"The best chefs in the world today are amateurs!"
Dinner at home with Craig Claiborne or Julia Child? A special event, surely. But gastronomes herabouts would rather be invited to dine with Rick Sajbel.
J.Richard Sajbel is a 33-year-old doctor of mathematics turned wine merchant who has never taken a cooking lesson and never done the ritual apprenticeship in France. But he has developed a masterful knowledge of food and wine and has a penchant for using both to create memorable meals. He may be America's greatest practicing gourmet.
Nicknamed "Baron Von Foie Gras" by a friend, Sajbel has access to the best wines of Europe and America and ready sources of supply for rare ingredients such as California Caviar, truffles and pheasant livers. He uses them with abandon in feasts that could not be duplicated in even the most luxurious restaurants.
Among the best-remembered of his dinners is one that featured 11 vintages of Chateau Calon Segur, from 1906 to 1955, and another with 10 vintages of Inglenook cabernet sauvignon, including 1892 and 1896. At the latter meal the dessert was a strawberry walnut torte. The diners applauded its companion wine, thinking it to be a rare sparkling muscat. Instead, it turned out to be Boone's Farm Apple Wine.
Rick Sajbel has a sense of humor to go with his active curiosity. Both qualities set him apart from the apprentice wine snob. He respects the old but gravitates toward the new, often mixing Oriental flavors with European concepts to their mutual advantage. He represents a new generation of cooks who are seizing the torch of creative initiative. "By the end of the century," he says, "the great cooks of the world will be American."
Sajbel's father ran a fancy grocery buiness in Pueblo, Colo. His grandfather, who was in the wine business before prohibition, would roast whole lambs for celebration, while his grandmother made the sort of pastries only grandmothers in children's fables are capable of making.
Well fed and academically inclined, Rick Sajbel went to Notre Dame and then to graduate school at Stanford, winning a Woodrow Wilson fellowship en route. A serious young man, he took cooking as seriously as he did his other studies.
"I trained myself during college," he said. "I took a systematic approach to French cuisine. One summer I worked to learn the basics of making good stocks. Another I did sauces. As a graduate student, I had a tremendous amount of leisure time, so I taught cooking classes, took a course in wine appreciation and then taught it. Teaching is often the best method of learning.You have to find answers to questions."
By 1971, he had decided to abandon mathematics and computer science for a full-time career in wine. Some of the wine collectors he met began to cater meals to accompany tastings of great wines. "Their standards were very high," Sajbel recalled. "Your work is as good as your audience and I had a critical, perhaps slightly jaded, audience."
This meant going beyond pale recreations of classic dishes and classic menus. Both were ripe for change, as Paul Bocuse and the other nouvelle cuisine chefs were proving in Europe. Sajbel's achievements are equally remarkable. He served salmon and crayfish to 100 at a mountain-top winery with one tiny stove. He came to Washington and cooked truffle-stuffed squabs in zinfandel wine.The birds and wine were placed in a plastic "brown-in" bag and poached in simmering water, a modern twist on the French method of cooking in pigs' bladders. He makes magnificant souffles, casually cooking them on open platters.
The modernist in Sajbel resorts to freezing foods at home and using some frozen products. He applauds fast foods as a "vehicle for people to try new foods and accept a wider range of taste experience."
Novices, he thinks, should approach wine and sophisticated cooking step-by-step, beginning with foods they know and careful expenditures, rather than rushing off to a three-star restaurant or buying a case of Lafite-Rothschild. He argues that informal groups of eight or 10 people are a much better medium than organized gourmet societies for wine tastings or restaurants banquets.
His own testing has reached the esoteric level of matching fish in Chinese black bean sauce with red Rhone wine, older vintages of German auslese and spatlese wines with asparagus and artichokes, a rich sauterne with tacos and a mildy flavored chocolate souffle with Port. "There's too much rigid thinking," he declared. "Sometimes wines should match the foods they are served with. Sometimes it's better to have a contrast."
Meanwhile, in the midst of "a very exciting time" for California wine, he worked briefly at Ridge, one of the best small wineries, became a retail salesman and soon moved to the wholesale end of the trade, representing wineries in California and other Western states. In 1975, at the age of 30, he formed the Stanford Wine Company. His staff has grown from himself and a secretary to 10 people and he is about to market a bottled water from Colorado.
All of which doesn't leave any time for catering, nor much time for banquet cooking.
On a recent evening, however, Sajbel arrived home at 6:30 p.m. with the intention of preparing a meal for nine persons. He carried a wicker basket filled with rare wine as well as an assortment of exotic vegetables and a freshly-killed duck purchased in San Francisco's Chinatown.
He went directly to work, which was a good idea as the guests, who included Gerald Asher, the wine merchant and Gourumet Magazine columnist, and San Francisco restaurateur Modesto Lanzone, were due in 30 minutes.
There was no hope of being finished when they arrived, nor any desire to be. Sajbel and an increasing number of confident home cooks like to have their guests in the kitchen as the meal is being prepared. It allows the cook to socialize, to teach and to show off a bit. The guests can observe, kibitz and lend a hand here and there. As the show went on, tiny bay shrimps, netted only that morning, and home-smoked baby clams were offered with a jeroboam of champagne to keep appetites in check.
Before Sajbel's arrival, his wife, Barbara, a marine biologist, had sets the table, using sea shells from her collection as the centerpiece. She also began a stock pot that was to bubble through the evening, and fueled an outdoor smoker. Later she did some backup tasks and chimed in like a timer bell with valuable reminders that kept preparations on track.
Sajbel's plan for the evening was to begin with a mousse of pheasant livers with truffles. (A friend prepares and sells smoked pheasant, so he obtains the livers in quantity and freezes them.) This would be followed by spaghetti squash with pesto, melon sorbet, the duck - boned and stuffed with chicken breasts and garlic cloves - along with two Chinese vegetables and a dessert souffle.
So skilled a cook is he that there was no need to refer to written recipes. Furthermore, no dish had been made in its exact form previously because final decisions on what to prepare were made at the market only that morning.
This meal, despite its several courses, was not overwhelming. Portions were beautiful to look at and discreetly sized. The pace was leisurely. Slices of steamed potato served with the spaghetti squash provided the only starch.
The food and wine matchups for the dinner he prepared included two limited-production California chardonnays with some residual sugar with the mousse, a sampling of four 30-year-old cabernet sauvignons of great reputation - Pichon Lalande, Calon Segur and BV "signature" of 1947 and Inglenook of 1949 - with the duck and a late harvest (sweet) California riesling with the souffle. (A 1935 zinfandel from the winery now called Simi made its way onto the table as an added treat. At the end of the meal there was a rare port from Australia.)
Sajbel acknowledges himself to be a masterful creator of souffles. The scientific principles involved in making eggs rise and the breadth of textural variations possible caught his fancy early and he had conducted extensive experiments. "Rick will make a souffle in anything," said Modesto Lanzone with admiration. "A bowl, a platter. Give him a hat and he'll make a souffle in it."
He likes to use silver or heat-proof glass platters. For one reason, there is the visual impact of presenting a free-standing souffle. For another, he feels he has better control of the texture than when it is cooked in a deep bowl.
Much of the meal Sajbel made at his home was prepared in a wok, or in steamer baskets placed over the wok. The spaghetti squash and the pheasant liver mousse steamed in layered containers as he tended to the duck. The vegetables, lotus root and Chinese long beans, were cooked in the wok and given a cross-cultural flavoring of tamari, szechuwan pepper and Madeira. "Cooking teachers say a lot about texture, about keeping vegetables crisp" he said, "but you also cook to smell. Your nose will tell you when the flavors have melded properly."
The evening wasn't perfect. Rick Sajbel is far too devoted to experimentation for that to happen. As he expected, one of the chardonays proved too sweet for the mousse. (The other was superb.) The Chinese elephant garlic used in the duck - bulbs the size of Ping Pong balls - had a slightly bitter undertone.
No one minded. The overall impression was of an artful blending of colors and stimulating tastes and textures - some new, some different. The subtle richness of the mousse, the crispness of the spaghetti squash, the delicately smokey flavor and moistness of the duck filling were superb. Yet the wine and even the appropriateness of the background music were open to discussion. The evening became a lively Socratic dialogue rather than a gastronomic ritual.
"The last time you came, I was sick. The meal was nothing special," Sajbel said to Modesto Lanzone.
"You didn't do too bad," joshed the Italian chef. "That's why I came back."
(8 to 12 servings) 2 oranges 2 lemons 1 egg 1 cup walnut oil Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 16 freshly shelled walnuts
Grate the zest from 1 orange and 1 lemon. Squeeze the juice from both oranges and both lemons. Place the egg in a blender.Work briefly, then add the orange and lemon juice. Blend and slowly add the walnut oil to make a light, creamy sauce.Season with salt and pepper and stir in the zest.
Serve over still-crisp steamed asparagus spears or artichokes. Garnish with walnut pieces. Wine: a German or American sweet riesling or a young, not-too-rich Sauternes.
TURKEY-DUCK LIVER PATE
(8 servings as an appetizer) 2 livers and body cavity fat from 2 ducks 1 egg 1 teaspoon cognac 1/2 pound ground turkey 2 ounces (1/2 stick) butter, cut in pieces 1/2 teaspoon pate spice*(FOOTNOTE)
* To make pate spice, grind in a blender 3 tablespoons of pepper, preferably using a mixture of different types of peppercorns, along with 1 tablespoon of mixed herbs. These can include marjoram, cumin, bay and thyme. (END FOOT) Salt and freshly ground pepper
Combine ingredients in a food processor until totally smooth. Pour into a 2 cup mold and cover with foil. Place in a pan in a 350-degree oven. Add boiling water to come half way up the mold and bake until pate comes away from sides of the mold, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Serve hot on toast or cold with aspic and cornichons.
PHEASANT LIVER PATE
(10 to 12 appetizer servings) 1 pound pheasant livers 1/2 pound (2 sticks) salted butter 1/2 teaspoon pate spice (see formula above) 3 eggs whites 2 whole black truffles Salt to taste
Place livers and butter in a food processor and blend until the mixture is thickened and very smooth, about 5 minutes (listen for a change in frequency of the motor.) Add spice and egg whites and continue to run processor until mass has risen somewhat. Pour into two 1 1/2 cup molds (or one 3 cup) that have been lightly greased with butter. Place a truffle in each mold and steam, uncovered, for 35 to 40 minutes.
Remove from steamer, run a sharp knife around the edge of the mold and turn out pates onto serving dishes. Garnish with water-cress. Slice vertically into wedges. The interior still should be slightly pink. Wine: A full-bodied, not-too-dry white, or a fruity red such as beaujolais.
Note: Chicken livers and 2 whole mushrooms without steams may be used in place of pheasant livers and truffles. Add a tablespoon of brandy or madeira to help compensate for the loss of flavor intensity.
(8 servings) 1 cup sugar 1 cup water 1 large, very ripe cantaloupe or musk melon, seeded, peeled and cut in chunks Juice of 1 lime
Cook sugar and water together without stirring for about 5 minutes until sugar dissolves. Cool. Puree melon in a food mill, processor or blender. Mix syrup and puree thoroughly and stir in lime juice. Transfer to a sorbet or ice cream maker and freeze. Serve in small cups or wine glasses garnished with a sprig of mint.
SPAGHETTI SQUASH WITH PESTO
(10 to 12 servings) 2 spaghetti squash (about 3 pounds each) 1/2 cup olive oil (about) 8 to 10 cloves garlic, peeled 4 cups basil leaves, with some stems, loosely packed 1/4 cup pine nuts 1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese, or a combination of parmesan and romance 8 unpeeled small red potatoes, each cut into 4 slices Salt 1/2 stick (2 ounces) butter
Poke holes the the spaghetti squash with a long-pronged fork and set to steam, covered, over boiling water for about 30 minutes. It should be tender but still crisp when cooked, like al dente spaghetti.
Pour 2 tablespoons oil, garlic, pine nuts and basil leaves into a blender. Work until a thick paste is formed. There should be about 1 1/2 cups. Add 1/4-cup cheese and enough oil to bring the level up to just over 2 cups. Blend and set aside.
Steam potato slices until soft but not mushy, about 10 minutes.
Take squash from steamer and run them under cold water to stop cooking. Cut each in half, removed seeds with a spoon, then pull out pulp in shreds. Toss squash with salt and butter and 2 generous tablespoons cheese. Add 2/3 of pesto mixture and toss again. Transfer to a warm serving platter, arrange potato slices on top and dress with remaining pesto and about 1/4 cup cheese. Serve, passing remaining cheese separately.
SMOKED STUFFED DUCK
(10 servings) 1 duck, about 5 pounds, fresh if possible 4 heads of garlic, large cloves only, peeled 4 cups good quality chicken stock 1 tablespoon (about) seasoning mixture*(FOOTNOTE)
* Seasoning mix: Mix 1/4 cup coarse salt, 1 teaspoon peppercorns, 1/4 teaspoon coriander seeds and 1/3 cup chervil or 1/4 cup parsley in a blender.(END FOOT) 6 whole chicken breasts, boned, skinned and cut into halves 2 ounces dried "oyster" mushrooms, soaked, or 2 cups sliced fresh mushrooms 4 cups good quality chicken stock Italian flat-leaf parsley
Fuel and fire an outdoor grill or smoker and soak hickory chips. Add chips before cooking duck.
Remove duck liver, heart and fat from inside body cavity.Reserve. Bone the duck from the rear, working around the skeleton. It will emerge with the skin inside out. Cut away any masses of fat. Heat garlic cloves in stock until tender but still firm. Remove with a slotted spoon and reserve.Brown duck carcass over the coals. Chop it up and add to the stock. Simmer for 30 to 45 minutes.
Rub about 1 teaspoon seasoning mixture over the meat of the duck. Reverse the duck meat so the skin is once again on the outisde. Fill the cavity with the chicken breast pieces, the duck heart and liver. Arrange a line of garlic cloves down the center under the breast. Pat the skin into a form as close as possible to the original and close the neck and tail openings with skewers. Rub more seasoning mixture over the skin and transfer to a small roasting pan. Cook over low to moderate heat for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. (Alternatively, roast the stuffed duck in a 350-degree oven for about 1 1/2 hours.)
Let sit for 15 minutes before presenting garnished with parsley. Cut into slices across the width of the duck.
Half an hour before serving, strain the stock. Add the mushrooms and bring the stock to a boil. (If using fresh mushrooms, cook only 3 minutes and remove.) Reduce stock to a near-glaze consistency (about 1 cup). Add juices from duck pan (after skimming fat if there is an excess) and cook down again. Return the fresh mushrooms, add 1 tablespoon chopped parsley, season with salt and pepper and spoon about 2 tablespoons over each serving. Wine: an elegant Bordeaux red or California cabernet sauvignon.
PERSIMMON SOUFFLE WITH ALMOND WHIPPED CREAM
(10 to 12 servings) 1 cup sugar 1 cup water Freshly grated nutmeg 3 cups pureed persimmons (or raspberries or sweet strawberries) 10 egg yolks 15 eggs whites
Cook sugar and water together to soft ball stage (234 degrees). Add nutmeg and persimmon puree. Mix well and bring to a boil. Off the heat, mix in yolks, one by one. Whip whites only until soft peaks form. Mix a small portion of the whites into the fruit base, then, working quickly, fold in the rest. Pour into a buttered and lightly sugared oven-proof plater and bake in the middle of a preheated 400-degree oven for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the top is well browned and most of the mixture has "set." (Move the platter back and forth gently to check on firmness.) For a built-in sauce, remove the souffle when it is still medium-rare. Top with powdered sugar and present. Spoon almond whipped cream along-side each portion.
Almond Whipped Cream 1 1/2 pints heavy cream 2/3 cup sour cream 1/2 teaspoon almond extract 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamon 1/3 teaspoon mace 1/4 teaspoon vanilla 1/4 cup powdered sugar
Beat cream and sour cream until the mixture forms soft peaks. Beat it flavorings and sugar. Taste, adjust flavor if desired, and serve. Wine: A late harvest riesling from California or a German spatlese .