a dinner to celebrate the Sabbath. It was time to repay their new circle of friends with some hospitality of their own. And actually cook something, a thought that frightened them.

"HELP!" Adolf, 30, wrote in his plea to Chef on Call. "We'd like to host a Shabbat dinner for 20 people but have no idea what we're doing."

Adolf, a manager for a federal IT contractor, particularly wanted to learn how to cook brisket, and we already knew the go-to guy for that: chef David Scribner, who was featured in the Food section 11 years ago, when he was at the now-defunct Felix in Adams Morgan. We enlisted Scribner, chef/partner at Surfside in Glover Park, to go to the couple's Ballston apartment to help them get over their fear of cooking -- and to leave them with a repertoire of dishes that would wow their dinner-party guests.

This time around, Scribner updated the succulent version of the pot roast that was just like the one his mother used to make. He ditched Lipton Onion Soup mix, replaced clunky aromatics with cipollini onions, and added some modern side dishes: root vegetable and potato gratin and steam-seared green beans with preserved lemon and garlic. He also fulfilled his students' request to learn how to make challah, no small feat given the couple's inexperience.

The cooking bug didn't hit Adolf until he met Bran, 31, on JDate, a Web site for Jewish singles. She had been an interior designer for restaurants and luxury hotels until getting laid off recently, meaning the time was right for her to learn to cook, too. (She's starting from scratch; her mother "makes about 12 things," she said, "three of them well.")

Her way of doing things and Scribner's are opposite: She likes rules, and Scribner eschews them. "I need the finite," she said. "I don't like guesswork."

"But if you prepare yourself for the fact that nothing is going to be right, you can adjust as you go," Scribner countered. His theory is, if you fail, you fail. "It's not world peace. It's just food."

It might not sound like it, but Scribner, 40, is not casual about food. He brags that he was not formally trained, never apprenticed with hotshot chefs and does not like to use recipes. But his method reveals that he spent time with knowledgeable mentors who wear their hearts on their plates, as he does. He specifically lauded chef Carole Greenwood, for whom he worked for a few years until last year, when he opened Surfside with partners. Now, in addition to his restaurant duties, he runs a private catering business, Chefdavidscribner.com, and helps his wife, Valerie, raise a 4-year-old and 2-year-old twins.

As if to prove his assertion that cooking is a process of correcting mistakes, Scribner made a few missteps during the lesson but then righted himself and produced an utterly satisfying meal. He also managed to teach a lot of techniques along the way, chief among them searing, braising, roasting and sauteing.

He started with the challah and pretty much broke every rule of breadmaking. A milk and butter mixture he'd set on the stove to warm boiled over. He had warned that he might not have recalled his old recipe accurately, and he was right. There was too much flour in the dough, so he adjusted as he went along, adding more milk until he achieved the sticky consistency he desired.


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